Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora GossThe Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #1
Pages: 402
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on June 20, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Based on some of literature’s horror and science fiction classics, this is the story of a remarkable group of women who come together to solve the mystery of a series of gruesome murders—and the bigger mystery of their own origins.

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

My Review:

The apostrophe is in the wrong place. Because this story is really the strange case of the alchemists’ daughters. There are, or were, entirely too many alchemists, and their daughters, well, their daughters are the heroines of this tale.

Every last one of them. Even Diana.

With an able assist from Sherlock Holmes. And occasionally the other way around.

The story begins with Mary Jekyll. Yes, that Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll is long dead, but not until after he transferred the family wealth – which was considerable once upon a time, to a bank account in Budapest under someone else’s name.

Mary and her mother have been barely scraping by on her mother’s life income, with a bit of help from selling everything in the family home that isn’t nailed down. But Mary’s mother has just died, along with that life income.

Mary is broke. She has a house that no one wants to buy, furnished with the few items that were so worn or broken that no one would buy those, either.

Into her rather threadbare lap a mystery is dropped. She discovers that her mother had a secret bank account to pay for the maintenance of “Hyde” in a charitable home for Magdalens. There is, or at least was, a £100 reward for information leading to the capture of Edward Hyde at a time when  £100 was a veritable fortune.

Mary appeals to Sherlock Holmes to discover whether the reward is still available, and finds herself dragged into the middle of one of Holmes’ cases. Someone is murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel. Again.

Not Jack the Ripper this time, not that this perpetrator doesn’t have at least as much surgical skill as old “Leather Apron”. Because this murderer isn’t cutting his victims up indiscriminately. He’s taking body parts – a different part each time.

Standing in Whitechapel, over the partially vivisected corpse of poor Molly Keen, Mary Jekyll finds the purpose of her life.

But it takes her sister, Diana Hyde (yes, that Hyde) to reveal to her that she’s a monster. A monster just like all of the alchemists’ daughters.

And it’s glorious.

Escape Rating A+: I had this on my kindle, but for some reason did not get around to it when it first came out. A fact which now surprises me, as the presence of Sherlock Holmes in pretty much anything usually has me eager to start it.

But I found it again, on sale from Audible, and this time dove right in. I was utterly captivated from the very first scene. To the point where about halfway through I couldn’t stand not knowing what came next, and switched from the marvelous audio to the book so I could finish faster. And immediately got the second book (European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) in audio because I was having so much fun!

What makes this story so refreshing is that unlike the Sherlock Holmes canon or most Victorian (and entirely too many other eras) the entire story is told from the perspective of the women. Holmes is assisting Mary in her case while she assists him in his. While he may not think of her as an equal, he certainly doesn’t treat her much differently, or honestly much better or worse, than he does Watson.

The story here is one of discovery. Mary discovers the truth of her identity as well as her purpose. Because this is the story of the creation of the Athena Club, which becomes both a sisterhood and a home.

A sisterhood of monsters, and a home for same.

It’s so much fun because all of the women have different histories, different voices, and they each get to tell their own stories. That we see both the stories and the writing of them is part of the fun as the narrative alternates between the case that Mary finds herself in the midst of and the actual writing of that case, with all of the women in the room participating, or sometimes obstructing, the writing thereof.

These are all women from literature whose stories were originally, and generally unfaithfully, told by the men who created them (one way or another) without their input or consent. So it is empowering to hear their voices tell their stories. It is telling that the one time a woman did tell one of their stories, she left her out so that she could someday, hopefully, tell her own.

As she does.

It is also an absolute hoot to hear their arguments over those stories. And it’s marvelous to watch them take control of their own lives, in spite of the tiny box that society wants to place them in just because they’re women.

They see themselves as monsters because of their fathers’ experiments on them. Society sees them as monsters because they have broken open the cage that society wants to place them in.

And that’s what makes the story so glorious. And so much delightful – and occasionally grisly – fun.

Reviewer’s Note: Whoever labeled this YA must have had their brain removed like poor Molly Keen.

Review: The Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman + Giveaway

Review: The Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman + GiveawayThe Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Leaphorn and Chee #23, Leaphorn Chee and Manuelito #5
Pages: 304
Published by Harper on April 9, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Legendary Navajo policeman Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn takes center stage in this riveting atmospheric mystery from New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman that combines crime, superstition, and tradition and brings the desert Southwest vividly alive.

Joe Leaphorn may have retired from the Tribal Police, but he finds himself knee-deep in a perplexing case involving a priceless artifact—a reminder of a dark time in Navajo history. Joe’s been hired to find a missing biil, a traditional dress that had been donated to the Navajo Nation. His investigation takes a sinister turn when the leading suspect dies under mysterious circumstances and Leaphorn himself receives anonymous warnings to beware—witchcraft is afoot.

While the veteran detective is busy working to untangle his strange case, his former colleague Jim Chee and Officer Bernie Manuelito are collecting evidence they hope will lead to a cunning criminal behind a rash of burglaries. Their case takes a complicated turn when Bernie finds a body near a popular running trail. The situation grows more complicated when the death is ruled a homicide, and the Tribal cops are thrust into a turf battle because the murder involves the FBI.

As Leaphorn, Chee, and Bernie draw closer to solving these crimes, their parallel investigations begin to merge . . . and offer an unexpected opportunity that opens a new chapter in Bernie’s life.

My Review:

I found the original Leaphorn and Chee series sometime in the 1990s, when I had a horrifically long commute in the Chicago suburbs and audiobooks saved my sanity if not my life. Audiobook publishing was nowhere near as robust as it is today, and there weren’t a lot of options for someone who spent 3 hours in their car, 5 days a week, for most of 9 years.

I listened to a lot of books, and The Blessing Way (the first book in the series) and all of the following books that were available, during those long drives. The stories, told in the inimitable voice of George Guidall, swept me away, kept me awake, and left me enthralled every time.

When the original author, Tony Hillerman, died in 2008, the series seemingly ended. At least until his daughter Anne picked it back up again in 2013 with the marvelous Spider Woman’s Daughter, adding Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernie Manuelito’s name to the series as well as her perspective to the continuing series.

The Tale Teller is the fifth book in that continuation, and it swept me away from the very first page – as all of the books in this series have done.

One of the things that has made the return of the series so marvelous has been its addition of Bernie to the mix. Bernie is a Navajo Tribal Police Officer, as is her husband Jim Chee, and their mentor, the legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.

They each bring a different perspective to their work, to their culture, and to life in the Four Corners. Leaphorn is older, semi-retired, and does not believe in many of the traditions while still revering the history. Chee, although younger, has much more belief in the traditions of their people, and once studied to be a healer. Bernie Manuelito is a woman caught between the demands of her career and the need to still fulfill as many of the traditional roles of oldest daughter to her aging mother as she can manage – including the role of attempting to keep her wayward younger sister on the straight and narrow.

While the “torch” directly passed from Leaphorn to Chee and Manuelito at the beginning of Spider Woman’s Daughter, Leaphorn has remained a presence in the series as he recovered from a near fatal gunshot wound but continued to provide information and support in whatever capacity he happened to be capable of at the time.

In The Tale Teller, while Leaphorn is not quite back to fighting form, he has healed to the point where he can manage to pick up his work as a private investigator, part-time consultant to the Tribal Police and frequent mentor and sounding board for Chee and Manuelito.

This is the first story in the continuing series where Leaphorn has been fully capable of performing his own investigations and providing a full third point of view on events.

And what fascinating events they are!

At first there seem to be three separate cases here, but as so often happens in mysteries, in the end that are only two. This is one of the rare mysteries where everything does not tie up neatly in a single bow. Instead, we have two bows, one reasonably neat and one a bloody mess.

Bernie finds a dead body on a hiking trail, guarded by the victim’s faithful dog. An old friend of her mother’s finds a valuable piece of jewelry that he previously reported stolen being sold at a flea market – leading into Chee’s investigation of a sudden string of home robberies. And Leaphorn takes on a case from the Tribal Museum. An important donation may have been stolen, either before it arrived, or after. Or it may not have been in the box at all. That the donor wishes to remain anonymous adds to the mystery. That one of the important pieces of the puzzle dies almost the instant that Leaphorn gets involved shifts the problem from seemingly minor to possibly deadly.

While not all of the cases end happily, following the trail of clues and bodies is a page-turner from beginning to end – and a delight.

Escape Rating A+: I read this in a single day. This was one I picked up pretty much everywhere, like at meals, in the bathroom, in the car (as long as someone else was driving), and pretty much every time I had a couple of spare minutes.

I sunk right back into this place with these people on the very first page, and didn’t come out until the end.

What I love about this series is the way that it combines its police procedural mystery with a perspective into a part of the U.S. that outsiders don’t often get to experience with an, if not insider’s perspective, at least a well-informed and reverential outsider’s point of view.

This would be a very different series if the investigator were one of the FBI agents who often intrude – as they do in this case. Instead, it is the point of view of people who are insiders in a world that most of us are not, while they still are outsiders within their own culture so that they can both see the “why” of things while not being emotionally involved with all of the “who”.

The cases in this particular story are complex, especially Leaphorn’s investigation into the possibly missing artifact. As readers, we learn a lot about both the history of the Navajo people and the treatment of precious artifacts. At the same time, the case has echoes in the past while it is motivated by events in the present. The resolution is heartbreaking but fits.

Chee and Manuelito’s cases turn out to have more tentacles than an octopus, ranging from burglaries to internet scams to witness protection to murder – but at least that case, which gets a bit too close to Bernie’s family, ends with a mostly happy resolution.

That the perpetrators were hiding in plain sight but not obvious until very near the end made both cases fascinating to read.

I’m grateful to those long ago long commutes, now that they are in the past, for the terrific series such as this one that they introduced me to. And I’m looking forward to returning to the Four Corners with Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito at the next opportunity!

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

For the final day of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week I’m giving away a copy of any book in the combined Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series, from it’s very beginning in The Blessing Way to the latest book, The Tale Teller. If you are new to the series, I would recommend starting with Spider Woman’s Daughter, as it brings the reader into the action at the present while providing enough background to immerse you in the story and familiarize you with the characters. But it is up to the winner to decide. Enter the rafflecopter, and it might be YOU!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne RobinsonStardance by Spider Robinson, Jeanne Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Stardance #1
Pages: 288
Published by Baen Books on February 1st 1977
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A woman of perfect beauty is too big for perfect grace as a ballerina; she will never be more than an understudy. Stardance is the story of one such, one with the body of Venus di Milo and a talent greater than Pavlova's. But if there is an answer, genius will find it; Shara Drummond goes to Space, where her life is devoted to creating a weightless art form that is to Dance as three dimensions are to two.

Then the aliens arrive, beings of pure light who dance forever between the stars. And so it falls to Shara Drummond to prove that the human race is ... human. By her Stardance.

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story is told in the voice of Charlie Armstead, a cynical former dancer and videographer. He’s the best at what he does, (probably because he’s a former dancer), and when he gets the opportunity to shoot video of the finest dancer he’s ever known in zero gravity, he jumps at the chance. But when aliens show up, Shara Drummond must dance for them, and Charlie gets the tape of a lifetime.  But, you see, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Escape Rating: A+. If you read the cover synopsis from the publisher, you might be misled into thinking that this book is about Shara Drummond, and her Stardance. I was, and when the dance with aliens came to a climactic conclusion a third of the way through the book, I was left wondering, “now what?” Frankly, I was a little bit mad that we’d hit the “end” so soon!

But, stubborn woman that I am, I kept reading, and when I finished the book, I had to spend rather a long time sussing out how I was going to describe this book. Because the end of Shara’s Stardance isn’t the end of the story; there’s a lot more to it, and Charlie must find his own way through to the end. It’s…complicated.

Spider and Jeanne Robinson have written a sonata, if you will. In the first movement, allegro, Shara does her dance for the aliens, Charlie taping every moment of it. This tape transforms the lives of a number of people in the second movement, a rondo, wherein Charlie and Shara’s sister Norrey marry and start a zero-gee dance school. In the third movement, the scherzo, the aliens return! An almost-pastoral coda ties up a few loose ends to the story’s structure, and we’re left with a tale to make you spend the night thinking about the real question that the Robinsons pose in this work: “What does it mean to be human?” Each part of the Stardance “sonata” is a story of its own, with its own tale to tell, and it isn’t until you get near the end that you figure out that all of these stories are actually a necessary part of a larger whole.

The first “movement” of this story doesn’t move terribly fast. Charlie is a depressive alcoholic, and it shows. That sort of life isn’t all that appealing to me, and so it made him a bit hard to like. After Shara’s dance, though, the transformative power of the Stardance wakes something up in him – he even later comments that it cured him of his alcoholism – and the vast profits from the tape let him move his life onto a more positive trajectory. Norrey is, as she has always been for him, a good influence, and when other members of their dance-school team join on, they forge an extended family of six: Three couples, one of them a gay couple, who love and trust each other completely. When the challenge arises, as the aliens return and park near Saturn, all six jump at the chance to go try to communicate with them, through their own Stardance.

There were some ironic moments for me in this book; one of the diplomats who accompanies the Stardancers out to Saturn is an American, Sheldon Silverman. He is nationalistic, vain, greedy, and always seeking a strategic advantage over the other five diplomats and the dancers. When he started causing problems, I had a thought: “well, of course. Stereotypical American politician.” Indeed, all of the diplomats in the group were somewhat trope-ish to me, from the cagey Chinese man to the Russian woman who tried (briefly) to bully the dancers, to the affable and brilliant Spaniard. This was a minor distraction, and it served the point that the us-vs-them that we embrace so much of here on Earth is part of the problem–but there is a solution, and in the end, when we find out that the aliens have the solution, two of the diplomats find that it just can’t work in their worldview.

If this was the only work in this universe that Spider and Jeanne Robinson created, it would be enough; it tells us an epic story, with adventure, romance, thrills, and a bit of mystery. Even more, it challenges the reader to think about the nature of family and humanity. It’s definitely worth a look. Originally published in 1977, it has startling insight into the “progress” we’ve made in the years since its publication. But there are two other works in this trilogy (Starseed and Starmind), which I hope to track down soon. If they’re as wonderful as Stardance, I’ll be in for a couple of thoughtful, thoroughly wonderful reads.

Review: The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

Review: The Ruin of Kings by Jenn LyonsThe Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons, #1) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #1
Pages: 560
Published by Tor Books on February 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

There are the old stories. And then there’s what actually happens.

Kihrin is a bastard orphan who grew up on storybook tales of long-lost princes and grand quests. When he is claimed against his will as the long-lost son of a treasonous prince, Kihrin finds that being a long-lost prince isn't what the storybooks promised.

Far from living the dream, Kihrin finds himself practically a prisoner, at the mercy of his new family's power plays and ambitions. He also discovers that the storybooks have lied about a lot of other things things, too: dragons, demons, gods, prophecies, true love, and how the hero always wins.

Then again, maybe he’s not the hero, for Kihrin isn’t destined to save the empire.

He’s destined to destroy it . . .

Uniting the worldbuilding of a Brandon Sanderson with the storytelling verve of a Patrick Rothfuss, debut author Jenn Lyons delivers an entirely new and captivating fantasy epic. Prepare to meet the genre’s next star.

My Review:

The “Ruin of Kings” is a sword. It’s also one hell of a story. Come to think of it, it’s also one hell of a sword.

That this is the author’s debut novel is amazing. Because this may very well be the epic fantasy of the year. It’s almost certainly the debut epic fantasy of the year. And I’m already positive that it will be on my Hugo ballot next year.

I’m going to try to stop squeeing now so that I can possibly talk about the actual book – and not just how much I loved it. Although I certainly did.

This story, like The Raven Tower earlier this year, is an experiment in voice. Unlike that previous book, however, this one works. It really, really works.

The three voices that tell the story of The Ruin of Kings are all fascinating, all compelling, and all utterly different. They are also telling the same story from not merely different perspectives but from different points in time. And yet, they all manage to meet in the end to set up the truly epic conclusion.

This is Kihrin’s story. And it’s Talon’s story. And it’s Thurvishar’s story. But mostly it’s Kihrin’s story, told partially from his perspective and partially from theirs. Well, sort of from theirs.

Talon is a mimic. A sadistic mimic. She’s a monster in the human sense of her sadism, but also in the sense that she really is a monster. She kills people for fun, eats their brains and receives the memories from the brains she eats. So when she tells the story, it’s partially her perspective and partially the perspective of the people whose brains she ate.

Thurvishar is the peanut gallery. Not really, in the end his perspective is more important than that. We begin the story thinking he’s the chronicler of events that have recently past – and he certainly is that. But he was also a part of those events, as well as being a scholar and researcher. He has opinions. He has quibbles. He gets disgusted with the naivete and the misinformation provided both by and to the other two people in the story.

It is a true story, but it’s told from a certain perspective. Eyewitness accounts are far from reliable, and people believe all sorts of things that are not provably true – or even that are provably false.

Especially when it comes to gods, and goddesses, and origin stories thereof.

This also, unusually for epic fantasy, is not a story about a hero saving the world. All the prophecies are pointing to Kihrin being the hero who will destroy the world. The question of whether (not to mention exactly how) he’s supposed to do this, as well as whether or not its a good idea for him to do this, are all still up in the super-heated air when this first book in the project trilogy closes.

Not even death is an ending in this one. It may only be the beginning. And what a marvelous beginning it is.

Escape Rating A+: Was that rating a surprise? Really? This is pure awesomesauce from beginning to end.

The story begins with Kihrin in jail, being coerced by Talon to tell her his story from his point of view while they wait for him to be sacrificed. He opens his own story at a slave auction, with himself as the slave being auctioned. And the pace never lets up from there.

But Talon is unsatisfied. As she so often is by so many things. She believes his story began earlier. When he broke into an empty house to steal whatever wasn’t nailed down and let his curiosity get the better of him. He witnessed a murder. And a demon summoning. And he got caught – by the demon. And eventually by both of the summoners.

It all leads back to that jail cell. And what comes after. But in the middle – it’s one hell of a story.

No one in this story is exactly what they seem – or even what they think they are. Particularly Kihrin, who begins the story as a thief and a minstrel’s son, and reaches the end as a swordsman, a sorcerer, and a prince. None of which turn out to be exactly what they’re cracked up to be.

In some ways, this story reminded me of Dune. I know that sounds odd, but it’s in the way the story is being told. Dune also begins with a chronicler claiming to be writing an unbiased historical account. An account that is not exactly unbiased – although I remember Princess Irulan trying a bit harder than Thurvishar does.

In other ways, it reminds me very much of The Name of the Wind. It has that same kind of depth, that epic scope and sweep, that same sense that nothing is as it seems. It’s also told somewhat the same way, with the character, or in this case the characters, telling the story to someone else. I just hope that the author of The Ruin of Kings manages to wrap up the trilogy a bit more expeditiously!

The voices of the three “narrators” of The Ruin of Kings are very distinct. Kihrin begins the story as young and naive, no matter how jaded he thinks he was. His naivete is under constant assault, and this is the story of his loss of many different types of innocence.

Talon has absorbed many, many people, and they are all distinct to her in her extremely crowded head. She speaks for them, but also for herself. Her perspective is that of someone who has literally seen everything and done everything – and then killed the people who did it.

Thurvishar begins the story speaking directly only within footnotes. It was Thurvishar’s part of the story that made me switch from the ebook to the audiobook. Footnotes do not work well in ebooks, but in audio his contributions were inserted as wry asides, or occasionally arguments, within the text and provided further information, sarcastic commentary, and light relief in turns.

(I actually have the audiobook and the eARC AND the hardcover. I loved this one real hard. I needed the hardcover for the maps.)

I was enjoying the audio so much than when I couldn’t stand not knowing how the story ended I played Solitaire for four hours so I’d have something to do with my hands while these three marvelous actors told me a terrific story.

The Ruin of Kings has everything a reader could possibly want in an epic fantasy. Unreliable narrators, meddling gods, troublesome demons, crazy dragons, evil necromancers and political shenanigans played to the death – all folded into the story of a lifetime.

Or two or three lifetimes. Death, after all, is not permanent. Except when it is.

The second book in the trilogy, The Name of All Things, is scheduled to be released in October. I want it NOW!

Reviewer’s Note: Goodreads claims that this is YA. It is so, so, so not YA. And it should come with all the trigger warnings, including some that probably don’t exist yet.

Review: Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Review: Radicalized by Cory DoctorowRadicalized by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: science fiction, short stories
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From New York Times bestselling author Cory Doctorow, Radicalized is four urgent SF novellas of America's present and future within one book

Told through one of the most on-pulse genre voices of our generation, Radicalized is a timely novel comprised of four SF novellas connected by social, technological, and economic visions of today and what America could be in the near, near future. Unauthorized Bread is a tale of immigration, the toxicity of economic and technological stratification, and the young and downtrodden fighting against all odds to survive and prosper.

In Model Minority, a Superman-like figure attempts to rectifiy the corruption of the police forces he long erroneously thought protected the defenseless...only to find his efforts adversely affecting their victims.

Radicalized is a story of a darkweb-enforced violent uprising against insurance companies told from the perspective of a man desperate to secure funding for an experimental drug that could cure his wife's terminal cancer.

The fourth story, Masque of the Red Death, harkens back to Doctorow's Walkaway, taking on issues of survivalism versus community.

My Review:

This is my first Cory Doctorow, and probably won’t be my last. I’ve seen his columns in Locus, where he predicts the future -sorta/kinda – but hadn’t read any of his books. When this popped up on my radar, it seemed like the time.

The advantage of collections is that the individual entries are generally shorter. I could always bail if it didn’t work for me. That didn’t happen – although I occasionally wanted to stop out of sheer terror.

The disadvantage of collections is that they are sometimes uneven. That didn’t happen here either. What did happen is that the stories get darker as they go. The first one isn’t exactly light-hearted, but does end with a glimmer of hope.

And that glimmer is the last light we see. The stories, and the futures that they posit, get progressively darker from there.

What this is is a collection of very-near-future dystopias. This is a future so close that we can see it from here. It seems to be mining a similar vein as If This Goes On, the recent collection edited by Cat Rambo – although these stories feel closer. A bit too close.

Unauthorized Bread is the first story in Radicalized, and it’s the one that ends in that glimmer of hope I mentioned. Not that there isn’t plenty of darkness in the middle. This story is about a lot of things, particularly the way that immigrants and others at the lower end of the socioeconomic lottery are marginalized and demonized. That message seemed fairly overt.

The less overt message, but still very much present, is the message about just how different “choice” looks from the perspective of people who have the societal privilege of being able to always choose between good, better and best, as opposed to those who are squeezed into the position of being forced to choose between terrible, awful and least bad.

But the plot is also a slightly terrifying extension of digital rights management – frequently a horror story all by itself – from the world of music, video and software to the world of appliances. We’ve seen the start of this, when Keurig introduced DRM into its line of coffee makers, allowing them to restrict use of the device that you own to pods that they authorize. Think about that, scale it up, and then shake in fear – and caffeine withdrawal.

The Model Minority is where the chill really sets in in this collection. But in the end, it ultimately felt sad. The future is posits is frightening, and all too plausible – even, perhaps likely. But this is one where I really felt for the character, and he ends up in a very sad place by the end. And so should we all.

The protagonist of this piece is a superhero who is meant to be Superman without ever naming him such. (DC would probably object – with lawyers). But he’s an alien whose current mundane identity is named Clark and whose girlfriend is a reporter named Lois. And he has a rich friend named Bruce who also has a secret identity. You connect the dots.

The story here is what happens when our hero is confronted with blatant racism. He witnesses a bunch of white cops pull a black man out of his own car and beat him nearly to death while putting on a show for their body cameras. Superhero steps into save the man being beaten, and attempts to get him proper medical treatment and a fair trial.

And it all goes pear-shaped, as we all expect it to. The system is designed to protect the cops and demonize the innocent black motorist. The media gins up, the way it does, to make it seem like the arrest and brutal beating are all the fault of the victim – because he’s black. The more our hero tries to help the man, the more trouble he causes, not only for the original victim, but also for himself.

Because when he threatens that fragile white majority with evidence of their own racism, they turn on him rather than look inside themselves. As they do. As we do.

The title story in this collection is a story about the weaponization of what is now the quiet desperation of families who are about to lose or have lost a beloved family member. Not because their condition is untreatable, but because their health insurance company refuses to pay for treatment.

Combine that with a big “what if?” What if those quietly desperate people treated health insurance company executives and employees exactly the same way that abortion providers are “treated” by the so-called right-to-life movement – with doxxing and harassment and terrorist attacks. This is purely my interpretation of the story, but it feels right. And ends up making the story about whether the ends justify the means – a contemplation that is itself frightening.

Last but not least, The Masque of the Red Death. On the surface, it’s the story of a prepper’s dream that turns into a prepper’s nightmare. A whole bunch of smug one-percenters are so certain that they’ve figured out how to survive the coming collapse of civilization – and that they will emerge from their hidden sanctuary fat and happy and ready to be back on top of the new civilization that they are just certain will be exactly like the old one, and that they’ll rule it.

Discovering that they have planned for everything except for their own humanity – and their hubris – takes this tale from chills to downright horror in quick steps. This is one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with bad and thoughtless intentions that the thinkers believe are good – at least for them.

Thinking about it, however, it strikes me that this story also ends in a glimmer of hope – just not for its initial protagonists.

Escape Rating A+: Science fiction in general, and this author in this collection in particular, is at its thought-provoking best when it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. These stories do much more of the latter than the former, and are all intensely well-done in ways that will make the reader think – and squirm.

Review: The Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead

Review: The Chaos Function by Jack SkillingsteadThe Chaos Function by Jack Skillingstead
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: science fiction, thriller, time travel
Pages: 304
Published by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For readers of the best‑selling novels Sleeping Giants and Dark Matter, an intense, high‑stakes thriller with a science‑fiction twist that asks: If technology enabled you to save the life of someone you love, would you do so even if it might doom millions?   Olivia Nikitas, a hardened journalist whose specialty is war zones, has been reporting from the front lines of the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. When Brian, an aid worker she reluctantly fell in love with, dies while following her into danger, she’ll do anything to bring him back. In a makeshift death chamber beneath an ancient, sacred site, a strange technology is revealed to Olivia: the power to remake the future by changing the past.    Following her heart and not her head, Olivia brings Brian back, accidentally shifting the world to the brink of nuclear and biological disaster. Now she must stay steps ahead of the guardians of this technology, who will kill her to reclaim it, in order to save not just herself and her love, but the whole world.

My Review:

There’s a quote from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that goes,

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

This is a story about what happens when someone has the power to lure that Moving Finger back to cancel more than half a line – but does not – as no human does – have the wisdom to determine whether that cancellation was, or was not, the right thing to do.

This book was simply a wow.

Of course, it’s also just a bit more complicated than that. Also just saying it’s a wow isn’t really an informative review – although it certainly is succinct.

At first, this seems like a near-future dystopian novel, until it isn’t. And then it is again. And then it isn’t.

Still confused? I think it’s intentional – at least on the part of the story.

Olivia is an investigative journalist chasing a story in Aleppo, Syria, just a little more than a decade from now. Her world doesn’t feel much different from ours in time, only in place. The seemingly permanent, perpetual civil war/uprising/revolution/counterinsurgency/whatever that she is covering is worlds away from the comfortable life that still very much exists back in the US.

But Olivia makes her living covering what she calls the “Disaster”. A disaster that could be anywhere, and often is – just not back home. Also a disaster that seems to be a direct consequence of actions taken in our present, as the Syrian conflict that she is covering is the war to overthrow Assad, which has its roots in our now.

She’s attempting to cover violations of the current, tentative peace agreement when she, her guide and her aid worker-lover get caught in the crossfire – and the world changes.

And changes again. And again. And it’s all Olivia’s fault… Really, it is.

Brian is killed in that crossfire, and Olivia finds herself in the basement of the building she was trying to investigate, his blood still on her hands, when she finds an old man who has been tortured taking his last breaths. Something jumps from his corpse to her living body, and burrows itself into her brain.

When she makes a wish that Brian hadn’t died – he isn’t dead. But the world has changed, and not for the better.

That’s the point where things get very, very hairy. And then they get worse.

Since it’s all Olivia’s fault, it’s up to her to fix it if she can. Because the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few or of the one – even if that one is someone she loves.

Escape Rating A+: This is still a wow.

I believe that the reason this is such a wow is that there are multiple ways to look at the story, all of them equally valid – as they should be. This is, after all, a story about the butterfly effect – for a butterfly with extremely large wings.

From the very beginning, I saw multiple connections to this story. Something about the atmosphere in war-torn Aleppo recalled for me the atmosphere of The Children of Men by P.D. James. The stories aren’t actually alike, but the worlds felt similar.

Once Olivia discovers her ability to change the future, the way that it worked was extremely similar to Ia’s ability in the military SF series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Like Ia, Olivia is trying to find the best of all possible outcomes, no matter how slim a chance it is, and make it happen. The difference is that Ia knows how to use her power, and Olivia most definitely does not.

But it’s the different, and all equally awful, portraits of the way that the world goes mad that push the story forward at breakneck speed. Each of Olivia’s attempts to save Brian results in greater and greater disasters. A weaponized smallpox epidemic. Nuclear powers, blaming each other, fingers on too many triggers, wiping out each other’s major cities and food producing regions. And it gets worse from there.

(I haven’t seen the world go so far past hell in a handbasket so fast since the early books in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse)

The source of Olivia’s new-found power throws in a cult of conspiracy theorists as well as a chase around the world. The ability to control the future is a power that has been closely guarded – and extremely contested – for centuries. And no one’s vision of “better” remotely resembles anyone else’s.

But there’s a reason why I started with Omar Khayyam and ended with Spock. Because the story in The Chaos Function is also, writ large and with even more deadly consequences, the story of the classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever. And the ending is just as necessary, and just as heartbreaking.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. JemisinHow Long 'til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

My Review:

Have you ever taken a good, hard look at which groups get special “days” or “months” and which ones don’t? There’s no such thing as “WASP month” to celebrate White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, because they are considered the so-called “norm” even though they are increasingly not the majority even in the U.S. Especially when you take out the FEMALE WASPs, because Women’s History Month is its own thing, along with holidays and/or months that celebrate non-Anglo origins, non-Christian religions, and, particularly relevant to this book (and this month) non-White people.

It’s a damn good question, isn’t it? Just how long will it be until everyone is celebrated all the damn time, and we don’t need to call out non-male (also non-straight and non-cis) people? How long will it be until Black Future Month?

As the author points out, there has been very little science fiction that includes non-white characters or posits a future as seen from the perspective of people of color. Also relatively few from a female perspective, or a non-cis, non-het perspective, or, again, any perspective other than male WASPs.

I’m not going to include treatments of religion in the future because that’s all over the map in its own way. My favorite treatment of Earth religions in the future is the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams. And I really am digressing this time.

I recognize that I’m talking around the book, rather than about the book. I’m trying not to just SQUEE and it’s hard.

On my one hand, the collection is absolutely awesome from beginning to end. I loved every story, and that’s extremely rare for me in a short story collection.

On my other hand, all of the stories in this collection have been previously published. So anyone who follows this author has probably read some if not all of them. But for those looking at this author for the first time after her record-setting accomplishment of winning the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row (for three books in a trilogy at that), this is a great (and accessible) place to start.

Personally speaking, I loved her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but bounced hard off The Fifth Season – twice. After reading this collection, I’ll try it again – probably in audio this time.

Escape Rating A+: This is a marvelous collection of this author’s short works, providing a set of wonderfully readable stories, introducing new readers to a terrific, award-winning author (these two things are unfortunately not always synonymous), providing a perspective on the development of said author, a bit of dialog with the history of the genre, and, last but definitely not least, making any reader of SF wonder why the historical perspective of the genre (ironic, I know) has been so narrow-visioned.

A great read from beginning to end!

Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline CareyDark Currents (Agent of Hel, #1) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #1
Pages: 356
Published by Roc on October 2, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kushiel’s Legacy novels, presents an all-new world featuring a woman caught between the normal and paranormal worlds, while enforcing order in both. Introducing Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn…

The Midwestern resort town of Pemkowet boasts a diverse population: eccentric locals, wealthy summer people, and tourists by the busload; not to mention fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres and a whole host of eldritch folk, presided over by Hel, a reclusive Norse goddess.

To Daisy Johanssen, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s home. And as Hel’s enforcer and the designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, it’s up to her to ensure relations between the mundane and eldritch communities run smoothly.

But when a young man from a nearby college drowns—and signs point to eldritch involvement—the town’s booming paranormal tourism trade is at stake. Teamed up with her childhood crush, Officer Cody Fairfax, a sexy werewolf on the down-low, Daisy must solve the crime—and keep a tight rein on the darker side of her nature. For if she’s ever tempted to invoke her demonic birthright, it could accidentally unleash nothing less than Armageddon.  

Guest review by Amy:

What kind of a mom would name her demon-spawn child “Daisy?”  Really?  But here’s Daisy as a plucky young adult with…erm…anger-management issues. Oh, and a tail. She’s the daughter of a human woman, and…well, a demon. Literally making the case for never, ever getting around a Ouija board ever again. Her dad, if Daisy just calls on him, can, in fact, bring on the Apocalypse. It doesn’t make for a close daddy-daughter relationship.

But she’s got her mom, who’s quirky and adorable, and she’s got a job working for the police department as a part-time file clerk, her friends, even a crush (on a fellow cop, who also happens to be a werewolf).  Oh, and a second job as liaison to the local goddess, Hel, who kind of runs things in the local eldritch community. Certainly grounds for an interesting life, but early in our story, a frat boy from a nearby college dies under suspicious circumstances.

Escape Rating: A+. I’m a huge fan of Carey’s Kushiel universe, which are delicious epic fantasy reads. Jacqueline Carey shows us she’s not a one-trick pony with Dark Currents. This story moves along rather a lot faster than her Kushiel works (aside from Kushiel’s Dart, which was over much too soon for my tastes), and we’re shown a solid cast of characters, all of whom seem to have a pretty good grasp on who they are in the grand scheme of things.

One of the things I like about this book (as with my prior review of MaryJanice Davidson’s Derik’s Bane) was that our supernatural beings aren’t…inhuman. Even the ones most-divergent from humans (faeries, naiads, a mermaid, a frost giant) have concerns and cares and lives that – while necessarily different from ours because of their nature – aren’t so far different from us that we can’t understand their motives. They’re just trying to get along with the overwhelming force of humanity around them, that’s all. Even the ghouls and vampires, as creepy as they are, make sense, and become characters you can understand and even like, in a way.

Daisy is a snark-o-matic, and her nature adds to this, along with her occasional frustration with being who she is. I had lots of giggles reading this tale, thanks to a generous sprinkling of puns and silly one-liners.

I tagged this as a suspense novel, and it is The core story here is a whodunit that crosses between the mortal and immortal realms. Daisy must stand astride that line, and dispense the justice she is empowered to hand out by her boss Hel, while making sure that any involved mortals get the treatment they deserve from her other boss, the police chief. But this book is more than that.

There’s a taste of romance here, too. Daisy tells us right up front about her long-time crush (a werewolf, who ends up partnering with her to solve the case), and we meet two other men who express interest in her, one a very intelligent, very dapper ancient ghoul, and one a mortal, with a fake Jamaican accent. All three are fascinating men, and I spent quite a while wondering which one she’d center on–if any, since there was also that flirtation with the very feminine lamia who used to babysit her, back-when. She says she’s straight, but this one does something for her even with the millenia-sized age gap.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and can’t wait to read (and maybe review for you here – Marlene? Can I?) the other two books in this series. My only downer in the book came right at the end, when Daisy ended up dating a different one of her crushes than I would have, in her shoes. I can’t tell you which, now, that’d ruin the whole thing for you, wouldn’t it? Go read for yourself!

Marlene’s Note: The next book, for those following along at home, is Autumn Bones. And YES, you certainly may review it for me here. In fact, that’s pretty please would you review it for me here. With bells on. I also love the Kushiel series. And I cite her Banewreacker/Godslayer duology fairly often as a classic in the “history is written by the victors/good and evil depend on which side of the fence you’re on” fantasy.

Guest Review: Perennial: A Garden Romance, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Guest Review: Perennial: A Garden Romance, by Mary Anne MohanrajPerennial: A Garden Romance by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 90
Published by Tincture on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Perennial tells the story of Kate Smith, an aspiring artist facing a difficult cancer diagnosis, and Devan McLeod, a flower shop owner. It draws on the experiences of the author, Mary Anne Mohanraj, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and treated (successfully) with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. This little book intercuts poems she wrote over the course of that year with a garden romance. Mohanraj is an enthusiastic Chicagoland amateur gardener, and during treatment, she took great solace in her garden. She hopes this book bring solace and joy to its readers.

Guest Review by Amy:

It’s January, and Devan McLeod has just met Kate Smith, who walked into his small garden shop with something on her mind. It’s cancer, we find out soon enough. When it’s confirmed a month later, she remembers the kindness of the shopkeeper she’d barely met, and returns to his Oak Park Village shop for flowers–and to tell Devan, a near stranger, the news.

In the crucible of that experience is forged…something. Two people caring about each other from some distance, not quite a romance yet, nor a friendship, just a presence in each other’s world and thoughts as Kate begins the stressful, painful path through treatment.

Over the course of the year, the distance closes, and two people figure out how to help with each other’s pain.

Escape Rating: A+. I had a difficult time reading and reviewing this story, as it hits on a theme that is personally painful for me. Following the principle of full disclosure, I’ve got to admit that I’ve known author Mary Anne Mohanraj online for a couple of years, having “met” through a mutual friend. She’s a versatile writer, from cookbooks to romance to sci-fi to erotica, and every bit of her work that I have read so far brings out the empath in me. Reading Kate’s story, knowing that some of it is informed by Mary Anne’s own experiences as a breast cancer survivor, you can almost feel what she’s going through, and what Mary Anne went through. Devan is no knight-in-shining armor, here to save the day. He realizes (correctly) that she must walk part of her path for herself, as he must deal with his own struggles. Neither of them is all that extraordinarily or heroic, just two ordinary people with their own hurts, who find a path together, in time.

In between the chapters of this little story are poems, written during Mary Anne’s own fight with cancer. These poems only add to the sense that Kate, while very different in many ways from Mary Anne, is sharing snippets of Mary Anne’s own experiences.

Perennial is a short, easy read at just 90 pages, but you’ll find a sweet, heartwarming story in those pages, one that is definitely worth your time.

Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport

Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily DevenportMedusa Uploaded (The Medusa Cycle, #1) by Emily Devenport
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Medusa Cycle #1
Pages: 317
Published by Tor Books on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Executives control Oichi’s senses, her voice, her life. Until the day they kill her.

An executive clan gives the order to shoot Oichi out of an airlock on suspicion of being an insurgent. A sentient AI, a Medusa unit, rescues Oichi and begins to teach her the truth—the Executives are not who they think they are. Oichi, officially dead and now bonded to the Medusa unit, sees a chance to make a better life for everyone on board.

As she sets things right one assassination at a time, Oichi becomes the very insurgent the Executives feared, and in the process uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship that is their home.

My Review:

If The Forever Watch by David Ramirez, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein and The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells got together in a line marriage of the kind that Heinlein posited on Moon, the child they produced would be Medusa Uploaded.

A child that will absolutely stun you in speechless gibbering as well as afflict you with a terribly terrific case of book hangover.

This is also one of those stories where you reach the end, and, just like the main character, discover that none of the things that you thought you knew at the beginning are remotely as they appeared to be. Hence the being stunned.

I started out thinking of The Forever Watch because both take place on generation ships. In both stories, the population of the ship has left homeworld, which may or may not be Earth, in search of a new planet.

But whatever dreams of utopia the builders had at the beginning, those dreams have been long subverted by the time the story opens.

Our point of view character in Medusa Uploaded is Oichi Angelis, and she sees herself as a Worm. In fact, she sees almost all of the population of the Olympia as Worms. Most people are, like Oichi, members of the Servant class who are programmed by the Executives not merely to serve their every whim but also to see and hear only what the Executives allow them to.

Oichi has broken her programming. Much like Murderbot, she has illicit caches of forbidden entertainment stored in her brain, and that subversive data is how she keeps herself sane – at least until one scared and spoiled Executive arranges for Oichi’s execution. Because anyone in the Executive class can. Because victimizing someone else lets them feel less like a victim themselves.

But when Oichi is literally shoved out an airlock, she is saved. Not by a deux ex machina, but by an actual machine – and that’s when her journey really begins.

Because Oichi, with the help of Medusa, sets out to enact a revolution. She pushes people around like pawns in order to bring about a rebellion where the Executive class can be overthrown and the Worms can finally have an equal voice on the ship. It’s not just that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but that Oichi becomes the one who decides which are which.

Along the way, Oichi becomes an even more efficient killing machine than Murderbot ever was.

Oichi thinks she is running her own deadly show – only to discover that she’s been part of someone else’s game all along.

Escape Rating A+: First, I need to send a HUGE thank you to the person who recommended both The Last Sun and Medusa Uploaded, because both books have been absolutely stellar.

Above, I cited three books that Medusa Uploaded really, really reminded me of. The Forever Watch feels fairly obvious, as both are stories about generation ships in mid-journey, where one of the functionaries/passengers discovers that things have gone really, really wrong – and makes the mistake of trying to fix those things. These are also both stories where most of the assumptions that the protagonists make, and that we as readers follow along with, turn out not to be true – with catastrophic results.

Murderbot may feel like a strange choice, or like I’m just trying to get on the Murderbot bandwagon – not that Murderbot wouldn’t be utterly appalled that it even has a bandwagon. But at the very beginning of both stories we have a first-person protagonist who is aware that they are supposed to be programmed into certain behaviors and that they have subverted their programming. They both spend much of the story pretending to be what everyone around them believes they are while secretly exploring a database of forbidden entertainment. Entertainment which just adds to the subversive nature of their performance.

And last but definitely not least, the SF classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (Which is still quite readable!) Both Moon and Medusa are stories where the downtrodden masses are forced to remain downtrodden due to structural inequities built into the systems that keep them virtually enslaved. And in both stories they rise up anyway, using the technology that is supposed to keep them under the thumb of the ruling class. Both stories also feature machines-as-people who integrate with the revolutionaries. (The scene at the end of Moon where Manny discovers that Mike is dead still makes me cry.)

Back to the list I began earlier…

Second, I confess that Medusa Uploaded is one of the few times where I’ve been so completely into a book that I experienced the approach/avoidance conflict of desperately wanting to know how it ended while simultaneously not wanting to finish and be forced to step out of this world.

I’m really glad that there’s a second book in the cycle (Medusa in the Graveyard), and extra happy that I already have the eARC. This is one that just isn’t going to wait!