Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de BodardOf Charms, Ghosts and Grievances (Dragons and Blades #2) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #2, Dominion of the Fallen #3.6
Pages: 110
on June 28th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

From the author of the critically acclaimed Dominion of the Fallen trilogy comes a sparkling new romantic adventure full of kissing, sarcasm and stabbing.

It was supposed to be a holiday, with nothing more challenging than babysitting, navigating familial politics and arguing about the proper way to brew tea.

But when dragon prince Thuan and his ruthless husband Asmodeus find a corpse in a ruined shrine and a hungry ghost who is the only witness to the crime, their holiday goes from restful to high-pressure. Someone is trying to silence the ghost and everyone involved. Asmodeus wants revenge for the murder; Thuan would like everyone, including Asmodeus, to stay alive.

Chased by bloodthirsty paper charms and struggling to protect their family, Thuan and Asmodeus are going to need all the allies they can—and, as the cracks in their relationship widen, they'll have to face the scariest challenge of all: how to bring together their two vastly different ideas of their future...

A heartwarming standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.

My Review:

I still need to read the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, of which the Dragons and Blades series is an offshoot. But I really enjoyed the first Dragons and Blades book, Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, so this followup has been whispering my name for a month now and I decided to listen to that whisper.

Little did I know that it was the whisper of blades dragging across silk and piercing the hearts of everything they touched.

This charming little story starts out as a bit of a family tale. A dragon prince and his fallen angel spouse take their adopted children on a bit of a picnic. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to quell the restlessness that both the children and the fallen angel are all too frequently subject to.

It’s supposed to keep the children from wrecking any further destruction on the dragon palace that is destroying itself with rot and mold entirely too quickly as it is.

It’s supposed to keep the fallen angel from threatening, maiming or killing any of his husband’s imperial relatives. Or anyone else who might or might not deserve it.

It’s not supposed to turn into a ghost story. But then, Asmodeus the fallen angel isn’t supposed to adopt a ghost child, either.

The dragon prince Thuan sees a hungry ghost who might (most probably, will beyond a shadow of a doubt) either kill his husband or get his husband killed or both. Not that it will matter after the fact either way.

Asmodeus sees a child who died terribly and alone for reasons that should never have happened in the first place. The ghost child starved to death in an empire that is supposed to at least feed all of its people.

But when it comes to Thuan and Asmodeus, not even a ghost story is simply about a ghost. Because Asmodeus sees a child who witnessed a murder, even if that murder happened after the child became a ghost. And Asmodeus can’t let either the murder or the ghost child go.

Not even if he has to tether the ghost child to his own life. Not even if his husband is scared to death that the ghost child is either going to kill him or get him killed before any of them can figure out the mystery that started it all.

Escape Rating A-: As I said I still haven’t read Dominion of the Fallen, so I know I’m missing some stuff, but after Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders I figured I had enough background to be going on with. Not that I wouldn’t love more – because I always love more backstory – but this read like it followed directly from Of Dragons and that the original trilogy was a bit more distant both in time and place.

Or I was just looking forward to this and didn’t care about the backstory for a change.

One of the bits that fascinates me about this subseries is the setting. The imperial court that dragon prince Thuan came from is underwater and his people all seem to be shapeshifters – or shapeshifter-ish. Thuan is a dragon who appears human – except for the horns. That’s Thuan on the cover of Of Charms, which makes me even more certain that it’s Asmodeus on the cover of Of Dragons – even though Asmodeus is not the dragon of the pair.

I’m wandering because this story does so much in its rather short length.

What I started with was the underwater nature of the dragon’s imperial capital. One of the pervasive elements of the capital is that everything is rotting. Water, even water kept back by powerful magic, still manages to do the damage that water naturally does all the time and everywhere. It’s constantly somewhat damp and damp causes mold and rot and rotting things eventually disintegrate.

But the story of the ghost and the murder and the reasons why those things happened are also about rot. The child should not have died of starvation. The shrine where the child became that ghost and witnessed the murder is a shrine that should never have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. The worship that was supposed to occur at the shrine should not have fallen into dust and rumor. It’s all rot.

And the story here is about something rotten, and it’s not really about the ghost. It’s about the murder and the reasons for it. The resolution of that part of the story was all the more chilling because underneath all of the fantasy setting and characters, the reasons for the murder were all too human, much too possible, and entirely too familiar – not from fantasy but from real life and real tragedy and unfortunately, dammit, the real news.

Just as the motives for murder and even god-killing (would that be “deicide” or deity-cide?) were entirely familiar, the heart of the conflict that arises between Thuan and Asmodeus, feels equally familiar. What shakes their marriage is fear of losing each other’s respect, regard and affection. Some of the reasons it occurs may be fantasy, but the emotions at the heart of the story, and in their hearts, felt equally real.

A slice of life story that seems like it’s going to be eaten by a hungry ghost, but in the end is almost consumed by someone entirely human and all the more dangerous for that.

Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de BodardOf Dragons, Feasts and Murders (Dragons and Blades, #1) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #1, Dominion of the Fallen #3.5
Pages: 80
on July 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.
But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.
It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….
A sparkling standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.
A Note on ChronologySpinning off from the Dominion of the Fallen series, which features political intrigue in Gothic devastated Paris, this book stands alone, but chronologically follows The House of Sundering Flames. It’s High Gothic meets C-drama in a Vietnamese inspired world—perfect for fans of The Untamed, KJ Charles, and Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves

My Review:

Is it my imagination or are there a lot more fantasy/mystery and SF/mystery blends then there used to be? And isn’t it a wonderful thing?!

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is a marvelous little fantasy mystery wrapped inside a bloodthirsty bit of political upheaval and tied up with a bow of romance sprinkled with the ashes of a fallen angel’s wings.

I picked this up because I had grabbed the second book in the Dragons and Blades series from Netgalley because I fell in love with the author’s work after reading The Tea Master and the Detective. Upon discovering that Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances is the second book, I had to get the first book so I could read it first.

Little did I know that Dragons and Blades is a subseries of the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and that I probably should have started there. Not that I couldn’t get into and didn’t enjoy Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders – because there are plenty of all three  so I most certainly did – but because the relationship between the married protagonists Asmodeus and Thuan hinted at depths that I couldn’t fully appreciate.

Which did not make this little gem sparkle any less, only that I wish I’d gotten ALL the nuance. Something I’ll have to remedy one of these days (I bought the rest of the series immediately!)

The mystery in this book is steeped in court intrigue. I wanted to say “degenerate” court intrigue to capture some of the flavor, but that’s not quite right – although it is close.

The undersea dragon court that Thuan came from is quite literally rotting from within and without. Whether the spells that keep the sea out of the palaces are fraying around the edges, or the empire is no longer able to attract and/or capable of supporting enough “people” to keep the rot and mildew out of the walls is an open question.

(I put “people” in quotation marks in the above because the “people” in this story are, for the most part, anthropomorphized sea creatures. Thuan is a dragon, as is the rest of the royal family of which he is a very minor part. The assistant who helps with their investigation is a crab. One of the court functionaries that Thuan deals with is a shark literally as well as figuratively.)

Thuan and Asmodeus are visiting Thuan’s former home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Tet. While the reader is not quite certain whether Thuan’s marriage to Asmodeus – whose throne is in a Gothic, devastated Paris – constituted an actual ‘escape’ from the intrigues of his Second Aunt’s court or not, Thuan is very clear that while he does miss some members of his family he doesn’t miss being part of that court at all.

Considering that the beginning of their visit is punctuated by the murder of a member of the staff, Thuan’s departure may very well have saved his life.

But he still cares. They are still his family. Even the ones he doesn’t like all that much. Which makes it easy for his cousin to guilt him into solving one of her problems for her.

His cousin is the head of the secret police, and the murder was part of a plot to undermine the regime. His cousin wants Thuan and his husband to solve the murder and foil the plot to overthrow the empress. Thuan can unofficially question people and explore places that she cannot. And Thuan’s husband Asmodeus is a fallen angel, or something similarly demonic and bloodthirsty. (Exactly what Asmodeus is isn’t quite clear, but his name is a fairly big hint. This is one of those things that’s probably a bit clearer if one has read the Dominion of the Fallen series.) But whatever Asmodeus is exactly, he is clearly one scary dude.

From this point, the story becomes one of political intrigue, political skullduggery, and poking one nose or the other, whether Thuan’s or Asmodeus’, into places and people that shouldn’t concern them, while trying to figure out exactly what the nature of this nebulous plot against the empire is and how its perpetrators expect whatever they are doing to result in whatever they hope to achieve.

There are false arrests and true kidnappings and too many people who think that revolution will solve their problems without understanding what their problems really are, while Asmodeus just wants to get Thuan out of harm’s way before his sense of duty gets them both into water hotter than they can stand – or survive without creating an even bigger diplomatic incident then they are already in.

It’s a very frothy comedy of manners and mayhem couched in a murder mystery and wrapped in a rebellion. And it’s way more fun than I was expecting it to be.

Escape Rating B: This is not what I was planning to review this week. But we spent most of the weekend either taking the cat (Freddie) to the vet, sitting at the vet or worrying about the cat that was staying at the vet. (He’s still there but on the mend.) As a result I went hunting for something quick and absorbing and this looked like enough of a puzzler to get me hooked.

And so it proved. I know I didn’t get anywhere near all the references or the backstory, but it was still a very enjoyable fantasy mystery. Admittedly now I feel almost compelled to start The House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series of which this is a part. (My virtually towering TBR pile towers ever higher…)

But even though I didn’t know nearly as much as I would have liked about Thuan and Asmodeus’ backstory, the way that the story worked hooked me the same way that Katharine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead did, in that it’s a mystery set in a fantasy world where the investigator is a minor court functionary who is poking their nose into things that no one in power really wants any noses poked into. And who will not let go no matter what the provocation – or the threats.

So it has the appeal of a mystery in that there’s a dead body and an investigator, while it also has the things that make epic fantasy work so well, just on a smaller scale. There are political shenanigans and court intrigues, everyone is trying to get one over on everyone else – whether they’re part of the murder plot or not – and the throne is under threat by forces unknown who either committed the murder or plan to take advantage of it.

All of which makes for a fascinatingly good time for readers who love those elements, of which I am most certainly one.

Now that I have both the previous books in the series and the next one I know I’ll be back to see what I missed AND to see what happens next!

Review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de BodardFireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard returns with a powerful romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world.

Fire burns bright and has a long memory….
Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

My Review:

I was expecting this to remind me of When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and it did, but not because of the tiger. It’s more that it reminded me of both of the books in the Singing Hills Cycle, not just Tiger but also the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Now that I think about it, it reminds me much more of Empress, in spite of that Tiger.

Like The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this feels like a story that is creating a legend along with its secondary world. And both stories feature women that their contemporaries saw as disposable and forgettable.

Thanh has spent her whole life living under her mother the empress’ disapproving eye – and thumb. Her accomplishments, her achievements, her very person swallowed up by the long shadows cast by her two older, more accomplished, more favored sisters.

Even the one time that Thanh was sent away in order to further the goals of her empire and empress, she failed to impress, she failed to learn, and she was sent home early and in disgrace.

But Thanh brought back more than anyone imagined from her time as a political hostage in powerful, dominant Ephteria.

The love, or at least the romantic obsession, of Ephteria’s Crown Princess Eldris, and the fire that destroyed the royal palace where she was held captive for her country’s “good” behavior.

Now Ephteria has come to Thanh’s home, to take possession of what she believes is hers by right of her superior power. Not just Thanh, but also her country. Not as outright conquest, but through the latest in a long list of political maneuvers where Eptheria trades guns for the autonomy of countries, including Thanh’s, piece by inexorable piece.

Until Thanh says “No”. To her mother, to Eldris, to Ephteria. And finally embraces the fire at the heart of the tiger – and her own.

Escape Rating A-: While a romance occurs, or rather an affair occurred and as the story ends it seems like a real romance is about to happen, this is not a romance. It’s a coming-of-age and/or coming-into-power story.

In fact, it’s Thanh’s realization about the truth of her relationship with Eldris that helps her come into her power. Her own power and not power derived from her relationship to anyone else.

Because this is also a story about politics and history. These events may take place in a fantasy setting, but this has all happened before and it will all happen again. Specifically, what is happening sounds all too much like the way that the British Raj swallowed up India, and the way that the British and other Western forces inserted themselves into China.

So it’s clear what the Ephterians want. They want control – and they’re taking it – one concession at a time. In order to maintain her country’s security, Thanh’s mother needs to acquire more weapons to protect herself from the surrounding regions. But Ephteria encroaches just a little bit more on that precious independence in every negotiation and with every shipment.

Eldris’ desire for Thanh, to capture the one who got away, is part and parcel of that encroachment. Their relationship was never about love – at least not on Eldris’ part no matter what she might call it.  It’s always and only been about possession, and eventually, subjugation. A situation that Thanh almost falls back into, with eyes wide shut, in order to save her country the only way she knows how, by giving in to the greater power – in this case the power of Eldris – in order to stave off the depredations of an even greater threat, Ephteria’s armies.

So this whole story revolves around the politics of the relationship of Thanh’s subservient country to Eldris’ dominant one, and it’s personified in the relationship between Thanh and Eldris.

But Thanh can only come into her power when she steps away from that subservient path, subservient to both her mother and Eldris. When Thanh takes hold of the reins of her own life, of the fire in her own heart and mind and soul, she’s able to forge a new path for her country and most of all, for herself.

And that’s what sets this story on fire – along with the heart of fire elemental in the shape of a tiger.

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de BodardThe Tea Master and the Detective (The Universe of Xuya) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Universe of Zuya
Pages: 96
Published by Subterranean Press on March 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appareance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.

A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow's Child with her.

As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past--and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars...

My Review:

The Nebula Awards shortlist came out this week. I was reminded to take a look at it by someone on the Library Journal Committee that picked the best SF and Fantasy for 2018 for their annual wrap-up because four of our picks are on the Nebula shortlist, as well as a couple of titles that ALMOST made it.

Looking at the list, I noticed a book that I picked up a while ago, as it was recommended in the context of being an “out of this world” Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It has been said that every generation reinvents Sherlock Holmes for themselves, and The Tea Master and the Detective definitely qualifies as one of the more inventive futuristic reinventions, right up there with Sara Holmes and Janet Watson of A Study in Honor.

In The Tea Master and the Detective, we have a tale set in this author’s loosely connected Universe of Xuya series. It’s an alternate history universe where China discovered America before Christopher Columbus. That discovery altered the history of the world, as such a momentous change would. China turned outward instead of inward, and seems to have become the dominant power on Earth before humanity reached the stars.

An influence that is still felt at the time of this story, probably taking place somewhere in the alternate 22nd century – if not later. (The series is made up of short stories and novellas, and they have been scattered in publication throughout every magazine currently publishing SF and Fantasy. I wish they were all collected somewhere because I’d like to read them ALL!)

As I have not yet read the series, I came into this story with no previous knowledge – and I absolutely loved it. While the entire history of the universe isn’t explained – and it shouldn’t be – this little gem still feels complete. I just want to know more. (I always want to know more.)

The detective, in this case the mysterious Long Chau, claims to be writing a thesis on the decomposition of bodies in the deep places of space. Places that seem to be both theoretical and real, although a bit more of each of those elements than might be presupposed at first glance.

The thing about the deep places is that they are both real and unreal, and the unreality of those places affects the human mind – to its detriment. Humans usually travel those deep places safely within the bounds of a ship controlled by a “shipmind”. A ship that is self-aware.

What makes this story so interesting is that the “Watson” to Long Chau’s “Holmes” is a damaged shipmind named The Shadow’s Child who is psychologically unable to travel the deep places – so she makes her living brewing teas that help humans survive the unreality of the places she no longer feels able to go.

Long Chau goes to the fringes of the deep places to find a dead body. But what she’s really looking for is a lost soul. Her own. That she also finds the soul of the scarred shipmind forges a unlikely partnership.

One I hope to see again.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. It combines two ideas that really shouldn’t have much to do with each other, but work together anyway – much as the two protagonists really shouldn’t have much to do with each other.

Shipminds are people. And this society has places for them and recognizes them as people. The Shadow’s Child has to deal with many of the things that anyone else does, including meddling family members and paying the rent. She will also remind readers of Anne McCaffrey’s classic stories of the brainship Helga, The Ship Who Sang.

The Shadow’s Child is the Watson to Long Chau’s Holmes. The pastiche part of this story is fairly subtle – if you’re not interested, it’s not there. If you are interested, the way that Long Chau refers to herself as a “consulting detective”, her endless deductions of what people, including shipminds, are thinking, feeling and doing as well as her constant use of drugs to stimulate her mind are there to remind readers of some of Sherlock Holmes’ habits, both the more and the less savory of them.

The case that they ultimately find themselves on is an investigation that no one wants solved – and it nearly gets them both killed. But along the way they learn to respect if not necessarily trust each other, and we get to explore a fascinating universe that has plenty of stories in it that are worth telling.

I look forward to ferreting out more of this series as soon as possible!