Review: The Courier by Ernest Dempsey

Review: The Courier by Ernest DempseyThe Courier: A Dak Harper Thriller: 1 (The Relic Runner) by Ernest Dempsey
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Relic Runner #1
Pages: 286
Published by 138 Publishing on March 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Former Special Forces operator Dak Harper needs a job.
Out of work and on the run after a shocking betrayal by his brothers-in-arms, the ex-Special Forces commando hasn’t stopped moving for months.
He can’t. Some of the same soldiers who left him for dead in the Middle East still want his head. And they’re getting closer.
So far, he’s been lucky. But Dak is low on money and nearly out of time.All he needs is an easy gig. A place to lie low, bank some cash, and quietly figure out his next move.
That’s not exactly what he finds.
Some rich kid with more money than he knows what to do with wants to open his own museum. But first, he’s got to fill it, and that’s where Dak comes in.
Not sure if his gift for hunting bad guys will translate to finding priceless artifacts, Dak’s willing to give it a shot. He needs this job. The kid will pay him a lot of money and ask no questions.
Before he knows it, Dak’s on the first flight to South America, chasing his big payday. But Dak’s about to trade one set of problems for something even worse: the deadliest mission of his life.

My Review:

The Courier is the first book in an action adventure thriller series featuring former Delta operator Dak Harper. A man on the run, but not from a crime he committed. Dak is running from a crime he didn’t commit – or rather from the man who actually did commit that crime and is pissed as hell to have it pinned on him. Particularly after all the trouble he went to in his failed attempt to put Dak in that frame.

(That origin story is told in a 6-part novella series, descriptively titled The Relic Runner Origin Story. The reader does get enough hints of those events to slip into this book fairly easily, but I’ll probably read those when I get a round tuit because I always like more background.)

So Dak is open to a job that will take him out of the country, and temporarily out of the reach of the man who wants him dead. Even if it’s a job that might add more than a few names to that list of people who are out to kill him.

But the job he picks up at the beginning of this story is nothing like he ever expected. It’s also where that passing reference to Indiana Jones comes in. Twelve-year-old Boston McClaren has parlayed his knack for video gaming into an extremely lucrative career. And he plans to use some of his legally gotten gains to do something of dubious legality – or, at least, to pay someone, hopefully Dak, to do something of dubious legality on his behalf.

The young entrepreneur hires the disgraced Delta operator to go to Lima, Peru and re-appropriate, by whatever means necessary, a priceless relic purchased on the dark web by the cartel kingpin who runs everything shady in the city of Lima.

Considering that everyone in Lima from the Mayor on down is at least partially on that kingpin’s payroll, Dak is going to have to go through a lot of people – one way or another – to “find” the relic that he’s looking for.

The kingpin needs to go down, the city needs to get out from under his thumb, and that relic needs to get into the hands of a museum where many, many more people will be able to appreciate it and its history.

Dak Harper is looking forward to taking out the trash. Unless he ends up in it.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up on a whim because a writer whose work I really like recommended this author and the series. The comparisons in that recommendation were to Indiana Jones, Dirt Pitt And Doc Savage. While I’m more familiar with Indy than the other two, I’ve certainly heard of all of them. I have to say that I was a combination of intrigued and confused, but decided it was worth a try, if only because I enjoy the work of the author providing the recommendation so damn much.

Having finished The Courier, I think all of those comparisons are dead wrong, although the book made for a terrific, edge-of-the-seat read. But the cinematic character that Dak Harper resembles more than any other isn’t Indiana Jones – it’s Nathan Drake. And not so much from the movie as from the game series, also titled Uncharted.

And that includes the level of violence. You mow down a LOT of bad guys while you’re pretending to be Nathan Drake, including a whole slew of drug dealers, gun runners and kingpins of cartels dealing one, or the other – or both. Dak’s origins are actually a bit less shady than Nathan’s, but neither of their hands are exactly clean.

Howsomever, at least in this first outing, the Relic Runner as a series does bear a sharp resemblance to that video game. There is a story, but the story is in service of watching Dak Harper outsmart all of his opponents and essentially mow them down in one way or another. The conditions he observes in Lima are heartbreaking and even horrific, and the reader does reach the point of wanting to see all those bastards go down and go down as hard as possible while Harper does his best to avoid as much collateral damage as he can.

If you see it resembling a certain type of action-adventure video game – like the Uncharted series or even Tomb Raider – it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the dropping of the bodies and just go with the action. But if you’re looking for a story with any kind of depth, you’ll probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t. I was looking for a bit of mindless adventure being led by a character who was superlative at his job and I got exactly what I wanted. We’ll see if that’s true in the next book in the series, Two Nights in Mumbai, the next time I’m in this kind of mood.

Which, admittedly, is the kind of mood where I either want to vicariously kill things by playing a video game – or read about someone else doing it in a story that – you guessed it – resembles a video game.

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. Buchman

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. BuchmanStart the Chase: a Miranda Chase Origin Story Collection by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: Kickstarter
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #9
Pages: 318
Published by Buchman Bookworks on October 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miranda Chase’s Team—before they were one!
Before they were the hottest, and most at-risk air-crash investigation team for the NTSB and the US military, the six members of Miranda Chase’s team had each started along very unique paths.
Courtesy of backers of The Great Chase tabletop game Kickstarter, their pasts are revealed. Discover why each team member’s future turned out so differently than they planned.
Six exciting stories filled with challenges, disasters, and triumphs. Five stories with fans as guest characters. A fun and wild flight.

My Review:

I usually have a hard time getting myself stuck into short story or novella collections, but Start the Chase was definitely an exception. Just as Miranda Chase herself is an exception in so many fascinating ways.

In the middle of a week that has gone completely off the rails, I was looking for something that I could get sucked into instantly that wouldn’t let me go until the end, and the Miranda Chase series has been good for that from the very first book, Drone.

But there haven’t been any new books in the series for a few months, as the author has been busy taking care of all the good business that was generated when he got his rights back to his earliest work. Which I loved from all the way back in The Night is Mine, lo those many years ago at the beginning of Reading Reality. So if you love military romance, now is a great time to start or restart his Night Stalkers series and all the deliciously good books that followed.

Howsomever, let’s get back to Miranda Chase and her team, which is where I started. I got a notification about the tenth book in the series, Lightning, coming out in June, which reminded me that I hadn’t read the ninth book in the series, Start the Chase, even though I participated in the Kickstarter.

I needed to get lost in a book and a world that I was already familiar with, and I wanted to read Start the Chase before Lightning struck, so here we are.

The stories in Start the Chase are all origin stories. Which makes this a great place to start the series if you aren’t already part of the action.

What makes the stories special is that they show us the characters we have come to know and love at pivot points in their lives. Specifically the pivot that changed their courses into the one that eventually intersected with Miranda Chase and the rest of her team. To kick things off there’s the pivotal moment when Miranda investigated her very first plane crash on her very own.

She had to do the investigation on her own, because the crash she was investigating was also her own. On her way to her first class at the NTSB her private plane crashed in the desolate forest between Washington State and Idaho. Miranda was the pilot and the only person aboard. Her meticulous investigation of a crash that she honestly didn’t expect to be rescued from kept her sane until her rescuers surprised her and themselves by finding her alive. She learned a valuable lesson in this story, and we learned a lot about her. Not that a lot of her past hasn’t come up over the course of the series, but this particular bit of detail was something special.

For each member of the team, the story in Start the Chase is just as pivotal as Miranda’s High Passage, Holly Harper’s story, Holly Games a New Path, begins during one of Holly’s darkest moments. She has just left the Australian Special Forces after the loss of her entire team. A new friend drags her to, of all places, a gaming convention, where Holly, costumed as Captain Marvel, discovers that she still has friends both in and out of the service, and that there’s a surprising, but surprisingly interesting opportunity for her if she is willing to seize the day.

Mike’s Last Big Con is the story that comes the closest to the opening of the Miranda Chase series, as we see the secretive Mike in his last undercover job for the FBI as it all goes completely pear-shaped. Working with Miranda is going to require that the long-time conman live on the straight and narrow – a place with which he is not even remotely familiar.

All six of the stories provide insights into characters we think we know. There have been hints before, but this collection fleshes out the details of how they ended up on the path that leads to the team. For fans of the series, it gives us an up close and personal look at people we thought we knew. For those coming in, it’s a great way of seeing who they were as individuals before they jostled their way into becoming part of such a marvelous whole.

Escape Rating A: I loved this collection. I got sucked in right away and didn’t get shaken out until the end – wishing there were more. Or wishing that Lightning was here now and not next month. I’ve missed Miranda and the gang and it was fantastic to spend time with them again.

Because this collection was produced as part of a Kickstarter campaign for The Great Chase Tabletop Game that Miranda and her team play during the later books in the series, there’s an additional fascinating piece to this collection of great stories.

One of the backer levels for the Kickstarter was the opportunity for five people to get themselves written into the individual stories as secondary characters. (This is called Tuckerization after the SF author Wilson “Bob” Tucker. I only mention this because once upon a time, when I went to a LOT of SF cons, I knew Tucker a bit. I digress.)

In Miranda’s story she’s alone, that’s a huge part of the point of the story after all. But in all of the other stories the secondary character who helps push or guide Miranda’s future team member into the path that leads them there is one of these backers. All of the stories include more than a bit of real detail about those backers, along with a way for readers to support the charities of their choice. So there’s a prompt to do a bit of good in the world – which seems to need it now more than ever – along with a terrific story.

If you like political thrillers, technothrillers and/or competence porn, you absolutely cannot go wrong following Miranda Chase and her team. Lightning can’t strike my TBR pile soon enough!

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John ScalziThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Tor Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi's first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.
When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls "an animal rights organization." Tom's team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.
What Tom doesn't tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They're the universe's largest and most dangerous panda and they're in trouble.
It's not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that's found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too--and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

My Review:

It feels like this is the first thing I’ve read that actually deals head-on with life during the COVID pandemic. Plenty of things talk around it, and often those were written about the plague before it ACTUALLY happened, but The Kaiju Preservation Society just slams right into it.

It also feels like this is going to be one of the archetypes for how it gets dealt with in fiction, because this book is just plain damn funny. Even if, or especially because, much of the humor is gallows humor because there was an actual gallows looming over everything as lives, careers, hopes and dreams died with abandon – and sometimes abandonment – during those strange, unreal years.

So it’s entirely fitting that this is a story about giving not just the pandemic but the whole, entire Earth the middle finger and sloping off to a place that no one ever imagined existed. No matter how much we were ALL looking for a complete escape just like this at the time.

With or without Godzilla. Because that’s what a kaiju is, a Godzilla-type monster that occasionally slips between the cracks of the multiverse to terrorize our version of Earth.

But Jamie Gray, who gets fired from his fairly cushy job as an executive for a meal delivery service start up JUST as the country in locking down, then becomes a desperate “deliverator” for the company that fired him, lucks into the experience of a lifetime when his very last customer offers him a job at the mysterious “KPS” because the person on their crew who does heavy lifting is unavailable at the absolutely last minute.

Jamie’s in. He’s been down and out for six months, running through his savings, keeping his best friends from becoming homeless because their jobs have dried up too, and he’s at the end of all his ropes. KPS, whatever and wherever it is, has to be better than what he’s doing now. And the money is fantastic.

So, it turns out, is the experience.

Escape Rating A-: The Kaiju Preservation Society reads like vintage Scalzi of the Old Man’s War and Redshirts variety. The message sneaks up on the reader, much as it does in Old Man’s War, but it’s not quite as deep, while the snark-o-matic is dialed all the way up as it is in Redshirts.

So it’s light if not fluffy and not so much a laugh riot as filled with nerdy jokes, rueful chuckles and occasional outright guffaws from beginning to end. And not dissimilar to the author’s actual voice if one has ever seen him in person. (Scalzi read a bit of KPS on the recent JoCo Cruise and let’s just say that the man doesn’t have to act AT ALL to be the voice of Jamie Gray.)

While the pandemic provides the perfect excuse for Jamie Gray to sign up for a 6 month tour with KPS, as it turns out on Kaiju Earth, it’s his experiences once he steps through the portal in remote, chilly Labrador to the steamy jungle of an alternate Earth where one of the big extinction events just didn’t happen and kaiju evolved to be the apex predator that give the story its heart, its snark and its lesson.

It doesn’t matter how much bigger and more badass the monsters actually are, humans are always the most truly monstrous thing we ever encounter.

But first we get the joy and camaraderie of a whole bunch of very smart, very savvy, very geeky and extremely nerdy people having the absolute time of their lives doing really cool science in this most alien of places that is surprisingly close to home.

The feel of this part of the story, the sheer joy of doing stuff that literally no one has ever done before surrounded by people who are just as into it as you are reminds me a lot of Dan Koboldt’s Domesticating Dragons – and not just for the dragon/kaiju connection. But the love of doing science and breaking new ground and having great colleagues all in it together is very similar, so if you’re looking for another taste of this kind of SF try that.

Yes, there’s a bit of Jurassic Park in this. That’s kind of a “well, duh” comment after all. But the story is a lot more like The Rogue Retrieval (also by Koboldt) and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador, in that someone with more power than sense, ethics or morals finds a gateway or portal to a place that already exists – and then invades with the hope of conquering it with as much firepower as they can muster.

In all of these portal stories the central problem is kind of the same, in that whenever we humans find someplace new we bring ourselves – which is about the worst thing we could do anywhere to anything. That the author manages to circle that all the way back to the very beginning of this story – all the way back to that start up and the very asshole who fired him was just plain epic. With a heaping helping of utterly marvelous schadenfreude and revenge slathered on top.

And that was just delicious.

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph Adams

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph AdamsLost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms by John Joseph Adams, James L. Cambias, Becky Chambers, Kate Elliott, C.C. Finlay, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Darcie Little Badger, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, An Owomoyela, Dexter Palmer, Cadwell Turnbull, Genevieve Valentine, Carrie Vaughn, Charles Yu, E. Lily Yu, Tobias S. Buckell
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Grim Oak Press on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado, and Shangri-La to classic novels such as King Solomon’s Mine, The Land That Time Forgot, and The Lost World, readers have long been fascinated by the idea of lost worlds and mythical kingdoms.
Read short stories featuring the discovery of such worlds or kingdoms―stories where scientists explore unknown places, stories where the discovery of such turns the world on its head, stories where we’re struck with the sense of wonder at realizing that we don’t know our world quite as well as we’d thought.
Featuring new tales by today's masters of SF&F:
Tobias S. BuckellJames L. CambiasBecky ChambersKate ElliottC.C. FinlayJeffrey FordTheodora GossDarcie Little BadgerJonathan MaberrySeanan McGuireAn OwomoyelaDexter PalmerCadwell TurnbullGenevieve ValentineCarrie VaughnCharles YuE. Lily Yu

My Review:

Here there be dragons – or so say the old maps. Or so they say the old maps say – although not so much as people think they did.

Just the same, once upon a time the map of the ‘real’ world used to have more blank spaces in it. Long distance travel was difficult and time-consuming, long distance communication was an impossible dream, life was short and the road was too long to even be imagined. But speaking of imagining, I imagine that every place’s known and unknown stretches were different – but in the way back each city, country, people or location only had so much reach and stretch.

And then there was the era of European exploration and eventually industrialization. For good or ill, and quite frequently ill, those blank places on the map got smaller and were filled in. Which didn’t stop and probably downright inspired a whole library’s worth of stories about imaginary places that might exist whether on – or in – this planet or those nearby.

But as the terra become increasingly cognita, the well of those stories dried up. Which does not mean that the urge to explore what might be beyond the farthest horizon has in any way faded.

This is a collection intended to feed that human impulse to go where no one has gone before – and report back about it before we invade it with, well, ourselves. Some of the stories that explore that next frontier are fantasy, some are science fiction, and a few trip over that line from fantasy into horror.

And they’re all here, vividly described to make the reader want to be there. Or be extremely grateful that they are NOT.

Escape Rating B: Like nearly all such collections, Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms has some hits, some misses and one or two WTF did I just read? in a convenient package for exploration.

Let’s get the WTF’ery out of the way so we can move on to the good stuff. The two stories that were set in strange hotels, Comfort Lodge, Enigma Valley and Hotel Motel Holiday Inn just did not land for me at all. The second made a bit more sense than the first but neither worked for me. Of course, YMMV on both or either of those particular trips.

Three stories were misses – at least from my perspective. They weren’t bad, they just didn’t quite live up to their premise. Or something like that. The Light Long Lost at Sea was a bit too in medias res. There’s a world there with lots of interesting backstory but what we got was more of a teaser than a story with a satisfying ending. The Expedition Stops for the Evening at the Foot of the Mountain Pass had some of that same feel, like there was huge setup for the story somewhere else and we weren’t getting it. But we needed it. The Return of Grace Malfrey is one that had a fascinating premise that kind of fizzled out.

One story in the collection hit my real-o-meter a bit too sharply. That was Those Who Have Gone. It does get itself into the “did I find a hidden civilization or was I dreaming?” thing very, very well, but the way it got there was through a young woman on a scary desert trip with her 30something boyfriend who she is rightfully extremely afraid of. That part was so real it overwhelmed the fantasy place she fell into.

There were a bunch of stories that I liked as I was reading them, but just didn’t hit the top of my scale. They are still good, still enjoyable, and hit the right note between teasing their premise and satisfying it. In no particular order, these were Down in the Dim Kingdoms, An Account, by Dr. Inge Kuhn, of the Summer Expedition and Its Discoveries, Endosymbiosis and There, She Didn’t Need Air to Fill Her Lungs.

Last, but very much not least, the stories I plan to put on my Hugo Ballot next year, because they were utterly awesome. The Cleft of Bones by Kate Elliott, a story about slavery, revolution and rebirth as seen through the eyes of an absolutely fascinating character. The Voyage of Brenya by Carrie Vaughn, which is a story about gods and heroes and the way that stories turn into myths and legends. Out of the Dark by James L. Cambias, one of two space opera stories, this time about a corporate hegemonies, a salvage crew consisting of lifelong rivals, and a pre/post spacefaring civilization in which Doctor Who’s Leela would have been right at home.

Three stories were utter gems from start to finish. Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss, which consists entirely of a letter written to the afore-mentioned journal by three high school students who took the founding principles of the journal – that imaginary anthropology could create real countries – and ran with it all the way into Wikipedia, the nightly news, and a civil war that has captured one of their fathers somewhere that never should have existed in the first place.

The Orpheus Gate by Jonathan Maberry reaches back to the Golden Age of lost kingdom stories by taking the utterly science driven great granddaughter of Professor George Edward Challenger (hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) and putting her on a collision course with a friend of her great grandmother’s – a woman who challenges the scientist’s belief in everything rational and provable in order to force the young woman to finally open her mind to a truth she does not even want to imagine, let alone believe.

And finally, The Tomb Ship by Becky Chambers, which is a story about a loophole, about the evil that humans do in the name of a so-called ‘Greater Good’, and just how easy it is to fall into the trap and how hard it is to even think of a better way. Or even just a way that lets the protagonist sleep at night with a somewhat clear conscience. That it also feels like a tiny bit of an Easter Egg for The Outer Wilds was just the right icing on this gold-plated cake of a story.

Review: Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Review: Questland by Carrie VaughnQuestland by Carrie Vaughn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Mariner Books on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Questland is a thrill ride…Richly imagined, action-packed, maximum fun." —Charles Yu, New York Times bestselling author of Interior Chinatown
YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A MAZE FULL OF TWISTY PASSAGES...   Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.   Unfortunately, one of the island's employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox's ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.   But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.
“Gamers rejoice! Carrie Vaughn has conjured up a fun and fast-paced story filled with elves, d20s, and Monty Python riffs.”—Monte Cook, ENnie Award-winning creator of the Numenera roleplaying game

My Review:

If you’re a fan in the real world, it’s possible (again) to go to Hobbiton and visit a bit of the Shire. All you have to do is go to New Zealand, where they’ve turned the movie sets from the Lord of the Rings into a tourist attraction.

You may be able to see the sights, but you can’t actually insert yourself into the story except in your own head. You can eat a meal but you can’t spend the night. The immersion can only go so far.

But if that description makes your head spin with possibilities, you’re not alone. And that’s what the original project to build Insula Mirabilis was all about. Creating a place where well-heeled travelers could spend days or weeks not just observing a fantasy world but actually living it.

Complete with mythical creatures – like unicorns and wargs – running around and occasionally even running from each other. And there would be magic – at least in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from.”

All in the service of allowing people to live out their dreams of living in a fantasy world. At least for a little while.

But the problem with fantasy worlds is the same problem that exists with the real world. Humans do have a way of messing up even the best things – perhaps especially the best things – in ways that their designers never expected.

Or did they?

A rich tech wizard has created Insula Mirabilis to provide as many dreamers and geeks and nerds and LARPers and members of SCA as possible a place to live their dreams by paying him big bucks for the privilege. But the real purpose is for his crack engineering teams to rise to greater and greater inventive heights, providing him with lots of patents and trademarks and even more ways to make even more money.

But it’s all gone wrong. Or at least it looks that way. The island has cut itself off from the rest of the world with some kind of forcefield. Nothing going out – not even telecommunication – and nothing and no one going in, something that the Coast Guard has discovered to their loss.

Harris Lang, that rich tech wizard, has put together a team to sneak into his island and get it back for him. The team consists of four mercenaries and one very much out of her depth literature professor.

But Addie Cox has all the tools they need to figure out what went wrong and why. She’s an expert on the original sources that form the backbone of epic fantasy. She’s an avid player of D&D and a member of SCA.

Addie’s geek credentials aren’t the only thing she has going for her – and they’re not the only thing that Harris Lang is counting on, either. Because he’s planned much better than that. Addie is his ace in the hole, because Lang is pretty certain that the engineer who has gone rogue on HIS island is Addie’s ex-boyfriend.

And that the man will be unable to resist trying to impress Addie in the hopes of getting her back.

Escape Rating A-: This story feels like it exists on two levels. On the surface, there’s, well, the surface. Which is an adventure tale about exploring the island resort in order to figure out what’s gone wrong.

And on the other level, the story is one gigantic in-joke. If you love epic fantasy and role-playing games and everything that goes along with them, you’ll get the joke and enjoy the story. If you don’t, I’m not sure whether the story is strong enough to carry the reader over. I can’t tell because this is a joke that I very definitely got, as epic fantasy has formed a pretty big share of my reading since I first picked up The Hobbit. When I was 8. In OMG 1965. That’s a long time in which to read a lot of fantasy.

Which means that I had a great time in Questland. But I felt like I got all the in-jokes, and understood all the references. And kept thinking up more as I went along.

This turned out to be a story where I kept discovering more and more books and movies that it reminded me of the longer I got into it. Like one or two on every page. A lot of people are going to say Ready Player One because they share that nostalgia factor, but that didn’t feel like the primary influence to me. For that to work, James Halliday would have to have been the founder of Innovative Online Industries. In other words, the inventing genius would also have to be kind of evil.

It’s a lot more like Westworld in that the resort, which is also the gamespace, is mostly a work of mechanical engineering rather than the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park. Although the two books that Questland made me think of way more than anything else are both rather obscure, Sherri Tepper’s first novel King’s Blood Four, where the game is the world is the game, and Jean Johnson’s The Tower, where the protagonists are playing a live action role-playing game as entertainment for others – with very high stakes.

Your reading mileage may definitely vary, and there are hints of plenty of other books, games and movies if you squint a bit.

But at the center of it all is Addie Cox. While the mercenary team that takes her to the island does all of the physical heavy lifting on the trip, Addie is the one carrying all of the emotional baggage. Not just because the rogue wizard at the heart of the maze is her ex, but because Addie is the survivor of a school shooting. (She’d fit right in with The Final Girl Support Group). Traveling with a bunch of mercenaries with guns is way outside what comfort zone Addie has left.

That the team makes it clear that they think she’s useless does not help any of her issues, because she agrees with that assessment. The way that she refers to her uselessness is one of many, many references to Dungeons and Dragons and lots of other geekery.

That the story is her journey, her putting all of her knowledge to use to not just figure out the puzzle but also suss out who the monster is at the heart of this maze helps Addie change her perception of herself from being an unskilled and useless “Bard” character to become someone skillful and important and necessary for the quest, no matter what part she seems to play.

So come to Questland for the nostalgic geekery, but stay and enjoy for the very human story.

Review: White Top by M.L. Buchman

Review: White Top by M.L. BuchmanWhite Top (Miranda Chase NTSB #8) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #8
Pages: 360
Published by Buchman Bookworks on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
The White Top helicopters of HMX-1 are known by a much more familiar name: Marine One. The S-92A, the newest helicopter in the HMX fleet, enters service after years of testing.
When their perfect safety record lies shattered across the National Mall, Miranda Chase and her team of NTSB crash investigators go in. They must discover if it was an accident, a declaration of war, or something even worse.

My Review:

I’ve always found shopping in Walmart to be generally depressing, so I don’t go there often. But the Walmart scene in this story is enough to make me swear off the place for life! Possibly you will too, when you read the literally explosive details of a helicopter crashing into a Walmart and turning the entire huge store PLUS the surrounding parking lot into a gigantic fireball.

That the helicopter that crashed is Marine Two, carrying the Vice-President, is what pushes the crash into the path of the NTSB’s pre-eminent investigator, Miranda Chase, along with her crack team of top-notch experts into the investigation.

Not that she might not have been called in anyway, come to think of it, but Miranda and her team are the only NTSB team with the security clearance to deal with the potential causes and the political fallout of an entirely too successful attempt to sabotage one of the most secure aircraft in the nation’s entire arsenal.

And all of that is exactly what I read this series for. Miranda and her team are beyond excellent in their specialties, making every single book in this series an absolute delight of competence porn. There’s something absolutely fascinating about watching a bunch of interesting people do their complex jobs at the peak of pretty much everything.

The group that has coalesced around Miranda is one of the best teams it has ever been my pleasure to read about, and I mean that in both senses of the word “best”. Because they are all so damn good at their jobs – see above paragraph about competence porn.

But they are also a delight to read about and follow along with. Each member of the team has their own place, from Holly, the former Australian Special Forces operator who serves as the team’s muscle, to Mike, the human factors specialist, to Andi, the helicopter expert – much needed for particular crash, to Jeremy, the expert in all things geek and also Miranda’s “Mini-Me”.

That last bit turns out to be an important part of the story as far as the ongoing development of the characters is concerned. It’s getting to be time for Jeremy to leave the nest. It’s up to Miranda’s team, especially that human factors specialist, to help Miranda – who does not like change at all – to realize that it’s time to give Jeremy the opportunity to learn, grow and fail as a team leader so that he can be ready to become the Investigator in Charge (IIC) of his own team.

Which intersects both well and badly with the crash of Marine Two. It’s time for Jeremy to learn to lead, but this is not the crash he can “officially” lead. Too much is at stake and too much is at risk.

That’s where the other thing I love about this series comes in. In the Miranda Chase series, that the author has managed to out-intrigue one of the masters of the political intrigue genre, Tom Clancy. Buchman does it better in this story and this series, at least in part because it feels like he has an editor he actually listens to. (That is an opinion and I have no actual knowledge, but having read Clancy let’s say that the first books were great and then they got bloated. IMHO for what that’s worth.)

The setup for this story goes all the way back to the very first book in this awesome series, Drone. And it all pays off beautifully here, as the sabotage links back to players on the international stage who are in cahoots with power brokers in the U.S.

We follow along with Miranda as she and her team figure out how it was done, and we have a ringside seat as one of the prime movers and shakers of the whole series learns just how far her thirst for power has managed to lead her away from achieving her dream of it.

Escape Rating A+: The scenes of the two opening crashes, of which the Walmart crash was the second, are gruesome in their dispassionate recital of just how terrible and terrifying the loss of life was. (There were many times more dismemberments than in the book earlier this week.)

But this series is not about the gore, it’s about how the pattern of the crash – including the gore – allows Miranda and her team to figure out what happened. The purpose of that “figuring out” in normal life is to eliminate any design or mechanical factors that are capable of happening again – so they don’t.

In this particular instance, because this is a political thriller as much as it is anything else, the purpose of figuring out what happened is about assigning blame – and if possible, taking vengeance.

Although that part is not usually Miranda’s bailiwick. Not that she occasionally doesn’t end up in the thick of it anyway. But then, Miranda goes where the clues lead her, whether anyone wants her to go there or not.

In this case, those clues lead her, her team, her mentor and her president to a few inexorable conclusions. Conclusions that will certainly factor into where this series goes next. And I am so there for wherever that turns out to be. I’m just mad that the author is making me wait until next freaking year to find out!

But at least I got to see Miranda’s team punch the lights out of her douchecanoe ex-boyfriend, not once but twice. And he got tased again. The women on Miranda’s team stick up for her, for each other, and for the team and definitely for the win!

Review: Havoc by M.L. Buchman

Review: Havoc by M.L. BuchmanHavoc (Miranda Chase NTSB #7) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #7
Pages: 374
Published by Buchman Bookworks on April 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When one of their own is threatened—the nation’s #1 air-crash investigation team enters a race to survive.

An airliner downed on a Pacific atoll. A CIA covert strike team sent in to “clean it up.” An old enemy seeks revenge. This time, the NTSB’s autistic air-crash investigator, Miranda Chase, and her team are in the crosshairs. The action races around the globe as US military airbases become shooting galleries and their lives are placed on the line.

And hidden from sight? A treacherous plan to grab political power and start a new war with Russia in the Middle East. Only Miranda’s team stands in their way, if they can survive.

My Review:

As Miranda Chase’s team has pulled together over the course of this marvelous series, each person that has joined has occupied a specific and necessary niche.

Necessary for the team to function at its incredibly high peak of capability, and necessary for Miranda to be able to manage her world. She needs every person in their proper place so that she can concentrate on why the downed aircraft in front of her abruptly stopped being in its proper place – flying safely through the sky.

But in Havoc, the seventh book in this awesome series, one of the key members of Miranda’s team has gone, not exactly walkabout, as much as Australian Holly Hunter wishes she truly were.

Holly was on her way to tie up the loose ends left by the deaths of her parents in remote Tenant Creek, a tiny town in the middle of Australia’s Northern Territory. The place that Holly left at 16, half a lifetime ago, and tried never to look back at through her military career in her country’s special forces and her secondment from the Australian TSB to Miranda’s team in the US NTSB.

Holly has always occupied the “lancer” position in Miranda’s now-larger-than-5-man band. Holly’s the muscle and she handles security. She’s also Miranda’s truest friend in a way that neither woman has much experience with.

So the team is off-kilter and a bit off their game when Holly is away. An absence that gets extended when Holly’s flight “home” is forced to crash on a remote Pacific atoll. That crash scene is barely squared away when a high-profile crash drags Miranda and the rest of the team to Syria. It’s only after she finally reaches Australia that Holly discovers the reason for both crashes.

It’s not paranoia if someone really is out to get you. When that someone is a pissed-off, psychotic Russian elite operative who has been locked in a box for a year and is willing to start a real honest-to-badness war in order to make sure you go down, even Holly’s extreme paranoia isn’t nearly enough.

But Holly is. No matter what it takes to save Miranda and the rest of the team she calls “home”.

Escape Rating A: The plot of Havoc is a story where all of the chickens from a previous adventure in this series, Condor, all come home to roost. I’m not sure you need to have read the ENTIRE series to get into Havoc as much as I did – although it’s awesome and I don’t know why you wouldn’t – but I don’t think it would work at all to start with Havoc. In this case, to get up to speed quickly you’d need to read both the first book, Drone, and Condor before Havoc.

But the whole series is totally awesome and well worth a read. Truly.

Back to those chickens coming home to roost in this story. There are two elements of Condor that come back to haunt this time around

The first is that Miranda’s friends-with-benefits relationship with Major Jon Swift of the US Air Force Accident Investigation Board comes to an abrupt end with the shock of a Taser. Literally. Deservedly. And oh-thank-goodness finally. Back in Condor it seemed like the relationship might actually work, but Major Swift turned into Major PIA (Pain in the Ass) long before Miranda slapped him in the face early in this story. He won’t be missed by anyone. Not even Miranda.

The second, biggest and baddest of those “chickens” is the Russian Zaslon operative, Elayne Kasparak that the team beat in the earlier story. Holly turned out to be the nemesis that brought Kasparak down. Once she was captured, Holly made a deal with Miranda’s rival-turned-frenemy, CIA Director Clarissa Reese because Miranda didn’t like the idea of just killing her. No matter how much she seriously deserved it..

Kasparak was supposed to spend the rest of her life locked up in one of the CIA’s infamous Black Sites. When she learns that Kasparak has somehow managed to escape the inescapable, Holly knows that Kasparak is responsible for both recent plane crashes and that she’s gunning for Holly with everything she’s got.

Which is 10-pounds of crazy in a 5-pound sack with knives and guns pointed at everyone and everything Holly holds dear. As far as Kasparak is concerned, any collateral damage she racks up along the way is just icing on her crazycake.

As this story was going on, and the stakes just kept getting higher and higher, and I started to get a bit desperate to see what happened next, I still found myself stopping in the middle for a bit. Not because it was bad, but because it was so good and I was so caught up in it and I discovered that I cared about Holly so damn much that I couldn’t bear to read her pain.

And it just kept getting more and more painful as it goes, as we learn both about what made Holly who and what she is – and what she’ll go through to take care of everyone she has claimed as her own.

This is one where the tension just ramps up past 11 and keeps right on going. Even a bit past the end.

Not that the story of Miranda’s team has ended when the reader closes Havoc. Which left me with a terrible book hangover. I don’t merely want, I absolutely NEED to find out what happens after the end of this book. But the next book in the series, White Top, won’t be out for a month or two, and I don’t even have an ARC yet, so I’ll have to wait.

My fingernails may not survive.

Review: Chinook by M.L. Buchman

Review: Chinook by M.L. BuchmanChinook (Miranda Chase NTSB #6) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, suspense, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #6
Pages: 360
Published by Buchman Bookworks on March 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
When the fastest and most powerful helicopters in the US Army’s fleet start falling out of the sky, Miranda Chase and her team of NTSB crash investigators are called in.
One crash leads to another and they are fast entangled in a Chinese conspiracy to start a war. Only Miranda’s team can stop the trade war from becoming a real one.

My Review:

Chinook is the second book in what looks to be the second quartet of Miranda Chase’s “adventures” as the lead investigator for the NTSB. There’s a lot to unpack in that description.

The NTSB is the National Transportation Safety Board. That’s the agency that investigates aircraft crashes. I say aircraft and not airplanes because the NTSB is called in for helicopter accidents as well as plane crashes. They’re the folks who determine how it crashed, why it crashed, whether any human agency is responsible for the crash and especially what can and should be done to prevent the same type of crash of the same type of aircraft happening again.

Miranda Chase, introduced in the awesome military suspense thriller Drone, is a lead investigator for the NTSB. She’s also THE lead investigator they have, the one who gets called in whenever a crash is particularly strange, particularly difficult to figure out or particularly or even tangentially involves the military. Not that the military services don’t have their own agencies to deal with this kind of thing, but when things get weird, or complicated, or just don’t seem to make sense at first glance OR (very big OR here) when the powers that be in Washington believe that there might be a coverup going on, Miranda and her team get called.

They’re the very best at what they do. And that’s all down to Miranda. Not just because she’s the best investigator they have, but because the team that has gathered around her are each the best at their parts of the investigation and the best at protecting Miranda and keeping her on task.

Miranda Chase is on the autism spectrum, and the hyperfocus that her place on that spectrum gives her is part of what makes her so very good at her job – and so very bad at dealing with the people and politics that want to either get in her way, derail her completely or just remove her from the picture – occasionally permanently.

The first four books in the series (Drone, Thunderbolt, Condor and Ghostrider) were all about putting Miranda’s team together and watching them work. Also, and mostly importantly watching them come together as a team and find the best way to work together, both in spite of and because of all of their collective quirks, idiosyncrasies and baggage from a set of generally messy pasts.

The second series which begins with Raider, at least so far, seems to be about adding the right people to the team and tying up the loose ends dangling after their previous adventures. Along with more than a bit of romance as each team member becomes confident enough of their place in Miranda’s world to reach out for someone who can make their life even more complete.

Even if, in the case of Miranda’s friend and chief geek Jeremy Tranh, the person he’s looking at to fill that kind of role in his life is supposed to be dead.

Escape Rating A: It’s not exactly a secret that I love this series, and this latest entry is absolutely no exception whatsoever.

One of the reasons I love it so much is that Miranda Chase and her team are high-grade (and high-octane) competence porn. They’re good at their jobs. They are, in fact, the best of the best at their jobs. They make an excellent team and they know it. They enjoy being good and capable and that part of the story is always wonderful.

We don’t celebrate competence and excellence nearly enough so it’s always a joy to read.

This series also reminds me of the best of Tom Clancy. The edge of the seat thriller-ness of really good people fighting the good fight on behalf of the actually decent folks in government and the military – while never implying that ALL the people in government or the military are good or even halfway decent. But also not claiming that they are all villains either. Just that they’re human with all the faults and virtues that can imply.

It also Clancy with either a sense of when to stop or a damn good editor or both. Clancy’s later books got to be extremely door-stoppy. This series – actually all of this author’s books – are tight and tense and never run on with themselves.

Another plus, at least so far, is that the individual stories do stand kind of alone, but they also hook back to previous events with at least enough backstory to bring readers for whom it’s been awhile or those new to the series, up to speed.

There are pieces of this particular case that go all the way back to the first book, Drone. And the new member of the team isn’t new to the series. She was on the sorta/kinda opposite side in Ghostrider – and she stole Jeremy’s heart along the way – unwilling to recognize that he kept hers as well.

But there is, as there always is, a crash investigation at the heart of this story, wrapped up in a whole lot of political shenanigans both here and especially in this case, in the highest echelons of a government who is not exactly numbered among the United States friends. It’s up to Miranda and her team to discover what is at the heart of not one but two crashes, a Chinook helicopter in the middle of an airshow in the U.S., and something bigger and considerably more deadly on a beach in Taiwan.

And it’s a tense and suspense-filled ride every step – and on every aircraft – along the way.

The next book in this series is Havoc, coming in late April. I’m already on the edge of my seat in anticipation!

Review: Ghostrider by M.L. Buchman

Review: Ghostrider by M.L. BuchmanGhostrider (Miranda Chase NTSB #4) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #4
Pages: 354
Published by Buchman Bookworks on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An AC-130J “Ghostrider”—the latest variant of America’s Number One ground-attack plane for over fifty years—goes down in the Colorado Rockies. Except the data doesn’t match the airframe.

Air-crash savant Miranda Chase and her NTSB team are sent in to investigate. But what they uncover reveals a far greater threat—sabotage.

It could be a prelude to a whole new type of war; this time one far too close to home.

My Review:

The more I read this series, (I’ve read them all so far and loved every one of them, including this one), the more they remind me of Tom Clancy. Not the politics. Clancy’s viewpoint was all over his books, his political agenda was fairly clear. But the competence porn aspect of Clancy’s work, that all of his operatives knew what the hell they were doing and were heroes because of it, that part is certainly present in Miranda Chase and her series. Along with the smart banter and back-and-forth asides that pepper Clancy’s work.

Miranda Chase and her team are just plain fun to be with, and they are damn good at their jobs. In fact, they are the best team that the NTSB has. It is great watching them work.

Also nail-bitingly tense when they get just a bit too involved with that work, as they do in Ghostrider.

Miranda Chase is a savant when it comes to determining the cause of airplane crashes. She’s also extremely intelligent as well as autistic. And all of her gifts are a part of making her who and what she is – which is totally awesome if not always socially aware. In fact she’s seldom socially aware, but it is NEVER played for laughs.

The Ghostrider in this particular instance is certainly NOT the Marvel character, but rather, like the titles of all the books in this series, an airplane, specifically a military airplane, the Lockheed AC-130J Ghostrider, that has crashed near Aspen. And, like all of the other planes – and plans – that have crashed so far in this series, there’s something “off” about this particular crash and Miranda and her team are called in to investigate.

An investigation that turns up a whole bunch of red flags and something completely weird that would normally take the incident off of Miranda’s docket. She became an NTSB investigator in order to figure out what caused each crash she investigates so that it can’t happen again.

But this crash wasn’t a mechanical or technical failure. It wasn’t even pilot error. It was a deliberate crash caused by the pilot. Miranda can help make planes safer, but she has zero insights in making humans less stupid or insane – or whatever this mess might be attributable to.

She’s about to sign off when a second Ghostrider crashes, this time in California, also due to sabotage, while Miranda is closing out the Colorado investigation. It becomes clear that there’s something bigger and much more dangerous going on.

A something that Miranda and her team find themselves literally in the middle of. And something that some of them might not get out of alive.

Escape Rating A: The previous story in this series, Condor, had a lot to do with the emotional baggage that Miranda’s team is carrying. The series begins with Miranda’s baggage, that she became an NTSB investigator in order to prevent other children from losing their parents in plane crashes. But that story had a lot to do with Holly’s baggage, with the reasons that she left the Australian SAS. This story deals with other people’s baggage. Whole truckloads of it. Or perhaps that should be cargo loads?

The Ghostrider crashes that the team investigates aren’t random, aren’t mechanical, aren’t technical, aren’t pilot “error”. But they certainly are pilot-caused, just that the pilots acted deliberately and not accidentally.

Like many of the stories in this series – and OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read – the reasons for both the crashes involve a whole lot of skullduggery at the highest levels.

Along with a retiring general who wants to go out, not exactly in a blaze of glory, but with the satisfaction of a necessary job done. Alternatively with the satisfaction of taking a whole bunch of bastards that need killing out with him. It’s all a matter of perspective.

One is left with the feeling that his cause is righteous, but his methods create way too much collateral damage and have the potential to create a whole lot more. It’s a question about whether the ends justify the means in a case where there are no easy answers – and there shouldn’t be.

That the heroes and the sorta/kinda villains in this one turn out to be, not exactly on the same side, but not exactly on opposite sides, makes for an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will have readers white-knuckling through the middle and gasping at the end – while still thinking about where the big picture went wrong and what different actions might have made it go right. Or at least right-er.

So a great story, fantastic characters, thrilling action and some thought provoked in the end. A job very well done, both for Miranda’s team and for the author of this terrific series. May there be many, many more!

Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + Giveaway

Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + GiveawayCondor: an NTSB / military technothriller (Miranda Chase) Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #3
Pages: 428
Published by Buchman Bookworks on March 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Antonov AN-124 Ruslan “Condor”—the heavyweight champ among production cargo jets. Russian tanks, American firefighting helicopters, rescue submersibles, satellites, city-sized power transformers...the Condor hauls them all over the world.

But when one lifts a top-secret payload rated as too dangerous, the US government decides it must take action. Untraceable action. Call Delta Force? SEAL Team Six?

No. They call Miranda Chase, lead crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board to fake a crash. Miranda refuses, but the stakes grow higher and higher. Soon she may be too late to stop the new Cold War from becoming the final war.

My Review:

In this third book in the Miranda Chase NTSB series, the team has finally found the fifth man for its five-man band. And team leader Miranda Chase may have finally found somebody of her own who gets her for all the parts of who she is – laser-focused, single-minded, socially clueless, neuro-atypical and pure savant at figuring out what made a plane crash – no matter how much anyone – or everyone – attempts to hide the truth.

Whether they do that hiding before or after the crash she’s investigating hits the ground.

All of the books in this series have been named for the planes that have crashed – the planes that Miranda’s team has come to investigate. A Drone, a Thunderbolt and now a Condor – so far. And this one is no different in that start. But it is certainly different in the way that events play out.

And the story feels like it owes as much to Tom Clancy’s kind of spy games as it does to M.L. Buchman’s brand of military romance. In fact, it feels like the blend may be reaching an optimal mix for all kinds of combustion.

But first there’s a downed plane, a dead crew, a top secret and completely torched cargo, a Russian counter espionage agent and a CIA Director with designs on becoming the Second Lady of the U.S. – and eventually the First.

In the middle of it all, there’s Miranda Chase and her team, figuring out how and why the plane crashed in the U.S. – and how to make another one just like it crash in the middle of Russia – without ever giving the game away to anyone watching on either side of the deadly equation.

And without any members of her team getting bogged down – or taken out – by the weight of the baggage that they brought along for the ride.

Escape Rating A: In this third book in Miranda Chase’s series, it really feels like the team is hitting its stride. They have really begun to gel as a unit, and as a consequence, the individuals that make up the team have begun to trust each other enough to reveal some of the trauma that’s hidden in their pasts.

Miranda’s past, and its effects on her, have been part of the dynamic from the very beginning. She joined the NTSB and learned to analyze plane crashes because her parents died in one when she was a child. What she wasn’t aware of at the time, but certainly is now, is that her parents were CIA agents, and that their plane was sabotaged in a deliberate – and successful – attempt to take them out.

But we’re still learning about the rest of the team, just as they are learning about each other. As a consequence, the operation that provides the edge-of-the-suspense in this outing is wrapped around the team’s strongman – or in this case strongwoman – former Australian Special Forces operative Holly Harper.

Holly feels responsible for the deaths of her Australian team, as she was the only survivor of an operation that went so completely pear-shaped that even the pear would be outraged. Holly’s secondment to US NTSB was her way of putting her ghosts as far behind her as possible – literally half a world away.

She’s scared of being part of a “team” again, fearful that her bad luck has followed her across a very large ocean. But the operation that the team has been sucked into, faking the crash of a Russian military cargo transport in Russian airspace, is a job that requires all of the old skills that Holly hoped to never need again. But if she’s to save her new team, she’ll have to become the badass covert operative she left behind.

Because there’s an equally badass covert operative who is guaranteed to take out all the members of her new team with extreme prejudice. Unless Holly gets her first. Or unless that slimy new Director of the CIA plays them all.

The operation, in all of its many hair-raising and nail-biting parts is a big callback to some of the wilder adventures of the Night Stalkers in Buchman’s first military romance series. That both Holly and surprisingly Miranda come out of this adventure with the possibility of romance in their own respective futures made this entry in the series feel closer to what I was expecting back when I first picked up Drone – a heart stopping action adventure story with a little bit (so far) of heart pounding romance on top.

I can’t wait to see where Miranda and her team go – and which planes fall down in front of them – in the next book in this series, Ghostrider. I already have it on preorder!

I’ve enjoyed this author’s writing since I read his first military romance, The Night is Mine, back in 2012. He has written plenty of terrific books since then, ranging from military romance to action adventure romance to mysteries to  SF to thrillers and some that straddle all the lines. I haven’t read them all – he’s been VERY prolific! – but I’ve read quite a few and enjoyed every one.

So, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, I’m giving one lucky reader the opportunity to climb aboard one of M.L. Buchman’s thrill-a-minute adventures. The winner of today’s giveaway will get their choice of any one of his books. Whoever wins is in for a real treat of a story!

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