Review: The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, retellings, young adult
Pages: 236
Published by 47North on November 24, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Young Rhea is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.

Lord Crevan demands that Rhea visit his remote manor before their wedding. Upon arrival, she discovers that not only was her betrothed married six times before, but his previous wives are all imprisoned in his enchanted castle. Determined not to share their same fate, Rhea asserts her desire for freedom. In answer, Lord Crevan gives Rhea a series of magical tasks to complete, with the threat “Come back before dawn, or else I’ll marry you.”

With time running out and each task more dangerous and bizarre than the last, Rhea must use her resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery to rally the other wives and defeat the sorcerer before he binds her to him forever.

My Review:

I picked up The Seventh Bride because I love T. Kingfisher’s work and especially because I love her stories of young women – often very, very young – who have found themselves in a seriously large and potentially deadly pickle of epic proportions. Who, instead of whining, “oh woe is me!” or their world’s equivalent, put on the big girl panties they may not even be old enough to actually have yet and set about the business of saving themselves and everyone around them.

Just like Mona in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and especially Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is a young woman who is forced to adult really hard because the adults around her are either not up to the job (Mona) or are in positions of powerlessness relative to the evil aristocratic villain who is pulling everyone’s strings (Marra).

Rhea knows there’s something seriously wrong in the whole idea of a nobleman sweeping in to marry a miller’s daughter. Not because fairy tales don’t occasionally happen, and not that this won’t be one someday, but she knows it doesn’t happen to relatively plain girls in working-class families without some kind of magical intervention.

She’s also all too aware that no matter how the mysterious Lord Crevan might phrase his proposal, neither Rhea nor her parents have any real choice in the matter. He’s manipulating them all and he’s enjoying it.

Rhea’s just as aware that her parents are doing their best to pretend that this mess isn’t as wrong as it really is. She’s angry and frustrated because she knows there’s something rotten going on, and she’s exasperated almost beyond bearing that her parents keep trying to pretend that things might be okay after all. It takes a long time and a lot of thought for her to acknowledge that they are basically whistling past the graveyard and that they are hoping that if they pretend hard enough that things might not be quite so bad – although they probably will be.

But when Rhea arrives at Lord Crevan’s hidden country estate she discovers that actually – the whole thing is much, much worse than she imagined. That there are fates worse than death and that six of Crevan’s previous wives have all landed in those situations. And that Rhea is next unless she can find a way to stop him before its too late for her- and her hedgehog – if not for them.

Escape Rating A: The Seventh Bride is right at the crossroads between fairy tales, fantasy, horror and young adult. Or it is if there’s a skeleton buried under that crossroads.

It also reads like a bit of a ‘dress-rehearsal’ for Nettle & Bone, having been originally published eight years before Nettle. The two stories have a lot of the same elements, but as they are all elements that I love, that’s an excellent thing.

Like Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is in an impossible situation, one in which she knows she’s utterly powerless. At least in any traditional sense of power. She’s low born, she’s young, she’s female, her family is dependent on the local lord’s goodwill. Even if Lord Crevan mistreats her – as she expects he will – if she refuses him her family will, at best, be thrown out of their house and livelihood. At worst, they’ll all be killed. She’s in that squeeze between the rock and the hard place. She expects the hard place to be hard, but her parents will survive her going there and it might not be AS bad as she fears. The rock will crush them all for certain if she doesn’t.

But that’s where the magic of the tale comes in, in its horrible, beneficent, and human aspects. All at once. Because if there’s one thing Rhea is good at, it’s making the best of her situation. There’s a band of sisters waiting for her at Lord Crevan’s estate – his other wives. She has allies – and she gives them hope. She finds a way to fight back that is both underhanded and subversive.

And why shouldn’t she? It’s not as if Crevan is playing fair.

The more she sees of the horror that she’ll have to endure if she submits, or is ground under, the more determined she is to find a way out. And the more she shows that he can be subverted, the more of his other wives are willing to help her do so.

The creepy factor in this one is very high. The sense of a band coming together is very strong. And the possibility of a villain getting EXACTLY what’s coming to him is EXTREMELY satisfying.

So don’t let the idea that this might be YA-ish stop you from picking up this marvelously creepy story of magic, helpfully intelligent animals (Rhea’s hedgehog friend is adorable), found sisterhood and evil getting hoist on its own pointy petard. (Especially as the ebook is currently on sale for 99 cents. It’s an absolute STEAL!)

And if the author ever writes a bonus scene of Rhea, Marra and Mona sitting down for tea in some place between the worlds, I’d love to be a fly on that wall – or at least a reader of that story!

Review: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Review: What Moves the Dead by T. KingfisherWhat Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 176
Published by Tor Nightfire on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the award-winning author of The Twisted Ones comes a gripping and atmospheric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's classic "The Fall of the House of Usher."
When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.
What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.
Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.

My Review:

I always thought it was cordyceps that was generally responsible for the zombie apocalypse, but not this time. Or probably not this time. After all, even at the end, we don’t know which genus and species is making the dead move.

But there’s definitely a fungus responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the House of Usher in What Moves the Dead. Because the dead are definitely moving – even if the rational and even scientific minds of the late 19th century are having a seriously difficult time with the old Sherlock Holmes aphorism. You know the one I mean, the one that goes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

And the truth is that no one really wants to think about what is making so many of the animals around the house – and some of the humans inside it – move as if they are dead. Or even after they seem to be, well, dead.

Lieutenant Alex Easton, late of the Gallacian Army, has come to visit a dying friend. Whatever they expected to find in the house of Madeline and Roderick Usher, it wasn’t what they actually found. It’s been nearly 20 years since they’ve all seen each other, and there are days when Easton feels every single one of those years – but both Maddy and Roderick – who Easton knows are roughly their own age – look as if they’ve aged twice as many years as have actually passed.

And both their faces have the waxen pallor of imminent death.

Easton wants to find a cure – or at least a reprieve, and enlists the assistance of Maddy’s American doctor, a redoubtable local Englishwoman with an almost obsessive interest in mushrooms, and their own batman turned (ex-military) aide-de-camp and general factotum – who has carried them out of worse and deadlier scrapes than this one initially seems to be.

But initial impressions can be, and in this case certainly are, deceiving.

How does one even begin to fight a mushroom who wants to explore the world of humanity – one body at a time?

Escape Rating A+: This didn’t go any of the places I thought it would – even after reading a synopsis of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. (I know I read it in school, but that was a long time ago.)

I’ll admit that there were points where I kind of expected Cthulhu to rise out of that damn lake. The Great Old One might honestly have been a relief. At least Cthulhu is a creature that retired soldier Easton might have a hope of fighting.

While I don’t generally like horror, I very much do like T. Kingfisher’s work, as evidenced by my reviews of Nettle & Bone, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and Paladin’s Grace. I like her stuff even when I’m not all that fond of the genre it’s in, like this book and The Hollow Places.

What made this work for me is that it’s very much the author’s voice – which means that the story is driven by its signature characters. Not that there’s not a strong sense of creeping dread through the whole thing, but rather than the creep and the dread and the reason to keep going through both of those feelings is that the reader is invested in the characters – especially Easton and that redoubtable English mycologist, Eugenia Potter.

It’s Easton’s head that we’re in throughout the story, and it’s a fascinating place to be. For one thing, they never take themselves too seriously. And they are very good at thinking but not actually saying all the things that give the reader plenty of rueful laughs, generally at Easton’s own expense. They aren’t the hero of this tale, and they don’t pretend to be. But they ARE the person who gets things done – always with the fully acknowledged assistance of their friends, comrades and fellow travelers.

One of the bits that made them so much fun as a character is the way that their very existence both pokes fun at gender norms and exposes them for the idiocy that they frequently are at the same time. It’s not always easy for them to deal with, but it is in its own unique way simple. They are, due to a peculiarity in their native language, a soldier. And soldier is a non-gendered pronoun in Gallacian. (So what they have in their pants or what they prefer in their bed is immaterial to their address and identification – except to the impolitely curious.)

As a reader, I didn’t need the answers to those questions. I simply liked Easton, their perspective and their attitude, quite a lot and wouldn’t mind at all if they turned up in another one of the author’s works.

Because I’ll be there for it. No matter what is making the dead move the next time around. Or, for that matter, the living.

Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher + Giveaway

Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher + GiveawayNettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 256
Published by Tor Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.
Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.
On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra's family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

My Review:

“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.” “I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?” While the quote is from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the sentiment is one that could easily be attributed to Marra, the central character in Nettle & Bone. Throughout this proto-fairytale, Marra frequently bemoans the unfairness of her world, even as she continually puts on her world’s equivalent of “big girl panties” and just keeps right on dealing with that unfairness.

I call this a “proto-fairytale” because it reads like just the kind of story that will be a fairytale someday, after the events have passed through the hands of this world’s versions of the Brothers Grimm AND Walt Disney in order to shape, knead and mold this “adventure” – in the sense that an adventure is something terrible that happens to someone else either long ago, fair away or both – into the kind of morality tale/object lesson that fairy tales end up being once they become “tales” rather than “history”.

This is also a tale that can be looked at as either “this is the house that jack built” or it’s opposite where “jack” goes on his journey of tasks and errands so damn mad at the situation that sent him that by the time he reaches his destination he tells everyone to stick it where the sun don’t shine.

In other words, Nettle & Bone is a tale of accretion, where Princess Marra starts out with a vague plan that takes on weight, depth and followers as she travels. And it needs all of those things and people because her task is large and she is small. She plans to save her second sister – the one who doesn’t even like her all that much – from certain death at the hands of the evil prince who already murdered their oldest sister AND threatens their parents’ kingdom.

Which is another way that this is a story about fairness, privilege, and the actual powerlessness that afflicts people in positions of seeming power – at least if those people are female.

So Marra is on a quest to save her sister. She thinks she needs to kill the evil prince, so that’s the task she sets herself. But she needs magic to counteract the prince’s magic, so she goes looking for a witch. The witch sets her three impossible tasks, not unlike many such stories. And not unlike those stories, Marra completes the tasks she has been set. She makes the cloak of nettle thread, and brings a dog made of bones back to the witch. The witch herself presents Marra with the third, the moon captured in a jar because she’s so astonished by Marra’s completion of the first two tasks that she decides to help her with her quest.

And they’re off! Along with the witch’s familiar, a hen with a demon inside her. Otherwise known as Strong Independent Chicken, a bird who really exists and to whom this book is dedicated.

But the plan is barely a sketch – and one not nearly as easy to fill in as Marra originally thought – or hoped. Along the way they add two more members to their already assorted party – a soldier they free from the Goblin Market, and Marra’s family godmother, who is both a bit more AND a bit less than she seems.

Off they go in search of, not adventure, but a way of bringing a little more fairness into their world. Marra thinks they’re going to kill the prince. The soldier is just happy to be free of the Goblin Market. The witch is coming to speak to the dead and the godmother is coming to magic the living. The chicken and her demon are along for the ride, in the hopes of causing whatever mayhem they can on the way. And there’s plenty of that every step of the way!

Escape Rating A+: I was looking for something by T. Kingfisher AKA Ursula Vernon to review as part of this Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week because so far I’ve loved everything of hers that I’ve read, especially A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and her Saint of Steel series (Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength and Paladin’s Hope). And because I enjoyed every single presentation she did on the recent JoCo Cruise – especially her stories about, you guessed it, Strong Independent Chicken. So I was looking for a book to review as a gateway drug for the giveaway and Nettle & Bone will be out later this month. So here we are.

Like the other books of hers that I have read, there’s a lot going on in Nettle & Bone and the story feels much bigger underneath than it is on the surface. On the surface, there’s the adventure of it all, which is marvelous and a perfectly good way of getting into this story and the rest of her work.

But underneath that there’s all this other stuff going on. There’s a lot in this story about the contrast between power and powerlessness, and the way that the perception of privilege depends on where you are in the neverending pecking order of the universe. It’s something that Marra comes to have a wider and more expansive view of on this journey. That’s partly because she’s a princess who is almost but not exactly a nun. While she thinks her mother the queen is powerful and can fix everything, she’s also aware that it is easier to travel as a nun than either a princess or a woman. Princesses are hedged ‘round with restrictions, while women in general are always subject to the whims and physical size and power of men.

Her whole quest is about reconciling the fact that those rules apply in the end to princes and princesses and even kingdoms. Someone is always more powerful and someone is always abusing that power.

At the same time, this is a women’s quest from start to finish. Although they have a soldier with them, and Fenris is certainly useful – as well as easy on the eyes – everything that happens in this story is driven by its female characters. The plan and the solutions they come to are not about men and arms and armies – it’s about women and soft power and seeing the truth of things. With the result that soft power turns out not to be soft at all, because power is a hard thing to seize no matter who is doing it.

In the end this is a story about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, even when you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t in the least bit sure you’re going about the right way of doing it. Marra’s quest is to save her sister, and she does. At the same time, her sister also saves herself. And both the kingdoms. It’s never easy and it’s always on the knife edge of failing – but it gets done.

And it’s utterly marvelous along every single step of its impossible way.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

As part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week I’m giving away one copy of ANY one of T. Kingfisher’s books, in any format, up to $30 (US) in value. That should be enough to get the winner any book of hers they want, including the new and coming titles like Nettle & Bone and What Moves the Dead. If you don’t know where to begin I highly recommend A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Paladin’s Grace or the subject of today’s review, Nettle & Bone as excellent places to start!

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Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 352
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel.
Recently divorced and staring down the barrel of moving back in with her parents, Carrot really needs a break. And a place to live. So when her Uncle Earl, owner of the eclectic Wonder Museum, asks her to stay with him in exchange for cataloguing the exhibits, of course she says yes.

The Wonder Museum is packed with taxidermy, shrunken heads, and an assortment of Mystery Junk. For Carrot, it's not creepy at all: she grew up with it. What's creepy is the hole that's been knocked in one of the museum walls, and the corridor behind it. There's just no space for a corridor in the museum's thin walls - or the concrete bunker at the end of it, or the strange islands beyond the bunker's doors, or the whispering, unseen things lurking in the willow trees.

Carrot has stumbled into a strange and horrifying world, and They are watching her. Strewn among the islands are the remains of Their meals - and Their experiments. And even if she manages to make it back home again, she can't stop calling Them after her...

My Review:

At the beginning, this reminded me way more of The Doors of Eden than it did Narnia – at least until it talked about The Magician’s Nephew and “the wood between the worlds”. Because that was a “between” place, and so is the place that Carrot and her friend Simon find themselves in when they step into a passageway between her uncle’s Wonder Museum and Simon’s sister’s coffee shop next door.

A passageway that leads someplace else. An elsewhere that is MUCH scarier than most of the places in the multiverse that those Doors of Eden led to, and much more inherently frightening than that wood between the worlds.

Physically, it sounds a lot more like the Barrow Downs of Middle Earth – at least a version of the Barrow Downs where the evil trees of Mirkwood had moved in and taken over. There’s also a “between” very much like this one, without the creepy trees, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I have a feeling there was a Doctor Who episode that had more than a bit of the same feel.

Or at least featured a similarly misplaced school bus. (It’s Planet of the Dead, which is a little too on the nose)

(My mind wandered a bit as I was reading, especially at the beginning, because it kept getting pinged by hints of so many familiar things!)

But the place that Carrot – her name is really Kara but her uncle still calls her Carrot – and Simon find themselves is definitely somewhere at the seriously creepy, downright Lovecraftian edge of the multiverse. Well, Lovecraftian if you squint and see tree roots as tentacles.

As Carrot says, everything in Lovecraft had tentacles. As scary as this story is, the tree roots will definitely do.

The story begins innocently enough, with Kara discovering a hole in the wall of the museum. A hole probably caused by a tourist. Because tourists make all the messes.

Kara and Simon both seemed to be afflicted with nearly terminal curiosity. Kara has returned to her tiny hometown of Hog Chapel, North Carolina, to a rent-free room over her uncle’s eclectic museum, after her unsatisfactory marriage ends in quiet divorce. If home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the Wonder Museum is certainly Kara’s.

Simon lives next door, also rent-free, over his sister’s coffee shop and earns his keep as her barista. Both Kara and Simon are theoretically adults, but seem a bit frozen in time and lack of maturity. They bond together because neither of them quite fits in, and they have way too much time on their hands, and much too much imagination.

So when Kara discovers that hole in the museum’s wall, she and Simon just have to investigate. When the hole leads to a corridor that simply doesn’t fit within the geography they know, they don’t board it up. They go back to get better supplies for further exploration.

The world that they discover on the other side of that hole in the wall will provide both of them with nightmares for the rest of their lives. If they can manage to make it back alive. And lock the door behind them.

Escape Rating B: I don’t usually care for horror, and I knew this was horror when I picked it up. But I love this author’s voice so I was more than willing to give it a try. After making sure that ALL the lights were on.

At first it did remind me of The Doors of Eden rather a lot. The idea that there was an opening to a “between” place that opened into who knows how many different worlds is something they have in common. And what Mal, Lee and Kay found on the other side of that “between” was every bit as scary as what Kara and Simon found.

But Doors was more science fictional. It might not be real science, but it did its best, and a very damn good best it was, to sound like it was based on something real. Or at least real-ish.

The Hollow Places, even though it started with the same kind of weird, wacky museum as The Museum of Forgotten Memories, took a turn straight into things that go bump in the night in very short order. Because there is definitely something lurking in those hollow places, those bunkers, and it is coming to get Kara, Simon, Beau the cat, and if it can get fully established, all the rest of us.

At the same time, so much of what happens in that other world reads like a kind of fever dream and it feels that way to Kara and Simon as it is happening. Beau just wants to kill any monsters that enter his territory. Or honestly pretty much any other thing that looks like prey that enters his territory. He’s very cat.

What makes the story work are the characters of Kara and Simon. (Also Beau, I loved Beau). To say that they are not adulting well probably sums up their surface. They’ve found a place where they can manage. It’s not exactly comfortable, but they’ve made their lives work. They’re not brave, they’re not heroic, they’re both unlucky in love and not with each other (Kara is straight and Simon is gay) but they hold each other up when the situation is at its absolute worst with a bit of common sense, a whole lot of bravado and just enough of the snarkitude that I read this author for.

Still, Kara and Simon are profoundly there for each other even when neither of them is willing to articulate precisely what it is they are there for, because that way lies madness and they both know it. I started this book for the snark – didn’t get quite as much of it as I was hoping for – but I finished it for them. And Beau.

The ending reminded me of something completely different from anything I was expecting in a horror novel. This may have started with The Magician’s Nephew, but it ended with The Velveteen Rabbit. Because Kara loved the tatty, stuffed and badly taxidermied animals that were such a big part of the Wonder Museum. She loved them enough that for one brief moment, when she needed all the help she could get from whatever place she could get it from, all those animals became, as the Rabbit so poignantly described, Real.

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherPaladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Clocktaur War
Pages: 398
Published by Red Wombat Studio on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…
Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…
From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

My Review:

The title is a pun. It’s also a clue to the way this story works itself out. Which is bloody damn marvelous every slightly meandering step of the way.

There’s a question about whether Paladin’s Grace is an epic fantasy that includes a romance, or a fantasy romance that happens to also be epic. After mulling it over for a while, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes!” Or perhaps “hells to the yes!” is a bit more accurate.

The setting of this story is plenty epic. It’s also set in the same world as her Clocktaur War duology and Swordheart but certainly doesn’t rely on any of them to get the reader stuck right into it. I haven’t read either and had no trouble becoming immediately involved, understanding what was going on, or being so damn absorbed I couldn’t put it down.

Not that I didn’t buy all three books as soon as I finished and realized that there were three other books set in this world. Because DAMN! this was good.

The setting dragged me in right away because it leads off with a fascinating concept that powers so much of the story in various ways. This is a world where the gods are real. By that I mean the gods act in and on the world and their worshippers in ways that can be witnessed, not just by believers but by everyone.

In that sense, it’s a world that resembles the world of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead. That’s a world where the lawyers are necromancers, and part of their job is to write contracts for gods both living and dead. But even more than the Craft Sequence, the world of Paladin’s Grace reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, particularly as it is seen through the eyes of the Learned Divine Penric of the White God and his demon Desdemona in Penric’s Demon and the books that follow. Penric has met his god, usually just before or just after said god sends him on yet another errand, and other people in that world have met their gods as well.

The way that the Saint of Penric’s order interacts with their god and the way that the Paladins of the Saint of Steel interact with theirs has some similarities – right up until the paladins’ god dies, leaving all of its paladins reeling as though someone has scooped out their hearts, souls and all the rest of their innards both physical and metaphorical.

The thing about the Saint of Steel is that this god blessed their paladins with divine berserker fits. So when the god dies they all go literally berserk, into a killing rage that results in murders, suicides, explosions and generally a whole lot of the death they were famous for in the first place.

Three years later there are only seven paladins of the Saint of Steel left, barely keeping each other alive and functional, assisted by those who serve the Rat God, an order which has no paladins of its own. But it does have lawyers, leading back to that resemblance to the Craft Sequence I mentioned earlier.

Serving the Rat and protecting its Bishop, the absolutely awesome Bishop Beartongue, gives the remaining paladins enough purpose to keep them going. It’s all any of them expect out of life at this point. (And if the author ever writes an entire book featuring the Bishop, I am SO there!)

Then Paladin Stephen becomes entangled with Grace the perfumer, and he discovers a whole new reason for living. If he can let himself. If he can get over himself. If he can trust himself.

If the Bishop and his brother paladins can manage to extract them both from the political clusterfuck that they’ve bumbled into – in spite of the odds against them all along the way.

Escape Rating A+: Paladin’s Grace was definitely, sincerely, absolutely a case of the right book at the right time.

There is just so much happening in this story, both on the epic fantasy and the fantasy romance sides of the equation. Plus – big huge gigantic plus – the author’s very dry and frequently hung from the gallows humor made me laugh out loud so many times, even as it both developed the characters and pushed the story forward. This is my favorite type of humor, the kind that arises out of character and situation and is never built on cruelty, tearing up or punching down.

I wanted to go out for drinks with pretty much everyone on Stephen and Grace’s side of the story, including them. Even when their world was going to hell in a handcart, the way the author wrote them created plenty of opportunities to laugh with them and not at them.

On the romance side, Stephen in particular is the poster child for the romantic hero who is so fucked up and has so much baggage that he’s certain he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the heroine. Not that Grace doesn’t have plenty of her own baggage, but in comparison, hers is almost normal. Stephen has lost his god and is rightfully afraid of going berserker at any moment. Nothing compares.

The political situation that they stumble into is, on the one hand, fairly standard for epic fantasy, and on the other, wildly different because it is so totally inept and still almost works. There is just a ton about this story to love.

As I said early on, this was the right book at the absolute right time. I was ready to start a new book just as the polls closed in Georgia this week. It was a night that promised to be chock-full of doomscrolling, so I went looking for a book that would suck me in so deeply that I’d be able to forget about the mess for a few hours. (I voted by mail weeks ago, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point except incessantly doomscroll hoping it would eventually turn to schadenscrolling and even gleescrolling at some point.) But constant scrolling is not productive, only anxiety inducing. Nobody needed any more of THAT this week – not that we didn’t all get plenty ANYWAY.).

That’s the point where I remembered I had Paladin’s Grace, and that I absolutely LOVED this author’s Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which made me chuckle, laugh and outright chortle the entire time I was reading it.

Considering the news on Wednesday, I really, really needed the distraction.

Paladin’s Grace turned out to be EXACTLY the book I was looking for. It didn’t reduce me to completely incoherence, as the paladin Stephen and the perfumer Grace frequently do to each other in the course of this story. But it did take me far, far away from the madness of the real for a while. For which I am so, so grateful.

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. KingfisherA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Pages: 318
Published by Argyll Productions on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.
But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

My Review:

I fully admit that I bought this one for the title. Not that the stabbity-stabbity gingerbread man on the cover isn’t adorable, but it was definitely the title that got me. And I’m so very glad that it did. I also wondered whether this was really YA or whether it was one of those cases where something got called YA because it was fantasy. That doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but it definitely does still happen.

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is even better than that, it’s a YA that can be read and very much enjoyed by adults. I not only laughed out loud at many points, but ended up reading bits to my husband who needed to know what I was cackling about so much.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking reminds me of three really different things; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Potter, and Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker. And those three things really shouldn’t go together. But they do here.

They definitely do.

It felt like Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City because to a certain extent Mona and Orhan are in the same position. Their city has been betrayed from within – although not for the same reasons. Both of them are woefully underqualified for the role of city savior. Orhan because he’s a despised non-native of the city and Mona because she’s a despised – or at least feared – magic user. And she’s only 14.

Mona’s wry and often disgusted commentary on what’s happening around her and just how far the situation has been left to go awry reads like both Sixteen Ways and the Discworld. Mona sees that things are going wrong, and comments about it to herself. A lot. There may be a certain amount of gallows in her humor, but then the situation does require it.

Where Harry Potter comes in, of course, is that Mona is just 14 and she’s expected to save the city. Which is ridiculous and insane and she’s very aware of the fact that there are lots of adults who weren’t adulting very well at all. It’s up to her and it just plain shouldn’t be. But it still is. Because even if she CAN manage to get better adults it’s not going to happen in time to save the city. So it’s all up to her, no matter how much she downright KNOWS that she is in over her head.

Mona’s understanding that the adults who should have figured this out were collectively asleep at the switch and that saving the city shouldn’t be up to her but is anyway is something that Harry Potter fanfiction handles better than the original stories. The situation shouldn’t have been allowed to get so far off the rails that a 14-year-old is not just their best but their only hope. After all, when Leia talks about Obi-Wan being her “only hope” at least her expectations are fixed on a grown up.

That the hope Mona manages to provide involves some very bad gingerbread men, a few very large bread golems and a whole lot of carnivorous sourdough starter is what makes the story so much fun. Which it very definitely is.

But it never sugarcoats the fact that the situation is beyond dire – and that war is very definitely hell. And that sometimes all it takes is just one horse rider of the apocalypse to bring that fact home.

Escape Rating A+: There is a LOT going on in this story. That’s what makes it so damn good.

The obvious is the whole 14-year-old saves the city thing that makes it YA. Mona is young. She’s still, to some extent, figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, although her magic has driven her further down that path than most. But she’s also at an age where she’s unsure of herself and her future in so many different ways. She sees herself as young, and small, and weak. She sees her magic as not powerful at all or even all that useful. It’s handy in her aunt’s bakery, where she works, but it’s not otherwise big or showy. And neither, honestly, is she.

Her talent is in convincing dough that it wants to do what SHE wants it to do, so it rises properly and it doesn’t burn. And she can make gingerbread men dance – even if she can’t control what kind of dance they do. Mona’s power has definite limits that she has to work within to make it work at all.

Mona is not a person that anyone would expect to be the city’s savior, least of all Mona herself. But when her life gets knocked off its tracks with her discovery of a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, her path goes straight into the doings of the high and mighty. A position that Mona herself certainly never expected to be in.

But then, she didn’t expect to find herself shimmying up the shaft of the duchess’ crapper in order to get someone more suitable on the path of fixing the mess. And that’s the point at which she discovers that EVERYONE has been hoping that someone else would fix the mess.

And doesn’t that sound all too familiar?

As does the way that someone has been using the powers of their office, along with a whole lot of propaganda and a dab hand at ginning up the crowd and pointing it at a convenient bogeyman. Which leads us right back to Harry Potter and the whole “pureblood supremacy” movement. Or real life and any number of groups who can be used to focus attention away from whatever an administration doesn’t want people to look at.

As I said, this is a story that operates on multiple levels, and all of them are excellent. If you are on the lookout for an excellent fantasy that will make you laugh AND make you think, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has the perfect recipe.