Monday, January 11, 2016

The Witches of Echo Park (The Witches of Echo Park #1) by Amber Benson

This review was written by: B
Received: Publisher
Publication Date of Book: December 2015
Pages: 304 (paperback edition)
Stars: 4.5/5 

Official Summary:
Unbeknownst to most of humankind, a powerful network of witches thrives within the shadows of society, using their magic to keep the world in balance.  But they are being eliminated -- and we will all pay if their power falls . . . 

When Lyse MacAllister's great-aunt Eleanora, the woman who raised her, becomes deathly ill, Lyse puts her comfortable life in Georgia on hold to rush back to Los Angeles.  And once she returns to Echo Park, Lyse discovers her great-aunt has been keeping secrets -- extraordinary secrets -- from her.

Not only is Lyse heir to Eleanora's Victorian estate; she is also expected to take her great-aunt's place in the Echo Park coven of witches.  But to accept her destiny means to place herself in deadly peril -- for the world of magic is under siege, and the battle the witches now fight may be their last . . . 

Lizbeth knew Lyse was wrong: Time might heal a body's wounds, but it could do nothing for the misshapen scars those wounds left behind.
-The Witches of Echo Park

The Witches of Echo Park is an urban fantasy like no other, which can only be experienced first-hand.  Witches, magic, and covens have never been so real!  The writing was lyrically beautiful at points, and the story was deeply enthralling.  Amber Benson has worn many hats thus far in her life, and I think that "Author" is one of my favorites on her!

This novel introduces a unique take on the spells and wand-wielding supernatural beings that we call witches.  However, those in Echo Park prefer to be referenced as blood sisters.  I felt as though the magic system in the book was extremely practical with an undertone for possible, deeper magic in the books to come.  A coven is typically made up of five women, each with a particular talent.  These five labels include an herbalist who manipulates plants, a diviner who reads cards to predict fate, an empath who can see into a person's soul through physical touch, a Dream Keeper who can walk the dreamland, and someone who can enter the past. The world of covens is then headed by the Great Council in Rome. Eleanora, Devandra, Arrabelle, Daniela, and Lizbeth all take up coven positions, except there is not an announced Dream Keeper among them.

In my opinion, The Witches of Echo Park is a special novel.  While I was originally under the impression the entire story was from Lyse's point of view, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually takes into account all of the women and their lives.  Benson crafted six strong females and showcases their strengths and their weaknesses all at once.  Strong, graceful, vigilant, loving, understanding, intelligent, powerful, strong-willed, and one-of-a-kind, the qualities go on and on.  However, we are all human, including Benson's characters who were sometimes frightened, insecure, jealous, frustrated, lost, and angry.  In the end, though, they always kept fighting and never gave up.  I truly admire the author and her creations.  It is easy to paint someone in just a glorified or only a darkened light, but showing that someone is human means highlighting the good and the bad while keeping the underlying meaning of humanity and honesty in sight, which Benson accomplished with ease.  Not every author can do this.  Also, I feel as though she did a fabulous job empowering women along the journey of this book.  Girls can be strong, too, and this book showcases that statement perfectly. 

Looking back, I realize that The Witches of Echo Park took place during the course of only several days, but this was hardly noticed due to the multiple perspectives and fast-paced setup.  One thing happens after another to each character in turn, creating a spiral that a reader cannot help but fall into, consuming them completely, even after they surpass the last page!  That's not all, though!  Benson crafted an enticing, mesmerizing read through flashbacks, which also made the pages fly by one after the other.

While many first installments in a series, urban fantasy or otherwise, provide readers with an immense amount of information to properly set up the story, it can be extremely frustrating at times to keep up or stay engaged.  I do find these so-called "information dumps" important, though, despite the occasional frustration.  With that being said, Benson did an incredible job setting up The Witches of Echo Park.  While there was quite a bit to learn about and dive into regarding the characters and their circumstances, I find that it was the perfect beginning book.  The backstories were actually mesmeric to read, and it didn't feel like a burden.  I realize that not all readers will feel this way, but it is, of course, a personal preference.     

The antagonistic horror known as the Flood is by far one of my favorite parts of the book.  The mystery and secrecy surrounding the Flood sucked me in and created the need to read the second installment to the series right away.  This riddling enigma keeps nagging at me, and I won't stop reading these books until I find out exactly what it is!!!  

The Witches of Echo Park is a solid fantasy read that I thoroughly enjoyed.  It is a story that is both empowering and thrilling with a plot that thickens with each chapter, so by the end of it all, you'll need The Last Dream Keeper right away!  Benson is undeniably talented with small details and sudden twists, crafting the perfect story to read by the fireplace at night.  I for one, will be coming back for more!   

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Half-Resurrection Blues (Bone Street Rumba #1) by Daniel José Older

This review was written by: C
Received: Publisher
Publication Date of Book: January 2015
Pages: 326
Stars: 4.5/5

Official Summary:
“Because I’m an inbetweener—and the only one anyone knows of at that—the dead turn to me when something is askew between them and the living. Usually, it’s something mundane like a suicide gone wrong or someone revived that shouldn’ta been.”

Carlos Delacruz is one of the New York Council of the Dead’s most unusual agents—an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he barely recalls suffering, after a life that’s missing from his memory. He thinks he is one of a kind—until he encounters other entities walking the fine line between life and death. 

One inbetweener is a sorcerer. He’s summoned a horde of implike ngks capable of eliminating spirits, and they’re spreading through the city like a plague. They’ve already taken out some of NYCOD’s finest, leaving Carlos desperate to stop their master before he opens up the entrada to the Underworld—which would destroy the balance between the living and the dead.

But in uncovering this man’s identity, Carlos confronts the truth of his own life—and death…

My Thoughts:
This is definitely a book that I thoroughly enjoyed! Older did a splendid job of building a realistic multiethnic Brooklyn with an urban fantasy twist. There are tons of adult urban fantasy novels out there that get too caught up in attempting to explain their fictional worlds with overcomplicated rules, hard to follow plots, and too many characters to keep track of. Older threw all of this out the window and masterfully created a world that was both interesting and easily understood. He quickly gave a rundown of the New York Council of the Dead and the hierarchical structure of Carlos' world without losing the reader along the way. The characters (both human, undead, and otherworldly) were also enjoyable. He even created some unique creatures, such as the ngks. These imp-like beings aren't similar to anything I've read about before. They're strange, mysterious, and I love Older's addition of their strange little exercise bike contraptions. There were many other diverse characters, but I believe that a few stood out more than others.

I can't quite put my finger on why this is so, but I loved reading the story through Carlos' point of view. Even though this is a fantasy novel, Older made Carlos seem like such a real person. You were able to experience his pain, sadness, triumphs, internal conflicts, and literally live his experiences. Even though Carlos is an inbetweener -- a human that's neither wholly dead, nor wholly alive -- you were still able to empathize easily with him. I think that Older used Carlos' current state of existence to his advantage in order to convey such realistic emotion. He really made Carlos into a truly unique character.

I do have to say that there were a few of supporting characters that enriched the story, especially Kia and Dr. Tijou. Kia, a sassy teen, had a personality that I loved! Even though she wasn't a huge part of the story, I was definitely interested in reading about her. Her interactions with Carlos in Baba Eddie's establishment were some of my favorite parts of the book. I also love the fact that Dr. Tijou always became overwhelmingly ecstatic whenever she told stories about past medical experiences, especially the gory ones! There was even great chemistry between Carlos, Riley, and Dro. I definitely would peg them as an odd version of the three musketeers. Overall, Half-Resurrection Blues was a great read that every fantasy lover should pick up and devour!

--- SPOILERS ---
The only reason that I gave this book a 4.5 out of 5 stars, is due to last battle that Carlos and Sasha have with Sarco. It felt a bit anticlimactic. When they eliminate Sarco by having him accidentally kill one of the ngks and then the rest of the slain creature's brethren devour Sarco's body and soul, it just seemed like the obvious solution. This is mostly due to a previous event, when Dro was destroyed by a swarm of ngks after he harmed one of them.

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