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.

Review: The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

Review: The Heart Principle by Helen HoangThe Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient, #3) by Helen Hoang
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Series: Kiss Quotient #3
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 31, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A woman struggling with burnout learns to embrace the unexpected—and the man she enlists to help her—in this heartfelt new romance by USA Today bestselling author Helen Hoang.
When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She's going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.
That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

My Review:

This is an author who has been recommended to me multiple times, so I’ve tried her first book, The Kiss Quotient, and it didn’t grab me. If it’s even a bit like this book, and it probably is, after all, it was probably the intrusive family thing that wasn’t working for me. But this time, I started in the audiobook, and whether it was the format or the way that the female protagonist’s perspective worked its way into my head, this time it stuck.

Also, I was looking for a fluffy read after the earlier books this week, and at the beginning of The Heart Principle, in the section titled “Before”, I was kind of getting that vibe, and really getting into the story.

So I switched to the ebook because I was into it and wanted to experience more of the fluff I thought I was getting a whole lot faster. By the time I hit the “During” section, where the story switches from being a bit sharp but still a bit fluffy, to the hard, painful, heartbreaking part in the middle, I was completely hooked.

This is Anna Sun’s story. And it’s Quan Diep’s story. It begins as a bit of a 21st century meet cute, but with some very hard edges to it, edges that at first make it interesting, then make it tragic, and end up making it real.

Anna and Quan meet because they used a dating app to arrange a one-night stand. Which doesn’t sound terribly romantic – or even cute. Anna’s looking for a way to break herself out of her rut and get back at her douchecanoe boyfriend who has just declared that he needs to “explore his options” before they settle down and get married.

Anna doesn’t do what many readers will want her to do, which is tell the asshat to go take a long walk on a short pier – they’re in San Francisco so there should be one readily available – or otherwise go straight to hell and don’t look back. But Anna is the ultimate people pleaser, and she can’t make herself say no to his face. Nor can she face disappointing either her parents or his by breaking up with him. She’s so used to masking what she thinks and feels in order to make the people around her happy that she freezes and acquiesces, just as she always does. To everyone.

Even her therapist, who honestly can’t help Anna unless Anna can manage to be honest instead of saying what she thinks her therapist wants to hear.

Anna is trapped in a prison of her own making, she can’t get out and she’s drowning in the words that she never lets herself say. The dating app and the one-night stand are Anna’s attempt to be her real self in a situation where the stakes are relatively low, because she won’t feel the crushing obligation to please a person she plans to never see again.

Meanwhile, Quan needs to get back into his usual routine, which seems to have included a lot of casual sex, after being out of circulation for two years being successfully treated for testicular cancer. He’s well, he’s recovered, and he’s minus one ball. Which makes him more than a bit hesitant about baring himself to someone. For him, a one-night-stand is supposed to be a low stakes way of getting back in the game.

Instead of one and done, Anna and Quan text, talk, meet but never quite make it all the way. Not all the way to sex anyway. Instead, they make it all the way into each other’s hearts and lives.

Just in time for Anna’s world to come crashing down.

Escape Rating A-: This may be what some of my reading friends call “sad fluff”. Anna and Quan’s slowly developing relationship, as it wraps its tentacles around the two of them, is pretty fluffy. But so much of what happens outside that cocoon is hard, sad, heartbreaking or all of the above.

I also have to say that this hit me hard on multiple levels. The ultra-intrusive family is a trigger for me, as is dealing with the death of one’s dad, and this story has both of those elements. I think I was able to read far enough to get into this because the oppressive intrusiveness of Anna’s family is kept at one remove for the first section of the story. Anna knows that spending too much time with her parents or her sister, where they expect her to be quiet and subservient every second, is so wearing that she avoids them as much as possible so she doesn’t have to confront either their behavior toward her or her regression practically into childhood while with them.

Quan’s issues are upfront, not just with other people but within his own head. He doesn’t need to lie to himself or pretend to be someone or something he’s not. He has reasonable fears and worries, about his health, about whether a new lover will accept him or reject him, and about how the long-term results of his illness and treatment will affect his life and options.

Anna has spent her whole life hiding her real self from other people, because she learned early on that her real self wasn’t a safe person for her to be. But she’s been doing it so long and so well that she’s also hiding herself from herself. To the point that now she’s losing control of her masks and losing her joy in the things that once made her heart sing.

Her father’s sudden illness, her family’s assumptions that her father would want to be kept alive under conditions where he has no hope of recovery and no control of his life or bodily autonomy, and that Anna, her sister and her mother must handle 100% of his 24 hours per day medical care all by themselves pretty much breaks her, both because she knows it’s not what her father wants and because he’s dying and they’re not letting go and because her sister simply refuses to see the toll it’s taking on all of them.

The “After” section of the story, was, on the one hand, marvelously cathartic. Anna needed to take control of her own life, and she finally begins that process, but the story does an excellent job of showing exactly why it’s so difficult for her and just how many steps back she HAS to take before she can move forward. Quan read as just a bit too good to be true at this point, not that Anna didn’t deserve a real prince of a partner after dealing with her asshat ex for entirely too long. And the bitterness of the “During” middle part of the book needed some sugar to sweeten up the ending.

Obviously I liked this book more than well enough to try this author again, possibly in audio to get me past the “intrusive family is intrusive” hump. I didn’t realize until after I finished that The Heart Principle is the third book in a series that begins with The Kiss Quotient and middles with The Bride Test. The stories are linked, not through the female protagonist, but through the male protagonists. Quan’s cousin, best friend and business partner Michael is the hero of the first book, and his older brother Khai is the center of the second. So the connection is fairly loose and clearly you don’t have to have read the first two to get into this one. But now that I know that I’m pretty sure I’ll be back!

Review: The Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer

Review: The Scavenger Door by Suzanne PalmerThe Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #3
Pages: 464
Published by DAW Books on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the third book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.
Fergus is back on Earth at last, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. However, it seems the universe has other plans for him. When his cousin sends him off to help out a friend, Fergus accidently stumbles across a piece of an ancient alien artifact that some very powerful people seem to think means the entire solar system is in danger. And since he found it, they're certain it's also his problem to deal with.
With the help of his newfound sister, friends both old and new, and some enemies, too, Fergus needs to find the rest of the artifact and destroy the pieces before anyone can reassemble the original and open a multi-dimensional door between Earth and a vast, implacable, alien swarm of devourers. Problem is, the pieces could be anywhere on Earth, and he's not the only one out searching.

My Review:

Surprisingly – honestly, extremely surprisingly – the basic premise of The Scavenger Door and the opening of last Friday’s book, Murder in the Dark, turned out to be much more similar than one might expect for all sorts of reasons.

They are both stories about mysterious doors in the space-time continuum that are causing havoc in this galaxy/solar system/planet and need to be closed and kept closed. The person tasked with shutting the damn weird door, in both stories, is someone who appears to be human but sorta/kinda isn’t completely, and in ways that turn out to be relevant to the story.

That is where the similarities end, but it was still strange that when I didn’t get to read the book I wanted to in the moment, which was this one, I ran across something more like it than it should have been.

The Scavenger Door is the third book in the Finder Chronicles, and it’s a story that brings the series full circle from its origins in Finder. Not that Fergus Ferguson goes back to Cernee, more that Cernee comes to him in the persons of Arelyn Harcourt and Mari Vahn. Actually, it seems like everyone Fergus has met, not just in the series but in his entire life, makes an appearance in this story.

Fergus is usually surprised to discover that he’s survived – or gotten by – his latest adventure with a little or a lot of help from the friends he doesn’t quite believe he has or deserves. This time he’s going to need every last one of them.

Because he needs to save not just Earth but the entire Solar System – and possibly further – from what’s on the other side of his particular uncanny door. Before someone else lets them out.

All in a day’s – or week’s, or month’s – work for Fergus Ferguson. Find the pieces, find the door, call in some favors, make some – LOTS – of enemies, save his friends, save the planet, save the solar system.

No pressure, right?

Escape Rating A: This series is great fun and totally awesome. Just don’t start here. It feels like everything has been building towards this point from the first moment we met Fergus in Finder, and the action here picks up right where the second book, Driving the Deep, left off. Fergus is back home in Scotland after running away as a teenager, connecting, and living with, the cousin he remembers as his only childhood friend and the baby sister he never knew he had.

So don’t start here, because this book feels like the payoff for the whole thing. Start with Finder. Also, the audio for this entire series is wonderful. The narrator does a terrific job of conveying Fergus’ universe-weary voice, the entire story is told from Fergus’ first-person perspective. (That the narrator, when he is voicing Fergus’ internal dialog, sounds weirdly like Bill Kurtis from NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! just feels like an extra bit of the chaos that Fergus seems to generate.)

The blurb says that this one, like the rest of the series, is a bit of a caper story. And it has plenty of those elements. But the series has been getting increasingly serious over its course, and this one is way more serious than the first two. Not that there wasn’t plenty of mayhem and gallows humor in both of those, but this one feels even deeper than the oceans of Enceladus in Driving the Deep.

From the very beginning of The Scavenger Door, this one feels like a farewell tour. Like the way that Shepherd touches base with seemingly every person and organization they’ve met or worked with during the course of Mass Effect 3. This book, from very early on in its story, reads like it’s heading towards an ending. Not necessarily Fergus’ own ending, but at least the ending of this particular phase in his life.

In Fergus’ case, it literally feels like he has to make sure this door stays shut in order for the next door in his life to open. Or something like that. Even more of an argument to start the series at the beginning and not here.

The thing that Fergus has found, the thing that kicks off this story, is a door. Or rather, while he’s searching for a flock of lost sheep in Scotland, he finds a tiny piece of a very big door that wants him to find all the other pieces and put its puzzle back together so that it can open and let in creatures that sound like space locusts.

In other words, a very bad idea. But the pieces of this door were scattered over the Earth a decade ago. That’s more than enough time for multiple groups and theories to chase after them in the hopes of uncovering their secret. And, humans being human, the theories that these human groups have are all about mastering this alien technology and conquering the planet. Or someone else’s planet. Or both.

Well, they’re half right. Or, as one of the aliens puts it, “like all such things, there are those who covet the fire and do not understand that it burns.” And isn’t that humanity in a nutshell?

But as high and desperate as the stakes are, what makes this series so much fun, and it is generally a lot of fun, are the characters. It’s not just Fergus and his universe-weary perspective, but also Isla, his previously unknown baby sister, who wants to learn about this brother she’s never met but already knows just how to take the mickey out of him at every turn. It’s all Fergus’ friends on Mars and Luna.

My favorite characters, and the ones who made me chuckle the most, were Ignatio and Whiro, an alien and a self-aware ship, because their running commentary on what Fergus is doing, how far off base he’s getting, how often he’s getting visited by Murphy’s Law, how much he’s flying by the seat of his pants and how desperate the stakes are, are always pointedly funny and provide a fascinating outside perspective on the best and worst of humanity – who happens to be Fergus Ferguson.

So this is an out-of-the-frying-pan into the lava-filled volcano story that rides on the semi-controlled insanity of its protagonist and the circle of amazing people that have been drawn into his chaotic orbit.

This could be the end of Fergus’ adventures – if not the end of Fergus himself. I’ll be very sad if it is, because I’ll miss him and his merry band of crazed adventurers, including his cranky cat Mister Feefs, rather a lot. So I hope the author finds a way to bring him back.

Who knows what he’ll find the next time he hunts down a flock of missing sheep?

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin HallStar Eater by Kerstin Hall
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 448
Published by Tordotcom on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

All martyrdoms are difficult.
Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.
So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.
A phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power, Star Eater takes readers deep into a perilous and uncanny world where even the most powerful women are forced to choose what sacrifices they will make, so that they might have any choice at all.

My Review:

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, Star Eater is the story of a world that has put that absolute power in the hands of a mean girl clique. And it’s working about as well as one might think it would, because these mean girls have real power and are using it to destroy people’s lives AND play with politics, sometimes at the same time.

Once the reader is as far on that train as the worldbuilding will allow, the situation gets even more dire and much, much stranger, all at the same time, until the story reaches a conclusion that doesn’t quite feel like it was part of the book that we started with.

When the story opens, the protagonist, the point of view from which we will view this world, is about to be raped. It’s her duty as an Acolyte of the Sisterhood of Aytrium to present herself to the “Renewal Wards” once every few months in order to, well, propagate the species. Not the human species, but specifically the “Lace”-wielding (read as magic) members of the Sisterhood by allowing herself to be raped – and it is rape even though she gives forced consent for it to happen – by a man who has already been infected with the disease that men contract when they have sex with a woman who has “lace”.

If her visit to the Renewal Wards results in a pregnancy, if the child is male he will either be given away or killed. If the child is female, the birth of her daughter begins the countdown on her mother’s life. Because the only way that lace can be renewed is for women to literally eat the flesh of their comatose mothers.

You’re probably already creeped out. The person I attempted to describe this story to certainly was. It is seriously creepy and this world is utterly fucked up. There’s no other word for it.

The thing is, as bad as Elfreda’s situation is, and the situation of every single one of her Sisters, the situation on Aytrium as a whole is even worse than you’re imagining. The Sisterhood controls everything in Aytrium because they are the ones keeping the place literally afloat. All of Aytrium and the land that supports the city and everyone in it was jerked out of the crust of the planet below by the very first Sister of the Order. If they don’t keep pouring their power into the spells that keep the city floating, it will crash back down.

And maybe it should.

Escape Rating C+: This story is a hot mess and so is its protagonist Elfreda Raughn. And the story is not nearly as high-falutin’ or well-put together as the blurb would lead one to believe.

Elfreda is a rather unreliable narrator, and not necessarily in a good way. She’s unreliable both because there are so many things she doesn’t know, and because there are just so many things that she doesn’t LET herself know. So she gets surprised a lot, and so do we, and it’s pretty much never the good kind of surprise.

Although there are plenty of things about this world that honestly, I wish I didn’t know now that I’ve read the book. Or had it read to me. In the end, a bit of both.

In the beginning, the focus seems to be on Elfrida’s relationship with the Sisterhood, and that’s where the mean girls vibe comes in. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Sisterhood has absolute power over the lives of everyone on Aytrium, especially the Sisters. While the power over everyone else is ordinary temporal power, the power over the other Sisters has a weird feel to it. It’s not just that Elfreda and the other Sisters regularly eat bits of their mothers, but the way that their mothers are kept comatose is referred to as martyrdom. And that Elfreda’s mother was martyred for political reasons and not because it was her time.

At the same time, the whole setup leads to the Sisterhood, and all of Aytrium, being ruled by a group of middle-aged women who are more interested in playing power games against each other than they are in running the place. Also, it feels like there are no elders among the Sisterhood because of the martyrdoms. Which feels like it matters more than it should, because it removes the possibility of hard-earned wisdom as a bit of a check on how bad things are both for the Sisters and for everyone else.

So part of the story is the poisonous internal politics of the Sisterhood. A second part wraps around a threat to that power, in the form of a semi-organized resistance movement made up of regular people, particularly but not exclusively men, who seem to be just about completely disenfranchised.

An organization, using the term loosely, which Elfreda’s best friends, Millie and Finn, seem to be an integral part of every bit as much as they are Elfreda’s life. Millie is Elfreda’s counselor (read Sisterhood-licensed therapist) and Millie’s brother Finn is the love of Elfreda’s life and vice versa, even if that relationship can never be acknowledged or consummated.

Either of those two scenarios would have been enough for a book. The repressive government and the resistance thereto, or the internal political squabbling of the all-powerful Sisterhood with its religious underpinning and its combination of “corrupt church” and “religion of evil” tropes fully on display.

Except that it gets crazier and weirder from there in ways that didn’t seem predicated on what happened so far and needed a bit of deus ex machina plot and character rescue at the end to make the whole thing tie itself up in a very messy bow.

In spite of all of the above, I have to admit that there were plenty of points where as much as I marveled at just how much shit this protagonist could manage to get herself into, and just how fucked up her world was, I felt compelled to keep reading after kind of a slow start. Elfreda’s story is the “Perils of Pauline” on steroids, out of the frying pan, into the fire and then jumping from one active volcano to another.

This is a trainwreck book, as in I knew it was going to have LOTS of awful things in it to see and read but I couldn’t turn my eyes away even when I wanted to. Hence that C+ rating. I was riveted even as I was appalled, and not in a good way. More like I couldn’t stop turning pages or sitting in the garage listening because I just couldn’t believe how much weirder and crazier it was going to get.

I mostly listened to this in audio through the NetGalley app. As I said above, the story is a hot mess. I have issues with the app. But the reader did an excellent job. I’d be happy to listen to her again, hopefully in a better story.

Review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu

Review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. HuchuThe Library of the Dead (Edinburgh Nights, #1) by T.L. Huchu
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Edinburgh Nights #1
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on June 1, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sixth Sense meets Stranger Things in T. L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead, a sharp contemporary fantasy following a precocious and cynical teen as she explores the shadowy magical underside of modern Edinburgh.
When a child goes missing in Edinburgh's darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She'll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?
When ghosts talk, she will listen...
Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh's dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl's gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone's bewitching children--leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It's on Ropa's patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.
She'll dice with death (not part of her life plan...), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She'll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa's gonna hunt them all down.

My Review:

If I had to describe this story – and I do – I’d start out by saying this is very much a dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy, where that darkness is sometimes so impenetrable that this is a world where the light at the end of the tunnel is ALWAYS an oncoming train, and the situation is always darkest just before it turns completely black.

At the same time, it’s also urban fantasy, complete with a magic-wielding and very amateur detective and a huge mystery to be solved. But the urban in this fantasy, while it is still recognizably Edinburgh, it’s not exactly any version of Edinburgh that we know – and not just because of the magic.

See paragraph one and the reference to post-apocalyptic. Although the technology makes it seem like this Edinburgh isn’t all that far into the future, it’s also clear that some serious shit went down in the not too distant past – or not too far back along the path that is now trending towards hell while being carried along in that handcart.

Ropa Moyo is the reader’s guide and avatar in this brave new/old world. Or, at any rate, Ropa is brave while we’re sitting on our comfy couches quivering at all of the risks she takes – and especially the risks that nearly take her.

Her world is both new and old, as whatever turned our world into hers has changed everything to the point where 70s and 80s TV shows – which are still broadcast and viewed – show Ropa a world that looks like a paradise of abundance compared to the time and place she now lives.

It’s also an old world, because the “event” – whatever it was – if it was a singular event and not just a general trend hellwards – has brought back not only ghosts and the old magic needed to communicate with them and take messages from them – but also brought out all of the old magical beings, especially the evil ones – that made living beside creepy places a real peril and “may you live in interesting times” a really, really serious curse.

But the fault, the truly big evil, the really serious evil, is, as always, not in our myths and legends or, but rather as Shakespeare so famously said, “not in our stars but in ourselves.”

And only Ropa Moyo seems ready and willing to fight it.

Escape Rating A: The Library of the Dead is fantasy that is so dark it tips all the way into horror at more than one point, so if you prefer your horror-adjacency to not be quite so on the nose, so to speak, then this can, at points be a hard read – although absolutely worth persevering through.

If only to see just how Ropa manages to persevere through in spite of the odds very much stacked against her.

In fact, I have to say that I had the weirdest kind of approach/avoidance reaction to reading this book, whether in print or on audio. Actually I listened to most of this one and the reader was fantastic and if you have the time I highly recommend it.

Even though listening does highlight the “two nations divided by a common language” thing on more than one occasion.

There were many points where the horror aspects, or Ropa’s temporary near-helplessness in the face of either the situation in general or those aspects in particular, made me want to stop listening. At the same time, I was so completely stuck into the story that I felt compelled to keep going.

It was kind of a different version of a train-wreck book. It’s not that the book was horrible, but that the things that happen within it were horrible in one way or another but I absolutely couldn’t turn my eyes or my mind away. It was the whole “watching yucky things ooze” kind of fascination, but I was absolutely fascinated. And definitely riveted. Also, there was plenty of ooze.

One of the things that drove me nuts was that I still don’t know exactly what happened that tipped this version of the world onto the path into hell. SOMETHING definitely happened, but I don’t know what. Not that once the tip happened the hellish snowball hasn’t picked up plenty of speed through purely human pushing, but there was an EVENT in the past and I didn’t grasp what it was.

Maybe in the next book, Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments, sometime next year. I can hope!

What makes this story work, and keeps the reader turning pages at an ever increasing rate, is Ropa. We’re inside her head and she’s telling her story, which does, now that I think about it, mean that the reader knows she survived from the beginning. But honestly her situation gets so grim at points that it completely slipped past me. Also survival alone is insufficient.

Ropa is a ball of contradictions. She is very young, but at the same time she is the primary breadwinner for her tiny family. Ropa’s ghostalking (barely) brings in enough money to pay the rent on the land under their small caravan, feed her grandmother, her little sister and herself, and pay for her gran’s medicine and her sister’s school fees. She’s walking a tightrope every second, knowing that a bad day or bad luck can put them all behind in a way that she may not be able to recover from.

If the difference between “poor” and “broke” is that broke is temporary while poor isn’t going to change anytime soon without a miracle, Ropa is all too aware that her family is poor in material goods but rich in love and that she’ll do whatever she has to in order to keep them together.

But – huge, giant but – Ropa loves her grandmother and can’t imagine a life without her. So when gran tells her to help one of the dead for free, even though Ropa knows it will set the family back financially, she does it anyway. And everything that happens after that, good and bad, is because she was doing someone a favor because gran asked her to. She learns terrible things, she uncovers horrible secrets, she saves herself and does her best to save some others, and she learns she’s way more of a magic-user than merely a ghostalker.

And it ends with both the hope and the fear of things to come, because when there’s big evil, there’s generally an even bigger evil hiding behind it. With the help of her friends, the Library of the Dead, her fox-familiar and her own sheer nerve, roiling guts and self-educated brain, Ropa will take it all on. Tomorrow. After she gets the bills paid.

It’s going to be another EPIC adventure. .Just like this one.

Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher BuehlmanThe Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue, #1) by Christopher Buehlman
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, grimdark, sword and sorcery
Series: Blacktongue #1
Pages: 416
Published by Tor Books on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.
But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.
Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.
Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva's. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.

My Review:

I just finished The Blacktongue Thief a couple of hours ago, and my first coherent thought was simply “WOW!” followed by a long string of “Wow”s and gibbering into squeeing incoherence after that.

Also leaving me with an epic book hangover that may not fade for days as my thoughts tumble over one another – and me without a Catfall ring to keep them from breaking when they all hit the ground.

A Catfall ring, like the one that Kinch Na Shannack pockets on his way through this story. Is a thief’s tool. A ring that has the right kind of magic to help him fall like a cat and land more-or-less unharmed if he has to fall from too great a height. Which he probably will, because Kinch is a thief.

A member in rather bad standing of the Takers’ Guild, as the thieves’ guild is known in his extremely messed up world.

Not just Kinch’s own situation, but the world itself is so FUBAR’d that I found myself thinking that this was really a kind of post-apocalyptic story. It’s just that Kinch’s world isn’t our world so their apocalypse doesn’t look like our apocalypse would look.

But it feels like a story about what happens after the end of the world all the same.

Kinch is a thief who has been set on the trail of a mercenary warrior in order to pay off some of his debt to his guild. The Takers Guild is clearly a racket and a con job from start to finish, and it’s equally clear that the very first people it steals from are its own members.

Not that it doesn’t steal from pretty much everyone else, everywhere, all the time. If there is one thing the Takers Guild is very talented at, it’s taking. After all, it’s in the name.

Kinch, at first, doesn’t know why he’s been set to get into the good graces, such as they are, of the Espanthian warrior Galva. He has no idea that his mission is going to turn into a quest that will shake the foundation of empires and change his worldview forever.

Nor that it will break his heart.

Escape Rating A++: At first, before we – or Kinch – really understand the stakes of his journey, it seems as if The Blacktongue Thief is going to be epic fantasy by way of sword and sorcery. And there is a lens through which the early parts of Kinch’s tale read like the best of that old school of magic and swashbuckling. Kinch is just the type of antihero who narrates the many of those old stories, and he’s following a warrior on a mad quest with the help of not a little magic and not a few mages.

Howsomever, in spite of the self-deprecating humor that Kinch can’t resist, his extremely jaundiced view of his world, his place in it and his utter inability not to make a terrible joke or snark about his surroundings and the people in them, this isn’t quite sword and sorcery after all.

Instead, as a friend pointed out in his own review, The Blacktongue Thief might be better described as “maturesmirk”, where the grimness of the world and much of the action in it reflects grimdark fantasy like Game of Thrones while viewing it through a scrim of snarktastic gallows humor rather than just looking at it through the opening of a noose.

(Be advised that a Google search for the term “maturesmirk” will bring up a surprising amount of “adult material” along with the books. Kinch would approve.)

The story is told by Kinch himself, clearly as a memoir narrated at a much later point. So about the only thing we know is that he survived. Everyone else – well, we’ll find out eventually. Probably. Hopefully.

But it’s both being inside Kinch’s head and experiencing his memory while also hearing his thoughts and asides and attempts to distract himself and commentary and it seems like every glimmer of an idea or a joke that flies around inside his head. If you like stories told in snarkcasm, hearing both the things the character says and all the things he does his best to keep behind his teeth, this one is awesome.

Speaking of being inside Kinch’s head, The Blacktongue Thief is the first time I picked up an “Advance Listening Copy” from NetGalley instead of just waiting to buy the audio on Audible after it came out. Going in, I had a certain amount of trepidation about the author reading his own work. When it works, as it does for Mary Robinette Kowal and Neil Gaiman, it really, really works. But when it doesn’t work, it can be pretty awful.

This, however, worked so well I felt like I was listening to Kinch rather than to the author. Which turns out to be not really surprising, as the author performs regularly at Renaissance Faires as ‘Christophe the Insultor’. It may be that there’s a lot of ‘Christophe’ in Kinch, or a lot of Kinch in ‘Christophe’, or just a lot of the author’s voice in both.

Listening to, for all intents and purposes Kinch telling his own story just made the whole book that much better. I did read the last couple of chapters in ebook because I just ran out of patience and time.

This is not a story that is good for heroes, to paraphrase Varric Tethras, but it is a story that is chock full of them. Not the kind of heroes that lead great armies into mighty battles against the nearly overwhelming forces of evil, but rather people who get the job that has to be done, done, by getting into the muck and the mire and coming out swinging.

It’s also a story where the forces of evil, such as they are, are not led by monstrous beings of great monstrousness, but rather this is a story about the evil that men and women – and people of all races and species – do to each other in order to get one up on everyone else.

These are characters to fall in love with, to cry over and to cheer for, frequently all at the same time. I can’t wait to travel with them again.

One last thing, because I just can’t stop. There’s a point in the story, a little past the half, where Kinch gives the most beautiful, most poignant, most bittersweet invocation to his lover’s memory that it brought tears to my eyes. It is so clear that he loved her, and so sad that it makes it obvious that whatever happened along their journey – which we don’t even know yet – their romance did not come to a happy ending – but come to an ending it certainly did. And from whatever point in his life that Kinch is at when he writes this memoir, he still mourns her.

It’s love, it’s poetry, it’s just beautiful words said absolutely perfectly. And it made me cry. Maybe it will make you cry too.

Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Bargain by Faith HunterJunkyard Bargain (Shining Smith #2) by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Shining Smith #2
Published by Audible Audio on February 25th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Sometimes before you can face your enemies, you need to confront yourself.

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least not yet.