Review: The Emperor’s Wolves by Michelle Sagara

Review: The Emperor’s Wolves by Michelle SagaraThe Emperor's Wolves (Wolves of Elantra #1) by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Wolves of Elantra #1, Chronicles of Elantra #0.1
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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At the Emperor’s command
Multiple races carefully navigate the City of Elantra under the Dragon Emperor’s wing. His Imperial Wolves are executioners, the smallest group to serve in the Halls of Law. The populace calls them assassins.
Every wolf candidate must consent to a full examination by the Tha’alani, one of the most feared and distrusted races in Elantra for their ability to read minds. Most candidates don’t finish their job interviews.
Severn Handred, the newest potential recruit, is determined to face and pass this final test—even if by doing so he’s exposing secrets he has never shared.
When an interrogation uncovers the connections to a two-decade-old series of murders of the Tha’alani, the Wolves are commanded to hunt. Severn’s first job will be joining the chase. From the High Halls to the Tha’alani quarter, from the Oracles to the Emperor, secrets are uncovered, tensions are raised and justice just might be done…if Severn can survive.
The Wolves of Elantra
Book 1: The Emperor’s Wolves

My Review:

In the beginning, a 5-year-old girl named Elliane and a 10-year-old boy named Severn were two scared orphans doing the best they could to raise each other in a place so dangerous that no one expected them to live another year. And no one could afford to care because everyone was too busy attempting to make their own survival last more than another day, another hour, another minute.

That dangerous place was the fief of Nightshade, in the no-being’s-land that surrounds the city of Elantra. A place entirely designed and maintained as a buffer zone between Elantra and the Shadow at the heart of the world.

Their lives and their story should have been both brutal and short. It was often brutal, and always on the knife’s edge of destruction.

But it was not short.

Elliane’s story has been told in the Chronicles of Elantra, beginning with Cast in Moonlight. It is the story of a young woman with a terrible gift and an equally terrible secret, set in the high-fantasy world of Elantra, but often told with an urban fantasy sensibility. It is the story Elliane, now called Kaylin Nera, as she becomes first the mascot of and later a Private in the Imperial Hawks who serve as the equivalent of police in the empire. (Occasionally she rises to Corporal in the Hawks, but usually not for long.)

Elantra is an empire that is ruled by a Dragon and protected as his hoard. An empire that contains citizens of all races, Barrani (read as Elves), Leontine (yes, they’re lions), Aerians (feathered and flying) and more humans than all of the above.

And the Tha’alani. The telepathic Tha’alani who serve as the Emperor’s inquisitors when the need is great – or desperate.

But The Emperor’s Wolves is not Kaylin’s story, although it touches on her story and will undoubtedly connect to it eventually. Because Severn always connects to Kaylin, whether she wants that to happen or not. And initially in the story from her perspective, it’s very much not.

Instead, this is the story of that once upon a time 10-year-old boy, Severn Handred. Severn swore an oath to Elliane’s mother before she died, that he would protect Elliane no matter what. When Elliane couldn’t live with the price of that protection, they separated, walking through very dark places on entirely different paths.

Paths that have now converged. Elliane – as Kaylin – is now 15 and the mascot of the Imperial Hawks. To keep watch over her, Severn, now 20, becomes a member of the Imperial Wolves, the branch of the Halls of Law that investigates major crimes – and serves as the hand of the Emperor when those criminals are brought to summary justice in his name.

The story of The Emperor’s Wolves is Severn’s story. A story that fans of the series have been waiting and hoping for since we first met Kaylin in 2001.

A story that was definitely, utterly, fantastically worth the wait.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this book and now I have a terrible book hangover. But then I always do after a trip to Elantra. This world feels so complex and so complete than when I’m forced to leave it at the end of a story a part of me feels like it’s still back there and doesn’t want to come out.

As if part of my memory has been captured and held by the telepathic gestalt of the Tha’alani.

cast in shadow by michelle sagaraThe Emperor’s Wolves is a bit of a contradiction in terms. It is, without a doubt, the first book in the author’s new Wolves of Elantra series. It is also a prequel for nearly all of the Chronicles of Elantra series, taking place between the prequel novella, Cast in Moonlight, and the first novel in the series, Cast in Shadow.

But this book doesn’t feel like either a prequel or the opening of a new series. Instead, it feels like…enlightenment. Those of us who have followed the Chronicles have already met Severn Handred. We’ve witnessed most of his protective partnership with Kaylin Nera – a partnership that involves a great deal of love but no romance at all – through that series. We’ve also become immersed in Elantra and traveled much of the city and the places outside of the Emperor’s Hoard in Kaylin and Severn’s company.

But Severn, well, Severn is a man of much depth and very few words. He’s an enigma in pretty much everything except his tie to Kaylin – although that has plenty of enigma-ness in it, in ways that neither Severn nor Kaylin understand – at least not yet.

And the period of Severn’s life when he became one of the Imperial Wolves – the time that he spent without Kaylin – has been the biggest enigma of them all. He doesn’t talk about this time period, and we haven’t heard much about what he did – although there have been plenty of enigmatic hints. So this story, and whatever follows it, sheds light on an otherwise dark corner of the history of Elantra – or at least of the people we have come to know and love there. And provides a few tantalizing hints of events that we already know but are yet to come from Severn’s perspective at this point in his life.

Which means that, in spite of seeming like a beginning, The Emperor’s Wolves really isn’t. It’s a missing piece of the complex puzzle that is Elantra, and will be best appreciated – and enthusiastically so – by those who have already made the journey. If you’ve never been to Elantra and are thinking of going there, it’s a marvelous trip but this is not the place to begin.

If you’re already acquainted, however, one of the things that The Emperor’s Wolves does well is return to some of the elements that made this series so fascinating in the first place. As the longer story has continued, while Kaylin is still a member of the Imperial Hawks, her world has expanded beyond the streets of the city and she has become, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming, a power in this world and has moved among the high and mighty – although she would be the first to admit that she herself is neither.

But the series began as an epic-set urban fantasy, and The Emperor’s Wolves returns fantastically to that kind of story. Severn’s first case as one of the Wolves is to solve a crime. To open a case that everyone thought was closed and cold. As part of his investigation, he is forced to navigate the Barrani High Halls, the telepathic mindscape of the Tha’alani group consciousness, the mean streets of the city and the Emperor’s Palace.

Along the way he discovers friends, obfuscates foes and is confronted yet again with the choice that he’s been forced to make over and over since his childhood. That there are all too many times when the cost of justice is more unjust than any crime.

When I picked up The Emperor’s Wolves, I looked forward to learning more about Severn. But now that I’ve seen this world through his eyes, I’ve discovered that I want more. I need it. I hope to see more of Elantra from both Severn’s and Kaylin’s perspectives as their series continue.

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. FordThe Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 29, 2020
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“The best mingling of history with historical magic that I have ever seen.”—Gene Wolfe In a snowbound inn high in the Alps, four people meet who will alter fate.
A noble Byzantine mercenary . . .
A female Florentine physician . . .
An ageless Welsh wizard . . .
And an uncanny academic.
Together they will wage an intrigue-filled campaign against the might of Byzantium to secure the English throne for Richard, Duke of Gloucester—and make him Richard III. Available for the first time in nearly two decades, with a new introduction by New York Times-bestselling author Scott Lynch, The Dragon Waiting is a masterpiece of blood and magic.“Had [John M. Ford] taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would’ve been George R.R. Martin.” —Neil Gaiman

My Review:

The Dragon Waiting is the best book that you’ve probably never heard of – but should have. And it’s what Tor Essentials is all about.

That last is possibly literal, as it feels as if this is the one book above all others that the publisher really, truly, sincerely wanted to try and bring back into print. If this is the inspiration for the imprint, or even just a part of it, it was all worth it.

There’s a story in that, and I’ll get to it. But first, there’s a story.

A wizard, a mercenary, a vampire and a spy walk into a tavern. And come out of it trying to change the world.

That’s been done, or something similar. In a way, it sounds like the opening to Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, where a disparate group of desperate people band together to overthrow an empire.

But the story of The Dragon Waiting is both a lot closer to actual history – and a lot farther – than Tigana. Because this is alternate history that builds off of real history, real events and real people – although none of them ever quite committed any of these acts. That we know of.

This is a story about a Byzantine Empire that not only never fell, but grew and changed and continued to swallow up countries that became independent of either Rome or Byzantium in the history that we know. But this Byzantium remained on top of the world because it didn’t embrace Christianity. Instead, it continued the old Roman policy of allowing conquered people to retain their old beliefs and old gods.

And there’s magic. There’s certainly magic in the writing – honestly. But there’s magic in the world. Not a lot. There are not a lot of real practitioners of what we would consider real magic. But there are a few, and they can move mountains. Or dragons.

Or topple empires.

Escape Rating A+: This is going to be one of those reviews where how I feel about the book is inextricably tied into what I think of the book. Because of the circumstances of this particular book and my reading – and re-reading – of it.

The Dragon Waiting was originally published in 1983. I still have my old mass market paperback copy, which I’ve moved more times than I care to count. It’s a book that loomed large in my memory, although I only read it the once – and that nearly 40 years ago.

I hung onto my paperback because the damn thing went out of print, and I KNEW I’d want to re-read it someday. But the book didn’t just go out of print, it went into intellectual property hell as the author died (much too soon, having left not nearly enough behind) and no one seemed to know who owned the rights to this book. That saga is detailed here and here, and it’s a terrific mystery/quest story all by itself!

But the book, oh the book! I remembered The Dragon Waiting as being completely awesome, but hadn’t gotten back to it in a VERY long time. So, on the one hand I couldn’t wait to get a copy and re-read it, and on the other, when the time came I had a terrible approach/avoidance conflict. I wanted to read it again, but I needed it to be as awesome as I remembered, and I had no way of knowing if it would be.

1983 is a long time ago. I was a different person then, and the book spoke to me then for reasons that are now long in my past. The question of whether it would still speak to me, and whether it held up as the excellent read I remember it being, loomed large in my mind – to the point of being a reading block.

I’m happy to say that it IS every bit as good now as my memory says it was then. That’s not nostalgia talking – well, maybe a bit – but because it’s still a cracking good story.

What’s different is that the things it reminds me of, like Kay’s Tigana, and also his Sarantine Mosaic, were written after The Dragon Waiting. So while it feels like Dragon was influenced by those books, it’s actually the other way around. The two things that feel like influences on Dragon that actually might have been are T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (published in 1958) and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which began with The Crystal Cave in 1970.

The King
2016 Based on x-ray of King Richard III

But the thing that I kept coming back to as I read The Dragon Waiting was Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time. So much of the framing story of that book is dated, but the central mystery, the intellectual investigation into the question of Richard III and what happened to the “Princes in the Tower” still resonates. And it fits into The Dragon Waiting like a key into a lock in spite of differences in genre.

Because the conclusion in The Daughter of Time was that Richard’s behavior as postulated in Shakespeare and common perception makes no sense whatsoever. The story of The Dragon Waiting gives it that sense.

And a whole rollicking story of magic and empires to go along with it. A story that was every single bit as readable and complex as it was when it was first published.

I’m left with a few thoughts that don’t quite fit into a review of the book. Ford died in 2006, six years before Richard III’s remains were discovered under that carpark in Leicester. But when The Dragon Waiting was first published in 1983, Ford was 26. I remember who and what I was at 26 and am astonished and amazed at his achievement. As I was reading the book that he wrote, we were the same age. Literally, as he was born five days after me. I’m still a bit speechless at that thought, as I did not nearly have my shit together at 26 and am gobsmacked at the way that he did. I wish he left behind more work, but I’m grateful that what there is will be re-published – there just wasn’t nearly enough.

Review: Ink and Sigil by Kevin Hearne

Review: Ink and Sigil by Kevin HearneInk & Sigil (Ink & Sigil, #1) by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Ink & Sigil #1
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Al MacBharrais is both blessed and cursed. He is blessed with an extraordinary white moustache, an appreciation for craft cocktails – and a most unique magical talent. He can cast spells with magically enchanted ink and he uses his gifts to protect our world from rogue minions of various pantheons, especially the Fae.
But he is also cursed. Anyone who hears his voice will begin to feel an inexplicable hatred for Al, so he can only communicate through the written word or speech apps. And his apprentices keep dying in peculiar freak accidents. As his personal life crumbles around him, he devotes his life to his work, all the while trying to crack the secret of his curse.
But when his latest apprentice, Gordie, turns up dead in his Glasgow flat, Al discovers evidence that Gordie was living a secret life of crime. Now Al is forced to play detective – while avoiding actual detectives who are wondering why death seems to always follow Al. Investigating his apprentice’s death will take him through Scotland’s magical underworld, and he’ll need the help of a mischievous hobgoblin if he’s to survive.

My Review:

I’ve read – actually mostly listened to – enough of the Iron Druid Chronicles to know that I love the series. Since I’m 2/3rds of the way through I figured I knew enough about the world created in the series to be able to get into Ink & Sigil. Al Mac Bharrais’ adventures take place in the same version of our world as Atticus O’Sullivan, but from a much different perspective.

Ink & Sigil is a sequel that isn’t a sequel, it’s more like a consequence. Which is an interesting way of launching a series. Also an effective way for new readers to get aboard this marvelous train. So you don’t have to have read the Iron Druid Chronicles to get into Ink & Sigil, but a taste for one will probably result in a yen for the other.

Al is a fascinating protagonist for an urban fantasy series. Most urban fantasy series are headed by either the young and the energetic, or the extremely old, seriously immortal, and fascinatingly unaging.

Al is none of the above. He’s 63, he’s getting creaky, and he’s all too mortal. (I would love to see Al meet Marley Jacob from A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark. They’d have a lot to talk about when it comes to kicking paranormal ass when you’re 60-something.)

Al isn’t exactly a wizard, and he’s certainly not a druid like Atticus. He is actually a kind of paper-pusher for the paranormal. His power is literally in paper – and especially in ink. He draws symbols of power with special ink on special paper, and that power affects whoever sees the symbols he has drawn.

Among many other useful things, he’s created his own version of the “psychic paper” that Doctor Who uses. The one that seems to be a universal high-ranking ID for wherever the Doctor wants to get into that he shouldn’t. In Al’s case, the paper just opens the mind of the person who sees it so that Al can plant the suggestion that he belongs wherever it is that he has just entered that he isn’t supposed to.

Like the apartment of his just-deceased apprentice. Gordie seems to have died of natural causes – depending on how one feels about raisins in one’s scones. Al has arrived in the middle of the police investigation into Gordie’s death to clean house of all of the fascinating, esoteric and sometimes illegal substances that sigil agents like Al and Gordie use to do their work.

Al expects to leave with a bag of inks and ingredients. What he finds in Gordie’s secret workroom changes his focus – as well as his opinion of the late and now entirely unlamented Gordie. Because Gordie was practicing things he hadn’t learned yet, and seems to have been breaking all the rules while doing so. And he had imprisoned a hobgoblin in a cage – a hobgoblin from one of the fae planes that he intended to sell to someone nefarious in this plane.

Which is illegal, immoral, and constitutes trafficking of the nasty kind that either leads to slavery or lab experimentation of the mad scientist variety.

Putting Al on the hunt for a mad scientist and at least one corrupt fae deity selling out her own kind for either fun or profit. That she’s selling them to the CIA adds a whole ‘nother level of crazy complexity to a case that is almost but not quite too much for Al and his friends to handle.

Making it a fantastic start to this series!

Escape Rating A+: I fell straight into this book and just didn’t want to leave. Possibly ever. This is one of those books that I just want to shove at everyone I know and hold them down until they read it.

In that vein, I really, truly don’t think you have to have read ANY of the Iron Druid Chronicles to get into Ink & Sigil. Not that you shouldn’t read them, they’re awesome. Howsomever, while these are set in the same world, Atticus is not a character in this series – so far – except for the scene where those of us who have read the Iron Druid Chronicles discover how Al ran into Atticus that one time and they had a nice dinner together. It doesn’t affect the plot of Ink & Sigil, it’s just a lovely scene IF you’ve met Atticus before and it’s still a lovely scene if you haven’t.

What one does need to buy into in order to get into Ink & Sigil is the concept that lies behind, or underneath, both the Iron Druid Chronicles and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The idea that the old cliche about humanity creating gods in their own image is the actual, literal truth. That belief creates the god rather than the god’s deeds creating the belief.

One of the things that I found marvelous was the character of Al MacBharrais, and just how much he and his companions play with just how many classic tropes from urban fantasy and even from the mystery detective genre from which it partially sprang.

Al is so different from the standard run of urban fantasy protagonists. I have a hard time saying Al is old because he’s the same age that I am, but he’s certainly no spring chicken. He’s led an already long and fairly hard-knock life. He can no longer serve as his own muscle – except in what is inevitably a very painful pinch – but he still needs an enforcer. Like Nero Wolfe needed Archie Goodwin. Or any other case where the “real” detective is no longer quite spry for one reason or another and needs someone to occasionally punch the bad beings where it hurts.

That Al’s version of Archie is a female battle-seer who does double duty as his printing firm’s manager and accountant sets all sorts of tropes on their tiny little heads. She’s great at both cooking the books and conking out their enemies. Also, Nadia’s wizard van is absolutely to die for. She’s also more than able and willing to help a few people – or things, or beings – die when they really, really need to.

The other really fun character in this one is Buck Foi the hobgoblin. The one that Al found in a cage in his dead apprentice’s apartment. When Al opens that cage he also opens up the whole case, and it’s Buck who tags along to help him close it. Because Buck needs the fae trafficking ring shut down in order to remove the price on his head. Buck is the comic relief, but it’s comic relief with one hell of an edge. (Buck reminds me a bit of P.B. from Laura Anne Gilman’s Retrievers series, which was also an awesome urban fantasy. I digress.)

But underneath the paranormal scene-setting, and Buck’s constant scene-stealing, the story is ripped from the headlines. Al’s case is to uncover a fae-trafficking ring, and it’s every bit as nasty as human-trafficking. It also seems to work in a surprisingly similar fashion. And it has to be stopped – and not just because the CIA (really, the actual CIA) is chasing after Al and his friends to silence them.

That Al manages to use some of his not-so-otherworldly connections to help the police shut down a couple of human-trafficking rings adds some real-world drama to this otherworldly story without being heavy-handed about the message. This stuff is evil and needs to be stopped. Period.

Shutting down this one, particular operation still leaves Al with plenty to do in subsequent books in the series. He still has to find out who dropped two seriously awful curses into his life, before those curses wipe out this cohort of his friends and colleagues. So he can keep Nadia and Buck around. So that he can finally manage to train an apprentice to mastery. So that he can talk to the librarian he’s been in love with for years and not have the curse make her hate him and the sound of his voice. As it did with his son.

So there is plenty for Al to be going on with in future books in this series. Hopefully soon!

Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa HartThe Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Pages: 352
Published by Minotaur Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of the acclaimed Li Du novels comes Elsa Hart's new atmospheric mystery series.
London, 1703. In a time when the old approaches to science coexist with the new, one elite community attempts to understand the world by collecting its wonders. Sir Barnaby Mayne, the most formidable of these collectors, has devoted his life to filling his cabinets. While the curious-minded vie for invitations to study the rare stones, bones, books, and artifacts he has amassed, some visitors come with a darker purpose.
For Cecily Kay, it is a passion for plants that brings her to the Mayne house. The only puzzle she expects to encounter is how to locate the specimens she needs within Sir Barnaby’s crowded cabinets. But when her host is stabbed to death, Cecily finds the confession of the supposed killer unconvincing. She pays attention to details—years of practice have taught her that the smallest particulars can distinguish a harmless herb from a deadly one—and in the case of Sir Barnaby’s murder, there are too many inconsistencies for her to ignore.
To discover the truth, Cecily must enter the world of the collectors, a realm where intellect is distorted by obsession and greed. As her pursuit of answers brings her closer to a killer, she risks being given a final resting place amid the bones that wait, silent and still, in the cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

My Review:

I adored this author’s Li Du series (start with Jade Dragon Mountain and prepare to be lost for several days), so when I noticed that she had moved from early 18th century China to early 18th century London for her latest, I couldn’t wait to see how that transition worked.

The fascinating thing about moving from Li Du to Cecily Kay and her former school friend Meacan Barlow is how strangely the two settings resemble each other. Li Du’s China in the early 18th century was a closed world – at least to the West. And Li Du is an outsider, an exiled imperial librarian on his way out of his own country.

The world of the scholarly, acquisitive, obsessive collectors of early 18th century London is just as much of a closed world, albeit in a completely different way. The collectors are a closed society, restricting membership, keeping all of their secrets locked up in their beautiful but often hidden presentation cabinets.

And Cecily and Meacan are also both outsiders to this world, which is exclusively male. They are both barely tolerated interlopers who exist on the fringes of this expensive and exclusive preserve.

Just like so many who are treated as outsiders in the worlds they inhabit, Cecily and Meacan are both keen observers of the situation in which they find themselves. They are ignored but intimate inhabitants of a world they are not believed to truly understand.

But of course they do. And frequently better than the men who are considered to be its prime movers and leading lights. Because they have no vested interest in maintaining the status quo – quite the reverse – they see situations and people with much clearer vision than the supposed cognoscenti.

And what they see is a confessed killer whose confession makes no sense whatsoever, and an investigation that is determined to pin the death of Barnaby Mayne on the most convenient suspect rather than seek out the real murderer – who must be one of the wealthy and influential collectors themselves.

A killer who is content to have the official investigation look elsewhere – but unwilling to countenance two amateurs poking their noses into his crimes.

Escape Rating A+: The world of the collectors was absolutely fascinating, just by itself. For context, this was the time period when the infamous Elgin Marbles were essentially looted from Athens and shanghaied to England.

While Lord Elgin’s looting of the Parthenon was on rather a grand scale, the society of collectors, of whom the late (and fictional) Barnaby Mayne was one of the leading lights, did the same thing, not quite on the same scale, all over the world.

Those that were capable went on their own expeditions of acquisition – or theft if you prefer – while others sponsored, basically, treasure hunters and tomb robbers to commit their thievery for them.

The entire concept manages to be both the start of the great museums we have today and utterly appalling at the same time.

As fascinated as I was by the setting for this story, it was Cecily and Meacan who really captured my attention and held it to the end. The way that their minds worked, and the way that they worked together to solve the murder, felt like it ripped the veil off of the usual portrayal of women of this period – a time period which borders on the Regency. Because in this story we see both how the men of this closed society – and the men of officialdom – see these two women and are able to contrast that with how they perceive themselves and the world around them..

On the one hand, they often play the roles that the world expects them to play. They are quiet and decorous and studying subjects considered fit for ladies – if barely. While on the other hand they see a great deal, know even more, and are caught in the position where they have to pretend to be one thing while secretly being another.

And while earning a living in Meacan’s case or maintaining a fragile independence in Cecily’s. They inhabit their era in a subversive way that allows us to see ourselves in them – and rail at the limitations they face.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne manages to be both an atmospheric and immersive piece of historical fiction, every bit as meticulously detailed as the labels on Barnaby Mayne’s cabinets, while also giving us two marvelously drawn female protagonists in Cecily and Meacan. All wrapped around an intricately twisted mystery that holds the reader’s attention to the very end.

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. KingfisherA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Pages: 318
Published by Argyll Productions on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.
But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

My Review:

I fully admit that I bought this one for the title. Not that the stabbity-stabbity gingerbread man on the cover isn’t adorable, but it was definitely the title that got me. And I’m so very glad that it did. I also wondered whether this was really YA or whether it was one of those cases where something got called YA because it was fantasy. That doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but it definitely does still happen.

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is even better than that, it’s a YA that can be read and very much enjoyed by adults. I not only laughed out loud at many points, but ended up reading bits to my husband who needed to know what I was cackling about so much.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking reminds me of three really different things; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Potter, and Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker. And those three things really shouldn’t go together. But they do here.

They definitely do.

It felt like Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City because to a certain extent Mona and Orhan are in the same position. Their city has been betrayed from within – although not for the same reasons. Both of them are woefully underqualified for the role of city savior. Orhan because he’s a despised non-native of the city and Mona because she’s a despised – or at least feared – magic user. And she’s only 14.

Mona’s wry and often disgusted commentary on what’s happening around her and just how far the situation has been left to go awry reads like both Sixteen Ways and the Discworld. Mona sees that things are going wrong, and comments about it to herself. A lot. There may be a certain amount of gallows in her humor, but then the situation does require it.

Where Harry Potter comes in, of course, is that Mona is just 14 and she’s expected to save the city. Which is ridiculous and insane and she’s very aware of the fact that there are lots of adults who weren’t adulting very well at all. It’s up to her and it just plain shouldn’t be. But it still is. Because even if she CAN manage to get better adults it’s not going to happen in time to save the city. So it’s all up to her, no matter how much she downright KNOWS that she is in over her head.

Mona’s understanding that the adults who should have figured this out were collectively asleep at the switch and that saving the city shouldn’t be up to her but is anyway is something that Harry Potter fanfiction handles better than the original stories. The situation shouldn’t have been allowed to get so far off the rails that a 14-year-old is not just their best but their only hope. After all, when Leia talks about Obi-Wan being her “only hope” at least her expectations are fixed on a grown up.

That the hope Mona manages to provide involves some very bad gingerbread men, a few very large bread golems and a whole lot of carnivorous sourdough starter is what makes the story so much fun. Which it very definitely is.

But it never sugarcoats the fact that the situation is beyond dire – and that war is very definitely hell. And that sometimes all it takes is just one horse rider of the apocalypse to bring that fact home.

Escape Rating A+: There is a LOT going on in this story. That’s what makes it so damn good.

The obvious is the whole 14-year-old saves the city thing that makes it YA. Mona is young. She’s still, to some extent, figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, although her magic has driven her further down that path than most. But she’s also at an age where she’s unsure of herself and her future in so many different ways. She sees herself as young, and small, and weak. She sees her magic as not powerful at all or even all that useful. It’s handy in her aunt’s bakery, where she works, but it’s not otherwise big or showy. And neither, honestly, is she.

Her talent is in convincing dough that it wants to do what SHE wants it to do, so it rises properly and it doesn’t burn. And she can make gingerbread men dance – even if she can’t control what kind of dance they do. Mona’s power has definite limits that she has to work within to make it work at all.

Mona is not a person that anyone would expect to be the city’s savior, least of all Mona herself. But when her life gets knocked off its tracks with her discovery of a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, her path goes straight into the doings of the high and mighty. A position that Mona herself certainly never expected to be in.

But then, she didn’t expect to find herself shimmying up the shaft of the duchess’ crapper in order to get someone more suitable on the path of fixing the mess. And that’s the point at which she discovers that EVERYONE has been hoping that someone else would fix the mess.

And doesn’t that sound all too familiar?

As does the way that someone has been using the powers of their office, along with a whole lot of propaganda and a dab hand at ginning up the crowd and pointing it at a convenient bogeyman. Which leads us right back to Harry Potter and the whole “pureblood supremacy” movement. Or real life and any number of groups who can be used to focus attention away from whatever an administration doesn’t want people to look at.

As I said, this is a story that operates on multiple levels, and all of them are excellent. If you are on the lookout for an excellent fantasy that will make you laugh AND make you think, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has the perfect recipe.

Review: Silk Dragon Salsa by Rhys Ford + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Silk Dragon Salsa by Rhys Ford + Excerpt + GiveawaySilk Dragon Salsa (Kai Gracen, #4) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Kai Gracen #4
Pages: 206
Published by Dreamspinner Press on July 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

SoCalGov Stalker Kai Gracen always knew Death walked in his shadow. Enough people told him that, including his human mentor, Dempsey. Problem was, the old man never told him what to do when Death eventually caught up.
Where Tanic, his elfin father and the Wild Hunt Master of the Unsidhe Court, brought Kai pain and suffering, Dempsey gave him focus and a will to live… at least until everything unraveled. Now caught in a web of old lies and half-truths, Kai is torn between the human and elfin worlds, unsure of who he is anymore. Left with a hollowness he can’t fill, Kai aches to find solace in the one elfin he trusts—a Sidhe Lord named Ryder—but he has unfinished business with Dempsey’s estranged brother, a man who long ago swore off anything to do with the feral elfin child Dempsey dragged up from the gutter.
Reeling from past betrayals, Kai searches for Dempsey’s brother, hoping to do right by the man who saved him while trying to keep ahead of the death haunting his every step. Kai never thought he’d find love or happiness as a Stalker, but when Death comes knocking at his door, Kai discovers a fierce need to live life to the fullest—even if that means turning his back on the people he calls family.

My Review:

There’s something that Kai says, about 3/4ths of the way through Silk Dragon Salsa, that really hit me, because Kai thinks he’s talking about other people, not realizing that he’s really talking about himself. Not that he’s not talking about other people too – for rather elastic and expansive definitions of people – but his comment is really about the story of Kai’s life in general, and this installment in particular.

“There was a constant, roaming quest to discover the depths or heights of humanity, and sometimes that journey took a hard left turn into a what-the-hell neighborhood.”

Kai’s whole story is hard left turn into that particular neighborhood, but especially this part of it. Because the opening of this story takes away everything that Kai thought he knew about himself when his adopted father Dempsey makes a deathbed confession. It’s Dempsey’s chance to clean his slate, but it strips away too many of the things that Kai believed, not just about himself, but about his relationship with Dempsey and his relationship with all of the people who have come to make up his world and his family.

Well, at least all of the purely human members of that family.

Kai is a chimera, a construct of both Sidhe and Unsidhe. An abomination according to his own people. An experiment and a slave according to the being who was both his biological parent and his creator.

Dempsey always told Kai that he won him in a card game. But that deathbed confession reveals that the man kidnapped him as part of an under-the-table Stalker hunt. And not that Kai wasn’t sorely in need of rescue.

But Kai had grown up – or matured – or stopped being feral – or all of the above, believing that Dempsey had trained him and adopted him after that card game and that the human family that he’d become a part of loved him and cared for him. Now he’s learned that Dempsey had to fight with all of them to keep him and train him rather than turn Kai in for a very hefty bounty.

A bounty that is either still active – or has been reactivated. In the wake of Dempsey’s death, Kai is being hunted again. This time by his own kind. Meaning by his fellow Stalkers. Kai has to delve in Dempsey’s past as well as his own to discover who is still after him after all these years.

So he can take them out before they do him in.

Escape Rating A+: The beginning of this story is a gut-punch, and so is the ending. In the wild ride of a middle, there’s a quest, and it’s one of the oldest and best ones in the book. While on the surface Kai is searching for whoever wants him captured or dead, what he’s really hunting for is his identity.

After all, if he’s not who Dempsey told him he was, then who is he? And if his “family” wanted to turn him in rather than help him up, who will stand with him in a world where he knows many are against him, doing a job that is pretty much guaranteed not to let anyone make old bones. Not even an immortal elfin.

It’s a quest that literally tears him apart and puts him back together. It’s a story where, even though Kai has been an adult for all the life he remembers, he finally grows up and reaches out for who he’s meant to be.

And that allows him to finally become comfortable in his own skin – no matter how much pain and discomfort has been and will continue to be inflicted on that skin and the heart that lives inside it. Also, no matter how many times his semi-feral cat Newt tries to claw that heart out and eat it because his dinner is 5 seconds late.

I read the first book in this marvelous urban fantasy series, Black Dog Blues, way, way back in 2013, before Dreamspinner published it, at a point where Kai was the author’s half-feral child and there was no certainty there would even BE a series. Book 2, Mad Lizard Mambo, was on my “Best E-Originals” list for 2016 in Library Journal, and the cover quote for Silk Dragon Salsa is from that review. (And I’m still over the moon seeing that on the cover!)

But at Kai’s introduction it was very much urban fantasy in a fascinating world where the elfin realms of the Sidhe and the Unsidhe had crashed – or merged – into ours, with catastrophic results. At the time, it was definitely urban fantasy because Kai read like the kind of urban fantasy protagonist with a really shitty love life. At the beginning, Kai didn’t even like himself enough to love anyone else.

He’s healed a lot since then. Not that he’s not still a mess, but he’s more accepting of himself, warts and all, than seemed possible in the beginning. Of course, that means that just as this story ends, and it finally looks like Kai might be within spitting distance of something that might be as close to happy ever after as Kai is likely to get, a piece of his past crawls out of the woodwork to set things up for even more danger and angst in his next outing.

And I can’t wait to read it!

Guest Post from Rhys PLUS Part 4 of License to Stalk, a NEW Kai Gracen short story

Hello! 

And welcome back to my world of dragons, intrigue, hot guns, fast cars and a grumpy, slightly anti-social Chimera of a Sidhe and an Unsidhe who really only wants to hunt monsters and go home to his probably carnivorous cat. My name is Rhys Ford and I’ll be your guide today as on July 14th,I’ll take you back to the Kai Gracen series for Book Four — Silk Dragon Salsa. 

If you’re following the blog tour from the beginning, you can skip this bit and head to the serialized part of the story but if this is your first time with me, let me ramble a bit about my grouchy special kitten, Kai. I’ve used the past three books to set up his relationships and world and kind of settling him for what should have been a changing environment. He’s never really had a lot of contact with the elfin and never really wanted any. Ryder, the Lord of the Southern Rise Court, blew into Kai’s life like a hurricane with a grudge and Kai’s had to not only learn how to get along with the man but also adjust to the fact the elfin are in his life to stay. Not something Kai ever wanted. He was raised by humans, thinks of himself as human, and was pretty happy about it.

Then his world changed and he was dragged kicking and screaming and probably stabbing into a bit of elfin affairs even as he knew it would probably be the death of him.

And in Silk Dragon Salsa, I really turn his world upside down. 

It was a long time coming and Kai, in his true quick-on-his-feet fashion, knows he must change with it. Because the Merged world is going forward — with or without his approval — and this time, he has a chance for a bit of happiness, if he can find it in the chaos storm hunting him down in Silk Dragon Salsa.

Silk Dragon Salsa Information and Purchase Links

Kai’s fourth book is being published by Dreamspinner Press and I’ve had the fantastic honour of working with Chris McGrath again for its cover. Chris is a fantastic artist and he totally captured the feel of the book in this cover. I am so very grateful for his contributions in bringing Kai to life.

AND Greg Tremblay will once again bring his talent and gorgeous voice to breathing life and mayhem into Kai’s world as he narrates — nay, acts — Silk Dragon Salsa. I’ll be announcing the audiobook’s release date once I have it so watch my social media for further details.

Silk Dragon Salsa can be purchased at Dreamspinner Press, Amazon and other fine online ebook retailers.

And now… for License to Stalk, A Kai Gracen Short Story

Part Four

We’d holed up in one of the town’s farmer’s empty barns, parking Dempsey’s truck at an angle near the structure’s open back doors. The place seemed solid enough, probably meant for goats or smaller livestock. It smelled faintly of hay and dusky farm animal discards, a lingering ripeness of old droppings clinging to its walls. A hundred yards to the right sat another barn, much bigger and newer and as I dressed the remainder of the two small deer I’d brought in with the salamander, voices carried across the yard, getting louder with each cut I made.

“All I’m saying is that you didn’t do the Run so I’m not paying for two Stalkers.” The big bellied man who’d been grateful to see us taking their contract when we first arrived now was a blustery, red-faced wobbling hunk of angry flesh. His liver spotted pate glistened in the late afternoon sun, sweat dotting his brow and a few drops slipped down his forehead, catching in his nettle-patch white eyebrows. “’Sides, the other one doesn’t count. He’s not even human.”

“He’s my apprentice,” Dempsey spat back. His fingers were curled around a stub of a cigar but it was unlit, probably to the relief of the young farmer pacing behind the pack of older men. “Stalker regulations state I can send him out in my stead and get a full payment.”

“Yeah? Then let’s see his license,” a thin man dressed in overalls spat out. A look of revulsion curdled his features, his tiny dark eyes flicking back and forth to where I stood. “Because I don’t think any state’s going to let one of those things carry a gun, much less a Stalker license.”

I glanced up from where I stood near the truck’s lowered tailgate, one hand wrapped around a bloodied knife while I used the other to pull on the deer’s remaining back leg to stretch out the joint. The young farmer met my gaze and held it, a burning heat searing over the town elders’ shoulders then he looked away, a red flush creeping over his cheeks. I knew what he wanted. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that kind of appraisal from someone lingering on the edges of a collective outrage and it probably wasn’t going to be the last. 

“If he’s got a license, I’m a fairy princess.” One of the other men chortled, his fleshy neck wobbling with each guffaw. “’Sides, what are you lot going to do? Put the damned thing back?”

I stopped cutting, flicking my knife clean with a twist of my wrist. The stamped down hay at my feet was slick with blood, cast off from the bled-out carcasses. I found Dempsey’s eyes, readying for a fight if he was going to take a step in. Sometimes things went bad and while I called him an old man, his fists were stone blocks and tireless but there were six of them and only two of us since Jonas stayed in town to pick up supplies. 

The soulful eyed farmer back pedaled away from the older men, his hands up in surrender. “I didn’t sign on for cheating them. I lost the most stock. I think we should—”

“You didn’t put in the most money though, O’Malley.” The mustached man spat at his feet. “Greany is right. They’ll take what they get and move along. Worse than thieving gypsies, that’s what Stalkers are.”

“Think we can’t do anything?” I finally said, strolling over to where the men stood. My clothes were mostly clean and my knives were bare of blood, but the smell of death still clung to me. “Dempsey here can put a black mark on your town. Same as Jonas. Two strikes and no one’s going to pick up any contract you take out. This time it’s a salamander. What if the next time it’s an ainmhi dubh? What are you going to do when no Stalker comes in to save your asses then?”

“This time it’s chicken and goats,” Dempsey murmured in his low, angry voice. Stabbing his cigar stub into the corner of his mouth, he worked at the end. “Next time, it’s your kids. Maybe even your wives and mothers. You willing to do that over a handful of money? Because the boy here’s stocked up our stores for a long time. Even enough to spread out over to those families who don’t have much. We finish up here without a payout and we’re not just dropping venison off. We’ll be telling everyone we run into how you don’t think their lives are worth the shit you’re stepping in.”

They paid. 

And I went back to dressing the deer, fairly certain I was going to have a bit of company later on and not sure I was going to be up to it. Especially since the men were right. There was no way in hell any state government was going to pin a Stalker badge on me. 

Follow the Silk Dragon Salsa Blog Tour (for the rest of the story!)

 

About Rhys Ford

Rhys Ford is an award-winning author with several long-running LGBT+ mystery, thriller, paranormal, and urban fantasy series and is a two-time LAMBDA finalist with her Murder and Mayhem novels. She is also a 2017 Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Florida Authors and Publishers President’s Book Awards for her novels Ink and Shadows and Hanging the Stars. She is published by Dreamspinner Press and DSP Publications.

She’s also quite skeptical about bios without a dash of something personal and really, who doesn’t mention their cats, dog and cars in a bio? She shares the house with Harley, a grey tuxedo with a flower on her face, Badger, a disgruntled alley cat who isn’t sure living inside is a step up the social ladder as well as a ginger cairn terrorist named Gus. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep of a 1979 Pontiac Firebird and enjoys murdering make-believe people.

Rhys can be found at the following locations:

Blog: www.rhysford.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/rhys.ford.author
Facebook Group: Coffee, Cats, and Murder: https://www.facebook.com/groups/635660536617002/
Twitter: @Rhys_Ford

For more information and to keep track of his upcoming releases, visit Greg Tremblay at: https://gregtremblay.com/

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

And what would be a blog tour without a giveaway? Enter to win a $20 USD gift certificate to the online etailer of your choice! Amazon! Dreamspinner! Starbucks! Funko! Where your heart desires so long as I can get the winner a gift certificate there! Enter at every blog on the tour because it’s a gift certificate giveaway for every stop!

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Review: The Lost Princess Returns by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Lost Princess Returns by Jeffe KennedyThe Lost Princess Returns (The Uncharted Realms #5.5) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Uncharted Realms #5.5, Chronicles of Dasnaria #4, Twelve Kingdoms #11.5
Pages: 172
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on June 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

More than two decades have gone by since Imperial Princess Jenna, broken in heart and body, fled her brutal marriage-and the land of her birth. She's since become Ivariel: warrior, priestess of Danu, trainer of elephants, wife and mother. Wiser, stronger, happier, Ivariel has been content to live in her new country, to rest her battered self, and to recover from the trauma of what happened to her when she was barely more than a girl.
But magic has returned to the world-abruptly and with frightening force-and Ivariel takes that profound change as a sign that it's time to keep a promise she made to the sisters she left behind. Ivariel must leave the safety she's found and return to face the horrors she fled.
As Ivariel emerges from hiding, she discovers that her vicious brother is now Emperor of Dasnaria, and her much-hated mother, the Dowager Empress Hulda, is aiding him in his reign of terror. Worse, it seems that Hulda's resurrection of the tainted god Deyrr came about as a direct result of Jenna's flight long ago.
It's up to Ivariel-and the girl she stopped being long ago-to defeat the people who cruelly betrayed her, and to finally liberate her sisters. Determined to cleanse her homeland of the evil that nearly destroyed her, Ivariel at last returns to face the past.
But this time, she'll do it on her own terms.

My Review:

The lost princess who returns in this story is Jenna, once an Imperial Princess of Dasnaria. Jenna, with the help of her younger brother Harlan, was partially rescued and partially rescued herself from not just an excruciatingly abusive marriage but an entirely abusive culture as well, in the Chronicles of Dasnaria series, beginning with The Prisoner of the Crown. Which Jenna so definitely was when her story began.

Jenna transformed herself into the warrior-priestess Ivariel, she saved her adopted people AND their elephants, healed or buried the abused young woman she had been, married a good man, made a life for herself far away from the Imperial seraglio where she was born and was supposed to die, and had four children.

As the forces gather in the stunning climax of The Uncharted Realms series, a story told in The Fate of the Tala, Ivariel nee Jenna brings her people and her elephants to the fight. And finds herself fighting alongside two of the brothers she left behind, her rescuer Harlan, now consort of the High Queen Ursula of the Twelve Kingdoms (their story is The Talon of the Hawk) and her near-betrayer who has finally gotten his head out of his ass, her brother Kral (details of his story in The Edge of the Blade.) That Kral’s lady Jepp is the daughter of the woman who trained Jenna shows just how deeply Jenna/Ivariel has been ingrained in the combined series, even when she has not been present.

The enemy that is finally defeated in The Fate of the Tala has been a thorn in the side of the Twelve Kingdoms from the very beginning of this saga, all the way back in The Mark of the Tala. It’s an enemy that has been funded and nurtured by the Emperor Hestar and his mother, the Dowager Empress Hulda, of Dasnaria. The place from which Jenna, Harlan and eventually Kral fled so long ago.

Now that the forces of evil have been finally routed, it is time for the exiled children of Dasnaria to return home – to cut out the enemy’s heart. That said cutting out will require killing both their brother and their mother is the ice cream on a dish of revenge being served, at last, chillingly cold.

A dish of revenge that needs to be delivered personally by Ivariel, Harlan and Kral. No matter how much it hurts them to return to the place that tortured them and tossed them away.

That’s a lot of intro, all in order to say that all three of these interconnected series (Twelve Kingdoms, Uncharted Realms and Chronicles of Dasnaria are epic, compelling, marvelous and intertwined so deeply that by the time the reader reaches this lovely endpoint (I hope it’s the endpoint, they ALL deserve a lasting HEA) that the stories are so interwoven that there is no reasonable way to start here and have it all make sense. This is a series that rewards the reader with a deeply absorbing tale of magic, machinations, maneuvers and yes, romance.

Start with The Mark of the Tala and wend your way through to this terrific wrap-up, The Lost Princess Returns.

I wish you joy of the journey. It’s a great one.

Escape Rating A+: It’s obvious that I loved this story. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that I’ve loved the entire interconnected series, as I’ve reviewed them all. This is also a series that operates on two layers. First, it IS epic fantasy. The epic is the story of the three princesses of the Twelve Kingdoms rebelling against the rule of their abusive father. That father is also taking the Kingdoms down a terrible path, so they set out on a course to right his wrongs and remove him from his throne. Once that battle is won, they then have to rout the forces that helped set their father on his terrible path – not that he wasn’t plenty terrible on his own. The story of their journey, now as queens of their own kingdoms, to help each other find and fight those forces, gathering allies and enemies along the way, is told as The Uncharted Realms.

And then there’s Jenna, groomed, beaten, abused, betrayed and nearly dead, barely escaping with her life in the Chronicles of Dasnaria, only to build herself a new life as Ivariel and return here as the fabled “Lost Princess”.

This book serves as both an extended epilogue for the combined series and as the culmination of Jenna’s need to return to her origins, to heal the wounds she has covered over for more than 20 years. It is a story of revenge, and it’s a revenge that is necessary. Neither Hulda nor Hestar are capable of redemption. In the end, this is the story of not just Jenna but also Harlan and Kral moving beyond the people they were and the people who made them and tried to mold them into their own corrupt images, and finding their true selves. The selves they have built and become far from that terrible places.

The healing that comes for them is personal, but they also leave healing behind them, finally setting Dasnaria on a path to its own brighter future.

And the entire epic from the very beginning to this marvelous conclusion, is absolutely fantastic.

Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Review: The Last Emperox by John ScalziThe Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Interdependency #3
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on April 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?

My Review:

It is impossible, reading this now in the midst of the COVID19 crisis, not to see just how much the situation that the people of the Interdependency are in parallels life as we currently know it. The degree of resonance alternates between astonishing and appalling, depending on where in the story one is and what one thinks about current conditions.

Making it all the more amazing that when this story began, with the writing of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, probably sometime in the fall of 2016 for its March 2017 release. Not that, from certain perspectives, the world wasn’t already headed for a dumpster fire in the fall of 2016.

But just as no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects a worldwide pandemic, and no one in the Interdependency expected the basis of their entire, interdependent (hence the name), galaxy-spanning civilization to collapse relatively suddenly and without nearly enough warning to re-shape said civilization in time to save all that much of it.

If they can manage to overcome the sheer, unadulterated self-centered selfishness of the so-called elites and do the right thing – if anyone can figure out what that is – in time. They might manage to save civilization. But they don’t have a prayer of saving all of the people in it.

This is one of those cases where the needs of the many really, really, seriously outweigh the needs of the few. And, like so many of those cases, so much is dependent on who gets to decide who constitutes those “many”.

For Nadashe Nohamapeton, the many are the members of the Interdependency’s ruling families and mercantile guilds, who are frequently one and the same. She has a plan to save them – or at least those of them that haven’t pissed her off or done her wrong or gotten in her way. Of course, anyone who falls into any of those three categories can be eliminated, even if they are members of her own family.

As for the billions of people who make up the Interdepency, in Nadashe’s worldview they are all expendable. They are to be lied to, placated if possible, subjugated if necessary and left behind to die in isolation while the important parts of the Interdepency leave Hub for End, the only planet in the entire system capable of supporting human life all by itself without the resources of the Interdepency to fill in the gaps.

Among the people standing in Nadashe’s way is the Emperox. She’ll need to be taken out of Nadashe’s way so that those who Nadashe believes are the important parts of the Interdepency can survive. So from Nadashe’s perspective the Emperox has to go. After all, she’s sitting in the seat that Nadashe plans to occupy.

To Emperox Grayland II, the many are the people of the Interdepency. All of those billions that Nadashe plans to leave behind to die in the dark and the cold. Or whatever terrible fate befalls them. Nadashe may not care but Grayland certainly does. What she doesn’t have is a plan. Not exactly. But with the help of Marce Claremont, her scientific advisor – and lover – they might have just enough time to discover a way to save, maybe not everyone, but an awful, awful lot of the people who, in Grayland’s mind, are the Interdependency.

But if the population as a whole constitute the many, then Grayland, and Marce, are the few – and the one.

Escape Rating A+: I had a terrible approach/avoidance issue with this book. A part of that was because I had originally intended to listen to it, as I have to the entire rest of the series. The walking profanity explosion that is Kiva Lagos is best appreciated in audio. She just doesn’t have the same impact when reading the book yourself. Also, Wil Wheaton has done a fantastic job with the series, including this entry. But I normally listen while driving, or while on a treadmill at the gym, and everything has been closed. I had more time for reading but fewer opportunities for listening. In the end I mostly played Solitaire and just let the audio wash over me. It was marvelous.

Also, and probably more importantly, this is the last book in the trilogy, and I knew that going in. So I was going to have to say goodbye to all of these wonderful characters and this fascinating world, and I was NOT looking forward to that – at all.

By the nature of the setup of the series, it was also pretty clear that there could not possibly be a happy ending. The end of their civilization is coming, it’s not their fault, but there isn’t anything they can do to stop it, either. By a whole lot of definitions, this is a no-win scenario. In order to have an unequivocal happy ending for these characters, there would have to occur an unbelievable amount of deus ex machina. Possibly even dei ex machina, a whole damn pantheon of dei.

And it would have been a cheat. So I was expecting a butcher’s bill at the end. I had no illusions about that, but it did mean that I wanted to know how it all worked out – but didn’t exactly WANT to know who got worked out of the story to make it wrap up.

I’ll admit that there was a point near the end where the whole thing gave me the weepies. It reminded me very much of Delenn’s absolute tearjerker scene in the Babylon 5 finale “Sleeping in Light”. I cried then, too.

But what I think will stick in the mind about this series has a lot more to do with Kiva Lagos’ observation that, “whenever selfish humans encountered a wrenching, life-altering crisis, they embarked on a journey of five distinct stages:

1. Denial.
2. Denial.
3. Denial
4. Fucking Denial.
5. Oh shit everything is terrible grab what you can and run.”

This trilogy as a whole is about the response to stage five. Whether it is possible, or not, to draw back from that brink or get past that impulse and figure out a way to not just “rage against the dying of the light” but to finesse a way around it. In spite of all the people saying it can’t be done, as well as more than a few – like Nadashe – saying it shouldn’t be done.

It’s a great story about the indomitability of the human spirit. Also about the corruptibility of the human spirit, and the conflict between the two. With an ending that is an absolute punch to the gut.

One final note. The ending of the series as a whole had one last twist to throw at everyone. A twist that turns out kind of like the ending of the joke about a German Shepherd, a Doberman and a cat who have died and gone to heaven. I’ll leave you to discover who plays the part of the cat.

Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Review: Network Effect by Martha WellsNetwork Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #5
Pages: 352
Published by Tordotcom on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Murderbot returns in its highly-anticipated, first, full-length standalone novel.

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you're a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you're Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

When Murderbot's human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

My Review:

If you are already well acquainted with Murderbot, Network Effect is a fantastic way to get to know it and its world a whole lot better. But if you do not already know Murderbot, this is not the place to get to know Murderbot. That would be All Systems Red, the first book in this multiple Hugo Award winning series.

Murderbot is the name it gave itself once it hacked its own governor module and went completely rogue. Except it didn’t. SecUnits like Murderboth are property of one of the many megalomaniacal corporations that run the galaxy, and are more explicitly slaves than the human employees of those corporations. But not more explicitly by much.

It’s only through the events that take place in the first four novellas, All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy, that Murderbot finds a group of humans who are willing to give it purpose without suppressing its individuality.

Dr. Mensah and her family and colleagues treat Murderbot as another colleague. The messy emotions that engenders within Murderbot make it uncomfortable in the extreme. It finds humans messy and stupid at the best of times. Feelings, its and theirs, are something to be avoided at all costs. Except that they can’t be.

This is a story that turns out to be all about the emotions that Murderbot really doesn’t want to deal with, wrapped around a page-turning adventure. Because the heart of this story is about friendship. Murderbot’s seldom acknowledged friendship for ART, the Asshole Research Transport who helped it learn to blend in better among augmented humans. It’s also about Murderbot’s need to help the people it has designated as its humans, even when they put themselves in danger and drive it crazy.

The story begins when Murderbot and some of its humans are kidnapped by weird gray humanoids who look diseased and talk like cartoon villains. Complete with bwahahas. It middles with Murderbot discovering that his kidnapping (bot-napping?) was orchestrated by his friend ART in ART’s desperate attempt to save not merely itself and its humans, but to also save, quite possibly, humanity itself – although that is just possibly a side effect – or even an unintended consequence. Neither Murderbot nor ART are all that taken with humanity in general, just their own special portion of it.

And it ends with a dramatic rescue attempt that finally gets Murderbot to understand that it is valued for itself and not just for its functions. That’s a frightening revelation for a being who is still rightfully paranoid about its fate if the wrong people ever figure out what it really is.

Something that it is still figuring out for itself.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve been waiting for Network Effect for almost two years, and it was well worth the wait. This is one of those reviews where I just want to squee all over the page. This was definitely a one-day read for me. I absolutely could not put it down. At all. Not that I tried very hard.

What makes this series – and each story within it – work so well is Murderbot’s voice. The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective, in its first-person voice. We’re there inside its head, and its an awesomely snarky place to be. While Murderbot does manage to keep itself from blurting out all of the insensitive and insulting things that it’s thinking, it’s thinking them a lot. It says everything in its head that all of us think all the time, try to pretend we’re not thinking, and praying that never actually come out of our mouths. It’s inner thoughts are constantly rude, and its extremely dry sense of humor is on the gallows side.

This series is probably great in audio. First person narratives, when they are done well, and this one is, generally are.

Murderbot is also fascinating because Murderbot is a version of Pinocchio who has zero desire to become a real boy. Or, for that matter, a real girl, a real genderfluid person or, in all honesty, a real human at all. Murderbot just wants its humans to do what it tells them in situations when security is threatened, and to be left alone to watch its really bad SF serial dramas the rest of the time. Part of what makes Murderbot so interesting is that its entire story, its journey, is its search for personhood without any of that personhood being tied to humanity.

Of course, what Murderbot wants is not what Murderbot gets. Just like the rest of us.

While its setting in the stars among abandoned colonies and corporate overlords run amuck reads much like the gameworld in The Outer Worlds, The progress of the story and the journey of its protagonist feels very similar to that of Finder, both in the universe-weary voice of its first-person narrator, and in the “out of the frying pan and into the fire” nature of its plot. Murderbot, like Fergus Ferguson, seems to be an avatar of Murphy. Whatever can go wrong generally does, and then continues right on going. Wrong. And wronger. And every so often wrongest.

And yet, it perseveres, usually while denying it’s in trouble and serving up a heaping helping of snarkitude. That it manages to save, not only its humans but possibly humanity as a whole in the process is just part of its charm. A charm that it would deny it had.

I loved this one so hard I’m having a difficult time conveying just how much I loved it. If you don’t know Murderbot, get All Systems Red and settle in for a terrific binge read. It’s awesome.

Meanwhile, I sincerely hope there will be more Murderbot in the future. Its journey is far from over, and I want to read it.

Review: And They Called It Camelot by Stephanie Marie Thornton

Review: And They Called It Camelot by Stephanie Marie ThorntonAnd They Called It Camelot: A Novel of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis by Stephanie Marie Thornton, Stephanie Thornton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 480
Published by Berkley on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An intimate portrait of the life of Jackie O…

Few of us can claim to be the authors of our fate. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy knows no other choice. With the eyes of the world watching, Jackie uses her effortless charm and keen intelligence to carve a place for herself among the men of history and weave a fairy tale for the American people, embodying a senator’s wife, a devoted mother, a First Lady—a queen in her own right.

But all reigns must come to an end. Once JFK travels to Dallas and the clock ticks down those thousand days of magic in Camelot, Jackie is forced to pick up the ruined fragments of her life and forge herself into a new identity that is all her own, that of an American legend.

My Review:

I began this week with Camelot, so it seemed fitting to end the week in the same place. A part of me wants to say something about the Camelot of Sword of Shadows being the Camelot of myths and legends – but as we now look back nearly 60 years in the rear-view mirror, the brief, shining moment of the Kennedy Administration seems very nearly as mythic – and just as shrouded.

I still hear the title of this book as the words to the finale theme song from the play and movie, and hear it in the late Richard Harris’ voice with the music in the background. It was one of my favorite albums, both the original cast recording and the soundtrack of the movie. Right along with Vaughn Meader’s spoof, The First Family. There’s a bit of art imitating life imitating art in this circle, as the administration derived its nickname from the play, while the spoof album was inspired by the administration.

The story in this fictionalized biography is the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, of the years when she was the shining star of the public stage – even the Onassis years when that star was more than a bit tarnished. Just like Jackie herself, her life captivates the reader and doesn’t let go until the very end.

Based on this fictionalized account, told in Jackie’s first-person voice as events unfolded, if even half of what happens is true, then, to paraphrase the title of a book about JFK, Jackie, we hardly knew you.

Escape Rating A+: First and most important, Jackie’s story is every bit as spellbinding as she was. I picked this up in the afternoon, and finished at 2 in the morning. Once I started, I couldn’t stop – and didn’t even want to.

Some of that was nostalgia, as the Jackie years of this story are part of the background of my own life. We begin Jackie’s story in 1952, during Jackie’s whirlwind romance with the dashing young Senator, Jack Kennedy. The story ends in 1979, at the dedication of JFK’s Presidential Library, while Jackie was working as an associate editor for Doubleday. With one last tragedy in her life still to come, the death of her son, who was once the little boy in the White House that the press nicknamed “John-John”.

Along the way is a story of triumphs and tragedies. Whether those two are equally balanced is something that only she could have judged. For the reader, this is a life that seems to have filled with both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Part of the fascination in reading this book is that it is told in the first-person. We feel as if we are inside Jackie’s head during all those times when she projected an image of the perfect First Lady. At first, it felt a bit weird being in her head. And there’s a moment of doubt when the reader has to wonder how close to the truth the author has come.

But the view from behind her eyes is so compelling that the reader is just caught up in it. The story gives weight and color to an image that in retrospect looks perfect and plastic in a way that real people never are. And she was very, very real.

The story is also more than a bit salacious, not just because of Jackie’s perspective – and anger – over JFK’s many, many, MANY (need more many’s) sexual liaisons, but also at hints that Jackie had a long-running affair of her own with Bobby Kennedy after Jack’s death. A possibility that historians can’t seem to make their minds up about either, but something that was certainly never publicly speculated about at the time.

It’s interesting to note that although this is Jackie’s life, the story is dominated, not merely by the Kennedys, but by three Kennedys in particular. The story opens at the beginning of Jackie’s life with Jack, middles with her relationship with Bobby (whatever it might have been) and closes not long after the death of Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the family. Nearly everything that happens to her is colored or influenced by the effect it will have on the family. It’s as though, until the Presidential Library is complete, she’s just a secondary player in her own life. But ironic that once she is able to live fully for herself, she fades into the shadows.

And They Called It Camelot is an absolutely compelling read. It’s a view behind the looking glass at a life that seemed to have been lived completely in the public eye, telling us things we never knew and providing insights we never expected. It is absolutely one of those stories where, as Neil Gaiman famously put it, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth”.

Because even if the story isn’t completely true – it sure feels like it is.