Review: Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford

Review: Out of Body by Jeffrey FordOut of Body by Jeffrey Ford
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on May 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A small-town librarian witnesses a murder at his local deli, and what had been routine sleep paralysis begins to transform into something far more disturbing. The trauma of holding a dying girl in his arms drives him out of his own body. The town he knows so well is suddenly revealed to him from a whole new perspective. Secrets are everywhere and demons fester behind closed doors.

Worst of all, he discovers a serial killer who has been preying on the area for over a century, one capable of traveling with him through his dreams.

My Review:

I think I picked this book for the title. I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to be out of my body, so the concept of having a fictional OBE (out of body experience) was especially appealing. Also, the protagonist is a librarian, in the sort of library that we all imagine but don’t generally see anymore – if they ever really existed – so it felt like kind of a win-win.

And I’ve been flirting with reading a bit more horror, so this looked like it would hit a kind of trifecta. As it did. Even though the blurb doesn’t actually do this one justice. Or describe it terribly well, now that I think about it.

Poor Owen witnesses the death of a young woman while picking up his routine morning coffee and a sweet roll at the mom-and-pop deli where she works. The mom and pop being the victim’s own mom and pop.

The killer pistol whips Owen and shoots her in cold blood for the not nearly enough money in the till to make the whole thing worthwhile as far as a robbery goes. She’s killed while Owen is unconscious after that pistol whipping. So she doesn’t exactly die in his arms.

But once Owen checks himself out of the local hospital he discovers that the incident has left him with more than the nightmares one might expect. He discovers an ability to travel out of his own body while he’s sleeping.

That’s where the real nightmare begins, as Owen discovers that he’s not the only person wandering around outside of his own body, passing through doors and walls and peeping on his neighbors. He finds a mentor who teaches him about, not just the wonders of dream walking, but about the dangers of the things that don’t even make a bump when they terrorize the night.

Escape Rating B: This one gets off to a slow start, not that the murder isn’t a bit of a kickstart. But our protagonist, poor Owen, is not just the local librarian but honestly a cliche of a librarian – except for his being male. He’s shy, introverted, a bit of a milquetoast, thinks of himself as a coward and leads an extremely boring life. In reality, we’re way more interesting and fun than that.

He’s also a bit of a sad sack, as his library and the neighboring libraries, all tiny libraries serving small communities, are being combined into a bigger – and hopefully better – institution serving a wider area. While one’s opinion on whether bigger really IS better, etc., etc., may vary, this is a done deal and Owen’s response is to wallow in his obsolescence. At the grand age of 35.

Once Owen starts night walking, he discovers a fascinating new world with the help of his mentor Melody. Who he has never met in person and has no plans to meet. But the world she introduces him to has wonders and terrors in equal measure, from the fun of bounding across the landscape in giant steps that seem to reach the moon, to the terror of discovering that there are beings who walk the night that can kill them. For reals.

But the true terror comes on them slowly. At first they believe that an old man is being targeted by the same gang that killed the girl in the deli. That’s bad enough. Then they learn that the old man is a monster out of legend, and that he’s been picking off the townspeople for miles around. For at least a century. And storing them in his basement.

And that they are next.

While the descriptions of the basement storage are horrific and gruesome and send chills up the spine, what really stands out is the terror of the cat and mouse game Owen and Melody play with the monster. They each plan to end the other. The winner survives. The loser will die quietly in their sleep. Or worse.

In spite of that slow beginning, this is what I was expecting horror to be. For someone who doesn’t read a lot of horror, the short length worked extremely well. I got just enough to be truly chilled without having it go on so long that I either gave up or turned away.

A chilling time was definitely had by all!

Review: Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey by Abigail Wilson

Review: Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey by Abigail WilsonMasquerade at Middlecrest Abbey by Abigail Wilson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 336
Published by Thomas Nelson on May 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When the widowed Lord Torrington agreed to spy for the crown, he never planned to impersonate a highwayman, let alone rob the wrong carriage. Stranded on the road with an unconscious young woman, he is forced to propose marriage to protect his identity, as well as his dangerous mission.
Trapped by not only the duty to her country but her limited options, Miss Elizabeth Cantrell and her illegitimate son are whisked away to Middlecrest Abbey by none other than the elder brother of her son’s absent father. She is met by Torrington’s beautiful grown daughters, a vicious murderer, and an urgent hunt for the missing intelligence that could turn the war with France. Afraid of what Lord Torrington might do if he learns of her son’s true identity, Elizabeth must remain one step ahead of her fragile heart, her uncertain future, and the relentless mystery person bent on her new family’s ruin.

My Review:

Historical romantic suspense really needs to become its own thing, because that’s what this book really is. It’s straddling a line between historical romance, mystery and something that I want to call “heroine in jeopardy” because it’s all of those things at the same time.

Even though “heroine in jeopardy” isn’t actually a genre – although it probably ought to be.

As this story opens, our heroine is very definitely in jeopardy, just not the jeopardy she thought she was in when a masked man appeared in front of her coach telling the coachman to “Stand and deliver!” The traditional “battle cry” of the highwayman.

Not that Elizabeth has anything to deliver, at least not in the usual sense. She’s an unwed mother, abandoned by both her own family and the father of her little boy, on her way to take up a post as companion and governess to a friend and her children, in the hopes of, if not salvaging her reputation, at least being labeled as respectable enough to make a living to support them both.

In other words, she’s flat broke and relying on the kindness of, not exactly strangers, but certainly on the kindness of others. She doesn’t have anything that a highway robber could possibly want – or so she believes.

But that highwayman is not a real highwayman. And her coach and its contents are not exactly as innocent as she believed.

What began as a journey to what she hoped would be a new life for herself and her son, turns out, in the end, to be exactly that. But in absolutely NONE of the ways that she originally thought.

She never expected to marry. She never expected to be accepted back into the ton. And she certainly never expected to help her new husband bring down a nest of spies and saboteurs.

Or that the father of her little boy would be found right in the middle of the entire mess.

Escape Rating B+: A part of me wants to say this was a surprising amount of fun, but calling it fun doesn’t convey the spirit of the story. Because while it’s going on Elizabeth really isn’t having a whole lot of fun a lot of the time. At the same time, calling it a lovely read isn’t quite right either, because there’s a whole lot going on and not all of it is good for the protagonists.

But I had a grand time reading it. Howsomever, calling it fun implies a level of fluff that isn’t here – nor should it be.

It does, however, remind me more than a bit of the Bastion Club series by Stephanie Laurens, in both its historical setting and in the clandestine occupation of the hero – and eventually the heroine.

The era of the Napoleonic Wars, 1803-1815 is ripe for all sorts of historical drama – and occasionally melodrama, as Britain was at war with France. There was plenty of opportunity for spying and general skullduggery, including smuggling illicit but expensive French goods. The period also overlapped with the Regency period (1811-1820) made literarily famous by Georgette Heyer. This particular story is right in the “sweet spot” where the Regency was still in full sway and Napoleon had not yet met his Waterloo.

Elizabeth and Torrington are caught very much on the horns of multiple dilemmas, not all of which either of them are aware of even at the beginning. Torrington is looking for a spy – and for secret correspondence from that spy that is supposed to be in a carriage that looks just like Elizabeth’s. When he waylays her carriage and discovers that it is hers and not the spy’s, circumstances conspire to bind them in a marriage of convenience, so that he can maintain his cover and she can maintain what’s left of her reputation.

It’s really just an excuse to drag them together, but it works for the purposes of opening the possibility of their romance of convenience turning real. It also works to provide an opportunity for the real spy to continue with their illegal activities and make Elizabeth’s life hell into the bargain. Which is where those “heroine in jeopardy” elements come very much into the picture.

And that’s where things get really interesting. On the one hand, her former lover, her son’s father, very much qualifies as the “EVILEX” who must appear before the story and the romance can be finally resolved. On the other hand, that evil ex-lover is also the hero’s brother. I’m still on the fence about whether the multiple parts said villain plays in this story are a fascinating twist or a bit too much of the long arm of coincidence.

On my third hand, the invisible one that isn’t normally seen, while one part of the mystery seemed obvious fairly early on, the other part took me completely by surprise – and that’s always a good thing in a story that relies on suspense and dramatic tension to sweep the reader into the story. Which this one certainly has – and does.

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Review: Westside Saints by W.M. Akers

Review: Westside Saints by W.M. AkersWestside Saints by W.M. Akers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #2
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Return to a twisted version of Jazz Age New York in this follow up to the critically acclaimed fantasy Westside, as relentless sleuth Gilda Carr’s pursuit of tiny mysteries drags her into a case that will rewrite everything she knows about her past.
Six months ago, the ruined Westside of Manhattan erupted into civil war, and private detective Gilda Carr nearly died to save her city. In 1922, winter has hit hard, and the desolate Lower West is frozen solid. Like the other lost souls who wander these overgrown streets, Gilda is weary, cold, and desperate for hope. She finds a mystery instead.
Hired by a family of eccentric street preachers to recover a lost saint’s finger, Gilda is tempted by their promise of “electric resurrection,” when the Westside’s countless dead will return to life. To a detective this cynical, faith is a weakness, and she is fighting the urge to believe in miracles when her long dead mother, Mary Fall, walks through the parlor door.
Stricken with amnesia, Mary remembers nothing of her daughter or her death, but that doesn’t stop her from being as infuriatingly pushy as Gilda herself. As her mother threatens to drive her insane, Gilda keeps their relationship a secret so that they can work together to investigate what brought Mary back to life. The search will force Gilda to reckon with the nature of death, family, and the uncomfortable fact that her mother was not just a saint, but a human being.

My Review:

Westside is a liminal place, walled away somewhere between “could be”, “might have been” – and Back to the Future. Literally. No DeLorean this time though, just a family of scam artists posing as revival preachers, a desperate con artist and the magic and mystery that make Westside what it is.

Dangerous. Deadly. Despairing. Debauched. Determined.

Westside Saints is the surprising followup to last year’s marvelous Westside. I say surprising mostly because I’m surprised that there was a followup! At the time, it seemed like everything that needed to be said got said, there was a huge climax to the story and it all wrapped it – not with a neat and tidy bow but with a dirty and bedraggled one made into a garrote, because that’s Westside.

But at the end of that story Gilda Carr walked, not away but into the ever-deepening darkness that settles over Westside, to nurse her wounds, both physical and emotional, and continue her investigations into tiny little mysteries.

Looking into a big one nearly killed her, and left a lot of bodies all over Westside. Bodies that still haunt her and her community when Westside Saints begins.

And it begins with a bang, quite literally, as the revival preaching family of the late Bully Byrd pulls off the miracle to end all miracles, and their dead and departed founder rises from the dead out of a cauldron filled with smoke and fire.

Gilda has been looking into a couple of tiny mysteries for the Byrd family, and believes that while they are on the side of the angels, they are not nearly as “saintly” as they make themselves out to be. Like so many of Gilda’s beliefs and illusions, only the worst parts of this one turn out to be true.

Because no one is in Westside. Not even the deeply religious Byrds who picked her dead, drunk father out of many a gutter back in the day.

So Gilda is certain that the supposed “resurrection” of the Reverend Bully Byrd is just another confidence trick. Or she is until her late and very much lamented mother, Mary Fall, walks into the house Gilda inherited from her parents and claims that she has amnesia. That she wants Gilda to investigate the tiny mystery of her missing ring, and hopefully solve the bigger mystery of where her memory went.

Bully Byrd’s return to Westside may have been a hoax, but Mary Fall’s resurrection, even a Mary Fall who seems to be in her early 20s and not the woman who died in her mid 30s. Not the woman who was Gilda’s mother but could be the woman who became her.

She’s certainly more than enough like Gilda to make that seem possible – even if she’s nothing like the saintly woman that Gilda remembers. The more time Gilda spends with lying, exasperating, infuriating Mary Fall, the less she wants to condemn this bright, shiny troublemaker to the life that Gilda wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy.

Not even if she has to.

Escape Rating A: I loved the first book, Westside, and loved this one every bit as much. After yesterday’s disappointment, I’m really glad I chose Westside Saints to close out the week.

At the top, I said that Westside was a liminal place, a place that exists on the borders, and so does the series that is wrapped around it. The first book straddled an invisible line between urban fantasy, historical fiction and horror, existing in all three but fully inhabiting none.

Westside Saints is a bit of a different mix, as if it moved just a step to the left to sit on the intersection between urban fantasy, historical fiction and science fiction.

In any case, the series is a genre-bender and genre-blender of epic proportions.

The entree into this story is Bully Byrd’s supposed resurrection. Gilda’s investigation dives deeply into the supposedly saintly Byrd family and finds, basically, a cesspit. Which is what she has come to expect of everyone and everything in Westside. But that discovery exposes not just one family, but a layer of rot that she thought had been eradicated at the end of that first book. It’s an investigation that strips away even more of the few illusions Gilda thought she had left. We’re with her as she keeps turning over rocks, only to find that yet more disgusting things keep crawling out.

But she’s a fighter and a survivor and watching her work is compelling in the extreme. It feels like the tinier the mystery she starts with, the bigger – and nastier – the reveal is at the end.

One of the themes that felt so prominent in Westside stands out even more in the sequel. In that first book, Gilda is forced to reckon with the people who were parents really were, and not the plaster saints her child-self made them out to be. That is even more true in Westside Saints, as she discovers the real reason why neither of her parents ever told her how they met or why they married. Because from certain perspectives, they really, really shouldn’t have.

In the end, Gilda faces pretty much the same paradox that Marty McFly does in Back to the Future. She has to somehow get her parents together, no matter how little her mother deserves to be condemned to the life and death they both know she’ll lead, in order to history’s paradoxes to be resolved. Otherwise the events of Westside never come to pass – and history will be the worse for them.

Even if Mary Fall’s life would be for the better.

In the first book, part of the story was about Gilda fighting for the soul of Westside. At the end, after the high butcher’s bill has been toted up, it feels like she and her friends have won. But, as Westside Saints gets deep into the aftermath of those events, it turns out that what Gilda achieved was either a Pyrrhic victory or the first battle in what will be a long drawn out series of skirmishes. Hopefully we’ll find out in later books in the series. Which I hope there will be several of, even if it turns out that Gilda is just fighting the long defeat. Or perhaps especially – if that’s the way it turns out.

Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady HendrixThe Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, vampires
Pages: 404
Published by Quirk Books on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fried Green Tomatoes and "Steel Magnolias" meet Dracula in this Southern-flavored supernatural thriller set in the '90s about a women's book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.
Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia's life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they're more likely to discuss the FBI's recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.
But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club's meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he's a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she--and her book club--are the only people standing between the monster they've invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.

My Review:

This was exactly what I was expecting when picking up horror. But the friends who recommended it to me mentioned the words “laughing” and “humor” in relation to this book, and I just didn’t get any of either.

What I did get read like a really odd twist on the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series – and I know that sounds insane. But really, we have a tight-knit Southern community where an unattached but charismatic man turns up, moves in, can’t manage sunlight and has been around a LOT longer than anyone thinks. Admittedly, when James Harris moves into this neighborhood, he makes Bill the Vampire seem like a big, ole pussycat. Because Bill doesn’t come to Bon Temps to prey on the locals, while James Harris has that plan in mind from the very beginning – and he’s ruthless in carrying it out.

But the story isn’t the monster’s story. Instead, it’s the story of the group of suburban women who band together, first to read true crime and murder mysteries, and then to deal with the unreal but absolutely true crime that has invaded their very own little town.

The portrayal of the women’s friendships, through all their ups and downs, was the real highlight of the story. But the way that they not only turn on each other, but turn on their own very selves, was a big part of the sadness. None of their husband’s are remotely worthy of them, as they prove over the course of the story.

They have all caged themselves, and it takes a monster, and a monster’s rampage, to finally get them to set themselves free. They’ve spent their lives cleaning up men’s messes, after all, and they are damn good at it. Which is a good thing, because this monster left one big damn mess.

Escape Rating C: Most readers seem to have loved this book. Certainly all the people who recommended it to me did. And I really did need to read it for reasons that I can’t get into. And I did finish and the ending was compelling. Getting to that point was less so, at least for this reader.

Part of the reason that I didn’t enjoy this book is that it reminded me of all the reasons I don’t normally read horror. It was gruesome and terrible things were happening and nobody wants to believe the book club members and no one wants to pay attention to what’s going wrong.

But it felt like all of the reasons that no one wanted to pay attention had to do with the women themselves. They were all small and narrow and put upon and put down and disregarded in their own lives. They didn’t pay attention to themselves or each other and no one else did either. They were dismissed at every turn, not just by society as a whole, but by their husbands and children. They didn’t believe each other and they didn’t believe in themselves.

Also, this is supposed to be a satire of suburban life in the 90s, but to me it felt flat. Probably because this just didn’t read like the 90s. During the 90s, I was in my late 30s, so relatively close in age to the members of the book club, but I was divorced, childfree and working. I worked in a female dominated profession, so ALL the women I knew worked. Many had stepped out when their kids were very young, but had returned to work at some point when their kids got a bit older, as the children of these women already had. It was difficult if not impossible to maintain a suburban life with multiple children without both spouses working. So for this reader their lives were small, sad and unrealistic and that colored my opinion of the whole book. Your experience of that time period may certainly vary, and your reaction may be entirely different. If this had been set in the 1960s or earlier I would have had a different reaction. I would have still felt the sadness and smallness, but it would have fit better into the times.

I did like, well, not the villain, you’re not supposed to like the villain, but that the monster didn’t exactly fit into any preconceived versions of monster. He’s referred to as a vampire, but it felt more in the sense that some people are emotional vampires sucking the life out of everyone around them. Not that he didn’t suck blood, but he also put it back. It’s complicated. But he didn’t just take blood, he took everything. He was a force of eternal hunger, always wanting more, always taking advantage, always leaving destruction in his wake. And we never do discover how he came to be. Or whether or not he actually came to end.

So that part was cool. But he also represented the way that the men in these women’s lives had also sucked them dry and left devastation in their wakes, and that leads me back to sad, and a bit disappointed. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

Review: Tomb of Gods by Brian Moreland

Review: Tomb of Gods by Brian MorelandTomb of Gods by Brian Moreland
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, horror
Pages: 288
Published by Flame Tree Press on May 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Brian Moreland writes with one eye on characterization and the other on scaring the life out of you." -- Maynard Sims, author of Stronghold and The Eighth Witch Deep inside the tomb exists a hidden world of wonder and terror . . In 1935, British archaeologists vanished inside an Egyptian cave. A year later, one man returned covered in mysterious scars. Egyptologist Imogen Riley desperately wants to know what happened to the ill-fated expedition led by her grandfather. On a quest for answers, she joins a team of archeologists and soldiers in Egypt. Inside a mountain tomb, they've found a technologically advanced relic and a maze of tunnels. Dr. Nathan Trummel believes this tomb leads to the most guarded secrets of the pharaohs. When the explorers venture deep into the caves, they discover a hidden world of wonder and terror.

My Review:

I picked this one for the cover. I don’t read a lot of horror, but not only did this one have a strong historical bent, but the cover looked like something out of the classic Doctor Who episode Pyramids of Mars. But the way that the story works reads a lot more like Journey to the Center of the Earth – with just a touch of the late 19th/early 20th century archaeology vibe of Amelia Peabody Emerson. And possibly even a bit of Dr. Daniel Jackson’s (Stargate) oft-derided theories about the “true” origins of ancient civilizations.

I was absolutely astonished when that last bit turned out to be closest to the mark.

As you might guess from the above rambling paragraph, when I have to read something described as horror I kind of have to sidle up to it by convincing myself that it’s more horror-adjacent than actual horror. Which is how I ended up at Tomb of Gods. Which in spite of what I just said is DEFINITELY horror.

Surprisingly for a horror story set in a lost Egyptian tomb, there aren’t any mummies. Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of horror, because there certainly is. But the story isn’t really about the horror that they find, not in the usual way with ambulatory mummies and predatory cursed monsters. Not that there aren’t plenty of monsters.

Instead, this is a story about the horrors that they all bring with them. The horrors that reside deep inside their hearts, the terrible things that they’ve said and done, the ones that they feel the most guilty for. The actions and emotions that they never want to let see the light of day.

Or see the darkest of nights at the bottom of a never-ending tomb – on a journey that feels like it’s heading straight to the center of the earth – by way of the paths outlined in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Escape Rating A-: I liked this way more than I expected to. Mostly because it didn’t go any of the places I expected it to. Again with the no shambling mummies. I loved the atmosphere, not just the darkness of the tomb, but also the entire feel of mid-1930s archaeology, especially combined with all those “curse of the mummy’s tomb” vibe, even though, again, no tottering, groaning mummies.

The beginning of this one is all about the setup, and it’s both pleasantly – and unpleasantly – familiar. The grasping, greedy, overbearing archaeologist, the mercenary guards, the frightened native workers, the quest for a treasure that only said overbearing archaeologist believes in.

And into that mix we throw Imogen Riley, also an archaeologist. The granddaughter of the man who originally found said tomb. The former lover of the current, overbearing archaeologist.

While there have been plenty of strange and deadly phenomena already on this dig, it’s only once Imogen is on the scene that the story takes off. She’s the catalyst that kicks off the rest of the action, as her presence provokes her former lover to new depths of, well, basically ignoring all good advice, common sense and proper archaeological practice to rush towards the treasure.

The journey to which exposes the darkness inside each person’s heart as they run headlong towards an end that only he can see. And it’s not the ending we (and Imogen) have been led to expect. He was a prick from beginning to end, and I wanted him to seriously get his comeuppance. Whether he does or not is left to the reader to decide.

In the end, this one is more about the journey than the destination. We see each person’s guilts and fears. The journey is harrowing, and we are as harrowed as the characters we follow.

I’m left with a couple of niggling questions. One is the obvious, in that I am not sure that the villain’s fate was a punishment or a reward. And I think that’s the way it’s meant to end.

As much as I liked Imogen and identified with her as the protagonist, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was truly necessary for the story for Dr. Overbearing – actually Nathan Trummel, to have been a former lover. That particular bit of setup felt like a nod to earlier stories of archaeological horror and adventure, where the pretty girl was the reward or side piece of the real hero. Which Trummel is so far from being that he’s not even in the same universe – even if he thinks he is.

I also enjoyed the surprisingly deep dive into Egyptian mythology that underpins the story. As I said at the top, I need to sidle up to horror, and all the history and mythology gave me an excellent door through which to do that sidling. While still creeping me thoroughly out. In a good way. This is not a book to read with the lights off, but it is absolutely a book to read!

 

Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn

Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie VaughnThe Ghosts of Sherwood (The Robin Hood Stories, #1) by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Robin Hood Stories #1
Pages: 104
Published by Tor.com on June 9, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Carrie Vaughn's The Ghosts of Sherwood revisits the Robin Hood legend with a story of the famed archer's children.
Everything about Father is stories.
Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, are married. It has been close on two decades since they beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends. King John is now on the throne, and Robin has sworn fealty in order to further protect not just his family, but those of the lords and barons who look up to him – and, by extension, the villagers they protect.
There is a truce. An uneasy one, to be sure, but a truce, nonetheless.
But when the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood.
And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

My Review:

There’s a theory going around that people are re-reading and re-watching old favorites right now because they not only already know how they end, but that not-exactly-foreknowledge removes the tension of not knowing that everyone is going to be okay, because it’s already happened. So to speak.

There may also be a trend towards re-tellings as this uncertain season goes on. In a re-telling, we either already know how it’s going to go – and just want to see it told differently (By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar looks like it’s going to be one of those) or because we already know the characters and want to see them in new adventures. We don’t have to get to know new people because we’re already familiar with the cast. The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow falls into this category and does VERY WELL with it.

The Ghosts of Sherwood is also this particular variety of re-telling. We ALL have at least a nodding acquaintance with Robin Hood’s story – if only from movies like Disney’s 1973 animated version, with a surprisingly sexy fox as Robin. (Which is being remade as a live-action hybrid, Yikes!) Meaning that we all know these characters to some extent, and we know the outline of the original story. Making it ripe for an extension.

Leading to The Ghosts of Sherwood, the first novella in The Robin Hood Stories. Which, at least from this opening, read like “Robin Hood, the Next Generation”. Which has its bit of irony, as Star Trek Next Gen also did a takeoff episode on Robin Hood, but more in the vein of Men in Tights. The episode is best known for Worf’s line, “I am NOT a merry man.” I digress, but this does go to show just how ubiquitous the legend of Robin Hood is.

As The Ghosts of Sherwood opens, Robin and Marion are on their way back from Runnymede, from the signing of the Magna Carta, setting this story in 1215. Robin, as the Earl of Locksley, was one of the barons who rebelled against King John’s rule – yet again in Robin’s case – and brought him to the bargaining table. There is still no love lost between Robin and King John, not even 20 years after the events that made their way into legend.

But Robin and Marion have changed – as has King John. Robin and Marion are married, and are part of the nobility of England, as fractured as it was at that time. The surviving members of Robin’s band of outlaws are part of their household at Locksley. And they have three children, Mary, John and Eleanor. Mary, the oldest, is 16, Eleanor is 8 and John is somewhere in between.

They are all as familiar with Sherwood as they are with their own house, but Mary seems to be the one who is most like her father, and most at home in the forest that is part of their home and heritage.

This story is, not exactly a passing of the torch, but rather a story that shows that the younger generation is willing to pick up that burden when the time comes. The children are kidnapped in the forest by, not outlaws but rather men loyal to the barons who opposed their father over the Magna Carta.

But the children have no certainty that their parents even know they are missing. It is up to them to use the cunning they inherited from both their parents, all the talents they can muster, as well as the legends that make Sherwood a place of menace to outsiders – so that they can rescue themselves.

Escape Rating A-: First, this was a lovely little story. It does a terrific job of portraying Robin and Marion’s post-outlaw life in a way that seems fitting. They are older, occasionally wiser, and often tireder than they were back in the day. And that’s the way it should be.

The details also do a terrific job of placing the story firmly within a historical, rather than mythical, legendary or fantasy context. If Robin existed, he would have been one of the nobles forcing King John to the bargaining table and the Magna Carta. It’s impossible to imagine that the enmity they felt for each other during King Richard the Lionhearted’s absence on Crusade, especially Robin’s armed rebellion, would ever have faded. As this story opens, John is nearly at the end of his reign, and Robin and Marion are no longer the young rebels they once were. (I’m saying the above in spite of the story being billed as historical fantasy. So far, at least, there are no fantastic elements – in spite of Mary referring to her mysterious protector as “The Ghost”. Maybe in a future installment?)

The focus of this story is on their children, particularly 16-year-old Mary, as she faces the decisions of oncoming adulthood.

But the story also deals with the politics of the country as one king’s reign is about to end and his heir is a child of nine. That forces are jockeying for power, and that Robin will have influence and could possibly be influenced is a part of his times.

So the story has large implications for the future of England, and the future stories of the series. At the same time, it’s very small and intimate. Three children, kidnapped, forced to rely on their wits and each other, figuring out how to get the better of their captors in spite of the odds. By banding together.

That the story works so well on both levels gives me high hopes for the future stories in the series. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Heirs of Locksley later this summer. Because I want more.

Review: The Secrets of Bones by Kylie Logan

Review: The Secrets of Bones by Kylie LoganThe Secrets of Bones by Kylie Logan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Jazz Ramsey #2
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Second in a new series from national bestselling author Kylie Logan, The Secrets of Bones is a riveting mystery following Jazz Ramsey as she trains a cadaver dog.
Assembly Day at St. Catherine's dawns bright and cloudless as professional woman gather from all around Ohio to talk to the schoolgirls about their careers in medicine, at NASA, and as yoga instructors. Administrative assistant Jazz Ramsey is involved herself, giving the girls a taste of her lifelong passion: cadaver dog training. Her adorable new puppy Wally hasn't been certified yet, so she borrows the fully-trained Gus from a friend and hides a few bones in the unused fourth floor of the school for him to find.
The girls are impressed when Gus easily finds the first bone, but for the second Gus seems to have lost the scent, and heads confidently to a part of the floor where Jazz is sure no bones are hidden—at least not any that she's put there. But Gus is a professional, and sure enough, behind a door that shouldn't have been opened in decades, is a human skeleton.
Jazz recognizes the skeleton as Bernadette Quinn, an ex-teacher at the school who'd never returned after one Christmas break, though letters and postcards from her had seemed to indicate there was no cause for worry. But now it seems Bernadette never left the school at all, and her hiding place makes it clear: this was murder.
Bernadette's strident personality means there are a plethora of suspects inside the school and out of it, and as Jazz gets closer to the truth she can't help but wonder if someone might be dogging her footsteps . . .

My Review:

I really was hoping for more about the dogs, especially after the first book in the series, The Scent of Murder. Instead, I got a lot more of Jazz Ramsey, the Catholic college prep school where she is the principal’s administrative assistant, and yet the late discovery of the remains of another person tied to the school.

But I also got more of Jazz stumbling and falling into being an amateur detective again, as well as her fumbling her way back into some kind of relationship with her ex-lover and current friend Nick. Both luckily and unluckily for Jazz, Nick isn’t the investigating officer this time around, when Jazz and a retired cadaver dog discover human remains other than the ones she planted for demonstration.

It’s creepy to think of a school where a dead body has been decomposing on an unused floor for two years. The wildest stories that the students have made up and passed around about the weird things that happened on the old building’s sealed up Fourth Floor have acquired whole new chapters after old Gus discovers the body of a teacher that everyone thought had merely resigned.

After all, she left a letter of resignation. Why would anyone think she was dead? But the body in the closet suggests otherwise. Rather strongly.

When the police detective who IS in charge of the investigation starts out thinking that Sister Eileen, the founder and principal of St. Catherine’s, might be the murderer, Jazz is sure that a) he’s wrong and b) he’s more than a bit of an asshole. Which means that Jazz is off to the races poking her nose into yet another murder.

The entire investigation turns out to be a lesson about that classic definition of the word “assume”, as in “assume makes an ass out of u and me” – and not just for amateur sleuth Jazz. The body has desiccated beyond easy recognition, locked in that not-exactly-climate-controlled “attic” for more than two years. The victim is identified based on her rather distinctive clothing and effects. The timing is certainly right.

But is the body?

Escape Rating A-: I hope the third book in this series – and I hope there is a third book in this series – has more dogs. Jazz’ new pup, Wally the totally attitudinal Airedale, has a long way to go before he’s fully trained and qualified as a human remains detection dog. But they’re working on it.

In the meantime, this series, and this book in it, feels like it’s right on the edge between “cozy” mystery and just plain mystery. And I like that edge.

On the one hand, Jazz is a bit of the typical amateur detective, who gets involved because someone she knows is either the victim, the suspect, or both. But her entry into the mystery is not just unusual but more than a bit creepy – and closer to a traditional mystery. She finds a body, by accident for her, perhaps, but all part of a day’s work for the dog. It also feels like Jazz gets in a bit more danger than the usual cozy mystery sleuth.

The mystery in this one is particularly interesting because of the kind of “hothouse” atmosphere of the school. (In that way, it kind of reminds me of Sarah Gailey’s marvelous Magic for Liars, which is also set in a school, albeit one more like Hogwarts. Also Trace of Deceit by Karen Odden, despite its Victorian setting.) But the ambiance of teachers dedicated to teaching mixed with students who think they run the place – and sometimes do – along with angry parents just sure their little “darlings” couldn’t possibly have committed whatever wrong they so manifestly did, is a setting just ripe for drama – and murder. So many hormones, and so much heightened emotion!

Like most mystery series, cozy or not, in order to like the series one needs to like the protagonist, in this case, Jazz and her family, friends and colleagues. I find her eminently likeable, and will be happy to follow more of her adventures.

For the series to continue, Jazz needs to start finding bodies in the wider Cleveland area and not just of people connected to St. Catherine’s. Otherwise the place is going to have a higher murder rate per capita than even Cabot Cove, and that’s just not reasonable for a school in an area where there are plenty of other options.

That being said, I’m enjoying Jazz’ adventures, her fumbling increase in detective skills, and her slowly re-developing relationship with Nick. She has a unique way of stumbling over bodies that seems to be an excellent method for dragging her into new cases – and the reader right along with her.

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
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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: This is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf

Review: This is How I Lied by Heather GudenkaufThis Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Park Row on May 12, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Twenty-five years ago, the body of sixteen-year-old Eve Knox was found in the caves near her home in small-town Grotto, Iowa—discovered by her best friend, Maggie, and her sister, Nola. There were a handful of suspects, including her boyfriend, Nick, but without sufficient evidence the case ultimately went cold.

For decades Maggie was haunted by Eve’s death and that horrible night. Now a detective in Grotto, and seven months pregnant, she is thrust back into the past when a new piece of evidence surfaces and the case is reopened. As Maggie investigates and reexamines the clues, secrets about what really happened begin to emerge. But someone in town knows more than they’re letting on, and they’ll stop at nothing to keep the truth buried deep.

My Review:

I don’t usually like suspense – and This is How I Lied is definitely suspense. But I got so completely engrossed in the book that I couldn’t put it down. I loved it! And I kind of hated that I loved it because all of the terrible things that happened to the protagonist were just the kind of thing that I hate reading about. But I couldn’t stop. And you won’t be able to either.

Let me explain…

The story begins in the past, 25 years ago. For a brief moment, we’re in the mind of Eve Knox as she attempts to escape her killer – and fails. As Eve falls into unconsciousness, with death certain to follow, perspective shifts to the present, away from Eve (this isn’t that kind of story) to her best friend Maggie, now a police detective in their small town.

And someone has discovered fresh evidence in Eve’s still unsolved murder.

The cold case investigation is handed to Maggie. It shouldn’t be. Maggie is WAY too close to the case. She was Eve’s best friend. She found the body, along with Eve’s sister Nola. And Maggie’s dad, back in 1995, was the police chief who investigated the crime.

But there are only 2 detectives on the local police force, and Maggie is one of them. Maggie is also 7 months pregnant, and has just about reached the point where she can’t buckle her gun belt around a baby bump that is much, much bigger than a mere bump. She needs to go on light duty, and the cold case seems like a perfect way of doing that – at least to the current chief of police.

Not her dad. Her dad was forced to retire when the symptoms of his previously diagnosed dementia became just too debilitating to ignore.

So Maggie has the case, and a case file that throws up all kinds of questions that weren’t answered back then. And probably should have been. But Maggie’s dad was more focused on obscuring the evidence than discovering it.

After all, he wouldn’t want to put his own daughter in jail for murder.

Escape Rating A: I got way, way, way more absorbed in this than I ever expected to. In the end, it felt like this book spilled its guts all over the floor, and the reader can’t help but be glued to the unfolding tragedy.

Because this is definitely a tragedy. It feels like one at the beginning, with a young girl murdered and no resolution. We do see the days leading up to Eve’s murder through her perspective in a series of flashbacks, and it is obvious not just that the whole thing is going to go pear-shaped, but that there were more than a few people who saw that Eve was heading for a disaster – just not the one that actually occurred.

There’s also a sense that, in spite of Maggie’s police career, a job where she has had to take charge and be assertive every step of the way, that the entire story is one where all the women are victims. Maggie is a victim too, and so is Eve’s younger sister Nola. All of them were victimized by the way that society treats and socializes young women, expecting both innocence and sexiness, teaching them that what men want is always more important than what they want or think or believe.

But the story is absolutely gripping. We start with Eve’s murder, and from there move to Maggie’s investigation of Eve’s murder, which seems straightforward until about halfway through when Nola blackmails Maggie into pinning the murder onto Eve’s abusive boyfriend. Because Nola wants his life ruined the way that he ruined Eve’s life – even if he isn’t actually guilty of the crime she wants him convicted for.

It’s a tangled web being woven by everyone attempting to deceive everyone else, each thinking they know who killed Eve – when in reality they are all wrong. And the climax of that wrongness is every bit as terrifying as Eve’s final moments.

Review: The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Physicians of Vilnoc (Penric and Desdemona #8) by Lois McMaster Bujold by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #8, World of the Five Gods #3.8
Pages: 127
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on May 7th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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When a mysterious plague breaks out in the army fort guarding Vilnoc, the port capital of the duchy of Orbas, Temple sorcerer Penric and his demon Desdemona are called upon by General Arisaydia to resurrect Penric’s medical skills and solve its lethal riddle. In the grueling days that follow, Pen will find that even his magic is not enough to meet the challenges without help from dedicated new colleagues—and the god of mischance.

“The Physicians of Vilnoc” is the eighth Penric & Desdemona novella, following about a year after the events of “The Orphans of Raspay”

My Review:

I have been haunting Amazon waiting for this book to finally be available for preorder. I didn’t expect it to just become available, period, but it did. And I couldn’t resist diving into it immediately!

Also, the book I was reading – which is awesome and will be up later this week – I already know that it does not exactly have a happy ending. And while this one is about the progress of a contagious disease and has lots of not exactly happy bits in it – nor should it considering the topic – it’s part of an ongoing series and I could be pretty certain that the characters I’ve been following for 8 books now were going to live to get into yet more adventures another day.

The Physicians of Vilnoc is a story that feels like it is speaking directly to the current real-world crisis while still reading like it grew organically out of its setting and its characters. That’s a feat that speculative fiction, both Fantasy like this series as well as SF, are able to do when they are at their best.

This is a story from a Grand Master of the field, in a Hugo-award winning series. As expected, it does an excellent job of both telling its own particular story AND providing insight into the world its readers are living through. Even if you don’t want to see the real-world applications, it’s a damn good story.

And if you do, it’s even better.

Vilnoc is the place where Penric, his demon Desdemona, his wife Niklys and her brother General Arisaydia have come to rest and settled in after their journeys so far in this novella series. (Start with Penric’s Demon and settle in for a wonderful but not overly long ride.)

As the story opens, Penric is explicitly NOT one of the physicians of Vilnoc or anywhere else. He’s capable of being one, he’s even done it before. And that’s precisely why he doesn’t do it now. He literally does not know when to quit. The last time he tried practicing medicine, it was in the midst of a deadly epidemic and he used himself up to the point where he felt like the only way to escape all of the death that surrounded him and that he couldn’t seem to stop was to kill himself.

So he’s beyond reluctant when Arisaydia, now the local garrison commander, shows up at his door asking him to come back to the garrison and pick up his medical practice. In yet another life-threatening crisis.

A disease is going around the barracks, and it’s not any of the many, many usual things that go around. The garrison’s chief medic is overwhelmed and dying himself of this unidentified disease that absolutely no one wants to label as a plague. Even though it is.

And Penric, who never knows when to quit and can’t refuse his brother-in-law any aid that he has within his power to grant, rides off into hell.

He can’t come home until he’s certain that he has figured out what the disease is and eradicates it. He can’t bring an unknown contagion back to his wife and his infant daughter.

He doesn’t recognize the disease, and neither does Desdemona. He has little help and no time to spare. He’s fighting a losing battle with no idea of who, or what, makes up the opposition forces.

But he has to try. And he has to succeed before it overwhelms that little town that holds his family.

Escape Rating A: I love this series, and have from the very first book, Penric’s Demon, in 2015. It was a beautiful and completely unexpected revisit to the world of the author’s Chalion series, which I also loved. But Penric’s adventures are terrific as well as set on a much smaller scale than the usual doorstop size of an epic fantasy. Each is a gem, but they are better read in order. Luckily it is not necessary to go back to the original series, not that it isn’t lovely in its own right. But Penric’s story feels like it introduces the world enough to get new readers going, and it builds marvelously as it goes along.

Desdemona is the demon who lives within, or rides, Penric. She’s not a demon in the theological sense, she’s more akin to a Trill symbiont from Star Trek. Only not quite as old, I think, as Dax.

But two of Desdemona’s previous riders were physicians, as was Penric himself before he burned out. Which doesn’t stop him from answering the call yet again. And it’s his work as a physician in this story that provides its heart as well as its resonance for 21st century readers.

Because the contagion that Penric has been called in to identify and treat – although not necessarily in that order – is a medical mystery. As Penric begins walking, then wading and eventually nearly sleepwalking through endless rounds of healing an ever-increasing and ever-spreading number of patients, he knows neither what the disease it nor how it is spread. It is all that he can do to keep treating the sick.

He’s isolated and alone. Scared that what he is doing will not be enough. Desperate to find a cure – or even just to figure out how it is transmitted so that some prevention can be undertaken. And it’s difficult not to see parallels between the current situation in hospitals and the self-quarantining of first responders and Penric’s desperate situation.

On the one hand, once Penric does figure out where the disease is coming from the solution is easy albeit not painless. Whereas we are in the situation where we now how the disease is transmitted and we can enact containment strategies – we just don’t know how to stop it in its tracks.

But in Penric’s search for answers, it’s easy to see just how difficult the task is, both for him and for us. Penric does get his “eureka” moment, he does figure out both the questions and the answers. There is a happy ending for him and the other characters we’ve come to follow and care for – but there was a cost and it was not a small one. Lives matter.

So, for readers that want to see our present in this fantasy world, that interpretation can make this story richer and more meaningful. But if you’re just in it for a cracking good story and a fascinating medical mystery, that’s there as well.

I’m always happy to ride along on Penric’s latest adventure.

Before I finish this review, I have one final bit of wisdom from a 200 year old demon to share with you. It’s something that is just as valid in our current crisis, or even just in everyday life, as it is during the crisis that Penric is contending with, “Don’t borrow trouble. The interest rate is much too high.”