Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear by Nicola GriffithSpear by Nicola Griffith
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Arthurian legends, historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 192
Length: 5 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on April 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.
And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

My Review:

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table are myths that we seem to absorb by osmosis, as the stories are told and retold – and have been for centuries. King Arthur is one of those legends that seems to reinvent itself for each new generation, and Spear, with its heroine Peredur, is a fine addition to that long and proud tradition.

As this story opens, Peredur doesn’t even know her own name. She is growing up in complete isolation, with only her mother for company, in a remote valley in Wales. Her mother has two names for the girl, one meaning gift which she uses on good days, while on bad days, she calls her “payment”. Whichever the girl might be, her mother tells her stories of the Tuath Dé, their great treasures and their terrible use of the humans they see as beneath them. Humans like her powerful but broken mother, who has isolated herself and her child out of fear that the Tuath, or at least one of them, will hunt her down in order to take back what she stole from him.

Peredur, like all children, grows up. She finds the valley small and her mother’s paranoia, however righteous, constricting. And she wants to fight. So she leaves the valley and her mother behind and goes out in search of the King and his companions – who she saved once when they wandered into her mother’s secluded valley and found themselves facing more bandits than they planned.

Peredur is searching for a place to belong and a cause to serve. But she has had dreams all of her life of a magical mystical lake and a woman who lives by its side. This is the story of her quest to learn who she really is, what is the true nature of her power, and to find a place where she can belong and can bring her skills to fight on the side of right. To make something, not just of herself but of the place to which she joins herself.

In the court of Arturus at Caer Lyon, Peredur finds a place she wants to call her own. And a king who is reluctant to let her claim it.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. The language is beautiful, and the reading of it by the author gave it just the right air of mystery and myth. It felt like a tale of another world, as all the best variations on the Arthurian legends do in one way or another.

From one perspective, Spear stands on the shoulders of many giants, previous retellings of the “Matter of Britain”, from Monmouth to Mallory to T.H. White to Mary Stewart. In particular, it reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (beginning with The Crystal Cave), not for its focus on Merlin but for its attempt to set the story in a more likely historical period, in both cases sometime in the 5th Century AD, after the Romans abandoned Britain and left a vacuum of power which Arthur did his best to fill.

By setting the story in 5th Century Wales, the author is also able to loop in the stories of the Tuath Dé, or Tuatha Dé Danann, and weave one set of legends with the other, to give Peredur both her origin and the source of her power. That she was then able to link the whole thing back to Arthur through his mad quest for the Holy Grail made for a delightful twist in the story – albeit one with an ultimately sad ending. (If the Tuath Dé sound familiar, it may be from The Iron Druid Chronicles where they play an important part even to the present.)

But Spear is an interpretation for the 21st century, in that Peredur, better known as Percival in many versions of the Arthurian Tales, is a woman who has wants to fight like a man and has chosen to present herself as a man because she lives in an era when women do not become knights, much like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.

This is also a queer interpretation of the Arthur tales, not just because Peredur is lesbian, but because she moves through a world where same-sex relationships and poly-relationships are simply part of the way things are. That includes Peredur’s love of the sorceress Nimüe, but also changes the eternal triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot into a quietly acknowledged triad as a normal part of the way things are. Just as quietly acknowledged that the Lance of this Arthurian legend was born with one leg malformed. He’s still a capable fighter, and a veritable centaur on horseback. The world and its heroes are not now, nor have they ever been, made up entirely of straight, 100% able-bodied, white men, and this story acknowledges that heroes are everywhere, everywhen and everyone. As they, and we, have always been.

Spear turned out to be a lovely, lyrical, magical extension of the Arthurian legends that borrows rightfully and righteously, as all Arthurian tales do, from what has come before, from what fantasy writers have added to the period and the interpretation, from the time in which it is set, the time in which it is written, and the author’s magical stirring of that pot into a heady brew.

One of these days I need to pick up the author’s Hild, because it sounds like it will be just as fantastic (in both senses of that word) as Spear turned out to be.

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel AbrahamAge of Ash (Kithamar, #1) by Daniel Abraham
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Kithamar #1
Pages: 448
Length: 14 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Orbit on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From
New York Times
bestselling and critically acclaimed author Daniel Abraham, co-author of
The Expanse
, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all.
“An atmospheric and fascinating tapestry, woven with skill and patience.” –Joe Abercrombie, New York Times bestselling author of A Little Hatred
Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.
This is Alys's.
When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives. 
Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.
For more from Daniel Abraham, check out: The Dagger and the CoinThe Dragon's PathThe King's BloodThe Tyrant's LawThe Widow's HouseThe Spider's War

My Review:

There’s a secret at the heart of the city of Kithamar, but I’m not sure that we’ve plumbed the depths of it by the end of the first book in this projected trilogy. We’ve seen it as if through that glass very darkly indeed. I imagine that we won’t get the view face-to-face until much nearer the end.

So what do we have here?

Age of Ash is, at its own heart, a whole lot of setup and worldbuilding, in a world that really, really needs it in order for the reader to see where they are and why it matters. That setup, that story is told from the perspectives of two (very) young women at the bottom of this city-state-world’s economic ladder.

Alys and Sammish are descendants of Kithamar’s indigenous population, the Inlisc. Like most Inlisc they live in the downtrodden community-not-quite-ghetto of Longhill. They are both what the city calls “street-rats”, a term that is applied to all Longhill residents, but particularly to those who are so close to the bottom of the ladder – not that anyone Inlisc or anyone in Longhill is anywhere near the top – that they are one bad break or poor choice or unprofitable “pull” from sleeping on the streets.

(A “pull” in Longhill parlance is a theft or a cheat or a con game. Everyone does it in one fashion or another, if only to get one-up on their friends or get enough coin to spend a night out of the weather.)

But someone in the rich quarters, in the palace of the Prince of the City, has committed what looks like the biggest pull of them all. They’ve managed to steal the city from the direct line of royalty by putting a “cuckoo” in the royal nest.

The forces that are arrayed to steal the city back are deeper, darker and much more dangerous than anyone imagines. The doings of the power-that-be or would-be should be far above the tiny influence of people like Alys and Sammish.

But these two young women find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy larger, deadlier and with more far-reaching consequences than either of them ever imagined.

Neither they nor their city will ever be the same. No matter how much the city itself tries to maintain the status quo that keeps it in power.

Escape Rating B: Oh do I have mixed feelings about this one, but let me get this out of the way first. I listened to the audiobook of Age of Ash, and the narrator did an excellent job with the material. But, but, but I had some serious issues with the material. This turned out to be one of those books where I was content enough to continue the audio because the reader was terrific but had absolutely ZERO compulsion to switch to the ebook because I just wasn’t compelled to finish the story any faster. The couple of times I tried to switch to the text it kind of turned me off so I went back to the audio.

One of the things that bothered me about the story, and I think it’s something that has been growing on me as an issue, is that it seems as if when a male author writes a heroine’s journey the heroine – or in this case heroines plural – is just way more angsty and suffers considerably more, well, angst, but also grief and are just generally more downtrodden than a hero would be going through the exact same circumstances. This was also true in both Engines of Empire and The Starless Crown. Don’t get me wrong, i’s great to see more female-centric stories, but male writers just seem to give their heroines more baggage than is necessary, and it’s baggage that comes from our world’s issues with female centric-stories that are not romances, and not baggage that is inherent in the created world.

There were entirely too many points where it seemed as if the two women were in a race to see which of them would win the TSTL (that’s Too Stupid To Live), award and get themselves killed. I was both amazed and pleased to see them finally get themselves out of that spiral, but it made for some rough reading.

I’m contrasting all of this with T. Kingfisher’s female-centric stories (A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Nettle & Bone and pretty much all the women in the Saint of Steel series but especially Bishop Beartongue), because her heroines just GET ON WITH IT, whatever it is. They don’t have the time or inclination to angst about their personal issues and they don’t have to start their stories completely downtrodden. They have a problem and they set about solving it. Like male heroes do. Like women do in real life.

The above is all my 2 cents pitched from the top of a very tall soapbox. But it tasks me. It seriously tasks me.

<Give me a second, I need to summon a stepstool to get down off this box.>

Back to Age of Ash in particular. The part of the story that is both fascinating and completely shrouded in mystery is the nature of the city and its ruling class, which is the secret at the heart of both. I don’t want to spoil it completely, although we do get hints of it fairly early, but it takes concepts from Dragon Age, The Anubis Gates, The Ruin of Kings and even more surprisingly The City We Became and wraps them up into a spiky ball with an overwhelming – but very interesting – swath of collateral damage.

And I don’t think we’ve nearly found out just how deeply awful that whole situation is yet. Probably all the way down to a circle of hell that not even Dante imagined.

Particularly because there’s plenty rotten at the heart of Kithamar, and it doesn’t all have to do with the mystical, magical mess that the plot – and the political plots IN the story – all circle around. It’s like an Ankh-Morpork without Vetinari at the helm to keep the city functional. Even the weather seems to be getting worse.

It feels like Age of Ash is an attempt to show a revolution starting at the bottom, with the tiny pebble starting an avalanche that will eventually consume the city – in spite of the city’s attempts to stop it. It’s certainly a very sympathetic portrait of life at the bottom of an epic fantasy city. By centering on Alys and Sammish barely getting by the reader gets an intimate view of just how firmly the deck can be stacked against people by accident of their birth, and how much effort, legal or illegal, is required just to get through another day in circumstances that can’t be changed easily or at all.

Also, the blurb feels wrong, because in the end this is not Alys’s story. It may start out that way, but by the end it’s Sammish’s story. And it’s the city’s story all along. It always has been. Whether it always will be is something that we’ll discover in the later books in the series.

Which I think will still be worth a listen – if only to discover what happens next.

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. FordEngines of Empire (The Age of Uprising, #1) by Richard S. Ford
Narrator: Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve, Stephen Perring
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Age of Uprising #1
Pages: 624
Length: 22 hours, 3 minutes
Published by Orbit on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This epic fantasy tells the tales of clashing Guilds, magic-fueled machines, intrigue and revolution—and the one family that stands between an empire's salvation or destruction.
The nation of Torwyn is run on the power of industry, and industry is run by the Guilds. Chief among them are the Hawkspurs, and their responsibility is to keep the gears of the empire turning. It’s exactly why matriarch Rosomon Hawkspur sends each of her heirs to the far reaches of the nation. 
Conall, the eldest son, is sent to the distant frontier to earn his stripes in the military. It is here that he faces a threat he could have never seen coming: the first rumblings of revolution.
Tyreta’s sorcerous connection to the magical resource of pyrstone that fuels the empire’s machines makes her a perfect heir–in theory. While Tyreta hopes that she might shirk her responsibilities during her journey one of Torwyn’s most important pyrestone mines, she instead finds the dark horrors of industry that the empire would prefer to keep hidden. 
The youngest, Fulren, is a talented artificer, and finds himself acting as consort to a foreign emissary. Soon after, he is framed for a crime he never committed. A crime that could start a war. 
As each of the Hawkspurs grapple with the many threats that face the nation within and without, they must finally prove themselves worthy–or their empire will fall apart. 

My Review:

This was a first for me. Engines of Empire turned out to be a total rage read that I enjoyed anyway – and does that ever need a bit of an explanation!

The story is fascinating – and compelling. It’s a political story about empires – well, duh – rising and falling. This first book, at least, is about the fall. Or at least the fall-ing. Since this is the first book in the series, I expect the rising to happen later. Whether that will turn out to be the rising of the empire from its own ashes, or merely the rising of the family through whose eyes we saw this chapter of the saga, remains to be determined.

So far, neither of them deserve it. Which is where the rage part of my rage reading came into play.

The story of the falling of the empire maintained by the Guilds of Torwyn is told through the first person perspectives of five characters; Rosomon Archwind Hawkspur, her three adult children, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, and her secret lover, Lancelin Jagdor.

And I hated all of them except Lancelin. I particularly detested Rosomon, to the point where I’d have been more than thrilled to read a book about her getting EXACTLY what she deserved – if there hadn’t been quite so much collateral damage in giving it to her.

Of those five characters, Lancelin is the only one who has ever had to face ANY of the consequences of his actions. It’s not just that the rest of them have led very privileged lives, it’s that they never seemed to have grasped the concept that their privilege comes on the back of just so damn many other people.

They are all arrogant and they are all thoughtless about that arrogance. This is particularly true of Rosomon – in spite of a whole bunch of crap that should have given her some insights into the ways that the other half lives.

Instead, she’s a narcissist, to the point that she only sees her children as extensions of herself and not so much as people in their own right. So a big chunk of this story is about how they all escape her very clutching clutches and how those escapes help to make their world burn.

But those escapes manage to send them to the far corners of Torwyn’s empire, which gives the reader the opportunity to see just how the whole empire is hanging by a thread. A thread that is fraying anyway and that can be all too easily snipped if someone provides the right pair of scissors.

Which of course is exactly what happens. With catastrophic results – and an aftermath that we’ll see in the future books in the series. Which I will be unable to resist reading, pretty much in spite of myself.

Escape Rating B: I hate most of the characters in this book SO HARD. But I still feel compelled to see what happens next.

Part of the fascination with this story is that it becomes clear early on that something is very rotten in the heart of Torwyn. A rot that is hidden so completely in plain sight that no one even suspects it is there until it is much, MUCH too late for pretty much everyone.

At the same time, the source of that rot, once it is revealed, turns out to be just the kind of villain that we’ve seen before, and that is so often effective and not just in fiction. It’s someone who truly believes that everything they are doing, no matter how morally repugnant in the moment, is in the service of some “Greater Good” that only they can see. So when the manipulator of events is finally revealed, it makes for a lovely, thoroughly disgusted AHA!  It’s obvious in retrospect, but as you’re going along, it’s only the barest whisper of a possibility.

One of the good things about the way this story is told is that in spite of my hatred of pretty much everyone, the voices are very distinct, and not just because the audiobook narrators (one for each POV character) did a damn fine job. Still, even in print it is impossible to mistake Conall’s voice for Tyreta’s or Fulren’s.

Howsomever, one of things about those distinctive voices was that it seems that both Rosomon’s and Tyreta’s roles are restricted to a significant extent BECAUSE they are women. And yet, we don’t see that in the female secondary characters, who seem to be everywhere doing everything. Conall’s own second-in-command in the military is female, and it’s clear that she has lower rank not because she’s female but because she’s of a lower caste in the social hierarchy.

So the quasi-secondary status of noblewomen may be because they are noble, or it maybe because Rosomon’s a bitch and she’s treating her daughter the way she herself was treated. But it’s left for the reader to assume because of our history – not theirs. It doesn’t have to be that way in a fantasy world and isn’t always. I didn’t like the transfer of assumptions – especially once self-indulgent Tyreta turned into a total badass.

Which, I think is part of the story being told, and what I hope will redeem the later books. That Rosomon may go on being the overbearing, thoughtless narcissist that she has always been, thinking she knows the one true right answer only to discover that she was led astray by her own hubris feels likely – as well as likely to lead to several falls before any ultimate rise. Conall’s future, whether he sinks or swims after his experiences in this book, still feel up in the air. But Tyreta looks like she’s set on a fascinating, redemptive and possibly even heroic path. The question is whether she will let her mother push her off it yet again.

I can’t wait to find out.

Review: The Starless Crown by James Rollins

Review: The Starless Crown by James RollinsThe Starless Crown (Moon Fall, #1) by James Rollins
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Series: Moon Fall #1
Pages: 560
Length: 22 hours and 5 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in this captivating, deeply visionary adventure from number-one 'New York Times' best-selling thriller-master James Rollins.
A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.
Fleeing into the unknown, she is drawn into a team of outcasts:
A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he's forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.
A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother's shadow and claims a purpose of his own.
An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact - one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.
On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.
But with each passing moment doom draws closer.
Who will claim the starless crown?
A Macmillan Audio Audio production from Tor Books
©2022 James Rollins (P)2022 Macmillan Audio

My Review:

“A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.” At least according to Robert A. Heinlein in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.

From that perspective, The Starless Crown is the story of Nyx, the authentic soothsayer – not that she would think of herself as such – receiving the full force of that kicking around. Deserved or not.

Definitely not – at least not in regards to anything that she personally has done. Not that she’s had a chance to do all that much when the story begins – as she seems to be just fifteen or thereabouts.

We meet her in school, in her astronomy class, as they study their “Urth’s” tidally locked rotation around the sun. A sun which they all refer to as the “Father Above,” the capital letters implied in the reverent way they speak of it. The Father Above is part of their pantheon of gods, along with the Mother Below (the Urth), the dark Daughter (the new moon) and the silvery Son (the full moon).

A catastrophe, shrouded in the mists of time, created the Urth that Nyx knows from the Earth that we now live on, locking our rotating world in a fixed position relative to the sun, so that only a relatively narrow circle is habitable for humans, in that relatively thin slice where the sun does not boil and its lack does not freeze. A circle that surrounds the Urth in just the same way that a crown surrounds the head of a monarch.

The story of The Starless Crown is Nyx’ story, as she breaks free of the shell she has been enclosed by her entire life. A story where she dreams of the destruction of her world – and the one thin chance where she might save something from the inevitable wreckage.

At a cost much higher than anyone is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A-: I listened to The Starless Crown from beginning to end. I enjoyed the listening – the narrator was very good and did an excellent job of differentiating the many, many voices of this story’s large cast.

At the same time, I didn’t feel compelled to finish it more quickly, so I didn’t pick up the ebook at all. The slower pace of listening worked better for me, because this is a slow burn kind of story. It takes a lot of chapters to get all the characters set up because they begin in far different locations under far different circumstances. We are seeing the plot come together from a great many disparate eyes.

And it takes a long time for all of those disparate – and sometimes desperate – parts to come together into the whole that is going to push this saga forward.

Part of my fascination with this story is that this is post-apocalyptic story that takes place in the far aftermath – an aftermath so far into the future that the people living it no longer recognize from whence they came – although we do.

Not that civilization as we know it wouldn’t break down and reform fairly quickly, messily and bloodily. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy, Stirling’s Emberverse starting with Dies the Fire, and the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn.

But the way the situation has evolved and devolved posits a corollary or an antonym to Clarke’s Law, the one that goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Starless Crown is an example of something I’d want to call Harris’ Permutation if I were the person naming such things. Because this story is an example of a different principle, that “Any science sufficiently muddied by time or religious claptrap is indistinguishable from magic.”

They don’t know what they don’t know. Too much was lost in either the initial cataclysm or the long dark night that inevitably followed. What they’ve managed to find is now interpreted through a lens of religion, to which what we call science has become enslaved. And some of its methods are used to enslave others.

This is also a story of “Mother Nature bats last”. Whatever happened in the past that created the tidal lock, the coming moon fall feels like its inevitable result. The moon controls the tides. It can’t. So it keeps getting closer in order to try harder. Or something like that.

So we have a group that is not unlike the Fellowship of the Ring. A young seeress, a disgraced prince, a thief, an escaped slave, a living statue from the distant past on a quest to save their world – even if they don’t know it yet.

Arrayed against them are the forces of the powers that be. They’re not all evil, although some of them very much are. Some of them are willfully blind and some of them are just blind. There’s a lot of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but there’s a fair bit of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But the villains are fascinatingly – if occasionally stomach turning-ly – twisted, the heroes are plucky to the max and the escapes are nail-biting, hair-raising, edge of the seat last minute scrapes. The reveal of the past, the fear in the present and the desperate hope of even a fractured future are handled in lush descriptions and buckets of regrets, recriminations and tears.

I have no idea how this band of misfits is going to get themselves and their world out of the mess they are in, but I look forward to finding out.

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew JonesWhen the Goddess Wakes (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #3) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #3
Pages: 336
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In When the Goddess Wakes, the final book of the Ring-Sworn trilogy, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the five realms of the Dendressi to conclude his heroic, adventure-filled epic fantasy trilogy.
The Naor hordes have been driven from the walls, but the Dendressi forces are scattered and fragmented, and their gravest threat lies before them. For their queen has slain the ruling council and fled with the magical artifacts known as the hearthstones, and she is only a few days from turning them to her mad ends.
The Altenerai corps has suffered grievous casualties, and Elenai's hearthstone and her source of sorcerous power has been shattered. She and her friends have no choice but to join with the most unlikely of allies.
Their goal: to find the queen's hiding place and somehow stop her before she wakes the goddess who will destroy them all...
Praised for his ability to write modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrews Jones delivers a finale to his trilogy that reveals the dark secrets and resolves the mysteries and conflicts introduced in the first two books of this series.

My Review:

“When last we left our heroes…” Seriously. When we last left the heroes of the Ring-Sworn Trilogy at the end of Upon the Flight of the Queen it was in the pause, stock taking and toting up of the butcher’s bill after the end of another epic battle to retake another city of the Realms by the remaining loyal corps of the legendary Altenerai.

In other words, the ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is not all that different from the ending of the first book in the series, For the Killing of Kings, as it also ends in that same pause at the end of an epic battle after retaking a different city of the Realms.

In other words, if you enjoy really meaty epic fantasy, the place to start this series is with the first book, For the Killing of Kings. Which itself begins a bit in the middle of a story that has already been rotting the Realms from within. But by starting there, you have the opportunity to discover what’s gone wrong and who the real enemies are along with our heroes.

The titles of this series are surprisingly relevant to the story – if just a bit long-winded. For the Killing of Kings is all about the discovery that the legendary sword of the same name is NOT hanging safely on the walls of the Altenerai compound. That a fake has been mounted in its place. It’s the first signal that something is rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the state of the Five Realms of which Darassus is the seat of power.

The action in Upon the Flight of the Queen takes place, quite literally, as the result of the flight of Queen Leonara from Darassus to a formerly mythical paradise world where she plans to resurrect a goddess. In fact “THE Goddess” whose awakening is the key event in this final book in the series.

The Queen plans to wake the goddess believing that she has promised them a paradise. Our heroes hope to stop her, because any paradise that’s been built on as many lies as Queen Leonara has been telling is bound to be anything but.

But this has been, from the very beginning, a story of unlikely allies and unexpected betrayals.

The enemy of my enemy may not exactly be my friend, but when my enemy plans to destroy the entire world including both the enemy of my enemy and myself – and every other person, animal, place and thing in that entire world, the enemy of my enemy and I – or in this case the Altenerai, and the Naor, are more or less united in the face of the alternative.

But there is someone waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that will ensue when the goddess wakes. And there’s a literal God of Chaos, waiting to have a few words with the Goddess who betrayed him at the beginning of the world – before she makes an end of it.

Escape Rating A: At the beginning, this series reminded me more than a bit of A Chorus of Dragons. That both series began with books named for swords prophesied to kill kings (The Ruin of Kings for A Chorus of Dragons) did kind of hit that resemblance on the nose a bit. That both series are ultimately about the neverending battle between order and chaos, and that the gods in both series are not exactly what anyone thought they were does keep that resemblance going.

And even though A Chorus of Dragons hits heights that the Ring-Sworn Trilogy never quite reaches, if you like this you’ll love that and vice versa. Particularly if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that isn’t quite as epically long and is already complete.

This story has a huge cast, but the many main characters have become distinct enough that it’s relatively easy to follow along and stay in touch with each of them as they move the action towards the conclusion. After a bit of a rocky start the audio narrator managed to get past her earlier mispronunciations and malapropisms to deliver a solid performance that does a good job of differentiating between the voices of the main characters. It also helps that by the point of this third volume, the story’s focus has shifted so that many of the points of view are female, and that the former squire Elenai has become a leader of the Altenerai and possibly the future Queen.

It works better for me if the reader’s voice matches the main character’s voice no matter how many other characters there are. This just was not true in the first book but became true in the second and is very clear and well done in this one.

The entire trilogy has been an “out of the frying pan into the fire” “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of story, and that’s still true in this book up until the nearly bitter end. And I did tear up a bit at some of the darkest and bitterest points. This is a story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have that victory stolen in its turn by the epic betrayals that fuel so much of the action.

But it’s also a tense, gripping tale about unlikely heroes banding together in spite of all their differences and prior enmities. And it’s a story of companionship and found family found in the most unexpected of places.

In the end, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy’s epic conclusion is one of the rare occasions when what appears to be a deus ex machina ending not only involves very real dei, but that their involvement turns out to be the right way to bring the whole thing home, with an ending that manages to mix just the right touch of bitter into the sweet hurrah.

Review: Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn

Review: Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. RocklynFlowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Flowers for the Sea is a dark, dazzling debut novella that reads like Rosemary's Baby by way of Octavia E. Butler.
We are a people who do not forget.
Survivors from a flooded kingdom struggle alone on an ark. Resources are scant, and ravenous beasts circle. Their fangs are sharp.
Among the refugees is Iraxi: ostracized, despised, and a commoner who refused a prince, she’s pregnant with a child that might be more than human. Her fate may be darker and more powerful than she can imagine.
Zin E. Rocklyn’s extraordinary debut is a lush, gothic fantasy about the prices we pay and the vengeance we seek.

My Review:

I picked this up because I was expecting a story that would be doing that creepy, uncomfortable straddle over the place where dark fantasy bleeds into horror. But that wasn’t quite what I got – although there was plenty of uncomfortable, downright painful straddling in the book itself.

Having finished the book, it feels like I got the middle part of a story that had a lot more depth to explore – but that those deeper elements just weren’t present in the part I got.

The story begins aboard a ship that has, or at least had, some very interesting magic. The ship is and has been, floating in an endless sea, its passengers permanent exiles from a shore they left behind. Originally, the ship fed and protected and sustained them easily, but the magic is dying, or the sea is dying, or it’s all fading away.

Our perspective on the ship, its inhabitants and its circumstances is through the mind of resentful, pregnant, angry, ostracized Iraxi. She is angry at everyone on the ship, and everyone on the ship is resentful and afraid of her. Even though they all hope that the baby she has zero desire to carry or bear will save them all.

Iraxi’s perspective is an uncomfortable one. She is, herself, extremely uncomfortable in the last days of her pregnancy, and very, very angry at everyone and everything around her. Including most especially, herself.

But Iraxi’s anger is a much bigger thing than one woman – or even one ocean – can contain. All she has to do is accept it, and accept the past that brought her to this point, and it will become big enough to encompass the world – and destroy it.

Escape Rating C: Even after finishing this book, I still had more of a sense of what it was supposed to be from the blurb than from reading – actually listening to – the entire thing from beginning to end. Not that the reader didn’t do a good job, because she most definitely did, but because the story didn’t quite gel for me – or perhaps it gelled in the wrong places.

The blurb describes Flowers for the Sea as Rosemary’s Baby meets Octavia Butler, in other words a combination of horror and SF. I was expecting something at least a bit like Rivers Solomon’s marvelous The Deep, in the sense that I was expecting a story that was intended to reclaim the Middle Passage of the slave trade for its victims and away from its perpetrators.

I didn’t exactly get either of those things. Admittedly that’s at least in part because both the author and the narrator did an all too excellent job of portraying Iraxi’s unwanted, undesired, unwelcome and utterly resented pregnancy and eventual childbirth as a internal horror of anger, fear, hatred, loathing, disgust and pretty much every other negative emotion in a way that hit me right in the nightmare to the point where it overshadowed the entire story.

The other reason the story didn’t gel is that we see the entire thing from Iraxi’s perspective, and Iraxi is angry almost to the point of incoherence pretty much all of the time. She hates her circumstances, she hates her pregnancy, she hates her baby, she hates all the people aboard the ship for the way that they have forced her to carry this unwanted pregnancy to term, the way that they in their turn hate and fear her and only give a damn about the child she is carrying. She’s lonely, she’s resentful, she’s afraid and she’s hiding the reasons she is in this circumstance from herself and from the reader, only dribbling out clues and then shutting herself down before we learn what we need to know.

Paradoxically for a story that didn’t work for me, I wish this had been longer. We don’t know anything about this world, although we learn that it isn’t exactly ours. We don’t know nearly enough about Iraxi’s people, their background or how they got into this fix. We eventually get hints, but they’re not enough. More pages, more scope to learn more, would have made this work better – at least for this reader.

Your reading mileage may vary. I’m headed off to gibber in a quiet corner someplace until the nightmare passes.

Review: Fan Fiction by Brent Spiner

Review: Fan Fiction by Brent SpinerFan Fiction: A Mem-Noir: Inspired by True Events by Brent Spiner, Jeanne Darst
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, humor, mystery, noir
Pages: 256
Published by Macmillan Audio on October 5, 2021
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From Brent Spiner, who played the beloved Lieutenant Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, comes an explosive and hilarious autobiographical novel.
Brent Spiner’s explosive and hilarious novel is a personal look at the slightly askew relationship between a celebrity and his fans. If the Coen Brothers were to make a Star Trek movie, involving the complexity of fan obsession and sci-fi, this noir comedy might just be the one.
Set in 1991, just as Star Trek: The Next Generation has rocketed the cast to global fame, the young and impressionable actor Brent Spiner receives a mysterious package and a series of disturbing letters, that take him on a terrifying and bizarre journey that enlists Paramount Security, the LAPD, and even the FBI in putting a stop to the danger that has his life and career hanging in the balance.
Featuring a cast of characters from Patrick Stewart to Levar Burton to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, to some completely imagined, this is the fictional autobiography that takes readers into the life of Brent Spiner and tells an amazing tale about the trappings of celebrity and the fear he has carried with him his entire life.
Fan Fiction is a zany love letter to a world in which we all participate, the phenomenon of “Fandom.”

My Review:

There’s a fine line between parody and farce, and it feels like Brent Spiner tap-danced over it in both directions, multiple times, during the course of this story. If that dance turned out to be set to one of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits, or something else from the “Great American Songbook” I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised.

It might be best to go into this story not really thinking of it as, well, a story. It’s more of a combination of homage and love letter. The “mystery” part of the story reads like an homage to the noir films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, complete with a reference to that classic image of noir, the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942 courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

It’s also a love letter, to his friends and fellow crew members of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and to all of us who vicariously voyaged with them aboard the Enterprise-D.

But as a story, it goes over the top so much and so often that it pratfalls down the other side. At the same time, it mixes events from his real life in a way that intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction to the point where the reader just has to hang on for the ride without attempting to figure out which is which.

So the story is grounded in what feels like the real, the real traumas of Spiner’s childhood with his abusive stepfather, the real grief over the death of Gene Roddenberry which occurs during the course of the story. But the picture that hangs within that real framing is the story of a crazed fan stalking the actor and making his life his misery, while his attempts to find help to keep him safe and find his stalker send the story way over the top into the land of make believe.

At least I hope they do, because some of what happens can’t possibly be real. Can it?

Escape Rating B: I’ll confess that as much as I’m still a Star Trek fan, particularly the original series and Next Generation, I had no intentions of reading this book, until I saw the audio. The full cast audio with appearances by several of the Next Gen cast playing themselves – albeit a slightly exaggerated version thereof. And that’s what got me to pick up the audio – and eventually the book because I needed to doublecheck more than a few things.

There is still plenty of animosity among the remaining members of the original series cast, even after 50+ years, but there were no such rumors about the Next Gen cast, and the idea that they would get together and do this for one of their members after all these years says a lot about the group dynamic. A dynamic that was on full display in this recording.

So the audiobook is both a blast and a blast from the past and I was all in for that. Fan Fiction is a tremendously fun listening experience, and hearing everyone play themselves made the whole thing a real treat even when the story itself doesn’t quite hold up to examination.

I also have to say that, as weird as it is in yesterday’s book where the author is a character in his own fictional story, it’s even weirder when the author is a real-life character in a story that is basically fan fiction about his own life. Particularly in the bits where he alludes to his own romantic escapades. (He’s married now, but he hadn’t even met his wife in 1991 when this story takes place. So it’s weird and meta but not quite THAT weird and meta.)

There’s a saying about the past being another country, that they do things differently there. Fan Fiction, in addition to its bloody animal parts in the mail, bombshell twin detectives who BOTH have romantic designs on the author AND the stalker who gets stalked by yet another stalker, is also a trip down memory lane back to 1991.

That’s 30 years ago, and we, along with the world, were a bit different then. Next Generation was in its 5th season, and still not all that popular in the wider world of TV no matter how huge a hit it was among science fiction fans. Next Gen was in syndication only at a time before the streaming juggernauts were even a gleam of a thing in a producer’s eye. It was the author’s really big break as an actor, and that was true for all of the cast except Patrick Stewart and LeVar Burton.

So we were all a lot younger then, childhood traumas were a lot closer in the rearview mirror and still being worked on and worked out, and no one knew then that Star Trek would become a multimedia colossus to rival Star Wars. None of us knew then what we know now, and that’s true of the author and his attitudes towards his own celebrity.

Back to this story. The mystery/thriller aspects push the willing suspension of disbelief well past the breaking point. I half expected this to turn out to have all been a dream like The Wizard of Oz. But the full cast recording turns the whole thing into a delightful trip down memory lane as well as a hilarious send-up of acting and fame and celebrity and fandom. .

If you’re a Star Trek fan, get the audio and settle in to hear some of your favorite characters tell you just one more story. Bits of it might even be true!

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra KhawNothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal
Pages: 128
Published by Nightfire on October 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

My Review:

Four funerals and a wedding, not necessarily in that order. But…not necessarily NOT in that order. Or at least that’s what I thought might be the ending of this story as I was listening to it.

And drowning in it. Or being buried in it. Or both. Definitely both.

There are so many ways of looking at this bruisingly creepy, completely absorbing and utterly weird story. Especially as our point of view character, Cat, has such a history of mental and emotional damage that we’re never quite sure whether the story she’s relating is happening in the real world, whether the real is being viewed through a skewed and drunken lens or if the entire surreal experience is all just in her head.

At the same time, it’s also the kind of horror story that’s been heard and seen and done before. It could be something out of The Final Girl Support Group, except that Cat knows that if it is she’s not going to be the final girl.

After all, the damaged and the deviant always die first in those stories – and Cat is both. If the tropes get followed to their bitter end, the survivor of this tale is going to be golden boy Phillip. Unless this isn’t that kind of story.

Except when it is.

Five 20 somethings still clinging to their school friendship, in spite of the emotional baggage they gave each other then and throw at each other now, get together for one last attempt to pretend that they haven’t already gone their separate ways.

Three guys, two girls, an interwoven knot of friendship and rivalry with teeth and claws, gather in a haunted mansion to fulfill one girl’s dream of getting married in a haunted mansion. The darker it gets, the drunker they get, the more the fractures of their once tight-knit group come to the surface.

Letting the spirits of the house get into their heads, allowing the resentments they’ve hidden to surface, pushing them into a devil’s bargain with the house, the spirits, and each other.

Escape Rating A: This is a story of youth and hubris. They’re young, they’re still at the stage where they believe they’re immortal. Except for Cat. She knows it’s all an illusion, and that’s why she’s the narrator. She’s been on the outside looking in, on the group, on her own life. She sees beneath the surface of both her friends and the house they’ve paid to occupy for a few nights.

But the house is creepy in ways that get under everyone’s skin. Cat, who has studied the folklore that this place is straight out of and rotting into, knows in her gut that there’s something lying under the surface of everything. And knows that no one will believe her until it’s too late, because that’s how these stories go.

The bones of all the women who were supposed to have been buried alive in this place. Cat sees them, she hears them, and the reader wonders whether what Cat is experiencing is real or a hallucination or a fever dream. The language is creepy, lyrical and moving in ways that remind the reader of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-infused epic poetry.

And all of that works so incredibly well in audio. It feels like being inside the poem, inside the ghost story as it crawls around everything and everyone, sucks them under and starts to rot them from the inside. I read this book earlier in the year and it wasn’t nearly as good in my head as it was when the narrator put me in Cat’s head.

So if you’re looking for a creepy ghost story for this Halloween season, gather some friends and let Cat tell you one hell of a story.

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ KluneUnder the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, paranormal, relationship fiction
Pages: 373
Published by Tor Books on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.
Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop's owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.
But Wallace isn't ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo's help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.
When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

My Review:

To paraphrase a classic that isn’t nearly as different as you’d think, Wallace Price was dead: to begin with. He was also an asshole.

The first condition is beyond Wallace’s own ability to change. The second, surprisingly, not so much. But unlike Scrooge’s situation, the spirits aren’t capable of doing anything to change it, and it’s going to take a whole lot more than one single night.

I know that Scrooge isn’t the one who dies in A Christmas Carol, but he was certainly headed down that road before the spirits staged their one-night intervention. The parallels are way closer than I was expecting.

Because the story about what’s behind the whispering door – not exactly under because the door is on the ceiling – is definitely a redemption story. It’s just that this redemption takes place after Wallace Price has already died. Even if he initially doesn’t want to admit it. Or accept it.

The purpose of Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats is all about that acceptance. The redemption appears to be optional, but the acceptance, that’s required. Charon’s Crossing, pun and all, is a waystation for people who have died but who just aren’t ready to move on to their next great adventure – or the peace of the hereafter – or whatever happens next.

They need time, and that’s just what the people who make up Charon’s Crossing are there to provide. Hugo the ferryman, Mei the reaper, the irreverent Nelson who gives lessons in being dead, and Apollo the dog who won’t leave his person, not even after he’s supposed to have gone to the Rainbow Bridge, or wherever it is that good dogs go. And Apollo was, and is, a very good dog indeed.

The late and completely unlamented Wallace Price, one of the founding partners of the white shoe law firm Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington, is brought to Charon’s Crossing by Mei the Reaper on her first solo gig. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to be there, and he doesn’t want to accept that he’s dead.  He’s unwilling to admit that the life he barely lived is already over. And he’s still angry that his funeral was so poorly, and disrespectfully, attended.

But he’ll have all the time he needs at the tea shop to get over who he used to and learn to be who he should have been. Or so he thinks. And so Hugo hopes. Until the mysterious Manager comes to tell him that the found family he’s become a part of isn’t meant for him – no matter how much they’d love for him to stay.

So Wallace plans on one last hurrah. One final pleading before a being who is judge, jury and from a certain perspective, executioner. And it’s a doozy. The question is whether it’s enough.

Escape Rating A: Under the Whispering Door is a lovely book about the power of change and the two steps forward one step back of the process of making the attempt to change. In the end, I loved all the characters and especially the story about how they made their little found family pretty much in spite of themselves.

This is also one of the best “sad fluff” books you could possibly ever find, even though it does surprisingly manage to have a happy ending. It’s just that one person’s happy can also be another person’s letting go.

But I almost didn’t finish this. Actually the first time I read it I mostly skimmed it because the first third is hard going. Wallace Price really, truly is an asshole. Which means that the way the story is centered around him is a bit of a slog, because he’s more than a bit of a slog. And a bastard, and definitely a bastard.

To the point where the best parts of that first third are when Mei and/or Nelson get the best of him. Because Wallace SO deserves it.

So that first time I skimmed the book I missed a lot of what made it so good because I found Wallace so hard to care about. Or be in the company of. But when the audio popped up on NetGalley I decided to give it another try. And this time I fell kind of in love with the residents of Charon’s Crossing and Wallace’s redemptive story. Wallace may not just be “mostly dead” but actually all the way dead, but he still manages to get better. And isn’t that a trick and a half!

And in audio that slow but steady upwards climb captivated me and I loved every minute. Especially the times when Wallace really screws up – or gets screwed up and over – and I was laughing so hard I had to pull the car over to wipe my eyes.

One final set of thoughts. This is being marketed as fantasy because of the author’s previous work in the genre, like the lovely House in the Cerulean Sea, and because of the “I help dead people” angle. But if this is fantasy, it’s mostly of the magical realism variety, like the now-old movie Heaven Can Wait or the even older Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It’s fantastic but not fantasy as the term is generally used.

Instead, it’s more about Wallace’s developing relationships with his found family, the town that Charon’s Crossing is located in, and his growing romantic attachment to Hugo – and very much vice-versa.

At the same time, it feels like the story hints at deeper roots to the whole setup of the ferrymen and ferrywomen (ferrypersons?) and the somewhat supernatural organization that recruits them. The mysterious Manager reads like an avatar for the Horned God of ancient myth, someone like Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter or the Green Man or even Pan. But that’s all just a hint and if you squint you might miss it.

Besides those two movies, there are other stories that touch of bits of what this does. Peter S. Beagle’s classic A Fine and  Private Place is another story about redemption after death and living the life you’ve got to the fullest.

And I believe that Hugo, the ferryman and expert tea advocate, would have a great deal to share with Sibling Dex, the tea monk of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built, as both their stories, in spite of the separation of millennia, are about the joy of found families and the surprising power of a good, well-chosen blend of tea.