Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade War by Fonda LeeJade War (The Green Bone Saga, #2) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #2
Pages: 590
Published by Orbit on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jade Legacy can’t come soon enough.

Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 153
Published by Harper Voyager on September 3, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.

Ariadne is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.

Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.

Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky's first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

My Review:

This is the kind of story that we read science fiction for. It’s a story that asks big questions and gives very human answers.

If we take Star Trek as an example of large scale SF, this book is small-scale SF – in spite of its outside-our-solar-system travel itinerary. Where Trek moved through the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, ignored its prime directive of noninterference at pretty much every turn, and searched for “Class M” planets that could support human life as it is, Ariadne and the crew of the Merian do the exact opposite at pretty much every turn.

Starting from their very origins. The Earth that Ariadne and her crew leave in the late-21st century is recognizably a dystopian future of the world we know now. The coastlines are sinking, the economy is tanking, the skyscraper cities are on fire and climate change has turned worse and deadly. Governments are toppling, borders are redrawn at the drop of a hat and the situation is going to hell in a handcart at every turn.

But all is not hopeless, or at least not yet. There may be no longer be either a NASA or an International Space Station, but there is a worldwide volunteer effort to raise nickels and dimes and small amounts of every currency in large enough numbers to fund space exploration not just within this solar system but to the nearest exoplanets as well.

It’s a long journey – especially when limited to the speed of light. The crews of the tiny, self-sustaining ships of the Lawki expeditions are expected to go “out there” to a selection of likely planets, explore for months or years, and then move on to the next.

They are also expected to leave no footprints and to take only pictures, memories and tiny samples that will have as little effect as possible – ideally none – on the world they leave behind. The expeditions are not looking for worlds ideal for human life – actually the opposite. They are exploring purely for the science and are not looking for any “new civilizations” because they might disturb them with their observations.

They are also adapting themselves to each planet as they go. And the science and engineering of that are fascinating – as are the human consequences of those adaptations.

It’s not a one-way trip. The astronaut/explorers on the Merian, Ariadne, Elena, Jack and Chikondi are intended to return to Earth. But they will spend most of their journey – all of the time they are not planetside – in stasis. For them, the journey out there and back again will only take a few short years.

But on the Earth they leave behind, 80 years will pass. Their families and friends will be long dead by the time they return. Anything could happen while they are gone.

And it does.

Escape Rating A+: To Be Taught, If Fortunate, turns out to be both a prophetic title and a thought-provoking look at big science wrapped up in a very human story.

I say prophetic, not because of the dystopian Earth it portrays, but because there’s a lesson in this story, and if we’re lucky, we get it before we reach that dystopia. Although that’s not the only lesson. There are plenty of marvelous little lessons along the way, about what it means to be human, how important it is to have purpose. How unimportant the package of “who we love” is vs. the importance that we love. How close a found family can be – even when it seems to be falling apart. That where we come from and who we stand for are more critical than mere self-fulfillment.

We experience the voyage of the Merian through the eyes of her engineer, Ariadne. Ariadne is not one of the science specialists, so her vision is not so tunnel-oriented as that of the rest of the crew; Elena the meteorologist, Jack the geologist and Chikondi the botanist. Ariadne’s job is to keep their little ship flying – and to pilot her when she is. She’s also an extra pair of hands for anyone who needs Petri dishes washed, or instruments checked.

But in a group of highly-specialized scientists, her generalist’s background gives her a perspective most like our own. She does see the forest for the trees – when there are trees – and doesn’t merely hunker down to count the rings.

We’re in Ariadne’s head every step of the way, so we get her hopes, her fears, her worries and her witty asides. We identify with her and her journey, both her excitement at the exploration and the depths of her despair when things go terribly, horribly wrong. And we see her come out the other side, scared and scarred by her experience.

One of the coolest bits of science in this story is the way that, instead of adapting the planets to meet human needs, the humans are adapted with reversible, changeable genetic engineering to the planets. Ariadne likens herself and her shipmates to butterflies in the way that they go into a chrysalis (their Torpor pods on the ship) and come out with completely different external attributes than they went in with. But, like the butterfly, they are always the same on the inside – except as their experiences change them.

The story of To Be Taught, If Fortunate, is both a big story and a small one. The Merian is exploring just a tiny portion of the great big galaxy, and they view that small bit through very human perspectives. The story is about the small ship, the tiny crew, and the little bit they see. But what they experience is huge – and the reader is right there with them every step, jump and squelch of the way.

And the question they leave us with at the end? It’s ginormous.

Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade City by Fonda LeeJade City (The Green Bone Saga, #1) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #1
Pages: 498
Published by Orbit on November 7, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon's bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

My Review:

The story begins with an act of violence and an act of mercy. And it ends when the consequences of those acts come full circle.

It also feels like the result of one of the strangest mashups ever. It’s as if urban fantasy and The Godfather had a book baby, midwifed by the Shogun phenomenon of the late 1970s. And yes, I know just how strange that sounds.

Jade City reads like an urban fantasy. It has that noir-ish feel that seems part and parcel of that genre. And yet, the magic in this story, the magic that is enabled by the wearing of bioenergetic jade, is actually science rather than the type of magic that usually powers urban fantasy. Likewise, the ability to use or tolerate jade – or be immune to it – is also science-based, and can be manufactured through the use of drugs, also created by science.

So the Green Bone Saga is one of those rare series that walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but is not a duck. It feels like urban fantasy and reads like urban fantasy – but it’s actually science fiction. Sorta/kinda.

I called The Godfather the book’s second parent, because this isn’t a story about good vs. evil, as fantasy so often is. Instead, this is a story about warring criminal organizations that are also clans. The two clans, the Mountain and No Peak (and I’m kind of ashamed at how long it took for me to get that pun) control the city of Janloon and the country of Kekon. The clans don’t govern, but they definitely control. As the saying goes in Kekon, gold and jade don’t mix.

It seems as if every single person in Kekon is part of one clan or another. And certainly the clans control all economic life in the country. The “Fists” and “Fingers”, under the control of the “Horn”, are the enforcers and, if need be, warriors. They protect the clan and its interests. The “Luckbringers” and “Lantern Men”, under the aegis of the “Weather Man”, run the clan’s businesses. Every business in Janloon pays tribute to one clan or the other. It’s not merely “protection money” the way it is in other criminal organizations. That tribute goes into the clan’s coffers, and goes out again whenever a member of the clan, including those Luckbringers and Lantern Men, needs help or a favor.

The clans seem to serve as both family and protective association. It’s a complicated system, but it also works. (Even though some of the titles use the words “man” or “men” not all Lantern Men, not all Weather Men, and not all the Fists and Fingers are actually men. There are several key female players in this drama, and more as the series continues.)

The clans also control the mining of that bioenergetic jade, the country’s major source of wealth – and the biggest bone of contention between the two clans as well as the reason that the major powers that surround Kekon eye the country like hungry scavengers looking for vulnerable prey.

Which Kekon has been in the recent past and has no desire to be in the foreseeable future.

And that’s where our story begins. Not that it seems that way at first. At first, what we see is two young idiots trying to steal jade from a drunken old Fist of the No Peak clan, and their punishment by the Horn of No Peak, Kaul Hilo, and his older brother, the Pillar and leader of the clan, Kaul Lan.

Events spiral out from that seemingly minor incident that expose the weakness of No Peak, the insidious strength of their enemies in the Mountain, the deception of the No Peak Weather Man and the rot at the heart of their family.

In the end, honor is only temporarily served. But it exacts a high price just the same.

Escape Rating A+: Jade City was a book that didn’t let go of me, and I didn’t let go of it, either. I was listening to this one – and the audio is marvelous – but I couldn’t listen fast enough and eventually switched to the book. Which I finished in one binge-read of an afternoon/evening. Then I immediately started on the second book, Jade War, which is just as fantastic and just as hard to let go of.

An observation that at first may seem like an aside – listening to the audiobook means that you have no idea how anything is spelled, while reading the text means that you have no idea how anything is pronounced.

That’s relevant to Jade City because of that third book parent or influence I listed above, the book Shogun by James Clavell and the TV mini-series that it spawned. While Janloon and Kekon are not Japan, they are not Japan in the same way that so many of the classics of epic fantasy are not set in the United Kingdom or Europe. The Shire is not rural England, but it is intended to have that feel. Epic fantasy in particular is rife with examples where the map was influenced by Western Europe as are the cultures and mores of the fantasy kingdoms without being exact analogs. (Although sometimes they are, particularly in the works of Guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey).

Janloon and Kekon are both inspired and influenced by the history and culture of Japan and the author’s own heritage in ways that fascinate the reader and add to the depth of the story. The Green Bone Saga isn’t just a good story, it’s an immersive experience and I’ve loved every minute of it.

At the same time, both Shogun and The Godfather were also products of the 1970s. (The Godfather was published in 1969 and Shogun in 1975). The setting of this story, not just Janloon itself but the levels of technology that the reader sees and hears about from the rest of Kekon and the world, are meant to feel like the 1970s, with TVs and cars and records and pay telephones and many other things that were part of life in the 1970s but that have changed immeasurably since.

(It may be difficult to imagine now, but at the time Shogun was originally broadcast, it was at the height of the mini-series boom and was an excellent example of its kind. Also, it (loosely) portrayed a period of Japanese history when the country pursued an extremely isolationist foreign policy – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. There is resonance between the fictional history of Kekon and the real history of Japan in that Kekon is coming out of a period of isolationism and is dealing with the results of that change in policy – among other changes – during the story.)

The Green Bone Saga, at least so far, is not a battle between good and evil. While the series is definitely epic in scope, it is not epic fantasy in that sense. The readers follow one side of this clan war, and we’re meant to empathize with the Kaul family – and we do. That doesn’t mean that they are “good” in the way that epic fantasy defines its heroes.

But they are, every single one of them, absolutely fascinating to watch. I’m in the middle of Jade War, the second book of this series, right now – and loving every minute of it. My only regret about the whole thing is that the final book in the series, Jade Legacy, does not yet have a projected publication date. It’s going to be a long wait to see how the Kaul family – and Kekon – survive the mess they are now in.

Review: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Review: Magic for Liars by Sarah GaileyMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, Xe Sands
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on June 4th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sharp, mainstream fantasy meets compelling thrills of investigative noir in this fantasy debut by rising star Sarah Gailey.

Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It's a great life and she doesn't wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.

But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

My Review:

Magic for Liars is a mystery in the exact same way that American Magic is a spy thriller. It follows all of the conventions of its genre – except for one thing. Magic is real.

Another way of putting it would be to say that Magic for Liars takes place in the world of either Harry Potter or The Magicians. It’s very much a murder mystery, but the setting is a high school for mages, whether they are called witches, wizards or magicians, or whether they are simply said to “be magic”.

Ivy Gamble is not magic – but her twin sister Tabitha is. And is a teacher at exclusive Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, where young magic users go through high school and learn how to manage their talents.

So when one of Tabitha’s fellow teachers dies in what seems to be a spectacular case of experimental magic gone very, very wrong, the school’s headmaster, Marian Torres, comes to Ivy to investigate. The official investigation has ruled the case as an accidental death, but Torres is not convinced.

She wants Ivy to look into it. After all, Ivy is a licensed private investigator, and more importantly, Ivy won’t have to be convinced that magic is real. She’s already well-aware of that fact. And still resents the way that magic took her sister away from her.

Ivy doesn’t want the job. She doesn’t want to become immersed in a world where she’ll always be an outsider. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the sister she still loves but also deeply resents and no longer speaks to.

But she can’t resist the opportunity – or the paycheck. In spite of just how many of her own ghosts she’ll have to deal with along the way. Or drink to oblivion.

None of Ivy’s assumptions and presumptions turn out to be remotely true. Her hopes and fears on the other hand – all too desperately real – if not worse than she ever imagined.

Escape Rating A+: I listened to this one, and this is one of the rare cases where the audio doesn’t merely tell the story, it actually makes it better. Better for something that is already damn good equals awesome.

Magic for Liars is told in the first person by Ivy, who is seriously a hot mess. Her story is very noir, her internal voice sounds like one of those cliched hard-boiled detectives. What the narrator manages to do is capture both the world-weariness of her voice and her internal wistfulness. Because Ivy needs to solve the case, but what she desperately wants is to belong. More even than that, she wants her sister back. And that’s what the narrator manages to capture in a way that is, honestly, magical.

The story itself is sad and fun in equal measures. On the one hand, we have high school. With all of its drama and melodrama. One of Ivy’s frequent observations is just how trivially the students use their incredible gift for magic. But they are high school students, and that’s what high school is for.

At the same time, as an outsider she is able to see the dark underbelly in all its seedy disgustingness. The need to “fit in”, even at the cost of self. The fear of exposure. And the constant bullying and manipulation, by teachers, by siblings, by enemies and especially by friends.

But the case eludes her – not because she doesn’t understand magic, but because she doesn’t want to face her own truths. When she finally does, it all becomes clear – and clearly, heartbreakingly awful.

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1) by Arkady Martine, Amy Landon
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Teixcalaan #1
Pages: 464
Published by Tor on April 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This incredible opening to the trilogy recalls the best of John le Carré, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.

In a war of lies she seeks the truth...

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare travels to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s interstellar capital, eager to take up her new post. Yet when she arrives, she discovers her predecessor was murdered. But no one will admit his death wasn’t accidental – and she might be next. Now Mahit must navigate the capital’s enticing yet deadly halls of power, to discover dangerous truths. And while she hunts for the killer, Mahit must somehow prevent the rapacious Empire from annexing her home: a small, fiercely independent mining station.

As she sinks deeper into an alien culture that is all too seductive, Mahit engages in intrigues of her own. For she’s hiding an extraordinary technological secret, one which might destroy her station and its way of life. Or it might save them from annihilation.

A Memory Called Empire is book one in the Teixcalaan trilogy.

My Review:

There’s a great quote from Lois McMaster Bujold describing fictional genres as romances. Not in the HEA sense, but in a much broader sense. In her scenario, mysteries are romances of justice. And science fiction is the romance of political agency.

That’s certainly true in the case of A Memory Called Empire. Because this is a political story, first and foremost. But it also has elements of mystery – or at least a search for justice.

It’s also a story about sacrifice. This story begins with a sacrifice – and ends with a sacrifice – but not the same one. Although Ambassador Yskandr Aghavn gets sacrificed over and over and over – as does his successor – and they aren’t even aware of it until well into the story that he actually set in motion.

Yskandr is dead, to begin with. And he isn’t. Then he really is and then he really isn’t.

That made no sense, did it? But it does in the context of this story. Mahit Dzmare is the new Ambassador from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to the great, magnificent and ever hungry empire of Teixcalaan. Within her brain she carries an imago, a complete memory copy, of her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn, who she has come to Teixcalaan to replace – and to get to the bottom of why Yskandr needs replacing.

His body lies dead on a mortuary slab in Teixcalaan, but his memory, all his experiences and his encapsulated self, rest inside Mahit’s brain, supposedly available for her consultation, to aid her in her job. Except that seeing his own corpse shorts out the Yskandr in her head, leaving Mahit lost and very much alone to unravel the mess that Yskandr left her – if she can.

Before she joins him on another slab.

But in attempting to retrace Yskandr’s doomed steps, she discovers that all is not well at the heart of the Empire, and that Yskandr was in the middle of nearly, but not quite, everything that has gone wrong. And not just in Teixcalaan.

And that for Mahit to have even the ghost of a chance to fix the situation, her fractured self, her Station, and even the Empire, she’ll first have to make that mess bigger and deeper, hoping to live long enough to make it all turn it more-or-less right.

By making it a whole lot wronger first.

Escape Rating A+: This was an absolute wow from beginning to end, with an absolute gut punch at that end. I listened to this one, and got so involved in the listening that I played endless games of solitaire just to have something to occupy my hands while this marvelous story spun into my ears.

There’s so much wrapped up in here, and it keeps spinning and spinning long after the final page.

Teixcalaan is a fascinating place, and Mahit Dzmare has been fascinated by it for most of her life. Teixcalaan is the name of the city, and the world, and the empire they spawned. To be a citizen of Teixcalaan is to be civilized. Everyone else, including the residents of Lsel Station like Mahit, are considered barbarians.

It’s self-centered and self-absorbed and blinkered and othering – but Teixcalaan is the jewel at the heart of the world, and Mahit longs to be a part of it.

But Mahit, an outsider, is able to be enthralled by its art, its literature and its beauty while still being aware of the sickness that lies at its center. A sickness that is embodied by but not confined to its dying Emperor.

An Emperor without a named successor, who believes that he has found a way to live forever. Yskandr promised him an imago. And died for it.

In the bare week that Mahit is on Teixcalaan, she finds herself unwillingly at the heart of the conflict, seduced by this place that she has always yearned to be, and desperate to find a way to preserve her homeworld – whether she ever returns there or not.

Because as much as Teixcalaan reaches out to simultaneously embrace her and imprison both her and her Station, forces back home are equally determined to wipe out both Mahit and anything of Yskandr’s plots and plans that remain.

As an enemy bears down on them all.

Part of what makes this story trip along so marvelously is the way that it conveys just how little time Mahit has, and just how desperate her circumstances are. In barely a week she has to figure out what killed Yskandr, why her imago has malfunctioned, what was promised to the Emperor, who is angling for the throne, who is out to get her at home, who she can rely on in Teixcalaan, who she can trust on Lsel, and keep one step ahead of anyone who is out to get her. Which is nearly everyone.

Meanwhile, in very brief moments, she gets to explore the place that she has yearned for all her life – as it falls apart. She finds love and hope and fear and a friend who will be hers for life – if she survives.

And we feel for her and with her as she runs as fast as she can to save what she can – and we wish we could be half as brave and half as daring.

At the start I said this was a story about sacrifice. There are two sacrifices in this story playing against one another – one willing and one very much not. It made me think about what made the one so uplifting, and the other so mean and base.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one.” So said Spock with his dying breath in The Wrath of Khan. His sacrifice was moving and noble and heartbreaking because he willingly gave his life to save his shipmates. He walked into that chamber with eyes wide open and heart full, and it moved his shipmates, as well as many, many viewers, to tears.

So it is with the sacrifice that ends A Memory Called Empire. A man willingly walks into the fire to serve a higher purpose. And it inspires a people.

But Yskandr’s and Mahit’s sacrifice is a cheat. It is not noble, or inspiring. Because someone else decided, alone in the dark, to sacrifice them both for what that person perceived as “the Greater Good”, which turned out, of course, to be anything but.

At the last, Mahit willingly makes another sacrifice. She gives up a dream so that she can remain herself. And it hurts and we feel it, just as we have felt every break of her heart along the way.

At the end, Mahit goes home to Lsel. To uncover who and what was behind those dirty deeds in the dark that set much of this story in motion. I suspect that for Mahit the events of the second book in the series, A Desolation Called Peace will be very desolate indeed.

Review: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Review: Chilling Effect by Valerie ValdesChilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Untitled Space Opera #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on September 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A hilarious, offbeat debut space opera that skewers everything from pop culture to video games and features an irresistible foul-mouthed captain and her motley crew, strange life forms, exciting twists, and a galaxy full of fun and adventure.

Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra cruise the galaxy delivering small cargo for even smaller profits. When her sister Mari is kidnapped by The Fridge, a shadowy syndicate that holds people hostage in cryostasis, Eva must undergo a series of unpleasant, dangerous missions to pay the ransom.

But Eva may lose her mind before she can raise the money. The ship’s hold is full of psychic cats, an amorous fish-faced emperor wants her dead after she rejects his advances, and her sweet engineer is giving her a pesky case of feelings. The worse things get, the more she lies, raising suspicions and testing her loyalty to her found family.

To free her sister, Eva will risk everything: her crew, her ship, and the life she’s built on the ashes of her past misdeeds. But when the dominoes start to fall and she finds the real threat is greater than she imagined, she must decide whether to play it cool or burn it all down.

My Review:

First of all, any story that begins with genius, psychic cats on a spaceship has me from jump. And that’s exactly the way that Chilling Effect starts, with Captain Eva Innocente running around La Sirena Negra trying to chase down her cargo; 20 genetically engineered, hyper-intelligent and hypnotic felines.

And just when she thinks she’s finally corralled the last one – everything goes pear-shaped. Which turns out to be a metaphor for this entire space-romp of a story, as Eva and her crew find themselves running a game both with and against the biggest criminal organization in the galaxy, trying to save Eva’s sister, their own hides, and one of the big secrets of their universe.

It’s an edge of your seat ride through every jumpgate in the known universe to see if Eva can get her ship, her crew, her family and her soul through this adventure relatively unscathed.

And that’s adventure in the sense of something terrible and/or frightening happening to someone else, either long ago, far away, or preferably both. Eva only wishes it were happening to someone else – frequently and often, while cursing in Spanish, English and possibly a few other languages along the way.

But it’s happening to her, whether she wants it or not. And while she certainly doesn’t want that adventure, she does want to save her sister and the rest of her family. No matter who, or what, gets in her way.

Escape Rating A+: There have been plenty of comparisons already between Firefly and Chilling Effect. I think the best one that I read said something about if Firefly and Mass Effect had a baby midwifed by Guillermo del Toro, that Chilling Effect would be the resulting book baby.

I think there were more parents and grandparents involved, but I’ll still grant the idea of del Toro as the midwife because it’s just plain cool.

The resemblance between La Sirena Negra and Serenity, the Firefly-class ship in the series, along with its motley, barely-on-the-edge-of-legality crew, is out and proud and adds to the long list of stories inspired by that series. Firefly casts a long shadow for such a short-lived show.

There are also plenty of points where Eva reads a lot like the female Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect – just with an even looser relationship with the law and the truth.

But it feels to me as if Chilling Effect also has at least two SFnal “fairy godmothers”, Kylara Vatta from the Vatta’s War series and Tess Bailey from Nightchaser. In both of those female-centric space operas, you get the same kind of leader who is on the run from deep, dark secrets that are buried, not at all deeply in the family tree, that the heroine must confront in order to be free.

In addition to the terrific characterizations of Eva and her crew, part of what makes this story so good are its exploration – and eventual complete skewering, of a trope that normally makes readers cringe.

I’m talking about the overused and now hated convention of putting female characters in literal or figurative refrigerators, in other words, freezing them out of the narrative, so that they become an object to motivate a hero into action to either rescue or avenge them.

In Chilling Effect, Eva’s sister is put into cryo-sleep by a criminal organization known as “The Fridge”, moving Eva and her crew to great lengths in order to free her and ultimately discovering the secrets behind The Fridge and the ancient race who seeded the galaxy with jumpgates (and linking back to Mass Effect yet again.)

But instead of motivating a man and leaving the female character offstage for the rest of the story, we have a woman moving the galaxy to rescue another woman, with a mixed-species and gender crew. The whole thing works as both impetus and send-up in one glorious smash!

It’s pretty clear that I loved Chilling Effect from that opening scene, and that I can’t wait for the next book in the author’s Untitled Space Opera series. (That’s literally what the series is called, but the next book does have a title, and that’s Prime Deception.)

But there’s one more thing I want to get into before I let you go off to read Chilling Effect.

It’s an important part of Eva Innocente’s story that she and her family, and even the colony they came from, are, like the author, of Cuban descent. This isn’t just window-dressing, that origin story both underpins Eva’s actions and peppers her language with phrases from that heritage.

I had to look up a lot of the idioms, and I highly recommend that you do. They are often hilarious, always informative, and add to the flavor and texture of the book and the characters in ways that just feel right.

As someone who grew up in a household where another language was frequently sprinkled into the conversation, there are concepts that just don’t translate from one language to the next, in spite of the English language’s often-quoted propensity to not merely “borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

The way that Eva mixes the Cuban phrases that she learned as a child add to the depth and verisimilitude of her character – and I feel that adds to the story whether I initially understand what she’s saying or not. (After all, that’s what Google Translate is for.) And I want that representation for her because I also want to see it in other stories – and am – for myself.

So I may have gotten into this story for those psychic cats, but I stayed for Captain Eva.

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Review: The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman

Review: The Heart of the Circle by Keren LandsmanThe Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Angry Robot on August 13, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sorcerers fight for the right to exist and fall in love, in this extraordinary alternate world fantasy thriller by award-winning Israeli author Keren Landsman.

Throughout human history there have always been sorcerers, once idolised and now exploited for their powers. In Israel, the Sons of Simeon, a group of religious extremists, persecute sorcerers while the government turns a blind eye. After a march for equal rights ends in brutal murder, empath, moodifier and reluctant waiter Reed becomes the next target. While his sorcerous and normie friends seek out his future killers, Reed complicates everything by falling hopelessly in love. As the battle for survival grows ever more personal, can Reed protect himself and his friends as the Sons of Simeon close in around them?

File Under: Fantasy [ Love Squared - Stuck in the Margins - Emotional Injection - Fight the Power ]

My Review:

In a kind of twisted way, The Heart of the Circle reminded me of American Magic in that they both feel like responses to the Statute of Secrecy in Harry Potter. In American Magic, the reveal of the secret of magic is treated like a weaponized virus or other standard spy-thriller macguffin.

But The Heart of the Circle, while also having aspects of a thriller, feels like it comes out of the urban fantasy tradition, and not just because it takes place in a major city, in this case, Tel Aviv.

I say the urban fantasy tradition because this is a minor variation on our current world, but one in which magic not only works, but always has worked, a la Harry Potter. However, in The Heart of the Circle, magic has not only always worked, but it has always been known. There is no Statute of Secrecy here.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t witch hunts.

In the past, magic and magic users have been respected and feared. But mostly respected. Or so it seems. We are dropped into this story sometime in their 21st century, and pretty much in the midst of the action. Ancient history isn’t talked about a whole lot, because the present is going off the rails.

A group of religious fundamentalists has done an all too effective job of weaponizing the human hate and fear of “the other” and turned it against the sorcerers. There’s a constant drumbeat in the press to turn sorcerers into “the other” so that their humanity can be legislated away. So that they can be harassed and discriminated against and killed without consequences.

The language and methods that they use will sound all too familiar to anyone who has read about the Holocaust – or read the news or followed twitter regarding the way that immigrants in the U.S. are being demonized this day.

Although, in fine fantasy fashion, the reasons behind this particular weaponization of hate and fear turn out to be nothing like they seem to be. The most interesting agendas are extremely heinous and deeply hidden.

Following our protagonist, Reed Katz, we become involved in the sorcerers’ community as everyone fears for their livelihood and their lives, and we watch them fight back. We become involved in their world and we feel for their plight. They have not, in fact, done anything wrong. They are being hated, and killed, for what they are – while the people who murder them are not even condemned for the crimes they have actually committed.

In Reed’s story, and the story of his community, I saw reflections of our present. The story’s setting in Israel may allow Americans to pretend that this can’t happen here, but it is. The fantasy setting allows readers to see the situation from a distance, but it is all too easy to recognize that it is here and now.

This begins as a story of a beleaguered community dealing with unrelenting hate. It becomes a story about rising up and not just protecting that community, but about proactively discovering the heart of the hate – and exposing it for what it really is.

The Heart of the Circle turns out to be love. Not only romantic love, although that is certainly there, but love of all kinds and all stripes. The love of friends, the love of family, and especially the love of community.

Escape Rating A+: This is a book that sucks the reader into its heart, and doesn’t spit you out until the final page is turned. And I loved every minute of it.

Review: A Better Man by Louise Penny

Review: A Better Man by Louise PennyA Better Man (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #15) 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 #15
Pages: 448
Published by Minotaur Books on August 27, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Catastrophic spring flooding, blistering attacks in the media, and a mysterious disappearance greet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as he returns to the Surete du Quebec in the latest novel by #1 New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny.

It's Gamache's first day back as head of the homicide department, a job he temporarily shares with his previous second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Flood waters are rising across the province. In the middle of the turmoil a father approaches Gamache, pleading for help in finding his daughter.

As crisis piles upon crisis, Gamache tries to hold off the encroaching chaos, and realizes the search for Vivienne Godin should be abandoned. But with a daughter of his own, he finds himself developing a profound, and perhaps unwise, empathy for her distraught father.

Increasingly hounded by the question, how would you feel..., he resumes the search.

As the rivers rise, and the social media onslaught against Gamache becomes crueler, a body is discovered. And in the tumult, mistakes are made.

In the next novel in this "constantly surprising series that deepens and darkens as it evolves" (New York Times Book Review), Gamache must face a horrific possibility, and a burning question.

What would you do if your child's killer walked free?

My Review:

Just as the massive spring flooding brings massive destruction and wipes all away in its wake, so does the story in A Better Man sweep away what has come before it in this series and returns much (and many characters) back to the places where they began.

So, in spite of this being the 15th book in this marvelous series, it also feels like a great place for new readers to step into Three Pines and see what it’s all about.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, after the harrowing events at the end of The Long Way Home, is back where he began at the beginning of the series, Chief of the Homicide Bureau of the Sûreté du Québec. But this time his position is a demotion, as he had been Chief of the entire Sûreté, until his horrendous gamble nearly put millions of dollars of drugs back on the streets.

It’s supposed to be a humbling experience for him, so humbling that he wasn’t expected to accept it. Particularly as the outgoing Homicide Chief is his son-in-law and former second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir. But Jean-Guy is moving to Paris and leaving not just the Sûreté but his time as a police detective behind.

So Jean-Guy’s last case as Chief becomes Gamache’s first case, the disappearance of a battered young woman, a disappearance most likely caused by her violent, abusive husband, and most likely a fatal one.

The floodwaters are rising, Gamache’s career seems to be sinking, and the village of Three Pines stacks sandbags in a desperate hope to stem the rising tide. The solutions, to the murder, to the flood, to the seeming destruction of a storied career, and to the deep and difficult questions that always lay at the heart of ever story in this series, touch the heart at every twist and turn.

As the quote from Moby Dick that threads throughout this book goes, this is a story of “All truth with malice in it”. The truths are hard, and the malice is deadly.

Escape Rating A+: On the one hand, this entry in the series feels very much like a reset. When we began, all the way back in Still Life, Gamache was the Chief of Homicide in Montreal and Clara Morrow, one of the more interesting residents of Three Pines, was an unknown artist. When this book opens, Gamache is back to being Chief of Homicide, although he and his wife Reine-Marie now reside in Three Pines. And Clara has screwed up her once-thriving art career to the point where she’s back at her own beginning, certainly not unknown but definitely struggling again.

One of the threads of this story is Clara finally accepting that the terrible reviews she is receiving really are truth with malice in them, and that it is time to go back to the kind of brave work that she does best. Playing it safe will not serve her.

Just as playing it safe with the rising floodwaters will not save either Three Pines or Montreal, and it is up to Gamache to do the hard thing and risk his career (again) to save people’s lives.

It’s too late to save Vivienne Godin. It’s up to Gamache and Jean-Guy, together again one last time, to bring her justice. Not just for her murder, but for her life.

I’ll admit that I figured out part of the truth of Vivienne Godin’s murder fairly early on. But knowing the kernel of it did not make the story any less compelling, because as is so often the case in this series, it’s not about the murder. It’s about the human beings who are involved, the victims, the perpetrators, the bereaved family and friends AND the investigators.

It’s never just whodunnit and how they done it but more importantly why they did it – and that’s where Gamache and this series always grab the reader by the heartstrings.

One weird thought I had while reading this particular entry is that Gamache, in a very strange way, reminds me of Captain James T. Kirk. Not his swashbuckling cowboy persona, and not his lack of belief in the no-win scenario, because Gamache is all too aware that there are plenty of those, but in his eager willingness to take the demotion and return to the place where he could be his best and truest self. For Kirk it was being Captain of the Enterprise. For Gamache, it is just as clearly being Chief of Homicide of the Sûreté du Québec.

So as Jean-Guy flies off into the sunset, Gamache returns to the places where he belongs, the Homicide Bureau of the Sûreté and the town of Three Pines. And I can’t wait to go back there with him again.

Review: The Passengers by John Marrs

Review: The Passengers by John MarrsThe Passengers by John Marrs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 27, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

You're riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, "You are going to die."

Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.

From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, "Which of these people should we save?...And who should we kill first?"

My Review:

One of the fascinating things about The Passengers is the way that it starts out by seeming to expose the so-called evils of artificial intelligence, only to turn the whole thing around and end up exposing the very definite evils of human beings.

While taking the reader, just like the titular passengers, on an edge-of-your-seat, can’t-stop-watching thrill ride every mile (and page) of the way.

Of course, the reader can at least take a bathroom break – admittedly while carrying the book with them – while those passengers are locked into their supposedly self-driving cars for the entire 2.5 hour journey – except for the ones who die along the way.

I say supposedly self-driving because in this particular scenario, they really aren’t. Not that there is someone sitting behind the wheel, but there is certainly someone, or a whole bunch of someones, hiding behind their computer screens and directing all of the action. An action with a very definite purpose even if it’s not the one that everyone watching – and EVERYONE is definitely watching – believes that there is.

At first, this seems like a story about technology run amok. Driver-less cars have been mandated by the government and they seem like a mostly unquestioned good with very little downside.

But just as every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also has a cloud.

Libby Dixon is part of that cloud. Both in that she has grave doubts about the degree to which “Big Brother” is watching everyone in general and specific doubts about the supposed wonderfulness of driver-less cars in specific.

She’s still traumatized by an accident she witnessed, where a driver-less car protected its passenger by mowing down a mother, grandmother and baby in the street rather than crash into empty parked cars by the side of the road. Libby is just certain there was another choice – a choice that a human driver would have made that a soulless machine did not. Or could not. Or was programmed not to.

In spite of her skepticism about the efficacy of driver-less cars, she’s been summoned to serve on the secret jury that determines whether, in the case of one of the supposedly rare accidents involving one of those supposedly safe driver-less cars, the AI driving the car was at fault – or whether the fault rests with the humans who seem to have gotten in its way.

The jury seems to always decide in favor of the AI. After one day on the jury, Libby is all too aware that the decisions are not based on any facts, but on the ability of the politician in charge of this farce to cow or bully any dissenting voices in the small group.

And then the Hacker Collective steps in, taking over what initially appears to be a random selection of 8 driver-less cars occupied by frantic passengers, hijacking them onto a one-way trip to an unknown destination – where they will crash – and burn.

As the entire world watches, the darkest secrets of those 8 passengers as well as the members of the formerly secret jury are laid bare, live and in real time, as the Hacker Collective plays with everyone’s emotions and the world watches from every news station and social media outlet on the planet.

In the end, a hero emerges – and a villain. Only the dead are silent.

But what was it all for?

Escape Rating A+: First of all, the thing about science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is that no matter what we say we’re talking about, whether elves or aliens or androids, we’re always really talking about people. Because that’s all we really know.

And that’s a big part of what happens in this book. Both in the sense that the viewing, listening and tweeting mass audience identifies with those human passengers and not the cars that seem to be driving them, but also in the sense that it’s not and never has been the AI that driving those cars – but rather the humans who created and programmed that AI.

And the humans who exploited that programming. We have met the enemy, and it’s not artificial intelligence or robots or androids, it’s always us.

There are, in fact, at least two sets of villains in this piece – or really three. The third is the mob mentality that drives so many of those people watching, listening and tweeting. They are all hiding behind the anonymity of their screens and keyboards, making just the kind of disgusting comments that have become part of 21st century life. And while I could say that it’s just that this time there are actual lives in the balance, there are always lives in the balance. Maybe not people who will die in an exploding car because of those inhumane comments, but certainly people whose lives and livelihoods and self-esteem and careers and relationships are exploded because the ones hiding behind the keyboards feel like they can divorce themselves from the results of their actions and their hateful commentary.

The second villain is the obvious one, the Hacker Collective that has set the immediate events of the story in motion. They have kidnapped 8 seemingly innocent people and sent them on a collision course with death. That those 8 people are not, in fact, innocent is all part of the story. And it’s the story that is playing out in the international media.

Underneath the obvious crime, is the one that the Hacker Collective wants to expose. And it’s not the crimes that those supposedly innocent people have actually committed – although that’s certainly considered a benefit by the faceless group.

It’s a crime that feels both climactic and anti-climactic at the same time. The way it is exposed is very definitely climactic, but the nature of it is anticlimactic and shocking in its anticlimax. We’re not surprised at the rot that is at the heart of it all. Only that the Collective had to go to that much deadly trouble to expose it.

But watching it all play out is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat from the seemingly innocent beginning to the destructive conclusion, until you fall off that edge in shock – and relief that it wasn’t real. Or isn’t real – yet.

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. KuangThe Dragon Republic (The Poppy War, #2) by R.F. Kuang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, grimdark
Series: Poppy War #2
Pages: 672
Published by Harper Voyager on August 6, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.

But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.

My Review:

I thought that the first book in this series, The Poppy War (also the series title) was absolutely amazing. I couldn’t wait for this second book to come out. Now that I’ve read The Dragon Republic, I have to say that it’s even better than its predecessor. And I can’t wait for book 3, whatever it turns out to be called and whenever it appears.

The action in The Dragon Republic begins in the opium-clouded, blood-soaked aftermath of The Poppy War. (This is a series that desperately needs to be read in order, and as close together as you can manage – which makes waiting for book 3 absolute hell.) Our heroine, Rin, is leading a small remnant of the Cike, the ragtag unit of Shamans used by the Imperial Army.

But the Cike are on the run from their former masters. Or would be if anyone knew that some of them were still alive. Not that their incognito status is going to last long. Because whenever a situation is working in Rin’s favor – it NEVER lasts for very long.

Rin is supposedly their leader, after she got their last leader killed at the end of the first book. Well, at least that’s how everyone seems to see it, and their loyalty to her seems to be tempered by that condition. None of them seem to be sure whether she’s making good decisions or determined to get them all killed in her mad quest for vengeance.

That she spends the first part of this story in an opium-induced haze does not help them put their trust in her, does not lead her to making remotely sensible decisions, and makes the opening moves in this very long game seem as murky as Rin’s thought processes, which are disjointed at best and nightmarish at worst.

Just when it looks like their current employer is finally going to give Rin the weapons she needs to take her war back to the empire – and empress – that betrayed them, she is sold out. But then, that’s what pirate queens do – and what Rin should have expected if she were operating in the present even half the time.

That betrayal, the latest in a long, long line of betrayals that Rin has suffered and survived, is nearly the breaking of her. But she’s been broken before, and just like each of those previous times, Rin rises from her own ashes, only to fall and rise again.

Just like the phoenix that she is. She really, really is. And she’s finally ready to set her world on fire.

Escape Rating A+: I loved The Poppy War, and I loved The Dragon Republic every bit as hard. I say hard because this military epic fantasy is very dark.

I mean dark to the point where in order to call this series grimdark it would actually need to lighten up a bit. This is one of those stories where the light at the end of the tunnel is always the local equivalent of an oncoming train, and where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

And yet, Rin always keeps moving forward. Or sideways. Or through. She is relentless, even if, or sometimes especially because, she is heading in the wrong direction.

While the over-story of The Dragon Republic is the story of the doomed Dragon Republic, the underlying story is all about Rin fighting with her demons, trying to find a balance between using those demons, giving into those demons, or becoming those demons, in a scenario where giving into and becoming are manifestly not the same things.

Also there’s an actual demon. Or god. It depends on one’s perspective.

This is also one of those stories where nothing is remotely the way it seems – although many people seem to be aware of that. Just not Rin. She’s trying to avoid or avert her destiny, and one of many methods of avoidance is to allow herself to become someone else’s tool – not that she isn’t often perceived as a tool in other senses of that word.

And certainly not that there are not plenty of tools around. But Rin’s desire to not be responsible for her own actions allows her to be used by the biggest tool around – not that he isn’t also being used by even bigger tools.

It’s tools all the way down.

But Rin blazes at the center of this story, even when her own fires are banked – against her will. Burning is who she is and what she does. She is the living avatar of the Phoenix, and her fire is meant to consume everyone, including herself.

This is the story of her learning to master that fire – and learning to turn that destruction outward and away from herself – to the destruction of her enemies. Even if it’s only at the end that she finally figures out at least some of who those enemies really are.

And that she has the power – and finally the will – to take that fight to them. But not until OMG the next book. AAARRRGGGHHH!

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