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Afterlife – Claudia Gray

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Throughout the Evernight books, Claudia Gray has taken her characters into interesting territory, but she’s saved the best journey until last to deliver a worthy finale to this YA gothic tale.

All the way along, this series’ trademark has been clever plot twists and characters with ambiguous motives. More than one supporting character has turned out to be more than they first appeared. And the (literally) heart-stopping cliffhanger at the end of Hourglass left many readers wondering how Gray was going to resolve all the dilemmas she’d created.

But resolve them she does (well most of them – there’s a spin-off series coming, so a few have to be left hanging), bringing this page-turning series to a satisfying close.

If you’ve read the first three novels (Evernight, Stargazer and Hourglass), this review won’t contain any spoilers. If you haven’t, and intend to, you might want to come back later.

Afterlife is essentially about Bianca and Lucas coming to terms with the fact they’ve both turned into what they hate and fear the most. They not only have to find out if their relationship can survive their new reality – they also have to find out if they can accept themselves.

We also finally find out more about the wraiths, and what they want from Bianca; the significance of the relationships between wraiths and vampires (and vampire hunters); and Mrs Bethany’s hidden agenda.

The gothic atmosphere of earlier books is retained, helped by the fact the action heads back to where it all began, at Evernight Academy, and  the author again demonstrates her skill as a storyteller, setting a cracker pace and building the tension to the inevitable showdown between Bianca, Lucas and their enemies.

The final page of my edition of Afterlife has a teaser for an upcoming novel about Balthazar, one of the most popular characters in this series, so it’s safe to say fans can look forward to more adventures in this nicely textured world Gray has created.  I must admit, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next for that particular vampire…

(In the meantime, Gray has Fateful – a new paranormal story about werewolves on the Titanic – due out later this year.)

The Passage – Justin Cronin

I’ve read so much paranormal fantasy lately, I sometimes forget vampires still have a place in their original genre – horror.

Although, Justin Cronin’s epic novel The Passage is much more than just a well written horror story. It’s kind of a cross between The Stand (by Stephen King) and The Road (by Cormac McCarthy). It’s got great characters and more than a few genuine nail-biting moments.

If you’re interested, you can read my full review over at Great Stories.

The short second life of Bree Tanner

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It’s a testament to just how addictive Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga is for fans that a short novella about a fleeting character in one of the books instantly goes to the top of the bestseller list.

Just as the title says, this is about the short second life Bree Tanner, a fifteen-year-old girl “turned” by villain Victoria as part of the newborn vampire army she creates to attack the Cullens and Bella.

Told in the first person, Bree is struggling to understand what her role is in the vampire group she’s found herself in. She doesn’t know her maker’s name (readers of course know it’s Victoria), and her world is one of aggression and violence as the undisciplined newborns regularly tear each other apart.

In this brutal environment, she befriends Diego, and together they try to separate the lies from the facts about what it means to be a vampire – and what their “leaders” have in store for them.

For me, just as interesting as the story, is the exercise by Stephenie Meyer of exploring the back story of a peripheral character.

Meyer openly admits she began to care for Bree once she started on the back story (which she started during the editing phase of Eclipse at the suggestion of her editor), and wished she’d given Bree a different ending.

It’s one of the reasons I think Meyer’s stories are held so closely to the hearts of readers: she loves her characters (especially narrative characters) and it comes through on every page. It’s just as much the case for Bree as it is for Bella.

It certainly works as an addition to the Twilight canon (and prompts a re-read of the corresponding chapters in Eclipse).

An interesting exercise would be to have someone who hasn’t read the Twilight books read it, and judge it on its merits … but anyone who hasn’t read the other four (or even the first three) is unlikely to be curious enough to pick it up.

I’m interested to hear from fans who’ve read the new release, and see what they think.

(By the way I love the cover.)

Hourglass – Claudia Gray

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Expectations have been high for the next instalment of Claudia Gray’s Evernight series, released a few weeks ago.

The first two novels made it onto best-seller lists and attracted a legion of fans who enjoyed Gray’s blend of gothic mystery, menace and romance.

The good news: Hourglass doesn’t disappoint. The bad news: it ends on a classic cliffhanger, and we now have to settle in for the wait for the next book.

One of the great things about this series is the twists and turns Gray provides, and I’m not going to spoil them here (so if you haven’t read the first two books, it’s safe to read on).

Let me just say this is a page-turning series populated by vampires, vampire hunters and wraiths. It revolves around Bianca and Lucas, whose families live on opposite sides of a long-running war and whose worlds collided at a gothic boarding school with more than few secrets.

The first novel, Evernight, introduced the main characters, mythology and the conflicted loyalties that would drive the story. Stargazer then built on the mystery and menace, heightening the tension with a few more twists.

In Hourglass, we pick up where we left off, with Bianca and Lucas still trapped with vampire hunters Black Cross, trying to bide their time until they can escape. But before the novel can turn into The Adventures of Bianca and Lucas in Black Cross, the larger story arc kicks in, sending the young lovers in new and unexpected directions.

The tangle of relationships and lies finally comes to a head, with more than one secret uncovered, and the pair find themselves learning the hard way that freedom and rebellion come with a price tag.

While Stargazer established the wraiths as a new threat for Bianca, Hourglass builds the tension further by starting to reveal their significance in her future.

Bianca (and her creator) love Romeo and Juliet, and there’s more than a nod to that classic tragedy in Hourglass. But Gray is skilled enough that it isn’t contrived, and Hourglass is paranormal fantasy , not Shakespeare, so things aren’t always what they seem…

Gray cleverly keeps readers guessing, and I like that the lines between the good and bad guys are often blurred, and her characters have to face the consequences of their decisions.

By the end of Hourglass, the rules have changed for all involved, and the scene is set for Bianca and Lucas to head into even more interesting – and tense – territory in the next book.

(Australian fans certainly love this series: Hourglass was the highest selling novel here – not just in the YA market – when it released last month, and has managed to stay there.)

Politics of the paranormal in Deadtown

Nancy’s Holzner’s Deadtown is not just another tale about a sexy demon fighter in leather pants (although the cover does feature pretty cool cover art of our hunter in leather pants, brandishing a smoking semi-automatic rifle and a flaming sword).

While it ticks all the usual boxes – zombies, vampires, werewolves, bad ass demons, witches, sorcerers et al – it also has a social conscience.

Like the vampires in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and the mutants of the X-men, the assortment of paranormals in Holzner’s world are struggling for equal rights.

Ever since a virus turned a large chunk of the city’s population into zombies (or “previously deceased humans” as they’re known in politically correct circles), life in Boston has changed dramatically. The zombies, and the paranormals who emerged to deal with them when the humans could not, are now quarantined in a part of Boston nicknamed Deadtown, where only those with permits are allowed to leave – and even then under strict conditions.

Among them is Vicky, a shape-shifter, who makes a living hunting demons. She shares an apartment with a centuries old vampire, occasionally goes bump in the night with a white collar werewolf, and is shadowed by an annoying teenage zombie who wants to be a slayer.

She also has a creepy geneticist trying to turn her into a lab experiment, a sister ashamed of their shape-shifting bloodline, and a nasty hellion out for her blood. It’s a complicated and occasionally frustrating life.

Almost as frustrating are the politics the paranormals’ presence has created, which have a habit of interfering with Vicky’s love life. Her workaholic werewolf’s role as a lawyer/paranormal rights activist has turned him into a political animal (the scariest beast around…), and an upcoming election has him fully pre-occupied.

Deadtown has enough action, wit and snappy dialogue to stand out from the crowd and Holzner has created a world that’s cleverly and logically constructed, complete with politics and social agendas.

The author is already busy working on a sequel, and given the warm reception this book has already received online, there’s clearly an eager audience waiting for the next instalment.

(I had to order this in specially at my local bookstore, so let’s hope Deadtown gets the exposure it deserves here in Australia.)

The vampires you’re having when you’re not having vampires…

If urban fantasy has taught us nothing, it’s that vampires are either terrifying or sexy, or both. And, of course, they’re generally violent and dangerous.

But in Catherine Jinks’ excellent and funny novel The Reformed Vampire Support Group, the vampires are far from powerful. In fact, they’re sickly, socially isolated and living on a diet of guinea pigs, barely able to defend themselves.

Fifteen-year-old Nina has been a vampire since 1973. She’s part of a fairly pathetic group of vamps who meet once a week for therapy sessions to help them refrain from ‘fanging’ humans).

But the vamps’ tedious world is threatened when one of their members is murdered by an unknown – and unexpected – vampire slayer.

Terrified they’ll each be hunted, they decide to track their enemy (supported by Nina’s aging mother and a sympathetic Catholic priest), assuming that once the slayer sees how pathetic and harmless they are they’ll be left alone.

Outside of their comfort zone and ill-equipped for danger, Nina and her fellow vamps stumble into a world of guns, thugs, werewolves and vicious humans.

The classic about-face for this book is that the tension comes from the vampire’s vulnerability, and Nina’s efforts to rise above her fear.

Jinks even manages to have fun with the whole vampire-werewolf love triangle. Nina’s best friend is the cool but downbeat Dave – also a vampire since his teens – and together they rescue a volatile werewolf, who is actually a teenager. Nina’s lack of experience with romantic feelings makes her reaction to both guys frequently entertaining.

While the vampire mythology here deviates from pretty much everything in the literary world at the moment, it is deftly constructed and Jinks keeps within the lines she’s drawn. When Nina and Dave show moments of heroics, it’s in spite of their vampirism, not because of it.

Jinks is a well established Australian author with a long list of books for children and young adults. This one sits in the YA shelf, which is interesting given the narrative character is actually 51 years old (trapped in a 15-year-old body). As such, it should also find an older readership.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group is a fun read, packed with plenty of suspense, a clever plot and a nice sprinkle of understated romance.

Definitely one of my favourite reads of recent months. (And the good news is Jinks has The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group due out this year.)

Covers are from Margaret Connolly & Associates (the first one is the Australian version, and the second, an edgier version is for the UK market).

Lili St Crow – Strange Angels

Urban fantasy fans looking for fresh mythologies, sharp dialogue and plenty of action shouldn’t be disappointed with Lili St Crow’s debut young adult offering, Strange Angels.

Crow, who’s written a swag of adult urban fantasy series as Lilith Saintcrow, rarely misses a beat as she hurtles narrative character Dru Anderson into a world of constant danger in the first two novels of this addictive series.

The story starts off like Supernatural for chicks, with sixteen-year-old Dru moving to yet another new town as she and her father ‘hunt’ the things that go bump in the night. But it all goes bad one icy night when Dru’s Dad hunts without her and returns home a zombie.

Dru must kill her father and then go on the run from whatever killed (and then re-animated) him. There’s no doubt Dru’s tough, and skilled in using a range of weapons, but she’s still a teenage girl who is alone, grieving for her father, and increasingly aware she has no idea what she’s up against.

With fledgling supernatural gifts of her own, Dru isn’t defenceless, but she’s out of her depth. Also out of options, she reluctantly accepts help from Graves, a loner goth boy. When he’s attacked by a werwulf, he turns into a loup garou (part-werwulf), becoming part of her world whether he wants to or not.

Tracking her father’s killer, Dru clashes with Christophe, a mysterious teenager who clearly knows more about what’s going on than she does. He eventually explains Dru is being hunted by a powerful vampire, who in turn is being hunted by an organisation called the Order, an alliance of djamphir (part-vampires), werwulfs, and human hunters.

Christophe, himself a djamphir, knows things about Dru’s family and about Dru’s value to both sides. Despite the fact he saves Dru and Graves from a gruesome death on more than one occasion, both teenagers are hesitant to trust him.

Strange Angels is all about Dru discovering she’s more than just another hunter. It’s also about her growing relationship with Graves and Christophe.

In Betrayals, she’s secreted away to a school operated by the Order, where she learns more about her heritage and grows increasingly suspicious of everyone around her. She also discovers a simmering bigotry between the djamphir and werwulfs, which adds another layer of tension and depth to the cleverly constructed mythology.

While action and suspense drive this series, there’s also steadily building love triangle involving Dru, Graves and Christophe, which seems likely to come into sharper focus in the forthcoming third novel (due in 2010).

Dru might be handy with a knife and a hand gun, but she’s not so good when it comes to matters of the heart, so this is no sweet love story. Instead, it’s about the bonds she’s forging with both through battle, and her need – despite her own strengths – to have someone she can trust and rely on, in her father’s absence.

Strange Angels and Betrayals are fast-paced page-turners. But while the often graphic action is paramount, each violent confrontation either progresses the plot or strengthens the characters’ connections.

This series isn’t for readers easily unsettled by violence and horror (even if Dru’s conversational narrative provides unexpected flashes of humour), and there’s also plenty of profanity. Younger readers keen for more vampire-based love stories should probably check out Claudia Gray’s Evernight series instead.

The two novels have piqued my curiosity to check out Saintcrow’s other urban fantasy series, and I’ll be grabbing the third Strange Angels novel when it arrives on shelves in 2010.

(The Strange Angels series seems to share some mythology elements to Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series – Read actually provides a cover recommendation on Strange Angels, but not having read Read’s work, I’m not sure how similar the books are. Happy to be enlightened.)