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
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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.

Review: Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Review: Colonyside by Michael MammayColonyside (Planetside, #3) by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
Series: Planetside #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on December 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A missing scientist and deep pockets pull Colonel Carl Butler out of retirement, investigating another mystery that puts him and his team--and the future of relations with alien species--in danger in COLONYSIDE, the exciting follow-up to Planetside and Spaceside.
A military hero is coming out of disgrace—straight into the line of fire…
Carl Butler was once a decorated colonel. Now he’s a disgraced recluse, hoping to live out the rest of his life on a backwater planet where no one cares about his “crimes” and everyone leaves him alone.
It’s never that easy.
A CEO’s daughter has gone missing and he thinks Butler is the only one who can find her. The government is only too happy to appease him. Butler isn’t so sure, but he knows the pain of losing a daughter, so he reluctantly signs on. Soon he’s on a military ship heading for a newly-formed colony where the dangerous jungle lurks just outside the domes where settlers live.
Paired with Mac, Ganos, and a government-assigned aide named Fader, Butler dives head-first into what should be an open and shut case. Then someone tries to blow him up. Faced with an incompetent local governor, a hamstrung military, and corporations playing fast and loose with the laws, Butler finds himself in familiar territory. He’s got nobody to trust but himself, but that’s where he works best. He’ll fight to get to the bottom of the mystery, but this time, he might not live to solve it.

My Review:

It’s starting to look like Carl Butler’s purpose in the universe is to be an intergalactic scapegoat. Back at the beginning of the series, Planetside, he thought he was the one they called in when they were looking to get things done. But after the events in that story, he became much more famous – or infamous – definitely infamous – as the galaxy’s biggest mass murderer.

Because he got the job done. In the second book, Spaceside, it seems as though he got hired because of that reputation, although he still thinks it’s for the other. Just like what happened on Cappa in Planetside, he’s the one left holding the proverbial bag – and nearly dead in it.

Now he’s on a remote colony, thinking he’s there to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s on a military report about a missing person, but he’s really there to either be the poster person for saving planetary ecology or for humans-first type planetary exploitation, or just to get left holding yet another messy bag filled with bodies.

Whether his body is in that bag – or not.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one. Actually, I’ve loved this whole series, starting with Planetside and flying right through Spaceside. I honestly didn’t expect Butler to survive Spaceside. I mean, I hoped he would, but with that ending, I wasn’t necessarily expecting him to. And having just finished his latest “adventure”, I’m glad he did.

This story, like the previous books in the series, is a story about misdirection. It’s about hidden agendas concealed under hidden agendas, and it’s about people playing a very long game. A game that Butler has found himself in the middle of, yet again. For someone who is so smart once he’s neck-deep in shit, he’s actually kind of dumb about how he finds himself there.

Another way of looking at that is that in spite of his well-earned paranoia, he just isn’t paranoid enough. Or, and possibly more likely, as safe as it is being retired at the ass end of a planet that’s the ass end of nowhere, it’s also boring. Butler misses, if not the bullshit involved in being in service, then certainly the camaraderie of it. And the purpose. Definitely the purpose.

So the mission is kind of Butler’s excuse to get his old “band” back together, but once they’re together they’ve got one hell of a job ahead of them.

At first it seems like he’s just there to reassure the victim’s rich daddy that the investigation was on the up and up. And it was, as far up the investigators were able to get.

But the reality is that nothing on Eccasis is truly on the side of the angels, and the corporation that the victim worked for – her daddy’s company – least of all. Then again, the only truth in Butler’s whole mission is that the woman is dead. Every other single thing is a lie. Or rather, a web designed to ensnare him until the trap can close over his head.

Underneath the petty political bickering and small time sniping between the governor and the military, the real tension on Eccasis – and on all of the colony planets that humans have swarmed over – is the debate over whether human colonization should preserve the indigenous flora and fauna on any planets they colonize, or whether humans, as the dominant species, have the right to just take over whatever and wherever they want and destroy anything that stands – or sits, or crawls, or just grows – in their way.

Butler’s actions on Cappa in Planetside have resulted in laws – however poorly and/or selectively enforced – that limit the amount of impact human settlements are permitted to have. But Butler was manipulated into coming to Eccasis to be used to promote the “humans first” argument – whether he wants to or not. No matter how much collateral damage is needed to make the point that the corporate interests want made.

Carl Butler, stuck in yet another no-win scenario – the man seems to specialize at getting stuck in them – has to find a way to balance his own survival with doing the least damage he can manage. That real justice is beyond his capability to inflict is just one more reason for his abiding cynicism. The rich do buy a different brand of justice than the rest of us, and that’s just as true in our present as it is in his future. And just as frustrating.

I wouldn’t mind another trip through the screwed up side of the galaxy in Butler’s head. Meaning that I’d love another book from this author with this particular protagonist. Whether that happens or not, I’m certainly on board for this author’s next book. And the one after that, and the one after that, and all the ones after that.

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen SpotswoodFortune Favors the Dead (Pentecost and Parker, #1) by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #1
Pages: 336
Published by Doubleday Books on October 27, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Introducing Pentecost and Parker, two unconventional female detectives who couldn’t care less about playing by the rules, in their cases and in their lives.
It's 1942 and Willowjean "Will" Parker is a scrappy circus runaway whose knife-throwing skills have just saved the life of New York's best, and most unorthodox, private investigator, Lillian Pentecost. When the dapper detective summons Will a few days later, she doesn't expect to be offered a life-changing proposition: Lillian's multiple sclerosis means she can't keep up with her old case load alone, so she wants to hire Will to be her right-hand woman. In return, Will will receive a salary, room and board, and training in Lillian's very particular art of investigation.
Three years later, Will and Lillian are on the Collins case: Abigail Collins was found bludgeoned to death with a crystal ball following a big, boozy Halloween party at her home--her body slumped in the same chair where her steel magnate husband shot himself the year before. With rumors flying that Abigail was bumped off by the vengeful spirit of her husband (who else could have gotten inside the locked room?), the family has tasked the detectives with finding answers where the police have failed. But that's easier said than done in a case that involves messages from the dead, a seductive spiritualist, and Becca Collins--the beautiful daughter of the deceased, who Will quickly starts falling for. When Will and Becca's relationship dances beyond the professional, Will finds herself in dangerous territory, and discovers she may have become the murderer's next target.
A wildly charming and fast-paced mystery written with all the panache of 1940s New York, Fortune Favors the Dead is a fresh homage to Holmes and Watson reads like the best of Dashiell Hammett and introduces an audacious detective duo for the ages.

My Review:

I picked this up this week because I was a bit unsatisfied with the Holmes collection over the weekend. I was still left with a taste for a bit of classic mystery with a twist – or two or ten – and for something a bit more Holmes-like than that collection.

Fortune Favors the Dead turned out to be everything I wanted, even if in the end it was nothing I expected. And that’s a great thing!

The story here is about a detective duo at the very beginning of their partnership, but Pentecost and Parker are nothing like Holmes and Watson, and not just because Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker are both female.

As the story, and the case, opens, Pentecost and Parker are on the opposing sides of the law, their lives, and their careers. Not that Will Parker could be said to have a career at this point in her life.

Will is a “cirky girl”, a circus performer who ran away from home and her abusive father and quite literally joined the circus. She’s only 20 as this story begins, and it is her story, told in her first-person voice with her own inimitable style.

But it’s told from a perspective several years past the events, and Will has grown up more than a bit, as well as acquired a polish of education, courtesy of the famous detective Ms. Lillian Pentecost. Whose life she saves in the opening act of the story by throwing a knife into Ms. Pentecost’s assailant. Once the dust settles and the police are finally satisfied that thorn-in-their-side Pentecost didn’t set up the entire altercation in order to have her “associate” off the bastard, Pentecost offers Parker a job as her assistant.

Not because, honestly, she wants an assistant, but because she needs one. Being a private investigator is a physically demanding and occasionally dangerous job. A job that Pentecost is still more than intellectually capable of but no longer physically up to. She has multiple sclerosis, and the disease is progressing.

Relatively slowly in her case. At the moment. But that could change. And her inevitable physical decline will only be accelerated if she continues on her present course. Hence the need for an assistant who can become her apprentice, perform the more physical aspects of their cases, and ultimately become the lead investigator.

This is the story of, not their first case, but their first seriously important case. A case that has so many twists and turns that it practically ties itself into a knot. Only for Will and Ms. Pentecost to discover that there has been someone hiding in the shadows, pulling all the strings, all along.

Since the very first night they met.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this, but I loved it because it oh-so-explicitly is NOT Holmes. Instead, Fortune Favors the Dead turned out to be a gender-bent, slightly twisted version of an entirely different classic detective pair.

Pentecost and Parker are updated female avatars for Nero Wolfe and his right-hand and both-legs man Archie Goodwin. And was it ever refreshing to read something that was both so completely different and yet so much a piece of something that I loved but hadn’t read in years.

While Wolfe and Goodwin were a pair of classic mystery detectives of the old school, they were also different in some of the same ways that Pentecost and Parker are different. At first blush, Wolfe is the genius and Goodwin is the sidekick, just as with Pentecost and Parker.

But, like Pentecost will be, Wolfe is physically restricted to his own New York Brownstone, even if Wolfe’s restrictions are entirely self-imposed. Goodwin does all the leg work for all of their cases and then brings the results to Wolfe. Goodwin is also a licensed private investigator in his own right, and he is the one who narrates their cases, very much in his own voice and in a noirish, hard-boiled style similar to Parker’s.

Goodwin makes mistakes, the same kind of mistakes that Parker does, and for some of the same reasons. But he’s no Watson and neither is Parker. They are partners in the investigations. Sometimes junior partners, but partners and not tagalongs. One of the differences between Holmes and Watson and either Wolfe and Goodwin or Pentecost and Parker is that while Watson was not the bumbler that the Basil Rathbone movies made him out to be, he wasn’t a detective, either. The better portrayals give Watson his own areas of expertise, but they are explicitly not the same areas as Holmes. With Parker, and Goodwin before her, the expertise is in the same area as their more famous, experienced and older partner. They operate in a different style, but in the same sphere.

No matter how much impostor syndrome Will Parker suffers from along the way.

As much as I loved Fortune Favors the Dead for its detectives’ resemblance to Wolfe and Goodwin, that’s not a reason to read this book – or, for that matter, to go back to the classic. I doubt that the Wolfe stories have worn well into the 21st century, but Pentecost and Parker certainly do.

That’s all to do with Will Parker’s voice. We’re in her head, reading her point-of-view, knowing what she knows – at least most of it – and becoming part of this world through her eyes. Parker is very much a detective of the hard-boiled school. She’d rather confront a suspect than patiently work through research – not that she isn’t good at both. But her penchant for action rather than contemplation gets her into trouble more than once in this story.

It’s also Parker’s voice that makes the circumstances palatable for 21st century readers. On the one hand, she’s forced to deal with all of the restrictions imposed on her gender and class, and on the other, she’s more than intelligent enough to be aware that they are stupid and work around them. In her head she mouths off to everyone, and that perspective brings her to life in a way that we can identify with.

At the same time, the case itself smacks of the “old school” of the classic era. It’s murder and suicide among the rich and upper crust, the servants are the first suspects and the men always think that they are the ones in charge.

But they never are.

In the end, the heart of the case is a lover’s triangle, blackmail, and follow the money, just not in ways that the classics of the detective era would ever have dealt with. And all of it is marvelous. Even the admittedly clichéd operator from the shadows who is set up to be a long-running nemesis.

Fortune Favors the Dead reads like the terrific opening act of a potential series. I sincerely hope so!

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli ClarkRing Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, historical fiction, horror
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror.
D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.
Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she's not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she's fighting monsters she calls "Ku Kluxes." She's damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh--and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

My Review:

Ring Shout is perched rather comfortably at the top of a pyramid whose sides consist of horror, very dark fantasy and historical fiction. That pyramid feels like a fitting image, as its top comes to a sharp point – just like the heads of the Ku Kluxes that Maryse and her compatriots are hunting.

And being hunted by.

The bones of the story come straight out of fantasy – albeit a fantasy so dark that it sidles up to horror and oozes over the border.

In this version of our world, there are other worlds that exist in other dimensions. Worlds that contain beings that think we’re food, or toys, or both. This is a classic trope in fantasy, particularly urban fantasy.

But this is where Ring Shout bleeds over into historical fiction – and is made all the more horrific because of it.

The film The Birth of a Nation was every bit the disgusting phenomenon that is described in the story – without the special showing on Stone Mountain, which is its own kind of horror.

What takes this story from historical fiction to fantasy and horror is the result of that showing. That the film was a spell that allowed the beings that Maryse calls Ku Kluxes to invade our Earth with the intent of taking over. As invaders do.

An apologist would claim that it was the Ku Kluxes that committed all of the evils, fostered all of the racial hatred and hate-motivated violence that the Ku Klux Klan was infamous for. But this isn’t that kind of story. This isn’t about the myth of the so-called “Lost Cause” and there is absolutely no whitewash.

Because this isn’t a story about aliens doing bad things. This is a story about humans being so evil that they invite the aliens in so they can indulge in more evil without even the tiniest bits of remorse or conscience.

And that’s what Maryse and her friends are fighting. They’re fighting the monsters. They’re fighting the humans who have given themselves so far over to the monster within that they have become the monster.

It’s a fight that is righteous, but it is not a fight without casualties or costs. But Maryse’s cause is just, and just like so many champions of just causes that face overwhelming odds, she comes with a fiery sword with which to smite her enemies – once she recognizes, for once and for all, who and what they really are.

Escape Rating A+: I picked this today because this is Halloween weekend. I knew this book would be scary, but from the blurbs I wasn’t totally sure whether the horror was more Lovecraftian or more metaphorical.

The answer to that question is “yes”. Absolutely yes. It’s not one or the other, it’s very much both. And all the stronger – and more frightening – because of it. Because we all want to believe that human beings just couldn’t be that bad without outside interference, even though we know that they can be and are.

Thinking about this story, I realized that this would still be horror-tinged fantasy without the historical elements. It feels like that version could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone – or maybe it was. But that version isn’t half as scary as the one with the historic elements.

Because human beings always behave way worse than we like to think about, or than the white-bread-vanilla TV of the original Twilight Zone era was willing to portray. Ring Shout draws a lot of its fear-factor from the fact that we know humans are awful. That power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and that white people in the U.S. have had one type of absolute power or another over people of color since the founding of the country.

With that historical element, Ring Shout is utterly compelling. We feel both the horror of this story – and the horrors of the present that it invokes.

At the same time, it is a story, an extremely dark fantasy bordering on Lovecraftian horror. As Lovecraft himself was someone who hated a lot of people, I love that a writer has used his kind of horror to tell a story where the hero is a black woman – someone Lovecraft would have hated on both counts.

I also love Maryse as the hero because she so fits the fantasy hero mold – even though she shouldn’t. She’s the prophesied champion, she has the legendary sword, she even rescues her male lover who actually gets fridged – in grave danger and under threat of death. The role reversal was marvelous.

In a peculiar way, Ring Shout also felt like a bit of a shout out to A Wrinkle in Time. Not just because the Ku Kluxes seemed to come from someplace like Camizotz, but really because the three Aunties felt like Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit, who in their turn are the representatives of the Three Fates and pretty much every other trio of wise, prophesying and/or witchy women who have ever graced a myth.

Which Ring Shout also feels like it is.

Last but not least, reading Ring Shout felt like it was another side to the same dice that rolled up The Deep by Rivers Solomon. That this is another story that takes a piece of the horrors of the African American experience and gives it the power for its own people that it should have – instead of being about the power of everyone else.

Review: The Emperor’s Wolves by Michelle Sagara

Review: The Emperor’s Wolves by Michelle SagaraThe Emperor's Wolves (Wolves of Elantra #1) by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Wolves of Elantra #1, Chronicles of Elantra #0.1
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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At the Emperor’s command
Multiple races carefully navigate the City of Elantra under the Dragon Emperor’s wing. His Imperial Wolves are executioners, the smallest group to serve in the Halls of Law. The populace calls them assassins.
Every wolf candidate must consent to a full examination by the Tha’alani, one of the most feared and distrusted races in Elantra for their ability to read minds. Most candidates don’t finish their job interviews.
Severn Handred, the newest potential recruit, is determined to face and pass this final test—even if by doing so he’s exposing secrets he has never shared.
When an interrogation uncovers the connections to a two-decade-old series of murders of the Tha’alani, the Wolves are commanded to hunt. Severn’s first job will be joining the chase. From the High Halls to the Tha’alani quarter, from the Oracles to the Emperor, secrets are uncovered, tensions are raised and justice just might be done…if Severn can survive.
The Wolves of Elantra
Book 1: The Emperor’s Wolves

My Review:

In the beginning, a 5-year-old girl named Elliane and a 10-year-old boy named Severn were two scared orphans doing the best they could to raise each other in a place so dangerous that no one expected them to live another year. And no one could afford to care because everyone was too busy attempting to make their own survival last more than another day, another hour, another minute.

That dangerous place was the fief of Nightshade, in the no-being’s-land that surrounds the city of Elantra. A place entirely designed and maintained as a buffer zone between Elantra and the Shadow at the heart of the world.

Their lives and their story should have been both brutal and short. It was often brutal, and always on the knife’s edge of destruction.

But it was not short.

Elliane’s story has been told in the Chronicles of Elantra, beginning with Cast in Moonlight. It is the story of a young woman with a terrible gift and an equally terrible secret, set in the high-fantasy world of Elantra, but often told with an urban fantasy sensibility. It is the story Elliane, now called Kaylin Nera, as she becomes first the mascot of and later a Private in the Imperial Hawks who serve as the equivalent of police in the empire. (Occasionally she rises to Corporal in the Hawks, but usually not for long.)

Elantra is an empire that is ruled by a Dragon and protected as his hoard. An empire that contains citizens of all races, Barrani (read as Elves), Leontine (yes, they’re lions), Aerians (feathered and flying) and more humans than all of the above.

And the Tha’alani. The telepathic Tha’alani who serve as the Emperor’s inquisitors when the need is great – or desperate.

But The Emperor’s Wolves is not Kaylin’s story, although it touches on her story and will undoubtedly connect to it eventually. Because Severn always connects to Kaylin, whether she wants that to happen or not. And initially in the story from her perspective, it’s very much not.

Instead, this is the story of that once upon a time 10-year-old boy, Severn Handred. Severn swore an oath to Elliane’s mother before she died, that he would protect Elliane no matter what. When Elliane couldn’t live with the price of that protection, they separated, walking through very dark places on entirely different paths.

Paths that have now converged. Elliane – as Kaylin – is now 15 and the mascot of the Imperial Hawks. To keep watch over her, Severn, now 20, becomes a member of the Imperial Wolves, the branch of the Halls of Law that investigates major crimes – and serves as the hand of the Emperor when those criminals are brought to summary justice in his name.

The story of The Emperor’s Wolves is Severn’s story. A story that fans of the series have been waiting and hoping for since we first met Kaylin in 2001.

A story that was definitely, utterly, fantastically worth the wait.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this book and now I have a terrible book hangover. But then I always do after a trip to Elantra. This world feels so complex and so complete than when I’m forced to leave it at the end of a story a part of me feels like it’s still back there and doesn’t want to come out.

As if part of my memory has been captured and held by the telepathic gestalt of the Tha’alani.

cast in shadow by michelle sagaraThe Emperor’s Wolves is a bit of a contradiction in terms. It is, without a doubt, the first book in the author’s new Wolves of Elantra series. It is also a prequel for nearly all of the Chronicles of Elantra series, taking place between the prequel novella, Cast in Moonlight, and the first novel in the series, Cast in Shadow.

But this book doesn’t feel like either a prequel or the opening of a new series. Instead, it feels like…enlightenment. Those of us who have followed the Chronicles have already met Severn Handred. We’ve witnessed most of his protective partnership with Kaylin Nera – a partnership that involves a great deal of love but no romance at all – through that series. We’ve also become immersed in Elantra and traveled much of the city and the places outside of the Emperor’s Hoard in Kaylin and Severn’s company.

But Severn, well, Severn is a man of much depth and very few words. He’s an enigma in pretty much everything except his tie to Kaylin – although that has plenty of enigma-ness in it, in ways that neither Severn nor Kaylin understand – at least not yet.

And the period of Severn’s life when he became one of the Imperial Wolves – the time that he spent without Kaylin – has been the biggest enigma of them all. He doesn’t talk about this time period, and we haven’t heard much about what he did – although there have been plenty of enigmatic hints. So this story, and whatever follows it, sheds light on an otherwise dark corner of the history of Elantra – or at least of the people we have come to know and love there. And provides a few tantalizing hints of events that we already know but are yet to come from Severn’s perspective at this point in his life.

Which means that, in spite of seeming like a beginning, The Emperor’s Wolves really isn’t. It’s a missing piece of the complex puzzle that is Elantra, and will be best appreciated – and enthusiastically so – by those who have already made the journey. If you’ve never been to Elantra and are thinking of going there, it’s a marvelous trip but this is not the place to begin.

If you’re already acquainted, however, one of the things that The Emperor’s Wolves does well is return to some of the elements that made this series so fascinating in the first place. As the longer story has continued, while Kaylin is still a member of the Imperial Hawks, her world has expanded beyond the streets of the city and she has become, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming, a power in this world and has moved among the high and mighty – although she would be the first to admit that she herself is neither.

But the series began as an epic-set urban fantasy, and The Emperor’s Wolves returns fantastically to that kind of story. Severn’s first case as one of the Wolves is to solve a crime. To open a case that everyone thought was closed and cold. As part of his investigation, he is forced to navigate the Barrani High Halls, the telepathic mindscape of the Tha’alani group consciousness, the mean streets of the city and the Emperor’s Palace.

Along the way he discovers friends, obfuscates foes and is confronted yet again with the choice that he’s been forced to make over and over since his childhood. That there are all too many times when the cost of justice is more unjust than any crime.

When I picked up The Emperor’s Wolves, I looked forward to learning more about Severn. But now that I’ve seen this world through his eyes, I’ve discovered that I want more. I need it. I hope to see more of Elantra from both Severn’s and Kaylin’s perspectives as their series continue.

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. FordThe Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“The best mingling of history with historical magic that I have ever seen.”—Gene Wolfe In a snowbound inn high in the Alps, four people meet who will alter fate.
A noble Byzantine mercenary . . .
A female Florentine physician . . .
An ageless Welsh wizard . . .
And an uncanny academic.
Together they will wage an intrigue-filled campaign against the might of Byzantium to secure the English throne for Richard, Duke of Gloucester—and make him Richard III. Available for the first time in nearly two decades, with a new introduction by New York Times-bestselling author Scott Lynch, The Dragon Waiting is a masterpiece of blood and magic.“Had [John M. Ford] taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would’ve been George R.R. Martin.” —Neil Gaiman

My Review:

The Dragon Waiting is the best book that you’ve probably never heard of – but should have. And it’s what Tor Essentials is all about.

That last is possibly literal, as it feels as if this is the one book above all others that the publisher really, truly, sincerely wanted to try and bring back into print. If this is the inspiration for the imprint, or even just a part of it, it was all worth it.

There’s a story in that, and I’ll get to it. But first, there’s a story.

A wizard, a mercenary, a vampire and a spy walk into a tavern. And come out of it trying to change the world.

That’s been done, or something similar. In a way, it sounds like the opening to Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, where a disparate group of desperate people band together to overthrow an empire.

But the story of The Dragon Waiting is both a lot closer to actual history – and a lot farther – than Tigana. Because this is alternate history that builds off of real history, real events and real people – although none of them ever quite committed any of these acts. That we know of.

This is a story about a Byzantine Empire that not only never fell, but grew and changed and continued to swallow up countries that became independent of either Rome or Byzantium in the history that we know. But this Byzantium remained on top of the world because it didn’t embrace Christianity. Instead, it continued the old Roman policy of allowing conquered people to retain their old beliefs and old gods.

And there’s magic. There’s certainly magic in the writing – honestly. But there’s magic in the world. Not a lot. There are not a lot of real practitioners of what we would consider real magic. But there are a few, and they can move mountains. Or dragons.

Or topple empires.

Escape Rating A+: This is going to be one of those reviews where how I feel about the book is inextricably tied into what I think of the book. Because of the circumstances of this particular book and my reading – and re-reading – of it.

The Dragon Waiting was originally published in 1983. I still have my old mass market paperback copy, which I’ve moved more times than I care to count. It’s a book that loomed large in my memory, although I only read it the once – and that nearly 40 years ago.

I hung onto my paperback because the damn thing went out of print, and I KNEW I’d want to re-read it someday. But the book didn’t just go out of print, it went into intellectual property hell as the author died (much too soon, having left not nearly enough behind) and no one seemed to know who owned the rights to this book. That saga is detailed here and here, and it’s a terrific mystery/quest story all by itself!

But the book, oh the book! I remembered The Dragon Waiting as being completely awesome, but hadn’t gotten back to it in a VERY long time. So, on the one hand I couldn’t wait to get a copy and re-read it, and on the other, when the time came I had a terrible approach/avoidance conflict. I wanted to read it again, but I needed it to be as awesome as I remembered, and I had no way of knowing if it would be.

1983 is a long time ago. I was a different person then, and the book spoke to me then for reasons that are now long in my past. The question of whether it would still speak to me, and whether it held up as the excellent read I remember it being, loomed large in my mind – to the point of being a reading block.

I’m happy to say that it IS every bit as good now as my memory says it was then. That’s not nostalgia talking – well, maybe a bit – but because it’s still a cracking good story.

What’s different is that the things it reminds me of, like Kay’s Tigana, and also his Sarantine Mosaic, were written after The Dragon Waiting. So while it feels like Dragon was influenced by those books, it’s actually the other way around. The two things that feel like influences on Dragon that actually might have been are T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (published in 1958) and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which began with The Crystal Cave in 1970.

The King
2016 Based on x-ray of King Richard III

But the thing that I kept coming back to as I read The Dragon Waiting was Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time. So much of the framing story of that book is dated, but the central mystery, the intellectual investigation into the question of Richard III and what happened to the “Princes in the Tower” still resonates. And it fits into The Dragon Waiting like a key into a lock in spite of differences in genre.

Because the conclusion in The Daughter of Time was that Richard’s behavior as postulated in Shakespeare and common perception makes no sense whatsoever. The story of The Dragon Waiting gives it that sense.

And a whole rollicking story of magic and empires to go along with it. A story that was every single bit as readable and complex as it was when it was first published.

I’m left with a few thoughts that don’t quite fit into a review of the book. Ford died in 2006, six years before Richard III’s remains were discovered under that carpark in Leicester. But when The Dragon Waiting was first published in 1983, Ford was 26. I remember who and what I was at 26 and am astonished and amazed at his achievement. As I was reading the book that he wrote, we were the same age. Literally, as he was born five days after me. I’m still a bit speechless at that thought, as I did not nearly have my shit together at 26 and am gobsmacked at the way that he did. I wish he left behind more work, but I’m grateful that what there is will be re-published – there just wasn’t nearly enough.

Review: Ink and Sigil by Kevin Hearne

Review: Ink and Sigil by Kevin HearneInk & Sigil (Ink & Sigil, #1) by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Ink & Sigil #1
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Al MacBharrais is both blessed and cursed. He is blessed with an extraordinary white moustache, an appreciation for craft cocktails – and a most unique magical talent. He can cast spells with magically enchanted ink and he uses his gifts to protect our world from rogue minions of various pantheons, especially the Fae.
But he is also cursed. Anyone who hears his voice will begin to feel an inexplicable hatred for Al, so he can only communicate through the written word or speech apps. And his apprentices keep dying in peculiar freak accidents. As his personal life crumbles around him, he devotes his life to his work, all the while trying to crack the secret of his curse.
But when his latest apprentice, Gordie, turns up dead in his Glasgow flat, Al discovers evidence that Gordie was living a secret life of crime. Now Al is forced to play detective – while avoiding actual detectives who are wondering why death seems to always follow Al. Investigating his apprentice’s death will take him through Scotland’s magical underworld, and he’ll need the help of a mischievous hobgoblin if he’s to survive.

My Review:

I’ve read – actually mostly listened to – enough of the Iron Druid Chronicles to know that I love the series. Since I’m 2/3rds of the way through I figured I knew enough about the world created in the series to be able to get into Ink & Sigil. Al Mac Bharrais’ adventures take place in the same version of our world as Atticus O’Sullivan, but from a much different perspective.

Ink & Sigil is a sequel that isn’t a sequel, it’s more like a consequence. Which is an interesting way of launching a series. Also an effective way for new readers to get aboard this marvelous train. So you don’t have to have read the Iron Druid Chronicles to get into Ink & Sigil, but a taste for one will probably result in a yen for the other.

Al is a fascinating protagonist for an urban fantasy series. Most urban fantasy series are headed by either the young and the energetic, or the extremely old, seriously immortal, and fascinatingly unaging.

Al is none of the above. He’s 63, he’s getting creaky, and he’s all too mortal. (I would love to see Al meet Marley Jacob from A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark. They’d have a lot to talk about when it comes to kicking paranormal ass when you’re 60-something.)

Al isn’t exactly a wizard, and he’s certainly not a druid like Atticus. He is actually a kind of paper-pusher for the paranormal. His power is literally in paper – and especially in ink. He draws symbols of power with special ink on special paper, and that power affects whoever sees the symbols he has drawn.

Among many other useful things, he’s created his own version of the “psychic paper” that Doctor Who uses. The one that seems to be a universal high-ranking ID for wherever the Doctor wants to get into that he shouldn’t. In Al’s case, the paper just opens the mind of the person who sees it so that Al can plant the suggestion that he belongs wherever it is that he has just entered that he isn’t supposed to.

Like the apartment of his just-deceased apprentice. Gordie seems to have died of natural causes – depending on how one feels about raisins in one’s scones. Al has arrived in the middle of the police investigation into Gordie’s death to clean house of all of the fascinating, esoteric and sometimes illegal substances that sigil agents like Al and Gordie use to do their work.

Al expects to leave with a bag of inks and ingredients. What he finds in Gordie’s secret workroom changes his focus – as well as his opinion of the late and now entirely unlamented Gordie. Because Gordie was practicing things he hadn’t learned yet, and seems to have been breaking all the rules while doing so. And he had imprisoned a hobgoblin in a cage – a hobgoblin from one of the fae planes that he intended to sell to someone nefarious in this plane.

Which is illegal, immoral, and constitutes trafficking of the nasty kind that either leads to slavery or lab experimentation of the mad scientist variety.

Putting Al on the hunt for a mad scientist and at least one corrupt fae deity selling out her own kind for either fun or profit. That she’s selling them to the CIA adds a whole ‘nother level of crazy complexity to a case that is almost but not quite too much for Al and his friends to handle.

Making it a fantastic start to this series!

Escape Rating A+: I fell straight into this book and just didn’t want to leave. Possibly ever. This is one of those books that I just want to shove at everyone I know and hold them down until they read it.

In that vein, I really, truly don’t think you have to have read ANY of the Iron Druid Chronicles to get into Ink & Sigil. Not that you shouldn’t read them, they’re awesome. Howsomever, while these are set in the same world, Atticus is not a character in this series – so far – except for the scene where those of us who have read the Iron Druid Chronicles discover how Al ran into Atticus that one time and they had a nice dinner together. It doesn’t affect the plot of Ink & Sigil, it’s just a lovely scene IF you’ve met Atticus before and it’s still a lovely scene if you haven’t.

What one does need to buy into in order to get into Ink & Sigil is the concept that lies behind, or underneath, both the Iron Druid Chronicles and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The idea that the old cliche about humanity creating gods in their own image is the actual, literal truth. That belief creates the god rather than the god’s deeds creating the belief.

One of the things that I found marvelous was the character of Al MacBharrais, and just how much he and his companions play with just how many classic tropes from urban fantasy and even from the mystery detective genre from which it partially sprang.

Al is so different from the standard run of urban fantasy protagonists. I have a hard time saying Al is old because he’s the same age that I am, but he’s certainly no spring chicken. He’s led an already long and fairly hard-knock life. He can no longer serve as his own muscle – except in what is inevitably a very painful pinch – but he still needs an enforcer. Like Nero Wolfe needed Archie Goodwin. Or any other case where the “real” detective is no longer quite spry for one reason or another and needs someone to occasionally punch the bad beings where it hurts.

That Al’s version of Archie is a female battle-seer who does double duty as his printing firm’s manager and accountant sets all sorts of tropes on their tiny little heads. She’s great at both cooking the books and conking out their enemies. Also, Nadia’s wizard van is absolutely to die for. She’s also more than able and willing to help a few people – or things, or beings – die when they really, really need to.

The other really fun character in this one is Buck Foi the hobgoblin. The one that Al found in a cage in his dead apprentice’s apartment. When Al opens that cage he also opens up the whole case, and it’s Buck who tags along to help him close it. Because Buck needs the fae trafficking ring shut down in order to remove the price on his head. Buck is the comic relief, but it’s comic relief with one hell of an edge. (Buck reminds me a bit of P.B. from Laura Anne Gilman’s Retrievers series, which was also an awesome urban fantasy. I digress.)

But underneath the paranormal scene-setting, and Buck’s constant scene-stealing, the story is ripped from the headlines. Al’s case is to uncover a fae-trafficking ring, and it’s every bit as nasty as human-trafficking. It also seems to work in a surprisingly similar fashion. And it has to be stopped – and not just because the CIA (really, the actual CIA) is chasing after Al and his friends to silence them.

That Al manages to use some of his not-so-otherworldly connections to help the police shut down a couple of human-trafficking rings adds some real-world drama to this otherworldly story without being heavy-handed about the message. This stuff is evil and needs to be stopped. Period.

Shutting down this one, particular operation still leaves Al with plenty to do in subsequent books in the series. He still has to find out who dropped two seriously awful curses into his life, before those curses wipe out this cohort of his friends and colleagues. So he can keep Nadia and Buck around. So that he can finally manage to train an apprentice to mastery. So that he can talk to the librarian he’s been in love with for years and not have the curse make her hate him and the sound of his voice. As it did with his son.

So there is plenty for Al to be going on with in future books in this series. Hopefully soon!

Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa HartThe Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of the acclaimed Li Du novels comes Elsa Hart's new atmospheric mystery series.
London, 1703. In a time when the old approaches to science coexist with the new, one elite community attempts to understand the world by collecting its wonders. Sir Barnaby Mayne, the most formidable of these collectors, has devoted his life to filling his cabinets. While the curious-minded vie for invitations to study the rare stones, bones, books, and artifacts he has amassed, some visitors come with a darker purpose.
For Cecily Kay, it is a passion for plants that brings her to the Mayne house. The only puzzle she expects to encounter is how to locate the specimens she needs within Sir Barnaby’s crowded cabinets. But when her host is stabbed to death, Cecily finds the confession of the supposed killer unconvincing. She pays attention to details—years of practice have taught her that the smallest particulars can distinguish a harmless herb from a deadly one—and in the case of Sir Barnaby’s murder, there are too many inconsistencies for her to ignore.
To discover the truth, Cecily must enter the world of the collectors, a realm where intellect is distorted by obsession and greed. As her pursuit of answers brings her closer to a killer, she risks being given a final resting place amid the bones that wait, silent and still, in the cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

My Review:

I adored this author’s Li Du series (start with Jade Dragon Mountain and prepare to be lost for several days), so when I noticed that she had moved from early 18th century China to early 18th century London for her latest, I couldn’t wait to see how that transition worked.

The fascinating thing about moving from Li Du to Cecily Kay and her former school friend Meacan Barlow is how strangely the two settings resemble each other. Li Du’s China in the early 18th century was a closed world – at least to the West. And Li Du is an outsider, an exiled imperial librarian on his way out of his own country.

The world of the scholarly, acquisitive, obsessive collectors of early 18th century London is just as much of a closed world, albeit in a completely different way. The collectors are a closed society, restricting membership, keeping all of their secrets locked up in their beautiful but often hidden presentation cabinets.

And Cecily and Meacan are also both outsiders to this world, which is exclusively male. They are both barely tolerated interlopers who exist on the fringes of this expensive and exclusive preserve.

Just like so many who are treated as outsiders in the worlds they inhabit, Cecily and Meacan are both keen observers of the situation in which they find themselves. They are ignored but intimate inhabitants of a world they are not believed to truly understand.

But of course they do. And frequently better than the men who are considered to be its prime movers and leading lights. Because they have no vested interest in maintaining the status quo – quite the reverse – they see situations and people with much clearer vision than the supposed cognoscenti.

And what they see is a confessed killer whose confession makes no sense whatsoever, and an investigation that is determined to pin the death of Barnaby Mayne on the most convenient suspect rather than seek out the real murderer – who must be one of the wealthy and influential collectors themselves.

A killer who is content to have the official investigation look elsewhere – but unwilling to countenance two amateurs poking their noses into his crimes.

Escape Rating A+: The world of the collectors was absolutely fascinating, just by itself. For context, this was the time period when the infamous Elgin Marbles were essentially looted from Athens and shanghaied to England.

While Lord Elgin’s looting of the Parthenon was on rather a grand scale, the society of collectors, of whom the late (and fictional) Barnaby Mayne was one of the leading lights, did the same thing, not quite on the same scale, all over the world.

Those that were capable went on their own expeditions of acquisition – or theft if you prefer – while others sponsored, basically, treasure hunters and tomb robbers to commit their thievery for them.

The entire concept manages to be both the start of the great museums we have today and utterly appalling at the same time.

As fascinated as I was by the setting for this story, it was Cecily and Meacan who really captured my attention and held it to the end. The way that their minds worked, and the way that they worked together to solve the murder, felt like it ripped the veil off of the usual portrayal of women of this period – a time period which borders on the Regency. Because in this story we see both how the men of this closed society – and the men of officialdom – see these two women and are able to contrast that with how they perceive themselves and the world around them..

On the one hand, they often play the roles that the world expects them to play. They are quiet and decorous and studying subjects considered fit for ladies – if barely. While on the other hand they see a great deal, know even more, and are caught in the position where they have to pretend to be one thing while secretly being another.

And while earning a living in Meacan’s case or maintaining a fragile independence in Cecily’s. They inhabit their era in a subversive way that allows us to see ourselves in them – and rail at the limitations they face.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne manages to be both an atmospheric and immersive piece of historical fiction, every bit as meticulously detailed as the labels on Barnaby Mayne’s cabinets, while also giving us two marvelously drawn female protagonists in Cecily and Meacan. All wrapped around an intricately twisted mystery that holds the reader’s attention to the very end.