Review: The Lost Princess Returns by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Lost Princess Returns by Jeffe KennedyThe Lost Princess Returns (The Uncharted Realms #5.5) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Uncharted Realms #5.5, Chronicles of Dasnaria #4, Twelve Kingdoms #11.5
Pages: 172
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on June 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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More than two decades have gone by since Imperial Princess Jenna, broken in heart and body, fled her brutal marriage-and the land of her birth. She's since become Ivariel: warrior, priestess of Danu, trainer of elephants, wife and mother. Wiser, stronger, happier, Ivariel has been content to live in her new country, to rest her battered self, and to recover from the trauma of what happened to her when she was barely more than a girl.
But magic has returned to the world-abruptly and with frightening force-and Ivariel takes that profound change as a sign that it's time to keep a promise she made to the sisters she left behind. Ivariel must leave the safety she's found and return to face the horrors she fled.
As Ivariel emerges from hiding, she discovers that her vicious brother is now Emperor of Dasnaria, and her much-hated mother, the Dowager Empress Hulda, is aiding him in his reign of terror. Worse, it seems that Hulda's resurrection of the tainted god Deyrr came about as a direct result of Jenna's flight long ago.
It's up to Ivariel-and the girl she stopped being long ago-to defeat the people who cruelly betrayed her, and to finally liberate her sisters. Determined to cleanse her homeland of the evil that nearly destroyed her, Ivariel at last returns to face the past.
But this time, she'll do it on her own terms.

My Review:

The lost princess who returns in this story is Jenna, once an Imperial Princess of Dasnaria. Jenna, with the help of her younger brother Harlan, was partially rescued and partially rescued herself from not just an excruciatingly abusive marriage but an entirely abusive culture as well, in the Chronicles of Dasnaria series, beginning with The Prisoner of the Crown. Which Jenna so definitely was when her story began.

Jenna transformed herself into the warrior-priestess Ivariel, she saved her adopted people AND their elephants, healed or buried the abused young woman she had been, married a good man, made a life for herself far away from the Imperial seraglio where she was born and was supposed to die, and had four children.

As the forces gather in the stunning climax of The Uncharted Realms series, a story told in The Fate of the Tala, Ivariel nee Jenna brings her people and her elephants to the fight. And finds herself fighting alongside two of the brothers she left behind, her rescuer Harlan, now consort of the High Queen Ursula of the Twelve Kingdoms (their story is The Talon of the Hawk) and her near-betrayer who has finally gotten his head out of his ass, her brother Kral (details of his story in The Edge of the Blade.) That Kral’s lady Jepp is the daughter of the woman who trained Jenna shows just how deeply Jenna/Ivariel has been ingrained in the combined series, even when she has not been present.

The enemy that is finally defeated in The Fate of the Tala has been a thorn in the side of the Twelve Kingdoms from the very beginning of this saga, all the way back in The Mark of the Tala. It’s an enemy that has been funded and nurtured by the Emperor Hestar and his mother, the Dowager Empress Hulda, of Dasnaria. The place from which Jenna, Harlan and eventually Kral fled so long ago.

Now that the forces of evil have been finally routed, it is time for the exiled children of Dasnaria to return home – to cut out the enemy’s heart. That said cutting out will require killing both their brother and their mother is the ice cream on a dish of revenge being served, at last, chillingly cold.

A dish of revenge that needs to be delivered personally by Ivariel, Harlan and Kral. No matter how much it hurts them to return to the place that tortured them and tossed them away.

That’s a lot of intro, all in order to say that all three of these interconnected series (Twelve Kingdoms, Uncharted Realms and Chronicles of Dasnaria are epic, compelling, marvelous and intertwined so deeply that by the time the reader reaches this lovely endpoint (I hope it’s the endpoint, they ALL deserve a lasting HEA) that the stories are so interwoven that there is no reasonable way to start here and have it all make sense. This is a series that rewards the reader with a deeply absorbing tale of magic, machinations, maneuvers and yes, romance.

Start with The Mark of the Tala and wend your way through to this terrific wrap-up, The Lost Princess Returns.

I wish you joy of the journey. It’s a great one.

Escape Rating A+: It’s obvious that I loved this story. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that I’ve loved the entire interconnected series, as I’ve reviewed them all. This is also a series that operates on two layers. First, it IS epic fantasy. The epic is the story of the three princesses of the Twelve Kingdoms rebelling against the rule of their abusive father. That father is also taking the Kingdoms down a terrible path, so they set out on a course to right his wrongs and remove him from his throne. Once that battle is won, they then have to rout the forces that helped set their father on his terrible path – not that he wasn’t plenty terrible on his own. The story of their journey, now as queens of their own kingdoms, to help each other find and fight those forces, gathering allies and enemies along the way, is told as The Uncharted Realms.

And then there’s Jenna, groomed, beaten, abused, betrayed and nearly dead, barely escaping with her life in the Chronicles of Dasnaria, only to build herself a new life as Ivariel and return here as the fabled “Lost Princess”.

This book serves as both an extended epilogue for the combined series and as the culmination of Jenna’s need to return to her origins, to heal the wounds she has covered over for more than 20 years. It is a story of revenge, and it’s a revenge that is necessary. Neither Hulda nor Hestar are capable of redemption. In the end, this is the story of not just Jenna but also Harlan and Kral moving beyond the people they were and the people who made them and tried to mold them into their own corrupt images, and finding their true selves. The selves they have built and become far from that terrible places.

The healing that comes for them is personal, but they also leave healing behind them, finally setting Dasnaria on a path to its own brighter future.

And the entire epic from the very beginning to this marvelous conclusion, is absolutely fantastic.

Review: Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Party of Two by Jasmine GuilloryParty of Two (The Wedding Date #5) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Wedding Date #5
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on June 23, 2020
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A chance meeting with a handsome stranger turns into a whirlwind affair that gets everyone talking.
Dating is the last thing on Olivia Monroe's mind when she moves to LA to start her own law firm. But when she meets a gorgeous man at a hotel bar and they spend the entire night flirting, she discovers too late that he is none other than hotshot junior senator Max Powell. Olivia has zero interest in dating a politician, but when a cake arrives at her office with the cutest message, she can't resist--it is chocolate cake, after all.
Olivia is surprised to find that Max is sweet, funny, and noble--not just some privileged white politician she assumed him to be. Because of Max's high-profile job, they start seeing each other secretly, which leads to clandestine dates and silly disguises. But when they finally go public, the intense media scrutiny means people are now digging up her rocky past and criticizing her job, even her suitability as a trophy girlfriend. Olivia knows what she has with Max is something special, but is it strong enough to survive the heat of the spotlight?

My Review:

Once upon a time, a guy and a girl got stuck in an elevator together. He needed a fake date to his ex’s wedding, and she wasn’t interested in dating but thought he’d be fun for a fling, so “why not?” But the chemistry that began in that elevator led to their very own HEA – and four more lovely books – at least so far.

That was The Wedding Date, the author’s debut novel, which I still can’t believe. But when Alexa Monroe and Drew Nichols tied the knot, they started a chain reaction, one that is still going strong.

After stories about his best friend (The Proposal), her two best friends (The Wedding Party) and one of those same best friends and her mother (Royal Holiday), the series has come back around again.

Not to Alexa, but to her sister Olivia, meeting and clicking with a guy in a hotel bar in LA. He has a house in LA, but he has also had a plumbing disaster, hence the temporary hotel stay. She doesn’t have a house yet, but she’s looking for one. Olivia and her best friend Ellie are in the process of setting up their own law firm together because they’re both tired of working for big law firms, having no say in their work and no life outside it.

Ellie wants to have time for her husband and kids while still being able to do work that she loves. Olivia has been too busy climbing the ladder to partner to even have a life, and she’s ready for a life outside it – once the firm is off the ground, that is.

There is definitely a “meet cute” between Olivia and Max, that guy she meets in the hotel bar. But they don’t exchange last names, phone numbers or bodily fluids during that one meeting, so Olivia chalks it up to experience, albeit a good one, and gets on with her life.

Only to discover that the terrific guy she exchanged banter and chemistry with was the seriously hot junior senator from California, Max Powell. She never expects to see him again, but their meeting makes for a really EXCELLENT story.

Until they meet again, almost as accidentally as the first time. She knows she’s coming to hear him speak, but he has no idea she’ll be in the audience. She has little expectation that he’ll recognize her, and none that anything will come of this second meeting, but she’s just as surprised as he is when he finds her in the crowd.

This time they do exchange enough information to find each other. Or at least enough for Max to send Olivia cake instead of flowers, because that’s one of the many (many, many) things they talked about in that bar.

Cake leads to flowers, both lead to dates, dates lead to more dates lead to weekends spent in each other’s houses and outings with Max in a fairly lame disguise. But it’s enough. Until it’s not – at least for Max. Until Max wants to go public, and Olivia lets herself get pulled along for the ride.

While dating Max was fun, dating a famous senator is something else all together. And as much as Olivia loves him, it’s not something she can live with. She could live with Max just fine, but the reporters following them around and digging into every tiny detail of her past push her way outside her comfort zone.

To the point where she pushes Max out the door.

Escape Rating A-: The story of Party of Two feels a bit like the movie The American President crossed with the real-life story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (which was sorta/kinda touched on in Royal Holiday). Complete with all of the racist overtones and thinly veiled threats and insults that Princess Meghan has had to deal with. The stories do parallel more than a bit – at least on the surface.

But this felt like a story about opposites attracting, and as is wonderfully usually for this author, the ways in which they are opposite and the difficulties those differences lead them to felt organic and real. This is a romcom without a heinous misunderstandammit. Yes, they did need to work on their communication, but the problem isn’t simple and the fix isn’t either.

Max is rich, white and very, very privileged. While he has become aware of his privilege and is doing his best to both make up for some of the dudebro assholish things he did before he knew better and use his position to do some good in the community and in the world, he is still privileged in the way that only a white, rich, heterosexual man can be in America. And that perspective has shaped his personality in ways that, while not bad in and of themselves, clash directly with Olivia’s perspective of the world.

Basically, Max’s whole outlook is to leap and assume that the net will appear. Because in his life, at least so far, it always has. So he can be very impulsive, even in public situations, because so far at least his mouth hasn’t written any checks that his body can’t cash – or at least can’t cash with the help of his staff, his money, or both. This doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does make him speak or act before he thinks things through. Fairly often.

As a black woman, Olivia’s experience is very different. She’s never impulsive, because her entire life experience is that if she leaps, she will fall. The net will not appear for her and she will never get the benefit of the doubt. (This is true for women in general and is doubly or triply true – if not more – for her) Olivia goes through life with a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C and all the way up to Plan Z. She tries her best to never act before she thinks things through. She did that once in high school with what could have been catastrophic results. The results weren’t exactly catastrophic, but they were plenty disastrous and it took her years to get past them.

It’s not that Olivia and Max can’t have a relationship, in spite of Olivia being certain from the get-go that it can’t work. It’s not that they don’t love each other enough to make a relationship work. But they have a fundamental difference in how they see the world, and while they can work past that difference, it’s going to take compromise on both their parts. And it’s going to take talking about it openly and honestly to get there.

And that’s where they stumble. And it felt real and true to the characters and the story. Which goes back to why I love this series so much.

If you want to read a romcom that works deliciously for readers who don’t generally fall for romcoms, this entire series is a delight. You could start with this book, because it doesn’t rely on knowledge of the previous books in the series, but they’re wonderful and if you love one you’ll love them ALL!

Review: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

Review: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonThe Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: gaslamp, historical fiction, historical mystery, steampunk, urban fantasy
Pages: 448
Published by Tor Books on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.
In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.
Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.

My Review:

The Angel of the Crows is the second book by Katherine Addison, after her completely, totally, utterly awesomesauce The Goblin Emperor. And this second book is nothing like the first book – except that both are terrific.

But they are terrific in completely different ways. Goblin Emperor was a political thriller of epic fantasy, featuring assassination plots, deliberately mislaid heirs and a young man’s desperate attempt to learn how to rule a kingdom he was never supposed to inherit. It’s marvelous and thrilling and fantastic.

The Angel of the Crows, very much on the other hand, is urban fantasy, with several fantastic twists. This is steampunk and gaslamp and a bit of supernatural horror set in an alternate version of Victorian London where vampires have a pact with the Queen, werewolves are both legal and respectable, and every old building has its very own Angel to watch over the flock of humans that inhabit their domiciles.

It’s also a world where Dr. J.H. Doyle of the (British) Imperial Armed Forces Medical Service was wounded in Afghanistan in a war where the opposing forces were led by the Fallen. Fallen Angels, that is. A wound that has left him with a painful limp and a desperate need to turn into a hellhound every night.

A world where the self-styled Angel of London, an Angel called Crow so often he became one, solves mysteries that the police find too difficult to master. Including a series of bloody murders in Whitechapel.

The blurb turns out to be both right and wrong. Because these are not the characters the reader thinks they are. Yet they so very much are. And it’s surprising and wonderful from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A: In spite of the author’s claim, and the many, many differences between this world and the world we know, calling The Angel of the Crows a Holmes pastiche is right on the money.

But it’s the kind of Holmes pastiche that combines Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald (collected in the author’s Fragile Things among other places) with Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow. By that I mean that this alternate world is invested – or infested – with a high quotient of the supernatural, but that this variation includes the detective and his friend desperate to solve the Whitechapel Murders. As they would have been if they had existed in real life, but that Conan Doyle probably couldn’t touch with the proverbial barge pole as that crime spree was probably too close to recent memory to be a fit subject for fictional crime-solving. But Holmes and Watson were operating at the same time as “the Ripper” and more than enough time has passed for historical mystery writers to have a field day looking into their investigation, as is the case in Dust and Shadow.

This variation is also genderbent and genderfluid in ways that fit within the world the author has created, and yet come as a complete surprise to the reader. Dr. J.H. Doyle reveals himself to be Joanna Henrietta Doyle when Miss Mary Morstan crosses his path. That Doyle has managed to not merely continue to live as a man but actually blackmailed the I.A.F. into allowing him to keep both his medical license AND his army pension turns out to be quite the story.

And ALL the angels are female – at least as much as celestial beings have gender. But humans have assumed them to be male, so that’s how they’re addressed and perceived. Only Doyle knows the truth of just how Crow managed to keep himself from becoming either Fallen or Nameless – as he so definitely should have.

(I continue to refer to Crow and Doyle as “he” because that is how they refer to themselves and to each other. They seem to have decided on their preferred pronouns, and I comply with their preferred form of address.)

The story of this book is a combination of many of the most famous cases in the original Holmes canon, notably A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, among MANY others, with their continued investigation into the Whitechapel Murders. While it is inordinately fun to spot the differences between the original version of those famous cases and this one, it is not required to be familiar with the Holmes stories to enjoy these versions. But if you are, the mystery that needs to be solved is often a bit anticlimactic as the resolutions aren’t generally THAT different. Even though James Moriarty turns out to be a vampire.

However, their exploration of how this version of the world works is fascinating, and their constant – and constantly frustrating – attempts to figure out who is – or who are – committing the Whitechapel Murders AND the Thames Torso Murders is definitely a new piece of both that puzzle and theirs.

The Angel of the Crows straddles, or perhaps that should be hovers over, a whole bunch of different genres. There’s historical mystery mixed with alternate history leavened with urban fantasy which includes more than a touch of the supernatural. And if any or all of that appeals to you as much as it does to me, The Angel of the Crows will sweep you away.

Review: Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry GreenwoodDead Man's Chest (Phryne Fisher, #18) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #18
Pages: 259
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 9, 2010
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Dot unfolded the note. "He says that his married couple will look after the divine Miss Fisher...I'll leave out a bit...their name is Johnson and they seem very reliable." Phryne got the door open at last. She stepped into the hall. "I think he was mistaken about that," she commented.
Traveling at high speed in her beloved Hispano-Suiza accompanied by her maid and trusted companion Dot, her two adoptive daughters Jane and Ruth, and their dog Molly, The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher is off to Queenscliff. She'd promised everyone a nice holiday by the sea with absolutely no murders, but when they arrive at their rented accommodation that doesn't seem likely at all.
An empty house, a gang of teenage louts, a fisherboy saved, and the mystery of a missing butler and his wife seem to lead inexorably toward a hunt for buried treasure by the sea. But what information might the curious Surrealists be able to contribute? Phryne knows to what depths people will sink for greed, but with a glass of champagne in one hand and a pearl-handled Beretta in the other, no one is getting past her.

My Review:

“Miss Fisher was about to happen to someone again.” That’s according to Dot, Phryne Fisher’s companion/lady’s maid, when Miss Fisher, Dot, Phryne’s adopted daughters Jane and Ruth, and their dog Molly, arrive in Queenscliff, a lovely little holiday-by-the-sea town in Australia.

But Dot’s bit of internal monologue could easily serve as the opening for every book in the series, as well as every episode of the TV series that was based on it. Because the gist of pretty much everything is that Miss Fisher happens to someone, shenanigans ensue, and one or two bodies turn up.

A good time is had by all, including the reader and/or viewer as Phryne saves the day – or several days – in her own inimitable fashion, and then she swans off to happen to someone else.

That would be the very short version of the story. The details in the slightly longer version are what make this entry in the book series so much fun.

At first, the mystery in this entry is uncomfortably on the domestic side. Phryne has rented a house in Queenscliff from a casual acquaintance, expecting to arrive and find the house fully staffed and ready to welcome her and her entourage.

Instead, the house is empty, and not merely the staff are absent but so is all their furniture, the cupboard is completely bare and the back door is swinging open along with the back gate. But there’s no blood, no bodies, and it seems like nothing missing that didn’t belong to the staff, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.

But there is one thing extra. The Johnson’s little dog, Gaston, is piteously searching through garbage trying to find enough scraps to survive on. The Johnsons doted on the tiny terrier as if he were their child, but somehow he got left behind. It doesn’t add up.

And the local constabulary doesn’t want to even attempt to make it add up. The Johnsons are gone, their effects are gone, the bitter old gossip at the end of the street witnessed the removal van come and take away all their furniture. Case closed.

But not for Phryne. Even before she gets her household organized, she’s on the trail of the missing couple. Along the way she finds a new member for her eclectic household, a scrum of unruly boys, a smuggling ring – and a surprisingly well-guarded pirate’s treasure.

Escape Rating A-: Just like yesterday, this was simply a case of the right book at the right time. I was looking for comfort reads so dipped into two series that I know will reliably pull me into their worlds and out of my own with a sigh of relief.

Phryne always delivers – a mystery, a bit of derring-do, a dead body – and a surprising amount of commentary on the world in which she lives – along with her honest contempt for a fair number of people in it.

I said in my review of Riviera Gold a few weeks ago that I’d love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between Phryne and Mary Russell. They are contemporaries, both operating during the pre-Depression 1920s, both living in the same upper class circles – when they are not undercover on one mystery or another – and both women who are seldom shy about saying what they think, operating independently and not caring beyond the minimum necessary about what most other people think.

This particular entry in the series feels very domestic, for lack of a better word. Phryne and her family are on their own in Queenscliff, without the support of the redoubtable Butlers, the able assistance and occasional guard duty provided by Bert and Cec, or the sometimes reluctant assistance of the Melbourne CIB in the persons of Jack Robinson and Hugh Collins.

Not that Hugh doesn’t turn up before the end. But he’s not the one who saves the day – or as it turns out, night. That’s Phryne. That’s always Phryne. It’s her series, after all.

But in spite of the “walk on” role of the pirate’s treasure, most of what happens in this one is wrapped around the various households involved.

Not just Phryne’s, where they take to being on their own without any staff with a great deal of fun. It’s easy to forget that none of these women, Phryne, Dot, Jane or Ruth, began their lives in easy circumstances. Phryne may have money now, but she spent a lot of years dirt poor and has never forgotten. So, while it’s a lark to be on their own, it’s still streets above where any of them started.

And it does give Ruth a chance to try out her skills as a cook, something she wants to make a career out of. She does so well that the reader will salivate at the description of all the things she makes. There are even recipes in the back for those who want to try it for themselves.

But all of the households have a toehold in this particular mystery, from the Mason family next door, where a gang of upper class bullying hooligans is running around cutting girls’ ponytails and selling the hair, to the Greens at the end, where the local doctor’s house is ruled by the iron fist and screeching voice of his nasty, busybody mother-in-law – at least until she drops dead.

And then there’s the disorganized house of Surrealists, who may or may not know something about the various crime sprees in Queenscliff, but certainly know plenty about all the other goings on.

But no one expects that the local legend that the pirate Benito dropped a load of gold in the harbor is really true. And Phryne is certainly not planning to tell. After all, part of her scheme to find the missing Johnsons and out the smugglers involves faking the discovery of the pirate’s hoard. Letting out the secret that it’s real after all would mess up all of her plans.

One final note. I’ve had an absolute ball reading this series. I also loved the TV show. But by this point in the books it’s excruciatingly clear that the one has very little to do with the other when it comes to even the broadest details of any story. Readers will enjoy the books more if they keep them firmly separated in their minds from the TV series. They’re each marvelous, but in their own, very separate ways. Even if they both do start with the same story, Cocaine Blues.

Review: No Cats Allowed by Miranda James

Review: No Cats Allowed by Miranda JamesNo Cats Allowed (Cat in the Stacks, #7) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #7
Pages: 275
Published by Berkley on February 23, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Springtime in Mississippi is abloom with beauty, but the library’s employees are too busy worrying to stop and smell the flowers. The new library director, Oscar Reilly, is a brash, unfriendly Yankee who’s on a mission to cut costs—and his first targets are the archive and the rare book collection.   As annoying as a long-overdue book, Reilly quickly raises the hackles of everyone on staff, including Charlie’s fiery friend Melba—whom Reilly wants to replace with someone younger. But his biggest offense is declaring all four-legged creatures banned from the stacks.   With enemies aplenty, the suspect list is long when Reilly's body is discovered in the library. But things take a turn for the worse when a threatening e-mail throws suspicion on Melba.   Charlie is convinced that his friend is no murderer, especially when he catches sight of a menacing stranger lurking around the library. Now he and Diesel will have to read between the lines, before Melba is shelved under “G” for guilty…

My Review:

I pulled this out of somewhere deep in the virtually towering TBR pile because I was looking for a comfort read. I needed a book I could get into instantly. I just got the latest book in the series from Netgalley, and was sorely tempted to start it. Then I remembered that there was one of the earlier books I hadn’t read, so here we are, back in Athena Mississippi with Librarian Charlie Harris and his large and in charge Maine Coon cat Diesel.

And I dove right into this story with a sigh of relief – in spite of the murders – and didn’t emerge until I finished, feeling like my reading mojo was refreshed and that, if all is not right with the world, at least I could dive back into the reading pool from here.

One of the things I really liked about No Cats Allowed is just how true-to-life Charlie’s situation is in this book. Charlie Harris is a 50-something librarian in tiny Athena. After a career at the Houston Public Library, Charlie inherited a sprawling house in his home town and returned to his roots.

Between his inheritance and his pension, Charlie doesn’t need to work for a living. But he certainly does need to keep himself – and Diesel – mentally occupied. And that’s where his work for Athena College comes in, where he serves as the Rare Books Cataloger and maintains the archives. And also how he seems to find himself involved in solving murders.

But this particular case is absolutely steeped in the atmosphere of working in a library, and everything about solving this case is very much involved with the way that libraries work, and the way that they go wrong when they don’t.

In other words, the situation at the library and the college rang very true-to-life, even though the resulting murders were definitely fictional.

Not that the victim didn’t deserve it – although maybe not quite the way it happened.

When the bastard of an interim library director’s dead body is discovered crushed between the compact shelving in the library’s basement, it’s easier for Charlie to determine who didn’t want to kill the man than who did, because it seems like the entire library staff, and possibly a significant number of staff in the college as a whole, wanted him dead. And with good reason.

But nothing about the crime seems to add up. And neither do the library’s accounts – which may just be the motive after all.

Escape Rating A-: I had too much fun with this. It was just the right book at the right time, so I was all in from the first page and stayed in to the end. This was the only book in the series I hadn’t read, so it also answers a bunch of questions about situations that came up later, like the biggie about just how and why Charlie ended up as the interim library director, a job he definitely did not want, while the search for a new director was ongoing. And why they needed a new director in the first place.

Athena, like Cabot Cove and Midsomer County, has a terribly high murder rate for its population. It might be a very nice place to live but it seems like visiting can be a bit too deadly.

What was fun for this reader was the insight into the way that the library worked. All of Charlie’s colleagues reminded me very much of people that I worked with over my own career – including, I have to admit, both the murderer and the victim. As Charlie points out, neither management nor budgeting are skills taught in library school, so there’s a lot of “winging it” on both counts. Sometimes on VERY stubby wings.

The author of this series is a real-life librarian, and that experience certainly shows in Charlie’s working life in every book. He’s “one of us” and it reads as accurate. I’ve always said that Charlie is someone I’d love to have coffee with at a conference – when we get back to having in person conferences, that is.

As is usual with a cozy mystery series, part of what makes reading this so much fun is seeing where Charlie’s team is at in their lives. What’s lovely about Charlie’s team is that they are also his family, whether they are family by blood or family of choice. They’re just a lovely bunch of people, and that definitely includes Diesel.

Unlike some other felines in cozies, Diesel is just a cat. A very big cat, and an extremely well-behaved cat, but definitely a cat. (Diesel weights 36 pounds, approximately the weight of all four of our cats combined!) He’s a comfort – and a comfortable – animal. And in spite of being very chatty, as cats can sometimes be, he doesn’t speak in English. Not that he can’t make himself perfectly understood by his human, but that’s a talent that all cats have.

But Diesel is utterly adorable in his very cat-ness, and the series, as well as the life of its protagonist, is richer for his presence. He’s a scene-stealer in the best possible way.

This is a series I love, and turn to whenever I need a comfort read. I’ll be back when the urge strikes, probably sooner rather than later considering just how uncomfortable 2020 has been so far, when Cat Me If You Can comes out later this summer.

Review: Ghostrider by M.L. Buchman

Review: Ghostrider by M.L. BuchmanGhostrider (Miranda Chase NTSB #4) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #4
Pages: 354
Published by Buchman Bookworks on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An AC-130J “Ghostrider”—the latest variant of America’s Number One ground-attack plane for over fifty years—goes down in the Colorado Rockies. Except the data doesn’t match the airframe.

Air-crash savant Miranda Chase and her NTSB team are sent in to investigate. But what they uncover reveals a far greater threat—sabotage.

It could be a prelude to a whole new type of war; this time one far too close to home.

My Review:

The more I read this series, (I’ve read them all so far and loved every one of them, including this one), the more they remind me of Tom Clancy. Not the politics. Clancy’s viewpoint was all over his books, his political agenda was fairly clear. But the competence porn aspect of Clancy’s work, that all of his operatives knew what the hell they were doing and were heroes because of it, that part is certainly present in Miranda Chase and her series. Along with the smart banter and back-and-forth asides that pepper Clancy’s work.

Miranda Chase and her team are just plain fun to be with, and they are damn good at their jobs. In fact, they are the best team that the NTSB has. It is great watching them work.

Also nail-bitingly tense when they get just a bit too involved with that work, as they do in Ghostrider.

Miranda Chase is a savant when it comes to determining the cause of airplane crashes. She’s also extremely intelligent as well as autistic. And all of her gifts are a part of making her who and what she is – which is totally awesome if not always socially aware. In fact she’s seldom socially aware, but it is NEVER played for laughs.

The Ghostrider in this particular instance is certainly NOT the Marvel character, but rather, like the titles of all the books in this series, an airplane, specifically a military airplane, the Lockheed AC-130J Ghostrider, that has crashed near Aspen. And, like all of the other planes – and plans – that have crashed so far in this series, there’s something “off” about this particular crash and Miranda and her team are called in to investigate.

An investigation that turns up a whole bunch of red flags and something completely weird that would normally take the incident off of Miranda’s docket. She became an NTSB investigator in order to figure out what caused each crash she investigates so that it can’t happen again.

But this crash wasn’t a mechanical or technical failure. It wasn’t even pilot error. It was a deliberate crash caused by the pilot. Miranda can help make planes safer, but she has zero insights in making humans less stupid or insane – or whatever this mess might be attributable to.

She’s about to sign off when a second Ghostrider crashes, this time in California, also due to sabotage, while Miranda is closing out the Colorado investigation. It becomes clear that there’s something bigger and much more dangerous going on.

A something that Miranda and her team find themselves literally in the middle of. And something that some of them might not get out of alive.

Escape Rating A: The previous story in this series, Condor, had a lot to do with the emotional baggage that Miranda’s team is carrying. The series begins with Miranda’s baggage, that she became an NTSB investigator in order to prevent other children from losing their parents in plane crashes. But that story had a lot to do with Holly’s baggage, with the reasons that she left the Australian SAS. This story deals with other people’s baggage. Whole truckloads of it. Or perhaps that should be cargo loads?

The Ghostrider crashes that the team investigates aren’t random, aren’t mechanical, aren’t technical, aren’t pilot “error”. But they certainly are pilot-caused, just that the pilots acted deliberately and not accidentally.

Like many of the stories in this series – and OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read – the reasons for both the crashes involve a whole lot of skullduggery at the highest levels.

Along with a retiring general who wants to go out, not exactly in a blaze of glory, but with the satisfaction of a necessary job done. Alternatively with the satisfaction of taking a whole bunch of bastards that need killing out with him. It’s all a matter of perspective.

One is left with the feeling that his cause is righteous, but his methods create way too much collateral damage and have the potential to create a whole lot more. It’s a question about whether the ends justify the means in a case where there are no easy answers – and there shouldn’t be.

That the heroes and the sorta/kinda villains in this one turn out to be, not exactly on the same side, but not exactly on opposite sides, makes for an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will have readers white-knuckling through the middle and gasping at the end – while still thinking about where the big picture went wrong and what different actions might have made it go right. Or at least right-er.

So a great story, fantastic characters, thrilling action and some thought provoked in the end. A job very well done, both for Miranda’s team and for the author of this terrific series. May there be many, many more!

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea CooperThe Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on June 16, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A cursed opal, a gnarled family tree, and a sinister woman in a green dress emerge in the aftermath of World War I.
After a whirlwind romance, London teashop waitress Fleur Richards can’t wait for her new husband, Hugh, to return from the Great War. But when word of his death arrives on Armistice Day, Fleur learns he has left her a sizable family fortune. Refusing to accept the inheritance, she heads to his beloved home country of Australia in search of the relatives who deserve it more.
In spite of her reluctance, she soon finds herself the sole owner of a remote farm and a dilapidated curio shop full of long-forgotten artifacts, remarkable preserved creatures, and a mystery that began more than sixty-five years ago. With the help of Kip, a repatriated soldier dealing with the sobering aftereffects of war, Fleur finds herself unable to resist pulling on the threads of the past. What she finds is a shocking story surrounding an opal and a woman in a green dress. . . a story that, nevertheless, offers hope and healing for the future.
This romantic mystery from award-winning Australian novelist Tea Cooper will keep readers guessing until the astonishing conclusion.
“Readers of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams will be dazzled. The Woman in the Green Dress spins readers into an evocative world of mystery and romance in this deeply researched book by Tea Cooper. There is a Dickensian flair to Cooper’s carefully constructed world of lost inheritances and found treasures as two indomitable women stretched across centuries work to reconcile their pasts while reclaiming love, identity and belonging against two richly moving historical settings. As soon as you turn the last page you want to start again just to see how every last thread is sewn in anticipation of its thrilling conclusion. One of the most intelligent, visceral and vibrant historical reads I have had the privilege of visiting in an age.” —Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration 
“Refreshing and unique, The Woman in the Green Dress sweeps you across the wild lands of Australia in a thrilling whirl of mystery, romance, and danger. This magical tale weaves together two storylines with a heart-pounding finish that is drop-dead gorgeous.” —J’nell Ciesielski, author of The Socialite
Full-length historical story with both romance and mysteryStand-alone novelIncludes Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

My Review:

Particularly large and/or valuable gems often have legends attached to them. Or curses. Or both. Generally both. Based on its history, the Hope Diamond is probably safest in the Smithsonian, rather than around the neck of someone who might be the victim of its curse. Although its owner during the 1920s seems to have made a habit of letting her Great Dane wear it!

The gem at the heart of this intricate work of timeslip fiction would have been a magnet for myths, curses and thieves had it ever existed; a great, big, beautiful opal, the first of its kind to be discovered in Australia, at a time when Queen Victoria had made the wearing of opals all the rage. In spite of their previous reputation as unlucky.

Or cursed.

But the opal, cursed or otherwise, kind of acts like a brooch that pins this story together. A story that takes place in two separate time periods, 1853 and 1919. This is, after all, a timeslip story, so it’s the past that is unveiled in the 1853 timeline that needs to be resolved in the 1919 “present”.

And it’s a doozy.

Australia in 1853 is not too distant from its penal colony roots. Just distant enough that the emancipationists – the deported convicts, while still looked down upon, do have a chance of making a new life for themselves. Equally, they have a chance of getting up to their old tricks. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Australia is also a vast country much like the American West, where the white “settlers” were doing their level best – or should that be absolute worst – to push the continent’s original owners out of their ancestral lands – and even to the brink of extinction if it can be managed. But at the same time, it’s a big place and there are still, at least in 1853, places where the whites have not encroached much – at least not yet – and where the unique native flora and fauna still thrive. Although all are under threat.

And that’s where the earlier portions of this story begin. With a young woman who does her best to protect the native people she views as friends and fellow stewards of the lands around her. A woman whose job, whose art, is to preserve the native fauna at least through expert taxidermy, as her father did before her.

At least until her home and her life are invaded by a young man from Austria, on a journey to visit the sites that his mentor visited 20 years before. Together they find themselves caught up in a search for that fabulous missing opal, only to dig up way more than they bargained for in family secrets – and murder.

In 1919, Fleur Richards learns that her husband of just a few months has been killed in action in the closing days of the Great War, and that he has left his grief-stricken wife an inheritance she never knew he had. She thought that the dashing Australian soldier, Hugh Richards, was a young man with an eye to the future, but no more or greater financial prospects than her orphaned and impoverished self.

But the inheritance she does not want spurs her to travel halfway around the world to discover just who her husband really was, in the hopes of finding someone more deserving of his fortune than she believes herself to be.

She finds more than she bargained for. A cursed gem, a locked and abandoned shop of curios and wonders, the solution to a long-ago mystery. And a home.

Escape Rating A-: I have to say that The Woman in the Green Dress gets off to a bit of a slow start, hence the A- rating. Somewhere past the first third of the book the story takes off and develops all sorts of lovely twisty-turny plot threads that keep the story zipping along from there to the end.

But it takes a while to get there, approximately the amount of story it takes for Fleur to get to Australia and get fed up with the runaround she’s getting in Sydney. And on the historic side, the amount of time for Della to meet Stefan and decide to take her life back in her own hands by returning to Sydney to discover what changes her Aunt Cordelia has made in the shop that Della owns.

And I’ve just realized the juxtaposition, that Della’s story takes off when she gets to Sydney, and Fleur’s gets its wings when she leaves it. Not that Fleur doesn’t return fairly quickly, but as the two heroines start moving – so does the story.

Both the past and the present stories are wrapped around secrets. Della has to uncover the secrets that her Aunt is keeping – before those secrets get her killed. Not that they haven’t already left a trail of bodies in their wake. Fleur needs to uncover the secret of who her husband really was, and to learn the truth about the legacy he left behind for her to unravel and resolve.

In the end, it’s a story about the truth setting them both free. And about a beautiful, captivating opal that was both lost and found.

But that woman in the green dress – she’s pure poison. Her story, however, is as delicious as her tonic is deadly.

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Review: Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz

Review: Automatic Reload by Ferrett SteinmetzAutomatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cyberpunk, dystopian, romantic comedy, romantic suspense, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Ferrett Steinmetz's quirky, genre-mashing cyberpunk romance Automatic Reload a high-octane adventure about a grizzled mercenary with machine gun arms who unexpectedly falls in love with a bio-engineered assassin
In the near-future, automation is king, and Mat is the top mercenary working the black market. He's your solider's solider, with military-grade weapons instead of arms...and a haunted past that keeps him awake at night. On a mission that promises the biggest score of his life, he discovers that the top secret shipment he's been sent to guard is not a package, but a person: Silvia.
Silvia is genetically-altered to be the deadliest woman on the planet--her only weakness is her panic disorder. When Mat decides to free her, both of them become targets of the most powerful shadow organization in the world. They go on the lam, determined to stop a sinister plot to create more super assassins like Silvia. Between bloody gunfights, rampant car chases and drone attacks, Mat and Silvia team up to survive...and unexpectedly realize their messed up brain-chemistry cannot overpower their very real chemistry.
Automatic Reload is the genre's most unexpectedly heartfelt romantic comedy with explosions, perfect for fans of both Die Hard and Mr. and Mrs. Smith."Steinmetz has mixed fast-paced shoot-em-up violence with a compassionate treatment of trauma and mental illness to create an engaging page-turner. Like Shadowrun with a conscience."-- Hugo Award-winning author Jim. C Hines
"Automatic Reload is for everyone who ever wished the Transformers movies were less Michael Bay, more transformation sequences; it luxuriates in the intricate beauty that is technology, exults in the mechanics of cyberpunk. And it does all this while being a rom-com with a lot of explosions." --Cassandra Khaw, finalist for the British Fantasy and Locus Awards for Hammers on Bone

My Review:

Automatic Reload was a wild ride from beginning to end. The kind of wild ride you get when you cross cyberpunk with dystopia and throw in a bit of romantic suspense for spice – and extra body. Make that bodies, definitely plural, bodies.

The genre of this book has been bent so much that it’s a pretzel. But I LOVE pretzels – and I’m sure I’m not alone.

The future that is posited in this story reminded me of a lot of things, and not just the idea that this is a possible future that we can see from here – without even having to squint too hard.

In a way, it’s the future that The Passengers by John Marrs was trying to warn against – at least until that story takes a hard left turn into more traditional suspense. But the idea that powers most of that book, that computers are controlling too much and making too many decisions based on programming rather than human ideals or human compassion is at the core of this story – even though it turned out not to be in that one.

There just aren’t a lot of jobs left for people. Computers even design and program other computers. They’re more efficient and more effective at nearly everything. Especially, as it turns out, warfare.

And that’s where our hero comes in. Mat started out as a drone soldier. He piloted the machines that made the actual war, and that distance was supposed to keep him from suffering all of the mental anguish that soldiers have to go through when they make the decision to kill an enemy. Because that decision can go wrong all too easily, wiping out an innocent, or a noncombatant, or a child.

But the distance doesn’t take away the pain, or the PTSD that Mat suffers after the drone he’s piloting kills a child who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mat’s way of dealing with the thoughts that won’t leave him is to overcompensate, both physically and mentally. He becomes, not exactly a cyborg, or they’re not called that, but a black market mercenary with four artificial limbs optimized for war. And he fine tunes the programming for all of his various alternate limbs to optimize his every routine and subroutine to eliminate – if possible – any chance of accidentally killing someone he shouldn’t. He does his level best, and it is very, very good, to remove any possibility of collateral damage.

Because the automation of all of his weaponry operates faster than he or any human can think. Once he gets into a situation the weapons are on automatic reload. But he can’t bear the thought of killing another innocent.

He’s done his best to make a living – because maintenance on his hardware and software is damn expensive – without putting himself into the cross-hairs of the IAC. A shadowy company that operates very much outside the law – because they control the law, the media, and pretty much any damn thing they want.

If the IAC decides he’s worth bothering, they’ll be able to trace his every networked movement since the dawn of time. They’ll know his every strength, his every weakness, his every move, even before he does. He’s done his best to stay far away from the “YAK”, as the IAC is usually referred to. Mostly in frightened whispers, because they really are everywhere, watching and listening to EVERYTHING.

It’s just supposed to be one very lucrative and very quick job. So of course it all goes pear-shaped, leaving Mat squarely in the YAK’s sights. But the reasons it’s gone so far down the rabbit hole is that the cargo he was supposed to deliver wasn’t just black market goods – it was a black market person named Silvia. A woman who had been altered against her will to be a deadly stealthy weapon – only her programming isn’t finished yet.

And if Mat has his way, it never will be. Because Mat’s PTSD and Silvia’s panic disorders mesh in a way that makes their whole much greater than the sum of any number of parts. A whole that the YAK must destroy no matter how much collateral damage it takes.

Unless the YAK has something else altogether up its sleeves – if it even has sleeves, that is.

Escape Rating A: Automatic Reload wasn’t anything I expected. At all. But it was a wonderful, totally wild ride in all of the best ways.

The mash-up is delightful and keeps throwing surprising things into its blender – which is definitely on high.

The world feels like an answer to The Passengers, mixed with the dystopia of Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter. I can’t even articulate why Junkyard Cats, although I think some of it has to do with just how bad things are for most humans, and the amount of autonomy that her protagonist has programmed into her many mechanical friends and helpers. That one is a stretch.

The Passengers, on the other hand, is dead on for the worldbuilding rather than any of the characters. Both stories deal with the issues that we’re starting to face in the here and now. What do people do, and how do people support themselves, when the number of jobs that require a human being is on a downward trajectory. After all, it’s not immigration that has killed off so many jobs, it’s automation, and that’s a trend that’s going to continue.

I’ll admit that I also kept seeing Silvia as the character in the movie Monsters vs. Aliens, or at least the character in the movie poster. She’s not 50-feet tall, in fact she’s human proportioned on purpose in order to infiltrate better – to be a more effective assassin. But the issues she faces with suddenly discovering that she’s not who she used to be feel similar.

Although Silvia’s problems do not begin with her physical transformation. One of the strongest – and sweetest – elements of this story is the way that Mat and Silvia come to love each other for who they are, and that they both acknowledge that they both have a lot of mental issues that they compensate for in their own ways. Their mental illnesses are never swept under the rug, and love doesn’t cure them. But they make each other a bit stronger in their broken places in ways that are lovely to see, especially when they’re done well. As they certainly are in this case.

Initially I thought that the dystopian setup had elements of the worldbuilding of Ready Player One. And it definitely does. I just didn’t expect the plot to, in its own pretzel-twisty way, actually go there explicitly. But it does, with classic movies substituting – in a way – for 1980s pop culture trivia. And it happens in a way that will still totally surprise you.

So come to Automatic Reload for the dystopian world and especially the explosions. Stay for the brighter future that rises, somewhat shakily but delightfully on the horizon.

Review: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner

Review: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. WagnerAn Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tor.com on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Murderbot meets To Kill a Mockingbird in Erin K. Wagner's An Unnatural Life, an interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.
The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.
But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.
Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it's too late.

My Review:

I picked this up as early as I did because it was teasing me. Specifically, the recommendations I received from a friend listed some readalikes for this book and I was just sure that something was missing – actually I was positive that at least two somethings were missing – and I had to read it to see if I was right.

You know how it is, there’s something on the tip of your tongue, or just out of reach in your memory but you can’t quite grasp it. It was driving me nuts that I just couldn’t remember what one of the books I KNEW this reminded me of was, so I had to read it and find out.

In case you’re wondering, the recommendation said Murderbot, which, well, of course, yes. Because Murderbot is so ‘top of mind’ after the recent release of Network Effect. And there is something to be said for the correlation, although strictly speaking Murderbot isn’t exactly a self-aware AI. Self-aware, absolutely, an AI,  not exactly. But the concept of humans creating an enslavable and exploitable underclass is certainly a match. The other readalike was the classic The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, which I have not read. The ‘so many books, so little time’ conundrum rears its ugly head yet again.

I was thinking of Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport for both the self-aware AI and the specifically created underclass, even though in Medusa they are not exactly embodied in the same person – or at least not all of the time.

But those references felt fairly obvious. The one lurking in the back of my mind turned out to be the steampunk world created in Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars series, starting with The Mechanical. While the ‘mechanicals’ of that series were created through alchemy rather than science, the situation they find themselves in is much the same as it is in An Unnatural Life. They are created to be slaves and they seem to have no recourse towards freedom. But they are self-aware, and they strike out for freedom anyway, in spite of the odds, the laws, and their own programming.

In the end, the story this reminded me of the most was the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man“, where Data is on trial. Not for a crime as the AI here is, but for his right to be a self-determining being in his own right, and not property as has occurred in the world posited in this story. Picard’s speech in Data’s defense echoes many of the abuses that are highlighted in this story, as it is all too clear from humanity’s history that if Data is not considered an autonomous being in his own right that he and others like him will be declared to be ‘property’ and abused as happened in the backstory for this book. Also as did happen in the later history of the universe of Star Trek, as represented in the events of its latest series, Star Trek: Picard.

The story in An Unnatural Life, just like the story in The Measure of a Man, isn’t really about the android, the AI, the ‘grunt’, after all. It’s a story about humans, and about humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. It’s about just how very easy we find it to believe that anyone we define as ‘them’ can be treated as inhumanely as we want, because we’ve decided that the only ones worthy of being considered ‘human’ are ‘us’.

But Walt Kelly’s Pogo had it right all along when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. And he still is.

Escape Rating A-: There are actually two stories in this slim little volume. One is the obvious, the story of Aiya Ritsehrer’s appeal on behalf of the AI 812-3 due to the obvious fact that the AI did not face a jury of his peers, but rather a jury that was utterly prejudiced against the AI, as was the judge and the prosecution. Aiya is convinced the AI did not receive a fair trial, and it’s oh-so-clear that she is correct.

There is also a story tucked in-between the chapters about Aiya, the trial and its result. I think that it was about an expedition to discover whether or not there was already life on Europa when it was settled by humans. But that story is more tantalizing than realized. Which is possibly intended, but left me a bit frustrated by its ambiguity, hence the A- rating.

Back to the story I’m entirely too sure of. One of the things that so frequently gets lost in the gee-whiz sensawunda that science fiction and fantasy often provoke is that no matter who or what is at the center of the story, no matter where or when it is set, all stories are about human beings. Because human beings are the only creatures that we really know. Writers may do their very best to guesstimate what androids or aliens in the far future or the mythic past might think and feel and say and do, but the fact is that the perspective from which all of those ‘otherworldly’ characters are written is the human one in the here and now of the author.

So from one perspective this is a story about a self-aware AI in search of justice on one of Jupiter’s moons. But on the other, the story underneath that, is a story about prejudice and justice. It’s a story about the lengths and depths that humans, following their worser instincts and not their better ones, will go to in order to preserve the status quo that makes them feel safe and comfortable.

It is also a story about one woman fighting, not just for justice for an underdog, but for what is right instead of what is easy, in spite of all of her own prejudices, and in spite of the very real fear that her pursuit of justice will bring her into deadly danger in a situation where no one will stand by her, no one will protect her, and no one will seek justice on her behalf.

Because all of those humans believe that their hatred of ‘the other’ and their willingness, even eagerness to destroy anyone who shines a light on that hatred, is not human either and therefore deserves whatever happens to them. That they brought it on themselves, and that their fate is not the fault of anyone but themselves for standing up for ‘the other’.

And if you don’t see any parallels between the story and both history and current events, you’re not paying attention.

Review: A Choir of Crows by Candace Robb

Review: A Choir of Crows by Candace RobbA Choir of Crows (Owen Archer, #12) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #12
Pages: 288
Published by Severn House on June 30, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster shortly before the enthronement of the new archbishop, Owen Archer is summoned to investigate.
December, 1374. With the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop, the city authorities are in a state of high alert. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate. Tension deepens when an enigmatic figure from Owen's past arrives in the city. Why has he returned from France after all these years - and what is his connection with the bodies in the minster yard and the fair singer? Before Owen can make headway in the investigation, a third body is fished out of the river - and the captain finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.

My Review:

By some reckonings, the events in A Choir of Crows take place during the “Little Ice Age”, the era in European history that spawned the sumptuous costumes that we associate with Renaissance Faires today. Because it was just so damn cold. You can practically hear the icy winds of December, 1374 whistling through this story.

The chill actually feels pretty good in this strange summer of 2020. It’s already hot down here.

But I came to this story not for its bracing weather, but because I got into a mood for historical fiction and mysteries, and this series always satisfies that particular itch.

Like the best of its kind, the Owen Archer series takes place during a time of great upheaval, and it mixes its search for whodunnit with insight into why it was done – or why it was covered up – and who is playing politics with whom and to what ends as Captain Owen Archer investigates a series of murders in his city while the worthies of the entire country descend upon York for the investiture of its new Archbishop.

Who is a much lesser man than the one he replaces. A man who is very much beholden to and under the heavy thumb of one of the most ambitious lords of the entire kingdom – his older brother, Sir John Neville, Baron of Raby. The Nevilles were one of the great families of Northern England, and they rose to become kingmakers during the Wars of the Roses.

This series is set at what will be the foundation of those Wars, as King Edward III is old and infirm, his oldest son and heir, The Black Prince, is young but struck down by disease, and the crown will become a prize in the squabbles between alternate heirs, sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons of Edward III in the mid-1400s.

But that is in the future. In the present, Owen Archer has a mess on his hands. Three men are dead. His assistant has discovered a young woman, disguised as a young man, at the site of two of the deaths. One might have been by misadventure but the other was certainly murder. The murdered man was a clergyman, he died within the precincts of York Minster, the Archbishop has not yet been invested in his throne – not that anyone believes he will know how to deal with this problem – unlike his predecessor.

There is a vacuum in authority, but a desperate need to put the entire situation behind them before the archbishop and his party – particularly his powerful brother – arrive on the scene to force a solution. One that suits them rather than any truth.

Owen is under pressure to solve the crimes and protect the young woman who seems to be at the heart of the mess while still being a victim of it. And to keep his family and friends safe from the power struggle yet to come.

Because Owen is not merely the Captain of the City Watch. He’s also The Black Prince’s right hand man in York – making the Nevilles his enemies – quite possibly of the deadly variety.

Escape Rating A: I absolutely adore this series, and reading this now instead of in a couple of weeks was definitely a case of the right book at the right time. After yesterday’s review, I really, really wanted to read this next – so I did.

But as much as I love this series, I’ll admit to having a difficult time figuring out where to recommend a newbie start it. Part of what I love is the way that the mystery dovetails into the history – and this is an era of history that I studied a bit and remember. So I’m riveted pretty much all of the time. I don’t think that would be true for someone who came into it cold, particularly not 12 books in.

Memory says that in the beginning the political situation was less complicated and less part of the story, that the focus was much more on the mystery and on the characters, as Owen arrives in York gets caught up in solving a murder, and is caught between hunting for a killer and fearing that the killer is the woman he has fallen in love with. So start at the beginning with The Apothecary Rose. If historical mystery is your cup of tea, it’s a great place to begin. (If the historical period in which this series takes place fascinates you, Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest is operating just a decade or so later, and the political mess has only become even more fraught in the interim.)

Back to A Choir of Crows. Yes, I know that the collective noun for crows is a murder, but that’s not what is being referred to by the title. Just FYI.

The story here does an excellent job of mixing the people with the politics. And in this instance I mean politics with a small “p” and not the large “P” of the national political upheaval going on at the time.

While Owen’s methods for solving crime may lack in 21st century forensics, the issues that he has to deal with are all too familiar. He has to solve the murders before the powers-that-be arrive and force a solution. We’ve all seen that in contemporary life and policing, where someone is railroaded into a confession so that everything can be swept under the carpet. Forensics may have advanced, but human nature hasn’t changed much at all – not even in seven centuries.

The young woman at the heart of this mystery is a victim every bit as much – actually as it turns out quite a bit more – than the man who was murdered. But she’s all too aware that even though none of what happened is in any way her fault, she’ll still be blamed for all of it merely because she is female. And that hasn’t changed much either.

However, as many things and issues as are wrapped around this case, at its heart is a good man determined to see justice served, protect his family, his friends and his city to the best of his ability, and to keep his word and his oaths. And that’s a story well worth reading, whether it takes place in this or any other era.

A few years ago, after the story in A Vigil of Spies, it felt like this series was coming to an end. While it would have been a fitting ending, I was pleased as Punch to see Owen return in A Conspiracy of Wolves. And I hope to see MANY further adventures in this well-written, thoroughly researched and utterly compelling series.