Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1) by Arkady Martine, Amy Landon
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Teixcalaan #1
Pages: 464
Published by Tor on April 4, 2019
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This incredible opening to the trilogy recalls the best of John le Carré, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.

In a war of lies she seeks the truth...

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare travels to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s interstellar capital, eager to take up her new post. Yet when she arrives, she discovers her predecessor was murdered. But no one will admit his death wasn’t accidental – and she might be next. Now Mahit must navigate the capital’s enticing yet deadly halls of power, to discover dangerous truths. And while she hunts for the killer, Mahit must somehow prevent the rapacious Empire from annexing her home: a small, fiercely independent mining station.

As she sinks deeper into an alien culture that is all too seductive, Mahit engages in intrigues of her own. For she’s hiding an extraordinary technological secret, one which might destroy her station and its way of life. Or it might save them from annihilation.

A Memory Called Empire is book one in the Teixcalaan trilogy.

My Review:

There’s a great quote from Lois McMaster Bujold describing fictional genres as romances. Not in the HEA sense, but in a much broader sense. In her scenario, mysteries are romances of justice. And science fiction is the romance of political agency.

That’s certainly true in the case of A Memory Called Empire. Because this is a political story, first and foremost. But it also has elements of mystery – or at least a search for justice.

It’s also a story about sacrifice. This story begins with a sacrifice – and ends with a sacrifice – but not the same one. Although Ambassador Yskandr Aghavn gets sacrificed over and over and over – as does his successor – and they aren’t even aware of it until well into the story that he actually set in motion.

Yskandr is dead, to begin with. And he isn’t. Then he really is and then he really isn’t.

That made no sense, did it? But it does in the context of this story. Mahit Dzmare is the new Ambassador from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to the great, magnificent and ever hungry empire of Teixcalaan. Within her brain she carries an imago, a complete memory copy, of her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn, who she has come to Teixcalaan to replace – and to get to the bottom of why Yskandr needs replacing.

His body lies dead on a mortuary slab in Teixcalaan, but his memory, all his experiences and his encapsulated self, rest inside Mahit’s brain, supposedly available for her consultation, to aid her in her job. Except that seeing his own corpse shorts out the Yskandr in her head, leaving Mahit lost and very much alone to unravel the mess that Yskandr left her – if she can.

Before she joins him on another slab.

But in attempting to retrace Yskandr’s doomed steps, she discovers that all is not well at the heart of the Empire, and that Yskandr was in the middle of nearly, but not quite, everything that has gone wrong. And not just in Teixcalaan.

And that for Mahit to have even the ghost of a chance to fix the situation, her fractured self, her Station, and even the Empire, she’ll first have to make that mess bigger and deeper, hoping to live long enough to make it all turn it more-or-less right.

By making it a whole lot wronger first.

Escape Rating A+: This was an absolute wow from beginning to end, with an absolute gut punch at that end. I listened to this one, and got so involved in the listening that I played endless games of solitaire just to have something to occupy my hands while this marvelous story spun into my ears.

There’s so much wrapped up in here, and it keeps spinning and spinning long after the final page.

Teixcalaan is a fascinating place, and Mahit Dzmare has been fascinated by it for most of her life. Teixcalaan is the name of the city, and the world, and the empire they spawned. To be a citizen of Teixcalaan is to be civilized. Everyone else, including the residents of Lsel Station like Mahit, are considered barbarians.

It’s self-centered and self-absorbed and blinkered and othering – but Teixcalaan is the jewel at the heart of the world, and Mahit longs to be a part of it.

But Mahit, an outsider, is able to be enthralled by its art, its literature and its beauty while still being aware of the sickness that lies at its center. A sickness that is embodied by but not confined to its dying Emperor.

An Emperor without a named successor, who believes that he has found a way to live forever. Yskandr promised him an imago. And died for it.

In the bare week that Mahit is on Teixcalaan, she finds herself unwillingly at the heart of the conflict, seduced by this place that she has always yearned to be, and desperate to find a way to preserve her homeworld – whether she ever returns there or not.

Because as much as Teixcalaan reaches out to simultaneously embrace her and imprison both her and her Station, forces back home are equally determined to wipe out both Mahit and anything of Yskandr’s plots and plans that remain.

As an enemy bears down on them all.

Part of what makes this story trip along so marvelously is the way that it conveys just how little time Mahit has, and just how desperate her circumstances are. In barely a week she has to figure out what killed Yskandr, why her imago has malfunctioned, what was promised to the Emperor, who is angling for the throne, who is out to get her at home, who she can rely on in Teixcalaan, who she can trust on Lsel, and keep one step ahead of anyone who is out to get her. Which is nearly everyone.

Meanwhile, in very brief moments, she gets to explore the place that she has yearned for all her life – as it falls apart. She finds love and hope and fear and a friend who will be hers for life – if she survives.

And we feel for her and with her as she runs as fast as she can to save what she can – and we wish we could be half as brave and half as daring.

At the start I said this was a story about sacrifice. There are two sacrifices in this story playing against one another – one willing and one very much not. It made me think about what made the one so uplifting, and the other so mean and base.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one.” So said Spock with his dying breath in The Wrath of Khan. His sacrifice was moving and noble and heartbreaking because he willingly gave his life to save his shipmates. He walked into that chamber with eyes wide open and heart full, and it moved his shipmates, as well as many, many viewers, to tears.

So it is with the sacrifice that ends A Memory Called Empire. A man willingly walks into the fire to serve a higher purpose. And it inspires a people.

But Yskandr’s and Mahit’s sacrifice is a cheat. It is not noble, or inspiring. Because someone else decided, alone in the dark, to sacrifice them both for what that person perceived as “the Greater Good”, which turned out, of course, to be anything but.

At the last, Mahit willingly makes another sacrifice. She gives up a dream so that she can remain herself. And it hurts and we feel it, just as we have felt every break of her heart along the way.

At the end, Mahit goes home to Lsel. To uncover who and what was behind those dirty deeds in the dark that set much of this story in motion. I suspect that for Mahit the events of the second book in the series, A Desolation Called Peace will be very desolate indeed.

Review: Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

Review: Empress of Forever by Max GladstoneEmpress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 480
Published by Audible Audio, Tor Books on June 18, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Vivian Liao is prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she tries to outrun people who are trying to steal her success. In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, she sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, she is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine. The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider--until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride—a ravening horde of sentient machines—and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.

My Review:

Empress of Forever is an intergalactic space romp with a lot of interesting things to say – and a whole lot of fun to read.

Part of that fun is in the person of its heroine, Vivian Liao. In the story’s near-future opening, Vivian reads like a combination of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all rolled into one hard-driving steamroller of a ball. Vivian is a rich and successful tech genius who may be distant from her friends but puts her money where her mouth is when it comes to her political viewpoints.

She’s made a lot of enemies, showing up the forces of the status quo for the greedy scumbags that they are. As the story begins, Vivian is on the verge of her greatest triumph. But she knows that it’s all just part of the show, to set her up for her greatest fall.

Vivian has a plan. Vivian always has a plan. She plans to wipe herself out of all the all-seeing eyes and all-knowing databases that her companies have created – and start again. In a new place, under a new name, building a new fortune.

Until her desperate raid of a Boston super-server farm brings her to the attention of the Empress of a galaxy-spanning empire that Vivian had no idea was even out there. A crystal jade goddess who literally plucks Vivian’s heart out of her chest and extracts her from the world she knows.

Vivian wakes up inside a viscous bubble, trapped in a world that might be the future. Or might be parallel. But is certainly deadly – and she has no way out except through the Empress who grabbed her in the first place.

So Vivian Liao does what she always does – she goes forward. Even when she has no idea where that forward will lead. She’ll figure it out. She always does. No matter what it costs. Or already has.

Escape Rating A-: I had an absolute ball with this. This was one of those books that I picked up in audio and was extremely glad I did. The story is told from Vivian’s first-person perspective, so we’re inside her head the whole way. And what a wild way it is.

The reviews are comparing Empress of Forever to Guardians of the Galaxy – albeit with a feminist bent. I’m not sure that comparison does either work justice.

Vivian certainly does collect a “Scooby Gang” of her very own, and some of the gang are a bit – or in one case much, much more than a bit – outside the law. And there’s a lot of manic humor in both stories. But Guardians has way more light-heartedness at its core (at least in the first movie) than Empress ever does. The humor in Empress has much more of a gallows tinge to it.

After all, the fate of the universe is at stake – even if Vivian doesn’t know it at first.

Then again, there’s a whole lot that Vivian doesn’t know at first, at second, or sometimes even at all. She is very much a fish out of water in this story – and we’re right there with her. For most of the story, she’s not sure whether the universe she has been thrust into is the future of the world she knew – or exists parallel to it. Either is possible, and both are completely alien to her.

She finds herself at the head of her little gang of outlaws, rather like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, trying to find her way home. But this is not a dream – and home isn’t quite what she thought it was.

Vivian thinks she’s trying to find a way back, but what she really does is find her way to friendship, one misfit at a time – with herself the biggest misfit of them all. Along the way, she tours this strange new galaxy that she has been thrust into, discovering both wonders and terrors, and learning so many ways that things have gone wrong.The story of Vivian’s exploration is a tour de force of as many SF tropes as the author could squeeze into one madcap adventure. It worked for this reader, but you have to be of the persuasion that too much of a good thing is wonderful, and not every reader is.

Instead of Guardians of the Galaxy, the story that Empress of Forever reminds me of the most is the Doctor Who episode Turn Left. This is a story where we get to see what would happen if one character made one seemingly insignificant choice differently – and the universe goes to hell in a handbasket.

The Empress is searching for an alternative to her own future, because her present has creatures like the Reapers in the Mass Effect Universe eradicating every galactic civilization that reaches a certain level of technological achievement being absorbed by the rapacious aliens – and they’re coming for the Empress.

Vivian has met the enemy, and to paraphrase the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “we have met the enemy and she is us.” I figured this out relatively early on, but was happy to settle in for the wild ride. What made this story special is that the big reveal was not the ending – only a spur to Vivian to go onward to a conclusion that I did not expect.

Vivian has the possibility of success because she turned left. It’s not the technological solution that the Empress expected to find. Instead it’s the human solution that she rejected long, long ago.

Like the Joe Cocker song made famous by the Beatles, Vivian gets by with a little help from her friends, because she finally figures out that she needs somebody to love. That home is where the heart is, and that she has one after all.

Review: For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew JonesFor the Killing of Kings (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #1) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #1
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A cross between Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber and The Three Musketeers, For the Killing of Kings is the first in a new fantasy trilogy by Howard Andrew Jones.

Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.

But when squire Elenai's aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery, she's forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisers. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them - and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.

Howard Andrew Jones' powerful world-building brings this epic fantasy to life in this first book of his new adventure-filled trilogy.

My Review:

Fair warning – this is definitely going to be one of those mixed feelings reviews.

This is a story about betrayal. Over and over and over again. Every time our heroes think they have things figured out, yet another enemy crawls out of the woodwork and they are on the run, again, even when they aren’t quite sure who, or what, they are running from.

It makes for a fine story in true epic fantasy fashion, of the “out of the frying pan into the fire” tradition. Which definitely makes for page-turning adventure.

One of the interesting things about this story is that the heroes are never quite sure who their enemy is, or why their enemy is their enemy, or, and perhaps even more important for this series opener, just how long their enemy has been plotting in the background.

This is one of those stories where nothing is as it seems. And the fish has already long rotted from the head down. Discovering the rot drives the action, and drives it hard, from the tip of the iceberg beginning to the “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” ending.

That isn’t really an ending. The story continues. And does it ever need to!

Escape Rating B: This is one of the rare books that I listened to all the way through. I have the eARC, and I thought I would switch to it a few times, but I never actually did. For some reason, this one worked better for me in audio – in spite of some serious problems that I’ll get to in a minute.

In the end, I think that while I was enjoying the story more than enough to finish – I didn’t feel compelled to read faster. I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. (Also, I didn’t have anything set for my next listen that felt like it was calling my name.)

About the audio. On the one hand, it felt like the choice was made to use a female narrator in an attempt to make the squire Elenai the central character, so that this would read as a heroine’s journey. And Elenai is one of the central characters. But she is the only central character who is female, at least so far, and most of the point of view characters or prominent characters are male. One of whom, in particular, exhibits an awful lot of blatant “male gaze”. In the end, Elenai is a point of view but far from the only or predominant one.

The real problem with the audio is that the narrator mispronounces quite a bit. The most glaring mispronunciation was the substitution of “calvary” for “cavalry”. It jarred me every single time and was not the only one. The word “ebullience” was another. But the calvary/cavalry switch was just SO WRONG. While people do this all the time in real life, I expect better from a professional narrator. Epic fail.

Ironically, the story is not an epic fail, but it certainly is the start of an epic. There are a lot of epic fantasies that begin with an aging hero training the future hero. Eventually that aging hero is killed or incapacitated in the course of the story (Merlin, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan, etc., etc., etc.) It’s a fine tradition, but it gets turned on its head a bit in this particular epic.

The story here seems to be about the failing and falling of an entire generation of older heroes who either rested on their laurels or exiled themselves when their kingdom fell away from their ideals, leaving the training of the next generation to those who remained behind, the corrupt and the incompetent – but mostly the corrupt.

This turns out to be a story about finding the rot, cutting it out, and returning to the ideals that once kept their kingdom strong – even if the old guard doesn’t manage to live to see it.

So this first book in the series features two of that younger generation, one who has not finished training and has not yet been corrupted (Elenai) and one who thought that the new way was the right way, but has been redeemed before he got too far down that path (Rylen).

Their perspectives are quite different. Elenai was still in the hero-worshiping stage of her training, and it’s been eye-opening for her to discover that her heroes are flawed but still trying – and that she is now one of them. Rylen, on the other hand, began looking for glory, and in finding it has discovered that it is empty. And that honor and duty are what truly matters.

In the end, I enjoyed the story, but was left with the strong impression that it was a lesser version of the marvelous The Ruin of Kings. For the Killing of Kings, like The Ruin of Kings, isn’t just the title of the book. It’s the name of a sword – and a sword with an obviously very similar purpose and destiny at that. But The Ruin of Kings was such an awesome book that even a lesser version of it is well worth reading.

Another fair warning, For the Killing of Kings, while it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, it does end on a brief pause between battles. If you get caught up in this story, as I did, you’ll be on tenterhooks for the next book in the Ring-Sworn Trilogy, Upon the Flight of the Queen, due out in November 2019.

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora GossEuropean Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #2
Pages: 720
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.

My Review:

After absolutely raving about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I couldn’t resist picking up European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. I had so much fun with the first book that I couldn’t resist the second – and now I’m eagerly awaiting the third.

This story, and this series so far, is the story of all of the erased women in all of the classic monster and horror stories of the 19th century. It’s their voices that give this rollicking tale both its derring-do and its monstrous heart, and it’s marvelous from beginning to end.

As this story opens, Mary Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll’s daughter), Diana Hyde (Edward Hyde’s daughter), Catherine Moreau (Dr. Moreau’s daughter), Justine Frankenstein (Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter) and Beatrice Rappaccini (the Poisonous Girl) have banded together to form the Athena Club, which is both their home and their place of business.

And the heart of their quest to investigate the completely amoral Société des Alchemists, of which all of their fathers were members – if not necessarily in good standing. Under the auspices of the Société, their fathers experimented on all of them in one monstrous way or another. And they want the Société stopped.

So when Mary receives a letter from her former teacher and governess, Mina Harker (nee) Murray, the women of the Athena Club drop all their plans and race to Vienna. Why? Because Mina’s friend Lucinda van Helsing has gone missing, and Mina rightfully fears that Lucinda is being experimented upon by her father, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and that Lucinda needs to be rescued. And Dr. Van Helsing needs to be stopped.

Of course they are right on all counts. And, come to think of it, Counts. With the help of Irene Norton (nee) Adler in Vienna, the Athena Club races to save the day – and rescue their newfound sister.

No matter what it takes.

Escape Rating A+: This is another book where I started with the audio, and had an absolute blast. Part of what makes the audios for this series so much fun is the way that the story is told. Catherine Moreau is writing the story, but she is writing it in the presence of all of the other women, who cannot resist adding their bits to just about every line.

All of the women have very distinct personalities, and those personalities come through both in their words and in the voicing of the excellent narrator, Kate Reading. If you have the time to take this series in via audio, it is well worth the time.

But I don’t have that much patience. I reached a point, about halfway, where I just couldn’t stand it anymore and had to finish in the ebook. I needed to know what happened next (and next and next) so badly that I just couldn’t wait.

The story hook for this series is just awesome. All I have to do is say “Jekyll’s daughter and Hyde’s daughter and Moreau’s daughter and Frankenstein’s daughter” and whoever I’m talking to (read as squeeing about this series to) is instantly intrigued and wants to know more. It’s terribly monstrous and terribly wonderful and absolutely fantastic.

Part of what makes this series so much fun is the “who’s who” of 19th century horror. All of the men of the Société des Alchemists were the heroes of their respective novels, but to the Athena Club they are all the villains. And their fathers. And doesn’t that make for a fascinating brew of love and guilt and horror and ultimately, adventure?

Every woman in this story – except Irene Norton – has daddy issues. And so they all should, because their daddies literally turned them into monsters. It’s the way that they cope with their monstrousness and rise above the restrictions placed on females that makes this series so very delicious.

About Irene, she’s the perfect “mentor” figure for this series. If her name sounded familiar, it should. Irene Norton, nee Irene Adler, was THE woman in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the only woman ever to get the better of him. Holmes is out of the action in this one – appropriately so – and it is time for a woman to take up the reins. Irene is perfect for this role because unlike Holmes, Irene is used to working from the shadows. The members of the Athena Club do not need someone to protect them, a role that Holmes and Watson constantly try to assume. Irene enables them and lets them do their work.

And she’s a marvelous character in her own right, in multiple senses of that phrase.

By the end of European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, the Athena Club has acquired more members – and more allies. Just in time to rescue Sherlock Holmes from Moriarty in their next adventure, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. I can’t wait.

Review: The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Review: The Sentence is Death by Anthony HorowitzThe Sentence is Death (Hawthorne, #2) by Anthony Horowitz, Rory Kinnear
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Hawthorne #2
Pages: 384
Published by HarperAudio on May 28, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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8 hours, 36 minutes

Death, deception, and a detective with quite a lot to hide stalk the pages of Anthony Horowitz’s brilliant murder mystery, the second in the bestselling series starring Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne.

“You shouldn’t be here. It’s too late . . . “

These, heard over the phone, were the last recorded words of successful celebrity-divorce lawyer Richard Pryce, found bludgeoned to death in his bachelor pad with a bottle of wine—a 1982 Chateau Lafite worth £3,000, to be precise.

Odd, considering he didn’t drink. Why this bottle? And why those words? And why was a three-digit number painted on the wall by the killer? And, most importantly, which of the man’s many, many enemies did the deed?

Baffled, the police are forced to bring in Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, the author Anthony, who’s really getting rather good at this murder investigation business.

But as Hawthorne takes on the case with characteristic relish, it becomes clear that he, too, has secrets to hide. As our reluctant narrator becomes ever more embroiled in the case, he realizes that these secrets must be exposed—even at the risk of death . . .

My Review:

This series doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as hammer it down to the ground with a police truncheon – and extreme prejudice.

The Sentence is Death begins much the same way that The Word is Murder kicked off the series – with an unexplained death and ex-cop turned police consultant Daniel Hawthorne interrupting our author/his Watson in the midst of an important real-life event.

Anthony Horowitz was late to the set on the first day of shooting season 7 of Foyle’s War. Whether the day went exactly as outlined in The Sentence is Death, both the series and the episode are as portrayed in this book. You can still hear the echoes of the fourth wall shattering from here.

Horowitz, more explicitly Watson to Hawthorne’s not just misanthropic but often downright sociopathic Holmes, finds himself dragged into yet another one of Hawthorne’s strangely compelling cases. A case that has already cost at least one man his life, and might very well cost the author his career – if he’s not careful.

The problem for the author is that while he’s never sure that he actually likes Hawthorne – and it’s impossible to blame him for that judgment – the man only comes to “Tony” when he has a truly puzzling case to solve – over and above the fascinating case of Hawthorne himself.

“Tony” can’t resist getting dragged along in Hawthorne’s wake yet again. No matter how much he knows that he should.

Escape Rating A-: This was a rare case where I stayed with the audiobook all the way through. Not that I wasn’t impatient to see how it ended, but the audiobook was just SO GOOD. The narrator, Rory Kinnear, does an excellent job of voicing all the characters and differentiating them all. Each character in the story was very distinct in accent, in tone and in their manner of speaking.

And it’s also short enough of an audiobook that I didn’t have to play too much Solitaire to finish it in less than a week. (Which reminds me, the book is 384 pages, but there is a lot of white space and relatively big printing on those pages. It’s a breeze to read or listen to.)

The series in general, and this entry in particular, feels like a combination of whodunnit, whydunnit and Sherlock Holmes homage. The references to this being a Holmes homage, with Hawthorne as Holmes and Horowitz as Watson, are particularly explicit in this story, to the point where “Tony” (he hates it when Hawthorne calls him that and it differentiates the character IN the book from the writer OF the book – at least a little) tells Hawthorne just how much he dislikes being his Watson. Particularly since, just like the popular image of Watson, he never seems to figure out whodunnit ahead of his Sherlock.

Hawthorne is an extremely annoying character, and “Tony” is generally pretty annoyed at him. Hawthorne is always a disruption to his life – and it seems like working with Hawthorne puts “Tony” in danger of losing either his career or his life at every turn.

One of the mind-twisty parts of this story, in addition to the murder itself, is just how much of a nebbish the character of “Tony” turns out to be. There’s always a bit of a disjunct in my mind, as my mental image of the author bears a sharp resemblance to Michael Kitchen’s portrayal of Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War. Not that I have any personal knowledge, but Foyle’s War was my first serious exposure to the author and I recognize I’ve conflated him with the character he created. It’s not about how either of them looks, it’s that Foyle is both thoughtful and decisive, and it’s jarring to see “Tony” as a bit of a milquetoast. Hawthorne pushes him around – a LOT – and so do the police detectives assigned to the case.

But that case is intricate and absorbing and convoluted. The resolution is completely unexpected, not just by “Tony” but by the reader as well. At the same time, it thoroughly follows the conventions of the mystery genre, so that once you do know whodunnit, you can see that all the clues have been there all along – just like they are supposed to be – and that the solution was obvious IF you made the correct connections. As Hawthorne certainly did.

In the end, all is made tragically clear. But “Tony” is tired of playing Hawthorne’s bumbling Watson. He wants out. He wants to go back to Foyle’s War and his next “real” Sherlock Holmes book, Moriarty.

But we just know that he’ll be swept into Hawthorne’s orbit yet again, as soon as there’s another case worth writing about. And we’ll be sucked back in right along with him!

Review: The Women’s War by Jenna Glass

Review: The Women’s War by Jenna GlassThe Women's War (Women's War, #1) by Jenna Glass
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Women's War #1
Pages: 560
Published by Del Rey Books on March 5, 2019
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In a high fantasy feminist epic, a revolutionary spell gives women the ability to control their own fertility—with consequences that rock their patriarchal society to its core.

When a nobleman’s first duty is to produce a male heir, women are treated like possessions and bargaining chips. But as the aftereffects of a world-altering spell ripple out physically and culturally, women at last have a bargaining chip of their own. And two women in particular find themselves at the crossroads of change.

Alys is the widowed mother of two teenage children, and the disinherited daughter of a king. Her existence has been carefully proscribed, but now she discovers a fierce talent not only for politics but also for magic—once deemed solely the domain of men. Meanwhile, in a neighboring kingdom, young Ellin finds herself unexpectedly on the throne after the sudden death of her grandfather the king and everyone else who stood ahead of her in the line of succession. Conventional wisdom holds that she will marry quickly, then quietly surrender the throne to her new husband…. Only, Ellin has other ideas.

The tensions building in the two kingdoms grow abruptly worse when a caravan of exiled women and their escort of disgraced soldiers stumbles upon a new source of magic in what was once uninhabitable desert. This new and revolutionary magic—which only women can wield—threatens to tear down what is left of the patriarchy. And the men who currently hold power will do anything to fight back.

My Review:

There are books that become touchstones, not just in our reading lives, but in our real ones as well. The first explicitly feminist fantasy/science fiction book that I read was The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper, over 30 years ago. And I still remember just how shook I was by the ending.

But because that book is such a touchstone for me, my first impression of The Women’s War was just how much it reminded me of The Gate to Women’s Country. (Whether the older book wears well I have no idea – and no desire to find out. It meant what it meant to me at the time, and what I think now is about how it made me feel and what it made me think back then. I’m aware that time has (hopefully) moved on but that books are static, and I’ll leave it at that.)

At the same time, it also reminds me of the much more recent The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons, in that very little of what appears on the surface has more than a passing resemblance to what is going on underneath and behind the scenes. And that the best laid plans of mice, men and women go all too oft astray.

The Women’s War, both the book and the war that eventually engenders within the book, begin with hope – and death. Three women band together to create a spell that they hope in its aftermath will give the women of their world more agency than they currently have – which is none.

They are all willing to pay the ultimate price – they will all die in the hope that they give their sisters – in one case her actual, literal sister – a chance at a better life. Eventually. They know the price between now and then will be bloody – beginning with their own.

In a world where women have no voice, no agency, and no purposes except to either breed heirs or be sex slaves, the far reaching spell cast by three disgraced priestesses gives ALL the women in the world two powers. The first causes the most immediate damage. From that moment forward, a woman can only become pregnant if SHE truly wants the child.

A lot of women have miscarriages that night, as their children were conceived in either duty or rape. A lot of men are beyond furious at having lost “their” rightful heirs. A lot of women are also heartbroken – but their feelings have never counted in this world. Which is the point of the whole story, after all.

And those men all know who to blame. But the women they want to punish are dead and out of their reach. But every other woman can be punished in their place. Which gives rise to the second power. Women who are raped or otherwise abused acquire the ability to cast death spells, spells that used to be the province of men and only men.

The world is going to change, whether the men who make up the patriarchy like it or not.

One woman is the focus of that change, the adult daughter of one of those disgraced priestesses. Alys may have had nothing to do with her mother’s spell, but her vile and jealous half-brother does not care. Indeed, has never cared about anyone or anything besides himself.

As the newly crowned king, he can punish anyone he wants, in any way he wants. He’s just certain that if he beats enough women badly enough, and tortures and kills enough women to make him feel like he is in control of the situation – someone will fix it.

Unless someone fixes him.

Escape Rating A: Unlike most epic fantasy, this first book in the Women’s War series does not end in a happy or triumphant place. It’s more of a “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of a place. But it seems fitting for what feels like just the opening salvo in a very long and extremely dirty war.

The situation at the beginning of this one is dire, not just for our protagonists, but for every woman in every country in this world. The situation is so bleak that the reader completely understands why those women would give their lives in the hope that someday the situation might be better – even though they will not live to see it.

Which does not mean that one of them at least cannot envision the death and destruction that will inevitably occur in their wake.

This is still June, which means this is still Audiobook Month. The Women’s War is another book where I started in audio but finished in ebook. (Let’s just say that I did not hang around in the line when they were passing out patience.) But as much as I couldn’t wait to discover how this story ended, listening to the two female protagonists as they cope with – and sometimes don’t – all of the forces that are arrayed against them, gave their situations a sense of immediacy, and gave me as the reader a strong feeling of empathy.

Both their situations are dreadful, the plight of women in their world is dire, and it makes for a rough read. As readers we feel for them, want things to get better for them, but know all too well that whatever better world may be coming, it’s not there yet, it may never be there for either of them, and that their journeys through their own personal Mordors is going to be damn awful.

Speaking of damn awful, the villain of this piece goes well beyond embodying that term. He comes extremely close to being too far over the top. If he falls over that top without a bit more depth of explanation or personality, the series may reach villain-fail, but it hasn’t yet.

The Women’s War is intended as an explicitly feminist read, an eventual overthrow of the patriarchies that so often dominate epic fantasy. Some readers will question, and rightfully so, why in this story where women’s voices are predominate and particularly in some of the circumstances into which women have been forced, there are no queer women anywhere in the narrative. Just because men saw women’s only purposes as either sex slaves or brood mares does not mean that there wouldn’t be some women who turned to other women for comfort or who desired women exclusively whether any men knew or saw or cared – or most likely did not. In fact, in many of the scenarios described, I would expect to see such women, and there are none. Hopefully this will be addressed, because it’s just not logical at present.

In the end, I have to say that I loved this book. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two protagonists, the young Ellin who is expected to be Queen Figurehead of her country but who plans to be Queen Regnant, and middle-aged Alys, old enough to see just how wrong things are and just how hard it will be to change them – but tries anyway.

I can’t wait to read about the next battles in the Women’s War. I hope to see them both emerge triumphant!

Review: Finder by Suzanne Palmer

Review: Finder by Suzanne PalmerFinder by Suzanne Palmer
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 391
Published by DAW Books on April 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From Hugo Award-winning debut author Suzanne Palmer comes an action-packed sci-fi caper starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder

Fergus Ferguson has been called a lot of names: thief, con artist, repo man. He prefers the term finder.

His latest job should be simple. Find the spacecraft Venetia's Sword and steal it back from Arum Gilger, ex-nobleman turned power-hungry trade boss. He'll slip in, decode the ship's compromised AI security, and get out of town, Sword in hand.

Fergus locates both Gilger and the ship in the farthest corner of human-inhabited space, a gas-giant-harvesting colony called Cernee. But Fergus' arrival at the colony is anything but simple. A cable car explosion launches Cernee into civil war, and Fergus must ally with Gilger's enemies to navigate a field of space mines and a small army of hostile mercenaries. What was supposed to be a routine job evolves into negotiating a power struggle between factions. Even worse, Fergus has become increasingly--and inconveniently--invested in the lives of the locals.

It doesn't help that a dangerous alien species thought mythical prove unsettlingly real, and their ominous triangle ships keep following Fergus around.

Foolhardy. Eccentric. Reckless. Whatever he's called, Fergus will need all the help he can get to take back the Sword and maybe save Cernee from destruction in the process.

My Review:

June is Audiobook Month, and Finder is one of those books that I picked up in audio and couldn’t wait to get into it. It’s one of those wild ride, thrill-a-minute stories that kept me sitting in my car in all sorts of places, just so I could hear just a bit more of whatever it was that Fergus managed to get himself into this time. Every time.

In the end I finished up with the book-book, or rather the ebook, because I just couldn’t start anything else until I discovered if/how Fergus finally managed to get himself out of both frying pan AND fire – and complete his self-imposed mission – without racking up too much more collateral damage along the way.

This is also a fantastic space opera, but not of the conquering star empires variety, which is cool and neat and different.

Fergus is the finder of the title. He’s kind of a repo man, but not exactly. He doesn’t repossess something because someone has missed a payment or ten. He finds things, big expensive things, that have been stolen and returns them to their rightful owners.

He’s at the ass-end of human-inhabited space, a collection of small-to-middling sized habitats strung out on power cables, named Cernee. The big thing he’s come to collect is a ship. Arum Gilger stole it from the shipbuilders, using an equally stolen ID, and the shipbuilders want it back. And it turns out that the locals are generally happy to help Fergus – up to a point – because they don’t like Gilger having that ship.

Fergus thinks the job is going to be easy. Get in, find the ship, steal the ship, fly it home to the Pluto shipyards, collect his pay. Get another job. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Instead, Fergus gets caught in the middle of a civil war. Arum Gilger wants to take over Cernee, and pretty much everyone and everything stands in his way. (Hence the reason that the locals are willing to help Fergus steal back the ship and get it the hell out of their space.) Especially the family Vahn, living on a remote habitat called “The Wheels”. It shouldn’t be Fergus’ business, but Gilger fires the opening salvo in his little war at the cable car that Fergus is sharing with “Mother” Vahn, and Fergus’ job has suddenly become personal.

Being nearly killed just for being in the same cable car as a seemingly inoffensive old lady is plenty of reason to get scared, to get angry, and to get to the bottom of everything that’s wrong in Cernee.

At least until everything that’s wrong in Cernee, including the mysterious alien ships that watch, and wait, and scare everyone three-quarters to death, decide that Fergus is their “true North” and all their ships start pointing towards him – wherever he goes, whatever he does – all the time.

Fergus may be the Finder, but something much bigger and much, much scarier has suddenly found him.

Escape Rating A-: First of all, this is one of those stories that naturally lends itself to audio. The story is told in Fergus’ first-person perspective, so hearing it in his voice from inside his head works well. The narrator does an excellent job of capturing Fergus’ world-weary (maybe that should be universe-weary), slightly deadpan voice. Fergus isn’t someone who gets really excited – because he’s been there and done that and is much too busy running away from the things that reach deeply into his emotions.

This doesn’t mean that the people around Fergus don’t get plenty excited, because the adventures that Fergus drags them into are generally frightening to the point of being downright life-threatening. Following Fergus is like being on one of those amusement park rides that barrels toward the edge of its track, to the point where you think the car is going to stop and you’re going to be thrown out of it, only to sharply turn – extremely sharply and very suddenly – and throw you against the sides as it madly careens towards the next near-disaster. (This ride in my childhood amusement park was the Wild Mouse, but yours undoubtedly had one too. They all did!)

Finder is very much one of those “out of the frying pan into the fire” stories. Fergus seems to be both a trouble and chaos magnet. They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy. It seems like no plan survives contact with Fergus, not even Fergus’ own plans. And yet, they generally manage to work in the end – for select definitons of “generally”, “work” and especially “end”. Either he has the devil’s own luck, as they say, or Cernee is connected to the Discworld, where “million-to-one” shots always come in.

There’s something about the way this story works, or perhaps in Fergus’ universe-weary voice, that reminds me of John Scalzi’s space operas. Especially The Android’s Dream, but generally the Old Man’s War universe. Fergus and John Perry would have plenty to talk about. That there’s a brief part of Finder that echoes Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is totally fitting, considering the number of reviews that label Old Man’s War as Heinleinesque.

I digress just a bit, but not completely, as I think that Scalzi’s readers will also like Finder – very much. This one certainly did!

Review: Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker

Review: Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom BakerDoctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by BBC Books on January 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

What are you afraid of?

In his first-ever Doctor Who novel, Tom Baker’s incredible imagination is given free rein. A story so epic it was originally intended for the big screen, Scratchman is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller almost forty years in the making.

The Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane Smith arrive at a remote Scottish island, when their holiday is cut short by the appearance of strange creatures – hideous scarecrows, who are preying on the local population. The islanders are living in fear, and the Doctor vows to save them all. But it doesn’t go to plan – the time travellers have fallen into a trap, and Scratchman is coming for them.

With the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, the Doctor must battle an ancient force from another dimension, one who claims to be the Devil. Scratchman wants to know what the Doctor is most afraid of. And the Doctor’s worst nightmares are coming out to play…

My Review:

They say that you never forget your first Doctor. The Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, was mine. The first episode I saw was The Talons of Weng Chiang. It was the late 1980s and Doctor Who was broadcast on WTTW in Chicago at 11 pm every Sunday night. It says a whole lot about a whole lot of things that my hour or so with the Doctor every weekend was often the high point of my week.

Listening to Tom Baker read his own Doctor Who novel was like stepping back into my very own TARDIS, and taking a trip back in time and space to those long ago nights – when both of us were a LOT younger. I heard his voice now, but the picture in my head was of my Doctor, then.

And it made for a marvelous adventure.

The Fourth Doctor with Harry and Sarah Jane

The adventure itself feels like, or that should be sounds like, pretty much exactly like, one of the stories from the Fourth Doctor’s early years, when his companions were journalist Sarah Jane Smith and Surgeon-Lieutenant Harry Sullivan from UNIT.

The Doctor, along with Sarah Jane and Harry, find themselves on a relatively remote island off the English coast, having been taken there by the Doctor’s somewhat wacky TARDIS. They take advantage of the lovely day but find themselves ambushed by scarecrows of all things. Scarecrows that have taken the places of nearly all the villagers in this little town. By the time the Doctor figures out what has happened to the villagers and what the menacing scarecrows are all about, both he and Harry have been infected by the scarecrow virus.

It then becomes a race against time to find some way of eliminating the scarecrows and saving the remaining villagers – and themselves – before time runs out. And they fail. Only to find themselves in the adventure behind the adventure that was there all along.

What made this adventure particularly suited to an audiobook read by the Doctor is that the readers are not observing this adventure at third-hand. Instead, the Doctor is on trial – yes, again – in front of the assembled Time Lords who, as usual, are not at ALL amused by his recent behavior. Or his previous behavior (or even his future behavior).

So the story is the Doctor’s testimony, as he is telling the Time Lords what happened, what he did, and why he did it. In the audio, as he tells it to them – along with forays into his thoughts about the proceedings, the interruptions to the proceedings and the jeering from his Time Lord audience – we’re in his head, hearing him tell the story to them – and to us.

Let’s just say that in this instance the first person voice really, really works. The Doctor, MY Doctor, told me a fantastic story of one of his adventures.

And I loved every single minute of it.

Escape Rating A+: This is the point where I simply squee in delight.  I had a ball, to the point where I laughed out loud on multiple occasions, often while on a treadmill in the midst of other people who must have thought I was a loon.

But then, a lot of Time Lords firmly believe that the Doctor, particularly in this incarnation, was a loon. That he often behaved like one may have added a bit to that belief. More than a bit.

This story reads, or particularly listens, like one of the best of the Fourth Doctor’s madcap (with serious bits) adventures. If you enjoyed “Classic” Who, you’ll love this too. (I fully recognize that I am giving this an A+ because I loved every single second of it. I’m well aware that this is a book, and an experience, that won’t work nearly as well for someone who is not a fan.)

At the same time, the story also feels like Tom Baker’s love letter to the character he played so long and so well, two of his companions, particularly one of his obvious favorites, Sarah Jane Smith, as well as to the arc of the character and the series as a whole.

There are loving (and accurate) references to not only his three predecessors in the role, but also to the future, including a particularly heartfelt interchange with Thirteen. There’s also a sequence in the TARDIS where Sarah Jane Smith sees the arc of her whole life in pictures. The pictures she described were instantly recognizable as scenes not only from previous events in her life, but as future events, including scenes from her later appearances in the show in the episode School Reunion and her own Sarah Jane Adventures.

I’m not ashamed to say that those scenes made me tear up a bit, as did Sarah Jane’s letter to the Doctor in the postscript.

The adventure of Scratchman both travels well-worn and well-loved paths with the Doctor, and goes to places that the reader/listener does not expect. And it’s a lovely trip though a very personal time machine every step of the way.

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: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Imager (Imager Portfolio, #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr., William Dufris
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Imager Portfolio #1
Pages: 432
Published by Tantor Media on April 13, 2009
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Although Rhennthyl is the son of a leading wool merchant in L'Excelsis, the capital of Solidar, the most powerful nation on Terahnar, he has spent years becoming a journeyman artist and is skilled and diligent enough to be considered for the status of master artisan—in another two years. Then, in a single moment, his entire life is transformed when his master patron is killed in a flash fire, and Rhenn discovers he is an imager—one of the few in the entire world of Terahnar who can visualize things and make them real.

Rhenn is forced to leave his family and join the Collegium of Imagisle. Because of their abilities (they can do accidental magic even while asleep) and because they are both feared and vulnerable, imagers must live separately from the rest of society. In this new life, Rhenn discovers that all too many of the "truths" he knew were nothing of the sort. Every day brings a new threat to his life. He makes a powerful enemy while righting a wrong, and he begins to learn to do magic in secret. Imager is the innovative and enchanting opening of an involving new fantasy story.

My Review:

This was a re-read for me. I first read Imager when it originally came out in 2009 because the cataloger in the next office was cataloging it and said it looked good. He was right. In fact, he was so right that I continued to read the series over the next decade. I finished the current final book in the series, Endgames, last month, and just couldn’t let this world go.

I hope I don’t have to, but the jury is still out on that.

The Imager Portfolio was written in a different order than the events take place in the created world of Terahnar. In the internal chronology, Scholar is first and Imager’s Intrigue is last. As the stories were written, Imager is first and Endgames is last. The internal chronology has the events of the, let’s call it the Quaeryt Quintet, first, the Alastar/Charyn Quartet second and the Rhenn Trilogy third – even though Rhenn’s story was the first one written.

I found myself really curious to see if the circle closed, if the events that occurred in Quaeryt’s, Alastar’s and Charyn’s stories actually led to the situation that Rhenn finds himself in at the beginning of Imager.

Also I remembered the original trilogy as a damn good story, and wondered if that would be true on a re-read. Actually a re-listen, as this time I got the unabridged audio.

There are themes that occur in all three of the subseries. I remembered Rhenn as a young man who had already planned his life, and was executing that plan, when fate intervened and he discovered that he had imaging talent.

I’ve invoked Rhenn’s memory often over the years, because his story is an interesting variation on the coming-of-age theme that so often permeates epic fantasy. Neither Rhenn, nor the author’s other heroes in this series, come of age during their stories. They are already adults, albeit generally in their 20s.

Instead, these are coming-into-power stories, where the protagonists have to adjust life plans that they have not only already made but have already begun working towards. They find themselves in unanticipated situations and things go sideways. They have to adjust and change to survive.

Or they won’t.

Within the opening chapters of Imager, I was both pleased to learn that the earlier history of Terahnar, and the country of Solidar, was anticipated from the beginning. Rhenn tours the Council Chateau with his father, and sees portraits of both Rex Regis, the man who becomes Rex in the Quaeryt Quintet, and Rex Defou, the Rex who is overthrown in Madness in Solidar. He also eyes a bust of Rex Charyn, the last Rex, whose exploits are completed in Endgames.

I’ll admit this worries me a lot about the possibility for further crises in the history of this place to be explored. Because the circle does seem to close and the loose ends do seem to get wrapped up.

I can still hope.

On re-listening to the story, I discovered that while I had lost most of the details of the story over the years, the outline was still clear. And still wonderful to read – or have read to me.

While at times Rhenn feels a bit too good to be true, he is also an intelligent and likeable hero. We do see more of his early years than I remembered, but the story really kicks into high gear when Rhenn is in his mid-20s, at the point where he is forced to give up his dreams of becoming a master portraturist and crosses the Bridge of Hopes to Imagisle.

From there, the story is off to the races, almost surprisingly so for a story that goes into a great deal of detail about Rhenn’s training as an imager. If you enjoy books that cover intensive training periods, this one is a treat.

Because Rhenn is not just learning to become an imager, he’s learning to become a spy and assassin and whatever else the College of Imagers needs him to become to keep the College, and the country of Solidar that defends it and that it defends, safe.

If he can manage to survive all the assassination attempts on his own life, that is.

Escape Rating A: This was as good as I remembered it. The story spends a bit more time than I recalled on Rhenn’s early years as a journeyman portraturist, which are necessary but not nearly as interesting (or potentially deadly) as his life rising through the imager ranks while trying not to end up dead.

One of the themes that has carried forward through the entire series is just how important the female characters are to the survival and success of the male protagonist. Seliora, like the life-partners of the heroes of the other stories, is Rhenn’s equal – and he recognizes that.

On the flip side, one of the things that grates more than I remembered is the negative attitude that Rhenn’s mother in particular displays towards everyone of Pharsi origin, like Seliora. Her constant stream of prejudice wears on the reader’s ears every bit as much as it does Rhenn’s.

Scholar by L. E. Modesitt Jr.As much as I wanted to slap his mother silly, it’s Rhenn’s story that I came to see. Or rather hear. It does feel like it fits in its proper place in this history, and follows very well after finishing Endgames.

Anyone who loves epic fantasy and has not indulged in the Imager Portfolio could happily start here, as I did in 2009. Scholar would make an equally fine start, at the beginning of the internal history.

Wherever you begin, there’s a LOT to love in this series, If you have not yet begun, I envy you the journey.