Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli ClarkA Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Pages: 400
Published by Tordotcom on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city - or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems....

My Review:

From a certain perspective, A Master of Djinn is urban fantasy of the old alternate history school of urban fantasy. Urban fantasy so often revolves around one of two premises, either that magic has always been here, and most of us just haven’t noticed – or the other side of that coin, that once upon a time there was magic that either slowly or quickly left, but that something or someone has made the magic return. Usually with world shaking or world shattering results.

A Master of Djinn is definitely one of those stories where the magic has returned. But it isn’t a story about what happens when that magic returned. Instead, and more interestingly, this is a story that takes place about 50 years later, when the magic has more or less become part of the new fabric of the world and history has adapted around it – whether people have or not.

This story takes place in Cairo – Egypt and definitely not Illinois (a tip of the hat to American Gods which is surprisingly apropos in the end) – in an alternate 1912. The re-introduction of magic has changed the world in a whole lot of ways while at the same time the great forces of history that brought about World War I in our history are still very much in train. A train that might still be forced off the metaphorical rails – but might not. And will certainly cause worldwide destruction either way.

At the same time, also very much a part of urban fantasy, there’s a mystery to solve. And someone to solve it, in this case Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fatma is one of the few women in an agency that is still mostly male dominated, and a native Egyptian in a world where Egypt has thrown off the yoke of British colonial power – no matter how reluctant the British are to accept that the Raj is dying and that the new world order looks like it will push the countries with old magic – the countries they once colonized – into the forefront.

The case that Fatma has to solve very much intertwines the new world and the old. From the very outset, it seems like it’s a crime of magic. And so it is. But like all the best of urban fantasy, which A Master of Djinn very much is, magic may be the modus operandi but it is not the reason behind any or all of the crimes involved.

Someone in Cairo wants to become the master of all the djinn that have become part of the city’s rise to power, and part of the brave new world that they brought with them. And they don’t care how much of the city – or the world – they have to destroy in order to get their way.

After all, the aphorism about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, is entirely, completely and utterly about humans. Especially the human at the heart of this case.

Escape Rating A++: Honestly, I want to just sit here and squee. A lot. This was amazingly awesome from beginning to end and I don’t say that lightly. This is one of those stories that made me think pretty much all the thoughts and I’m still reeling a bit from the absolutely epic book hangover.

I also think the 400 page count is a bit of an underestimate. This is a lot of book, in scope, in depth and in size. If It sounds interesting but you’re wondering whether you will like it or not, there are three very short reads set in the same universe but not direct prequels to this story. So if this universe sounds like fun, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is only 32 pages and is available free at Tor.com,  A Dead Djinn in Cairo is only 45 pages and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is 116 pages. Long enough to give you a taste without devoting the weekend that A Master of Djinn really, really consumes.

And I’m telling you that because I loved this book and just want to shove it at people to read. I’m not above using ANY of the short works in this universe as a gateway drug in order to accomplish that.

Speaking of gateway drugs, two books that A Master of Djinn reminded me of A LOT are Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone and Snake Agent by Liz Williams. In combination, they represent two of the elements of the Dead Djinn Universe, that mix of the cities powered by magic and worlds where the divine and the supernatural walk among humans as ordinary citizens. Three Parts Dead has a similar steampunk “feel” as A Master of Djinn while Snake Agent is also urban fantasy in that the continuing character is a government agent who solves crimes involving the supernatural and the other-than or more-than human.

One more digression, probably not the last. The way that the world has been pushed onto a new axis has endless possibilities and not just in Agent Fatma’s Cairo. This is a world where the colonizers have all been pushed hard off their thrones and dominions because they either don’t have old magic in their history and/or have deliberately pushed aside and suppressed old magic in the places they thought they “conquered”. It’s not all djinn. We already know it’s not djinn in Germany because we meet Kaiser Wilhelm and his goblin advisor. It’s not going to be djinn in the Americas, either. But whoever and whatever comes back wherever, the colonizers are already the ones finding themselves ground under someone else’s bootheel – and they don’t like it and are going to fight back. All of which has the potential to be totally epic.

But those are stories for another day. Today we have Agent Fatma, her Cairo, and the would-be master of the djinn. Who don’t want a master at all – thankyouverymuch.

The story is mostly told from Fatma’s perspective, although not in the first-person. It’s more that she’s the character we follow rather than seeing the story from inside her head. Still, I think the reader needs to like her and feel for her as she does her best to work the case that has the powers-that-be so upset. As I most definitely did.

She’s caught between frustrations and multiple nexus (nexi?) of power. She’s a woman in what is still a man’s world, constantly needing to prove herself by being better than the best. At which she mostly succeeds.

At the same time, she’s part of a world that is, in its entirety, in the midst of change. Not just the change that women are slowly but steadily invading what were formerly all-male preserves, but also a world where the political status quo has turned upside down. While the political and economic power in Egypt and elsewhere around the world has been taken out of the hands of the British and other colonizers and returned to the citizens and residents – and their own elected or hereditary leadership – who are part of the once-colonies – there is still plenty of residual feeling, both reverence and resentment – for individuals who used to be part of the colonial power structure.

And money always talks. The rich are still different from you and me, as that saying goes. The wealthy, in any time and place and of any origin, are able to buy their own version of justice.

We follow Fatma as she navigates those waters, balancing her need to investigate the case, her necessity of not pissing off her bosses and getting herself demoted or fired, her desire to protect her city and those she loves, and the absolute necessity of exposing a criminal who is trying not just to reach the sky and touch the sun, but to bring it down to earth and make it work at her command.

Fatma will need all of her wits and all of her friends in both high and low places in order to bring justice and save not just her city but her world from utter destruction. As we follow her on her quest, we learn exactly why she’s the right woman – and the right agent – for the job.

I sincerely hope we get to read more of her adventures, because she’s awesome and so is her story.

Review: Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Review: Behind the Throne by K.B. WagersBehind the Throne (The Indranan War #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #1
Pages: 413
Published by Orbit on August 2, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Meet Hail: Captain. Gunrunner. Fugitive.
Quick, sarcastic, and lethal, Hailimi Bristol doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has made a name for herself in the galaxy for everything except what she was born to do: rule the Indranan Empire. That is, until two Trackers drag her back to her home planet to take her rightful place as the only remaining heir.
But trading her ship for a palace has more dangers than Hail could have anticipated. Caught in a web of plots and assassination attempts, Hail can't do the one thing she did twenty years ago: run away. She'll have to figure out who murdered her sisters if she wants to survive.
A gun smuggler inherits the throne in this Star Wars-style science fiction adventure from debut author K. B. Wagers. Full of action-packed space opera exploits and courtly conspiracy - not to mention an all-out galactic war - Behind the Throne will please fans of James S. A Corey, Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold, or anyone who wonders what would happen if a rogue like Han Solo were handed the keys to an empire . . .

My Review:

The blurb talks about Star Wars, implies that Hail Bristol is someone like Han Solo who has just found themselves at the head of an empire. But that isn’t strictly true and sets up a whole lot of assumptions about who Hail Bristol is and what she might do as empress. It also sets up some false expectation of just how much running and gunning there will be in this space opera.

But that reference to Lois McMaster Bujold hits the nail a LOT closer to the head, particularly as regards Bujold’s definition of science fiction as the “romance of political agency” because this first book in the Indranan War trilogy is ALL up in the politics of the Indranan Empire in a very big way.

Even if it’s the absolute last place that Hail Bristol EVER wanted to be again.

If this series, at least as far as this book goes, has a Star Wars analogy in it, the resemblance sits much more firmly on Princess Leia’s braided crown. If Leia ran away from her responsibilities as Princess, Senator and leader of the Rebel Alliance to take up with Han Solo and live the life he’s been leading as a mercenary and gunrunner for twenty years, the person she’d be at the end of those decades would be someone like Hail.

Because, as Hail discovers the deeper she gets stuck back into Imperial politics, you can take the girl out of the palace intrigue but you can’t take the talent for palace intrigue out of the girl, not even after twenty years of becoming the woman she has become, a gunrunner, a mercenary, and most definitely when the job calls for it, a killer.

And that’s just who and what the Indranan Empire needs when Hail is dragged back to the palace to take up her rightful but resented place as Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the last remaining heir of the Empress of Indrana.

Hail’s sisters and her niece are all dead. “Gone to temple” as they say in Indrana. Her mother is dying, poisoned by a slow-acting drug that is about to reach its endpoint – and hers.. It’s going to be up to Hail to find out who eliminated her family – and who is now gunning (and knifing, and bombing) for her.

It’s going to take a killer to catch all the killers – before it’s too late. For Hail – and for Indrana.

Escape Rating A++: I picked up Behind the Throne because I absolutely adored the author’s A Pale Light in the Black, which is also space opera and also the first book in its series. I loved the writing, the world building, and the way that the characters are drawn, and I just wanted more and wanted a story that I would be sucked right into and wouldn’t want to leave. I started this in audio and fell in love with it, but audio was just not going fast enough so I switched to the ebook fairly early on. I did listen long enough that every time Hail says “Bugger me,” which she does often, with good reason and plenty of emphasis, I hear the voice of the audiobook narrator – who was excellent.

This story isn’t the action-oriented adventure that the blurb makes it out to be. It was published in 2016, so that is certainly known and I wasn’t expecting it to be. I was expecting it to be like A Pale Light in the Black, and it definitely is that.

The characters are well-drawn. They feel like real people – admittedly real people in a very unreal situation. Hail has made a life for herself, a life that she’s good at. She doesn’t want to go back for reasons that become obvious early on and are not the result of the current crisis. She didn’t want the life that she’d have been required to lead if she stayed – so she went. Coming back to pick up the pieces of that life is hard and painful and makes her do and think and feel realistic things. She feels inadequate, she feels guilty, she sees herself stepping back into old patterns, she’s lost, she’s confused – and she’s driven. All at the same time.

This is also a story about trust. Trust in yourself, and trust in others. Hail returns to the palace knowing that the only people she trusts are either missing or dead. And that the life she thought she’d built for herself was based on not just one lie, but on a whole damn pack of lies, so she’s lost trust in herself as well.

But she has to find people she can trust, if not absolutely then at least trust enough, to help her wade through the morass and save herself and her empire. And that exercise, of figuring out who is on which side and why and how and whether it’s enough, is a big part of this story.

Because, just like the protagonist of A Pale Light in the Black, Hail is building a team that will see her through. If she trusts them enough. If they trust her enough. And if they are all absolutely excellent at their very difficult jobs.

In the end, in spite of how different their origin stories are, the character that Hail reminds me of the most is Emperox Grayland II in The Collapsing Empire and the rest of Scalzi’s Interdependency series. Although the crises they face are very different, Grayland and Hail come at them from the same direction. They are both outsiders to their respective Imperial systems and Imperial politics, stuck in positions they didn’t want but must defend at every single turn.

Even though they are both extremely unconventional for the positions they hold, their very unconventionality makes them not just the only people by inheritance for those positions at the time they are forced to take them, but the only people by talent, skill and capacity to pull the nuts of their respective empires out of the fires that they have inherited along with their thrones.

So if space opera is your jam, or if you love stories with terrific SFnal worldbuilding and absolute craptons of political skullduggery, Behind the Throne is a winner on every level along with its gunrunner empress Hail Bristol.

I’m already buckled up for Hail’s next adventure/imperial catastrophe in After the Crown, because this ride isn’t over yet and that is the most excellent thing ever!

Review: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

Review: The Memory of Souls by Jenn LyonsThe Memory of Souls (A Chorus of Dragons, #3) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #3
Pages: 640
Published by Tor Books on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Memory of Souls is the third epic fantasy in Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series.
THE LONGER HE LIVESTHE MORE DANGEROUS HE BECOMES
Now that Relos Var’s plans have been revealed and demons are free to rampage across the empire, the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies—and the end of the world—is closer than ever.
To buy time for humanity, Kihrin needs to convince the king of the Manol vané to perform an ancient ritual which will strip the entire race of their immortality, but it’s a ritual which certain vané will do anything to prevent. Including assassinating the messengers.
Worse, Kihrin must come to terms with the horrifying possibility that his connection to the king of demons, Vol Karoth, is growing steadily in strength.
How can he hope to save anyone when he might turn out to be the greatest threat of them all?

My Review:

This shouldn’t work. It really, really shouldn’t. But it oh so very much does.

The Memory of Souls is the third book (out of five, dammit) in A Chorus of Dragons. With each book, the plot gets more convoluted, the politics get both more corrupt and even more twisted, the cast of characters grows almost exponentially, and things go pear-shaped so often and in so many different and competing ways that the shape has become a permanent condition.

And it all just keeps getting better and better with each installment.

The whole thing is also so inverted and convoluted and twisted and upside-down and every other direction that it should take forever to get into each new book. But it doesn’t. The minute I start, I’m instantly sucked right back in, and all the insane details come rushing right back.

At least the details I think I know. Part of the incredible charm of this series so far is that what I think I know, for that matter what the characters think they know, keeps doing handstands and kickstands and headstands.

Nothing is as it seems. Or perhaps it’s better to say that no one is as they seem. Or both. Definitely both.

The Ruin of Kings was a sword. The Name of All Things was one of the cornerstones of this world. Following the pattern, I was expecting The Memory of Souls to be an object of some sort.

But it’s not. It’s literally the memory that souls carry with them of who they were, in ALL their previous lives. It’s as if, in the iconic Star Wars scene, instead of saying, “Luke, I am your father” Vader had said, “Luke, in my last life I was your father.” Which actually happens to one of the characters in THIS story, and it has just as much impact.

That’s a big part of the way that this entry in the series makes everything more and more and even more complex. Because all of the protagonists don’t just know who they are – for sideways definitions of “who” and “they” and “are” – but they also remember who they have been in all of their previous lives.

Every single relationship in the present is complicated by the relationships in the past. In a previous life, Teraeth and Janel were married. In that previous life, Kihrin was the son she died birthing. Although in a previous life to that one, Kihrin and Janel were lovers. In this life they’re probably going to end up as a triad, if they survive – GIGANTIC IF – and if they can manage to get past all of the crap they’re all dragging from all of the previous relationships between them.

Theirs isn’t even the most complicated. In this life, Doc is Teraeth’s father. The Goddess of Death is Teraeth’s mother. And Doc’s wife Valathea used to be Kihrin’s harp. Like I said, it’s complicated.

This is also one of those epic fantasies that I refer to as “walking like a duck and quacking like a duck but not actually being a duck.” Like Pern. A Chorus of Dragons reads like fantasy, including magic and those dragons. But the original people on this planet are all interplanetary refugees. So it’s also sorta/kinda science fiction-y.

And it absolutely has to be read in order to make any kind of sense. So you care about Kihrin and Janel and Teraeth and Thurvishar – and whether any of them are going to manage to survive the saving and destroying of the world. Because they’re probably going to be simultaneous. Or close to it. And possibly even in that order.

Unless Kihrin manages to find another way to get them all out of the mess that the beings known as the 8 Immortals, or the 8 Guardians, who are thought of as gods but definitely are not, have gotten them all into.

Whether Relos Var, who began as the villain and may still be the villain, or maybe not, is planning to save the world or end it or both. This is literally a story about the end of the world as they know it, and so far, nobody feels fine. At all. Or thinks they ever will again. In any life.

Escape Rating A++: Last year’s entry in this series, The Name of All Things, was the first time I officially gave an A++ rating. The Memory of Souls is a worthy successor. This is a rare case where an epic fantasy series seems to just keep getting better and better as it goes along – as well as getting way more complicated – while still remaining fascinating and comprehensible to anyone who has been along for the entire ride.

In other words, and I really can’t say this enough, you can’t start here, you have to start at the beginning – and it is so worth it.

I have the eARC of this one. I’m generally an ebook reader. But this is one story where the audiobook is vastly superior. There are several reasons for this. One is just the way that the story is being told. In this entry, Kihrin and Thurvishar are reading pieces of the story to each other, up until the very last chapter when Thurvishar is left to, let’s call it, speculate about what happened after he and Kihrin parted company.

They’re reading their own personal accounts plus every other scrap of information that Thurvishar, seemingly the official chronicler, has managed to gather. But Thurvishar is a historian and an academic, as well as, in the opinion of at least one of their sometime companions, a storyteller who can’t seem to resist making things up on entirely too many occasions. As he does at the end of this book.

Which also means that Thurvishar doesn’t just read his own parts to Kihrin, he can’t manage to stop himself from commenting on ALL of the parts, adding facts and opinions willy nilly. Something which works fantastically well in audio, and fails miserably in an ebook. Making this a rare case where my first choice would be the audio and the hardback second.

Especially considering that the readers for this entry in the series, Feodor Chin and Vikas Adam, are utterly fantastic. I just wish I was 100% certain which of them is Kihrin and which is Thurvishar. It doesn’t matter for the enjoyment of the audio, I just really, really want to know.

I finished the audio in the middle of Atlanta rush-hour traffic and just kind of sat there and stewed as I drove the rest of the way home. This series gives rise to absolutely epic book hangovers, fitting for this truly epic series.

I expect this series to just continue getting better and better. After all, The Memory of Souls is a middle-book that completely ignores that it’s a middle book, refuses to end in a slough of despond and instead leaves the reader hanging, absolutely on fire, at the edge of a cliff.

I can’t wait for book four, The House of Always, scheduled for May of 2021. Not nearly damn soon enough. Although I’m still laughing about the God of Little Houses. And you will, too.

Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi NovikA Deadly Education (Scholomance, #1) by Naomi Novik
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Scholomance #1
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Lesson One of the Scholomance
Learning has never been this deadly
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

My Review:

As an institution, Scholomance makes Hogwarts seem like a well-run – and safe – place to learn magic. As a story the Scholomance just plain kicks Harry Potter’s little adventures to the curb. And A Deadly Education – which it so very much is – is only the first book in what promises to be an absolutely epic series.

The comparisons to Hogwarts feel inevitable. And the Scholomance is definitely a series to read after Harry Potter – or perhaps instead, all things considered. But that inevitable comparison feels like it barely scratches the surface of what the Scholomance really is – if it touches it at all.

Hogwarts is dangerous because the students are learning magic, which is dangerous, and because the adults who are theoretically in charge are either pursuing their own agendas or just doing a really lousy job at running a school.

In the Scholomance, there are no adults. There are no teachers. The entire system is, in fact, dangerous by design. It’s intent is to weed out – read that as kill off – at least half of each incoming class before – or as – they graduate. The only exit from the place is either in a pine box or through a gauntlet of the toughest, meanest, nastiest, most vicious and bloodthirsty monsters ever to grace a nightmare.

Only the strong – or the magically well-connected – survive. The process is designed to teach the children of the elite how to be ruthless little Machiavellians, by throwing the magically talented hoi polloi in as servants and cannon-fodder.

In other words, underneath its magic and mayhem, its rules and its deprivations, this is a story about privilege. And it’s the story of one young woman determined to break the back of that privilege, not so she can come out on top – but so that she can survive with her soul intact.

Against every force that expects her to fail by either dying or turning into everyone’s worst nightmare – including her own..

Escape Rating A++: This story reminded me of so many things, most of them made awesome or awesomer by forming a piece of this marvelous, fantastic world.

We view the Scholomance, and by extension the world that produced it, through the eyes of Galadriel Higgins, a junior at the Scholomance. While El may be the heroine of this story, she’s not in any way a typical heroine. She’s more like an underdog, in a system that is designed to keep people like her permanently underdogs – right up until they get killed so that some Enclaver’s kid (read that as elite class) survives.

But El isn’t what she appears to be. Well, she isn’t all that she appears to be. And that’s both her story and her problem.

There’s something about El that puts people off. She knows it, and she’s reached the point in her life where she knows that the chill she sends up most people’s spines is something they’ll just have to get over when they realize just how awesomely powerful she is. In the meantime, she’s as sarcastic and rude as she can possibly be, so that no one tries to get close to her – where they can hurt her.

El is meant, destined by fate, to be the dark lady version of Galadriel the Elven Queen. The one who proclaims that “all shall love me and despair” right before she rejects the One Ring. Like Galadriel herself, El refuses to give in to all the power that fate has handed her to be destructive.

She reminds me of what Granny Weatherwax from the Discworld must have been like as a young woman. A young woman who was intended to be evil, but ended up being so sharply good that she cut everything in her path with that sharpness. Including, on more than one occasion, herself.

Something that El does to herself rather often.

But El is still young, and there’s still a soft gooey center under that prickly exterior. She wants to be liked. She wants to have friends. She’s just convinced that it can’t happen for her. And that she’ll die, if not of loneliness, than of all of the things that hide in the shadows of the Scholomance ready to consume any students who don’t have the protection of a pack, or a posse, or just, well, friends.

El, as the bad witch determined to be good, runs directly into the school’s hero, the young man Orion Lake, child of every privilege that El has never experienced in her entire life. Just as fate is determined to cast El in the role of the wicked witch, it’s determined that Orion will be the unthinking, self-sacrificing hero of every tale until he dies.

But he not only lives, he upsets the balance of the school. Because 50% or more of the students are supposed to die over the course of their education, and Orion Lake is saving many too many of them. There’s never quite enough food for the entire student body, and the monsters are so desperately hungry that they are breaking down the walls and wards that keep most of the students safe from the biggest and baddest of the lot.

So Orion will just have to save everyone again. And again. But this time, El will be there, not to protect him from the monsters – but to protect him from the other students who are determined to use him until there’s nothing left.

I said that this is a story about privilege, and that concept underpins everything. The system is designed for the elite to survive, and the system keeps itself going by holding out the carrot that a few, select members of the underdog class can become elite if they are strong enough, brave enough and powerful enough – or if they are willing to abase themselves for their entire school career in the hopes that they’ll get lucky and survive the monsters’ graduation feeding frenzy.

El knows that her best chance of survival is to get herself attached to one of the elite Enclave groups, but she can’t do it. Not that she’s not capable of it, and not that it isn’t offered, but that she can’t let herself do it. She knows she should get herself into a situation where life will finally be unfair in her favor, as it is for the Enclavers, but she’s seen just how rotten that system is and she can’t make herself part of it.

Instead, she does her best to not merely expose it, but actually to subvert it, knowing that she’s asking people to examine the very air that they breathe and discover that it’s foul even though it’s supporting them not just fine but actually better than fine.

I can’t imagine that she’s going to succeed, but it’s going to be fun to watch her try. The second book in the series, The Last Graduate, looks like it will be out next year. Based just on the very last line of A Deadly Education, it’s going to be another marvelously wild ride.

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
Goodreads

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!)

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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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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!