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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalThe Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
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On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade City by Fonda LeeJade City (The Green Bone Saga, #1) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #1
Pages: 498
Published by Orbit on November 7, 2017
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Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

Review: Magic for Liars by Sarah GaileyMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, Xe Sands
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on June 4th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sharp, mainstream fantasy meets compelling thrills of investigative noir in this fantasy debut by rising star Sarah Gailey.

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1) by Arkady Martine, Amy Landon
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Teixcalaan #1
Pages: 464
Published by Tor on April 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This incredible opening to the trilogy recalls the best of John le Carré, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before she joins him on another slab.

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

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

By making it a whole lot wronger first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an enemy bears down on them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora GossEuropean Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical mystery
Series: Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #2
Pages: 720
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

No matter what it takes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Finder by Suzanne Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or they won’t.

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

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

I can still hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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