Review: A Study in Sable by Mercedes Lackey

Review: A Study in Sable by Mercedes LackeyA Study in Sable (Elemental Masters #11) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Elemental Masters #11
Pages: 313
Published by DAW on June 7th 2016
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Psychic Nan Killian and Medium Sarah Lyon-White—along with their clever birds, the raven Neville and the parrot Grey—have been agents of Lord Alderscroft, the Elemental Fire Master known as the Wizard of London, since leaving school. Now, Lord Alderscroft assigns them another commission: to work with the famous man living at 221 Baker Street—but not the one in flat B. They are to assist the man living in flat C. Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, themselves Elemental Masters of Water and Air, take the occult cases John’s more famous friend disdains, and they will need every skill the girls and their birds can muster!

Nan and Sarah’s first task: to confront and eliminate the mysterious and deadly entity that nearly killed them as children: the infamous Haunt of Number 10 Berkeley Square. But the next task divides the girls for the first time since they were children. A German opera star begs Sarah for help, seeking a Medium’s aid against not just a single spirit, but a multitude. As Sarah becomes more deeply entwined with the Prima Donna, Nan continues to assist John and Mary Watson alone, only to discover that Sarah’s case is far more sinister than it seems. It threatens to destroy not only a lifelong friendship, but much, much more.

My Review:

I read A Study in Sable AFTER I finished A Scandal in Battersea. That’s definitely the wrong order. But A Scandal in Battersea served as a marvelous reintroduction for this reader to the Elemental Masters series. So marvelous, in fact, that when I closed that book I grabbed as much of the series as I could from various libraries and immediately started on A Study in Sable, order be damned.

I’m very glad I did.

With the exception of the villains, the cast of characters is the same between the two books. Our heroines are the psychic Nan Killian, Sarah Lyon-White the medium, their extremely intelligent and protective birds, and the famous Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, elemental masters of water and air, respectively.

And as deeply involved as ever in the life and casework of that most rational of men, Sherlock Holmes.

Just as in A Scandal in Battersea, the focus here is on the magic that functions in this slightly alternative version of our own world. But as in Scandal, a case that at first seems to rest entirely in the magical realm that Holmes refuses to believe exists, turns out to have so many potential effects on his rational universe that he finds himself involved in spite of himself.

Such is the case of A Study in Sable. A celebrated German opera singer – definitely not Irene Adler – is under siege by hordes of ghosts while she performs in London. She hires Sarah for her mediumistic talents, but unlike most of the people who hire either Sarah or Nan, makes it clear that ONLY Sarah’s presence is welcome, and that Nan is something less than the mud she scrapes off her expensive boots.

At first, Sarah is happy for the money, and feels duty bound to help the spirits “cross over”, but looks forward to the end of her task. But as the horde of ghosts seems to be nowhere near diminishing, Nan and Sarah’s bird Grey discern that Sarah seems to be falling under the sway of the opera singer, in a way that is not natural.

As Sarah’s natural enjoyment of the luxurious setting morphs into a kind of desperate, personality-altering hero-worship, Nan moved from being mildly jealous to seriously alarmed – and that is the point where the Watsons, and eventually Holmes, are drawn in.

The question is whether even their combined powers will be enough to draw Sarah out from under the spell before it is too late.

Escape Rating A-: I had every bit as much fun with this one as with A Scandal in Battersea. However, if you are coming to these fresh, start with Sable. The two stories flow together extremely well when read in the correct order.

Although there are no steampunk elements in these books, the way that this alternate Victorian and early 20th century England seems to function, along with its blend of magic and “normal” life, reminds me even more strongly of Cindy Spencer Pape’s excellent – but seemingly complete – Gaslight Chronicles.

But the story in A Study in Sable rests very much on the strength of its characters – particularly in this case the character of Nan Killian. She and Sarah are independent young women, who are partners in their independence but not romantic partners. At the same time, romance seems to be far from either of their current horizons. And I like that – that these young women are making identities for themselves and neither expecting nor even thinking that romance will solve things for them.

This book is particularly Nan’s show, as Sarah is increasingly not herself as the story progresses. We feel for Nan as she watches in horror as the friendship that has sustained both her and Sarah unravels under the influence of the supernaturally charismatic opera singer.

It is also fun to see a version of Dr. John Watson where he is definitely Holmes’ equal. Their spheres of talent and influence are different, but Watson in this series is a master in his own right, and never kowtows to the sometimes imperious and always self-absorbed Holmes.

The case in Sable is one where Holmes’ seemingly mundane missing persons’ case draws inevitably towards Watson’s case of malign psychic influence and Sarah’s never-ending ghostly horde. When the separate strands merge, the whole story makes wonderfully blinding sense.

I’m very glad I decided to delve into the world of the Elemental Masters. I’ll be back!

Review: Celta Cats by Robin D. Owens

Review: Celta Cats by Robin D. OwensCelta Cats by Robin D. Owens
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Celta's Heartmates
Pages: 144
Published by Amazon Digital Services on December 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Smart Cats know what they want. And on the world of Celta, they are very smart. They can be Familiar Animal companions, bonded with a person.
These stories are seen from the cat’s very own eyes, and are six never before published Cat Stories, including the first Top Cat of Celta, Peaches; as well as a trio of stories about that favorite Fam, Zanth.
Peaches Arrives on Celta, Plenty of problems for Peaches to fix: challenges to his status; people lying about Peaches’ human companion and Peaches himself; Grandma’s acting mean...and there’s that very real concern that the Ship just might not land safely, fear he must overcome…
Zanth Gets His Boy, Zanth’s meeting with a noble boy running from evil people changes both their lives in ways he couldn’t imagine
Pinky Becomes A Fam, Pinky is a smart enough cat to know that there is a difference from being a regular cat and a Familiar Companion Cat, and bonding better with his boy. He’s determined to make the leap from cat to Fam, but didn’t realize exactly what that meant…
Zanth Claims Treasure, Yes, the southern estate smells great, even better smelling is the glass orb full of magic that he finds, and will fight to keep…
Baccat Chooses His Person, Life on the streets in the winter isn’t what Baccat deserves, and he’s determined to find a good person to take care of him. After all, he has so much to offer…but does he really deserve what he gets?
Zanth Saves The Day, A FamCat on a beach just can’t sleep with all that odd hatching and squeaking going on. Zanth finds new friends and defends them against bullies…

My Review:

I’m still looking for comfort reading. When I heard the FamCats of Celta meowing my name, I decided to answer.

This is likely to be what a blogging friend refers to as a “short and sweet” review. This is not a big book, the stories do not have big messages, but they are a whole lot of fun, particularly if you like the Celta’s Heartmates series. The stories in Celta Cats illustrate bits of backstory or side story of events that are referred to in the main series, but are told from the point of view of the FamCats, the Familiar Companion animals of Celta who happen to be cats.

It seems that any animal can become a Fam, if they have enough Flair (psi power) and enough intelligence. Fams are intelligent at what we would think of as a human level, but do not think human thoughts. They understand human speech and thought, but as the stories illustrate, they do not change their essential nature. The FamCats, in particular, are always very cat. Particularly in the “dogs have owners, cats have staff” sense. FamCats expect rewards for their service, and are not remotely shy about demanding those rewards. It’s part of what makes them so much fun.

Although this collection features FamCats, in the main series we meet many other animals who have become Fams, including foxes, dogs, birds, and even housefluffs, which seem like a less predatory version of the dustbunnies in Jayne Castle’s Harmony series.

Heart Mate by Robin D. Owens new cover

Several of the stories in this collection feature Xanth, the FamCat who owns and protects Rand T’Ash, the hero of the first book in the series, Heart Mate. From Xanth’s perspective, he is the dominant partner. Rand’s perspective may be otherwise. But one of the most interesting stories in the collection is the first meeting between Xanth and Rand, told from Xanth’s perspective. At that point, Rand was a scared and very young man, who had just watched evil men burn out his family home, killing his parents and siblings., while Xanth was a full-grown and battle-toughened street cat. Those same men are hunting Rand, and it is Xanth’s knowledge of Druida City’s back alleys that keeps them both alive until Rand matures enough to come into his full power and exact his revenge.

Escape Rating A-: For adult readers, Celta Cats is a book for fans. The joy in the stories is filling in missing pieces of Celtan history, and especially viewing that history through the eyes of the Fams, who are so often the best part, or at least the funniest part, of many of the stories.

As a short story collection, Celta Cats is being marketed as a children’s book. I have my doubts about that. It’s true that there is no “adult” content per se. These stories are not romances, while the regular books of the Celta’s Heartmates series most definitely are. But what makes these stories special is their connection to Celta. The Xanth stories are particularly fun because they connect to Xanth (and Rand) as we already know them. Whether young readers will find them interesting without knowing anything about the background of Celta is something I’m just not sure about.

But for those of us who love the series, and can’t wait until next year for our next visit to Celta, these stories are utterly charming.

Reviewer’s Note: I read Celta Cats in the wake of Ursula K. LeGuin’s death. If you like the Celta Cats, you will love her Catwings series, which begins with, of course, Catwings. The Catwings stories, are, not surprisingly considering the title, about a family of winged cats. The wings seem to be a mutation, as the stories are set in the contemporary world and everyone, both cats and humans, are aware that the Catwings family needs to be protected from people who will want to study them. The stories are marvelous, the illustrations are lovely, and just like Celta Cats, the stories will be enjoyed by adults who love any intersection between cats and either science fiction or fantasy.

Review: Cast in Deception by Michelle Sagara

Review: Cast in Deception by Michelle SagaraCast in Deception (Chronicles of Elantra, #13) by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra #13
Pages: 512
Published by Mira Books on January 23rd 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS ENEMIES?

Private Kaylin Neya thought her home couldn’t possibly get more crowded. But when one of her housemates, Annarion, decides to undertake the Barrani Test of Name, his friends refuse to let him face his task alone—and Kaylin’s sentient home, Helen, is the only structure capable of shielding the rest of Elantra from the magnitude of their power.

Annarion and Mandoran almost caused the destruction of the High Halls once already. Add nine of their closest friends, and the danger is astronomically higher—especially since these guests are at the heart of a political firestorm. Imprisoned almost a millennium ago, their recent freedom threatens the rulership of several prominent Barrani families, and the machinations of those Lords make it almost impossible to tell friend from foe.

As political tensions ramp up, the shadows beneath the High Halls are seeking a freedom that has never been possible before. Kaylin must find a way to keep those shadows from escaping, or that freedom will destroy her city, the empire and everything she holds dear.

My Review:

I originally said that the Chronicles of Elantra series was urban fantasy in a high or epic fantasy setting. Our point of view character is Private Kaylin Neya, a member of the Hawks, meaning law enforcement, in the city of Elantra.

Elantra is populated not just by humans, but also by Leontines, Aerians, Thallani and Barrani (read elves, sort of) and ruled by Dragons. While only the Barrani and the Dragons are immortal, even the non-immortals make the reader think more of epic fantasy than urban.

At the same time, Kaylin’s very lowly position among the local equivalent of the police did put her in the way of solving crimes and mysteries in her city. But even though that’s where she started, that’s not where she is now.

Instead, Kaylin has become a wild card among the political movers and shakers of Elantra. Not because she wants power, but because they began by seeing her as too ephemeral to cause any problems, only to discover that it’s her mortality that makes her so interesting.

One of the problems with being immortal is that everything gets boring after a while. Being around Kaylin is never, ever boring. Often dangerous, frequently chaotic, occasionally life threatening, but never dull, not even for a second. Kaylin is such a chaos magnet that she actually makes boring look desirable in comparison.

The story in Cast in Deception, like all of the stories in the Chronicles of Elantra, is about Kaylin dealing with the unexpected consequences of her previous actions – hopefully before someone gets killed, war breaks out, or both.

cast in shadow by michelle sagaraBut as the events of this story are the results of so many that came before it, this is a series where it is probably impossible to get in at this point. Events, and people, in this series layer upon each other, well past the point where the only way into Elantra is from the very beginning, with Cast in Shadow. Kaylin’s life and her world, or at least her perspective of it, were much simpler back then.

It is also possible to start with the prequel novella, Cast in Moonlight, which tells the story of how Kaylin became a Hawk – which was not what she intended. Kaylin’s actions often result in things which she did not intend, frequently to the dismay of anyone else even tangentially involved.

The scope of events of the series have become epic, but it is epic in a way where the author does not seem to be leading toward some ultimate battle between good and evil. Not that there are not evil forces, but rather that those evil forces don’t seem to be personified, or at least not yet. In some ways, it seems as if the evil force they are resisting is entropy, the winding down of the universe, rather than true evil. This may be resolved later in the series.

The story in Cast in Deception relates directly to events in Cast in Peril where Kaylin rescued a group of young Barrani from centuries of an imprisonment designed to increase the power of their families. It was a ceremony that backfired spectacularly, and Kaylin rescued the much changed young people who emerge.

But that cohort of people have become threats to the High Halls of the Barrani, and there are forces both within and without that are attempting to keep them from claiming their birthrights. Some of those forces are embodied in people that Kaylin thinks of as friends, and others may be part of the dreaded Shadow.

But all of it is politics as usual among the extremely political, immortal Barrani. And if there’s one thing Kaylin hates more than anything else, it’s politics. Which doesn’t stop her (as nothing ever does) from rushing in where angels fear to tread to pull her friends out of grave danger, even if that merely puts her in danger with them.

As usual.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adore this series, and wait eagerly for each installment. At the same time, this is a world creation that has become very, very dense, with lots of characters and epic amounts of backstory, and it always takes me a little ways (and a bit longer each time) to get into the book to feel myself catching up. Then, of course, it takes me an equally long time to emerge from the book hangover. Elantra is difficult to get into, and equally difficult to leave.

As much as I love this series, and this particular entry in it, this particular story feels like it doesn’t take up a lot of “world time” and it feels like not much gets resolved by the end. At the beginning, the cohort of formerly lost Barrani were lost again on their way to take up their birthrights. By the end of the story, they have managed to make their very dangerous and nearly deadly way to Elantra, but the political challenges are all still yet to come. But as always, I was happy to travel along on Kaylin’s journey.

Hopefully in the next book, hopefully next year. And now the countdown begins!

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, libraries, steampunk
Series: Invisible Library #4
Pages: 367
Published by Ace Books on January 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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After being commissioned to find a rare book, Librarian Irene and her assistant, Kai, head to Prohibition-era New York and are thrust into the middle of a political fight with dragons, mobsters, and Fae.

In a 1920s-esque New York, Prohibition is in force; fedoras, flapper dresses, and tommy guns are in fashion: and intrigue is afoot. Intrepid Librarians Irene and Kai find themselves caught in the middle of a dragon political contest. It seems a young Librarian has become tangled in this conflict, and if they can't extricate him, there could be serious repercussions for the mysterious Library. And, as the balance of power across mighty factions hangs in the balance, this could even trigger war.

Irene and Kai are locked in a race against time (and dragons) to procure a rare book. They'll face gangsters, blackmail, and the Library's own Internal Affairs department. And if it doesn't end well, it could have dire consequences on Irene's job. And, incidentally, on her life...

My Review:

Like the rest of the Invisible Library series (start with the first book, The Invisible Library, and settle in for a marvelously good time!) The Lost Plot has a strong flavor of the old movie serial “The Perils of Pauline”. I would say “out of the frying pan and into the fire” but that phrase just isn’t sufficient to describe Librarian Irene Winters’ many (many, many) hair-raising adventures.

Either those frying pans are bubbling on top of an institutional sized range, with frying pans as far as the eye can see, or it’s an endless stack of frying pans on fires, getting progressively hotter as they go, all the way down.

Irene gets in trouble a lot. To put it another way, Irene has lots of adventures, in the sense that adventure is defined as something that happens to someone else, either long ago, far away, or both. I’d love to have a drink with her, but I wouldn’t want to be her.

In this particular entry in the series, Irene starts out attempting to carry out a simple retrieval mission for the Library. For once, she’s even planning to conduct it above board – buying the book the Library wants rather than just stealing it. This was her first mistake, but certainly not her last.

Irene’s last mistake is undoubtedly going to either be fatal or see her as the head of the Invisible Library – possibly both. But not yet. Nowhere near yet.

This time, Irene finds herself stuck in the middle of dragon politics, a situation that up until now she has carefully tried to avoid at all costs. But this time, as is usual for Irene, even though she doesn’t go looking for trouble, it inevitably finds her.

Getting involved in dragon politics might get her killed. And that might be the least bad of the many available possibilities. It’s almost certainly going to cost her relationship with her apprentice Kai. A relationship that Irene has attempted to keep as loosely defined as possible, because she doesn’t want to lose Kai in her life in any capacity, even though Kai is himself a dragon.

More dangerous all around is the possibility that in the fallout from this ever-growing clusterf**k, the Library will lose its not merely prized but absolutely vital neutrality in the endless conflict between the dragons and the fae, who respectively represent order and chaos. Because its only in the middle ground between those two vast forces that human beings can thrive. If the Library loses its neutrality through thoughtless political machinations (or Irene’s inability to counter those machinations) there’s not much hope left.

The needs of the many, as always, outweigh the needs of the view, or of the one. And it’s up to Irene to find a way to meet those needs, no matter what the cost is to herself.

Again.

Escape Rating A: I used the Star Trek paraphrase for multiple reasons. Irene is always at the sharp end of the spear, in danger of losing something (or many somethings) that she holds dear in order to preserve the balance. She’s always in a “mission impossible” situation, where the Library will cut her loose and disavow any knowledge of her actions if things go wrong.

But it’s the setting of this particular entry that really made me think of Star Trek. The alternate world in which Irene finds herself this time is an over-the-top version of America during Prohibition, complete with goons with “tommy guns” on every corner. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Original Series episode A Piece of the Action, which has a similar setting.

One of the interesting things about this series as a whole is the way that it has eschewed the traditional conflict between good and evil for the much more interesting and nuanced balancing act between order and chaos. This is the same battle that played out in Babylon 5, and illustrates yet again that neither of those forces are good or evil per se, but that extremes of both are bad for humanity.

Irene is as intrepid a heroine as ever, always running and dancing as fast as she can to stay a half step ahead of the doom that is inevitably following her. I absolutely love all of her adventures and can’t wait for more.

Reviewer’s Note: I loved this book, but it is difficult for me to review. It is one of the books that I read at my mother’s bedside while she was in hospice. I needed something that would take me mentally away from the circumstances but still leave me reasonably present for the inevitable. I got lost in The Lost Plot and it proved to be a perfect distraction.

Review: The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Prisoner of Limnos (Penric & Desdemona #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #6
Pages: 139
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on October 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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In this sequel novella to “Mira’s Last Dance”, Temple sorcerer Penric and the widow Nikys have reached safety in the duchy of Orbas when a secret letter from a friend brings frightening news: Nikys’s mother has been taken hostage by her brother’s enemies at the Cedonian imperial court, and confined in a precarious island sanctuary.

Their own romance still unresolved, Nikys, Penric, and of course Desdemona must infiltrate the hostile country once more, finding along the way that family relationships can be as unexpectedly challenging as any rescue scheme.

My Review:

There’s a famous cartoon by Sidney Harris of two mathematicians standing at a blackboard. On the blackboard, there’s a complicated formula on the left and more complicated formula on the right. In the middle, there’s the text, “THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS”. The caption is one mathematician telling the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

The plan that Penric hatches with Nikys to rescue her mother from political imprisonment is a lot like that cartoon, to the point where the need for the miracle in the middle is called out more than once.

Considering that the place where her mother is being held is a sanctuary devoted to worship of the Daughter, and that Penric is a Learned Divine and a Sorcerer in the service of the fifth god, Lord Bastard, a miracle is entirely possible – if not necessarily a good idea to actually count on.

The Prisoner of Limnos picks up immediately after Mira’s Last Dance leaves off. It is necessary to read the Penric and Desdemona series in at least the publication order, but as this is a series of novellas, and they are all excellent, if you like fantasy, particularly of the slightly epic and continually quirky variety, the series is a marvelous and relatively quick read.

But as this one picks up right after the last book, the issues left unresolved at the end of Mira’s Last Dance are still very much unresolved. That issue being Penric’s courtship of Nikys. It’s not that they don’t love each other, because they do, or at least are getting there. The problem is Penric’s demon, Desdemona, and all of the 14 personalities that reside within her, and therefore him.

Nikys is more than happy to be with Penric, but completely unsure about the horde of females who all live in his head. He’s not crazy. Being the rider for a demon is a condition of becoming a sorcerer. (How Penric and Desdemona ‘met’ is in the first book, Penric’s Demon)

But when Nikys discovers that her mother has been imprisoned as a way to bring her brother back to their former home, a country that wrongly accused him of treason and blinded him in punishment, she turns to Penric. Both because she trusts him implicitly, and because she knows he’s the only one who might be capable of pulling this jailbreak off.

After all, he got her and her brother out of the country once, in not dissimilar circumstances. He should be able to do it again.

With a little bit of help from their friends. And a whole lot of help from the gods.

Escape Rating A-: This is a rescue where everything goes right, everything goes wrong, and a seagull goes ‘poof’.

Penric is always flying by the seat of his pants, even when he’s not wearing pants. His god, the Lord Bastard, is the ‘master of all disasters out of season’. In other words, Penric serves an agent of chaos. When you semi-control, and it’s only ever semi, the chaos, you can often visit it upon your enemies instead of yourself. Not that Penric doesn’t pay for the use of his magic in other ways.

This is a story about politics and romance, wrapped around a sometimes daring and often hilarious rescue. Penric never does anything by halves.

The strength of the series is the relationship between Penric and Desdemona. They are bound together in something closer than kinship, and it’s a lifebond. At least for him. When he dies, Desdemona and everything she has learned from him and all her previous riders will be passed to the next sorcerer, or to the nearest person handy who automatically becomes a sorcerer.

Penric is a fascinating character all by himself. He’s someone who has broken completely away from everything he originally intended to be, and has made himself an interesting and useful life as he is. At the same time, he is very independent of mind and always has a slightly quirky outlook on what he sees.

That the author has managed to make Desdemona a separate character, even though she part of Penric, makes this all work. Desdemona is the ultimate big sister, with a snarky outlook built over centuries of living and multiple riders. At the same time, all of her riders have been female, and she is finding the whole ‘love and courtship’ thing every bit as idiotic from the male perspective as she ever did from the female. And she laughs.

While the rescue is screamingly fun, the heart of the story is Nikys’ resolution of her dilemma about Penric and all his “sisters”. She has to decide if loving the man is worth putting up with all of his baggage, even more than occurs in most marriages. And the way its done is both completely sensible and absolutely lovely.

My only complaint about The Prisoner of Limnos is the same one I have about every novella in this series. It’s a novella, meaning it’s too damn short. I love returning to this world, and I always want MORE!

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin HearneA Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #1
Pages: 618
Published by Del Rey Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the start of a compelling new series, the New York Times bestselling author of The Iron Druid Chronicles creates an unforgettable fantasy world of warring giants and elemental magic.

In the city of Pelemyn, Fintan the bard takes to the stage to tell what really happened the night the giants came . . .

From the east came the Bone Giants, from the south, the fire-wielding Hathrim - an invasion that sparked war across the six nations of Teldwen. The kingdom's only hope is the discovery of a new form of magic that calls the world's wondrous beasts to fight by the side of humankind.

My Review:

This is a book to savor. It’s very long and incredibly involved and left me with a marvelously horrible book hangover. And I loved every minute of it.

There’s no singular hero in A Plague of Giants, although there are plenty of people who do heroic things. But there’s no Frodo or Aragorn or Harry to lead the charge.

Instead, we have Fintan the bard, who may have participated in a few bits of the story, but who is not the hero. Fintan is the one telling the tale, using all of the powers at his command as a master of the bardic arts. But it is not his story that he tells. Instead, it is the story of every person in Teldwen whose life has been uprooted, or ended, by the invasion of not one but two armies of giants bent on conquest.

Even one army of giants is not enough to make this big of a mess of a the world.

At least one set of giants is known. And their motives are understandable, even if their methods are often brutal. The Hathrim are masters of fire, but even their cities can be overwhelmed when a dormant volcano wakes up. But they are masters enough of their element that they could see it coming in time to evacuate. Their plan is to use the tragedy as an opportunity to carve out new, resource-rich lands on the mainland.

But they lands they choose, while currently unoccupied, are not unowned. And border on the lands of their natural enemies. If the Hathrim are masters of fire, the Fornish are masters of woodcraft and forest lore. The trees that the Hathrim view as mere fuel for their fires, the Fornish see as sacred.

The Hathrim fire mastery and the Fornish command of all that grows in the land are merely two of the seven kennings of the series title. Three of the other kennings are the standard ones of so much fantasy and mythology; air, water and earth. Just as the Hathrim are fire masters, the Raelech are masters of the earth, the Brynts are water masters, and the Nentians have the mastery of the air.

But in the face of the invasion from both the known and feared Hathrim and the unknown and even more fearsome “Bone Giants” the sixth kenning finally appears. Just as the Fornish have power over all plants that grow, the first speakers of this new, sixth kenning have control over all animal life, from the smallest insect to the largest beast.

And the Bone Giants have invaded in search of the elusive seventh kenning, which no one has ever seen, heard of, or even speculated about. But whatever it may be, the Bone Giants are laying waste to vast swaths of Teldwen in order to locate it. Whatever and wherever it might be.

The story that Fintan the bard tells is the story of every person of every nation who becomes instrumental in the fight against both sets of terrible giants – and the story of the giants as well.

A Plague of Giants is an epic tale told by a master storyteller. And it is far from over.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely loved A Plague of Giants. Which makes it very hard to write a review. Unless I just squee. A lot.

This both is and isn’t like a typical epic fantasy book. Yes, it’s long and has a huge cast of characters, so that part is very like. But it’s different in a couple of key aspects.

First, instead of being a narrative quasi-history, this is the story itself being told by its partipants, through the means of the bard’s magic. We’re not reading a history or quasi-history, instead Fintan is reciting events for his crowd of listeners in the words and images of the principal participant. It feels different.

The author Kevin Hearne said that he was trying to recreate the feeling of the old bardic tales as Homer used to tell them. I can’t say whether he succeeded, but he certainly has created something different. And compelling.

There’s something about the way that Fintan tells the story that reminds me of Kvothe in The Name of the Wind. I’m not sure why, but it just does.

Another difference in A Plague of Giants is that there are no clear heroes, and not really any clear villains, either. Not that one of the characters isn’t villainous, but he’s far from being a mover and shaker on either side.

We are able to see the story from the Hathrim point of view and it’s obvious that from their own perspective they are not evil. They think they are doing right by their own people, and don’t particularly care who they have to lie to or mow down to accomplish their goals. But it feels like real-politik, not evil.

Even the Bone Giants don’t think they are evil. Not that they don’t commit plenty of seemingly evil actions. But we don’t yet know enough to know what motivates them. So far, at least, it is not evil for evil’s sake. It looks like religious fanaticism, but even that isn’t certain. And we know that they think they have been provoked. (And there is something about their unknown nature and implacability that reminds me a bit of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera. But I’m not certain of the why of that reminder either, just that it feels right.)

Fintan is not the hero, and does not intend to be. It’s his job to tell the story – not to fix it. Whether anyone else will emerge as the hero is anyone’s guess at this point.

Each of the individuals that Fintan portrays does an excellent job of both representing their people and illustrating their own portion of what has become a world-spanning story. Some of them stand out more than others. Some of them survive, where others do not. But their heroic acts are confined to their small piece of the puzzle.

At the same time, the flow from one character to another, and from one day to another of Fintan’s telling of the tale, is surprisingly compelling. With the end of each tale, the reader (or at least this reader) is incapable of resisting the compulsion to find out just a bit more.

I still feel compelled. The second book in the series will be titled A Blight of Blackwings, when it is published at some future unspecified date. And I want it now. Impatiently. Passionately. Desperately.

Review: A Scandal in Battersea by Mercedes Lackey

Review: A Scandal in Battersea by Mercedes LackeyA Scandal in Battersea (Elemental Masters, #12) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Elemental Masters #12
Pages: 310
Published by DAW Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The twelfth novel in Mercedes Lackey's magical Elemental Masters series reimagines Sherlock Holmes in a richly-detailed alternate 20th-century England

Christmas is a very special time of year. It is special for Psychic Nan Killian and Medium Sarah Lyon-White and their ward Suki, who are determined to celebrate it properly. It is special for their friends, Doctor John Watson, and his wife Mary, both Elemental Masters, who have found great delight in the season seeing it through young Suki’s eyes.

It is also special to others...for very different reasons.

For Christmas Eve is also hallowed to dark forces, powers older than mankind, powers that come awake on this, the Longest Night. Powers best left alone. Powers that could shake the foundations of London and beyond.

It begins slowly. Women disappearing in the dark of night, women only missed by those of their own kind. The whispers only begin when they start to reappear—because when they do, they are no longer sane. And when Nan and Sarah and the Watsons are called on to examine these victims, they discover that it was no ordinary horror of the streets that drove them mad.

But then, the shadows reach for other victims—girls of good, even exalted families, who vanish from concerts, lectures, and evening balls. And it will take the combined forces of Magic, Psychic Powers, and the worlds greatest detective to stop the darkness before it can conquer all.

My Review:

A Scandal in Battersea is the 12th book in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. I read the earliest books in the series long ago, probably when they were published in the mid-1990s. It doesn’t seem as if one needs to have read the whole series to get into this particular entry in it, although now that I’m diving back into the whole thing, it looks like A Study in Sable is more of a direct prequel to A Scandal in Battersea than any of the other books.

The original premise of the Elemental Masters series was to re-tell well-known fairy tales in a late Victorian/early-20th century alternate universe where magic works and is divided into at least four main branches representing the classic “elements” of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. But other forms of “magic” were introduced in later stories, notably telepathy and other ESPer powers, and the mediumistic power to communicate with spirits.

Over time, the series morphed into a single world, with some semi-continuing characters, including many of the protagonists in A Scandal in Bohemia – notably our main characters. John Watson (yes, that John Watson) is a Water Master, his wife Mary is an Air Master, while Nan Killian is a Psychic and Sarah Lyon-White is a medium.

It takes all of their combined powers, plus the rational mind of Sherlock Holmes, to solve this case. It all begins with a young woman having visions of a ruined London where a tentacled monster sucks people into itself, never to be seen again. While traditional medicine believes that the poor girl is mad, Dr. John Watson is all too aware that she might be sane – and psychic, warning of evil on the horizon.

And so it proves. Someone, some idiot, is calling up a power that he does not understand, in the belief that it will give him earthly power and vast wealth. And power. Lots and lots of power. All he has to do is sacrifice a few virgins to its ever-growing hunger.

Of course it all goes wrong. Bargains with demons, devils and otherworldly creatures of shadow never go well, at least not for the human bargainer. Plus, (or minus, depending on on your perspective) sometimes the monster gets out.

In order to keep this monster from getting out, every person and creature that our heroes can find on the side of the light, or even just on the side of keeping our world for us, wades into the fray.

And it might not be enough.

Escape Rating A-: For a book with Sherlock Holmes on the cover, where the title is a direct reference to one of the canonical stories, there just isn’t enough Holmes in this book. In the end, I had an absolutely marvelous time with this book and with this world, to the point where I ran out and picked up as many of the previous entries in the series as I could borrow from libraries, but there’s not enough Holmes to justify its description as, or to satisfy my yen for, yet another version of the logical, rational Holmes finding his way in a magic-working world.

But if you are looking for a version of Victorian London where magic works and where the cast of characters is both diverse and endlessly fascinating, you’ll love A Scandal in Battersea. That the main characters are a pair of independent young women and their intelligent birds just adds to the fun.

If you like this concept of a magical, or at least slightly alternate, Victorian London, the setting of A Scandal in Battersea reminded me quite favorably of Cindy Spencer Pape’s Gaslight Chronicles. And since I loved that series and it seems to have ended, it is very nice to find something that reminds me of it quite so strongly.

And if the monster in A Scandal in Battersea gives you the shivers as much as it did me, take a look at A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman (included in his collection Fragile Things, which is a pastiche where Sherlock Holmes’ London intersects with the Cthulhu Mythos, with predictably creepy results. I include this reference because the descriptions of the monster that they have to fight struck me as Cthulhu’s cousin. A reference that left me appropriately creeped out.

As much as I missed Holmes until his appearance at the ¾ mark, I had a great time with this book and could not put it down. I enjoyed this world so much that I immediately picked up an earlier book in the series, A Study in Sable, which introduces readers to Holmes, Watson and Mary Watson in what looks to be a kind of prequel to A Scandal in Battersea.

I’m charmed and enchanted all over again.

 

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. ChakrabortyThe City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1) by S.A. Chakraborty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Daevabad Trilogy #1
Pages: 528
Published by Harper Voyager on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass--a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

My Review:

I picked up The City of Brass because this was the book that its publishers were the most extremely enthused about in my research for the Library Journal SF/Fantasy Spotlight article. Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely. However, as I read The City of Brass, it also kept reminding me of other stories. It just took me awhile to figure out exactly which stories.

There’s certainly an element of The Goblin Emperor in one side of this story, as Prince Ali feels very much like a young prince who stands very much outside the system and whom the power-that-be expect to consume alive at their earliest opportunity. And Nahri is certainly every bit as much a “fish out of water” (as bizarre as that pun becomes in context) as Maia ever was. Possibly even more, as Maia at least knows the court exists, even if he never expects to rule it. For Nahri, Daevabad is a city of out the vague mists of legend, and legends that she doesn’t even believe in.

But Daevabad feels like something out of a twisted, extended version of Scheherazade’s tales of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. With just a little bit of Persian, Indian and other mythologies thrown in for spice. And bodies. But the story that our heroine Nahri finds herself in the middle of has been going on, not for 1,001 nights, but for for millennia.

The story begins with scam artist Nahri sizing up her next mark. And it ends with Nahri sizing up her next mark. But in between – it’s magic.

At the beginning, Nahri is a con artist, scaping together a living on the streets of 18th century Cairo, trying to blend in. But Nahri has just a little bit of magic, something that she conceals at every turn, because its a gift that will either get her eaten alive, or killed, or possibly both.

Nahri can heal. I don’t mean that she’s a doctor, although she sometimes operates on the fringes of what passed for medicine in her time and place. I mean that she herself heals miraculously. Any wounds that she receives heal themselves in almost the blink of an eye.

But she can also heal others. It takes will and concentration, but she can cure almost anything by visualizing the body the way it should be. It’s a gift. And also a curse, because Nahri does not know how or why she has this gift.

She doesn’t believe in magic, but a lot of people do. So Nahri dabbles, just a bit, in scams that look like magic to others. And that’s what gets her in big, big trouble.

Because instead of “calming the spirit” of an afflicted child, Nahri accidentally calls up an evil spirit, an ifrit, who wants to eat her and her magic before it proceeds to rampage through the streets of Cairo. And in the wake of the ifrit follows a djinn who vowed to serve and protect Nahri’s family over a millennia ago.

But djinn are not exactly what Nahri thinks they are. And neither are ifrit. And most especially, neither is she.

The City of Brass is the opening chapter in Nahri’s journey to discover who and what she is, and where she belongs. And it is absolutely captivating from beginning to cliffhanging end.

Escape Rating A+: At the beginning, I said that The City of Brass reminded me of 2014’s marvelous The Goblin Emperor. While the fantasy settings derive from rather different origins, the flavor at the heart of the story feels the same. They are both stories of outsiders who find themselves thrust into a cut-throat world of high stakes politics, where everyone around them has hidden agendas buried under hidden agendas. And where everyone who surrounds them intends to keep them in the pawn position, subservient to others, lost and alone, and barely one step ahead of being killed by their own ignorance or innocence.

Both stories feature people who are playing a game that they do not initially understand with stakes that are always deadly, not just for themselves, but for anyone around them who gets caught in the crossfire.

And ironically, they are both personages who should have the ultimate power in their universes, but don’t because of circumstances outside of their control. And both of them find themselves subverting the system from within just to survive long enough to figure out their next move.

If they have one.

The story that begins with The City of Brass is both a story of hidden magical kingdoms and the story of two young people who discover that power is much “realer” than belief, and that for those in power, the ends always justify the means.

While the story follows Nahri and her transit from the human world to the kingdoms of the djinn, it is at its heart a very political story. Nahri’s existence has the ability to upset the balance of power between the ruling djinn family and the mixed blood people they exploit at every turn. Every faction plans to take advantage of her presence, whether with her consent or not.

We watch her struggle to make, find and understand her place throughout the story. And then, marvelously, just as this chapter comes to a close, we finally see her grasp the reins of her own destiny, as only she knows how.

I can’t wait to see what happens next in The Kingdom of Copper next year. Nahri is a heroine to watch – and cheer for.

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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Review: Halls of Law by V.M. Escalada

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t wait to find out happens next!

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