Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + Giveaway

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + GiveawayServant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #3
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Exciting Conclusion to the Dragonslayer Trilogy Long laid plans finally bear fruit, but will it prove as sweet as hoped for? With the king on his deathbed, the power Amaury has sought for so long is finally in his grasp.

As opposition gathers from unexpected places, dragonkind fights for survival and a long-awaited reckoning grows close.

Soléne masters her magic, but questions the demands the world will make of her. Unable to say no when the call of duty comes, Gill realizes that the life he had given up on has not given up on him.

Once a servant of the crown, ever a servant of the crown...

    The Dragonslayer Trilogy:

1. Dragonslayer
2. Knight of the Silver Circle
3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

First things first. I just want to say what a treat it was to start a series, fall in love with it, and be able to just read – or be read to – all the way through to the end without having to wait months if not years for the later books in a series. I don’t always have that opportunity, either because I fall in love with the first book long before the others are out, or because I run into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum and have to space things out because of other reading commitments. Because I waited to start the first book (Dragonslayer) until the entire series was out – a happy accident! – I was able to do the whole thing in one swell foop. And wow! What a ride!

Second, this is epic fantasy of the sword and sorcery school, and there just hasn’t been as much of that around recently. I’d forgotten how much I love this end of the epic fantasy pool, so I’m grateful for the reminder and will be looking for more of it.

Third, this story manages to be both epic and not epically long at the same time in a way that just really, really works. In an era when so many epic fantasies are made up of several individual door-stop sized books, it was a joy to get such a rich and complete story in a length (or maybe I should reckon this as height) of just under one doorstop at 1,000 pages in total.

Fourth, but still not last, what makes this series so fascinating to read are its characters, and the way that their individual arcs both fulfill fantasy tropes and subvert them at the same time. Because this is a story where the characters feel like real, flawed human beings – and yet they still manage to be Big Damn Heroes, whether they want to be or not. And it’s definitely not.

I’m specifically referring to Gill and Soléne, because their respective journeys, separately and together-but-not-TOGETHER, form the backbone of the series.

Gill is the failed hero of the previous generation. His character, who is very much a classic archetype, usually becomes the mentor figure in most epic stories, whether fantasy or not, and that character usually dies somewhere in the middle so the “real” hero can take center stage. (One of my personal favorite characters of this type is actually dead to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Obi-Wan Kenobi is a great example. He was a hero in the previous war. He failed, he fell and then he hid himself away in the deserts of Tatooine. He becomes Luke’s first trainer and mentor in the Force, and then he’s killed by Vader. The mentor figure always dies. Like Merlin. And Dumbledore. And every other teacher/trainer of the young hero.

But the young hero in the Dragonslayer series is on an entirely different course than Gill’s. Because Gill doesn’t die. Instead, he becomes the hero, one more time, in spite of his own wishes to die in obscurity at the bottom of a bottle. He is, in the end, the “Servant of the Crown” as named in the title of this final volume. He serves no matter what he, himself might want. And he becomes the hero because no matter how many times he’s struck down, he gets up and tries again. And again. And again. Until the job is done.

If it ever will be.

Soléne is that young hero. Gill’s the one out in front to collect all the glory and fight all the battles, or so it seems. But she’s every bit the hero that he is, just from behind the scenes. Her power is huge, but it is also quiet. She’s the mage who operates in the shadows, not because she’s the woman inspiring the hero, but because the power she wields works best from the dark – and the quiet. He knows that she brought him the victory, and he knows that the best thing he can do for her is to acknowledge that privately and not publicly. Not that the Crown won’t give her its own semi-public acknowledgements. Maybe. If they succeed.

It is fascinating that both of their personal journeys are the journey to learn to trust themselves. He has to step up, and she has to step forward, but in so many ways it’s the same step.

I also absolutely adored that there is no romance here – nor should there be. It is wonderful to see trust, friendship and true comradeship in a relationship between a man and a woman that has absolutely no basis in will they/won’t they. Because this particular pair really, really shouldn’t – at least not with each other – and the reader is NEVER led to believe that they should. Solene is never Gill’s reward or his prize, nor is she ever fridged. She’s as big a damn hero as he is, just in a different way.

Even Amaury the villain is very, very human. While he is certainly a meditation on the cliche that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, he’s never able to grasp the absolute power he thinks he deserves. And the minute he gets close to it, it does him in. But throughout he’s human and understandable, even if he’s never a sympathetic character at all. And it’s another subversion of trope that Amaury the human is the big villain, while the really big creatures we think will be the villains, those dragons of the series title, actually aren’t. Well, at least all of them aren’t.

Escape Rating A++: I need to stop squeeing at this point. It’s pretty obvious that I adored this series from beginning to end. I began it in audio – every time – but switched to text at the point where I just couldn’t find out what happened next nearly fast enough.

I will say that the reader for all three books, Simon Vance, was absolutely marvelous. I wanted to continue to listen to him, but patience has never been my long suit. If you love fantasy and have an excuse to listen to the full story, it’s a wonderful listen.

I loved this series so much that I decided to include it as one of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week reviews and giveaways. The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by Duncan M. Hamilton (up to $20 US), whether in this series or one of his previous series (and if anyone knows whether they are all set in this same world, please let me know!)

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Early Blogo-Birthday Celebration + Giveaway

On April 4, 2011, the very first post on Reading Reality went live. That was back when the blog was called “Escape Reality, Read Fiction” after a saying I found on a t-shirt. At the time I started the blog, the country was still reeling from the “Great Recession” and a book blog was a way to keep my hand in the book world – and give myself something to occupy me intellectually, during a period when we had just moved cities (AGAIN!) and jobs were hard to come by. And doesn’t it seem like the more things change, the more they remain the same?

Nine years and three cross-country moves later, the blog is still going strong!

My birthday happens to be April 5, hence the term Blogo-Birthday was born. I celebrate these anniversaries by giving stuff away – as a way of thanking all of my readers and followers who have found Reading Reality over the years and stuck around to see what happens next.

What happens this week will be a series of giveaways. Today I have two giveaways, one for a $25 Amazon Gift Card and one for $25 in books from either the Book Depository or, for those in the U.S. $25 in books delivered from the book store of your choice. If you have a local bookstore that’s doing mail order, I’ll have the books or a gift certificate sent to you from them. If you don’t have a local of your own, then you can choose from one of the big regional bookstores like Tattered Cover or Powell’s, or get your books from the Book Depository. But books you will get!

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The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 3-29-20

Sunday Post

When last we left our heroes, they were all sheltering in place at home. And that’s pretty much where they are this week. And next week. And hopefully the week after that, because the other alternatives are all fairly grim, sooner or later.

For those who have laughed at ANY of the cat memes about felines not necessarily wanting their humans home 24/7 disturbing their naps and other important feline business, that’s not true in this house. Hecate is omnipresent, and Freddie is very needy. Lucifer just waits until nightfall to begin quietly demanding his nightly snuggles. As far as this bunch is concerned, their humans are SUPPOSED to be home with them all the time.

But this is certainly a time of disruption and crisis for many of us. Whatever happens, the world will never be the same.

Even though many of us are staying home for the duration, that doesn’t mean that some events aren’t still going on as planned. One of those events is coming up next weekend. The 9th anniversary of the first post on Reading Reality is April 4, and my birthday is April 5. I generally have a Blogo-Birthday celebration the week those events occur, with giveaways every day. That BOTH anniversaries are on a weekend left me in a bit of a quandary – whether to celebrate ahead or wait until after.

We all need a bit of a pick-me-up, so the Blogo-Birthday will be celebrated early, this coming week of March 30-April 3, with giveaways every day. So be sure to come back every day to participate in the festivities!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Snow Much Fun Giveaway Hop (ends TUESDAY!)

Blog Recap:

A- Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
B Review: Paladin by Anna Hackett
B Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson
A- Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
A Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold
Stacking the Shelves (385)

Coming This Week:

Early Blogo-Birthday Celebration
Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton (review)
Worth Melting for Giveaway Hop
Condor by M.L. Buchman (review)
Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris (review)

Stacking the Shelves (385)

Stacking the Shelves

This does rather feel like the “embarrassment of riches” edition of Stacking the Shelves. One way or another, an incredible number of books found their way onto my virtual shelves. For me it feels reassuring, that as long as I can power up my iPad I’ll have PLENTY to read, and that’s something that always makes me feel better. We all need to look for little things that make us feel a bit better right now, as so much seems like its falling apart.

For Review:
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
Beach Read by Emily Henry
The Best Man Plan (Boots and Bouquets #1) by Jaci Burton
The City of Tears (Burning Chambers #2) by Kate Mosse
The Down Days by Ilze Hugo
Driving the Deep (Finder Chronicles #2) by Suzanne Palmer
Echoes of Another by Chandra Clarke
The Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
I’d Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos
The Kingdom of Liars (Legacy of the Mercenary King #1) by Nick Martell
The Mother Code by Carole Stivers
Mousse and Murder (Alaskan Diner Mystery #1) by Elizabeth Logan
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford
Say Yes to the Duke (Wildes of Lindow Castle #5) by Eloisa James
Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore
Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls
This is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf
Until the End (Final Hour #3) by Juno Rushdan
The Wife Stalker by Liv Constantine

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Kickstarter:
Familiarity by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Kickstarter)
Five Feline Fancies by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Kickstarter)
Servant of the Crown (Dragonslayer #3) by Duncan M. Hamilton (audio)
Skulduggery Pleasant (Skulduggery Pleasant #1) by Derek Landy

Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Orphans of Raspay (Penric and Desdemona, #7) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #7, World of the Five Gods #3.7
Pages: 224
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency, Subterranean Press on July 17th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

When the ship in which they are traveling is captured by Carpagamon island raiders, Temple sorcerer Penric and his resident demon Desdemona find their life complicated by two young orphans, Lencia and Seuka Corva, far from home and searching for their missing father. Pen and Des will need all their combined talents of mind and magic to unravel the mysteries of the sisters and escape from the pirate stronghold.

This novella follows about a year after the events of “The Prisoner of Limnos”.

My Review:

There’s ransom – and then there’s anti-ransom paid to make sure that Penric, Learned Divine of the White God, goes away and stays away.

That’s a tiny piece of the end of the story. In the beginning, there’s chaos. In the middle, too. But then again, there’s always chaos in Penric’s life, and has been since the day that he stopped to help a dying woman by the side of the road, and ended up gifted with her demon and her calling.

(That story is in Penric’s Demon, and it, just like all the stories in this series, is a delight.)

Because Penric’s god is the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season” Penric himself is something of a chaos magnet. Wherever he goes, trouble happens. Usually to him, but eventually to everyone around him, while he emerges, if not unscathed, at least less damaged than whoever or whatever tried to get in his – and his master’s – way.

Penric serves as a bit of a secret agent for both the Duke of Orbas, where he lives when he’s not out running semi-secret errands as well as the Bishop of Orbas, who often sends Penric out on equally dangerous missions. He’s on his way home from one of those missions when the ship he is travelling on is blown off course in a storm, only to survive the storm and get captured by pirates.

That’s where Penric’s “adventure” really begins. Like most of Penric’s adventures, it’s the sort of thing where he’d like it to be a tale told by someone else while he sits beside his wife, safe at home. Or something he’d like to long be over, so that he can look back on it much more fondly than the experience warrants as it’s happening.

Instead, Penric leaps out of the frying pan into the fire – or at least there would be a fire if he weren’t locked in the hold of a ship in the middle of the ocean. And there certainly will be a fire as soon as he reaches dry land – or something equally chaotic and destructive.

After all, he owes those pirates a good comeuppance – even if they quite literally drop him into the mission that the Lord Bastard intends for him to accomplish.

Penric is there to rescue two little girls from slavery – along with himself. Her mother seems to have made a deal with his god, and it’s up to him to carry out his Lord’s side of the bargain.

If he can manage to wreak chaos on the entire slaving operation while he’s there – so much the better. Both his god and his demon ADORE chaos.

Escape Rating A: This series has been a comfort read for me, and right now we all need more comfort reading than usual, so here we are. I have kind of a hit-or-miss relationship with this author’s classic, famous space-opera Vorkosigan series, but I adored the World of the Five Gods series (begin with The Curse of Chalion) and was sorry to see it end. Then it un-ended with Penric’s Demon, which is set in the same world but doesn’t feature any of the original characters. Penric is definitely a character onto himself. And I don’t think you have to have read the “big” series to get into Penric if you start from his beginning in Penric’s Demon. (The series won the very first Hugo Award for Best Series in 2018!)

So I’m all in for this novella series. They are all novellas, so relatively short reads, always complete in themselves but with a “hook” to the wider Penric series. And lovely little bits of storytelling they are.

The success of the series rides – pun intended – on two characters, Learned Penric and his demon Desdemona. I’m not sure the possessive is in the right direction, much like the question about whether we own the cats or the cats own us.

Desdemona is kind of like a Trill symbiont from Star Trek. She’s the demon, she provides Penric with his magic. But she also contains the memories of every person that she has ever inhabited, and Penric has access to all those memories. He may be in charge, but Desdemona is a separate individual who has her own thoughts and her own relationships with the people around them. Lucky for Penric, Desdemona and his wife Niklys get along quite well. If they didn’t, he’d be the chew toy caught in the middle – although probably not for long.

Penric’s adventures often have a “Perils of Pauline” aspect, the out of the frying pan into the fire element of so many of those old melodrama serials. The difference is that in Penric’s case, he’s often the one providing the fire, as that’s one of the many gifts of his demon, and sometimes, as in this particular story, a place just needs a really good cleansing – with fire.

That’s certainly the case here, as Penric is caught in multiple dilemmas. He has to rescue himself and the two girls. He needs to figure out exactly what his responsibility is to those two girls. Not that he isn’t willing to save them, but if it’s a mission for his god he has different options than if he’s just doing a good deed. And there are WAY too many coincidences in their meeting for it to just be a good deed.

At the same time, he, and we, are morally outraged by the economy of the pirates haven and the slaving business that keeps it going. Not just the pirates themselves, but the entire network of middlemen and buyers who make the whole thing so incredibly lucrative – and so distributed that they are hard to eliminate in their entirety – no matter how much Penric wants to.

In spite of the terrible situation, the story itself has a gigantic element of fun to it. Penric causes chaos but he also experiences it fairly often. His plans to get himself and the girls off the island and on their way home backfires on him multiple times. People just won’t do the sensible thing when he’s involved. Seemingly ever.

So he tries and fails regularly, although he tends to fail upwards, making a bit of progress each time. We hold our breath with him as he attempts yet another escape, and worry with him that he’s not going to get the girls to safety. Or that he’ll end up dead. Or both.

In the end, the cavalry quite literally comes over the hill – or at least over the horizon, and Penric lives to cause chaos another day. A day that I can’t wait to read about!

Reviewer’s Note: This book is currently available in ebook published by Spectrum Literary Agency. The print version will be published in June by Subterranean Press with a new cover.

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice HadlowThe Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Pages: 480
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.

What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.

Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.

Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.

My Review:

The Other Bennet Sister (UK Cover)

The Other Bennet Sister is definitely NOT a book to be judged by its cover. I really hated that cover – and this is one of the rare occasions where the UK cover is just as bad. Both covers seem to picture Mary Bennet exactly as she was in Pride and Prejudice. She seems washed out in the US cover and judgmental in the UK cover.

But I loved the book.

The real Mary, or at least the version I want to be the real Mary, does begin her story as sermonizing and judgmental. But, and it’s a HUGE but, because this is Mary’s own story and not the story of her much more brightly shining sisters, we see that Mary’s behavior is the result of being shy and withdrawn. She’s retreated into herself because she’s the frequently overlooked and often denigrated middle sister, trapped between the gorgeously beautiful Jane and Lizzy and the shallow but pretty Kitty and Lydia.

She’s not really an ugly duckling in the midst of a flock of swans, but her mother sure as hell makes her feel like it at every turn. I didn’t like Mrs. Bennet in the original story – AT ALL – and I like her even less here. Actually, I loathe her even more than I dislike this book’s cover.

Mary isn’t a diamond of the first water, as her older sisters are. She doesn’t sparkle the way her younger sisters do. But she is as pretty as any other young woman of her time, and would have been fine in any family slightly more functional than the Bennets.

But this is not a parallel story to Pride and Prejudice. Instead, it’s more like an alternate sequel, as most of the events take place after the end of P&P. Not merely after those events, but also after the long-feared death of Mr. Bennet, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her remaining unmarried daughters, Mary and Kitty.

And that is where Mary’s story really begins, as she starts the process of taking control of her own life for her own self – in spite of her mother’s frequent interference and constant disparaging – and often melodramatic – pronouncements.

Once Mary is on her own the story takes flight, as she explores the limited varieties of life possible for a spinster and begins to craft her own beliefs about who she is and how she should live – whether she manages to marry or not.

That the end of her journey of self-discovery leads her to love and happiness is the icing on a delightful and thoroughly tasty little cake of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I enjoyed The Other Bennet Sister considerably more than I expected to at the beginning. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m not a fan or an aficionado. I found Mrs. Bennet in particular to be utterly appalling as a character, and Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh are not people I’d ever want to spend much time with. Certainly not enough time to ever attempt a reread of the book.

So one of the things I really liked about The Other Bennet Sister is that none of these petty villains are ever described as anything more than exactly what they are.

It does make for some fairly hard reading at the beginning of the story, as we pretty much suffer right along with Mary as she is first constantly berated by Mrs. Bennet, and then is forced to take on the role of charity case in the homes of both Elizabeth and then Jane as they subtly or not-so-subtly make her aware that she’s unwanted and unwelcome.

She has no place and she has no choice and that’s a difficult situation to be in.

But that’s when she takes things into her own hands and looks for other options, first with Lizzy’s friend Charlotte and her husband Mr. Collins – who was a figure of fun in the original, much like Mary herself.

It’s only when Mary takes herself off to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, that she finally finds a place where she is welcome and can work out her own future, whatever it might be. But all along Mary is brave and forthright, even in situations where those around her do their level best to keep her as far down as possible.

It’s fun watching her grow and expand her horizons. It’s also heartening to see her look hard at the easy way out but reject it as unworthy, over and over. She does a great job of exploring her limited possibilities and making her best choices.

In the end, Mary is a fascinating character, a woman with agency but one whose thoughts, beliefs and choices reflect her time and not ours. The Other Bennet Sister is a lovely story that uses its original as a springboard to something better!

Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie RobsonHearts of Oak by Eddie Robson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 266
Published by Tor.com on March 17, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The buildings grow.

And the city expands.

And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.

Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.

And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.

And when chief architect Iona wakes from a long period of blindly accepting the status quo, she realizes there’s a mystery to be solved. A strange, somewhat bizarre mystery, to be sure, but no less dangerous for its improbability.

And the cat is almost certainly involved!

My Review:

Talking cats are generally an indicator that you are either reading a cozy mystery or an animal odyssey like Watership Down or Redwall.

Or, that something is really, really wrong. Because cats aren’t supposed to speak in complete English sentences – or whatever language you might speak. Any story where the king’s wisest counselor and closest adviser is a talking cat is either a fantasy of some sort or a story where things have gone really, really off-kilter at the very least.

With that talking cat at the center of it all. Having played more than one game where a villain took the form of a talking cat, I was expecting the very, very wrong.

The situation in Hearts of Oak was wronger than that. Also weirder. Much, much weirder.

At first it merely seems as if the cat is manipulative – as they are – the king is a chucklehead and the elderly architect who is our point of view character is a bit too far past it to figure just what it is about the city that feels so -odd

She’s certainly aware that something feels “off” but can’t quite get her mind to wrap around exactly what – at least not until the cremation ceremony when a member of the audience leaps onto the casket just as its about to be engulfed by the flames.

At that point, it’s pretty obvious that something is amiss, but just not what.

At that point we are all, like the architect Iona, pretty much invested in the fantasy-like scenario of the ever-growing city, the slightly oblivious king and the dreamlike, slightly soporific quality of the place.

And that’s the point where it all goes pear-shaped, and  all of the perspectives, especially Iona’s and our own, get turned on their heads.

When we – and Iona – discover that nothing about this world has ever been as it seemed.

That’s the point where the oh-so-subtle wrong becomes very, very interesting. And Iona’s situation goes far more pear-shaped than she – and the reader – ever imagined.

Escape Rating B: The story at its beginning has kind of a dreamlike quality. It feels obvious to the reader – at least to this reader – that things are not as they seem and that the cat is at the heart of it all. That particular reveal didn’t feel like all that big of a discovery.

But the point where Iona’s perspective goes through its sudden and dramatic shift takes the story in a direction that absolutely was not expected – nor should it have been. I expected that Iona’s world was stranger than she imagined, but had no clue that it was stranger in the particular way that it is.

There’s more than a bit of charm to this story and the way that its told, as well as a bit of pathos in Iona’s ultimate fate. At the same time, looking back on the story now that it’s over, it feels like there were a whole bunch of themes and plot points that were plucked from different branches of speculative fiction and melded into the whole of Hearts of Oak.

In other words, there were plenty of moments where I felt like I’d read that part of the story before – or seen it on one or more SFF TV show. At the same time, the whole was, not so much greater than the sum of its parts as completely different from the sum of its parts. A feeling that makes no sense but still feels true.

Hearts of Oak is a fun, quirky read that takes itself places that the reader never expects. It’s not really character driven, and when I think about it it doesn’t feel plot-driven either. If I had to describe it – and I kind of do – I’d have to say that it’s really twist-and-turn driven. Just about the time when you think you know where it’s going – or at least begin to recognize where it’s been – it takes a completely different twist and you have to re-evaluate the parts you’ve already read.

If you like stories as puzzles, this one is fascinating. With a twist in the end that cuts like a knife.

Review: Paladin by Anna Hackett

Review: Paladin by Anna HackettPaladin (Galactic Gladiators; House of Rone #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators; House of Rone #4
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on March 22nd 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A cyborg drowning in emotions and an abducted Earth woman trying not to feel.

Abducted, enslaved, and constantly worried for her daughter, scientist Dr. Simone Li has had a rough few months. Now that she and her daughter, Grace, have been rescued by the fierce cyborgs of the House of Rone, she’s trying to make a life for them on the desert world of Carthago. But guilt and worry are eating at her…Toren—a once-emotionless cyborg—was injured rescuing them from the dangerous Edull aliens. Now, he’s inundated with emotions and not coping. Drawn to the wounded cyborg, Simone must find a way to help him and still protect her battered heart.

Bred to be a warlord’s personal cyborg, Toren has prided himself on being a cool, precise fighter dedicated to his house and imperator. Now his entire life has been torn apart. He’s broken, useless, and sidelined as an elite House of Rone cyborg. Every minute of every day, he struggles through a deluge of unfamiliar emotions and wants revenge…and only one woman calms the storm.

Desperate to bring down the Edull and rescue another abducted woman, Toren and Simone go undercover in the desert. Despite the dangers around them, these two tortured souls can no longer fight their intense attraction and the pull of fierce, overwhelming emotion. But Toren will soon have a choice to make: risk it all for love or go back to being the emotionless warrior he’s always been.

My Review:

I decided on Paladin today because I knew exactly what I would be getting from this latest entry in Hackett’s swords, sandals and occasionally spaceships series. Considering that yesterday’s book and tomorrow’s book are both a bit out there in terms of storytelling, I really felt like something a bit straightforward here in the middle.

Not that gladiators in space is exactly straightforward, but the storytelling in this series, like all of this author’s marvelous stories, reliably goes from point A to point B to point C – usually meaning SF (or occasionally action-adventure) meets romance, two lonely and/or somewhat scarred people meet (often briefly in the previous book in their series), figure out that they make each other strong in their broken places, get themselves in serious hot water with the big bad of the series, rescue each other and live happy for now with a happy ever after on the horizon when the series wraps up and the big bad is sent to whatever version of hell their beliefs and ours say they have definitely earned and certainly deserve.

And so it is in Paladin, with the added fillip that all the romances in the House of Rone spinoff from the Galactic Gladiators series feature cyborg warriors discovering that they have hearts and emotions after all, no matter how successfully they’ve managed to pretend otherwise until now. And in this particular entry in the series, the female refugee from Earth comes with her very own plus-one in the form of her daughter Grace.

Grace the budding little chemist with a penchant for making things explode. A skill that is bound to come in plenty handy on Carthago.

Grace’s mother Simone has survived the one-way trip from our Solar System as well as captivity and enslavement by the big bad for this series, the evil bot-making Edull. She’s just starting to get her feet under her again, but her involvement with Toren, the cyborg who was wounded while rescuing her, may set her back emotionally as much as she moves forward physically.

The damage that the Edull inflicted on Toren during her rescue has stripped away his primary cyborg weapon and the emotional distance that was part and parcel of his many, many implants. Now that he suddenly has emotions, he’s unable to control them and unfit for being part of the security that keeps the House of Rone and its inhabitants safe from the dark things that thrive in the shadows of Carthago and the Kor Magna Arena.

Dark and deadly things – and people – like the Edull and their bots.

Toren claims to want nothing more than to be stable enough to regain all his implants and the emotional lockdown that goes with them. But Simone can’t seem to stop herself from reaching out to him, no matter how much his need to pull himself away reminds her of the worst of her marriage back on Earth.

But in investigating their current lead to both the Edull and the female Earth engineer that they know is still a captive, Toren and Simone are forced to rely on each other and get past their emotional blocks.

Whether they can save the day – or even each other – forms the beating heart of this entry in this nonstop action/adventure/science fiction romance.

Escape Rating B: As much as I ALWAYS enjoy this author’s work, I’m not having nearly as much fun with the House of Rone as I did with the first series on Carthago, Galactic Gladiators.

And it seems to come down to two things. The first is that as interesting as each of the individual cyborg heroes are in the House of Rone, they are ALL coming from a very similar headspace and lack of heart space. They either haven’t had emotions or have had to suppress their emotions all of their adult lives, only to discover with the advent of the refugees from Earth that, well, the Tin Man has a heart after all. It feels like they need a Scarecrow and a Cowardly Lion to balance things out. Or someone coming from a different place.

Not that the women they fall for don’t show plenty of variety, because they certainly do. But the men, not so much.

The other thing that makes this series less compelling for me are the villains. As a reader, I don’t know why the Edull do what they do or are what they are. In the author’s Hell Squad series, I may hate the invading Gizzida but I know enough about their motivations to know that they make sense from their perspective. They are evil from our perspective, but not from their own.

The Edull seem to be a race of mad scientists, or at least mad engineers, who are evil for evil’s sake. There’s a piece missing and it makes them less comprehendible. I need to see that from their own point of view they are more than just BWAHAHA evil – and I’m not there yet.

Maybe in the next book in the series, later this year.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 122
Published by Tor.com on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

My Review:

This was lovely. And fascinating. I have the feeling I’ll need to read it again to have even a shot at picking up everything there is to pick up from this tiny and perfect little story.

It feels like the creation of a myth – or the exploration of one. It reads like it’s a bit of hidden history – a history that has been suppressed and that, of necessity, will continue to be suppressed.

From one perspective, it’s the story of all the women who have been lost to history – all of the lost and the murdered and the exiled and especially the silenced. It’s a tale as old as time, but not one of the pretty ones.

It’s the story of a princess bartered away for peace between two kingdoms, a princess who is cast into exile and imprisonment when her days of usefulness are over. And it is all the tragedy that the scenario implies.

At the same time, it’s a story about not just fighting back, but actually about triumphing over one’s oppressors. About taking what are supposed to be the ruins of a life and turning them into something sharp and pointed and ultimately victorious.

It’s a story about being forced into the shadows and becoming the knife that strikes from the dark.

An empress is forced into exile. Instead of taking her exile in any of the ways that exiled empresses usually do, she finds a way to turn the tables on her oppressor – by gathering up the talents of all the forgotten ones in the land she will come to rule.

But this isn’t her story. Not exactly.

It’s the story of her faithful servant, handmaiden and secret lover. The story of the woman who befriended and enabled her, and who sacrificed her own happiness to make her rise possible.

So it feels a bit like a historical fable, in the setting of an Asian period drama. It also has something to say about history, how it’s written, how it’s discovered, how it’s preserved.

Whether the teller of that history is a ghost, a spirit or just one of those forgotten voices is left to the reader to decide.

But whoever is telling this story, or discovering it, or recording it, it’s beautiful and haunting every step of its way.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a bit to get into this, quite likely because it wasn’t what I was expecting. The story is not told in a straightforward fashion. Instead it’s dribbled out in little sips and small bites, as the former handmaiden – or her ghost or spirit – reveals it bit by bit to the historian who has come looking for artifacts to document the hidden facets of an all-too-recent history.

It reads like a legend, like a myth or story being told, with hints and oblique views and a lesson that’s meant to be inferred rather than explained.

There’s certainly a feminist bent to it if you look, as all of the major characters are female and this is definitely a story where the woman who was supposed to fade into obscurity instead takes control – and is extremely subversive but effective at it.

In the end, the empress creates her own myth, and we’re reading that myth as it’s told by the person who helped to create and shape it. There’s a lyrical quality to the telling that doesn’t so much grab the reader as insinuate itself into the reader’s consciousness.

Although this is labelled as fantasy, it’s fantasy of the mythic variety. It’s fantasy because it’s not SF and it’s not anything else – not because there is any practicing magic. But magic there definitely is.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 3-22-20

Sunday Post

Anyone who has ever believed that cats are aloof and not affectionate has not spent an hour trying to distract a cat who is screaming “I want daddy! Where’s my daddy?” at the top of her little kitty lungs, as well as basically trying to drag her secondary human around the house in the hopes of finding her primary human RIGHT MEOW! (If you’re wondering, Galen is outside mowing the lawn while the sun is shining, because it’s supposed to rain yet again today.)

 

 

 

I hope that wherever you are, you are safe, healthy and not completely stir-crazy yet. And that you are able to maintain yourself, your family and your health insurance in this continuing crisis. We are ALL in this together, no matter how far apart we need to physically be.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Snow Much Fun Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Leaping Leprechauns Giveaway Hop is Elizabeth H.

Blog Recap:

Snow Much Fun Giveaway Hop
A- Review: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights edited by Patrick Weekes
B+ Review: The Sea Glass Cottage by RaeAnne Thayne
B+ Review: Battle Bond by Lindsay Buroker
A+ Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton
Stacking the Shelves (384)

Coming This Week:

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (review)
Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson (review)
Paladin by Anna Hackett (review)
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (review)
Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown (review)