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
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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.

Review: Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

Review: Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim LebbonBlood of the Four by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 480
Published by Harper Voyager on March 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The acclaimed authors of The Map of Moments and The Secret Journeys of Jack London join creative forces once more in this epic, standalone novel—an exciting dark fantasy of gods and mortals, fools and heroes, saviors and destroyers with a brilliant beam of hope at its core--that should more than appeal to readers of N.K. Jemisin and Brandon Sanderson.

In the great kingdom of Quandis, everyone is a slave. Some are slaves to the gods. Most are slaves to everyone else.

Blessed by the gods with lives of comfort and splendor, the royal elite routinely perform their duties, yet some chafe at their role. A young woman of stunning ambition, Princess Phela refuses to allow a few obstacles—including her mother the queen and her brother, the heir apparent—stand in the way of claiming ultimate power and glory for herself.

Far below the royals are the Bajuman. Poor and oppressed, members of this wretched caste have but two paths out of servitude: the priesthood . . . or death.

Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. But Princess Phela’s desire for power will disrupt the realm’s order, setting into motion a series of events that will end with her becoming a goddess in her own right . . . or ultimately destroying Quandis and all its inhabitants.

My Review:

If you have ever searched for a single-volume epic fantasy that had everything you want in an epic fantasy, look no more. Instead, settle in for a trip to Quandis, amidst the utterly absorbing pages of Blood of the Four.

It has always seemed as if, in order for epic fantasy to be truly epic in scope, the author (or in this case, authors) needed to at least commit trilogy, if not tetralogy or even more. That is not the case with Blood of the Four, which may weigh in at a solid 480 pages, but is blessedly complete in and of itself, with no breathless waiting for book 2 and book 3 to appear and for he story to reach its epic conclusion. It’s all right here, and it’s marvelous.

The story begins with a secret. And a betrayal. And ends after a night of fire and bloodshed with a new beginning and a new queen, just as it should. The monsters are vanquished, evil is defeated, and good begins a new chapter in the history of a storied kingdom.

But those monsters are not mythic creatures out of legend. Nor should they be. The monsters begin as all too human, and they carry those human faults and frailties more than just a bit too far.

This is a story of hubris, and of reaching not just well beyond one’s grasp, but well beyond what any human should grasp.

And it’s awesome.

Escape Rating A+: Blood of the Four is my first A+ review of 2018. I loved it so much, it’s difficult to write about – but I’ll certainly try to do it justice.

First of all, it’s just damn amazing that this huge story is complete in one (admittedly big) volume. And that it doesn’t feel as if the authors left anything out that should be here. If this had been the usual epic trilogy, there would probably be more backstory on the characters, or the story would have started a bit earlier in their lives, or both.

But the authors did a great job at presenting the backstory that we really need to know to understand the characters, so we’re able to jump into the middle of the action and once we’re there, the pace never lets up.

There are a lot of threads to this story. From certain angles, this is a story about sisterhood, because there are two sides of this equation, and in the end both are saved by the characters’ sisters.

It is also the classic story of power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The queen of Quandis seemingly has everything including the love and loyalty of her adoring people. But it is not enough – because it never is – and her search into dark places and even darker magics leads to death and destruction, and not just her own.

The story also happens fast. From the very first betrayal until the dawn of the new age, an awful lot happens in a very short time period, and it feels as if we’re there for all of it. We don’t just follow those at the top of the rotting social order, the queens and princesses, but we also have characters who give us perspectives among the religious caste, the warriors and most important for this particular story and its result, the slaves and the underclasses. We see it all and we feel for everyone, every step of the way.

Something about this story, and I’m not exactly sure exactly what, reminded me a bit of The Queen of the Tearling as well as Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series, particularly The Mark of the Tala and The Talon of the Hawk. Probably the awesomeness of its heroines and its absolutely sweeping passing of the Bechdel Test. Women not only talk to each other, but they also respect each other – and it glows.

If you love epic fantasy, especially if you are looking for one where you can read it all without endless waiting for a next volume or spending a year of your life wading through a dozen or more doorstops, grab a copy of Blood of the Four. You will not be disappointed, not for a single page.

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin HearneA Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #1
Pages: 618
Published by Del Rey Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the start of a compelling new series, the New York Times bestselling author of The Iron Druid Chronicles creates an unforgettable fantasy world of warring giants and elemental magic.

In the city of Pelemyn, Fintan the bard takes to the stage to tell what really happened the night the giants came . . .

From the east came the Bone Giants, from the south, the fire-wielding Hathrim - an invasion that sparked war across the six nations of Teldwen. The kingdom's only hope is the discovery of a new form of magic that calls the world's wondrous beasts to fight by the side of humankind.

My Review:

This is a book to savor. It’s very long and incredibly involved and left me with a marvelously horrible book hangover. And I loved every minute of it.

There’s no singular hero in A Plague of Giants, although there are plenty of people who do heroic things. But there’s no Frodo or Aragorn or Harry to lead the charge.

Instead, we have Fintan the bard, who may have participated in a few bits of the story, but who is not the hero. Fintan is the one telling the tale, using all of the powers at his command as a master of the bardic arts. But it is not his story that he tells. Instead, it is the story of every person in Teldwen whose life has been uprooted, or ended, by the invasion of not one but two armies of giants bent on conquest.

Even one army of giants is not enough to make this big of a mess of a the world.

At least one set of giants is known. And their motives are understandable, even if their methods are often brutal. The Hathrim are masters of fire, but even their cities can be overwhelmed when a dormant volcano wakes up. But they are masters enough of their element that they could see it coming in time to evacuate. Their plan is to use the tragedy as an opportunity to carve out new, resource-rich lands on the mainland.

But they lands they choose, while currently unoccupied, are not unowned. And border on the lands of their natural enemies. If the Hathrim are masters of fire, the Fornish are masters of woodcraft and forest lore. The trees that the Hathrim view as mere fuel for their fires, the Fornish see as sacred.

The Hathrim fire mastery and the Fornish command of all that grows in the land are merely two of the seven kennings of the series title. Three of the other kennings are the standard ones of so much fantasy and mythology; air, water and earth. Just as the Hathrim are fire masters, the Raelech are masters of the earth, the Brynts are water masters, and the Nentians have the mastery of the air.

But in the face of the invasion from both the known and feared Hathrim and the unknown and even more fearsome “Bone Giants” the sixth kenning finally appears. Just as the Fornish have power over all plants that grow, the first speakers of this new, sixth kenning have control over all animal life, from the smallest insect to the largest beast.

And the Bone Giants have invaded in search of the elusive seventh kenning, which no one has ever seen, heard of, or even speculated about. But whatever it may be, the Bone Giants are laying waste to vast swaths of Teldwen in order to locate it. Whatever and wherever it might be.

The story that Fintan the bard tells is the story of every person of every nation who becomes instrumental in the fight against both sets of terrible giants – and the story of the giants as well.

A Plague of Giants is an epic tale told by a master storyteller. And it is far from over.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely loved A Plague of Giants. Which makes it very hard to write a review. Unless I just squee. A lot.

This both is and isn’t like a typical epic fantasy book. Yes, it’s long and has a huge cast of characters, so that part is very like. But it’s different in a couple of key aspects.

First, instead of being a narrative quasi-history, this is the story itself being told by its partipants, through the means of the bard’s magic. We’re not reading a history or quasi-history, instead Fintan is reciting events for his crowd of listeners in the words and images of the principal participant. It feels different.

The author Kevin Hearne said that he was trying to recreate the feeling of the old bardic tales as Homer used to tell them. I can’t say whether he succeeded, but he certainly has created something different. And compelling.

There’s something about the way that Fintan tells the story that reminds me of Kvothe in The Name of the Wind. I’m not sure why, but it just does.

Another difference in A Plague of Giants is that there are no clear heroes, and not really any clear villains, either. Not that one of the characters isn’t villainous, but he’s far from being a mover and shaker on either side.

We are able to see the story from the Hathrim point of view and it’s obvious that from their own perspective they are not evil. They think they are doing right by their own people, and don’t particularly care who they have to lie to or mow down to accomplish their goals. But it feels like real-politik, not evil.

Even the Bone Giants don’t think they are evil. Not that they don’t commit plenty of seemingly evil actions. But we don’t yet know enough to know what motivates them. So far, at least, it is not evil for evil’s sake. It looks like religious fanaticism, but even that isn’t certain. And we know that they think they have been provoked. (And there is something about their unknown nature and implacability that reminds me a bit of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera. But I’m not certain of the why of that reminder either, just that it feels right.)

Fintan is not the hero, and does not intend to be. It’s his job to tell the story – not to fix it. Whether anyone else will emerge as the hero is anyone’s guess at this point.

Each of the individuals that Fintan portrays does an excellent job of both representing their people and illustrating their own portion of what has become a world-spanning story. Some of them stand out more than others. Some of them survive, where others do not. But their heroic acts are confined to their small piece of the puzzle.

At the same time, the flow from one character to another, and from one day to another of Fintan’s telling of the tale, is surprisingly compelling. With the end of each tale, the reader (or at least this reader) is incapable of resisting the compulsion to find out just a bit more.

I still feel compelled. The second book in the series will be titled A Blight of Blackwings, when it is published at some future unspecified date. And I want it now. Impatiently. Passionately. Desperately.

Guest Review: Outsystem by M. D. Cooper

Guest Review: Outsystem by M. D. CooperOutsystem (The Intrepid Saga #1) by M.D. Cooper
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Intrepid Saga #1
Pages: 350
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on July 9th 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Major Richards needs to get out of the Sol System

Demoted by the military and hung out to dry, the media labels her the Butcher of Toro. Despite her soiled record, Tanis still one of the best military counter-insurgency officers in the Terran Space Force.

And they need her to find the terrorists responsible for trying to destroy the GSS Intrepid, a massive interstellar colony ship in the final phases of construction at the Mars Outer Shipyards.

It’ll be her ticket out of the Sol system, but Tanis discovers she is up against more than mercenaries and assassins. Major corporations and governments have a vested interest in ensuring the Intrepid never leaves Sol, ultimately pitting Tanis against factions inside her own military.

With few friends left, Tanis will need to fight for her life to get outsystem.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Amazon showed me this book at some point, trying to entice me into a Kindle Unlimited subscription; I didn’t buy the subscription, but at 99 cents, the book was a cheap read anyway. When I got to it, I opened it with no expectations at all, other than some geeky sci-fi.

Guest Review by Amy:

It’s the 42nd Century, and Major Tanis Richards is part of a crack counter-insurgency and intel unit, but she’s gotten into trouble; she’s infamous, you see, for some awfulness she did a while back. We’re never told quite what she did, but her fame precedes her. Tanis is ready to leave the Sol system for good, on the greatest colony ship ever built. It’s a new age of colonization, and the Intrepid is the first of its kind: a ship that will carry huge colony ships to another star, then drop them off and return to Earth.  The colonists–and indeed much of the crew–will ride in stasis the whole trip.

Major Richards has gotten a spot on the colony roster; not, we may hope, that her skills as an intel officer will be needed. She’s ready to give up her long career in the military, and just be a colonist, but until Intrepid leaves, she’s in charge of security. And there are villains out there who do not want the mighty ship to ever launch! They quite-rightly see Tanis as the fly in the ointment that will keep them from destroying the giant interstellar vessel.

Escape Rating A+: This is my first foray into author M. D. Cooper’s Aeon 14 universe, and I’m seriously impressed. It’s a rich, solid milleu for the characters’ adventures. While mankind has progressed dramatically in 21 centuries from where we are now, even to having a ring around Mars, we still see the same human problems of greed and hatred, and the same diversity of thought and creativity that we do in our own world. The heroine of our tale, Tanis Richards, is a very, very competent, strong woman, dedicated to her job almost to a fault. She takes her lumps from the villains, but will not be silenced. Her life in the military rings true for anyone who’s been around the military for any length of time (Marines are still Marines, OOOH-RAH!), even down to bureaucratic nonsense getting in the way of the mission. This tale even has a little bit of a love interest, which Tanis must put off for a little bit while all the action happens.

I get it. Hard sci-fi isn’t for everyone, and neither is military fiction. Cooper manages to tell us a hard sci-fi story without swamping us in the details, and tells us a military story without burying us in jargon. Action, good leadership, intrigue, a slight touch of romance–it’s all in here, in a nice pleasant mix. There was one sour note for me: remember how Major Richards is in counter-insurgency and intel? She has to take measures to get some information out of someone–many, many lives are on the line, and she must break them, and quickly. Her methods are…unpleasant. But the scene is mercifully brief, and Richards clearly struggles with the necessity of doing what she does. It’s the only rough patch in what was, for me, a wholeheartedly great read. I’m looking forward to picking up more of M. D. Cooper’s work!

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. ChakrabortyThe City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1) by S.A. Chakraborty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Daevabad Trilogy #1
Pages: 528
Published by Harper Voyager on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass--a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

My Review:

I picked up The City of Brass because this was the book that its publishers were the most extremely enthused about in my research for the Library Journal SF/Fantasy Spotlight article. Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely. However, as I read The City of Brass, it also kept reminding me of other stories. It just took me awhile to figure out exactly which stories.

There’s certainly an element of The Goblin Emperor in one side of this story, as Prince Ali feels very much like a young prince who stands very much outside the system and whom the power-that-be expect to consume alive at their earliest opportunity. And Nahri is certainly every bit as much a “fish out of water” (as bizarre as that pun becomes in context) as Maia ever was. Possibly even more, as Maia at least knows the court exists, even if he never expects to rule it. For Nahri, Daevabad is a city of out the vague mists of legend, and legends that she doesn’t even believe in.

But Daevabad feels like something out of a twisted, extended version of Scheherazade’s tales of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. With just a little bit of Persian, Indian and other mythologies thrown in for spice. And bodies. But the story that our heroine Nahri finds herself in the middle of has been going on, not for 1,001 nights, but for for millennia.

The story begins with scam artist Nahri sizing up her next mark. And it ends with Nahri sizing up her next mark. But in between – it’s magic.

At the beginning, Nahri is a con artist, scaping together a living on the streets of 18th century Cairo, trying to blend in. But Nahri has just a little bit of magic, something that she conceals at every turn, because its a gift that will either get her eaten alive, or killed, or possibly both.

Nahri can heal. I don’t mean that she’s a doctor, although she sometimes operates on the fringes of what passed for medicine in her time and place. I mean that she herself heals miraculously. Any wounds that she receives heal themselves in almost the blink of an eye.

But she can also heal others. It takes will and concentration, but she can cure almost anything by visualizing the body the way it should be. It’s a gift. And also a curse, because Nahri does not know how or why she has this gift.

She doesn’t believe in magic, but a lot of people do. So Nahri dabbles, just a bit, in scams that look like magic to others. And that’s what gets her in big, big trouble.

Because instead of “calming the spirit” of an afflicted child, Nahri accidentally calls up an evil spirit, an ifrit, who wants to eat her and her magic before it proceeds to rampage through the streets of Cairo. And in the wake of the ifrit follows a djinn who vowed to serve and protect Nahri’s family over a millennia ago.

But djinn are not exactly what Nahri thinks they are. And neither are ifrit. And most especially, neither is she.

The City of Brass is the opening chapter in Nahri’s journey to discover who and what she is, and where she belongs. And it is absolutely captivating from beginning to cliffhanging end.

Escape Rating A+: At the beginning, I said that The City of Brass reminded me of 2014’s marvelous The Goblin Emperor. While the fantasy settings derive from rather different origins, the flavor at the heart of the story feels the same. They are both stories of outsiders who find themselves thrust into a cut-throat world of high stakes politics, where everyone around them has hidden agendas buried under hidden agendas. And where everyone who surrounds them intends to keep them in the pawn position, subservient to others, lost and alone, and barely one step ahead of being killed by their own ignorance or innocence.

Both stories feature people who are playing a game that they do not initially understand with stakes that are always deadly, not just for themselves, but for anyone around them who gets caught in the crossfire.

And ironically, they are both personages who should have the ultimate power in their universes, but don’t because of circumstances outside of their control. And both of them find themselves subverting the system from within just to survive long enough to figure out their next move.

If they have one.

The story that begins with The City of Brass is both a story of hidden magical kingdoms and the story of two young people who discover that power is much “realer” than belief, and that for those in power, the ends always justify the means.

While the story follows Nahri and her transit from the human world to the kingdoms of the djinn, it is at its heart a very political story. Nahri’s existence has the ability to upset the balance of power between the ruling djinn family and the mixed blood people they exploit at every turn. Every faction plans to take advantage of her presence, whether with her consent or not.

We watch her struggle to make, find and understand her place throughout the story. And then, marvelously, just as this chapter comes to a close, we finally see her grasp the reins of her own destiny, as only she knows how.

I can’t wait to see what happens next in The Kingdom of Copper next year. Nahri is a heroine to watch – and cheer for.

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, espionage, history, nonfiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by Dey Street Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth's story, incredibly, has never been told

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation's history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma--and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.Fagone unveils America's code-breaking history through the prism of Smith's life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence.

Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson's bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

My Review:

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman

The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

(I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman

There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

I certainly was.