Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds (Legion, #1-3) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1-3
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

My Review:

I’ve already read (actually had read to me) the first two Legion books, Legion and Skin Deep. And I absolutely loved both of them. So…when this book popped up on Edelweiss, and it included the final Legion book, Lies of the Beholder, I just had to grab it.

Upon opening this one, I dove right into Lies of the Beholder. So if you are interested in my thoughts on the first two books, check out my reviews of Legion and Skin Deep here at Reading Reality.

I’m going to concentrate on Lies of the Beholder. But I can do that because I’ve already read the first two. The Legion series turns out to be one long story, just broken into three parts. You really need to read the whole thing to get the point at the end. Which, by the way, is marvelous and absolutely fitting.

Also just a bit of a mind screw, but then, so is the entire life of Stephen Leeds.

What makes Stephen Leeds so interesting is the way that his mind works. It’s a very busy, and well-populated, place.

He is definitely a genius. The question is whether or not he’s insane. It’s all because of his rather unique way of handling what would otherwise be an out-of-control genius. Leeds absorbs everything he hears, everything he sees.

I think there’s a metaphor for our current age of information glut in there someplace.

The problem for Leeds is processing and synthesis. There is just so much input, all the time, that he can’t control it all enough for it to make sense, or for him to function. Too often, it felt like he was experiencing hallucinations as every piece of data everywhere he went needed to get his attention.

A woman named Sandra taught him a way out the labyrinth. She taught him to take all the input and siphon it off into “aspects”. Those aspects function as independent identities within Leeds’ mind. He sees them as individual people, and to him they have personalities and life histories. They also contain all his knowledge in a particular area. The control the massive amounts of data flowing into his brain and he provides the synthesis.

But when he loses one, he loses all the knowledge that was packed into that aspect. A gaping hole opens in his mind, and he’s temporarily even more lost than normal.

As Lies of the Beholder opens, he’s losing his aspects. Some of them just leave, but some of them go insane and kill some of the others. It feels like he’s losing bits of himself – only because he is.

In the midst of his own chaos, Leeds receives a message from the long-missing Sandra. It’s a one word text message – HELP!

He can’t resist. Not only does he desperately want to help the only woman who has ever really understood him, the only one he’s ever loved, but he feels “beholden” to her – he owes her for providing him with the means to control his mind – even if that method is now breaking down.

In searching for Sandra, finding out what’s happened to her, Leeds is forced to rely on himself, and to find the beauty in his own breakdown. He’s offered what feels like a terrible choice, to either let go of everything that makes him who he is, or to try to forge a new way to live, and cope, alone.

This is one of those stories where both the journey and the destination are the point – and it’s a sharp one.

Escape Rating A-: This series is awesome. Also relatively short and entirely complete. As it is all told from Stephen Leeds first-person perspective, it also makes a great audiobook. I listened to the first two and read the final book because I just couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out.

As I said, this does turn out to be one story divided into three parts, so you do need to read it all. But it is so worth it. And I say that even though Leeds’ flails around a bit more than usual in this final entry.

A lot of what makes this series so fascinating is the character of Stephen Leeds. He thinks he’s sane, but that some of his aspects are the ones who are crazy. He claims that he is always aware that the aspects are just hallucinations, but that some of the aspects aren’t willing to admit that to themselves.

In other words, he’s a mass of contradictions.

As a reader, it is easy to get sucked into Leeds’ perspective. The aspects certainly all feel like separate individuals – and often quite interesting individuals in their own right. Many of them are very likeable (particularly Tobias, Ivy and J.C. – Leeds’ own favorites). It would be fun to read their individual backstories and see more from their perspectives. And yes, they do all have backstories and they certainly have individual perspectives on events – or so it seems.

But where the other two stories were both interesting cases that Leeds’ has to solve, they were also stories about him coping with the world in a way that was comfortable for him but didn’t make him grow. Looking back, in those stories he is so comfortable with the life that he has arranged for himself that he doesn’t need to grow or change. While he doesn’t completely love his life as it is, it has certainly become comfortable and easy for him.

This is a story about growth and change, because the structure breaks down and his support system gets kicked out from under him. He has to change, adapt and find a new way forward. Or stop altogether.

That he has the option of becoming, in effect, a lotus-eater and living completely in a dream world makes his choice all the more stark. Because he has been living somewhat in a dream world for years – just one of his own making. When the choice of absolutes is forced upon him, he has to kick out his own supports and live in the real world.

Or does he? His ultimate solution will blow the reader’s mind. It’s one of those endings that makes you rethink the whole story from the very beginning. And makes you want to start the series all over again.

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan FrenchThe Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Lot Lands #1
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A raucous, bawdy, blood-soaked adventure fantasy debut that's The Lord of the Rings reimagined by way of Sons of Anarchy.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man's-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards' existence--one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity's tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion--even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

My Review:

A hero’s journey is still a hero’s journey, even if the hero has tusks, and so does his hog.

In spite of the many comparisons to Sons of Anarchy, the hogs ridden by the Grey Bastards and their half-orc kin are real hogs. The kind that sometimes get turned into bacon – although certainly not in this case. These hogs are bred for riding into battle – and for loyalty to their riders.

The story in The Grey Bastards starts out small, and at the same time in just a bit of in media res. On the one hand, the focus is fairly tight on young Jackal and his band of brothers – even though one of them is actually a sister. Except when she’s not.

The story begins with Jackal’s perspective and Jackal’s point-of-view, in the world that he knows and is completely familiar with – although we don’t. It’s not our world and doesn’t seem to be an analog for any of the traditional mythological or fantasy worlds, in spite of its inclusion of humans, orcs, half-orcs, elves, halflings and centaurs – all under different, descriptive and occasionally vulgar names.

Those familiar casts of beings also have different functions and attributes in this world than in more traditional fantasy. But I hesitate to call these versions twisted because they aren’t that. They feel organic to this created world, just different from what we are used to.

Jackal also doesn’t explain the way that things in his worldview are different from ours, because for him that’s the way it’s always been and always will be – at least at the beginning.

But as the story continues, Jackal’s world expands as the expected patterns of his life begin fragmenting and eventually falling apart. He tries to fix the wrongs that he observes – and they are wrongs – by attempting a takeover of the established order.

However, he’s young and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He may be partly right, but he is also still partly wrong, and just a bit young and dumb. He gets outmaneuvered and is forced to learn about his world as it really is, and not just the way he’s always told that it has been.

It’s clear that the expansion of his worldview is going to be the making of him – if that world survives the chaos that is rapidly descending upon it.

Escape Rating A+: There are going to be people who want to label this one grimdark. Jackal’s world is certainly in a state of decay, and there are plenty of times when his situation seems pretty grim. But this world isn’t operating in the shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark, in spite of the title.

Jackal wants to make things better. That the situation is actually worse than he has any clue about when the story begins doesn’t change the fact that he is always trying to improve the situation for not just his own people but also anyone else that he comes across who seems to be innocent or downtrodden or just caught up in a bad mess that is not of their own making.

Not that he isn’t more than willing to kill anyone on the other side – particularly those who perpetrated some of the “wrong” situations he comes across. He’s not sweetness and light, he’s a warrior from a brutal and warlike people, but he is trying to leave his world better than he found it.

It’s just that he’s naive enough in the beginning not to see just how bad it is – and how much worse it’s going to get. But he does seem to have a very real chance of fixing at least some of the things – once he gets his head out of his own ass.

There are certainly things about The Grey Bastards that will perturb some readers. The book is incredibly profane. Nearly all of the characters in this book cuss as much as Kiva Lagos in The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. These two books otherwise have nothing to do with one another, except that both are first books in series that look to be awesome. But Kiva’s constant stream of cussing is epic in scope. None of the individual characters in The Grey Bastards cuss as much as Kiva does alone, but the sum totals feel similar. And equally appropriate for the characters and the story.

There is also a thread of what could be considered misogyny throughout The Grey Bastards, and not just because the story opens in a brothel. The leader of Jackal’s settlement claims that females are only good for two things, and I quote, “fucking and fetching.” His attitude, that females are only capable of being whores, bedwarmers (whores with only one partner) or errand runners is one that seems to be commonly held among the half-orcs – or at least the old guard.

At the same time, the pivotal character in this story is Fetching, the only female member of the warband. And her importance to the story is not as a love interest, but as a formidable fighter and one who ultimately makes the crucial decisions and takes up the mantle of leadership.

Many of the other strong and/or important characters are also female, the elf female Starling who helps to create a critical partnership and Beryl, the adopted mother of virtually the entire half-orc clan. They are, in every way, the equal of any of the males – and their roles in the story are much more important than most.

It feels like a “do as I say, not as I do” dichotomy. The world seems to be male dominated, while at the same time the female characters are crucial and mostly not in traditional female or in only traditional female roles. And it does seem to be one of the things that Jackal finds repugnant at least some of the time.

On my third hand, there’s definitely an attitude that all the whores are happy and enjoy their work and don’t wish for anything different. And while that’s theoretically possible, it feels beyond unlikely.

Obviously I have divided feelings on this particular score.

While I am completely out of hands on this, one of the things that I found fascinating was the way that foundational myths were used for so many purposes. Jackal and his cohort are taught a version of their story that was designed to inspire pride and loyalty AND cover up ugly truths. When it becomes necessary for Jackal to learn more and BE more, he is forced into learning the REAL truth about the formation of the Lot Lands and their true purpose in the scheme of things. While that truth doesn’t exactly set him free, it does give him better perspective and even more reasons to fight – and it also changes the battlefield.

I absolutely do not have divided feelings on the book as a whole. It was a compelling read from its intimate beginning to its eye-popping and world-breaking end. It feels like the opening of a huge, sprawling, brawling, epic fantasy series.I want more, and I want it now. But I’ll have to wait just a bit. The True Bastards ride next July.

Joint Review: All Systems Red / Artificial Condition / Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #1
Pages: 144
Published by Tor.com on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
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In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

 

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #2
Pages: 158
Published by Tor.com on May 8th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
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It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

 

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #3
Pages: 158
Published by Tor.com on August 7th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Goodreads

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

Our Review:

Marlene: I read the first three Murderbot books in a binge one day. I was looking for something a bit different, I was still very much on an SF kick after WorldCon, and I thought, “what the hell, they’re short”. I did not expect to gobble them up one right after the other, and now they are all in a heap in my head, hence the multiple book review. That Galen had read them all in a heap just a couple of days before had absolutely no influence whatsoever on my decision to take the plunge. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Galen: I blame, of course, thousands of people, starting first with Hugo Gernsback. The Murderbot series hadn’t really impinged on my consciousness prior to the the Tor.com/TorBooks upcoming releases panel at WorldCon, where they mentioned the upcoming release of Exit Strategy (which Marlene and I also read; review will come closer to its publication). What sealed the deal, however, was seeing Martha Wells walking up to the stage the night of the Hugo Award ceremony to accept a rocket for All Systems Red. Hundreds of Hugo voters can’t be wrong, right? Well sometimes… but not that day!

Marlene: According to Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos, the voters get it wrong about 30% of the time – but this definitely wasn’t one of those times.

This story is told in the first person singular, in Murderbot’s very singular voice. I’m going to use “it” to refer to Murderbot, because Murderbot has no gender – and is very specific on multiple occasions that it doesn’t need one, doesn’t want one, and wouldn’t have one at gunpoint. As a being who has been forced to observe human behavior in all its messy minutiae for days of tedium upon end, Murderbot sees gender as one of our many, many useless attributes.

Galen: Murderbot’s voice carries the series. But who is Murderbot? It is a SecUnit: a construct combining machine parts and human-derived tissues with both a human nervous system and artificial intelligence. Oh, and lots of built-in weapons — and security protocols and expertise bar none. (One of the reasons Murderbot is not a far-future Pinocchio? It rightly judges that most humans are pretty rubbish as security units.)

In other words, SecUnits are dangerous and most humans find them unnerving. Like many SecUnits, Murderbot gets rented out by the corporation that owns it to provide security; in Muderbot’s case, for a small planetary survey team — and one SecUnit suffices. What keeps SecUnits from running amok? A governor unit… which Murderbot has disabled, making it its own construct. Freeing it to…. watch hours and hours of bad sci fi soap operas when it’s not on duty.

Marlene: Murderbot may be a bit more “human” than it would like to think. Spending its downtime watching (and re-watching) bad sci fi soap operas strikes this reader as a sign of the humanity that Murderbot would disavow rather strenuously.

But speaking of Murderbot, it named itself that. SecUnits don’t have individual names, and if they have individual numbers or unit designations we don’t see that. By hacking its governor unit, Murderbot has given itself free will, although it could be argued that it would have needed at least some free will to decide to hack its governor unit in the first place!

However, it knows that if anyone in authority discovers its hack, it will be forcibly re-governed – or just stripped for parts. So part of its internal commentary is about its necessity to keep its freedom a secret at all costs – and the way that freedom conflicts with its programming to keep its clients alive.

As Galen said above, Murderbot is certain that humans are rubbish as security units. In fact, it thinks humans are rubbish at dealing with security issues at all. It’s always seen a part of its job as doing its best to prevent its human clients from doing stupid things and endangering themselves against its instructions. Now that it has free will, it has to constantly weigh how active it should be in preventing that stupidity.

The more I talk about Murderbot’s free will, the more it reminds me of Shale the golem in Dragon Age Origins, who also has unexpected free will after her (she does discover she has gender after all) controller rod is irretrievably broken. Without those years of watching bad broadcast melodrama, Shale has much less feeling for the other members of her party than Murderbot does for at least some of its clients. Just as TV has often been used by immigrants to learn the language of their new country, Murderbot has also used entertainment media to learn the language of what is effectively its new country, the world of self-willed, independent-thinking augmented humans. Murderbot is just a bit more augmented than most.

But we should probably get back to the books themselves, shouldn’t we?

Galen: As I mentioned, in All Systems Red Murderbot finds itself on a contract to provide security for the PreservationAux team doing a planetary survey. While some of the local wildlife are indeed looking for a light lunch of Dr. Mensah and her folks, the team finds itself with a bigger problem: another team wants Mensah’s group off the planet… and doesn’t necessarily care how. Keeping the team alive and exposing their antagonists occupies most of the plot. Along the way, Murderbot has to make some disclosures, work on dealing with humans outside the confines of soap opera plots, and at the end, choose its freedom. Why the PreservationAux team found itself is such hot water is the central mystery of the rest of the Murderbot Diaries sequence.

In Artificial Conditions, Murderbot learns how to simulate human behavior better under the tutelage of a cargo starship and seeks to find the answer to another mystery: why, apparently, prior to the events of All Systems Red, did it run amok and kill the group of miners it was supposed to protect? Along the way, it finds itself helping yet another group of humans with no clue about proper security… or rather, it chose to, somewhat to its surprise.

In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot travels onward to investigate the original mystery: what was so important that PreservationAux couldn’t be allowed to see? It ends up on a terraforming station that was abandoned, and finds itself protecting yet another group of hapless humans who are also investigating the mystery. This time, Murderbot does have the help of human security specialists… though that is a decidedly mixed blessing. This culminates in a decision to return… home?… and leads us to the final novella (so far) in this sequence, Exit Strategy, which we’ll review later this year.

Marlene: Exit Strategy may be the current final novella in the Murderbot Diaries, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the ending. I could be wrong, but I hope I’m not.

The story, at least so far, seems to be Murderbot’s journey towards independent personhood. I would compare him to Pinocchio by way of Data, but Data actually does want to be “real boy”, or at least a much closer facsimile than he is at the beginning of Star Trek Next Gen.

Murderbot wants to be itself. It has zero desire to be human. After all, it thinks humans are generally stupid – and it’s generally right on that subject. But it does want to be independent, while at the same it wants purpose, and purpose keeps leading it to more involvement with humans. They need it. One of the truths that it is hesitantly reaching towards is that it needs them.

As uncomfortable as humans, their messy emotions, and Murderbot’s even more emotionally messy reactions to them make it feel, it can’t seem to stay away. It particularly can’t manage to stay away from the PreservationAux crew. They, with one exception, treat Murderbot as a person. Not a human person, but a person with its own needs, wants, desires and oh yes, feelings. Even if Murderbot distances itself as far as it can from dealing with those feelings, first by immersing itself in those terrible SF soap operas, and then by taking itself as far away as possible.

It turns out that even rogue SecUnits can manage to paddle up the river DeNial if they try hard enough – and Murderbot is certainly trying.

Galen: One of the themes of the Murderbot Diaries is duty. After All Systems Red, Murderbot could have chosen to lose itself in soap operas, as it is certainly a good enough security systems hacker to stay off the radar indefinitely. However, it doesn’t do that: it has questions it needs answered. Moreover, although it really would rather not, it continues to interact and protect the humans it runs across. Often that interaction is at a remove—if you can interface with every camera in the room, you don’t need to look someone in the eye—but it happens, and Murderbot gets better at it as the novellas progress. And—horrors—Murderbot just might find family, of a sorts. But on its own terms, as its own being.

Marlene: Murderbot does, indeed, have lots and lots of questions – and is willing to stick itself in harm’s way to get them answered. It can’t seem to resist helping the humans it comes across, even as it snarks about their behavior, bodily functions, and general ineptitude. Their emotions make it uncomfortable, but it has a difficult time within itself dealing with that discomfort. Looking people in the eye forces it to admit that there is an “I”, and that’s not something it is quite ready to face. But it might. Someday.

Galen’s Escape Rating A-: The Murderbot Diaries depend on the strength of Murderbot’s voice. Fortunately, it’s up to the task: a human/artificial construct with anxiety and a sense of snark that’s never unbearing, and has learned from its soap operas how to tell a good yarn.

Marlene’s Escape Rating A-: Galen is correct that the Murderbot Diaries depend on Murderbot’s voice, not just its storytelling ability, but also its strengths, its weaknesses and in the end, its, well, humanity for lack of a better term. At times, Murderbot seems like a cross between an urban fantasy or noir snarky detective and Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At times, it can come across as a child savant, in that it knows so much about hacking and security and so little about human emotions or how to cope with its own. Or even admit to its own. Its growth as a person from the All Systems Red to Rogue Protocol is fascinating to watch – and continues apace in Exit Strategy.

I hope Murderbot’s diaries continue.

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe KennedyExile of the Seas (The Chronicles of Dasnaria #2) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #2
Pages: 420
Published by Rebel Base Books on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Around the shifting borders of the Twelve Kingdoms, trade and conflict, danger and adventure put every traveler on guard . . . but some have everything to lose.

ESCAPEDOnce she was known as Jenna, Imperial Princess of Dasnaria, schooled in graceful dance and comely submission. Until the man her parents married her off to almost killed her with his brutality.

Now, all she knows is that the ship she’s boarded is bound away from her vicious homeland. The warrior woman aboard says Jenna’s skill in dancing might translate into a more lethal ability. Danu’s fighter priestesses will take her in, disguise her as one of their own—and allow her to keep her silence.

But it’s only a matter of time until Jenna’s monster of a husband hunts her down. Her best chance to stay hidden is to hire out as bodyguard to a caravan traveling to a far-off land, home to beasts and people so unfamiliar they seem like part of a fairy tale. But her supposed prowess in combat is a fraud. And sooner or later, Jenna’s flight will end in battle—or betrayal . . .

My Review:

Exile of the Seas is a middle book that absolutely does not have even a trace of middle-book syndrome. And that’s marvelous.

The Chronicles of Dasnaria are a prequel/sidequel to the author’s absolutely awesomesauce Twelve Kingdoms series. As a prequel it is not required to have read the Twelve Kingdoms before beginning this series As the Chronicles of Dasnaria have continued we have met some of the characters who will be major players in the Twelve Kingdoms, but it hasn’t happened yet, as they are all still children, or at least teenagers, at this point in their stories.

However, it is crucial – albeit heartrending, that one read the first book in the Chronicles of Dasnaria, Prisoner of the Crown, before essaying into Exile of the Seas. The Chronicles of Dasnaria, are the story of former Crown Princess Jenna of Dasnaria. In order to appreciate where she finds herself at the beginning of Exile of the Seas, and why she begins her transformation from Princess Jenna to Priestess Ivariel, it is necessary to see where she came from and why she fled. And definitely what she is fleeing from.

Her courage often feels of the one step forward, two steps back variety, but considering the events of Prisoner of the Crown, one is constantly amazed that she found that courage AT ALL, let alone enough of it to not merely leave but to defy every expectation that her society has of women in general or herself in particular.

Like Prisoner of the Crown, this feels like a story about becoming. In the first book, Jenna was mostly a victim, over and over and over. What saved the whole book from being merely a litany of despair and disaster was the ending, where Jenna escapes with the help of her brother Harlan.

But escape is not enough. The women of the seraglio are hothouse flowers, pets and playthings, with no tools or experience to allow them to live outside its walls. Jenna may be physically out, but mentally she has not yet begun to escape its confines. A free woman anywhere else in her world has many more options than she ever believed were possible. This is the story of her learning to grasp for at least some of those options.

The story begins with a fortuitous meeting. Or possibly a goddess-ordained one. Aboard the ship Robin, bound for anywhere away from Dasnaria, the frightened and ignorant Jenna crosses paths with Kaja, a priestess of Danu. In a bit of foreshadowing, Kaja is on her way to the court of the Twelve Kingdoms to guard the Queen and train her daughter Ursula in the way of the warrior. But Kaja feels that her goddess has led her to Jenna, to provide Jenna with aid in her quest to escape Dasnaria – or to at least be ready for it to return and attempt to reclaim her.

Under Kaja’s brief but extremely effective tutelage, Jenna becomes Ivariel, and takes the first steps on the road to becoming a warrior priestess of Danu. She takes vows of both silence and chastity – to cover both her accent and her complete unwillingness – or inability – to cope with anyone’s sexuality, including her own.

As Kaja makes her way to her destiny, Jenna, now Ivariel, lets the goddess guide her steps. Steps that take her far, far, away from Dasnaria, to a place where “seeing the elephant” is not just a metaphor.

But in keeping with that metaphor, Ivariel gains experience of her world at significant cost – but not only to herself.

Escape Rating A-: I didn’t pick up on that resonance, between seeing the elephants and “seeing the elephant” until just now. Jenna has always had a dream of seeing elephants – its a dream she was even punished for in the seraglio. Women in Dasnaria don’t get to see much of anything, and certainly not the elephants that live in far away places.

“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th century Americanism that refers to gaining experience at great cost, and was often used in conjunction with serving in the Mexican-American War or the Civil War, or heading west on one of the great stagecoach drives, or of participating in the Gold Rush.

All times and places where a lot of people got a whole lot of experience through a whole lot of hardship, peril and pain. As does Jenna/Ivariel in her own way.

For followers of the Twelve Kingdoms series, it is fascinating to see a completely different part of this world. But it IS a completely different place, so new readers get to see it for the first time along with the rest of us.

This is Jenna’s story as she transforms into Ivariel. We see her grow and stretch and reach out – and sometimes pull back. This is a story of her healing and becoming – even though some of that process is painful, bloody and violent. It feels necessary for her to get past what she lived, and the way that she accomplishes that feels right for her – if not for the faint of heart.

Because the arc of this book is on a constant rise, it does not have any of the feel of a middle book. This is overall a positive story, something that middle-books seldom are. She grows, she changes, she gets better, she takes a step backward and then she reaches forward again. She stumbles, she falls, she doubts, she gets up and tries again.

And after the pain she experienced in the first book, it is not merely good but downright cathartic to see her begin to come into her own.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series, Warrior of the World, coming this winter. A trip to hot Nyambura should warm at least one chilly January night.

Review: Undetected by Anna Hackett

Review: Undetected by Anna HackettUndetected (Treasure Hunter Security #8) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance
Series: Treasure Hunter Security #8
Pages: 222
Published by Anna Hackett on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Darcy Ward has sold her soul to the devil. Okay, not quite the devil, but she did agree to work with Agent Arrogant and Annoying—aka Special Agent Alastair Burke of the FBI’s Art Crime Team to lay a trap for infamous black-market antiquities ring, Silk Road.

Darcy loves shoes, computers, caffeine, and working at her family business, Treasure Hunter Security. The only thing missing is her dream of a once-in-a-lifetime love, like her parents share, and a man who’ll put her first. She’s not so crazy about Silk Road trying to kill her family and friends, nor is she fond of an order-giving FBI agent and his distracting cologne. Using a trio of cursed diamonds as bait, she’s working hard to set a trap for Silk Road in the Dashwood Museum, but as the black-market thieves escalate their attempts to stop Darcy, she finds herself swept into Alastair’s strong, protective arms.

Alastair Burke is driven by vengeance. He’s dedicated his life to taking down Silk Road and its mysterious leader, the Collector, and now he finally has his chance. He can’t allow anything to distract him—especially not a sassy, smart woman who tests every bit of his control. But as the opening gala of the cursed diamonds exhibit approaches, the thieves target him and Darcy with a series of deadly attacks…and Alastair realizes he’ll do anything to keep her safe.

With the FBI and the former SEALs of Treasure Hunter Security at their backs, Darcy and Alastair are caught up in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, and their fierce attraction. But with lives on the line, Alastair will find himself caught between his desire for revenge and keeping the woman he’s falling for alive.

My Review:

Darcy Ward thinks of Alastair Burke as Agent AA – otherwise called Agent Arrogant and Annoying – with all the words capitalized. But as devoted readers of the Treasure Hunter Security series are well aware, those AA letters could also refer to the power in Darcy’s battery-operated-boyfriend, because whether she wants to admit it or not – and she definitely doesn’t – Burke gets her all hot and bothered. And not nearly enough of either the hot or the bothered has to do with the way he goes out of his way to piss her off at every turn.

Growing up with two ex-Navy SEAL brothers (brother Declan’s story is in Undiscovered and brother Callum’s in Uncharted) Darcy would either come to really, really detest Alpha males, or want one of her very own. She only thinks she detests the idea, as she discovers that Burke pushes all of her buttons, both the angry and the erotic.

What she really wants is a relationship just like the ones that her brothers have found, and the one that her parents have. The romance between archaeologist Oliver Ward and treasure hunter Persephone Blake is in The Emerald Tear, part of the Unidentified duology. They have the kind of romance that makes readers swoon, even if those same readers can also see that they are so absorbed in each other (still!) that their now-adult children would both envy them and feel a bit left out of their attention to each other.

While it isn’t necessary to have read the entire series to enjoy Undetected, it probably is. Yes, I contradicted myself. This author makes me do that – and tie myself up in knots waiting for her next book.

Undetected is the culmination of the entire Treasure Hunter Security series. Darcy and Burke’s relationship has been simmering since they first met, and by this eighth book in the series, it’s finally boiling over. At the same time, the scenario for the entire adventure from beginning to end was unknowingly kicked off by Oliver and Persephone in The Emerald Tear. So in addition to the smoking hot romance between Darcy and Burke, the adventure part of this action-adventure romance is payback for everything that has happened in the intervening decades as well as all the previous books in the series.

That’s a lot of plot threads to tie off. The book works a whole lot better if the reader has knowledge of those plot threads getting tied on in the first place. And this series is terrific. If you like action adventure mixed with romance and haven’t read THS, and/or if you have fond memories of the movie Romancing the Stone, this series is a real treat from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A-: But speaking of ends, Undetected is definitely it. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of Imperator, the highly anticipated final book in Hackett’s Galactic Gladiators series, in that the relationship in the book has been anticipated from early in the series, and the way that it brings the series as a whole to a successful conclusion.

As much as I loved the way that Undetected brings the entire series to an epic conclusion, it’s the romance between Darcy and Burke that really makes this story work.

By this point in the series, we know Darcy pretty well. She is the co-owner of THS with her brothers, and is also their resident computer hacker/genius extraordinaire. She has an important part to play in all of their “encounters” with the Silk Road gang. But laying this particular trap for the criminals has Darcy front and center. Not that they won’t need a whole lot of serious muscle to take down these bastards, but if the setup isn’t absolutely air-tight, said bastards will get away yet again.

It’s Darcy’s job to make sure the set-up is properly set-up from every conceivable angle. It’s Special Agent Alastair Burke’s job to make sure that Darcy is protected so that she can do that job.

But being constantly in Darcy’s orbit breaks Burke out of his self-imposed laser focus on taking down Silk Road. The more time they spend together, and admittedly the more times that Silk Road targets her, the more he is forced to realize just what she means to him. The humanization of the nearly robotic agent we first met is what makes this romance sing. Or gives it its zing. Or both.

For fans of the THS series, Undetected is a treat from beginning to end. And if you haven’t yet begun the series, start with Undiscovered and enjoy the ride!

Review: What Makes This Book So Great / An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton
Format read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genre: nonfiction, books and reading, science fiction, fantasy
Length: 446
Publisher: Tor Books
Date Released: January 21st 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

As any reader of Jo Walton’s Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series.

Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field’s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

 

An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton
Format read: eARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genre: nonfiction, books and reading, science fiction, fantasy
Length: 576
Publisher: Tor Books
Date Released: August 7th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious award in science fiction.

Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for Tor.com, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year’s full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time.

Walton’s cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field’s historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into this book, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, Gardner Dozois, and the late David G. Hartwell.

Engaged, passionate, and consistently entertaining, this is a book for the many who enjoyed Walton’s previous collection of writing from Tor.com, the Locus Award-winning What Makes This Book So Great.

My Review:

I read these in reverse order. I started reading An Informal History of the Hugos while I was at Worldcon, anticipating the upcoming Hugo Awards ceremony. I was also looking for something big that I wouldn’t have to write up in the middle of the con, because that just wasn’t happening.

But once I finished the book, especially after attending a panel hosted by the author that covered which great books in 2017 did not make the Hugo Ballot, I wasn’t ready to quit. And there was another book just waiting for me.

Admittedly, it was just a bit surreal reading about what made older books so great while I was waiting for panels to start that talked about what new books were/would be so great. But it was a good kind of surreal.

After one panel where I wanted to buy “all the things” and started doing so on Amazon as the panel was running, I finally figured out that might be a bit much, even for me. So I started a list that just got longer and longer and LONGER as the con went on.

Something to look forward to.

But right now I’m looking back at two very interesting books that just go together, not only because they were written by the same person.

Both of these books are, in their own way, a bit meta. They are books that talk about books. They also talk about the joys of, and the experience of, reading. If either one of those is your jam, they make for marvelous reads. They are also great to dip in and out of. While both books are rather long, they are divided up into short, easily digestible – or dippable – sections.

But while there are similarities, there are also differences.

What Makes This Book So Great is very personal. The book is made up of a series of blog posts that were originally posted at Tor.com, but this is, unquestionably, the author’s point of view. Like all readers, she loves what she loves, and also hates what she hates. And isn’t one bit shy about explaining about either.

Even when I disagreed with her, and I often did, this was fun to read because it felt like we had similar experiences of reading and thoughts about reading and its joys. Even if I occasionally wondered what she was thinking about certain books. There are some arguments I would just love to have, as well as some books I’ve passed by that suddenly sound awfully interesting.

Among Others by Jo WaltonIf you read and loved Among Others, this book will feel strangely familiar. It was obvious in Among Others that this was an author who loved the genre and had read extremely widely in it. This book feels like just the tip of that reading iceberg – which must be enormous.

An Informal History of the Hugos is a bit less personal, but no less interesting. The Hugos began in 1955, and have been presented annually every since. We know what won, and what it won for. For the past several decades we also know what was nominated. And it’s not difficult to figure out what was eligible in any given year, even those earliest years – even if it is a pain for the pre-internet years.

This book does not set out to provide the author’s opinion about what should have won in any given year – not that we don’t get a lovely slice of that. Instead, it looks at what was eligible in each year, what got nominated (if available), what won other awards that year (if applicable) and what won the Hugo. And attempts to determine whether what appeared on the Hugo ballot was of decent quality and reasonably represented the state of the field that year.

It makes for a fun to read time capsule of SF history. As someone who has been reading SF for a long time, but not for the span of the awards, I have to admit that the discussion of the earliest years felt a bit academic, or at least distant, at least to me.

When the book really picks up for me turned out to be 1971. I was 14, reading more fantasy than SF, but some of each. And most importantly, had enough of an allowance to spend on books. So that’s the point where I remember seeing things in the racks, even if I didn’t buy them myself (or check them out of the local library).

I was fascinated from that point forward, seeing what else was available that I missed or wasn’t ready for or couldn’t afford. And it was cool to not just read each year afterwards, but to see how many of the eligible books I had read at the time. It brought back a lot of fond memories.

And I still have some of those books.

The author stopped in 2000, ironically the first year I attended Worldcon. While her reasons make sense, a part of me wishes she had continued. I’d love to read what she thought of the nominees and winners earlier in this decade, during the puppy farrago. Maybe we’ll see those posts in another decade or so, after the dust has settled a bit.

But part of what makes this book so fascinating is its premise – and her conclusions. Did the Hugo voters mostly represent the field? Were most of the nominees of high enough quality to justify their inclusion on the ballot? Were there some books that seem blindingly obvious in retrospect that were completely overlooked at the time? Did they occasionally miss the boat, or not merely the boat but also the body of water it was floating on?

The answer makes for an interesting – and highly debate worthy – yes all the way around. Read it and see if you agree.

Ratings: I’m not sure whether these qualify for “Escape” or “Reality” ratings. I was surprised at how much I lost myself inside each book. But at the same time, they are very meta, nonfiction about fiction.

There’s no question that you have to be a genre fan to be interested in An Informal History of the Hugos. What Makes This Book So Great is mostly, but not completely, SF and fantasy. (I loved the commentary on one of my all-time favorite books, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers).It also has a lot to say about the joys and experience of reading, regardless of genre, so it will be of interest to anyone who likes to read about reading, and is open-minded, or at least less particular, about genre.

Whether an escape, reality, or a bit of both, I put both of these books on the B+/A- fence.

Happy Reading!

Review: City of Ink by Elsa Hart

Review: City of Ink by Elsa HartCity of Ink (Li Du Novels #3) by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Li Du #3
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Following the enthralling 18th century Chinese mysteries Jade Dragon Mountain and White Mirror, comes the next Li Du adventure in Whisper of Ink.

Li Du was prepared to travel anywhere in the world except for one place: home. But to unravel the mystery that surrounds his mentor’s execution, that’s exactly where he must go.

Plunged into the painful memories and teeming streets of Beijing, Li Du obtains a humble clerkship that offers anonymity and access to the records he needs. He is beginning to make progress when his search for answers buried in the past is interrupted by murder in the present.

The wife of a local factory owner is found dead, along with a man who appears to have been her lover, and the most likely suspect is the husband. But what Li Du’s superiors at the North Borough Office are willing to accept as a crime of passion strikes Li Du as something more calculated. As past and present intertwine, Li Du’s investigations reveal that many of Beijing’s residents ― foreign and Chinese, artisan and official, scholar and soldier ― have secrets they would kill to protect.

When the threats begin, Li Du must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to discover the truth in a city bent on concealing it, a city where the stroke of a brush on paper can alter the past, change the future, prolong a life, or end one.

My Review:

Like its absolutely marvelous predecessors, Jade Dragon Mountain and The White Mirror, City of Ink is an immersive journey into 18th century China that pulls the reader all the way in and doesn’t let go even after the end.

In other words, I finished this last night and I still have a terrible book hangover. A part of me is with the storyteller Hamza, still following Li Du around Beijing in search of solutions, both to the seemingly sordid murder that has his current attention and his quest to find justice for his friend and mentor, whose earlier crimes sent Li Du into exile before the beginning of his story (at least to us) in Jade Dragon Mountain.

As City of Ink begins, Li Du has been back in Beijing for two years. At the end of The White Mirror it was obvious that he was planning to turn back towards home, and he has done so But his exile is now 9 years in the past, and events in the capital have moved on from where they were when he left.

His beloved library is no more – or at least it is no longer staffed by librarians like Li Du. His wife divorced him in the wake of his exile, and even though that exile was rescinded by a grateful emperor at the end of Jade Dragon Mountain, his marriage is over, as is his career.

We return to this world to find Li Du as an overqualified clerk in a lowly office, assisting his supervisor (and cousin) by performing all of the clerical work that the other man has no desire to do. As overqualified as Li Du is for the job, it leaves him plenty of time to surreptitiously search other offices for documents relating to the crime his mentor was accused of. Li Du has discovered that the man was innocent – and needs to prove it – if only to his own satisfaction.

After two years he believes he has reached the end of the trail. He has found the man who links all of the other conspirators in that long-ago treason. Or at least links all of the others except his old friend. But his confrontation with the man proves unsatisfactory, leaving Li Du at loose ends.

His interest is taken up by what at first seems like a simple murder case. It is the job of his office to investigate crimes before turning the evidence over to the magistrates, and this crime seems simple enough. A man and a woman are found dead in a locked room at the site of her husband’s business. It looks like the husband found them in flagrante delicto and killed them both in a drunken rage. Under these particular circumstances, the crime will be forgiven.

But Li Du, as usual, finds that all is not as it initially seems. The husband, after all, believes that he would at least remember murdering his wife and her lover, no matter how drunk he was. And he was very, very drunk, but he does not remember committing murder.

Li Du, frustrated in his inability to find justice for his old friend, becomes determined to seek out justice in this case. And refuses to let go no matter how often he is first requested and then ordered to turn it over to the magistrate. Where the magistrate sees the later suicide of the husband as proof of his guilt, Li Du merely sees it as proof that the prison guards can be bribed – only because they can be.

Just as with the cases in both Jade Dragon Mountain and The White Mirror, Li Du is left to navigate the conflicting possibilities of not just who benefits from these particular murders, but also who benefits from covering them up.

And finds himself led right back to the place where he began, unravelling the mystery that left his old friend convicted of a treason that he certainly did not commit.

Escape Rating A: I started this on the plane from California, and wasn’t ready to let it go when I landed. And I’m still not.

Usually when I get really invested in a mystery series, it’s because of the characters. But when I get this invested in a fantasy or science fiction series, it is often all about the worldbuilding. The Li Du series are unusual for me in that it isn’t about the characters, it’s about the immersiveness of the world.

This is not to say that I don’t like Li Du, because I do. But he is also a bit of a cypher – or perhaps an onion whose outer skin has just begun to peel back. In his exile, he became extremely wary of revealing much of himself to much of anyone – and that is even more true in his return to Beijing. He is currently hiding much of his light under his bushel basket, and as a consequence the reader only sees bits of his true self peek out.

But the world, the recreation of early-18th century China, sucks the reader right in and doesn’t let go. This is one of those books where you see the sights, smell the smells, and feel the cobbles under your feet just as Li Du does.

City of Ink, as well as the first book, Jade Dragon Mountain, are very much political mysteries. While Li Du is always following the investigator’s first premise, “Who benefits?”, he is best when he does so in an urban environment redolent with politics and the stink of political corruption. His ability to solve the crime relies on not just his intelligence but also his knowledge of the way that things work in the world that he used to inhabit – that of the Imperial court.

That the catchphrase “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” was not said until more than a century after this series takes place, and half a world away at that, does not change the applicability of the axiom. In City of Ink, it is up to Li Du’s dogged persistence to figure out whose corruption lies at the heart of this case, and whose power is determined to cover it up.

This is a world that I can’t wait to step back into. May Li Du’s journeys long continue!

Review: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

Review: The Phantom Tree by Nicola CornickThe Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Graydon House on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait—supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better. The subject is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr, who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child. And Alison knows this because she, too, was in Wolf Hall...with Mary...in 1557.

The painting of Mary is more than just a beautiful object for Alison—it holds the key to her past life, the unlocking of the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance and how Alison can get back to her own time. But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbors secrets in its shadows...

A spellbinding tale for fans of Kate Morton, Philippa Gregory and Barbara Erskine by the bestselling author of House of Shadows.

My Review:

This one haunts.

We begin this story by being dropped into the middle. Alison Banastre sees a painting purported to be of Anne Boleyn in the window of an antiques shop, and knows immediately that the identification is wrong.

Anne Boleyn did not sit for that 16th century portrait, but Mary Seymour did. Alison is probably the only person in the 21st century who could be so utterly certainly that the sitter was Mary and not Anne because Alison knew Mary.

I don’t mean in the sense of “knowing about” a historical figure. I mean known, as in met, talked with, even lived with, for years. Because Alison was born in the 16th century. She managed to slip through time to escape her world for ours at a time when she was desperately in need of an escape – even if she didn’t know the cost.

And that’s the story. We see both the circumstances in the 1550s and 1560s that set Alison on her course – and we’re with her in the here and now as she deals with what came before – and where she might go from there.

This story is told from two perspectives, Alison’s in the 21st century, and Mary’s in the 16th. We see both how they met and also inside their heads – what they thought of each other. One of the interesting things about the way this story works is that this is not about a bond of friendship.

They don’t even like each other and are, at best, frenemies. But they are also closer than sisters – admittedly sisters with a whole lot of sibling rivalry in the mix. They need each other, and both of them hate to admit it.

In the end, they are bound by a promise. Mary promises to find the son who was taken away from Alison and leave her clues to his fate. Alison promises to come back and find Mary. In the end, they both manage to keep those promises, but not in the way that either of them ever expected.

And it haunts.

Escape Rating A: The Phantom Tree is a timeslip story. Alison manages to literally slip between the 16th century and the 21st, accidentally and repeatedly, until the moment when she really, really needs to go back and discovers that she can’t.

She makes a life in the 21st century, hoping against hope that someday the way will open for her again – and that when it does she’ll know where to go.

While the time travel itself is certainly handwavium, Alison’s dilemmas in both times feel heartfelt and even heartbreaking. In the 16th century she is a woman at the edge of the nobility, always a dependent, always at the mercy of others with more money and power, and as a woman, unable to make her own way in the world. Not that she isn’t willing, but she no skills and little opportunity.

She’s a pawn and an ill-used one at that. She’s also intelligent enough to know it. Her time slipping gives her the chance to escape her fate, one that seems to get worse and worser as her life goes on.

We also feel for her in the 21st century. She is forced to make a life, and manages to do so, in spite of having no 21st century education and no documented background. The prospect of going back to her own time and finding her child is her guiding star – but one that does not prevent her from falling hopelessly in love in the 21st century. And then giving up that love because she can’t be honest about who she is.

Mary’s story makes the 16th century come alive. She is also at the fringe of nobility, and is also a pawn. But she sees the machinations of those who would use her for their own gain, and does her best to survive, thwart them and keep her promise to Alison. She fails at one, and only barely succeeds at the others.

There is a tradition of time travel and time slip stories, and The Phantom Tree stands up well to others of the genre. In some small things, particularly the way that Alison lives in the present but mourns the past, she may remind some readers of Claire in Outlander. The tragic aspects of both Alison’s and Mary’s lives, as well as the time period in which the early parts of their story take place, made me think of Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which revolves around a much different kind of time travel handwavium, but also returns readers to the 16th century and the reign of the Tudors.

Lovers of time slip and time travel fiction will find The Phantom Tree to be a dark, tragic and ultimately triumphant delight.

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Guest Review: Sleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice Davidson

Guest Review: Sleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice DavidsonSleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice Davidson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Fred the Mermaid #1
Pages: 284
Published by Berkley Books on November 28th 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Fred is a mermaid. But stop right there. Whatever image you're thinking of right now, forget it. Fred is not blonde. She's not buxom. And she's definitely not perky. In fact, Fred can be downright cranky. And it doesn't help matters that her hair is blue.

Being a mermaid does help Fred when she volunteers at the New England Aquarium. But, needless to say, it's there that she gets involved in something fishy. Weird levels of toxins have been found in the local seawater. A gorgeous marine biologist wants her help investigating. So does her merperson ruler, the High Prince of the Black Sea. You'd think it would be easy for a mermaid to get to the bottom of things. Think again...

Guest Review by Amy:

Fredrika isn’t what you’re thinking, not even a little. She’s a mermaid–a half-breed, actually–who has lived her whole life among humans. When she gets wet, her legs merge, and scales pop out, and…  well, you know the rest.

But right there is where all connection with most mermaid legends ends. Fred, as she prefers to be called, is pretty, but isn’t breathtakingly gorgeous, because she just doesn’t care; her green/blue hair has split ends all over the place, and she just can’t be bothered. She’s not interested in dating, and hasn’t had a date since that disastrous one six years ago with her boss’s ex-husband. Only her best friend Jonas – whom everyone thinks is gay, apparently – knows that she’s a mermaid.

She’s got a job, of course, as a marine biologist (also of course) at the big aquarium in Boston Harbor. A new guy shows up, concerned about the nastiness of the harbor, and gosh he’s handsome…but then the High Prince of the merfolk swims into town, with the same concern!

Escape Rating: A-: Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for “paranormal romances” that aren’t about vampires or werewolves. Not many are published, so from time to time, I nose around my local used bookstore and see if there’s anything interesting to me. “Oh, hey! Mermaids!” I thought to myself, finding this little book.  “That’s different.”

…little did I know. “Paranormal” fits, because, well, merfolk, but “romance?” I find myself challenged to call it that. The romance just isn’t where you expect it in this story, nor does it follow any of the conventional patterns: Fred does get a bit kissy with these two hunky gents who turn up suddenly in her life, sure, and both of them are intent on catching her, but she’s just not having it right now – our mermaid heroine has a job to do. There is one rather-steamy sex scene in here – but she’s not in it!

The entire action of this story takes place over just a few days, and that adds to the somewhat frenzied feel of this book. Things happen fast here, so pay attention to the details while you’re reading it, or you might miss something important. In addition to Fred’s frustration with two men who are more set on landing her than solving the problem they are ostensibly there to solve, we have Fred’s nosy boss, the frumpy director of the aquarium (who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid, remember?) sniffing around wondering about that huge hunk (The Prince, natch) who has suddenly appeared on the scene, the fish in Main One are on a hunger strike and Fred can’t seem to convince them to eat without blasting Pet Shop Boys on the loudspeakers, the captain of the aquarium’s research boat can’t stand Fred because rather ironically, she gets seasick and panics on boats, the ditzy, chirpy intern, Fred’s shellfish allergy…and on and on. There’s lots to take in here, in a very short space of time, and it took me two reads to catch it all.

Fortunately for me, Sleeping with the Fishes is a hilariously fun read! Author MaryJanice Davidson has packed this book from cover to cover with Fred’s wry humor, outrageous stereotypes, and some of the best wisecracks and one-liners I’ve read in quite a while. If I was a serious reviewer of highbrow fiction, I’d tear this book apart, but I’m not. I’m a reader who likes something silly and unexpected and fun once in a while. If that’s you also, give this story and the series it opens a look.

Review: Mission: Her Protection by Anna Hackett

Review: Mission: Her Protection by Anna HackettMission: Her Protection (Team 52 #1) by Anna Hackett by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance
Series: Team 52 #1
Pages: 226
Published by Anna Hackett on August 14th, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

When Rowan’s Arctic research team pulls a strange object out of the ice in Northern Canada, things start to go wrong…very, very wrong. Rescued by a covert, black ops team, she finds herself in the powerful arms of a man with scary gold eyes. A man who vows to do everything and anything to protect her…

Dr. Rowan Schafer has learned it’s best to do things herself and not depend on anyone else. Her cold, academic parents taught her that lesson. She loves the challenge of running a research base, until the day her scientists discover the object in a retreating glacier. Under attack, Rowan finds herself fighting to survive…until the mysterious Team 52 arrives.

Former special forces Marine Lachlan Hunter’s military career ended in blood and screams, until he was recruited to lead a special team. A team tasked with a top-secret mission—to secure and safeguard pieces of powerful ancient technology. Married to his job, he’s done too much and seen too much to risk inflicting his demons on a woman. But when his team arrives in the Arctic, he uncovers both an unexplained artifact, and a young girl from his past, now all grown up. A woman who ignites emotions inside him like never before.

But as Team 52 heads back to their base in Nevada, other hostile forces are after the artifact. Rowan finds herself under attack, and as the bullets fly, Lachlan vows to protect her at all costs. But in the face of danger like they’ve never seen before, will it be enough to keep her alive.

My Review:

Team 52 is a loose spinoff from Treasure Hunter Security. Very loose. It’s also a bit of a science fiction in-joke. Team 52 is based at Groom Lake, right next door to the infamous Area 51 where all of the alien invasion artifacts are supposed to be stored. Team 52 is hiding in plain sight while everyone thinks all the good stuff is next door – when it really, really isn’t.

While we’ve certainly met Lachlan Hunter and his team before, their introduction in Unmapped didn’t tell us, or the THS operatives, very much. One thing that seems to be certain is that Team 52 operates under U.S. governmental aegis – not that THAT is necessarily reassuring these days.

But they seem to be the good guys. For certain definitions of “good”, and definitely not all of them are “guys”.

They are all ex-military. Or ex-CIA. Certainly ex-Special Ops of one stripe or another. And they are all damaged. Every single one of them seems to have been wounded enough in the line of duty that they were forced to retire – and none of them was ready for that step. Team 52 is their way of continuing the good fight, against forces that the regular military, even the units they mustered out of, isn’t quite ready, willing, or able to deal with.

While THS is strictly action-adventure romance, Team 52 sits much closer to the crossroads between action-adventure and science fiction. At least science fiction of the lab based variety, as well as more than a hint of the old Chariots of the Gods scenario thrown in.

There are no space ships, and no aliens. At least not so far. But this is a version of our world where advanced human, or human-ish, civilizations pre-dated the last ice age, when their people, their cultures and their technology were wiped out and buried by the encroaching glaciers.

Global warming is bringing all of their stuff back to the surface. All too much of it would make handy-dandy high-tech weaponry – especially in the hands of certain nefarious people and organizations. Team 52’s mission is to secure all this dangerous technology and keep it out of the hands of organizations that want to reverse engineer it for the, let’s call it, “greater bad”, as well as for lots of filthy lucre.

As people who have been through a hell of a lot of the worst of war, the members of Team 52 also seem to be more or less emotionally scarred, if not downright broken. And that’s where our romance kicks off. Lachlan Hunter sees himself as damaged goods, incapable of forming an emotional tie to anyone except his team, and unwilling to risk any relationship where he might find himself becoming his abusive father.

But the “Mayday” call from Dr. Rowan Schafer’s Arctic research base brings him face-to-face from the little girl who was once his light in the darkness, just as he was hers. That was back when she was 10 and he was 13. Now they are both all grown up, and both afraid of letting themselves care for anyone else – because both of them have much too much experience of love going wrong, one way or another.

It’s already too late. They are already inside each other’s hearts – and always have been. The just have to stop pushing each other away. Because someone really is out to get Rowan, and only Lachlan and his Team can keep her safe. And only Rowan can make him whole.

Escape Rating A-: This series opener is a hell of a lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of Stargate SG-1, even without the gate. One of the threads of the Stargate universe, just as in Team 52, was the idea that advanced human civilizations existed on Earth prior to the last ice age, and that remnants of that ancient tech is occasionally discovered in our present. Rowan’s Arctic research station and the artifact her team find there conjured up images of the Antarctic base on Stargate where the second gate is found. Some of the operations of the Team 52 base had a similar feel to the way that Stargate Command operated. Just no gate.

Team 52 is, as I said, a loose spinoff of Treasure Hunter Security. You do not have to have read any of THS to enjoy Team 52, but that series is a lot of fun and highly recommended. If you like the flavor of action adventure mixed with treasure hunting in Team 52, you’ll love THS.

There is, as there always is in this author’s work, a terrific romance riding on the action adventure story. Lachlan and Rowan make an interesting couple, and not just because both of them have unusual names.

Their story is an offbeat use of the friends into lovers trope. They were childhood friends at a dark time in both their lives. They gave each other a ray of hope at a time when neither of them had one. While Lachlan’s story is tragic, Rowan’s is heartbreaking in its familiarity. She had parents, successful parents, who only ever saw her as a reflection of their own importance and their own careers. They both made sure she had all the material things, but never seem to have loved her or cared about her as herself because their careers were just so much more important than anything she wanted or needed or even her near-death in the Arctic.

The interaction between them is fun to watch because they begin this story already inside each other’s skins. These are two people who are both good at pushing other people away, but they begin already too close for that to happen.

As the introduction to the series, a part of this story revolves around the team, how its set up, how it works and how its members work together. Rowan makes an excellent foil for this process as she worms her way from protectee to team member. As she adapts, we learn how the whole thing works.

And Lachlan learns that he can’t live without her – and that making the attempt isn’t living.

I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series, Mission: Her Rescue. While I find the titles for the Team 52 series a bit cheesy, the stories are fantastic!