Review: Seasons of Sorcery by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jennifer Estep and Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Seasons of Sorcery by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jennifer Estep and Jeffe KennedySeasons of Sorcery : A Fantasy Anthology by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jeffe Kennedy, Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy romance
Pages: 410
Published by Brightlynx on November 13, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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WINTER'S WEB BY JENNIFER ESTEP

An assassin at a renaissance faire. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, if you’re Gin Blanco. This Spider is trapped in someone else’s icy web—and it seems like they don’t want her to leave the faire alive . . .

 A WILDERNESS OF GLASS BY GRACE DRAVEN

 The stretch of sea known as the Gray rules the lives of those in the village of Ancilar, including widow Brida Gazi. In the aftermath of an autumn storm, Brida discovers one of the sea's secrets cast onto the shore—a discovery that will change her world, mend her soul, and put her in the greatest danger she's ever faced.

 A CURSE FOR SPRING BY AMANDA BOUCHET

 A malevolent spell strangles the kingdom of Leathen in catastrophic drought. Prince Daric must break the curse before his people starve. A once-mighty goddess trapped in a human body might be the key—but saving his kingdom could mean losing all that he loves.

 THE DRAGONS OF SUMMER BY JEFFE KENNEDY

 As unofficial consort to the High Queen, former mercenary Harlan Konyngrr faces a challenge worse than looming war and fearsome dragons. His long-held secrets threaten what he loves most—and he must make a choice between vows to two women.

My Review:

Jeffe Kennedy seems to be participating in one of these fantasy romance anthologies every year, because that’s where I get them from. There’s always a story from her awesome Twelve Kingdoms series, and I’d get the whole thing for that alone. But the other stories are frequently awesome, occasionally even awesomer, so I’m glad to collect the set!

Seasons of Sorcery contains four fantasy romance novellas, all but one set in its author’s ongoing series.

Winter’s Web by Jennifer Estep is set in her Elemental Assassin series, which I haven’t read – or at least not yet. The story takes place at a Renaissance Faire in an urban fantasy-type world where magic exists but seems to be mostly, but not totally, hidden in plain sight. As I said, I haven’t read this series, but I still enjoyed the story. The Ren Faire setting always provides an interesting backdrop for urban fantasy, and this story is no exception. I suspect that the story didn’t have quite the resonance for me as it would for readers who are familiar with the series, but it still worked well and I didn’t feel lost at all. I liked it more than enough to put this series on the towering TBR pile!

Escape Rating for Winter’s Web: B+

Although A Wilderness of Glass by Grace Draven is set in her Wraith Kings world, which I have not read, the setting felt awfully familiar. Only because it was. This story is set in the same town and among the same people as Night Tide, her fantastic story in Teeth Long and Sharp. A story that I loved.

I didn’t find this story to be quite as good as Night Tide, possibly because it was a bit too reminiscent of The Shape of Water. Albeit with a slightly different version of the happy ending. At least as far as we know.

Escape Rating for A Wilderness of Glass: B

There’s nearly always one story in a collection that doesn’t work for me. It’s the nature of collections that you get to sample authors you may not be familiar with, but might like because they are like someone you already do.

Not that any fantasy romance reader is not familiar with Amanda Bouchet and her terrific Kingmaker Chronicles!

But A Curse for Spring by Amanda Bouchet is the story in this collection that just didn’t work for me. Which is ironic because it is the one story that is not in a previously created world of any kind. For this reader, the problem with this story was that it felt too obvious. It seemed clear from the very beginning what was going on, who was responsible, and how the problem was going to get solved. I kept wanting the story to either just get on with it or go someplace interesting – but it did neither.

Escape Rating for A Curse for Spring: C

Last but definitely not least, The Dragons of Summer by Jeffe Kennedy. This is the story that I got this collection for, and it did not disappoint – although it did occasionally infuriate – but in a good way.

This story is set in Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series. While it seems to take place directly after The Arrows of the Heart, much of the emotional heft of the story comes from its relationship to the heroine of her Chronicles of Dasnaria series. The long shadow cast by the lost Dasnarian princess Jenna still looms over her brothers Harlan and Kral. Neither of them know their sister’s fate, but both had a hand in setting her on her path.

It’s not just her brothers that are ignorant of whether Jenna is alive or dead. The final book in that series, Warrior of the World, is due out on January 8. I’ve never been so glad to have an ARC! It’s not so much that either the previous story, Exile of the Seas, or this short story end in a cliffhanger as that it is now obvious that Jenna’s fate is going to be the key that resolves EVERYTHING in both series.

It’s just the kind of ginormous wrap-up that makes readers salivate waiting for the next book in the series. But it also means that this story, of all the stories in the collection, is the one that really only makes sense if you’ve followed the series. And if you love fantasy romance and you haven’t read the series, what on earth are you waiting for? Begin your journey with The Mark of the Tala, and settle in for a marvelous read.

Escape Rating for The Dragons of Summer: A

Review: Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-Harmony

Review: Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-HarmonyApollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects by Teasel E Muir-Harmony
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover
Genres: science, science history
Pages: 304
Published by National Geographic Society on October 30, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA's Apollo missions to the moon, this narrative uses 50 key artifacts from the Smithsonian archives to tell the story of the groundbreaking space exploration program.

Bold photographs, fascinating graphics, and engaging stories commemorate the 20th century's most important space endeavor: NASA's Apollo program to reach the moon. From the lunar rover and a survival kit to space food and moon rocks, it's a carefully curated array of objects--complete with intriguing back stories and profiles of key participants.

This book showcases the historic space exploration program that landed humans on the moon, advanced the world's capabilities for space travel, and revolutionized our sense of humanity's place in the universe. Each historic accomplishment is symbolized by a different object, from a Russian stamp honoring Yuri Gagarin and plastic astronaut action figures to the Apollo 11 command module, piloted by Michael Collins as Armstrong and Aldrin made the first moonwalk, together with the monumental art inspired by these moon missions. Throughout, Apollo to the Moon also tells the story of people who made the journey possible: the heroic astronauts as well as their supporters, including President John F. Kennedy, newsman Walter Cronkite, and NASA scientists such as Margaret Hamilton.

My Review:

It is very rare for me these days to read a book in print – but for this I’m glad that I made the exception. It’s gorgeous, in its own geeky-techie-nostalgic way, and I am glad to have it on my shelves to pick up and dip into, over and over again.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, than this book is worth all the words, or at least all the words about the Apollo Space Program. It may not be the next best thing to being there – in space that is – but it does feel like the next best thing to being there at the National Air and Space Museum seeing these exhibits in person.

Reading these descriptions, accompanied by the carefully chosen pictures, gave this reader the feeling that I was touring the museum with the best tour guide in the universe standing at my elbow, telling me everything I wanted to know.

I kind of wish I’d had this book when I listened to Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger, because these artifacts provide the perfect images to go along with the story as it played in my ears. I think this book could serve as the “accompanying illustrations” for many books about the Apollo Program.

The explanations that go with each picture of each artifact, explaining what it is, what it was for, and most importantly, who designed or created it and who they were and what brought them to the Space Program, brings to light, and back to life, the entire decade of the “Space Race” that put men on the the surface of the Moon.

The sheer scope of the project will make any reader wonder how we managed to accomplish so much in so short a time – and what a waste it is that we not only have not managed to capitalize on those achievements, but that we seemed to have actively turned away from the belief in the power of science that made the journey possible.

Reality Rating A-: I’m tempted to call this an “Escape” rating, or at least to wish that it was. Because I feel like we should be continuing the journey to escape this planet – and we’re not. It feels as if we are about as far from that possibility as we could be, with so many people refusing to believe in science, in the real science that both fueled and was fueled by the Space Program.

This is not a book with a continuous narrative – except the one in my head that says that we should have kept reaching outward. Instead we drew back, and are now amazed that a project this big and this long managed to not only get started but actually successfully completed. And then it petered out.

If you read science fiction, or science fact, have a “thing” for the space program (as I do) or just wish that we were still reaching for that “final frontier”, this book will fill you with nostalgia and sorrow.

But at least this book, and the artifacts that it so accurately and lovingly describes, will remain to speak to the future.

TLC
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Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Imager (Imager Portfolio, #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr., William Dufris
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Imager Portfolio #1
Pages: 432
Published by Tantor Media on April 13, 2009
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Although Rhennthyl is the son of a leading wool merchant in L'Excelsis, the capital of Solidar, the most powerful nation on Terahnar, he has spent years becoming a journeyman artist and is skilled and diligent enough to be considered for the status of master artisan—in another two years. Then, in a single moment, his entire life is transformed when his master patron is killed in a flash fire, and Rhenn discovers he is an imager—one of the few in the entire world of Terahnar who can visualize things and make them real.

Rhenn is forced to leave his family and join the Collegium of Imagisle. Because of their abilities (they can do accidental magic even while asleep) and because they are both feared and vulnerable, imagers must live separately from the rest of society. In this new life, Rhenn discovers that all too many of the "truths" he knew were nothing of the sort. Every day brings a new threat to his life. He makes a powerful enemy while righting a wrong, and he begins to learn to do magic in secret. Imager is the innovative and enchanting opening of an involving new fantasy story.

My Review:

This was a re-read for me. I first read Imager when it originally came out in 2009 because the cataloger in the next office was cataloging it and said it looked good. He was right. In fact, he was so right that I continued to read the series over the next decade. I finished the current final book in the series, Endgames, last month, and just couldn’t let this world go.

I hope I don’t have to, but the jury is still out on that.

The Imager Portfolio was written in a different order than the events take place in the created world of Terahnar. In the internal chronology, Scholar is first and Imager’s Intrigue is last. As the stories were written, Imager is first and Endgames is last. The internal chronology has the events of the, let’s call it the Quaeryt Quintet, first, the Alastar/Charyn Quartet second and the Rhenn Trilogy third – even though Rhenn’s story was the first one written.

I found myself really curious to see if the circle closed, if the events that occurred in Quaeryt’s, Alastar’s and Charyn’s stories actually led to the situation that Rhenn finds himself in at the beginning of Imager.

Also I remembered the original trilogy as a damn good story, and wondered if that would be true on a re-read. Actually a re-listen, as this time I got the unabridged audio.

There are themes that occur in all three of the subseries. I remembered Rhenn as a young man who had already planned his life, and was executing that plan, when fate intervened and he discovered that he had imaging talent.

I’ve invoked Rhenn’s memory often over the years, because his story is an interesting variation on the coming-of-age theme that so often permeates epic fantasy. Neither Rhenn, nor the author’s other heroes in this series, come of age during their stories. They are already adults, albeit generally in their 20s.

Instead, these are coming-into-power stories, where the protagonists have to adjust life plans that they have not only already made but have already begun working towards. They find themselves in unanticipated situations and things go sideways. They have to adjust and change to survive.

Or they won’t.

Within the opening chapters of Imager, I was both pleased to learn that the earlier history of Terahnar, and the country of Solidar, was anticipated from the beginning. Rhenn tours the Council Chateau with his father, and sees portraits of both Rex Regis, the man who becomes Rex in the Quaeryt Quintet, and Rex Defou, the Rex who is overthrown in Madness in Solidar. He also eyes a bust of Rex Charyn, the last Rex, whose exploits are completed in Endgames.

I’ll admit this worries me a lot about the possibility for further crises in the history of this place to be explored. Because the circle does seem to close and the loose ends do seem to get wrapped up.

I can still hope.

On re-listening to the story, I discovered that while I had lost most of the details of the story over the years, the outline was still clear. And still wonderful to read – or have read to me.

While at times Rhenn feels a bit too good to be true, he is also an intelligent and likeable hero. We do see more of his early years than I remembered, but the story really kicks into high gear when Rhenn is in his mid-20s, at the point where he is forced to give up his dreams of becoming a master portraturist and crosses the Bridge of Hopes to Imagisle.

From there, the story is off to the races, almost surprisingly so for a story that goes into a great deal of detail about Rhenn’s training as an imager. If you enjoy books that cover intensive training periods, this one is a treat.

Because Rhenn is not just learning to become an imager, he’s learning to become a spy and assassin and whatever else the College of Imagers needs him to become to keep the College, and the country of Solidar that defends it and that it defends, safe.

If he can manage to survive all the assassination attempts on his own life, that is.

Escape Rating A: This was as good as I remembered it. The story spends a bit more time than I recalled on Rhenn’s early years as a journeyman portraturist, which are necessary but not nearly as interesting (or potentially deadly) as his life rising through the imager ranks while trying not to end up dead.

One of the themes that has carried forward through the entire series is just how important the female characters are to the survival and success of the male protagonist. Seliora, like the life-partners of the heroes of the other stories, is Rhenn’s equal – and he recognizes that.

On the flip side, one of the things that grates more than I remembered is the negative attitude that Rhenn’s mother in particular displays towards everyone of Pharsi origin, like Seliora. Her constant stream of prejudice wears on the reader’s ears every bit as much as it does Rhenn’s.

Scholar by L. E. Modesitt Jr.As much as I wanted to slap his mother silly, it’s Rhenn’s story that I came to see. Or rather hear. It does feel like it fits in its proper place in this history, and follows very well after finishing Endgames.

Anyone who loves epic fantasy and has not indulged in the Imager Portfolio could happily start here, as I did in 2009. Scholar would make an equally fine start, at the beginning of the internal history.

Wherever you begin, there’s a LOT to love in this series, If you have not yet begun, I envy you the journey.

Review: An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris

Review: An Easy Death by Charlaine HarrisAn Easy Death (Gunnie Rose, #1) by Charlaine Harris
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, urban fantasy, Western
Series: Gunnie Rose #1
Pages: 336
Published by Pocket Books on July 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The beloved #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse series, the inspiration for HBO’s True Blood, and the Midnight Crossroad trilogy adapted for NBC’s Midnight, Texas, has written a taut new thriller—the first in the Gunnie Rose series—centered on a young gunslinging mercenary, Lizbeth Rose.

Set in a fractured United States, in the southwestern country now known as Texoma. A world where magic is acknowledged but mistrusted, especially by a young gunslinger named Lizbeth Rose. Battered by a run across the border to Mexico Lizbeth Rose takes a job offer from a pair of Russian wizards to be their local guide and gunnie. For the wizards, Gunnie Rose has already acquired a fearsome reputation and they’re at a desperate crossroad, even if they won’t admit it. They’re searching through the small border towns near Mexico, trying to locate a low-level magic practitioner, Oleg Karkarov. The wizards believe Oleg is a direct descendant of Grigori Rasputin, and that Oleg’s blood can save the young tsar’s life.

As the trio journey through an altered America, shattered into several countries by the assassination of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression, they’re set on by enemies. It’s clear that a powerful force does not want them to succeed in their mission. Lizbeth Rose is a gunnie who has never failed a client, but her oath will test all of her skills and resolve to get them all out alive.

My Review:

There was a Red Dead Redemption soundtrack playing through the house this weekend as I was reading An Easy Death. And while Red Dead Redemption isn’t exactly the weird West that the book portrays, those homages to old-school Western TV music certainly created the right mood.

This first book in the Gunnie Rose series takes place in a dystopian, post-Apocalyptic alternate history weird, wild West. Yes, that’s kind of a mouthful. But it all fits.

The Apocalypse that this book is post of was definitely a turning point in history. As it would have been. First, the Great Depression happened. As it did. Second, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his first term as President in 1932. So far, so good.

But that’s where history goes off the rails. Everything up until 1932 happened the way it happened in our history – with one notable exception. The Romanovs, the Russian Imperial family, managed to escape the 1917 Revolution. Or, at least the Tsarevich and his sisters did, eventually settling in California at the invitation of the Hearst family.

However, in 1932, history goes completely off the rails when FDR is assassinated before he can take office. Then another influenza epidemic carries off his vice-president. And the U.S. fractures into pieces.

In the ensuing economic chaos, most of the original 13 colonies petition Britain to take them back. Canada and Mexico gobble up nearby territory. And the Romanovs establish the Holy Russian Empire in California.

Some places strike out on their own, like Gunnie Rose’s own Texoma, a semi-lawful (and semi-lawless) amalgam of Texas and Oklahoma sandwiched between Mexico and New America.

That’s where our story begins. Gunnie Rose is a member of a mercenary company that takes refugees from Mexico to New America. Mexico is throwing the gringos out. (Sound twistedly familiar?)

When her entire company is killed on a run gone wrong, Gunnie rescues the human cargo, takes the survivors to their original destination, and avenges her dead friends. Now she’s out of work.

And that’s where things get really, really interesting.

Two Russians show up on her doorstep, wanting to hire her for a manhunt. They’re looking for the last known descendant of Rasputin. Yes, that Rasputin. They need his blood to keep the Tsar alive.

Rasputin, after all, really did have a treatment for the Romanov family curse – hemophilia. The Russians in this story know that cure was in his blood, just as the curse was in the Tsar’s blood.

What they don’t know is that the man they are hunting is dead – because Gunnie Rose killed him. And that he was her father. That’s not the first lie of either commission or omission that the Gunnie tells her new clients, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Escape Rating A-: This is a fantastic setup for a series. There’s so much that has gone wrong, and the way that the wrongness has taken hold makes so much sense. It reminds me a bit of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker – not for the steampunk, but for its focus on its kickass heroine, and for the way that its alternative history proceeds logically from its massive fork in the historical road.

The story has a “perils of Pauline” aspect, in that the gunnie is always jumping out of the frying pan and into yet another fire. The journey she undertakes is fraught with danger, some that she anticipates and some she can’t – because her employers are keeping just as many secrets from her as she is from them – and theirs are more dangerous.

But the “life and death on the road” aspects of the story allow the reader to become immersed slowly rather than have the entire misshapen history shoved at us at once. Gunnie and her employers are from different countries and different stations of life, so the things that they expect are vastly different than the ones that she does. That’s why they’ve hired her, because she is the expert on the things and places that they need to visit.

Admittedly, it also seems like Gunnie has way more common sense than they do. Life among the upper crust does not prepare one for dealing with common folks, especially common folks that are rightfully scared of you – if they don’t think you’re the devil incarnate.

There is magic in this world, and Gunnie’s employers are Russian wizards, whom most people outside the HRE (Holy Russian Empire) call “grigoris”. Grigoris are feared and hated, because they can do fearful and dangerous things, as well as powerful and healing things.

This is a world that I could talk about forever, because the way that history has forked and the results of the fork are endlessly fascinating. The more you read, the more you get sucked into this world, just as Gunnie gets sucked into her employers’ quest.

When the story ends, we readers feel just as “spit out” of the world as Gunnie does from the grigoris plots and counterplots. And we’re just as eager to get back in.

Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Review: The Consuming Fire by John ScalziThe Consuming Fire (The Interdependency #2) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Consuming Fire
--the second thrilling novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from the Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi

The Interdependency, humanity's interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it--unless desperate measures can be taken.

Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth--or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy... and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.

My Review:

There is a description that claims that science fiction is a fantasy of political agency. That is certainly true of The Consuming Fire, and the entire Interdependency series so far. It could also be said that in this series, a significant part of the story is just which characters have fantasies that they in particular have political agency. Actually fantasies that they have considerably more political agency than they really have. Part of the story is watching at least some of those characters get disabused of that notion – and occasionally with extreme prejudice.

Another way of looking at this story is that it is all about power. There’s that old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely, but it doesn’t quite apply here. No one really has absolute power. The person who seems on the surface to have the most, Emperox Grayland II, mostly seems to have the kind of power that the Queen of England has. That is, the power to advise, the power to encourage, and the power to warn. Her power isn’t quite that restricted, but it feels close to that – especially from her perspective.

However, the desire for absolute power does seem to corrupt absolutely. Or at least that’s the model that the Nohamapeton family seems to be following. The Countess Nohamapeton wants absolute power. She wants her family to control the throne. So far, she’s sacrificed two sons to that ambition and possibly her daughter as well. Not to mention all the other people she has arranged to have eliminated along the way. And she’s still plotting.

There’s that saying about diplomacy being war waged by other means. In this book there’s a corollary that applies – politics is civil war waged by other means. There are a lot of cutthroat politics in this one, sometimes with throats literally being cut – or shot – or wrecked.

This is also a story about inevitable change, and the many, varied and frequently counterproductive ways that people react in the face of that change. Interstellar commerce is founded on and dependent upon a poorly understood means of faster-than-light interstellar travel, called “the Flow”. The Flow has been more or less dependable for a millennium, and people have gotten very, very used to the idea that it will always be dependable.

But it isn’t. The Flow is collapsing – hence the title of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire. Flow scientists barely understand the flow well enough to predict the collapse. They certainly don’t understand it well enough to prevent the collapse.

So all that anyone in the Interdependency can do is react to the eminent collapse.Often, but not always, badly.

Of course there are a few people, and at times it seems like very few, who are doing the best they can to save as much as possible, however they can. It’s a more difficult task than it might be, because the Interdependency doesn’t seem to have many planets that can support human life. Not many actually equals just one – and it’s a planet that has already been partially cut off from the Flow.

Everyone else lives on habitats that orbit planets that happen to have been conveniently located for the Flow streams. Which is going to literally turn to hell (not) on Earth as they each get cut off from the supplies and equipment they need to maintain those high-tech habitats.

The Emperox Grayland II is one of those people who are trying to save, if not the Interdependency itself, at least as many of the people in it as is possible. But she has very few allies, and plenty of people who want to skim the cream off the status quo for as long as possible.

At the end of the book – although certainly not the end of the story – Grayland’s enemies discover that SHE is the consuming fire – a fire that will turn their petty machinations to ash in pursuit of her goal to save everyone else – or at least as much of everyone else as is possible.

Escape Rating A-: The Interdependency, at least so far, is a very political space opera. This is a government that was deliberately created to have wheels within wheels. Keeping those wheels properly greased has been the millennia long job of the Wu family. After all, creating the Interdependency and getting themselves installed as the Imperial Family was all about their wheels getting greased. They made sure that the setup also greased all the wheels of anyone who could have stood in their way at the time.

The creation of the Interdependency was a very cynical act. Effective, but cynical. The current Emperox isn’t nearly as cynical as some of predecessors, but she has plenty of motivation to do her best. And plenty of even more cynical people to keep from killing her. If you like political SF, this series so far is a lot of fun. It’s not a situation that one would remotely want to be in, but the machinations are fascinating to watch.

All in all, I have to say that The Consuming Fire is typical Scalzi. If you like the author, as I certainly do, you will eat this one up with a spoon, and then moan and complain when you reach the bottom of the bowl.

(Admittedly, if you don’t already like Scalzi, this book will probably not change your mind. It’s very typical of all the things I read him FOR. Which, if they don’t work for you, this book won’t either.)

I started this on audio, and Wil Wheaton again did an awesome job reading the story. His normal just slightly snarky tone is perfect for this author, because there is always a lot of subtle and sometimes not so subtle, snark in his work. But I wanted to see how this installment ends – and I felt the need to finish the book before we see the author in person on Thursday, so I bought the ebook and finished in an hour.

It is also hilarious to hear someone reading all of Kiva Lagos’ dialog. Kiva may possibly be the most profane character I’ve ever run across. She clearly does not know how to construct a sentence without at least one f-bomb in it. Her lines are funny to read, but almost brutal – and appropriately so – when read.

The Consuming Fire is not the place to start this series. The setup of the Flow and the way that the Interdependency interdepends upon it is all set up in the first book, The Collapsing Empire. And that’s also where we get introduced to all of the characters that make this story so much fun.

This is also, thank goodness, not the place where this story ends. There will be at least one more book. Because things are always darkest just before they turn completely black – and they haven’t turned completely black yet.

I’ll be over here, waiting with the proverbial bated breath, until they do. Hopefully next year, in the very tentatively titled The Last Emperox.

Review: Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Whitehouse

Review: Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna WhitehouseMycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anna Waterhouse
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 336
Published by Titan Books on October 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The new novel by NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, starring brothers Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes.

Now a force to be reckoned with in the War Office, the young Mycroft Holmes is growing his network of contacts and influence, although not always in a manner that pleases his closest friend, Cyrus Douglas. A Trinidadian of African descent, Douglas has opened a home for orphaned children, while still running his successful import business.

When a ship carrying a cargo in which Douglas was heavily invested runs aground on the Dorset coast, Mycroft convinces his brother Sherlock to offer his services at the orphanage while Douglas travels to see what can be salvaged. Sherlock finds himself surprisingly at home among the street urchins, but is alarmed to discover that two boys show signs of drug addiction. Meanwhile Douglas also finds evidence of opium use on two dead sailors, and it becomes clear to Mycroft that the vile trade is on the ascent once again.

Travelling to China on the trail of the drug business, Mycroft and Douglas discover that there are many in high places willing to make a profit from the misery of others. Their opponents are powerful, and the cost of stemming the deadly tide of opium is likely to be high...

My Review:

Combine “portrait of the detective as a young truant” with “portrait of the spider at the heart of the British government as a young bureaucrat” and you get a couple of the parts of Mycroft and Sherlock.

This is also a story where we begin to see our heroes becoming the people that we know they will become. Not merely Sherlock the intelligent, intolerant, sociopathic detective, but also Mycroft as the rather bloated and nearly agoraphobic spider at the heart of the government’s web – a web that he himself will spin in the decades to come.

And part of what makes this work, both the first book in the series, Mycroft Holmes, and this latest, is that the authors tell a story about these much-beloved brothers that is new to our eyes while still fitting into the canon that we already know – the world that they will eventually inhabit but that for them is yet to come.

But this story is a followup to the authors’ Mycroft Holmes – a book that was published in 2015 but that I didn’t get around to until earlier this year. I enjoyed it so much that I actually bought Mycroft and Sherlock when it came out – there were no ARCs and I really wanted to see what happened next.

Not that we don’t know what happens eventually to the Holmes Brothers, but I wanted to see the next steps that this story would take to get from here to there.

This is both a sequel and not. The events of the first book do have consequences in this one, but not the case itself. And it’s fascinating and if you enjoy Holmes’ pastiches I definitely recommend it.

Those consequences are rather surprising – because they revolve around the health of the protagonists and not further involvement in that particular case. At the end of the first story Douglas survived a near-fatal gunshot wound, resulting in a couple of slugs sitting uncomfortably near his heart. For the man of action that he has been, his need to either restrict his actions or attempt to protect his vulnerability is not easy.

Mycroft is just not feeling well – surprisingly unwell for a healthy young man in his mid-20s. That last messy case included an untreated bout of malaria, resulting in a weakened heart. So both Mycroft and his friend Douglas suffer from similar ailments, albeit from different causes.

And with different results. Mycroft (and Sherlock) both know about Douglas’ condition. But Mycroft, secret-keeper that he is, keeps his condition to himself – even when it would behoove him to reveal it. He can’t stand to admit to a weakness – particularly when he feels that his work is not yet done.

But his reticence adds to the distance in his relationship with his brother -a distance that will continue to have consequences for the rest of their lives.

There is a case here, and it’s a typical Holmesian farrago of convoluted means and hidden motives, with the addition of the right hand (in this case Mycroft) not knowing what the left hand (in this case Sherlock) is doing – and vice versa. With nearly fatal results – multiple times.

It is also a case where the story explores conditions at the time. As the saying goes, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” The heart of this case is the drug trade – which is surprisingly legal for the most part yet still has aspects that are hidden in dark shadows.

But the soul of the case is about family, and the infinite number of ways in which trying to help can go oh so terribly wrong.

Escape Rating A-: I liked this every bit as much as the first book. Which was a lot. This was certainly another case of right book, right time. I was just in the mood for more Holmes (I have another one in the queue as well) but this was just right.

Part of what makes these two books so good is the addition of Cyrus Douglas. For the most part, the original canon dealt with the Victorian era from an upper-middle class white point of view. The addition of Douglas as a main character forces Mycroft and Sherlock to deal with the parts of the world that men of their race and class generally ignored.

At the same time, Douglas also serves as the adult in the room. In his mid-40s by this point in the story, he has a wealth of real-life experience – and the scars to go with it – that the Holmes boys lack. Douglas can be a voice of reason that makes the brothers stop and think for a minute – or at least make Mycroft stop and think for a minute – in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Both of the Holmes are a bit melodramatic at this point in their lives. We never think of them as young because they were not in the canon, but in these stories, with Mycroft in his mid-20s and Sherlock in his late teens, they are very young indeed – and it shows in their actions as well as their thought-processes.

At the same time, we are able to see the elements of what will become their known personas beginning to gel. Mycroft is beginning to retreat from the wider world, becoming more focused on his governmental duties and on the forces that only he can see. While this case brings him temporarily out of himself, we can also see that it is temporary.

Sherlock’s methods are clearly under development in this case, but his personality is nearly set. And we see both happen as he learns how to handle disguises and starts the seeds that will become the Irregulars while at the same time he is still wearing his heart on his sleeve – and learning to hide it.

If you want to find yourself up to the neck in the Victorian era and several steps behind two of the most famous detectives in history, this book is a really fun read. I hope there will be more!

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Review: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera LewisWhen the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 240
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Marjorie Herrera Lewis’s debut historical novel the inspiring true story of high school teacher Tylene Wilson—a woman who surprises everyone as she breaks with tradition to become the first high school football coach in Texas—comes to life.

"A wonderfully touching and beautiful story…Tylene makes me laugh, cry, and cheer for her in ways I have not done in a long time.”—Diane Les Bocquets, bestselling author of Breaking Wild  

It's a man's game, until now...Football is the heartbeat of Brownwood, Texas. Every Friday night for as long as assistant principal Tylene Wilson can remember, the entire town has gathered in the stands, cheering their boys on. Each September brings with it the hope of a good season and a sense of unity and optimism.

Now, the war has changed everything.  Most of the Brownwood men over 18 and under 45 are off fighting, and in a small town the possibilities are limited. Could this mean a season without football? But no one counted on Tylene, who learned the game at her daddy’s knee. She knows more about it than most men, so she does the unthinkable, convincing the school to let her take on the job of coach.

Faced with extreme opposition—by the press, the community, rival coaches, and referees and even the players themselves—Tylene remains resolute. And when her boys rally around her, she leads the team—and the town—to a Friday night and a subsequent season they will never forget.           

Based on a true story, When the Men Were Gone is a powerful and vibrant novel of perseverance and personal courage.

My Review:

This is an absolute awesome story – and it is all the better for being based on a true one. It also has a surprising amount of resonance. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tylene Wilson was a real person. She really did coach men’s football in Brownwood Texas during World War II, as the title says, when all the men were gone. One of the differences between the fictional Tylene and the factual Tylene was that the real Tylene coached college football, not high school.

But, as has so often happened, the real Tylene’s achievements, like so many women’s achievements, has been lost to history – and that’s in the spite of the fact that WW2 is still in living memory – albeit for a decreasing number of people. The author of this book was inspired by the case of a real, 21st century woman who is following in Tylene’s fading footsteps, coaching men’s college football.

Without nearly enough historical documentation, the author was forced to fictionalize Tylene’s achievement – and the struggles that she went through to achieve it. The fictionalized version of her story is compelling AND has plenty of resonance with today.

Tylene knows football. And she knows it really, really well. Her dad taught her, both how to play and how to analyze plays. Not because he had a not-to-secret yearning for a son, but because Tylene had rickets as a child. The cure for rickets is Vitamin D, most easily found in good old sunshine.

Girls didn’t play a lot outside, even in small-town Texas, in the early 20th century. But boys certainly did. So Dad learning football and baseball and any other sport or activity that would make his little girl eager to get out into the sunshine – and get well and stay well. It worked.

And it gave Tylene a lifelong love of the sport.

World War II was a period when all the young men went to war – and all the young women went into the factories. I have my parents’ high school annuals from that period, and the teachers all had, as the saying went at the time, “one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel”. There were no young teachers. It is easy to imagine that in a small town like Brownwood, there were no young men, period, who were not either medically ineligible (and therefore would have been medically ineligible to have played football) or had served and been invalided out.

There do seem to be plenty of older men. But just because someone can “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the best of them doesn’t mean that they have any of the actual knowledge required to coach a real team, even a high school team. The lack of real knowledge may stop them from volunteering to coach or being qualified to do so. Of course it does not stop them from complaining that a woman can’t possibly know enough to coach – even if she does.

Her situation feels real – only because it was. What adds to the poignancy is that this story takes place in the fall of 1944. She wouldn’t have known it the time, but her desire to keep the high school football program going for one more year would save the lives of those boys who would have enlisted instead of hanging around tiny Brownwood. She just wanted to give them one more year of adolescence before they went to war. She probably saved their lives.

But the forces arrayed against her, while couched in the even more overt misogyny of the mid-century, sound all too similar to the voices that every 21st century woman has heard in her life about why women are unsuited to this, that, or the other thing because whatever it is is supposed to be the province of men.

All those men sound shrill and frightened and very, very real. And they haven’t changed a bit in all the years since.

Escape Rating A-: This was an incredible book – and a very fast read. This is also one of those times when I wish there had been just a bit more of the story. While it does end on a paradoxically high note, I wanted more. At least an epilog where we get to find out how the season went and witness the announcement of the end of the war and the impact on the school, students and town. (Yes, I know it’s fiction. I still wanted more closure.)

Which does not mean that I did not enjoy the book, because I certainly did. And the ending, while it felt a bit premature, was definitely at a high point. Not because her team won the game, but because she won the team – and, it seemed, the town.

But it’s the chorus of naysayers that stick with me, because it all sounded so damn familiar.

Tylene faced endless amounts of sexual harassment – from every side – all the time. The opposing coach for her team’s season opening game was ready to forfeit. He was convinced that it would be less embarrassing for his team to forfeit the game and take a loss than it would have been to play the game and win in a rout. He never considered that it would be a fair and close game, win or lose. He couldn’t believe that a woman could possibly coach that well, or that a team would support a woman coach that well.

While her husband was supportive, he was also very, very shaken. There were points when the negativity and the pressure were so intense that he also wanted her to give in and give up. His best friend and the mainstay of his business refused to do business with him after Tylene became the coach. The school board held a special meeting to remove her from the job – and no one in town told her about the meeting in advance.

And any woman who does not hear the echoes of those scared, shrill male voices rising against Tylene shouting in today’s news hasn’t been paying attention. That kept me riveted to the book from beginning to end – and haunts me still.

TLC
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Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeAstounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, science fiction
Pages: 544
Published by Dey Street Books on October 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“[Astounding] is a major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.” — Publishers Weekly

"Alec Nevala-Lee has brilliantly recreated the era. . . . A remarkable work of literary history." — Robert Silverberg

"Science fiction has been awaiting this history/biography for more than half a century. . . . Here it is. This is the most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen. Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb scholarship and insight have made the seemingly impossible a radiant and irreplaceable gift."—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world. 

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology. 

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

My Review:

Vintage Astounding from 1937

They were the men who sold the moon – as well as the rest of the universe. Together they were the Golden Age of science fiction – in some ways both the quip that says that the golden age of SF is 12 and in the historical sense.

John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of what became the premiere outlet for science fiction writing during its and his heyday, from 1937 through 1946. Back in the days before SF became mainstream, the pulps were all there were, and Campbell’s Astounding was the top of the pulps as far as SF was concerned.

That golden age was when he found, mentored, developed or at least published two writers who became synonymous with SF, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, and the one who nearly broke it, L. Ron Hubbard.

While Astounding and Campbell both went on after 1946 – Astounding exists today as Analog – and all three writers’ careers flourished in their very different trajectories after that period, SF as we know it today was significantly influenced by them and/or their writing, and they, in turn, were significantly influenced by Campbell’s editorial direction. And in one significant case, vice-versa.

Together, they made the genre as we now know it. And the children who grew up reading science fiction, their particular brand of science fiction, changed the world.

Reality Rating A: First things first, this is surprisingly readable. There’s a lot of information packed in here, and it flows fairly smoothly from one page into the next. I was surprised at how completely I was drawn in and held over a very long flight. I expected to bounce in and out, and I just didn’t.

(That the book is only about ⅔ as long as it appears to be is probably a help. The final ⅓ consists of extensive notes. It is blissfully not necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the notes in order to get the story or the context. The author certainly did his homework, but it’s not required that one read it for the book to make sense.)

Campbell in 1965

While Heinlein, Asimov and Hubbard have all been written about before, and in depth, Campbell really hasn’t. And certainly should have been. For the period when Astounding was at the top of the pulps, and for some time beyond, Campbell wasn’t just the editor of a magazine – he WAS science fiction in a way that just isn’t possible now that SF has gone mainstream. His role hasn’t been recognized, possibly because there is no real equivalent today.

This multi-biography attempts to set all four men in their time as well as their relationships to each other. And while on the one hand it feels both loving and respectful, on the other it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the darker side of all four – even though much of what we now consider that dark side generally passed social muster at the time it happened.

The book does a good job of giving context for why much of what we would consider bad behavior occurred, without ever minimizing it or apologizing for it. I’m thinking particularly of Asimov’s well-known propensity for pinching women’s bottoms and other places without their consent or even seeming to acknowledge that he needed their consent. That all the women in his various editors’ and publishers’ offices literally cleared the building whenever he had an appointment seems to be a message he just never got – and certainly should have.

All of them except Asimov seemed to have drunk to considerable excess. Towards the end of their lives both Campbell and Heinlein crossed the line from conservative to reactionary. None of them gave the credit to any of their wives that was certainly due.

Campbell’s racism undoubtedly affected his gatekeeping of the genre throughout his tenure at Astounding, and is in at least some part responsible for the whiteness of SF through his era and beyond. When some 21st century fans cry out for a “Campbellian Revolution” this is part and parcel of what they are looking back to and wanting to recreate.

And everyone was way more involved in the beginning of Scientology than seems to be widely known. Only Asimov steered clear, and even he got stuck arguing with Campbell about it on multiple occasions.

But we certainly see the hand of Campbell in the underpinnings of Hubbard’s Scientology – and we see a number of promising careers get sidetracked by it. Hubbard’s most of all.

These men were the giants upon whose shoulders the genre now stands, whether their influence was mostly positive, or in Hubbard’s case mostly negative. The author does a deft job of giving them their rightful place in SF history while showing that they all had feet of clay up to the knees. If not higher.

In the end, this is a fascinating study of a group of men who made this most popular genre what it became. And it’s a great read from beginning to end.

Review: The Arrows of the Heart by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Arrows of the Heart by Jeffe KennedyThe Arrows of the Heart (The Uncharted Realms #4) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #4
Pages: 297
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on October 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Karyn af Hardie is on her own, for the first time in her life. While all around her brace for war with Karyn’s former homeland, the Empire of Dasnaria, all Karyn really wants is to find a husband who will care for her. After all, she gave up everything for the chance at a normal family life with love and children. She has no way of supporting herself and the only thing of value she has to offer is her virginity. The last thing she’ll do is squander that on the flirtatious shapeshifter Zyr.

Zyr is fascinated by the golden-haired and exotic Karyn—but not enough to put up with all of her mossback rules. She’d be considerably happier, in his opinion for some good bouts of healthy sex. Still, that’s not his problem and he has plenty that is. His sister Zynda has disappeared, possibly never to return, leaving him with a mission to use the mysterious map-sticks to find ancient n’Andana and recruit help for a war they seem doomed to lose to otherwise.

Suspected as a Dasnarian spy, Karyn can’t stay in Annfwn while the defense is planned—so she’s sent with Zyr to assist on his desperate quest. If they can keep from killing each other, Karyn and Zyr might just discover they hold more than a map to saving the world.

My Review:

As our story begins in this fourth book in the Uncharted Realms series, Karyn of Hardie, the exiled former future Empress of Dasnaria, is adrift among the shape shifting Tala in Annfwyn – trying to figure out where she belongs and looking for a purpose to replace everything she left behind.

Meanwhile clinging to the rules and restrictions of her past that marked her as a pampered, protected, caged upper-class woman in Dasnaria.

Considering that the Tala have very few rules about behavior of any kind (I don’t think they have much past Wheaton’s Law), almost no respect for rank and very little consideration of privilege of any kind, Karyn is as completely at sea as anyone could be on dry land.

To add to her complete and utter confusion, she is being romantically pursued by Tyr, who would be a kind of prince where she came from, but in Annfwyn is just another Tala. And a seemingly feckless one at that.

Tyr has plenty of power, but he’s been a bit flighty for most of his life. Particularly when it comes to sexual conquests – not that the Tala have anything like the taboos and prohibitions that Karyn is used to. But Tyr has been fairly free with his favors for most of his life – while Karyn risked literally everything for the possibility of true love, real romance, permanence and eventually children.

She’s looking for normal, while Tyr seems to be looking for a good time. Unfortunately for both of them, life in the now Thirteen Kingdoms is anything but normal. Annfwyn and the rest of the Kingdoms are preparing for war. War with the evil Deyrr, and war with Karyn’s former home – Dasnaria.

The Tala are sorcerers whose power is based on life magic. The Deyrr are as far opposite as can be imagined. To call them necromancers is possibly an insult to necromancers. They’re really that bad.

But the Queen of the Tala has foreseen that the war is at a crossroads. In order for there to be even the possibility of victory, she must send Karyn and Tyr, together, into the heart of darkness. And hope against hope that Karyn makes the hard choice one more time.

Escape Rating A-: Like nearly all of the books in the Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series, this book is absolutely awesomesauce. But also like many of the books in this series, and the spinoff Chronicles of Dasnaria series, it is not for the faint of heart. The treatment of women in Dasnaria is enough to give any woman flashbacks of one kind or another. And the Deryrr seem to worship evil as well as death. Anytime they show up, it makes for very hard reading. Necessary to the story, but hard.

This story is the fourth book in the Uncharted Realms series, which makes it the seventh in the combined series. That’s a lot of backstory. And while you don’t HAVE to have read the whole thing, if you enjoy epic fantasy with romance blended in, the series is definitely worth a read. Howsomever, the action in this particular entry is a direct followup from its two immediate predecessors in the series, The Edge of the Blade and The Shift of the Tide. How Karyn ended up in Annfwyn is a result of events in The Edge of the Blade, while Tyr’s emotional state follows from his sister’s actions in The Shift of the Tide. Neither begins this story in a good place.

However, I found Karyn’s actions and reactions much easier to understand after reading the Chronicles of Dasnaria, particularly the first book Prisoner of the Crown. In that story, we see how a woman very similar to Karyn was raised, or perhaps it should be phrased as brainwashed or conditioned. Having followed Jenna’s journey it’s much easier to understand why Karyn acts the way she does to the lack of strictures in Tala society.

And that’s what makes The Arrows of the Heart so much Karyn’s story. She’s the butterfly that has broken out of its chrysalis. And it hurts. So she has to decide whether to try her wings or retreat back into her “safe” little shell. Freedom is hard, and the choices she has to keep making to retain it are harder still. That’s what makes her such a powerful heroine.

One final note – I keep conflating this title with Mercedes Lackey’s debut fantasy, Arrows of the Queen. After having finished The Arrows of the Heart, that conflation is not entirely wrong. Although this book, is deeper and darker – as it should be. Lackey’s book was aimed at a young adult audience, while The Arrows of the Heart, and the entire Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series is definitely for adults.

But the part about a brave heroine being on a difficult mission for the Queen – well that’s true in both stories. And wonderfully so.

Joint Review: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Joint Review: Exit Strategy by Martha WellsExit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #4
Pages: 172
Published by Tor.com on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Murderbot wasn't programmed to care. So, its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah — its former owner (protector? friend?) — submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who's going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it's caught?

Our Review:

Marlene: Kind of an ironic title, this. Murderbot really doesn’t have one. An exit strategy, that is. Not for the immediate problem, and not for the overall problem. It is fun and surprisingly heartbreaking watching it try. I say surprising because, after all, Murderbot itself would decry, loudly and often, the concept that it has a heart in anything other than the biological sense – if it actually has one of those. Come to think of it, I’m not completely sure. It does have organic parts, I’m just not sure if it has that part in particular.

Galen: One of the problems with those organic parts is that they sometimes get in the way of certain things that Murderbot would like to do… like fully delete memories it doesn’t wish to carry but nonetheless help to push Murderbot (and the plot) forward. It is fitting that by the end of Exit Strategy, Murderbot finds itself reconstructing its memories… and ending up with, for the first time, a free choice.

Exit Strategy picks off right where Rogue Protocol left off, with Murderbot knowing exactly what GrayCris was up to. The problem? Dr. Mensah needs to be rescued… and GrayGris is gunning for Murderbot.

Marlene: Exit Strategy, along with Murderbot’s lack of an exit strategy, has an “out of the frying pan into the fire” aspect. Or perhaps that should be the “perils of Pauline” with Murderbot substituting for Pauline. It seems to be endlessly in trouble in this one – possibly as part of its own messed-up reactions. It feels a need to help Dr. Mensah, and it doesn’t want to, both at the same time.

Well, really, it does, but it is having endless difficulties admitting why it wants to. There’s certainly a sense that it feels the need to right the wrong that it has inadvertently caused through its actions in Rogue Protocol. It went to investigate GrayCris, at least in part because it wanted to help Dr. Mensah against them. What it didn’t count on was that GrayCris would interpret its self-willed mission as yet another attempt by Dr. Mensah to get to the bottom of whatever crap they seem to be pulling – and that GrayCris would react accordingly. Well, accordingly for an evil corporation at any rate.

Galen: What GrayCris didn’t count on is that Murderbot’s quest changed it. As much as Murderbot likes to talk about retreating to its bad space soap opera media, it spends the entire series of novellas learning and growing. Concretely, this means that by the end of Exit Strategy, Murderbot has taken down opponents that a stock SecUnit has no business even tangling with. While this means that the action in the novella is satisfyingly complicated, Murderbot’s increased capability as a SeUnit is secondary to its growth as an individual. To be clear, not in the Pinocchio-becoming-a-real-boy sense that many stories about artificial constructs and androids follow, as this passage demonstrates:

“I don’t want to be human.”
Dr. Mensah said, “That’s not an attitude a lot of humans are going to understand. We tend to think that because a bot or a construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Rather, the sequence of four novellas chronicle’s Murderbot’s growth as a being able to make its own choices, including choosing who to associate with.

Marlene: In the end, that is what is so fascinating about Murderbot – not that its line of snark doesn’t have plenty of charms of its own. Throughout Exit Strategy, Murderbot keeps making choices – and those choices increase in complexity and, for lack of a better word, selfishness. Not that it does things that benefit itself – because the ultimate selfish act would be to freighter-hop while playing its melodramas for the rest of its existence. But its actions have become acts of selfhood and self-determination, even if that determination is to sacrifice itself so that the others can escape.

What it does not reckon on is that those others see it as a person in its own right, just as it sees them. And that its ability to grow, adapt, change, try, fail, succeed and ultimately hope is emblematic of its journey to selfhood. A selfhood that is explicitly not humanity. It is on its way to becoming a real person, but not, as Data once aspired to be, a real boy.

And in its confusion of what all that means, we empathize with it, even as it refuses to become one of us, but still manages to become one of itself.

While its growth is far from complete at the end of Exit Strategy, it has reached a point where it has grown enough to begun to acknowledge its own contradictions and confusions, just like the rest of us. And it wraps up the loose ends of this part of the story, the one that began in All Systems Red.

But I’ve just heard a rumor that Murderbot will have a full-length novel coming out in 2020. YAY! Hopefully it will come in time to read on the long plane ride to WorldCon in New Zealand.

Galen: Yay indeed! Which leads me to…

Galen’s Escape Rating A: This is a fitting conclusion to the sequence of four novellas; while it wraps up the central mysteries set up in All Systems Red, there is clearly a lot more we could learn about the setting that Wells has made… and I hope to learn that through Murderbot’s eyes.

Marlene’s Escape Rating A: This is indeed a fitting conclusion to this sequence, while still leaving plenty of open threads that can be picked up in that much anticipated full-length novel. The story as we have it is Murderbot’s journey, in the sense that this is its own story. As the story of a machine being rather than a flesh creature, it is fascinating to see the way that the author has given Murderbot selfhood without falling into any of the traps of either it wanting to be human or of it, heaven forbid, falling in love. Instead, it seems to be reaching for friendship and companionship, and most of all, acceptance. Learning to accept itself as it is will be its biggest challenge – one that it is more than up to.

I hope we get to find out how it manages.