Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Unholy Ghosts’ (Downside Ghosts 01) by Stacia Kane


“And the living prayed to their gods and begged for rescue from the armies of the dead, and there was no answer. For there are no gods.” —The Book of Truth, Origins, Article 12

Welcome to a kind of dystopic America with no God or gods but one Church of Real Truth – the only organization that can protect you against ghosts of the deceased which can appear out of nowhere and kill you. Cesaria Putnam also known as Chess is one of the Churchwitches who specializes in debunking – sending unruly ghosts to where they belong, using psychopomps. It is a dangerous job which doesn’t pay well but when you are an orphan coming from a seedy part of Triumph City such a position might be your only hope to survive and to forget; that and drugs of course.

Chess is into drugs big time – she keeps swallowing or sniffing all those Cepts, Nips and Pandas which help her to cope with the ugliness of her everyday life. Small wonder soon enough she becomes dependent on the local drug lord, Bump. Like any thug, Bump has his own plans concerning Chess – he wants to use her supernatural talents in order to open his own private airport which has been supposedly haunted. If Chess manages to tether the unruly ghosts, allegedly appearing at that place, and send them where they belong her debt will be paid in full and she will have a free access to Bump’s drugs. It seems to be a proposition you cannot refuse if you want to do business with Bump any longer.

Chess accompanied by Bump’s scary chief enforcer, Terrible, goes meekly to the said deserted airport only to discover that something more sinister than a ghost might be lurking there – she senses the traces of forbidden, black magic. Will she be strong enough to face it? Will it interfere with her day job? What about her forced deal with another drug lord, a dangerously handsome man called Alex, who doesn’t want Bump to have a private airport? Who can she trust and why Terrible, known for his ruthlessness, is being so kind all of a sudden?

What I liked:

I liked Chess – mainly because she thought and acted like a real, three-dimensional person not like a Disney princess. Yes, she made mistakes, yes, she was addicted to those wretched pills, yes, she lied and cheated and committed so many crimes, mainly against herself but you could understand her and see her problems. Of course you might argue that it was done so many times – a girl with difficult past trying to forget – but I still felt Chess was different, more insecure and edgy. What’s more, despite her blues she was sarcastic most of the time, never whining about her rather grim childhood and her demanding job (unless suffering from withdrawal of course ;p).. For example while dealing with a rich snob in a suburban neighbourhood she thinks to herself:

“If Mrs. Morton would stop verbally jacking off her husband and son, this would all be done so much more quickly but then Chess figured it was just about the only sex the woman got. ”

I really liked Terrible for roughly the same reasons plus a less than pretty face and his vile reputation. Surprisingly his actions and personality, which is being revealed so very slowly and with utmost care by the author, make him a very hot male specimen. That’s rare and it was beautifully done, I only hope it will continue. Of course he and Chess are at the beginning of a very bumpy road to true love, trust, commitment and comprehension but I hope they will reach their destination more or less unscathed.

Now the world building – it was original and clever. One and the only Church which exists and supplants others just because it can deal with the ghost problem is something that makes you think ‘danger’ even if you didn’t know anything else. The quotes from official ‘holly texts’, some funny, some slightly paranoiac, added to the feeling of one big dystopian accident waiting to happen. For example this:

“There is much humanity cannot comprehend. The Church comprehends for you.”

Creepy thought control? Welcome to the brave new world…What’s more the Church is one of the main employers as it hires people to fill a variety of positions. There are Elders, what we nowadays would call spiritual leaders, there are Goodys, some kind of helpers for more menial tasks like secretarial or librarian work, and there are Debunkers who need to be gifted with magical skills. Will anybody dare to fight such an organization? I truly hope so.

What I didn’t like:

The baddies could have been a little bit more complex, not just so relentlessly evil.I do hope the Church will be forced to face a bit of fair competition.

The street slang used by Bump and other Downsiders sometimes grated on my nerves. After a while all those ‘yay’, ‘aye’ ‘dig’ ‘wanna’, ‘watcha’ used indiscriminately in any sentence slowed down my reading and I didn’t want to slow down. Of course you might argue that it was a great language for the world of crime and vice and I agree – it was as dark and nasty as everything in the Downside. Still there were moments when I felt there was too much of it.

Final verdict:

If you are into Urban Fantasy with truly original world building and a dynamic plot  it is one of those books you should read. Add to that gritty, real-life, flawed characters and you get a series which might be addictive.I was very pleasantly surprised how much I liked it and now I want more. Four stars.


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We are growing!

I would like to take this time to welcome in a new reviewer.  Anachronist is not new to the blogging game, putting reviews and more on her wonderful site Portable Pieces of Thoughts.  We are thrilled to have her posting fantasy reviews at Fantasy Review Barn as well.

While no one here is locked into one genre, Anachronist will add a new dimension to the site.  Expect more Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance reviews than before.  Our desire to be a diverse, one-stop review site for all of the speculative fiction genre is closer than ever to becoming reality. 

I would like to thank her personally for joining our small team, and look forward to what she adds to our growing site!  With more idea sharing than ever, expect the site to evolve and improve every day.  As always, thanks to our readers for giving us your time.


Fantasy Review: ‘Thraxas’ by Martin Scott

If I were a more humorous writer I would make an incredibly witty joke about how excited I was to read a new Discworld book when I picked up ‘Thraxas.’  Unfortunately I don’t have anything witty lined up, so I will just move on with the review.

Martin Scott is the pen name for Martin Millar, whose works I have enjoyed for quite a while.  This book is not unknown; it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2000.  But at least for me, it proved to be hard to find until recently released in E-book format.  I was immediately struck by two things; it was very short, and the aforementioned similarities to Discworld.  
Much like Discworld the author takes a trope filled world and bends it slightly. So Thraxas is a private investigator in the city of Turai, a typical fantasy city with all the trappings; criminal guilds, magicians, even a dragon in the zoo.  He is an overweight man, but well aware of it.  He is also a surprising man, still fearsome in a fight and a competent PI.  His major failings are being a bad gambler and a mediocre sorcerer, he can only memorize one major spell at a time (something Pratchett played with early in Discworld and abandoned).  He never turns into the bumbling idiot played for amusement.  His best friend and sometimes body guard is a pretty bikini chainmail wearing girl with orc, elven, and human heritage named Makri.  Of course she wears the bikini chainmail because the bar she works at has a barbarian theme, she wouldn’t be caught dead in it in an actual fight(where she would prefer full body leather armor).  One would expect her to be a possible love interest for our hero Thraxas, but no, she is much more interested in her studies at the university and involvement in a guild for women’s advancement.  
The plot is a fairly interesting mystery tale, with Traxas taking on multiple cases in order to gain enough money to pay off a gambling debt.  Along the way he runs into rogue magicians, top assassins, a princess, and lots of dope dealers.  He pieces together the puzzle, has some adventures, fights a nasty dragon, and runs into an old adversary is a lot tougher than he remembers.  Nothing revolutionary, the author sticks with all the fantasy basics.  This doesn’t affect the book negatively at all, it actually keeps the book moving quickly, no info dumps needed.

Fantasy Review: ‘Stormlord’s Exile’ by Glenda Larke

Nathan’s Review:

Though I will try to avoid it, this review may contain spoilers from the first two books of the series.

Last in the ‘Stormlords Trilogy’, this book contains no lapse in time from the second outing.  Terelle is still being forced back to her homeland by her grandfather’s magic.  Ryka and Kaneth are working with the Redrunner Vera to build an opposition to Revard’s army in the dunes.  And Jasper has things seemingly under control, with plenty of  Terelle’s paintings to keep the area supplied with water while she goes to her homeland.

Jasper has turned into a very interesting character.  He has developed a hard edge that fits his experiences, without turning nasty or mean.  He is comfortable in his position as perhaps the most powerful man in the land, but does exploit it.  For the most part his storyline is the best part of the book.  Of course he has his hand in everything, it is now his job.  Terelle continues to learn both her strengths and limits, as well as deal with her very complicated relationship with Jasper (which thankfully does not involve any silly love triangles, despite the presence of another woman).  The limits are especially important, as her painting was starting to be a fix-all in the second book.  I found myself utterly bored with Ryka and Kaneth’s storyline, and was highly disappointed by how minor of a character Vera ended up being through this story, after a very promising start.
The strengths of this trilogy continue in this book.  The ecosystems, religions, and cultural interactions are very interesting.  We continue to see diverse religions,  with a bonus of never learning which, if any, is the correct one.  I am still in love with the relationships the people have with their Pedes, and the importance of them.  While I may be a bit disappointed in how much we don’t know about ziggers, the threat they provide is very interesting.
Pacing is always important to me, and this book once again was a breeze to get through.  A couple chapters with each character, with less gimmicky cliff hangers that most authors like to use, most often we leave a character at a fairly natural breaking point.  Trilogies often give us third books that are either rushed or 100 pages to long in order to get all the separate plot lines wrapped.  Larke managed to avoid this fairly well.  Despite some brutal scenes, this trilogy was never super dark, and the ending managed to be realistic without being depressing. 
The book wasn’t perfect though.  I thought Taquar was a stock villain in book 2, but he is nothing compared to a character in this book.  Without spoilers it can be said the character’s whole being is evil; seen in the way he treats Terelle, his wife, and his youngest child.  Senya likewise has gone right over to unbelievably evil.   I like depth to my characters, and they provided none.  I already mentioned my dislike of Kaneth’s chapters, which did nothing for me, and for the way Vera was handled.
But perhaps my biggest issue with the book was all the little things that happened way to conveniently.  Terelle reaches her homeland, and literally the first people she runs into are family members who are part of the ruling family.  Water is the most important thing in the dunes, forcing a nomadic lifestyle, but suddenly there is a place where Redrunners can camp indefinitely because it doesn’t run out of water.  Building a rope to get out of a tower, not exactly original, no one checks the room?  Perhaps most importantly, the Alabaster people are so good at being secretive that despite trading across the whole land, it is never slipped that there is a land full of people who have water powers near this waterless setting we have spent 3 books on.
3 1/2 stars. I know, this is a lot of complaints for a book that I thoroughly enjoyed.  It had weaknesses that rank right up with my biggest peeves, which knocked down its rating, but it still provided me with a LOT of enjoyment.
I need to collect my thoughts on the series as a whole, and will provide a review for it shortly.
Pauline’s Review:

And so on to the final part of the ‘Watergivers/Stormlords’ trilogy. At this point, I’m sufficiently invested in the characters and their world to care deeply about what happens to them. I have no expectations, going in, as to where the story will end up. The obvious possibility is a simple return to the status quo – Shale and Terelle will succeed in finding a new source of water-power (whether from the mysterious Khromatis or elsewhere) and everyone will settle down to rebuild the Scarpen cities with water supply assured.
But there are other potential outcomes too. It may be that the stormlord approach will fail utterly, and there will be a return to the time of random rain and everyone will have to adjust to a new, more flexible, way of life. But there is also the question of why there is a problem with rain in the Quartern at all, given that elsewhere water is plentiful. So it may be that some way will be found to change the climate entirely. This will still require a lot of adjustment, but it might be a better long-term solution. So the author could go in any one of a number of different directions, all with satisfying and emotionally resonant endings.
There are some implausibilities creeping into the plot, the convenient secrecy of the Alabasters, for instance. And Shale’s propensity for rushing off to deal personally with whatever crisis is going on makes for an exciting ride, and is consistent with his personality and age (he’s still a teenager, after all), but it isn’t very sensible, given that he’s the only stormlord left in existence. And I have to agree with the (several) characters who pointed out to him that going off to talk to his hostile brother in his own camp, and almost unaccompanied, is a seriously stupid thing to do.
And then there’s Bice and his motley collection of sons. The bad guys have been a little too openly evil right from the start, but at least the likes of Taquar and Laisa have a certain charm. Bice, however, has none, and I find it difficult to accept a character who is so instantly aggressive and murderous. I like my villains to have at least a little personality. Besides, the obvious response to Terelle turning up out of the blue in Khromatis is to disbelieve her story entirely. She can’t become Pinnacle unless she is accepted as the rightful heir, yet Bice never questions her ancestry.
Somehow this book seems a little more uneven than the previous two. Minor skirmishes early on become unexpectedly fraught, while other situations which should have been hazardous or difficult pass off unexpectedly easily, almost frivolously. The acquisition of new stormlords passes almost without comment, even though all indications are that the Khromatis will be highly unwilling to help out, and one of them, at least, is taken forcibly. Virtually nothing is said about whether their powers are even suitable (I recall just one casual comment), even though this is a crucial factor in the entire trilogy. Some aspects of the plot, and some minor characters, are dealt with in an almost perfunctory way. There were a number of places, too, where I lost track of who was speaking and had to reread carefully to work it out. This happens occasionally in every book, but it seemed a lot more frequent here than in the previous two. And there were quite a few small typos towards the end, as if the author was rushed.
I also felt there were some loose ends left dangling. I half expected Bice to make a reappearance, for instance, and I was surprised we never heard how Jade learned of what happened to her two sons. Much was made of keeping this from her, so I would have expected the point to be resolved. Nor did we ever find out how Khromatis coped with the loss of the rightful heir. Again, much was made earlier of the point that the position of Pinnacle was inherited and there could be no other option. And we never did find out exactly why the Quartern had so little rain when seemingly other parts of the world were generously supplied. I suppose it was just a climatic shift, but it would have been nice to know if this was natural or man-induced or magical, at the least.
But, niggles aside, the major plot points were resolved in suitably dramatic and satisfying ways (some twists I saw coming, but others were a complete surprise). The final confrontation with Ravard was particularly poignant, encompassing both tragedy and humanity. I didn’t foresee Shale’s final decision, but it made sense. The last chapter felt slightly rushed, though – not much more than a quick summary of where everyone ended up, almost as an afterthought.
Overall, this is a nice example of what fantasy should be. Larke’s world-building is excellent, and while the level of detail is no more than in many other books, she is quite brilliant at keeping the reader fully immersed. She is a painter with words, using just a few brushstrokes here and there to sketch in the background in the most economical way. She uses a few simple tricks (‘ye be going…’ or ‘t’see…’) to suggest the dialects of the White Quarter and the Gibber Quarter, and even the multitude of swearwords (sunfried, sandbrain, pedeshit…) constantly reinforce the hot, arid nature of the Quartern and its sheer differentness. It’s great fun to visit Khromatis in this book, and encounter natural rain (and even snow!) from the perspective of the water-starved Quartern folk. The plot rattles along nicely, building slowly but inexorably to the major confrontations, which are not always resolved by brute force. In addition, the main characters are likeable, but with enough quirks to make them interesting, the magic system is both simple and powerful (and creates numerous entertaining and original ways of fighting and overcoming obstacles), and the plot derives almost entirely from the situation. Only the slightly over-the-top evilness of the bad guys detracts, and mostly there is enough depth to make them believable.
I always like a book that makes me think, and there’s plenty here to ponder – the origins of religion, for instance, or the nature of prejudice (each of the regions has its own set  – Scarpen folk are scathing about dark-skinned ‘Gibber grubbers’, but perfectly accepting of sexual preferences), or the necessity for killing, even in time of war, and whether you would ever sacrifice the life of your own child for the greater good. Then there is the matter of family loyalty and how far it should stretch. And perhaps the largest question of this book, set in a land of severe water shortages – how to distribute what resources you have, and whether it’s better to build vulnerable cities or try to live more simply in harmony with the landscape. Cleverly, Larke never beats the reader over the head with her own views. Rather she allows her characters to put forward the alternate positions, so that, for example, when two infants are (separately) held as hostages, their fathers take different stands on whether to try to preserve the child’s life, whatever the cost. All in all, this is very elegantly done.

The 2012 Barney Awards

Update: 11/18/13 -Series consolidated into one post.

It wouldn’t be a fantasy review blog without year end awards!  God knows we don’t want to disappoint, but with two reviewers, how do we do a ‘best of’ list?  We are rarely reading the same things.  So we will do this our own way.

Starting Christmas Day, at a one-a-day pace, we will present the first annual Barneys.  Please be prepared for complete irrelevancy, as we scan our pre-blog reads and highlight a few books that haven’t been reviewed  here before.

Day 1- The Barney for best mix of a mythological creature and a library goes to..

….The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente!

One of the best YA books I have ever read, and it should be enjoyable for any adult lover of fantasy.  A clever take on the trip through fairyland, this is a YA book that made me break out the dictionary at one point.

At one time Valente could be considered underrated, but I doubt there are many who are not aware of her wonderful works at this point, the sequel even got a short article in Time Magazine.  Hopefully I will read and review the sequel very soon.

Day 2- The Barney for best jolly caper involving an assassin and a cop goes to…

Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker

This is a really fun read, set in an atmospheric wintry steam-punk setting. Lots of humour, lots of action, no gore or graphic anything, some splendidly baroque characters and a likeable heroine (who’s the cop, actually – sort of). The assassin is surprisingly likeable, too. And it’s free, as the first of a series.

Day 3- The Barney for best cameo of Doc Holiday in a fantasy novel goes to….. 
‘Territory’ by Emma Bull!
A really excellent historical fantasy novel that gives a new twist to the story of Tombstone, Arizona.  With a little magic in the background, Wyatt Earp and Johnny Ringo work to extend their influence and power over the town.  Throw in a couple of protagonists to root for, including a young reporter who secretly writes trashy serials, and you get a strange but fairly unique read.

Day 4- The Barney for best use of a magically evil shrub goes to…

Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Höst

Strictly speaking, it’s not really evil so much as pursuing its own agenda, and if you’ve never encountered a rose bush with its own agenda before, it’s very creepy. It gives the main character some neat abilities, but at a terrible price. This is an original, intelligent and quirky story, with characters who act in sensible, believable ways. And completely gender neutral, which is a rare trick to pull off. A terrific pacy read, which I highly recommend.

Day 5- The Barney for best monster made entirely from trash goes to……

‘A Madness of Angels’ by Kate Griffin.

With a lot of similarities to Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere,” this is one of the more enjoyable urban fantasy novels I have read.  I felt the book is worth reading for the prologue alone, which even alone would have been short story.  Mathew Swift and the Angels from the title have a relationship completely unique in my reading.  While the first in a series, the book can be read as a stand alone.

Day 6- The Barney for best inter-species sex goes to…

Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold

This is a riot of sci-fi/fantasy fusion, with portals, gods and demi-gods, fey folk, were-beasts, lizardy things, caterpillary things, you name it. Saddest were the fades, who didn’t quite make it through a portal. And there’s sex. Lots of sex, everyone having sex with everyone else, furred, scaled or feathered, male, female or hermaphrodite. So if you think mildly graphic lizard/human sex would turn your stomach, this is not the book for you. Beneath the inventive surface is an excellent multi-layered story with a feisty female protagonist, and a nicely humorous writing style.

Day 7- The Barney for Best Scrabble Reference goes to…..

Gods Behaving Badly’ by Marie Phillips.

Not my usual read, an urban fantasy with romantic elements.  But show me Greek gods in the modern world and I am intrigued.  A tight, mostly light hearted story in which Gods mess with mortals, mess with each other, and almost kill the world.  Geeky, mortal love may be needed to save the day.  Good stuff all around.

Day 8- The Barney for best all-the-things-I-hate goes to…
Thorn by Intisar Khanani

So this is YA, it’s a romance, it’s about a princess who doesn’t quite fit in, it’s a fairy tale, it’s written in first person present tense and it features a talking horse… it only lacked zombies to hit all my not-for-me buttons. And guess what, it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable reads of the year. Some great characters, who behave believably and a brilliantly unexpected and intelligent ending, and it addresses some profound questions, too. If all YA fantasy is like this, I need to read more of it.

Day 9-  The Barney for best appearance by a chaos demon goes too…

‘Eisenhorn’ by Dan Abnett.

I am not above reading the occasional tie-in or trash fiction novel.  Once in a while an author really stands out from the pack though.  Dan Abnett writes real smart sci-fi under the Warhammer 40k name.  The ‘Eisenhorn’ omnibus and its follow up, ‘Ravenor’ are the best books I have read in the world of tie-ins by quite a long ways.  Expect a review of the follow up to these two series in the near future, I always keep an eye on Abnett’s growing library.

Day 10-  The Barney for most amusingly self-centred characters goes to…

The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas

If you like your fantasy characters to be the most devious, crafty, selfish, scheming bastards imaginable, this is the book for you. Double-dealing and treachery abound, but while the humans are focused on their political games, the dragons have plans of their own… A breathtaking pace, great fun and totally awesome dragons. Just don’t get too attached to any of the characters, the survival rate is very low.

Day 11-  The Barney for Best Book That Shows How Much Footnotes Suck on an Old Kindle goes too…

‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Sussanna Clarke!!

Really not much I can say, it is one the the best books I have ever read.  But if you pick it up on the Kindle, beware!!  This book is loaded with footnotes, and going back and forth using an arrow pad sucks, sucks, sucks.