Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + Giveaway

Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + GiveawayCondor: an NTSB / military technothriller (Miranda Chase) Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #3
Pages: 428
Published by Buchman Bookworks on March 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Antonov AN-124 Ruslan “Condor”—the heavyweight champ among production cargo jets. Russian tanks, American firefighting helicopters, rescue submersibles, satellites, city-sized power transformers...the Condor hauls them all over the world.

But when one lifts a top-secret payload rated as too dangerous, the US government decides it must take action. Untraceable action. Call Delta Force? SEAL Team Six?

No. They call Miranda Chase, lead crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board to fake a crash. Miranda refuses, but the stakes grow higher and higher. Soon she may be too late to stop the new Cold War from becoming the final war.

My Review:

In this third book in the Miranda Chase NTSB series, the team has finally found the fifth man for its five-man band. And team leader Miranda Chase may have finally found somebody of her own who gets her for all the parts of who she is – laser-focused, single-minded, socially clueless, neuro-atypical and pure savant at figuring out what made a plane crash – no matter how much anyone – or everyone – attempts to hide the truth.

Whether they do that hiding before or after the crash she’s investigating hits the ground.

All of the books in this series have been named for the planes that have crashed – the planes that Miranda’s team has come to investigate. A Drone, a Thunderbolt and now a Condor – so far. And this one is no different in that start. But it is certainly different in the way that events play out.

And the story feels like it owes as much to Tom Clancy’s kind of spy games as it does to M.L. Buchman’s brand of military romance. In fact, it feels like the blend may be reaching an optimal mix for all kinds of combustion.

But first there’s a downed plane, a dead crew, a top secret and completely torched cargo, a Russian counter espionage agent and a CIA Director with designs on becoming the Second Lady of the U.S. – and eventually the First.

In the middle of it all, there’s Miranda Chase and her team, figuring out how and why the plane crashed in the U.S. – and how to make another one just like it crash in the middle of Russia – without ever giving the game away to anyone watching on either side of the deadly equation.

And without any members of her team getting bogged down – or taken out – by the weight of the baggage that they brought along for the ride.

Escape Rating A: In this third book in Miranda Chase’s series, it really feels like the team is hitting its stride. They have really begun to gel as a unit, and as a consequence, the individuals that make up the team have begun to trust each other enough to reveal some of the trauma that’s hidden in their pasts.

Miranda’s past, and its effects on her, have been part of the dynamic from the very beginning. She joined the NTSB and learned to analyze plane crashes because her parents died in one when she was a child. What she wasn’t aware of at the time, but certainly is now, is that her parents were CIA agents, and that their plane was sabotaged in a deliberate – and successful – attempt to take them out.

But we’re still learning about the rest of the team, just as they are learning about each other. As a consequence, the operation that provides the edge-of-the-suspense in this outing is wrapped around the team’s strongman – or in this case strongwoman – former Australian Special Forces operative Holly Harper.

Holly feels responsible for the deaths of her Australian team, as she was the only survivor of an operation that went so completely pear-shaped that even the pear would be outraged. Holly’s secondment to US NTSB was her way of putting her ghosts as far behind her as possible – literally half a world away.

She’s scared of being part of a “team” again, fearful that her bad luck has followed her across a very large ocean. But the operation that the team has been sucked into, faking the crash of a Russian military cargo transport in Russian airspace, is a job that requires all of the old skills that Holly hoped to never need again. But if she’s to save her new team, she’ll have to become the badass covert operative she left behind.

Because there’s an equally badass covert operative who is guaranteed to take out all the members of her new team with extreme prejudice. Unless Holly gets her first. Or unless that slimy new Director of the CIA plays them all.

The operation, in all of its many hair-raising and nail-biting parts is a big callback to some of the wilder adventures of the Night Stalkers in Buchman’s first military romance series. That both Holly and surprisingly Miranda come out of this adventure with the possibility of romance in their own respective futures made this entry in the series feel closer to what I was expecting back when I first picked up Drone – a heart stopping action adventure story with a little bit (so far) of heart pounding romance on top.

I can’t wait to see where Miranda and her team go – and which planes fall down in front of them – in the next book in this series, Ghostrider. I already have it on preorder!

I’ve enjoyed this author’s writing since I read his first military romance, The Night is Mine, back in 2012. He has written plenty of terrific books since then, ranging from military romance to action adventure romance to mysteries to  SF to thrillers and some that straddle all the lines. I haven’t read them all – he’s been VERY prolific! – but I’ve read quite a few and enjoyed every one.

So, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, I’m giving one lucky reader the opportunity to climb aboard one of M.L. Buchman’s thrill-a-minute adventures. The winner of today’s giveaway will get their choice of any one of his books. Whoever wins is in for a real treat of a story!

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Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + Giveaway

Review: Who Speaks for the Damned by C.S. Harris + GiveawayWho Speaks for the Damned (Sebastian St. Cyr, #15) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #15
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sebastian St. Cyr investigates the mysterious life and death of a nobleman accused of murder in this enthralling new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Why Kill the Innocent....

It's June 1814, and the royal families of Austria, Russia, and the German states have gathered in London at the Prince Regent's invitation to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the restoration of monarchical control throughout Europe. But the festive atmosphere is marred one warm summer evening by the brutal murder of a disgraced British nobleman long thought dead.

Eighteen years before, Nicholas Hayes, the third son of the late Earl of Seaford, was accused of killing a beautiful young French émigré and transported to Botany Bay for life. Even before his conviction, Hayes had been disowned by his father. Few in London were surprised when they heard the ne'er-do-well had died in New South Wales in 1799. But those reports were obviously wrong. Recently Hayes returned to London with a mysterious young boy in tow--a child who vanishes shortly after Nicholas's body is discovered.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is drawn into the investigation by his valet, Jules Calhoun. With Calhoun's help, Sebastian begins to piece together the shattered life of the late Earl's ill-fated youngest son. Why did Nicholas risk his life and freedom by returning to England? And why did he bring the now-missing young boy with him? Several nervous Londoners had reason to fear that Nicholas Hayes had returned to kill them. One of them might have decided to kill him first.

My Review:

Once upon a time, the author of the Sebastian St. Cyr series described how she came to write St. Cyr and his series. She said that she wanted to create a character who seemed, on the surface, to be the epitome of the Regency hero; tall, dark, handsome and brooding. (I think with emphasis on the brooding.) But then to explicitly NOT make him the hero of a Regency romance. Thus was Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, born.

A much later description of Devlin referred to him as Darcy with more than a touch of James Bond, but that doesn’t really feel right. St. Cyr seems to have always been carrying too much emotional baggage to have ever been Darcy, while his adventures and investigations take him into much darker places than Bond usually goes and afford him considerably fewer technological toys – even ones that would have existed in the Regency.

St. Cyr relies on his instincts, his brains and his considerable ability to fight as dirty as necessary, whether that fight involves fisticuffs, social exposure or politics – as much as he hates the latter options when needed.

When his story began in 2005 – or in 1811 in St. Cyr’s world, England was on the brink of the Regency and St. Cyr was a battle-scarred veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, unable to settle or sleep, wracked with PTSD after his life-altering experiences in a war that had not yet ended. (Even by the time period of this 15th book in the series, 1814, the war is still not over. It is merely in abeyance during Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba.)

St. Cyr, as the heir to an earldom, should be one of the Regency dandies that appear in the pages of so many romances set in the period. Instead, he has become an unofficial and unpaid murder investigator with the help of the head of the newly formed police agency at Bow Street. His membership at the highest levels of the aristocracy allows him to poke his nose into many, many places where a simple copper would be thrown out the back door.

Even his father-in-law, the Prince Regent’s cousin and spymaster Jarvis, is forced to deal with St. Cyr whether he likes it or not. And he definitely does not.

This latest entry in the series is an enthralling mystery that does an especially good job of exposing the glitter of the Regency Era as the bio-luminescence of something rotting in the dark, as St. Cyr finds himself investigating the death of a man who is all too much like the one that he sees in his own mirror. There but for the grace of god, and just a few scraps of luck that turned good instead of bad, would have gone St. Cyr.

It’s a case he can’t let go of, no matter how many times he’s warned off. And no matter how high the halls of power that he needs to bring low.

Escape Rating A+: It should be fairly clear that this is one of my favorite series. In fact, if it isn’t clear already, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration I ONLY review stuff I really, really love. After all, this is my birthday and the blog’s birthday and why shouldn’t I treat myself to some books and authors that I know I’ll love?

Especially since this whole week is a hobbit’s birthday, meaning that I give presents instead of getting them. It just wouldn’t do to give away books I don’t utterly adore.

What I love about this series in general, and it’s certainly exemplified by this entry, boils down to two things. One is certainly the development of the characters. St. Cyr and his wife Hero have created a partnership of equals in a way that doesn’t often happen in historical romance. They have both come through dark places and dark things, and found each other in spite of people and circumstances that stood in their way.

They both carry a lot of baggage, and it is not a weight that either can carry FOR the other. Rather, carrying it together lightens the load. I also have to say that more than either Darcy or Bond, the character that St. Cyr most often reminds me of is Roarke from the In Death series. They share the same kind of darkness in their pasts, and they both work on expiating their demons in the same ways. They have also both formed strong partnerships with women who were initially on opposing sides from themselves.

The other thing that makes this series so strong is its setting. It is so much the opposite of what we think of the Regency as being. There was so much glitter at the top, and so much rot underneath. The murder in this story is a case in point. The powers-that-be have already decided who MUST be guilty, regardless of who is actually guilty. The attitudes reflected by our protagonists resonate with 21st century readers and yet feel part and parcel of their time and place.

Wrong is always wrong. Murder is always murder. No matter who the victim was, or what they, themselves might have done. That St. Cyr sees so much of himself in this particular victim adds to the poignancy of the whole story.

In the end, good triumphed, at least temporarily. Evil got its just desserts. And the powers that be blame St. Cyr for righting a wrong that many would have preferred to bury. A combination of things as they should be with the acknowledgement that many in power do not desire that outcome.

While I am eagerly awaiting St. Cyr’s next case, probably this time next year, I’m offering one lucky reader the chance to either begin this marvelous series or pick up wherever they might have left off. This is a series where you do need to at least start at the beginning. I read the first few, lost track of the series in the middle and have returned for the last several and have enjoyed every single one since I returned.

I hope that the winner of this giveaway will too.

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Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + Giveaway

Review: Servant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton + GiveawayServant of the Crown by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Series: Dragonslayer #3
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Exciting Conclusion to the Dragonslayer Trilogy Long laid plans finally bear fruit, but will it prove as sweet as hoped for? With the king on his deathbed, the power Amaury has sought for so long is finally in his grasp.

As opposition gathers from unexpected places, dragonkind fights for survival and a long-awaited reckoning grows close.

Soléne masters her magic, but questions the demands the world will make of her. Unable to say no when the call of duty comes, Gill realizes that the life he had given up on has not given up on him.

Once a servant of the crown, ever a servant of the crown...

    The Dragonslayer Trilogy:

1. Dragonslayer
2. Knight of the Silver Circle
3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

First things first. I just want to say what a treat it was to start a series, fall in love with it, and be able to just read – or be read to – all the way through to the end without having to wait months if not years for the later books in a series. I don’t always have that opportunity, either because I fall in love with the first book long before the others are out, or because I run into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum and have to space things out because of other reading commitments. Because I waited to start the first book (Dragonslayer) until the entire series was out – a happy accident! – I was able to do the whole thing in one swell foop. And wow! What a ride!

Second, this is epic fantasy of the sword and sorcery school, and there just hasn’t been as much of that around recently. I’d forgotten how much I love this end of the epic fantasy pool, so I’m grateful for the reminder and will be looking for more of it.

Third, this story manages to be both epic and not epically long at the same time in a way that just really, really works. In an era when so many epic fantasies are made up of several individual door-stop sized books, it was a joy to get such a rich and complete story in a length (or maybe I should reckon this as height) of just under one doorstop at 1,000 pages in total.

Fourth, but still not last, what makes this series so fascinating to read are its characters, and the way that their individual arcs both fulfill fantasy tropes and subvert them at the same time. Because this is a story where the characters feel like real, flawed human beings – and yet they still manage to be Big Damn Heroes, whether they want to be or not. And it’s definitely not.

I’m specifically referring to Gill and Soléne, because their respective journeys, separately and together-but-not-TOGETHER, form the backbone of the series.

Gill is the failed hero of the previous generation. His character, who is very much a classic archetype, usually becomes the mentor figure in most epic stories, whether fantasy or not, and that character usually dies somewhere in the middle so the “real” hero can take center stage. (One of my personal favorite characters of this type is actually dead to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Obi-Wan Kenobi is a great example. He was a hero in the previous war. He failed, he fell and then he hid himself away in the deserts of Tatooine. He becomes Luke’s first trainer and mentor in the Force, and then he’s killed by Vader. The mentor figure always dies. Like Merlin. And Dumbledore. And every other teacher/trainer of the young hero.

But the young hero in the Dragonslayer series is on an entirely different course than Gill’s. Because Gill doesn’t die. Instead, he becomes the hero, one more time, in spite of his own wishes to die in obscurity at the bottom of a bottle. He is, in the end, the “Servant of the Crown” as named in the title of this final volume. He serves no matter what he, himself might want. And he becomes the hero because no matter how many times he’s struck down, he gets up and tries again. And again. And again. Until the job is done.

If it ever will be.

Soléne is that young hero. Gill’s the one out in front to collect all the glory and fight all the battles, or so it seems. But she’s every bit the hero that he is, just from behind the scenes. Her power is huge, but it is also quiet. She’s the mage who operates in the shadows, not because she’s the woman inspiring the hero, but because the power she wields works best from the dark – and the quiet. He knows that she brought him the victory, and he knows that the best thing he can do for her is to acknowledge that privately and not publicly. Not that the Crown won’t give her its own semi-public acknowledgements. Maybe. If they succeed.

It is fascinating that both of their personal journeys are the journey to learn to trust themselves. He has to step up, and she has to step forward, but in so many ways it’s the same step.

I also absolutely adored that there is no romance here – nor should there be. It is wonderful to see trust, friendship and true comradeship in a relationship between a man and a woman that has absolutely no basis in will they/won’t they. Because this particular pair really, really shouldn’t – at least not with each other – and the reader is NEVER led to believe that they should. Solene is never Gill’s reward or his prize, nor is she ever fridged. She’s as big a damn hero as he is, just in a different way.

Even Amaury the villain is very, very human. While he is certainly a meditation on the cliche that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, he’s never able to grasp the absolute power he thinks he deserves. And the minute he gets close to it, it does him in. But throughout he’s human and understandable, even if he’s never a sympathetic character at all. And it’s another subversion of trope that Amaury the human is the big villain, while the really big creatures we think will be the villains, those dragons of the series title, actually aren’t. Well, at least all of them aren’t.

Escape Rating A++: I need to stop squeeing at this point. It’s pretty obvious that I adored this series from beginning to end. I began it in audio – every time – but switched to text at the point where I just couldn’t find out what happened next nearly fast enough.

I will say that the reader for all three books, Simon Vance, was absolutely marvelous. I wanted to continue to listen to him, but patience has never been my long suit. If you love fantasy and have an excuse to listen to the full story, it’s a wonderful listen.

I loved this series so much that I decided to include it as one of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week reviews and giveaways. The winner of today’s giveaway will receive their choice of one book by Duncan M. Hamilton (up to $20 US), whether in this series or one of his previous series (and if anyone knows whether they are all set in this same world, please let me know!)

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Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Orphans of Raspay (Penric and Desdemona, #7) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #7, World of the Five Gods #3.7
Pages: 224
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency, Subterranean Press on July 17th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

When the ship in which they are traveling is captured by Carpagamon island raiders, Temple sorcerer Penric and his resident demon Desdemona find their life complicated by two young orphans, Lencia and Seuka Corva, far from home and searching for their missing father. Pen and Des will need all their combined talents of mind and magic to unravel the mysteries of the sisters and escape from the pirate stronghold.

This novella follows about a year after the events of “The Prisoner of Limnos”.

My Review:

There’s ransom – and then there’s anti-ransom paid to make sure that Penric, Learned Divine of the White God, goes away and stays away.

That’s a tiny piece of the end of the story. In the beginning, there’s chaos. In the middle, too. But then again, there’s always chaos in Penric’s life, and has been since the day that he stopped to help a dying woman by the side of the road, and ended up gifted with her demon and her calling.

(That story is in Penric’s Demon, and it, just like all the stories in this series, is a delight.)

Because Penric’s god is the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season” Penric himself is something of a chaos magnet. Wherever he goes, trouble happens. Usually to him, but eventually to everyone around him, while he emerges, if not unscathed, at least less damaged than whoever or whatever tried to get in his – and his master’s – way.

Penric serves as a bit of a secret agent for both the Duke of Orbas, where he lives when he’s not out running semi-secret errands as well as the Bishop of Orbas, who often sends Penric out on equally dangerous missions. He’s on his way home from one of those missions when the ship he is travelling on is blown off course in a storm, only to survive the storm and get captured by pirates.

That’s where Penric’s “adventure” really begins. Like most of Penric’s adventures, it’s the sort of thing where he’d like it to be a tale told by someone else while he sits beside his wife, safe at home. Or something he’d like to long be over, so that he can look back on it much more fondly than the experience warrants as it’s happening.

Instead, Penric leaps out of the frying pan into the fire – or at least there would be a fire if he weren’t locked in the hold of a ship in the middle of the ocean. And there certainly will be a fire as soon as he reaches dry land – or something equally chaotic and destructive.

After all, he owes those pirates a good comeuppance – even if they quite literally drop him into the mission that the Lord Bastard intends for him to accomplish.

Penric is there to rescue two little girls from slavery – along with himself. Her mother seems to have made a deal with his god, and it’s up to him to carry out his Lord’s side of the bargain.

If he can manage to wreak chaos on the entire slaving operation while he’s there – so much the better. Both his god and his demon ADORE chaos.

Escape Rating A: This series has been a comfort read for me, and right now we all need more comfort reading than usual, so here we are. I have kind of a hit-or-miss relationship with this author’s classic, famous space-opera Vorkosigan series, but I adored the World of the Five Gods series (begin with The Curse of Chalion) and was sorry to see it end. Then it un-ended with Penric’s Demon, which is set in the same world but doesn’t feature any of the original characters. Penric is definitely a character onto himself. And I don’t think you have to have read the “big” series to get into Penric if you start from his beginning in Penric’s Demon. (The series won the very first Hugo Award for Best Series in 2018!)

So I’m all in for this novella series. They are all novellas, so relatively short reads, always complete in themselves but with a “hook” to the wider Penric series. And lovely little bits of storytelling they are.

The success of the series rides – pun intended – on two characters, Learned Penric and his demon Desdemona. I’m not sure the possessive is in the right direction, much like the question about whether we own the cats or the cats own us.

Desdemona is kind of like a Trill symbiont from Star Trek. She’s the demon, she provides Penric with his magic. But she also contains the memories of every person that she has ever inhabited, and Penric has access to all those memories. He may be in charge, but Desdemona is a separate individual who has her own thoughts and her own relationships with the people around them. Lucky for Penric, Desdemona and his wife Niklys get along quite well. If they didn’t, he’d be the chew toy caught in the middle – although probably not for long.

Penric’s adventures often have a “Perils of Pauline” aspect, the out of the frying pan into the fire element of so many of those old melodrama serials. The difference is that in Penric’s case, he’s often the one providing the fire, as that’s one of the many gifts of his demon, and sometimes, as in this particular story, a place just needs a really good cleansing – with fire.

That’s certainly the case here, as Penric is caught in multiple dilemmas. He has to rescue himself and the two girls. He needs to figure out exactly what his responsibility is to those two girls. Not that he isn’t willing to save them, but if it’s a mission for his god he has different options than if he’s just doing a good deed. And there are WAY too many coincidences in their meeting for it to just be a good deed.

At the same time, he, and we, are morally outraged by the economy of the pirates haven and the slaving business that keeps it going. Not just the pirates themselves, but the entire network of middlemen and buyers who make the whole thing so incredibly lucrative – and so distributed that they are hard to eliminate in their entirety – no matter how much Penric wants to.

In spite of the terrible situation, the story itself has a gigantic element of fun to it. Penric causes chaos but he also experiences it fairly often. His plans to get himself and the girls off the island and on their way home backfires on him multiple times. People just won’t do the sensible thing when he’s involved. Seemingly ever.

So he tries and fails regularly, although he tends to fail upwards, making a bit of progress each time. We hold our breath with him as he attempts yet another escape, and worry with him that he’s not going to get the girls to safety. Or that he’ll end up dead. Or both.

In the end, the cavalry quite literally comes over the hill – or at least over the horizon, and Penric lives to cause chaos another day. A day that I can’t wait to read about!

Reviewer’s Note: This book is currently available in ebook published by Spectrum Literary Agency. The print version will be published in June by Subterranean Press with a new cover.

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Review: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice HadlowThe Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Pages: 480
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.

What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.

Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.

Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.

My Review:

The Other Bennet Sister (UK Cover)

The Other Bennet Sister is definitely NOT a book to be judged by its cover. I really hated that cover – and this is one of the rare occasions where the UK cover is just as bad. Both covers seem to picture Mary Bennet exactly as she was in Pride and Prejudice. She seems washed out in the US cover and judgmental in the UK cover.

But I loved the book.

The real Mary, or at least the version I want to be the real Mary, does begin her story as sermonizing and judgmental. But, and it’s a HUGE but, because this is Mary’s own story and not the story of her much more brightly shining sisters, we see that Mary’s behavior is the result of being shy and withdrawn. She’s retreated into herself because she’s the frequently overlooked and often denigrated middle sister, trapped between the gorgeously beautiful Jane and Lizzy and the shallow but pretty Kitty and Lydia.

She’s not really an ugly duckling in the midst of a flock of swans, but her mother sure as hell makes her feel like it at every turn. I didn’t like Mrs. Bennet in the original story – AT ALL – and I like her even less here. Actually, I loathe her even more than I dislike this book’s cover.

Mary isn’t a diamond of the first water, as her older sisters are. She doesn’t sparkle the way her younger sisters do. But she is as pretty as any other young woman of her time, and would have been fine in any family slightly more functional than the Bennets.

But this is not a parallel story to Pride and Prejudice. Instead, it’s more like an alternate sequel, as most of the events take place after the end of P&P. Not merely after those events, but also after the long-feared death of Mr. Bennet, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her remaining unmarried daughters, Mary and Kitty.

And that is where Mary’s story really begins, as she starts the process of taking control of her own life for her own self – in spite of her mother’s frequent interference and constant disparaging – and often melodramatic – pronouncements.

Once Mary is on her own the story takes flight, as she explores the limited varieties of life possible for a spinster and begins to craft her own beliefs about who she is and how she should live – whether she manages to marry or not.

That the end of her journey of self-discovery leads her to love and happiness is the icing on a delightful and thoroughly tasty little cake of a story.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I enjoyed The Other Bennet Sister considerably more than I expected to at the beginning. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m not a fan or an aficionado. I found Mrs. Bennet in particular to be utterly appalling as a character, and Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh are not people I’d ever want to spend much time with. Certainly not enough time to ever attempt a reread of the book.

So one of the things I really liked about The Other Bennet Sister is that none of these petty villains are ever described as anything more than exactly what they are.

It does make for some fairly hard reading at the beginning of the story, as we pretty much suffer right along with Mary as she is first constantly berated by Mrs. Bennet, and then is forced to take on the role of charity case in the homes of both Elizabeth and then Jane as they subtly or not-so-subtly make her aware that she’s unwanted and unwelcome.

She has no place and she has no choice and that’s a difficult situation to be in.

But that’s when she takes things into her own hands and looks for other options, first with Lizzy’s friend Charlotte and her husband Mr. Collins – who was a figure of fun in the original, much like Mary herself.

It’s only when Mary takes herself off to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, that she finally finds a place where she is welcome and can work out her own future, whatever it might be. But all along Mary is brave and forthright, even in situations where those around her do their level best to keep her as far down as possible.

It’s fun watching her grow and expand her horizons. It’s also heartening to see her look hard at the easy way out but reject it as unworthy, over and over. She does a great job of exploring her limited possibilities and making her best choices.

In the end, Mary is a fascinating character, a woman with agency but one whose thoughts, beliefs and choices reflect her time and not ours. The Other Bennet Sister is a lovely story that uses its original as a springboard to something better!

Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie Robson

Review: Hearts of Oak by Eddie RobsonHearts of Oak by Eddie Robson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 266
Published by Tor.com on March 17, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The buildings grow.

And the city expands.

And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.

Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.

And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.

And when chief architect Iona wakes from a long period of blindly accepting the status quo, she realizes there’s a mystery to be solved. A strange, somewhat bizarre mystery, to be sure, but no less dangerous for its improbability.

And the cat is almost certainly involved!

My Review:

Talking cats are generally an indicator that you are either reading a cozy mystery or an animal odyssey like Watership Down or Redwall.

Or, that something is really, really wrong. Because cats aren’t supposed to speak in complete English sentences – or whatever language you might speak. Any story where the king’s wisest counselor and closest adviser is a talking cat is either a fantasy of some sort or a story where things have gone really, really off-kilter at the very least.

With that talking cat at the center of it all. Having played more than one game where a villain took the form of a talking cat, I was expecting the very, very wrong.

The situation in Hearts of Oak was wronger than that. Also weirder. Much, much weirder.

At first it merely seems as if the cat is manipulative – as they are – the king is a chucklehead and the elderly architect who is our point of view character is a bit too far past it to figure just what it is about the city that feels so -odd

She’s certainly aware that something feels “off” but can’t quite get her mind to wrap around exactly what – at least not until the cremation ceremony when a member of the audience leaps onto the casket just as its about to be engulfed by the flames.

At that point, it’s pretty obvious that something is amiss, but just not what.

At that point we are all, like the architect Iona, pretty much invested in the fantasy-like scenario of the ever-growing city, the slightly oblivious king and the dreamlike, slightly soporific quality of the place.

And that’s the point where it all goes pear-shaped, and  all of the perspectives, especially Iona’s and our own, get turned on their heads.

When we – and Iona – discover that nothing about this world has ever been as it seemed.

That’s the point where the oh-so-subtle wrong becomes very, very interesting. And Iona’s situation goes far more pear-shaped than she – and the reader – ever imagined.

Escape Rating B: The story at its beginning has kind of a dreamlike quality. It feels obvious to the reader – at least to this reader – that things are not as they seem and that the cat is at the heart of it all. That particular reveal didn’t feel like all that big of a discovery.

But the point where Iona’s perspective goes through its sudden and dramatic shift takes the story in a direction that absolutely was not expected – nor should it have been. I expected that Iona’s world was stranger than she imagined, but had no clue that it was stranger in the particular way that it is.

There’s more than a bit of charm to this story and the way that its told, as well as a bit of pathos in Iona’s ultimate fate. At the same time, looking back on the story now that it’s over, it feels like there were a whole bunch of themes and plot points that were plucked from different branches of speculative fiction and melded into the whole of Hearts of Oak.

In other words, there were plenty of moments where I felt like I’d read that part of the story before – or seen it on one or more SFF TV show. At the same time, the whole was, not so much greater than the sum of its parts as completely different from the sum of its parts. A feeling that makes no sense but still feels true.

Hearts of Oak is a fun, quirky read that takes itself places that the reader never expects. It’s not really character driven, and when I think about it it doesn’t feel plot-driven either. If I had to describe it – and I kind of do – I’d have to say that it’s really twist-and-turn driven. Just about the time when you think you know where it’s going – or at least begin to recognize where it’s been – it takes a completely different twist and you have to re-evaluate the parts you’ve already read.

If you like stories as puzzles, this one is fascinating. With a twist in the end that cuts like a knife.

Review: Paladin by Anna Hackett

Review: Paladin by Anna HackettPaladin (Galactic Gladiators; House of Rone #4) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators; House of Rone #4
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on March 22nd 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

A cyborg drowning in emotions and an abducted Earth woman trying not to feel.

Abducted, enslaved, and constantly worried for her daughter, scientist Dr. Simone Li has had a rough few months. Now that she and her daughter, Grace, have been rescued by the fierce cyborgs of the House of Rone, she’s trying to make a life for them on the desert world of Carthago. But guilt and worry are eating at her…Toren—a once-emotionless cyborg—was injured rescuing them from the dangerous Edull aliens. Now, he’s inundated with emotions and not coping. Drawn to the wounded cyborg, Simone must find a way to help him and still protect her battered heart.

Bred to be a warlord’s personal cyborg, Toren has prided himself on being a cool, precise fighter dedicated to his house and imperator. Now his entire life has been torn apart. He’s broken, useless, and sidelined as an elite House of Rone cyborg. Every minute of every day, he struggles through a deluge of unfamiliar emotions and wants revenge…and only one woman calms the storm.

Desperate to bring down the Edull and rescue another abducted woman, Toren and Simone go undercover in the desert. Despite the dangers around them, these two tortured souls can no longer fight their intense attraction and the pull of fierce, overwhelming emotion. But Toren will soon have a choice to make: risk it all for love or go back to being the emotionless warrior he’s always been.

My Review:

I decided on Paladin today because I knew exactly what I would be getting from this latest entry in Hackett’s swords, sandals and occasionally spaceships series. Considering that yesterday’s book and tomorrow’s book are both a bit out there in terms of storytelling, I really felt like something a bit straightforward here in the middle.

Not that gladiators in space is exactly straightforward, but the storytelling in this series, like all of this author’s marvelous stories, reliably goes from point A to point B to point C – usually meaning SF (or occasionally action-adventure) meets romance, two lonely and/or somewhat scarred people meet (often briefly in the previous book in their series), figure out that they make each other strong in their broken places, get themselves in serious hot water with the big bad of the series, rescue each other and live happy for now with a happy ever after on the horizon when the series wraps up and the big bad is sent to whatever version of hell their beliefs and ours say they have definitely earned and certainly deserve.

And so it is in Paladin, with the added fillip that all the romances in the House of Rone spinoff from the Galactic Gladiators series feature cyborg warriors discovering that they have hearts and emotions after all, no matter how successfully they’ve managed to pretend otherwise until now. And in this particular entry in the series, the female refugee from Earth comes with her very own plus-one in the form of her daughter Grace.

Grace the budding little chemist with a penchant for making things explode. A skill that is bound to come in plenty handy on Carthago.

Grace’s mother Simone has survived the one-way trip from our Solar System as well as captivity and enslavement by the big bad for this series, the evil bot-making Edull. She’s just starting to get her feet under her again, but her involvement with Toren, the cyborg who was wounded while rescuing her, may set her back emotionally as much as she moves forward physically.

The damage that the Edull inflicted on Toren during her rescue has stripped away his primary cyborg weapon and the emotional distance that was part and parcel of his many, many implants. Now that he suddenly has emotions, he’s unable to control them and unfit for being part of the security that keeps the House of Rone and its inhabitants safe from the dark things that thrive in the shadows of Carthago and the Kor Magna Arena.

Dark and deadly things – and people – like the Edull and their bots.

Toren claims to want nothing more than to be stable enough to regain all his implants and the emotional lockdown that goes with them. But Simone can’t seem to stop herself from reaching out to him, no matter how much his need to pull himself away reminds her of the worst of her marriage back on Earth.

But in investigating their current lead to both the Edull and the female Earth engineer that they know is still a captive, Toren and Simone are forced to rely on each other and get past their emotional blocks.

Whether they can save the day – or even each other – forms the beating heart of this entry in this nonstop action/adventure/science fiction romance.

Escape Rating B: As much as I ALWAYS enjoy this author’s work, I’m not having nearly as much fun with the House of Rone as I did with the first series on Carthago, Galactic Gladiators.

And it seems to come down to two things. The first is that as interesting as each of the individual cyborg heroes are in the House of Rone, they are ALL coming from a very similar headspace and lack of heart space. They either haven’t had emotions or have had to suppress their emotions all of their adult lives, only to discover with the advent of the refugees from Earth that, well, the Tin Man has a heart after all. It feels like they need a Scarecrow and a Cowardly Lion to balance things out. Or someone coming from a different place.

Not that the women they fall for don’t show plenty of variety, because they certainly do. But the men, not so much.

The other thing that makes this series less compelling for me are the villains. As a reader, I don’t know why the Edull do what they do or are what they are. In the author’s Hell Squad series, I may hate the invading Gizzida but I know enough about their motivations to know that they make sense from their perspective. They are evil from our perspective, but not from their own.

The Edull seem to be a race of mad scientists, or at least mad engineers, who are evil for evil’s sake. There’s a piece missing and it makes them less comprehendible. I need to see that from their own point of view they are more than just BWAHAHA evil – and I’m not there yet.

Maybe in the next book in the series, later this year.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 122
Published by Tor.com on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor's lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She's a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

My Review:

This was lovely. And fascinating. I have the feeling I’ll need to read it again to have even a shot at picking up everything there is to pick up from this tiny and perfect little story.

It feels like the creation of a myth – or the exploration of one. It reads like it’s a bit of hidden history – a history that has been suppressed and that, of necessity, will continue to be suppressed.

From one perspective, it’s the story of all the women who have been lost to history – all of the lost and the murdered and the exiled and especially the silenced. It’s a tale as old as time, but not one of the pretty ones.

It’s the story of a princess bartered away for peace between two kingdoms, a princess who is cast into exile and imprisonment when her days of usefulness are over. And it is all the tragedy that the scenario implies.

At the same time, it’s a story about not just fighting back, but actually about triumphing over one’s oppressors. About taking what are supposed to be the ruins of a life and turning them into something sharp and pointed and ultimately victorious.

It’s a story about being forced into the shadows and becoming the knife that strikes from the dark.

An empress is forced into exile. Instead of taking her exile in any of the ways that exiled empresses usually do, she finds a way to turn the tables on her oppressor – by gathering up the talents of all the forgotten ones in the land she will come to rule.

But this isn’t her story. Not exactly.

It’s the story of her faithful servant, handmaiden and secret lover. The story of the woman who befriended and enabled her, and who sacrificed her own happiness to make her rise possible.

So it feels a bit like a historical fable, in the setting of an Asian period drama. It also has something to say about history, how it’s written, how it’s discovered, how it’s preserved.

Whether the teller of that history is a ghost, a spirit or just one of those forgotten voices is left to the reader to decide.

But whoever is telling this story, or discovering it, or recording it, it’s beautiful and haunting every step of its way.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a bit to get into this, quite likely because it wasn’t what I was expecting. The story is not told in a straightforward fashion. Instead it’s dribbled out in little sips and small bites, as the former handmaiden – or her ghost or spirit – reveals it bit by bit to the historian who has come looking for artifacts to document the hidden facets of an all-too-recent history.

It reads like a legend, like a myth or story being told, with hints and oblique views and a lesson that’s meant to be inferred rather than explained.

There’s certainly a feminist bent to it if you look, as all of the major characters are female and this is definitely a story where the woman who was supposed to fade into obscurity instead takes control – and is extremely subversive but effective at it.

In the end, the empress creates her own myth, and we’re reading that myth as it’s told by the person who helped to create and shape it. There’s a lyrical quality to the telling that doesn’t so much grab the reader as insinuate itself into the reader’s consciousness.

Although this is labelled as fantasy, it’s fantasy of the mythic variety. It’s fantasy because it’s not SF and it’s not anything else – not because there is any practicing magic. But magic there definitely is.

Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton

Review: Knight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. HamiltonKnight of the Silver Circle by Duncan M. Hamilton
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: sword and sorcery, urban fantasy
Series: Dragonslayer #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on November 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

*AUTHOR OF ONE OF BUZZFEED'S GREATEST FANTASY BOOKS OF 2013*From the author of the beloved Society of Sword and Wolf of the North trilogies, Duncan M. Hamilton's Knight
of the Silver Circle
--the sequel adventure-packed fantasy to Dragonslayer in The Dragonslayer trilogy--is perfect for fans of magical beasts and unexpected heroes

Three dragons wreak havoc throughout Mirabay--eating livestock, killing humans, and burning entire villages to ash. It was nearly impossible to kill one, using a legendary sword and the magic of the mysterious Cup; to tackle three, Guillot dal Villerauvais will need help.

The mage Solène fears having to kill again; she leaves Gill to gain greater control over her magic.

The Prince Bishop still wants Gill dead, but more than that, he wants the Cup, and he'll do whatever he has to to get it, even sending his own daughter--a talented thief and assassin--into the dragons' path.

As secrets mount on secrets and betrayals on betrayals, both Guillot and Solène face critical decisions that will settle not only their own fate but that of all Mirabaya.

The Dragonslayer Trilogy: 1. Dragonslayer2. Knight of the Silver Circle3. Servant of the Crown

My Review:

I want to call Guillot dal Villerauvais an antihero, because if there’s one thing the man does not want to be, it’s a hero. He’s been there and done that and knows, for sure, for certain and for true, that the so-called glory is empty. As tempting as the adulation still is, he’s all too aware that it’s a cup of poison.

And so much of his personal behavior since he left the capital in disgrace five years ago has been, well, let’s call it less than heroic that it feels wrong for him to accept any of it. He knows he has plenty to atone for – and that killing the dragon that destroyed his village is just a drop in a very large bucket.

But now that he’s needed, truly needed – and feels guilty as hell about why he’s needed even though it isn’t his fault – he’s there. On the front line. In front of the damn dragon. Or in this book, dragons, plural.

Once Gill learns that the dragon he killed wasn’t the only one left in the world after all, he sets out to kill the not one but three that seem to have followed in its wake. After all, he’s the only “experienced” dragonslayer in Mirabaya – or anywhere else – in more than a thousand years.

He’ll just have to put that experience to work – again, and again, and again.

But without the help of his unsung assistant, the sorceress Solène. Solène unlocked the secrets that gave the original Knights of the Silver Circle their power. Solène can’t control her magic – to the point where that lack of control will kill her.

So she leaves Gill with the magical cup, the words to say, and a hope and a prayer that it will be enough to see him through.

While the Prince Bishop plots back in the capital to steal the glory that Gill has no use for, the cup that makes it all possible, and the kingdom if he can manage it.

He almost certainly can. He’ll just need a little bit of magic – along with a ruthless desire to let nothing stand in his way. Not even the king he’s supposed to serve.

Escape Rating A+: So far, this series has turned out to be a joy and a delight. I loved Dragonslayer, to the point where I couldn’t stand to wait for the utterly marvelous audiobook to play out and switched to the ebook just to see what happened that much faster. As I did this time around, switching from audio to text at about the 40% mark.

It’s obvious that I have no more patience waiting to see how a good book tells its story than the Prince Bishop does waiting for all of his many, many plans to ripen to fruition.

Like the first book in the series, this second book tells its rather epic story in a relatively short number of pages while keeping its large scope. At the same time, it hews to its sword and sorcery roots by switching perspectives from the swordsman Gill to the burgeoning sorceress Solène to the power-hungry politician Amaury with all the aplomb of the ablest swashbuckler.

But the washed-up, wasted, struggling Gill is the true hero and the true focus. Solène has her own story, but a big part of our interest in her revolves around her aid to Gill. And Amaury, well, Amaury is the villain and nemesis that every good hero needs. Smart, politically savvy, utterly ruthless and completely without remorse.

A big part of this entry in the series, which is a middle book that manages totally NOT to feel like one, is on the dragon hunt. Several of them, appropriately, as there are not one but three dragons this time around. There’s plenty of glory to be had, and plenty of men looking to grab it. That they are underprepared and less than successful is no surprise but adds plenty of drama and action to the story.

At the same time, there’s an underlying truth to this part of the saga that reminds me in a very peculiar way of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. If you’re not familiar, that’s the one with the whales. And Mirabaya or at least its Prince Bishop, like the Earth of that movie, is about to discover that the thing that can save them is the thing that they’ve been so successful at destroying.

The ways in which that destruction will bite someone, or several someones, in the ass will be revealed in the final book in the trilogy, Servant of the Crown. Which I can’t wait to start in the morning.

Review: Battle Bond by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Battle Bond by Lindsay BurokerBattle Bond (Death Before Dragons #2) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Death Before Dragons #2
Pages: 316
Published by Lindsay Buroker on March 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

If you think having one dragon around messes up your life, imagine what it’s like when a second one shows up.

I’m Val Thorvald, assassin of magical bad guys and tenuous ally to the dragon lord Zav.

He still calls me a mongrel and thinks I’m a criminal, but he healed my wounds after we fought those dark elves together. That’s progress, right? Maybe one day, he’ll deign to use my name.

Not that this is my primary concern. I’m busy with a new assignment. Nin, the awesome lady who makes my magical weapons, has a werewolf problem. Specifically, sleazy loser werewolf competitors who want to drive her out of business. Or worse.

Normally, a couple of werewolves wouldn’t be a big deal, but these ones have powerful allies. And then there’s that new dragon.

It turns out he’s one of Zav’s enemies, and he wants to use me against him.

I don’t know why he’s picking on me—it’s not like I mean something to Zav—but somehow I’ve gotten stuck in the middle of dragon politics. If you think that sounds like a nightmare, you’re right.

If I can’t figure out a way to help my friend with the werewolves while keeping these dragons from tearing me apart, we’re both going to end up flatter than the deck chairs when Zav lands on the roof of my apartment building.

My Review:

After falling into the first book in this series, Sinister Magic, earlier this month, I was on pins and needles waiting for Val’s second outing to arrive on my ereader. And Battle Bond generally did not disappoint.

Even if I haven’t figured out the title yet. I’m saying that because I just realized what the “sinister magic” of the first title referred to. I wasn’t having much luck with understanding the series title either, until I read a bit of background posted on the author’s site and she explained it was all about Val’s perspective, that she would prefer to be dead rather than become a dragon’s pawn or thrall.

Not that she doesn’t keep ending up in just that position – but she gets better. Also her own personal dragon, while still copping a smug and superior attitude that should get him a slap upside the head, is, not exactly mellowing, but becoming a bit less unbearable.

Particularly in comparison to the dragon that has come to our Earth in order to bait, annoy and try to kill Val’s good frenemy, the dragon Zavryd. A dragon who really doesn’t like it when Val refers to him as Zav.

The story in Battle Bond picks up immediately after the ending of Sinister Magic. Val’s government boss is still recovering from the magical cancer that the dark elves infected her with, and Val is still driving the government loaner Jeep that she requisitioned after Zav threw her old Jeep into the upper branches of a very tall tree.

In this outing, Val’s cases, as is probably going to turn out to be usual for her, intersect with a vengeance. Also with actual vengeance.

A dragon has come to Earth to harass Zav, for reasons that will probably become clear later in the series when we – and Val – know a whole lot more about dragon politics back on Zav’s homeworld.

Meanwhile this dragon is kidnapping children. And hikers. And eventually taking over large but remote government compounds, all as part of a twisted desire to put Zav off his game so that he can be eliminated. Possibly eliminating Val along the way.

But Val also has a case that she is taking pro bono. Her friend and magical weapons supplier Nin is being harassed by a pride of big cat shifters who want to drive her out of business. If they put her in the ground as part of that driving out they really don’t care.

Val, however, cares a LOT. She just has to find a way to convince an entire pride of over a dozen members and growing – also growling, that Val AND Nin are not to be messed with. Possibly by messing with them – permanently. Whether she’s supposed to or not.

Both cases prove to Val that none of the things she thought she wrapped up at the end of the first book are remotely done with her yet. And that she’s going to be ass-deep in dark elves AND dragons for the foreseeable future.

If she has one.

Escape Rating B+: I really, really like Val as a character. She has all kinds of doubts and fears, making her very human in spite of her half-elven parentage. She’s also got some really interesting quirks and a seriously problematic Achilles heel. She’s far, far from perfect, and she’d be the first to admit it.

That she has a therapist who can’t help but remind her of all the ways she’s failing herself just adds to the portrait of the kickass heroine as a flawed human being – whether or not she’s only half-human.

For the most part, Battle Bond is at the same breakneck-pace-with-occasional-pauses as the first book in the series. Val’s world, the mixture of the magical and the mundane that she has to navigate, is complicated by its resemblance to the world we know. Finding out what makes it different among the sameness requires some tricky and time-consuming but pace-slowing worldbuilding. Something that I’m generally for and complain about when I don’t get so I’m happy to see that investment here at the beginning.

At the same time there’s still quite a bit of setup over the first half of the book. But once this one gets going – once all of Val’s ducks have been completely knocked out of alignment and all of her plans have been subjected to Murphy’s Law, the entire thing kicks into very high gear.

I want to say that Val leaps out of the frying pan into the fire, but that’s not strictly true. Val is trying to do the right thing under some very difficult constraints – especially the constraint that the government for the most part refuses to acknowledge that magic exists and therefore doesn’t have much of an arsenal for dealing with or recovering from it. And that her mandate is to eliminate the threat to the human population while the dragon Zav’s mandate is to punish and rehabilitate evildoers from his realm who have come to Earth. It’s more like Val leaps out of the frying pan and the fire just appears – over and over and over.

There is a sense that Val spends a lot of this story as a chew toy being fought over by two dragons who both think of her as a MUCH lesser being but are more than happy to use her for their own ends. And that in spite of her stated desire to die rather than become a dragon’s pawn, she spends a lot of this installment being just that.

She does get better. For the most part. But this book does hint at an eventual romance between Val and Zav, and I’ll admit that so far I’m not there for it. It’s going to take a LOT of this author’s generally excellent worldbuilding and character development to get me there.

But I’ll be back next month for the third book in the series, Tangled Truths, to see just how that turns out!