Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + Giveaway

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + GiveawayServant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #3
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Exciting Conclusion to the Dragonslayer Trilogy Long laid plans finally bear fruit, but will it prove as sweet as hoped for? With the king on his deathbed, the power Amaury has sought for so long is finally in his grasp.

As opposition gathers from unexpected places, dragonkind fights for survival and a long-awaited reckoning grows close.

Soléne masters her magic, but questions the demands the world will make of her. Unable to say no when the call of duty comes, Gill realizes that the life he had given up on has not given up on him.

Once a servant of the crown, ever a servant of the crown...

    The Dragonslayer Trilogy:

1. Dragonslayer
2. Knight of the Silver Circle
3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

First things first. I just want to say what a treat it was to start a series, fall in love with it, and be able to just read – or be read to – all the way through to the end without having to wait months if not years for the later books in a series. I don’t always have that opportunity, either because I fall in love with the first book long before the others are out, or because I run into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum and have to space things out because of other reading commitments. Because I waited to start the first book (Dragonslayer) until the entire series was out – a happy accident! – I was able to do the whole thing in one swell foop. And wow! What a ride!

Second, this is epic fantasy of the sword and sorcery school, and there just hasn’t been as much of that around recently. I’d forgotten how much I love this end of the epic fantasy pool, so I’m grateful for the reminder and will be looking for more of it.

Third, this story manages to be both epic and not epically long at the same time in a way that just really, really works. In an era when so many epic fantasies are made up of several individual door-stop sized books, it was a joy to get such a rich and complete story in a length (or maybe I should reckon this as height) of just under one doorstop at 1,000 pages in total.

Fourth, but still not last, what makes this series so fascinating to read are its characters, and the way that their individual arcs both fulfill fantasy tropes and subvert them at the same time. Because this is a story where the characters feel like real, flawed human beings – and yet they still manage to be Big Damn Heroes, whether they want to be or not. And it’s definitely not.

I’m specifically referring to Gill and Soléne, because their respective journeys, separately and together-but-not-TOGETHER, form the backbone of the series.

Gill is the failed hero of the previous generation. His character, who is very much a classic archetype, usually becomes the mentor figure in most epic stories, whether fantasy or not, and that character usually dies somewhere in the middle so the “real” hero can take center stage. (One of my personal favorite characters of this type is actually dead to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Obi-Wan Kenobi is a great example. He was a hero in the previous war. He failed, he fell and then he hid himself away in the deserts of Tatooine. He becomes Luke’s first trainer and mentor in the Force, and then he’s killed by Vader. The mentor figure always dies. Like Merlin. And Dumbledore. And every other teacher/trainer of the young hero.

But the young hero in the Dragonslayer series is on an entirely different course than Gill’s. Because Gill doesn’t die. Instead, he becomes the hero, one more time, in spite of his own wishes to die in obscurity at the bottom of a bottle. He is, in the end, the “Servant of the Crown” as named in the title of this final volume. He serves no matter what he, himself might want. And he becomes the hero because no matter how many times he’s struck down, he gets up and tries again. And again. And again. Until the job is done.

If it ever will be.

Soléne is that young hero. Gill’s the one out in front to collect all the glory and fight all the battles, or so it seems. But she’s every bit the hero that he is, just from behind the scenes. Her power is huge, but it is also quiet. She’s the mage who operates in the shadows, not because she’s the woman inspiring the hero, but because the power she wields works best from the dark – and the quiet. He knows that she brought him the victory, and he knows that the best thing he can do for her is to acknowledge that privately and not publicly. Not that the Crown won’t give her its own semi-public acknowledgements. Maybe. If they succeed.

It is fascinating that both of their personal journeys are the journey to learn to trust themselves. He has to step up, and she has to step forward, but in so many ways it’s the same step.

I also absolutely adored that there is no romance here – nor should there be. It is wonderful to see trust, friendship and true comradeship in a relationship between a man and a woman that has absolutely no basis in will they/won’t they. Because this particular pair really, really shouldn’t – at least not with each other – and the reader is NEVER led to believe that they should. Solene is never Gill’s reward or his prize, nor is she ever fridged. She’s as big a damn hero as he is, just in a different way.

Even Amaury the villain is very, very human. While he is certainly a meditation on the cliche that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, he’s never able to grasp the absolute power he thinks he deserves. And the minute he gets close to it, it does him in. But throughout he’s human and understandable, even if he’s never a sympathetic character at all. And it’s another subversion of trope that Amaury the human is the big villain, while the really big creatures we think will be the villains, those dragons of the series title, actually aren’t. Well, at least all of them aren’t.

Escape Rating A++: I need to stop squeeing at this point. It’s pretty obvious that I adored this series from beginning to end. I began it in audio – every time – but switched to text at the point where I just couldn’t find out what happened next nearly fast enough.

I will say that the reader for all three books, Simon Vance, was absolutely marvelous. I wanted to continue to listen to him, but patience has never been my long suit. If you love fantasy and have an excuse to listen to the full story, it’s a wonderful listen.

I loved this series so much that I decided to include it as one of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week reviews and giveaways. The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by Duncan M. Hamilton (up to $20 US), whether in this series or one of his previous series (and if anyone knows whether they are all set in this same world, please let me know!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Orphans of Raspay (Penric and Desdemona, #7) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #7, World of the Five Gods #3.7
Pages: 224
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency, Subterranean Press on July 17th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

When the ship in which they are traveling is captured by Carpagamon island raiders, Temple sorcerer Penric and his resident demon Desdemona find their life complicated by two young orphans, Lencia and Seuka Corva, far from home and searching for their missing father. Pen and Des will need all their combined talents of mind and magic to unravel the mysteries of the sisters and escape from the pirate stronghold.

This novella follows about a year after the events of “The Prisoner of Limnos”.

My Review:

There’s ransom – and then there’s anti-ransom paid to make sure that Penric, Learned Divine of the White God, goes away and stays away.

That’s a tiny piece of the end of the story. In the beginning, there’s chaos. In the middle, too. But then again, there’s always chaos in Penric’s life, and has been since the day that he stopped to help a dying woman by the side of the road, and ended up gifted with her demon and her calling.

(That story is in Penric’s Demon, and it, just like all the stories in this series, is a delight.)

Because Penric’s god is the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season” Penric himself is something of a chaos magnet. Wherever he goes, trouble happens. Usually to him, but eventually to everyone around him, while he emerges, if not unscathed, at least less damaged than whoever or whatever tried to get in his – and his master’s – way.

Penric serves as a bit of a secret agent for both the Duke of Orbas, where he lives when he’s not out running semi-secret errands as well as the Bishop of Orbas, who often sends Penric out on equally dangerous missions. He’s on his way home from one of those missions when the ship he is travelling on is blown off course in a storm, only to survive the storm and get captured by pirates.

That’s where Penric’s “adventure” really begins. Like most of Penric’s adventures, it’s the sort of thing where he’d like it to be a tale told by someone else while he sits beside his wife, safe at home. Or something he’d like to long be over, so that he can look back on it much more fondly than the experience warrants as it’s happening.

Instead, Penric leaps out of the frying pan into the fire – or at least there would be a fire if he weren’t locked in the hold of a ship in the middle of the ocean. And there certainly will be a fire as soon as he reaches dry land – or something equally chaotic and destructive.

After all, he owes those pirates a good comeuppance – even if they quite literally drop him into the mission that the Lord Bastard intends for him to accomplish.

Penric is there to rescue two little girls from slavery – along with himself. Her mother seems to have made a deal with his god, and it’s up to him to carry out his Lord’s side of the bargain.

If he can manage to wreak chaos on the entire slaving operation while he’s there – so much the better. Both his god and his demon ADORE chaos.

Escape Rating A: This series has been a comfort read for me, and right now we all need more comfort reading than usual, so here we are. I have kind of a hit-or-miss relationship with this author’s classic, famous space-opera Vorkosigan series, but I adored the World of the Five Gods series (begin with The Curse of Chalion) and was sorry to see it end. Then it un-ended with Penric’s Demon, which is set in the same world but doesn’t feature any of the original characters. Penric is definitely a character onto himself. And I don’t think you have to have read the “big” series to get into Penric if you start from his beginning in Penric’s Demon. (The series won the very first Hugo Award for Best Series in 2018!)

So I’m all in for this novella series. They are all novellas, so relatively short reads, always complete in themselves but with a “hook” to the wider Penric series. And lovely little bits of storytelling they are.

The success of the series rides – pun intended – on two characters, Learned Penric and his demon Desdemona. I’m not sure the possessive is in the right direction, much like the question about whether we own the cats or the cats own us.

Desdemona is kind of like a Trill symbiont from Star Trek. She’s the demon, she provides Penric with his magic. But she also contains the memories of every person that she has ever inhabited, and Penric has access to all those memories. He may be in charge, but Desdemona is a separate individual who has her own thoughts and her own relationships with the people around them. Lucky for Penric, Desdemona and his wife Niklys get along quite well. If they didn’t, he’d be the chew toy caught in the middle – although probably not for long.

Penric’s adventures often have a “Perils of Pauline” aspect, the out of the frying pan into the fire element of so many of those old melodrama serials. The difference is that in Penric’s case, he’s often the one providing the fire, as that’s one of the many gifts of his demon, and sometimes, as in this particular story, a place just needs a really good cleansing – with fire.

That’s certainly the case here, as Penric is caught in multiple dilemmas. He has to rescue himself and the two girls. He needs to figure out exactly what his responsibility is to those two girls. Not that he isn’t willing to save them, but if it’s a mission for his god he has different options than if he’s just doing a good deed. And there are WAY too many coincidences in their meeting for it to just be a good deed.

At the same time, he, and we, are morally outraged by the economy of the pirates haven and the slaving business that keeps it going. Not just the pirates themselves, but the entire network of middlemen and buyers who make the whole thing so incredibly lucrative – and so distributed that they are hard to eliminate in their entirety – no matter how much Penric wants to.

In spite of the terrible situation, the story itself has a gigantic element of fun to it. Penric causes chaos but he also experiences it fairly often. His plans to get himself and the girls off the island and on their way home backfires on him multiple times. People just won’t do the sensible thing when he’s involved. Seemingly ever.

So he tries and fails regularly, although he tends to fail upwards, making a bit of progress each time. We hold our breath with him as he attempts yet another escape, and worry with him that he’s not going to get the girls to safety. Or that he’ll end up dead. Or both.

In the end, the cavalry quite literally comes over the hill – or at least over the horizon, and Penric lives to cause chaos another day. A day that I can’t wait to read about!

Reviewer’s Note: This book is currently available in ebook published by Spectrum Literary Agency. The print version will be published in June by Subterranean Press with a new cover.

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice HadlowThe Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Pages: 480
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.

What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.

Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.

Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.

My Review:

The Other Bennet Sister (UK Cover)

The Other Bennet Sister is definitely NOT a book to be judged by its cover. I really hated that cover – and this is one of the rare occasions where the UK cover is just as bad. Both covers seem to picture Mary Bennet exactly as she was in Pride and Prejudice. She seems washed out in the US cover and judgmental in the UK cover.

But I loved the book.

The real Mary, or at least the version I want to be the real Mary, does begin her story as sermonizing and judgmental. But, and it’s a HUGE but, because this is Mary’s own story and not the story of her much more brightly shining sisters, we see that Mary’s behavior is the result of being shy and withdrawn. She’s retreated into herself because she’s the frequently overlooked and often denigrated middle sister, trapped between the gorgeously beautiful Jane and Lizzy and the shallow but pretty Kitty and Lydia.

She’s not really an ugly duckling in the midst of a flock of swans, but her mother sure as hell makes her feel like it at every turn. I didn’t like Mrs. Bennet in the original story – AT ALL – and I like her even less here. Actually, I loathe her even more than I dislike this book’s cover.

Mary isn’t a diamond of the first water, as her older sisters are. She doesn’t sparkle the way her younger sisters do. But she is as pretty as any other young woman of her time, and would have been fine in any family slightly more functional than the Bennets.

But this is not a parallel story to Pride and Prejudice. Instead, it’s more like an alternate sequel, as most of the events take place after the end of P&P. Not merely after those events, but also after the long-feared death of Mr. Bennet, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her remaining unmarried daughters, Mary and Kitty.

And that is where Mary’s story really begins, as she starts the process of taking control of her own life for her own self – in spite of her mother’s frequent interference and constant disparaging – and often melodramatic – pronouncements.

Once Mary is on her own the story takes flight, as she explores the limited varieties of life possible for a spinster and begins to craft her own beliefs about who she is and how she should live – whether she manages to marry or not.

That the end of her journey of self-discovery leads her to love and happiness is the icing on a delightful and thoroughly tasty little cake of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I enjoyed The Other Bennet Sister considerably more than I expected to at the beginning. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m not a fan or an aficionado. I found Mrs. Bennet in particular to be utterly appalling as a character, and Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh are not people I’d ever want to spend much time with. Certainly not enough time to ever attempt a reread of the book.

So one of the things I really liked about The Other Bennet Sister is that none of these petty villains are ever described as anything more than exactly what they are.

It does make for some fairly hard reading at the beginning of the story, as we pretty much suffer right along with Mary as she is first constantly berated by Mrs. Bennet, and then is forced to take on the role of charity case in the homes of both Elizabeth and then Jane as they subtly or not-so-subtly make her aware that she’s unwanted and unwelcome.

She has no place and she has no choice and that’s a difficult situation to be in.

But that’s when she takes things into her own hands and looks for other options, first with Lizzy’s friend Charlotte and her husband Mr. Collins – who was a figure of fun in the original, much like Mary herself.

It’s only when Mary takes herself off to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, that she finally finds a place where she is welcome and can work out her own future, whatever it might be. But all along Mary is brave and forthright, even in situations where those around her do their level best to keep her as far down as possible.

It’s fun watching her grow and expand her horizons. It’s also heartening to see her look hard at the easy way out but reject it as unworthy, over and over. She does a great job of exploring her limited possibilities and making her best choices.

In the end, Mary is a fascinating character, a woman with agency but one whose thoughts, beliefs and choices reflect her time and not ours. The Other Bennet Sister is a lovely story that uses its original as a springboard to something better!

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 122
Published by Tor.com on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

My Review:

This was lovely. And fascinating. I have the feeling I’ll need to read it again to have even a shot at picking up everything there is to pick up from this tiny and perfect little story.

It feels like the creation of a myth – or the exploration of one. It reads like it’s a bit of hidden history – a history that has been suppressed and that, of necessity, will continue to be suppressed.

From one perspective, it’s the story of all the women who have been lost to history – all of the lost and the murdered and the exiled and especially the silenced. It’s a tale as old as time, but not one of the pretty ones.

It’s the story of a princess bartered away for peace between two kingdoms, a princess who is cast into exile and imprisonment when her days of usefulness are over. And it is all the tragedy that the scenario implies.

At the same time, it’s a story about not just fighting back, but actually about triumphing over one’s oppressors. About taking what are supposed to be the ruins of a life and turning them into something sharp and pointed and ultimately victorious.

It’s a story about being forced into the shadows and becoming the knife that strikes from the dark.

An empress is forced into exile. Instead of taking her exile in any of the ways that exiled empresses usually do, she finds a way to turn the tables on her oppressor – by gathering up the talents of all the forgotten ones in the land she will come to rule.

But this isn’t her story. Not exactly.

It’s the story of her faithful servant, handmaiden and secret lover. The story of the woman who befriended and enabled her, and who sacrificed her own happiness to make her rise possible.

So it feels a bit like a historical fable, in the setting of an Asian period drama. It also has something to say about history, how it’s written, how it’s discovered, how it’s preserved.

Whether the teller of that history is a ghost, a spirit or just one of those forgotten voices is left to the reader to decide.

But whoever is telling this story, or discovering it, or recording it, it’s beautiful and haunting every step of its way.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a bit to get into this, quite likely because it wasn’t what I was expecting. The story is not told in a straightforward fashion. Instead it’s dribbled out in little sips and small bites, as the former handmaiden – or her ghost or spirit – reveals it bit by bit to the historian who has come looking for artifacts to document the hidden facets of an all-too-recent history.

It reads like a legend, like a myth or story being told, with hints and oblique views and a lesson that’s meant to be inferred rather than explained.

There’s certainly a feminist bent to it if you look, as all of the major characters are female and this is definitely a story where the woman who was supposed to fade into obscurity instead takes control – and is extremely subversive but effective at it.

In the end, the empress creates her own myth, and we’re reading that myth as it’s told by the person who helped to create and shape it. There’s a lyrical quality to the telling that doesn’t so much grab the reader as insinuate itself into the reader’s consciousness.

Although this is labelled as fantasy, it’s fantasy of the mythic variety. It’s fantasy because it’s not SF and it’s not anything else – not because there is any practicing magic. But magic there definitely is.

Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. HamiltonKnight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: sword and sorcery, urban fantasy
Series: Dragonslayer #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on November 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

*AUTHOR OF ONE OF BUZZFEED'S GREATEST FANTASY BOOKS OF 2013*From the author of the beloved Society of Sword and Wolf of the North trilogies, Duncan M. Hamilton's Knight
of the Silver Circle
--the sequel adventure-packed fantasy to Dragonslayer in The Dragonslayer trilogy--is perfect for fans of magical beasts and unexpected heroes

Three dragons wreak havoc throughout Mirabay--eating livestock, killing humans, and burning entire villages to ash. It was nearly impossible to kill one, using a legendary sword and the magic of the mysterious Cup; to tackle three, Guillot dal Villerauvais will need help.

The mage Solène fears having to kill again; she leaves Gill to gain greater control over her magic.

The Prince Bishop still wants Gill dead, but more than that, he wants the Cup, and he'll do whatever he has to to get it, even sending his own daughter--a talented thief and assassin--into the dragons' path.

As secrets mount on secrets and betrayals on betrayals, both Guillot and Solène face critical decisions that will settle not only their own fate but that of all Mirabaya.

The Dragonslayer Trilogy: 1. Dragonslayer2. Knight of the Silver Circle3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

I want to call Guillot dal Villerauvais an antihero, because if there’s one thing the man does not want to be, it’s a hero. He’s been there and done that and knows, for sure, for certain and for true, that the so-called glory is empty. As tempting as the adulation still is, he’s all too aware that it’s a cup of poison.

And so much of his personal behavior since he left the capital in disgrace five years ago has been, well, let’s call it less than heroic that it feels wrong for him to accept any of it. He knows he has plenty to atone for – and that killing the dragon that destroyed his village is just a drop in a very large bucket.

But now that he’s needed, truly needed – and feels guilty as hell about why he’s needed even though it isn’t his fault – he’s there. On the front line. In front of the damn dragon. Or in this book, dragons, plural.

Once Gill learns that the dragon he killed wasn’t the only one left in the world after all, he sets out to kill the not one but three that seem to have followed in its wake. After all, he’s the only “experienced” dragonslayer in Mirabaya – or anywhere else – in more than a thousand years.

He’ll just have to put that experience to work – again, and again, and again.

But without the help of his unsung assistant, the sorceress Solène. Solène unlocked the secrets that gave the original Knights of the Silver Circle their power. Solène can’t control her magic – to the point where that lack of control will kill her.

So she leaves Gill with the magical cup, the words to say, and a hope and a prayer that it will be enough to see him through.

While the Prince Bishop plots back in the capital to steal the glory that Gill has no use for, the cup that makes it all possible, and the kingdom if he can manage it.

He almost certainly can. He’ll just need a little bit of magic – along with a ruthless desire to let nothing stand in his way. Not even the king he’s supposed to serve.

Escape Rating A+: So far, this series has turned out to be a joy and a delight. I loved Dragonslayer, to the point where I couldn’t stand to wait for the utterly marvelous audiobook to play out and switched to the ebook just to see what happened that much faster. As I did this time around, switching from audio to text at about the 40% mark.

It’s obvious that I have no more patience waiting to see how a good book tells its story than the Prince Bishop does waiting for all of his many, many plans to ripen to fruition.

Like the first book in the series, this second book tells its rather epic story in a relatively short number of pages while keeping its large scope. At the same time, it hews to its sword and sorcery roots by switching perspectives from the swordsman Gill to the burgeoning sorceress Solène to the power-hungry politician Amaury with all the aplomb of the ablest swashbuckler.

But the washed-up, wasted, struggling Gill is the true hero and the true focus. Solène has her own story, but a big part of our interest in her revolves around her aid to Gill. And Amaury, well, Amaury is the villain and nemesis that every good hero needs. Smart, politically savvy, utterly ruthless and completely without remorse.

A big part of this entry in the series, which is a middle book that manages totally NOT to feel like one, is on the dragon hunt. Several of them, appropriately, as there are not one but three dragons this time around. There’s plenty of glory to be had, and plenty of men looking to grab it. That they are underprepared and less than successful is no surprise but adds plenty of drama and action to the story.

At the same time, there’s an underlying truth to this part of the saga that reminds me in a very peculiar way of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. If you’re not familiar, that’s the one with the whales. And Mirabaya or at least its Prince Bishop, like the Earth of that movie, is about to discover that the thing that can save them is the thing that they’ve been so successful at destroying.

The ways in which that destruction will bite someone, or several someones, in the ass will be revealed in the final book in the trilogy, Servant of the Crown. Which I can’t wait to start in the morning.

Review: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights edited by Patrick Weekes

Review: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights edited by Patrick WeekesDragon Age: Tevinter Nights by Patrick Weekes, John Epler, Brianne Battye, Courtney Woods, Ryan Cormier, Sylvia Feketekuty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Pages: 496
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An anthology of original stories based on the dark fantasy, role-playing video game series from Bioware.

Ancient horrors. Marauding invaders. Powerful mages. And a world that refuses to stay fixed.

Welcome to Thedas.

From the stoic Grey Wardens to the otherworldly Mortalitasi necromancers, from the proud Dalish elves to the underhanded Antivan Crow assassins, Dragon Age is filled with monsters, magic, and memorable characters making their way through dangerous world whose only constant is change.

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights brings you fifteen tales of adventure, featuring faces new and old, including:

"Three Trees to Midnight" by Patrick Weekes
"Down Among the Dead Men" by Sylvia Feketekuty
"The Horror of Hormak" by John Epler
"Callback" by Lukas Kristjanson
"Luck in the Gardens" by Sylvia Feketekuty
"Hunger" by Brianne Battye
"Murder by Death Mages" by Caitlin Sullivan Kelly
"The Streets of Minrathous" by Brianne Battye
"The Wigmaker" by Courtney Woods
"Genitivi Dies in the End" by Lukas Kristjanson
"Herold Had the Plan" by Ryan Cormier
"An Old Crow's Old Tricks" by Arone Le Bray
"Eight Little Talons" by Courtney Woods
"Half Up Front" by John Epler
"Dread Wolf Take You" by Patrick Weekes

My Review:

If this is your jam, if Dragon Age is your jam, then Tevinter Nights is the jammiest jam that ever jammed. But I have to say upfront that if you’re not already into Thedas, this collection is not the place to get there. The place to begin is the awesome, absorbing videogame Dragon Age Origins, which premiered in 2009 and has, so far, spawned two sequels, the under regarded, boringly named but eminently playable Dragon Age II, and the later Dragon Age Inquisition. Those of us who love the series and replay it endlessly are now in year 6 of waiting for Dragon Age 4, which looks like it’s going to be titled The Dread Wolf Rises and not rise in real life until 2022 at the earliest.

I’m not sure whether the Tevinter Nights collection is designed as a teaser, as a hint of things to come, or just to drive us even crazier waiting. Whatever the case, for fans the collection is a terrific way of seeing parts of Thedas we have heard of but not seen much of – at least not yet – catch a few glimpses of beloved characters, and just generally have a good time in a place we’ve come to know and love.

And the stories themselves, well, if you’re familiar with where they’re coming from, the collection is a rollicking good time. Maybe not all of the stories are quite worthy of a Tethras (Hard in Hightown) but a good time is certainly had by all, especially if you’re also into the sword and sorcery school of fantasy, because that’s where this collection mostly falls. With a couple of toe dips into the very dark fantasy edges of horror.

Dragging myself back from the squeeing to talk about the stories themselves, as I said, they are all pretty much playing in the sword and sorcery end of the fantasy pond, so there are lots of assassins, lots of dastardly plots and LOTS of murders. Then again, several of the stories feature the Antivan Crows, and assassination is their business.

The story I found to be the absolute most fun was Down Among the Dead Men by Sylvia Feketekuty. While part of that fun was that it is set in Nevarra, a place we haven’t been, and in the Grand Necropolis, under the purview of Nevarra’s Mortalitasi, the mages who maintain the Crypts and their dead and demonic denizens of whom we’ve heard much but not met many.

On the surface this story reads like a dungeon crawl into a dungeon full of creepy, crawly undead monsters, but it subverts itself in the end. The “I see dead people” is expected, the “I be dead people” is rather a shock for our guardsman hero. That he achieves his lifelong dream of becoming a librarian as a dead person turns the gallows humor into a smile.

The two stories that edge the closest to outright horror are the aptly named The Horror of Hormak by John Epler and The Wigmaker by Courtney Woods. While their portraits of previously unseen parts of Thedas are fascinating, it’s the evils faced by the protagonists that make both of these stories sing their creepy songs. It wouldn’t have taken much for either of these stories to be just plain horror in any setting, but Thedas gives both of them a bit of extra gruesome spice. That The Wigmaker can also be read as a scathing commentary on the real-life fashion industry just adds to the chills it engenders.

The two stories that dealt most directly with characters that fans are familiar with from the series are Callback and Genitivi Dies in the End, both by Lukas Kristjanson. Both of his stories rely on readers’ knowledge of the series, and both take that knowledge and use it to tell stories that pull the reader right back into this beloved world while telling new stories with old friends. Callback is a particularly poignant post-Inquisition story, while the story around Genitivi, while “enhanced” by knowing the character and the world, is actually a well-done version of an often told type of story, one about storytellers and storytelling and the way that so-called history can be embellished – or not – as the tale-teller decides. Or as the tale-teller requires in order to get out of town with a whole skin.

Last, but not least, the one that sent chills up my spine not for its creepy or horrific elements but for the way that it continues the post-Inquisition story by giving us a view of exactly what the Dread Wolf has been up to since the end of Dragon Age Inquisition. The final end of the Trespasser DLC when he announced that he planned to essentially destroy the world in order to save his own people and correct the wrong he committed Ages ago. He’s just as proud, self-deluded and self-serving as ever, and just as hot and just as cold, all at the same time. I can’t help but hope that his original name might be prophetic in some way. And that this time “Pride” will go before a very big fall. He certainly has the hubris for it.

We’ll see. Eventually. In 2022 or 2023. Not nearly soon enough. But if you love epic fantasy of the somewhat grimdark persuasion, enjoy experiencing a story through videogaming, and have not yet had the pleasure of going to Thedas, you have plenty of time to work your way through the entire series before The Dread Wolf Rises.

If you have already fallen in love with Thedas as I have, we have these stories to tease us and tide us over.

Escape Rating A-: I loved this collection. Fans will love this collection. Everyone else will wonder what the fuss is about. But for those of us who already know what the fuss is about, Tevinter Nights is a very fun read.

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. HamiltonDragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #1
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Author of one of BuzzFeed 's Greatest Fantasy Books of 2013

In his magnificent, heroic, adventure fantasy, Dragonslayer, Duncan M. Hamilton debuts the first book in a fast-moving trilogy: a dangerous tale of lost magics, unlikely heroes, and reawakened dragons.

Once a member of the King's personal guard, Guillot dal Villevauvais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished—and wary—when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capital in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacingthe young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solene’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

My Review:

Dragonslayer turned out to be surprisingly – and epically – marvelous. I’m saying this because I picked up the ARC last year and it got buried under the weight of the towering TBR pile. I always meant to get to it, but just didn’t quite. Then I got the audiobook last month. Audible was having a sale and I got the first two books in the series for cheap. Or cheaper anyway. I’ve discovered that epic fantasy and SF work really well in audio – it’s easy to get caught up in the action and forget I’m walking a treadmill or stuck in traffic.

So when I bailed on an audio I just couldn’t tolerate, I remembered I had Dragonslayer. And that, surprising for an epic fantasy, it was only about 10ish hours long. That’s amazeballs. For an epic fantasy that truly is epic in scope, the series as a whole is blissfully NOT epic in length. The entire trilogy clocks in at just a shade over 900 pages, or just a hair over 30 hours in audio. Most epic fantasy in audio hovers around the 24 hour mark.

Dragonslayer is proof positive, very positive, that an epic fantasy can be told without turning into a tall pile of many thousand page doorstops. So if you know someone who is interested in epic fantasy but daunted by the length, Dragonslayer is terrific.

Part of what made it so good, at least from my perspective, is that it didn’t turn out to be any of the things I thought it was going to be at the beginning. Except that it claims to be epic fantasy, and it certainly is that, albeit of the sword and sorcery variety – something that we don’t see nearly enough of these days.

It all begins with Gill, technically Guillot dal Villerauvais. Gill is the drunken has-been who used to be the best swordsman in the kingdom. Now he’s the town drunk in the town where he’s supposed to be seigneur, the local squire.

We get the impression that he’s old and washed-up. That he’s pissed away his skill and his glory. But we think he’s Falstaff, a fat buffoon, when he’s really more like Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion. He used to be a hero. It’s both a pain and a purpose when he discovers that he’s STILL the hero, even if he doesn’t want to be, or feels that he’s no longer remotely capable of being.

He’s also not half so old as his world-weary voice (expertly acted by Simon Vance in the audio) makes him appear to be. Discovering late in the story that Gill is, at most, 40 years old is a bit of a shock. Gill is a heartbroken, heartbreaking lesson in what happens to a person when they realize that all their dreams are behind them.

The classic story about dragonslaying usually features the dragon as a rampaging beast out to slay all it encounters, whether for eating or just for the joy of slaughter. Here we have a thinking creature, woken from a long slumber by a troupe of pillaging humans intent on ransacking his cave in search of magical treasure. The dragon in this story may be the force that starts the action, but he’s not, even in the worst of his depredations, the villain of the piece.

That place is reserved for the Prince-Bishop Amaury, the power behind the Mirabayan throne and at the head of the newly formed – and illegally magical – Order of the Golden Spur, whose purpose is to hunt out magic and turn it to their own use. Or rather, to Amaury’s own use.

It’s been said that people whose titles are longer than their names are always complete arseholes. That’s certainly true in Amaury’s case. He also seems to be an object lesson about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Not that he has ABSOLUTE power – at least not yet. But he’s working on it.

Amaury believes that Gill stands in his way. Because Gill has always stood in his way – at least according to Amaury. This time, he’s going to get what he wants out of Gill and then Gill is going to get what’s coming to him.

Unless, of course, Gill manages to stand in his way – again. If Gill can manage to stand at all.

Escape Rating A+: There is so much going on in this book, and all of it is fascinating. Or at least it was to me. This was one where I got so into it I started switching back and forth between the audio and the ebook. Because I just wasn’t listening fast enough – but the reading was so very good.

There are reasons why narrator Simon Vance is in the Narrator Hall of Fame, and plenty of hours of those reasons are in Dragonslayer.

There were so many elements to this story, and the more I think about it the more I believe I’ve found – or at least seen glimpses of.

While the biggest part of the story wraps around Gill’s quest to pull himself back together, slay the dragon and avenge the people it’s killed, his is not the only story and he’s not the only hero in this tale.

Solène, the young mage, has her own story to tell, and her own journey to reach her destiny. It just so happens that her journey and Gill’s keep intersecting – from the beginning when he saves her from burning at the stake, to the end of this installment where she saves him from an assassin. In between, while he takes the direct path to the dragon, Solene takes herself to learn magic, only to be forced to choose between a place she can be safe – and the right thing to do.

One refreshing element of the story is that while Gill and Solène come to rely on each other and care about each other, it’s a relationship that does not fall into any neat pigeonholes. Gill doesn’t have himself together enough to feel capable of the kind of mentorship that even an ersatz parental relationship would require, and there is blissfully NO HINT WHATSOEVER that this will ever turn romantic. It’s lovely to show that not all close relationships, particularly close opposite sex relationships, HAVE to end in romance.

Last but not least, while this book was published in mid-2019 and probably finished sometime the previous year, finishing it today showed some striking parallels between the way that towns and villages were emptying out in hopes of getting away from the dragon and the response to the current COVID-19 pandemic in real life. In both cases, public spaces are empty and people are fearful. A virus is even harder to outrun than a flying, fire-breathing dragon.

The hints about the past of this world, the long ago time of great magic, great mages and even greater dragons give tantalizing clues to the journey that Gill and Solene will have to undertake in the remaining books of the trilogy, Knight of the Silver Circle and Servant of the Crown.

I’ll be listening to Knight of the Silver Circle in the morning, possibly as you are reading this review. I can’t wait!

Review: Dangerous Territory by Lindsay Schopfer

Review: Dangerous Territory by Lindsay SchopferDangerous Territory: A Keltin Moore Adventure by Lindsay Schopfer
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: adventure, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Keltin Moore #3
Pages: 253
Published by Independently Published on June 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

The beast hunter is on a mission of mercy to save the love of his life.

Life is good for professional monster hunter Keltin Moore. His new beast hunting company is finding great success as he returns to distant Krendaria to protect its citizens from creatures of nightmare.

But when he receives word that the woman he loves is in trouble, he will leave the world that he knows behind and plunge headlong into dangers he has never faced before.

Somehow, he’ll have to sneak across a closed border, find his beloved and her family, and escort them all safely back out of the country. From dodging sadistic government agents to racing through beast-infested forests, will Keltin and his new friends survive their escape through Dangerous Territory?

This is the third installment of the award-winning Adventures of Keltin Moore, a series of steampunk-flavored fantasy novels. If you love compelling characters, fantastic creatures, and intense action then you will love these stories!

My Review:

The Adventures of Keltin Moore may be a difficult series to categorize but it’s a terrific action/adventure read.

Three books in, after The Beast Hunter, Into the North and now Dangerous Territory, the series as a whole feels like steampunk action/adventure, with kind of a “Weird West” vibe. But the weird in that West isn’t the west of anyplace on our own world, past or present. Instead, Keltin Moore’s beast hunting adventures take place in a world made up of his native Riltvin, with political shenanigans impacting his life and work from far away Krendaria and Malpinon, just so far. Keltin’s travels to his wider world give the series a bit of epic scope, without getting into the kind of vast empire politicking that epic fantasy is famous for.

And then there are those beasts that Keltin hunts. The beasts feel/read like magical constructs. That may not be true, but they remind me of the “Changed” beasts in some of Mercedes Lackey’s darker books. Keltin is not a trophy hunter – far from it. He is a defender of “regular folks” whose lives have been beset by rampaging “boils” as the beasts are called. The beasts are dangerous and deadly, fierce and heavily protected by natural armor.

It takes an expert to kill one. It takes a strong and lucky expert to kill as many beasts as Keltin has eliminated. Keltin makes me think of several variations of the Alaskan saying, “There are old bush pilots, and there are bold bush pilots, but there are no old, bold bush pilots. It feels like the same can be said of beast hunters in Keltin’s world.

The story in Dangerous Territory takes Keltin back to the sight of his greatest hunt, the huge beast-culling in northern Krendaria that formed the background of his first adventure, The Beast Hunter.

But Keltin sees Krendaria as a blood-soaked land he has no desire to go back to. He found himself as a leader, whether he ever wanted to become one or not, and he still feels guilty about the mistakes he made and the men he couldn’t save – even if he did the best he could and saved many who would otherwise have been lost to the boils.

However, this journey is one that he feels he has to make. Not just because Krendaria feels like unfinished business, but because Keltin has unfinished emotional business to take care of as well. And as dangerous as boil-infested Krendaria and politically fractured Malpinon are, the most dangerous territory that Keltin has to navigate in this adventure is the territory of his own heart.

Escape Rating A-: There’s just something about this series that I eat up with a spoon. They are all relatively compact books, tell a compact story featuring an interesting and empathetic main character. I want to know what happens to Keltin next and I’m really sorry there’s no fourth book immediately available.

That being said, what I like about this series is the way that it seems to get to the heart of its matter without bogging down into the myriad details that it could. And as I’m saying that I wish there were a bit more worldbuilding, and yet the series works fine without it. It feels like we’re getting the worldbuilding in bits and pieces, as Keltin explores his wider world we do too.

It would have been so easy for Keltin’s story to descend into “gun porn” with endless details about the weapons and ammunition that he uses. Instead there’s just enough detail for the reader to understand why it’s important to Keltin’s survival without diving so deep into the details that readers interested in Keltin’s story and not Keltin’s armament have just what they need to go on.

But it’s the story, and the spare nature of how it’s conveyed, that simply work for at least this reader. Part of why that works is Keltin himself. He is not a storyteller, and he doesn’t want to be. And we’re seeing his world and his journey from his perspective but not in first person singular. We’re not in his head, but rather we’re following a third-person narrator who knows a bit more than Keltin does about what’s going on around him but still follows Keltin for all the action.

It gives us enough distance to see Keltin as he is and not as he believes himself to be. Because he’s much more of a leader and a hero than he’d ever give himself credit for. From that slight bit of distance, we can observe his doubts and fears without getting as caught up in them as he does. And it allows him to keep some secrets from us as well.

The interesting thing about this particular entry in the series is the way that it revisits old territory without re-hashing previous events. Except, of course, for Keltin’s own re-hashing of his hesitant romantic correspondence with Elaine Destov, the woman he helps to save from the beasts of Krendaria, even as she saves him in turn.

His emotional uncertainty is endearing, and his willing to deal with his own doubts and fears is every bit as brave as his beast hunting.

I’ll admit that I found the ending of Dangerous Territory, with Keltin walking his sister down the aisle at her wedding, to be a bit anticlimactic. That’s partly because I wanted it to be Keltin’s wedding to Elaine, even though they aren’t ready for that yet. It also felt a bit “tacked on” rather than an integral part of the story just finished. But more than that, I think I also wanted to be certain of having a next book to look forward to, and I don’t. There’s plenty more of this world, and Keltin’s place in it, yet to explore!

Review: Love Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Love Hard by Nalini SinghLove Hard by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, sports romance
Series: Hard Play #3
Pages: 340
Published by TKA Distribution on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jacob Esera, star rugby player and young single father, has worked hard to create a joyous life for his six-year-old daughter. After the death of his childhood sweetheart soon after their daughter’s birth, all Jake wants is safety and stability. No risks. No wild chances. And especially no Juliet Nelisi, former classmate, scandal magnet, and a woman who is a thorn in his side.

As a lonely teenager, Juliet embraced her bad-girl reputation as a shield against loneliness and rejection. Years later, having kicked a cheating sports-star ex to the curb, she has a prestigious job and loyal friends—and wants nothing to do with sportsmen. The last thing she expects is the fire that ignites between her and the stuffed-shirt golden boy who once loved her best friend.

Straitlaced Jacob Esera versus wild-at-heart Juliet Nelisi? Place your bets.

My Review:

Until now the Hard Play series has been kind of a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series, but this entry is loosely a sequel to my personal favorite book in that series, Rock Hard. And while it was great to see the Mouse and T-Rex put the icing on the cake of their HEA with a wedding, Love Hard is not their story.

So you don’t have to read that, or any of the rest of the series, to like Love Hard. Not that it isn’t great to catch up with the friends from the rest of the series(es), but this one does stand alone.

In fact, it’s kind of about standing alone – and discovering that maybe it’s time not to have to.

Juliet Nelisi is the Mouse Charlotte’s best friend, and we saw plenty of her as a secondary character in Rock Hard. But that wasn’t her story just like this isn’t Charlotte’s. In spite of Jules’ status as Charlotte’s long-time bestie, we learn in Love Hard that if there’s one thing Jules isn’t used to, it’s having someone to stand in her corner. She’s done plenty of that standing for other people, but very few have ever stood for her. Starting with her family.

The one person besides Charlotte who always stood in Jules’ corner was her high school bestie, Calypso. But Calypso died of meningitis not long after giving birth to her beautiful daughter Esme, and Jules still misses her every day.

Jules isn’t the only one still missing Calypso. Jacob Esera, little Esme’s father, is raising his daughter not exactly alone, but the help he has comes from his parents, his brothers, and his extended family. Between his top-flight professional rugby career and raising his daughter, he’s kept himself away from the groupies and the scandals that can come with being a young man at the top of pro sports.

Jake, at 24, feels like he buried the young man he used to be in the grave with Calypso, but he’s mourned and moved on. He has to keep going for Esme, for his family, and for his career.

The one thing he doesn’t factor on is Jules resurfacing in his life. Not like that. Jules and Calypso were besties, Calypso was Jake’s high school sweetheart, and the friend of his girlfriend, was, at best, a frenemy. They got along for Callie’s sake. Just barely.

At the time, Jules was trouble with a capital T. And everything that has happened in her life, at least the parts that Jake knows about from the gossip rags, say that she is still trouble. Big trouble. Huge trouble.

But their contentious encounter as part of the wedding party for T-Rex and the Mouse show Jake that Jules has grown into a beautiful woman who pushes all his buttons. Both the buttons that make him want to rile her up and piss her off, and the buttons that make him want to rile her up and take her to bed.

She drives him crazy in every possible way. And shakes him out of the staid, grey, safe zone he’s tried to live in since Callie’s death. But starting a relationship with Jules isn’t just ill-advised. It’s downright stupid. The gossip rags are still following her around after the juicy breakup of her marriage to a cricket star. Those same gossip rags are the last thing he wants in his life, especially sniffing around his 6-year-old daughter.

Jules has tried her best to live a quiet life, out of sight of the gossip rags, if not ever completely out of mind. Getting involved with another sports star will drag ALL of the old crap out of the woodwork, and set her up for yet another round of having her life invaded. She doesn’t want any part of that, and she especially doesn’t want any part of that invading Jake’s life with Esme, or his family.

But she wants Jake in spite of every instinct saying this is a really bad idea. The question is whether it is a good enough bad idea to take the risk?

Escape Rating A-: There are parts of this story that make me feel guilty for even looking at the headlines on the grocery store gossip magazine shelf, let alone ever clicking on a clickbait gossip headline on social media.

Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that, when it comes to the media, men are always talked about for who THEY are and what THEY do, but women are still almost always talked about in terms of who they married, regardless of their own accomplishments?

Both of those thoughts play into Jules’ side of this equation in a big way. While she may have been a troublemaker in high school, well, there were reasons. And it was high school, a big part of the point of which is to make mistakes and learn from them so you don’t make them later.

But her marriage, well, that mess was so not her fault as to be ridiculous. But he was the star and she was the girl from nowhere, so when the relationship ended, he controlled the narrative and got all the sympathy, while her reputation got trashed and trashed and trashed. It made for great clickbait and left her shell-shocked and gun shy. Especially since it seemed that everyone who even glanced at a tabloid made up their minds about her in an instant. Those rags got lots of mileage out of painting her as a gold-digging, lying, cheating predator, never mind that she signed an iron-clad prenup, so she didn’t get a dime, and that he was the liar, the cheater AND the predator.

It’s that past that both comes back to haunt Jules, and in the end teaches her that you can survive just about any storm if you have good people down in that storm shelter with you.

Her ex tries to resurrect their past scandal to put his name back in the headlines. His career is fading fast from too much “Life in the Fast Lane’, and he’s hoping to trade his remaining celebrity status for a cable TV show.

Jules wants to hide until the storm blows over, but Jake won’t let her. Instead, he stands with her, his entire family stands with her, and they all help her not just weather the storm, but turn it back against her ex. And in that process, she learns that she has someone who will stand with her through thick and thin, help her celebrate her wins, and help her recoup from her losses. It’s something she’s never had before.

But their relationship isn’t all one-sided. He needs her to be the wind beneath his wings, to get him out of that safe, staid, grey rut he’s been in. They do a whole lot better than just get by with a little, or a lot, of help from their friends.

So, on the one hand, this is a hot and steamy frenemies to lovers romance. On the other, it’s a story about not just finding but also accepting the right people to stand with, and to stand with you. About finding the person who helps you be strong in your broken places. And that’s a story that always makes for a very satisfying romance!

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. WagersA Pale Light in the Black (NeoG #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: NeoG #1
Pages: 432
Published by Harper Voyager on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The rollicking first entry in a unique science fiction series that introduces the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—NeoG—a military force patrolling and protecting space inspired by the real-life mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling. Their best swordsman has been transferred, and a new lieutenant has been assigned in his place.

Maxine Carmichael is trying to carve a place in the world on her own—away from the pressure and influence of her powerful family. The last thing she wants is to cause trouble at her command on Jupiter Station. With her new team in turmoil, Max must overcome her self-doubt and win their trust if she’s going to succeed. Failing is not an option—and would only prove her parents right.

But Max and the team must learn to work together quickly. A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them.

Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

My Review:

Military SF, done right, is one of the best things to read if you are looking for serious “competence porn”, and A Pale Light in the Black is definitely military SF done very, very right.

There have been plenty of milSF stories featuring various branches of the service taken into space. Often those services model the space forces around either the Navy, as in Honor Harrington, or the marines, like Torin Kerr. The concept of a space Army seems like a bit of an oxymoron, as the Army has to get out of space and onto some ground in order to really be something called an Army. And a space Air Force feels redundant, even though there’s no atmosphere in space.

On the other hand, Stargate Command was run by the U.S. Air Force, so it IS possible after a fashion.

But the one service that has been left out of the equation – until the glorious now – is the Coast Guard. Countries have coasts. Earth as a whole doesn’t exactly have a “coast”, but it does have a stretch of territory that it defends and where its laws, rules and regulations hold sway.

Or at least it will in the future, if we ever do manage to get into space for real. And it certainly does in A Pale Light in the Black. Because that’s where this story, and the series that will follow (hopefully really, really SOON) is set among the often looked down upon members of this future’s equivalent of a space Coast Guard, the NeoG.

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard patrols the relatively nearby space where Earth holds sway. Their duty is to protect the “pale light in the black” that is Earth and her colonial interests. Their job is critical, but it isn’t exactly glorious or sexy. The NeoG is underfunded, undermanned, underequipped and underestimated in the Boarding Games that serve as a combination of mass entertainment, wargame training and inter-military rivalry, scorekeeping and grudge-matching, with a plenty of individual service team-building.

The story, and the audience, follow one Lieutenant Maxine Carmichael. Max graduated first in her NeoG Academy class, but has been stationed on Earth ever since, due to the machinations of her rich and powerful family. A family that may have all-but-disowned and abandoned her on the day that she announced she was joining the NeoG instead of either the more prestigious Navy, like her parents and older brother, or the family firm, like her sister.

They abandoned her in the hopes that she would fall back into their cold and distant arms and toe the family line. Instead, she excelled at the career that she had chosen. But then, she never did fit in with the rest of the family.

Still, they pulled strings to keep her stationed safely on Earth – whether that’s what she wanted or not. Then again, what Max wanted seems to have never mattered a damn to her family. When she finally had enough, she applied to be an Interceptor, part of one of the close-knit crews that patrolled the space lanes for contraband, pirates, and general bad actors of all types. There are NO interceptors serving on Earth, so she finally has her posting out in the black as the story opens.

Having achieved her goals does not mean that she isn’t carrying all the emotional baggage her parents loaded her down with and that she doesn’t still have all the buttons they installed. Max has the basics to do her job and do it well, but she has a long way to go to learn how to become a part of a team that treats all its members like family.

Because she has no good experiences of family. At all.

A Pale Light in the Black is Max’s story as she becomes part of the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, finds her place in the NeoG and in the found family that is her ship and crew. And figures out just how to help her team win this year’s Boarding Games.

Meanwhile, Max, her crew, her friends and even her entire branch of the service are investigating an age-old grudge between her family firm and the rivals that everyone believed were long dead. A grudge that could destroy, not just her family, but take half the human population along with it.

No pressure. Compared to that, the Boarding Games are a piece of cake!

Escape Rating A++: I realize that I’m basically squeeing all over the page here. I absolutely loved this book. And there’s enough to unpack to keep me busy until the next book in the series comes out.

First, the worldbuilding here is awesome. Also in a peculiar way a bit scary, because this isn’t a direct progression from our now until then. Instead, we are now in the pre-Collapse world, and our right now is pretty much the “last good time” for a long time. The Collapse Wars are coming, and after that, in about 400 years or so, we reach the time period of the story. “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.”

I love the way that the author demonstrates that we as a species have also left a whole lot of crap behind on that way between here and there. Not by making a big deal about it, but by showing that things are different through the lack of so much stupid fuss in everyday life. We are capable of better as a species, we just seem to need very hard lessons to reach that point.

Second, this is great competence porn. By that I mean that everyone, not just our hero but everyone in NeoG, is seen to be doing their jobs well all the time. Even the evil people are good at what they do, just that what they do is terrible. But it is terrific to watch and especially identify with a whole lot of folks who are not just dedicated to their jobs but where the ability to do the job well is expected. Heroism is extra. It was also different to see such good competence porn in a story that does not deal with basic training of any kind.

Not that Max doesn’t have plenty to learn, but we don’t follow her going through the Academy. Instead, we follow her as she learns to let down her emotional guards, to let herself accept and be accepted, to figure out what she’s good at and let herself internalize that she has skills and is good enough in all sorts of ways. Her doubts and fears make her human – and they make her easy to identify with and especially empathize with. We all have a little impostor syndrome in us, after all.

Max, however, is actually way beyond good enough, but that’s part of the lesson she needs to learn.

Max’s first year on Zuma’s Ghost, and the timetable for the Boarding Games provide the structure for the story. At the same time, the ghosts that Max has to deal with, the wounds that she needs to heal from, were all inflicted by her family.

And the case that Zuma’s Ghost has to solve, the smugglers and pirates that they have to catch, also deal with her family. The way that Max goes from feeling caught in the middle to knowing exactly where she stands is a big part of her journey. A journey that in many ways reminds me of the character of Ky Vatta in the Vatta’s War and Vatta’s Peace series(es). Ky has to deal with many of the same conflicts between military duty and family obligations. If you like Ky you’ll love Max and vice-versa.

I can’t wait to see where Max – and Zuma’s Ghost – go next!