Review: 1632 by Eric Flint

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint1632 (Ring of Fire #1) by Eric Flint
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, time travel
Series: Ring of Fire #1
Pages: 597
Published by Baen Books on 2-1-2000
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

FREEDOM AND JUSTICE -- AMERICAN STYLE 1632 And in northern Germany things couldn't get much worse. Famine. Disease. Religous war laying waste the cities. Only the aristocrats remained relatively unscathed; for the peasants, death was a mercy. 2000 Things are going OK in Grantville, West Virginia, and everybody attending the wedding of Mike Stearn's sister (including the entire local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, which Mike leads) is having a good time. THEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED.... When the dust settles, Mike leads a group of armed miners to find out what happened and finds the road into town is cut, as with a sword. On the other side, a scene out of Hell: a man nailed to a farmhouse door, his wife and daughter attacked by men in steel vests. Faced with this, Mike and his friends don't have to ask who to shoot. At that moment Freedom and Justice, American style, are introduced to the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

My Review:

What if? That’s often the central question in science fiction. In the case of alternate history, as 1632 most definitely is, the question is just a bit more specific. What if history went down a different leg of the trousers of time than it did in the world we know?

When this book and this series, 1632, opens, it’s the year 2000 in Grantville, West Virginia. The entire town has turned out, along with quite a few selected and/or important guests, to see Rita Stearns, hometown hero Mike Stearns’ sister, get married to an out-of-towner whose parents most definitely do not approve.

Time and history, at least as far as the residents of Grantville knew it, gets knocked off the rails during the wedding reception, when what they later refer to as “The Ring of Fire” slices a 6 mile wide – and deep – circle in the earth with Grantville at its center, picks up that slice of the just barely 21st century U.S. and switches it with a corresponding slice of earth in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire in 1632 during the height of the mess that history refers to as the Thirty Years’ War.

The story in this book and the series that grew out of it, is not about the aliens. Nor is it about the mechanism of that time travel. It’s about what happens next. In 1632. Where a complete town of 3,000 people with late 20th century ideas and ideals has suddenly dropped into the midst of chaos.

No one even thinks about Star Trek’s Prime Directive. They can’t reverse what happened. They don’t even know how it happened. They can’t leave. And there are far, far too many of them to either hide that they are there or attempt to blend into the local population. Where they are, which turns out to be the middle of the Thuringian Forest, is where they are staying. And where their children, and grandchildren, etc., will be born and raised.

This is the story of who they decide to be and how they decide to make that happen in a world that isn’t ready for either what they think or what they know. They see two options laid out before them. The first is to batten down the hatches and fend off anyone from the outside who tries to get in. The second is to throw open the doors and let everyone in – as long as they are willing to abide by the conditions laid out in documents that won’t be written for another century and a half.

Can the United States of Europe get enough people to accept democracy, civil rights and American-style prosperity fast enough to change enough history to make a new, good life for themselves and everyone willing to join them?

Or will the powers-that-be of 17th century Europe wipe them out and grind them under before they have firm enough ground to stand on?

Escape Rating A: I read 1632 way back when it was originally published in 2000 and absolutely fell in love with it – and several of the subsequent volumes of the Ring of Fire series. The author and originator, Eric Flint, passed away last week and it reminded me just how much I loved this at the time. I decided to see if it held up over the intervening decades – and here we are. The answer is pretty obvious from the rating. I loved it then and I love it still and I’ll probably read more of the series – again or for the first time – as time permits.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws along with its terrific points – but I still loved it. For one thing, this is very much competence porn. The group of folks who end up as the “Founding Fathers and Mothers” are all utterly excellent at doing the jobs that have been thrust upon them.

Probably more excellent – and more cohesively – than would happen if this were real. Or if it happened now. It did feel like they came together much faster in 2000 than might occur today after the last two decades of extreme political divisiveness in the U.S.

The wedding reception also created a rather convenient excuse for a lot of people to be in this small and already dying town than would have been true on a typical Sunday. It is particularly notable that the only black people in town – a much needed doctor and his paramedic daughter – are only there for the wedding. Otherwise the town would be almost entirely monochromatic.

If there are any LGBTQ+ folks in Grantville – we certainly don’t meet them in this first book. (That being said, this was not atypical of publishing at the time this book came out. The series kept on going, 32 books and counting, with the most recent, 1636: The China Venture, published in 2019. I imagine the books got more diverse in all ways as the series continued, but I can’t prove it from here.)

What fascinated me the first time I read this, and continues to do so, was the history and the directions that the author – and his later collaborators – chose to take that history. Their initial decisions in this first book seem reasonable, especially that all-important decision to gear their technology down to the level of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a level they can reach and maintain with the knowledge they have and the level of technology they can get their neighbors to reach. And it’s still way ahead of where central Europe is when they “landed”.

This book doesn’t so much end as it does lead immediately to the next book in the series, 1633. But it still feels like it stops on a triumphant note. Not because they just won an important military victory – although they certainly did. It’s what that victory is in service of that makes the ending a high note.

First, the victory is a victory of alliance – not of Grantville using its technical superiority to turn itself into a fortress nation. They form an alliance with King Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden, who in the history that was but will not be, a very forward thinking monarch who might have changed real history – if he hadn’t died in late 1632.

Second, the victory on their home ground, protects the most dangerous thing that Grantville brought back with it – the high school library and the students studying at the school. The powers-that-be, including Cardinal Richelieu of France (the villainous mastermind in The Three Musketeers) knew that the knowledge and information that Grantville brought to the 17th century was infinitely more dangerous than any of their weapons – and they wanted it destroyed at all costs.

And I have to admit that that acknowledgement, that libraries are dangerous because they expose people to knowledge and information, warmed the cockles of my librarian’s heart. Because it is and because we are. Not because of any of the specific things that are being protested today, but because libraries open people’s minds to what is possible – and that is what reactionary forces always fear above all else. Libraries, and librarians, teach people to ask questions that no tyrant, whether of government or of thought, wants to answer.

So I had fun. I had a lot of thoughts re-reading this book, but I also had a lot of fun. Even if things were a lot easier than I expect they would have been or should have been, I enjoyed watching these highly competent people doing their best to not just survive but to make a real life for themselves, their neighbors AND their posterity in a place where none of them could ever have expected to be.

I’ll be back – again or for the first time – the next time I need a competence porn pick-me-up or just want to watch a whole bunch of people play silly buggers with history. 1633 here I come!

Review: Three Miles Down by Harry Turtledove

Review: Three Miles Down by Harry TurtledoveThree Miles Down: A Novel of First Contact in the Tumultuous 1970s by Harry Turtledove
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove, the modern master of alternate history, a novel of alien contact set in the tumultuous year of the Watergate scandal.
It's 1974, and Jerry Stieglitz is a grad student in marine biology at UCLA with a side gig selling short stories to science fiction magazines, just weeks away from marrying his longtime fiancée. Then his life is upended by grim-faced men from three-letter agencies who want him to join a top-secret "Project Azorian" in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean—and they really don't take "no" for an answer. Further, they're offering enough money to solve all of his immediate problems.
Joining up and swearing to secrecy, what he first learns is that Project Azorian is secretly trying to raise a sunken Russian submarine, while pretending to be harvesting undersea manganese nodules. But the dead Russian sub, while real, turns out to be a cover story as well. What's down on the ocean floor next to it is the thing that killed the sub: an alien spacecraft.
Jerry's a scientist, a longhair, a storyteller, a dreamer. He stands out like a sore thumb on the Glomar Explorer, a ship full of CIA operatives, RAND Corporation eggheads, and roustabout divers. But it turns out that he's the one person in the North Pacific who's truly thought out all the ways that human-alien first contact might go.
And meanwhile, it's still 1974 back on the mainland. Richard Nixon is drinking heavily and talking to the paintings on the White House walls. The USA is changing fast—and who knows what will happen when this story gets out? Three Miles Down is both a fresh and original take on First Contact, and a hugely enjoyable romp through the pop culture, political tumult, and conspiracies-within-conspiracies atmosphere that was 1974.

My Review:

This was fun. Actually, it was considerably more fun than I expected. Although I wasn’t expecting The Hunt for Red October and every UFO story that takes place at Area 51 to have a book baby, either. But they did and this is definitely it.

It’s the summer of 1974 when this story opens, and does it ever feel like it. Watergate was in high gear, but the infamous tapes had not yet been released. Meaning that there was still plenty of room for people to believe that Nixon was being railroaded. There were also plenty of people who just didn’t like “Tricky Dick” and were happy to see him fall from grace – whether he was being railroaded or not.

The Cold War was still lukewarm at this point. It wouldn’t officially end for another decade, so the US and the USSR are still locking horns, but mostly on the diplomatic front. And the US is still stuck in the deeply unpopular and divisive Vietnam War, although there were certainly signs that the government of South Vietnam was teetering and that the US wouldn’t be able to prop it up for much longer.

Jerry Stieglitz was a graduate student at UCLA, very much like the author. But Jerry’s research for his doctorate in marine biology was about whalesong. If he ever managed to finish it. An issue that is even more in doubt after a visit from the CIA with an offer of the kind of money a graduate student can’t afford to turn down to do a job that sounds more like a boondoggle than anything that will advance his research.

It’s also going to be hell on his love life. Jerry and his fiancé Anna have their wedding all planned – and paid for – to take place in just three weeks.

The CIA wants Jerry on a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean starting ASAP. He thinks he’s part of their cover story. That research vessel is carrying some specialized equipment, to let the CIA raise a sunken Russian submarine from the titular “three miles down” under the ocean.

It’s only after Jerry is aboard ship and they’re on their way to the crash site that Jerry learns that he’s been brought aboard, not for the cover his marine biology research provides, but for the twists of mind necessary for his side-gig.

Jerry is a published (although not very much, yet) science fiction writer. Which makes him perfect for the real mission, hidden under the fake mission, concealed by a really thin cover story about mining manganese from the ocean floor.

It’s Jerry’s job to anticipate all the things that might go wrong when the ship brings up its real prize – a UFO that crashed under the waves who knows how and who knows when. All that anyone knows is that the UFO, whether crewed or not, managed to bring down that Russian submarine all by its lonesome.

Whatever is in there, the US wants to nab for itself before the Russians learn the truth about who sunk their nuclear equipped submarine.

Bringing up the UFO is the adventure of a lifetime. What Jerry finds in it will change, not just his life but quite possibly the world. But he doesn’t believe the US should be opening this particular can of worms on its own.

The problem is that if Jerry tells anyone what they found, somebody really will kill him. But they’ll have to catch him first.

Escape Rating A: Three Miles Down is fun on three different levels. First, there’s the obvious, the golly gee-whiz-bang fun of finding that UFO. It’s an edge-of-the-seat adventure that makes the reader feel like they are right there with Jerry and the crew – even if it’s also a boy’s only club. Which, to be fair, it would have been in 1974.

But just the idea of that discovery is fascinating – and all too easy to imagine for anyone who loves science fiction. Which leads directly to that second level. Because the story feels like it’s intended as a love note to the SF genre, particularly as it was at that period. (I was in high school when the book takes place, and I remember reading – or at least thinking about reading – many of the exact same books that Jerry reads on the trip. And the inclusion of real-life science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle in that latter part of the story reads as spot-on.)

And then there’s that third level, when Jerry’s situation goes pear-shaped and he finds himself on the run in the best spy thriller tradition, trying to keep one step ahead of the people who are out to get him. A part of the story that also flips the espionage thriller on its head, as Jerry, an American, is on the run from the CIA so that he can give the secret to America’s enemies. AND HE’S DOING THE RIGHT THING!

Put all those elements together and this story is an absolute blast from beginning to end, with an ending that opens up the possibility for so many wonderful new beginnings. I’d love to know what happens next, because I really enjoyed following Jerry’s “Magic Carpet Ride” of a journey.

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: Westside Lights by W.M. Akers

Review: Westside Lights by W.M. AkersWestside Lights (Westside #3) by W.M. Akers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #3
Pages: 288
Published by Harper Voyager on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alienist meets the magical mystery of The Ninth House as W. M. Akers returns with the third book in his critically acclaimed Jazz Age fantasy series set in the dangerous westside of New York City, following private detective Gilda Carr's hunt for the truth--one tiny mystery at a time.

The Westside of Manhattan is desolate, overgrown, and dangerous—and Gilda Carr wouldn’t have it any other way. An eccentric detective whose pursuit of tiny mysteries has dragged her to the brink of madness, Gilda spends 1923 searching for something that’s eluded her for years: peace. On the revitalized waterfront of the Lower West, Gilda and the gregarious ex-gangster Cherub Stevens start a new life on a stolen yacht. But their old life isn’t done with them yet.

They dock their boat on the edge of the White Lights District, a new tenderloin where liquor, drugs, sex, and violence are shaken into a deadly cocktail. When her pet seagull vanishes into the District, Gilda throws herself into the search for the missing bird. Up late watching the river for her pet, Gilda has one drink too many and passes out in the cabin of her waterfront home.

She wakes to a massacre.

Eight people have been slaughtered on the deck of the Misery Queen, and Cherub is among the dead. Gilda, naturally, is the prime suspect. Hunted by the police, the mob, and everyone in between, she must stay free long enough to find the person who stained the Hudson with her beloved’s blood. She will discover that on her Westside, no lights are bright enough to drive away the darkness.

My Review:

Westside is a place caught between “never was” and “might have been”. It’s a kind of road not taken made manifest in a world where “something” happened at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th that cleaved the west side of New York City away from not just the rest of the city – or even the rest of the country – but from reality itself.

Not completely. It is still possible to cross from one side to the other. But those crossings are regulated and controlled. There are fixed checkpoints between them. Because the shadowy darkness that looms over the Westside holds beasts and terrors that no one in the rest of the city wants to let slip through any cracks.

There are monsters on the Westside. Especially the two-legged kind that humans get reduced to when things get darkest – right before they turn completely black.

The first Westside story, simply titled Westside, was a surprise and a delight and a descent into darkness – all at the same time. The second book, Westside Saints – began with a real bang.

This third book, Westside Lights, begins with a whimper. It begins with Gilda Carr, solver of tiny mysteries, waking to the blood-soaked mess of a really big one. Leaving her to discover just who murdered all her friends and left her holding the quite literally bloody bag.

We start this story at seemingly the end. Gilda wakes up, everyone she’s been spending this strange, mysteriously light-saturated Westside summer with is dead all around her. As the only survivor of what looks like a massacre she is accused of the crime.

So she runs, intending to discover just who set her up to take this terrible fall – and turn it back on them before it’s too late for her.

But her search for the truth sees her examining the recent past, and the odd “miracle” that brought light back to the dark Westside – and tourists and pleasure seekers along with it.

Someone should have remembered that things that are too good to be true usually are, one bloody way or another. Especially in Westside.

Escape Rating A: Everything about the Westside is weird and weirdly fascinating. Also just weird. Did I say weird? The whole idea that part of NYC could just separate itself into another reality is weird, fascinating and a whole bunch of other bizarre things.

Even after three books we still don’t really know why it happened or how it happened, just that it did. And that the humans have self-sorted between the two sides – and even between the various criminal factions on the Westside itself since it happened.

But it’s every bit as complicated as it is fascinating. Which means that this series goes further down into the rabbit hole as it goes along. Meaning that Westside Lights is NOT the place to start. The place to start is Westside, where the reader gets introduced both to this place and to its denizens – especially Gilda Carr, that solver of tiny mysteries.

Tiny mysteries are the little things that make you wake up at 2 am – but aren’t so big that you won’t be able to get back to sleep. They’re niggling little questions that pop up at odd moments and just beg to be solved – even though the solution will have little to no effect on anything important.

Gilda solves tiny mysteries because she’s not crazy enough to pull at the threads of the big mysteries that lie under Westside. What makes these books so compelling is that no matter how much she tries to confine herself to the little things, she usually finds herself neck deep in the big things anyway.

Like Gilda’s previous “adventures” in this one she starts out investigating one thing – the death of the people she’s spent the summer with – and ends up looking into something entirely different. She starts out looking for a crazed, garden-variety murderer and ends up trying to figure out why the birds are dying.

But that’s part of Gilda’s charm, a charm that has carried her through three surprising adventures so far. I never expected this series to even BE a series, but I’m glad it is. And I’d love to follow Gilda as she solves as many “tiny” mysteries as she can find!

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes LackeyThe Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (Elemental Masters, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk
Series: Elemental Masters #16
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The sixteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series follows sharpshooter Annie Oakley as she tours Europe and discovers untapped powers.
Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.
As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.

My Review:

When I read the first few books in the Elemental Masters series – as they came out back in the early 2000s – I loved these retellings of classic fairy tales set in an alternate, slightly steampunkish late Victorian/early Edwardian era for the way that they mixed a bit of magic with a bit of alternate history to put a fresh face on a tale that was oh-so-familiar.

Now that I’m thinking about this the series is an alternate version of another of Lackey’s alternate ways of telling fairy tales, her Five Hundred Kingdoms series (begin with The Fairy Godmother) where the purpose of the story was to subvert the fairy tale to keep it from subverting someone’s life.

I digress.

I stopped reading the Elemental Masters series after Reserved for the Cat as a consequence of the “so many books, so little time” conundrum that all of us who live in books are faced with so often. But I came back when the series switched from fairy tales to legendary characters with A Study in Sable and the three books that followed (A Scandal in Battersea, The Bartered Brides and The Case of the Spellbound Child) because the legendary character that was introduced and followed in this subseries of the series was none other than Sherlock Holmes.

I can never resist a Holmes pastiche, and these were no exception.

But after following the “World’s Greatest Consulting Detective”, even an alternate version thereof, through an alternate version of Holmes’ London, the series took itself across the pond to the Americas while briefly turning to its roots of retelling fairy tales with Jolene. Which I have yet to read – even though just the title is giving me an earworm of Dolly Parton’s marvelous song – which I’m sure was the intention.

I was, however, all in to read this latest book in the series, The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, because I was wondering how the author would blend this historical character into this world where magic is hidden just beneath the surface.

It turns out that Annie Oakley herself, the real one, provided her own introduction to this world. As this story opens, we’re with Annie as she is in contracted servitude to a married couple she only refers to as “the Wolves” in her diary. Her real, historical diary.

The Wolves – whose identity has never been conclusively determined – starved her, cheated her, threatened her and physically and mentally abused her at every turn for two years, beginning when Annie was nine years old.

In this story, those two years of hell on earth become Annie’s introduction to the magic of this alternate world. Not just because the people she calls “the Wolves” turn out to be actual wolves – or rather werewolves – but because her desperate escape from the Wolves is facilitated by the magic of this alternate world – both the magic of the fairies AND magic of Annie’s very own.

After that shocking and heartbreaking beginning, the story shifts to Annie Oakley as an adult, the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, traveling in Europe.

Where she discovers that her childhood rescue by fairies was not the fever dream she tried to convince herself that it was. And that the magic she has hidden from herself all these years is hers to command – if she is willing to learn.

And that she’ll need all the training and assistance that she can get. Because the wolves are still after her.

Escape Rating A-: When I was growing up – back in the Dark Ages – there weren’t nearly enough biographies of women in my elementary school library. Honestly, there weren’t nearly enough, period. While there still aren’t, the situation has improved at least a bit.

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

One of the few that was always available was Annie Oakley. It was easy to find stuff about her, and as someone who read as much of that library as humanly possible, I found what there was. She’s a fascinating person, as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century who was famous for what she herself DID, and not for who she married, who she killed (I’m looking at you, Lizzie Borden) or who or what she was victimized by. Nor was she famous for her beauty. (I’ve included a picture to let you judge for yourself on that score, but whether you like her looks or not they are not what made her famous.

Her ability to shoot a gun, accurately and at a distance, is what made her famous. It also put food on the table when she was young and her family was broke.

Blending her real history and real talents into this magical story, and keeping reasonably close to what is known about her while expanding it into this created world was fascinating and fun. This was also a terrific story to get new readers into this long running series, as Annie is an adult when she finds out that she has magic, and her training in her newly discovered powers helps the reader get on board with the way that this world works AND is fascinating in its own right.

So this story’s blend of history with magic just plain worked for me – even more than I expected it to. More than enough to make me not miss the Sherlock Holmes of the earlier stories in the series too much.

Obviously, I really enjoyed this particular entry in this long-running series. MORE than enough that I’ll be back the next time the author returns to it. In the meantime, I have plenty of entries in the series that I missed to dip into whenever I’m looking for this blend of magic, myth and history.

Review: Matagorda Breeze by Lyla Hopper

Review: Matagorda Breeze by Lyla HopperMatagorda Breeze by Lyla Hopper
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, post apocalyptic
Pages: 196
Published by Joy House Publishing on December 20, 2020
Publisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The Age of Oil ends in a cataclysm that kills millions of people. Two centuries after The Day, mankind has adapted, and a second Age of Sail is thriving. Ruby Turner is the first woman to serve aboard ships of the Gulf Shipping Company. She’s an excellent Navigator, but the Commodore has promoted her to Captain of the Matagorda Breeze, a ne’er-do-well ship where sailors who can’t quite make the grade elsewhere end up. She’s got to prove to the Commodore, herself, and her new team that she’s got what it takes to turn the ship around. On the way, she must face the biggest challenges of her career. Adventure awaits!

My Review:

What happens after the world comes to an end? It’s a fascinating question, and one that has been dealt with many, many, many times. But the stories about what happens when the world as we know it comes to a cataclysmic end have a certain sameness to them.

The exact way in which the world ends may be different, but humans still do human, so the range of how people deal with it is often fairly similar.

But whatever happens after that, assuming that humanity survives at all, can take so many routes down the trousers of time that those trousers might as well belong to a centipede. The apocalypses may all have a sameness to them, but the way that the world has gone after a couple of centuries, well, that has some interesting possibilities that don’t all have to be gloom and doom.

And that’s the story that Lyla Hopper chose to tackle in Matagorda Breeze. What does the world look like 200 years after an apocalypse that takes fossil fuels out of the world-wide equation?

As Matagorda Breeze opens, that cataclysm, “The Day” as it’s often referred to in the story, is two centuries in the past. Fossil fuels and the world they both permitted and destroyed are long gone. Humanity has gone both back and forward from there. Wind, water and animal power have returned to prominence. Solar power is a possibility, but political shenanigans (humans still human) have put that out of reach for most places because the components are rare and not widely available – or distributed.

In the areas that surround the Gulf of Mexico, sailing ships handle most of the heavy-duty cargo and transportation business. When we meet Ruby Turner, she is just getting her first ship’s command. An assignment that she is expected to fail.

In those two centuries since the Day, gender roles have reverted back to the pre-Civil Rights era. Women are expected to marry and take care of the home. And all of the other expectations that go along with that assumption.

Ruby is the first woman to rise to her current rank of Navigator, and the powers-that-be want to see her fail at being a captain so that she will go back to the role that’s expected of her. This command looks like it will do the trick, as her predecessor committed suicide, her first-mate is a thief and a bully, and her crew is filled with men who have hit bottom.

Of course she turns it around. This is her story and she’s the heroine. But it’s the way that she does it, the way that she not only succeeds but makes it a success for her entire formerly rag-tag crew, that makes this story an absolute joy to read from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A-: First and foremost, Matagorda Breeze is a very fun read. For one thing, it is competence porn, and I really like competence porn. This is a story about a woman who is better than anyone else at her job, surrounds herself with the best people – or helps them become the best people – and succeeds very much against the odds.

Howsomever, as much as loved following Ruby, it also felt like things were much too easy for her. It was GREAT watching her go from triumph to triumph, but it seemed like the sea chains blocking her way were almost no impediment to her progress.

Even the pirates succumbed to Ruby’s overwhelming abilities. It’s not like that’s a bad thing, but I did expect a bit more dramatic tension along the way. It’s very clear in the way that Ruby and others speak about events in her past that there WERE plenty of impediments along her way – but we don’t really experience them at the point where her life is now. She has learned what to do and how to do it and seems to have very few self-doubts about any of it. I wish we’d either seen more of her specific memories of incidents or that she’d had at least a bit of a struggle in her present. Your nautical mileage may vary.

As I was reading Matagorda Breeze, it reminded me very much of three other books; Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, On Basilisk Station by David Weber, and Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling (also, come to think of it, 1632 by Eric Flint). On Basilisk Station and Master and Commander belong very much together as they were both inspired by the same real-life Napoleonic War naval commander, and the Honorverse is pretty much the Napoleonic Wars in space.

But the attention to ship’s details and operations is a big part of both Master and Commander and Matagorda Breeze, and the female captain receiving her first command against the odds is a big part of On Basilisk Station.

Island in the Sea of Time is a bit different in that it’s also a story about what happens after the apocalypse – but not the usual kind of apocalypse – as the people in that story are transplanted from the late 20th century to the Bronze Age circa 1250 B.C.E. So the 20th century humans have to adapt to the loss of their 20th century technology but civilization is still alive and well and growing. Just not the civilization that they left, and that situation read like the world of Matagorda Breeze more than I expected. 1632 explores a similar scenario a bit differently, but the people in Island have a ship so it’s a knot or two closer.

Back to the book in hand. Matagorda Breeze is a story that explores a fascinating alternate world – one that I’d be very interested in returning to if the author decides to go there. It’s also a great story about a woman for whom the course of not just true love but true-pretty-much-everything goes fairly smoothly, but has just enough adventure to make it interesting.

And definitely, absolutely, competence porn for the win!

Full disclosure: Lyla Hopper is a pen name for my dear friend Amy Daltry who contributes the occasional really snarky review here at Reading Reality. She’s a dear friend and I’m really sorry that she, her husband, their dog, and the RV they are living in are currently even further away than they were before they took up vagabonding. This is her first book and I loved it and hope that there are more where this came from!

Review: A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

Review: A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain NeuvelA History of What Comes Next (Take Them to the Stars, #1) by Sylvain Neuvel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fiction, science fiction
Series: Take Them to the Stars #1
Pages: 304
Published by Tor.com on February 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Showing that truth is stranger than fiction, Sylvain Neuvel weaves a scfi thriller reminiscent of Blake Crouch and Andy Weir, blending a fast moving, darkly satirical look at 1940s rocketry with an exploration of the amorality of progress and the nature of violence in A History of What Comes Next.
Always run, never fight. Preserve the knowledge.Survive at all costs.Take them to the stars.
Over 99 identical generations, Mia’s family has shaped human history to push them to the stars, making brutal, wrenching choices and sacrificing countless lives. Her turn comes at the dawn of the age of rocketry. Her mission: to lure Wernher Von Braun away from the Nazi party and into the American rocket program, and secure the future of the space race.
But Mia’s family is not the only group pushing the levers of history: an even more ruthless enemy lurks behind the scenes.
A darkly satirical first contact thriller, as seen through the eyes of the women who make progress possible and the men who are determined to stop them...

My Review:

When I picked this up I was kind of expecting something like the Lady Astronaut series, an alternate history where women, in spite of the odds and the decks that are stacked against them, manage to participate more fully and much earlier in humankind’s race to get off this planet and into the stars. Maybe crossed with any of several books I’ve read that cover the post-WW2 frenetic scientist-nabbing of Operation Paperclip, books like Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook and Moonglow, along with plenty of others.

The story I got wasn’t quite the one I expected. For one thing, the Lady Astronaut series is alternate history, but the story in A History of What Comes Next is really a secret history. It’s not that the world is different, it’s that the world is pretty much the same but there are things happening behind the scenes and under the surface that were brought about by secret groups with hidden motives that, sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally, have created the world we know.

The world of the Kibsu and the Rādi Kibsu, the secret groups operating behind the scenes, are a bit like the Templars and the Assassins in the Assassin’s Creed videogame series, two groups trying to manipulate history to further their own ends, which are never half so benign as either group pretends they are – something that is also true in the games.

This story of hidden and secret operations is, at this juncture in its history, crossed with Operation Paperclip, the Space Race BEFORE the Space Race, as Sarah and Mia, the 99th cell of the Kibsu, do their best to further both the US and the Soviet immediate post-WW2 operation to “rescue” and “rehabilitate” as many Nazi rocket scientists as they can manage to get across one border or the other.

Both sides want to build better rockets, in order to have more opportunities to drop bombs on each other from great distances. The Kibsu, hiding in the shadows helping both sides, believe that those rockets are the key to manned space flight, and therefore to the eventual success of their millennia long mission to get humankind to the stars.

In their two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress in that mission, the Kibsu are opposed by their opposite number, the Rādi Kibsu. The ones who track them back and forth across the globe and eliminate them whenever they can. The Rādi Kibsu’s mission is to retrieve a machine that they believe the Kibsu are hiding from them. A machine that will help them fulfill their mission to return to the stars.

But these two sides, these two families, have been crossing the globe and killing each other – along with a whole lot of collateral damage inflicted on both sides – for a mission that neither completely understands.

Even though they both think they’re working for the “Greater Good” – for all of the worst definitions of that terrible phrase.

Escape Rating B: This is not a quick read. I mean that not in the sense that the book is terribly long – because it’s not – but rather that the story starts out slowly and moves forward in fits and starts. Also the way that the story moves forward almost necessitates those fits, as there are three perspectives or three types of narration, depending on how one interprets such things.

The real action parts of the story are from Mia’s first-person perspective. As the story begins, Mia is a child, with all of a child’s selfishness and self-absorption. And she doesn’t really grow out of that perspective until the very end when she’s forced to take the parental role.

Then there are not one but two types of interstices. In between Mia actually doing what her mother believes is necessary, there are sections of the story that consist of conversations between Mia and her mother Sarah. Conversations where the two women often talk past one another because of conflicts both internal and external.

And there are sections, Entr’actes as the book labels them, written in the third-person omniscient as the reader gets glimpses of the Kibsu through history – often through real history that’s attributed to them in the story. Real history that feels meticulously researched and functions a bit like “Easter eggs” for history nerds.

The three perspectives don’t quite gel – or alternatively they are gelid to the point of stickiness. Your mileage will probably vary. I loved the history bits, but not everyone does or will.

In the end, the book that I was most reminded of was This is How You Lose the Time War. A story that also left me a bit conflicted in the same way that this one does.

The reason that’s the part this is sticking has to do with the revelations about the origins and role of the Rādi Kibsu. We begin the story kind of on the side of the Kibsu. They seem to be working for the betterment of humanity even if their methods of doing so are very messy and have an extremely high body count. They don’t want to kill people, but sometimes, at least from their perspective, it just has to be done.

Their goal is a lofty one, to get humanity off this ball of rock and into the stars before we’re wiped out. They are scientists and they’re following the science as best they can.

But, but, but, the rules they follow are rigid, the price they personally pay is high and they are always on the run from the Rādi Kibsu, the men they call the Trackers.

Because that’s a part of it too. The Kibsu are always women, and each daughter appears to be a clone of her mother. The Rādi Kibsu are always men, and each generation appears to be the clone of the one before it. That the Rādi Kibsu have become entirely too fond of violence for its own sake helps to make them less than sympathetic, not just to the Kibsu, but to the reader as well.

As it turns out, they each have a mission. Actually, they each have a part of a mission that has been garbled and degraded over the centuries. A mission that they were supposed to fulfill together.

Each of them thinks that the other is evil. And they are continuing their race, against time and each other, in the hopes that one side or the other can make it stop. But they can’t. Or won’t.

It’s the eternal nature of their race, that they each hold pieces of the puzzle but can’t put them together, that they each think their side is righteous and the way that they are both working towards an ultimately nebulous goal that made the whole thing echo This is How You Lose the Time War.

Because the race between the Kibsu and the Rādi Kibsu is definitely how they are BOTH losing the damn time war. Over and over and over again. And quite possibly the war to take humanity to the stars along with it.

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

Review: The Dragon Waiting by John M. FordThe Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“The best mingling of history with historical magic that I have ever seen.”—Gene Wolfe In a snowbound inn high in the Alps, four people meet who will alter fate.
A noble Byzantine mercenary . . .
A female Florentine physician . . .
An ageless Welsh wizard . . .
And an uncanny academic.
Together they will wage an intrigue-filled campaign against the might of Byzantium to secure the English throne for Richard, Duke of Gloucester—and make him Richard III. Available for the first time in nearly two decades, with a new introduction by New York Times-bestselling author Scott Lynch, The Dragon Waiting is a masterpiece of blood and magic.“Had [John M. Ford] taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would’ve been George R.R. Martin.” —Neil Gaiman

My Review:

The Dragon Waiting is the best book that you’ve probably never heard of – but should have. And it’s what Tor Essentials is all about.

That last is possibly literal, as it feels as if this is the one book above all others that the publisher really, truly, sincerely wanted to try and bring back into print. If this is the inspiration for the imprint, or even just a part of it, it was all worth it.

There’s a story in that, and I’ll get to it. But first, there’s a story.

A wizard, a mercenary, a vampire and a spy walk into a tavern. And come out of it trying to change the world.

That’s been done, or something similar. In a way, it sounds like the opening to Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, where a disparate group of desperate people band together to overthrow an empire.

But the story of The Dragon Waiting is both a lot closer to actual history – and a lot farther – than Tigana. Because this is alternate history that builds off of real history, real events and real people – although none of them ever quite committed any of these acts. That we know of.

This is a story about a Byzantine Empire that not only never fell, but grew and changed and continued to swallow up countries that became independent of either Rome or Byzantium in the history that we know. But this Byzantium remained on top of the world because it didn’t embrace Christianity. Instead, it continued the old Roman policy of allowing conquered people to retain their old beliefs and old gods.

And there’s magic. There’s certainly magic in the writing – honestly. But there’s magic in the world. Not a lot. There are not a lot of real practitioners of what we would consider real magic. But there are a few, and they can move mountains. Or dragons.

Or topple empires.

Escape Rating A+: This is going to be one of those reviews where how I feel about the book is inextricably tied into what I think of the book. Because of the circumstances of this particular book and my reading – and re-reading – of it.

The Dragon Waiting was originally published in 1983. I still have my old mass market paperback copy, which I’ve moved more times than I care to count. It’s a book that loomed large in my memory, although I only read it the once – and that nearly 40 years ago.

I hung onto my paperback because the damn thing went out of print, and I KNEW I’d want to re-read it someday. But the book didn’t just go out of print, it went into intellectual property hell as the author died (much too soon, having left not nearly enough behind) and no one seemed to know who owned the rights to this book. That saga is detailed here and here, and it’s a terrific mystery/quest story all by itself!

But the book, oh the book! I remembered The Dragon Waiting as being completely awesome, but hadn’t gotten back to it in a VERY long time. So, on the one hand I couldn’t wait to get a copy and re-read it, and on the other, when the time came I had a terrible approach/avoidance conflict. I wanted to read it again, but I needed it to be as awesome as I remembered, and I had no way of knowing if it would be.

1983 is a long time ago. I was a different person then, and the book spoke to me then for reasons that are now long in my past. The question of whether it would still speak to me, and whether it held up as the excellent read I remember it being, loomed large in my mind – to the point of being a reading block.

I’m happy to say that it IS every bit as good now as my memory says it was then. That’s not nostalgia talking – well, maybe a bit – but because it’s still a cracking good story.

What’s different is that the things it reminds me of, like Kay’s Tigana, and also his Sarantine Mosaic, were written after The Dragon Waiting. So while it feels like Dragon was influenced by those books, it’s actually the other way around. The two things that feel like influences on Dragon that actually might have been are T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (published in 1958) and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which began with The Crystal Cave in 1970.

The King
2016 Based on x-ray of King Richard III

But the thing that I kept coming back to as I read The Dragon Waiting was Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time. So much of the framing story of that book is dated, but the central mystery, the intellectual investigation into the question of Richard III and what happened to the “Princes in the Tower” still resonates. And it fits into The Dragon Waiting like a key into a lock in spite of differences in genre.

Because the conclusion in The Daughter of Time was that Richard’s behavior as postulated in Shakespeare and common perception makes no sense whatsoever. The story of The Dragon Waiting gives it that sense.

And a whole rollicking story of magic and empires to go along with it. A story that was every single bit as readable and complex as it was when it was first published.

I’m left with a few thoughts that don’t quite fit into a review of the book. Ford died in 2006, six years before Richard III’s remains were discovered under that carpark in Leicester. But when The Dragon Waiting was first published in 1983, Ford was 26. I remember who and what I was at 26 and am astonished and amazed at his achievement. As I was reading the book that he wrote, we were the same age. Literally, as he was born five days after me. I’m still a bit speechless at that thought, as I did not nearly have my shit together at 26 and am gobsmacked at the way that he did. I wish he left behind more work, but I’m grateful that what there is will be re-published – there just wasn’t nearly enough.

Review: Westside Saints by W.M. Akers

Review: Westside Saints by W.M. AkersWestside Saints by W.M. Akers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #2
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 5, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Return to a twisted version of Jazz Age New York in this follow up to the critically acclaimed fantasy Westside, as relentless sleuth Gilda Carr’s pursuit of tiny mysteries drags her into a case that will rewrite everything she knows about her past.
Six months ago, the ruined Westside of Manhattan erupted into civil war, and private detective Gilda Carr nearly died to save her city. In 1922, winter has hit hard, and the desolate Lower West is frozen solid. Like the other lost souls who wander these overgrown streets, Gilda is weary, cold, and desperate for hope. She finds a mystery instead.
Hired by a family of eccentric street preachers to recover a lost saint’s finger, Gilda is tempted by their promise of “electric resurrection,” when the Westside’s countless dead will return to life. To a detective this cynical, faith is a weakness, and she is fighting the urge to believe in miracles when her long dead mother, Mary Fall, walks through the parlor door.
Stricken with amnesia, Mary remembers nothing of her daughter or her death, but that doesn’t stop her from being as infuriatingly pushy as Gilda herself. As her mother threatens to drive her insane, Gilda keeps their relationship a secret so that they can work together to investigate what brought Mary back to life. The search will force Gilda to reckon with the nature of death, family, and the uncomfortable fact that her mother was not just a saint, but a human being.

My Review:

Westside is a liminal place, walled away somewhere between “could be”, “might have been” – and Back to the Future. Literally. No DeLorean this time though, just a family of scam artists posing as revival preachers, a desperate con artist and the magic and mystery that make Westside what it is.

Dangerous. Deadly. Despairing. Debauched. Determined.

Westside Saints is the surprising followup to last year’s marvelous Westside. I say surprising mostly because I’m surprised that there was a followup! At the time, it seemed like everything that needed to be said got said, there was a huge climax to the story and it all wrapped it – not with a neat and tidy bow but with a dirty and bedraggled one made into a garrote, because that’s Westside.

But at the end of that story Gilda Carr walked, not away but into the ever-deepening darkness that settles over Westside, to nurse her wounds, both physical and emotional, and continue her investigations into tiny little mysteries.

Looking into a big one nearly killed her, and left a lot of bodies all over Westside. Bodies that still haunt her and her community when Westside Saints begins.

And it begins with a bang, quite literally, as the revival preaching family of the late Bully Byrd pulls off the miracle to end all miracles, and their dead and departed founder rises from the dead out of a cauldron filled with smoke and fire.

Gilda has been looking into a couple of tiny mysteries for the Byrd family, and believes that while they are on the side of the angels, they are not nearly as “saintly” as they make themselves out to be. Like so many of Gilda’s beliefs and illusions, only the worst parts of this one turn out to be true.

Because no one is in Westside. Not even the deeply religious Byrds who picked her dead, drunk father out of many a gutter back in the day.

So Gilda is certain that the supposed “resurrection” of the Reverend Bully Byrd is just another confidence trick. Or she is until her late and very much lamented mother, Mary Fall, walks into the house Gilda inherited from her parents and claims that she has amnesia. That she wants Gilda to investigate the tiny mystery of her missing ring, and hopefully solve the bigger mystery of where her memory went.

Bully Byrd’s return to Westside may have been a hoax, but Mary Fall’s resurrection, even a Mary Fall who seems to be in her early 20s and not the woman who died in her mid 30s. Not the woman who was Gilda’s mother but could be the woman who became her.

She’s certainly more than enough like Gilda to make that seem possible – even if she’s nothing like the saintly woman that Gilda remembers. The more time Gilda spends with lying, exasperating, infuriating Mary Fall, the less she wants to condemn this bright, shiny troublemaker to the life that Gilda wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy.

Not even if she has to.

Escape Rating A: I loved the first book, Westside, and loved this one every bit as much. After yesterday’s disappointment, I’m really glad I chose Westside Saints to close out the week.

At the top, I said that Westside was a liminal place, a place that exists on the borders, and so does the series that is wrapped around it. The first book straddled an invisible line between urban fantasy, historical fiction and horror, existing in all three but fully inhabiting none.

Westside Saints is a bit of a different mix, as if it moved just a step to the left to sit on the intersection between urban fantasy, historical fiction and science fiction.

In any case, the series is a genre-bender and genre-blender of epic proportions.

The entree into this story is Bully Byrd’s supposed resurrection. Gilda’s investigation dives deeply into the supposedly saintly Byrd family and finds, basically, a cesspit. Which is what she has come to expect of everyone and everything in Westside. But that discovery exposes not just one family, but a layer of rot that she thought had been eradicated at the end of that first book. It’s an investigation that strips away even more of the few illusions Gilda thought she had left. We’re with her as she keeps turning over rocks, only to find that yet more disgusting things keep crawling out.

But she’s a fighter and a survivor and watching her work is compelling in the extreme. It feels like the tinier the mystery she starts with, the bigger – and nastier – the reveal is at the end.

One of the themes that felt so prominent in Westside stands out even more in the sequel. In that first book, Gilda is forced to reckon with the people who were parents really were, and not the plaster saints her child-self made them out to be. That is even more true in Westside Saints, as she discovers the real reason why neither of her parents ever told her how they met or why they married. Because from certain perspectives, they really, really shouldn’t have.

In the end, Gilda faces pretty much the same paradox that Marty McFly does in Back to the Future. She has to somehow get her parents together, no matter how little her mother deserves to be condemned to the life and death they both know she’ll lead, in order to history’s paradoxes to be resolved. Otherwise the events of Westside never come to pass – and history will be the worse for them.

Even if Mary Fall’s life would be for the better.

In the first book, part of the story was about Gilda fighting for the soul of Westside. At the end, after the high butcher’s bill has been toted up, it feels like she and her friends have won. But, as Westside Saints gets deep into the aftermath of those events, it turns out that what Gilda achieved was either a Pyrrhic victory or the first battle in what will be a long drawn out series of skirmishes. Hopefully we’ll find out in later books in the series. Which I hope there will be several of, even if it turns out that Gilda is just fighting the long defeat. Or perhaps especially – if that’s the way it turns out.