Review: Forged in Blood II by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Forged in Blood II by Lindsay BurokerForged in Blood II (The Emperor's Edge, #7) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Emperor's Edge #7
Pages: 422
Published by Lindsay Buroker on July 17, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Amaranthe Lokdon survives her reckless plan to destroy the enemy’s weapon-filled super aircraft only to learn that thousands of people perished when it crash landed. Half of her team is missing...or dead. Meanwhile, the fighting in the capital has escalated, the Imperial Barracks have been taken by a pretender, and a deadly new danger threatens the populace. Amaranthe’s hopes of returning Emperor Sespian to the throne and bringing peace to the empire are dwindling by the hour.

To make matters worse, her strongest ally—and closest friend—has been captured and is under a powerful wizard’s control. If she can’t figure out a way to free Sicarius, he may kill them all when next they meet...

My Review:

Forged in Blood I ended at maximum cliffhanger, so I dove into Forged in Blood II the moment I finished it. It’s kind of impossible to stop at that point.

(Fair warning, this review will contain spoilers for Forged in Blood I. It would be equally impossible to talk at all about this book without talking about that book. They are pretty much one story, and everything that happens here is dependent on what happened there. Also, Captain Obvious being very obvious, don’t start the series here!)

Forged in Blood I ended at two parallel points with opposite results. Amaranthe has just crashed the Behemoth and wrecked untold destruction pretty much everywhere. She feels guilty beyond measure at the deaths she feels she is responsible for. And she might share in that responsibility but she certainly isn’t solely responsible – particularly considering that she never had any personal ability to control the airship/spacecraft in the first place.

But she walks away from the wreckage, believing all of her team are dead, only to shortly discover that so far, everyone she truly cares for managed to be someplace else.

On that other hand, Sicarius enters the ruins of the ship and finds what he believes are the remains of Amaranthe’s charred corpse. He believes that everyone he cares about, including Amaranthe and his son Sespian, are all dead in or under the crash. He tries to commit suicide-by-enemy in a grand fashion, only to be captured and mind-slaved by one of the many, many forces that is attempting to take control of the capital.

He doesn’t care – at least not too much. If his would-have-been-lover and his son are both dead, he is not unwilling to kill as many of those responsible for the situation as possible (he is an assassin, after all) before he finds a way to at least get himself killed if not take out the wizard controlling him in the process.

As Forged in Blood II opens, Amaranthe is working on multiple plans – as she always is – to eliminate the alien spaceship before even more nefarious things can be done with it, find a way to get some of their enemies to eliminate each other, and find out what happened to Sicarius and rescue him if necessary.

Sicarius has been given a list of people to kill, and he’s working his way down the list.

I would say that things go pear-shaped at this point, but they have been pear-shaped so long that the pear is starting to rot. This is a series where saying that our heroes jump out of the frying pan and into the fire doesn’t go nearly far enough. The entire series is pretty much fires and frying pans all the way down.

But this book is the end of the main story arc of the ENTIRE Emperor’s Edge series. They have to find the bottom in order for things to come to an appropriate close, and for all of the many, many threads to get tied up in a relatively neat bow.

Not nearly as neat a bow as Amaranthe the cleanliness obsessed would have liked. And the butcher’s bill needs to get paid. But in the midst of absolutely epic chaos, our heroes have to find a resolution that gets all of the many, many opposing forces out of the capitol.

And lets them midwife the birth of the republic that they having been aiming towards for much longer than any of them imagined.

Escape Rating A-: This is so obviously labeled book 2 of 2 that anyone who starts here needs to have their head examined. Just don’t. A part of me is wondering why Forged in Blood wasn’t simply published as one extremely long book – but there’s nothing stopping anyone from reading it that way now that both parts are available.

By this point in this long-running series a reader either loves the characters and the world enough to want to see how it all ends, or they don’t. Obviously, I did.

What made this series work for me was its play on the “five-man band” trope, even as Amaranthe’s little band of outlaws/rebels/revolutionaries grew past the original five. To the point where some of the roles are occupied by two or more members of her band of misfits.

Part of the fun in Forged in Blood II is that Amaranthe runs into someone who is even better at being the “leader” of such a group than she is. It’s both relaxing and unnerving for her to find herself again following someone else’s orders.

That the person whose orders she ends up following is someone who someone in his 60s and clearly still extremely badass is icing on the cake for any readers of a certain age, like moi. It’s always good to see evidence that heroes don’t need to be young to be extremely effective. Age and skill beats youth and stupidity all the damn time, and it’s fun to watch.

I also loved the way that the romance was handled in this series finale. It’s taken a year for Amaranthe to “humanize” the assassin Sicarius to the point where he might be able to have a relationship with anyone, Amaranthe included. At the same time, it was necessary for the events of that year for Amaranthe to have her bright, shiny, law-abiding edges tarnished a bit for her to be able to accept not just the person that Sicarius has become, but also the elements of the weapon that he was made to be that remain. Their romance has been excruciatingly slow-building throughout the series, but it needed to be. And the series couldn’t end without that thread being tied up – even if that tying literally included tying one or both of them to a bed. (Actually I’d pay money for that scene!)

Realistically, it would not be possible for a series that had this much adventure – including misadventure, in it without a butcher’s bill to be paid by the company. That price that they paid felt right, proper and necessary – and provided a much needed bit of poignancy to the ending.

This was a book where as I got nearer to the end I found myself slowing down. I wanted to find out how it ended, but I didn’t want to leave this world or these people. Lucky for me, the author didn’t either. There are two (so far) books set in this world after the end of Forged in Blood II. I’ll be picking up Republic the next time I have a long flight to read through. It’s 572 pages long – and I’m betting they’re all fantastic!

Review: Forged in Blood I by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Forged in Blood I by Lindsay BurokerForged in Blood I (The Emperor's Edge, #6) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Emperor's Edge #6
Pages: 378
Published by Lindsay Buroker on May 27, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The emperor has been ousted from the throne, his bloodline in question, and war is descending on the capital. Forge, the nefarious business coalition that has been manipulating the political situation from the beginning, has the ultimate weapon at its disposal.

If it was difficult for a small team of outlaws--or, as Amaranthe has decided they should now be called, rebels--to make a difference before, it's a monumental task now. If she's to return idealistic young Sespian to the throne, earn the exoneration she's sought for so long, and help her closest ally win the respect of the son who detests him, she'll have to employ an unprecedented new scheme...preferably without destroying the city--or herself--in the process.

My Review:

And now I remember why I stopped reading this series back in 2013. Not for any bad reasons, I assure you!

But back then, I raced through the first four books in the series (The Emperor’s Edge, Dark Currents, Deadly Games and Conspiracy), loving every one. I think I was about to pick up book 5, Blood and Betrayal, when I noticed that this book, book 6, was titled Forged in Blood I with the obvious implication that there would be a Forged in Blood II – as there turned out to be. But the titles strongly implied that this book wasn’t exactly complete in and of itself, and I decided that I didn’t want to read this until its second part came out.

Then I ran headlong into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum, and didn’t get the round ‘tuit for several years. I picked up Blood and Betrayal a few weeks ago, got right back into everything, loved it, and decided to read Forged in Blood on the long flight back home from Seattle.

It turns out that I assumed correctly. While Forged in Blood I does come to a logical conclusion, that conclusion is a screaming cliffhanger. I was still in mid-flight (Seattle to Atlanta is a LONG flight) and started in on Forged in Blood II with barely a pause for breath.

What we have here is what looks like the beginning of the end of this terrific saga. The story at this point is careening towards the conclusion of its original quest. Way, way back in The Emperor’s Edge, Corporal Amaranthe Lokdon of the Imperial law enforcers was given the assignment to hunt down the Empire’s most dangerous assassin, Sicarius.

It was intended to be a suicide mission. It certainly turned out to be a suicide mission for her career on the “right” side of the law.

But when she failed to capture Sicarius, she found herself a wanted criminal, at the core of a band of criminals, all of whom have bounties on their heads for crimes they either didn’t commit or acts of self-defense. Not that there isn’t a bit of criminality mixed in there, but for the most part, they aren’t guilty – or at least not guilty of much until they all end up on the run.

With both the assassin and the Emperor in their midst. But then, the Emperor hired them to kidnap him to save his from the so-called advisers who planned to have him assassinate. As a result, the people who wanted him dead are now after the entire gang – as well as the Empire itself.

So Forged in Blood I is the beginning of the end. Start with The Emperor’s Edge and get to know this amazingly awesome – just ask some of them – band of big damn heroes. And end this part of the story on pins and needles, not merely wondering but actively worrying whether all of them will get out of this caper alive.

Escape Rating A-: This is not the end. The, well, let’s call it an interim ending, is a hella cliffie. What makes it so gut-wrenching is that by this point in the series we know and love all of these people, and the way this book ends we fear for all of them in one way or another. It’s terrible, and wonderful, and you won’t be able to keep from diving into part 2 immediately.

At the beginning of the series, we had a band of petty criminals and wrongly accused political victims desperately trying to find a way to survive the many and various attempts on their lives and, most importantly, figure out a way to get pardoned by the Emperor.

Well, most of them want to get pardoned. Sicarius is guilty of every single thing he’s been accused of, and a few hundred more. He was, after all, the previous Emperor’s pet assassin – and he was damn good at his job.

He’s also, unbeknownst to everyone at the beginning, but an open secret by this point, the biological father of the current Emperor. The young and idealistic Emperor is having a difficult time processing it all – but his enemies plan to use the information to keep him from ever taking back his throne.

Because they want to install a puppet emperor and wring the kingdom dry.

There’s a lot of story to unpack by this point. Amaranthe, in particular, still wants a pardon but also wonders if there’s any way back from where this journey has taken her. As a law enforcer, she never believed the excuses of the ends justifying the means, but has discovered that when the ends are her own survival, discussions of means get left by the wayside until afterwards – when the guilt descends.

The young Emperor, Sespian, has been forced to grow up in a hurry while dodging bullets, bombs and even exploding airships. With him, and his idealism, among their party, the purpose of their journey has changed from pardons to revolution. Getting a close up view of just how screwed up the empire is for anyone not in power has inspired them all to invent a new form of government – a Republic. All they have to do is get enough power to push their reforms through – and then be willing to let that power go when they’re done.

Not an easy job. It’s what made the American experiment such a chancy thing at the time. That we have, at least so far, had regularly scheduled and orderly changes of power built into the system. (We’ll see how that goes in the future.)

What makes this series so much fun is the way that the band of misfits manages to work together, both because and in spite of their differences. This is a series where the snark, of which there is a lovely lot, is based on our knowledge of the characters and their knowledge of each other – not on jokes per se. A lot of that humor is gallows humor, because even at the best of time they are only one step out of the frying pan and one jump away from the fire.

This is a series where the worldbuilding has gotten deeper as it goes, as have the chasms that our heroes must leap across in order to stay alive and one step ahead of their many, many pursuers. The pace never lets up – leaving the reader breathless with anxiety and anticipation at the end.

I couldn’t wait to start Forged in Blood II, and so far it’s every bit as good as the rest of the series. We’ll see for certain in next week’s review!

Review: Cast in Oblivion by Michelle Sagara

Review: Cast in Oblivion by Michelle SagaraCast in Oblivion (The Chronicles of Elantra, #14) by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra #14
Pages: 544
Published by Mira on January 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

POLITICS ARE HELL

Kaylin wasn't sent to the West March to start a war. Her mission to bring back nine Barrani might do just that, though. She traveled with a Dragon, and her presence is perceived as an act of aggression in the extremely hostile world of Barrani-Dragon politics. Internal Barrani politics are no less deadly, and Kaylin has managed--barely--to help the rescued Barrani evade both death and captivity at the hands of the Consort.Before the unplanned "visit" to the West March, Kaylin invited the Consort to dinner. For obvious reasons, Kaylin wants to cancel dinner--forever. But the Consort is going to show up at the front door at the agreed upon time. The fact that she tried to imprison Kaylin's guests doesn't matter at all...to her.A private Barrani Hell, built of Shadow and malice, exists beneath the High Halls. It is the High Court's duty to jail the creature at its heart--even if it means that Barrani victims are locked in the cage with it. The Consort is willing to do almost anything to free the trapped and end their eternal torment. And she needs the help of Kaylin's houseguests--and Kaylin herself. Failure won't be death--it's Hell. And that's where Kaylin is going.

My Review:

Things are like other things. The stories we’ve read in the past affect how we view the stories we read in the present. There was a point in Cast in Oblivion where one of the characters describes Ravellon as the spike that is holding all of the parallel worlds together and I had an OMG moment and realized that Ravellon might be Amber. In Roger Zelazny’s incredible epic/urban fantasy series, beginning with Nine Princes in Amber, Amber is the one true world and all the other worlds, including ours, are mere shadows of it.

Ironically, in Elantra, Shadow seems to come out of Ravellon. But the analogy might still hold. Or hold enough to serve as metaphor. Which is an often raised topic in Cast in Oblivion, as so much of what Kaylin experiences is described as being a metaphor. She doesn’t see the world the way the others in her life – and even in her house  – even the house itself – see it. And while her metaphors are frequently frustrating to her companions, and often not strictly true, they usually turn out to be right.

For select values of right. Generally right enough to fix whatever has recently gone wrong – even if, or occasionally especially because, Kaylin is at the heart of what went wrong in the first place. At least she often feels like it is. And that idea, like Kaylin’s metaphorical view of her circumstances, may not be strictly true, they are also usually right – or at least point her in the right direction.

Sometimes like a knife.

The Chronicles of Elantra by this point, 14 books in, is a densely packed epic fantasy. Packed to the point where no reader could possibly start here and have any of it make sense. Because this book in particular feels very insular – in the sense that the events and issues that are at the forefront in Cast in Oblivion have been bubbling along since book 8, Cast in Peril – if not before. In fact, much of the action in every book since Cast in Peril has its roots in the journey that begins in that book.

In other words, don’t start here. If any of the above or below sound interesting, start with either the prequel novella, Cast in Moonlight, or the first book in the series, Cast in Shadow.

At the beginning of the series, it felt like urban fantasy, albeit urban fantasy set in a high fantasy world. As the series, and Kaylin, have evolved, it has become an epic fantasy, with Kaylin Nera, human, mortal, flawed, young and “Chosen” as the point of view into a world that is run by “people” much more powerful than she. Kaylin is always operating way above her weight class and suffering through impostor syndrome at every turn.

She’s awesome, not because she’s powerful, but because she never stops trying – no matter how scared she is or how many of those powerful people either underestimate or overprotect her at every turn.

In the end, this is a story about friendship, and the heights and depths that people can and will reach in its name. It’s also a story about family-of-choice and the ties that one chooses to bind oneself with.

And it’s about the power of truth and honesty. And especially about the dangerous nature, and painful truth, of the power of choice.

Escape Rating A-: I love this series, but you can’t get into it here. And I’ll confess that it takes a while each year to get back into it. The story is like a spider’s web, sticky and interlocked at every turn.

It’s also difficult to review. I can say that I love this series, and I do, but that’s not informative. Trying to say why I love this series is awkward. But I’ll try.

I do love a highly convoluted political fantasy, and this series has certainly become that. The Barrani, who are this series equivalent of elves (sorta/kinda) are immortal. They hold grudges for millennia. As do their ancestral enemies, the dragons. Who are also immortal. And currently ruling the empire the Barrani are part of.

The part of the story that we are in revolves around family politics and a sibling rivalry that has literally gone on for centuries. But even though the Barrani are immortal, it has not made them wise – not in any way.

Kaylin is in the position that she is in because one Barrani hoped against all hope that she might be able to save his brother. The brother that he became outcaste for – and that word means exactly what you think it means. And this in a society where people are much more likely to kill their siblings than either love or trust them.

This series also has its roots in urban fantasy, complete with the requisite snark – although that snarkitude has become oddly similar to that in both J.D. Robb’s In Death series and Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series. It’s the kind of smirky and sometimes gallows humor that draws its rueful chuckles from how much we have come to know, and care for, these characters. They aren’t telling jokes, they are telling on each other – with honest love, honest regard and occasionally an honest desire to put one over on their friends and frenemies.

But in the end what draws me back to this series is the character at its heart, Kaylin Nera. She began the series in Cast in Moonlight attempting to commit a really grand suicide by cop, only to find herself adopted instead of imprisoned.

She is a character who has broken far, far out of her original setting in the crime and shadow riddled fiefs – where she learned to keep her head down and became one of the criminals. At first, she seemed as if she was just plain grateful to have become a very young and very immature Hawk, one of the law enforcers of this world. But her circumstances keep forcing her to become more, and her internal voice is the scared, uncertain yet determined voice of anyone who has ever come so far and so fast from where they began that they are just certain that it all not merely can be taken away, but should.

And she tries anyway.

One final note, one of the interesting themes in this particular entry is about the power, and the responsibility of choice, and just how different that perspective of choice is depending on where the chooser stands on any scale of wealthy, poverty, power and responsibility. Kaylin knows that in her early life, even her terrible decisions were her choice. Her alternative choice to committing the crimes of her early years was death, but it was still her choice. The Adversary of this story is not, strictly speaking, evil. Instead, it offers choices to people who choose to take a path that seems evil in pursuit of power. But the choice, and the offering of that choice, is not evil in and of itself – only the result.

I’m still thinking about that, and probably will be when the untitled 15th book in this series comes out, hopefully this time next year. And not nearly soon enough.

Review: Connections in Death by J.D. Robb

Review: Connections in Death by J.D. RobbConnections in Death (In Death, #48) by J.D. Robb
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: futuristic, romantic suspense
Series: In Death #48
Pages: 384
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this gritty and gripping new novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, Eve Dallas fights to save the innocent—and serve justice to the guilty—on the streets of New York.

Homicide cop Eve Dallas and her billionaire husband, Roarke, are building a brand-new school and youth shelter. They know that the hard life can lead kids toward dangerous crossroads—and with this new project, they hope to nudge a few more of them onto the right path. For expert help, they hire child psychologist Dr. Rochelle Pickering—whose own brother pulled himself out of a spiral of addiction and crime with Rochelle’s support.

Lyle is living with Rochelle while he gets his life together, and he’s thrilled to hear about his sister’s new job offer. But within hours, triumph is followed by tragedy. Returning from a celebratory dinner with her boyfriend, she finds Lyle dead with a syringe in his lap, and Eve’s investigation confirms that this wasn’t just another OD. After all his work to get clean, Lyle’s been pumped full of poison—and a neighbor with a peephole reports seeing a scruffy, pink-haired girl fleeing the scene.

Now Eve and Roarke must venture into the gang territory where Lyle used to run, and the ugly underground world of tattoo parlors and strip joints where everyone has taken a wrong turn somewhere. They both believe in giving people a second chance. Maybe even a third or fourth. But as far as they’re concerned, whoever gave the order on Lyle Pickering’s murder has run out of chances…

My Review:

There’s a certain interpretation of this story that says that the whole thing is a bad lawyer joke. Not that the joke is bad, although many lawyer jokes are, but that this is just the kind of story that leads to people telling jokes about lawyers, sharks and professional courtesy. Another way of putting it would be that this is a story that illustrates exactly why Shakespeare wrote, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Unlike so many of the books in this series, Connections in Death doesn’t actually start with a dead body – not that one isn’t found soon enough. Also, unlike many books in the series, while the victim is connected to Roarke and Dallas, the connection is at a couple of degrees removed – and does not result in a trip to the angst factory – at least not for them.

Not that there isn’t plenty to disturb their lives and their hearts. The victim, Lyle Pickering, was a young man who had managed to turn a whole lot of corners in his relatively short life. He had been a gang member, and he had been hooked on drugs. Then he went to prison, and did what we always hope happens but doesn’t nearly often enough.

He grabbed the hands that reached out to help him find himself again. And he made it out. All the way out, with the help of counselors and sponsors and a family that believed in him and one hell of a lot of intestinal fortitude.

Only to be struck down when his ex-girlfriend conned him into believing that she had come to him for help – and not just to let in the three gang members who killed him and tried to stage his death as an overdose.

Dallas doesn’t believe the setup for a New York minute – not just because Lyle’s sister has been offered the job as head therapist at Roarke’s latest project. Although that weighs in. What tips the scale from OD to murder really, really fast is just how sloppy the murderers were in their staging.

They weren’t just sloppy – they were downright stupid. And that’s what does them in. Not just the ones who did the job, but the one who ordered the hit – and eventually reaches out to the dirty lawyer at the bottom of the cesspool.

It’s too bad, too sad, that a good man had to die to clean up so much corruption. It’s not exactly worth it – but Eve Dallas, as always, cleans up the dirt.

Escape Rating B: At this point – 48 books and counting – I’m reading this series because I love all the characters. It doesn’t really matter what the case turns out to be – I just want to see how all my friends are doing.

And every entry in this series is guaranteed to pull me right into the action and whisk me away from whatever I’m doing for a few hours – no matter what. In this particular case the what was a very long plane trip that flew by figuratively as well as literally – although I’m sure my seatmates occasionally wondered what I was laughing about.

This isn’t a funny story by any means, but there is plenty of humor in the constant, ongoing bickering and bantering in Dallas’ cop shop – and I enjoy every line of it.

As a case, this particular book is on the lighter side – or perhaps that should be “slighter” side. Lyle’s murder is certainly a terrible thing for his family. But the case is slighter in the sense that while it troubles Dallas, it doesn’t give her nightmares about her despicable father’s treatment of her, and doesn’t drag some loser/user out of either Dallas’ or Roarke’s past.

It is, however, a case that feels like it could happen today with minor changes in technology. This is a story about a world that doesn’t feel like it’s any different from today – at least not as portrayed in the headlines. The gang members do terrible things to each other and their neighborhood, sleazy lawyer is very sleazy, everybody justifies their own behavior, and people are idiots. LOTS of people are idiots.

One does get the feeling that this is a cesspit that everyone knows about and that no one has bothered to do the work of cleaning up until a murder puts it into Dallas’ path.

This is one of those cases that doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but is still very satisfying to see wrap up. A lot of very bad people go down very hard – and it’s as cathartic as ever to watch evil – even petty, small time evil – get its just desserts served up with style.

Review: Target of One’s Own by M.L. Buchman

Review: Target of One’s Own by M.L. BuchmanTarget of One's Own (The Night Stalkers 5E) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: military romance, romantic comedy
Series: Night Stalkers 5E #4
Pages: 366
Published by Buchman Bookworks on January 29th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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-a Night Stalkers 5E romance-
MISSION: Special Operations Forces barely miss capturing Pakistan’s #1 arms dealer. They know only one thing: he’s a champion driver in the most challenging car race in the world, The Dakar Rally. The Night Stalkers and SEAL Team 6 must join up again to face the race of their lives.

TEAM:
Drone pilot Zoe DeMille
— Her career never prepared her for going into the field rather than sending her drone. Driving dune buggies at Pismo Beach throughout her teen years, oddly did.
SEAL Team 6 Lieutenant Commander Luke Altman
— Trusts no one but his team. Ever!

Zoe convinces Luke that they must go undercover to target their prey in the wildest 5E mission yet. They enter the two-week, 10,000 kilometer race across the dunes, deserts, and mountains of South America to track him down.

But when Zoe’s viral fashion blog—The Soldier of Style—sparks a media frenzy, it threatens the very nature of this Black Op. She can’t outrace the madness. And she hasn’t a clue how to navigate Luke.

My Review:

I’m tempted to review this book merely by paraphrasing the scrawls that one sees on bathroom walls by saying, “for a good time, read M.L. Buchman” and call it a wrap. But that’s a bit short on details. Still correct, though.

Also appropriate to the story, as once upon a time in Pismo Beach, it would have been Zoe DeMille’s name and number on that bathroom wall. But she’s reinvented herself since those dark days.

Twice.

Her public persona is that of “The Soldier of Style: Living in the Cutey-Edgy Budget Battlespace.” It’s Zoe’s public vlog (and associated twitter feed) as a budget-minded fashionista blogger with a definite cute airhead vibe.

And it’s a cover for her real job as a drone pilot – they prefer the term RPA for remote piloted aircraft – for the Night Stalkers 5E. A job that is anything but cute, and at which she is anything but airheaded. The Night Stalkers only take, and only employ, the best of the best of the best. And she is.

But Lieutenant Commander Luke Altman of SEAL Team 6 only sees the cute little airhead persona and doesn’t really register the warrior behind the mask. Only the way she needles him at every turn through the headset that links his team in the field to Zoe’s “coffin” back on base where she controls the eyes in the sky that provide him with mission-critical intel.

At least, not until he’s on the ground in Pakistan, staring at the empty former headquarters of an arms dealing kingpin who clearly got word that ST6 was coming to get him.

Luke looks at the empty garage and sees a dry hole and blown operation. Zoe, looking through his headset, sees a golden opportunity to take down a major player among arms dealers working the shady side.

So she runs with that golden opportunity, and with Luke, straight to Senegal and one of her biggest fans. A man who races in international road rally races. Including the annual Dakar Rally. Luke thinks she’s gone off the deep end – especially as it feels like she’s the one running the op and he’s just her “personal assistant”.

But Zoe has connected the dots and spun one glance at a top flight auto mechanics shop in a remote base with the date of the Dakar Rally circled on a calendar to a strong working hypothesis that their mystery arms dealer is a regular participant in that grueling rally – and that her fan in Senegal is their ticket to the inside track of a lifetime.

It takes Luke a little while to catch up to Zoe’s flash of brilliance – and to figure out that the dots he really wants to connect are the ones that lead to her heart.

Escape Rating A-: I had a great time with this book. I had such a great time that it made me reflect on why this author’s romances always work for me – even while I’ve become aware that I’m reading less romance in general.

The answer seems to be in the characters. Not just the way that the author draws them, because lots of romance authors do a good job of creating interesting characters. But it’s the way that his characters find each other and make a relationship.

One of the things that all too often occurs in romance – in real life too – is that two people come together and meet kind of in their middle. There are always compromises on both sides. But in romance fiction, all too often the compromise results in the woman giving up more of who she is and what she wants to make the relationship work for the man.

It feels like, all too often, she becomes less and he becomes more. In historical romances it can be worse. There are too many time periods where, even if she does maintain her separate identity and career after marriage, it only happens because he allows it to happen. Because society, public opinion, and even the law say that his voice is the only one that counts.

None of that ever happens in one of M.L. Buchman’s romances. The characters begin and end as equals – even as they find a way to both work together and make a romantic partnership. Sometimes they are both equal in the same sphere, as was true in his first Night Stalkers romance, The Night is Mine. Both the hero and the heroine are military officers. Both are warriors. And both remain so even when they marry. Eventually Emily Beale gets pregnant and the situation necessarily changes somewhat, but she remains every bit the kickass heroine she was at the beginning, just in a different venue.

Zoe and Luke are also both warriors, just not in the same way. But they are both at the top of their respective fields – and they remain so at the end. One of the things that makes Luke such a great hero is that he not only eventually accepts Zoe exactly as she is, but that he is able to recognize when it is better that she lead and that he cheers her on as she does. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough, either in romance fiction or in real life.

The story here is also a whole lot of fun. It’s one of those experiences that most people won’t have, but is tremendously fascinating to experience vicariously. The Dakar Rally is a real event, and the story and characters here follow the real course – or at least as much of a course as there ever is. After all, the Dakar is an off-road endurance event. A big part of this story is the way that Zoe and Luke bond, endure and find their target in the midst of this once in a lifetime event.

(If you want to read a romance set while the protagonists are running a completely different but equally dangerous and fascinating race, take a look at Sue Henry’s Murder on the Iditarod Trail.)

Part of the tension in this particular romance is that both Zoe and Luke are damaged and neither of them thinks they are worthy – not of love in general, not of the other in particular. It’s a possible interpretation that Zoe heals Luke’s inability to love, but Luke is not the healer of Zoe, because Zoe has already, for the most part, healed herself. He’s there to hold her as the last of the hard pain finally fades, but she’s already done most of the work.

He’s her reward for doing that work. And for once, we have a hero that’s worth it.

“I received a free copy of this title from the publisher for an honest review.”

Guest Review: Perennial: A Garden Romance, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Guest Review: Perennial: A Garden Romance, by Mary Anne MohanrajPerennial: A Garden Romance by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 90
Published by Tincture on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Perennial tells the story of Kate Smith, an aspiring artist facing a difficult cancer diagnosis, and Devan McLeod, a flower shop owner. It draws on the experiences of the author, Mary Anne Mohanraj, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and treated (successfully) with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. This little book intercuts poems she wrote over the course of that year with a garden romance. Mohanraj is an enthusiastic Chicagoland amateur gardener, and during treatment, she took great solace in her garden. She hopes this book bring solace and joy to its readers.

Guest Review by Amy:

It’s January, and Devan McLeod has just met Kate Smith, who walked into his small garden shop with something on her mind. It’s cancer, we find out soon enough. When it’s confirmed a month later, she remembers the kindness of the shopkeeper she’d barely met, and returns to his Oak Park Village shop for flowers–and to tell Devan, a near stranger, the news.

In the crucible of that experience is forged…something. Two people caring about each other from some distance, not quite a romance yet, nor a friendship, just a presence in each other’s world and thoughts as Kate begins the stressful, painful path through treatment.

Over the course of the year, the distance closes, and two people figure out how to help with each other’s pain.

Escape Rating: A+. I had a difficult time reading and reviewing this story, as it hits on a theme that is personally painful for me. Following the principle of full disclosure, I’ve got to admit that I’ve known author Mary Anne Mohanraj online for a couple of years, having “met” through a mutual friend. She’s a versatile writer, from cookbooks to romance to sci-fi to erotica, and every bit of her work that I have read so far brings out the empath in me. Reading Kate’s story, knowing that some of it is informed by Mary Anne’s own experiences as a breast cancer survivor, you can almost feel what she’s going through, and what Mary Anne went through. Devan is no knight-in-shining armor, here to save the day. He realizes (correctly) that she must walk part of her path for herself, as he must deal with his own struggles. Neither of them is all that extraordinarily or heroic, just two ordinary people with their own hurts, who find a path together, in time.

In between the chapters of this little story are poems, written during Mary Anne’s own fight with cancer. These poems only add to the sense that Kate, while very different in many ways from Mary Anne, is sharing snippets of Mary Anne’s own experiences.

Perennial is a short, easy read at just 90 pages, but you’ll find a sweet, heartwarming story in those pages, one that is definitely worth your time.

Review: Endgames by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Review: Endgames by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.Endgames (Imager Portfolio #12) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Imager Portfolio #12
Pages: 576
Published by Tor Books on February 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Endgames is the twelfth novel in L. E. Modesitt, Jr's, New York Times bestselling epic fantasy series the Imager Portfolio, and the third book in the story arc that began with Treachery's Tools and Assassin's Price.

Solidar is in chaos.

Charyn, the young and untested ruler of Solidar, has survived assassination, and he struggles to gain control of a realm in the grip of social upheaval, war, and rioting. Solidar cannot be allowed to slide into social and political turmoil that will leave the High Holders with their ancient power and privilege, and the common people with nothing.

But the stakes are even higher than he realizes.

The Imager Portfolio#1 Imager / #2 Imager's Challenge / #3 Imager's Intrigue / #4 Scholar / #5 Princeps / #6 Imager's Battalion / #7 Antiagon Fire / #8 Rex Regis / #9 Madness in Solidar / #10 Treachery's Tools / #11 Assassin's Price / #12 Endgames

Other series by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.The Saga of RecluceThe Corean ChroniclesThe Spellsong CycleThe Ghost BooksThe Ecolitan Matter

My Review:

There’s a saying about war being diplomacy by other means. Endgames feels like a story about politics being civil war by other means. Alternatively, one could extend the metaphor that Lois McMaster Bujold proposed of SF as fantasy of political agency and expand that to speculative fiction, which includes fantasy, as, well, fantasy of political agency. Because most of the Imager Portfolio in general, and this book in particular, is certainly all about the politics.

However, unlike the traditional epic fantasy, neither this book nor this series focuses on the adventures of a “chosened one”. Instead, the protagonists of this series often feel, particularly from their own perspectives, more like the “stuck one”. The person who finds themselves the linchpin of epic events they did not plan on. And they would generally rather that the cup had passed to someone else – at least until they decide that whoever might have been stuck into their position instead would have done even worse.

The events in Endgames directly follow the events in the previous book, Assassin’s Price. There was an assassin in that book, and the person who was assassinated was the Rex. Now his oldest son, Charyn, is Rex, trying to stay alive in the midst of the continuing chaos.

Unlike the previous heroes in this series, Charyn did expect to be in the position he now occupies. Someday. Eventually. Just not quite so soon, or in the midst of quite so big a crisis. As the saying goes, “the king is dead, long live the king.” But when you’re the second king in that phrase, and not the first one, if you love your father – and Charyn did – you hope that when the first king dies it occurs peacefully, in his bed, after a long and fruitful life. Not in his prime, at the hands of an assassin.

An assassin who is now gunning for you. And who may be much closer than you’d like to think.

So Charyn is busy in this book. First, he is shoring up his internal defenses, trying to stay one step ahead of whoever is trying to kill him. Second, he is attempting to guide his country into the future. A future that he alone envisions, and one that will be much different from its past.

Not that the future won’t come whether Charyn guides things or not, but it’s a question of what that future will be. The High Holders, who are the hereditary aristocracy and the major landholders, want the future to look like the past. A past where they were on top of the heap and could grind anyone they wanted under their heel.

But Solidar is changing. The Factors, who are the business class, are amassing greater and greater power – mostly by getting richer and richer. But it’s happening because Solidar is going through its version of an industrial revolution and power is flowing towards them and away from the aristocracy – as occurred in Great Britain during its Industrial Revolution.

Charyn recognizes this shift in the tide, while at the same time seeing the need to regulate some business practices for “the greater good” – a greater good that is explicitly NOT the good of the aristocracy, but the good of Solidar as a whole.

He’s aiming toward a compromise that serves everyone. If he lives long enough to bring it to fruition. If he survives the dagger aimed at his heart from much, much closer than he imagined.

Escape Reading A: I read this in a day. All 576 pages of it. And pretty much immediately upon receipt four long months ago. I’ll also confess that I had to wipe away a tear at the end. The only reason I’m not grading it higher is that it would be impossible for a new reader to get into the series at this point. As the title implies, this is an endpoint for the series. Possibly THE endpoint, but when asked the author said that he was still deciding. I hope he decides in favor of MORE IMAGERS!

But Endgames is certainly the ending of this middle sequence of the series. Interested readers can begin the Imager Portfolio at one of three places. Either the first published book of the series, Imager, the first book of the internal chronology of the series in Scholar, or the first book of this subseries, Madness in Solidar, which is the middle sequence in the internal chronology.

Endgames is a very political story. That’s true for much of this series, but particularly this subseries in general and this book in it in particular. Charyn is caught between a rock and several hard, sharp and pointy places. We see the story from inside his head, so we understand just where he’s coming from and just how difficult a position he is in at all times.

Everyone has an agenda. Including, admittedly, Charyn himself. But each of the factions that Charyn has to juggle has an agenda that benefits them alone, where Charyn’s agenda is a sometimes desperate attempt to do what’s best for everyone. Or at least what is a reasonable compromise for everyone.

Most of the factions do not want to compromise and their feet will have to be held to the fire – at least metaphorically – in order to make that happen. Charyn is fortunate that the imagers are on his side and perfectly capable of providing that fire – literally if necessary.

The contrast between events as directed by Charyn and current events in the US is also a stark one. As the person at the top of the pyramid Charyn could arrange the situation to benefit himself and his allies only. The laws of the time allow that possibility. But it is not good governance. The best course involves compromises between a lot of people whose interests do not seem to coincide. That he manages to make it happen in spite of each faction’s self-interest is a joy to watch – even though the personal cost is incredibly high.

If you like epic fantasy with lots of politics, this series could be your jam. It certainly is mine!

Review: The Show by John A. Heldt

Review: The Show by John A. HeldtThe Show (Northwest Passage #3) by John A. Heldt
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, time travel, time travel romance
Series: Northwest Passage #3
Pages: 293
Published by John A. Heldt on February 16th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
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Seattle, 1941. Grace Vandenberg, 21, is having a bad day. Minutes after Pearl Harbor is attacked, she learns that her boyfriend is a time traveler from 2000 who has abandoned her for a future he insists they cannot share. Determined to save their love, she follows him into the new century. But just when happiness is within her grasp, she accidentally enters a second time portal and exits in 1918. Distraught and heartbroken, Grace starts a new life in the age of Woodrow Wilson, silent movies, and the Spanish flu. She meets her parents as young, single adults and befriends a handsome, wounded Army captain just back from the war. In THE SHOW, the sequel to THE MINE, Grace finds love and friendship in the ashes of tragedy as she endures the trial of her life.

My Review:

While The Show is the third book in the author’s Northwest Passage series, it is much more of a direct sequel to The Mine, the awesome first book in the series, than the second book in the series, the marvelous The Journey, turned out to be.

In the Northwest Passage series, at least so far, the protagonists accidentally, or in the case of The Show, accidentally-on-purpose, discover methods of traveling in time. The time travel is complete handwavium – it’s purely a plot device and nothing more. And no more or less believable than the methods used in Outlander.

Not that the time period is the same as Outlander, or even the same from one book in the Northwest Passage series to another. In The Journey, the heroine travels within her own lifetime, and makes changes to her life in the past. Definitely changes for the better from her perspective, but one wonders about the butterfly, its flapping wings, and the effects on the futures of all of the other people who were within her original orbit.

That’s a question that raises its hand and waves vigorously by the end of The Show.

Because both Joel Smith in The Mine and Grace Vandenberg in The Show travel outside of their own lifespans. And then more.

In The Mine, Joel travels from 2000 to the summer of 1941, and leaves on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. He leaves, at least in part, because he knows about WWII and fears that if he finds himself in the Army there is the possibility that he will save someone who should have died, or kill someone who should have lived. He’s worried about that butterfly quite a bit.

But he didn’t worry about it enough not to fall in love back in 1941, and not to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs that allows someone to follow him to the future. That someone is Grace, the woman he loves and would have married if he had stayed in 1941.

So she comes forward to the future, to him.

It’s all sunshine and roses – not to mention marriage and children, until yet another portal whisks her away from 2002 to 1918. Her journey is just as accidental as Joel’s original trip to the past – but the consequences are even more devastating.

When Joel left 2000 for 1941, he was a young man, fresh out of college, with no dependents and relatively few cares in the world or hostages to fortune. When Grace leaves 2002 for 1918, she’s a wife and mother of two little girls. She leaves everything behind – and can’t figure out how to get back.

Just as Joel did in 1941, Grace manages to make a life back in the past, with relatives that would become hers in the fullness of a time that she has already lived but they haven’t yet experienced.

She has her parents again, this time as contemporaries. She has a front row seat on their courtship. She even manages to fall in love again. It’s not the same, but it’s a life that could be sweet.

And then she discovers that she has one last chance, and it is the last chance, to go back to her real life in 2002 – if she’s willing to leave behind everything she’s found in 1918 to take the chance that this time she can go home.

Escape Rating B: I enjoyed The Show, but it doesn’t hold up quite as well as my memory of The Mine – which you really need to read before going to The Show. Nor did it grab at my heartstrings in the way that The Journey did.

I think that one of the reasons this didn’t grab me quite as hard was that the blurb for the book gives the big plot twist away. We know from the opening pages that Grace is going to travel back in time – and it hangs over the story like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Grace’s advent into 2000 was way too easy, and I just wanted the story to get to the interesting – and hard – parts.

Grace’s life in the 21st century also raises questions that Joel’s life in 1941 didn’t. How did Grace and Joel even manage to get married in 2000 without Grace having a birth certificate? How did she get a driver’s license – which she definitely did. It’s a detail that niggles at me.

Joel was rightfully worried in 1941 about what would happen if he turned up at an Army recruiter’s office after Pearl Harbor with no birth certificate or ID of any kind. But in the rush to get bodies in uniform he would have had a way easier time than Grace should have had even in the pre-9-11 21st century.

Grace’s story in 1918 was much more tightly focused on Grace, her dilemma and her once and future family than Joel’s was in The Mine. We don’t see nearly as much of the era in which she finds herself as we did with his story. That may also reflect that Grace, as a young woman, would have had fewer opportunities to engage with the wider world in 1918 than Joel did in 1941. Part of the reason that The Journey got to me so much was that I identified with Michelle’s choices very strongly, while Grace’s don’t resonate with me in the same way.

However, one of Grace’s choices that I did empathize with was her eventual decision to move forward in 1918. A choice that some readers seem to have been appalled by. As far as Grace knows, she’s stuck in the past. She doesn’t believe that she has any hope of returning to 2002. She mourns her life there and misses her husband and children desperately, but she came back to the past already pregnant and needs to make some kind of future for herself and her child.

One final thought about that butterfly flapping its wings. Joel worried about changing the past and thereby changing his future. Grace, on the other hand, when the opportunity arises, rushes to change the past in a way that should prevent the future that gave birth to herself. It’s the ultimate paradox of time travel, and it bothers me that it isn’t addressed in any way.

Then again, this series feels as if its intended as historical fiction mixed with romance and not SF – where the time paradox would get done to death. I’m considering it as much handwavium as the time travel mechanism itself.

And I’ll be back for the next book in the series, The Fire, the next time I need a reading pick-me-up.

Review: The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty

Review: The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. ChakrabortyThe Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy, #2) by S.A. Chakraborty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Daevabad Trilogy #2
Pages: 640
Published by Harper Voyager on January 22, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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S. A. Chakraborty continues the sweeping adventure begun in The City of Brass—"the best adult fantasy I’ve read since The Name of the Wind" (#1 New York Times bestselling author Sabaa Tahir)—conjuring a world where djinn summon flames with the snap of a finger and waters run deep with old magic; where blood can be dangerous as any spell, and a clever con artist from Cairo will alter the fate of a kingdom.

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of a devastating battle, Nahri must forge a new path for herself. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe..

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad's towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

My Review:

The previous book in this series, The City of Brass, was absolutely awesome, as is this one. But the end of City felt guardedly hopeful. Five years down the road, the future that resulted from that guarded hope is anything but.

Instead, The Kingdom of Copper has the feel of The Two Towers, in that things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. And also in the sense that The Two Towers makes no sense without having read The Fellowship of the Ring first.

Likewise The Kingdom of Copper makes no sense without having read The City of Brass first. We readers need that introduction into the characters and especially the hidden city of Daevabad before we have a clue about what’s going on in this book – or why we should care.

Fair warning, if your reading of City was a while ago, it may take a while to get back to the heart of the matter in Kingdom. The worldbuilding in this series is epically dense. Not impenetrable, just terribly, terribly complex.

At the end of City, Nahri had negotiated her marriage with Crown Prince Muntadhir of Daevabad in exchange for an extremely large dowry and some concessions for her downtrodden people. Then her friend, Prince Ali, killed her would-be lover, the djinn Darayavahoush. Ali was exiled, and Dara was just gone.

Nahri is alone in a city she never knew existed, under the watchful eye of her cruel and tyrannical father-in-law. She does her best not to put a foot wrong, because every time she does anything just slightly for herself, the King punishes someone close to her. Ghassan’s treatment of Nahri is a microcosm of how he rules his kingdom. Neither are exactly flourishing under his “care”.

But the way that Daevabad is ruled seems necessary from the king’s perspective. His people, the Geziri, conquered the city that belonged to Nahri’s people, the Daevas, generations ago. But the Geziri are the minority in the city that they rule, outnumbered by both the oppressed Daevas and the completely subjugated shafit, who are djinn with human ancestry.

The king feels that it is necessary to keep the Daevas and the shafit at each other’s throats to keep them from banding together and turning against their oppressors. (And if anyone sees echoes of many past and present tyrannies, it’s probably not accidental).

From Nahri’s perspective we see events in the city, but that’s not all that we see. Ali has survived many attempted assassinations by his father-the-king’s agents, and is living a life of sort-of-peace and increasing prosperity in the desert that is the Geziri home. Or he is until his mother’s family maneuvers him, yet again, into a position where he feels he has no choice but to return to Daevabad and his father’s dubious mercy.

While it is pretty obvious to Ali that his mother’s relatives want him to take steps against his father, their methods are generally more political, economic and subtle than the other player in this game of empires.

Because the djinn Dara is not dead after all. Or does not remain dead – again. The exiled Daevas have a plan to retake their city. A plan for which they need the assistance of the greatest warrior – and most feared weapon of mass destruction – that their people have ever produced. Both are in the person of Dara, who just wants to stay dead, but is honor bound to serve his people one more time.

There’s going to be a bloodbath in the city that they all claim to love – with Nahri, Ali and Dara caught in the middle. Again.

Escape Rating A: This book was terrific. And compellingly readable to the point where I finished at 3 am because I just couldn’t stop reading. At the same time, it just misses the A+ because it takes a while to get back into the action. There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s all predicated on the events of the previous book. I suspect that if I’d read City a month or two ago instead of over a year ago I might feel differently.

If the final edition includes a precis of previous events that will probably help – a LOT.

Part of what makes this story so good, as well as what makes it difficult to get back into after a long absence, is the combination of how densely packed the worldbuilding is and how different it is from the western mythic traditions that so often underpin epic fantasy.

The worldbuilding in the Daevabad Trilogy is based on what feels like a combination of Indian, Persian and Arabic resources. The history hearkens back to Suleiman, the Islamic name of King Solomon the Wise from the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible. The world of the Daevabad seems to be the result of Suleiman’s taming or subjugation of the Djinn, an event which exists in all three mythologies.

But most readers have an image in their heads for djinn, jinn, or the more popular term, genie. (If that image looks and sounds a lot like Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, well, Disney is also a mythmaker.)

The djinn in Daevabad are not those genies. Well not exactly. And not always. It feels like Dara might be a lot like those djinn, or genies – without the benevolent wish granting. But most djinn in this series seem to be basically people, with magical abilities and an affinity for one or more elements as granted by their heritage.

It takes a bit to stop thinking genie when one reads the word djinn and just think of them as warring tribes of magical people. But it’s definitely worth the mental leap to make it work for you.

Underneath the terminology, the story here is definitely a classic, using multiple tropes to underpin the story.

The obvious one is that age-old saw about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. Not just for the current ruler of Daevabad, but also those who would be the rulers. It’s also definitely a story about the corruption of believing that the ends justify the means.

Nahri is certainly the bird in the gilded cage in this installment. After the life of both freedom and insecurity she lived in Cairo, her life in Daevabad is constrained at every turn. It’s only at the end when she returns to the truths she learned during her life on the streets that she finally sees a way out – even if it’s not one that anyone wants to take.

This is also a triangle story, albeit one with some interesting offshoots. Nahri loves Dara, or at least the Dara she thought she knew before she discovered that he was essentially a war criminal. Dara loves her, but the version of her that he left behind when he died. Five years of realpolitik have changed Nahri from that relatively naive girl he left behind.

Ali probably loves Nahri. Or he is capable of it if he figures out what love is – and gets his head out of his own ass on a whole host of topics. And possibly just plain grows up a bit. But Nahri is his brother’s wife. His brother Muntadhir loves his best friend Jamshid – and vice-versa – even though they keep their relationship on the down low. And Jamshid owes fealty to Nahri as the leader of the Daevas.

It’s complicated.

But the real story feels like one about the cost of vengeance. The Geziris conquered Daevabad, so now they oppress and demonize the descendants of the conquered to the point where the Daevas feel as if they have no option but to overthrow the Geziris. And both sides subjugate the mixed-blood shafit at every turn. No one is willing to even talk about building a future together, because everyone is so fixated on the atrocities that their ancestors committed against each other. Which only results in more atrocities. And the cycle continues.

And if that scenario sounds familiar, it bloody well should.

In an interview, the author posited what feels like the point of the entire series when she said, “Can you ever make a new world that properly addresses the wounds of the past?” So far in this series, the answer is a resounding, but absolutely compelling, NO.

So far in Daevabad, no one is even trying. Hopefully they will in the untitled third book in this series, which is not scheduled until (boo-hoo) 2021. It’s going to be a long wait.

Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport

Review: Medusa Uploaded by Emily DevenportMedusa Uploaded (The Medusa Cycle, #1) by Emily Devenport
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Medusa Cycle #1
Pages: 317
Published by Tor Books on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Executives control Oichi’s senses, her voice, her life. Until the day they kill her.

An executive clan gives the order to shoot Oichi out of an airlock on suspicion of being an insurgent. A sentient AI, a Medusa unit, rescues Oichi and begins to teach her the truth—the Executives are not who they think they are. Oichi, officially dead and now bonded to the Medusa unit, sees a chance to make a better life for everyone on board.

As she sets things right one assassination at a time, Oichi becomes the very insurgent the Executives feared, and in the process uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship that is their home.

My Review:

If The Forever Watch by David Ramirez, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein and The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells got together in a line marriage of the kind that Heinlein posited on Moon, the child they produced would be Medusa Uploaded.

A child that will absolutely stun you in speechless gibbering as well as afflict you with a terribly terrific case of book hangover.

This is also one of those stories where you reach the end, and, just like the main character, discover that none of the things that you thought you knew at the beginning are remotely as they appeared to be. Hence the being stunned.

I started out thinking of The Forever Watch because both take place on generation ships. In both stories, the population of the ship has left homeworld, which may or may not be Earth, in search of a new planet.

But whatever dreams of utopia the builders had at the beginning, those dreams have been long subverted by the time the story opens.

Our point of view character in Medusa Uploaded is Oichi Angelis, and she sees herself as a Worm. In fact, she sees almost all of the population of the Olympia as Worms. Most people are, like Oichi, members of the Servant class who are programmed by the Executives not merely to serve their every whim but also to see and hear only what the Executives allow them to.

Oichi has broken her programming. Much like Murderbot, she has illicit caches of forbidden entertainment stored in her brain, and that subversive data is how she keeps herself sane – at least until one scared and spoiled Executive arranges for Oichi’s execution. Because anyone in the Executive class can. Because victimizing someone else lets them feel less like a victim themselves.

But when Oichi is literally shoved out an airlock, she is saved. Not by a deux ex machina, but by an actual machine – and that’s when her journey really begins.

Because Oichi, with the help of Medusa, sets out to enact a revolution. She pushes people around like pawns in order to bring about a rebellion where the Executive class can be overthrown and the Worms can finally have an equal voice on the ship. It’s not just that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but that Oichi becomes the one who decides which are which.

Along the way, Oichi becomes an even more efficient killing machine than Murderbot ever was.

Oichi thinks she is running her own deadly show – only to discover that she’s been part of someone else’s game all along.

Escape Rating A+: First, I need to send a HUGE thank you to the person who recommended both The Last Sun and Medusa Uploaded, because both books have been absolutely stellar.

Above, I cited three books that Medusa Uploaded really, really reminded me of. The Forever Watch feels fairly obvious, as both are stories about generation ships in mid-journey, where one of the functionaries/passengers discovers that things have gone really, really wrong – and makes the mistake of trying to fix those things. These are also both stories where most of the assumptions that the protagonists make, and that we as readers follow along with, turn out not to be true – with catastrophic results.

Murderbot may feel like a strange choice, or like I’m just trying to get on the Murderbot bandwagon – not that Murderbot wouldn’t be utterly appalled that it even has a bandwagon. But at the very beginning of both stories we have a first-person protagonist who is aware that they are supposed to be programmed into certain behaviors and that they have subverted their programming. They both spend much of the story pretending to be what everyone around them believes they are while secretly exploring a database of forbidden entertainment. Entertainment which just adds to the subversive nature of their performance.

And last but definitely not least, the SF classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (Which is still quite readable!) Both Moon and Medusa are stories where the downtrodden masses are forced to remain downtrodden due to structural inequities built into the systems that keep them virtually enslaved. And in both stories they rise up anyway, using the technology that is supposed to keep them under the thumb of the ruling class. Both stories also feature machines-as-people who integrate with the revolutionaries. (The scene at the end of Moon where Manny discovers that Mike is dead still makes me cry.)

Back to the list I began earlier…

Second, I confess that Medusa Uploaded is one of the few times where I’ve been so completely into a book that I experienced the approach/avoidance conflict of desperately wanting to know how it ended while simultaneously not wanting to finish and be forced to step out of this world.

I’m really glad that there’s a second book in the cycle (Medusa in the Graveyard), and extra happy that I already have the eARC. This is one that just isn’t going to wait!