A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica Roth

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica RothWhen Among Crows by Veronica Roth
Narrator: Helen Laser, James Fouhey, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 176
Length: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When Among Crows is swift and striking, drawing from the deep well of Slavic folklore and asking if redemption and atonement can be found in embracing what we most fear.
We bear the sword, and we bear the pain of the sword.
Pain is Dymitr’s calling. His family is one in a long line of hunters who sacrifice their souls to slay monsters. Now he’s tasked with a deadly mission: find the legendary witch Baba Jaga. To reach her, Dymitr must ally with the ones he’s sworn to kill.
Pain is Ala’s inheritance. A fear-eating zmora with little left to lose, Ala awaits death from the curse she carries. When Dymitr offers her a cure in exchange for her help, she has no choice but to agree.
Together they must fight against time and the wrath of the Chicago underworld. But Dymitr’s secrets—and his true motives—may be the thing that actually destroys them.

My Review:

There’s an old Polish saying – not the one you’re thinking of, at least not yet – that translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of the first zmora that Dymitr approaches in regards to the very dangerous trade he wants to make.

The second zmora comes to him, because what he’s offering IS her cursed circus and those are her damned monkeys. Or, to be a bit more on the nose about the whole thing, it is her murder – or at least it will be – and those are her crows, who are already flocking to the scene.

Dymitr has acquired a legendary magical artifact that holds the possibility of a cure for the curse that Ala suffers from. A curse that killed her mother, her aunt, and her cousin, and is now killing her. A curse that will pass down her bloodline to the next female relative in line – no matter how distant – until the whole line is wiped out.

In return, Dymitr wants an introduction to another legendary ‘artifact’, the powerful witch Baba Jaga [that’s how her name is spelled in the book]. As merely a human, Dymitr does not have access to the places and people that will get him to his goal. As a zmora, while Ala does not know Baba Jaga at all, she does have contacts who can at least get Dymitr a few steps further along on the quest that he refuses to either name or explain.

Their journey proves to be a very different “magical mystery tour” than the one that the Beatles sang about, observing the different magical populations that have migrated to Chicago from his native Poland, and how each group abides by the proverb, “When among crows, caw as the crows do.”

The zmora, who feed on fear, operate movie theaters that feature horror movies, the strzygi, who live on anger and aggression, run underground fight clubs, while the llorona, who collect sorrow, own a chain of hospice centers. It’s all perfectly legal, or at least most of it is. And the parts that aren’t, the strzygi fight clubs, fit right in with the rest of the organized crime and corruption that operates in Chicago.

The supernatural have learned to caw like the crows do, the better to hide from the powerful so-called ‘Holy Order’ that hunts down anyone and anything it deems to be ‘not human enough’. And isn’t that the most human impulse of all?

An impulse, and a life, that Dmitry is willing to cut himself off from – literally as well as figuratively – at any and all cost. Even the cost of the humanity that his family has held so dear over the centuries.

All he needs to do is find Baba Jaga – and pay whatever price she demands in order to cut the sword out of his back once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve frequently said that a story has to be just about perfect to make the leap from an A- to an A. This one absolutely did, and listening to the audio put it over the top into A+. With bells on. To the point where I have to restrain myself from just squeeing all over the place.

The tone of When Among Crows felt very much like ‘old school’ urban fantasy before it left its horror with mystery roots behind to fall down the paranormal romance rabbit hole. Not that I don’t love a good paranormal with a kickass heroine posed on the cover in an utterly impossible position, but those got to dominating the genre and that’s not all I wanted from it.

(The blurb implies a romantic relationship between Dymitr and Ala. Don’t be fooled, that is absolutely not what is going on here – and it shouldn’t be. The relationship they are scrabbling towards is family, that the pain they have both suffered, and from the same source, can lead to them finding the family ties that pain has cost them with each other.)

At the same time, the way this story drew in so many Slavic myths and legends that I itched for a mythopedia (I was driving, that would have had terrible consequences) reminded me, a lot and very fondly, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because that book gave me the same vibes – along with the same dilemma – and I listened to it well before the Annotated Edition was published. I won’t say that When Among Crows was better, because American Gods had a much larger scope, but for the smaller size of the package of Crows, it still managed to evoke that same sense of memory and wonder, that so much that is old and weird still walks among us hidden in plain sight – made all that much more poignant in that the place the weird is hiding is the darker corners of Chicago – a city that has always had plenty.

When Among Crows was utterly enchanting, and I was totally enchanted by it, staying up entirely too late to finish the audio because it was just that good. While the story was relatively short, it also went surprisingly deep, and then came around full circle in a way that surprised and delighted even as it led to a delicious sort of closure that I wasn’t expecting but utterly loved.

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
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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: L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 edited by Jody Lynn Nye

A- #BookReview: L. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 edited by Jody Lynn NyeL. Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future, Volume 40 by L. Ron Hubbard, Jody Lynn Nye, Nancy Kress, S.M. Stirling, Gregory Benford, Bob Eggleton, Amir Agoora, James Davies, Kal M, Sky McKinnon, Jack Nash, Rosalyn Robilliard, Lance Robinson, John Eric Schleicher, Lisa Silverthorne, Stephannie Tallent, Tom Vandermolen, Galen Westlake, Mary Wordsmith, Dan Dos Santos, Ashley Cassaday, Gigi Hooper, Jennifer Mellen, Pedro Nascimento, Steve Bentley, Connor Chamberlain, Selena Meraki, Guelly Rivera, Tyler Vail, Carina Zhang, May Zheng, Lucas Durham, Chris Arias
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Writers of the Future #40
Pages: 471
Published by Galaxy Press on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Spine-tingling
Breathtaking
Mind-blowing
Experience these powerful new voices—vivid, visceral, and visionary—as they explore uncharted worlds and reveal unlimited possibilities.
Open the Writers of the Future and be carried away by stories—and illustrations—that will make you think, make you laugh, and make you see the world in ways you never imagined.
Twelve captivating tales from the best new writers of the year as selected by Writers of the Future Contest judges accompanied by three more from L. Ron Hubbard, Nancy Kress, S.M. Stirling. Each is accompanied by a full-color illustration.
Plus Bonus Art and Writing Tips from Gregory Benford, Bob Eggleton, L. Ron Hubbard, Dean Wesley Smith
“When her owner goes missing, a digital housecat must become more than simulation to find her dearest companion through the virtual world.—“The Edge of Where My Light Is Cast” by Sky McKinnon, art by Carina Zhang
No one came to his brother’s funeral. Not even the spirits. Étienne knew it was his fault.—“Son, Spirit, Snake” by Jack Nash, art by Pedro N.
Man overboard is a nightmare scenario for any sailor, but Lieutenant Susan Guidry is also running out of air—and the nearest help is light years away.—“Nonzero” by Tom Vandermolen, art by Jennifer Mellen
Mac wanted to invent a cocktail to burn itself upon the pages of history—but this one had some unexpected side effects.—“The Last Drop” by L. Ron Hubbard and L. Sprague de Camp, art by Chris Arias
Dementia has landed Dan Kennedy in Graydon Manor, and what’s left of his life ahead seems dismal, but a pair of impossible visitors bring unexpected hope.—“The Imagalisk” by Galen Westlake, art by Arthur Haywood
When a teenage swamp witch fears her mama will be killed, she utilizes her wits and the magic of the bayou—no matter the cost to her own soul.—“Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” by Stephannie Tallent, art by Ashley Cassaday
Our exodus family awoke on the new world—a paradise inexplicably teeming with Earth life, the Promise fulfilled. But 154 of us are missing.…—“Five Days Until Sunset” by Lance Robinson, art by Steve Bentley
Spirits were supposed to lurk beneath the Lake of Death, hungry and patient and hostile to all life.—“Shaman Dreams” by S.M. Stirling, art by Dan dos Santos
A new app lets users see through the eyes of any human in history, but it’s not long before the secrets of the past catch up with the present.—“The Wall Isn’t a Circle” by Rosalyn Robilliard, art by Guelly Rivera
In the shadows of Teddy Roosevelt’s wendigo hunt, a Native American boy resolves to turn the tables on his captors, setting his sights on the ultimate prey—America’s Great Chief.—“Da-ko-ta” by Amir Agoora, art by Connor Chamberlain
When squids from outer space take over, a punk-rock P.I. must crawl out of her own miserable existence to find her client’s daughter—and maybe a way out.—“Squiddy” by John Eric Schleicher, art by Tyler Vail
Another outbreak? This time it’s a virus with an eighty percent infection rate that affects personality changes … permanently.—“Halo” by Nancy Kress, art by Lucas Durham
Planet K2-18b is almost dead, humanity is enslaved, and it’s Rickard’s fault.

My Review:

The “Writers of the Future” Contest sponsored by Galaxy Press has been going on for, obviously, forty years now, which is why this is #40 in the series. I hadn’t picked a single one up until last year’s 39th volume, because short story collections just aren’t my thing, and the whole L. Ron Hubbard/Scientology connection STILL gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Howsomever, this time last year I was assigned to review that 39th volume for Library Journal, and learned that my hesitations on both the format and the origin notwithstanding, the collection itself was good. Damn good, in fact.

So good that when the opportunity to review this 40th volume in the series came up, I jumped at it – and was very glad that I did.

As with most collections, there were a couple of stories that just didn’t work for me, but for the most part the stories worked and worked well and I’d be thrilled to see more work from pretty much all of these award winning authors.

Which means that I have brief thoughts of a review-type and rating for each of the new individual stories, and a concluding rating that’s going to require some higher math and a bit of a fudge-factor to get into a single letter grade even with pluses and minuses available!

“The Edge of Where My Light is Cast” by Sky McKinnon
This is a story that anyone who has ever had a ‘heart cat’ – or other companion animal, one who is not merely loved but holds a singular place in one’s heart long after they are gone will find both utterly adorable and heartbreakingly sad at the same time. Tabitha was her person’s heart cat, so when Tabita went to the Rainbow Bridge her person turned her into a virtual reality cat so that they could be together for always. When her person goes ‘to the light’, Tabitha breaks all the laws of time and space and physics so that they can be together, forever in the light of the datastreams they now both call home. Grade A because there is so much dust in this one and my eyes are still tearing up.

“Son, Spirit, Snake” by Jack Nash
This one has the feel of a myth being retold as fantasy, although its an original work. It could also fit into many post-apocalyptic futures as well. A young man is dead, his mother performs the funeral rites, but the neighbors scoff and the gods do not attend as they always have. His younger brother runs in search of solace but finds only Death – but the anthropomorphization and not the event, because his mother refuses to let the gods dictate her actions a second longer – and she scares them WAY more than they scare her. Grade B because it feels like the attempt to make the myth universal sanded off a few too many of the edges that might have made it a bit more fixed in time and space – which was the intent but made it a bit more difficult to get stuck into at first.

“Nonzero” by Tom Vandermolen
As far as she knows, she’s the only survivor of her spaceship crew, out in the black in a spacesuit with no ship in sight and no chance of reaching one. She dreams of the past, while her suit’s AI does its best to awaken her to her very limited choices: whether to let her oxygen run out – and die, self-terminate using the drugs stored in her suit – and die, or take a cryogenic cocktail of drugs, let herself be put in suspended animation, and hope that the nonzero chance of survival comes through. We’ll never know. Grade A- for her snark in the face of logic and annihilation even though we’re pretty sure from the beginning that we know which path she’ll take.

“The Imagalisk” by Galen Westlake
Anyone who ever had an imaginary friend will find a bit of hope – or a light at the end of an inevitable long, dark tunnel – in this tale of an elderly man entering the hazy world of Alzheimer’s and tossed into a nursing home by his son.  Only to discover that he’s been granted a marvelous gift, that for the residents of Graydon Manor the make-believe friends of their first childhoods have returned to help them ‘play’ the rest of their lives away in their second. If he can just hold only his present memory long enough to keep their gift from being stolen by a greedy former resident. Grade A- for being the saddest of sad fluff on the horns of the reader’s dilemma of whether this is one last grand caper or if this entire tale is just a product of the disease that brought him to Graydon Manor in the first place.

“Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” by Stephannie Tallent
One of two stories in the collection about magic and power and love and death and sacrifice that’s made even better because the sacrifice is willing and the love isn’t romantic. This one is haunting, not horror but definitely on the verge of it – but then again, if any place is haunted it’s the bayou country of Louisiana. Grade A- for the story and A+ for the art for this one which is beautiful.

“Five Days Until Sunset” by Lance Robinson
In spite of what a whole lot of SF would have one believe, the likelihood is that early colony ships will be a fairly iffy proposition. Which means that this reminds me a bit of Mickey7 but definitely without the humorous bits. Although in this case, it’s not that the planet is barely habitable, but rather that it’s not habitable in the way that the colonists dreamed of. It’s a story about adapting your dreams to your circumstances instead of attempting to force the circumstances to match your dreams. Grade A because the story is good and so complete in its very short length and it even manages to deal well with religion in the future which is really, really hard even in the present.

“Shaman Dreams” by S.M. Stirling
This one is new for the collection – which I wasn’t expecting. It’s also the story inspired by the gorgeous cover art. Even though this is set in the far distant past, as the last Ice Age is fading away, the story it reminds me of most and rather surprisingly a lot is The Tusks of Extinction – quite possibly crossed a bit with Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series. Grade A+

“The Wall Isn’t a Circle” by Rosalyn Robilliard
Very SFnal, but exceedingly horrifying in its implications. It starts out as time travel – and that’s fun with interesting possibilities. The scare in this one is that it doesn’t stay there, and where it leaps to is a question of just how far – and how far over the line of morality – someone will go to get justice and where the line blurs between justice and revenge. Grade A for the wild ride of the story’s ultimate WOW.

“Da-ko-ta” by Amir Agoora
This one didn’t work for me. The bones of something really terrific are here, and I think it potentially had a lot to say about colonialism and culture erasure and just how terrible manifest destiny was but it may have just needed to be longer so that its ideas got fully on the page and weren’t merely teased out. Grade C

“Squiddy” by John Eric Schleicher
Squiddy gets its toes right up to the line of SF horror and then sticks there with tentacles. Literal, actual tentacles, in an invasion of squid-like monsters that are an addictive drug that requires sticking the squid-like creature up one’s nose. So also gross-out horror. But underneath that is a story about a drug addled dystopia, one woman who refuses to use or be used and another woman who sees her as a beacon to follow to a better, squid-free future. Grade B because this one was interesting and had a kind of wild/weird west feel but just wasn’t my jam – or calamari.

“Halo” by Nancy Kress
This is the second new-for-this-collection story by a well-known author rather than a contest winner. It’s laboratory based SF, and jumps off from the recent pandemic, but doesn’t go anywhere one thinks it will go because it’s a story about human behavior and human intelligence and the power of inspiration and how much the latter is worth saving if engineering the former can do so much ‘good’ – depending on who is determining that good. A thought-provoking Grade A story.

“Ashes to Ashes, Blood to Carbonfiber” by James Davies
There are always at least a couple of stories in any collection that don’t work for an individual reader and this was my other one. I may have been trying to read too late in the evening, or it may be that the bleakness of this particular dystopia just didn’t work for me, or the nature of the sacrifice required to break out was a bit too much even as it was talked more around than directly about. I did like that it worked out to a much better ending than I was expecting, but it just didn’t work for me. Grade C

“Summer of Thirty Years” by Lisa Silverthorne
This is the other story in the collection about sacrifice and power and love and death – done in a completely different way from the bayou story and still not about romantic love after all – although at the beginning it looks like it might be. It’s sweet and sad and haunting and beautiful, if not quite as profound as “Life and Death and Love in the Bayou” still an excellent story. Grade A-

“Butter Side Down” by Kal M
There had to be a story that managed to invoke Murderbot, and this was it. What made it fun was that the whole thing is a trial transcript, as the lone human on this particular spaceship’s crew is on trial for rescuing a planet-killing AI, falling in love with it and helping it escape. It seems like the fears of what this ultimate weapon of mass destruction – that Joe Smith has nicknamed “Breddy” can do to the whole, entire universe are very real – but that Joe is convinced that “Breddy” has decided not to. And he’s right and they’re all wrong. While the story is more lighthearted than one might imagine, in the end it’s a story about always extending the hand of friendship – and being rewarded with friendship in return to the nth degree. Grade A+

Escape Rating A- for the collection as a whole, because I mostly did escape – even in the couple of stories that weren’t quite my cuppa after all. I am still a bit surprised to say this, all things considered, but I’m honestly looking forward to getting that 41st volume in the series, this time next year.

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi VoThe Brides of High Hill (The Singing Hills Cycle, #5) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #5
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Hugo Award-Winning Series returns with its newest standalone entry: a gothic mystery involving a crumbling estate, a mysterious bride, and an extremely murderous teapot.
The Cleric Chih accompanies a beautiful young bride to her wedding to an aging lord at a crumbling estate situated at the crossroads of dead empires. But they’re forgetting things they ought to remember, and the lord’s mad young son wanders the grounds at night like a hanged ghost.
The Singing Hills Cycle has been shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the Locus Award, the Ignyte Award, and has won the Hugo Award and the Crawford Award.

My Review:

When we first catch up with Cleric Chih as they are accompanying bride-to-be Pham Nhung and her family on their trip to make the final negotiations for Pham Nhung’s marriage to the older and much wealthier Lord Guo, the reader has the sense that they remember when Chih met Nhung at the gates of the Singing Hills Abbey back in the previous book, Mammoths at the Gates.

Just as Chih has been lulled into participating in this journey that seems so familiar, so are we.

Because the journey IS familiar, even if Chih can’t seem to recall precisely how they got there or, more importantly, why his friend and companion, the neixin Almost Brilliant, is not with them on this journey. Although, considering the events of Mammoths at the Gates, it’s not too difficult for the reader, or Chih, to understand why the situation back home might have been a bit too fraught for Almost Brilliant to leave.

But the story does seem familiar, only because it is. A young woman whose noble family is a bit down on their luck has been sold to a wealthy older man in order to restore the family’s status. She has no choice in the matter, her parents have little, and Lord Guo has it all.

However, when the Lord’s oldest son, mad and confused and drugged to his eyeballs, under heavy guard and seemingly out of his mind, interrupts the initial ceremonies it raises more than a few uncomfortable questions, which kickstarts Cleric Chih’s need to learn all the stories about the lavish old estate that Lord Guo reigns over with an iron hand – and the familiar story begins to unravel.

Spectacularly. Explosively. Into a story about revenge served, not ice cold, but in a gout of hot blood spraying out from under gnashing teeth and long, sharp claws.

Escape Rating A-: From the very first book in the Singing Hills Cycle, the marvelous The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Cleric Chih has moved from being outside the story, merely its chronicler, to being at the story’s center in Mammoths at the Gates.

This time around, Chih is as mesmerized as the reader by the story, as they are trapped within its web just as we ourselves are.

Which means that we have a sense at the beginning that Chih isn’t acting quite like themselves, and Chih has the same feeling. Also they desperately miss their friend Almost Brilliant, and so do we. We all collectively need the clear-sighted neixin to help us – and I’m including Chih in that ‘us’ – figure out what’s going on.

Of course, that’s why Almost Brilliant isn’t there. Or so it seems. Just as so many things in this story seem to be one thing but aren’t – quite.

So this is a story about illusions and lies. Nothing and no one is exactly who or what they are first presented to be. At first, it seems that what began as that rather traditional story of a girl being sold by her parents to a cruel older man is the story and we’re prepared to watch it be broken in some almost traditional way – either by Pham Nhung running away with Lord Guo’s son, who we know isn’t the madman his father’s frightened household says that he is – or with her death, whether by her own hand or Lord Guo’s.

In other words, we expect the illusion to break, but what we don’t expect, what Cleric Chih doesn’t expect, is the way that it breaks – and how thoroughly.

At the very beginning of The Brides of High Hill, Cleric Chih is remembering his late mentor, Cleric Thien, and an occasion where Thien told Chih that “Everything starts with a story,” and a very young and not yet cleric Chih asks, “But what does that mean?”

In the case of The Brides of High Hill, the story starts with a journey that looks like it might end in a romance but instead ends with something that looks like a bloody, twisted version of Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, and is all the more surprising for that twist in its – and our – tails at the end.

Leaving this reader with bated breath waiting for the next story in the Singing Hills Cycle, even though it has neither a title nor a projected date of publication, because this series is just that good – and I’m just that hooked on it.

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende

#AudioBookReview: Lovers at the Museum by Isabel AllendeLovers at the Museum by Isabel Allende
Narrator: Nicholas Boulton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, short stories
Pages: 25
Length: 38 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories on April 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Wind Knows My Name comes a mesmerizing tale of two passionate souls who share one magical night that defies all rational explanation.
Love, be it wild or tender, often defies logic. In fact, at times, the only rationale behind the instant connection of two souls is plain magic.
Bibiña Aranda, runaway bride, wakes up in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao still wearing her wedding dress, draped in the loving arms of a naked man whose name she doesn’t know. She and the man with no clothes, Indar Zubieta, attempt to explain to the authorities how they got there. It’s a story of love at first sight and experience beyond compare, one that involves a dreamlike journey through the museum.
But the lovers’ transcendent night bears no resemblance to the crude one Detective Larramendi attempts to reconstruct. And no amount of fantastical descriptions can convince the irritated inspector of the truth.
Allende’s dreamy short story has the power to transport readers in any language, leaving them to ponder the wonders of love long after the story’s over.

My Review:

Lovers at the Museum caught my eye primarily for the audiobook. The narrator, Nicholas Boulton, is the voice of one of my favorite characters in the video game Mass Effect Andromeda. (A game that is much better than the reviews would lead one to believe, but that is not the topic of this review.)

Back on topic, at least a bit more on topic, I have to say that he didn’t sound much like that character in this narration, which I should have expected because they’re not remotely alike nor should they be and that’s just plain good acting.

Which leads me back, again, by a meandering path, to this lovely little short story about, well, love, and magic, and the magic of love.

Although it starts out with the evidence of a whole lot of lust – as that’s a much easier thing to get a handle on – particularly when one of the protagonists is still presenting a handle. So to speak.

Ahem.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of modern and contemporary art in Spain’s Basque region (pictured at left) is already a magical place, both for its bulky, blocky and some would even say Brutalist, design, and in this story, at least, for the strange and weird things that happen within its walls.

This incident would add to that legend.

The morning staff of the museum discovered two disheveled, entwined, partially nude lovers in one of the galleries sleeping off a night of lustful debauchery that shouldn’t have happened at all. Not for particularly nefarious reasons but simply because they entered while the museum was closed – and should have triggered alarms in every single room they came into – which seems to have been all of them.

They say the door opened for them. They claim that they weren’t really in the museum, but in a magical pleasure palace.

The local police inspector, with a reputation for finding hidden clues, eliciting damning confessions, and a dogged determination to punish the guilty, is frustrated that he can’t break their ridiculous stories and isn’t sure what crime, if any, they actually committed.

It seems as if the magic of the Guggenheim claimed the lovers that incredible night, and it’s taking away the inspector’s will to punish them in the cold light of day.

Escape Rating B: This is short and very, very sweet – even though the inspector is downright salty for a lot of the story.

There’s a lot of salt to be had – at least from his perspective. He’s sure that someone HAS to be guilty of something prosecutable, and that someone is lying to him.

(I was betting on the museum officials lying to cover up less than attentive guards and not so secure security. It seemed like the obvious solution. Which it is logically but then again, this is about magic.)

The inspector wants to punish the lovers for their vice and their disrespect of the museum. But mostly because he envies them the magic of their love – something that is clearly lacking in his own life in spite of his decades long marriage – or perhaps because of it. That’s a bit hard to tell, but it’s sad no matter how one looks at it. Unless one is the inspector, in which case it’s downright tragic.

In the end, it all boils down to magic, the kind of magical realism that takes a story out of the everyday and sprinkles a bit of fairy dust over the proceedings. So short, sweet and utterly charming – including the inspector’s bluster.

Even better, if Isabel Allende is an author you’ve heard about but haven’t ever actually read – as was true for this reader – or if you’re not sure whether or not magical realism could be a flavor in your jam – this delightful short is the perfect way to stick your reading toe into magical realism with an author who is considered a master of the genre.

A- #BookReview: Chaotic Aperitifs by Tao Wong

A- #BookReview: Chaotic Aperitifs by Tao WongChaotic Apéritifs: A Cozy Cooking Fantasy (Hidden Dishes Book 2) by Tao Wong
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, foodie fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Hidden Dishes #2
Pages: 124
Published by Starlit Publishing on May 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Only Constant with Magic is Change.
Mo Meng is reminded of that fact once again, as the Nameless Restaurant faces a new challenge. Magic and its old wielders are returning to the world. For the restaurant, wards of anonymity and camouflage are fading, leading to the arrival of new customers. And some older friends.
What started as a way to pass the decades and feed a few customers has become actual work.
The world is changing, and to face it, the Nameless Restaurant, along with its proprietor and patrons, will need to embrace the change with a good meal and new friends.
Chaotic Apéritifs is book 2 in the Hidden Dishes series, a cozy cooking fantasy perfect for fans of Travis Baldree's Legends & Lattes and Junpei Inuzuka's Restaurant to Another World. Written by bestselling author Tao Wong, his other series include the System Apocalypse, A Thousand Li, Hidden Wishes and Adventures on Brad series.

My Review:

Welcome to another day in the life of Mo Meng’s nameless restaurant, following the first delicious book in the Hidden Dishes series, titled, of course, The Nameless Restaurant!

The dishes served here truly are magically delicious, because the chef, Mo Meng, is a mage. Not that he actually uses magic in his cooking, because that would be cheating. Instead, he’s been using magical wards and sigils to make his hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Toronto look unappealing to the average restaurant goer, tourist and especially mundane government bureaucrat.

Because he absolutely IS using magic to keep pests at bay – no matter how many legs they have.

The problem that Mo Meng faces in this story is a direct result of the events in the first book featuring his nameless restaurant. Because in that story, Mo Meng’s out-of-the-way establishment hosted a newly awakened utter nuisance of a jinn, and she’s been waking up all kinds of magic and all sorts of other magic users as she navigates the 21st century.

That influx of her chaotic magic is wearing down Mo Meng’s wards. The sheer, overwhelming ubiquity of the internet isn’t helping either. It’s everywhere, no spell of forgetting or obfuscation affects it, and too many people are discovering, remembering, and talking about his restaurant on it.

He and his front-of-house manager Kelly are so swamped with customers that something is going to have to change – because it already has. The question is whether Mo Meng will embrace that change – or leave it and the community he’s built behind while he retreats. Again.

As he observes one very singular customer get confronted with all the changes that have occurred over the centuries while he slept and does his damndest to bluff his way into the future without setting the restaurant on fire with his magic, Mo Meng figures out his own answers.

Escape Rating A-: I’m doing this review a week early so that you have a chance to read the tasty first book in the Hidden Dishes series, The Nameless Restaurant, before you gobble this second book up in one delicious bite.

Because they are both absolutely magically delicious, to the point where I need to put a kind of a trigger warning on both books. Do NOT read while hungry. It’s very dangerous. Trust me on this. Mo Meng’s entire cooking process and every single dish is described in mouth-watering detail as he cooks and it’s impossible to resist – even if the dish itself isn’t one you actually think you’ll like.

The tone of this second book is not quite as lighthearted as the first book, in spite of it being underpinned by the advent of two agents from the Department of Supernatural Entities. Mika and Ophelia are there to investigate the weakening of Mo Meng’s wards and just generally behave like government bureaucrats – up to and including the tension between the two of them, as senior agent Mika knows just where the lines are drawn, while his junior wants to leap over all the rules, regulations, and common sense to right what she defines as wrong in spite of all of the above.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is tense all the way around. Kelly begins her day being berated by her mother over the phone, Mo Meng is behind because there is way more business than one chef – even a magical one – can handle, and the patrons and would-be patrons start out agitated because a) Mo Meng IS running behind schedule and b) the restaurant is tiny, the wait is long, and the line out the door and around the block is enough to outrage anyone.

That a new predator who absolutely radiates power sits in the midst of all, offending many while trying to obfuscate his way through his lack of recent knowledge just adds to everyone’s stress – including his own as he’s trying to figure out why the jinn woke him up and sent him to this place. (I’m truly chagrined at how long it took me to figure out who he was. All the clues were there, I just wasn’t seeing them. (Consider a picture of me facepalming inserted here)

All the same, I loved every mouth-watering page of this story – at least once I sat down with my own dinner to accompany it. (There’s a regular at this restaurant who also reads through his meal, so I’d fit right in!)

Even though the situation is a bit tense, the story and the setting still fit delightfully into the new cozy fantasy vibe, on the shelf between Legends & Lattes and The Kamogawa Food Detectives. At the same time, it’s doing what urban fantasy has always done, it’s getting just a bit deeper and darker as it goes – and it’s fascinating and makes me want more.

It’s clear from the way that this entry in the series ends that even though Mo Meng and Kelly have found a way through their immediate problems, trouble is brewing on the horizon right alongside Mo Meng’s pineapple vinegar. So I’m going to get that more I wanted in the next book in the series, titled Sorcerous Plates. My mouth and my brain are already craving the next bite!

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie Tidhar

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie TidharJudge Dee and the Limits of the Law (Judge Dee, #1) by Lavie Tidhar
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal, short stories, vampires
Series: Judge Dee #1
Pages: 32
Published by Tor Books on November 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBetter World Books
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No vampire is ever innocent…
The wandering Judge Dee serves as judge, jury, and executioner for any vampire who breaks the laws designed to safeguard their kind’s survival. This new case in particular puts his mandate to the test.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked this up, but what I got was kind of interesting and sorta cute and blissfully short yet still told a good story and somehow managed to fit – albeit weirdly and oddly – into the whole Judge Dee rabbit hole I fell down last week.

Like many vampire stories, it needs a human touch. And it has one in this case, as it is told by vampire Judge Dee’s current human assistant, Jonathan. Who is often just a bit hard done by the Judge, as poor Jonathan needs the occasional meal of real food, and the occasional break to catch his labored breath, while the vampire clearly does not. And sometimes forgets to care.

That the human is a considerably messier eater than the average vampire, let alone the rather fastidious Judge Dee, is just part of the byplay between these two unequal companions.

The story here still manages to display Judge Dee’s much vaunted ability to, well, judge evildoers within the limits of the law and render a fit punishment – when punishment is what’s due.

The case that introduces this pair to readers is just such a case – more convoluted that one might expect leading to a rather elegant ending – and not the one the reader expects when Judge Dee first knocks on the door.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up this week for two reasons. The first is part of the reason I grabbed this at all, that I fell down a reading rabbit hole about Judge Dee and discovered this series and simply couldn’t resist. A lack of resistance that may have had something to do with the cover art which is just this side of comic but bizarre in a way that pulled me in.

The second reason, and the why right now reason, is that these are blissfully short. I’ve overcommitted myself this week and needed that really, really badly.

But I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a lot, because there is literally not a lot here. Howsomever, I got more than I expected.

Judge Dee does his damndest to stick to the letter of the law while leaning over it just enough to find justice in a situation where there might not have been any to find. He’s beyond clever and yet is amused when a potential defendant before his traveling bench manages to out-clever him.

What makes the story fun – more than fun enough that I’ll be picking up the next story the next time I need something short to tide me over an overcommitted calendar – is the first person perspective of poor, put upon, Jonathan. He’s snarky, he’s both world-weary and vampire-weary, but he’s always aware of the side on which his bread is buttered – when he can get any, that is. So his commentary covers the Judge, the law he administers, his opinions and predilections, but also the companionship they provide each other.

Along with Jonathan’s constant scramble to get enough food in his belly to keep him upright for another day trudging after the indefatigable vampire Judge Dee. And one of these days soon I’ll be, not trudging but skipping along right beside him with Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels.

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
Goodreads

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.

Cover Reveal: Shoestring Theory by Mariana Costa

Cover Reveal: Shoestring Theory by Mariana CostaShoestring Theory by Mariana Costa
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Angry Robot on October 1, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A queer, madcap, friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers time travel romance with the future of the world at stake, this charming fantasy tale is sure to satisfy fans of Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree.
The kingdom of Farsala is broken and black clouds hang heavy over the arid lands. Former Grand-Mage of the High Court, Cyril Laverre, has spent the last decade hiding himself away in a ramshackle hut by the sea, trying to catch any remaining fish for his cat familiar, Shoestring, and suppressing his guilt over the kingdom’s ruin. For he played his part – for as the King, Eufrates Margrave, descended further and further into paranoia, violence and madness, his Grand-Mage – and husband – Cyril didn’t do a thing to stop him.
When Shoestring wanders away and dies one morning, Cyril knows his days are finally numbered. But are there enough left to have a last go at putting things right? With his remaining lifeblood, he casts a powerful spell that catapults him back in time to a happier period of Farsalan history – a time when it was Eufrates’s older sister Tig destined to ascend to the throne, before she died of a wasting disease, and a time when Cyril and Eufrates’s tentative romance had not yet bloomed. If he can just make sure Eufie never becomes King, then maybe he can prevent the kingdom’s tragic fate. But the magical oath he made to his husband at the altar, transcending both time and space, may prove to be his most enduring – and most dangerous – feat of magic to date…
Featuring a formidable Great Aunt, a friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers romance, an awkward love quadrangle and a crow familiar called Ganache, this charming story is imminently easy to read and sure to satisfy fans of fanfiction who like their fantasy lite.

This is Luna’s SHOUTY face, because she can’t resist talking about it. After all, there’s a CAT in it – or there was and there will be. A cat named Shoestring and his person Cyril. Mustn’t forget Cyril, because he’s the one who catches Shoestring’s fish. When there ARE any fish, which is part of the problem.

Since George eats shoestrings (and sometimes even the shoes they’re attached to), so we’re ALL hoping he sleeps through this COVER REVEAL for Mariana Costa’s upcoming book Shoestring Theory. It’s about a mad king, a guilt-ridden mage, and a cat familiar who gives his life so his person gets off his duff and fixes things. Even if that fix needs to take them all back in time to a time before things went so horribly wrong that there are no fish left for Shoestring.

So here are Lucifer and Tuna, proudly displaying the complete, utterly gorgeous cover for Mariana Costa’s Shoestring Theory, coming on October 8, 2024 from Angry Robot Books. Preorder links are available HERE: https://angryrobotbooks.my.canva.site/shoestring-theory.

Just in case Lucifer’s implacable stare overwhelms the picture above, here’s a better picture – of the book cover at least!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to meet Shoestring!

A- #BookReview: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

A- #BookReview: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu KawaguchiBefore the Coffee Gets Cold (Before the Coffee Gets Cold, #1) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Narrator: Geoffrey Trousselot
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, relationship fiction, time travel
Series: Before the Coffee Gets Cold #1
Pages: 272
Published by Picador on September 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


What would you change if you could go back in time?

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer's, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . .
Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?

My Review:

We all have regrets. Things we wish we’d said or done differently. Words spoken in the heat of a moment that can’t be unsaid. Things we would have said or done if we’d known that this moment would be the last chance we’d ever have to say or do those things.

This book is a collection of stories, first in a series of such collections, that features a Potterverse-type Time Turner in the form of one single seat in a tiny Tokyo cafe. Just as in Harry Potter, the rules for turning back time are very specific.

The would-be time traveler can’t change the present, no matter what they or anyone else does in the past. Which is actually a rather limited slice of that past, as they can’t leave the cafe – they can’t even leave their seat – and they can only remain in the past for the length of time it takes for one cup of coffee to get cold – which they also must drink before it does.

Just getting the opportunity to try is a cautionary tale, as the seat they can’t leave is occupied nearly, but not quite, 24 hours a day by the ghost of a woman who didn’t follow all the rules. A solid ghost who will curse anyone who tries to move them forcibly but needs to get up and go to the bathroom once every day.

So the opportunities are very definitely limited. Which doesn’t stop people from trying, and even – occasionally – succeeding. After all, just because you can’t change the present – just as in the Potterverse you couldn’t change something that you already KNEW had happened – there is a loophole.

Just because you can’t change the present, it doesn’t mean that you can’t grab the opportunity for just a little bit of closure. And it absolutely doesn’t mean that having a second chance to say the right thing then doesn’t mean you can’t change the future that proceeds from now. Even if all you do is change a heart, that might very well be enough – even if it’s just your own.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up – in fact I bought the whole series so far – because I’ve enjoyed several books recently that used this one as a pattern; Days at the Morisaki Bookshop, The Kamogawa Food Detectives, and Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop. I’m also in the middle of listening to What You Are Looking For Is in the Library, which also follows a similar pattern.

Each book is a collection of several “slices of life” stories linked by a central theme or location, or even better, both. In each case, the protagonists of the individual stories are changed in some way by their interactions with the place and its proprietor(s), with each story having its own little catharsis while the framing story carries the reader from one to the next.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a lovely little collection – to the point where its easy to see why it started this trend.

In this particular case, the stories start out at a remove from the central characters. Nagare, Kazu and Kei own and run the little cafe, which has been in business for a century-plus and has been frustratingly popularized as the place where you can step back in time but only if you follow those pesky, persnickety rules to the letter.

The first time-travel ‘customer’ that we meet is a woman who broke up with her boyfriend in the cafe – and wants to take it all back a week later after he’s moved to America. They’re discouraging, she’s driven, we get a full explanation of the quirks of the operation, and she does her best to say the things she wished she’d said – and is pretty sure that she fumbled so much she just made things worse. But it’s enough to shift her future the tiniest bit and gives the reader the possibility of a happy ending.

What makes the collection as a whole work is that the remaining stories move the time travel further back and forwards in time, but step by step – or story by story – closer to the cafe’s proprietors and from that sweet possibility of a happy ending to something much closer to the bitterness of the coffee they serve. With just a hint of sugar to help the poignancy to go down.

These are comfort reads, in the sense that each story’s resolution, even if it isn’t exactly happy, provides the relief of closure, the possibility of change and a sense of catharsis and resolution. The stories are each charming and lovely in their own right and make a surprisingly harmonious whole.

I needed just this kind of comfort read this week and this ‘sad fluff’ book filled that niche perfectly. I’ll certainly be back for the next book in the series, Tales from the Cafe, the next time I have a taste for something just the right side of bittersweet.