Review: Wild Ride Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Wild Ride Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawayWild Ride Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #9) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Copper Ridge #9
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He's come back to Copper Ridge, Oregon, to keep a promise—even if it means losing his heart…

Putting down roots in Copper Ridge was never Alex Donnelly's intention. But if there's one thing the ex-military man knows, it's that life rarely unfolds as expected. If it did, his best friend and brother-in-arms would still be alive. And Alex wouldn't have inherited a ranch or responsibility for his late comrade's sister—a woman who, despite her inexperience, can bring tough-as-iron Alex to his knees.

Clara Campbell didn't ask for a hero to ride in and fix her ranch and her life. All she wants is the one thing stubborn, honorable Alex is reluctant to give: a chance to explore their intense chemistry. But Clara has a few lessons to teach him, too…about trusting his heart and his instincts, and letting love take him on the wildest adventure of all.

My Review:

It’s a wild but very satisfying ride to the angst factory in the latest book in Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge series.

And there’s no one whose very angsty heroines I like better than the women in this series. The best books in this series, at least for this reader, have been Last Chance Rebel, Down Home Cowboy, and the latest, Wild Ride Cowboy, and they all feature heroines who have more than the average amount of really awful baggage to carry.

There’s just something about the way that this author creates heroines that have really, truly suffered, but still get up and keep on going, that just works for me. What I love is that the angst and heartbreak that these women suffer is not llama drama fodder, nor has some man done them wrong. It’s that life has hit them upside the head by stuff way beyond their control, and that while they may be temporarily down, they are never out.

And that the entry of a good man, or a bad man trying to be good, into their lives does not magically solve all their problems – because their problems, like Clara’s in this particular story, are not ones that can really be solved. Only survived.

Not that Alex Donnelly’s belated re-introduction into Clara’s life doesn’t make things a bit easier for her, because it does. But the real story is the way that Alex’ insertion into Clara’s life and Clara’s ranch gives her the space she needs to get a grip on her own stuff. And that Clara’s advent into Alex’s life gives him the equal opportunity to finally deal with the heavy baggage that he’s been toting around his own life.

These are two people to whom a lot of shit has just plain happened, and neither of them have done the best job of shoveling it out of the way. In their own ways, they’ve spent more time wallowing in it than mucking it out.

Considering that Clara ends up with bison on her ranch, there’s going to be plenty of real manure to step around, without trucking in it from both of their pasts.

Clara has basically had a hard-knock life. She was 12 when her mother died, 16 when her dad went the same way. Now she’s 21, and her brother, her only remaining family, has been killed in action. Clara is all alone with her ranch and her grief, and not much else. There’s been too much death and not enough life in her life, and the accumulated mourning has finally beaten her to her knees. She may look like she’s coping on the outside, but she’s sunk in the morass and just can’t see her way out.

The ranch is all she has, but every corner of it is filled with memories of someone she lost. On her own, it’s going to take her a long time to come out of the dark, but there’s never a sense that she won’t get there one way or another. The problem is that in her grief she’s ignoring a whole lot of things that won’t let themselves be ignored for very long – like the bills she has to pay and the lawyers she needs to see. And it’s not even that she can’t pay the bills, it’s that she’s unwilling to open the envelopes and deal with the finality of her brother’s death.

Alex Donnelly has been ignoring his grief and his responsibilities for far too long. Clara’s brother was Alex’s best friend, and the man is dead because he stepped in front of a hail of bullets that was intended to kill them both. Now Alex is left to mourn, and to take care of the obligation that his friend left him with.

Alex is the executor of his friend’s estate, and the will has made him the “caretaker” of both the ranch and Clara for one year or until the ranch is self-supporting. Alex is in charge of the one thing that Clara believed was all her own. After all, she’s the only person who has been around to take care of it. And even though keeping the ranch has taken up her entire life, it is all she has.

But Alex has put off helping Clara so that he can get as settled in as he ever does at the Laughing Irish ranch that he has inherited along with his three brothers. The opening of that story is a big part of Slow Burn Cowboy. Now that Alex is as settled in as he ever gets, it’s time for him to take care of Clara.

So that he can move on again. Because that’s what he always does. He moves on before someone asks him to leave. Because they always do.

When Alex finds himself making a home with Clara, and wanting to make a real life with her, he doesn’t want to leave. But he knows it can’t last.

Or can it?

Escape Rating B+: Like the heroine in the marvelous Last Chance Rebel, Clara is a woman who has much too much real crap to deal with. She’s only 21, and everyone she’s ever loved has died. When we meet her she is still in the depths of her grief for her brother. She’s not despairing, she’s just beyond numb. It makes the earliest part of the book a hard read, because Clara is in such a dark place.

Alex becomes her light in the tunnel. But there’s an old joke about when you see a light in the tunnel, there’s a good chance that it’s an oncoming train. And that’s what Alex thinks of himself. His foundational experience is that he isn’t good enough for anyone to stay with, including, or perhaps especially, his own parents.

He’s certain that he’s not good enough for Clara, that he’s not worthy of her love or her trust. And he spends a whole lot of time being insulting about Clara’s age and agency, pretending that at 21 she’s not old enough to know her own mind and heart, and that at 31 he’s too old and too damaged for her.

Mostly, he’s just protecting himself. And Clara, rightfully, calls him on his bullshit. Because Alex is both stubborn and scared, there’s plenty of b.s. and she has to call him on it multiple times. It’s easy to wonder if he’s ever going to get the message, or whether she’s going to have to beat it into him with a clue-by-four.

The delivery of said clue-by-four in the hands of Alex’s equally dysfunctional brother Liam, makes for a satisfying ending to Wild Ride Cowboy, and sets things up nicely for Liam’s own story in Christmastime Cowboy. It looks like presents for everyone!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Harlequin is offering one (1) lucky winner a $25 Amazon Gift Card! To enter, simply fill out the Rafflecopter below:

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Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + Giveaway

Review: Thief’s Mark by Carla Neggers + GiveawayThief's Mark (Sharpe & Donovan #7) by Carla Neggers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Sharpe & Donovan #7
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


A murder in a quiet English village, long-buried secrets and a man's search for answers about his traumatic past entangle FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan in the latest edge-of-your-seat Sharpe & Donovan novel

As a young boy, Oliver York witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents in their London apartment. The killers kidnapped him and held him in an isolated Scottish ruin, but he escaped, thwarting their plans for ransom. Now, after thirty years on the run, one of the two men Oliver identified as his tormentors may have surfaced.

Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are enjoying the final day of their Irish honeymoon when a break-in at the home of Emma's grandfather, private art detective Wendell Sharpe, points to Oliver. The Sharpes have a complicated relationship with the likable, reclusive Englishman, an expert in Celtic mythology and international art thief who taunted Wendell for years. Emma and Colin postpone meetings in London with their elite FBI team and head straight to Oliver. But when they arrive at York's country home, a man is dead and Oliver has vanished.

As the danger mounts, new questions arise about Oliver's account of his boyhood trauma. Do Emma and Colin dare trust him? With the trail leading beyond Oliver's small village to Ireland, Scotland and their own turf in the US, the stakes are high, and Emma and Colin must unravel the decades-old tangle of secrets and lies before a killer strikes again.

New York Times
bestselling author Carla Neggers delivers the gripping, suspense-filled tale readers have been waiting for.

My Review:

Thief’s Mark is the seventh book in the Sharpe and Donovan series. I’ve read the entire series and have enjoyed every single one. The series has been a combination of mystery with just a touch of romantic suspense. In the first book in the series Saint’s Gate, undercover FBI agent Colin Donovan runs into art expert, ex-nun and current non-undercover FBI agent Emma Sharpe on an art crimes case that involves their hometowns in Maine.

It’s the start of a beautiful relationship, one that finally results in their wedding at the end of Liar’s Key. Thief’s Mark takes place at the end of their honeymoon. At the end of my review of Liar’s Key, I speculated that it was highly unlikely that Emma and Colin would manage to have an uninterrupted honeymoon, and I’m pleased to say that I was right.

But this case isn’t really about them. Like so many long-running mystery series, part of what keeps readers coming back for more is whether or not they enjoy the adventures of not just the heroes, but whether they like the surrounding cast of characters who inevitably become involved in those adventures over time.

Whether it’s the residents of the small town in a cozy, or the other cops in the shop of a police procedural, if we don’t like the supporting cast, the series eventually loses its charm. At least for this reader.

So, while Thief’s Mark is definitely a part of the series, the mystery that has to be solved is not one of the art crimes that the FBI usually has Emma tackle. Instead, the mystery is that of the long-ago tragedy that set their friend and sometime frenemy Oliver York on the road that led to his becoming a high-class art thief and eventually an MI5 agent specializing in blood antiquities.

When Oliver was 8 years old he witnessed the murder of his parents in their London flat. He was kidnapped by the killers, dragged to Scotland, and escaped while his captors argued about his ransom. The tragedy altered the course of his life.

As this story begins, one of the killers is found dying on the front steps of Oliver’s Cotswolds farm. And Oliver bolts from the scene, leaving his friends behind to await the police and worry about what’s happened to him.

What’s happened is that his entire life has just unraveled, and a few words from a dying man have made him question everything he thought he remembered about that awful night so long ago.

Emma and Colin, dragged to Cotswolds at the end of their trip, find themselves in the midst of an investigation that spans the local police, and MI5, as well as opening up on surprising fronts in Dublin and back home in the U.S.

Thirty years of lies are about to become unraveled. So many assumptions are about to come unglued. Many long ago wrongs finally have a chance at being made right. But at what cost?

Escape Rating B+: I have enjoyed every book in this series, and Thief’s Mark was certainly no exception.

One of the interesting threads in this book was the pivot. The relationship between Emma and Colin, and whether they could manage to get together and stay together, in spite of two meddling families, undercover assignments on his part and a family of interfering detectives on her part who mess with and occasionally mess up their cases. Now that they finally managed to get married at the end of Liar’s Key, some of that tension has to shift somewhere else in the story.

In Thief’s Mark, it shifts to Oliver York. In many ways, Thief’s Mark is really Oliver York’s book, and to a significant extent Emma and Colin are side characters in his story. They are operating in England on the sufferance of MI5, they have no jurisdiction, and Oliver has been a bit too involved in some of their previous cases for them to be considered neutral observers. And Emma’s famous grandfather and Oliver are friends enough that Wendell Sharpe helps him when he’s on the run.

Things are a mess, but it’s definitely Oliver’s mess. Emma and Colin are mostly onlookers. And that’s more than okay. The originating event was Oliver’s tragedy, and the person who needs resolution out of all the current issues is Oliver. And he’s been an interesting character throughout the whole series, from his initial introduction as a mythology expert to his unmasking as the thief who bedeviled Wendell Sharpe to his current incarnation as MI5 consultant. He’s had a rough life and it’s time for his world to get straightened out a bit.

What made this particular mystery so fascinating was just how big it eventually became, and how much it unraveled by the time all the loose ends were tied up. Oliver was not the only person affected by that tragedy, even though he was the one affected the most. He also wasn’t the only one with questions that needed to be answered, and it was good to see that all those dangling messes (along with the red herrings) got cleaned up by the end.

As the story unfolds, Oliver finds himself to be both the thief and the mark.

That the story and the case focused on Oliver rather than Emma and Colin also made for a bit of fresh air blown into this long running series. There are plenty of other interesting characters among Emma and Colin’s band of usual suspects, and I’m terribly curious to see which long-standing mysteries in whose life get untangled next.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Thief’s Mark to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + GiveawayThe Summer That Made Us by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins, they lived for summers at the lake house until a tragic accident changed everything. The Summer That Made Us is an unforgettable story about a family learning to accept the past, to forgive and to love each other again.

That was then…

For the Hempsteads, summers were idyllic. Two sisters who married two brothers and had three daughters each, the women would escape the city the moment school was out to gather at the family house on Lake Waseka. The lake was a magical place, a haven where they were happy and carefree. All of their problems drifted away as the days passed in sun-dappled contentment. Until the summer that changed everything.

This is now…

After an accidental drowning turned the lake house into a site of tragedy and grief, it was closed up. For good. Torn apart, none of the Hempstead women speak of what happened that summer, and relationships between them are uneasy at best, hurtful at worst. But in the face of new challenges, one woman is determined to draw her family together again, and the only way that can happen is to return to the lake and face the truth.

Robyn Carr has crafted a beautifully woven story about the complexities of family dynamics and the value of strong female relationships.

My Review:

This is a story that will get you right in the feels. It certainly did me. And it will probably make you feel all the feels as well, as the story runs from tragedy to hope, if not to triumph, and hits every emotional stop along the journey.

Most of all, it’s a story about one particular extremely dysfunctional family, and their attempt to get to the heart of at least some of their dysfunctions and heal, before it’s too late.

And it’s about one final gift that one member of that family gives to herself, and to everyone that she has to leave behind.

The story begins with Charley and Megan, who seem more like sisters than cousins – possibly because they sorta/kinda are. Once upon a time, a young mother began bringing her two daughters to Lake Waseka, one of the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, every summer. The two Hempstead girls, Louisa and Jo Anne, had the time of their lives. When those girls grew up, they continued the family tradition, bringing their daughters to the lake, until the summer when it all went smash.

Lou and Jo married Chet and Ray, two sisters marrying two brothers. Continuing to outwardly mirror each other’s lives, they each had three daughters, alternating years, so that the six girls looked more like stair-step sisters than cousins. Even double-cousins.

But their lives weren’t as similar as they seemed. And neither were they. Lou’s husband was boring but responsible and respectable, while Jo’s was every woman’s bad-boy dream, in more ways than one. Ray was an alcoholic and a conman, and every woman’s bicycle – not that he would have thought of it quite that way. Lou was strong and decisive, while Jo was soft and often needed direction. Apart, they drifted into the extremes of their natures, with Lou turning sharp and angry, and Jo being the world’s doormat.

Those summers kept them grounded, and they helped each other stay strong in their broken places. Until they shattered, one summer night, when Lou’s youngest daughter, 12 year old Bunny, drowned on the lake in a tragic accident.

Twenty-seven years later, the cottage is still closed up, Lou and Jo are still estranged, and every single one of the remaining girls, their now grown up daughters with children of their own, are, in one way or another lost or dysfunctional.

Megan decides to spend her very last summer trying to patch the broken places in her family. With her waning energy, she gets everyone back to the lake for one last summer, in the hopes that if they can go back to where it all went wrong, they’ll have one last chance to patch things back together.

To be each other’s strength in all their broken places once more.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I deride the term, The Summer That Made Us is a stellar work of women’s fiction. The story is all about this group of women, their feisty grandmother, their battling mothers, the troupe of sister-cousins, and even their own daughters, and all the myriad ways that those relationships have played out over time, both good and bad.

The men in this story are merely supporting characters, and spend most of the story off-stage, whether in another city or a cemetery. There’s plenty of trauma that relates all the way back to the Judge, Grandma Berkey’s husband who was Lou and Jo’s father. He’s certainly dead, and thank goodness for that!

While there is a romance in this story, the romance itself is a sub-sub-sub-plot. But it is important both as part of one sister’s healing, and as part of clearing up one of the mysteries of Charley’s last time at the lake.

At the beginning of the story, ironically, the one thing that seems marginally hopeful is Megan’s final, experimental cancer treatment, and the one thing that seems beyond all possibility of healing is Charley’s contentious relationship with her mother Lou. In that regard, nothing is as it seems.

But at that beginning, all the relationships seem to be going to hell in a handcart, and it’s a bit of a hard read to get through. Nothing seems to be looking up, and some of the interactions are downright painful.

As things begin, every single member of the family is damaged in one way or another. And all in ways that seem to trace their origins back to Bunny’s death and the abandonment of those idyllic summers at the lake. But the girls were all girls at the time, ranging up from Bunny to somewhere in their teens. They all saw those lake summers as perfect, and were not necessarily aware of all the tensions running underneath, especially the roiling tensions between Lou and Jo.

Bunny’s death was not the only thing that went wrong that summer. But after it, nothing went right. And unfortunately for everyone, one of the underlying dysfunctions of the entire family was that no one ever talked about what was really wrong.

One of the things that is so terrific about this story is that even though it all went wrong and the same time and in the same place, for each one of the women that wrongness burst out into entirely different directions. All of the women, even in the end Lou, appear as ultimately sympathetic and surprisingly unique characters. They never seem alike, they are not cookie-cutters of each other. Each one is distinct, both in their voice and in their manifestation of the family dysfunction.

And that’s the biggest problem they have to work with. Or against. Until they can finally share all the separate pieces of that broken story, none of them will be able to heal.

At the beginning of The Summer That Made Us, it feels like this one, last summer on the lake is Charley’s gift to Megan. But in the end, this summer turns out to be one final gift that Megan gives to Charley, and everyone in her family.

And it’s beautiful.

(Bring tissues)

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

I’m very pleased to be able to give away a copy of The Summer That Made Us to one lucky US or Canadian commenter. I hope that the winner enjoys the story as much as I did.

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Review: The Shift of the Tide by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Shift of the Tide by Jeffe KennedyThe Shift of the Tide (The Uncharted Realms #3) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #3
Pages: 400
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A QUICKSILVER HEART

Released from the grip of a tyrant, the Twelve Kingdoms have thrown all that touch them into chaos. As the borders open, new enemies emerge to vie for their hard-won power—and old deceptions crumble under the strain…

The most talented shapeshifter of her generation, Zynda has one love in her life: freedom. The open air above her, the water before her, the sun on her skin or wings or fur—their sensual glories more than make up for her loneliness. She serves the High Queen’s company well, but she can’t trust her allies with her secrets, or the secrets of her people. Best that she should keep her distance, alone.

Except wherever she escapes, Marskal, the Queen’s quiet lieutenant, seems to find her. Solid, stubborn, and disciplined, he’s no more fluid than rock. Yet he knows what she likes, what thrills and unnerves her, when she’s hiding something. His lithe warrior’s body promises pleasure she has gone too long without. But no matter how careful, how tender, how incendiary he is, only Zynda can know the sacrifice she must make for her people’s future—and the time is drawing near…

My Review: 

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one.” While I may be quoting Spock from Star Trek, the maxim applies equally to Zynda of the Tala in The Shift of the Tide. The Tala are dying, slowly but inexorably. The barrier that kept non-Tala, in other words, non-magical people like you and me, from reaching Annfwn and its Heart of magic, also kept the Tala from going outside to the rest of the world.

The magic doubled and re-doubled upon itself, creating lethal mutations. And the Tala people, a relatively small population trapped together, inbred over the generations, with all the problems that creates. Too many children with extreme birth defects, and too few children all together.

Even though the barrier has expanded greatly, it may already be too late. The Tala population may be too small for viability on their own. And while it is possible for the Tala to have children with non-magical humans (the Tala, for all their gifts, are human still) those children, while they have a better chance of survival, have a much lesser chance of inheriting any of the magic that sets the Tala apart.

Zynda seeks a third way. If she can learn to shapeshift into the “Final Form”, as a dragon she will have the capability, among many, many others, to help Tala babies survive to term, and be born healthy.

Like all great gifts, it will come at great cost. If she survives the tests set by the dragon Kiraka, Zynda will herself become a dragon. The boon to her people is enormous. The price for Zynda is equally so. Dragon is the Final Form for the shapeshifting Tala. Once she becomes a dragon, she can never be anything else, ever again. She won’t be able to swim as a dolphin, canter as a pony, hover as a hummingbird, or take on any of the hundred other forms she has learned. She will be a dragon and only a dragon. She will be immortal. But she will never be human again.

Zynda believes that it will be worth any cost to save babies like her tiny niece, born with parts from multiple animal forms, but unable to be just one whole, healthy creature of any. Zynda has held herself apart from everyone, steeling herself against the day when she will have to give it all up.

But her goddess has one final test for her, before she makes that ultimate sacrifice. One stubborn, persistent man who teaches her the meaning and sweetness of love, even as he learns that lesson for himself.

Because it’s not a sacrifice unless you have something to give up.

Escape Rating A: I have, for the most part, absolutely loved these two interconnected series, The Twelve Kingdoms and The Uncharted Realms. (Ironically, one of the stories that I personally did not care for as much just won a RITA)

And the two series are deeply interconnected. In order to get the full marvelous flavor, you really do need to start at the very beginning with The Mark of the Tala, which is utterly terrific. The story in the first three builds to an epic conclusion. The results and/or fallout of that epic conclusion are then dealt with in the subsequent (so far) three books, of which The Shift of the Tide is the third. But The Shift of the Tide does not feel like the ending of this arc of the story. It is complete in and of itself, as all the stories in this series are, but the overall epic is not over, because the evil that is brewing is not even within sight, let alone defeated.

These series are fantasy romance, but in the sense that there is an epic fantasy story being told, which happens to include romances for the protagonists of each story. The epic fantasy element is every bit as strong as the romance, and it creates the conflicts and moves much of the action.

There is too much at stake for any of these romance to fall into petty jealousies or misunderstandammits. These people have the fate of their world resting on their very capable shoulders.

A huge part of the appeal of this series is that the stories are all heroines’ journeys and not heroes’ journeys, and not even heroes’ journeys with a gender swap. Nor are they remotely variations on the same heroine’s journey. Instead they showcase many different ways for women to be strong and to be heroines.

In the first series, the heroines are, respectively, a sorceress (The Mark of the Tala), a spoiled brat (The Tears of the Rose) and a warrior (The Talon of the Hawk). In this second series, we have, so far, a scholar (The Pages of the Mind), a warrior (The Edge of the Blade) and now a sorceress in The Shift of the Tide.

There is more than one road to heroism for these women. Nor is the route to power through either love or marriage. Even the scholar Dafne is powerful in her own right before she falls for King Nakoa in The Pages of the Mind.

The stories also explore many different variations of love and partnership, from the relatively traditional marriage between Dafne and Nakoa to the relationships between the two Queens and their consorts, which are true partnerships but are not legally defined. Love flourishes in many different ways.

The romance in The Shift of the Tide, while different from the ones that have come before, is similar in its differences. Zynda has kept herself apart, planning to become the dragon. Marskal the soldier, worms his way into her heart by first being her stalwart right hand, even when she doesn’t want him to. But his role is to support her on her journey, which he does marvelously.

She has all the hard parts. She has to prepare herself for the one-way trip away from his love, while still trying to drink the cup of sweetness to its dregs. We feel both her hope and her pain, and when the time comes, we understand the depth of her sacrifice, even as we hope against hope for another way.

Zynda’s story is marvelous from its beginning, rooted in the events of The Pages of the Mind, to its surprising end.

And I’m so happy that this story is not over, the now Thirteen Kingdoms are not yet safe. The story continues in The Arrow of the Heart, coming next summer. Not nearly soon enough for this reader.

Reviewer’s Note: A word to the wise – both Goodreads and Amazon originally said that The Shift of the Tide is a 250 page book. Having just finished it, I’m certain that it can’t possibly be only 250ish pages. It’s over 5000 kindle locations, and based on my reading time, it’s probably 400+ pages. They’re all excellent pages, and well worth the read, but if you are looking for something short, this isn’t it.

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + Giveaway

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard + GiveawayThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism
Pages: 304
Published by Melville House Publishing on August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains.

What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are a bit, well, odd. Okay, very odd. For example, Johnny's father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he's been there or not.

In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he's stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother's daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.

Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.

A big-hearted novel about a family with special gifts who sometimes stumble in their efforts to succeed in life, The Talented Ribkins draws on such novels as Toni Morrison’s Sula The Intuitionist to weave themes of race, class, and politics into a wonderfully accomplished and engaging novel.

My Review:

The Talented Ribkins is a lovely novel that surprises its readers in the end, in a way that leaves you shaking your head and re-thinking everything that went before. And then shaking your head again.

The blurb for the book talks about the “superpowers” that all the members of the Ribkins family have been gifted (or cursed) with. And those powers do come into play. But that’s not what the book is “about”, not really.

Instead, The Talented Ribkins is part of the great American road novel tradition. Johnny Ribkins, 72 and some days feeling every bit of it, is on what is probably one last road trip. His ostensible purpose is to dig up all the money he buried all over Florida, in order to pay his self-inflicted debt to someone who Johnny took a few too many years to discover was a really, really bad man.

But while he’s digging up all those little bags of money, he’s really digging up his own past. He starts by visiting his late brother’s old home, only to discover something he never expected. His brother left a child behind, and Eloise, now 13, has her own version of the Ribkins family talent.

Johnny makes maps. Maps to anywhere, from anywhere, whether he’s been there or not. Maps that route around any security, any obstacle, any difficulty whatsoever. His brother Franklin, Eloise’ dad, could climb walls. Any walls. Like Spiderman, but he didn’t need web shooters. His hands were sticky enough all on their own.

Johnny and Franklin made a good living, if not exactly a law-abiding one, as thieves. Until they stole something too hot to handle, and had a falling out. Franklin fell into booze and drugs and it was all over. But now there’s Eloise and her talent for catching anything that anyone throws at her. Or so it seems.

Johnny has a week to dig up all his buried treasure. Eloise needs to learn about her family, and how to handle her rather unusual talent in some way other than letting people throw cans and rocks at her to see her catch them.

But while what we see appears to be a broken down old man on a desperate race to save himself, one last time – nothing is quite as it seems. Not to Eloise, not to Johnny, and definitely not to the reader.

And it’s that twist at the end that makes the story as magical as the Ribkins family talents.

Escape Rating B: I was expecting the story to be more about those Ribkins family talents, those just slightly more than ordinary superpowers. But it really isn’t. The story is really about Johnny digging up his past, both the good and the bad, and letting himself remember who he was and what he tried to do.

Once upon a time, Johnny Ribkins wasn’t the only black man with a little something extra. During the Civil Rights era, Johnny and several like-minded and like-talented friends got together and formed their own version of the Justice League. They called themselves the Justice Committee, and they turned themselves into mostly unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Not because they did anything flashy, but because Johnny mapped them into the right place at the right time to allow the flashy things to happen. If a speech was important, the Justice Committee conveniently staged a distraction that took the KKK or the cops in their pockets into another direction. Their interventions, mostly non-violent, if occasionally slightly explosive, allowed the Movement’s movers and shakers to get out of the way of lynch mobs and false arrests so they could continue their work.

As Johnny travels with Eloise, he revisits all his former comrades He visits his family, both the one he was born to and the one he made. He’s looking for money he secretly buried with each of them. But his meandering road allows him to explore his own past, and see where it seems his present has changed course.

Until we discover that his present has arrived where it was meant to be all along, just from a slightly different route – not dissimilar to the way that Johnny handles that debt that set him on his long and winding road in the first place.

The story, like Johnny’s route, wanders a bit. The past and present blend together more than a bit, as they do in Johnny’s memories each time he digs up a bag of money, and his own past with it.

There are lots of times when Eloise wonders where they are going, why they seem to be driving in circles around Florida, and what the point of it all is. And sometimes so does the reader.

But in the end it all comes together, and the surprise, like the truth about Eloise’s talent, turns out to be just a bit magical.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Talented Ribkins to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Review: Glass Houses by Louise PennyGlass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #13
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a cold November day in Three Pines, Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, knows something is seriously wrong. Yet he does nothing. Legally, what can he do? Only watch and wait. And hope his mounting fears are not realized.
From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover if a debt has been paid or levied.
In the early days of the investigation into the murder, and months later, as the trial for the accused begins in a Montreal courtroom on a steamy day in July, the Chief Superintendent continues to struggle with actions he’s set in motion, from which there is no going back. “This case began in a higher court,” he tells the judge, “and it’s going to end there.”
And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he must face his own conscience.
In her latest utterly gripping book, number-one New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny shatters the conventions of the crime novel to explore what Gandhi called the court of conscience. A court that supersedes all others.

My Review:

I started Glass Houses while waiting for the eclipse to reach totality. And read it all the way home (there was a LOT of traffic). For this reader, the new Gamache book each year is every bit as much of a fascinating treat as the eclipse, with the added bonus that there’s a Gamache book every year, while the next eclipse won’t happen over the U.S. for another seven years.

I was not disappointed in either event.

As with several of the books in this series, Glass Houses is about more than it seems, and has its roots far back in the past. Not just Gamache’s past, but the past of the Sûreté du Québec, the agency that he loves, and to which he has given his life and his career.

How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyThere’s a saying that “the fish rots from the head down”. In many of the previous books in this series, culminating in How the Light Gets In, Gamache, while solving normal cases, or as normal as anything gets in Three Pines, is in the middle of getting rid of that rot, no matter the cost. And even though he does manage to get to the heart of the corruption, the fish has been rotting for 30 years. That rot has done a lot of damage, not just to the Sûreté, but to the people of Quebec.

The rotting fish was on the take. Unfortunately, not really a surprise. But what comes as a terrible surprise to Gamache and his inner circle is the terrible result of that rot, that taking. As this story begins, Gamache is now the head of the entire Sûreté du Québec, and not merely his own little corner in the Homicide Division. And what he has discovered is that the rot has gone on too long, and that it was rooted too deeply in the drug trade.

They’ve already lost the War on Drugs. They’ve passed the tipping point, and there’s no going back. Unless Gamache and his inner circle are willing to risk everything on one last throw of the dice. If they are willing to sacrifice  their reputations their careers and even their lives on one final million to one chance. If they can lure the drug kingpins, the snakes in their grass, into one final, fatal error.

Winner take all.

Escape Rating A: As so many of the books in this series, Glass Houses begins in Three Pines, that lost village near the U.S. border. And, also like many of the books in this series, it starts small. Someone is standing in the middle of the village green, black robed and black masked, terrorizing the village. Not by doing anything menacing, but simply by standing there, unmoved and unmoving, watching everyone in the village.

It, whatever it is, is there for someone. But whoever it is there to accuse, or warn, or menace, it is terrorizing everyone in the village with its ominous faceless gaze. And Gamache, now a full-time resident of Three Pines, can do nothing. Not that he doesn’t want to, but he really can’t. Standing on the village green in a mask is not illegal by itself. But when someone dies by its hand, or because of its presence, only then can he act. When it is seemingly too late.

The trial that results, from beginning to end, is a farce. But a farce with a purpose. Gamache and his colleagues, his co-conspirators, are ready to spring their trap. That they must subvert the cause of justice in order to save it is just one of the many tragedies wrapped inside this utterly compelling story.

Gamache is, as always, a fascinating character to watch. Although some of the early books in the series, beginning with Still Life, seem like more traditional mysteries than the later ones, there has always been a psychological element to the stories. Gamache solves crimes by searching for the why first. He’s a thoughtful observer, always looking for the thing or the person out of place. Once he knows why a crime occurred, from there he determines the who and the how. And the answers are never the obvious ones – and neither are his solutions.

(If this type of mystery appeals, then also try Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie, like Gamache, looks for why because she searches out who and how. And her stories always have a deeper underlayer below the surface mystery, as does Gamache’s story)

A huge element of what makes this series so marvelous is the village of Three Pines and its quirky inhabitants, including Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie. Added to the mix of villagers (and often well-stirred into that mix) are Gamache’s two principal lieutenants, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command at the Sûreté as well as his son-in-law, and Isabelle Lacoste, his handpicked successor in the Homicide Division.

For those of us who have followed this series from its beginning in Still Life, we know these people intimately. They are all old friends, and it is always wonderful to see them, even in the midst of yet another crisis. Their friendship provides support for Gamache, as well as surprising insights into events. There is always an undercurrent of wry humor, no matter how serious the case, and that humor is rooted in how well we know these people, and just how well they know each other. And how much they care. Just as we do.

They are all FINE, as the crazed poet Ruth Zardo puts it. Where FINE is an abbreviation for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical. Because aren’t we all?

Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + GiveawayYou Say It First (Happily Inc, #1) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Happily Inc #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool's Gold romances invites you to visit Happily Inc., a wedding destination founded on a fairy tale
Sculptor Nick Mitchell grew up in a family of artists and learned from his volatile father that passion only leads to pain. As he waits on a new commission, he takes a day job as a humble carpenter at a theme wedding venue. The job has its perks—mainly the venue's captivating owner, Pallas Saunders. Although he won't let love consume him, for ecstasy with an expiration date, he's all in.
Pallas adores Weddings in a Box. But if she can't turn the floundering business around, she'll have no choice but cave to her domineering mother and trade taffeta for trust funds working at the family's bank. Then when a desperate bride begs Pallas for something completely out of the box, her irresistible new hire inspires her. Nick knows she doesn't belong behind a desk, and she knows in her heart that he's right—where she really belongs is in his arms.

My Review:

If I were being mean, I’d say this story is set in a little town that was supported by a very big lie. But I had an absolutely marvelous time in Happily Inc., so instead I’ll say that the town was boosted by an absolutely fantastic public relations ploy.

Pallas Saunders is the proud and still surprised owner of Weddings in a Box, a little company that does theme weddings in the wedding destination town of Happily. As in “Happily Ever After”. Except that Pallas doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to look for her own happy ever after. So it has to come looking for her, in the handsome and downright hunky person of Nick Mitchell.

Pallas needs someone who can restore the huge, gorgeous wooden panels that she inherited as part of the business. Nick, an artist in wood sculpture, needs something to keep himself busy while he waits to see if he gets the overseas job that he assumes is already all his. Assumes in the sense that “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

The panels are beautiful beyond belief, Nick can’t resist the idea of restoring them to their full glory. He doesn’t care that the job pays minimum wage, because he doesn’t need the money. He just needs the work. And working for pretty, quirky Pallas is just the thing he needs to keep him busy while he waits.

Even though, or perhaps especially because, Pallas drafts him to be a palanquin bearer for a Roman-themed wedding the minute she sees him. She’s short one chair-carrier, and Nick looks like he’s up for the job.

That he looks absolutely delicious in a toga is just a fringe benefit. For Pallas, at least. Nick is left praying that his brothers never see a picture of him in this get-up. Or any of the many embarrassing outfits that Pallas talks him into when she needs an extra courtier, or cowboy, for a wedding.

Both Pallas and Nick are wary of relationships. Nick has seen the damage they can do when they go wrong, and just how far the emotional shrapnel can travel. Pallas doesn’t believe that love just happens, her entire life has been a lesson that love only comes when it’s earned. And Pallas’ mother has made sure that she always falls short of the goal – whatever it might be.

Pallas finds herself on the horns of multiple dilemmas. Her overbearing mother wants her to sell the business and come work at the family-owned bank with her. Pallas needs the business to make enough money to support her, it and her employees, and she’s failing. Nick needs a place to wait for his next big thing, and Weddings in a Box looks like it.

But the more they become involved, with the business, with the weddings, and with each other, the more deeply emotionally involved they become – and the harder it is to let go.

Just as soon as they both figure out what they really need to let go of.

Escape Rating A-: I fell in love with Happily and with nearly all the people in it – Pallas’ mother Libby definitely excepted.

Happily is a really cute place. Although this series is a bit of a spinoff from the author’s Fool’s Gold series (which I have not read), the place it really reminds me of is Icicle Falls by Sheila Roberts. Both are small towns which have used some really interesting PR tricks to make themselves into tourist destinations. Also both have residents that are oodles of fun to get to know.

Although Nick has some work to do, You Say it First is mostly Pallas’ story, and that feels right. She’s the person with the most on the line and with the biggest decisions to make about her future.

Pallas inherited Weddings in a Box from her friend and mentor, the previous owner. She loves the business, but, and it’s a very big but for Pallas, she doesn’t have the confidence needed to let it out of the box and grow. And that lack of confidence can be laid squarely at her mother’s door, as Libby belittles Pallas to the point of abuse at every possible turn. And even manufactures additional turns so she can heap more abuse on Pallas. It’s uncomfortable to read, as it should be. It takes Pallas a long time and more than a little bit of help from her friends to realize that the crap Libby’s dishing out isn’t really about Pallas – it’s really all about Libby. That revelation begins to unwind those ties that strangle.

A big part of the fun of this story belongs to Pallas’ circle of friends. Pallas may own Weddings in a Box, but it’s all of her friends in town who supply the business and its owner with moral support and very real business assistance. Everyone is ready to stretch their wings, so when an emergency wedding with very unusual requirements needs to be put together at short notice, everyone pulls together and pulls Weddings in a Box out of its safe little box and launches it into the stratosphere.

Along the way, Pallas learns to stand on her own two feet, to stand up to her abusive mother, and most importantly, to learn that love isn’t earned, it’s given. Whether Nick will figure out that same lesson in time is an open question until the very wonderful end.

I loved my trip to Happily, and am looking forward to going back, in Second Chance Girl. I can’t wait to see what happens next – and who it happens to!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Susan and Harlequin are giving away a $100 Amazon or Barnes and Noble Gift Card to one extremely lucky participant on this tour!

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Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry ThomasA Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock, #2) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #2
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in New York Times bestseller Sherry Thomas's Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.
Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.
Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.
In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

My Review:

I actually read this book a couple of weeks ago, when the Sherlock Holmes book I was planning to read kind of fell through, but I still had a taste for Holmes. So I dove through the towering TBR pile and emerged with A Conspiracy in Belgravia, the second Lady Sherlock book after last fall’s fascinating A Study in Scarlet Women.

While I am familiar enough with the Holmes canon to play spot the analog between a pastiche series like Lady Sherlock and the original, I certainly don’t have it memorized. So as obvious as it was that A Study in Scarlet Women was a play on the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, the derivation of the title of A Conspiracy in Belgravia was much less obvious. As much as it sounds to the ear like A Scandal in Bohemia, the stories are not related. Although, now that I think about it, A Conspiracy in Belgravia does contain hints of The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

So a puzzle for another time. Meanwhile, we have the conundrums that Charlotte Holmes and her associates have run across within the rather tony and well-to-do precincts of Belgravia. And, while Charlotte investigates not one but two separate mysteries, she is also mulling over a tempting marriage proposal from Lord Bancroft. The proposal is not tempting because of the man himself, but rather for the sheer number of problems that marriage to him will solve.

None of which resolve the largest dilemma that this proposal creates – that Charlotte Holmes is in love, if that phrase can be used for someone who is usually much more brain than emotion, with the man’s brother Lord Ingram. To add to the difficulties involved, Lord Ingram finally figured out that he is in love with Charlotte. Unfortunately for both of them, this discovery occurred well after his marriage to someone else. That it has become obvious over time that Lady Ingram only married him for his money makes the situation all that much more melodramatic and tragic.

Especially when Lady Ingram calls upon “Sherlock Holmes” so that the detective may discover the whereabouts of her former lover – a man who also happens to be Charlotte Holmes’ illegitimate half-brother.

When the puzzles that Lord Bancroft (who is definitely the analog to Mycroft in this pastiche) run into Charlotte’s commission from Lady Ingram, the intertwining conundrums begin to test even the mettle of Sherlock Holmes. Can she remain free, save her sisters and get to the bottom of all the conspiracies before it is too late?

Only Sherlock Holmes has the capacity to reveal the depths of this conspiracy. But can she? And, in the end, should she?

Escape Rating B: I’m a bit on the fence about this one, and for some of the same issues that were raised by the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women. One of the issues with historical fiction is where the author draws the line between making the female protagonist relatable to a 21st century reader and making sure that the character fits plausibly within her time period. If she’s not relatable enough, readers lose interest. If she’s too much a part of her time, the odds are unfortunately all too likely that her activities will be too restricted to make her the heroine of her own story.

With a Holmes pastiche, even one that plays as much havoc with the original characters as this one, taking Holmes too far away from the character we know and love, creates a third crevasse into which the story can fall.

One of the things that the author has done with this series has been to make Charlotte an unconventional creature of her times. While she may have a singular genius, the world treats her the way all women are treated – her movements are often restricted, she must hide behind her fictitious brother, the police inspector she assists resents her assistance because she is a woman, and her parents have the right to kidnap her off the streets, while the establishment will consider that a job well done.

The dilemma of Lord Bancroft’s marriage proposal is very real. She would regain respectability, her parents would leave her alone, and she can rescue both of her sisters, who very much do need rescuing. But marriage would give Lord Bancroft the right to control her movements and her activities. He has already said that he would not allow her to continue practicing as Sherlock Holmes. While his position as this world’s Mycroft means that he does have fascinating puzzles for her to solve, she knows that marriage sacrifices her happiness and merely her right to be her own person and make her own decisions for a safety that can be restricted or removed at any turn.

Charlotte’s relationship with Lord Ingram also gives me pause. With the notable exception of Laurie R. King’s utterly marvelous Holmes/Russell series, Holmes’ name and the word romance are seldom mentioned in the same breath. Or even in the same paragraph. For someone who so singularly knows her own mind, and gives it precedence over every other facet of her existence, Charlotte’s confused feelings about Lord Ingram don’t quite ring true for Charlotte as Holmes. If it is an attempt to make her seem, at least in this one aspect, more typically feminine, it falls a bit flat for this reader.

None of the above is to say that I did not enjoy A Conspiracy in Belgravia and this alternate vision of Sherlock Holmes, because the intricacies of the mystery were quite entertaining. The revelation of the mastermind behind events was both a surprise and not, as this personage could be expected to appear in some form in this series. But the way that events maneuvered around to the revelation were a pleasant surprise for the reader, and an unpleasant surprise for the characters.

As it should be.

Review: Highland Dragon Warrior by Isabel Cooper + Giveaway

Review: Highland Dragon Warrior by Isabel Cooper + GiveawayHighland Dragon Warrior (Dawn of the Highland Warrior, #1) by Isabel Cooper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal romance
Series: Dawn of the Highland Dragon #1
Pages: 320
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Legend claims
When Scotland fell to English rule
The Highland dragons took a vow:
Freedom at any price.

The war may be over, but so long as English magic controls the Highlands, not even a dragon laird can keep his clan safe. What Cathal MacAlasdair needs is a warrior fierce enough to risk everything, yet gifted enough to outwit an enemy more monster than man.
What he needs is Sophia.
Alchemist Sophia Metzger traveled to Loch Arach in search of knowledge. She never dreamed she'd learn to do battle, ride through the stars on the back of a dragon, or catch the eye of a Highland laird. But as her quest turns to sizzling chemistry and inescapable danger, she'll soon discover the thrill of being caught in a dragon's claws.

My Review:

I picked this up thinking that it was a followup to the author’s earlier Highland Dragons series, the one that starts wonderfully with Legend of the Highland Dragon, continues marvelously in The Highland Dragon’s Lady and comes to its awesome conclusion in Night of the Highland Dragon.

But Highland Dragon Warrior isn’t a followup. Instead, it’s the beginning of a prequel series. Instead of the very tail end of the 19th century, this story is set at the very beginning of the 14th century. The world is a very different place. Thinking about it, this series might be the story of that “legend” that Legend of the Highland Dragon barely touches on.

This feels like a bit of an alternate 14th century. Dragons aren’t the only otherworldly creatures that walk (or fly, in this case) the earth we know from history. Magic works as well, and there are both good and evil practitioners of it. And, possibly because this is the 14th century and mysticism of all sorts existed in real history, alchemy works too.

Our heroine is an alchemist. She is also a world traveler in an era when travel was very difficult at the best of times and women seldom traveled at all. But Sophia Metzger is an exception in a number of ways. She’s a woman, she’s a practicing alchemist, and she’s Jewish at a time when Jews were systematically being expelled from every country in Europe.

It is dangerous for her to travel, particularly through England, where the Jews were expelled only a century before. (This is real history, not fabricated for this story) Sophia hides who she is at every turn, because exposure will mean censure at best, and death at worst. But she has heard a rumor that the MacAlasdairs are dragons, and she wants to see if their scales can provide powerful catalysts for her alchemical potions.

When Sophia and her friend and chaperone Alice arrive at Loch Arrach, she comes at just the right time for Cathal MacAlasdair. He’s had an unfortunate encounter with an evil wizard, who has taken the spirit of his best friend hostage. All the mage wants in return is Cathal’s service. The service of a powerful dragon. Cathal knows that he can’t give in, and doesn’t want to. He recognizes evil when he sees it. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to save his best friend if he can do it without submitting to the wizard.

And that’s where Sophia comes in. He’ll give her a few of his scales for her experiments, if she promises to do her best to save his friend. He’s not even half as unreasonable as he could be. Cathal knows the odds are stacked against them. He only asks that she try, and that she be honest about those trials.

Sophia can’t resist the challenge. And when the wizard starts coming for her, she meets that challenge as well, with every ounce of skill and intelligence at her disposal.

But when Cathal comes for her heart, she resists at every turn. She knows it’s not possible for a laird’s son to marry a Jew, and she is, above all, an honorable woman. But neither of them can resist what’s meant to be, no matter what stands in their way.

Escape Rating B: Highland Dragon Warrior, in spite of its hard-charging title, is a slow-burn, slow-build kind of story on every front. The plot takes a long time to develop, and so does the romance.

The pacing resembles that of Sophia’s alchemical potion-making. Everything has to happen at the right time, in the right place, under the right influences. This isn’t Harry Potter, where potions seem to brew in minutes or at most hours. All of Sophia’s potions take days and even weeks to come to fruition, and the story moves at that pace.

So as much as I liked Highland Dragon Warrior, I can’t claim that it’s a page-turner, at least not until the final 15% of the story, where Sophia confronts the evil wizard.

But I really did like this story. I think one of the big reasons for that is the character of Sophia. We don’t see many Jewish characters in mainstream fiction, and we particularly don’t see many Jewish heroines in romance, neither contemporary nor historical. So one of the reasons that I really liked being inside Sophia’s head was that I could see myself in her in ways that don’t happen often.

As difficult as it was for a woman to be an intellectual, or to travel in her time, for Sophia there is always an added layer of danger because of her faith. And she is always aware that some people will always be prejudiced against her, for her gender, for her intellect, for her profession and for her Judaism. She tries to keep her faith hidden, as much as she can, while not betraying it. Her fears are real, and particularly real for me, in ways that may not resonate with other readers, but do for this one, especially now.

Another thing that made this book so interesting for me is that it is Sophia’s journey. She’s the real warrior in this story, and not the dragon-shifter (and very male) Cathal. She’s the only person with the knowledge and skill to take the fight to the wizard, and the only one who has a chance to prevail. Cathal (and his family) provide much needed support, but Sophia is the skilled warrior on this battlefield, and there is not one moment of doubt that she is the right person to fight this foe.

Cathal wants to protect her, but it always feels like it is in the sense that we all want to protect those we love, and not in the strong man protecting weaker woman sense. He doesn’t see her as weak except in the strictly physical sense, but then, this battle will not be fought by strictly physical, or even mostly physical, means. And while his attitude feels out of his time, it is not outside the way his family functions. Female dragons are every bit as powerful, if not a bit more so, than the males.

And I liked that the difficulties between them were not swept under the carpet in a wave of romantic fluff. Or even obscured by a cloud of lust. There are real issues, and those have to be dealt with in order to arrive at a happy ever after. They successfully compromise, but not in a way where she gives up everything for him. They meet in a negotiated middle, and it works.

I’m looking forward to the next story in this series, Highland Dragon Rebel, to see where those dragons fly next.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Sourcebooks is giving away 3 copies of Highland Dragon Warrior to lucky entrants on this tour.

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Review: Halls of Law by V.M. Escalada

Review: Halls of Law by V.M. EscaladaHalls of Law by V.M. Escalada
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Faraman Prophecy #1
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on August 1st 2017
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The Faraman Polity was created by the first Luqs, and has been ruled for generations by those of the Luqs bloodline. It is a burgeoning empire maintained by the combined efforts of the standing military force and the Talents of the Halls of Law. While the military preserves and protects, it is the Halls' Talents—those gifted from birth with magical abilities—who serve as the agents and judges of the Law. For no one can successfully lie to a Talent. Not only can they read people by the briefest of physical contacts, but they can also read objects, able to find information about anyone who has ever come into direct contact with that object. Thanks to the Talents and the career military, the Polity has long remained a stable and successful society. But all that is about to change.
Seventeen-year-old Kerida Nast has always wanted a career in the military, just like the rest of her family. So when her Talent is discovered, and she knows she'll have to spend the rest of her life as a psychic for the Halls of Law, Ker isn't happy about it. Anyone entering the Halls must give up all personal connection with the outside world, losing their family and friends permanently. Just as Kerida is beginning to reconcile herself to her new role, the Polity is invaded by strangers from Halia, who begin a systematic campaign of destruction against the Halls, killing every last Talent they can find.
Kerida manages to escape, falling in with Tel Cursar, a young soldier fleeing the battle, which saw the deaths of the royal family. Having no obvious heir to the throne, no new ruler to rally behind, the military leaders will be divided, unable to act quickly enough to save the empire. And with the Halls being burned to the ground, and the Talents slaughtered, the Rule of Law will be shattered.
To avoid the invaders, Kerida and Tel are forced to enter old mining tunnels in a desperate attempt to carry word of the invaders to Halls and military posts that have not yet been attacked. But the tunnels hide a dangerous secret, a long-hidden colony of Feelers—paranormal outcasts shut away from the world for so long they are considered mythical. These traditional enemies of the Halls of Law welcome Kerida, believing she fulfills a Prophecy they were given centuries before by the lost race of griffins. With the help of these new allies, Kerida and Tel stand a chance of outdistancing the invaders and reaching their own troops. However, that is only the start of what will become a frantic mission to learn whether any heir to the throne remains, no matter how distant in the bloodline. Should they discover such a person, they will have to find the heir before the Halian invaders do. For if the Halians capture the future Luqs, it will spell the end of the Faraman Polity and the Rule of Law.

My Review:

If you are looking for a new epic fantasy series to sink your reading teeth into, and where you can get in at the very beginning without having to read through a huge pile of doorstop-sized books, Halls of Law is definitely a winner.

It’s also an epic fantasy for the 21st century, where we have an absolutely marvelous heroine’s journey from the outset, as well as a hero’s journey that looks like it will take us to some fascinating places.

Our point of view character is Kerida Nast. All her life she’s wanted to be a soldier, just like everyone else in her family since pretty much the dawn of time. But unfortunately for Kerida, and it looks like fortunately for the rest of Faraman Polity, Ker is a Talent, definitely with that capital T, and Talents are special.

Ker turns out to be a lot more special than most.

Talents in the Faraman Polity are psychics, born with a gift that seems to be a lot like psychometry. When a Talent touches an object, they can read the entire history of that object, AND, most importantly AND, they can read the current status and even whereabouts of all the people who have been involved with that object. And they can read people the same way.

No one can hide the truth from a Talent. Which has made the Talents, over time, the instruments and enforcers of the rule of law. They are the law.

But in order to be impartial enforcers of the law, Talents are separated from the rest of the Polity. Once their gift is discovered they are taken from their families, not just for training, but for life, and forced to cut all ties to the rest of the world and renounce all titles and inheritances.

Ker finds it a cage, sometimes gilded, sometimes lined with shit. Or at least with encrusted oatmeal. But just as she realizes that she can make a new and good life for herself within the ranks of the Talented, disaster strikes, and she is forced to combine her new abilities with her old skills as a soldier.

And that’s where this utterly marvelous story truly takes wing. On the back of a griffin.

Escape Rating A-: This is a terrific story, but I have to say that it isn’t really anything truly new in the realms of epic fantasy. For those who have read a fair bit in the genre, there are plenty of recognizable tropes. However, those tropes are put together in some unusual ways.

Throwing more than a bit of The Handmaid’s Tale into a completely epic fantasy setting gives the story many of its chills, and makes the evil that our good Kerida fights particularly malevolent. Her enemies, the Halia, seem to embody the worst of everything that makes Men’s Rights Activists so foul, while embodying their deep misogyny into an epic fantasy setting and adding a few additional twists to make things that much scarier, and the stakes that much higher for our heroes.

But in the best heroine’s journey tradition, the story follows Kerida as she discovers who she is and what she is capable of. She finds herself at the center of events that will not just hopefully drive out the enemy, but also re-shape her world for the better. If she survives – and succeeds.

An outcome that is never certain. When Halls of Law ends, Ker has merely completed the opening stages of the prophecy that she and her companions must fulfill. And the odds are firmly stacked against them.

I can’t wait to find out happens next!

Reviewer’s Note: V.M. Escalada was billed as a debut author in the material I received for my Library Journal Science Fiction and Fantasy article, Galaxy Quests. I chose to read Halls of Law because the information provided about the book sounded so good, and the book certainly was good. I’m glad I read it. But, and for me this feels like a very big but, V.M. Escalada is not, after all, a debut author. Rather, this is a new pen name for author Violette Malan. I loved her Dhulyn and Parno series, which begins with The Sleeping God. I’m thrilled to have something new by her, I wondered where she went. But a new pen name does not a debut author make, and I feel like I was misled in the materials for that article, and that I, in turn, misled the readers of the article. Next time I’ll do more research.