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(5 out of 5 stars) by Matthew Pursley

I first read The House of Diamond...oh, at least four or five years ago. I reread it last week, to refresh my memory before reading the second volume of the series. It hasn't suffered any with the passage of time, and is an absolutely delightful story. The talents for storytelling, wry humor, intriguing plot-lines, and vivid characterization Ms. Vernon shows in her art and comics shine through just as well in her first novel. I don't have a whole lot to add to the synopsis and teaser in the product description, besides saying that it's entirely accurate when describing the appealing qualities of the book.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'm going to give my two cents, even if I do end up repeating some of what's said there. Most of the time I pick out something in an author's style that sticks out as being my favorite part of his/her style, but that's very difficult here. The characters are vivid and likeable, which is a must for me to enjoy a book, but Ms. Vernon's work is well balanced to the point that the other facets of the novel rank right up there. The setting is familiar enough that my imagination slipped easily into it as I read, but with enough of its own development and distinctive twists to make it interesting and distinctive. Likewise, the balance of exposition and action is good, and the pacing is very tight Even though the novel isn't unusually long, a great deal happens within the pages and there are few or no loose plot threads. It's a fair bet that if attention is drawn to something, it's going to come in handy or be referred back to later. One of the things that constantly gets me grinning is the sly sense of humor that runs through the work, and especially the characters.

Ah, there it is! I think I just realized one of the major stand-out elements of Ms. Vernon's style: her protagonists (and some of the antagonists) act like one would expect of real, intelligent people in dangerous situations, keenly aware that life isn't as clear-cut or absolute as it is in the sagas, and that acting like a character from an epic tale tends to be highly impractical. The characters neatly manage to sidestep a lot of fantasy and literary stereotypes, or at least recognize them and joke about them when they realize they spot them. Not only does this provide plenty of opportunities for the characters to make fun of themselves and others, it makes the story as a whole feel more realistic. When we're talking about a world where elves, magic, and assorted nonhuman races are facts of life, that's saying something.
5 March, 2011

(4 out of 5 stars) by K.M. Hirosaki

If you know Ursula Vernon, it's likely via her webcomic "Digger". Seemingly not content to leave her talents to the realm of the visual arts, she has also evidently picked up the grueling hobby of novel-writing. For whatever reason, perhaps because of my own inability to draw worth a damn, I initially found myself surprised at the idea that an artist would take such a big stab at writing, but it turns out to be a pleasant surprise, because she's managed to write a very good book, here.

"The House of Diamond," as the subtitle indicates, is only the first part of a larger story, and perhaps the best indicator that it's worth a read is the fact that I'm already wanting to read the second part. The book on the whole is almost episodic in nature, and so waiting for the next book to come out seems rather like waiting for a new season of a TV series to start up after a season finale. It's thankfully not a cliffhanger that will make you want to throw the book against the wall, but it's unquestionably not the end of the story (you'll understand if I can't say much without giving it away).

"Black Dogs" employs a fantasy setting that is closer to the mainstream than other 'furry' novels that center on the anthropomorphic characters. It's Vernon's take (and twist) on familiar fantasy tropes, however, that sets this particular setting apart, and so even if you think you've trod the road of One Too Many Fantasy Novels already, you'd still do well to give this one a shot, even (and perhaps especially) if you're not just in it for the two-legged animal-people.

Speaking of which, as I mentioned above, this isn't strictly a 'furries-only' book; of the main cast, only one of the characters is any sort of anthropomorphic animal, and even he isn't the main character. Still, I'd encourage fans of furry fiction not to overlook the book for that fact, since--and this may come as a shock to some of you--it's not a story that suffers from a lack of would-be 'furriness' (and nor is it one that would really benefit from having more of it).

Digressions and disclaimers aside, on with the book itself...

This is the story of a teenage girl named Lyra, the daughter of a minor lord and the only survivor of a brutal raid on her family's estate. Fleeing from her home, she encounters the dog-soldier Sadrao on a mission of his own. In accordance with his species' sense of honor, he takes the bookish, ill-prepared Lyra under his wing, protecting her on his travels--and steadily teaching her to protect herself along the way.

The two meet up with a female elven couple, past companions of Sadrao, who beseech the dog-soldier to help them in a desperate mission that may hold the fate of the elves' nation in the balance. Their charge, a young half-elf named Trent, must be safely seen to the mysterious House of Diamond, where the sorcerors there might learn the secrets that could mean the elves' very survival.

Lyra, with no home of her own, joins with Sadrao and his elven companions to help undertake the quest, with the notion that if she follows the path of an adventurer and warrior, she may one day find the skill, talent, and determination necessary to claim vengeance upon those who murdered her father and took her home from her.

As with other novels that feature the travel-based quest, there is, as I said above, something of an episodic feel to the way the story plays out. At some points, this makes the revelation of certain facts feel like they're coming unprompted when they happen to suddenly become relevant, but for the most part, the story unfolds fairly smoothly. The world itself is also set up well, with enough details of world history to make the places seem real, and a population of different species that doesn't make the setting feel like it was lifted out of "Dungeons and Dragons."

I'd readily recommend "Black Dogs" to folks who think they might enjoy a subtly different flavor of traditional fantasy, and who won't have their enjoyment of a story ruined simply because the animal-people don't take center stage the whole time.

28 June, 2007
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