Review: Boss Witch by Ann Aguirre

Review: Boss Witch by Ann AguirreBoss Witch (Fix-It Witches #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal romance
Series: Fit-It Witches #2
Pages: 368
Published by Sourcecbooks Casablanca on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The second in an adorable witchy rom-com series by New York Times bestselling author Ann Aguirre, perfect for fans of:
Ride-or-die female friendshipsA bisexual heroine who stubbornly refuses to accept helpA hero with an incredibly pesky moral conscienceA mouse named Benson who may or may not have all the answers to life, magic, and love (Spoiler: he does!)
Clementine Waterhouse is a perfectly logical witch. She doesn't tumble headlong into love. Rather she weighs the pros and cons and decides if a relationship is worth pursuing. At least that's always been her modus operandi before. Clem prefers being the one in charge, always the first to walk away when the time is right. Attraction has never struck her like lightning.
Until the witch hunter comes to town.
Gavin Rhys hates being a witch hunter, but his family honor is on the line, and he needs to prove he's nothing like his grandfather, a traitor who let everyone down. But things in St. Claire aren't what they seem, and Gavin is distracted from the job immediately by a bewitching brunette with a sexy smile and haunting secrets in her eyes.
Can the bossiest witch in town find a happy ending with the last person she should ever love?

My Review:

I often begin the review of a second book in a series by speaking about how it picked up where the story left off, but that’s not even accurate here.

Boss Witch picks up in the middle of Witch, Please, showing the reader the events of the second half of that first book from a different perspective in the first half of this one.

So, on the one hand, new readers won’t feel like they’ve missed much by starting here. Howsomever, readers of the previous book may start out wondering WTF is going on and whether we’re going to learn anything new about this charming (in multiple senses of the word) little Midwestern town and the witches who live there, hiding in plain sight among the mundanes.

The switch in perspective from Danica to Clementine Waterhouse, cousins and sisters-of-the-heart, as they deal with the crisis that cropped up in Witch, Please in their very separate ways.

Danica’s magic spiked out of control in that first book, spiking high enough to draw the attention of one of the dreaded – and dreadful – witch hunters. But Clementine has a plan to deal with Witch Hunter Gavin Rhys. (Clementine ALWAYS has a plan, that’s part of her function in the excruciatingly dysfunctional Waterhouse family.)

While Danica is off ‘billing and cooing’ with the love of her life, her magically mundane ‘Cinnaman’, Clementine will do what she’s done all of their lives and clean up her cousin’s mess.

But Clem is tired of being the person who gets ALL the jobs done ALL the time in their family. It’s not about work, the ‘Fix-It Witches’ shop that the cousins share. Well, it isn’t ALL about the work. It’s about Clem being the fixer-upper in their family who has taken charge and gotten the shit that needs doing done since her mother started dumping too many of her adult emotions and woes on her then-teenaged daughter.

As I said, this family is not functional, and they have never put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional in any way, shape or form. Clem is tired, and stressed, and tired of batting clean-up all the time and then getting blamed for ‘hurting’ someone by mentioning that she’s tired of cleaning up after them. She’s a bit blunt and abrasive but she’s earned it. But she sucks it up to keep the peace – and to keep her family from having a meltdown which she will, again, have to soothe and fix.

I feel her pain. (I like Clem. Her family, on the other hand, drives me up a wall.)

So, when Clem volunteers to distract Gavin Rhys from hunting for all the witches in town, starting with her cousin Danica, it starts out as just another thing she has to take care of for everyone else.

When Clem distracting Gavin turns into Clem and Gavin distracting each other, in bed and out, Clem realizes that however it started, her relationship that shouldn’t be has become something that she’s doing just for herself – and just for him. At least until all the secrets start coming out of the woodwork to take down Clem, her coven sisters – and Gavin.

Escape Rating C+: I really need to start picking books this week where I like the characters a whole lot more than I did yesterday and today.

The Waterhouse family of witches absolutely does not put the fun in dysfunctional. The real problem at the core of the family is that Gram is more toxic than the Wicked Witch of the West, and unfortunately a big chunk of the story that repeats between Witch, Please and Boss Witch is the revelation of just how toxic and manipulative Gram really is, and just how much and how often she reaches out to damage and demean every other woman in the family – meaning her daughters and her granddaughters. She’s honestly a greater force for evil than the witch hunters – and is that EVER saying something!

One of the problems I had with Witch, Please is that even after Gram’s lies and manipulations are uncovered, she doesn’t get the comeuppance she deserves. So the story has to deal with it all again in this book, and she still doesn’t take delivery of the message. That left this reader unsatisfied with that part of the story. Again.

OTOH, the witch hunter saga does manage to get surprisingly neatly tied up with a big bow in a way that gives Gavin’s crisis of both conscience and the heart a lot of emotional weight. The way that Gavin’s situation is resolved, both as a witch hunter AND with his own uber-toxic father, was wonderfully cathartic. (If only Gavin’s dad and Clem’s Gram could share a prison cell for a while…)

But on my third hand – the one belonging to my familiar, perhaps – resolving the witch hunter danger at the end of this book, does make the thought of the third book in the series, Extra Witchy, feel more than a bit anticlimactic (no matter how many climaxes the characters manage to experience) – particularly as it looks like the first half of that story runs parallel to the second half of this one.

So, color me curious about how this all works out into HEAs all around. We’ll see when Extra Witchy drops in October.

Review: Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz Bowery

Review: Love, Hate and Clickbait by Liz BoweryLove, Hate & Clickbait by Liz Bowery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, M/M romance
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Politics is shaking hands and kissing coworkers
Cutthroat political consultant Thom Morgan is thriving, working on the governor of California’s presidential campaign. If only he didn’t have to deal with Clay Parker, the infuriatingly smug data analyst who gets under Thom’s skin like it’s his job. In the midst of one of their heated and very public arguments, a journalist snaps a photo, but the image makes it look like they’re kissing. As if that weren’t already worst-nightmare territory, the photo goes viral—and in a bid to secure the liberal vote, the governor asks them to lean into it. Hard.
Thom knows all about damage control—he practically invented it. Ever the professional, he’ll grin and bear this challenge as he does all others. But as the loyal staffers push the boundaries of “giving the people what they want,” the animosity between them blooms into something deeper and far more dangerous: desire. Soon their fake relationship is hurtling toward something very real, which could derail the campaign and cost them both their jobs…and their hearts.

My Review:

“Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much” as he’s tripping over that infinitely (and infamously) fine line between love and hate. Pardon me for mangling Shakespeare and mixing metaphors in the same sentence, but if the shoe fits – or in this case both shoes fit – I’m wearing them.

All three of the titular events happen in this enemies-to-lovers in a fake relationship romance. As the story begins, campaign operative Thom Morgan and pro-level geek Clay Parker are office enemies working on California governor Lennie Westwood’s pre-campaign campaign to become the next president of these United States.

Thom and Clay are office rivals because they are completely opposites. Not that either of them start out exactly likable, but they’re on totally different ends of pretty much any workplace spectrum, and they rub each other the wrong way pretty much just by breathing in each other’s vicinity.

Clay pretty much lets his geek flag fly all the time. He’s a refugee from Silicon Valley and is used to that kind of workstyle – meaning one that may be “working” 24/7 but sometimes that work looks like play and everyone is out to be the biggest nerd.. But he’s also the child of a family that loves him unconditionally and celebrated ALL of his accomplishments ALL the time. So he toots his own horn a lot. Too much. To the point of cringing absurdity – at least as far as Thom is concerned.

Thom, on the other hand, is a shark. Every relationship is calculated for the maximum benefit to him. He’s always dressed to the nines in a style appropriate to the event. He’s all about making his candidate look good so that he can make himself look good. But he’s from a family that treated him like a cuckoo in their cozy suburban nest. It’s not that anyone hated him, it’s that no one truly saw him or was there for him because he was just so different. He’s a version of Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties, but one that was neither supported nor even accepted by his family. He’s used to taking on protective coloration, not to blend in but just to get by.

The campaign that Thom and Clay are working on is in trouble, seemingly constantly, by huge gaffes committed by both the governor/candidate and her dysfunctional family. When Lennie is recorded making an off-the-cuff remark that the reason her hair isn’t properly styled is because there are no gays on her campaign staff, the liberal voters that her campaign is courting are up in arms.

The campaign’s answer is to have Thom and Clay pose as a gay couple working for the campaign. A candid video of them has been posted having an ugly argument that looks like it’s about to morph into throwing each other on the ground for sex instead of the kicking and punching that nearly happened for real. Twitter and Insta are both loving the picture, to the point where OMG fanfic is starting up.

With their jobs on the line, the enemies reluctantly agree to not just a temporary truce, but a fake relationship for the inevitable cameras. From both their perspectives, the whole thing is so implausible they can’t imagine it will work.

But it has to. And surprisingly, it does – at least as far as social media is concerned. Whether it can possibly save the campaign is an entirely other matter…

Escape Rating C+: This is a story that threatens to go completely off the rails at multiple points. It never quite does, but it toes that line awfully, awfully hard in multiple ways and multiple directions.

As unlikable as both Thom and Clay are in the beginning, once I got into the story it became clear that Clay’s behavior was a result of not knowing the work culture and feeling out of his depth and a bit insecure. Once he got a bit more settled the things that made him annoying smoothed out quite a bit. So I ended up feeling FOR him considerably more than I did Thom – not that in the beginning Thom seems to have any feelings whatsoever.

OTOH, Thom is both cold-blooded and narcissistic from jump, and it takes a long time for him to change and for the reader to see what is really motivating his shark-like behavior. While it was easy to see that Clay, for all his faults, was the kind of person who could give themselves in a relationship. With Thom I had to wonder if he was capable of having a real relationship of any kind with anyone but himself. He starts out with no real friends, no family (either birth or found) and no real romantic interests.

That the campaign required them to fake a romantic relationship, and that they agreed to do so, may be the trope that powers the story, but it crossed so far over so many lines that it was hard to take even though agreeing to the pretense felt very much in Thom’s wheelhouse if not Clay’s. Even though Thom is the one that has ALL the objections, mostly because he isn’t shy about pointing out that he’s “lowering his standards” to date someone like Clay.

I could see Clay falling for Thom if he was willing to let his heart sliced into bloody chunks, but that happens. People fall in love with all sorts of people who they either know or refuse to admit are either bad for them or just plain terrible.

What was harder to believe was the way that Thom slowly – very slowly – let some of his walls down. Even if he couldn’t admit to himself he was doing it. Thom’s in denial until the very end, and even then he’s more than a bit of a douche about it. Which fits his personality to a T. Even as much as Thom is dragged, kicking and screaming, into being a real human being, his redemption was a bit too pat.

But the hardest part of this story is the political shark tank they operate in. We all know that politics is a dirty business and is the epitome of the old joke about not wanting to see how the sausage is made. In fiction, especially in a romance, I think we want to see a few less of the warts that surround the process. Or more consequences for those warts. Or we want our heroes to be heroes and our villains to be villains and that’s not what happens here. Or, perhaps, all of the above.

Lennie Westwood is a piece of work, for all the negative connotations of that phrase. Thom’s colleague Felicia seems to still think that politics can do some good for people, but she’s generally a realist and a pragmatist. That Felicia sees the excesses of Westwood’s behavior and STILL thinks that getting the woman elected POTUS is her best chance at making a positive difference in people’s lives feels disingenuous at best and self-sabotage at worst. Or Felicia is playing everyone for a fool, including, quite possibly, herself.

To make a rather long story short, I ended up with extremely mixed feelings about Love, Hate & Clickbait. As much as I love both enemies-to-lovers and fake relationship romances, this one didn’t quite gel for me. As always, your reading mileage may vary.

Review: An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets

Review: An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara SheetsAn Impossible Promise: A Novel by Jude Deveraux
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, time travel romance
Series: Providence Falls #2
Pages: 288
Published by Mira on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

They can’t be together, but they can’t stay apart…
Liam O’Connor has one purpose in this life—to push the woman he loves into the arms of another man. The Irish rogue unknowingly changed the course of destiny when he fell in love with Cora McLeod over a century ago. Their passion was intense, brief and tragic. And the angels have been trying to restore the balance of fate ever since.
Now police officers in Providence Falls, North Carolina, Liam and Cora are partners on a murder investigation. The intensity of the case has drawn them closer together—exactly what Liam is supposed to avoid. The angels have made it clear Cora must be with Finley Walsh. But headstrong Cora makes her own decisions and she’s starting to have feelings for Liam—the only thing he’s ever really wanted.
Liam knows this is the last chance to save his soul. But does he love Cora enough to let her go?
Providence Falls
Book 1: Chance of a Lifetime

My Review:

Okay, I’m hooked. Also confused, frustrated and annoyed – but hooked. I have to find out how this whole soap opera turns out.

Which constitutes fair warning on two counts. Count number one, that the insane story begun in Chance of a Lifetime does NOT conclude in An Impossible Promise. Count number two, this series is one story broken up into chapters, not two separate stories with some kind of link between them. In other words, you have to start at the beginning and it’s not done yet.

The third book isn’t even announced yet. Hence both the frustration AND the annoyance. I want to know how this is all going to get resolved – if only to find out if ANY of my guesses are right. And I need to know that the answers will be forthcoming at hopefully the not too distant future, but at least at some fixed date in the future.

Let me explain, which isn’t going to be easy because this story, at least so far, completely broke my willing suspension of disbelief meter and then set it on fire. This story needs resolution in the hopes that at the end it will all make sense.

The concept for the whole thing, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the series last week, has a lot of potential. It’s a time travel romance with a bit of angelic interference taking the place of any SFnal handwavium that often powers the jaunt through time.

What makes this different from the usual run of such things is that Liam O’Connor doesn’t go backward in time – he goes forward. From 1844 to an undefined present day probably just pre-pandemic.

Way back when, Liam O’Connor messed with Cora McLeod’s destiny when he convinced her to run away with him rather than marrying the man her father picked out for her. Whatever that destiny was, it was so huge and important that the angels, two of them specifically, have given Liam a second chance to get it right by giving up the woman he really does most sincerely love.

The angels fast forward Liam to now, where Cora McLeod, still with the same name, has another chance to marry her destined mate, Finley Walsh. It’s up to Liam to put aside his own desires – and honestly Cora’s as well – to make sure that this time things turn out the way they were supposed to.

All the while pretending to be a 21st police detective in a tiny town in North Carolina, learning how to live in a world he never imagined, while helping Cora solve a series of murders that have everyone in town on edge.

While a couple of meddling angels blow celestial trumpets in his ears to remind him that he only has three months to fix what he broke long ago before he goes straight to hell.

Escape Rating C+: As I said at the top, I am hooked on this story, and eaten up with speculation about how the whole thing is finally going to be worked out. But, but, but there are a whole lot of things about this story that drive me crazy because they don’t make sense – or at least they don’t make sense without a whole lot more explication than we have so far.

Liam, at one point in this book, asks the angels who have stuck him in this situation whether they are really angels or whether they’re working for the other side. I do not blame him AT ALL for wondering. They say they’re working for the “greater good” and all that, but anyone who works for the so-called “greater good” without explaining a whole lot about whose good and why it’s greater makes me twitchy and gives me mad Albus Dumbledore vibes and not in a good way.

Liam was kind of “voluntold” to participate in this mess, but it seems like everyone else is being manipulated rather a lot in order to accept Liam’s place in the world and in all of their lives. It also feels like a vast coincidence, beyond any angelic arrangement, that all the people in Providence Falls are reincarnations of the people Liam and Cora knew in their first go around, that they ALL have the same names and they are all in the same relationships to Liam, to Cora, and to each other.

The long arm of coincidence does not stretch that far – even in fiction.

Aside from the setup, the big issue in this romance is the romance. Liam really does love Cora, past and present. Cora is falling for Liam, again, even though she doesn’t remember their first time around.

Because we experience the story from Liam’s perspective, he’s the one we have empathy for. We want him to get his HEA and there’s no way that happens if he fulfills his promise to the angels. The entire story goes against the grain of the way it’s being told, especially when Cora’s growing feelings for Liam are taken into consideration. That she is not getting to make her own choices just bites. Seriously.

That’s not to say that this incarnation of Finley Walsh isn’t a good guy or in any way unworthy – but he’s not Cora’s choice. Although at least the story gives us a little more depth about him in this second installment. I would be happy to see Finn get his own HEA, but so far at least I’m not on board with that HEA being with Cora.

That’s where all of my thoughts about how this is going to play out go pear-shaped. At the end of this book, Liam finally gets a full explanation of why Cora has to marry Finn – but we don’t see it. All we get is Liam’s epiphany that his wants don’t matter, that Cora’s destiny is too important for him to mess up.

The problem I’m having is that I just don’t believe it. I’m not convinced. At all. The angels could be manipulating him, they could have shown him something that leads to this conclusion without it being the truth, and they could still be demons. On an entirely other hand they could be demons like Crowley (in Good Omens) was a demon, meaning that they might be doing the right thing in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. That’s actually an explanation I could seriously get behind.

But I want to know so, so badly. So I’m hooked. Along with being confused, frustrated and annoyed. The next book can’t come out soon enough. The horns of this particular dilemma are downright painful!

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin HallStar Eater by Kerstin Hall
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 448
Published by Tordotcom on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

All martyrdoms are difficult.
Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.
So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.
A phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power, Star Eater takes readers deep into a perilous and uncanny world where even the most powerful women are forced to choose what sacrifices they will make, so that they might have any choice at all.

My Review:

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, Star Eater is the story of a world that has put that absolute power in the hands of a mean girl clique. And it’s working about as well as one might think it would, because these mean girls have real power and are using it to destroy people’s lives AND play with politics, sometimes at the same time.

Once the reader is as far on that train as the worldbuilding will allow, the situation gets even more dire and much, much stranger, all at the same time, until the story reaches a conclusion that doesn’t quite feel like it was part of the book that we started with.

When the story opens, the protagonist, the point of view from which we will view this world, is about to be raped. It’s her duty as an Acolyte of the Sisterhood of Aytrium to present herself to the “Renewal Wards” once every few months in order to, well, propagate the species. Not the human species, but specifically the “Lace”-wielding (read as magic) members of the Sisterhood by allowing herself to be raped – and it is rape even though she gives forced consent for it to happen – by a man who has already been infected with the disease that men contract when they have sex with a woman who has “lace”.

If her visit to the Renewal Wards results in a pregnancy, if the child is male he will either be given away or killed. If the child is female, the birth of her daughter begins the countdown on her mother’s life. Because the only way that lace can be renewed is for women to literally eat the flesh of their comatose mothers.

You’re probably already creeped out. The person I attempted to describe this story to certainly was. It is seriously creepy and this world is utterly fucked up. There’s no other word for it.

The thing is, as bad as Elfreda’s situation is, and the situation of every single one of her Sisters, the situation on Aytrium as a whole is even worse than you’re imagining. The Sisterhood controls everything in Aytrium because they are the ones keeping the place literally afloat. All of Aytrium and the land that supports the city and everyone in it was jerked out of the crust of the planet below by the very first Sister of the Order. If they don’t keep pouring their power into the spells that keep the city floating, it will crash back down.

And maybe it should.

Escape Rating C+: This story is a hot mess and so is its protagonist Elfreda Raughn. And the story is not nearly as high-falutin’ or well-put together as the blurb would lead one to believe.

Elfreda is a rather unreliable narrator, and not necessarily in a good way. She’s unreliable both because there are so many things she doesn’t know, and because there are just so many things that she doesn’t LET herself know. So she gets surprised a lot, and so do we, and it’s pretty much never the good kind of surprise.

Although there are plenty of things about this world that honestly, I wish I didn’t know now that I’ve read the book. Or had it read to me. In the end, a bit of both.

In the beginning, the focus seems to be on Elfrida’s relationship with the Sisterhood, and that’s where the mean girls vibe comes in. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Sisterhood has absolute power over the lives of everyone on Aytrium, especially the Sisters. While the power over everyone else is ordinary temporal power, the power over the other Sisters has a weird feel to it. It’s not just that Elfreda and the other Sisters regularly eat bits of their mothers, but the way that their mothers are kept comatose is referred to as martyrdom. And that Elfreda’s mother was martyred for political reasons and not because it was her time.

At the same time, the whole setup leads to the Sisterhood, and all of Aytrium, being ruled by a group of middle-aged women who are more interested in playing power games against each other than they are in running the place. Also, it feels like there are no elders among the Sisterhood because of the martyrdoms. Which feels like it matters more than it should, because it removes the possibility of hard-earned wisdom as a bit of a check on how bad things are both for the Sisters and for everyone else.

So part of the story is the poisonous internal politics of the Sisterhood. A second part wraps around a threat to that power, in the form of a semi-organized resistance movement made up of regular people, particularly but not exclusively men, who seem to be just about completely disenfranchised.

An organization, using the term loosely, which Elfreda’s best friends, Millie and Finn, seem to be an integral part of every bit as much as they are Elfreda’s life. Millie is Elfreda’s counselor (read Sisterhood-licensed therapist) and Millie’s brother Finn is the love of Elfreda’s life and vice versa, even if that relationship can never be acknowledged or consummated.

Either of those two scenarios would have been enough for a book. The repressive government and the resistance thereto, or the internal political squabbling of the all-powerful Sisterhood with its religious underpinning and its combination of “corrupt church” and “religion of evil” tropes fully on display.

Except that it gets crazier and weirder from there in ways that didn’t seem predicated on what happened so far and needed a bit of deus ex machina plot and character rescue at the end to make the whole thing tie itself up in a very messy bow.

In spite of all of the above, I have to admit that there were plenty of points where as much as I marveled at just how much shit this protagonist could manage to get herself into, and just how fucked up her world was, I felt compelled to keep reading after kind of a slow start. Elfreda’s story is the “Perils of Pauline” on steroids, out of the frying pan, into the fire and then jumping from one active volcano to another.

This is a trainwreck book, as in I knew it was going to have LOTS of awful things in it to see and read but I couldn’t turn my eyes away even when I wanted to. Hence that C+ rating. I was riveted even as I was appalled, and not in a good way. More like I couldn’t stop turning pages or sitting in the garage listening because I just couldn’t believe how much weirder and crazier it was going to get.

I mostly listened to this in audio through the NetGalley app. As I said above, the story is a hot mess. I have issues with the app. But the reader did an excellent job. I’d be happy to listen to her again, hopefully in a better story.

Review: Rabbits by Terry Miles

Review: Rabbits by Terry MilesRabbits by Terry Miles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, technothriller, thriller
Pages: 448
Published by Del Rey Books on June 8, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Conspiracies abound in this surreal and yet all-too-real technothriller in which a deadly underground alternate reality game might just be altering reality itself, set in the same world as the popular Rabbits podcast.
It's an average work day. You've been wrapped up in a task, and you check the clock when you come up for air--4:44 pm. You go to check your email, and 44 unread messages have built up. With a shock, you realize it is April 4th--4/4. And when you get in your car to drive home, your odometer reads 44,444. Coincidence? Or have you just seen the edge of a rabbit hole?
Rabbits is a mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses our global reality as its canvas. Since the game first started in 1959, ten iterations have appeared and nine winners have been declared. Their identities are unknown. So is their reward, which is whispered to be NSA or CIA recruitment, vast wealth, immortality, or perhaps even the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe itself. But the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes. Players have died in the past--and the body count is rising.
And now the eleventh round is about to begin. Enter K--a Rabbits obsessive who has been trying to find a way into the game for years. That path opens when K is approached by billionaire Alan Scarpio, the alleged winner of the sixth iteration. Scarpio says that something has gone wrong with the game and that K needs to fix it before Eleven starts or the whole world will pay the price.
Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing. Two weeks after that, K blows the deadline and Eleven begins. And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

My Review:

R U playing? That’s the question that runs through the entire book. Are you playing Rabbits?

There’s a quote attributed to Mary Kay Ash – yes, the cosmetics queen – that goes, “If you think you can. And if you think you can’t, you’re right.” (There are also variations attributed to Henry Ford, but I like her version better.) With Rabbits, it’s more that if you think you’re playing, you might be, but if you think you’re not, you’re probably right. But whether or not you are playing Rabbits, Rabbits is definitely playing you. You just don’t know it. By the time you do know, it’s too late. Too late for you, and possibly too late for the rest of us as well.

If you’re a bit confused by the above, you’re not alone. And you’re not supposed to be. That’s Rabbits.

What is certain, for select, certain, Rabbits-induced values of certainty, is that when the story opens, our protagonist K is not playing Rabbits. At least at the moment. Because the eleventh round of the long-running game – just how long its been running is a matter for serious debate – is about to begin but hasn’t – yet.

So K is in the middle of giving a somewhat roundabout introductory lecture into the world of Rabbits, being extremely circumlocutory because the first rule of Rabbits is that no one ever talks either directly or straightforwardly about Rabbits. He’s also passing the hat because being a Rabbits player isn’t exactly a way to make a living.

Winning is even better than winning the lottery, but the odds of winning are probably equal to the odds of winning the lottery if not, honestly, a bit worse. Very much on that infamous other hand, playing the lottery won’t get you killed. Playing Rabbits just might.

Especially if, like K and his friends, you’re asked to investigate why Rabbits players are dropping dead at even greater than normal rates. There’s something rotten in the current state of Rabbits, and K has to fix it before it’s too late.

If he can figure out what it is. Or where it is. Or even IF it really is. Without revealing much, if anything about what he’s really doing. Because the game might be out to get him. Or it might not. After all, it’s Rabbits.

Escape Rating C+: Rabbits (the book) is, honestly, fairly confusing. The book is supposed to stand alone from the podcast of the same name by the same author, and I’m not 100% sure that it does. I’m also not sure it doesn’t, but that’s Rabbits for you.

I think part of my confusion with the story was that it was presented to me as science fiction, so I was expecting it to be more SFnal than it turned out to be. There is a bit of true SF, but that felt like handwavium rather than being part of the meat of the story.

The story, at its heart, reads like a thriller. K and his friends are tasked with fixing the game before it starts its next iteration and even more terrible things happen. They are under a tremendous amount of pressure and absolutely do not know what they’re doing.

They are paranoid, but there really does seem to be someone out to get them. And paranoia as a state of mind feels like it’s a requirement for playing Rabbits in the first place. Which does a terrific job of ratcheting up the slow building tension of the entire story.

There were plenty of points where the book reminded me of Ready Player One, but that’s also a bit of a misdirection. The stakes turn out to actually be higher in Rabbits, but the game itself is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Ready Player One, after all, is a game where the players know they are participating, and where, while they may not share tips and tricks with their competitors, discussion of the game is going on pretty much everywhere.

Rabbits is a real-world game, where obsessed people find patterns everywhere in everything (like noticing that once you buy a car you start seeing that make and model of car EVERYWHERE). Some of the patterns that Rabbits players see are part of the game, but some are just the mind playing tricks and some are simply coincidence and the players seem to have very few ways of figuring out which witch is which or even if there are any witches at all. (Mixing metaphors to the point of absurdity.)

So I finished Rabbits feeling not exactly satisfied. As a thriller the SFnal handwavium didn’t quite work for me. As SF, there just wasn’t nearly enough SF there. I liked the characters, but the story didn’t gel because of the handwavium.

But it’s fascinating if you enjoy stories that are chock-full of conspiracy theories, where the stakes are high and the characters are never sure which way is up. Or even if there is an “up” at all. If you threw Ready Player One, The Matrix and and the TV series Lost into an extremely high-tech blender fueled by whatever was fueling the Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you might get something like Rabbits. Play if you dare.

Review: To Catch a Dream by Audrey Carlan

Review: To Catch a Dream by Audrey CarlanTo Catch a Dream by Audrey Carlan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Wish #2
Pages: 320
Published by Hqn on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the worldwide phenomenon Calendar Girl series brings readers a poignant and honest look at life’s most complicated relationships.
When their mother passed away, Evie Ross and her sister were each given a stack of letters, one to be opened every year on their birthday; letters their free-spirited mother hoped would inspire and guide them through adulthood. But although Evie has made a successful career, her desire for the stability and security she never had from her parents has meant she’s never experienced the best life has to offer. But the discovery of more letters hidden in a safe-deposit box points to secrets her mother held close, and possibly a new way for Evie to think about her family, her heart and her dreams.
“Audrey Carlan has created a gem of a story about sisterhood, love, second chances, and the kind of wanderlust that won’t be silenced, reminding us that sometimes the most important journey is the one we take home.” —Lexi Ryan, New York Times bestselling author

My Review:

There are two stories in To Catch a Dream. One is a story of sisterhood, and that part of the story is also about finding the place that your heart can call home – even if it’s not a place at all. And that part of the story really worked – at least for this reader.

The second part of the story is the romance. It’s a story about finally making the dreams of love and romance you had when you were experiencing your first crush come not just true, but seemingly just about perfect. And I have to say that this part of the story did not work nearly as well, at least not for this reader.

The relationship between Evie, her younger sister Suda Kaye and their mother Catori is a story about roots and wings and baggage. And I include Catori in the present tense because that relationship is still very much a part of both Evie and Suda Kaye’s present even though Catori has been dead for over a decade by the time To Catch a Dream begins.

When Catori died, Evie was 20, Suda Kaye was 18 and their mother had NEVER been their primary caregiver. That role was reserved for Catori’s father Tahsuda, the grandfather that the girls called Toko who was the defining figure in their lives.

Why? Because their father Adam Ross was a career Army officer, someone high up in hush-hush operations, and someone who lived where he served – wherever in the world that might be. Catori knew that going in, but the reality turned out to be more than she could handle as a young mother with postpartum depression and a baby.

Catori was a free spirit, born with wanderlust, and her home was never going to be a fixed place. So she left her daughters on the reservation with her own father and took off. Not that both Catori and Adam didn’t come back to their daughters as often as they could, but it made for a far from conventional upbringing for the girls.

When Catori succumbed to cancer, the girls were just barely old enough to take care of themselves. But she left them each a pile of letters, one to be opened on each of their birthdays, year after year, until the piles ran out. She left them each a piece of her spirit even if she couldn’t be with them.

And as soon as she opened her letter, Suda Kaye began making plans to follow the wanderlust in her own heart, leaving Evie heartbroken all over again, wondering why she was never enough for anyone she loved.

Suda Kaye returned to Colorado in the first book in the The Wish series, What the Heart Wants, which I haven’t read but didn’t feel like I missed anything important for this story by not having read that one.

As this story opens, Suda Kaye has found her heart has led her home, and she has found her happy ever after, but she and Evie still have a ton of baggage to get over, and a metric buttload of resentment, hurt and anger that they are both trying desperately to ignore.

And in the middle of that still seeping emotional wound, Suda Kaye just HAS to manipulate and maneuver her sister into the path of the childhood crush that she never got over. While it may be that folks who have found their own romantic HEAs are particularly bound and determined to make sure that every single person in their orbit finds theirs, the course of true love does not run smooth when there are too many people sticking their oars in the water.

Escape Rating C+: As I said, there were two parts to this story, as is fitting for something that straddles the line between women’s fiction and romance. The women’s fiction part of this story worked really, really well for me. As much as Suda Kaye would drive me crazy, and frequently does her sister Evie, their relationship felt solid and loving and grounded even when they were arguing. All of their stuff felt very real – including Suda Kaye’s well-intentioned but MUCH too frequent interference in her sister’s life.

And I especially loved the relationship that they both had with their grandfather. That was beautifully done.

But, and you knew there was a but coming, I had serious issues with the relationship between Evie and Milo, the relationship that eventually becomes the romance in the story.

I say eventually because in the first half of the book, Milo comes on so strong, and is so overbearingly heavy-handed in all of his dealings with Evie that I had to wonder whether that part of the book was going to turn out to be a cautionary tale about letting a man take over your life rather than a romance.

Although Milo and Evie have known each other since they were 12 and 8 respectively, when Milo saved Evie from a bunch of bullies, they have not had an ongoing friendship. So when the meet again as adults, the way that Milo declares that Evie is “his woman” and overrides her expressed wishes because he knows what’s best for her, it was honestly cringeworthy. He comes across as an obsessed stalker, and their every interaction for the entire first half of the book felt possessive and overbearing – not the start of a romance.

That he also wants to merge their businesses as well as their personal lives made things extra-squicky for a significant part of the story, because he kept ignoring and overriding Evie’s expressed opinions, concerns and needs. Even if he turned out to be right, the way that their romance began did not read like a relationship of equals.

I will say that Milo redeems himself in the second half of the story, but the impression left by the first half lingers uncomfortably.

So skim the first half of the romance, read this one for the sisterhood and the family relationships and the awesome and surprising cliffie at the end that sets up the next story in the series, On the Sweet Side.

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
Goodreads

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 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.