Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa ColeWhen No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…
Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.
But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.
When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?

My Review:

This is a bit of a three-legged race of a book. There are three threads to this story, all heading towards an ending, but one is going slow like a Model T, one is speeding along like it’s racing for NASCAR, and one is tootling along in a clown car.

Except that none of this story is funny.

But seriously, there are three separate plot threads to this story. While they are all heading towards the same finish, they are not racing at the same pace or with nearly the same amount of success.

When the story begins it looks kind of like we’re at the beginning of a (very) slow burn romance between Sydney and Theo, when Theo and his about-to-be-ex-girlfriend move in across the street from Sydney in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up.

Both of their lives are in turmoil. Theo because of the impending breakup, but Sydney because well, shit has happened to her and it just keeps happening. Her marriage failed, her ex was emotionally abusive and wrecked her self-esteem, she’s unemployed, her mother was scammed out of her house and Sydney’s trying to get it back AND she’s trying to pay off back taxes and huge medical bills for both of them.

In the middle of their intersecting and imploding lives – drops the second thread about the consequences of gentrification for the people who live in the area being gentrified. A euphemism that usually means moving the brown people and the marginalized people OUT by fair means or foul, mostly foul, so that the white people can move IN.

Sydney is creating a walking tour of the neighborhood for an upcoming holiday celebration, and Theo gets recruited as her research assistant. The history that they uncover is well and truly appalling and it’s hard not to see it happening all around them as they are watching and researching, because Theo’s soon-to-be-ex is right in the thick of it.

But then there’s the depth of the evil that is behind this particular wave of gentrification, and is hinted at having been behind many if not most of the previous waves. And there’s the clown car rolling in.

Not that they aren’t truly evil, because they are. But because once Sydney and Theo find their way to the center of this particular tentacle of the long-running conspiracy it seems to be run by folks who learned how to be evil from comic book villains.

They’ve been successful not because they’re intelligent, but because so many people are complicit and so few seem to have chosen to stand and fight. They represent both the mediocrity of evil and and a perfect example of the old adage about the only thing required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

Which may make this book the perfect thing to encapsulate recent events in the U.S. but caused it to fall a bit flat at the end.

Escape Rating B-: The history that underpins this story is absolutely fascinating. And it was great to see a book that managed to give the evils of gentrification not just a human face, but to make it comprehensible without becoming either a history text, an info dump, or just a boring lecture.

The way that the gentrification subplot wove into both of the other parts of the story was the best part of this book.

The romance, on the other hand, was a slow burn that didn’t really need to burn at all. I’m not sure I bought the chemistry between Sydney and Theo, and both of them were rebounding from such shitty relationships – and somewhat the same kind of shitty – that I wasn’t left with any real hope of even much of a happy for now.

And both of them were such unreliable narrators of their own lives that I’m left wondering if there really was anything there but sex and desperation – and whether or not there should have been. The first 100 pages of the book are a complete downer as both of their lives just seem to be spiraling towards the drain at an increasing rate of speed.

The thriller part of this story, discovering that this particular act of replacement, removal and rebuilding, or break and build as the book puts it, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, once that part of the story finally gets going it really gets going. The final 50+ pages move along like gangbusters.

Or like a first-person shooter type of video game. The pace is fast, the bodies are falling, the discoveries are horrific and the heroes barely manage to survive the boss battle at the end.

The problem was that the bosses we saw, the people behind it all, read like comic book villains. It felt like they succeeded in spite of their incompetence and not because of their competence. They succeeded up until that point because “the system” is set up for them to succeed.

Which may be the most evil thing of all. But it didn’t make for the best story, which was a disappointment because this was a book I really wanted to love and just didn’t.

Reviewer’s Note: I think I read the books in the wrong order this week. Because the “happy, happy, joy, joy” reaction I’m having post-Inauguration makes it difficult to get into a thriller that gets pretty dark but doesn’t get there half as successfully as I expected. It’s definitely making me wonder how books written during the mess of the last four years and especially during the pandemic are going to fare once we get further down the road to normal.

Although that journey feels like it’s already begun, leading to my fit of exuberance.

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Review: Conjure Women by Afia AtakoraConjure Women by Afia Atakora
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Published by Random House on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and for the conjuring of curses—are at the heart of this dazzling first novel
Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother's footsteps as a midwife; and their master's daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.
Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.

My Review:

The story of Conjure Women is the story of Miss Rue, born in slavery to the healing woman – or conjure woman – Miss May Belle and her man, a slave on the next plantation over.

Through the entire story Rue is one who stands tall – even when she is bowed down by trauma, grief or fear. But there is plenty of that fear and it shadows the whole story. Everything Rue has, everything she does, is conditional – and she knows it.

She can be sold at any time – and very nearly is. She can be beaten at the owner’s whim. Her dad is killed at the owner’s whim for a crime he did not commit, because the white girl who is both Rue’s friend and her enemy carelessly mentions his name when her father is looking for someone to blame for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Even after the war, when she and her people are not merely free but temporarily ignored by the whites that surround their tiny, self-sufficient village, she knows that their freedom and prosperity is contingent on whites not stumbling over them. A contingency with a life measured in months.

And yet, in spite of everything that hangs over Rue’s life, this is a story of living. Of living through adversity, heartbreak and even despair. But of making a life that is more than mere survival.

It just takes a LOT of hard work. And a bit of conjuring. Perhaps just a bit too much conjuring. Because in Rue’s attempts to save what she can, she very nearly destroys what she loves most.

Escape Rating A: Conjure Women is Rue’s story, Rue and her mother Miss May Belle are the conjure women of the title. But, it begins with the boy, Bean, and ends with him, too. And isn’t that generally the way of things?

The story slips a bit back and forth in time as we follow Rue from her childhood in slaverytime to her adolescence in wartime and eventually her heartbreaking experiences in freedomtime. But we don’t experience her life in order. Rather, the times are linked by events and memories, and lead forward and backward and in the middle again as Rue’s thoughts travel from childhood to tragedy to hope to heartbreak to childhood until the ending – which wraps its way obliquely around to the beginning – and to Bean.

Sometimes those transitions are a bit jarring, and it can take the reader a bit to figure out how the story got to the place it suddenly is. But in the end it all does flow together, as coherent and as disjointed as memory.

In the end, Conjure Women is a compelling, complicated and frequently uncomfortable book. Rue is a character that readers are compelled to follow, as she is a mass of contradictions and insecurities doing her best to survive and even thrive in a world that has declared that she is less than nothing.

It’s Rue’s responsibility and duty as the healer to take care of her people and keep them healthy and safe, just as her mother did before her. No matter how often she feels inadequate to the task. No matter that they love her when she heals their ills but hate and fear her when she fails. Nor does it matter, as it did with her mother before her, that in slaverytime her task of keeping them healthy served the purpose of a master who wanted to get the maximum amount of work out of them for the minimum of expenditure.

No matter how many lies she has to tell. To her mother, to her people – and to herself. Feeling with her as we see the price she has to pay – and keep paying – is what makes her a character that carries the reader through this marvelous book. As she carried so many others.

Reviewer’s Note: Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. This work of fiction, created as a beautifully written combination of first-person accounts and historical documentation, tells a truth that we as Americans don’t want to see. That slavery was “a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks,” as Harriet Jacobs said in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And that the hatred on the faces of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, because they believe in everything that the last four years have stood for, are the spiritual descendants of the hatred on the faces hidden under the post-Civil War masks of the KKK who haunt the later chapters of this story. As much as we don’t want to admit it, the haters are every bit as much a part of this country, every bit as much a representation of who we really are, as those who are doing their damnedest to make the arc of our history bend towards the justice for all that is espoused in the Pledge of Allegiance.

I didn’t factor in just how difficult it would be to sit down and compose this review just after the inauguration ceremony finished. I also can’t help but think it’s important and significant that Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who read her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration could be Rue’s (however many greats) granddaughter. And that Rue would never have imagined this day to be possible from the perspective of her own life, even by the time she died at the book’s end.

This book was marvelous from beginning to end – and so was that poem.

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah JohnsonThe Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, F/F romance, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's Website
Goodreads

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

My Review:

The Space Between Worlds is filled with paradox and wonder, and resonates to the beat of butterfly wings.

This is a story of the multiverse, of parallel universes that are almost, but not quite, the same. Universes that are all post-apocalyptic, in one way, or another, or all of the above.

It’s also a story of irony, in that this is a story where the people that society has classed as the most expendable, are also the most valuable – but only as long as they are useful.

And it’s a story about families, and the infinitesimally thin line between love and hate.

The Space Between Worlds is a story about contrasts. The contrast between safe, wealthy and white Wiley City, and the dangerous, poor and brown wastelands that surround it.

Cara is someone who walks between the worlds. Because she is a wastelander, brown and disposable on seemingly all of the worlds that resonate enough with “Earth Zero” to be visited, she is mostly dead.

Not in The Princess Bride sense of “mostly dead”, but in the sense that most of the different Caras, the Cara on most of the 382 worlds that are close enough to her own to be able to be visited, Cara has not lived to reach adulthood. Or at least not reached the age that the Cara on Earth Zero has.

That paradoxically makes Cara a very valuable “traverser”, or traveler between the worlds. People can only visit worlds where their local equivalent has already died – and Cara has died nearly everywhere.

But she’s also someone who travels between worlds on her own world. At work, she does her best to fit into the sterile, safe, white world of Wiley City – no matter how little it looks as if she belongs there.

When she goes back home to the wastes, she pretends to still fit into her family, the religion that keeps them together and the violence that surrounds them.

But Cara belongs in neither place. Because she is not the Cara that the Eldridge Institute hired, and she is not the Cara raised by the family she has come to love. She is the Cara from another Earth who found the original Cara dead and took her place.

Because she is a survivor. It’s what she does best. It’s who she is.

This story puts that survival instinct to the test. Not just because she finds a world that she has a chance to save, but because saving Earth 175 gives her the tools to save the Earth she has made her own. If she is willing to take them up.

If she is willing to risk her safety, her secrets and her skin to discover exactly what she’s made of. If she’s willing to die to make things right, just once.

Escape Rating A+: This was awesome. A lot of my reading buddies recommended this one, and now I know why. It tells a fantastic story and there’s so much packed into it if you want to go hunting for all the possibilities, but the story has the reader on the edge of their seat for the whole ride.

The Space Between Worlds is very much a post-apocalyptic story. But it’s not the immediate aftermath. While those are fascinating because there’s so much chaos, it’s every bit as interesting to see what humans have made of the messed up world that other humans caused and left behind. Usually by dying.

One thing that caught me was that we don’t know where, relative to our current world, Wiley City and its surrounding wastelands are. And it doesn’t matter. What we see feels plausible, that enough of a city survived that it became prosperous again and gathered refugees around it who wanted to share in that prosperity and safety. Only to discover that the prejudices of the old world continued in the new. There are always haves, and there are always have nots who hope to become haves. And that the haves guard their position ruthlessly.

It’s very explicit in this story that the haves are white. Very, very white. Not just by skin color, although that seems to have been at the heart and the start of it, but also because of that ruthless guarding of privilege. Citizens of Wiley City live in a completely enclosed world. They don’t see the sun, they only experience natural light through extreme filters, because natural light can be dangerous. So over the generations their coloring has become lighter and paler.

The wastelands are exposed to all the elements. The brutal sun, the chemically destroyed earth, water and air. The dirt. They are brown of skin, dark of hair and eye, and their clothes are never completely clean because there is so much junk in the air and water.

One of the fascinating contrasts is the way that Wiley City takes care of its people, while the wastelands force their people to survive if they can and die if they can’t. At the same time, the two areas are trapped in an entirely symbiotic relationship, and they need each other.

And they are both ruled by an emperor, even if the “emperor” of Wiley City isn’t called that. And even if, in some of the Earths of the multiverse, the positions of the two rulers is reversed. Because in all of them they are brothers.

As fascinating as everything about this future world is, at its heart it is always Cara’s story. Caralee from Earth 22, who pretends to be Caramenta from Earth Zero but who only begins to figure out who she really is and what she really wants to be when she meets the one person she should never be able to meet, her doppelganger on Earth 175. They’ve all made different mistakes, the wings of the butterfly have flapped and blown them in slightly different directions, but their lives have all been wrapped around the same family and the same men, the two emperors.

But this time is going to be different, because Cara isn’t just going to survive, she’s going to fight. Once she figures out who and what she is really fighting for – and against.

This is, in the end, a story about choosing your battles, finding your path, and figuring out which version of your life is the one you can live with. And it’s awesome.

Review: Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Remote Control by Nnedi OkoraforRemote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, science fiction
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The new book by Nebula and Hugo Award-winner, Nnedi Okorafor.
"She’s the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Beware of her. Mind her. Death guards her like one of its own."
The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­--a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.
Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks--alone, except for her fox companion--searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.
But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

My Review:

Remote Control is the story of Sankofa, the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Or so the legends go.

When I first read the blurb for this book, my first thought was that Sankofa was someone like Susan Sto-Helit in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. In that fantasy world, Susan is really the adopted granddaughter of Death, the anthropomorphized personification of the Grim Reaper, who rides a pale horse named Binky and likes cats. This is a fantasy world where anything can, and frequently does, happen.

But Remote Control is not set in a fantasy world. Instead, this is a not-too-distant future of our own world, set in an Africa where jelli-tellies and even-smarter smartphones are coveted and sold and where legends that feel as if they are out of the distant past walk the earth at the same time.

This is not a fantasy, no matter how much it reads like one.

Sankofa is not, technically, the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death, no matter how many such stories get wrapped around her small, slim person.

But she is death. Or she brings death. Or she can. Or all of the above. Once upon a time, when she was an even younger child than she is now, a meteor shower dropped meteorites like little seeds over her father’s shea tree orchard.

One of those meteorites WAS a seed. A seed that Sankofa before she became Sankofa, back when she was a little girl named Fatima, nurtured and petted and talked to as if it were a person and a confidant and a pet.

Whether it was the girl’s care of that seed, or whether it was the seed’s intended purpose all along, the seed gave her a gift – or a curse. And when that seed was stolen from her, that gift bloomed from her like a toxic gas.

When she became angry, or upset, or was in pain, the little girl burned hot and glowed green like poison. Whatever that green glow touched fell down dead. Like the mosquitos that loved to eat her. Like her parents who sold her little seed for a lot of money. Like everyone in the village who was just too close when her pain and anger overcame her – including her family.

Like her name and her memory that burned away in the fire of that green. She left Fatima behind among the dead of her village and wandered the roads as Sankofa, searching for the seed that was stolen from her.

Only to discover, once she found it, that it was even more of a curse than she ever believed.

Escape Rating A: Remote Control is a novella, meaning that it is relatively short but complete in and of itself. So if you love SF and have not yet read any of Nnedi’s books, this is a great place to start. As is her absolutely awesome Binti, which is both a novella and the first in her epic and marvelous Binti Trilogy of novellas.

Novellas are shorter than novels, but longer than novelettes or short stories. They are not novels that got cut down. Rather, novellas are the length that they are meant to be, they’re meant to be the length that they are. They may tease at a larger world or deeper background or more that happens after they close – or all of the above – but they complete their own story in their shortness, and are great ways to introduce yourself to a new-to-you author.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t frequently wish that a particular novella had a bit more to it, because I often do. But then, I love worldbuilding when it’s good and I always want more.

Remote Control is a bit of a tease of a story, because at first it seems more like a fantasy than SF. In Sankofa’s childish perspective – after all the story begins when she is only 5 – we don’t see much in the way of SFnal trappings. Her family farm and her world could be in a wide range of eras.

It’s only after Fatima becomes Sankofa and takes herself away from home and tragedy that we see the wider world and learn that this is the relatively near future. It’s a world that we can sort of see from here, if we squint a bit.

As Sankofa travels, we see her grow, and follow along as her legend grows with her – and she learns how to take advantage – but not too much – of that legend. People give her what she needs both because they are afraid of what she brings. She brings death. She can kill an entire village. She has. She can lash out in fear and/or self-preservation. And she can bring release to those who desperately need it.

And we watch her try to leave her legend and her gift behind, to grasp at some semblance of what passes for “normal”, only for that gift to reach out and grab her back.

Remote Control is the story of Sankofa’s coming of age and her coming to terms with who and what she is. But I’ll admit that I didn’t figure out where the title came from until the very end. And that when I did, it made the whole story into a much bigger WOW than I expected.

A revelation that I’m still reeling from a bit. And you will too if you follow along on Sankofa’s journey to its bittersweet but triumphant end.

Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 352
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel.
Recently divorced and staring down the barrel of moving back in with her parents, Carrot really needs a break. And a place to live. So when her Uncle Earl, owner of the eclectic Wonder Museum, asks her to stay with him in exchange for cataloguing the exhibits, of course she says yes.

The Wonder Museum is packed with taxidermy, shrunken heads, and an assortment of Mystery Junk. For Carrot, it's not creepy at all: she grew up with it. What's creepy is the hole that's been knocked in one of the museum walls, and the corridor behind it. There's just no space for a corridor in the museum's thin walls - or the concrete bunker at the end of it, or the strange islands beyond the bunker's doors, or the whispering, unseen things lurking in the willow trees.

Carrot has stumbled into a strange and horrifying world, and They are watching her. Strewn among the islands are the remains of Their meals - and Their experiments. And even if she manages to make it back home again, she can't stop calling Them after her...

My Review:

At the beginning, this reminded me way more of The Doors of Eden than it did Narnia – at least until it talked about The Magician’s Nephew and “the wood between the worlds”. Because that was a “between” place, and so is the place that Carrot and her friend Simon find themselves in when they step into a passageway between her uncle’s Wonder Museum and Simon’s sister’s coffee shop next door.

A passageway that leads someplace else. An elsewhere that is MUCH scarier than most of the places in the multiverse that those Doors of Eden led to, and much more inherently frightening than that wood between the worlds.

Physically, it sounds a lot more like the Barrow Downs of Middle Earth – at least a version of the Barrow Downs where the evil trees of Mirkwood had moved in and taken over. There’s also a “between” very much like this one, without the creepy trees, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I have a feeling there was a Doctor Who episode that had more than a bit of the same feel.

Or at least featured a similarly misplaced school bus. (It’s Planet of the Dead, which is a little too on the nose)

(My mind wandered a bit as I was reading, especially at the beginning, because it kept getting pinged by hints of so many familiar things!)

But the place that Carrot – her name is really Kara but her uncle still calls her Carrot – and Simon find themselves is definitely somewhere at the seriously creepy, downright Lovecraftian edge of the multiverse. Well, Lovecraftian if you squint and see tree roots as tentacles.

As Carrot says, everything in Lovecraft had tentacles. As scary as this story is, the tree roots will definitely do.

The story begins innocently enough, with Kara discovering a hole in the wall of the museum. A hole probably caused by a tourist. Because tourists make all the messes.

Kara and Simon both seemed to be afflicted with nearly terminal curiosity. Kara has returned to her tiny hometown of Hog Chapel, North Carolina, to a rent-free room over her uncle’s eclectic museum, after her unsatisfactory marriage ends in quiet divorce. If home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the Wonder Museum is certainly Kara’s.

Simon lives next door, also rent-free, over his sister’s coffee shop and earns his keep as her barista. Both Kara and Simon are theoretically adults, but seem a bit frozen in time and lack of maturity. They bond together because neither of them quite fits in, and they have way too much time on their hands, and much too much imagination.

So when Kara discovers that hole in the museum’s wall, she and Simon just have to investigate. When the hole leads to a corridor that simply doesn’t fit within the geography they know, they don’t board it up. They go back to get better supplies for further exploration.

The world that they discover on the other side of that hole in the wall will provide both of them with nightmares for the rest of their lives. If they can manage to make it back alive. And lock the door behind them.

Escape Rating B: I don’t usually care for horror, and I knew this was horror when I picked it up. But I love this author’s voice so I was more than willing to give it a try. After making sure that ALL the lights were on.

At first it did remind me of The Doors of Eden rather a lot. The idea that there was an opening to a “between” place that opened into who knows how many different worlds is something they have in common. And what Mal, Lee and Kay found on the other side of that “between” was every bit as scary as what Kara and Simon found.

But Doors was more science fictional. It might not be real science, but it did its best, and a very damn good best it was, to sound like it was based on something real. Or at least real-ish.

The Hollow Places, even though it started with the same kind of weird, wacky museum as The Museum of Forgotten Memories, took a turn straight into things that go bump in the night in very short order. Because there is definitely something lurking in those hollow places, those bunkers, and it is coming to get Kara, Simon, Beau the cat, and if it can get fully established, all the rest of us.

At the same time, so much of what happens in that other world reads like a kind of fever dream and it feels that way to Kara and Simon as it is happening. Beau just wants to kill any monsters that enter his territory. Or honestly pretty much any other thing that looks like prey that enters his territory. He’s very cat.

What makes the story work are the characters of Kara and Simon. (Also Beau, I loved Beau). To say that they are not adulting well probably sums up their surface. They’ve found a place where they can manage. It’s not exactly comfortable, but they’ve made their lives work. They’re not brave, they’re not heroic, they’re both unlucky in love and not with each other (Kara is straight and Simon is gay) but they hold each other up when the situation is at its absolute worst with a bit of common sense, a whole lot of bravado and just enough of the snarkitude that I read this author for.

Still, Kara and Simon are profoundly there for each other even when neither of them is willing to articulate precisely what it is they are there for, because that way lies madness and they both know it. I started this book for the snark – didn’t get quite as much of it as I was hoping for – but I finished it for them. And Beau.

The ending reminded me of something completely different from anything I was expecting in a horror novel. This may have started with The Magician’s Nephew, but it ended with The Velveteen Rabbit. Because Kara loved the tatty, stuffed and badly taxidermied animals that were such a big part of the Wonder Museum. She loved them enough that for one brief moment, when she needed all the help she could get from whatever place she could get it from, all those animals became, as the Rabbit so poignantly described, Real.

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle HazenBreathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books: Penguin Random House on August 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Two strangers start out saving animals and end up rescuing each other in this heartwarming romance from the author of Unbreak Me. 
Mari Tucker is a wildlife biologist who scoops bunnies and endangered tortoises out of harm’s way on construction sites. Still haunted by her past, she takes the most remote jobs in the Mojave Desert to avoid people and hide from her ex. It’s a simple, quiet life filled with sweet animals and solar-powered baking until she ends up assigned to Jack Wyatt’s crew.
Construction foreman Jack Wyatt’s loud, foul-mouthed temper keeps even the most rugged of men on his crew in line. No mistake is overlooked, because out in the desert it could mean life or death. In his opinion, the job site is no place for sensitive biologists, especially one as shy as Mari. But instead of wilting from the heat and hard work, Mari wins over Jack and his crew one homemade brownie at a time.
Jack and Mari find a comfortable rhythm, building a friendship that’s rare for both of them. After Jack’s rocky childhood, they have more in common than they’d imagined. But even the Mojave sun can’t chase away the shadows when the past is determined to track them down…

My Review:

This one had me from “turtle rubber”. Honestly, “turtle rubber”, as in a condom for handling turtles. I started chortling along with the characters and didn’t stop, even though I already knew there was an EvilEx™ lurking in the shadows. And I usually don’t have kind thoughts about stories that rely on the return of an EvilEx™ to power their story.

But turtle rubbers? That, along with “consensual grabbing” of the turtle, tickled my funny bone, got me to empathize with the characters – including the poor, grabbed turtle – and got me hooked.

In spite of the chelonian (crossword puzzle answer meaning “relating to turtles”) humor, Breathe the Sky is not exactly a happy book. It does manage to grope its way towards a happy ending, but it’s a hard, rough ride to get there.

Because there isn’t just one EvilEx™ hanging over this romance like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, there are actually, sorta/kinda, two.

Wildlife biologist Mari Tucker begins the story on the run from her abusive ex-husband. That’s not a secret, not even at the very beginning. Everything Mari says and does seems to lead back to the vicious bastard.

Except, hopefully, her trail from her old life to her current job as a nomadic wildlife biologist – or bio – monitoring construction sites in the Mojave Desert to make sure that the towers that are built don’t contribute any further to the endangerment of the region’s many already endangered species.

Like those turtles.

Mari lives out of her truck, stays on the move, and uses most of her hard-earned cash to make inadequate payments on the thousands of dollars of medical debt she got left with after her divorce. Debts that she accumulated in treatment for all of the damage her ex did to her.

And she’s still looking over her shoulder, and still hearing his voice in her head, telling her that she’s stupid and clumsy, and incapable, and that no one will ever love her or take care of her except him.

There’s still a part of her that believes it, too. That is aware that the real reason that she left him was to keep him from killing her – not for her sake but to save him from a murder charge.

As much as Mari is used to making herself as small as possible in order to dodge the next fist, she still recognizes something of herself in construction foreman Jack Wyatt. Jack is rough and loud and yells more than he talks. But Mari figures out that Jack is, in a peculiar way, just like her.

That he’s waiting for the next blow or the next fist. That he’s scared, too. Just that his way of dealing with his fear is to make himself bigger and louder so that no one else ever sees that he’s afraid. That he’s hearing that same voice in his head telling him that he’s not enough and that he’s never going to amount to anything.

One inch, one step, and especially one solar-oven home cooked brownie at a time, Mari and Jack manage to help each other put some of their broken pieces together.

Only for their rising tide of possibility to get swamped by those old voices, reaching out of their past to try to destroy the present. And possibly succeeding.

Escape Rating B: Breathe the Sky is very much of a slow burn romance. And the reason that the burn is so slow boils down to the weight of the baggage that is dragging behind, and dragging down, both Mari and Wyatt. It’s like they are dragging the chains of Marley and Marley in A Muppet Christmas Carol – but without nearly as much of the humor that leavens that particular version of what is, honestly, a pretty dark story.

After reading Breathe the Sky, and particularly the author’s notes at the end, it feels as if this is really two stories combined into one that are both strong and good stories but don’t meld into as strong of a whole – or possibly that don’t appeal to the same audience.

One story, and it’s the one that brings with it the happy ending, parallels the author’s own life as a nomadic wildlife biologist. One who shares her love of working in remote places and that nomadic lifestyle with her very own romantic hero and has found her own HEA.

But it’s the darker story that dominates this book. Both Mari and Wyatt are domestic abuse survivors. Both come from families where domestic abuse is a repeating pattern. Mari doesn’t admit it, but there was abuse in her childhood, and she repeated the pattern with her ex-husband, who also came from a family with a pattern of abuse. Wyatt’s abuse began with his father and continued with his older brother.

They both have shit they haven’t dealt with, because it’s hard and it’s hard to admit that people who say they love you are hurting you. Even though by the time of this story they have physically escaped their abusers, mentally they are both still trapped and it is keeping them from moving on with their lives.

Neither of them trusts their own judgement, and they don’t feel capable of judging whether or not the other is trustworthy.

So the story operates on two different levels. Readers will probably have different thoughts and feelings about the story depending on which they see as dominant. I found the way that the abuse in their earlier lives continued to hang over them and hold them back to be the larger part of the story, which made it a hard slog for me.

One thing about this part of the story that I did love. In the end they each rescued themselves. They didn’t rescue each other. You can only break your own chains, you can only deal with your own shit. No one can do it for you and it was important to show that.

But it still makes for a very hard read.

Howsomever, readers who see their recovery as the lion’s share of the story will probably come out of the story happier than I did. This one is definitely a case where the reading mileage is going to vary.

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Secrets Of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 148
Published by Sophie Barnes on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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As one of six possible candidates vying for Viscount Sterling's hand, Lady Angelica has been invited to stay at his grand manor for a week-long house party. But an unpleasant feeling lurks within Colchester Hall. It's almost as if someone's watching Angelica just beyond the edge of her vision. And while she tries to explain the chill creeping up behind her as merely a draft, she can't shake the feeling that something disturbing might be at play.
When Sterling decides she's the woman he wants, can Angelica accept her new home and the sinister secrets she fears it might hold, or will she give up on true love because of what could prove to be nothing more than her own imagination?
NOTE: This novella was previously included in the anthology, Wicked Liaison

My Review:

It’s not illogical that the result of a man discovering that his late wife was unfaithful would be for him to ensure that his next wife wouldn’t be tempted. Or in the case of Viscount Randolph Sterling’s search for a new bride, wouldn’t be tempting to others.

The problem is that his next viscountess really does need to be tempting to him.

It’s a conundrum that he intends to solve by inviting six women who are “on the shelf” to his home, with their chaperones, in the hopes that one will strike his fancy – even if it seems that the entire ton has labelled them as unmarriageable for one reason or another.

Three are shy to the point of paralysis, which explains their lack of previous offers. One is a bit shy, but is mostly disqualified because she’s already in love with someone else, who of course doesn’t seem to notice that she exists. (I really liked Lucy and wouldn’t mind seeing her story!)

One of the eligible ladies has the personality of a narcissistic velociraptor. And I might have just insulted velociraptors. It’s clear upon first meeting that the reason no one has offered marriage to Lady Seraphina is because she’s a vicious bitch. And again, that’s an insult to both vicious people and bitches. She’s a piece of work.

That leaves our heroine, Lady Angelica. She’s not shy. In fact, many might say that her lack of shyness, certainly her lack of what was considered decorum and proper behavior for ladies, was the reason that no one – at least so far – had wanted to marry her. Angelica speaks her mind, to the point where she is considered to be blunt to a fault.

Angelica is exactly what Randolph Sterling has been looking for. Over the course of a week where he “interviews” all of his prospective brides, he already knows that he has made his choice.

If Angelica will agree. And if the malign spirit that seems to haunt Colchester Hall will let her live long enough to reach the altar.

Escape Rating B+: For a surprisingly short book, The Secrets of Colchester Hall manages to encompass some seriously creepy Gothic chills while solving the mystery of those titular secrets and leading to a satisfactory – and heated – romantic happy ever after.

Of course, the protagonists need the heat of that HEA to get over the chills induced by those terrible secrets.

The Secrets of Colchester Hall is billed as a gothic romance, and was originally published as part of an anthology of gothics. Gothic romances are a subgenre that isn’t as popular as it was once upon a time, so it was fascinating to read one that invoked some of the classics of the genre.

There are hints of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to the point where that story is deliberately lampshaded in the bookstore when the hero recommends the book to the heroine. A heroine who is a fan of such gothic romances, as is the heroine of Northanger Abbey herself.

But it feels like the real inspiration for this foray into those secrets at Colchester Hall is Dame Daphne du Maurier’s classic creeper Rebecca. The story has several similar elements, enough to let a reader predict at least some of the outcome. But it stands more than well enough on its own to keep the reader shivering and turning pages to the very last.

What makes this one stand out is the character of Angelica. Her bluntness and plain-speaking make her easy for contemporary readers to identify with, and her willingness to say what she really thinks, no matter the social cost, provides the story with many of its best and most lighthearted moments – as well as providing Sterling with all the reasons he could ever want to ask Angelica for her hand.

Like most gothic romances, there is more than a bit of willing suspension of disbelief involved. The actual villain of the piece is flesh-and-blood and certainly among the living, and that person’s machinations are plausible. Sinister, murderous, manipulative, but still plausible. But there’s an element of paranormal woo-woo involved in most gothics and this one was no exception. Angelica is receiving messages from the beyond and those messages are getting her attention – as well as the attention of the villain. That the story requires her to believe those messages and for the hero to believe her and not have her committed, is a bit of a stretch.

A stretch that works, and chills the reader right to the bone.

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

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Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick

Review: Find Me in Havana by Serena BurdickFind Me in Havana by Serena Burdick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Park Row Books on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A stunning new novel of historical fiction from the author of
The Girls with No Names
based on the true unsolved murder of Cuban-born Hollywood actress Estelita Rodriguez.
Cuba, 1936. As her family struggles to recover from the Cuban Revolution, Estelita's own world opens when she's "discovered" singing in Havana nightclubs. At fifteen, her dreams to travel to America come true with the invitation to sing at the Copacabana. There, she begins a whirlwind romance with Chu Chu Martinez, a handsome actor she later marries. But when Chu Chu forbids her from performing, Estelita takes their daughter, Nina, and escapes to Hollywood.
Big Sur, 1966. Nina Rodriguez grew up enamored by her mother's beauty and glamour. She still doesn't understand how her vivacious mother could have died so quickly from influenza and suspects a more sinister plot pointing to her mother's most recent romance. When Nina finds herself repeating her mother's destructive patterns with men, she looks to the lessons of her mother's past to find a new way forward.
Based on the true events of Estelita Rodriguez's sensational life and exclusive interviews with the real Nina, Find Me in Havana beautifully captures the love, sacrifice and deep understanding that can only come from a mother-daughter relationship.

My Review:

This is one of those stories that lives up to the adage “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” Because this is a fictionalized story of a real life, a real death, and a real mystery. The author, having been told this story, filled in the blanks provided by the story of a daughter, 30 years later, telling the story of the mother who died under mysterious circumstances, and whom, quite possibly, she never really knew.

The woman at the center of this story is Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress who was featured in a series of Westerns with Roy Rogers, and whose best known role was in Rio Bravo with John Wayne.

She died young and under rather mysterious circumstances in 1966, at the age of 37, leaving behind a husband she was about to divorce and a 20-year-old daughter whose memories provide the heart of this pseudo-speculative biography.

I say pseudo because Nina Rodriguez, although she tells this story much, much later in her life, is remembering events in her mother’s life that she either witnessed as a child or pieced together long after the events. Much of what she remembers is filtered through her childhood perspective and some of it may be inaccurate, either because of a lack of perspective, a lack of information, or simply the tendency of memories to blur over time.

So Nina’s memory of her stepfather Grant Withers’ death isn’t quite what happened. Or rather it isn’t quite when and where it happened. He did die that way, but four years after her mother divorced him and neither Estelita nor Nina were witnesses.

Time and memory play tricks on us all.

The story is also speculative because the cause of Estelita’s death was not determined at the time, so the mystery surrounding her death has never been resolved. It may be as Nina describes it in the book. That story fits the pieces she had but we’ll never really know.

Estelita Rodriguez

What we do have is a story that blends Nina’s memories with messages that are written as if they came from Estelita. It’s the story of a life that had its highs and lows, but also a life that traveled from, through, and returned to some very dark times and places.

And she survived, even if entirely too often by the skin of her teeth. Until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she was gone. Leaving her daughter to pick up the tiny, broken pieces of both of their lives.

Escape Rating B: In a week where I was looking for stories with happy endings, this one was particularly heartbreaking. Estelita’s story is a walk through some very dark places, to the point where the reader sometimes questions how she managed to survive as long as she did.

It’s also a story where the protagonist has sown the seeds of their own destruction to the point where it’s not really a surprise that it finally reaches out and sucks her under.

One of the things that surprised me while reading is just how much Estelita and the heroine of yesterday’s book have in common. That they are both Latinx is the superficial part of that similarity. The deeper underlying commonality is the way that they both spend their lives looking for validation through the eyes of and in their relationships with, men. Usually the wrong men, at that. The differences begin because Jasmine, yesterday’s heroine, gets herself out of that trap, where Estelita never does. But part of Jasmine’s ability to do that comes from her marvelously supportive family, where Estelita seems to have always been an outsider in hers.

And that the times they lived in were so very different.

The hardest part of Estelita’s life to read, however, relates to her experience of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when she briefly returned to her homeland after her father and two of her brothers-in-law had been imprisoned for their support of the ousted Batista. The harrowing events of those few brief months, at least according to this fictionalized biography, left both Estelita and Nina emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.

If it happened this way, or at all.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book. It is, as I said earlier, a walk through very dark places, whether fictionalized or not. It’s an absorbing read, even if it was not what I was in the mood for, and that colors my perceptions. The story also feels very subjective, as it isn’t so much Estelita’s story as it is Nina’s recollections of Estelita’s story as seen through Nina’s eyes as a child and young adult. The two women don’t relate as much to or understand each other nearly as well as the blurb might lead readers to believe.

In the end, a frequently compelling read, but not a remotely happy one.

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis DariaYou Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 365
Published by Avon on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Leading Ladies do not end up on tabloid covers. 
After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez. 
Leading Ladies don’t need a man to be happy
After his last telenovela character was killed off, Ashton is worried his career is dead as well. Joining this new cast as a last-minute addition will give him the chance to show off his acting chops to American audiences and ping the radar of Hollywood casting agents. To make it work, he’ll need to generate smoking-hot on-screen chemistry with Jasmine. Easier said than done, especially when a disastrous first impression smothers the embers of whatever sexual heat they might have had. 
Leading Ladies do not rebound with their new costars. 
With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.
 

My Review:

I went looking for happy endings again. Is anyone surprised? In that search I discovered a whole bunch of friends’ recommendations for this book, as well as remembering that it had been on several best of the year lists – and that I had a copy! Problem solved for a day – not that I didn’t immediately go looking for more for the rest of this week.

While Jasmine and Ashton do have each other at “Hola”, there’s also a truth that the title is quite a bit catchier than the truth, which is more like a mutual “you had me when you spilled coffee on me” because that’s not half so romantic sounding – or succinct.

This is a story that works in multiple directions. One is that it’s a story of two people who both believe, and for very good but completely different reasons, that they need to concentrate on their careers and absolutely NOT on any possibility of romance.

Second, it’s a story about validation. Again, for entirely different reasons, both Jasmine and Ashton are laboring under the mistaken belief that they are not good enough, not doing enough, not accomplishing enough, not trying hard enough, not doing the right things enough.

In other words, they both have serious cases of impostor syndrome. Some of that arises from their family situations, and some of it comes from the way that the entertainment industry which they are both involved in, suffers from a baked-in preference for not just actors like themselves but also people behind the camera and in the front office, who are not like them.

Both are Latinx and both have had plenty of barriers put in their way in their chosen profession. Which leads to the third thing about this story, in that it is a celebration, not just of LatinX culture in all of its own diversity, but also in the joy of being part of a team that has your back and helps you put forth your best everything because of what you all share – particularly in a world that tells you how “other” you are at pretty much every turn.

The romance is, in many ways, an opposites attract kind of love story. Jasmine is very open. She trusts easily and she falls in love easily – both to her own detriment. As a result, much too much of her personal life gets splashed on the tabloids, even if most of what they write is made up nonsense.

Ashton, on the other hand, is extremely private and closed off. He has a secret that he is desperate to keep, but keeping that secret also keeps him from opening himself up even to friendship, let alone anything more.

She’s public and he’s private. She’s gossip fodder and he ruthlessly suppresses publicity. It shouldn’t work. Neither of them really wants it to work, at least as the story begins.

But they’re playing the romantic leads in a made-for-streaming romantic comedy series. On screen, they have to generate serious chemistry, which means that off screen they need to at least be able to talk to one another.

Talking, as it so often does, leads to a whole lot more. A more that neither of them wants to reveal. Until the paparazzi take care of all of that for them in, of course, the worst way possible.

And very nearly destroy the best thing that’s ever happened to either of them.

Escape Rating B+: While this wasn’t quite as transportive as a couple of the romances from my week of happy endings – I’m thinking in particular of Take a Hint, Dani Brown and Spoiler Alert – a good reading time was definitely had by all. Or at least by moi.

I loved the romance between Jasmine and Ashton. It read like a variation of the fake-romance trope, but a variation that definitely worked. It wasn’t exactly that they were faking a romance, but they were faking a romance. It’s just that everyone knew it was a fake, because it was the onscreen romance between their characters.

Come to think of it, they were really faking NOT being a romance. A kind of double-fake. It worked, and the reasons for it worked.

While Ashton’s reason was more important, that he was a single father who was hiding his son in order to keep him safe, it was Jasmine’s reason that resonated most with me. As a middle child, she often felt overlooked between her overachieving older sister and her younger, always the baby sister. And so many of her family interactions, while well-meaning, intentionally or otherwise reminded her over and over (and over) that her goals and achievements weren’t as important or as successful, from her family’s perspective, as theirs. She felt overlooked and as a consequence looked for validation in romantic relationships – and looked too hard and all too often with men who didn’t value her either.

Jasmine’s feelings, and her response to them, will resonate with a lot of women who felt overlooked or overshadowed in their families and used similar methods to find validation, whether that overshadowing was the result of middle-child syndrome, workaholic parents or some other reason.

Ashton’s reasons, on the other hand, while they make sense were more the result of his understandable paranoia after a stalking incident than anything actually based in reality – as Jasmine pointed out. If he wants to be a famous actor and someday win an Oscar, he can’t keep his private life truly private. It’s understandable that he wants to but his goals are mutually exclusive.

In the story he clung to that overwhelming desire to keep his son a secret a bit too long. The point had been made, and made, and made to the point where it began to feel repetitive and I just wanted the story to get on with it. Your reading mileage may vary.

That being said, the story was lovely and I really enjoyed myself with Jasmine, her team and especially the Primas of Power, her terrifically supportive cousins who always had her back – especially when they needed to push her forward.

So a wonderful romance, a terrific story, and I’d love to see more about the Primas of Power and Jasmine’s entire clan!

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherPaladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Clocktaur War
Pages: 398
Published by Red Wombat Studio on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…
Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…
From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

My Review:

The title is a pun. It’s also a clue to the way this story works itself out. Which is bloody damn marvelous every slightly meandering step of the way.

There’s a question about whether Paladin’s Grace is an epic fantasy that includes a romance, or a fantasy romance that happens to also be epic. After mulling it over for a while, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes!” Or perhaps “hells to the yes!” is a bit more accurate.

The setting of this story is plenty epic. It’s also set in the same world as her Clocktaur War duology and Swordheart but certainly doesn’t rely on any of them to get the reader stuck right into it. I haven’t read either and had no trouble becoming immediately involved, understanding what was going on, or being so damn absorbed I couldn’t put it down.

Not that I didn’t buy all three books as soon as I finished and realized that there were three other books set in this world. Because DAMN! this was good.

The setting dragged me in right away because it leads off with a fascinating concept that powers so much of the story in various ways. This is a world where the gods are real. By that I mean the gods act in and on the world and their worshippers in ways that can be witnessed, not just by believers but by everyone.

In that sense, it’s a world that resembles the world of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead. That’s a world where the lawyers are necromancers, and part of their job is to write contracts for gods both living and dead. But even more than the Craft Sequence, the world of Paladin’s Grace reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, particularly as it is seen through the eyes of the Learned Divine Penric of the White God and his demon Desdemona in Penric’s Demon and the books that follow. Penric has met his god, usually just before or just after said god sends him on yet another errand, and other people in that world have met their gods as well.

The way that the Saint of Penric’s order interacts with their god and the way that the Paladins of the Saint of Steel interact with theirs has some similarities – right up until the paladins’ god dies, leaving all of its paladins reeling as though someone has scooped out their hearts, souls and all the rest of their innards both physical and metaphorical.

The thing about the Saint of Steel is that this god blessed their paladins with divine berserker fits. So when the god dies they all go literally berserk, into a killing rage that results in murders, suicides, explosions and generally a whole lot of the death they were famous for in the first place.

Three years later there are only seven paladins of the Saint of Steel left, barely keeping each other alive and functional, assisted by those who serve the Rat God, an order which has no paladins of its own. But it does have lawyers, leading back to that resemblance to the Craft Sequence I mentioned earlier.

Serving the Rat and protecting its Bishop, the absolutely awesome Bishop Beartongue, gives the remaining paladins enough purpose to keep them going. It’s all any of them expect out of life at this point. (And if the author ever writes an entire book featuring the Bishop, I am SO there!)

Then Paladin Stephen becomes entangled with Grace the perfumer, and he discovers a whole new reason for living. If he can let himself. If he can get over himself. If he can trust himself.

If the Bishop and his brother paladins can manage to extract them both from the political clusterfuck that they’ve bumbled into – in spite of the odds against them all along the way.

Escape Rating A+: Paladin’s Grace was definitely, sincerely, absolutely a case of the right book at the right time.

There is just so much happening in this story, both on the epic fantasy and the fantasy romance sides of the equation. Plus – big huge gigantic plus – the author’s very dry and frequently hung from the gallows humor made me laugh out loud so many times, even as it both developed the characters and pushed the story forward. This is my favorite type of humor, the kind that arises out of character and situation and is never built on cruelty, tearing up or punching down.

I wanted to go out for drinks with pretty much everyone on Stephen and Grace’s side of the story, including them. Even when their world was going to hell in a handcart, the way the author wrote them created plenty of opportunities to laugh with them and not at them.

On the romance side, Stephen in particular is the poster child for the romantic hero who is so fucked up and has so much baggage that he’s certain he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the heroine. Not that Grace doesn’t have plenty of her own baggage, but in comparison, hers is almost normal. Stephen has lost his god and is rightfully afraid of going berserker at any moment. Nothing compares.

The political situation that they stumble into is, on the one hand, fairly standard for epic fantasy, and on the other, wildly different because it is so totally inept and still almost works. There is just a ton about this story to love.

As I said early on, this was the right book at the absolute right time. I was ready to start a new book just as the polls closed in Georgia this week. It was a night that promised to be chock-full of doomscrolling, so I went looking for a book that would suck me in so deeply that I’d be able to forget about the mess for a few hours. (I voted by mail weeks ago, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point except incessantly doomscroll hoping it would eventually turn to schadenscrolling and even gleescrolling at some point.) But constant scrolling is not productive, only anxiety inducing. Nobody needed any more of THAT this week – not that we didn’t all get plenty ANYWAY.).

That’s the point where I remembered I had Paladin’s Grace, and that I absolutely LOVED this author’s Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which made me chuckle, laugh and outright chortle the entire time I was reading it.

Considering the news on Wednesday, I really, really needed the distraction.

Paladin’s Grace turned out to be EXACTLY the book I was looking for. It didn’t reduce me to completely incoherence, as the paladin Stephen and the perfumer Grace frequently do to each other in the course of this story. But it did take me far, far away from the madness of the real for a while. For which I am so, so grateful.