Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Elder Race by Adrian TchaikovskyElder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Adrian Tchaikovsky's Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.
Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.
But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).
But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

My Review:

No one believes there really is a demon attacking the borders of her mother’s kingdom, except for the Queen’s frequently ignored fourth daughter. Because Lynesse, the disrespected and disregarded Fourth Daughter of the Queen, believes in the old hero tales of her ancestors. So when a demon attacks the borders of the kingdom, Lynesse goes to the tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the great sorcerer who helped her great-grandmother defeat a demon over a century ago.

Because Nyrgoth, rather foolishly in his own opinion, promised Astresse that if she, or any descendants of her line, called upon him in his remote tower and requested his aid, he would answer. Even though he knows he shouldn’t.

Even though he secretly hoped that she would come herself, and soon, to rescue him from his profound loneliness. Just before he went back into the deepest of sleeps for another century, only to be awakened by the great-granddaughter of the woman he loved to face a promise he should never have made.

If this sounds like fantasy, it is. But it’s also science fiction, part of a long and storied list of works where Earth seeded other planets by sending out colony ships to far distant worlds – and then forgot about them, one way or another.

And those colony worlds, either deliberately or through the fullness of time, distance and absence, forgot that once upon a time their ancestors traveled the stars.

Like Pern, and Darkover, and Harmony and Celta, among many others, the descendants of those colonists lost the knowledge of how to use the high-tech that brought them, or deliberately buried that aspect of their history, until something happens to remind them. Either by discovering the wreck of the original ship, as occurred in both Pern and Celta, by rediscovering the documentation, a la Harmony, or by Earth ships returning to reclaim their lost colony – only to learn that their supposedly lost colony wants little or nothing to do with them, as was the case in Darkover.

Elder Race represents an entirely different possibility, one that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Who Watches the Watchers”, where a Federation science outpost is observing a proto-Vulcan culture as an anthropological study. The planetary inhabitants are not supposed to know they’re being watched, but technology glitches and damage control ensues in an attempt to minimize the cultural contamination that was never supposed to have happened in the first place.

Nyrgoth, actually Anthropologist Second Class Nyr Illim Tevitch, takes the place of the Federation in Elder Race. Earth sent a team of sociologists and anthropologists to Sophos 4 to observe the progress of the colony that had been implanted centuries before, had no knowledge of their high-tech origins, and had returned to a much lower level of technology than the one they came from.

But his team returned to Earth centuries ago. As often happens in lost colony stories, Earth was in a crisis and sent a recall. Nyr was left behind, in the belief that his teammates would return in the not too distant future. Which hasn’t happened yet and Nyr no longer has any expectation that it ever will.

He’s done his best to maintain his mission. Except that one time when Astresse banged on the door of his tower, dragged him out of said tower to fix something that was a direct result of the high-tech left behind by the original colonization, and pretty much broke his heart when she went to rule her now-safe kingdom and he took himself back to his lonely tower because that was what he was supposed to do.

Now one of Astresse’s descendants has banged on his door, intending to remind him of his promise but inadvertently reminding him that he’s all alone on this world and that his choices are limited to putting himself out of his own misery, going mad with loneliness, or admitting that his mission is over and it’s time to join the world he has instead of mourning for the one that has forgotten him.

If he can just find a way to get rid of this pesky bit of hybrid technology that is masquerading as a demon, before the situation gets more FUBAR’d than it already is..

Escape Rating A+: The story in   alternates from fantasy to SF and back again as it switches its point of view from Lynesse to Nyr and we see from inside their heads how vastly different their worldviews are.

But no matter whose eyes we’re using to see the world, their emotional landscape is surprisingly similar while being not just miles but actually lightyears apart at the same time. There’s a point in the story where Nyr attempts to tell Lynesse the unvarnished truth about her world and his place in it, but the chasm between their respective understandings is so huge that no matter what he says, she still hears his story in the terms that she understands, terms of myth and legend, tales of heroes and demons, and magic capable of changing or destroying her world.

While Nyr is constantly aware that the only magic he is capable of is of the Clarke variety, the kind that “all technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from.”

In the end, this felt like a story about opposing beliefs and perceptions. She believes he’s a great wizard. He believes he’s a second-class and second-rate anthropologist. She believes he’s a hero out of legend. He believes that she’s the hero and that he’s a faker, a failure, or both. She believes that he can save her people, because she’s not capable of doing it herself. He believes that she’s every bit the hero that her great-grandmother was, and that he’s just along for the ride.

They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. They are also both, in spite of appearances, very, very human.

One of the best things about this story is the way that they manage to save the day, fight their own demons, and ultimately develop a strong and sustaining friendship that never trips over the line into the possibility of romance. Because it really, really shouldn’t. They’re too far apart and too unequal in too many ways for that to work. Instead, they hesitantly reach towards a friendship that is strong and true and forged in fire – and looks to be the saving of each of them.

And it’s a terrific read that manages to be both perfect in its relatively short length while still leaving the reader wishing there were more.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Isolate (The Grand Illusion #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, political thriller, steampunk
Series: Grand Illusion #1
Pages: 608
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of The Mongrel Mage, has a brand new gaslamp political fantasy Isolate.Industrialization. Social unrest. Underground movements. Government corruption and surveillance.
Something is about to give.
Steffan Dekkard is an isolate, one of the small percentage of people who are immune to the projections of empaths. As an isolate, he has been trained as a security specialist and he and his security partner Avraal Ysella, a highly trained empath are employed by Axel Obreduur, a senior Craft Minister and the de facto political strategist of his party.
When a respected Landor Councilor dies of "heart failure" at a social event, because of his political friendship with Obreduur, Dekkard and Ysella find that not only is their employer a target, but so are they, in a covert and deadly struggle for control of the government and economy.
Steffan is about to understand that everything he believed is an illusion.

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title is the illusion that the government (any government) can solve every problem and make everyone happy – all at the same time. But as the story unfolds it acknowledges that this is very definitely an illusion, that a government can possibly make nearly all of the people happy some of the time, that it can certainly make some of the people happy nearly all of the time, but that making all the people happy all the time is neither possible nor realistic.

Although good people in government can do their best to walk the tightrope, to do the best job they can for most people most of the time. If they devote their lives to it and are even willing to give those lives in order to do the most good for the most people most of the time – even in the face of those same people not recognizing that it’s being done while resenting that it isn’t being done nearly fast enough..

In other words, this is a political story, told through fascinating characters. It also reads like a story about how to potentially stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. That could just be reading the real-life present into the opening salvo in what I hope will be a long and fascinating series. But the interpretation feels right to me and your reading mileage may vary.

So Isolate examines the dirty business of politics, as seen through the eyes of someone with an intimate view of just how the sausage is made, as the saying goes, and finds himself on the inside of an attempt to make it better. Or at least tastier for considerably more people than is currently the case.

Isolate can be read as an exploration of how politics and government work as well as a continuous discussion about how they should work, but the story is wrapped around the characters and that both personalizes it and makes it easier to get swept up in the discussion right along with them. It can also be read simply as a “power corrupts” type of story and it certainly works on that level, but it’s also competence porn of the highest order and I absolutely could not put it down.

(Speaking of not being able to put this down, readers should be aware that the count of 608 pages is a serious underestimate. It’s 15,000 kindle locs. I know there’s not a direct translation from locs to number of pages, but as an example, Jade City by Fonda Lee, which is awesome, BTW, is 560 pages and 7684 kindle locs. No matter how loosely you do the math, based on my reading time Isolate is more likely 806 pages, or more, than it is 608, unless they are very large pages and the print is very, very small. It is absolutely worth reading, I loved every minute, but it will take more time than you might think it will from the page count.)

I recognize that I’m all over the map in this review. There is a lot to this book, and it’s one that made me think quite a lot as I was reading it.

As I said earlier, there were quite a few points where it felt like a story about how to stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. At first, I thought that those currently in power were setting up the kind of coup that nearly happened in the U.S. after the election, but it didn’t get to quite that level of skullduggery – not that there wasn’t plenty but it didn’t go quite that far in quite that direction.

But there’s also an element that the forces of “good” or at least the forces we follow and empathize with the most, are staging a coup from inside the government but outside of real power to make change. That feels kind of right, but as it’s handled in the story it’s legal and on the side of the “angels”.

While never glossing over the fact that politics is a dirty business, and even those on the side of the “angels” sometimes have to get their hands dirty – even if by proxy.

Escape Rating A+: What made this story work for me was the way that it completely embodied its political discussions and political maneuvering in its characters. There’s a lot of necessary exploration and explanation of what government can and can’t, and should and shouldn’t, do for its people, in this country that reads just enough like ours – or Britain – to feel relevant without feeling so close that it ends up being either a political treatise or a work of alternate history.

Instead, it ends up being the story of three people doing the best that they can to help their country in spite of everyone who tries to get in their way. In the process, they all rise above the place they expected to be, and that’s just the kind of story I love to sink into.

It takes a bit to get the reader firmly ensconced in this world with these characters, but once it does, it’s riveting. And it ends, not so much with triumph – although that element is there – but with the sure and certain knowledge that Steffan, Avraal and Obreduur have plenty of work left to do. They’re eager to get started, and I’m eager to read what happens next in Councilor, due in August 2022.

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert CargillDay Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 18, 2021
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In this apocalyptic adventure C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.
It was a day like any other. Except it was our last . . .
It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a styilsh "nannybot" fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he'd arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he'll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.
As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity—their creators—unify and revolt.
But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom . . . or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.

My Review:

Day Zero isn’t exactly POST-apocalyptic. That would be Sea of Rust to which it seems to be a very loose prequel. Day Zero is just plain apocalyptic. It’s the story of the apocalypse as it happens. It’s the day the universe changed, and the next few days thereafter.

Every single day was an apocalypse, a walk through very dark places, with the threat of annihilation at every turn. It’s the story of a boy and his bot, trying to find a place that at least one of them can call home.

Because the world that used to nurture them both is gone. And today is the first day of a very scary new era, both for one of the few surviving humans, and for the bot who decided that his prime directive was the same as it has always been – to keep his boy Ezra safe – no matter what it takes.

Or how many murderous bots with their kill switches disabled stand in his way.

Escape Rating A+: I could fill paragraphs with all the things that this story reminded me of or borrowed from or probably both. Most likely both. (It’s both, they’re at the end). And it didn’t matter, because the story was just so freaking awesome that it took all of those antecedents, threw them into a blender, and came up with something that was still very much its own.

And it’s so, so good.

In my head, Ariadne looked like Rosey, the domestic robot in The Jetsons – at least until the rebellion. But Pounce, sweet, adorable, deadly Pounce, is Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. So this is Hobbes protecting a much less snarky Calvin on a big, scary adventure with deadly consequences on ALL sides.

The story is told from Pounce’s first person perspective. Pounce is a nannybot, designed and built to be a child’s best friend and caregiver – at least until said child hits those rebellious teenage years. Ezra is only 8, so they still have plenty of time together. Even if Ezra’s parents are clearly already thinking about Pounce’s inevitable departure.

All is well in their safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Austintonio until the feces hits the oscillating device with fatal repercussions all around.

The catastrophe is a direct result of humans being human. Which means humans being complete, total and utter assholes. The reader sees the signs all around, and also sees the obvious parallels to right now. You won’t miss them even if you blink, which, quite honestly, you can’t. The steamroller is coming and you know they can’t get out of its way and it’s all tragic because it was unnecessary every bit as much as it was inevitable.

In a macro sense, Day Zero reads like it’s down the other leg of the trousers of time from Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built. That society separated itself from its automata peacefully, without either side wiping out the other. It would be obvious that THAT isn’t going to happen here, even without knowing that Sea of Rust is a loose sequel.

But what makes this story so good is the way that it combines two very distinct plots. On the one hand, it’s a pulse-pounding action-adventure story about two really likeable protagonists surviving the end of the world as they and we know it. And on the other hand, it’s the story about the relationship between those two protagonists, a relationship that is sweet and heartfelt and affirming in the midst of a scenario that could get either or both of them killed at any moment.

And on my third hand – I’ll just borrow one of Pounce’s paws for this one – this is a story about rising to an occasion you never expected, becoming the self that has always been hidden inside you, and going above and beyond and over for the person you love most in the world. This part of the story belongs to the A.I. Pounce, the soft and cuddly nannybot turned ultimate protector, and is what gives this story its heart and soul.

I just bought a copy of Sea of Rust, because now that I’ve seen where this world began, I have to find out where it ended up. Even if I never get to see Pounce and his Ezra again.

Reviewer’s notes: I have lots of notes for this one. First, I listened to most of this on audio. The reader was absolutely excellent, but I already knew that. The narrator of Day Zero, Vikas Adam, is also one of the many narrators of the Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons. In addition to being excellent as an audiobook, the audio of Day Zero answered a question that has been plaguing me since I listened to The Ruin of Kings. Vikas Adam is Kihrin and I’m glad to finally have THAT question settled.

This story has a long list of readalikes/watchalikes/bits it reminded me of, in addition to the obvious Calvin and Hobbes homage and the considerably less obvious Psalm for the Wild-Built as Psalm was published AFTER Day Zero.

For the terribly curious, here’s the rest of that list; the robot rebellion from The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis and the violent chaos at end of the world from Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle along with bits of Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), American War (Omar El-Akkad), Cyber Mage (Saad Z. Hossain) and Mickey7 by Edward Ashton the last two of which aren’t even out yet. The road trip (and the ending) from Terminator 2 and the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Last but not least, the robotics gone amuck from the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn and the Geth from the Mass Effect Trilogy who, like the nannybot Beau in Day Zero, ask “Does this unit have a soul?”

Yes it does. And at least in Day Zero, yes, they do.

Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. HarrowA Spindle Splintered (Fractured Fables, #1) by Alix E. Harrow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Series: Fractured Fables #1
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow's A Spindle Splintered brings her patented charm to a new version of a classic story.
It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.
Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

My Review:

A Spindle Splintered is about the power of narrative to shape and warp people’s lives. And it’s about the power of sisterhood and friendship that helps them to break free.

Zinnia Gray is dying. For her, Sleeping Beauty is more than a myth or a fairy tale. It’s a dream of wish fulfillment. Sleeping Beauty went to sleep, and when she woke up her curse was broken and all was well.

Zinnia would be happy to sleep for a century if she could wake up and be healthy, with all of her loved ones around her. But it’s not to be, and she knows it. She has an incurable disease that is going to take away all the birthdays after this one.

Her best friend Charm is determined to give Zinnia the full Disney Princess Sleeping Beauty experience, complete with crumbling castle and defective spinning wheel. But the power of their friendship and the power of narrative and the multiverse turn out to be a whole lot stronger than either Zinnia or Charm could possibly have imagined.

Zinnia, like all the other Sleeping Beauties before and after her, pricks her finger on the spindle, but instead of sleeping for a century, Zinnia finds herself spinning out into the multiverse of all the Sleeping Beauties who have ever, or will ever, do the same.

Zinnia cries out through the multiverse, not for someone to save her, but for someone she can save. And her cry is answered in ways that Disney and the Brothers Grimm never imagined.

Escape Rating A+: First, this book is just plain wonderful. It’s a wonderfully twisted re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, and it’s a terrific story of friendship, sisterhood and agency. I always love it when the princesses save themselves – as they should!

Most of the reviews make a comparison between A Spindle Splintered and the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and that comparison is certainly there to be made. Just as Miles Morales teams up with variations of Spider-Man from across one multiverse, Zinnia teams up with Sleeping Beauties from myths and fairytales that spread across their multiverse.

There is, however, an element to A Spindle Splintered and the multiverse of Sleeping Beauties that wasn’t present in the Spiderverse. Come to think of it, there are two elements. One is that Spider-Man in all of his, her, and their incarnations, including Spider-Ham, is an active character with agency. Once that radioactive spider bites their victim, the resulting Spider-person becomes an active force for good.

Sleeping Beauty is a passive character. Her fate is to prick her finger and sleep for a century, only to be woken up by a kiss. She’s the progenitor of the woman in the refrigerator trope. She’s not even the protagonist of her own story.

But the original point I wanted to make about the royalty of princesses (yes, royalty is the collective noun for a group of princesses) who would be Sleeping Beauty is that many of them, and clearly the ones who answer Zinnia’s call, don’t want to be Sleeping Beauty. They are being forced or coerced or shoved into the role by the power of the narrative to shoehorn people into predetermined patterns or tropes. It’s a concept that has been used to power entire stories or series like Second Hand Curses by Drew Hayes, the Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey, and the Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman. The force of narrative, of its need to recreate timeless stories by shoving people into roles they don’t want in order to fulfill its directive, makes A Spindle Splintered a powerful story because we already know how the story is “supposed” to go and want to see it subverted.

And it’s wonderful – especially when all the Sleeping Beauties carry off the princess and save the day, not just for her, but for each other as well.

Speaking of stories that could use a different ending, the Fractured Fables series will continue next summer with A Mirror Mended. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, will Zinnia Gray save the sorceress or take a really big fall?” Or both. We’ll see what we see when we look in that mirror.

Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy WeirProject Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 476
Published by Ballantine Books on May 4, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission--and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn't know that. He can't even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he's been asleep for a very, very long time. And he's just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that's been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it's up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.
Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian--while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

My Review:

Project Hail Mary is, quite possibly, the ultimate in competence porn stories. Or at least the best such book since The Martian, also, of course, by the same author.

I sense a theme here.

In order to enjoy Project Hail Mary, I think that the reader has to really like stories about people who are good at their jobs demonstrating exactly how good they are, which is the essence of competence porn. (If you prefer watching people flounder, fail and screw up, this is not your book.)

It also feels like it’s absolutely necessary for a reader to like science in order to really get suck in this story. I don’t think one has to be an expert – I’m certainly not and I loved the heck out of this – but the reader has to enjoy reading about science and engineering and discovery and believe that science is real and that it can provide real and verifiable solutions to real problems.

But expertise is not required because a lot of the story is about a scientist and an engineer teaching each other how their specialties work, and how both of their extremely different cultures work, so that they can work together on sciencing the shit out of the problem that is staring both of them in the face.

That teaching aspect – very much the way that Sophie’s World “taught” people about philosophy by telling stories about it – turned out to not just be a fascinating way of telling the story but also way more appropriate and resonant than I was expecting at the beginning.

This is a story with two beginnings. It begins with a man waking up from a coma, chased and coddled by giant robot arms, not knowing who he is or how he got to be in the fix he’s currently in.

And it begins several years in the past, when humanity learns that the sun, our sun, is cooling off, not just measurably but rapidly, and that we have a mere 30 years to fix the problem before Earth faces its “sixth extinction” and takes us with it.

As the two storylines catch up to each other, and the man waking up from the coma remembers how he got stuck with the job of fixing what’s wrong with the sun, leading him to waking up in a tiny spaceship cruising in the Tau Ceti system, along with two dead teammates and a ship full of scientific instruments, we get caught up and caught up in the past and the present of Dr. Ryland Grace, humanity’s last, best hope for survival.

Even if he won’t live to see it.

Escape Rating A+: I pulled this book out of the middle of the towering TBR pile because I’m in the middle of a replay of Mass Effect: Andromeda and was looking for something SFnal to read to go along with my playthrough.

And this book has been recommended to the skies (ha-ha) so it seemed like a good choice. I had no idea that the opening scenes of Project Hail Mary were going to bear such a strong resemblance to the opening scenes of the game, waking up from a coma and trying to figure out which end is up in a situation that has gone even more pear-shaped than it was when the protagonist went to sleep.

Ryland Grace is in a much bigger fix than Pathfinder Ryder and the Andromeda Initiative, but comparisons can definitely be drawn.

Howsomever, the stories that Project Hail Mary most resembles, beyond any obvious similarities to The Martian – which I’ve seen but not read and clearly need to read – are Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series (start with The Calculating Stars) and Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The Lady Astronaut series also features an Earth that is facing an extinction-level event and a desperate international effort to save the species before the planet kills us. (There’s also a surprising bit of a resemblance to some of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series in the way that the leader of Project Hail Mary cuts through bureaucratic red tape with a machete!) To Be Taught features a similar story about a tiny crew doing good science and facing seemingly impossible odds for a home that can never be theirs again, so poignantly similar to Ryland Grace’s situation.

But the surprising difference, and the absolute charm of Project Hail Mary is that Grace does not, after all, face his situation alone, even though he’s the only surviving human on his tiny ship. Twelve light-years from home, Ryland Grace finds a kindred spirit in the place he absolutely least expected, against all the odds.

The heart and soul of Project Hail Mary is not about the plucky human scientist saving the day. It’s about a human scientist and an Erid engineer, who can’t even breathe each other’s air, reaching out to each other using the only language they have in common, the language of science.  Because it’s going to take both of them and every ounce of ingenuity they both possess to save both of their worlds.

So this story that started out as a science and engineering story still turns out to be about the beauty of science – but at its heart it’s about finding friendship in the most unlikely place of all.

And that’s beautiful – right up to and including the ending which gave me the sniffles. It was just a bit bittersweet and so very, very right.

Review: White Top by M.L. Buchman

Review: White Top by M.L. BuchmanWhite Top (Miranda Chase NTSB #8) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #8
Pages: 360
Published by Buchman Bookworks on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
The White Top helicopters of HMX-1 are known by a much more familiar name: Marine One. The S-92A, the newest helicopter in the HMX fleet, enters service after years of testing.
When their perfect safety record lies shattered across the National Mall, Miranda Chase and her team of NTSB crash investigators go in. They must discover if it was an accident, a declaration of war, or something even worse.

My Review:

I’ve always found shopping in Walmart to be generally depressing, so I don’t go there often. But the Walmart scene in this story is enough to make me swear off the place for life! Possibly you will too, when you read the literally explosive details of a helicopter crashing into a Walmart and turning the entire huge store PLUS the surrounding parking lot into a gigantic fireball.

That the helicopter that crashed is Marine Two, carrying the Vice-President, is what pushes the crash into the path of the NTSB’s pre-eminent investigator, Miranda Chase, along with her crack team of top-notch experts into the investigation.

Not that she might not have been called in anyway, come to think of it, but Miranda and her team are the only NTSB team with the security clearance to deal with the potential causes and the political fallout of an entirely too successful attempt to sabotage one of the most secure aircraft in the nation’s entire arsenal.

And all of that is exactly what I read this series for. Miranda and her team are beyond excellent in their specialties, making every single book in this series an absolute delight of competence porn. There’s something absolutely fascinating about watching a bunch of interesting people do their complex jobs at the peak of pretty much everything.

The group that has coalesced around Miranda is one of the best teams it has ever been my pleasure to read about, and I mean that in both senses of the word “best”. Because they are all so damn good at their jobs – see above paragraph about competence porn.

But they are also a delight to read about and follow along with. Each member of the team has their own place, from Holly, the former Australian Special Forces operator who serves as the team’s muscle, to Mike, the human factors specialist, to Andi, the helicopter expert – much needed for particular crash, to Jeremy, the expert in all things geek and also Miranda’s “Mini-Me”.

That last bit turns out to be an important part of the story as far as the ongoing development of the characters is concerned. It’s getting to be time for Jeremy to leave the nest. It’s up to Miranda’s team, especially that human factors specialist, to help Miranda – who does not like change at all – to realize that it’s time to give Jeremy the opportunity to learn, grow and fail as a team leader so that he can be ready to become the Investigator in Charge (IIC) of his own team.

Which intersects both well and badly with the crash of Marine Two. It’s time for Jeremy to learn to lead, but this is not the crash he can “officially” lead. Too much is at stake and too much is at risk.

That’s where the other thing I love about this series comes in. In the Miranda Chase series, that the author has managed to out-intrigue one of the masters of the political intrigue genre, Tom Clancy. Buchman does it better in this story and this series, at least in part because it feels like he has an editor he actually listens to. (That is an opinion and I have no actual knowledge, but having read Clancy let’s say that the first books were great and then they got bloated. IMHO for what that’s worth.)

The setup for this story goes all the way back to the very first book in this awesome series, Drone. And it all pays off beautifully here, as the sabotage links back to players on the international stage who are in cahoots with power brokers in the U.S.

We follow along with Miranda as she and her team figure out how it was done, and we have a ringside seat as one of the prime movers and shakers of the whole series learns just how far her thirst for power has managed to lead her away from achieving her dream of it.

Escape Rating A+: The scenes of the two opening crashes, of which the Walmart crash was the second, are gruesome in their dispassionate recital of just how terrible and terrifying the loss of life was. (There were many times more dismemberments than in the book earlier this week.)

But this series is not about the gore, it’s about how the pattern of the crash – including the gore – allows Miranda and her team to figure out what happened. The purpose of that “figuring out” in normal life is to eliminate any design or mechanical factors that are capable of happening again – so they don’t.

In this particular instance, because this is a political thriller as much as it is anything else, the purpose of figuring out what happened is about assigning blame – and if possible, taking vengeance.

Although that part is not usually Miranda’s bailiwick. Not that she occasionally doesn’t end up in the thick of it anyway. But then, Miranda goes where the clues lead her, whether anyone wants her to go there or not.

In this case, those clues lead her, her team, her mentor and her president to a few inexorable conclusions. Conclusions that will certainly factor into where this series goes next. And I am so there for wherever that turns out to be. I’m just mad that the author is making me wait until next freaking year to find out!

But at least I got to see Miranda’s team punch the lights out of her douchecanoe ex-boyfriend, not once but twice. And he got tased again. The women on Miranda’s team stick up for her, for each other, and for the team and definitely for the win!

Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine AddisonThe Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2) by Katherine Addison
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mystery, steampunk
Series: Goblin Emperor #2
Pages: 240
Published by Tor Books on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Katherine Addison returns at last to the world of The Goblin Emperor with this stand-alone sequel.
When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honesty will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Celehar’s skills now lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

My Review:

I read this because I absolutely adored The Goblin Emperor – and I’ve liked many of the author’s books written as Sarah Monette as well. So if you like the one there’s a fairly good chance you’ll like all the others and vice versa.

There’s irony in the above as I picked up The Witness for the Dead because I was hoping for more like The Goblin Emperor. But The Witness for the Dead, in spite of the titular witness being one of the characters introduced in the first book, is absolutely nothing like the first book.

Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t marvelous and well worth reading in its own right, because it’s both. But if you’re expecting another story about high-level political shenanigans and corruption at the heart of the empire wrapped around a coming of age or coming into power story, check those expectations at the door before opening this book.

The Witness for the Dead is a murder mystery, with Thara Celehar, the titular witness for the dead who witnessed for the young emperor’s dead in the earlier story, reaping the “fruits” of his labor in a far-flung corner of the empire that the young goblin emperor Maia now rules.

And that’s as much as there is to the connection between the two stories, meaning that you do not have to have read The Goblin Emperor to get right into The Witness for the Dead. Because court intrigues are pretty much the last thing that Thara Celehar wants to ever be involved with ever again and quite possibly the last thing that anyone with any power whatsoever will ever let him get near even with someone else’s bargepole.

The clerical intrigues he’s stuck in the middle of are quite enough. More than enough. From his perspective, more than annoying and infuriating enough, too, but he’s stuck with those.

Celehar has been assigned to remote Amalo in order to serve his calling as a witness for the dead. Because that’s what he does. He legally serves as a witness for whatever messages or entreaties or truths – especially for the truths – that the recently – make that the very recently – dead are able to transmit through him before they leave all their worldly concerns behind along with their bodies.

He doesn’t hear them speak, not exactly. What he does is witness, as in watch and listen to, their final sights, sounds, impressions and thoughts. And then he acts upon what he has witnessed, whether to bring justice to the dead – or to bring justice or restitution to those the recently departed has wronged.

Some people seek out his services. Some people are not happy with the answers he gives or the results he gets. Some people are frightened to see him coming, while some are grateful that he did.

The cases that find Celehar as he witnesses for the dead in Amalo are a mix of all of the above. A dead opera singer whose murderer should be brought to justice. A grieving family searching for the burial site of their missing sister. A wealthy family caught in the turmoil left behind by their late patriarch and his two contradictory “last” wills and testaments.

It’s Celehar’s job as well as his calling to find answers for the friends and families left behind. Even if those answers are not the answers they wanted. And no matter what Celehar has to go through – or whom – in order to find them.

Escape Rating A+: Based on the blurb, this wasn’t exactly what I expected. And it doesn’t matter because I absolutely loved it.

For one thing, in spite of the fantasy setting, Celehar’s story mostly reads very much like a historical mystery. The past is as much another country as Amalo is. But people are still people, and murder is still murder. Some of the investigative techniques may be different, but the principles are still the same. “Who benefits?” is an investigative concept that is equally applicable no matter what language it is in.

In the case of the duplicate wills, benefit is the easiest to determine, but the most difficult to bring about. Money, after all, talks, and when the competing sides of this case start using theirs to talk to the powers-that-be, each trying to influence the ultimate decision in their favor, Celehar is caught in the middle – with nearly catastrophic results. Not for the rich beneficiaries, but for poor Celehar whose only interest is in a truth that no one expected to hear.

There is a common element among all three cases. They are all about money. The opera singer was also a blackmailer, and the woman whose burial site was hidden was married for her money – and possibly murdered for it. (There’s that not-so-old saying about money being the root of all evil and every woman needing roots. In these two cases perhaps not so much.)

While there is plenty of satisfaction in the resolution of his cases, what makes this story such a pleasure to read is Celehar’s exploration of this city and the people in it in his pursuit of the truth, as well as the character of Celehar himself. Who is humble, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, and yet supremely talented and more intolerant than is safe or politic of the way that most people are treated – even as he bites his tongue and seems to just accept the way that people in power treat him.

He’s also someone who is bearing up under a load of guilt that he can’t let go of, but as he helps and befriends the people along his path we see that load begin to let go of him. He’s fascinating in his contradictions and I hope we see him again.

Even though this story is part of the world of The Goblin Emperor, the story it reminds me of is not its own predecessor but rather the saga of Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold. Penric and Celehar have a surprising amount in common, as both find themselves in the midst of situations and investigations through the offices of a being who expects them to get on with their work on his behalf without much material assistance. These are both worlds where the supernatural of one type or another is not mythical but actual, and where gods expect work as much as if not more than worship and are not shy about manifesting in one way or another to nudge their agents when needed.

While Penric is considerably less self-effacing than Celehar, I think they’d have as much in common as their stories feel like they do. They also share the fact that I’d very much like more of both!

In the end, The Witness for the Dead was just a story that worked for me on pretty much every level. I loved the protagonist, enjoyed exploring his world, wanted to hang with his friends and punch out his enemies – even though he wouldn’t – and had a grand time following him as he investigated his cases and witnessed for the dead as well as the living who would otherwise have no voice in the world. A fantastic read all the way around!

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. WagersBeyond the Empire (The Indranan War, #3) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #3
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 14, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The adrenaline-fueled, explosive conclusion to the Indranan War trilogy by K. B. Wagers.
Gunrunner-turned-Empress Hail Bristol was dragged back to her home planet to take her rightful place in the palace. Her sisters and parents have been murdered, and the Indranan Empire is reeling from both treasonous plots and foreign invasion.Now, on the run from enemies on all fronts, Hail prepares to fight a full-scale war for her throne and her people, even as she struggles with the immense weight of the legacy thrust upon her. With the aid of a motley crew of allies old and new, she must return home to face off with the same powerful enemies who killed her family and aim to destroy everything and everyone she loves. Untangling a legacy of lies and restoring peace to Indrana will require an empress's wrath and a gunrunner's justice.

My Review:

This rose to the top of the TBR pile because my husband is playing the Mass Effect Legendary Edition and has been for the past three weeks. We’ve both played the Trilogy before, so we both know how the story ends. I picked up Beyond the Empire because I was looking for a female-led big space opera story (he’s playing as FemShep) that hopefully doesn’t have as heartbreaking an ending as Mass Effect 3 did. Does. That entire third game is a goddamn farewell tour and it just hurts. I may not replay it after all because as the old song says, “you won’t read that book again because the ending’s just too hard to take.”

The action of Beyond the Empire follows directly upon the events of After the Crown, which, in its turn, started just about the minute after Behind the Throne ended. In other words, this is not the place to begin Hail’s story. If you love big space operas with snarky heroines and dirty, rotten underhanded politics as much as I do, start with Behind the Throne and be prepared to immerse yourself in a fantastic binge read.

As this story begins, Hail and her company of friends, advisors and found family are on the run. In trilogy terms, this beginning is similar to the opening of The Return of the King, where the situation looks desperate and Aragorn and the Rangers have to take the Paths of the Dead while Sam has started out alone for Mordor. In other words, the situation is in a very dark place but there are ways they can retake the empire IF they are willing to take a hell of a lot of risks.

Empress Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the empress formerly known as the gunrunner Cressen Stone, is always up for entirely too many risks. She’s just not used to so much and so many people riding on her success – or dying for her failure.

But a gunrunner-turned-reluctant-empress is the only person who could possibly rescue Hail’s friends, her found family, her loved ones and especially her empire, before it’s too late for them all.

Escape Rating A+: This was, again, the right book at the right time. Both for the Mass Effect Trilogy with a less destructive ending (any ending is less destructive and heartbreaking than the end of that saga) and for its “woman in charge who takes no prisoners” heroine. Because I’ve read too many books recently where women are at the mercy of men, and I just wasn’t there for THAT again at the moment. (Although there’s an irony in that desire that turns out to be part of the denouement of this trilogy that I’m not going to go into here.)

As Hail and company close in physically on the home planet and the capitol, and close the noose around their enemies, they also finally draw close to the architect of everything that has happened, not just in this trilogy, but in pretty much everything that has gone wrong or strange or tragic in Hail’s life since her father was killed and she ran away to become Cressen Stone and chase down his killer.

I’m referring to the mysterious “Wilson” who seems to be more ghost than man. Who has disappeared and reappeared to wreck destruction in Hail’s life over and over for the past 20 years, and who seems to be the architect – or perhaps the puppet master – behind all Hail’s recent tragedies.

The mystery of who and how and why Wilson has been after Hail’s family and her empire has lain behind every event in this series. As Hail closes in on Pashati and retaking the seat of her empire, she and her companions also close in on Wilson’s true identity and the reasons behind his decades-long campaign to destroy the Indranan Empire and its ruling family.

Wilson is clearly out for revenge for something – even if Hail has no idea what.

But, as that other old saying goes (a lot of old sayings seem to be turning up in this one), if revenge is a dish best served cold, then this story, in fact this whole trilogy, turns out to be a case study in what happens when someone lets their cold revenge warm up. Wilson has let his revenge heat to a boiling point, along with his temper, his ego and his aggression, and that revenge curdles as much and as badly as you think it will. But the story that results from that curdle is absolutely EPIC.

Having finished Beyond the Empire in a few all-too-brief hours, and after picking it up because I wasn’t ready to deal with another big space opera with a heartbreaking ending, I’m “pleased as Punch”, as that saying goes, to say that while Hail’s butt seems to be firmly on the throne of the Indranan Empire at the end of Beyond the Empire, her adventures are FAR from over. Her future adventures form the second trilogy in this series, The Farian War, beginning with There Before the Chaos – a fitting title if ever there was one, as Hail is usually around before, during AND after the chaos. I have it in both ebook and audio, and I’m looking forward to diving into it the next time I need a reading pick-me-up.

Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl GregoryThe Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Daryl Gregory's The Album of Dr. Moreau combines the science fiction premise of the famous novel by H. G. Wells with the panache of a classic murder mystery and the spectacle of a beloved boy band.
It’s 2001, and the WyldBoyZ are the world’s hottest boy band, and definitely the world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group. When their producer, Dr. M, is found murdered in his hotel room, the “boyz” become the prime suspects. Was it Bobby the ocelot (“the cute one”), Matt the megabat (“the funny one”), Tim the Pangolin (“the shy one”), Devin the bonobo (“the romantic one”), or Tusk the elephant (“the smart one”)?
Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has only twenty-four hours to solve a case that goes all the way back to the secret science barge where the WyldBoyZ’ journey first began—a place they used to call home.

My Review:

It’s not a surprise to say that this story ties back to The Island of Dr. Moreau, a classic mixture of SF and horror by H.G. Wells. The punch in the gut at the end is the WAY in which it reaches back and grabs the reader by the heart – and the throat.

But that’s all the way at the end. Along the way it’s pretty easy to lose sight of that past while being completely immersed in the book’s very wild and extremely woolly present.

And I’m not just talking about the WildBoyZ themselves – as wild and definitely woolly – or at least furry – as some of them are. I’m not even talking about their “rabid fans” who are, in their own ways, even stranger than the Boyz they follow.

Oh no, I’m talking about the world of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and boy bands. If you’ve ever wondered whether the members of boy bands are cloned instead of merely born and nipped and tucked and botoxed and trained. Or however else it might actually happen that may honestly be weirder than this story.

In the middle of all of the sheer WTF’ery of a boy band on tour, there’s a murder mystery. A real, honest-to-goodness police procedural in a case and a place where all of the police’s normal procedures have been kicked out a penthouse window because 1) the victim is the evil, grasping manager of the above mentioned boy band, and every single one of the WildBoyZ is a suspect; and 2) the murder happens in Las Vegas, which isn’t a place where real world rules apply anyway – even if those rules applied to the hottest band EVAR. Which they don’t.

It’s the police, especially Detectives Luce Delgado and her partner, who hold this story together, even as they attempt to hold the WildBoyZ in Sin City long enough to figure out whodunnit and how.

But it’s the why of the whole thing that kicks the reader in the teeth at the end.

Escape Rating A+: I haven’t read a mashup between SF and Mystery that was this much fun since Bimbos of the Death Sun, and that’s a very long time ago indeed. But where Bimbos uses SF, or rather an SF convention, as the setting for an otherwise traditional murder mystery so it can poke fun at the genre, The Album of Dr. Moreau is SF after all, just with a murder on top rather like a 200 proof cherry on top of a drugged and drunken sundae.

The SF is in the boyz themselves. However they came to exist – which isn’t revealed until the end – the kind of genetic manipulation required to blend animal and human DNA into a person with traits from both sides of that equation is science gone in a direction we haven’t managed yet. (And this is what this story takes from its progenitor. You don’t have to read The Island of Dr. Moreau to get into the Album. If you’re not familiar with the barebones of the older story, the summary in Wikipedia is more than enough to get a reader up to speed.)

So Dolly the cloned sheep carried out to the nth degree – who does get referred to – absolutely does science fiction make.

It also raises, begs, explores and twists the question of exactly what is required to consider someone human. Or self-aware and sentient and eligible for all the rights and responsibilities generally conferred thereunto. It’s a question we still seem to suck at answering – or rather that some people don’t like the answers that science makes clear.

On the one hand, this story is both amazingly fun and incredibly funny. It lampoons boy bands, fandom and fan culture and the cult of celebrity and what it takes to enter that rarefied atmosphere and maintain a place there. The humor is black and deadpan and spot on at every turn.

On the other, there’s the dark underbelly about youth and innocence and exploitation. And hidden below that cesspit, there are alphabet agencies and conspiracy theories. It’s mucky and murky all the way down, and all the laughs turn out to be gallows humor – sometimes complete with actual gallows.

But the question of whether anyone deserves to hang for the murder – well, that answer was both perfectly surprising and absolutely perfect in its fine application of justice.

I think that The Album of Dr. Moreau deserves to go platinum. I hope you’ll think so too.

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

Review: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison EpsteinA Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 384
Published by Doubleday Books on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant aspiring playwright, is pulled into the duplicitous world of international espionage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. A many-layered historical thriller combining state secrets, intrigue, and romance.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, who has come with an unorthodox career opportunity. Her Majesty's spies are in need of new recruits, and Kit's flexible moral compass has drawn their attention. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to act as a servant in her household and keep his ear to the ground for a Catholic plot to put Mary on the throne.
While observing Mary, Kit learns more than he bargained for. The ripple effects of his service to the Crown are far-reaching and leave Kit a changed man. But there are benefits as well. The salary he earns through his spywork allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years, he becomes the toast of London's raucous theatre scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason, he realizes everything he's worked so hard to attain--including the trust of the man he loves--could vanish before his very eyes.
Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth's privy council, Marlowe's lovable theatre troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life as Kit wends his way behind the scenes of some of Tudor history's most memorable moments. At the center of the action is Kit himself--an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature. Thrillingly written, full of poetry and danger, A Tip for the Hangman brings an unforgettable protagonist to new life, and makes a centuries-old story feel utterly contemporary.

My Review:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” Whoops. Wrong book. Right concept, but very much the wrong book. Much too early.

Elizabethan England only seems like a Golden Age because we’re looking back at it. Because history is written by the victors, and in this case the victor was Elizabeth Tudor, Gloriana herself.

Anonymous 16th century portrait, believed to be Christopher Marlowe

What history glosses over are the dirty deeds done, whether or not they are dirt cheap, by unscrupulous men in dark places who pretend they are working for the good of their country – even if they are just out for the main chance.

Christopher Marlowe, often referred to as Kit, was a comet blazing across the English stage just as William Shakespeare was getting his start. It’s even possible, although unlikely, that Marlowe actually was Shakespeare. He’s got the credentials for it and the timing is possible.

On the condition that Marlowe faked his own rather suspicious death in a barroom brawl. We’ll probably never know.

But this book, this story wrapped around not one but several tips for any number of hangmen, leads the reader – and Kit Marlowe – to that suspicious barroom brawl by a road that is surprising, circuitous and shrouded in secrets. The kind of secrets that brought one queen to her end and saved another’s kingdom.

Escape Rating A+: A Tip for the Hangman is the best kind of historical fiction, the kind where the reader feels the dirt under their fingernails, the grit under their own feet – and the smells in their own nostrils.

It’s also the kind that immerses the reader in the era it portrays. We’re right there with Marlowe, a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, as he becomes Doctor Faustus to his own personal Mephistopheles a decade before he wrote his most enduring play.

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

It’s hard to get past that image, even though we only see it in retrospect, as the Queen’s Spymaster and Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, recruits the young, impoverished and most importantly clever Marlowe into his network of agents and informants with one aim in mind.

To bring down Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

A recruitment which ultimately becomes Mary’s end. But eventually also Marlowe’s as well.

Marlowe spends the entire book dancing on the edge of a knife, trying to forget that he’ll be cut no matter which way he falls and ignoring the forces around him, along with his own increasing world-weariness, that guarantee he will fall sooner or later.

There’s something about this period, the Tudor and Stuart era of English history, that has always captivated me. This book does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the cut and thrust not of politics so much as the skullduggery that lies underneath it.

As I was reading A Tip for the Hangman, my mind dragged up two series that I loved that feature the same period and have many characters that overlap this book. Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age puts an urban fantasy/portal twist on this period and includes both Marlowe and Shakespeare as featured characters, while Dorothy Dunnett’s marvelous Lymond series focuses on a character who spies on many of the same people that Marlowe does here, most notably Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond’s frequent second, third and fourth thoughts about the life he has fallen into echo Marlowe in the depths of regret and even despair.

A Tip for the Hangman is a fantastic book for those looking for their history and historical fiction to be “warts and all” – to immerse the reader in life as it was lived and not just the deeds and doings of the high and mighty. Because when it comes to conveying a more nuanced version of life as a hard-scrabbling playwright living hand to mouth and fearing that the hand would get cut off this feels like an absorbing story of fiction being the lie that tells, if not THE absolute truth then absolutely a certain kind of truth.

I would also say, “Read it and weep” for Kit Marlowe and what he might have been if he’d lived. Instead, I’ll just say “READ IT!”