Everybody gets lucky this week, as I have two blog hops starting up, both of them with a “Luck” theme. After all, St. Patrick’s Day is coming up! There will also be plenty fo chances to get lucky this time next month, because this April I’ll be celebrating Reading Reality’s 10th Blogoversary along with my birthday. I have a wonderful new logo for this year’s celebration, featuring not only Reading Reality’s signature bear but my favorite demon, Lucifer T. Cat.
And speaking of both luck and Lucifer, here’s a picture of the scene that I’m lucky enough to be greeted with every night when I go to bed, Lucifer on my pillows, barely visible, and Freddie curled up behind Galen’s legs.
Gene-edited human clans have scattered throughout the galaxy, adapting themselves to environments as severe as the desert and the sea. Atuale, the daughter of a Sea-Clan lord, sparked a war by choosing her land-dwelling love and rejecting her place among her people. Now her husband and his clan are dying of an incurable plague, and Atuale’s sole hope for finding a cure is to travel off-planet. The one person she can turn to for help is the black-market mercenary known as the World Witch—and Atuale’s former lover. Time, politics, bureaucracy, and her own conflicted desires stand between Atuale and the hope for her adopted clan. Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has all the wonder and romance of a classic sci-fi novel, with the timelessness of a beloved fairy tale.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting with this one. I know it isn’t like anything I expected it to be – and that’s always marvelous.
OK, I was expecting it to be short and it was. This week kind of fell apart for me, so I was looking for something short to round out the week and get me back on track and this definitely ticked off those boxes.
Now that I’ve had a chance to cogitate on it a bit, Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters has left me with three sets of resonances that really shouldn’t gel, but somehow do.
First, there is a fairytale at the heart of this story, although I didn’t figure out which one until after the end. I was just not expecting an SFnal retelling of The Little Mermaid. And it isn’t obvious at first, but when you look back, all of the elements are definitely there, even though the happy ending in this version is way more bittersweet than Disney would ever have left things.
Although I think Atuale is actually a selkie rather than a mermaid, that isn’t clear in the story and it really isn’t necessary to know. What is known about her story is just about enough. She gave up her place as a Sea-Lord’s daughter because she fell in love with a land-dweller.
But Saareval is not a prince. And he doesn’t need to be. Love is love is love, as becomes even clearer as the story continues. Atuale’s shift from sea-creature to land-dweller was also the result of intervention by a witch with a hidden agenda, but the World-Witch is no Ursula.
And in spite of its fairy tale underpinnings, this story is no fantasy.
There’s a plague on Atuale’s world, and it is raging among the land-dwellers. Her husband and his entire family have been struck down with it and the healers are unable to find a cure. It’s up to Atuale to reach out to her friend-turned-enemy, the World-Witch, to make a deal to take her out to the stars in order to find a cure that her husband’s people won’t even want if she finds it.
But her journey among the stars makes her question every single thing that has happened since the day she left the sea. There’s an entire universe out there and Atuale is eager to explore it, along with someone who loves her exactly as she is and not just the parts of her that he finds acceptable.
“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’”. Atuale’s choices are both sad. She can save her husband’s people, knowing that they will never fully accept her or the cure she brings. Or she can travel among the stars. She can never do both.
And the choice, her choice, is both bitter and sweet.
Escape Rating B+:The above quote is by John Greenleaf Whitter from his poem Maud Muller, and it kept running through my head the entire time I was reading this story. It’s so clear that the story isn’t about the plague, but about Atuale’s choices about what to do about it.
She’s immune, she’s not going to get it no matter what happens. The process that made her capable of living on land did not fully make her one of her husband’s people, leading to their grudging tolerance of her but also her immunity to a plague that strikes only them.
So this is a story about what we sacrifice for love, because that’s the choice that faces Atuale at every turn. In order to have one love she has to give up another, and it’s a choice that tears her in two through the entire story.
I think I felt most for Atuale as she experiences the wonders – and very definitely the dangers – of exploring the wider universe. It’s a tease and a torment and she wants it and wants to share it, but the price is too high. Which does not erase that wanting at all.
But, and it’s just enough of a but to have kept this from getting an A grade, I wanted a bit more about Atuale’s people and their world, because it’s a much bigger world and a much sadder story than we see at first. It’s not that this story isn’t complete in itself, because it is, but rather that the relationship between Atuale and the World-Witch has SO MUCH history behind it and we get hints rather than a full picture. And I wish I had that full picture, complete with its story of love both requited and unrequited, royal privilege, royal politics and revolution. I felt teased and wished I had more to go on.
Initially, I said there were three things rattling around my head after reading this book. One was The Little Mermaid. The second was that quote from Whittier. The third is also from Disney, and was that ever a surprise. The ending of Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters and the post-credits scene from the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, encapsulates the ending to the romances in both stories in a way that echoes back to the bitter sweetness of that quote from Whittier. Love and happiness, pain and heartbreak, all jumbled together in a ball of tears.
The Age of Oil ends in a cataclysm that kills millions of people. Two centuries after The Day, mankind has adapted, and a second Age of Sail is thriving. Ruby Turner is the first woman to serve aboard ships of the Gulf Shipping Company. She’s an excellent Navigator, but the Commodore has promoted her to Captain of the Matagorda Breeze, a ne’er-do-well ship where sailors who can’t quite make the grade elsewhere end up. She’s got to prove to the Commodore, herself, and her new team that she’s got what it takes to turn the ship around. On the way, she must face the biggest challenges of her career. Adventure awaits!
What happens after the world comes to an end? It’s a fascinating question, and one that has been dealt with many, many, many times. But the stories about what happens when the world as we know it comes to a cataclysmic end have a certain sameness to them.
The exact way in which the world ends may be different, but humans still do human, so the range of how people deal with it is often fairly similar.
But whatever happens after that, assuming that humanity survives at all, can take so many routes down the trousers of time that those trousers might as well belong to a centipede. The apocalypses may all have a sameness to them, but the way that the world has gone after a couple of centuries, well, that has some interesting possibilities that don’t all have to be gloom and doom.
And that’s the story that Lyla Hopper chose to tackle in Matagorda Breeze. What does the world look like 200 years after an apocalypse that takes fossil fuels out of the world-wide equation?
As Matagorda Breeze opens, that cataclysm, “The Day” as it’s often referred to in the story, is two centuries in the past. Fossil fuels and the world they both permitted and destroyed are long gone. Humanity has gone both back and forward from there. Wind, water and animal power have returned to prominence. Solar power is a possibility, but political shenanigans (humans still human) have put that out of reach for most places because the components are rare and not widely available – or distributed.
In the areas that surround the Gulf of Mexico, sailing ships handle most of the heavy-duty cargo and transportation business. When we meet Ruby Turner, she is just getting her first ship’s command. An assignment that she is expected to fail.
In those two centuries since the Day, gender roles have reverted back to the pre-Civil Rights era. Women are expected to marry and take care of the home. And all of the other expectations that go along with that assumption.
Ruby is the first woman to rise to her current rank of Navigator, and the powers-that-be want to see her fail at being a captain so that she will go back to the role that’s expected of her. This command looks like it will do the trick, as her predecessor committed suicide, her first-mate is a thief and a bully, and her crew is filled with men who have hit bottom.
Of course she turns it around. This is her story and she’s the heroine. But it’s the way that she does it, the way that she not only succeeds but makes it a success for her entire formerly rag-tag crew, that makes this story an absolute joy to read from beginning to end.
Escape Rating A-: First and foremost, Matagorda Breeze is a very fun read. For one thing, it is competence porn, and I really like competence porn. This is a story about a woman who is better than anyone else at her job, surrounds herself with the best people – or helps them become the best people – and succeeds very much against the odds.
Howsomever, as much as loved following Ruby, it also felt like things were much too easy for her. It was GREAT watching her go from triumph to triumph, but it seemed like the sea chains blocking her way were almost no impediment to her progress.
Even the pirates succumbed to Ruby’s overwhelming abilities. It’s not like that’s a bad thing, but I did expect a bit more dramatic tension along the way. It’s very clear in the way that Ruby and others speak about events in her past that there WERE plenty of impediments along her way – but we don’t really experience them at the point where her life is now. She has learned what to do and how to do it and seems to have very few self-doubts about any of it. I wish we’d either seen more of her specific memories of incidents or that she’d had at least a bit of a struggle in her present. Your nautical mileage may vary.
As I was reading Matagorda Breeze, it reminded me very much of three other books; Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, On Basilisk Station by David Weber, and Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling (also, come to think of it, 1632 by Eric Flint). On Basilisk Station and Master and Commander belong very much together as they were both inspired by the same real-life Napoleonic War naval commander, and the Honorverse is pretty much the Napoleonic Wars in space.
But the attention to ship’s details and operations is a big part of both Master and Commander and Matagorda Breeze, and the female captain receiving her first command against the odds is a big part of On Basilisk Station.
Island in the Sea of Time is a bit different in that it’s also a story about what happens after the apocalypse – but not the usual kind of apocalypse – as the people in that story are transplanted from the late 20th century to the Bronze Age circa 1250 B.C.E. So the 20th century humans have to adapt to the loss of their 20th century technology but civilization is still alive and well and growing. Just not the civilization that they left, and that situation read like the world of Matagorda Breeze more than I expected. 1632explores a similar scenario a bit differently, but the people in Island have a ship so it’s a knot or two closer.
Back to the book in hand. Matagorda Breeze is a story that explores a fascinating alternate world – one that I’d be very interested in returning to if the author decides to go there. It’s also a great story about a woman for whom the course of not just true love but true-pretty-much-everything goes fairly smoothly, but has just enough adventure to make it interesting.
And definitely, absolutely, competence porn for the win!
Full disclosure: Lyla Hopper is a pen name for my dear friend Amy Daltry who contributes the occasional really snarky review here at Reading Reality. She’s a dear friend and I’m really sorry that she, her husband, their dog, and the RV they are living in are currently even further away than they were before they took up vagabonding. This is her first book and I loved it and hope that there are more where this came from!
At the wedding of the year, a killer needs no invitation
Jutting from sparkling turquoise waters off the Italian coast, Isle Isola is an idyllic setting for a wedding. In the majestic cliff-top villa owned by the wealthy Compton family, up-and-coming artist Claire Hunter will marry handsome, charming Jack Compton, surrounded by close family, intimate friends…and a host of dark secrets.
From the moment Claire sets foot on the island, something seems amiss. Skeletal remains have just been found. There are other, newer disturbances, too. Menacing texts. A ruined wedding dress. And one troubling shadow hanging over Claire’s otherwise blissful relationship—the strange mystery surrounding Jack’s first wife.
Then a raging storm descends, the power goes out—and the real terror begins…
Welcome to the Excerpt tour for Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison. Ellison is a new author for me, but as I’ve been reading a bit more suspense recently it looks like an absolutely riveting read. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Her Dark Lies in the weeks ahead, so here’s a teaser to whet all of our reading appetites!
Excerpt from Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison (continued from yesterday’s excerpt at Berit Talks Books)
There is something…wistful on his face. I run my hand from his cheek to his temple, smoothing back his too-long hair. There is the lightest sprinkling of silver in his part, just a few hairs here and there, lending him a serious, studious air.
“A magic bed? What, does it fly?” I tease.
“In a way. Rumor has it ladies tend to get knocked up on their wedding nights. My grandmother and my mother swear by it.”
“Ah.” A deep sense of foreboding seizes me, and I instinctually scan my body for any signs of pregnancy. It’s a reflex, something I’ve done regularly since we first became intimate. An accidental pregnancy terrifies me. I can only imagine the headlines, how I’d be portrayed. Prevailing wisdom: a woman like me can only land a man like Jackson Compton if I get pregnant and he is forced to do the right thing.
I run my mind over our sexual escapades from the past month. I had my implant taken out; it was making me feel terrible. I have been taking my pills on time, haven’t I? We’ve been careful, yes?
Stop it. You’re being paranoid.
Yes, of course we’ve been careful. The dull ache deep in my stomach is certainly my impending monthly, just in time to ruin our wedding night. The malaise I’ve been feeling for the past couple of days is stress and travel related. I’ve never flown well, even short hops leave me with a headache, clammy and uncomfortable. Add in a mild concussion and a boat on slightly stormy seas? I’d gone to the doctor for a preventative motion sickness patch before we left; it is helping tamp down some of the nausea from the bump on my head, too.
The long night coupled with the long journey from Nashville to Naples is catching up to me. We’d been forced—quelle horreur—to fly first class on Delta instead of being chauffeured across the sea in the family jet. Jack’s father is flying in from Africa, where he’s been on business with Jack’s brother Elliot. As heads of the company, their travel needs take precedence.
Yes, it was a terrible burden for me to be waited upon by the dark-eyed flight attendants with their prettily accented Italian and sly smiles for Jack. The wine was plentiful, the carbonara and crusty bread delicious, the lay-down beds surprisingly comfortable. I’d only disliked being separated from Jack. He was in the cozy suite behind me, and I felt all alone, watching the flight attendants’ faces light up with pleasure as they walked past me to tend to Jack’s needs.
The breeze picks up, and I realize Jack is looking at me curiously. “Everything okay?”
“Yes, but good grief, don’t wish a baby on us just yet. I want to be married for a while, first.”
“No promises, darling. My parents will explode with happiness at the idea of another heir.”
There is a certain hopefulness in his voice. Jack is a decade older than me. A widower. His first life was stolen from him. He is ready to start a family. I understand. He’s already experienced so much. I’m only getting started. I’m not ready for a child. I might not ever be ready. I need to tell him that, before the wedding. In case it’s a deal breaker.
I take a deep breath. “Jack?”
But we are interrupted by a call from the upper deck. Gideon, beckoning. “We need you for a moment, Jack.”
Jack squeezes my shoulder. “Be right back.”
I watch Jack stride away and wrestle my urge to confess back into place. What purpose will it serve? He’ll just get upset, and who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind.
You know what they say about digging your own grave.
I turn back to the island.
Unlike the smoky gray open waters of the bay, the water in the shallower edges of the channel is cerulean and almost clear; schools of dark fish race away. What are they running from? The boat? A predator?
The breeze cools, the azure Mediterranean early summer sky turning hazy. Bad weather is coming. Italy is under a Red warning this long weekend, a severe weather alert, expecting the worst storms in a decade.
I hope everyone gets here in time. The channel crossing to Isle Isola is too dicey to manage anything smaller than the yacht or the hydrofoil ferry in bad weather, and the hydrofoil normally runs to Isola only once a week, though it’s running three days in a row for us to get all the guests on the island. And obviously, the choppers can’t fly if the storm is too bad.
The Hebrides is approaching the cliff’s edge now. The imposing granite face is sheer and unforgiving. We’re so close I can see the striations of the stone, the moss growing in the cracks. At the top, there is a flash of white. What is that?
A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course
Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.
One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.
In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.
The Lost Apothecary combines a bit of a time slip story with historical fiction, a soupcon of magical realism and just a touch of mystery, then wraps it all up, not in a nice tidy bow, but rather in a potpourri of savory herbs, pungent spices and well-hidden poisons.
It begins in the present, with 30-something Caroline Parcewell alone in London on a trip that was supposed to have been a celebration of her tenth wedding anniversary.
But Caroline discovered that her husband was an unfaithful arsehole just before they were supposed to leave Ohio for England, and Caroline decided to use the non-refundable airline tickets and hotel booking as an opportunity to get some space and take some time to figure out whether to resign herself to the safe, secure and boring life she has or to figure out what of her own independent hopes and dreams she still has a shot at fulfilling.
And at the tips of her loose ends she unearths the tip of a mystery that sets her back on the road to the person she used to be, before she let her husband talk her into being the person that he needs to further his career.
So Caroline undertakes a bit of a historical treasure hunt. The tiny glass vial she has found could be nothing. Or it might just possibly be the key to unlocking a historical mystery. Or two. Or three.
In her search for a late 18th century female apothecary and serial killer, she has a chance to uncover a hidden chapter of history. Along the way she might also find the person she was meant to be.
Or she might be prosecuted for murder.
Escape Rating A-: If you crossed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with In the Garden of Spite you might get something in the neighborhood of The Lost Apothecary. And I mean that in all its strangeness, all its depth, all its death, and definitely all its sense of women helping women and women making sure that other women are, if not celebrated, at least remembered.
Even in Caroline Parcewell’s 21st century framing story, it’s still about women’s skills, women’s magic, and women helping each other stand up in the face of men who want to keep them down at every turn and by any means available.
There are two stories in The Lost Apothecary. Caroline’s 21st century story and Nella and Eliza’s late 18th century story. Both are about women doing their best to help other women, although Nella and Eliza are the helpers in their tale, while Caroline is the helpee in hers, and both end with them learning to help themselves and to get by, as they say, with a little help from their friends.
There isn’t a lot of mystery in Caroline’s own story. Her husband is a selfish, self-centered, manipulative douchecanoe and many of the events in Caroline’s story relate to his douchiness in one way or another.
In other words, I loved her and I hated him and there weren’t a lot of surprises in that part of the story.
But this is also Caroline’s journey of self-discovery – and there were plenty of fascinating things happening along that particular way. One of the things that this story does well is the way that it portrays the joy and the compulsion of historical research. While it is seldom as easy as it turns out to be for Caroline, the way that she gets sucked into her deep dive into the past and her need to keep hunting no matter what was very well done. The reader absolutely gets sucked in right alongside her.
That the friend she makes on her journey of discovery is a librarian at the British Library was absolutely the best icing on the cake for this reader.
The story of the apothecary herself, or herselves as it turns out, Nella and Eliza, was a different kind of fascinating, but I didn’t find their story – at least not until the end – as compelling as Caroline’s. The idea that a female apothecary was helping women poison their husbands was sensational on many levels, but their internal dialog, the beliefs that drove them, while they felt true to the times in which they lived at the same time felt like a bit of a strain from my 21st century perspective. It’s not that it didn’t work, because it definitely did, but more that I wanted to reach through the book and shake both of them. Which, come to think of it, says a lot about how compelling I found their characters.
But the way that the two stories wrapped themselves together was utterly marvelous. I am absolutely astonished that this is the author’s debut novel – and I can’t wait to see where she takes me next!
Geeky introvert Tessa Rodriguez will do whatever it takes to get promoted to video game engineer– including create a fandom-based video game in just three weeks. The only problem is, she can't do it alone. Now, she needs to strong-arm, cajole, and otherwise socialize with her video game coworkers, especially her roommate, Adam, who’s always been strictly business with her. The more they work together, though, the closer they get…
Adam London has always thought of his roomie Tessa as “one of the guys” until he agreed to help her with this crazy project. Now, he’s thinking of her all the time… and certainly as something more than just a roommate! But his last girlfriend broke up with him to follow her ambitions, and he knows that Tessa is obsessed with getting ahead in the video game world.
Going from friends to something more is one hell of a challenge. Can Tessa and Adam level up their relationship to love?
I also enjoyed it so much that I bought the first book in the series, Level Up, certain that I would get a round tuit eventually. When the notification for this tour popped up I decided that eventually was finally here.
And I have to say that Level Up was just as much geeky fun as One True Pairing.
The title of Level Up is a bit of a pun. Both Tessa and Adam work for the game design company MPG, whose name is also a pun but stands for Mysterious Pickles Games – not that anyone really calls the place that.
And they’re roommates. Adam owns the house, Tessa rents a room and shares the public spaces. They’re friend-ly rather than friends, as Tessa is very much of an introvert while Adam has a whole coterie of male friends that he works with and spends time gaming with outside of work.
The thing is that both Tessa and Adam need to do some leveling up in their lives and neither of them are quite ready to acknowledge it. Both are a year out of long-term relationships that went badly, and that’s a lot of it.
But Tessa in particular is in more than a bit of a “pickle” of her very own. She’s an excellent coder, she has serious skills in coding and design, but she’s a woman trying to break into a profession, a company and a gang that is an entirely male preserve.
She knows that she’s ready to level up her career and move from being merely the audio coder to a member of the engineering team. She’s been keeping her nose to the grindstone nearly 24/7 in the hopes that her talents will be recognized.
And it just doesn’t work that way. It should, but it doesn’t.
If Tessa wants to be recognized, she needs to put herself into a position where she can be known – at least a little bit. She needs to spend some time with her colleagues and co-workers and not holed up in her cubicle or her room.
Stepping outside of her comfort zone – and her walls – brings her the friendship of the geeky women who operate the geeky bookstore around the corner from the house. Tessa finds friendship and sisterhood with a group of women who are every bit as nerdy and geeky as she is herself. She belongs.
And she can help them as much as they can help her.
They need to win a fandom contest to say the bookstore. Tessa needs a gaming project that she can spearhead to bring herself the right kind of attention at MPG. And Adam needs to get over his high-maintenance ex by getting himself a girlfriend.
Those things shouldn’t quite go together. But they do. And it’s awesome, geeky romantic fun every level along the way.
Escape Rating A-: There is just so much to love in the Fandom Hearts series, especially for anyone who is a bit of a geek themselves. The portrait of life at a game developer in Level Up, and the way that One True Pairing speaks to the heart of “shipping” are just so much fun.
This story succeeds on multiple levels – and they’re all a lot of fun.
The romance here is a geeky version of friends to lovers. Tessa and Adam are platonic roommates. They’ve worked together for a while and shared a house for a year. They’ve had a chance to get to know each other and they’re friend-ly without being close friends. It also seems like their bad breakups have insulated them from each other, keeping them from seeing each other as possible romantic partners.
There are, after all, plenty of professional pitfalls for Tessa if she gets romantically involved with a co-worker or even dresses like anything other than “one of the guys”. She’s in an awkward spot. And it’s a very real kind of awkward. Software development companies of all types are known to be sausage-fests. All guys, all the time, to the point where measuring whose is biggest is practically a daily event.
That the team lead of this particular development group is a known asshole to everyone but especially to women makes this scenario feel especially true to life. Tessa still wants in, but knows that she’ll have to prove herself every single day and pay for it with her career if she ever falls a bit short – even if that shortfall is something that a man would be forgiven for instantly.
So Tessa’s spearheading of this project for her new friends is ballsy. Necessary for her career. And a tightrope walk every minute. And we feel for her.
The romance is glittery icing on top of Tessa’s hard-working and hard-won cake. Adam has to both get over his ex and see her for the user that she really is. And that he and Tessa are good for each other because they already like each other for who they really are and not anyone they need to pretend to be.
And it’s lovely that they figure that out while snowbound – even if that particular part of the scenario felt a bit too close to real life this month!
For those of us who are geeky girls, Fandom Hearts is a series that demonstrates that we can be just exactly who we are and still meet cute and find romance without compromising on our love of all things nerdy.
BTW if the plot of One True Pairing reminds readers a bit of last year’s marvelous Spoiler Alert, just remember that One True Pairing was originally published in 2017. So if you like one you’ll love the other and definitely vice-versa. After all, we’ve all shipped the story of a romance between one of the characters we love – or the actor who plays them – and a real-life person more than a few times in our fannish lives, haven’t we?
It pretty much rained and snowed books here this week, even if there was no actual snow. Plenty of rain, though. I picked these up, and the ones that you’ll see in the coming weeks, for, basically, reasons. Which doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to peeking into as many as possible, because books. It’s all about the books!
Meet Hail: Captain. Gunrunner. Fugitive.
Quick, sarcastic, and lethal, Hailimi Bristol doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has made a name for herself in the galaxy for everything except what she was born to do: rule the Indranan Empire. That is, until two Trackers drag her back to her home planet to take her rightful place as the only remaining heir.
But trading her ship for a palace has more dangers than Hail could have anticipated. Caught in a web of plots and assassination attempts, Hail can't do the one thing she did twenty years ago: run away. She'll have to figure out who murdered her sisters if she wants to survive.
A gun smuggler inherits the throne in this Star Wars-style science fiction adventure from debut author K. B. Wagers. Full of action-packed space opera exploits and courtly conspiracy - not to mention an all-out galactic war - Behind the Throne will please fans of James S. A Corey, Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold, or anyone who wonders what would happen if a rogue like Han Solo were handed the keys to an empire . . .
The blurb talks about Star Wars, implies that Hail Bristol is someone like Han Solo who has just found themselves at the head of an empire. But that isn’t strictly true and sets up a whole lot of assumptions about who Hail Bristol is and what she might do as empress. It also sets up some false expectation of just how much running and gunning there will be in this space opera.
But that reference to Lois McMaster Bujold hits the nail a LOT closer to the head, particularly as regards Bujold’s definition of science fiction as the “romance of political agency” because this first book in the Indranan War trilogy is ALL up in the politics of the Indranan Empire in a very big way.
Even if it’s the absolute last place that Hail Bristol EVER wanted to be again.
If this series, at least as far as this book goes, has a Star Wars analogy in it, the resemblance sits much more firmly on Princess Leia’s braided crown. If Leia ran away from her responsibilities as Princess, Senator and leader of the Rebel Alliance to take up with Han Solo and live the life he’s been leading as a mercenary and gunrunner for twenty years, the person she’d be at the end of those decades would be someone like Hail.
Because, as Hail discovers the deeper she gets stuck back into Imperial politics, you can take the girl out of the palace intrigue but you can’t take the talent for palace intrigue out of the girl, not even after twenty years of becoming the woman she has become, a gunrunner, a mercenary, and most definitely when the job calls for it, a killer.
And that’s just who and what the Indranan Empire needs when Hail is dragged back to the palace to take up her rightful but resented place as Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the last remaining heir of the Empress of Indrana.
Hail’s sisters and her niece are all dead. “Gone to temple” as they say in Indrana. Her mother is dying, poisoned by a slow-acting drug that is about to reach its endpoint – and hers.. It’s going to be up to Hail to find out who eliminated her family – and who is now gunning (and knifing, and bombing) for her.
It’s going to take a killer to catch all the killers – before it’s too late. For Hail – and for Indrana.
Escape Rating A++: I picked up Behind the Throne because I absolutely adored the author’s A Pale Light in the Black, which is also space opera and also the first book in its series. I loved the writing, the world building, and the way that the characters are drawn, and I just wanted more and wanted a story that I would be sucked right into and wouldn’t want to leave. I started this in audio and fell in love with it, but audio was just not going fast enough so I switched to the ebook fairly early on. I did listen long enough that every time Hail says “Bugger me,” which she does often, with good reason and plenty of emphasis, I hear the voice of the audiobook narrator – who was excellent.
This story isn’t the action-oriented adventure that the blurb makes it out to be. It was published in 2016, so that is certainly known and I wasn’t expecting it to be. I was expecting it to be like A Pale Light in the Black, and it definitely is that.
The characters are well-drawn. They feel like real people – admittedly real people in a very unreal situation. Hail has made a life for herself, a life that she’s good at. She doesn’t want to go back for reasons that become obvious early on and are not the result of the current crisis. She didn’t want the life that she’d have been required to lead if she stayed – so she went. Coming back to pick up the pieces of that life is hard and painful and makes her do and think and feel realistic things. She feels inadequate, she feels guilty, she sees herself stepping back into old patterns, she’s lost, she’s confused – and she’s driven. All at the same time.
This is also a story about trust. Trust in yourself, and trust in others. Hail returns to the palace knowing that the only people she trusts are either missing or dead. And that the life she thought she’d built for herself was based on not just one lie, but on a whole damn pack of lies, so she’s lost trust in herself as well.
But she has to find people she can trust, if not absolutely then at least trust enough, to help her wade through the morass and save herself and her empire. And that exercise, of figuring out who is on which side and why and how and whether it’s enough, is a big part of this story.
Because, just like the protagonist of A Pale Light in the Black, Hail is building a team that will see her through. If she trusts them enough. If they trust her enough. And if they are all absolutely excellent at their very difficult jobs.
In the end, in spite of how different their origin stories are, the character that Hail reminds me of the most is Emperox Grayland II in The Collapsing Empire and the rest of Scalzi’s Interdependencyseries. Although the crises they face are very different, Grayland and Hail come at them from the same direction. They are both outsiders to their respective Imperial systems and Imperial politics, stuck in positions they didn’t want but must defend at every single turn.
Even though they are both extremely unconventional for the positions they hold, their very unconventionality makes them not just the only people by inheritance for those positions at the time they are forced to take them, but the only people by talent, skill and capacity to pull the nuts of their respective empires out of the fires that they have inherited along with their thrones.
So if space opera is your jam, or if you love stories with terrific SFnal worldbuilding and absolute craptons of political skullduggery, Behind the Throne is a winner on every level along with its gunrunner empress Hail Bristol.
I’m already buckled up for Hail’s next adventure/imperial catastrophe in After the Crown, because this ride isn’t over yet and that is the most excellent thing ever!