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.

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. HamiltonDragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #1
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Author of one of BuzzFeed 's Greatest Fantasy Books of 2013

In his magnificent, heroic, adventure fantasy, Dragonslayer, Duncan M. Hamilton debuts the first book in a fast-moving trilogy: a dangerous tale of lost magics, unlikely heroes, and reawakened dragons.

Once a member of the King's personal guard, Guillot dal Villevauvais spends most days drinking and mourning his wife and child. He’s astonished—and wary—when the Prince Bishop orders him to find and destroy a dragon. He and the Prince Bishop have never exactly been friends and Gill left the capital in disgrace five years ago. So why him? And, more importantly, how is there a dragon to fight when the beasts were hunted to extinction centuries ago by the ancient Chevaliers of the Silver Circle?

On the way to the capitol city, Gill rescues Solène, a young barmaid, who is about to be burned as a witch. He believes her innocent…but she soon proves that she has plenty of raw, untrained power, a problem in this land, where magic is forbidden. Yet the Prince Bishop believes magic will be the key to both destroying the dragon and replacingthe young, untried King he pretends to serve with a more pliable figurehead. Between Gill’s rusty swordsmanship and Solene’s unstable magic, what could go wrong?

My Review:

Dragonslayer turned out to be surprisingly – and epically – marvelous. I’m saying this because I picked up the ARC last year and it got buried under the weight of the towering TBR pile. I always meant to get to it, but just didn’t quite. Then I got the audiobook last month. Audible was having a sale and I got the first two books in the series for cheap. Or cheaper anyway. I’ve discovered that epic fantasy and SF work really well in audio – it’s easy to get caught up in the action and forget I’m walking a treadmill or stuck in traffic.

So when I bailed on an audio I just couldn’t tolerate, I remembered I had Dragonslayer. And that, surprising for an epic fantasy, it was only about 10ish hours long. That’s amazeballs. For an epic fantasy that truly is epic in scope, the series as a whole is blissfully NOT epic in length. The entire trilogy clocks in at just a shade over 900 pages, or just a hair over 30 hours in audio. Most epic fantasy in audio hovers around the 24 hour mark.

Dragonslayer is proof positive, very positive, that an epic fantasy can be told without turning into a tall pile of many thousand page doorstops. So if you know someone who is interested in epic fantasy but daunted by the length, Dragonslayer is terrific.

Part of what made it so good, at least from my perspective, is that it didn’t turn out to be any of the things I thought it was going to be at the beginning. Except that it claims to be epic fantasy, and it certainly is that, albeit of the sword and sorcery variety – something that we don’t see nearly enough of these days.

It all begins with Gill, technically Guillot dal Villerauvais. Gill is the drunken has-been who used to be the best swordsman in the kingdom. Now he’s the town drunk in the town where he’s supposed to be seigneur, the local squire.

We get the impression that he’s old and washed-up. That he’s pissed away his skill and his glory. But we think he’s Falstaff, a fat buffoon, when he’s really more like Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion. He used to be a hero. It’s both a pain and a purpose when he discovers that he’s STILL the hero, even if he doesn’t want to be, or feels that he’s no longer remotely capable of being.

He’s also not half so old as his world-weary voice (expertly acted by Simon Vance in the audio) makes him appear to be. Discovering late in the story that Gill is, at most, 40 years old is a bit of a shock. Gill is a heartbroken, heartbreaking lesson in what happens to a person when they realize that all their dreams are behind them.

The classic story about dragonslaying usually features the dragon as a rampaging beast out to slay all it encounters, whether for eating or just for the joy of slaughter. Here we have a thinking creature, woken from a long slumber by a troupe of pillaging humans intent on ransacking his cave in search of magical treasure. The dragon in this story may be the force that starts the action, but he’s not, even in the worst of his depredations, the villain of the piece.

That place is reserved for the Prince-Bishop Amaury, the power behind the Mirabayan throne and at the head of the newly formed – and illegally magical – Order of the Golden Spur, whose purpose is to hunt out magic and turn it to their own use. Or rather, to Amaury’s own use.

It’s been said that people whose titles are longer than their names are always complete arseholes. That’s certainly true in Amaury’s case. He also seems to be an object lesson about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Not that he has ABSOLUTE power – at least not yet. But he’s working on it.

Amaury believes that Gill stands in his way. Because Gill has always stood in his way – at least according to Amaury. This time, he’s going to get what he wants out of Gill and then Gill is going to get what’s coming to him.

Unless, of course, Gill manages to stand in his way – again. If Gill can manage to stand at all.

Escape Rating A+: There is so much going on in this book, and all of it is fascinating. Or at least it was to me. This was one where I got so into it I started switching back and forth between the audio and the ebook. Because I just wasn’t listening fast enough – but the reading was so very good.

There are reasons why narrator Simon Vance is in the Narrator Hall of Fame, and plenty of hours of those reasons are in Dragonslayer.

There were so many elements to this story, and the more I think about it the more I believe I’ve found – or at least seen glimpses of.

While the biggest part of the story wraps around Gill’s quest to pull himself back together, slay the dragon and avenge the people it’s killed, his is not the only story and he’s not the only hero in this tale.

Solène, the young mage, has her own story to tell, and her own journey to reach her destiny. It just so happens that her journey and Gill’s keep intersecting – from the beginning when he saves her from burning at the stake, to the end of this installment where she saves him from an assassin. In between, while he takes the direct path to the dragon, Solene takes herself to learn magic, only to be forced to choose between a place she can be safe – and the right thing to do.

One refreshing element of the story is that while Gill and Solène come to rely on each other and care about each other, it’s a relationship that does not fall into any neat pigeonholes. Gill doesn’t have himself together enough to feel capable of the kind of mentorship that even an ersatz parental relationship would require, and there is blissfully NO HINT WHATSOEVER that this will ever turn romantic. It’s lovely to show that not all close relationships, particularly close opposite sex relationships, HAVE to end in romance.

Last but not least, while this book was published in mid-2019 and probably finished sometime the previous year, finishing it today showed some striking parallels between the way that towns and villages were emptying out in hopes of getting away from the dragon and the response to the current COVID-19 pandemic in real life. In both cases, public spaces are empty and people are fearful. A virus is even harder to outrun than a flying, fire-breathing dragon.

The hints about the past of this world, the long ago time of great magic, great mages and even greater dragons give tantalizing clues to the journey that Gill and Solene will have to undertake in the remaining books of the trilogy, Knight of the Silver Circle and Servant of the Crown.

I’ll be listening to Knight of the Silver Circle in the morning, possibly as you are reading this review. I can’t wait!

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard Cats by Faith HunterJunkyard Cats by Faith Hunter
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, post apocalyptic
Series: Junkyard Cats #1
Published by Audible Studios on January 2nd 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

After the Final War, after the appearance of the Bug aliens and their enforced peace, Shining Smith is still alive, still doing business from the old scrapyard bequeathed to her by her father. But Shining is now something more than human. And the scrapyard is no longer just a scrapyard, but a place full of secrets that she has guarded for years.

This life she has built, while empty, is predictable and safe. Until the only friend left from her previous life shows up, dead, in the back of a scrapped Tesla warplane, a note to her clutched in his fingers - a note warning her of a coming attack.

Someone knows who she is. Someone knows what she is guarding. Will she be able to protect the scrapyard? Will she even survive? Or will she have to destroy everything she loves to keep her secrets out of the wrong hands?

My Review:

I picked up Junkyard Cats because it was one of the monthly freebies for Audible members. It looked like interesting SF, had “Cats” in the title, and I was looking for something shorter after spending a whole lot of hours sucked into an excellent but long story and needed a bit of a break.

And did I ever get one. Although Shining Smith doesn’t seem to get many. Ever. At all.

The setting for Junkyard Cats is a remote bit of post-apocalyptic West Virginia in a future that doesn’t seem that far away in time from our present. But it’s clearly one hell of distance down the road to hell.

This is not remotely one of the fun post-apocalypses. Shining Smith’s world is more like Mad Max – possibly Mad Max on steroids. Or on Devil Milk, which actually seems to be worse. Or both.

The sheer bleakness of this post-climate-seriously-changed world reminds me a bit of the world of American War. Only a whole lot worse on the environmental front. But less…awful…in a different way as this wasn’t kicked off by a civil war. At least not so far as we know – yet. And not that it hasn’t become one along the way.

But the story of Junkyard Cats is the story of how Shining’s remote, lonely and seemingly safe little junkyard gets invaded – disrupting her hard-won peace and exposing all of her many, many secrets.

Including the crashed spaceship buried in her backyard. Especially the spaceship buried in her backyard. And the secret hidden in Shining’s radically altered DNA. Her enemies have found her – and so have her friends. Shining’s biggest problem is figuring out which are which.

And letting the cats, her Cats, have the rest. After all, in a world where everything that supports life is very, very scarce, a protein source is much too good to let go to waste.

Escape Rating A-: I really, really wish there was more of this available already, because this first story is a teaser with a lot of worldbuilding, a crew of absolutely fascinating characters – whether organic, partly organic, or artificially intelligent – and a pride of sentient, semi-telepathic warrior cats with an agenda of their own. But then, don’t cats always have an agenda of their own?

Actually, she had me at the cats, but in the end I was equally beguiled by Shining Smith’s world-weary voice. The narrator does an excellent job conveying Shining’s loneliness, her hopes, her fears and especially her desperate need to keep her very motley crew safe and to keep the rest of the world safe from her.

And her complete, total and utter annoyance that the world has come to get her because she couldn’t let go of her past – no matter how much she seriously needed to.

The biggest part of this story is a gigantic battle, conducted all over the junkyard with the help of her friends – including a few that Shining didn’t even know she had – or that some of them even existed in a state that could truly help. And that’s her fault too.

But this is a battle that’s not over when it’s over. The only question is where the next front will be – and who and what Shining can bring to the fight.

As teasers go, Junkyard Cats is one hell of a tease. I just wish I could find some info on where Shining Smith and the Cats go from here. Because they are awesome.

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

Review: The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa ColeThe A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Published by Audible Audio on December 3rd 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A captivating romantic comedy with a thrilling sci-fi twist by award-winning author Alyssa Cole!

Trinity Jordan leads a quiet, normal life: working from home for the Hive, a multifunctional government research center, and recovering from the incident that sent her into a tailspin. But the life she’s trying to rebuild is plagued by mishaps when Li Wei, her neighbor’s super sexy and super strange nephew, moves in and turns things upside down. Li Wei’s behavior is downright odd—and the attraction building between them is even more so. When an emergency pulls his aunt away from the apartment complex, Trinity decides to keep an eye on him…and slowly discovers that nothing is what it seems. For one thing, Li Wei isn’t just the hot guy next door—he’s the hot A.I. next door. In fact, he’s so advanced that he blurs the line between man and machine. It’s up to Trinity to help him achieve his objective of learning to be human, but danger is mounting as they figure out whether he’s capable of the most illogical human behavior of all…falling in love.

My Review:

I thought I knew where this was going. Since I was enjoying where it was going, I was happy to be along for the ride. But then, it went in a direction I wasn’t expecting – and it got even better.

What I expected after the first chapter or so was something like the classic A.I. romance The Silver Metal Lover – or perhaps Data proclaiming that he was “fully functional” in the Star Trek Next Gen episode The Naked Now, but set in a world that felt like a slice of Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow from his Radicalized collection.

Instead, I got a terrific science fiction romance set in a near-future dystopian U.S. crossed with a spy thriller. And I loved every minute of it – especially after I got surprised by the turn.

So, at first we have Trinity Jordan, working from home while recovering from an accident. But this is the future. Her home is a tiny apartment and all of her appliances are way too smart for Trinity’s own good – especially Penny, her home monitoring app – and secret therapist.

But it’s obvious from the beginning that things aren’t quite what they appear.  A suspicion that only gets deeper when Trinity meets her neighbor’s visiting nephew, Li Wei. (Actually, it turns out that nothing and no one are quite what they appear to be.)

Something isn’t right about Li Wei. Her neighbor passes off his strangeness as memory issues due to recovering from an accident – not a dissimilar case to Trinity’s. While Li Wei’s social skills may be so lacking as to be non-existent, he’s so damn good-looking that Trinity’s libido wakes up from an extremely long nap to sit up and take notice. And notice. And notice.

The more time they spend together, the better Li Wei gets at communicating – and the more obvious it becomes that something is wrong with both Li Wei and Trinity. And that it’s the same kind of wrong – and the same kind of right.

Escape Rating A: First of all, I absolutely loved this. It was short and sweet and went in directions I wasn’t expecting and it was all just marvelous.

Second of all, this is the first romance audiobook I’ve ever reviewed. I read plenty of romance, but those are ebooks. Listening to romance is a bit different. It felt weird listening to the sex scenes. They were well done – they definitely were – but there’s a psychological difference between having those scenes go through my eyes vs through my ears.

Third, this is a full-cast recording. Most audiobook narrators are good at differentiating the voices of the different characters, but full-cast recordings are always extra special.

The one downside of this being an audiobook and only an audiobook is that I have no idea how to spell the name of any character who isn’t mentioned in the Goodreads blurb. For most of the time I was listening to this story, I thought that “Li Wei” was “Leeway”. This does not change my enjoyment of the whole thing one little bit, but it makes me wary of mentioning any character whose name I have no idea how to spell. Like Trinity’s neighbor who claims that Li Wei is her nephew. Or Trinity’s two girlfriends. I’m pretty sure that Tim the cat is just “Tim”. And he’s an adorable cat even though he does turn out to be 50 pounds of bio-synthetic feline.

What I loved about this story was the ever-deepening layers of subversion. At first it feels like a robot romance – and those have been around at least since 1981. So there’s nothing new about the romance between Trinity and Li Wei. But then things get deeper – and darker. The more that Li Wei falls in love with Trinity, the more he realizes that there is something wrong – even more wrong than what is obvious on the surface.

The deeper he digs, the more he uncovers, and the deeper they fall. Until the story finally breaks open – and it changes everything.

So grab The A.I. Who Loved Me for the romance – and stay for the surprisingly deep science fiction surprise tucked into its gooey center. You’ll be glad you did. Meanwhile, the audiobook promises that there will be more in this series, following Trinity’s friends. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what happens next!

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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Pages: 431
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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.