My Haunted Library

All things spooky. Your source for paranormal and supernatural book and movie reviews, strangeography, Halloween crafts and a little cozy fall baking.


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Review: Half-Off Ragnarok

Half-Off Ragnarok – Seanan McGuire, 2014. Rating:  4/5

Geeky Alexander Price is a herpetologist at the West Columbus Zoo. It’s the perfect cover for his work with cryptids like basilisks, cockatrices, gorgons, wadjets, and lindworms. But when zoo employees start turning to stone, Alex needs to find the culprit fast before his secret life, his famous cryptozoologist family, and his beloved cryptids are exposed.

Alex lives with his grandmother, a cuckoo (telepathic humanoid hunter), his grandfather, a revenant (made of reanimated body parts), and his psychically damaged cuckoo cousin, Sarah. Unlike his ballroom dancer and parkour pro sister, Verity, whose focus is on protecting urban cryptids, Alex specializes in the reptilian variety, like small feathered frogs called frickens.

Alex finds an unexpected ally in Shelby, his beautiful Australian coworker/girlfriend. Turns out Shelby is part of the Thirty-Six Society, protecting Australia’s cryptids from the evil, single-minded Covenant. Together they discover that whoever is petrifying zookeepers has a grudge against the Price family.

Half-Off Ragnarok is flat-out fun. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical: I enjoyed the first two books in the series, which are narrated from Verity’s point of view, and I wasn’t super-sold on a reptilian and amphibian focus, but I was hooked after the first couple of pages. McGuire brings the same engaging mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and monster action to Half-Off Ragnarok that she does to the rest of the series.

There is also a sweetness to these stories. They highlight the “humanity” of different creatures and our ability to live alongside them. The concept of family takes on a welcomingly broad definition. In this world, cobra-wadjet families coexist with cuckoos and revenants and humans and a thriving gorgon colony. Don’t worry: the Aeslin mice make an appearance too, since Alex has a subcolony! If this is your first InCryptid book, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve read the first two and are worried about missing Verity, don’t be: Half-Off Ragnarok is a rewarding read.

rating system four crows


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Review: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches —Deborah Harkness, 2011. Rating 4/5

Repressed witch and historian, Dr. Diana Bishop, recalls a lost manuscript from the Bodleian Library, falls in love with a vampire, and sets off a war between supernatural species in A Discovery of Witches.

Diana has rejected her witchy family heritage. She fears her own magical powers after her parents—both powerful witches—were killed for their abilities. She’s making her way through the scholarly world like a lowly human: on her own merits. She is a tenured Yale professor and respected author specializing ancient chemistry, or alchemy. Diana is the first person to find Ashmole 782, the bespelled manuscript, in over a century. Diana is suddenly approached by evil witches (who inform Diana they killed her parents); spacey, creative daemons; and Matthew Clairmont, a devastatingly handsome vampire. Matthew is a geneticist, scholar, wine connoisseur, and yoga maven. All of these creatures want Ashmole 782, or at least want Diana, who seems to be the key to the book.

Matthew and Diana fall in love immediately, share dinners, lots of wine, and yoga classes, and when threats of violence ramp up against Diana, Matthew takes her to his exquisite ancestral château in France. There she rides horses, channels the goddess Diana, and navigates chilly conversations with Matthew’s elegant mother, Ysabeau. Diana has the most magical potential Matthew has ever encountered. She still refuses to use her magic, but it begins to bubble out anyway. Diana pays for her helplessness when she’s kidnapped by bad witches and vampires. Matthew insists they visit Diana’s feisty Aunt Sarah in New York, so she can teach Diana how to use her powers. Along the way, Diana and Matthew learn that Ashmole 782 potentially explains the origins and evolutionary future of witches, vampires, and daemons.

O.k. A Discovery of Witches rocketed to fame and inspired a British TV series and countless fan sites. I am not in the rabid fan category. I read the book when it was first released, liked it well enough, and had occasion to read it again recently for a project. I like it less, now. Here are my thoughts. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I liked the fantasy world-view Harkness creates: the uniqueness of the three different magical species, at odds with each other and governed by an outdated covenant. I enjoyed the wine, food, and travel, and I appreciate a tall, dark, handsome vampire as much as the next person. I loved the detailed descriptions of Oxford and Sept-Tours. I relished the literary and historical allusions. Who knew that Ashmole 782 is real manuscript from the collection of Elias Ashmole that truly is missing from the Bodleian? I appreciated the occasional wry bits of humor.

I was deeply frustrated with Diana’s character and what I view as her hypocrisy. Matthew straight-up tells Diana that vampires are protective and possessive. Diana knows this. Yet she spends the bulk of the (very, very long) book complaining about his controlling, protective behavior. She declares she can take care of herself, thank you very much—but she clearly cannot and needs Matthew to protect her…over and over. Plus, Diana likes being protected and cosseted and tucked into bed and deposited in the bath. She keeps touting her independence yet does everything Matthew tells her to and accepts the fact that now that they’re married (with a kiss) she will just have to follow his alpha dog orders. Diana has only known the guy for 40 days, and she has essentially tossed away the career she spent her life building. Hmmpf. So, those are some big issues. That, and the large fact that nothing much actually happens in book. Oh, and that you’re left with an ending like The Empire Strikes Back (but without the dramatic, breath-catching cliffhanger aspect). Here you’re left more with a feeling of grumpy irresolution, and the sense that you’ve been suckered into reading the second book.

It worked. I was irritated enough by the ending of A Discovery of Witches to read the second in the series, Shadow of Night.

A pause while I consider how to continue honestly but tactfully.

Keeping in mind that I love fantasy, supernatural, and historical fiction, book two was still a slog. It is also nearly 600 pages in which very little happens—again—and it frustrated me enough that while I have the final series title, The Book of Life, I haven’t read it. Someday, maybe. I’ll reign myself in here: In short, A Discovery of Witches is a generally enjoyable read that almost falls into the cozy-category. Ignore the heroine’s self-esteem issues, if possible, and you’ll be entertained with some interesting history, an engaging concept, and a pleasant light romance.

rating system four crows


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Review: Shadowed Souls

Shadowed Souls – edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes.  Rating: 4/5

Eleven hard-hitting stories from superstar fantasy authors evoke a surprisingly emotional response in this distinctive collection.

Now, emotional doesn’t mean these stories are wimpy. There’s plenty of magical action. Battles rage against demons, genies, angry ghosts, arctic Cthulhu creatures, and monsters human and inhuman. Two-thirds of the tales feature female protagonists, and all our heroines and heroes are struggling with their magical gift-slash-curse. They have relationships challenges. Social challenges. Challenges with rule-following. You get the picture.

Jim Butcher opens the collection strong with a story from his Dresden Files universe. As a huge Harry Dresden fan, I was excited to read this one. Cold Case features Molly, Harry’s apprentice, on her first mission for Mab as the Winter Lady. As always, Butcher’s humor and ease with his characters and their magic simply shine. The story? On the heartbreaking side.

Seanan McGuire (of the October Daye and InCryptid series fame) follows with the tale of a half-succubus betrayed by her ex-girlfriend. Sad.

Next comes a vampire PI who worries about her aging human lover and her own waning connection to humanity. Poignant.

Clearly, Shadowed Souls is the perfect title. I was beginning to think I’d need a box of Kleenex and a support group to get through the rest of the book. Fortunately, the heavy mood lightens. Or maybe I just got used to it. The rest of the stories are also top caliber. One tough thief orchestrates an escape from hell; a zombie PI assists a one-eyed newt; a double-souled healer deals with her father’s treachery; a former superheroine fights a greedy demon…the imaginative range is delicious. There are no bad apples in the bunch to disappoint. Each story resonates with its own unique voice and fantastical vision. Well worthwhile.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street—Natasha Pulley, 2015. Rating: 5/5

Historical fiction gets a warm, probably lemon-colored, wash of fantasy in this unforgettably heartwarming Victorian thriller. Yes, that’s an oxymoron, and yes, it applies perfectly.

It is 1883 and Home Office telegraph operator, Nathaniel, is eking out a sterile existence. He’s sacrificed his musical talent and his ability to see sounds as colors in order to support his widowed sister. When an expensive, mysterious watch appears in his room and saves his life during a bombing of Scotland Yard, Thaniel tracks down the watchmaker, Keita Mori. Mori owns a small shop filled with his exquisite clockwork creations that seem to be imbued with a touch of…magic. And Mori has another special talent: he can see possible futures.

Overwhelmed by Mori’s kindness and quirkiness, Thaniel takes the room Mori has available to let. But Thaniel goes from renter to reluctant spy when authorities suspect Mori’s clockwork is tied to the bombs in recent terrorist attacks. Grace, a practical young scientist, also suspects that Mori is a danger to Thaniel’s self-determination and sets out to stop the watchmaker.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is ethereal commingling of suspense and love story. If it were a song, I think it would be in the key of D Major. Pulley’s characters are beautifully drawn: every tiny detail contributes to their depth and plausibility. I want to have a cup of tea with Thaniel and Mori and Katsu, they are that real.

Adding a vibrant layer to the story is the rich history of Londoners’ fascination with all things Japanese. Pulley’s portrayal of the Japan Native Village and the debut of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is fascinating: both deepening our understanding of Mori and offering a unique contrast to English cultural norms.

I had to catch myself as I was reading. I was horribly conflicted because the suspense is hideously stressful, and my desire to scan a couple of pages at the end (just to make sure everything and everyone turns out o.k.) fought hard with my desire to savor every word and whimsical image. (I withstood temptation.) As soon as I set the book down, I wanted to read it again. And I wanted another one.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is suffused with an affecting, quiet joy. A deeply satisfying track- down-the-bomber-historical-thriller that’s also about following your heart.

rating system five crows


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Review: The Brightest Fell

The Brightest Fell, Seanan McGuire, 2017. Rating: 3.5/5

In this installment of McGuire’s brilliant urban fantasy series, October Daye–changeling, blood-magic worker, knight, and official hero of Faerie—finds herself forced on a quest to find her half-sister. At stake? The sanity—and lives—of those she loves.

Amandine, Toby’s powerful (and sociopathic) mother, orders Toby to locate August, who has been missing for a century or so. As collateral, Amandine kidnaps Toby’s fiance, the King of Cats, and her friend Jazz, imprisoning them in their animal forms until Toby completes her near-impossible task.

The only one who can help with Toby’s search? August’s father, Simon, who happens to be Toby’s arch enemy. Along with her squire, Quentin, Toby and Simon travel deep into Faerie to find and bring Autumn home and restore what Toby holds dear.

The Brightest Fell explores Toby’s life-long issues with her mother and enables us to see the evil Simon in a different, poignant light. The latter is arguably the best part of the book.

We return to locations that Toby visited in previous adventures. Discover haunting loose ends of other quests. Confront dark, old memories. While it is neat to revisit past story lines, here it feels a little repetitive mostly because the quest itself doesn’t seem particularly challenging. The powerful sea witch, the Luidaeg, is the one who ends up solving most of the problems.

I’m conflicted with The Brightest Fell.

McGuire’s world-building is so imaginatively detailed that picking up any book in the series is like taking a vacation to an exotic locale with characters who are old, familiar friends. It’s that good. I’ve been an avid fan of the series from the first book, Rosemary and Rue. And I flew enjoyably through this title in a couple days. The writing is great. The suspense is there. When I finished, however, I was left feeling…sad. Like nothing—plot, characters—had progressed or developed. Like I came full circle back to the start of the book with everyone, me and the characters, left a little jaded. It’s still a good read. It’s still great to be able to slide comfortably into a fantasy world that seems just next door to ours. I just wanted a little more.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Twelfth Enchantment

The Twelfth Enchantment – David Liss, 2011.

Spells and magic contest with political intrigue in this oddly satisfying historical novel.

Living in the friendless home of a family connection and nearly penniless, about to be married to an odious man she doesn’t love, Lucy Derrick views her future with despair.

Until she unexpectedly frees the great romantic poet, Lord Byron, from a strange curse.

This startling act of magic catapults Lucy into the forefront of a battle for the very future of England as the conflict between the Luddites – angry laborers and textile workers – and proponents of mechanization builds to a crescendo.

Now Lucy must unravel secrets from her own past while racing to reassemble the pages of the most powerful book in the world: the Mutus Liber, a true book of alchemy.

The Twelfth Enchantment is an uncommon mélange of historical fiction, fantasy, lively action, and light romance. In other words, it’s pretty great. The premise is wild, but Liss flawlessly melds magic with, of all things, the Industrial Revolution.

Changelings, cunning women, and revenants comingle with actual historical figures that Liss meticulously brings to life in his pages: among them, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, William Blake, and of course Lord Byron. Intelligent and brave, Lucy herself is an intriguing original character. Frustrated with, but bound by societal constraints, Lucy gradually empowers herself, and we cheer her on.

Maybe all these disparate elements shouldn’t work together. But they do. The Twelfth Enchantment is a singularly memorable – and enjoyable – read.

rating system four crows