Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette KowalThe Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, space opera
Series: Lady Astronaut #2
Pages: 384
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on August 21st 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Mary Robinette Kowal continues the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars.The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. 

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there's a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic - but potentially very dangerous - mission. Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the civil rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? 

This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.

My Review:

In the Yiddish of which Elma York would approve and Stetson Parker would be desperate for a translation, I am verklempt after finishing The Fated Sky, the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s utterly marvelous Lady Astronaut series.

I am also in tears, just as I was at the end of The Calculating Stars. Not because the story is sad, although there are plenty of sad parts amongst the adventure, but because when she waxes so marvelously lyrical about her first sight of stars in the sky over a planet after the years of occluded skies on Earth, I feel like I’m right there with her. Sharing her joy at the sight.

As well as her exhilaration at simply being on Mars. And in spite of everything that has happened to get her to that point, I wish I could see what she sees, not through her eyes, but with my own.

And my eyes are full because I know that it will never be. So I have to live vicariously through Elma York’s terrible and wondrous journey, through this series. And what a fantastic journey it is!

This series began in The Calculating Stars with a very big bang. Not THE Big Bang. More like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. In 1952 a meteor struck Earth, specifically the Chesapeake Bay, and kicked off what mathematician Dr. Elma York, with a little bit of help from her meteorologist brother Hershel, recognizes as an extinction-level event.

The water blown into the atmosphere is going to start a runaway greenhouse effect, leaving Earth completely uninhabitable in a century. Not that things aren’t going to start getting pretty awful within a decade.

So the race is on. A decade before it occurred in real history, and with a whole lot more oomph behind it, the space race slams into high gear in the 1950s instead of the 1960s, with a goal of getting at least the seedlings of colonies established elsewhere in the solar system. Specifically the moon and Mars.

Dr. Elma York, former WASP pilot, mathematician and human computer, finds herself recognized worldwide as the “Lady Astronaut” and uses her reluctant fame to get herself into the first lunar mission, in spite of resistance from pretty much everyone to even the idea of women in space.

Although how anyone thinks a colony could be established without putting women into space is anyone’s guess.

As The Fated Sky opens, the meteor strike is a decade in the past, travel between the Earth, the Lunetta Station and the Moon has become a regular event, at least for astronauts, scientists and, unfortunately for Elma, the Press.

Ten years, however, is plenty of time for the effects of the meteor to get worse, while people’s memories of the actual event are starting to fade. A century is a long time, and humans are all too often shortsighted.

It’s also plenty of time for the racism that was behind post-meteor rescue efforts to affect relocation and refugee assistance, admission to the space program and pretty much everything else. It’s not just painfully obvious that not everyone will be able to escape, but that seats on the escape vehicles will be determined by the color of people’s skin.

Tensions are high as the first Mars expedition goes through its training. “Earth First” terrorism is on the rise, budgets for the space program are shrinking, and a trip to Mars will take three years and a LOT of money that many people believe should be spend to ameliorate problems on Earth – not willing to recognize that the climate problems at least cannot truly be ameliorated, only delayed a tiny bit.

Elma hadn’t planned on going to Mars. Three years is a long time to be away from her husband, and she’s at the age where it’s either Mars or a child of their own – but not both.

But it’s a decision that is taken out of her hands when the International Aerospace Commission needs the “Lady Astronaut” and all of her perky, positive publicity to go to Mars, to bring the hearts and minds of Earth – as well as the U.S. Congress with their budgetary authority – along for the ride.

No matter how conflicted she is about the whole thing – or how much her crewmates do NOT want her along.

Escape Rating A+: The Fated Stars was every bit as beautiful, and every single bit as complex and frustrating, as The Calculating Stars. I called the story in the first book, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and they are all still here in all of their complex, human and frequently painful “glory”.

The Lady Astronaut series is alternate history, set in the 1950s and now in the early 1960s. The constant drumbeat of draining, wearing, annoying, disgusting sexism and misogyny that Elma faces at every turn will make any woman grit their teeth, scream in exasperation and roll their eyes in sympathy all at the same time. (Try it, it hurts). It also feels entirely realistic. The 1950s were awful for women. And the racism was even worse, and deadlier. The 1950s really were like that, and through Elma’s eyes we feel it and see it. We also see her struggle to grasp just how truly pervasive and horrible the racism was, because she CAN ignore it and sometimes does – and then hates herself afterwards for doing so.

At the same time, when the realization does slap her upside the head, she also wonders where those racists would put her. She looks white. But she is a Jew, and at least some of the people who hate and fear anyone non-white, include her among the people they hate. The calculus of that question is one that I am all too familiar with. It was one of the many ways I found it so very easy to get inside Elma’s head.

Which is good, because we spend the entire book inside Elma’s head. This is her story – her hopes, her fears, her dreams and her nightmares. Her desperate loneliness and need to belong, while knowing that she left everyone she belongs to and who belongs to her back on Earth. The longing in her voice is marvelously captured by the narrator of the audio, who in this case is also the author. We’re in her head and we feel with her.

The story of the actual expedition, the “intrepid explorers” cut off from home and planet, reminded me a great deal To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Particularly in the way that the group feels cut off from Earth even before (and after) they actually are, and in the ways that the small crew both does and does not bind together into a unit wrapped around their mission. Taught also does the same excellent job of telling a story of big science and remote discovery and putting it into a very human scale.

There was also a lovely bit of life imitates art imitates life circularity. In the story, Gene Roddenberry is inspired by black astronaut Florence Grey to create the character of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, which he still produces in this alternate universe. In real life, Uhura inspired Mae Jemison to become the first black woman astronaut.

But what carries the story, at least for this reader, is the way that it takes its huge scientific story and makes it real and easy to identify with. I can feel Elma’s joy of discovery, her fear of failure, her love of complex calculations and her need to make a difference. I can participate in her love of science and her mastery of its complexity without needing to understand the details of that science. I’m in her head and I feel like I’m in her shoes. Or her Mars boots, as the case may be.

Just as with The Calculating Stars, I’m trying to keep from squeeing and I’m failing. Happily and miserably.

I loved The Fated Sky every bit as much as I did The Calculating Stars. And I can’t wait for The Relentless Moon, coming in July. And I’m hoping that the author will return for another turn behind the narrator’s microphone, because she’s just awesome at it.

Review: The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Fate of the Tala by Jeffe KennedyThe Fate of the Tala (Uncharted Realms #5) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #5
Pages: 398
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on February 4th, 2020
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An Uneasy Marriage,
An Unholy Alliance.

The tales tell of three sisters, daughters of the high king. The eldest, a valiant warrior-woman, conquered her inner demons to become the high queen. The youngest, and most beautiful outlived her Prince Charming and found a strength beyond surface loveliness.

And the other one, Andi? The introverted, awkward middle princess is now the Sorceress Queen, Andromeda—and she stands at the precipice of a devastating war.

As the undead powers of Deyrr gather their forces, their High Priestess focuses on Andi, undermining her at every turn. At the magical barrier that protects the Thirteen Kingdoms from annihilation, the massive Dasnarian navy assembles, ready to pounce the moment Andi’s strength fails. And, though her sisters and friends gather around her, Andi finds that her husband, Rayfe, plagued with fears over her pregnancy, has withdrawn, growing ever more distant.

Fighting battles on too many fronts, Andi can’t afford to weaken, as she’s all that stands between all that’s good in the world and purest evil.

For Andi, the time to grow into her true power has come. . .

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a story about three sisters. The daughters of a mad king and his foretold (and foretelling) queen. But soothsayers, especially true ones, always fare badly – just ask Cassandra. In the end, Queen Salena went mad and died, before her time but not before she had fulfilled her purpose.

Once upon a time, even longer ago than the first story, there was a story about an innocent young woman, betrayed by her parents, abused by her husband, and saved by her baby brother with a little bit of help from a warrior priestess.

The story of those three princesses, the sorceress Andromeda, the beautiful Amelia and the warrior Ursula, was told as the three parts of The Twelve Kingdoms, where Andi was swept away by a sorcerer king, Ami loved and lost her prince charming, and Ursula took her father’s throne as well as his life.

Through all of their trials and tribulations, the sisters fought against the dead minions of the Priestess of Deyrr, and the machinations of the voracious Drasnarian empire.

That young abused woman was once a Drasnarian princess. She escaped and fled to a faraway land where her former family could not reach her – not through the ranks of the elephants who came to guard her and the people she came to call hers. Her story was told in the Chronicles of Drasnaria.

But the baby brother who helped rescue his sister the former Drasnarian princess grew up to become the mercenary leader who captured the heart of the Warrior Queen Ursula, tying the two stories, and all of their peoples, together.

Throughout the followup to The Twelve Kingdoms, The Uncharted Realms Andi, Ami and Ursula, now queens with lands of their own to rule, found themselves fighting the deeply entrenched tendrils of that High Priestess they first defeated in their father’s throne room.

The Fate of the Tala is the climax to this entire 12-book saga, and it is an epic and stunning conclusion to everything that has come before it.

The series ends, as it began all the way back in The Mark of the Tala five years ago, with the magical kingdom of Annfwn, once the tiny keeper of all of the magic in the world. Andi married Rayfe, the King of Annfwn, to protect the precious heartstone that controlled that magic. A control that has been under attack since long before the sisters were born. An attack that their birth was intended to finally defeat.

If they can. If Andi can let herself embrace all of the power that could be at her command, without giving way to the doubts and fears that have plagued her all her life. And without giving in to the insidious voice of the High Priestess who has planted so many of those fears in order to exploit them now, at the climax of it all.

But the visions of the future that Andi has seen show her the defeat of all she loves and the loss of all she holds dear. She fears can only save the kingdoms only at the cost of her heart and soul. A cost that she only thinks she is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A+: The Fate of the Tala is the shattering conclusion of an epic long in the making – and the reading. And as the conclusion of such an epic, the depths of which I have barely hinted at above, it needs to be read as the conclusion to either a long and lush reading binge or, as I did, years of waiting with bated breath for the next installment in the series.

One of the things that I love about this series, and this is every bit as true for this entry as the others, is that these women, their stories, their kingdoms, their worlds, are complex and beautiful and sometimes terrible in that beauty. Many of their stories walk through very dark places, and we feel their pain, deeply and even heartbreakingly.

So it is in The Fate of the Tala. Andi is assaulted on all sides by the fears that have plagued her all her life – and those fears are so very real. She is pregnant and fears that her husband no longer loves her, wants her, or values her as a partner. She knows that they were fated to marry, whether they loved each other or not, and while she has come to love him desperately it seems that his mask of caring has slipped.

More importantly, he no longer seems to trust her as his co-ruler, meaning that she cannot trust him as hers. Their kingdom, their world is in a desperate fight for its life, a fight that is centered on their kingdom. The division at their very heart could be the crack that destroys them all.

As readers, we can see what is wrong, and we both empathize with Andi and desperately want her to be able to repair the breach, even as we understand that she must do what is right for her people above all, and that the breach may not be repairable – and neither may be her marriage or her husband. And yet she shoulders on.

At the same time, this is also a story about desperation and struggle and hope and fear and pulling together against all the odds. And it’s a story about finding sisterhood and family and hope in even the darkest and most desperate of times.And that last stands do not have to be the last – or actually even a stand, and that sometimes the way to win it all is to let it all go.

If you love fantasy romance and/or epic fantasy tinged with romance, you owe it to yourself to begin with The Mark of the Tala and immerse yourself in a beautifully created and fantastically detailed world. This series is epic in scope and marvelous in detail. If you’re looking for a sweeping heroines’ journey this series can’t be beat.

Although I’d love to see the author try, with more heroines and even more fantastic worlds.

Review: Back in Black by Rhys Ford

Review: Back in Black by Rhys FordBack in Black (McGinnis Investigations, #1) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: LGBT, mystery, suspense
Series: McGinnis Investigations #1
Pages: 200
Published by Dreamspinner Press on February 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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There are eight million stories in the City of Angels but only one man can stumble upon the body of a former client while being chased by a pair of Dobermans and a deranged psycho dressed as a sheep.

That man is Cole McGinnis.

Since his last life-threatening case years ago, McGinnis has married the love of his life, Jae-Min Kim, consulted for the LAPD, and investigated cases as a private detective for hire. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the shocking discovery of a dead, grandmotherly woman at his feet and the cascade of murders that follows, even if he should have been used to it by now.

Now he’s back in the dark world of murder and intrigue where every bullet appears to have his name on it and every answer he digs up seems to only create more questions. Hired by the dead woman’s husband, McGinnis has to figure out who is behind the crime spree. As if the twisted case of a murdered grandmother isn’t complicated enough, Death is knocking on his door, and each time it opens, Death is wearing a new face, leaving McGinnis to wonder who he can actually trust.

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a book titled Dirty Kiss, in which ex-LAPD-turned-private-investigator Cole McGinnis investigated the case of a cheating wife who put the sex in sexagenarian – with leather on it. Also a whip and thigh-high boots, because the lady wasn’t merely cheating on her husband, she was cheating on him as a dominatrix for hire. When Cole discovered her shenanigans, she came after him with a shotgun – and almost got him.

Fast forward a few years. Cole is now happily married to the man he met during the course of that first book. They’ve been good years – and they’ve also been fairly peaceful years for Cole, Jae and their friends and family.

When Cole trips over the leather-clad corpse of that senior-citizen dominatrix while running from two dobermans and a guy in a sheep costume who has just been caught in flagrante delicto in an abandoned house, Cole’s peace is definitely at an end. And not just because he needs brain bleach to remove the image of the sheep chasing him with his “flagrante” flopping out of the front of that sheep suit.

Cole feels an obligation to Adele Brinkerhoff and her husband Arthur. The original case was resolved satisfactorily for all concerned, but it did, in a very roundabout way, bring him to Jae and his current happiness.

And no one else is going to get justice for the old lady. Not just because of the spill of manufactured diamonds next to her corpse, but because her past is even shadier than her previous moonlighting as a dominatrix would suggest.

But even before Cole takes on the case, his peace is shattered – along with the victim’s house and the victim’s husband. When the assailant starts shooting up the neighborhood, including Cole and his friend and brother-in-law Bobby Dawson, Cole becomes even more determined to get to the bottom of a case that seems to be every bit as weird as the first time he tangled with Adele and Arthur Brinkerhoff all those years ago.

And even more deadly.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely adored this book. To the point where I’m desperately trying not to just sit here and squee for endless pages. But that’s not particularly informative – dammit.

Part of my glee about this book is just how much fun it is to see Cole, Jae and all their friends and family – found and otherwise – again. Especially Jae’s cat Neko, who is the cattest cat who ever catted.

But in all seriousness, something that is difficult to maintain in the face of the truly unbelievable messes that Cole gets himself into, the arc of Cole’s first series left everyone in a good place and came to a cathartic and well-earned resolution. I didn’t expect to see them back, but I’m so happy to see them back.

(You don’t need to read the first series to get into Back in Black – although that first series is wonderful. But seriously, Back in Black is the start of a new series, and it has a different feel to the first one. However, Cole does an excellent job of providing enough backstory info as it goes to get new readers into his life and his world, and to get series fans caught up on anything they might have forgotten.)

Enough time has passed between the end of the final book in that series, Dirty Heart, that life has moved on, mostly for the better, for Cole and Jae and their circle. The biggest change is that Cole and Jae have been married for a few years. (That story is told in the blog tour for Back in Black and began here at Reading Reality last week.) It’s not just Cole and Jae that have found their HEA – Cole’s brother Ichi and his friend Bobby (the protagonists of Down and Dirty) have also married, making Cole and Bobby brothers-in-law to the surprise of them both, if not necessarily to the delight of either of their husbands.

Because Cole and Bobby tend to lead each other into trouble, including gun-toting would-be assassins, and that’s just what happens in Back in Black.

But unlike the previous series, which leaned more towards romantic suspense, Back in Black and the McGinnis Investigations series fall firmly onto the mystery side of that suspense. Cole starts by doing a security check for a friend-of-a-friend (Rook Stevens from Murder and Mayhem) and literally trips over a former client’s dead body – while being chased by the sheep and the dobermans.

From that hilarious but inauspicious beginning, the case and the story are off to the races. It’s up to Cole, along with his police contact Dell O’Byrne, to determine not just whodunnit but also why it was done. An investigation which seems to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma and covered in a painter’s drop cloth.

Meanwhile Cole and Bobby find themselves dodging assassins, sometimes not terribly well. Assassins who seem determined to take them out of the picture before Cole discovers what the picture actually is.

And the entire story is told from Cole’s wry, snarky and frequently self-deprecating first-person perspective. In a voice that elicits groans and laughter in equal proportions, even if the laughter is all too often the result of some truly atrocious gallows humor.

On the other hand, it’s the voice of the man who got chased by a sheep. And two dobermans. And to whom stuff like that just keeps happening. Cole doesn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble clearly has his address on its GPS and has zero problem hunting him down and shooting at him. Over and over again.

Of course Cole does eventually solve the case. Which turns out to be nothing like anyone, not Cole and not the reader, expected when he tripped over that first body. But Cole, with more than a little help from his friends, gets the job done in his own inimitable style.

Considering the life he’s led, Cole McGinnis really should know better than to ask the universe, “what’s the worst that can happen?” because the universe is likely to take that question as a challenge.

On the other hand, just thinking about that is a fantastic way to end Cole’s first investigation in his new series, Back in Black, because that means there will be more. Hopefully lots, lots more!

Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora GossThe Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #3
Pages: 416
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club...especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucina van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished—and so has Mary's employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save England? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

My Review:

Once upon a time, in the summer of 1816, a group of writers and other creatives conducted a rather famous ghost story contest. Out of that little game among friends came the foundation of modern science fiction AND the first modern modern vampire story. This is a true story. Mary Shelley wrote the beginning of Frankenstein and John Polidori wrote The Vampyre (the precursor for Dracula and every other vampire in modern fiction) during that house party.

I open with that anecdote because in it’s own way it sets the stage for the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. Just as the foundational stories for members of the group were written during that weekend, so does it seem more plausible that the ladies of the Athena Club, would find each other and band together.

Or at least as plausible as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with the potential for a cast nearly as large.

For these women are all extraordinary, each in their own way. Even more so, because none of them chose what they are. But, as the stories in this series reveal, they have chosen – even if sometimes reluctantly – to embrace what they are. To embrace their own very monstrousness – and to embrace each other in sisterhood.

The series began, back in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, with the death of Mrs. Henry Jekyll and her daughter Mary’s discovery that not only did her late father have a daughter, herself, under his Jekyll persona, but that he also had a daughter as Edward Hyde. And that both herself and Diana Hyde, along with Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini, were all the daughters of members of the secretive Societé des Alchemists, and that all of them had powers as the result of their fathers’ experiments.

During that first adventure, they met and teamed up with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, who were investigating an entirely new series of Whitechapel Murders.

However, unlike nearly every other Holmes pastiche (I’m reading two others at the moment) the presence of Holmes in the Athena Club’s adventures does not mean that he is in charge or even the central character. The singular glory of this series is that the men who appear in the series are never the central characters.

This is a story of sisterhood – and even the villains are female. Not that there aren’t plenty of villainous men in the story – after all, all of these women are monsters because their fathers experimented on them or their mothers without any consent whatsoever. But that is in the past – their pasts. The cases they have to resolve in their present, especially the case in The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, present women as the central figures, both in the crime and in the resolution of it.

And that’s in spite of embarking upon this case because it looks like Sherlock Holmes has been kidnapped by Moriarty.

Escape Rating A+: I refer to Sherlock Holmes because that’s how I initially got into this series. I love Holmes pastiches and they are often my go-to stories when I’m in a slump. In the case of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, while I may have come for Holmes I stayed for this incredible story of sisterhood – and also for the seemingly endless number of drop ins by the heroes and villains of 19th century literature and the teasing of my brain thereby.

This one has what initially appears to be a cameo by a Dr. Gray who looks like a fallen angel and has the world-weary affect of someone who has lived entirely too long and seen entirely too much for his apparent 20ish age. And who turns out to be Dorian Gray. And may be part of the next book, if there is a next book. I hope there is a next book. Sincerely.

When I describe this book to people, it’s by way of the characters. Think about it. Dr. Jekyll’s daughter, Mr. Hyde’s daughter, Dr. Moreau’s daughter, Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter, the Poisonous Girl (from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne if you’re wondering), Dr. Van Helsing’s daughter, the Mesmerizing Girl of the title (I’m not sure what story she is from but I bet there’s one somewhere – unless she’s Alice as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but the backgrounds don’t match), along with a few contributions from Irene Adler Norton and Mina Murray Harker as well as a cross country automobile trip courtesy of Bertha Benz.

The mixture of the real with the fantastical continues to enthrall, at least this reader – or listener as the case may be – in this third volume of the adventures. It helps that this is a series I listen to rather than read, and that the reader (the awesome Kate Reading) does a particularly excellent job of distinguishing the voices of the women who make up the cast.

This is also a series where it feels like a requirement to have read the whole series from the beginning – and reasonably recently as well. The heroines of these adventures are all the women who were forgotten or glossed over in the original works so one isn’t familiar with them without having had the pleasure of meeting them here.

I’m aware that I’m squeeing over this one. In fact, I’m still squeeing and I finished the book a week ago. I delayed writing this review in order to tone down the squee a bit, and it didn’t work. At all. Very much sorry not sorry.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of a wild and crazy romp through 19th century Gothic literature in the company of the most wonderful and monstrous sisterhood you’ll ever want to meet, go forth and grab a copy of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, available at your nearest bookseller. (This plug is made in the spirit of Catherine Moreau, who inserts such advertisements throughout the narrative of all three books – to the complete consternation of Mary Jekyll – at every marvelous and even tangentially appropriate turn.)

I loved every single one of the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, and sincerely hope that there will be more. And soon.

Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Review: Royal Holiday by Jasmine GuilloryRoyal Holiday (The Wedding Date, #4) by Jasmine Guillory
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Wedding Date #4
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory makes her hardcover debut with a heartwarming Christmas romance.

Vivian Forest has been out of the country a grand total of one time, so when she gets the chance to tag along on her daughter Maddie's work trip to England to style a royal family member, she can't refuse. She's excited to spend the holidays taking in the magnificent British sights, but what she doesn't expect is to become instantly attracted to a certain Private Secretary and his charming accent and unyielding formality.

Malcolm Hudson has been the Queen's Private Secretary for years and has never given a personal, private tour...until now. He is intrigued by Vivian the moment he meets her and finds himself making excuses just to spend time with her. When flirtatious banter turns into a kiss under the mistletoe, things snowball into a full-on fling.

Despite a ticking timer on their holiday romance, they are completely fine with ending their short, steamy fling come New Year's Day...or are they?

My Review:

I picked up Royal Holiday because I absolutely fell in love with the first book in this series, The Wedding Date (also the title of the series) and have been following along ever since, hoping that the subsequent books in the series would recapture the magic of that first book.

While I enjoyed both The Proposal and The Wedding Party, they didn’t quite recapture the magic of The Wedding Date. But Royal Holiday, the fourth book in the series, definitely did.

And it did it by being different from the others. The previous books in the series have all been wrapped around the wedding of Alexa and Drew, the couple of who meet, court and spark in that marvelous first book.

But now that they are married, and their best friends have found their own HEAs – sometimes with each other – the story has gone into a fascinating new direction.

Maddie has found her HEA with Theo (in The Wedding Party), but they haven’t tied the knot themselves yet. Meanwhile,Maddie, a freelance fashion consultant, has just received the contract of a lifetime. Her friend and mentor is the fashion consultant for one of the young British Royals.

While the princess in question is never named, it is fairly obvious who it is. In any case, that person’s identity isn’t really important. What is important is that her regular consultant is in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy and confined to bed rest over the holidays. And that Maddie is going to pinch-hit for her. In England. Over Christmas. Dressing the princess.

And she gets to bring someone with her for her working holiday, spending the days leading up to Xmas and Boxing Day at Sandringham House (the private residence of the Queen), and then having a few days of true vacation in London – all details arranged and all expenses paid by the House of Windsor.

Maddie convinces her mother to come with her to England. Vivian Forest is a respected social worker back home in California. She’s also been a working single-mother who scrimped and saved to help her daughter achieve her dreams. Vivian is about to take a promotion at work that will increase her pay, her hours and her responsibilities rather drastically, cutting her free time in equal if not greater amount. This is the last chance she’ll have for a while to take a really long, slightly indulgent vacation.

And probably the last opportunity she’ll have for some bonding time alone with her daughter, who will herself be married in a few short months. Life as they know it is about to change, mostly in a good way. But neither of their lives will be the same. So, in spite of some reservations about her family obligations back home, Viv gets on that plane for what she believes will be a wonderful but brief getaway with her daughter.

Only to embark on a surprising holiday fling that turns into much, much more.

Escape Rating A+: This is one of those books that gave me an earworm, as they sometimes do. In this case, the earworm goes like this, “Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.” This classic from the “Great American Song Book” was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1953. And it’s the perfect song to accompany Vivian Forest’s romance with Malcolm Hudson.

Both Viv and Malcolm are in their 50s, and it was incredibly refreshing to read a romance that featured two people who were not 20-somethings. Life doesn’t end at 50, and neither do love or romance. Watching them court and spark was every bit as marvelous as Drew and Alexa back in The Wedding Date. And just as lovely.

While on the one hand the banter between Viv and Malcolm makes this story in the same way as that first book, part of what makes it so special is the way that their romance was every bit as sexy and romantic as the earlier books in the series, while still dealing with the issues that are the result of them being at a much different place in their lives than the earlier couples.

Because they are older, they have more baggage trailing behind them – and they both understand that. They have careers that they are in the middle of – and starting to think about retiring from in a future that is not so distant. It is much easier to pick up stakes and move and change your whole life at the beginning than it is in the middle. There are more consequences – and more hesitations about those consequences.

At the same time, the questions of the heart are still the same. They have to balance what makes them each happy against how happy they can be together. That Viv is also wrestling with the question of what she wants the rest of her career to be vs. what everyone expects the rest of her career to be makes some of those decisions both more immediate and more poignant.

In the end, I loved Royal Holiday every bit as much as I did The Wedding Date not quite two years ago. It was so lovely that it even managed to reverse the romance reading slump I’ve been in for a while, because it felt incredible to read a romance that featured a woman closer to my own age that I could identify with so completely.

I’m completely hooked on this author and can’t wait to see where she takes me next!

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

My Review:

This was one of those times when I had to put off writing my review for a few days after finishing the book so that I could tone down the squeeing and be halfway coherent. And I’m still not sure I’m going to manage it.

The Calculating Stars is enthralling, exhilarating and infuriating, sometimes in equal measure. And those are three things that are just not meant to go together. But this time they absolutely do.

There are three, let’s call them prongs, to this story. Or themes. Or threads. They happen simultaneously and are completely interwoven, but there are three of them just the same.

The first is the very big bang that sets off the entire story. It’s 1952 and Drs. Nathaniel and Elma York are vacationing in the Poconos when they witness, from a barely safe enough distance, a meteor crashing into the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Somewhere near DC.

It turns out to be the Chesapeake Bay, or thereabouts. And thereby lies the crux of the matter. Because the meteor strikes water and not land. Which initially is thought to be better – for extremely select definitions of better – but is actually much, much worse than a land strike.

As Elma York flies herself and her husband inland to someplace where there might still be “civilization” or at least safety, she begins the calculations. That’s what she does, she’s a mathematics genius who can do most of the work in her head.

And the results, eventually confirmed by climatologists and meteorologists around the world, is chilling in its results. That water strike was an extinction-level event. Like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Except that human beings are capable of figuring out what is coming. The question, throughout the book, is whether they are capable of mustering the political will to do something about it, before it is too late.

And that is the heart of this marvelous book – and where human beings show both the best and worst sides of themselves – often at the same time.

Nathaniel York is an engineer. He and Elma were both employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Nathaniel is the leading survivor of NACA’s engineering team, and finds himself the lead engineer for everything that comes next.

Elma is a computer. In the 1950s, computers were women and not machines, as has been detailed in several recent nonfiction books about the period, notably Hidden Figures and The Rise of the Rocket Girls.

But it’s the 1950s, and Elma’s mathematical genius, wartime pilot experience as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot) and not just one but two Ph.Ds, is initially completely ignored by the men running the show. Even though it was her calculations that determined the scope of the disaster.

The response to the disaster is the second prong of this story. Earth is going to go through a brief but survivable mini-ice age and then the temperatures are going to start rising. The water thrown up by the meteor strike is going to kick off a runaway greenhouse effect. In a century or so, the seas are going to boil away.

The only way out is off. Human beings need to find another basket in which to put our eggs. We have to get off this rock before it’s too late. The second prong of the story is the development of the space program a decade before it happened in our history, and under much more desperate conditions.

The third prong of the story relates to the way that Elma’s contributions are ignored, because it comes back to the fact that the general population in the 1950s had terribly misogynistic views about women, and terribly racist views about anyone who wasn’t white. And that’s combined with the usual human problems of not being willing to think in the long term when current conditions seem pretty good for their individual perspective – think of current reactions to climate change to see how that part works.

The story is told from Elma’s educated, intelligent, informed perspective as she is forced to deal with a whole bunch of men who either hate her for her achievements, disbelieve her because she is female, or both, and will do anything to keep her down and out because her existence and perseverance upsets their worldview.

We are with her every step of the way as she is forced to cajole, accommodate, hope, fear, pray and scream as she pushes or sidles her way into the halls of power – and into the stars.

Escape Rating A+: In my head, I’ve labeled those three plot threads as “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” – complete with theme music. Do not mistake me, that rating is for real, this book is utterly awesome from beginning to end. And the audio is fantastic and amazing and read by the author. Which is even more amazing. The only author I’ve ever listened to who is half this good as a narrator is Neil Gaiman.

But those prongs of the story, they definitely fit the theme. The initial meteor strike is the Bad. Very, very bad. There really isn’t a way to think of an extinction-level event as good, after all. The sheer number of people who are wiped out in that instant should defy imagination – and it does. At the same time, the author does a fantastic job of personalizing all of the attendant grief through Elma’s reactions. Her family, her parents and grandparents, and pretty much everyone she knew or worked with, is gone in an instant. Her grief is heart-felt and utterly heartbreaking.

The space program is the Good part of the equation. Not that some of the details of how that sausage gets made don’t dive into the Ugly, but the concept and overall progression of the space program were very good. So good that it made me cry when we see all the emotions in Elma’s head and heart when she attends a launch with her great-aunt. (In the end Elma does discover that she has two surviving family members besides her husband. And her commingled joy and grief at those discoveries is beautiful.)

But there’s plenty of ugliness in this story, and it’s that ugliness that makes the reader want to scream. Or at least this reader.

This story takes place in an alternate 1950s. Sexism and racism were at a high-water mark during that decade, which resulted in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s in real history. In this story, it’s all on display, and it’s ugly right down to the bone. Not just in the way that Blacks are treated when they are present in the narrative – and they definitely are – but also the way that political forces try to use the terrible circumstances to literally remove them from that narrative. And the ways that they fight back. That part of the story sent chills up my spine both in its verisimilitude and its portrayal of an entire society’s callous disregard for millions of people due to the color of their skin.

And, because the story is told through Elma’s perspective, we feel every time she is ignored or set aside or deliberately blocked from achieving her dreams as a body blow. I wanted to reach through the book and knock some sense into many, many of the male characters. Most of them deserve a good swift kick where it would hurt the most.

Elma’s husband Nathaniel, however, is a complete mensch. Mensch is a Yiddish term of high compliment, implying just how truly good that person is.

It also signifies something that is a kind of underlying thread through this entire story. Elma and Nathaniel are Jewish. And it matters. To others it may not be that big of a deal, but for me it mattered so much. In Elma’s use of occasional Yiddish, the way that she sat Shiva and mourned for all of the family that she had lost, her desire to be a bit more observant in the wake of both the Holocaust and the ongoing tragedy, I more than felt for her. I felt part of her. I felt heard and represented at a very deep level.

The way that I was drawn into her story because she represented me in a way that most characters do not gave me a new appreciation for the power of representation in literature and the arts. It made me appreciate the Cuban heritage of Eva Innocente in Chilling Effect because I knew that if Elma made me feel represented in The Calculating Stars, then Eva gave those exact same feels to the LatinX women that she represents while telling her own marvelous story.

But the story of the Lady Astronaut has barely begun when The Calculating Stars ends. The Fated Sky continues Elma’s journey and is already out. A parallel story, The Relentless Moon, will be released next summer. I can’t wait to see just how far Elma goes, and how she manages to get there.

There’s a reason that The Calculating Stars won the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. Take flight with the Lady Astronaut and see for yourself.

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade War by Fonda LeeJade War (The Green Bone Saga, #2) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #2
Pages: 590
Published by Orbit on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon's borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon's most prized resource, could make them rich - or give them the edge they'd need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival - and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

My Review:

I picked up Jade War just about the minute I finished the absolutely awesome Jade City. And then I couldn’t stop, to the point where I bought the ebook just so I could seamlessly switch between the audio and the text. The only problem is that I finished it very quickly and now, well now I really, really want to go back to Kekon, and I can’t until Jade Legacy comes out – maybe next year and maybe the year after. The story is marvelous, but the book hangover is truly terrible.

Kekon and the story of the Green Bone Saga seem to have gotten into my blood – or infected my brain. Not unlike the bioenergetic jade that infuses the culture of Kekon and underlies everything that happens in this epic saga.

Although Jade War expands upon and opens up the story that was begun in Jade City, like its predecessor, it also takes one act and brings it full circle. Jade War begins when Emory Anden, cousin and adopted son of the Kaul family of the No Peak clan, is exiled from his home in Kekon after refusing to wear jade and take up the life of a green bone that is expected of him. The story closes when Anden returns from his exile, picks up his jade, but finds a different path than the one that was originally laid out for him.

A big part of the story of this book is the making of Anden into his own man – but his part is told far from home, and uses his exile to tell the story of Kekon’s influence on the wider world – and that wider world’s influence on Kekon. Whether Kekon wants those effects or not.

Anden is not the only character that we watch grow and change during the course of the story. Watching the world change, both for him and for Kekon, draws the reader into the story in a way that just doesn’t let you out at the end.

And it’s enthralling and compelling every step of the way.

Escape Rating A+++: As I said at the beginning, this is a book that I both read and listened to, in equal turns. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t want to let it go – and I still don’t. I felt compelled to find out what happened next – and at the same time I’m devastated that it’s over – at least for the moment. I want to go back. Kekon and it’s world isn’t just a story – it felt like a place that breathed and lived.

Jade War both expands the story that began in Jade City and strengthens in central focus. It is, ironically both a bigger story and a more intimate one at the same time. The story of Jade City is insular, taking place almost in its entirety in the city of Janloon, and focusing on the growing tension between the two rival clans.

The first book featured Kaul Lan, the leader, or Pillar, of the No Peak clan. Lan was a reactive leader and not, unfortunately for him and his family, a proactive one. Lan’s tragedy was that he was a well-suited to be a peacetime Pillar, but he was faced with a clever and extremely proactive enemy in the Pillar of the Mountain, Ayt Mada. And Ayt Mada had been planning behind the scenes for years to propel No Peak into a war that she expected to win.

But no plan survives engagement with the enemy, and that turned out to be especially true for the Mountain’s plans for No Peak. Ayt’s maneuvers were intended to bring about the death of Lan’s brother Hilo, the head of No Peak’s enforcement arm. Without his warrior brother at his side, Lan would have sued for peace and accepted the subjugation of his clan sooner or later.

But all that plotting and planning brought about the consequence that Ayt Mada desired least. Instead of the reactive and passive Lan, now the active and vengeful Hilo leads No Peak, with his brilliant sister Shae at his side as Weather Man. And together they are more than a match for their enemies both at home and abroad.

Two heads really are better than one, particularly when each has strengths that the other lacks and they respect those strengths. They know they are stronger together than they are separately, even when they butt heads – as they regularly do.

Jade War is a bigger story than Jade City because the action expands outward. No Peak and the Mountain are still at war with each other, although the war mostly turns from a hot war to a cold one as Kekon is forced to turn its gaze outward. The major powers of this world, of which Kekon is explicitly not one, are conducting a hot war of their own not nearly far enough away. Kekon’s strategic allies put pressure on the country, forcing the rival clans to conduct their internal rivalry more strategically. Meaning fewer guns and duels, and more economic warfare conducted through proxies instead.

As well as a war for public opinion. No Peak courts the outside world, as symbolized by Anden’s exile to Kekon’s ally Espenia, while the Mountain gins up nationalistic fervor at home. And Anden has a front row seat to watch how that proxy fight plays out among the Kekonese immigrant community far from their island home.

But the story is also more intimate in that the reader sees more closely into the lives and minds of, not only Anden, but the two new leaders of No Peak, Lan’s younger brother Hilo, who has become Pillar in the wake of Lan’s death at the end of Jade City, and his sister Shae, the new CFO or Weather Man, who stepped up into the role after the betrayal of her predecessor.

They are young and mostly untried, and have to grow into their positions while the whole world watches. But they are more interesting to watch than Lan was. Both Hilo and Shae, out of a combination of desperation and their own styles of leadership are simply more proactive than their brother Lan ever would have been.

Their characters, especially Hilo, are more dynamic – and therefore more interesting to follow. They act rather than react, which means that they both push the action forward. Even when their actions are questionable – or downright morally reprehensible – they both err on the side of doing rather than sitting back and waiting for events to overtake them – not that THAT doesn’t occasionally happen anyway.

Jade War also takes this story of gangland warfare to a wider stage while telling a tale that provides standout roles for the women as well as the men of the clan AND adds a fascinating dose of world-wide political skulduggery to what was initially an urban fantasy about warring criminal organizations. The Green Bone Saga was a terrific story when it was confined to two families and one city. Now that it has gone world-wide, it is epic in every sense of the word. This is one of those books that just needs a higher grade than A+. Seriously, all the stars for this one.

Jade Legacy can’t come soon enough.

Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Review: To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky ChambersTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 153
Published by Harper Voyager on September 3, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.

Ariadne is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.

Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.

Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky's first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

My Review:

This is the kind of story that we read science fiction for. It’s a story that asks big questions and gives very human answers.

If we take Star Trek as an example of large scale SF, this book is small-scale SF – in spite of its outside-our-solar-system travel itinerary. Where Trek moved through the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, ignored its prime directive of noninterference at pretty much every turn, and searched for “Class M” planets that could support human life as it is, Ariadne and the crew of the Merian do the exact opposite at pretty much every turn.

Starting from their very origins. The Earth that Ariadne and her crew leave in the late-21st century is recognizably a dystopian future of the world we know now. The coastlines are sinking, the economy is tanking, the skyscraper cities are on fire and climate change has turned worse and deadly. Governments are toppling, borders are redrawn at the drop of a hat and the situation is going to hell in a handcart at every turn.

But all is not hopeless, or at least not yet. There may be no longer be either a NASA or an International Space Station, but there is a worldwide volunteer effort to raise nickels and dimes and small amounts of every currency in large enough numbers to fund space exploration not just within this solar system but to the nearest exoplanets as well.

It’s a long journey – especially when limited to the speed of light. The crews of the tiny, self-sustaining ships of the Lawki expeditions are expected to go “out there” to a selection of likely planets, explore for months or years, and then move on to the next.

They are also expected to leave no footprints and to take only pictures, memories and tiny samples that will have as little effect as possible – ideally none – on the world they leave behind. The expeditions are not looking for worlds ideal for human life – actually the opposite. They are exploring purely for the science and are not looking for any “new civilizations” because they might disturb them with their observations.

They are also adapting themselves to each planet as they go. And the science and engineering of that are fascinating – as are the human consequences of those adaptations.

It’s not a one-way trip. The astronaut/explorers on the Merian, Ariadne, Elena, Jack and Chikondi are intended to return to Earth. But they will spend most of their journey – all of the time they are not planetside – in stasis. For them, the journey out there and back again will only take a few short years.

But on the Earth they leave behind, 80 years will pass. Their families and friends will be long dead by the time they return. Anything could happen while they are gone.

And it does.

Escape Rating A+: To Be Taught, If Fortunate, turns out to be both a prophetic title and a thought-provoking look at big science wrapped up in a very human story.

I say prophetic, not because of the dystopian Earth it portrays, but because there’s a lesson in this story, and if we’re lucky, we get it before we reach that dystopia. Although that’s not the only lesson. There are plenty of marvelous little lessons along the way, about what it means to be human, how important it is to have purpose. How unimportant the package of “who we love” is vs. the importance that we love. How close a found family can be – even when it seems to be falling apart. That where we come from and who we stand for are more critical than mere self-fulfillment.

We experience the voyage of the Merian through the eyes of her engineer, Ariadne. Ariadne is not one of the science specialists, so her vision is not so tunnel-oriented as that of the rest of the crew; Elena the meteorologist, Jack the geologist and Chikondi the botanist. Ariadne’s job is to keep their little ship flying – and to pilot her when she is. She’s also an extra pair of hands for anyone who needs Petri dishes washed, or instruments checked.

But in a group of highly-specialized scientists, her generalist’s background gives her a perspective most like our own. She does see the forest for the trees – when there are trees – and doesn’t merely hunker down to count the rings.

We’re in Ariadne’s head every step of the way, so we get her hopes, her fears, her worries and her witty asides. We identify with her and her journey, both her excitement at the exploration and the depths of her despair when things go terribly, horribly wrong. And we see her come out the other side, scared and scarred by her experience.

One of the coolest bits of science in this story is the way that, instead of adapting the planets to meet human needs, the humans are adapted with reversible, changeable genetic engineering to the planets. Ariadne likens herself and her shipmates to butterflies in the way that they go into a chrysalis (their Torpor pods on the ship) and come out with completely different external attributes than they went in with. But, like the butterfly, they are always the same on the inside – except as their experiences change them.

The story of To Be Taught, If Fortunate, is both a big story and a small one. The Merian is exploring just a tiny portion of the great big galaxy, and they view that small bit through very human perspectives. The story is about the small ship, the tiny crew, and the little bit they see. But what they experience is huge – and the reader is right there with them every step, jump and squelch of the way.

And the question they leave us with at the end? It’s ginormous.

Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade City by Fonda LeeJade City (The Green Bone Saga, #1) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #1
Pages: 498
Published by Orbit on November 7, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon's bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

My Review:

The story begins with an act of violence and an act of mercy. And it ends when the consequences of those acts come full circle.

It also feels like the result of one of the strangest mashups ever. It’s as if urban fantasy and The Godfather had a book baby, midwifed by the Shogun phenomenon of the late 1970s. And yes, I know just how strange that sounds.

Jade City reads like an urban fantasy. It has that noir-ish feel that seems part and parcel of that genre. And yet, the magic in this story, the magic that is enabled by the wearing of bioenergetic jade, is actually science rather than the type of magic that usually powers urban fantasy. Likewise, the ability to use or tolerate jade – or be immune to it – is also science-based, and can be manufactured through the use of drugs, also created by science.

So the Green Bone Saga is one of those rare series that walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but is not a duck. It feels like urban fantasy and reads like urban fantasy – but it’s actually science fiction. Sorta/kinda.

I called The Godfather the book’s second parent, because this isn’t a story about good vs. evil, as fantasy so often is. Instead, this is a story about warring criminal organizations that are also clans. The two clans, the Mountain and No Peak (and I’m kind of ashamed at how long it took for me to get that pun) control the city of Janloon and the country of Kekon. The clans don’t govern, but they definitely control. As the saying goes in Kekon, gold and jade don’t mix.

It seems as if every single person in Kekon is part of one clan or another. And certainly the clans control all economic life in the country. The “Fists” and “Fingers”, under the control of the “Horn”, are the enforcers and, if need be, warriors. They protect the clan and its interests. The “Luckbringers” and “Lantern Men”, under the aegis of the “Weather Man”, run the clan’s businesses. Every business in Janloon pays tribute to one clan or the other. It’s not merely “protection money” the way it is in other criminal organizations. That tribute goes into the clan’s coffers, and goes out again whenever a member of the clan, including those Luckbringers and Lantern Men, needs help or a favor.

The clans seem to serve as both family and protective association. It’s a complicated system, but it also works. (Even though some of the titles use the words “man” or “men” not all Lantern Men, not all Weather Men, and not all the Fists and Fingers are actually men. There are several key female players in this drama, and more as the series continues.)

The clans also control the mining of that bioenergetic jade, the country’s major source of wealth – and the biggest bone of contention between the two clans as well as the reason that the major powers that surround Kekon eye the country like hungry scavengers looking for vulnerable prey.

Which Kekon has been in the recent past and has no desire to be in the foreseeable future.

And that’s where our story begins. Not that it seems that way at first. At first, what we see is two young idiots trying to steal jade from a drunken old Fist of the No Peak clan, and their punishment by the Horn of No Peak, Kaul Hilo, and his older brother, the Pillar and leader of the clan, Kaul Lan.

Events spiral out from that seemingly minor incident that expose the weakness of No Peak, the insidious strength of their enemies in the Mountain, the deception of the No Peak Weather Man and the rot at the heart of their family.

In the end, honor is only temporarily served. But it exacts a high price just the same.

Escape Rating A+: Jade City was a book that didn’t let go of me, and I didn’t let go of it, either. I was listening to this one – and the audio is marvelous – but I couldn’t listen fast enough and eventually switched to the book. Which I finished in one binge-read of an afternoon/evening. Then I immediately started on the second book, Jade War, which is just as fantastic and just as hard to let go of.

An observation that at first may seem like an aside – listening to the audiobook means that you have no idea how anything is spelled, while reading the text means that you have no idea how anything is pronounced.

That’s relevant to Jade City because of that third book parent or influence I listed above, the book Shogun by James Clavell and the TV mini-series that it spawned. While Janloon and Kekon are not Japan, they are not Japan in the same way that so many of the classics of epic fantasy are not set in the United Kingdom or Europe. The Shire is not rural England, but it is intended to have that feel. Epic fantasy in particular is rife with examples where the map was influenced by Western Europe as are the cultures and mores of the fantasy kingdoms without being exact analogs. (Although sometimes they are, particularly in the works of Guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey).

Janloon and Kekon are both inspired and influenced by the history and culture of Japan and the author’s own heritage in ways that fascinate the reader and add to the depth of the story. The Green Bone Saga isn’t just a good story, it’s an immersive experience and I’ve loved every minute of it.

At the same time, both Shogun and The Godfather were also products of the 1970s. (The Godfather was published in 1969 and Shogun in 1975). The setting of this story, not just Janloon itself but the levels of technology that the reader sees and hears about from the rest of Kekon and the world, are meant to feel like the 1970s, with TVs and cars and records and pay telephones and many other things that were part of life in the 1970s but that have changed immeasurably since.

(It may be difficult to imagine now, but at the time Shogun was originally broadcast, it was at the height of the mini-series boom and was an excellent example of its kind. Also, it (loosely) portrayed a period of Japanese history when the country pursued an extremely isolationist foreign policy – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. There is resonance between the fictional history of Kekon and the real history of Japan in that Kekon is coming out of a period of isolationism and is dealing with the results of that change in policy – among other changes – during the story.)

The Green Bone Saga, at least so far, is not a battle between good and evil. While the series is definitely epic in scope, it is not epic fantasy in that sense. The readers follow one side of this clan war, and we’re meant to empathize with the Kaul family – and we do. That doesn’t mean that they are “good” in the way that epic fantasy defines its heroes.

But they are, every single one of them, absolutely fascinating to watch. I’m in the middle of Jade War, the second book of this series, right now – and loving every minute of it. My only regret about the whole thing is that the final book in the series, Jade Legacy, does not yet have a projected publication date. It’s going to be a long wait to see how the Kaul family – and Kekon – survive the mess they are now in.

Review: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Review: Magic for Liars by Sarah GaileyMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, Xe Sands
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on June 4th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sharp, mainstream fantasy meets compelling thrills of investigative noir in this fantasy debut by rising star Sarah Gailey.

Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It's a great life and she doesn't wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.

But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

My Review:

Magic for Liars is a mystery in the exact same way that American Magic is a spy thriller. It follows all of the conventions of its genre – except for one thing. Magic is real.

Another way of putting it would be to say that Magic for Liars takes place in the world of either Harry Potter or The Magicians. It’s very much a murder mystery, but the setting is a high school for mages, whether they are called witches, wizards or magicians, or whether they are simply said to “be magic”.

Ivy Gamble is not magic – but her twin sister Tabitha is. And is a teacher at exclusive Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, where young magic users go through high school and learn how to manage their talents.

So when one of Tabitha’s fellow teachers dies in what seems to be a spectacular case of experimental magic gone very, very wrong, the school’s headmaster, Marian Torres, comes to Ivy to investigate. The official investigation has ruled the case as an accidental death, but Torres is not convinced.

She wants Ivy to look into it. After all, Ivy is a licensed private investigator, and more importantly, Ivy won’t have to be convinced that magic is real. She’s already well-aware of that fact. And still resents the way that magic took her sister away from her.

Ivy doesn’t want the job. She doesn’t want to become immersed in a world where she’ll always be an outsider. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the sister she still loves but also deeply resents and no longer speaks to.

But she can’t resist the opportunity – or the paycheck. In spite of just how many of her own ghosts she’ll have to deal with along the way. Or drink to oblivion.

None of Ivy’s assumptions and presumptions turn out to be remotely true. Her hopes and fears on the other hand – all too desperately real – if not worse than she ever imagined.

Escape Rating A+: I listened to this one, and this is one of the rare cases where the audio doesn’t merely tell the story, it actually makes it better. Better for something that is already damn good equals awesome.

Magic for Liars is told in the first person by Ivy, who is seriously a hot mess. Her story is very noir, her internal voice sounds like one of those cliched hard-boiled detectives. What the narrator manages to do is capture both the world-weariness of her voice and her internal wistfulness. Because Ivy needs to solve the case, but what she desperately wants is to belong. More even than that, she wants her sister back. And that’s what the narrator manages to capture in a way that is, honestly, magical.

The story itself is sad and fun in equal measures. On the one hand, we have high school. With all of its drama and melodrama. One of Ivy’s frequent observations is just how trivially the students use their incredible gift for magic. But they are high school students, and that’s what high school is for.

At the same time, as an outsider she is able to see the dark underbelly in all its seedy disgustingness. The need to “fit in”, even at the cost of self. The fear of exposure. And the constant bullying and manipulation, by teachers, by siblings, by enemies and especially by friends.

But the case eludes her – not because she doesn’t understand magic, but because she doesn’t want to face her own truths. When she finally does, it all becomes clear – and clearly, heartbreakingly awful.