Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John MandelSea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, time travel
Pages: 255
Published by Knopf on May 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal--an experience that shocks him to his core.
Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She's traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive's best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.
When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.
A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.'

My Review:

The thing about wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey bits is that the bits do wobble in erratic patterns that result in equally wobbly results.

The story begins with a man who thinks he might be going insane, and ends with one who realizes that everything that has happened, everything that we’ve read and experienced, is all his fault. And that there’s nothing he can do about it except see events through to their conclusion – a conclusion which is also their beginning.

Sea of Tranquility jumps through time and space, from Victoria BC just before the First World War to the Lunar Colony One in 2401 and several points in between, all linked by a weird glitch under an old maple tree on Vancouver Island where, if a person is standing in just the right place and walking in just the right direction they are temporarily, and temporally, transported to an airship terminal in Oklahoma City hearing an old man play a few notes of a lullaby on a violin. Right around the turn of the 20th century into the 21st. No matter when in time the “time traveler” is really standing.

Some people at the Time Institute on Lunar Colony One believe that this repeating “glitch” is evidence that life isn’t real, that we’re all part of some higher-order being’s simulation of life. Others think it’s been faked or a mass hallucination or some other less fantastical explanation. Rookie Time Agent Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate all of the people who have experienced the glitch, whenever and wherever they happen to be, to see if he can bring back enough evidence for the Time Institute to make a final determination.

Which, in the end, they think they do. Of him. Or so they believe. But in the end, those timey-wimey bits turn out to have one wobble left in them. And it’s a doozy.

Escape Rating B: If Eversion and Under Fortunate Stars had a book baby, it would be Sea of Tranquility. In spite of Sea having been published first.

I picked this up because I loved Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility has won all sorts of awards, including Goodreads Best Science Fiction book for 2022. It’s interesting, it’s terribly terribly interesting, but now that I’ve read it I have to admit that it was good but not as great as all the reviews have made it out to be.

Let me, as I always try to do, explain.

One of the interesting and excellent things about Sea of Tranquility is that the author managed to write a book about the pandemic without it being truly about the recent pandemic. And yet it still managed to address the issues around all the human behavior and human reactions to the pandemic just sideways enough to make that part of the story just distant enough to let the reader see things clearly rather than being a drumbeat about everything that specifically went wrong.

Authors seem to be dealing with the pandemic in plenty of different ways, but this was particularly good because it set it in the context of pandemics in general and human responses to them more generally while still letting the pandemic that happens in 2203 – or at least one character’s reaction to it – pull at our heartstrings rather than inducing rage at what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened instead.

That this particular part of the story is framed around an author on a Book Tour made it even more appealing and comprehensible – particularly for those of us even tangentially related to the book world.

(Speaking of which, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati that the author in the book visits on her book tour is not only a real place but it really does have a 10,000 year renewable lease for its building. What the Director’s office actually looks like may or may not match the description, but considering the pictures on the interwebs of the rest of the building I would not be at all surprised. I would be equally unsurprised to learn that the author of Sea of Tranquility had visited the Merc while on tour for either Station Eleven or The Glass Hotel.)

But my initial reaction to Sea of Tranquility was very similar to the way I felt at the beginning of Eversion. Because both books tell multiple stories seemingly dropped in different eras, and because both start out seeming to focus on one character who we get sucked into caring about. Then we discover that it isn’t his story, and it isn’t the next character’s story or even the next and it’s not until near the end that we and the protagonist finally learn who that protagonist really is.

It’s also a bit like Under Fortunate Stars in that the story is about causality and closing a time loop that no one knew was there. In Under Fortunate Stars events were being manipulated by a benevolent universe, or luck, or fate, depending on what one thinks of any of those agencies in an SFnal context. But in Sea of Tranquility there’s a self-interested Time Institute who believes that they are in control of any and all temporal meddling. Which they really, really aren’t.

In the end, the story in Sea of Tranquility is more than a bit meta, in that it comments on itself within itself – disguised as reader commentary to the author on that book tour – and seems to be telling fragments of stories that only connect up at the end, and that only loosely. It’s an interesting enough read – helped by the book being short – but it doesn’t quite gel into a compelling whole.

Which is really too bad because some parts of it, particularly the book tour, were terrific. But the whole is disjointed. We don’t have enough time to get invested in the characters, particularly the actual protagonist of the whole thing. And I have to say that while the story has SFnal aspects – because time travel – it’s not SF enough to make me think of it as a top pick for specifically SF awards.  (Putting it another way I don’t think it is nearly SF enough to place it among my Hugo nominations.)

One final note, some of the time travel aspects did give me warm fuzzies of Jack Finney’s time travel classic, Time and Again, including the author’s visit to the Dakota. Not that the stories go to the same times or places, but the process of approaching time travel and immersion in the period – as well as the punishments for messing up the supposedly sacred timeline, were very familiar.

I recently learned that The Glass Hotel provides backstory for several of the 21st century characters who have secondary roles in Sea of Tranquility. The Glass Hotel has been on my TBR pile for a while now, but it has just moved considerably up the pile!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 1-22-23

OMG it was a DAMN good reading week. (Or considering Tuesday’s book, perhaps that should be a “glassdamn” good reading week). Even though I did have a couple of these prepped in advance in order to handle being tied up in a four-day Zoom marathon and being totally “dain bramaged” at the end of each day.

My committee has completed its business, the awards presentation has been recorded, and all will be revealed one week from today. Then the new committee year begins and I’ll have a new assignment and a bit of a different set of books to contend with for the upcoming year – along with my usuals, of course.

I’m looking forward to the new challenge.

But speaking of challenges new and old, here’s today’s cat picture, which I’ve titled, “The Teetering Tower of Tuna and Le Chat Noir” because Lucifer’s a bit too slender form on the right looks just like the pose of the black cat in the famous historical poster “Le Chat Noir” and Tuna’s position on the left is entirely too self-evident. The high platform on the cat tree is just not up to dealing with either his size or his tendency to “galumph” into position!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Welcome Winter Giveaway Hop (ENDS TUESDAY!!!)
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Winter Wishes Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Winter 2022-23 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

Winter Wishes Giveaway Hop
A+ Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan
A+ Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
A+ Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
A- Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott
Stacking the Shelves (532)

Coming This Week:

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (review)
Don’t Open the Door by Allison Brennan (review)
Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett (review)
The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett (review)
Sentinel Security: Steel by Anna Hackett (review)

Stacking the Shelves (532)

A couple of weeks ago I discovered that I had a whole bunch Audible credits that were expiring on February 4, so I kinda bought my wishlist. I just hope that I have time to listen to all of them!

For Review:
The Air Raid Book Club by Annie Lyons
Ebony Gate (Phoenix Hoard #1) by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle
Steel (Sentinel Security #4) by Anna Hackett
Welcome to Beach Town by Susan Wiggs
Wolfsong (Green Creek #1) by TJ Klune

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Etc.:
A Broken Blade (Halfling Saga #1) by Melissa Blair (audio)
Cast in Conflict (Chronicles of Elantra #16) by Michelle Sagara (audio)
Cast in Eternity (Chronicles of Elantra #17) by Michelle Sagara (audio)
The Cradle of Ice (Moon Fall #2) by James Rollins (audio)
Daughter of the Moon Goddess (Celestial Kingdom Duology #1) by Sue Lynn Tan (audio)
Engines of Chaos (Age of Uprising #2) by R.S. Ford (audio)(preorder)
Fevered Star (Between Earth and Sky #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse (audio)
The Last Graduate (Scholomance #2) by Naomi Novik (audio)
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments (Edinburgh Nights #2) by T.L. Huchu (audio)
She Who Became the Sun (Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan (audio)
The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters (audio)
The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark (audio)


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

Please link your STS post in the linky below:

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate ElliottThe Keeper's Six by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on January 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Kate Elliott's action-packed The Keeper's Six features a world-hopping, bad-ass, spell-slinging mother who sets out to rescue her kidnapped son from a dragon lord with everything to lose.
There are terrors that dwell in the space between worlds.
It’s been a year since Esther set foot in the Beyond, the alien landscape stretching between worlds, crossing boundaries of space and time. She and her magical travelling party, her Hex, haven’t spoken since the Concilium banned them from the Beyond. But when she wakes in the middle of the night to her son’s cry for help, the members of her Hex are the only ones she can trust to help her bring him back from wherever he has been taken.
Esther will have to risk everything to find him. Undercover and hidden from the Concilium, she and her Hex will be tested by dragon lords, a darkness so dense it can suffocate, and the bones of an old crime come back to haunt her.

My Review:

There’s a popular image in science fiction – fostered by pretty much all of Star Trek (apropos of yesterday’s book) where Earth and Earth humans seem to be the center of the galaxy no matter how many other races and species might populate it.

(And now I’m wondering if that attitude might have been at least part of the reason why Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t do so well. Because it showed us being on the back foot and under someone else’s thumb. I seriously digress.)

But in fantasy, when Earth gets connected to the rest of the ‘verse, whatever that ‘verse might be, we’re often considered a backward place whose population can’t be trusted to accept that we’re not alone, we’re not on top, and we don’t have anything like a manifest destiny at all.

We’re a protectorate – or at least a protected world of some kind. Because most of us can’t handle the truth that is out there and that we’re not in charge of it and never would be.

That’s the situation in the Wayward Children series, particularly in its most recent entry, Lost in the Moment and Found. And it’s very much the case in Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper Chronicles, which the universe of The Keeper’s Six rather strongly resembles – and not just for that.

Daniel Green is a Keeper. Certainly his mother Esther and his spouse Kai would both agree. But in the context of this universe, being a Keeper is a specific and rather uncommon thing to be. Keepers maintain Keeps, and Keeps are the structures that straddle the line between the realm of that place’s “real” world and the dangerous and limitless Beyond that links the worlds together.

The Keeps and their Keepers are essential to maintaining trade routes between the worlds. But Keepers themselves don’t generally travel. Trade is conducted by special groups of talented magic users called Hexes because there are six specific talents required to navigate the Beyond. More than six in any single group invites death and destruction. Less is theoretically possible but likely to get itself killed because the group doesn’t have the necessary when the feces hits the oscillating device.

Esther Green is the Lantern, or light maker, of the freelance Hex that operates out of Daniel’s Keep. But she’s also Daniel’s mother. So when she gets a call that he’s been kidnapped, she drops everything – including the restriction against her Hex returning to the Beyond for ten years – to ride to his rescue.

A rescue that is going to be fraught with even more danger than Esther initially imagined – and she imagined a LOT.

But as Esther and the rest of her Hex get back together to storm the one place they’re not supposed to return to, we get to see just how this world does and doesn’t work, we get introduced to a fascinating group of people and an even more fascinating kind of magic.

While Esther has to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with obstreperous bureaucrats, nefarious smugglers and villainous slave traders while chasing down old clues and new betrayals on her quest to rescue her son from the dragon who thinks that he’s running the show AND Esther.

He’s not. He just doesn’t know it – yet.

Escape Rating A-: Like the author’s previous novella, Servant Mage, The Keeper’s Six introduces us to a world that is much larger than the relatively small slice we get. Howsomever, very much unlike that previous book, The Keeper’s Six feels like it is just the right length for this story. It would be fantastic to have more, and there are certainly hints in what we have that there could be a more at some future point – but we don’t need that more to feel like this story doesn’t come to a lovely and satisfactory conclusion – because it absolutely does.

But this universe is fascinating and seems to have so much more to explore and I’d love to go back. To the point where this is my second reading of the book. I read this for a Library Journal review during the summer and liked it so much that I wanted to visit the world again and liked it even more on the second trip.

Part of what made me pick this back up again was that Esther would fit right into Never Too Old To Save the World, a collection of stories about people in midlife – or a bit later – who get called to be the ‘Chosen One’ for fantasy or SFnal worlds and how their change in fate melds and conflicts – sometimes at the same time – with the life they have already built.

(Never Too Old To Save the World will be out next month. I’ve already read it and it’s wonderful. Review to come!)

Esther is in her mid-60s in The Keeper’s Six. She’s been part of a Hex for most of her adult life, leading expeditions into untracked places, facing untold dangers, never knowing whether she’ll make it back or not. She’s addicted to the adrenaline of the work but aware that her days at it are numbered. The mind and spirit may be willing but time is taking its toll. Her quest has her between the proverbial rock and the opposing hard place. A dragon has kidnapped her son, and what that dragon wants in return is her son’s spouse and the co-parent of their four children.

This dragon eats books – literally not figuratively. But when he does, people – not necessarily humans but people – arise out of nowhere in the midst of his hoard as living representations of the books he’s consumed. I’m amazed and appalled in equal measure – and so is Esther.

There’s just so much going on in The Keeper’s Six. The way the Beyond is stable and unstable at the same time, keeps the Hex on their toes and the reader guessing what will come next. The juxtaposition of the Hex’ utter trust in each other with their interpersonal conflicts makes every situation precarious.

That there are wheels within wheels spinning around their suspension, this quest, the dragon’s questionable motives and their own group dynamics keeps all the plates spinning in their air in a way that kept me riveted through both readings.

The icing on this lovely little cake was that Esther is Jewish and that it wasn’t just window dressing. Her religion and her practice of it mattered both to the story and to the way she conducted herself within it. (That representation also mattered to me on a personal level.) That there is just a touch of romantic possibility between Esther and the dragon’s lieutenant, a man who seems to be the embodiment of the 14th Century Judeo-Persian poet Shahin who wrote about Queen Esther, the biblical queen for whom Esther Green was named provided just the right amount of rueful sweetness in the midst of all the danger and the necessary and important derring do required to fix it.

On top of everything else that made The Keeper’s Six so much fun was the way that it seemed to link to so many other wonderful books. Not just the previously mentioned Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews, Never Too Old to Save the World and Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire, but also Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune and even a bit of The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross. Portal fantasy seems to be having a moment these days, and I’m absolutely here for it. Because I still want my own door to open.

In the end The Keeper’s Six was a terrific story set in a world that I’d love to visit again. But if that never happens I’ll still be very satisfied with the trip I did get to take.

Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings

Review: Under Fortunate Stars by Ren HutchingsUnder Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 480
Published by Solaris on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven's freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue—until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.
The Gallion's chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognize the Five's legendary ship—and the Five's famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.
But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake.

My Review:

When we first encounter the crew of the corporate-owned research ship, The Gallion, they are in the midst of the kind of dilemma that featured on just about every iteration of Star Trek. They’ve lost propulsion and communication, not flying blind because they’re not flying at all, all alone in the black of space.

The ship’s engineers, led by their chief Uma Ozakka, are desperately searching for the cause of their engines’ refusal to restart, reset or just re-anything. Something is suppressing their core power and the ship doesn’t have the equivalent of impulse engines – although their shuttles do.

But they are not alone. They pick up a distress signal from another, much smaller ship. And that’s where the adventure really begins.

The battered cargo ship they rescue, along with its motley-at-best crew, is a legend. But the legendary ship does not seem to contain its legendary crew. It’s also 152 years past its date with destiny. Or the Gallion is the same amount of time early for its normal anything.

Everyone aboard the Gallion believes it’s all a hoax. Buuuut engineer Uma knows all the history – along with most of the conspiracy theories – about the cargo ship Jonah and its crew. Because her dad was fascinated, and as a little girl she followed him everywhere.

And because the Jonah’s story was larger than life. After all, the Jonah and her crew, the Fortunate Five, came out of nowhere and negotiated a lasting peace between the human-centric Union and the alien Felen. A peace that came just in the nick of time to save both races.

Uma is fairly sure that the ship the Gallion has rescued is the real, historical Jonah. Which does not explain why the crew of the Jonah is only about half right at best. Nor does it even begin to explain the series of extremely fortunate coincidences that put the right people in the right place at the right time to save history.

It’s a story that proves that the heroes whose stories can NEVER be told are every bit as necessary as those whom history literally sings about.

Escape Rating A+: I loved Under Fortunate Stars, but then again, I also loved all the TV shows it pays homage to. OTOH, opinion in general seems to be a bit mixed depending on how the reader feels about what seems like an extremely long string of coincidences lining up perfectly to achieve the necessary outcome.

It does seem like an awful lot of surprisingly good luck after both ships have had the awfully bad luck to end up in this situation in the first place. But this is a story about causality and fulfilling the destiny that has been yours all along, and in the end turns into a Möbius strip of a story.

A lot of readers have compared the story to the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, where a ship comes out of a temporal rift in front of Picard’s Enterprise and time suddenly slips sideways. The story of the episode is putting the correct timeline back into place – and it’s a great story.

But it didn’t have to be the Enterprise-D that met the mysterious ship from the temporal rift. A purist is going to come back at me about Tasha Yar, but she didn’t HAVE to go back. The only thing that HAD to happen to restore the timeline was for the Enterprise-C (because of course it was another Enterprise – it’s ALWAYS the Enterprise) to return to its own time to sacrifice itself for a Klingon colony to prevent the war that would otherwise have happened and that the Federation was about to lose.

Under Fortunate Stars is much more about what history records, what it hides, and how the sausage gets made to create heroes out of some very real and extremely flawed people. It’s also a deterministic story as everything that happens has to happen because it’s already happened, ad infinitum if very much not ad nauseum. The closing of this 152-year time loop also contains its opening.

What makes the story so much fun to read are not the ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey’ bits, but, of course, the characters. Uma Ozakka, the one who knows the history best, is expecting to meet bright, shiny heroes just like the images of the Fortunate Five that seem to be everywhere – including in multiple places aboard the Gallion. Who she meets, however, are people with some very dark pasts and some very big regrets, coming from a time when the aliens that have since made peace with humanity are a bitter enemy. They don’t want to become the ‘Fortunate Five’. Initially they want to take back any future technology they can pick up and destroy the hated, dreaded Felen.

The central characters of the whole thing turn out to be Jereth Keeven, the captain of the Jonah, who first of all isn’t the captain that history recorded and secondly is a con man on an epic scale. But he’s also Han Solo, complete with Han’s marshmallow heart under that tough, mercenary exterior. Eldric Leesongronski, the man who should be captain – at least according to history – is a mathematical genius filled with angst and far from the shining example of pretty much everything that Uma expects. Then there’s Uma herself, overqualified for her job, battling corporate bureaucracy as much as the temporal anomaly they have found themselves in, watching in real-time as her lifelong heroes display feet of clay up to their knees.

The way that the story bounces around in both time and point of view lets the reader see just how all the pieces get put together, leading to a finish that should be in the history books – and kinda is but also very much kinda isn’t. Just as it was. Just as it should be.

Under Fortunate Stars is the author’s debut novel, and it’s a surprise and a delight. I’m so very glad I read it, and I expect great things from her in her future work.

Reviewer’s Note: The popular comparison is between Under Fortunate Stars and ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, but IMHO the true comparison is between Under Fortunate Stars and the first three seasons of Babylon 5. There’s something set up in the PILOT of B5 that picks up weight and intention in the middle of the first season, at the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, and then finally pays off in the middle of the third season showing that all the history of the universe that we’ve seen so far was set up a millennia ago by someone who travels back in time with a stolen space station and a device that lets him change from a human into the founding leader and philosopher of another race entirely. Now that’s causality and a really BIG time loop!)

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. BeagleThe Last Unicorn (The Last Unicorn, #1) by Peter S. Beagle
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Last Unicorn #1
Pages: 320
Published by Ace Books on June 26, 2022 (first published January 1, 1968)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

She was magical, beautiful beyond belief—and completely alone...
The unicorn had lived since before memory in a forest where death could touch nothing. Maidens who caught a glimpse of her glory were blessed by enchantment they would never forget. But outside her wondrous realm, dark whispers and rumours carried a message she could not ignore: "Unicorns are gone from the world."
Aided by a bumbling magician and an indomitable spinster, she set out to learn the truth. but she feared even her immortal wisdom meant nothing in a world where a mad king's curse and terror incarnate lived only to stalk the last unicorn to her doom...

My Review:

The story of The Last Unicorn can be summed up simply. A unicorn, happy alone in her special forest, hears from a passing human that all the unicorns are gone, and she realizes that she’s the last one left. So she goes out to find them.

In other words, the short and bittersweet summation is that The Last Unicorn is a quest story. But saying that is like saying that The Princess Bride is a romance. It’s a completely true statement that manages to leave out all the important bits as well as all the things that make the story so great and wonderful and so much worth reading and/or seeing. The whole is so very much greater than the short summary of its parts.

There is something about The Last Unicorn that does remind me of The Princess Bride that I can’t quite put into words, but is still true. They use language and fantasy in similar ways and both are awesome. If you loved one I think you’ll love the other. But I digress a bit.

Howsomever, The Princess Bride, in all of its wonderfulness, has a happy ending – no matter how much it middles in some very dark places.

The Last Unicorn, so very much on my other hand, ends on the bitter side of that sweet. Good does conquer evil, but in that triumph there are so very many regrets. It’s an ending that is very fitting while leaving both the reader and the characters looking back at what might have been with sadness and more than a bit of longing.

It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, and it’s as perfect a story in its own way as The Princess Bride is in its. Read it and quite possibly weep, but read it all the same.

Escape Rating A+: The Last Unicorn is a fantasy classic. Seriously. It’s on every single list of fantasy canon for the 20th century and probably for all time. To the point where I assumed I must have read it back in the day, because it came out in 1968 and I read a hella lotta fantasy in the 1970s. I KNOW I read the author’s first novel, A Fine and Private Place, back then, but it turns out that I hadn’t read The Last Unicorn until now.

And oh what a wonderful story I’ve been missing all these years!

While the unicorn starts out her quest alone, she doesn’t remain that way. In her travels she picks up two companions, Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue. Schmendrick is a wizard looking for his magic, while Molly is searching for the woman she might have been.

They run headlong, or are herded into, or a bit of both, a king who has spent a life searching for something to interest him – but has never found it because the fault, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” He is the rock on which all their quests crash and very nearly burn.

There is just so much in The Last Unicorn. It’s the kind of story that sinks deep into the reader’s soul and doesn’t leave. I’m so glad I finally read it and hope that you will be intrigued enough to do so as well.

It’s also the kind of story that isn’t quite done, no matter how many years pass between visits. There are two followup novellas set in the world of The Last Unicorn, “Two Hearts” and “Sooz”. “Two Hearts” has been previously published but “Sooz” is brand new. The two have been gathered together in a single volume, The Way Home, which will be out in early April, just in time for my birthday. And a better birthday book present I couldn’t possibly imagine.

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellanIn the Shadow of Lightning (Glass Immortals, #1) by Brian McClellan
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Glass Immortals #1
Pages: 576
Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on June 21, 2022
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From Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage trilogy, comes the first novel in the Glass Immortals series, In the Shadow of Lightning, an epic fantasy where magic is a finite resource—and it’s running out.
"Excellent worldbuilding and a truly epic narrative combine into Brian's finest work to date. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a new favorite fantasy series to read."—Brandon Sanderson

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.
Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.
"Powerful rival families, murderous conspiracies, epic battles, larger-than-life characters, and magic."—Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga
"Engaging, fast-paced and epic."—James Islington, author of In The Shadow of What Was Lost
"Clever, fun, and by turns beautifully bloody, In the Shadow of Lightning hits like a bolt through a stained glass window."—Megan E. O'Keefe, author of Chaos Vector

My Review:

As the story opens, Demir Grappo is Icarus, and we see him in the moment of his spectacular fall. A cocky young genius both in politics and on the battlefield, we catch him just at the moment when he learns that someone has decided that he has flown too close to the sun – and that it is time to clip his wings. Or burn them.

It’s a broken man who slinks away from that battlefield, covered in disgrace where there should have been glory. To say that Demir plans to hide in the lowest and meanest places he can find is a bit of an overstatement. We’d call it a psychotic break. He just runs away from his shame and his responsibilities.

Nine years later the young man is a bit older, even sadder, and doesn’t see himself as any wiser at all. He is doing a better job of getting through the days, but he has no plans, no hopes, no dreams beyond doing that for another day.

Until an old friend finds him in the back of beyond, to tell Demir that has mother Adriana Grappo, the Matriarch of the Grappo guild family, has been assassinated. And that Demir is now Patriarch, if he is willing to take up the mantle, the reins, and the responsibility he left behind.

He’ll go home to protect his guild family and hunt down his mother’s killers. Even on his worst day – and he’s had plenty of them in the intervening years – he’d be able to smell the stink of a coverup no matter how far away he was from the seething cesspit of politics and corruption that is the capital of the Ossan Empire.

Demir is willing to tear the Empire down to get the truth. Little does he know that the plot he plans to uncover will require him to save it – whether it deserves it or not.

Escape Rating A+: “Glassdamn.” It rolls easily through the mind, or trippingly off the tongue, as though it’s an epithet that we’ve always used – or at least could have if we’d had a mind to. And glassdamnit but this is a terrific story.

It’s “glassdamn” because the scientific sorcery that powers the story and the world it explores is based on the use of specifically tuned, resonating glass to provide its power. While there are multiple religions in the world none of the deities or pantheons rule much of anything. Glass is king, queen and knave and everyone swears by it and at it and about it all day long.

Glassdamn, indeed.

The title is a bit of a pun. Our protagonist, if not necessarily or always our hero, Demir Grappo, spends the entire story living in the shadow of the political and glass dancer prodigy “The Lightning Prince” – his own former self, the self that he has been running from for all these years. Demir and the man he once was are going to have to come to some kind of resolution if he is going to have even half a chance at fixing everything that’s wrong with Ossa, with his guild family, with sorcery and especially with himself. It’s difficult to tell which will be the hardest job.

The story is told from several perspectives, so that the reader is able to see what’s happening over the vast sprawling canvas that is this first book in a protected trilogy. While we follow Demir, we also have a chance to see the Ossan empire from other points of view, including the childhood friends he brings back to the capital to help him in both his quest and his more mundane work, the master craftswoman he partners with in order to carry out his mother’s last request, and his uncle Tadeus, an officer in Ossa’s much vaunted Foreign Legion, an army that takes nearly as big a fall as Demir once did.

They may rise together – or they may discover that the game is beyond them all. It’s a question that is not yet answered when the story concludes. Which is utterly fitting for the first book in a trilogy. I just wish I had an inkling of when the second book is going to be available, because this is a story that left me with a terrible book hangover. I can’t wait to go back.

One of the things that both sucked me in and drove me crazy about In the Shadow of Lightning, but which also explains why I liked it so glassdamn much, is the sheer number of recent stories it reminded me of, as well as one long-loved classic and, surprisingly, a videogame.

Throwing Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham, Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford, and Isolate by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. into an industrial-strength book blender will get you close to the feel of In the Shadow of Lightning. All are stories of empires that have already rotted from the head down. All have ‘magic’ that is treated scientifically, to the point where their worlds are all much closer to steampunk than to epic fantasy – which doesn’t stop all of them from BEING epic fantasy anyway. None of them are about classic contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; instead all are about people attempting to turn back the tide of the type of evil that results from power corrupting. These series starters are not exactly like each other, but they all ‘feel’ very similar and if you like one you’ll probably get equally immersed in one of the others.

The individual character of Demir Grappo, that mercurial broken genius, appearing as antihero considerably more often than hero, trying to save as much as he can and willing to sacrifice whatever it takes into the bargain, recalled a character from a much different time and place, but whose story was still conducted over a sprawling canvas. If you’ve ever read the Lymond Chronicles (start with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett, Demir is very much in Lymond’s mold – and it was a bit heartbreaking to watch Demir making entirely too many of the same mistakes and sacrifices. I’m also wondering if he’s going to face some of Lymond’s desperate compromises and am trepidatiously looking forward to finding out.

And for anyone who has played the Dragon Age series of videogames, the corrupt guild family political power brokering – as well as the open use of assassination as a political tool – bears a surprisingly sharp resemblance to the Antivan Crows. I half expected someone to leave a message that “the Crows send their regards,” because they most certainly would, with respect upfront and a knife in the back.

The audio made that last bit even more evocative because the narrator did one hell of a job with all the accents. He also told a damn good story, giving the feeling that we were in each character’s head when it was their turn “on stage”, and making each and every voice distinct. AND he managed to put me so completely inside both Demir’s and Tessa’s heads that I would have to stop for a few minutes because I could tell that whatever was coming next was going to be awful, and I cared so much that I almost couldn’t bear to experience it so closely with them.

So, if you enjoy big sprawling epics, whether fantasy or SF, In the Shadow of Lightning is just the kind of world-spanning, world-shattering, monsterful and wonderful binge read just waiting to happen!

I can’t wait for that glassdamned second book in the trilogy. I really, really can’t.

Winter Wishes Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Winter Wishes Giveaway Hop, hosted by Mama the Fox!

This hop kinda gives me the same vibes as last week’s Welcome Winter Giveaway Hop. Because I don’t exactly “welcome” winter. And my wish for it is to exit, stage right or left, as fast as it possibly can. My ideal weather progression would be for Fall to slide into Spring to slide into Fall again without stopping long – if at all – on those extremes called “Summer” and especially “Winter”.

BRRRRR! I say again. BRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

So my wish for winter is that it be over, ASAP. What about you? Are you wishing for Winter to stick around a bit – or do you think it’s already worn out its welcome?

Share your thoughts in the comments for your chance at Chez Reading Reality’s usual giveaway hop prize, the winner’s choice of a $10 Amazon Gift Card or $10 in Books.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

For more sparkly wintry prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!

MamatheFox and all participating blogs are not held responsible for sponsors who fail to fulfill their prize obligations.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 1-15-23

This is probably it for this week. I’m also probably going to lose my mind before the end of it. Yesterday, today, tomorrow and Tuesday comprise my annual Zoom marathon for the American Library Association Reading List Committee deliberations. That four days, eight-ish hours per day, on Zoom with 10 of my fellow book lovers hashing out who will get the awards this year. It’s both a terrific time and more than a bit of torture, as four solid days on Zoom is just a LOT!

Here’s a picture of one Tuna-loaf, size extra large. The vacancy between his eyes will be similar to my own state by the time the meetings are all wrapped up.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Welcome Winter Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Winter 2022-23 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire
Welcome Winter Giveaway Hop
A- Review: City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita
A+ Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry
A Review: Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan
Stacking the Shelves (531)

Coming This Week:

Winter Wishes Giveaway Hop
In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan (audio review)
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (review)
The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott (review)
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (review)

Stacking the Shelves (531)

The stacks they are starting to get taller again. Now that the holidays are over it seems like the floodgates have opened. And isn’t it wonderful? (I also finally got covers for a couple of books I’ve had for awhile, so it’s great to see that logjam unjam as well.)

For Review:
All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby
The Book of Gems (Gem Universe #3) by Fran Wilde
The Faithless (Magic of the Lost #2) by C.L. Clark
Five First Chances by Sarah Jost
Happy Place by Emily Henry
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Same Time Next Summer by Annabel Monaghan
Sea Change by Gina Chung
Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway
Translation State (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Etc.:
The Orphans of Mersea House by Marty Wingate
Shmutz by Felicia Berliner


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

Please link your STS post in the linky below: