Review: Quantum by Jess Anastasi

Review: Quantum by Jess AnastasiQuantum (Atrophy, #2) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Atrophy #2
Pages: 325
Published by Entangled Publishing on August 8th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Someone wants Captain Admiral Zander Graydon dead. Like yesterday. Zander’s convinced his attractive assistant knows more than she’s willing to say, and if he can stop running long enough, he’ll find out exactly what she’s hiding. Lieutenant Marshal Mae Petros is determined to keep her CO safe. Before she tips her hand, however, Mae has to figure out if the alluring man she’s protecting is the real Captain Admiral Graydon. Or an alien shape-shifting imposter.
On the run and no one to trust…not even each other.
Captain Admiral Zander Graydon has seen a lot of action, but almost getting killed three times in one day is pushing it. Only the company of his new assistant, Lieutenant Marshal Mae Petros, makes things a little easier to swallow. Except the delectable Lieutenant Marshal Petros is hiding a number of secrets, and her presence might have something to do with the continued attempts on his life.
It’s no accident Lieutenant Marshal Mae Petros finds herself in the firing line alongside the charming but very off-limits Captain Admiral Graydon. She’s taken the job as the admiral’s assistant to determine if a shape-shifting alien has killed the CO and assumed his form. Whether the admiral is human or not, Mae finds herself getting way too close to him as they run for their lives.
Military to the core, Mae and Zander will have to overcome their suspicions of each other to work together, when they realize the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

My Review:

If you are bemoaning the lack of Firefly in your life, take heart. Quantum and the Atrophy universe are here to fill that Serenity-shaped void in your heart. Get ready for a wild ride on the Imojenna with Rian Sherron, as well as a heart-stopping adventure following Zander Graydon and Mae Petros as they dodge shipwrecks and shape-shifting aliens to stay alive.

At the beginning, it feels like there are two stories here. One is almost a classic survival tale. Someone is out to kill Zander Graydon. They just keep missing. Well, almost missing. Whoever it is doesn’t have any qualms about collateral damage. But then, the shapeshifting alien Reider think we are about as intelligent as chimpanzees, or maybe less. Alien scientists don’t care how many lab rat equivalents they kill on their way to global domination.

But as Zander thwarts an assassination attempt in a public bathroom, followed by a clearly engineered shuttle crash followed by a missile strike, it’s hard for him not to get the message that someone is out to get him. The problem is that he’s not sure if that person isn’t his new Admiral’s Assistant, Mae Petros. He knows that Mae is keeping some big secret from him, he just doesn’t know what that secret is.

Mae is on a mission – not for any of the human military agencies, but for Rian Sherron, the leader of a motley crew of space salvagers, on a one man mission to eradicate the shapeshifting aliens from our galaxy. Rian saw his old buddy Zander’s name on a list of potential Reider swap-targets, and Rian wants to get there first.

Instead, Mae gets there just in time to help Zander survive those repeated Reidar assassination attempts. And to fall for the man she’s still worried might be an alien copy. Not that he trusts her either.

And just when they think they are out of the woods, literally as well as figuratively, it all goes pear-shaped. And stays that way until Mae, Zander and Rian can finally join forces. Just in time to turn Rian’s one-man crusade into a little fleet of berserkers set to finally take a little bit of this battle to the enemy. If they can just figure out who they are.

atrophy by jess anastasiEscape Rating B+: At first it seems as if this story is only tangentially related to the one in the first book, Atrophy. But when the band gets together, the single narrative becomes much clearer. So definitely read Atrophy first.

Quantum itself almost feels like two books. The first half, the crash and rescue, is one story that could have ended on one hell of a cliffhanger. The second story really gets going when Zander and Mae finally make their way to Rian’s Imojenna. The story switches from a fairly tight, fall in love under threat of death story to the much broader arc of the series, which is a story about taking back the galaxy from the alien infiltration. That bit is going to take several books to resolve, and we only see the first real skirmish here.

We also see a lot more of Rian Sherron’s tortured relationship with the priestess/sorceress Ella. She’s clearly this universe’s Inara Serra, although I think we will finally get to see where that relationship would have gone if the series had continued. Eventually. In the meantime, we see a lot of Rian’s demons and Ella’s attempts to, if not exorcise them, at least calm them down a bit. She’s only partially successful at the best of times.

And now for a couple of little quibbles. I mentioned in my review of Atrophy that the use of made-up profanity takes me out of the story every time. It’s not just that “frecking” does not feel like a reasonable substitute for “fucking” as profanity, but that the change sounds wrong to my ear, especially when used in the profane combination of “frecking Christ”. This is not a comment on religion or the lack thereof, but if “Christ” has survived the centuries as an epithet, then so have the words “fuck” and “fucking”. Especially in the context where “shite”, currently used in the UK and Ireland for “shit” has also survived the ages. People do cuss. Let them.

Second quibble. Military titles. It would feel less jarring if the author had either used something completely made up, and provided a glossary, or used what we have now, on a reasonable extension that military ranks serve a purpose. Weird combinations like “Captain Admiral” and “Lieutenant Marshall” dropped me out of the story every time, and confused me as well. Where does a Lieutenant Marshal fit into the hierarchy? Is it like a Lieutenant in the military, or Marshal as in Sheriff?

Which did not stop me from licking the whole damn thing up with a spoon. I enjoy this series as much for what it is trying to be as what it actually is. But then, I really do miss Firefly. And since there’s no more Firefly, I’ll be waiting eagerly for book 3 in the Atrophy series, Diffraction, hopefully before the end of the year!

Quantum BT banner

 

Blog Tour Schedule:

August 16th

Misa Buckley Excerpt

blissfully bookerized Excerpt

Mes Livres Review

Whiskey With My Book Excerpt

Deluged with Books Cafe Excerpt

August 17th

Whiskey With My Book Excerpt

Maari Loves Her Indies Excerpt

Books n Wine Excerpt

Cass Rant on Demand: Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh

Cass Rant on Demand: Wild Embrace by Nalini SinghWild Embrace (Psy-Changeling, #15.5) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Psy-Changeling #15.5
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on August 23rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The “alpha author of paranormal romance”* presents a stunningly sensual collection of four all-new Psy-Changeling novellas, in which taboos are broken, boundaries are crossed, and instincts prove irresistible...

Echo of Silence
In a deep-sea station, Tazia Nerif has found her life’s work as an engineer, keeping things running smoothly. But she wants nothing more than to break down the barrier of silence between her and her telekinetic Psy station commander...

Dorian
A changeling who can never shift lives a life of quiet frustration—until he learns how to let his leopard come out and play...

Partners in Persuasion
Still raw from being burned by a dominant female, wolf changeling Felix will never again risk being a plaything. But for dominant leopard Dezi, he’s the most fascinating man she’s ever met. She just has to convince this gun-shy wolf that he can trust the dangerous cat who wants to take a slow, sexy bite out of him…

Flirtation of Fate
Seven years ago, Kenji broke Garnet’s heart. Now the wolf packmates have to investigate the shocking murder of one of their own. And the more Kenji sees of the woman Garnet has become, the deeper he begins to fall once more. But even his primal instincts are no match for the dark secret he carries...
*Booklist, starred review

Hello again! Long time, no see. Who’s up for a Cass Rant On Demand™? Clearly the person who baited me with another dip into the Psy-Changeling world. An anthology this time. Be warned, there shall be spoilers and snark ahead.

Anyone want to place bets on how many stories involve a psychic woman being saved by the mighty powers of the changeling cock?

Echo of Silence: Now wait just a moment here. What atrocity is this? A poor woman being left alone in the world to fend off the attentions of this nightmarish man-creature that respects her culture. Be warned, the following exchange may shock you.

“I can’t discard who I am like it’s an old coat.”

“I understand,” Stefan said, having already guessed at Tazia’s value system after so carefully noting every single thing about her in the year they’d worked together. “Your cultural mores are no more or less irrational than the protocol under which my people are conditioned.”

To add insult to injury, he takes this a step further by valuing her talents as an engineer.

“Your skills are necessary.”

Typical Psy. Without exposure to Changeling packs, he hasn’t yet learned that it is his job to threaten his crush (Lucas), violate her bodily autonomy (Vaughn), belittle her life choices (Clay), and piss all over her loyalty to her family (Dorian). Though I guess the latter isn’t necessary since her brother seems to have missed out on the Riley Kincaid Lecture Series: Your Sister’s Vagina is Your Property. 

Of course he’s a former Arrow. Apparently the only school on this planet that teaches how to respect women is the one with a regular torture regimen.

“No grease streaks for once,” she said, nervous.

“I have a confession.” He rose from the bed. “I only used to say that to have an excuse to speak to you. Sometimes you didn’t have grease on your face. I lied.”

Stefan, Stefan, Stefan. Pick up the phone, and give DarkRiver a call. Nate will be happy to explain to you how to infantilize the woman you are romantically interested in. Then you won’t need to worry about conversational icebreakers. (+)

Dorian. This entry is an absolute joke. It’s basically deleted scenes from prior novels, loosely compiled and told from the POV of one racist misogynist fucktard.

Anyone interested in the first time Clay met the pack? Or want to see Dorian briefly interact with the sister that was fridged before the first book? Maybe you want to know how Lucas feels about Dorian being able to shift? Anyone? Bueller? (-)

Partners in Persuasion: Here we have a recently retired supermodel, who is really into fashion and flowers, but just can’t seem to relate to women. In fact, he is so shy around them that he refuses to even make eye contact. Thankfully he has no trouble whatsoever relating to or engaging with men, so when a butch woman puts the moves on him, he tentatively agrees to give it a shot. She’s mannish enough for it to work out.

She tried to shift closer, was stopped by the way they were seated, his upper body twisted to meet her kiss. Placing her hand on his throat,  she—

He wasn’t there any longer, having jerked away to the other side of the trunk. Reeling, she tried to think what she’d done,

I hate to break it to you Dezi, but you didn’t do anything wrong. He freaked out as soon as you got close enough for him to realize you didn’t have a cock.

We’re 15 books into this series, and there hasn’t been one single queer-identified character. All we get is a shy,flower-arranging fashion model who, contrary to pages of internal monologue about how it’ll never work, deciding to hook up with Idgie Threadgoode. Give me a fucking break. Is there an previous entry in the series I missed that covers how the Psy discovered the “gay gene” and managed to suppress it from appearing in the population? (-)

Flirtation of Fate: One self-centered man baby, who firmly believes his feelings outweigh those of any and all females in his life. They will get over their shit. He is the only one who can wallow.

“You knew how awful she was to me, how she made my life a living hell, and you not only took her to prom, you dated her for a year!”

A befuddled expression on his face. “I know you two didn’t like each other, but I thought it was, you know, girl stuff.”

Let that be a lesson to all you menfolk out there. It is completely acceptable to bang a hot bully, even as she is emotionally tormenting your best friend. Teenage girls aren’t at all prone to depression and suicide in situations like this. It’s just girl stuff. Feel free to ignore it.

wild-embrace-uk-editionThe – ahem – romance between these two only appears to deepen with time. After man baby gets his jollies plowing her nemesis, he leads her on, ditches her at her birthday party to bang another girl, spends years tormenting her professionally, and ultimately decides for her that her only purpose in life is to breed. Because yeah. That is how you demonstrate your love for your true mate. Fuck this noise. (-)

In sum, only bother with the first story.

Before I move on to the grading, I need to spend just one moment addressing the cover-shaped elephant in the room. What is with the US covers?! The US cover screams P-O-R-N. Which it really isn’t. There is sex in every story, but it’s only painful when the author is forcing two clearly queer characters into a hetero-normative relationship. If you decide to buy this anthology for the first story, order it from the UK. Even man-baby’s pink hair is preferable to Mr. Nipples.

Escape Rating: D for Down With the Douchebaggery!

 

Marlene’s Notes: Cass is absolutely right about the UK vs. US covers. I always hate the US covers. The UK covers are always lots better.

Howsomever, much as I agree about the covers, I disagree about the series in general and this book in particular. For a considerably more positive take on Wild Embrace, check out my joint review with E over at The Book Pushers.

Review: Oria’s Gambit by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Oria’s Gambit by Jeffe KennedyOria’s Gambit by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Sorcerous Moons #2
Pages: 198
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on August 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A Play For Power
Princess Oria has one chance to keep her word and stop her brother’s reign of terror: She must become queen. All she has to do is marry first. And marry Lonen, the barbarian king who defeated her city bare weeks ago, who can never join her in a marriage of minds, who can never even touch her—no matter how badly she wants him to.
A Fragile Bond
To rule is to suffer, but Lonen never thought his marriage would become a torment. Still, he’s a resourceful man. He can play the brute conqueror for Oria’s faceless officials and bide his time with his wife. And as he coaxes secrets from Oria, he may yet change their fate…
An Impossible DemandWith deception layering on deception, Lonen and Oria must claim the throne and brazen out the doubters. Failure means death— for them and their people.
But success might mean an alliance powerful beyond imagining...

My Review:

lonens war by jeffe kennedyOria’s Gambit picks up where Lonen’s War leaves off. This isn’t a sequel, it is a continuation of the same story. So if you love epic fantasy romance and have not yet read Lonen’s War, go forth and get a copy posthaste. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Also, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, Oria’s very dangerous gambit feels doomed to fail from the very beginning of the story. Not just because this is the middle book in a tetralogy (four scheduled books so far). If there are at least two more books, Oria can’t possibly succeed yet. There wouldn’t be enough story.

But also because Oria is still very much learning, both about politics in general and about her own power in particular. She’s still in the unfortunate position where she believes way too much of what she has been told, even as she proves it wrong at every turn.

And even though the people who taught her are selfish asshats who kept her power suppressed for their own gain. She needs more seasoning before she will be able to see through all the BS that she was indoctrinated with.

This is a story about the building of trust. It is also a story about figuring out that everything that you have been taught is wrong. And that just because someone says they are doing something for your own good, the reality is that they are acting for their own good and don’t give a damn if you get hurt along the way.

As the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. That is a good chunk of what happens between Lonen and Oria. They may not be sure of each other at first, but they both want what is best for all of their people. Oria, who has been barred from the circles of power in Bara, sees her homeland’s supreme selfishness as wrong. The Barans have been wasting water in a desert for centuries, using their superior magic to steal it from anyplace that cannot stand against them, without a care for how many people they destroy along the way.

It feels like there’s a worldwide water shortage on this planet, and the Barans are doing more than their fair share to make it worse. They don’t care who they kill or what they destroy as long as they can preserve their supposedly superior lifestyle.

And that’s the drama that plays out between Oria and the powers-that-want-to-continue-to-be in her homeland. Oria, with Lonen’s assistance, is doing her best to work within the system for a solution that has a chance of saving everyone. But the forces that have chosen to defend the status quo are willing to stoop to any means, including mass murder, to maintain their place at the top of the heap.

They see Oria and Lonen as traitors and collateral damage. It is going to take a miracle, and a catastrophe, not necessarily in that order, to change that perspective. If Oria survives.

Escape Rating A-: If you like epic political fantasy, this series is like crack. It has everything. Complex magic, political skullduggery, epic battle sequences, horrible monsters and a love story that looks like it is going to be one for the ages.

Oria and Lonen start out from a position where they don’t trust each other, and with good reason. They begin the story in Lonen’s War on opposite sides of a battlefield. But the more they are forced to work together the more they both discover that an honorable enemy makes a better friend than a treacherous ally.

Their marriage is intended to be a marriage of convenience. Oria requires a spouse in order to grab power before her immature, reckless, selfish and idiotic brother manages to claim it. Yar will be a tool of the priesthood, where Oria thinks for herself.

Oria believes that her power makes it impossible for anyone to touch her without making her faint from overload. That’s why she insists on a marriage of convenience. Lonen, knowing none of this but seeing her as the only way of saving his people, agrees.

But the more they work together, and the more time they spend together, the less sensible that marriage of convenience seems. Not just because Lonen wants the only prize he is likely to get after his conquering of Bara, but because the more they work at being allies, the more that Oria feels for her “barbarian” consort.

Watching her perspective change is marvelous. The seduction scene is beautiful and hot and still manages to respect the necessary boundaries that Oria has drawn around herself. The reader sees that those barriers are slowly falling, but Oria, appropriately for her character, isn’t there yet.

The story ends on a low note, as middle books so often do. Our hero and heroine face grave challenges ahead. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

Review: Always a Cowboy by Linda Lael Miller + Giveaway

Review: Always a Cowboy by Linda Lael Miller + GiveawayAlways a Cowboy (The Carsons of Mustang Creek, #2) by Linda Lael Miller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Carsons of Mustang Creek #2
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He's the middle of the three Carson brothers and is as stubborn as they come—and he won't thank a beautiful stranger for getting in his way!
Drake Carson is the quintessential cowboy. In charge of the family ranch, he knows the realities of this life, its pleasures and heartbreaks. Lately, managing the wild stallions on his property is wearing him down. When an interfering so-called expert arrives and starts offering her opinion, Drake is wary, but he can't deny the longing—and the challenge—she stirs in him.
Luce Hale is researching how wild horses interact with ranch animals—and with ranchers. The Carson matriarch invites her to stay with the family, which guarantees frequent encounters with Drake, her ruggedly handsome and decidedly unwelcoming son. Luce and Drake are at odds from the very beginning, especially when it comes to the rogue stallion who's stealing the ranch mares. But when Drake believes Luce is in danger, that changes everything—for both of them.

My Review:

once a ranchr by linda lael millerAlways a Cowboy is a lovely, quiet little story. There’s no big crisis, and thankfully no huge misunderstandammit. Just a sweet story about two people who find each other and fall in love, even though that isn’t what either of them is looking for.

In this followup to Once a Rancher, the story focuses on the second of the Carson sons. While oldest son Slater used to be a rancher and is now a documentary filmmaker, middle son Drake has always been a cowboy. Unlike his brothers, who both love the family ranch but want to do something different with their lives, running the ranch is the life that Drake has always wanted.

Even if it doesn’t leave him much time for a life of his own. Or much opportunity to find someone to spend that life with.

His mother has a plan to fix that problem.

You’d think that a handsome cowboy with a share of a successful ranch would have no problem finding a woman on his own, but Drake is too busy to go looking, and is not interested in casual, even if he had the time.

Luce Hale is anything but casual. She’s driven to make a career for herself, even if she has to drive Drake Carson crazy to do it. Because Luce is planning to write her Master’s thesis in ecology on the management of wild horse herds on working ranches, and Drake has, or is being had by, a herd that is roaming his family ranch, and seducing away some of his best (and most expensive) mares.

Luce plans to shadow Drake as much as he’ll let her, to find out how he manages and sometimes doesn’t manage, to deal with the horses.

Both Luce and Drake are being managed, just a bit, by their mothers. The older women have been best friends all their lives, and are just certain that if their two reluctant children have a chance to get together, they’ll discover that they were right for each other all along.

Providing that they don’t drive each other crazy first. And that the steady teasing by every single member of the Carson family doesn’t drive them apart.

Escape Rating B: This is a sweet romance. There is not a lot of external tension, and no craziness that artificially keeps these two apart. That’s marvelous.

The initial conflict between Drake and Luce seems realistic. He has a working ranch to manage. The wild stallion keeps breaking down fences and stealing prize mares. The stallion may be a beautiful horse who is only doing what comes naturally, but he’s costing Drake a lot of money. Drake wants to have the horse herd relocated as soon as possible. Luce wants a long chance to observe them first. And she wants a long chance to observe Drake, who is used to being alone and pretty much undisturbed. Luce is nothing but a disturbance.

It’s not that she needs to be rescued, it’s that she makes him question and think and take stock of his life. And she drives him crazy.

The other conflict is equally realistic. Drake is tied to the ranch and that is not going to change. This isn’t a question of stubborn or lack of understanding, this just is what it is. To keep the ranch in the family, one of them has to run it, and those responsibilities were divided long ago. Drake likes the life he has, he just wants someone to share it with.

Luce is still in the middle of her education. After her Master’s, she planning to go on to get a Ph.D in ecology, and then teach at a university. Those are things that she can’t do, at least not as planned, from little Mustang Creek Wyoming. For them to be together, she’s the one who will have to compromise. But can she find a way to make this work that she won’t come to regret and resent down the road?

In the middle of this sweet love story, there’s a lot about running the ranch and about the care and management of wild horses. While I don’t think it is necessary to read Once a Rancher to enjoy Always a Cowboy, if you like the family dynamic in this story, the first book is a treat. And if the parts of the story about wild horse management really get you, there’s another recent book that came at this issue from a slightly different angle, Saddle Up by Victoria Vane. It is also excellent. And it drove me crazy until I tracked it down.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Always a Cowboy to one lucky US winner:

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Guest Review: The Heart of Aces

Guest Review: The Heart of AcesThe Heart of Aces by Sarah Sinnaeve, Esther Day, Stephanie Charvat, Flavia Napoleoni, Rai Scodras, Mursheda Ahad, Chelsey Brinson, Madeline Bridgen, Andrea R. Blackwell, A.J. Hall, Kari Woodrow
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 206
Published by Good Mourning Publishing on July 14th 2012
Publisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The heart of aces is where an anomaly lives, where love’s definition takes a deviation from the common rules.
These eleven stories dive into asexual relationships, where couples embrace differences, defy society’s expectations, and find romantic love. In this collection is a full spectrum of asexuality in all its classifications. From contemporary fiction to fantasy, from heteroromantic to homoromantic, join these unique characters on their journey to finding the person that speaks to their hearts.

Guest Review by Amy:

The Heart of Aces is a collection of short stories around the theme of asexual romance. This comes as a surprise to some, but there are people who are perfectly happy with romance who get little to nothing out of actual sexual intercourse. If you think it over for a bit, you’ll imagine–correctly–that there’s quite a variety of experiences to be had in there, and this collection gives us a sampling of some of those.

Considering the collection as a whole, I was pretty impressed; there are eleven stories here, showing a good variety of asexual experience, characters from different walks of life, both new and established relationships, relationships both gay and straight, and including a couple of transgender people. I would liked to have seen more straight romances–there were several same-sex relationships depicted, and it felt slightly off-balance. The thing I found refreshing about this collection is that the relationships weren’t depicted as “weird” or “other-than”. In every case, the relationship was a positive move for the participants. As I expected, many of the asexuals struggle with their identity, or are afraid to start relationships, out of fear of rejection–that, for me, was one of the strongest resonances of these tales.

Some of the individual tales bear mentioning as especially high-quality, to this reviewer.  A. J. Hall’s “Out of the Dead Land”, which starts the book, is a very well-crafted story of a first meeting between two older men. Philip is a same-sex-attracted “ace,” and he meets Kevin at an old movie showing. The tension is high, as Philip has been burned many times. Out of fear, just as things get interesting, he flees rather than reveal his sexuality to Kevin–but his new friend isn’t done. The ending is as affirming and sweet as anyone could want. “Aphrodite Hour”, by Sarah Sinnaeve, introduces us to a radio love-advice talk show host who, ironically perhaps, is an asexual. She meets a fan, who isn’t at all taken aback, after shaking off the advances of a strange man in a bar. Another favorite of mine was Chelsey Brinson’s “Shades of Grey (A)”, wherein we meet a man who–in his coming-out to his best friend–says that he’s “only ever really been attracted to one person:” his best friend, of course, who doesn’t realize that he is the target of his demisexual friend’s affection until the very end of the story.  The end of the book brings us “Good PR”, by Esther Day, and a young man who’s been living the party-it-up lifestyle as a cover for his own suppressed strangeness. When his corporate-bigwig mother insists that he must marry, things get dicey for him, especially when his mother sets it up with his best friend, a gay doctor. He must come to grips with his own identity, and his feelings for his friend, and that is predictably difficult; the ending shows us a really cute couple, two people deeply in love with each other, and left me, at least, wanting another page or two to enjoy.

Overall Rating: B-. Some of the stories, as I’ve noted, were quite good, and I identified with characters and enjoyed the settings and plots. Short stories are tricky, because you don’t have pages and pages to set scenes; you have to cast them in a place where the reader can fill in the gaps for themselves satisfactorily, and the stories I named here–and a couple of the others–do that very well. A few of the stories really left me scratching my head, though, and it was a serious downer for the collection, for this reader at least. If you’re interested in learning more about the experiences and struggles of asexuality, I do recommend this book, as you’ll learn a fair bit from the better stories in the group. If you’re an asexual looking for a good collection of romances to enjoy, then some of these will fit the bill, certainly–but others just will leave you high and dry.  I was very encouraged seeing this collection in my to-read pile, but I would have liked a more solid set of stories.  The Heart of Aces is a mixed bag, so buyer beware.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 8-21-16

Sunday Post

I’m none too sure about the upcoming week’s schedule. As you read this, I am at Worldcon in Kansas City, or on my way home. While I will certainly have time to read on the plane going and coming, time to write is likely to be non-existent – as it certainly should be. We’re there to have fun, and meet some of our favorite authors. Also to see how the Hugo Awards turn out this year. Noah Ward will probably receive more virtual awards for his metaphorical closet. As it write this the outcome is still in doubt, but by the time you read this, we’ll know. If the above Hugo neepery doesn’t ring any bells for you, consider yourself lucky. Last year was a huge SNAFU, this year has been a much quieter riot. Hopefully we’ll get this fixed a bit for next year.

Meanwhile, here’s what I have scheduled at the moment. But life is still what happens when you’re making other plans.

Current Giveaways:

$25 Amazon Gift Card from Harlequin

lord of the darkwood by lian hearnBlog Recap:

B+ Review: The Crepes of Wrath by Sarah Fox
B- Review: Fire Brand by Diana Palmer + Giveaway
A Review: Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn
A- Guest Review by Amy: I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein
A- Review: A Maiden Weeping by Jeri Westerson
Stacking the Shelves (198)

quantum by jess anastasiComing Next Week:

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn (review)
Always a Cowboy by Linda Lael Miller (blog tour review)
Oria’s Gambit by Jeffe Kennedy (blog tour review)
Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh (Cass Rant on Demand)
Quantum by Jess Anastasi (blog tour review)

Stacking the Shelves (198)

Stacking the Shelves

This week’s list is short because I had a very, very early cut off. As you read this, I am in Kansas City at Worldcon, hopefully picking up a few gems but not more than will fit in my suitcase.

For Review:
A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev
Documenting Light by EE Ottoman
Nine of Stars (Wildlands #1) by Laura Bickle

Purchased from Amazon:
Dark Alchemy (Dark Alchemy #1) by Laura Bickle
Mercury Retrograde (Dark Alchemy #2) by Laura Bickle

Review: A Maiden Weeping by Jeri Westerson

Review: A Maiden Weeping by Jeri WestersonA Maiden Weeping (Crispin Guest, #9) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Crispin Guest #9
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House Publishers on August 1st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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" When Crispin Guest finds himself trapped in circumstances outside his control, he must rely on the wits of his young apprentice, Jack Tucker, to do the rescuing. " Crispin awakens in a strange bed after a night of passion when he finds a woman dead, murdered. Drunk, Crispin scarcely remembers the night before. Did he kill her? But when other young women turn up dead under similar circumstances, he knows there is a deadly stalker loose in London. Could it have to do with the mysterious Tears of the Virgin Mary kept under lock and key by a close-lipped widow, a relic that a rival family would kill to get their hands on? What does this relic, that forces empathy on all those surrounding it, have to do with murder for hire? With Crispin shackled and imprisoned by the immutable sheriffs who would just as soon see him hang than get to the real truth, Jack hits the ground running and procures the help of a fresh young lawyer to help them solve the crime.

My Review:

As the saying goes, “the past is another country, they do things differently there.” That saying seems especially true in A Maiden Weeping. In this case the past that is so different is just that, a case. A legal case. We tend to think of the law and the court system as being bound in tradition, and that its tradition has not changed in centuries.

As this historical mystery shows all too clearly, human nature may not have changed much in the past 600 plus years (or possibly the past 6,000 or even 60,000 years) but the court system certainly has. As American readers, we expect contemporary English courtrooms to operate slightly differently from our own, but not that much – they do spring from the same root.

What we see here is much, much closer to that root, and the operations of the court are very different from what we expect. Whether that is for better or for worse is certainly a matter for opinion and debate, but absolutely different.

veil of lies by jeri westersonCrispin Guest, who normally tracks down murderers and thieves, this time finds himself as the accused. And where he once was accused quite righteously of treason (read the first book in this series, Veil of Lies, for more of Crispin’s background) in this particular case Crispin is innocent of the crime.

But he is very, very definitely in the frame. The Sheriffs of London are tired of Crispin making them look like fools, and eagerly snatch the possibility of removing him from being a perpetual thorn in their sides. His guilt is in some doubt from the very beginning, and the small powers that be do their level best to get Crispin tried, convicted and executed before he has a chance to prove himself innocent.

So the expert ‘Tracker’ of London is forced to rely on others to discover the truth. Foremost among those others is his apprentice Jack Tucker, who will need every scrap of the knowledge he has gained from Crispin to discover who and what is at the bottom of this case, and the farrago of lies that surrounds it.

But Jack knows that he needs help. So he finds himself at Gray’s Inn, the first of four law courts of London, and not yet half a century old. The young lawyer that Jack engages is just barely out of his own apprenticeship, but Nigellus Cobmartin is eager and energetic in taking Crispin’s case, even as he prays that this case will have a better outcome than his last case. Which was also his first case. And he lost.

Nigellus best option is simply to delay, to give Jack time to investigate. But the more Jack digs, the more strange events he uncovers, and not all of them seem related to the mess that has Crispin behind bars. Two families are feuding over a priceless relic, with both Crispin and the murdered woman caught in the middle. But there is also a serial killer on the loose, murdering women just like the original victim. Is this all about the relic? Is it a case of a fetish gone wrong? Or is there a third possibility, yeet to be revealed?

And can Jack figure it out in time?

Escape Rating A-: I read the first three books in this series several years ago, swallowing them whole while on a cruise, and being absolutely enthralled. But like many other series, I lost track of Crispin Guest in the “so many books, so little time” conundrum. I’m looking forward to the chance to catch up.

It takes a bit to set the stage for this one. At the beginning, Crispin isn’t doing well, and makes a series of rather foolish mistakes that land him in this pickle. One gets the feeling that he should have known better, but at the time, he was, well, pickled. He needs to take himself in hand, and it is not a pretty sight.

At the beginning, Jack is lost and scared, and so he should be. His first case requires him to save Crispin’s life, as Crispin saved his. Jack grows up, as he needs to. He fumbles more than a bit before he finds his way.

The court system operated very differently in the late 14th century than it does now. Even if you don’t normally read the “Foreward” to a book, in this case it provides an essential bit of stage-setting for how justice functioned at this time. It’s different and fascinating and all the things that we are used to seeing in a courtroom are either completely turned on their heads or, like the use of lawyers, just barely in their infancy.

Part of the frustration at the beginning is that it is obvious to the reader that Crispin is being framed, and equally obvious that the officials that we believe should be finding the real criminal are using this mess as a convenient way of getting rid of Crispin, and that they are all in on it. It offends our 21st century sense of justice. This feels correct for the period, but it makes for hard reading.

But once the stage is set, the story really gets going. Jack is on the run every second, trying to do what he believes Crispin would do, meanwhile learning as he goes. The roadblocks deliberately strewn in his way are many and dangerous.

Crispin is a character at a crossroads. He spends much of the book contemplating his life from a cold prison cell, a sneaky feline his only company. He is forced to think about how his life has come to this particular pass, and both what he needs to do, and what he needs to accept, if he is to have a life after this point. In a way, he too grows up and changes, in spite of being well into his 30s. The man who emerges is different from the one who began.

And that makes him an interesting character to follow.

Guest Review: I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein

Guest Review: I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. HeinleinI Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 512
Published by Penguin on April 15th 1987
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Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is immensely rich— and very old. His mind is still keen, so he has surgeons transplant his brain into a new body —the body of his gorgeous, recently deceased secretary, Eunice.
But Eunice hasn't completely vacated her body...

Guest review by Amy:

to sail beyond the sunset by robert heinleinRobert Heinlein, often dubbed “the Dean of Science Fiction,” is a difficult author to review, in my opinion. My first exposure to Heinlein was To Sail Beyond The Sunset, which I read at a relatively young age. It was his last work, released 1987, and it amazed me in its frank treatment of social, moral, and sexual issues; I’ve often said since that once you’ve read that one, you’re corrupted beyond all redemption, and nothing else Heinlein ever wrote will surprise you. Robert Heinlein’s work–particularly his later work, after the mid-1960s–is nothing if not thought-provoking.

For me, at least, I Will Fear No Evil gave me much to think about not only on my first reading years ago, but on my second reading recently. You see, six years ago, I came out as a transsexual, and began the process of transitioning to life full-time as a woman. So this story of a most-unusual sex change has a special sort of resonance with me, and I can read it with a unique set of eyes.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is old–in his late nineties, he’s kept going by rather extreme life-support measures, but he can afford it; he’s easily one of the wealthiest people on the planet. He and his attorney come up with a scheme where people with his rare blood type (AB-Negative), will be kept on retainer–if one of them dies of some trauma, he would have his brain surgically moved into the younger body. Before too very long, it happens, and he is stunned to discover that the body is none other than that of his former secretary, a beautiful young woman named Eunice Branca. Shortly, he begins to hear her voice in his head, coaching him on how to be a better woman–but in truth, he doesn’t really need much coaching, it seems.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but I don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you; I’d rather you read it for yourself. There are a few angles I want to talk about, though, for this review.

First, let’s look at the mechanics. When Heinlein had just finished the first draft of this book, he suffered a life-threatening case of peritonitis, which put him on hiatus for two years. It is widely thought that I Will Fear No Evil suffered as a result, through not getting his usual level of attention to detail and polish. I’ve read quite a lot of his work, and I would agree; indeed, the Kindle edition I downloaded contained numerous typos (something that could be an artifact of the digitization process, to be fair), and there were a number of continuity errors that I spotted–in particular, we’re never made entirely certain of Smith’s age. He asserts at several points that he grew up during the Depression of the 1930s, and several times states his age as ninety-five years old, but there are minor discrepancies here and there; none that truly influenced the story, but it was the kind of detail failure that you don’t see often in well-edited works. Overall, our cast is well-developed, interesting, and approachable, and we’re given a sense of time and place that makes clear the state the United States is in–but more on that in a moment. Smith is a lovable, crusty old coot, who’s seen it all and grown cynical, even after his transformation, and I’ve seen this pattern in so many of his later-era male leads that I sometimes wonder if it isn’t the Mary Sue effect–Heinlein casting his male leads as he saw himself. I don’t consider this book Heinlein’s best effort, from this perspective, but it’s still classic Heinlein, in many ways. My one complaint about it is that the main friction point of the story–the “struggle”, if you will–just isn’t much of one. Johann Smith has virtually endless money, so this wild scheme of his actually pans out. Her healing as Joan Eunice is breathtakingly quick–implausibly so–and her transition into life as a woman went remarkably smoothly–wish I had it so easy! With the voice of Eunice helping, and with the assistance of her nurse/maid Winifred, she manages to make the switch very easily; as someone who’s lived through that particular struggle, I’d have liked to have seen more about that process.

What makes Heinlein stories so thought-provoking, for me at least, is the commentary that he blends with his stories. Robert Heinlein had a number of interesting viewpoints on the world around him, and he was not a bit shy about writing them in. Whether it was society, religion, sexuality, space travel, gender roles, or economics, you know he has an opinion, and it shines through in his work. His earlier juvenile works were frequently mellowed somewhat by the audience he was writing for, but even then, he was not above taking a poke at what he saw as a society slowly crumbling around him.

farmer in the sky by robert heinleinFor an example of this, and as a glance at Heinlein’s commentary on society, take a look at Farmer in the Sky, a juvenile work, and contrast it with Friday, a very late work. In both cases–and indeed, in I Will Fear No Evil–we have leads who are seeing society slowly getting more and more intolerable; in Farmer, there is overcrowding and excessive regimented structure, in Friday, it manifested in many small nations, with an overarching corporate shadow-government, while in Evil, we see a world where the government has basically given up; violence and lawlessness are common. Heinlein described himself in his later years as a libertarian, or even a philosophical anarchist; from this story among many others, he makes it clear that the only way to prevent the downfall and collapse of a society is not through top-down government action, but through individuals strong-willed enough to stand against the tide and do something about it. In the present work, we find a nation that has possibly slid past the point of no return. Judge McCampbell, who helps Smith in court with identity hearings that establish that he–no, she–is not, in fact, dead, is a bit of an atavism; he demands that his courtroom be civil at all times, and isn’t afraid to throw everyone out–which triggers a riot, as people have lost the spectacle they came to see. If you read a number of Heinlein’s works, you’ll see his social commentary over and over, and the different paths he places society on to try to stem the tide–few of which actually work.

The other issue that Heinlein speaks to in this work, understandably, is human sexuality and the role of gender.  I’ll say it point blank: by the late 1960s, Robert Heinlein was a dirty old man. By this time in his life, Heinlein was absolutely unafraid to write openly about sexual liberation and freely-practiced sexuality; he was not at all against polyamory, when practiced among consenting people. So much so that I have observed among the “poly” people I know a trend toward modeling their households along a very Heinlein-esque axis. As someone who does not quite grasp jealousy as exhibited in this day and age, I can appreciate his jealousy-free, love-as-you-will approach, and I approve of that aspect of it. Where Heinlein’s notions about sexuality become problematic, for me, is in his too-stereotypical treatment of gender roles; while his female leads are strong and empowered–and most of them, bisexual–they’re almost unilaterally willing to defer to the strong man who is central in their life–or, as in Joan Eunice’s case, at least make it appear so, to him.  Heterosexual women in Robert Heinlein’s later works are somewhat uncommon, and it’s taken as a matter of course that any woman who is hetero, or who isn’t an enthusiastic connoisseur of sex, is easily converted.  Even the men are not immune to this sort of treatment, but with women, it is just de rigueur. I find this, as well as Heinlein’s total lack of lead characters who are not as sexually active, somewhat frustrating. He paints us an attractive vision of the future where people don’t have to be jealous of their one-and-only, because the notion of one-and-only is accepted as one possibility among many. But if he could have been alive somewhat later, and paired that vision with the enormous breadth of sexuality and gender role experience that the 21st century holds, his vision would have been even more beautiful.

Escape Rating: A-. As I said earlier, this is not Heinlein’s best-crafted work; ask any fan you know, and you’ll probably get several good recommendations for better ones, depending on what you’re looking for. But this one, for me at least, provided plenty of fun story, with interesting people, and the thoughtful and challenging commentary that marks Robert Heinlein as one of the great authors of 20th century science fiction.

moon is a harsh mistress by robert heinleinMarlene’s Note: A review of one of Heinlein’s works in singularly appropriate for this particular weekend. I will be at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, and Heinlein’s name will be invoked multiple times in multiple contexts. The context that would be nearest-and-dearest to his heart if he were still among us will be the Heinlein Society Blood Drives, conducted every year at Worldcon in his honor and memory. Some other invocations of his name will be much less charitable, for any possible definition of invocation and/or charitable.

I read I Will Fear No Evil a long, long time ago. For me, his dirty-old-man-ness overwhelmed the story, which wasn’t nearly as well written as some of his best. I think my first exposure to Heinlein was probably Stranger in a Strange Land, which made interesting reading for a teenager. My favorite work of his is still The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. While some of his attitudes towards women are both on display and slightly obnoxious in Moon, the story as a whole still stands up. And his lesson to Mike on humor, the difference between “funny once” and “funny always” is a distinction I still use whenever applicable.

Review: Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn

Review: Lord of the Darkwood by Lian HearnLord of the Darkwood (Tale of Shikanoko, #3) by Lian Hearn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 240
Published by FSG Originals on August 9th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Shikanoko, at what should be a warrior’s hour of greatest triumph, turns his back on those around him, in mourning for a secret love . . .

The Spider Tribe, spurned by their guardian, explore the extent of their powers and ruthless ambitions . . .

Hina, who alone knows the whereabouts of the true emperor, has to forge a new identity of her own. No one must ever know that she is Kiyoyori’s daughter . . .

As the traditional powers navigate weakness and disarray, old spirits and new figures enter the epic battle for the Lotus Throne . . .

In Lord of the Darkwood, the major players of The Tale of Shikanoko are forced to deal with the consequences―expected and unexpected alike―of their past reckless actions. Each of them strives to achieve their destiny, but so far the paths they have followed seem to have done nothing but provoke Heaven’s displeasure.

Profound betrayal, powerful magic, hidden identities, startling violence―these have made the weave of The Tale of Shikanoko so engrossing as it has played out across the sumptuously imagined, beautifully described world of Lian Hearn’s medieval Japan. But the story is now twisting towards its final resolution. Can peace ever come to the Eight Islands?

My Review:

The further I get into the Tale of Shikanoko, the more it reminds me of Tolkien. In Shikanoko, as in The Silmarillion, the reader gets the sense that these are myths and legends of a world that never was, but perhaps should have been. Also, like The Lord of the Rings, it feels as if the Shikanoko is really one large-ish story that was divided into parts for publishing reasons rather than because the stories are actually separate. The endings of each part of this tale don’t even feel as if they are intermediate endings. They feel like pauses for the reader to take a breath before diving back in.

Also, and fair warning, this is not a story that lends itself to putting down and picking up a few days later. An awful lot happens in each part, and the rich denseness of the story makes it compelling, but also a bit difficult to pick up after putting it down for a few days. Leaving this world is always a wrench.

The story in Lord of the Darkwood takes place during Shikanoko’s dark night of the soul. He spends a lot of this story absent, either in mind or in body, while the world goes on around him. And it is not the better for his absence, which is, of course, the point.

autumn princess dragon child by lian hearnIn some ways, there could be said to be three lords of this darkwood. One is Shikanoko – it is his by right of inheritance. Also, as the deer’s child, it is truly his world. He retreats into it to escape from his grief and his despair at the death of the woman he both loved and lost, the Autumn Princess. That story is told in the second book, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child.

But his son Kiku is also a lord of the Darkwood. Kiku and his brothers were born through sorcery in the Darkwood, and it is Kiku who seems to have absorbed most of the darkness. In the absence of Shikanoko, his father and mentor, Kiku turns to the dark side of sorcery, and follows the path of one of their other fathers into banditry and crime. He take the place of the King of the Mountain, and begins a criminal invasion of the cities.

Meanwhile, the land is drying up and the people are dying. At the beginning of Shikanoko’s story, his father was killed after playing go with a Tengu, a chaos spirit of the Darkwood. That death set all the events of the story into motion, and led to not only Shikanoko’s disinheritance and exile, but eventually the death of the rightful Emperor. His heir is also in hiding and exile, playing at being an entertainer to hide his identity. But the land knows that the usurper is not the rightful ruler, and the land is cursed until the balance is restored.

The tengu is also a lord of the Darkwood, and he has returned to right the wrong he created all those years ago. But his nature is chaotic, and restoration will not come without sacrifices made by all those who have been caught up in the wrong he committed. Whether things will be put right, or not, is the part of the tale that has yet to be revealed.

Escape Rating A: In spite of life’s interruptions, I absolutely loved this book, and the series as a whole has been magical, lyrical and just plain awesome.

emperor of the eight islands by lian hearnI will say that this book, and this series, are event-driven rather than character-driven. It seems as if events are set in motion back in Emperor of the Eight Islands, and everything that happens after that is a reaction to those events and various attempts to either set things right or avoid one’s fate in setting things right. Everything happens for a purpose, and coincidences abound in order to have a hope of getting the world back on the right track. It’s marvelous but it is different. Characters are, in some way, forces as much as they are individuals, if not more.

One other story that the Tale of Shikanoko reminds me of is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which was a book of Arthurian mythmaking. But unlike in White’s book, where the reader knows who Arthur is all along, at this point in Shikanoko we know who the hidden emperor is, we just don’t have a clue whether events are going to work their way around to him actually becoming emperor. It’s also fascinating that Arthur’s learning process in White’s book is scattered among multiple characters in this one.

The tengu sees the world as a vast game of Go. This feels like an important concept in the book and may be a metaphor for the story. The thing about Go, or any game, is that one of the players wins and one loses. If this tengu loses this game, it’s going to be pretty devastating for the people involved. At the same time, the player may not take the game seriously because it is a game.

tengus game of go by lian hearnI don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that the final book is titled The Tengu’s Game of Go. Because the whole story is.