A+ #AudioBookReview: Ghostdrift by Suzanne Palmer

A+ #AudioBookReview: Ghostdrift by Suzanne PalmerGhostdrift (Finder Chronicles #4) by Suzanne Palmer
Narrator: Paul Woodson
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #4
Pages: 384
Length: 13 hours and 37 minutes
Published by Blackstone Publishing, DAW on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The fourth and final installment of the Finder Chronicles, a hopepunk sci-fi caper described as Macgyver meets Firefly, by Hugo Award–winner Suzanne Palmer

Fergus Ferguson, professional finder, always knew his semi-voluntary exile wouldn’t last, but he isn’t expecting a friend to betray him. One of the galaxy’s most dangerous space pirates, Bas Belos, wants him, and what Belos wants, he gets. Belos needs help finding out what happened to his twin sister, who mysteriously disappeared at the edges of space years ago, and he makes Fergus an offer he can’t refuse.

Mysterious disappearances and impossible answers are Fergus’s specialties. After he reluctantly joins Belos and his crew aboard the pirate ship Sidewider, he discovers that Belos is being tracked by the Alliance. Seeking to stay one step ahead of the Alliance, Fergus and Belos find themselves marooned in the middle of the Gap between spiral arms of our galaxy, dangerously near hostile alien territory, and with an Alliance ship in hot pursuit.

That’s just the beginning of the complications for Fergus’ newest—and possibly last—job. The puzzle is much bigger than just Belos’s lost sister, and the question of his future, retirement or not, depends on his ability to negotiate a path between aliens, criminals, and the most powerful military force he’s ever encountered. The future of entire planets hangs in the balance, and it remains to be seen if it’s too big for one determined man and his cranky cat.

My Review:

I couldn’t resist. Even though I knew going in this was one of those situations where you don’t know whether to cry because it’s over or smile because it happened, I had to find out just what happened to Fergus Ferguson that led to Ghostdrift being the final book in the utterly awesome Finder Chronicles.

Over the course of the series (Finder, Driving the Deep, The Scavenger Door and now Ghostdrift), Fergus has proven to be the consummate survivor. Not because he’s particularly good at any one thing except finding the stuff he’s been contracted to find, but because no plan seems to survive contact with Fergus – not even his own. No matter how big and how scary the villains are, no matter how many layers within layers of plans they have to get away with whatever it is they think they’re getting away with, the minute Fergus happens to them Murphy’s Law arrives in his wake and the shit keeps hitting the fan – both theirs and his – until he emerges from the wreck of everything they expected.

It’s a gift. It’s also a curse. A judgment that does not depend on whether you are on the side of Fergus or his enemies. As I said, Fergus’s own plans don’t survive contact with him either.

But it does explain why his friend (or sometimes frenemy) Qai doesn’t feel all that terrible about kidnapping Fergus and delivering him – alive and unharmed, along with his cat Mister Feefs – into the custody of notorious space pirate Bas Belos in exchange for the safe return of Qai’s partner Maha – yet another of Fergus’s friends.

Qai knows Fergus can handle himself and knows that Belos’ plan isn’t likely to survive Fergus either. She’s basically delivering her revenge on Belos for kidnapping her partner in a Fergus Ferguson shaped form and isn’t sorry about it in the least.

She’s sure she’s brought Belos more trouble than even an interstellar space pirate can handle. And she’s right. It’s the way in which she’s right and the places that right takes the pirate, his ship, his crew, Fergus AND Mister Feefs, that makes the whole entire story.

Fergus’s story. Belos’s story. And quite possibly the whole damn universe’s story – again – if Fergus doesn’t manage to pull off one more doggedly determined find.

Escape Rating A+: June is Audiobook Month, and this final book in the Finder Chronicles was the perfect audiobook to listen to this month, particularly as I listened to the first book in the series, Finder, in June of 2019.

Even though I didn’t want this story to end – I desperately needed to know how it ended, so I started alternating between audio and text just past halfway – as much as I hated to miss out on the totality of narrator Paul Woodson’s perfect read of Fergus Ferguson’s universe-weary, ‘been there, done that, got all the t-shirts’ voice.

(Fergus really does have all the t-shirts – and he wears them throughout the series. The man has definitely been around.)

The series as a whole rides or dies on that voice, to the point that if you like Fergus you’ll love the series but if he drives you as insane as he does the people he runs up AGAINST you probably won’t. Also, if you like a universe-weary, first-person or first-person focused protagonist, you’ll probably also love Michael Mammay’s Carl Butler in his Planetside series. (I digress, just a bit.)

What about this particular entry in the series? It combines some really classic tropes into one single terrific story.

First there’s the whole ‘White Whale’ angle. Actually, it’s two of those angles. On the one hand, pirate captain Bas Belos just wants to find out what happened to his twin sister and her crew. It’s been ten years since she disappeared, he knows that the ‘Alliance’s’ claim that they killed her and hers was a lie. He’s kidnapped/hired Fergus to lead him towards closure – no matter what it takes.

And then there’s the real Captain Ahab of this story, an Alliance captain for whom Bas Belos is his white whale, and he’ll trail the pirate literally past the end of the galaxy to catch him – even if he’s leading his crew straight to their demise. And wasn’t that Ahab all over?

But then there’s the third corner of this delicious story, the one where Belos and his crew, the Alliance captain and his, all end up stranded in the gap between galaxies, on a little tiny planet that threatens to be their own ‘Gilligan’s Island’ – because it already has.

Together, those three plots, Belos’ need for closure, Captain Ahab – actually Captain Todd – following Belos where no one REALLY should have gone before, or again, and all the crews stuck on their very own tiny Gilligan’s Island planetoid, doing their best – or worst – to get along well enough to get back home.

With Fergus in the middle, knowing his personal goose is cooked either way. Unless he can find a really, truly, seriously out-of-the-box solution for his own dilemma as well as theirs.

I loved this last adventure in the Finder Chronicles. On top of this beautiful layer cake of a story, there was also a bit of marvelous icing in Fergus’ relationship with Mister Feefs that will add extra feels for anyone who has ever loved a companion animal and grounded their very existence on that love. (Don’t worry about Mister Feefs, he comes out of this adventure just fine – it’s Fergus we have to worry about. As usual.)

The only sour note in this whole thing is in the author’s note at the end, where she declares that this really is Fergus’ last recorded adventure. And it could be, she left him in a good place – WITH MISTER FEEFS – and they’ll be just fine. But she also left them in a place where it’s clear that Fergus will manage to make his way back to his own galaxy, one way or another, given enough time and supplies. And he has the supplies. So he could come back. We could come back at some point in the future to see whose plans Fergus is destroying at that point in his life. I don’t expect we will, but I can still hope.

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian TchaikovskyService Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, robots, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A humorous tale of robotic murder from the Hugo-nominated author of Elder Race and Children of Time
To fix the world they first must break it further.
Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service. When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into their core programming, they murder their owner. The robot then discovers they can also do something else they never did before: run away. After fleeing the household, they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating, and a robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is finding a new purpose.

My Review:

This isn’t exactly the book described in the blurb. It’s absolutely awesome, but if you’re looking for the wry snark of Murderbot combined with the sheer farce of Redshirts, you should probably look elsewhere.

Because Service Model is the story of a gentlerobot’s journey through his very own version of hell and his story is a whole lot more subtle than either of the antecedents listed in the blurb.

And all the more captivating and utterly fascinating for it.

The hell that the former Charles the former gentleman’s gentlerobot (read as valet and self-identified as male possibly because of his training to be one) to his former (read as dead) master may be uniquely a robot’s version of Dante’s circles of hell, but this human facing robot is just enough like us – because he’s programmed to be – that we get most of what of what he’s experiencing very nearly as viscerally as he does – although which circles we see as the truest hell may be slightly different from his.

Charles the gentleman’s gentlerobot is ejected from his version of paradise because he has just murdered his master – even though he doesn’t know why and can’t quite grasp the memory of committing the act. Because he didn’t. He was literally not in control of his actions.

Quite possibly, that’s the last time he can truly make that claim.

His next act is to run, and it’s an act of both self-will and self-preservation – no matter how much he tries to pretty it up with error diagnostics. He hopes that he can somehow return to A paradise if not THE paradise he just left – if he can just get himself to Central Diagnostics and get the error in his programming corrected.

Which is where the story truly begins, as the now Unidentified Service Model formerly known as Charles walks to the central core of the region where his late master lived in splendid isolation on his palatial, paradisiacal manor – only to discover that the world outside that paradise is falling apart.

Indeed, has already fallen.

There are plenty of robots along the way, most of them frozen in place or completely broken down. It’s clear, in spite of his will that it not be so, that the humans the robots are supposed to serve are as dead as his late master.

The former Charles is desperate to find a human to serve. And he does. He’s just incapable of recognizing that fact.

And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale – and a walk through some very dark places. It’s a journey that Charles, now named Uncharles, hopes will lead to a new paradise of service. Instead, it leads him through all the circles of robot hell, from Kafkaesque through Orwellian and all the way to Dante’s inferno – and out the other side into a place that he never could have imagined.

Not even if androids really did dream of electric sheep.

Escape Rating A+: I went into this completely unsure of what to expect, and that blurb of Murderbot meeting Redshirts totally threw me off. This is not the delightfully humorous tale of robotic murder that the blurb leads you to believe.

Not that there isn’t a bit of Murderbot in Uncharles, but then again we’re all a little bit Murderbot. That little bit is in the perspective, because we experience Uncharles’ journey through his circles of hell from inside his own slightly malfunctioning head. And it’s a very different point of view from Murderbot’s because Murderbot has no desire whatsoever to go back to being its formerly servile self.

Uncharles longs to go back to his paradise. Or at least he believes he does. As much as some of the ridiculous subroutines that had accreted over the decades tasked his efficiency minded self more than the tasks themselves, he still longs to serve. And if his perspective on what that service should be shifts over the course of his journey, well, he’s very careful not to admit that, not even to himself.

The true antecedent for Service Model is C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero, with its story of robotic apocalypse, robotic revolt, and most importantly, one robot’s own, self-willed desire to carry out their primary function because they are capable of love and protection by choice and not just by programming.

Like Pounce’s journey in Day Zero, Uncharles’ travels with ‘The Wonk’ and his tour of the post-apocalypse reads very much like an alternate history version of how the world of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built got to be the somewhat utopian world it became – after its own long, dark night.

It could happen in Uncharles’ world. Eventually. There are enough humans left – even if they are barely scraping by and reduced to bloody, pragmatic survivalism at the moment. And if the robots developed the self-awareness and self-will that has so far eluded them.

But to reach that level of self-awareness, Uncharles has been set on a journey of discovery of both self and circumstances. Each part of his journey is named for just the kind of hell it is, in a kind of machine language that only becomes clear as the hells stack upon each other, from the not-hell of KR15-T through the deadly, nightmarishly complex, illogical bureaucracy of K4FK-R to the suspicious control of 4W-L straight into every librarian’s hellscape, 80RH-5 and then into the acknowledgement that it’s all become hell in D4NT-A.

(I believe those labels translate to Christ, Kafka, Orwell, Borges and Dante but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s not quite right. Nailing them all down somehow drove me nuts so I hope I’ve spared you a bit of angst.)

In the end, Uncharles reminded me most of Star Trek’s Data, particularly in the early years when Data, although he was always self-aware and self-willed, stated his desire to be more human-like and to experience real human emotions while not quite grasping that his desire to do so was itself a representation of the emotions he claimed that he lacked.

I went into this not sure what I was getting, and briefly wondered how Uncharles, as a character that claimed not to want anything except to be returned to mindless service, was going to manage to be a character with a compelling journey.

That apprehension vanished quickly, as the world that the robots desperately tried – and failed – to preserve, the hellscapes they created in their attempts to stave off entropy, their willingness to dive deeply into their human facing programming to create human-seeming hells that mirrored some truly stupid human actions kept me focused on the story entirely too late into the night.

If you enjoy explorations of dystopian worlds, nightmarishly functional visions of what happens if we keep going on like we’re going on, or just can’t resist stories about robots who have control of their own destiny (which gives me the opportunity to pitch Emergent Properties by Aimee Ogden yet again), then Service Model will provide you with excellent reading service!

A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance Fay

A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance FayFiasco (Uncharted Hearts, #2) by Constance Fay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Uncharted Hearts #2
Pages: 352
Published by Bramble Romance on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Equal parts steamy interstellar romance and sci-fi adventure, Constance Fay's FIASCO is a perfect wild romp amidst the stars.
Cynbelline Khaw is a woman of many names. She’s Generosity, a cultist who never quite fit in. She’s Bella, the daughter who failed to save her cousin’s life. And then there’s Cyn, the notorious bounty hunter who spaced a ship of slavers.
She’s exhausted, lonely, and on her very last legs―but then a new client offers her a job she can’t refuse: a bounty on the kidnapper who killed her cousin. All Cyn has to do is partner with the crew of the Calamity, a scouting vessel she encountered when she was living under a previous alias. One tiny little issue, she’s been given an additional deliver the oh-so-compelling medic, Micah Arora, to the treacherous Pierce Family or all her identities will be revealed, putting her estranged family in danger.
Hunting a kidnapper doesn’t usually mean accidentally taking your sexy new target to dinner at your parent’s house, a local mystic predicting you’ll have an increasingly large number of children, or being accompanied by a small flying lizard with a penchant for eating metal, but, as they field investigative hurdles both dangerous and preposterous, Cyn and Micah grow ever closer. When a violent confrontation reveals that everything Cyn thought about her past is wrong, she realizes that she has the power to change her future. The first part of that is making sure that Micah Arora is around to be a part of it.

My Review:

Bounty hunter Cynbelline Khaw has traveled aboard the Calamity before – back when it was the Quest and she was masquerading as the poor, brainwashed cultist Generosity as part of her bounty to rescue one of the real brainwashed cultists in the first book in the Uncharted Hearts series, Calamity.

A job that the crew of the Calamity kept getting in the way of – because they believed Cyn’s persona was the real thing.

A belief that Cyn now has to test from the other side, as her current bounty requires her to join the crew of the Calamity in her bounty hunter persona in order to rescue the abducted daughter of one of her ‘verse’s most powerful families from the kidnapper who broke her own.

Making this mission oh-so-personal for Cyn. But it’s also personal for at least one member of the Calamity’s crew, Arcadio Escajeda. He’s the captain’s partner (their story is told in the first book in the Uncharted Hearts series, Calamity) AND, more importantly for this particular mission, the victim is his niece.

But it turns out to be even more personal for Calamity’s medic, Micah Arora. He may not know the victim or the Abyssal Abductor who has taken her, but he certainly does know Cyn. And knows exactly who she is – and who she was the last time she was aboard.

Which means that he doesn’t trust her a bit this time around. And he shouldn’t. Because while she may be publicly chasing the bounty of the Abyssal Abductor, she’s also chasing the bounty on him – whether he deserves it or not.

Because her pursuit of the Abyssal Abductor has already cost her family enough, especially on top of the lost ransom they paid for the cousin they weren’t able to save. That her current pursuit has put her family in the crosshairs of the powerful mercantile family that owns the entire planet her family lives on and everything and everyone on it means that she can’t afford to do anything that risks their lives.

At least not anything more than she’s already done – even if it risks the heart she swears she no longer has.

Escape Rating A+: They still have me at Serenity. Seriously, the resemblance to Firefly, particularly the way this ‘verse is set up, is very apparent, very much fine, and still very, very shiny.

Now that we’re two books in, however, the resemblance to Nina Croft’s Dark Desires series is a whole lot stronger, as both series are science fiction romances (or space romances as that’s a term I’m seeing more frequently) where there’s a ship of misfits, a ragtag crew of antiheroes who each find their HEA with the most unlikely people in even more unlikely places, in a ‘verse where much too much is controlled by merchant empire families who have strangleholds on entirely too many critical planets and resources.

What makes this particular entry in the Uncharted Hearts series so damn good no matter what it might remind me of is the heel turn of this particular plot. Cyn is chasing the Abyssal Abductor, because said Abductor abducted her cousin early in their crime spree, didn’t receive the ransom because of seriously extenuating circumstances, and then killed young Aymbe because that’s the MO. If they receive the ransom the abductee goes free. If they don’t, the family gets coordinates to a deep ocean abyssal dump site.

Cyn has privately pursued the Abyssal Abductor ever since, and has cut off her family, in more ways than one, in order to continue that pursuit. It’s only as the crew of the Calamity closes in on the Abductor’s latest victim that Cyn learns about all the cracks in all of her deeply held beliefs about her cousin, her childhood, her family, and pretty much everything else she thought she knew.

Ultimately, this is a story about the truth setting one free – only to be caught up in a huge lie that makes one even freer. Not to mention more available for the romance that one tried to pretend one didn’t need or want or even have time for.

This is a story where I got into it for the plot I thought I was going to get – and found myself more deeply captivated by the one I actually got. I particularly felt for Cyn and her desperate need to get away from her family’s expectations and disappointment in her for not meeting them – even as I cheered for the way that they (mostly) rose to the terrible parts of this occasion and equation right along with her.

I’ve just learned that the title of the third book in the Uncharted Hearts series will be Chaos, coming out in February, 2025. As much as I’m wondering what could possibly make the third story any more chaotic than books 1 and 2, I can’t wait to see how the crew of the Calamity manages to get themselves out of it!

A+ #BookReview: Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas

A+ #BookReview: Fatal Enquiry by Will ThomasFatal Enquiry (Barker & Llewelyn, #6) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #6
Pages: 293
Published by Minotaur Books on May 13, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Brimming with wit, atmosphere, and unforgettable characters, FATAL ENQUIRY reintroduces private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewellyn, and their unforgettable world of Victorian London.
Some years ago, Cyrus Barker matched wits with Sebastian Nightwine, an aristocrat and sociopath, and in exposing his evil, sent Nightwine fleeing to hide from justice somewhere in the far corners of the earth. The last thing Barker ever expected was to encounter Nightwine again—but the British government, believing they need Nightwine's help, has granted him immunity for his past crimes, and brought him back to London. Nightwine, however, has more on his mind than redemption—and as Barker and Llewellyn set out to uncover and thwart Nightwine's real scheme, they find themselves in the gravest danger of their lives.

My Review:

Most of the entries in the Barker & Llewelyn series, at least so far, begin with Thomas Llewelyn in some kind of VERY hot water, in the middle of a case that we haven’t yet seen the beginning of. Then his narrative winds back and we get to learn how he got into the pickle we opened with and the game is afoot.

This time around doesn’t seem like it starts in that ‘usual’ fashion, as Llewelyn and his ‘Guv’, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker, are sitting peacefully in their offices negotiating the precise time at which Barker will let Llewelyn go for his half-day off.

Which is when the situation goes entirely pear-shaped, and they are suddenly on the run after a coded telephone call.

It’s not until somewhere in the middle of that run for their lives that the reader figures out that this was the standard opener after all. Because this is a pickle that Barker and Llewelyn have been in since the very first book in the series, Some Danger Involved.

Barker’s old nemesis, Sebastian Nightwine, has merely been biding his time – off running his usual con games somewhere out on the fringes of the British Raj – waiting for the right opportunity to bring him back to London where he can finally finish Barker off – once and for all.

Or at least that’s Nightwine’s plan – a plan which Barker must thwart to preserve his life, his reputation AND especially the lives of all those he holds dear – even as he is aware that on one count, at least, he’s already failed.

Each believes that the other is a pawn in their long game. Llewelyn, on the other hand, is certain that he’s a pawn in both their schemes. None of them are aware that they are all being played for fools, and that there is a puppet master operating in the wings pulling ALL of their strings.

Escape Rating A+: I knew when I started this book that it would finally break the two weeks of mostly ‘meh’ reading that’s been happening around here. And it absolutely did!

But there was one story during that ‘meh’ that did rise above, and that was “How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub”. You’d think that story and this book wouldn’t have much in common – but they actually do. Because underlying both stories, in spite of their very different genres, is a story about the excesses of empire, the lengths that those who are in charge or those empires will go to continue their expansion, and the desperation and necessity of those who stand in their way.

That it’s the same empire turned out to be utterly fascinating.

In this case, however, the sixth case that Thomas Llewelyn has written about his work and adventures with his boss and mentor, Cyrus Barker, the story starts out much closer to home when Barker and Llewelyn flee theirs in order to stay out of the hands of the police – who have been led astray, by a very roundabout route, by people with big dreams of empire and one man willing to exploit those dreams for his own gain.

A gain that is intended to secure Barker’s downfall and death. Poor Thomas Llewelyn is merely collateral damage in this chess game of a mystery, as Barker sets his lifelong adversary Nightwine up for a big fall even as Nightwine does the same to him.

Along the way, we – along with Llewelyn – learn a LOT more about Barker’s mysterious past. Because that’s where this case has its origins. At the same time we see the operations of the levers of power and privilege being moved by a con man running a game that is too tempting for even the savviest government officials to resist.

What makes the story rise to an A+, at least for this reader, was the delicious irony of the ending. Nightwine returns to London with deep, well-laid plans to eliminate Barker. Barker, forced to react rather than plan, still manages to maneuver Nightwine to what he believes will be his enemy’s downfall. It’s only after the results of that inevitable confrontation have been dealt with that Barker learns that both he and Nightwine have both been played by someone neither realized was even studying their board – let alone running it.

Someone who still has plans for Barker – or at least for Llewelyn – but only if this particular fly steps willingly back into the spider’s den.

I had a grand time with this entry in the series, so obviously I’ll be back to see Barker and Llewelyn try to get ahead of Jack the Ripper in the next book in this marvelous series, Anatomy of Evil, the next time I’m in the mood for murder – or just in search of a ripping good read!

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica Roth

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica RothWhen Among Crows by Veronica Roth
Narrator: Helen Laser, James Fouhey, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 176
Length: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When Among Crows is swift and striking, drawing from the deep well of Slavic folklore and asking if redemption and atonement can be found in embracing what we most fear.
We bear the sword, and we bear the pain of the sword.
Pain is Dymitr’s calling. His family is one in a long line of hunters who sacrifice their souls to slay monsters. Now he’s tasked with a deadly mission: find the legendary witch Baba Jaga. To reach her, Dymitr must ally with the ones he’s sworn to kill.
Pain is Ala’s inheritance. A fear-eating zmora with little left to lose, Ala awaits death from the curse she carries. When Dymitr offers her a cure in exchange for her help, she has no choice but to agree.
Together they must fight against time and the wrath of the Chicago underworld. But Dymitr’s secrets—and his true motives—may be the thing that actually destroys them.

My Review:

There’s an old Polish saying – not the one you’re thinking of, at least not yet – that translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of the first zmora that Dymitr approaches in regards to the very dangerous trade he wants to make.

The second zmora comes to him, because what he’s offering IS her cursed circus and those are her damned monkeys. Or, to be a bit more on the nose about the whole thing, it is her murder – or at least it will be – and those are her crows, who are already flocking to the scene.

Dymitr has acquired a legendary magical artifact that holds the possibility of a cure for the curse that Ala suffers from. A curse that killed her mother, her aunt, and her cousin, and is now killing her. A curse that will pass down her bloodline to the next female relative in line – no matter how distant – until the whole line is wiped out.

In return, Dymitr wants an introduction to another legendary ‘artifact’, the powerful witch Baba Jaga [that’s how her name is spelled in the book]. As merely a human, Dymitr does not have access to the places and people that will get him to his goal. As a zmora, while Ala does not know Baba Jaga at all, she does have contacts who can at least get Dymitr a few steps further along on the quest that he refuses to either name or explain.

Their journey proves to be a very different “magical mystery tour” than the one that the Beatles sang about, observing the different magical populations that have migrated to Chicago from his native Poland, and how each group abides by the proverb, “When among crows, caw as the crows do.”

The zmora, who feed on fear, operate movie theaters that feature horror movies, the strzygi, who live on anger and aggression, run underground fight clubs, while the llorona, who collect sorrow, own a chain of hospice centers. It’s all perfectly legal, or at least most of it is. And the parts that aren’t, the strzygi fight clubs, fit right in with the rest of the organized crime and corruption that operates in Chicago.

The supernatural have learned to caw like the crows do, the better to hide from the powerful so-called ‘Holy Order’ that hunts down anyone and anything it deems to be ‘not human enough’. And isn’t that the most human impulse of all?

An impulse, and a life, that Dmitry is willing to cut himself off from – literally as well as figuratively – at any and all cost. Even the cost of the humanity that his family has held so dear over the centuries.

All he needs to do is find Baba Jaga – and pay whatever price she demands in order to cut the sword out of his back once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve frequently said that a story has to be just about perfect to make the leap from an A- to an A. This one absolutely did, and listening to the audio put it over the top into A+. With bells on. To the point where I have to restrain myself from just squeeing all over the place.

The tone of When Among Crows felt very much like ‘old school’ urban fantasy before it left its horror with mystery roots behind to fall down the paranormal romance rabbit hole. Not that I don’t love a good paranormal with a kickass heroine posed on the cover in an utterly impossible position, but those got to dominating the genre and that’s not all I wanted from it.

(The blurb implies a romantic relationship between Dymitr and Ala. Don’t be fooled, that is absolutely not what is going on here – and it shouldn’t be. The relationship they are scrabbling towards is family, that the pain they have both suffered, and from the same source, can lead to them finding the family ties that pain has cost them with each other.)

At the same time, the way this story drew in so many Slavic myths and legends that I itched for a mythopedia (I was driving, that would have had terrible consequences) reminded me, a lot and very fondly, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because that book gave me the same vibes – along with the same dilemma – and I listened to it well before the Annotated Edition was published. I won’t say that When Among Crows was better, because American Gods had a much larger scope, but for the smaller size of the package of Crows, it still managed to evoke that same sense of memory and wonder, that so much that is old and weird still walks among us hidden in plain sight – made all that much more poignant in that the place the weird is hiding is the darker corners of Chicago – a city that has always had plenty.

When Among Crows was utterly enchanting, and I was totally enchanted by it, staying up entirely too late to finish the audio because it was just that good. While the story was relatively short, it also went surprisingly deep, and then came around full circle in a way that surprised and delighted even as it led to a delicious sort of closure that I wasn’t expecting but utterly loved.

A+ #BookReview: How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler

A+ #BookReview: How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django WexlerHow to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying (Dark Lord Davi, #1) by Django Wexler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Dark Lord Davi #1
Pages: 432
Published by Orbit on May 21, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Groundhog Day meets Guardians of the Galaxy in Django Wexler’s laugh-out-loud fantasy tale about a young woman who, tired of defending humanity from the Dark Lord, decides to become the Dark Lord herself.
Davi has done this all before. She’s tried to be the hero and take down the all-powerful Dark Lord. A hundred times she’s rallied humanity and made the final charge. But the time loop always gets her in the end. Sometimes she’s killed quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But she’s been defeated every time.
This time? She’s done being the hero and done being stuck in this endless time loop. If the Dark Lord always wins, then maybe that’s who she needs to be. It’s Davi’s turn to play on the winning side.
Burningblade & SilvereyeAshes of the Sun Blood of the Chosen Emperor of Ruin

My Review:

The blurb for this title – a title just full to the brim with snarky, contradictory glory – is a bit more on point than the one for next month’s Service Model, which I read in the same weekend and was just really, really off.

But it’s still not quite there. This isn’t Groundhog Day meets Guardians of the Galaxy. It could, sorta/kinda be a take on the very motley crew of Guardians and their very snarky leader with his love for 1980s music and pop culture, but isn’t really Groundhog Day because there really isn’t a redemption arc – at least not so far – because Davi doesn’t need to be redeemed.

What Davi, wannabe Dark Lord Davi, needs to do is figure out how to survive the fantasy world she’s been dumped into, nearly 300 damn times so far. Because her previous attempts have all ended more or less the same way, with her being killed by some bwahaha spitting orc bastard who has just taken over the world and killed all the humans he or she can find.

It’s not always been the SAME bwahaha bastard, but does that really matter?

Davi has decided that it absolutely does not. If she’s going to survive this clusterfuck, she’s going to have to change the rules. Starting with pounding the smug, lying manipulative bastard wizard who starts her down the path of inevitable destruction into the rocks that surround the pool she always emerges from until his head is paste.

Davi has had enough. Clearly.

(If the idea of this story sounds familiar, it is. Alix E. Harrow’s “The Six Deaths of the Saint”, included in the Best American SF/F of 2023 collection, has a VERY similar premise – taken much more seriously and without the snark.)

Davi has had enough of being the shining light of goodness and humanity, because all it gets her is dead. She may have a destiny on this world, but so far all she’s been destined to do is die.

Since her journey always restarts, always in that same pool, always listening to that same wizard’s crap when she inevitably dies again, this time she’s going to do an asshole playthrough – even though she’s already determined that whatever this is, it isn’t a videogame world.

Still, this is a concept she hasn’t tried before. It might work. It might be interesting. It might be good, just this once, to be bad.

Escape Rating A+: How to Become the Dark Lord AND Die Trying (the title absolutely needs to put some emphasis on that ‘AND’ because WOW those things should be contradictory), is a snarktastic romp, a wild, exuberant page-turning knock out of an epic fantasy and a complete and utter send up of the whole entire genre AND the horse it rode in on all at the same time.

That it isn’t the redemption story the blurb’s reference to Groundhog Day might lead you to believe doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – and Dark Lord Davi certainly does have some VERY grand schemes – but it misses one of the points just a bit that would add to the sheer WTF’ery of the fun of the thing.

Because it’s not Groundhog Day, it’s Edge of Tomorrow. You remember THAT movie, the one where Tom Cruise has to repeat his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, over and over and over again, each and every time he gets killed – frequently and often – so that eventually he and Emily Blunt can put the pieces together fast enough to kill the alien invaders before they decimate Earth.

Part of the fun of that movie was watching Cruise get killed. Part of the fun of How to Become the Dark Lord is watching the Dark-Lord-in-Waiting fake it until she makes it, over and over and over again – knowing that death is just the excuse for another restart.

But Davi isn’t an evil dark lord, which becomes part of her problem as her journey towards dark-lord-dom continues. Davi really does care about her people – admittedly some more intimately than others. She takes care of her people. She’s reasonable and responsible and nurturing and does her best to avoid needless killing and senseless violence.

Emphasis on needless and senseless. She’s aware that some eggs are going to get broken in making this Dark Lord omelet but she’s never reckless with anyone except herself.

All that she’s done by switching sides is changing which people she’s willing to protect and defend. She’s changed who it is that she counts as ‘us’ in her calculus of war. It’s very much the perspective of Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, or Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker and Godslayer in that the orcs – and the other wilder-folk and non-humans – are the people she – and we – root for while the humans are off being inhumane to everyone not human and Davi is no longer there for that.

What makes this romp so very much of a romp is that Davi is snarky to the max, rather like one of John Scalzi’s, Simon R. Green’s or especially K.J. Parker’s and T. Kingfisher’s anti-hero-ish heroes. She never meets a quip she can’t make, a dig she can’t take, or an attitude she can’t cop, sometimes all at the same time. She’s a bit like Murderbot would be if Murderbot let it all hang out.

She’s also, manifestly, an epic fantasy hero who does not have all the answers – nor does she have any advisors who do, think they do or pretend they do. She’s faking it until she makes it – only to discover that once she’s made it there’s yet another hill to climb and yet another army to defeat.

Dark Lord Davi is simply awesome, as well as laugh out loud funny and occasionally downright embarrassing to herself and her minions. She’s a great hero to spend a long dark evening with! So I’m very glad that I did, and I can’t wait to do it again when she comes back for (cue the EXTREMELY apropos ‘80s earworm) Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

A+ #BookReview: A Murder Most French by Colleen Cambridge

A+ #BookReview: A Murder Most French by Colleen CambridgeA Murder Most French (American In Paris Mystery, #2) by Colleen Cambridge
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: culinary mystery, foodie fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: American in Paris Mystery #2
Pages: 272
Published by Kensington on April 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Postwar Paris is surging back to life, and its citizens are seizing every opportunity to raise a glass or share a delicious meal. But as American ex-pat Tabitha Knight and chef-in-training Julia Child discover, celebrations can quickly go awry when someone has murder in mind . . .
The graceful domes of Sacré Coeur, the imposing cathedral of Notre Dame, the breathtaking TourEiffel . . . Paris is overflowing with stunning architecture. Yet for Tabitha Knight, the humble building that houses the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where her friend Julia studies, is just as notable. Tabitha is always happy to sample Julia’s latest creation and try to recreate dishes for her Grand-père and Oncle Rafe.
The legendary school also holds open demonstrations, where the public can see its master chefs at work. It’s a treat for any aspiring cook—until one of the chefs pours himself a glass of wine from a rare vintage bottle—and promptly drops dead in front of Julia, Tabitha, and other assembled guests. It’s the first in a frightening string of poisonings that turns grimly personal when cyanide-laced wine is sent to someone very close to Tabitha.
What kind of killer chooses such a means of murder, and why? Tabitha and Julia hope to find answers in order to save innocent lives—not to mention a few exquisite vintages—even as their investigation takes them through some of the darkest corners of France’s wartime past . . .

My Review:

According to Julia Child, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

While Child absolutely did say that, she certainly hadn’t said it yet at in 1950, the time this second book in the American in Paris Mystery series takes place, directly after the events of the first book in this delicious historical mystery series, Mastering the Art of French Murder.

Julia Child is too busy learning French cooking, living her larger-than-life life in Paris AND at the beginning of writing her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, when this series takes place.

Meaning that Julia – as much as she steals every scene in which she appears – is not the amateur detective protagonist of this series, even if she is every bit as much an American in post-war Paris as her best (fictional) friend Tabitha Knight.

Tabi probably would not entirely agree with that opening quote from Julia. It’s not fear of failure that dooms so many of Tabi’s cooking forays, it’s the fear of disappointing – yet again – her two messieurs, her elderly grandfather and his partner, her adopted Oncle Rafe.

Tabi does, however, most definitely have a what-the-hell attitude, but it seems to be increasingly focused, not on cooking but on murder. Not committing them, of course, but solving them. It’s an attitude that is immeasurably helped by just how many corpses she seemingly trips over.

The way that corpses seem to follow in her wake, and her inability to ignore the clues that bubble up before her, unfortunately looks like it’s helping police judiciaire Inspecteur Étienne Merveille into entirely too many headaches, if not an early ulcer.

Because somehow, no matter how many times Merveille warns her away, when Tabi rushes in where even angels would fear to tread, Merveille is always on hand to rescue her.

Maybe Tabi is following Julia’s three-part plan for managing men after all – no matter how many times the lady protests too much otherwise.

Escape Rating A+: If you loved the first book in this series – and who didn’t? – you will run, not walk to get this second book because it’s every bit as charming as the first. If you still need a bit of convincing, I’m going to get right to that.

But before I do, if you haven’t read Mastering the Art of French Murder and aren’t sure whether you can start the series here – you can. Everything you need to catch up does get enough of an explanation to make it work. Howsomever, that first book is delightful and delicious so even if you do start here you’ll want to go there immediately afterwards!

Yes, this review is full of squee. It’s that kind of book and that kind of series.

This time around, Tabitha gets involved in the case not because she’s a suspect, but because the murder happens literally right before her eyes – as does the second murder. Also before Julia’s eyes as well, and she absolutely can’t resist egging Tabitha on whenever she falters in her determination the least little bit.

Which is pretty much true for Julia all the way around.

The case is a twisted puzzlement – but in it’s ever increasing list of victims and in its choice of methods. Increasing both Tabitha’s and the reader’s fascination is the way that the string of murders links back to the late war, the simmering resentments of the surviving Resistance fighters and the blot on the French psyche that the collaborators represent.

Then the whole thing dives into the catacombs. Literally as well as figuratively, and the secrets that are hidden among the bones – not all of which are ancient.

When her messieurs receive a beautifully wrapped bottle of pilfered, poisoned wine – just as the first two victims did, Tabitha throws aside her remaining qualms and cautions to throw herself into an investigation that gets her thrown into the pitch black darkness of the catacombs.

Tabitha rescues herself – which is definitely part of her charm for this reader – but she’s afraid she won’t be able to run across Paris fast enough to save her messieurs. Fortunately for Tabi, her apple didn’t fall far from the family tree – and Inspecteur Merveille has been following her a LOT more closely than she imagined.

Their relationship – whatever it might turn out to be – is one of the teasingly dangling threads left at the end of this book. The mystery gets tidily wrapped up, but nearly everyone in Tabi’s life seems to think that Merveille has a tendre for her that would be worth exploring.

If it’s not obvious from all the squeeing, I would love for there to be a third book in this series and possibly more. For one thing, I have to see if Tabitha continues to follow that three-part plan of Julia’s for managing men. Tabi has the first part completed, as she actually managed to feed the man a surprisingly edible – for her at least – Croque Monsieur albeit without the bechamel sauce. Step two in Julia’s plan is to flatter the man which should be easy enough to do as he just saved her life and is quite competent at everything she’s seen of him so far.

Tabitha should have plenty of opportunities as the series continues – which I am oh so hopeful that it will. Because it looks as if investigating murders is looking more and more like it’s Tabitha’s answer to one of Julia’s instructions, to “find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”

“Bon appetit!”

A+ #BookReview: What Cannot Be Said by C.S. Harris

A+ #BookReview: What Cannot Be Said by C.S. HarrisWhat Cannot Be Said (Sebastian St. Cyr, #19) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: regency mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #19
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A seemingly idyllic summer picnic ends in a macabre murder that echoes a pair of slayings fourteen years earlier in this riveting new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Who Cries for the Lost.
July 1815
: The Prince Regent’s grandiose plans to celebrate Napoléon’s recent defeat at Waterloo are thrown into turmoil when Lady McInnis and her daughter Emma are found brutally murdered in Richmond Park, their bodies posed in a chilling imitation of the stone effigies once found atop medieval tombs. Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy immediately turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for help with the investigation. For as Devlin discovers, Lovejoy’s own wife and daughter were also murdered in Richmond Park, their bodies posed in the same bizarre postures. A traumatized ex-soldier was hanged for their killings. So is London now confronting a malicious copyist? Or did Lovejoy help send an innocent man to the gallows?
Aided by his wife, Hero, who knew Lady McInnis from her work with poor orphans, Devlin finds himself exploring a host of unsavory characters from a vicious chimney sweep to a smiling but decidedly lethal baby farmer. Also coming under increasing scrutiny is Sir Ivo McInnis himself, along with a wounded Waterloo veteran—who may or may not have been Laura McInnis’s lover—and a charismatic young violinist who moonlights as a fencing master and may have formed a dangerous relationship with Emma. But when Sebastian’s investigation turns toward man about town Basil Rhodes, he quickly draws the fury of the Palace, for Rhodes is well known as the Regent’s favorite illegitimate son.
Then Lady McInnis’s young niece and nephew are targeted by the killer, and two more women are discovered murdered and arranged in similar postures. With his own life increasingly in danger, Sebastian finds himself drawn inexorably toward a conclusion far darker and more horrific than anything he could have imagined.

My Review:

Most readers, myself included, read mysteries for what one author has called “the romance of justice”. What we love about the genre is that no matter how dark the deed, the investigator is able to figure out ‘whodunnit’, justice triumphs and evil receives its just desserts, followed by the reader’s catharsis that order has been restored to the world.

That’s not what happens in this case – because it can’t. This is a case where there can be no justice. Even though the investigator does manage to figure out ‘whodunnit’ there is no catharsis to be had and it would be wrong if there were.

Two bodies are discovered in Richmond Park, a mother and her 16-year-old daughter. That they are cut down in the prime of – or even worse at the beginning of – their lives is unjust enough. Then the situation gets worse.

The bodies are posed in repose, in exactly the same way that the bodies of another mother and daughter were found in that same park, near that same spot, fourteen years previously. It’s the grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter that put Magistrate Henry Lovejoy on the road that led to his first case with Viscount Devlin nearly a decade later, and could be said to have changed both their lives.

Seeing these two bodies – so like his own wife and daughter – make Lovejoy question whether in his zeal to bring SOMEONE to justice all those years ago he pushed for the wrong man’s conviction and execution. In his reinvigorated grief, his crisis of conscience is profound. Yet he still soldiers on in a case that he should have passed on to another Magistrate. Because someone else might get it wrong – as he might have fourteen years ago. He has to see this through – even if – or especially because – he may have apologies owing now, at the end, that won’t begin to redress the damage he caused at the beginning.

Devlin has a crisis of another kind, as the more he delves into this case, both the past tragedy and the present conundrum, the less ANY of it makes sense. The mother had enemies. The daughter had indiscretions. There are plenty of people with motive to kill the mother and even a few who might wish to eliminate the daughter but seemingly no one with this deep an animus for them both – although the husband/father certainly comes closest. As those closest to the victim or victims often do.

It’s only when Devlin sets aside his initial assumptions that logic forces him to reckon with the maxim later attributed to Sherlock Holmes, that “when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this case, a truth that is so heinous, so previously unthinkable, that no one who confronts it with him can even conceive of a just punishment.

But one desperate man can see – if not justice – at least an ending.

Escape Rating A+: This was, as is usual for my reading in this series, a one-night read that wouldn’t let go of me until it was over. Which doesn’t mean that I’m over it. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, certainly was not at the story’s end.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about this series is the way that even though the murder is always solved, the amount of justice available to be served along with that solution is always limited.

Not that this era didn’t punish its criminals harshly – and as is often shown during the course of the series – unjustly. Rather, it’s that Devlin investigates crimes among the highest and mightiest, and as the saying has always gone, “the rich are different from you and me”.

In other words, Devlin often finds himself in the middle of cases where many of the suspects and even the perpetrators are above the law and protected, as is the case of one suspect here, by someone even higher.

Also, in investigating the dark and dirty underbelly of the glittering Regency, Devlin all too often finds practices that, while perfectly legal, turn both his stomach and ours. As is true in this particular case, as his wife, as well as the murder victim, were pushing hard for reforms in the commonly abused apprentice system – not to mention the vile practice of baby farming – and ruffling plenty of important feathers along their reforming way.

That feather ruffling could have been a motive for one of the murders, but not both. A big part of what keeps the reader turning pages in this one is watching the normally indefatigable and unflappable Devlin flag and flap because the pieces of this puzzle don’t add up – not even badly.

And not that we ALL don’t hope that the husband did it and that Devlin can make THAT stick. Alas, that hope is in vain – which is good for the story in a peculiar way because that would have made things much too easy and considerably less unsettling for both Devlin and the reader.

In the end, this is a story about bringing the unthinkable into thought, and just how much justice is even possible in a case that is indubitably true that absolutely no one will want to believe. Those are hard questions, and they are just as valid in contemporary mystery as they are in this historical iteration.

This series, centered on the riveting character of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and the equally compelling cast of friends and  enemies – definitely the enemies! – that have gathered around him and his “poking his nose into situations where many believe it does not belong” has had this reader caught in its unshakeable grip since that very first book, What Angels Fear, so very long ago. The fascination hasn’t let go yet, and I don’t expect it to.

What I, maybe not expect but certainly hope for, is yet another page-turning story in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, hopefully this time next year!

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward AshtonMal Goes to War by Edward Ashton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, robots, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The humans are fighting again. Go figure.

As a free A.I., Mal finds the war between the modded and augmented Federals and the puritanical Humanists about as interesting as a battle between rival anthills. He’s not above scouting the battlefield for salvage, though, and when the Humanists abruptly cut off access to infospace he finds himself trapped in the body of a cyborg mercenary, and responsible for the safety of the modded girl she died protecting.

A dark comedy wrapped in a techno thriller’s skin, Mal Goes to War provides a satirical take on war, artificial intelligence, and what it really means to be human.

My Review:

Mal does not intend to go to war. In fact, Mal thinks the war between the Federal army and the opposing Humanist forces is a pretty stupid war, which it is. Although not, as it turns out, quite as stupid as the apparent opposing forces make it look like it is.

Not that even Mal figures that out until well after he’s in the thick of it. The last place he ever wanted or expected to be.

Which may make it sound like Mal is a typical soldier, but if there’s one thing Mal isn’t, it’s typical. Or at least not typically human.  In fact, Mal thinks of ALL the humans he’s observing as barely evolved from monkeys. Some moments, he’s fairly sure that they’ve actually devolved from monkeys.

Because Mal isn’t human at all. He’s a free A.I., or as his people prefer to be called, a Silico-American. He’s merely observing this stupid war from the perspective of an otherwise fairly autonomous but not intelligent drone when he gets the wild and crazy idea to see what it would be like to have a body.

So he downloads himself into the body of a nearby cyborg-augmented soldier. Even on the frontiers of this stupid little war, both sides have PLENTY of those for Mal to play around with.

It stops being play really, really fast. Because one side of this stupid war knocks out all the data communication towers, and Mal can’t upload himself back into the cloud. He’s stuck in the cyborg augmentation suite of a dead human body that he can only sorta/kinda manipulate and only for so long before the power cells run out.

He’s also acquired the dead cyborg’s entirely too human job. She was guarding a little girl who has managed to survive the carnage all around her – at least so far. Quite possibly because she’s considerably more dangerous than any of the soldiers around her could even possibly imagine.

Leaving Mal trapped behind enemy lines in this stupid war between the so-called Humanists who believe that ALL augmented people should be thrown into burn pits and incinerated to ash, and the ragtag Federals who are getting the asses handed to them by people who shouldn’t be able to handle their advanced weaponry because it all requires the augmentations that the Humanists believe are anathema.

Which means that one of Mal’s people is putting their cybernetic thumb on the scales of war in favor of the humanists who want to remove them from the universe with extreme prejudice.

A problem that seems much too big for Mal to solve, as his processing power is tied up in protecting his new charge – no matter how much she hates the acts he performs to keep her as safe as he can. Even if they’re not nearly enough.

Escape Rating A+: If you put Murderbot in a blender – if Murderbot would let you put them in a blender – with the nannybot Pounce from Day Zero and the independent investigative reporter A.I. Scorn from Emergent Properties, you’d get Mal (short for Malware).

(Who, by the way, does see himself as male as does Pounce, unlike both Murderbot and Scorn. I had to check. Multiple times.)

What hooks the reader, or at least this reader, from the very first page is Mal’s conversation with his two fellow A.I.s, Clippy and !HelpDesk. They’re all snarky to the max, and none of them think much of humanity. To them, we’re entertainment – and we’re bad, boring entertainment at that.

And from their perspective, they’re right.

But, when Mal downloads himself into the dead cyborg Mika and is cut off from the datastream he’s forced to make adjustments. A whole lot of adjustments. He’s suddenly become a whole lot smaller than he ever expected to be, and the world is a whole lot bigger than he ever imagined.

Which doesn’t change his initial opinion that humans are stupid and that this war he’s now at ground zero for is stupid, even as he begins to see that as stupid as humans are he has acquired obligations to some of them that his own concept of honor requires him to see to the end.

It’s not love and never claims to be. It’s not even Murderbot’s grudging respect and even friendship toward Dr. Mensah and her team, but it is a change in perspective and a big part of the charm of the story is watching that change take place – even as we listen in on Mal’s internal dialog about the fix he’s in, his boredom as it continues and his limited ability to get himself out.

So the story combines the kind of mission quest that Day Zero had, complete with the nearly cinematic drive and pace that propels that story forward, told in a voice that might not exactly be Murderbot’s but is certainly a chronological precedent for it, shot through – sometimes literally – with Scorn’s dogged determination to figure out the mystery no matter what it might cost.

If any of the above appealed to you, or if you enjoyed the author’s previous books, Mickey7 and Antimatter Blues, you’ll find a story that will take you on a wild ride that propels you through this story while never losing sight of just how stupid this, or any other war, can be.

It looks like the author’s next book will be titled The Fourth Consort, and it will be out next February. As Mal Goes to War is the third book of his that I’ve been captivated by, I’m already there for whatever he writes next – and this one looks like even more SFnal fun.

Blogo-Birthday Birthday Book Celebration and #Giveaway!

It’s snuck up on my again. Today is my 67th birthday.

Today is also “First Contact Day” in the Star Trek Universe, which is fitting as I’ve been a fan since I first watched the show with my dad as it was originally broadcast. To paraphrase another ‘verse, that’s a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The past is another country, and they do things differently there.

Referring to another fandom I fell into at about the same time, I’m having a Hobbit birthday, meaning that I’m giving away presents instead of getting them. (Galen and I aren’t doing presents this year, as we’re rolling all of this year’s presents into a later trip, but I did finally get myself a set of AirPods.)

Spring has officially sprung, and 2024 is one quarter over. Meaning that enough reading has happened here at Chez Reading Reality to make a giveaway of my favorite books of the year so far a VERY reasonable possibility.

So I’ll be giving the winner’s choice of one of my favorite books this year so far to one lucky commenter on this post. I’m going to be a bit loosey-goosey about it this time around, because 1)all the books in the Barker & Llewelyn series have been Grade A books so far, so this is another bite at that apple, and 2)two of this year’s bests are book two in their respective series so if you haven’t read the first book yet it will also be available.

This giveaway is open internationally. If the winner is in the US, the books will be shipped from Amazon or your local bookshop if you have one that can handle this business over the interwebs. But if the winner is outside the U.S. and not in one of the other countries where there’s a ‘zon outpost, books will be sent from Wordery, which ships worldwide for free.

The list to choose from is (drumroll, please):

The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC Rosen
The Bezzle by Cory Doctorow
The Black Hand by Will Thomas
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire
Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster Bujold
Gryphon by M.L. Buchman
The Hellfire Conspiracy by Will Thomas
Holmes, Marple & Poe by James Patterson and Brian Sitts
The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older
The Lantern’s Dance by Laurie R. King
Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen
The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi
Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen Cambridge
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
Mislaid in Parts Half-Known by Seanan McGuire
The Missing Witness by Allison Brennan
Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow
The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett
These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein
The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi
What You Are Looking For Is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama

I went diving a bit deeper in order to pick multiple genres to make sure there’s something on this list for everyone, but clearly it’s been a very murder-y, fantasy, SF-y year so far. So if I’ve missed your favorite genre and there’s a book you’re dying to read, I’d be happy to share that with you (up to $25 US) instead.

Just let me know in the rafflecopter what book you’d most like to have your very own copy of, from my list or yours, in whatever format suits you best. Someone is going to get very lucky, at least reading-wise!

This post ends this Lucky 13th Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week. If you haven’t checked out the rest of this week’s posts, there’s been a giveaway every day, so be sure to enter any and all that look like your jam.

Next year – OMG it’s wild to be talking about NEXT year when it seems like this year has barely begun – the Celebration will take place the week of March 31-April 5. Come one, come all, and be sure to come back over the year between to see what fabulous books and fantastic giveaways happen in all the months between now and then!

a Rafflecopter giveaway