Review: What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris + Giveaway

Review: What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris + GiveawayWhat the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr, #16) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #16
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on April 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sebastian St. Cyr thought a notorious serial killer had been brought to justice until a shocking series of gruesome new murders stuns the city in this thrilling historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Who Speaks for the Damned.
It's October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe's diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.
In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect--a young seaman named John Williams--was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.
Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym's colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question--who was and why are they dead set on killing again?

My Review:

If you like your historical mystery very much on the dark and gritty side, you absolutely cannot go wrong with Sebastian St. Cyr. The feeling of being in his moment with him is so strong that the reader just can’t turn their eyes away until the mystery is solved – and that’s been true for 16 books now and hopefully counting.

Because it’s clear at the end of What the Devil Knows that this particular mystery may be solved – for certain definitions of the word solved – but that there are many greater – and lesser – mysteries yet to be revealed.

The most important being the mystery of St. Cyr’s very existence. Although his current case is less personal and a whole lot bloodier.

When St. Cyr is called in to investigate the grisly death of a corrupt magistrate, he knows that the case is already bigger than it seems as it appears that the perpetrator of the heinous Ratcliff Highway Murders (the original murders really happened) has struck again. But that man was executed three years previously, and the killings stopped. Even the doubters were silenced in the intervening three years.

But as St. Cyr investigates the latest murders, he becomes certain that there was a rush to judgment, aided and abetted by the government who needed to calm a roiling – and occasionally rioting – populace. The need for reform was in direct conflict with the government’s fear of a revolution every bit as destructive to the upper classes – and the country as a whole – as the French Revolution that was not just within living memory, but whose results were still being felt.

No one in the government, especially not St. Cyr’s father-in-law Charles Jarvis, the power behind the Prince Regent’s self-indulgent, shaky, profligate regency, wants St. Cyr to poke his nose into the original case. It’s too obvious that there was a fix in, and too many people involved in that fix have died in its wake.

And that’s just what St. Cyr finds. Three new and very flashy murders connected to that original miscarriage of justice. Along with a whole lot of very, very quiet stabbings in the dark.

Escape Rating A+: One of the things that makes this series so marvelous is the way that it exposes the dark underbelly of the Regency. As a result of the popularity of Georgette Heyer’s sparkling Regency romances, when we think of the period we think of romantic aristocrats, the strict rules of the haut ton, and a lot of glitz and glamour.

St. Cyr’s restless investigations into the seamier side of the Regency, reveals all of the creeping, oozing, frightening things that you find when you kick over a rock, just that in this case the rock is very, very shiny and hides more muck than expected because we’ve all been blinded by that shine.

It’s not just that bad things happen to bad people – although they do – or even that bad things happen to good people – but it’s the way that so much of what is wrong has been perpetrated and perpetuated by those in power, supposedly for the greater good. Or at least for Britain’s good. But usually for their own good.

And all of that has resonance for the 21st century while still leaving St. Cyr as a man of his own time. He’s someone who is on the outside of both worlds and has the intelligence and the vision to see what is wrong along with the will not to turn his eyes away.

That’s what makes him a hero worth following from one investigation and one mystery to another, 16 books and very much hopefully counting.

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

This is the second book giveaway for my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, and it’s also the second time that a book in the St. Cyr series has come out just in time for me to include among the week’s giveaways.

The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by C.S. Harris (up to $25 US to include What the Devil Knows), whether in the St. Cyr series or written as Candice Proctor or C.S. Graham. If you have not yet had the pleasure of making Sebastian St. Cyr’s acquaintance, I recommend starting that series at the beginning in What Angels Fear.

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Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith HunterJunkyard Bargain (Shining Smith #2) by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Shining Smith #2
Published by Audible Audio on February 25th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
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Sometimes before you can face your enemies, you need to confront yourself.

Time is running out for Shining Smith and her crew to gather the weapons they need to rescue one of their own. But will they even make it to the ultimate battle? First, they’ll need to hit the road to Charleston - a hell ride full of bandits, sex slavers, corrupt lawmen, and criminal bike gangs looking to move in on Shining’s territory.

Shining’s human allies will do anything to protect her - because they must. But will victory be worth it if she must compel more and more people to do her bidding? And will her feline warriors, the junkyard cats, remain loyal and risk their lives? Or are they just in it for the kibble?

My Review:

Honestly, I picked up the audio of the first book in this series because of the title. Basically, I started Junkyard Cats for the cats. But I came back for Shining, her friends, her totally screwed-up world and her need to preserve her own little corner of it – and the cats.

OK, I’m still here for the cats. It’s actually the cats that Shining makes the junkyard bargain of the title with. Because she needs to take some of them away from the junkyard and with her and Cupcake on a dangerous and deadly mission – to Charleston, West Virginia.

A place which isn’t all that dangerous or deadly in our world. But in Shining’s world, post the apocalypse that punched a hole in the ozone layer, totally wrecked the planetary environment and brought alien peacekeepers to our solar system to keep us from screwing ourselves any further – every trip away from Shining’s base at the scrapyard is fraught with danger.

Especially this one. Because she’s preparing to take on and take out the one person who might be a bigger threat to the world than Shining is herself. Someone who is more than willing to take over the entire planet.

The world is literally not big enough for both Shining Smith and Clarice Warhammer. They may both be queens, but only one of them is out to rule the world. And the other is out to stop her.

Escape Rating A+: The first book in this series was very insular, while it still managed to introduce us to the mess of the world that is what Shining, and the rest of humanity, is left with. That insularity managed to introduce us to everything that’s going on because we spend the entire story – and this one as well – inside Shining’s head. And because the world comes to her, her sanctuary and her scrapyard, in order to take her out.

So in the first book the war came to her. This second book is about Shining getting ready to take the war out to the rest of the world – or at least out to the people who are after her. That she may have to take out at least a piece of a rival gang and possibly even part of the government along the way is just part of the cost to protect herself and those she sees as hers.

And that’s where this story goes to all kinds of interesting places. Because Shining is in the process of adjusting her perspective on exactly who and what she sees as hers and how it got that way. She wants friends – not too many but a few. What she’s afraid she has made is something else altogether.

As this story takes us out into Shining’s greater world, we get to see just how FUBAR’d everything really is. Humanity seriously screwed up. In a way, it reminded me of the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In both post-apocalyptic worlds, at first it seems as if it’s the machines who are the enemy of humanity, only to eventually realize that the situation is one that Walt Kelly’s Pogo recognized all the way back in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What makes the story, at least for this reader, is that we do spend all of it inside Shining’s head. This is a first-person singular perspective that is absolutely aided by the marvelous narrator, Khristine Hvam, who manages to perfectly convey Shining’s tired, sad, and generally world-weary voice in a way that made me really feel like I was listening to Shining think. That Shining is excellent at bringing on the snark provides a great deal of rueful laughter and gallows humor.

And yes, the cats are still part of the story. I suspect that the reader’s mileage on just how much they enjoy the cats’ participation in Shining’s not-so-little war is going to depend on just how much the reader likes cats, anthropomorphized or otherwise. I think the pack of little predators fits in really well, and adds to my enjoyment of the story quite a bit. Ailurophobes may feel differently.

Obviously I loved the entire experience of listening to Junkyard Bargain. At the end, it definitely feels like there are more parts to this story, and I’m really, seriously, absolutely looking forward to them. But as this episode in Shining’s saga came to an end, something happened that made me sit up and have a kind of a WOW moment. (Luckily I was sitting in my garage to finish and not still on the road!)

Shining is Galadriel. No, she’s not an elf queen and this is not an epic fantasy world. But Shining IS a queen. Not just figuratively but actually literally. And she has power in some of the ways that Galadriel has power. To the point where Shining is faced with the same choice that Galadriel is faced with when Frodo asks her if he should give her the One Ring. And like Galadriel, when faced with that ultimate test, Shining is not found wanting.

At least not yet.

Review: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

Review: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine MathesonThe Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 496
Published by Hanover Square Press on March 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...
When body parts are found on the banks of the River Thames in Deptford, DI Angelica Henley is tasked with finding the killer. Eerie echoes of previous crimes lead Henley to question Peter Olivier, aka The Jigsaw Killer, who is currently serving a life sentence for a series of horrific murders.
When a severed head is delivered to Henley's home, she realises that the copycat is taking a personal interest in her and that the victims have not been chosen at random.
To catch the killer, Henley must confront her own demons - - and when Olivier escapes from prison, she finds herself up against not one serial killer, but two.

My Review:

There’s a tension-filled junction where mystery, suspense and thriller meet – and fight it out with guns, knives and in this particular case, saws. Particularly jigsaws and ripsaws. But saws. Definitely saws.

This is a story that will have readers on the edge of their seats, wringing their hands in sympathy with Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley of the London Metropolitan Police Serial Crimes Unit as she comes to the chilling realization that she is the mouse in a cat and mouse game with not just one but two serial killers.

Killers who are determined to out-do each other in a bid for Anj’s attention. As if her life wasn’t already fraught enough – and not just because everyone, including some versions of the blurb for this book centered around her as she falls apart – misspells her damn name.

It begins when Anj, on her way to work at the SCU, is diverted to a crime scene for the first time in two plus years by her boss. Who also happens to be her on-again, off-again lover. As she’s on her way to work after yet another in a series of seemingly endless arguments with her husband about the consuming nature of her job, she’s already on edge when she arrives at the crime scene to discover that the body that’s been discovered is in pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The calling card of the serial killer who tried to gut Anj like a fish when he resisted arrest two years ago.

Anj has been investigating cold cases ever since, at least until now. She’s still suffering from PTSD and panic attacks. And her assailant, Peter Olivier, is in a high security prison serving seven consecutive life sentences.

But there’s someone out there either doing Olivier’s bidding or desperately seeking his “master’s” attention. Someone who has discovered the best way to get that attention – by grabbing the place in DI Angelica Henley’s mind that remains hyper-focused on Peter Olivier.

Who simply won’t be having that. At all.

Escape Rating A+: The Jigsaw Man is sitting right on that extremely uncomfortable crossroads. Which makes it an absolutely compelling, can’t put it down kind of story, whether you see it as mystery or suspense or thriller or all of the above.

It’s that “all of the above” factor that kept me up until 4 in the morning because I just had to finish.

This one combines police procedural – although a procedure that gets shot to hell fairly quickly and riddled with holes to begin with – with one of those stories that combines the gruesomeness of serial killer stories with the suspense of stories where the investigator is an integral part of the crime spree.

In that regard, The Jigsaw Man reminded me a lot of The Silence of the White City by Eva Garcia Saenz, Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten and the Frieda Klein series by Nicci French. All of those mysteries include serial killers who are thought to be out of commission in one way or another and detectives who are forced into the conclusion that their deaths or prison terms were mistaken, reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated, that the police had the wrong person in prison or very nearly all of the above.

The personal stakes for the detectives in all of these cases ratchet up the stakes and the tension as the investigators find themselves unravelling, looking over their shoulders at things and people they thought were safe – only to discover that nothing was as it seemed. As does Anjelica Henley in this book.

DI Henley’s plight in The Jigsaw Man is particularly fraught. Her marriage is falling apart, her father has dropped into a deep clinical depression and, her mind and body are betraying her. Her career feels like it’s all she has left – and it’s killing her even as not one but two serial killers see her as the cherry on top of their killing spree sundae.

The Jigsaw Man is one of those mystery thrillers that is impossible to put down. The way that this story morphs from a hunt for a serial killer to a hunt for his copycat to a desperate search for competing serial killers along with their hunt for each other grabs the reader and quite honestly puts the reader’s own fingers in their mouth so they can bite their nails to the quick in anticipation and rising dread.

At the same time, we see Anjelica spiraling out of control as the crime spree is rising up to engulf her. We want to help her, want her to get help, and need her to put an end to it before it puts an end to her. And yet…

Some of the descriptions of this book lead one to believe that it’s the first of a series. I very much hope that it is, because while this series of crimes is solved, it’s clear that there’s plenty of unfinished business swirling around DI Henley and the serial killer who brought her to this point.

I want more of Henley’s story and I’m dead certain that other readers will, too.

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance SayersThe Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, magical realism
Pages: 448
Published by Redhook on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family's strange and magical circus, it's the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.
Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother's journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

My Review:

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In The Ladies of the Secret Circus, the road FROM hell is paved with exactly the same stuff.

It all begins with a mystery, even if that mystery is not the one that anyone in tiny Kerrigan Falls, Virginia believes that it is.

But then, nothing about this story turns out to be exactly what people believe it is, especially not Le Cirque Secret and its mysterious proprietor.

Lara Barnes thinks the story begins with the disappearance of her fiancé on the morning of their wedding. But Todd’s abandoned car isn’t the beginning of the story – not even for Lara.

Because once upon a time, when Lara was a little girl, she received a pair of mysterious visitors. The daemon Althacazar and his daughter Cecile. They’ve come to see if Lara might be the one. The one to fix the mistakes that Althacazar made, not out of evil in spite of his position as a powerful prince of Hell, but out of a love that should never have been.

A love that gave birth to Cecile, her sister Esme, and the magical, mysterious, compelling Le Cirque Secret amid the glitter and glamour of Jazz Age Paris. A love that eventually gave birth to Lara herself, and to the hatred and obsession that has followed her, her family, and even the circus itself.

A hate that has finally come to get her – unless she manages to get it first.

Escape Rating A+: This story flies on a trapeze over the haunted crossroads where timeslip fiction turns into historical fiction, and the paranormal bleeds into dark fantasy, with hellhounds patrolling on all sides.

It’s a story about love, obsession and daemons. And it’s a story about a father trying to do his best for his daughters and failing miserably, even though he’s one of the great princes of Hell.

Part of what’s so fascinating about The Ladies of the Secret Circus is just how many different kinds of stories it manages to tell – all at the same time!

There’s the mystery of the disappearance, which turns into the mysteries of the disappearances, plural. There’s the magical realism bit about Lara’s, and her mother Audrey’s, ability to do magic. Which morphs into the big scary paranormal horror-adjacent element of the Le Cirque Secret, its condemned performers and its mysterious, daemonic owner and master of ceremonies.

Then there’s the timeslip bits, where artifacts from 1920s Paris seem to slip through to 2005 Virginia, and where Lara translates what turns out to be her great-grandmother’s diary, and suddenly we’re there in Jazz Age Paris watching the tragedy unfold.

(This bit that took me way back to a book I read nearly ten years ago, The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. They both have that same sense of everything winding down and the crash coming even though they are different crashes.)

And the story just keeps spinning, like Cecile’s circus act, floating in mid air with magic and no net whatsoever. Until it all falls back into the present, and we – and Lara – finally discover what’s really been going on all along.

That there was a price to be paid for the magic, and for Althacazar’s original mistake so long ago. A price that Lara believes she’s going to have to pay. And so she does, just not in the way that she originally thought. A price that she discovers is much, much too high.

But that’s so often true when it comes to Althacazar. His gifts – and his mistakes – always cost more than anyone planned on. Including himself.

Readers who love stories where all the genres are bent to the point that they whirl around faster than the eye can see are going to love this book. And be captivated by the spell of Le Cirque Secret.

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah JohnsonThe Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, F/F romance, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's Website
Goodreads

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

My Review:

The Space Between Worlds is filled with paradox and wonder, and resonates to the beat of butterfly wings.

This is a story of the multiverse, of parallel universes that are almost, but not quite, the same. Universes that are all post-apocalyptic, in one way, or another, or all of the above.

It’s also a story of irony, in that this is a story where the people that society has classed as the most expendable, are also the most valuable – but only as long as they are useful.

And it’s a story about families, and the infinitesimally thin line between love and hate.

The Space Between Worlds is a story about contrasts. The contrast between safe, wealthy and white Wiley City, and the dangerous, poor and brown wastelands that surround it.

Cara is someone who walks between the worlds. Because she is a wastelander, brown and disposable on seemingly all of the worlds that resonate enough with “Earth Zero” to be visited, she is mostly dead.

Not in The Princess Bride sense of “mostly dead”, but in the sense that most of the different Caras, the Cara on most of the 382 worlds that are close enough to her own to be able to be visited, Cara has not lived to reach adulthood. Or at least not reached the age that the Cara on Earth Zero has.

That paradoxically makes Cara a very valuable “traverser”, or traveler between the worlds. People can only visit worlds where their local equivalent has already died – and Cara has died nearly everywhere.

But she’s also someone who travels between worlds on her own world. At work, she does her best to fit into the sterile, safe, white world of Wiley City – no matter how little it looks as if she belongs there.

When she goes back home to the wastes, she pretends to still fit into her family, the religion that keeps them together and the violence that surrounds them.

But Cara belongs in neither place. Because she is not the Cara that the Eldridge Institute hired, and she is not the Cara raised by the family she has come to love. She is the Cara from another Earth who found the original Cara dead and took her place.

Because she is a survivor. It’s what she does best. It’s who she is.

This story puts that survival instinct to the test. Not just because she finds a world that she has a chance to save, but because saving Earth 175 gives her the tools to save the Earth she has made her own. If she is willing to take them up.

If she is willing to risk her safety, her secrets and her skin to discover exactly what she’s made of. If she’s willing to die to make things right, just once.

Escape Rating A+: This was awesome. A lot of my reading buddies recommended this one, and now I know why. It tells a fantastic story and there’s so much packed into it if you want to go hunting for all the possibilities, but the story has the reader on the edge of their seat for the whole ride.

The Space Between Worlds is very much a post-apocalyptic story. But it’s not the immediate aftermath. While those are fascinating because there’s so much chaos, it’s every bit as interesting to see what humans have made of the messed up world that other humans caused and left behind. Usually by dying.

One thing that caught me was that we don’t know where, relative to our current world, Wiley City and its surrounding wastelands are. And it doesn’t matter. What we see feels plausible, that enough of a city survived that it became prosperous again and gathered refugees around it who wanted to share in that prosperity and safety. Only to discover that the prejudices of the old world continued in the new. There are always haves, and there are always have nots who hope to become haves. And that the haves guard their position ruthlessly.

It’s very explicit in this story that the haves are white. Very, very white. Not just by skin color, although that seems to have been at the heart and the start of it, but also because of that ruthless guarding of privilege. Citizens of Wiley City live in a completely enclosed world. They don’t see the sun, they only experience natural light through extreme filters, because natural light can be dangerous. So over the generations their coloring has become lighter and paler.

The wastelands are exposed to all the elements. The brutal sun, the chemically destroyed earth, water and air. The dirt. They are brown of skin, dark of hair and eye, and their clothes are never completely clean because there is so much junk in the air and water.

One of the fascinating contrasts is the way that Wiley City takes care of its people, while the wastelands force their people to survive if they can and die if they can’t. At the same time, the two areas are trapped in an entirely symbiotic relationship, and they need each other.

And they are both ruled by an emperor, even if the “emperor” of Wiley City isn’t called that. And even if, in some of the Earths of the multiverse, the positions of the two rulers is reversed. Because in all of them they are brothers.

As fascinating as everything about this future world is, at its heart it is always Cara’s story. Caralee from Earth 22, who pretends to be Caramenta from Earth Zero but who only begins to figure out who she really is and what she really wants to be when she meets the one person she should never be able to meet, her doppelganger on Earth 175. They’ve all made different mistakes, the wings of the butterfly have flapped and blown them in slightly different directions, but their lives have all been wrapped around the same family and the same men, the two emperors.

But this time is going to be different, because Cara isn’t just going to survive, she’s going to fight. Once she figures out who and what she is really fighting for – and against.

This is, in the end, a story about choosing your battles, finding your path, and figuring out which version of your life is the one you can live with. And it’s awesome.

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherPaladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Clocktaur War
Pages: 398
Published by Red Wombat Studio on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…
Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…
From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

My Review:

The title is a pun. It’s also a clue to the way this story works itself out. Which is bloody damn marvelous every slightly meandering step of the way.

There’s a question about whether Paladin’s Grace is an epic fantasy that includes a romance, or a fantasy romance that happens to also be epic. After mulling it over for a while, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes!” Or perhaps “hells to the yes!” is a bit more accurate.

The setting of this story is plenty epic. It’s also set in the same world as her Clocktaur War duology and Swordheart but certainly doesn’t rely on any of them to get the reader stuck right into it. I haven’t read either and had no trouble becoming immediately involved, understanding what was going on, or being so damn absorbed I couldn’t put it down.

Not that I didn’t buy all three books as soon as I finished and realized that there were three other books set in this world. Because DAMN! this was good.

The setting dragged me in right away because it leads off with a fascinating concept that powers so much of the story in various ways. This is a world where the gods are real. By that I mean the gods act in and on the world and their worshippers in ways that can be witnessed, not just by believers but by everyone.

In that sense, it’s a world that resembles the world of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead. That’s a world where the lawyers are necromancers, and part of their job is to write contracts for gods both living and dead. But even more than the Craft Sequence, the world of Paladin’s Grace reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, particularly as it is seen through the eyes of the Learned Divine Penric of the White God and his demon Desdemona in Penric’s Demon and the books that follow. Penric has met his god, usually just before or just after said god sends him on yet another errand, and other people in that world have met their gods as well.

The way that the Saint of Penric’s order interacts with their god and the way that the Paladins of the Saint of Steel interact with theirs has some similarities – right up until the paladins’ god dies, leaving all of its paladins reeling as though someone has scooped out their hearts, souls and all the rest of their innards both physical and metaphorical.

The thing about the Saint of Steel is that this god blessed their paladins with divine berserker fits. So when the god dies they all go literally berserk, into a killing rage that results in murders, suicides, explosions and generally a whole lot of the death they were famous for in the first place.

Three years later there are only seven paladins of the Saint of Steel left, barely keeping each other alive and functional, assisted by those who serve the Rat God, an order which has no paladins of its own. But it does have lawyers, leading back to that resemblance to the Craft Sequence I mentioned earlier.

Serving the Rat and protecting its Bishop, the absolutely awesome Bishop Beartongue, gives the remaining paladins enough purpose to keep them going. It’s all any of them expect out of life at this point. (And if the author ever writes an entire book featuring the Bishop, I am SO there!)

Then Paladin Stephen becomes entangled with Grace the perfumer, and he discovers a whole new reason for living. If he can let himself. If he can get over himself. If he can trust himself.

If the Bishop and his brother paladins can manage to extract them both from the political clusterfuck that they’ve bumbled into – in spite of the odds against them all along the way.

Escape Rating A+: Paladin’s Grace was definitely, sincerely, absolutely a case of the right book at the right time.

There is just so much happening in this story, both on the epic fantasy and the fantasy romance sides of the equation. Plus – big huge gigantic plus – the author’s very dry and frequently hung from the gallows humor made me laugh out loud so many times, even as it both developed the characters and pushed the story forward. This is my favorite type of humor, the kind that arises out of character and situation and is never built on cruelty, tearing up or punching down.

I wanted to go out for drinks with pretty much everyone on Stephen and Grace’s side of the story, including them. Even when their world was going to hell in a handcart, the way the author wrote them created plenty of opportunities to laugh with them and not at them.

On the romance side, Stephen in particular is the poster child for the romantic hero who is so fucked up and has so much baggage that he’s certain he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the heroine. Not that Grace doesn’t have plenty of her own baggage, but in comparison, hers is almost normal. Stephen has lost his god and is rightfully afraid of going berserker at any moment. Nothing compares.

The political situation that they stumble into is, on the one hand, fairly standard for epic fantasy, and on the other, wildly different because it is so totally inept and still almost works. There is just a ton about this story to love.

As I said early on, this was the right book at the absolute right time. I was ready to start a new book just as the polls closed in Georgia this week. It was a night that promised to be chock-full of doomscrolling, so I went looking for a book that would suck me in so deeply that I’d be able to forget about the mess for a few hours. (I voted by mail weeks ago, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point except incessantly doomscroll hoping it would eventually turn to schadenscrolling and even gleescrolling at some point.) But constant scrolling is not productive, only anxiety inducing. Nobody needed any more of THAT this week – not that we didn’t all get plenty ANYWAY.).

That’s the point where I remembered I had Paladin’s Grace, and that I absolutely LOVED this author’s Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which made me chuckle, laugh and outright chortle the entire time I was reading it.

Considering the news on Wednesday, I really, really needed the distraction.

Paladin’s Grace turned out to be EXACTLY the book I was looking for. It didn’t reduce me to completely incoherence, as the paladin Stephen and the perfumer Grace frequently do to each other in the course of this story. But it did take me far, far away from the madness of the real for a while. For which I am so, so grateful.

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.

Review: Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Review: Colonyside by Michael MammayColonyside (Planetside, #3) by Michael Mammay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, space opera
Series: Planetside #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on December 29, 2020
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A missing scientist and deep pockets pull Colonel Carl Butler out of retirement, investigating another mystery that puts him and his team--and the future of relations with alien species--in danger in COLONYSIDE, the exciting follow-up to Planetside and Spaceside.
A military hero is coming out of disgrace—straight into the line of fire…
Carl Butler was once a decorated colonel. Now he’s a disgraced recluse, hoping to live out the rest of his life on a backwater planet where no one cares about his “crimes” and everyone leaves him alone.
It’s never that easy.
A CEO’s daughter has gone missing and he thinks Butler is the only one who can find her. The government is only too happy to appease him. Butler isn’t so sure, but he knows the pain of losing a daughter, so he reluctantly signs on. Soon he’s on a military ship heading for a newly-formed colony where the dangerous jungle lurks just outside the domes where settlers live.
Paired with Mac, Ganos, and a government-assigned aide named Fader, Butler dives head-first into what should be an open and shut case. Then someone tries to blow him up. Faced with an incompetent local governor, a hamstrung military, and corporations playing fast and loose with the laws, Butler finds himself in familiar territory. He’s got nobody to trust but himself, but that’s where he works best. He’ll fight to get to the bottom of the mystery, but this time, he might not live to solve it.

My Review:

It’s starting to look like Carl Butler’s purpose in the universe is to be an intergalactic scapegoat. Back at the beginning of the series, Planetside, he thought he was the one they called in when they were looking to get things done. But after the events in that story, he became much more famous – or infamous – definitely infamous – as the galaxy’s biggest mass murderer.

Because he got the job done. In the second book, Spaceside, it seems as though he got hired because of that reputation, although he still thinks it’s for the other. Just like what happened on Cappa in Planetside, he’s the one left holding the proverbial bag – and nearly dead in it.

Now he’s on a remote colony, thinking he’s there to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s on a military report about a missing person, but he’s really there to either be the poster person for saving planetary ecology or for humans-first type planetary exploitation, or just to get left holding yet another messy bag filled with bodies.

Whether his body is in that bag – or not.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this one. Actually, I’ve loved this whole series, starting with Planetside and flying right through Spaceside. I honestly didn’t expect Butler to survive Spaceside. I mean, I hoped he would, but with that ending, I wasn’t necessarily expecting him to. And having just finished his latest “adventure”, I’m glad he did.

This story, like the previous books in the series, is a story about misdirection. It’s about hidden agendas concealed under hidden agendas, and it’s about people playing a very long game. A game that Butler has found himself in the middle of, yet again. For someone who is so smart once he’s neck-deep in shit, he’s actually kind of dumb about how he finds himself there.

Another way of looking at that is that in spite of his well-earned paranoia, he just isn’t paranoid enough. Or, and possibly more likely, as safe as it is being retired at the ass end of a planet that’s the ass end of nowhere, it’s also boring. Butler misses, if not the bullshit involved in being in service, then certainly the camaraderie of it. And the purpose. Definitely the purpose.

So the mission is kind of Butler’s excuse to get his old “band” back together, but once they’re together they’ve got one hell of a job ahead of them.

At first it seems like he’s just there to reassure the victim’s rich daddy that the investigation was on the up and up. And it was, as far up the investigators were able to get.

But the reality is that nothing on Eccasis is truly on the side of the angels, and the corporation that the victim worked for – her daddy’s company – least of all. Then again, the only truth in Butler’s whole mission is that the woman is dead. Every other single thing is a lie. Or rather, a web designed to ensnare him until the trap can close over his head.

Underneath the petty political bickering and small time sniping between the governor and the military, the real tension on Eccasis – and on all of the colony planets that humans have swarmed over – is the debate over whether human colonization should preserve the indigenous flora and fauna on any planets they colonize, or whether humans, as the dominant species, have the right to just take over whatever and wherever they want and destroy anything that stands – or sits, or crawls, or just grows – in their way.

Butler’s actions on Cappa in Planetside have resulted in laws – however poorly and/or selectively enforced – that limit the amount of impact human settlements are permitted to have. But Butler was manipulated into coming to Eccasis to be used to promote the “humans first” argument – whether he wants to or not. No matter how much collateral damage is needed to make the point that the corporate interests want made.

Carl Butler, stuck in yet another no-win scenario – the man seems to specialize at getting stuck in them – has to find a way to balance his own survival with doing the least damage he can manage. That real justice is beyond his capability to inflict is just one more reason for his abiding cynicism. The rich do buy a different brand of justice than the rest of us, and that’s just as true in our present as it is in his future. And just as frustrating.

I wouldn’t mind another trip through the screwed up side of the galaxy in Butler’s head. Meaning that I’d love another book from this author with this particular protagonist. Whether that happens or not, I’m certainly on board for this author’s next book. And the one after that, and the one after that, and all the ones after that.

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen SpotswoodFortune Favors the Dead (Pentecost and Parker, #1) by Stephen Spotswood
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, thriller
Series: Pentecost and Parker #1
Pages: 336
Published by Doubleday Books on October 27, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Introducing Pentecost and Parker, two unconventional female detectives who couldn’t care less about playing by the rules, in their cases and in their lives.
It's 1942 and Willowjean "Will" Parker is a scrappy circus runaway whose knife-throwing skills have just saved the life of New York's best, and most unorthodox, private investigator, Lillian Pentecost. When the dapper detective summons Will a few days later, she doesn't expect to be offered a life-changing proposition: Lillian's multiple sclerosis means she can't keep up with her old case load alone, so she wants to hire Will to be her right-hand woman. In return, Will will receive a salary, room and board, and training in Lillian's very particular art of investigation.
Three years later, Will and Lillian are on the Collins case: Abigail Collins was found bludgeoned to death with a crystal ball following a big, boozy Halloween party at her home--her body slumped in the same chair where her steel magnate husband shot himself the year before. With rumors flying that Abigail was bumped off by the vengeful spirit of her husband (who else could have gotten inside the locked room?), the family has tasked the detectives with finding answers where the police have failed. But that's easier said than done in a case that involves messages from the dead, a seductive spiritualist, and Becca Collins--the beautiful daughter of the deceased, who Will quickly starts falling for. When Will and Becca's relationship dances beyond the professional, Will finds herself in dangerous territory, and discovers she may have become the murderer's next target.
A wildly charming and fast-paced mystery written with all the panache of 1940s New York, Fortune Favors the Dead is a fresh homage to Holmes and Watson reads like the best of Dashiell Hammett and introduces an audacious detective duo for the ages.

My Review:

I picked this up this week because I was a bit unsatisfied with the Holmes collection over the weekend. I was still left with a taste for a bit of classic mystery with a twist – or two or ten – and for something a bit more Holmes-like than that collection.

Fortune Favors the Dead turned out to be everything I wanted, even if in the end it was nothing I expected. And that’s a great thing!

The story here is about a detective duo at the very beginning of their partnership, but Pentecost and Parker are nothing like Holmes and Watson, and not just because Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker are both female.

As the story, and the case, opens, Pentecost and Parker are on the opposing sides of the law, their lives, and their careers. Not that Will Parker could be said to have a career at this point in her life.

Will is a “cirky girl”, a circus performer who ran away from home and her abusive father and quite literally joined the circus. She’s only 20 as this story begins, and it is her story, told in her first-person voice with her own inimitable style.

But it’s told from a perspective several years past the events, and Will has grown up more than a bit, as well as acquired a polish of education, courtesy of the famous detective Ms. Lillian Pentecost. Whose life she saves in the opening act of the story by throwing a knife into Ms. Pentecost’s assailant. Once the dust settles and the police are finally satisfied that thorn-in-their-side Pentecost didn’t set up the entire altercation in order to have her “associate” off the bastard, Pentecost offers Parker a job as her assistant.

Not because, honestly, she wants an assistant, but because she needs one. Being a private investigator is a physically demanding and occasionally dangerous job. A job that Pentecost is still more than intellectually capable of but no longer physically up to. She has multiple sclerosis, and the disease is progressing.

Relatively slowly in her case. At the moment. But that could change. And her inevitable physical decline will only be accelerated if she continues on her present course. Hence the need for an assistant who can become her apprentice, perform the more physical aspects of their cases, and ultimately become the lead investigator.

This is the story of, not their first case, but their first seriously important case. A case that has so many twists and turns that it practically ties itself into a knot. Only for Will and Ms. Pentecost to discover that there has been someone hiding in the shadows, pulling all the strings, all along.

Since the very first night they met.

Escape Rating A+: I loved this, but I loved it because it oh-so-explicitly is NOT Holmes. Instead, Fortune Favors the Dead turned out to be a gender-bent, slightly twisted version of an entirely different classic detective pair.

Pentecost and Parker are updated female avatars for Nero Wolfe and his right-hand and both-legs man Archie Goodwin. And was it ever refreshing to read something that was both so completely different and yet so much a piece of something that I loved but hadn’t read in years.

While Wolfe and Goodwin were a pair of classic mystery detectives of the old school, they were also different in some of the same ways that Pentecost and Parker are different. At first blush, Wolfe is the genius and Goodwin is the sidekick, just as with Pentecost and Parker.

But, like Pentecost will be, Wolfe is physically restricted to his own New York Brownstone, even if Wolfe’s restrictions are entirely self-imposed. Goodwin does all the leg work for all of their cases and then brings the results to Wolfe. Goodwin is also a licensed private investigator in his own right, and he is the one who narrates their cases, very much in his own voice and in a noirish, hard-boiled style similar to Parker’s.

Goodwin makes mistakes, the same kind of mistakes that Parker does, and for some of the same reasons. But he’s no Watson and neither is Parker. They are partners in the investigations. Sometimes junior partners, but partners and not tagalongs. One of the differences between Holmes and Watson and either Wolfe and Goodwin or Pentecost and Parker is that while Watson was not the bumbler that the Basil Rathbone movies made him out to be, he wasn’t a detective, either. The better portrayals give Watson his own areas of expertise, but they are explicitly not the same areas as Holmes. With Parker, and Goodwin before her, the expertise is in the same area as their more famous, experienced and older partner. They operate in a different style, but in the same sphere.

No matter how much impostor syndrome Will Parker suffers from along the way.

As much as I loved Fortune Favors the Dead for its detectives’ resemblance to Wolfe and Goodwin, that’s not a reason to read this book – or, for that matter, to go back to the classic. I doubt that the Wolfe stories have worn well into the 21st century, but Pentecost and Parker certainly do.

That’s all to do with Will Parker’s voice. We’re in her head, reading her point-of-view, knowing what she knows – at least most of it – and becoming part of this world through her eyes. Parker is very much a detective of the hard-boiled school. She’d rather confront a suspect than patiently work through research – not that she isn’t good at both. But her penchant for action rather than contemplation gets her into trouble more than once in this story.

It’s also Parker’s voice that makes the circumstances palatable for 21st century readers. On the one hand, she’s forced to deal with all of the restrictions imposed on her gender and class, and on the other, she’s more than intelligent enough to be aware that they are stupid and work around them. In her head she mouths off to everyone, and that perspective brings her to life in a way that we can identify with.

At the same time, the case itself smacks of the “old school” of the classic era. It’s murder and suicide among the rich and upper crust, the servants are the first suspects and the men always think that they are the ones in charge.

But they never are.

In the end, the heart of the case is a lover’s triangle, blackmail, and follow the money, just not in ways that the classics of the detective era would ever have dealt with. And all of it is marvelous. Even the admittedly clichéd operator from the shadows who is set up to be a long-running nemesis.

Fortune Favors the Dead reads like the terrific opening act of a potential series. I sincerely hope so!

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli ClarkRing Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, historical fiction, horror
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror.
D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.
Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she's not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she's fighting monsters she calls "Ku Kluxes." She's damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh--and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

My Review:

Ring Shout is perched rather comfortably at the top of a pyramid whose sides consist of horror, very dark fantasy and historical fiction. That pyramid feels like a fitting image, as its top comes to a sharp point – just like the heads of the Ku Kluxes that Maryse and her compatriots are hunting.

And being hunted by.

The bones of the story come straight out of fantasy – albeit a fantasy so dark that it sidles up to horror and oozes over the border.

In this version of our world, there are other worlds that exist in other dimensions. Worlds that contain beings that think we’re food, or toys, or both. This is a classic trope in fantasy, particularly urban fantasy.

But this is where Ring Shout bleeds over into historical fiction – and is made all the more horrific because of it.

The film The Birth of a Nation was every bit the disgusting phenomenon that is described in the story – without the special showing on Stone Mountain, which is its own kind of horror.

What takes this story from historical fiction to fantasy and horror is the result of that showing. That the film was a spell that allowed the beings that Maryse calls Ku Kluxes to invade our Earth with the intent of taking over. As invaders do.

An apologist would claim that it was the Ku Kluxes that committed all of the evils, fostered all of the racial hatred and hate-motivated violence that the Ku Klux Klan was infamous for. But this isn’t that kind of story. This isn’t about the myth of the so-called “Lost Cause” and there is absolutely no whitewash.

Because this isn’t a story about aliens doing bad things. This is a story about humans being so evil that they invite the aliens in so they can indulge in more evil without even the tiniest bits of remorse or conscience.

And that’s what Maryse and her friends are fighting. They’re fighting the monsters. They’re fighting the humans who have given themselves so far over to the monster within that they have become the monster.

It’s a fight that is righteous, but it is not a fight without casualties or costs. But Maryse’s cause is just, and just like so many champions of just causes that face overwhelming odds, she comes with a fiery sword with which to smite her enemies – once she recognizes, for once and for all, who and what they really are.

Escape Rating A+: I picked this today because this is Halloween weekend. I knew this book would be scary, but from the blurbs I wasn’t totally sure whether the horror was more Lovecraftian or more metaphorical.

The answer to that question is “yes”. Absolutely yes. It’s not one or the other, it’s very much both. And all the stronger – and more frightening – because of it. Because we all want to believe that human beings just couldn’t be that bad without outside interference, even though we know that they can be and are.

Thinking about this story, I realized that this would still be horror-tinged fantasy without the historical elements. It feels like that version could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone – or maybe it was. But that version isn’t half as scary as the one with the historic elements.

Because human beings always behave way worse than we like to think about, or than the white-bread-vanilla TV of the original Twilight Zone era was willing to portray. Ring Shout draws a lot of its fear-factor from the fact that we know humans are awful. That power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and that white people in the U.S. have had one type of absolute power or another over people of color since the founding of the country.

With that historical element, Ring Shout is utterly compelling. We feel both the horror of this story – and the horrors of the present that it invokes.

At the same time, it is a story, an extremely dark fantasy bordering on Lovecraftian horror. As Lovecraft himself was someone who hated a lot of people, I love that a writer has used his kind of horror to tell a story where the hero is a black woman – someone Lovecraft would have hated on both counts.

I also love Maryse as the hero because she so fits the fantasy hero mold – even though she shouldn’t. She’s the prophesied champion, she has the legendary sword, she even rescues her male lover who actually gets fridged – in grave danger and under threat of death. The role reversal was marvelous.

In a peculiar way, Ring Shout also felt like a bit of a shout out to A Wrinkle in Time. Not just because the Ku Kluxes seemed to come from someplace like Camizotz, but really because the three Aunties felt like Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit, who in their turn are the representatives of the Three Fates and pretty much every other trio of wise, prophesying and/or witchy women who have ever graced a myth.

Which Ring Shout also feels like it is.

Last but not least, reading Ring Shout felt like it was another side to the same dice that rolled up The Deep by Rivers Solomon. That this is another story that takes a piece of the horrors of the African American experience and gives it the power for its own people that it should have – instead of being about the power of everyone else.