I trust everyone had a great holiday season, rife with plenty of new reads (including my work, perhaps?). I now bring you all my latest crop of book reviews, including a pair of magnificent fantasy books and a new entry into a long-running series that’s not as strong as the others.
Dangerous Ways: The Books of Winter by R.R. Virdi
Why do we read?
Do we do it for simple entertainment? Do we do it to escape the stress of our lives? Do we do it to learn something about ourselves, about the world in which we live? Or perhaps we do it for all of the above reasons.
Whatever the reason, when we are transfixed by a phenomenal tale, one so well crafted that it grabs us and transports us to an entirely different world, it’s a magical thing. Dangerous Ways, the first book in R.R. Virdi’s The Books of Winter series, is one such experience — as vibrant and evocative and intense as the myriad of gateways leading to other worlds.
This book takes place in the same universe as Virdi’s Grave Report series, and there are satisfying callbacks, but this tome is a being all its own. Its a massive one — not quite troll massive, but close — and yet Virdi’s quick-witted first-person style is so free-flowing that you’ll push your way through hundreds of pages without truly realizing it.
Where the Grave novels are gritty, street-level thrillers with a healthy dose of the freakish, Dangerous Ways is grand, bordering on high fantasy. The numerous worlds are fantastical and well-developed; for all of Virdi’s skill at weaving through the English language, he is equally adept at creating entire worlds — and something tells me he’s only scratched the surface.
Of course, none of that matters if the characters fall flat. But they don’t; Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters are a joy to be around; despite the fact that they’re constantly threatened with certain death, you can’t help but be with them step for step. They’re individual characteristics — bravery, determination, sarcasm, wit, and smarts, just to name a few — make them easy to root for, and the supporting cast is equally delightful in its own right.
As much as I’m eager for the next Grave Report book, I’m just as excited at the prospect of the next Book of Winter. There is no cliffhanger here, but there are enough threads to fill several more volumes… and with writing this clean, this crisp, I can definitely see myself devouring more of this genre.
Fantasy fans — urban, high, and everything in between — should definitely add Dangerous Ways to their collection. This is a fun, engrossing, entertaining read — and I would argue, the best book I’ve read in all of 2016.
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
If An Ember in the Ashes was a solid introduction to the horrific and oppressive world of Elias and Laia, then Sabaa Tahir’s follow-up, A Torch Against the Night, is a fantastic follow-up that builds on what we already know and constantly raises the stakes.
Everything that made Tahir’s first book such a hit is back for the second installment, and the biggest change is the fact that Torch features three protagonists: the aforementioned Elias and Laia, as well as Helene. To me, the addition of Helene’s POV was reason enough to give Torch the full five stars; whereas Helene felt a bit one-note and love-triangle-y in Ember, her perspective and character arc add a tremendous layer of depth to both the character and the novel as a whole.
Along the way, all three characters face seemingly impossible odds with varying degrees of success. Nothing is ever truly as it seems, even in the gripping final pages that take place in the dark prison Kauf. I enjoy Tahir’s way with words, the way she can simultaneously paint vast, sprawling pictures with the intimate personality of the characters themselves.
Large though this tome may be, Tahir deftly transports you from character to character, unfolding plot twist after plot twist in such a way that hundreds of pages will fly by before you come up for air — and as an added bonus, I was not nearly as uncomfortable reading Torch as I was reading certain passages in Ember.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this book. There are, and they are gutting and fantastic all at once. I’m probably not the target audience for this series, but I’m a sucker for stories in which the heroes refuse to stop in spite of the odds. As a favorite TV show of mine once said: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”
That is the guiding philosophy behind Tahir’s books, and it works regardless of the scale of the moment. Moments big and small resonate equally in A Torch Against the Night, and the result is a sequel that surpasses its already impressive predecessor in just about every way.
High Heat by Richard Castle
Castle may be history, but Nikki Heat is still going.
For the uninitiated, a primer: Richard Castle is a fictional mystery writer, formerly portrayed by actor Nathan Fillion on the ABC procedural Castle (which was just canceled this past spring after eight mostly-quality seasons). As part of promoting the show, the Nikki Heat series was published in real-life, along with select stories featuring Derrick Storm. High Heat is the eighth installment in the series, and it will likely prove just as divisive as the TV show’s eighth season.
First, the good: these books have, for the most part, been better than expected. They are essentially little more than promotional material, even if the thing they’re promoting now only exists in syndication and on DVD. High Heat moves along at a brisk pace, unraveling two distinct storylines: the ISIS-style beheading of a journalist, and its resultant threat on Jameson Rook, and Nikki Heat’s continued dependence on and obsession over the death of her mother.
For the most part, High Heat weaves between the two almost effortlessly. There is enough intrigue and action to keep things moving, and this book being less than 300 pages makes it one of the easier reads. There are callbacks to the show — part of the fun of this series has always been playing “Spot the Castle reference — and there are real-life callbacks as well.
Including a presidential candidate who seems to be some freakish combination of Donald Trump and Ross Perot.
Now the bad: This book needs another editor.
For all the crap independently-published books get for poor editing — fairly or otherwise — this is a traditionally-published book that definitely could have used at least one more lookover. It almost feels as if, now that the show itself is over, the people behind bringing these books to life aren’t putting in as much effort as before. Disappointing, but ultimately not that surprising.
Also… for those of you who didn’t like the direction season 8 of the TV show took (specifically, what occurred at the end of the season-opening two-parter)… well, you’re not going to like the end of High Heat either. Without specifics or spoilers, it is almost a word-for-word rehashing. I know these books normally play close to the TV vest, but it’s not normally this blatant.
Still, High Heat is an entertaining read that doesn’t require too much from the reader — which is about par for the course when picking up a Richard Castle book. It’s certainly not the best in the series, and some will despise the direction it takes at the end, but the series has gotten away with much worse.