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valors choiceValor’s Choice by Tanya Huff
Mass Market Paperback: 409 pages
Publisher: DAW; 1St Edition edition (April 10, 2000)
ISBN-13: 978-0886778965

Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is a proud member of the Confederation interstellar military. She travels to far off planets and fights against The Others, a race bent on destroying or conquering every other sentient species in the universe. When the Others bumped up against the peaceful aliens of the Confederation, the Confederation realized they needed troops to help fight them off. As they themselves had lost the art of war centuries ago, they recruited the still mostly planet bound human species to be their shock troops. That was about a hundred years ago, and the humans, along with the di’Taykans and the Krai, have created a military force to be reckoned with. Staff Sergeant Kerr is one of their finest products.

When Torin and her company are tapped for ceremonial duties on a new planet the Confederation is hoping to recruit, she knows things won’t go as planned. The Silsviss are a lizard-like race that weeds their excessive number of males out by sending them into battle against each other. And Torin and her Sh’quo Company of Marines are there to convince them that the Confederation is a powerful force that would be a worthy ally for the Silsviss planet. Of course, nobody told Torin or her Marines that this would involve being shot down in a game preserve and fighting off scores of hormone-crazed adolescent Silsviss males.

Torin is a Staff Sergeant’s Staff Sergeant. She is the balancing point between the enlisted men and women on the ground and the officers in charge of her people. She must be seen to know all, see all, and be psychic besides. Staff Sergeants don’t make mistakes, at least not where their Marines can see them do it. When Torin wakes up in bed next to her company’s new Second Lieutenant, nobody will hear about it from her. It’s up to her to make sure Sh’quo gets through this ceremonial duty without too many people dying and no one finding out she’s actually human and not infallible.

The Staff Sergeant is an utterly confident woman. She knows what needs doing and she’s not afraid to get dirty doing it. She can shoot, march, and strategize as well or better than anyone, and with her eyes closed. At least, that’s the picture she must present in order to keep her people confident and unflappable. As a leader Torin is charged with upholding morale and getting them through even the most dire situations as intact as possible. What this means as she is unable to show any weakness, even that of normal emotions, for fear of letting her people down. We only learn about her emotions through her inner monologues, but that is more than enough to admire Torin for. She truly cares deeply for everyone under her command, and for the officers who depend on her. She just doesn’t let that get in the way of her job.

Valor’s Choice is a fantastic example of Military Science Fiction. You’ve got guns, troops, aliens, and lots of gore. Huff manages to instill a very human or at least human-like quality, to all of her species. They are thinking and feeling people, not just killing machines. Even as they are cutting their enemies to pieces, they retain those aspects that make good soldiers and good people. Dignity, respect, loyalty. There are three more books in the Valor series, and I suggest you go out and read every one. War isn’t pretty or heroic. Most of the time, it’s just soldiers out there doing their jobs. Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr does hers better than anyone else.
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Check out Tanya Huff’s website or follow her on Twitter @TanyaHuff

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The Enchantment Emporium coverThe Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: DAW Hardcover; 1 edition (June 2, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0756405557

Alysha Gale leads a double life. On the public surface, she’s just lost her job as a museum assistant and she’s moved back home until something else comes along. But the real story is…she lost her job, and she’s moved back home to her family coven of super powerful, super nosey witches. The Gale family is enormous, with ever-increasing rings of cousins and multiplying children. And they all have the power, some little, some big, to affect the world around them. Alysha is at loose ends right now, thanks to her job loss, and it falls to her to investigate her Grandmother’s death when the family suddenly gets the call that she’s passed away under mysterious circumstances.

When she heads out to Calgary to find what happened to her Gran, Alysha also discovers that she is now the proud owner of a junk shop called The Enchantment Emporium. She soon learns that the shop is much more than a giant bin for ratty old antiques. It has become the center of the magical community in Calgary, with her Gran giving aid and succor to magical creatures in need. Now her Gran is gone, and it’s up to Alysha to find out what happened, organize the shop, help all the strange and dangerous customers, and find out why there are dragons flying over Calgary and what they have to do with an evil wizard and the Gale family. She’ll learn the answers to these questions, and some she didn’t even know to ask.

This is a complicated book, but Tanya Huff does a great job of casually working in important information without info-dumping. You’ve got to pay close attention to catch all the pertinent details of the Gale family witches circles and the mess going on in Calgary, but that serves to immerse you even more in the story. Alysha has been a little knocked around by life lately and it’s made her wary. She’s an interesting character coming from a strange family dynamic. In the Gale coven, boys are prized like precious gold, and girls are a dime a dozen. But it’s the women, the Aunties, who eventually run the family when they grow up. This makes for a large group of nosey, bossy old women hovering over Alysha and her investigation, waiting for her to mess up spectacularly.

Luckily, Alysha is not without friends. There’s her favorite cousin and lover Charlie, who has the special gift of being able to travel anywhere through a mystical plain instead of taking the bus; she’s also a practiced musician. Alysha’s unrequited love interest, Michael, also comes to help after breaking up dramatically with his boyfriend. She makes more friends through the shop, including an ornery leprechaun. Alysha has an organized mind, letting her take a chaotic situation and bring order to it. She also has the ability to ask for help when she needs it, without making herself sound lost. Alysha comes across as strong and powerful, once she starts getting past the bumps and bruises life has seen fit to give her. She learns a lot about herself and what’s she capable of, and manages to grow quite a bit as a character from start of book to end.

My favorite part about this book, though, is the indiscriminate bed hopping. In the Gale family, they like to keep their power within their own bloodlines. This means that you may eventually marry a distantly related cousin to keep the magic going. It sounds odd, but think of it more as a community of witches who all happen to have the same last name then of a closely related family. There are so many Gales at this point, the only ones who can keep track are the Aunties. There is lots of enthusiastic experimentation among the young witches of the family, since they know that they could someday be marrying their playmate. And it isn’t relegated to boys and girls. Alysha and Charlie are hardly the only girls to pair up. The openness and casual but warm feeling they all seem to hold towards sex is refreshing and at times very funny. More people should take notes from the Gale family.

The Enchantment Emporium is a wild ride from start to finish. With so many characters and concepts to introduce, it would be easy for a lesser author to lose her audience. Huff has a deft touch and never gives you more than you can handle. With the revelations and resolutions at the end of this book, I can only hope that we will be seeing lots more of the Gale family, and Alysha in particular.

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Check out Tanya Huff’s website or follow her on Twitter @TanyaHuff

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MagicInTheBloodMagic in the Blood by Devon Monk
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Roc; 1 edition (May 5, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0451462671

Picking up where Magic to the Bone left off, we meet up with Allie Beckstrom just as she’s recovering from her last adventure in Devon Monk’s first book. For Allie, magic is still pulling a double whammy on her, making her pay in pain and memory. Because of this, Allie does not remember much of the events that happened in Magic to the Bone, including her relationship with the mysterious Zayvion Jones. She also doesn’t remember the investigation of her father’s death or the events that led up to her strange set of magical tattoos. Thanks to her friend Nora, though, she’s gotten the gist of past events.

When her father’s ghost begins haunting her, however, Allie begins to wish magic could be directed to take specific and very unpleasant memories. Daniel Beckstrom was a manipulative bastard while alive and death apparently hasn’t changed him much. He’s riding Allie to investigate the disappearance of some dangerous new technology that Beckstrom Enterprises developed. Meanwhile, MERC, the magical arm of the police department, wants Allie’s help in tracking down a serial kidnapper who’s been stealing young women with the aid of magic.

On top of all of this madness, Trager, a man Allie helped put away years ago for dealing in illegal blood magic has gotten out and is looking for revenge. He’ll use any means necessary, including her fellow Hounds, to get back at Allie for what she did to him. Add to this a creepy new twist in Allie’s magic that is causing ghostly people to attack her, and you’ve got a recipe for either disaster or a great book.

One of the best parts about this book, though, is the relationship between Allie and Zayvion. He’s not out to be her knight in shining armor, although he’s helped her out of more than a few tight spots. He wants her to learn to control her magic and her life, and many times goes out of his way to help her understand what’s going on. The romance between them doesn’t detract from the book, and it’s not even the main focus, but it adds some nice background music to a thrilling story.

Allie continues to grow and change as a character. After living for years with her head in the sand about how her city really runs, she’s finally started to take a look around. What she sees isn’t all bad, but it’s in no way all good either. People are using magic in ways that are dangerous and even deadly and Allie is out to stop them any way she can. As she does her job as a Hound, she also starts to take responsibility for the life she ran away from. Reconnecting with her stepmother Violet is one part of this, but she also starts to realize she has more friends to call on then she ever knew.

My favorite side character in the storyline barely shows up for twenty or so pages, but he’s quite memorable. Grant Rhines runs Allie’s favorite coffee shop, Get Mugged, with a friendly and casual style. He’s a big, tall, and handsome guy who just happens to be gay. Grant is quick to come to Allie’s aid, asks few questions of her, and stands up for her when she needs it. I honestly hope we see more of this very warm character, because he’s a breath of fresh air compared to many of the thugs Allie ends up meeting.

Magic in the Blood is great sequel. It develops the characters and the storyline, and answers some questions that were raised in the first book. Too often, authors think being mysterious and close-mouthed about what’s really going on in their created worlds leads to repeat sales. In my case, it just annoys me when you get so few clues about the behind the scenes action. Monk does a good job of revealing answers to older questions, while bringing to light new questions. The complexity of her world continues to grow along with her characters, and that’s absolutely a good thing. This is one urban fantasy that’s headed in the right direction.

Since this book is part of a series, it’s generally a good idea to read the first book and then go down the list. But I think the author does a good job of giving enough background without info-dumping so that you could conceivably pick up the second or third book and just read.

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Check out Devon Monk’s website or follow her on Twitter @DevonMonk

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MagicToTheBoneMagic to the Bone by Devon Monk
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Roc (November 4, 2008)
ISBN-13: 978-0451462404

Allison Beckstrom knows well the first rule of magic: “When you use magic, it uses you back.” Every spell you cast or glyph you shape exacts a price from you, usually in some form of pain, be it a headache, a cramp, or a cold. In Allie’s case, she sometimes also loses pieces of her memory. The bigger the magic, the bigger the pain. Some magic users don’t want to pay that price, so they Offload it, put it on someone innocent in order to avoid the pain themselves. Then it’s up to people like Allie to bring them to justice, using a technique called Hounding.

With the help of magic Allie increases her five senses, allowing her to track the taste and smell of a particular spell or magic user. As a Hound she ends up in some very dangerous situations, but this is one woman who won’t let pain or peril stop her. Not only is she dedicated to preventing the misuse of magic, she’s also got something to prove, specifically to her CEO father, Daniel Beckstrom. As the inventor of the system that allows magic to be used like any other natural resource, her father has become a wealthy and powerful man. But he’s a man with seemingly no conscience, capable of Offloading spell prices onto others without blinking an eye, used to ordering Allie around and making her do what he wants.

This is book is very well set up. The magic system is interesting and unique, allowing us to imagine what the world would be like if we could turn magic on with a switch, the same way we turn on the lights in a room. Easily accessible, and free to use, at least in monetary costs. Tying magic to a price you must pay in pain leads to interesting moral dilemmas, such as how much pain are you willing to pay to use the spells you want? What if you could make someone else pay for you, whether they wanted to or not? These are old questions dressed up in a new package, and the results are very exciting.

Allie Beckstrom is a young woman with some issues. She’s got daddy issues, and poor little rich girl issues and love life issues. On top of all that, she has to keep a journal just in case magic makes her pay part of her memories. But her sheer determination to do things her own way and in her own time makes her a compelling character. Allie is not a physical fighter; she must use her knowledge of magic and her deductive skills to solve the cases she takes on. Of course, there still manages to be lots of action scenes in this book.

The rest of the characters are fascinating in their own right. When she meets a man named Zayvion Jones, Allie first thinks she cannot trust him. But as he goes out of his way to help her over and over, he starts developing as a character and as something more for Allie. He’s also a character of color, although which non-white nationality he comes from isn’t explicitly stated. Allie’s best friend Nora is also a complex woman. She chooses to live away from magic, out in the country where the power systems for magic haven’t reached yet. She and Allie are closer than sisters in some ways, and she’s a constant steadying force in Allie’s life.

Overall, this book honestly kicks ass. Magic to the Bone has a unique system of magic, an interesting and sometimes very flawed heroine, and a great cast of supporting characters. Devon Monk has done a great job of making herself stand out in the extremely popular Urban Fantasy genre. If you like smart, funny, and dangerous heroines, read this book. I’m very much interested to see how Allison Beckstrom will develop as the series progresses.

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Check out Devon Monk’s website or follow her on Twitter @DevonMonk

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coloronlineMy guest review of Dawn by Octavia E. Butler is up at Color Online today. This book was amazing, along with the two that follow it in the trilogy. I hope you’ll head over to read and leave some great comments. This is a seriously thought-provoking book, and one of my favorites by Butler.

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The Enemy of My Enemy by Mercedes LackeyFiddler-Fair
Part of the Fiddler Fair anthology
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Baen (March 1, 1998)
ISBN-13: 978-0671878665

With no true main character, The Enemy of My Enemy is a glimpse into the world of Robert Adam’s “Horseclans” series from the viewpoint of one of fantasy’s most prolific author. The “Horseclans” world is based on the premise that the U.S. and the Soviet Union bombed each other back to the Stone Age. The radiation led to psychic powers in some humans and a few animals, mainly horses and large cats.

In Mercedes Lackey’s contribution to this universe, we meet what seems to be a mild little village. The mayor of this village, Kevin, also happens to be the blacksmith. It’s his job to check out visitors to the village and make sure problem causers move on quickly. When a family of Romani, also known as Gypsies, park on the outskirts in order to trade, Kevin makes their acquaintance and quickly becomes friends with them.

Among the gypsies is a mute girl named Chali. She is one of those blessed with telepathic abilities, which she uses in place of her broken voice. She is protected and loved by the whole Rom camp, and her mental skills are highly prized. When a local lordling sets his sights on the horses belonging to the Rom, Chali, Kevin, and a young man from the mysterious Horseclans named Daiv must do what they can to save the Rom and the horses they love.

There are places in the this short story that feel like they could benefit from a little elaboration. Some important action scenes are missing, leading to some confusion later on. But overall, it’s an interesting and fast introduction to this alternate universe, and the interactions between the characters, their animals, and their powers is attention grabbing. The idea of radiation leading to mutation that seems to be magical is a favorite topic of mine.

Check out the rest of Lackey’s short stories in Fiddler Fair, and while you’re at it, read Robert Adam’s Horseclans.
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Sword and Sorceress IThe Rending Dark by Emma Bull
Part of the Sword and Sorceress I anthology
Paperback: 255 pages
Publisher: DAW; 1st edition (May 1, 1984)
ISBN-13: 978-0879979287

In another case of strange mutation, we meet Marya Clawfinger and Kit Woodpecker. Kit acts as local Songsmith and Carries News from town to village to hut and back again. Marya acts as something of a companion and bodyguard, keeping Kit and herself safe as they travel through lands populated by dangerous natural animals and strange mutations.

In the village of Sallis, they run into one such mutation, a darkly mutated young man with the mind of a small child and the power to pull the very lifeforce from a person’s body. When Marya discovers a strange connection between herself and the creature, she comes to the realization that she may be looking at a very dark future ahead.

The relationship between Kit and Marya is what really carries this story. They banter easily back and forth, and both are appreciative of the other’s talents. When their trust for each other is tested to the limit, the results are poignant and believable. There are no happy endings in this tale from Emma Bull, only the feeling that there’s more to be learned from the two women. Bull’s ability to build such curiosity into a twenty-page short story is amazing, and I seriously hope she’s written more about Marya and Kit, because I want to read it.

Make sure to check out Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies, including this the first edition. And check out Emma Bull’s other works, including her urban fantasy, War for the Oaks.

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sf sitemoxylandIn Moxyland, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has spread to a Grand Canyon sized gulf. Set in the near future of South Africa, it follows the interweaving story of four very different kinds of people. This was a great book to read, I once referred to it as cyberpunk-chic and I stand by that tag. I’ll be interviewing the author, Lauren Beukes, in a couple of months for Author of the Week so check back for more information about Moxyland.
nekropolis
Matt Richter is good at doing favors for people. A former cop, he’s good at finding things out and making people talk. He’s also very, very dead. Nekropolis was an okay book. There were definitely some rough patches in the story, places that didn’t line up quite right. But there was a lot of potential in Waggoner’s book, and I’m hoping that as he gets more practice, Matt Richter will become a permanent figure on the Urban Fantasy landscape.

To read the full reviews, head over to SF Site. Just click on the book covers.

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