The Last Starling
The shed door creaks as Dad swings it open. Heaving Jordy inside, I lay him on the dirt floor and peel off his covers. Heat rises from his body as I strip him down. I check his pulse—steady—and roll him onto his stomach, turning his face to one side. Balling up his sheets and clothing, I race outside and hand them to Mom.
She takes them in numb silence. The shed door closes with a bang, but she doesn’t flinch. She just turns and walks back to the house, Pip at her heels. My heart aches for her. She shouldn’t have to do this. Her life shouldn’t include leaving her disabled son naked in the dirt, alone, with a Shift coming and nothing to ease his pain.
“Jayce. It’s time.”
The strain in my dad’s voice knocks me back to reality. He’s kneeling beside the shed, fully undressed, his back arched. He groans, and I know what I have to do.
My heart pounds.
I shed the last of my clothing, then drop to my hands and knees. The wild thump of my heart initiates the process. Blood races through my body, activating the gene that jump-starts my transformation. Every inch of my skin tingles, itches, thickens.
Fine brown hair sprouts from my body. Claws force their way through my fingers and toes. My ears throb with pain as they widen, then extend into points. The cartilage in my nose bellows out. Elongates. Makes it hard to breathe. I open my mouth and suck in a lungful of cool air.
The exterior is done.
Now for the hellish part.
My back arches. I cry out as the bones in my spine crack. They start at the top of my neck and work their way down, breaking. Reforming. My tailbone fills out. It lengthens, piercing my skin, and I yelp. Dig my hands and knees into the grass.
Groan. Sweat profusely.
Muscles knot and twist. My body hitches as each bone in my ribcage expands, creating a chest cavity with room for bigger, stronger lungs. Arm bones break. Then the ones in my legs. They reshape, curving into limbs that can run like the wind. My hands and feet lengthen, my heels push up. Snout extends.
The morphing of my internal organs is excruciating. Liver, lungs, stomach, eyes—they go from human to canine in seconds. In those seconds, I can’t move or breathe. Time stops. The world blurs.
My existence reduces to one blinding pinpoint of pain.
I come out of it with a snort. Shake out my body, look around. The yard is different, ripe with colors I didn’t see before and smells that weren’t as strong. My ears twitch as they pick up the sound of an approaching vehicle. Dad is already loping for the house. I test my muscles, find them strong, and follow him.
We stop at the porch. Gramps is there, waiting on the truck that careens to a halt in the driveway. Two husky males—my uncle and cousin—jump out and race for us. They shuck their clothes.
Drop to the ground.
As they Shift, my wolf-eyes scan the trees for Boo. He’s always around for the hunt, and we understand each other better when I’m like this. Spying him in the tree line, I chuff softly at him. He hoots back a reply. He’s ready.
So are we.
Gramps projects a wolf-thought to bring us close. He sniffs the air, and we do the same. The smell of the Trespasser is still there. Dark and menacing. Something lurks in the Starling, a territory long forbidden to those who drink blood to survive. My pack growls in unison. For us, this is more than just a threat.
It’s an insult.
Tipping back his head, Gramps draws a deep breath. He expels it in one long, drawn-out howl. A howl that pierces the night, uniting us as a pack and sending a message to our enemy. We know you’re out there, it says. You’re not welcome here.
Dad sprints for the woods. We follow in pack hierarchy—my uncle, then me, my cousin last. Our minds link, connecting mentally to each other and Gramps.
As we break through the tree line, our Alpha howls again. One last time. A message to the creature roaming our hallowed ground.
We’re coming for you.
'Sons of Fire' by Tracy Auerbach
I've been duped. Or rather, I've allowed myself to be duped. And if you know me, you understand this is almost an unheard of occurrence.. but let me explain, while I try not to spoiler anything for you either.
I'll tell you up front that I really enjoyed this book. Not because it's a spectacular display of writing ability, in fact.. at the start, the writing appears weak.. not unlike one of these lovely twins. It's never poor, mind you. It's simply.. imbalanced. There's a wealth of character depth which is slow to reveal itself, a fascinating underworld, and yet.. initially the writing feels.. unformed. Both language and dialogue seem stinted, names seem unimaginative and actually too human for a pair of demons, and interactions come across as cliché.. as the story opens.
After reading further, I could only assume that this was done with some intent. The story, like the brothers' relationship, is just toddling. There's an awkwardness to it that could be the result of Auerbach trying to separate that world from ours in the most basic way, but I prefer to think it's more reflective of the characters at that point. They have limited understanding, they have history that neither of them fully grasps, and that awkwardness stems from everything standing between them.
At the start of my journey with the Sons of Fire, Keegan and Aidan, I was conflicted about choosing this read. I'm always intrigued by the use of theological entities in modern urban stories. The author displayed a penchant for making interesting choices as to which entities to employ, from the ancient Semitic god known here as Adramelech to the loyal King of Hell, Paimon.. the mighty Lucifer and a host of other various named demons. Each of which play an important role in the ultimate outcome of the story.
I'll admit, I'm always a sucker for a couple of things.. creatures that we as a society believe are evil exhibiting absolutely opposite behaviors and individuals that might be entirely different if they were pitted against each other by some outside force. This story has both.
Created by Adramelech as an heir, Aidan is a dark, powerful force, while Keegan is an unfortunate side-effect of an outside interruption. Cast to Earth in unfamiliar bodies with needs neither of them is accustomed to, they're sent to complete a task as a trial. Bound together by necessity, failing is not an option, but working together is an entirely new concept.
To explain my earlier statement about Auerbach's well-crafted deception, I was probably 70% through the story before realizing I'd allowed myself to be mislead by appearances. Perceived weaknesses and strengths in the story, mirroring those in the characters, had set me on a path not to take this author or this novel very seriously. I was invested, yes. I instantly loved the brothers. But I didn't realize the strength they or the author actually wielded.
I suddenly found myself looking around with a horrible sense of foreboding, not that someone had managed to fool me-- I love it when that actually happens. But at the dreaded suspicion that was developing in my mind. I had allowed myself to read with complacency and unexpectedly intuited that I had followed Auerbach's misdirection, looking at all the wrong things, which meant I was also on the precipice of understanding what the right things were.. and they were beautifully horrible.
Read this title. Ignore the poor looking cover art, it doesn't do the title justice. Or maybe it does.. it plays right along with that sleight of hand. But bring a box of tissues because if you're like me, you'll be struggling to see the last pages. This story is exquisitely painful and I'm so glad I read it. You will be too.
Sons of Fire
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The Demon Realm, Present Day
Adramelech, King of Fire, stood before all the souls he had gathered, admiring the fruits of his labor. Collecting and shepherding them to his realm had taken work, but it was nothing compared to all the time and effort he had expended to reach this moment: his moment of triumph. The pale energy orbs of the damned, thousands of them, floated above the parched brown floor, drifting aimlessly, bumping into each other or into the black-hot walls of stone around them. The stage was now set for him to finally seize control from his impotent ‘Master.’
“Come to me, Fire,” he called.
A moment passed before his offspring shimmered into being several paces away. The Prince cast a vacant stare upon Adramelech, awaiting orders. The young demon’s strong torso was bare, his dark hair hanging over the translucent skin of his face. Dragonfire swirled beneath the skin’s surface, lending the impression of movement to his form. His eyes were black with hunger while his handsome, human-like figure swelled with power.
The offspring was a paradox of mental weakness and physical fortitude that had taken two hundred years to create and shape. But now it had, at last, come to fruition and Adramelech knew that his efforts had been well spent. The being before him contained so much power that it only held its pretty visage through sheer force of will. And still it wanted more. Always hungry, always obedient, always his.
“It is time, my Fire,” crooned Adramelech. “Do you understand what you must do?”
The boy-shaped demon nodded.
“First, I will give unto you what remains of my power. When I leave, you must follow the instructions exactly as I have lain them out. Remember, above all else, that it is still my power. I will not become another Lucifer, who cast his strength into a sword and imprisoned himself in ice for all eternity. My sword will behave. If you fail, I shall be forced to resort to my back-up plan. And believe me that the alternate arrangement is something you would not want to experience.”
The Prince nodded, eyes still dull and hungry. Adramelech knew his Fire would not speak unless he himself requested it.
“Do you have any questions?”
The demon shook his head.
“Then let us begin.” Adramelech willed the power within every molecule of his own form to flow to the surface, watching his creation’s eyes glow in anticipation. Indeed, the only time his heir came to life was when a large feeding was expected. The boy-shaped demon opened its mouth as Adramelech began to speak. “I, Adramelech, Son of Lucifer, offer a portion of my power unto you.”
“I, Fire, Son of Adramelech…” the Prince began.
“You must include the ridiculous human title Paimon bestowed unto you,” Adramelech corrected. “It is your written name and therefore necessary for the ritual.”
“I, Aidan Fire, Son of Adramelech, accept the power and take it unto my form to hold, so that Adramelech, King of Fire, may wield both it and I as he sees fit.”
Adramelech focused his power into a beam of energy and shot it toward his creation. Even as the Prince’s power swelled and his eyes turned the golden hue of Dragonfire, he accepted the gift hungrily. Adramelech considered all that he had wrought and was pleased.
'Infinity Son' by Adam Silvera
Adam Silvera's first foray into the fantasy arena with 'Infinity Son,' is a gritty thrill ride.. with the fast-paced action of comic book heroes.. in some of the greatest illustrated stories I've ever read. (Infinite Crisis, anyone?)
Now, just because I compared it to (arguably one of the greatest comic storylines of all time), doesn't mean this book is lacking in depth or content. Not all comics are either. There's just something about the rhythm of this story that feels familiar.
The action starts up relatively early in the story and rarely lets up. From the moment we meet the twins, one of whom desperately wants to be a powerful hero, there are situations piling up all around them. Battles erupt all over the city between the Celestials, those born with powers, and the Specters, those who steal them. And guess what. There are people on both sides.. playing for keeps.
"I didn't grow up with powers, but I've been a brother for eighteen years.
No fire burns brighter than that."
I swear, my pulse was speeding half the time I was reading this novel.. purely from the sense of urgency in the way Adam conveyed the story. It's intense from the get-go and I was absolutely caught up from beginning to end. I already have my favorite characters-- Ness and Emil. I've already had my first crying jag. I absolutely signed up for the emotional rollercoaster, and the author delivered, unapologetically.
"Phoenixes endure endless cycles of life and death, but I'm done being the Infinity Son."
His characters are well developed, they have solid, interesting back stories. There's tons of inner conflict, not just around the brothers, but also within the two warring factions. The powers they wield are not to be trifled with either. Every one of them (well, nearly) is dangerous in their own way.. and there's plenty of corruption and danger to be had from non-magical sources too.
"Everyone I touch burns."
There's clearly going to be a second book. I mean, it's already listed on Adam's Goodreads page, but at the conclusion of 'Infinity Son,' there's just no other option. It's not a cliffhanger, so don't be put off. It's just a new beginning, clear as day. And I can't wait to see what the next title has in store..
(Thank you Edelweiss and HarperTeen/Harper Collins for providing the ARC for this wonderful novel.)
Trouble with Wolves
'Blood Seduction' by Anna Rainn
It's rare for me to allow grammar issues to distract me from a story, but I really struggled to read this one, as the entire time Anna Rainn jumps between verb tenses within the same sentences, which ruined the flow. Add to that, a sprinkling of completely misused words, as if she had access to the vocabulary, but not the patience to verify she knew the meaning and a dash of words that don't even exist in the form they appear in.. and you'll understand my frustration.
I feel like this author understood the basic elements needed only on a novitiate level and unfortunately, lacked the ability to truly sculpt them into a compelling story. It's a blessedly short read, so I welcome you to read it anyway and see if you disagree with me.
There are things that Rainn does really well. A couple, anyway. She's excellent at environmental imagery. Almost poetic, actually. Also, there's one very hot scene in a club.
Sadly, the rest of the book is a wash for me.
The lead character, Ella, isn't particularly likable. She's a package of common clichés, which seem meant to appeal to the reader strictly through sympathy of the situation. But like every other character in this novel, I didn't care about her. She's really the only one we get to know at all, and her story left me completely indifferent to her.
As for Richard, not only did I feel like I was never really allowed in to know him beneath his surface responses in certain situations, there's not even a very good description of him. I mean, I know the basics like hair and eye color. I know he's built, but he's almost background décor in this book, despite being the male lead.
The most important character building points are all thrown into the last quarter of the novel in what seems to be a haphazard way. I believe they were possibly meant to be surprise elements, but that just didn't work.. and even then, they're really not visited in any substantial way. They read like bullet points of information downloaded to explain why I, as the reader, should feel this way or that.
I didn't connect with the characters at all, until literally almost the last pages of the book. Then, regrettably, only with one. There's a single, fleeting moment of feeling, here and gone out of nowhere. What followed, left me with the most deeply dissatisfying ending to a story in years. Not because of the direction the author chose to go, but rather, the mishandling of it. Things are stated, but not felt.. in the way, emotions and decisions are touched on, but never really exposed on that nerve shattering level.
'Spellbound' by Julia Goldhirsh
'Spellbound' by Julia Goldhirsh is a story of a young woman who's ultimately trying to shatter the bonds that keep her from getting out and living her life and a young man who's trying to help her.
The idea of the story is lovely enough and technically, there's nothing overtly wrong with the book.. except that I didn't love it. They both have a lot of baggage and interference to deal with.. and that should reach out and grab the reader.. but for me, it fell kind of flat.
I wanted to like the characters, as both Rose and Gabriel have backstories that should inspire me to care for them, but that didn't happen. Most of the time, they both come across as petulant children, but their behavioral swings are so constant and so vast.. it's difficult to get a grip on them at all.
From a dialogue and pace perspective, the story felt very juvenile. It's labeled YA, but it reads like a slightly more advanced children's book. In fact, I read a middle grade title last year that was a bit of a mess, but felt a few years more adult than this one.
The otherworldly beings actually sound really intriguing, both visually and psychologically. I say they sound that way because you really only get indicators without getting to truly experience their potential. In part, I'm going to say that's because this story was put together as a novella, but also I think a lot of it is an inexperienced writer. Julia is creative.. and down the road she could develop into a really good author, but she's going to need people around her who have a better understanding of what makes good storytelling and are willing to give her those constructive criticisms. I'm not sure which she was lacking. I suspect some of each.
I have hope though. I'd love to see more from her in the future and see how she develops as a writer.
'On the Isle of Sound and Wonder' is a retelling of my favorite Shakespeare story, 'The Tempest.' When I first read the synopsis, I was both elated and terrified. Since most people in the media industry tend towards 'Romeo and Juliet,' 'Macbeth,' and so on.. it was great to see this particular play get some attention, but at the same time.. I was really concerned about the outcome.
I needn't have worried. Alyson Grauer's approach reverently held fast to the emotion within the original work, even bolstering it much of the time.. without cheaply mimicking the source work piece by piece. Honestly, it's so difficult to retell something like this. At least, in my point of view. An author has to hit just enough of the critical plot points, not to gut the story, without just simply transcribing it into modern scenes and calling it fresh. Her wording is at times, absolutely lyrical, in the most beautiful of ways.
"The clouds boiled before him, churning and folding in and out of themselves."
This novel is a testament to the capability of someone who seems to have a connection to the classic, yet is brilliantly creative enough to breathe whole new life into it. The names only vary slightly, making each character easy to recognize from the beginning, but the story she tells weaves in and out of the plotline we know and love. It touches on defining scenes here and there, while giving us alternate perspectives on what occurs and why.
Both the story and the characters in Alyson's retelling are so robust, that I felt as if I knew them. I wanted certain outcomes for each of them because I was invested so heavily, not a single character failed to matter. Some of those results I got and others I did not.
And I'm great with that. That's exactly how I feel it should be. I want a story to run me through a gamut of emotions. I want to be thrilled.. and I want to be devastated. She succeeded in accomplishing both.
I love this novel. Alyson Grauer is a force to be reckoned with.. and her pen.. just might wield lightning.. under the right circumstances..
Priestess of Storms & Stone
The Hollow Gods