Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin HearneA Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #1
Pages: 618
Published by Del Rey Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the start of a compelling new series, the New York Times bestselling author of The Iron Druid Chronicles creates an unforgettable fantasy world of warring giants and elemental magic.

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Review: Outsystem by M. D. Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Review by Amy:

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. ChakrabortyThe City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1) by S.A. Chakraborty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Daevabad Trilogy #1
Pages: 528
Published by Harper Voyager on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If they have one.

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

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

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

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

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, espionage, history, nonfiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by Dey Street Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

Elizabeth Smith Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

I certainly was.

Review: Wildfire by Ilona Andrews + Giveaway

Review: Wildfire by Ilona Andrews + GiveawayWildfire (Hidden Legacy, #3) by Ilona Andrews
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, eboook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Legacy #3
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Just when Nevada Baylor has finally come to accept the depths of her magical powers, she also realizes she’s fallen in love. Connor “Mad” Rogan is in many ways her equal when it comes to magic, but she’s completely out of her elements when it comes to her feelings for him. To make matters more complicated, an old flame comes back into Rogan’s life…
Rogan knows there’s nothing between him and his ex-fiance, Rynda Sherwood. But as Nevada begins to learn more about her past, her power, and her potential future, he knows she will be faced with choices she never dreamed of and the promise of a life spent without him.
As Nevada and Rogan race to discover the whereabouts of Rynda’s kidnapped husband and are forced to confront Nevada’s grandmother, who may or may not have evil motives, these two people must decide if they can trust in each other or allow everything to go up in smoke.

My Review:

This was absolutely awesomesauce. And I’m also glad that now I know what the series title means. I won’t spoil it for you, but that is one of those things that just didn’t make a whole of sense, until now. And now, well, sister, does it ever!

Wildfire is the third book in Ilona Andrews’ marvelous Hidden Legacy series, after Burn for Me and White Hot. This is a series where the action, the suspense and the romance built on each other, and the worldbuilding gets deeper and more layered, the more you get into the series. Read from the beginning. You’ll thank me later.

The setting for this series is at the intersection where urban fantasy and paranormal romance meet. And have surprisingly wild and wonderfully weird offspring.

Like much of urban fantasy, this is a near-future or same-time-as-ours-but different version of our world. Like most of urban fantasy, this is a version of our world where magic works. Unlike the usual run of the genre, however, the magic in this world works because of science. Think of it as the mad scientist division of magic. Once upon a time, about a century or so ago, some mad scientist cooked up a formula that bestowed magic powers on those who took it. Exactly how it worked and exactly why different powers manifested in different families is still anyone’s guess.

That those powers are passed down genetically is not a guess. Generations of carefully documented breeding can mostly predict what powers will manifest in children of which parents – and what powers won’t. But just like the 50/50 chance that each baby will be male or female, without reference to previous outcomes, an 80% chance that a child will manifest particular magical abilities also means there’s a 20% chance that it won’t manifest the so-called “correct” magic – or any at all.

However, unlike most urban fantasy, there is also a romance at the heart of all this politicking and power-mongering. And it’s mostly a successful romance, admittedly between two extremely stubborn and hard-headed people who push all of each other’s buttons – both the sexual kind and the seriously-needing-anger-management kind.

Connor Rogan is an extremely powerful telekinetic. He’s also a Prime, which means that he is head of his house, House Rogan, and that many of the laws that apply to us lesser mortals don’t apply to him – not just because they are unenforceable but because the collateral damage of making the attempt is just too high.

Nevada Baylor has just learned that her grandmother, the powerful truthseeker Victoria Tremaine, will do anything, no matter how unethical, to capture Nevada and her sisters. Victoria is the Prime of House Tremaine, and her House is dying. Nevada is her best hope of keeping her House intact. Why? Because Nevada is her granddaughter, and has inherited her truthseeking powers in full measure. A fact that Nevada only became aware of at the end of White Hot.

But the reason that Victoria needs Nevada is also the reason that Nevada has options – admittedly options that she was hoping not to have to exercise. House politics and inter-house rivalries make the bloodshed on Game of Thrones look like the proverbial Sunday school picnic. Nevada has never wanted any part of any of it – but now she has no choice. Filing to become a new house, House Baylor, should protect her from her grandmother long enough for the fledgling house to get itself on a stable footing. If they pass the trials for house creation. If they even manage to get to those trials.

Because there’s a conspiracy afoot, as uncovered in White Hot, to remove even the few restrictions that currently impede the houses from doing whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they want. There are those among them who believe that their absolute power gives them the right to rule absolutely everyone and everything.

It’s up to Rogan and Nevada to stop them yet again. Even as the conspiracy threatens to split them apart and kill everything they hold most dear. By any horrific means available.

Cat 7 hurricane, anyone?

Escape Rating A+: I inhaled this book in a day, finishing at about 2 in the morning with one hell of a book hangover. The story was marvelous, and the world it is set in is absolutely fascinating. I want to go back.

One of the things that makes it all so absorbing is the amount of depth in the characterizations and their backstories. The romance, while marvelous, is far from all there is to either Rogan or Nevada. A very big part of Nevada’s story is just how much she cares, not just about Rogan, but about her family, her family’s business, and anyone she decides is part of her team. At the same time, this is also a story where the child is forced to become, if not exactly the parent, certainly the head of household. It’s not so much about the torch being passed as the dropped torch being picked up and run with. The scene where Nevada has to call her mother on a whole bunch of shit is awesome. Not because Nevada’s mother is in any way a bitch or even that she was wrong in the past, just that some of her decisions have had rather unfortunate consequences, and Nevada is the one who is forced to deal with all the crap and pick up all the pieces. Because while her mother’s solutions may have worked in that past, the world has changed, and they won’t work any longer. A fact that Nevada is all too cognizant of but her mother is extremely reluctant to acknowledge.

I also loved that the solution for Rogan’s ex wasn’t for her to find her own man, dammit, but for her to find her own power and finally own it. It’s a much more empowering solution both for her and for the reader than for Rynda to continue to be such a damned princess. It’s always better to rescue your own self.

This series just keeps getting better and better. And I really, really hope it continues, because the ending left plenty of possibilities for future stories in this world, and I want to read them all.

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

Avon Romance is giving away a romance print prize pack, including Hate to Want You, Just One Touch, White Hot and Wildfire

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Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris Ripper

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris RipperKith and Kin by Kris Ripper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: family saga, M/M romance
Pages: 438
Published by Brain Mill Press on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

What does it mean to have a family?
Singer and Lisa Thurman did everything right for their entire childhood. Their mother wanted a perfect life, and they knew how to fit that vision. Then they grew up. Singer came out of the closet and Lisa joined a cult. Singer and his partner are adopting a son. Unfortunately, all that practice being the perfect child didn't prepare Singer to be a merely adequate father. Lisa's just trying to get through the day. After three years in a cult, it’s almost impossible to leave her bedroom, so redemption is going to have to wait.
What does it mean to be a family?
When their mother shows up and attempts to reclaim the illusion of her perfect family,  old lives clash with new ones. Recovering from perfection is messy, complicated, and fraught, but the riotous clan that rises from the ashes is full of joy—and the best kind of trouble. A groundbreaking, honest, and provocative novel, Kith and Kin is contemporary family drama that grafts an entirely new species of family tree.
Family is what you make of it.

Guest review by Amy:

Singer Thurman and his long-time partner, Jake Derrie, have been looking to adopt a child for a while. This isn’t as easy for a gay couple, even in California, where they live, as it is for straight couples, but they’re making progress. Singer, who grew up in a very ordinary, mom-and-dad-and-two-kids family, is still adjusting to life with the Derrie clan, a boisterous and diverse bunch. Our tale opens with a knock on the door: Singer’s sister, Lisa. Having recently left a cult, Lisa is not in any kind of normal head space, and Singer immediately offers her the guest bedroom, for as long as she needs it.

Then Social Services calls; they have a foster placement that could easily become permanent.

Then Singer’s too-helpful, too-obtrusive mother shows up.

Escape Rating: A+. I want to be able to wax poetic about how this couple overcomes great hardship in some fashion to be able to adopt a child and forge a family out of the crucible of great tribulations. I’d love to be able to say how cool it is that we’ve got this book with so much diversity baked into it–an asexual heteroromantic, a gay white couple who adopt an African-American child and start going to a church with the baby’s grandmother, an older empty-nest couple rediscovering themselves and starting over. I’d be thrilled to tell you about the inspiring, uplifting moments in this book, the moments that show love winning over all adversity in the end. And Kith and Kin has all that, or I wouldn’t mention it. That kind of writing makes for exciting reviews, and makes everyone feel good.

The thing is, when I read this story, all of the people that author Kris Ripper shows us are…normal. Ordinary humans, with fears and wants and loves and desires just like the rest of us. Yeah, there’s a boisterous asexual woman who splutters around when she comes out to her friends, and our story focuses on a gay couple, but this doesn’t feel like “LGBTQ+ fiction” to me, at all. This is a story of a diverse group of family and friends, (some of whom are in the LGBTQ+ space) who are dealing with the struggles in their lives, and trying to make things better.

Jake and Singer struggle with their relationship dynamic when a new baby comes into the family, they fret about how to help Lisa, they’re exasperated by Mrs. Thurman’s self-centered antics, everything you’d expect. From cover to cover, once you figure out the big framework, this is a “slice-of-life” story, utterly predictable to the very end. Is that a bad thing? Quite the opposite.

In its ordinary-ness lies the great strength of Kith and Kin; it’s a tale we can “belong” in, a story that could just as easily be mine, or yours, or Marlene’s, or anyone else’s. This is a story about the struggles of real people. Watching Singer, who has always been so confident in so many ways, falling apart with all the stressors he suddenly faces, is such a familiar thing for me that I cried with him. When I watched him struggle to try to make sense of things, I struggled with him. When I saw Frankie trying to sort out her own asexuality, I blustered with her as she tried to explain it to friends and family. When Emery was trying to explain his kinkiness to Lisa, and trying not to scare her away from a relationship with him, I could feel his tension about it. The ending, of course, sees them all making progress, and solving things, just like you and I do, and the tale ends on a strong up-note. What makes this story great is that, almost certainly, you’ll find something in these pages that you identify with, even in the smallest way, and suddenly you become a fly-on-the-wall of a life that could just as easily be your own.

Here’s an example. Singer’s friend Kara (who has adopted multiple children with her husband, Vic) gives him a snippet of advice not too unlike the speech that my own mother gave me when my oldest daughter was small, and I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified:

But then I realized we’re all the same. All of us. The parents who have no problems conceiving, the parents who have their kids taken away, the parents who voluntarily surrender, the parents who are grandparents and aunts and uncles, and the parents who adopt. We’re all equally unqualified, and our kids need us anyway. Do the job. There’s no glory in it, most of the time, but I wouldn’t give up this family for any family I could have had in a different way, Singer, no matter how hard it was, how many tears I cried, how many times I hated myself, or hated Vic, or god help me, hated my kids…That’s the speech I wish someone had given me, in the black moments, when I felt like we were at a dead end.

See what I mean? Kith and Kin is overflowing with such moments; people talking to each other–or themselves–and working through the normal chaos of being an adult human, with the help of their loved ones. There are no amazing heroes here, no evil villains, no grand adventure, no impressive magic, no geeky science, no great mystery to solve. Just…people. People who could be any of us. For that reason, I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Review: White Hot by Ilona Andrews + Giveaway

Review: White Hot by Ilona Andrews + GiveawayWhite Hot (Hidden Legacy, #2) by Ilona Andrews
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Legacy #2
Pages: 389
Published by Avon on May 30th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


The Hidden Legacy series by #1
New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrews continues as Nevada and Rogan navigate a world where magic is the norm…and their relationship burns hot
Nevada Baylor has a unique and secret skill—she knows when people are lying—and she's used that magic (along with plain, hard work) to keep her colorful and close-knit family's detective agency afloat. But her new case pits her against the shadowy forces that almost destroyed the city of Houston once before, bringing Nevada back into contact with Connor "Mad" Rogan.
Rogan is a billionaire Prime—the highest rank of magic user—and as unreadable as ever, despite Nevada’s “talent.” But there’s no hiding the sparks between them. Now that the stakes are even higher, both professionally and personally, and their foes are unimaginably powerful, Rogan and Nevada will find that nothing burns like ice …

My Review:

Welcome to my recap of how I spent Memorial Day. I started White Hot at breakfast, kept picking it up all day long, and finished it at dinner. (Yes we read at the table). But once I started this I just couldn’t put it down. And since it was a holiday, I didn’t. And it was AWESOME!

This is the second book in Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series, after 2014’s Burn for Me. A book which I loved at the time, and then completely forgot I’d read until I picked it up a couple of weeks ago thinking I hadn’t. (Three years is a long time between series entries.) But as soon as I re-read the first page, I remembered that I had read it, way back when.

And even three years later, once I began White Hot all the details I needed from Burn for Me came flooding back.

The world of Hidden Legacy has everything I love about urban fantasy, or any story that is not quite the world we know. Things are similar, but not the same, and the ways that the world differs from ours are solidly built and all make sense.

And the characters are all terrific. And that’s true whether they are terrifically good like Rogan, Nevada and her family, or terrifically bad like the villains. And while the villains are a bit bwahaha evil, they are not JUST bwahaha evil. They are arrogant and smart and have a deep and scary agenda.

Part of the underlying theme of this story and this universe is the classic about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The Primes have tremendous amounts of magical power, and society has warped itself to cater to their whims and their desires. If only because mundanes aren’t capable of standing in their way.

There’s even a law that lets law enforcement beg off when the Primes battle each other, because there realistically isn’t any way for them to bring the Primes to account. They are literally above the law, because they make enforcement impossible.

And, as we see in the story, that kind of power makes them a little, or in some cases a lot, less human. It’s that lessening of humanity that Nevada Baylor fears, not just in “Mad” Rogan, but also in herself. Because Nevada knows that she is a monster that even the other monsters fear. If she lets herself lose track of her humanity, she could be an evil beyond nightmare. So she clings to normalcy by her fingernails, hoping that if she whistles loudly enough past the graveyard, the monsters won’t drag her inside.

But it’s much too late for that. The vultures are circling, not just Nevada, but also the family that she loves. And the only ally she has who might just be powerful enough to help her fight back is the one man who seems to want to drag her into his world and under his thumb by any underhanded means he can find.

In order to fight the devil she must uncover, she has to dance with a different devil, and possibly even become one.

Escape Rating A+: My second A+ of the year. Things are definitely looking up!

I swallowed this book in a single day – or perhaps wallowed in it over a single day. Or both. I didn’t let it go until I finished, then read the preview of the next book and almost dove right back in. (Wildfire is coming out at the end of July, and thank goodness I have an ARC!)

This is a world where magic works. And it’s even codified scientifically!

The way the families works reminds me a bit of the Psy in Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series. While the Primes in this series do not cut themselves off from human emotion in the same way that the Psy did with Silence, they have certainly cut themselves off from their humanity in the broader sense. And they have also banded together into large, wealthy, power-hungry and self-protective family corporations, that seem to operate similarly outside the law.

But the way that the two align most closely, and a way that affects this and future stories in this world, is the way that children are created. Not that there are artificial wombs or anything high-tech, but that the Prime families marry and breed their children in order to produce more powerful Primes. There is a sense that children may only be valued for their magic potential and not for themselves.

Nevada is a powerful argument against this idea. Her family is everything to her, and she is everything to them. They are all valued for who they are and whatever it is they contribute, whether that is through their magic or just their skills. And they are all loved. It’s the love of her family that gives Nevada her greatest strength, and is also her greatest weakness.

And that’s where Connor Rogan nearly pushes her away. He’s a very powerful Prime, and in the first book, it was clear that they were not equals, and that the lack of equality was not in any way that could be easily fixed. But in White Hot, Nevada grows into her own powers, which are formidable – or will be when she’s finished training them.

But in the meantime, her desire to stay normal as long as possible and her need to retain her independence run headlong into Rogan’s need to protect her weaknesses. Because, whether either of them is willing to admit it or not, she’s his weakness.

If I go on, I’m going to start fangirling. I loved this book, and am just itching to dive into Wildfire right now. There is a lot to love in this series. The story is deep, the stakes are high, the hero and heroine are oh-so-wrong and oh-so-right for each other, often at the same time, and it’s the heroine’s journey that carries the story.

But there’s one scene I can’t get out of my head. It’s when they use two ferrets and a badger to steal a computer hard drive from an estate on security lockdown. The animal heroes are straight out of twisted Disney, and break the case wide open. Then they come back for cuddles!

Cuddle up with Burn for Me and White Hot. You’ll be a warm and ecstatically happy reader.

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

The Andrews are giving away a print copy of Burn For Me to one lucky US entrant on this tour.

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Review: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn BennisThe Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #1
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The nation of Garnia has been at war for as long as Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupris can remember – this time against neighboring Vinzhalia. Garnia’s Air Signal Corp stands out as the favored martial child of the King. But though it’s co-ed, women on-board are only allowed “auxiliary” crew positions and are banned from combat. In extenuating circumstances, Josette saves her airship in the heat of battle. She is rewarded with the Mistral, becoming Garnia’s first female captain.
She wants the job – just not the political flak attached. On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat – a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. He’s also been assigned to her ship to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. When the Vins make an unprecedented military move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself to the top brass?

My Review:

The Guns Above is an absolutely fantastic steampunk/Military SF action adventure story. This is one of those stories where it’s science fiction mostly because it isn’t anything else. The only SFnal element is the “not our world” setting and, of course, the airships. Those marvelous airships.

But in its protagonist of Lieutenant Josette Dupre, we have an avatar for every woman who has had it drummed into her head that “in order to be thought half as good as a man she’ll have to be twice as good. And that lucky for her, that’s not difficult.” And we’ve all heard it.

And on my rather confused other hand, it feels like Josette Dupre is Jack Aubrey, which makes Bernat Hinkal into Stephen Maturin. I’m having a really difficult time getting my head around that thought, but at the same time, I can’t dislodge that thought either.

Yes, I promise to explain. As well as I can, anyway.

Lieutenant Dupre technically begins the story as an Auxiliary Lieutenant, because women aren’t permitted to be “real” officers. Or give orders to men. Or participate in battles. Or a whole lot of other completely ridiculous and totally unrealistic rules and regulations that seem to be the first thing thrown over the side when an airship lifts.

Dupre is being feted as the winner of the Garnians’ recent battle in their perpetual war with the Vinzhalians. A war which to this reader sounds an awful lot like the perpetual 18th and even 19th century wars between England and France. (Also the 14th and 15th centuries, better known as the Hundred Years’ War, because it was)

Who the war is with, and which side anyone is one, don’t feel particularly relevant, although I expect they will in the later books in this series that I am crossing my fingers for. What matters to the reader is that we are on Dupre’s side from beginning to end, against the Vinz, against the bureaucracy, against her commanding officer, against the entire world that is just so damn certain that she is incapable of doing the job she is manifestly so damn good at.

And we begin the book pretty much against Lord Bernat Hinkal, because his entire purpose on board Dupre’s ship Mistral is to write a damning report to his uncle the General, giving said General grounds for dismissing the first female captain in the Signal Corps. It doesn’t matter how much utter fabrication Bernat includes in his report, because whatever terrible things he makes up will be believed. There are plenty of reactionary idiots in the Army and the government who believe that women are incapable of commanding, therefore Dupre must be a fluke or a freak of nature or both.

The General is looking for ammunition to shoot down, not just Dupre, but the notion that the Garnians are losing their perpetual war, or at least running out of manpower to fight it, and that womanpower might possibly be at least part of the answer. But the General, like so much of the military hierarchy, is content to rest their laurels and their asses on the so-called fact that Garnia hasn’t lost a war in over three centuries, therefore they can’t be losing this one now.

The past is not always a good predictor of the future, especially when combined with the old truism that generals are always fighting the last war.

But what happens to Bernat, and to the reader, is that we follow in Dupre’s wake, observing her behavior, her doubts, her actions and her sheer ability to command not just her crew’s obedience but also its fear, its respect and even its awe. Dupre, whether in spite of or because of her so-called handicap of being female, is a commander that troops will follow into the toughest firefight – because she is their very best chance at getting to the other side alive – no matter how desperate the odds.

Dupre, her airship Mistral, and The Guns Above are all winners. The Garnian military hierarchy be damned.

Escape Rating A+: It’s obvious that I loved The Guns Above. I got completely absorbed in it from the very first page, and was reluctant to put it down at the end and leave this world behind. Dupre is a marvelous hero who has clear doubts and fears and yet keeps on going from one great thing to another. Part of what makes her fantastic is that she hears that still small voice inside all of us that says we’re faking it, but forces herself to keep going anyway. She exhibits that best kind of courage – she knows she’s terrified, but she goes ahead anyway. Because it’s her duty. Because she knows that, in spite of everything, she is the best person available for the job. Not that she’s the best person in the universe for it, she has way too much self-doubt for that, but that in that place and in that time she’s the best person available. And to quote one of my favorite characters from a much different universe, “Someone else might get it wrong.”

The way that this world is set up, and the way that the setting up proceeds, reminds me tremendously of the Aubrey/Maturin series by the late Patrick O’Brian. That series features a British naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars, along with the friend that he brings aboard his first (and subsequent) command. Like Dupre, Jack Aubrey is also a lieutenant in his first outing, called “Captain” by courtesy when aboard his rather small ship. As is Dupre. Also like the Aubrey series, there is a tremendous amount of detail about the ship and the way it is rigged and the way that the crew behaves. The reader is virtually dumped into a sea of lines and jargon, and it makes the setting feel real. In the O’Brian series it was real, and here it isn’t, but the feeling is the same, that this is a working ship and that this is the way it works.

Also the focus here, like in the O’Brian series, is on this battle and this action and this fight, not on the greater politics as a whole, most of the time. It feels like the Granians are England in this scenario, and the Vinzhalians, France. This is not dissimilar to the Honor Harrington series, where Honor is Jack, Manticore is England, and Haven is France. “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Dupre is only a resident of the halls of power when she is about to receive a dressing down, as is Jack Aubrey in the early days.

But the comparison of Aubrey to Dupre makes Bernat into Maturin, and it actually does work a bit. But where Maturin was a doctor and discovered a function aboard the ship early on, Bernat is rather different. He’s a spy for his uncle, and Dupre knows it. He also begins the journey as a completely useless supernumerary whose only task seems to be to foment small rebellions. Also he’s a complete fop and as out of place on a ship of war as fox in a henhouse. Until he gets every bit as caught up in the action as the reader.

The fascinating thing about Bernat is that he neither changes nor reforms. And yet he does. At the beginning of the story he’s a complete fop, more concerned about his dress, his drink and the quality of his food than he is about anything else, including the progress of the war. He believes what he has been taught. At the end of the story, he is still a fop. But his eyes and his mind have been opened. Partially by Dupre, and partially by the rest of the crew. And, it seems, partially by finding something that he is good at. Aboard the Mistral, he has a positive purpose. On land, only a negative one. And it changes his perspective while not changing his essential nature.

At least not yet. Finding out where he goes from here, along with what plan to be the wild gyrations of Dupre’s career, looks like it’s going to be fascinating. And I can’t wait.

The Guns Above has received my first A+ Review for 2017, and will definitely be on my “Best of 2017” list, along with my Hugo nominations next year. This book is absolutely awesomesauce.

Guest Review: Documenting Light by EE Ottoman

Guest Review:  Documenting Light by EE OttomanDocumenting Light by EE Ottoman
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 150
Published by Brain Mill Press LLC on August 31, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

If you look for yourself in the past and see nothing, how do you know who you are? How do you know that you are supposed to be here?

When Wyatt brings an unidentified photograph to the local historical society, he hopes staff historian Grayson will tell him more about the people in the picture. The subjects in the mysterious photograph sit side by side, their hands close but not touching. One is dark, the other fair. Both wear men’s suits.

Were they friends? Lovers? Business partners? Curiosity drives Grayson and Wyatt to dig deep for information, and the more they learn, the more they begin to wonder — about the photograph, and about themselves.

Guest Review by Amy:

Wyatt is moving his mother into an apartment, as her Alzheimer’s has made it difficult for her to continue running the family farm. While putting some of her things in the attic, he finds an old photograph of two men, and it makes him curious…

Grayson works at the local county historical society, and enjoys the puzzle Wyatt has brought to him. In researching the photograph, the two people learn more about each other–and themselves–than they bargained for.

When Marlene gave me this book for my attention, I was immediately interested; as a transgender woman myself, I can attest that well-crafted stories with transgender characters are a bit scarce. So as I started reading, I was unsurprised to see which of our characters is a transman–Grayson, with his dapper suit and bowtie, fits the bill quite nicely. Wyatt…now, here’s where it gets tricky, so stick with me a moment. For the first part of the book, Wyatt is referred to as “he”, but they’re hiding something from their family and friends–they’re transgender, too, a feminine-expressing genderqueer person who prefers they/them pronouns. Once this is revealed, Ottoman uniformly refers to Wyatt using those pronouns, and their gender identity is not ever at issue after that.

The two people go on a date, after finding out some significant facts about the photograph. The first date doesn’t go well, as both are somewhat afraid of being out with their partner, and have had bad experiences. There’s some internal back-and-forth, and they give it another shot…and what follows is, in this reviewer’s eyes, a truly, truly beautiful thing. The growing relationship between Wyatt and Grayson proceeds very naturally, with the only hiccup being that Wyatt’s family still thinks of him as a gay man, and Grayson’s family is mostly not talking to him at all.  Ottoman, who is themself a student of history as well as an accomplished author, speaks to us through Grayson about the erasure of non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary people in history–how, so often, we must see solid evidence before we can accept anything but the default cisgendered, heterosexual identity.

Grayson is speaking of the study of history, particularly through photographs and other non-textual evidence, but it raises the question, for me, if the same could be said for literary works. In my previous read, The Heart Of Aces, one of the short stories, “Out of the Dead Land,” alludes to this, as one of the characters asserts in an academic paper that a character from a classic film is asexual. Allowing for non-default gender identities and sexualities, when it is not directly referenced in the story, allows for a much broader interpretation of characters and stories. It’s truly complicated, but it’s something I’m going to think about in my own reading moving forward.

Escape Rating: A+:  I could gush on and on and on about this story, seriously. Ottoman has given us two protagonists who are very “real;” we’re firmly entrenched in their heads, and can see the world through their eyes. The internal cringe and stress that Grayson feels when he is misgendered by his boss is almost palpable, as is Wyatt’s discomfort at their mother’s deteriorating mental state, and the fact that their family does not know about their being genderqueer.  Scenery and problems are detailed enough so that we know what the problem-to-overcome is about, without burdening the point needlessly. We know, very quickly, what our character’s stressors are, and the puzzle of the photograph keeps us interested, as a common thread that binds the discoveries together.

One of the high-water marks for me in this tale is when, on a road trip out of town, our newfound friends end up sharing a motel room. They did it for purely pragmatic reasons–neither of them has much money, really, another factor that plays heavily into the path this story takes–so it only makes sense. But the romantic tension has been building for a while, and what happens, happens. It’s a little bit of a predictable moment, but I shan’t complain, and here’s why:

I’ve found that, way too often, scenes depicting queer sexualities come off as…well, smutty, and othering, like it’s something really titillating that they’re different. This is off-putting to me in a lot of ways, as it’s quite inconsistent with my own experiences as a transwoman. Grayson cannot afford surgery–we’re not told if he’s even on hormones yet!–and early in the book grouses to himself about his D-cup breasts being hard to hide. Knowing my own dysphoric experiences during that time in my transition, I can grasp a bit what he is going through. Wyatt, for their part, seems happy enough in their skin; the disconnect for them is that they express as feminine, and aren’t out to much of anyone except Grayson.

Sex, for people who are not conforming to gender binaries, is a tricky business; there are all kinds of possibilities for hangups and traumas and things that just don’t feel good. But our two lovers do what has to be done to make it work–they communicate. The communication, while brief, tells them–and us–what will and won’t work, and expresses enthusiastic consent. The two scenes in this book that are shown are explicit, but not at all smutty. Quite the contrary: you have two beautiful, complicated people loving each other, and enjoying it.

By the end of the book, it’s obvious that Grayson and Wyatt are loving each other both in and out of bed. There are problems yet to overcome, but they’ve committed to dealing with them together. And that, my friend, is what romance is all about, to this reviewer.  I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Review: A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Review: A Great Reckoning by Louise PennyA Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #12) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #12
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The next novel in Louise Penny's #1 New York Times bestselling series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.
When an intricate old map is found stuffed into the walls of the bistro in Three Pines, it at first seems no more than a curiosity. But the closer the villagers look, the stranger it becomes.
Given to Armand Gamache as a gift the first day of his new job, the map eventually leads him to shattering secrets. To an old friend and older adversary. It leads the former Chief of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec to places even he is afraid to go. But must.
And there he finds four young cadets in the Sûreté academy, and a dead professor. And, with the body, a copy of the old, odd map.
Everywhere Gamache turns, he sees Amelia Choquet, one of the cadets. Tattooed and pierced. Guarded and angry. Amelia is more likely to be found on the other side of a police line-up. And yet she is in the academy. A protégée of the murdered professor.
The focus of the investigation soon turns to Gamache himself and his mysterious relationship with Amelia, and his possible involvement in the crime. The frantic search for answers takes the investigators back to Three Pines and a stained glass window with its own horrific secrets.
For both Amelia Choquet and Armand Gamache, the time has come for a great reckoning.
#1 New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny pulls back the layers to reveal a brilliant and emotionally powerful truth in her latest spellbinding novel.

My Review:

In this 12th book in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, maps ARE magic. And everyone is fine. Sometimes just fine but all too often FINE, poet Ruth Zardo’s acronym meaning “Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.”

nature of the beast by louise pennyAt the end of the utterly marvelous The Nature of the Beast, Gamache (and the reader) are left with several burning questions. Only one of those questions gets answered in A Great Reckoning. It’s the question of what will Armand Gamache, retired Chief of the Homicide Division of the Sûreté du Québec, do for a second act? Gamache is in his late 50s, and still has more than enough time to make his mark on another service.

And there are plenty of services interested in letting him do just that. Not just in Canada, but internationally as well. In the end, he chooses to finish what he started in A Fatal Grace and brought to an explosive conclusion in How the Light Gets In. He has cleaned up the rot at the top of the Sûreté du Québec, but there is still a cesspool left at the bottom. Or at the beginning.

The corruption at the top wanted to make sure that it would continue to flourish for decades. The way to do that was to create new agents to fill in the ranks of those fallen by one wayside or another. The late and unlamented head of the Sûreté appointed his own agent to run the Sûreté Academy, thus ensuring an endless pipeline of young agents who had been trained to see the people they were supposed to serve as an enemy to be beaten and brutalized at every turn.

Gamache takes the position of Commander of the Academy, to root out the last vestiges of that rot. While he fires many of the corrupt “old guard” he leaves a few in place, under the principle of keeping his friends close and his enemies much closer.

But he doesn’t watch them carefully enough. He thinks he’s starting to get a handle on what has gone wrong. Some of the freshmen, at least, can be saved. But only if Gamache figures out exactly how deep and disgusting the merde is before it swallows both the Academy and himself whole.

By the time a corpse floats up out of the stink, it is almost, but not quite, too late.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this is less than a day. Just like so many books in this series, once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

There is always a mordant sense of humor in this series, Some of that is born from the situations, but much comes out of the very diverse characters that populate Gamache’s world and the village of Three Pines. Because we already love these people, even the frequently profane and generally misanthropic poet Ruth Zardo, the way that they interact with each other, the teasing and bantering that comes of long and loving friendship, brings a chuckle at the most unlikely of places.

still life by louise pennyThis is a series that rewards readers who start from the very beginning with Still Life. (Do not take the short cut of watching the made-for-TV movie instead of reading the book. This is a case where the movie does not remotely live up to the book. It’s not awful, but it isn’t really Gamache or Three Pines)

We start out with two mysteries, one seems new, and one is long-standing. In the end, both mysteries have been years in the making. And there’s a third, which we discover that we should have expected all along, but don’t even realize until near the end.

There has always been a mystery surrounding the village of Three Pines. It appears on no map. None. GPS can’t find it. There is no internet service and no satellite coverage. This seems like magic, or perhaps fantasy, but is nevertheless true. So when Reine-Marie Gamache finds a map to Three Pines among the detritus excavated from the walls of the bistro when it was redecorated, questions about the map spring up like weeds. Who drew this map? And why are there no others?

Gamache, in what seems like an attempt to engage some of the more disaffected students, assigns two seniors and two freshman the task of unraveling the mystery of the map and its origins.

When the much-feared and extremely corrupt former second-in-command at the Academy is found dead in his rooms with a copy of the map at his bedside table, the former and current purposes of the map take on sinister overtones. While it seems that Gamache continues the cadets’ assignment in order to keep them busy and safe in Three Pines, he always has a secondary and tertiary reason for everything he does.

And he really does want to solve this particular mystery. But not half as much as he needs to figure out who murdered Serge Leduc. Because someone seems determined to pin the murder on him. And while Gamache did not murder the slime, the more he uncovers about exactly what Leduc was doing to the cadets, the more he knows that he could have. Even his closest friends begin to suspect him.

In the end, this is a case that reaches back to the very beginnings of Gamache’s life, and who and what made him into the person he is. It is also a story that reminds us that the barbarian is not at the gates, but that we have already, perhaps unwittingly, let him in.

There’s a lesson in this story,as there often is in this series. In this case, it all boils down to, “Don’t believe everything you think.” You’ll think about that long after you close the book. I know I am.