Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + Giveaway

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + GiveawaySignal Moon: A Short Story by Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld, Andrew Gibson
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction, World War II
Pages: 57
Length: 1 hour and 22 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories, Audible Audio on August 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye comes a riveting short story about an impossible connection across two centuries that could make the difference between peace or war.

Yorkshire, 1943. Lily Baines, a bright young debutante increasingly ground down by an endless war, has traded in her white gloves for a set of headphones. It’s her job to intercept enemy naval communications and send them to Bletchley Park for decryption.

One night, she picks up a transmission that isn’t code at all—it’s a cry for help.

An American ship is taking heavy fire in the North Atlantic—but no one else has reported an attack, and the information relayed by the young US officer, Matt Jackson, seems all wrong. The contact that Lily has made on the other end of the radio channel says it’s…2023.

Across an eighty-year gap, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other: Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him stave off the war to come. As their connection grows stronger, they both know there’s no telling when time will run out on their inexplicable link.

My Review:

This story was so beautiful it just about broke me. It was gorgeous and glorious and heartbreaking all at the same time, and I was in tears at the end.

I want to say this is a timeslip story but that isn’t quite right. It’s more of a time-merging story, or a bit of technological SF sleight of hand story. It’s best to just say that it works. It all works marvelously, and let the how and why of it remain a bit nebulous.

After all, our two principals don’t completely understand the why of it themselves. They just know that it happened. And that it saved them both.

Lily Baines is a signal tech in Yorkshire in 1943, spending her days and nights with a Bakelite headset wrapped around her “bat-like” ears, listening for German signals. She’s a Petty Officer in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), doing her bit for in a war that she’s entirely too afraid is being lost.

Late one shift, she picks up a signal from an American ship, broadcast in English, in the “clear”, detailing an attack on the ship by “Vampires”. An attack that results in the ship sinking with all hands after 42 minutes of harrowing transmission by the U.S. Naval signal tech, ST Matt Jackson, who gives the date as 2023.

While her superiors are certain that Lily has just been working too many days in a row without a break, Lily feels like she owes it to her fellow signal tech, the man she just heard narrate his own death, to try to help him. So she sends him a letter, a 1943-era radio, extra batteries, and a list of frequencies that she promises to listen on at a specific time every day.

There’s no science fiction involved in her package to the future. Her uncle is a solicitor and she contracts with his office to deliver the package to a certain room in a certain hotel in York on the day Matt said he checked in. Law offices do this all the time, just not necessarily for quite 80 years.

When Matt gets the radio, he’s sure it’s a prank, but he dials the frequency anyway. Even when Lily starts talking, he STILL thinks it’s a prank – at least until that night, when an event that she predicted comes true.

They have less than 24 hours to analyze the transmission that Matt hasn’t sent yet, in the hopes of figuring out what is about to go wrong so that he can prevent it. Or save his ship. Whatever it takes to prevent yet another war.

What they get is more than either of them ever bargained for. It’s enough – and it’s not nearly enough at all.

Escape Rating A++: Signal Moon is short and absolutely perfect in its length. It represents a very brief moment in time and needed to reflect that brevity. Also, it’s just so damn bittersweet – and appropriate in that bitter sweetness, that more would be just too much to take.

It’s that good.

But because of that short length, I was able to sit down with the audiobook and finish in one utterly absorbing and in the end completely heartbreaking listen. (If you have Amazon Prime you can get both the ebook and the audio as part of your Prime membership, and it’s so worth it to listen to the audio if you have a mere 82 minutes to occupy your hands while your mind wanders back to 1943 – and forward to OMG next year.)

The strength of this story is in the characters. The author sketches us a complete picture of Lily and her wartime service with just a bit of description and a whole lot of Lily’s internal monologue as she goes through her day pretending that everything is going to be alright even though she’s scared right down to her not-nearly-warm-enough fingertips that all is already lost.

While Matt’s more frank and frequently profane dialog, along with the desperation of his own internal monologue, gives the reader or listener a clear portrait of who he is and what drove him to become the person – and the officer – that he is on the brink of what could be – briefly – his very own war.

In the audiobook, the two characters are brilliantly voiced by their own narrators, Saskia Maarleveld for Lily and Andrew Gibson for Matt and they embody their characters beautifully. The audio would not have worked half so well with a single narrator. (Saskia Maarleveld is also the narrator for several of the author’s novels, including this year’s The Diamond Eye, which just moved up the towering TBR pile as a result.)

The ending of this story is inevitable. There’s just no other way this one works. But it’s easy to get so involved in their story that you just want it to have a different ending anyway. And that’s what broke me in the end. I knew what the end would be, but this was just one of those times where I really wanted a deus ex machina to step in and make that difference happen – even knowing how much I usually hate those kinds of endings. But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t have been, meant to be.

Dammit.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Kate Quinn and Amazon Publishing are giving away a $50 Amazon Gift Card to one very lucky entrant on this tour!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine Center

Review: The Bodyguard by Katherine CenterThe Bodyguard by Katherine Center
Narrator: Patti Murin
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance
Pages: 320
Length: 9 hours and 44 minutes
Published by St. Martin's Press on July 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindergarten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard"), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.

My Review:

It’s not exactly a surprise that this a bodyguard romance. After all, the title does pretty much give it away. But before your head starts playing “I Will Always Love You” on endless repeats, this book’s version of that popular trope would have Whitney Houston guarding Kevin Costner. Which is more than a bit of a twist, at least if that’s the picture you have in your head.

In this version, it’s Executive Protection Agent Hannah Brooks guarding the uber-famous actor Jack Stapleton. (In my head, I was picturing Jack as an amalgam of the superhero movie Chris brigade, so combine the features – and the careers – of Chris Evans, Hemsworth, Pine and Pratt to get sorta/kinda the picture in my head. And now, quite possibly, yours.)

The explanation of exactly why Hannah Brooks does not look like the beefy, burly, able to bench press a Hummer, stereotype is pretty much on point. Having that kind of bodyguard advertises that something is up and someone or something needs protection. It’s not exactly discreet, The company that Hannah works for is all about protection and discretion – even if some of the agents, including Hannah, seem to have a problem with the latter in their personal lives. Hannah and her team plan and prepare for every detail and contingency so that threats are eliminated before they happen.

Even if the biggest threat that Jack Stapleton seems to face is a middle-aged stalker who keeps Corgis and knits sweaters with Jack’s face in the center. Or at least the Corgi stalker is the reason that Jack’s team at the movie studio hires the protection agency.

Once Hannah is embedded in Jack’s life and his world, it starts to seem like Jack’s older brother Hank is a much bigger threat – but not as big or as difficult to fight as his mother’s cancer.

And that’s where things go really, really pear-shaped – especially for Hannah. Jack doesn’t want to worry his mom while she’s undergoing treatment, so he wants to hide the fact that he needs protection at all. Which puts Hannah in a really tough spot, as Jack’s plan requires that Hannah pretend she’s his girlfriend and not his bodyguard.

The longer it goes on, the realer the ruse seems to be – and not just to Hannah. Unless Jack is a much, much better actor than even Hannah thinks he is.

Unless the stalker is even better than that.

Escape Rating B-: This is a story where I had both the audiobook and the ebook, which means I started by listening to the audiobook. I switched to the ebook at less than a third of the way through – not because I was impatient to see what happened next but because the audio was driving me utterly bonkers.

So many people have loved this book, and it sounded like it would be so much fun, but the audio just about had me screaming in the car. I switched to the ebook because I was determined to finish the damn thing.

The story is told in the first person singular, so we’re in Hannah’s head listening to her voice and all of her many, many, many anxious thoughts and feelings, nearly all of which are negative and are flying by at what seems like a million miles per hour. The narrator’s delivery of the rapid-fire cacophony inside Hannah’s head was spot-on, but the overwhelming mass of negativity the character was projecting – well, I just wasn’t there for it. At all.

Hannah is a person who is afraid to sit still or even to slow down. Even if she’s not moving in the physical sense, her brain is whirling at a million miles per minute. And it seems like most of those miles and minutes are negative. She’s not happy with herself, she’s not happy with her life – particularly when the story opens – and she’s doing her level best to keep in motion so she doesn’t have to deal with ANY of her issues.

That her mother just died and her boyfriend dumped her the morning after her mother’s funeral is just the tip of the rock-filled iceberg that is Hannah’s emotional state. (Her boyfriend is a douche and she’s WAY better off without him, but it takes her awhile to figure that out – as it does.)

And her boss is a complete asshole. Even when he’s right, he goes about it the worst way possible – because he admits he enjoys torturing his employees. He’d call it “tough love” if he was willing to use the word “love” at all. But it comes off as just being an abusive asshole who enjoys his assholishness.

In short, Hannah has a metric buttload of issues that she is burying under her workaholism. All of her issues feel justified, but she’s not dealing with pretty much ANYTHING that needs to be dealt with. And her mother’s death provides the straw that is breaking the camel’s back of Hannah’s coping mechanisms.

Not that Jack Stapleton is in much better shape emotionally – he just hides it better. After all, he is an actor. The irony of their situation is that as fake as their relationship is supposed to be, Hannah is a much more real person than anyone Jack has ever associated with in Hollywood – including his supposed “real” girlfriend.

The relationship that develops between Hannah and Jack, as bizarre as its starting point, is the most real thing in his life – except for his older brother’s animosity and his mother’s cancer. He’s not coping well either – and he has just as much to cope with as Hannah does.

And that’s one of the places where the story is shortchanged by its cute sweetness. Because it certainly is both of those things. The issue that I had with the story in the end is that there is too much going on with both of these people for a romance that ends up being this light and fluffy.

Not that both Hannah and Jack don’t deserve a happy ending – because they both certainly do. But the way they achieve it, and the way that their happy ever after is presented, completely glosses over everything that is really, truly not cute or sweet at all. In the end, the story shores up the fallacy that love conquers all, including learning disabilities, impostor syndrome, feelings of total inadequacy, childhood trauma, and unprocessed grief.

It ends on the note that love doesn’t just conquer all, but that it cures everything that ails a person. Which just isn’t true. And this would have been a much better story, if not nearly as fluffy, if their very important issues had been dealt – or at least showed that they would BE dealt with – instead of swept under the carpet.

In the end, this wasn’t bad – and it’s a surprisingly clean romance if you’re looking for one. But it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea AbdullahThe Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
Narrator: Nikki Massoud, Sean Rohani, Rasha Zamamiri
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Sandsea Trilogy #1
Pages: 480
Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Hachette Audio, Orbit Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Neither here nor there, but long ago . . . 
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan's oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie's past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

My Review:

“Neither here nor there, but long ago…” or so the storytellers begin their best tales. Of which The Stardust Thief is most definitely one.

Loulie al-Nazari is the legendary Midnight Merchant, an infamous smuggler of magic relics left behind in the world of humans by the powerful, dangerous and deadly jinn. But she has a secret – of course she does. She finds the jinn relics that she sells to discerning buyers at extravagant prices with the help of a jinn relic of her own – along with the able assistance of her taciturn bodyguard, Qadir. Who is one of the hated and feared jinn, hiding in very plain sight. Only Loulie knows Qadir’s true identity – not that she knows even as much of that identity as she believes she does.

Mazen bin Malik is the second son of the Sultan. He’s been sheltered to the point of imprisonment for most of his life, while his older brother Omar has become their father’s heir, not just to the throne in the hazy future, but even now to their father’s position as the leader of the infamous ‘Forty Thieves’ – jinn killers who steal and murder on behalf of their leader, the prince they call ‘King’.

Mazen would rather be one of the storytellers in the souk. At least that way he’d have some freedom – and some purpose.

They shouldn’t have anything in common – a smuggler and a prince. But they are both people who hide their real selves behind masks; the Midnight Merchant is a persona Loulie puts on, while Mazen bribes the palace guard so he can escape the confining safety of his palace prison.

They meet in the souk, where Loulie is wandering incognito as Layla, while Mazen is pretending to be Yusuf the storyteller. Where Mazen is ensorcelled by a jinn, and Loulie can’t resist following their trail where it leads.

It leads to the palace. Not directly, and certainly not in a way that either expects. But the Sultan coerces the Midnight Merchant into finding a jinn king’s relic for him, deep in the desert, and sends his older son, Omar along to ‘protect’ her – and ensure she comes back with the prize.

But Omar has schemes of his own, so he trades places with Mazen, using a relic to switch their identities. He sends one of his ‘Forty Thieves’, Aisha bint Louas with the disguised prince as a bodyguard.

As the adventure bleeds into one danger after another, and their journey comes to feel more like a trap than a quest, they begin to learn the hidden truths about themselves and each other. Only to discover that not a single one of them is what they seemed, or what they thought they were, when they set out.

And that as many times as each of them promises themselves and each other that they will not run away – at least not this time – they are forced to accept the truth that “he (or she) who runs away lives to fight another day.” If only because they must in order to prevail against the powerful forces, both human and jinn, who stand in their way.

Escape Rating B+: I’m having the same kind of mixed reaction to writing this review as I did to reading this book. Which doesn’t explain anything at all, does it? The dilemma I’m having is that I loved the story, but did like or empathize with many of the characters, and it’s a real conundrum.

The story is utterly fascinating. The jinn (or djinn or genies) are such powerful mythical and mystical creatures. This story posits a much more nuanced interpretation of the jinn, and much of what happens is based on a fundamental dichotomy in that interpretation. Humans have been taught that jinn are dangerous and evil and hate humanity. Jinn, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of myths and legends about the first encounters between themselves and humans. Encounters in which the humans coveted the jinn’s powers and murdered them indiscriminately, as they still do. Some jinn do kill humans, but it’s more often in self-defense than outright murder.

As the story continues, it certainly seems like the jinn perspective is more likely the true one – particularly based on the behavior of the humans that Loulie and Mazen meet along the way.

But the story is a nearly endless ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ kind of story, as one near-death adventure – and escaping therefrom – leads directly into another. Much as the tales that Shafia – who we know as Scheherazade – told to the Sultan to keep him from killing her. This adventure is clearly intended to remind readers of One Thousand and One Nights, as it should. Shafia was Mazen’s mother, and the Sultan of the famous story was his father.

It’s the truth of that tale, as well as so many other truths, that Mazen, Loulie and their companions must discover on their dangerous quest.

Speaking of the party, that’s where I felt conflicted. The story is told in the first person, from three different points of view; Loulie, Mazen and Aisha. I listened to the audio for about 90% of the book, and the three narrators made the differences in their perspectives quite clear. They all did an excellent job of portraying their respective characters. The problem I had was that I found that both Loulie and Mazen spent a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, self-flagellation and adolescent angst. Not that their situations weren’t more than worthy of some considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth – because they are in deep sand up to their necks. It’s more that because the story is told from inside their heads, it got repetitive. If I’d been reading instead of listening I’d have skimmed through those bits.

So I loved the adventure. This story is a thrill-a-minute ride with plenty of fascinating exploration of this world. The way that the legends come to life was absolutely riveting. But the one character I really liked and wished I had more of was Qadir, and he’s the one really important perspective we don’t have in the first person – or nearly enough of at all.

But I have hope – in a slightly twisted way. The Stardust Thief is the first book in a trilogy, although the second book doesn’t even have a title yet, let alone a publication date. It can’t come nearly soon enough because this first book doesn’t exactly end. Like the other adventures in this book, like the adventures Shafira told the Sultan, this one ends just as our heroes have jumped out of yet another frying pan but are still in freefall before they land in the inevitable fire.

It’s going to be a long, nail-biting wait to find out how hot things get in the next installment!

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: 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: 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.

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina Bocci

Review: A Vineyard Valentine by Nina BocciA Vineyard Valenting by Nina Bocci
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Published by Audible Studios on February 4th 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

An unforgettable night of romance awaits in this funny, charming novella by USA Today best-selling author Nina Bocci!

The annual Valentine’s Day singles soiree is always a big money-maker for Eloisa Giordono’s winery. What could be more romantic than looking for love at a quaint family vineyard on the most romantic night of year? Well, just about anything as far as Eloisa is concerned. She’s a Valentine’s Day Grinch who thinks it’s the lamest, most clichéd holiday ever invented.

Fortunately, she’ll get to hang out with like-minded folks this year by hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Day party on the same night. She’ll just need to alternate between events to keep them both running and she’ll be raking in the profits. But Eloisa is thrown for a loop when a sexy, self-described hopeless romantic shows up at the singles soiree and keeps her captivated. Will he change her mind about the holiday...and about love?

My Review:

If you’ve soured on love, or romance, or simply the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, you’d probably fit right in with winery owner Eloisa Giordono’s Anti-Valentine’s Day shindig – complete with black roses, dead cupids and a much more murdery and depressing vibe than she originally intended.

As a self-proclaimed Valentine’s Day Grinch, Elo was hoping to create an alternative celebration of the holiday of all-things-love for the happily single crowd. A place to celebrate friendship, acknowledge that loving yourself can be enough, and simply a place for those who aren’t ready to jump back into the dating pool to find some like-minded people for a fun evening.

Elo’s anti-love bash – or her bash against love, take your pick – is competing with her vineyard’s annual – and more traditional – Valentine’s Day event, Love at the Vineyard, which may sound hokey and cliché but works. Especially with the planning genius of the vineyard’s PR director – and Elo’s best friend – Mac.

Speaking of planning and genius, the genius plan is for Mac to handle the traditional event while Elo hosts the bashing Valentine’s bash. It’s all going SO WELL – until Mac makes the tired and hangry mistake of eating some leftover Seafood Alfredo that is way, way, way past its “safe to eat” date.

Food poisoning ensues, and the best laid plans of mice, women and vineyard owners go very much “gang aft agley” as Mac wakes up on the day of the dueling events with a desperate need to spend the day – and probably the night – worshipping at the porcelain altar to really bad decisions.

With Mac down for the count for at least a day if not more, Elo is on her own with both events. Now she’s responsible for two things that just aren’t her thing, a traditional love fest and public hosting and event management duties, along with worrying about Mac.

It should be the worst night of Elo’s life, at least recently. But just as the “festivities” are about to begin, Elo runs into Mr. Chardonnay. Literally. With a golf cart. But figuratively, as that’s not his real name.

In between shuttling from “murder Cupid” to “love is in the air” Elo and the mysterious man she has named “Mr. Chardonnay” flirt, banter and play a game of “strangers in the night”.

As the magic of the evening wraps around them both, the two mysterious strangers both start thinking that there might be something to this Valentine’s Day magic after all.

Escape Rating A-: This is kind of an amuse-bouche of a story. A chef’s kiss of a bit of romance. One that goes perfectly with the bite-sized wine and cheese pairings that are being served at the winery’s pro-Valentine’s Day event.

But seriously, this is a short story. A VERY short story. At most 100 pages if it’s length were being measured in pages.

That’s actually the right length. Because this is a story about the possibilities of love and the thrill of discovering that this person might just be the one. It’s the opening of the romance, with all of the internal angst and flirty banter that any romance reader could want.

It’s a meet-cute. And it’s ALL ABOUT the meet-cute. At the end, we’re left with the same possibility that the characters have, that this might lead to a happy ever after. It also might not. But that’s what first meetings are all about when you just click with someone and all you can see in front of you are possibilities.

One of the things that I, as the reader/listener loved about this story was Elo’s internal voice. She’s witty, snarky, and generally honest with herself no matter what actually comes out of her mouth. But she’s marvelously gifted with snarkitude and the reader’s voice was perfect for her.

The reader also does a good job voicing Mr. Chardonnay, but…I would have liked this one more if he’d been voiced by a male reader. Although I probably would have swooned while driving, which would be bad. His dialog is not just flirty but frequently downright sexy, and a second reader would have really put it over the top.

Speaking of over the top, there is one character who, in spite of her inability to leap tall buildings – or jump at all – was the perfect sidekick for the snarky but soft-hearted Elo, and that’s her adorable dog Olive in her equally adorable little cart. Olive steals hearts and scenes every time Elo brings her ANYWHERE and it’s just really, really cute.

So come for the yummy-sounding wine-and-cheese pairings. Stay for the flirty banter that turns Valentine’s Day Grinch Elo into a match with hopeless romantic Mr. Chardonnay. And don’t leave without giving Olive a scritch or three.

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Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Review: Murder by Other Means by John ScalziMurder by Other Means (The Dispatcher #2) by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Dispatcher #2
Published by Audible Studios on September 10th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense...and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

My Review:

The character of Tony Valdez and the world he inhabits was introduced in the first Dispatcher story, fittingly titled The Dispatcher. And unlike this second entry in the series, The Dispatcher is available as a hardcover and an ebook, so if the premise sounds intriguing but audiobooks aren’t your thing, you can get a taste for the story that way. (Also, I don’t think anyone will be surprised when a book version of Murder by Other Means turns up. Eventually. But patience is not one of my virtues so I was haunting Audible as soon as I heard this was coming up so I could get a pre-order in.)

The world that Tony Valdez inhabits – or that produced him, take your pick – is fascinating. And weird. And yet, not all that different from our own. Except in one, rather singular, particular. One day, in the not distant at all future, murder becomes theoretically impossible. Suicide and accidents both still happen, but murder, not so much. 999 times out of a 1000 not so much.

Which doesn’t mean that killing people for a living isn’t still kind of a soul-destroying way to pay the rent. Even if it is legal. The person still dies. They still spray their blood and bone matter all over the killer. Then they vanish – along with the mess you made of them, only to reappear, whole and intact and alive, someplace they considered safe. Usually home. Always naked.

So dispatching people has become a job. A licensed, regulated and controlled job. And Tony Valdez is a dispatcher. Someone who dispatches people for a living.

As this story opens, it’s become a poor living. The legal and ethical markets for dispatching, mostly hospitals, have dried up due to budget cuts. Leaving Tony behind on his rent and his bills, and willing to do some dispatching that isn’t exactly on the up and up.

After all, dispatching business people so they can beat a competitor to a lucrative deal isn’t remotely covered by Tony’s license to kill. But it does pay a lot of cash money. And it comes with more headaches than Tony ever imagined.

Because someone has figured out a way around that whole people can’t be murdered anymore thing. And Tony has to prove it before he gets taken out the same way, murdered by other means.

Escape Rating A: John Scalzi has a very fine line in snark. In fact, his snarkitude is a good chunk of what I read him – or in this case listen to him – FOR. His characters generally do a marvelous chuckle-with-a-grimace job at making me chuckle with that grimace, because they manage to say all the clever things that most of us figure out long after a conversation is done while said conversation is still going on – when that smart-aleck-ness can be delivered with full force – even if it’s just within the confines of the characters own head.

Which is where we spend the entirety of Murder by Other Means. In Tony Valdez’ head.

There’s also usually at least one character in each of this author’s stories that feels like it’s the voice of the author’s public persona, and in this particular series, it’s definitely Tony. Meaning that if you like Tony’s “voice” in this story there’s a very good chance you’ll like the author’s other work as well, including his blog, Whatever. If Tony’s too snarky for your taste than probably Scalzi is too. I digress.

As I said, the snarkitude is what I read this author for.

Something that I wasn’t expecting, but loved all the same, was Tony’s Chicago. Even more so than the first book in this series, Tony’s Chicago sounded and felt like the Chicago I remember, to the point where I’m pretty sure that at one point I lived in the same neighborhood that Tony does.

Even the “L” stops are the same. So when Tony described buildings and places, it was more than just seeing them in my head. I remembered them in a way that invoked a profound familiarity as well as nostalgia. I was just there in a way that doesn’t happen often but was utterly wonderful.

This week has turned out to be bookended by stories set in Chi-Town, and that trip down memory lane – however twisted into fiction – has been lovely.

But this is, primarily, a mystery story – even if it does have a futuristic and/or urban fantasy type vibe. It honestly feels more like urban fantasy, as Tony’s Chicago doesn’t feel all that far away in time from the now. And there’s no science. No one knows why people stopped dying by murder. It could be science. It could be magic. It could be a deus ex machina. And it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the human response to the change. And that is something that we get a terrific perspective on through Tony’s eyes and in Tony’s voice. The fascination in the story is that the circumstances may change, but human beings are still totally screwed up.

And the way that they are – that we are – screwed up leads both to the crime and its solution in a way that keeps the reader in Tony’s head long after his voice (marvelously brought to life by Zachary Quinto) fades away.

Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Review: The Last Emperox by John ScalziThe Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Interdependency #3
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on April 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?

My Review:

It is impossible, reading this now in the midst of the COVID19 crisis, not to see just how much the situation that the people of the Interdependency are in parallels life as we currently know it. The degree of resonance alternates between astonishing and appalling, depending on where in the story one is and what one thinks about current conditions.

Making it all the more amazing that when this story began, with the writing of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, probably sometime in the fall of 2016 for its March 2017 release. Not that, from certain perspectives, the world wasn’t already headed for a dumpster fire in the fall of 2016.

But just as no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects a worldwide pandemic, and no one in the Interdependency expected the basis of their entire, interdependent (hence the name), galaxy-spanning civilization to collapse relatively suddenly and without nearly enough warning to re-shape said civilization in time to save all that much of it.

If they can manage to overcome the sheer, unadulterated self-centered selfishness of the so-called elites and do the right thing – if anyone can figure out what that is – in time. They might manage to save civilization. But they don’t have a prayer of saving all of the people in it.

This is one of those cases where the needs of the many really, really, seriously outweigh the needs of the few. And, like so many of those cases, so much is dependent on who gets to decide who constitutes those “many”.

For Nadashe Nohamapeton, the many are the members of the Interdependency’s ruling families and mercantile guilds, who are frequently one and the same. She has a plan to save them – or at least those of them that haven’t pissed her off or done her wrong or gotten in her way. Of course, anyone who falls into any of those three categories can be eliminated, even if they are members of her own family.

As for the billions of people who make up the Interdepency, in Nadashe’s worldview they are all expendable. They are to be lied to, placated if possible, subjugated if necessary and left behind to die in isolation while the important parts of the Interdepency leave Hub for End, the only planet in the entire system capable of supporting human life all by itself without the resources of the Interdepency to fill in the gaps.

Among the people standing in Nadashe’s way is the Emperox. She’ll need to be taken out of Nadashe’s way so that those who Nadashe believes are the important parts of the Interdepency can survive. So from Nadashe’s perspective the Emperox has to go. After all, she’s sitting in the seat that Nadashe plans to occupy.

To Emperox Grayland II, the many are the people of the Interdepency. All of those billions that Nadashe plans to leave behind to die in the dark and the cold. Or whatever terrible fate befalls them. Nadashe may not care but Grayland certainly does. What she doesn’t have is a plan. Not exactly. But with the help of Marce Claremont, her scientific advisor – and lover – they might have just enough time to discover a way to save, maybe not everyone, but an awful, awful lot of the people who, in Grayland’s mind, are the Interdependency.

But if the population as a whole constitute the many, then Grayland, and Marce, are the few – and the one.

Escape Rating A+: I had a terrible approach/avoidance issue with this book. A part of that was because I had originally intended to listen to it, as I have to the entire rest of the series. The walking profanity explosion that is Kiva Lagos is best appreciated in audio. She just doesn’t have the same impact when reading the book yourself. Also, Wil Wheaton has done a fantastic job with the series, including this entry. But I normally listen while driving, or while on a treadmill at the gym, and everything has been closed. I had more time for reading but fewer opportunities for listening. In the end I mostly played Solitaire and just let the audio wash over me. It was marvelous.

Also, and probably more importantly, this is the last book in the trilogy, and I knew that going in. So I was going to have to say goodbye to all of these wonderful characters and this fascinating world, and I was NOT looking forward to that – at all.

By the nature of the setup of the series, it was also pretty clear that there could not possibly be a happy ending. The end of their civilization is coming, it’s not their fault, but there isn’t anything they can do to stop it, either. By a whole lot of definitions, this is a no-win scenario. In order to have an unequivocal happy ending for these characters, there would have to occur an unbelievable amount of deus ex machina. Possibly even dei ex machina, a whole damn pantheon of dei.

And it would have been a cheat. So I was expecting a butcher’s bill at the end. I had no illusions about that, but it did mean that I wanted to know how it all worked out – but didn’t exactly WANT to know who got worked out of the story to make it wrap up.

I’ll admit that there was a point near the end where the whole thing gave me the weepies. It reminded me very much of Delenn’s absolute tearjerker scene in the Babylon 5 finale “Sleeping in Light”. I cried then, too.

But what I think will stick in the mind about this series has a lot more to do with Kiva Lagos’ observation that, “whenever selfish humans encountered a wrenching, life-altering crisis, they embarked on a journey of five distinct stages:

1. Denial.
2. Denial.
3. Denial
4. Fucking Denial.
5. Oh shit everything is terrible grab what you can and run.”

This trilogy as a whole is about the response to stage five. Whether it is possible, or not, to draw back from that brink or get past that impulse and figure out a way to not just “rage against the dying of the light” but to finesse a way around it. In spite of all the people saying it can’t be done, as well as more than a few – like Nadashe – saying it shouldn’t be done.

It’s a great story about the indomitability of the human spirit. Also about the corruptibility of the human spirit, and the conflict between the two. With an ending that is an absolute punch to the gut.

One final note. The ending of the series as a whole had one last twist to throw at everyone. A twist that turns out kind of like the ending of the joke about a German Shepherd, a Doberman and a cat who have died and gone to heaven. I’ll leave you to discover who plays the part of the cat.