Rare Vigilance (Whitethorn Agency #1) by M.A. Grant

rare vigilance

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Former Marine Atlas Kinkaid knows not to ask questions about the clients he protects at the behest of the elite Whitethorn security agency. Just like he doesn’t like anyone asking about his scars—scars left by a mysterious attack that haunts his every waking moment.

Consumed by the need to find out what happened to him, Atlas takes a job providing security to Cristian Slava, the indolent—and gorgeous—son of a notorious businessman. Cristian seems to be just another entitled client, but when nights at the club turn into secret meetings and people start going missing, Atlas realizes there’s more to Cristian—and to protecting him—than meets the eye.

But the same people who are after Cristian have something Atlas desperately craves: they know exactly what happened the fateful night he was attacked—and are willing to tell him everything…

For a price.

Rating: A-

M.A. Grant has been on my radar for a while, but I haven’t yet managed to get around to reading any of her books, so when I saw she was starting a new series, it seemed the perfect time to jump in.  Rare Vigilance is book one in her Whitethorn Agency trilogy and the well-paced, wonderfully balanced combination of action, paranormal suspense and slow-burn romance had me captivated from start to finish.

Note:  This is a trilogy with an overarching plot and this book ends on a cliffhanger, so don’t go into it expecting an HEA or a firm conclusion. 

Former marine Atlas Kinkaid returned from his military service in Eastern Europe with scars both inside and out, the result of an attack on his unit from which he emerged the sole survivor.  He has PTSD and lingering health issues – sensory sensibilities and debilitating migranes which can affect his balance and vision – so finding work hasn’t been easy, but his half-sister Bea, the owner of the successful and rapidly growing Whitethorn security agency, has been able to offer him enough work to enable him to keep body and soul together.  Her biggest client is Decebal Vladislavic – the businessman  and investor who is almost single-handedly revitalising the small previously industrial town of Scarsdale, and who has business interests in pretty much everything in town, from medical facilities, to housing to entertainment.  Recently, Decebal has experienced “complications” with some of his business deals, and he wants an agent to provide security at home. He’s asked Bea to provide someone who is happy working night shifts – which is perfect for Atlas, who agrees to take the job.

Arrived at Decebal’s impressive home on the outskirts of town, Atlas is waiting to meet his new employer for the first time, and hears the unmistakable sound of an argument – not in English – coming from the office he’s waiting to enter.  The raised voices quickly stop and then a strikingly handsome young man emerges, muttering under his breath and clearly annoyed – until he notices he’s not alone and his whole demeanour changes.  Suddenly all effortless poise and charm, the rudeness with which he treats Atlas is clearly designed to make him re-think his desire to work there.   Atlas is, however, undaunted and refuses to be put off; and it’s just as well, because of course this man is to be his new charge – Cristian Slava, Decebal’s son and the heir to his business empire.

Rare Vigilance starts out as a regular-enough bodyguard romance in which the protectee is convinced they don’t need protecting and takes every opportunity to be rude and to give their minder the slip.  Cristian clearly expects Atlas to quit just as his other bodyguards have, but when Atlas proves himself to be surprisingly tenacious and impervious to Cristian’s attempts to drive him away, Cristian starts to gain a reluctant respect for him.  And as Cristian begins to accept Atlas isn’t going anywhere, Atlas gets intriguing glimpses of a different side of Cristian, seeing a quieter, more thoughtful and capable man behind the charming party-boy image – and starts to actually like him a little.

After a few weeks, they’ve reached a détente and have settled into a routine of sorts, but there’s a seismic shift in their relationship – and the direction taken by the story – when Atlas takes Cristian to what is supposed to be a business meeting, but which instead sees them being attacked by – well, I’ve seen other reviews mention it, but I’m not going to because it’s a neat plot twist the author has been carefully seeding all along – and if you’re been paying close attention you’ve probably figured it out by now anyway.

What follows is a gripping, tightly-plotted story in which a dangerous family feud threatens to explode into all-out war and Atlas comes face to face with his worst nightmare – which turns out not to be a nightmare at all, but something very real and utterly lethal.  Secrets, lies, betrayals of the worst kind, mysterious night time deliveries and unexplained animal-like attacks all combine to make Rare Vigilance a real page-turner, and I raced through it in a couple of sittings, unwilling to put it down.

While all this is going on, Atlas and Cristian are growing closer and the author does a really good job with their slow-burn romance.  They have terrific chemistry and there’s lots of lovely UST along the way as the attraction that sparks between them at their first meeting starts to grow into a bond that transcends their status as employer and employee, and Atlas’ competence and protectiveness slowly win Cristian’s trust.  I liked them both; even when Cristian is at his most brattish, there are hints that his brash, cocky persona is an act to prevent people getting close, and there are hidden vulnerabilities beneath Atlas’ stoic, take-no-crap exterior that soften his hard edges and make him rather endearing.  We don’t know much about either character right now, but I’m hoping that will change as the series progresses; what we do get is a good start and a pretty solid foundation in terms of their characterisation and relationship, and I’m eager to find out where things are going to go.

Having Atlas as the sole PoV character means that the reader finds things out at the same time he does, and that works really well here, especially in the early stages of the story were the author creates a real sense of edginess and of something being not quite as it seems. The only negative comments I can really make are that there’s one aspect of the world-building that could have used a bit more detail, and WTF is with that cover? but neither spoiled my enjoyment in any way, and I guess the world-building issue may be addressed in a future book.

Rare Vigilance is a terrific read and a superb start to this new series.  The cliffhanger ending has me chomping at the bit for more, and I’ll be pouncing on book two, Crooked Shadows as soon as it appears.

An Echo in the Sorrow (Soulbound #6) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

an echo in the sorrow

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Forgiveness is a hollow prayer you only hear in your dreams.

Patrick Collins has spent years handling cases as a special agent for the Supernatural Operations Agency, even as his secret standing in the preternatural world has changed. He should have confessed to his role as co-leader of the New York City god pack when he and Jonothon de Vere took up the mantle months ago, but he didn’t. Now, that split loyalty will cost him at a time when he can least afford it.

Outmaneuvered, framed for murder, and targeted by the Dominion Sect, Patrick has to face a past full of lies to regain his freedom. Revealing the truth means he’ll need to give up the life that has defined him. Everything he’s fought to build with his pack is at stake, and losing them isn’t a price Patrick is willing to pay, but some choices aren’t his to make.

Jono knows they can’t cede any more territory if they want to win the god pack civil war spilling into the streets of New York City. But the souls of werecreatures are free for the taking when demons come to town and angels sing a warning no one can ignore. When Jono’s worst fear comes to life, and he loses the one person he can’t live without, the only option left is to fight.

Facing down the demons of their past and the ones in their present, Patrick and Jono will learn the hard way that some sins never wash away clean.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Note: The Soulbound series features a number of overarching plotlines, so this book is unlikely to make much sense unless you’re familiar with at least some of the previous entries in the series. There are likely to be spoilers for those in this review.

Following their battle royale against a zombie army in Paris, An Echo in the Sorrow finds Patrick and Jono back in New York and facing danger much closer to home. There are two major plotlines running throughout the Soulbound series, one related to the growing tensions between the New York City god pack and the rival god pack led by Patrick and Jono, and the other to the ever-present threat posed by the Dominion Sect, a cult dedicated to destroying the veil between worlds and literally unleashing hell upon Earth.

An Echo in the Sorrow focuses on the first of those storylines as the corrupt New York City god pack led by Estelle Walker and Youssef Khan steps up its campaign to destroy Patrick and Jono and all the were-creature packs that have placed themselves under their protection. Estelle and Youssef don’t care what they have to do or who they have to kill in order to maintain control; Patrick and Jono suspect that they may have allowed demons into their souls, just as they discovered had happened in the London god pack, but even if they haven’t gone that far, they have certainly allied themselves with agents of evil, from the Krossed Knights, hunters of anything supernatural, to the Great Marquis of Hell – and possibly the Dominion Sect itself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

All Fired Up (Ashes & Dust #1) by Jenn Burke

all fired up burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Paranormals are dying. All over the city, with no explanation and only one thing in common: their magic is missing.

Vampire and private investigator Evan Fournier isn’t supposed to be taking on paranormal cases, but when the murderer hits close to home, he agrees to look into it. The last thing he expects is to become a target himself—and then to become irrevocably bonded to the man who just tried to kill him.

With his memory gone and his soul bonded to a stranger, former firefighter Colin Zhang wants to be anywhere else. He doesn’t have a damn clue why he just tried to kill Evan, and he didn’t even know about magic until just now. The sooner he can get back to his real life, the better.

But every time either of them tries to leave, pure agony stops them short. Forced to work with Evan or suffer the consequences, Colin must excavate the secrets buried in his missing memories while battling two rising threats: the conspiracy behind the murder, and his mutual attraction to the bond mate he never wanted.

Rating: B+

Note: There are spoilers for the Not Dead Yet series in this review.

I really enjoyed Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet series of paranormal romances and was delighted when I learned she was planning a follow-up series which would focus on ‘baby vamp’ Evan Fournier.  Evan was a troubled young man living with depression (and not doing so well) when we first met him and circumstances led to his becoming  the one of the members of the found family formed by Wes and Hudson over the course of the trilogy.  All Fired Up – book one in the Ashes & Dust series – opens around five years later and finds Evan – older, wiser and more confident in himself – in a much better place, having worked hard to get his life on track and learned to ask for and accept help when he needs it.

Evan works as a private investigator for Caballero Investigations, the firm set up by Wes and Hudson in Give Up the Ghost.  Although all the employees are paranormals, the firm takes ‘regular’ cases as well as ones involving the supernatural, but when Wes and Hudson have to travel to London at short notice due to a family emergency, Hud makes it very clear to Evan that under no circumstances is he to take on any paranormal investigations while they’re gone.  Not because he doesn’t trust Evan or to handle them, but because those are the cases that tend to go sideways quickly – and Hud is a bit (!) of a control freak and very protective of those he cares about.

But when Dr. Anika Kozlow – a witch and Evan’s doctor and therapist – comes to see him, clearly very upset, and talking about a patient who recently died under suspicious circumstances, Evan knows he won’t be able to sit this one out.  Called to visit a patient who had recently returned from a retreat for paranormals, Dr. Kozlow was shocked to see a literal shell of the woman she’d known.

“When I saw her, she wasn’t there.  I mean, her body was.  She was sitting in the recliner, breathing, he eyes open, but they were… empty.”

A diagnostic spell confirmed Anika’s suspicions:

“When I said she was empty, I wasn’t exaggerating.  Her magic – her soul – was gone.”

And she’s since discovered that several of the patients she referred to the retreat have died in the same way.

Evan decides to check himself into the Rising Sun Retreat to see what he can find out.  Everything seems above board at first; the location is great, the staff are kind and he falls in with a group of friendly fellow patients who show him the ropes.  But there’s one staff member who makes him feel uneasy, a man known only as Red – because of the red tips in his hair (which, incidentally, are nowhere to be seen on the front cover!) – a member of staff so quiet, controlled and emotionless that he’s almost robotic.  He’s pretty creepy and Evan is suspicious – but before he can find out much more, he comes dangerously close to becoming the soul-sucker’s next victim.

Firefighter Colin Zhang has absolutely no idea why he just tried to kill Evan;  the last thing he remembers is heading into a burning building to rescue someone who’d been trapped inside, and he’d rather be anywhere other than with a bunch of crazy people talking about magic and vampires and telling him it’s 2024.  It can’t be – the fire was just yesterday. In March 1990.

All Fired Up gets this new trilogy off to a great start.  The mystery is fast-paced, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and it hooked me in right from the beginning; but the big draw was getting to spend some more time with the characters I’d come to know and love from the earlier series, and to see Evan start down the road towards a well-earned HEA  – he’s been through some serious shit, and deserves to be happy.  Evan is a complex, well-rounded character and I liked his insightful and wryly down-to-earth narrative voice – a very clear contrast to Wes’ mercurial personality and deadpan snark.  Evan’s depression is realistically and sensitively portrayed; he’s fairly stable now, and although the old insecurities break through and threaten to throw him off balance from time to time, he’s very self-aware and determined not to fall back into the sort of downward spiral that almost broke him when he was younger.

I liked Colin and the way he’s already starting to fit in with Evan and his found family of supernatural beings – and an actual god – although he (Colin) isn’t particularly well fleshed-out as a character.  Still, this is only the first book of three, so there’s room for more development there – and perhaps the fact that I’ve got to know Evan already via the previous series makes for an unfair comparison.  I enjoyed the book very much, although a couple of issues brought my final grade down a bit. One is that Colin doesn’t freak out very much when he finds out he’s lost thirty-four years of his life – and not only that, but that he’s been used to – at the very least – do serious harm to a number of people throughout that time.  He seems to accept both those things too easily, which was a bit odd.  And in addition to having to come to terms with what he’d been forced to do and the fact that his old life is gone, Colin has to reconsider his sexual identity. Growing up at a time when AIDS was ravaging the gay community, he chose to deny the part of him that was attracted to men, but the realisation that things have changed considerably enables him to own the truth (that he’s attracted to men and women) and act on his attraction to Evan.  I appreciated the way this realisation is brought about – but it’s something else Colin seemed to adjust to a tad too quickly.

That said, however, they make a good couple and there’s some very real chemistry between them. Both of them have suffered the loss of loved ones and will have to find ways to move forward if they’re going to be together in any real sense, and I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship develop as the series progresses.

As in Not Dead Yet, Ms. Burke sets an overarching plot in motion in this series opener.  The villain of All Fired Up gets their just desserts, but the Big Bad – the brains behind the plot to steal magic and souls from members of the paranormal community –is still out there, and will no doubt be back to cause more trouble in the following instalments.  With a sweet HFN for Colin and Evan – and the promise of more to come – All Fired Up is a terrific combination of page-turning mystery and tender romance, and is strongly recommended.

Spooky Business (The Spectral Files #3) by S.E. Harmon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

spooky business

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Being insatiably curious is a good way to end up dead.

Rain Christiansen, cold-case detective and reluctant medium, is very aware of that fact. But when infamous serial killer Thomas Kane wants to meet, there’s no way Rain can say no. He also can’t refuse Kane’s offer – find his missing wife, Delilah, and he’ll reveal the location of his victim’s bodies.

Rain has never turned down a good quid pro quo, and he doesn’t intend to start.

The hunt for Kane’s wife leads to yet another cold case, three copycat murders, and an investigation where nothing is as it seems. Soon, Rain is dealing with a ghost unlike any he’s ever dealt with before…a ghost capable of doing things he shouldn’t be able to do. How can Rain control something he doesn’t even understand? And what will he do when the unknown threatens the safety of the most important person in his life?

Rain is starting to realize that he can only battle the supernatural with the supernatural, and that is spooky business indeed.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

This third book in S.E. Harmon’s Spectral Files finds psychic and former FBI agent-turned-cold-case-detective Rain Christiansen confronting a serial killer in order to try to find out where the bodies are buried. Literally. The spookiness factor seems to increase with each book, and Spooky Business is a bit darker in tone than the previous entry in the series – and that’s fine – but I have to say there was one thing near the end that really stretched my credulity, and it seemed to me that Danny (Rain’s boyfriend) spent most of the time on the periphery of the story.

When Rain is asked by his former boss at the FBI to meet with convicted serial killer Thomas Kane, Rain, who is terminally afflicted by insatiable curiosity, agrees to make the four-hour drive to the correctional facility at which he’s being held. It’s immediately clear that Kane has no intention of telling him where he disposed of the remains of his victims; instead he tells Rain that he didn’t kill his wife Delilah Rose and asks him to find out what happened to her after she left him back in the 80s. He also insists he wasn’t responsible for all the murders attributed to him and that four of the twelve were carried out by a copycat – and tells Rain he’s being haunted and wants him to stop it. If Rain does both those things, then he’ll fess up about the bodies.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Quiet House (Black & Blue #2) by Lily Morton

The Quiet House

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Levi Black has mostly recovered from the events of a year ago. The only lingering effects are that he’s much more well known in York than he’d like to be, and he’s a lot more cautious about walking around his house naked. However, those events brought him the capricious and fascinating Blue, so he’s not complaining. On the contrary, he’s happy, in love, and looking forward to Blue finally moving in with him. And if sometimes he wonders what Blue sees in a boring cartoonist, he keeps that to himself.

Blue Billings is finally ready to throw off the memories of his past and move in with the person who means the most in the world to him. His psychic abilities have grown in the last year to his mentor Tom’s consternation, but Blue is determined to look on the bright side. He’s also focused on ignoring all the warning signs that he’s received lately.

However, even deeply buried secrets have a way of rising to the surface. And when a surprise from Blue’s past turns up and draws them away to a lonely house on the Yorkshire moors, Levi and Blue must fight for their survival once again.

Rating: B

Lily Morton’s The Mysterious and Amazing Blue Billings introduced readers to the eponymous quirky and snarky York-based ghost-tour guide, and Levi Black, a cartoonist from London who, after the death of his mother and a bad break-up, moves to York after inheriting a house near the Minster from a distant relative.  It’s a fun mix of romance and ghost story, with likeable characters, some lovely moments of poignancy and lots of the author’s trademark witty banter, and I – like many of Ms. Morton’s fans – have been eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.  The Quiet House is that book, and once again the author has penned an intriguing story and peopled it with some great characters – some we’ve met before, some who are new – and shown she’s more than able to bring the spooky when called for.

The Quiet House takes place around a year after Blue and Levi were nearly killed ridding Levi’s house of a particularly dangerous and malevolent ghost.  The intervening year has seen a number of changes in their lives – good changes – with Blue working to understand and control his abilities and he and Levi becoming closer and finding their way forward as a couple.  Blue still leads his ghost tour once a week, and when the story begins, Blue notices an old man dressed all in black standing quietly at the back of his tour group. He’s far too solid-looking to be a spirit, and Blue believes he’s just a late arrival – and a stingy one at that, when he disappears without paying the fee.  Not until a day or so later does he learn what he’s seen, when his friend, employer and mentor in all things psychic, crotchety bookshop-owner Tom Pattison, explains that what he saw was a spirit – or more correctly a “crow” – a warning that trouble is on the way.

And it arrives when Levi opens the door one evening to a stranger asking to see Blue – a stranger who looks oddly familiar.  With good reason.  The man is Declan Shaw.  Blue’s absentee father.

Blue has never even met his dad seeing as how he legged it before Blue was born; he recognises him from an old photo his mother kept with her at all times.  Declan’s sudden appearance evokes mixed emotions in Blue – anger for sure, but curiosity, too; maybe Declan can fill in some of the blanks for Blue, tell him some of the things about his mother he longs to know.  But Declan shows no sign of wanting to build anything with his son; he’s there to offer Blue a lucrative job at the home of his eccentric employer, Viscount Ingram, whose massive country house on the Yorkshire Moors is reputed to be the most haunted house in England.  Ingram wants to open the house to the public as a hotel of the macabre – and he needs a psychic to tell him about the spirits he can see, to interact with them and tell him their stories.

Much to Levi’s dismay, Blue is intrigued and seriously considering the proposition.  He’s worried that Declan will hurt Blue, but when Tom reveals the house in question has a terrible reputation and that it’s haunted by some very violent sprits, it seems that there is a great deal more to worry about than Blue’s relationship with his father.  Tom and Levi know Blue is going to need all the help he can get, and together, the three of them make their way to the grand estate, where right from the off, Blue and Tom are affected by the overwhelming sense of evil that permeates the place.

And of course things go from bad to worse once they arrive.  It turns out Blue and Tom aren’t the only psychics to have been invited to unlock the secrets of this particular haunted house, and that over the past year or so, Ingram has extended the same invitation to many psychic guests  – and now it seems the spirits are seriously pissed off and that something truly powerful and evil has been awakened.  And not only that, but Blue’s worst nightmare seems to be coming true. Something is targeting Levi.

Lily Morton is known for writing funny, sexy contemporary romances with plenty of snark and plenty of steam, but in this series, she shows she’s able to turn her hand to something different.  The steam and humour are still present (albeit a little toned down), but the paranormal element of the story is the main focus, and she creates a real sense of menace and disquiet that slowly pervades the book, becoming stronger and stronger until we reach the novel’s dramatic climax.

I was delighted to see Tom get a bigger role in this story; he’s a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and a real soft spot for Blue, and I love his deadpan sense of humour.  The other secondary characters –  an eccentric viscount, a TV psychic and a couple of nasty blasts from Blue’s past – are vividly drawn, and I hope Jem, the cameraman who would rather be photographing penguins than poltergeists, will make that trip to York and meet up with Blue’s friend Will again.

The romance in this book is more low-key than before, but even though Blue and Levi have been together for a year, they have some lovely, tender moments together, and I was really pleased to see how far Blue has come since the last book, when he was skittish and insecure, used to keeping himself apart and waiting for rejection.  He’s the same whimsical, smart-mouthed so-and-so he always was, but there’s a sense of stability and equanimity in him that weren’t there before.  And Levi – sweet, caring, loveable Levi – is his anchor, the person who keeps him grounded and tethered to reality.  Their devotion to one another shines through, even in moments of insecurity and doubt.

The Quiet House is an entertaining read that boasts a winning combination of snarky psychic, lonely viscount, ghostly monks, satanic rituals and the grumpiest mentor ever.  It’s a nicely balanced mix of funny, sexy and spooky, and I enjoyed my return to the world of Black & Blue.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains….

New York, 1925

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination – and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throws the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Allie Therin’s engaging Magic in Manhattan series sets an intriguing combination of supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance and magic amid prohibition era New York. Starcrossed is the second book, and you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Spellbound, in order to get to grips with it. I read and reviewed it in print when it came out in May 2020, and even though I HAD read book one, I found myself a bit lost to start with because there’s hardly any recapping and I wished I’d done a re-read to refresh my memory. But once I’d skimmed a few sections in Spellbound, I was up to speed and able to enjoy the story in Starcrossed.

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

It’s Manhattan in 1925, and twenty-year-old psychometric Rory Brodigan works as an antiques appraiser in his aunt’s shop, earning the place a reputation as the place to go to sort out the fake from the real thing. This is because Rory’s paranormal ability means he’s able to touch an object and be transported into its history (which can also be incredibly dangerous as it’s possible he could end up trapped in that history in his mind) – and he’s something of a recluse, staying very much in the background and taking care not to reveal his ability to anyone. In Spellbound, handsome, wealthy congressman’s son Arthur Kenzie brought some letters to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop for appraisal, and through the course of the story Rory met other paranormals (Jade, a telekinetic, and Zhang, who can walk on the Astral Plane), and learned that that while Arthur has no magic himself, he’s dedicated to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it. He and Arthur also commenced a romantic relationship – although that’s not the strongest part of the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: A-

In The Gangster, the second book in C.S. Poe’s entertaining and exciting Magic & Steam series, we join Special Agent Gillian Hamilton for another exhilarating adventure, this time on his home turf of New York City.  As in the first book – The Engineer – the story is fast-paced and clever, featuring well-drawn, interesting characters and a number of vivid, expertly realised action scenes, and the author’s world-building continues to impress. Readers are immersed in a recognisable vision of Gilded Age New York, but with significant differences –  such as the magic-powered airships (the quintessential steampunk mode of transport!) that have replaced the transcontinental railroad – due to the harnessing of magic as a commodity during the so-called Great Rebellion – surely this world’s version of the American Civil War.

At the end of The Engineer, Gillian left Shallow Grave in Arizona to return to New York – but carries with him a promise from Gunner the Deadly – the outlaw with whom he’d become romantically involved – that they will see each other again on New Year’s Eve.  Gillian is alternately hopeful and anxious, desperately wanting to see Gunner again while trying to talk himself into not being too disappointed when Gunner doesn’t show.  Because what could a gorgeous, uber-confident, gun-slinging cowboy possibly see in an unprepossessing, repressed individual like Gillian?

It’s 31st December 1881, but before Gillian has to face either joy or disappointment, there’s a day’s work to be done, and on this particular day, he’s chasing down a lowlife called Fishback, a criminal known to have a penchant for killing cops and for working for some of the city’s biggest organised crime syndicates.  Gillian suspects Fishback is acting as the middle-man in the trade of weapons that use illegal elemental magic – and when he’s eventually able to question him, those suspicions are confirmed.  Fishback delivers the shipments – which originate somewhere “out West” – to Tick-Tock, a newly-arrived and widely feared crime boss/gangster who, so far, nobody has ever seen.  Not even Fishback, who tells Gillian he meets with a magical mechanical man who picks up the deliveries on Tick Tock’s behalf.

Shortly after the interview, Gillian heads to Grand Central to pick up Gunner.  He’s late, and worries that he’s missed Gunner or worse, Gunner hasn’t come at all.  But he has.  Their reunion is restrained because they’re in a public place, but Gillian is overjoyed and relieved to see the man who has occupied almost his every waking thought for the past two months.  And miraculously, it seems Gunner is pleased to see Gillian, too.

Gillian and Gunner barely have a moment to themselves (although they do put the few moments they have to very good use!) before they’re plunged headlong into a breathless game of cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous individual in the city.  And while they’re battling nightmarish mechanical men – gruesome half man/half machines with weapons surgically grafted to their bodies – fending off attacks from illegal magic and fighting for their lives in some really vivid, well-conceived action scenes, there are some lovely moments of introspection and emotional closeness, too, which cement and strengthen the connection between them.

Gillian and Gunner are both likeable, compelling characters it’s easy to invest in and root for.  In The Engineer, it was obvious there was more to Gillian than met the eye, and here the author sheds more light on what he’s hiding.  It’s also clear that he’s keeping some big, dark secret that he’s ashamed of and afraid of, something he seems to be desperately trying to atone for that has convinced him he’s unworthy of love or affection and that he doesn’t deserve good things in life.  He’s desperately lonely, rigidly controlled and hides himself in plain sight, but keeping himself hidden (in more ways than one) for over a decade is starting to take its toll, and at times we get a glimpse of a man close to the edge, someone dangerous and volatile.  But he’s also endearingly shy and charming with a dry sense of humour and a clearly defined sense of right and wrong… although the line between them has blurred a bit since he met Gunner.

Self-possessed, sexy Gunner is the perfect foil for Gillian, injecting some calm into his hectic life.  He encourages Gillian to embrace who he is and what he wants, providing solid support and reassurance on personal issues and has his back without question when they have to face off with the bad guys.  He’s not a great talker, but when he does have something to say he’s usually to the point and incredibly insightful; he sees Gillian in a way nobody else has, and has discerned things about him that no-one else seems to have noticed – that Gillian is a great deal more powerful than he lets on, and that there’s something devastating and immensely painful in his past.  But he knows better than to push for details; he’s prepared to bide his time and wait for Gillian to tell him the truth.

The Gangster is a terrific blend of tender romance and rollicking adventure yarn that will have you ‘heart-eyes’ and on the edge of your seat by turns.  The mystery is nicely done, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and I liked the glimpses we got of Gillian’s work life and of his relationship with his boss – who, he’s only just worked out, may possibly be harbouring a tendre for him. The author’s descriptions of the New York locations are really evocative, and her depictions of the mechanical men and Gillian’s amazing feats of magic are inventive and full of imagery so vivid and colourful as to create a lasting impression in the mind’s eye.  And best of all, the love story is never pushed aside in favour of the plot; there are some wonderfully loving moments between Gillian and Gunner, and even though the story takes place over just a few days, by the end, they’ve admitted that they want more from each other and there’s a new, deeper level of intimacy between them.  Which is when Ms. Poe drops one helluva bombshell that had me (mentally) screaming  “nooooooooooooo!” and searching frantically to see if I could find a release date for book three!

So, yes, there’s a cliffhanger, but don’t let that put you off.  The Gangster is a thrilling and utterly captivating instalment in the Magic & Steam series, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the release of book three, The Doctor.  I hope it’s not too long a wait!

Wonderstruck (Magic in Manhattan #3) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

New York, 1925

Arthur Kenzie is on a mission: to destroy the powerful supernatural relic that threatens Manhattan—and all the nonmagical minds in the world. So far his search has been fruitless. All it has done is keep him from the man he loves. But he’ll do anything to keep Rory safe and free, even if that means leaving him behind.

Psychometric Rory Brodigan knows his uncontrolled magic is a liability, but he’s determined to gain power over it. He can take care of himself—and maybe even Arthur, too, if Arthur will let him. An auction at the Paris world’s fair offers the perfect opportunity to destroy the relic, if a group of power-hungry supernaturals don’t destroy Rory and Arthur first.

As the magical world converges on Paris, Arthur and Rory have to decide who they can trust. Guessing wrong could spell destruction for their bond—and for the world as they know it.

Rating: B+

Wonderstruck is the third book in Allie Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series of paranormal romances set in 1920s New York, and is the best of the bunch, boasting a high-stakes, fast-paced plot, engaging characters, strong worldbuilding and a central relationship that has come on leaps and bounds since the first book.

When I reviewed the previous book (Starcrossed), I said I wish I’d thought to re-read Spellbound (book one) first, as there is very little recapping and I was at a bit of a loss to start with.  Wanting to avoid the same again, I listened to the audio version of Starcrossed shortly before beginning Wonderstruck and I’m pleased I did, because I had no problems getting into the story this time around.  (Which is to say that I’d advise anyone interested in reading Wonderstruck to do a bit of backtracking first!).  As this is a series with overarching plot-threads, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.

When Wonderstruck opens, we find Arthur Kenzie in Montreal with his close friends, paranormals Jade, a telekenetic and Zhang, who can walk on the astral plane.  They’re there searching for a way to destroy a dangerous supernatural artefact, a pomander created using the most vile magic in existence and which has the ability to enslave non-magical minds.  Arthur has been away from New York – and from his lover, powerful psychometric Rory Brodigan – for a month and is no closer to his objective than when he started – and the lack of progress and time away from the man he loves is really trying his patience.  He knows it’s best for Rory that he stays put in New York, but he misses him dreadfully.

The news that there is to be a secret paranormal exhibit at the upcoming world’s fair in Paris offers some hope, however.  Such an exhibit might well draw the attention of someone with the knowledge to help them destroy the pomander – but a trip to Paris will mean more weeks, maybe months away from New York, and bringing Rory to Europe just isn’t an option.  Baron Zeppler, the telepath who is bent on harnessing the power of magical relics for his own nefarious purposes, is now undoubtedly aware of Rory’s existence and of the power he can wield through the Tempest Ring and his psychometry – and Arthur is determined to keep Rory as far from his evil machinations as possible.

But of course, the best laid plans never pan out.  Arthur, Jade and Zhang return to New York so that Arthur can be with Rory on his twenty-first birthday, and after another failed attempt to destroy the pomander, they realise they’re going to need help.  None of them likes the idea of approaching Gwen and Ellis – the former wartime best friends of Jade and Arthur who betrayed them in Spellbound;  but after Gwen saved Rory’s life in Starcrossed, they’ve realised they have a common aim in wanting to neutralise the pomander and put Baron Zeppler out of commission.  Working on the principle that  ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ (sort of), and realising that it’s no longer safe to leave Rory in New York, the four of them – Arthur, Rory, Jade and Zhang – sail across the Atlantic and head for London.

What follows is a tense and exciting romp that kept me reading until well past my bedtime!  With Arthur hiding a terrible secret of his own, and the line between friend and enemy becoming blurred, the story moves at full pelt into the nail-biting finale, wherein our heroes are forced to battle the vilest magic of all.

Amid the thrills and spills, Arthur and Rory find time for a few tender moments, and I have to say that Ms. Therin has at last managed to convince me of their genuine attachment and absolute devotion to one another.  Previously, I found it difficult to see what a wealthy sophisticate like Arthur could see in the prickly, much younger Rory (the age gap is about eight years) who, when they first met, behaved like a complete brat towards him. Here, however, I finally bought their connection, and even though their relationship is still beset with problems of communication and trust, they feel really solid as a couple.  As in the previous books, the author doesn’t sweep aside the difficulties faced by two men attempting a romantic relationship in the 1920s, difficulties which are compounded by their vast difference in social status.  One of the major sticking points between them has always been Rory’s refusal to accept Arthur’s help or to rely on him in any way.  By now, Arthur is finding it a bit wearing, his heart heavy because he feels that Rory’s reluctance to lean on him is because Rory has always got one foot halfway out the door.  Here at last, Rory starts to realise how his attitude is hurting the man he loves;  he admitted in the last book that he would want to help Arthur were their situations reversed, but he still wasn’t able to make any concessions.  Now though, he’s grown up enough to realise it’s not weak to ask for and accept help, and I was impressed with the amount of character growth Rory exhibits in this book.

The author’s research into Prohibition Era New York is excellent, enabling her to skilfully weave the threads of her own magical world into the historical background, putting the reader squarely at a table in Jade’s speakeasy or inside Rory’s dingy room at his rat-infested boarding house.  I noted – with a smile – that she chose an International ship for the gang to travel across the Atlantic so there would be booze available!

On the downside, I did find some of the information about the relics a bit confusing, and while Zeppler is definitely eeeevil, I was never completely clear as to why he wanted to amass All the Relics and All the Magic.  World domination, I suppose, but that’s rather unoriginal!  There were a few  places it seemed there was just too much going on and too many characters on page – although I admit that might be more a ‘me’ problem than a ‘book’ problem – and a couple of plot points appeared and then disappeared, never to be seen again.

But I enjoyed Wonderstruck despite those quibbles, and was completely caught up in the story.  A compelling combination of vivid historical setting, memorable characters, fascinating magic and a heartfelt romance, It’s a fine way to end this unique series.

The Engineer (Magic & Steam #1) by C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton is a magic caster with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam. He’s sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona, to arrest a madman engineer known as Tinkerer, who’s responsible for blowing up half of Baltimore. Gillian has handled some of the worst criminals in the Bureau’s history, so this assignment shouldn’t be a problem. But even he’s taken aback by a run-in with the country’s most infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly.

Gunner is also stalking Shallow Grave in search of Tinkerer, who will stop at nothing to take control of the town’s silver mines. Neither Gillian nor Gunner are willing to let Tinkerer hurt more innocent people, so they agree to a very temporary partnership.

If facing illegal magic, Gatling gun contraptions, and a wild engineer in America’s frontier wasn’t enough trouble for a city boy, Gillian must also come to terms with the reality that he’s rather fond of his partner. But even if they live through this adventure, Gillian fears there’s no chance for love between a special agent and outlaw.

Rating – B

The Engineer is the novella-length first instalment in C.S. Poe’s Steampunk AU Magic & Steam series, and it’s an entertaining mash up of magic, steampunk and Wild West historical. Magic caster and Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam Gillian Hamilton is sent to Shallow Grave, Arizona to apprehend a dangerous ‘mad-scientist’ engineer by the name of Milo Ferguson aka The Tinkerer, who is wanted for a number of illegal uses of steam energy and magic.  We’re plunged straight into the action as Gillian arrives in Shallow Grave and finds himself being shot at before he’s so much as identified himself. He’s surprised to find he has an ally in his skirmish with Ferguson, a handsome cowboy clad in all in black he later recognises as the mysterious vigilante gunslinger known only as Gunner the Deadly – who is also a wanted criminal.

Gunner and Gillian call a temporary truce and decide to work together to capture the Tinkerer, facing his deadly, gloriously bonkers inventions (steam-powered spider-legged Gatling guns! Massive armoured locomotives! Lightning bullets!) in some high-stakes action scenes that are cinematic in scope.  The world-building is solid with clear explanations of how magic works in this world, and of the hierarchical structure – although I suspect, given something Gillian discovers near the end, there is more to come on that score.

The author packs a lot of story and character development into this fast-paced novella.  Gillian is the PoV character, so Gunner is rather enigmatic, but he nonetheless has a considerable impact on Gillian’s outlook and the way he views his government job, making him see that perhaps there isn’t such a great gulf between them after all, and that they’re both operating in grey areas rather than in the starkness of black and white.

The characters are quirky and engaging, and the author creates a strong connection between them despite the short page count. Gillian is an extremely powerful magician, but is otherwise insecure and struggles with his sexuality, keeping himself apart and denying himself the solace of human touch so as not to engender rumours among his colleagues.  Gunner is a gorgeous and enigmatic bad-boy who turns out to be quite different to what Gillian expected, a kind of latter day Robin Hood who makes no bones about the fact that – “Sometimes bad men die when I do good. I don’t regret that.”  Meeting Gunner kicks Gillian’s libido into gear and once he realises his interest is returned he decides to go for it; they have great chemistry, and even though we don’t get into Gunner’s head, it’s clear that he’s rather smitten with Gillian as well, and that he sees beyond the reserved exterior to something of who he really is inside.

There are hints that there’s more to Gillian than meets the eye, and I’m intrigued to find out more about him and his considerable magical abilities. As this is an ongoing series, there’s no HEA in this book, but it ends on a firm HFN for Gillian and Gunner and the promise of more adventures to come.  The Engineer was a quick and absorbing read, and I’m looking forward to reading The Gangster, the next instalment in the series.

Guarding His Melody (Enhanced World #4) by Victoria Sue (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Deaf since childhood, Sebastian Armitage had a promising musical future until his dreams were shattered when he transformed at 12 years old.

In a world where enhanced humans are terrorized and imprisoned, his life shrinks around him even more as he suffers the torment of his father’s experimental research to enable him to hear.

Gray Darling – struggling with the scars left by his experience in Afghanistan – agrees to provide short-term personal protection when anonymous threats escalate into assault on those closest to Seb.

As the lines between protection and attraction blur, Gray and Seb can’t ignore the intense feelings drawing them together. But secrets and betrayals might prove deadly, unless Gray is willing to risk it all. And Seb must find the strength to make his own future and sing his own song…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B-

Victoria Sue’s Enhanced World series features a group of characters with special abilities known as (surprise, surprise!) the Enhanced. Most of the books in the series centre around a specially created Florida-based FBI unit that partners an Enhanced with a regular human, but Guarding His Melody (book four) is an offshoot of the main series which means it’s perfectly possible to listen to it as a standalone. The author does a good job of making it possible for new listeners to jump in here, giving all the necessary backstory without info-dumping, but for the purposes of this review, here’s a quick rundown. The Enhanced are humans who, in childhood or adolescence, suddenly develop special abilities, which range from super strength to the ability to become invisible, walk through walls, destroy metal, x-ray vision … it’s a long list and there’s no way of knowing beforehand who will transform, let alone what their powers might be. The only things all Enhanced have in common are 1) an identifying facial mark or scar which appears literally overnight when they undergo their transformation; 2) when they transform, their parents are given the choice to keep them in their households or send them away – a disturbing number take the latter option; 3) they are feared and viewed with suspicion, distrust and even hatred by the ‘normal’ public, and 4) they don’t have the same rights as everyone else.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.