Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Kate Daniels Double Review

Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels series has been one that took me some time to warm up to. This is really strange when you consider that most urban fantasy fans seem to really like this series. When I went to buy the third and fourth books, a skinny nerd fellow caught sight of me and proceeded to launch into a "Kate Daniels is awesome" speech that cost me 8 valuable minutes of my life. So yes, these books have gained a certain popularity. And furthermore, they are exactly the kind of books I tend to enjoy: strong female protagonist, mixed fantasy elements and clever world building, violence and gore, friendships and relationships that build over several books, and most importantly a crisp readable writing style. So why the initial hesitation? I offer my reviews of the first two books by way of explanation.

It took me two times through Magic Bites to feel like I could articulate what I like and dislike about this story. The first time I listened to the Audible version and really disliked it. I attribute this partly to disliking the narrator's voice. The second time I read the Kindle version and had a slightly more positive reaction. Just goes to show that format matters.

Kate Daniels is a mercenary with magic abilities that she fights to keep secret. When her long time mentor and family friend is killed, Kate tries to solve the case and apprehend the murderer. The evidence shows magical anomalies, and Kate quickly realizes she is dealing with something entirely outside of her usual work. Her search takes her to the leader of the shape-shifters, Curren, and also into the midst of the vampire creating organization known as "The People". Besides all of this, the book is dense in world building and exposition, but handles it gracefully.

As a character I felt Kate was very likeable, even possible to relate to, but also a bit forgettable. She's very tough and reasonably intelligent. I got the sense that she has so much potential, both in her power and as a person, but in this book at least it isn't fully developed or realized. In my mind she blends in with all of the other alpha female leads I've encountered in urban fantasy. The secondary characters are similarly full of unrealized potential. I liked the shape-shifters immensely, and hope they will have more parts in future books.

The world building is by far the cleverest part of the book. There's this ongoing conflict between magic and technology, with magic gaining more and more of an upper hand. They fluctuate in waves, and when a magic wave hits man made technologies start to crumble. There's a lot more to it then that, and again it's not fully explained to my satisfaction. But I really enjoyed the ideas, very imaginative.

In the end, after rereading I can safely say that my main complaint is the lack of development and distinction in the characters. There's a lot of sequel baiting: the authors are counting on you buying the next book to see Kate start to grow as a character. That's all well and good, but it shouldn't get in the way of telling the complete story in the first novel. 3 stars

In Magic Burns Kate is back and as before is up to her neck in problems of the magical monster variety. Magic is increasingly erratic and approaching a flare. Someone keeps stealing valuable maps from the pack of shape-shifters. A local coven of witches may have been worshiping questionable deities and unleashed more then they bargained for. And in the midst of it all Kate encounters Julie, a thirteen year old who's fallen in with bad company. Desperate to care for Julie and stop magic monsters from overrunning the city, Kate sets out to solve the mystery of the deity and her misguided followers.

This book was significantly better then the first in my opinion. Before, I really struggled to understand and like Kate as a character. In this book, a lot about her is revealed to make her far more palatable. She shows a troubled past and present loneliness. She has a good heart and a solid sense of humor. Her unshakeable moral code is admirable. I liked that she began to show real connections to the people around her--Curran, Julie, Andrea, etc. And she's strong in so many ways that it's hard not to cheer for her.

I also found the plot and mythology much more intriguing in this book. Witches, Celtic gods, powerful objects--all much more to my liking then the monsters of book one. And I found it interesting that here and there the authors managed to comment about things like class, hierarchy, and power. For example, there is talk about poor people volunteering to have their bodies made into vampires (mindless killing puppets) in exchange for their family being paid a marginal sum.

Again, my complaints are mainly that both the world build and character development still seem to be dragged out. The romance reader in me can sense relationship drama coming on, and I wish it would happen sooner. I understand spanning these things over several books for sales reasons, but I'm not a fan of sequel baiting. I want each book in a series to feel complete all by itself, and this one didn't quite accomplish that. 4 stars.

I'm currently reading Magic Strikes and really enjoying it. This is certainly one of those series in which each book only works as a part of the whole and does not stand alone. But each book seems to be an improvement on the last, so I'm happy to continue.

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