Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + Giveaway

Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + GiveawayWho Speaks for the Damned (Sebastian St. Cyr, #15) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #15
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sebastian St. Cyr investigates the mysterious life and death of a nobleman accused of murder in this enthralling new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Why Kill the Innocent....

It's June 1814, and the royal families of Austria, Russia, and the German states have gathered in London at the Prince Regent's invitation to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the restoration of monarchical control throughout Europe. But the festive atmosphere is marred one warm summer evening by the brutal murder of a disgraced British nobleman long thought dead.

Eighteen years before, Nicholas Hayes, the third son of the late Earl of Seaford, was accused of killing a beautiful young French émigré and transported to Botany Bay for life. Even before his conviction, Hayes had been disowned by his father. Few in London were surprised when they heard the ne'er-do-well had died in New South Wales in 1799. But those reports were obviously wrong. Recently Hayes returned to London with a mysterious young boy in tow--a child who vanishes shortly after Nicholas's body is discovered.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is drawn into the investigation by his valet, Jules Calhoun. With Calhoun's help, Sebastian begins to piece together the shattered life of the late Earl's ill-fated youngest son. Why did Nicholas risk his life and freedom by returning to England? And why did he bring the now-missing young boy with him? Several nervous Londoners had reason to fear that Nicholas Hayes had returned to kill them. One of them might have decided to kill him first.

My Review:

Once upon a time, the author of the Sebastian St. Cyr series described how she came to write St. Cyr and his series. She said that she wanted to create a character who seemed, on the surface, to be the epitome of the Regency hero; tall, dark, handsome and brooding. (I think with emphasis on the brooding.) But then to explicitly NOT make him the hero of a Regency romance. Thus was Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, born.

A much later description of Devlin referred to him as Darcy with more than a touch of James Bond, but that doesn’t really feel right. St. Cyr seems to have always been carrying too much emotional baggage to have ever been Darcy, while his adventures and investigations take him into much darker places than Bond usually goes and afford him considerably fewer technological toys – even ones that would have existed in the Regency.

St. Cyr relies on his instincts, his brains and his considerable ability to fight as dirty as necessary, whether that fight involves fisticuffs, social exposure or politics – as much as he hates the latter options when needed.

When his story began in 2005 – or in 1811 in St. Cyr’s world, England was on the brink of the Regency and St. Cyr was a battle-scarred veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, unable to settle or sleep, wracked with PTSD after his life-altering experiences in a war that had not yet ended. (Even by the time period of this 15th book in the series, 1814, the war is still not over. It is merely in abeyance during Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba.)

St. Cyr, as the heir to an earldom, should be one of the Regency dandies that appear in the pages of so many romances set in the period. Instead, he has become an unofficial and unpaid murder investigator with the help of the head of the newly formed police agency at Bow Street. His membership at the highest levels of the aristocracy allows him to poke his nose into many, many places where a simple copper would be thrown out the back door.

Even his father-in-law, the Prince Regent’s cousin and spymaster Jarvis, is forced to deal with St. Cyr whether he likes it or not. And he definitely does not.

This latest entry in the series is an enthralling mystery that does an especially good job of exposing the glitter of the Regency Era as the bio-luminescence of something rotting in the dark, as St. Cyr finds himself investigating the death of a man who is all too much like the one that he sees in his own mirror. There but for the grace of god, and just a few scraps of luck that turned good instead of bad, would have gone St. Cyr.

It’s a case he can’t let go of, no matter how many times he’s warned off. And no matter how high the halls of power that he needs to bring low.

Escape Rating A+: It should be fairly clear that this is one of my favorite series. In fact, if it isn’t clear already, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration I ONLY review stuff I really, really love. After all, this is my birthday and the blog’s birthday and why shouldn’t I treat myself to some books and authors that I know I’ll love?

Especially since this whole week is a hobbit’s birthday, meaning that I give presents instead of getting them. It just wouldn’t do to give away books I don’t utterly adore.

What I love about this series in general, and it’s certainly exemplified by this entry, boils down to two things. One is certainly the development of the characters. St. Cyr and his wife Hero have created a partnership of equals in a way that doesn’t often happen in historical romance. They have both come through dark places and dark things, and found each other in spite of people and circumstances that stood in their way.

They both carry a lot of baggage, and it is not a weight that either can carry FOR the other. Rather, carrying it together lightens the load. I also have to say that more than either Darcy or Bond, the character that St. Cyr most often reminds me of is Roarke from the In Death series. They share the same kind of darkness in their pasts, and they both work on expiating their demons in the same ways. They have also both formed strong partnerships with women who were initially on opposing sides from themselves.

The other thing that makes this series so strong is its setting. It is so much the opposite of what we think of the Regency as being. There was so much glitter at the top, and so much rot underneath. The murder in this story is a case in point. The powers-that-be have already decided who MUST be guilty, regardless of who is actually guilty. The attitudes reflected by our protagonists resonate with 21st century readers and yet feel part and parcel of their time and place.

Wrong is always wrong. Murder is always murder. No matter who the victim was, or what they, themselves might have done. That St. Cyr sees so much of himself in this particular victim adds to the poignancy of the whole story.

In the end, good triumphed, at least temporarily. Evil got its just desserts. And the powers that be blame St. Cyr for righting a wrong that many would have preferred to bury. A combination of things as they should be with the acknowledgement that many in power do not desire that outcome.

While I am eagerly awaiting St. Cyr’s next case, probably this time next year, I’m offering one lucky reader the chance to either begin this marvelous series or pick up wherever they might have left off. This is a series where you do need to at least start at the beginning. I read the first few, lost track of the series in the middle and have returned for the last several and have enjoyed every single one since I returned.

I hope that the winner of this giveaway will too.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. HamiltonKnight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: sword and sorcery, urban fantasy
Series: Dragonslayer #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on November 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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*AUTHOR OF ONE OF BUZZFEED'S GREATEST FANTASY BOOKS OF 2013*From the author of the beloved Society of Sword and Wolf of the North trilogies, Duncan M. Hamilton's Knight
of the Silver Circle
--the sequel adventure-packed fantasy to Dragonslayer in The Dragonslayer trilogy--is perfect for fans of magical beasts and unexpected heroes

Three dragons wreak havoc throughout Mirabay--eating livestock, killing humans, and burning entire villages to ash. It was nearly impossible to kill one, using a legendary sword and the magic of the mysterious Cup; to tackle three, Guillot dal Villerauvais will need help.

The mage Solène fears having to kill again; she leaves Gill to gain greater control over her magic.

The Prince Bishop still wants Gill dead, but more than that, he wants the Cup, and he'll do whatever he has to to get it, even sending his own daughter--a talented thief and assassin--into the dragons' path.

As secrets mount on secrets and betrayals on betrayals, both Guillot and Solène face critical decisions that will settle not only their own fate but that of all Mirabaya.

The Dragonslayer Trilogy: 1. Dragonslayer2. Knight of the Silver Circle3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

I want to call Guillot dal Villerauvais an antihero, because if there’s one thing the man does not want to be, it’s a hero. He’s been there and done that and knows, for sure, for certain and for true, that the so-called glory is empty. As tempting as the adulation still is, he’s all too aware that it’s a cup of poison.

And so much of his personal behavior since he left the capital in disgrace five years ago has been, well, let’s call it less than heroic that it feels wrong for him to accept any of it. He knows he has plenty to atone for – and that killing the dragon that destroyed his village is just a drop in a very large bucket.

But now that he’s needed, truly needed – and feels guilty as hell about why he’s needed even though it isn’t his fault – he’s there. On the front line. In front of the damn dragon. Or in this book, dragons, plural.

Once Gill learns that the dragon he killed wasn’t the only one left in the world after all, he sets out to kill the not one but three that seem to have followed in its wake. After all, he’s the only “experienced” dragonslayer in Mirabaya – or anywhere else – in more than a thousand years.

He’ll just have to put that experience to work – again, and again, and again.

But without the help of his unsung assistant, the sorceress Solène. Solène unlocked the secrets that gave the original Knights of the Silver Circle their power. Solène can’t control her magic – to the point where that lack of control will kill her.

So she leaves Gill with the magical cup, the words to say, and a hope and a prayer that it will be enough to see him through.

While the Prince Bishop plots back in the capital to steal the glory that Gill has no use for, the cup that makes it all possible, and the kingdom if he can manage it.

He almost certainly can. He’ll just need a little bit of magic – along with a ruthless desire to let nothing stand in his way. Not even the king he’s supposed to serve.

Escape Rating A+: So far, this series has turned out to be a joy and a delight. I loved Dragonslayer, to the point where I couldn’t stand to wait for the utterly marvelous audiobook to play out and switched to the ebook just to see what happened that much faster. As I did this time around, switching from audio to text at about the 40% mark.

It’s obvious that I have no more patience waiting to see how a good book tells its story than the Prince Bishop does waiting for all of his many, many plans to ripen to fruition.

Like the first book in the series, this second book tells its rather epic story in a relatively short number of pages while keeping its large scope. At the same time, it hews to its sword and sorcery roots by switching perspectives from the swordsman Gill to the burgeoning sorceress Solène to the power-hungry politician Amaury with all the aplomb of the ablest swashbuckler.

But the washed-up, wasted, struggling Gill is the true hero and the true focus. Solène has her own story, but a big part of our interest in her revolves around her aid to Gill. And Amaury, well, Amaury is the villain and nemesis that every good hero needs. Smart, politically savvy, utterly ruthless and completely without remorse.

A big part of this entry in the series, which is a middle book that manages totally NOT to feel like one, is on the dragon hunt. Several of them, appropriately, as there are not one but three dragons this time around. There’s plenty of glory to be had, and plenty of men looking to grab it. That they are underprepared and less than successful is no surprise but adds plenty of drama and action to the story.

At the same time, there’s an underlying truth to this part of the saga that reminds me in a very peculiar way of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. If you’re not familiar, that’s the one with the whales. And Mirabaya or at least its Prince Bishop, like the Earth of that movie, is about to discover that the thing that can save them is the thing that they’ve been so successful at destroying.

The ways in which that destruction will bite someone, or several someones, in the ass will be revealed in the final book in the trilogy, Servant of the Crown. Which I can’t wait to start in the morning.

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. HamiltonDragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #1
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Author of one of BuzzFeed 's Greatest Fantasy Books of 2013

In his magnificent, heroic, adventure fantasy, Dragonslayer, Duncan M. Hamilton debuts the first book in a fast-moving trilogy: a dangerous tale of lost magics, unlikely heroes, and reawakened dragons.

Once a member of the King's personal guard, Guillot dal Villevauvais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished—and wary—when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capital in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacingthe young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solene’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

My Review:

Dragonslayer turned out to be surprisingly – and epically – marvelous. I’m saying this because I picked up the ARC last year and it got buried under the weight of the towering TBR pile. I always meant to get to it, but just didn’t quite. Then I got the audiobook last month. Audible was having a sale and I got the first two books in the series for cheap. Or cheaper anyway. I’ve discovered that epic fantasy and SF work really well in audio – it’s easy to get caught up in the action and forget I’m walking a treadmill or stuck in traffic.

So when I bailed on an audio I just couldn’t tolerate, I remembered I had Dragonslayer. And that, surprising for an epic fantasy, it was only about 10ish hours long. That’s amazeballs. For an epic fantasy that truly is epic in scope, the series as a whole is blissfully NOT epic in length. The entire trilogy clocks in at just a shade over 900 pages, or just a hair over 30 hours in audio. Most epic fantasy in audio hovers around the 24 hour mark.

Dragonslayer is proof positive, very positive, that an epic fantasy can be told without turning into a tall pile of many thousand page doorstops. So if you know someone who is interested in epic fantasy but daunted by the length, Dragonslayer is terrific.

Part of what made it so good, at least from my perspective, is that it didn’t turn out to be any of the things I thought it was going to be at the beginning. Except that it claims to be epic fantasy, and it certainly is that, albeit of the sword and sorcery variety – something that we don’t see nearly enough of these days.

It all begins with Gill, technically Guillot dal Villerauvais. Gill is the drunken has-been who used to be the best swordsman in the kingdom. Now he’s the town drunk in the town where he’s supposed to be seigneur, the local squire.

We get the impression that he’s old and washed-up. That he’s pissed away his skill and his glory. But we think he’s Falstaff, a fat buffoon, when he’s really more like Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion. He used to be a hero. It’s both a pain and a purpose when he discovers that he’s STILL the hero, even if he doesn’t want to be, or feels that he’s no longer remotely capable of being.

He’s also not half so old as his world-weary voice (expertly acted by Simon Vance in the audio) makes him appear to be. Discovering late in the story that Gill is, at most, 40 years old is a bit of a shock. Gill is a heartbroken, heartbreaking lesson in what happens to a person when they realize that all their dreams are behind them.

The classic story about dragonslaying usually features the dragon as a rampaging beast out to slay all it encounters, whether for eating or just for the joy of slaughter. Here we have a thinking creature, woken from a long slumber by a troupe of pillaging humans intent on ransacking his cave in search of magical treasure. The dragon in this story may be the force that starts the action, but he’s not, even in the worst of his depredations, the villain of the piece.

That place is reserved for the Prince-Bishop Amaury, the power behind the Mirabayan throne and at the head of the newly formed – and illegally magical – Order of the Golden Spur, whose purpose is to hunt out magic and turn it to their own use. Or rather, to Amaury’s own use.

It’s been said that people whose titles are longer than their names are always complete arseholes. That’s certainly true in Amaury’s case. He also seems to be an object lesson about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Not that he has ABSOLUTE power – at least not yet. But he’s working on it.

Amaury believes that Gill stands in his way. Because Gill has always stood in his way – at least according to Amaury. This time, he’s going to get what he wants out of Gill and then Gill is going to get what’s coming to him.

Unless, of course, Gill manages to stand in his way – again. If Gill can manage to stand at all.

Escape Rating A+: There is so much going on in this book, and all of it is fascinating. Or at least it was to me. This was one where I got so into it I started switching back and forth between the audio and the ebook. Because I just wasn’t listening fast enough – but the reading was so very good.

There are reasons why narrator Simon Vance is in the Narrator Hall of Fame, and plenty of hours of those reasons are in Dragonslayer.

There were so many elements to this story, and the more I think about it the more I believe I’ve found – or at least seen glimpses of.

While the biggest part of the story wraps around Gill’s quest to pull himself back together, slay the dragon and avenge the people it’s killed, his is not the only story and he’s not the only hero in this tale.

Solène, the young mage, has her own story to tell, and her own journey to reach her destiny. It just so happens that her journey and Gill’s keep intersecting – from the beginning when he saves her from burning at the stake, to the end of this installment where she saves him from an assassin. In between, while he takes the direct path to the dragon, Solene takes herself to learn magic, only to be forced to choose between a place she can be safe – and the right thing to do.

One refreshing element of the story is that while Gill and Solène come to rely on each other and care about each other, it’s a relationship that does not fall into any neat pigeonholes. Gill doesn’t have himself together enough to feel capable of the kind of mentorship that even an ersatz parental relationship would require, and there is blissfully NO HINT WHATSOEVER that this will ever turn romantic. It’s lovely to show that not all close relationships, particularly close opposite sex relationships, HAVE to end in romance.

Last but not least, while this book was published in mid-2019 and probably finished sometime the previous year, finishing it today showed some striking parallels between the way that towns and villages were emptying out in hopes of getting away from the dragon and the response to the current COVID-19 pandemic in real life. In both cases, public spaces are empty and people are fearful. A virus is even harder to outrun than a flying, fire-breathing dragon.

The hints about the past of this world, the long ago time of great magic, great mages and even greater dragons give tantalizing clues to the journey that Gill and Solene will have to undertake in the remaining books of the trilogy, Knight of the Silver Circle and Servant of the Crown.

I’ll be listening to Knight of the Silver Circle in the morning, possibly as you are reading this review. I can’t wait!

Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette KowalThe Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, space opera
Series: Lady Astronaut #2
Pages: 384
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on August 21st 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Mary Robinette Kowal continues the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars.The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. 

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there's a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic - but potentially very dangerous - mission. Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the civil rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? 

This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.

My Review:

In the Yiddish of which Elma York would approve and Stetson Parker would be desperate for a translation, I am verklempt after finishing The Fated Sky, the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s utterly marvelous Lady Astronaut series.

I am also in tears, just as I was at the end of The Calculating Stars. Not because the story is sad, although there are plenty of sad parts amongst the adventure, but because when she waxes so marvelously lyrical about her first sight of stars in the sky over a planet after the years of occluded skies on Earth, I feel like I’m right there with her. Sharing her joy at the sight.

As well as her exhilaration at simply being on Mars. And in spite of everything that has happened to get her to that point, I wish I could see what she sees, not through her eyes, but with my own.

And my eyes are full because I know that it will never be. So I have to live vicariously through Elma York’s terrible and wondrous journey, through this series. And what a fantastic journey it is!

This series began in The Calculating Stars with a very big bang. Not THE Big Bang. More like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. In 1952 a meteor struck Earth, specifically the Chesapeake Bay, and kicked off what mathematician Dr. Elma York, with a little bit of help from her meteorologist brother Hershel, recognizes as an extinction-level event.

The water blown into the atmosphere is going to start a runaway greenhouse effect, leaving Earth completely uninhabitable in a century. Not that things aren’t going to start getting pretty awful within a decade.

So the race is on. A decade before it occurred in real history, and with a whole lot more oomph behind it, the space race slams into high gear in the 1950s instead of the 1960s, with a goal of getting at least the seedlings of colonies established elsewhere in the solar system. Specifically the moon and Mars.

Dr. Elma York, former WASP pilot, mathematician and human computer, finds herself recognized worldwide as the “Lady Astronaut” and uses her reluctant fame to get herself into the first lunar mission, in spite of resistance from pretty much everyone to even the idea of women in space.

Although how anyone thinks a colony could be established without putting women into space is anyone’s guess.

As The Fated Sky opens, the meteor strike is a decade in the past, travel between the Earth, the Lunetta Station and the Moon has become a regular event, at least for astronauts, scientists and, unfortunately for Elma, the Press.

Ten years, however, is plenty of time for the effects of the meteor to get worse, while people’s memories of the actual event are starting to fade. A century is a long time, and humans are all too often shortsighted.

It’s also plenty of time for the racism that was behind post-meteor rescue efforts to affect relocation and refugee assistance, admission to the space program and pretty much everything else. It’s not just painfully obvious that not everyone will be able to escape, but that seats on the escape vehicles will be determined by the color of people’s skin.

Tensions are high as the first Mars expedition goes through its training. “Earth First” terrorism is on the rise, budgets for the space program are shrinking, and a trip to Mars will take three years and a LOT of money that many people believe should be spend to ameliorate problems on Earth – not willing to recognize that the climate problems at least cannot truly be ameliorated, only delayed a tiny bit.

Elma hadn’t planned on going to Mars. Three years is a long time to be away from her husband, and she’s at the age where it’s either Mars or a child of their own – but not both.

But it’s a decision that is taken out of her hands when the International Aerospace Commission needs the “Lady Astronaut” and all of her perky, positive publicity to go to Mars, to bring the hearts and minds of Earth – as well as the U.S. Congress with their budgetary authority – along for the ride.

No matter how conflicted she is about the whole thing – or how much her crewmates do NOT want her along.

Escape Rating A+: The Fated Stars was every bit as beautiful, and every single bit as complex and frustrating, as The Calculating Stars. I called the story in the first book, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and they are all still here in all of their complex, human and frequently painful “glory”.

The Lady Astronaut series is alternate history, set in the 1950s and now in the early 1960s. The constant drumbeat of draining, wearing, annoying, disgusting sexism and misogyny that Elma faces at every turn will make any woman grit their teeth, scream in exasperation and roll their eyes in sympathy all at the same time. (Try it, it hurts). It also feels entirely realistic. The 1950s were awful for women. And the racism was even worse, and deadlier. The 1950s really were like that, and through Elma’s eyes we feel it and see it. We also see her struggle to grasp just how truly pervasive and horrible the racism was, because she CAN ignore it and sometimes does – and then hates herself afterwards for doing so.

At the same time, when the realization does slap her upside the head, she also wonders where those racists would put her. She looks white. But she is a Jew, and at least some of the people who hate and fear anyone non-white, include her among the people they hate. The calculus of that question is one that I am all too familiar with. It was one of the many ways I found it so very easy to get inside Elma’s head.

Which is good, because we spend the entire book inside Elma’s head. This is her story – her hopes, her fears, her dreams and her nightmares. Her desperate loneliness and need to belong, while knowing that she left everyone she belongs to and who belongs to her back on Earth. The longing in her voice is marvelously captured by the narrator of the audio, who in this case is also the author. We’re in her head and we feel with her.

The story of the actual expedition, the “intrepid explorers” cut off from home and planet, reminded me a great deal To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Particularly in the way that the group feels cut off from Earth even before (and after) they actually are, and in the ways that the small crew both does and does not bind together into a unit wrapped around their mission. Taught also does the same excellent job of telling a story of big science and remote discovery and putting it into a very human scale.

There was also a lovely bit of life imitates art imitates life circularity. In the story, Gene Roddenberry is inspired by black astronaut Florence Grey to create the character of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, which he still produces in this alternate universe. In real life, Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to become the first black woman astronaut.

But what carries the story, at least for this reader, is the way that it takes its huge scientific story and makes it real and easy to identify with. I can feel Elma’s joy of discovery, her fear of failure, her love of complex calculations and her need to make a difference. I can participate in her love of science and her mastery of its complexity without needing to understand the details of that science. I’m in her head and I feel like I’m in her shoes. Or her Mars boots, as the case may be.

Just as with The Calculating Stars, I’m trying to keep from squeeing and I’m failing. Happily and miserably.

I loved The Fated Sky every bit as much as I did The Calculating Stars. And I can’t wait for The Relentless Moon, coming in July. And I’m hoping that the author will return for another turn behind the narrator’s microphone, because she’s just awesome at it.

Review: The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe KennedyThe Fate of the Tala (Uncharted Realms #5) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #5
Pages: 398
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on February 4th, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An Uneasy Marriage,
An Unholy Alliance.

The tales tell of three sisters, daughters of the high king. The eldest, a valiant warrior-woman, conquered her inner demons to become the high queen. The youngest, and most beautiful outlived her Prince Charming and found a strength beyond surface loveliness.

And the other one, Andi? The introverted, awkward middle princess is now the Sorceress Queen, Andromeda—and she stands at the precipice of a devastating war.

As the undead powers of Deyrr gather their forces, their High Priestess focuses on Andi, undermining her at every turn. At the magical barrier that protects the Thirteen Kingdoms from annihilation, the massive Dasnarian navy assembles, ready to pounce the moment Andi’s strength fails. And, though her sisters and friends gather around her, Andi finds that her husband, Rayfe, plagued with fears over her pregnancy, has withdrawn, growing ever more distant.

Fighting battles on too many fronts, Andi can’t afford to weaken, as she’s all that stands between all that’s good in the world and purest evil.

For Andi, the time to grow into her true power has come. . .

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a story about three sisters. The daughters of a mad king and his foretold (and foretelling) queen. But soothsayers, especially true ones, always fare badly – just ask Cassandra. In the end, Queen Salena went mad and died, before her time but not before she had fulfilled her purpose.

Once upon a time, even longer ago than the first story, there was a story about an innocent young woman, betrayed by her parents, abused by her husband, and saved by her baby brother with a little bit of help from a warrior priestess.

The story of those three princesses, the sorceress Andromeda, the beautiful Amelia and the warrior Ursula, was told as the three parts of The Twelve Kingdoms, where Andi was swept away by a sorcerer king, Ami loved and lost her prince charming, and Ursula took her father’s throne as well as his life.

Through all of their trials and tribulations, the sisters fought against the dead minions of the Priestess of Deyrr, and the machinations of the voracious Drasnarian empire.

That young abused woman was once a Drasnarian princess. She escaped and fled to a faraway land where her former family could not reach her – not through the ranks of the elephants who came to guard her and the people she came to call hers. Her story was told in the Chronicles of Drasnaria.

But the baby brother who helped rescue his sister the former Drasnarian princess grew up to become the mercenary leader who captured the heart of the Warrior Queen Ursula, tying the two stories, and all of their peoples, together.

Throughout the followup to The Twelve Kingdoms, The Uncharted Realms Andi, Ami and Ursula, now queens with lands of their own to rule, found themselves fighting the deeply entrenched tendrils of that High Priestess they first defeated in their father’s throne room.

The Fate of the Tala is the climax to this entire 12-book saga, and it is an epic and stunning conclusion to everything that has come before it.

The series ends, as it began all the way back in The Mark of the Tala five years ago, with the magical kingdom of Annfwn, once the tiny keeper of all of the magic in the world. Andi married Rayfe, the King of Annfwn, to protect the precious heartstone that controlled that magic. A control that has been under attack since long before the sisters were born. An attack that their birth was intended to finally defeat.

If they can. If Andi can let herself embrace all of the power that could be at her command, without giving way to the doubts and fears that have plagued her all her life. And without giving in to the insidious voice of the High Priestess who has planted so many of those fears in order to exploit them now, at the climax of it all.

But the visions of the future that Andi has seen show her the defeat of all she loves and the loss of all she holds dear. She fears can only save the kingdoms only at the cost of her heart and soul. A cost that she only thinks she is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A+: The Fate of the Tala is the shattering conclusion of an epic long in the making – and the reading. And as the conclusion of such an epic, the depths of which I have barely hinted at above, it needs to be read as the conclusion to either a long and lush reading binge or, as I did, years of waiting with bated breath for the next installment in the series.

One of the things that I love about this series, and this is every bit as true for this entry as the others, is that these women, their stories, their kingdoms, their worlds, are complex and beautiful and sometimes terrible in that beauty. Many of their stories walk through very dark places, and we feel their pain, deeply and even heartbreakingly.

So it is in The Fate of the Tala. Andi is assaulted on all sides by the fears that have plagued her all her life – and those fears are so very real. She is pregnant and fears that her husband no longer loves her, wants her, or values her as a partner. She knows that they were fated to marry, whether they loved each other or not, and while she has come to love him desperately it seems that his mask of caring has slipped.

More importantly, he no longer seems to trust her as his co-ruler, meaning that she cannot trust him as hers. Their kingdom, their world is in a desperate fight for its life, a fight that is centered on their kingdom. The division at their very heart could be the crack that destroys them all.

As readers, we can see what is wrong, and we both empathize with Andi and desperately want her to be able to repair the breach, even as we understand that she must do what is right for her people above all, and that the breach may not be repairable – and neither may be her marriage or her husband. And yet she shoulders on.

At the same time, this is also a story about desperation and struggle and hope and fear and pulling together against all the odds. And it’s a story about finding sisterhood and family and hope in even the darkest and most desperate of times.And that last stands do not have to be the last – or actually even a stand, and that sometimes the way to win it all is to let it all go.

If you love fantasy romance and/or epic fantasy tinged with romance, you owe it to yourself to begin with The Mark of the Tala and immerse yourself in a beautifully created and fantastically detailed world. This series is epic in scope and marvelous in detail. If you’re looking for a sweeping heroines’ journey this series can’t be beat.

Although I’d love to see the author try, with more heroines and even more fantastic worlds.

Review: Back in Black by Rhys Ford

Review: Back in Black by Rhys FordBack in Black (McGinnis Investigations, #1) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: LGBT, mystery, suspense
Series: McGinnis Investigations #1
Pages: 200
Published by Dreamspinner Press on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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There are eight million stories in the City of Angels but only one man can stumble upon the body of a former client while being chased by a pair of Dobermans and a deranged psycho dressed as a sheep.

That man is Cole McGinnis.

Since his last life-threatening case years ago, McGinnis has married the love of his life, Jae-Min Kim, consulted for the LAPD, and investigated cases as a private detective for hire. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the shocking discovery of a dead, grandmotherly woman at his feet and the cascade of murders that follows, even if he should have been used to it by now.

Now he’s back in the dark world of murder and intrigue where every bullet appears to have his name on it and every answer he digs up seems to only create more questions. Hired by the dead woman’s husband, McGinnis has to figure out who is behind the crime spree. As if the twisted case of a murdered grandmother isn’t complicated enough, Death is knocking on his door, and each time it opens, Death is wearing a new face, leaving McGinnis to wonder who he can actually trust.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a book titled Dirty Kiss, in which ex-LAPD-turned-private-investigator Cole McGinnis investigated the case of a cheating wife who put the sex in sexagenarian – with leather on it. Also a whip and thigh-high boots, because the lady wasn’t merely cheating on her husband, she was cheating on him as a dominatrix for hire. When Cole discovered her shenanigans, she came after him with a shotgun – and almost got him.

Fast forward a few years. Cole is now happily married to the man he met during the course of that first book. They’ve been good years – and they’ve also been fairly peaceful years for Cole, Jae and their friends and family.

When Cole trips over the leather-clad corpse of that senior-citizen dominatrix while running from two dobermans and a guy in a sheep costume who has just been caught in flagrante delicto in an abandoned house, Cole’s peace is definitely at an end. And not just because he needs brain bleach to remove the image of the sheep chasing him with his “flagrante” flopping out of the front of that sheep suit.

Cole feels an obligation to Adele Brinkerhoff and her husband Arthur. The original case was resolved satisfactorily for all concerned, but it did, in a very roundabout way, bring him to Jae and his current happiness.

And no one else is going to get justice for the old lady. Not just because of the spill of manufactured diamonds next to her corpse, but because her past is even shadier than her previous moonlighting as a dominatrix would suggest.

But even before Cole takes on the case, his peace is shattered – along with the victim’s house and the victim’s husband. When the assailant starts shooting up the neighborhood, including Cole and his friend and brother-in-law Bobby Dawson, Cole becomes even more determined to get to the bottom of a case that seems to be every bit as weird as the first time he tangled with Adele and Arthur Brinkerhoff all those years ago.

And even more deadly.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely adored this book. To the point where I’m desperately trying not to just sit here and squee for endless pages. But that’s not particularly informative – dammit.

Part of my glee about this book is just how much fun it is to see Cole, Jae and all their friends and family – found and otherwise – again. Especially Jae’s cat Neko, who is the cattest cat who ever catted.

But in all seriousness, something that is difficult to maintain in the face of the truly unbelievable messes that Cole gets himself into, the arc of Cole’s first series left everyone in a good place and came to a cathartic and well-earned resolution. I didn’t expect to see them back, but I’m so happy to see them back.

(You don’t need to read the first series to get into Back in Black – although that first series is wonderful. But seriously, Back in Black is the start of a new series, and it has a different feel to the first one. However, Cole does an excellent job of providing enough backstory info as it goes to get new readers into his life and his world, and to get series fans caught up on anything they might have forgotten.)

Enough time has passed between the end of the final book in that series, Dirty Heart, that life has moved on, mostly for the better, for Cole and Jae and their circle. The biggest change is that Cole and Jae have been married for a few years. (That story is told in the blog tour for Back in Black and began here at Reading Reality last week.) It’s not just Cole and Jae that have found their HEA – Cole’s brother Ichi and his friend Bobby (the protagonists of Down and Dirty) have also married, making Cole and Bobby brothers-in-law to the surprise of them both, if not necessarily to the delight of either of their husbands.

Because Cole and Bobby tend to lead each other into trouble, including gun-toting would-be assassins, and that’s just what happens in Back in Black.

But unlike the previous series, which leaned more towards romantic suspense, Back in Black and the McGinnis Investigations series fall firmly onto the mystery side of that suspense. Cole starts by doing a security check for a friend-of-a-friend (Rook Stevens from Murder and Mayhem) and literally trips over a former client’s dead body – while being chased by the sheep and the dobermans.

From that hilarious but inauspicious beginning, the case and the story are off to the races. It’s up to Cole, along with his police contact Dell O’Byrne, to determine not just whodunnit but also why it was done. An investigation which seems to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma and covered in a painter’s drop cloth.

Meanwhile Cole and Bobby find themselves dodging assassins, sometimes not terribly well. Assassins who seem determined to take them out of the picture before Cole discovers what the picture actually is.

And the entire story is told from Cole’s wry, snarky and frequently self-deprecating first-person perspective. In a voice that elicits groans and laughter in equal proportions, even if the laughter is all too often the result of some truly atrocious gallows humor.

On the other hand, it’s the voice of the man who got chased by a sheep. And two dobermans. And to whom stuff like that just keeps happening. Cole doesn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble clearly has his address on its GPS and has zero problem hunting him down and shooting at him. Over and over again.

Of course Cole does eventually solve the case. Which turns out to be nothing like anyone, not Cole and not the reader, expected when he tripped over that first body. But Cole, with more than a little help from his friends, gets the job done in his own inimitable style.

Considering the life he’s led, Cole McGinnis really should know better than to ask the universe, “what’s the worst that can happen?” because the universe is likely to take that question as a challenge.

On the other hand, just thinking about that is a fantastic way to end Cole’s first investigation in his new series, Back in Black, because that means there will be more. Hopefully lots, lots more!

Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora GossThe Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #3
Pages: 416
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club...especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucina van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished—and so has Mary's employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save England? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

My Review:

Once upon a time, in the summer of 1816, a group of writers and other creatives conducted a rather famous ghost story contest. Out of that little game among friends came the foundation of modern science fiction AND the first modern modern vampire story. This is a true story. Mary Shelley wrote the beginning of Frankenstein and John Polidori wrote The Vampyre (the precursor for Dracula and every other vampire in modern fiction) during that house party.

I open with that anecdote because in it’s own way it sets the stage for the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. Just as the foundational stories for members of the group were written during that weekend, so does it seem more plausible that the ladies of the Athena Club, would find each other and band together.

Or at least as plausible as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with the potential for a cast nearly as large.

For these women are all extraordinary, each in their own way. Even more so, because none of them chose what they are. But, as the stories in this series reveal, they have chosen – even if sometimes reluctantly – to embrace what they are. To embrace their own very monstrousness – and to embrace each other in sisterhood.

The series began, back in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, with the death of Mrs. Henry Jekyll and her daughter Mary’s discovery that not only did her late father have a daughter, herself, under his Jekyll persona, but that he also had a daughter as Edward Hyde. And that both herself and Diana Hyde, along with Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini, were all the daughters of members of the secretive Societé des Alchemists, and that all of them had powers as the result of their fathers’ experiments.

During that first adventure, they met and teamed up with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, who were investigating an entirely new series of Whitechapel Murders.

However, unlike nearly every other Holmes pastiche (I’m reading two others at the moment) the presence of Holmes in the Athena Club’s adventures does not mean that he is in charge or even the central character. The singular glory of this series is that the men who appear in the series are never the central characters.

This is a story of sisterhood – and even the villains are female. Not that there aren’t plenty of villainous men in the story – after all, all of these women are monsters because their fathers experimented on them or their mothers without any consent whatsoever. But that is in the past – their pasts. The cases they have to resolve in their present, especially the case in The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, present women as the central figures, both in the crime and in the resolution of it.

And that’s in spite of embarking upon this case because it looks like Sherlock Holmes has been kidnapped by Moriarty.

Escape Rating A+: I refer to Sherlock Holmes because that’s how I initially got into this series. I love Holmes pastiches and they are often my go-to stories when I’m in a slump. In the case of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, while I may have come for Holmes I stayed for this incredible story of sisterhood – and also for the seemingly endless number of drop ins by the heroes and villains of 19th century literature and the teasing of my brain thereby.

This one has what initially appears to be a cameo by a Dr. Gray who looks like a fallen angel and has the world-weary affect of someone who has lived entirely too long and seen entirely too much for his apparent 20ish age. And who turns out to be Dorian Gray. And may be part of the next book, if there is a next book. I hope there is a next book. Sincerely.

When I describe this book to people, it’s by way of the characters. Think about it. Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Mr. Hyde’s daughter, Dr. Moreau’s daughter, Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter, the Poisonous Girl (from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne if you’re wondering), Dr. Van Helsing’s daughter, the Mesmerizing Girl of the title (I’m not sure what story she is from but I bet there’s one somewhere – unless she’s Alice as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but the backgrounds don’t match), along with a few contributions from Irene Adler Norton and Mina Murray Harker as well as a cross country automobile trip courtesy of Bertha Benz.

The mixture of the real with the fantastical continues to enthrall, at least this reader – or listener as the case may be – in this third volume of the adventures. It helps that this is a series I listen to rather than read, and that the reader (the awesome Kate Reading) does a particularly excellent job of distinguishing the voices of the women who make up the cast.

This is also a series where it feels like a requirement to have read the whole series from the beginning – and reasonably recently as well. The heroines of these adventures are all the women who were forgotten or glossed over in the original works so one isn’t familiar with them without having had the pleasure of meeting them here.

I’m aware that I’m squeeing over this one. In fact, I’m still squeeing and I finished the book a week ago. I delayed writing this review in order to tone down the squee a bit, and it didn’t work. At all. Very much sorry not sorry.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of a wild and crazy romp through 19th century Gothic literature in the company of the most wonderful and monstrous sisterhood you’ll ever want to meet, go forth and grab a copy of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, available at your nearest bookseller. (This plug is made in the spirit of Catherine Moreau, who inserts such advertisements throughout the narrative of all three books – to the complete consternation of Mary Jekyll – at every marvelous and even tangentially appropriate turn.)

I loved every single one of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, and sincerely hope that there will be more. And soon.

Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine GuilloryRoyal Holiday (The Wedding Date, #4) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Wedding Date #4
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory makes her hardcover debut with a heartwarming Christmas romance.

Vivian Forest has been out of the country a grand total of one time, so when she gets the chance to tag along on her daughter Maddie's work trip to England to style a royal family member, she can't refuse. She's excited to spend the holidays taking in the magnificent British sights, but what she doesn't expect is to become instantly attracted to a certain Private Secretary and his charming accent and unyielding formality.

Malcolm Hudson has been the Queen's Private Secretary for years and has never given a personal, private tour...until now. He is intrigued by Vivian the moment he meets her and finds himself making excuses just to spend time with her. When flirtatious banter turns into a kiss under the mistletoe, things snowball into a full-on fling.

Despite a ticking timer on their holiday romance, they are completely fine with ending their short, steamy fling come New Year's Day...or are they?

My Review:

I picked up Royal Holiday because I absolutely fell in love with the first book in this series, The Wedding Date (also the title of the series) and have been following along ever since, hoping that the subsequent books in the series would recapture the magic of that first book.

While I enjoyed both The Proposal and The Wedding Party, they didn’t quite recapture the magic of The Wedding Date. But Royal Holiday, the fourth book in the series, definitely did.

And it did it by being different from the others. The previous books in the series have all been wrapped around the wedding of Alexa and Drew, the couple of who meet, court and spark in that marvelous first book.

But now that they are married, and their best friends have found their own HEAs – sometimes with each other – the story has gone into a fascinating new direction.

Maddie has found her HEA with Theo (in The Wedding Party), but they haven’t tied the knot themselves yet. Meanwhile,Maddie, a freelance fashion consultant, has just received the contract of a lifetime. Her friend and mentor is the fashion consultant for one of the young British Royals.

While the princess in question is never named, it is fairly obvious who it is. In any case, that person’s identity isn’t really important. What is important is that her regular consultant is in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy and confined to bed rest over the holidays. And that Maddie is going to pinch-hit for her. In England. Over Christmas. Dressing the princess.

And she gets to bring someone with her for her working holiday, spending the days leading up to Xmas and Boxing Day at Sandringham House (the private residence of the Queen), and then having a few days of true vacation in London – all details arranged and all expenses paid by the House of Windsor.

Maddie convinces her mother to come with her to England. Vivian Forest is a respected social worker back home in California. She’s also been a working single-mother who scrimped and saved to help her daughter achieve her dreams. Vivian is about to take a promotion at work that will increase her pay, her hours and her responsibilities rather drastically, cutting her free time in equal if not greater amount. This is the last chance she’ll have for a while to take a really long, slightly indulgent vacation.

And probably the last opportunity she’ll have for some bonding time alone with her daughter, who will herself be married in a few short months. Life as they know it is about to change, mostly in a good way. But neither of their lives will be the same. So, in spite of some reservations about her family obligations back home, Viv gets on that plane for what she believes will be a wonderful but brief getaway with her daughter.

Only to embark on a surprising holiday fling that turns into much, much more.

Escape Rating A+: This is one of those books that gave me an earworm, as they sometimes do. In this case, the earworm goes like this, “Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.” This classic from the “Great American Song Book” was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1953. And it’s the perfect song to accompany Vivian Forest’s romance with Malcolm Hudson.

Both Viv and Malcolm are in their 50s, and it was incredibly refreshing to read a romance that featured two people who were not 20-somethings. Life doesn’t end at 50, and neither do love or romance. Watching them court and spark was every bit as marvelous as Drew and Alexa back in The Wedding Date. And just as lovely.

While on the one hand the banter between Viv and Malcolm makes this story in the same way as that first book, part of what makes it so special is the way that their romance was every bit as sexy and romantic as the earlier books in the series, while still dealing with the issues that are the result of them being at a much different place in their lives than the earlier couples.

Because they are older, they have more baggage trailing behind them – and they both understand that. They have careers that they are in the middle of – and starting to think about retiring from in a future that is not so distant. It is much easier to pick up stakes and move and change your whole life at the beginning than it is in the middle. There are more consequences – and more hesitations about those consequences.

At the same time, the questions of the heart are still the same. They have to balance what makes them each happy against how happy they can be together. That Viv is also wrestling with the question of what she wants the rest of her career to be vs. what everyone expects the rest of her career to be makes some of those decisions both more immediate and more poignant.

In the end, I loved Royal Holiday every bit as much as I did The Wedding Date not quite two years ago. It was so lovely that it even managed to reverse the romance reading slump I’ve been in for a while, because it felt incredible to read a romance that featured a woman closer to my own age that I could identify with so completely.

I’m completely hooked on this author and can’t wait to see where she takes me next!

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

My Review:

This was one of those times when I had to put off writing my review for a few days after finishing the book so that I could tone down the squeeing and be halfway coherent. And I’m still not sure I’m going to manage it.

The Calculating Stars is enthralling, exhilarating and infuriating, sometimes in equal measure. And those are three things that are just not meant to go together. But this time they absolutely do.

There are three, let’s call them prongs, to this story. Or themes. Or threads. They happen simultaneously and are completely interwoven, but there are three of them just the same.

The first is the very big bang that sets off the entire story. It’s 1952 and Drs. Nathaniel and Elma York are vacationing in the Poconos when they witness, from a barely safe enough distance, a meteor crashing into the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Somewhere near DC.

It turns out to be the Chesapeake Bay, or thereabouts. And thereby lies the crux of the matter. Because the meteor strikes water and not land. Which initially is thought to be better – for extremely select definitions of better – but is actually much, much worse than a land strike.

As Elma York flies herself and her husband inland to someplace where there might still be “civilization” or at least safety, she begins the calculations. That’s what she does, she’s a mathematics genius who can do most of the work in her head.

And the results, eventually confirmed by climatologists and meteorologists around the world, is chilling in its results. That water strike was an extinction-level event. Like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Except that human beings are capable of figuring out what is coming. The question, throughout the book, is whether they are capable of mustering the political will to do something about it, before it is too late.

And that is the heart of this marvelous book – and where human beings show both the best and worst sides of themselves – often at the same time.

Nathaniel York is an engineer. He and Elma were both employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Nathaniel is the leading survivor of NACA’s engineering team, and finds himself the lead engineer for everything that comes next.

Elma is a computer. In the 1950s, computers were women and not machines, as has been detailed in several recent nonfiction books about the period, notably Hidden Figures and The Rise of the Rocket Girls.

But it’s the 1950s, and Elma’s mathematical genius, wartime pilot experience as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) and not just one but two Ph.Ds, is initially completely ignored by the men running the show. Even though it was her calculations that determined the scope of the disaster.

The response to the disaster is the second prong of this story. Earth is going to go through a brief but survivable mini-ice age and then the temperatures are going to start rising. The water thrown up by the meteor strike is going to kick off a runaway greenhouse effect. In a century or so, the seas are going to boil away.

The only way out is off. Human beings need to find another basket in which to put our eggs. We have to get off this rock before it’s too late. The second prong of the story is the development of the space program a decade before it happened in our history, and under much more desperate conditions.

The third prong of the story relates to the way that Elma’s contributions are ignored, because it comes back to the fact that the general population in the 1950s had terribly misogynistic views about women, and terribly racist views about anyone who wasn’t white. And that’s combined with the usual human problems of not being willing to think in the long term when current conditions seem pretty good for their individual perspective – think of current reactions to climate change to see how that part works.

The story is told from Elma’s educated, intelligent, informed perspective as she is forced to deal with a whole bunch of men who either hate her for her achievements, disbelieve her because she is female, or both, and will do anything to keep her down and out because her existence and perseverance upsets their worldview.

We are with her every step of the way as she is forced to cajole, accommodate, hope, fear, pray and scream as she pushes or sidles her way into the halls of power – and into the stars.

Escape Rating A+: In my head, I’ve labeled those three plot threads as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – complete with theme music. Do not mistake me, that rating is for real, this book is utterly awesome from beginning to end. And the audio is fantastic and amazing and read by the author. Which is even more amazing. The only author I’ve ever listened to who is half this good as a narrator is Neil Gaiman.

But those prongs of the story, they definitely fit the theme. The initial meteor strike is the Bad. Very, very bad. There really isn’t a way to think of an extinction-level event as good, after all. The sheer number of people who are wiped out in that instant should defy imagination – and it does. At the same time, the author does a fantastic job of personalizing all of the attendant grief through Elma’s reactions. Her family, her parents and grandparents, and pretty much everyone she knew or worked with, is gone in an instant. Her grief is heart-felt and utterly heartbreaking.

The space program is the Good part of the equation. Not that some of the details of how that sausage gets made don’t dive into the Ugly, but the concept and overall progression of the space program were very good. So good that it made me cry when we see all the emotions in Elma’s head and heart when she attends a launch with her great-aunt. (In the end Elma does discover that she has two surviving family members besides her husband. And her commingled joy and grief at those discoveries is beautiful.)

But there’s plenty of ugliness in this story, and it’s that ugliness that makes the reader want to scream. Or at least this reader.

This story takes place in an alternate 1950s. Sexism and racism were at a high-water mark during that decade, which resulted in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s in real history. In this story, it’s all on display, and it’s ugly right down to the bone. Not just in the way that Blacks are treated when they are present in the narrative – and they definitely are – but also the way that political forces try to use the terrible circumstances to literally remove them from that narrative. And the ways that they fight back. That part of the story sent chills up my spine both in its verisimilitude and its portrayal of an entire society’s callous disregard for millions of people due to the color of their skin.

And, because the story is told through Elma’s perspective, we feel every time she is ignored or set aside or deliberately blocked from achieving her dreams as a body blow. I wanted to reach through the book and knock some sense into many, many of the male characters. Most of them deserve a good swift kick where it would hurt the most.

Elma’s husband Nathaniel, however, is a complete mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish term of high compliment, implying just how truly good that person is.

It also signifies something that is a kind of underlying thread through this entire story. Elma and Nathaniel are Jewish. And it matters. To others it may not be that big of a deal, but for me it mattered so much. In Elma’s use of occasional Yiddish, the way that she sat Shiva and mourned for all of the family that she had lost, her desire to be a bit more observant in the wake of both the Holocaust and the ongoing tragedy, I more than felt for her. I felt part of her. I felt heard and represented at a very deep level.

The way that I was drawn into her story because she represented me in a way that most characters do not gave me a new appreciation for the power of representation in literature and the arts. It made me appreciate the Cuban heritage of Eva Innocente in Chilling Effect because I knew that if Elma made me feel represented in The Calculating Stars, then Eva gave those exact same feels to the LatinX women that she represents while telling her own marvelous story.

But the story of the Lady Astronaut has barely begun when The Calculating Stars ends. The Fated Sky continues Elma’s journey and is already out. A parallel story, The Relentless Moon, will be released next summer. I can’t wait to see just how far Elma goes, and how she manages to get there.

There’s a reason that The Calculating Stars won the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. Take flight with the Lady Astronaut and see for yourself.

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade War by Fonda LeeJade War (The Green Bone Saga, #2) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #2
Pages: 590
Published by Orbit on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon's borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon's most prized resource, could make them rich - or give them the edge they'd need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival - and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

My Review:

I picked up Jade War just about the minute I finished the absolutely awesome Jade City. And then I couldn’t stop, to the point where I bought the ebook just so I could seamlessly switch between the audio and the text. The only problem is that I finished it very quickly and now, well now I really, really want to go back to Kekon, and I can’t until Jade Legacy comes out – maybe next year and maybe the year after. The story is marvelous, but the book hangover is truly terrible.

Kekon and the story of the Green Bone Saga seem to have gotten into my blood – or infected my brain. Not unlike the bioenergetic jade that infuses the culture of Kekon and underlies everything that happens in this epic saga.

Although Jade War expands upon and opens up the story that was begun in Jade City, like its predecessor, it also takes one act and brings it full circle. Jade War begins when Emory Anden, cousin and adopted son of the Kaul family of the No Peak clan, is exiled from his home in Kekon after refusing to wear jade and take up the life of a green bone that is expected of him. The story closes when Anden returns from his exile, picks up his jade, but finds a different path than the one that was originally laid out for him.

A big part of the story of this book is the making of Anden into his own man – but his part is told far from home, and uses his exile to tell the story of Kekon’s influence on the wider world – and that wider world’s influence on Kekon. Whether Kekon wants those effects or not.

Anden is not the only character that we watch grow and change during the course of the story. Watching the world change, both for him and for Kekon, draws the reader into the story in a way that just doesn’t let you out at the end.

And it’s enthralling and compelling every step of the way.

Escape Rating A+++: As I said at the beginning, this is a book that I both read and listened to, in equal turns. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t want to let it go – and I still don’t. I felt compelled to find out what happened next – and at the same time I’m devastated that it’s over – at least for the moment. I want to go back. Kekon and it’s world isn’t just a story – it felt like a place that breathed and lived.

Jade War both expands the story that began in Jade City and strengthens in central focus. It is, ironically both a bigger story and a more intimate one at the same time. The story of Jade City is insular, taking place almost in its entirety in the city of Janloon, and focusing on the growing tension between the two rival clans.

The first book featured Kaul Lan, the leader, or Pillar, of the No Peak clan. Lan was a reactive leader and not, unfortunately for him and his family, a proactive one. Lan’s tragedy was that he was a well-suited to be a peacetime Pillar, but he was faced with a clever and extremely proactive enemy in the Pillar of the Mountain, Ayt Mada. And Ayt Mada had been planning behind the scenes for years to propel No Peak into a war that she expected to win.

But no plan survives engagement with the enemy, and that turned out to be especially true for the Mountain’s plans for No Peak. Ayt’s maneuvers were intended to bring about the death of Lan’s brother Hilo, the head of No Peak’s enforcement arm. Without his warrior brother at his side, Lan would have sued for peace and accepted the subjugation of his clan sooner or later.

But all that plotting and planning brought about the consequence that Ayt Mada desired least. Instead of the reactive and passive Lan, now the active and vengeful Hilo leads No Peak, with his brilliant sister Shae at his side as Weather Man. And together they are more than a match for their enemies both at home and abroad.

Two heads really are better than one, particularly when each has strengths that the other lacks and they respect those strengths. They know they are stronger together than they are separately, even when they butt heads – as they regularly do.

Jade War is a bigger story than Jade City because the action expands outward. No Peak and the Mountain are still at war with each other, although the war mostly turns from a hot war to a cold one as Kekon is forced to turn its gaze outward. The major powers of this world, of which Kekon is explicitly not one, are conducting a hot war of their own not nearly far enough away. Kekon’s strategic allies put pressure on the country, forcing the rival clans to conduct their internal rivalry more strategically. Meaning fewer guns and duels, and more economic warfare conducted through proxies instead.

As well as a war for public opinion. No Peak courts the outside world, as symbolized by Anden’s exile to Kekon’s ally Espenia, while the Mountain gins up nationalistic fervor at home. And Anden has a front row seat to watch how that proxy fight plays out among the Kekonese immigrant community far from their island home.

But the story is also more intimate in that the reader sees more closely into the lives and minds of, not only Anden, but the two new leaders of No Peak, Lan’s younger brother Hilo, who has become Pillar in the wake of Lan’s death at the end of Jade City, and his sister Shae, the new CFO or Weather Man, who stepped up into the role after the betrayal of her predecessor.

They are young and mostly untried, and have to grow into their positions while the whole world watches. But they are more interesting to watch than Lan was. Both Hilo and Shae, out of a combination of desperation and their own styles of leadership are simply more proactive than their brother Lan ever would have been.

Their characters, especially Hilo, are more dynamic – and therefore more interesting to follow. They act rather than react, which means that they both push the action forward. Even when their actions are questionable – or downright morally reprehensible – they both err on the side of doing rather than sitting back and waiting for events to overtake them – not that THAT doesn’t occasionally happen anyway.

Jade War also takes this story of gangland warfare to a wider stage while telling a tale that provides standout roles for the women as well as the men of the clan AND adds a fascinating dose of world-wide political skulduggery to what was initially an urban fantasy about warring criminal organizations. The Green Bone Saga was a terrific story when it was confined to two families and one city. Now that it has gone world-wide, it is epic in every sense of the word. This is one of those books that just needs a higher grade than A+. Seriously, all the stars for this one.

Jade Legacy can’t come soon enough.