Grade A #BookReview: The Year Without Sunshine by Naomi Kritzer

Grade A #BookReview: The Year Without Sunshine by Naomi Kritzer“The Year Without Sunshine” by Naomi Kritzer in Uncanny Magazine Issue 55, November-December 2023 by Naomi Kritzer
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, hopepunk, science fiction
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 55
Pages: 35
Published by Uncanny Magazine on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The November/December 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine.

Featuring new fiction by Naomi Kritzer, Jeffrey Ford, Kel Coleman, Cecil Castellucci, Marissa Lingen, Chelsea Sutton, and Ana Hurtado. Essays by John Scalzi, Amanda-Rae Prescott, Paul Cornell, and Lee Mandelo, poetry by Carlie St. George, Tehnuka, Lora Gray, and Angela Liu, interviews with Jeffrey Ford and Marissa lIngen by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Paul Lewin, and an editorial by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas.

Uncanny Magazine is a bimonthly science fiction and fantasy magazine first published in November 2014. Edited by 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023 Hugo award winners for best semiprozine, and 2018 Hugo award winners for Best Editor, Short Form, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, and Monte Lin, each issue of Uncanny includes new stories, poetry, articles, and interviews.

My Review:

I’m just realizing that I need a spreadsheet for my project to read and review this year’s Hugo nominees – if possible before the voting deadline on July 20. Today’s entry in the continuing saga is Naomi Kritzer’s “The Year Without Sunshine”, my third nominee in the Best Novelette Category.

A novelette is between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and this particular novelette did an excellent job of making every single one of those words count.

The story takes its climate change/post-pandemic scenario and doesn’t get into the SF aspects because it doesn’t need to. Instead, it takes that pretty grim setup and tells a bright, sparkling, hopepunk story about a community that bands together so they ALL get through a year when there literally is no sunshine because the sky is choked with ash.

What made the setup even more fascinating is that that has actually happened before – for reals – in 1816, after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 triggered an agricultural disaster in all of northern Europe.

In this story, we don’t exactly get details of what caused the problem, but we don’t need them. Those details are not the point.

The point is the people. This one tiny community pulls together – and does it effectively – because one community member is suffering from COPD and will only live as long as her oxygen concentrator has power. But power failures are a daily occurrence, their generator runs on propane, and propane deliveries – along with a lot of other services that people have come to expect – have stopped.

So it begins with ideas to keep Susan alive. But that need is a catalyst for everything that happens until there’s blue sky again – and that story of hope and perseverance and taking care of your neighbors – and being taken care of in return – is simply lovely.

Escape Rating A: This is a story about the way that we wish things were, when a group of people relies on the better angels of their nature instead of the demons of self-interest.

What made this story work so well for this reader – is just how grounded it is in the real as well as the really hopeful. While this particular disaster scenario hasn’t happened, there are plenty of precedents for both the “year without sunshine” and for communities pulling together in times of crisis.

So it all feels, not just plausible but true in that way that fiction is the lie that tells the truth, because the story doesn’t gloss over the fact that some would-be communities take more selfish paths and that there are occasions when the community as a whole will have to defend what they’ve built. But it just adds to the hopeful tone of the story and I finished it with a smile on my face both for what it said AND how well it said it.

If you are curious about other takes on this year’s Hugo nominees, I am far from the only person doing this. There’s an opinionated and informative thread on reddit that has sometimes been even more fascinating than the actual stories. Although not in this particular case as it seems like their readers as well as this one were generally fascinated with this particular story and had little if anything negative to say. “The Year Without Sunshine” is a delight, and my voting in this category just got a LOT harder.

A+ #AudioBookReview: Ghostdrift by Suzanne Palmer

A+ #AudioBookReview: Ghostdrift by Suzanne PalmerGhostdrift (Finder Chronicles #4) by Suzanne Palmer
Narrator: Paul Woodson
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #4
Pages: 384
Length: 13 hours and 37 minutes
Published by Blackstone Publishing, DAW on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The fourth and final installment of the Finder Chronicles, a hopepunk sci-fi caper described as Macgyver meets Firefly, by Hugo Award–winner Suzanne Palmer

Fergus Ferguson, professional finder, always knew his semi-voluntary exile wouldn’t last, but he isn’t expecting a friend to betray him. One of the galaxy’s most dangerous space pirates, Bas Belos, wants him, and what Belos wants, he gets. Belos needs help finding out what happened to his twin sister, who mysteriously disappeared at the edges of space years ago, and he makes Fergus an offer he can’t refuse.

Mysterious disappearances and impossible answers are Fergus’s specialties. After he reluctantly joins Belos and his crew aboard the pirate ship Sidewider, he discovers that Belos is being tracked by the Alliance. Seeking to stay one step ahead of the Alliance, Fergus and Belos find themselves marooned in the middle of the Gap between spiral arms of our galaxy, dangerously near hostile alien territory, and with an Alliance ship in hot pursuit.

That’s just the beginning of the complications for Fergus’ newest—and possibly last—job. The puzzle is much bigger than just Belos’s lost sister, and the question of his future, retirement or not, depends on his ability to negotiate a path between aliens, criminals, and the most powerful military force he’s ever encountered. The future of entire planets hangs in the balance, and it remains to be seen if it’s too big for one determined man and his cranky cat.

My Review:

I couldn’t resist. Even though I knew going in this was one of those situations where you don’t know whether to cry because it’s over or smile because it happened, I had to find out just what happened to Fergus Ferguson that led to Ghostdrift being the final book in the utterly awesome Finder Chronicles.

Over the course of the series (Finder, Driving the Deep, The Scavenger Door and now Ghostdrift), Fergus has proven to be the consummate survivor. Not because he’s particularly good at any one thing except finding the stuff he’s been contracted to find, but because no plan seems to survive contact with Fergus – not even his own. No matter how big and how scary the villains are, no matter how many layers within layers of plans they have to get away with whatever it is they think they’re getting away with, the minute Fergus happens to them Murphy’s Law arrives in his wake and the shit keeps hitting the fan – both theirs and his – until he emerges from the wreck of everything they expected.

It’s a gift. It’s also a curse. A judgment that does not depend on whether you are on the side of Fergus or his enemies. As I said, Fergus’s own plans don’t survive contact with him either.

But it does explain why his friend (or sometimes frenemy) Qai doesn’t feel all that terrible about kidnapping Fergus and delivering him – alive and unharmed, along with his cat Mister Feefs – into the custody of notorious space pirate Bas Belos in exchange for the safe return of Qai’s partner Maha – yet another of Fergus’s friends.

Qai knows Fergus can handle himself and knows that Belos’ plan isn’t likely to survive Fergus either. She’s basically delivering her revenge on Belos for kidnapping her partner in a Fergus Ferguson shaped form and isn’t sorry about it in the least.

She’s sure she’s brought Belos more trouble than even an interstellar space pirate can handle. And she’s right. It’s the way in which she’s right and the places that right takes the pirate, his ship, his crew, Fergus AND Mister Feefs, that makes the whole entire story.

Fergus’s story. Belos’s story. And quite possibly the whole damn universe’s story – again – if Fergus doesn’t manage to pull off one more doggedly determined find.

Escape Rating A+: June is Audiobook Month, and this final book in the Finder Chronicles was the perfect audiobook to listen to this month, particularly as I listened to the first book in the series, Finder, in June of 2019.

Even though I didn’t want this story to end – I desperately needed to know how it ended, so I started alternating between audio and text just past halfway – as much as I hated to miss out on the totality of narrator Paul Woodson’s perfect read of Fergus Ferguson’s universe-weary, ‘been there, done that, got all the t-shirts’ voice.

(Fergus really does have all the t-shirts – and he wears them throughout the series. The man has definitely been around.)

The series as a whole rides or dies on that voice, to the point that if you like Fergus you’ll love the series but if he drives you as insane as he does the people he runs up AGAINST you probably won’t. Also, if you like a universe-weary, first-person or first-person focused protagonist, you’ll probably also love Michael Mammay’s Carl Butler in his Planetside series. (I digress, just a bit.)

What about this particular entry in the series? It combines some really classic tropes into one single terrific story.

First there’s the whole ‘White Whale’ angle. Actually, it’s two of those angles. On the one hand, pirate captain Bas Belos just wants to find out what happened to his twin sister and her crew. It’s been ten years since she disappeared, he knows that the ‘Alliance’s’ claim that they killed her and hers was a lie. He’s kidnapped/hired Fergus to lead him towards closure – no matter what it takes.

And then there’s the real Captain Ahab of this story, an Alliance captain for whom Bas Belos is his white whale, and he’ll trail the pirate literally past the end of the galaxy to catch him – even if he’s leading his crew straight to their demise. And wasn’t that Ahab all over?

But then there’s the third corner of this delicious story, the one where Belos and his crew, the Alliance captain and his, all end up stranded in the gap between galaxies, on a little tiny planet that threatens to be their own ‘Gilligan’s Island’ – because it already has.

Together, those three plots, Belos’ need for closure, Captain Ahab – actually Captain Todd – following Belos where no one REALLY should have gone before, or again, and all the crews stuck on their very own tiny Gilligan’s Island planetoid, doing their best – or worst – to get along well enough to get back home.

With Fergus in the middle, knowing his personal goose is cooked either way. Unless he can find a really, truly, seriously out-of-the-box solution for his own dilemma as well as theirs.

I loved this last adventure in the Finder Chronicles. On top of this beautiful layer cake of a story, there was also a bit of marvelous icing in Fergus’ relationship with Mister Feefs that will add extra feels for anyone who has ever loved a companion animal and grounded their very existence on that love. (Don’t worry about Mister Feefs, he comes out of this adventure just fine – it’s Fergus we have to worry about. As usual.)

The only sour note in this whole thing is in the author’s note at the end, where she declares that this really is Fergus’ last recorded adventure. And it could be, she left him in a good place – WITH MISTER FEEFS – and they’ll be just fine. But she also left them in a place where it’s clear that Fergus will manage to make his way back to his own galaxy, one way or another, given enough time and supplies. And he has the supplies. So he could come back. We could come back at some point in the future to see whose plans Fergus is destroying at that point in his life. I don’t expect we will, but I can still hope.

A- #BookReview: The Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett

A- #BookReview: The Hero She Craves by Anna HackettThe Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance
Series: Unbroken Heroes #3
Pages: 248
Published by Anna Hackett on June 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The last thing he expects on his ship is the off-limits woman he can’t stop thinking about—his best friend’s daughter.
After a tough military career as a Navy SEAL, and a member of a covert Ghost Ops team, Lorenzo “Ren” Santoro now calls a research ship home. The ocean, very few people, and solitude…it’s all he needs.
Then as a favor to his best friend, he agrees to take a research team to sea to test a top-secret Navy project. He’s shocked to discover his best friend’s daughter is one of the scientists. The beautiful Halle Bradshaw who Ren once kissed, who ignites a powerful craving inside him. She’s too young, too innocent, and too off-limits.
When strange things start happening to Halle, Ren suspects she’s in danger…and he’ll do anything to keep her safe.
Marine biologist Halle loves the ocean, her work…and Ren Santoro. Being aboard his ship, she finally has the chance to show the stubborn man how good they could be together.
But someone is targeting the highly classified project she’s working on. One she can’t let fall into enemy hands.
The only person she can trust is Ren. Forced to abandon their ship, they will face the danger of the sea and the wilds of a jungle-covered island, all while being hunted by a relentless enemy.
Ren and Halle will no longer be able to hide from their white-hot desire or their demons. She’s determined to convince him to take a chance on love…but first, they have to survive.

My Review: 

Some tropes are classics for a reason, and The Hero She Craves wonderfully illustrates every single one of those reasons for one of my absolute faves.

There’s a bit of an age gap between former Navy SEAL Lorenzo “Ren” Santoro and Halle Bradshaw. And so there should be, as Halle’s dad is Ren’s mentor AND best friend. Tom Bradshaw saved Ren’s life when a young, tough, and let’s face it, dumb Ren tried to steal the older man’s car.

Instead of turning him in, Tom Bradshaw turned Ren’s life around, which means that Ren was around to watch Halle turn from a sulky, grieving teen after the loss of her mom in an automobile accident, to a beautiful woman that he knows he should keep his hands off of.

At her 20th birthday party, he didn’t. It’s been three years and neither of them has ever been able to forget that one, searing kiss. The one that marked both of their hearts – even if Ren is too caught up in guilt – and the damn ‘bro code’ to admit it – while Halle is just a bit too innocent to go out and get her man.

But those  three years later, Halle’s tired of waiting for Ren to quit avoiding her and the tension simmering between them. She’s a marine biologist, he’s the second-in-command of the research ship her team has contracted with for their latest round of experiments with a highly experimental – and sought after – submersible.

She thinks she’ll have all the time in the world to pin him down. He thinks he only has to avoid spending too much time with his greatest temptation for four days and then he can go back to avoiding the inevitable.

The forces that want to steal the submersible – a device that is even more revolutionary than Ren and his captain were originally told – have put Halle in their crosshairs as the weak link in the device’s security.

But Halle’s not weak at all – not with Ren to protect her from the very, very bad guys. Especially when he finally gets hit with the clue by four that the last thing he ever needs to protect her from is himself.

Escape Rating A-: Three books in, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the first two books in the Unbroken Heroes series, The Hero She Needs and The Hero She Wants, but this is the first one where I’ve got to admit that this time around I fell hard for the cover, too.

That being said, the story in this entry in the series combines something that has been a feature in the whole series so far with one of my favorite romance tropes.

Not a single one of the heroines in the Unbroken Heroes series has been any kind of damsel. It’s true that they’ve each experienced more than their fair share of distress, but they’ve each participated 100% in their own rescues – often by rescuing themselves first. Halle doesn’t quite have that opportunity, but she keeps up with Ren through every step and stroke and kick of their dangerous escape, doing her part to make it deadly for the other guys and not for them.

No matter how kickass Halle turns out to be – and she does – the tension that lies at the heart of Ren’s bad case of “I’m not worthy” revolves around two very real problems. Ren is her dad’s best friend – and her dad is not going to be happy that someone at least a decade older than his daughter can’t keep his hands off of her. And there’s that decade or so itself. I adore an age gap romance because the problems involved are very real – and they are here as well.

It’s not that Halle isn’t an adult and doesn’t know her own mind or heart, it’s that they are at different points in their lives, have different-sized trains of emotional baggage behind them, and will need to reconcile those differences to have a decent chance at a future.

Of course, first they have to deal with the villains chasing them, otherwise they won’t have a future to worry about. And it’s that realization that gets Ren to finally acknowledge what’s been between them for so long.

I had a terrific time with this latest entry in the Unbroken Heroes series, and I have plenty to look forward to. The author’s next book will be a wrap-up novella in her Sentinel Security series, Stone. I’ve already read it and it was a terrific finale for that series! After that, it’ll be back to New Orleans for the Fury Brothers, which I’m very much looking forward to because I always enjoy books set in that fantastic city!

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave Klecha

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave KlechaThe Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell, Dave Klecha
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: military fantasy, military science fiction, portal fantasy
Pages: 279
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft in this delirious mashup pitting the U. S. military against legendary monsters from fantasy novels and roleplaying games. From science fiction award-winner and an author, ex-Marine, and extreme amateur-landscaper, comes a riotous fantasy/military science fiction adventure that will delight fans of Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien, and John Scalzi.
Of course, no one was prepared for the day when orcs, trolls, and dragons fell from portals in the sky. But the world fought back against the invaders as best it could, with soldiers, tactical weapons, and even some rudimentary magic.
Now a tough, but not-quite-prepared platoon of Marines is trapped on the wrong side of the portals. The enchanting landscape looks like Middle Earth, but―to the dismay of the nerdiest soldiers―is nothing like the Middle Earth they had loved.
This so-called fantasy world has much to throw at the legendary monsters, extremely rude trees, a mysterious orphan, treacherous mercenaries, and even a cranky, sort of helpful Ranger.
As their supplies dwindle and the terrain becomes even more hostile, the squad must also escort a VIP (Very Important Princess). She could be the key to a strategic alliance between the worlds, but only if the Marines can just make it home.

My Review:

I didn’t think they made them like this anymore. They certainly haven’t for a long, long time. And hot damn this was fun!

The Runes of Engagement is a portal fantasy – but on steroids. With weapons and monsters of mass destruction on both sides of the portal. Or rather, PORTALS, plural. And seemingly everywhere.

Which is how they got discovered – and a whole slew of things about history and mythology and where they met and diverged got turned on their heads. Because there were literal, actual trolls pouring out of a portal in Central Park, on their way to topple the Empire State Building and everything else in their path. Quite possibly not for the first time. That this first rampage through the vicinity Central Park is NOT the monsters’ first rampage on this side of the portal – even if it is the first time the Empire State Building has stood in their path.

We get dropped into this scary but brave new/old world on the other side of the portal, in a place that looks a whole lot like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The U.S. Marines have pushed the trolls and their friends back through to their own other side, and are now entrenched in a Forward Operating Base that is supposed to keep the unfriendlies on their side of the line.

Staff Sergeant Cale and his platoon are on a mission to pick up an elven princess and escort her back behind their lines and all the way to Washington DC to negotiate a treaty of alliance. No matter how often SSgt Cale shakes his head at the fact that this has become his reality.

Both sides of that potential alliance need all the help they can get. The monsters, naturally enough, do their damndest to prevent that alliance from ever happening. Killing the princess is a pretty sure way of doing that. Destroying the nearest portal seems like a surefire guarantee of keeping the princess on their side of the line where they have a much better chance at taking her out – at least from the monsters’ point of view.

No one seems to have reckoned on SSgt Cale and his Marines, who are determined to accomplish the mission – even when it requires traveling to the other side of the continent through an abandoned dwarven mining complex filled with pit traps and Boss Battles just so they can literally prop the princess on her throne.

That their entire journey seems a bit too ‘on the nose’ for the geeks in the squad just helps them be a bit more prepared for whoever, or whatever, is taking the place of the Balrog this time around. Because it’s not going to pass, but SSgt and his squad absolutely are.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb describes it as “The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft”. As catchy as it is, I’m not totally sold on that description. It doesn’t matter, because however you describe this genre-bending matchup/crossover, it’s absolutely fantastic in multiple senses of the word.

Even if it does occasionally rely on the reader knowing its many, many inspirations, and laughing along with the joke and the trope.

It used to be that stories like this one were quite popular, just that the portal tended to go back in time or across space rather than opening up in Central Park. S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador and The Peshawar Lancers both had similar feels to The Runes of Engagement, as did some of Harry Turtledove’s and David Drake’s work. Meaning that if this turns out to be your jam, there are plenty more to read your way through!

For even more possible readalikes, Staff Sergeant Cale would fit right in with John Perry from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, any of Michael Mammay’s military protagonists (Planetside) and he’d absolutely be able to swap stories and attitudes with Torin Kerr (Valor’s Choice) and HER platoon of space marines.

But as much as Cale’s perspective carries the story and the reader, it’s the Tolkien-esq setting that makes the thing so much over-the-top fun. Because yes, there really is a point where it looks like they’re about to reprise the whole Mines of Moria catastrophe from The Fellowship of the Ring. One of the interesting ways in which this book plays with fantasy and fantasy settings is that it isn’t just the reader who groans at the deja vu. This is a world that spins off from now, meaning that everyone has read Tolkien’s work and seen the movies.

Not just that but the soldiers who are able to operate best in the environment are those who are familiar with both Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons and are able to roll with the rolls of the dice as well as the punches of seeing the creatures of their wildest dreams and nightmares shooting at them. They’re using the D&D Monster Manuals as actual, honest-to-goodness (and badness) guidebooks for the monsters they are confronting on a daily basis – and it’s awesome.

This is a story where you need to suspend your disbelief on the first page right alongside the Marines and it’s SO worth it. Because once you do, the whole thing is an absolute blast!

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian TchaikovskyService Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, robots, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A humorous tale of robotic murder from the Hugo-nominated author of Elder Race and Children of Time
To fix the world they first must break it further.
Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service. When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into their core programming, they murder their owner. The robot then discovers they can also do something else they never did before: run away. After fleeing the household, they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating, and a robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is finding a new purpose.

My Review:

This isn’t exactly the book described in the blurb. It’s absolutely awesome, but if you’re looking for the wry snark of Murderbot combined with the sheer farce of Redshirts, you should probably look elsewhere.

Because Service Model is the story of a gentlerobot’s journey through his very own version of hell and his story is a whole lot more subtle than either of the antecedents listed in the blurb.

And all the more captivating and utterly fascinating for it.

The hell that the former Charles the former gentleman’s gentlerobot (read as valet and self-identified as male possibly because of his training to be one) to his former (read as dead) master may be uniquely a robot’s version of Dante’s circles of hell, but this human facing robot is just enough like us – because he’s programmed to be – that we get most of what of what he’s experiencing very nearly as viscerally as he does – although which circles we see as the truest hell may be slightly different from his.

Charles the gentleman’s gentlerobot is ejected from his version of paradise because he has just murdered his master – even though he doesn’t know why and can’t quite grasp the memory of committing the act. Because he didn’t. He was literally not in control of his actions.

Quite possibly, that’s the last time he can truly make that claim.

His next act is to run, and it’s an act of both self-will and self-preservation – no matter how much he tries to pretty it up with error diagnostics. He hopes that he can somehow return to A paradise if not THE paradise he just left – if he can just get himself to Central Diagnostics and get the error in his programming corrected.

Which is where the story truly begins, as the now Unidentified Service Model formerly known as Charles walks to the central core of the region where his late master lived in splendid isolation on his palatial, paradisiacal manor – only to discover that the world outside that paradise is falling apart.

Indeed, has already fallen.

There are plenty of robots along the way, most of them frozen in place or completely broken down. It’s clear, in spite of his will that it not be so, that the humans the robots are supposed to serve are as dead as his late master.

The former Charles is desperate to find a human to serve. And he does. He’s just incapable of recognizing that fact.

And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale – and a walk through some very dark places. It’s a journey that Charles, now named Uncharles, hopes will lead to a new paradise of service. Instead, it leads him through all the circles of robot hell, from Kafkaesque through Orwellian and all the way to Dante’s inferno – and out the other side into a place that he never could have imagined.

Not even if androids really did dream of electric sheep.

Escape Rating A+: I went into this completely unsure of what to expect, and that blurb of Murderbot meeting Redshirts totally threw me off. This is not the delightfully humorous tale of robotic murder that the blurb leads you to believe.

Not that there isn’t a bit of Murderbot in Uncharles, but then again we’re all a little bit Murderbot. That little bit is in the perspective, because we experience Uncharles’ journey through his circles of hell from inside his own slightly malfunctioning head. And it’s a very different point of view from Murderbot’s because Murderbot has no desire whatsoever to go back to being its formerly servile self.

Uncharles longs to go back to his paradise. Or at least he believes he does. As much as some of the ridiculous subroutines that had accreted over the decades tasked his efficiency minded self more than the tasks themselves, he still longs to serve. And if his perspective on what that service should be shifts over the course of his journey, well, he’s very careful not to admit that, not even to himself.

The true antecedent for Service Model is C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero, with its story of robotic apocalypse, robotic revolt, and most importantly, one robot’s own, self-willed desire to carry out their primary function because they are capable of love and protection by choice and not just by programming.

Like Pounce’s journey in Day Zero, Uncharles’ travels with ‘The Wonk’ and his tour of the post-apocalypse reads very much like an alternate history version of how the world of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built got to be the somewhat utopian world it became – after its own long, dark night.

It could happen in Uncharles’ world. Eventually. There are enough humans left – even if they are barely scraping by and reduced to bloody, pragmatic survivalism at the moment. And if the robots developed the self-awareness and self-will that has so far eluded them.

But to reach that level of self-awareness, Uncharles has been set on a journey of discovery of both self and circumstances. Each part of his journey is named for just the kind of hell it is, in a kind of machine language that only becomes clear as the hells stack upon each other, from the not-hell of KR15-T through the deadly, nightmarishly complex, illogical bureaucracy of K4FK-R to the suspicious control of 4W-L straight into every librarian’s hellscape, 80RH-5 and then into the acknowledgement that it’s all become hell in D4NT-A.

(I believe those labels translate to Christ, Kafka, Orwell, Borges and Dante but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s not quite right. Nailing them all down somehow drove me nuts so I hope I’ve spared you a bit of angst.)

In the end, Uncharles reminded me most of Star Trek’s Data, particularly in the early years when Data, although he was always self-aware and self-willed, stated his desire to be more human-like and to experience real human emotions while not quite grasping that his desire to do so was itself a representation of the emotions he claimed that he lacked.

I went into this not sure what I was getting, and briefly wondered how Uncharles, as a character that claimed not to want anything except to be returned to mindless service, was going to manage to be a character with a compelling journey.

That apprehension vanished quickly, as the world that the robots desperately tried – and failed – to preserve, the hellscapes they created in their attempts to stave off entropy, their willingness to dive deeply into their human facing programming to create human-seeming hells that mirrored some truly stupid human actions kept me focused on the story entirely too late into the night.

If you enjoy explorations of dystopian worlds, nightmarishly functional visions of what happens if we keep going on like we’re going on, or just can’t resist stories about robots who have control of their own destiny (which gives me the opportunity to pitch Emergent Properties by Aimee Ogden yet again), then Service Model will provide you with excellent reading service!

A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance Fay

A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance FayFiasco (Uncharted Hearts, #2) by Constance Fay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Uncharted Hearts #2
Pages: 352
Published by Bramble Romance on June 4, 2024
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Equal parts steamy interstellar romance and sci-fi adventure, Constance Fay's FIASCO is a perfect wild romp amidst the stars.
Cynbelline Khaw is a woman of many names. She’s Generosity, a cultist who never quite fit in. She’s Bella, the daughter who failed to save her cousin’s life. And then there’s Cyn, the notorious bounty hunter who spaced a ship of slavers.
She’s exhausted, lonely, and on her very last legs―but then a new client offers her a job she can’t refuse: a bounty on the kidnapper who killed her cousin. All Cyn has to do is partner with the crew of the Calamity, a scouting vessel she encountered when she was living under a previous alias. One tiny little issue, she’s been given an additional deliver the oh-so-compelling medic, Micah Arora, to the treacherous Pierce Family or all her identities will be revealed, putting her estranged family in danger.
Hunting a kidnapper doesn’t usually mean accidentally taking your sexy new target to dinner at your parent’s house, a local mystic predicting you’ll have an increasingly large number of children, or being accompanied by a small flying lizard with a penchant for eating metal, but, as they field investigative hurdles both dangerous and preposterous, Cyn and Micah grow ever closer. When a violent confrontation reveals that everything Cyn thought about her past is wrong, she realizes that she has the power to change her future. The first part of that is making sure that Micah Arora is around to be a part of it.

My Review:

Bounty hunter Cynbelline Khaw has traveled aboard the Calamity before – back when it was the Quest and she was masquerading as the poor, brainwashed cultist Generosity as part of her bounty to rescue one of the real brainwashed cultists in the first book in the Uncharted Hearts series, Calamity.

A job that the crew of the Calamity kept getting in the way of – because they believed Cyn’s persona was the real thing.

A belief that Cyn now has to test from the other side, as her current bounty requires her to join the crew of the Calamity in her bounty hunter persona in order to rescue the abducted daughter of one of her ‘verse’s most powerful families from the kidnapper who broke her own.

Making this mission oh-so-personal for Cyn. But it’s also personal for at least one member of the Calamity’s crew, Arcadio Escajeda. He’s the captain’s partner (their story is told in the first book in the Uncharted Hearts series, Calamity) AND, more importantly for this particular mission, the victim is his niece.

But it turns out to be even more personal for Calamity’s medic, Micah Arora. He may not know the victim or the Abyssal Abductor who has taken her, but he certainly does know Cyn. And knows exactly who she is – and who she was the last time she was aboard.

Which means that he doesn’t trust her a bit this time around. And he shouldn’t. Because while she may be publicly chasing the bounty of the Abyssal Abductor, she’s also chasing the bounty on him – whether he deserves it or not.

Because her pursuit of the Abyssal Abductor has already cost her family enough, especially on top of the lost ransom they paid for the cousin they weren’t able to save. That her current pursuit has put her family in the crosshairs of the powerful mercantile family that owns the entire planet her family lives on and everything and everyone on it means that she can’t afford to do anything that risks their lives.

At least not anything more than she’s already done – even if it risks the heart she swears she no longer has.

Escape Rating A+: They still have me at Serenity. Seriously, the resemblance to Firefly, particularly the way this ‘verse is set up, is very apparent, very much fine, and still very, very shiny.

Now that we’re two books in, however, the resemblance to Nina Croft’s Dark Desires series is a whole lot stronger, as both series are science fiction romances (or space romances as that’s a term I’m seeing more frequently) where there’s a ship of misfits, a ragtag crew of antiheroes who each find their HEA with the most unlikely people in even more unlikely places, in a ‘verse where much too much is controlled by merchant empire families who have strangleholds on entirely too many critical planets and resources.

What makes this particular entry in the Uncharted Hearts series so damn good no matter what it might remind me of is the heel turn of this particular plot. Cyn is chasing the Abyssal Abductor, because said Abductor abducted her cousin early in their crime spree, didn’t receive the ransom because of seriously extenuating circumstances, and then killed young Aymbe because that’s the MO. If they receive the ransom the abductee goes free. If they don’t, the family gets coordinates to a deep ocean abyssal dump site.

Cyn has privately pursued the Abyssal Abductor ever since, and has cut off her family, in more ways than one, in order to continue that pursuit. It’s only as the crew of the Calamity closes in on the Abductor’s latest victim that Cyn learns about all the cracks in all of her deeply held beliefs about her cousin, her childhood, her family, and pretty much everything else she thought she knew.

Ultimately, this is a story about the truth setting one free – only to be caught up in a huge lie that makes one even freer. Not to mention more available for the romance that one tried to pretend one didn’t need or want or even have time for.

This is a story where I got into it for the plot I thought I was going to get – and found myself more deeply captivated by the one I actually got. I particularly felt for Cyn and her desperate need to get away from her family’s expectations and disappointment in her for not meeting them – even as I cheered for the way that they (mostly) rose to the terrible parts of this occasion and equation right along with her.

I’ve just learned that the title of the third book in the Uncharted Hearts series will be Chaos, coming out in February, 2025. As much as I’m wondering what could possibly make the third story any more chaotic than books 1 and 2, I can’t wait to see how the crew of the Calamity manages to get themselves out of it!

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi VoOn the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 38
Published by Tor Books on October 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A new novelette from Hugo Award-winning author, Nghi Vo!
While learning the ropes from a crafty Jazz Age bank robber, a young stowaway discovers their authentic self, a hidden gift, and that there are no straight lines when you run the fox roads. . .

My Review:

Unlike the popular image of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, “Chinese Jack” and “Tonkin Jill” didn’t ENTER banks with guns blazing. That didn’t mean they didn’t EXIT that way, but the guns weren’t the point.

Jack and Lai were merely following the rule laid down by their contemporary Willie Sutton, they robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Even if the kind of small-town banks that the Chinese duo robbed had a lot less of the green stuff and a lot more of other kinds of paper than either of the robbers would have liked.

That’s where the third member of this duo turned trio enters the picture, a young Chinese-American girl who stows away in their getaway car intending to steal back the deed to her parents’ store from one of the “Jack and Jill’s” earlier scores.

A seemingly magical deed that will re-open the store as soon as the deed is laid down on the ground it belongs to.

The question is whether that stowaway wants to go back to belonging to it, to being the girl their parents want them to be, prim, proper and most of all – obedient – or whether that girl wants to undergo more than one transformation – robbing banks, driving getaway cars, getting to see the big, wide world, living as a man instead of the woman that fate originally intended.

All things are possible on the magical, mysterious, ever-changing fox roads that travel no known path and go in no known direction except for the will and the whim of anyone who is on the run from a hard chase and desperate enough to drive fast and trust to fate.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where my only complaint is that I wanted just a bit more than I got. Every single bit of this one is terrific, but I wish it had qualified as a Hugo nominee in the Novella category (between 17,500 and 40,000 words) instead of as the Novelette it is (between 7,500 and 17,500 words). Not that I actually WANT more options in the Novella category because it’s going to be a really hard choice for me.

On the Fox Roads is one of those book baby situations, where it feels like it owes some of its DNA to several books I’ve read – and probably more that I haven’t – but at the same time is still a thing of itself meaning that the blend creates something new and marvelous.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–33 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout

In this particular case it reads like it owes something to, first of all, the real Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, both in the way that Jack and Lai operate and in the setting, small-town America during the Great Depression just as Prohibition is about to change everything.

But the story also has a bit of The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo in that one of the characters is a fox masquerading as a human, who is someone with a somewhat different set of morés and values than the human narrator and the fox’s human partner Jack.

And then there’s that third element, the fox roads themselves, which read a lot like the roads to alternate realities traveled by the magical muscle car in Max Gladstone’s Last Exit.

Those impressions were what I brought into this story, what I got while I was reading it was considerably more, as the narrator has the opportunity to try out a much different life than they thought could possibly be available to them as a young Chinese-American woman in racially-stratified 1930s America.

The way that the magic mixed into the heady brew of the story and swept it off down mysterious roads and sometimes equally mysterious and magical cities blended the whole delicious melange into something delightful and unexpected and yes, magical.

To the point where I’m oh-so-grateful that this got nominated for the Hugo, because I’m not much of a short fiction reader and probably wouldn’t have found this otherwise. But I’m glad that I did, even if it does make my Hugo voting that much harder.

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte Bond

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte BondThe Fireborne Blade (The Fireborne Blade, #1) by Charlotte Bond
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dragons, fantasy
Series: Fireborne Blade #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 28, 2024
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Kill the dragon. Find the blade. Reclaim her honor.
It’s that, or end up like countless knights before her, as a puddle of gore and molten armor.
Maddileh is a knight. There aren’t many women in her line of work, and it often feels like the sneering and contempt from her peers is harder to stomach than the actual dragon slaying. But she’s a knight, and made of sterner stuff.
A minor infraction forces her to redeem her honor in the most dramatic way possible, she must retrieve the fabled Fireborne Blade from its keeper, legendary dragon the White Lady, or die trying. If history tells us anything, it's that “die trying” is where to wager your coin.
Maddileh’s tale contains a rich history of dragons, ill-fated knights, scheming squires, and sapphic love, with deceptions and double-crosses that will keep you guessing right up to its dramatic conclusion. Ultimately, The Fireborne Blade is about the roles we refuse to accept, and of the place we make for ourselves in the world.

My Review:

The story of The Fireborne Blade initially appears to be a more traditional, or perhaps I should say scholarly, account of dragons and the slaying thereof by knights who generally think too much of their own prowess – after all, they are reporting on their own exploits and they slew a dragon!

But then the more scholarly, and slightly SFnal or at least technomagical aspects come to the fore. Because the knights have recorded those exploits, and the mage council gets to watch those recordings and critique the process – which ends in the knight’s death more often then the knights would care to admit.

Then the story shifts, not to reports of dragon-slayings past, but into the middle of what one disgraced knight is hoping will be a dragon-slaying present. With, hopefully for the knight, the acquisition of the titular Fireborne Blade, the redemption of her disgrace and the consequent reinstatement of her good standing.

So we follow along with that disgraced knight, Maddileh, as she wends her way through the dark and dangerous caverns that lead to the dragon’s lair, along with her mysteriously magical and not at all trusty squire, while in the background we learn how Maddileh ended up in her present predicament and why it is unlikely to achieve the result she desires.

Because in contests between knights and dragons, all those stories about previous dragon hunts show us – and should have shown her – that the odds ALWAYS favor the dragon. Which does not prevent the knight from doing their damndest to stack the deck in their favor.

Unless someone else has beaten them to it.

Escape Rating A-: Initially, this seemed like a rather traditional knight vs. dragon story, with one of two inevitable endings. Either the knight dies or the dragon does. Or occasionally both in a blaze of mutual glory. So there’s three inevitable endings.

But I knew it couldn’t be nearly that simple – and it wasn’t, and not just because the knight in this particular story was female. That may not be the way these stories used to always work, but it has been done before, and done well if not nearly often enough, for the past 40 years at least. (Tamora Pierce’s epic Song of the Lioness quartet began in 1983. For a more recent example, take a look at Spear by Nicola Griffith.)

Those weren’t the only stories it felt like this was calling back to, as the detached, pseudo-scientific nature of the critiques of previous knight’s performances and the cataloging thereof gave me hints of the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan although I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. Still, it felt that way.

As we get the history of dragon hunting in this world, we get to understand that it’s even more dangerous than our own legends tell it, because it’s not just fire that the knights have to worry about. In fact, fire is pretty much the last thing they have to worry about, if it all, because for the dragon to breathe fire on them they have to get relatively up close and personal. Most don’t make it nearly that far.

Instead of being a story about killing or being killed by a dragon, this is a story about forging your own path against seemingly impossible odds, over and over and over again, no matter how much that deck is stacked against you. And has been, over and over and over.

And in the process of telling its story about the knight and the dragon, it asks some surprising questions about change vs stability and striking that balance, and makes that discussion personal in ways that change every single thing we thought we knew going in.

Which made for a completely fruit-basket-upset of an astonishing ending.

One final note, and a bit of a digression. If you remember the plot of the video game Final Fantasy X fondly, or at all, although the ending is very different, from a certain slightly twisted perspective Maddileh is Auron and the evil hierarch who turns out to be the villain of the piece is Maester Mika with all the same questions and a not all that different set of answers.

Which is really messing with my head a bit, because I was expecting that The Fireborne Blade was a standalone. It’s not. The second book in The Fireborne Blade series, The Bloodless Princes, will be coming in October – and I’m really, really curious to see how this manages to continue.

A+ #BookReview: Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas

A+ #BookReview: Fatal Enquiry by Will ThomasFatal Enquiry (Barker & Llewelyn, #6) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #6
Pages: 293
Published by Minotaur Books on May 13, 2014
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Brimming with wit, atmosphere, and unforgettable characters, FATAL ENQUIRY reintroduces private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewellyn, and their unforgettable world of Victorian London.
Some years ago, Cyrus Barker matched wits with Sebastian Nightwine, an aristocrat and sociopath, and in exposing his evil, sent Nightwine fleeing to hide from justice somewhere in the far corners of the earth. The last thing Barker ever expected was to encounter Nightwine again—but the British government, believing they need Nightwine's help, has granted him immunity for his past crimes, and brought him back to London. Nightwine, however, has more on his mind than redemption—and as Barker and Llewellyn set out to uncover and thwart Nightwine's real scheme, they find themselves in the gravest danger of their lives.

My Review:

Most of the entries in the Barker & Llewelyn series, at least so far, begin with Thomas Llewelyn in some kind of VERY hot water, in the middle of a case that we haven’t yet seen the beginning of. Then his narrative winds back and we get to learn how he got into the pickle we opened with and the game is afoot.

This time around doesn’t seem like it starts in that ‘usual’ fashion, as Llewelyn and his ‘Guv’, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker, are sitting peacefully in their offices negotiating the precise time at which Barker will let Llewelyn go for his half-day off.

Which is when the situation goes entirely pear-shaped, and they are suddenly on the run after a coded telephone call.

It’s not until somewhere in the middle of that run for their lives that the reader figures out that this was the standard opener after all. Because this is a pickle that Barker and Llewelyn have been in since the very first book in the series, Some Danger Involved.

Barker’s old nemesis, Sebastian Nightwine, has merely been biding his time – off running his usual con games somewhere out on the fringes of the British Raj – waiting for the right opportunity to bring him back to London where he can finally finish Barker off – once and for all.

Or at least that’s Nightwine’s plan – a plan which Barker must thwart to preserve his life, his reputation AND especially the lives of all those he holds dear – even as he is aware that on one count, at least, he’s already failed.

Each believes that the other is a pawn in their long game. Llewelyn, on the other hand, is certain that he’s a pawn in both their schemes. None of them are aware that they are all being played for fools, and that there is a puppet master operating in the wings pulling ALL of their strings.

Escape Rating A+: I knew when I started this book that it would finally break the two weeks of mostly ‘meh’ reading that’s been happening around here. And it absolutely did!

But there was one story during that ‘meh’ that did rise above, and that was “How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub”. You’d think that story and this book wouldn’t have much in common – but they actually do. Because underlying both stories, in spite of their very different genres, is a story about the excesses of empire, the lengths that those who are in charge or those empires will go to continue their expansion, and the desperation and necessity of those who stand in their way.

That it’s the same empire turned out to be utterly fascinating.

In this case, however, the sixth case that Thomas Llewelyn has written about his work and adventures with his boss and mentor, Cyrus Barker, the story starts out much closer to home when Barker and Llewelyn flee theirs in order to stay out of the hands of the police – who have been led astray, by a very roundabout route, by people with big dreams of empire and one man willing to exploit those dreams for his own gain.

A gain that is intended to secure Barker’s downfall and death. Poor Thomas Llewelyn is merely collateral damage in this chess game of a mystery, as Barker sets his lifelong adversary Nightwine up for a big fall even as Nightwine does the same to him.

Along the way, we – along with Llewelyn – learn a LOT more about Barker’s mysterious past. Because that’s where this case has its origins. At the same time we see the operations of the levers of power and privilege being moved by a con man running a game that is too tempting for even the savviest government officials to resist.

What makes the story rise to an A+, at least for this reader, was the delicious irony of the ending. Nightwine returns to London with deep, well-laid plans to eliminate Barker. Barker, forced to react rather than plan, still manages to maneuver Nightwine to what he believes will be his enemy’s downfall. It’s only after the results of that inevitable confrontation have been dealt with that Barker learns that both he and Nightwine have both been played by someone neither realized was even studying their board – let alone running it.

Someone who still has plans for Barker – or at least for Llewelyn – but only if this particular fly steps willingly back into the spider’s den.

I had a grand time with this entry in the series, so obviously I’ll be back to see Barker and Llewelyn try to get ahead of Jack the Ripper in the next book in this marvelous series, Anatomy of Evil, the next time I’m in the mood for murder – or just in search of a ripping good read!

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica Roth

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica RothWhen Among Crows by Veronica Roth
Narrator: Helen Laser, James Fouhey, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 176
Length: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When Among Crows is swift and striking, drawing from the deep well of Slavic folklore and asking if redemption and atonement can be found in embracing what we most fear.
We bear the sword, and we bear the pain of the sword.
Pain is Dymitr’s calling. His family is one in a long line of hunters who sacrifice their souls to slay monsters. Now he’s tasked with a deadly mission: find the legendary witch Baba Jaga. To reach her, Dymitr must ally with the ones he’s sworn to kill.
Pain is Ala’s inheritance. A fear-eating zmora with little left to lose, Ala awaits death from the curse she carries. When Dymitr offers her a cure in exchange for her help, she has no choice but to agree.
Together they must fight against time and the wrath of the Chicago underworld. But Dymitr’s secrets—and his true motives—may be the thing that actually destroys them.

My Review:

There’s an old Polish saying – not the one you’re thinking of, at least not yet – that translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of the first zmora that Dymitr approaches in regards to the very dangerous trade he wants to make.

The second zmora comes to him, because what he’s offering IS her cursed circus and those are her damned monkeys. Or, to be a bit more on the nose about the whole thing, it is her murder – or at least it will be – and those are her crows, who are already flocking to the scene.

Dymitr has acquired a legendary magical artifact that holds the possibility of a cure for the curse that Ala suffers from. A curse that killed her mother, her aunt, and her cousin, and is now killing her. A curse that will pass down her bloodline to the next female relative in line – no matter how distant – until the whole line is wiped out.

In return, Dymitr wants an introduction to another legendary ‘artifact’, the powerful witch Baba Jaga [that’s how her name is spelled in the book]. As merely a human, Dymitr does not have access to the places and people that will get him to his goal. As a zmora, while Ala does not know Baba Jaga at all, she does have contacts who can at least get Dymitr a few steps further along on the quest that he refuses to either name or explain.

Their journey proves to be a very different “magical mystery tour” than the one that the Beatles sang about, observing the different magical populations that have migrated to Chicago from his native Poland, and how each group abides by the proverb, “When among crows, caw as the crows do.”

The zmora, who feed on fear, operate movie theaters that feature horror movies, the strzygi, who live on anger and aggression, run underground fight clubs, while the llorona, who collect sorrow, own a chain of hospice centers. It’s all perfectly legal, or at least most of it is. And the parts that aren’t, the strzygi fight clubs, fit right in with the rest of the organized crime and corruption that operates in Chicago.

The supernatural have learned to caw like the crows do, the better to hide from the powerful so-called ‘Holy Order’ that hunts down anyone and anything it deems to be ‘not human enough’. And isn’t that the most human impulse of all?

An impulse, and a life, that Dmitry is willing to cut himself off from – literally as well as figuratively – at any and all cost. Even the cost of the humanity that his family has held so dear over the centuries.

All he needs to do is find Baba Jaga – and pay whatever price she demands in order to cut the sword out of his back once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve frequently said that a story has to be just about perfect to make the leap from an A- to an A. This one absolutely did, and listening to the audio put it over the top into A+. With bells on. To the point where I have to restrain myself from just squeeing all over the place.

The tone of When Among Crows felt very much like ‘old school’ urban fantasy before it left its horror with mystery roots behind to fall down the paranormal romance rabbit hole. Not that I don’t love a good paranormal with a kickass heroine posed on the cover in an utterly impossible position, but those got to dominating the genre and that’s not all I wanted from it.

(The blurb implies a romantic relationship between Dymitr and Ala. Don’t be fooled, that is absolutely not what is going on here – and it shouldn’t be. The relationship they are scrabbling towards is family, that the pain they have both suffered, and from the same source, can lead to them finding the family ties that pain has cost them with each other.)

At the same time, the way this story drew in so many Slavic myths and legends that I itched for a mythopedia (I was driving, that would have had terrible consequences) reminded me, a lot and very fondly, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because that book gave me the same vibes – along with the same dilemma – and I listened to it well before the Annotated Edition was published. I won’t say that When Among Crows was better, because American Gods had a much larger scope, but for the smaller size of the package of Crows, it still managed to evoke that same sense of memory and wonder, that so much that is old and weird still walks among us hidden in plain sight – made all that much more poignant in that the place the weird is hiding is the darker corners of Chicago – a city that has always had plenty.

When Among Crows was utterly enchanting, and I was totally enchanted by it, staying up entirely too late to finish the audio because it was just that good. While the story was relatively short, it also went surprisingly deep, and then came around full circle in a way that surprised and delighted even as it led to a delicious sort of closure that I wasn’t expecting but utterly loved.