A considerably shorter stack this week. Jet lag is still beating me and I barely started going over all my notes from Worldcon – which will certainly produce yet more books, as this week’s entries from C.E. Murphy can attest. That’s my project for this weekend, along with possibly the Decatur Book Festival. Dragon Con is also this weekend, but a crowd of 80,000+ in 90°+ temperatures is too much on too many levels for my comfort.
Catastrophic spring flooding, blistering attacks in the media, and a mysterious disappearance greet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as he returns to the Surete du Quebec in the latest novel by #1 New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny.
It's Gamache's first day back as head of the homicide department, a job he temporarily shares with his previous second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Flood waters are rising across the province. In the middle of the turmoil a father approaches Gamache, pleading for help in finding his daughter.
As crisis piles upon crisis, Gamache tries to hold off the encroaching chaos, and realizes the search for Vivienne Godin should be abandoned. But with a daughter of his own, he finds himself developing a profound, and perhaps unwise, empathy for her distraught father.
Increasingly hounded by the question, how would you feel..., he resumes the search.
As the rivers rise, and the social media onslaught against Gamache becomes crueler, a body is discovered. And in the tumult, mistakes are made.
In the next novel in this "constantly surprising series that deepens and darkens as it evolves" (New York Times Book Review), Gamache must face a horrific possibility, and a burning question.
What would you do if your child's killer walked free?
Just as the massive spring flooding brings massive destruction and wipes all away in its wake, so does the story in A Better Man sweep away what has come before it in this series and returns much (and many characters) back to the places where they began.
So, in spite of this being the 15th book in this marvelous series, it also feels like a great place for new readers to step into Three Pines and see what it’s all about.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, after the harrowing events at the end of The Long Way Home, is back where he began at the beginning of the series, Chief of the Homicide Bureau of the Sûreté du Québec. But this time his position is a demotion, as he had been Chief of the entire Sûreté, until his horrendous gamble nearly put millions of dollars of drugs back on the streets.
It’s supposed to be a humbling experience for him, so humbling that he wasn’t expected to accept it. Particularly as the outgoing Homicide Chief is his son-in-law and former second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir. But Jean-Guy is moving to Paris and leaving not just the Sûreté but his time as a police detective behind.
So Jean-Guy’s last case as Chief becomes Gamache’s first case, the disappearance of a battered young woman, a disappearance most likely caused by her violent, abusive husband, and most likely a fatal one.
The floodwaters are rising, Gamache’s career seems to be sinking, and the village of Three Pines stacks sandbags in a desperate hope to stem the rising tide. The solutions, to the murder, to the flood, to the seeming destruction of a storied career, and to the deep and difficult questions that always lay at the heart of ever story in this series, touch the heart at every twist and turn.
As the quote from Moby Dick that threads throughout this book goes, this is a story of “All truth with malice in it”. The truths are hard, and the malice is deadly.
Escape Rating A+: On the one hand, this entry in the series feels very much like a reset. When we began, all the way back in Still Life, Gamache was the Chief of Homicide in Montreal and Clara Morrow, one of the more interesting residents of Three Pines, was an unknown artist. When this book opens, Gamache is back to being Chief of Homicide, although he and his wife Reine-Marie now reside in Three Pines. And Clara has screwed up her once-thriving art career to the point where she’s back at her own beginning, certainly not unknown but definitely struggling again.
One of the threads of this story is Clara finally accepting that the terrible reviews she is receiving really are truth with malice in them, and that it is time to go back to the kind of brave work that she does best. Playing it safe will not serve her.
Just as playing it safe with the rising floodwaters will not save either Three Pines or Montreal, and it is up to Gamache to do the hard thing and risk his career (again) to save people’s lives.
It’s too late to save Vivienne Godin. It’s up to Gamache and Jean-Guy, together again one last time, to bring her justice. Not just for her murder, but for her life.
I’ll admit that I figured out part of the truth of Vivienne Godin’s murder fairly early on. But knowing the kernel of it did not make the story any less compelling, because as is so often the case in this series, it’s not about the murder. It’s about the human beings who are involved, the victims, the perpetrators, the bereaved family and friends AND the investigators.
It’s never just whodunnit and how they done it but more importantly why they did it – and that’s where Gamache and this series always grab the reader by the heartstrings.
One weird thought I had while reading this particular entry is that Gamache, in a very strange way, reminds me of Captain James T. Kirk. Not his swashbuckling cowboy persona, and not his lack of belief in the no-win scenario, because Gamache is all too aware that there are plenty of those, but in his eager willingness to take the demotion and return to the place where he could be his best and truest self. For Kirk it was being Captain of the Enterprise. For Gamache, it is just as clearly being Chief of Homicide of the Sûreté du Québec.
So as Jean-Guy flies off into the sunset, Gamache returns to the places where he belongs, the Homicide Bureau of the Sûreté and the town of Three Pines. And I can’t wait to go back there with him again.
A wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Vivian Liao is prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she tries to outrun people who are trying to steal her success. In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, she sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, she is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine. The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider--until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride—a ravening horde of sentient machines—and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.
Empress of Forever is an intergalactic space romp with a lot of interesting things to say – and a whole lot of fun to read.
Part of that fun is in the person of its heroine, Vivian Liao. In the story’s near-future opening, Vivian reads like a combination of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all rolled into one hard-driving steamroller of a ball. Vivian is a rich and successful tech genius who may be distant from her friends but puts her money where her mouth is when it comes to her political viewpoints.
She’s made a lot of enemies, showing up the forces of the status quo for the greedy scumbags that they are. As the story begins, Vivian is on the verge of her greatest triumph. But she knows that it’s all just part of the show, to set her up for her greatest fall.
Vivian has a plan. Vivian always has a plan. She plans to wipe herself out of all the all-seeing eyes and all-knowing databases that her companies have created – and start again. In a new place, under a new name, building a new fortune.
Until her desperate raid of a Boston super-server farm brings her to the attention of the Empress of a galaxy-spanning empire that Vivian had no idea was even out there. A crystal jade goddess who literally plucks Vivian’s heart out of her chest and extracts her from the world she knows.
Vivian wakes up inside a viscous bubble, trapped in a world that might be the future. Or might be parallel. But is certainly deadly – and she has no way out except through the Empress who grabbed her in the first place.
So Vivian Liao does what she always does – she goes forward. Even when she has no idea where that forward will lead. She’ll figure it out. She always does. No matter what it costs. Or already has.
Escape Rating A-: I had an absolute ball with this. This was one of those books that I picked up in audio and was extremely glad I did. The story is told from Vivian’s first-person perspective, so we’re inside her head the whole way. And what a wild way it is.
The reviews are comparing Empress of Forever to Guardians of the Galaxy – albeit with a feminist bent. I’m not sure that comparison does either work justice.
Vivian certainly does collect a “Scooby Gang” of her very own, and some of the gang are a bit – or in one case much, much more than a bit – outside the law. And there’s a lot of manic humor in both stories. But Guardians has way more light-heartedness at its core (at least in the first movie) than Empress ever does. The humor in Empress has much more of a gallows tinge to it.
After all, the fate of the universe is at stake – even if Vivian doesn’t know it at first.
Then again, there’s a whole lot that Vivian doesn’t know at first, at second, or sometimes even at all. She is very much a fish out of water in this story – and we’re right there with her. For most of the story, she’s not sure whether the universe she has been thrust into is the future of the world she knew – or exists parallel to it. Either is possible, and both are completely alien to her.
She finds herself at the head of her little gang of outlaws, rather like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, trying to find her way home. But this is not a dream – and home isn’t quite what she thought it was.
Vivian thinks she’s trying to find a way back, but what she really does is find her way to friendship, one misfit at a time – with herself the biggest misfit of them all. Along the way, she tours this strange new galaxy that she has been thrust into, discovering both wonders and terrors, and learning so many ways that things have gone wrong.The story of Vivian’s exploration is a tour de force of as many SF tropes as the author could squeeze into one madcap adventure. It worked for this reader, but you have to be of the persuasion that too much of a good thing is wonderful, and not every reader is.
Instead of Guardians of the Galaxy, the story that Empress of Forever reminds me of the most is the Doctor Who episode Turn Left. This is a story where we get to see what would happen if one character made one seemingly insignificant choice differently – and the universe goes to hell in a handbasket.
The Empress is searching for an alternative to her own future, because her present has creatures like the Reapers in the Mass Effect Universe eradicating every galactic civilization that reaches a certain level of technological achievement being absorbed by the rapacious aliens – and they’re coming for the Empress.
Vivian has met the enemy, and to paraphrase the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “we have met the enemy and she is us.” I figured this out relatively early on, but was happy to settle in for the wild ride. What made this story special is that the big reveal was not the ending – only a spur to Vivian to go onward to a conclusion that I did not expect.
Vivian has the possibility of success because she turned left. It’s not the technological solution that the Empress expected to find. Instead it’s the human solution that she rejected long, long ago.
Like the Joe Cocker song made famous by the Beatles, Vivian gets by with a little help from her friends, because she finally figures out that she needs somebody to love. That home is where the heart is, and that she has one after all.
Australian bestselling novelist Karen Brooks rewrites women back into history with this breathtaking novel set in 17th century London—a lush, fascinating story of the beautiful woman who is drawn into a world of riches, power, intrigue…and chocolate.
Damnation has never been so sweet...
Rosamund Tomkins, the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, spends most of her young life in drudgery at a country inn. To her, the Restoration under Charles II, is but a distant threat as she works under the watchful eye of her brutal, abusive stepfather . . . until the day she is nearly run over by the coach of Sir Everard Blithman.
Sir Everard, a canny merchant, offers Rosamund an “opportunity like no other,” allowing her to escape into a very different life, becoming the linchpin that will drive the success of his fledgling business: a luxurious London chocolate house where wealthy and well-connected men come to see and be seen, to gossip and plot, while indulging in the sweet and heady drink.
Rosamund adapts and thrives in her new surroundings, quickly becoming the most talked-about woman in society, desired and respected in equal measure.
But Sir Everard’s plans for Rosamund and the chocolate house involve family secrets that span the Atlantic Ocean, and which have already brought death and dishonor to the Blithman name. Rosamund knows nothing of the mortal peril that comes with her new title, nor of the forces spinning a web of conspiracy buried in the past, until she meets a man whose return tightens their grip upon her, threatening to destroy everything she loves and damn her to a dire fate.
As she fights for her life and those she loves through the ravages of the Plague and London’s Great Fire, Rosamund’s breathtaking tale is one marked by cruelty and revenge; passion and redemption—and the sinfully sweet temptation of chocolate.
The story of The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is every bit as lush and decadent as the bittersweet confection that she learns to make – and most definitely promote and sell – in her role as the young, pretty wife of an older man who owns both a revolutionary chocolate house and an entire bubbling vat of deep, dark, but not so luscious secrets.
As ubiquitous as chocolate is in the present day – and as much as its taste, aroma and flavor are loved or even craved, once upon a time in Europe chocolate was very much a curious novelty imported from the “New World” – as, for that matter, were both tea and coffee, although both had their origin in other places.
The Restoration period in England, the 1660s when The Chocolate Maker’s Wife takes place, was a time of great upheaval, of which the introduction of chocolate was perhaps the least if not the tastiest. This was the period when the monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s Protectorate, and Puritanism gave way to the Church of England.
Over 10 years of habits of life and thought changed overnight when Charles II took the throne that his father had been forced from – and later beheaded for occupying. This was a time when the universe as they knew it changed. And did again during the course of this story when the Great Fire of London consumed the city in 1666.
Each of these world shaking events had an equally cataclysmic effect on the life of Rosamund Blishwick, nee Tomkins. And it is her eyes through which we see this world, and hers, as it changes. And most definitely sparks.
At first it seems as if Sir Everard Blishwick is rescuing Rosamund not merely from tiny Gravesend, but also from multiple fates worse than death.
But of course, all is not as it seems. What seems like a rescue is only the first step in a long drawn out campaign of revenge that sucks Rosamund deeply into its web – and launches her into a future she could never have dreamed of.
Escape Rating B-: This is very much a mixed feelings kind of review. There were aspects of this book that I enjoyed, and others that drove me a bit bonkers. The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is the kind of lush, overblown historical epic that they don’t make any more. And as much as I loved just this kind of story once upon a time, it also reminded me both of why they don’t make them any longer and why I don’t look for them either.
(Something about this book reminded me a lot of Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen. Which I read decades ago. I think it had to do with the lushness of the setting, the darkness of the secrets, the disposition of the heroine and the more than occasionly repetitive and slightly overblown language. But it’s been a long, long time. Still, the impression lingers. Make of that what you will.)
The strongest part of the story is the period setting. The author’s research into the Restoration period is exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting for the reader. The early years of the Restoration were a period of great change, capped off by the Great Fire which wiped out so much of London and wiped so many slates clean – except for the ashes.
It is a fascinating period in so many ways, as the parliamentary experiment failed, the monarchy was restored and everyone tried to go back to the way things were. Except that the genie never goes willingly back into the bottle, too much time had passed and too much had changed. But this story takes place during that change and we see the effects on the ground, so to speak, through Rosamund.
She begins the story as a young woman slaving away for her stepfather, ignored by her mother and routinely sexually abused by her stepfather and two adult stepbrothers. It’s a brutal life that Sir Everard rescues her from. Her “family” seem to be trying to erase their past as loyal Cromwell supporters, even her stepbrothers’ names betray their earlier loyalties.
But Rosamund was used and abused by her family, and then used by her new husband as well. Not for sex, but in his schemes for his chocolate house and his revenge against a family he claims wronged him. That Rosamund’s advent as a woman in the public sphere invites at least attempts at abuse from every man at nearly every turn seems a bit egregious. Not that it wouldn’t have happened, but there is a point where one wearies of reading about it happening again. And again. And yet again. (Wanting to hex them all seems to be a common response.)
At the same time, Rosamund seems a bit too good to be true. Everyone who comes into her orbit either wants her, loves her, or both. The degree to which she charms nearly everyone gives her the aura of a “Mary Sue”. Her times absolutely fascinated me, but her personality just didn’t make me want to follow her through them.
In the end, as much as I loved both the concept of this book and its setting, I didn’t love the book because I didn’t find its central character compelling. Or perhaps I simply had enough of the frequent repetitive descriptions of her tinkling laugh.
Your mileage may definitely vary. Meanwhile, I’m going to have some hot chocolate.
You're riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, "You are going to die."
Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.
From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, "Which of these people should we save?...And who should we kill first?"
One of the fascinating things about The Passengers is the way that it starts out by seeming to expose the so-called evils of artificial intelligence, only to turn the whole thing around and end up exposing the very definite evils of human beings.
While taking the reader, just like the titular passengers, on an edge-of-your-seat, can’t-stop-watching thrill ride every mile (and page) of the way.
Of course, the reader can at least take a bathroom break – admittedly while carrying the book with them – while those passengers are locked into their supposedly self-driving cars for the entire 2.5 hour journey – except for the ones who die along the way.
I say supposedly self-driving because in this particular scenario, they really aren’t. Not that there is someone sitting behind the wheel, but there is certainly someone, or a whole bunch of someones, hiding behind their computer screens and directing all of the action. An action with a very definite purpose even if it’s not the one that everyone watching – and EVERYONE is definitely watching – believes that there is.
At first, this seems like a story about technology run amok. Driver-less cars have been mandated by the government and they seem like a mostly unquestioned good with very little downside.
But just as every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also has a cloud.
Libby Dixon is part of that cloud. Both in that she has grave doubts about the degree to which “Big Brother” is watching everyone in general and specific doubts about the supposed wonderfulness of driver-less cars in specific.
She’s still traumatized by an accident she witnessed, where a driver-less car protected its passenger by mowing down a mother, grandmother and baby in the street rather than crash into empty parked cars by the side of the road. Libby is just certain there was another choice – a choice that a human driver would have made that a soulless machine did not. Or could not. Or was programmed not to.
In spite of her skepticism about the efficacy of driver-less cars, she’s been summoned to serve on the secret jury that determines whether, in the case of one of the supposedly rare accidents involving one of those supposedly safe driver-less cars, the AI driving the car was at fault – or whether the fault rests with the humans who seem to have gotten in its way.
The jury seems to always decide in favor of the AI. After one day on the jury, Libby is all too aware that the decisions are not based on any facts, but on the ability of the politician in charge of this farce to cow or bully any dissenting voices in the small group.
And then the Hacker Collective steps in, taking over what initially appears to be a random selection of 8 driver-less cars occupied by frantic passengers, hijacking them onto a one-way trip to an unknown destination – where they will crash – and burn.
As the entire world watches, the darkest secrets of those 8 passengers as well as the members of the formerly secret jury are laid bare, live and in real time, as the Hacker Collective plays with everyone’s emotions and the world watches from every news station and social media outlet on the planet.
In the end, a hero emerges – and a villain. Only the dead are silent.
But what was it all for?
Escape Rating A+: First of all, the thing about science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is that no matter what we say we’re talking about, whether elves or aliens or androids, we’re always really talking about people. Because that’s all we really know.
And that’s a big part of what happens in this book. Both in the sense that the viewing, listening and tweeting mass audience identifies with those human passengers and not the cars that seem to be driving them, but also in the sense that it’s not and never has been the AI that driving those cars – but rather the humans who created and programmed that AI.
And the humans who exploited that programming. We have met the enemy, and it’s not artificial intelligence or robots or androids, it’s always us.
There are, in fact, at least two sets of villains in this piece – or really three. The third is the mob mentality that drives so many of those people watching, listening and tweeting. They are all hiding behind the anonymity of their screens and keyboards, making just the kind of disgusting comments that have become part of 21st century life. And while I could say that it’s just that this time there are actual lives in the balance, there are always lives in the balance. Maybe not people who will die in an exploding car because of those inhumane comments, but certainly people whose lives and livelihoods and self-esteem and careers and relationships are exploded because the ones hiding behind the keyboards feel like they can divorce themselves from the results of their actions and their hateful commentary.
The second villain is the obvious one, the Hacker Collective that has set the immediate events of the story in motion. They have kidnapped 8 seemingly innocent people and sent them on a collision course with death. That those 8 people are not, in fact, innocent is all part of the story. And it’s the story that is playing out in the international media.
Underneath the obvious crime, is the one that the Hacker Collective wants to expose. And it’s not the crimes that those supposedly innocent people have actually committed – although that’s certainly considered a benefit by the faceless group.
It’s a crime that feels both climactic and anti-climactic at the same time. The way it is exposed is very definitely climactic, but the nature of it is anticlimactic and shocking in its anticlimax. We’re not surprised at the rot that is at the heart of it all. Only that the Collective had to go to that much deadly trouble to expose it.
But watching it all play out is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat from the seemingly innocent beginning to the destructive conclusion, until you fall off that edge in shock – and relief that it wasn’t real. Or isn’t real – yet.
A military legend is caught in the web between alien intrigue and human subterfuge…
Following his mission on Cappa, Colonel Carl Butler returns to a mixed reception. To some he is a do-or-die war hero. To the other half of the galaxy he’s a pariah. Forced into retirement, he has resettled on Talca Four where he’s now Deputy VP of Corporate Security, protecting a high-tech military company on the corporate battlefield—at least, that’s what the job description says. Really, he’s just there to impress clients and investors. It’s all relatively low risk—until he’s entrusted with new orders. A breach of a competitor’s computer network has Butler’s superiors feeling every bit as vulnerable. They need Butler to find who did it, how, and why no one’s taken credit for the ingenious attack.
As accustomed as Butler is to the reality of wargames—virtual and otherwise—this one screams something louder than a simple hack. Because no sooner does he start digging when his first contact is murdered, the death somehow kept secret from the media. As a prime suspect, he can’t shake the sensation he’s being watched…or finally succumbing to the stress of his past. Paranoid delusion or dangerous reality, Butler might be onto something much deeper than anyone imagined. But that’s where Butler thrives.
If he hasn’t signed his own death warrant.
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Unless they’ve become well-known but officially exonerated mass murderers. Then they become pointed-at pariahs.
Spaceside is set two years after the events in the totally awesome Planetside. Events that left Colonel Carl Butler forcibly retired, reluctantly divorced, and completely alone on Talca 4, with a cushy job at a mega-corporation that conducts corporate bonding retreats using one of their marquee products, Battlesim!
Also utterly bored, majorly depressed, and drinking way, way too much. He searching for oblivion, but after everything he’s done, it’s not merely elusive, it’s downright non-existent.
Then his boss gives him a mission. He’s supposed to investigate a security breach. Someone hacked their biggest rival, and stole data about a project so secret that no one is willing to admit the hack even happened, let alone what got hacked.
Butler’s no computer whiz, but one of his former soldiers certainly is. And she’s working in the bowels of the same place that he is. Calling in some favors from a former subordinate is easy. Finding a friend of a friend working at that rival company isn’t even that difficult.
Until his source ends up dead. The cops want to pin it on Butler, not because he did it, but because they know he’s hiding something – and they want to know what that something is.
Butler’s hiding a lot, including the fact that he’s started seeing ghosts of the people he killed on Cappa following him around Talca. Where there aren’t supposed to be any Cappans. There aren’t supposed to be any Cappans anywhere off Cappa. After all, his mission in Planetside ended with him bombing Cappa back to the stone age – or so he thought. The events that resulted in his current status as retired, mass-murdering pariah.
It turns out that nothing is as he thought. Not that the old soldier expected anything different. Or better.
After all, he’s gone into every mission he’s ever done knowing that it might be his last. And more than a few where he thought he might get stabbed in the back.
He just never figured on a shot at redemption before the end. Maybe even his end.
Escape Rating A-: The dry, wry, universe-weary voice of Carl Butler carries this story from its mundane beginning to its mic drop end. Told from Butler’s first-person perspective, we are inside his head every step of the way. His internal dialog around and about just how he ended up in this mess, his doubts and fears, makes the reader feel for him as well as with him.
Which makes it easy to get wrapped up in his stubborn refusal to drop an investigation that takes him into dark and deep places – and circles back around to everything that went wrong on Cappa. His ghosts come back to life, but this time they want his help rather than his death. At least some of them do.
It’s his corporate bosses who are in up to their greedy necks in shenanigans that they are willing to kill to keep from seeing the light of day. And they have no problems setting Butler up for the fall – after all, he’s done it before.
It’s Butler’s dogged perseverance that keeps the investigation – and the story – rattling along. Saber-rattling, that is, both figurative and literal.
What makes Butler such a marvelous protagonist is that the old soldier has no intention of being a hero – because he knows that’s mostly bunk even though it’s what people want to believe. What he’s doing is what he did on Cappa, trying to make the best of a terrible job and limit the collateral damage. If he can. Whether he becomes part of it or not.
Spaceside is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for a year. I was over the moon for Planetside last year. It was the right book at the right time and resonated with one of my all-time favorites, Old Man’s War. I’d still like to be a fly on the wall if Carl Butler and John Perry ever get together for drinks.
I enjoyed Spaceside a lot, but it took a bit longer to get into gear, or perhaps into the proper military cadence, than Planetside. We don’t get into the thick of things nearly as fast, but once we do, the race is certainly on.
This could be the end of Carl Butler’s story. Or it might not be. Even if I don’t get to take another trip into Butler’s head, I hope to see much more from the mind of his author.
Dorothy was right. There is no place like home. (There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.) We had a fantastic time in Dublin, and Worldcon was awesome, but it is SO GOOD to be home. We missed the cats SO MUCH, and the pet cam is no substitute for cuddling them. Also jet lag is a complete bitch. I’ve seen the sun come up more times this week than I have in years because my body clock just isn’t adjusting back to my usual night owl schedule. And it’s driving Lucifer a bit spare because I’m just not assuming the position he wants me in for nearly as long as he requires for his nightly snuggle. He has to be in the feline superior position and my going to sleep right away is just not working for him.
This is a bit of a catch-up Sunday Post, as I’ll finally be announcing – and notifying – the winners of all the giveaways that ended while we were gone. But speaking of giveaways ending, the Back to School Giveaway Hop rather appropriately ends this week, as everyone seems to have gone back to school by now!
And I’d like to give a very big shout out to Amy Daltry, who provided so many wonderful guest reviews while I was away. Thanks a bunch Amy!
This is about three weeks’ worth of stack. While I did not pick up any books at Worldcon, I did write down plenty of suggestions – which I haven’t gone through yet. Scary, isn’t it? But it looks like I grabbed more SF and Fantasy than usual – probably because I was, let’s call it, “under the influence”, if not of something alcoholic, then just because of the atmosphere.
We had a marvelous time at Worldcon in Dublin – and still have the jet lag and the aching feet to prove it. If you’ve ever been interested in going to a Worldcon, 2021 will be in Washington DC and 2022 will be in Chicago – which might be closer to you than either Dublin or Wellington (next year in New Zealand!) If you like to read either science fiction or fantasy it’s a great time!
Rescued from alien slavers, the only place she feels safe is in the brawny arms of a big, gruff cyborg.
Astrophysicist Dr. Jayna Lennox’s life imploded the day her ship was attacked by aliens. Through months of captivity, she’s survived by shutting down and not feeling. Then she’s freed by the House of Rone cyborgs and finds herself in the arms of huge, tough Mace. Struggling to heal, Mace is the only thing that makes her feel safe. The only person who makes her feel like she isn’t broken. But there are more of her crew members imprisoned in Carthago’s desert, and Jayna will have to delve into her darkest memories to help save them.
Born to fight and bred for rage, Mace barely survived his gang-ridden homeworld. Thanks to Imperator Magnus Rone, he’s found a place at the House of Rone. Unlike the other cyborgs, he feels, but only anger and annoyance. When a small, wounded human woman works her way under his skin, Mace finds himself feeling things he’s never felt before…along with a powerful need to keep her safe.
Jayna vows to help find her fellow humans, even if it means revisiting her nightmares and being part of a dangerous mission into the desert. But as the passion between her and Mace explodes, she finds herself with two battles on her hands: the battle to free the humans from their captors, and the war to win Mace’s scarred heart.
When it seemed like the Galactic Gladiators series was coming to an end, back with Imperator, I said that this was a series that could potentially go on forever. By the end of Imperator, all of the human refugees that were kidnapped through the temporary wormhole had been rescued from the Thraxian slavers, and the slavers, or at least that group of them, had been broken.
But that didn’t mean that there couldn’t have been other groups of humans kidnapped from Jupiter Station or the surrounding space that had also been kidnapped, whether by the Thraxians or by some other group of evil, space-vacuum-sucking scum.
Cyborg romance is one of the more interesting, and potentially challenging, spinoffs of science fiction romance. The House of Rone is a gladiatorial house on Kor Magna, founded by the cyborgs that their imperator, Magnus, rescued from the experimental program that produced him and his inner circle of trusted operators.
(BTW, Magnus found his own HEA in Cyborg with one of those rescued from Jupiter Station.)
One of those challenges when it comes to cyborg romance is in the way that cyborgs can embody the tough, supposedly unfeeling alpha male stereotype – and the ways that they subvert that stereotype – and their own programming.
The cyborgs produced by the program that Magnus and his friends Jaxon (Sentinel), Acton and this story’s own hero, Mace, escaped were programmed not to have emotions. In fact, one of the factors that forced them to escape was that their programming was either failing or imperfect – and that they felt at least some emotions in spite of it – to varying degrees. With Jaxon (hero of Sentinel) having the most and Acton (clearly intended as the hero of the next book in the series) having the least.
Mace seems to fall in the middle of that emotional spectrum, which seems fitting as his cyborg enhancements, just like his emotions, are hidden on the inside.
He doesn’t expect to feel anything for Jayna, the human woman he helped to rescue from the Edull. (The Edull seem like much, much nastier and disgusting cousins of the Jawa traders in the first Star Wars movie – the ones who captured C3PO and R2-D2 at the beginning of the film.)
But of course she just gets under his skin. And very much vice versa.
As is the case with many of the books in both the House of Rone and the Galactic Gladiators series that spawned it, these two people with scars on both the outside and the inside discover that they make each other strong in their broken places.
And that even a cyborg who isn’t supposed to feel anything at all is capable of falling in love – even if it takes someone from halfway across the galaxy to help him finally figure it out.
Escape Rating B+: As is often the case with this author’s series, there is both an individual romance in this short novel and progress on an overarching story for the series.
In Defender, the romance is between Mace and Jayna, a cyborg defender – hence the title – and the woman he comes to defend – and love.
The story is both Jayna’s journey of healing after being captured, enslaved and experimented upon, and Mace’s journey to become more than just a battle-scarred warrior with some serious anger-management issues.
That they have to grope towards a relationship before they get to seriously groping each other is part of the journey – and part of the fun.
At the same time, Defender also links to the previous books in the combined series and provides hints of where the story goes from here. While it isn’t necessary to read the whole series to enjoy this entry in it, reading a couple, particularly Gladiator (the original kickoff) and Cyborg (Magnus Rone’s own story) should provide enough background to get the worldbuilding. But the series as a whole is a whole lot of fun, so why wouldn’t you read the whole thing?
The overarching story for the House of Rone revolves around the search for survivors from the ship Helios, the supply ship that was operating near Jupiter Station when the wormhole opened. That search has led the allied forces of the House of Galen and the House of Rone to the Edull, a race of sand-sucking tinkers, engineers and scientists who usually spend their time salvaging mechanical scrap. They do, however, keep slaves, which is how they seem to have acquired the Helios survivors. The Edull seem to find the humans interesting – to the point of buying them to experiment on. Jayna was rescued, but there are more humans hidden in the Edull’s secret capital city – and it’s the mission of this series to find that city and rescue all of them.
The Falkyn sisters bear a burden and a legacy. Their mother, the imperial magiel of the kingdom of Orumon, protects her people from the horrors of the afterlife by calling upon the Gods with a precious Prayer Stone. But war among the kingdoms has brought fire and destruction to their sheltered world. When a mad king's desire to destroy the Prayer Stones shatters their family, the three girls are scattered to the wilderness, relying on their wits and powers they don't yet master.
Assassin. Battle tactician. Magic wielder. Driven by different ambitions, Meg, Janat, and Rennika are destined to become all these and more. To reclaim their birth right, they must overcome doubtful loyalties within a rising rebellion; more, they must challenge a dogma-driven chancellor's influence on the prince raised to inherit his father's war: a prince struggling to unravel the mystery of his brother's addiction to Heaven.
I signed up for this tour because, well, epic fantasy has always been one of my loves, and this book looked interesting. I’ll admit that the series title, Addicted to Heaven, gave me more than a bit of pause, but as it turns out, the heaven that people are addicted to is nothing like contemporary Western versions of heaven.
Bursts of Fire is very much a part of the epic fantasy tradition. There were times, in fact, when it felt like specific epic fantasies. But it does such a good job of exploring both its new facets and riffing on the stories from which it sprang that it made for a darn good read.
And I was on an airplane and this book was next in my queue. Bursts of Fire turned out to be a terrific book to transition from Worldcon back to “real life” as I traveled from a place where everyone was talking about SF and Fantasy and back to the so-called real world where those discussions are not quite so commonplace.
The story of Bursts of Fire begins in the way that quite a few epic fantasies begin – where the kingdom is under siege and the heir to the throne gets smuggled out of town ahead of the rampaging horde.
And that’s where the differences begin.
The heir isn’t the heir to the throne. And the heir isn’t an heir. Instead, the heiresses to the king’s magical advisor, all three of them, sneak out of the capital with the help of their nanny. Who they still need, as the oldest girl is 17 and the youngest is 11. And none of them have the remotest clue about how to manage on their own – or how to manage period without people waiting on them hand and foot.
They’ll have to figure it out – and somehow manage to grow up, in the midst of a civil war where they are being hunted by both sides. The forces of the usurper believe that all magic is evil – and the rebels just want to use them for their powers.
Powers that they mostly aren’t trained to use. They’re alone, desperate, and on the run. But at least they have each other. Until they don’t.
Whether they can figure out the right course to save themselves, save each other, and save the people that they feel responsible for, is a race against desperation and despair.
And just when they think they might have a chance to right at least a few of the wrongs – they discover just how bad things really, really are.
Escape Rating B+: Bursts of Fire turned out to be a terrific airplane book. Anything that can keep me distracted for 3-4 hours of an 8 hour flight is very much appreciated. And this certainly did.
As has been a relatively recent but also extremely welcome trend in epic fantasy, Bursts of Fire is a heroine’s journey rather than a hero’s journey. Or in this particular case, three heroines’ journeys. At the same time, the story begins on a familiar note, as the chosen one – or in this case chosen ones – are thrown from their original setting to make lives for themselves, and oh-by-the-way save the world.
Part of what does make this a bit different is that there is no mentor character to provide guidance – or for them to rely upon. They lose Nanny almost immediately. She was the one their mother gave the plan to, so the girls are on their own, lost and desperate.
Also very, very young and completely out of their depth. Only the oldest, Meg, has a real clue about just how bad things are and just how much things have changed for them. Little Rennika is too young to understand, and middle-sister Janat is too self-absorbed.
Janat is a character that I never warmed up to, and her self-absorption and unwillingness to grasp their situation continues throughout the story, making this reader grateful that the relatively mature Meg is the primary point of view character.
Meg understands the stakes earliest. Rennika is young enough to adapt. Janat is a problem from beginning to end, a problem that it looks like is only going to get worse.
What’s gone wrong with the kingdom did not make much sense at first. The reader is dropped into the middle of the story, just as the girls escape – and no one seems to know why their ally has suddenly attacked. As the story progresses, it becomes clear – for select definitions of clear – that no one really does know why he went off the rails. They just see the effects – and those effects are gruesome.
War is hell, and civil war is particularly hellish. The rebels want peace and they want to go back to the way things were – as much as is possible after two years of war. The girls, who have become young women fired – or broken – in the crucible of that war want to save as many people as possible, want to reverse the sudden upwelling of prejudice against magic users fostered by the usurper and his advisors, and want to take up the purpose that their family has always undertaken – to visit heaven and intercede with the gods on their people’s behalf.
The magic system of this world is fascinating and different, and their gods are real and act upon their world in ways that can be seen and measured if not countered. The primary manifestation of that magic is the magic users’ uncontrolled shifting through time. Magic has a price, and becoming unmoored from the time you are living is part of that cost.
The glimpses that all three sisters receive of their past, present and future are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartening, and always confusing. It is as much of a curse as a gift, but their ability to intercede with the gods is both powerful and necessary in this cosmos.
That the usurper is determined to break that connection powers his mad campaign against his former allies – and the reasons for that determination are shattering for the kingdom, the reader, and his heir.
That the heroines are all very young leaves this book, and presumably the series it begins, balanced on the knife edge between young adult and adult fantasy. The protagonists may be young adults, but the situations in which they find themselves feel adult in their consequences.
In the end of Bursts of Fire, we, and the characters, know more about the reasons for the fractured state of their world, but are no closer to a resolution. This is a story about a world that is broken – and it is not made whole by the end. There must be future books in this series, and I’m looking forward to reading them.
~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~
I am giving away a copy of Bursts of Fire to one very lucky US/CAN commenter!