Book Review: Level Grind by Annie Bellet
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Books 1-4 of The Twenty-Sided Sorceress
Publisher: Saga Press (October 4, 2016)
Length: 480 pages
In gaming lingo, the term “level grind” often has negative connotations, typically used to describe having to engage in mind-numbingly tedious or repetitive tasks to gain experience or complete an achievement. Happily, this is not at all how I would describe my experience with Level Grind by Annie Bellet, which is in fact a very witty, vibrant, and entertaining urban fantasy. Collecting the first four novellas in the Twenty-Sided Sorcerer series, this omnibus admittedly offers pretty standard fare when it comes to the genre. Still, it manages to be a very entertaining read thanks to the stories’ vigorous pacing, the characters’ irresistible charms, and the author’s fun take on the usual tropes.
Meet Jade Crow, a sorceress on the run. After twenty-five years of hiding from her ex-lover and fellow sorcerer Samir who wants to eat her heart (gross, yes, but that happens to be the only way to kill a sorcerer and steal their powers) she has ended up settling in Wylde, Idaho, home to a thriving paranormal community that includes shapeshifters, witches, and leprechauns. A lifelong gamer and nerd, Jade is content enough to lie low and live a quiet life among friends, running her comic book and game store.
Justice Calling is the first novella of the collection, introducing us our main characters and setting. It was just another day at Pwned Comics and Games when a tall and handsome stranger breezes through the door and accuses Jade of murder. Alek is a Justice, an enforcer for the Shifter community, and he has arrived in Wylde after receiving a vision that someone or something may be harming the lives of those he has sworn to protect, and he believes Jade is to blame.
This first story also sets the tone for the rest of the series: lots of gaming and pop culture references, unashamedly geared towards the gamer and geek demographics. That said, any general fan of urban fantasy can definitely enjoy these books as well. As the opening novella and also the shortest of the bunch, Justice Calling is unfortunately rather light on character development and world-building (imagine a full-length novel by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews compressed into a little more than 100 pages, and that’s how I would describe this), but it does solidly establish more to come. This is when reading the omnibus comes in handy; with the next book conveniently waiting on the next page, there was no excuse not to satisfy my curiosity and hankering for more.
MURDER OF CROWS
This second story starts with Jade’s estranged father showing up at her doorstep, imploring her for help. Our protagonist has never forgiven her family for kicking her out of Three Feathers crow shifter ranch where she grew up, but she ultimately agrees to help after learning someone was out there brutally killing innocent people. As always, Jade suspects Samir, her evil sorcerer ex who could be murdering members of the Crow clan to get to her.
If book one was about laying down the groundwork and hooking readers in, then Murder of Crows is where things start to get a little deeper. Bellet fleshes out her world-building, exploring the various shapeshifting communities in her series and also incorporating Native American history, culture, and lore into her story. But it is character development that gets a huge boost. We learn a lot more about Jade and where she came from, and by the end of the book she is changed by the many difficult decisions she had to make. There’s also a strong vibe of mysticism in this one as Jade comes to terms with being a sorceress and what it’ll take to control her magic. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was her romance with Alek; I mean, come on, it ends before it even begins!
PACK OF LIES
The next story begins as Alek suddenly comes back into Jade’s life, showing up at her door asking her for help (yes, there’s a clear pattern emerging here with regards to the way these books begin). The Wylde community is again threatened as news comes that wolves are killing other wolves, but things take an even worse turn when an innocent family is found slaughtered, seemingly caught in the middle of a shifter conflict. Even though Alek broke her heart, for the sake of her town Jade decides to lend him a hand in his investigation.
I didn’t get a chance to feel invested in Jade and Alek’s relationship in the previous two books, so quite a few of their interactions felt empty. These plots are also starting to become very predictable, especially when read back-to-back; someone always comes to Jade for help with a gruesome terrible crime, and as always, Jade thinks it must be Samir, the big bad who has been a constant threat in the back of her mind and yet he is still nowhere to be seen. To be fair, this is a rather common feeling for me when it comes to novellas, with there being so few pages to really develop a deeper story. Still, these books are meant to be short and sweet, and when all is said and done, Pack of Lies was another fast, entertaining read. Jade also reveals herself to be a sorceress at the end of this book which causes no small amount of tensions in her small town (even the other paranormals are kind of creeped out by sorcerers, with them being known to eat hearts and everything) which adds another interesting source of conflict to the series.
Yep, this one also starts with someone showing up at Jade’s door for help, and again we are led to believe that these dastardly acts (in this case, the grisly mass killings of unicorns) might be attributed to Samir. But this time, we actually get the sense that a greater story is emerging. Finally! A mysterious sorceress also turns up in Wylde, claiming to be running away from Samir and needs protection, and Jade is torn between wanting to help and not wanting to put her friends at risk.
I’ll be honest, this being the fourth installment, I thought we would have a lot more answers by now. But this is also a story with some great developments and nice twists. Hunting Season was perhaps the best of the novellas, and a great story to end this first collection.
Closing thoughts: So far, I’m really enjoying The Twenty-Sided Sorceress and I would highly recommend the omnibus format of Level Grind for an easy, convenient way to enjoy the first four novellas one after another. While it’s true that UF fans may find it a little derivative and too similar to many of the popular paranormal series out there, I think it aims for being light and fun rather than groundbreaking. And it worked! The stories’ short lengths also definitely had some impact on the depth of world-building, character, and story development, but the good news is, these areas continue to expand with each installment. It’s probably not a stretch to say if you love Mercy Thompson or Kate Daniels, you will do get a kick out of this series as well. Geeks and gamers will especially have a blast! I look forward to seeing what’s next.