Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

Fair Game by Patricia BriggsFair Game by Patricia Briggs
Narrator: Holter Graham
Series: Alpha & Omega #3
Published by Penguin Audio on 3/6/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Go. Now. Listen or Read. Start at the beginning of the series if you haven’t already. Let me just cut to the chase: I love this series, that’s all there is to it.

The Plot:

Charles Cornick has been his father’s enforcer for longer than he can remember. When you’re a werewolf, that can add up to a lot of years. With the werewolf community officially ‘outed’ to the world at large it has become critical to keep the North American packs under tight reign and being the instrument of that control is beginning to wear on Charles. Anna knows that her husband is in trouble but she can’t make his father listen to her. When the FBI approaches the werewolves requesting their help investigating a series of murders in Boston where some of the victims were werewolves, Charles’ father Bran decides to send Anna. Where Anna goes, Charles goes and this may be an opportunity for him to restore a little balance in his life and catch the bad guy instead of being the bad guy.

Just after they arrive in Boston, the daughter of a powerful fae becomes the newest victim of the serial killer and it’s a race against time to find her before she’s killed. Competing government agencies, some of which are more interested in learning more about the werewolves via Charles and Anna than in catching the killer, all have players in the game. The victim’s father, Charles, Anna, an FBI duo, and the head of the local pack will have to battle black witchcraft, fae magic, and the worst impulses of humanity before their time in Boston is over. The book culminates in an event that will have consequences that should reverberate throughout the next book in this series as well as the next in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series.

My Thoughts:

The hunt for the serial killer is a strong storyline with external conflict that drives much of the book but just as engaging (or more so for me) are the dynamics between Charles and Anna as well as the construction of the pack dynamics. Anna and Charles are such a great couple and the combination of romance, humor, tension and action that surrounds them makes for a great story. I enjoy how they defy the expected pairing of an Alpha male and either a helpless female or a bad-ass chick who needs a compatriot in ass-kicking. Both characters have their unique vulnerabilities and areas of conflict but it’s as a couple that they find peace in their lives. Anna has come a long way since her unwilling transition to werewolf in an abusive and dysfunctional pack and it’s…well…charming to watch her interact with the FBI and assorted government people in a confident manner. Charles is battling the emotional toll of his enforcement work and it endangers the peace he has found with Anna. Anna wants nothing more than to save Charles as he once did her but there’s a struggle between her desire to do so and Charles’ need to protect her from his ghosts.

Added to the mix is Charles’ “brother wolf” who takes the stage a lot during this book as Charles’ human half steps aside to deal with the emotional pressure of his ghosts. Briggs’ writing is tight and the prose is concise but the construction of the world, the pack, and the personalities that populate both is rich and real to the listener. The werewolves are a fascinating combination of human and animal and the contrast between the romantic story line and relationship challenges Anna and Charles undergo with the capability for violence both posses and the cool practicality of “brother wolf” makes for complex characters I can’t see myself tiring of any time soon.

The Narration:

Holter Graham turns in an excellent performance with this audiobook. He gives the author’s words the commitment they deserve and despite his very deliberate delivery of the narrative, he holds the listener in the moment as the story unfolds. Dialogue is natural and reactive and the characters are clearly differentiated and consistently maintained throughout the audiobook. My one complaint is around production as there were a larger than normal number of what I assume were proofing retakes because the voice tone in those snippets didn’t mesh with the surrounding sections, pulling me momentarily out of the story. I do have to say, Mr. Graham tops my list of male narrators who deliver convincing female voices without any type of drag queen sound. I really enjoyed the narration.

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja FoglioAgatha H and the Airship City by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Girl Genius #1
Published by Brilliance Audio on 1/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk

Story: B+
Narration: A

Sometimes I like a book because the writing is evocative or a character resonates with me. Sometimes the descriptions are so eloquent I can’t help but be in awe of the writer’s skill. Sometimes there’s a breakneck current of action that sweeps me past any less-than-stellar-writing rocks. Sometimes, I come across a book that is just plain downright fun. Agatha H and the Airship City is that kind of audiobook. It is chock full of mildly amusing lines that are delivered with more than mildly amusing vocal attributes and inflections as part of a very accomplished narration and it all takes place in a fantastic world that invites the listener to sit back and watch events go by.

In an alternate-history world where some people have the Spark (think mad geniuses) and can create amazing mechanical constructs, Agatha Clay is a less-than-accomplished student at Transylvania Polygnostic University. The worst day of her life begins when she loses her locket (a gift from her long-absent uncle) in a mugging. When Baron Klaus Wulfenbach arrives at the university with his heir Gilgamesh, Agatha’s boss ends up dead and she is banned from TPU. The Baron takes over the city of Mechanicsburg and Agatha soon finds herself removed from her home, taken from the constructs who have acted as her parents for the past sixteen years, and ensconced at Castle Wulfenbach, the Baron’s airship stronghold. There she falls in with a group of youth who are being held as hostages to ensure the good behavior of their parents or other family members, all of whom are using their Spark in the employ of the Baron. It soon becomes clear that there is more to Agatha than meets the eye and the core adventure of the story begins.

When I picked up this audiobook several months ago, I was aware that it was based on a comic book/webcomic series named Girl Genius but other than that and the book description, that’s all I knew about it. I mention that because I can’t speak to how the book varies from the comic and can only offer the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the whole series. The story portion has a lot to recommend it. There’s a plucky heroine with a nice blend of smarts, some insecurity over her inability to create things, otherwise decent self-confidence, and an admirable practicality; a large cast of interesting and varied characters whose motivations never boil down to a simple case of good or evil intent; plus nifty world-building with a nice “gaslight fantasy” vibe and a dash of romance. The pacing is excellent and although I was initially a bit lost as to how the pieces of the world fit together, everything soon lined up nicely in my head. The ending wasn’t a cliff-hanger but there were a ton of loose plot threads that were left flapping in the wind. I can console myself with the fact that I can always turn to the webcomic but I’m really hoping for another audiobook.

I would have enjoyed this as a dead-tree book but as a listen? Angela Dawe knocked it out of the park with this one. Although this was written as a long-form story, I think the vibrancy of the narration took the place of the illustrations that a comic/graphic version would have included and added that extra something to the story. Differentiation between characters (and there were a lot of them) was the most varied I have heard in a single-narrator audio: from Othar Tryggvassen (Gentleman Adventurer) and his bigger than life egotistical super-hero-like voice, to the Jägermonsters with their Germanic accents who always talk like they are delivering bad pick-up lines, to Krosp, the cat construct who speaks like, well, like you’d imagine a cat would if he could talk – smug and with a hint of a meow to many words. The voices of the younger kids in the story, often a problematic narration point for me, were excellent. There was a cornucopia of accents (American, English, East Indian, German, French, Irish) and I enjoyed every one. The humorous lines had just the right snap to them and the delivery of the narrative was nicely paced.

Quite frankly, this book could have been a thousand times longer and I would have been content to listen to the continuing story for the next year.

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora PierceMastiff by Tamora Pierce
Narrator: Susan Denaker
Series: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3
Published by Listening Library on 10/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: B+
Narration: A

In the final installment of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, Beka (a member of the Provost’s Guard who are colloquially and collectively known as Dogs) is summoned from her bed in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom and sent on a secret mission. She finds herself crossing the kingdom with her partner Tunstall, the scent hound Achoo, the lady knight Sabine, the Provost’s mage Master Farmer, and of course the cat (who is really a constellation) Pounce. The four year-old Tortallan prince has been kidnapped and as Beka and her group follow the trail of a slaver’s caravan, they discover enemies who will stop at nothing in their attempt to take control of the throne. There are physical travails along the path in addition to the concerted attempts by the mages involved in the kidnapping to bring magical weapons to bear on the team.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a young adult sensibility but this series of books has a lot of the aspects I like to see in novels intended for that demographic. A strong (and in this case female) protagonist who has a discernible arc of character growth, friendships that run the gamut from supportive to combative, a splash of romance with no fated insta-love, an exciting storyline that doesn’t stint on recognizing bad things happen but doesn’t spend too much time describing every gory detail, a core world where gender equality is shown as a given (and so has even more contrast when we encounter a splinter group with the opposite opinion) and lots of adventure to keep a reader interested. Tamora Pierce has created an engaging world with a protagonist whose daily job has the feel of a medieval police station but with magic involved. There are well-developed characters who even speak with their own cant, although it’s easily understandable in context (the downside of which might be, say, your thirteen year-old wandering around the house calling the dog a “craven canker-licking sarden arseworm.”)

As an adult reader of books that fall in the Young Adult category, I found this to be a fun story. All three audiobooks in this series have been great listens and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch Beka’s character mature from a painfully shy and earnest “puppy” in the Provost’s Guard who learned the ropes with the help of two great partners, to a “bloodhound” who was given a chance to work an investigation into counterfeit money, and now to a mature young woman who lives by a code of honor that sometimes requires she make difficult choices. I was initially thrown off at the start of the story because there is a two or three year gap in story-time since the end of book two but I quickly settled in and was swept into the fast-paced investigation. In addition to the great characters, there is tremendous texture to the world Pierce has created (the downside of which might be, say, when I find myself forgetting that calling someone a “cracknob looby” only has meaning if you’ve read the book.)

To add the icing on top of this literary cake, Susan Denaker’s narration is perfect. She utterly embodies the various people in the story, becoming transparent to the listener and allowing them to simply engage with the characters. Her use of varied regional dialects and accents (many with a Nordic sound) combined with the vocal characteristics she uses to differentiate class helps create that immersive experience for the listener. Excellent pacing, the appropriate emotional delivery choice for every scene, and just lovely character voices make this a book I consider enhanced significantly by listening rather than reading.

Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook

Heart of Steel by Meljean BrookHeart of Steel by Meljean Brook
Narrator: Faye Adele
Series: Iron Seas #2
Published by Penguin Audio on 11/1/11
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Steampunk

Book: B+
Narration: B

I’ve spent entirely too long trying to write a review of this book and I’m finding it oddly difficult so I’m going to try a more general / flow of consciousness / conversational review style. The best I can give you in terms of a standard review (if there is such a thing) is to tell you that this is a fun audiobook set in an incredibly detailed and fascinating world and I liked it. It’s the story of Yasmeen and Archimedes and how he pursues her while trying not to give her a reason to kill him before he can convince her to fall in love with him. Along with the romantic pursuit there are zombies, treasure, rebellion, airships, assassination attempts, bar fights, fabulous mechanical constructs, and a lot of flirting. The narration was good with lots of accent work and characters were clearly differentiated from each other.

Intellectually, I’d like to take this book home and make babies with it. Emotionally, I wasn’t really able to connect with it. Usually I can identify why but I’m at a loss with this one and that connection is a part of what I take into consideration when rating a book. Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, just that I finished it with the feeling that something was missing from my listening experience. I’ve read all of Meljean Brook’s novels and while I can’t claim any one of them is in my list of favorite books, I can say that she writes my favorite female protagonists. I rarely find an author who can create such unique characters who differ so much (with the exception of each heroine having or finding an inner strength) book-to-book and have realistic reactions and emotions. Yasmeen is no exception. In point of fact, there’s a bit of a role reversal in this book. Archimedes is a confident, smart, adrenaline-seeking treasure hunter so he’s clearly a good candidate for a Steampunk Romance hero. He’s got more than a bit of an Indiana Jones aspect to him and when we last saw him (in book one of the Iron Seas series, The Iron Duke) he was thrown overboard from Yasmeen’s airship Lady Corsair and tossed into a canal in zombie infested Venice because he tried to commandeer her vessel at gunpoint. Yasmeen, though, is one tough-as-nails heroine. She’s extremely practical and is more than willing to do whatever it takes to maintain control of her airship crew, from hanging people overboard naked if they pose a threat to that control to killing them outright. She drinks, smokes, brawls, and is faster and stronger than Archimedes. This poses a bit of a problem for him because although the adrenaline rush he gets from the danger she presents to him is addictive, he also has to figure out how to prove to her that he doesn’t want to take over, he just wants a chance to let his fascination with her turn into love (so he can see what that emotion feels like) and watch her back while he’s at it. Yasmeen is perfectly content to let him break his heart against hers. In essence, we’ve got a beta hero and an alpha heroine but I almost hate to use those categorizations because it doesn’t necessarily reflect the complexity of the characters.

So, obviously Archimedes survived being tossed overboard but the Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a flying machine that he discovered took off with Yasmeen and Lady Corsair. That sketch was intended to allow him to pay off a costly debt so he tracks down Yasmeen, drugs her, and retrieves the sketch but soon after he leaves her airship with it, disaster strikes and Yasmeen is left without a ship to captain while Archimedes has the sketch stolen. The two of them join forces to get the sketch back and when a rebel from Archimedes’ past offers an opportunity for them to gain access to the city where the sketch has been taken, they agree to help with a treasure hunt intended to fund the rebellion.

One of the things I really love about this book is that these are adult characters who act like it. They are very self-aware and interact with each other in a realistic manner, acknowledging how their past has shaped them, not agonizing over it, and compensating for that as they learn how to work together. Archimedes likes Yasmeen just the way she is and Yasmeen is perfectly fine with being a strong woman with a blood-thirsty streak. Watching Archimedes lay siege to Yasmeen’s distrust by a slow campaign of openly admitting his intentions while refusing to consummate their attraction was very enjoyable. The internal angst is all about Yasmeen deciding whether a man even exists who won’t make her appear weak in front of an airship crew, let alone whether Archimedes is that man. There is plenty of external conflict between our protagonists and zombies, between Yasmeen and the captain of the Ceres (the airship they are taking on the treasure hunt), and as Yasmeen and Archimedes follow the trail of those responsible for their troubles. The world building in this book (and definitely combined with that in The Iron Duke) is nothing short of phenomenal. There’s a nice leavening of humor as well and between that, the romance, and the action, this book pretty much has it all.

Faye Adele delivered a strong performance in this audiobook. If you’ve ever listened to a book narrated by Emily Shaffer/Suzanna Duff and enjoyed the performance then I think Faye Adele’s narration will be right up your alley as they have a very similar sound in both tone and male character voice style. It took me about an hour and a half to become accustomed to the brief pauses in some sentences but I stopped noticing them and settled in to the story. I did find it odd, however possible in real-life it is, to have a male protagonist with a higher-pitched voice than the female. I loved Yasmeen’s voice but I kept hearing more Russian than Turkish in her accent (she was raised in Constantinople, albeit an alternate history version of it) but since I had to dig up some Turkish accent samples on the Internet to even justify making that comment, my ear may just need tuning. Ms. Adele’s other accents seemed perfect to me and I was impressed by her ability to smoothly navigate the multitude of them. Her delivery of much the narrative portion was done in almost a confidential tone, as if she was in the chair next to you and leaned over to make a quiet comment, which wasn’t ideal for me but still kept my interest. Overall she is a narrator I would listen to again.

A good story and narration make this a worthwhile listen.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini TaylorDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
Published by Hachette Audio on 9/27/11
Genres: Fantasy

Book: A-
Narration: B+

Meet Karou: a seventeen year-old art student in Prague, she spends her days easing her way through life with the small wishes she carries like beads on a string and entertaining her classmates with her sketches of inhuman figures.  Those sketches, however, are portraits of her family. She earns her wishes from a creature who has been the only father she remembers – the horned Chimaera named Brimstone who runs a shop where he trades in teeth (both human and animal) and wishes. The errands Karou runs on behalf of Brimstone take her through magic doors to the farthest reaches of the world, where she bargains for merchandise for the shop. It is on one of these errands that Karou is spotted by the angelic Akiva and he attempts to kill her as part of an ongoing battle between the Seraphim and the Chimaera. Wounded, Karou returns to the shop but is soon cut off from her family when the magic doors close for good. So begins Karou’s journey of discovery – of who she is, where she comes from, and how she can get back to her family.

After finishing this audiobook I felt a bit like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I picked up what I thought would be a “candy bar” of a book and ended up with a golden ticket to an amazing world and a lot more than what I was expecting. If I had to pick one word to describe this book it would be “refreshing”: in setting, use of language, and in world-building – to name just a few aspects that captured my imagination.

There’s a terrific over-arching mythology that develops describing the conflicts of two worlds, two species at war, two star-crossed lovers… but it is all made not just relatable but completely engaging by the sheer humanity of the characters. The interactions between Karou and the beastly, horned, teeth-buying creature that she thinks of as her father are resonant with the emotions any teen/parent interaction would have. Along with what seems to be a magical fated love affair, there is (in contrast to most YA paranormal/fantasy) a vignette where, far from aggrandizing the loss of virginity, the potential awkwardness of that moment and its after-effects is deftly captured with subtle strokes. (Also, if I had daughters they totally would have been given the speech about “inessential” things. I imagine it was amusing in text form but in audio it was a priceless scene.)

There is a surprising depth to the conflict between the Chimaera and the Seraphim, not because the cause of the war is complex or unique but because rarely have I seen an author take the time to move beyond a simple good vs. evil paradigm and really map out the way in which each side has constructed their own mythos about how the war started and who is the cause in addition to how the ripple effects of that war and prejudice impact the characters.

Before you get the wrong impression, let me assure you that the story is not all war, creatures, and conflict. There are some truly amusing sections of dialogue, particularly between Karou and her friend Zuzana. I was also enchanted by the mental picture the author’s words built of the city of Prague, which became a character in its own right. Even if I had been inclined to take issue with some particular plot point (which I‘m not) the writing was amazing. There were such lovely moments of description in this book and they were made richer by the fact that in addition to highlighting and adding depth to the characters and storyline, as good writing often does they also served as small moments of illumination into the character of the reader and their world.

I’ve encountered Khristine Hvam’s narration skills before (most notably with Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series) so I wasn’t too worried about her ability to provide good character differentiation and story delivery but there were several facets of her performance that worked particularly well for me in this book. I found the flow of dialogue to have a very natural feel and Zuzana’s amusing banter was delightful in both content and delivery, providing outright laugh out loud moments. Hvam also does an amazing job at voicing a single character in both youth and maturity with a pitch-perfect (in both the figurative and literal sense) tone.

In summary (in case I was in any way vague) I loved this audiobook.