Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. WagersHold Fast Through the Fire (NeoG #2) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: NeoG #2
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Voyager on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G)—inspired by the real-life mission of the Coast Guard—patrols and protects the solar system. Now the crew of Zuma’s Ghost must contend with personnel changes and a powerful cabal hellbent on dominating the trade lanes in this fast-paced, action-packed follow-up to A Pale Light in the Black.
Zuma’s Ghost has won the Boarding Games for the second straight year. The crew—led by the unparalleled ability of Jenks in the cage, the brilliant pairing of Ma and Max in the pilot seats, the technical savvy of Sapphi, and the sword skills of Tamago and Rosa—has all come together to form an unstoppable team. Until it all comes apart.
Their commander and Master Chief are both retiring. Which means Jenks is getting promoted, a new commander is joining them, and a fresh-faced spacer is arriving to shake up their perfect dynamics. And while not being able to threepeat is on their minds, the more important thing is how they’re going to fulfill their mission in the black.
After a plea deal transforms a twenty-year ore-mining sentence into NeoG service, Spacer Chae Ho-ki earns a spot on the team. But there’s more to Chae that the crew doesn’t know, and they must hide a secret that could endanger everyone they love—as well as their new teammates—if it got out. At the same time, a seemingly untouchable coalition is attempting to take over trade with the Trappist colonies and start a war with the NeoG. When the crew of Zuma’s Ghost gets involved, they end up as targets of this ruthless enemy.
With new members aboard, will the team grow stronger this time around? Will they be able to win the games? And, more important, will they be able to surmount threats from both without and within? 

My Review:

I positively ADORED the first book in the NeoG series, A Pale Light in the Black, to the point where it was one of my A++ reviews AND on my Best of 2020 list. It got me hooked on this author, to the point that I’ve been reading their previous series, The Indranan War and The Farian War, whenever I’m looking for an SFnal pick-me-up read.

Of course, all of that put this book, Hold Fast Through the Fire, on my list of Most Anticipated Reads for 2021. And it was definitely worth the wait!

But one of the things that I really loved about A Pale Light in the Black was that it made for excellent competence porn. Honestly, all my favorites last year qualified as competence porn. Reading about people who were just plain very good at their jobs doing those jobs very well shined a light in what was otherwise a rather dark year of incompetence.

So I was a bit surprised when the first third of Hold Fast Through the Fire did an all too excellent job of demonstrating just why both Groucho Marx and Doctor Who labeled “military intelligence” as a contradiction in terms. Certainly the intelligence department of the NeoG is NOT displaying any of that vaunted commodity when it decides to use four NeoG Interceptors and their crews as bait for a terrorist and not tell them about it.

Especially as the members of those crews – see the comment about competence porn above – are very good at their jobs and more than intelligent enough to figure out that something is wrong about the runaround that they are getting – and to start figuring the whole thing out on their own.

Because the crew of Zuma’s Ghost are, in fact, damn good at their jobs. They also have excellent bullshit detectors, even when the BS is being slung by one of their own. Or perhaps especially then.

In the first book, there was, of necessity, a cargo hold’s worth of setup. Introducing the characters, creating the world, explaining just enough about how history got from point A, our present, to point B, their future.

The story in that first book mostly felt, not exactly low-stakes, but certainly less humongous stakes than this time around. That was a story where the intraservice Boarding Games became a metaphor for the crew of Zuma’s Ghost learning how to be a team both at the games and out in the black.

This time, although the Boarding Games are still a factor, the stakes for the story as a whole are much higher and have much broader implications. Also, where first time around the team didn’t exist yet and had to form itself, this time the team that we watched build in the first book begins this story even more fractured than a couple of changes in personnel should have caused.

Back to that problem of military intelligence again.

The high-stakes mission that the crew of Zuma’s Ghost is caught up in is wrapped up in wealth, power and privilege, and the way that the rich and powerful never seem to face the consequences of the dirty deeds that they feel entitled to commit. The plan is to drop those consequences squarely on their heads.

If the NeoG can just manage to keep their own heads in the face of so many deaths – including entirely too many of their own.

Escape Rating A: This was one of this epic, can’t put it down reads. I started in the morning and finished late in the evening because I just couldn’t stop. Then I went to bed with an horrendous book hangover that I still haven’t shaken.

Although there were certainly points during that first third where I wanted to reach through the book and shake someone – preferably the control freak in NeoG intelligence who was using his friends and his colleagues as unwitting bait because he didn’t want too many people to know what was going on and question him about it.

It was painful watching these characters that I’ve already come to know and love struggle to punch their way out of a maze that they shouldn’t have been in in the first place. I wanted to stand up and cheer when they gave the idiot the dressing down he REALLY deserved.

But the big and high-stakes part of this story revolved around the plan that NeoG intelligence had been keeping under wraps. A senator, a shipping company executive and a thug (and doesn’t that sound like the start of a bad joke) have been spending years making oodles of moolah in an interplanetary bait-and-switch scheme. They’ve been stealing from both the government and the outer colonies, taking money for colonial supplies, shipping substandard goods to the colonies, and then selling the goods they’ve stolen on the black market to those same colonies for a huge markup.

Their scheme is coming to a close. NeoG is closing in, and they’re decided to go out in a blaze of other people’s glory by fomenting unrest in the colonies and using the resulting chaos for one last score before they slip away into the black.

It’s a huge organization with a lot of tentacles. Tentacles that reach out to hurt NeoG as the net closes in.

On the one hand, the whole nefarious scheme sounds all too plausible, not just then but honestly now. It’s the same colonizers’ rape of their colonies that has gone on since the very first country got big enough to call itself an empire.

So the scheme, in all its terrible awfulness, works all too well as a plot device. The stakes feel realistically high and get brought home to our heroes in a realistically painful fashion. But the leaders of the scheme as characters read as just a bit too far over the top. A plan that intelligent and that successful should be led by equally savvy villains. This bunch read more like comic book villains. Admittedly extremely successful comic book villains but still, their leader got way too close to an actual BWAHAHA to take as seriously as the crimes they committed warranted.

But this was a great story about a terrific team beating impossible odds to save the day and make each other proud. I loved the way they got the job done and done oh so well. There were also plenty of heroes to go around to balance out those cartoonish villains, but the one who saved the day more often than anyone expected was Doge, the dog-shaped robot who is turning out to be more dog than anyone ever imagined.

I had a great time with Max and Nika and the entire crew of Zuma’s Ghost, and I can’t wait for their next adventure. I’m still chuckling a bit that one of the Navy ships that helped out in the final encounter was the Normandy. Because of course it was.

Review: Pirate’s Promise by Lisa Kessler

Review: Pirate’s Promise by Lisa KesslerPirate's Promise (Sentinels of Savannah #5) by Lisa Kessler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, paranormal romance
Series: Sentinels of Savannah #5
Pages: 270
Published by Entangled Publishing: Amara on July 26th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Greyson Till never found a weapon he didn’t like. As the immortal Master Gunner of a pirate ship, he’s grown his collection for over two hundred years. So when a legendary cursed blade that can cut through any material goes missing from the government’s paranormal artifact vault, he’s eager to retrieve it. Working with the secret division Department 13 has always come with its set of challenges, but this one is the worst yet.

Along with the mission comes fiery, no-nonsense paranormal weapons expert Aura Henderson, who couldn't be less thrilled about this pairing. The last time they saw each other, Greyson accidentally blew her cover, almost killing them both. Worst of all, to get the sword, she has to pose as Greyson's wife. The last thing she needs is to get involved with a sexy grumbly pirate, whether in reality or just pretend.

When they locate the relic, the gilded blade thirsts for blood and things aren’t what they seem. Greyson isn’t sure who to trust anymore, and he’s not about to let death come between them...

My Review:

One upon a time, in the 1700s, the pirate crew of the Sea Dog found an unexpected treasure. They found the Grail. That Grail. King Arthur’s Grail. And drank from it. They expected, honestly, nothing at all. What they got was a form of immortality. They heal. From everything. Even old age.

Actually, they just never age. Something that has become a big more difficult to cover up in the 21st century with its CCTV, social media everywhere all the time, and just the sheer amount of documentation that’s required to make a living.

Even immortal pirates have to make a living. Keeping their replica Sea Dog not just afloat but seaworthy requires licenses, paperwork and yet more paperwork, and, of course, money.

After all, the pirates may heal, but their ship most definitely does not. And operating the Sea Dog as a tourist attraction is more a labor of love than profit. And it requires a cargo hold of licenses and permits of its very own.

That’s where Department 13 of the U.S. Government comes in. It’s not a surprise that there’s a department tasked with monitoring the weird, the wacky, and the things that go bump in the night. It’s even less of a surprise that the department in question would know ALL about the immortal pirates.

So when a dangerous relic is stolen from Department 13’s super-secret and super-secure warehouse, only to turn up in Scotland, the Department is a)embarrassed as hell and b)worried about causing an international incident with their British counterparts, who are, of course, MI13.

But there’s not a lot of trust between the pirates and the government. Not surprising considering their respective histories. But the Department needs to get that relic back, and the Sea Dog is the right crew for the job. With one addition, Department 13 Agent Aura Henderson.

It’s a simple job. Sail to Scotland aboard the Sea Dog. Pose as a couple of well-heeled collectors, buy the relic and sail back with the prize so it can be locked up again. Hopefully more permanently this time.

NOTHING about this job is as easy as it should be back in the planning stages in Savannah.

Aura doesn’t believe the pirates will have her back. The Department fears that the pirates will, well, act like pirates and sell the relic to the highest bidder. The current owner of the relic is Aura’s former NYPD partner and the entire operation is a trap. For her.

Oh, and Aura’s former partner – he’s a demon. And that relic of his – it’s out for blood. Specifically, Aura’s blood. It wants to cut her open in order to take it.

Escape Rating B+: I got started in this series in Magnolia Mystic because I was looking for something a bit lighter and fluffier than the dense tome I was reading at the time. Between the immortal pirates, the evil property owner, and the seeress promising gloom and doom, I was surprised to get what I came for. There is a bit of lightness in this series, even though there’s generally something dark and evil coming their way in every story.

Considering their long lives, the pirates of the Sea Dog have more than a few demons of the psychological type in their mental baggage. They all have serious trust issues with outsiders for obvious reasons, and when the story began they’d all loved and lost a few too many times and all seemed to be more or less resolved not to get emotionally involved again.

But this time there’s an actual demon, although not so much a demon from hell as a demon from a hellish dimension. The demon has stolen a mythical sword that can cut through any material. It’s already cut through Agent Aura Henderson’s trust in herself. This “thing” was her police partner for several years and she never noticed that it was anything other than a cop she shared pizza and a love of B movies with. Until he revealed his demonic nature, she thought he was one of the good guys and was she ever wrong.

What’s making this whole thing work for me is that the setup reads as if Stargate and Anna Hackett’s Treasure Hunter Security series had a book baby and this series is it. From Stargate we get the idea of other planets and dimensions who have left stuff lying around and from THS comes the idea that government agencies and private contractors are tasked with hunting this stuff down and putting it away where it can’t do any harm. That Treasure Hunter Security is an action/adventure/suspense type romance makes it a very strong read alike for the Sentinels of Savannah. (Start with Undiscovered and be prepared for a book binge to tide you over until the next immortal pirate falls.)

So Pirate’s Promise and the entire Sentinels of Savannah series is just a big ball of elements that I love. There’s a touch of the paranormal, supernatural or otherworldly, there’s the idea that history is bigger and much different from what we imagine, there’s action, there’s adventure, and there’s a hot romance between two people who are perfect for each other and fighting it every step of the way.

That the pirates have baggage as well as booty and that the heroines have all walked through dark places and kept both their dukes and their guards up just adds to the fun. This entry in the series, featuring the romance between the ship’s master gunner and an agent who really, really loves to make things explode definitely made for a fun and explosive reading time for this reader.

Review: Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman

Review: Radar Girls by Sara AckermanRadar Girls: a novel of WWII by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large Print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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An extraordinary story inspired by the real Women’s Air Raid Defense, where an unlikely recruit and her sisters-in-arms forge their place in WWII history.
Daisy Wilder prefers the company of horses to people, bare feet and salt water to high heels and society parties. Then, in the dizzying aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Daisy enlists in a top secret program, replacing male soldiers in a war zone for the first time. Under fear of imminent invasion, the WARDs guide pilots into blacked-out airstrips and track unidentified planes across Pacific skies.  
But not everyone thinks the women are up to the job, and the new recruits must rise above their differences and work side by side despite the resistance and heartache they meet along the way. With America’s future on the line, Daisy is determined to prove herself worthy. And with the man she’s falling for out on the front lines, she cannot fail. From radar towers on remote mountaintops to flooded bomb shelters, she’ll need her new team when the stakes are highest. Because the most important battles are fought—and won—together.
This inspiring and uplifting tale of pioneering, unsung heroines vividly transports the reader to wartime Hawaii, where one woman’s call to duty leads her to find courage, strength and sisterhood. 

My Review:

Like the author’s previous books, including last year’s Red Sky Over Hawaii, Radar Girls is a story that talks about World War II on a slightly different homefront from most.

The experience of the war was a bit different in both Hawaii and Alaska, as these two U.S. territories were considerably closer to the front lines than the 48 contiguous states. Alaska was vulnerable because of its large size and relatively small population, making it an easy target – except for the weather. Islands in the Aleutian chain were occupied during the war.

Hawaii, on the other hand, was a small, sparkling, isolated jewel in the middle of the Pacific. It was the perfect location for the U.S. to have a forward base in the Pacific – and provided a tempting target for Japanese forces to use as a stepping stone to the U.S. mainland.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 showed the U.S., and especially the Islands’ residents, just how vulnerable their paradise could be. In the wake of the attack, they were determined not to get caught with their defensive pants down a second time.

The centerpiece of that determination forms the heart of this story, as Hawaii mobilizes its men for war and its women for defense, armed with a new tool in their arsenal – RADAR.

This story of previously unsung heroines is wrapped around three fascinating threads. First, of course, there’s the war. But secondly, there’s the story of the sisterhood of women who were recruited to learn military communication, signal interpretations and vectorology, in spite of all the men who said they couldn’t do it. Daisy Wilder, her friends and her frenemies become the heart and soul of the Women’s Air Raid Defense of the Islands, watching for enemies approaching by air and sea, locating downed American pilots and piloting those in trouble safely home.

Daisy comes into the program as a loner, having been raised around more horses than people in the isolated cabin she and her mother have shared since her father’s death. Daisy has been her little family’s primary breadwinner, and dropped out of school in order to make a living at the stables where her father was once employed.

She doesn’t expect to become part of this group of women – after all, it’s not something she has any experience with. That two of the other women are upper class and look down on her for lack of education, her towering height and her practical, unfeminine wardrobe is what she expects. She expects to fail.

Instead she succeeds. Her supposedly “unfeminine” traits and interests make her a good fit for the WARD, and becomes part of this tight-knit sisterhood in spite of those expectations – and in spite of those frenemies.

So a story of unexpected sisterhood set amidst a story of rising to the occasion in the midst of war. But it wouldn’t be complete without the romance that weaves through it. A romance that might never have happened without the war breaking down the barriers between the son of one of the richest men on the island and the daughter of the man his father accidentally killed.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I enjoyed the author’s previous book, Red Sky Over Hawaii, in spite of one seriously over-the-top villain – as if the ordinary wartime conditions weren’t enough trouble for one woman to be dealing with.

I liked Radar Girls more than Red Sky because it didn’t go over that top and dump ALL the troubles of the world onto the same woman’s shoulders. Not that Daisy and her group of found sisters didn’t have plenty of problems, but they were a bit more evenly shared.

One of their training officers is a creeper, stalker and sexual harasser. One of their husbands is MIA and presumed dead. Another woman’s husband is a gambler who has lost their house. Someone else just has terrible luck with men – or makes terrible choices of men. Or a bit of both. Daisy herself is in love with someone she can’t believe could love her back considering their backgrounds.

And they adopt a kitten, who has kittens providing comfort and comic relief in equal measure. While someone in the neighborhood keeps stealing their lingerie from the clothesline.

And over all of it, the constant tension of interpreting radar signals that might, this time, be a second invasion, knowing that getting it wrong could have potentially dire consequences. It’s a stress that increases with each day and each potential sighting – and that never lets up.

Considering that WARD operated behind the scenes – or underground – this is a story where there aren’t a lot of really BIG events happening onstage. There are lots of radar sightings that have the potential to be a second invasion – but it never happens. The women are, by the top secret nature of the job, in an isolated environment. There are big battles, and they all listen to them on the radio, but the battles don’t come to them.

But in spite of all that, in spite of the big drama happening offstage, the story is captivating from the very first page, with Daisy on a remote beach seeing the Japanese planes screaming overhead. Daisy is a fascinating character who is just different enough for 21st century readers to identify with while still feeling like a part of her own time.

Also, I love a good training story, so the parts of this one where Daisy and her cohort get a crash course in their new duties and master them was a treat. It was easy to imagine oneself being part of that crew and doing one’s own bit to fight their war.

This author seems to be making a specialty of telling captivating stories about the homefront experience of her own home state during World War II. I’m looking forward to more – and I expect them to keep getting better and better!

Review: Hacking Mr CEO by Anna Hackett

Review: Hacking Mr CEO by Anna HackettHacking Mr. CEO (Billionaire Heists #3) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Billionaire Heists #3
Pages: 292
Published by Anna Hackett on July 27th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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To save the only mother I’ve ever known, all I have to do is hack a tech billionaire.

My foster mother is sick. The woman who gave me a home, love, a life. I’ll do anything to find the money for her surgery, including using my skills as a hacker.

My name’s Remi, also known as Rogue Angel, and usually I work for a security company testing clients’ systems. But now a shadowy bad guy has tracked me down and given me an ultimatum.

I have to hack Rivera Tech—the biggest technology company in the world, owned by billionaire CEO, Maverick Rivera. If I do, I get paid and I can help my foster mother. If I don’t, my family is in danger.

Hacking Rivera is no walk in the park, and soon I find myself in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse with big, grumpy, and way-too-sexy Maverick. What I never, ever expected was for him to make me feel safe, or to threaten my closely-guarded heart, or to ignite every single part of me.

I can’t drag him into my mess.

But Maverick has other ideas, and he isn’t a man who takes no for an answer.

My Review:

In the very first of the Billionaire Heists series, Stealing from Mr. Rich, the first of the “Bachelor Billionaires”, as the New York City news media calls them, found himself falling for a woman who was in way over her head – and his – with some really evil dudes who were out to rob him blind, using her as their patsy.

In the second book, Blackmailing Mr. Bossman, the second bachelor falls for a woman who seems to be blackmailing him because her bestie is being blackmailed by people who are after his money. This one was just the right book at the right time for me, as everyone who seems to be lying turns out either not to be or doing it for the best of intentions.

In the first two stories, the romance happens because the women who find themselves in these messes begin with the very best of intentions, trying their damnedest to fix a situation that they may not have broken but that they feel responsible for patching up.

None of them are damsels in distress, wringing their hands and waiting for a man to sweep in and fix things for them. They’re out there trying to fix the mess for themselves when the man they have been forced to do wrong by decides that he’s not going to sit passively by while someone evil messes with both of them.

They are on the same side after all – even if they don’t start out that way.

In this final book in the series, white-hat hacker Remi Solano finds herself donning a black hat when she learns that her foster mom needs expensive experimental treatment to remove an otherwise inoperable brain tumor. Mama Alma has less than 6 months to live, and Remi and her siblings together couldn’t raise the kind of money if they had 6 years to do it in. So she markets her only skill on the dark web, hoping to make a score that will get Mama into that expensive treatment.

And she gets in way over her head. Because otherwise we wouldn’t have this marvelous story.

Someone wants her to hack into Rivera Tech and steal the files on something called the Calyx Project. She doesn’t know who they are, and she doesn’t know what the project is, but the job pays a cool million and that’s enough to take care of Mama.

Not that Remi actually wants to hack Rivera. She’s not exactly sure that she can, even as skilled as she is. Rivera Tech has the best security she’s ever seen, which only makes sense because Maverick Rivera is a genius programmer and computer designer in his own right. And it’s his company, the extremely handsome profits from which have made him the third of the “Billionaire Bachelors”.

Although, Remi has seen plenty of pictures of the man, and she’d be more than happy to hack one of his extremely well-tailored suits right off his sexy body. Not that she thinks she’ll ever have the chance – especially not if she manages to pull off this job.

And that’s where everything gets hairy. Or goes south. Or pear-shaped. Or all of the above.

Calyx is a super-secret government project. Whoever wants Remi to steal it is planning on committing treason – or planning on Remi committing treason on their behalf. Remi’s obviously a pawn in this game, a pawn that the contractor called “The Shadow” refuses to let go of when Remi and Mav join forces.

The chase is on. The Shadow wants them both dead. They’ve become loose ends in his failed attempt to hack Rivera by proxy, and he never leaves loose ends. They’re dodging bullets and hired badasses while they try to close in on the villain who is trying to close in on them.

Meanwhile, they’re closing in on each other, even if neither of them has any expectations that the other will stay once all the excitement is over – one way or another.

Escape Rating A-: I think this was my favorite game in the whole series, making it end on a marvelous high note. I loved the hacking scenario, and the way that Remi and Mav just had a great time geeking out together.

The way the story ended, with Mav and Remi being chased by The Shadow through the entire Rivera Tech campus, read like it would make a great video game, which felt totally appropriate for a romantic suspense story featuring two geeks.

I have to say that the villain of this piece, The Shadow, was just a bit too over the top. He’s the only thing keeping this from being an A grade. I loved Remi and Mav, I enjoyed the hell out of watching them get together, and all the geekery was very much my jam. The Shadow, while extremely dangerous and deadly, had a persona that wouldn’t have been out of place in a B grade superhero movie.

Which, come to think of it, is also pretty geeky. Just not as cool as the rest of the story.

While I’m happy to see the Billionaire Bachelors all find their HEAs, I’m kind of sorry to see this series end. On my third hand, this does plenty of crossover with Norcross Security, which is clearly not done yet. After all, Vander Norcross, the boogeyman’s boogeyman as Remi called him, still has to find a woman he can’t run over. That’s going to be epic!

Review: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons

Review: The House of Always by Jenn LyonsThe House of Always (A Chorus of Dragons, #4) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #4
Pages: 523
Published by Tor Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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For fans of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, The House of Always is the fourth epic fantasy in Jenn Lyons' Chorus of Dragons series that began with The Ruin of Kings.
What if you were imprisoned for all eternity?
In the aftermath of the Ritual of Night, everything has changed.
The Eight Immortals have catastrophically failed to stop Kihrin's enemies, who are moving forward with their plans to free Vol Karoth, the King of Demons. Kihrin has his own ideas about how to fight back, but even if he's willing to sacrifice everything for victory, the cost may prove too high for his allies.
Now they face a choice: can they save the world while saving Kihrin, too? Or will they be forced to watch as he becomes the very evil they have all sworn to destroy.

My Review:

“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” Or so says Ecclesiastes, Peter Pan, and at least a couple of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. But as at least one of the characters responds in BSG, “But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?”

And I’m beginning to believe that THAT is the central question of this entire projected-to-be-five-books epic. Whether just because the history has repeated means that it has to repeat yet again. But I’ve thought I’ve figured out the central theme of this epic before, and so far I’ve been wrong every time.

Absolutely fascinated, but wrong. So we’ll see.

Like the previous books in the series, The House of Always is told from two different perspectives, seemingly from a point in the future, which does not necessarily mean that any of the characters survived, only that their chronicles did.

This time it’s Kihrin, trapped in Vol Karoth’s prison all by himself, discovering that all of his assumptions about the Dark God’s maturity, capability and power were seriously off the mark, and that he’s in so far over his head that he may never surface except as a tortured facet of the King of Demons.

That the other half of the story is narrated by the mage Senera from the Lighthouse at Shadrag Gor – otherwise known as the House of Always from the title – means that I finally know which of the two actors from the previous audiobooks was Kihrin and which was Thurvishar. Not that I needed to know, but it was niggling at me and now it’s not.

The story being told by these two narrators ranges backwards and forwards in time, as Kihrin and the companions who eventually join him in Vol Karoth’s mindscape prison AND the remaining members of the quest equally trapped at the Lighthouse find themselves being repeatedly mind-raped by the Dark God.

Vol Karoth doesn’t believe in love or friendship or faith or trust or any positive emotion of any kind. As far as he’s concerned, it’s all lies and deception, whether of the self or others. Kihrin believes the exact opposite. Their battle of minds and memories is a device to convince each other in a contest where the winner will take all, literally, of the world and of each other’s very existence.

It’s a battle that Kihrin somehow has to win. In spite of how everything seems, Vol Karoth is not really Kihrin’s enemy. Kihrin’s enemies are waiting outside, so far unaware that Kihrin has become another player of their game and not a pawn on either of their boards, as he has been in all of his previous incarnations.

If Kihrin wins, there’s a chance this time to stop the endless cycles of history. If he loses, the demon Xaltorath will have another turn of the cycle to keep bending history to their will. And the wizard Relos Var will have another turn of the cycle to try to destroy the world before that happens.

Not that either of them is on the side of the right or the angels. Even if one of them thinks he is.

Escape Rating A: There is, as is ALWAYS true of this series, a lot to unpack in this entry. And just like all of the previous books in the series, you won’t care to unpack it or understand why it’s important to unpack if you haven’t read the previous books. Start with The Ruin of Kings and be prepared to be swept away, only to be left ashore at the end of this one with an epic book hangover and an intense desire to get the final book immediately.

All of that being said, and as much as I love this series as a whole, this is the first time that the book in hand isn’t even more epic than its predecessor. Not that it isn’t downright excellent, just that it suffers a bit in comparison. Also, this is kind of a middle book, not that it ends in a slough of despond as middle books often do, but rather that it contains a lot of character development and exposition and filling in of the corners and footnotes (this whole series is built on footnotes!). There’s a lot of process in this one, as we get a lot of the underpinning of the worldbuilding and a lot of pieces moving into place to set up the finale.

Also, this one is a bit harder to follow than usual. Not that all the stories haven’t jumped back and forth in time more than a bit, but the nature of this entry in the series is that neither group we’re following is in a place where time is in any way fixed. Kihrin, and eventually others are literally inside Vol Karoth’s head, and the rest are in the Lighthouse at Shadrag Gor, which is nicknamed the House of Always because “real time” outside passes very, very, very slowly.

The entire story, except for the very end, is framed in places that are essentially moored in an eternity of limbo. Or limbo of eternity. Stuff happens, and it happens in a kind of order, but it’s interspersed with memories that happened before that happen out of their order at least some of the time and it’s easy to get a bit lost.

Which doesn’t mean that a lot of important stuff doesn’t happen, just that it’s difficult to get a handle on when and in what order it happened. It all comes together at the end to set up the final volume, but in the middle it gets a bit muddled.

One of the very interesting things that gets revealed is that the Eight Immortals who are worshipped as gods are much more like the Incarnations of Immortality from Piers Anthony’s long ago series than they are the Elven Gods of Dragon Age. Meaning that the functions of those Eight Immortals; Death, Luck, Magic, etc., are offices that have been held by different people through the repeated cycles of history. After several of the so-called gods were killed at the end of The Memory of Souls, those offices are vacant and the concepts they represent are searching for replacements.

Which leads directly to the final book in the series, The Discord of Gods. It’s possible that the new gods who begin to assume their mantles in this book are going to have very different visions of what they should do about the forces that are contending for power. Not that they were all exactly getting along swimmingly before.

But the gods aren’t the only players on this particular field. The demon Xaltorath has been shifting history in order to create a version of the world where they and the demons win – so they can eat everyone. Relos Var has been manipulating everyone towards his vision of the “greater good” in the hopes of destroying everything so that he can save the pieces that are left.

Both sides believe that Kihrin is just a pawn they’ve been playing with for cycles and millennia. He thinks he’s got them fooled, and that he’s playing them in order to save the people he loves – and everyone else – into the bargain.

They could all be right. They could all be wrong. Or any combination thereof. We’ll all find out in The Discord of Gods, which would seem to be the version of Ragnarok to which the entire epic has been leading. The end of the world as they know it is coming next April. And I’ve never looked forward to doomsday so much.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 7-25-21

This seems to have been an A- kind of week, whatever that might mean, in spite of dealing with cars that were complaining that their tires just weren’t right. All fixed now but annoying while it’s going on. As car things often are.

Today’s cat picture is George, because he’s just so photogenic when he’s not being a clown. Like all cats, he likes to be in the sunshine getting his solar batteries recharged. Not that George’s batteries ever seem to lose their charge. After all, he’s just barely out of kittenhood! But there he is, in all of his orange striped tabby glory, being striped in the opposite direction by the sun shining through the blinds in Galen’s office.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Sip Sip Hooray Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

B Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
A- Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. Trow
B+ Review: Into the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. Green
A- Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu
A- Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Stacking the Shelves (454)

Coming This Week:

The House of Always by Jenn Lyons (audio review)
Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman (blog tour review)
Pirate’s Promise by Lisa Kessler (review)
Hacking Mr. CEO by Anna Hackett (review)
Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. Wagers (review)

 

Stacking the Shelves (454)

This is a list that has a little bit of everything. When I read Slough House earlier this year, I wanted to read the earlier books in the series. Lo and behold, two of them turned up on Edelweiss. There are several books on this stack that I’ve been specifically waiting for, the new Lady Sherlock, the new Viola Shipman and the new Nnedi Okorafor. And then there’s the one I picked up for the title. Of course that would be The Cat Who Saved Books, because naturally I was curious. (My cats are more inclined to knock books over into one of their scattered water dishes) But the cover of this one is adorable and the story looks fascinating. We’ll see!

For Review:
The Black Coast (God-King Chronicles #1) by Mike Brooks
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa
Dead Lions (Slough House #2) by Mick Herron
Dolphin Junction by Mick Herron
Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
The Fallen (Outside #2) by Ada Hoffman
Far from the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson
The Grandmother Plot by Caroline B. Cooney
Hacking Mr. CEO (Billionaire Heists #3) by Anna Hackett
The Hand of the Sun King (Pact & Pattern #1) by J.T. Greathouse
Miss Moriarty, I Presume? (Lady Sherlock #6) by Sherry Thomas
Noor by Nnedi Okorafor
Pearl by Josh Malerman
Reprieve by James Han Mattson
The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore
The Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman
Slow Horses (Slough House #1) by Mick Herron
A Thorn in the Saddle (Cowboys of California #3) by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Purchased from Amazon/Audible:
Mother of All (Women’s War #3) by Jenna Glass (audio)


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

Please link your STS post in the linky below:


Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian TchaikovskyOne Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The bold new work from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky  - a smart, funny tale of time-travel and paradox
Welcome to the end of time. It’s a perfect day.
Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there’s no-one to remember, and nothing for them to remember if there were; that’s sort of the point. We were time warriors, and we broke time.
I was the one who ended it. Ended the fighting, tidied up the damage as much as I could.
Then I came here, to the end of it all, and gave myself a mission: to never let it happen again.

My Review:

The problem with wanting to change things is that, well, things change. The problem with time travel – or at least scientifically-based time travel – is that the things that change are fundamental to the reason you time travelled in the first place.

In other words, it makes a mess. And going back to fix the first mess makes an even bigger mess. And so on and so on, ad infinitum, until history and facts and even ordinary causality are totally FUBAR’d beyond all recognition or possibility of repair.

In a way, that’s the premise behind One Day All This Will Be Yours, that the war to end all wars was a time war, and that all of the combatants – along with the governments and organizations that sent them – lost complete track of what they were fighting for, who sent them, why they were sent, and even, to some extent, who they were, because all of those antecedents had been lost in the continued fracturing and refracturing of time.

The past can’t be changed. Well, it can, but the result is just an increasing level of chaos. Which leads our unnamed and unreliable narrator in the Last Lonely House at the End of Time to his resolve to make sure that no one can ever restart the endless cycling chaos of time travel by sitting in that house with all of the best stuff that he has taken from all the best of all the fractured eras, watching and waiting for any errant time travelers to land their time machines in his backyard.

So he can kill them and prevent the time and place that they came from from ever developing time travel. It’s a lonely job, but this veteran of the Causality War has decided that someone has to do it and that someone is him.

It’s all going just fine until a time machine slips through his net from the one time and place he never expected to receive time travelers, because he believed he’d guaranteed that it would never exist.

They’re from the future. His future. The future he’s sworn to prevent at all costs – although admittedly those costs are mostly to other times, places, and people.

The worst part of this invasion from the future is that his descendants are perky. And determined. Downright compelled to make sure that he creates the future that gives rise to their perky, perfect utopia.

This means war.

Escape Rating A-: The surprising thing about this book, considering that it’s the ultimate post-apocalypse story, is just how much fun it turns out to be. Because in the end, this is a buddy story. It’s an enemies-into-besties story where the protagonists are absolutely determined that it not become an enemies to lovers story.

Because neither of them like the rest of humanity nearly enough to want to make more of it. Especially because that other side wants them to do it – literally – just so damn badly.

So the fun in the story is in the time bonding, as these two misanthropes who are supposed to repopulate the world exercise their determination to just say no, all while having a fantastic time time-tripping through all the best eras that fractured history ever had to offer.

Time travel can be handled any number of ways in fiction, all of them equally valid because we just don’t know – although it’s a fair guess that if humanity ever manages to make it happen we’ll probably screw it up somehow. This story treats history as one big ball that is endlessly mutable – then sits back at the end of the time stream to observe just how badly it’s been mutated.

Another book that did something similar, with more romance and less snark, is last year’s This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I wasn’t as big a fan of Time War as most of my reading circle, however I thought One Day was a really fun read. Last year’s book was less straightforward and more lyrical, while this one tells a similar story with a lot of gallows humor and it just worked better for me.

Also this is a more straightforward story – in spite of the time travel. There’s that fixed point at the end of everything that the characters keep returning to that helps to anchor the story. Any time travel they do together or separately is treated as tourism. Time is so screwed up that while they don’t have to worry about whether or not they change anything, they also aren’t interested in changing anything in particular. If the butterfly flaps its wings differently in the wake of their passing, they’re not going to be affected by it in their little cul-de-sac at the end of time.

But as much fun as this was to read – after all it’s a story about two people at the end of the universe essentially pranking each other into eternity – after all the laughs it’s kind of sad at the end. Because even by not doing the thing – and each other – that they’ve both sworn not to do, the thing they were trying hardest to prevent has happened anyway.

There’s no way to stop it except by starting another one of the thing they vowed to prevent in the first place. Whatever began the original time war, theirs will be powered by, of all things, irony.

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. LiuThe Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie M. Liu
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, horror, short stories
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.
“The Tangleroot Palace is charming and ruthless. Tales that feel new yet grounded in the infinitely ancient, a mythology for the coming age.”—Angela Slatter, author of The Bitterwood Bible
“Marjorie Liu is magic! Her writing is passionate, lyric, gritty, and riveting. She belongs high on everyone’s must-read list.”—Elizabeth Lowell, author of Only Mine
Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.
Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.

My Review:

I picked this up not for her multiple award-winning Monstress, which I haven’t read yet, but for Dirk & Steele and Hunter’s Kiss, her marvelous urban fantasy/paranormal series that I read when they came out back in the late 2000s. I loved both of those series, but I’m kind of astonished that they came out way more than a decade ago.

But it has been a while, so I was happy to see this collection as a way of renewing my acquaintance with an author I very much loved. And I’m glad I did. There’s even a prequel for Dirk & Steele in this collection, at least if you squint a bit.

My favorite stories in this collection were The Briar and the Rose, Call Her Savage and the title story, The Tangleroot Palace.

The Briar and the Rose takes the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, adds in a bit of magical possession and body-swapping, and wraps it in a bodyguard romance. Except that this takes place in a world of myth and legend, where an evil sorceress is maintaining her youth and beauty by possessing pretty young women and discarding their corpses. That sorceress is defeated by the love that develops between her female bodyguard and the true personality of the body being possessed in stolen moments when the sorceress sleeps. And it’s a powerful story about just how strong people can be when they have something, or someone to fight beside and to fight for.

Call Her Savage was fascinating because it hints at so much world and such a rich history that we don’t get to see in this story. There’s alternate history and revolution and wars and flawed heroines and politics and lost causes and fighting the long defeat. It reminds me a bit of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but with an alternate 19th or 20th century instead of alternate early history. This is the one I wish there were more of. A lot more.

The Tangleroot Palace was lush and lovely and kind of perfect. On its surface its about a princess who runs away from home to find magic in order to save herself and hopefully save her kingdom from subservience to a brutal warlord. And underneath that it’s a romance about hiding behind masks to protect one’s true self, about the power of illusion and the power of agency. And of course nothing about the warlord or the kingdom or the subservience turns out to be quite what the princess was expecting. But the magic at the heart of the forest is all too real, even if, or especially because, it too is based on an illusion.

Of the rest of the collection, Sympathy for the Bones, Where the Heart Lives and The Last Dignity of Man were interesting and I’m glad I read them but they weren’t quite up there with my faves. After the Blood played with a supernatural/paranormal take on a post-apocalyptic story but didn’t give enough details to really hang together. Not that some characters weren’t hung or otherwise eliminated, but this one felt like it had been done before, and better, elsewhere.

Still and all, I’d have read this for those three favorite stories, and I’m glad I stuck around for the whole thing. It was just the right amount of lovely and romantic and creepy to while awhile a rainy evening with a cat on my lap.

Escape Rating A-: This is a strong collection, filled with stories that grip the heart, ramp up the adrenaline and occasionally wring the tear ducts. They’re not new stories, but they were all new to me, and I got completely wrapped up in every single one. They have the feel of feminist fairy tales, in that all but one of the stories are led by women, and are from mostly female perspectives. So these are heroine’s journeys – and occasionally villainess’ journeys, rather than told from the point of view that such stories are usually told.

Although the one story that is told from a male perspective, The Last Dignity of Man, while it was not among my favorites was one of the most purely lonely stories I have ever read. It was so sad and so heartbreaking and had so much possibility but the monsters, and there certainly were monsters, were more disgusting than scary, not that they weren’t scary too. Still, the idea of someone emulating a supervillain in the hopes that a superhero would arise to thwart them, just like in the comic books, was a great idea that I’d love to see explored more fully with less puking. Seriously.

The Tangleroot Palace reminded me just why I loved this author so much, and has made me resolve to get stuck into Monstress at the earliest opportunity!

Review: Into the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. Green

Review: Into the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. GreenInto the Thinnest of Air (Ishmael Jones, #5) by Simon R. Green
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobok
Genres: horror, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #5
Pages: 167
Published by Severn House Publishers on March 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Dinner at an ancient Cornish inn leads to one baffling disappearance after another in the latest intriguing Ishmael Jones mystery.

"It's just a nice weekend, in a nice country inn. Nothing bad is going to happen ..."
Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny are attending the re-opening of Tyrone's Castle, an ancient Cornish inn originally built by smugglers. Over dinner that night, the guests entertain one another with ghost stories inspired by local legends and superstitions. But it would appear that the curse of Tyrone's Castle has struck for real when one of their number disappears into thin air. And then another . . .
Is the inn really subject to an ancient curse? Sceptical of ghost stories, Ishmael believes the key to the mystery lies in the present rather than the past. But with no bodies, no evidence and no clues to go on, how can he prove it?

My Review:

There’s a version of Murphy’s Law for adventurers and investigators, and after everything that’s happened to Penny Belcourt since she met Ishmael Jones in the first book in this series, The Dark Side of the Road, she should definitely know better than to invoke it.

(I’ve just realized that Penny is the “final girl” of that story. The concept behind The Final Girl Support Group seems to be a gift that just keeps on giving…)

As this adventure opens, Penny asks her investigative and romantic partner, alien-turned-mostly-human Ishmael Jones, to come with her to a celebratory dinner for some old friends of her late parents that she’s been invited to. In Cornwall. At the restoration of a haunted smuggler’s inn with a bloody history.

Because she wants to spend a quiet, vacation-type weekend with him, doing normal couple things and pretending to be a normal couple, instead of spending all of their weekends at creepy places cleaning up even creepier happenings for their secretive employers, the mysterious “Organization”.

The number of ways that Penny should have known better absolutely beggar the imagination. Penny and Ishmael may be romantically involved, but “normal” just isn’t in either of their wheelhouses.

That the place they are intending to visit has a long and bloody history of murder, smuggling, poisoning, crazy murderers doing what the “Voices” in their head tell them to do, mysterious disappearances and don’t forget the murders is pretty much a guarantee that something about this weekend is going to shift in shape from normal to pear.

And so it proves when the first member of the group disappears into thin air. But that’s only the beginning, as one-by-one every member of the uncomfortable and increasingly frightened party disappears from seemingly plain sight in places where there’s no possible exit – but only when the remaining potential victims are distracted or have their backs briefly turned.

Or when someone is in the loo, with the door, quite naturally, closed.

As the number of “guests” winds down, the speculation ratchets up. Some claim that it must be ghosts, or the spirit of a long-dead murderer still haunting the scene of his crimes. Ishmael is firmly convinced that whatever is happening, there’s a real, live, most likely human agency involved.

After all, a ghost wouldn’t need to get their victims alone in order to whisk them away. Only the living need to hide the evil that they do behind smoke and mirrors.

Unless, of course, they’ve all been played from the very beginning.

Escape Rating B+: Just as the guests disappear into the thinnest of air, that also seemed to be what the plot of this story was made out of. Not that it’s not a fun read, because it certainly was, but this isn’t a big story. Also not a terribly long one, so if you’re looking for just a bit of horror-barely-adjacent urban fantasy-type storytelling with oodles of snark, this entire series might be your jam.

It certainly is mine, especially when the mood for snarkasm strikes.

Part of what makes this particular story one of the “thinner” plots of the series – so far at least – is that all the participants were being extremely obvious that this reunion of old friends – with Penny invited in place of her late father – was absolutely boiling over with long-buried resentments. And that there was a not-very-well-hidden agenda involving Penny herself.

Ishmael’s presence as Penny’s plus-one was neither expected nor desired. The tensions among the group were so obvious and so high that when the disappearances began Ishmael should have been checking every circumstance out for himself. But he wasn’t, and that felt a bit out of character although it was necessary to make the whole thing work.

What was interesting was the ongoing discussion about the difference between “paranormal” and “supernatural”. The participants became increasingly credulous and superstitious as their numbers were reduced. Many of them wanted to believe in a supernatural explanation, because the presence of a ghost would have made them feel better. For slightly weird interpretations of the word – and feeling – better.

There was certainly plenty of bloody history to have created a ghost on the spot – if one believes that ghosts are real. Or if one simply subscribes to the belief that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that some belief in something was better than nothing.

But Ishmael, who is not exactly human, doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He does, however, believe in the paranormal. In other words, he doesn’t believe in things that science will never be able to explain at all (supernatural) but does believe in things that science can’t explain yet (paranormal). After all, he is one. And he’s met plenty of others.

If you’ve read previous books in this series, it’s obvious from the beginning that the perpetrator is certainly corporeal and most likely human. The trick in this little puzzle is figuring out both who done it and why, and that’s just the kind of puzzle that Ishmael and Penny are best at.

Normal weekends doing normal couple things are totally outside their wheelhouse – but it’s still a lot of fun watching them try. But I expect to see them back to their usual in the next book in the series, Murder in the Dark, the next time I’m looking for a bit of snark served up with my paranormal problem solving!