Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda QuickGarden of Lies by Amanda Quick, Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 359
Published by Berkley on April 21, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Kern Secretarial Agency provides reliable professional services to its wealthy clientele, and Anne Clifton was one of the finest women in Ursula Kern’s employ. But Miss Clifton has met an untimely end—and Ursula is convinced it was not due to natural causes.   Archaeologist and adventurer Slater Roxton thinks Mrs. Kern is off her head to meddle in such dangerous business. Nevertheless, he seems sensible enough to Ursula, though she does find herself unnerved by his self-possession and unreadable green-gold eyes…   If this mysterious widowed beauty insists on stirring the pot, Slater intends to remain close by as they venture into the dark side of polite society. Together they must reveal the identity of a killer—and to achieve their goal they may need to reveal their deepest secrets to each other as well…

My Review:

The popular perception of heroines in historical romance is that their lives were restricted and that they were supposed to be innocent even into adulthood and as a consequence were naïve and/or ripe to become damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by the hero.

An image that probably wasn’t true even among the aristocracy, and certainly couldn’t have been outside it. Which doesn’t prevent it from still being a popular perception. But readers aren’t looking for innocent damsels in distress nearly as much as they used to. We’re looking for women we can manage to identify with.

In that sense, Ursula Kern is a fascinating choice as a heroine. She’s a widow. She’s permitted to no longer be innocent or naïve. She’s on her own, and she owns her own business – not as a member of the demimonde – but a respectable business employing respectable women who are able to earn respectable incomes.

Whatever hopes and dreams she may have, she is expected to present herself as a responsible, respectable, professional adult person. She’s been through enough to know that the only person who will take care of her is her. As a woman with neither a husband nor living parents nor male siblings, there is no one to gainsay her determination to make a living for herself and to provide good livings for as many women as possible in her employ.

Ursula may not have family, but she does have friends as well as colleagues and employees. The late Anne Clifton was all of the above; an employee who became a colleague and friend. Ursula Kern is certain that Anne Clifton was murdered. Finding her killer is the last thing that Ursula can do for her friend – and she’s determined to do it.

She just needs a bit of help. Or at least she hopes for it. And that’s where Slater Roxton comes in. Slater, a man with a mysterious incident in his past that has fueled the gossip rags and gutter press for years, is an expert on finding lost artifacts and tombs – where he once got trapped.

(Come to think of it, he’d probably be a contemporary of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Sr., the father of archeologist, treasure hunter and troubleshooter Indiana Jones. If there turned out to be some influence there I wouldn’t be at all surprised.)

Slater, for reasons of his own, some more obvious than others, can’t let Ursula go off on her investigation all alone. It’s not that he doesn’t believe she quite capable as an adult and as a businesswoman, but ferreting out the truth about dastardly murderers who have so far been successful at making their crimes look like accidents is a dangerous business.

A business with many more dangerous tentacles – or should I say twisted roots and entangling vines – than either Slater or Ursula ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I read this for fun. I was bouncing hard off of everything and went looking for a story that I knew would be instantly absorbing. I was highly tempted to read this author’s Lightning in a Mirror which is out next week, but then I remembered that Garden of Lies was STILL on my “Highly Anticipating” Shelf on Edelweiss. In fact, it was the oldest book on that shelf. So here we are.

Garden of Lies was every bit as instantly absorbing and fun as I hoped, even if I didn’t completely buy the inevitable romance between Slater and Ursula. The rest of the story, especially the uncovering of the full scope of the criminal plotting AND the nefarious dealings on both sides of the pond, was absolutely riveting.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the way that all the women in the story, including the secondary characters, dealt with their world in a way that seemed realistically sensible. Not just that Ursula and the women she employs have made their own way independently, but the way that Slater’s mother, the actress who was the lifelong paramour of a titled noble, knew exactly what she was letting herself in for and moved through the world as she found it and not as anyone dreamed or hoped it would be. That his late father was sanguine enough to not merely acknowledge Slater was his but to trust his illegitimate son to protect his legal widow and legitimate heirs from her abusive father.

Their approaches to their world make sense in a way that isn’t always true in historical romance.

The mystery plot was marvelously convoluted and the reveal of it was appropriately painstaking. Ursula starts with the death of her friend, finds evidence that her death was murder, and then begins to dig. The solution is revealed in layers, as each new bit of information leads to a place that no one had foreseen from the opening. The web was woven very tightly, and it takes and appropriate amount of time and effort to unravel it fully.

As Ursula and Slater eventually manage to do. I liked them as partners, I just didn’t see enough of them “falling” in love to buy that they really were in love. But I’m still glad they found their slightly unconventional HEA.

There was no paranormal woo-woo in this standalone book, as there so often is in the author’s Arcane Society series, yet it still had some of the same feel with its nefarious plot, double-dealing, wheels within wheels criminal organization, and the investigation into dirty deeds done in very dark places for both evil and mercenary ends.

But the author has two books with some of that paranormal vibe coming soon, Lightning in a Mirror next week and When She Dreams in April. My reading appetite for both has certainly been whetted!

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes LackeyThe Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (Elemental Masters, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk
Series: Elemental Masters #16
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The sixteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series follows sharpshooter Annie Oakley as she tours Europe and discovers untapped powers.
Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.
As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.

My Review:

When I read the first few books in the Elemental Masters series – as they came out back in the early 2000s – I loved these retellings of classic fairy tales set in an alternate, slightly steampunkish late Victorian/early Edwardian era for the way that they mixed a bit of magic with a bit of alternate history to put a fresh face on a tale that was oh-so-familiar.

Now that I’m thinking about this the series is an alternate version of another of Lackey’s alternate ways of telling fairy tales, her Five Hundred Kingdoms series (begin with The Fairy Godmother) where the purpose of the story was to subvert the fairy tale to keep it from subverting someone’s life.

I digress.

I stopped reading the Elemental Masters series after Reserved for the Cat as a consequence of the “so many books, so little time” conundrum that all of us who live in books are faced with so often. But I came back when the series switched from fairy tales to legendary characters with A Study in Sable and the three books that followed (A Scandal in Battersea, The Bartered Brides and The Case of the Spellbound Child) because the legendary character that was introduced and followed in this subseries of the series was none other than Sherlock Holmes.

I can never resist a Holmes pastiche, and these were no exception.

But after following the “World’s Greatest Consulting Detective”, even an alternate version thereof, through an alternate version of Holmes’ London, the series took itself across the pond to the Americas while briefly turning to its roots of retelling fairy tales with Jolene. Which I have yet to read – even though just the title is giving me an earworm of Dolly Parton’s marvelous song – which I’m sure was the intention.

I was, however, all in to read this latest book in the series, The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, because I was wondering how the author would blend this historical character into this world where magic is hidden just beneath the surface.

It turns out that Annie Oakley herself, the real one, provided her own introduction to this world. As this story opens, we’re with Annie as she is in contracted servitude to a married couple she only refers to as “the Wolves” in her diary. Her real, historical diary.

The Wolves – whose identity has never been conclusively determined – starved her, cheated her, threatened her and physically and mentally abused her at every turn for two years, beginning when Annie was nine years old.

In this story, those two years of hell on earth become Annie’s introduction to the magic of this alternate world. Not just because the people she calls “the Wolves” turn out to be actual wolves – or rather werewolves – but because her desperate escape from the Wolves is facilitated by the magic of this alternate world – both the magic of the fairies AND magic of Annie’s very own.

After that shocking and heartbreaking beginning, the story shifts to Annie Oakley as an adult, the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, traveling in Europe.

Where she discovers that her childhood rescue by fairies was not the fever dream she tried to convince herself that it was. And that the magic she has hidden from herself all these years is hers to command – if she is willing to learn.

And that she’ll need all the training and assistance that she can get. Because the wolves are still after her.

Escape Rating A-: When I was growing up – back in the Dark Ages – there weren’t nearly enough biographies of women in my elementary school library. Honestly, there weren’t nearly enough, period. While there still aren’t, the situation has improved at least a bit.

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

One of the few that was always available was Annie Oakley. It was easy to find stuff about her, and as someone who read as much of that library as humanly possible, I found what there was. She’s a fascinating person, as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century who was famous for what she herself DID, and not for who she married, who she killed (I’m looking at you, Lizzie Borden) or who or what she was victimized by. Nor was she famous for her beauty. (I’ve included a picture to let you judge for yourself on that score, but whether you like her looks or not they are not what made her famous.

Her ability to shoot a gun, accurately and at a distance, is what made her famous. It also put food on the table when she was young and her family was broke.

Blending her real history and real talents into this magical story, and keeping reasonably close to what is known about her while expanding it into this created world was fascinating and fun. This was also a terrific story to get new readers into this long running series, as Annie is an adult when she finds out that she has magic, and her training in her newly discovered powers helps the reader get on board with the way that this world works AND is fascinating in its own right.

So this story’s blend of history with magic just plain worked for me – even more than I expected it to. More than enough to make me not miss the Sherlock Holmes of the earlier stories in the series too much.

Obviously, I really enjoyed this particular entry in this long-running series. MORE than enough that I’ll be back the next time the author returns to it. In the meantime, I have plenty of entries in the series that I missed to dip into whenever I’m looking for this blend of magic, myth and history.

Review: Fated Blades by Ilona Andrews

Review: Fated Blades by Ilona AndrewsFated Blades (Kinsmen, #3) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Kinsmen #3
Pages: 222
Published by Montlake on November 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

An uneasy alliance between warring families gets heated in this otherworldly novella from bestselling author Ilona Andrews.
At first glance, the planet Rada seems like a lush paradise. But the ruling families, all boasting genetically enhanced abilities, are in constant competition for power―and none more so than the Adlers and the Baenas. For generations, the powerful families have pushed and pulled each other in a dance for dominance.
Until a catastrophic betrayal from within changes everything.
Now, deadly, disciplined, and solitary leaders Ramona Adler and Matias Baena must put aside their enmity and work together in secret to prevent sinister forces from exploiting universe-altering technology. Expecting to suffer through their uneasy alliance, Ramona and Matias instead discover that they understand each other as no one in their families can―and that their combined skills may eclipse the risks of their forbidden alliance.
As the two warriors risk their lives to save their families, they must decide whether to resist or embrace the passion simmering between them. For now, the dance between their families continues―but just one misstep could spell the end of them both.

My Review:

This book was an absolutely delightful surprise in more ways than one!

First, I have to say that it was a surprise that it existed. The first two books in the Kinsmen series, Silent Blade and Silver Shark, came out over a decade ago. When I reviewed them both in 2014 for the late and much lamented Science Fiction Romance Quarterly, they were all there were.

But that’s a long time ago in, let’s call them, “book years”.

They were both terrific – although unfortunately terrifically short – and I stopped hoping for more a long time ago. Yet here we are.

After a very long hiatus, the Kinsmen series is back in Fated Blades. And it’s every bit as much fun as the previous books, as well as blissfully more than a bit longer.

That’s always been my one complaint about the series – that the books aren’t nearly long enough. And it’s still true – although getting better each time.

The story, on its surface, is simple enough. This is an enemies to lovers story with a vengeance. Literally. The Adlers and the Baenas have been enemies and rivals for centuries – all the way back to the founding of the colony on the planet Rada.

A rivalry that has occasionally bloomed into a hot war, but has always simmered as a lukewarm if not cold conflict between merciless rivals. An evenly matched antagonism between rival clans with the same business interests and the same dedication to continuing the extreme martial training of their ancestors.

But the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And this story begins when Ramona Adler stalks into Matias Baena’s office – into the heart of her enemy’s territory – because she and Matias have a desperate common cause – he just doesn’t know it until her one-woman invasion of his family’s corporate tower.

His wife has run off with her husband. Not that either of them loves their arranged spouse any more than those spouses love them. Or anyone but themselves. This betrayal isn’t nearly that simple.

Both companies have invested all their resources, pushing themselves to the brink of collapse, in order to research the genetic modifications that made them both the warrior clans that they are. And both of their spouses have run away with each other and with all of both companies’ research with the intent to sell it to the highest bidder.

Leaving both companies, and both families, destroyed in their wake. Not that either of their errant spouses give a damn.

Ramona and Matias must ally with each other – their deadliest rival – in order to stop the destruction of everything they hold dear.

In their hunt to stop their traitorous spouses, they discover two things. That said spouses are even bigger traitors than either of them thought.

And that Ramona and Matias, the heirs of generations of mutual hatred, are each other’s perfect match. In love and in war.

Escape Rating A-: Fated Blades is a tremendously fun use of all of the best tropes in science fiction romance – not that most of them can’t be applied to other types of romance as well!

But seriously, the thing about SFR is that both sides have to be balanced. The SFnal worldbuilding has to be self-consistent and hold together, and the romance has to be a solidly satisfying romance set in that well-built SFnal world.

Fated Blades delivers a story that walks that tightrope balance beautifully.

Even three books in, the world of the Kinsmen has plenty of facets to explore – but what we do have feels solid. It’s a well-established Earth-diaspora colony in a sector filled with more of them. The world of Rada and its sector read like a livable place that is just enough like our own time and place to seem familiar while being just different enough to seem exotic. Rada and its sister worlds have an established history that we get just enough glimpses of to think we know what’s going on and what went on in their past.

While the real enemy that they face is the stuff of SFnal nightmares that combine the Reavers from Firefly with every 21st century totalitarian nightmare into an enemy that must be feared, respected and eliminated to the last soldier and damn the diplomatic consequences.

At the same time, the romance combines the classic enemies to lovers trope with just a touch of fated mate syndrome and more than a bit of the crash and mutual rescue dynamic of Shards of Honor. A winning combination if ever there was one.

I had a great reading time returning to the Kinsmen universe, even after all these years. I loved the stuttering, back and forth relationship between Ramona and Matias, although I wish I’d gotten a bit more about their families and how their part of this universe came to be. I’d love to read more in this world, hopefully sooner rather than quite this much later after the previous book.

And they’re still too damn short.

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuireWhere the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children, #7) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #7
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you've already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.
There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. And it isn't as safe.
When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn't save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.
She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...

My Review:

We were introduced to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway. The children aren’t “wayward” in the way that the word is usually meant. Rather, the children who come to the school, like Eleanor West herself, once upon a time opened a door from our world to another – a place their hearts called home.

They come to Eleanor after they, like she, found their way, or were forced or pushed or stumbled, back to the world they were born in, will they or nil they. It’s usually nil. Whatever world they went to, they’ve been gone a long time from their young perspectives, have grown and changed and adapted to their new circumstances in ways that don’t fit in the old ones.

They’ve left our world as children and come back as teenagers. They left as dependent children and come back after having been forced to look after themselves. They left as innocents and come back with experience that no one believes.

Their parents desperately want them to be “normal” again, unable or unwilling to recognize that they ARE normal for the life they led on the other side of their door.

The lucky ones find themselves at Eleanor West’s, a place where their experience is accepted as having been real – even if their hope for return to it is seen as extremely unlikely at best. Eleanor West gives them the chance, not so much to accept that they’re stuck as to find a way to live with their situation rather than pretend that it never happened.

Not all of the children are lucky enough to end up at Eleanor West’s Home. Some of them end up in psychiatric institutions, and/or drunk or drugged into insensibility, whether by themselves or others.

And some of them end up someplace worse. They get sent to the Whitethorn Institute. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the Whitethorn Institute is that opposing reaction to Eleanor West’s. In every possible way.

Cora Miller, whom we met in Beneath a Sugar Sky and whose story continues in Come Tumbling Down (which I haven’t read and I seriously need to!) feels like the Drowned Gods she invoked in that second adventure have followed her back to Miss West’s. And that they’re coming for her.

In desperation, Cora turns to the one place where belief in the doors and the worlds on the other side of them is ruthlessly suppressed. She believes it’s done with the power of science and cold, hard logic. So she commits herself to the Whitethorn Institute in the hope that they will cure her of her longing for the worlds behind the doors – and of their hunger for her.

What she finds is something else altogether. And it’s just as hungry for her and her power as the Drowned Gods ever were.

Escape Rating A-: Where the Drowned Girls Go, at least so far, was the hardest read in this series. Not that any of them are easy, because much of the series is about accepting yourself for who and what you are, and finding a family that will accept you as the person you are and not the person they want you to be.

Overall, it’s a series about diversity and acceptance. That means two things. One, that it explores all types of diversity, not just race – actually not explicitly race at all – but rather the way that people don’t fit into stereotypical boxes at all and learning to celebrate those differences.

What makes this a particularly hard read is that the way the story showcases that acceptance is by first showing its lack – in intense and painful detail. Cora is already outside the box labeled “normal” because she came through a door. She’s asexual due to a birth anomaly. And she’s built tall and strong and plump, because she lived in water worlds where those were survival traits. And none of them are what girls in this world are supposed to be.

She’s already internalized the messages for girls to be “girly”, flirty and tiny and weak and thin, and has a lot of self-hatred because she’s none of the above. The Whitethorn Institute encourages the children in its dubious “care” to show the worst of themselves, so Cora is bullied and teased for being different – in addition to everything else that’s wrong at Whitethorn.

It starts out being a school where the mean girls seem to be pampered princesses and everyone else is either under their thumbs or outcast. It’s an environment that was hard to take before Cora starts digging deeper into just how wrong things really are.

The Institute’s methods are cruel and repressive, forcing the children to lie to themselves and each other about their experiences, punishing transgression and nonconformity through bullying, and as Cora discovers, using the magic of the doorways to suppress individuality and identity. Cora has a choice to make, to let herself be lost or to be a hero one more time.

And that’s the point where things finally start looking up.  Because that’s where the adventure aspect of the series kicks in, when Cora accepts that she can’t do it all alone and that she needs her friends from Miss West’s to help her get to the bottom of a situation that is way too big for one girl to solve alone.

Which is part of the message of the whole series. None of the stories so far have been just one person’s story. These are stories about accepting people for who they are, and learning to accept oneself the same. They’re adventures that require friends and found family to come out the other side, whole as part of a greater whole.

While this particular entry in the series turned out to be an unexpected readalike for A Spindle Splintered, the whole series interweaves back and forth in ways that make a bit of mockery of any concept of reading order and downright encourage readers to rove from book to book, from door to door, and back again.

I read Where the Drowned Girls Go in the middle of my exploration of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. I started with the first book first, Every Heart a Doorway, Then book 6, Across the Green Grass Fields (Cora finds the heroine of that story at Whitethorn’s), then this book, and finally books 2 and 3, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky.

The next book in this series, Lost in the Moment and Found, won’t be found on bookshelves and ereaders until a whole, entire year from now, so I’m lucky I still have In an Absent Dream and Come Tumbling Down to look forward to!

Review: Ghost of the Bamboo Road by Susan Spann

Review: Ghost of the Bamboo Road by Susan SpannGhost of the Bamboo Road: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Shinobi Mystery #7
Pages: 272
Published by Seventh Street Books on November 12, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When a vengeful spirit terrorizes a mountain village, a ninja and a Jesuit must save the villagers from the phantom’s wrath.
January 1566: En route to Edo, Master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo spend the night in a rural mountain village whose inhabitants live in terror of a legendary vengeful ghost. When the innkeeper's wife is murdered and Father Mateo’s housekeeper, Ana, is blamed for a crime she did not commit, Hiro and Father Mateo are forced to investigate and reveal the truth. But when another woman turns up murdered in the snow, the detectives must face the shocking truth that the vengeful yurei the villagers fear might be more than just a legend after all.

My Review:

No one wants to think that one of their neighbors is capable of committing murder – or even any lesser crimes. It’s why so many small town and country house mysteries usually start out with everyone involved pointing the finger, not at each other, but at some unknown wandering stranger. We all want our own little closed group to be blameless – it’s too uncomfortable to think otherwise.

But for the blame for not one or two but eventually four recent deaths in an isolated rural village to be attributed to ghosts and not any living humans at all is a bit too much for either shinobi (read ninja) Hiro Hattori and his friend and protectee Father Mateo to credit. The villagers may believe in ghosts, but Hiro has too much practical experience of the world to believe in ghosts. Father Mateo’s faith means that he does not believe in ghosts either – no matter how many times one of the villagers claims that he already is one.

Both Hiro and Father Mateo also have way too much experience in investigating mysterious and uncanny murders that always turn out to have been committed by humans and not any supernatural creatures at all.

Color them both skeptics. Even in the face of seemingly an entire village quivering in fear of an avenging ghost who seems to be systematically eliminating every remaining villager who refused to help her when she was alive.

It’s too easy for the logical Hiro to see that while the deaths may be mysterious, placing the blame on a ghost is a bit too convenient for someone. Or perhaps more than one someone. But the inconvenience of the local samurai refusing to allow them to leave until the crime is solved is all too real – and his blackmail attempt all too transparent.

It’s up to Hiro to suss out the real killer and their real motives – along with discovering who is responsible for a string of thefts that is somehow tied up in the murders – before they can continue on their self-appointed journey to Edo.

Escape Rating A-: I was so tempted to start with a Ghostbusters riff, because neither Hiro nor Mateo are afraid of any ghosts. Making this story an attempt to tell a ghost story with two total non-believers at its center.

The journal that Hiro and Mateo are on, from the disaster at Mount Koya in the previous book in the series, Trial on Mount Koya, is self-appointed or self-inflicted on Hiro’s part. The organization and family that trained him in the hidden arts of the shinobi is under threat from the capital, and Hiro is trying to warn all the covert agents along the way to Edo. Father Mateo is on the run after the events in a previous book in the series, The Ninja’s Daughter.

That being said, this story does stand somewhat alone. Not that knowledge of the previous events in the series isn’t handy or that acquiring that knowledge by starting at the beginning in Claws of the Cat isn’t a great reading time, but it would be possible to pick this up without starting at the beginning as this is set in an isolated part of their longer journey.

However, this series as a whole is an absolute treat for historical mystery and historical fiction readers. At the time the story takes place, Medieval Japan was mostly closed to outsiders. Father Mateo’s presence as guide and audience surrogate provides a window into a time, place and culture that was just opening to outsiders. We have been able to explore and discover along with him, while helping – or sometimes hindering – Hiro’s investigations along the way.

And while watching their relationship, initially curious strangers, bodyguard and protectee, change into friendship verging on brotherhood – with all the affection and exasperation inherent in that kind of family tie.

The case they have to solve here is both fascinating because of its setting and familiar because of the all-too-human motivations that set these crimes into motion. Hiro and Mateo are always outsiders even in places where they are most familiar, but in this tiny village they are more obviously so. It’s clear that much is known but not spoken of, and it’s up to these two strangers to bring those secrets into the light of day.

If only so that they can finally escape the place with their own mission also accomplished and their household intact!

I’ve followed this entire series, and loved every minute of it. But somehow I missed this book when it came out, and didn’t discover it existed until I learned about the upcoming publication of the next book in the series, Fires of Edo, which is due out in mid-February. From the title, it looks like their rather fraught journey to Edo is going to reach its destination, but hopefully not its end.

I’m looking forward to traveling with them again. Soon!

Review: Overlord by Anna Hackett

Review: Overlord by Anna HackettOverlord (Galactic Kings #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, science fiction, science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Kings #1
Pages: 300
Published by Anna Hackett on December 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

When an experimental starship test goes horribly wrong, a test pilot from Earth is flung across the galaxy and crash lands on the planet of a powerful alien king.
Pilot Mallory West is having a really bad day. She’s crashed on an alien planet, her ship is in pieces, and her best friend Poppy, the scientist monitoring the experiment, is missing. Dazed and injured, she collapses into the arms of a big, silver-eyed warrior king. But when her rescuer cuffs her to a bed and accuses her of being a spy, Mal knows she has to escape her darkly tempting captor and find her friend.
Overlord Rhain Zhalto Sarkany is in a battle to protect his planet Zhalto and his people from his evil, power-hungry father. He’ll use every one of his deadly Zhalton abilities to win the fight against his father’s lethal warlord and army of vicious creatures. Rhain suspects the tough, intriguing woman he pulls from a starship wreck is a trap, but when Mal escapes, he is compelled to track her down.
Fighting their overwhelming attraction, Mal and Rhain join forces to hunt down the warlord and find Poppy. But as Mal’s body reacts to Zhalto’s environment, it awakens dormant powers, and Rhain is the only one who can help her. As the warlord launches a brutal attack, it will take all of Mal and Rhain’s combined powers to save their friends, the planet, and themselves.

My Review:

We first met Overlord Rhain Zhalto Sarkany at the end of the Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone series, as Rhain and several others rode their spaceships to the rescue of Magnus Rone and his allies in the final book of the series, Weapons Master, in the final takedown of the series nemesis, the slave-trading Edull.

It was pretty clear at the end that we’d be following Rhain back home to see him fall the same way that his gladiator counterparts have, even if neither Rhain nor the reader had any clue yet as to just how a Terran woman was going to, figuratively if not literally drop into his lap.

And so it begins.

Pilot Mallory West opens the story about to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” on an experimental test flight, in a spaceship build using advanced designs from the remote planet of Carthago, far across the galaxy, where the people captured by slave traders through a temporary wormhole ended up. They can’t go home again, but they can send messages and plans in the hopes of getting a bit of home just a bit closer to them.

Mal’s ship is the result of some of those plans and hopes. The engines are supposed to create a temporary wormhole that’s supposed to take them from Earth’s orbit to Jupiter – where everything began. Whether the design wasn’t tested enough, or Murphy’s Law is simply stronger than any other force in the galaxy, Mal and her friend Poppy may never discover.

Things went pear-shaped. That’s what happens when you string that many variations of “supposed to” together in a design. Instead of ending up near Jupiter, their experimental ship came out of its temporary wormhole a LOT closer to where the first one did. Too far away to come home, but much, much too close to the planet Zhalto. Close like well within the planet’s gravity well.

The crash is spectacular – not in a good way. The ship is also broken. Mal lands – for certain extremely rough definitions of landing – to discover that she has no idea where she is, the animals are people-eaters, and that the part of the ship where her friend was strapped in is just gone. Not burned, not broken. Gone.

And that her rescuers, in the form of Overlord Rhain Sarkany and his guards, are absolutely certain that Mal is a spy sent to infiltrate his court and his country by Rhain’s worst enemy. The man who ordered his mother’s assassination.

His own father.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. Just plain fun. I always love the opening book in this author’s series, and Overlord – or as Mal calls him, “Your Overlordness” – makes a fantastic introduction to this follow-on from the Galactic Gladiators.

(The connection between the Gladiators and the Galactic Kings is a loose one. They obviously know each other, but the reader doesn’t have to know the Gladiators to get right into the Kings.)

The “Big Bad” in this series is King Zavir Sarkany, Rhain’s not-so-dear-old-dad. It’s going to be interesting to see how those very real “daddy issues” play out as the series goes on. Beyond the obvious, that Zavir is sending evil surrogates to each of his sons’ planets in an attempt to force his rebellious offspring back into the family fold, Rhain at least has concerns that he’s in danger of giving in – not to his father – but to the same aggressive violence that has made his father hated and feared across their system.

He wants the man dead but is afraid that killing him will make him fall prey to his own, personal, dark side. That he’s not actually in danger of such is just one of the many things that Mal has to convince him of – in her own inimitable way.

It’s not until Rhain discovers that Mal is from Earth that he begins to trust her – or at least to trust that she’s not a spy for his father. Once he does, they both fall, and fall hard for each other, even if neither is willing to admit it.

One of the things that makes this one so much fun is that Mal is every bit as much of a badass warrior as Rhain. It’s not something he’s used to seeing, as women in his culture are generally not warriors. It makes Mal perfect to be his queen, even if neither of them is quite willing to go there, at least at first.

Rhain’s and Mal’s relationship reminded me just a bit of Aral and Cordelia in Shards of Honor. And that’s a marvelous book for any SFR to hearken back to, even a little bit.

As I said at the top, the series opener is always one of my favorites in this author’s series. My other favorite tends to be the one where the leader of the group finally lets himself fall in love. As all of the obvious protagonists in this series are already kings of their own worlds, I’m wondering how that’s going to work out. There’s not an obvious leader among the royal brothers, at least not yet. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next book in the series is clearly going to belong to Rhain’s brother Brodin, Emperor Brodin Damar Sarkany, Emperor of the Damari shapeshifters. I can’t wait!

Review: The Deadliest Sin by Jeri Westerson

Review: The Deadliest Sin by Jeri WestersonThe Deadliest Sin (Crispin Guest Medieval Noir #15) by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Crispin Guest #15
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 7, 2021
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Crispin Guest is summoned to a London priory to unmask a merciless killer. Can he discover who is committing the deadliest of sins?
1399, London. A drink at the Boar's Tusk takes an unexpected turn for Crispin Guest, Tracker of London, and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, when a messenger claims the prioress at St. Frideswide wants to hire him to investigate murders at the priory. Two of Prioress Drueta's nuns have been killed in a way that signifies two of the Seven Deadly Sins, and she's at her wits end. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing outside of London when the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, the new Duke of Lancaster, returns to England's shores with an army to take back his inheritance. Crispin is caught between solving the crimes at St. Frideswide's Priory, and making a choice once more whether to stand with King Richard or commit treason again.

My Review:

Pride is one of those infamous “Seven Deadly Sins”. It’s also the one that “goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall”, at least according to Proverbs 16, verse 18 of the King James Version of the Bible. Which was still more than two centuries in the future at the close of this final book in the Crispin Guest series.

Which does not make the verse any less apropos.

Because this is a story about pride. The blind pride of the Prioress at St. Frideswide’s Priory, the ambitious pride of Henry of Bolingbroke, the long-ago pride and puissance of the late John of Gaunt, the privileged but unearned pride of Richard of Bordeaux, and last but not least the battered pride of Crispin Guest, once lord, former knight, convicted traitor to the king that is about to be deposed, but loyal to the death to the king that is about to be.

But while all this pride is swirling in the air and down the length and breadth of England, someone is killing the Holy Sisters of St. Frideswide’s Priory and staging their bodies in a gruesome parody of the mural of the Seven Deadly Sins that serves as a chilling backdrop to the reliquary of St. Frideswide’s relics.

Even if some of those relics have been stolen. After all, greed is also one of those seven deadly sins.

Crispin Guest has been reluctantly (very reluctantly) called to the Priory to investigate a string of murders. It’s what he does as the infamous “Tracker of London”. The Prioress’ grudging cooperation and high-handed stonewalling isn’t enough to keep him from figuring out who committed the crimes, but his distraction over the changes sweeping the country and the monarchy make the solution more elusive than it should be.

On every side.

Escape Rating A-: Not every historical mystery series involves itself as much with the politics of its day along with the mystery, but from this reader’s perspective it seems like the best ones do, going all the way back to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series along with Candace Robb’s Owen Archer and C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series right alongside Crispin Guest. All these series take place during one succession crisis or another in English history, and all of the detectives had some involvement, great or small, in the roiling political climate of their day.

(If you’re wondering, the Cadfael series takes place during the succession war between King Stephen and Empress Maud, Owen Archer protects the city of York as the curtain goes up on the Wars of the Roses, Crispin Guest is collateral damage in that same war as it heats up and royal heads start rolling, while St. Cyr is operating during the Regency, which was itself an inventive solution to the succession crisis that followed in the wake of George III losing the American Colonies and his mind.)

The politics were built into this series from its beginning, all the way back in Veil of Lies, published in 2008. At that point, Crispin had lost everything except his life as part of a plot to push Richard II off the throne and put John of Gaunt on it. (The Wars of the Roses happened because Edward III had too many sons who survived to reproduce, and all of them fought over who had the right to be king in one succession crisis after another from Edward’s death in 1377 to Richard III’s death at Bosworth Field in 1487.

So readers have followed along with Crispin as he learned to be a commoner, and as he honed his skills as the “Tracker of London”. By the time this story takes place in 1399, Crispin has been the Tracker for 15 years. He’s not just learned to survive, but he’s actually become mostly content with his circumstances, only for his entire life to be upended once again.

Crispin’s final case is a troubling one. Someone is murdering nuns inside a closed priory and posing their bodies in horrific tableaus. The Prioress wants the murders solved, but stands in the way of Crispin’s every attempt to solve them. She has her own vision of the work and life of her priory, and doesn’t want anyone to spoil her illusions.

As if three, then four dead sisters didn’t spoil it quite enough.

Without forensics, Crispin is forced to rely on his wits, his memory, and on his opponent making a mistake, while he’s distracted by events in the kingdom that might serve as vindication for his long-ago trials, or that might change his life. Meanwhile, the priory that is supposed to be a haven of religious service is actually a hotbed of sin, vice and favoritism that the prioress doesn’t want Crispin to see – or expose.

The situation is a mess, as so many of the situations Crispin gets himself into are. It’s also an unexpected ending. An ending that Crispin is afraid to anticipate out of fear of having his hopes dashed yet again.

I was sorry to see this much-beloved series come to an end, although the end is in all ways fitting, as Crispin’s journey from disgrace to penitence to vindication has come full circle. But there’s this niggling sensation at the end that, as content as Crispin now is with his restored life and honors, he misses the intellectual challenge of being the Tracker. And that it might just be possible to lure him back.

I sincerely hope so.

Review: Observations by Gaslight by Lyndsay Faye

Review: Observations by Gaslight by Lyndsay FayeObservations by Gaslight: Stories from the World of Sherlock Holmes by Lyndsay Faye
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 295
Published by Mysterious Press on December 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Lyndsay Faye—international bestseller, translated into fifteen languages, and a two-time Edgar Award nominee—first appeared on the literary scene with Dust and Shadow, her now-classic novel pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and later produced The Whole Art of Detection, her widely acclaimed collection of traditional Watsonian tales.  Now Faye is back with Observations by Gaslight, a thrilling volume of both new and previously published short stories and novellas narrated by those who knew the Great Detective.
Beloved adventuress Irene Adler teams up with her former adversary in a near-deadly inquiry into a room full of eerily stopped grandfather clocks.  Learn of the case that cemented the lasting friendship between Holmes and Inspector Lestrade, and of the tragic crime which haunted the Yarder into joining the police force. And witness Stanley Hopkins’ first meeting with the remote logician he idolizes, who will one day become his devoted mentor.  
From familiar faces like landlady Mrs. Hudson to minor characters like Lomax the sub-librarian, Observations by Gaslight—entirely epistolary, told through diaries, telegrams, and even grocery lists—paints a masterful portrait of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as you have never seen them before.
 

My Review:

There’s a conceit in regards to Sherlock Holmes stories, beginning with Doyle himself. That Doyle was merely the publisher of stories written by Dr. John H. Watson that were somewhat sensationalized accounts of Watson’s adventures with his friend and flatmate, Sherlock Holmes.

So it is with the collection, that someone is putting together a book or booklet of previously unknown Holmes adventures, written by people who were occasional or even frequent assistants to the “Great Detective”. As this book is to be published in commemoration of Holmes’ retirement from public life, the collator of this volume has reached out to acquaintances of Holmes throughout his career, ranging from his housekeeper Mrs. Hudson to his former lieutenant Henry Wiggins to his frequent foil Inspector Lestrade.

With, naturally, a contribution from “the Woman” herself, Irene Norton née Adler recounting the one time that she and Holmes were on the same side of a thorny and fascinating case.

There are six stories in this collection, with the entries rounded out by contributions from two minor characters in the Holmes canon, Detective Stanley Hopkins and the sub-librarian A. Davenport Lomax who becomes acquainted with Holmes through his long-standing friendship with Watson.

The stories range from the slight to the profound. Mrs. Hudson’s story, “A Life Well Lived,” is one of the slighter – and also fluffier – works in the collection. There is a small mystery to be solved, but the heart of the story is on Mrs. Hudson’s reflections that her life has been richer and more satisfying because of the occasionally explosive presence of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in the flat she offered for rent so many years before.

Lomax’ story, “The Gospel of Sheba,” is also a bit on the lesser side, as Holmes himself doesn’t appear until nearly the end, and most of the mystery is wrapped around Lomax’ fears regarding his absent wife’s fidelity and his nearly-fatal idiocy surrounding his own investigation of a poisoned book.

Hopkins’ story, “The River of Silence,” shows Holmes in the role of mentor to the young police inspector, a role that surprises and delights and is perfect for the length of the story.

But the shining lights of this collection belong to Adler, Wiggins and Lestrade. Adler’s contribution, “The Adventure of the Stopped Clocks,” shines as brightly as the footlights that illuminate the opera stages which are her accustomed milieu. This story, unlike Adler’s famous introduction to Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” places “The Woman” and “The Great Detective” on the same side, investigating a criminal organization that has its hooks into Holmes’ beloved London in general, and Adler’s despicable in-laws in specific. What makes this story sing is its portrayal of their brief but brilliant collaboration as not just colleagues, but also friends for this one sparkling moment in time.

On the other hand, both Wiggins’ story, “The Song of a Want,” and Lestrade’s, “Our Common Correspondent,” are heartbreaking in their sorrow.

Wiggins, now a prosperous and successful solicitor, looks back on his days as a mudlark, when Holmes, himself younger and considerably poorer, teamed up with 9-year-old Wiggins to find a kidnapped young girl, bring down a sick and twisted criminal preying on the young and the desperate, and scratch out the humble beginnings of an organization that became the bane of criminals throughout London, the famous ‘Baker Street Irregulars’.

At least Wiggins’ story, as dark and desperate as it seems in the middle, manages to scrape out a happy ending. Lestrade’s account of his first ‘case’ with Holmes and the tragedy that turned him towards a career bringing criminals to justice is a story about one man who is keeping on keeping on a quest that can never be fulfilled and a grief that can never be assuaged. The light that shines through this story is the kind that is seen through a glass very darkly indeed. It’s a story that inspires both weeping and rage. As it should.

Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay FayeEscape Rating A-: This review is just a bit early, but I couldn’t resist picking this one up now. I’m considering it a Hanukkah present – and a marvelous one for any reader who loves Sherlock Holmes stories as I do.

My first exposure to the author of this collection was through her utterly marvelous Dust and Shadow, an account of Holmes’ involvement with the Ripper case. There have been plenty of attempts to portray Holmes assaying that investigation, but Dust and Shadow is still the best, the most true to both the Holmes we know and love from the canon and the known facts about the infamous Ripper.

Her previous Holmes collection, The Whole Art of Detection, was equally marvelous and definitely worth a read.

As is this one, Observations by Gaslight. Of the six stories, two weren’t quite up to snuff, but “The Song of a Want”, “Our Common Correspondent” and “The Adventure of the Stopped Clocks” absolutely made the entire collection a terrific read and a great way to while away a chilly fall evening by whisking the reader away to sit in front of a warm fire at 221B Baker Street in the midst of a London pea-souper. If only for a little while.

Review: Forever Home by Elysia Whisler

Review: Forever Home by Elysia WhislerForever Home (Dogwood County, #2) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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If home is where the heart is, Dogwood County may have just what Delaney Monroe needs
Newly retired from the Marine Corps, Delaney is looking for somewhere to start over. It’s not going to be easy, but when she finds the perfect place to open her dream motorcycle shop, she goes for it. What she doesn’t expect is an abandoned pit bull to come with the building. The shy pup is slow to trust, but Delaney is determined to win it over.
Detective Sean Callahan is smitten from the moment he sees Delaney, but her cool demeanor throws him off his game. When her late father's vintage motorcycle is stolen from Delaney's shop, Sean gets to turn up in his element: chasing the bad guy and showing his best self to a woman who’s gotten under his skin in a bad way.
Delaney isn't used to lasting relationships, but letting love in—both human and canine—helps her see that she may have found a place she belongs, forever.
"Complex, quietly compelling characters… A poignant reminder that ‘home’ is often more than a place." —Maggie Wells, author of Love Game
Dogwood County
Book 1: Rescue YouBook 2: Forever Home

My Review:

As the sayings go, “home is where the heart is” and “a dream is a wish your heart makes.” Delaney Monroe’s home was working on motorcycles with her father in Omaha, and their shared dream was to open their own motorcycle repair shop.

But Delaney’s beloved father is dead. Killed in an accident between his motorcycle and an SUV whose driver wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to the other vehicles on the road. She’s just retired from the Marine Corps after putting in her 20. She can’t face living in Omaha without her dad, no matter how much her adopted uncles love her and want to help her.

They want to take care of her just a bit too much, and Delaney can’t stop seeing the hole in their formation where her dad used to be.

There’s a part of that dream that is still alive. She has just enough money saved up to buy what used to be a motorcycle shop in Dogwood County. It comes with a tiny apartment, a screaming need to be cleaned up and fixed up, and a dog who can’t figure out whether he wants his home to be in the shop he used to live in or the dog rescue park on the other side of the creek.

Wyatt the dog is afraid to trust that his heart has led him home. Making him not all that different from Delaney. Maybe they can figure it out together.

Or maybe Delaney will give up and run away, again, in the face of the dastardly and determined opposition of the men who used to own both the shop and the dog.

Along with a suspected slice of the local drug trade.

Escape Rating A-: At the end of the story, the dog is fine. I’m saying that first because my reading circle gets very upset if the starring animals don’t make it. No worries on that score, Wyatt has a few adventures but he’s fine, actually better than fine, at the end.

Which doesn’t stop Delaney and Wyatt from being equally heartbroken at the beginning – and some of the middle – of the story. They both need to feel that it’s OK to trust, safe to open their hearts, and the right time and place to put down roots so they can flourish. Neither of them is anywhere near there at the beginning.

And neither, in an entirely different way, is Detective Sean Callahan. He’s been going through the motions for a long time, having little holding him together except his job and his duty. He’s a good cop but a sad human being.

The situation in Dogwood County, between Delaney, Sean, Wyatt, the Dudebros – literally, they’re the Dude Brothers – and each and every one of their pasts is on a collision course.

It’s not just that the Dudebros are trying to wreck her business and take her dog – although they are.

Someone has stolen Delaney’s prize bike, the classic Indian Motorcycle that has been passed down in Delaney’s family for four generations. It’s that they tinkered with it and then put it back. It was heartbreaking while it was gone, and it’s baffling now that it’s back. But as much as Delaney wants to pin it all on the Dudebros, Sean knows that’s not the right answer no matter how tempting it is.

Also how tempting it must have been for the author. That would have been such an easy solution – but the real answer added so much to the story that I was surprised and pleased at the way things turned out.

Although the Dudebros do get theirs in the end.

Forever Home turned out to be one of those books where the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. It sits right on the border between contemporary romance and relationship fiction, and it’s a surprisingly comfortable border in this case.

A romance occurs between Delaney and Sean, with an HEA that definitely feels earned. But that romance doesn’t completely hold the center of the story. The HEA is the icing on the cake and not the cake.

The suspense element was suspenseful in a surprising way, in that the obvious perpetrators were both obvious and not obvious at the same time.

The heart of the story was in Delaney – and Wyatt – finding their way to a home in Dogwood County. The way that Delaney establishes her shop, makes friends and allies, and makes a home and a life for herself in this new place and with these (mostly) terrific people.

I very much enjoyed my visit to this place, and I’m looking forward to seeing these people again. The next book in this series, Becoming Family, won’t be available until next August, but the first book, Rescue You, is available and I’m looking forward to reading it the next time I need a bit of a reading pick-me-up.

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster BujoldKnot of Shadows (Penric & Desdemona #11) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #11
Pages: 111
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on October 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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When a corpse is found floating face-down in Vilnoc harbor that is not quite as dead as it seems, Temple sorcerer Penric and his chaos demon Desdemona are drawn into the uncanny investigation. Pen’s keen questions will take him across the city of Vilnoc, and into far more profound mysteries, as his search for truths interlaces with tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a fine line between justice and vengeance. In the World of the Five Gods, that line is the white of the Fifth God, the Lord Bastard, the god of chaos, criminals and unexpected blessings, often of the “may you live in interesting times” and “be careful what you wish for” varieties. The Bastard is the god that Learned Penric, sorcerer and divine, serves in whatever way his god deems best – or whatever way will screw up Penric’s life the most at the time. If the White God has his way – and he usually does – it’s generally both at once.

After all, if Murphy’s Law has a god, it’s the Lord Bastard.

Penric gets called when uncanny things happen in the port and city of Vilnoc, or in the Court of the Duke of Orbas, which are the same place in summer. But not in winter when the port city is cold and the Duke retreats inland where it’s a bit less so, leaving Penric, who is also the court sorcerer, to concentrate on his other duties and avocations, like his growing family, his service to the Temple, and his scholarship.

But there are always interruptions, and this one is a bit of a mystery that gets bigger and has more profound implications as it goes along.

A corpse was washed ashore, not uncommon in a port city. The dead man was assumed to be a drowning victim, also not uncommon. Until he “woke up” and began knocking on the locked door of the hospice morgue – from the inside.

That’s not common at all. It’s also not all that rare in a world where rogue demons can possess the dead. When THAT happens, putting things to rights is the province of the Bastard, so Penric, as the highest ranked priest of the White God in Vilnoc, trudges to the hospice with the intent of sending the rogue demon to his god and letting the hospice deal with the funeral rites for the unnamed deceased.

But the case isn’t nearly that simple. The body has not been possessed by a demon, but it has been possessed. One of the many ghosts that naturally haunt a place where people meet their end has found a new home in the body. Which leaves Penric on the horns of a serious moral and ethical dilemma, as well as a chilly quest to discover both who the victim was and who wanted him dead so badly that they were willing to sacrifice their own life in order to achieve it.

The Bastard is, among his many other titles and attributes, the deliverer of justice when all justice fails. Worldly justice failed this man’s victims, but divine justice has not. It’s up to Penric to figure out who and how and why, to clean up any loose ends that his god might have left behind.

Escape Rating A-: OMG this was the right book at the right time. Last week’s reading ended on a major fail, so I was looking for something that I was even more certain would be a terrific read. I was also looking for a story of people being competent and accepted for their competence, as Penric finally has been. (He needed to grow up first, and he has.) What I especially loved about this entry in the series is that it’s both a puzzle to be solved AND displays the way that things in this world WORK, both in the sense of how things are done as well as in the way that justice is finally served. The way that even though human justice failed, divine justice was able to balance the scales.

The fascinating thing about this series is that we view the story from inside Penric’s rather crowded head. It’s not just Penric in there, it’s also his temple-trained demon Desdemona, and the memories of all the people (and a couple of animals) that Desdemona rode before she came to Penric. From Penric’s perspective, it’s rather like having a dozen older sisters living in his head, because all of Desdemona’s previous companions have been female. Even the animals.

Desdemona has a personality all her own. She doesn’t always agree with Penric, and she often knows best because her experience is considerably longer than his. They are partners and the relationship is deep and rich and frequently hilarious, because Desdemona sits on Penric’s shoulder like a demon of temptation, and Penric doesn’t need anyone to lead him in that direction. He already knows the way.

In this particular case, it’s Desdemona who is able to identify what’s going on, but it’s Penric’s logic and his legwork that discovers the solution to the mystery. Which turned out to be sad but ultimately cathartic.

Still, this is a story where the journey is what keeps the reader – or at least this reader – turning pages. It’s whodunnit and whydunnit wrapped into one tantalizing package, with just a bit of philosophy added for seasoning.

All the novellas in this series are wonderful little reading treats, just right for a change of pace or something to fill in the corners after a big epic book hangover. If epic fantasy by the mouthful appeals to you, start with Penric’s Demon – just as Penric himself did – and be prepared for a wonderful reading time.