Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina WalschotsHench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, urban fantasy
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.
So, of course, then she gets laid off.
With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.
Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.
It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

My Review:

Hench is decadently delicious villainous competence porn.

I loved every page of it. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a bit squicked out at some of Anna’s decisions. But then, so is Anna. She just goes ahead and does them anyway – and generally does them very, very well.

Still, she makes us wonder what she might have been – and we’re supposed to. That’s part, but only part, of her story.

In a way, Anna’s story is the behind-the-scenes of what would happen if the Avengers – and all of the other superhero stories, were real life. Because that entire mess in the first Avengers movie, where Loki and his forces seriously mess up New York City? There would be one hell of a lot of collateral damage.

How much will it cost to clean all that up? Who pays for all of the many hospitalizations and years if not decades of physical and psychological therapy that all the survivors are going to need? Who pays all their bills while they’re incapacitated? We’re meant to think that the villains got their just desserts, but the ordinary people who just happened to be on one of the skyscrapers that got crashed or trashed – what about them?

There have been superhero stories before where society has taken a look at that damage and decided that it just isn’t worth it, like the marvelous After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Even The Incredibles, under its golly-gee-whiz-bang, begins in a place where all the supers have been forced to stand down for everyone else’s own good.

In a whole lot of ways, Hench takes that story and backtracks it into a story of supervillain vs superhero vs the tyranny of spreadsheets, and gives us a story about all the “little people” who stand behind a superhero or supervillain. After all, someone has to do the jobs that Gru assigned to his Minions in the Despicable Me series.

I could say that this is a story where one of those minions becomes a supervillain in their own right. Or certainly rises from being merely a hench to an actual kick, meaning a sidekick. Because this isn’t Leviathan’s story. It isn’t Supercollider’s story, either.

It’s the story of Anna, a hench caught in the middle between a supervillain and a superhero, who decides to get her life back by taking down that superhero the only way she can – with spreadsheets.

Escape Rating A++: There are two ways to read this story. One is that it is simply a delightful supervillain vs. superhero story where the villain actually wins. Sorta/kinda. But on the surface this is a romp and it’s easy to ignore the collateral damage of Anna’s actions, or blame them on her opponents – as superhero stories generally do.

And that’s the level I initially read the story at, because I was looking for a world to sink into for a few hours, and Hench certainly provided that escape.

But that’s not all there is to the story.

The first layer underneath is still a lot of fun stuff about the world in which superheroes and villains operate. That while creatures like the Minions make for fun cartoons, in a world of real supers there would be real work that would need to get done.

That’s where Anna and her friends and colleagues come in. They are all henches. Or meat. Henches are functionaries, hanging around to make the supervillain look important, doing the jobs that any large organization needs to get done. Meat are muscle, the people who make the supe look deadly and dangerous. They all effectively sign up to be cannon fodder if an encounter with a supe goes badly.

They are there to do a job, and quite often a job that could be done as easily in a non-supe organization. Which, come to think of it, might have every bit as evil a purpose as the average supervillain. Which is kind of the point.

Anna and her friends are just regular people doing regular jobs who just happen to be doing that job for supervillains. The portrait of their lives, their work and especially their friendships underpins the whole story with a sense of reality.

They’re real folks doing an unreal job.

But dig deeper, and there’s even more about the nature of heroism and villainy, and who decides which is which. That Supercollider believes that superheroes create their own nemeses feels truer than true. He created his own downfall with his own actions, and he was enabled by organizations that have a vested interest in protecting the labeling of heroes vs. villains at any cost.

Because, in the end, it turns out that they create both.

Review: Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Review: Driftwood by Marie BrennanDriftwood by Marie Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 224
Published by Tachyon Publications on August 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Who is Last?
Fame is rare in Driftwood- it’s hard to get famous if you don’t stick around long enough for people to know you. But many know the guide, Last, a one-blooded survivor who has seen his world end many lifetimes ago. For Driftwood is a strange place of slow apocalypses, where continents eventually crumble into mere neighborhoods, pulled inexorably towards the center in the Crush. Cultures clash, countries fall, and everything eventually disintegrates.
Within the Shreds, a rumor goes around that Last has died. Drifters come together to commemorate him. But who really was Last?
About Driftwood
Driftwood is the invention of bestselling author Marie Brennan. Mirroring the world that many people are currently living in, the Driftwood stories chronicle the struggles of survivors and outcasts to keep their worlds alive until everything changes, diminishes, and is destroyed. Driftwood is the first full-length novel in this world.

My Review:

This is what happens after the world comes to an end. And it was nothing like I expected. But it was absolutely marvelous all the same.

This is also a story about the indomitability of the spirit. And it’s also a story about stories, as much of the narrative takes place on a single night when many of the inhabitants of the Shreds get together in a kind of no-person’s land to tell the story of one singular being who touched all their lives.

A seemingly immortal being who may, or may not, be gone. Some gather to mourn, while others are there to prove that the being they call Last can’t possibly be dead – because they believe he’s a god, and gods don’t die.

A lot of the denizens of the Shreds don’t think he’s a god, and I don’t think either. I do think that Last is a genius loci, the spirit of the place called Driftwood. The place where worlds go after they come to an end.

And Driftwood is a marvel. And a grave.

A remnant of worlds that have ended emerge in the Mist that surrounds Driftwood and attach themselves to its outer Edge. These remnants contain a large enough portion of their original world to have mountains, and cities, and spaces between those places. Big enough parts of their old world for the inhabitants, for a couple generations at least, to ignore the outside worlds that are not theirs.

But time is inexorable, and so is the pull of the Crush at the center of Driftwood. Worlds from the Edge are drawn inward, shrinking as they get closer to the Crush, while other worlds emerge from the Mist and become new Edge worlds. By the time worlds reach the middle of Driftwood, called the Shreds, their worlds are literally shreds of their former selves, and the people remaining are not just forced to acknowledge the existence of other worlds, but their people have become part of the blended population of the Driftwood, no longer one-bloods restricted to their own kind, whatever that kind might have been.

Last is the last of his own people. A one-blood from a world that went into the Crush long ago. He has lived long past the usual lifespan of his own people and makes his living as a guide to Driftwood, a translator of many of its varied languages, and a repository of a history that no one else remembers.

But he has disappeared, and it has been left to the many, many people that he has helped on their way through Driftwood to tell the small fragments of his story that they know.

And it’s utterly captivating.

Escape Rating A+: Some books are just WOW! And Driftwood is definitely one of those books.

The bare description makes you think that the book will be a downer. After all, it’s about worlds ENDING and it’s people telling stories about someone they believe is dead. But it’s so totally not. A downer, that is.

Because the worlds that have joined Driftwood may be ending, but their inhabitants clearly are not. Some of them do rage against the dying of the light. Sometimes it’s literally raging and sometimes it’s literally about the light dying. But some of them do. Both, or either.

Howsomever, the stories that this group has gathered together to tell are about, well, togetherness, in one way or another. They are all stories about working with Last, or about Last helping them or their Shred, or simply about Last standing with them when they do something incredibly brave, like the story “Into the Wind”, or something incredibly stupid and ill-advised, like “The Ascent of Unreason”, which manages to be stupid, brave, ill-advised and a whole lot of fun all at the same time.

Many of the stories in Driftwood have been previously and separately published, but together they make a surprisingly wonderful and cohesive whole. A whole that is entirely too short but begins, middles and ends exactly where it should. A beautiful puzzlement and a fantastic read.

Review: All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny

Review: All the Devils Are Here by Louise PennyAll the Devils Are Here (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #16) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #16
Pages: 448
Published by Minotaur Books on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The 16th novel by #1 bestselling author Louise Penny finds Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec investigating a sinister plot in the City of Light
On their first night in Paris, the Gamaches gather as a family for a bistro dinner with Armand’s godfather, the billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Walking home together after the meal, they watch in horror as Stephen is knocked down and critically injured in what Gamache knows is no accident, but a deliberate attempt on the elderly man’s life.
When a strange key is found in Stephen’s possession it sends Armand, his wife Reine-Marie, and his former second-in-command at the Sûreté, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, from the top of the Tour d’Eiffel, to the bowels of the Paris Archives, from luxury hotels to odd, coded, works of art.
It sends them deep into the secrets Armand’s godfather has kept for decades.
A gruesome discovery in Stephen’s Paris apartment makes it clear the secrets are more rancid, the danger far greater and more imminent, than they realized.
Soon the whole family is caught up in a web of lies and deceit. In order to find the truth, Gamache will have to decide whether he can trust his friends, his colleagues, his instincts, his own past. His own family.
For even the City of Light casts long shadows. And in that darkness devils hide.

My Review:

How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyI finished this Saturday – actually I started on Saturday and finished on Saturday, hours later – and I’m still all book hungover on Sunday. I think that’s partially because I’ve been following these people since that wonderful, long ago first book, Still Life. This is a group that I’ve come to care about, to know, and in some cases even to love, to the point where I almost have to turn my eyes away when things get dark. As they often do. As Gamache discovers the crack in everything that has come before, and that’s how the light gets in.

But it’s also, positively, definitely because the story has me on the edge of my seat, every single time, desperate to figure out the truth that seems to be concealed from even the protagonists every step of the way. A truth that always delves deeply into the dark hearts of entirely too many of the characters, and makes every single one both a suspect and a victim.

As Gamache frequently says over the course of the series, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

It’s part of the genius of Gamache, and this series, that the reader is made to think all kinds of things about who is guilty, who is innocent, who is redeemable and who is not, things that only turn out to be half true, while Gamache and his colleagues, friends, companions, all of the above, follow the chain of evidence from its very murky beginning to what turns out to be its inevitable end, doing their level best – and Gamache’s best is damn good – to keep themselves from being caught up in their own thoughts – and especially in their own assumptions.

This story begins, as so many of the stories in this series begin, rather quietly. This is not a mystery series where the body turns up on the first page.

Instead, this one begins at a family dinner in Paris, celebrating that the family is all together again in anticipation of the imminent birth of Armand and Reine-Marie’s granddaughter, their daughter Annie’s soon-to-be-born daughter with Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s former second-in-command at the Sûreté du Québec – and unofficially adopted son.

The Gamaches’ own son, Daniel, and his wife Roslyn live in Paris, as Jean-Guy and Annie do now. Jean-Guy’s burnout from the last several cases he undertook with Gamache have led him to finally accept one of the many private sector jobs that have been offered to him over the years, bringing the family to Paris and Jean-Guy to a job he feels neither comfortable in nor exactly qualified for.

But he is. Just not for the job as it appears, rather for the “real” job that he’s been maneuvered into by Gamache’s godfather – and unofficial adoptive father – the billionaire Stephen Horowitz.

Because something is rotten at the core of GHS, the privately held multinational engineering firm GHS, even if Jean-Guy can’t quite put his finger on it. He thinks it’s his own second-in-command.

But Horowitz counted on Gamache getting involved. Because when it comes to Jean-Guy, or any of his children, Gamache can’t help but get himself involved. When Stephen is struck down in the middle of the street by what was expected to be taken as a hit and run driver, there’s a giant clue that no one can miss that something is rotten in Paris and that whatever Stephen was involved in is a part of it.

And if there’s one thing that Gamache is better at than anyone else in the world, it’s finding the rot that hides beneath a pristine facade. Even if that facade is covering a friend, or a loved one, or a trusted colleague. Or all of the above.

It’s only a question of whether he can figure out where that rot really leads in time to save them all.

Escape Rating A++: This is one of those reviews where I just want to squee all over the page. Which might adequately express that I LOVED THIS BOOK VERY MUCH, but isn’t exactly informative as to why you should love this series and this book too.

In the end – also at the beginning and in the middle – this is a mystery/suspense/thriller series that is all about the characters. Both in the sense that the continuing characters of the series are so very human, so fully-fleshed that they jump out of the page and into your heart, and in the way that human motivations drive the story and the tension.

There’s no “bwahaha” evil in this series. Not that plenty of evil things don’t happen, but the evil is always at the human scale – and is always pressed back if not defeated at the human scale.

The corruption that Gamache, Reine-Marie and Jean-Guy eventually unearth at the heart of this case is also human. It’s people believing what they want to believe. It’s people cutting corners out of expediency and then covering up out of guilt or greed. It’s a rotten system that has good people trapped in it but is designed to let bad people flourish.

And it thankfully doesn’t go quite as far as Gamache fears that it does, but we fear with him right up ‘til the end.

The characters are all flawed in ways that are, to belabor a word, human. Gamache does his best to figure out what is really going on, but he is, just as often, doing the best he can without any certainty of the truth or of his options. Sometimes he wings it and gets lucky. Sometimes he wings it and doesn’t. He’s good at piecing the puzzle together, but he’s never perfect and it’s never easy.

His godfather tries to outsmart the villains, but drastically underestimates their enemies and pays a high price for it. A price that nearly falls upon them all. Because he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. He needs Gamache to carry his plan the rest of the way – and he very nearly drops it.

In the end, this story, like so many in the series, is a story about people working together, playing to their individual strengths, towards their common goal of saving all their lives, sacrificing their fortunes if necessary, without losing their honor.

At each turn, we think we know. They think they know. But at the last we all discover that we really knew very little of what we thought we did. And that’s what kept me furiously turning pages until the very end.

If you like mysteries that will suck you into their story and their characters, keep you tied in knots for the entire length of a series, and spit you out at the end both emotionally wrung out and utterly captivated, pick up Still Life and be prepared to lose yourself for days.

Come to think of it, the idea of getting lost for days with Gamache and Company seems like an excellent way to escape this year for a good, long time.

Review: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Review: The City We Became by N.K. JemisinThe City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Great Cities #1
Pages: 437
Published by Orbit on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She's got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

My Review:

Four years ago, N.K.Jemisin published what was then a standalone short story, The City Born Great. It’s the story of a city, specifically New York City, as it is born, or perhaps reborn, as one of the great, self-aware and self-conscious cities of the world. It’s also the story of the city choosing its combination midwife and avatar, a young black man, a homeless graffiti artist, who embodies the city in all of its grand, glorious and sometimes shady history and all of its sprawling, brawling glory. And who directs and embodies its fight to be born against the wishes and will of a great, but nameless and faceless, enemy.

The story was also included in the author’s 2018 collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

But the original story ended on a happy note, with New York City’s avatar on his way to help the next new city, Los Angeles, with its imminent birth and induction into the ranks of the “great cities”.

That original story is included as the prologue to The City We Became, but without that happy ending. Instead, the newly born New York City wins his battle, but is forced to withdraw from the field to heal his grievous wounds.

And that’s where this marvelous book, the opening chapter in a projected trilogy, begins. With the central avatar out of the picture, and the avatars of the cities that make NYC what it is, the avatars of the 5 boroughs, coming to awareness of their roles with absolutely no help or guidance – while the battle their primary fought moves to a new and even more potentially catastrophic phase.

The personifications of those five boroughs, those places that could be cities in their own right, have a job to do. Find the primary, become the city they were meant to be, and send the forces of their great enemy back to the shadows from which they sprang.

But the enemy’s avatar will not go quietly – and she has one of their own tucked tightly into her rapacious grasp.

Escape Rating A++: I’m pretty sure that this is next year’s Hugo AND Nebula winner for Best Novel. I can’t believe I’m saying that and the year still has 8 months to go, but this story was so marvelous that I can’t believe anything will top it the rest of the year. (Not that there isn’t plenty of interesting SFF yet to come, but this one is just beyond awesome.)

There have been plenty of stories wrapped around the concept of a genius loci, or spirit of a place, including last year’s marvelous Silver in the Wood. But The City We Became takes that concept to a whole new level, with the city not just having one, but six of them (the plural is genii locorum). The way that this story takes that concept and magnifies into a race of such “city beings”, with hints of a society of them, works so well it feels like it has always existed. That there is a council of such beings, and that they have a great enemy, moves the concept from its origin in Roman religion (I said there were plenty) right into SF and Fantasy. And that’s kind of where this story sits, squarely on the borderline between the two genres.

It reads as SFnal, but the fantasy feels like the story’s true home – especially after the big reveal near the end! But those SFnal elements are definitely there, especially the element of SF as a romance of political agency. Because the machinations of political agency and political corruption turn out to play a much bigger role than that council of city avatars originally believed.

At the same time, while the story is building and we are getting to know these people and places – and the places/people – the operations of the Woman in White, the embodiment and avatar of the great enemy, reminded me so very much of the operations of the Black Thing on Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time.

There are also oodles of Lovecraftian allusions scattered throughout the story, to the point where Lovecraft becomes Chekhov’s Gun. But I was still shocked and awed when the Woman in White turns out to be the avatar of R’lyeh, the lost city of the Cthulhu Mythos. If her mysterious boss turns out to be the Great Old One himself it’s going to be seriously – and marvelously – freaky. But I’m guessing, we don’t know yet.

What we do know is that this is a well-thought out and marvelously written story of the battle for the soul of the city, rife with allusions to NYC’s beliefs in itself and fights with itself. The individual avatars are distinct characters that blend the ethos of each of their boroughs with the characters they are as individual humans. They don’t become the boroughs, they embody the boroughs because they already do.

The avatars of the NYC boroughs have to find a way to work together, even as all of their instincts tell them to fight. And also tell them that they can’t win without their missing member, the reluctant, stand-offish, contrary and captured Staten Island. They’ve almost lost hope, until they figure out that the city they are becoming isn’t about geography, it’s about being in “A New York State of Mind”.

I loved this author’s, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I bounced hard, multiple times, off of her Hugo-Award winning Broken Earth series. But The City We Become isn’t like either of those. It’s its own wonderful thing. It’s also absolutely the best thing I’ve read this year so far, and I’m not expecting much, if anything, to top it. What I am expecting, and am, in fact, eagerly awaiting, is the second book in the trilogy. May it be soon!

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + Giveaway

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + GiveawayServant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #3
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Exciting Conclusion to the Dragonslayer Trilogy Long laid plans finally bear fruit, but will it prove as sweet as hoped for? With the king on his deathbed, the power Amaury has sought for so long is finally in his grasp.

As opposition gathers from unexpected places, dragonkind fights for survival and a long-awaited reckoning grows close.

Soléne masters her magic, but questions the demands the world will make of her. Unable to say no when the call of duty comes, Gill realizes that the life he had given up on has not given up on him.

Once a servant of the crown, ever a servant of the crown...

    The Dragonslayer Trilogy:

1. Dragonslayer
2. Knight of the Silver Circle
3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

First things first. I just want to say what a treat it was to start a series, fall in love with it, and be able to just read – or be read to – all the way through to the end without having to wait months if not years for the later books in a series. I don’t always have that opportunity, either because I fall in love with the first book long before the others are out, or because I run into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum and have to space things out because of other reading commitments. Because I waited to start the first book (Dragonslayer) until the entire series was out – a happy accident! – I was able to do the whole thing in one swell foop. And wow! What a ride!

Second, this is epic fantasy of the sword and sorcery school, and there just hasn’t been as much of that around recently. I’d forgotten how much I love this end of the epic fantasy pool, so I’m grateful for the reminder and will be looking for more of it.

Third, this story manages to be both epic and not epically long at the same time in a way that just really, really works. In an era when so many epic fantasies are made up of several individual door-stop sized books, it was a joy to get such a rich and complete story in a length (or maybe I should reckon this as height) of just under one doorstop at 1,000 pages in total.

Fourth, but still not last, what makes this series so fascinating to read are its characters, and the way that their individual arcs both fulfill fantasy tropes and subvert them at the same time. Because this is a story where the characters feel like real, flawed human beings – and yet they still manage to be Big Damn Heroes, whether they want to be or not. And it’s definitely not.

I’m specifically referring to Gill and Soléne, because their respective journeys, separately and together-but-not-TOGETHER, form the backbone of the series.

Gill is the failed hero of the previous generation. His character, who is very much a classic archetype, usually becomes the mentor figure in most epic stories, whether fantasy or not, and that character usually dies somewhere in the middle so the “real” hero can take center stage. (One of my personal favorite characters of this type is actually dead to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Obi-Wan Kenobi is a great example. He was a hero in the previous war. He failed, he fell and then he hid himself away in the deserts of Tatooine. He becomes Luke’s first trainer and mentor in the Force, and then he’s killed by Vader. The mentor figure always dies. Like Merlin. And Dumbledore. And every other teacher/trainer of the young hero.

But the young hero in the Dragonslayer series is on an entirely different course than Gill’s. Because Gill doesn’t die. Instead, he becomes the hero, one more time, in spite of his own wishes to die in obscurity at the bottom of a bottle. He is, in the end, the “Servant of the Crown” as named in the title of this final volume. He serves no matter what he, himself might want. And he becomes the hero because no matter how many times he’s struck down, he gets up and tries again. And again. And again. Until the job is done.

If it ever will be.

Soléne is that young hero. Gill’s the one out in front to collect all the glory and fight all the battles, or so it seems. But she’s every bit the hero that he is, just from behind the scenes. Her power is huge, but it is also quiet. She’s the mage who operates in the shadows, not because she’s the woman inspiring the hero, but because the power she wields works best from the dark – and the quiet. He knows that she brought him the victory, and he knows that the best thing he can do for her is to acknowledge that privately and not publicly. Not that the Crown won’t give her its own semi-public acknowledgements. Maybe. If they succeed.

It is fascinating that both of their personal journeys are the journey to learn to trust themselves. He has to step up, and she has to step forward, but in so many ways it’s the same step.

I also absolutely adored that there is no romance here – nor should there be. It is wonderful to see trust, friendship and true comradeship in a relationship between a man and a woman that has absolutely no basis in will they/won’t they. Because this particular pair really, really shouldn’t – at least not with each other – and the reader is NEVER led to believe that they should. Solene is never Gill’s reward or his prize, nor is she ever fridged. She’s as big a damn hero as he is, just in a different way.

Even Amaury the villain is very, very human. While he is certainly a meditation on the cliche that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, he’s never able to grasp the absolute power he thinks he deserves. And the minute he gets close to it, it does him in. But throughout he’s human and understandable, even if he’s never a sympathetic character at all. And it’s another subversion of trope that Amaury the human is the big villain, while the really big creatures we think will be the villains, those dragons of the series title, actually aren’t. Well, at least all of them aren’t.

Escape Rating A++: I need to stop squeeing at this point. It’s pretty obvious that I adored this series from beginning to end. I began it in audio – every time – but switched to text at the point where I just couldn’t find out what happened next nearly fast enough.

I will say that the reader for all three books, Simon Vance, was absolutely marvelous. I wanted to continue to listen to him, but patience has never been my long suit. If you love fantasy and have an excuse to listen to the full story, it’s a wonderful listen.

I loved this series so much that I decided to include it as one of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week reviews and giveaways. The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by Duncan M. Hamilton (up to $20 US), whether in this series or one of his previous series (and if anyone knows whether they are all set in this same world, please let me know!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. WagersA Pale Light in the Black (NeoG #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: NeoG #1
Pages: 432
Published by Harper Voyager on March 3, 2020
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The rollicking first entry in a unique science fiction series that introduces the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—NeoG—a military force patrolling and protecting space inspired by the real-life mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling. Their best swordsman has been transferred, and a new lieutenant has been assigned in his place.

Maxine Carmichael is trying to carve a place in the world on her own—away from the pressure and influence of her powerful family. The last thing she wants is to cause trouble at her command on Jupiter Station. With her new team in turmoil, Max must overcome her self-doubt and win their trust if she’s going to succeed. Failing is not an option—and would only prove her parents right.

But Max and the team must learn to work together quickly. A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them.

Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

My Review:

Military SF, done right, is one of the best things to read if you are looking for serious “competence porn”, and A Pale Light in the Black is definitely military SF done very, very right.

There have been plenty of milSF stories featuring various branches of the service taken into space. Often those services model the space forces around either the Navy, as in Honor Harrington, or the marines, like Torin Kerr. The concept of a space Army seems like a bit of an oxymoron, as the Army has to get out of space and onto some ground in order to really be something called an Army. And a space Air Force feels redundant, even though there’s no atmosphere in space.

On the other hand, Stargate Command was run by the U.S. Air Force, so it IS possible after a fashion.

But the one service that has been left out of the equation – until the glorious now – is the Coast Guard. Countries have coasts. Earth as a whole doesn’t exactly have a “coast”, but it does have a stretch of territory that it defends and where its laws, rules and regulations hold sway.

Or at least it will in the future, if we ever do manage to get into space for real. And it certainly does in A Pale Light in the Black. Because that’s where this story, and the series that will follow (hopefully really, really SOON) is set among the often looked down upon members of this future’s equivalent of a space Coast Guard, the NeoG.

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard patrols the relatively nearby space where Earth holds sway. Their duty is to protect the “pale light in the black” that is Earth and her colonial interests. Their job is critical, but it isn’t exactly glorious or sexy. The NeoG is underfunded, undermanned, underequipped and underestimated in the Boarding Games that serve as a combination of mass entertainment, wargame training and inter-military rivalry, scorekeeping and grudge-matching, with a plenty of individual service team-building.

The story, and the audience, follow one Lieutenant Maxine Carmichael. Max graduated first in her NeoG Academy class, but has been stationed on Earth ever since, due to the machinations of her rich and powerful family. A family that may have all-but-disowned and abandoned her on the day that she announced she was joining the NeoG instead of either the more prestigious Navy, like her parents and older brother, or the family firm, like her sister.

They abandoned her in the hopes that she would fall back into their cold and distant arms and toe the family line. Instead, she excelled at the career that she had chosen. But then, she never did fit in with the rest of the family.

Still, they pulled strings to keep her stationed safely on Earth – whether that’s what she wanted or not. Then again, what Max wanted seems to have never mattered a damn to her family. When she finally had enough, she applied to be an Interceptor, part of one of the close-knit crews that patrolled the space lanes for contraband, pirates, and general bad actors of all types. There are NO interceptors serving on Earth, so she finally has her posting out in the black as the story opens.

Having achieved her goals does not mean that she isn’t carrying all the emotional baggage her parents loaded her down with and that she doesn’t still have all the buttons they installed. Max has the basics to do her job and do it well, but she has a long way to go to learn how to become a part of a team that treats all its members like family.

Because she has no good experiences of family. At all.

A Pale Light in the Black is Max’s story as she becomes part of the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, finds her place in the NeoG and in the found family that is her ship and crew. And figures out just how to help her team win this year’s Boarding Games.

Meanwhile, Max, her crew, her friends and even her entire branch of the service are investigating an age-old grudge between her family firm and the rivals that everyone believed were long dead. A grudge that could destroy, not just her family, but take half the human population along with it.

No pressure. Compared to that, the Boarding Games are a piece of cake!

Escape Rating A++: I realize that I’m basically squeeing all over the page here. I absolutely loved this book. And there’s enough to unpack to keep me busy until the next book in the series comes out.

First, the worldbuilding here is awesome. Also in a peculiar way a bit scary, because this isn’t a direct progression from our now until then. Instead, we are now in the pre-Collapse world, and our right now is pretty much the “last good time” for a long time. The Collapse Wars are coming, and after that, in about 400 years or so, we reach the time period of the story. “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.”

I love the way that the author demonstrates that we as a species have also left a whole lot of crap behind on that way between here and there. Not by making a big deal about it, but by showing that things are different through the lack of so much stupid fuss in everyday life. We are capable of better as a species, we just seem to need very hard lessons to reach that point.

Second, this is great competence porn. By that I mean that everyone, not just our hero but everyone in NeoG, is seen to be doing their jobs well all the time. Even the evil people are good at what they do, just that what they do is terrible. But it is terrific to watch and especially identify with a whole lot of folks who are not just dedicated to their jobs but where the ability to do the job well is expected. Heroism is extra. It was also different to see such good competence porn in a story that does not deal with basic training of any kind.

Not that Max doesn’t have plenty to learn, but we don’t follow her going through the Academy. Instead, we follow her as she learns to let down her emotional guards, to let herself accept and be accepted, to figure out what she’s good at and let herself internalize that she has skills and is good enough in all sorts of ways. Her doubts and fears make her human – and they make her easy to identify with and especially empathize with. We all have a little impostor syndrome in us, after all.

Max, however, is actually way beyond good enough, but that’s part of the lesson she needs to learn.

Max’s first year on Zuma’s Ghost, and the timetable for the Boarding Games provide the structure for the story. At the same time, the ghosts that Max has to deal with, the wounds that she needs to heal from, were all inflicted by her family.

And the case that Zuma’s Ghost has to solve, the smugglers and pirates that they have to catch, also deal with her family. The way that Max goes from feeling caught in the middle to knowing exactly where she stands is a big part of her journey. A journey that in many ways reminds me of the character of Ky Vatta in the Vatta’s War and Vatta’s Peace series(es). Ky has to deal with many of the same conflicts between military duty and family obligations. If you like Ky you’ll love Max and vice-versa.

I can’t wait to see where Max – and Zuma’s Ghost – go next!

Review: A Blight of Blackwings by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Blight of Blackwings by Kevin HearneA Blight of Blackwings (Seven Kennings, #2) by Kevin Hearne
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #2
Pages: 512
Published by Orbit on February 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the New York Times bestselling creator of The Iron Druid Chronicles comes the highly anticipated sequel to A Plague of Giants: A world-breaking war--an invasion of giant warriors--that inspires a movement to fight back.

SOLDIER AND AVENGER Daryck is from a city that was devastated by the war with the Bone Giants, and now he and a band of warriors seek revenge against the giants for the loved ones they lost. But will vengeance be enough to salve their grief?

DREAMER AND LEADER Hanima is part of a new generation with extraordinary magical talents: She can speak to fantastical animals. But when this gift becomes a threat to the powers-that-be, Hanima becomes the leader of a movement to use this magic to bring power to the people.

SISTER AND SEEKER Koesha is the captain of an all-female crew on a perilous voyage to explore unknown waters. Though Koesha's crew is seeking a path around the globe, Koesha is also looking for her sister, lost at sea two years ago. But what lies beyond the edges of the map is far more dangerous than storms and sea monsters. . . .

In this sequel to A Plague of Giants, these characters and more will become the voices of a new generation bringing hope and revolution to a war-torn world.

My Review:

Like the character Dervan in this story, I became so caught up in the tale as it unfolded that I wanted spoilers! Or at least I wanted Fintan the Bard to get on with it a whole lot faster. Which meant that as much as I love the audio version of this story, I switched to the book at about the ⅓ point just so I could find out what happened next. And next after that. And after that. And so on right until barreling through to the end, even knowing that this story as a whole is not done yet.

Dammit.

Just as in the first book in the series, the extremely awesome and utterly marvelous A Plague of Giants, the story that we are reading is mostly the story itself being told by Fintan the Bard to the crowd camped on Survivors’ Field in Pelemyn. The people who survived the events of the first part of the story and fetched up in Pelemyn as refugees from the multiple crises that have afflicted Teldwyn.

Not just one but two plagues of giants.

The title of this entry in the series is a tad more subtle. The book A Plague of Giants contained actual plagues of giants, after all. But the blight of blackwings referred to this time is not a literal plague of the same sort.

Instead, a blight of blackwings feels like it’s the equivalent of “a murder of crows,” or “an unkindness of ravens.” Or possibly both, as the blackwings of Teldwyn occupy the same niche as crows and ravens do. They are carrion birds. They eat the dead, and they feast after a battle.

They also hover over trouble in the hopes that said trouble will result in some dead for them to eat. Hopefully soon, from their perspective. Which means that if you are a human blessed by the sixth kenning, and your gift is communication with blackwings, you can spot trouble coming before your blackwings get a meal.

And that’s the story of A Blight of Blackwings, the spotting of trouble on the horizon. However, just like in A Plague of Giants, there are lots of blackwings hovering over trouble in lots of places. A concept which the UK cover for the book makes much more clear!

With even more on the horizon by the end of this portion of the Bard’s tale. And it’s awesome every step of the way. For multiple definitions of the word “awe”.

UK cover

Escape Rating A++: To paraphrase Hanima the Hivemistress, this book is the BEST!

This is a huge story, covering an entire world. You do have to have read A Plague of Giants to get into A Blight of Blackwings. If you love epic fantasy you’ll be glad you did. This world-spanning story is a real treat.

That being said, it’s necessary to talk about what makes it such a treat.

A big part of that for me was that the author’s experiment in voice really worked. The author said that he was trying to recreate the feeling of the old bardic tales as Homer used to tell them. While we don’t know what that was really like, what he has created here turns out to be a fascinating way of telling a big story with a huge cast of characters while making sure all of those threads are easy to follow.

The framing story is that Fintan the Bard is telling the tales using the voices and faces of the people who experienced each part, strung together with a bit of what is going on in the city through the eyes of Dervan, the chronicler and confidant of the city’s ruler. So we see what has happened in the past through Fintan’s tale, and what is happening in the present through Dervan’s first-person asides.

I will also say here that the two voice actors do a terrific job of making all of the voices distinct. Even when I switched to reading the ebook I was still hearing their voices in my head and it definitely helped form my picture of who each of the different characters was.

The invention of the “kennings” the magic of this world, is a new take on the whole magic in fantasy idea, and the way that it works underpins the politics and people’s perspective on their world. On the one hand, there’s the sense that the kennings kind of function like the old saying about when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, just writ very, very large.

At the same time those kennings underpin both politics and religion, so the discovery of a sixth and possibly even a seventh upsets a whole fleet of apple carts.

One other thing that makes this magic system different is the price that is paid to wield it. One of the terrible things that frequently happens in other magic systems is that magic is either the ultimate power or so easy to use that everyone gets lazy. The cost of magic in this world is extremely dear, both to acquire it and to use it. Magic users always have to think about whether the ends they have to achieve justify the loss of years of their lives. Perhaps even all the years they have left.

This is also a story where the use of language can shock you with it’s terrible beauty. After discovering that his entire town has been slaughtered in his absence, the leader of a band of hunters reflects that, “Most of us were still in the shock stages of grief, the foyer to a mansion of pain in which I knew we’d dwell for many years. Just beyond, however, a red room beckoned, a spacious expanse for rage, and I had little doubt the entire band would step in there with me for an extended period.” I was struck by that phrase, and chilled by an intense feeling of recognition. It feels right and true and haunting in the vividness of the image. A haunting that returned every time that character refers back to it. Because he’s right, they are all heading for that red room of rage – and possibly taking the rest of the country with them.

We’ll find out in book 3 of the series, tentatively titled A Curse of Krakens. I want it so bad, and I want it now! But I expect I’ll have to wait a couple of years, based on the time between A Plague of Giants and A Blight of Blackwings. And it will be SO worth it!

Review: The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons

Review: The Name of All Things by Jenn LyonsThe Name of All Things (A Chorus of Dragons, #2) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #2
Pages: 589
Published by Tor Books on October 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

You can have everything you want if you sacrifice everything you believe.

Kihrin D'Mon is a wanted man.

Since he destroyed the Stone of Shackles and set demons free across Quur, he has been on the run from the wrath of an entire empire. His attempt to escape brings him into the path of Janel Theranon, a mysterious Joratese woman who claims to know Kihrin.

Janel's plea for help pits Kihrin against all manner of dangers: a secret rebellion, a dragon capable of destroying an entire city, and Kihrin's old enemy, the wizard Relos Var.

Janel believes that Relos Var possesses one of the most powerful artifacts in the world―the Cornerstone called the Name of All Things. And if Janel is right, then there may be nothing in the world that can stop Relos Var from getting what he wants.

And what he wants is Kihrin D'Mon.

Jenn Lyons continues the Chorus of Dragons series with The Name of All Things, the epic sequel to The Ruin of Kings.

My Review:

This is going to be one of those times when I talk around the book as much as I talk about the book. Because this is one hell of a story – one that is still rolling around uneasily in my head – and it’s not done yet. Either the story or in my head.

And I’ll probably say this multiple times in the course of this review, but I want the third book in the trilogy, The Memory of Souls, now. RIGHT NOW. It’s due out in August and that’s just not soon enough. Not nearly.

This series began early in 2019 with The Ruin of Kings. Which was awesome and marvelous and terrific and The Name of All Things is actually better – something that is seldom said either about a sequel or about book two in a trilogy. This is a middle book that does not SUFFER from middle-book syndrome. More like it revels in the parts of that syndrome that it bothers to deal with.

The Ruin of Kings was a sword. The Name of All Things is a stone. I suspect that the Memory of All Things will also turn out to be a stone – but I wouldn’t bet my own money on that.

This is a twisty story where nothing is as it seems. And while it seamlessly blends a whole bunch of elements that shouldn’t be within spitting distance of each other, the resulting wild ride holds the reader’s attention marvelously – and possibly also props the reader’s eyeballs wide open long after they should be closed.

(I couldn’t bear to wait to finish this and spent five hours listening, still wasn’t done and carried the hardcover to bed. I never read hardcovers anymore but I couldn’t stop.)

Like the previous book, The Ruin of Kings, this is an experiment in voice. The way it is told is almost as important as what is being told. The first book was Kihrin’s story, but we’ve already heard Kihrin’s story. This one is Janel’s story, and it takes place simultaneously with that first book. (That’s a huge hint that you need to read both and in order.) But it also takes place three days after the end of that first book as the sometimes hilarious but always trenchant chapter titles make clear.

Kihrin and Janel have finally met, as they are fated to in all sorts of demonic prophecies, and Janel is telling Kihrin and her assembled company of heroes, followers, betrayers and hangers on just what happened to her. But Janel is not the only one telling that story, her narrative alternates with that of her friend, the healer priest Brother Qown. Off in the background, the story is framed by a third party and participant in these events, the mage Senera. She is reporting the story to her master Relos Var. Who may be the villain of the entire piece. Or may in fact be the actual hero. He certainly thinks he is. But then, many villains do.

So the story being told within the story being told makes this an excellent choice for audio, especially as the three in-story narrators are voiced by three different voice actors.

But the story itself is an epic about gods and monsters. Except that neither are exactly that.

The gods in this story, or rather the exceedingly powerful beings who are worshiped as gods, aren’t really gods. (That this parallels the Elven Gods in the world of Dragon Age was rather a surprise.)

At the same time, this is also the story of what appears to be a very long con. Those so-called gods are conning their worshipers into treating them as gods, yes. But they are also doing their best to keep the monster who used to be one of them chained. And failing. Over and over and over again. They may be doing the right thing – or at least the best thing they can under the circumstances. Or they may just be preserving the status quo.

Relos Var wants to tear it all down and start over. He’s trying to set up something like Ragnarok, because he seems to think the best answer is to finally have that ultimate battle and deal with the consequences. He may be right. Or it may just be a very long two-person grift like American Gods. We just don’t know – yet.

But at this point in the story, Relos Var’s help keeps coming at just too high a price. Whether the result is triumph or his head on pike for everyone to wave at is still up in the air. (And that’s a reference from Babylon 5 because Relos Var really, really reminds me of Morden, which means he’s working for the Shadows of ultimate Chaos. Which is entirely possible.)

And in the middle of all of this, we have Janel’s story of her country of Jorat, a place whose social mores and politics are absolutely fascinating, more than a bit subversive, and worthy of an epic all of their own. It’s also the story of someone who thinks they are, or at least can be, the one who is running all the games, only to discover at the end that they are probably one of the suckers who bought the con.

In the end, well, it isn’t the end. This chapter of the story concludes, but the story itself is far from over. And this reader at least didn’t want it to be. I just wanted the next book. Immediately if not sooner.

Escape Rating A++: OK this is the first time I’m officially using this rating. The Name of All Things is epically epic in all the best ways. It’s so good that I added it to my Best of 2019 post even though I was only halfway through at the time. I already knew it was just that damn good. It’s everything that epic fantasy is supposed to be; rich, lush, decadent, other-worldly, beautiful, strange, corrupt and compelling, all at the same time.

This was a rare book where, while I mostly listened to it, I also read the ebook and the hardcover as appropriate. Or necessary. Like at the end where I had 1.5 hours left of listening but under half an hour if I just read the damn thing. Patience is not one of my virtues.

That being said, if you have the time and the inclination, the audio of this is marvelous. Partly that’s because of the way that the story is told, and partly that’s because the voice actors are just that damn good. This is also a rare case where I have to admit that if you run out of time or patience, get the book in print and not ebook. Senera’s commentary in her framing report of the story is footnoted. In audio her comments are inserted as asides. In print, they are footnotes at the bottom of the page. In ebook, they are footnotes at the end of each chapter. Flipping back and forth to the chapter end just to get her commentary is worth it but ANNOYING.

However you get to it, one of the things that is absolutely marvelous in this story is the social commentary that is an integral part of the way that things work in Janel’s country, Jorat. While there’s a whole lot of fascinating stuff about the way that pretty much everything was developed around intelligent “horse” herds and their behavior, what makes it all sing is the separation of sexuality and gender roles. So much of what happens to Janel, and has happened to her, is rooted in the fact that she while she may physically be female, she is a stallion – a leader of the herd. That she is a woman and that she is a leader are not contradictory – although some people want it to be. Women can be stallions, and men can be mares. And it’s completely separate from what genitalia they have as well as utterly separate from what genitalia they prefer for their sexual partners. It’s political and it’s baked into the culture, as are the concepts of edora and thudaje, whether someone is the ruler or the ruled, how that is determined – and how that can be changed.

One of the other things that makes this series so mesmerizing is that it is never a simple contest of good vs. evil. Everything in this world is in shades of gray. The gods are not really gods. However, the demons, for the most part, at least so far, seem to really be demonic. But the characters who commit evil acts, like Relos Var and Senera, may have the best of motives. And may still be evil at the same time. Nothing is clear but everything is compelling.

And I’m compelled. The Memory of Souls can’t come out fast enough.