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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Guest Review: Mischief and Mayhem by L. E. Rico

Guest Review: Mischief and Mayhem by L. E. RicoMischief and Mayhem (Whiskey Sisters, #2) by L.E. Rico, Lauren E. Rico
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Whiskey Sisters #2
Pages: 315
Published by Entangled Publishing on July 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Welcome to Mayhem, Minnesota, home of the Knitty Kitty, The Little Slice of Heaven Pie Shop, and O’Halloran’s Pub—owned by the four young women known as The Whiskey Sisters.

In the wake of her divorce, Jameson O’Halloran has gone man-vegan. And this is one diet she’s determined to stick with. Even when her long-lost ex-brother-in-law shows up looking like two scoops of double dutch dipped in chocolate… She’s not giving in. Been there and still wearing the messy T-shirt.

It’s been a decade since Scott Clarke left his family and his hometown, never to return. But when tragedy strikes, he finds himself dragged back to the land of gossip, judgment, and the one woman he absolutely, positively, without a doubt can never have. His brother’s ex is off-limits. He just needs to keep repeating that to himself until it sinks in.

Guest review by Amy:

Jameson – and what an odd name for a girl, don’t you think? – is finally well and truly done with her ex. She loves her father-in-law, and she loves her son, so she’s trying to keep things civil, and so far, so good. Sorta-happily-ever-after, yeah? Well, of course, something has to happen to upset the tidy balance, and when father-in-law “Big Win” has a stroke, and they find out that his health care proxies are his other son, and his now-ex-daughter-in-law, ex-hubs Winston pitches a fit.

Other-brother Scott is traveling the world, and hasn’t been home in a decade; there’s some tension between him and his father, so when the nonprofit he’s working with gets a message to him in Mexico, he’s reluctant to head home. But he does, and realizes that there have been sparks between him and Jameson for a long, long time. Things get complex, very fast.

Escape Rating: A+: This is hands-down one of my favorite reads so far this year. No fame-and-fortune here, no paranormal shenanigans, nothing that couldn’t happen to you or me, really, just a story about real people, living out very, very complicated relationships. There are a lot of side stories here – Jameson’s younger sister is one of the county fair’s royalty, Winston is having some kind of something-or-other with another member of the court, a girl a decade younger than him, Scott and his lawyer brother can’t get along, and that leads Scott to uncover something about his own backstory…subplots abound.  But buried in there is a romance that neither Scott nor Jameson thinks should happen, at first, but they gradually grow into. This central thread is shepherded along by a recovering Big Win, who just wants to see them both happy. When the whole truth finally comes out about what happened in Mayhem, Minnesota thirty years ago, it shakes everyone’s world quite a bit.

Sounds good so far, right?  But almost-certainly Marlene or I have read at least one complicated story along the way as good or better. What sets Mischief and Mayhem apart, for this reader, was the exceptional craftsmanship of the tale. Author Rico gives us a good story, easy to fall into. But the exceptional care she took to think the characters through, and make sure that they are presented in an engaging way really shines. We flip back and forth in point-of-view throughout the book, and both of our main characters’ internal dialogues are clear, consistent, and distinct. You don’t need to be told at the top of the chapter whose head we’re in for this chapter, really, because it’s obvious from what they’re thinking. One of the funny quirks Scott ended up with is that he’s kind of behind on technology. After Jameson shows him what Siri is on his father’s borrowed iPhone, he’s entertained enough that in the interludes between chapters, he talks to the AI (and texts with Jameson’s sister Hennessy), and these provide brief giggles that serve as a sort of Greek chorus, giving us these tiny insights into whats going on.

Our settings are rich and easy to envision, the cast of secondary characters are all complicated beings without being contrived, and our “villain” is suitable to the story. Robert Heinlein wrote in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls that for every great hero, you need a great villain; the more heroic your hero, the nastier the villain must be, or things get out of balance and the story doesn’t work. Jameson’s ex Winston is, as I see it, the perfectly-crafted villain for this tale. We don’t need a scorch-the-earth supervillain here; we need a nasty ex-husband. Winston is not really an overwhelmingly bad guy, he’s just petty and vain and kind of a hot mess of his own, and since he won’t own his own problems, he complicates life for Jameson and Scott in order to feel powerful. He’s a “real” person, and having had my own share of ex-partners, I can totally see him as the perfect exasperating ex.

I could rave on about this book for a long, long time, I suppose, but that’d waste time that you should spend reading Mischief and Mayhem. If contemporary romance is your jam, here’s a beautifully crafted tale to enjoy, which has my strongest possible endorsement.

Review: The Third Mrs. Durst by Ann Aguirre + Giveaway

Review: The Third Mrs. Durst by Ann Aguirre + GiveawayThe Third Mrs. Durst by Ann Aguirre
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 312
Published by Midnight Ink on August 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Some people just need killing.

Marlena Altizer Durst lives in her husband's shadow. He controls her every move--what she wears, the food she eats, and the friends she's allowed to make. If she disobeys, there are...consequences. And he has all the power.

To outsiders, it seems that she leads a fairy-tale life. But nobody ever wonders if Cinderella was happy after she married the prince. Marlena has traded freedom and safety for luxurious imprisonment, and most days, that seems like a bad bargain. Death may be the only exit she's allowed. Just like his first wife. And his second. Unless she flips the script.

Some people just need killing.

Praise:

"The Third Mrs. Durst is a slow, dark burn that leads to a fantastic explosion of an ending."--Victoria Helen Stone, bestselling author of Jane Doe

My Review:

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. The Third Mrs. Durst serves it as if it were Baked Alaska, carefully prepared, frozen, and set on fire.

I almost said there’s no mystery here, that The Third Mrs. Durst is purely a thriller – and purely a thrill from beginning to end. Then I thought about it a bit, and realized that yes, it is also a mystery. Just not the mystery that the reader expects until the very, very end.

It seems like a dark twist on the Cinderella story, as it’s intended to be. Marlena Altizer escapes from the cowboy heroin capital of the world. The backwoods of Kentucky where oxycodone has destroyed lives, families and entire towns.

Marlena runs away to escape a world that holds no future for her except early and too many pregnancies, too many easy but temporary escapes via drugs and alcohol, and an early death after a battered life. The life that her mother chose.

Marlena chooses another path.

At first it seems like she’s chosen to be Cinderella, escaping from her drudgery of an existence to a world of glitz and glamour – but with an even darker underbelly. She gets lucky – becomes a model and mostly doesn’t have to pay for her chances with her body.

Until she chooses to trade that body for the high-life as the trophy wife of a high-roller who just so happens to have a taste for beautiful young women with no pasts – so that he can mold them into exactly what he wants.

Marlena knows it’s a dark and dirty bargain – but it’s exactly what she bargained for. Until it looks like her “loving” husband has set his plans to make her follow the first Mrs. Durst, and the second Mrs. Durst, a little sooner than she was ready for.

Marlena Altizer Durst has no intention of joining her predecessors in the death that their Bluebeard of a husband has planned for her. Whether she can escape his deadly clutches is another thing entirely.

And get him into hers.

Escape Rating A+: This one had me from beginning to end. I got sucked in at breakfast and didn’t spill out until after dinner – gasping at the ending. An ending which reminds me a lot of the classic movie, The Sting, the kind of ending where you gasp and blink and realize that everything you thought you knew was what you were intended to know – and that you have been completely misdirected right along with most of the characters in the story.

And that’s as much as I’m going to say about that because I don’t want to spoil the effect. But it’s a wow!

What makes this so compelling is the character of Marlena, and the way that her story and her motivations are revealed slowly and carefully. In spite of being inside her head, we’ve been deceived right along with everyone else.

At first, this seems like a dark Pretty Woman. And it’s a story that we’ve seen and read about too many times. A young woman thinks she’s found a golden ticket only to discover that she’s been bought and sold by a man who holds all the cards. She’s his creation, and his puppet. He controls her with isolation, with violence, and with threats to anyone that she loves. She’s trapped and she knows it and he loves knowing that he has all the control.

But as the story progresses, we discover that it’s not exactly what we thought. Marlena went into this horror with her eyes wide open. She has an agenda of her own. She wants revenge for her sister, the first Mrs. Durst. She’s just not sure she can get it. Michael Durst is more ruthless – and less hinged, than she imagined.

She still plays her hand, fearing all the while that she may have dealt herself into a higher stakes game than she planned. As hard as it is to read about the abuse that she suffers, we are frightened for her. It seems as if its too much for her to take – and too much for us.

Then it all goes completely pear-shaped – not that it was any bed of roses before. It looks like her plans have unraveled. And then – boom! A boom that will explode everything. For her, for him, and especially for the reader, blinking and gasping at the end.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

To celebrate the release of THE THIRD MRS. DURST by Ann Aguirre we’re giving away a $25 Amazon gift card to one lucky winner!

LINK:  http://bit.ly/2xR3Suw 

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to internationally. One winner will receive a $25 Amazon gift card. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Ann Aguirre. Giveaway ends 8/18/2019 @ 11:59pm EST.

Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael Straczynski

Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael StraczynskiBecoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, science fiction
Pages: 460
Published by Harper Voyager on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With an introduction by Neil Gaiman!

In this dazzling memoir, the acclaimed writer behind Babylon 5, Sense8, Clint Eastwood's Changeling and Marvel's Thor reveals how the power of creativity and imagination enabled him to overcome the horrors of his youth and a dysfunctional family haunted by madness, murder and a terrible secret.

For four decades, J. Michael Straczynski has been one of the most successful writers in Hollywood, one of the few to forge multiple careers in movies, television and comics. Yet there's one story he's never told before: his own.

Joe's early life nearly defies belief. Raised by damaged adults--a con-man grandfather and a manipulative grandmother, a violent, drunken father and a mother who was repeatedly institutionalized--Joe grew up in abject poverty, living in slums and projects when not on the road, crisscrossing the country in his father's desperate attempts to escape the consequences of his past.

To survive his abusive environment Joe found refuge in his beloved comics and his dreams, immersing himself in imaginary worlds populated by superheroes whose amazing powers allowed them to overcome any adversity. The deeper he read, the more he came to realize that he, too, had a superpower: the ability to tell stories and make everything come out the way he wanted it. But even as he found success, he could not escape a dark and shocking secret that hung over his family's past, a violent truth that he uncovered over the course of decades involving mass murder.

Straczynski's personal history has always been shrouded in mystery. Becoming Superman lays bare the facts of his life: a story of creation and darkness, hope and success, a larger-than-life villain and a little boy who became the hero of his own life. It is also a compelling behind-the-scenes look at some of the most successful TV series and movies recognized around the world.

My Review:

I jumped at the chance to read this book and be on this tour because, well, basically because Babylon 5. Which I’ve watched more than once, and have frequently cited in regards to its treatment of chaos vs. order in the Shadow War. Because that dichotomy rears its head, over and over, in SF, in Fantasy, in life.

It’s what makes Loki such a fascinating character, because he represents chaos. While the MCU may equate chaos with evil, it ain’t necessarily so. There’s a reason why seemingly every mythology has a chaos avatar – because chaos and the response to it pushes us forward.

It’s what makes Ben Franklin’s quote about sacrificing freedom to obtain security so powerful, as freedom is generally a bit chaotic, while security generally aligns with order. But too much of either, no matter how well intentioned, is always a bad thing.

The surprising thing about this autobiography is just how much chaos swirled around the author’s early life. And that his adult response seems to have been, not to fight against the chaos, but to embrace it. To grow stronger from the fight – no matter how much it hurt.

And it’s a fascinating journey from beginning to end – even if – or especially because – it (and the author) took a very long walk through some very dark places.

Reality Rating A+: I opened this book, fell completely into it, and didn’t emerge until I turned the last page. Sort of like the first time I watched Babylon 5, somewhere in Season 3, and got so deeply entranced – or entrenched – that I went back to the beginning to catch up then waited with the proverbial bated breath for each episode thereafter.

One of the fascinating things about the author’s life is the way that he knows and addresses the fact that he might not be the most reliable narrator of the early parts of it. Not because of lies or embellishments – or at least not because of his own lies or embellishments. Rather because the people whose memories he is forced to rely on for the parts that take place before his birth or during his early childhood were themselves far from reliable. His family’s story is a story of lies and coverups hiding multiple essential and nasty truths.

All families have secrets. All families centered around any kind of abuse have particular kinds of secrets designed to protect the abuser from the consequences of their actions. All of that is in this life story.

But the dark heart hidden underneath all of that is even more rotten than most people have to deal with in one lifetime. And it left the kind of damage that makes all too many people not merely dysfunctional, but sets them up for a lifetime of perpetuating their abuse.

What makes this story so special? For one, the book is compulsively readable. I started and absolutely couldn’t put it down until about 2:30 in the morning – and not just because I wanted to get to the good parts. I felt so compelled because the man is a consummate storyteller, no matter how painful the story is. I was hooked and I stayed that way for 5 hours of reading, just as I stayed that way for 5 years of B5.

The story begins as a shitshow of epic proportions, travels inexorably from endless defeats to seeming victories to yet more defeats, only to rise and fall again and again, until the end is, not so much a triumph as a paean of gratitude for all the chances that came, and for all of the million-to-one shots that surprisingly and delightfully paid off.

And it’s an absolutely marvelous read every step of the way. Even the hard parts. Especially the hard parts. Because the author spares no one, particularly not himself.

My one and only regret about this book is that I didn’t have time to listen to the audio, which is read by the actor who played the clown-turned-emperor Londo Mollari on Babylon 5. The only way that could have been better would be if G’Kar were still with us to participate. And now, I think it’s time for a rewatch.

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Review: Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sweep of the Blade by Ilona AndrewsSweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles, #4) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, urban fantasy, vampires
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #4
Pages: 314
Published by NYLA on July 16, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Maud Demille is a daughter of Innkeepers—a special group who provide ‘lodging’ to other-planetary visitors—so she knows that a simple life isn't in the cards. But even Maud could never have anticipated what Fate would throw at her.

Once a wife to a powerful vampire knight, Maud and her young daughter, Helen, were exiled with him for his treachery to the desolate, savage planet of Karhari. Karhari killed her husband, and Maud—completely abandoned by his family—has spent over a year avenging his debts. Rescued by her sister Dina, she's sworn off all things vampire.

Except... In helping Dina save the world, she met Arland, the Marshal of House Krahr, one of the most powerful vampire houses. One thing led to another and he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined. Arland is not used to hearing the word ‘no;’ and try as she might, Maud can't just walk away from Arland. It doesn't help that being human is a lot harder for Maud than being a vampire.

To sort it all out, she accepts his invitation to visit his home planet. House Krahr is extremely influential and Maud knows that a woman—a human, with a very questionable past—who's turned down a proposal from its most beloved son won't get a warm reception. Maybe she’s not sure about marrying Arland, but House Krahr isn’t going to decide for her. Maud Demille has never run from a fight, and House Krahr will soon discover that there's a lot more to Maud than they’re expecting.

My Review:

Vampires and politics. They go together like love and marriage. Complete with ALL the possibly messy endings. Along with the occasional happy ever after – as well as the rare but not unheard of “red wedding”.

This is also a book that manages to be both considerably different from the previous books in the Innkeeper Chronicles and follow directly from its immediate predecessor, the marvelous One Fell Sweep.

In this version of the universe, there is interstellar travel, and there are plenty of places and peoples in the very big galaxy, not all of whom are even humanoid. But Earth is not a participant in any of what’s “out there”. Because Earth sits on a very large and very rare nexus of space travel conduits, it has been declared a kind of intergalactic Switzerland – albeit one kept a bit in the space-faring dark ages.

Earth is off-limits to every species out there, and it’s an off-limit that’s enforced by everyone in return for safe passage through that nexus. Earth’s knowledge of the wider galaxy is confined to a group of people called innkeepers, who have complete control over the grounds of their inns. Inns that provide safe harbor, safe haven and safe rest-and-recuperation for any beings traveling through the nexus.

The story of the first three books has revolved around Dina Demille, daughter of two lost innkeepers, returning to Earth and taking control of the inn her parents left behind – and defending it from all comers, of which there have been entirely too many.

Dina’s adventures have been the heart of the first three books, and they are awesome. This is also a broad hint to start with the first book, Clean Sweep. This worldbuilding in this series is fascinating and grows with each new book in the series.

Sweep of the Blade is the story of Dina’s sister Maud. Formerly Lady Maud. Exiled and disowned ex-wife of one of the lesser ruling Vampiric Houses. There are vampire knights in this universe, but they are not much like our versions of vampires. On the other hand, the werewolves seem to be pretty much on the legendary nose.

I digress.

Maud survived a prison planet that spit her lying, deceitful, cheating husband out in little tiny pieces. And she, in her turn, avenged his death on every single one of his killers. Now she’s out, and safe, and home with her sister Dina.

But safe is not what Maud is built for. She could make a home with her sister, or become an innkeeper on her own. She could also, and more likely, become an enforcer for the innkeeper’s guild. Because Maud is a fighter – and she’s good at it.

However, Maud has a daughter, Helen, who is five years old and half-vampire by genetics, but all vampire in spirit. Earth, and the Innkeeper network, may be safe for Helen, but not what’s best for her. She’ll always be isolated and alone.

Maud’s other option is a tall, handsome hunk of vampire Marshall, who loves her, wants to marry her, and can provide Helen with a place where she can be who she is. Maud just has to accept.

But she can’t. She spent years as one vampire house’s trained human monkey, only to be discarded like trash for a crime her husband committed that she had no part of. She’s not willing to be anyone’s second class citizen ever again.

Arland offers her a place where she can fight to be first, for herself and for her daughter. She just has to survive every single thing, and every person, that his House can throw at her. Including a murderous attack by her potential mother-in-law and a pirate coup led by his House’s enemies.

And a very red wedding.

Escape Rating A+: This was a book that I gobbled up over dinner, and didn’t let go of until it was done. It starts with a bang, ends with a mic drop, and in the middle there’s the biggest and most delicious story of political skullduggery, underhanded betrayals, complex negotiations and epic romance.

This series is awesome from beginning to end, but this entry is a bit different. The previous stories have been set on Earth, with the ever expanding galaxy of characters making their way to Dina’s inn. While there have been some epic battles, the fighting has all been defensive, protecting Dina’s inn and her varied guests.

Maud goes away from Earth and she goes on the offensive – even if that is sometimes in the sense of the best defense being a good offense. She has a goal, and for the most part it’s the same goal she’s always had – to protect her daughter at all costs.

She wants what’s best for Helen, and that means making a place for them among Arland’s ancient, respected and feared House. He is, in effect, a prince among his people, and if Maud is to stand at his side as his equal, she’ll have to earn that place. That’s the story here, of her earning that place – not by pretending to be a trained monkey, as she did in her first marriage – but by being her fighting self. And by letting Helen fight an appropriate number of her own battles.

It’s that fight that makes the story so much fun. There are maneuvers, there are counter-measures. There are wheels within wheels within wheels. The vampires respect strength, so that’s what Maud must project at all times – no matter how much she hurts or how wounded she is.

At the same time, she is underestimated at every turn, and has to walk a fine line between lowering her enemies’ guards and not letting them walk all over her. The way that she eventually earns her place is by combining her strengths, both as a warrior and as a human. And it’s glorious. And so is she.

I enjoyed this book so much because I really liked Maud and wanted her to succeed. She is both kickass and clever, and both of those characteristics were needed in order for her to defeat her enemies – as well as to earn her place in Arland’s House by defeating theirs!

Sweep of the Blade ends, thank goodness not with a cliffhanger, but with a truly thunderous mic drop that promises more story in this universe. I can’t wait.

Review: Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estep

Review: Protect the Prince by Jennifer EstepProtect the Prince (Crown of Shards, #2) by Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Crown of Shards #2
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

First, Evie has to deal with a court full of arrogant, demanding nobles, all of whom want to get their greedy hands on her crown. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an assassin tries to kill Evie in her own throne room.

Despite the dangers, Evie goes ahead with a scheduled trip to the neighboring kingdom of Andvari in order to secure a desperately needed alliance. But complicating matters is the stubborn Andvarian king, who wants to punish Evie for the deaths of his countrymen during the Seven Spire massacre.

But dark forces are at work inside the Andvarian palace, and Evie soon realizes that no one is safe. Worse, Evie’s immunity to magic starts acting in strange, unexpected ways, which makes her wonder whether she is truly strong enough to be a Winter Queen.

But Evie’s magic, life, and crown aren’t the only things in danger—so is her heart, thanks to Lucas Sullivan, the Andvarian king’s bastard son and Evie’s . . . well, Evie isn’t quite sure what Sullivan is to her.

Only one thing is certain—protecting a prince might be even harder than killing a queen…

My Review:

Payback is a bitch.

That truism works in multiple ways in Protect the Prince. After all, this is the second book in the Crown of Shards series, after last year’s absolutely marvelous Kill the Queen. After the events in the series opener, there is PLENTY of payback to go around.

Queen Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair is on both ends of that aphorism in this book. On her one hand, she has the desire, the opportunity, and in many cases the absolute necessity of being the bitch delivering payback to all of the people who cut her down and stepped on her when she was the lowest of the royals in the late Queen Cordelia’s court.

But Queen Everleigh remembers full well every single one of those cuts and slights and insults. The court expects her to conveniently forget, believing that Queen Everleigh is still the doormat that poor Evie pretended to be. But the gloves are off. Queen Everleigh won her throne by right of conquest, and she intends to hold it – and hold everyone’s feet to the fire to keep it.

They may all expect her to be assassinated in less than a year, but she plans to go down swinging. If she has to swing at them first, so be it.

Howsomever, her ascension to her throne didn’t just kill her predecessor, it also upset the plans of the Morta, the “evil empire” next door that planned to conquer the continent using their late puppet queen of Bellona as their stalking horse and the armies of Bellona as cannon fodder – while keeping their own hands clean.

The Mortan assassin who thought she had Bellona under control wants payback after Evie upset all her plans. And she doesn’t care who gets in the way. Or goes down in the way.

Kill the Queen got off to its running start with a red banquet of assassination. Protect the Prince opens with the first of several attempts to assassinate Evie.

But, as much as the Mortans, in the person of the assassin Maevan and her “Bastard Brigade” of illegitimate Mortan royals want to eliminate Evie from the board, she is not their primary target this time around. Not that taking her out wouldn’t be icing on their very bloody cake.

As the title implies, in this second entry in the series it is up to Evie, her friends and whatever help she can enlist, to protect the prince of the neighboring – and formerly allied – kingdom of Andvari. Because the Mortans are playing a very long game, and Andvari is also in their crosshairs.

The only question for Evie is which Andvari prince should she protect? The one she should marry – or the one she wants to.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this in one evening. Well, if 2:30 in the morning still counts as evening. Protect the Prince is utterly awesome and I absolutely loved it.

However, it very much starts in medias res, so for readers who attempt to start the series here it will feel like they’ve started in the middle. Which they have. The actions – and reactions, definitely the reactions – in Protect the Prince all hinge on the events of Kill the Queen. Meaning this is not the right place to start.

For those of us who have devoured Kill the Queen, there is more than enough backstory and reminiscences to bring us right back up to speed. Just not quite enough to start here.

Just as Kill the Queen took off the moment that the first queen in the story was killed, now that Evie is queen the story continues at the breakneck pace set by the last 2/3rds of that first book. Which explains what kept me up until 2:30 am. Protect the Prince starts fast, with a court to lesson and an assassin to eliminate in short order. From that point, the political skullduggery never lets up – and neither does the story.

Kill the Queen was billed as “Gladiator meets Game of Thrones”. I wasn’t sure about that description then, and I’m even less so now. For this reader, the Crown of Shards series feels like a mashup between Queen of the Tearling, The Twelve Kingdoms, and The Goblin Emperor.

Of course, those are awesome antecedents, so being reminiscent of those books is pretty excellent company to be in. The Crown of Shards combines the disregarded royal princess turned queen of Tearling with the ascension by killing mad predecessor of The Twelve Kingdoms (and both have evil magical empires to contend with) while The Goblin Emperor brings in that bit about the disregarded new ruler who isn’t expected to live long and has to garner some respect really, really fast.

At the top, I said that payback is a bitch. In the case of Evie being the bitch delivering the payback, it’s righteous and it feels right. It’s not egregious. She’s not out to kill her own court – no matter how tempting the prospect. But she has to take control and the scene where she does so sets the tone for her reign – and her story. It’s necessary, and I loved the way she fought back with her words and her voice and her appearance, even as under the surface she is dealing with a whole lot of completely understandable impostor syndrome.

A good chunk of Evie’s internal struggle revolves around her both acknowledging that she was not meant to be queen, and is only on the throne by happenstance, but that she is there and has to do the best she can for her people. No matter the cost to herself.

Kill the Queen was all about getting Evie to the throne. Protect the Prince is about her taking control of her place and her power. And it makes for a terrific story.

I can’t wait for the third book in the Crown of Shards, Crush the King, coming next March. I think I know who the king of the title is, I just want to see him get righteously crushed!

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Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora GossEuropean Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #2
Pages: 720
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.

My Review:

After absolutely raving about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I couldn’t resist picking up European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. I had so much fun with the first book that I couldn’t resist the second – and now I’m eagerly awaiting the third.

This story, and this series so far, is the story of all of the erased women in all of the classic monster and horror stories of the 19th century. It’s their voices that give this rollicking tale both its derring-do and its monstrous heart, and it’s marvelous from beginning to end.

As this story opens, Mary Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll’s daughter), Diana Hyde (Edward Hyde’s daughter), Catherine Moreau (Dr. Moreau’s daughter), Justine Frankenstein (Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter) and Beatrice Rappaccini (the Poisonous Girl) have banded together to form the Athena Club, which is both their home and their place of business.

And the heart of their quest to investigate the completely amoral Société des Alchemists, of which all of their fathers were members – if not necessarily in good standing. Under the auspices of the Société, their fathers experimented on all of them in one monstrous way or another. And they want the Société stopped.

So when Mary receives a letter from her former teacher and governess, Mina Harker (nee) Murray, the women of the Athena Club drop all their plans and race to Vienna. Why? Because Mina’s friend Lucinda van Helsing has gone missing, and Mina rightfully fears that Lucinda is being experimented upon by her father, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and that Lucinda needs to be rescued. And Dr. Van Helsing needs to be stopped.

Of course they are right on all counts. And, come to think of it, Counts. With the help of Irene Norton (nee) Adler in Vienna, the Athena Club races to save the day – and rescue their newfound sister.

No matter what it takes.

Escape Rating A+: This is another book where I started with the audio, and had an absolute blast. Part of what makes the audios for this series so much fun is the way that the story is told. Catherine Moreau is writing the story, but she is writing it in the presence of all of the other women, who cannot resist adding their bits to just about every line.

All of the women have very distinct personalities, and those personalities come through both in their words and in the voicing of the excellent narrator, Kate Reading. If you have the time to take this series in via audio, it is well worth the time.

But I don’t have that much patience. I reached a point, about halfway, where I just couldn’t stand it anymore and had to finish in the ebook. I needed to know what happened next (and next and next) so badly that I just couldn’t wait.

The story hook for this series is just awesome. All I have to do is say “Jekyll’s daughter and Hyde’s daughter and Moreau’s daughter and Frankenstein’s daughter” and whoever I’m talking to (read as squeeing about this series to) is instantly intrigued and wants to know more. It’s terribly monstrous and terribly wonderful and absolutely fantastic.

Part of what makes this series so much fun is the “who’s who” of 19th century horror. All of the men of the Société des Alchemists were the heroes of their respective novels, but to the Athena Club they are all the villains. And their fathers. And doesn’t that make for a fascinating brew of love and guilt and horror and ultimately, adventure?

Every woman in this story – except Irene Norton – has daddy issues. And so they all should, because their daddies literally turned them into monsters. It’s the way that they cope with their monstrousness and rise above the restrictions placed on females that makes this series so very delicious.

About Irene, she’s the perfect “mentor” figure for this series. If her name sounded familiar, it should. Irene Norton, nee Irene Adler, was THE woman in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the only woman ever to get the better of him. Holmes is out of the action in this one – appropriately so – and it is time for a woman to take up the reins. Irene is perfect for this role because unlike Holmes, Irene is used to working from the shadows. The members of the Athena Club do not need someone to protect them, a role that Holmes and Watson constantly try to assume. Irene enables them and lets them do their work.

And she’s a marvelous character in her own right, in multiple senses of that phrase.

By the end of European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, the Athena Club has acquired more members – and more allies. Just in time to rescue Sherlock Holmes from Moriarty in their next adventure, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. I can’t wait.

Review: Rebel by Beverly Jenkins + Giveaway

Review: Rebel by Beverly Jenkins + GiveawayRebel (Women Who Dare, #1) by Beverly Jenkins
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Women Who Dare #1
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on May 28, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first novel in USA Today Bestselling Author Beverly Jenkins' compelling new series follows a Northern woman south in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War...

Valinda Lacey's mission in the steamy heart of New Orleans is to help the newly emancipated community survive and flourish. But soon she discovers that here, freedom can also mean danger. When thugs destroy the school she has set up and then target her, Valinda runs for her life—and straight into the arms of Captain Drake LeVeq.

As an architect from an old New Orleans family, Drake has a deeply personal interest in rebuilding the city. Raised by strong women, he recognizes Valinda's determination. And he can't stop admiring—or wanting—her. But when Valinda's father demands she return home to marry a man she doesn't love, her daring rebellion draws Drake into an irresistible intrigue.

My Review:

Considering that a big part of the romance in this book is all about Drake LeVeq persuading Valinda Lacey to let her inner hellion out of the straight-jacket her father has tried to wrap it in, this book would have been better titled Hellion than Rebel.

And that’s about the only quibble I have with this book. It is simply marvelous from beginning to end. Sometimes heartbreaking, but marvelous every step of the way.

(Don’t let that bit about heartbreaking worry you, there is an HEA for our hero and heroine. But some of what they have to go through to get there, and what the Black community of post-Civil War New Orleans – and in the rest of the country –  had to experience both before and after Freedom, that is frequently heartbreaking, all the more so because it doesn’t feel over.)

Rebel is a story on two levels, and it works excellently on both of them.

On one level, it’s a romance. On the other, complementary level, its historical fiction about the Black experience in Reconstruction era New Orleans in specific, and in U.S. in general during that period.

In the end, figuring out that they love each other is the easy part of their story. Working their way through and/or around the forces arrayed against them is the hard part. The combination of the two is what makes Rebel terrific – and terrifically readable – all the way around.

Escape Rating A+: Yes, I know I’m squeeing. This was a book that I just loved, even though I often have difficulties with historical romance these days. Those difficulties occur because historical romance heroines have a high tightrope to walk, in that they both have to be women who have enough agency for me to identify with and be women who can at least plausibly fit into the time and place where their story is set.

Valinda succeeds because she has a tremendous amount of agency that springs directly out of her time, place and circumstances. While her disgusting father does his best/worst to clip the wings of her spirit, that he expects her to be meek and submissive is plausible for the time period.

That, as a Black woman in the late 19th century she feels both duty-bound and able to support herself and make her own living and give of her best for the betterment of her people feels equally plausible and downright likely. The world is not going to be handed to her, and she’s seen the results of submitting meekly to her father’s will in the lives of her mother and older sister. It’s all too easy for 21st century women to see themselves in her pride in her work and her ambitions.

That growing up in her family circumstances has left her with no belief in love makes perfect sense and fits her right into the company of many romantic heroines who learned early that their marriages would be business deals and not love matches. That the marriage her father wants for her is more vile than that puts him in the bad company of many fathers of romantic heroines. Valinda spends the book rightfully dreading his appearance in New Orleans, and he lives down to all of her fears.

But her hopes by that point have been placed in Drake LaVeg, a man who has grown up in a family filled with love, led by his strong, determined and successful mother. It’s Drake and his family who coax the real Valinda out from the restrictions her father placed around her.

At the same time, this book does its best to portray the circumstances under which Drake’s and Valinda’s community was forced to endure. The freedom granted by the Union victory in the Civil War was precious – and it was under attack by all sides at all times. Those attacks were often legal, governmental and bureaucratic. Even the illegal attacks were sanctioned by the government and the powers-that-be.

So much of the circumstances that surround and intrude upon the romance feel viscerally wrong and historically accurate at the same time. And should make readers reflect that not nearly as much has changed as we like to believe.

In the end, Rebel is a romance that provides a historically accurate setting that we don’t read about often enough, featuring a dashing hero, a heroine with intense agency, and a promise of more to come.

I can’t wait to meet the rest of the Women Who Dare!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

To celebrate the release of REBEL by Beverly Jenkins, we’re giving away a paperback copy of Tempest by Beverly Jenkins to one lucky winner!

LINK: http://bit.ly/2Hr1RLq

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback copy of Tempest by Beverly Jenkins. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Books.  Giveaway ends 6/10/2019 @ 11:59pm EST.

Review: The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

Review: The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty ManningThe Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 480
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 14, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Kirsty Manning makes her US debut with this gripping historical novel that tells the little-known story of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai during WWII.


1939
: Two young girls meet in Shanghai, also known as the “Paris of the East”. Beautiful local Li and Jewish refugee Romy form a fierce friendship, but the deepening shadows of World War II fall over the women as they slip between the city's glamorous French Concession district and the teeming streets of the Shanghai Ghetto. Yet soon the realities of war prove to be too much for these close friends as they are torn apart.


2016:
Fleeing London with a broken heart, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. Her grandfather is dying, and over the coming weeks Romy and Wilhelm begin to reveal the family mysteries they have kept secret for more than half a century. As fragments of her mother's history finally become clear, Alexandra struggles with what she learns while more is also revealed about her grandmother's own past in Shanghai.

After Wilhelm dies, Alexandra flies to Shanghai, determined to trace her grandparents' past. Peeling back the layers of their hidden lives, she is forced to question what she knows about her family—and herself. 

The Song of the Jade Lily is a lush, provocative, and beautiful story of friendship, motherhood, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage that can shape us all.

My Review:

As this story opens, Alexandra Laird is lost. She is 36 years old, she has just broken up with the man she expected to marry, after eight years of a relationship and three years of living together. She is planning to take up a new post in Shanghai after years in England, first at Oxford University and then as a commodities trader in London.

But she is on her way to Melbourne, taking family leave between job postings to spend six weeks with her grandmother and grandfather. Her beloved grandfather is dying. She is going home to see him one last time, and to help her grandmother after the inevitable.

The circle of her family, once consisting of her mother and father, her Oma and Opa, and herself, is now reduced to just two. Her parents died when she was a child, and her grandparents raised her. Now that Opa is gone, it is just her and Romy, her Oma.

Or is it?

Alexandra’s mother, Sophia, was Chinese, adopted by her parents in Shanghai where they fled after Kristallnacht. Her grandparents were Jews, forced to flee their native Vienna after the Anschluss.

Sophia, so different from her neighbors and classmates, always wondered where she came from and why her birth parents gave her up. But her parents didn’t discuss the war, the subject was painful and taboo, as it was for Alexandra when she asked the same questions. Her parents and grandparents loved her, and it was supposed to be enough.

But now, grief-stricken and at loose ends in her personal life, Alexandra takes the opportunity of her job in Shanghai, the place where her parents fled and her mother came from, to discover the truths about her own origins.

They say that the truth will set you free. It just doesn’t happen until after it chews you up, spits you out and turns you into something new.

Escape Rating A+: This is an absolutely marvelous dual timeline story about family and love and war and survival. And the power of friendship. And it’s utterly beautiful every step of the way.

Alexandra’s story is the contemporary story, and it takes up most of the narrative. She’s lost and kind of alone and losing her anchors to her past while not sure of her present and her future. When the holes start opening in her heart she looks backward, not to her own past, but to the past of her much-loved grandparents, and to the war that shaped their lives.

And that’s the other timeline. Not as Alexandra discovers it, but as it happened. Just as we follow Alexandra in 2016, we see the life of her grandmother Romy. Romy’s story begins in 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht, the infamous Night of Broken Glass. Romy and her family lived in Vienna, and they need to get out. While they still can.

In desperation, they travel to Shanghai, China, one of the few places that will let them in. Europe under the Nazi sway had become deadly for Jews. Most countries around the world shut their gates and restricted Jewish immigration to a tiny trickle. Palestine under the British Protectorate could neither take in nor support the tens of thousands who wanted to leave.

The door to Shanghai was open, and they took it. But that chapter of their lives seems to have been a closed book to their adopted daughter Sophia, and Sophia’s daughter Alexandra as well. As the Alexandra’s story moves to her new job in contemporary Shanghai Romy’s story moves from her initial explorations of her new city, her burgeoning friendship with her best friend Li Ho, and her budding romance with Li’s brother Jian.

Until tragedy strikes again, Japan takes over Shanghai, and the horrors of war find Romy yet again. The story becomes Romy’s story of survival – and Alexandra’s story of renewal.

This is a story that touches the heart every step of the way. And breaks it. And mends it again. Just as it does Alexandra’s.

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Review: Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker

Review: Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom BakerDoctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by BBC Books on January 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

What are you afraid of?

In his first-ever Doctor Who novel, Tom Baker’s incredible imagination is given free rein. A story so epic it was originally intended for the big screen, Scratchman is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller almost forty years in the making.

The Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane Smith arrive at a remote Scottish island, when their holiday is cut short by the appearance of strange creatures – hideous scarecrows, who are preying on the local population. The islanders are living in fear, and the Doctor vows to save them all. But it doesn’t go to plan – the time travellers have fallen into a trap, and Scratchman is coming for them.

With the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, the Doctor must battle an ancient force from another dimension, one who claims to be the Devil. Scratchman wants to know what the Doctor is most afraid of. And the Doctor’s worst nightmares are coming out to play…

My Review:

They say that you never forget your first Doctor. The Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, was mine. The first episode I saw was The Talons of Weng Chiang. It was the late 1980s and Doctor Who was broadcast on WTTW in Chicago at 11 pm every Sunday night. It says a whole lot about a whole lot of things that my hour or so with the Doctor every weekend was often the high point of my week.

Listening to Tom Baker read his own Doctor Who novel was like stepping back into my very own TARDIS, and taking a trip back in time and space to those long ago nights – when both of us were a LOT younger. I heard his voice now, but the picture in my head was of my Doctor, then.

And it made for a marvelous adventure.

The Fourth Doctor with Harry and Sarah Jane

The adventure itself feels like, or that should be sounds like, pretty much exactly like, one of the stories from the Fourth Doctor’s early years, when his companions were journalist Sarah Jane Smith and Surgeon-Lieutenant Harry Sullivan from UNIT.

The Doctor, along with Sarah Jane and Harry, find themselves on a relatively remote island off the English coast, having been taken there by the Doctor’s somewhat wacky TARDIS. They take advantage of the lovely day but find themselves ambushed by scarecrows of all things. Scarecrows that have taken the places of nearly all the villagers in this little town. By the time the Doctor figures out what has happened to the villagers and what the menacing scarecrows are all about, both he and Harry have been infected by the scarecrow virus.

It then becomes a race against time to find some way of eliminating the scarecrows and saving the remaining villagers – and themselves – before time runs out. And they fail. Only to find themselves in the adventure behind the adventure that was there all along.

What made this adventure particularly suited to an audiobook read by the Doctor is that the readers are not observing this adventure at third-hand. Instead, the Doctor is on trial – yes, again – in front of the assembled Time Lords who, as usual, are not at ALL amused by his recent behavior. Or his previous behavior (or even his future behavior).

So the story is the Doctor’s testimony, as he is telling the Time Lords what happened, what he did, and why he did it. In the audio, as he tells it to them – along with forays into his thoughts about the proceedings, the interruptions to the proceedings and the jeering from his Time Lord audience – we’re in his head, hearing him tell the story to them – and to us.

Let’s just say that in this instance the first person voice really, really works. The Doctor, MY Doctor, told me a fantastic story of one of his adventures.

And I loved every single minute of it.

Escape Rating A+: This is the point where I simply squee in delight.  I had a ball, to the point where I laughed out loud on multiple occasions, often while on a treadmill in the midst of other people who must have thought I was a loon.

But then, a lot of Time Lords firmly believe that the Doctor, particularly in this incarnation, was a loon. That he often behaved like one may have added a bit to that belief. More than a bit.

This story reads, or particularly listens, like one of the best of the Fourth Doctor’s madcap (with serious bits) adventures. If you enjoyed “Classic” Who, you’ll love this too. (I fully recognize that I am giving this an A+ because I loved every single second of it. I’m well aware that this is a book, and an experience, that won’t work nearly as well for someone who is not a fan.)

At the same time, the story also feels like Tom Baker’s love letter to the character he played so long and so well, two of his companions, particularly one of his obvious favorites, Sarah Jane Smith, as well as to the arc of the character and the series as a whole.

There are loving (and accurate) references to not only his three predecessors in the role, but also to the future, including a particularly heartfelt interchange with Thirteen. There’s also a sequence in the TARDIS where Sarah Jane Smith sees the arc of her whole life in pictures. The pictures she described were instantly recognizable as scenes not only from previous events in her life, but as future events, including scenes from her later appearances in the show in the episode School Reunion and her own Sarah Jane Adventures.

I’m not ashamed to say that those scenes made me tear up a bit, as did Sarah Jane’s letter to the Doctor in the postscript.

The adventure of Scratchman both travels well-worn and well-loved paths with the Doctor, and goes to places that the reader/listener does not expect. And it’s a lovely trip though a very personal time machine every step of the way.