Review: ‘Department 19’ by Will Hill

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Department 19

Author: Will Hill

Format: author-signed paperback

Publisher: HarperCollins

Original Release Date: 3/29/2011

Length: 496 pages

Acquired: won in a publisher giveaway

Department 19 Website, Facebook & Twitter

This was first posted as a guest review at Waiting For Fairies

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The blurb from the website:

Jamie Carpenter’s life will never be the same. His father is dead, his mother is missing, and he was just rescued by an enormous man named Frankenstein.

Jamie is brought to Department 19, where he is pulled into a secret organization responsible for policing the supernatural, founded more than a century ago by Abraham Van Helsing and the other survivors of Dracula.

Aided by Frankenstein’s monster, a beautiful vampire girl with her own agenda, and the members of the agency, Jamie must attempt to save his mother from a terrifyingly powerful vampire.

Department 19 takes us through history, across Europe, and beyond – from the cobbled streets of Victorian London to prohibition-era New York, from the icy wastes of Arctic Russia to the treacherous mountains of Transylvania.

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My moderately spoilery thoughts:

Considering the fact that this is a YA book, I rather enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against YA, but at times the genre can be frustrating to read, as though YA writers assume that their readers aren’t mature or intelligent enough to handle content that’s a bit more complex. Some of the writing in Department 19 definitely seemed more appropriate for a younger crowd but all in all, it was fast-paced enough to keep the pages turning and intriguing enough to keep me thinking about it when I wasn’t reading. I also found myself anxious to get back to it as soon as possible whenever I had to put it down to eat or shower or sleep or work… pesky, pesky work.

Some of my favorite sections of this book dealt with the short glimpses back in history at the protagonist’s ancestors. Jamie Carpenter’s great-grandfather worked with the fabled Abraham Van Helsing and joined his circle of Dracula-staking buddies when Department 19, aka Blacklight, was formed in 1892, 100+ years before Jamie’s story begins. His grandfather met and befriended Frankenstein’s monster, who seemed quite civilized and took on his creator’s name after he passed. Finally we learn more about his father Julian, who was also a member of Department 19 and who apparently betrayed it, and so is much hated by the time Jamie is tossed headfirst into insanity.

Before the events in this story, neither Jamie or his mother had any knowledge of the classified, vampire-killing, militant branch of the government which his father had been an honored member. He was honored before that whole betrayal thing, anyway, after which his colleagues tracked him down and summarily executed him in his driveway in front of his family. I had a hard time swallowing such fly-off-the-handle type of behavior from a highly-trained, professional organization, but I didn’t let it detract (much) from the rest of the story.

I enjoyed the fact that the author touted Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a chronicle of true events, rather than a work of fiction. As one Department 19 Operator explains to a civilian after she admits that she has read Stoker’s book, “It’s not a story; it’s a history lesson.” Though that reminded me of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, in which Dracula is essentially a How-to guide for killing vampires of the Black Court, the concept fit well and the premise opened the door for the inclusion of Frankenstein’s character, which added some spice to the story.

Jamie is torn from his life as an awkward teen when his mother is kidnapped by one of the oldest vamps in the world, after which he is rescued from the same vamp by yet another monster straight out of a horror story. A monster who happened to be pals with his dad, once upon a time (no pun intended). Of course, neither Jamie or his mother had any knowledge of the vampire-killing militant branch of the government before this story takes place so we get a lot of info-dumping to catch Jamie (us) up on the history of the organization and his family’s part in it. I feel that Hill did a great job of fleshing out Jamie’s character, from the vehement anger at his father for his betrayal and for his lies about his job to Jamie and his mother, to his stubborn insistence in ignoring what he’s told by senior members of Blacklight. I often found his behavior exceedingly annoying but it was probably pretty accurate for a teenaged boy.

Aside from a bit of choppy jumping back and forth action toward the end of the book, the only issue I had with the story was the excessive gore. Yes, I do realize that this is a Stoker-esque portrayal of vamps as blood-sucking monsters and that much blood and murder and mayhem is likely to take place, but the book is aimed at a 12+ audience and I just felt that it was a little too bloody for the pre-teen set. I got the feeling while reading the many fight scenes that the author was writing something as anti-Twilight as possible and while I approve, multiple mentions of characters being soaked in blood and then the image of a vampire covered in gore from head to toe, flinging drops of blood from her hair in the midst of battle, was just a wee bit much.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this read to anyone who wants a good ole vamp-staking story. There are cool weapons, a lot of action, and an impressively in-depth history of the Blacklight organization, as well as a dun-dun-dun-DUNNNN ending that will, hopefully, make you look forward to the next book, Department 19: The Rising, as much as I do. (teaser chapters here)

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Review/Giveaway: ‘Ghost Story’ by Jim Butcher

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Ghost Story

Dresden Files #13

Author: Jim Butcher

Format: hardcover

Publisher: ROC

Release Date: 7/26/2011

Length: 477 pages

Acquired: purchased via two good friends at a book signing

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The blurb from the website:

When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn’t doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin.

But being dead doesn’t stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has no body, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their own.

To save his friends — and his own soul — Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic…

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My thoughts, as brief (ha!) and spoiler-free as I can make them (note, definite spoilers through book #12, Changes):

I’ve mentioned before how Jim Butcher generally starts off his Dresden books with catchy lines. Book #13, Ghost Story, does not disappoint.

Life is hard. Dying’s easy.

As expected after the abrupt ending to book #12, Changes, which left many Butcher fans with an “Oh, hell no, he didn’t!” kind of attitude… Harry is dead. Oh, hell yes, he did!

As this story begins, Harry finds himself in an odd Purgatory-like Chicago. He learns he hasn’t moved on to some sort of afterlife because there was an irregularity with his death, that he died because “they cheated”. He’s told that he’s got to return to Chicago as a spirit and solve his own murder or three people he loves will come to great harm.

Nah, that’s not cryptic at all.

But Harry doesn’t have to go back to Chicago as a spirit. He could choose to do so, to return and find out who shot him, or he could choose to move on to “What Comes Next”. But there’s a catch — of course there’s a catch, there’s always a catch — once he sets out, there’s no going back to Chicagotory and there’s no moving on unless he finds his killer. If he fails to do so, he’ll be trapped as a spirit in the mortal world with no way to move on and nothing to do but slowly go insane.

Harry’s willing to take that chance in order to help his friends. His state of being may have changed, but not his priorities or his sense of obligation. One of the many traits I love in this character is his unwillingness to throw in the towel. Ever.

So Harry accepts his mission and returns as a spirit that nobody can see, with no magic and no easy means of communicating with his still-living loved ones. Harry visits an old acquaintance, the ectomancer Mortimer Lindquist who is able to communicate with spirits, and the hunt for the shooter is on.

Back at the ranch… or rather, at Murphy’s house, we meet up with the usual suspects. Murph is of course present, though dramatically different than the Karrin Murphy that left Harry on the Water Beetle to get ready for their date at the end of Changes. Also in attendance is Will, leader of the Alphas, Father Forthill from St. Mary of the Angels, Molly’s brother David Carpenter and Abby, one of the Paranet members we first met in book #10, White Night… and her little dog, too. Once Molly arrives, Murph has her own little war council or rather, her own Justice League, as Harry dubs the group.

So the gang’s all here, for the most part, and greatly changed in the time since Harry took a bullet, and then took his last swim. Harry learns that after he wiped out the Red Court, he created a power vacuum and all kinds of nasties have been attempting to fill it, meaning his friends have had their hands full fighting baddies in Harry’s absence, which has been quite a bit longer than he had known. Harry hadn’t been there to help his friends clean up the mess he had made and he was feeling somewhat guilty.

What could I do? What do you do to make up for failing everyone in your life? How do you make it right? How do you apologize for hideous things you never intended to happen?

These thoughts were a low point in the book for Harry. He’s overwhelmed with what needs to be done and feels incapable of doing much of anything but in true Harry Dresden fashion, he bucks up and faces the darkness.

My job hadn’t changed. When demons and horrors and creatures of the night prey on this city, I’m the guy who does something about it.

Harry’s usual strategy when working to take out an enemy is to bust in, blasting rod blazing and spells flying. He’s all power and strength and sheer determination.  His power is fed by emotions and some of the strongest emotions for using the kind of power Harry wields are anger, rage, and fear. He can also think his way around a problem but that usually comes after tossing around a lot of fire and sheer kinetic energy. Considering his physical state of being in this book, Harry is forced to modify the way he plans for an assault on the bad guys’ lair.

Maybe I should pause for a moment. Maybe I should think. Maybe I should reject both anger and fear and strive for an outcome beyond kicking down the door and smashing everything in my way. Play it smart. Play it responsible.

Overloading Harry with tasks is a familiar MO to readers of the Dresden Files. Mr. Butcher is fond of throwing many and varied obstacles into the path of his hero and this story is no different. As though trying to find the person that shot him wasn’t quite enough to be going on with, Harry takes on a client, helps out with the rescue of a priest, arranges yet another rescue (ok, maybe not quite so varied) of the aforementioned ectomancer from a seriously bad-ass spirit, and storms the beach at Normandy. Kind of.

Overachiever much, Harry? But of course he is, and he knows it!

Fabulous. Maybe I should make it my new slogan: Harry Dresden–I take responsibility for more impossible situations in the first twenty-four hours of being dead than most people do all day.

This book discusses memories quite a lot and stresses the power of those memories. At various points throughout the story, Harry dwells on his past a good deal more than he’s done previously in this series. We get a glimpse of the boy he was and what he experienced as an apprentice to Justin DuMorne. We see the betrayal by his master and mentor, and finally, we get to see young Harry’s first bona fide battle. It is awesome and terrible, and it sets his feet on the path to becoming the formidable wizard that goes on to eliminate not just one ancient Court of Vampires, but two.

Harry also dwells on the choices he made in Changes, regarding both Susan’s death and accepting the mantle of the Winter Knight. Our favorite wizard for hire wrestles with guilt and regret quite a lot in this book. He realizes that decisions made to do the right thing can still be wrong decisions.

Like it or not, I had embraced the darkness. The fact that I had died before I could have found myself used for destructive purposes meant nothing. I had picked up a red lightsaber. I had joined the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I had become what I always fought.

Harry then learns that he may have been nudged a bit toward making those wrong decisions. Back to that whole, “they cheated” thing. Finally, Harry allows himself access his own memory of who shot him as well as who arranged for it to be done and why he had forgotten. He is now ready to move on, admittedly, rather anticlimactically. 

At this point, as a faithful (and possibly sobbing) reader of the series might expect or at the very least hope, Mr. Butcher introduces quite the holy shit! moment. Which is why we get to look forward to Cold Days, hopefully soon. We have yet to see a release date and unfortunately, there’s very little info regarding this 14th Dresden Files book on the author’s site but I’ll be keeping an eye out, as should you.

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Regarding the audio book format of Ghost Story: I just couldn’t buy it, couldn’t listen to it. When this book was released, I had just finished a re-listen of the first twelve Dresden Files books (plus Side Jobs) and I absolutely love listening to the audio versions of the books in this series. James Marsters has done such a spectacular job as the voice of Harry Dresden and to me, the two are synonymous with one another. Furthermore, I’m stubborn. I just couldn’t bring myself to read a Dresden book read by someone other than Marsters.

So imagine my delight when I first sat down last summer with my beautiful new hardcover and began to read… and heard Mr. Marsters remarkable voice in my head. Down to him snarling “Fuego!” and “Forzare!”. Marsters’ wonderful vocalization of Harry’s sarcasm was loud and clear and delightful. I could hear Bob’s accent and the familiar geekiness of Waldo Butters, I heard it all in beautiful inside-my-head surround sound.

I was pleased as punch, though my imagination wasn’t quite as good as hearing him actually reading would have been. I assumed that I could hear Marster’s voice so clearly in my mind because as I said, I’d just finished listening to him read the Dresden books for weeks on end. However when I re-read the book again over the last few days in order to touch up on a few points before posting this review, I could still hear him. Clear as day.

As I said, James Marsters is Harry Dresden. So while I’m sure John Glover did his best while reading this most recent book, I don’t know that I could bring myself to listen to him reading Harry. Unreasonable? Possibly. Obstinate? Certainly. But again, and I cannot stress this enough, James Marsters is Harry Dresden. At this point, I can’t listen to a Dresden Files book as read by another. Especially after seeing so many Audible.com reviews filled with disappointment and frustration that Penguin didn’t wait until Mr. Marsters was available to read. As a fan of not only the series but the audio books, I’d have waited. Okay, ’nuff said on that subject but I really, really missed your voice, Mr. Marsters!

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My own personal summary:

The one in which Harry: is… dead; meets the shade of Karrin Murphy’s dad; goes back to Chicago as a ghost to investigate his own murder; learns about wraiths and lemurs (lay-moors); meets a nasty old acquaintance from his dino-riding days; meets Evil Bob; realizes how long he’s been gone and what affect his death/disappearance has had on his friends; takes on a client; does a lot of soul searching; finds a fortress where the house above his basement apartment used to stand; under duress, tells Lea about his time with Justin DuMorne and his first encounter with He Who Walks Behind; manifests, thereby proving that he is insane; has a flashback to a pre-Chichen Itza convo with Molly; chats with his old pal Uriel and learns the truth about who shot him and why; finds Mouse as Maggie’s guardian (serious boo-hoo inducing chapter, that!); and has the mantle of the Winter Knight forced on him despite his efforts to the contrary.

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Fave quotes:

‘I’d had a long, long day, battling the forces of evil, utterly destroying the Red Court, rescuing my daughter, and murdering her mother–oh, and getting shot to death. That kind of thing.’

‘Hells bells, I hate being the new guy.’

‘I screamed, emerging from the wards and onto Murphy’s front lawn, chock-full of new insight as to why ghosts are always moaning or wailing when they come popping out of somebody’s wall or floor. Not much mystery there–it freaking hurts.’

‘Interestinger and interestinger.’

‘Death is only frightening from the near side.’

‘It wasn’t like any kind of pain I’d felt before, and I’m a connoisseur when it comes to pain.’

‘Life is precious, fragile, fleeting–and Murphy’s life was one of my favorites.’

‘I was starting to get why so many ghosts seemed to be a couple of French fries short of a Happy Meal.’

‘My gast was pretty well flabbered.’

“Note to self. Look into apparent mystical anomaly later. Help your friends now.” ~Harry

‘The best thing about my faerie godmother is that the creepy just keeps on coming.’

‘It turns out ghosts can cry.’

“Wrong is wrong, even when you really, really want it not to be. I learned that one the hard way. It’s easy to do the right thing when it doesn’t cost you. Not as easy to do the right thing when your back is to the wall.” ~Harry to Fitz

‘I’d fallen victim to one of the other classic blunders, along with not getting involved in a land war in Asia and never going in against a Sicilian when death was on the line.’

‘They could kill me, but they couldn’t have me. I was my own.’

“Booya! That’s right! Who just rocked your face? Harry fucking Dresden! That’s who!” ~Harry to Evil Bob

“Hells bells. Harry, you idiot, when will you learn not to victory gloat?” ~Harry 

‘Dead or alive, Kemmler’s disciples did not play for funsies.’

“Aren’t you a little short for an archangel?” ~Harry to Uriel

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Congrats! Since you read your way through that review — or if you just scrolled through it, I suppose — you can now enter the book giveaway. I have one unread, author-signed, hardcover copy of Ghost Story to give away to one lucky commenter as a prize to celebrate my 10,000th blog view/1 year blogiversary! If you’re not a member of WordPress, just use your email address to enter a comment, it won’t be displayed publicly.

While I would greatly appreciate you sharing this blog post via the social networking site(s) of your choice, all you really need to do is leave a comment below. No quizzes or comment requirements, just tell me something you enjoyed about this book, or any of the Dresden Files! If you have yet to read the Dresden Files, let me know if you plan to start and whether any particular reviews, recommendations or something else has prompted you to pick up the series.

I will randomly choose a winner from the comments at the end of February, just be sure to leave a means of communication, be it Facebook, Twitter or email, if you know I don’t already have your contact info. Also, no location restrictions, I’m willing to ship the book via media mail to anybody, anywhere. So c’mon… comment away! And share!