Review: Paper and Blood by Kevin Hearne

Review: Paper and Blood by Kevin HearnePaper & Blood (Ink & Sigil, #2) by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ink & Sigil #2
Pages: 304
Published by Del Rey Books on August 10, 2021
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Kevin Hearne returns to the world of the Iron Druid Chronicles in book two of a spin-off series about an eccentric master of rare magic solving an uncanny mystery in Scotland.
There’s only one Al MacBharrais: Though other Scotsmen may have dramatic mustaches and a taste for fancy cocktails, Al also has a unique talent. He’s a master of ink and sigil magic. In his gifted hands, paper and pen can work wondrous spells.
But Al isn’t quite alone: He is part of a global network of sigil agents who use their powers to protect the world from mischievous gods and strange monsters. So when a fellow agent disappears under sinister circumstances in Australia, Al leaves behind the cozy pubs and cafes of Glasgow and travels to the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria to solve the mystery.
The trail to his colleague begins to pile up with bodies at alarming speed, so Al is grateful his friends have come to help—especially Nadia, his accountant who moonlights as a pit fighter. Together with a whisky-loving hobgoblin known as Buck Foi and the ancient Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, along with his dogs, Oberon and Starbuck, Al and Nadia will face down the wildest wonders Australia—and the supernatural world—can throw at them, and confront a legendary monster not seen in centuries.

My Review:

The alphabet – any alphabet – is magic. Just think about it for a minute. Alphabets, whatever they might look like, represent the ability to communicate across not just space but across time. If you’ve ever taken Latin, you remember Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, with its famous opening about “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts,” except in the original Latin. Which Caesar may have dictated instead of penned himself, but still, the idea that we can read the words of a person who lived and died not merely centuries but millennia before we were all born is, honestly, magic.

And that’s the kind of magic that lies at the heart of the Ink & Sigil series. Al MacBharrais isn’t a wizard or a sorcerer or a Druid (more on that later) but he can do magic. With ink and paper and a special kind of alphabet called sigils. With the appropriate training and lots and lots of practice, Al can write letters that perform magic. Like a magical version of Doctor Who’s famous psychic paper. Or a magic that can temporarily give him the strength and stamina that he left behind in the sands of time long ago.

Not unconscionably long, just normally long. Al is in his early 60s, and while his mind may be as sharp as ever, it’s been a very hard-knock life as the normal aches and pains of 60+ years of living all too frequently remind him. But when he gets a call from the distressed apprentice of one of his fellow sigil agents, those aches and pains do not keep him from riding to the rescue.

Even if that rescue turns out to be in Australia. It may be a long way from Al’s printing and bookbinding business in Edinburgh, but he’s the only remaining agent without a wife, family or apprentice depending upon him to come home at the end of the day. Or the case. Or the encounter with an ancient monster who is literally shitting demons in a creek.

Along with a deity who is holding his two colleagues hostage. Not to get to Al, but to make sure that someone reaches out and gets the Iron Druid along on what seems to be a rescue operation.

Only to discover that it’s a whole lot bigger and worse than that. But then, so are the gang of friends that Al brings along to one very weird fight.

Escape Rating A: If you love urban fantasy, but have wondered why you haven’t seen much of it recently, the Ink & Sigil series will remind you of the best of that genre. And if you haven’t read much of it, but you like the kind of story where there’s a detective, amateur or professional, a crime, whether mundane or magical, a whole lot of beings that popularly go bump in the night and the snark quotient turned up to 11, well then, this series has the potential to definitely be your jam.

It certainly is mine.

Al MacBharrais is a departure for an urban fantasy protagonist, as he is not young, or immortal, or unaging or actually either a magic user or a magical being himself. Not that he isn’t accompanied by beings who fit one or more of the above classifications.

It’s that combination of Al’s ordinariness with the extraordinary nature of the people he works with and the trouble they get into that make this series so much fun. It’s a view of our world through another perspective but one that is still grounded in our own. While his friend, associate and contracted servant, the hobgoblin Buck Foi, is there to provide comic relief and to give any authority figure – even a deity – a poke in the ego with a sharp stick whenever he feels it’s necessary. Which is often.

The story in this one follows multiple parallel tracks. Al is in Australia to rescue his colleagues, with the help of their apprentice. Al’s rather unusual friends are there to help, to guard his back, to have some fun, and, in the person of “Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite” to see some really weird shit. But it also gives Al the opportunity to observe his friends operating outside of their normal sphere, bringing Al to the realization that the Gladys he has been employing as his receptionist is clearly something else or something more, altogether. Along with, but certainly not limited to, being Canadian.

And then there’s the bigger story, that when Al figures out just how big a mess his friends are in, he asks for help from one of the magical heavy-hitters, the Iron Druid formerly known as Atticus O’Sullivan, along with his dogs Oberon and Starbuck. Al thinks he’s getting help with his problem, only for it to turn out that, in the end, it’s Atticus, now calling himself Connor, who needs Al’s help solving his.

That’s where things get interesting, also a bit, not exactly problematic but certainly at least deeper.

There’s never been any question that the Ink & Sigil series takes place in the same universe as the author’s Iron Druid Chronicles, it says so right there on the label. In the first book, also titled Ink & Sigil, there’s a lovely little side story about the evening that Al and Atticus met up in Rome and had a nice dinner together. It was a lovely little story, it set the time period for the new series nicely, but didn’t require that the reader have previously read the Iron Druid Chronicles to get into Ink & Sigil – it just made the story extra nice if you already had.

Now, with Paper & Blood, you really need to have read Ink & Sigil to get the full flavor of what’s going on in this second book. But with Atticus/Connor as an important secondary character, it will make a lot of readers feel like they need to have read at least some of the Iron Druid Chronicles to get everything that’s happening – and especially why it’s happening – in this book. I’ve read the first six books of that series (start with Hounded, it’s awesome) and intend to go back and finish, so I didn’t feel too lost when he became such a big part of this story, although it did make me itch to have read the ending of that series because it’s clearly part of the backstory for this. As much as I LOVED seeing Oberon again, I can’t help but imagine that anyone who hadn’t read at least some of the Iron Druid series would flounder a bit here. I hope I’m wrong.

So, this story provided a whole lot of closure for the Iron Druid Chronicles, provided Al with a lot more fascinating information about his friends and associates, engendered a whole lot of chuckles and a bit of outright laughter courtesy of Buck Foi, AND left me eagerly awaiting the next book in this series whenever it appears.

But I’m also holding my breath for the next book in The Seven Kennings, this author’s epic fantasy series, which seems to be titled A Curse of Krakens and is coming out a year from now. Obviously, this is a writer I really, really like and don’t care what I get next as long as I get something!

Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Hold Fast Through the Fire by K.B. WagersHold Fast Through the Fire (NeoG #2) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: NeoG #2
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Voyager on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G)—inspired by the real-life mission of the Coast Guard—patrols and protects the solar system. Now the crew of Zuma’s Ghost must contend with personnel changes and a powerful cabal hellbent on dominating the trade lanes in this fast-paced, action-packed follow-up to A Pale Light in the Black.
Zuma’s Ghost has won the Boarding Games for the second straight year. The crew—led by the unparalleled ability of Jenks in the cage, the brilliant pairing of Ma and Max in the pilot seats, the technical savvy of Sapphi, and the sword skills of Tamago and Rosa—has all come together to form an unstoppable team. Until it all comes apart.
Their commander and Master Chief are both retiring. Which means Jenks is getting promoted, a new commander is joining them, and a fresh-faced spacer is arriving to shake up their perfect dynamics. And while not being able to threepeat is on their minds, the more important thing is how they’re going to fulfill their mission in the black.
After a plea deal transforms a twenty-year ore-mining sentence into NeoG service, Spacer Chae Ho-ki earns a spot on the team. But there’s more to Chae that the crew doesn’t know, and they must hide a secret that could endanger everyone they love—as well as their new teammates—if it got out. At the same time, a seemingly untouchable coalition is attempting to take over trade with the Trappist colonies and start a war with the NeoG. When the crew of Zuma’s Ghost gets involved, they end up as targets of this ruthless enemy.
With new members aboard, will the team grow stronger this time around? Will they be able to win the games? And, more important, will they be able to surmount threats from both without and within? 

My Review:

I positively ADORED the first book in the NeoG series, A Pale Light in the Black, to the point where it was one of my A++ reviews AND on my Best of 2020 list. It got me hooked on this author, to the point that I’ve been reading their previous series, The Indranan War and The Farian War, whenever I’m looking for an SFnal pick-me-up read.

Of course, all of that put this book, Hold Fast Through the Fire, on my list of Most Anticipated Reads for 2021. And it was definitely worth the wait!

But one of the things that I really loved about A Pale Light in the Black was that it made for excellent competence porn. Honestly, all my favorites last year qualified as competence porn. Reading about people who were just plain very good at their jobs doing those jobs very well shined a light in what was otherwise a rather dark year of incompetence.

So I was a bit surprised when the first third of Hold Fast Through the Fire did an all too excellent job of demonstrating just why both Groucho Marx and Doctor Who labeled “military intelligence” as a contradiction in terms. Certainly the intelligence department of the NeoG is NOT displaying any of that vaunted commodity when it decides to use four NeoG Interceptors and their crews as bait for a terrorist and not tell them about it.

Especially as the members of those crews – see the comment about competence porn above – are very good at their jobs and more than intelligent enough to figure out that something is wrong about the runaround that they are getting – and to start figuring the whole thing out on their own.

Because the crew of Zuma’s Ghost are, in fact, damn good at their jobs. They also have excellent bullshit detectors, even when the BS is being slung by one of their own. Or perhaps especially then.

In the first book, there was, of necessity, a cargo hold’s worth of setup. Introducing the characters, creating the world, explaining just enough about how history got from point A, our present, to point B, their future.

The story in that first book mostly felt, not exactly low-stakes, but certainly less humongous stakes than this time around. That was a story where the intraservice Boarding Games became a metaphor for the crew of Zuma’s Ghost learning how to be a team both at the games and out in the black.

This time, although the Boarding Games are still a factor, the stakes for the story as a whole are much higher and have much broader implications. Also, where first time around the team didn’t exist yet and had to form itself, this time the team that we watched build in the first book begins this story even more fractured than a couple of changes in personnel should have caused.

Back to that problem of military intelligence again.

The high-stakes mission that the crew of Zuma’s Ghost is caught up in is wrapped up in wealth, power and privilege, and the way that the rich and powerful never seem to face the consequences of the dirty deeds that they feel entitled to commit. The plan is to drop those consequences squarely on their heads.

If the NeoG can just manage to keep their own heads in the face of so many deaths – including entirely too many of their own.

Escape Rating A: This was one of this epic, can’t put it down reads. I started in the morning and finished late in the evening because I just couldn’t stop. Then I went to bed with an horrendous book hangover that I still haven’t shaken.

Although there were certainly points during that first third where I wanted to reach through the book and shake someone – preferably the control freak in NeoG intelligence who was using his friends and his colleagues as unwitting bait because he didn’t want too many people to know what was going on and question him about it.

It was painful watching these characters that I’ve already come to know and love struggle to punch their way out of a maze that they shouldn’t have been in in the first place. I wanted to stand up and cheer when they gave the idiot the dressing down he REALLY deserved.

But the big and high-stakes part of this story revolved around the plan that NeoG intelligence had been keeping under wraps. A senator, a shipping company executive and a thug (and doesn’t that sound like the start of a bad joke) have been spending years making oodles of moolah in an interplanetary bait-and-switch scheme. They’ve been stealing from both the government and the outer colonies, taking money for colonial supplies, shipping substandard goods to the colonies, and then selling the goods they’ve stolen on the black market to those same colonies for a huge markup.

Their scheme is coming to a close. NeoG is closing in, and they’re decided to go out in a blaze of other people’s glory by fomenting unrest in the colonies and using the resulting chaos for one last score before they slip away into the black.

It’s a huge organization with a lot of tentacles. Tentacles that reach out to hurt NeoG as the net closes in.

On the one hand, the whole nefarious scheme sounds all too plausible, not just then but honestly now. It’s the same colonizers’ rape of their colonies that has gone on since the very first country got big enough to call itself an empire.

So the scheme, in all its terrible awfulness, works all too well as a plot device. The stakes feel realistically high and get brought home to our heroes in a realistically painful fashion. But the leaders of the scheme as characters read as just a bit too far over the top. A plan that intelligent and that successful should be led by equally savvy villains. This bunch read more like comic book villains. Admittedly extremely successful comic book villains but still, their leader got way too close to an actual BWAHAHA to take as seriously as the crimes they committed warranted.

But this was a great story about a terrific team beating impossible odds to save the day and make each other proud. I loved the way they got the job done and done oh so well. There were also plenty of heroes to go around to balance out those cartoonish villains, but the one who saved the day more often than anyone expected was Doge, the dog-shaped robot who is turning out to be more dog than anyone ever imagined.

I had a great time with Max and Nika and the entire crew of Zuma’s Ghost, and I can’t wait for their next adventure. I’m still chuckling a bit that one of the Navy ships that helped out in the final encounter was the Normandy. Because of course it was.

Review: Hacking Mr CEO by Anna Hackett

Review: Hacking Mr CEO by Anna HackettHacking Mr. CEO (Billionaire Heists #3) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Billionaire Heists #3
Pages: 292
Published by Anna Hackett on July 27th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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To save the only mother I’ve ever known, all I have to do is hack a tech billionaire.

My foster mother is sick. The woman who gave me a home, love, a life. I’ll do anything to find the money for her surgery, including using my skills as a hacker.

My name’s Remi, also known as Rogue Angel, and usually I work for a security company testing clients’ systems. But now a shadowy bad guy has tracked me down and given me an ultimatum.

I have to hack Rivera Tech—the biggest technology company in the world, owned by billionaire CEO, Maverick Rivera. If I do, I get paid and I can help my foster mother. If I don’t, my family is in danger.

Hacking Rivera is no walk in the park, and soon I find myself in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse with big, grumpy, and way-too-sexy Maverick. What I never, ever expected was for him to make me feel safe, or to threaten my closely-guarded heart, or to ignite every single part of me.

I can’t drag him into my mess.

But Maverick has other ideas, and he isn’t a man who takes no for an answer.

My Review:

In the very first of the Billionaire Heists series, Stealing from Mr. Rich, the first of the “Bachelor Billionaires”, as the New York City news media calls them, found himself falling for a woman who was in way over her head – and his – with some really evil dudes who were out to rob him blind, using her as their patsy.

In the second book, Blackmailing Mr. Bossman, the second bachelor falls for a woman who seems to be blackmailing him because her bestie is being blackmailed by people who are after his money. This one was just the right book at the right time for me, as everyone who seems to be lying turns out either not to be or doing it for the best of intentions.

In the first two stories, the romance happens because the women who find themselves in these messes begin with the very best of intentions, trying their damnedest to fix a situation that they may not have broken but that they feel responsible for patching up.

None of them are damsels in distress, wringing their hands and waiting for a man to sweep in and fix things for them. They’re out there trying to fix the mess for themselves when the man they have been forced to do wrong by decides that he’s not going to sit passively by while someone evil messes with both of them.

They are on the same side after all – even if they don’t start out that way.

In this final book in the series, white-hat hacker Remi Solano finds herself donning a black hat when she learns that her foster mom needs expensive experimental treatment to remove an otherwise inoperable brain tumor. Mama Alma has less than 6 months to live, and Remi and her siblings together couldn’t raise the kind of money if they had 6 years to do it in. So she markets her only skill on the dark web, hoping to make a score that will get Mama into that expensive treatment.

And she gets in way over her head. Because otherwise we wouldn’t have this marvelous story.

Someone wants her to hack into Rivera Tech and steal the files on something called the Calyx Project. She doesn’t know who they are, and she doesn’t know what the project is, but the job pays a cool million and that’s enough to take care of Mama.

Not that Remi actually wants to hack Rivera. She’s not exactly sure that she can, even as skilled as she is. Rivera Tech has the best security she’s ever seen, which only makes sense because Maverick Rivera is a genius programmer and computer designer in his own right. And it’s his company, the extremely handsome profits from which have made him the third of the “Billionaire Bachelors”.

Although, Remi has seen plenty of pictures of the man, and she’d be more than happy to hack one of his extremely well-tailored suits right off his sexy body. Not that she thinks she’ll ever have the chance – especially not if she manages to pull off this job.

And that’s where everything gets hairy. Or goes south. Or pear-shaped. Or all of the above.

Calyx is a super-secret government project. Whoever wants Remi to steal it is planning on committing treason – or planning on Remi committing treason on their behalf. Remi’s obviously a pawn in this game, a pawn that the contractor called “The Shadow” refuses to let go of when Remi and Mav join forces.

The chase is on. The Shadow wants them both dead. They’ve become loose ends in his failed attempt to hack Rivera by proxy, and he never leaves loose ends. They’re dodging bullets and hired badasses while they try to close in on the villain who is trying to close in on them.

Meanwhile, they’re closing in on each other, even if neither of them has any expectations that the other will stay once all the excitement is over – one way or another.

Escape Rating A-: I think this was my favorite game in the whole series, making it end on a marvelous high note. I loved the hacking scenario, and the way that Remi and Mav just had a great time geeking out together.

The way the story ended, with Mav and Remi being chased by The Shadow through the entire Rivera Tech campus, read like it would make a great video game, which felt totally appropriate for a romantic suspense story featuring two geeks.

I have to say that the villain of this piece, The Shadow, was just a bit too over the top. He’s the only thing keeping this from being an A grade. I loved Remi and Mav, I enjoyed the hell out of watching them get together, and all the geekery was very much my jam. The Shadow, while extremely dangerous and deadly, had a persona that wouldn’t have been out of place in a B grade superhero movie.

Which, come to think of it, is also pretty geeky. Just not as cool as the rest of the story.

While I’m happy to see the Billionaire Bachelors all find their HEAs, I’m kind of sorry to see this series end. On my third hand, this does plenty of crossover with Norcross Security, which is clearly not done yet. After all, Vander Norcross, the boogeyman’s boogeyman as Remi called him, still has to find a woman he can’t run over. That’s going to be epic!

Review: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons

Review: The House of Always by Jenn LyonsThe House of Always (A Chorus of Dragons, #4) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #4
Pages: 523
Published by Tor Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For fans of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, The House of Always is the fourth epic fantasy in Jenn Lyons' Chorus of Dragons series that began with The Ruin of Kings.
What if you were imprisoned for all eternity?
In the aftermath of the Ritual of Night, everything has changed.
The Eight Immortals have catastrophically failed to stop Kihrin's enemies, who are moving forward with their plans to free Vol Karoth, the King of Demons. Kihrin has his own ideas about how to fight back, but even if he's willing to sacrifice everything for victory, the cost may prove too high for his allies.
Now they face a choice: can they save the world while saving Kihrin, too? Or will they be forced to watch as he becomes the very evil they have all sworn to destroy.

My Review:

“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” Or so says Ecclesiastes, Peter Pan, and at least a couple of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. But as at least one of the characters responds in BSG, “But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?”

And I’m beginning to believe that THAT is the central question of this entire projected-to-be-five-books epic. Whether just because the history has repeated means that it has to repeat yet again. But I’ve thought I’ve figured out the central theme of this epic before, and so far I’ve been wrong every time.

Absolutely fascinated, but wrong. So we’ll see.

Like the previous books in the series, The House of Always is told from two different perspectives, seemingly from a point in the future, which does not necessarily mean that any of the characters survived, only that their chronicles did.

This time it’s Kihrin, trapped in Vol Karoth’s prison all by himself, discovering that all of his assumptions about the Dark God’s maturity, capability and power were seriously off the mark, and that he’s in so far over his head that he may never surface except as a tortured facet of the King of Demons.

That the other half of the story is narrated by the mage Senera from the Lighthouse at Shadrag Gor – otherwise known as the House of Always from the title – means that I finally know which of the two actors from the previous audiobooks was Kihrin and which was Thurvishar. Not that I needed to know, but it was niggling at me and now it’s not.

The story being told by these two narrators ranges backwards and forwards in time, as Kihrin and the companions who eventually join him in Vol Karoth’s mindscape prison AND the remaining members of the quest equally trapped at the Lighthouse find themselves being repeatedly mind-raped by the Dark God.

Vol Karoth doesn’t believe in love or friendship or faith or trust or any positive emotion of any kind. As far as he’s concerned, it’s all lies and deception, whether of the self or others. Kihrin believes the exact opposite. Their battle of minds and memories is a device to convince each other in a contest where the winner will take all, literally, of the world and of each other’s very existence.

It’s a battle that Kihrin somehow has to win. In spite of how everything seems, Vol Karoth is not really Kihrin’s enemy. Kihrin’s enemies are waiting outside, so far unaware that Kihrin has become another player of their game and not a pawn on either of their boards, as he has been in all of his previous incarnations.

If Kihrin wins, there’s a chance this time to stop the endless cycles of history. If he loses, the demon Xaltorath will have another turn of the cycle to keep bending history to their will. And the wizard Relos Var will have another turn of the cycle to try to destroy the world before that happens.

Not that either of them is on the side of the right or the angels. Even if one of them thinks he is.

Escape Rating A: There is, as is ALWAYS true of this series, a lot to unpack in this entry. And just like all of the previous books in the series, you won’t care to unpack it or understand why it’s important to unpack if you haven’t read the previous books. Start with The Ruin of Kings and be prepared to be swept away, only to be left ashore at the end of this one with an epic book hangover and an intense desire to get the final book immediately.

All of that being said, and as much as I love this series as a whole, this is the first time that the book in hand isn’t even more epic than its predecessor. Not that it isn’t downright excellent, just that it suffers a bit in comparison. Also, this is kind of a middle book, not that it ends in a slough of despond as middle books often do, but rather that it contains a lot of character development and exposition and filling in of the corners and footnotes (this whole series is built on footnotes!). There’s a lot of process in this one, as we get a lot of the underpinning of the worldbuilding and a lot of pieces moving into place to set up the finale.

Also, this one is a bit harder to follow than usual. Not that all the stories haven’t jumped back and forth in time more than a bit, but the nature of this entry in the series is that neither group we’re following is in a place where time is in any way fixed. Kihrin, and eventually others are literally inside Vol Karoth’s head, and the rest are in the Lighthouse at Shadrag Gor, which is nicknamed the House of Always because “real time” outside passes very, very, very slowly.

The entire story, except for the very end, is framed in places that are essentially moored in an eternity of limbo. Or limbo of eternity. Stuff happens, and it happens in a kind of order, but it’s interspersed with memories that happened before that happen out of their order at least some of the time and it’s easy to get a bit lost.

Which doesn’t mean that a lot of important stuff doesn’t happen, just that it’s difficult to get a handle on when and in what order it happened. It all comes together at the end to set up the final volume, but in the middle it gets a bit muddled.

One of the very interesting things that gets revealed is that the Eight Immortals who are worshipped as gods are much more like the Incarnations of Immortality from Piers Anthony’s long ago series than they are the Elven Gods of Dragon Age. Meaning that the functions of those Eight Immortals; Death, Luck, Magic, etc., are offices that have been held by different people through the repeated cycles of history. After several of the so-called gods were killed at the end of The Memory of Souls, those offices are vacant and the concepts they represent are searching for replacements.

Which leads directly to the final book in the series, The Discord of Gods. It’s possible that the new gods who begin to assume their mantles in this book are going to have very different visions of what they should do about the forces that are contending for power. Not that they were all exactly getting along swimmingly before.

But the gods aren’t the only players on this particular field. The demon Xaltorath has been shifting history in order to create a version of the world where they and the demons win – so they can eat everyone. Relos Var has been manipulating everyone towards his vision of the “greater good” in the hopes of destroying everything so that he can save the pieces that are left.

Both sides believe that Kihrin is just a pawn they’ve been playing with for cycles and millennia. He thinks he’s got them fooled, and that he’s playing them in order to save the people he loves – and everyone else – into the bargain.

They could all be right. They could all be wrong. Or any combination thereof. We’ll all find out in The Discord of Gods, which would seem to be the version of Ragnarok to which the entire epic has been leading. The end of the world as they know it is coming next April. And I’ve never looked forward to doomsday so much.

Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian TchaikovskyOne Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The bold new work from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky  - a smart, funny tale of time-travel and paradox
Welcome to the end of time. It’s a perfect day.
Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there’s no-one to remember, and nothing for them to remember if there were; that’s sort of the point. We were time warriors, and we broke time.
I was the one who ended it. Ended the fighting, tidied up the damage as much as I could.
Then I came here, to the end of it all, and gave myself a mission: to never let it happen again.

My Review:

The problem with wanting to change things is that, well, things change. The problem with time travel – or at least scientifically-based time travel – is that the things that change are fundamental to the reason you time travelled in the first place.

In other words, it makes a mess. And going back to fix the first mess makes an even bigger mess. And so on and so on, ad infinitum, until history and facts and even ordinary causality are totally FUBAR’d beyond all recognition or possibility of repair.

In a way, that’s the premise behind One Day All This Will Be Yours, that the war to end all wars was a time war, and that all of the combatants – along with the governments and organizations that sent them – lost complete track of what they were fighting for, who sent them, why they were sent, and even, to some extent, who they were, because all of those antecedents had been lost in the continued fracturing and refracturing of time.

The past can’t be changed. Well, it can, but the result is just an increasing level of chaos. Which leads our unnamed and unreliable narrator in the Last Lonely House at the End of Time to his resolve to make sure that no one can ever restart the endless cycling chaos of time travel by sitting in that house with all of the best stuff that he has taken from all the best of all the fractured eras, watching and waiting for any errant time travelers to land their time machines in his backyard.

So he can kill them and prevent the time and place that they came from from ever developing time travel. It’s a lonely job, but this veteran of the Causality War has decided that someone has to do it and that someone is him.

It’s all going just fine until a time machine slips through his net from the one time and place he never expected to receive time travelers, because he believed he’d guaranteed that it would never exist.

They’re from the future. His future. The future he’s sworn to prevent at all costs – although admittedly those costs are mostly to other times, places, and people.

The worst part of this invasion from the future is that his descendants are perky. And determined. Downright compelled to make sure that he creates the future that gives rise to their perky, perfect utopia.

This means war.

Escape Rating A-: The surprising thing about this book, considering that it’s the ultimate post-apocalypse story, is just how much fun it turns out to be. Because in the end, this is a buddy story. It’s an enemies-into-besties story where the protagonists are absolutely determined that it not become an enemies to lovers story.

Because neither of them like the rest of humanity nearly enough to want to make more of it. Especially because that other side wants them to do it – literally – just so damn badly.

So the fun in the story is in the time bonding, as these two misanthropes who are supposed to repopulate the world exercise their determination to just say no, all while having a fantastic time time-tripping through all the best eras that fractured history ever had to offer.

Time travel can be handled any number of ways in fiction, all of them equally valid because we just don’t know – although it’s a fair guess that if humanity ever manages to make it happen we’ll probably screw it up somehow. This story treats history as one big ball that is endlessly mutable – then sits back at the end of the time stream to observe just how badly it’s been mutated.

Another book that did something similar, with more romance and less snark, is last year’s This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I wasn’t as big a fan of Time War as most of my reading circle, however I thought One Day was a really fun read. Last year’s book was less straightforward and more lyrical, while this one tells a similar story with a lot of gallows humor and it just worked better for me.

Also this is a more straightforward story – in spite of the time travel. There’s that fixed point at the end of everything that the characters keep returning to that helps to anchor the story. Any time travel they do together or separately is treated as tourism. Time is so screwed up that while they don’t have to worry about whether or not they change anything, they also aren’t interested in changing anything in particular. If the butterfly flaps its wings differently in the wake of their passing, they’re not going to be affected by it in their little cul-de-sac at the end of time.

But as much fun as this was to read – after all it’s a story about two people at the end of the universe essentially pranking each other into eternity – after all the laughs it’s kind of sad at the end. Because even by not doing the thing – and each other – that they’ve both sworn not to do, the thing they were trying hardest to prevent has happened anyway.

There’s no way to stop it except by starting another one of the thing they vowed to prevent in the first place. Whatever began the original time war, theirs will be powered by, of all things, irony.

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. LiuThe Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie M. Liu
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, horror, short stories
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.
“The Tangleroot Palace is charming and ruthless. Tales that feel new yet grounded in the infinitely ancient, a mythology for the coming age.”—Angela Slatter, author of The Bitterwood Bible
“Marjorie Liu is magic! Her writing is passionate, lyric, gritty, and riveting. She belongs high on everyone’s must-read list.”—Elizabeth Lowell, author of Only Mine
Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.
Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.

My Review:

I picked this up not for her multiple award-winning Monstress, which I haven’t read yet, but for Dirk & Steele and Hunter’s Kiss, her marvelous urban fantasy/paranormal series that I read when they came out back in the late 2000s. I loved both of those series, but I’m kind of astonished that they came out way more than a decade ago.

But it has been a while, so I was happy to see this collection as a way of renewing my acquaintance with an author I very much loved. And I’m glad I did. There’s even a prequel for Dirk & Steele in this collection, at least if you squint a bit.

My favorite stories in this collection were The Briar and the Rose, Call Her Savage and the title story, The Tangleroot Palace.

The Briar and the Rose takes the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, adds in a bit of magical possession and body-swapping, and wraps it in a bodyguard romance. Except that this takes place in a world of myth and legend, where an evil sorceress is maintaining her youth and beauty by possessing pretty young women and discarding their corpses. That sorceress is defeated by the love that develops between her female bodyguard and the true personality of the body being possessed in stolen moments when the sorceress sleeps. And it’s a powerful story about just how strong people can be when they have something, or someone to fight beside and to fight for.

Call Her Savage was fascinating because it hints at so much world and such a rich history that we don’t get to see in this story. There’s alternate history and revolution and wars and flawed heroines and politics and lost causes and fighting the long defeat. It reminds me a bit of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but with an alternate 19th or 20th century instead of alternate early history. This is the one I wish there were more of. A lot more.

The Tangleroot Palace was lush and lovely and kind of perfect. On its surface its about a princess who runs away from home to find magic in order to save herself and hopefully save her kingdom from subservience to a brutal warlord. And underneath that it’s a romance about hiding behind masks to protect one’s true self, about the power of illusion and the power of agency. And of course nothing about the warlord or the kingdom or the subservience turns out to be quite what the princess was expecting. But the magic at the heart of the forest is all too real, even if, or especially because, it too is based on an illusion.

Of the rest of the collection, Sympathy for the Bones, Where the Heart Lives and The Last Dignity of Man were interesting and I’m glad I read them but they weren’t quite up there with my faves. After the Blood played with a supernatural/paranormal take on a post-apocalyptic story but didn’t give enough details to really hang together. Not that some characters weren’t hung or otherwise eliminated, but this one felt like it had been done before, and better, elsewhere.

Still and all, I’d have read this for those three favorite stories, and I’m glad I stuck around for the whole thing. It was just the right amount of lovely and romantic and creepy to while awhile a rainy evening with a cat on my lap.

Escape Rating A-: This is a strong collection, filled with stories that grip the heart, ramp up the adrenaline and occasionally wring the tear ducts. They’re not new stories, but they were all new to me, and I got completely wrapped up in every single one. They have the feel of feminist fairy tales, in that all but one of the stories are led by women, and are from mostly female perspectives. So these are heroine’s journeys – and occasionally villainess’ journeys, rather than told from the point of view that such stories are usually told.

Although the one story that is told from a male perspective, The Last Dignity of Man, while it was not among my favorites was one of the most purely lonely stories I have ever read. It was so sad and so heartbreaking and had so much possibility but the monsters, and there certainly were monsters, were more disgusting than scary, not that they weren’t scary too. Still, the idea of someone emulating a supervillain in the hopes that a superhero would arise to thwart them, just like in the comic books, was a great idea that I’d love to see explored more fully with less puking. Seriously.

The Tangleroot Palace reminded me just why I loved this author so much, and has made me resolve to get stuck into Monstress at the earliest opportunity!

Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. Trow

Review: The Knight’s Tale by M.J. TrowThe Knight's Tale (A Geoffrey Chaucer Mystery #1) by M.J. Trow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Geoffrey Chaucer #1
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Introducing 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer as a memorable new amateur sleuth in the first of an ingeniously-conceived medieval mystery series.

April, 1380. About to set off on his annual pilgrimage, Comptroller of the King’s Woollens and court poet Geoffrey Chaucer is forced to abandon his plans following an appeal for help from an old friend. The Duke of Clarence, Chaucer’s former guardian, has been found dead in his bed at his Suffolk castle, his bedroom door locked and bolted from the inside. The man who found him, Sir Richard Glanville, suspects foul play and has asked Chaucer to investigate.

On arrival at Clare Castle, Chaucer finds his childhood home rife with bitter rivalries, ill-advised love affairs and dangerous secrets. As he questions the castle’s inhabitants, it becomes clear that more than one member of the Duke’s household had reason to wish him ill. But who among them is a cold-hearted killer? It’s up to Chaucer, with his sharp wits and eye for detail, to root out the evil within.

My Review:

The Knight’s Tale is the first tale of Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, so it’s fitting that in this historical mystery, Chaucer himself is dragged away from his annual pilgrimage to Canterbury – his inspiration for the Tales – in order to involve himself in a Knight’s Tale of his very own, the first in a projected series that features Chaucer as the amateur “detective” investigating a mysterious death that might be murder.

As the story opens, Chaucer, just hitting 40 and feeling it hit back in more ways than one, finds himself headed to Castle Clare, where he was fostered, instead of on his annual pilgrimage as he had planned. His mentor, rescuer and earliest benefactor, Lionel of Antwerp, the Duke of Clarence, has died under mysterious circumstances. Chaucer’s old friend Sir Richard Glanville has come to fetch Chaucer from London in the hopes that the man will either allay his suspicions of murder or put some meat on their bones.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect foul play, and the late Duke had made more than enough enemies for anyone to wonder if he was sent to his reward a bit earlier than heaven or hell intended. As the oldest surviving son of the late King Edward III, there are also possible political connections and motives in every direction.

But the man died alone, in bed, in a locked room on an upper floor of the castle. No one could have snuck either in or out and left the key on the inside of the lock. It’s a puzzle that Glanville hopes Chaucer can solve – as he has solved other puzzling conundrums before, whether or not murder was involved.

In a world where 21st century forensics – or even the late 19th century forensic science of Sherlock Holmes – will not be invented for centuries, it’s up to Chaucer to use his brains and his gifts for drawing people out and observing their behavior afterwards to figure out first, if there was a crime and second, if so, who committed it.

All while being distracted by his memories of the place he once called home and the love he left behind there.

Escape Rating A-: After yesterday’s book, I found myself searching for something with a straightforward plot. Not that there aren’t plenty of twists and turns and red herrings in mystery, but the genre has features that a reader can always depend on. There’s a body, a detective (however amateur), and a perpetrator with means and motive to uncover. Mystery is, after all, the romance of justice served.

This story also takes place in a period that I’ve always loved, the Plantagenet era in England, so it had the feel of the familiar. Something that still held true even though the author played seriously fast and loose with time and place. But even when I became aware of the historical inconsistencies (that Lionel of Clarence died in Italy in 1368 not England in 1380), is just the tip of that iceberg), the setting and the characters still felt more than correct enough for the whole thing to carry me along as much as I’d hoped it would.

At the same time, it also reminded me very much of two historical mystery series that are set in the same time period and that include Geoffrey Chaucer not as the protagonist but as a secondary character. The Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series (start with Veil of Lies) by Jeri Westerson and the Owen Archer series (start with The Apothecary Rose) by Candace Robb also touch on the politics and court intrigues of the Plantagenet kings and their far flung families, friends, retainers and enemies. Meaning that if you like one of the three series you’ll probably like the others.

Like the other two series I mentioned, this first book in the Geoffrey Chaucer series does an excellent job of putting the reader into the period while managing successfully not to put the reader off by making the historic characters into grand historical personages, even though they were.

Because that’s a view we have looking back. In their own time and place, they were just people, and the story does a great job of humanizing them and making them feel, well, real. It’s not just Chaucer’s brain that’s on display here, but also his nostalgia for his youth and his mourning for its loss, as well as his occasional vain attempts to be the young man he once was. He’s human and funny and sad and sarcastic and occasionally even snarktastic by turns. It makes him a fascinating amateur detective.

One I hope to see more of in future books in this series. After all, The Knight’s Tale was the first of Chaucer’s 24 published Canterbury Tales, so I have high hopes for 23 more books in this series!

Review: Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Review: Questland by Carrie VaughnQuestland by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Mariner Books on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Questland is a thrill ride…Richly imagined, action-packed, maximum fun." —Charles Yu, New York Times bestselling author of Interior Chinatown
YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A MAZE FULL OF TWISTY PASSAGES...   Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.   Unfortunately, one of the island's employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox's ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.   But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.
“Gamers rejoice! Carrie Vaughn has conjured up a fun and fast-paced story filled with elves, d20s, and Monty Python riffs.”—Monte Cook, ENnie Award-winning creator of the Numenera roleplaying game

My Review:

If you’re a fan in the real world, it’s possible (again) to go to Hobbiton and visit a bit of the Shire. All you have to do is go to New Zealand, where they’ve turned the movie sets from the Lord of the Rings into a tourist attraction.

You may be able to see the sights, but you can’t actually insert yourself into the story except in your own head. You can eat a meal but you can’t spend the night. The immersion can only go so far.

But if that description makes your head spin with possibilities, you’re not alone. And that’s what the original project to build Insula Mirabilis was all about. Creating a place where well-heeled travelers could spend days or weeks not just observing a fantasy world but actually living it.

Complete with mythical creatures – like unicorns and wargs – running around and occasionally even running from each other. And there would be magic – at least in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from.”

All in the service of allowing people to live out their dreams of living in a fantasy world. At least for a little while.

But the problem with fantasy worlds is the same problem that exists with the real world. Humans do have a way of messing up even the best things – perhaps especially the best things – in ways that their designers never expected.

Or did they?

A rich tech wizard has created Insula Mirabilis to provide as many dreamers and geeks and nerds and LARPers and members of SCA as possible a place to live their dreams by paying him big bucks for the privilege. But the real purpose is for his crack engineering teams to rise to greater and greater inventive heights, providing him with lots of patents and trademarks and even more ways to make even more money.

But it’s all gone wrong. Or at least it looks that way. The island has cut itself off from the rest of the world with some kind of forcefield. Nothing going out – not even telecommunication – and nothing and no one going in, something that the Coast Guard has discovered to their loss.

Harris Lang, that rich tech wizard, has put together a team to sneak into his island and get it back for him. The team consists of four mercenaries and one very much out of her depth literature professor.

But Addie Cox has all the tools they need to figure out what went wrong and why. She’s an expert on the original sources that form the backbone of epic fantasy. She’s an avid player of D&D and a member of SCA.

Addie’s geek credentials aren’t the only thing she has going for her – and they’re not the only thing that Harris Lang is counting on, either. Because he’s planned much better than that. Addie is his ace in the hole, because Lang is pretty certain that the engineer who has gone rogue on HIS island is Addie’s ex-boyfriend.

And that the man will be unable to resist trying to impress Addie in the hopes of getting her back.

Escape Rating A-: This story feels like it exists on two levels. On the surface, there’s, well, the surface. Which is an adventure tale about exploring the island resort in order to figure out what’s gone wrong.

And on the other level, the story is one gigantic in-joke. If you love epic fantasy and role-playing games and everything that goes along with them, you’ll get the joke and enjoy the story. If you don’t, I’m not sure whether the story is strong enough to carry the reader over. I can’t tell because this is a joke that I very definitely got, as epic fantasy has formed a pretty big share of my reading since I first picked up The Hobbit. When I was 8. In OMG 1965. That’s a long time in which to read a lot of fantasy.

Which means that I had a great time in Questland. But I felt like I got all the in-jokes, and understood all the references. And kept thinking up more as I went along.

This turned out to be a story where I kept discovering more and more books and movies that it reminded me of the longer I got into it. Like one or two on every page. A lot of people are going to say Ready Player One because they share that nostalgia factor, but that didn’t feel like the primary influence to me. For that to work, James Halliday would have to have been the founder of Innovative Online Industries. In other words, the inventing genius would also have to be kind of evil.

It’s a lot more like Westworld in that the resort, which is also the gamespace, is mostly a work of mechanical engineering rather than the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park. Although the two books that Questland made me think of way more than anything else are both rather obscure, Sherri Tepper’s first novel King’s Blood Four, where the game is the world is the game, and Jean Johnson’s The Tower, where the protagonists are playing a live action role-playing game as entertainment for others – with very high stakes.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary, and there are hints of plenty of other books, games and movies if you squint a bit.

But at the center of it all is Addie Cox. While the mercenary team that takes her to the island does all of the physical heavy lifting on the trip, Addie is the one carrying all of the emotional baggage. Not just because the rogue wizard at the heart of the maze is her ex, but because Addie is the survivor of a school shooting. (She’d fit right in with The Final Girl Support Group). Traveling with a bunch of mercenaries with guns is way outside what comfort zone Addie has left.

That the team makes it clear that they think she’s useless does not help any of her issues, because she agrees with that assessment. The way that she refers to her uselessness is one of many, many references to Dungeons and Dragons and lots of other geekery.

That the story is her journey, her putting all of her knowledge to use to not just figure out the puzzle but also suss out who the monster is at the heart of this maze helps Addie change her perception of herself from being an unskilled and useless “Bard” character to become someone skillful and important and necessary for the quest, no matter what part she seems to play.

So come to Questland for the nostalgic geekery, but stay and enjoy for the very human story.

Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine GuilloryWhile We Were Dating (The Wedding Date, #6) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Wedding Date #6
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two people realize that it's no longer an act when they veer off-script in this sizzling romantic comedy by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.
Ben Stephens has never bothered with serious relationships. He has plenty of casual dates to keep him busy, family drama he's trying to ignore and his advertising job to focus on. When Ben lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, however, it's hard to keep it purely professional. Anna is not just gorgeous and sexy, she's also down to earth and considerate, and he can't help flirting a little...
Anna Gardiner is on a mission: to make herself a household name, and this ad campaign will be a great distraction while she waits to hear if she's booked her next movie. However, she didn't expect Ben Stephens to be her biggest distraction. She knows mixing business with pleasure never works out, but why not indulge in a harmless flirtation?
But their lighthearted banter takes a turn for the serious when Ben helps Anna in a family emergency, and they reveal truths about themselves to each other, truths they've barely shared with those closest to them.
When the opportunity comes to turn their real-life fling into something more for the Hollywood spotlight, will Ben be content to play the background role in Anna's life and leave when the cameras stop rolling? Or could he be the leading man she needs to craft their own Hollywood ending?

My Review:

Once upon a time in 2018 there was a book titled The Wedding Date. I picked it up on a whim. Honestly. I was looking for something happy and I got an offer for an advanced copy at just the right time. That was one of the best whims I ever indulged in, because that book was just an awesomely lovely and damn near perfect romance.

Fast forward three occasionally rather strange years and that wedding date has turned into an entire series that wraps itself around the friends of that original couple, and their friends and family, and hopefully and so on, discovering their own HEAs.

Quite often through either a meet-terribly-cute or a fake date or fake romance or some combination of all of the above. And this entry in the series is no exception.

Junior Advertising Executive Ben Stephens meets Oscar-nominated actress Anna Gardiner in what could best be described as a meet-cute professional edition. He’s supposed to be part of the team – meaning sitting at the table to represent diversity without being permitted to say anything – for an extremely important presentation to a big tech firm that plans to advertise their new smartphone as a lifestyle accessory. She’s the “talent”, the actress who will star in the commercials. Her contract gives her veto power over the campaign that no one seriously expects her to exercise.

But all his bosses are stuck at the airport, so he and an even more junior assistant are supposed to make the presentation they honestly created, all by themselves, at least until their corporate bigwigs finally show up. Anna is both wowed and charmed by Ben, and pleased as punch to see him take that unexpected chance and shoot for the win.

That all of the companies that present after him pull the same stunt that his intended to pull, bringing along an employee of color to fake diversity without letting them actually do anything puts Ben and his company ahead of the pack – even if it happened by accident.

But Anna, who knows first hand what it’s like to be picked second or third for a part because the powers that be just can’t believe that a black actress will have the same universal appeal as a white one, also knows how things work. So she firmly puts her vetoing foot down and says that she’ll  do the commercials only with Ben’s company and only if Ben gets to be the lead on the project.

It’s a win-win-win from the very first day of production. But the sparks that Anna and Ben ignite behind the camera have the potential to cause them both no end of trouble – if they can’t resist indulging in them.

Both know that it’s bad policy to get involved with someone at work – or with someone they are working with – even on a temporary basis. Both have professional plans and goals that have the potential to be seriously derailed if they take their eyes off the prize they are seeking. Both of them have traumatic secrets in their pasts that they are afraid to share with anyone except their therapists. And they are both equally afraid of sharing that they even HAVE therapists because neither of them is in a position where they can appear weak. Ever.

When a family crisis pushes Anna into relying on Ben for a quick getaway and a long drive to reassure her that whatever put her beloved dad into the hospital this time isn’t serious, Ben and Anna let their walls come down much further than they ever intended.

And neither of them is able to put those walls back up. No matter how hard they try. Not even when Anna’s manager convinces her to pretend they’re faking it – to the point where they almost believe it themselves.

Escape Rating A-: My two absolute favorite books in this series are the first book, The Wedding Date, and the 4th book, Royal Holiday. But I’ve enjoyed every single book in the series because these are romcoms for readers who don’t necessarily love romcoms. The issues that arise between every couple in the series feel real, feel part and parcel of their personalities and their situation. There are no misunderstandammits here. What goes wrong is not something that could be resolved with a simple conversation because it goes much too deep for the solution to be nearly that easy.

Howsomever, unlike the first three books which take place almost simultaneously, the most recent books in the series stand very much alone. Not that there aren’t recurring characters – Ben’s brother was one of the members of The Wedding Party, after all. But it’s not necessary to know Theo from the earlier book to enjoy his cameo here. Especially the part where Ben and Theo are carrying a suitcase full of giggling actress.

As much as I enjoyed reading While We Were Dating – because I was really looking for a happy place and certainly found it here – it felt like I’d read bits of this story before – and relatively recently at that. I think if you put You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria, Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert and Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai into a plot blender the resulting story would have most of the elements of While We Were Dating.

Since I loved all three of those books, it’s not exactly a surprise that I’d enjoy something that blended the three of them. And if you liked any of those or any of the previous books in the Wedding Date series you’ll probably like the others too. Just in case you’re looking for something fun and happy to read like I was.

Back when I first read The Wedding Date I loved the hell out of it but never expected it to turn into a series. But every single follow-up to that first marvelous book has been a great big ball of fun, so I sincerely hope that there are more books on the horizon. For reasons that will be plenty clear if you read While We Were Dating, I would LOVE to see Anna’s manager get his romantic comeuppance. Even the Tin Man eventually got a heart..

Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy WeirProject Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 476
Published by Ballantine Books on May 4, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission--and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn't know that. He can't even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he's been asleep for a very, very long time. And he's just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that's been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it's up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.
Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian--while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

My Review:

Project Hail Mary is, quite possibly, the ultimate in competence porn stories. Or at least the best such book since The Martian, also, of course, by the same author.

I sense a theme here.

In order to enjoy Project Hail Mary, I think that the reader has to really like stories about people who are good at their jobs demonstrating exactly how good they are, which is the essence of competence porn. (If you prefer watching people flounder, fail and screw up, this is not your book.)

It also feels like it’s absolutely necessary for a reader to like science in order to really get suck in this story. I don’t think one has to be an expert – I’m certainly not and I loved the heck out of this – but the reader has to enjoy reading about science and engineering and discovery and believe that science is real and that it can provide real and verifiable solutions to real problems.

But expertise is not required because a lot of the story is about a scientist and an engineer teaching each other how their specialties work, and how both of their extremely different cultures work, so that they can work together on sciencing the shit out of the problem that is staring both of them in the face.

That teaching aspect – very much the way that Sophie’s World “taught” people about philosophy by telling stories about it – turned out to not just be a fascinating way of telling the story but also way more appropriate and resonant than I was expecting at the beginning.

This is a story with two beginnings. It begins with a man waking up from a coma, chased and coddled by giant robot arms, not knowing who he is or how he got to be in the fix he’s currently in.

And it begins several years in the past, when humanity learns that the sun, our sun, is cooling off, not just measurably but rapidly, and that we have a mere 30 years to fix the problem before Earth faces its “sixth extinction” and takes us with it.

As the two storylines catch up to each other, and the man waking up from the coma remembers how he got stuck with the job of fixing what’s wrong with the sun, leading him to waking up in a tiny spaceship cruising in the Tau Ceti system, along with two dead teammates and a ship full of scientific instruments, we get caught up and caught up in the past and the present of Dr. Ryland Grace, humanity’s last, best hope for survival.

Even if he won’t live to see it.

Escape Rating A+: I pulled this book out of the middle of the towering TBR pile because I’m in the middle of a replay of Mass Effect: Andromeda and was looking for something SFnal to read to go along with my playthrough.

And this book has been recommended to the skies (ha-ha) so it seemed like a good choice. I had no idea that the opening scenes of Project Hail Mary were going to bear such a strong resemblance to the opening scenes of the game, waking up from a coma and trying to figure out which end is up in a situation that has gone even more pear-shaped than it was when the protagonist went to sleep.

Ryland Grace is in a much bigger fix than Pathfinder Ryder and the Andromeda Initiative, but comparisons can definitely be drawn.

Howsomever, the stories that Project Hail Mary most resembles, beyond any obvious similarities to The Martian – which I’ve seen but not read and clearly need to read – are Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series (start with The Calculating Stars) and Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The Lady Astronaut series also features an Earth that is facing an extinction-level event and a desperate international effort to save the species before the planet kills us. (There’s also a surprising bit of a resemblance to some of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series in the way that the leader of Project Hail Mary cuts through bureaucratic red tape with a machete!) To Be Taught features a similar story about a tiny crew doing good science and facing seemingly impossible odds for a home that can never be theirs again, so poignantly similar to Ryland Grace’s situation.

But the surprising difference, and the absolute charm of Project Hail Mary is that Grace does not, after all, face his situation alone, even though he’s the only surviving human on his tiny ship. Twelve light-years from home, Ryland Grace finds a kindred spirit in the place he absolutely least expected, against all the odds.

The heart and soul of Project Hail Mary is not about the plucky human scientist saving the day. It’s about a human scientist and an Erid engineer, who can’t even breathe each other’s air, reaching out to each other using the only language they have in common, the language of science.  Because it’s going to take both of them and every ounce of ingenuity they both possess to save both of their worlds.

So this story that started out as a science and engineering story still turns out to be about the beauty of science – but at its heart it’s about finding friendship in the most unlikely place of all.

And that’s beautiful – right up to and including the ending which gave me the sniffles. It was just a bit bittersweet and so very, very right.