The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Reminiscent of: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
We learn of great things by little experiences. The history of ages is but an indefinite repetition of the history of hours. The record of a soul is but a multiple of the story of a moment. The Recording Angel writes in the Great Book in no rainbow tints; his pen is dipped in no colours but light and darkness. For the eye of infinite wisdom there is no need of shading. All things, all thoughts, all emotions, all experiences, all doubts and hopes and fears, all intentions, all wishes seen down to the lower strata of their concrete and multitudinous elements, are finally resolved into direct opposites.
Summary: Malcolm Ross, a young barrister, is summoned by his lady friend Margaret Trelawney, when someone attempts to murder her father. Mr. Trelawney is an Egyptologist, and his house is filled with curios, from gruesome sarcophagi and mummies to ornate trinkets. 
The sudden attack on Mr. Trelawney, who is now unconscious, has left Margaret wholly distraught. Oddly, as if he has been aware of the danger all along, Mr. Trelawney has left his daughter a letter, instructing her not to move any items in his room,with an order that there always be at least one man and woman watching him at all times, night or day. On the first night, a second attack is made on Mr. Trelawney, right under the noses of the watchers, including Ross, are found discovered in a deep seemingly drug induced slumber. 
Through the course of the book unfolds the story of Egyptian Queen Tera, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret, and her dream of resurrecting in a future world, more suited to a powerful woman like her. Now, fifty thousands years later, Queen Tera has been set free. It is apparent that she wants to return to her own embalmed body, which rests unsurprisingly in a sarcophagus in Mr. Trelawney’s house. The question is: how much does Mr. Trelawney know and what is he hiding?
My thoughts: I was very curious to read another book by Bram Stoker,  needless to say, I love Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars is a curious intriguing book. But it suffers from the pesky The Casual Vacancy syndrome, and is underrated, because, well – it’s not Dracula.
Of course it isn’t Dracula, but you can see it’s the same writer. The switching of perspectives is smooth, we slip easily into two long stories – one by an old explorer when he first unearthed Queen Tera’s tomb and the other by Mr. Trelawney’s friend about their journeys through Egypt. Malcolm Ross’s first person narration resembles Jonathan Harker’s in its deep detailed descriptions. But I love how we have a very biased view of the story, partial to the admirable Margaret Trelawney whom the lawyer never doubts. We see every character through the almost self-deprecating eyes of Ross, who gives so little away about himself – we only know of his intellect and experience through the others’ easy confidence in him. Stoker is good with characters in Dracula, and this is no less.
Another truly enchanting quality of the book is its mood. The atmosphere is rich with suspense and mythical exoticness. The glimpses into the old unfamiliar culture are evident not only through the travels to Egypt but in that antique quality possessed by the Trelawneys’ house and lives.
The book questions belief and experimentation, questions science and skeptics, and contrasts the knowledge of the Old and New worlds. It also has a very feministic quality, and Margaret Trelawney is a remarkable character, comparable with Mina, if in nothing other than her strength.
What the book lacks is perhaps a coherent structure. The plot is confusing, its pace inconsistent. It almost feels as if not enough work went into it. And then there’s the ending – abrupt, bizarre, surprising and actually effective. I don’t think Stoker ever intended for Margaret’s ‘connection’ with Queen Tera to be a secret – but even with only thirty pages left in the book, we find it hard to imagine what might happen next and when the ending does come it leaves us aghast – in a good way, if that’s possible. Think: every Stephen King ending, it’s so simple, you wouldn’t have dreamt a whole book would built up to that. Now I prefer such an ending to an unexpected unlikely twist. But I can see how others wouldn’t. Apparently: Stoker was forced to rewrite his disturbing, depressing ending to make it more appealing to the masses. (I wish he hadn’t fallen for that.) 
My copy had both endings. The first shocked me, so I tried the next. But: the alternate ending is mind-numbingly sappy, a fairy tale wrap-up so enormously disappointing, it spoils the overall effect of the book – like a delicious dessert with a bad after-taste, which makes you wish you hadn’t eaten that thing in the first place.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you know what to expect. It’s not outright horror, more a mix of dark fantasy, adventure and mystery. It’s also not Dracula. If you do decide to read this, though, I’d suggest making sure you read the first ending, the one that Stoker originally intended. What you want is the 1903 version, which you can find here.

Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell has to be the most engrossing, thrilling, fast paced book I have read this year. It is action packed and so, so interesting. The book is the second part in a series titled The Order of the Sanguines, but offers enough background info, detailing on the events of Book #1 (The Blood Gospel), to work as a standalone. It is like a paranormal version of a Dan Brown novel, with vampires, angels and prophecies. 

Summary: A modern scientist, a highly secret eternal spiritual order, and a terrifying power must join forces to bring down a ruthless and cunning enemy and prevent the Apocalypse. 

While exploring a tomb hidden for centuries in the depths of Masada, Israel, brilliant archaeologist Erin Granger began an incredible journey to recover a miraculous ancient artifact tied to Christ himself. The quest introduced her to a diabolical enemy determined to discover the book and use its powers for his own dark ends. It also led her to an ancient and highly secret Vatican order-known simply as the Saguines. Though she survived, the danger has only just begun…

An attack outside Stanford University thrusts Erin back into the fold of the Sanguines. As the threat of Armageddon looms, she must unite with an ancient evil to halt the plans of a man determined to see the world end, a man known only as Iscariot.

My thoughts: People judge vampire fiction far too quickly these days. This book is neither young adult, nor paranormal romance nor anything that would make you roll your eyes and go all skeptic. In a word, Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is awesome, so don’t dismiss it as just-another-vampire-related-book.
What I liked: The standouts were: the uniquely sinister take on vampires; the characters picked out of history and mythology, I specially liked the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory; the character development despite the swift pace; the adventure spanning over the world and the ages; the attention to detail. The story was horrific, thrilling, tragic and (here’s a rarity in this genre) quite insightful. And the touch of science fiction, with those ingenious mechanical insects capable of fatally poisoning vampires: wow. The book has left me in complete awe. That it is part of a series and there’s more to come is the icing on the cake.
What I didn’t like: Nothing. The book was as close to perfect as can be! I give it a four star rating, because, not having read the first book, it took me a while to get into context. Some terms were unfamiliar; like the strigoi – the vampires, the Sanguines – the reformed (sort of) vampires priests or the blasphemare – these animals turned into nightmarishly strong monsters after being infected by the blood of the strigoi. I also had to read up on a lot of the Christian elements and the Biblical references, though they were pretty basic and the extra reading was just for me. I don’t know if the themes could be construed as offensive by religious readers, but they were very intriguing and as far as I’m concerned, amazingly unique…  What I’m trying to say is, READ IT.

The First Bird: Episode 3 by Greig Beck

Read the reviews of Episode 1 and Episode 2. Trust me when I tell you, this is one series you don’t want to miss.
Following the events of Episode 2, the team is now back in LA, where all hell has broken loose, with the infection now being air-borne. On their way to safety, they have some close calls with the mob of people driven mad by the disease, and learn, the hard way, that there’s nothing they can do to help them. Will they find a cure, one they can use not just throughout the country, but worldwide?
The author is no amateur when it comes to shocking the readers. Episode 3 takes the combination of science fiction and horror to a whole new level. Bear in mind, this is not a book for the squeamish, faint-at-the-sight-of-blood type of people. It’s horrifying, vividly gory, ruthless. That means, of course, that the book is full of action and is rather amazing. This book focuses less on the characters, whom we know quite well by now and more on the plot, the final fight against the infection that has turned almost the whole population into savages. The author has taken a stereotype of the genre and turned it into a spectacularly original tale. The research involved is impressive and is ensures that the book stands out among the numerous science fiction stories written today.

Episode 3 is available here. The Omnibus edition is also out. Buy the books, they’re worth it.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the publisher.

The First Bird: Episode 2 by Greig Beck

So, here’s my review of Episode 1. Do check it out. The series just keeps getting better and you’d want to have read the first two, when the third episode comes out in August.

The First Bird is like a modern version of The Lost World, while still being entirely original and unique. Here’s what happens in Episode 1: Somewhere in the deep jungles of Brazil, a social anthropologist discovers something extraordinary. The fame-hungry scientist brings back to LA a live specimen of an Archaeopteryx (the eponymous first bird) and with it, a deadly infection that flays its victims alive. So, while the disease spreads, a team of experts sets out to Gran Chaco to find a cure; a team which includes Professor Matt Kearns, an expert in archaeology, old languages and adventure.

“The red-twilight jungle had lulled them with its paradisal beauty. They knew there had to be predators. Stupid, Matt thought. They should have known better. There were things down here that were waking nightmares – scientifically fascinating, but terrifying and deadly.”

In Episode 2, the adventure continues, in the heart of the jungle. The team has found its way into an ancient ecosystem, which has managed not only to survive over countless years, but to evolve into something sinister and entirely unfamiliar to us. Not only do they find what they’re looking for, they also come across some things they never expected to exist. People die and with all the vivid gory details, it’s certainly not pretty. The journey gets more harrowing and scary, especially after the group splits up. The first episode did the work of introducing the characters and displaying the tension between them. Most problems, though, are resolved in this book, more out of necessity than anything else and the focus is on the absurdities of the jungle. Their first encounter with a primeval predator is amazing, no one can describe action scenes quite so well. The images are lifelike and the blend of fact and fiction is very fascinating.

Episode 2 ends with another annoying cliffhanger, only this time I am more anxious to read the third episode than anything else. The story, the part of the journey, that started in this book does get resolved by the end. I can’t wait to read about the aftermath of the expedition now and about what was happening in the outer world all this time. I can only imagine what a perfect ending it would be, to such a great story.

You can get Episode 1 here on Amazon, and 2 right here.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the publisher.

The First Bird: Episode 1 by Greig Beck

One word: Awesome. For a sort of modern version of The Lost World, this book is pretty creative. 

Somewhere in the deep jungles of Brazil, a social anthropologist discovers something extraordinary. The fame-hungry scientist brings back to LA a live specimen of an Archaeopteryx (the eponymous first bird) and with it, a deadly infection that flays its victims alive. So, while the disease spreads, a team of experts sets out to Gran Chaco to find a cure; a team which includes Professor Matt Kearns, an expert in archaeology, old languages and more out of necessity than choice, adventure. While the plot is kind of formulaic, the world created is entirely original.

As with Black Mountain, the thing that really makes this book work is the pace. The plot speeds on and before you even realize it, you’re completely hooked. And for someone who manages to keep things moving so quickly, the authors gives a lot of attention to details. Very few authors can describe an intense action packed scene in such a way that you can picture every single move, as if in slow motion. The vivid descriptions make the scenes come to life, making all the bad things ten times more horrific. There are few information dumps, but since this is a thin book (and only the first part in a series), I had to wish there were. Episode 1 is almost just a teaser and ends with that pesky cliffhanger. I can’t wait to read the second part.

The team is made up of quite a variety of characters, with rather obvious good and bads, so you’re bound to find someone to relate to. There’s swift, funny dialogue and very cool inputs from the entomologist and the linguist. The native legends, and customs, described mostly by Moema, the local guide of sorts make the whole book very interesting and very real. It also gives you the vaguest idea of what’s about to come and how deep the author’s capable of digging into a topic. Which is the thing I loved the most: while it’s just a novella, it’s massive in scope.

There is still time to read Episode 1 of The First Bird before Episode 2 comes out in July, followed by the final episode in August. If you like action, adventure, history, fantasy and thrillers, this is an author you don’t want to miss.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the publisher.