Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace Robb

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace RobbA Fox in the Fold (Owen Archer #14) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Owen Archer #14
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Owen Archer suspects an old adversary is on his tail as he seeks to solve the mystery surrounding a dead body found on the road to York.
October, 1376. Owen Archer is summoned by sheriff Sir Ralph Hastings regarding a stripped and bloodied body discovered on the road north to York. Could it be connected to an attack on a carter and his labourers who were transporting stone destined for St Clement's Priory? The carter fled, but his men stayed to fight and are now missing. Is the victim one of them?
At first Owen believes the catalyst for murder and menace in York is the arrival of the political pariah William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. But he soon suspects that a formidable and skillful adversary from his past has arrived in the city, thrusting him and his family into grave danger, and his investigation becomes a race to uncover the truth before his old nemesis destroys all he holds dear.

My Review:

This latest entry in the Owen Archer series is wrapped around Archer’s past. The past when he was a captain of archers for the Duke of Lancaster and was betrayed by one of his own men. A betrayal which resulted in the loss of his left eye and set him on the path readers’ found him on in the first book in the series, The Apothecary Rose.

In other words, in a peculiar way Owen owes everything he has to this betrayal and the man who arranged it. Owen has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams, becoming a respected officer and landowner, the confidant of kings and princes, with a beautiful and intelligent wife and several wonderful children by birth and adoption.

Owen has it all – just as it seemed he did, in an entirely different way back when he was still a soldier. And the same man who tried to take it all away – along with Owen’s life – back then has followed him to York to try again.

But this time Owen has hostages to fortune. It’s not just his own life on the line, but the lives of his wife, his children, his friends and his colleagues. He has a lot to live for, and a lot to fight for.

All he has to do is finally get the fox Reynard out of his fold of the city of York without losing anyone he holds dear along the way.

But the case is complicated – as nearly all of Owen’s cases are complicated – by the machinations of the high and mighty. Reynard may be acting on his own, determined to finally best the man he has both envied and hated for all these years.

Or he might be in the pay of someone determined to bring disaster on Owen and on the city of York for political reasons of their own. If Reynard has an influential patron, Owen’s case may be much, much harder to solve.

And possibly even more deadly, and with even more dire consequences than he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: Owen Archer is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas when this story opens, and he barks up more than a few of the wrong trees before he finally realizes that not just all of the cases that confront him are one but that the instigator of those cases is not at all who he thought it was.

And his confusion and split attention does lead to a bit of the same on the part of the reader until Owen finally manages to focus his one eye on the true threat to his city and to everyone that he holds dear.

What makes the Owen Archer series so fascinating, at least to this reader, is the way that the mysteries he faces touch on both the big and the small. By big, I mean the roiling politics of his time, and by small, I mean the everyday crimes that are the bread and butter of all mystery stories.

This particular mystery at first looks small, a dead cart driver and a missing load of building stones. At first, the biggest part of the mystery seems to be where the stones might have gone. How, exactly does one “fence” or whatever the medieval term might have been, a load of building stones?

But, as with so many of Owen’s cases, the simple opening leads to some dark and twisty alleys – in the streets of York, in Owen’s past, and in the political upheaval yet to come.

King Edward III is going to die in less than a year, after 50 years of ruling England. His Prince of Wales has predeceased him, and his country is going to be left in the hands of a child who will rule (badly) as Richard II. As the old king falters, the jockeying for position on a regency council has already begun – and friends and advisors of the dying Edward are in danger of losing their places and perhaps even their lives in the coming storm.

Owen believes that King Edward’s former Chancellor has brought bad luck to York when he arrives in the midst of what seems to be a pilgrimage of atonement. And he has, but not in the way that Owen thinks. But Owen saw the man as a ‘bird of ill omen’ in A Choir of Crows and is reluctant to change his mind – especially as death has followed in the man’s wake yet again.

Instead, someone from Owen’s past has taken advantage of the visit to strike Owen down one more time. But this fox operates in the shadows, and Owen doesn’t sense the true nature of the threat for almost too long.

So, as with other entries in the series, this mystery begins small but unfolds large – while forcing Owen to look back at who he was and who he is. It gives him the chance to understand that what he once thought would break him was the making of him after all.

One of the things that I love about this entry in the series is the way that it both reflects back on earlier books in the series, particularly the first book, The Apothecary Rose, and the more recent A Choir of Crows while also casting a reflection on events in its period that reflect the present. If historical mystery is your thing, and you haven’t yet walked the streets of Owen Archer’s medieval York, I highly recommend starting this series from the beginning with The Apothecary Rose.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever it may appear, because I expect it to cover an event that we’ve just experienced – in pomp and circumstance but diluted actual impact. In our own time, the Queen is dead, long live the King. In Owen’s time, the King will be dead, and the realm will be in for one hell of a mess.

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle

Review: Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne CastleSweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #15
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley Books on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Welcome to the world of Harmony, where--despite its name, things are anything but--danger lurks just beneath the surface in this new novel by New York Times bestselling author, Jayne Castle.
If there's something Ravenna Chastain knows, it's when to end things. And after she almost winds up the victim of a cult that believes she's a witch, it's easy to walk away from her dead-end career, ready for a new start. But where to find a job that would allow her to use her very specialized skill set? The answer is clear: she becomes a matchmaker.
But even a successful matchmaker can't find someone for everyone, and Ravenna considers Ethan Sweetwater her first professional failure. After nine failed dates, Ravenna knows it's time to cut Ethan loose. But Ethan refuses to be fired as a client--he needs one final date to a business function. Since Ravenna needs a date herself to a family event, they agree to a deal: she will be his (business) date if he will be her (fake) date to her grandparents' anniversary celebration.
What Ethan fails to mention is that attending the business function is a cover for some industrial espionage that he's doing as a favor to the new Illusion Town Guild boss. Ravenna is happy to help, but their relationship gets even more complicated when things heat up--the chemistry between them is explosive, as explosive as the danger that's stalking Ravenna. Lucky for her, Ethan isn't just an engineer--he's also a Sweetwater, and Sweetwaters are known for hunting down monsters...

My Review:

When I originally saw the title of this latest entry in the Harmony series, at first I thought it was going to be a Western – or at least a Weird West – kind of story. (The rhythm of the words in the title keeps taking me back to the movie McCabe & Mrs .Miller which was a sort of Western. I digress. Again. I know.) Harmony is absolutely wild enough and definitely weird enough to resemble the Weird West, but it’s a far-future lost colony world that presented some unique challenges to the first settlers and still does to their descendants even two centuries later.

The planet of Harmony – which doesn’t generally exhibit all that much harmony or we wouldn’t have this marvelous series – was settled by a group of human colonists that included members of the Arcane Society and their allies back on Earth. Who were people with psi powers as portrayed in the Victorian and contemporary set Arcane Society series and its offshoots, which were published under the author’s Amanda Quick and Jayne Ann Krentz pen names.

(If the setup sounds a bit familiar, it’s also the setup for the Celta series by Robin D. Owens, so if you like one you’ll like the other.)

By the time in Harmony’s history when this story takes place, Harmony has lost all contact with Earth, and the upheavals of that loss have settled back into a history that is still well-remembered but no longer as influential as it once was. Not that there aren’t some people looking to recreate the past glories of their ancestors. Even if those so-called glories are only in the minds of past – and present – psychopaths.

Which is what this entry in the series turns out to be about. Two people who think they can do their criminal predecessors one better, and two people who stand in their way. And eventually stand together to do it.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this entry in the series so much fun is the witty banter and slowly building romance between Ethan Sweetwater and Ravenna Chastain. She’s a police profiler turned matchmaker, and he’s the client she’s supposed to find a match for but it’s not working. At all. Which he refuses to acknowledge or let the project go for reasons that Ravenna doesn’t see but the reader probably does.

It’s only when Ethan helps her take out the trash – by which I mean the comatose body of her first stalker – that Ravenna gets the idea that there’s more to Ethan than initially appeared. Which is, of course, more than true.

He presented himself as a mild-mannered, kind of dorky engineer. And he is. But underneath that unassuming persona lurks a man who knows just who to call and how to dispose of a not-quite dead body. Ravenna is worried that he might be connected to the mob.

Ethan, on the other hand, knows that she’s his match. Lucky for him – in a twisted sort of way – the deadly adventures that keep finding them give them plenty of chances to bond into a relationship where they both know they’ll have each other’s backs through thick, thin, nightmares and flame-throwers.

All they have to do is convince each other it’s for keeps. And keep fighting to make sure that they will be a “keeps” to have.

That this turns out to be a delightful romance to go with the deadly danger has to do with the personalities of the three protagonists; Ethan, Ravenna, and Ravenna’s dust bunny Harriet. They make one hell of a team where each has a crucial part to play in taking down the villains and having a bit of fun along the way.

Dust bunnies excel at finding the fun in EVERYTHING!

One final note; there is obviously a long and storied history to Harmony but each book stands pretty much on its own. The necessary parts of the background history are always explained, while the occasional mention of a particular person or incident is more in the form of an “Easter Egg” that brings a smile if you know but lack of that knowledge does not detract from enjoyment of the book in hand. The romances are always self-contained to the individual book. That being said, the books in the series are a bit like potato chips in that you won’t want to read just one.

And I guarantee you’ll wish you had your own dust bunny to chortle at your side as you read!

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin ChupecoSilver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Pages: 512
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Full of court intrigue, queer romance, and terrifying monsters—this gothic epic fantasy will appeal to fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast is many things: the only son of the Duke of Valenbonne (though his father might wish otherwise), an elite bounty hunter of rogue vampires, and an outcast among his fellow Reapers. His mother was the subject of gossip even before she eloped with a vampire, giving rise to the rumors that Remy is half-vampire himself. Though the kingdom of Aluria barely tolerates him, Remy’s father has been shaping him into a weapon to fight for the kingdom at any cost.
When a terrifying new breed of vampire is sighted outside of the city, Remy prepares to investigate alone. But then he encounters the shockingly warmhearted vampire heiress Xiaodan Song and her infuriatingly arrogant fiancé, vampire lord Zidan Malekh, who may hold the key to defeating the creatures—though he knows associating with them won’t do his reputation any favors. When he’s offered a spot alongside them to find the truth about the mutating virus Rot that’s plaguing the kingdom, Remy faces a choice.
It’s one he’s certain he’ll regret.
But as the three face dangerous hardships during their journey, Remy develops fond and complicated feelings for the couple. He begins to question what he holds true about vampires, as well as the story behind his own family legacy. As the Rot continues to spread across the kingdom, Remy must decide where his loyalties lie: with his father and the kingdom he’s been trained all his life to defend or the vampires who might just be the death of him.

My Review:

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into this book, and now that I’ve read it I’m still not entirely sure. Except that it was fantastic. Heart-pounding, fingernail-biting, stay up until 3 in the morning to finish fantastic.

But the question about whether this is fantasy or horror still feels a bit up in the air.

Let me explain…

Remy Pendergast is a Reaper. In this world that means vampire hunter. But Remy only hunts so-called “rogue” vampires – ones who are causing mischief in human-controlled countries like Aluria. Vampires also have fiefdoms of their own where the rules are undoubtedly different.

Where Remy wouldn’t exactly be welcome because he’s famous for hunting their kind.

Not that Remy is exactly welcome in his own country, either. And not because he’s a Reaper. There are plenty of Reapers in high positions in Aluria’s government. In fact, his father used to be one of them.

But his father, who is a cantankerous old bastard at the best of times – of which he has damn few – is also in the midst of a lifelong feud with the head of the Reaper’s Guild – who also happens to be the Royal Chancellor. A man who is just as big a bastard as Remy’s father, and who is taking his feud out on the son now that the father has publicly retired.

And that’s just the tip of the really massive and ugly iceberg of why Remy is persona non grata in his own country – unless they need something killed and everyone else is too scared or too prissy to get their hands dirty.

That’s where the zombies come in. Well, not really and not exactly zombies. But sorta/kinda and close enough.

Someone is creating monsters that at first seem to be super-duper enhanced vampires. But they’re not. They’re mindless husks who regenerate at will and seem to be impossible to kill. Upon closer scientific study (this world is steampunk-ish so there’s plenty of mad science at least of the medical variety) it’s revealed that these mindless husks were never vampires – and that vampires are immune to the infection that creates them.

Lord Malekh and Lady Song, leaders of the Third and Fourth vampire Courts, have come to Aluria to ally with its Queen in order to combat what they call “The Rot” and whoever is behind that threat.

They need a human liaison. They both want Remy (in more ways than one) – who isn’t at all sure what he wants except to get out of Aluria for a while. The political temperature is getting way too hot for him and his father’s demands are becoming even more outrageous than they always have been.

And he’s tempted. Even though becoming a vampire’s familiar is against the law. Even though he’s fought vampires all his life. Even though a vampire killed his mother and he was born from her corpse.

Even though Malekh and Song are clearly in love and engaged to marry each other. Remy can’t understand why either of them wants him when no one else has ever wanted to do anything except use him for their own purposes.

He has a chance at having the kind of happiness that he never expected to even get a glimpse of. And he’s so, so certain that someone will take it away from him – unless he does it to himself first.

Escape Rating A+: Clearly, the setup for this is ginormous. It’s also endlessly fascinating. I got stuck into this and absolutely could not get out until I finished the last page at about 3 AM. It was just that good.

To the point where I’ll probably be squeeing uncontrollably more than reviewing per se. But I did love it so, so hard.

While the blurbs reference the anime series (and videogame) Castlevania, I think that’s because of the vampires, the politics and the monsters. I haven’t played or watched that so it’s not where my mind went. Instead, I kept seeing Remy as a younger, less confident Geralt of Rivia, in a world where hunting magical creatures gone rogue is needed while the people who do it are reviled. I would call it a bit of a coming-of-age story for The Witcher but I’m not sure Remy is fully adulting even by the end of the story – although he’s finally getting there.

Where I started with this review was that I still wasn’t sure whether the book was horror or fantasy. It was presented to me as horror and the scientific experimentation with zombie-like monsters who roam the countryside and infect others definitely has that vibe. There’s even a Doctor Frankenstein who is entirely too proud of his work even if he doesn’t use electricity to achieve his goals.

And then there’s the vampires, both the rogue vampires and the sexy vampire nobility. Which pushes the whole thing towards the paranormal which is an offshoot of horror.

But the form of the story reads like a big, sprawling epic fantasy. The world is huge and vastly complicated. The political agendas have political agendas and everyone is trying to knife everyone else in the back. The grudges seem to last for centuries – and not just among the vampires who have the excuse of living that long.

Basically, the politics behind everything are beyond Byzantine – as much as that is still an understatement if I ever heard one.

All of that makes the story feel epic in scope in a way that horror seldom is. And most of what is truly horrible in this story isn’t the monsters. It’s all the endless betrayals. It feels like the foundations of Remy’s world get pulled out from under him over and over as he keeps learning that under the corruption of everything if you scrape it away there’s yet another layer of, you guessed it, rot and corruption. Nothing he thinks he knows turns out to have any bearing on any truth.

That the triad relationship between Malekh, Song and Remy becomes both his only source of solace and a never-ending well of betrayal AT THE SAME TIME is just the icing on what is an utterly decadently delicious devil’s food cake of a story.

Whether it’s horror or fantasy or gothic or all of the above it’s riveting and downright compelling every step of the way. But whatever genre it falls into, I’m absolutely thrilled that the story isn’t over. Silver Under Nightfall is the first book in a projected duology, so there’s more dark, deadly and decadent delights to come!

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!

Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna RaybournKillers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley Books on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Older women often feel invisible, but sometimes that's their secret weapon.
They've spent their lives as the deadliest assassins in a clandestine international organization, but now that they're sixty years old, four women friends can't just retire - it's kill or be killed in this action-packed thriller.
Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills.
When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they've been marked for death.
Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They're about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman--and a killer--of a certain age.

My Review:

Women of a “certain age” are expected to fade into the background – and if they don’t fade voluntarily society is more than willing to keep shoving them into the shadows until they finally get the hint.

So it’s not a surprise to 60-somethings Billie, Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie that after 40+ years as an elite assassination team working for the mysterious “Museum” they’ve been retired and put out to pasture. They miss the adrenaline of the work, but they’re not totally miserable at the idea of retirement at least on some levels. Living on the knife edge of danger always did get the blood pumping, but the recovery times are a LOT longer than they used to be.

But the offer of an all-expenses paid elite cruise on a luxury yacht is the least the Museum owes them in addition to the generous pensions they’ve all more than earned.

What they have not earned, do not deserve, but discover they have to deal with anyway, is a member of the Museum’s “operations” staff posing as a member of the ship’s crew. As they have not been contacted about a job, or even just given a heads-up about his presence, they realize that they ARE the job. Their former employers are literally out to get them – and they are very, very good at getting the people they set out to get.

But Billie, Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie were an elite team. The best of the best, trained by the best and tested time and time again in the field. Not many people in their profession live to retire and they plan to enjoy theirs for a long, long time.

In order to do that, they’ll just have to eliminate anyone – and everyone – who is out to get them. It’s a difficult job, but it’s one they’ve been doing for over 40 years. And they’re not done yet.

Escape Rating A-: Readers of a certain age, or even something vaguely approaching it, will probably think the outline of Killers of a Certain Age sounds a bit familiar – only because it is. If you remember the 2010 movie Red, about a group of retired CIA agents who are forced out of retirement because someone at their former agency is trying to kill them, it’s hard to miss the resemblance. Just put Helen Mirren’s character in charge as Billie, change her team to an all-female team and substitute the Museum for the CIA (who knows, the Museum might have been a cover for the CIA anyway) and there you go.

Which does not take a damn thing away from either the book or the movie, because they are both a hell of a good time.

As strange as this may sound, Killers is kind of a slow-burn thriller. A lot of prep work and planning goes into this caper, and we see it. This team doesn’t barge in with guns blazing – not because they’re old, but because that was never the way they worked. Their mission was always to get away undetected – and they were damn good at it.

The mission now is to take down all the people – and for people read men – at the Museum who set them up and plan to take them out in order to cover up their own corruption.

So a big part of this story is seeing them do the work of putting a plan together and getting the job done. That the job is to kill people and the plan is all about getting away with it doesn’t trouble them and doesn’t trouble the reader either. Whether this is justice or revenge, the dish is still going to be served ice cold. And the dessert is very, very just.

But the author called this a book about anger – and that feels like a pretty accurate description. Because in between the meticulous planning and sometimes nearly disastrous carrying out of those plans, the story slips back from Billie’s perspective on the rather fraught present to her recollections of the team’s past training and missions.

And every single one of the missions Billie recalls is an occasion where the very same men who ordered their executions underestimated them on a mission – only to get saved by this team of women that they still insisted weren’t up for the job. A nearly fatal mistake for each man then, and an absolutely fatal one now.

Isn’t it all too telling that the women got put out to pasture while the men who weren’t nearly as good got promoted to the top echelons of the organization?

Because the story in the present is told from Billie’s first-person perspective, and the sections in the past follow her even though we’re not in her head, the reader doesn’t get quite as clear a picture of Mary Alice, Helen and Natalie as we do Billie. Which is possibly the book’s only flaw. Their lives have taken such different turns in spite of their shared work so it would be fascinating to get more of their individual perspectives. But with what we do know, we see that their bond is as strong as the day it was formed. They love each other, sometimes they want to kill each other, often they want to tear each other’s hair out – but each would lay down their lives for the others and their sisterhood is both palpable and powerful.

I loved Killers of a Certain Age and sincerely hope that it turns out to be the first book in a series. The ending certainly hints at that possibility and I’d be thrilled to see it fulfilled. In the meantime, if you find yourself enjoying it as much as I did, there are several titles that might hit the same deadly sweet spot.

In addition to watching or re-watching the movie Red, the following books have at least elements of Killers of a Certain Age: The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman, especially the second book, The Man Who Died Twice, the Slough House series by Mick Herron, Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr, and last but certainly not the least or the least deadly, An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten.

Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish

Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan ParrishThe Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, Hanukkah romance, holiday romance, M/M romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 312
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of Alexandria Bellefleur and Alexis Hall comes a charming, hilarious, and heartwarming LGBTQIA+ romcom about two separate couples finding love over the holidays from acclaimed author Roan Parrish!
Greta Russakoff loves her tight-knit family and tiny Maine hometown, even if they don't always understand what it's like to be a lesbian living in such a small world. She desperately needs space to figure out who she is.
Truman Belvedere has just had his heart crushed into a million pieces when he learned that his boyfriend of almost a year has a secret life that includes a husband and a daughter. Reeling from this discovery, all he wants is a place to lick his wounds far, far away from New Orleans.
Enter Greta and Truman's mutual friend, Ramona, who facilitates a month-long house swap. Over the winter holidays, each of them will have a chance to try on a new life...and maybe fall in love with the perfect partner of their dreams. But all holidays must come to an end, and eventually Greta and Truman will have to decide whether the love they each found so far from home is worth fighting for.

My Review:

There’s a saying about “blooming where you’re planted”, but with the best will and the most love in the world, that’s not always possible. No matter how much a person may love their hometown or their family or their job or whatever is keeping them in place, the place may not be a great fit for them

And sometimes we need to be kicked out of our not-quite-comfy little pots before they become ruts. Or plots, as in “the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions” kind of plots.

Both Greta Russakoff and Truman Belvedere each need a good, swift kick out of their always slightly squirmy but suddenly seriously uncomfortable pots. Which is where their mutual friend and regular sounding board Ramona comes in.

Greta needs to get away from her close-knit-to-the-point-of-codependency family on teeny, tiny, Owl Island, Maine. Truman needs a getaway from a spectacular failure of a relationship in New Orleans. Ramona suggests a house swap. For the entire month. Of December.

What happens to Greta and Truman is that both of their worlds expand once they transplant themselves. In New Orleans, Greta finds friends and community. She’s able to spread her wings in a place where she’s not literally the only lesbian in town, and where her every single act isn’t discussed ad infinitum, ad nauseum AND reported back to her parents and sisters. She loves them all but finds the extreme insularity of the town and especially her family a strait-jacket.

In New Orleans she can breathe. She can be herself without everyone around her trying to lovingly push her to conform – at least on the outside. And there’s someone she can fall in love with in a place that warms her heart and soul.

Truman is a fish out of water, but a fish that is more than willing to try living on land once he thaws out and gets some warmer clothes. Now that he’s out of his comfort zone, he’s willing to see if he can fit into this new place. And discovers that the townspeople, as curious as they are about Greta’s temporary guest, are more than willing to let him warm himself in their friendship.

Especially Ash, a local boy who managed to leave, but got sucked back to Owl Island as an adult when his mother was diagnosed with dementia. Now Ash is juggling a failing florist shop, his mother’s declining health and the loss of her true self even as he’s with her – and a rapacious land developer who wants to buy the prime downtown real estate where his shop is located. Ash doesn’t have nearly enough spoons to start a relationship with a man who’ll be leaving in a month.

But he does it anyway – then breaks both of their hearts when he can’t cope.

Before the month’s even half over, Greta knows she wants to stay in New Orleans, not just because of her new love, but because it’s where she belongs. She’s a hothouse varietal just like the carnivorous plants she desperately tries to keep alive on Owl Island – a climate for which neither they, nor she, are suited.

Truman wants to stay in Maine, with Ash, in this quirky little town that has healed his heart and shown him that he has more to give than just his overdeveloped sense of order.

All Greta has to do is deal with her smothering family. All Truman has to do is convince Ash that he doesn’t have to let himself be smothered by his responsibilities. That help – and love – are eagerly waiting for him to just let them in. Before their lives take them in directions that all of them will regret. Forever.

Escape Rating A: Part of what makes The Holiday Trap such a fun read is that it is a holiday romance that doesn’t center on the holidays at all. That the holiday that gets more emphasis in this holiday romance is Hanukkah and not Xmas was absolutely the flame that lights all the menorah candles in this story.

But the way the holiday was treated encapsulated the whole point of the story. Because it’s not the holiday, it’s that the tribe gathers for the holiday and the traditions that surround that gathering.

The Russakoffs are the only Jewish family on Owl Island. For her family it has become important to celebrate the holidays with the whole community while at the same time cleaving unto themselves as a tight tribe of their own. Which leads straight into the issues that cause Greta to practically flee into the night.

Because no one in Greta’s family is ever supposed to say what they really want or need. They have been coerced by longstanding tradition to always seek a compromise and to suffer in silence if their needs don’t get considered. It’s all out of love, it’s all done with the best intentions, and the tradition did begin with some excellent reasons as they are a family of six – mom, dad and four daughters – and during the early years there just wasn’t quite enough to go around. Nobody went hungry, no one went without any necessities, but treats, toys and outings all had to be shared, so what got bought or eaten or done was the thing that displeased the least amount of people rather than what was actually desired by anyone.

It’s good for children to learn to compromise, it’s good for all humans and we need a little more of it in the world. But it can easily reach a point where, instead of everyone saying what they do want and meeting in the middle, everyone starts asking for what they think everyone else wants or will accept. It’s can work if everyone accepts that’s the way it works, but if the family brings in an outsider – like a son or daughter in law – or if one of the children leaves the cozy nest and is in a place where they have to stand up for themselves, or if one or more of the grown children is just too different to compromise their entire self all the time in order to get along and not rock the boat, you get the situation Greta finds herself in, where as much as her parents and sisters love her they keep trying to push her to fit into the family codependency and she just can’t. And won’t. And shouldn’t have to.

Truman’s situation is more self-inflicted. He’s both broken-hearted and completely embarrassed and kicking himself from New Orleans to anywhere he can take himself off to because he’s spent a year in a relationship with a douchebag and ignoring all the many, many, red flags that should have told him that he was someone’s dirty secret and not remotely the love of their life. Because they already have one of those and Truman is not it.

I liked Truman’s story, and it made a very nice foil for Greta’s, but I LOVED Greta’s story. It’s not just that she’s Jewish, although that certainly helped because there aren’t nearly enough Hanukkah romances in this world. But when Greta takes herself away from home, she goes to one of the most fascinating cities in the U.S. if not the world and makes a place for herself in it. I’m a sucker for stories set in New Orleans and Greta’s discovery of the city and herself captured me from the very first page.

That Greta’s family strongly resembles one I very nearly became a part of and gave her side of this house swap a whole lot of extra resonance that I wasn’t expecting. At all. But it helped me understand so much of where she was coming from because everyone means so very well, they have so much the best intentions and can be so, so good at laying on the guilt when someone doesn’t conform.

To make a much longer story than I intended a bit short, The Holiday Trap is an excellent holiday romance that puts its emphasis on the romance and the relationships that surround a romance and make a village – big or small – without getting into the religious aspects of any holiday. This could have been set at Thanksgiving and it still would have worked – it just wouldn’t have been nearly long enough.

But speaking of things that were not quite enough, the one person we don’t get nearly enough of is Ramona the almost magical matchmaker. I’d love to see more of her talents in a future story!

Review: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

Review: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate KhavariA Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons (Saffron Everleigh Mystery #1) by Kate Khavari
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Saffron Everleigh #1
Pages: 262
Published by Crooked Lane Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Saffron Everleigh is in a race against time to free her wrongly accused professor before he goes behind bars forever. Perfect for fans of Deanna Raybourn and Anna Lee Huber, Kate Khavari’s debut historical mystery is a fast-paced, fearless adventure.
London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh attends a dinner party for the University College of London. While she expects to engage in conversations about the university's large expedition to the Amazon, she doesn’t expect Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin.
Dr. Maxwell, Saffron’s mentor, is the main suspect, having had an explosive argument with Dr. Henry a few days prior. As evidence mounts against Dr. Maxwell and the expedition's departure draws nearer, Saffron realizes if she wants her mentor's name cleared, she’ll have to do it herself.
Joined by enigmatic Alexander Ashton, a fellow researcher, Saffron uses her knowledge of botany as she explores steamy greenhouses, dark gardens, and deadly poisons. Will she be able to uncover the truth or will her investigation land her on the murderer’s list?

My Review:

There’s something rotten in the state of London’s University College botany department. The signs, at least in the very broadest strokes, are a bit difficult for researcher Saffron Everleigh to miss. After all, the wife of one of the leading lights of her department has just been struck down – right in front of her – in the middle of a faculty and staff party.

A party to celebrate the fast-approaching departure of many of the department’s most prominent – and/or most ambitious – members for a research expedition to the heart of the Amazon.

Not that Saffron ever had the remotest chance of going on that expedition. Not that she isn’t an excellent researcher with sincere hopes of entering graduate studies in her chosen field. And if she were a man, she’d be well on her way.

As it is, she’s the focus of gossip, innuendo, and even blatant sexual harassment from the head of her department. As the story opens, the only person she’s certain respects her as a scientist is her mentor, Dr. Maxwell, who treats her very much as a daughter.

Because he was a close friend of her late father, who was also a botany professor at the College. But Dr. Everleigh was killed in the Great War, as was the man Saffron intended to marry. So she is following in her father’s footsteps as a researcher instead of living the life she had planned on.

When her mentor is accused of poisoning Mrs. Henry with poisonous plants he brought back from an earlier expedition, Saffron rushes to prove the police wrong. While her amateur detecting nearly results in her own death by poison, she does manage to conclude that the police have leapt to an obvious but incorrect conclusion.

The woman was poisoned, she is in a coma, but her mentor did not commit the deed. But as she waits for the results of her ill-advised experiment to wear off, she learns she has another colleague in finding the solution to the crime.

Alexander Ashton isn’t certain which he finds more alluring – the investigation of the poisoning or the woman who is hell-bent on conducting it. But the deeper they dig into the rot, the more dangerous the situation becomes. If there’s a secret that is worth putting one woman into a coma, it’s all too possible that it’s a secret worth killing for.

But Alexander is determined to help Saffron find it, and not just for personal reasons. After all, if Dr. Maxwell is not the poisoner, someone else in the Botany Department is. And that poisoner might just be part of the Amazon expedition right along with him.

Escape Rating A-: What makes A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons so much fun – besides that wonderfully evocative title – is the way that, as the story goes on, so many of the things we – and Saffron – thought were true turn out to be not quite what we thought they were. Particularly the people. And especially Saffron herself.

At first, Saffron is investigating what she believes is a miscarriage of justice being perpetrated by police detectives who are too interested in the obvious solution and unwilling to put in either the legwork or the brain work to make sure they’ve got the right man – or even the right crime.

Her initial motive for her amateur sleuthing is to clear the name of Dr. Maxwell, who is both a mentor and a father-figure to her. She knows he can’t possibly be guilty of the poisoning, not just because she knows the man but because her logical mind has examined the scene from all sides and knows that it wasn’t physically possible for him to have either poisoned the champagne or the glass it was poured into.

As we follow along in Saffron’s wake, as she and her reluctant fellow amateur investigator Ashton go further and further out on the limb of illegal and illicit activities in her dogged pursuit of the truth and his equally dogged pursuit of her – everything changes.

Mrs. Henry WAS poisoned – but not for any of the personal or scandalous reasons that Saffron originally believed. She may have begun her quest to clear Dr. Maxwell’s name, but she continues to pursue it because she’s caught up in the hunt and can’t resist the puzzle. The more she digs, the more she uncovers, the more there is to find. And the more dangerous her situation becomes.

The more evidence she presents to the police the more she realizes that the enigmatic police inspector is way more savvy than she initially suspected. And the more that Alexander Ashton follows her through thick, thin and thorny bushes, the more she realizes that she might have found a man who is capable of seeing her as both a scientific colleague and as someone to love.

This is a story that starts out seeming like it’s heading down a rather salacious and scandalous path, only for it to twist itself into a much more serious investigation of discovery of both the criminal and the personal kind.

To sum things up, A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons is a fun and twisty mystery that has a lot of things to say about women in academia at a time when it was possible but not expected or respected. As the first book in a series, it gives hints that Saffron and Ashton’s relationship will continue to blossom – and probably continue to investigate crimes that the police would prefer they kept clear of.

If you like stories like Saffron’s, she reminded me of several investigating heroines who operate during the same time period, particularly Mary Russell, Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford. And for a similar story in a much different setting, The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older covers some surprising bits of the same ground of deadly shenanigans in academia under investigation by initially reluctant academicians turned amateur detectives.

But the most on-point readalike for A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons should be the second book in the Saffron Everleigh series, A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality, coming out next summer!

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice BroaddusBuffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 144
Published by Tordotcom on April 25, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari.
Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.
Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.

My Review:

As yesterday’s book was a fictionalized story of a world that was, then today’s is a leap into world that might have been.

A leap somewhat like being dropped into a roller coaster just as its about to crest that first big hill and then a wild, screaming ride all the way to the end of the ride. Only to discover that, while the ride may be over, the story is just beginning.

Although the historical turning points that created the steampunk-fueled world of Buffalo Soldier are different, in some ways the feel of the story is similar to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century that begins with Boneshaker. As well as, come to think of it, A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark as all three take the world down different legs of the trousers of time, and yet some forces of history seem immutable in the face of huge changes of circumstances.

The United States, well, isn’t. Not that the manifest destiny ambitions of “Albion”, the English colony that encompasses at least the East Coast and Midwest, aren’t entirely too similar. But Albion hasn’t succeeded by this point in this world’s late 19th or early 20th century.

So this story opens in independent Tejas, caught between Albion on one side and the Five Civilized Tribes on the other, as Jamaican fugitive Desmond Coke finds himself and the boy he’s guarding caught in the crosshairs between the Pinkertons, the agents of Albion, and the agents of his own truly pissed-off government as he attempts to cross the contested border.

Everyone is out to get him. Actually, only his own government really wants him all that badly. But everyone wants the boy he calls Lij. Because Lij is entirely too many things to entirely too many people.

A symbol. An experiment. An abomination. A resource. Even all of the above.

But Desmond just sees him as a little boy who deserves the chance to BE a little boy and determine his own path when he grows up. If Desmond can keep them both alive and on the run long enough to have that chance.

Unless he can find them a sanctuary. Or he dies trying.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where the reader is dropped into the midst of a world that has already been fully created. We just don’t know exactly what that world is, so it comes into focus through the characters, particularly the point-of-view character Desmond Coke.

We’re not in his head, but the action follows his perspective, so we’re not omniscient. We see what he sees and know what he knows. And he knows a lot about the world in which he lives as once upon a time he was an espionage agent for his home country of Jamaica.

At least until he scooped up Lij and ran away into the predicament in which we find him as the story opens.

While the hints of how his world differs from ours and how it got that way are absolutely fascinating – at least to this reader – what kept me turning the pages was the quick, sharp peeks into his out of the frying pan into the fire journey. He’s desperate, he didn’t plan things out nearly as well as he should have, and no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Or, in this case, no plan survives contact with situations where there are enemies on every side with their weapons pointing at each other while Desmond is caught in the crossfire. Sometimes literally.

The story is a thrill-a-minute ride as every time Desmond tries to take them a little further away, he just ends up in a bigger mess, his steps dogged at every turn by agents from pretty much every power involved in North America. Some are hunting him down, some are using him as bait to hunt each other down, and some are using him as a distraction while they go after their real goals.

And in the middle, there’s a little boy who deserves the chance to grow up and become his own man instead of just the sum of all the things he was created to be. The truth of which is revealed over the course of the story and manages to catch at both the heart and the throat at the same time.

So, come to this one for the wild ride. Shake your head in rueful recognition at the ways that the powers-that-be are exactly the same as they are even in an entirely new world. Stay for the story, and the stories about stories, at its heart.

Whatever brings you on this steampunk journey, I believe you’ll find it well worth the trip.

Initially, I picked this up because I needed a couple of really short books this week and this looked like fun. Which it was! So I’m really glad I read it because it made for a terrific reading pick-me-up. It also made me look and see what else the author has available and now Sweep of Stars has moved considerably up the virtually towering TBR pile. There are so many books, and so little time, but now that I’ve read something of his work I can’t wait to dive into his latest!