A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles  by Malka OlderThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles (Mossa & Pleiti, #2) by Malka Ann Older
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera, steampunk
Series: Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on February 13, 2024
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Investigator Mossa and Scholar Pleiti reunite to solve a brand-new mystery in the follow-up to the fan-favorite cozy space opera detective mystery The Mimicking of Known Successes that Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders called “an utter triumph.”
Mossa has returned to Valdegeld on a missing person’s case, for which she’ll once again need Pleiti’s insight.
Seventeen students and staff members have disappeared from Valdegeld University—yet no one has noticed. The answers to this case could be found in the outer reaches of the Jovian system—Mossa’s home—and the history of Jupiter’s original settlements. But Pleiti’s faith in her life’s work as scholar of the past has grown precarious, and this new case threatens to further destabilize her dreams for humanity’s future, as well as her own.

My Review:

Like the opening of the first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, in this delightful steampunk-y, space opera-ish, not-exactly-dark academic mystery series, this second entry begins not with the discovery of a dead body as most mysteries do, but rather with the disappearance and presumed deaths of a whole bunch of bodies.

But presumption, like assumption, involves drawing conclusions that may or may not be born out by evidence. Evidence that the still mysterious Investigator Mossa is determined to collect. Possibly, she’s driven to go that extra bit as an excuse to visit with her now on-again lover Scholar Pleiti at the University at Valdegeld.

Entirely too many of those missing bodies are/were students at the University, and Mossa isn’t above using that connection as an excuse to visit Pleiti AND involve her in her work. Again. Just as she did in their first adventure.

A lot of people DO go missing on Giant – otherwise known as Jupiter. The architecture of the colony, which is made up by rings of platforms stationed around the gas giant, leaves a lot of room for both accidental and on-purpose plummets to death and destruction, whether self-induced or pushed. Searching for missing persons is consequently the raison d’être of the Investigators, of whom Mossa is a part.

But the number of missing has jumped to a degree that is statistically implausible, leading Mossa to an in-person search for those missing. Some of them will be found perfectly safe, because that happens all-too-frequently.

The question in Mossa’s inquisitive mind is whether those findings will bring the number down to something reasonable. She doesn’t believe so. And she’s right.

While Mossa is looking into missing bodies, Pleiti is dealing with a body that has been found. The mad scholar/scientist that Mossa and Pleiti pursued in that first book, the man who pointed out that all of the busy research of the university was merely the ‘mimicking of known successes’ and had little chance of ever coming to fruition, the once respected rector of the university who may have derailed the university’s entire reason for being for centuries, has been found. Or at least his corpse has been.

But the effects of that death, and the events that led up to it, still chase our intrepid investigators. And may have more to do with all those missing bodies than anyone imagined.

Escape Rating A+: There’s something supremely comforting about this series – and I’m oh-so-happy it IS a series because The Mimicking of Known Successes could easily have been a one-off.

I think it’s the combination of the outlandish and exotic with the comforting and familiar. At first it seems pretty far out there, literally as well as figuratively. Jupiter is far away and seemingly totally inhospitable. And it kind of is. But still, humanity has adapted – at least physically. We’ve made it work.

At the same time, the way it works is so very human. They are still close enough in both time and space, relatively speaking, to see their lost home as something they might return to while also romanticizing the past and the possible future.

And the university is so very much academe in a nutshell, to the point where both books’ titles absolutely ring with the sense of academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small, caught up so tightly in the petty grievances of scholars that are more invested in scoring off against each other and/or proving their superiority than they are about real problems and practical solutions.

Which comes right back around to the whole story of the first book AND the motivations that lead to all those missing persons that Mossa is hunting for in this second one. Hunting, in fact, all the way around the train tracks that ring the planet to a hidden platform as far away from the University as it can get – and back around again to the place where both stories began.

To the University, and ultimately to the Earth it claims it wants to return them to – even as it settles into its comforts and grievances in a way that makes the reader wonder if anyone really, truly does.

What carries the story along, what holds it up around those rings and over that gas giant, is the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. They live in different worlds, and approach those worlds from opposing perspectives. Mossa, the Investigator, the ultimate pragmatist, always on the hunt for a new mystery, and Pleiti, the scholar and dreamer ensconced within the comforts and comfortable stability of the university. Their relationship didn’t work the first time, because they couldn’t meet in the middle and let each other in.

This time around they’re a bit older, sometimes sadder, occasionally wiser. Or at least wise enough to know that they are better together than they are apart, even if that togetherness has and even requires more space that one or the other might desire.

Watching them try, following them as they attempt to join two worlds and two perspectives that aren’t intended to meet in any middle, adds something very special to this delightfully charming science fiction mystery that will keep readers coming back for more.

Particularly this reader, left desperately hoping for a third book in the series.

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson BennettThe Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #2
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.
Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.

My Review:

Just like winter in Westeros, the wet season is coming to the Empire of Khanum. There are monsters massing outside the fortifications that guard the border, and there are humans behaving monstrously within the walls, jockeying for political advantage without a care in the world for the amount of collateral damage they might cause in their quest for power.

Young, newly fledged, still probationary, assistant investigator Dinios Kol has been tasked with visiting his very first death scene on behalf of senior investigator Ana Dolabra. Din has been genetically engineered to remember everything, whether at a crime scene or not, and it’s his literal job to serve as Ana’s eyes and ears.

It’s her preference to never leave her house. If Din’s observations lead her to desiring an interview with a witness or a suspect, she’ll subpoena them to come to her. She has that right and that privilege.

Which doesn’t stop the privileged servants who maintain this particular murder scene for their highly ranked gentry masters from treating Din like dirt when he shows up at their door. In spite of pretty much everyone’s strong desire to get the corpse out of the house as soon as the evidence has been collected and the scene is released.

Even if they will need to cut the dead man out of both the floor and the ceiling of the room his body is occupying. It’s not every day that someone dies because a tree took root in their lungs and rapidly grew through their body to implant its roots in the room’s floor and interweave its branches in the ceiling.

As sensational as the murder appears on the surface (or rather, all the surfaces in the room), it’s only the beginning of the story, the case, and Din’s career as an investigator. Because the plot is thicker than Din imagines, the world is much darker and dirtier than his limited experience has led him to believe – and his mentor, the eccentric and seemingly disgraced Ana Dolabra, is considerably more than she appears.

The vast intellectual light that Dolabra is hiding in Din’s tiny, backwater village is enough to burn out a whole lot of the rot. It’s up to Din to learn enough on the job to keep himself from being caught in the flames.

Escape Rating A+: There’s been a rise in science fiction mysteries in the last couple of years, with books like Mur Lafferty’s Station Eternity, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man, and Eddie Robson’s Drunk On All Your Strange New Words leading the way. There’s also been a resurgence of urban fantasy, a genre which was always the bastard child of the paranormal (with or without romance) and mystery (If you’re interested, take a look at T.L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights (starting with The Library of the Dead) and James J. Butcher’s Unorthodox Chronicles that begin with Dead Man’s Hand). But there’s never been a LOT of purely fantasy mystery – at least not since Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy, which was also, come to think of it, every bit as much of a play on Sherlock Holmes as The Tainted Cup turned out to be.

The Tainted Cup, however, is very much an epic fantasy world, but a story whose plot is wrapped around the conventions of a mystery – albeit a mystery that is not in the least cozy. The only way you’d get something cozy out of this one would be if you chopped up the tree that grew through the first body and used it to build a cozy – if somewhat gruesome – fire.

The pairing of Ana Dolabra with Dinios Kol owes a lot to Holmes and Watson – but it will also remind readers of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – or possibly their more recent reincarnations as Pentecost and Parker in Stephen Spotswood’s series that begins with Fortune Favors the Dead. Din is young, naive and untried pretty much all the way around. He’s a small town boy who is about to be thrust into a wider and more dangerous world than he ever imagined. The Tainted Cup is just the beginning of his coming-of-age story, making him considerably more like Goodwin and Parker than Watson, although Goodwin and Parker were both more worldly wise than Din at the beginnings of their respective stories.

Dolabra, on the other hand, is very much Holmesian in her eccentricities, her extreme intolerance for boredom and consequent bad behavior in regards to alleviating it, but above all in her sheer genius for resolving the mysteries put before her. On all the other hands, her unwillingness to leave her residence to seek out the clues for herself is all Wolfe and to a limited extent, Pentecost.

But the setting of The Tainted Cup, and the epically FUBAR political situation therein, is very much fantasy of both the grimdark and steampunk varieties. The world, with its mixture of science and magic and scientifically based magic is similar to the setting of L.E. Modesitt’s Grand Illusion series that kicks off with Isolate. Din shows promise of becoming Steffan Dekkard someday, but he absolutely is not there yet. Part of the fascination of The Tainted Cup is watching Din grow into his job – especially the gray areas within it – without betraying his core principles.

It’s the story of Din learning how to bend without breaking OR breaking the truly important rules. Especially when presented with incontrovertible evidence that entirely too many people already have.

That all being said, the way that this fantasy empire works – and doesn’t – especially the alchemy of corruption and power that holds the empire back and pushes the story forward, brought both Age of Ash and In the Shadow of Lightning to my mind and might to yours as well. (A hint that if you liked either of those or The Grand Illusion you might like this as well.)

I’m writing a LOT about this book and what it reminds me of because I really, really loved it and hope others do as well, leading to what may seem like an epic number of readalikes because I’m hoping to drag people in by hook or by crook.

So, The Tainted Cup reads like a murder mystery, because it absolutely is. The story progresses because Din, sometimes at Dolabra’s request but sometimes on his own, unravels the puzzle of whodunnit, how it was done and most importantly why it was done in bits and pieces, one clue and one pull of the thread at a time.

But, while Din is pulling those threads, the tapestry of this crime and the tapestry of the empire are getting bigger and broader all around him, while at the same time fraying at the edges. Din can’t see the whole picture – he doesn’t know enough to see the whole picture. And neither do we.

Watching him work his way through lets us see the vast scope of everything, both the crime he’s uncovered and the empire that’s falling apart around it, and makes for a compelling page-turner of a story.

A story that is clearly not done when the reader turns the last page. Not that this particular case isn’t solved – because it is and satisfactorily at that – but because this case is just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

There are at least two more books planned for the Shadow of the Leviathan series. Which is a terrific thing because Din’s journey is far from complete and the depths of this empire have not yet been plumbed – and they surely need plumbing. Surely we’ll find out whether Dolabra and Din are up for THAT dirty job in those books yet to come.

A+ #AudioBookReview: The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC Rosen

A+ #AudioBookReview: The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC RosenThe Bell in the Fog (Andy Mills, #2) by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Series: Andy Mills #2
Pages: 261
Length: 9 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Forge Books, Macmillan Audio on October 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The Bell in the Fog, a dazzling historical mystery by Lev AC Rosen, asks―once you have finally found a family, how far would you go to prove yourself to them?
San Francisco, 1952. Detective Evander “Andy” Mills has started a new life for himself as a private detective―but his business hasn’t exactly taken off. It turns out that word spreads fast when you have a bad reputation, and no one in the queer community trusts him enough to ask an ex-cop for help.
When James, an old flame from the war who had mysteriously disappeared, arrives in his offices above the Ruby, Andy wants to kick him out. But the job seems to be a simple case of blackmail, and Andy’s debts are piling up. He agrees to investigate, despite everything it stirs up.
The case will take him back to the shadowy, closeted world of the Navy, and then out into the gay bars of the city, where the past rises up to meet him, like the swell of the ocean under a warship. Missing people, violent strangers, and scandalous photos that could destroy lives are a whirlpool around him, and Andy better make sense of it all before someone pulls him under for good.

My Review:

The typical San Francisco fog hides a lot in this historical mystery set in the early 1950s, and gay ex-cop turned private investigator Andy Mills is caught in the thick of it.

It all begins with a case, as most noir-ish detective stories do. A case told from Andy’s often anguished, confused and frequently pained point of view. Because whatever the actual case is, the thing it investigates most is the past that Andy has done his best to get, well, passed.

And failed.

A former lover is being blackmailed. Someone has pictures of the man in a ‘compromising position’ with another man in a hotel room. Pictures that will scuttle Andy’s ex James’ promotion to Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and send him straight to the stockade with a dishonorable discharge.

Andy needs the case because he needs the money. Business for an ex-cop turned P.I. isn’t good when EVERYONE remembers that he used to be a cop – the people who hassle and roust and beat up guys just like them Just like him, which makes the betrayal that much worse.

But more than the business, Andy needs closure. About James. About what happened to the lover who disappeared from his shipboard bunk one night at the end of the war and didn’t even bother to say goodbye. A disappearance that left Andy desperately afraid that they were caught and he was next. A disappearance that caused Andy to nearly blow up his entire life to get away from.

Andy has four days to find the blackmailer and the evidence – or James’ life goes up in smoke. He has no leads and no clues and no certainty that he doesn’t want James to go down for all the agony he left behind when he disappeared to catch the promotions ladder.

It’s only when Andy solves THAT case that he learns that his nostalgia-washed memories of the war and his relationship with James were a lie, and that the real search for identity is the one that Andy has just begun – a search for who he will be and what life he will live now that he has at least caught all the edges he can of living his own truth instead of hiding behind a scrim of lies.

Unless it gets him killed first.

Escape Rating A+: I initially picked up this series in audio for the voice actor, Vikas Adam, who was one of several fantastic narrators of Jenn Lyons’ A Chorus of Dragons series. The funny thing is that when he’s narrating Andy Mills, the picture I see in my head is Oscar Isaac, but that’s not at all who I see when he’s Kihrin in A Chorus of Dragons and CERTAINLY not the image in my head from when he was Pounce in Day Zero. That’s the alchemy of story for you.

It’s also ironic that, as much as I loved the voice narration, this is one where I flipped to text halfway through because I absolutely HAD to learn whodunnit – and that just wasn’t happening fast enough in audio and I didn’t want to spoil the narration by increasing the speed.

C’est la reading – or listening – vie.

What I loved about this second entry in the Andy Mills series – after 2022’s marvelous Lavender House – was that it combines a typical noir case of searching for an unknown person – actually several missing and/or unknown persons – with a search for identity. And the way that both of those searches are wrapped in fog, smoke and mirrors. Sometimes all at the same time.

Then, wrapped around that mystery like an even denser fog are the questions raised by the historical setting and the damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t problems of living while gay at a time and place where being real was illegal and pretending was illegal and seemingly everyone and everything was peering at every life through a microscope for anyone and anything that could be labeled different from any and every norm.

And what that means for anyone trying to just live their life the best they can where that life has already been declared a criminal act.

In the case of this particular mystery, it leads to a situation where the mystery gets solved but its not possible for good to totally triumph or for evil to get any full measure of its just desserts – and yet it still manages to satisfy as a mystery because Andy has done the best he can and he lives to solve another case another day and that’s all the triumph possible.

Speaking of living to solve another case another day, one of the advantages of waiting a few months to listen/read The Bell in the Fog is that I already know when Andy gets to start on his next case. He’ll be returning to the scene of the crimes and the punishments of his first case in Rough Pages, coming in October. I can’t wait!

Review: The Limehouse Text by Will Thomas

Review: The Limehouse Text by Will ThomasThe Limehouse Text (Barker & Llewelyn, #3) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #3
Pages: 352
Published by Touchstone on July 4, 2006
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In The Limehouse Text, Barker and Llewelyn discover a pawn ticket among the effects of Barker's late assistant, leading them to London's Chinese district, Limehouse. There they retrieve an innocent-looking book that proves to be a rare and secret text stolen from a Nanking monastery, containing lethal martial arts techniques forbidden to the West. With the political situation between the British Empire and Imperial China already unstable, the duo must not only track down a killer intent upon gaining the secret knowledge but also safeguard the text from a snarl of suspects with conflicting interests.
Prowling through an underworld of opium dens, back-room blood sports, and sailors' penny hangs while avoiding the wrath of the district's powerful warlord, Mr. K'ing, Barker and Llewelyn take readers on a perilous tour through the mean streets of turn-of-the-century London.

My Review:

I was feeling in a bit of a murder-y mood this week – reading-wise at least. Which seems entirely fitting as we’re ‘killing’ 2023 this weekend and ringing in 2024. Even the first book this week, Paladin’s Faith, fits that murder theme, because the story is wrapped around preventing the protagonist from getting murdered, AND because one of the characters in the story is from a people who call the individual years gods, gods who die at the end of the year as the new year-god is born.

And this series, Barker & Llewelyn is also part of my anticipation for the coming year, as this series has turned into my new comfort read series, just as yesterday’s book was the penultimate story in a series that has formed part of my comfort reading for THIS year coming to an end.

Barker & Llewelyn certainly have become a comfort read, as was evidenced by the way I slipped back into their Victorian London like slipping into a warm bath, and didn’t resurface until my mind had its fill of the mystery and was ready to come back to the real world.

Not that the real, 21st century doesn’t intrude in this series, because it frequently does. Not through ANY anachronisms, but rather as a result of the fact that technology may change but human nature does not. The issues that face Barker & Llewelyn, issues of race, gender, class and socioeconomic inequalities, the tensions between countries and war and peace, have always been part of the human condition.

The author does an excellent job of allowing the reader to experience the roots of specific 21st century issues in 19th century mores, behaviors and actions without ever breaking the character of the era in which this series takes place.

This entry in the series, as looks to be a developing pattern for the stories as a whole, begins at a climactic moment very near the end that seems both shocking and inexplicable as an opening – but fully rivets the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go until the story has caught up to that climax.

Rather like a caper story, which often begins by seeing the results of what got done and then winds its action back to the beginning of how the characters got to that point. After all, there kind of is a caper in The Limehouse Text. Multiple capers, in fact, although that’s not clear to anyone involved when Llewelyn winds his narrative back to begin at the beginning.

Which turns out to be tied up in Thomas Llewelyn’s own beginning as Private Enquiry Agent Cyrus Barker’s assistant. The job Llewelyn has been growing into and abler for every day was only available to him because the previous occupant had become involved in considerably more danger than even his employer had been aware of. Danger that resulted in his murder – a case that Barker has not managed to solve even a year later.

But new evidence in Quong’s murder has been uncovered by a police inspector who turns out to have been a bit too thorough for his own good. Resulting in the reopening of that old case, a new string of deaths and the potential for grave diplomatic incidents in the already fractious relationship between Britain and China – whether those incidents take place in Limehouse, in Peking, or over Cyrus Barker’s grave.

Escape Rating A+: One thing drove me utterly bananas during my reading of The Limehouse Text. I had the vague impression, not that I’d read this before, but that the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series had also tackled a story set in Limehouse – London’s Victorian version of Chinatown – but couldn’t track down precisely which story. I think it may have been “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, but I wasn’t able to nail it down without watching the thing. (Which would have been a treat but not necessarily at 3 in the morning.)

And that was absolutely the only quibble I had with the whole fascinating story, which made The Limehouse Text an excellent book to close out the year!

I got into the Barker & Llewelyn series because of their resemblance to Holmes and Watson, but I’ve stayed, and plan on continuing, because of the ways in which they take that familiar setting and put an entirely different spin on it in the very best way.

A big part of that spin is that Holmes and Watson were, in their own ways, both insiders in a society that rigorously imposed boundaries on all sides. Barker, as a self-educated Scotsman who grew up in China, and Llewelyn, as a Welshman who served a prison sentence, are outsiders and frequently and bitingly reminded of it by the powers-that-think-they-be.

This condition is played with, up, out and over in this entry in the series, as it showcases the contempt with which the British government and its representatives, as well as more of the general public than we’d like to admit, treated both the Chinese immigrants who had settled in London AND the whole entire government of Imperial China which the British continued to rape and pillage on any and all pretexts.

(R.F. Kuang’s Babel also draws on these same historical conditions – but takes them in a rather different direction.)

While all of that is background, it is also an integral part of the mystery, as the item that Quong died for is a sacred text that should never have been smuggled out of China. It does not have the military applications that either the Chinese or the British believe that it might, and it absolutely does belong back where it was stolen from. The conflict within the story is between those who want to profit from it, those who want to use it for its purported military applications, and those who want to see it returned to its rightful place.

With Barker caught in the middle and punched from all sides. Literally.

In the end, this is a clever, convoluted mystery, solved but not truly resolved by fascinating characters, steeped in a culture and a perspective that was not treated with any kind of respect in its time and about which stereotypes promoted during this period still linger. The reader is inexorably drawn in by the mystery and the setting, and left with both the satisfaction of at least some just desserts being served – as a mystery should – while still reeling from the marvelously presented microcosm of all the reasons why ‘colonialism’ is such a disgustingly dirty word in so many places around the globe to this very day.

For all these reasons, and the reasons outlined in my reviews of the first two books in this marvelous series, Some Danger Involved and To Kingdom Come, I will absolutely be back for more of Barker & Llewelyn’s fascinating cases in 2024. Next up, The Hellfire Conspiracy, the next time I need a comfortingly murderous read!

Review: To Kingdom Come by Will Thomas

Review: To Kingdom Come by Will ThomasTo Kingdom Come (Barker & Llewelyn, #2) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #2
Pages: 288
Published by Touchstone Books on May 3, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When a bomb destroys the recently formed Special Irish Branch of Scotland Yard, all fingers point to the increasingly brazen factions of Irish dissidents seeking liberation from English rule. Volunteering their services to the British government, Barker and Llewelyn set out to infiltrate a secret cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood known as the Invisibles. Posing as a reclusive German bomb maker and his anarchist apprentice, they are recruited for the group's ultimate plan: to bring London to its knees and end the monarchy forever.
Their adventures take them from a lighthouse on the craggy coast of Wales to a Liverpool infested with radicals, and even to the City of Light, where Llewelyn goes undercover with Maire O'Casey, the alluring sister of an Irish radical. Llewelyn again finds himself put to the test by his enigmatic employer, studying the art of self-defense and the brutal sport of hurling -- and, most dangerous of all, being schooled in the deadly science of bomb making.

My Review:

What an explosive treat this book turned out to be!

I’ve started at the end a bit there, but that fits right into the story, as it does too. Not that the beginning of the book tells us much – yet – because it shouldn’t. But does make for every bit as dramatic – and yes explosive – opening as that first sentence.

After the events of the first marvelous book in this series, Some Danger Involved, we catch up with Thomas Llewelyn as he’s drowning in the Thames. As we learn later, that’s a fitting metaphor for the entire case, because Llewelyn is in over his head the whole way through.

So, as Llewelyn extracts himself from his watery predicament, the story loops back so that the reader can discover how he ended up in that particularly messy water. A situation which we are pretty sure he survived, as he is the narrator for this entire series as part of his duties as enquiry agent Cyrus Barker’s assistant.

The case that has brought Llewelyn to this pass is steeped in the true history of the late Victorian era, as London is rocked by bombs planted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. (Not a typo, the IRB was a predecessor/brother organization to the later IRA). In 1884, when this story took place, Irish Home Rule was a rising question in the House of Commons, “Fenian” terrorism was on the rise, and the Special Irish Branch of the Metropolitan Police, formed in 1882, was tasked with rooting out the terrorists but still getting their boots under them as far as being successful at it.

When Barker and Llewelyn enter this particular case, the area around Scotland Yard – including their own offices – has been cratered by bombs planted by one faction or another of the IRB. Exactly by which faction is caught up in an investigation filled with jurisdictional conflicts between the Met’s Special Branch – whose offices were completely destroyed – and the government’s Home Office department.

Barker throws his – and by extension Llewelyn’s – lives and reputations on the line by promising the Home Office – and by extension the Queen – that he and Llewelyn can infiltrate the IRB, discover the actual perpetrators of the bombings, and set them up for capture by whichever department wins the prize of publicity for their arrest. And that they can get the job done in less than a month – before the date when the bombers have promised a bigger and more explosive round of bombings.

It’s Llewelyn’s first – but probably far from last – attempt to work undercover and play the spy. It’s a difficult task for a man who usually wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s also a hard lesson in keeping his emotions to himself – a lesson at which he fails – and not getting too deep into the part he has to play to survive – even if his heart does not.

Escape Rating A+: Diving into the first book in this series, Some Danger Involved, has turned out to be one of my best reading decisions of the whole, entire year. Now two books in, I’m fully committed to reading the whole series because it’s completely absorbing and consistently awesome.

It also fits right into historical mystery series I’ve previously loved. Not just the obvious echoes of Holmes and Watson, but also to the late Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, to the point where I’m wondering if Thomas Llewelyn’s name is a bit of an homage to Pitt. I invoke Pitt specifically here because Thomas Pitt was also involved with the Special Irish Branch in that series after book 21, The Whitechapel Conspiracy, and became its head before he retired at the end of the series. So those parts of the story felt every bit as familiar as the subtle Holmes and Watson call backs and it made this story that much easier to get stuck into.

What kept me glued to my seat (as this turned out to be a one-sitting/one-evening read) was the way that it dove head-first both into the heart of its point-of-view character Thomas Llewelyn and into the hearts and motivations of the Irish Republican Brotherhood faction members, and the difficulty that Llewelyn had separating himself from them and his sympathy for their cause even as he decried their methods and worked to bring them down, doing his best to keep them all from being blown “to kingdom come”.

So I fell every bit as deeply into this book as I did to the first book in the series, Some Danger Involved, the title of which is a quote from Barker’s ‘Help Wanted’ advertisement that Llewelyn applied for in that first book. I will most definitely be back for the third book in this series, The Limehouse Text, in the hopes of figuring out what that title has to do with the story, the next time I need a reading break with a bit of body and a compelling mystery adventure.

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle Sagara

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle SagaraShards of Glass by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Academia, once an elite proving ground for the rulers of the world, has been frozen for centuries. Now its strange slumber has ended, and a new Chancellor, an orange-eyed dragon, has reopened its lecture halls and readied its dorms. In order to thrive once more, however, the Academia needs fresh blood—new students with a passion and talent for learning.
One such student, Robin, has the perfect recruit in his friend Raven, an orphan who lives in the dangerous Warrens. Robin grew up in the Warrens, and he wouldn't have made it if not for Raven. He knows she’ll be safe at the Academia, where her unusual gifts can be appreciated.
But when students start turning up dead, the campus threatens to collapse completely. Raven and Robin will not let that happen to their new home…if they can survive long enough to figure out who—or what—is trying to kill them.

My Review:

Shards of Glass is a bit of a side story in the marvelously interwoven, intricately-plotted, and long-running Chronicles of Elantra series. It takes us deep into the heart and soul (and yes, it most certainly has one, literally as well as figuratively) of the formerly lost and presumed destroyed Academia, the institution that was found hidden in a misty pocket of Elantra’s fiefs in Cast in Wisdom.

The Academia, both in its function as a school and repository of knowledge, and in the person of its sentient building, majordomo, administrator and caretaker, Killianas, is slowly recovering from its long, well, let’s call it a coma.

But it seems, at least at first, that someone or something or some force or all of the above is trying to prevent or at least delay that recovery. By way of murdering the students. That is not a situation that either the Chancellor, the Dragon Lord Lannagaros, or Killianas himself can allow to continue – not if they’re doing their jobs and/or following the purposes their hearts have called them to.

Which is where Robin, his friend Raven, and the woman they call the ‘grey crow’ wing their way into this considerably disturbed nest of learning and scholarship. Initially, they seem to be a bit at cross-purposes. Giselle, the information broker and ‘grey crow’ of the downtrodden slum known as the Warrens, just wants to get paid for bringing a new student to the Academia. Robin, once a denizen of those Warrens, wants to bring his friend Raven to the Academia, where she’ll be safe and warm and fed and be able to learn more things – just as he is.

But Robin is not safe at all, and neither is the Academia. Since it is Raven’s duty to keep Robin safe, she comes to the Academia to save him. And it. And all of the students who have come to call the place home.

Someone is murdering the students. Or something. Or magic. Or all of the above. No one is sure how they are being killed – or if the students are the intended victims. Or why its happening. Or who might benefit – or think they benefit – from the blood and the chaos.

Raven only cares that Robin is safe. So that he can fulfill a duty he hasn’t been allowed to remember. Which will bring an end to hers – whether her duty ends in success or failure, it will end in blood and tears either way.

Or will it?

Escape Rating A+: I began reading the Chronicles of Elantra in 2011, at which point the series was already seven books in. I have a distinct memory of where we were living and exactly what the room looked like as I read them – the series made that much of an impression and I was so completely hooked. My first official review of the series here at Reading Reality was for book 7, Cast in Ruin.

But, and it is an unfortunately large but in this case, as much as I love the series – and I very much still do – at this point in the main series, last year’s book 17, Cast in Eternity, it’s gotten harder and harder to get into each successive entry as the backstory has gotten bigger, more convoluted and considerably both denser AND more sprawling as it’s gone along. (I have audio for both book 16, Cast in Conflict and Cast in Eternity and have hopes the whole thing will work better for me that way.

But I love the series. I really, really love it. Which is what made both the Wolves of Elantra prequel series (The Emperor’s Wolves and Sword and Shadow), as well as this latest book, Shards of Glass, so good, so much fun, and so much easier to get stuck into.

The Wolves of Elantra is a prequel series, so it can serve as an intro to the Chronicles, but it’s also an excellent way to slip back into Elantra without having to hold all the details of everything in one’s head.

Shards of Glass, on the other hand, is a side story within the Chronicles. It sets a story almost entirely within the formerly lost Academia that was rediscovered in Cast in Wisdom and expands upon that setting and that setting pretty much alone. And it’s a fantasy mystery, which makes it all just that much better, as I love the fantasy mystery blending AND the story is contained enough within the now-mostly-functional Academia that one again does not need to remember all the ins and outs of all of Kaylin Nera’s many, many unexpected ‘adventures’ to happily get ensconced in this one.

Kaylin, the protagonist of the main Chronicles series, isn’t even a side character in Shards of Glass. She’s mentioned – as she should be all things considered – but this is most definitely NOT her story.

Instead, Shards of Glass takes the reader into the heart of that formerly lost Academia, where school is finally back in session after over a millennia of abeyance. The school, both as an institution and in the person of its sentient building and grounds, Killianas, is recovering.

At first, it seems like it’s flailing around its mystery – or at least all the characters within it are flailing, including the Dragon Chancellor and the Giant Spider Librarian. (The varieties of species, histories and perspectives are a huge part of what make the Chronicles of Elantra so much fun. The Dragons are particularly acerbic and wry, but then they can afford to be.)

A big part of the flailing is that there are so many possible motives for the murders and so little ability to settle on which one is correct. The flailing keeps falling apart on, not the classic mystery question of ‘Why benefits?’ but more a matter of who is believed to benefit or who believes they benefit and none of those possible avenues of investigation resolve to the same set of possible motives or suspects.

And of course they all turn out to be wrong – and wrong in a way that is buried in the legends of the deep past and will cause catastrophic destruction if they’re not sussed out in time and by the right people.

So Shards of Glass, both in the way the story works itself and the way it dives deeply into one of Elantra’s fundamental institutions, both fits perfectly into the way the series as a whole works and yet still introduces – or reintroduces – the reader to a small enough corner of the vastness that it’s possible to get completely stuck into the whole thing without remembering all the details of what came before.

On top of all of that, it’s a beautiful story about the power and saving grace of friendship, and that was just wonderful. Shards of Glass is worth the read for that factor alone and I’m so very glad I read it. Hopefully, by the time the next book in the main Chronicles of Elantra series, Cast in Atonement, comes out next August I will have caught back up to that last couple of books in the series that I missed.

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will ThomasSome Danger Involved (Barker & Llewelyn, #1) by Will Thomas
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Barker & Llewelyn #1
Pages: 290
Published by Touchstone on May 18, 2004
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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An atmospheric debut novel set on the gritty streets of Victorian London, Some Danger Involved introduces detective Cyrus Barker and his apprentice, Thomas Llewelyn, as they work to solve the gruesome murder of a young scholar.
When a student bearing a striking resemblance to artists' renderings of Jesus Christ is found murdered -- by crucifixion -- in London's Jewish ghetto, 19th-century private detective Barker must hire an assistant to help him solve the sinister case. Out of all who answer an ad for a position with "some danger involved," the eccentric and enigmatic Barker chooses downtrodden Llewelyn, a gutsy young man whose murky past includes recent stints at both an Oxford college and an Oxford prison. As Llewelyn learns the ropes of his position, he is drawn deeper and deeper into Barker's peculiar world of vigilante detective work, as well as the dark heart of London's teeming underworld. Together they pass through chophouses, stables, and clandestine tea rooms, tangling with the early Italian mafia, a mad professor of eugenics, and other shadowy figures, inching ever closer to the shocking truth behind the murder.

My Review:

Fair warning, this review is going to be LONG, even for me. I really, truly, seriously LOVED this book – even more than I expected. And I had pretty high hopes going in.

We first meet our protagonists in a tried-and-true manner that does an excellent job of hinting at the mysteries and the reveals yet to come.

Cyrus Barker is a ‘private enquiry agent’ (read as private detective), in search of a new assistant, while down-so-low-bottom-looks-like-up Thomas Llewelyn, formerly of both Oxford University and Oxford Castle & Prison, has nothing left either to life for or to live on. He sees Barker’s advertisement as a decision point. Either he’ll get the job or he’ll throw himself in the Thames.

Of course, he gets the job – otherwise we wouldn’t have this marvelous book to read, let alone the series that follows.

But the job that he gets is nothing like he expected. On the one hand, his new employer likes to hold all his cards VERY close to his vest. Llewelyn is constantly flying blind, expected to figure things out by the seat of his pants.

Pants – along with every other stitch of clothing he has on – purchased for him by his employer, who is also providing food, board, education, and all the books the former scholar can read in his spare time – of which there is admittedly little.

Most important, Barker gives him purpose, keeps his mind fully engaged, and sets him to the task of learning the ins and outs of his new job while thinking on his feet and occasionally employing his fists.

But the ‘Help Wanted’ listing said that there was ‘some danger involved’ in the job, as the title of the book indicates. Barker’s previous assistant was killed while performing that job. Llewelyn will have to keep his wits about him every second to make sure that he doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Working with Cyrus Barker promises to be the making of him, IF he manages to survive it. We’ll certainly see how well he manages in the books ahead!

Escape Rating A+: I generally require my comfort reads to have a bit of body to hold my interest. I mean that literally, as my comfort reads tend to be historical mysteries, preferably in series, so that when I have a ‘bail and flail’ day – or week – there’s always another known quantity of a book to sweep me into its world.

Buuuut, I’m caught up with one series I was using as comfort reading, the Sebastian St. Cyr series. And I’m nearly caught up with its readalike series, Wrexford & Sloane. Which left me scrabbling for another, which is very much where Barker & Llewelyn came in.

This first entry in the Barker & Llewelyn series turned out to be a comfort read on not just one but multiple levels, which is pretty amazing.

Most importantly, the partnership of Barker & Llewelyn is at its very beginning in this book, and they are fascinating – partly because of the second reason. The period in which this series takes place is the Victorian era, the bailiwick of the Great Detective and his equally famous amanuensis. In other words, Barker & Llewelyn could easily find themselves in competition with Sherlock Holmes – even more than they already are.

It’s not difficult to see Barker as Holmes and Llewelyn as his Watson, but that famous duo serves mostly as a jumping off point for our protagonists in this series. This isn’t a true Holmes pastiche as the Lady Sherlock or The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series, or the TV series Sherlock and Elementary, are.

Not that Barker doesn’t have similarities to Holmes, but more in the sense that any capable senior partner in a detective duo shares at least some characteristics with the Great Detective. What sets Barker apart is the way that Barker is, well, set apart.

Detectives are often outsiders in their own cultures, it’s what gives them the ability to observe in detachment and solve the case. Sherlock Holmes is an outsider because of his idiosyncrasies, as is made extremely apparent in the modern interpretations. However, from what little we know of Holmes’ earlier life, he’s at least a member of the squirearchy and was raised in at least upper middle class comfort with all of its privileges.

Barker has been an outsider all of his life, an English orphan abandoned in China, making his way around the globe from a rough start as a cabin boy, initially seeing the world from outside the British Empire and from the bottom up. He’s earned his place by working his way into it.

He’s also a considerably more human character than Holmes frequently is. Barker often hides the real depths of his humanity to outsiders, but it is always present to his intimates. It’s a much fuller portrait of a Victorian detective, and also one that, through Barker’s haphazard but global education, manages to credibly eschew the common prejudices of his day that Holmes exhibits in the original text.

Llewelyn is just as fascinating a character as Barker, and just as much of an outsider, although he comes at that perspective from an entirely different direction. He’s very much the apprentice in this first book, and so it should be. We’re just starting to get hints of how he ended up in depths of the slough of despond he is in when he arrives as Barker’s office for the first time, and his education in the arts of the ‘enquiry agent’ as Barker prefers to be called provide an in-depth introduction to their world.

On a personal note, part of what made this such a special comfort read for this reader is that the story takes place among the Jewish community of London in 1884 as a gruesome murder causes the leaders of that community to fear that a pogrom just like the ones that they or their families fled in Eastern Europe is about to boil over in London.

Much of the story is steeped in that community, and requires Barker to display his own familiarity with its customs and ways AND his respect for its people to Llewelyn. Even more importantly, the inside/outsiderness of the Jewish community in London, and Llewelyn’s open-mindedness to learning about it lets readers into a time and a place that history often sweeps under the carpet.

(Although my own family was still spread across Eastern Europe at this time period, I have pictures of my great-grandfather, and this would have been his generation, letting me connect to this story on a deeper level than I expected – which is where those multiple levels of comfort read come comfortably in.)

So I began Some Danger Involved in the hopes that the danger promised would lead me to a book and a series that would hold me in its thrall until the very last page, and give me something to look forward to whenever I next need a reading pick-me-up.

This first of Barker & Llewelyn’s investigations more than delivered, and I expect to dive back into their world in the next book in the series, To Kingdom Come, sometime over the holidays. If I can make myself wait even that long!

Review: Calamity by Constance Fay

Review: Calamity by Constance FayCalamity (Uncharted Hearts, #1) by Constance Fay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Uncharted Hearts #1
Pages: 320
Published by Bramble Romance on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Bramble's inaugural debut is equal parts steamy interstellar romance and sci-fi adventure, perfect for fans of Firefly and Ilona Andrews.
She’s got a ramshackle spaceship, a misfit crew, and a big problem with its sexy newest member…
Temperance Reed, banished from the wealthy and dangerous Fifteen Families, just wants to keep her crew together after their feckless captain ran off with the intern. But she’s drowning in debt and revolutionary new engine technology is about to make her beloved ship obsolete.
Enter Arcadio Escajeda. Second child of the terrifying Escajeda Family, he’s the thorn in Temper’s side as they’re sent off on a scouting mission on the backwater desert planet of Herschel 2. They throw sparks every time they meet but Temper’s suspicions of his ulterior motives only serve to fuel the flames between them.
Despite volcanic eruptions, secret cultists, and deadly galactic fighters, the greatest threat on this mission may be to Temper’s heart.

My Review:

They had me at Firefly. Seriously. I’m still a sucker for another trip on anything like the Serenity, and Calamity, both the ship and the person she’s named for, certainly flies a very similar trajectory out in the black.

But Temperance Reed, infamous as just ‘Temper’ for damn good reasons, isn’t really all that much like Mal Reynolds. Mal seems to have started life close to the bottom in his ‘verse, while Temperance Reed, once upon a time, was at the top of hers.

However, being a soldier imploded his life, being the younger sister of an entitled asshole blew up hers, and they both end up in the same place, as captains of scrappy, ramshackle ships they can barely manage to keep flying, with misfit crews, taking jobs they know they shouldn’t take but can’t afford to turn down, making the best of the bad hand that life has dealt them.

Once upon a time, Temper Reed was the child of one of the ‘Ten’, one of the mega-rich, mega-corp, mercantile families that control their galaxy. But the problem with Temper wasn’t so much her temper as it was her older brother’s. He was the heir, she was the spare, but she was their parents’ favorite.

So once they were gone, his insecurities and megalomania combined to take her family’s development in a direction she knew her parents would never have condoned. Instead of continuing to create cutting-edge tech utilizing AI and language processing, her brother Frederick turned them into a ruthless slice and dice operation that just killed off competition – literally – and then swooped in to buy out the remainders.

They stopped creating. And Temper stopped believing, to the point where she rebelled and he officially disowned and banished her to the unregulated black. There’s more to that story, and it’s all awful. Awfully well told and revealed, but still awful.

Temper and her crew are on borrowed time, and the ship is in hock up to Temper’s eyebrows. So when one of the really big conglomerate families offers them a job with premium pay, Temper knows she has to take it, even though she also knows that they’re concealing a whole lot of the details about what’s really going on,  AND that she and her crew are expendable in the first place and they don’t plan to pay them even if they survive.

What she doesn’t expect is a corporate minder in the much too handsome and appealing person of one of the family’s younger sons, Arcadio Escajeda. She’s sure she can ignore her hormones in favor of the common sense that’s telling her that family scions in good standing absolutely do not take up with banished and reviled traitors to their own families.

While Temper may be swimming up the River DeNial, wherever that might be located in her ‘verse, it’s not Arcadio’s perfectly sculpted hotness that throws her good sense over its shoulder and takes it along for the ride – it’s his willingness to truly BE a part of her crew no matter how boring or dangerous the duty might be. Along with just how damn good he is at helping her save them all.

Temper, apparently, is a sucker for competence. While Arcadio turns out to be a sucker for Calamity.

Escape Rating A+: Damn this is fun. Or should I say shiny. Fun, absolutely, utterly fun. I had a terrific time reading this. It’s a wild thrill ride of a science fiction adventure with a (dare I say it?) core of molten lava in multiple senses of all those words.

But a big chunk of the reason I loved it was because of just how well it fits into the science fiction romance tradition – which has never gotten near as much love as it deserves. So I have hopes that Tor Books’ creation of the Bramble imprint, specifically for the purpose of publishing science fiction romance, will do a lot to turn that tide.

The thing about SFR as a genre is that it has to sit on the fence between SF and romance and not get too many splinters up its ass from either side – unless it turns out that the romantic partners are into that sort of thing. Which means that the worldbuilding and plotting has to tell a credible SF story while putting a romance with at least a HFN (that’s Happy For Now), at its heart.

It’s not that it hasn’t been done, because it most definitely has. While Firefly hinted at it – frequently and often – that wasn’t the heart of that story. And the blurb’s mention of Ilona Andrews isn’t quite right as most of her work has been urban fantasy. Compelling with wonderful storytelling and world creation, but not SFR except for her short but marvelous Kinsmen series.

Instead, the comparisons are to Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, Valerie Valdes’ more recent Chilling Effect series, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War, and even going back to Nina Croft’s Dark Desires series and further back to Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan Saga.

I can’t leave that list without mentioning the marvelous – and marvelously prolific – Anna Hackett, who has created some truly terrific universes, terribly rapacious villains, and steam-up-the spaceship windows SFR series for anyone who loves a rollicking good SF adventure with a steamy heart. (If you like the sound of Calamity, or if you loved any of the above mentioned, check out Hackett’s Eon Warriors series and its sequels for some excellent SFR!)

Between its background of mercantile, family-run empires, unhinged heirs and abusive siblings, battered smugglers and their ships along with its story of a star-crossed romance with a change, Calamity is a worthwhile successor to any and all of the above. And if Tor Books’ creation of Bramble makes readers re-evaluate just how great a taste it can be to add a bit of romance to their SF, that’s all to the good.

Because Calamity manages to straddle that fence very, very well. The world is solidly built, the heroes are just the right level of ragtag, Temper is most definitely interestingly flawed but still striving, and the mission is exciting and FUBAR’d at the same time – just as it should be.

The romance between Temper and Arcadio has the deliciousness of being oh-so-right, oh-so-wrong and oh-so-big-a-mistake wrapped up in a dangerous package that hits all the right places, with all the intrusive wink-wink, nod-nod poking from the crew needed to make it both sweet and spectacle at the same time. While the save-the-mission-and-maybe-die-trying ending was just the kind of wild ride that SF readers love.

Which I most certainly did.

Calamity is both the author’s debut novel AND the book that marks the kickoff for Bramble, and it’s a grand book to carry both of those banners. I can’t wait to see what else they have in store for SFR lovers in the months to come. And Temper will be back next June in Fiasco, which, if Calamity is anything to go by, will probably be filled with oodles of fiascos for Temper and her crew while delivering another kickass science fiction adventure wrapped around a fantastic romance!

Review: Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree

Review: Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis BaldreeBookshops & Bonedust (Legends & Lattes, #0) by Travis Baldree
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy
Series: Legends & Lattes #0
Pages: 352
Published by Tor Books on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When an injury throws a young, battle-hungry orc off her chosen path, she may find that what we need isn't always what we seek.
In Bookshops & Bonedust, a prequel to Legends & Lattes, New York Times bestselling author Travis Baldree takes us on a journey of high fantasy, first loves, and second-hand books.
Viv's career with the notorious mercenary company Rackam's Ravens isn't going as planned.
Wounded during the hunt for a powerful necromancer, she's packed off against her will to recuperate in the sleepy beach town of Murk—so far from the action that she worries she'll never be able to return to it.
What's a thwarted soldier of fortune to do?
Spending her hours at a beleaguered bookshop in the company of its foul-mouthed proprietor is the last thing Viv would have predicted, but it may be both exactly what she needs and the seed of changes she couldn't possibly imagine.
Still, adventure isn't all that far away. A suspicious traveler in gray, a gnome with a chip on her shoulder, a summer fling, and an improbable number of skeletons prove Murk to be more eventful than Viv could have ever expected.

My Review:

Legends & Lattes was all about Viv fulfilling a dream that she’s had for a very long time, to retire from the mercenary life and open a coffee shop, a place where she can hang up her sword (literally) and dispense peace and life-giving liquid in equal measure – instead of dealing death to people who generally deserved it.

The story in Bookshops & Bonedust is the story of way back when Viv was considerably younger and a whole lot dumber (as we often are) and first caught the inkling of that dream. Not in bustling Thune but in tiny, tacky, tawdry Murk, a seaside town that has certainly seen better days.

But it’s the most convenient place for Rackham’s Raiders, the mercenary company that young Viv is signed up with, to deposit her after she gets herself ahead of her team in a fight and gets skewered in the leg for her trouble. Or her hubris. Or just her belief that as a young orc in her first big skirmish she’s both immortal and indestructible.

Of course she’s neither, and has the bleeding holes in her leg to prove it. So she’ll be rusticating and recovering in Murk while Rackham’s Raiders are off to bring down Varine the Necromancer and her horde of skeletal warriors.

Viv is scared that Rackham won’t come back for her. She’s worried she won’t heal properly. But more than anything else, she’s frightened half to death that she’ll go out of her mind with boredom while she’s stuck, literally on her ass, in Murk.

Which is what leads her, albeit very indirectly and with a whole lot of excruciating steps, to Maylee’s bakery and Fern’s bookshop. The bakery because damn it smells good and the dwarf baker looks every bit as yummy as her freshly baked wares. The bookshop because there’s nothing to while away a whole lot of quiet time quite like a good book. Or a whole series of them.

And that bookshop, Thistleburr Booksellers, looks like it has lots and bunches of books, all sort of moldering away in a place that reeks of mold and moist and uncleaned rug and unwashed gryphlet. It smells ‘yellow’ to Viv, and any pet owner knows EXACTLY what that means.

But that doesn’t stop Viv from stepping in to while away a few minutes as she certainly has plenty to spare. The bookshop owner, desperate for both companionship and custom, induces Viv to take a book that she is certain will suck the orc right into its pages for a few hours.

And she’s right – of course she’s right – and it’s the beginning of the kind of friendship that will save them both, the store, and eventually and surprisingly the entire town of Murk.

Because Rackham’s Raiders are chasing that necromancer. A necromancer who is already on her deadly and deathly way to Murk – where Viv and Fern are waiting to beat her. Not with swords – but with just the type of cleverness that eventually will make Viv and her coffee shop such a success in Thune.

All it will take is a bit of ingenuity and a whole lot of help from Viv’s newly found friends.

Escape Rating A+: Anyone who sunk straight into the cozy fantasy vibe of Legends & Lattes is going to sink into Bookshops & Bonedust and not emerge for much of anything until they fall out the other side with a huge smile, a taste for Maylee’s lassy (molasses) buns and a hankering for more stories just like this one – especially for more set in this marvelous world.

What makes this world, and this cozy fantasy style, just so much of a comfort read is that, although bad things do happen to good people, that is most emphatically NOT what the story is about. It’s not about big wars and bigger politics and gigantic battles between good and evil resulting in stupendously high butcher’s bills.

Not that there isn’t danger, and not that there isn’t a confrontation. Because there is most certainly both along with plenty of tension, both dramatic and romantic, to push the whole thing along.

But the way that things get solved and resolved is through less bloodthirsty means – and just as occurred in Legends & Lattes, quite often problems, from small to world-shattering, get solved with a whole lot of ingenuity and more than a bit of help from the friends – and even the frenemies – that Viv has made along the way.

So it’s all cozy in the best way, where the reader slips under a warm blanket of story and gets told a marvelous tale that displays more of the best in people than it does the worst.

Even better, Bookshops & Bonedust, while it has all the charm of Legends & Lattes, is a prequel and not a sequel. Meaning that if you somehow missed the sensation that is Legends & Lattes, you can start here. The story, after all, does start here. If this is where you start, you’ll be thrilled and charmed and ready to start Legends the minute you finish.

But if you started with Legends, reading Bookshops & Bonedust will almost certainly inspire you to pick up Legends again the moment you finish, so you can discover how all the little clues about Viv’s later adventures fit into her first one. I know it certainly inspired me! Which is a good thing because, both fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, the author has three more cozy fantasies lined up, but the first won’t be published until 2025. Plenty of time to reread – or maybe listen this time around – to both Legends and Bookshops (and maybe my other cozy favorite, Can’t Spell Treason without Tea) before my next visit with Viv!

Review: Osprey by M.L. Buchman

Review: Osprey by M.L. BuchmanOsprey (Miranda Chase NTSB, #13) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #13
Pages: 392
Published by Buchman Bookworks on September 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Russia teeters on the brink of collapse, spoiling for a battle to end all wars. All it needs? One thin excuse. World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. World War II launched with the invasion of Poland. As for Russia's invasion of Ukraine... A Russian flyby of an American CMV-22 Osprey tiltrotor goes desperately wrong over the North Sea. Will the tipping point for World War III break the moment a favored daughter of the Oligarchy goes down in flames? When the NSA's secret military base at Menwith Hill in the UK needs specialized expertise, they call in Miranda Chase. She and her elite team of air-crash investigators must avert a crisis like none before. A crisis that unravels her past, batters at her autism, and threatens to crush her team in the ultimate grinder of East vs. West. "Miranda is utterly compelling!" - Booklist, starred review "Escape A. Five Stars! OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read!" -Reading Reality

My Review:

Osprey, in addition to being about the investigation of a series of airplane crashes, as the books in the Miranda Chase series always are, is fundamentally the story of a woman who has based her life on a series of truths that turn out to be lies.

Miranda Chase is not merely A lead investigator for the National Transportation and Safety Board, but at this point in the series, THE premiere investigator for the NTSB. Miranda, along with her team, are the people that not just the NTSB but federal government all the way up to the President call whenever the crash is either too thorny for a regular investigator OR, as is very much true in this particular case, has the potential to start World War III and/or bring about the end of the world.

Considering the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and other countries, they are likely to be one and the same.

Which is what drags Miranda and her team out of their vacation in Yorkshire, hiking the Herriot Trail, all the way to the top secret US/UK communication and intelligence support station at RAF Menwith Hill, which is, according to Miranda’s teammate Holly Harper, the place where the world ends. Because, on Holly’s last mission for Australia’s SSAR, Menwith Hill’s sister station in Pine Gap ended Holly’s.

This time around, they’re about to end Miranda’s – even as she and her team prevent the end of pretty much everyone else’s in the whole damn world.

Escape Rating A+: This was one of those books that turned out to be a much harder read than I was expecting – even as it sucked me right in and wouldn’t let me go until the end. By saying Osprey is a ‘hard read’ I mean that in the sense that, 13 books into this series, I’ve become very fond of Miranda and her team and hate seeing any of them in serious distress. But it’s clear that this is the 13th book in the series for a reason in that it seems like all the bad luck and worse trouble in Miranda’s life comes home to roost in this one and probably won’t leave anytime soon.

Like all of the books in this series so far, starting with the marvelous Drone and continuing through ALL of the team’s compelling adventures along the way, each story pretty much has two plots. The first is the actual plot that results in the crash that Miranda and company are tasked with investigating. The second line is tied up in a particular team member’s personal circumstances, whether that’s how they become part of the team, falling in love with either a fellow team member, a friend or an enemy, or when those relationships crash and burn.

With the case in Osprey it’s a question of which will burn first, Miranda or the entire world, which makes the stakes the highest they can be on both sides of that equation.

The initial crash could have, and in other circumstances would have, been put down to pilot error combined with a bit of stupid people doing stupid things. In other words, humans just being human – unfortunately at tens of thousands of feet in the air while piloting state of the art aircraft.

The situation escalates, and fast, because the initial less-than-stellar piloting was on the part of a Russian military jet playing ‘chicken’ with a brand new U.S. craft that is capable of switching from taking off like a helicopter to flying like an airplane. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? But when the jet’s wings got tied up in the Osprey’s proprotor, everything went to hell in a handbasket and both countries, already über tense – as they are in real life – were on the brink of nuclear war.

Figuring out how that crash occurred, and the even stupider one that followed, is all in a day’s work for Miranda and her team. The President of the U.S. is thrilled to take her very expert word that the crash was merely the stuff of stupid and not a deliberate provocation to war.

But the Russian side of this equation is a whole lot messier. A mess which raises questions about just how Miranda’s parents REALLY died – because the newly discovered and always obscured – evidence makes it clear that it didn’t exactly happen the way that the world, even the CIA’s hidden world, believed it did. And that’s only the beginning of how Miranda’s world falls apart, even as the rest of the world gets put back together. At least for now.

The reader knows most of what’s coming – at least as far as Miranda’s parents’ deaths are concerned – from the very first scene, so that’s not exactly a spoiler. We know it’s going to be devastating, and we’re waiting for that shoe to drop through the entire book. It’s agonizing. It’s also not all she’ll have to contend with, but getting into that would be a spoiler.

Let’s just say that on Miranda’s personal front, this is a heartbreaking story and it’s hard to watch her even begin to go through the inevitable fallout. Howsomever, as one of the strengths of this series is the way that the characters and relationships change and grow over time, Miranda’s situation is one that I expect to see explore and change and resolve over the next several books in the series, starting with Gryphon, coming in late January of 2024.

One final note; there’s a surprising bit of a parallel to The Last Devil to Die, the most recent book in the Thursday Murder Club series. The leaders of each series, Miranda and Elizabeth, are brought low by heart-shattering personal catastrophes, and it’s up to the other members of their teams to keep the case on track even as their leader, rightfully and righteously, falls apart for an understandable bit. It’s terrible seeing those leaders stumble and fall, but lovely to watch the other members of their teams carry them and carry on.