A- #BookReview: The Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett

A- #BookReview: The Hero She Craves by Anna HackettThe Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance
Series: Unbroken Heroes #3
Pages: 248
Published by Anna Hackett on June 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The last thing he expects on his ship is the off-limits woman he can’t stop thinking about—his best friend’s daughter.
After a tough military career as a Navy SEAL, and a member of a covert Ghost Ops team, Lorenzo “Ren” Santoro now calls a research ship home. The ocean, very few people, and solitude…it’s all he needs.
Then as a favor to his best friend, he agrees to take a research team to sea to test a top-secret Navy project. He’s shocked to discover his best friend’s daughter is one of the scientists. The beautiful Halle Bradshaw who Ren once kissed, who ignites a powerful craving inside him. She’s too young, too innocent, and too off-limits.
When strange things start happening to Halle, Ren suspects she’s in danger…and he’ll do anything to keep her safe.
Marine biologist Halle loves the ocean, her work…and Ren Santoro. Being aboard his ship, she finally has the chance to show the stubborn man how good they could be together.
But someone is targeting the highly classified project she’s working on. One she can’t let fall into enemy hands.
The only person she can trust is Ren. Forced to abandon their ship, they will face the danger of the sea and the wilds of a jungle-covered island, all while being hunted by a relentless enemy.
Ren and Halle will no longer be able to hide from their white-hot desire or their demons. She’s determined to convince him to take a chance on love…but first, they have to survive.

My Review: 

Some tropes are classics for a reason, and The Hero She Craves wonderfully illustrates every single one of those reasons for one of my absolute faves.

There’s a bit of an age gap between former Navy SEAL Lorenzo “Ren” Santoro and Halle Bradshaw. And so there should be, as Halle’s dad is Ren’s mentor AND best friend. Tom Bradshaw saved Ren’s life when a young, tough, and let’s face it, dumb Ren tried to steal the older man’s car.

Instead of turning him in, Tom Bradshaw turned Ren’s life around, which means that Ren was around to watch Halle turn from a sulky, grieving teen after the loss of her mom in an automobile accident, to a beautiful woman that he knows he should keep his hands off of.

At her 20th birthday party, he didn’t. It’s been three years and neither of them has ever been able to forget that one, searing kiss. The one that marked both of their hearts – even if Ren is too caught up in guilt – and the damn ‘bro code’ to admit it – while Halle is just a bit too innocent to go out and get her man.

But those  three years later, Halle’s tired of waiting for Ren to quit avoiding her and the tension simmering between them. She’s a marine biologist, he’s the second-in-command of the research ship her team has contracted with for their latest round of experiments with a highly experimental – and sought after – submersible.

She thinks she’ll have all the time in the world to pin him down. He thinks he only has to avoid spending too much time with his greatest temptation for four days and then he can go back to avoiding the inevitable.

The forces that want to steal the submersible – a device that is even more revolutionary than Ren and his captain were originally told – have put Halle in their crosshairs as the weak link in the device’s security.

But Halle’s not weak at all – not with Ren to protect her from the very, very bad guys. Especially when he finally gets hit with the clue by four that the last thing he ever needs to protect her from is himself.

Escape Rating A-: Three books in, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the first two books in the Unbroken Heroes series, The Hero She Needs and The Hero She Wants, but this is the first one where I’ve got to admit that this time around I fell hard for the cover, too.

That being said, the story in this entry in the series combines something that has been a feature in the whole series so far with one of my favorite romance tropes.

Not a single one of the heroines in the Unbroken Heroes series has been any kind of damsel. It’s true that they’ve each experienced more than their fair share of distress, but they’ve each participated 100% in their own rescues – often by rescuing themselves first. Halle doesn’t quite have that opportunity, but she keeps up with Ren through every step and stroke and kick of their dangerous escape, doing her part to make it deadly for the other guys and not for them.

No matter how kickass Halle turns out to be – and she does – the tension that lies at the heart of Ren’s bad case of “I’m not worthy” revolves around two very real problems. Ren is her dad’s best friend – and her dad is not going to be happy that someone at least a decade older than his daughter can’t keep his hands off of her. And there’s that decade or so itself. I adore an age gap romance because the problems involved are very real – and they are here as well.

It’s not that Halle isn’t an adult and doesn’t know her own mind or heart, it’s that they are at different points in their lives, have different-sized trains of emotional baggage behind them, and will need to reconcile those differences to have a decent chance at a future.

Of course, first they have to deal with the villains chasing them, otherwise they won’t have a future to worry about. And it’s that realization that gets Ren to finally acknowledge what’s been between them for so long.

I had a terrific time with this latest entry in the Unbroken Heroes series, and I have plenty to look forward to. The author’s next book will be a wrap-up novella in her Sentinel Security series, Stone. I’ve already read it and it was a terrific finale for that series! After that, it’ll be back to New Orleans for the Fury Brothers, which I’m very much looking forward to because I always enjoy books set in that fantastic city!

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave Klecha

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave KlechaThe Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell, Dave Klecha
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: military fantasy, military science fiction, portal fantasy
Pages: 279
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft in this delirious mashup pitting the U. S. military against legendary monsters from fantasy novels and roleplaying games. From science fiction award-winner and an author, ex-Marine, and extreme amateur-landscaper, comes a riotous fantasy/military science fiction adventure that will delight fans of Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien, and John Scalzi.
Of course, no one was prepared for the day when orcs, trolls, and dragons fell from portals in the sky. But the world fought back against the invaders as best it could, with soldiers, tactical weapons, and even some rudimentary magic.
Now a tough, but not-quite-prepared platoon of Marines is trapped on the wrong side of the portals. The enchanting landscape looks like Middle Earth, but―to the dismay of the nerdiest soldiers―is nothing like the Middle Earth they had loved.
This so-called fantasy world has much to throw at the legendary monsters, extremely rude trees, a mysterious orphan, treacherous mercenaries, and even a cranky, sort of helpful Ranger.
As their supplies dwindle and the terrain becomes even more hostile, the squad must also escort a VIP (Very Important Princess). She could be the key to a strategic alliance between the worlds, but only if the Marines can just make it home.

My Review:

I didn’t think they made them like this anymore. They certainly haven’t for a long, long time. And hot damn this was fun!

The Runes of Engagement is a portal fantasy – but on steroids. With weapons and monsters of mass destruction on both sides of the portal. Or rather, PORTALS, plural. And seemingly everywhere.

Which is how they got discovered – and a whole slew of things about history and mythology and where they met and diverged got turned on their heads. Because there were literal, actual trolls pouring out of a portal in Central Park, on their way to topple the Empire State Building and everything else in their path. Quite possibly not for the first time. That this first rampage through the vicinity Central Park is NOT the monsters’ first rampage on this side of the portal – even if it is the first time the Empire State Building has stood in their path.

We get dropped into this scary but brave new/old world on the other side of the portal, in a place that looks a whole lot like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The U.S. Marines have pushed the trolls and their friends back through to their own other side, and are now entrenched in a Forward Operating Base that is supposed to keep the unfriendlies on their side of the line.

Staff Sergeant Cale and his platoon are on a mission to pick up an elven princess and escort her back behind their lines and all the way to Washington DC to negotiate a treaty of alliance. No matter how often SSgt Cale shakes his head at the fact that this has become his reality.

Both sides of that potential alliance need all the help they can get. The monsters, naturally enough, do their damndest to prevent that alliance from ever happening. Killing the princess is a pretty sure way of doing that. Destroying the nearest portal seems like a surefire guarantee of keeping the princess on their side of the line where they have a much better chance at taking her out – at least from the monsters’ point of view.

No one seems to have reckoned on SSgt Cale and his Marines, who are determined to accomplish the mission – even when it requires traveling to the other side of the continent through an abandoned dwarven mining complex filled with pit traps and Boss Battles just so they can literally prop the princess on her throne.

That their entire journey seems a bit too ‘on the nose’ for the geeks in the squad just helps them be a bit more prepared for whoever, or whatever, is taking the place of the Balrog this time around. Because it’s not going to pass, but SSgt and his squad absolutely are.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb describes it as “The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft”. As catchy as it is, I’m not totally sold on that description. It doesn’t matter, because however you describe this genre-bending matchup/crossover, it’s absolutely fantastic in multiple senses of the word.

Even if it does occasionally rely on the reader knowing its many, many inspirations, and laughing along with the joke and the trope.

It used to be that stories like this one were quite popular, just that the portal tended to go back in time or across space rather than opening up in Central Park. S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador and The Peshawar Lancers both had similar feels to The Runes of Engagement, as did some of Harry Turtledove’s and David Drake’s work. Meaning that if this turns out to be your jam, there are plenty more to read your way through!

For even more possible readalikes, Staff Sergeant Cale would fit right in with John Perry from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, any of Michael Mammay’s military protagonists (Planetside) and he’d absolutely be able to swap stories and attitudes with Torin Kerr (Valor’s Choice) and HER platoon of space marines.

But as much as Cale’s perspective carries the story and the reader, it’s the Tolkien-esq setting that makes the thing so much over-the-top fun. Because yes, there really is a point where it looks like they’re about to reprise the whole Mines of Moria catastrophe from The Fellowship of the Ring. One of the interesting ways in which this book plays with fantasy and fantasy settings is that it isn’t just the reader who groans at the deja vu. This is a world that spins off from now, meaning that everyone has read Tolkien’s work and seen the movies.

Not just that but the soldiers who are able to operate best in the environment are those who are familiar with both Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons and are able to roll with the rolls of the dice as well as the punches of seeing the creatures of their wildest dreams and nightmares shooting at them. They’re using the D&D Monster Manuals as actual, honest-to-goodness (and badness) guidebooks for the monsters they are confronting on a daily basis – and it’s awesome.

This is a story where you need to suspend your disbelief on the first page right alongside the Marines and it’s SO worth it. Because once you do, the whole thing is an absolute blast!

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte Bond

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte BondThe Fireborne Blade (The Fireborne Blade, #1) by Charlotte Bond
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dragons, fantasy
Series: Fireborne Blade #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Kill the dragon. Find the blade. Reclaim her honor.
It’s that, or end up like countless knights before her, as a puddle of gore and molten armor.
Maddileh is a knight. There aren’t many women in her line of work, and it often feels like the sneering and contempt from her peers is harder to stomach than the actual dragon slaying. But she’s a knight, and made of sterner stuff.
A minor infraction forces her to redeem her honor in the most dramatic way possible, she must retrieve the fabled Fireborne Blade from its keeper, legendary dragon the White Lady, or die trying. If history tells us anything, it's that “die trying” is where to wager your coin.
Maddileh’s tale contains a rich history of dragons, ill-fated knights, scheming squires, and sapphic love, with deceptions and double-crosses that will keep you guessing right up to its dramatic conclusion. Ultimately, The Fireborne Blade is about the roles we refuse to accept, and of the place we make for ourselves in the world.

My Review:

The story of The Fireborne Blade initially appears to be a more traditional, or perhaps I should say scholarly, account of dragons and the slaying thereof by knights who generally think too much of their own prowess – after all, they are reporting on their own exploits and they slew a dragon!

But then the more scholarly, and slightly SFnal or at least technomagical aspects come to the fore. Because the knights have recorded those exploits, and the mage council gets to watch those recordings and critique the process – which ends in the knight’s death more often then the knights would care to admit.

Then the story shifts, not to reports of dragon-slayings past, but into the middle of what one disgraced knight is hoping will be a dragon-slaying present. With, hopefully for the knight, the acquisition of the titular Fireborne Blade, the redemption of her disgrace and the consequent reinstatement of her good standing.

So we follow along with that disgraced knight, Maddileh, as she wends her way through the dark and dangerous caverns that lead to the dragon’s lair, along with her mysteriously magical and not at all trusty squire, while in the background we learn how Maddileh ended up in her present predicament and why it is unlikely to achieve the result she desires.

Because in contests between knights and dragons, all those stories about previous dragon hunts show us – and should have shown her – that the odds ALWAYS favor the dragon. Which does not prevent the knight from doing their damndest to stack the deck in their favor.

Unless someone else has beaten them to it.

Escape Rating A-: Initially, this seemed like a rather traditional knight vs. dragon story, with one of two inevitable endings. Either the knight dies or the dragon does. Or occasionally both in a blaze of mutual glory. So there’s three inevitable endings.

But I knew it couldn’t be nearly that simple – and it wasn’t, and not just because the knight in this particular story was female. That may not be the way these stories used to always work, but it has been done before, and done well if not nearly often enough, for the past 40 years at least. (Tamora Pierce’s epic Song of the Lioness quartet began in 1983. For a more recent example, take a look at Spear by Nicola Griffith.)

Those weren’t the only stories it felt like this was calling back to, as the detached, pseudo-scientific nature of the critiques of previous knight’s performances and the cataloging thereof gave me hints of the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan although I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. Still, it felt that way.

As we get the history of dragon hunting in this world, we get to understand that it’s even more dangerous than our own legends tell it, because it’s not just fire that the knights have to worry about. In fact, fire is pretty much the last thing they have to worry about, if it all, because for the dragon to breathe fire on them they have to get relatively up close and personal. Most don’t make it nearly that far.

Instead of being a story about killing or being killed by a dragon, this is a story about forging your own path against seemingly impossible odds, over and over and over again, no matter how much that deck is stacked against you. And has been, over and over and over.

And in the process of telling its story about the knight and the dragon, it asks some surprising questions about change vs stability and striking that balance, and makes that discussion personal in ways that change every single thing we thought we knew going in.

Which made for a completely fruit-basket-upset of an astonishing ending.

One final note, and a bit of a digression. If you remember the plot of the video game Final Fantasy X fondly, or at all, although the ending is very different, from a certain slightly twisted perspective Maddileh is Auron and the evil hierarch who turns out to be the villain of the piece is Maester Mika with all the same questions and a not all that different set of answers.

Which is really messing with my head a bit, because I was expecting that The Fireborne Blade was a standalone. It’s not. The second book in The Fireborne Blade series, The Bloodless Princes, will be coming in October – and I’m really, really curious to see how this manages to continue.

A- #BookReview: L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 edited by Jody Lynn Nye

A- #BookReview: L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 edited by Jody Lynn NyeL. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 by L. Ron Hubbard, Jody Lynn Nye, Nancy Kress, S.M. Stirling, Gregory Benford, Bob Eggleton, Amir Agoora, James Davies, Kal M, Sky McKinnon, Jack Nash, Rosalyn Robilliard, Lance Robinson, John Eric Schleicher, Lisa Silverthorne, Stephannie Tallent, Tom Vandermolen, Galen Westlake, Mary Wordsmith, Dan Dos Santos, Ashley Cassaday, Gigi Hooper, Jennifer Mellen, Pedro Nascimento, Steve Bentley, Connor Chamberlain, Selena Meraki, Guelly Rivera, Tyler Vail, Carina Zhang, May Zheng, Lucas Durham, Chris Arias
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Writers of the Future #40
Pages: 471
Published by Galaxy Press on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Spine-tingling
Breathtaking
Mind-blowing
Experience these powerful new voices—vivid, visceral, and visionary—as they explore uncharted worlds and reveal unlimited possibilities.
Open the Writers of the Future and be carried away by stories—and illustrations—that will make you think, make you laugh, and make you see the world in ways you never imagined.
Twelve captivating tales from the best new writers of the year as selected by Writers of the Future Contest judges accompanied by three more from L. Ron Hubbard, Nancy Kress, S.M. Stirling. Each is accompanied by a full-color illustration.
Plus Bonus Art and Writing Tips from Gregory Benford, Bob Eggleton, L. Ron Hubbard, Dean Wesley Smith
“When her owner goes missing, a digital housecat must become more than simulation to find her dearest companion through the virtual world.—“The Edge of Where My Light Is Cast” by Sky McKinnon, art by Carina Zhang
No one came to his brother’s funeral. Not even the spirits. Étienne knew it was his fault.—“Son, Spirit, Snake” by Jack Nash, art by Pedro N.
Man overboard is a nightmare scenario for any sailor, but Lieutenant Susan Guidry is also running out of air—and the nearest help is light years away.—“Nonzero” by Tom Vandermolen, art by Jennifer Mellen
Mac wanted to invent a cocktail to burn itself upon the pages of history—but this one had some unexpected side effects.—“The Last Drop” by L. Ron Hubbard and L. Sprague de Camp, art by Chris Arias
Dementia has landed Dan Kennedy in Graydon Manor, and what’s left of his life ahead seems dismal, but a pair of impossible visitors bring unexpected hope.—“The Imagalisk” by Galen Westlake, art by Arthur Haywood
When a teenage swamp witch fears her mama will be killed, she utilizes her wits and the magic of the bayou—no matter the cost to her own soul.—“Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” by Stephannie Tallent, art by Ashley Cassaday
Our exodus family awoke on the new world—a paradise inexplicably teeming with Earth life, the Promise fulfilled. But 154 of us are missing.…—“Five Days Until Sunset” by Lance Robinson, art by Steve Bentley
Spirits were supposed to lurk beneath the Lake of Death, hungry and patient and hostile to all life.—“Shaman Dreams” by S.M. Stirling, art by Dan dos Santos
A new app lets users see through the eyes of any human in history, but it’s not long before the secrets of the past catch up with the present.—“The Wall Isn’t a Circle” by Rosalyn Robilliard, art by Guelly Rivera
In the shadows of Teddy Roosevelt’s wendigo hunt, a Native American boy resolves to turn the tables on his captors, setting his sights on the ultimate prey—America’s Great Chief.—“Da-ko-ta” by Amir Agoora, art by Connor Chamberlain
When squids from outer space take over, a punk-rock P.I. must crawl out of her own miserable existence to find her client’s daughter—and maybe a way out.—“Squiddy” by John Eric Schleicher, art by Tyler Vail
Another outbreak? This time it’s a virus with an eighty percent infection rate that affects personality changes … permanently.—“Halo” by Nancy Kress, art by Lucas Durham
Planet K2-18b is almost dead, humanity is enslaved, and it’s Rickard’s fault.

My Review:

The “Writers of the Future” Contest sponsored by Galaxy Press has been going on for, obviously, forty years now, which is why this is #40 in the series. I hadn’t picked a single one up until last year’s 39th volume, because short story collections just aren’t my thing, and the whole L. Ron Hubbard/Scientology connection STILL gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Howsomever, this time last year I was assigned to review that 39th volume for Library Journal, and learned that my hesitations on both the format and the origin notwithstanding, the collection itself was good. Damn good, in fact.

So good that when the opportunity to review this 40th volume in the series came up, I jumped at it – and was very glad that I did.

As with most collections, there were a couple of stories that just didn’t work for me, but for the most part the stories worked and worked well and I’d be thrilled to see more work from pretty much all of these award winning authors.

Which means that I have brief thoughts of a review-type and rating for each of the new individual stories, and a concluding rating that’s going to require some higher math and a bit of a fudge-factor to get into a single letter grade even with pluses and minuses available!

“The Edge of Where My Light is Cast” by Sky McKinnon
This is a story that anyone who has ever had a ‘heart cat’ – or other companion animal, one who is not merely loved but holds a singular place in one’s heart long after they are gone will find both utterly adorable and heartbreakingly sad at the same time. Tabitha was her person’s heart cat, so when Tabita went to the Rainbow Bridge her person turned her into a virtual reality cat so that they could be together for always. When her person goes ‘to the light’, Tabitha breaks all the laws of time and space and physics so that they can be together, forever in the light of the datastreams they now both call home. Grade A because there is so much dust in this one and my eyes are still tearing up.

“Son, Spirit, Snake” by Jack Nash
This one has the feel of a myth being retold as fantasy, although its an original work. It could also fit into many post-apocalyptic futures as well. A young man is dead, his mother performs the funeral rites, but the neighbors scoff and the gods do not attend as they always have. His younger brother runs in search of solace but finds only Death – but the anthropomorphization and not the event, because his mother refuses to let the gods dictate her actions a second longer – and she scares them WAY more than they scare her. Grade B because it feels like the attempt to make the myth universal sanded off a few too many of the edges that might have made it a bit more fixed in time and space – which was the intent but made it a bit more difficult to get stuck into at first.

“Nonzero” by Tom Vandermolen
As far as she knows, she’s the only survivor of her spaceship crew, out in the black in a spacesuit with no ship in sight and no chance of reaching one. She dreams of the past, while her suit’s AI does its best to awaken her to her very limited choices: whether to let her oxygen run out – and die, self-terminate using the drugs stored in her suit – and die, or take a cryogenic cocktail of drugs, let herself be put in suspended animation, and hope that the nonzero chance of survival comes through. We’ll never know. Grade A- for her snark in the face of logic and annihilation even though we’re pretty sure from the beginning that we know which path she’ll take.

“The Imagalisk” by Galen Westlake
Anyone who ever had an imaginary friend will find a bit of hope – or a light at the end of an inevitable long, dark tunnel – in this tale of an elderly man entering the hazy world of Alzheimer’s and tossed into a nursing home by his son.  Only to discover that he’s been granted a marvelous gift, that for the residents of Graydon Manor the make-believe friends of their first childhoods have returned to help them ‘play’ the rest of their lives away in their second. If he can just hold only his present memory long enough to keep their gift from being stolen by a greedy former resident. Grade A- for being the saddest of sad fluff on the horns of the reader’s dilemma of whether this is one last grand caper or if this entire tale is just a product of the disease that brought him to Graydon Manor in the first place.

“Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” by Stephannie Tallent
One of two stories in the collection about magic and power and love and death and sacrifice that’s made even better because the sacrifice is willing and the love isn’t romantic. This one is haunting, not horror but definitely on the verge of it – but then again, if any place is haunted it’s the bayou country of Louisiana. Grade A- for the story and A+ for the art for this one which is beautiful.

“Five Days Until Sunset” by Lance Robinson
In spite of what a whole lot of SF would have one believe, the likelihood is that early colony ships will be a fairly iffy proposition. Which means that this reminds me a bit of Mickey7 but definitely without the humorous bits. Although in this case, it’s not that the planet is barely habitable, but rather that it’s not habitable in the way that the colonists dreamed of. It’s a story about adapting your dreams to your circumstances instead of attempting to force the circumstances to match your dreams. Grade A because the story is good and so complete in its very short length and it even manages to deal well with religion in the future which is really, really hard even in the present.

“Shaman Dreams” by S.M. Stirling
This one is new for the collection – which I wasn’t expecting. It’s also the story inspired by the gorgeous cover art. Even though this is set in the far distant past, as the last Ice Age is fading away, the story it reminds me of most and rather surprisingly a lot is The Tusks of Extinction – quite possibly crossed a bit with Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. Grade A+

“The Wall Isn’t a Circle” by Rosalyn Robilliard
Very SFnal, but exceedingly horrifying in its implications. It starts out as time travel – and that’s fun with interesting possibilities. The scare in this one is that it doesn’t stay there, and where it leaps to is a question of just how far – and how far over the line of morality – someone will go to get justice and where the line blurs between justice and revenge. Grade A for the wild ride of the story’s ultimate WOW.

“Da-ko-ta” by Amir Agoora
This one didn’t work for me. The bones of something really terrific are here, and I think it potentially had a lot to say about colonialism and culture erasure and just how terrible manifest destiny was but it may have just needed to be longer so that its ideas got fully on the page and weren’t merely teased out. Grade C

“Squiddy” by John Eric Schleicher
Squiddy gets its toes right up to the line of SF horror and then sticks there with tentacles. Literal, actual tentacles, in an invasion of squid-like monsters that are an addictive drug that requires sticking the squid-like creature up one’s nose. So also gross-out horror. But underneath that is a story about a drug addled dystopia, one woman who refuses to use or be used and another woman who sees her as a beacon to follow to a better, squid-free future. Grade B because this one was interesting and had a kind of wild/weird west feel but just wasn’t my jam – or calamari.

“Halo” by Nancy Kress
This is the second new-for-this-collection story by a well-known author rather than a contest winner. It’s laboratory based SF, and jumps off from the recent pandemic, but doesn’t go anywhere one thinks it will go because it’s a story about human behavior and human intelligence and the power of inspiration and how much the latter is worth saving if engineering the former can do so much ‘good’ – depending on who is determining that good. A thought-provoking Grade A story.

“Ashes to Ashes, Blood to Carbonfiber” by James Davies
There are always at least a couple of stories in any collection that don’t work for an individual reader and this was my other one. I may have been trying to read too late in the evening, or it may be that the bleakness of this particular dystopia just didn’t work for me, or the nature of the sacrifice required to break out was a bit too much even as it was talked more around than directly about. I did like that it worked out to a much better ending than I was expecting, but it just didn’t work for me. Grade C

“Summer of Thirty Years” by Lisa Silverthorne
This is the other story in the collection about sacrifice and power and love and death – done in a completely different way from the bayou story and still not about romantic love after all – although at the beginning it looks like it might be. It’s sweet and sad and haunting and beautiful, if not quite as profound as “Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” still an excellent story. Grade A-

“Butter Side Down” by Kal M
There had to be a story that managed to invoke Murderbot, and this was it. What made it fun was that the whole thing is a trial transcript, as the lone human on this particular spaceship’s crew is on trial for rescuing a planet-killing AI, falling in love with it and helping it escape. It seems like the fears of what this ultimate weapon of mass destruction – that Joe Smith has nicknamed “Breddy” can do to the whole, entire universe are very real – but that Joe is convinced that “Breddy” has decided not to. And he’s right and they’re all wrong. While the story is more lighthearted than one might imagine, in the end it’s a story about always extending the hand of friendship – and being rewarded with friendship in return to the nth degree. Grade A+

Escape Rating A- for the collection as a whole, because I mostly did escape – even in the couple of stories that weren’t quite my cuppa after all. I am still a bit surprised to say this, all things considered, but I’m honestly looking forward to getting that 41st volume in the series, this time next year.

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi VoThe Brides of High Hill (The Singing Hills Cycle, #5) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #5
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on May 7, 2024
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The Hugo Award-Winning Series returns with its newest standalone entry: a gothic mystery involving a crumbling estate, a mysterious bride, and an extremely murderous teapot.
The Cleric Chih accompanies a beautiful young bride to her wedding to an aging lord at a crumbling estate situated at the crossroads of dead empires. But they’re forgetting things they ought to remember, and the lord’s mad young son wanders the grounds at night like a hanged ghost.
The Singing Hills Cycle has been shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the Locus Award, the Ignyte Award, and has won the Hugo Award and the Crawford Award.

My Review:

When we first catch up with Cleric Chih as they are accompanying bride-to-be Pham Nhung and her family on their trip to make the final negotiations for Pham Nhung’s marriage to the older and much wealthier Lord Guo, the reader has the sense that they remember when Chih met Nhung at the gates of the Singing Hills Abbey back in the previous book, Mammoths at the Gates.

Just as Chih has been lulled into participating in this journey that seems so familiar, so are we.

Because the journey IS familiar, even if Chih can’t seem to recall precisely how they got there or, more importantly, why his friend and companion, the neixin Almost Brilliant, is not with them on this journey. Although, considering the events of Mammoths at the Gates, it’s not too difficult for the reader, or Chih, to understand why the situation back home might have been a bit too fraught for Almost Brilliant to leave.

But the story does seem familiar, only because it is. A young woman whose noble family is a bit down on their luck has been sold to a wealthy older man in order to restore the family’s status. She has no choice in the matter, her parents have little, and Lord Guo has it all.

However, when the Lord’s oldest son, mad and confused and drugged to his eyeballs, under heavy guard and seemingly out of his mind, interrupts the initial ceremonies it raises more than a few uncomfortable questions, which kickstarts Cleric Chih’s need to learn all the stories about the lavish old estate that Lord Guo reigns over with an iron hand – and the familiar story begins to unravel.

Spectacularly. Explosively. Into a story about revenge served, not ice cold, but in a gout of hot blood spraying out from under gnashing teeth and long, sharp claws.

Escape Rating A-: From the very first book in the Singing Hills Cycle, the marvelous The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Cleric Chih has moved from being outside the story, merely its chronicler, to being at the story’s center in Mammoths at the Gates.

This time around, Chih is as mesmerized as the reader by the story, as they are trapped within its web just as we ourselves are.

Which means that we have a sense at the beginning that Chih isn’t acting quite like themselves, and Chih has the same feeling. Also they desperately miss their friend Almost Brilliant, and so do we. We all collectively need the clear-sighted neixin to help us – and I’m including Chih in that ‘us’ – figure out what’s going on.

Of course, that’s why Almost Brilliant isn’t there. Or so it seems. Just as so many things in this story seem to be one thing but aren’t – quite.

So this is a story about illusions and lies. Nothing and no one is exactly who or what they are first presented to be. At first, it seems that what began as that rather traditional story of a girl being sold by her parents to a cruel older man is the story and we’re prepared to watch it be broken in some almost traditional way – either by Pham Nhung running away with Lord Guo’s son, who we know isn’t the madman his father’s frightened household says that he is – or with her death, whether by her own hand or Lord Guo’s.

In other words, we expect the illusion to break, but what we don’t expect, what Cleric Chih doesn’t expect, is the way that it breaks – and how thoroughly.

At the very beginning of The Brides of High Hill, Cleric Chih is remembering his late mentor, Cleric Thien, and an occasion where Thien told Chih that “Everything starts with a story,” and a very young and not yet cleric Chih asks, “But what does that mean?”

In the case of The Brides of High Hill, the story starts with a journey that looks like it might end in a romance but instead ends with something that looks like a bloody, twisted version of Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, and is all the more surprising for that twist in its – and our – tails at the end.

Leaving this reader with bated breath waiting for the next story in the Singing Hills Cycle, even though it has neither a title nor a projected date of publication, because this series is just that good – and I’m just that hooked on it.

A- #BookReview: Black Shield Maiden by Willow Smith and Jess Hendel

A- #BookReview: Black Shield Maiden by Willow Smith and Jess HendelBlack Shield Maiden by Willow Smith, Jess Hendel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 480
Published by Del Rey on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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From WILLOW and co-writer Jess Hendel comes a powerful and groundbreaking historical epic about an African warrior in the world of the Vikings.
Lore, legend, and history tell us of the Vikings: of warrior-kings on epic journeys of conquest and plunder. But the stories we know are not the only stories to tell. There is another story, one that has been lost to the mists of time: the saga of the dark queen.
That saga begins with Yafeu, a defiant yet fiercely compassionate young warrior who is stolen from her home in the flourishing Ghanaian Empire and taken as a slave to a distant kingdom in the North. There she is thrust into a strange, cold world of savage shield maidens, tyrannical rulers, and mysterious gods.
And there she also finds something unexpected: a kindred spirit. She comes to serve Freydis, a shy princess who couldn’t be more different than the confident and self-possessed Yafeu.
But they both want the same thing: to forge their own fate. Yafeu inspires Freydis to dream of a future greater than the one that the king and queen have forced upon her. And with the princess at her side, Yafeu learns to navigate this new world and grows increasingly determined to become one of the legendary shield maidens.
For Yafeu may have lost her home, but she still knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to be the flame that burns a city to the ground so a new world can rise from the ashes. She will alter the course of history—and become the revolutionary heroine of her own myth.

My Review:

Through a series of unfortunate events that can, all too easily be laid at her own feet due to an excess of pride and an inability to keep her own temper, a young black woman is torn from her home village, enslaved, and dragged across the desert to the port city where she will be sold into who knows what fate.

Although at least part of that fate can be guessed from the lecherous expression on the face of the man offering gold for the purchase of her body.

That fate is interrupted by a sword – a sword wielded by a Viking warrior leading a raid on the coastal cities of North Africa. A female Viking warrior.

Alvtir saved Yafeu’s life because she could. Yafeu followed Alvtir back to her ship because Alvtir represents so much of what Yafeu wants to be. A warrior. A leader. A person who seems to be in charge of their own destiny in spite of the fact that females are supposed to be none of those things.

Yafeu believes that following Alvtir will get her what she has been searching for most of her life. The training to be a warrior in a place where she will be permitted if not encouraged to be the leader she was meant to be.

But Yafeu and the warriors to whom she has attached her hope and her future share neither a language nor even a common frame of reference or view of the world and the way it works. The desert that Yafeu called home is an entirely different world from the frozen fjords to which Alvtir and her Vikings are bound to return.

Once they make landfall in Skíringssal, Yafeu learns that she has merely traded one form of slavery for another, and that her hopes of training and respect were all in vain. But Alvtir sees that she may have found a hope for her own people – if that hope can be tempered and forged into a weapon.

So she waits and watches as Yafeu adjusts to her new life, learns the language and ways of a people not her own, and constantly searches for a way to forge a new path. A path that leads through the friendship of a disregarded princess to, finally and at long last, the coveted place among Alvtir’s shield maidens.

Just as the hope that these three women have forged together gets put to the torch of revolt and revolution.

Escape Rating A-: I came to this book by an odd route. I watched a playthrough of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla where the main character, Eivor, was played as female. (It’s possible to play the character as either gender and does not change the story – but it does change the visuals a LOT) I was riveted by the game even as a spectator, so when I saw the blurb for this book and realized that most of it took place in the same culture at the same time, I was hooked.

Even though the point of view character for Black Shield Maiden is Yafeu, Alvtir’s story bore more than enough resemblance to Eivor to keep me on the edge of my seat the whole way through.

Which I needed at the beginning, because the story does get off to a bit of a slow start. A start that reminded me of an entirely different story. If Alvtir is Eivor, then Yafeu is Ejii Ugabe, the titular Shadow Speaker of the first book in Nnedi Okorafor’s Desert Magician duology. Yafeu and Ejii have very similar story arcs, that they are both daughters in cultures that denigrate women, that both are feared and rejected by their home villages for powers and personalities that would be respected if they were male, and both have large and important destinies laid before them that can only be fulfilled if they come into their power by traveling far beyond their local horizon.

The story in Black Shield Maiden, while it is Yafeu’s story and told mostly from her perspective, also wraps itself around the fate of two other women; the warrior Alvtir and the Princess Freydis, who is also Alvtir’s niece.

Just as Yafeu has the dream of becoming a warrior and of finding the father who went on his own travels years before and never returned, Alvtir and Freydis have dreams of their own. Freydis’ dreams are initially small, she dreams of the fate that will be hers, marriage to an influential man of her father’s choosing and a home of her own. Yafeu’s introduction into Freydis’ life sets her on an entirely different course.

While this is Yafeu’s story – and we learn the place and the people and the culture because we learn it through her – Alvtir is the character upon whom the story pivots. Her people are at a crossroads in history, the fork in history’s road where Christianity swept all other religions before it and away. Alvtir sees another path for her people, a path that she hopes will lead to the preservation of their religion and their way of life, knowing that the only way to step on that path is to betray her brother, the king to whom she has sworn all her oaths.

The three women together have the opportunity to take new paths and forge new alliances, even knowing that the price will be that one of them will not live to see the future they bring about.

Obviously, I got caught up in this story, if not quite from the very beginning then certainly from the moment that Alvtir rescues Yafeu. And I’m glad I did even if I was up until 2 AM finishing it. At the end, I was caught by the idea that even though this is not a fictionalization of a real piece of history, it did fall just inside the line of plausibility. The Vikings who went ‘a-viking’ certainly traveled far and wide (including all the way to North America) both as raiders and as traders. Recently discovered DNA evidence proves that there WERE female Viking warriors.

In the end, I was reminded of Ash, A Secret History by Mary Gentle, the story of a female warrior in 15th century France that was not historical but was written as though it were the ‘secret history’ the title claimed it was. It was a story that, by the time it was finished, the reader WANTED to have been true.

Black Shield Maiden, especially in its rousing and hopeful ending, felt the same.

A- #BookReview: The Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan

A- #BookReview: The Summer Swap by Sarah MorganThe Summer Swap by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Canary Street Press on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

"The perfect summer novel—sharp, smart and so much fun!" —Viola Shipman, USA TODAY bestselling author, on The Island Villa
Cecilia Lapthorne always vowed she’d never go back to Dune Cottage. So no one is more surprised than Cecilia to find herself escaping her own seventieth birthday party to return to the remote but beautiful cottage on Cape Cod—a place filled with memories. Some are good—especially memories of the early days with her husband, volatile artist Cameron, before his fame eclipsed their marriage. But then there are the memories she has revealed to no one. Especially not her daughter, Kristen, who hero-worshipped her father.
For aspiring artist Lily, Dune Cottage has been a refuge, albeit an illicit one. After dropping out of medical school, she’s cleaning houses on the Cape to get by, guilt-ridden for disappointing her parents. Unoccupied for years, the cottage seemed the perfect place to hide away and lick her wounds—until Cecilia unexpectedly arrives. Despite an awkward beginning, Lily accepts Cecilia’s invitation to stay on as her guest, and a flicker of kinship ignites.
Then Cecilia’s grandson, Todd—and Lily’s unrequited crush—shows up, sending a shock wave through their unlikely friendship. Will it inspire Lily to find the courage to live the life she wants? Can Cecilia finally let go of the past to find a new future? Because as surely as the tide erases past footprints, this summer is offering both Cecilia and Lily the chance to swap old dreams for new…

My Review:

There’s a saying about the best things to give children are “roots and wings”. Roots to ground them, and wings to fly free. The Summer Swap is a story about, not just those roots and those wings, but particularly about the way that family expectations can add so much ballast that those wings can’t lift their load – no matter how much they yearn to fly.

The story begins with Lily, who has literally fled her parents’ well-meaning but wrong-headed expectations. Her parents worked hard and sacrificed a lot to make their two middle-class but not highly compensated jobs stretch – with grants and scholarships – to get Lily into an elite private school, college and then medical school.

They wanted her life to be richly rewarded and financially secure and put every penny and every effort into making it happen. That her rich and snooty classmates saw Lily as a charity case and treated her accordingly was something Lily stuffed down deep inside – just as she buried her dreams of becoming an artist in favor of pursuing the practical medical degree her parents had scrimped and saved for – and seemed to have their hearts set on.

Until it broke her, and she dropped out of med school. At which point her parents broke her again and kept on doing it, smothering her with their anxiety and their concern and trying to find ways to fix her so that she could go back to school – which was the last thing she wanted.

Her parents meant well, and they did their best to do well. But their dreams weren’t her dreams and she couldn’t deny herself a minute longer so she left. When we meet her she’s cleaning expensive but empty bungalows on Cape Cod, giving herself a bit of mental space so she can figure out what she wants to do with her OWN life while finding a way to manage those heavy parental expectations.

While squatting in an empty bungalow because it’s tourist season and there’s no place around that she can afford to live in on the trendy, touristy, expensive Cape.

Which is where Cecilia Lapthorne comes in. Literally.

Cecilia, seventy-five years old and the recent widow of a larger-than-life artist, has let herself be effaced by the expectations of being the “great man’s” helpmeet while he wowed the masses and kept his name in the limelight. Now that he’s gone, her daughter’s expectations that she continue to serve her artist dad’s memory and legacy for the rest of her life are smothering her.

So she too runs away – to the “cottage” on Cape Cod where she and her late husband had some of their happiest – and one of the awfullest – times of their lives. Because she needs that same bit of mental space that Lily does – to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of HER OWN life.

Which is the point where Lily and Cecilia run into each other. They can give each other something that few seem to have given either of them – time and space to think, and an open mind and a listening ear to help them each think through the life ahead of them as well as the trials and errors behind them.

And in that open space, they are able to capture the dreams they left behind and move forward into brighter futures – no matter how many years they each might have ahead.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I absolutely fell in love with The Summer Seekers and was looking for the same kind of multi-threaded, multi-generational story about women at different milestones in their lives and the ways that they navigate the ties that bind and the ties that strangle – whether they are related to each other or not.

There are three women tangled together in this story, just as there were in The Summer Seekers. Cecilia, her middle-aged daughter Kristen, and 20something Lily. Cecilia and Kristen’s relationship is strained – frankly most of their relationships are strained for interconnected reasons – and Lily’s relationship with her parents is fraught as well.

What makes the interconnectedness work is that the strain in all of the relationships is wrapped around the same issue – each of them is protecting someone else by keeping secrets that probably should have seen the light of day years ago but haven’t for reasons that are realistically human.

And are also wrapped up in the female condition – that if you are female those around you (including, unfortunately, other women) often believe that you don’t know your own mind or haven’t thought things through or are being overly emotional. Something that’s especially true for Lily – her parents are sure that she’s too young to know her own mind and they only want what’s best for her. But equally true for Cecilia, who is seventy-five and recently widowed. Her daughter Kristen is just as sure that it’s her mother’s grief talking and she really isn’t in a position to make big decisions about her own life and that it will all look better later and that Kristen is just being protective and really knows best. When in fact Kristen is actually trying to manage her own grief over her father’s death by managing her mother – so of course it’s not working AT ALL for either of them.

Then again, Kristen is one of those people who ALWAYS knows best and is constantly managing everyone around her to make sure that her ‘best’ decisions are the ones that get implemented – never realizing that it often happens because it’s less stress for others to let her handle things rather than get bulldozed out of the way. Which explains at lot about the strain in all of the rest of Kristen’s relationships as well.

This particular triptych, similar to the triad relationship in The Summer Seekers, (I REALLY loved that book!), is something that this author is particularly adept at. (It worked a bit less well in The Book Club Hotel with four instead of three and YMMV)

All three women have similar issues, in that they need to stop trying to manage other people’s emotions, responses and expectations and set boundaries on their own – particularly with each other in the case of Cecilia and Kristen.

I did figure out Cecilia’s big secret fairly early on – but there was still an impact in seeing it revealed to the others and the way in which it was revealed. At the same time I was never quite sure exactly what the stumbling block was in Lily’s romance but was happy to see her happy all the same. And I was thrilled to see Cecilia get her own second-time-around HEA because she’d earned it, deserved it and was utterly entitled to it. I left the story still not sure how to characterize Kristen’s progress – but on the other hand, I’m not sure she is yet either.

If you enjoy stories like this, stories where women are at the center of all the action as well as all the emotions, where a romance may occur but isn’t remotely the entirety of the point, or simply like spending time with women who you’d love to have coffee with after, or simply books where you can feel the summer breeze wafting by as you read, The Summer Swap is just the ticket. And if one summer book is not enough, don’t forget to pick up this author’s other terrific ‘beach reads’ The Summer Seekers AND Beach House Summer to extend the breeze of your summer reading vibe!

A- #BookReview: People in Glass Houses by Jayne Castle

A- #BookReview: People in Glass Houses by Jayne CastlePeople in Glass Houses (Ghost Hunters, #16) by Jayne Castle
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure romance, futuristic, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, science fiction romance
Series: Harmony #16
Pages: 313
Published by Berkley on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Dive into the alien world of Harmony in this new novel by New York Times bestselling author Jayne Castle.
His name is Joshua Knight. Once a respected explorer, the press now calls him the Tarnished Knight. He took the fall for a disaster in the Underworld that destroyed his career. The devastating event occurred in the newly discovered sector known as Glass House—a maze of crystal that is rumored to conceal powerful Alien antiquities. The rest of the Hollister Expedition team disappeared and are presumed dead.
Whatever happened down in the tunnels scrambled Josh’s psychic senses and his memories, but he’s determined to uncover the truth. Labeled delusional and paranoid, he retreats to an abandoned mansion in the desert, a house filled with mirrors. Now a recluse, Josh spends his days trying to discover the secrets in the looking glasses that cover the walls. He knows he is running out of time.
Talented, ambitious crystal artist Molly Griffin is shocked to learn that the Tarnished Knight has been located. She drops everything and heads for the mansion to find Josh, confident she can help him regain control of his shattered senses. She has no choice—he is the key to finding her sister, Leona, a member of the vanished expedition team. Josh reluctantly allows her to stay one night but there are two rules: she must not go down into the basement, and she must not uncover the mirrors that have been draped.
But her only hope for finding her sister is to break the rules…

My Review:

We all know the way that phrase ends, don’t we? “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” It’s a somewhat more potentially kinetic way of talking about the “pot calling the kettle black.” Or putting it yet another way, people who have the same faults should resist poking at each other along the same fault lines.

As it turns out, this particular story is also a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – although Joshua Knight and Molly Griffin want to be much more than friends the moment they meet, in spite of both of them living in the glass house of having extremely high levels of paranormal talent that they keep under wraps.

Because too much power can be extremely dangerous – especially when all the power is encased in the fragile mind of a human. Any human.

Although at the moment they meet, both Joshua and Molly do happen to be rather fragile humans – particularly in the context of the not-totally-explored and still all too frequently dangerous lost Terran colony on Harmony. A planet where high-resonating crystal artifacts left on the planet by aliens have caused, raised and enhanced the psychic powers of the humans who have occupied the planet for more than two centuries.

Joshua Knight is considered to be psi-burned. He was a talented guide and navigator to Harmony’s fascinating but treacherous underworld, and he lost ALL the members of his last expedition.

An expedition that included Molly Griffin’s sister Leona. Molly needs Joshua to lead her to where he lost her sister. Joshua needs Molly to help him regain his lost memories of where he lost the expedition in order to have even a chance at making that happen.

Lucky for them, their talents dovetail in a harmony that neither of them ever expected. But not lucky at all for the mastermind who set Joshua up to take the fall and did not reckon, at all, on the dogged persistence of the Griffin sisters.

And not that the villain doesn’t have a plan B to take care of all of those new, pesky, loose ends that Molly and Joshua have managed to unravel in the crystal palaces hidden under Harmony.

Escape Rating A-: Once upon a time, a historical romance author writing under the name of Amanda Quick introduced an organization of physically adept practitioners and mad scientists into her Victorian Era set romances – and the Arcane Society was born. In one of her other personas, Jayne Ann Krentz, the author carried the Arcane Society in the 20th and 21st centuries. Under a third name, Jayne Castle, she created the lost Terran colony world of Harmony and eventually admitted that the original colonists included a considerable number of members of, you guessed it, the Arcane Society.

It’s been over two centuries since Harmony was cut off from Earth. The population has evolved to include paranormal talents, many of which have become specialized in response to the resonating crystal artifacts that aliens left behind on their new home world. Their society has also evolved into the close-knitted, family oriented, relatively stable structure that we see in this series.

The population also still throws out the occasional mad scientist.

Which is part of Molly and Leona Griffin’s background, although it’s not really part of this story – except in the trust issues that background left in both women – although the next book in the series will be going there – and I’m seriously looking forward to it.

But in the meantime, this book is focused in Harmony’s present, and follows directly after the events of Guild Boss while putting brand new characters in the literal hot seat – along with another of Harmony’s adorable, scene-stealing predators, Newton the intrepid dust bunny.

As is often the case in the entire extended Arcane Society/Harmony series, there’s both a crime to solve and a talented person to save from what seems like the brink of madness. Molly’s sister is missing, the search has been called off. Molly is determined to pursue the only lead she has left, the supposedly burned out has-been navigator, Joshua Knight.

Joshua is the one who needs saving – he’s pretty sure he’s going mad, and the crazy house he’s squatting in is helping to finish the job that the mess of that lost expedition merely started. Joshua and Molly are each other’s last chance, so they grab onto that chance – and each other – with both hands.

That they manage to find the lost expedition – as wonderful as that is – opens up an entirely new can of worms so that the chief worm can finally get squashed. Only to open the way for yet another and even more dangerous worm – or perhaps that should be wyrm – to emerge from the shadows.

The romance between Molly and Joshua is as hot as the energy they both channel, but the way that their mutual needs and insecurities keep bumping up against one another keeps the relationship from feeling like insta-love. They also have a lot more in common than just their tangling insecurities, leaving the reader to believe that they really do have a good chance at an HEA even after the adrenaline of this case evens out.

To make a long story – or review – short; Harmony is a fascinating world, the paranormal powers keep everything and everyone involved tuned up to the max, the dust bunnies are both adorable and deadly, the romances are scorching, and the tension of whatever wrong needs to be righted or case that needs to be solved has been keeping this reader on the edge of her seat from the very first and this entry in the series continues that happy trend. Visit Harmony and settle in for a long, highly charged, utterly captivating binge-read.

And, also very much to the good, the way that the resolution of this adventure hints so tantalizingly at the next gives this fan of the series a lot of high-rez hope for the next – which doesn’t appear to be coming nearly soon enough!

A- #BookReview: Chaotic Aperitifs by Tao Wong

A- #BookReview: Chaotic Aperitifs by Tao WongChaotic Apéritifs: A Cozy Cooking Fantasy (Hidden Dishes Book 2) by Tao Wong
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, foodie fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Dishes #2
Pages: 124
Published by Starlit Publishing on May 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Only Constant with Magic is Change.
Mo Meng is reminded of that fact once again, as the Nameless Restaurant faces a new challenge. Magic and its old wielders are returning to the world. For the restaurant, wards of anonymity and camouflage are fading, leading to the arrival of new customers. And some older friends.
What started as a way to pass the decades and feed a few customers has become actual work.
The world is changing, and to face it, the Nameless Restaurant, along with its proprietor and patrons, will need to embrace the change with a good meal and new friends.
Chaotic Apéritifs is book 2 in the Hidden Dishes series, a cozy cooking fantasy perfect for fans of Travis Baldree's Legends & Lattes and Junpei Inuzuka's Restaurant to Another World. Written by bestselling author Tao Wong, his other series include the System Apocalypse, A Thousand Li, Hidden Wishes and Adventures on Brad series.

My Review:

Welcome to another day in the life of Mo Meng’s nameless restaurant, following the first delicious book in the Hidden Dishes series, titled, of course, The Nameless Restaurant!

The dishes served here truly are magically delicious, because the chef, Mo Meng, is a mage. Not that he actually uses magic in his cooking, because that would be cheating. Instead, he’s been using magical wards and sigils to make his hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Toronto look unappealing to the average restaurant goer, tourist and especially mundane government bureaucrat.

Because he absolutely IS using magic to keep pests at bay – no matter how many legs they have.

The problem that Mo Meng faces in this story is a direct result of the events in the first book featuring his nameless restaurant. Because in that story, Mo Meng’s out-of-the-way establishment hosted a newly awakened utter nuisance of a jinn, and she’s been waking up all kinds of magic and all sorts of other magic users as she navigates the 21st century.

That influx of her chaotic magic is wearing down Mo Meng’s wards. The sheer, overwhelming ubiquity of the internet isn’t helping either. It’s everywhere, no spell of forgetting or obfuscation affects it, and too many people are discovering, remembering, and talking about his restaurant on it.

He and his front-of-house manager Kelly are so swamped with customers that something is going to have to change – because it already has. The question is whether Mo Meng will embrace that change – or leave it and the community he’s built behind while he retreats. Again.

As he observes one very singular customer get confronted with all the changes that have occurred over the centuries while he slept and does his damndest to bluff his way into the future without setting the restaurant on fire with his magic, Mo Meng figures out his own answers.

Escape Rating A-: I’m doing this review a week early so that you have a chance to read the tasty first book in the Hidden Dishes series, The Nameless Restaurant, before you gobble this second book up in one delicious bite.

Because they are both absolutely magically delicious, to the point where I need to put a kind of a trigger warning on both books. Do NOT read while hungry. It’s very dangerous. Trust me on this. Mo Meng’s entire cooking process and every single dish is described in mouth-watering detail as he cooks and it’s impossible to resist – even if the dish itself isn’t one you actually think you’ll like.

The tone of this second book is not quite as lighthearted as the first book, in spite of it being underpinned by the advent of two agents from the Department of Supernatural Entities. Mika and Ophelia are there to investigate the weakening of Mo Meng’s wards and just generally behave like government bureaucrats – up to and including the tension between the two of them, as senior agent Mika knows just where the lines are drawn, while his junior wants to leap over all the rules, regulations, and common sense to right what she defines as wrong in spite of all of the above.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is tense all the way around. Kelly begins her day being berated by her mother over the phone, Mo Meng is behind because there is way more business than one chef – even a magical one – can handle, and the patrons and would-be patrons start out agitated because a) Mo Meng IS running behind schedule and b) the restaurant is tiny, the wait is long, and the line out the door and around the block is enough to outrage anyone.

That a new predator who absolutely radiates power sits in the midst of all, offending many while trying to obfuscate his way through his lack of recent knowledge just adds to everyone’s stress – including his own as he’s trying to figure out why the jinn woke him up and sent him to this place. (I’m truly chagrined at how long it took me to figure out who he was. All the clues were there, I just wasn’t seeing them. (Consider a picture of me facepalming inserted here)

All the same, I loved every mouth-watering page of this story – at least once I sat down with my own dinner to accompany it. (There’s a regular at this restaurant who also reads through his meal, so I’d fit right in!)

Even though the situation is a bit tense, the story and the setting still fit delightfully into the new cozy fantasy vibe, on the shelf between Legends & Lattes and The Kamogawa Food Detectives. At the same time, it’s doing what urban fantasy has always done, it’s getting just a bit deeper and darker as it goes – and it’s fascinating and makes me want more.

It’s clear from the way that this entry in the series ends that even though Mo Meng and Kelly have found a way through their immediate problems, trouble is brewing on the horizon right alongside Mo Meng’s pineapple vinegar. So I’m going to get that more I wanted in the next book in the series, titled Sorcerous Plates. My mouth and my brain are already craving the next bite!

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ RozanThe Murder of Mr. Ma (Dee & Lao, #1) by John Shen Yen Nee, S.J. Rozan
Narrator: Daniel York Loh
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Dee & Lao #1
Pages: 312
Length: 8 hours and 24 minutes
Published by Recorded Books, Soho Crime on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, this stunning, swashbuckling series opener by a powerhouse duo of authors is at once comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly new.
Two unlikely allies race through the cobbled streets of 1920s London in search of a killer targeting Chinese immigrants.
London, 1924. When shy academic Lao She meets larger-than-life Judge Dee Ren Jie, his life abruptly turns from books and lectures to daring chases and narrow escapes. Dee has come to London to investigate the murder of a man he’d known during World War I when serving with the Chinese Labour Corps. No sooner has Dee interviewed the grieving widow than another dead body turns up. Then another. All stabbed to death withg a butterfly sword. Will Dee and Lao be able to connect the threads of the murders—or are they next in line as victims?
John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan’s groundbreaking collaboration blends traditional gong'an crime fiction and the most iconic aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Dee and Lao encounter the aristocracy and the street-child telegraph, churchmen and thieves in this clever, cinematic mystery that’s as thrilling and visual as an action film, as imaginative and transporting as a timeless classic.

My Review:

It can be considered both sad and ironic that Ma Ze Ren had left his native China in pursuit of fortune and adventure among the Chinese Labour Corps in the trenches of World War I, survived, immigrated to London and opened a successful shop dealing in Chinese antiquities – having seemingly attained all that he had originally sought – only to be killed in the midst of his shop by means of one of those self-same antiquities he intended to sell.

When they both served in the Labour Corps, Ma Ze Ren and several of his compatriots had come to an agreement with the man who served as the liaison between the Chinese Labour Corps members and the British officers who used them as cannon fodder, Judge Dee Ren Jie, that Dee would make arrangements to send their bodies back home if the chances of war required such service.

The war may be long over when this story opens in 1924, but that contract still holds Judge Dee, so he has come to London to take care of Ma’s final arrangements. But before he can even begin, Dee is taken up in the midst of a labor riot along with other Chinese men protesting for fair wages and treatment in a city that considers them something less than fully human.

Which is where the chronicler of this tale, scholar and author Lao She, comes into the tale. Dee needs to be out of jail before an enemy realizes that he has this nemesis in his clutches. Bertrand Russell wishes to help his friend Dee without getting his own name attached to this scandalous business.

And Lao She is bored out of his mind – even if he is unwilling to admit it to himself – spending his days teaching Chinese language and literature to students who have no love or care for the language or the people who speak it, merely a desire to get a leg up on their fellows in the commercial opportunities opening up in a modernized China.

Lao is supposed to be clandestinely exchanged for Dee – but Lao gives away the game with every move he makes and every word he’s not supposed to be uttering. So a prison break it is, with Lao, Dee and Russell scattering along with the rest of the prisoners.

But Dee still has a mission, Lao has acquitted himself well in the melee and has acquired a taste for danger and adventure he never realized blazed within him. Reluctant partners, resistant friends, together they will uncover not one but two murder plots in a fascinating tale that takes readers from the homes of the intelligentsia to the alleys of Limehouse – with a stop among the pioneers of the silver screen along the heights and depths of its way – only to arrive frantic and breathless at one of the first principles in any investigation:

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Escape Rating A-: The Murder of Mr. Ma was the highlighted review in the online mystery/crime review newsletter First Clue several months ago, and something about that review caught my attention and held it more than long enough for me to mark the title in Edelweiss as “Highly Anticipated” and immediately grab it when my anticipation was rewarded with the availability of an eARC and later an early audiobook.

(The above is a hint. If you love mysteries, subscribe to First Clue!)

The comparison in many reviews of this book are to Holmes and Watson, particularly the Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie movies – because that particular version of Holmes is considerably more active than most.

As has been confessed before, I am a sucker for a Holmes pastiche, so I would have been interested in this book on that basis alone, but I think that quick comparison sells Dee and Lao and The Murder of Mr. Ma a bit short in this particular instance.

There is a surface resemblance in that Dee is the more active and experienced investigator – with or without resorting to the martial arts – while Lao, like Watson, is the newbie at this particular game and is tasked with creating a record of the adventure rather than necessarily figuring out the solution on his own. And if this combination appeals, Barker & Llewelyn are a bit closer analog than Holmes and Watson in more ways than the initially obvious.

What takes this story up another notch or ten is that both Dee and Lao were real historical figures – who never met due to having lived centuries apart. But Lao was a Chinese scholar in London during this period in real life, while Dee was a figure out of legend whose adventures were popularized by Robert van Gulik in the mid-20th century. (So if you think Dee’s name sounds familiar, that’s most likely the reason.)

Of course, what makes any mystery is the way the case itself is laid out and investigated, and that’s where this one draws the reader in its whirlwind every bit as much as Dee pulls Lao along in his wake. Because at first it seems as if the murder was a result of the prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment that Dee, Lao and their countrymen face on every side in London in 1924, not helped at all by the popular “Yellow Peril” movies that play on and sensationalize the British fear of “the other”.

But the more Dee and Lao, with the able assistance and frequent succor of Dee’s friend Hoong, search for clues and motives, the less that simple but terrible conclusion feels like the entirety of the answer – not that it doesn’t underlay that answer but it’s just not the whole of the thing. Particularly as that answer is made even more elusive by Lao’s struggles with his pride and his naivete, and Dee’s ongoing attempts to extract himself from his opium addiction.

This is a mystery with layers surrounding layers, wheels within wheels, two investigators neither of whom are having their best day and criminals whose overweening pride finally gets in their way. And it’s marvelous.

The audiobook, narrated by Daniel York Loh,  was a delight, but as is so often the case, I switched to text near the end because I couldn’t figure it out either and I just HAD to know. I have two and only two quibbles with the whole thing. I REALLY wanted Lao to get over his mooning over his landlady’s daughter because it was obvious from the beginning that he was deluding himself about his prospects and almost willfully blind to the obvious. His vain hopes and how thoroughly they were going to be dashed took a lot of audio time. My other quibble – a much bigger one – is that the short story that introduced this fascinating pair “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine does not appear to be available online, and that there’s no second book firmly fixed on the horizon. Dee’s and Lao’s investigations NEED to be a series. So much. So very much.

Which means that I leave this review pleased that Lao finally let himself get hit with the clue-by-four regarding Miss Wendell, and that rumors of a second book leave me with hope on that front as well.