Review: Tomb of Gods by Brian Moreland

Review: Tomb of Gods by Brian MorelandTomb of Gods by Brian Moreland
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, horror
Pages: 288
Published by Flame Tree Press on May 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"Brian Moreland writes with one eye on characterization and the other on scaring the life out of you." -- Maynard Sims, author of Stronghold and The Eighth Witch Deep inside the tomb exists a hidden world of wonder and terror . . In 1935, British archaeologists vanished inside an Egyptian cave. A year later, one man returned covered in mysterious scars. Egyptologist Imogen Riley desperately wants to know what happened to the ill-fated expedition led by her grandfather. On a quest for answers, she joins a team of archeologists and soldiers in Egypt. Inside a mountain tomb, they've found a technologically advanced relic and a maze of tunnels. Dr. Nathan Trummel believes this tomb leads to the most guarded secrets of the pharaohs. When the explorers venture deep into the caves, they discover a hidden world of wonder and terror.

My Review:

I picked this one for the cover. I don’t read a lot of horror, but not only did this one have a strong historical bent, but the cover looked like something out of the classic Doctor Who episode Pyramids of Mars. But the way that the story works reads a lot more like Journey to the Center of the Earth – with just a touch of the late 19th/early 20th century archaeology vibe of Amelia Peabody Emerson. And possibly even a bit of Dr. Daniel Jackson’s (Stargate) oft-derided theories about the “true” origins of ancient civilizations.

I was absolutely astonished when that last bit turned out to be closest to the mark.

As you might guess from the above rambling paragraph, when I have to read something described as horror I kind of have to sidle up to it by convincing myself that it’s more horror-adjacent than actual horror. Which is how I ended up at Tomb of Gods. Which in spite of what I just said is DEFINITELY horror.

Surprisingly for a horror story set in a lost Egyptian tomb, there aren’t any mummies. Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of horror, because there certainly is. But the story isn’t really about the horror that they find, not in the usual way with ambulatory mummies and predatory cursed monsters. Not that there aren’t plenty of monsters.

Instead, this is a story about the horrors that they all bring with them. The horrors that reside deep inside their hearts, the terrible things that they’ve said and done, the ones that they feel the most guilty for. The actions and emotions that they never want to let see the light of day.

Or see the darkest of nights at the bottom of a never-ending tomb – on a journey that feels like it’s heading straight to the center of the earth – by way of the paths outlined in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Escape Rating A-: I liked this way more than I expected to. Mostly because it didn’t go any of the places I expected it to. Again with the no shambling mummies. I loved the atmosphere, not just the darkness of the tomb, but also the entire feel of mid-1930s archaeology, especially combined with all those “curse of the mummy’s tomb” vibe, even though, again, no tottering, groaning mummies.

The beginning of this one is all about the setup, and it’s both pleasantly – and unpleasantly – familiar. The grasping, greedy, overbearing archaeologist, the mercenary guards, the frightened native workers, the quest for a treasure that only said overbearing archaeologist believes in.

And into that mix we throw Imogen Riley, also an archaeologist. The granddaughter of the man who originally found said tomb. The former lover of the current, overbearing archaeologist.

While there have been plenty of strange and deadly phenomena already on this dig, it’s only once Imogen is on the scene that the story takes off. She’s the catalyst that kicks off the rest of the action, as her presence provokes her former lover to new depths of, well, basically ignoring all good advice, common sense and proper archaeological practice to rush towards the treasure.

The journey to which exposes the darkness inside each person’s heart as they run headlong towards an end that only he can see. And it’s not the ending we (and Imogen) have been led to expect. He was a prick from beginning to end, and I wanted him to seriously get his comeuppance. Whether he does or not is left to the reader to decide.

In the end, this one is more about the journey than the destination. We see each person’s guilts and fears. The journey is harrowing, and we are as harrowed as the characters we follow.

I’m left with a couple of niggling questions. One is the obvious, in that I am not sure that the villain’s fate was a punishment or a reward. And I think that’s the way it’s meant to end.

As much as I liked Imogen and identified with her as the protagonist, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was truly necessary for the story for Dr. Overbearing – actually Nathan Trummel, to have been a former lover. That particular bit of setup felt like a nod to earlier stories of archaeological horror and adventure, where the pretty girl was the reward or side piece of the real hero. Which Trummel is so far from being that he’s not even in the same universe – even if he thinks he is.

I also enjoyed the surprisingly deep dive into Egyptian mythology that underpins the story. As I said at the top, I need to sidle up to horror, and all the history and mythology gave me an excellent door through which to do that sidling. While still creeping me thoroughly out. In a good way. This is not a book to read with the lights off, but it is absolutely a book to read!

 

Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn

Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie VaughnThe Ghosts of Sherwood (The Robin Hood Stories, #1) by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Robin Hood Stories #1
Pages: 104
Published by Tor.com on June 9, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Carrie Vaughn's The Ghosts of Sherwood revisits the Robin Hood legend with a story of the famed archer's children.
Everything about Father is stories.
Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, are married. It has been close on two decades since they beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends. King John is now on the throne, and Robin has sworn fealty in order to further protect not just his family, but those of the lords and barons who look up to him – and, by extension, the villagers they protect.
There is a truce. An uneasy one, to be sure, but a truce, nonetheless.
But when the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood.
And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

My Review:

There’s a theory going around that people are re-reading and re-watching old favorites right now because they not only already know how they end, but that not-exactly-foreknowledge removes the tension of not knowing that everyone is going to be okay, because it’s already happened. So to speak.

There may also be a trend towards re-tellings as this uncertain season goes on. In a re-telling, we either already know how it’s going to go – and just want to see it told differently (By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar looks like it’s going to be one of those) or because we already know the characters and want to see them in new adventures. We don’t have to get to know new people because we’re already familiar with the cast. The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow falls into this category and does VERY WELL with it.

The Ghosts of Sherwood is also this particular variety of re-telling. We ALL have at least a nodding acquaintance with Robin Hood’s story – if only from movies like Disney’s 1973 animated version, with a surprisingly sexy fox as Robin. (Which is being remade as a live-action hybrid, Yikes!) Meaning that we all know these characters to some extent, and we know the outline of the original story. Making it ripe for an extension.

Leading to The Ghosts of Sherwood, the first novella in The Robin Hood Stories. Which, at least from this opening, read like “Robin Hood, the Next Generation”. Which has its bit of irony, as Star Trek Next Gen also did a takeoff episode on Robin Hood, but more in the vein of Men in Tights. The episode is best known for Worf’s line, “I am NOT a merry man.” I digress, but this does go to show just how ubiquitous the legend of Robin Hood is.

As The Ghosts of Sherwood opens, Robin and Marion are on their way back from Runnymede, from the signing of the Magna Carta, setting this story in 1215. Robin, as the Earl of Locksley, was one of the barons who rebelled against King John’s rule – yet again in Robin’s case – and brought him to the bargaining table. There is still no love lost between Robin and King John, not even 20 years after the events that made their way into legend.

But Robin and Marion have changed – as has King John. Robin and Marion are married, and are part of the nobility of England, as fractured as it was at that time. The surviving members of Robin’s band of outlaws are part of their household at Locksley. And they have three children, Mary, John and Eleanor. Mary, the oldest, is 16, Eleanor is 8 and John is somewhere in between.

They are all as familiar with Sherwood as they are with their own house, but Mary seems to be the one who is most like her father, and most at home in the forest that is part of their home and heritage.

This story is, not exactly a passing of the torch, but rather a story that shows that the younger generation is willing to pick up that burden when the time comes. The children are kidnapped in the forest by, not outlaws but rather men loyal to the barons who opposed their father over the Magna Carta.

But the children have no certainty that their parents even know they are missing. It is up to them to use the cunning they inherited from both their parents, all the talents they can muster, as well as the legends that make Sherwood a place of menace to outsiders – so that they can rescue themselves.

Escape Rating A-: First, this was a lovely little story. It does a terrific job of portraying Robin and Marion’s post-outlaw life in a way that seems fitting. They are older, occasionally wiser, and often tireder than they were back in the day. And that’s the way it should be.

The details also do a terrific job of placing the story firmly within a historical, rather than mythical, legendary or fantasy context. If Robin existed, he would have been one of the nobles forcing King John to the bargaining table and the Magna Carta. It’s impossible to imagine that the enmity they felt for each other during King Richard the Lionhearted’s absence on Crusade, especially Robin’s armed rebellion, would ever have faded. As this story opens, John is nearly at the end of his reign, and Robin and Marion are no longer the young rebels they once were. (I’m saying the above in spite of the story being billed as historical fantasy. So far, at least, there are no fantastic elements – in spite of Mary referring to her mysterious protector as “The Ghost”. Maybe in a future installment?)

The focus of this story is on their children, particularly 16-year-old Mary, as she faces the decisions of oncoming adulthood.

But the story also deals with the politics of the country as one king’s reign is about to end and his heir is a child of nine. That forces are jockeying for power, and that Robin will have influence and could possibly be influenced is a part of his times.

So the story has large implications for the future of England, and the future stories of the series. At the same time, it’s very small and intimate. Three children, kidnapped, forced to rely on their wits and each other, figuring out how to get the better of their captors in spite of the odds. By banding together.

That the story works so well on both levels gives me high hopes for the future stories in the series. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Heirs of Locksley later this summer. Because I want more.

Review: The Secrets of Bones by Kylie Logan

Review: The Secrets of Bones by Kylie LoganThe Secrets of Bones by Kylie Logan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Jazz Ramsey #2
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Second in a new series from national bestselling author Kylie Logan, The Secrets of Bones is a riveting mystery following Jazz Ramsey as she trains a cadaver dog.
Assembly Day at St. Catherine's dawns bright and cloudless as professional woman gather from all around Ohio to talk to the schoolgirls about their careers in medicine, at NASA, and as yoga instructors. Administrative assistant Jazz Ramsey is involved herself, giving the girls a taste of her lifelong passion: cadaver dog training. Her adorable new puppy Wally hasn't been certified yet, so she borrows the fully-trained Gus from a friend and hides a few bones in the unused fourth floor of the school for him to find.
The girls are impressed when Gus easily finds the first bone, but for the second Gus seems to have lost the scent, and heads confidently to a part of the floor where Jazz is sure no bones are hidden—at least not any that she's put there. But Gus is a professional, and sure enough, behind a door that shouldn't have been opened in decades, is a human skeleton.
Jazz recognizes the skeleton as Bernadette Quinn, an ex-teacher at the school who'd never returned after one Christmas break, though letters and postcards from her had seemed to indicate there was no cause for worry. But now it seems Bernadette never left the school at all, and her hiding place makes it clear: this was murder.
Bernadette's strident personality means there are a plethora of suspects inside the school and out of it, and as Jazz gets closer to the truth she can't help but wonder if someone might be dogging her footsteps . . .

My Review:

I really was hoping for more about the dogs, especially after the first book in the series, The Scent of Murder. Instead, I got a lot more of Jazz Ramsey, the Catholic college prep school where she is the principal’s administrative assistant, and yet the late discovery of the remains of another person tied to the school.

But I also got more of Jazz stumbling and falling into being an amateur detective again, as well as her fumbling her way back into some kind of relationship with her ex-lover and current friend Nick. Both luckily and unluckily for Jazz, Nick isn’t the investigating officer this time around, when Jazz and a retired cadaver dog discover human remains other than the ones she planted for demonstration.

It’s creepy to think of a school where a dead body has been decomposing on an unused floor for two years. The wildest stories that the students have made up and passed around about the weird things that happened on the old building’s sealed up Fourth Floor have acquired whole new chapters after old Gus discovers the body of a teacher that everyone thought had merely resigned.

After all, she left a letter of resignation. Why would anyone think she was dead? But the body in the closet suggests otherwise. Rather strongly.

When the police detective who IS in charge of the investigation starts out thinking that Sister Eileen, the founder and principal of St. Catherine’s, might be the murderer, Jazz is sure that a) he’s wrong and b) he’s more than a bit of an asshole. Which means that Jazz is off to the races poking her nose into yet another murder.

The entire investigation turns out to be a lesson about that classic definition of the word “assume”, as in “assume makes an ass out of u and me” – and not just for amateur sleuth Jazz. The body has desiccated beyond easy recognition, locked in that not-exactly-climate-controlled “attic” for more than two years. The victim is identified based on her rather distinctive clothing and effects. The timing is certainly right.

But is the body?

Escape Rating A-: I hope the third book in this series – and I hope there is a third book in this series – has more dogs. Jazz’ new pup, Wally the totally attitudinal Airedale, has a long way to go before he’s fully trained and qualified as a human remains detection dog. But they’re working on it.

In the meantime, this series, and this book in it, feels like it’s right on the edge between “cozy” mystery and just plain mystery. And I like that edge.

On the one hand, Jazz is a bit of the typical amateur detective, who gets involved because someone she knows is either the victim, the suspect, or both. But her entry into the mystery is not just unusual but more than a bit creepy – and closer to a traditional mystery. She finds a body, by accident for her, perhaps, but all part of a day’s work for the dog. It also feels like Jazz gets in a bit more danger than the usual cozy mystery sleuth.

The mystery in this one is particularly interesting because of the kind of “hothouse” atmosphere of the school. (In that way, it kind of reminds me of Sarah Gailey’s marvelous Magic for Liars, which is also set in a school, albeit one more like Hogwarts. Also Trace of Deceit by Karen Odden, despite its Victorian setting.) But the ambiance of teachers dedicated to teaching mixed with students who think they run the place – and sometimes do – along with angry parents just sure their little “darlings” couldn’t possibly have committed whatever wrong they so manifestly did, is a setting just ripe for drama – and murder. So many hormones, and so much heightened emotion!

Like most mystery series, cozy or not, in order to like the series one needs to like the protagonist, in this case, Jazz and her family, friends and colleagues. I find her eminently likeable, and will be happy to follow more of her adventures.

For the series to continue, Jazz needs to start finding bodies in the wider Cleveland area and not just of people connected to St. Catherine’s. Otherwise the place is going to have a higher murder rate per capita than even Cabot Cove, and that’s just not reasonable for a school in an area where there are plenty of other options.

That being said, I’m enjoying Jazz’ adventures, her fumbling increase in detective skills, and her slowly re-developing relationship with Nick. She has a unique way of stumbling over bodies that seems to be an excellent method for dragging her into new cases – and the reader right along with her.

Review: The Ingredients of You and Me by Nina Bocci + Giveaway

Review: The Ingredients of You and Me by Nina Bocci + GiveawayThe Ingredients of You and Me (Hopeless Romantics, #3) by Nina Bocci
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Series: Hopeless Romantics #3
Pages: 320
Published by Gallery Books on April 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the USA TODAY bestselling author of the “heartwarming and refreshingly sweet” (Lauren Layne, New York Times bestselling author) On the Corner of Love and Hate comes a sizzling and sweet small-town love story that follows a bakery store owner who decides to take her chances on a truly hopeless romantic.

After selling her successful bakery back in New York, Parker Powell decides to visit her best friend Charlotte in Hope Lake, Pennsylvania to figure out her next steps. As she acquaints herself with the people in town, she begins to wonder why she ever loved city life in the first place. Between the Golden Girls (a.k.a. the senior citizen women who hold court), the response from the town to her sweet treats, and Nick Arthur, the ever-charming local owner of a landscaping business she spent time with during her last visit, Parker finds a community of cheerleaders who encourage her to get her baking mojo back.

At first, everything is great—she collaborates with the Golden Girls to put new twists on traditional confections, and thanks to Nick’s advice, she’s quickly learning the stark differences between big city and small-town business practices. Although Nick has quickly become her friend and confidant, Parker’s determined to keep things platonic—especially since his girlfriend isn’t a fan of their friendship. But just when things fall into place so they can finally be together, Parker’s dream bakery is threatened by a major corporation who wants to take her down using the very bit of advice that Nick gave her.

With a recipe for disaster looming, Parker must cook up a new scheme, figuring out how to keep the business—and man—she’s come to love before she loses it all.

Perfect for fans of Amy E. Reichert and Jenny Colgan, The Ingredients of You and Me is a scrumptious romantic comedy that lets you have your cake and eat it too.

My Review:

I picked this up at lunch and got completely sucked into it. I’d say it was like opening a bag of potato chips and not being able to eat just one, but it was much more like opening a box of Girl Scout Cookies, where the serving size is supposed to be 2 cookies, is really more like an entire sleeve, and is, just occasionally and for the right cookie, the entire box. (Samoas for me, but your cookie mileage probably varies)

The story in The Ingredients of You and Me is both a fairly direct followup to the previous book in the series, Meet Me on Love Lane, and a complete standalone at the same time. It’s a followup because the heroine ingredient of this book was the NYC best friend of the heroine in that second story. And Parker met Nick, the hero of this one, while visiting her bestie Charlotte in Hope Lake.

But the sparks that flew between Parker and Nick at that first meeting, and all their subsequent – and clandestine – meetings, were kept very much a secret from everyone who knew either of them. No one was cheating on anyone, this is not that kind of story. They just wanted to see what their relationship might be – if it was even going to be anything beyond a series of hot, long-distance booty-calls – without the pressure of all their mutual friends watching every move they made – or didn’t.

So when Nick ghosted Parker at Thanksgiving – just when she wanted to tell him that she had sold her successful NYC bakery and was hoping they could have more time together, she was left at very loose ends.

Not that she sold Delicious & Vicious for Nick, because she didn’t. She sold it for herself and did very well out of the deal. But she did hope that while she was deciding on the next phase of her life that Nick might be interested in being factored into those decisions.

Now that the bakery has sold, Parker is at loose ends. AND she’s lost her baking mojo. So she sets out for an extended – OMG winter – vacation at chilly but heartwarming Hope Lake PA, to spend time with Charlotte and see what she, meaning Parker, wants to do next in her life.

That’s where the fun begins – along with just a bit of melodrama. While Charlotte reconnected with Gigi, the grandmother that she left behind in Hope Lake, Parker finds herself “adopted” by the entire gaggle of Hope Lake “Golden Girls”. It’s through her relationship with the group that becomes famous – and sometimes infamous – as “The Baked Nanas” that Parker figures out who Parker Phase Two really is. And she gets her baking mojo back by helping the Nanas translate their old family recipes from imprecise old-fashioned measurements – like jelly jars and fists – to modern day equivalents that will allow them to pass those recipes on to their own families.

It’s in the process of Parker’s healing and reinvention that she learns where Nick went and why he ghosted her. Now Nick is torn between his unfinished but still smoldering feelings for Parker – and his new relationship with “Miss Suzy Perfect”. Who is, of course, anything but.

But this is Parker’s show every step of the way. She’s in Hope Lake to figure her life out for herself. Nick can be part of that, or not. But he can’t be half in or half out. It was fun sneaking around when there was no one to be hurt, but she won’t be his dirty little secret while he’s making a relationship with someone else.

Whether Nick will see the light and fix himself is anyone’s guess. But Parker is taking care of Parker, and doing a damn fine job of it with or without him. Thanks in no small part to those “Baked Nanas”.

Escape Rating A-: I loved this one even more than I did Meet Me on Love Lane, and I liked that one quite a lot. But this one had a compulsion to it that the earlier book, sweet as it was, didn’t quite.

And even though this story directly follows from that earlier book, this one still feels like it stands alone. Because the story here is really about Parker losing herself and finding herself, and it all happens in this story. The characters from the previous books (I haven’t read the first one, On the Corner of Love and Hate) are in the background here, but getting involved in Parker’s story doesn’t depend on any in depth knowledge of the first two. This one is all her and it’s all here.

Howsomever, like the previous book in the series, The Ingredients of You and Me mixes the ingredients of contemporary romance with women’s fiction, and it feels like the women’s fiction is the stronger part of the story.

Parker is at a crossroads. She’s sold the bakery that she put her heart and soul into in NYC, and it was the right choice for her. She was overtired, overstressed and burned out. She had no life, only work and sleep. Her fling with Nick did bring that home to her, that she wanted more time for a real life and couldn’t have it if she kept on the bakery treadmill.

She has time and enough money to let herself be, to figure out who she wants to be and where and how to do it. She just doesn’t have a plan – and Parker is usually all about plans. Staying in Hope Lake lets her reconnect with friends, make new ones, take a breath, look around, and let inspiration come to her.

And it does in the larger-than-life-size personages of the Baked Nanas, especially the outrageous Mancini who adopts Parker instantly upon her arrival. It’s through the relationships among all of the women that Parker is able to let herself be herself and muddle through to where she wants to be.

Nick is more than a bit of ass through the whole thing. And Parker doesn’t try to fix him or change him – or herself. She takes care of herself and if that means putting distance between them, so be it. That she cares but never bends over backwards or begs or grovels is one of the things I liked a LOT about this story.

Parker doesn’t always take the high road, but she does take the honest road. That she gets her reward at the end is icing on a very lovely cake.

One final comment. The series title, Hopeless Romantics, has given me a terrible earworm that I have to pass along. It’s part of a line from the Eagles’ song New Kid in Town. And the line from the song certainly fits the series, “Hopeless romantics, here we go again.”

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

I am very happy to be giving away a copy of The Ingredients of You and Me to one lucky US commenter on this tour. It’s a terrific story, but the winner may need to exercise a little more patience than usual while waiting to receive their copy in these uncertain times. But I promise you that the book is worth the wait!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

Review: The Lost Boys of London by Mary LawrenceThe Lost Boys of London (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #5) by Mary Lawrence
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Bianca Goddard #5
Pages: 320
Published by Red Puddle Print on April 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set in the final years of King Henry VIII's reign, an alchemist's daughter uses her skills to aid the living and helps seek justice for the dead...

While her husband fights the Scots on behalf of King Henry VIII, Bianca Goddard earns her coin by concocting medicines that offer relief to London's sick. Some unfortunates, however, are beyond any remedies she can provide—like the young boy discovered hanging from a church dripstone. Examining the body, Bianca finds a rosary twined around the child's neck. A week later, another boy is found dead at a different church. When Bianca's impish acquaintance, Fisk, goes missing, she fears he may become the third victim...

There are many villains who would prey on wayward, penniless boys. But Bianca suspects the killings are not brutal acts of impulse, but something far more calculated. In her room of Medicinals and Physickes, she examines the sole piece of evidence: a sweet-smelling, stained cloth. If Bianca can unravel its secret, reputations and lives will be saved. The expected hour of the next murder is approaching, and a single misstep may mean another boy is lost forever...

My Review:

From that first scene, where the running boy barely manages to step over a steaming turd, you know that this is one of those marvelous works of historical fiction where you’re going to walk the streets at the side of the characters and feel the cobbles beneath your own shoes.

Not to mention breathe the same air and smell the same smells. Maybe it’s better not to go into too many details about the smells, at least not around mealtime.

This series takes place at one of the crossroads of English history, a time when there was ferment both politically and ideologically, a time when the world was changing but the impact of those changes was still in process. And like all times of great change, there were forces dead set on maintaining their power and the status quo, just as they were those who were agitating for the changes to come. And both sides used violence to make their point, with bloody results no matter who won.

Set at the sunset of the reign of Henry VIII, the focus of this entry in the series is split between Bianca in London and her husband John, who was conscripted into the army at the end of the previous book, The Alchemist of Lost Souls. John is in Scotland, just one of the many footsoldiers participating in King Henry’s “Rough Wooing” of the Scots, and learning the lesson that transcends time and place and applies to all wars, that war is hell, and that entirely too many of the men fighting it release their inner devils for the purpose.

Bianca has no idea where John is or how he is, all she knows is that he is gone and that she has been left to make the best living she can as a “white witch” dispensing medicinal herbs and tinctures, and to occupy herself as best she can by aiding the local constable with his inquiries. Meaning that Constable Patch has the authority, Bianca has the brains, and the Constable gets all the credit for her solutions.

Patch has called Bianca in to solve a terrible crime – one made even more terrible by its repetition. Someone is killing young boys and stringing them up from church gargoyles. It’s ugly and gruesome in every possible way. But it doesn’t make sense.

It’s unclear whether someone is targeting the churches, drawing attention to the inconstancy of their beliefs and practices as they are caught in the King’s religious caprices, or whether someone is trying to discredit the church as a whole in order to bring about more reform. In either these scenarios, the boys are part of the show and not its purpose.

Or is someone poking into the gangs of thieving boys in an attempt to uncover their masters? Or is it another possibility all together?

Caught between feuding constables, infighting clergymen and searching for the lost boys, Bianca is uncertain of which way to turn. She only knows that she has to get to the root of these crimes before more are sacrificed.

Escape Rating A-: This is apparently the final book in this series, and if that’s true I’m very sorry to see it end. Bianca Goddard is a fascinating heroine in so many ways. It’s not just her intelligence and her agency, although it is marvelous to read a historical mystery with a female protagonist who is neither noble nor a member of the upper classes. Bianca’s story portrays life among the groundlings, in its all too frequent nastiness, dirtiness and brevity. Her vocation is to do her best to ease the suffering around her.

At the same time, she is human in a way that is easy for 21st century readers to identify with. She’s smart, both too smart and too observant for her own good. She gets obsessive and absorbed in her work, has little patience for either small talk or fools. Her husband doesn’t try to keep her home or protect her from it. Both because he’s easy-going and because they can’t afford for her not to work every bit as hard as he does.

He does worry about her work investigating crime, and somebody should be worried. She sticks her nose and herself into places that are dangerous, and that danger all too often reaches out to grab her.

The stories in this series do an excellent job of portraying Bianca’s world, not just her personal circumstances, but the way that the doings of the high and mighty reach down and affect the lives of every person in the kingdom. Bianca is intelligent enough that when things happen, she doesn’t just know what, but she understands the why and the how of it, and so do we, even in circumstances that seem far removed from our own.

I like Bianca and I’m going to miss her. If you enjoy gritty historical mystery and want more, in addition to Bianca’s series (start with The Alchemist’s Daughter) there’s also Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series, Candace Robb’s Owen Archer and Kate Clifford serieses and D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles in very similar veins.

One final note. Bianca has a cat named Hobs. As is usual for cats, it would be more accurate to say that Hobs has her. Due to a bit of magical realism in the previous books in the series, Bianca believes that Hobs is immortal, and the events of this book prove her correct. I want a cat like Hobs. Actually, I want all my cats to be like Hobs. Desperately. If this particular character in the story includes a bit of wish fulfillment on the part of the author, I understand completely.

Review: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

Review: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha RaiGirl Gone Viral (Modern Love #2) by Alisha Rai
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Modern Love #2
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on April 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Alisha Rai's second novel in her Modern Love series, a live-tweet event goes viral for a camera-shy ex-model, shoving her into the spotlight—and into the arms of the bodyguard she’d been pining for.

OMG! Wouldn’t it be adorable if he’s her soulmate???

I don’t see any wedding rings [eyes emoji]

Breaking: #CafeBae and #CuteCafeGirl went to the bathroom AT THE SAME TIME!!!

One minute, Katrina King’s enjoying an innocent conversation with a hot guy at a coffee shop; the next, a stranger has live-tweeted the entire episode with a romantic meet-cute spin and #CafeBae is the new hashtag-du-jour. The problem? Katrina craves a low-profile life, and going viral threatens the peaceful world she’s painstakingly built. Besides, #CafeBae isn’t the man she’s hungry for.

He’s got a [peach emoji] to die for. 

With the internet on the hunt for the identity of #CuteCafeGirl, Jas Singh, bodyguard, friend, and possessor of the most beautiful eyebrows Katrina’s ever seen, comes to the rescue and whisks her away to his family’s home. Alone in a remote setting with the object of her affections? It’s a recipe for romance. But after a long dating dry spell, Katrina isn’t sure she can trust her instincts when it comes to love—even if Jas’ every look says he wants to be more than just her bodyguard…

My Review:

I absolutely adored this author’s Forbidden Hearts series (start with Hate to Want You and just BINGE!) but bounced fairly hard off of the first book in the Modern Love series, The Right Swipe. Howsomever, I did love Forbidden Hearts, and I heard good things about Girl Gone Viral, so I decided to see if this one would bring me back

And I was in the mood for another romance after yesterday’s lovely book, so this looked like it would certainly fit that mood. And it did. It so did.

There are two tropes going head to head in this romance, the ever-popular friends-to-lovers, and the hot, awesome but less frequently invoked bodyguard romance. And this was a time when these two tastes definitely tasted GREAT together!

The story doesn’t quite match the blurb – or at least the intensity of the feelings involved aren’t quite conveyed by the spritely tone of the blurb.

Kat doesn’t just crave a low-profile life – she needs one desperately in order to cope with her excruciating panic attacks and something that feels like PTSD after a traumatic kidnapping several years ago. Letting that cute guy sit at her table in the crowded coffee shop was Kat sticking a toe out of her comfort zone – only to discover that there are sharks outside that comfort zone. Seemingly literally, as the live-tweet of the complicated fabricated romance takes on a life of its own – probably with the active connivance of both the tweeter and the cute-but-clearly-an-asshole guy.

Kat is spooked. Completely, totally and utterly spooked. Partly because spooked is her default setting – something she’s changing very slowly – and partly because becoming a viral internet sensation can be a two-edged sword at the best of times. She wants this to fade away, but the Streisand Effect is a real thing. So is doxxing. So are death threats – particularly if you’re living online while female and try to claim your own space in the world.

So there’s a lot going on in this story, and not just on Kat’s side of the equation.

Her bodyguard – and secret crush – Jas has plenty of his own stuff to deal with. Including his own PTSD from his military experience in Iraq. Something that he deals with by, essentially, not dealing with it. By shoving it down into a hole so deep that he doesn’t even let himself see what’s crawling around down there. He deals with it by pushing his loud, loving and very intrusive family away. And he keeps telling himself that he doesn’t feel anything for Kat beyond friendship.

Of course he’s lying to himself about pretty much all of it.

So Kat needs to escape and Jas both wants and doesn’t want to visit his family, so he uses Kat as an excuse to go home – while pretending to most of his family that he’s not really there.

Like that ever works.

But out of the city, alone together in a house where Kat can just be and Jas doesn’t have to be on guard 24/7 because it really is safe, they let themselves get close to each other. And finally tear down the walls that have been keeping them apart.

Escape Rating A-: The bodyguard crush is a trope that isn’t seen all that often in contemporary romance, as, after all, most people don’t need a bodyguard. Add to that, at least on the surface, Kat doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would need a bodyguard. She’s not political, she’s not a superstar, no one seems to be threatening her. And yet, she does need Jas, not just as a bodyguard but because her own traumas make her need the safety of having a bodyguard. And, well, Kat just needs Jas but isn’t ready to admit exactly what she needs him for as the story opens.

They are friends. Even if Jas in particular would have a difficult time labeling their relationship that way. Especially because Jas isn’t used to having friends, period. And his tense interactions with his family make it clear that he’s having difficulty with personal relationships in general – among other things.

Which leads directly to a third element to this story that almost put it over the top for me. So often, reaching their HEA solves all of everybody’s problems. Love conquers all, after all. But in real life it doesn’t. Love makes things better, it makes the world look brighter, it makes the hard stuff easier to get over, past or through. But it doesn’t erase the past, nor does it magically sweep away all the baggage we all carry around.

So the great thing about the way that Kat and Jas find their HEA is that love gives them the courage and the impetus to deal with their own shit. Neither can magically fix the other’s PTSD or panic attacks, each of them HAS to do that work for themselves. Love provides support, as it does, but there is no magical healing for the crap they both have to deal with, and it doesn’t. Instead, a big part of the HEA is that they both do better at taking care of their own messes so that they have more room to love each other. And that’s an ending and a message I definitely believe in.

But there’s this niggle. I still feel like we’ve all been left hanging about the fake viral setup that started the whole thing. It feels like a setup. It reads like a setup. I wish there was some resolution to it. Kat gets past it and turns it back on the original posters, but it still felt a bit unresolved. It’s not so much that I wanted them to be exposed – although that would have been really, really terrific – but I wanted some acknowledgement that the whole thing had been a deliberately put-up job from beginning to end to promote his new business and his flagging career. YMMV.

All in all, I’m really glad I read Girl Gone Viral, and I didn’t feel like I’d missed too much by not having read The Right Swipe. There’s enough backstory here to let new readers pick up the series here. And I really loved the characters, not just Kat and Jas but the entire mad and crazy bunch. I definitely would not mind seeing this crew back for more with a new couple at the heart – finding where their hearts belong.

Review: Sword of Shadows by Jeri Westerson

Review: Sword of Shadows by Jeri WestersonSword of Shadows by Jeri Westerson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Crispin Guest #13
Pages: 224
Published by Severn House Publishers on April 7th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
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A quest to find the ancient sword Excalibur quickly turns into a hunt for a determined killer for Crispin Guest.

London, 1396. A trip to the swordsmith shop for Crispin Guest, Tracker of London, and his apprentice Jack Tucker takes an unexpected turn when Crispin crosses paths with Carantok Teague, a Cornish treasure hunter. Carantok has a map he is convinced will lead him to the sword of Excalibur - a magnificent relic dating back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table - and he wants Crispin to help him find it.

Travelling to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall with Carantok and Jack, Crispin is soon reunited with an old flame as he attempts to locate the legendary sword. But does Excalibur really exist, or is he on an impossible quest? When a body is discovered, Crispin's search for treasure suddenly turns into a hunt for a dangerous killer.

My Review:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” or so the saying goes. And that’s certainly true in the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, of which Sword of Shadows is the lucky, or unlucky, 13th book.

They may DO things differently in 1396 A.D., but that doesn’t mean that human beings are actually any different, either better or worse, than they are in 2020. Or than they were at the time of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, whether that was the quasi-medieval era as later chroniclers made it, the latter part of the Roman occupation of Britain, as historians claim it, or a magical period of myth and legend as written in the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth – the only version that would have been extant in Crispin’s time.

King Arthur shouldn’t be relevant, as Crispin deals in facts and motives, evidence and crimes, in the real world. But he also needs to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly. While he is best known as the “Tracker of London”, solving crimes and righting miscarriages of justice, sometimes he takes other work.

So this tale begins. A gentleman “treasure hunter” feels that he is on the track of Excalibur. While the sword may be shrouded in myth and legend, Carantock Teague believes that he has found clues to the fabled artifact’s location – that Excalibur is hidden somewhere near Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, purported to be the site of King Arthur’s birth. Teague hires Crispin – and Crispin’s apprentice Jack – to come with him to Cornwall and help him search for it. And to guard him if he finds it.

The pay is too good to turn down, even with a wet, cold, miserable fortnight’s journey to Tintagel by horseback to start it off.

But once there, the search for the sword is complicated by the discovery of not one but two extremely recent corpses. Meanwhile, Crispin’s sometime quarry and occasional lover, Kat Pyle, has arrived in this remote spot to either bedevil Crispin, nab the treasure before he can, or make some other mischief.

Knowing Kat as he does, Crispin can’t help but wonder if the answer is “all of the above – and more.”

The question is whether it is only Crispin’s heart at risk – or his life.

Escape Rating A-: Sword of Shadows was a terrific read. It was a return to a series that I’ve picked up off and on over the years and always enjoyed. It dipped into a legend that has always fascinated me, the Matter of Britain, or as it is better known, the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. And it was also a reminder of journeys of my own, as I read the first three books in this series, Veil of Lies, Serpent in the Thorns and The Demon’s Parchment, on a Caribbean cruise, back when such things were possible. This series was among the first things I read on my then-new Nook. How time flies.

That being said, although there were nostalgic elements attached to this story for me, I don’t think they are necessary to enjoy this book. If you love historical mystery, this is one of those series where the author has meticulously researched every detail, and the reader feels as if they are walking beside Crispin whether on the streets of London or exploring the caves on the Cornish coast. This is a series where you not only feel the feels, but you also smell the smells – good and bad.

It is a series where some prior knowledge is probably helpful, but does not have to be exhaustive. I haven’t read the whole series, just dipped in here and there, and enjoyed the journey back to England during the reign of Richard II, during the opening stages of what history would call the Wars of the Roses.

This particular event in Crispin’s life is a bit different than the usual stories in this series as it takes Crispin out of the London that he has come to call home and out into the country, far away from not just his home but from any place with which he is familiar. Crispin has become a creature of London, a man of the city, that’s where his reputation and his living are.

In Tintagel he is a complete outsider, and has to do his job of tracking the murderer – or murderers – in a place where he is not well-known, where his current reputation is of no help but his long-buried past as a traitorous knight is still remembered. He knows no one, but he still has a job to do – even if it’s one that he isn’t getting paid for.

At the same time, he is teased and tormented by the search for Excalibur and the legends surrounding it. In the end, catching the murderer, as difficult as it is, turns out to be easier than letting go of the search for the sword. The myths that are wrapped around the hilt of Excalibur have caught better men – and many, many searchers – before Crispin, and have continued to do so after, inspiring creators century after century. The way that Excalibur fades into the mists of Cornwall in this story feels right – and sends a chill up the spine at the same time.

The author claims that Crispin’s story is coming to an end. His next outing, Spiteful Bones, will be his next-to-last adventure. Normally I’d say that I couldn’t wait to read his next book, but knowing that his journey is coming to an end means that I’ll be happy to wait a bit. I’ll be sad to see him go – but I hope it will be into a happy and successful retirement. We’ll see.

Review: House of Rone: Guard by Anna Hackett

Review: House of Rone: Guard by Anna HackettGuard (Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone, #5) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone #5
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the dangerous desert sands to the deadly glitz of the city, the lawless desert planet of Carthago is filled with lethal cyborg gladiators risking it all for the women who capture their hearts. GUARD contains two novellas and one short story all set in the Galactic Gladiators: House of Rone series.

Dark Guard: lethal cyborg Zaden will do whatever it takes to guard and protect beautiful, sweet Calla from mysterious attackers.

NOTE: previously released as part of the 2019 Pets in Space Anthology

Abducted from her homeworld, Calla Ryss has spent months in a cell, surviving her captors—the metal-scavenging Edull. Deep in the deserts of the lawless planet of Carthago, she knows that there is no chance of escape. The only thing that gets her through is her friendship with a fellow abductee, a woman stolen from Earth. But everything changes when they are rescued by the bone-chillingly dangerous cyborgs of the House of Rone, and Calla finds herself staring into eyes of metallic silver.

Zaden lives for the House of Rone. His cyborg enhancements help him keep a ruthless hold on his emotions, and loyalty is the only thing he allows himself to feel. And the rare spurt of annoyance at the cyborg hunting cat that refuses to leave him alone. But when sweet, lovely Calla falls into his arms, Zaden starts to experience emotions he’s never felt before…which is dangerous for a cyborg whose enhancements are in place not to increase his lethal abilities, but leash them.

When mysterious attackers attempt to snatch Calla, Zaden vows to be her guard and keep her safe—with some unsolicited help from a certain cyborg cat. But there is more at stake than just Calla’s safety, and as she and Zaden are drawn into an intoxicating storm of emotion, they will risk their hearts, their lives, and their freedom to rescue another innocent captive.

Cyborg Guard: on a dangerous mission into the desert, female cyborg loner Seren must act as bodyguard for champion gladiator Xias—a man who pushes every one of her buttons.

NOTE: this is a BRAND-NEW, never-before-published story

Seren dan Stal was once the pride of the Dan Nonian Warrior Academy, but when her people were wiped out by a virulent virus, she is the lone survivor. Now, her home is the desert world of Carthago, and she works hard to honor her father and her planet by being the best cyborg fighter at the House of Rone. She has no time for fun or frivolity, and that especially includes the always-smiling showman gladiator Xias.

Xias grew up on the streets of Kor Magna and lost the most important fight of all—protecting his sister. He vowed to become a champion for her and to never lose again. He commands the sands of the desert arena, is loved by the spectators, and would die for his imperator, Magnus Rone. But then he finds himself becoming far too fascinated by a prickly, dangerous, and gorgeous female cyborg.

In the desert city of Kaffit, Xias and Seren must work together on a mission for Magnus. Xias pushes Seren to feel, and she inspires his need to protect and pleasure. Together, they uncover a scorching-hot hunger that won’t be denied. Now, they just need to survive long enough to see if that hunger can grow into love.

Includes the short story – House of Rone: Beginnings

Soldier 47 is the most lethal cyborg in the Orionix Military Program. But when a young cyborg, Jaxer, is slated for deactivation, Soldier 47--also known as Magnus Rone--will risk everything he knows to save his friend.

My Review:

This fifth book in the House of Rone spinoff of the Galactic Gladiators series is a collection of short works, much as Rogue and Hunter were for the original series. In fact, VERY much as Hunter was, as both books contain works that were previously published in the utterly marvelous Pets in Space anthologies.

Which means that I’ve read and reviewed one of the three stories in this collection before. Specifically Dark Guard. I loved it, not just for the familiar setting, but particularly for its feline hero – even if the feline, like many of the members of the House of Rone, is a cyborg.

The second entry in Guard is a VERY short story, House of Rone: Beginnings. When I read Beginnings it felt very, make that extremely, familiar. But I’m not certain if that’s because I’ve read it before, or if it’s because the origin story of the House of Rone has been told, although not in this much detail, before. Both Magnus and Jaxer refer to the events that brought them to Kor Magna fairly often, particularly in their respective books, Cyborg and Sentinel.

So Beginnings FEELS familiar, even if I haven’t read it before. And I’m saying that in a good way. Everyone loves a good origin story – unless it gets rebooted too many times too close together. (I’m looking at you, Spiderman). But we all tell ourselves origin stories, stories that we repeat over and over, like the story about how we met a spouse/partner, how we met a best friend, memorable events in family history.

And that’s what Beginnings feels like. It’s the story that creates the House of Rone, even though none of that was envisioned at the start. It’s Magnus discovering that his cyborg implants have not destroyed his heart after all, and that even if he never planned to save himself, he can’t let a friend be killed. And in saving Jaxer, he saves himself and every single soul that the House of Rone rescued after that. It all comes back to this one event, this one story, and it’s lovely to get it in detail.

The other new story, Cyborg Guard, was definitely new. I really liked it because it presents different perspectives on the House of Rone, explores seldom seen variations of the romance patterns in this series, AND pushes the action forward in the quest to rescue the last Earth-human survivor still in captivity with the evil Edull.

The Edull remind me of the Jawa in Star Wars, only taller and more disgusting. Still sandsucking scrap merchants and experimenters. Although I don’t think we’ve ever seen the Jawa incorporate organic parts into their creations – while the Edull certainly do. The Edull are conducting experiments like the Nazis, just without the racial component. The Edull will use anyone in their experiments.

What I enjoyed about the romance in Cyborg Guard is that it was just a bit different from the patterns that have generally been followed in both the Galactic Gladiators and the House of Rone series.

The Cyborg Guard of the title is Seren, one of the female cyborgs who are part of the House of Rone. Unlike many of the cyborgs we’ve met previously, Seren’s suppression of her emotions is training rather than programming. She FEELS emotion, but she’s been taught to rigorously suppress it – kind of like a Vulcan.

(It’s rare to be able to mix Star Wars references and Star Trek references in the same review. Achievement Unlocked!)

Another thing that makes this romance a bit different is that the person Seren is guarding is Xias, one of the non-cyborg members of the House of Rone. Cyborgs are not allowed to compete in the Kor Magna Arena – as they certainly do have an unfair advantage. So the House of Rone has a number of unenhanced members who compete under their banner. Xias is their champion.

While both Seren and Xias are warriors, Seren sees Xias as more than a bit of a showboat, someone who competes because they love the attention – and revel in it. When their mission to retrieve a map of the Edull compound goes completely pear-shaped, Seren is finally able to see that none of her assumptions about Xias were true – except the one about whether or not he’s good in bed. That one was right on the money. And once Seren discovers the man hiding behind the showboat, she’s all in – not just for the sex but eventually for the love that she never believed she was capable – or worthy – of.

Escape Rating A-: All in all, this was a VERY fun entry in this long-running series. It had a whole bunch of elements that I just loved. I’m always a sucker for a good cat story, I love a well-done origin story and I really enjoyed seeing a romance break the established pattern for a series. AND we got to see the other side of the House of Rone, so a real treat all the way around!

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice HadlowThe Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Pages: 480
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.

What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.

Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.

Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.

My Review:

The Other Bennet Sister (UK Cover)

The Other Bennet Sister is definitely NOT a book to be judged by its cover. I really hated that cover – and this is one of the rare occasions where the UK cover is just as bad. Both covers seem to picture Mary Bennet exactly as she was in Pride and Prejudice. She seems washed out in the US cover and judgmental in the UK cover.

But I loved the book.

The real Mary, or at least the version I want to be the real Mary, does begin her story as sermonizing and judgmental. But, and it’s a HUGE but, because this is Mary’s own story and not the story of her much more brightly shining sisters, we see that Mary’s behavior is the result of being shy and withdrawn. She’s retreated into herself because she’s the frequently overlooked and often denigrated middle sister, trapped between the gorgeously beautiful Jane and Lizzy and the shallow but pretty Kitty and Lydia.

She’s not really an ugly duckling in the midst of a flock of swans, but her mother sure as hell makes her feel like it at every turn. I didn’t like Mrs. Bennet in the original story – AT ALL – and I like her even less here. Actually, I loathe her even more than I dislike this book’s cover.

Mary isn’t a diamond of the first water, as her older sisters are. She doesn’t sparkle the way her younger sisters do. But she is as pretty as any other young woman of her time, and would have been fine in any family slightly more functional than the Bennets.

But this is not a parallel story to Pride and Prejudice. Instead, it’s more like an alternate sequel, as most of the events take place after the end of P&P. Not merely after those events, but also after the long-feared death of Mr. Bennet, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her remaining unmarried daughters, Mary and Kitty.

And that is where Mary’s story really begins, as she starts the process of taking control of her own life for her own self – in spite of her mother’s frequent interference and constant disparaging – and often melodramatic – pronouncements.

Once Mary is on her own the story takes flight, as she explores the limited varieties of life possible for a spinster and begins to craft her own beliefs about who she is and how she should live – whether she manages to marry or not.

That the end of her journey of self-discovery leads her to love and happiness is the icing on a delightful and thoroughly tasty little cake of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I enjoyed The Other Bennet Sister considerably more than I expected to at the beginning. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m not a fan or an aficionado. I found Mrs. Bennet in particular to be utterly appalling as a character, and Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh are not people I’d ever want to spend much time with. Certainly not enough time to ever attempt a reread of the book.

So one of the things I really liked about The Other Bennet Sister is that none of these petty villains are ever described as anything more than exactly what they are.

It does make for some fairly hard reading at the beginning of the story, as we pretty much suffer right along with Mary as she is first constantly berated by Mrs. Bennet, and then is forced to take on the role of charity case in the homes of both Elizabeth and then Jane as they subtly or not-so-subtly make her aware that she’s unwanted and unwelcome.

She has no place and she has no choice and that’s a difficult situation to be in.

But that’s when she takes things into her own hands and looks for other options, first with Lizzy’s friend Charlotte and her husband Mr. Collins – who was a figure of fun in the original, much like Mary herself.

It’s only when Mary takes herself off to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, that she finally finds a place where she is welcome and can work out her own future, whatever it might be. But all along Mary is brave and forthright, even in situations where those around her do their level best to keep her as far down as possible.

It’s fun watching her grow and expand her horizons. It’s also heartening to see her look hard at the easy way out but reject it as unworthy, over and over. She does a great job of exploring her limited possibilities and making her best choices.

In the end, Mary is a fascinating character, a woman with agency but one whose thoughts, beliefs and choices reflect her time and not ours. The Other Bennet Sister is a lovely story that uses its original as a springboard to something better!

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 122
Published by Tor.com on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

My Review:

This was lovely. And fascinating. I have the feeling I’ll need to read it again to have even a shot at picking up everything there is to pick up from this tiny and perfect little story.

It feels like the creation of a myth – or the exploration of one. It reads like it’s a bit of hidden history – a history that has been suppressed and that, of necessity, will continue to be suppressed.

From one perspective, it’s the story of all the women who have been lost to history – all of the lost and the murdered and the exiled and especially the silenced. It’s a tale as old as time, but not one of the pretty ones.

It’s the story of a princess bartered away for peace between two kingdoms, a princess who is cast into exile and imprisonment when her days of usefulness are over. And it is all the tragedy that the scenario implies.

At the same time, it’s a story about not just fighting back, but actually about triumphing over one’s oppressors. About taking what are supposed to be the ruins of a life and turning them into something sharp and pointed and ultimately victorious.

It’s a story about being forced into the shadows and becoming the knife that strikes from the dark.

An empress is forced into exile. Instead of taking her exile in any of the ways that exiled empresses usually do, she finds a way to turn the tables on her oppressor – by gathering up the talents of all the forgotten ones in the land she will come to rule.

But this isn’t her story. Not exactly.

It’s the story of her faithful servant, handmaiden and secret lover. The story of the woman who befriended and enabled her, and who sacrificed her own happiness to make her rise possible.

So it feels a bit like a historical fable, in the setting of an Asian period drama. It also has something to say about history, how it’s written, how it’s discovered, how it’s preserved.

Whether the teller of that history is a ghost, a spirit or just one of those forgotten voices is left to the reader to decide.

But whoever is telling this story, or discovering it, or recording it, it’s beautiful and haunting every step of its way.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a bit to get into this, quite likely because it wasn’t what I was expecting. The story is not told in a straightforward fashion. Instead it’s dribbled out in little sips and small bites, as the former handmaiden – or her ghost or spirit – reveals it bit by bit to the historian who has come looking for artifacts to document the hidden facets of an all-too-recent history.

It reads like a legend, like a myth or story being told, with hints and oblique views and a lesson that’s meant to be inferred rather than explained.

There’s certainly a feminist bent to it if you look, as all of the major characters are female and this is definitely a story where the woman who was supposed to fade into obscurity instead takes control – and is extremely subversive but effective at it.

In the end, the empress creates her own myth, and we’re reading that myth as it’s told by the person who helped to create and shape it. There’s a lyrical quality to the telling that doesn’t so much grab the reader as insinuate itself into the reader’s consciousness.

Although this is labelled as fantasy, it’s fantasy of the mythic variety. It’s fantasy because it’s not SF and it’s not anything else – not because there is any practicing magic. But magic there definitely is.