Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Top Ten Urban Fantasy Series

In only a vague facsimile of order, I present to you my ten favorite urban fanstasy series. (Mostly because I think you should read them but don't want to do reviews for all of them. Seriously, it's a lot of books.)

1. Fever
Karen Marie Moning
5 books, concluded

MacKayla Lane's happy carefree life comes to an abrupt end when her sister is murdered in Dublin. When the Dublin police shelve the crime, Mac decides to go to Dublin herself to pressure them to keep working on it. Unfortunately for her, she finds more in Ireland than she bargained for, including an unknown heritage, magical beings, and a dangerous Book.

From the moment I picked up Darkfever, I couldn't put this series down. I loved watching Mac evolve from "Mac 1.0" to "Mac 5.0." Mysteries abound in this series, and each book left me with more burning questions. Throughout the series, it's extremely difficult to classify anyone as a good guy or bad guy, which made it all the more compelling. The Fever world is interesting and detailed, and I'm looking forward to future books in this universe.

Ilona Andrews
5 books, ongoing

Kate Daniels's first rule of investigating is "annoy all parties involved until someone tries to kill you." Normally she wouldn't be investigating anything at all, but after her guardian is murdered, she really needs to find out who did it, even if it means working with the extremely hierarchical Order. In the unique "post-Shift" Atlanta, Kate encounters numerous magical and mundane problems that make up the segments of this series.

If there's an award for best female lead, it should go to Kate Daniels. She's strong, funny, smart, and caring. She and Curran can always be counted upon for a scene of witty repartee resulting in a stitch in my side. The world of the Kate Daniels series is interesting and creative, and there's always a new development to keep this series exciting.

Jim Butcher
13 books, ongoing

Harry Dresden has the only listing in the phone book under "wizards." He helps clients find lost items and takes cases no other private investigator will (but he doesn't do love potions). His main client, though, is the Chicago police, who contract him to solve a magical murder. Oh yeah, and he's got the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. What more could a wizard want?

As I said in my review of Ghost Story, Jim Butcher is fantastic at weaving a cohesive plot of many disparate threads. This has the unfortunate effect of making the first few books in the series a little less great, but they're still far above average, and it's more than worth it by the time everything is up and running. The characters in the Dresden Files are interesting and believable, and Harry's attitude is a joy to read. Plus the series contains a character named Bob the Skull. How could you not love it?

Kim Harrison
9 books, ongoing

A witch, a vampire, and a pixy walk into a church.* Sound like the opening line of a joke? Nope, that's just Rachel, Ivy, and Jenks getting home from work. When the three of them left the supernatural law enforcement force, Inderlander Security, they didn't expect it to be quite so exciting, but that's what happens when you're walking around with a death threat on you. Rachel is constantly having to extricate herself from dangerous situations and thrives in it, even when she discovers things about herself she really didn't want to know.

For overall character development, The Hollows takes the cake. Not only does Rachel grow a lot throughout the series, so do all of the rest of the characters. They all have their quirks and hangups, and they're absolutely brilliant together. The story doesn't lack for plot either. Rachel seems to get involved in major events without really meaning to, making for a creative and exciting tale.

*Technically, the pixy flies, but that's neither here nor there.

Chloe Neill
4 books, ongoing

Merit likes her life as an English grad student perfectly well, and has no intention of changing it, not even when vampires come out of the coffin. Unfortunately for her, once she's attacked by one vampire and turned at the point of death by another, she doesn't have much of a choice. As she's initiated into the mysteries of vampire-dom and Cadogan House, it turns out that even though she's immortal now, she's nowhere near out of danger.

This is another of those "can't put it down" sort of series. Merit is a very likeable character, and her world is filled with intrigue and danger. The relationship in the series also falls rather outside the normal pattern.  

Kevin Hearne
3 books, ongoing

Atticus O'Sullivan, the world's last remaining Druid, has a telepathic dog, an occult bookstore, and a magic sword. That last has been a bone of contention for 2000 years between Atticus and Aengus Og, one of the Tuatha De Danaan. Atticus has been hiding from Aengus Og for centuries, but this time, he won't run anymore.

Atticus reminded me strongly of Harry Dresden. They have a similar sense of humor and the same need to protect people from the supernatural side of life. The Iron Druid chronicles are clever and interesting, with a heavy focus on Celtic mythology but not to the exclusion of other legends. (No one likes Thor.)

Karen Chance
5 books, ongoing

Cassie Palmer has been on the run since she was fourteen, when she figured out that her vampire guardian, Tony, murdered her parents.  Her visions of the future are pretty much the only thing that's kept her alive since then.  But when Tony almost catches up with her, Cassie has to rely on the vampire Senate for protection, and as her enemies converge on her, Cassie begins to realize there's a lot more to her power than she ever suspected.

While the first novel in the series is a little confusing, the Cassie Palmer books as a whole are highly entertaining.  Something about Cassie's reactions is absolutely hilarious, and there's plenty of action to keep the plot moving.  

Richelle Mead
6 books, concluded

After two years on the run, Rose Hathaway and her best friend Lissa Dragomir are forcibly escorted back to St. Vladimir's Academy by Guardian Dimitri Belikov.  Neither Rose nor Lissa is entirely certain why they left in the first place, considering how difficult it was for Moroi vampire Lissa to survive among humans, but one thing is certain: the danger isn't over yet.

Vampire Academy may have been written for a younger audience, but it's definitely not lacking in quality.  Rose struggles with high school drama alongside life-or-death situations, with a generous helping of illicit romance on the side.  While VA technically falls into the YA category, there's really nothing juvenile about it. 

Ilona Andrews
2 books, ongoing

Between the magic-less Broken and the magical Weird lies the Edge, a place where magic and technology coexist.  Sound good?  Well, not so much for Rose Drayton.  Forced by circumstance into providing for her two younger brothers, Rose has given up on a happy ending to her life.  So when the blueblood arrives on her front porch, she's not exactly thrilled to see him.  She'd send him away, but she'll need his help to fight off the strange, evil magic that's invaded her home.

While The Edge sort of drifts towards the paranormal romance end of the spectrum (and that's not really my thing), there's plenty of action to back up the romance.  The characters are strong, stubborn, and clever.  Moments of hilarity shine in this series.

Patricia Briggs
6 books, ongoing

Mercy is busy working on the engine of a VW when the werewolf walks into her garage.  Now, most people wouldn't recognize a werewolf when they saw one, but Mercy grew up among werewolves - and she's a shifter herself.  Thinking the new wolf is running from something in his past, she takes him in, but she doesn't realize that what he's fleeing will affect her and her neighbors as well.

The characters in the Mercy Thompson series are quite well done, with entirely believable personalities, flaws, and quirks.  The storyline's not half bad either - and with werewolves, vampires, walkers, and fae to play with, it's no wonder.  Each book features a new story and problem for the characters, while people and relationships develop throughout.

Honorable mentions: Alex CraftWomen of the Otherworld, Elemental Assassin, Dark Swan, Georgina Kincaid, The Mortal Instruments, Young Wizards, Kitty Norville, Dorina Basarab, Night Huntress, Guild Hunter

As it turned out, that Top Ten list ended up being pretty numerically accurate, personal-opinion-wise.  I'm not deleting that sentence at the beginning though.  I'm quite proud of it.  

Anyway, if you haven't read these books, you really should.  I certainly haven't read all the UF out there, but I hope this represents a decent slice of the UF pie.  Happy reading!

Monday, August 29, 2011


Robin McKinley

On her twelfth birthday, Sylviianel, like all the members of the royal family, is to be bonded to a royal pegasus. Not that they'll be able to be close friends - communication between humans and pegasi is extremely difficult, and complex ideas require the aid of a magician Speaker. Except Sylvi and her pegasus, Ebon, can communicate directly: they can hear each other's thoughts. It's great for them, but some of the magicians are less than pleased with this development, and Sylvi and Ebon have to hide some of their capabilities, like flying together. Meanwhile, the pegasi's ancient enemies harry the human kingdom's borders, and the resistance of the magicians threatens the eight-hundred-year-old Alliance between pegasi and humans.

First let me say that I really like Robin McKinley. Her books are fairly similar in style, so if you like McKinley, you'll probably like this book, and if not, don't buy it. Pegasus certainly isn't McKinley's best work, but it's not a bad read. The relationship between pegasi and humans is different from the usual inter-species interaction, and McKinley does her usual excellent work making the world feel real. I liked Sylvi and Ebon, and the king and queen. The plot was a standard sort of "enemies from without and within" fare.

Pegasus was a decent book, but there wasn't really anything special about it. As I said, it was mostly your basic Robin McKinley story. There will be a sequel, but not a whole lot happened, plotwise, in this book. I did find the pegasi interesting, but mostly it was pretty average, neither spectacularly good nor terribly bad.

Characters: 3 cupcakes
Plot: 2 cupcakes
Style: 4 cupcakes
Overall: 3 cupcakes


Richelle Mead
Bloodlines, Book 1

Richelle Mead's return to the world of Vampire Academy gives us a new perspective: Sydney Sage, Alchemist. After aiding Rose's escape when Rose was accused of murdering Queen Tatiana, Sydney is in disgrace with her fellow Alchemists. So when an assignment comes along, she's willing to take it - even if it means spending all her time with unnatural vampires. Sydney is assigned to protect the new queen's sister Jill, who was recently attacked. But her colleague Keith is more of a hinderance than a help in this task, and when Moroi vampires start turning up with their throats slit, Sydney and the vampires wonder if there's more going on in Palm Springs than meets the eye.

Despite having a very similar cast with only a few new characters, Bloodlines really does feel like a new series. Sydney's voice and decisions are very different from Rose's, and the story is set entirely away from Court and St. Vladimir's. Learning about the Alchemists was interesting, and another difference from VA. On the other hand, if you read this book without reading Vampire Academy first, I imagine you'd be pretty confused.

I was happy to see Adrian, Jill, and Eddie again, with cameos from Rose and Dimitri. Mead's characters are always a joy to read, which is why she's one of my favorite authors. Although it would have been nice to have a few more new non-peripheral characters in the story, Sydney's evolving attitude toward the vampires was more than interesting enough to bring a new perspective to the story.

The plot focused more on the Alchemists' issues than the vampires', though it's obvious there will be more of those to come. The story is full of surprises, so I don't want to reveal much here, but there was plenty of excitement and drama.

All in all, I really enjoyed Bloodlines, and I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

Characters: 4 cupcakes
Plot: 5 cupcakes
Style: 4 cupcakes
Overall: 4 cupcakes


Lauren DeStefano
Chemical Garden, Book 1

In the future, we cure cancer and all sorts of other diseases. On the downside, whatever changes science effects to make humanity immune to these illnesses causes their descendants to have vastly shortened lifespans - males live to twenty-five, females to twenty. While the first generation - those who were originally altered and have a normal human lifespan - work desperately to find a cure, their children and grandchildren live in a harsh dystopian world. Rhine and her twin, Rowan, are relatively well-off, but then Rhine is kidnapped to be an unwilling bride for the extravagantly wealthy Linden, a practice not uncommon for the rich. Rhine misses her brother and wants nothing more than to return home because, while her husband and sister wives aren't so bad, her father-in-law is ruthless and cruel.

I apologize for that description only applying to the first few chapters, but that was as far as I could go objectively. I really wanted to like this book. I heard a lot of good things about it, and I found the premise intriguing, but when it came to the actual story, it lacked both believability and movement. I found Rhine's motivations and actions throughout her tale to be incomprehensible and incompatible.

When Rhine arrived in Florida, she seemed desperate to get home and willing to do whatever it took to get there. And then she spent the next few months doing...absolutely nothing. Yes, sure, she was earning her new family's trust so she could do...something, but she never even tried, not even when she had an opportunity to escape. Furthermore, not once did Rhine show any real anger toward the Ashbys, even when Linden was being an idiot (which happened on numerous occasions). Her strange affection for Linden came out of nowhere and for no discernable reason. I could have understood if she pitied rather than despised him, but I never quite get how she liked him.

Even Rhine's determination to return to her brother seemed out-of-place in comparison with her memories of him. They had completely different worldviews, and he constantly overruled her; at least, that was the impression her recollections gave. Since she obviously wasn't totally miserable in the story, why did she want to go back so badly?

Plotwise, there wasn't a whole lot of action. There were some dresses, and makeup, and parties, and also pregnancy and illness. On its own, lack of action isn't necessarily terrible. You can have a good book where not all that much happens if the characters are good. It also helps to include many snappy comebacks. Unfortunately, Wither had none of these things.

Characters: 2 cupcakes
Plot: 2 cupcakes
Style: 3 cupcakes
Overall: 2 cupcakes

A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
All Souls Trilogy #1

Diana Bishop has used magic four times in the past year, and one of those shouldn't count because she didn't have another choice. Ever since her parents died when she was seven, Diana has tried, despite being from a witch family, to be as normal as possible. She became a professor of history, and (except for a few desparate occasions) cut magic out of her life. Until she comes across an alchemy text that's a little more than your average book. Suddenly she's surrounded by witches, vampires, and daemons, all of whom want to get their hands on it. One vampire in particular gets Diana's attention - the stunning Matthew Clairmont, whose protection may be the only thing that allows Diana to survive the sometimes sinister presence of other creatures, who may want more than the book after all.

I'm not really sure why this book is so popular. It's not bad, it's just that I've read a lot of books in the same genre that are much better. Of the three groups of "creatures" (vampires, witches, and daemons) the most unique are the daemons, whose great intelligence and creativity border on insanity. However, the daemons are the least featured in the novel, and most of the rest of the setting is nothing new. The combination of magic, history, and science was interesting to read, particularly the genetic aspect of creature origins and the story of the Knights of Lazarus. I found the references to the Salem witch trials a little iffier, but hey, artistic license.

What bothered me the most about this book was the plot itself. About a quarter of the way through, it became clear that A Discovery of Witches is primarily a romance novel, to the detriment of the rest of the plot. At first the other creatures are after the book, then it's Matthew and Diana's relationship that's a problem, then their enemies want Diana's powers. There's no one danger that binds the story, making the plot seem a little disjointed.

Even the romance struck me as off, somehow. Maybe it's because they got together so quickly (and yet not?), maybe because Diana's protests over Matthew's protectiveness never seem to amount to anything, but their relationship did not have that crucial rightness that happens in the best love stories. I just didn't get that feeling. (Sorry, that's the best I can do for tangible description.)

I did enjoy this book, and I'll probably read the sequel when it comes out. (Oh yeah, there's a sequel. Not a big deal, but it would have been nice to know.) I did like the characters, and the plot, while unfocused, was enough to keep me engaged. However, I don't think it deserves the glowing reputation it has. If you want a great urban fantasy, I'll be happy to recommend some, but this just isn't one of them.

Characters: 3 cupcakes
Plot: 2 cupcakes
Style: 4 cupcakes
Overall: 3 cupcakes

Saturday, August 27, 2011

This is what happens when you don't follow your own advice...

...and why you really shouldn't bake in black. There I was, innocently making frosting for my brownies, when I looked down and:Yup, that's my shirt in all its powdered-sugar-dusted glory. And that's why the title of my blog is Never Bake in Black. Now if only I could remember that sometime when it's useful...

The Four Best Authors You've Never Heard Of*

*Probably. Maybe?

Having read a lot of fantasy, I realize there are a lot of names everyone knows in the genre. Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, David Eddings, andTerry Brooks spring to mind, and more recently Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie, among others. They're all great authors. But that's not who I want to talk about. I want to tell you about the great books you don't know about, so I can expand your horizons and also get you to buy their books so they can write more.

Kristen Britain: Kristen Britain's Green Rider series features messenger Karigan G'ladheon, whose magical abilities and proximity to power mean that she's always in danger, from enemies within her kingdom and without. Plus there's the danger she gets into all on her own. Britain's standard "good versus evil" plot is enriched by interesting characters and difficult subplots.

Jennifer Fallon: Jennifer Fallon's novels, filled with political intrigue and struggles for power, include the Medalon trilogy and its prequels, the Second Sons trilogy, and the Tide Lords series. Fallon's plots are detailed and intriguing, and her books are both funny and thought-provoking.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Guy Gavriel Kay's lyrical prose pervades his novels, giving the stories a loftier feel. Not that they need it; Kay's books, set in alternate worlds based on historical periods, are filled with brilliant characters and constant intrigue, not to mention love and war. Although Tigana is probably his most well-known work, my personal favorites are the Sarantine Mosaic (comprised of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) and The Lions of al-Rassan.

Trudi Canavan: Trudi Canavan is best known for her Black Magician Trilogy, the story of a slum dweller who becomes a magician and has to save her country. Canavan's voice sucks you in to her plot and characters, and her stories are filled with surprises. Better still is her Age of the Five trilogy, which is filled with gods, sorcerers, and magical creatures, not to mention a great story.

So, grasshoppers, go forth and read books by these most excellent authors. And feel free to expand my horizons in return!

Friday, August 26, 2011


I made pizza! It's actually surprisingly easy. All you have to do is put whatever sauce and toppings you want on the crust, then throw it in the oven for 7 minutes or so at 500 degrees. I used this recipe from Kayotic Kitchen for the pizza crust. I didn't have honey, so I used the same amount of sugar, and I did have to add a little extra flour to get it to the right consistency. But in the end: pizza!

(Okay, it's a little lopsided, but it has character. Well, it had character. And then I ate it, thus rendering the presence or absence of character irrelevant.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dead Reckoning

Charlaine Harris
Southern Vampire Mysteries, Book 11
In this eleventh installment of the Southern Vampires series, Sookie is haunted by a ghost from her past - Sandra Pelt is out and after her once again, while she, Eric, and the Area Five vampires have to cope with Victor's tyrannical rule. The story begins with an attack on Merlotte's and includes, as usual, drama from faeries, shifters, witches, and vampires.

I think I've finally figured out why the Sookie Stackhouse series doesn't appeal to me as much as most of the other urban fantasy novels I read. The story wasn't awful, but I sometimes felt that events had no connection to each other. It takes a lot of effort and skill to juggle as many plotlines as Harris does in this series, and the difficulty is beginning to take its toll. It doesn't help that the story lacks an overarching goal or even villain, which often keeps a series a cohesive whole rather than a junk drawer.

Moreover, the characters ceased to develop long ago. Early in the series, when Sookie constantly had to adapt to new information about herself, her family, and her world, her growth was interesting to watch, but now she hasn't really changed in some time, and the futility of her personal relationships is often frustrating to read. Sad to say, I think it's time to put Sookie to rest.

Plot: 2 cupcakes
Characters: 2 cupcakes
Style: 1 cupcake
Overall: 2 cupcakes


Rachel Hawkins
Hex Hall, Book 2

Demonglass, the sequel to Hex Hall, follows demon Sophie Mercer to England and Prodigium Council headquarters. At the end of Hex Hall, Sophie had just learned of her demon heritage and wanted to go through Removal to escape the risk of a crazy murder spree, which is what happened to her grandmother and great-grandmother. However, Sophie's father, the head of the Council, has other plans. He brings Sophie, Jenna, and Cal to Thorne Abbey so that Sophie can learn to use her powers to protect herself from the anti-Prodigium L'Occhio. But all is not as it seems in Prodigium, and more than The Eye want Sophie out of the way...

Demonglass was a great followup to Hex Hall. Throughout the book, Sophie reacts to increasingly difficult events with her usual snark, and grows as she learns more about herself and her family. The unsurprising reappearance of Archer Cross added to the drama of an engagement with Cal, two new demons at Thorne, strange occurrences at Hecate, and attacks by The Eye. Overall, the developments in the book kept things exciting, and there were enough surprises to keep me at the edge of my seat. Some of the interactions between Archer and Sophie seemed a little silly - Archer spends about five minutes pretending he was faking his relationship with Sophie before admitting that he really, truly loves her, like, forever - but for the most part the story was smooth and interesting. The ending had me rushing to my computer to look up the release date for the next book (not till March 2012).

Characters: 4 cupcakes
Plot: 4 cupcakes
Style: 4 cupcakes
Overall: 4 cupcakes


Josephine Angelini
Starcrossed, Book 1

Although it got off to a slow start, Starcrossed was a highly enjoyable story with an interesting take on Greek mythology. Helen Hamilton grew up with her father on Nantucket Island, never knowing why she was different. But when the Delos family moved to the island, Helen's family history begian to surface as she reacted to every member of the family she saw with unthinking violence. As she overcame the ancient feud between Houses and learned more about herself and her people, Helen's danger only grew. While the ending didn't leave me dangling off the edge of a cliff, I eagerly await the next installment to discover what happens to these intriguing characters.

I found the first third or so of this book, when Helen doesn't know who or what she is and is badgered by worries and insomnia, rather tedious. However, with the end of the Furies' curse and the beginning of Helen's relationship with the Delos clan, the story vastly improved. I enjoyed the development of Helen and Lucas's relationship, while many of the other characters evoked heroes from the Iliad and Odyssey. The plot itself wasn't anything particularly special, but the variations on ancient Greek tales and a set of interesting characters make Starcrossed worth reading.

Plot: 4 cupcakes
Characters: 4 cupcakes
Style: 3 cupcakes
Overall: 4 cupcakes

Ghost Story

Jim Butcher
Dresden Files, Book 13

The great wizard Harry Dresden is dead. But luckily for us, he's not quite gone. After being shot at the end of Changes, Harry is sent back to Chicago as a ghost to figure out who killed him. And if you expected Chicago to be a happier place with the demise of the Red Court, you'd be very much mistaken - their absence has created a power vaccuum which threatens to destroy the world as we know it.

Killing off your main character is an unusual plot choice, even in the fantasy world, where it might be possible to bring him back. Writing your character back as a ghost is even odder, but Jim Butcher handles the change with his usual creativity and detail. The spirit world setup is just as logical and specific as the rest of Butcher's worldbuilding. As far as characters go, Butcher has done an excellent job portraying the ways Harry's friends might have reacted to news of his death.

One of Jim Butcher's greatest skills is the weaving of many plot threads into a seamless whole, and that trend continues in Ghost Story. Rather than petering out after nine or ten books, the Dresden Files is picking up steam, and I very much hope that it continues to do so. I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat for book 14 in the Dresden Files.

Plot: 4 cupcakes
Characters: 5 cupcakes
Style: 5 cupcakes
Overall: 4 cupcakes

Vanilla Cookies

This is a recipe I have been making since I was old enough to hold a spoon.  I've had it memorized since I was twelve, and in high school I was swarmed every time I walked in carrying the red cookie tin.  Enjoy!  

Mix together with eggbeaters:

2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening (Crisco)
2 eggs
Stir in one at a time:
1 cup sour milk (1 tablespoon vinegar + milk)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
4 cups flour

1 cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
1 tablespoon milk
½ teaspoon vanilla

Sugar and shortening
Sugar through vanilla
Cookie dough! Don't eat all of it before you have a chance to make the actual cookies!
Grease cookie sheet(s) and use spoons to drop the cookies onto the pan about 2 in apart.  Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes.  Frost and sprinkle with sugar while warm.

Ready to bake

Fresh out of the oven

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Upon opening The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I was disappointed to find that the story was told in a series of letters. Never having read a book of letters that was particularly good, I sighed, but soldiered on since I had already bought the book. I'm very glad that I did, because The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is clever, funny, sad, and endearing, and altogether captivating. Shaffer and Barrows breathed life into their characters through their letters, from the steadfast Dawsey to the precocious Kit to the enthusiastic Isola. The story, set shortly after World War II, focuses on writer Juliet Ashton's quest to find a topic for a book and her journey to the Channel Islands to learn about the tale of Elizabeth McKenna and the founding of Guernsey's literary club. Juliet slowly unearths Elizabeth's tragically heroic story as Juliet's own story progresses on the island. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society is a story immensely worth reading, and I highly recommend it.

Highlights: Juliet's wit, Elizabeth's antics, Kit, phrenology...I could go on and on.

Plot: 5 cupcakes
Characters: 5 cupcakes
Style: 4 cupcakes
Overall: 5 cupcakes