Review: Dune: The Duke of Caladan by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson

Review: Dune: The Duke of Caladan by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. AndersonDune: The Duke of Caladan by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Caladan Trilogy #1
Pages: 414
Published by Tor Books on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A legend begins in Dune: The Duke of Caladan, first in The Caladan Trilogy by New York Times bestselling authors Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.
Leto Atreides, Duke of Caladan and father of the Muad’Dib. While all know of his fall and the rise of his son, little is known about the quiet ruler of Caladan and his partner Jessica. Or how a Duke of an inconsequential planet earned an emperor’s favor, the ire of House Harkonnen, and set himself on a collision course with his own death. This is the story.
Through patience and loyalty, Leto serves the Golden Lion Throne. Where others scheme, the Duke of Caladan acts. But Leto’s powerful enemies are starting to feel that he is rising beyond his station, and House Atreides rises too high. With unseen enemies circling, Leto must decide if the twin burdens of duty and honor are worth the price of his life, family, and love.

My Review:

Dune: The Duke of Caladan really should have been titled Dune: The Book of Foreshadowing. Seriously. This book is all the foreshadowing all the time. That’s neither good nor bad, but it is kind of “meh”.

First edition cover

Which it may not be if the original Dune is just something you read but didn’t make that gigantic an impression. But those of us for whom the original is part of our personal canon (see Sarah Gailey’s marvelous feature for an explanation of what that REALLY means) there’s not nearly as much dramatic tension here as there was in the original.

After all, we already know EXACTLY what happens to all of these people – and only one year in their future at that. And even if you don’t already know from either the book or one of the dramatic adaptations, it’s pretty easy to find out. Dune was originally published in 1965 as a two-part serial in Analog magazine It tied for the Hugo and won the FIRST Nebula and was cited as the WORLD’s best-selling science fiction novel in 2003. Synopses and analyses and all kinds of other -ses are readily available pretty much everywhere, including a brief but decent summary on Wikipedia that manages to hit all the high points without nearly conveying just how compelling the damn thing is to read – or at least was when it first came out.

I read it in for the first time in the mid-to-late 1960s, probably not long after I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time, so I was probably 11 or 12, certainly no more than 13, and it was one of the first big science fiction books I ever read, along with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – which I was MUCH too young to completely “grok” at the time. I read them all, including LOTR, more than once, and those readings formed the backbone of my lifelong love affair with Fantasy and Science Fiction – along with a heaping helping of Star Trek.

I think it’s difficult to see from today’s perspective just how influential those books were on a young reader who fell into the genre, because speculative fiction today, to treat fantasy and SF more broadly, is so much more influential – and infinitely more readily available – than it was then. There weren’t nearly so many choices, so discovering something that was just SO GOOD was marvelous and had an outsize influence.

All that to say that the original Dune – not the sequels and prequels and what-have-you – is a book I still remember very fondly – and still remember the high points of even decades after the last time I read it.

So I had hopes that this prequel would bring back some of that intense love I felt for the original OMG half a century ago. (Mind reels!) And it did bring back memories of the original book. Perhaps too many, as those memories cut the legs out from under any dramatic tension in this one.

Escape Rating C+: I loved the original, and this one suffers both in comparison and in the way that my knowledge of the original story turns almost the entirety of this book into foreshadowing of that one instead of feeling compelled to read this one in it’s own right.

Completists will probably love this book. However, while I may usually be a completist it’s just not working for me here. I feel like I already knew enough about what happened at this point in the history, AND it’s really difficult to get into a story knowing when, where, how and why the protagonist will die. And that the death in question isn’t even all that far off.

Even the information that is new to this story, like the plot about the Noble Commonwealth and the Caladan drug, drove me a bit bonkers as I kept expecting one of the Mentats to suggest that there might be a link between the two, but it never happens. Which meant that the “big reveal” wasn’t one to this reader, although it certainly was to entirely too many characters within the story.

But as much as that particular lack of computation felt like a missing piece, overall there were too many pieces, and they repeated too many things I remembered. When I saw the blurb for this book, I was expecting something a lot shorter than what I got. So don’t let the details on Amazon or anywhere else fool you, the Book Depository, and only on the British edition of the book, seems to be the only place that got the correct information. This is NOT a 320 page book. Rather, it just misses being a 420 page book by a hair. Maybe it SHOULD have been a 320 page book. But it isn’t.

Science fiction has been referred to as the “romance of political agency” and this is definitely a book in that mode. It’s all about political chicanery, noble skullduggery, and greed on all sides, with Leto as the one honorable man in the middle of an imperial shitstorm. Readers who are looking for something to either substitute for, whet their appetites for, or tide them over until the next movie version will probably enjoy this. There are plenty of juicy bits.

But it doesn’t live up to the original – or at least not the way that original shines so bright in my memory.

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie HannahThe Killings at Kingfisher Hill: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #4
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“I was thrilled to see Poirot in such very, very good hands.”— Gillian Flynn, New York Times bestselling author of Gone Girl
The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot—the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile—returns in a delectably twisty mystery.
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?

My Review:

This is the 4th book in the New Hercule Poirot mystery series, and I have to say that the longer this new Poirot series goes on, the more I sympathize with Inspector Edward Catchpool.

Not that there were many sympathetic characters in this particular entry in the series. Not even Poirot. And that’s not a good thing for a story where he is the main character.

Not that a book can’t have a frustrating or unappealing central character, but that’s not who or what Poirot is supposed to be. His quirks – his many, many quirks – are supposed to be familiar and endearing. And they usually are.

I say this as someone whose enduring memories of Poirot are from the portrayal by David Suchet and not from Christie’s original work, of which I’ve read a few but not exhaustively. It’s Suchet’s portrait of the little Belgian detective as a quirky genius that sticks in the mind. Not just for the stories and the settings, which were marvelous, but for the twinkle in the eye that his Poirot seemed to have, particularly when his idiosyncrasies were otherwise at their most annoying.

It’s something I’ve seen in the previous books in this series, and I certainly heard Suchet’s voice uttering many of Poirot’s lines in the earlier books. But this time the illusion fell apart.

The device for these new stories is that Poirot has taken on the role of mentor to a young Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Edward Catchpool. It’s very different from the role he occupied in regards to his original partners in either the books or the TV series, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Inspector Japp. While none of those mentioned had nearly Poirot’s genius, they all seemed to be his contemporaries in age, giving those relationships some level of equality that the young Catchpool cannot aspire to.

And this is a case where Poirot is at his most mysterious and impenetrable, deriding Catchpool at every turn while withholding the information that the man needs to even begin to figure out what is going on. The scene where Catchpool is freezing in a swimming pool while Poirot insists that he make his report before permitting him to get out of the pool and dry off, meanwhile telling Catchpool how stupid he is to be swimming in the first place seemed a bridge too far for even Poirot’s insensitivity to anything but the processes of his “little grey cells”.

It does not help that in this particular mystery, none of the potential murderers are remotely sympathetic – and most of their motives and actions don’t make nearly enough sense. They’re not quite as terrible as the Thrombey family in Knives Out, but they’re not far off that mark, either.

And the Thrombey family, as hateful as they were, generally had motives that were both clear and comprehendible. Reprehensible, but understandable. That didn’t feel true in this story. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the suspects, as that the reasons they acted as they did just did not ring true.

The rich may be different than you and me, and the past may be another country where they do things differently, but human beings are just not this different.

Escape Rating C: This may be a “fair play” mystery, where the reader has all of the same clues as the detective, but it felt like neither fair nor play. The only character I felt for, or who felt like a plausible human being, was the much-put-upon Catchpool, who is all too aware of the situation that he has been placed in, caught between his superintendent’s belief in Poirot’s detective genius and Poirot’s need to expound that genius at someone he believes needs his expert guidance. Not that Catchpool doesn’t need seasoning and experience, but all I did in this outing was feel sorry for him.

Obviously, this was not my favorite in this series. I found the others charming and comforting, reading like continuations of the TV series. I enjoyed them enough that I’ll be back for the next in the series in the hopes that it returns to its original form.

Review: The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham

Review: The Rakess by Scarlett PeckhamThe Rakess (Society of Sirens, #1) by Scarlett Peckham
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Society of Sirens #1
Pages: 400
Published by Avon on April 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Meet the SOCIETY OF SIRENS—three radical, libertine ladies determined to weaponize their scandalous reputations to fight for justice and the love they deserve…
She's a Rakess on a quest for women's rights…


Seraphina Arden's passions include equality, amorous affairs, and wild, wine-soaked nights. To raise funds for her cause, she's set to publish explosive memoirs exposing the powerful man who ruined her. Her ideals are her purpose, her friends are her family, and her paramours are forbidden to linger in the morning.

He's not looking for a summer lover…

Adam Anderson is a wholesome, handsome, widowed Scottish architect, with two young children, a business to protect, and an aversion to scandal. He could never, ever afford to fall for Seraphina. But her indecent proposal—one month, no strings, no future—proves too tempting for a man who strains to keep his passions buried with the losses of his past.

But one night changes everything...

What began as a fling soon forces them to confront painful secrets—and yearnings they thought they'd never have again. But when Seraphina discovers Adam's future depends on the man she's about to destroy, she must decide what to protect…her desire for justice, or her heart.

My Review:

So many people love this book, including the friends who recommended it to me. I feel sad, because I just…didn’t. No matter how much I really, really wanted to.

I have to admit that I started out being put off by the title. There are plenty of ways to subvert the rake trope without making up horrible feminine versions of the word. I’ve even read some of them. So I was turned off before I started. But I persevered.

The idea behind the story seems to be that men are celebrated for being sexual predators, while women are excoriated for being the victims of that predation, whether willingly or not. And it’s still true. Men with lots of conquests are envied, while women are slut-shamed for even a few.

So there was the thought going in that the protagonist of this story, Seraphina Arden, would be a sex-positive historical heroine. But she’s not all that positive, although there’s plenty of sex. While she certainly enjoys sex a LOT more than unmarried women traditionally do in historical romance, she’s mostly using sex – and alcohol, a whole lot of alcohol – to forget just how miserable she is.

Admittedly, she may not ALWAYS be miserable. But she’s taken herself off to her childhood home, where she was bullied, abused and eventually disowned because she let a man seduce her, in order to write her memoirs. So she’s put herself in a position to be reminded of a terrible time in her past, among people who vilify her because she refused to conform to the stereotype of a “fallen woman”, and she’s unhappy where she is because anyone would be, and drinking to forget her misery. Along with seducing her neighbor, who is, after a token resistance, more than willing to be seduced.

Her goals are more than laudable. She wants to create an educational institution for women. She wants educational reform, so that women can live independently and up to their full potential. She also wants legal reform, so that husbands (and fathers) don’t own their wives and daughters. So that her friend and mentor can’t be committed to a lunatic asylum by her jealous husband because she has taken up the cause of reform and therefore must, by definition, be insane.

And hysterical. If that doesn’t remind readers that the condition of “hysteria” was named for the Greek word for uterus because, in the minds of so-called rational men, only women suffered from ungovernable emotional excess.

Now she’s got me doing it, getting up on a soapbox to rant. Not that these subjects and these injustices don’t deserve a rant, but Sera’s internal angst isn’t the place for it, and neither is this review.

Dammit.

The portrayal of female friendship, that Sera and her two friends, a celebrated female artist and an equally celebrated courtesan, have banded together to rescue their friend and mentor from her unjust imprisonment is awesome. But it takes way too long to get there.

Sera spends the first 2/3rds of the book moldering in a decaying house, drinking to keep herself from writing, seducing her neighbor to keep herself from thinking – or writing , afraid of the neighbors who are posting scurrilous caricatures on her gate and leaving dead birds for her to worry over. She’s a mess.

Not that most rakes weren’t something of a mess underneath – but not this much. She’s a flawed heroine, which is great, but her flaws just stopped being interesting to me because it took her so long to even start working on them. Which would be true to real life, but not all that fascinating to read.

Escape Rating C: This is so much of a YMMV review. There are LOTS of people who love this book, and its plot and themes certainly have great possibilities. It just didn’t work for me. It really didn’t.

And the whole “rescue woman from an asylum she’s been committed to by her husband” worked much better in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, even though, or especially because, the woman being rescued was a vampire!

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

Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady HendrixThe Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, vampires
Pages: 404
Published by Quirk Books on April 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Fried Green Tomatoes and "Steel Magnolias" meet Dracula in this Southern-flavored supernatural thriller set in the '90s about a women's book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.
Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia's life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they're more likely to discuss the FBI's recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.
But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club's meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he's a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she--and her book club--are the only people standing between the monster they've invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Review: Clone Hunter by Victor Methos

Guest Review: Clone Hunter by Victor MethosClone Hunter by Victor Methos
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Clone Rebellion Chronicles #1
Pages: 366
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on August 19, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteBook Depository
Goodreads

Born in a laboratory for war or pleasure, they live as slaves, unable to fight those that oppress them . . . all, except one.

A single clone is no longer willing to live in slavery and has declared war on those that would subjugate her.

Hunted by the most powerful men in existence and a threat to the social order, if she wants her freedom she must fight her way through bounty hunters, war machines, and the deadliest enemy of all: her own kind . . .

Guest Review by Amy:

Clones were created quite some time back, to be super-soldiers. But what do you do with your super-soldiers when the war is over? It’s a theme that’s been explored again and again, and in this case, the clones become — servants. Slaves. It’s a problem that won’t last forever, you see, because they can’t breed.

Except, at least one can. The Powers That Be want her dead, and trying to gun her down with a human assassin just won’t work, so they program and send one of her own. And there’s a clone rebellion brewing, to top it off.

Escape Rating C: We have here a sci-fi action/adventure, with a premise that fans of the genre have seen more than once, I’m sure. And to tell the truth, I was looking forward to seeing how this variation got handled.

There’s action a-plenty, with enough plot twists to keep me reading through a three-hour flight, and the cast of characters are all pretty interesting people in their own right. It’s a bit unclear who the heroes and villains are at the outset, and to my mind, it’s never entirely certain who the “good guys” are, or if they’ll save the day. The clones are fighting a one-world-government for their freedom, and apparently there are more than a few who could breed, given the opportunity, and there’s a big-time planetbuster bomb hidden away somewhere…

I wanted to say I enjoyed this book, and indeed, it has all the ingredients for a tasty, straightforward sci-fi read. But it has some rather-massive mechanical problems, in my mind. First off, we see the world from no less than five different viewpoints during the book. Yes, each chapter was titled with the name of the person whose head we’re inhabiting, but after a while, it got a little tiring, with all the switchee-swapee. Additionally, since we frequently cover the same event from two (or more!) viewpoints, it comes off as repetitive and tiring, especially since those events are often the most-violent in the book.

If we’d seen snippets of things that interlaced and came together for one big finale, as in John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet? I’d have been a lot happier with this interaction. (Editor’sNote: John M. Ford was a genius who didn’t write nearly enough and was taken much too soon.) While that story was a multiple point-of-view comedy-of-errors (in the Star Trek universe!) that led us to a hilarious conclusion, this one was just an error, without any comedy, and with a whole lot of seriously savage killing and violence replayed for us, over and over. Methos’ habit of multiple first-person views result in an awful lot of sentences starting with “I,” and frankly, it makes the multiple point-of-view construction of the book come off as cheap and poorly written.

There are apparently more books set in this world, but I won’t be hunting them down for a read. This book and the series from which it comes might be your cup of tea, but it wasn’t mine, regrettably.

 

Review: The Lying Room by Nicci French

Review: The Lying Room by Nicci FrenchThe Lying Room by Nicci French
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 1, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

One little secret between a married woman, her lover, and a killer.

It should have been just a mid-life fling. A guilty indiscretion that Neve Connolly could have weathered. An escape from twenty years of routine marriage to her overworked husband, and from her increasingly distant children. But when Neve pays a morning-after visit to her lover, Saul, and finds him brutally murdered, their pied-à-terre still heady with her perfume, all the lies she has so painstakingly stitched together threaten to unravel.

After scrubbing clean every trace of her existence from Saul’s life—and death—Neve believes she can return to normal, shaken but intact. But she can’t get out of her head the one tormenting question: what was she forgetting?

An investigation into the slaying could provide the answer. It’s brought Detective Chief Inspector Alastair Hitching, and Neve’s worst fears, to her door. But with every new lie, every new misdirection to save herself, Neve descends further into the darkness of her betrayal—and into more danger than she ever imagined. Because Hitching isn’t the only one watching Neve. So is a determined killer who’s about to make the next terrifying move in a deadly affair….

My Review:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Sir Walter Scott said that back in 1806 in his poem Marmion, but the phrase has become a cliche because it is just so demonstrably true so very often. Mark Twain put it another way, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” And he was equally right.

Neve Connolly should have taken both of those phrases to heart long before she decided to clean up her lover’s apartment. She tried her level best to erase herself from the man’s life – before someone else finds his murdered body. Along with the truth about their affair.

Neve begins the story as discontentedly married and disappointingly approaching middle age. Her lover, who was also married and also, in an entirely different cliche, her boss, is dead. She goes to his flat (the story takes place in contemporary London which does turn out to be important later), thinking they’re about to have a tryst, only to discover him dead on the floor with his head bashed in.

She didn’t do it, but someone certainly did.

And this is the point where Neve’s life goes completely pear-shaped – but not in the way that it should have.

She thinks she can erase herself from her lover’s apartment by cleaning the place within an inch of it’s – or actually her – life. While the corpse is lying on the floor of the living room. That she is probably erasing evidence of the murderer doesn’t seem to enter either her conscience or her consciousness. Her only motivation is protecting herself from the way that her life would implode if the affair was discovered.

But no one in a panic is thinking as clearly as someone would need to be to get themselves out from under a scenario with this much potential for self-destruction. The situation should backfire on Neve.

And it sort of does – but not in any way that she ever could have expected.

Escape Rating C+: I picked up The Lying Room because I really enjoyed the author’s Frieda Klein series and hoped that this standalone would have the same kind of taut excellence. (If you are interested, start with Blue Monday and proceed through the rest of the days of the week!)

But one of the things that I liked about Frieda Klein’s series was the character of Frieda Klein herself. Because Frieda Klein is an intelligent protagonist – and also because while she may sometimes be misled and she’s certainly someone to whom terrible things happen through no fault of her own – she’s never stupid and she never gets herself into stupid situations.

When she does defy the police – and she sometimes does – it’s both for a good reason and we expect her to succeed long enough to accomplish her goals.

As the protagonist, Neve drove me crazy. I just didn’t like her and didn’t want to be in her head. On the other hand, I passionately dislike her, so the author definitely got me involved.

But seriously, she’s unhappy at home – for reasons that are easy to empathize with – and takes the easy way out of having an affair to spice up her life rather than rock the boat at home. And as a reader I could see why she made those choices.

I fell off the “understand” wagon when she didn’t put on her big girl panties and deal with the results of her actions, as horrible as those results were. There are lots of cliches about people who have affairs secretly wanting to get caught in order to bring whatever the crisis in their home life is out into the open. How true that cliche is, well, who knows?

But I found the results of her actions contradictory. She just didn’t act smart enough to fool the police – but she managed to do so anyway. And that in spite of something that the UK readers of this book have pointed out repeatedly. Contemporary London is one of the cities most saturated with CCTV in the world. This story takes place in Central London but none of the police ever attempt to consult CCTV to discover the killer. They suspect Neve but never look at the CCTV to see if she was at the victim’s apartment or not. It’s not that there was a catastrophic and coincidental failure of the CCTV in one way or another – it’s that they never try.

Instead, it seems like the police inspector in charge of the case turns into Neve’s stalker. Or should I say Neve’s second stalker? Because it seemed obvious to this reader from the earliest parts of the book, even before Neve discovers that corpse, that someone is stalking her.

Who the stalker is – and their motivations for following her, assaulting her and trying to put her in the frame for the murder – did turn out to be surprises. But that someone was there was not. It was just a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In the end, I found this one disappointing, especially in comparison to the Frieda Klein series. But it’s staying in my head a fairly long time in that disappointment, so perhaps infuriating is closer to the mark. As always, your reading mileage may vary. Considerably.

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Review: Hell Squad: Griff by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Griff by Anna HackettGriff (Hell Squad #17) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: post apocalyptic, science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #17
Pages: 186
Published by Anna Hackett on March 19th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

As the battle against the invading aliens intensifies, a group of bad boy bikers and mercenaries will stand and fight for humanity’s survival…

Squad Three berserker Griff lived through hell long before the alien invasion. Once, he’d been a dedicated cop, but then in a gut-wrenching betrayal, he ended up behind bars in a supermax prison. After the aliens invaded, he managed to escape and join the soldiers fighting back…and came face to face with his best friend’s little sister—the bold, vibrant, off-limits woman he’s always wanted. Now the beautiful, tattooed Indy is his squad’s comms officer…and she hates his guts.

Indy Bennett lost her parents and brother in the alien attack, and every day, she vows to suck the marrow out of life. She’s also doing her bit in the fight, as Squad Three’s comms officer, even if it means seeing the man who broke her young heart. Griff was once her brother’s best friend, a boy she adored, but now she knows she needs to steer clear of the hard-edged man who still draws her like a moth to a flame.

Griff vows to claim Indy as his. The only problem is, Indy is having none of it. As their fiery attraction explodes, they find themselves embroiled in the hunt for the aliens’ unexplained octagon weapon, and a mysterious survivor town where all is not what it seems. Both Griff and Indy will have to learn to let go of the hurts of the past if they have any chance of not just surviving, but having a future.

My Review:

This is going to be a mixed feelings review, because my feelings about Griff are very mixed. Or rather, my feelings about the Hell Squad series in general and Griff’s relationship with Indy in particular are more than a bit mixed.

And I’m feeling conflicted because my feelings about this author’s work usually fall much higher on the “like to love” range, and this one just didn’t work for me. So there’s a bit of sad there as well.

Griff is the OMG 17th book in the Hell Squad series. The setup is post-apocalyptic, with the apocalypse being very specific and extremely recent. A race of alien-dinosaur-raptor hybrids have invaded a very near future Earth and wrecked the joint.

The Gizzida initially came to strip the planet and take all its resources, including the humans. There’s more than a bit of Borg in the Gizzida as they don’t merely wipe out the populations of the planets they invade, they use genetic engineering to convert both the human and animal populations into more of themselves.

The series follows one group of human survivors. This particular bunch were in Australia when the Gizzida took over (most but not all are Aussies), holed up in a remote military installation and have been sticking it to the Gizzida as much and as often as they can in some rather effective guerrilla warfare.

As the series has progressed, key members of the population of “The Enclave” have managed to grab their bit of happiness in spite of the destruction all around them. Life really does go on.

This particular story features Griff Callan, a member of one of the squads that brings that guerrilla warfare to the Gizzida, and Indy Bennett, the communications officer for his squad. Griff and Indy knew each other before the disaster. Her brother was his best friend until their relationship went seriously pear-shaped long before the aliens invaded.

They’ve always loved each other, but have never been in a place where they could admit it. They grew up together, but Indy was just younger enough to have made any possibility of romance seriously skeevy. And once she was old enough, well, there was that whole “bro code” that makes your best friend’s little sister untouchable – no matter how much she wants to be touched.

Which doesn’t mean that Griff didn’t break her heart with his refusal. And he’s scared he’ll break it again before they have any chance at all.

But it’s a chance he’s finally willing to take. If the aliens don’t take them both out first.

Escape Rating C+: Whenever I see a character named Indiana I hear Sean Connery’s voice from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade complaining to his son Indy, “We named the dog Indiana.” Clearly at least one of Indy Bennett’s parents was a fan.

Speaking of fans, while I am definitely a fan of this author’s work, I was not a fan of this particular story. I love the premise of this series, so if you like post-apocalyptic where the heroes get to stick it to the ones who brought that apocalypse, the series is generally a blast. The first book is wrapped around the romance between the leader of the Hell Squad (Marcus) and HIS communications officer.

And thereby sits a chunk of why I have such mixed feelings about this particular entry. It’s not that there ARE patterns in the stories, because all stories of all types follow patterns. It’s that the specific patterns used in this series repeat themselves, and over 17 books those repeats are becoming a bit too obvious for this reader.

I fully recognize that those very same patterns are what make many people love this series – no matter how long it goes.

The story here, and frequently throughout the series, is that the couple in question finally acknowledge both that life in the Enclave with the Gizzida sniping at them is WAY too short, and that they have feelings for the other person that they have refused to acknowledge because one party, usually the male, thinks he’s not good enough for the female. Although that’s been reversed a couple of times and I’ve liked those better.

In this particular case, the reason that Griff is certain Indy won’t want to be with him is pretty damning, but it was also obvious from the get-go. And it felt like she got over it way too fast considering how important it was. (I’m trying not to give it away.)

After the couple finally acknowledges their feelings, they face a situation where the female has to go into battle with the squad, and she is either captured or nearly so. The male has to ride to the rescue, incurring life threatening injuries. They forgive whatever caused any tension between them during his recovery and then live happily for now.

This series really can’t include a happily ever after, not because of the internal dynamics of the couples in each story, but because the Gizzida make any “ever after” extremely tenuous at the moment.

In the case of this particular story, the scenes where Griff finally declares his intentions involve him carrying her out of meetings in a fireman’s carry, with her protesting all the way. It felt like his need to mark his territory was more important than her need to be professional and part of the team that is, after all, trying to save the world.

I felt it took away from her agency. YMMV.

My other issue with the series as a whole is that it’s just taking too long for the Enclave and their allies around the world to kick the Gizzida off our Earth. Ironically, it hasn’t been all THAT long within the scope of this world, but 17 is a lot of books. There’s been some progress towards their overall goal, but I’ve become impatient waiting for it to finally happen. And that’s affecting my enjoyment of the individual series entries at this point.

That being said, I still love Anna Hackett’s writing, and I’m eagerly anticipating her next book, Heart of Eon. I found her first in her space opera SFR, and it’s still where I love her best. Not that the Galactic Gladiators haven’t also carved out a piece of my heart – but I’ll have to wait longer to get back to Kor Magna.

Review: The True Queen by Zen Cho

Review: The True Queen by Zen ChoThe True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) by Zen Cho
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Sorcerer Royal #2
Pages: 384
Published by Ace Books on March 12, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the follow-up to the "delightful" regency fantasy novel (NPR.org) Sorcerer to the Crown, a young woman with no memories of her past finds herself embroiled in dangerous politics in England and the land of the fae.

When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.

If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.

My Review:

Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favorite books of 2015. From the joint review Lou and I did at The Book Pushers in 2015, it’s pretty obvious that it was one of her favorites too. The hoped for sequel has been on my most anticipated list ever since.

That long awaited sequel has finally arrived in the manifestation of The True Queen. I wanted to love this book. I expected to love this book. And I’m SO disappointed that I didn’t.

It’s not a bad book. It certainly has some interesting moments. But, and in this case it’s a very large but, it just doesn’t have the same verve as the first. Sorcerer to the Crown was epically readable, because there’s just so much going on from the very first page.

Definitely on the other hand, The True Queen just doesn’t have that compulsive readability.

Instead, the first half of the book plods. It’s slow. Not much seems to happen.

Part of that is that we need to be re-introduced to this world and its characters. 2015 was a long time ago, even if not much time has passed within the series.

But a lot of it is that the protagonists of The True Queen are passive, where the protagonists of Sorcerer to the Crown were both very active participants in the story. Instead, one of the main characters of The True Queen is fridged for a big chunk of the story. And while Sakti is frequently annoying, especially to her sister Muna, she is also the more active of the pair.

Of the sisters, Sakti is proactive – even if usually wrongheaded – while Muna is reactive. Unfortunately, it’s Muna the passive that we end up following for the first half of the story. And while Sakti always overestimates her capabilities, Muna underestimates hers. As a consequence, Sakti is the one who makes things happen – even if they are often the wrong thing.

Muna usually cleans up after Sakti. Without Sakti around to push her, she spends a lot of time waiting for something to happen, for someone to help her, or for the situation to become clear.

The two very active protagonists of Sorcerer to the Queen are relegated to background roles, and the story misses their drive immensely. Instead, the true standout character in The True Queen is Prunella’s shy and retiring friend Henrietta.

About halfway through the book, once all of the situations are set, the action finally kicks into gear. That’s the point where Henrietta finally takes her courage into her hands, and Muna sets plans in motion to rescue her sister instead of waiting for someone else to tell her what do it and how to do it.

From the point where the action moves to the court of the capricious Queen of Fairy, the situation becomes both more interesting and more dangerous. Not just because Henrietta manages to find out what she’s really made of, but because Muna takes the lead and figures out who she really is and what she’s been meant to be all along.

Escape Rating C+: This is a book that does reward sticking with it, but it takes a lot of stick. The action does not really get going until the book is half over, and that’s a lot of set up. In the end, it makes sense that Muna is as passive and reactive as she is – but it still makes The True Queen a disappointment in comparison with its predecessor. And I’m so, so sorry about that.

Review: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Review: The Raven Tower by Ann LeckieThe Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 432
Published by Orbit on February 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Gods meddle in the fates of men, men play with the fates of gods, and a pretender must be cast down from the throne in this breathtaking first fantasy novel from Ann Leckie, New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven's Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven's watch, the city flourishes.

But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo--aide to Mawat, the true Lease--arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven's Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself...and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.

My Review:

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore” and that’s pretty much how I feel about this book. Quote me as disappointed. I expected so much from this book after the awesome Imperial Radch series – but I did not get it. And damn but I’m sad about that.

The story is, for the most part, a familiar one. The heir to the kingdom returns from service at a contested border. He’s received a message that his father the king is dying, and he needs to be back in the capitol to see him one last time and for the handover of power.

But when he enters the capitol he discovers that nothing is as its supposed to be. His father is missing and his uncle has taken the throne, seemingly peacefully and with the full agreement of the other power brokers in the kingdom.

In spite of the kingdom being more of a theocracy than a kingdom, where the ruler is not called king but is the voice of the local godling for as long as he lives, the story is one that has been done before.

This is where it should get interesting, because we see the story not from the perspective of either the “king” or the “prince” or even the “prince’s” aide, but from the perspective of a local godling who has seen it all.

In fact, the story is being told by the godling, both to the reader in its first-person perspective, and to the aide in the second person. So the godling tells big parts of the story as “I” and other parts as “you”.

One of the things this author is known for is her inventive uses of voice, but this particular variation, while technically interesting, and more than a bit meta, is distancing for the reader, who is not, after all, the aide.

(That would make this self-insert fanfiction and I don’t even want to go there. Or even in the region of there.)

The godling’s first person narrative actually works better than the second-person narrative – at least we know what the godling is thinking and where it’s coming from – even if it is just a big rock and doesn’t move.

But, and it is a very big but, the godling’s perspective begins at the beginning of time in this world and comes to the present day in its own good time. After all, as a big rock, that has sentience but has chosen not to have mobility – it has nothing but time and takes the long view of everything.

The feeling I got as a reader was as if James Michener decided to write fantasy, as many of his longer books (Centennial, Alaska, etc.), start with the rocks, and move through the geologic and prehistoric ages much as The Raven Tower does. I loved his books, but I was always grateful when the first animals would appear because it finally gave me a perspective I could almost identify with. Not to mention the plot usually started to move at that point – along with the animals.

I should be saying “I digress” at this point, but it doesn’t feel like I did. Make of that what you will.

Escape Rating C: I wanted to like this so much, and I just didn’t. The experiment with voice was interesting but distancing rather than compelling as it was in Ancillary Justice. The injection of the godling’s perspective allowed for a fascinating bit of deus ex machina at the end, involving a quite literal deus, but it takes a LONG time to get there and not nearly enough happens along the way.

There was so much that could have been done here. A lot is said about the way that words have power, and it’s interesting and different but also adds to the distancing. The godling has learned that its words have the power of truth in that if it says something that is not true its power will be sacrificed to make it true. If it says a large or impossible truth, that sacrifice may consume all of its power.

As a consequence, much of its own story is told with the preface, “Here is a story that I have heard.” so that it never runs the risk of claiming that something is true that is not. While this is logically consistent from its perspective within the context of the story, it does add a layer of remove to the storytelling.

In the end, interesting but neither compelling nor absorbing. I will say that the reviews vary widely. Those that love it really, really love it. Those that don’t really, really don’t and there’s not much middle ground. If you like experimental fiction or metafiction in your fantasy, give it a try and see what you think.

Review: Seasons of Sorcery by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jennifer Estep and Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Seasons of Sorcery by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jennifer Estep and Jeffe KennedySeasons of Sorcery : A Fantasy Anthology by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jeffe Kennedy, Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy romance
Pages: 410
Published by Brightlynx on November 13, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

WINTER'S WEB BY JENNIFER ESTEP

An assassin at a renaissance faire. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, if you’re Gin Blanco. This Spider is trapped in someone else’s icy web—and it seems like they don’t want her to leave the faire alive . . .

 A WILDERNESS OF GLASS BY GRACE DRAVEN

 The stretch of sea known as the Gray rules the lives of those in the village of Ancilar, including widow Brida Gazi. In the aftermath of an autumn storm, Brida discovers one of the sea's secrets cast onto the shore—a discovery that will change her world, mend her soul, and put her in the greatest danger she's ever faced.

 A CURSE FOR SPRING BY AMANDA BOUCHET

 A malevolent spell strangles the kingdom of Leathen in catastrophic drought. Prince Daric must break the curse before his people starve. A once-mighty goddess trapped in a human body might be the key—but saving his kingdom could mean losing all that he loves.

 THE DRAGONS OF SUMMER BY JEFFE KENNEDY

 As unofficial consort to the High Queen, former mercenary Harlan Konyngrr faces a challenge worse than looming war and fearsome dragons. His long-held secrets threaten what he loves most—and he must make a choice between vows to two women.

My Review:

Jeffe Kennedy seems to be participating in one of these fantasy romance anthologies every year, because that’s where I get them from. There’s always a story from her awesome Twelve Kingdoms series, and I’d get the whole thing for that alone. But the other stories are frequently awesome, occasionally even awesomer, so I’m glad to collect the set!

Seasons of Sorcery contains four fantasy romance novellas, all but one set in its author’s ongoing series.

Winter’s Web by Jennifer Estep is set in her Elemental Assassin series, which I haven’t read – or at least not yet. The story takes place at a Renaissance Faire in an urban fantasy-type world where magic exists but seems to be mostly, but not totally, hidden in plain sight. As I said, I haven’t read this series, but I still enjoyed the story. The Ren Faire setting always provides an interesting backdrop for urban fantasy, and this story is no exception. I suspect that the story didn’t have quite the resonance for me as it would for readers who are familiar with the series, but it still worked well and I didn’t feel lost at all. I liked it more than enough to put this series on the towering TBR pile!

Escape Rating for Winter’s Web: B+

Although A Wilderness of Glass by Grace Draven is set in her Wraith Kings world, which I have not read, the setting felt awfully familiar. Only because it was. This story is set in the same town and among the same people as Night Tide, her fantastic story in Teeth Long and Sharp. A story that I loved.

I didn’t find this story to be quite as good as Night Tide, possibly because it was a bit too reminiscent of The Shape of Water. Albeit with a slightly different version of the happy ending. At least as far as we know.

Escape Rating for A Wilderness of Glass: B

There’s nearly always one story in a collection that doesn’t work for me. It’s the nature of collections that you get to sample authors you may not be familiar with, but might like because they are like someone you already do.

Not that any fantasy romance reader is not familiar with Amanda Bouchet and her terrific Kingmaker Chronicles!

But A Curse for Spring by Amanda Bouchet is the story in this collection that just didn’t work for me. Which is ironic because it is the one story that is not in a previously created world of any kind. For this reader, the problem with this story was that it felt too obvious. It seemed clear from the very beginning what was going on, who was responsible, and how the problem was going to get solved. I kept wanting the story to either just get on with it or go someplace interesting – but it did neither.

Escape Rating for A Curse for Spring: C

Last but definitely not least, The Dragons of Summer by Jeffe Kennedy. This is the story that I got this collection for, and it did not disappoint – although it did occasionally infuriate – but in a good way.

This story is set in Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series. While it seems to take place directly after The Arrows of the Heart, much of the emotional heft of the story comes from its relationship to the heroine of her Chronicles of Dasnaria series. The long shadow cast by the lost Dasnarian princess Jenna still looms over her brothers Harlan and Kral. Neither of them know their sister’s fate, but both had a hand in setting her on her path.

It’s not just her brothers that are ignorant of whether Jenna is alive or dead. The final book in that series, Warrior of the World, is due out on January 8. I’ve never been so glad to have an ARC! It’s not so much that either the previous story, Exile of the Seas, or this short story end in a cliffhanger as that it is now obvious that Jenna’s fate is going to be the key that resolves EVERYTHING in both series.

It’s just the kind of ginormous wrap-up that makes readers salivate waiting for the next book in the series. But it also means that this story, of all the stories in the collection, is the one that really only makes sense if you’ve followed the series. And if you love fantasy romance and you haven’t read the series, what on earth are you waiting for? Begin your journey with The Mark of the Tala, and settle in for a marvelous read.

Escape Rating for The Dragons of Summer: A