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GUEST REVIEW:  Mist by Susan Krinard

GUEST REVIEW: Mist by Susan Krinard

Marthine thinks you shouldn’t raise children on Oz, Narnia, and Shakespeare unless you are prepared for a love of magic and mystery to root deeply in your offspring. Marthine devoured sci-fi and fantasy as a kid, grew out of it for a while, and has grown back into it. In college, she called it “magical realism,” and now she calls it fun. Find her on Twitter at @MSatris and online at marthinesatris.com. When not writing, she edits for a literary press and teaches English to college freshmen

Mist by Susan Krinard

Dear Ms. Krinard:

I love a good sword and sorcery book. I love San Francisco. And,  as someone named after her Norwegian great-grandmother, I have a particular fondness for Nordic mythology. So Mist, your contemporary fantasy story of a Valkyrie misplaced in time and space, who has landed in San Francisco, was perfect for me. This was my first time reading your books, and I was curious to see how a writer with a background in romance would handle fantasy.

I found myself nodding along with all the precisely depicted elements of Nordic mythology (I am a stickler and didn’t find myself annoyed by mistakes in the myths even once!), and I loved that a fresh mythology underpinned this world – I’ve never read a fantasy book before that was built on the premise of the Nordic myths, and I love that innovation. The combination of a contemporary Californian fantasy with the dark and complex magic of the Norse gods offers so many opportunities for paradox and contradiction, and the book – the first of three, of course, in typical fantasy fashion – hints at how ugly things will get as the cold and brutal forces of a very ancient battle return to earth.

To quickly summarize this tantalizing opening to a new series, Mist is a Valkyrie who has somehow survived Ragnarok (aka, the catastrophic, apocalyptic Last War of the gods that is supposed to have destroyed them, their home Asgard, the Viking heroes’ heaven Valhalla, and an entire system of belief), as have a few other bedraggled and abandoned demigods. As a Valkyrie, Mist is fiercely strong, nearly immortal, and yet was always first a servant of the Aesir, the ruling gods who were destroyed in Last War. After the destruction of their world, she and her much diminished band of sisters were scattered into the mortal realm, Midgard, without friends or purpose. All they have are the few magical weapons Odin entrusted to them during Ragnarok – they don’t know why. They only know that their last shred of purpose is to protect his spear, his cape, and his sword, and they aren’t even supposed to use them.

After a brief (and unnecessary) prologue in which Mist, with her battle sisters, assists the Norwegian Resistance during World War II, she begins the story alone in San Francisco. Mist has avoided getting close to anyone because she’ll just have to watch another mortal wither away, or move on when questions start to arise about why she has only aged a day when her friends have become crippled by age. Now settled in San Francisco, she has let her guard down, and is hooking up with one of the first men she’s really cared about in decades.

While Mist primarily relies on her strength and fearlessness to survive in the post-Asgard world, she also has a small amount of control over rune magic, the mystical script invoked by pre-Christians in Scandinavia. She uses this defensively, but otherwise tries to blend in as best as a blond, perpetually youthful, sword-carrying, battle-seeking Scandinavian woman can.

But some runes and a few millennia of experience with a blade are not enough to protect Mist when she learns that the frost giants who fought with the trickster god Loki against the Aesir have landed in her adopted city by the bay. They were supposed to have died with the Aesir, but it turns out that all the other immortals have just been in hiding, weakened but not destroyed by the war everyone thought was supposed to destroy the world. Now the frost giants are fighting elves disguised as homeless men and are trying to kidnap seers and healers who look like lost street kids. And that sweet, sexy man she was teaching to use a sword as the novel opened was only an illusion – Loki is back, if he was ever really gone, and that brawny boyfriend was one of his many dirty tricks. The Golden Gate Bridge has become a bridge to the shimmering world of the gods Mist had thought was lost, and it’s snowing in San Francisco. Which, it’s important to note, never happens in real life. One of my favorite little throwaway moments is when people at the bus stop are commenting cheerfully in the white Christmas they’re experiencing. A bizarre winter is here, and so is a war that will destroy their world, but the Californians are just excited to go sledding.

Mist is an incredible ride through the streets of San Francisco. I was yanked into the action and conflict right away – we learn that Eric, Mist’s modern day Viking lover, is actually Loki within the first three chapters, and Mist and Loki have their first showdown by chapter five. The entire book takes place within a week, at most, and Ms. Krinard catapults the reader along breathlessly from conflict to conflict. Her plotting is expert and does not feel contrived. I realized that Mist and her sidekicks hadn’t slept more than a couple hours over the course of days, and I was almost out of breath trying to keep up with them. We move from fight to fight to fight and I thought that another Ragnarok would be over and done with by the time I closed the covers. But the absolutely fascinating part about this novel is that along with a really, really fast-paced plot, some kind of very long con run by scheming gods is going on, and Mist is walking straight into it.

The key figure around whom all the conflict and betrayal and hope rotates is Dainn – Dainn Oathbreaker, an elf who once tried to bargain with Loki to forestall Ragnarok, who worked with with Loki, and who caused the Aesir to lose the war, if you believe the stories. This exiled elf shows up, dirty and confused, in Golden Gate Park, and Mist rescues him, taking him home to her rather fabulous warehouse loft in the trendy Dogpatch neighborhood (well, what would you do over several centuries if not invest your money and then buy San Francisco real estate?). Dainn holds more secrets than he ever explains in this first book of the Midgard series, but hints start to seep out: he once loved the trickster god, but he now is aligned with Freya, the powerful fertility goddess of the Aesir. He has a dark, dangerous hurt locked up inside of him, and he knows more about Mist than she can even guess. He starts to teach Mist how to use more sophisticated rune magic, but she begins to realize that she actually has access to an old, powerful, elemental magic that was long thought to be lost. That magic starts to unleash dangerous forces within both Mist and Dainn, as well as draw them closer together.

Early on, Mist learns something about herself that explains this strange power. She’s a half-breed – half frost giant, half something else, and that gives her abilities never seen before. Dainn also reveals to Mist her ability to channel the goddess of life and love – but is that really Freya oozing sex appeal through Mist, or is it Mist unknowingly tapping her own hidden abilities? No-one knows for sure, but the difference change the fate of the world, and Mist’s too. And Dainn’s efforts to hide the reasons for Freya’s sudden interest in a lowly Valkyrie, one she ignored when she was an orphan in Asgard, raised my hackles, even as Mist was trusting the elf more and more.

The novel is told mostly from Mist’s perspective, but we get occasional chapters told from the perspective of supporting characters, which rounds out the world and the action enormously. We learn that Dainn owes some kind of debt to Freya, The Lady. As goddess of love and fertility and the harvest, Freya seems like she must be on the side of good, but the more we learn about this world, the less clear where the line between good and evil can be drawn. Humans, and Midgard itself, may be nothing more than pawns in a very long game. Ms. Krinard drops hints and slowly, slowly starts to unravel the mystery of what the Hel has been happening in the very busy world of the gods while everyone on earth thought they were dead. We’re still left in the dark by the end of the book, but the next one promises to pull back the curtain a bit further.

This book shows us the beginning of a gathering storm, and there’s a wild uncertainty about what will happen next. Mist is clearly the beginning of a series – characters are sketched out, the rules of the world are explained (in depth, during a hilarious car ride through San Francisco), we get some awesome training sequences – but there is a lack of self-containedness that should be a given in a good novel. Supporting characters – the seer, the healer, the lawyer – show up, but don’t do much other than get beat up in this book. I can’t tell if Dainn and Mist will become lovers – probably a  good uncertainty. She is drawn to his weary wisdom, he’s drawn to her raw power. But the possibility that Dainn will weaken under Loki’s beguiling wiles is always present. The young seer, Ryan, also holds a torch for Dainn, and Ms. Krinard’s depiction of same-sex love is incorporated with the same sensuality as the heterosexual lustiness in the book. Overall, I’d say this book promises more than it delivers, since it seems like the solid beginning of what could be a great story, but the world building could use more detail and I would have liked to see more downtime where we could see relationships among characters develop. They are constantly in crisis mode, which, while good for the plot, does make this ragged band a bit thin on the page.

I am excited to see what this series can become, even if I feel rushed into it. I have my wishes about what could have been done better – I wish that we were allowed to see the depth of the relationship between Eric and Mist so that we understood why her betrayal by Loki would drive her to often reckless vengeance. I wish San Francisco was laid out as a more visual, described environment – we get streets and some major landmarks, but otherwise it’s a blur. I wish the supporting characters didn’t seem to shuffle off-stage, then back on, when the plot needs them to appear. I wish I had a clearer grasp on what happened before the curtains drew back on the present – fifteen hundred years of your gods being dead seems like it might lead you to develop you a complex when they show up again. I wish Mist was a little less of a Mary Sue, though she will need every skill in her arsenal to defeat this new invasion. And I wish I understood why she’s the only Valkyrie with an English word for a name, but that’s just a tiny little sliver of frustration about Ms. Krinard’s world-building.

I cant wait to read the next one, and Ms. Krinard’s short story prequel, both of which are out this year. I especially am looking forward to the prequel, since I am curious about what exactly Mist got up to in the centuries before Mist opens in techy, contemporary San Francisco.

B+

Marthine

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REVIEW:  Mark of Cain by Kate Sherwood

REVIEW: Mark of Cain by Kate Sherwood

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When a man is consumed by hatred, is there anything left to love?

After a tough day of counseling sessions, Anglican priest Mark Webber is looking forward to a relaxing dinner at a local restaurant. When he sees who’s bellied up to the bar, though, he reaches for his cell phone to call the police.

It’s Lucas Cain, the man who killed Mark’s brother three years ago. Apparently he’s out of jail and hanging out with his old crowd, which has to be a breach of parole, right?

Pulled over upon leaving the bar, Lucas blows a clean breathalyzer and hopes this isn’t a harbinger of things to come. He’s ready to build a sober, peaceful life. His friends aren’t ready to let him move on, though, and he ends up taking refuge in an Anglican half-way house.

Thrown together, Mark and Lucas find common ground in the struggle to help a young gay man come to terms with his sexuality—and the fight against homophobic townsfolk. As attraction grows, the past is the last stumbling block between them and a future filled with hope.

Warning: Bad boys being good, good boys being bad.

Review:

Dear Kate Sherwood,

I had been hunting for good redemption story for what feels like months by now and yours certainly delivered what I was looking for and more. Talk about seemingly impossible to overcome and at the same time very realistic conflict between the main characters. I could not imagine how you would believably bring them together, because I could not really relate to such situation – meaning that personally I cannot see myself ever falling in love with somebody who killed my loved one. But you convinced me, you convinced me despite what I said about not being able to ever imagine myself being in these characters’ shoes. I was convinced that what happened made sense for Lucas and Mark, and I was very satisfied when I finished the book.

The book also delivered a lot of social commentary, which in my opinion was integrated with the romance really well. This is no small feat, because too often I think that social commentary in romance gets chopped in favor of the happy ending, or it gets so preachy that I start to wonder where the romance went. It is understandable on the one hand, but on the other I too often find myself wishing that the writer had never attempted the social commentary in the first place. For this reader at least, this story achieved a pretty good balance, and I never felt that the social commentary was too heavy or preachy.

As the blurb tells you Lucas comes back to his hometown, having been released early for good behavior. Three years ago he killed Mark’s brother in a drunken bar fight. You can imagine that not everybody is happy to see him back and Mark is one of those unhappy people. I was not going to blame him for that, even though slowly but surely Mark sees just how much Lucas has changed and how he has taken complete responsibility for what he did. I can imagine that some readers may find Lucas’ unequivocal responsibility to be a little too much and a little too close to martyrdom, but for me it was just perfect. Because a killing was involved, nothing less than what Lucas felt would have satisfied me. I mean, eventually I was perfectly okay with Lucas’ moving on to realizing that he deserves to live a happy life too and that he should not throw away his own life at 22, but I was glad to never hear a single justification from him. If anything, I was a little cynical and skeptical that he was able to experience such profound change while in prison, but I went with the flow because as I said, nothing less would have satisfied me.

“I did my time? Some of it, yeah. But Sean, the guy’s still dead. It’s permanent. His family, his friends, all the shit he wanted to do with his life? He’s gone, forever.” Lucas stared at his friend’s uncomprehending face. Sean was almost innocent sometimes. Like he refused to accept any of the harder truths of the world. Mortality. Responsibility. Guilt. “I can’t just go on with things like it never happened. Three years and then it’s all over? It’s never over, not for the people who miss him. So it should never be over for me.”

When Lucas comes back home a changed person, he notes that none of his friends have actually changed.
I thought that the author did a very good job in portraying how so many young men waste their lives in spending times in bars, drinking, doing nothing and seeking useless fights, feeding their anger.

“And there it was. Sean was actually angry, not at his friends but at this imaginary woman with her imaginary baby who’d had the nerve to imaginary tell him she wanted them to get their own apartment. It felt familiar but it did not feel natural. Not anymore”

I thought the subplot with Lucas’ friend Sean mirrored Lucas’ past situation to a certain degree and when life hit Sean just as hard as Lucas (although in a different way) I could not help but hope that it would be a rude awakening for Sean.

Lucas never completely abandons this mindset, even though he learns to believe that he can deserve a happy life, and I liked that the writer tried to portray complex human beings. Surely if we feel one thing, we can feel and believe in something else too, even if that other thing seemingly contradicts the first one?

The romance in the story is a very slow burn one, which is of course extremely understandable. Mark has to see in Lucas somebody worthy of the friendship and respect first and that takes a significant chunk of the book. Basically if you want a book high on erotic content, this one is absolutely not for you. There are some kisses in the last quarter of the book and one sex scene, but for me this was perfect for this story.

Mark is not portrayed as somebody who is perfect either. He did not always behave kindly towards Lucas, but then again Lucas killed his brother, so I cut him some slack. I thought that Mark’s being a priest played a significant role in helping him change his feelings for Lucas and at first I wondered whether this would have happened if Mark held a different profession. At the same time his faith is part of Mark’s personality, not just his vocation, so somehow it all worked well for me eventually.

Neither Mark nor Lucas struggle with being gay – they know who they are, they are not ashamed of it and they seem to be at peace with their sexual identities. However, as the blurb states, homophobia is still an issue for them in one way or another. It is an issue for a teenager they end up helping, it is somewhat of an issue for some folks in their hometown (and it does take an ugly turn at one point), and even though it was less of an issue for Mark’s job as priest than it usually is in romance stories, I wish the church people had had more guts than they did. I mean, I know it reflects a sad reality, but I cannot help but wish for something better for talented, dedicated people like Mark who want to help people and serve God as priests.

I really appreciated that the book often tried to acknowledge that some situations cannot be resolved neatly to everybody’s satisfaction and no matter how hard we try, somebody may still get hurt.

There is a strong happy ending for two main characters; however there are no neat endings for several side storylines. There are no neat resolutions about how some family members and some friends view and interact with the main characters, but again all of it made perfect sense for me.

Highly recommended.

Grade: B+

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