Book Review: Magic at the Gate

Woman with tattoed arms holds sword, ready to fight, with mystical symbols in the background

Book Cover

Magic at the  Gate, Devon Monk (Roc, 2010)

346 pp. At the time of this review (10/5/17), it holds a 4.4-star review on Amazon with 34 reviews.

Cover Design, no attribution given

Urban Fantasy

Book Obtained By: Christmas gift because I loved her first books in the series and asked for the rest.

My Chocolate Rating on Scale of 5: 5 Godiva Chocolates (sinfully good)

 

From the jacket

Allison Beckstrom is a Hound: She uses her magic to find unscrupulous magicians and stop them from harming innocents with their power. But every time she casts a spell, she places her mind, body, and soul at the mercy of magic, which uses her as much as she uses it….

Allie’s lover, Zayvion Jones, is a guardian of the gates, imbued with both light and dark magic, and responsible for ensuring those energies don’t mix. But Zayvion lies in a coma, his soul trapped in death’s realm.

To rescue him, Allie must follow the specter of her deceitful late sorcerer father, Daniel Beckstrom, who is more than familiar with death’s domain. And when Allie discovers that the only way to save Zayvion is to sacrifice her very own magical essence, she makes a decision that may have grave consequences for the entire world….

Review

Magic at the Gate, Devon Monk (Roc, 2010)

Devon Monk hooked me with book one of the Allie Beckstrom series. I don’t give out a lot of “5s” in my reviews, but book five earned it. Allie, as a first-person character, has a delightfully snarky inner monologue. When handed an impossible choice, she thinks through her options; if she’s going the magical route, I hope she’ll remember to set her disbursement so that she controls the consequences of the magic—headache, worse headache, migraine, head cold, you name it. She’ll tough through it, saying things like “I stood. Me and anger went way back. It kept me steady and strong even though the room swayed a little to the left” (p. 102).

She’s a kick-butt character with the attitude to match, but the frequent uncertainty we women often face in second-guessing our decisions when other voices dominate the conversation. When she makes her decision, watch out. “Reason. Like that would stop me” (p. 106).

SPOILER from earlier books: If you haven’t read the other Allie Beckstrom books, move along to the next paragraph. Now, imagine that your dead father, Daniel, has taken up residence in your head and refuses to move along to the afterlife. He loves to second-guess Allie, and she can’t trust him. Her father has seemingly one interest in mind: his own. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I scream in frustration at what her father’s putting her through. Monk has me hooked, all right. Oh, yes, and imagine that your boyfriend’s body is still alive, but his soul has been pulled through the gates of Death. And your dead father convinces you he’s the only hope you have of bringing that soul back to reunite it with the body. Can you say unscrupulous hidden agenda on his part?

Pacing flew in this book. It gets my highest rating because:

  • It had ebbs and flows, with each “oh, no” incident being more dangerous than the last. It started in the realms of death, with Allie’s impossible decision to give up a piece of her magic. With the battle well underway for who (or what) will control magic, Monk had tons of fodder for making it worse for the characters. And worse. And, oh, (expletive), worse!
  • As the various characters use magic, they draw me into that world with Monk’s precision of details—sight, smell, pull of magic, conversion of spells, understanding of deeper depths to magic.
  • World-building—Monk added touches of it to deepen the world I knew, pulling in more history of magic. She blended that into the plot. I never felt like she dumped information on me.

No doubt about it, this book pulled me in more deeply than any of the others.

Throughout the book, even when the pace slowed, I did not want to skip paragraphs to move ahead. That’s big for me, because I’m a slow reader. There are times I skim paragraphs, but I didn’t in this book. Prose seemed tighter than the previous book, with fewer instance of the words that push me out, like “I smelled” or “I tasted.” But when they were used, like, “tasted,” I accepted as in-character of a Hound. Allie’s job, as a Hound, is to sniff out the source of magic when the caster “offloaded” the pain price to someone else. She smells and tastes a lot.

The cast of characters comes together well.  A hound may be a loner by trade, but mix in the Authority that has controlled magic up to now, and there are other heavy hitters in the mix. In a world of chaos, and the betrayals of book four, Allie’s instincts are in overdrive trying to decide who to trust, who to fear. She’s never trusted her father, often feared him, but in this book, she sees a different dimension of him that makes me question if he’s got her interests in mind, too; or is he the same old (bad word) who cannot redeem himself?

Oh, and her memories—with her swiss-cheese holes from previous magical costs, when she recovers a memory, I can’t wait to see where it leads her in this book or another. Monk unveiled two gems in this book.

I’m along for the ride, hoping that characters I love, like inn owner Maeve and her son, Shame, will continue to hold true to magic’s best interests. And until the end, I’m squirming, waiting to see if she has saved Zayvion (Zay) from the horrors of death. And wondering, too, where the next books will lead. Characters don’t always survive battles, and Monk’s made me care about Maeve, Shame; her dad’s pregnant wife Violet; Zay; the hounds, like Davey; detective Stotts . . . see, I’m invested in these characters.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, a touch of romance, and a female character who fights tooth and nail for what she believes in, who’s ready to shoulder the price of magic, then make time for Magic at the Gate.

Learn more about Devon Monk:

 

Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Tiara Mystery

1880s stage, cat, and fliers for "The Case of the MISSING TIARA"

Book Cover

The Tiara Mystery, Karen Meyer (Sable Creek Press, 2016)

150 pp. At the time of this review (9/30/17), it had not been reviewed on Barnes & Noble; it holds a 5-star review on Amazon with 2 reviews.

Cover Design, Diane King

Middle Grade Historical Fiction

Book Obtained By: Purchased from author after talking with her at the fall 2016 Genoa Township Bicentennial Celebration in Genoa Township, Ohio.

My Chocolate Rating on Scale of 5: 3.5 Reese’s Peanut-Butter Eggs, Hearts, or trees (stick-to-your stomach good)

 

From the jacket

Stolen silver. A crash in the night. What is happening at Russell House?

Claire Russell’s family will be evicted in two months if Papa can’t pay the bank. He says to trust the Lord, but Claire is desperately worried. When her twin brother Reuben writes a play, he and Claire enlist their boarders, their neighbors, and young Orville Wright to act in it. The Countess has so much enthusiasm for her role as the Queen, she even agrees to wear her valuable tiara as a part of her costume. Will the ticket sales be enough to save the family’s Victorian boarding house?

One by one strange things continue to happen until the night of the play, when the biggest catastrophe of all unfolds. When the thief catchers, Claire, Reuben, and Orville, unite to follow the thief’s trail, they face some big surprises. Can Mr. Drummond be trusted? And will Claire ever learn to give her fears to God?

Review

The Tiara Mystery, Karen Meyer (Sable Creek Press, 2016)

Image of a young boy in 1876s clothing

1876 photo of Orville Wright, Public Domain Image from the US Library of Congress

Karen Meyer attended the fall 2016 Genoa Township Bicentennial Celebration. She took a few minutes to talk with me. Since I planned to write a historical fiction YA, I wanted to see how she’d tackled it for middle grade. She has written half a dozen historical books set throughout Ohio—Datyon, Marietta, Chillicothe, and Blue Licks. She also attends schools to give “pioneer days” discussions, dressed as a hardworking woman of the late 1800s.

This Christian story carries a strong theme of the need to give your troubles over to God. Claire, the main character, internalizes her worries. Even when she tries to give them over to God, or to let her parents do the worrying, she can’t help but dig into that trouble and hold it tight. Since her parents board other Dayton residents, the evening meal brings them all together.

Meyer unveils the mysteries one at a time, and makes sure to include Snowball, Claire’s cat, in the strange doings. The kids have their work cut out for them in hosting the play they hope will help them save their family home, but the mysteries tug at them, too. When the house creaks, is it settling, or is someone lurking in the night? It’s enough to set poor Claire on edge. Add in Reuben’s ideas for figuring out who’s stealing their silverware and more, and it’s almost more than Claire can take as the kids take steps to catch the thief. She must find a way to give her cares over to God, though, or she’ll worry herself sick.

Historic map in muted tones, a city street with horsedrawn carriage, 1870s Dayton, Ohio

Albert Ruger’s drawing of Dayton, Ohio. Available from http://www.daytonhistorybooks.com/imagesofdayton.html

For the most part, the prose flowed in this third-person narrative from Claire’s point of view. The story weaves in elements of older days, like coal deliveries, boarding houses, a young Orville Wright (the famous Dayton inventor), and the foods Mama and the kids cook—cabbage is a staple. For a historical piece, I would have expected more period words to cement that older feeling, but I can’t say any jumped out at me.

Claire’s twin brother, Reuben, plays a strong role in the story, from his writing of the play to the steps he takes to pull it off and his ideas about investigating the mysteries plaguing Russell House. He’s the “courage” of the equation, but it’s Claire’s story. And Claire’s the one who forms connections—whether friendships with kids or adults; with the house she knows as home.

The ending felt rushed—to tie up the last threads, Claire writes a letter to a friend. That seemed odd, because that’s the only place in the book where Meyer uses a letter to tell the story. An Epilogue ends the novel, I think so Meyer can continue the Christian thread of the story. Claire’s storyline doesn’t need it.

Sepia photograph, an 1880s woman wearing a dark full-length dress gives a piggy back ride to a girl wearing boots and a white apron over her dark dress.

1880s playfulness, public domain. Photo seems to be by “N Tonger”

If you enjoy historical fiction, or want to imagine some of the things young Orville Wright did, before he earned his fame, settle in to read The Tiara Mystery.

Continue the Mystery:

Have you read The Tiara Mystery? What did you think? Did you guess what was causing all the strange goings on? Do you struggle with faith the way Claire does?

 

 Learn more about Karen Meyer:

Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Darker Still

Darker Still Cover

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul #1, Leanna Renee Hieber (Sourcebooks fire, 2011)

317 pp. At the time of this review (9/28/17), it holds a 4-star review on Amazon with 115 reviews.

Cover Design, Andrea C. Uver

Gothic Historical; Paranormal YA

Book Obtained By: Purchased from author after talking with her at the spring 2017 Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus, Ohio.

My Chocolate Rating on Scale of 5: 4.0 Ghirardelli Salty Caramels (just shy of perfection)

From the jacket

“I was obsessed.

It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I’d ever seen—everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable… utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.

There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive. Trapped within his golden frame.

I’ve crossed over into his world within the painting, and I’ve seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me, too. He and I are inextricably linked—bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. And unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.”

Review

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul #1, Leanna Renee Hieber (Sourcebook Fire, 2011)

Leanna Renee Hieber attended the 2017 Ohioana Book Festival, presenting on a panel as well as having a table in the huge room of more than one hundred authors. I’d meant to go to her panel, then decide if I wanted to buy a book—with so many local choices, and a limited wallet, I wanted to “pay back” to authors presenting when their works fit my reading tastes.

Buildings from turn of the century Manhattan, New York

Fifth Avenue, NY, 1911

But Leanna’s outfit caught my eye two hours before her panel. She’d dressed in a period costume of early nineteen hundreds, trim lines of buttons down the full length dress, white gloves, and ornate twist to her hair, secured with a ribbon. The covers of her books finished hauling me in.  Then she chatted with me about how The Picture of Dorian Grey had played an inspirational role in Darker Still and its sequel. She’d captured my interest—I love hearing other writers talk about their ideas, their process. Then I read the back cover; the first page. I bought the book.

Darker Still is written as the diary (or journal) of Miss Natalie Stewart, a mute teenager in a family with a degree of money to set them above most, but not at the top of the social ladder. True to Hieber’s description that she wanted to give voice and power to the females so often stripped of power in Victorian literature, she empowered Natalie with a keen intellect, curiosity, bravery, daring, and cunning. It could have been “too good to be true,” but Hieber balanced all of that with Natalie’s inability to talk.

From the “Gypsy” collection, turn of the century New York

With word choice and the rhythm of her words, Hieber built a Victorian Manhattan I believed. At times she let the city shine, and at others she painted the darkness, such as of the Five Points region, a perfect setting for the nefarious and occult doings around the painting that had drawn Natalie into its orbit.

The man trapped inside—will he be good or bad? With the horror occurring in the city, and Natalie’s dreams, will this man she’s attracted to prove to be good or bad? Even when I thought I knew, Hieber’s progression had me second-guessing myself.

The deeper into the story, the more the risk. Friendships develop, and rifts occur. All flow organically from the story. I never doubted what Natalie would risk to solve the mystery; but I did doubt friendships, wondering who would prove to be a true friend, and who would betray her.

The dark twists and turns paint that picture of an era where women were to be second class citizens, seen but not heard—all the more obvious with Natalie’s muteness. But lack of voice won’t force Natalie to keep her ideas to herself. Pen, paper, and gestures speak volumes.

If you enjoy horror, a tease of love and romance, the lure of magic, and a character who refuses to let society squash her individualism, grab Darker Still.

Vintage label – public domain

 

Accolades

  • Darker Still has been named an ABA Indie Next title
  • The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess, winner of the 2012 Prism Award for Best Fantasy.

Learn more about Leanna Renee Hieber:

  • 2017 release from Tor Books,
  • at her website
  • Teenfire.sourcebooks.com
Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment