Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.

Review: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Review: Acadie by Dave HutchinsonAcadie by Dave Hutchinson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 5, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.
The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.
Earth has other plans.
The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.
Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review:

“I think, therefore I am,” or so goes the quote from French philosopher René Descartes. But Descartes lived in the 17th century, well before the popularity of science fiction. In Acadie, the quote needs to be a question, “I think, therefore I am, what?”

Duke Faraday thinks that he is the president of a renegade colony of genetic researchers and tinkerers who made him president because he wanted the job the least. And he knows he’s pissed off because his admin/majordomo/minder has just woken him up too damned early on his day off because there’s a crisis.

And his desk is where the buck stops. Even if his so-called desk is generally parked in a bar – and there are no bucks of any kind on The Colony. (Unless the scientists who really run things have genetically engineered something since he went to bed the night before.)

The Colony is filled with a bunch of renegade scientists who are still paranoid about the Earth that they escaped from five centuries before. They left with a ship full of kidnapped colonists, an overabundance of genius and a complete lack of willingness to stop experimenting with the human genome – and any other they can get their gloved hands on – no matter how many people, organizations, and even governments tell them “no”.

So when a trigger-happy pilot brings down what is obviously a probe from the Earth they left behind, it’s all-hands-on-deck to bug out before Earth returns to take whatever fancy tech their geniuses have invented and bring home any survivors from that original hijacking back for trial.

Everyone gets away except for Duke and his “Dirty Dozen” of advisors who are left to look after the last of the technology clean-up. They are sitting ducks for the next Earth probe that comes along, and come along it does.

Duke thinks he’s holding the line against a rapacious colonization agency that likes to cut corners and doesn’t care how much collateral damage it does along the way. After all, that’s how he ended up in the Colony in the first place.

But the pilot of the probe has a different idea about his mission, and Duke’s, altogether. An idea that just might turn Duke’s entire universe on its head – or bust his wide open.

Escape Rating A-: At first, the tone of Acadie and its protagonist reminded me more than a bit of Heinlein by way of Scalzi. The way that the entire Colony pulled itself together to escape the threat had some of the feel of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although I should have been thinking more of The Man Who Sold the Moon, which is as much of a hint as I’m giving.

I also can’t help but think that Duke Faraday and John Perry (Old Man’s War) would have had a lot to talk about in that bar, possibly along with Fergus Fergusson from Finder.

The Colony as a form of government, a working utopia, an escape hatch, all of the above, seems like a fascinating place. The idea that the person elected president is the one who wants it the least honestly seems like an idea that might have merit and broader application. (And also adds to that Heinlein-like feeling. I keep thinking that sounds like something he would have said, but I can’t find a citation so maybe not.)

That the real powers-that-be are the scientists, possibly even the mad scientists, who escaped from Earth’s laws and proceeded to write their own and the human genome at the same time certainly does make the story interesting. And picturesque, as the scientists, called ‘The Writers’ because they rewrite the genome seemingly at a whim, often mine popular culture through the ages for their material and their whimsy.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the habitats that the Colony uses are one of the very few, if not the ONLY, beneficial uses of that plague of the South, kudzu, that has ever appeared in fiction.

So the story hums along, seemingly about a plucky band of scientists and other colonists doing their best to stay out of the clutches of the evil – or at least benighted – bureaucrats from Earth. We’re rooting for them and we’re sure they’ve found the right answers.

They are too.

But at the end, the whole story turns itself upside down, twists itself inside out, and spits the reader out of the book kicking and screaming, wondering what the hell went wrong. And it’s upsetting and glorious all at the same time.

(Reviewer’s Note: I’m on the horns of a dilemma here because of the brevity of the story versus the price of the book. On the one hand, this is only 112 pages. It’s a novella. On the other hand, the kindle version is $7.99 which is a bit much for the length. And on the third hand, because of that kick in the pants ending, I’m not sure this actually should have been longer. If Amazon is still selling used copies of the paperback at $1.50 that might be a better bet or at least a better cost/benefit ratio. YMMV)

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys FordDetroit Kiss by Rhys Ford
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, urban fantasy, vampires
Pages: 150
Published by Dreamspinner Press on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

For Javi Navarro, Detroit will become another blood-splattered city in his rearview mirror after he puts its dead back into the ground. Expecting an easy hunting job, Javi instead finds a kiss of ancient vampires on the hunt for a descendant of their long-dead creator.

Reclusive Ciarnan Mac Gerailt abandoned his family legacy of blood and death magic after it nearly destroyed him. Unfortunately for Ciarnan, the Motor City can only be saved if he resumes his dark arts and joins forces with Javi Navarro, the hunter who brought the vampire apocalypse—and hope for the future—straight to Ciarnan’s front door.

Previously published as "Legacy of Blood and Death" in the anthology Creature Feature 2

My Review:

Have you been wondering where urban fantasy went? I certainly have. Once upon a time, it was the hottest thing since, well, whatever metaphor seems appropriate for the 1980s or thereabouts, but then it kind of died off, sort of like the vampires that seemed to be the backbone of its antiheroes and tormented villains, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Not that ongoing series didn’t continue, but new ones just didn’t emerge from the shadows.

So to speak. Ahem.

I love urban fantasy and missed it when it slunk back into those shadows. It was one of my go-to genres when I was in a reading slump. But it’s starting to feel like it’s back from the dead. Or the graveyard. Or wherever it’s been hiding for the last decade or so. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at Holly Black’s Book of Night when it comes out next month. Because the heroine Charlie Hall is pretty much every hard luck and worse trouble kick ass heroine to ever stalk the pages of an urban fantasy. But I digress. Sort of.)

Because when I started reading Detroit Kiss, the first, second and third things I thought of were just how much it reminded me of the early Dresden Files books, to the point where I’m not sure whether Javi’s musings as to why so many magic-wielding heavy-hitters ended up in Detroit instead of Chicago. It felt like half explanation, half intercity rivalry and half homage to Harry Dresden’s stomping ground.

I realize that’s too many halves, but there are always too many somethings nasty in this kind of urban fantasy. In the case of Detroit Kiss, too many feral vampires. The bloodsuckers are definitely not the heroes of this piece. They’re the evil pests, to the point where the good guys call them “ticks” because they are mindless evil bloodsuckers.

So the tone of Detroit Kiss, with Javi Navarro working as a bounty hunter for the beleaguered Detroit Police Department, had the same feel as the early Dresden books, minus Harry’s somewhat leery male gaze. Plus, however, a slightly better love life – eventually – as Javi’s luck turns out to be better than Dresden’s frequently was. At least so far.

We’re introduced to this version of Detroit in decay when a construction crew attempting to revive the city yet again uncovers a “kiss” of vampires who have been trapped underground, gnawing on the bones of their makers and each other for a century. They’ve been stuck in the ruins of a speakeasy since Prohibition with nothing to drink except each other.

Until they eat the construction crew, that is.

But these ticks are fixated on the two magic users whose bones they’ve been picking clean all these years, so once they escape they go hunting for whoever is left of the bloodlines that made them.

And that’s where Ciarnan Mac Gerailt comes in, the only descendant of one of those mages within easy reach. Ciarnan is existing someplace between hiding out and living in an old theater he’s never bothered to refurbish in one of the many down-at-heels neighborhoods in this version of the city. He’s given up the death magic that is his family’s heritage and taken up growing vegetables and just trying to get himself, his wolf dog Elric and his fae familiar Shaddock through the day and the sometimes very long and dark nights.

Ciarnan looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back and took his friends, his apprentice and very nearly his life. He’s given up magic. Really, truly.

At least until Javi Navarro helps him put down one of the entirely too many ticks that has come after him in place of his several greats-grandfather. Javi wants Ciarnan to help gather up the ticks so they can pick the place and time and have a better chance at bringing them down.

And honestly, he just wants Ciarnan the minute he sees him – even though Ciarnan clocks him with a shovel the minute after.

But in order to help Javi, Ciarnan will have to look back into that abyss – and hope to heaven or hell that this time it doesn’t swallow him whole. While praying that the vampires don’t either.

Escape Rating A-: I have one and only one complaint about Detroit Kiss. It’s too damn short.

I mean that. Seriously. It’s too damn short and there aren’t any more. Rather like the author’s Dim Sum Asylum, which was another gem of urban fantasy that bordered just a bit on paranormal romance AND also had a fascinating world that seemed like there was oodles of backstory to explore, a riveting case to solve, a terrific pair of heroes and DAMN no sequel.

I loved the way that this almost-now/nearish future Detroit felt like an all too easy extension of where the city has been for the past decade or two (or maybe three), partially devastated and partly gentrifying and still trying to get back up on its feet in spite of all the forces trying to tear it down.

The magic system seems cool and interesting, and the whole idea of finding a buried speakeasy filled with rogue vamps was an absolutely chilling way to kick things off.

Ciarnan is one of the author’s signature wounded-but-trying heroes who do the right thing even if sometimes for the wrong reasons and are always one half-step away from backsliding into darkness.

The climactic scene is dark, deadly, dangerous AND squicky and heroic at the same time. I’d absolutely adore seeing where these guys and their world go next. I hope the author gets there someday because I’d be all in for it!

Review: Dirty Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Dirty Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + GiveawayDirty Work (Dirty Deeds #1) by T.A. Moore
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, romantic suspense
Series: Dirty Deeds #1
Pages: 182
Published by Rogue Firebird Press on March 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Crime Scene Cleaner [kraɪm siːnˈkliːnə] - Cleans up crime scenes…before the cops know there is one.

People always say ‘you can’t go home again’. It turns out that doesn’t count as a guarantee…especially not during a global pandemic.

After the jobs in LA started to dry up, crime scene cleaner Grade Pulaski was forced to pack up and move home. He loves his family, but the last thing he ever wanted was to face the ghosts he’d left back in Sweeny, Kentucky.

Also, the place just sucks.

He certainly isn’t going to stay any longer than necessary. The plan is to save up enough money to move back to LA and give his business a kick-start. The problem is that, as previously mentioned, Sweeny’s a hole and the locals are anything but professional.

Now a body has gone missing, Grade’s reputation is being held hostage, and people keep asking whether his Dad really did run off with 100 grand of meth in the back of Dodge. Plus, even though you shouldn’t sleep with your employers, crime lord Clay Traynor is exactly the sort of bad idea that Grade can’t resist. Tattooed, bad news, and dangerous.

…oh, yeah. Grade’s job is to clean up the crime scene before the cops know someone’s dead. That’s why he needs to sort this out before he gets a bad review on dark net Yelp.

My Review:

“It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it,” or so the old saying goes. And then there’s the whole idea of “dirty work” which is not the same thing at all. Although when we first meet crime scene cleaner Grade Pulaski, the job he has to do is both. Cleaning a public washroom that hasn’t been cleaned since the turn of the century – possibly since the turn of the 19th into the 20th – is just a dirty job that someone really ought to have been doing all along. Cleaning up the place so thoroughly that no evidence of the headshot corpse currently “littering” the place remains to be found – ever – is dirty work all the way around.

But that clandestine clean-up job is only the beginning of Grade’s misadventures with the “Catfish Mafia” that runs everything dirty and/or operating under the table in Sweeny – and it seems like that whole region of Kentucky.

Grade’s stuck in the middle – every bit as much as he’s stuck back in Sweeny – when his truck, with the evidence sloshing around in a barrel in the back gets carjacked. (Truckjacked?)

The job he thought was going to add to his “getting out of Sweeny” fund instead starts adding to his “reasons he wanted to leave yesterday.” Along with one long, tall, dangerous reason to stay.

Escape Rating B: I don’t think I was expecting a “Mafia romance” to be set among the tiny towns of Kentucky. So I have to admit that threw me for a bit. As did the fairly graphic description of just what Grade has to go through to clean up the mess that body made – in a place that surely didn’t need to be any messier.

But once the suspense part of this romantic suspense story kicks into gear – with the truckjacking – the need to figure out just what the hell is going on sets its hooks deep. Into Grade because he has to solve it to get out of this mess alive – and into the reader because it’s just such a damn convoluted puzzle.

On top of that – sometimes literally – there’s the hard, slightly mean and a bit edgy relationship that springs up between Grade and Clay Traynor. Clay seems to be the enforcer for the local branch of that Catfish Mafia, and its his job to keep an eye on Grade until someone decides whether the cleaner is in this mess up to his neck – or whether he’s going to end up in one of his own cleaning barrels. That Clay does most of Grade-minding from up close and personal is a surprise to pretty much everyone. Especially the two of them.

But it’s that suspense plot that kept this reader turning pages. Because the situation that seemed fairly simple at the beginning is absolutely anything but by the dirty, twisty end.

Guest Post from TA Moore + Chapter 2 of Clean Hands (check out Chapter 1 at MM Romance Reviewed)

Thanks for letting me pop in to talk about my latest book, Dirty Work, which comes out on March 4. This is the first book in the Dirty Deeds trilogy and I had a lot of fun with it! It’s available online – https://books2read.com/Dirty-Work-Dirty-Deeds-Book-1 – and I hope you like it! I had a lot of fun writing it!

I also hope you enjoy ‘Clean Hands’ a short story prequel to the series.

Clean Hands – Chapter Two

Harrison sat on the floor in front of the stained couch, a slice of frying steak held to his face, Watery blood dribbled down his face and stained the pearl-decorated collar of his blouse. Grade wasn’t sure if it was his blood or cow blood.

“That’s for a black eye,” Grade said. “It’s not going to cut it.”

He did have a black eye. His cheek was also puffed out and swollen, red and shiny-tight, and his lower lip split. Old blood scabbed along his chin and down his neck. Grade looked away uncomfortably as his stomach turned.

Shannon stopped their restless pacing of the room to give Grade an aggrieved look. “It’s not going to hurt is it?” he snapped. “Or do you have a better idea?”

“Call an ambulance,” Grade suggested. 

That made Harrison move the steak away from his face. Under it his eye was swollen shut, like a golf ball jammed into the socket, and his eyebrow was split. He slurred out something that was probably an objection from the way he gestured ‘stop’ with his free hand.

“We can’t,” Shannon said, to back him up. “The accident…it wasn’t…we didn’t come off worst.”

Shit.

“There was another car?” he asked.

Shannon opened their mouth to answer, thought better of it, and pressed their lips together as they shook his head in a quick ‘no’.

“And Harrison already has a record. If it goes to court, he’ll get the book thrown at him.”

“Say you were driving.”

Shannon pulled their glasses down their nose and leaned in so Grade could get a good view of their pupils. They were huge, blown so wide that the blue of Shannon’s iris was a pencil line around them. “You think I’m gonna pass a drug test?”

Their breath was stale with weed and the hot, sweet hit of formaldehyde. Grade leaned away from it.

“Why is this my problem?” he asked.

Shannon wiped their nose on the back of their hand and sniffed loudly. They gave Grade a challenging look. “You think you’re going to find somewhere else to live this cheap? Or that my aunt will keep you on at the funeral home if I get sent down?” they said. “Not that you’ll need to worry about that when Harrison’s dad finds out you’re the reason his son’s in court. I told you he’s connected.”

That part Grade wasn’t so worried about. Harrison had also claimed, at various times, that his mother was a movie star, that he had friends in Hollywood, and that there was an A-List actor who’d take him away from all this in a heartbeat…if Harrison’s independence wasn’t so important to him. And yet he had a shitty room in a shared house with the rest of them, and he regularly stole other people’s food.

The job thing was real though. Even with his shifts at the funeral home Grade was barely able to pay rent and buy food without dipping into his savings. If he lost it he’d be on the bus back to Sweeny in a couple of weeks. If he could beg the money for a ticket off his mom.

“I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Grade said.

“That’s not what I’ll tell them.”

Grade stared at Shannon for a grim second. Yeah, that was what he should have expected.

“OK,” he said. “OK. What the fuck do you want from me?”

Shannon just stared at him blankly for a second. Then they sniffed again and shrugged jerkily. “I don’t fucking know! Something.”

It could be argued that Grade had brought that on himself. He took a deep breath and held it for a second.

“OK,” he repeated. “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think. Where did the accident happen? We’ll go out there, see what state he’s in and…”

The confused look on Shannon’s face wasn’t going to lead to anything good. Grade could just tell. He stopped for a second and wondered if it had been such a bright idea to leave Sweeny after all. LA had been the dream, but it turned out there were shitty, dumb people here too.

Except that he had to pay rent to them.

“What did you do?” Grade asked.

Shannon apparently still had enough brain cells linked up to feel awkward. They shuffled their feet and then pointed down, at the ground between their mismatched trainers.

“…it was in the garage,” he said in a small, hoarse voice like a failed whisper.

The two of them stood on the cracked concrete floor and stared at the man. He was pinned against the wall of the garage by the grille of Harrison’s dune buggy looking jeep. His torso was slumped forward from the hips, limply sprawled over the crumpled, bright yellow hood of the vehicle. In the silence Grade could hear the sound of something dripping. It might be blood. It might be brake fluid. It could be both.

Dead bodies didn’t bleed once the heart stopped beating, but they could be drained. It was what they did at the funeral home, although the method there was a lot tidier. They had a bucket, for a start.

“Maybe he’s not dead,” Shannon said. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his shoes scuffed over the concrete floor, and chewed on the ragged edge of his thumbnail. “Do you think maybe…”

Grade pulled his attention away from the mangled obvious corpse and gave Shannon a disbelieving look.

“No,” he said sarcastically. “I don’t think he’s alive.”

He had been. That odd, quiet switch in Grade’s head, the one that he had instead of panic, had flicked on and methodically noted all the evidence that pointed to that. The smeared bloody hand prints slapped onto the dirty hood and the evidence of flesh slippage along the man’s thighs where he’d tried to pull himself free. It had taken him a while to die. That wasn’t uncommon with some catastrophic crush injuries, the body really didn’t want to deal with something like that. So it just didn’t. He probably would have died quicker if Harrison had tried to reverse–although the fact she hadn’t would not do her any favors if it got to court.

Right now, though, the man was definitely dead.

Grade shoved both hands back through his air and laced his finger together around the back of his skull. 

“Shannon,” he said. “What happened?”

“I told you!” Shannon said. “It was an accident. Sorta.”

That was such an obvious lie that Grade didn’t even bother to point it out. “Not what I asked.”

“He’s a dealer, I know,” Shannon said. They fiddled nervously with the button on the cuff of their shirt as they tried very hard to stop looking at the dead man. “I’ve bought from him before, but at work. You know? Except Harrison and I wanted to pre-game tonight, before we went out to the club. So I asked Johnny to meet me here. He had the gear, the deal went down fine, but then Harrison got back and he fucking freaked out.”

“Harrison or Johnny?”

Shannon twisted the button hard enough it snapped. They let it drop to the floor. “Both?” he said with a shrug. “Apparently Harrison had sugar-trapped him or something, stole a shitload of money. I don’t know, they were fucking screaming at each other. Harrison got in the car–to go, to run–then Johnny said that he’d be back and he’d have his boss with him…and I think it was an accident. I think Harrison just put the car in the wrong gear. You know?”

“If it was an accident, we can call the cops,” Grade pointed out. “Just explain what–”

“No,” Shannon said. “We can’t. OK? You need to deal with this.”

“Me? I need to deal with it?” Grade said, his voice thin and incredulous. He jabbed his fingers against his breastbone. “Why the hell is this suddenly my responsibility?”

Shannon looked shifty. “I don’t know,” he said. “Someone has to and you deal with dead bodies all the time. I don’t wanna touch it.”

Grade pulled a face at that and turned back to the dead man as he weighed up his options. He could ignore Shannon and call the cops. It wouldn’t actually do the dead man any good, he was past that, and it would screw them all over. And…Grade had his own reasons for wanting to stay off any cop’s radar.

“You owe me,” Grade said. Most of the time he worked to keep the Kentucky out of his voice, sanded it off with Youtube videos on elocution and careful mimicry of the rest of LA. This time he didn’t bother, it lay thick on the words. “After this. You really owe me.”

Catch the next chapter Wednesday at Two Chicks Obsessed and follow the tour for the rest of the story!

 

About the Author:

TA Moore is a Northern Irish writer of romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and contemporary romance novels. A childhood in a rural, seaside town fostered in her a suspicious nature, a love of mystery, and a streak of black humour a mile wide. As her grandmother always said, ‘she’d laugh at a bad thing that one’, mind you, that was the pot calling the kettle black. TA Moore studied History, Irish mythology, English at University, mostly because she has always loved a good story. She has worked as a journalist, a finance manager, and in the arts sector before she finally gave in to a lifelong desire to write.

Coffee, Doc Marten boots, and good friends are the essential things in life. Spiders, mayo, and heels are to be avoided.

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Review: Down a Dark River by Karen Odden

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen OddenDown a Dark River by Karen Odden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #1
Pages: 328
Published by Crooked Lane Books on November 9, 2021
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In the vein of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, Karen Odden’s mystery introduces Inspector Michael Corravan as he investigates a string of vicious murders that has rocked Victorian London’s upper crust.
London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.
An Irish former bare-knuckles boxer and dockworker from London’s seedy East End, Corravan has good street sense and an inspector’s knack for digging up clues. But he’s confounded when, a week later, a second woman is found dead in a rowboat, and then a third. The dead women seem to have no connection whatsoever. Meanwhile, Mr. Stiles makes an alarming discovery: the shipping magnate’s missing wife, Mrs. Beckford, may not have fled her house because she was insane, as her husband claims, and Mr. Beckford may not be the successful man of business that he appears to be.
Slowly, it becomes clear that the river murders and the case of Mrs. Beckford may be linked through some terrible act of injustice in the past—for which someone has vowed a brutal vengeance. Now, with the newspapers once again trumpeting the Yard’s failures, Corravan must dredge up the truth—before London devolves into a state of panic and before the killer claims another innocent victim.

My Review:

This first book in the Inspector Corravan series begins in the middle in a way that just plain works. For one thing, Corravan is 30 or thereabouts, meaning that he had not just a life but an adult life for years before this story begins. Howsomever, the book does a terrific job of telling the reader enough about his previous life AND his previous cases for us to get a feel for the man as a character as well as how good he is at his job and how often he rubs his superiors the wrong way.

It’s also a bit in the middle when it comes to the circumstances of Scotland Yard and the London Metropolitan Police Department. The situation that the department is in when we first meet Corravan is taken from history. The corruption trial that rocked the Met and still influences the public’s acceptance or lack thereof towards the police really happened. The man who is in charge of the newly formed CID (Criminal Investigation Department) that Corravan serves is a fictional avatar of the real C.E. Howard Vincent who held that position at the time this book takes place..

So the story is grounded in the real a bit more deeply than the usual historical mystery, and that’s part of what makes the story so fascinating. But the truly compelling part of this story is the mystery itself. As it should be.

It all starts with the discovery of a woman’s body floating down the Thames in a lighter, a small boat used to carry cargo along the river. She’s relatively young, blond, pretty and appears to have been well-off if not outright wealthy based on her clothing and her physical condition. She wasn’t raped, but the skirt of her dress was cut open, her wrists were slashed post-mortem and there were flowers in the boat.

Whoever killed her, whyever they did it, the dead woman left behind a fiancé, parents and friends who loved her and are devastated by her death. Corravan begins an investigation, under pressure from his superiors, who are under pressure from theirs. Everyone wants the murder solved before the public loses even more confidence in the police.

A week later there’s a second body. Then a third who the mysterious killer lets go, possibly because she’s pregnant. Corravan is out of his mind, losing his temper, and losing his battle against the demon drink all at the same time.

Because the victims seem to have nothing in common save their gender, station and appearance. He’s not making any headway and the powers-that-be are losing patience – although not as fast as Corravan is.

Just when he’s at his wit’s end – and about to be demoted for it – a key witness steps out of the shadows. He learns just how heinous this crime really is – and just how hard it will be to bring absolutely everyone responsible to any kind of justice.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because I read and enjoyed two of the author’s previous books, A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit, also Victorian-set mysteries. And also books that center women’s stories and women’s lives even though much of the investigation is driven by a male protagonist.

So when I learned this book existed, I was happy to set aside the books I’d bounced off of this week and dive right in. Especially as I was even more tempted by the description of the story appealing to readers of C.S. Harris and Anne Perry, as I loved both authors’ 19th century-set mystery series.

While Down a Dark River resembles C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series in the way that it is so firmly grounded in its time and place, and the way that it borrows from real history using real people as secondary characters, the true resemblance is to Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series and her William Monk series. Corravan’s background – and his temperament – resemble Monk, but the time period in which this series is set makes him contemporaneous to the Pitts. A time when the world was obviously changing as a result of the Industrial Revolution, both for good and for ill.

This case, as Corravan himself remarks, feels like a new kind of crime. He’s chasing a serial killer – someone organized but with a deranged mind or at least worldview. Not someone who kills in the heat of the moment, but someone who plans meticulously and seeks out victims who make sense for reasons that exist only in his own head.

The process of the investigation, and the way that Corravan nearly loses not just control of it but control of himself, gives us a window into a fascinating character who does not want to adapt to the times or the circumstances, only to discover that the cost of not doing so is greater than he is willing to pay.

Earlier I said that this book centers women’s stories and lives in spite of its male protagonist. And the way that is worked out in the story made for a compelling twist that carries the reader, the detective and eventually his department along to a stunning conclusion that satisfies in one way but can’t possibly do so in another.

Nor should it, which is what made this so very good.

I expected to like this, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I most definitely did. So I’m very happy that Inspector Corravan’s investigations will continue later this year in Under a Veiled Moon.

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
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This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: Love Code by Ann Aguirre

Review: Love Code by Ann AguirreLove Code (Galactic Love #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Galactic Love #2
Pages: 324
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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He's cute. He's cranky. His code is sleek as hell.What's an amnesiac AI doing in a place like this? Helix has no idea. He knows he planned to build a life for himself on Gravas Station, but he has no clue what he's been doing for the last half cycle. Nor does he understand why his ship crashed. A genius Tiralan scientist saved him by copying his code into an organic host, and after meeting her meddling mothers, it seems like his problems have only just begun...
She's clever. She's creative. She claims that he's her mate.Qalu has no interest in relationships. She'd much rather be working in her lab, innovating instead of socializing. Problem is, the Tiralan believe that one cannot be happy alone. When a solution literally falls from the sky, she leaps at the opportunity to advance her research and teach Helix how to be Tiralan while calming her mothers' fears. It might be unconventional, but she's ready to break all the rules for a little peace.
They agree to pose as each other's mates for the most logical reasons, but love always finds a way.

My Review:

Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Data wanted to experience what it meant to be human. Howsomever, Helix, the self-aware, self-willed and occasionally downright deceptive AI of Strange Love had no desire to experience “meat space”.

So of course he gets what he absolutely did not wish for. The chance to experience “life” in a mostly organic body. And in a case of karma being a bitch galaxy-wide, his program has been deposited into an organic construct on Tiralan. He knows plenty about Tiralan history, customs and behavior because he fabricated a Tiralan identity in order to lure his friend Zylar off of Baranth, through an equally fabricated data glitch so that he could get the shy, self-effacing Baranthi to Earth where his friend had the best chance of meeting someone who would be willing to go through his planet’s Mating Trials with him.

That was the story in the first book in this series, Strange Love. And it’s absolutely marvelous, so if you like science fiction romance or alien romance at all – read it before picking up Love Code.

By the end of Strange Love, Helix the rather conniving AI had become self-aware, sentient and even sapient – making him too much AI to get around the laws of Baranth. So Zylar set Helix free and on his way to a place where he might be safe to explore his own destiny, while untethering the AI from the shit that is just about to hit Zylar’s personal fan.

The best laid plans and all that meant that Helix crash landed on Tiralan instead, to be rescued by Qalu, a femme Tiralan cybernetic engineer who was experimenting with placing AI consciousness into mostly organic constructed bodies. Who just so happens to have the perfect body all ready for her to transplant Helix’ code into.

Well, it’s perfect from her perspective. The body she designed is ready in an engineering sense, as well as fully functional and perfectly designed to trip every single one of her triggers. After all, even in the ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, that long ago sculptor didn’t design nor fall in love with an ugly statue.

When Helix recovers from the surgery/transplant/metamorphosis, he has a difficult time adjusting to his new circumstances. He’s never experienced ANYTHING to do with having a meat space body made of real meat. The scene where Qalu has to explain hunger, eating, and the inevitable result of the latter is a marvel of cringing hilarity.

The story here is initially about the dovetailing – you might almost call it fated – of Qalu’s needs with Helix’. Helix needs a safe place to learn and recover – both his newly physical self and the puzzling gaps in his memory. Qalu needs to evaluate the results of her experiment – which is after all her life’s work.

More immediately, she also needs a fake potential mate to fend off the well-meaning interference of her four mothers, all of whom want Qalu to find a nice partner or two or three (love groups are the usual form of family on Tiralan), stop spending so much time alone in her laboratory or with her pet Pherzul Aevi (think intelligent, talking cat – which may not be strictly correct but works anyway).

So Helix and Qalu – with Aevi’s agreement – choose to tell a bit of a white lie. But just as their fake relationship tilts towards a actual one, reality rears its ugly head. A bounty hunter has come to Tiralan, chasing Helix. Possibly just for existing as a self-aware AI, but more likely for something Helix did before he crashed on Qalu’s doorstep.

It’s time for them to run, in the hopes of escaping whatever is dogging Helix’ heels. It’s already too late for them to run from each other – no matter how much Helix believes that they should.

Escape Rating B+: While Love Code wasn’t quite as much fun as the first book in the trilogy, Strange Love, it was still an awful lot of fun. Which is exactly what I was looking for as yesterday’s book wasn’t quite up to its series and the book I planned to review today just wasn’t working for me. It happens.

I loved Strange Love so much that I was reasonably sure that I’d have a good reading time with Qalu and Helix – and I was NOT disappointed.

Howsomever, the planet Tiralan turned out to be a surprising place for a meet-cute and a fake relationship type of romance – especially with the fascinating issues of power dynamics and informed vs. forced consent in all their permutations.

Helix is very much in the experimental stage with his new and initially unwelcome body and all of its many sensations – not all of which are pleasurable or even seemly from his perspective. He’s learning, he’s trying, he’s adapting and he’s confused more often than not. He also doesn’t know what either attraction or love feel like. So he doesn’t recognize those feelings when they start happening to him.

Qalu knows what she wants, and also knows that it would be unethical for her to reach for it. Or rather, reach for Helix, the way that she wants to. She recognizes that he’s dependent on her on Tiralan.

But when they go on the run, the situation changes. Helix has traveled the stars. He may be in a meat space body now, but he knows how to act and react and has lots of information to help them on their clandestine journey.

Now Qalu is lost. She’s always stuck close to home, not just the planet but her own homespaces. She’s scared, she feels inadequate and useless, and she’s homesick. So is Aevi. Qalu doesn’t know how to help and fears she’s an actual hindrance that Helix will eventually leave behind. (She kind of regrets that she made him so very handsome for their species!)

What makes this story work so well is the way that their power dynamics shift, and the way that they both adapt in spite of so many things standing – sometimes literally – in their way.

The story in Love Code ended up being a bit more of a straightforward romance than Strange Love, which is probably why I liked Strange Love a bit more. I enjoyed the journey of exploration of this new universe as much as I did the romance. But I definitely had a good reading time with Helix and Qalu so I’m glad I was able to follow up with this series so quickly.

The final book in the series, Renegade Love, is set up in this book, just as this one turned out to be set up in the first book. And I am so looking forward to reading it!

Review: Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

Review: Strange Love by Ann AguirreStrange Love (Galactic Love #1) by Ann Aguirre
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Galactic Love #1
Pages: 304
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 20, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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He's awkward. He's adorable. He's alien as hell.Zylar of Kith Balak is a four-time loser in the annual Choosing. If he fails to find a nest guardian this time, he'll lose his chance to have a mate for all time. Desperation drives him to try a matching service but due to a freak solar flare and a severely malfunctioning ship AI, things go way off course. This 'human being' is not the Tiralan match he was looking for.
She's frazzled. She's fierce. She's from St. Louis.Beryl Bowman's mother always said she'd never get married. She should have added a rider about the husband being human. Who would have ever thought that working at the Sunshine Angel daycare center would offer such interstellar prestige? She doesn't know what the hell's going on, but a new life awaits on Barath Colony, where she can have any alien bachelor she wants.
They agree to join the Choosing together, but love is about to get seriously strange.

My Review:

“We like someone because. We love someone although.” Or so goes the quote. Another way of putting it as far as Strange Love is concerned, wraps around the question about where does love spring from? Does it come from the heart, from the brain, or from somewhere below the waist?

Is it possible for Beryl Bowman and Zylar of Kith Balak to fall in love with each other and make a strong partnership, although they are not from the same planet, they don’t breathe the same air, and their anatomical parts do not line up AT ALL?

Their people even took different evolutionary paths. Humans evolved from mammals and share common ancestors with the great apes, way, way, way back when. Zylar’s people seem to have evolved from something insectoid, also way, way, way back when. And on the other hand, or grabber, or limb, or whatever other species call it, Zylar’s people managed planetary unity and intergalactic space flight quite some time ago, while we’re definitely not there yet.

Garrus Vakarian from Mass Effect

I went into this story because I wanted to see that happy ever after in spite of all the factors that would argue against it even being possible. That predisposition to see them make it work can be laid at the door of the Mass Effect trilogy and the possible romance (if you chose it) of a female Commander Shepard and the Turian Garrus Vakarian. Whose people also evolved from their planet’s insectoids, and who may give great voice (he really does) but otherwise isn’t anatomically compatible with the human Shepard.

And yet, it’s the sweetest romance in the game (IMHO) and I wish they’d gotten their HEA (There is no HEA no matter which romance you choose because reasons.) So I went into Strange Love hoping for a vicarious happy ending for that epic tragic romance.

I got EXACTLY what I was hoping for. With bells on!

Escape Rating A: The romance in Strange Love combines a “meet cute” – for intergalactic definitions of that phrase – with a version of the TV shows The Bachelor AND The Bachelorette combined into a multi-day gladiatorial contest. A contest which it is possible to “win” but still lose at the same time.

To mix SFnal metaphors even further, it’s as if the Vulcan mating ceremony from the Star Trek Original Series episode Amok Time or the Next Generation episode Code of Honor involved multiple potential couples in a competition for both parties rather than only one side of the potential partnership being decided by a fight to the death.

The Strange Love that arises between Beryl and Zylar is also a romance between a “beta” male who has been told all of his life by his family that he is just not good enough in any possible way – especially in comparison to his alphahole sibling Ryzven. Zylar has HUGE confidence issues – and understandably so.

Beryl, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels the fear and does it anyway. She leaps and hopes the net will appear, but even if it doesn’t, she’ll survive. Not that life hasn’t also beaten her down, but her reaction to that metaphorical beating has been to pick herself up, dust herself off, and survive. She fakes it till she makes it, and if she doesn’t really think she’s made it no one else has to know.

It’s a confidence she can pass to Zylar – if he’ll let her. If his family will let them try. And that’s the story – the two of them trying to survive the Choosing, together, and win his family’s grudging acceptance if not approval. If they can.

That they manage to give his alphahole sibling the comeuppance he so richly deserved is the icing on the cake. Bittersweet icing, as the douchecanoe manages to do a LOT of damage along his selfish, self-centered, spoiled and self-indulgent way.

That Zylar and Beryl learn that love can be found in the strangest places with the strangest people makes Strange Love a strange and wonderful story. That Beryl’s “bestest boy” dog Snaps learns to talk and becomes part of their strange little family made the story, which was already lovely and exactly what I was hoping it would be – just that much better.

Strange Love is the first book in what looks to be a marvelous series. I bought the whole thing, and now I can’t wait to start reading the next book, Love Code, the minute I get the chance!

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda QuickGarden of Lies by Amanda Quick, Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 359
Published by Berkley on April 21, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The Kern Secretarial Agency provides reliable professional services to its wealthy clientele, and Anne Clifton was one of the finest women in Ursula Kern’s employ. But Miss Clifton has met an untimely end—and Ursula is convinced it was not due to natural causes.   Archaeologist and adventurer Slater Roxton thinks Mrs. Kern is off her head to meddle in such dangerous business. Nevertheless, he seems sensible enough to Ursula, though she does find herself unnerved by his self-possession and unreadable green-gold eyes…   If this mysterious widowed beauty insists on stirring the pot, Slater intends to remain close by as they venture into the dark side of polite society. Together they must reveal the identity of a killer—and to achieve their goal they may need to reveal their deepest secrets to each other as well…

My Review:

The popular perception of heroines in historical romance is that their lives were restricted and that they were supposed to be innocent even into adulthood and as a consequence were naïve and/or ripe to become damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by the hero.

An image that probably wasn’t true even among the aristocracy, and certainly couldn’t have been outside it. Which doesn’t prevent it from still being a popular perception. But readers aren’t looking for innocent damsels in distress nearly as much as they used to. We’re looking for women we can manage to identify with.

In that sense, Ursula Kern is a fascinating choice as a heroine. She’s a widow. She’s permitted to no longer be innocent or naïve. She’s on her own, and she owns her own business – not as a member of the demimonde – but a respectable business employing respectable women who are able to earn respectable incomes.

Whatever hopes and dreams she may have, she is expected to present herself as a responsible, respectable, professional adult person. She’s been through enough to know that the only person who will take care of her is her. As a woman with neither a husband nor living parents nor male siblings, there is no one to gainsay her determination to make a living for herself and to provide good livings for as many women as possible in her employ.

Ursula may not have family, but she does have friends as well as colleagues and employees. The late Anne Clifton was all of the above; an employee who became a colleague and friend. Ursula Kern is certain that Anne Clifton was murdered. Finding her killer is the last thing that Ursula can do for her friend – and she’s determined to do it.

She just needs a bit of help. Or at least she hopes for it. And that’s where Slater Roxton comes in. Slater, a man with a mysterious incident in his past that has fueled the gossip rags and gutter press for years, is an expert on finding lost artifacts and tombs – where he once got trapped.

(Come to think of it, he’d probably be a contemporary of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Sr., the father of archeologist, treasure hunter and troubleshooter Indiana Jones. If there turned out to be some influence there I wouldn’t be at all surprised.)

Slater, for reasons of his own, some more obvious than others, can’t let Ursula go off on her investigation all alone. It’s not that he doesn’t believe she quite capable as an adult and as a businesswoman, but ferreting out the truth about dastardly murderers who have so far been successful at making their crimes look like accidents is a dangerous business.

A business with many more dangerous tentacles – or should I say twisted roots and entangling vines – than either Slater or Ursula ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I read this for fun. I was bouncing hard off of everything and went looking for a story that I knew would be instantly absorbing. I was highly tempted to read this author’s Lightning in a Mirror which is out next week, but then I remembered that Garden of Lies was STILL on my “Highly Anticipating” Shelf on Edelweiss. In fact, it was the oldest book on that shelf. So here we are.

Garden of Lies was every bit as instantly absorbing and fun as I hoped, even if I didn’t completely buy the inevitable romance between Slater and Ursula. The rest of the story, especially the uncovering of the full scope of the criminal plotting AND the nefarious dealings on both sides of the pond, was absolutely riveting.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the way that all the women in the story, including the secondary characters, dealt with their world in a way that seemed realistically sensible. Not just that Ursula and the women she employs have made their own way independently, but the way that Slater’s mother, the actress who was the lifelong paramour of a titled noble, knew exactly what she was letting herself in for and moved through the world as she found it and not as anyone dreamed or hoped it would be. That his late father was sanguine enough to not merely acknowledge Slater was his but to trust his illegitimate son to protect his legal widow and legitimate heirs from her abusive father.

Their approaches to their world make sense in a way that isn’t always true in historical romance.

The mystery plot was marvelously convoluted and the reveal of it was appropriately painstaking. Ursula starts with the death of her friend, finds evidence that her death was murder, and then begins to dig. The solution is revealed in layers, as each new bit of information leads to a place that no one had foreseen from the opening. The web was woven very tightly, and it takes and appropriate amount of time and effort to unravel it fully.

As Ursula and Slater eventually manage to do. I liked them as partners, I just didn’t see enough of them “falling” in love to buy that they really were in love. But I’m still glad they found their slightly unconventional HEA.

There was no paranormal woo-woo in this standalone book, as there so often is in the author’s Arcane Society series, yet it still had some of the same feel with its nefarious plot, double-dealing, wheels within wheels criminal organization, and the investigation into dirty deeds done in very dark places for both evil and mercenary ends.

But the author has two books with some of that paranormal vibe coming soon, Lightning in a Mirror next week and When She Dreams in April. My reading appetite for both has certainly been whetted!

Review: Fated Blades by Ilona Andrews

Review: Fated Blades by Ilona AndrewsFated Blades (Kinsmen, #3) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Kinsmen #3
Pages: 222
Published by Montlake on November 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

An uneasy alliance between warring families gets heated in this otherworldly novella from bestselling author Ilona Andrews.
At first glance, the planet Rada seems like a lush paradise. But the ruling families, all boasting genetically enhanced abilities, are in constant competition for power―and none more so than the Adlers and the Baenas. For generations, the powerful families have pushed and pulled each other in a dance for dominance.
Until a catastrophic betrayal from within changes everything.
Now, deadly, disciplined, and solitary leaders Ramona Adler and Matias Baena must put aside their enmity and work together in secret to prevent sinister forces from exploiting universe-altering technology. Expecting to suffer through their uneasy alliance, Ramona and Matias instead discover that they understand each other as no one in their families can―and that their combined skills may eclipse the risks of their forbidden alliance.
As the two warriors risk their lives to save their families, they must decide whether to resist or embrace the passion simmering between them. For now, the dance between their families continues―but just one misstep could spell the end of them both.

My Review:

This book was an absolutely delightful surprise in more ways than one!

First, I have to say that it was a surprise that it existed. The first two books in the Kinsmen series, Silent Blade and Silver Shark, came out over a decade ago. When I reviewed them both in 2014 for the late and much lamented Science Fiction Romance Quarterly, they were all there were.

But that’s a long time ago in, let’s call them, “book years”.

They were both terrific – although unfortunately terrifically short – and I stopped hoping for more a long time ago. Yet here we are.

After a very long hiatus, the Kinsmen series is back in Fated Blades. And it’s every bit as much fun as the previous books, as well as blissfully more than a bit longer.

That’s always been my one complaint about the series – that the books aren’t nearly long enough. And it’s still true – although getting better each time.

The story, on its surface, is simple enough. This is an enemies to lovers story with a vengeance. Literally. The Adlers and the Baenas have been enemies and rivals for centuries – all the way back to the founding of the colony on the planet Rada.

A rivalry that has occasionally bloomed into a hot war, but has always simmered as a lukewarm if not cold conflict between merciless rivals. An evenly matched antagonism between rival clans with the same business interests and the same dedication to continuing the extreme martial training of their ancestors.

But the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And this story begins when Ramona Adler stalks into Matias Baena’s office – into the heart of her enemy’s territory – because she and Matias have a desperate common cause – he just doesn’t know it until her one-woman invasion of his family’s corporate tower.

His wife has run off with her husband. Not that either of them loves their arranged spouse any more than those spouses love them. Or anyone but themselves. This betrayal isn’t nearly that simple.

Both companies have invested all their resources, pushing themselves to the brink of collapse, in order to research the genetic modifications that made them both the warrior clans that they are. And both of their spouses have run away with each other and with all of both companies’ research with the intent to sell it to the highest bidder.

Leaving both companies, and both families, destroyed in their wake. Not that either of their errant spouses give a damn.

Ramona and Matias must ally with each other – their deadliest rival – in order to stop the destruction of everything they hold dear.

In their hunt to stop their traitorous spouses, they discover two things. That said spouses are even bigger traitors than either of them thought.

And that Ramona and Matias, the heirs of generations of mutual hatred, are each other’s perfect match. In love and in war.

Escape Rating A-: Fated Blades is a tremendously fun use of all of the best tropes in science fiction romance – not that most of them can’t be applied to other types of romance as well!

But seriously, the thing about SFR is that both sides have to be balanced. The SFnal worldbuilding has to be self-consistent and hold together, and the romance has to be a solidly satisfying romance set in that well-built SFnal world.

Fated Blades delivers a story that walks that tightrope balance beautifully.

Even three books in, the world of the Kinsmen has plenty of facets to explore – but what we do have feels solid. It’s a well-established Earth-diaspora colony in a sector filled with more of them. The world of Rada and its sector read like a livable place that is just enough like our own time and place to seem familiar while being just different enough to seem exotic. Rada and its sister worlds have an established history that we get just enough glimpses of to think we know what’s going on and what went on in their past.

While the real enemy that they face is the stuff of SFnal nightmares that combine the Reavers from Firefly with every 21st century totalitarian nightmare into an enemy that must be feared, respected and eliminated to the last soldier and damn the diplomatic consequences.

At the same time, the romance combines the classic enemies to lovers trope with just a touch of fated mate syndrome and more than a bit of the crash and mutual rescue dynamic of Shards of Honor. A winning combination if ever there was one.

I had a great reading time returning to the Kinsmen universe, even after all these years. I loved the stuttering, back and forth relationship between Ramona and Matias, although I wish I’d gotten a bit more about their families and how their part of this universe came to be. I’d love to read more in this world, hopefully sooner rather than quite this much later after the previous book.

And they’re still too damn short.