When it comes the horror genre Jonathan Maberry is like a master bartender. He can serve horror to you straight or he can blend it with other genres creating a wide variety of refreshing and fantastic literary cocktails. If you’ve seen my other reviews on this blog you know how much I love his Joe Ledger series of novels which mixes horror, military thriller style action, and different genres to create stories that I look forward to reading every year and never disappoint me. And I did not get a chance to review Maberry’s first stab at fiction, the Pine Deep trilogy of novels, but it’s epic. If you haven’t read it yet you should. It’s almost a non post apocalyptic version of “The Stand.” Yes, it’s that good and that epic.
I first got to know Maberry’s writing via his work on Marvel Comics where he told a number of exciting and high action stories. My personal favorites were “Doomwar” and “Captain America: Hail Hydra” both of which are available in collected edition. So I was curious to see what he could do with comics where he was building his own universe.
That curiosity lead me to pick up the first collected edition of his “V-Wars” series, “Crimson Queen” from IDW Publishing which features art by Alan Robinson. It was not what I was expecting and that’s part of what made it so great. What I was expecting was a story about valiant humans waging a war against people who had been transformed into bloodthirsty evil vampires by an ancient virus. If it was that the story it would have been fun and quite thrilling.
Instead though “V-Wars: Crimson Queen” takes readers to a much more fascinating and complex world where the enemy is not vampires or humans, but war itself. That’s because in the world of “V-Wars melting arctic ice might has released an ancient virus that reawakens junk DNA which transforms people into a wide variety of vampires; some look completely human, some are more monstrous. So the vampires are not inherently evil and human beings are not paragons of virtue. The skirmishes of “V-Wars” are often the results of human prejudice towards vampires and vampires reacting. Or some vampires believing they need to dominate human beings. There’s also a greater mystery going on that suggests human and even vampire forces are perhaps interested in fanning the flames of the war for sinister purposes.
That setting means “V-Wars” is the best type of entertainment. It allows you to escape to an exciting and dangerous world, but while you’re there you’re given something timely to think about and use to consider in real world conflicts. It makes the series both poignant and powerful.
A great setting is only half the reason why “V-Wars” is so entertaining. The other component is of course the compelling character who we watch navigate this complex world. The chief character is idealistic college professor Luther Swann, an expert on vampire folk lore who finds himself thrown into the terrifying (and for readers exciting) world of Special Operations when he’s tapped to be an embedded advisor for a team of soldiers tasked with combating vampire terrorists and soldiers.
Luther’s politics bump up against some of the soldiers who see him as a bleeding heart and naïve liberal, which of course made me not like them at first, but Maberry shows the reasons why these soldiers feel the way they do and also illustrates how honorable and committed they are. There’s a great scene where the leader of the Spec Op Victor-8, or V-8, explains to a mob of humans that he’s not going to let them harm the vampire community he’s been charged to protect. It felt real, it made you respect the character, and once again illustrated how complex the world of “V-Wars” is.
Some of the other characters I found fascinating include reporter Yuki Nitobe, Corporal Taurus Harper a soldier that Luther bonds with, and Martyn a mysterious vampire who brings Yuki deeper into the world of vampire communities and the enigmatic Crimson Queen.
Earlier I mentioned illustrating, and I need to take some time to praise the work of the illustrator of “V-Wars: Crimson Queen,” Alan Robinson. Robinson’s work reminds me a lot of the great Humberto Ramos, especially in the way he draws characters and emotions, but he’s got a style all his own. He’s great with action scenes and he also makes you feel the visceral pain, power, and destruction of war; something that’s incredibly important in a story like this. In “V-Wars: The Crimson Queen” Maberry lays the building blocks and foundation for a fascinating and complex world, but it’s Robinson who fully realizes that vision and brings it to life.
So as you can guess, I’ve become hooked on another one of Maberry’s horror franchises. I’m eagerly awaiting the next “V-Wars” collection and I’m also going to seek out some of the prose anthologies. There are two collections of short stories where Maberry opens up the world of V-Wars and allows some of his friends who are equally talented writers to come play in the sandbox he’s created.
I’ve written in this blog before about the fascinating and slow journey John Connelly’s Charlie Parker series of novels has taken from detective/psychological horror thrillers to a series that combined the best elements of P.I. Fiction and supernatural horror. It’s been a great journey full of creepy cool revelations and fun pay off. Most of the revelations and pay off come in stories involving Parker’s battle with the secretive cabal known as The Believers, which are not part of every novel. Sometimes we get a stand alone that finds Parker and his associates dealing with unrelated eerie crime in Maine or other parts of the East Coast.
Connelly’s latest Parker novel “The Wolf in Winter” appeared to be just such a novel, which was fine. I tend to enjoy the books more that offer larger pieces to the long form supernatural story that the writer is telling, but the stand alone novels are enjoyable. “The Wolf in Winter seemed especially promising too because it dealt with a tainted and corrupt small town in Maine. One of my most favorite horror stories H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” also deals with a corrupt and evil New England town.
Now after completing “The Wolf in Winter” I’m happy to say that yes the fictionalized sinister small town featured in it, Prosperous Maine, felt like a modern day take on Innsmouth and the island featuered in the classic horror film “The Wicker Man” (I’m talking about the original of course not the awful remake with Nicholas Cage). Best of all though was the fact that “The Wolf in Winter” wasn’t entirely a stand alone novel! We got some cool hints about the various secret societies that move in the shadows of Charlie Parker’s world, Parker’s destiny, and the buried sinister force that Parker and these groups are drawn towards.
The action in “The Wolf in Winter” kicks off with Parker being drawn to Prosperous because of the death of homeless friend who visited the tainted town while searching for his daughter. A little over halfway through Parker’s investigation takes a dramatic turn and that’s where we start to get more hints of the secret, shadowy, and supernatural world that Connelly is building.
I enjoyed both parts of the book, but I have to admit especially liking the second half. That second half also allowed Connelly to put the spotlight on Parker’s best friends, and in my opinion two of the best characters in crime fiction, Louis the assassin and his lover Angel a thief. Regular readers of the series know just how cool these guys are. Their parts of the story crackle with excitement, cool character moments, and even some fun bits of humor.
Louis and Angel aren’t the only returning characters that get fun moments in the book. The mysterious serial killer/vigilante known as the Collector plays an important role and Rabbi Epstein and his deaf bodyguard also make an appearance. The novel also really fleshed out Parker’s friend Ronald Straydeer, a Native American who helps counsel returning soldiers. He gets some great, exciting sequences and I can’t wait to see more of him.
It wasn’t just the returning cast that was fascinating in “The Wolf in Winter.” We also got to meet a number of the citizens of Prosperous. Some were just as sinister and nasty as I expected, but what made the novel even better was the fact that many of the town’s residents were nuanced and were not exactly as evil as you’d expect from a town where the ruling council is hiding a malevolent, supernatural secret.
So “The Wolf in Winter” is packed with excitement, enigmatic revelations, and occult surrealism as well as plenty of action. The book’s climax is literally an explosive one. It was a highly enjoyable read and easily one of the best books in the series. I can’t wait to see where Connelly takes Charlie Parker next.
If you’re like me and you love a good police procedural, you love the work of Michael Connelly. His series featuring L.A.P.D. Detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch is pretty much the gold standard of police procedural novels. The series began in 1992 with “The Black Echo” and has been going strong ever since. For a writer to keep a series going for 22 years and have each novel be strong, fresh, and lead to important character development is an extraordinary feat.
What makes the series even more impressive is it’s nearing an end point. I’ve read every book so I’ve been part of many of the major milestones in Bosch’s life and in recent novels Connelly established that Bosch is approaching mandatory retirement. In “The Burning Room” Connelly gives Bosch not one, but two cases to solve and they just might be his last. I keep my reviews spoiler free so all I can say about that is the book has a pretty powerful ending.
Let’s move onto the cases though. Both are extremely compelling. In fact the one fault I would give the book is that both cases could have been novels on their own. They had lots of exciting twists and turns. One was a cold case involving a seemingly senseless shooting of a Mariachi that has a classic noir feel to it. The other is related to a tragic fire at an apartment complex that lead to the deaths of several children who were in the building’s unlicensed daycare room when the fire broke out. The twists and turns here lead back to a legendary true crime that rocked the streets of L.A. and it’s police force.It’s Bosch’s new partner Lucy Soto who embroils him in the latter case because of her personal connection to it. She makes for a very interesting character too. I love mismatched buddy cops, but those stories generally work best in other genres with lighter tones. Soto and Bosch are the perfect match and it’s kind of refreshing to see. There are times where Harry is visibly surprised to meet a detective that’s as driven as he as if not more so.
Bosch and Soto follow up various leads throughout “The Burning Room.” When they get a hot lead in one case they follow it up. Then they circle back and pursue other leads. Readers looking for the cliché of both cases being connected will be pleasantly surprised by the way they are resolved. Plus there is that powerful ending I mentioned earlier.
When Bosch isn’t following up on leads with Soto we get some fun moments with him interacting with a reporter and his teenage daughter Maddy, a character who has become quite interesting in recent novels especially since it’s looking like she might follow in her old man’s footsteps.
So “The Burning Room” is another example of why Michael Connelly is one of the finest crime writers out there and why the Harry Bosch series is one of the best police procedural series of all time. I’m very eager to see where the character and the series goes next.
In his 2012 novel “Alpha” Greg Rucka engaged in some amazing and utterly believable world building by transporting readers to a fictional Disney World style amusement park that was under siege by terrorists. He also populated that world with compelling characters like Master Sergeant Jonathan “Jad” Bell an undercover Special Forces operator tasked with ending the siege and his ex-wife and daughter who show up on the park on the fateful day of the take over. You can find my review of it here.
Rucka’s new novel “Bravo” is a follow up to “Alpha” and instead of throwing Jad into a similar situation the writer does something much cooler and more satisfying. He gives readers something new, but equally fascinating that continues the story that began in “Alpha” and takes it in a number of new and exciting directions.
“Bravo” picks up 72 hours after the end of “Alpha” with Jad and his team of operators on a mission to capture one of the men behind the attack on the Wilsonville amusement park. So when we catch up with Jad he’s tired, physically and emotionally battered, and suddenly thrust into a world of double dealings and espionage. As he says multiple times in the book, “he’s just a shooter” and he’s up against a number of powerful and cunning enemies that are experts at manipulation and staying hidden. He doesn’t lie down and give up though. He and his team continue to push themselves and valiantly pursue the leads in the mystery they’re dealing with. That makes Jad both a great hero to follow and a nice tribute to to the real world men and women who sacrifice so much and push themselves so hard to keep their country and the world safe.
Jad isn’t the only returning character in “Bravo” we also get to spend some time with his ex-wife Amy and his deaf daughter, Athena, who is an identifiable, and realistic teen. We also get to know Jad’s commanding officer General Ruiz a bit more and some of his team mates as well.
The book is also full of incredibly interesting new characters as well,my favorite being Chief Warrant Officer Petra Nessuno, an undercover Army Intelligence officer that Jad and his team encounter in the book’s opening mission. She returns to the states with Jad and his team and we get to see what it’s like for her to come back to real life. The scenes with Petra where she comes to terms with the emotional damage she endured while under cover are haunting and poignant. So Petra is hurting, but she’s just like Jad in that she realizes she has a job to do and is unwilling to give up. Watching her struggle with her personal demons and the villainous cabal threatening to launch another terrorist attack on America is a lot of fun. From my perspective she’s as much the hero of the book as Jad is.
My favorite scenes are the ones where Jad and Petra are interacting. They’re such noble and damaged souls that you root for them to triumph over their terrorist enemies and find comfort in each others company. The chemistry between both characters when they’re together is fantastic.
“Bravo”isn’t just about heroes. In the book you also walk with a number of insidious villains like a traitorous general and a network of wealthy and powerful men trying to broker a devastating terrorist attack on American soil. Those men are engaging the services of an enigmatic individual known as “The Architect,” who is the chief villain of “Bravo.” We get to know the Architect first by reputation and then we get to see that reputation is well deserved in a number of chapters told from his point of view. We also get to meet his lover Jordan, a dangerous woman who is as cunning as she is deadly.
These villains and heroes clash in perfectly paced chapters that play with perspective and timing. So “Bravo” is a thriller that’s exiting, poignant, and a hell of a lot of fun. In the book Rucka once again shows that the best way to tell a sequel is to trust the strength of your characters and immerse them in new situations where they bounce off new and equally fascinating characters.
I discovered Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series right around the release of the fifth book, “Death Masks,” in 2003. So I’ve been reading the series for over a decade now and while some entries have been better than others I’ve always been entertained. There hasn’t been an adventure of Chicago’s only Wizard for hire, Harry Dresden that I’ve not had fun with and that’s a big feat for a series that’s been around so long.
The usual plot recipe of a Dresden Files book is a blend of private detective fiction and fantasy that reads like an episode of Joss Whedon’s “Angel” series meets Harry Potter. So more often than not Harry Dresden is out investigating some strange mystery in Chicago that leads to an apocalyptic threat, but what makes the books so interesting is the character of Harry and the complex cast of enemies and allies that Butcher has built up around him over the years. So sure the weird and action packed mysteries are fun frosting, but the cake of the series and what keeps me coming back are the characters and the long term plot threads that Butcher has weaved around them.
From time to time those plots will pay off in big ways, but perhaps the biggest pay out was 2010’s “Changes,” which remains the high point of the series for me. Since then, there has been great moments that have added to the series and moved it along in new and interesting directions like 2012’s “Cold Days,” but I’m happy to report that the latest Dresden Files novel, “Skin Game” has some fantastic moments of character pay out for long term fans of the series that add to the ongoing narratives and push the long term plot forward in interesting ways (I’m not going to say what, but there are events in this book that I’ve been hoping to see for almost a decade) and a different and interesting plot that I’ don’t believe we’ve seen in this series. So for my money “Skin Game” is the best Dresden Files novel since “Changes.”
Like the other books in the series “Skin Game” is about the intersection between crime and the weird modern day fantasy world of Chicago, but instead of playing detective this time Harry is cast in a very different role, law breaker. That’s because in addition to being a wizard Harry also serves as the Winter Knight for Mab, the Faerie Queen of Winter, and at the beginning of the book she tasks Harry with assisting his old enemy the demonic Knight of Blackened Denarius, Nicodemus Archelone, in a heist. So “Skin Game” is part caper novel. We get to watch a heist crew come together and plot a robbery of a vault located in the mythical Greek underworld. Also because Mab has forced Harry into working with Nicodemus “Skin Game” is a con novel. You get to watch Nicodemus and Harry plot and carry out subtle moves against each other as they work for an opportunity to destroy each other.
So “Skin Game” is an exciting and action packed novel, but as expected it’s also full of great characters. You get to spend time with some old favorites like former police detective Karrin Murphy, who Harry enlists to watch his back as the planning for the heist goes down. There’s also fun stuff with a group of other established characters, but I’m not going to spoil who they are. Their entry into “Skin Game” is a pretty fun reveal.
Nicodemus’ heist crew is also full of interesting characters both new and returning. I especially liked the team’s resident shape shifter Goodmen Grey, who makes his debut in this novel. And of course Nicodemus himself is also an interesting character. I hate his guts, but that’s the point. He’s a fantastic villain and I want to see him taken down.
On top of great characters, exciting action, and twisting double crosses you also get the pay off I mentioned earlier and it involves several occurring characters. I don’t want to say too much more about those moments except they come at the perfect time. The way Butcher set up and delivered those moments of payout had me cheering.
So if you’re a long time fan of the Dresden Files series you’ll love “Skin Game.” It’s a different kind of Harry Dresden story, which makes it fresh and exciting and it’s full of payoff moments that will leave you excited for the characters and their adventures to come.
I try to keep my book reviews spoiler free, but when you’re discussing a book that takes place after the events of a feature film that can be tough. So let’s get that out of the way right now. If you haven’t seen the “Veronica Mars” feature film stop reading this review right now and rectify that mistake. It’s really good and it’ s now available on both DVD and on demand services like Amazon Instant Watch. So go on! Shoo! Come back when you’re done. You’ll be glad you did.
Okay, so everybody else left reading this has seen the movie and if you haven’t you’ve been warned. I loved the television show “Veronica Mars.” I loved it so much that I contributed $10 to the Kickstarter for the feature film (I would have contributed more but I didn’t have much to spare at the time). It was $10 well spent. I loved it. It was a love letter to the fans of the show and left the title character and her fictional hometown of Neptune, California in an interesting place. Veronica’s father had been almost killed investigating the rampant corruption in Neptune’s Sheriff Department. After being shot by Celeste Kane and framed for pulling a gun on her Eli “Weevil” Navarro seemingly returned to motorcycle gang leading ways. And Veronica had stopped fighting her destiny and decided to take over the family business.
So that set up made me very excited to read the “Thousand Dollar Tan Line” even though it’s title was a little underwhelming and suggested something more light hearted. I was also a little sad that the book wasn’t going to be told in classic first person style P.I. manner. I would have certainly bought the Kristen Bell read audio book if that was the case. Those two things turned out to be minor drawbacks though because Veronica Mars first novel turned out to be just as fun and exciting as an episode of the show or another movie.
In “The Thousand Dollar Tan Line” spring break has come to Neptune. College co-eds and tourists are flocking to the Northern California town for wild, hedonistic bacchanalia and the Sheriff’s department is content to make the Chamber of Commerce happy and turn a blind eye to the wild displays of excess. When a pretty college co-ed disappears and a cable news pundit begins crucifying the town’s inept sheriff the Chamber of Commerce is forced to act. So they hire Veronica.
Veronica’s initial investigation leads her to a shady, mysterious party and then when things escalate and another girl disappears a shocking figure from her past walks back into her life. Veronica’s investigation puts her up against a number of interesting and formidable adversaries including two wealthy business men with connections to Mexican drug cartel and a person who just might be her opposite number.
Dealing with these characters and the investigation of course means Veronica will interact with the members of her great supporting cast. Mac and Wallace remain her faithful confidants, and her dad Keith Mars tries to come to terms with what it means to have Veronica officially join him in the family business. Those were some of my favorite scenes Keith Mars is right up there with “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Ben Sisko as one of the greatest fictional single dads.
Logan plays a small role in the book because as the film established, he’s now in the Navy and he and Veronica are in a long distance relationship. As someone who is currently in a long distance relationship I especially appreciated those scenes. Authors Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham really captured the excitement and anxiety of those moments where you’re waiting for your significant other to come online and brighten your day.
“The Thousand Dollar Tan Line” also involves a number of other returning characters, some that appeared in the movie and some that didn’t, and watching Veronica interact with them and the book’s new cast is a lot of fun. The novel is expertly paced, full of one great dialogue, and is a genuinely great and legitimate P.I./crime novel. I’m not surprised either while I’ve not read any of their previous work both Thomas (who created “Veronica Mars”) and Graham have published other books.
So if you’re a “Veronica Mars” fan do yourself a favor and pick up “The Thousand Dollar Tan Line.” It doesn’t really touch on some of the ongoing plot lines left over from the movie, but it’s a great return to Neptune and it’s fascinating cast of characters. Plus I have hope that those elements will come more into focus in a possible sequel to the film or the next “Veronica Mars” novel “Mr. Kiss and Tell” which is set to be released in October.
Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series of novels are primarily high-stakes action thrillers that are spiced up by elements of science fiction and horror. Those elements are always handled real well, but they’re not always the primary ingredient in the genre cocktail that the writer is blending. So I sometimes how forget how chilling and effective Maberry is when his primary genre is horror. The latest Joe Ledger novel “Code Zero” reminded me of how great a horror writer Maberry is, but still features all the kick-ass action and fascinating and identifiable characters that fans of the series have come to expect.
Part of the reason I consider “Code Zero” more of a horror novel than an action thriller is because of the nemesis opposing Joe Ledger and the men and women of the Department of Military Scientists in this book, a genius high tech terrorist named Mother Night who has a connection to the DMS and whose motivation was best described by Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight” when he said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” So essentially Joe and the DMS are up against their version of the Joker and the gleeful carnage and mayhem she causes is pretty chilling.
Another reason “Code Zero” is pretty horrific is because Mother Night is not alone. She’s in command of an army of followers most of them mentally ill and societal outcasts and early on she dispatches them to commit terrorist attacks. We get several chapters of these attacks and they’re highly effective and quite frightening. You feel the violence and terror Mother Night’s followers are causing. Surprisingly I also felt a little bit of sympathy for some of Mother Night’s followers as well because many of them were alone and struggling with the difficulties of life when they were found by Mother Night. It felt like Maberry was effectively and rightfully pointing out that when we reject and ostracize people instead of trying to help them there’s a real danger that they could be exploited by someone with sinister motives.
Then the final reason “Code Zero” feels like a horror novel to me is the tools Mother Night and her followers use to spread terror; the bio-weapons that Ledger and the DMS confiscated in the previous installments of the series, which means the zombie virus, the genetically engineered Berserker super soldiers, and the weaponized plagues of the Ten Kings are all back. Under Mother Night’s command these weapons are used to create some chilling, gruesome and yes twistedly fun scenarios. The mayhem of the book’s final battle felt on par with the chaos and carnage caused in some of the final chapters of “Bad Moon Rising,” the concluding volume in Maberry’s epic horror trilogy about the town of Pine Deep.
So Mother Night is probably the toughest foe the DMS has faced yet, which means we get some great character moments in “Code Zero.” Joe Ledger remains as fascinating and fun as ever but here we get to see him struggling with the carnage caused by Mother Night, what fighting back against her is doing to his already scarred psyche, and trying to hold on to the one bright spot of happiness in his personal life.
We also get great moments with the members of Echo Team, which gets three intriguing new team members, and Mister Church. Plus the DMS support staff get some time to shine in “Code Zero” as well. Bug, their lead computer expert, in particular is given some fun and cool moments.
The moments where Echo Team are in action crackle as usual, but as I mentioned there’s a lot of horrific action in “Code Zero” as well especially in the scenes where Echo Team have to deal with outbreaks of the Seif Al Din virus that transforms innocent people into flesh hungry zombies.
So for me “Code Zero” was a different, but still incredibly fun Joe Ledger novel. It was a tale of psychological and techno horror, but it was also a high stakes tale of desperate heroes. Imagine the conflict, stakes, and tone of the film “The Dark Knight” played out on a national level and featuring valiant and identifiable Spec Op Warfare heroes that are battling to stop a zombie Armageddon from happening. Yes “Code Zero” is as fun as it sounds.