Whenever a new novel by Rachel Aaron is released, there is a lot of squeeing at Maison Heloise. Things were no different when No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished came out a couple of days ago. This time, however, a bit of grumbling was mixed among the squees as I’d always assumed that The Heartstrikers would be a trilogy only to find out that it will take four or maybe even five volumes until all the mysteries will be revealed. Of course, this also means at least one more novel in the series, so the grumbling was very short-lived in the end.
If M.L. Brennan’s Generation V series is The Godfather with vampires, then Rachel Aaron’s Heartstrikers trilogy (of which One Good Dragon Deserves Another is the second volume) is Generation D, with D standing for Dragon. There are some distinct similarities between the series: a beta hero who is a slacker and dropout from a powerful family ruled by a matriarch, a female partner / girlfriend who is also supernatural and considerably tougher than the protagonist. They also share similar themes, the hero trying to keep his humanity and stay a nice person even as he gets pulled increasingly into his family’s power games.
Several years ago, the Paranormal Fantasy genre experienced a huge boost in popularity, with literally dozens of new titles being released every week. At that rate, it did not take long for the genre to become formulaic, and by now one would expect it to be quite dead, its life drained out of it by the countless imitators feeding from the same template, using the same conventions over and over again. But then, just as one believes the genre to be finally deceased for good, there is a twitching in the presumed corpse when someone comes up with a new and surprising twist and released a novel that breathes fresh life into tired tropes. M. L. Brennan’s debut novel Generation V was such a work, taking what is at heart a fairly simple concept but which enabled her to approach the genre from a new and original angle, opening up a whole new lot of possibilities.
We are currently having what is apparently the hottest summer since they are making records of those things, and with that brain-melting heat I’m sticking with light reading to keep me distracted. Fortunately, there three of my favourite Paranormal Fantasy series have had new volumes released just recently which should get me through this working week.
Kitty Saves the World is actually the finally installment of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series about a female werewolf hosting a late night radio show. That sounds a bit gimmicky on first sight, but Carrie Vaughn made it work, with the added oddity of having her protagonist as a beta wolf rather than the ass-kicking heroine common for this genre (a very unusual and indeed quite daring move back then, as can be seen by a look at the Amazon.com and Goodreads reviews for the first volume). Kitty went on to do some serious butt-kicking in subsequent volumes, but the reader always had the impression that this was something she earned and worked hard for, making this one of the character-driven Paranormal series with its protagonists undergoing some actual development throughout the volumes.
I particularly enjoyed how Vaughn handled the way supernatural abilities fit into a mundane reality, and seeing Kitty and her werewolf, vampire and sorcerer friends navigate everyday life always was one of the chief delights of the series for me. Somewhat unfortunately, the author at some stage thought it necessary to introduce a Big Apocalyptic Masterplot (or BAM, as I like to call it) into the series, with an ancient vampire from Roman times plotting doom and destruction for all of mankind in some vast conspiracies. For me, that rather took some of the charm out of the series and I still much prefer the earlier volumes where adventure was on a smaller scale but also more intimate and involving.
Still, the series might have gotten weaker towards the end but it was still entertaining, and the big finale resolves everything in a nice fashion, not only revealing who the real big bad guy behind the BAM is but also giving a cameo to pretty much everyone who ever had a role in previous volumes. Obviously, not the volume to start the series with but long-time readers will be enjoying this a lot.
Harry Connolly is the uncrowned king of the elevator pitch: After “Epic Fantasy without the boring bits” for his Epic Fantasy Trilogy The Great Way, now it’s “Pacifist Urban Fantasy” for his most recent offering, the (you guessed it) Urban Fantasy novel A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark (and he’s really good with snappy titles, too).
And finally it is here, the much-dreaded final volume of Shadow Unit: Just two long episodes and three vignettes, but to say that those packed a massive punch would be an understatement of massive proportions. This installment returns to the accustomed mixture of two episodes and a number of vignettes, but the apparent normalcy is shredded very soon, and the series emphatically goes out with a bang. A big one.
Volume 14 of this series, and I just cannot emphasize enough how much an achievement it is on part of all the individual writers involved as well as the “show runners” Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear to have kept Shadow Unit alive and fun to read throughout over such a long stretch.
This volume comes without any bonus material at all, presenting just two long stories. I’m missing the vignettes, but not quite as much as I was expecting to, because their usual functions are either to give us background on the Abnormal Crime Task Force’s history or glimpses into the private lives and minds of the team’s members, and the latter is here done by the two regular episodes, “Dark Leader” by Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull, followed by “Due North” by Leah Bobet. They are both very quiet and introspective episodes, with not much outward tension but rely mostly on character and psychological tension.
“Dark Leader” is an enjoyable read, but mostly “business as usual” for the ACTF (or, as it’s often fondly called by its members, the WTF), and for me at least this volume’s highlight was “Due North”, my favourite contribution by Leah Bobet to the series. The episode mimics TV shows in having an A plot and a B plot, both of which are only thematically connected – the theme being community, what it takes to create one, and what sacrifices are made to keep one alive, and it’s hard not to see both threads as a commentary on the WTF team itself that by now has become home and family for many of its members.
All in all, this is an almost contemplative volume, but none the less impressive for that. It marks the calm before the storm which is looming on the horizon in form of the much-dreaded final Volume 15…