Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. WagersBeyond the Empire (The Indranan War, #3) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #3
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 14, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The adrenaline-fueled, explosive conclusion to the Indranan War trilogy by K. B. Wagers.
Gunrunner-turned-Empress Hail Bristol was dragged back to her home planet to take her rightful place in the palace. Her sisters and parents have been murdered, and the Indranan Empire is reeling from both treasonous plots and foreign invasion.Now, on the run from enemies on all fronts, Hail prepares to fight a full-scale war for her throne and her people, even as she struggles with the immense weight of the legacy thrust upon her. With the aid of a motley crew of allies old and new, she must return home to face off with the same powerful enemies who killed her family and aim to destroy everything and everyone she loves. Untangling a legacy of lies and restoring peace to Indrana will require an empress's wrath and a gunrunner's justice.

My Review:

This rose to the top of the TBR pile because my husband is playing the Mass Effect Legendary Edition and has been for the past three weeks. We’ve both played the Trilogy before, so we both know how the story ends. I picked up Beyond the Empire because I was looking for a female-led big space opera story (he’s playing as FemShep) that hopefully doesn’t have as heartbreaking an ending as Mass Effect 3 did. Does. That entire third game is a goddamn farewell tour and it just hurts. I may not replay it after all because as the old song says, “you won’t read that book again because the ending’s just too hard to take.”

The action of Beyond the Empire follows directly upon the events of After the Crown, which, in its turn, started just about the minute after Behind the Throne ended. In other words, this is not the place to begin Hail’s story. If you love big space operas with snarky heroines and dirty, rotten underhanded politics as much as I do, start with Behind the Throne and be prepared to immerse yourself in a fantastic binge read.

As this story begins, Hail and her company of friends, advisors and found family are on the run. In trilogy terms, this beginning is similar to the opening of The Return of the King, where the situation looks desperate and Aragorn and the Rangers have to take the Paths of the Dead while Sam has started out alone for Mordor. In other words, the situation is in a very dark place but there are ways they can retake the empire IF they are willing to take a hell of a lot of risks.

Empress Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the empress formerly known as the gunrunner Cressen Stone, is always up for entirely too many risks. She’s just not used to so much and so many people riding on her success – or dying for her failure.

But a gunrunner-turned-reluctant-empress is the only person who could possibly rescue Hail’s friends, her found family, her loved ones and especially her empire, before it’s too late for them all.

Escape Rating A+: This was, again, the right book at the right time. Both for the Mass Effect Trilogy with a less destructive ending (any ending is less destructive and heartbreaking than the end of that saga) and for its “woman in charge who takes no prisoners” heroine. Because I’ve read too many books recently where women are at the mercy of men, and I just wasn’t there for THAT again at the moment. (Although there’s an irony in that desire that turns out to be part of the denouement of this trilogy that I’m not going to go into here.)

As Hail and company close in physically on the home planet and the capitol, and close the noose around their enemies, they also finally draw close to the architect of everything that has happened, not just in this trilogy, but in pretty much everything that has gone wrong or strange or tragic in Hail’s life since her father was killed and she ran away to become Cressen Stone and chase down his killer.

I’m referring to the mysterious “Wilson” who seems to be more ghost than man. Who has disappeared and reappeared to wreck destruction in Hail’s life over and over for the past 20 years, and who seems to be the architect – or perhaps the puppet master – behind all Hail’s recent tragedies.

The mystery of who and how and why Wilson has been after Hail’s family and her empire has lain behind every event in this series. As Hail closes in on Pashati and retaking the seat of her empire, she and her companions also close in on Wilson’s true identity and the reasons behind his decades-long campaign to destroy the Indranan Empire and its ruling family.

Wilson is clearly out for revenge for something – even if Hail has no idea what.

But, as that other old saying goes (a lot of old sayings seem to be turning up in this one), if revenge is a dish best served cold, then this story, in fact this whole trilogy, turns out to be a case study in what happens when someone lets their cold revenge warm up. Wilson has let his revenge heat to a boiling point, along with his temper, his ego and his aggression, and that revenge curdles as much and as badly as you think it will. But the story that results from that curdle is absolutely EPIC.

Having finished Beyond the Empire in a few all-too-brief hours, and after picking it up because I wasn’t ready to deal with another big space opera with a heartbreaking ending, I’m “pleased as Punch”, as that saying goes, to say that while Hail’s butt seems to be firmly on the throne of the Indranan Empire at the end of Beyond the Empire, her adventures are FAR from over. Her future adventures form the second trilogy in this series, The Farian War, beginning with There Before the Chaos – a fitting title if ever there was one, as Hail is usually around before, during AND after the chaos. I have it in both ebook and audio, and I’m looking forward to diving into it the next time I need a reading pick-me-up.

Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl GregoryThe Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Daryl Gregory's The Album of Dr. Moreau combines the science fiction premise of the famous novel by H. G. Wells with the panache of a classic murder mystery and the spectacle of a beloved boy band.
It’s 2001, and the WyldBoyZ are the world’s hottest boy band, and definitely the world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group. When their producer, Dr. M, is found murdered in his hotel room, the “boyz” become the prime suspects. Was it Bobby the ocelot (“the cute one”), Matt the megabat (“the funny one”), Tim the Pangolin (“the shy one”), Devin the bonobo (“the romantic one”), or Tusk the elephant (“the smart one”)?
Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has only twenty-four hours to solve a case that goes all the way back to the secret science barge where the WyldBoyZ’ journey first began—a place they used to call home.

My Review:

It’s not a surprise to say that this story ties back to The Island of Dr. Moreau, a classic mixture of SF and horror by H.G. Wells. The punch in the gut at the end is the WAY in which it reaches back and grabs the reader by the heart – and the throat.

But that’s all the way at the end. Along the way it’s pretty easy to lose sight of that past while being completely immersed in the book’s very wild and extremely woolly present.

And I’m not just talking about the WildBoyZ themselves – as wild and definitely woolly – or at least furry – as some of them are. I’m not even talking about their “rabid fans” who are, in their own ways, even stranger than the Boyz they follow.

Oh no, I’m talking about the world of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and boy bands. If you’ve ever wondered whether the members of boy bands are cloned instead of merely born and nipped and tucked and botoxed and trained. Or however else it might actually happen that may honestly be weirder than this story.

In the middle of all of the sheer WTF’ery of a boy band on tour, there’s a murder mystery. A real, honest-to-goodness police procedural in a case and a place where all of the police’s normal procedures have been kicked out a penthouse window because 1) the victim is the evil, grasping manager of the above mentioned boy band, and every single one of the WildBoyZ is a suspect; and 2) the murder happens in Las Vegas, which isn’t a place where real world rules apply anyway – even if those rules applied to the hottest band EVAR. Which they don’t.

It’s the police, especially Detectives Luce Delgado and her partner, who hold this story together, even as they attempt to hold the WildBoyZ in Sin City long enough to figure out whodunnit and how.

But it’s the why of the whole thing that kicks the reader in the teeth at the end.

Escape Rating A+: I haven’t read a mashup between SF and Mystery that was this much fun since Bimbos of the Death Sun, and that’s a very long time ago indeed. But where Bimbos uses SF, or rather an SF convention, as the setting for an otherwise traditional murder mystery so it can poke fun at the genre, The Album of Dr. Moreau is SF after all, just with a murder on top rather like a 200 proof cherry on top of a drugged and drunken sundae.

The SF is in the boyz themselves. However they came to exist – which isn’t revealed until the end – the kind of genetic manipulation required to blend animal and human DNA into a person with traits from both sides of that equation is science gone in a direction we haven’t managed yet. (And this is what this story takes from its progenitor. You don’t have to read The Island of Dr. Moreau to get into the Album. If you’re not familiar with the barebones of the older story, the summary in Wikipedia is more than enough to get a reader up to speed.)

So Dolly the cloned sheep carried out to the nth degree – who does get referred to – absolutely does science fiction make.

It also raises, begs, explores and twists the question of exactly what is required to consider someone human. Or self-aware and sentient and eligible for all the rights and responsibilities generally conferred thereunto. It’s a question we still seem to suck at answering – or rather that some people don’t like the answers that science makes clear.

On the one hand, this story is both amazingly fun and incredibly funny. It lampoons boy bands, fandom and fan culture and the cult of celebrity and what it takes to enter that rarefied atmosphere and maintain a place there. The humor is black and deadpan and spot on at every turn.

On the other, there’s the dark underbelly about youth and innocence and exploitation. And hidden below that cesspit, there are alphabet agencies and conspiracy theories. It’s mucky and murky all the way down, and all the laughs turn out to be gallows humor – sometimes complete with actual gallows.

But the question of whether anyone deserves to hang for the murder – well, that answer was both perfectly surprising and absolutely perfect in its fine application of justice.

I think that The Album of Dr. Moreau deserves to go platinum. I hope you’ll think so too.

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison EpsteinA Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 384
Published by Doubleday Books on February 9, 2021
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Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant aspiring playwright, is pulled into the duplicitous world of international espionage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. A many-layered historical thriller combining state secrets, intrigue, and romance.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, who has come with an unorthodox career opportunity. Her Majesty's spies are in need of new recruits, and Kit's flexible moral compass has drawn their attention. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to act as a servant in her household and keep his ear to the ground for a Catholic plot to put Mary on the throne.
While observing Mary, Kit learns more than he bargained for. The ripple effects of his service to the Crown are far-reaching and leave Kit a changed man. But there are benefits as well. The salary he earns through his spywork allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years, he becomes the toast of London's raucous theatre scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason, he realizes everything he's worked so hard to attain--including the trust of the man he loves--could vanish before his very eyes.
Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth's privy council, Marlowe's lovable theatre troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life as Kit wends his way behind the scenes of some of Tudor history's most memorable moments. At the center of the action is Kit himself--an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature. Thrillingly written, full of poetry and danger, A Tip for the Hangman brings an unforgettable protagonist to new life, and makes a centuries-old story feel utterly contemporary.

My Review:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” Whoops. Wrong book. Right concept, but very much the wrong book. Much too early.

Elizabethan England only seems like a Golden Age because we’re looking back at it. Because history is written by the victors, and in this case the victor was Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana herself.

Anonymous 16th century portrait, believed to be Christopher Marlowe

What history glosses over are the dirty deeds done, whether or not they are dirt cheap, by unscrupulous men in dark places who pretend they are working for the good of their country – even if they are just out for the main chance.

Christopher Marlowe, often referred to as Kit, was a comet blazing across the English stage just as William Shakespeare was getting his start. It’s even possible, although unlikely, that Marlowe actually was Shakespeare. He’s got the credentials for it and the timing is possible.

On the condition that Marlowe faked his own rather suspicious death in a barroom brawl. We’ll probably never know.

But this book, this story wrapped around not one but several tips for any number of hangmen, leads the reader – and Kit Marlowe – to that suspicious barroom brawl by a road that is surprising, circuitous and shrouded in secrets. The kind of secrets that brought one queen to her end and saved another’s kingdom.

Escape Rating A+: A Tip for the Hangman is the best kind of historical fiction, the kind where the reader feels the dirt under their fingernails, the grit under their own feet – and the smells in their own nostrils.

It’s also the kind that immerses the reader in the era it portrays. We’re right there with Marlowe, a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, as he becomes Doctor Faustus to his own personal Mephistopheles a decade before he wrote his most enduring play.

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

It’s hard to get past that image, even though we only see it in retrospect, as the Queen’s Spymaster and Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, recruits the young, impoverished and most importantly clever Marlowe into his network of agents and informants with one aim in mind.

To bring down Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

A recruitment which ultimately becomes Mary’s end. But eventually also Marlowe’s as well.

Marlowe spends the entire book dancing on the edge of a knife, trying to forget that he’ll be cut no matter which way he falls and ignoring the forces around him, along with his own increasing world-weariness, that guarantee he will fall sooner or later.

There’s something about this period, the Tudor and Stuart era of English history, that has always captivated me. This book does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the cut and thrust not of politics so much as the skullduggery that lies underneath it.

As I was reading A Tip for the Hangman, my mind dragged up two series that I loved that feature the same period and have many characters that overlap this book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age puts an urban fantasy/portal twist on this period and includes both Marlowe and Shakespeare as featured characters, while Dorothy Dunnett’s marvelous Lymond series focuses on a character who spies on many of the same people that Marlowe does here, most notably Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond’s frequent second, third and fourth thoughts about the life he has fallen into echo Marlowe in the depths of regret and even despair.

A Tip for the Hangman is a fantastic book for those looking for their history and historical fiction to be “warts and all” – to immerse the reader in life as it was lived and not just the deeds and doings of the high and mighty. Because when it comes to conveying a more nuanced version of life as a hard-scrabbling playwright living hand to mouth and fearing that the hand would get cut off this feels like an absorbing story of fiction being the lie that tells, if not THE absolute truth then absolutely a certain kind of truth.

I would also say, “Read it and weep” for Kit Marlowe and what he might have been if he’d lived. Instead, I’ll just say “READ IT!”

Review: What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris + Giveaway

Review: What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris + GiveawayWhat the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr, #16) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #16
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on April 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sebastian St. Cyr thought a notorious serial killer had been brought to justice until a shocking series of gruesome new murders stuns the city in this thrilling historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Who Speaks for the Damned.
It's October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe's diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.
In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect--a young seaman named John Williams--was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.
Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym's colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question--who was and why are they dead set on killing again?

My Review:

If you like your historical mystery very much on the dark and gritty side, you absolutely cannot go wrong with Sebastian St. Cyr. The feeling of being in his moment with him is so strong that the reader just can’t turn their eyes away until the mystery is solved – and that’s been true for 16 books now and hopefully counting.

Because it’s clear at the end of What the Devil Knows that this particular mystery may be solved – for certain definitions of the word solved – but that there are many greater – and lesser – mysteries yet to be revealed.

The most important being the mystery of St. Cyr’s very existence. Although his current case is less personal and a whole lot bloodier.

When St. Cyr is called in to investigate the grisly death of a corrupt magistrate, he knows that the case is already bigger than it seems as it appears that the perpetrator of the heinous Ratcliff Highway Murders (the original murders really happened) has struck again. But that man was executed three years previously, and the killings stopped. Even the doubters were silenced in the intervening three years.

But as St. Cyr investigates the latest murders, he becomes certain that there was a rush to judgment, aided and abetted by the government who needed to calm a roiling – and occasionally rioting – populace. The need for reform was in direct conflict with the government’s fear of a revolution every bit as destructive to the upper classes – and the country as a whole – as the French Revolution that was not just within living memory, but whose results were still being felt.

No one in the government, especially not St. Cyr’s father-in-law Charles Jarvis, the power behind the Prince Regent’s self-indulgent, shaky, profligate regency, wants St. Cyr to poke his nose into the original case. It’s too obvious that there was a fix in, and too many people involved in that fix have died in its wake.

And that’s just what St. Cyr finds. Three new and very flashy murders connected to that original miscarriage of justice. Along with a whole lot of very, very quiet stabbings in the dark.

Escape Rating A+: One of the things that makes this series so marvelous is the way that it exposes the dark underbelly of the Regency. As a result of the popularity of Georgette Heyer’s sparkling Regency romances, when we think of the period we think of romantic aristocrats, the strict rules of the haut ton, and a lot of glitz and glamour.

St. Cyr’s restless investigations into the seamier side of the Regency, reveals all of the creeping, oozing, frightening things that you find when you kick over a rock, just that in this case the rock is very, very shiny and hides more muck than expected because we’ve all been blinded by that shine.

It’s not just that bad things happen to bad people – although they do – or even that bad things happen to good people – but it’s the way that so much of what is wrong has been perpetrated and perpetuated by those in power, supposedly for the greater good. Or at least for Britain’s good. But usually for their own good.

And all of that has resonance for the 21st century while still leaving St. Cyr as a man of his own time. He’s someone who is on the outside of both worlds and has the intelligence and the vision to see what is wrong along with the will not to turn his eyes away.

That’s what makes him a hero worth following from one investigation and one mystery to another, 16 books and very much hopefully counting.

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

This is the second book giveaway for my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, and it’s also the second time that a book in the St. Cyr series has come out just in time for me to include among the week’s giveaways.

The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by C.S. Harris (up to $25 US to include What the Devil Knows), whether in the St. Cyr series or written as Candice Proctor or C.S. Graham. If you have not yet had the pleasure of making Sebastian St. Cyr’s acquaintance, I recommend starting that series at the beginning in What Angels Fear.

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Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith HunterJunkyard Bargain (Shining Smith #2) by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Shining Smith #2
Published by Audible Audio on February 25th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Sometimes before you can face your enemies, you need to confront yourself.

Time is running out for Shining Smith and her crew to gather the weapons they need to rescue one of their own. But will they even make it to the ultimate battle? First, they’ll need to hit the road to Charleston - a hell ride full of bandits, sex slavers, corrupt lawmen, and criminal bike gangs looking to move in on Shining’s territory.

Shining’s human allies will do anything to protect her - because they must. But will victory be worth it if she must compel more and more people to do her bidding? And will her feline warriors, the junkyard cats, remain loyal and risk their lives? Or are they just in it for the kibble?

My Review:

Honestly, I picked up the audio of the first book in this series because of the title. Basically, I started Junkyard Cats for the cats. But I came back for Shining, her friends, her totally screwed-up world and her need to preserve her own little corner of it – and the cats.

OK, I’m still here for the cats. It’s actually the cats that Shining makes the junkyard bargain of the title with. Because she needs to take some of them away from the junkyard and with her and Cupcake on a dangerous and deadly mission – to Charleston, West Virginia.

A place which isn’t all that dangerous or deadly in our world. But in Shining’s world, post the apocalypse that punched a hole in the ozone layer, totally wrecked the planetary environment and brought alien peacekeepers to our solar system to keep us from screwing ourselves any further – every trip away from Shining’s base at the scrapyard is fraught with danger.

Especially this one. Because she’s preparing to take on and take out the one person who might be a bigger threat to the world than Shining is herself. Someone who is more than willing to take over the entire planet.

The world is literally not big enough for both Shining Smith and Clarice Warhammer. They may both be queens, but only one of them is out to rule the world. And the other is out to stop her.

Escape Rating A+: The first book in this series was very insular, while it still managed to introduce us to the mess of the world that is what Shining, and the rest of humanity, is left with. That insularity managed to introduce us to everything that’s going on because we spend the entire story – and this one as well – inside Shining’s head. And because the world comes to her, her sanctuary and her scrapyard, in order to take her out.

So in the first book the war came to her. This second book is about Shining getting ready to take the war out to the rest of the world – or at least out to the people who are after her. That she may have to take out at least a piece of a rival gang and possibly even part of the government along the way is just part of the cost to protect herself and those she sees as hers.

And that’s where this story goes to all kinds of interesting places. Because Shining is in the process of adjusting her perspective on exactly who and what she sees as hers and how it got that way. She wants friends – not too many but a few. What she’s afraid she has made is something else altogether.

As this story takes us out into Shining’s greater world, we get to see just how FUBAR’d everything really is. Humanity seriously screwed up. In a way, it reminded me of the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In both post-apocalyptic worlds, at first it seems as if it’s the machines who are the enemy of humanity, only to eventually realize that the situation is one that Walt Kelly’s Pogo recognized all the way back in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What makes the story, at least for this reader, is that we do spend all of it inside Shining’s head. This is a first-person singular perspective that is absolutely aided by the marvelous narrator, Khristine Hvam, who manages to perfectly convey Shining’s tired, sad, and generally world-weary voice in a way that made me really feel like I was listening to Shining think. That Shining is excellent at bringing on the snark provides a great deal of rueful laughter and gallows humor.

And yes, the cats are still part of the story. I suspect that the reader’s mileage on just how much they enjoy the cats’ participation in Shining’s not-so-little war is going to depend on just how much the reader likes cats, anthropomorphized or otherwise. I think the pack of little predators fits in really well, and adds to my enjoyment of the story quite a bit. Ailurophobes may feel differently.

Obviously I loved the entire experience of listening to Junkyard Bargain. At the end, it definitely feels like there are more parts to this story, and I’m really, seriously, absolutely looking forward to them. But as this episode in Shining’s saga came to an end, something happened that made me sit up and have a kind of a WOW moment. (Luckily I was sitting in my garage to finish and not still on the road!)

Shining is Galadriel. No, she’s not an elf queen and this is not an epic fantasy world. But Shining IS a queen. Not just figuratively but actually literally. And she has power in some of the ways that Galadriel has power. To the point where Shining is faced with the same choice that Galadriel is faced with when Frodo asks her if he should give her the One Ring. And like Galadriel, when faced with that ultimate test, Shining is not found wanting.

At least not yet.

Review: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

Review: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine MathesonThe Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 496
Published by Hanover Square Press on March 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...
When body parts are found on the banks of the River Thames in Deptford, DI Angelica Henley is tasked with finding the killer. Eerie echoes of previous crimes lead Henley to question Peter Olivier, aka The Jigsaw Killer, who is currently serving a life sentence for a series of horrific murders.
When a severed head is delivered to Henley's home, she realises that the copycat is taking a personal interest in her and that the victims have not been chosen at random.
To catch the killer, Henley must confront her own demons - - and when Olivier escapes from prison, she finds herself up against not one serial killer, but two.

My Review:

There’s a tension-filled junction where mystery, suspense and thriller meet – and fight it out with guns, knives and in this particular case, saws. Particularly jigsaws and ripsaws. But saws. Definitely saws.

This is a story that will have readers on the edge of their seats, wringing their hands in sympathy with Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley of the London Metropolitan Police Serial Crimes Unit as she comes to the chilling realization that she is the mouse in a cat and mouse game with not just one but two serial killers.

Killers who are determined to out-do each other in a bid for Anj’s attention. As if her life wasn’t already fraught enough – and not just because everyone, including some versions of the blurb for this book centered around her as she falls apart – misspells her damn name.

It begins when Anj, on her way to work at the SCU, is diverted to a crime scene for the first time in two plus years by her boss. Who also happens to be her on-again, off-again lover. As she’s on her way to work after yet another in a series of seemingly endless arguments with her husband about the consuming nature of her job, she’s already on edge when she arrives at the crime scene to discover that the body that’s been discovered is in pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The calling card of the serial killer who tried to gut Anj like a fish when he resisted arrest two years ago.

Anj has been investigating cold cases ever since, at least until now. She’s still suffering from PTSD and panic attacks. And her assailant, Peter Olivier, is in a high security prison serving seven consecutive life sentences.

But there’s someone out there either doing Olivier’s bidding or desperately seeking his “master’s” attention. Someone who has discovered the best way to get that attention – by grabbing the place in DI Angelica Henley’s mind that remains hyper-focused on Peter Olivier.

Who simply won’t be having that. At all.

Escape Rating A+: The Jigsaw Man is sitting right on that extremely uncomfortable crossroads. Which makes it an absolutely compelling, can’t put it down kind of story, whether you see it as mystery or suspense or thriller or all of the above.

It’s that “all of the above” factor that kept me up until 4 in the morning because I just had to finish.

This one combines police procedural – although a procedure that gets shot to hell fairly quickly and riddled with holes to begin with – with one of those stories that combines the gruesomeness of serial killer stories with the suspense of stories where the investigator is an integral part of the crime spree.

In that regard, The Jigsaw Man reminded me a lot of The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia Saenz, Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten and the Frieda Klein series by Nicci French. All of those mysteries include serial killers who are thought to be out of commission in one way or another and detectives who are forced into the conclusion that their deaths or prison terms were mistaken, reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated, that the police had the wrong person in prison or very nearly all of the above.

The personal stakes for the detectives in all of these cases ratchet up the stakes and the tension as the investigators find themselves unravelling, looking over their shoulders at things and people they thought were safe – only to discover that nothing was as it seemed. As does Anjelica Henley in this book.

DI Henley’s plight in The Jigsaw Man is particularly fraught. Her marriage is falling apart, her father has dropped into a deep clinical depression and, her mind and body are betraying her. Her career feels like it’s all she has left – and it’s killing her even as not one but two serial killers see her as the cherry on top of their killing spree sundae.

The Jigsaw Man is one of those mystery thrillers that is impossible to put down. The way that this story morphs from a hunt for a serial killer to a hunt for his copycat to a desperate search for competing serial killers along with their hunt for each other grabs the reader and quite honestly puts the reader’s own fingers in their mouth so they can bite their nails to the quick in anticipation and rising dread.

At the same time, we see Anjelica spiraling out of control as the crime spree is rising up to engulf her. We want to help her, want her to get help, and need her to put an end to it before it puts an end to her. And yet…

Some of the descriptions of this book lead one to believe that it’s the first of a series. I very much hope that it is, because while this series of crimes is solved, it’s clear that there’s plenty of unfinished business swirling around DI Henley and the serial killer who brought her to this point.

I want more of Henley’s story and I’m dead certain that other readers will, too.

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance SayersThe Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, magical realism
Pages: 448
Published by Redhook on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family's strange and magical circus, it's the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.
Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother's journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In The Ladies of the Secret Circus, the road FROM hell is paved with exactly the same stuff.

It all begins with a mystery, even if that mystery is not the one that anyone in tiny Kerrigan Falls, Virginia believes that it is.

But then, nothing about this story turns out to be exactly what people believe it is, especially not Le Cirque Secret and its mysterious proprietor.

Lara Barnes thinks the story begins with the disappearance of her fiancé on the morning of their wedding. But Todd’s abandoned car isn’t the beginning of the story – not even for Lara.

Because once upon a time, when Lara was a little girl, she received a pair of mysterious visitors. The daemon Althacazar and his daughter Cecile. They’ve come to see if Lara might be the one. The one to fix the mistakes that Althacazar made, not out of evil in spite of his position as a powerful prince of Hell, but out of a love that should never have been.

A love that gave birth to Cecile, her sister Esme, and the magical, mysterious, compelling Le Cirque Secret amid the glitter and glamour of Jazz Age Paris. A love that eventually gave birth to Lara herself, and to the hatred and obsession that has followed her, her family, and even the circus itself.

A hate that has finally come to get her – unless she manages to get it first.

Escape Rating A+: This story flies on a trapeze over the haunted crossroads where timeslip fiction turns into historical fiction, and the paranormal bleeds into dark fantasy, with hellhounds patrolling on all sides.

It’s a story about love, obsession and daemons. And it’s a story about a father trying to do his best for his daughters and failing miserably, even though he’s one of the great princes of Hell.

Part of what’s so fascinating about The Ladies of the Secret Circus is just how many different kinds of stories it manages to tell – all at the same time!

There’s the mystery of the disappearance, which turns into the mysteries of the disappearances, plural. There’s the magical realism bit about Lara’s, and her mother Audrey’s, ability to do magic. Which morphs into the big scary paranormal horror-adjacent element of the Le Cirque Secret, its condemned performers and its mysterious, daemonic owner and master of ceremonies.

Then there’s the timeslip bits, where artifacts from 1920s Paris seem to slip through to 2005 Virginia, and where Lara translates what turns out to be her great-grandmother’s diary, and suddenly we’re there in Jazz Age Paris watching the tragedy unfold.

(This bit that took me way back to a book I read nearly ten years ago, The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. They both have that same sense of everything winding down and the crash coming even though they are different crashes.)

And the story just keeps spinning, like Cecile’s circus act, floating in mid air with magic and no net whatsoever. Until it all falls back into the present, and we – and Lara – finally discover what’s really been going on all along.

That there was a price to be paid for the magic, and for Althacazar’s original mistake so long ago. A price that Lara believes she’s going to have to pay. And so she does, just not in the way that she originally thought. A price that she discovers is much, much too high.

But that’s so often true when it comes to Althacazar. His gifts – and his mistakes – always cost more than anyone planned on. Including himself.

Readers who love stories where all the genres are bent to the point that they whirl around faster than the eye can see are going to love this book. And be captivated by the spell of Le Cirque Secret.

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah JohnsonThe Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, F/F romance, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's Website
Goodreads

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

My Review:

The Space Between Worlds is filled with paradox and wonder, and resonates to the beat of butterfly wings.

This is a story of the multiverse, of parallel universes that are almost, but not quite, the same. Universes that are all post-apocalyptic, in one way, or another, or all of the above.

It’s also a story of irony, in that this is a story where the people that society has classed as the most expendable, are also the most valuable – but only as long as they are useful.

And it’s a story about families, and the infinitesimally thin line between love and hate.

The Space Between Worlds is a story about contrasts. The contrast between safe, wealthy and white Wiley City, and the dangerous, poor and brown wastelands that surround it.

Cara is someone who walks between the worlds. Because she is a wastelander, brown and disposable on seemingly all of the worlds that resonate enough with “Earth Zero” to be visited, she is mostly dead.

Not in The Princess Bride sense of “mostly dead”, but in the sense that most of the different Caras, the Cara on most of the 382 worlds that are close enough to her own to be able to be visited, Cara has not lived to reach adulthood. Or at least not reached the age that the Cara on Earth Zero has.

That paradoxically makes Cara a very valuable “traverser”, or traveler between the worlds. People can only visit worlds where their local equivalent has already died – and Cara has died nearly everywhere.

But she’s also someone who travels between worlds on her own world. At work, she does her best to fit into the sterile, safe, white world of Wiley City – no matter how little it looks as if she belongs there.

When she goes back home to the wastes, she pretends to still fit into her family, the religion that keeps them together and the violence that surrounds them.

But Cara belongs in neither place. Because she is not the Cara that the Eldridge Institute hired, and she is not the Cara raised by the family she has come to love. She is the Cara from another Earth who found the original Cara dead and took her place.

Because she is a survivor. It’s what she does best. It’s who she is.

This story puts that survival instinct to the test. Not just because she finds a world that she has a chance to save, but because saving Earth 175 gives her the tools to save the Earth she has made her own. If she is willing to take them up.

If she is willing to risk her safety, her secrets and her skin to discover exactly what she’s made of. If she’s willing to die to make things right, just once.

Escape Rating A+: This was awesome. A lot of my reading buddies recommended this one, and now I know why. It tells a fantastic story and there’s so much packed into it if you want to go hunting for all the possibilities, but the story has the reader on the edge of their seat for the whole ride.

The Space Between Worlds is very much a post-apocalyptic story. But it’s not the immediate aftermath. While those are fascinating because there’s so much chaos, it’s every bit as interesting to see what humans have made of the messed up world that other humans caused and left behind. Usually by dying.

One thing that caught me was that we don’t know where, relative to our current world, Wiley City and its surrounding wastelands are. And it doesn’t matter. What we see feels plausible, that enough of a city survived that it became prosperous again and gathered refugees around it who wanted to share in that prosperity and safety. Only to discover that the prejudices of the old world continued in the new. There are always haves, and there are always have nots who hope to become haves. And that the haves guard their position ruthlessly.

It’s very explicit in this story that the haves are white. Very, very white. Not just by skin color, although that seems to have been at the heart and the start of it, but also because of that ruthless guarding of privilege. Citizens of Wiley City live in a completely enclosed world. They don’t see the sun, they only experience natural light through extreme filters, because natural light can be dangerous. So over the generations their coloring has become lighter and paler.

The wastelands are exposed to all the elements. The brutal sun, the chemically destroyed earth, water and air. The dirt. They are brown of skin, dark of hair and eye, and their clothes are never completely clean because there is so much junk in the air and water.

One of the fascinating contrasts is the way that Wiley City takes care of its people, while the wastelands force their people to survive if they can and die if they can’t. At the same time, the two areas are trapped in an entirely symbiotic relationship, and they need each other.

And they are both ruled by an emperor, even if the “emperor” of Wiley City isn’t called that. And even if, in some of the Earths of the multiverse, the positions of the two rulers is reversed. Because in all of them they are brothers.

As fascinating as everything about this future world is, at its heart it is always Cara’s story. Caralee from Earth 22, who pretends to be Caramenta from Earth Zero but who only begins to figure out who she really is and what she really wants to be when she meets the one person she should never be able to meet, her doppelganger on Earth 175. They’ve all made different mistakes, the wings of the butterfly have flapped and blown them in slightly different directions, but their lives have all been wrapped around the same family and the same men, the two emperors.

But this time is going to be different, because Cara isn’t just going to survive, she’s going to fight. Once she figures out who and what she is really fighting for – and against.

This is, in the end, a story about choosing your battles, finding your path, and figuring out which version of your life is the one you can live with. And it’s awesome.

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherPaladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Clocktaur War
Pages: 398
Published by Red Wombat Studio on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…
Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…
From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

My Review:

The title is a pun. It’s also a clue to the way this story works itself out. Which is bloody damn marvelous every slightly meandering step of the way.

There’s a question about whether Paladin’s Grace is an epic fantasy that includes a romance, or a fantasy romance that happens to also be epic. After mulling it over for a while, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes!” Or perhaps “hells to the yes!” is a bit more accurate.

The setting of this story is plenty epic. It’s also set in the same world as her Clocktaur War duology and Swordheart but certainly doesn’t rely on any of them to get the reader stuck right into it. I haven’t read either and had no trouble becoming immediately involved, understanding what was going on, or being so damn absorbed I couldn’t put it down.

Not that I didn’t buy all three books as soon as I finished and realized that there were three other books set in this world. Because DAMN! this was good.

The setting dragged me in right away because it leads off with a fascinating concept that powers so much of the story in various ways. This is a world where the gods are real. By that I mean the gods act in and on the world and their worshippers in ways that can be witnessed, not just by believers but by everyone.

In that sense, it’s a world that resembles the world of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead. That’s a world where the lawyers are necromancers, and part of their job is to write contracts for gods both living and dead. But even more than the Craft Sequence, the world of Paladin’s Grace reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, particularly as it is seen through the eyes of the Learned Divine Penric of the White God and his demon Desdemona in Penric’s Demon and the books that follow. Penric has met his god, usually just before or just after said god sends him on yet another errand, and other people in that world have met their gods as well.

The way that the Saint of Penric’s order interacts with their god and the way that the Paladins of the Saint of Steel interact with theirs has some similarities – right up until the paladins’ god dies, leaving all of its paladins reeling as though someone has scooped out their hearts, souls and all the rest of their innards both physical and metaphorical.

The thing about the Saint of Steel is that this god blessed their paladins with divine berserker fits. So when the god dies they all go literally berserk, into a killing rage that results in murders, suicides, explosions and generally a whole lot of the death they were famous for in the first place.

Three years later there are only seven paladins of the Saint of Steel left, barely keeping each other alive and functional, assisted by those who serve the Rat God, an order which has no paladins of its own. But it does have lawyers, leading back to that resemblance to the Craft Sequence I mentioned earlier.

Serving the Rat and protecting its Bishop, the absolutely awesome Bishop Beartongue, gives the remaining paladins enough purpose to keep them going. It’s all any of them expect out of life at this point. (And if the author ever writes an entire book featuring the Bishop, I am SO there!)

Then Paladin Stephen becomes entangled with Grace the perfumer, and he discovers a whole new reason for living. If he can let himself. If he can get over himself. If he can trust himself.

If the Bishop and his brother paladins can manage to extract them both from the political clusterfuck that they’ve bumbled into – in spite of the odds against them all along the way.

Escape Rating A+: Paladin’s Grace was definitely, sincerely, absolutely a case of the right book at the right time.

There is just so much happening in this story, both on the epic fantasy and the fantasy romance sides of the equation. Plus – big huge gigantic plus – the author’s very dry and frequently hung from the gallows humor made me laugh out loud so many times, even as it both developed the characters and pushed the story forward. This is my favorite type of humor, the kind that arises out of character and situation and is never built on cruelty, tearing up or punching down.

I wanted to go out for drinks with pretty much everyone on Stephen and Grace’s side of the story, including them. Even when their world was going to hell in a handcart, the way the author wrote them created plenty of opportunities to laugh with them and not at them.

On the romance side, Stephen in particular is the poster child for the romantic hero who is so fucked up and has so much baggage that he’s certain he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the heroine. Not that Grace doesn’t have plenty of her own baggage, but in comparison, hers is almost normal. Stephen has lost his god and is rightfully afraid of going berserker at any moment. Nothing compares.

The political situation that they stumble into is, on the one hand, fairly standard for epic fantasy, and on the other, wildly different because it is so totally inept and still almost works. There is just a ton about this story to love.

As I said early on, this was the right book at the absolute right time. I was ready to start a new book just as the polls closed in Georgia this week. It was a night that promised to be chock-full of doomscrolling, so I went looking for a book that would suck me in so deeply that I’d be able to forget about the mess for a few hours. (I voted by mail weeks ago, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point except incessantly doomscroll hoping it would eventually turn to schadenscrolling and even gleescrolling at some point.) But constant scrolling is not productive, only anxiety inducing. Nobody needed any more of THAT this week – not that we didn’t all get plenty ANYWAY.).

That’s the point where I remembered I had Paladin’s Grace, and that I absolutely LOVED this author’s Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which made me chuckle, laugh and outright chortle the entire time I was reading it.

Considering the news on Wednesday, I really, really needed the distraction.

Paladin’s Grace turned out to be EXACTLY the book I was looking for. It didn’t reduce me to completely incoherence, as the paladin Stephen and the perfumer Grace frequently do to each other in the course of this story. But it did take me far, far away from the madness of the real for a while. For which I am so, so grateful.

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.