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The Menagerie Trilogy by Rachel Vincent

Much like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautiful, fascinating, and timely commentary on gender and economic inequality and religiously-justified politics, Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie trilogy is a beautiful, fascinating, and timely commentary on xenophobia, “otherness,” and our tragic tendency to treat other people as sub-human out of fear, ignorance, and selfishness.

Titles: Menagerie, Spectacle, and Fury
Author: Rachel Vincent
Series: Menagerie Series
First Publish Date: September 29th, 2015, by Harlequin MIRA
Genre: Urban fantasy, dark fantasy
NarratorGabra Zackman
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description of MenagerieWhen Delilah Marlow visits a famous traveling carnival, Metzger’s Menagerie, she is an ordinary woman in a not-quite-ordinary world. But under the macabre circus black-top, she discovers a fierce, sharp-clawed creature lurking just beneath her human veneer. Captured and put on exhibition, Delilah in her black swan burlesque costume is stripped of her worldly possessions, including her own name, as she’s forced to “perform” in town after town.

But there is breathtaking beauty behind the seamy and grotesque reality of the carnival. Gallagher, her handler, is as kind as he is cryptic and strong. The other “attractions” — mermaids, minotaurs, gryphons, and kelpies — are strange, yes, but they share a bond forged by the brutal realities of captivity. And as Delilah struggles for her freedom, and for her fellow menagerie, she’ll discover a strength and a purpose she never knew existed.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

In the world of Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie trilogy, cryptids have always existed—human/animal hybrids of myth and legend, creatures that look human but have inhuman abilities, etc. But it’s a horrible time for them. If they are outed and caught, they are ostracized from society, separated from their families, exploited and bred like beasts, and treated as deadly or evil creatures by humans.

The impetus for this treatment is an event that happened several years prior—a mass killing that occurred all across the globe, committed by creatures that were not human. Rage, fear, and ignorance spurred humans into tormenting all cryptids, believing that one form of cryptid was responsible for the killings.

Delilah Dawson has returned to her hometown after going to school for cryptid zoology in order to understand and care for the various cryptid creatures. Her boyfriends treats her to a trip to the carnival, where a menagerie of cryptids is on display. After watching the brutal treatment of a child werewolf by the menagerie staff, Delilah has an unexpected transformation—and gets labeled a cryptid herself.

This change in Delilah’s status is the real horror and appeal of the series. As a stand-in for the reader, Delilah—a perfectly normal human—suddenly becomes “other,” and the treatment she receives after that point is atrocious. It leads the reader to think, “What if that happened to me?” It reminds us that anything a group of people is allowed to do to others—such as tear children from parents and place them in animal cages—they can eventually do to us. It forces us to recognize the “frog in hot water” phenomenon that many people believe we are living through today.

Delilah, who has learned to view cryptids much the way a sympathetic vet or zoologist views animals, is now forced to see how little difference there is between them and herself. She comes to know them as individuals with the same concerns about their family and survival as she has. And because she had the privilege of a human upbringing and education, she is able to plot and scheme and fight for cryptid rights with more skill and righteous indignation than a cryptid without that privilege.

There are so many timely and relevant themes in this trilogy that it could be great fodder for a book club. At the same time, it is rich, beautiful, sorrowful, devastating, and empowering fantasy fiction and a joy to read. Stories like this one justify the theory that reading can help people be more empathetic, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent because they are “experiencing” events from a point of view other than their own. The audio version, narrated by Gabra Zackman, is fantastic. For me, hearing the characters’ voices really amps up my emotional connection to the story.

And did I mention the ending? Wow! It’s not a happy ending, but it’s not an unhappy ending, either. It’s clever, victorious, sad, and hopeful with a huge dollop of karma, which I adore. But it also leaves the reader with questions: What happens next? What impact does the final event have on the world? Will things get better for cryptids? Those questions go unanswered in the book, indicating that it is up to us how the future goes for everyone who is “other.” We readers have to be the ones to make that better future manifest in our own world.

The Menagerie trilogy is not popcorn fiction, but a significant commentary on the state of humanity in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, and other great dystopian classics. But it’s also a beautiful, accessible, and highly-entertaining piece of fiction, one that will leave you with some deep thoughts and lots of feels. Five stars for each book.

Little by Edward Carey

A mix of very quirky characters and a superbly innocent voice make Little an intriguing look at a famous, yet little-known, historical figure.

Title: Little
Author: Edward Carey
Publish Date: October 23rd, 2018 by Riverhead Books
Genre: Historical fiction
Narrator: Jayne Entwistle
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionThe wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris, befriended by royalty and radicals, who transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud.

In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and . . . at the wax museum, heads are what they do.

In the tradition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Edward Carey’s Little is a darkly endearing cavalcade of a novel–a story of art, class, determination, and how we hold on to what we love.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

A while ago, Agent Annie suggested I might like the book Little, a fictional-yet-apparently-accurate-in-facts history of Madame Tussaud, of wax museum fame. Her recommendation was spot on. Little, particularly the audio version, is spectacular!

We meet Marie, who will eventually become Madame Tussaud, as a small child in Switzerland whose family is struggling after her father sustains a serious injury in the military. After her father’s death, her mother becomes housekeeper to a professor and then dies, leaving Marie to be buffeted on the winds of fate for the majority of her remaining life.

There are a couple of things I find fascinating about how this story is written. First, the tone of the story is so quirky-gothic. It feels similar to, though weightier than, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Addams Family, or the card game Gloom. Every character has some eccentric, quirky feature, such as the professor who is in love with bones, the Paris historian who never takes off his shoes, Marie’s childhood friend who comes to believe he is a dresser’s dummy, or the street urchin who behaves like the stray dogs who raised him. The eccentricities of each character are fascinating and the quirky tone of the story is very compelling, assuming quirky and dark is your thing. From a historical perspective, this tone also does a great job of characterizing the experience of the common citizen caught up in the craziness of the French Revolution.

Second, Marie’s voice, which we first hear as a child, retains that same child-like, innocent quality for the whole book. Not only her “voice,” as in a writing style, but also her literal voice, provided by narrator Jayne Entwistle, is absolutely perfect for the character and tone of the book. Particularly toward the end of the book, the reader witnesses Marie mature into an adult in terms of her actions and decisions, but her “voice” continues to be that of an innocent child, caught up in the machinations of fate, war, and people who have more power than she does.

This is a book I will listen to again, probably more than once. There is a lot to digest in terms of history and the way the writing style is both fun and yet layered to communicate the dynamics of power and absurdity of war and politics. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Fire Season by Stephen Blackmoore

Eric Carter has a difficult life and a more than difficult wife.  Can he fix all this and save the city?

Title: Fire Season
Author:  Stephen Blackmoore
Series:  Eric Carter #4
Publish Date: April 16, 2019
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Source: bought by reviewer

Publisher’s Description:  Los Angeles is burning.

During one of the hottest summers the city has ever seen, someone is murdering mages with fires that burn when they shouldn’t, that don’t stop when they should. Necromancer Eric Carter is being framed for the killings and hunted by his own people.

To Carter, everything points to the god Quetzalcoatl coming after him, after he defied the mad wind god in the Aztec land of the dead. But too many things aren’t adding up, and Carter knows there’s more going on.

If he doesn’t figure out what it is and put a stop to it fast, Quetzalcoatl won’t just kill him, he’ll burn the whole damn city down with him.

Nervous Nellie’s nervousness necessitates knowledge of the novel. In other words …SPOILERS. *BEWARE*


Nervous Nellie says…

Wow.  This was an eventful book.  Hold on to your seat when you start, because it is a ride.  This a strictly urban fantasy with no romance, but considerable violence and cussing.  Spell slinging and danger are the by products.

I love Eric Carter books.  He flies by the seat of his pants but never seems to get dead.  He gets into some very tight spots, actually practically impossible spots, but somehow he always finds a way.  The thing about Eric Carter right now is that he is involved with some ancient gods and Aztec history.  I know neither so it was a tidgy difficult to follow, but he does recap to make it more understandable to people like me.

Eric has to employ a lot of his gut feelings in this story.  Who to trust and how to play a situation by knowing how certain kinds of people (greedy people) will respond.  He loses some of the population due to the gods and their lack of consideration of human life.  He feels every one of those lives expire.  He risks a lot to save who he can when he can, but he still beats himself up over it all.  He knows he has made bad choices, but often those choices came from no choice at all.

If you like necromancers (not the creepy kind), then Eric Carter would be a good series to start.  He grows a lot in the first couple of books and then when he takes off, he takes off like a rocket.

I give this book a solid 5 because it was edge of my seat, one sitting read.

 

Our reviews in this series…

 

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Read-Along Special: Best Man By Kristen Brand

Kristen Brand’s novella, Best Man, takes us back in the day with some of our favorite heroes and villains from White Knight and Black Valentine’s world.

Title: Best Man
Author: Kristen Brand
Series:  The White Knight & Black Valentine #.5
Release date:  March 28, 2017

Publisher’s Description: Harris Holt has one job: to make sure his best friend’s wedding goes smoothly. But when his friend is a retired superhero marrying a former villainess, that involves more than just remembering the rings and making a good speech at the reception. Especially when a guy with a gun turns up at the wedding venue.

Now Harris has to keep a supervillain with a grudge from offing the bride and groom—and keep it quiet, or else the cops will crash the ceremony. With his own rusty superpowers and a murderous maid of honor for help, Harris needs to stop the bad guy before the happy couple gets cold feet…on their corpses.

The Best Man is an action-packed short story prequel to The White Knight and Black Valentine series. If you’re a fan of superhero fiction or action/adventure, try a sample or download now.


Kat Mandu says…

Welcome to day three of our Superhero Spotlight, which features one of my favorite series, White Knight and Black Valentine.

This time I’m focusing on the novella, which I decided to review in between the first two books and the remainder of the series. It takes us back to when Dave and Valentina were first getting married, while also introducing us to two side characters, Lady Nightmare and Supersonic. These characters are people you learn about in the first two books, so I thought it’d appropriate to review it now that we’ve had time to get to know them.

Lady Nightmare, Valentina’s sister, is mostly a villain, but working on her good side. Like Valentina, she’s got psychic prowess, but instead of just reading minds, she also has the ability to project nightmares onto their consciousness. Creepy, but cool.

Supersonic is Dave’s friend and best man at his wedding, hence the name of the title. He’s got super-speed powers and is just trying to figure out whether or not he really wants his best bud to marry someone and then have to live with that regret. It all stems from his first and failed marriage, but regardless, Harris is trying to be supportive.

On the day of Dave and Valentina’s wedding, Supersonic and Lady Nightmare team up to stop an uninvited guest from wreaking havoc and ruining Dave and Valentina’s big day. This story has laughs and drama and shows a new perspective on two new characters you’ve never seen before in the previous novels (or the ones to follow). I really enjoyed this insight and can’t wait to see if there will be similar novellas later.

Today’s special feature puts a spotlight on superhero fiction! Check out some other great reads by authors here!

Read-Along Special: Villainous By Kristen Brand

White Knight may have been a long-time hero, but lately, he’s been getting into some bad guy trouble. Luckily, his wife and former nemesis, Black Valentine, has a history of villainry and just may be what he needs to escape capital punishment.

Title:  Villainous
Author: Kristen Brand
Series:  The White Knight & Black Valentine #2
Release date:  September 28, 2015

Publisher’s Description:

Valentina Belmonte isn’t evil any more—honest. She’s hung up her supervillain costume, retired to Florida with her family, and hasn’t committed a crime in years. (Well, not a felony. What’s a misdemeanor here and there if you don’t get caught?) This time, she’s not the one in trouble with the law—her goody-two-shoes, former superhero of a husband is.

He saved her life two months ago but committed a spectacular amount of assault and property damage along the way. The feds plan to press charges…unless Val does something for them in exchange. Apparently, an old friend of hers is importing a deadly drug that gives people temporary psychic powers. The feds want to send in Val with a wire to get evidence to bring him down. Sounds simple enough, but things turn deadly fast, and Val finds herself up against another supervillain—one who can out-play her at her own game.

Val’s worried she’s gone soft since retirement, but if she doesn’t get the feds the evidence they need, her husband will end up rotting in one of the most hellish prisons in the country…


Kat Mandu says…

It’s day two of our Superhero Spotlight and we’re featuring Villainous, the second in the White Knight, Black Valentine series by Kristen Brand. Dave Del Toro and Valentina Belmonte are back in the sequel that takes off right where the first left off—with Dave in big, big trouble.

Because he had to prove Valentina’s innocence, Dave had to break a few laws. Now, in order to keep him out of supermax prison with all the foes he put in there, Valentina makes a deal with the DSA to help them track down a drug supplier in exchange for Dave’s freedom. Not that she’s all too thrilled to be working for the people that once wanted her in jail, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And Valentina isn’t one to back down from a challenge, after all.

There’s so much excitement in this book! Telepathic battles, explosions, body possessions, and assassination attempts, with Valentina in the midst of it all, trying to be a do-gooder while being oh-so-very bad. Valentina’s family is known for their villainous habits, so she’s got a lot of competition when it comes to being the worst.

This book gets another five from me, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the remaining books in the series (see the original Villainous review).

Until then, here’s something fun and special I made in honor of Villainous. Inspired by a scene in the book where Valentina and Jean Baptiste are having drinks in a restaurant that features mixed drinks named after famous superheroes, I decided to take my culinary and bartending experiences and have some fun with it.

Below you’ll find some mixed drinks I invented based on the heroes and villains in White Knight & Black Valentine.

The White Knight: With Dave, I automatically thought of beer and tequila, especially since I compare him to Bruce Willis. So I did some digging and found something raw, strong, sweet, and beachy (because they live in Florida after all) that I could see Dave drinking if he decided to have something besides a draft.

1 1/2 oz Gran Centenario Resposado tequila
1 oz white creme de cacao
1/2 oz Stolichnaya vanilla vodka
2 oz cream
Toasted coconut
1 Maraschino cherry

Mix all ingredients except for cherry and coconut, with cracked ice in a shaker or a blender and served in a chilled cocktail glass. Sprinkle toasted coconut on top and garnish with the cherry.

The Black Valentine: In my head, Black Valentine can be equally as rough and as smooth as whiskey, so I had to involve some whiskey in her drink.

3/4 oz Irish whiskey (I prefer Tullamore Dew, but hey, it’s your preference)
1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 oz kummel
3/4 oz lemon juice
Several dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon peel

Mix all ingredients in a shaker or blender. Serve in an old-fashioned glass straight up or over ice.

The Fire & Ice: For Freezefire, I wanted to get a little bit more fun. With the ability to control both fire and ice, here’s a colorful drink that’s served ice cold but will warm you up fast.

1 1/2 oz of raspberry vodka
1/2 oz Bombay gin
1/2 oz blueberry or blue raspberry vodka
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur
1 oz lemon juice
1 tsp sugar
Club soda or lemon-lime soda (like Sprite)
Maraschino cherry

Mix all ingredients, except club soda and cherry, in a tall, chilled cooler glass. Add several ice cubes and fill with club soda/lemon-lime soda. Stir gently and garnish with a cherry.

The Agent: I named this one after Agent Lagarde, who comes into play during Villainous. She’s tough as nails and carefully hides her telepathic abilities until absolutely necessary so that she can kick ass at the right time. So I made something cool and collected in her honor.

2 oz apricot brandy
2 oz amaretto
4 oz orange soda
1 scoop orange sherbet

Please enjoy responsibly! Like what you see here? Have any ideas for drinks based on your favorite superheroes? Leave comments below, I’d love to share ideas.

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