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REVIEW: Hellbent by Cherie Priest

REVIEW: Hellbent by Cherie Priest

Dear Ms. Priest,

I was first introduced to your work with Four and Twenty Blackbirds, your Southern gothic debut. I remember liking it but for some reason, I never picked up another book by you again. It happens. So when I saw this book pop up on NetGalley, I glanced at your backlist and was shocked to discover how extensive it was! Time passes fast. Upon realizing that Hellbent was the second book in a series, I tracked down the first book Bloodshot (which I talked about briefly here) and liked it enough to give this one a go.

 Hellbent	Cherie PriestRaylene Pendle is a vampire who makes a living as the thief known as Cheshire Red. She’s lived a long time and is good at what she does — so good that many people think Cheshire Red is actually a man. After the events of Bloodshot, the normally solitary Raylene has picked up some friends: the blind vampire Ian Stott and the ex-Navy SEAL turned drag queen Adrian deJesus.

In Hellbent, Raylene is recruited to steal a very strange set of magical artifacts. Unfortunately, a brilliant but mentally unstable sorceress also wants them for her own purposes. And when she gets them first, Raylene will have to contend with the woman’s greatly amplified powers to get them back.

At the same time, Ian has a political problem on his hands. Vampires normally belong to Houses. Raylene left hers decades ago after a falling out with the head of the Chicago house. (The head wanted Raylene to die for her, and Raylene disagreed.) Ian, however, never actually left. He went into hiding after losing his sight because as one of the potential heirs, such a perceived weakness would put him at a disadvantage and make him a walking target. But now the San Francisco head has died and people are looking for Ian. And because of her feelings for him, Raylene will do anything to dissuade him from leaving, even if that means dealing with the San Francisco vampire house instead.

I’ll be the first person to say that urban fantasy is a crowded subgenre. Adult, young adult, blending with paranormal romance, traditional fantasy with urban fantasy trappings, it’s everywhere despite the fact that I think the subgenre’s heyday is behind us. But despite all that, I found Raylene’s voice very refreshing. Anyone who’s read urban fantasy is used to the tough loner heroine with attitude and a chip on her shoulder.

And while Raylene started out a loner in the previous book, Bloodshot, she’s a different take on that archetype. She’s a loner because of necessity. While she can be tough, it has more to do with living a long time on her own without a vampire house to back her up and being competent at what she does. It’s not a front. In fact, the only lies she tells involve her valuing her solitary life and disliking all these people barging in on it. That’s obviously not true since she collects people and takes them in, just like the valuables and artifacts she steals.

The biggest thing that sets her apart, however, is her personality. Raylene is neurotic and has OCD. I liked that this played on the traditional folklore about vampires where to distract them, you throw rice at them because that makes them stop and have to count each individual grain. (Like how The Count on Sesame Street teaches counting?) It makes for an interesting character because Raylene is simultaneously overprepared and reckless. She likes planning for contingencies but ends up taking risks when faced with the actual situation.

I think it’s this trait of Raylene’s that made her interactions with the sorceress Elizabeth interesting. Once she realized Elizabeth had schizophrenia, she stopped being the rival Raylene needed to eliminate. Instead she became someone Raylene wanted to help. And if there’s something Raylene suffers from, it’s this unacknowledged desire to help.

For me, though, the main flaw of Hellbent is that the plot is divided between the stolen artifact storyline and Ian’s vampire house storyline. A part of me originally thought they would converge and I read on, interested in seeing how they would. Because that didn’t happen, I was left with a scattered impression. I liked the vampire house storyline because plots involving political intrigue are a favorite of mine. But Raylene jumping back and forth between that and the stolen artifact storyline weakened it for me.

I was surprised by the conclusion to the subplot involving Adrian’s missing sister. Maybe neverending series have conditioned me to expect mysteries to be drawn out for several books. That the question was answered in this installment was refreshing. Unfortunately, it also struck me as a little too convenient.

As for the relationship between Raylene and Ian, I still have problems wrapping my mind around it. I think I just never bought it in Bloodshot, so while I can see Raylene doing all this because he’s a friend, I have a harder time thinking of them in a romantic way. I don’t know if that’s intentional but I admit I find their interactions to be emotionally unsatisfying.

Adrian, on the other hand, I can’t get enough of. I don’t care what he does. I just want more of him. I am interested in seeing how his new connection to Raylene will impact their relationship in the future.

Overall, I do think Hellbent was a worthwhile read. Maybe not so much about the events that take up the majority of the book but rather the fallout and what it means for the future. I am curious to see how Raylene proceeds from here. C+

My regards,
Jia

Previous book in this series: Bloodshot

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REVIEW: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

REVIEW: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Dear Mr. Martin,

Has there ever been a more anticipated fantasy novel than this? Maybe, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of it. A Game of Thrones, the first novel of your A Song of Ice and Fire series, changed the face of epic fantasy. Made it darker. Grittier. And of course, that thing that happened at the end. It reminded us that the so-called ironclad rules of epic fantasy weren’t that ironclad after all. When HBO decided to adapt your series for television, I admit I was relieved. Maybe this would serve as the impetus to bring the long-awaited A Dance with Dragons to bookshelves! And lo and behold, after five years of waiting, it arrived. The real question is, however, was it worth the wait.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. MartinFor readers new to the series or who came via the TV show and are unaware of the history, the previous installment — A Feast for Crows — and A Dance with Dragons were originally supposed to be one book. But because the page count was increasing with no end in sight, it was split with half of the POVs in AFFC and the other half in ADWD. Now I was one of the people who actually liked AFFC and looking back, I remember thinking that ADWD might potentially be painful to read. Sad to say I was right.

As I’ve said before, the book dragged for me in the first half. There are many reasons for this. Among them were the POV narrators that dominated it: Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, and Tyrion Lannister. I found Jon and Davos’s chapters to be painful. I’ve never cared about Davos. I couldn’t care less about him and the seven sons he sired (four of which died on the Blackwater). Nor have I ever been enamoured by Jon’s emo brooding which here is further punctuated by Stannis Baratheon. Jon’s emo brooding + Stannis’s grim, humorless self = a sad and sorrowful Jia.

Before people jump on me regarding Tyrion, let me preface this by saying that I liked Tyrion before this book. I really enjoyed his character. I think his portrayal is one of the highlights of the TV series. But then this novel happened and for what felt like far too long, I was told of whores, Tysha, whores, his father, and did I mention whores? We get it, we get it. Tyrion, what happened to you? Everyone is after the Imp because of the price on his head, but I barely saw any sign of him in the first half of the book.

And then there are Danaerys’s chapters. Oh Dany. I really want to like her storyline. It’s one I love: girl rising up from the dirt to become a fierce and awesome woman. It’s empowering. In a genre where female characters didn’t really come into their own until the last couple decades, and even then that can be debatable at times, I have yet to get tired of this narrative type. And after everything that’s happened to Dany, what’s not to like about it? But like many other epic fantasy tropes, I guess you wanted to subvert that storyline too?

I honestly felt like Dany was a mess in this book. I won’t argue that it wasn’t realistic because it is. She’s young and hasn’t yet to learned to play the Game as well as we’d like. But I was so frustrated with her chapters because her character progression was dreadfully slow and I thought she should know better. How many times has she been betrayed? She even has a prophecy to guide her along, but does she do anything about it? No, she just waits for the next person to betray her even though she knows it’s coming. That’s not attractive in a character at all. In the end, I got the distinct impression she was being obtuse for the sake of being obtuse, as in “the plot required her to be stupid and so it shall be!”  It also didn’t help that I found her taste in men atrocious. So it wasn’t until her final chapters in the novel that I enjoyed her storyline.

I wish I could say ADWD didn’t fall into the epic fantasy trap of introducing more POV narrators and characters, but I can’t. The latter is unavoidable so I expected it, especially in a world and series as large scale as this, but I really could have done without the former. I couldn’t care less about Greyjoys, lost princes and people who want to marry Dany in order to use her for their own ends. I just want the core group we met in A Game of Thrones. That was plenty. Apparently that’s just too much to ask.

Despite the initial premise that ADWD would cover only the characters not included in AFFC, some chapters featuring narrators from the previous novel were included. I didn’t have a problem with that myself, because it helped break up the monotony and at times, sped up the plodding pace.

In the end, it’s the pacing that bothered me most about ADWD. I’ve always considered you to be a master of pacing, even if part of that style meant fake outs and gimmicky cliffhangers. It worked for me and I was never bored. I was bored for stretches of this novel. Parts of it dragged and other parts were repetitive. For all that I poke fun at the portentous foreshadowing that characterizes A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve always liked that aspect of the series. But in ADWD, I found the writing as unsubtle as a pile of anvils dropped on my head. I don’t know if that’s a result of the long interval between installments. Maybe someone in the chain was worried that we wouldn’t recall the details. After all, some people haven’t read about these characters for eight years. But it failed for me here.

So was the wait worth it for me? Not really. Not for hardcover, and definitely not for rushing out on the first day to buy it and devour it. It’s yet more set up.  The plot doesn’t really move forward until the end and even then, it’s a tease of what could happen. This obviously isn’t the place to start for new readers. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t a series you can pick up in the middle. You have to read it in order.

Will I continue reading the series? Probably. I’ve never had problems dropping a series if I grow dissatisfied with it, but I feel like I’ve invested so much time and effort in this series that I can’t stop now. I say this fully aware of the fact that it might be another five years before the next book comes out. Knowing what I know now, I can’t recommend this series to other people without many caveats. The wait between books is too long, and there is no guarantee it will be finished. At this point, I’m not even sure it’ll conclude in the promised 2 (or 3) volumes. Taken all together, this is a C.

My regards,

Jia

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