Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini TaylorDays of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2
Published by Hachette Audio on 11/6/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
five-stars

Warning – there may be spoilers in this review for both Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight. Nothing that should ruin your reading but definitions of “spoiler” vary. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I strongly urge you to stop and go listen to it now (and I envy you your first encounter with it.) In fact, if you haven’t listened to Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet and would like to, I will gift a copy to the first two or three Audible.com members (or anyone who can set up an Audible.com account) who use my “Contact Us” form to tell me they’d like one; I’m in the mood to share my audio love for this series.

Story: A
Narration: A

Quick Review:

Damn that was a good audiobook.

The Plot:

Karou has learned the secret of her origins but the gift of that knowledge has left her with nothing but the bitter taste of ashes. The world she knew is now forever out of her reach and she is once again set adrift from the familiar. Beset by guilt and driven by her anger at Akiva, she joins the rebel army and picks up where Brimstone left off. Being a human among the chimaera would be hard enough but the disdain her affair with a seraphim engenders has isolated her even more and she is forced to struggle with her doubts, blame, and the very real moral quandary of her actions.

The seraphim have declared victory over the chimaera and it would seem that all that’s left to do is to mop up the survivors – meaning slaughter the few remaining chimaera solders who are willing to fight and to enslave the civilian populace. Akiva struggles to balance his orders against the moral imperatives that are now driving him while coping with his guilt over the role he played in the war.

My Thoughts:

There are some big themes in this book: love and forgiveness, conflict and what begets a continuation of war vs. what can end it, self-doubt and the blame we take on ourselves when our actions have unexpected consequences, the nature of friendship, and several more. While that makes it sound like an “issues book” it really isn’t. It’s the story of these characters and their world and the very real and understandable inner turmoil they face, bracketed by the physical dangers that swirl around them as the waning war between their races takes on a new urgency.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone was my favorite audiobook of 2011. The lyrical writing, the layered plotting, the blend of humor with the more serious stuff, the complex but relatable characters – all of it was seamlessly combined and the same is true of Days of Blood and Starlight. One of my favorite aspects of DoSaB was the shift mid-way through where the world of the chimaera and seraphim came into focus and the history of their conflict was revealed layer by layer. The sequel takes that aspect and distills it to a very potent emotional brew.

There were long stretches of this audiobook that I can only describe as bleak. I held out little hope for even the continuing survival of our protagonists, let alone that their dream of peace could ever come to pass. My initial reaction when I finished the audiobook was that I didn’t like it as much as Daughter of Smoke and Bone. After some time thinking about it I realized that wasn’t the case at all. The truth is, I found this a harder book to listen to because so much of what it evoked was (theoretically) on the negative scale: tension, long stretches of hopelessness, that peculiar literary fear at the decisions made by the characters that weren’t going to result in sunshine and rainbows, serious thoughts about what drives conflict between cultures and nations, and an intricate teasing out of whether I felt Karou and Akiva were right to blame themselves and whether their actions were justified or not – to name just a few. None of that would have affected me the way it did, however, if the writing wasn’t so evocative, the larger issues it made me consider weren’t framed within the context of a very good story that lent them a certain subtlety, and the characters weren’t written in such a way that they almost to take on a life outside the pages of the book and I’ve come to care about them.

Tightly woven into the story of the aftermath of war between these two races, however, are faint threads of hope. There are small acts of mercy and compassion, on and off the battlefield; characters who realize that destruction will never be a sustainable way to ensure the continued survival and well-being of their people and who evince a willingness to find another way; hints that forgiveness, although incredibly difficult to find within oneself, can and should be given and received; and always present was the strong bond of friendship between Karou and Zuzana. Thank goodness for Zuzana and Mick – the comic-relief sidekicks who, despite my use of that cliched characterization term, were an integral part of the story whose presence was both necessary to the plot and to my continued emotional survival as I listened.

As much I enjoy complicated, messy, wrenching, ambiguous novels, I have to admit that it’s easier to immediately proclaim “I loved this book!” when I’m still riding a wave of happily-ever-after endorphins rather than trying to pick up the pieces of my expectations and shattered hopes. I find that it’s easier for an author to make me happy than it is to create a narrative that can reach out and grab my emotions and wrench them about while keeping me totally invested in the story and characters although there’s no doubt that as a reader, the rewards for books that can do the latter are greater for me. Days of Blood and Starlight is just as good a book as Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it added a complexity to the overall plot that I don’t often find in second-in-a-series books. This was an incredibly good audiobook and I highly recommend it.

The Narration:

Khristine Hvam pretty much nails the narration of this audiobook. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past although I sometimes felt there was an element of the theatrical to it that didn’t quite suit my preference for subtle storytelling. With this one, I can’t imagine listening to the text in the hands of any other narrator. While it may just be that I’m familiar with her take on the characters now, it almost seemed that her delivery had softened a bit and took on an even more natural tone.

The aspects of character delivery that keep the listener in the moment and on the edge of their seat: Point of View, Discovery, the Here and Now, very real vocal responsiveness in Dialogue, and Accents were all flawless. If it seems I’m just running through a list of narration “performance markers” and checking them off, well, in a way I am because at no point in the story did it occur to me “oh, that’s very natural sounding dialogue.” I was never less than immersed in the characters and rarely spared a thought for the narrator. The accents were a particular high-point as was the pitch-perfect delivery of humor with the character of Zuzana a perfect exemplar of this. An excellent narration and I strongly recommend choosing the audio version.

five-stars

Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep

Widow’s Web by Jennifer EstepWidow's Web by Jennifer Estep
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Series: Elemental Assassin #7
Published by Audible Frontiers on 8/21/12
Genres: Fantasy
three-half-stars

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

This enjoyable continuation of the Elemental Assassin series again finds Gin battling not just for her life and the safety of those she loves, but also to hold on to what she has built with her lover Owen after his old-flame returns to town. Narrator Lauren Fortgang knows her characters and delivers her smoothest narration to date.

The Plot:

Life is never dull for Gin Blanco, the former assassin known as the Spider. With the leadership of the criminal underworld of Ashland still in flux after the death of Mab Monroe, every contender for the top spot has their eye on taking out the Spider to prove their chops and Gin is getting tired of it. At least she has the support of her lover, Owen Grayson, to rely on. Except… Owen’s ex-flame, Salina Dubois, has moved back to town and not only does she have her sights set on picking up where she left off with Owen but she has even bigger plans that will shake not just the foundation of Ashland’s underworld, but everything Gin has come to hold dear.

My Thoughts:

I really like the Elemental Assassin series and this one is probably my second favorite in the continuum of Gin’s story. These books are solid entertainment. Those familiar with the series know there’s a pretty consistent premise: a powerful “big bad” who has Gin on the ropes in their first major encounter but who ultimately falls to her determination, the silverstone knives hidden up her sleeves, and the elemental power combo that always seems to surprise her with its strength. Throw in some type of relationship conflict between Gin and her love interest and there’s a pretty good mix of action and emotion.

The similes and descriptions are all standard fare and the world is drawn in broad strokes but the writing is solid, the elemental universe still feels fresh within the Urban Fantasy genre, and the simple fact of the matter is that what works so very well for me in this series is this: I just really like Gin. She’s a good combination of tough and vulnerable and is easy to sympathize with. She’s blunt, she swears, she’s a heck of a cook, and she’s had an interesting arc of emotional growth.

The repetitious elements as new readers are introduced to Gin and her world that have been niggling irritations for me in previous books were far less apparent in this one. The action scenes are well-written and as Gin struggled to balance what she thought was the right course of action with what Owen and his sister were asking of her, I empathized with her internal conflict. There was a lot of back-story to fill in the gaps in Owen’s past and Phillip Kincaid, leader of Ashland’s gambling operations, played a key role. I enjoyed his presence and the game of “is he a good guy or isn’t he?” The familiar characters from the series all made an appearance but I enjoyed the tighter focus on Gin, Owen, and Eva with a large dose of “Philly” and Salina. An enjoyable entry in the series.

The Narration:

Lauren Fortgang really has a handle on both the characters and the world that the author has built and her delivery has smoothed out since the first book. The voice she gives Salina nicely communicates “evil seductress” and raised the hair at the nape of my neck a time or two and the amused sarcasm in Gin’s voice each time she said “Philly” made me smile whenever she said it. Excellent dialogue, very distinct voices for each character, and just the right flair in performing these larger-than-life characters without pushing it into the realm of comic makes this a series I will follow in audio for some time to come.

three-half-stars

Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

Deadlocked by Charlaine HarrisDeadlocked by Charlaine Harris
Narrator: Johanna Parker
Series: Sookie Stackhouse #12
Published by Recorded Books on 5/1/12
Genres: Fantasy

Story: C+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

The title of this entry in the Sookie Stackhouse series sums up my feelings. Although I liked it better than the previous book, I get the feeling these books have become a bit deadlocked on moving forward. I keep waiting for an exciting plot, further world development, and/or a character arc explosion and Ms. Harris seems to just be waiting with the pacing. It was a pleasant listen and Johanna Parker’s voice now completely embodies these characters for me but it lacked the excitement and rapidly changing events that hooked me on this series originally.

The Plot:

Publisher’s Summary:

“With Felipe de Castro, the Vampire King of Louisiana (and Arkansas and Nevada), in town, it’s the worst possible time for a body to show up in Eric Northman’s front yard—especially the body of a woman whose blood he just drank.

Now, it’s up to Sookie and Bill, the official Area Five investigator, to solve the murder. Sookie thinks that, at least this time, the dead girl’s fate has nothing to do with her. But she is wrong. She has an enemy, one far more devious than she would ever suspect, who’s out to make Sookie’s world come crashing down.”

My Thoughts:

The story begins with a pretty interesting little mystery: who is behind the attempt to set up Eric for murder and are they also trying to break up Eric and Sookie and why? Although that question was answered, it felt like the book started off well, took a detour in the middle to follow Sookie around as she dealt with her friends and relatives and normal life, and then picked up again near the end as the mystery reached a resolution. Sookie’s love for Eric, while still steady, seems to be losing a bit of its shine as she is faced again and again with his practical decision making and the violence that surrounds him. Sookie herself is becoming hardened and throughout this book she just seems tired of all the things going on in her life. That made it hard for me to not feel tired of the slow progression of this story. Her job at Merlotte’s is back to its usual routine although she has a little more decision making power and responsibility because of her loan to Sam.

Sookie’s fairy relatives Claude and Dermot are still living with her and it’s on this front that the second piece of conflict in the story begins. With the closing of the portals to Faery, the otherworldly employees of Hooligans strip club are getting restless and when Claude abandons them to go back into Faery with Niall (fairy prince and Sookie’s great-grandfather) in an effort to investigate who cursed Dermot years ago, their unrest increases. Several are drawn to Sookie’s house and begin hunting in her woods while Dermot tries to manage the business and employees in Claude’s absence.

While that plot bubbles away on the back burner, the Queen of Louisiana pays Sookie a visit to size up the competition for Eric’s hand. A quick encounter and Sookie is back to her everyday routine. There’s some progress in the peripheral characters as babies are born and marriages are announced. I was expecting the visit from Felipe de Castro to turn into a critical event as Eric and Sookie dealt with the repercussions of killing his regent, Victor, but that never materialized and Felipe mostly seemed to fade away. If this all sounds a bit disjointed, it’s just symptomatic of a book that never seemed to really hit its stride with any of the plot threads until the very end, when it was too late to effectively capture my interest. I’ve gradually been losing my interest in this series and was almost ready to give up after the last book so I wasn’t crushed by the recent announcement that the final book will be released next year. I’ll be buying it but just to see how the whole story wraps up for these characters that I’ve followed along with for years.

The Narration:

Johanna Parker brings the expected performance to this installment of the series, which is to say – a very good one. She seems to effortlessly capture the voices and personalities of the large cast of characters and transitions with ease between the varied accents, cadences, inflections, and male/female pitch changes without ever leaving the listener behind or confused. The narration unfailingly provides a moment-by-moment sense of “the here and now” and it’s easy to sink into Sookie’s experiences because of that.

The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

The Shape of Desire by Sharon ShinnThe Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn
Narrator: Erin Moon
Series: Shifting Circle #1
Published by Audible Frontiers on 4/3/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: B-
Narration: B-

Quick Review:

This book unwinds at a leisurely pace and has a real-world feel to it, despite the inclusion of shape-shifters. A woman who has spent fifteen years desperately in love with a man who keeps the supernatural aspects of his life a secret from her (and the reader) and who is now able to spend less than a week with her each month might not be a character every reader will warm to but her gradual journey to a contented life, some thoughtful meditations on love and the secrets we protect, and a leavening of humor balanced out Maria’s pining and a mystery plot whose resolution left me thinking Uh, OK.

The Plot:

Maria Devane has spent fifteen years watching the love of her life, Dante Romano, leave her for longer and longer stretches of time each month. Dante is a shape-shifter and as he ages, he spends more time in various animal forms. Although she has friends at work and a loving family, Maria has resigned herself to a life where she hides her relationship with Dante and pours her passion into a handful of days each month. When a co-worker’s abusive relationship spills over into her life and a string of wild animal attacks occur nearby, Maria is forced to question her own relationship and ultimately both her safety and what she’s willing to sacrifice for love.

My Thoughts:

Shinn’s stories have a quiet build to them that I appreciate. In her previous novels that slow build has been buttressed by the vivid fantasy world-building. With this book the world is realistic and while Dante and his family are shape-shifters, that aspect is envisioned both as a personality characteristic (where how it manifests in each Romano varies between the siblings) and as a part of their lives that they hide. We don’t see them shift, there isn’t a pack dynamic or a complex history surrounding their abilities, and while it acts as a point of conflict because it keeps Dante away from Maria for long periods of time and affects his sense of self-worth, it doesn’t add the dynamic to the story that a reader might be looking for. This book is not really about romance but rather is a book about love – what we’ll sacrifice for it and what the difference is between how we perceive it and how those outside the relationship view it – and the secrets we hide from those close to us.

As we learn more about Maria’s co-worker Kathleen and her abusive relationship, I enjoyed teasing out the parallels between her life and the choices Maria makes to maintain her relationship with Dante. When I talk about the man who expresses interest in a woman after she shows a willingness to keep secrets and hide a violent event from the police, who engages in behavior that can be emotionally and possibly physically harmful to his girlfriend, and who seems to exercise all the control in the relationship, I could just as easily be talking about Dante as Kathleen’s husband. When Maria reassures Dante that she will never leave him and voices the line “‘I love you,’ I say. ‘That changes the shape of everything else.’” it almost echoes Kathleen’s protestations of love for Ritchie.

Details are parceled out (a little late in the book for my tastes) about how Maria and Dante met and how Maria has explored the boundaries of her decision to stay with him. The climactic moment seemed somewhat awkwardly constructed but I was satisfied with the dénouement. I enjoyed this book because I like character-driven stories and the author has constructed Maria as a realistic and generally likable (if somewhat needy) woman but it is my least favorite of Shinn’s books to date. I know several ‘Maria’s: the quiet, hard-working, fun-to-be-around-when-among friends woman who, like we all do, has made compromises in search of happiness or in the name of love. That sense of her as a real person is something that is often absent in genre fiction and if you are looking for supernatural thrills combined with romance you might be disappointed.

The Narration:

This is my first listen to one of Erin Moon’s performances and despite a few issues I encountered, the narration was enjoyable. This first person presentation contains a frequently employed rise and then fall in pitch and/or trailing off at the termination of many of the narrative statements that set up a rhythm to the narrative that I found somewhat distracting. Dialogue, however, did not suffer from the same problem. It was crisp and reactive and the characters were fully-voiced and easy to individually pick out of the conversational crowd. I was irritated with some proofing misses such as “cumulates” instead of “culminates” (3:53:43), “Babler Stake Park” (9:56:50),“dulsitory” in place of “desultory”, gaping pronounced as gapping (8:06:45), “limned”pronounced limed (long i), and several others. Although some of the text directive didn’t come through in the tone of the narration, I was immediately drawn in by the subtle desolation given to Maria’s voice when Dante leaves and the vulnerability and confusion in Kathleen’s voice as she struggles with her decision to stay in an abusive marriage as well as the down-to-earth and snappy delivery given to Maria’s co-worker, Ellen. There were very natural character asides that were easily distinguishable as internal comments and not dialogue and the tone struck during Maria’s dryly delivered commentary was pitch perfect.

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja FoglioAgatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Girl Genius #2
Published by Brilliance Audio on 4/1/12
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk

Story: B-
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

A fun audio although a surprisingly slow build-up to the climax and an overly large cast of characters sharing page time with Agatha made this book, while still entertaining and worth the listen, a bit of a letdown in comparison to the first audiobook in this series. The narration continues to shine, conveying the colorful and inventive world and strong, often amusing, characterizations with assurance and energy without sliding into caricature.

The Plot:

Book two of the continuing saga of the “Girl Genius” and her steampunk-flavored alternate history finds Agatha on the run for her life. After escaping from the floating citadel of Castle Wulfenbach and its Baron, Agatha Clay (now revealed as the missing Heterodyne heir and daughter of Lucrezia Monfish and Bill Heterodyne) and her companion Krosp, the talking cat, set out on a journey to return to her home in Mechanicsburg. When their stolen dirigible crashes in the Wasteland, they happen upon Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure and after saving the circus from a rampaging mechanical construct, Agatha and Krosp are invited to travel with them as they wind their way towards Mechanicsburg.

Baron Wulfenbach is determined to capture the last of the Heterodynes and he dispatches his son Gilgamesh and the psychotic airship captain Bangladesh DuPree to find her and bring her back. Agatha, with the help of the circus folk, evades capture and soon begins immersing herself in the life of a performer. The circus troupe puts Agatha to work repairing the caravans, an old calliope, and various mechanical devices and she also makes friends with a sword-mistress named Zeetha, who takes Agatha on as a student and is soon running her ragged with training. The fires of a budding romance with the actor Lars are fanned as she takes the stage playing Lucrezia Mongfish opposite his Bill Heterodyne but as they travel on towards Sturmhalten Keep, a danger from Agatha’s past looms before her.

My Thoughts:

This was a good audiobook with a lengthy but cohesive story and it progressed the overall arc of the series significantly. As the novelization of a web-comic series, I was surprised that book one didn’t reflect the episodic nature of that medium. With book two, some of that underpinning becomes apparent. It wasn’t so much that the audiobook was long (many of my favorites are) or that the story was disjointed but rather that the action bounced between the Baron, Gil, and DuPree; Agatha and a detailed group of circus performers; the shady goings-on of Tarvek Sturmvoraus and his sister Anevka at at Sturmhalten Keep; and smaller snippets of time spent with Jägermonsters and the newly introduced Geisterdamen. All of it was interesting but spread the story out too thinly to offer much drama prior to the conclusion of the book. It also had the effect of delaying some significant developments in Agatha’s character until the end, leaving her a very static player for much of the listen.

Although that’s a lot of complaining, I did enjoy this book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a follow-up to Agatha H and The Airship City. The cast of characters is amusing and diverse, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is shown in a new perspective, the circus people are well-constructed supporting characters who demand their own stage time, there are several new people introduced who both complicate Agatha’s life and will likely be significant in future installments, and while not as consistently engaging as book one, it’s still a lot of fun.

The Narration:

The narration by Angela Dawe was excellent and while I generally suggest going audio over text, with this one it’s a particularly strong recommendation. There is a wide cast of characters who are not only easily distinguished by pitch and tone but also by a bewildering variety of accents that Ms. Dawe seems to keep up with effortlessly. The pacing is good although an extra (and distracting) beat of silence occasionally sneaks in but the energy level is high and the dynamic delivery will suck you in to the story. The voices of the Jägermonsters and Bangladesh DuPree are reason enough to seek out the audio version but it’s a strong performance in total.