Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnThe Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Perennial on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing debut novel offers an unusual twist on the legacy of one of the world's most celebrated and beloved authors: two researchers from the future are sent back in time to meet Jane and recover a suspected unpublished novel.
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.
 
 

My Review:

It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.

The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.

This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.

That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.

In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.

Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.

In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.

It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.

The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.

That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.

There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.

One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.

But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?

This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page.

Review: Legend Has It by Elliott James

Review: Legend Has It by Elliott JamesLegend Has It (Pax Arcana, #5) by Elliott James
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Pax Arcana #5
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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For John Charming, living the dream just became a nightmare.
Someone, somewhere, is reading a magic book that is reading them right back. Real life is becoming a fairytale: high school students are turning, quite literally, into zombies, subway workers into dwarves, drug addicts into vampires.
John Charming and his motley band of monster hunters are racing to find the villain of this story, following the yellow brick road through a not so wonderful wonderland. And if they can’t find Reader Zero before the book is closed, there won’t be a happily ever after again.

My Review:

The snark is strong with this one. Very strong. And John Charming needs all the help that he can get.

At this point in the story of John Charming and his “Scooby-gang” of Sig, Molly and Choo, they, and the world, are in pretty deep foo-foo. Which is where they do best. And sometimes worst.

The story follows almost directly from last year’s In Shining Armor. At the end of that book, John says that he and Sig are going back to pick up the rest of the gang, and that’s pretty much where we are now. John and the gang heading to New York to meet up with John’s former and possibly future gang, the Knights Templar, along with his semi-present gang, the werewolves of the Round Table.

Those Knights Templar really are the descendants of the original Knights Templar. The werewolves of the Round Table, on the other hand, adopted that name because it was cool and because it fit into their frequently mesalliance with the Templars. And probably because it pisses the Templars off just a bit.

Not that werewolves in general don’t make the Templars very, very twitchy. The Templars aren’t merely charged with, but are actually geas bound to protect the Pax Arcana, the magic (ironic that) that makes it so that us mundanes don’t see or remember magic. And for a very long time, the Templars were taught to believe that the mere existence of werewolves (and vampires, and pretty much anything else that was magic but wasn’t Templar) were an automatic violation of the Pax.

Which they mostly aren’t. Most werewolves, and vampires, and cunning folk (witches) and other magical types just want to live their lives without bothering anyone. They don’t want to be outed any more than the Templars do. But negotiating that particular change in outlook makes the Templars very, very twitchy indeed.

And that’s where John Charming came in. John is a Templar. And he’s also a werewolf. The fact that he didn’t self-combust the minute he discovered those two supposedly contradictory identities has forced, often at swordpoint, the Templars to do a bit of re-thinking. Hence the very shaky alliance between the Templars and the werewolves.

What was discovered in In Shining Armor was that there is a group very much in opposition to the Templars, and that the opposition, the School of Night, had done an excellent job of infiltrating the Templars over the past 500 years. The mission of the School of Night is bring down the Pax Arcana, by any means necessary, to let magic loose in the world again.

And the Templars are bound to oppose the tearing down of the Pax by any means necessary, no matter how vile those means might be. Even to the point of nukes in New York City. They may not want to, but they may feel that they have to.

That’s what John Charming and his Scooby-gang are right smack in the middle of. Their job, and they’ve decided to accept it, is to bring down the School of Night before the Templars bring down Ragnarok. No matter what it takes. Or possibly who.

Escape Rating A-: If you’ve read the other books, this one is a humdinger, slam-dunk thrill-a-minute ride from the beginning to the end.

Let me say this upfront – the Pax Arcana series is one that is meant to be read from its beginning. Although the world starts out being very much like our own, as the series piles on, we see more and more of just how different it is – or rather just how much has been hidden from us by the Pax Arcana. The author makes a brave and hilarious attempt to get new readers into the action by opening with our hero John Charming in the midst of an imaginary interview with a very imaginary Barbara Walters. That intro does a good job of reminding series readers where last we left our heroes, but isn’t really a substitute for new readers actually reading at least most of the rest of the series.

So if you like really, really snarky urban fantasy, start with Charming.

As I’ve mentioned, John Charming definitely comes from the snarky end of urban fantasy. He reminds me a lot of Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files, but John’s attitude towards women in general is a bit more, I want to say enlightened but that isn’t quite right. John, unlike Harry or most heroes in urban fantasy, is managing to have a successful relationship with Sig the Valkyrie. And he’s less of a hound and more of a good man, if only because Sig can perforate him with her spear when he screws things up. He’s learning, and it makes him more sympathetic.

Like other urban fantasy heroes, including Harry Dresden, Atticus Finch of the Iron Druid Chronicles, and John Taylor from the Nightside, the book is literally his story. It’s told from the first-person, and we are inside John’s head. You do have to like his brand of snark to want to occupy that head for very long, but it’s generally a livable space. While he does use humor to lighten what are often grim situations, he is also funnier on the inside than even what comes out, and he says what he’s thinking, and often what we’re thinking too.

The thing in this story that causes all the fuss is an interesting one. It’s a book. An evil book. It’s one of those books from the Restricted Section in the library at Hogwarts (not literally, of course) that should be chained up because when you read it, it reads you. And it’s way more powerful than most people who read it. The School of Night is using it to let magical monsters loose in the world, test the responses of the Knights, and see if they can spread enough chaos to break the Pax. It’s a diabolical plan, from a very diabolical mind.

But the sheer amount of danger that John, his gang and the Templars are tipped into, while awesome and scary on so many levels, also brings out one of the inevitable twists of urban fantasy – that in order to keep the series interesting, the protagonist has to face and overcome more dangerous situations each outing, with bigger and badder villains, and hairier and scarier problems to solve. The hero becomes more powerful, and the villains get even more frightening and evil. The tone of the series gets darker the deeper you go. And so it proves with John Charming. Also Harry Dresden, John Taylor and every other urban fantasy series I’ve ever read.

I wonder where this one is going to end. But I certainly plan on hanging on to the ride. Possibly with my fingernails. And maybe my teeth.

Review: The Green Mill Murder by Kerry Greenwood

Review: The Green Mill Murder by Kerry GreenwoodThe Green Mill Murder (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries #5) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #5
Pages: 173
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Phryne Fisher is doing one of her favorite things dancing at the Green Mill (Melbourne s premier dance hall) to the music of Tintagel Stone s Jazzmakers, the band who taught St Vitus how to dance. And she s wearing a sparkling lobelia-coloured georgette dress. Nothing can flap the unflappable Phryne especially on a dance floor with so many delectable partners. Nothing except death, that is. The dance competition is trailing into its last hours when suddenly, in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird a figure slumps to the ground. No shot was heard. Phryne, conscious of how narrowly the missile missed her own bare shoulder, back, and dress, investigates. This leads her into the dark smoky jazz clubs of Fitzroy, into the arms of eloquent strangers, and finally into the the sky, as she follows a complicated family tragedy of the great War and the damaged men who came back from ANZAC cove. Phryne flies her Gypsy Moth Rigel into the Australian Alps, where she meets a hermit with a dog called Lucky and a wombat living under his bunk .and risks her life on the love between brothers."

My Review:

When I either run out of time, or get full-up on serious, I turn to one of my go-to authors and series. At the moment, that’s Kerry Greenwood and her Phryne Fisher series. Kerry and Phryne always deliver a great, fun, can’t-put-it-down mystery, and that is certainly the case in The Green Mill Murder.

There’s also just a bit more serious in this one than I expected, but in an utterly marvelous way.

As always, this episode of Phryne’s story begins with a murder. Detective Inspector Jack Robinson is correct, Phryne should be charged with aiding and abetting, because corpses seem to appear wherever she goes. In this particular case, the corpse is that of a contestant in a dance marathon contest. While the poor man was literally killing his feet, no one expected that particular kind of death to climb up and stick a knife in his chest.

Dance marathons were potentially deadly enough without throwing knives into the mix.

But as soon as the body drops next to Phryne she is on the case. And as much as she dislikes the cause, all too glad to be shed of her odious date. Even though he does a bunk when the police arrive. She doesn’t mind dealing with the cops herself, far from it, but is does make the bastard look guilty of something, and she’s just sure (correctly) that she’ll be stuck getting him out of it, as well as solving the murder.

And so she does. But it is a very, very pretty puzzle, albeit a deadly one. The other dancers were too far away to drive a knife into the poor man’s chest. His dance partner, after 47 hours on her feet, was too far out of it to do it either, even if she had a motive, which she didn’t.

The band members were visibly much too far away, as was the somewhat ghoulishly spectating crowd. So who killed the extremely dead dancer?

As Phryne dives into the lives of everyone involved, she finds that there were plenty of motives for killing the deceased, and plenty of people in the room who wanted him dead. Which doesn’t solve the crime, because none of them were remotely close enough to do the deed.

So who did? And how did they do it? Phryne has to fly far, far out into the silent emptiness of the Australian Bush to find the answers. But no matter how far she travels, or how dark the secrets she uncovers, she can’t manage to escape from the spider who has successfully spun this particular web.

Escape Rating A-: I have been reading, reviewing and absolutely enjoying this series in order, beginning with Cocaine Blues, and continuing through Flying Too High, Murder on the Ballarat Train and Death at Victoria Dock. I didn’t get around to reviewing Victoria Dock – like Phryne so often is, I was traveling, And since I purchased the book, I didn’t feel obligated to write a review. But I definitely enjoyed it.

But as much as I liked Death at Victoria Dock, it wasn’t particularly special as far as Phryne is concerned. Not that Phryne herself isn’t very special. The Green Mill Murder, on the other hand, was quite special, even for Phryne. Not so much about the murder, or even the actual solution, but the lengths and places that Phryne has to go to solve it.

Much of the story is taken up with Phryne’s solo flight from Melbourne to Mount Howitt in the Australian Alps. While today Victoria is the second-most populous state on the Australian mainland, in the 1920s, Gippsland, the rural area that Phryne needs to visit, was far into the Bush. Also airplanes were much more of a curiosity (and a relatively dangerous mode of travel) in the 1920s than they are today.

Phryne’s solo flight is so dangerous that she refuses to take a co-pilot in her tiny, flimsy, Moth Rigel. There are no airports where she’s headed. She has to arrange in advance both for fuel drops and for windsocks to be put up so she knows which direction to come in. One of those windsocks turns out to be an actual sock. She’s flying into an area that seldom sees strangers, and may never have seen an airplane, let alone a female aviatrix.

There is no such thing as instrument flight, or pressurized cabins. Phryne is exposed to the elements, and must negotiate between flying low enough both to see her landmarks on the ground and maintain her own oxygen, and yet not be so low that she flies into clouds, sudden fog, or even more disastrously, a mountain. Any and all of which are all too possible, and equally deadly.

Phryne’s combination of the lyrical joys of her solo flight combined with the practicality of her preparations reminded me more than a bit of Beryl Markham’s West with the Night.

But the place that Phryne has to visit, the Bush towns and great emptiness of the Australian Alps, provide a fascinating portrait of a time and place that is still less than a century away, but has vanished into the mists of time. It was a lovely visit.

Of course Phryne solves the mystery, as she always does, and in her own rather unique fashion. But it’s the lyricism of her solo flight and her reactions to the great quiet places that will stick with me for a long time to come. That and the wombat ex machina who saves the day.

Review: Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman

Review: Song of the Lion by Anne HillermanSong of the Lion by Anne Hillerman
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Leaphorn and Chee #21, Leaphorn Chee and Manuelito #3
Pages: 304
Published by Harper on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A deadly bombing takes Navajo Tribal cops Bernadette Manuelito, Jim Chee, and their mentor, the legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, back into the past to find a vengeful killer in this riveting Southwestern mystery from the bestselling author of Spider Woman’s Daughter and Rock with Wings
When a car bomb kills a young man in the Shiprock High School parking lot, Officer Bernadette Manuelito discovers that the intended victim was a mediator for a multi-million-dollar development planned at the Grand Canyon.
But what seems like an act of ecoterrorism turns out to be something far more nefarious and complex. Piecing together the clues, Bernadette and her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, uncover a scheme to disrupt the negotiations and inflame tensions between the Hopi and Dine tribes.
Retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn has seen just about everything in his long career. As the tribal police’s investigation unfolds, he begins to suspect that the bombing may be linked to a cold case he handled years ago. As he, Bernadette, and Chee carefully pull away the layers behind the crime, they make a disturbing discovery: a meticulous and very patient killer with a long-simmering plan of revenge.
Writing with a clarity and grace that is all her own, Anne Hillerman depicts the beauty and mystery of Navajo Country and the rituals, myths, and customs of its people in a mystery that builds on and complements the beloved, bestselling mysteries of her acclaimed father, Tony Hillerman.

My Review:

This case starts out with a very literal (and also very large) bang. Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito has a rare night off. Unfortunately it isn’t a night off that she can share with her husband Jim Chee, also an officer with the Tribal Police. Left to her own devices, Bernie does what a couple of thousand other people are doing that night, going to a basketball game.

Although basketball is a VERY big deal on the rez (Bernie herself played back in high school) this game draws an even bigger crowd than usual. The current high school team are playing against a team made up of veterans from some of Championship teams of the relatively recent past. Everybody wants to see the hometown heroes, and discover whether or not age and experience really can beat youth and skill.

Bernie never gets to see the end of the game, because a bomb goes off in the parking lot. Suddenly Bernie finds herself back on the clock, trying to keep the crowd away from the very big mess (cars explode! car lots full of cars explode LOTS!)

Bernie finds herself in the middle of all the chaos, trying to keep the crowd contained and the crime scene relatively uncontaminated, while searching for any possible victims or suspects (or both) and praying that more officers arrive to help manage the 3,000+ attendees along with all the cars showing up to pick up kids at the end of the game. And she needs the FBI, much as she hates even thinking that, because they are the ones with explosives expertise.

It’s a mess that only gets messier, and more confusing, over the days ahead.

Because there are no coincidences in Bernie’s world, as she was taught by the “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn, the bombing ties into a much larger case. It seems like the intended victim was a hometown hero on that Championship team, but now he’s a big-shot lawyer from the big city. And he’s come back to the Rez not just for a basketball game, but to serve as mediator for all of the many, varied, contradictory and non-cooperative factions who are debating (loudly, heatedly and occasionally violently) about whether there should be any development at all at the base of the Grand Canyon.

A debate that feels like it is nearly as old as the Canyon itself. And equally immovable.

In the wake of the bombing, Jim Chee gets stuck body-guarding the mediator on his trip to Tuba City. Chee hates being a bodyguard, but not nearly as much as Aza Palmer hates having one.

Aza keeps giving Jim the slip. Eventually that is bound to catch up with him. With all of them. With catastrophic results. For multiple definitions of “catastrophe”.

Escape Rating A: I have to admit upfront that I love this series. I listened to the earlier books, written by the author’s father Tony Hillerman, back when I had a long commute. (If you have a long drive ahead of you, audiobooks are marvelous, and mysteries are particularly good. It’s nearly impossible to thumb to the end to find out “whodunnit”.)

When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I assumed this series was over. So when his daughter Anne revived it in 2013 with the absolutely awesome Spider Woman’s Daughter, it felt like a miracle. Not just for the opportunity to catch up with “old friends” as the protagonists in long-running series often turn out to be, but also because Anne found a way to make the series her own, by shifting much of the perspective from the two male cops, Leaphorn and Chee, to Bernie Manuelito, giving readers a new perspective on the cases and a different perspective on Navajo life in the 21st century. Unlike both of the men, Bernie is often caught between two worlds and two sets of obligations. While she loves her job, and is every bit as good a cop as her husband or any other male officer, unlike them she still keeps up much of her more traditional role as her mother’s oldest daughter, and as her wayward younger sister’s protector. She often finds herself between the rock of her job and the hard place of her family in a way that neither Leaphorn nor Chee ever experienced.

(While the entire series is great, 21 books in may seem daunting to a new reader. And as much as I loved them at the time, I don’t think it is necessary to read the whole thing to get the background, especially since so much has changed. Starting with Spider Woman’s Daughter will bring any new reader up to speed with where the characters are now.)

The case in this story is fascinating, although not really about the bombing. One of the things about mysteries in general is that people are always people, both good and bad. In the end, the motives always turn out to be the familiar ones. And as so often happens, the past catches up with the present.

But in this series the surroundings and the background keep the reader enthralled every bit as much as whatever the mystery is. The background of this particular case is particularly intractable. There are multiple competing interests. Every single group involved is extremely passionate about their argument, whether they want to develop the Canyon, preserve it as it is, or something either in between or more extreme.

Even the groups that seem to be on the same side can’t agree with each other. And on top of that there’s a group that just wants to cause trouble and get media coverage, no matter what they have to do to get it. Everyone has a stake, and it seems like everyone wants to shove their stake into someone else’s heart. The FBI is up to their eyeballs in potential suspects for the bombing.

Watching the mediator attempt to herd all of the cats is both interesting and enlightening. In spite of the rumors that surround the event, his role is to referee, not to promote an agenda of his own. He’s very, very good at his job. And it turns out, very, very bad at family. Which is what the case comes back to in the end.

People are always people. But sometimes lions are more than they seem.

Review: The Hideaway by Lauren K Denton

Review: The Hideaway by Lauren K DentonThe Hideaway by Lauren K. Denton
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When her grandmother’s will wrenches Sara back home from New Orleans, she learns more about Margaret Van Buren in the wake of her death than she ever did in life.
After her last remaining family member dies, Sara Jenkins goes home to The Hideaway, her grandmother Mags's ramshackle B&B in Sweet Bay, Alabama. She intends to quickly tie up loose ends then return to her busy life and thriving antique shop in New Orleans. Instead, she learns Mags has willed her The Hideaway and charged her with renovating it—no small task considering Mags’s best friends, a motley crew of senior citizens, still live there.
Rather than hurrying back to New Orleans, Sara stays in Sweet Bay and begins the biggest house-rehabbing project of her career. Amid Sheetrock dust, old memories, and a charming contractor, she discovers that slipping back into life at The Hideaway is easier than she expected.
Then she discovers a box Mags left in the attic with clues to a life Sara never imagined for her grandmother. With help from Mags’s friends, Sara begins to piece together the mysterious life of bravery, passion, and choices that changed Mags’s destiny in both marvelous and devastating ways.
When an opportunistic land developer threatens to seize The Hideaway, Sara is forced to make a choice—stay in Sweet Bay and fight for the house and the people she’s grown to love or leave again and return to her successful but solitary life in New Orleans.

My Review:

The Hideaway turned out to be an unexpectedly lovely read for me. I’ll talk about the ‘lovely’ first and get to the ‘unexpected’ parts at the end. You’ll see why, I promise.

The Hideaway fits very well into a particular sub-sub-sub-genre of women’s fiction/small town romance. This is one of those stories where a woman finds herself obligated to return to the small town she grew up in, after years away in some big city, to take care of some family something-or-other that is left behind when an elderly relative dies (or occasionally has a health crisis). And in the process of taking care of whatever-it-was, she discovers that the relative she sincerely loved but didn’t visit enough had some big secrets that she finds out about much too late, when that person is gone. And that her new knowledge of those secrets both changes the way she views that person, and makes her rethink quite a lot of her own life.

Especially since her return home usually forces her to confront whatever baggage she left behind – because it’s all still waiting for her back at what used to be home.

And for whatever reason, taking care of that final obligation always takes way more time than she planned, and in that time she has a chance to rethink her current life in whatever big city she now resides, the opportunity to fall back in love with her hometown, and the chance to fall in love with someone completely new.

Which also brings her to a major life choice; return to the life she left behind in the city, or stay in the small town she never wanted to return to with a new purpose and a new love.

This particular plot has become a classic for a reason – in the hands of a good writer, it makes a powerful (and lovely) story, as it does here in The Hideaway.

What makes The Hideaway (the book) and the Hideaway (the place) are the people and their stories. Especially Sara and her grandmother Mags. Mags has just died, and has passed the ownership of the run down Hideaway Bed and Breakfast, along with its slightly run down permanent residents, to Sara.

Sara, the proud but workaholic owner of a successful decorating shop in New Orleans, expects to wrap Mags’ estate up in a week, only to discover that it is going to take months to carry out Mags’ final wish that she restore the Hideaway back to its original splendor, and then either sell it or continue to operate it, however she sees fit.

The long-term residents of the Hideaway pretty much HAVE a fit. The four older residents discovered the Hideaway as a safe harbor 30 or more years ago. It’s their home as much as it was Mags’, and they all feel bereft, even though they all know that Mags did the right thing. It was, after all, her house.

But as Sara dives into the renovations, she discovers that there was a whole lot more to Mags’ past than she ever imagined, and that the things she believed, both about Mags and about herself, are not quite what she thought they were.

Knowing now what she didn’t know then, and what Mags didn’t know then, sets Sara free.

Escape Rating A-: The Hideaway is a sweet and lovely take on a tried-and-true trope, and it works very, very well.

The story (and its perspective) flips back and forth between Mags’ arrival at the Hideaway in the late 1950s, and Sara’s return to the Hideaway and Sweet Bay Alabama in 2016. Both stories have a lot of heart. They also mirror each other. Mags has a good life, but she misses her happy ever after. Sara still has a chance at hers – she just has to drop her old baggage and grab it.

On the one hand, there’s that saying about the past being another country, that they do things differently there. There’s also the saying that specifically refers to the South, that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Both those versions come into play in this story.

The world, and the options for women in it, were rather different in the 1950s than they are today. That Mags managed to carve a life of her own even somewhat away from the expectations of her parents was a major accomplishment for her and a huge disappointment for them in ways that seem almost quaint in 2017 – but were real at the time. That she fell short of the ultimate goal due to other people’s beliefs and expectations does turn out to be a tragedy, but not as big a tragedy as it might have been.

Sara, on the other hand, has the possibility of having, if not “it all”, then at least most of it. Her journey felt easier to identify with, but Mags’ story had more depth. Mags did the best she could in the circumstances she had, and managed to make a life and world for herself mostly according to her own desires. We wish better for her, but it is surprising that she got as much as she wanted.

And for readers, both Mags AND Sara’s journeys are at turns heart-rending and heart-warming, and we feel for both of them and want them to be happy. That Mags came so close but didn’t quite make it is heartbreaking because we care.

I loved this book. It made a neverending day at an airport absolutely fly by. But I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much, and by this point you’re wondering why. Most readers don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the publisher of a book, and with some exceptions, I usually don’t either. But there are a few genres that just don’t interest me, and one of those genres is inspirational literature, whether romance or nonfiction. The publisher of The Hideaway, Thomas Nelson Publishers, is a well-respected publisher of inspirational literature, specifically Christian inspirational literature. When The Hideaway was offered for tour, as much as the description of the book appealed to me, I just wasn’t interested if it was inspirational. I was assured it was not, and after reading it I completely concur, it isn’t. (There is nothing wrong with inspirational literature, it just isn’t my cuppa, and life is too short to read books that you know upfront are just not your jam.) The Hideaway is not an inspirational romance. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics that make a book an “inspie”. The romances in this book are both squeaky clean, but a well-done “fade to black” is a tried-and-true method of handling romance scenes. And I’d much rather read a well-done fade to black than a horribly or laughably written sex scene. But the lack of sexual scenes does not make a book inspirational. And The Hideaway isn’t. It’s just an excellent women’s fiction/contemporary romance story.

This does all lead up to something. At first, based on the publisher, I was expecting an inspie, and was pleased to discover that this book isn’t. But because I enjoyed it so much, I’m now concerned about it. My concern is about whether this book will find the audience it deserves, because of the publisher. People who look at Thomas Nelson for an inspie are going to be disappointed. And people who stay far, far away from inspirational fiction aren’t going to even look at this book, because of the publisher. It’s definitely a dilemma.

So go back to ignoring the publisher. If you like southern fiction, or small town romance, or stories where there’s a choice to be made between the life you have and the life you’ve come to love, read this book!

TLC
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Review: Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold + Giveaway

Review: Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold + GiveawayMira's Last Dance (Penric and Desdemona #4) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #4
Pages: 87
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on February 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
Goodreads

In this sequel to the novella “Penric’s Mission”, the injured Penric, a Temple sorcerer and learned divine, tries to guide the betrayed General Arisaydia and his widowed sister Nikys across the last hundred miles of hostile Cedonia to safety in the Duchy of Orbas. In the town of Sosie the fugitive party encounters unexpected delays, and even more unexpected opportunities and hazards, as the courtesan Mira of Adria, one of the ten dead women whose imprints make up the personality of the chaos demon Desdemona, comes to the fore with her own special expertise.

Fourth novella in the “Penric and Desdemona” series.

My Review:

Mira’s last dance is very nearly Penric’s undoing, and not in any of the ways that the reader, Penric, or his current companions might have originally thought.

Penric, as introduced in Penric’s Demon, is a Learned Divine of the Bastard’s Order. Lord Bastard is the “master of all disasters out of season” and one of the five gods who are worshiped in this world. While the Father, the Son, the Mother, the Daughter and the Bastard may be deities, do not mistake them for either theoretical or hands off types. They are real in this world, they can manifest to their worshipers (and sometimes to their doubters) and they perform real acts in and on the world.

Penric started on the road to becoming the man he is now by the agency of one of those unexpected disasters. One day on the road, ten years ago, he encountered a dying old woman far from any other assistance. When the old woman died, Penric was the only one around. And he found himself the host to Learned Ruchia’s chaos demon, making him suddenly both a Divine of the Lord Bastard, and a practicing sorcerer who needed a lot of practice.

His life has never been the same, but it certainly has been an adventure. Penric’s current circumstances are no different.

Mira’s Last Dance (the book) takes up immediately where Penric’s Mission, thoroughly off the rails, left off. Penric, along with the exiled General Adelis and Adelis’ widowed sister Nikys, are on their way from Cedonia to the neighboring country of Orban. They rightfully fear that agents of Cedonia are hot on their trail.

Penric’s original mission to whisk Adelis away from Cedonia to Adria has gone completely bust. Penric, his patron and Adelis were all in the midst of someone else’s machinations, and not to their benefit.

And poor Penric has fallen in love with Nikys. Nikys is caught in the middle between finally doing something that she wants to do, and continuing to do her duty by following and caring for, Adelis. Penric thinks he’s still trying to convince at least Nikys if not Adelis to change course for Adria. Mostly he’s trying to convince himself.

In the middle of all this mess the very motley trio is forced to go to ground in the small town of Sosie. Even more unfortunately, the only place that Penric can convince to take them in is a whorehouse with a very bad case of lice.

That’s where Mira comes in. And Desdemona. Desdemona is Penric’s chaos demon. Up until Penric, all of Desdemona’s 12 hosts have been female, although the lioness and mare don’t contribute much to Penric and Desdemona’s internal, and often heated, discussions. But one of those 10 women was Mira, a famous courtesan over a century ago. And when Penric needs to disguise all of them to get them out of town, it’s Mira the courtesan who comes to his rescue.

Leading him right into the arms of the general of the local military garrison, who can’t take no for an answer. And Nikys can’t decide whether she can live with what Penric has done to captivate the general – whatever that might be.

Penric may be in love with Nikys, and Nikys may be in love with Penric, but she just isn’t sure can live with him and all 12 of the voices in his head – or the things they drive him to do.

Escape Rating A-: My one complaint about this series is that each of the stories is just too short. I’m always left wanting more, and knowing it will be months before I get any.

As much as I enjoy Penric as a character, and I do very much, part of the fascination with this series is the number of very interesting issues that it manages to scoop up as it goes. This series is one of the very few in fantasy that deals with its internal theology without being preachy or judgmental. And while being very entertaining and still exploring complex questions of morality. Again, without being preachy in the slightest.

This particular entry in the series also delves a bit into both gender identity and people’s perceptions of it. Penric is, without a doubt, a cisgender (as we would term it today), heterosexual male. But the 10 discernible voices in his head, his demon, are or were all female. When he needs to play the part of the female courtesan, he lets them not just help him, but take over and direct his actions. Not because he can’t bear to play the woman, but because he just doesn’t know how.

We never do discover exactly how he kept that general entertained, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is everyone else’s reactions to Penric’s actions. And while Adelis feels the expected shudders at Penric’s expertise in pretending to be a woman, it’s Nikys reactions that matter to the story. And those reactions are quite interestingly nuanced.

Because the novellas in this series are short, it is easy to read them from the beginning. It’s also necessary, as the stories layer on top of one another, making the world, and Penric’s perspective of it, more complex as it goes.

Also, unlike the first two books in this series, Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman, the story in Mira’s Last Dance as well as Penric’s Mission which immediately preceded it, are not complete in themselves. Mira’s Last Dance comes to a reasonable break, but it doesn’t really feel like an ending. The action has paused, but there is so obviously more to come. I hope it comes soon.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

For the final day of my Blogo-Birthday week, I am giving away a copy of the complete (so far) Penric and Desdemona series to one lucky commenter. This series is ebook only, so the prize will come from either Amazon, or B&N. I have followers all over, so if you have a way to accept an ebook gift from one of those etailers, you are welcome to enter. And thank you for celebrating my Blogo-Birthday with me!

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Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + GiveawayThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #1
Pages: 334
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new
universe.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

My Review:

My first thought upon finishing The Collapsing Empire was “Oh…My…GOD

The second was that rolling your eyes while driving is a really bad idea, especially if you do it OFTEN. Actually I had that though much earlier in the book, when I was doing a LOT of eye rolling. The ending is far from an eye roll situation, but the advice still stands.

So i’m back to the Oh My God reaction, which I’m still hearing in Wil Wheaton’s voice as the reader of The Collapsing Empire. Which I listened to, pretty much everywhere, sometimes rolling my eyes, often smiling or even outright laughing, from the surprising beginning to the even more astonishing end.

Which isn’t really an end, because it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger story, which I hope we get Real Soon Now, but don’t actually expect for a year or more.

So what was it?

The title both does and doesn’t give it away The Empire, in this case the human empire that calls itself the Interdependency, is about to collapse. Not due to warfare or anything so prosaic, but because, well, science. The interstellar network that keeps the far-flung reaches of the Interdependency interdependent is on the verge of an unstoppable collapse.. So what we have at the moment is the story of the maneuvering and machinations as what passes for the powers that be, or that hope to be the powers that become, jockey for position (and survival) in the suddenly onrushing future.

And humans being humans, while some panic there are a whole lot of people who remain so invested in the status quo that they are unwilling to act because any actions upset their positions now, and they hope, very much against hope, that the predictions are wrong. Not because they really believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE wrong, but because they want them to be wrong so very badly.

Any resemblance between the Interdependency and 21st century America is probably intended – but agreeing or disagreeing with that statement doesn’t change the sheer rushing “WOW” of the story.

That story of the empire that’s about to collapse is primarily told through the eyes of four very, very different people (not that the side characters aren’t themselves quite fascinating). But as things wind up, and as the empire begins to wind down, we get our view of the impending fall mostly from these four, or people who surround them.

The first is Ghreni Nohamapeton, the most frequent source of my eye-rolling. Ghreni is a slippery manipulative little bastard, but he is about to be hoist on his own petard. Or possibly not. He thinks he knows what’s coming, and of course, he doesn’t. Or does he?

Kiva Lagos may possibly be the most profane character it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, in literature or out of it. And her constant, continuous cursing sounds a bit much in an audiobook, but perfectly fits her character. Kiva is also manipulative as hell, and mercenary into the bargain. But somewhere between the hells, damns and f-bombs, there’s a heart. Or at least the desire to one-up Ghreni that provides some of the same functionality.

Marce Claremont is about to be the bearer of very bad tidings – if he can survive being the chew toy between Ghreni and Kiva long enough to deliver his message. And even though he knows that the delivery of it means that he really, really can’t go home again. Ever.

And finally we have Cardenia Wu, the recent and very reluctant Emperox of the Interdependency. A woman who is about to experience the very extreme end of that old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” As a great man once said, “Some gifts come at just too high a price.” And that’s true whether you have to dance with the devil to get them, or just roll dice with fate.

Escape Rating A: I listened to this, and also have the ebook. I expected to switch between, but in the end just couldn’t tear myself away from Wil Wheaton’s marvelous reading. He does a terrific job with all of the voices, and adds even more fun to a book that was already fantastic.

But I need that ebook to look up all the names. It seems as if none of them are spelled quite the way they sound. And the ship’s names are an exercise in absurdity from beginning to end. (This aspect may be an homage to the late Iain Banks’ Culture series). But the first ship we meet is the “Tell Me Another One” which is this reader’s general response to Scalzi’s work. I want him to tell me another one, as soon as possible. But also, and as usual, everyone’s leg is getting pulled more than a bit, and not from the same direction.

Lots of things in this story made me smile, quite often ruefully. The scenario is painful, and as this book closes we know that the situation in general is only going to get worse, and possibly not get better. But for the individuals, life is going on. And the characters exhibit all of the sarcasm that this author is known for.

Some of it has the ring of gallows humor to it, and that’s also right. No one is likely to come out of this unscathed by the end, and that’s obvious to the reader from the beginning, even if not to the characters.

This is also a story of merchant empires and political skullduggery. And yes, there is plenty of commentary on that aspect to chew on for a long time, quite possibly until the next book in the series. Like so much of Scalzi’s work, The Collapsing Empire makes the reader laugh, and it makes the reader think, quite often at the same time.

Ghreni and Kiva both represent different ways in which the current systems of the Interdependency have been taken to their extreme limit. But Marce and Cardenia are the characters that we sympathize with. They are both operating against impossible odds, and we like them and want them to succeed. Whether they will or not is left to the subsequent books in this series.

And I really, really, really can’t wait to see what happens next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because this is part of my annual Blogo-Birthday celebration, I want to share the love. And the books. John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and I hope he’ll become one of yours too. To that end, I’m giving away one copy of any of Scalzi’s works, (up to $20) to one lucky commenter on this post. This giveaway includes The Collapsing Empire, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Scalzi, Old Man’s War is probably the best place to begin.

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Review: The Island Deception by Dan Koboldt + Giveaway

Review: The Island Deception by Dan Koboldt + GiveawayThe Island Deception by Dan Koboldt
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy
Series: Gateways to Alissia #2
Pages: 352
Published by Harper Voyager Impulse on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. But what happens after you step through a portal to another world, well…
For stage magician Quinn Bradley, he thought his time in Alissia was over. He’d done his job for the mysterious company CASE Global Enterprises, and now his name is finally on the marquee of one of the biggest Vegas casinos. And yet, for all the accolades, he definitely feels something is missing. He can create the most amazing illusions on Earth, but he’s also tasted true power. Real magic.
He misses it.
Luckily—or not—CASE Global is not done with him, and they want him to go back. The first time, he was tasked with finding a missing researcher. Now, though, he has another task:
Help take Richard Holt down.
It’s impossible to be in Vegas and not be a gambler. And while Quinn might not like his odds—a wyvern nearly ate him the last time he was in Alissia—if he plays his cards right, he might be able to aid his friends.

I loved last year’s The Rogue Retrieval, and when I finished it I found myself desperately hoping for a sequel that did not appear to be on the horizon. So when the author contacted me to request a review of that sequel I was hoping for but not expecting, I was all in.

Then I looked at the publication date and realized that introducing others to this world would make a perfect Blogo-Birthday giveaway, and the author and publisher graciously agreed. So first you’ll read a bit about what I loved about The Island Deception and the marvelous world of Alissia, and then you’ll have a chance to win a paperback of The Rogue Retrieval or ebooks of both The Rogue Retrieval and The Island Deception.

But first, my review…

The series title gives just a bit away. The Island Deception is the second book in the Gateways to Alissia, and that’s what this series is, gateway or portal fantasy. There is a gateway, or portal, between our post-industrial, non-magical world and pristine Alissia, which is seems to be just pre-industrial, (our 1600s or 1700s) and definitely magical.

Not just magical in the sense that everyone who travels through the gateway falls in love with the place and wants to stay, but also magical in the sense that magic works.

That’s where our hero comes in. Or came in for The Rogue Retrieval. Quinn Bradley is a stage magician in our world, who discovers in Alissia that the part he has been playing as a magician is surprisingly real. He may be a very late bloomer, but it looks like he might be a real mage. At least on Alissia.

He’s determined to get back there and find out. So when he gets called back to the gateway, this time he’s more than happy to go.

And CASE Global still needs him, because that rogue agent his group was supposed to retrieve in the the first book is still out there, and is gathering power at an astonishing rate. CASE Global’s original concern was that Richard Holt would reveal the existence of advanced technology, and contaminate the world they were studying.

Now it looks like he’s planning to do much more than that. It looks very like he has seized political control in Alissia for the express purpose of preventing CASE Global (and their competitor Raptor Tech) from using their advanced tech to take over Alissia and milk its resources for their own ends.

Or just fight over it until there’s nothing left to save. It doesn’t seem to matter to either of them. But it matters to Richard Holt quite a lot. And, as it turns out, to Quinn Bradley as well.

It looks like it’s time for everyone to decide whether someone else’s bad ends justify their own participation in horrible means, and figure out where their true loyalties lay.

Before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: I gave The Rogue Retrieval a B+, because as much as I really enjoyed the ride, the antecedents felt just a bit too clear for me to push it into the A’s. The Island Deception has done a much better job of melding its predecessors into a thing of its own. If you like any of what came before, you’ll like this too, but it also feels more like its own “whole” and not just the sum of its parts.

There’s still a lot of S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador in Alissia, but there are also significant differences. The high-tech world, our world, finds the less developed world in a much more primitive state than happens in Alissia. And the presence of people from the high-tech world is much more exploitative from the outset. It ends up being a place where exiles from our world go to practice deliberately exploitative forms of governance that have been overtly consigned to not the dustbin of history, but the garbage dumpster of history, here. Things like slavery. And apartheid. And the complete subjugation of women, natives, non-Christians and pretty much anyone with brown skin. Or any other color of skin than white.

Alissia, at least for most of our interaction with it, has been left alone to continue its native development, while it gets studied in depth by our world. That appears to be about to change, and could have been predicted to change from the very beginning, but it hasn’t happened yet, and could still be prevented.

The parallels between Alissia and L.E. Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio are much clearer in this book, particularly between the magician’s island on Alissia, The Enclave, and the Imager Collegium as portrayed in the latest Imager trilogy, beginning with Madness in Solidar. Alastor’s dilemma at the Collegium is very much the same as that of the head of The Enclave in Alissia. How does one provide a safe haven for a small but powerful population of magic users in a world where they are vastly outnumbered by mundanes who often fear or envy their powers? Is alliance with the powers that be safer than strict neutrality? And if so, what happens when the powers that be change their course? There are no easy answers, and Quinn Bradley finds himself caught in the middle between his desire to learn magic and his desire to protect his friends and comrades on both sides of the gateway.

Although there are other members of the team, the story rests on Quinn. Even though there are points where the action follows others and he is not present, it is his perspective that we return to, and his character that we know best – at least to the degree that Quinn knows himself. Quinn himself is a bit of a rogue, always sure that his glib tongue can get him out of any trouble. It’s only when both his glibness and his technology fail him that he is able to finally reach inside himself and find out what he is really made of.

But if you like your heroes touched with a spark (or snark) of anti-hero, Quinn is a gem. Whether he’s real or paste is anybody’s guess – sometimes even his own. I can’t wait to discover how Quinn’s adventure plays out (hopefully in The World Awakening next year), whichever side he decides he’s on.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

And now for that giveaway. Dan and Harper Voyager are letting me give away the winner’s choice of a paperback of The Rogue Retrieval or ebook copies of both The Rogue Retrieval and The Island Deception (Island isn’t out in paperback yet!). So it’s your choice whether you want to whet your appetite with that paperback or get caught up on all the action in Alissia with ebooks of both. Enjoy the ride!

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Review: Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster BujoldPenric's Mission (Penric and Desdemona #3) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #3
Pages: 145
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on November 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

In his thirtieth year, Penric fell in love with light…

Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Bastard’s Order, travels across the sea to sunlit Cedonia on his first covert diplomatic mission, to attempt to secure the services of a disaffected Cedonian general for the Duke of Adria. However, nothing is as it seems: Penric is betrayed and thrown into a dungeon, and worse follows for the general and his kin. Penric’s narrow escapes and adventures — including his interest in a young widow — are told with Bujold’s remarkable energy, wit and humor. Once again, Bujold has created unforgettable characters and a wondrous, often dangerous world of intrigue and sorcery. Third novella in the Penric and Desdemona series.

My Review:

This third novella in Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, itself a spinoff of her World of the Five Gods series (A.K.A. Chalion) is just as much fun as the first two books, Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman. If you are looking for a a deft fantasy that comes in a smaller than a doorstop package, Penric is a fascinating hero and this series is terrific.

Penric is actually Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season. And Penric’s mission in this story, and quite often his life in general, seems to consist of one unexpected disaster after another. It makes for a very wild and entertaining ride.

Penric thinks that he’s on a mission to discover if one of Cedonia’s greatest generals is willing to move to Adria and take up work for the Duke there. He wouldn’t be turning his coat in any way, Cedonia and Adria are not currently enemies, he would just be switching employers.

But Adelis has more enemies than even he believed, and Penric is being used. Even more so than usual. His arrival in Cedonia is all part of someone else’s plan to frame Adelis for treason and get both of them out of the picture. What happens to Penric is just collateral damage. But no one knows what Penric really is, that particular lack of attention on the part of those who are now both of their enemies is going to result in a nasty shock for someone – hopefully a lot of someones.

First Penric has to get Adelis, his sister Nikys, and himself out of the hole that has inconveniently dug for them, by making things very, very inconvenient for someone else. And by doing something that has never been done before – curing the blindness that was cruelly thrust upon Adelis to get him out of the way and make him pay for the plots that he wasn’t even a part of.

Yet. But he certainly is now.

All Penric has to do is get them all out of the country even though Adelis doesn’t trust him at all. And Nikys has come to trust him entirely too much. And vice-versa.

Escape Rating A: I loved the Chalion series, and this “extension” by Penric has been an absolutely treat from beginning to hopefully not end. The fourth book, Mira’s Last Dance, has just come out, and I truly hope this series continues.

You really do need to read all of Penric to get the full flavor of Penric’s life with his demon Desdemona. While each book is short, they layer on one another, getting deeper and deeper into Penric’s life and the way the world works with each outing. However, you don’t need to read the Chalion series to love Penric. But it’s awesome epic fantasy, so why wouldn’t you?

The story revolves around Penric and his demon Desdemona. If you like Penric’s character, the series is awesome because Penric is a lot of fun. Although his official title is “Learned Penric”, he sometimes answers to “Learned Fool” and it’s a pretty accurate description. Penric is always the fool that rushes in where angels or other beings rightfully fear to tread. So far, he always gets himself out again, if only by the skin of his, or even Desdemona’s, teeth. And generally by spreading a lot of chaos in his wake, and onto the local populations of vermin of all types – occasionally including humans.

Penric is terrific at not taking himself too seriously most of the time, and then just taking himself seriously enough. And while magic often gets him out of the scrapes he gets himself into, it’s never killing magic. Penric is constrained by his faith and his care for Desdemona not to use his magic to kill. His theology is well-articulated and absolutely fascinating, and it does work. If he kills using his magic, Desdemona will be stripped from him and sent back to the chaos from which she sprang. She would die, he would be excommunicated, and let’s just say it would be bad juju all the way around. Listening to Penric explain all of this to the general Adelis gives the reader a whole lot of insight into how it all works – and when it doesn’t.

He actually likes Desdemona. Most of the time, he doesn’t mind sharing his head with her. Occasionally she’s like an older sister he can’t get rid of, but he appreciates her and her 200 years of experience and power. Theirs is a symbiosis that works well. And even though they share Penric’s body, both characters are clearly delineated and different.

The story, as all of Penric’s stories so far, are about Penric solving a problem that he never expected to be dropped into. In this case, he’s not only solving his problem, but also Adelis and Nikys’ problems as well. And falling in love. Where that’s going to take him next should be another great story. And it’s a good thing that the next story is already out, because this one doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving the reader breathless for what comes next.

Review: Champion by Anna Hackett

Review: Champion by Anna HackettChampion (Galactic Gladiators #5) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #5
Pages: 175
Published by Anna Hackett on March 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Fighting for love, honor, and freedom on the galaxy’s lawless outer rim…

Space marine Blaine Strong enjoyed being a composed, controlled member of space station security…until he was abducted by alien slavers. Forced into underground fight rings and pumped full of drugs, he’s now seething with anger and out for revenge.

Rescued by gladiators and fellow humans on the desert world of Carthago, Blaine is fighting to be the man he once was. But when the House of Galen is attacked, he must focus on joining the gladiators to fight back. That means teaming up with a tough, competitive female gladiator who not only challenges him at every turn, awakens a fierce desire he’s never felt before, but a woman who can sense the churning emotions inside him.

Gladiator Saff Essikani is the best net fighter in the Kor Magna Arena. Raised from young to fight, she bows to no man and uses her empathic abilities to win at whatever cost. With her House targeted and people under their care threatened, she’ll stop at nothing to find those responsible. But then she finds herself face to face with a big, tortured man from Earth who affects her like no man before. As Saff and Blaine head into the desert to uncover a conspiracy, their incendiary desire flares hotter than the desert suns. But as Blaine’s angry emotions rage out of control, Saff knows that unless he learns to embrace the man he is now, he has no chance of survival.

My Review:

There was a bit more sand than usual in this entry in Hackett’s sand, swords, and spaceships saga of gladiators on an intergalactic pleasure planet far, far, far from Earth’s corner of the Milky Way galaxy. If you like your science fiction romance with a lot of strong, sexy heroes, very evil bad guys and more than a bit of “can’t go home again” angst, this series is a winner. But you really need to at least read the first book in the series, Gladiator, to see how it all fits so marvelously together.

And it’s such a fun ride that if you like either SFR or gladiator romance, the whole thing is a winner.

But about Champion in particular, this entry in the series breaks the pattern a bit, and I enjoyed it all the more for that. Up til now, all of the heroines have been the human women who were kidnapped from Jupiter Station and dragged through a temporary wormhole as slaves of the very evil Thraxians.

And the heroes have all been gladiators of the House of Galen, a house that is dedicated not just to fighting the good fight, but also to rescuing those, like many of the women from Earth, who are simply not meant to be gladiators.

This entry in the series still features one of the gladiators from the House of Galen, but this time it’s the heroine. Saff Essikani is the team’s net fighter, and she’s damn good. She’s also someone who overcame a childhood of being property, and understands all too well how those enslaved women feel.

The hero, on the other hand, the Champion of the title, is the first human male we’ve encountered who was also part of that kidnapping. Blaine has spent his several months of captivity in the underground fight rings, where his alternatives had been reduced to death or survival. He was rescued, along with three human women, at the end of Protector, but while his body may be free, his mind is still partially locked back in those cages.

He’s lost the iron control he used to be famous for, due to the rage amplifying drugs the slave masters injected him with to keep him in the fights. The withdrawal is beyond painful.

But just as he’s getting himself back together, the House of Galen is attacked, and every gladiator is needed to discover who is responsible, and finally put down their enemies, once and for all. And just as Saff and Blaine have finally discovered each other, they are both forced to relive their greatest nightmares, hoping that someone can free them, or that this time, they can save each other.

Escape Rating A-:For this reader, it had felt as if the series were descending into just a bit of a rut. A rut that was still plenty of fun to pull up a chair in and read, but not as fresh and new as at the beginning.

This book was a welcome change. Not just because of the gender reversal, where the woman is the gladiator and the man is the human, but also because the stakes got higher. One of the running threads in the series as a whole is that the House of Galen are the good guys, and the Thraxians and their allies the Srinar are very definitely the bad guys.

For admittedly loose definitions of good, bad and especially guys.

Up until Champion, the House of Galen has won every encounter. Those wins have meant increasing numbers of slaves freed from their captivity and either given good jobs or returned to the families from which they were stolen.

In this story, evil fights back. And it scores some really disgusting wins. But it’s necessary. Evil never just curls up into the fetal position and slinks away – at least not without seriously trying to reassert its evil ways and getting cut to ribbons by the forces of good. This is that attempt. And as so often happens, it succeeds, at least at first, because no one sees it coming. As it so often does, evil attacks through the noncombatants, and scores a big surprise victory.

As part of fighting back from that attack, the House of Galen not only has to begin rally its allies for a hopefully final assault on the evil, but it also has to finally dig down and determine the depths of that evil so that they can cut it out by the root.

And that’s where this story gets its heart. Saff and Blaine have to face and conquer their own very, very serious demons both to save the day and to be worthy of each other. While it is nail-bitingly scary in the doing of it, when they finally win through its absolutely awesome.