Review: Staked by Kevin Hearne (2016)

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Hardcover, 310 pages
Published January 26th 2016 by Del Rey
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

I have long been a fan of what I call ‘snack’ (or ‘junk food’) books. I use this as a term of endearment, rather than in a derogatory manner; I don’t always want a candy bar, but every so often, a Coffee Crisp is EXACTLY what I want and need. My intention with this designation are signifying books that are short, entertaining, usually somewhat humorous, generally in a series form and often in mass market paperback out of the gates; for me, they’re a nice break from 700 page epic fantasy series that take me weeks and weeks to read, and require a ton of time to digest. For one reason or another, most of the ones I read seem to be urban fantasy, which have their own style to them, and tend to meet my guidelines for ‘snack’ books. I get reading fatigue at times, and I generally like to break up my reading by going long – short – long – short.

Examples of fantasy series that I’ve read that fall into this category are The Dresden Files, Sandman Slim, Discworld, Jig The Goblin, Libriomancer, Geekomancy. Being a ‘snack’ book definitely doesn’t mean they’re of lower quality, less depth, or less content – just means they’re in a shorter format, easier to read, easy to binge through and destroy in a couple sittings without stressing about it.

For some time, Iron Druid has been my go-to in this style; one or two books a year, quick easy read, lots of humor, some depth and a lot of fun. Luckily for me, I began reading the series after the first book, Hounded, was released, so I’ve been able to follow along as it comes out. I often will skip large series, as I’m a bit intimidated by longer epic sagas that will take me months and months of solid reading to finish (see: Malazan). They immediately appealed to me in a way that a lot of other similar series didn’t: effortless humor that never felt overly forced, very interesting historical elements, interactive gods that weren’t obnoxious, and a protagonist that I didn’t detest. I trudged through 9 books of the Dresden Files series, as for a while they were my main snack, but I just could no longer stand Harry Dresden as a character, and Butcher’s writing just didn’t speak to me.

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For the most part, it’s been an enjoyable journey through the series. I’ve given generally favorable reviews (1x 5-star, 5x 4-star and 1x 3-star), and left positive comments. It’s not perfect, but I don’t expect it to be – I want them to be entertaining, fun, page-turning reads. And in that area, Iron Druid delivers.

For those uninitiated, this is the 8th book in the series (of 9 total, plus a handful of novellas), which follows Atticus O’Sullivan, a several thousand year old druid, who for a long period of time was the only remaining druid on earth. He is kept alive by a magical concoction he calls “ImmortaliTea”, which is a blend of herbs that he magically enhances, and gives the consumer essentially endless life at their current age (does not make them invulnerable). He proceeds over the series to get into various sticky situations involving witches, werewolves, and gods from all societies and all historical periods. He has a couple chats with Jesus, for example, and an epic battle with the Greek gods.

Atticus is accompanied by a colorful cast of friends and allies, the most notable of which is his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon. Atticus has a telepathic link with Oberon that allows him to communicate back and forth, and the resulting conversations have proven one of the best parts of the entire series, providing comic relief at almost every instance. Additionally, he takes on an apprentice/lover, Granuaile, who is a local bartender at a pub Atticus frequents. Later in the series, his mentor, frozen in a time prison, is released, and Owen provides some of the best commentary in the entire series, as he navigates a modern world that he was previously not introduced to.

Irish Wolfhound dog portrait

Where we stand heading into this book is as such: Atticus is on a campaign to wipe out the vampires, and more specifically, the oldest living vampire, Theophilus. Granuaile is waging her own war against the god Loki, who she severely injured in an ambush, but who she naturally assumes will be on her tail soon. She’s currently with a coven of witches in Poland, seeking to make a protective magical cloak to help protect her. Owen is settling in with the Tempe pack of werewolves, and looking to start a new grove in order to start training druids for the future, to try and recover the order of druids from extinction.

That said, I essentially just summarized the new book as well. It felt like less happened in this novel than in any of the previous (perhaps as a setup for the final book?). I mean, plenty did happen, but much of it felt minor, less impactful – there weren’t the large-scale god battles, or even some of the interpersonal conflict that there generally have been in the books. Atticus largely travels around searching for Theophilus, and the book seems to focus very heavily on destinations, cities and their cultures, and making commentary on those. Kevin’s awesome in that he researches his destinations and uses real places, but he also leans on that very heavily in this novel. We spend a lot of time in stores, restaurants and other places in Toronto, Rome, Poland, Germany. After a while, it felt like a bit of a platform to discuss vacation cities.

I still got plenty of laughs from the book – Owen is an absolute riot, especially when placed in the incredibly capable hands (lips?) of Luke Daniels, the audiobook narrator. His curmudgeony attitude is endearing in it’s own way, and some of his complaints and observations elicited full on belly laughs. As always, Oberon and Atticus have extremely entertaining mental conversations, though for much of the book, Oberon was basically told “Sit, stay, good boy” while Atticus did things on his own. Which, to me, is a missed opportunity – a chunk of the success of the series is their interactions and Oberon’s commentary – I say it’s akin to Inglorious Basterds, where Brad Pitt’s character Aldo Raine felt sorely underused (despite the movie being brilliant regardless).

And just to get it out of the way – Granuaile at this point does nothing for me as a character, and I found most of her chapters extremely boring. She lacks a lot of the charm and pizazz of Atticus and Owen, her hound is not funny or interesting the way Oberon is, and for most of this book, she does next to nothing. She hangs out with witches and learns some Polish, goes on a quick mission to rescue a horse, and then spends more time with the witches, before finally briefly reuniting with Atticus to save the day. I appreciate and accept the need and value in strong female characters, and she most certainly is one of those. She has ample depth, a great history, and interesting upbringing into being a druid. However, very little of that translated in Staked, and I found myself half groaning during her chapters, just wishing things would get back to Atticus or Owen.

One thing the book did fantastically (and the series as a whole, frankly) is deal with consequences. While the book centers around superpowered druids, as well as nearly invulnerable gods from all different cultures, there are generally lasting effects and troubling moments related to actions and decisions. Atticus at this point is starting to feel the weight of his history, and of all of his past actions. Some of his decisions have lead to the death of friends, and in the end of the novel, he suffers perhaps the worst blow to his mental health and wellbeing that he has yet received. I thought it was handled excellently, I thought Owen delivering that blow to Atticus was brilliantly written, very impactful, and very moving. It was a terrific passage, and was the crowning jewel of this novel for sure.

I’ve invested enough into this series that I will see it out, and I enjoy Kevin and his writing enough to follow him into his new series afterwards. However, for me, this was the weakest book in the series to date – not that it was bad, because it certainly wasn’t. It was just lacking some of the ‘oomph’ that the other novels in the series had, and despite it’s short length (310 hardcover pages) still felt like it had some space filler in it, rather than plot movement. I fully expect the final piece of this series to be longer, and for it to go out with a ‘bang’. Hearne’s writing is as good, or better, than it’s ever been, but it did not directly translate into Staked.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

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