Review: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Review: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise PennyKingdom of the Blind (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #14) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #14
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The new Chief Inspector Gamache novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author.

When a peculiar letter arrives inviting Armand Gamache to an abandoned farmhouse, the former head of the Sûreté du Québec discovers that a complete stranger has named him one of the executors of her will. Still on suspension, and frankly curious, Gamache accepts and soon learns that the other two executors are Myrna Landers, the bookseller from Three Pines, and a young builder.

None of them had ever met the elderly woman.

The will is so odd and includes bequests that are so wildly unlikely that Gamache and the others suspect the woman must have been delusional. But what if, Gamache begins to ask himself, she was perfectly sane?

When a body is found, the terms of the bizarre will suddenly seem less peculiar and far more menacing.

But it isn’t the only menace Gamache is facing.

The investigation into what happened six months ago—the events that led to his suspension—has dragged on, into the dead of winter. And while most of the opioids he allowed to slip though his hands, in order to bring down the cartels, have been retrieved, there is one devastating exception.

Enough narcotic to kill thousands has disappeared into inner city Montreal. With the deadly drug about to hit the streets, Gamache races for answers.

As he uses increasingly audacious, even desperate, measures to retrieve the drug, Armand Gamache begins to see his own blind spots. And the terrible things hiding there.

My Review:

The original quote is from the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” There’s irony in the use of the quote, as Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, currently the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec , albeit under suspension, would never put himself in the place of the one-eyed man. He always believes that he is one of the blind – even as he fervently prays that he is not.

This is a story where there are two cases, as there often are in this series. One case initially seems trivial, but of course turns out to be much larger than it appears. But it does not tie into the other case in this story, the one that not only starts out large, but started out in the previous book in the series, Glass Houses.

Which itself was the culmination of a story that begin several books before that. Which is a hint that this series is best read in order and from its beginning in Still Life. And that it’s worth every moment of immersion with these people and in the quirky, semi-lost village of Three Pines.

The small case seems to be the easy part, at least at first. Someone has named Gamache, his neighbor Myrna Landers, and a builder from Montreal as the liquidators, we would call them executors, of her will. None of them knew the dead woman, and have no idea why she named them in her will. But Gamache and Myrna, a psychologist turned bookstore-owner, are intrigued enough to agree, as does the young builder.

When they all get blizzard-bound in Three Pines, it provides plenty of opportunity for Gamache to investigate the possible connections between the three of them and the dead woman, and for the residents of Three Pines to pass judgment on the young man unwittingly stuck in their midst.

This case, while it turns out to be a great deal larger than it originally seemed, also provides the source of most of the lighter moments in the story – as any protracted sojourn in Three Pines generally does.

Those lighter moments are needed, as the decisions that Gamache and his team made in Glass Houses are still hanging over their heads like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Gamache has planned that the sword will fall on his head alone, but he is still making one last desperate attempt to clean up the deadly mess he created in order to eliminate the rot in his beloved Sûreté.

That his career will end as a result of his actions is a consequence that he can live with. Leaving the deadly opioid carfentanil on the streets of Montreal is not. But the piece he has left on the chessboard to clean up that mess may not be enough.

If she is not, her death will only be the first of thousands that will be rightfully laid at his door.

Escape Rating A+: I was riveted by this story, and at the same time there were points where I had to stop and literally turn my eyes away – it was just too much. There were times when I nearly lost faith with Gamache, it seemed against the character of the character I have grown to love and admire that he would send an agent into the literal heart of darkness and that the agent would be unaware that they had been sent. I should have known better.

And yet there was a point where that had seemed to happen. That a young Sûreté cadet had either committed a heinous act or had been set up to take the fall for one, and that the agent had been sent into the hellish streets where addicts wasted their lives in pursuit of their next fix of a drug that was certainly killing them. It seemed that the cadet had been sent out into the cold, into the streets from which they had been rescued, with no resources and no backup, in the hopes that the missing drugs could be found before they hit the streets and set off a wave of death from which there could be no escape.

It didn’t seem as if Gamache could have committed such a terrible betrayal, and yet it seemed that he had. It’s only at the end of the story that we discover the truth, bitter but not black after all.

The other, initially smaller case is equally bitter, if at a slight remove – throwing the parallels into stark relief. Gamache has taught all of his agents many hard lessons, among them the lesson that betrayal can only come from those who are closest. That is what it appears has happened with the young agent sent into the wild streets, and that is also at the heart of the story of the dead woman and the three confused liquidators.

In the end, the story is brought full circle, as the betrayals are revealed, the cases are closed, and the reckonings come due. The open arcs of story that began 30 years and many books ago have finally closed. It is possible that this is the end of the series. It could conclude at this point, but I truly hope not. These characters have taken on a life of their own, and I want to see it continue with all my heart.

If it does not, I’ll be echoing Gamache’s grandson Honore’s first words, imitating Rosa the duck. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan FrenchThe Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Lot Lands #1
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A raucous, bawdy, blood-soaked adventure fantasy debut that's The Lord of the Rings reimagined by way of Sons of Anarchy.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man's-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards' existence--one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity's tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion--even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

My Review:

A hero’s journey is still a hero’s journey, even if the hero has tusks, and so does his hog.

In spite of the many comparisons to Sons of Anarchy, the hogs ridden by the Grey Bastards and their half-orc kin are real hogs. The kind that sometimes get turned into bacon – although certainly not in this case. These hogs are bred for riding into battle – and for loyalty to their riders.

The story in The Grey Bastards starts out small, and at the same time in just a bit of in media res. On the one hand, the focus is fairly tight on young Jackal and his band of brothers – even though one of them is actually a sister. Except when she’s not.

The story begins with Jackal’s perspective and Jackal’s point-of-view, in the world that he knows and is completely familiar with – although we don’t. It’s not our world and doesn’t seem to be an analog for any of the traditional mythological or fantasy worlds, in spite of its inclusion of humans, orcs, half-orcs, elves, halflings and centaurs – all under different, descriptive and occasionally vulgar names.

Those familiar casts of beings also have different functions and attributes in this world than in more traditional fantasy. But I hesitate to call these versions twisted because they aren’t that. They feel organic to this created world, just different from what we are used to.

Jackal also doesn’t explain the way that things in his worldview are different from ours, because for him that’s the way it’s always been and always will be – at least at the beginning.

But as the story continues, Jackal’s world expands as the expected patterns of his life begin fragmenting and eventually falling apart. He tries to fix the wrongs that he observes – and they are wrongs – by attempting a takeover of the established order.

However, he’s young and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He may be partly right, but he is also still partly wrong, and just a bit young and dumb. He gets outmaneuvered and is forced to learn about his world as it really is, and not just the way he’s always told that it has been.

It’s clear that the expansion of his worldview is going to be the making of him – if that world survives the chaos that is rapidly descending upon it.

Escape Rating A+: There are going to be people who want to label this one grimdark. Jackal’s world is certainly in a state of decay, and there are plenty of times when his situation seems pretty grim. But this world isn’t operating in the shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark, in spite of the title.

Jackal wants to make things better. That the situation is actually worse than he has any clue about when the story begins doesn’t change the fact that he is always trying to improve the situation for not just his own people but also anyone else that he comes across who seems to be innocent or downtrodden or just caught up in a bad mess that is not of their own making.

Not that he isn’t more than willing to kill anyone on the other side – particularly those who perpetrated some of the “wrong” situations he comes across. He’s not sweetness and light, he’s a warrior from a brutal and warlike people, but he is trying to leave his world better than he found it.

It’s just that he’s naive enough in the beginning not to see just how bad it is – and how much worse it’s going to get. But he does seem to have a very real chance of fixing at least some of the things – once he gets his head out of his own ass.

There are certainly things about The Grey Bastards that will perturb some readers. The book is incredibly profane. Nearly all of the characters in this book cuss as much as Kiva Lagos in The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. These two books otherwise have nothing to do with one another, except that both are first books in series that look to be awesome. But Kiva’s constant stream of cussing is epic in scope. None of the individual characters in The Grey Bastards cuss as much as Kiva does alone, but the sum totals feel similar. And equally appropriate for the characters and the story.

There is also a thread of what could be considered misogyny throughout The Grey Bastards, and not just because the story opens in a brothel. The leader of Jackal’s settlement claims that females are only good for two things, and I quote, “fucking and fetching.” His attitude, that females are only capable of being whores, bedwarmers (whores with only one partner) or errand runners is one that seems to be commonly held among the half-orcs – or at least the old guard.

At the same time, the pivotal character in this story is Fetching, the only female member of the warband. And her importance to the story is not as a love interest, but as a formidable fighter and one who ultimately makes the crucial decisions and takes up the mantle of leadership.

Many of the other strong and/or important characters are also female, the elf female Starling who helps to create a critical partnership and Beryl, the adopted mother of virtually the entire half-orc clan. They are, in every way, the equal of any of the males – and their roles in the story are much more important than most.

It feels like a “do as I say, not as I do” dichotomy. The world seems to be male dominated, while at the same time the female characters are crucial and mostly not in traditional female or in only traditional female roles. And it does seem to be one of the things that Jackal finds repugnant at least some of the time.

On my third hand, there’s definitely an attitude that all the whores are happy and enjoy their work and don’t wish for anything different. And while that’s theoretically possible, it feels beyond unlikely.

Obviously I have divided feelings on this particular score.

While I am completely out of hands on this, one of the things that I found fascinating was the way that foundational myths were used for so many purposes. Jackal and his cohort are taught a version of their story that was designed to inspire pride and loyalty AND cover up ugly truths. When it becomes necessary for Jackal to learn more and BE more, he is forced into learning the REAL truth about the formation of the Lot Lands and their true purpose in the scheme of things. While that truth doesn’t exactly set him free, it does give him better perspective and even more reasons to fight – and it also changes the battlefield.

I absolutely do not have divided feelings on the book as a whole. It was a compelling read from its intimate beginning to its eye-popping and world-breaking end. It feels like the opening of a huge, sprawling, brawling, epic fantasy series.I want more, and I want it now. But I’ll have to wait just a bit. The True Bastards ride next July.

Review: Planetside by Michael Mammay

Review: Planetside by Michael MammayPlanetside by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
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--“PLANETSIDE is a smart and fast-paced blend of mystery and boots-in-the-dirt military SF that reads like a high-speed collision between Courage Under Fire and Heart of Darkness.” – Marko Kloos, bestselling author of the Frontline series

--“Not just for military SF fans—although military SF fans will love it—Planetside is an amazing debut novel, and I’m looking forward to what Mammay writes next.” – Tanya Huff, author of the Confederation and Peacekeeper series

--“A tough, authentic-feeling story that starts out fast and accelerates from there.” – Jack Campbell, author of Ascendant

--“Definitely the best military sci-fi debut I’ve come across in a while.” – Gavin Smith, author of Bastard Legion and Age of Scorpio

A seasoned military officer uncovers a deadly conspiracy on a distant, war-torn planet…

War heroes aren't usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it's something big—and he's not being told the whole story. A high councilor's son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there's no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command.

The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won't come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…

 

My Review:

If Cold Welcome and Old Man’s War had a love child you might get something like Planetside. And it would be, and is, pretty damn awesome. I would say it’s awesome for a debut novel, but that isn’t nearly praise enough. It’s just plain awesome. Period. Exclamation point.

The story is a combination of military SF with a bit of detective work. Because there’s something wrong on Cappa, and it’s up to Colonel Carl Butler to figure out what. And to contain the problem – no matter the cost.

It begins simply enough – except it isn’t simple at all.

Butler is an old soldier, less than a year away from retirement. He’s been stationed somewhere really, really safe and far from the front lines to serve out his remaining time. But his best friend is the current overall military commander of SPACECOM, and needs the help of a friend that he can trust – not just to keep his secrets – but to make the hard choices and do the right thing without caring how bad it might look. Or be.

A High Councillor’s son is missing on a planet where SPACECOM is engaged in a hot war with the natives over natural resources. All the human settlements need silver, and Cappa is rich in it. Some of the native Cappans, who are an intelligent humanoid but not human species, are fighting with SPACECOM, and some are fighting against it.

In military terms, Cappa is a SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up). It’s just a much bigger and nastier SNAFU than anyone is willing to admit. Butler comes in and kicks over the local anthill, and all hell breaks loose.

The investigation has been stalled for months, mostly in red tape. There are three commands on Cappa, SPACECOM, MEDCOM and SPECOPS, and the right hand and the left hand don’t know, don’t care, and don’t have to cooperate with each other or the hand in the middle.

Butler can easily see that there’s a coverup going on – he just can’t make any headway on figuring out who is covering up what.

It’s only when he goes planetside and the situation goes completely pear-shaped that he’s finally able to see the forest for the trees. It’s not just that one thing is wrong – it’s that everything is. And has been. And will be.

Unless Butler contains the whole sad, sorry mess – once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I just finished and I’m still in shock. This one is going to stick with me for a long, long time.

I used Old Man’s War and Cold Comfort as antecedents because Planetside has strong elements of both of them, and they were themselves both absolute standouts.

The voice of Colonel Carl Butler in Planetside sounds very much like the voice of John Perry in Old Man’s War. They are both, after all, old men still at war. The difference is that Perry has taken his long experience into a new, young body, where Butler’s has all the mileage, artificial parts, aches and pains, of a life lived mostly in battle. Perry’s scars are on the inside, Butler’s are on the outside. But their first-person perspectives sound remarkably similar. They both do what needs to be done, but they both think it through, a lot. And they’ve both been around long enough to recognize bullshit when they hear it and hate it every single time.

There is also an element to both Planetside and the Old Man’s War series that what you think you know, what you’ve been told is true, mostly isn’t.

From Cold Harbor there’s the betrayal from within aspect of the story. Just as Butler learns that an awful lot of people in Cappa Base and on Cappa are getting in the way of his investigation for reasons that he has to figure out, so too does Kylara Vatta have to conduct an investigation under extremely adverse circumstances while fighting against an enemy within, facing betrayal at every turn while the situation goes from bad to awful to completely FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition).

So in Planetside we have the story of a man who has been deliberately placed in a terrible situation by a friend who seems to be exploiting the fact that he has nothing left to lose. Butler is trusted to, not sweep something under the rug, but discover all the awful secrets there are to be discovered and make sure that none of them get out.

We’re inside his head. We feel his frustration, we understand his confusion, and we empathize with his hatred of the obfuscation and the bullshit that is keeping him from getting the job done for no good reason whatsoever. In the end, we ache for his choices but we understand his reasons.

At the end, I’m left with two sets of competing quotes running through my head. In one ear, I’m hearing Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” In my other ear, it’s Edmund Burke, paraphrased by Simon Wiesenthal, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” And there’s quite a lot of irony that the second quote is from Wiesenthal, a noted Nazi hunter.

I have extremely high hopes for more from this author. Soon, please! I already know that Planetside will be on my Hugo Ballot next year.

Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Flatiron Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“Warm-hearted, clear-minded, and unexpectedly spellbinding. A novel to savor.” —Annie Barrows, co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

In Denmark, Professor Anders Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.

Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Anders is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?

My Review:

Meet Me at the Museum is a quietly marvelous little gem of a book. That it is also the author’s debut novel just makes it that much more special.

This is an epistolary novel, which is a fancy way of saying that the entire story is written as a series of letters. In this particular case, the letters are between two semi-accidental correspondents, both in their early 60s, who find themselves asking each other some of the big questions.

Questions like, “Does my life have meaning?” and, “Have I been my best self?”, as well as, “Where do I go from here?” and the big one, “Is this all there is?”

They are both at crossroads in their lives, and neither of them seems to have anyone with whom they can discuss what is really important to them – or to even to reveal what is really important to them.

The well-preserved head of Tollund Man

Tina has just lost her best friend. The friend who has been with her since childhood. And the one with whom she made a vow to go to Denmark and see the Tollund Man. When they were girls, the expert on this archaeological artifact, this Iron Age man who was dug up (or perhaps decanted) from a peat bog in Denmark, wrote a book about the Tollund Man and dedicated to his daughter and to all the children in their class in East Anglia. (This book, with its dedication, really does exist although the rest of this story is fiction.)

Tina writes to that author, all these years later, because she is putting her own thoughts down on paper, thoughts she wishes she could ask, not the old professor, but the Tollund Man himself. If he could talk.

The man who answers her from Denmark is the current curator of the museum, Anders. And at first his answers are rather dry and factual. He’s still grieving the recent death of his wife, and dry and factual seems to be all that he has in him.

But, the writing of the letters is cathartic for Tina, even if at first Anders isn’t very responsive in an emotional sense. So she keeps writing. And he keeps responding, and as he responds they step cautiously towards friendship. A friendship that is lacking in both their lives.

Anders is alone. He has his work and his children. Those children are grown now, and are beginning to have children of their own. He loves them, and they love him, but he cannot confide in them as equals. Writing to Tina becomes a solace for him. Her friendship allows him to hope again.

Tina is married, and also has children who are now having children of their own. But she is also alone – a fact which grows on both her and the reader through this correspondence. She should be talking with her husband but the fact is that they don’t really talk. They have a life together, but it is his life as a family farmer in East Anglia, a life that Tina did not want but was persuaded into when she became pregnant at 20. The person she really is only exists on the margins of her life. Her husband is one of those people for whom the only way is his the right way which is his way in everything, and he ruthlessly suppresses any of Tina’s impulses that don’t mesh with his way of life on his farm.

In her correspondence with Anders she can share her innermost thoughts. For that matter, she can share that she HAS innermost thoughts. They share the hopes, doubts and fears that neither of them is able to express to anyone in their daily lives.

So when Tina’s life finally breaks, Anders is more than willing to catch her. The question is whether she will be able to let him.

Escape Rating A+: This is absolutely completely marvelous. You wouldn’t think that reading a bunch of letters written between two strangers would be so utterly compelling, and yet it is. The reader feels like a secret witness to their correspondence, turning to each new letter as eagerly as its intended recipient.

That the two characters are both 60 or thereabouts is an interesting choice. This is a debut novel, and the writer herself is also (more or less) at that age. As am I. With modern medical science, 60 is no longer truly old, but one is certainly aware that one is no longer young. We may have 30 or even more years of mostly healthy and active living to do, but at the same time some choices are irrevocably behind us and some patterns are now too established for us to want to change even when change is possible.

Much of what Anders and Tina explore in their letters is at that crossroads. They are both aware of the roads not taken, and are searching for the meaning both in the choices they made and the ones they passed by – and whether or not it is too late to pick up some threads they left behind along the way.

This book is also the story of an emotional affair. When the story reaches its end, they have still not met in person. There are no possibilities for actual infidelity on Tina’s part, but she has come to invest a great deal of emotional capital in this relationship – which she has kept secret from her husband. That there is something wrong in her marriage becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses, and her relationship with Anders becomes both a wellspring of solace and a source of guilt as her life reaches its crisis. She has to take time out to recognize that the depth of her correspondence with Anders is a symptom of what is wrong and not its cause – but it isn’t easy.

Then again, nothing worth having or doing ever is truly easy. But Tina and Anders are marvelous and sympathetic characters. As they get to know each other, we get to know them – and we want them to find the answers to all those important questions – and to find their own best happiness.

Both the story and the way it is presented remind me very much of 84 Charing Cross Road, of which I have extremely fond memories. It may also remind readers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is unfortunately lost in the depths of my towering TBR pile.

But I like the comparison to 84 Charing Cross Road a bit better, although where Charing Cross has a definitive and slightly tragic ending, Meet Me at the Museum is both less definitive and more hopeful. I like leaving the book with the possibility that Tina and Anders may have brighter days ahead. And astonishingly, Meet Me at the Museum may be the first work of literary fiction that I have not merely liked, but actually, sincerely loved. I hope that you will, too.

Review: Between You and Me by Susan Wiggs

Review: Between You and Me by Susan WiggsBetween You and Me by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on June 26, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Deep within the peaceful heart of Amish country, a life-or-death emergency shatters a quiet world to its core. Number-one New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs delivers a riveting story that challenges our deepest-held beliefs.

Caught between two worlds, Caleb Stoltz is bound by a deathbed promise to raise his orphaned niece and nephew in Middle Grove, where life revolves around family, farm, faith—and long-held suspicions about outsiders. When disaster strikes, Caleb is thrust into an urban environment of high-tech medicine and the relentless rush of modern life.

Dr. Reese Powell is poised to join the medical dynasty of her wealthy, successful parents. Bold, assertive, and quick-thinking, she lives for the addictive rush of saving lives. When a shocking accident brings Caleb Stoltz into her life, Reese is forced to deal with a situation that challenges everything she thinks she knows—and ultimately emboldens her to question her most powerful beliefs.

Then one impulsive act brings about a clash of cultures in a tug-of-war that plays out in a courtroom, challenging the very nature of justice and reverberating through generations, straining the fragile threads of faith and family.

Deeply moving and unforgettable, Between You and Me is an emotionally complex story of love and loss, family and friendship, and the arduous road to discovering the heart’s true path.

My Review:

Between You and Me is not quite what I was expecting. Much in the same way that neither Reese Powell’s nor Caleb Stoltz’ lives turn out quite the way that they – or anyone around them – expected.

The unexpected can turn out to be wonderful.

Reese Powell and Caleb Stoltz don’t seem to have much in common, at least not on the surface, and they certainly live lives that should never have intersected. But life is funny that way, and sometimes we meet the people we really need to when we really need them.

Even if, or especially because, they challenge us and everything we thought we believed. The best laid plans of mice, men and especially parents go oft astray.

Caleb’s nephew is injured in a tragic accident, and his tiny Amish farming community does not have the resources needed to keep the boy from bleeding out. His nearly severed arm is a lost cause, but the boy’s life isn’t – at least not yet. When the life flight helicopter comes to take Jonah Stoltz from Middle Grove to Philadelphia, Caleb rides along.

His first ride in a helicopter, something that he has always longed to do.

While Caleb may be Amish, his heart has always yearned for the wider world. When he went on his rumspringa, his version of going wild was to attend college. He had no plans to return to Middle Grove and his abusive father.

But when his older brother and sister-in-law were murdered, Caleb took up his duty and returned to care for his niece and nephew. Not just because he made a promise to his brother as he lay dying, but to prevent his father from abusing the two children who would otherwise be left in his care.

Jonah’s tragic accident gives Caleb a tiny, tempting chance to break away from his life for a brief moment, and in his care for the boy he lets himself take it.

Reese Powell is a fourth-year resident at the hospital where Jonah is taken. She’s part of the trauma team that preps the boy for surgery. And something in her heart reaches out to the boy whose life has just irrevocably changed, and to the lost, lonely man who is truly a stranger in a strange land in the urban setting.

Just as Caleb takes this brief opportunity to break free of the life he is expected to lead, in her friendship with him Reese discovers an opportunity to examine what she wants for herself, and to break free of the heavy weight of her parents’ expectation.

They expect her to become a pediatric surgeon so that she can become a partner in their high powered and highly successful OB/GYN IVF practice. A practice that produced Reese herself. But what they want for her is not what she wants for herself. Not that Reese does not want to be a doctor, but that she wants to be a different kind of doctor than her parents, or than her parents have planned for her to be.

And even though their attempts at any relationship beyond friendship seem doomed to failure, that they try gives both of them the courage to discover what they are truly searching for in life.

It might even lead them back to each other.

Escape Rating A+: Upon reflection, I don’t think that the blurb matches the book all that much, except for its final paragraph. Between You and Me is deeply moving and unforgettable, and it is an emotionally complex story of love, loss, family, friendship and just how difficult it can be to find your own true path and the people who you need to have walking that path beside you.

But this isn’t a story about faith, except possibly faith in oneself. It also is not a story about beliefs, at least not in the religious sense that feels implied in the blurb. Instead, it feels a story about the intersection of duty and commitment, about the weight of promises made and the guilt of promises broken. And how sometimes it’s necessary to break the literal meaning of a promise in order to keep the spirit of it.

Caleb is Amish, but he has never been baptised in the faith. In other words, he has always had plenty of doubts, and those doubts have kept him from becoming a full member of the community. He promised his brother that he would raise his children in Middle Grove, but he did not promise to make any religious commitments of his own to the community.

Caleb has always had a foot in both camps. He lives in Middle Grove, but he works for the English in nearby Grantham Park, as the lead horse trainer for the Budweiser Clydesdales as well as other big, beautiful horses. And he does accounting on the side.

Much of the clash of cultures in the story is about the clash within Caleb’s heart. He wants to leave. He’s always wanted to leave. A big part of this story comprises the circumstances that finally make him realize that he needs to leave, both for his niece and nephew’s sake and for his own.

It’s often a hard choice, and it’s one that we see Caleb struggle with every step of the way.

Reese’s problem often seem much easier, but that doesn’t mean that her difficulties aren’t real or that we don’t feel for her as well. Because we do.

There is a romance at the heart of Between You and Me, but this is not a romance in the genre sense. The story here revolves around Caleb’s and Reese’s separate journeys to find themselves and the truth of their own hearts – not in the romantic sense but in the finding true purpose sense.

The happy ending is their reward for taking the difficult path. And it’s the reader’s reward for following them on their journey.

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Review: The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.The Magic of Recluce (The Saga of Recluce #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Saga of Recluce #1
Pages: 501
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 1992
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Young Lerris is dissatisfied with his life and trade, and yearns to find a place in the world better suited to his skills and temperament. But in Recluce a change in circumstances means taking one of two options: permanent exile from Recluce or the dangergeld, a complex, rule-laden wanderjahr in the lands beyond Recluce, with the aim of learning how the world works and what his place in it might be. Many do not survive. Lerris chooses dangergeld. When Lerris is sent into intensive training for his quest, it soon becomes clear that he has a natural talent for magic. And he will need magic in the lands beyond, where the power of the Chaos Wizards reigns unchecked. Though it goes against all of his instincts, Lerris must learn to use his powers in an orderly way before his wanderjahr, or fall prey to Chaos.

My Review:

“The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

The above quote is from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, but it could equally apply to the way that all of Lerris’ teachers operate in The Magic of Recluce. They all want him to think for himself and learn for himself, and not expect answers to be handed to him. At the same time, it is all too easy to sympathize with his position that they all already know, and why won’t they just tell him already!

And on my hidden third hand, it is clear that while their desire for him to learn things for himself is reasonable, they don’t exactly give him the building blocks from which to start. He’s 15, he’s exiled from the only home he’s ever known, and no one has bothered to really explain why.

All that he knows is that the endless striving for absolute ORDER bores him to exasperation. And that no one can be bothered to help him make sense of it all. There are always secrets within secrets, and cryptic answers within enigmas. He doesn’t even know that his own father is a High Master of Order until long after he has left the boring, orderly paradise that is Recluce.

But speaking of order, this is also a story about order vs. chaos, and the need to maintain the balance between the two. Lerris is actually kind of right in that pure order can be boring. Recluce is the bastion of order, and seems to be needed to balance the untrammeled chaos outside its borders.

However, while in this world it seems to be easier to create evil through chaos than through order, the fact is that both order and chaos, taken to their extremes, are bad. If that sounds familiar, it is also one of the premises of the Invisible Library series and of the Shadow War that was so much a part of Babylon 5. Unchecked chaos is ultimately destructive, but unchecked order leads to tyranny. Neither is particularly good for humans.

It’s up to Lerris, in his journey of training and discovery, to figure out where he belongs on that spectrum between order and chaos. The moral and ethical dilemmas that he faces illustrate the fine lines that separate the two, and show just how easy it is to fall down what turns out to be an extremely slippery slope – in either direction.

Escape Rating A+: The Magic of Recluce was the first book published in the author’s long-running Saga of Recluce. As such, it carries the weight of the initial worldbuilding that is needed for all of its prequels and sequels. However you may feel about reading series in publication order vs. the internal chronological order, this feels like the place to start.

And I fell right into it. I didn’t so much read this book as get absorbed by it. I started one night at dinner and finished the next afternoon. All 500-plus pages later. It’s a good story that keeps twisting and turning until the very end – and, I think, beyond.

Lerris’ story is both a coming-of-age story and a coming-into-power story. At the beginning, he doesn’t know who he is or what he is. He doesn’t even know there is a who or a what to be discovered – and that’s his journey. His internal doubts and fears, his constant questioning of what his purpose is, along with all of his very human frustrations, make him a fascinating character to follow.

What he does eventually realize, after fits and starts and mistakes and catastrophes, is just how equal, opposed and opposite chaos and order are – and how necessary the one is to the other. And that both sides are more than capable of deciding that the ends justify the means.

In the end, Lerris strikes his own path – by doing the best he can with what he has and what he knows – and often by ignoring what he doesn’t – occasionally with disastrous results. But in the end, he discovers or embodies that necessary balance even if it hurts. Because the person who is usually the most wounded is himself – every single time.

His journey is the making of him, and it’s the making of an utterly marvelous story as well as a terrific beginning to a fantastic series.

In celebration of the release of Outcasts of Order, the OMG 20th book in the series, The Magic of Recluce and the following two books in the series are being re-released with new covers this fall.  (The panorama view of the three covers is below, and it is gorgeous!) After falling in love with this series, I have a lot of catching up to do. And I can’t wait!

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 480
Published by Del Rey on July 10, 2018
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Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders... but her father isn't a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife's dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty--until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers' pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed--and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it's worth--especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

My Review:

This is the story of Persephone at Night on Bald Mountain, with a bit of an assist from Rumpelstiltskin. In other words, Spinning Silver is another from the mind of Naomi Novik, a fitting follow up to the utterly marvelous Uprooted.

Spinning Silver is also a story where those myths and fairy tales, and all of the tropes that have been based on them, have been turned right on their pointy little heads, and where, in the end, the princesses all rescue themselves, without much, if any, help from the princes, thank you very much.

And where everyone gets what they’ve earned – nothing more and absolutely nothing less.

As fits a story that has been brewed from multiple source myths, Spinning Silver has multiple perspectives – and all of them are female. We begin (and end) the story from the point of view of Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a moneylender in a fairy tale land that has more than a passing resemblance to Russia.

Miryem is a young woman who does not believe in fairy tales. She has always seen the classic trope of the princess bargaining for wealth and riches from a fairy godmother as a cheat, where someone else does all the work and the princess gets out from under her obligations and wins by cheating someone else.

That’s Miryem’s reality. Her father is the moneylender in their small town, and everyone cheats him and spits on him because he is a Jew. They think it is right and proper to borrow money from him whenever they want and then pretend they have nothing to pay him back with when the money is due. And because Jews are hated and despised, he’s just supposed to take the abuse even though his own family is starving.

Miryem takes over her father’s failing business, and learns to spin silver into gold. It’s not magic, it’s just good business. But the cold and magical Staryk covet gold above all things, and when they hear her claim, they press her into their service.

But this is also the story of Wanda Vitkus. Wanda begins the story even poorer than Miryem. She is the daughter of the town drunk, who beats her and her two brothers mercilessly whenever he is drunk. Which is often. Wanda is every bit as starving as Miryem, because her father drinks away the money they owe the moneylender. But when Wanda begins working for Miryem and her family to pay off her father’s debt, both Miryem and Wanda are richer by the exchange, even if neither of them is aware they are helping the other.

And this is also the story of Irina, daughter of the local Duke, and her nurse Magreta. Once neglected and disregarded, Irina finds herself at the center of her father’s political machinations once events are set in motion. It is up to Irina to find a way to survive her marriage to the young tsar, a man who hides a terrible demon.

Working separately, Irina and Miryem, who would normally never meet, both discover that their world is under threat by competing magics, and that they only way they can save not only those they hold dear but save themselves, is to band together in a terrible plot to pit two gods against each other – and pray that the world survives their cataclysmic war.

Escape Rating A+: If you loved Uprooted, you will love Spinning Silver. If you love fractured fairy tales, or female-centric retellings of myths and legends, you will love Spinning Silver. This was marvelous and beautiful and even heartbreaking. And it is glorious.

These are myths that should not go together. They are from completely different belief systems and pantheons and traditions. And yet, in this version, they do.

If you read fractured mythologies, you may recognize Chernobog from Neil Gaiman’s tour-de-force American Gods. Or you may remember the name from Disney’s Fantasia. Chernobog is the dark god that is the evil in that particularly classic rendition of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

Persephone, or Proserpina to use her Roman name, is the goddess of Hades and the consort of the lord of the Underworld in those mythologies. She’s the goddess who spends six months in the underworld and six months in the sunlit worlds.

And Rumpelstiltskin, of course, is the imp who changes straw into gold after making a bargain with a princess who then refuses to pay what is due. Miryem would say she wins by cheating. Not that Miryem doesn’t also rather loosely interpret the bargain she finds herself in, but she does all the work herself in the end.

I found myself feeling for all of the heroines in this tale, but particularly Miryem. Miryem is Jewish, and her circumstances reflect the difficulties that Jews faced in medieval and renaissance Europe, including Russia. There were few professions open to Jews, with moneylending being the one that was the most profitable, and became the most infamous. The Jews were blamed for everything from bad crops to epidemics, walled up in ghettoes, and murdered with abandon whenever things went wrong – or whenever the local lord needed to wipe out all his outstanding debts. Within the circle of her family she is safe and loved, but the world is not merely cold and cruel, but actively dangerous for reasons that are totally unjust but that she can’t fix. She is always in a no-win scenario – until she finds a way to break out.

Irina, Wanda and Magrete are equally trapped in situations not of their making. Both Irina and Wanda are forced to obey men who want to kill them merely because they are women. That they find ways to survive and conquer in spite of their situations is what makes them equally the heroines of this tale.

One of the important points in this story, and one that will resonate long after the book is closed, is a meditation on the Shakespearean quote, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but once.” In Spinning Silver, the same is true for a brave woman. Each of the women of this story face multiple situations where they have to choose between dying a little at a time, or being brave in the face of imminent danger and taking the risk of standing up for themselves, no matter what the cost. For each of them it feels like a choice between striving for what is right and proper, for what is their due, or letting society and circumstances beat them down into less than nothing. They stand, and that’s what makes them heroines.

Surprisingly, considering how much these women have to fight along the way, love does conquer all and they do live more or less happily ever after, although not all in the same way. But in every case, it’s because they’ve earned it.

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. KuangThe Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, grimdark
Pages: 544
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

My Review:

The Poppy War is an absolute wow of a book. It’s also amazing that this is the author’s first novel, but that’s not what makes it such a marvel. It’s just completely, totally and utterly WOW! If you like grimdark (because this one is very grim and exceedingly dark) and/or if you like your fantasy-style alternate history set in a time and place that is totally f-ed up beyond saving, but the characters try anyway, then this book might be for you.

If you want a happy or at least a triumphant ending, where both good and evil are clear-cut and clearly drawn, this is not your book.

Instead, be prepared for absolutely anything, because this one sets off a whole pantheon of trigger warnings. And if you fall into it, dragging yourself out at the end is incredibly difficult. This is an epic book, and it will give you an epic book hangover – interlaced with tons of frustration, because it is clear from the way this book ends that this story is not over. Rumor has it that the author is committing trilogy, but there are no projected publication dates, or even titles, for those putative books 2 and 3.

Even though when you finish The Poppy War, you will want to read them right now – or at least right after a cocoa and a lie-down. I’d pass on the nap, because I think nightmares would probably be inevitable for a bit.

This book is so many things. It is a heroine’s journey, but it is not the usual heroine’s journey. Every time the heroine reaches a point that should be a triumph, the situation descends quickly into tragedy, anarchy or both.

There’s certainly an element of the “chosen one” to this story, but by the end one has the distinct impression that what Rin has been chosen for or by is operating by the old saying, that “those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

While the heroine is in her teens, and she certainly comes of age over the course of the story, this is absolutely, positively NOT a YA book. And while the first half of the story covers the trials and tribulations of fish-out-of-water Rin at the prestigious military academy at Sinegard, this is also not a “save the school, save the world” story in the way that Harry Potter is. At the same time, there are elements of Rin’s personality that may remind readers of a very, very dark Hermione Granger – at least the swotting parts of her personality.

The Poppy War is also an #ownvoices epic fantasy. The heroine is a brown skinned Asian woman, written by a brown-skinned Asian woman. The history that the author has chosen to use as her background is history that is all-too-familiar to her, but that we are not familiar with in the West, and should be. The unfamiliarity makes the story even more fantastic, while the grounding in the real gives it an authenticity that makes the tragedy all that much more tragic and awful.

And “awful” both in the sense of terrible and in the sense of “full of awe”.

Escape Rating A+: This may be the first week I’ve ever had two A+ books, and back-to-back at that. Epic fantasy is one of my first loves, and it’s certainly obvious in this week’s books.

The Poppy War is so many, many things, and all of them special and amazing. I was absorbed into this world from the opening pages, as our chosen heroine desperately seeks a way to escape her intended fate as concubine to an old man so that her foster parents can further their opium business.

Rin’s way out is through pain and achievement, and it sets the pattern for the rest of her story. At each turn she takes the more painful and dangerous route, no matter how dark the road seems or how often she is warned against it.

The Poppy War is a story where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. Then the scene lights up with fire, and everything is reduced to ash. And Rin, well, Rin does not so much emerge triumphant as she rises slowly to a standing position, bloody, broken and incandescent.

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa GrattonThe Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Pages: 576
Published by Tor Books on March 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A kingdom at risk, a crown divided, a family drenched in blood.

The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of barren crops and despondent subjects. Enemy nations circle the once-bountiful isle, sensing its growing vulnerability, hungry to control the ideal port for all trade routes.

The king's three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Reagan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm's only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign, proving a strong hand can resurrect magic and defend itself. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align and a poison ritual can be enacted.

Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.

My Review:

The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. It’s important to remember that the full title of the play is The Tragedy of King Lear. And while the author of Queens makes plenty of adjustments in order to make her source material into an epic fantasy, one thing does not change – the story, in the end, is still a tragedy. Maybe, just maybe, not quite as dark as the original version, but do not go into this one expecting a triumphant, happy ending, because it isn’t there.

And it wouldn’t be right or proper if it were. It feels like it ends the way that it is meant to. But happy is not any part of that. It ends as it must, not as the reader, or any of the participants, wish that it would.

Gaelan Lear is the king of the island of Innis Lear, and just like in the play, he’s more than a little bit mad. The reasons for that madness, however, are rooted in the magic that underpins the island of Innis Lear and everything that happens upon it.

The island’s founding and foundational magic seems to have several branches, represented by the worms of the earth, the winds and the rootwaters, and finally the stars of the heavens. Another way of looking at it would be death, life and prophecy. There are multiple possible interpretations.

But Lear is a star priest, and he has decreed that only the prophecies of the stars will hold any sway over his kingdom, and that all reverence and obeisance to the other branches of magic are forbidden. Over the following decade, the kingdom has become as unbalanced as its king.

Lear has three daughters, Gaela, Regan and Elia. Gaela is a warrior queen, Regan a witch queen and Elia a remote star priestess. They also are out of balance, but they are young and still capable of change. With their father in decline, it is on their shoulders that the fate of the kingdom rests. And it rests uneasily.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely loved this one. I got sucked in from the very first words. The prologue to this book is marvelous, mysterious and pulls the reader in. If epic fantasy is your jam, you’ll lick this one up with a spoon.

That being said, this is a sprawling epic of a story. A lot of what pushes and pulls it towards what becomes its inevitable conclusion are the internal motivations of all the characters. It is a slowly building story, where there isn’t a lot of action at points, but there is a lot of thought and memory and flashback.

So if you are looking for epic fantasy with big battle scenes and obvious good triumphing over obvious evil, this probably isn’t your book. All of the characters in this story operate very much in shades of gray. That is part of what makes them so fascinating, because you can see where things might have gone differently, and more happily, if people had made just slightly different choices.

This is also a story where, in spite of the king’s emphasis on star prophecies above all else, the quote from another Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, is apropos. As Caesar says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” In Queens, so much is blamed on star prophecy, and on the king’s exclusion of all other magic. But for the characters, it is not the prophecies, but their reactions to them, that drive their actions. The faults that doom so many of them are very definitely their own.

It has been said that this is a feminist interpretation of the play, because the emphasis in the story is not on Lear, but on his daughters and their reactions to him. In this version, Lear represents a past that is fading away, but is also the foundations of the sisters’ actions in the present. It is the conflict between the sisters, and between the two elder sisters’ husbands, that pushes the narrative. This is certainly a story where it is the women’s perspectives that carry the most weight, while the men, with very few exceptions, are mostly supporting characters. And when they try to become principals, it is to their cost. Whether that makes this a feminist interpretation or not, it certainly makes for a fascinating one.

In the end, this feels like the youngest sister Elia’s coming of age story. In the wake of their mother’s death, she chose to cling to her father and to follow the path he wanted her to follow, that of the remote star priest. The path that he had intended to take before the crown was thrust upon him. But in the turmoil surrounding the succession, she is forced to finally make her own choices, and to ultimately realize that duty triumphs desire.

Two final comments before I close. For those who have read Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series, The Queens of Innis Lear feels like a “Mirror Universe” version of that wonderful epic. I mean “Mirror Universe” in the Star Trek sense, where the characters are all the same, but have been reflected back as their own twisted twins. The Twelve Kingdoms beginning with The Mark of the Tala, is also the story of three sisters, who are also the daughters of a mad king. But because they made different choices in reaction to the same event, the early death of their mother, they emerge stronger and united, instead of weak and divided, and are able to wrest a happy ending from the same circumstances that drove The Queens of Innis Lear to their own near-complete destruction – along with that of the kingdom they fought both over and for.

And finally, more than anything else, The Queens of Innis Lear reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay’s awesome work of epic fantasy, Tigana. I found Tigana to be both triumphant and tragic, but as much as I loved it, and have kept multiple copies of it, I have never been able to read it again. The ending was perfect and harrowing at the same time.

The Queens of Innis Lear is strikingly similar. The setting, just as in most of Kay’s work, is a slightly altered version of our own history, with magic a part of the weaving of the world and the tale. Innis Lear is a version of England, and all the other countries mentioned have recognizable analogs to our own history.

But the most striking similarity is in the ending. Both stories end in ways that are ultimately necessary. They can’t be anything else. The way the story is woven, the way the characters have acted, have led to only one proper conclusion, and it not a happy one. But it is the one that has to be. And it is heartbreaking for the characters, and for the reader as well.

Review: Why Kill the Innocent by C.S. Harris

Review: Why Kill the Innocent by C.S. HarrisWhy Kill the Innocent (Sebastian St. Cyr, #13) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #13
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the newest mystery from the national bestselling author of Where the Dead Lie, a brutal murder draws Sebastian St. Cyr into the web of the royal court, where intrigue abounds and betrayal awaits.

London, 1814. As a cruel winter holds the city in its icy grip, the bloody body of a beautiful young musician is found half-buried in a snowdrift. Jane Ambrose's ties to Princess Charlotte, the only child of the Prince Regent and heir presumptive to the throne, panic the palace, which moves quickly to shut down any investigation into the death of the talented pianist. But Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife Hero refuse to allow Jane's murderer to escape justice.

Untangling the secrets of Jane's world leads Sebastian into a maze of dangerous treachery where each player has his or her own unsavory agenda and no one can be trusted. As the Thames freezes over and the people of London pour onto the ice for a Frost Fair, Sebastian and Hero find their investigation circling back to the palace and building to a chilling crescendo of deceit and death . . .

My Review:

Every book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series of historical mysteries, from its very beginning in What Angels Fear, begins with a question word. The words that inform the investigation of any mystery. Who? What? When? Where? Why? And every book ends with an answer to that question. In the middle, there is a chilling mystery.

But none quite as chilling as the mystery in Why Kill the Innocent, which takes place during the deadly frozen winter of 1814, the last time in recorded history that the Thames River froze over – solid enough for a Frost Fair to be held in the middle of the river, out on the ice.

That winter there was a killing cold, but the cold is not what killed Jane Ambrose. It is up to St. Cyr, with the able assistance of his wife Hero, to discover the cause of that particular mystery.

As in all the books of this series, Sebastian St. Cyr finds himself, or rather feels compelled to insert himself, into a mystery that explores the dark underbelly of the glittering Regency. An underbelly that is very dark indeed, and usually rotten.

The story begins with Hero Devlin and midwife Alexi Sauvage discovering a frozen corpse in the streets of Clerkenwell, a down-at-heels district at the best of times. And these are far from the best of times.

They recognize the body, and they can all too easily determine the cause of death. And that’s where all the problems begin. Jane Ambrose was a talented composer and a gifted pianist, but as a woman, the only acceptable outlet for her talent was as a piano teacher. As one of her students was the Princess Charlotte, heir-presumptive to the throne of England, they are certain that the palace will want to hush the crime up as quickly as possible.

That there is a crime to investigate is all too clear. Jane Ambrose was found with the side of her head bashed in, but there was no blood in the surrounding snow. She did not die where she was found, and she did not stagger to the site after she was struck. Someone put her in the street, making her death at least manslaughter if not murder.

And the palace will not want anyone to talk about a murder of someone so close to the Princess, no matter how much her father the Regent hates and despises both his only child and her mother. There’s a tangled web here even before the body is discovered.

After that gruesome discovery, St. Cyr takes it upon himself, with help from Hero and their friends and associates, to discover everything he can about the last days of Jane Ambrose. And whether she died as the result of something in her own life, or because of secrets she was privy to as a member of the Princess’ inner circle.

And whether or not Hero’s father, the manipulative, powerful and secretive Lord Jarvis, might possibly lie at the center of this web.

Escape Rating A+:The St. Cyr series is deep, dark and marvelous. If you like your historical mysteries on the grim side, where the detective and the reader get to dive deeply into the nasty, smelly side of the glittering past, this series is like the finest dark chocolate, mostly bitter, just a tiny bit of sweet, and absolutely delicious.

Why Kill the Innocent, like the rest of the series, is set in the Regency, but it is definitely not the sparkling Regency of Georgette Heyer. St. Cyr is a troubled soul, suffering from PTSD as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. He feels compelled to search for justice as a way of paying back, not just for his privileges, but also as a way of dealing with a heaping helping of survivor’s guilt.

St. Cyr is a member of the aristocracy, which gives him entry into places that other detectives cannot go. Not just the gentleman’s clubs, but also the halls of power, including the households of the Princess of Wales and her daughter Princess Charlotte.

He is also in a position to say what other people fear to say, or are punished for. The Regent, the future George IV, is a profligate spendthrift who treats both his wife and his daughter abominably and leaves the actual governance of his kingdom to men like Lord Charles Jarvis, who flatter the Regent’s massive ego while they accumulate power by any means available, no matter how nefarious.

The series as a whole does not shy away from the darkness that lay beneath the glitter. Hero, in particular, is a social reformer, and a tireless investigator. She finds Jane Ambrose’s body because she was in Clerkenwell writing a story about the wives left behind in extreme poverty after their husbands had been “impressed” by the British Navy. (This same practice became one of the foundational causes of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and her recently independent and frequently obstreperous colonies in the Americas).

Throughout Why Kill the Innocent St. Cyr and Hero are fighting an uphill battle. There is no one who wants this death investigated. That they keep doggedly on compels the reader to follow them, as they piece together the victim’s last days. And find not one, but multiple cesspools still stinking. And while the stink may rise all the way to the top, the rot that they are there to uncover lies much closer to the bottom – and much nearer to home.

Although the mystery is, as always compelling, the success of this series relies on the strengths of its two main characters, St. Cyr and Hero. Their unlikely match has resulted in a partnership of equals, which is always marvelous to read. But it is their flaws that make them so fascinating to watch.

Why Kill the Innocent could be read on its own. The crime and the investigation of it are complete in this story. As St. Cyr and Hero follow the clues and we meet their friends and enemies, characters who have appeared before in the series are given just enough background to keep a new reader engaged in the story. But for those who have read more of this marvelous series, there is added depth to the characters and the story. If you want to get in on this series from its beginning, start with What Angels Fear.

I’ll be over here, waiting for next year’s installment, tentatively titled Who Slays the Wicked.