Review: Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

Review: Flyaway by Kathleen JenningsFlyaway by Kathleen Jennings
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure.
A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.
In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.
Holly Black describes as “half mystery, half fairy tale, all exquisitely rendered and full of teeth.” Flyaway enchants you with the sly, beautiful darkness of Karen Russell and a world utterly its own.

My Review:

Flyaway is seriously creepy and extremely weird. It also proves that a place doesn’t need to be dark, gloomy and cold in order to generate plenty of shivers and chills. There’s plenty to be scared of in the hot, dry and sun parched, and there are just as many lonely places in the Australian Bush as there are in the dark castles of Europe or the ghost towns of the American West.

And family is everywhere. If most people are killed by someone they know, and most accidents occur in or near the home, it makes entirely too much creeptastic sense that your relatives are the ones you need to be afraid of the most, especially in an isolated place like Inglewell. Because Bettina Scott has more reasons to be afraid of her entire family than any one young woman ever should.

At first I thought Inglewell was going to turn out to be a kind of Brigadoon. Was I ever wrong!

Also at first, I thought the problem was that Bettina Scott was being drugged by her mother. There was certainly something wrong with Bettina and that relationship. And in the end there definitely was – just not exactly what I thought at the beginning.

Actually nothing about this story was exactly what I thought. Flyaway is as grim as any of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the original versions, without the moralizing lesson at the end.

There’s a saying that the world is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine. But the world this author has imagined is way stranger than anywhere I’d ever want to be. Maybe that’s the point of that saying after all.

Escape Rating B-: This was weird. I know, I’ve said that already. But it was – very creepy and extremely weird. It’s also the darkest of dark fantasy, the kind that falls right over the border into horror.

It’s also the kind of horror that sort of, I think spirals out might be the best phrase, from a beginning that doesn’t seem too outre. Not that Bettina’s relationship with her mother doesn’t feel wrong from the very beginning, but at first it’s the kind of wrong that could have a logical explanation – or at least as logical as brainwashing, or drugs, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy. All horrible but not supernatural.

But as the story goes on, the story of Bettina breaking away from her mother, it’s interspersed with stories of supernatural horror that all take place in Inglewell, in the not too distant past. At first those stories don’t seem related, but as those stories catch up to Bettina’s “now’ we learn just how isolated, insular and downright creepy the area really is.

It’s like the isolation distilled the creep factor into something that really, really shouldn’t be running around in this world – but is. A something that every once in a while sucks in a new victim, and that entirely too many residents seem to accept as just part of life there.

But I left this book extremely glad that I don’t have to. I’m still creeped out. I really need a cocoa and a lie down after this one. This is not a way I ever want to pass again.

Review: Ghostrider by M.L. Buchman

Review: Ghostrider by M.L. BuchmanGhostrider (Miranda Chase NTSB #4) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #4
Pages: 354
Published by Buchman Bookworks on June 23, 2020
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An AC-130J “Ghostrider”—the latest variant of America’s Number One ground-attack plane for over fifty years—goes down in the Colorado Rockies. Except the data doesn’t match the airframe.

Air-crash savant Miranda Chase and her NTSB team are sent in to investigate. But what they uncover reveals a far greater threat—sabotage.

It could be a prelude to a whole new type of war; this time one far too close to home.

My Review:

The more I read this series, (I’ve read them all so far and loved every one of them, including this one), the more they remind me of Tom Clancy. Not the politics. Clancy’s viewpoint was all over his books, his political agenda was fairly clear. But the competence porn aspect of Clancy’s work, that all of his operatives knew what the hell they were doing and were heroes because of it, that part is certainly present in Miranda Chase and her series. Along with the smart banter and back-and-forth asides that pepper Clancy’s work.

Miranda Chase and her team are just plain fun to be with, and they are damn good at their jobs. In fact, they are the best team that the NTSB has. It is great watching them work.

Also nail-bitingly tense when they get just a bit too involved with that work, as they do in Ghostrider.

Miranda Chase is a savant when it comes to determining the cause of airplane crashes. She’s also extremely intelligent as well as autistic. And all of her gifts are a part of making her who and what she is – which is totally awesome if not always socially aware. In fact she’s seldom socially aware, but it is NEVER played for laughs.

The Ghostrider in this particular instance is certainly NOT the Marvel character, but rather, like the titles of all the books in this series, an airplane, specifically a military airplane, the Lockheed AC-130J Ghostrider, that has crashed near Aspen. And, like all of the other planes – and plans – that have crashed so far in this series, there’s something “off” about this particular crash and Miranda and her team are called in to investigate.

An investigation that turns up a whole bunch of red flags and something completely weird that would normally take the incident off of Miranda’s docket. She became an NTSB investigator in order to figure out what caused each crash she investigates so that it can’t happen again.

But this crash wasn’t a mechanical or technical failure. It wasn’t even pilot error. It was a deliberate crash caused by the pilot. Miranda can help make planes safer, but she has zero insights in making humans less stupid or insane – or whatever this mess might be attributable to.

She’s about to sign off when a second Ghostrider crashes, this time in California, also due to sabotage, while Miranda is closing out the Colorado investigation. It becomes clear that there’s something bigger and much more dangerous going on.

A something that Miranda and her team find themselves literally in the middle of. And something that some of them might not get out of alive.

Escape Rating A: The previous story in this series, Condor, had a lot to do with the emotional baggage that Miranda’s team is carrying. The series begins with Miranda’s baggage, that she became an NTSB investigator in order to prevent other children from losing their parents in plane crashes. But that story had a lot to do with Holly’s baggage, with the reasons that she left the Australian SAS. This story deals with other people’s baggage. Whole truckloads of it. Or perhaps that should be cargo loads?

The Ghostrider crashes that the team investigates aren’t random, aren’t mechanical, aren’t technical, aren’t pilot “error”. But they certainly are pilot-caused, just that the pilots acted deliberately and not accidentally.

Like many of the stories in this series – and OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read – the reasons for both the crashes involve a whole lot of skullduggery at the highest levels.

Along with a retiring general who wants to go out, not exactly in a blaze of glory, but with the satisfaction of a necessary job done. Alternatively with the satisfaction of taking a whole bunch of bastards that need killing out with him. It’s all a matter of perspective.

One is left with the feeling that his cause is righteous, but his methods create way too much collateral damage and have the potential to create a whole lot more. It’s a question about whether the ends justify the means in a case where there are no easy answers – and there shouldn’t be.

That the heroes and the sorta/kinda villains in this one turn out to be, not exactly on the same side, but not exactly on opposite sides, makes for an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will have readers white-knuckling through the middle and gasping at the end – while still thinking about where the big picture went wrong and what different actions might have made it go right. Or at least right-er.

So a great story, fantastic characters, thrilling action and some thought provoked in the end. A job very well done, both for Miranda’s team and for the author of this terrific series. May there be many, many more!

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper

Review: The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea CooperThe Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on June 16, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A cursed opal, a gnarled family tree, and a sinister woman in a green dress emerge in the aftermath of World War I.
After a whirlwind romance, London teashop waitress Fleur Richards can’t wait for her new husband, Hugh, to return from the Great War. But when word of his death arrives on Armistice Day, Fleur learns he has left her a sizable family fortune. Refusing to accept the inheritance, she heads to his beloved home country of Australia in search of the relatives who deserve it more.
In spite of her reluctance, she soon finds herself the sole owner of a remote farm and a dilapidated curio shop full of long-forgotten artifacts, remarkable preserved creatures, and a mystery that began more than sixty-five years ago. With the help of Kip, a repatriated soldier dealing with the sobering aftereffects of war, Fleur finds herself unable to resist pulling on the threads of the past. What she finds is a shocking story surrounding an opal and a woman in a green dress. . . a story that, nevertheless, offers hope and healing for the future.
This romantic mystery from award-winning Australian novelist Tea Cooper will keep readers guessing until the astonishing conclusion.
“Readers of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams will be dazzled. The Woman in the Green Dress spins readers into an evocative world of mystery and romance in this deeply researched book by Tea Cooper. There is a Dickensian flair to Cooper’s carefully constructed world of lost inheritances and found treasures as two indomitable women stretched across centuries work to reconcile their pasts while reclaiming love, identity and belonging against two richly moving historical settings. As soon as you turn the last page you want to start again just to see how every last thread is sewn in anticipation of its thrilling conclusion. One of the most intelligent, visceral and vibrant historical reads I have had the privilege of visiting in an age.” —Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration 
“Refreshing and unique, The Woman in the Green Dress sweeps you across the wild lands of Australia in a thrilling whirl of mystery, romance, and danger. This magical tale weaves together two storylines with a heart-pounding finish that is drop-dead gorgeous.” —J’nell Ciesielski, author of The Socialite
Full-length historical story with both romance and mysteryStand-alone novelIncludes Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

My Review:

Particularly large and/or valuable gems often have legends attached to them. Or curses. Or both. Generally both. Based on its history, the Hope Diamond is probably safest in the Smithsonian, rather than around the neck of someone who might be the victim of its curse. Although its owner during the 1920s seems to have made a habit of letting her Great Dane wear it!

The gem at the heart of this intricate work of timeslip fiction would have been a magnet for myths, curses and thieves had it ever existed; a great, big, beautiful opal, the first of its kind to be discovered in Australia, at a time when Queen Victoria had made the wearing of opals all the rage. In spite of their previous reputation as unlucky.

Or cursed.

But the opal, cursed or otherwise, kind of acts like a brooch that pins this story together. A story that takes place in two separate time periods, 1853 and 1919. This is, after all, a timeslip story, so it’s the past that is unveiled in the 1853 timeline that needs to be resolved in the 1919 “present”.

And it’s a doozy.

Australia in 1853 is not too distant from its penal colony roots. Just distant enough that the emancipationists – the deported convicts, while still looked down upon, do have a chance of making a new life for themselves. Equally, they have a chance of getting up to their old tricks. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Australia is also a vast country much like the American West, where the white “settlers” were doing their level best – or should that be absolute worst – to push the continent’s original owners out of their ancestral lands – and even to the brink of extinction if it can be managed. But at the same time, it’s a big place and there are still, at least in 1853, places where the whites have not encroached much – at least not yet – and where the unique native flora and fauna still thrive. Although all are under threat.

And that’s where the earlier portions of this story begin. With a young woman who does her best to protect the native people she views as friends and fellow stewards of the lands around her. A woman whose job, whose art, is to preserve the native fauna at least through expert taxidermy, as her father did before her.

At least until her home and her life are invaded by a young man from Austria, on a journey to visit the sites that his mentor visited 20 years before. Together they find themselves caught up in a search for that fabulous missing opal, only to dig up way more than they bargained for in family secrets – and murder.

In 1919, Fleur Richards learns that her husband of just a few months has been killed in action in the closing days of the Great War, and that he has left his grief-stricken wife an inheritance she never knew he had. She thought that the dashing Australian soldier, Hugh Richards, was a young man with an eye to the future, but no more or greater financial prospects than her orphaned and impoverished self.

But the inheritance she does not want spurs her to travel halfway around the world to discover just who her husband really was, in the hopes of finding someone more deserving of his fortune than she believes herself to be.

She finds more than she bargained for. A cursed gem, a locked and abandoned shop of curios and wonders, the solution to a long-ago mystery. And a home.

Escape Rating A-: I have to say that The Woman in the Green Dress gets off to a bit of a slow start, hence the A- rating. Somewhere past the first third of the book the story takes off and develops all sorts of lovely twisty-turny plot threads that keep the story zipping along from there to the end.

But it takes a while to get there, approximately the amount of story it takes for Fleur to get to Australia and get fed up with the runaround she’s getting in Sydney. And on the historic side, the amount of time for Della to meet Stefan and decide to take her life back in her own hands by returning to Sydney to discover what changes her Aunt Cordelia has made in the shop that Della owns.

And I’ve just realized the juxtaposition, that Della’s story takes off when she gets to Sydney, and Fleur’s gets its wings when she leaves it. Not that Fleur doesn’t return fairly quickly, but as the two heroines start moving – so does the story.

Both the past and the present stories are wrapped around secrets. Della has to uncover the secrets that her Aunt is keeping – before those secrets get her killed. Not that they haven’t already left a trail of bodies in their wake. Fleur needs to uncover the secret of who her husband really was, and to learn the truth about the legacy he left behind for her to unravel and resolve.

In the end, it’s a story about the truth setting them both free. And about a beautiful, captivating opal that was both lost and found.

But that woman in the green dress – she’s pure poison. Her story, however, is as delicious as her tonic is deadly.

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Review: Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz

Review: Automatic Reload by Ferrett SteinmetzAutomatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cyberpunk, dystopian, romantic comedy, romantic suspense, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Ferrett Steinmetz's quirky, genre-mashing cyberpunk romance Automatic Reload a high-octane adventure about a grizzled mercenary with machine gun arms who unexpectedly falls in love with a bio-engineered assassin
In the near-future, automation is king, and Mat is the top mercenary working the black market. He's your solider's solider, with military-grade weapons instead of arms...and a haunted past that keeps him awake at night. On a mission that promises the biggest score of his life, he discovers that the top secret shipment he's been sent to guard is not a package, but a person: Silvia.
Silvia is genetically-altered to be the deadliest woman on the planet--her only weakness is her panic disorder. When Mat decides to free her, both of them become targets of the most powerful shadow organization in the world. They go on the lam, determined to stop a sinister plot to create more super assassins like Silvia. Between bloody gunfights, rampant car chases and drone attacks, Mat and Silvia team up to survive...and unexpectedly realize their messed up brain-chemistry cannot overpower their very real chemistry.
Automatic Reload is the genre's most unexpectedly heartfelt romantic comedy with explosions, perfect for fans of both Die Hard and Mr. and Mrs. Smith."Steinmetz has mixed fast-paced shoot-em-up violence with a compassionate treatment of trauma and mental illness to create an engaging page-turner. Like Shadowrun with a conscience."-- Hugo Award-winning author Jim. C Hines
"Automatic Reload is for everyone who ever wished the Transformers movies were less Michael Bay, more transformation sequences; it luxuriates in the intricate beauty that is technology, exults in the mechanics of cyberpunk. And it does all this while being a rom-com with a lot of explosions." --Cassandra Khaw, finalist for the British Fantasy and Locus Awards for Hammers on Bone

My Review:

Automatic Reload was a wild ride from beginning to end. The kind of wild ride you get when you cross cyberpunk with dystopia and throw in a bit of romantic suspense for spice – and extra body. Make that bodies, definitely plural, bodies.

The genre of this book has been bent so much that it’s a pretzel. But I LOVE pretzels – and I’m sure I’m not alone.

The future that is posited in this story reminded me of a lot of things, and not just the idea that this is a possible future that we can see from here – without even having to squint too hard.

In a way, it’s the future that The Passengers by John Marrs was trying to warn against – at least until that story takes a hard left turn into more traditional suspense. But the idea that powers most of that book, that computers are controlling too much and making too many decisions based on programming rather than human ideals or human compassion is at the core of this story – even though it turned out not to be in that one.

There just aren’t a lot of jobs left for people. Computers even design and program other computers. They’re more efficient and more effective at nearly everything. Especially, as it turns out, warfare.

And that’s where our hero comes in. Mat started out as a drone soldier. He piloted the machines that made the actual war, and that distance was supposed to keep him from suffering all of the mental anguish that soldiers have to go through when they make the decision to kill an enemy. Because that decision can go wrong all too easily, wiping out an innocent, or a noncombatant, or a child.

But the distance doesn’t take away the pain, or the PTSD that Mat suffers after the drone he’s piloting kills a child who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mat’s way of dealing with the thoughts that won’t leave him is to overcompensate, both physically and mentally. He becomes, not exactly a cyborg, or they’re not called that, but a black market mercenary with four artificial limbs optimized for war. And he fine tunes the programming for all of his various alternate limbs to optimize his every routine and subroutine to eliminate – if possible – any chance of accidentally killing someone he shouldn’t. He does his level best, and it is very, very good, to remove any possibility of collateral damage.

Because the automation of all of his weaponry operates faster than he or any human can think. Once he gets into a situation the weapons are on automatic reload. But he can’t bear the thought of killing another innocent.

He’s done his best to make a living – because maintenance on his hardware and software is damn expensive – without putting himself into the cross-hairs of the IAC. A shadowy company that operates very much outside the law – because they control the law, the media, and pretty much any damn thing they want.

If the IAC decides he’s worth bothering, they’ll be able to trace his every networked movement since the dawn of time. They’ll know his every strength, his every weakness, his every move, even before he does. He’s done his best to stay far away from the “YAK”, as the IAC is usually referred to. Mostly in frightened whispers, because they really are everywhere, watching and listening to EVERYTHING.

It’s just supposed to be one very lucrative and very quick job. So of course it all goes pear-shaped, leaving Mat squarely in the YAK’s sights. But the reasons it’s gone so far down the rabbit hole is that the cargo he was supposed to deliver wasn’t just black market goods – it was a black market person named Silvia. A woman who had been altered against her will to be a deadly stealthy weapon – only her programming isn’t finished yet.

And if Mat has his way, it never will be. Because Mat’s PTSD and Silvia’s panic disorders mesh in a way that makes their whole much greater than the sum of any number of parts. A whole that the YAK must destroy no matter how much collateral damage it takes.

Unless the YAK has something else altogether up its sleeves – if it even has sleeves, that is.

Escape Rating A: Automatic Reload wasn’t anything I expected. At all. But it was a wonderful, totally wild ride in all of the best ways.

The mash-up is delightful and keeps throwing surprising things into its blender – which is definitely on high.

The world feels like an answer to The Passengers, mixed with the dystopia of Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter. I can’t even articulate why Junkyard Cats, although I think some of it has to do with just how bad things are for most humans, and the amount of autonomy that her protagonist has programmed into her many mechanical friends and helpers. That one is a stretch.

The Passengers, on the other hand, is dead on for the worldbuilding rather than any of the characters. Both stories deal with the issues that we’re starting to face in the here and now. What do people do, and how do people support themselves, when the number of jobs that require a human being is on a downward trajectory. After all, it’s not immigration that has killed off so many jobs, it’s automation, and that’s a trend that’s going to continue.

I’ll admit that I also kept seeing Silvia as the character in the movie Monsters vs. Aliens, or at least the character in the movie poster. She’s not 50-feet tall, in fact she’s human proportioned on purpose in order to infiltrate better – to be a more effective assassin. But the issues she faces with suddenly discovering that she’s not who she used to be feel similar.

Although Silvia’s problems do not begin with her physical transformation. One of the strongest – and sweetest – elements of this story is the way that Mat and Silvia come to love each other for who they are, and that they both acknowledge that they both have a lot of mental issues that they compensate for in their own ways. Their mental illnesses are never swept under the rug, and love doesn’t cure them. But they make each other a bit stronger in their broken places in ways that are lovely to see, especially when they’re done well. As they certainly are in this case.

Initially I thought that the dystopian setup had elements of the worldbuilding of Ready Player One. And it definitely does. I just didn’t expect the plot to, in its own pretzel-twisty way, actually go there explicitly. But it does, with classic movies substituting – in a way – for 1980s pop culture trivia. And it happens in a way that will still totally surprise you.

So come to Automatic Reload for the dystopian world and especially the explosions. Stay for the brighter future that rises, somewhat shakily but delightfully on the horizon.

Review: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner

Review: An Unnatural Life by Erin K. WagnerAn Unnatural Life by Erin K. Wagner
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tor.com on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Murderbot meets To Kill a Mockingbird in Erin K. Wagner's An Unnatural Life, an interplanetary tale of identity and responsibility.
The cybernetic organism known as 812-3 is in prison, convicted of murdering a human worker but he claims that he did not do it. With the evidence stacked against him, his lawyer, Aiya Ritsehrer, must determine grounds for an appeal and uncover the true facts of the case.
But with artificial life-forms having only recently been awarded legal rights on Earth, the military complex on Europa is resistant to the implementation of these same rights on the Jovian moon.
Aiya must battle against her own prejudices and that of her new paymasters, to secure a fair trial for her charge, while navigating her own interpersonal drama, before it's too late.

My Review:

I picked this up as early as I did because it was teasing me. Specifically, the recommendations I received from a friend listed some readalikes for this book and I was just sure that something was missing – actually I was positive that at least two somethings were missing – and I had to read it to see if I was right.

You know how it is, there’s something on the tip of your tongue, or just out of reach in your memory but you can’t quite grasp it. It was driving me nuts that I just couldn’t remember what one of the books I KNEW this reminded me of was, so I had to read it and find out.

In case you’re wondering, the recommendation said Murderbot, which, well, of course, yes. Because Murderbot is so ‘top of mind’ after the recent release of Network Effect. And there is something to be said for the correlation, although strictly speaking Murderbot isn’t exactly a self-aware AI. Self-aware, absolutely, an AI,  not exactly. But the concept of humans creating an enslavable and exploitable underclass is certainly a match. The other readalike was the classic The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, which I have not read. The ‘so many books, so little time’ conundrum rears its ugly head yet again.

I was thinking of Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport for both the self-aware AI and the specifically created underclass, even though in Medusa they are not exactly embodied in the same person – or at least not all of the time.

But those references felt fairly obvious. The one lurking in the back of my mind turned out to be the steampunk world created in Ian Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars series, starting with The Mechanical. While the ‘mechanicals’ of that series were created through alchemy rather than science, the situation they find themselves in is much the same as it is in An Unnatural Life. They are created to be slaves and they seem to have no recourse towards freedom. But they are self-aware, and they strike out for freedom anyway, in spite of the odds, the laws, and their own programming.

In the end, the story this reminded me of the most was the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man“, where Data is on trial. Not for a crime as the AI here is, but for his right to be a self-determining being in his own right, and not property as has occurred in the world posited in this story. Picard’s speech in Data’s defense echoes many of the abuses that are highlighted in this story, as it is all too clear from humanity’s history that if Data is not considered an autonomous being in his own right that he and others like him will be declared to be ‘property’ and abused as happened in the backstory for this book. Also as did happen in the later history of the universe of Star Trek, as represented in the events of its latest series, Star Trek: Picard.

The story in An Unnatural Life, just like the story in The Measure of a Man, isn’t really about the android, the AI, the ‘grunt’, after all. It’s a story about humans, and about humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. It’s about just how very easy we find it to believe that anyone we define as ‘them’ can be treated as inhumanely as we want, because we’ve decided that the only ones worthy of being considered ‘human’ are ‘us’.

But Walt Kelly’s Pogo had it right all along when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. And he still is.

Escape Rating A-: There are actually two stories in this slim little volume. One is the obvious, the story of Aiya Ritsehrer’s appeal on behalf of the AI 812-3 due to the obvious fact that the AI did not face a jury of his peers, but rather a jury that was utterly prejudiced against the AI, as was the judge and the prosecution. Aiya is convinced the AI did not receive a fair trial, and it’s oh-so-clear that she is correct.

There is also a story tucked in-between the chapters about Aiya, the trial and its result. I think that it was about an expedition to discover whether or not there was already life on Europa when it was settled by humans. But that story is more tantalizing than realized. Which is possibly intended, but left me a bit frustrated by its ambiguity, hence the A- rating.

Back to the story I’m entirely too sure of. One of the things that so frequently gets lost in the gee-whiz sensawunda that science fiction and fantasy often provoke is that no matter who or what is at the center of the story, no matter where or when it is set, all stories are about human beings. Because human beings are the only creatures that we really know. Writers may do their very best to guesstimate what androids or aliens in the far future or the mythic past might think and feel and say and do, but the fact is that the perspective from which all of those ‘otherworldly’ characters are written is the human one in the here and now of the author.

So from one perspective this is a story about a self-aware AI in search of justice on one of Jupiter’s moons. But on the other, the story underneath that, is a story about prejudice and justice. It’s a story about the lengths and depths that humans, following their worser instincts and not their better ones, will go to in order to preserve the status quo that makes them feel safe and comfortable.

It is also a story about one woman fighting, not just for justice for an underdog, but for what is right instead of what is easy, in spite of all of her own prejudices, and in spite of the very real fear that her pursuit of justice will bring her into deadly danger in a situation where no one will stand by her, no one will protect her, and no one will seek justice on her behalf.

Because all of those humans believe that their hatred of ‘the other’ and their willingness, even eagerness to destroy anyone who shines a light on that hatred, is not human either and therefore deserves whatever happens to them. That they brought it on themselves, and that their fate is not the fault of anyone but themselves for standing up for ‘the other’.

And if you don’t see any parallels between the story and both history and current events, you’re not paying attention.

Review: A Choir of Crows by Candace Robb

Review: A Choir of Crows by Candace RobbA Choir of Crows (Owen Archer, #12) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Owen Archer #12
Pages: 288
Published by Severn House on June 30, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster shortly before the enthronement of the new archbishop, Owen Archer is summoned to investigate.
December, 1374. With the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop, the city authorities are in a state of high alert. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate. Tension deepens when an enigmatic figure from Owen's past arrives in the city. Why has he returned from France after all these years - and what is his connection with the bodies in the minster yard and the fair singer? Before Owen can make headway in the investigation, a third body is fished out of the river - and the captain finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.

My Review:

By some reckonings, the events in A Choir of Crows take place during the “Little Ice Age”, the era in European history that spawned the sumptuous costumes that we associate with Renaissance Faires today. Because it was just so damn cold. You can practically hear the icy winds of December, 1374 whistling through this story.

The chill actually feels pretty good in this strange summer of 2020. It’s already hot down here.

But I came to this story not for its bracing weather, but because I got into a mood for historical fiction and mysteries, and this series always satisfies that particular itch.

Like the best of its kind, the Owen Archer series takes place during a time of great upheaval, and it mixes its search for whodunnit with insight into why it was done – or why it was covered up – and who is playing politics with whom and to what ends as Captain Owen Archer investigates a series of murders in his city while the worthies of the entire country descend upon York for the investiture of its new Archbishop.

Who is a much lesser man than the one he replaces. A man who is very much beholden to and under the heavy thumb of one of the most ambitious lords of the entire kingdom – his older brother, Sir John Neville, Baron of Raby. The Nevilles were one of the great families of Northern England, and they rose to become kingmakers during the Wars of the Roses.

This series is set at what will be the foundation of those Wars, as King Edward III is old and infirm, his oldest son and heir, The Black Prince, is young but struck down by disease, and the crown will become a prize in the squabbles between alternate heirs, sons, grandsons and even great-grandsons of Edward III in the mid-1400s.

But that is in the future. In the present, Owen Archer has a mess on his hands. Three men are dead. His assistant has discovered a young woman, disguised as a young man, at the site of two of the deaths. One might have been by misadventure but the other was certainly murder. The murdered man was a clergyman, he died within the precincts of York Minster, the Archbishop has not yet been invested in his throne – not that anyone believes he will know how to deal with this problem – unlike his predecessor.

There is a vacuum in authority, but a desperate need to put the entire situation behind them before the archbishop and his party – particularly his powerful brother – arrive on the scene to force a solution. One that suits them rather than any truth.

Owen is under pressure to solve the crimes and protect the young woman who seems to be at the heart of the mess while still being a victim of it. And to keep his family and friends safe from the power struggle yet to come.

Because Owen is not merely the Captain of the City Watch. He’s also The Black Prince’s right hand man in York – making the Nevilles his enemies – quite possibly of the deadly variety.

Escape Rating A: I absolutely adore this series, and reading this now instead of in a couple of weeks was definitely a case of the right book at the right time. After yesterday’s review, I really, really wanted to read this next – so I did.

But as much as I love this series, I’ll admit to having a difficult time figuring out where to recommend a newbie start it. Part of what I love is the way that the mystery dovetails into the history – and this is an era of history that I studied a bit and remember. So I’m riveted pretty much all of the time. I don’t think that would be true for someone who came into it cold, particularly not 12 books in.

Memory says that in the beginning the political situation was less complicated and less part of the story, that the focus was much more on the mystery and on the characters, as Owen arrives in York gets caught up in solving a murder, and is caught between hunting for a killer and fearing that the killer is the woman he has fallen in love with. So start at the beginning with The Apothecary Rose. If historical mystery is your cup of tea, it’s a great place to begin. (If the historical period in which this series takes place fascinates you, Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest is operating just a decade or so later, and the political mess has only become even more fraught in the interim.)

Back to A Choir of Crows. Yes, I know that the collective noun for crows is a murder, but that’s not what is being referred to by the title. Just FYI.

The story here does an excellent job of mixing the people with the politics. And in this instance I mean politics with a small “p” and not the large “P” of the national political upheaval going on at the time.

While Owen’s methods for solving crime may lack in 21st century forensics, the issues that he has to deal with are all too familiar. He has to solve the murders before the powers-that-be arrive and force a solution. We’ve all seen that in contemporary life and policing, where someone is railroaded into a confession so that everything can be swept under the carpet. Forensics may have advanced, but human nature hasn’t changed much at all – not even in seven centuries.

The young woman at the heart of this mystery is a victim every bit as much – actually as it turns out quite a bit more – than the man who was murdered. But she’s all too aware that even though none of what happened is in any way her fault, she’ll still be blamed for all of it merely because she is female. And that hasn’t changed much either.

However, as many things and issues as are wrapped around this case, at its heart is a good man determined to see justice served, protect his family, his friends and his city to the best of his ability, and to keep his word and his oaths. And that’s a story well worth reading, whether it takes place in this or any other era.

A few years ago, after the story in A Vigil of Spies, it felt like this series was coming to an end. While it would have been a fitting ending, I was pleased as Punch to see Owen return in A Conspiracy of Wolves. And I hope to see MANY further adventures in this well-written, thoroughly researched and utterly compelling series.

Review: The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn

Review: The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie VaughnThe Heirs of Locksley (The Robin Hood Stories, #2) by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Series: Robin Hood Stories #2
Pages: 128
Published by Tor.com on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Carrie Vaughn follows up The Ghosts of Sherwood with the charming, fast-paced The Heirs of Locksley, continuing the story of Robin Hood's children.

"We will hold an archery contest. A simple affair, all in fun, on the tournament grounds. Tomorrow. We will see you there."

The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley―son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian―only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man's life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day's work for the Locksley children...

My Review:

I picked this up, admittedly rather early, because it combines two of my great reading loves, English history and fanfiction. And I really, truly was NOT expecting the second part of that equation.

I fell in love with English history at age 12, after seeing the movie Anne of a Thousand Days. I have no idea what drew me in so strongly. Certainly not any direct relationship to the history portrayed as I have zero English ancestry. Whether it was the pageantry, the politics or the power, I was absolutely hooked, leading to a life-long interest in British history, whether fictionalized or not.

Not that some of what grabbed me, like the Robin Hood and King Arthur, aren’t of dubious historical accuracy – at best.

But this particular novella duology – at least it’s a duology so far – does a terrific job of setting Robin Hood, Robin of Locksley, into a reasonably historical version of the time in which he was supposed to have lived, and skirts around the issues of exactly which, if any, of the tales about him might be true by making him a secondary character in these stories.

In these stories, Robin is no longer the outlaw of Sherwood. And he’s no longer a young man. Instead, he’s well into middle age, still powerful, still feared and hated and loved in equal measure, but also someone who recognizes that his time will inevitably draw to a close, sooner rather than later.

These stories focus on his children with Marian; his oldest daughter Mary, his son and heir John, and his slightly fey child Eleanor as they take their first steps into adulthood.

They also do a good job of giving bits of long-ago English history a face that makes them still feel relevant. The first book, The Ghosts of Sherwood, was a story about reckoning. About the nobles who favored King John still trying to eliminate Robin as a threat or a power, while the political maneuvering brought the negotiations surrounding the Magna Carta becomes personalized through his enemies attempt to kidnap his children – and his children manage to rescue themselves using the lessons their father and life on the edge of Sherwood have taught them.

In The Heirs of Locksley, the times have changed and the story has moved on a bit. It is 1220, and King John is dead. His 13-year-old son sits uneasily on the throne that he will occupy for the rest of his life. But Henry of Winchester, Henry III, is still a boy. A boy who never knew his father, but still stands in his shadow. The shadow of a man who seems to have pissed off everyone he ever knew.

Robin’s son John knows all about standing in a father’s long shadow. The two boys make a surprising common cause that leads them on an adventure that neither expected – to the consternation of all of the adults that surround them.

Escape Rating A-: I said at the beginning that this combined my loves of English history and fanfiction. The setting of these tales is between two of my favorite historical mystery series, both set in England and both occurring at times of great upheavals in history – as this series does.

I’m speaking of the Brother Cadfael series, by the late Ellis Peters, set in Shrewsbury, English between 1135 and 1145, at a time when the country was in the midst of a civil war. This series was also one of the first historical mystery series I have read, and the foundation of the popularity of the genre to this day.

The other series is the Owen Archer series, set in York in the late 1300s during the events that would eventually lead to yet another civil war, the Wars of the Roses. Both of these series, like these Robin Hood stories, do a fantastic job of drawing the reader directly into their time and place while still managing to comment on either our own, the immutability of human nature, or both.

(And now I’m missing Owen and will be moving the latest book in that series all the way up the virtually towering TBR pile!)

But I also referred to the Robin Hood stories as fanfiction – as the author does in the afterword to this book. It’s a concept that now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it – and it resonates.

After all, the Robin Hood stories that we all know today weren’t written down until the late 1400s at the very earliest, three centuries after the adventures they portray. And even then, those written stories were merely printed versions of oral traditions that had arisen during the interim, sometime between Robin’s own time and the invention of the printing press.

As part of an oral tradition, the stories that were printed were the ones that were remembered, whether because they were the best stories, the most memorable ones, were just told by particularly charismatic storytellers – or all of the above. There’s no historical canon version, just a lot of stories that center around a larger-than-life character and his band of outlaws as they rebelled against an unjust authority.

It’s a “Fix-it” fic where the heroes fight wrongs and make things better in the end, as occurs when Richard the Lionhearted returns to his kingdom and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham is forced to leave Robin and his gang alone. The story conveniently ends before King Richard is killed and John takes back over, this time for good – or ill.

The Robin Hood Stories series are a kind of “next generation” fanfic where the author takes the beloved characters and tells readers what happened after the happy ever after, moving the story to the literal next generation, the earlier heroes’ children.

So she’s right. Not just that these stories feel like fanfiction but that the original Robin Hood stories were too. Complete with the “so many variations that the original canon is obscured” problem. In my review of the first book I noted that there’s a trend towards retellings going on right now. The world has gone mad and we’re all looking for the comfort of stories we know and love, in variations that may hold a few surprises but ultimately lead back to the tales that we already know.

And that’s what these Robin Hood Stories have been so far for me. A lovely comfort read with an interesting view of a historical period that I enjoy, an ultimately a visit with some old and very dear friends.

I hope there will be more.

Review: The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

Review: The Marriage Game by Sara DesaiThe Marriage Game by Sara Desai
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley on June 9, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.

After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…

As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he's forced to share his space with the owner's beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

My Review:

To kick this off, just let me say that if you like Sonali Dev and Nisha Sharma you’re going to love Sara Desai, and very much vice versa – all the way around.

I had The Marriage Game in the virtually towering TBR pile but managed to lose track of having signed up for this blog tour. The reminder came just in time and I am SO GLAD it did.

Because this was lovely and awesome with just the right amount of fluff overlaying just the best amount of serious to make this both a terrific summer read and an absolutely wonderful book for getting my reading mojo back and taking me away from all the crap going on in the world.

Mental breaks are good for the soul.

And that’s kind of where this story begins, because Layla Patel definitely comes home to her parents’ and their Michelin-starred restaurant in need of some family TLC, a mental break from the mess she left behind in New York City, and a bit more than her vague plans to open her own recruiting agency.

Then it all goes pear-shaped, in some ways even more so than the events that led to her rather abrupt departure from New York City.

Her father has a heart-attack. Her parents’ restaurant is in financial trouble. And the office that her father planned to let her occupy rent-free to get her business started is already occupied – by the most uptight, order-driven, stick-up-his-ass but gorgeous man that Layla has ever met.

Not that Sam Mehta isn’t having a similar set of thoughts about Layla. She is chaos, she’s a trouble-magnet, she’s free-thinking and free-wheeling, she’s disorganized and unprofessional and utterly captivating.

They are complete opposites. And they get along like kerosene and matches – absolutely combustible every two-steps-forward and one-step-back of the way.

Escape Rating A: This marvelous piece of contemporary romance is one of those stories that absolutely brims with witty, snarky and frequently panty-melting banter. Well, at least Layla’s panties certainly end up melted on more than one occasion – even the gray granny panties. It’s an opposites-attract/frenemies-to-lovers romance that really pulls out all of the stops on both of those well-loved tropes.

It’s also a story NOT to read if you’re hungry. Layla’s family owns a restaurant, her office is above said restaurant, the food is frequently described in loving detail and it all sounds absolutely delicious. To the point where I’m pretty sure I’ve already decided on exactly where we’re getting takeout from this weekend. But I digress. Slightly. But I also repeat: DO NOT READ WHEN HUNGRY!

There’s also more than a touch of relationship fiction mixed into this romance, as Layla’s family is a big part of the story – as is Sam’s lack of relationship with his.

Although this one begins with Layla pretty much hitting rock bottom, her journey in this story is, while not easy, fairly straightforward. For her it’s about getting out of her own way, stepping out of her late brother’s very long shadow and determining what she wants out of life – then reaching out for it and settling for nothing less.

She’s Buttercup whether Sam is Westley or not, and she just needs to figure out how to save herself from the evil prince – even if that evil prince turns out to be Sam.

Sam actually has the much harder road. He has to forgive himself for something that wasn’t his fault but that he blamed himself for. He’s been running away from that guilt and that grief by telling himself that his current pursuit is vengeance. But he’s made himself a monster in order to catch the monster, and only he can make himself step back from the abyss before it’s too late.

Before he loses Layla.

There is just so much to love about The Marriage Game. Except Sam’s business partner Royce. He’s a real piece of work. But possibly redeemable if the author ever returns to this family. There are plenty more stories here, and I would love to read them all!

Review: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

Review: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen ChoThe Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 160
Published by Tor.com on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“Fantastic, defiant, utterly brilliant.” —Ken Liu
Zen Cho returns with a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history.
A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

My Review:

This was absolutely none of the things I was expecting when I picked it up – and that’s mostly a good thing. Although, at least so far, this author’s works have not quite, at least for this reader, lived up to her incredible debut, Sorcerer to the Crown – one of those books that just blew everyone away from the opening pages and continued blowing right through to the end.

Howsomever, that does not mean I did not enjoy this one, because I certainly did. Even though, or perhaps especially because, the beginning of the story is, as one reviewer put it, a feint. A huge, gigantic bit of misdirection that leads the reader to think the story is going to be one thing, when in fact it turns out to be several other things – all of them rather fascinating – but not what the opening scene leads the reader to expect.

Because that opening scene reads, not just like a bit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but specifically like the action scenes from that movie. A bandit walks into a bar, finds his own wanted poster, involves himself in a fight that a)doesn’t need his input, b) exposes his presence and c)makes enemies he doesn’t need.

All to defend a waitress who may have brought at least some of it on herself in the first place – and doesn’t require his assistance in the second.

It’s only as the story proceeds that the reader learns that almost none of the things that we thought about the waitress, the bandit and the situation they find themselves in are anything like what we thought they were.

Except that the bar really is a dive. That much is true. But the bandits aren’t exactly bandits, the waitress is a whole lot more than a waitress, and the world in which they live is a whole lot grittier and more true-to-life than the wuxia setting of the opening leads the reader to believe.

Because the story here, is about the cost of survival in a world that has torn itself apart in war, and the collateral damage wrecked upon people and institutions, hearts and minds and souls, when everyone is forced to do their best and worst merely to survive.

And where a nun and a bandit discover that they are sisters under the skin – no matter how little either of them wants to confront their shared past.

Escape Rating B: I really liked what I got, but this is a time where I really wished that this had been more than a novella. Because the tiny slice I got of this war torn almost-China made me want to know more about pretty much everything.

Especially about the group of bandits/mercenaries/thieves/revolutionaries that the nun-turned-waitress-turned-nun attaches herself to. We don’t have enough story to really learn who the bandits are or specifically why each of them got into the fix the group is in. We do learn that they are trapped in the middle between the Protectorate who seem to be forces of tyranny and the bandits, who are forces of lawlessness and worst and rebels at best. The group she inserts herself into are a found family of lost souls who seem to be part of none of the above at a time that isn’t quite history but has echoes of it all the same.

It’s also a story about the ruthlessness of just trying to survive, and how that struggle breaks down everything in its path – including the strength of this found family that have traveled together for so long.

And it’s a story about identity. The one you left behind. The one you project to those around you. The person you are in your heart. And figuring out a way to live with all of those selves in some kind of harmony – especially in a world where there is absolutely none.

Review: Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer

Review: Driving the Deep by Suzanne PalmerDriving the Deep (Finder Chronicles, #2) by Suzanne Palmer
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #2
Pages: 432
Published by DAW Books on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the second book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.
As a professional finder, Fergus Ferguson is hired to locate missing objects and steal them back. But it is rarely so simple, especially after his latest job in Cernee. He's been recovering from that experience in the company of friends, the Shipmakers of Pluto, experts at crafting top-of-the-line AI spaceships.
The Shipmakers have convinced Fergus to finally deal with unfinished business he's been avoiding for half his life: Earth. Fergus hasn't been back to his homeworld since he was fifteen, when he stole his cousin's motorcycle and ran away. It was his first theft, and nothing he's stolen since has been anywhere near so easy, or weighed so heavily on his conscience. Many years and many jobs later, Fergus reluctantly agrees that now is the time to return the motorcycle and face his family.
Unfortunately, someone has gotten to the motorcycle before him. And before he can figure out where it went and why the storage unit that held it is now filled with priceless, stolen art, the Shipyard is attacked. His friends are missing, presumably kidnapped.
Accompanied by an untrustworthy detective who suspects Fergus is the art thief and the sole friend who escaped the attack, Fergus must follow the tenuous clues to locate and save his friends. The trail leads them to Enceladus, where Fergus plans to go undercover to the research stations that lie beneath the moon's thick ice sheet deep in a dark, oppressive ocean.
But all movement and personnel are watched, and the limited ways through the thick ice of the moon's surface are dangerous and highly monitored. Even if Fergus can manage to find proof that his friends are there and alive, getting out again is going to be a lot more complicated than he bargained for.

My Review:

Fergus Ferguson has a gift, and not just the one that he thinks he has, his ability to put the pieces together to find things – and people – that are missing. Fergus’ more important gift is the gift of making friends wherever he goes – no matter how dangerous the situation or unlikely the friendship might be. Or how incredibly difficult the mess he makes may be to get out of.

Because Fergus Ferguson is every bit as good at making his life into a mess as he is at finding his way out of the mess he’s just made.

But this particular mess is going to be a bigger challenge than average – even for him. His friends from the Shipyards at Pluto are all missing, presumed dead. Or possibly missing, presumed kidnapped. Except for the one who isn’t dead, but is suspected of having caused the kidnapping and/or death of the others. Except she didn’t, but someone is trying awfully hard to make it look that way, in order to make everyone look the other way from whatever really happened.

Meanwhile, Fergus is stuck, deep under the ice on Enceladus, Saturn’s ice-covered moon. After all, it’s easy to hide things in a cold and dark place that damn few people want to go to in the first place. Especially dirty deeds being done, not exactly dirt cheap. Possibly on the public’s dime – or whatever passes for currency by Fergus’ time.

All Fergus has to do is figure out if his friends are down there, where they’re being held if they are, why they were kidnapped in the first place – and, of course, rescue them. Without getting them all killed.

And especially without drawing the notice of “the Bastards Above”.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I loved the first book in the Finder Chronicles. That book is named basically for Fergus, and it’s just called Finder. And it’s awesome.

Both books, in fact, are an absolute treat to listen to, as the entire story so far is told from Fergus’ first person perspective, and the narrator does an excellent job of capturing Fergus’ wry, self-deprecating and universe-weary tone.

Howsomever, as often happens, I listened to the first half of this one and read the second, because I just couldn’t wait to find out how Fergus got himself out of the mess this time. Because it’s a doozy.

This feels like a story about closure, and perversely about opening. There’s that saying that when one door closes, another one opens. For Fergus, it feels a bit like he has to close that first door before he can let himself open the second one. Fergus ran away from home on Earth in his late teens, just after his dad committed suicide by drowning. An act that certainly comes back to haunt Fergus in the deeps under the ice of Enceladus.

But this story begins with Fergus going back to Earth for the first time in two decades, because there’s that door behind him that he needs to close. When he left he stole his cousin’s motorcycle. And it’s time for him to go back and take care of that debt, because looking back is keeping him from moving forward.

No plan of Fergus’ ever seems to survive contact with, well, Fergus, so his plan to get the motorcycle out of the storage locker he’s been paying for all these years turns up, not the motorcycle, but a whole bunch of stolen paintings that seem to be the ill-gotten gains from a museum robbery not unlike the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in Boston in 1990.

Uncovering the paintings uncovers an undercover cop looking for the thieves. An obsessed man who is convinced that Fergus was one of the thieves he’s been hunting for years. Of course, his plans don’t survive Fergus either, and eventually, after a lot of misunderstandings and a few bouts of fisticuffs, they both end up trying to free Fergus’ friends.

But all of that turns out to be setup, as fascinating as it generally was. The story is really Fergus’ story, all alone in the dark of Enceladus, desperately hanging on to hope and trying to come up with a plan, in the face of the endless night and the unrelenting dark under the water.

In the end, with the help of new friends and old, including the stray cat Mister Feefs, Fergus manages to find the heart of this mystery. After all, while Fergus’ own plans never survive contact with Fergus – neither do anybody else’s.