Guest Review: Sovereign by April Daniels

Guest Review: Sovereign by April DanielsSovereign (Nemesis, #2) by April Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, young adult
Series: Nemesis #2
Pages: 350
Published by Diversion Publishing on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Only nine months after her debut as the fourth superhero to fight under the name Dreadnought, Danny Tozer is already a scarred veteran. Protecting a city the size of New Port is a team-sized job and she's doing it alone. Between her newfound celebrity and her demanding cape duties, Dreadnought is stretched thin, and it's only going to get worse.
When she crosses a newly discovered supervillain, Dreadnought comes under attack from all quarters. From her troubled family life to her disintegrating friendship with Calamity, there's no trick too dirty and no lever too cruel for this villain to use against her.
She might be hard to kill, but there's more than one way to destroy a hero. Before the war is over, Dreadnought will be forced to confront parts of herself she never wanted to acknowledge.
And behind it all, an old enemy waits in the wings to unleash a plot that will scar the world forever.

I seem to be developing a pattern here; books that involve LGBTQ+ characters, somehow keep magically appearing in my inbox. I’m not complaining. [Editor’s note: I’ll take that as a sign to keep ’em coming. OK?]

Guest review by Amy:

A few months ago, Marlene sent me Dreadnought, the first work in this series, and I was impressed by author April Daniels’ debut book. Sovereign picks up at some time not-to-far in the future from the end of Dreadnought: our heroine Danielle is still a minor, and still wrestling in court with her parents for her emancipation. Meanwhile, the “cape” community of metahuman superheroes has begun to accept her, as she’s pulled off some pretty heroic saves for her community of New Port, with some help from the android Doctor Impossible, and her friend Calamity. But there is a looming threat out there in space, headed for Earth, which threatens to upset the normal order of things, and if someone tries to harness that threat, think of the damage they could do…

Escape Rating A: April Daniels continues to develop her chops as a writer, and her deeper exploration of Danielle and her friends is a strong point for her. In my review of Dreadnought, I called it a “rollicking adventure,” and this tale continues the tradition–there are a lot of subplots going on here, and keeping track can be a bit of a challenge if you’re not paying attention.

One of the high spots for me was Danielle’s relationship with Calamity. Our heroine has had the hots for her for a while, which was hinted at in the prior work, but Danielle was quite certain her feelings weren’t reciprocated, and as a result, she missed some useful clues. The ah-hah moment for her–and what follows–is really beautiful and tastefully done.

Another strong spot, in my mind, is in our cast of villains. There’s a stretch of time where it’s kind of unclear who or what our story’s antagonist is; the problem isn’t, of course, quite what it seems to be at first glance, and it’s only as things begin to unravel toward the end of the story, that you realize what’s really going on. The chief villains are appropriately nasty and fanatical, and when given the opportunity, treat Danielle with enough savagery that there’s no chance whatever they’ll be redeemable to the reader. As a mostly-invulnerable “tank,” Dreadnought is hard to harm, physically, at least in a permanent sense. Instead, they find a way to attack her that prods at the core of who she is. Reading that section of the story was particularly stress-inducing for me, as they were pushing a button that affects me, as well. I was pleased to see how Dreadnought escaped the villain’s clutches!

In the end, we have a “Chekhov’s Gun” situation:  That thing this villain said, while they were doing this and that? It’s important, and when you put all the pieces together near the end, that’s when you realize just how important. This level of foreshadowing is a step up for author April Daniels, as I didn’t notice that in the last book. In a book 70-ish pages longer than the last one, she’s managed to fit in a lot more story, and it’s wrapped up nice and neat at the end, with no leftover story to tell.

I’ll be watching for more great stories from April Daniels, either in Dreadnought’s world, or whatever new worlds she may choose to create for us.  Sovereign is a fantastic second effort from her, well worth a read.

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire BoothThe Branson Beauty (Sheriff Hank Worth, #1) by Claire Booth
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #1
Pages: 310
Published by Minotaur Books on July 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Branson Beauty, an old showboat, has crashed in the waters of an Ozark mountain lake just outside the popular tourist destination of Branson, Missouri. More than one hundred people are trapped aboard. Hank Worth is still settling into his new role as county sheriff, and when he responds to the emergency call, he knows he’s in for a long winter day of helping elderly people into rafts and bringing them ashore. He realizes that he’ll face anxiety, arguments, and extra costs for emergency equipment that will stretch the county’s already thin budget to the breaking point.
But he is absolutely not expecting to discover high school track star Mandy Bryson’s body locked inside the Captain’s private dining room. Suddenly, Hank finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, with the county commissioner breathing down his neck and the threat of an election year ahead of him. And as he wades deeper into the investigation, Hank starts to realize he’s up against a web of small town secrets much darker and more tangled than he could have ever imagined.
In her captivating debut novel, Claire Booth has created a broad cast of wonderfully compelling characters, and she perfectly blends humor with the emotional drama and heartache of a murder investigation.

My Review:

The Branson Beauty is an old paddle-wheel showboat, and the book about the events of her last cruise will stick the reader as fast between its pages as the poor old boat is stuck to the shoal its grounded on.

It really was supposed to be a “three-hour tour”, so when the Branson Beauty runs aground, and her passengers find themselves stranded aboard for much, much longer, the number of rescue workers who end up humming the Gilligan’s Island theme seem inevitable. Also hilarious.

But Sheriff Hank Worth stops finding any humor in the situation when he discovers the ship’s captain comatose and locked inside his piloting cabin. The situation turns downright grim when the Sheriff discovers the dead body of a local track star locked inside the captain’s private dining room.

Mandy Bryson was supposed to be away at college in Norman Oklahoma, running track and studying English at Oklahoma University, not dead on an aging cruise ship with finger-shaped bruises clearly circling her throat.

Worth is literally the new sheriff in town. When the previous sheriff moved up to the state legislature, his term as sheriff needed to be filled. Hank, an experienced officer from Kansas City, thought he was ready for a management role. He was certainly ready to move from KC to Branson, where his father-in-law was available to serve as a live-in babysitter for Hank and his wife Maggie’s children. Maggie is on constant call as a surgeon in the local hospital, and Hank’s hours as sheriff are far from predictable at the best of times. Her father needs a bit of their help, and they need heaping helpings of his.

Between the grounding of a local institution, and the murder of a home-town heroine, Hank has his hands overfull. This is his first homicide in Branson, and the first local homicide in a long time that wasn’t a screamingly easy case to solve of drug deals gone wrong or domestic battery gone deadly.

This case is a puzzle from beginning to end, not because the victim had no enemies, but because there are too many competing means, motives and even crimes for Hank to zero in on what parts thwarted young love, stalking, affluenza and insurance fraud played in Mandy’s death.

Or perhaps all of them did.

Escape Rating A-: This one grabbed me from the first undertone hum of “a three-hour tour” and didn’t let me go until I turned the final page. The mystery at the heart of this story kept me turning pages every spare minute all day long.

And that mystery is convoluted as it unfolds, but makes complete sense once it is all revealed. It kept me guessing from beginning to end. The red herrings are all delicious, and all the more convincing for often being partially correct while not necessarily contributing to the solution of the whole.

The author also does an excellent job of conveying the depths of the grief and sadness that consumes not just the family but the whole small community when a young and promising life is cut short so senselessly.

But The Branson Beauty, in addition to being a crackerjack mystery, is also the first book in a new series, and has to introduce its setting and its characters, preparing readers for the stories yet to come. We need to learn who these people are, and why we should care about what happens to them.

In that regard, The Branson Beauty is off to a good start, but there is plenty of work yet to do. This case is overwhelming, and Hank Worth is often overwhelmed by it as well as the responsibilities he has taken on as the sheriff of Branson. He’s still adjusting to his new job and to the small town politics he now must contend with. When his appointment is up in a few short months, Hank will need to run for re-election. To do that he not only has to please his constituents, but has to learn to play with the politicians who are both his peers and his rivals, and in some cases even his bosses. The county commissioners, after all, set his budget.

So while there’s a murder to be solved, that’s not the only crime that Hank uncovers, nor is it the only trail he has to follow. Some of those trails lead him into the murky undergrowth of political corruption and influence peddling, and the reality that the county’s biggest employer has too many ways of influencing people and institutions to look the other way as he bends and even breaks the law. Hank has a tough road ahead of him, and he’s only taken the first steps – possibly even the wrong ones.

The one place where The Branson Beauty needs a little work is in the development of the characters who inhabit Hank’s world. Only one member of his police force stands out, and only because she seems to be the lone female in the ranks, even if she is Hank’s second-in-command. Likewise, it took me quite a ways into the book to figure out whether the female at home Hank referred to was his wife or his daughter, and what she did and where she fit. (It’s his wife and she’s as overworked as he is) I left the story still not certain what the precipitating event was that sent Hank and Maggie to Branson, but I know there was one. I’m looking forward to discovering the answers to all these questions and more in future books. The next book in the series, Another Man’s Ground, is already on my reading schedule this month.

While the boat may have run aground, the story never does. It chugs along quickly and compellingly from its comic opera beginnings to its inevitably sad but ultimately satisfying resolution. I can’t wait to see what mystery Hank has to solve next.

Review: Betrayal at Iga by Susan Spann + Giveaway

Review: Betrayal at Iga by Susan Spann + GiveawayBetrayal at Iga (Shinobi Mystery #5) by Susan Spann
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Shinobi Mysteries #5
Pages: 256
Published by Seventh Street Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Autumn, 1565: After fleeing Kyoto, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo take refuge with Hiro s ninja clan in the mountains of Iga province. But when an ambassador from the rival Koga clan is murdered during peace negotiations, Hiro and Father Mateo must find the killer in time to prevent a war between the ninja clans. With every suspect a trained assassin, and the evidence incriminating not only Hiro s commander, the infamous ninja Hattori Hanzo, but also Hiro s mother and his former lover, the detectives must struggle to find the truth in a village where deceit is a cultivated art. As tensions rise, the killer strikes again, and Hiro finds himself forced to choose between his family and his honor."

My Review:

From the very beginning of this series, all the way back in the marvelous Claws of the Cat, I have been itching for the story of the first meeting between Hiro Hattori and Father Mateo. And while I didn’t get it in Betrayal at Iga, the story does get a lot closer to the source of their partnership, that old contract between Mateo’s secret (presumably) benefactor and Hiro’s shinobi (read as ninja) clan.

Someone, somewhere, still unknown, was willing to pay a lot of money to contract with one of the two greatest shinobi clans to keep the Portuguese missionary alive. That contract has saved Mateo’s life over and over again, even as it has endangered Hiro’s, generally at the same time. In Betrayal at Iga, Hiro has been forced to bring Mateo to the seat of his clan’s power, in order to keep him alive after the tumultuous events of The Ninja’s Daughter.

(If you are getting the hint that this series is best read in order, that is one of the correct things to glean from the above. Also, the whole series is just damn excellent, so if you like historical mysteries, the whole thing is well worth reading. Period. Exclamation Point.)

The stakes are higher than ever in this fifth book in the series. Hiro and Father Mateo have arrived at Hiro’s home just in time for negotiations of an alliance between Hiro’s clan and the rival Koga clan. The clans are not currently at war, but not exactly at peace, either. Rivals seldom are.

Both feel as if peace is being forced on them from outside. Shinobi are always outsiders, samurai who are not acknowledged as samurai, trained in the shadow arts of espionage and assassination. Most shoguns hire them at need and otherwise leave them alone. But in the current political upheaval, both clans are all too aware that the new shogun, brought to power in a bloodbath, seeks to control all not currently under his sway. The shinobi clans’ independence is at stake, as is their livelihood and their very lives. Only by banding together will they be strong enough to resist the shogun’s iron fist.

But the negotiations are threatened from within. In the opening moments of the welcome feast, just as Hiro and Mateo arrive at Hiro’s childhood home, one of the rival negotiators dies of obvious poison in front of the entire assembled clan. In a household consisting entirely of assassins and practiced poisoners, every single person in attendance knows the result of poisoning when they see it spew in front of them.

In order for the negotiations to continue, someone must pay for the all-too-obvious crime. If the real killer is not found, the person who pays with their life will be the one who prepared the feast, even though the poison could not possibly have been contained within. That person is Hiro’s mother Midori, and Hiro can’t let her die, no matter how willing she might be to sacrifice herself to save the family’s honor.

It is up to Hiro and Father Mateo to find the real murderer, and the true motive for the murder, before his mother is forced to ritually kill herself. And before someone gets away with murder. But in a household of assassins, everyone is more than capable of the crime. Hiro has many too many suspects, and time is running out.

Escape Rating A: The best detectives are often outsiders. And in all of their previous cases, Hiro and Mateo have definitely been outsiders, Mateo by culture and Hiro by profession. But every once in awhile, it can be illuminating for the detective in a series to find himself all too much on the inside of a crime that he is investigating, where he already knows all the players and has previously formed opinions of the possible suspects. That is certainly the case in Betrayal at Iga, where Hiro is back at home, and the most likely suspects seem to be his mother, his grandmother, his cousin and his former lover. He comes home and into the middle of the mess with preconceived notions about all of them, and not all of those notions are to either his or the potential suspect’s benefit.

At the same time, the crime has to make some kind of sense, and it just doesn’t. Or at least not for any of the members of the Iga Ryu (clan). His cousin Hanzo wants this alliance – and killing the members of the Koga delegation guarantees it will fail. Hiro’s mother, grandmother and former lover are all capable of the crime, but none of them would commit it without Hanzo’s orders as clan head. Which it made no sense for him to give. One of the women could be a traitor, but even Hiro’s jaundiced opinion of his ex makes that extremely unlikely.

None of the obvious suspects benefits – so who does? And therein lies the key to solving the mystery, in spite of all of Hiro’s many distractions.

This peek inside the closed world of the shinobi provides fascinating insights into Hiro’s history and character, as well as an absorbing mystery that seems perfectly set in its time and place. If you enjoy historical mysteries or historical fiction that provide windows into times and places that might not be familiar, this series is a treat from beginning to end. Start your trip back in time with Claws of the Cat.

I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next stage of Hiro and Mateo’s journey, hopefully next summer.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I love this series, so I am very happy to be able to give away a copy of Betrayal at Iga to one lucky US or Canadian commenter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Dark Saturday by Nicci French

Review: Dark Saturday by Nicci FrenchDark Saturday (Frieda Klein, #6) by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: thriller
Series: Frieda Klein #6
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Thirteen years ago eighteen year old Hannah Docherty was arrested for the brutal murder of her family. It was an open and shut case and Hannah's been incarcerated in a secure hospital ever since.
When psychotherapist Frieda Klein is asked to meet Hannah and give her assessment of her she reluctantly agrees. What she finds horrifies her. Hannah has become a tragic figure, old before her time. And Frieda is haunted by the thought that Hannah might be as much of a victim as her family; that something wasn't right all those years ago.
And as Hannah's case takes hold of her, Frieda soon begins to realise that she's up against someone who'll go to any lengths to protect themselves . . .

My Review:

Dark Saturday is a chilling and compelling psychological thriller. So chilling, in fact, that I don’t recommend staying up until the wee small hours to finish it in the dark. So compelling, that I know the above fact because I got so caught up in it that I stayed up until after 2 am to finish it – then couldn’t fall asleep for another hour. You have been warned!

This is a story about the miscarriage of justice, and the lengths that people will go to in order to make sure that justice stays miscarried. It is also, and just as many of the chills come from this direction, a story about the excesses that a person can be carried to in the throes of obsession.

Dark Saturday is really two stories. One is the story of Hannah Docherty, and that story is complete within Dark Saturday. The other story, which in its way is even more chilling than Hannah’s, centers around Frieda Klein herself.

Hannah’s story is brutal. Thirteen years ago, Hannah, then not yet 20, was convicted of killing her mother, father and little brother, leaving the kind of blood-soaked murder scene that still fuels the nightmares of the cops who saw it, even after all these years. Hannah was sentenced to a brutal psychiatric hospital, where both the staff and her fellow patients, utterly certain of her guilt, punish her every single day.

But the lead detective on Hannah’s case is now under a cloud of suspicion. It has been discovered that he certainly cut corners on some of his cases, and now all of his cases are under that cloud. They might all be righteous, but once a cop bends the law, everything he’s done comes into question.

That’s where Frieda comes in. She’s a psychotherapist, and Hannah Docherty is now certifiably insane, whatever she was all those years ago. Frieda is asked to look into the case, to make sure that if there were any irregularities, Hannah isn’t going to blow the whistle on them. Nobody wants a mass murderer back out on the streets.

Of course, Frieda doesn’t see things quite that way. She goes in with an open mind, and discovers both that there were irregularities by the bucketload in the original investigation – and that the entire hospital is failing to meet even minimum standards of care for Hannah. Even beyond that, the guards and nurses look the other way while the inmates regularly beat Hannah – then refuse to take care of the damage that has been caused.

If, as Frieda begins to suspect, Hannah is not guilty of the crime she was convicted of, then there are a whole lot of people who will need to examine their consciences to discover who the real monster in this situation is. And some of them are more monstrous than others.

But waiting in the shadows lurks a bigger monster than anyone involved in Hannah’s case. Frieda believes that someone is stalking her, just waiting to kill again. Everyone believes he’s dead, and that Frieda just can’t let go.

It’s true that somebody can’t let go, but it isn’t Frieda.

Escape Rating A: I read this in a single day. At bedtime, I was just so into it, I couldn’t stop reading, so I didn’t. Just after 2 in the morning, I turned the last page and was completely blown away. Also chilled to the bone. Hannah’s case is disturbing enough, but the ending, and what it portends for the next book, Sunday Silence, gave me creeps that still haven’t gone away.

I read the first book in this series, Blue Monday, back in 2012 and absolutely loved it. I was looking forward to the next books in the series, all of which I have, but it fell into the “so many books, so little time” vortex and I never got back to them. I need to go back, when I get over the shakes.

The story in Dark Saturday (titled Saturday Requiem on its original release in the UK) is and is not complete in and of itself. Hannah Docherty’s case begins and ends in this book. But, and it felt like a pretty big but, the overall story of Frieda’s personal monster seems to haunt every single book in the series. And it felt like there were a lot of events in the previous books, especially Friday on My Mind, that impacted events in Dark Saturday.

I was still completely absorbed in Dark Saturday, but I think there were details that probably didn’t creep me out enough because I hadn’t read the earlier books. And I’ll admit that’s a rather scary thought. I didn’t need to be creeped out anymore than I already was – but it still feels like I missed a whole lot of nuances.

One of the reasons this one haunts is because it both is and is not what I expected halfway through. It’s fairly obvious early on that Frieda believes that Hannah is innocent of the original crime. And that Frieda is probably right, partly because she knows what she’s doing, and partly because, well, this is her series and the protagonist is usually right in the end. And in mysteries in general, the murderer is never the obvious person. At the time the original crime occurred, Hannah was the obvious person, so it must not have been her. But the way the case resolved did surprise me, and added to the sense of miscarriage of justice that permeates this story.

Just as I said in my review of Blue Monday five years ago – read this one on a sunny day. You’ll need the warmth – and the light.

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Review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Review: Four Princes by John Julius NorwichFour Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe by John Julius Norwich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on April 4th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Europe, 1491 to 1500 was an exciting time to be alive. The entire continent was overshadowed by four rulers, all born within a ten-year period:
King Francis I of France, the most interesting of the quartet, bursting with energy and swagger, was a great patron of the arts and the personification of the Renaissance.
King Henry VIII of England—who was not born to be king but embraced the role with gusto—broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and made himself head of the Church of England.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the civilized world, obsessed with the religious disputes of Europe, was leader of the Spanish and then Roman Empire.
Suleiman the Magnificent, the richest of them all, stands apart as a Muslim, who brought the Ottoman Empire to its apogee of political, military, and economic power, as well as to the golden age of its artistic and architectural prowess.
Never before had humankind seen such giants coexisting. Against the rich background of the Renaissance, they laid the foundation for modern Europe. Individually, each man could hardly have been more different. Their mutual relations shifted constantly: often they were actively hostile and occasionally they were friendly. There was a healthy respect between them; never did one make the mistake of underestimating another. And together, they dominated the world stage.

My Review:

I know that this isn’t quite my usual, but, once upon a time, back when I was about 12, I saw the movie Anne of the Thousand Days. It was a very, very fictionalized account of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. And for some reason, I was absolutely fascinated.

Not by the so-called tragic romance, but by the time period. I was just old enough to develop an intense fascination with history, and for years after seeing that movie I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on about the Tudor period, eventually expanding into the Plantagenets and the early Stuarts.

I also wasn’t too particular about whether the book was fiction or nonfiction. If it was within my reasonable comprehension, I comprehended it. It was also during this time that a friend’s mother gave me a copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, one of those book relationships for which I will be forever grateful.

It was my abiding interest in all things Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart that led me to both Dorothy Dunnett’s sprawling, compelling, immersive Lymond series and eventually to Outlander. For a movie that wasn’t actually all that good, at least according to the critics, it cast a surprisingly long shadow over my reading life.

But I digress.

It’s been a long time since that deep dive into English history, but when I saw Four Princes up on Edelweiss, it just called to me. This was that period, and it looked like a bit of “once over lightly” of both the English history that I remembered so fondly and the greater European history that it touched on but generally did not explore.

And so it proved. I expected to kind of “dip into” Four Princes for the parts I recognized. Instead, I found myself absorbed, reacquainting myself with history I knew, and filling in so much that I glossed over back then.

One of the reasons that history often fascinates, at least part of why it fascinated me, was that it seemed like the right person (sometimes the wrong person) in the right place at the right time could have an immense impact on present and future events. That has often seemed less true in our times, although recent events have shown that the wrong person in the right place at the right time can still have an immense negative impact on the world. But in this very accessibly written history, we see that impact, not just how it occurred but also what it accomplished – and what it failed to accomplish.

We tend to think of kings (and queens) and historical personages in general as old and grey, not because they were born old, but because by the time they are famous and their portraits got painted, they generally were, as the saying goes, in the autumn of their lives, if not downright close to midwinter. As the play Hamilton hints at, while we may remember the U.S. Founding Fathers as old men in white wigs, at the time of the Revolution they were, for the most part, young. Except for Benjamin Franklin – he HAS always been old. 😉

What Four Princes brings to the fore is that in the first half of the 1500’s, the monarchs of the four great powers, England, France, the Holy Roman Empire (which, as we know, was neither holy nor Roman nor exactly an empire) and the Ottoman Empire all came to power within a decade of each other and were all, in fact, born within a decade of each other. Which means they were all young together, all took their thrones young and together and spent all of their respective reigns dealing with each other in particular, and not just that their countries worked for or against each other with different people at the helm each go around.

And for the most part, they all knew each other. Henry of England, Francis of France and Charles of the Empire had all met and were all related to one degree or another. Suleiman the Great was the outlier, most mysterious and least known in Europe – no matter how much or how often he threatened it.

And they each had outsized and long-lasting impacts on their respective countries, if not on each other. In their half century, Henry created the Church of England, Francis began the religious persecutions that stained so much of its history, and both Empires reached the heights of their powers – heights they never attained again.

Reality Rating A: If you have an interest in European history, or enjoy reading history in an accessible style (or honestly, if you know a student who needs to read a relatively short history book that is actually good to read) Four Princes is excellent. It made me remember why I was so fascinated with this period, and has gotten me hooked all over again.

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris Ripper

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris RipperKith and Kin by Kris Ripper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: family saga, M/M romance
Pages: 438
Published by Brain Mill Press on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

What does it mean to have a family?
Singer and Lisa Thurman did everything right for their entire childhood. Their mother wanted a perfect life, and they knew how to fit that vision. Then they grew up. Singer came out of the closet and Lisa joined a cult. Singer and his partner are adopting a son. Unfortunately, all that practice being the perfect child didn't prepare Singer to be a merely adequate father. Lisa's just trying to get through the day. After three years in a cult, it’s almost impossible to leave her bedroom, so redemption is going to have to wait.
What does it mean to be a family?
When their mother shows up and attempts to reclaim the illusion of her perfect family,  old lives clash with new ones. Recovering from perfection is messy, complicated, and fraught, but the riotous clan that rises from the ashes is full of joy—and the best kind of trouble. A groundbreaking, honest, and provocative novel, Kith and Kin is contemporary family drama that grafts an entirely new species of family tree.
Family is what you make of it.

Guest review by Amy:

Singer Thurman and his long-time partner, Jake Derrie, have been looking to adopt a child for a while. This isn’t as easy for a gay couple, even in California, where they live, as it is for straight couples, but they’re making progress. Singer, who grew up in a very ordinary, mom-and-dad-and-two-kids family, is still adjusting to life with the Derrie clan, a boisterous and diverse bunch. Our tale opens with a knock on the door: Singer’s sister, Lisa. Having recently left a cult, Lisa is not in any kind of normal head space, and Singer immediately offers her the guest bedroom, for as long as she needs it.

Then Social Services calls; they have a foster placement that could easily become permanent.

Then Singer’s too-helpful, too-obtrusive mother shows up.

Escape Rating: A+. I want to be able to wax poetic about how this couple overcomes great hardship in some fashion to be able to adopt a child and forge a family out of the crucible of great tribulations. I’d love to be able to say how cool it is that we’ve got this book with so much diversity baked into it–an asexual heteroromantic, a gay white couple who adopt an African-American child and start going to a church with the baby’s grandmother, an older empty-nest couple rediscovering themselves and starting over. I’d be thrilled to tell you about the inspiring, uplifting moments in this book, the moments that show love winning over all adversity in the end. And Kith and Kin has all that, or I wouldn’t mention it. That kind of writing makes for exciting reviews, and makes everyone feel good.

The thing is, when I read this story, all of the people that author Kris Ripper shows us are…normal. Ordinary humans, with fears and wants and loves and desires just like the rest of us. Yeah, there’s a boisterous asexual woman who splutters around when she comes out to her friends, and our story focuses on a gay couple, but this doesn’t feel like “LGBTQ+ fiction” to me, at all. This is a story of a diverse group of family and friends, (some of whom are in the LGBTQ+ space) who are dealing with the struggles in their lives, and trying to make things better.

Jake and Singer struggle with their relationship dynamic when a new baby comes into the family, they fret about how to help Lisa, they’re exasperated by Mrs. Thurman’s self-centered antics, everything you’d expect. From cover to cover, once you figure out the big framework, this is a “slice-of-life” story, utterly predictable to the very end. Is that a bad thing? Quite the opposite.

In its ordinary-ness lies the great strength of Kith and Kin; it’s a tale we can “belong” in, a story that could just as easily be mine, or yours, or Marlene’s, or anyone else’s. This is a story about the struggles of real people. Watching Singer, who has always been so confident in so many ways, falling apart with all the stressors he suddenly faces, is such a familiar thing for me that I cried with him. When I watched him struggle to try to make sense of things, I struggled with him. When I saw Frankie trying to sort out her own asexuality, I blustered with her as she tried to explain it to friends and family. When Emery was trying to explain his kinkiness to Lisa, and trying not to scare her away from a relationship with him, I could feel his tension about it. The ending, of course, sees them all making progress, and solving things, just like you and I do, and the tale ends on a strong up-note. What makes this story great is that, almost certainly, you’ll find something in these pages that you identify with, even in the smallest way, and suddenly you become a fly-on-the-wall of a life that could just as easily be your own.

Here’s an example. Singer’s friend Kara (who has adopted multiple children with her husband, Vic) gives him a snippet of advice not too unlike the speech that my own mother gave me when my oldest daughter was small, and I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified:

But then I realized we’re all the same. All of us. The parents who have no problems conceiving, the parents who have their kids taken away, the parents who voluntarily surrender, the parents who are grandparents and aunts and uncles, and the parents who adopt. We’re all equally unqualified, and our kids need us anyway. Do the job. There’s no glory in it, most of the time, but I wouldn’t give up this family for any family I could have had in a different way, Singer, no matter how hard it was, how many tears I cried, how many times I hated myself, or hated Vic, or god help me, hated my kids…That’s the speech I wish someone had given me, in the black moments, when I felt like we were at a dead end.

See what I mean? Kith and Kin is overflowing with such moments; people talking to each other–or themselves–and working through the normal chaos of being an adult human, with the help of their loved ones. There are no amazing heroes here, no evil villains, no grand adventure, no impressive magic, no geeky science, no great mystery to solve. Just…people. People who could be any of us. For that reason, I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard GoldbergThe Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on June 6th 2017
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1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

My Review:

This book is absolutely charming, and I was utterly charmed.

The title does give just a bit of it away, as well as the reason why I picked it up in the first place. I find Sherlock Holmes pastiches completely irresistible, and with that title, well, it couldn’t be anything but. The protagonists of this lovely little mystery are the esteemed Dr. John H. Watson, friend and chronicler of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, his son, John H. Watson the younger, also a physician, and Mrs. Joanna Blalock, the aforementioned daughter of the, by this point in time, late and very Great Detective.

This is story for those who love the Holmes stories, but don’t mind playing a bit with the stories and the characters. While the mystery itself is a callback both to The Adventure of the Dancing Men and particularly to The Adventure of the Empty House. This case in our present story parallels much of Empty House, most especially in their villains. Just as our detective is Holmes’ daughter, our villain is Sebastian Moran’s son.

And Inspector Lestrade’s son is now himself a Scotland Yard detective. And the son is just as willing to let an easy solution lay, and to allow Holmes’ daughter to solve the case while he takes the official credit, as ever his father was with hers.

Some things never change, and that is definitely part of the charm of this story.

The case itself stems from the Second Afghan War, where Watson Sr. and both Morans served. (A war that seems to never end. Dr. Watson in the contemporary Sherlock series was also wounded in the Afghan War).

But in this case, a young man appears to have committed suicide while playing cards with Dr. Christopher Moran, and losing disastrously. His family does not believe that it was suicide, even though they absolutely cannot believe that their son’s good friend Dr. Moran could possibly have had anything to do with it.

Mrs. Joanna Blalock, a friend of the family, finds herself at Dr. Watson’s door, which is still 221b Baker Street, in search of assistance with the case. Watson knows precisely who she is, and is more than willing to assist her in her endeavors, first by cudgeling his memory, and second by assisting her with her case – with the help of his son, who is smitten with the young widow.

As the case unravels we follow this intrepid trio, as chronicled by Dr. Watson the younger, as they form a tight-knit partnership and eventually solve this string of terrible murders that would have all passed as accidents without their timely assistance.

The case is a worthy successor to the canon from which it sprang.

Escape Rating A-: This was the right book at the right time. The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes was calling my name from the top of my TBR pile, and I simply decided to answer the call. I fell right into this Edwardian continuation of the Holmes stories, and I sincerely hope that there are more.

As far as the Holmes canon goes, it has to be said that this story ignores the events of His Last Bow, the final Sherlock Holmes story which is set on the eve of the First World War. The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes is set in 1910, and by this point in its history, Holmes has been dead for several years.

But one part of the canon that is surprisingly tastefully handled is the birth, or rather the creation, of his daughter Joanna. Yes, Irene Adler was her mother. It’s nearly always Irene Adler when someone tries to continue the Holmes tradition by providing him with a child. The problem is that Holmes in the original stories is such a cold and seemingly unemotional character. It is difficult to imagine that thinking machine indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, let alone having a torrid, or even a tepid, affair.

The problem is often handled by changing some of the nature of Holmes, making the actual person of Holmes a considerably warmer character than the fictional version, and this is not implausible. The author of this story takes another tack. Here, we have Joanna as essentially the product of a one-night stand between two lonely people who mostly valued each other for their minds. It feels more plausible than some of the other possibilities.

One of the other parts of the story that is handled well is the inclusion of both Drs. Watson. Watson Sr. is in his 80s, and time and age are catching up to him. But he lives at 221b and occasionally helps people who still drop by searching for Holmes. It is not an attempt to recapture past glory. Instead, as he says himself, it is out of a desire to remain relevant. The case presented by Joanna Blalock provides him with that. It takes all three of them to solve this puzzle and Watson Sr. feels not merely relevant, but invigorated. It was good to see this often undersung sidekick get one last chance to shine.

I truly hope that this is the start of a series, because I want MORE!

Review: Lockdown by Laurie R. King

Review: Lockdown by Laurie R. KingLockdown: A Novel of Suspense by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Bantam on June 13th 2017
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A classroom is held hostage by someone with a thirst for revenge in this stunningly intricate, ripped-from-the-headlines novel of rich psychological suspense from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell mysteries.
Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School: a day given to innocent hopes and youthful dreams. A day no one in attendance will ever forget.
New York Times bestselling author Laurie R. King is an award-winning master of combining rich atmospheric detail with riveting, keen-edged mystery. Now, in her newest standalone novel of psychological suspense, King turns her sharp eye to a moment torn from the headlines and a school under threat. A year ago, Principal Linda McDonald arrived at Guadalupe determined to overturn the school's reputation for truancy, gang violence, and neglect. One of her initiatives is Career Day--bringing together children, teachers, and community presenters in a celebration of the future. But there are some in attendance who reject McDonald's bright vision.
A principal with a secret. A husband with a murky past. A cop with too many questions. A kid under pressure to prove himself. A girl struggling to escape a mother's history. A young basketball player with an affection for guns.
Even the school janitor has a story he dare not reveal.
But no one at the gathering anticipates the shocking turn of events that will transform a day of possibilities into an expolsive confrontation.
Tense, poignant, and brilliantly paced, Laurie R. King's novel charts compelling characters on a collision course--a chain of interactions that locks together hidden lives, troubling secrets, and the bravest impulses of the human heart.

My Review:

Lockdown was a surprise. In the end, it was nothing like I expected. Also, in the end, absolutely fascinating. Just not in the way that I expected at the beginning.

I was not expecting Holmes and Russell. Not that I wouldn’t love another entry in that series, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Instead, Lockdown is a story that starts out slowly and picks up steam, much as Guadalupe Middle School Principal Linda McDonald starts her day out early but slowly and ends with an exhausted rush at the end of this long and very surprising day.

It’s Career Day at Guadalupe, and Linda expects something to go wrong. Because, well, middle school. Take a whole herd of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, all rushing headlong into puberty at varying rates, mix well and throw them all together into a single steaming pot. It’s a guaranteed recipe for trouble at the best of times and in the best of places. The San Felipe neighborhood that Guadalupe serves is neither. And the varying differences of circumstances and misery that surround the students reflects both on their hyper-hormonal age group and the mostly working class racial melting pot neighborhood that surrounds them.

And in the middle of it all are two long-simmering tragedies. At the beginning of the school year, sixth grader Bee Cuomo went missing, and has neither been found, seen or heard from in the months since. And last year gang-leader Taco Alvarez murdered Gloria Rivas in cold blood, witnessed by two of Guadalupe’s students – Gloria’s sister Sofia and her friend Danny Escobedo. As the school prepares for Career Day, Taco’s trial is also proceeding, while his young cousin, still a Guadalupe student, tries to figure out what he owes to a cousin he both fears and worships.

But as the day moves forward and winds up to its explosive conclusion, the story peeks into the lives of every standout character in the school. That exploration begins with the Principal and her husband, from their surprising meeting in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to his rather murky past as a gun-for-hire. But everyone involved has secrets of their own, from the janitor who keeps the school running in some mysterious ways to the Coach who tries his best to save young boys before their eyes go completely dead to the students themselves.

They say that all happy families are alike, but that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own ways. And we see that here as their worlds collide with explosive violence, and it all goes wrong. But some things, after all, go right.

Escape Rating A-: At first, I wasn’t sure where this story was going. Based on the blurbs, it was pretty obvious that it was going to end in a school shooting, but I’ll admit to being completely misled about the shooter and their motivation until the very end.

And it does go slowly at first. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of tiny, individual portraits to sort through. At the beginning it felt as if the only characters we lingered on long enough to get a clear picture were Linda McDonald and her very mysterious husband Gordon Kendrick. Through Linda’s memories, we see their first meeting, and it’s obvious from the very beginning that Gordon has a very big secret that is finally catching up with him. It takes a while before that secret finally bites him in the ass, and the way that it happens just adds to the drama.

There are a lot of threads to this story. As the focus shifts from person to person, we see the way the wind blows. But there is more than enough misdirection for the reader to think that the explosion is coming from a completely different direction than it actually is.

The school is faced with so many crises, and both the students and their guardians have so many violent secrets. It’s not surprising that something erupts, only the how and the when are mysterious. Even the why becomes a bit obvious early on, or at least the reader thinks it does.

I went down the wrong path for a long time, and at the end was forced to back up and see where I missed the fork in the road. The misdirection was very well done.

While in her Career Day speech McDonald focuses on all the threads that make up the school and its community, the story is about all the threads that make up the tragedy and its aftermath. Once Linda’s day, and the story, get going, it’s impossible to stop until the end.

So I didn’t.

Review: Silver Silence by Nalini Singh

Review: Silver Silence by Nalini SinghSilver Silence (Psy-Changeling Trinity, #1; Psy-Changeling, #16) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: , Psy-Changeling #16
Pages: 464
Published by Berkley Books on June 13th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh returns to her extraordinary Psy-Changeling world with a story of wild passion and darkest betrayal...
Control. Precision. Family. These are the principles that drive Silver Mercant. At a time when the fledgling Trinity Accord seeks to unite a divided world, with Silver playing a crucial role as director of a worldwide emergency response network, wildness and chaos are the last things she needs in her life. But that's exactly what Valentin Nikolaev, alpha of the StoneWater bears, brings with him.
Valentin has never met a more fascinating woman. Though Silver is ruled by Silence--her mind clear of all emotion--Valentin senses a whisper of fire around her. That's what keeps him climbing apartment buildings to be near her. But when a shadow assassin almost succeeds in poisoning Silver, the stakes become deadly serious...and Silver finds herself in the heart of a powerful bear clan.
Her would-be assassin has no idea what their poison has unleashed...

My Review:

An answer to entirely too many of the questions, problems and issues in the entire Psy-Changeling series boil down to the truism that “human beings suck”. This isn’t a criticism of the series, merely an observation, because, after, all, human beings do suck. And for all of their differences, all of the races in this series, whether Psy, Changeling or original recipe human, are still all variations of human, and human beings suck.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, there’s a reason for the rant within the story. So much of the non-romantic action in Silver Silence is a response to some particular human beings sucking very, very much.

Silver Silence, as the first book in the Psy-Changeling Trinity sub-series, follows the events in Allegiance of Honor, and everything that led up to this point. What was once a world with three separate and equally distrustful if not equally powerful factions is beginning to coalesce into the alliance brought about by the Trinity Accords.

The Psy, the Changelings and the Humans, at least through the loose coalitions that speak for each group, are determined to work together for the greater good. And for the continued survival of all three.

But there is an awful lot of bloody water under the damn bridge, and there are a lot of very wary members of all three groups. Particularly the humans. The Changelings and the Psy, while always distrustful of each other at best, always did have somewhat equal power. Changeling minds are immune to Psy interference. But humans, less physically threatening than the Changeling and always open to mental interference from the Psy, have a lot to forgive, particularly of the Psy. Changelings mostly left them alone, while the Psy have spent a century plucking advances out of the minds of humans, keeping those advancements for themselves and breaking the human’s minds in the process.

All too many of the Psy were a force that lived up to the old maxim about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. No one could stop them, so they felt empowered to do whatever they damn well pleased to whoever they could.

Those days are over. Not necessarily or always out of altruism, but because the PsyNet that all Psy must connect to in order to remain healthy and function is itself sick. By walling themselves off from human emotions in specific and humans in general, the Psy have closed off a necessary safety valve for the PsyNet’s sentient mind. Psy need humans (and changelings) to willingly form bonds with them, and those bonds can’t be coerced. Without those bonds, without the breaking of the Silence conditioning that keeps them emotionally barren, the Psy will all die, but not before going on a psychopathic rampage of planet-wide proportion.

So the seemingly all-powerful Psy, whether reluctantly or willingly, must cooperate and intermingle with the Changelings and the humans. But it is in all three groups’ best interests to learn to get along. They each have something that the other lacks, strengths that the others need, and weaknesses that the others can shore up. Now that they are not all out to merely exploit each other. Business is still business, and that’s fair. But they’ve all finally acknowledged that they have to work together or things will get very, very ugly, and it won’t necessarily be anyone in particular’s fault. Once you start treating groups as “the Other”, bad things happen to both parties.

And that’s where this story comes into the whole. The Human Alliance, led by Bowen Knight, is willing to work with the Psy and the Changelings on an equal footing. There is still some distrust, but it is reasoned and reasonable distrust. But there are other human agencies working in the shadows who condemn any human who works with the others as either under Psy influence or a traitor to their race. (And haven’t we all heard those words before?)

The shining symbol of interspecies cooperation is Em-Net, a global crisis response team that provides assistance to all whenever and wherever needed. And it is personified by its extremely capable director, the Psy Silver Mercant. So Silver is attacked by stealth, from the shadows, by a patient predator who wants to see Em-Net in disarray and unable to respond, while also crippling the future of the powerful Mercant family.

But Silver is not alone when she ingests the poison that has been lurking unsuspected in her stored nutrition packets. Instead, the Bear Alpha Valentin Nikolaev is in her apartment, attempting to bait her into an un-Silent response to his rather less-than-subtle wooing. Valentin rescues Silver, and sets the events of the rest of the story in motion.

Despite her being Psy, Valentin knows that Silver is his mate. And he will do anything to protect her and keep her safe. And if that anything includes taking her to the Denhome and giving her ample opportunities to fall for both him and his clan, so much the better.

But Silver has a secret weakness, and not just her weakness for slightly clumsy Alpha Bears. Silver’s Silence conditioning is failing, and her growing emotional connection to Valentin is breaking her already vulnerable walls. But that conditioning, the Silence that keeps her ice cold and unemotional, is also the only thing keeping her alive.

Escape Rating B+/A-: This one came out right on the border between B+ and A-. I loved the relationship between Valentin and Silver. We watched it build from very small pieces into something big and wonderful and, at times, tissue-grabbing tragic. There is so much love and fear and hope built into their story, and that was marvelous.

There were also some fascinating reactions/revelations on the parts of Silver’s grandmother Ena and her brother Arwen. The Mercant family, for all of their reputation as ice-cold operators, clearly has never been completely Silent. We’ve seen other Psy families where loyalty comes to serve in place of love, and provides many of the same motivations that love does, but this is the first time we see love expressed within a Psy family, even though the words are never said. Not just that Silver loves her E-designation brother Arwen, for whom emotion is strength, but also the love between Silver and her grandmother Ena.

Valentin’s bear clan, even with the tragedy currently darkening its heart, is always a joy. Bears are real charmers, especially the cubs. And the story needs the lighter moments that they bring.

But the thing that kept this story at the border for me were the two unnamed human evil-doers who operate from the shadows and propel much of the political action of the story. They are both definitely evil. They both hate Psy, and to a lesser extent, Changelings. They both have a “Humans First” agenda that they are willing to press forward with mass murders. And they are both fanatics who are willing to murder massive numbers of humans to prove that Psy can’t be trusted, an irony which is totally lost on both of them.

They are not the same person and many of their goals and methods are not completely aligned. But as the story progresses and we get small glimpses from their own perspectives about their thoughts and motivations, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. I think one of them is exposed by the end, but because they were so amorphous and so much alike, I’m not sure who, or which, or completely if.

None of which changes the fact that I love this series, and can’t wait for the next installment. Hopefully next summer and not any later.

But I have one final comment. The covers for the US editions of this series are never as good as the UK editions. The US covers are often vaguely “cheesy”, and sometimes not even vaguely. Or, are just blah, as this one is. The UK covers are crisp and evocative portraits of the hero, and they just work. See for yourself.

US Cover
UK cover