Review: Insurrection by Nina Croft

Review: Insurrection by Nina CroftInsurrection by Nina Croft
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera, vampires
Series: Dark Desires Origins #3
Pages: 384
Published by Entangled: Amara on October 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Malpheas is one of the most powerful demons from Earth, but when he wakes up from cryo on the other side of the galaxy, he notices something is wrong—he’s human. Oh, hell no. In order to get his powers back, he must remove the sigil on his arm by carrying out three good deeds. But acts of kindness aren’t exactly his strong suit. Working undercover as a security officer investigating a suspicious death, he’s assigned to work with Hope, the most softhearted woman he’s ever met. If she can’t teach him how to be good, no one can.
Hope is in a pot of trouble, and if anyone finds out what she did, that pot would quickly boil over. She just needs to lay low until she can figure out a way to fix this mess. But when she’s ordered to show Mal the ropes and introduce him to everyone, sorting out her problems becomes impossible. Mal is sexy as sin, broody as hell, and believes she can help him change his bad-boy ways. Fine. If that keeps him from discovering her ties to the rebellion, she’ll teach him how to be a perfect angel.
As they work together, though, it becomes clear that Hope isn’t the only one with a hidden agenda, and their irresistible attraction to each other just adds fuel to the fire. When secrets are exposed, they must make the impossible choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary.
Light meets dark, good meets evil…and love can hurt like Hell.

My Review:

At the end of Insurrection, it feels a bit like the circle just got squared. Or it feels like the series has either come to a conclusion or is headed for one. It kind of depends on whether you boarded the ship on the way to the Trakis system at the beginning of the Dark Desires Origins series in Malfunction, or whether you’ve been aboard for the whole wild ride starting at the very beginning in Break Out.

Because at the end of Insurrection, while we aren’t exactly where we were at the opening of Break Out, we can certainly see that beginning from here. The pieces that we picked up then are just about in place now, which makes a certain kind of sense as the Dark Desires Origins series, which began with Malfunction and was followed by Deception, seems to be heading towards its conclusion here in Insurrection.

Break Out, the first book of the Dark Desires series, takes place several centuries after the events in Insurrection. Events that are so far back in the rearview mirror that they’ve taken on the patina of myths and legends – even though Rico Sanchez lived through it all, as we’ve seen in this prequel series.

But then Rico has lived through a LOT of human history – even though he is no longer exactly human himself, and hasn’t been since the Spanish Inquisition. While no one expects the Spanish Inquisition in the first place, even less do they expect to meet a vampire who began hunting the night at that same time.

The premise behind the entire Dark Desires and Dark Desires Origins series is that Earth was well on its way to becoming uninhabitable, so a fleet of sleeper ships left the dying planet for what would hopefully be greener pastures.

Or at least pastures less fucked up by humans. At least not yet.

In the series that seems to conclude with Insurrection (I could be wrong about this being the conclusion but it feels close) we watched the maneuvering and the finagling, the bribery and the theft, as the places that should have been assigned by lottery were instead filled with the rich and the powerful. While Rico Sanchez bought, bribed or murdered his way into filling half of one ship with his own people. Not just vampires, but also shapeshifters and other things that go bump in the night, including one warlock (his story is in Deception) and one of the seven lords of the Abyss, more colloquially called Hell.

The demon Malpheas just so happens to be the warlock’s father. True to his demonic nature, Malpheas is used to getting his own way, reigning from the top of the heap, and killing anyone who gets in his way. In other words, he’s an entitled alphahole with the power to back it up.

Power he has been cut off from by the time Rico wakes him from cryosleep at the beginning of Insurrection. Malpheas has to commit three “good deeds”, definition rather nebulous, before he’ll have access to all his powers again. The curse he has to labor under is one last “present” from his old frenemy Lucifer.

All Mal has to do is figure out what “good” means, keep the humans on the other ships from discovering just what Rico has been hiding aboard his own ship, and plot and scheme to take over everything once he’s managed to beat the curse.

Unless Mal learns the lesson that his curse is trying to teach him, first.

Escape Rating A-: Now that I’ve finished Insurrection I have the strongest urge to go back and reread the expanded version of Break Out again. It feels so much like this story puts all the pieces in place for that one, and I want to check just how well it did.

This also feels like a great place to end the Dark Desires Origins prequel series, as we’ve seen in detail just how much the humans of the Trakis expedition brought humanity with them, very much warts and all. Readers who began this journey with Malfunction will leave Insurrection primed and ready to see where things have ended up by the time of Break Out, while readers who boarded this flight there will be sorely tempted to see how well the ends meet.

I’m not sure that readers who start here will be completely satisfied. On the other hand, their appetites may be whetted well enough to tempt them to read the entire series from start to finish!

In addition to all of the historical and human – or human-ish – pieces being put in place for the story to continue in that already explored future, one of the reasons that this story read like so much a part of the original book was that both deal explicitly with the problems not of mortality but of immortality.

The process that is discovered on Trakis Seven makes people practically immortal, just as Rico’s vampirism does. People who have gone through the process CAN be killed – decapitation is always an option – but don’t die from disease or accidents or even extreme old age.

The problem with immortality is that the human lifespan is meant to be finite. Psychologically, we need purpose and surprise and a whole bunch of other things that stop being important if one knows one literally has all the time in the universe. Time enough to have been there and done that for every possible thing one could be or do. It gets boring.

In Break Out, Rico may be a bit bored, but the people who have gone through the Trakis immortality treatment are getting really, really bored. And jaded. Just as the immortal demon, Malpheas has gotten bored and jaded with his already extremely long life.

So the romance in this story is wrapped around Malpheas experiencing the old curse of “may you live in interesting times.” As an immortal demon with all his powers, he can make whatever and whoever he wants happen. Nothing is interesting. With his powers locked away, he’s just human. A big, strong, and very sexy human, but human nonetheless. Everything is frustrating. Everything is weird. Everything is fascinating. His times are suddenly very interesting indeed in a way that he hasn’t experienced for a very long time. For Malpheas, the curse has become a blessing.

And the biggest part of the blessing is Hope Featherstone. Not just because she’s nice and she’s pretty, but because she’s real and so are all her emotions. She may want the big, sexy beast, but she doesn’t actually like him all that much. She also finds him surprisingly resistible, and that’s something Mal has never experienced in his life. He has to become a better person to have a chance with her.

That he discovers that she’s not nearly as good as she appears makes them perfect for each other. Now they just have to survive the mess that both their secrets have gotten them into. And get themselves as far away as possible from the brave new world being established – because it’s already every bit as FUBAR’d as the old world they left behind.

Because of the situation on Trakis Four at the end of this book, this feels like the end of the Dark Desires Origins series. But it may not actually be the end. It was great fun to go back to the beginning, to see how the situation we saw in Break Out came to be, with paranormal beings from Earth flying spaceships in a far-flung corner of the galaxy. I never expected to read about vampires in space but I’m certainly glad I did.

This was a fitting sendoff for the whole thing, as not only do we see how things got to be the way they were, but the ending puts a fair amount of focus back on the character most of us fell for at the beginning, vampire and captain Rico Sanchez. It’s been an exciting ride from beginning to end, and I’m glad I took the trip.

If the author ever chooses to return to this universe I’ll be right there.

Review: Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman

Review: Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne FeldmanSisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 400
Published by Mira on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Inspired by real women, this powerful novel tells the story of two unconventional American sisters who volunteer at the front during World War I
August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort--Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.
Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war's harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.
Illuminating the critical role women played in the Great War, this is a remarkable story of resilience, sacrifice and the bonds that can never be vanquished.

My Review:

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” The quote is by William Tecumseh Sherman. While Sherman was referring to the American Civil War, it is just as germane to World War I, and indeed any war either before or since.

Sisters of the Great War focuses on, not those who fired the shots, but rather those whose duty it was to hear the shrieks and groans of the wounded. Those who were tasked with the duty of transporting the wounded from the “front” to the makeshift hospitals nearly always inadequately staffed with doctors, nurses and orderlies who did the best they could with what little they had to patch them up if they could, invalid them out if they could not, or at least give them as much peace and surcease from pain as possible as they died.

Ruth and Elise Duncan represent two of those women. Ruth as a nurse, and Elise as an ambulance driver and mechanic. The story in Sisters of the Great War is the story of service on the front lines of that hell, undertaken with a lot of pluck, a great deal of stubbornness, and no small amount of naivete as a way of escaping privileged but unfulfilled lives under their father’s dictatorial thumb.

In Baltimore. In the United States. In 1914. Three years before the Americans entered the war. They volunteered, not really knowing, as no one did in 1914, that the war was going to take four long years of trenches and gas and devastation. Ruth left behind her father’s stern disapproval in the hopes that somehow, someway, serving as a nurse in wartime would give her the experience and the attitude needed for her to live her dream and become a doctor.

Elise just came along to keep her sister safe. Not that, as it turned out, safety was what either of them was built for. Nor was there any safety to be had in hospital tents or in barely functioning ambulances that were shelled almost as often as the trenches.

This is a story of perseverance in the face of bombs, shells and prejudice, railing against the lice and the substandard food and the even worse conditions and the sheer bloody-mindedness required to do not nearly enough with not nearly enough in order to save as many as possible – even if that wasn’t nearly enough either.

But they tried their best. They kept trying in the face of all the odds. And in the end, it was enough.

Escape Rating A: There have been plenty of stories featuring women who served in World War I as nurses or ambulance drivers. I can think of three off the top of my head; Phryne Fisher, Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. (It may or may not be a coincidence that all lead mystery series.)

But the thing that struck me about all three of those heroines in comparison to Ruth and Elise Duncan is that in all three of those cases, in spite of the war being a critical part of each of their experiences, the brutal, devastating, depressing horror of the experience itself is a bit glossed over.

Phryne firmly keeps herself from looking back at her experience as an ambulance driver, while Maisie’s wartime experience effectively occurs between stories. Even Bess Crawford a nurse in a forward aid station, just as Ruth Duncan is at the beginning of her career, seems to carefully glance away from the worst of the gore in the operating theater to focus on the more individual gore of the murders that Bess uncovers.

What feels singular about Sisters of the Great War is that it uses Ruth’s and Elise’s slightly separated perspectives to put the nearly neverending horrors of the war and the desperation of the health care workers attempting to save them in the center of the story.

We’re with them every draining, numbing step of their way. We feel for them and with them and it makes their experience searing and horrifying and so very human. They’re both trying so hard and it’s never enough and they keep doing it anyway. We can’t turn our eyes away from their story – because they didn’t.

And yet, they’re not superhuman. We see their hopelessness and their fears and their exhaustion and we’re with them.

But because the story doesn’t gloss over just how much hell this war is, it’s a hard book because their experience, and the entire experience of that war, was so very hard and so deeply dark.

Not that there aren’t light moments in the story and in their hopes for the future – even as both of those things are full of fear. Ruth may have volunteered to escape their father, but she is also following the man she loves. Elise finally admits the truth of her own heart, and lets herself fall in love with another woman in spite of the censure they will face.

They do emerge from their war, bloody, often literally, and not either unscathed or unbowed. But they find the light at the end of their long dark tunnel and the entire experience makes for an extremely compelling read.

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis ZarateThe Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, David Bowles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, horror, vampires
Pages: 196
Published by Innsmouth Free Press on January 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.
It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.
He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides.
Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.
The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

My Review:

Everyone thinks they know the story of Dracula – and we all do. Sorta/kinda. Not necessarily because we’ve read the original but because we’ve seen one or more variations of it. The Count’s story is part of the cultural zeitgeist. We ALL know who he is.

(If you haven’t read the original, it’s available in ebook free from your local public library AND from a host of online retailers including Amazon. If you want to get the flavor of the story there’s also an excellent full-cast recording by L.A. Theatreworks that I highly recommend – especially for Halloween.)

But one of the things that gets lost in adaptations of the original work is that Dracula is an epistolary novel. It’s a story told in documents – not just letters but also newspaper accounts, diary entries and, as expanded upon in The Route of Ice and Salt, the terse entries in the captain’s log of the ship that brought Dracula’s crates of Transylvanian soil to Britain. And, unbeknownst to the captain and crew of the Demeter, Count Dracula himself.

Not that the captain doesn’t eventually find out about the vampire – just before he dies.

However, The Route of Ice and Salt is not a retelling of the original Dracula story. Rather, it’s an illumination and expansion of a dark and hidden place in that more famous tale. In the original, we read the terse prose of the captain’s official log. We learn that when the ship reached its destination, the crew was missing, presumed dead. And the unnamed captain was discovered lashed to the wheel of his doomed ship with a rosary clutched in his cold, dead hands.

This is his story.

Escape Rating A-: Dracula may be the entry point for this story for many readers, but the Count isn’t exactly THE point of the story. The Route of Ice and Salt is cult classic of Mexican fantasy, first published in 1998 by a small comic book publisher that didn’t survive its attempt to jump from comic books to prose. This is the first translation of the work into English, and it’s a creeping fever dream of a story that picks up on themes that were subtext in Dracula – and other early vampire stories – and moves them from subtext to explicit text.

The still-unnamed captain of the Demeter is gay, horny and has very explicit thoughts and feelings about his crew that he keeps to himself in the dark of the night but never indulges. For reasons that have explicitly to do with keeping discipline aboard the ship, maintaining the chain of command and the acknowledgement that his crew can’t really give consent because he’s their master while they’re aboard.

And that, if they report him to the ship’s owners when the Demeter is back home, he’ll not just be fired – he’ll be prosecuted, imprisoned and quite possibly killed. Just as his first lover was – something that he is still blaming himself for years if not decades later.

That blame brings up a second theme, the question of what, and who is truly the monster in this or any other monster tale. The captain sees himself as a monster, both for his own part in his lover’s death and for the desires that his society and his church consider monstrous.

It’s only at the end that he comes to the liberating realization, in the face of a literal bloodsucking fiend who has murdered his crew, that he is not a monster at all – no matter what anyone else might say.

But those aren’t reasons to read The Route of Ice and Salt. As much as it has to say in its own subtext, it’s the way that it says it that are the reasons to read the story.

This thing is creepy as hell. If you like horror of the creeping, crawling, looming variety, if you enjoy that sensation of drowning horror as you read deeper into something that you know is going to keep you up half the night, this is an excellent story of that type. I finished at 2 am and I honestly should have waited until morning because it left me seriously creeped out.

The language of the story is beautiful. At times it’s lush and poetic, and then it turns sharp as a knife – or a tooth. I suspect it’s even more lyrical in the original Spanish but the translation is quite lovely. In that aspect it reminds me of Nothing but Blackened Teeth although their language and vernaculars are literally at least a century apart. But still, that same sense of sinking into a pool of beautiful words – only to have the story almost literally jerk you down into its depths of nightmarish horror.

If you’re looking for a truly creepy Halloween read, take The Route of Ice and Salt.

Review: Scandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly

Review: Scandal in Babylon by Barbara HamblyScandal in Babylon by Barbara Hambly
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Silver Screen Historical Mystery #1
Pages: 240
Published by Severn House Publishers on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


"You shall never have a penny of my money. Leave me alone or I will shoot you dead!"

1924. After six months in Hollywood, young British widow Emma Blackstone has come to love her new employer, glamourous movie-star Kitty Flint - even if her late husband's sister is one of the worst actresses she's ever seen. Looking after Kitty and her three adorable Pekinese dogs isn't work Emma dreamed of, but Kitty rescued her when she was all alone in the world. Now, the worst thing academically-minded Emma has to worry about is the shocking historical inaccuracies of the films Kitty stars in.
Until, that is, Rex Festraw - Kitty's first husband, to whom she may or may not still be married - turns up dead in her dressing room, a threatening letter seemingly from Kitty in his pocket.
Emma's certain her flighty but kind-hearted sister-in-law has been framed. But who by? And why? From spiteful rivals to jealous boyfriends, the suspects are numerous. But as Emma investigates, she begins to untangle a deadly plot - and there's something Kitty's not telling her . . .
This gripping first in a brand-new series from NYT-bestselling author Barbara Hambly brings the sights and sounds of Hollywood to life and is a perfect pick for fans of female-fronted historical mysteries set in the roaring twenties.

My Review:

Welcome to Hollywood, circa 1924, in the heady days before the content crackdown of the Hays Code, and just a few short years before Al Jolson’s famous line in the original Jazz Singer, when the audience first heard an actor in a movie say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Movies may not talk yet, but everyone in the movie industry, from the gossip columnists to the extras, certainly has plenty to say. And as our story begins, they’re all saying it about silent screen temptress Kitty Flint – better known to her legions of fans as Camille de la Rose.

Kitty’s sister-in-law, the young widow Emma Blackstone, isn’t so much a fan as she is a personal assistant, general factotum and confidant to the woman who rescued her from desperation in the form of serving as a paid companion to an ill-tempered, irascible old woman who was driving Emma into an early grave. Literally.

After six months in Tinseltown with Kitty, Emma isn’t sure whether she’s happy or not, fulfilled or not content or not, but she’s sure that Kitty needs her and that taking care of Kitty and her three spoiled Pekingese, writing last-minute scene treatments for Kitty’s movies, has both exhausted her and given her a new lease on life.

At least until someone ends up dead in Kitty’s dressing room, with Kitty unwilling to reveal her alibi – probably because she was two-timing at least two of her powerful and well-heeled lovers with a handsome stagehand. Or so Emma believes, because that’s par for Kitty’s behavior even at the best of times – which this certainly is now.

The dead body belongs to Kitty’s long-absent husband. Or possibly her ex-husband. But whether or not a divorce ever occurred is not the biggest problem that Kitty has to deal with when it comes to her first husband’s death.

He died in her dressing room. He was shot with her gun. She has no alibi. When the police discover sloppily concealed threatening letters between Kitty and Rex, it’s a foregone conclusion that Kitty will be arrested for his murder.

The gossip columnists are going to have a field day. The fire-and-brimstone preaching protestors that surround the studio thank heaven for the ammunition in their fight to censor the movie industry. Kitty’s rivals start circling her like sharks who have spotten chum in the water.

But Emma isn’t so sure that the whole thing adds up nearly as well as the corrupt and incompetent police would like to believe it does. The setup for the crime is meticulously planned. The execution of the crime – and of Rex Festraw – is incredibly sloppy. It doesn’t make sense that Kitty did it, to the point where any competent lawyer is going to get her off – if this case ever comes to trial.

It’s a magician’s trick. Distract the audience with something big and flashy over here, so no one looks at what’s really going on behind the curtain – or under the hat – or being pulled from the magician’s sleeves.

It’s up to Emma to figure out just who the magician is behind this particular trick and why they are out for Kitty – before it’s too late.

Hollywood movie studios, 1922

Escape Rating A: Scandal in Babylon is simply a delicious read on so many levels. It’s such a juicy, gossipy story, and even if all the characters are fiction, it’s impossible not to wonder if they’re more “fictionalized” than truly imaginary. Certainly there were plenty of real-life scandals in Hollywood in the 1920s, and every decade thereafter, to make this fictional portrayal of that imaginary world wrapped in a fake world keeping the real world at bay feel, well, real.

Emma and Kitty are both survivors, and that’s a big chunk of what bonds their relationship. Emma is English, grew up in the household of an Oxford don, assisted her father with his research into ancient civilizations, attended Oxford herself and planned to follow in her father’s footsteps. Then the war happened and the flu epidemic of 1918 followed on its heels. By the time Emma recovered from her illness her young husband was dead on the battlefields, as was her brother, and her parents were carried off by the flu. She was alone and destitute, the last survivor of a veritable shipwreck that took her family and her future.

Kitty ran away from home, a wild child who made terrible choices in men and jobs and everything else but who kept picking herself up and reinventing herself until she found Hollywood – the ultimate reinvention machine.

Emma and Kitty are holding each other up in more ways than one. But it’s clear that Emma is the brains of this outfit, and it’s her brain that’s needed. She’s the first person who sees the puzzle, and she’s the one who eventually solves it.

But as fascinating as the mystery is – and it certainly is that, complete with oodles of misdirection and a whole net full of tasty red herrings – it’s the portrait of Hollywood in the 1920s, as the star making machinery is being exploited and invented with each new day and new film and new star that makes this story sing and dance.

Even if Kitty can do neither. She doesn’t really need to. Movies haven’t become talkies yet. And whatever Kitty lacks in acting talent, she makes up for in sheer star power. Kitty has “It” whatever “It” is. It’s up to Emma to make sure that she gets to keep it.

One last thing – as I was reading Scandal in Babylon, and wading through all the many scandalous events it touches on, there were three books that it reminded me of, one of which I had to hunt for a bit.

Even though it’s a different war and a different aftermath, Emma Blackstone and Gwen Bainbridge from The Right Sort of Man by Allison Montclair would have gotten along like a house on fire. A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, is set more than a decade later during the filming of Gone with the Wind, but it has a similar feel to it. A story about Tinseltown and its scandals and gossips, as seen through the eyes of someone close to the action but not directly a part of it. And last but not least, The Pirate King by Laurie R. King, set in the same period as Scandal in Babylon and displaying the rackety nature of the fledgling movie industry while murder travels in the wake of an utterly farcical production. One even more farcical, in its way, than the historical farce, Temptress in Babylon, that Kitty is filming.

Scandal in Babylon is billed as the first book in a new Silver Screen Historical Mystery series. While this particular case is over, the way that the story wraps up does leave room for Emma to find herself in the middle of another investigation. And I certainly hope that turns out to be the case!

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra KhawNothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal
Pages: 128
Published by Nightfire on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

My Review:

Four funerals and a wedding, not necessarily in that order. But…not necessarily NOT in that order. Or at least that’s what I thought might be the ending of this story as I was listening to it.

And drowning in it. Or being buried in it. Or both. Definitely both.

There are so many ways of looking at this bruisingly creepy, completely absorbing and utterly weird story. Especially as our point of view character, Cat, has such a history of mental and emotional damage that we’re never quite sure whether the story she’s relating is happening in the real world, whether the real is being viewed through a skewed and drunken lens or if the entire surreal experience is all just in her head.

At the same time, it’s also the kind of horror story that’s been heard and seen and done before. It could be something out of The Final Girl Support Group, except that Cat knows that if it is she’s not going to be the final girl.

After all, the damaged and the deviant always die first in those stories – and Cat is both. If the tropes get followed to their bitter end, the survivor of this tale is going to be golden boy Phillip. Unless this isn’t that kind of story.

Except when it is.

Five 20 somethings still clinging to their school friendship, in spite of the emotional baggage they gave each other then and throw at each other now, get together for one last attempt to pretend that they haven’t already gone their separate ways.

Three guys, two girls, an interwoven knot of friendship and rivalry with teeth and claws, gather in a haunted mansion to fulfill one girl’s dream of getting married in a haunted mansion. The darker it gets, the drunker they get, the more the fractures of their once tight-knit group come to the surface.

Letting the spirits of the house get into their heads, allowing the resentments they’ve hidden to surface, pushing them into a devil’s bargain with the house, the spirits, and each other.

Escape Rating A: This is a story of youth and hubris. They’re young, they’re still at the stage where they believe they’re immortal. Except for Cat. She knows it’s all an illusion, and that’s why she’s the narrator. She’s been on the outside looking in, on the group, on her own life. She sees beneath the surface of both her friends and the house they’ve paid to occupy for a few nights.

But the house is creepy in ways that get under everyone’s skin. Cat, who has studied the folklore that this place is straight out of and rotting into, knows in her gut that there’s something lying under the surface of everything. And knows that no one will believe her until it’s too late, because that’s how these stories go.

The bones of all the women who were supposed to have been buried alive in this place. Cat sees them, she hears them, and the reader wonders whether what Cat is experiencing is real or a hallucination or a fever dream. The language is creepy, lyrical and moving in ways that remind the reader of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-infused epic poetry.

And all of that works so incredibly well in audio. It feels like being inside the poem, inside the ghost story as it crawls around everything and everyone, sucks them under and starts to rot them from the inside. I read this book earlier in the year and it wasn’t nearly as good in my head as it was when the narrator put me in Cat’s head.

So if you’re looking for a creepy ghost story for this Halloween season, gather some friends and let Cat tell you one hell of a story.

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ KluneUnder the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, paranormal, relationship fiction
Pages: 373
Published by Tor Books on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.
Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop's owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.
But Wallace isn't ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo's help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.
When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

My Review:

To paraphrase a classic that isn’t nearly as different as you’d think, Wallace Price was dead: to begin with. He was also an asshole.

The first condition is beyond Wallace’s own ability to change. The second, surprisingly, not so much. But unlike Scrooge’s situation, the spirits aren’t capable of doing anything to change it, and it’s going to take a whole lot more than one single night.

I know that Scrooge isn’t the one who dies in A Christmas Carol, but he was certainly headed down that road before the spirits staged their one-night intervention. The parallels are way closer than I was expecting.

Because the story about what’s behind the whispering door – not exactly under because the door is on the ceiling – is definitely a redemption story. It’s just that this redemption takes place after Wallace Price has already died. Even if he initially doesn’t want to admit it. Or accept it.

The purpose of Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats is all about that acceptance. The redemption appears to be optional, but the acceptance, that’s required. Charon’s Crossing, pun and all, is a waystation for people who have died but who just aren’t ready to move on to their next great adventure – or the peace of the hereafter – or whatever happens next.

They need time, and that’s just what the people who make up Charon’s Crossing are there to provide. Hugo the ferryman, Mei the reaper, the irreverent Nelson who gives lessons in being dead, and Apollo the dog who won’t leave his person, not even after he’s supposed to have gone to the Rainbow Bridge, or wherever it is that good dogs go. And Apollo was, and is, a very good dog indeed.

The late and completely unlamented Wallace Price, one of the founding partners of the white shoe law firm Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington, is brought to Charon’s Crossing by Mei the Reaper on her first solo gig. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to be there, and he doesn’t want to accept that he’s dead.  He’s unwilling to admit that the life he barely lived is already over. And he’s still angry that his funeral was so poorly, and disrespectfully, attended.

But he’ll have all the time he needs at the tea shop to get over who he used to and learn to be who he should have been. Or so he thinks. And so Hugo hopes. Until the mysterious Manager comes to tell him that the found family he’s become a part of isn’t meant for him – no matter how much they’d love for him to stay.

So Wallace plans on one last hurrah. One final pleading before a being who is judge, jury and from a certain perspective, executioner. And it’s a doozy. The question is whether it’s enough.

Escape Rating A: Under the Whispering Door is a lovely book about the power of change and the two steps forward one step back of the process of making the attempt to change. In the end, I loved all the characters and especially the story about how they made their little found family pretty much in spite of themselves.

This is also one of the best “sad fluff” books you could possibly ever find, even though it does surprisingly manage to have a happy ending. It’s just that one person’s happy can also be another person’s letting go.

But I almost didn’t finish this. Actually the first time I read it I mostly skimmed it because the first third is hard going. Wallace Price really, truly is an asshole. Which means that the way the story is centered around him is a bit of a slog, because he’s more than a bit of a slog. And a bastard, and definitely a bastard.

To the point where the best parts of that first third are when Mei and/or Nelson get the best of him. Because Wallace SO deserves it.

So that first time I skimmed the book I missed a lot of what made it so good because I found Wallace so hard to care about. Or be in the company of. But when the audio popped up on NetGalley I decided to give it another try. And this time I fell kind of in love with the residents of Charon’s Crossing and Wallace’s redemptive story. Wallace may not just be “mostly dead” but actually all the way dead, but he still manages to get better. And isn’t that a trick and a half!

And in audio that slow but steady upwards climb captivated me and I loved every minute. Especially the times when Wallace really screws up – or gets screwed up and over – and I was laughing so hard I had to pull the car over to wipe my eyes.

One final set of thoughts. This is being marketed as fantasy because of the author’s previous work in the genre, like the lovely House in the Cerulean Sea, and because of the “I help dead people” angle. But if this is fantasy, it’s mostly of the magical realism variety, like the now-old movie Heaven Can Wait or the even older Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It’s fantastic but not fantasy as the term is generally used.

Instead, it’s more about Wallace’s developing relationships with his found family, the town that Charon’s Crossing is located in, and his growing romantic attachment to Hugo – and very much vice-versa.

At the same time, it feels like the story hints at deeper roots to the whole setup of the ferrymen and ferrywomen (ferrypersons?) and the somewhat supernatural organization that recruits them. The mysterious Manager reads like an avatar for the Horned God of ancient myth, someone like Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter or the Green Man or even Pan. But that’s all just a hint and if you squint you might miss it.

Besides those two movies, there are other stories that touch of bits of what this does. Peter S. Beagle’s classic A Fine and  Private Place is another story about redemption after death and living the life you’ve got to the fullest.

And I believe that Hugo, the ferryman and expert tea advocate, would have a great deal to share with Sibling Dex, the tea monk of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built, as both their stories, in spite of the separation of millennia, are about the joy of found families and the surprising power of a good, well-chosen blend of tea.

Review: Pets in Space 6 edited by Carol Van Natta

Review: Pets in Space 6 edited by Carol Van NattaPets in Space 6: A Science Fiction Romance Anthology by S.E. Smith, Veronica Scott, Honey Phillips, Carol Van Natta, Cassandra Chandler, J.C. Hay, S.J. Pajonas, Greta van der Rol, Deborah A. Bailey, Melisse Aires, Kyndra Hatch
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction, science fiction romance
Series: Pets in Space #6
Pages: 1329
Published by Pets in Space Books on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Pets in Space® is back for a new year of adventures!
Join the incredible authors in this year's Pets in Space 6 for another out-of-this-world adventure. This award-winning, USA TODAY Bestselling anthology is packed full ofyour favorite Pets in Space®. Featuring 11 original, never-before-released stories from some of today's bestselling science fiction romance and fantasy authors, Pets in Space 6 continues their vital support of Hero-Dogs.org, the non-profit charity that improves quality of life for veterans of the U.S. military and first-responders with disabilities. Don't miss out on this limited-edition anthology before it is too late!

THE STORIES
BEHR'S REBEL

Marastin Dow Book 2
by S.E. Smith
With the help of her two innovative pets, a human woman rescues an alien General and becomes part of the revolution he is leading.

STAR CRUISE: TIME LOOP
Sectors Romance series
by Veronica Scott
Reliving the same terrible day, Raelyn and her pet are in a race to save the interstellar cruise ship…

THE CYBORG WITH NO NAME
by Honey Phillips
Can a rogue robotic horse and a misfit mechanical dog protect a wounded cyborg and a lonely scientist from a vicious new enemy?

ESCAPE FROM NOVA NINE
A Central Galactic Concordance Novella
by Carol Van Natta
She's a space pirate with vital information. He's a wanted fugitive with enemies hot on his afterburner. Will their unexpected attraction survive escaping a dangerous asteroid mine in time to avert a war?

TRADE SECRETS
The Department of Homeworld Security Series

by Cassandra Chandler
She wanted to learn about aliens—and ended up uncovering their secrets!

SEE HOW THEY RUN
TriSystems: Smugglers
by JC Hay
Love blossoms in space, but can it survive being dragged back down to ground?

SURI'S SURE THING
Kimura Sisters Series
by S.J. Pajonas
In this best-friends-to-lover romance, workaholic Suri would rather be in space than deal with her ex-boyfriend. Will she be able to leave him behind and find love with her best friend instead?

THE THUNDER EGG
by Greta van der Rol
Can a freighter captain and an academic outwit their pursuers and get a little alien foundling back where she belongs?

WORLDS OF FIRE: METAMORPHOSIS
by Deborah A. Bailey
When an alchemy student is deceived into using her transmutation skills to assist a smuggling ring, will her gargoyle shifter mentor help her expose the criminals or turn her in?

STRANDED ON GRZBT
by Melisse Aires
Can a resourceful human trust the alien determined to help her and her companions?

ESCAPING KORTH
Before The Fall series
by Kyndra Hatch
An alien interrogator recognizes the human prisoner as his fated mate, leading to danger for both of them.

My Review:

Welcome to the latest iteration of the annual reading treat that is Pets in Space. It’s that time again, and the newest addition to the Pets in Space litter, clowder, herd or what-have-you of marvelous science fiction romance novellas where the pets steal the show will be released tomorrow, October 5, 2021.

It’s time for Pets in Space 6, and I already know that it’s every bit as big a winner as its earlier siblings.

The Pets in Space collections are always huge reading treats, and this year is no exception. There are eleven stories packed into 1,300 pages – that’s over 100 pages per story. So these are not exactly short stories. Rather they are all novelette or novella length.

So none of the stories are small. Some of the pets however – like the mice in one of my favorite stories this year – are a bit on the tiny side. But oh-so-cute all the same.

Because this collection is always a mega-treat, I always go into it with a plan of attack – and this year is no exception. The stories are always so good, and too much of a good thing can be wonderful, but these are always such lovely treats that I like to spread them out a bit over the year.

But first, that plan of attack. Because I definitely want to read some of the stories the moment I get the collection!

I start by looking for stories in worlds that I’m already familiar with. This year that meant Veronica Scott’s Sectors SF Romance Star Cruise: Time Loop. The series as a whole began with The Wreck of the Nebula Dream, but has evolved to cruise around the galaxy on a ship that is crewed and staffed by quite a few retired members of the military.

It’s a cruise ship. In space. Who wouldn’t want to take one of their cruises, in spite of some of the stranger and/or more dangerous things that happen aboard? I’d certainly sign up.

The events of the story in this year’s collection are both strange AND dangerous. Senior stewardess Raelyn Cantorini of the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr has a pet lizard from her homeworld. Eyn is bright and mischievous, as so many pets are. Eyn is also more intelligent than average, which just adds to the amount of mischief the little one can make. But when Eyn breaks a glass ornament that was supposedly an artifact of the Ancients who seeded the galaxy with life, Raelyn finds herself experiencing Groundhog Day. Not the day in February, but the movie, where life repeats the same day over and over until someone, in this case Raelyn, gets it right.

And saves the lives of everyone on the ship. If she can get someone to believe her before its too late.

Eyn’s mischief led me to feline mischief – not that I don’t see plenty of that in real life!

In Trade Secrets by Cassandra Chandler, a confessed space nerd girl learns that not only are aliens out there, but they are also living on Earth – with their ultra-intelligent, hypo-allergenic cats. Gwen points her hacking skills at an abandoned Mars Rover only to discover that lizard-like aliens have fixed and adopted the little machine. Which is very much against the rules – not that Gwen’s hack was any better. The aliens come to Earth to persuade Gwen to give up her recording – and end up taking her back to the stars.

Where the Star Cruise story reminded me a lot of the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity, Trade Secrets had the flavor of Earth Girls are Easy – which was a hoot and a half I still remember fondly.

Howsomever, as much as I’d love to go into space, and as easily as Gwen falls for her fated alien mate, much of the charm of this story belongs to the super-smart and super-cute “space cat” Bandit, along with his self-centered and destructive litter-mate Queenie.

After the cruise ship and the cats, I went looking for something cute and fuzzy to round out this portion of my SFR reading and discovered Positive, Negative and Monocle, the lab mice in See How They Run by JC Hay. This story is part of a series that sounds a bit like Firefly crossed with Sisters of the Vast Black, as odd a combination as that sounds. The engineers on the ship Sentinel of Gems, April and Baker, are friends who would like to be more. But Baker has a history of not letting herself get involved, and April has just learned that they may have a genetic time bomb ticking in their lungs. When Baker decides to save her friend by stealing a trio of lab mice from a high tech laboratory that studies just the disease that April fears they have, the situation goes pear-shaped at the speed of light. But while they are all in quarantine together, April, Baker and the surprisingly intelligent stolen mice, the humans figure out that it’s more important to spend what time they have together than to worry about how much time they might or might not have. Not that the mice won’t have plenty to say about that.

Escape Rating A: I love this collection. I love it for its size and its scope, for the endless hours of reading pleasure it gives me, for its promotion of great science fiction romance and SFR authors, and for its annual donations to Hero Dogs, a charity that raises, trains, and places support dogs with U.S. veterans and first-responders.

So this is a win-win-win. I get a great bunch of stories to read every year. A terrific charity gets a nice boost in donations and publicity. And now I get to pass all of that on to you! If any of the stories I’ve mentioned above appeal to you, or if you like the concept of Pets in Space, pick up a copy of this year’s collection and settle in for a long and glorious reading binge!

Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. HarrowA Spindle Splintered (Fractured Fables, #1) by Alix E. Harrow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Series: Fractured Fables #1
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow's A Spindle Splintered brings her patented charm to a new version of a classic story.
It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.
Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

My Review:

A Spindle Splintered is about the power of narrative to shape and warp people’s lives. And it’s about the power of sisterhood and friendship that helps them to break free.

Zinnia Gray is dying. For her, Sleeping Beauty is more than a myth or a fairy tale. It’s a dream of wish fulfillment. Sleeping Beauty went to sleep, and when she woke up her curse was broken and all was well.

Zinnia would be happy to sleep for a century if she could wake up and be healthy, with all of her loved ones around her. But it’s not to be, and she knows it. She has an incurable disease that is going to take away all the birthdays after this one.

Her best friend Charm is determined to give Zinnia the full Disney Princess Sleeping Beauty experience, complete with crumbling castle and defective spinning wheel. But the power of their friendship and the power of narrative and the multiverse turn out to be a whole lot stronger than either Zinnia or Charm could possibly have imagined.

Zinnia, like all the other Sleeping Beauties before and after her, pricks her finger on the spindle, but instead of sleeping for a century, Zinnia finds herself spinning out into the multiverse of all the Sleeping Beauties who have ever, or will ever, do the same.

Zinnia cries out through the multiverse, not for someone to save her, but for someone she can save. And her cry is answered in ways that Disney and the Brothers Grimm never imagined.

Escape Rating A+: First, this book is just plain wonderful. It’s a wonderfully twisted re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, and it’s a terrific story of friendship, sisterhood and agency. I always love it when the princesses save themselves – as they should!

Most of the reviews make a comparison between A Spindle Splintered and the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and that comparison is certainly there to be made. Just as Miles Morales teams up with variations of Spider-Man from across one multiverse, Zinnia teams up with Sleeping Beauties from myths and fairytales that spread across their multiverse.

There is, however, an element to A Spindle Splintered and the multiverse of Sleeping Beauties that wasn’t present in the Spiderverse. Come to think of it, there are two elements. One is that Spider-Man in all of his, her, and their incarnations, including Spider-Ham, is an active character with agency. Once that radioactive spider bites their victim, the resulting Spider-person becomes an active force for good.

Sleeping Beauty is a passive character. Her fate is to prick her finger and sleep for a century, only to be woken up by a kiss. She’s the progenitor of the woman in the refrigerator trope. She’s not even the protagonist of her own story.

But the original point I wanted to make about the royalty of princesses (yes, royalty is the collective noun for a group of princesses) who would be Sleeping Beauty is that many of them, and clearly the ones who answer Zinnia’s call, don’t want to be Sleeping Beauty. They are being forced or coerced or shoved into the role by the power of the narrative to shoehorn people into predetermined patterns or tropes. It’s a concept that has been used to power entire stories or series like Second Hand Curses by Drew Hayes, the Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey, and the Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman. The force of narrative, of its need to recreate timeless stories by shoving people into roles they don’t want in order to fulfill its directive, makes A Spindle Splintered a powerful story because we already know how the story is “supposed” to go and want to see it subverted.

And it’s wonderful – especially when all the Sleeping Beauties carry off the princess and save the day, not just for her, but for each other as well.

Speaking of stories that could use a different ending, the Fractured Fables series will continue next summer with A Mirror Mended. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, will Zinnia Gray save the sorceress or take a really big fall?” Or both. We’ll see what we see when we look in that mirror.

Review: Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley

Review: Gutter Mage by J.S. KelleyGutter Mage by J.S. Kelley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fantasy and hardboiled noir in this fast-paced, twisting tale of magic, mystery, and a whole lot of unruly behavior.
In a kingdom where magic fuels everything from street lamps to horseless carriages, the mage guilds of Penador wield power equal to the king himself. So when Lord Edmund’s infant son is kidnapped by the ruthless Alath Guild, he turns to the one person who’s feared by even the most magically adept: Rosalind Featherstone, a.k.a. the Gutter Mage.
But as Roz delves into the circumstances behind the child’s disappearance, she uncovers an old enemy from her traumatic past and a long-brewing plot that could lead to the death of countless innocents, as well as the complete collapse of Penadorian society itself!

My Review:

Is it still urban fantasy if it isn’t set in our world? That’s a question I’m still very much puzzling over after finishing Gutter Mage, because this story has all the gritty, noir feels of urban fantasy, even if the cities of Drusiel and Monaxa are in a place called Penador and nowhere in the world we know.

Not that Drusiel, in particular, doesn’t remind me of other gritty fantasy cities, like Kirkwall and Ankh-Morpork, places where trouble brews in back alleys, disreputable taverns, and in the halls of power and powerful guilds alike.

The story of the Gutter Mage begins in the only disreputable tavern that has not yet barred Arcanist Rosalind Featherstone from its dingy but not disgusting premises. Roz is the Gutter Mage herself – but she’ll deck you if you call her that. Or set you on fire. Or both. Probably both.

Roz is a mercenary, an investigator into magic gone wrong, and a woman who seems to be doing her best to destroy herself one brain cell at a time. She is most emphatically NOT a mage – because the powerful mage guilds threw her out on her ear when her mentor abused her in the worst way possible.

He turned her into a weapon of fire. And she burned him to death for it, along with every other mage who participated in the ritual that put fire literally in her hands.

But someone has kidnapped a nobleman’s newborn baby for a magical ritual that isn’t supposed to exist. Then again, when Roz investigates, it starts to look like the baby doesn’t exist either. And on Roz’ other burning hand, it looks a lot like her former mentor is alive, and well, and planning to enact a ritual that is supposed to be a myth and an allegory, and not a real ritual at all.

Just like the one that put the fire in Roz’ hands. This time, her old nemesis has much bigger plans. He’s not just going to screw up one person’s life – he’s going to bring down the magic that keeps the entire kingdom going.

If Roz doesn’t stop him first.

Escape Rating A-: Gutter Mage is just a surprise and a dark delight of a book. I got captured by Roz’ bar brawl at the very beginning, and just could not read fast enough from there. The story is a blend of dark and gritty urban fantasy, mixed with just a bit of dark and gritty sword and sorcery – although way more sorcery than swords – and a scope that keeps getting bigger and broader even as the story tightens its focus on Roz, her self-destructive tendencies, her property destroying talent – or curse – and her need to put a stop to the man who used her and broke her.

This is a story that starts out small, as many urban fantasies do. Roz and her business partner and best friend Lysander are hired to solve a kidnapping and retrieve the victim – an infant who is so new that his mother hasn’t healed from his birth yet. The case looks easy. They even have a suspect for the crime – a mage guild who claims that the baby is integral to a ritual they plan to perform.

Except that every person they interview contradicts everyone else. There’s too much that just doesn’t make sense. It’s all so obvious that it’s obvious that it’s a setup. A setup that Roz figures out part of relatively easily. It’s just that Roz should have remembered that old saying about when something is too good to be true, and you’re not sure who the chump is, it’s you.

But the reveals are what make this thing so much fun. And where the story expands in scope. Because Roz learns that she might not be who she thinks she is. Also that the guilds and the powers that be are even more evil than she believed they were, even though she starts the story certain that they are all pretty much the WORST. The first thing is life altering. The second might be world destroying – and the world might even deserve it. On top of those revelations, there’s one more, the knowledge that, from a certain twisted point of view – that of Roz’ former mentor – it’s all Roz’ fault, for reasons that I wish had been a bit less clichéd. But the stakes ended up being so damn high that it doesn’t really matter. Except to Roz.

Gutter Mage reminded me a lot of The Blacktongue Thief and The Moonsteel Crown. Both have that same dark feel to them, both of them also feature protagonists who are more antihero than hero, and both revolve around self-deceptive characters who need to save the world anyway – even if they’re not remotely certain they want to save themselves. And both are series openers, and I really hope that Gutter Mage is as well.

Because, like both of those books, Gutter Mage reads like the start of something new and big and exciting. And I can’t wait to read where it goes.

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireBeneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, #3) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #3
Pages: 174
Published by Tordotcom on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third book in McGuire's Wayward Children series, returns to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in a standalone contemporary fantasy for fans of all ages. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the "real" world.
When Rini lands with a literal splash in the pond behind Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the last thing she expects to find is that her mother, Sumi, died years before Rini was even conceived. But Rini can’t let Reality get in the way of her quest – not when she has an entire world to save! (Much more common than one would suppose.) If she can't find a way to restore her mother, Rini will have more than a world to save: she will never have been born in the first place. And in a world without magic, she doesn’t have long before Reality notices her existence and washes her away. Good thing the student body is well-acquainted with quests...
A tale of friendship, baking, and derring-do. Warning: May contain nuts.

My Review:

I have read the Wayward Children series completely out of order, so instead of the usual 1,2,3 progression it’s been 1,6,7,2 and now three. And it still makes sense – or at least as much sense as it’s supposed to consider that many of the doors that the children who come to Miss West’s School have come through have been from worlds with more than a bit of Nonsense in them.

As does the world of Confection, the place the late and much lamented Sumi came from, and to which she expected to return. Not just hoped, but actually expected, because Sumi was from Confection, and she had been told she had a destiny there that she had to go back and meet when the time was right.

But Sumi’s destiny was interrupted by Jack and Jill’s bloodthirsty quest to re-open their door back to the Moors in Every Heart a Doorway – and I just realized that the title is a bit of a macabre pun because by a certain interpretation Sumi’s bloody heart was literally Jack and Jill’s doorway. So when Sumi’s daughter Rini, a daughter Sumi was much, much too young to have already had before she was killed, literally drops out of the sky into a fountain at the school, there’s more than a bit of problem and a quest has certainly come knocking on Miss West’s door – in spite of the sign that prohibits quests on school grounds.

Rini is in the middle of a Back to the Future situation. Specifically, the situation in the first movie where Marty starts disappearing because he’s changed the timeline too much and won’t be born. Rini is in the same predicament, even though it’s not her fault that her mother won’t be coming back to Confection to marry her father and give birth to her.

But it’s not just Rini herself that’s being erased. The entire timeline where Sumi saved Confection from the evil and entirely too Orderly and Logical Queen of Cakes is also being erased – with disastrous consequences for the people of Confection.

In order to save Rini and save her world, several of the children are going to have to whistle Sumi’s bones out of her grave and take them on a journey to the Lord of the Dead to see if there’s a way to bring Sumi back from death and save both her world and her daughter.

It’s an adventure. It’s something to do while they each wait for their own doors to open again. And it will save Sumi, Rini, and their entire world. Unless the children lose themselves along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up now because I read Where the Drowned Girls Go for a Library Journal review last month and, while I didn’t have any problems getting into the story, it was pretty clear that the characters in that 7th book in the series had been on previous adventures together. Beneath the Sugar Sky looked like one of those previous adventures, so I was determined to get to it as soon as possible.

Not that one can’t read this series entirely out of order as I seem to be doing. It’s just that there’s clearly important stuff that I missed and now I want to know what it was. So here we are. Or there they are.

The story in Beneath the Sugar Sky is a story wrapped around found family and friendship. It’s not that Kade, Cora, Christopher and Nadya don’t want to save Rini and her world, because they absolutely do. But their real motivation for taking on this quest is to save their friend Sumi. They don’t know Rini yet but Sumi is loved and missed and their quest is to bring her back to life.

Along the way the quest becomes as much about saving each other as resurrecting their friend, with a huge heaping helping about body shaming, accepting yourself for who you are and living your best life as that person, and learning how to make your strengths really, really count when the chips are down – even if most people see those strengths as faults or weaknesses.

All of that is at the heart of Cora’s story, a story which continues for certain in Where the Drowned Girls Go, but also possibly in Come Tumbling Down, which I have not read yet and obviously need to. Because it was Cora’s story in Drowned Girls that made me go flying backwards through the rest of the series. I picked this up because I wanted to know more about Cora’s story and now that I know more I want to know even more. And I will.

But first I have In an Absent Dream to look forward to. And I so definitely am!