Review: Dragonslayer by Duncan M. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Moonglow Sisters by Lori Wilde

Review: The Moonglow Sisters by Lori WildeThe Moonglow Sisters by Lori Wilde
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It’s Jill Shalvis meets Susan Mallery in this gorgeous novel by New York Times bestselling author Lori Wilde about three sisters, one small town, a wedding, and the summer that changes everything.

Welcome to Moonglow Cove, Texas, a place where your neighbors know your name and the gentle waves of the Gulf of Mexico lap lazily against the sands. It’s a magical spot, especially in the summertime…

Once the town was the home of the Clark sisters—brought up by their grandmother at the Moonglow Inn. Nicknamed “The Moonglow Sisters”, as children they were inseparable.  Then, a wedding-day betrayal tore them apart and they scattered across the globe and away from each other.  But the sisters have at last come home…

There’s Maddie: smart, sensible, and stubborn. Shelley, who ran off to find her bliss. And Gia, a free-spirit determined to keep the peace. It’s her impending wedding that keeps them together…but Gia has a secret, and when her sisters find out all heck is going to break loose!

The Moonglow Sisters continues Lori Wilde’s trademark storytelling to create an unforgettable novel of family, betrayal, love, and second chances.

My Review:

This is a story that invokes ALL the feels. Seriously. All of them.

By that I mean that this story of sisterhood, family ties, family love, family secrets and especially long-held family grudges swings from grief to anger to joy and back around again as the Moonglow sisters come home, but not together, to take care of their beloved Grammy – but seem to have no intention of taking much care – or paying much attention to – each other.

Once upon a time the Moonglow sisters, take-charge Madison, peacemaker Gia and impetuous Shelley, were the darlings of not just their grandmother and her best friend Darynda but the entire town of Moonglow Texas.

At least until five years ago, when Madison caught Shelley kissing Madison’s fiance on Madison’s wedding day, and the sisters broke apart on the rocks of anger, jealousy and disappointment with each other’s lives and choices.

Madison left for New York City and is now a reality-TV star with her own hit cable TV show about making a beautiful home. Something that she herself lacks, as her controlling nature has pushed away not just her family but also the fiancee with whom she shared a terrible loss.

Shelley disappeared to Costa Rica and her sisters have not heard a thing from her in those same five years. Grammy knows where Shelley is, but there doesn’t seem to be much communication there, either.

Gia turned her passion for kite-making into an apprenticeship with a master kite-maker in Japan, and has returned to Moonglow to open her own business, making and selling artisan kites.

Gia, living in Moonglow, is the one who arrives at Grammy’s for their regular weekly brunch to discover that Grammy has left a note for her, asking Gia to get her sisters back together in Moonglow, to fix their fractured family and finish the “Wedding Ring” quilt that was supposed to have been a present for Madison for that dramatically cancelled wedding.

The note makes it clear that the message may very well embody Grammy’s last wishes. As Gia reads the devastating message, Grammy is in surgery. She has stage 4 brain cancer, and the surgery is intended to remove as much of the cancer as possible to slow down its growth. This won’t make her well, but it may give her more time. It may also kill her or leave her a vegetable for whatever time she has left.

Gia treats Grammy’s message as a mission, as Grammy intended. She gets Madison back to Moonglow, and reaches out to Shelley. Madison comes home looking like a million-dollar New York TV star. Shelley blows in worn-out and haunted, with a backpack containing all her possessions, no cell phone and a $200 taxi fare to pay.

It is not an auspicious start for any of the things that Gia thinks she has to accomplish. It’s not exactly an auspicious middle, either, as Grammy remains in a coma after surgery and Madison and Shelley both threaten to leave. It takes a whopper of a tall tale to get them to stay – at least until they discover they have an entirely different mission to carry out.

It’s going to take a village, the entire little town of Moonglow, to take care of Grammy, save her house, and put the Moonglow sisters back together. And it’s touch and go every step of the way.

Escape Rating B+: This one definitely invokes all the feels from beginning to end. It all starts with Grammy writing that message, knowing that she’s just placed a nearly – but not totally impossible burden on Gia. And not knowing that she’s leaving behind as big of a mess as she actually is.

The family dynamic is so fractured that at first it looks like there’s no fixing it. And all of those fractures were created by a whole bunch of family secrets. The sisters don’t know why their mother stopped speaking to their grandmother, and none of them seem to know exactly what was motivating the others during the wedding debacle.

And then there’s the current set of secrets, all brand new and all created post-family feud.

One of the interesting parts of their dynamic is the way that they don’t fit the usual birth order stereotypes. Oldest sister Madison is plenty take-charge and controlling, but middle sister Shelley is the wild child and youngest Gia is the peacemaker instead of the other way around.

But it’s the way that they pull together while falling apart that carries the story. Even though they don’t figure out the darkness that’s at the heart of their fracture until the very end, they still manage to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of, including each other, in spite of everything that’s wrong between them.

In the end, it was intensely cathartic to see Gia finally break. Because her breaking let all the secrets out, and the healing is stronger, a real fix and not just a temporary patch job over everything that had gone wrong.

I also perversely loved that the ending is bittersweet. The sisters can repair the damage to their relationship, they can finally learn and understand what went wrong between their mother and their grandmother, and that reveal allows Grammy to live her own truth for her remaining time. But that time is sadly, appropriately short. Time may heal many wounds, but it cannot heal brain cancer.

At the same time, she’s content with her ending, that she accomplished what she intended to, and got her girls back together before it was too late.

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Review: Dangerous Territory by Lindsay Schopfer

Review: Dangerous Territory by Lindsay SchopferDangerous Territory: A Keltin Moore Adventure by Lindsay Schopfer
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: adventure, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Keltin Moore #3
Pages: 253
Published by Independently Published on June 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

The beast hunter is on a mission of mercy to save the love of his life.

Life is good for professional monster hunter Keltin Moore. His new beast hunting company is finding great success as he returns to distant Krendaria to protect its citizens from creatures of nightmare.

But when he receives word that the woman he loves is in trouble, he will leave the world that he knows behind and plunge headlong into dangers he has never faced before.

Somehow, he’ll have to sneak across a closed border, find his beloved and her family, and escort them all safely back out of the country. From dodging sadistic government agents to racing through beast-infested forests, will Keltin and his new friends survive their escape through Dangerous Territory?

This is the third installment of the award-winning Adventures of Keltin Moore, a series of steampunk-flavored fantasy novels. If you love compelling characters, fantastic creatures, and intense action then you will love these stories!

My Review:

The Adventures of Keltin Moore may be a difficult series to categorize but it’s a terrific action/adventure read.

Three books in, after The Beast Hunter, Into the North and now Dangerous Territory, the series as a whole feels like steampunk action/adventure, with kind of a “Weird West” vibe. But the weird in that West isn’t the west of anyplace on our own world, past or present. Instead, Keltin Moore’s beast hunting adventures take place in a world made up of his native Riltvin, with political shenanigans impacting his life and work from far away Krendaria and Malpinon, just so far. Keltin’s travels to his wider world give the series a bit of epic scope, without getting into the kind of vast empire politicking that epic fantasy is famous for.

And then there are those beasts that Keltin hunts. The beasts feel/read like magical constructs. That may not be true, but they remind me of the “Changed” beasts in some of Mercedes Lackey’s darker books. Keltin is not a trophy hunter – far from it. He is a defender of “regular folks” whose lives have been beset by rampaging “boils” as the beasts are called. The beasts are dangerous and deadly, fierce and heavily protected by natural armor.

It takes an expert to kill one. It takes a strong and lucky expert to kill as many beasts as Keltin has eliminated. Keltin makes me think of several variations of the Alaskan saying, “There are old bush pilots, and there are bold bush pilots, but there are no old, bold bush pilots. It feels like the same can be said of beast hunters in Keltin’s world.

The story in Dangerous Territory takes Keltin back to the sight of his greatest hunt, the huge beast-culling in northern Krendaria that formed the background of his first adventure, The Beast Hunter.

But Keltin sees Krendaria as a blood-soaked land he has no desire to go back to. He found himself as a leader, whether he ever wanted to become one or not, and he still feels guilty about the mistakes he made and the men he couldn’t save – even if he did the best he could and saved many who would otherwise have been lost to the boils.

However, this journey is one that he feels he has to make. Not just because Krendaria feels like unfinished business, but because Keltin has unfinished emotional business to take care of as well. And as dangerous as boil-infested Krendaria and politically fractured Malpinon are, the most dangerous territory that Keltin has to navigate in this adventure is the territory of his own heart.

Escape Rating A-: There’s just something about this series that I eat up with a spoon. They are all relatively compact books, tell a compact story featuring an interesting and empathetic main character. I want to know what happens to Keltin next and I’m really sorry there’s no fourth book immediately available.

That being said, what I like about this series is the way that it seems to get to the heart of its matter without bogging down into the myriad details that it could. And as I’m saying that I wish there were a bit more worldbuilding, and yet the series works fine without it. It feels like we’re getting the worldbuilding in bits and pieces, as Keltin explores his wider world we do too.

It would have been so easy for Keltin’s story to descend into “gun porn” with endless details about the weapons and ammunition that he uses. Instead there’s just enough detail for the reader to understand why it’s important to Keltin’s survival without diving so deep into the details that readers interested in Keltin’s story and not Keltin’s armament have just what they need to go on.

But it’s the story, and the spare nature of how it’s conveyed, that simply work for at least this reader. Part of why that works is Keltin himself. He is not a storyteller, and he doesn’t want to be. And we’re seeing his world and his journey from his perspective but not in first person singular. We’re not in his head, but rather we’re following a third-person narrator who knows a bit more than Keltin does about what’s going on around him but still follows Keltin for all the action.

It gives us enough distance to see Keltin as he is and not as he believes himself to be. Because he’s much more of a leader and a hero than he’d ever give himself credit for. From that slight bit of distance, we can observe his doubts and fears without getting as caught up in them as he does. And it allows him to keep some secrets from us as well.

The interesting thing about this particular entry in the series is the way that it revisits old territory without re-hashing previous events. Except, of course, for Keltin’s own re-hashing of his hesitant romantic correspondence with Elaine Destov, the woman he helps to save from the beasts of Krendaria, even as she saves him in turn.

His emotional uncertainty is endearing, and his willing to deal with his own doubts and fears is every bit as brave as his beast hunting.

I’ll admit that I found the ending of Dangerous Territory, with Keltin walking his sister down the aisle at her wedding, to be a bit anticlimactic. That’s partly because I wanted it to be Keltin’s wedding to Elaine, even though they aren’t ready for that yet. It also felt a bit “tacked on” rather than an integral part of the story just finished. But more than that, I think I also wanted to be certain of having a next book to look forward to, and I don’t. There’s plenty more of this world, and Keltin’s place in it, yet to explore!

Review: Love Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Love Hard by Nalini SinghLove Hard by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, sports romance
Series: Hard Play #3
Pages: 340
Published by TKA Distribution on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jacob Esera, star rugby player and young single father, has worked hard to create a joyous life for his six-year-old daughter. After the death of his childhood sweetheart soon after their daughter’s birth, all Jake wants is safety and stability. No risks. No wild chances. And especially no Juliet Nelisi, former classmate, scandal magnet, and a woman who is a thorn in his side.

As a lonely teenager, Juliet embraced her bad-girl reputation as a shield against loneliness and rejection. Years later, having kicked a cheating sports-star ex to the curb, she has a prestigious job and loyal friends—and wants nothing to do with sportsmen. The last thing she expects is the fire that ignites between her and the stuffed-shirt golden boy who once loved her best friend.

Straitlaced Jacob Esera versus wild-at-heart Juliet Nelisi? Place your bets.

My Review:

Until now the Hard Play series has been kind of a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series, but this entry is loosely a sequel to my personal favorite book in that series, Rock Hard. And while it was great to see the Mouse and T-Rex put the icing on the cake of their HEA with a wedding, Love Hard is not their story.

So you don’t have to read that, or any of the rest of the series, to like Love Hard. Not that it isn’t great to catch up with the friends from the rest of the series(es), but this one does stand alone.

In fact, it’s kind of about standing alone – and discovering that maybe it’s time not to have to.

Juliet Nelisi is the Mouse Charlotte’s best friend, and we saw plenty of her as a secondary character in Rock Hard. But that wasn’t her story just like this isn’t Charlotte’s. In spite of Jules’ status as Charlotte’s long-time bestie, we learn in Love Hard that if there’s one thing Jules isn’t used to, it’s having someone to stand in her corner. She’s done plenty of that standing for other people, but very few have ever stood for her. Starting with her family.

The one person besides Charlotte who always stood in Jules’ corner was her high school bestie, Calypso. But Calypso died of meningitis not long after giving birth to her beautiful daughter Esme, and Jules still misses her every day.

Jules isn’t the only one still missing Calypso. Jacob Esera, little Esme’s father, is raising his daughter not exactly alone, but the help he has comes from his parents, his brothers, and his extended family. Between his top-flight professional rugby career and raising his daughter, he’s kept himself away from the groupies and the scandals that can come with being a young man at the top of pro sports.

Jake, at 24, feels like he buried the young man he used to be in the grave with Calypso, but he’s mourned and moved on. He has to keep going for Esme, for his family, and for his career.

The one thing he doesn’t factor on is Jules resurfacing in his life. Not like that. Jules and Calypso were besties, Calypso was Jake’s high school sweetheart, and the friend of his girlfriend, was, at best, a frenemy. They got along for Callie’s sake. Just barely.

At the time, Jules was trouble with a capital T. And everything that has happened in her life, at least the parts that Jake knows about from the gossip rags, say that she is still trouble. Big trouble. Huge trouble.

But their contentious encounter as part of the wedding party for T-Rex and the Mouse show Jake that Jules has grown into a beautiful woman who pushes all his buttons. Both the buttons that make him want to rile her up and piss her off, and the buttons that make him want to rile her up and take her to bed.

She drives him crazy in every possible way. And shakes him out of the staid, grey, safe zone he’s tried to live in since Callie’s death. But starting a relationship with Jules isn’t just ill-advised. It’s downright stupid. The gossip rags are still following her around after the juicy breakup of her marriage to a cricket star. Those same gossip rags are the last thing he wants in his life, especially sniffing around his 6-year-old daughter.

Jules has tried her best to live a quiet life, out of sight of the gossip rags, if not ever completely out of mind. Getting involved with another sports star will drag ALL of the old crap out of the woodwork, and set her up for yet another round of having her life invaded. She doesn’t want any part of that, and she especially doesn’t want any part of that invading Jake’s life with Esme, or his family.

But she wants Jake in spite of every instinct saying this is a really bad idea. The question is whether it is a good enough bad idea to take the risk?

Escape Rating A-: There are parts of this story that make me feel guilty for even looking at the headlines on the grocery store gossip magazine shelf, let alone ever clicking on a clickbait gossip headline on social media.

Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that, when it comes to the media, men are always talked about for who THEY are and what THEY do, but women are still almost always talked about in terms of who they married, regardless of their own accomplishments?

Both of those thoughts play into Jules’ side of this equation in a big way. While she may have been a troublemaker in high school, well, there were reasons. And it was high school, a big part of the point of which is to make mistakes and learn from them so you don’t make them later.

But her marriage, well, that mess was so not her fault as to be ridiculous. But he was the star and she was the girl from nowhere, so when the relationship ended, he controlled the narrative and got all the sympathy, while her reputation got trashed and trashed and trashed. It made for great clickbait and left her shell-shocked and gun shy. Especially since it seemed that everyone who even glanced at a tabloid made up their minds about her in an instant. Those rags got lots of mileage out of painting her as a gold-digging, lying, cheating predator, never mind that she signed an iron-clad prenup, so she didn’t get a dime, and that he was the liar, the cheater AND the predator.

It’s that past that both comes back to haunt Jules, and in the end teaches her that you can survive just about any storm if you have good people down in that storm shelter with you.

Her ex tries to resurrect their past scandal to put his name back in the headlines. His career is fading fast from too much “Life in the Fast Lane’, and he’s hoping to trade his remaining celebrity status for a cable TV show.

Jules wants to hide until the storm blows over, but Jake won’t let her. Instead, he stands with her, his entire family stands with her, and they all help her not just weather the storm, but turn it back against her ex. And in that process, she learns that she has someone who will stand with her through thick and thin, help her celebrate her wins, and help her recoup from her losses. It’s something she’s never had before.

But their relationship isn’t all one-sided. He needs her to be the wind beneath his wings, to get him out of that safe, staid, grey rut he’s been in. They do a whole lot better than just get by with a little, or a lot, of help from their friends.

So, on the one hand, this is a hot and steamy frenemies to lovers romance. On the other, it’s a story about not just finding but also accepting the right people to stand with, and to stand with you. About finding the person who helps you be strong in your broken places. And that’s a story that always makes for a very satisfying romance!

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers

Review: A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. WagersA Pale Light in the Black (NeoG #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: NeoG #1
Pages: 432
Published by Harper Voyager on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The rollicking first entry in a unique science fiction series that introduces the Near-Earth Orbital Guard—NeoG—a military force patrolling and protecting space inspired by the real-life mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling. Their best swordsman has been transferred, and a new lieutenant has been assigned in his place.

Maxine Carmichael is trying to carve a place in the world on her own—away from the pressure and influence of her powerful family. The last thing she wants is to cause trouble at her command on Jupiter Station. With her new team in turmoil, Max must overcome her self-doubt and win their trust if she’s going to succeed. Failing is not an option—and would only prove her parents right.

But Max and the team must learn to work together quickly. A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them.

Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

My Review:

Military SF, done right, is one of the best things to read if you are looking for serious “competence porn”, and A Pale Light in the Black is definitely military SF done very, very right.

There have been plenty of milSF stories featuring various branches of the service taken into space. Often those services model the space forces around either the Navy, as in Honor Harrington, or the marines, like Torin Kerr. The concept of a space Army seems like a bit of an oxymoron, as the Army has to get out of space and onto some ground in order to really be something called an Army. And a space Air Force feels redundant, even though there’s no atmosphere in space.

On the other hand, Stargate Command was run by the U.S. Air Force, so it IS possible after a fashion.

But the one service that has been left out of the equation – until the glorious now – is the Coast Guard. Countries have coasts. Earth as a whole doesn’t exactly have a “coast”, but it does have a stretch of territory that it defends and where its laws, rules and regulations hold sway.

Or at least it will in the future, if we ever do manage to get into space for real. And it certainly does in A Pale Light in the Black. Because that’s where this story, and the series that will follow (hopefully really, really SOON) is set among the often looked down upon members of this future’s equivalent of a space Coast Guard, the NeoG.

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard patrols the relatively nearby space where Earth holds sway. Their duty is to protect the “pale light in the black” that is Earth and her colonial interests. Their job is critical, but it isn’t exactly glorious or sexy. The NeoG is underfunded, undermanned, underequipped and underestimated in the Boarding Games that serve as a combination of mass entertainment, wargame training and inter-military rivalry, scorekeeping and grudge-matching, with a plenty of individual service team-building.

The story, and the audience, follow one Lieutenant Maxine Carmichael. Max graduated first in her NeoG Academy class, but has been stationed on Earth ever since, due to the machinations of her rich and powerful family. A family that may have all-but-disowned and abandoned her on the day that she announced she was joining the NeoG instead of either the more prestigious Navy, like her parents and older brother, or the family firm, like her sister.

They abandoned her in the hopes that she would fall back into their cold and distant arms and toe the family line. Instead, she excelled at the career that she had chosen. But then, she never did fit in with the rest of the family.

Still, they pulled strings to keep her stationed safely on Earth – whether that’s what she wanted or not. Then again, what Max wanted seems to have never mattered a damn to her family. When she finally had enough, she applied to be an Interceptor, part of one of the close-knit crews that patrolled the space lanes for contraband, pirates, and general bad actors of all types. There are NO interceptors serving on Earth, so she finally has her posting out in the black as the story opens.

Having achieved her goals does not mean that she isn’t carrying all the emotional baggage her parents loaded her down with and that she doesn’t still have all the buttons they installed. Max has the basics to do her job and do it well, but she has a long way to go to learn how to become a part of a team that treats all its members like family.

Because she has no good experiences of family. At all.

A Pale Light in the Black is Max’s story as she becomes part of the crew of Zuma’s Ghost, finds her place in the NeoG and in the found family that is her ship and crew. And figures out just how to help her team win this year’s Boarding Games.

Meanwhile, Max, her crew, her friends and even her entire branch of the service are investigating an age-old grudge between her family firm and the rivals that everyone believed were long dead. A grudge that could destroy, not just her family, but take half the human population along with it.

No pressure. Compared to that, the Boarding Games are a piece of cake!

Escape Rating A++: I realize that I’m basically squeeing all over the page here. I absolutely loved this book. And there’s enough to unpack to keep me busy until the next book in the series comes out.

First, the worldbuilding here is awesome. Also in a peculiar way a bit scary, because this isn’t a direct progression from our now until then. Instead, we are now in the pre-Collapse world, and our right now is pretty much the “last good time” for a long time. The Collapse Wars are coming, and after that, in about 400 years or so, we reach the time period of the story. “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.”

I love the way that the author demonstrates that we as a species have also left a whole lot of crap behind on that way between here and there. Not by making a big deal about it, but by showing that things are different through the lack of so much stupid fuss in everyday life. We are capable of better as a species, we just seem to need very hard lessons to reach that point.

Second, this is great competence porn. By that I mean that everyone, not just our hero but everyone in NeoG, is seen to be doing their jobs well all the time. Even the evil people are good at what they do, just that what they do is terrible. But it is terrific to watch and especially identify with a whole lot of folks who are not just dedicated to their jobs but where the ability to do the job well is expected. Heroism is extra. It was also different to see such good competence porn in a story that does not deal with basic training of any kind.

Not that Max doesn’t have plenty to learn, but we don’t follow her going through the Academy. Instead, we follow her as she learns to let down her emotional guards, to let herself accept and be accepted, to figure out what she’s good at and let herself internalize that she has skills and is good enough in all sorts of ways. Her doubts and fears make her human – and they make her easy to identify with and especially empathize with. We all have a little impostor syndrome in us, after all.

Max, however, is actually way beyond good enough, but that’s part of the lesson she needs to learn.

Max’s first year on Zuma’s Ghost, and the timetable for the Boarding Games provide the structure for the story. At the same time, the ghosts that Max has to deal with, the wounds that she needs to heal from, were all inflicted by her family.

And the case that Zuma’s Ghost has to solve, the smugglers and pirates that they have to catch, also deal with her family. The way that Max goes from feeling caught in the middle to knowing exactly where she stands is a big part of her journey. A journey that in many ways reminds me of the character of Ky Vatta in the Vatta’s War and Vatta’s Peace series(es). Ky has to deal with many of the same conflicts between military duty and family obligations. If you like Ky you’ll love Max and vice-versa.

I can’t wait to see where Max – and Zuma’s Ghost – go next!

Review: Aunt Gertrude’s Red Hot Christmas Beau by Cerise DeLand

Review: Aunt Gertrude’s Red Hot Christmas Beau by Cerise DeLandAunt Gertrude's Red Hot Christmas Beau (Christmas Belles #6) by Cerise DeLand
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Christmas Belles #6
Pages: 102
Published by W. J. Power on January 31st 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

When The Countess of Marsden throws a house party, she expects to marry off her family and friends. Never herself. Not at her age!

At the Countess of Marsden’s house party, she plans to marry off her family and friends. But when the Duke of Harlow strides into her bedroom on Christmas Eve, Gertrude’s ready to continue the charming affair they began last summer. Even though she’s a lady of a certain age. Even though she’s never loved any man other then her dear departed husband!

Harlow’s enchanted by Gertrude. He’s done with mourning—and he’s ready to laugh again! But he wants more than a few nights with her. When he tells her, what will she say?
Can she love him? At his age? Imperfect as he is? Loving her as he does?

My Review:

I totally bought this one for the cover. And the story. But what initially grabbed my attention was that cover. That picture looked like someone drew John Barrowman as a silver fox, and it’s not a bad look. At all. More than enough to make me give this book a second and third look.

And that’s when I got hooked by the story. There aren’t nearly enough romances that feature couples where both parties are “a certain age”. By which I mean over 40. (If you want a contemporary with this same kind of pairing check out the awesome Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory).

I was also looking for something light and fun, as an antidote to all the news this week. Admittedly, I was also looking for something short. I’m in the middle of reading A Pale Light in the Black, and listening to Dragonslayer, and while they are both awesome, neither is exactly light. Pale Light isn’t exactly short, either.

Which brought me to Aunt Gertrude and her exceedingly hot beau – and previous fling – the Duke of Harlow.

Gertrude, Countess of Marsden and George, Duke of Harlow have both been widowed, so their fling, while possibly a bit scandalous if anyone found out, didn’t exactly hurt anyone. And it’s entirely possible that Gertrude is past worrying about presenting the Duke with a spare to go along with his 31-year-old heir.

They were, and are, both in a position where they can please themselves with their friendships and liaisons. So they did.

But Harlow, the cad, never wrote to Gertrude after their interlude. Never contacted her. Not out of guilt, but out of pride and an overzealous attention to duty.

Gertrude, on the other hand, isn’t quite so proper. Or stuck on herself. Or simply is more willing to acknowledge that life is too short not to spend as much time as possible with someone who makes you laugh. Especially when that someone can make you breathless in plenty of other ways as well.

She just has to get Harlow off his noble high horse to admit that they can have a beautiful future together. And he has to convince her that the difference in their stations doesn’t matter at this point in their lives, if indeed it ever did.

It all hinges on Harlow getting the stick out of his own arse and realizing that he’s kept his twice-widowed son from the love of HIS life more than long enough.

Escape Rating B+: This one was mostly fluff. And it was wonderfully fluffy. EXACTLY what I was looking for! It’s short and sweet with just the right amount of spice, making it a perfect read for my mood.

I loved that both parties in this romance were older, and the portrayal had a hint of realism about that. Harlow is in his 50s and Gertrude is a few years younger, so late 40s most likely. They both worry about not being what they were in their youth, but are both more than willing to embrace the time they can have together.

I also liked that Gertrude was the one who took the initiative. She wanted to see him, so she invited him to her holiday party and made it very clear in her message that the invitation included her bed.

Gertrude’s frankness did highlight that this takes place before the Victorian era of extreme and false modesty. These events occur in December of 1814, while Napoleon was in exile on Elba. Part of the purpose of her soiree is to allow her nieces to get engaged to their own loves, who have been in France fighting Napoleon for the past several years. Napoleon and the war do cast a bit of a shadow, as we know that while Napoleon spent that Christmas at Elba, he didn’t remain “on ice” on Elba.

Meanwhile, it’s a time of joy that Gertrude is more than willing to add to on her own account, not that she expects an offer of marriage out of it. But she does expect a good time, both in bed and out, with a man she cares for and who makes her laugh and takes her out of herself. And it’s refreshing to read about a woman who knows her mind, her heart, and her libido.

That the whole thing nearly gets derailed by Harlow’s long-standing estrangement from his son adds just the right note of piquancy to a tale that would otherwise be a bit too sweet. That Gertrude helps him understand the errors of his ways, and doesn’t accept a future with him until he both acknowledges and redeems those errors, was a welcome change from so many romances where the hero really screws up and the heroine takes him back without even a proper grovel.

All in all, this was a lovely Georgian-era romp with just the right amounts of sweet, savory and spice to make it a delicious read!

Review: Sinister Magic by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Sinister Magic by Lindsay BurokerSinister Magic: An Urban Fantasy Dragon Series (Death Before Dragons) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Death Before Dragons #1
Pages: 286
Published by Lindsay Buroker on February 28th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

I’m Val Thorvald, and I’m an assassin.

When magical bad guys hurt people, I take care of them. Permanently.

This doesn’t make me popular with the rest of the magical community—as you can tell from the numerous break-ins and assassination attempts I’ve endured over the years. But thanks to my half-elven blood, a powerful sword named Chopper, and a telepathic tiger with an attitude, I’ve always been able to handle my problems with aplomb. Maybe some cursing and swearing, too, but definitely aplomb.

That changes when my boss is afflicted with a mysterious disease, a government agent starts investigating me, and a godforsaken dragon shows up in the middle of my latest job.

I’ve taken down vampires, zombies, and ogres, but dragons are way, way more powerful. And it doesn’t look like this one is going to like me.

Worse than that, he wants to use his magic to compel me to do his bidding, as if I’m some weak-minded minion.

That’s not going to happen. I’d die before being some dragon’s slave.

But if I can’t figure out a way to avoid him, save my boss, and get rid of the government spook, I’m screwed. Or dead. Or screwed and dead. And that’s never comfortable.

Pick up Sinister Magic today to see if I make it. Even if you don’t care about me, I promise the tiger is cool.

My Review:

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new urban fantasy series, let alone one that I couldn’t wait to dive into. Once upon a time, urban fantasy and its kissing cousin paranormal romance were everywhere, but now, not so much.

Not that there aren’t plenty of existing series that are still going strong, but new ones starting up aren’t nearly as prevalent as they used to be. And probably will be again, these things go in cycles.

But this book looked like catnip to me – and it certainly was. The first book in a new series by a fave author – and what looked to be a fascinating take on our world with a kickass heroine as combination tour guide (for the reader) and bounty hunter (for the bad guys, for select definitions of both bad and definitely guys.)

And dragons. Or rather one dragon. A dragon shifter at that. And one with a whole lot of self-important, superior asshole attitude that just begs our heroine to poke with a sword and a nasty attitude at every conceivable opportunity.

Once you’ve met “Lord” Zavryd, you’ll completely understand the attitude.

Our heroine is Val, a half-elven bounty hunter. She’s actually a government contractor whose job is to go after the weird and nasty. Or at lest the non-human weird an nasty. Working for the government involves dealing with an entirely different kind of nasty, as Val is reminded when her boss ends up hospitalized and under suspicion of a whole raft of criminal activity that she couldn’t possibly have had a hand in.

Val and that dragon cross paths over the not-yet-dead body of a wyvern who snacked on a bunch of kids. Val wants the animal put down with extreme prejudice and as much firepower as she can bring to bear – which is rather a lot.

Zavryd wants to bring the wyvern back to face the Dragon Justice Court. That wyvern has been a very bad creature in more places than just Earth. In the ensuing scuffle, argument and outright battle over exactly who has jurisdiction in this case, the wyvern gets dead, Val’s Jeep gets tossed into the upper reaches of a tree, and Zavryd decides that Val can pay him back by serving as “bait” for all of the miscreants who have fled justice and settled on Earth.

Even though Val’s combination friend, familiar, service animal and bodyguard, the majestic magical tiger Sindari, warns her not to aggravate the dragon, Val can’t help herself in the face of his smug, superior attitude – and face.

Not even when she needs his help – and a bit of his blood – to save a friend.

Escape Rating A-: I had a hell of a good time with Val – and especially Sindari. I know he’d hate my saying he’s just a big pussycat, but he is a very big pussycat. As well as a great friend and companion to Val, a deadly warrior in his own right, and extremely majestic. Sindari would definitely want me to include the majestic bit.

But there were elements of Sinister Magic I wasn’t necessarily expecting, some terrific, some a bit disconcerting.

I had read that it was kind of a big deal that Val wasn’t the usual 20something heroine. She’s 40 and has the emotional scars to prove it. Just not the physical ones. As a half elf, she heals faster and looks and feels much younger than her actual years and has the strength to go with that. So she’s not nearly as much like Marley Jacob from A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark as I would have liked to see.

But Val’s Seattle and Marley’s have a lot in common. Complete with denizens of the weird, wacky and extraterrestrial, including a giant monster in Puget Sound. The difference is that Marley’s monster is a dragon, where Val’s dragon is trying to kill her monster, in her case a kraken.

The urban fantasy world and hero that Val really reminds me of is Kai Gracen. Kai is also half-elven, also finds it blessing and curse in equal measure, is also a bounty hunter, and his world has a similar mixture of the magical, the monstrous and the mundane that Val’s does. So if you like Val you’ll probably like Kai as well.

They both also deal in a similar line of unrepentant snark. The difference is that Kai’s is more self-reflective, where Val’s snarkitude draws directly on contemporary pop culture in ways that bring a smile or a groan to the reader, as well as a huff of disgust from that dragon. He knows she’s backtalking him even when he doesn’t get the context.

As far as the story goes, this one is a wild ride from beginning to end, even though it does have to let up on the frenetic pace when it deals with the worldbuilding and Val’s backstory. In spite of this being an alternate version of the contemporary Pacific Northwest, it still take a fair amount of setup to get everything and everyone up to speed. This is all necessary to get the series off the ground, but something it does feel like it slows things down a bit too much.

YMMV

That being said, I like Val, and I was easily able to feel for where she was coming from on an emotional level, even though suppressing her emotions is the thing causing all the current stress in Val’s life. I’m not completely on board with Val’s sudden onset of asthma, not that it couldn’t happen, but that it seems psychosomatic – if it doesn’t turn out to be magic-induced – and just seemed to be a way to make her more physically vulnerable without really making her vulnerable.

And then there’s that dragon. At this point, I’m kind of hoping that this is not being set up as an eventual romance. Although if it is the author is going to have to do a ton of heavy lifting to turn Zavryd into a character who could really be Val’s romantic partner. Not that he isn’t tall, dark and sexy when he’s not being a dragon, but because at the moment he sees all non-dragons as vermin to be ignored or eradicated. That’s a hell of a lousy place from which to start a relationship. So if it happens I hope it’s not until a whole lot of water has passed under that particular bridge.

But I’m all in for this series. I like Val and her world, I found her government boss to be a great person, and the government shenanigans provided both comic relief and pathos as the Men in Black turn out to be completely incompetent while Val finds a miracle cure for magically-induced cancer. I want to see how the rest of the world shakes out in this variation of it.

So I’m looking forward to reading Battle Bond the minute it becomes available later this month!

Review: One Little Lie by Colleen Coble

Review: One Little Lie by Colleen CobleOne Little Lie (The Pelican Harbor #1) by Colleen Coble
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense
Series: Pelican Harbor #1
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It started with one little lie. But Jane Hardy will do everything in her power to uncover the truth. 

Book one in a gripping new series from USA TODAY bestselling romantic suspense author Colleen Coble.

When Jane Hardy is appointed interim sheriff in Pelican Harbor, Alabama, after her father retires, there's no time for an adjustment period. He is arrested for theft and then implicated in a recent murder, and Jane quickly realizes she's facing someone out to destroy her father.

They escaped from a cult fifteen years ago, and Jane has searched relentlessly for her mother—who refused to leave—ever since. Could someone from that horrible past have found them?

Reid Bechtol is a well-known journalist who makes documentaries, and his sights are currently set on covering Jane's career. Jane has little interest in the attention, but the committee who appointed her loves the idea of the publicity.

Jane finds herself depending on Reid's calm manner as he follows her around taping his documentary, and they begin working together to clear her father. But Reid has his own secrets from the past, and the gulf between them may be impossible to cross.

It started with one little lie. But Jane Hardy will do everything in her power to uncover the truth. 

My Review:

There’s more than one lie at the heart of this mystery – and none of those lies are exactly little ones.

This is also a story about revenge being a dish best served cold – but it never gets all that cold in the Gulf Shores. And the revenge story, while fascinating, turns out to be a smokescreen for the bigger reveal. But no less deadly for all that.

When this story begins, it’s not where we think it’s going to be. It’s also not when we think it’s going to be. But that beginning sets up the wider story in a way that doesn’t become clear until much later in the book, after we’ve gotten to know these characters and have learned why at least some of them relate back to Button, 15 years old and 15 years ago, fleeing a religious cult with her father as bullets fly around them.

Fast-forward those 15 years and the focus turns to Jane Hardy, the newly minted police chief of tiny Pelican Harbor, following in her father’s law enforcement footsteps, occupying the office that was his not long ago.

There’s a crime spree in town. Someone claiming to be a vigilante has been punishing, let’s call it moral turpitude, all over town. The exposure of the wrongdoers has generally been embarrassing, but not deadly. At least not until now.

Jane suddenly has not one but two murders to investigate. One looks like the vigilante just went too far, or simply didn’t know that his victim was allergic to feathers. The intention was to leave the adulterer tarred, feathered and locked in the stocks, but instead her allergy killed her.

As strange as that may have been, it makes more sense than the body that one of the local shrimpboats hauls up in its nets. Or rather, the headless, armless and legless corpse that the old shrimper finds in a cooler that he hauls up in his nets.

So Jane has two murders to solve and a documentary filmmaker in tow. The Mayor wants to reap the good publicity of having a female Police Chief in an era where they are fairly thin on the ground.

But that publicity may not be all that the city fathers and mothers hoped it would be. One of Jane’s officers is a suspect in the tar-and-feather murder. He’s certainly the married man the victim was having an affair with. Jane’s father, the former chief himself, is arrested by the FBI for a whole laundry list of crimes.

And the documentary filmmaker has an agenda that Jane will hate and love in equal measure. If they live long enough to learn the truth about that one, long ago, little lie.

Escape Rating B+: I have to start off by saying that I am absolutely one with Jane Hardy’s taste in reading. The two books she is mentioned as reading are Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series and C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Both are old favorites. And there’s an audiobook of John Cleese reading Screwtape that is marvelous if you can find it – and still have a cassette player around.

But seriously, that peek into Jane’s reading habits made it easy to get inside her head and really feel for her as a character. Readers identify with other readers.

Climbing down off my librarian soapbox, I should probably talk about the two mysteries in this story, because there are definitely two – and surprisingly for a police procedural type mystery they are not related to each other.

Come to think of it, there are really three mysteries.

The most sensational is the vigilante turned killer, not that vigilantes don’t usually turn out to be killers. Pelican Harbor is a small town, which means that everybody knows everybody else’s business whether they want to or not. That someone would take their frustrations with other people’s immorality out in some kind of public shaming doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. But when it turns into murder it feels like a strange kind of escalation – only because it is.

The arrest of Jane’s father doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere with what’s happening, until it does. When that plot thread wriggled up out of the blue I’ll admit that I thought they had to be connected even if neither the how nor the why was obvious. And they were, just not in anything like any of the ways I was expecting.

But the heart of both of those mysteries leads to the third. While they aren’t all part of the same thing, they all have one big thing in common. Both of these mysteries involve the betrayal of someone close to Jane. Someone that she has misjudged all along. Which leads back to that first lie.

While she worries that her father has lied to her about who and what he really is, that he might be guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of, that’s not the real betrayal. His real betrayal occurred 15 years ago on that night they fled the cult compound, the scene that opens the book.

Jane had a child. Had literally just had the child. Her father told her that her perfect little boy was dead. He lied. And that’s the lie that comes back to haunt them all.

What made this story so fascinating was that it was so easy to empathize with so many of the characters. There were two who were just a bit out there, notably the vigilante killer who had a much bigger plan than anyone realized and was just a bit cray cray. And the documentary filmmaker’s ex who just felt tacked onto the story without really being integral to a plot that already had plenty of meat to it.

But at the heart the story revolved around Jane, her father, that documentary filmmaker, and his son. All of them felt like real people and what they did and the reasons that they did it all made sense. Even, in the end, the lie at the start of it all.

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Review: A Blight of Blackwings by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Blight of Blackwings by Kevin HearneA Blight of Blackwings (Seven Kennings, #2) by Kevin Hearne
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #2
Pages: 512
Published by Orbit on February 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling creator of The Iron Druid Chronicles comes the highly anticipated sequel to A Plague of Giants: A world-breaking war--an invasion of giant warriors--that inspires a movement to fight back.

SOLDIER AND AVENGER Daryck is from a city that was devastated by the war with the Bone Giants, and now he and a band of warriors seek revenge against the giants for the loved ones they lost. But will vengeance be enough to salve their grief?

DREAMER AND LEADER Hanima is part of a new generation with extraordinary magical talents: She can speak to fantastical animals. But when this gift becomes a threat to the powers-that-be, Hanima becomes the leader of a movement to use this magic to bring power to the people.

SISTER AND SEEKER Koesha is the captain of an all-female crew on a perilous voyage to explore unknown waters. Though Koesha's crew is seeking a path around the globe, Koesha is also looking for her sister, lost at sea two years ago. But what lies beyond the edges of the map is far more dangerous than storms and sea monsters. . . .

In this sequel to A Plague of Giants, these characters and more will become the voices of a new generation bringing hope and revolution to a war-torn world.

My Review:

Like the character Dervan in this story, I became so caught up in the tale as it unfolded that I wanted spoilers! Or at least I wanted Fintan the Bard to get on with it a whole lot faster. Which meant that as much as I love the audio version of this story, I switched to the book at about the ⅓ point just so I could find out what happened next. And next after that. And after that. And so on right until barreling through to the end, even knowing that this story as a whole is not done yet.

Dammit.

Just as in the first book in the series, the extremely awesome and utterly marvelous A Plague of Giants, the story that we are reading is mostly the story itself being told by Fintan the Bard to the crowd camped on Survivors’ Field in Pelemyn. The people who survived the events of the first part of the story and fetched up in Pelemyn as refugees from the multiple crises that have afflicted Teldwyn.

Not just one but two plagues of giants.

The title of this entry in the series is a tad more subtle. The book A Plague of Giants contained actual plagues of giants, after all. But the blight of blackwings referred to this time is not a literal plague of the same sort.

Instead, a blight of blackwings feels like it’s the equivalent of “a murder of crows,” or “an unkindness of ravens.” Or possibly both, as the blackwings of Teldwyn occupy the same niche as crows and ravens do. They are carrion birds. They eat the dead, and they feast after a battle.

They also hover over trouble in the hopes that said trouble will result in some dead for them to eat. Hopefully soon, from their perspective. Which means that if you are a human blessed by the sixth kenning, and your gift is communication with blackwings, you can spot trouble coming before your blackwings get a meal.

And that’s the story of A Blight of Blackwings, the spotting of trouble on the horizon. However, just like in A Plague of Giants, there are lots of blackwings hovering over trouble in lots of places. A concept which the UK cover for the book makes much more clear!

With even more on the horizon by the end of this portion of the Bard’s tale. And it’s awesome every step of the way. For multiple definitions of the word “awe”.

UK cover

Escape Rating A++: To paraphrase Hanima the Hivemistress, this book is the BEST!

This is a huge story, covering an entire world. You do have to have read A Plague of Giants to get into A Blight of Blackwings. If you love epic fantasy you’ll be glad you did. This world-spanning story is a real treat.

That being said, it’s necessary to talk about what makes it such a treat.

A big part of that for me was that the author’s experiment in voice really worked. The author said that he was trying to recreate the feeling of the old bardic tales as Homer used to tell them. While we don’t know what that was really like, what he has created here turns out to be a fascinating way of telling a big story with a huge cast of characters while making sure all of those threads are easy to follow.

The framing story is that Fintan the Bard is telling the tales using the voices and faces of the people who experienced each part, strung together with a bit of what is going on in the city through the eyes of Dervan, the chronicler and confidant of the city’s ruler. So we see what has happened in the past through Fintan’s tale, and what is happening in the present through Dervan’s first-person asides.

I will also say here that the two voice actors do a terrific job of making all of the voices distinct. Even when I switched to reading the ebook I was still hearing their voices in my head and it definitely helped form my picture of who each of the different characters was.

The invention of the “kennings” the magic of this world, is a new take on the whole magic in fantasy idea, and the way that it works underpins the politics and people’s perspective on their world. On the one hand, there’s the sense that the kennings kind of function like the old saying about when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, just writ very, very large.

At the same time those kennings underpin both politics and religion, so the discovery of a sixth and possibly even a seventh upsets a whole fleet of apple carts.

One other thing that makes this magic system different is the price that is paid to wield it. One of the terrible things that frequently happens in other magic systems is that magic is either the ultimate power or so easy to use that everyone gets lazy. The cost of magic in this world is extremely dear, both to acquire it and to use it. Magic users always have to think about whether the ends they have to achieve justify the loss of years of their lives. Perhaps even all the years they have left.

This is also a story where the use of language can shock you with it’s terrible beauty. After discovering that his entire town has been slaughtered in his absence, the leader of a band of hunters reflects that, “Most of us were still in the shock stages of grief, the foyer to a mansion of pain in which I knew we’d dwell for many years. Just beyond, however, a red room beckoned, a spacious expanse for rage, and I had little doubt the entire band would step in there with me for an extended period.” I was struck by that phrase, and chilled by an intense feeling of recognition. It feels right and true and haunting in the vividness of the image. A haunting that returned every time that character refers back to it. Because he’s right, they are all heading for that red room of rage – and possibly taking the rest of the country with them.

We’ll find out in book 3 of the series, tentatively titled A Curse of Krakens. I want it so bad, and I want it now! But I expect I’ll have to wait a couple of years, based on the time between A Plague of Giants and A Blight of Blackwings. And it will be SO worth it!

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, Renée Nault
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: dystopian, graphic novel, science fiction
Pages: 240
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on March 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Provocative, startling, prophetic, The Handmaid's Tale has long been a global phenomenon. With this stunning graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern classic, beautifully realized by artist Renee Nault, the terrifying reality of Gilead has been brought to vivid life like never before.

My Review:

I have to confess that I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, until now. I say that even though I have used it as an example in one way or another in more than one review. The basic story, after all, is well known and has become one of the classic works of late 20th century/early 21st century dystopian science fiction – in spite of its author claiming that it is not any such thing. Science fiction, that is.

And it’s been an extremely popular TV series. Everyone knows the basic story, even if not the details. Which means that while I’m not going to deliberately set out to include spoilers, I’m also not going to worry much about it. The story has been around and endlessly discussed for 35 years at this point, after all.

Fair warning that this is also going to be one of those reviews that mostly gets into what I thought and am still thinking about this one, rather than a critique of the book as such. My approach/avoidance reaction to the story and the conclusions I’ve come to now that I have finally read it are still rolling around in my head.

I’m pretty sure that everyone has their own opinions of the book at this point, whether they’ve read it or not.

Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely why I haven’t until now and probably wouldn’t have yet if I hadn’t seen the graphic novel version in Half Price Books. The graphic novel felt like a way of getting through the story without having to wallow in the expected pain of it.

While I admit that part of my initial rejection had to do with the author’s rejection of even the idea that the story might be part of the dreaded and dreadful GENRE, in this case SF, instead of being part of the more socially acceptable and highbrow body of literary works.

Well, this certainly has all the angst that I associate with literary fiction, but it is also very definitely part of the SF genre. It’s SF of the extremely dystopian variety, set in a world that has not happened – at least not yet – and might not. And hopefully will not. And is a dystopia kicked off by climate change and ruin of the environment. (In that, it reminds me a bit of The Children of Men by P.D. James, which I liked a lot more but did not generate all the interest and awards that The Handmaid’s Tale did.)

I didn’t read this for the longest time because I just didn’t want to wallow in that angst. This situation is awful. It is supremely awful for women, but it isn’t that great for men, either. But the men are the ones who make this omelet and the women are the eggs getting broken in the process – pun definitely intended.

And it does resonate with the historical oppression of women as well as the current era of attempting to return to that level of oppression. But with a difference. Because the methods of Gilead also have parallels with the holocaust and other genocides. It’s not just that in Gilead all women have been reduced to their biological function and nothing more, but also that the government has done an all too efficient job of cutting off any and all means of escape. Not just that the borders are closed, heavily guarded and well-armed, but that even methods of suicide are almost completely cut off.

So, as a story I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be unrelentingly depressing. In the extreme. Fascinating, but a complete downer. As it’s intended to be. The situation is awful and horrible and even Offred’s possible escape doesn’t change that. Because even if she did make it out, we don’t actually see it. And she leaves all of the other women in Gilead behind, whether she does manage to escape either to Canada or to death.

This was a book where I desperately wanted a catharsis at the end, and did not feel anything of the sort. The ending felt like a bit of a cheat, as it fast forwards to a future where Gilead’s existence is well in the past, where the record that Offred left behind is studied as a historical artifact. But we know nothing of how the world reached that point, or actually how much better it supposedly is – if it is at all.

It’s an ending which left me totally cold. As an object lesson, as a meditation on how easily a group can be subjugated, it is horrific but all too realistic. As dystopian SF, it is chilling in the extreme. But as a story, it felt like it didn’t so much end as trail off.

I understand that the reader was supposed to see the ending as kind of a “Schrodinger’s escape” where all results are possible and Offred can either have escaped, been killed or come to some equally gruesome end. That it isn’t necessary for us to really know how it ended to be satisfied with what we had.

I felt more horrified than satisfied. But I still want to know what happened, a state in which I clearly was not alone, as the author released a sequel, The Testaments, last year to answer at least some of the questions rattling around in readers’ heads. I’ll get around to reading, or at least skimming that, someday, just to get some resolution on the whole thing.

Escape Rating B: The rating is kind of an average. I found the story to be absorbing but terrifying. I couldn’t stop turning the pages but I also desperately wanted to be ejected from the nightmare. And I know that I would have bounced off this one hard without the graphic novel.

The graphic novel is utterly beautiful. Equally terrifying, but absolutely exquisite.

In short, it feels like this was an important story to read for myself and not just rely on summaries – and I’d never judge a book by either its movie or its TV series. But I also know that I’ll never read it again.