A+ #BookReview: How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler

A+ #BookReview: How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django WexlerHow to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying (Dark Lord Davi, #1) by Django Wexler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Dark Lord Davi #1
Pages: 432
Published by Orbit on May 21, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Groundhog Day meets Guardians of the Galaxy in Django Wexler’s laugh-out-loud fantasy tale about a young woman who, tired of defending humanity from the Dark Lord, decides to become the Dark Lord herself.
Davi has done this all before. She’s tried to be the hero and take down the all-powerful Dark Lord. A hundred times she’s rallied humanity and made the final charge. But the time loop always gets her in the end. Sometimes she’s killed quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But she’s been defeated every time.
This time? She’s done being the hero and done being stuck in this endless time loop. If the Dark Lord always wins, then maybe that’s who she needs to be. It’s Davi’s turn to play on the winning side.
Burningblade & SilvereyeAshes of the Sun Blood of the Chosen Emperor of Ruin

My Review:

The blurb for this title – a title just full to the brim with snarky, contradictory glory – is a bit more on point than the one for next month’s Service Model, which I read in the same weekend and was just really, really off.

But it’s still not quite there. This isn’t Groundhog Day meets Guardians of the Galaxy. It could, sorta/kinda be a take on the very motley crew of Guardians and their very snarky leader with his love for 1980s music and pop culture, but isn’t really Groundhog Day because there really isn’t a redemption arc – at least not so far – because Davi doesn’t need to be redeemed.

What Davi, wannabe Dark Lord Davi, needs to do is figure out how to survive the fantasy world she’s been dumped into, nearly 300 damn times so far. Because her previous attempts have all ended more or less the same way, with her being killed by some bwahaha spitting orc bastard who has just taken over the world and killed all the humans he or she can find.

It’s not always been the SAME bwahaha bastard, but does that really matter?

Davi has decided that it absolutely does not. If she’s going to survive this clusterfuck, she’s going to have to change the rules. Starting with pounding the smug, lying manipulative bastard wizard who starts her down the path of inevitable destruction into the rocks that surround the pool she always emerges from until his head is paste.

Davi has had enough. Clearly.

(If the idea of this story sounds familiar, it is. Alix E. Harrow’s “The Six Deaths of the Saint”, included in the Best American SF/F of 2023 collection, has a VERY similar premise – taken much more seriously and without the snark.)

Davi has had enough of being the shining light of goodness and humanity, because all it gets her is dead. She may have a destiny on this world, but so far all she’s been destined to do is die.

Since her journey always restarts, always in that same pool, always listening to that same wizard’s crap when she inevitably dies again, this time she’s going to do an asshole playthrough – even though she’s already determined that whatever this is, it isn’t a videogame world.

Still, this is a concept she hasn’t tried before. It might work. It might be interesting. It might be good, just this once, to be bad.

Escape Rating A+: How to Become the Dark Lord AND Die Trying (the title absolutely needs to put some emphasis on that ‘AND’ because WOW those things should be contradictory), is a snarktastic romp, a wild, exuberant page-turning knock out of an epic fantasy and a complete and utter send up of the whole entire genre AND the horse it rode in on all at the same time.

That it isn’t the redemption story the blurb’s reference to Groundhog Day might lead you to believe doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – and Dark Lord Davi certainly does have some VERY grand schemes – but it misses one of the points just a bit that would add to the sheer WTF’ery of the fun of the thing.

Because it’s not Groundhog Day, it’s Edge of Tomorrow. You remember THAT movie, the one where Tom Cruise has to repeat his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, over and over and over again, each and every time he gets killed – frequently and often – so that eventually he and Emily Blunt can put the pieces together fast enough to kill the alien invaders before they decimate Earth.

Part of the fun of that movie was watching Cruise get killed. Part of the fun of How to Become the Dark Lord is watching the Dark-Lord-in-Waiting fake it until she makes it, over and over and over again – knowing that death is just the excuse for another restart.

But Davi isn’t an evil dark lord, which becomes part of her problem as her journey towards dark-lord-dom continues. Davi really does care about her people – admittedly some more intimately than others. She takes care of her people. She’s reasonable and responsible and nurturing and does her best to avoid needless killing and senseless violence.

Emphasis on needless and senseless. She’s aware that some eggs are going to get broken in making this Dark Lord omelet but she’s never reckless with anyone except herself.

All that she’s done by switching sides is changing which people she’s willing to protect and defend. She’s changed who it is that she counts as ‘us’ in her calculus of war. It’s very much the perspective of Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, or Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker and Godslayer in that the orcs – and the other wilder-folk and non-humans – are the people she – and we – root for while the humans are off being inhumane to everyone not human and Davi is no longer there for that.

What makes this romp so very much of a romp is that Davi is snarky to the max, rather like one of John Scalzi’s, Simon R. Green’s or especially K.J. Parker’s and T. Kingfisher’s anti-hero-ish heroes. She never meets a quip she can’t make, a dig she can’t take, or an attitude she can’t cop, sometimes all at the same time. She’s a bit like Murderbot would be if Murderbot let it all hang out.

She’s also, manifestly, an epic fantasy hero who does not have all the answers – nor does she have any advisors who do, think they do or pretend they do. She’s faking it until she makes it – only to discover that once she’s made it there’s yet another hill to climb and yet another army to defeat.

Dark Lord Davi is simply awesome, as well as laugh out loud funny and occasionally downright embarrassing to herself and her minions. She’s a great hero to spend a long dark evening with! So I’m very glad that I did, and I can’t wait to do it again when she comes back for (cue the EXTREMELY apropos ‘80s earworm) Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin Chupeco

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin ChupecoCourt of Wanderers (Silver Under Nightfall, #2) by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Series: Reaper #2
Pages: 448
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Remy Pendergast and his royal vampire companions return to face an enemy that is terrifyingly close to home in Rin Chupeco’s queer, bloody Gothic epic fantasy series for fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast, the vampire hunter, and his unexpected companions, Lord Zidan Malekh and Lady Xiaodan Song, are on the road through the kingdom of Aluria again after a hard-won first battle against the formidable Night Empress, who threatens to undo a fragile peace between humans and vampires. Xiaodan, severely injured, has lost her powers to vanquish the enemy’s new super breed of vampire, but if the trio can make it to Fata Morgana, the seat of Malehk’s court—dubbed “the Court of Wanderers”—there is hope of nursing her and bringing them back.
En-route to the Third Court, Remy crosses paths with his father, the arrogant, oftentimes cruel Lord of Valenbonne. He also begins to suffer strange dreams of the Night Empress, whom he has long suspected to be Ligaya Pendergast, his own mother. As his family history unfolds during these episodes, which are too realistic to be coincidence, he realizes that she is no ordinary vampire—and that he may end up having to choose between the respective legacies of his parents.
Posing as Malek and Xiaodan’s human familiar, Remy contends with Aluria’s intimidating vampire courts and a series of gruesome murders with their help—and more, as the three navigate their relationship. But those feelings and even their extraordinary collective strength will be put to the test as each of them unleashes new powers in combat at what may be proven to be the ultimate cost.

My Review:

I loved this second book in the Reaper duology even more than I loved the first book, Silver Under Nightfall. Which means that it is going to be damn near impossible to keep my SQUEE under enough control to write this review.

But then again, I loved this so hard that I have literally nothing truly serious to say, except to tell people to go out and read this duology and to start with Silver Under Nightfall and be prepared to forgo sleep until you’ve finished the set.

The story in Court of Wanderers picks up right after the ending of Silver Under Nightfall, and everything that happened in that first book is part of the setup for this second. So my one very serious thing to say is to start with Silver Under Nightfall to get acclimated to this intricately designed and convoluted world where the good humans are working with the good vampires, the bad vampires are killing the bad humans and someone or something is maneuvering behind the scenes on both sides for dastardly reasons of their own.

Because divide and conquer has been a sound strategy since the dawn of, well, strategy.

At the heart of this truly epic dark fantasy are Malekh, Xiodan and especially Remy. Malekh and Xiodan are vampires at the center of seemingly ALL the power plays among their people. A people who are distrustful of each other and seem to hold humans in contempt. But are forced to or hopeful of or a bit of both regarding an alliance with at least some humans in order to fight a common enemy that is targeting them both with armies of infectious, unkillable monsters.

(And yes, anything that a vampire thinks is a monster is pretty damn monstrous – as are the people (for loose definitions of ‘people’) controlling them.)

Remy Pendergast, the point of view character for the story, is a garden-variety human. Or so he believes, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary he grew up with and was constantly reviled for. His father leads the human armies on behalf of the Alurian Queen Ophelia.

His father, quite frankly, is also a bastard – the marital status of HIS parents notwithstanding.

Remy was supposed to be his father’s spy among the vampire courts. Instead, Remy has found the first place he could ever call home. A place where he is respected, appreciated, and most definitely loved. By Malekh and Xiodan, the leaders of the third and fourth vampire courts, who want to make him their acknowledged third, whether he remains human or lets himself be turned.

But Remy isn’t quite the mere human that he believed himself to. Then again, quite a few of the things he believed and the people he believed in are not exactly what he believed them to be, either.

The war that Remy is at the forefront of, on both sides at the same time, will test his courage, his mettle, his resolve – and most especially, his heart.

What comes out the other side – intact or otherwise – is for Remy to discover. If he survives – and if his world survives with or without him.

Escape Rating A++: The SQUEE is strong with this review. Let’s get into at least a bit of the why of that fact.

The comparison that keeps being made in the blurbs is to Castlevania. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t say if that’s on point or not. What is very much on point – and not just the pointy fangs of the vampires themselves, is that the Reaper duology does a fantastic – no pun intended – job of combining the battle of good vs. evil that so often lies at the heart of epic fantasy with epic fantasy’s complex worldbuilding AND its underlying thread of very long, downright historical forces teeing up to fight the same battles over and over again.

At the same time, and I think this is where the Castlevania reference comes in, some of the prime movers and shakers in this world are vampires. And it has been observed, at least by this reader, that vampire politics tend to run towards exceedingly long games and even longer grudges because those original movers and shakers are still doing the moving and the shaking down through the millennia. It’s difficult to get a fresh start when the people who need it are battling not against institutional memory or country-founding ethos but against actual memory – usually in worlds where therapy is not remotely a thing.

A big part of what is ultimately uncovered, the evil at the heart of this world, is that the forces arrayed have been maneuvering on the down low for longer than the short-lived humans could possibly imagine – not that plenty of them haven’t either been caught up in it or killed by it or both over the centuries.

Our point of view on those discoveries, and on those centuries of underhanded and underground dealings, is Remy Pendergast. In Silver Under Nightfall, we’re with Remy as he’s used and abused by everyone around him in the human world, and we follow his perspective as he learns that the vampire courts are not much like he’s always been taught. And that he has considerably more value as a person than the human courts – particularly his own father – have ever led him to believe.

As Court of Wanderers begins to unravel the plots and counterplots that have set up the epic confrontation, Remy learns that so much of what he’s been taught to believe just ain’t so. We feel for him as his illusions are destroyed, as some of them get rebuilt, and as the layers of the whole onion of his life peel back with tears every step of the way. We get caught up in his journey as well as the battle yet to come and its multiple horns of dilemma consequences.

I got caught up in this story for Remy, because it was impossible not to feel for him, and because the way that his continual discoveries of how the world REALLY works as opposed to how he thought it did gave me a captivating and compelling ‘in’ to this complex world.

I stuck around because as the romance – and it is absolutely a romance – between Malekh, Xiodan and Remy gets deeper I found myself feeling for them, both in the romance AND for the centuries of trauma they had experienced and the way that their world was damaged and how desperately they wanted to fix it in spite of the forces arrayed against them.

I was fascinated with the way that the good vs. evil battle that has been fought through the whole story wasn’t reduced in any way to the easy fixes. Although many people at the beginning believed it was vampires vs. humans, and the villains were trying hard to make that point stick, in the end there was good among both and evil among both and deception on all sides. And redemption as well.

When I closed the final page of Court of Wanderers, I left this world with a deeply conflicted reaction. The ending of this book, and this duology, is utterly right for the story that was told within. The mix of the bitter of loss with the sweet of possibilities was, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, ‘just right’. But I’m deeply sad that this marvelous story is over, and that I won’t get to see the outcome of the life-altering choices that Remy has before him – and I desperately want to know.

Maybe I’ll find out in some future story by this author. I hope so. I KNOW that I’ll be all in on their next adult fantasy, whenever it appears, because Silver Under Nightfall and Court of Wanderers constitute a tale that I’m going to remember for a long, long time.

A+ #BookReview: The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi

A+ #BookReview: The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose UtomiThe Truth of the Aleke (Forever Desert, #2) by Moses Ose Utomi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Forever Desert #2
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on March 5, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Moses Ose Utomi returns to his Forever Desert series with The Truth of the Aleke, continuing his epic fable about truth, falsehood, and the shackles of history.
The Aleke is cruel. The Aleke is clever. The Aleke is coming. 500 years after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo, the City of Truth stands as is the last remaining free city of the Forever Desert. A bastion of freedom and peace, the city has successfully weathered the near-constant attacks from the Cult of Tutu, who have besieged it for three centuries, attempting to destroy its warriors and subjugate its people.
17-year-old Osi is a Junior Peacekeeper in the City. When the mysterious leader of the Cult, known only as the Aleke, commits a massacre in the capitol and steals the sacred God's Eyes, Osi steps forward to valiantly defend his home. For his bravery he is tasked with a tremendous responsibility—destroy the Cult of Tutu, bring back the God's Eyes, and discover the truth of the Aleke.

The Forever Desert series
The Lies of the AjungoThe Truth of the Aleke
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

Returning to the Forever Desert long after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo, it seems as if the pendulum of history has swung, the way that such pendulums often do.

Once upon a time, and we know this from that first story, the Ajungo had subjugated all the other cities of the Forever Desert through a mixture of lies and trickery, intimidation and fear. At least until young Tutu exposed the terrible truth at the heart of, not just the Ajungo, but of all the leaders of all the cities who had colluded in that lie in order to maintain their absolute power over their own peoples with the all too able assistance of the Ajungo.

As this story begins, it seems as if that tide has reversed, that the former capital of the Ajungo, who now refer to themselves as Truthseekers and call their city ‘The City of Truth’, have themselves become the oppressed, while the people they once subjugated, the people of the Forever Desert, have banded together into an alliance of aggression against them led by the Aleke.

It is a way that history runs, that the downtrodden rise up against their oppressors but become oppressors in their turn. So we think we understand the situation in the City of Truth when the Aleke come to conquer it, and we feel for young Osi as he becomes the face of his city’s resistance against a terrible enemy.

But just as young Tutu discovered in The Lies of the Ajungo, the truths of both his City of Truth AND The Truth of the Aleke are not what he had been taught as a child. Or what he came to believe as a young man. Or even what he thought was true when he became an ambassador between the two.

Tutu died for his truth. The question at the heart of The Truth of the Aleke is whether or not Osi will be able to live both for and with his.

Escape Rating A+: Read The Lies of the Ajungo first. It’s a short and absolutely marvelous story of a quest that turns into a myth, and it’s absolutely necessary to read it in order for this equally terrific and fantastic (in multiple senses of the word) second book to reach the depth it needs to in order to get the full effect of the whole thing – at least the whole thing so far.

(I’ll be waiting right here when you’ve finished. It won’t take long because the book is short AND I hope you’ll want to race through it as much as I did.)

The Truth of the Aleke is a story that exists on multiple levels in ways that have resonance, both in the story itself and in the now when I’m reading it (It’s mid-October, 2023 so take a look at what was going on in the world at this point in time if the date doesn’t ring any bells and you’ll see what I mean) It’s likely to have just as much resonance in the now when you’re reading this review as that situation has been baked in for even more centuries than the conflict in the Forever Desert and is unfortunately just as amenable to being peacefully resolved – meaning not very much at all.

At first, it seems as if Osi’s journey parallels Tutu’s, and it does to an extent. Both young men – and they are very young and naive when their stories begin – have grown up in a certain place and have been taught to believe certain things and believe that those things are true because that’s the only way they know.

But power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and everybody lies. That the truth Osi has been taught is not in any way an objective truth is not a surprise to the reader, but the way that he discovers his new truth is a painful stripping away of innocence that we still feel for.

What pushes The Truth of the Aleke beyond The Lies of the Ajungo is that the truths that Osi has to learn are covered in so many layers of lies  that the lies and the truths are really the Great Wyrm Ouroboros swallowing its own tail and never end. It’s truths and lies in endless repetition all the way down.

The more layers that Osi discovers, or has thrust upon him – and he admits to himself that he often doesn’t recognize the truth until AFTER it’s bitten him in the ass – the more painful his journey becomes, both figuratively and literally. It’s only at the end that he begins to see, not wisdom but pragmatism. Unless there’s another layer yet to be revealed.

And there probably is.

Some stories are about the journey, and some are about the destination. The Truth of the Aleke has to be about the journey – and it is – because the destination is not yet. If possibly ever. It’s clear from the conclusion – not an ending – of The Truth of the Aleke that the author is not finished with the Forever Desert and that there is at least one more story yet to be told and I’m so very thrilled that the author is already writing it.

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson BennettThe Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #1
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.
Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.

My Review:

Just like winter in Westeros, the wet season is coming to the Empire of Khanum. There are monsters massing outside the fortifications that guard the border, and there are humans behaving monstrously within the walls, jockeying for political advantage without a care in the world for the amount of collateral damage they might cause in their quest for power.

Young, newly fledged, still probationary, assistant investigator Dinios Kol has been tasked with visiting his very first death scene on behalf of senior investigator Ana Dolabra. Din has been genetically engineered to remember everything, whether at a crime scene or not, and it’s his literal job to serve as Ana’s eyes and ears.

It’s her preference to never leave her house. If Din’s observations lead her to desiring an interview with a witness or a suspect, she’ll subpoena them to come to her. She has that right and that privilege.

Which doesn’t stop the privileged servants who maintain this particular murder scene for their highly ranked gentry masters from treating Din like dirt when he shows up at their door. In spite of pretty much everyone’s strong desire to get the corpse out of the house as soon as the evidence has been collected and the scene is released.

Even if they will need to cut the dead man out of both the floor and the ceiling of the room his body is occupying. It’s not every day that someone dies because a tree took root in their lungs and rapidly grew through their body to implant its roots in the room’s floor and interweave its branches in the ceiling.

As sensational as the murder appears on the surface (or rather, all the surfaces in the room), it’s only the beginning of the story, the case, and Din’s career as an investigator. Because the plot is thicker than Din imagines, the world is much darker and dirtier than his limited experience has led him to believe – and his mentor, the eccentric and seemingly disgraced Ana Dolabra, is considerably more than she appears.

The vast intellectual light that Dolabra is hiding in Din’s tiny, backwater village is enough to burn out a whole lot of the rot. It’s up to Din to learn enough on the job to keep himself from being caught in the flames.

Escape Rating A+: There’s been a rise in science fiction mysteries in the last couple of years, with books like Mur Lafferty’s Station Eternity, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man, and Eddie Robson’s Drunk On All Your Strange New Words leading the way. There’s also been a resurgence of urban fantasy, a genre which was always the bastard child of the paranormal (with or without romance) and mystery (If you’re interested, take a look at T.L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights (starting with The Library of the Dead) and James J. Butcher’s Unorthodox Chronicles that begin with Dead Man’s Hand). But there’s never been a LOT of purely fantasy mystery – at least not since Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy, which was also, come to think of it, every bit as much of a play on Sherlock Holmes as The Tainted Cup turned out to be.

The Tainted Cup, however, is very much an epic fantasy world, but a story whose plot is wrapped around the conventions of a mystery – albeit a mystery that is not in the least cozy. The only way you’d get something cozy out of this one would be if you chopped up the tree that grew through the first body and used it to build a cozy – if somewhat gruesome – fire.

The pairing of Ana Dolabra with Dinios Kol owes a lot to Holmes and Watson – but it will also remind readers of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – or possibly their more recent reincarnations as Pentecost and Parker in Stephen Spotswood’s series that begins with Fortune Favors the Dead. Din is young, naive and untried pretty much all the way around. He’s a small town boy who is about to be thrust into a wider and more dangerous world than he ever imagined. The Tainted Cup is just the beginning of his coming-of-age story, making him considerably more like Goodwin and Parker than Watson, although Goodwin and Parker were both more worldly wise than Din at the beginnings of their respective stories.

Dolabra, on the other hand, is very much Holmesian in her eccentricities, her extreme intolerance for boredom and consequent bad behavior in regards to alleviating it, but above all in her sheer genius for resolving the mysteries put before her. On all the other hands, her unwillingness to leave her residence to seek out the clues for herself is all Wolfe and to a limited extent, Pentecost.

But the setting of The Tainted Cup, and the epically FUBAR political situation therein, is very much fantasy of both the grimdark and steampunk varieties. The world, with its mixture of science and magic and scientifically based magic is similar to the setting of L.E. Modesitt’s Grand Illusion series that kicks off with Isolate. Din shows promise of becoming Steffan Dekkard someday, but he absolutely is not there yet. Part of the fascination of The Tainted Cup is watching Din grow into his job – especially the gray areas within it – without betraying his core principles.

It’s the story of Din learning how to bend without breaking OR breaking the truly important rules. Especially when presented with incontrovertible evidence that entirely too many people already have.

That all being said, the way that this fantasy empire works – and doesn’t – especially the alchemy of corruption and power that holds the empire back and pushes the story forward, brought both Age of Ash and In the Shadow of Lightning to my mind and might to yours as well. (A hint that if you liked either of those or The Grand Illusion you might like this as well.)

I’m writing a LOT about this book and what it reminds me of because I really, really loved it and hope others do as well, leading to what may seem like an epic number of readalikes because I’m hoping to drag people in by hook or by crook.

So, The Tainted Cup reads like a murder mystery, because it absolutely is. The story progresses because Din, sometimes at Dolabra’s request but sometimes on his own, unravels the puzzle of whodunnit, how it was done and most importantly why it was done in bits and pieces, one clue and one pull of the thread at a time.

But, while Din is pulling those threads, the tapestry of this crime and the tapestry of the empire are getting bigger and broader all around him, while at the same time fraying at the edges. Din can’t see the whole picture – he doesn’t know enough to see the whole picture. And neither do we.

Watching him work his way through lets us see the vast scope of everything, both the crime he’s uncovered and the empire that’s falling apart around it, and makes for a compelling page-turner of a story.

A story that is clearly not done when the reader turns the last page. Not that this particular case isn’t solved – because it is and satisfactorily at that – but because this case is just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

There are at least two more books planned for the Shadow of the Leviathan series. Which is a terrific thing because Din’s journey is far from complete and the depths of this empire have not yet been plumbed – and they surely need plumbing. Surely we’ll find out whether Dolabra and Din are up for THAT dirty job in those books yet to come.

Grade A #BookReview: Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster Bujold

Grade A #BookReview: Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster BujoldDemon Daughter (Penric and Desdemona #12) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #12
Pages: 153
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A six-year-old shiplost girl draws the kin Jurald family of Vilnoc into complex dilemmas, and sorcerer Learned Penric and his Temple demon Desdemona into conflict—with each other. It will take all of Penric’s wits, his wife Nikys’s wisdom, and the hand of the fifth god’s strangest saint to untangle the threads of their future.

My Review:

Demon Daughter – not Demon’s Daughter because that would be a different genre altogether – is a delightfully cozy entry in the Penric and Desdemona series.

Not that there isn’t plenty of chaos along the way – because the god that Learned Penric kin Jurald serves as both sorcerer and Divine IS chaos. Or at least the god thereof. Penric serves the Fifth God, the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season”. His god is also called the “White God” which, now that I’m thinking about it, makes him a sort of kin to the “White Rat” god in T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series. Which actually works if you think about it a bit.

I digress.

For a series consisting entirely of novellas, Penric and Desdemona’s adventures are not only compelling, but they always leave me thinking more than expected. Because this is a world where the gods absolutely are manifest in people’s lives – not just by faith, but by having real influence on and actions in the world. (Also they explicitly come to their own people’s funerals, sometimes even in person, to take them ‘home’.)

Penric has spoken directly with his god, not just in the sense of prayers and imprecations, but as a real conversation. Although usually when his god is talking to him it means that Penric’s life is about to have more than the usual amount of chaos thrown into it. Again.

Which is exactly what happens in Demon Daughter, in a roundabout sort of way. The chaos at least.

A little girl aboard her father’s ship pets a literal white rat (see, that connection isn’t quite so obscure after all) and starts setting things on fire. Aboard a wooden ship, that’s a recipe for death, disaster and oh yes and very much, chaos.

In a contest between little Otta and the entire crew of the merchant vessel, well, there’s not even a contest – even though the ship’s owner and captain is her own father. Otta gets thrown overboard while the crew sets to work putting out the fires, plural, lest they all end up joining her in the drink.

She washes ashore not far from Penric’s home in Vilnoc, gets scared, sets off more fires, and this time gets put in the bottom of a dry well while the local priest calls for somebody, anybody, from the Bastard’s Order to deal with this mess – because it most definitely is the Bastard’s business. Which gets Penric, his wife Nikys, and his demon Desdemona setting out for the tiny coastal village.

They take the little girl home and into their hearts. All of their hearts, including the demon Desdemona’s – in spite of Desdemona not having an actual heart or even a body of her own. Which becomes the real conflict within Penric.

His family wants to adopt the little girl as their own. Desdemona wants to adopt the little girl’s little demon as her own. But Penric answers to the White God, and he may have other plans, that may very well hinge on which choice adds the most chaos to Penric’s already chaotic life.

Escape Rating A: This twelfth entry in the Penric and Desdemona series could almost be classed as a ‘cozy fantasy’. Even with all the chaos naturally generated by Penric’s service to the Lord Bastard, this particular story is very home-oriented and relationship-centric in a way that is just warm and, well, cozy, because Penric’s household is both of those things – even in the depths of winter while he’s teaching a young girl and her even younger demon the art of NOT setting everything on fire.

Which turns out to be all about making sure Otta is not anxious and afraid – not the easiest things to do for a child who has been literally thrown away from her home and family, is scared out of her wits that she might have accidentally killed everyone she loves, and is forced to deal with concepts and responsibilities that are well beyond her years.

Otta is an accidental sorceress, just as Penric became an equally accidental sorcerer twenty years ago, a story told in Penric’s Demon. But Penric was an adult, maybe just barely, but old enough to attend Seminary and learn the ropes of being a Temple Sorcerer and Learned Divine and all that went with it. AND more importantly, having enough experience to truly understand what he was learning. Most of it anyway.

His demon, Desdemona, was centuries old, very experienced, and was as much his teacher as any of his more corporeal tutors.

Otta is just six, her demon’s very first manifestation was that little white rat, and it only received a few days of experience at most. It can’t teach her and she can’t teach it – but Penric and Desdemona are perfect for that job. Jobs.

But Otta is just a little girl, just as Atto, her demon, is just a very little demon. It is Penric’s duty to train Otta enough that she stops setting fires. But she becomes part of the family, which is where all the conflicts and all the thoughts that raced through my head came in.

How does a small child cope when adult responsibilities are thrust upon them? More importantly, how does anyone cope when all of their teaching and training up to that point has indoctrinated them into believing that they have become an abomination – because the thing they are is something they have been taught doesn’t exist and should absolutely not be believed in?

Those are big questions, questions that little Otta has to wrestle with in a way that Penric never did. (His people did believe in the Fifth God, even if none of them ever expected to serve him directly. Otta’s people absolutely did NOT.) Those big questions and indoctrinated beliefs lead to choices that Otta and only Otta can make – all Penric and Desdemona can do is give them a strong foundation on which to stand while they make that choice.

It’s those questions that stick in my mind after finishing Demon Daughter. Because there are entirely too many people in the real world who face that dilemma every day while trying to live their truth even though they’ve been taught by family, faith and community that their truth is a lie.

In Otta’s case it’s easy to see the solution – even as we feel how difficult it is for a little girl to turn away from everything she’s known and form a new path for herself and the little demon she has become responsible for. In the real world, it’s not nearly so easy, both because Otta has a good, firm support network in Penric, Desdemona, and their family, and because the reality of her god is, well, real in a way that can erase many doubts. But her being forced to decide whether to break with her birth family or give up the thing that makes her whole breaks my heart even more than Otta’s decision nearly broke Penric’s, Desdemona’s, and even Otta’s own.

Now that Otta has become part of Penric’s household, it will be fun to see how his and Des’ training of the little sorcerette (Otta is much too little to be even an apprentice sorceress – yet) works its way into the next bit of chaos that the Lord Bastard sends their way. I’m already looking forward to reading those adventures, whenever the chaos surrounding their deity allows them to appear!

Review: Paladin’s Faith by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Faith by T. KingfisherPaladin's Faith (The Saint of Steel, #4) by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, romantasy
Series: Saint of Steel #4
Pages: 446
Published by Red Wombat Studio on December 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Marguerite Florian is a spy with two problems. A former employer wants her dead, and one of her new bodyguards is a far too good-looking paladin with a martyr complex.
Shane is a paladin with three problems. His god is dead, his client is much too attractive for his peace of mind, and a powerful organization is trying to have them both killed.
Add in a brilliant artificer with a device that may change the world, a glittering and dangerous court, and a demon-led cult, and Shane and Marguerite will be lucky to escape with their souls intact, never mind their hearts. . .

My Review:

There’s a classic saying about large organizations at cross-purposes within themselves, that the right-hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Marguerite Florian’s problem with the Red Sail mercantile empire is that their “right hand does not know who the left is killing”.

This is Marguerite’s problem because the person that the Red Sail’s left hand intends to kill is her. Which she has some strenuous objections to. Most people would.

Marguerite has tried all sorts of methods for getting the Red Sail off her back. Most parts of the organization think that she’s just a loose end, someone who knows something they shouldn’t but who clearly has no plans for doing anything about it. Someone who can be watched but otherwise left alone.

Other parts of the organization want to use her life – or rather her death – to score points against the others. For every Red Sail branch she does enough favors for to earn amnesty, there’s another who hates that branch and wants to add her body to their tally of tit for tat.

A particularly appropriate cliché as Marguerite’s attributes in that regard are exceptionally noteworthy – as MANY of the characters in this fourth entry in the Saint of Steel series can’t help themselves from noticing. Notably Shane, one of the very few remaining Paladins of the dead god, that titular Saint of Steel.

And that’s where the nature of the secret and the remit of the White Rat, the god who has taken Shane and his fellow Paladins under their wing, comes into play.

The White Rat, in the able and energetic person of Bishop Beartongue, is the god who sees a problem and gets it fixed. One of the things that makes pretty much all of their relief efforts everywhere more expensive than they need to be is that the price of salt is also fixed, not in a good way and not by good people. Specifically the Red Sail organization which has a monopoly on the large scale mining, production and most importantly, shipping, of salt.

Marguerite has helped the Bishop and the Rat – and those Paladins – a time or two before this story. She needs their help now to hunt down that loose end the Red Sail keeps trying to kill her over.

All Marguerite needs to do is locate the artificer who has invented a method for large-scale salt production that the Red Sail will clearly do anything to keep from publicizing her work. Because once it’s known that circumventing their monopoly is possible, it WILL be done. It will bankrupt Red Sail, cause short term economic hardships for any economy that is dependent on either the high price of salt, the high taxes on salt, or receiving favors from Red Sail. But in the long term, salt will be cheaper, the Rat’s relief efforts will cost less money and therefore require less in the way of donations and tithes from their members, and a whole lot of people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder (the folks the Rat specifically serves) will be better off.

So Bishop Beartongue lends Marguerite Shane and Wren, two of the former Paladins of the Saint of Steel ,to be her bodyguards while she hunts through the cutthroat Courts of Smoke, a place where dirty deals get done both dirt cheap and VERY expensively. A place where someone is bound to brag that they have a pet artificer who does genius work. Or, if someone doesn’t brag, they’ll at least leave papers lying around.

Marguerite just has to stay alive long enough to find the artificer. For that, she’ll need bodyguards who can’t be bribed or bought, seduced or suborned. She needs a paladin – or two.

Little does she know that both of her bodyguards are quite capable of being seduced. Just not in any of the ways that she ever expected – and with none of the results that could ever have been imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve written a LOT to get to the point where I can talk about what I thought of the book, which makes a good metaphor for the book itself. Because Paladin’s Faith is a very big story of ‘hurry up and wait’. Marguerite’s literal task is to hurry up and get to the Court of Smoke then to spend endless amounts of time hoping that teeny-tiny clues will drop into her waiting ear. Or Wren’s or Shane’s waiting ears. While not giving themselves away to any agents of Red Sail who are undoubtedly lurking in hopes of discovering the exact same information.

It’s the spy game and a lot of actual spying is waiting for the ‘click’ of the right clue. Hurrying just gives the game away – which will get them all killed. Also a LOT of other people killed, as Paladins of the Saint of Steel do NOT go either gently or quietly into that good night. They ALWAYS take a lot of their enemies with them when they go. It’s what they are, it’s what they do, it’s what their god chose them for in the first place.

So a huge part of this book is taken up in that waiting and watching, and the frustration of not finding much while Marguerite knows her enemy is hot on her heels. The frustration of waiting for clues is compounded by the sexual frustration of BOTH Marguerite and Shane. The heat they generate practically steams off the page, to the point where the reader wants to groan right along with Marguerite as Shane carries out a mental routine of self-flagellation because he believes he shouldn’t and he’s not worthy and he’ll only fuck things up even more than they already are. Which honestly isn’t even POSSIBLE but his guilty complex is so damn loud that he can’t hear anything except the voice in his head telling him he’s a fuckup and that’s all he’s ever been or will be.

One of the best parts of, not just this book but the whole, entire series so far is that it is told in the author’s inimitable voice, and her character development is both always excellent and done with absolutely oodles of snark and self-realization layered with frequent, self-deprecating humor on all sides.

Howsomever, by the nature of that waiting game a LOT of this story is extremely interesting character development with a fair bit of adding to the depth of the worldbuilding but one does, like one of the side characters, Davith, want them to just ‘get on with it’ one way or another, either to get a move on in their mission or just make a move on each other.

Once both of those things finally happen, the story is a race to a surprising and delightful finish.

In the beginning of this series, there were seven surviving Paladins of the messily departed Saint of Steel; Stephen, Istvhan, Galen, Shane, Wren, Marcus and Judith. Stephen’s story was told in the first book in the series, Paladin’s Grace, Istvhan’s in the second, Paladin’s Strength, Galen’s in the third, Paladin’s Hope, and now Shane’s in Paladin’s Faith. Which does lead on to the belief – or certainly to the HOPE, that there will be three more books in the series. Based on events in this book, Wren’s is likely to be next – which would be awesome. And Judith’s story is going to be a humdinger. But whatever or whoever’s story is coming next, I’m already looking forward to it!

Review: Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Valdemar by Mercedes LackeyValdemar (The Founding of Valdemar #3) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #3, Valdemar (Publication order) #58, Valdemar (Chronological) #6
Pages: 368
Published by DAW on December 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The long-awaited story of the founding of Valdemar comes to life in this 3rd book of a trilogy from a New York Times bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
The refugees from the Empire have established a thriving city called Haven with the help of the Tayledras and their allies. But the Tayledras have begun a slow withdrawal to the dangerous lands known as the Pelagirs, leaving the humans of Haven to find their own way.
But even with Haven settled, the lands around Haven are not without danger. Most of the danger comes in the form of magicians: magicians taking advantage of the abundant magical energy in the lands the Tayledras have cleansed; magicians who have no compunction about allying themselves with dark powers and enslaving magical beasts and the Elementals themselves.
Kordas, his family, and his people will need all the help they can get. But when a prayer to every god he has ever heard of brings Kordas a very specific and unexpected form of help, the new kingdom of Valdemar is set on a path like nothing else the world has ever seen.
Perfect for longtime fans of Valdemar or readers diving into the world for the first time, the Founding of Valdemar trilogy will delight and enchant readers with the origin story of this beloved fantasy realm.

My Review:

This final book in the Founding of Valdemar trilogy is the one that every fan of the series, both new and old, has been waiting for, not just since the first book in this trilogy, Beyond, came out in 2021, but frankly since the very first book in the very first series, Arrows of the Queen, was published back in 1987.

Because we finally get to see the advent of the beautiful, intelligent, beacons of light and conscience that have kept Valdemar the marvelous and marvelously liveable country it has been since that first book nearly 40 years ago.

It wouldn’t be Valdemar without the Companions, and it wouldn’t have been fair to title this book Valdemar unless it really was Valdemar as it should be. Fair however is very fair indeed, and Kordas Valdemar’s prayers (and ours), are answered.

That the Companions appear in the midst of a reluctant King Valdemar’s dark night of the soul is not a surprise when we get there. One of the things that has made Kordas such a terrific character to follow is that he thinks deeply, feels much and fears often that even if he is doing his best it just isn’t enough.

And he’s not wrong. His kingdom has barely begun. He’s a good man who has done his best but he’s made a few mistakes, as humans do. He’s seen the depths to which an empire and its rulers can sink in the Eastern Empire that he and his people fled from. He’s discovered tiny seeds of those same privileged attitudes in some of his own people, including his younger son.

He fears, rightly so, that no matter how good and fair and just a legacy he leaves, both in the laws being created and the standard of behavior he exhibits, that over time his descendants will fall prey to the same forces that eventually brought the empire to destruction.

So he hopes and he prays and he cries out for a way to keep his kingdom in the light. And he’s answered by the Powers with the galloping hooves of the first Companions.

Now he just has to figure out what comes next. For himself, for his heir, for his kingdom and for his people.

As an implacable enemy marches towards his borders.

Escape Rating A: Valdemar has always been a bit of an anomaly as far as fantasy worlds go. Most epic fantasies are set at times and in places that are in so much turmoil that that are just no nice places to visit and you really wouldn’t want to live there. There are a few exceptions, like Pern, Celta and Harmony, but for the most part, by the time that an epic fantasy series gets written about a place – or epic space opera or a combination thereof – the situation has gotten so FUBAR that liveability is a long way off even by the series’ end.

Which, in a way, means that the Valdemar series, at least the books that are set after the Founding of Valdemar, were cozy fantasy before it was cool. All the problems are human-scale even when they’re not precisely human-shaped, and those problems are not entrenched because the Companions keep them from reaching that point at least within Valdemar’s borders.

The Founding of Valdemar series has been the story of how Valdemar got to be that liveable place we’ve come to know and love, and it’s a humdinger of a start.

Things are never easy. At this point in the Kingdom’s history, they’re barely ten years into what will be a long and storied future. But the situation is neither long nor storied yet. They’re still at the point where the traditions that will sustain them haven’t been created, let alone settled, and Valdemar, both the person and the kingdom, are still figuring out how things are going to go.

Which means that a chunk of the story is involved with literally how the sausage of government gets made, as they have very little to go by. So the rules are being created as a combination of what the Duchy of Valdemar used to do that was good, not doing the things that the Eastern Empire did that were bad, and altering those ideas to fit their new circumstances.

It is generally a two-steps forward, one-step back proposition. We know that sausage is going to be fairly tasty by the time it reaches Queen Selenay in Arrows of the Queen, but making it is hard and frustrating work.

Work that’s hindered by nobles who think that normal means they can go back to some of their more self-indulgent ways, while it’s helped by those who have grown up in the new ways of doing things, like Crown Prince Restil has, and who are now adults and can pick up some of the reins of their own power.

And of course there’s an external threat on the horizon, and much of the action of this entry in the series shows how all those plans and new procedures both help and hinder the preparations for what they hope will be a small-scale war. Emphasis on small with fears focused on war.

To make a long but still beloved story short, Valdemar is a lot of fun to read, especially if you enjoy books where intelligent and competent people do their level best to make good things happen. If you liked L.E. Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio, The Founding of Valdemar trilogy has the same feel to it as that series did after Scholar.

If you read Valdemar back in the day but not recently, Beyond is a great place to get back into the series as it is so “foundational” to what happened later that you don’t need to remember what happened later to get back in there. I would not recommend starting here with Valdemar, as this is very definitely an ending of a chapter, even if it is a beginning for everything we already know.

One final note, and it’s a bit of a trigger warning. As part of the monumental events that bring the Companions to Valdemar, the mages’ beloved, and surprisingly long-lived cat, Sydney-You-Asshole – and yes, that moniker is the cat’s name and he’s EARNED it over the course of this series – choses to go off into the woods on his last journey in the moment the Companions arrive.

The tributes to Sydney-You-Asshole’s death were many and heartfelt, particularly deeply touching to the heart of any reader who has a beloved companion animal that is gone. There is still dust in this review as I write about it – so be prepared.

However, considering that the method of Sydney’s passing was to leave his friends and family as the gate to the Powers was open, I have to wonder if he didn’t turn out to be the archetype for the Firecats of Vkandis. Not that Sydney was a flame point – he was, in fact, a void – but learning at some later point that his attitude was passed down in some fashion to the firecats would not be a surprise. At all. Sydney-You-Asshole certainly had all the cattitude required to become the progenitor of a god’s avatar – but then again, most cats do.

Returning to Valdemar through this Founding series has been a joy and a delight, and has provided the opportunity to slip back into a series that I’ve always loved. Which means I have yet more trips to Valdemar to look forward to, starting with Gryphon’s Valor, the forthcoming follow up to this year’s marvelous Gryphon in Light.

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle Sagara

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle SagaraShards of Glass by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The Academia, once an elite proving ground for the rulers of the world, has been frozen for centuries. Now its strange slumber has ended, and a new Chancellor, an orange-eyed dragon, has reopened its lecture halls and readied its dorms. In order to thrive once more, however, the Academia needs fresh blood—new students with a passion and talent for learning.
One such student, Robin, has the perfect recruit in his friend Raven, an orphan who lives in the dangerous Warrens. Robin grew up in the Warrens, and he wouldn't have made it if not for Raven. He knows she’ll be safe at the Academia, where her unusual gifts can be appreciated.
But when students start turning up dead, the campus threatens to collapse completely. Raven and Robin will not let that happen to their new home…if they can survive long enough to figure out who—or what—is trying to kill them.

My Review:

Shards of Glass is a bit of a side story in the marvelously interwoven, intricately-plotted, and long-running Chronicles of Elantra series. It takes us deep into the heart and soul (and yes, it most certainly has one, literally as well as figuratively) of the formerly lost and presumed destroyed Academia, the institution that was found hidden in a misty pocket of Elantra’s fiefs in Cast in Wisdom.

The Academia, both in its function as a school and repository of knowledge, and in the person of its sentient building, majordomo, administrator and caretaker, Killianas, is slowly recovering from its long, well, let’s call it a coma.

But it seems, at least at first, that someone or something or some force or all of the above is trying to prevent or at least delay that recovery. By way of murdering the students. That is not a situation that either the Chancellor, the Dragon Lord Lannagaros, or Killianas himself can allow to continue – not if they’re doing their jobs and/or following the purposes their hearts have called them to.

Which is where Robin, his friend Raven, and the woman they call the ‘grey crow’ wing their way into this considerably disturbed nest of learning and scholarship. Initially, they seem to be a bit at cross-purposes. Giselle, the information broker and ‘grey crow’ of the downtrodden slum known as the Warrens, just wants to get paid for bringing a new student to the Academia. Robin, once a denizen of those Warrens, wants to bring his friend Raven to the Academia, where she’ll be safe and warm and fed and be able to learn more things – just as he is.

But Robin is not safe at all, and neither is the Academia. Since it is Raven’s duty to keep Robin safe, she comes to the Academia to save him. And it. And all of the students who have come to call the place home.

Someone is murdering the students. Or something. Or magic. Or all of the above. No one is sure how they are being killed – or if the students are the intended victims. Or why its happening. Or who might benefit – or think they benefit – from the blood and the chaos.

Raven only cares that Robin is safe. So that he can fulfill a duty he hasn’t been allowed to remember. Which will bring an end to hers – whether her duty ends in success or failure, it will end in blood and tears either way.

Or will it?

Escape Rating A+: I began reading the Chronicles of Elantra in 2011, at which point the series was already seven books in. I have a distinct memory of where we were living and exactly what the room looked like as I read them – the series made that much of an impression and I was so completely hooked. My first official review of the series here at Reading Reality was for book 7, Cast in Ruin.

But, and it is an unfortunately large but in this case, as much as I love the series – and I very much still do – at this point in the main series, last year’s book 17, Cast in Eternity, it’s gotten harder and harder to get into each successive entry as the backstory has gotten bigger, more convoluted and considerably both denser AND more sprawling as it’s gone along. (I have audio for both book 16, Cast in Conflict and Cast in Eternity and have hopes the whole thing will work better for me that way.

But I love the series. I really, really love it. Which is what made both the Wolves of Elantra prequel series (The Emperor’s Wolves and Sword and Shadow), as well as this latest book, Shards of Glass, so good, so much fun, and so much easier to get stuck into.

The Wolves of Elantra is a prequel series, so it can serve as an intro to the Chronicles, but it’s also an excellent way to slip back into Elantra without having to hold all the details of everything in one’s head.

Shards of Glass, on the other hand, is a side story within the Chronicles. It sets a story almost entirely within the formerly lost Academia that was rediscovered in Cast in Wisdom and expands upon that setting and that setting pretty much alone. And it’s a fantasy mystery, which makes it all just that much better, as I love the fantasy mystery blending AND the story is contained enough within the now-mostly-functional Academia that one again does not need to remember all the ins and outs of all of Kaylin Nera’s many, many unexpected ‘adventures’ to happily get ensconced in this one.

Kaylin, the protagonist of the main Chronicles series, isn’t even a side character in Shards of Glass. She’s mentioned – as she should be all things considered – but this is most definitely NOT her story.

Instead, Shards of Glass takes the reader into the heart of that formerly lost Academia, where school is finally back in session after over a millennia of abeyance. The school, both as an institution and in the person of its sentient building and grounds, Killianas, is recovering.

At first, it seems like it’s flailing around its mystery – or at least all the characters within it are flailing, including the Dragon Chancellor and the Giant Spider Librarian. (The varieties of species, histories and perspectives are a huge part of what make the Chronicles of Elantra so much fun. The Dragons are particularly acerbic and wry, but then they can afford to be.)

A big part of the flailing is that there are so many possible motives for the murders and so little ability to settle on which one is correct. The flailing keeps falling apart on, not the classic mystery question of ‘Why benefits?’ but more a matter of who is believed to benefit or who believes they benefit and none of those possible avenues of investigation resolve to the same set of possible motives or suspects.

And of course they all turn out to be wrong – and wrong in a way that is buried in the legends of the deep past and will cause catastrophic destruction if they’re not sussed out in time and by the right people.

So Shards of Glass, both in the way the story works itself and the way it dives deeply into one of Elantra’s fundamental institutions, both fits perfectly into the way the series as a whole works and yet still introduces – or reintroduces – the reader to a small enough corner of the vastness that it’s possible to get completely stuck into the whole thing without remembering all the details of what came before.

On top of all of that, it’s a beautiful story about the power and saving grace of friendship, and that was just wonderful. Shards of Glass is worth the read for that factor alone and I’m so very glad I read it. Hopefully, by the time the next book in the main Chronicles of Elantra series, Cast in Atonement, comes out next August I will have caught back up to that last couple of books in the series that I missed.

Review: Anything with Nothing edited by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Anything with Nothing edited by Mercedes LackeyAnything With Nothing (Tales of Valdemar #17) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tales of Valdemar #17, Valdemar (Publication order) #57
Pages: 368
Published by DAW on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

This 17th anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar high fantasy universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Mercedes Lackey.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages—and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents—combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more—make them indispensable to their monarch and realm.
Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.
Join a variety of authors as they ride with Mercedes Lackey to the beloved land of Valdemar and experience the many facets of this storied high fantasy realm.

My Review:

A huge part of the charm of the Valdemar series is that, after so many years of chronicles, the world is large in scope, both in geography and in history, and there are plenty of times and places in which to set stories about how it came to be, what makes it tick – and the times and places when, in spite of everyone’s best efforts – situations have gone off the rails.

At the same time, it seems like a relatively livable place, allowing for stories where humans – with or without the help of magical, horse-like Companions – manage to fix what’s gone wrong or at least make a good stab at.

Or, when necessary, a good stab at whoever has done the wrong.

The stories in this SEVENTEENTH collection of Tales of Valdemar cast a wide net over Valdemar’s history, from not long after the Founding we’ve seen in the new Founding of Valdemar trilogy, all the way up to Selenay’s time, while geographically the stories spread across Valdemar and into the borderlands with Hardorn and Karse – if not just a bit over.

And it’s an absolute delight from beginning to end for anyone who has ever spent time in Valdemar, whether they’ve been visiting from the very beginning, back in Arrows of the Queen, just discovered Valdemar with the marvelous Founding of Valdemar trilogy (Beyond, Into the West, and the upcoming Valdemar) or who have dipped in here and there and then over the years.

Anything with Nothing, both the collection and the specific story by Lackey herself that closes out this collection, turned out to be the perfect way to get familiar with this world, once again, in preparation for discovering the final pieces of how Valdemar came to be in the soon-to-be-released book of the same title, Valdemar.

Escape Rating A-: The previous Tales of Valdemar collection, Shenanigans, featured stories that were all centered around the title theme, meaning that in one way or another they all featured tricks or pranks.

Likewise, the stories in this collection all center around the theme of making do or doing without, of persevering in the face of not having nearly enough. In other words, about creating pretty much anything out of not very much at all.

My favorite story in this collection is “Look to Your Houses” by Fiona Patton. It’s a slice of life story, as many of the stories in these collections often turn out to be, but in this case it’s the slice of a particular life, that of a City Guardhouse Sergeant caught between the rock of how things are supposed to be done and the hard place of how things actually get done when he’s forced to reconcile those two frequently opposing states of being in preparation for a new commander’s assignment to his station. The way that particular dilemma was handled, and the dichotomy between the rules and real life, gave me vibes of Sam Vimes and the City Watch in the Discworld. This story could have just as easily been part of the Discworld  City Watch subseries and it would have fit right in.

My favorite purely Valdemar story turned out to be the title story, “Anything, with Nothing” by Mercedes Lackey, for the way that the town comes together, the way that Herald Tadeus steps up, the way that his Companion manages to insert her own bit of shenanigans AND the way that the mercenaries got completely flummoxed by a ‘Ghost Squad’ of well-led villagers and the instant communication that Companions make possible.

Many of the stories in this collection take place either as magic was fading or after it was already gone. In other words, in the run up to the Last Herald Mage trilogy and in the centuries after of managing without the big, flashy magic gifts.

Quite a few of the stories center around characters who, because of that lack of magic, have more than a bit of imposter syndrome, as Herald Tad does in “Anything, with Nothing”. Those stories include “In Memory’s Vault” by Kristin Schwengel, “Warp and Weft” by Diana Paxson, “Enough” by Louisa Swann, “Wooden Horses” by Rosemary Edghill, “Intrigue in Althor” by Jeanne Adams, and “Old Wounds” by Terry O’Brien.

Even though the purpose of the Companions is to help keep Valdemar on the straight and narrow, to keep it working for most of its people most of the time, humans are still gonna human, especially when they believe they are away from the eyes and eyes of the Companions and their Heralds.

Meaning that several stories focus on the problems that result when, as the old saying goes, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” regardless of whether that power is ‘might makes right’ or ‘they who have the gold make the rules’ or the power of social opprobrium and the morality police.

Those stories include “Good Intentions” by Stephanie D. Shaver, “Beebalm and Bergamot” by Cat Rambo, and “What a Chosen Family Chooses” by Dee Shull.

There are also several stories about folks have either fallen into hard times or onto mean streets, both in Haven and outside it, or have otherwise been abused by the system in general, their fellow humans in particular, or a bit of both. “A Day’s Work” by Charlotte E. English and “Wooden Horses” by Rosemary Edghill are both particularly heartbreaking in this regard.

Last but not least, there are several marvelous stories in this collection that would have been equally at home in Never Too Old to Save the World, that marvelous collection of fantasy and SF stories that feature protagonists who become the ‘Chosen One’ in middle age or later. I particularly want to give a shoutout to four of these stories, “Needs Must When Evil Bides” by Jennifer Brozek, “What You Know How to See” by Dayle A. Dermatitis, “Warp and Weft” by Diana Paxson, and “Once a Bandit” by Brigid Collins.

While I haven’t listed every story in this collection, I did absolutely enjoy them all. And I’m aware that I’ve mentioned a few of the stories more than once, which hopefully gives you the idea that I liked them a LOT, because I absolutely did – even the ones that went to the darkest places and broke my heart.

So, if you’ve missed Valdemar the place and are looking for something to tide you over until Valdemar the final book in the Founding of Valdemar trilogy comes out between Christmas and New Year’s, I highly recommend picking up Anything with Nothing to get you in the mood for that truly epic story coming SOON!

Review: Jade Shards by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade Shards by Fonda LeeJade Shards (Green Bone Saga #0.75) by Fonda Lee
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #0.75
Pages: 136
Published by Subterranean Press on July 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Fonda Lee returns to the acclaimed Green Bone Saga with four prequel short stories that delve into the personal histories of the Kaul and Ayt families.
The Witch and Her Friend. Before she was the ruthless leader of the Mountain clan, Ayt Mada was an orphan without friends at school except for one: Aun Ure, a teenage girl feared and renowned as an assassin but yearning for a simpler life.
Not Only Blood. Before he was the heir apparent of the No Peak clan, Kaul Lan challenged his grandfather and clan patriarch to help a boy who had lost everything.
Better Than Jade. Before they were married, Kaul Hilo and Maik Wen were a young couple facing long odds: the son of a top Green Bone clan in love with a stone-eye girl from a disreputable family.
Granddaughter Cormorant. Before she left and returned to Kekon, Kaul Shae was the apple of her grandfather’s eye…as well as a daring secret informer to a foreign country.
Contains an introduction and story notes by the author.

My Review:

Jade Shards isn’t a single story in the world of the Green Bone Saga, rather, just as the title indicates, it’s a series of little stories, shards if you will, of the magically beautiful big green stone that is the entire epic saga that begins with Jade City.

The stories in this collection feature the defining characters of Jade City, Jade War and Jade Legacy, but they are ‘before they were famous’ kinds of stories. In The Witch and Her Friend, we get to meet the towering figure of Ayt Mada on the very first steps of her journey to become the woman who set herself and her entire clan against the Kaul family.

Back when she was not a towering figure – and at that point in Kekon history had no hopes of becoming one. She was young, she was female, she was of unknown origin and she had been adopted into one of the two great families of Kekon. She was expected to be an asset to her new clan, but on the business side. She was never supposed to be the Pillar. WOMEN were not supposed to become Pillars. Period. But here we see the first inkling of the woman who did it anyway.

Ayt Mada was the powerful antagonist of the entire saga, but in that saga, she stood alone as her story does in this collection. The other stories dive deeply into the Kaul family, just as the other three stories here give us a peek into the early days of the three members of the Kaul family who drive the Green Bone Saga, Kaul Lan, Kaul Hilo and Kaul Shae.

All three were the heirs of Kaul Sennington, one of the two great heroes of Kekon’s liberation, along with Ayt Mada’s adopted father Ayt Yugontin. But where Ayt Mada was always alone, and had to fight to become the Pillar, Kaul Lan was always the intended heir of the Kauls.

Their three stories, Not Only Blood, Better Than Jade and Granddaughter Cormorant bring us perspectives on their characters before they became leaders. It’s a view of Lan as he is growing into the person he should have become, Hilo as he takes the first steps on the road to who he will be, and Shae as she attempts to fly away from her destiny.

Everyone who was enthralled by Janloon and fell in love with the characters that truly do live in the pages of the Green Bone Saga will be thrilled to get this glimpse into their earlier lives. And on this last trip back to Kekon will be caught between the pillars of smiling because it happened, and weeping because it’s over.

Escape Rating A+: I’m giving this one an A+ because that’s how deeply I escaped back into the world of the Green Bone Saga, how much I loved going there one more time, and just how damn sad I am that this looks like the last time based on the author’s introduction and notes in the book.

Unlike the first prequel to the Green Bone Saga, The Jade Setter of Janloon, even though all the stories in Jade Shards take place before the opening of Jade City, this is not the kind of prequel that stands alone, nor can it serve as an entry point for Jade City in the way that The Jade Setter of Janloon could.

The story shards in Jade Shards require prior knowledge of both the characters and the setting to have the resonance necessary to make them work. In other words, you have to already care about these people to want to read how they got to be the towering figures they eventually become.

It’s not nearly as interesting to watch their early fumbles and stumbles if you don’t already know just how sure and certain they eventually became on the roads they had to, or chose to, walk. But if you do care, if you’ve already visited Janloon, then Jade Shards is a bittersweet delight from beginning to end.

I finished the Green Bone Saga in tears at the end of Jade Legacy. By the end I felt like I’d walked the road with these marvelous characters and was beyond sad to their story end. It was a right, proper and fitting ending, but I just wasn’t ready to leave this world behind.

And neither was the author, as she admits in the notes for Jade Shards that these stories are a case of her writing fanfiction in the universe that she created. IMHO it’s a universe that is made even richer by these portraits of the clan leaders as young men and women. So I’m glad she was able to put these out into the world and sad that it looks like these will be the last.

The Green Bone Saga gave me the biggest book hangover I can remember in a very long time, one that is still stuck in my brain now two years after I finished Jade Legacy. To the point where I’m highly tempted to start listening to the damn thing all over again.

If you’re still a bit stuck in Janloon and looking for a way to alleviate the ache of missing it, may I recommend Ebony Gate by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle. It’s the first thing that has scratched even the tiniest bit of my itch to return to Kekon. If you have that same itch, it might do the same for you.

And if you don’t have that itch and you’ve read this review to the end, what are you waiting for? Take your very own trip to Jade City and prepare to be captured and captivated.