Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnThe Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Perennial on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing debut novel offers an unusual twist on the legacy of one of the world's most celebrated and beloved authors: two researchers from the future are sent back in time to meet Jane and recover a suspected unpublished novel.
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.
 
 

My Review:

It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.

The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.

This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.

That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.

In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.

Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.

In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.

It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.

The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.

That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.

There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.

One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.

But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?

This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page.

Review: Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold + Giveaway

Review: Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold + GiveawayMira's Last Dance (Penric and Desdemona #4) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #4
Pages: 87
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on February 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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In this sequel to the novella “Penric’s Mission”, the injured Penric, a Temple sorcerer and learned divine, tries to guide the betrayed General Arisaydia and his widowed sister Nikys across the last hundred miles of hostile Cedonia to safety in the Duchy of Orbas. In the town of Sosie the fugitive party encounters unexpected delays, and even more unexpected opportunities and hazards, as the courtesan Mira of Adria, one of the ten dead women whose imprints make up the personality of the chaos demon Desdemona, comes to the fore with her own special expertise.

Fourth novella in the “Penric and Desdemona” series.

My Review:

Mira’s last dance is very nearly Penric’s undoing, and not in any of the ways that the reader, Penric, or his current companions might have originally thought.

Penric, as introduced in Penric’s Demon, is a Learned Divine of the Bastard’s Order. Lord Bastard is the “master of all disasters out of season” and one of the five gods who are worshiped in this world. While the Father, the Son, the Mother, the Daughter and the Bastard may be deities, do not mistake them for either theoretical or hands off types. They are real in this world, they can manifest to their worshipers (and sometimes to their doubters) and they perform real acts in and on the world.

Penric started on the road to becoming the man he is now by the agency of one of those unexpected disasters. One day on the road, ten years ago, he encountered a dying old woman far from any other assistance. When the old woman died, Penric was the only one around. And he found himself the host to Learned Ruchia’s chaos demon, making him suddenly both a Divine of the Lord Bastard, and a practicing sorcerer who needed a lot of practice.

His life has never been the same, but it certainly has been an adventure. Penric’s current circumstances are no different.

Mira’s Last Dance (the book) takes up immediately where Penric’s Mission, thoroughly off the rails, left off. Penric, along with the exiled General Adelis and Adelis’ widowed sister Nikys, are on their way from Cedonia to the neighboring country of Orban. They rightfully fear that agents of Cedonia are hot on their trail.

Penric’s original mission to whisk Adelis away from Cedonia to Adria has gone completely bust. Penric, his patron and Adelis were all in the midst of someone else’s machinations, and not to their benefit.

And poor Penric has fallen in love with Nikys. Nikys is caught in the middle between finally doing something that she wants to do, and continuing to do her duty by following and caring for, Adelis. Penric thinks he’s still trying to convince at least Nikys if not Adelis to change course for Adria. Mostly he’s trying to convince himself.

In the middle of all this mess the very motley trio is forced to go to ground in the small town of Sosie. Even more unfortunately, the only place that Penric can convince to take them in is a whorehouse with a very bad case of lice.

That’s where Mira comes in. And Desdemona. Desdemona is Penric’s chaos demon. Up until Penric, all of Desdemona’s 12 hosts have been female, although the lioness and mare don’t contribute much to Penric and Desdemona’s internal, and often heated, discussions. But one of those 10 women was Mira, a famous courtesan over a century ago. And when Penric needs to disguise all of them to get them out of town, it’s Mira the courtesan who comes to his rescue.

Leading him right into the arms of the general of the local military garrison, who can’t take no for an answer. And Nikys can’t decide whether she can live with what Penric has done to captivate the general – whatever that might be.

Penric may be in love with Nikys, and Nikys may be in love with Penric, but she just isn’t sure can live with him and all 12 of the voices in his head – or the things they drive him to do.

Escape Rating A-: My one complaint about this series is that each of the stories is just too short. I’m always left wanting more, and knowing it will be months before I get any.

As much as I enjoy Penric as a character, and I do very much, part of the fascination with this series is the number of very interesting issues that it manages to scoop up as it goes. This series is one of the very few in fantasy that deals with its internal theology without being preachy or judgmental. And while being very entertaining and still exploring complex questions of morality. Again, without being preachy in the slightest.

This particular entry in the series also delves a bit into both gender identity and people’s perceptions of it. Penric is, without a doubt, a cisgender (as we would term it today), heterosexual male. But the 10 discernible voices in his head, his demon, are or were all female. When he needs to play the part of the female courtesan, he lets them not just help him, but take over and direct his actions. Not because he can’t bear to play the woman, but because he just doesn’t know how.

We never do discover exactly how he kept that general entertained, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is everyone else’s reactions to Penric’s actions. And while Adelis feels the expected shudders at Penric’s expertise in pretending to be a woman, it’s Nikys reactions that matter to the story. And those reactions are quite interestingly nuanced.

Because the novellas in this series are short, it is easy to read them from the beginning. It’s also necessary, as the stories layer on top of one another, making the world, and Penric’s perspective of it, more complex as it goes.

Also, unlike the first two books in this series, Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman, the story in Mira’s Last Dance as well as Penric’s Mission which immediately preceded it, are not complete in themselves. Mira’s Last Dance comes to a reasonable break, but it doesn’t really feel like an ending. The action has paused, but there is so obviously more to come. I hope it comes soon.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

For the final day of my Blogo-Birthday week, I am giving away a copy of the complete (so far) Penric and Desdemona series to one lucky commenter. This series is ebook only, so the prize will come from either Amazon, or B&N. I have followers all over, so if you have a way to accept an ebook gift from one of those etailers, you are welcome to enter. And thank you for celebrating my Blogo-Birthday with me!

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Review: The Island Deception by Dan Koboldt + Giveaway

Review: The Island Deception by Dan Koboldt + GiveawayThe Island Deception by Dan Koboldt
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy
Series: Gateways to Alissia #2
Pages: 352
Published by Harper Voyager Impulse on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. But what happens after you step through a portal to another world, well…
For stage magician Quinn Bradley, he thought his time in Alissia was over. He’d done his job for the mysterious company CASE Global Enterprises, and now his name is finally on the marquee of one of the biggest Vegas casinos. And yet, for all the accolades, he definitely feels something is missing. He can create the most amazing illusions on Earth, but he’s also tasted true power. Real magic.
He misses it.
Luckily—or not—CASE Global is not done with him, and they want him to go back. The first time, he was tasked with finding a missing researcher. Now, though, he has another task:
Help take Richard Holt down.
It’s impossible to be in Vegas and not be a gambler. And while Quinn might not like his odds—a wyvern nearly ate him the last time he was in Alissia—if he plays his cards right, he might be able to aid his friends.

I loved last year’s The Rogue Retrieval, and when I finished it I found myself desperately hoping for a sequel that did not appear to be on the horizon. So when the author contacted me to request a review of that sequel I was hoping for but not expecting, I was all in.

Then I looked at the publication date and realized that introducing others to this world would make a perfect Blogo-Birthday giveaway, and the author and publisher graciously agreed. So first you’ll read a bit about what I loved about The Island Deception and the marvelous world of Alissia, and then you’ll have a chance to win a paperback of The Rogue Retrieval or ebooks of both The Rogue Retrieval and The Island Deception.

But first, my review…

The series title gives just a bit away. The Island Deception is the second book in the Gateways to Alissia, and that’s what this series is, gateway or portal fantasy. There is a gateway, or portal, between our post-industrial, non-magical world and pristine Alissia, which is seems to be just pre-industrial, (our 1600s or 1700s) and definitely magical.

Not just magical in the sense that everyone who travels through the gateway falls in love with the place and wants to stay, but also magical in the sense that magic works.

That’s where our hero comes in. Or came in for The Rogue Retrieval. Quinn Bradley is a stage magician in our world, who discovers in Alissia that the part he has been playing as a magician is surprisingly real. He may be a very late bloomer, but it looks like he might be a real mage. At least on Alissia.

He’s determined to get back there and find out. So when he gets called back to the gateway, this time he’s more than happy to go.

And CASE Global still needs him, because that rogue agent his group was supposed to retrieve in the the first book is still out there, and is gathering power at an astonishing rate. CASE Global’s original concern was that Richard Holt would reveal the existence of advanced technology, and contaminate the world they were studying.

Now it looks like he’s planning to do much more than that. It looks very like he has seized political control in Alissia for the express purpose of preventing CASE Global (and their competitor Raptor Tech) from using their advanced tech to take over Alissia and milk its resources for their own ends.

Or just fight over it until there’s nothing left to save. It doesn’t seem to matter to either of them. But it matters to Richard Holt quite a lot. And, as it turns out, to Quinn Bradley as well.

It looks like it’s time for everyone to decide whether someone else’s bad ends justify their own participation in horrible means, and figure out where their true loyalties lay.

Before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: I gave The Rogue Retrieval a B+, because as much as I really enjoyed the ride, the antecedents felt just a bit too clear for me to push it into the A’s. The Island Deception has done a much better job of melding its predecessors into a thing of its own. If you like any of what came before, you’ll like this too, but it also feels more like its own “whole” and not just the sum of its parts.

There’s still a lot of S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador in Alissia, but there are also significant differences. The high-tech world, our world, finds the less developed world in a much more primitive state than happens in Alissia. And the presence of people from the high-tech world is much more exploitative from the outset. It ends up being a place where exiles from our world go to practice deliberately exploitative forms of governance that have been overtly consigned to not the dustbin of history, but the garbage dumpster of history, here. Things like slavery. And apartheid. And the complete subjugation of women, natives, non-Christians and pretty much anyone with brown skin. Or any other color of skin than white.

Alissia, at least for most of our interaction with it, has been left alone to continue its native development, while it gets studied in depth by our world. That appears to be about to change, and could have been predicted to change from the very beginning, but it hasn’t happened yet, and could still be prevented.

The parallels between Alissia and L.E. Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio are much clearer in this book, particularly between the magician’s island on Alissia, The Enclave, and the Imager Collegium as portrayed in the latest Imager trilogy, beginning with Madness in Solidar. Alastor’s dilemma at the Collegium is very much the same as that of the head of The Enclave in Alissia. How does one provide a safe haven for a small but powerful population of magic users in a world where they are vastly outnumbered by mundanes who often fear or envy their powers? Is alliance with the powers that be safer than strict neutrality? And if so, what happens when the powers that be change their course? There are no easy answers, and Quinn Bradley finds himself caught in the middle between his desire to learn magic and his desire to protect his friends and comrades on both sides of the gateway.

Although there are other members of the team, the story rests on Quinn. Even though there are points where the action follows others and he is not present, it is his perspective that we return to, and his character that we know best – at least to the degree that Quinn knows himself. Quinn himself is a bit of a rogue, always sure that his glib tongue can get him out of any trouble. It’s only when both his glibness and his technology fail him that he is able to finally reach inside himself and find out what he is really made of.

But if you like your heroes touched with a spark (or snark) of anti-hero, Quinn is a gem. Whether he’s real or paste is anybody’s guess – sometimes even his own. I can’t wait to discover how Quinn’s adventure plays out (hopefully in The World Awakening next year), whichever side he decides he’s on.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

And now for that giveaway. Dan and Harper Voyager are letting me give away the winner’s choice of a paperback of The Rogue Retrieval or ebook copies of both The Rogue Retrieval and The Island Deception (Island isn’t out in paperback yet!). So it’s your choice whether you want to whet your appetite with that paperback or get caught up on all the action in Alissia with ebooks of both. Enjoy the ride!

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Review: Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster BujoldPenric's Mission (Penric and Desdemona #3) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #3
Pages: 145
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on November 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

In his thirtieth year, Penric fell in love with light…

Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Bastard’s Order, travels across the sea to sunlit Cedonia on his first covert diplomatic mission, to attempt to secure the services of a disaffected Cedonian general for the Duke of Adria. However, nothing is as it seems: Penric is betrayed and thrown into a dungeon, and worse follows for the general and his kin. Penric’s narrow escapes and adventures — including his interest in a young widow — are told with Bujold’s remarkable energy, wit and humor. Once again, Bujold has created unforgettable characters and a wondrous, often dangerous world of intrigue and sorcery. Third novella in the Penric and Desdemona series.

My Review:

This third novella in Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, itself a spinoff of her World of the Five Gods series (A.K.A. Chalion) is just as much fun as the first two books, Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman. If you are looking for a a deft fantasy that comes in a smaller than a doorstop package, Penric is a fascinating hero and this series is terrific.

Penric is actually Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Lord Bastard, the “master of all disasters out of season. And Penric’s mission in this story, and quite often his life in general, seems to consist of one unexpected disaster after another. It makes for a very wild and entertaining ride.

Penric thinks that he’s on a mission to discover if one of Cedonia’s greatest generals is willing to move to Adria and take up work for the Duke there. He wouldn’t be turning his coat in any way, Cedonia and Adria are not currently enemies, he would just be switching employers.

But Adelis has more enemies than even he believed, and Penric is being used. Even more so than usual. His arrival in Cedonia is all part of someone else’s plan to frame Adelis for treason and get both of them out of the picture. What happens to Penric is just collateral damage. But no one knows what Penric really is, that particular lack of attention on the part of those who are now both of their enemies is going to result in a nasty shock for someone – hopefully a lot of someones.

First Penric has to get Adelis, his sister Nikys, and himself out of the hole that has inconveniently dug for them, by making things very, very inconvenient for someone else. And by doing something that has never been done before – curing the blindness that was cruelly thrust upon Adelis to get him out of the way and make him pay for the plots that he wasn’t even a part of.

Yet. But he certainly is now.

All Penric has to do is get them all out of the country even though Adelis doesn’t trust him at all. And Nikys has come to trust him entirely too much. And vice-versa.

Escape Rating A: I loved the Chalion series, and this “extension” by Penric has been an absolutely treat from beginning to hopefully not end. The fourth book, Mira’s Last Dance, has just come out, and I truly hope this series continues.

You really do need to read all of Penric to get the full flavor of Penric’s life with his demon Desdemona. While each book is short, they layer on one another, getting deeper and deeper into Penric’s life and the way the world works with each outing. However, you don’t need to read the Chalion series to love Penric. But it’s awesome epic fantasy, so why wouldn’t you?

The story revolves around Penric and his demon Desdemona. If you like Penric’s character, the series is awesome because Penric is a lot of fun. Although his official title is “Learned Penric”, he sometimes answers to “Learned Fool” and it’s a pretty accurate description. Penric is always the fool that rushes in where angels or other beings rightfully fear to tread. So far, he always gets himself out again, if only by the skin of his, or even Desdemona’s, teeth. And generally by spreading a lot of chaos in his wake, and onto the local populations of vermin of all types – occasionally including humans.

Penric is terrific at not taking himself too seriously most of the time, and then just taking himself seriously enough. And while magic often gets him out of the scrapes he gets himself into, it’s never killing magic. Penric is constrained by his faith and his care for Desdemona not to use his magic to kill. His theology is well-articulated and absolutely fascinating, and it does work. If he kills using his magic, Desdemona will be stripped from him and sent back to the chaos from which she sprang. She would die, he would be excommunicated, and let’s just say it would be bad juju all the way around. Listening to Penric explain all of this to the general Adelis gives the reader a whole lot of insight into how it all works – and when it doesn’t.

He actually likes Desdemona. Most of the time, he doesn’t mind sharing his head with her. Occasionally she’s like an older sister he can’t get rid of, but he appreciates her and her 200 years of experience and power. Theirs is a symbiosis that works well. And even though they share Penric’s body, both characters are clearly delineated and different.

The story, as all of Penric’s stories so far, are about Penric solving a problem that he never expected to be dropped into. In this case, he’s not only solving his problem, but also Adelis and Nikys’ problems as well. And falling in love. Where that’s going to take him next should be another great story. And it’s a good thing that the next story is already out, because this one doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving the reader breathless for what comes next.

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mythology
Pages: 293
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.
Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman, difficult with his beard and huge appetite, to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.
Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review:

Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths should be required reading for anyone whose primary visions of Odin, Thor and Loki, derived primarily from Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as the author’s once were.

Thor wasn’t half that bright, and Loki wasn’t nearly so handsome, although he was every bit as tricksy, and as compelling.

On the one hand, these stories of ancient gods from a world long gone seem like they might have little relevance for the 21st century. At the same time, there’s Marvel Comics, which mined these myths for pure gold. As has every fantasy writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman himself.

These are the stories on which so much of modern literature (and TV and movies) are based, along with opera and many other forms of storytelling. These are the stories behind the stories.

Or at least what’s left of them. What we have, what the author has here to work with, are the written records of what was an oral tradition – stories told around the fire during the very long nights of almost endless winter, passed from skald to skald and mouth to ear, until they were finally compiled into the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, long after the Viking Age whose tales they tell.

At least in this rendition, what we have is a loose connection of short stories, that the author has strung together, like pearls on a string, into an episodic narrative from the beginnings of Yggdrasil to the end at Ragnarok.

And while they no longer invoke the awe that they once did, the Norse gods are still fantastic.

Escape Rating B+: This collection, or retelling, or reintroduction to the Norse myths should become a classic, right alongside Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It makes what often seemed like a conflicting collection of tales into a somewhat coherent whole, admittedly a whole like a slice of Swiss cheese, where some parts are missing, deliberately or otherwise.

But readers looking for Neil Gaiman’s particular voice in this collection will only find hints and snippets of it. These aren’t his stories, and that shows. But they are, undoubtedly, the inspiration for many of his best.

If you read American Gods and instantly recognized Mr. Wednesday, then you have already been exposed to these foundational tales, but this version is still definitely worth a read. If you didn’t see through Mr. Wednesday’s rather thin disguise, then you need to read this book before you dive into the upcoming series.

Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In 'American Gods' TV Series
Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In ‘American Gods’ TV Series

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve CogmanThe Burning Page (The Invisible Library, #3) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #3
Pages: 336
Published by Roc on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Librarian spy Irene and her apprentice Kai return for another “tremendously fun, rip-roaring adventure,” (A Fantastical Librarian) third in the bibliophilic fantasy series from the author of The Masked City.
 
Never judge a book by its cover...  Due to her involvement in an unfortunate set of mishaps between the dragons and the Fae, Librarian spy Irene is stuck on probation, doing what should be simple fetch-and-retrieve projects for the mysterious Library. But trouble has a tendency of finding both Irene and her apprentice, Kai—a dragon prince—and, before they know it, they are entangled in more danger than they can handle...   Irene’s longtime nemesis, Alberich, has once again been making waves across multiple worlds, and, this time, his goals are much larger than obtaining a single book or wreaking vengeance upon a single Librarian. He aims to destroy the entire Library—and make sure Irene goes down with it.   With so much at stake, Irene will need every tool at her disposal to stay alive. But even as she draws her allies close around her, the greatest danger might be lurking from somewhere close—someone she never expected to betray her...

My Review:

invisible library by genevieve cogman us editionThe Burning Page isn’t coming out until tomorrow, but THIS was the book I wanted to read over the weekend. And I’m glad I did.

Irene is a representative of the Library. That Library, and her missions for it, are described in the first madcap book in the series, The Invisible Library. The Library binds all the worlds of the multiverse together in invisible chains, linking all of them to Library, to reality, and to each other in a powerful and symbiotic weave.

The various worlds exist on a loose continuum between total order and absolute chaos, and the Library exists to preserve the balance, attempting to make sure that neither faction ever gains complete ascendancy.

This isn’t purely altruistic, or purely in the pursuit of power. Living beings, particularly living humans, need a bit of both to survive and thrive. Humans do best in those worlds that are somewhere around the midpoint. Worlds that are too orderly fall into tyranny and stagnation, to the point where even the avatars of order, the dragons, cannot survive in them. Likewise, worlds of complete chaos, the realms of the fae, are also anathema to humans, who become mere puppets of the most powerful fae and have no wills, lives or identities of their own. They are all supernumeraries in other beings’ dramas. Even the fae need at least a tiny bit of order, even if it is only the framework provided by the stories they act out.

Neither is a good way to live. At least if you are human. And the Librarians, at least so far, are all human.

masked city by genevieve cogmanIrene, on probation after the events in The Masked City, is still the Librarian-in-Residence on the chaos-tinged world where Peregrine Vale exists as the local avatar of the “Great Detective” in a London shared with fae and werewolves, and where zeppelins navigate pea-soupers that never quite thin.

Irene’s apprentice Kai, the dragon who would be a Librarian, is there with her. But who is mentoring whom, and who is protecting whom, is always a point of negotiation.

Meanwhile, Irene is being hunted by the rogue Librarian-turned-chaos-agent Alberich, who hopes to recruit Irene and replace the Library with a chaotic institution of his own invention. Alberich wants power, and Irene wants stability. Or so she thinks.

What she has discovered is a taste for adventure – and it might be the death of her and all she holds dear – if she can’t manage to be adventurous enough.

Escape Rating A-: The wild ride begun in The Invisible Library continues with death-defying adventures that span from a too-orderly Imperial Russia to a werewolf den under Irene’s own London. She is kidnapped, drugged, jailed and very nearly seduced, always jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

If you like your adventure as a series of disaster-defying feats of derring-do (with occasional forays into politics and idiocy) this series is an absolute winner from beginning to end. But start at the beginning, not just for the setup, but because the roots of the story here in The Burning Page were planted in the first two books, and are just coming into bloom in this one.

There’s a lot going on in this story, as there is in all of the books in this series so far. The action pauses only briefly, and then just to lay down potential plots for the next books. Not to mention potential plotting in this one.

While The Burning Page is a story where all the chickens from the previous books in the series come home to roost, it also further the develops the strange and often strained relationship between Irene, Kai and Vale. No, we’re not at a threesome. We’re also, thank goodness, not in a love triangle. Kai, as a dragon, wants to protect Irene. As much as he cares for her, he is still having a difficult time recognizing that while protecting her would make him feel better, it would make her either run far and fast or become something and someone she has no desire to be. It would be a negation of her essential self. On that other hand, Irene took her nom-de-guerre because she has an understandable fascination with Sherlock Holmes analogs. How much of what she feels for Vale has to do with him, and how much with who is resembles is not something that she is able to resolve.

She is also a person who has generally preferred the company of books to people, and while her people skills are rusty, she is making her way along as her worldview markedly changes. She is supposed to care for the Library above all, and is discovering that perspective altered.

lost plot by genevieve cogmanPersonally, I think she’s finally figured out that a good job won’t love you back, but we’ll see how that turns out in future books.

But the bloom is definitely not off this rose. While chaos has not, and never can be, defeated, its current schemes have been temporarily put into abeyance by the end of The Burning Page. I was very happy to discover that there will be more to come in future books, even if we have to wait a bit. The next chronicle of Irene’s adventures, The Lost Plot, can’t be found soon enough!

Guest Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

Guest Review: Dreadnought by April DanielsDreadnought (Nemesis, #1) by April Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, young adult
Series: Nemesis #1
Pages: 276
Published by Diversion Publishing on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of the world's greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, she was trying to keep people from finding out she's transgender. But then her second-hand superpowers transformed her body into what she's always thought it should be. Now there's no hiding that she's a girl.
It should be the happiest time of her life, but between her father's dangerous obsession with curing her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he's entitled to date her, and the classmate who is secretly a masked vigilante, Danny's first weeks living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined.
She doesn't have much time to adjust. Dreadnought's murderer, a cyborg named Utopia, still haunts the streets of New Port City. If Danny can't sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.

A few weeks ago, Marlene happened into my message box with a brief “I have a book you might like.” When she told me it was a young-adult transgender superhero story, well, that was that. Off to the races. She knows darn well I can’t turn away a story with a transgender character!

Guest review by Amy:

Trans teens who feel they have to hide it–for any reason–have it tough, both in our present, and in the world author April Daniels builds for us. Danny Tozer has been hiding it for some time; her parents think she’s a boy, but she’s not. Her one guilty pleasure is painted toenails, and one fine afternoon she’s painting her toenails in a hidey-hole near the mall, when a superhero battle happens nearby. One of the finest heroes of his time, Dreadnought, is slain, and falls to the ground near Danny, and his mantle passes to her. She wakes soon after, stunned to find herself with the body she’s always dreamed of living in.

What follows is a fun, engaging adventure story, complete with all the bells and whistles: a suitably nasty villain, a newfound sidekick friend, a well-organized “cape” community taken aback by this upstart youngster, and a little bit of almost-comic treatment of our heroine’s parents, who simply cannot accept that their child has been suddenly placed in a young woman’s body, and could possibly be happy about it. She has to sneak away from them to spend time exploring her new powers and body, and spends time being heroic with her new sidekick Calamity, who turns out to be a classmate of hers from high school. Soon, they are hot on the trail of the previous Dreadnought’s killer, and discover that her nefarious grand plan must be stopped!

Escape Rating: A-. Underneath the rollicking adventure, of course, is a coming-into-your-own story for our young heroine, now calling herself Danielle. She has to cope with parents who blindly cannot accept what is right in front of their faces, insisting that they want to help her set things “right,” to become the man she’s supposed to be. If her abusive father’s rantings weren’t such a one-note song, it would be almost comic. But there’s a very un-funny part to this, too. For many trans youth, this kind of treatment is an unfortunate reality, and transkids in our universe don’t have superhero work to fall back on!

Danielle also has to cope with the Legion Pacifica, the organization of superheroes in New Port City. They must come to grips with the loss of their friend, who was a great hero, and at the same time, help this newcomer who holds his mantle understand her powers, and learn to use them for good. One member is simply unaccepting of Danielle’s transgender status, and insists on calling her by her old name and pronouns. Again, here we have a case of art imitating life, as transpeople in our universe have to deal with the same thing just about all the time.

Author April Daniels gives us a peek into the life of a trans youth that rings completely true, so I was unsurprised to discover that she is herself a transwoman. This authenticity is something I find too-often missing in fiction about transgender people, so Daniels’ work is a refreshing, beautiful change. She handles Danielle’s gender transition, and her coming into herself as a lesbian, with a straightforward, simple style without being lurid in any way. The story is completely appropriate for any YA reader, and I would give it a strong recommendation for any LGBTQ youth in your own life, as it shows a teen who is more like them, dealing with some of the same struggles they are–while still giving us a just-plain-fun power-up fantasy.

One down note for me was the treatment of Danielle’s struggle with her parents. I would have liked to see some closure to that. At the end of the book, there’s still something left hanging there–she’s not reconciled to them, nor have they completely shut her out. Perhaps that story will be completed in the upcoming sequel, which I’m looking forward to seeing!

Review: The Edge of the Blade by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Edge of the Blade by Jeffe KennedyThe Edge of the Blade (The Uncharted Realms #2; The Twelve Kingdoms #5) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Uncharted Realms #2, Twelve Kingdoms #5
Pages: 400
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on December 27th 2016
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A HAWK S PLEDGE "The Twelve Kingdoms rest uneasy under their new High Queen, reeling from civil war and unchecked magics. Few remember that other powers once tested their borders until a troop of foreign warriors emerges with a challenge . . ." Jepp has been the heart of the queen s elite guard, her Hawks, since long before war split her homeland. But the ease and grace that come to her naturally in fighting leathers disappears when battles turn to politics. When a scouting party arrives from far-away Dasnaria, bearing veiled threats and subtle bluffs, Jepp is happy to let her queen puzzle them out while she samples the pleasures of their prince s bed. But the cultural norms allow that a Dasnarian woman may be wife or bed-slave, never her own leader and Jepp s light use of Prince Kral has sparked a diplomatic crisis. Banished from court, she soon becomes the only envoy to Kral s strange and dangerous country, with little to rely on but her wits, her knives and the smolder of anger and attraction that burns between her and him . . .

My Review:

talon of the hawk by jeffe kennedyWhat makes Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series so awesome is the way that all of her heroines have incredible amounts of agency, whether they are supposed to or not. And the way that often very nontraditional women manage to make their own way in the world without giving away that agency or resulting in what is considered stereotypical feminine behavior.

Jepp is no exception to those rules. She is a scout, spy, warrior, occasional assassin and general all-around knife-wielding badass. She has lived her life entirely by her own rules, rules which include giving her service to someone she respects, specifically High Queen Ursula of the Thirteen Kingdoms. And Jepp goes where her queen sends her.

Specifically in this case, Jepp has been sent to the Kingdom of Dasnaria as Ambassador. Saying that Jepp is an interesting choice is an extreme understatement. Possibly to the point of extreme sarcasm.

Dasnarians take the belief that a woman’s place is in the house, and only in the house, to its own extreme. Women live in seraglios, separate from men. They have absolutely no rights, no agency, and are believed to have no desires except to please and to serve. And of course this is far, far from so, even in their own kingdom where the men enforce all the rules.

The Thirteen Kingdoms fly in the face of all of those assumptions. Ursula is High Queen, and she rules her kingdoms. She is not the figurehead the Dasnarians assume she must be. She is also not ruled from behind her throne by her consort Harlan, an exile from the Dasnarian royal family.

The Dasnarians believe that Ursula was stupid, or short-sighted, or typically female in some other way, to send a woman as ambassador. Woman are not even SEEN in the Dasnarian court.

But Jepp is no typical ambassador, and Ursula knew exactly what she was doing when she sent her best scout to hide in plain sight, spy out her enemies and possibly even suborn the King of Dasnaria’s brother.

After all, if one woman of the Thirteen Kingdoms can sway a died-in-the-wool men’s rights activist from the error of his ways, why can’t another? And if Jepp can locate her Queen’s worst enemies along the way, so much the better.

Until it very nearly turns out to be so much the worse.

Escape Rating B+: I love Jepp as the heroine. She is incredibly awesome, and also completely unapologetic about who and what she is. And that’s very much her strength.

When Prince Kral arrived in the Thirteen Kingdoms searching for his brother Harlan, Jepp treated him exactly like any other man who grabbed her attention. They had one night of very, very mutually enjoyable sex, and then went their separate ways. Or so Jepp thought.

A big part of this story is Jepp and Kral negotiating a relationship that frustrates both of them in more ways than one, and that neither expected at all. Jepp saw Kral as a merely an excellent one-night stand, with no apologies, no remorse and absolutely no slut-shaming whatsoever. Jepp likes sex, and is not interested in commitments.

Women in Dasnaria do not act that way. Frankly, women in Dasnaria don’t seem to act at all, at least as far as the men can see. Kral has zero experience with a woman who takes her pleasure where she finds it, expects nothing in return, and has absolutely no need or desire for his protection or his financial support or anything else that he thinks women are supposed to want. He thinks their night together means a contract, and that Jepp is now his bed-slave for as long as he wants her to be.

Jepp is a free woman. She tells him so, she shows him so and she demonstrates that it is so. And she is perfectly capable of defending herself, thank you very much. It takes the entire voyage from the Thirteen Kingdoms to Drasnaria, and a rather long voyage it is, for Kral to figure out that Jepp is exactly who and what she claims to be, and that he actually likes a woman who is his equal. Jepp makes him feel, in ways that he was not expecting. More importantly, Jepp makes him think that a whole shipload of his assumptions about women, and possibly other things, have been completely wrong.

pages of the mind by jeffe kennedyJepp did not expect to be the ambassador. That was supposed to be Dafne’s job. But Dafne got caught up in Kral’s machinations in the Kingdom of Nahanau, as related in The Pages of the Mind. So Jepp, who feels that she would have been much more capable of guarding the ambassador than being the ambassador, is now stuck with a job that she does not feel suited for.

And the early parts of the book drag a bit, as Jepp loses some of her agency while stuck on the ship, indulging in a bit of a pity party. Once she, and the story, reach Dasnaria she gets her agency back with a vengeance, not in spite of her perceived shortcomings as an ambassador, but in many ways because of them. She is incapable of being what she is not, which means she is incapable of seeming meek and subservient and what the Dasnarians consider typically female. She sets the court on its ear.

She also shakes up the seraglio, and wins over the women of the court, who wield a much different type of power than the men recognize – but it is power all the same. Watching Jepp demonstrate all the things that a woman can be if she sets her mind to it, and the way that she navigates the court, often by running uphill and against the wind, is awesome.

She even manages to teach Kral that there is much, much more to life than power and the pursuit of it. Especially in a place where the fish has rotted from the head very, very far down.

Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika JohansenThe Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #3) by Erika Johansen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Queen of the Tearling #3
Pages: 496
Published by Harper on November 29th 2016
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The thrilling conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Tearling trilogy.
In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has transformed from a gawky teenager into a powerful monarch. As she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, the headstrong, visionary leader has also transformed her realm. In her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies—including the evil Red Queen, her fiercest rival, who has set her armies against the Tear.
To protect her people from a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable—she gave herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy—and named the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, Regent in her place. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign, imprisoned in Mortmesne.
Now, as the suspenseful endgame begins, the fate of Queen Kelsea—and the Tearling itself—will finally be revealed.

My Review:

queen of the tearling by erika johansenThis was awesome. As is the entire trilogy, starting with The Queen of the Tearling and moving right through The Invasion of the Tearling. If you like epic fantasy with a touch of SF, get thee hence and pick up Queen right now. This series is perfectly sized for holiday week binging.

At the beginning of the saga, back in Queen, it seemed as if this was pure epic fantasy. Starting in Invasion and particularly in this final book, we see where the story has its roots in SF. Somehow, in ways that are deliberately not made clear, the ancestors of the Tearling made their way from a near-future dystopian Earth to Tear. And deliberately turned their backs on late 21st or early 22nd technology in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

Kelsea, physically locked in captivity by the Red Queen of Mortmesne, takes a psychic journey back down through the timeline to see the origins of that long-ago utopia. While Kelsea is looking through the eyes of young Katie Rice three centuries ago, she sees William Tear’s dream of a perfect world die inch by inch, in ways that still have consequences all these generations later.

The problem with attempting to create a perfect world is that the people who populate it are never perfect. Not because they don’t try, but because people simply aren’t, even when they are not deliberately evil. Not that THAT isn’t a factor as well.

Kelsea starts out the story wanting to save her kingdom. She discovers that in order to save her kingdom, she must save the world. In the end, she can’t even manage to save herself.

And yet she does. And she doesn’t.

Escape Rating A: It takes a while for this final book to build to its epic, and thought-provoking, conclusion. As Fate opens, Kelsea is imprisoned, and has no freedom of action. She’s also not thinking too clearly.

Much of the first half of the book is carried by other characters – lots of other characters. The perspective and point of view switch often, and at first it’s just a bit jarring. The reader just has a grasp of one thread when the perspective switches to someone else at a different place, and sometimes at a different time.

Some of those perspectives are obvious – Kelsea’s regent back in the Tearling, the Red Queen in Mortmesne, various other leaders. But some are down among the rank and file, as we see a “lower-decks” version of the ways in which the world is falling apart, and the ways that everyone is using to even attempt to keep it together. Along with the ones who just don’t give a damn.

And the most important perspective of all, besides Kelsea’s in the present, is Katie’s in the past, at the beginning of the Tearling. While we begin with Katie as a child, as she grows up she sees the colony change from what seems like almost a working utopia to a god-bothered, fear-obsessed, evil theocracy. And that’s what survived to Kelsea’s present and has helped to make the current mess into the giant clusterfuck it now is. And there doesn’t seem to be any way in the present to save the day.

But in the view of the past, there is a whole lot being said about the way that the world, any world, works and doesn’t. It’s not difficult for the reader to draw parallels from the Tearling to 21st century America. Which is also a way of coming full circle, as it’s the results of our NOW that the Tear colonists fled which begins Kelsea’s entire saga.

And the implications of all of that will keep you thinking long after you turn the final page.

Reviewer’s Note: The way that The Fate of the Tearling manages its end reminds me strongly of Inherit the Stars by Laurie A. Green, with its choices about extreme means justifying shattering ends, and who does and doesn’t pay the price. If the ending of The Fate of Tearling leaves you gasping, and you want more with a similar heart-stopping and thought-provoking affect, pick up Inherit the Stars for a purely science fictional twist on some of the same results.

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Review: Demons of the Flame Sea by Jean Johnson

Review: Demons of the Flame Sea by Jean JohnsonDemons of the Flame Sea by Jean Johnson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Flame Seas #2
Pages: 112
Published by Penguin on November 15th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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The second thrilling Flame Sea novel from the national bestselling author known as “a must-read for those who enjoy fantasy and romance” (The Best Reviews).  Raised to understand and control advanced magics, the Fae Rii know they must be careful with the wild, abundant energies of their new desert homeland. They must also downplay the awe they inspire in the Bronze Age humans around them. Still, they have managed to create some equilibrium between the two factions, primitive versus advanced—at least, until new outworlders arrive, tipping the scales out of balance.   Strict and power-hungry, the ruthless Efrijt take the phrase “deal with the devil” to a new level. A treaty may be possible; however, the solution proposed will in turn give birth to a new problem: A chaos that will dance its way through all three races trying to survive in the burning heat of the Flame Sea…
  Includes an exclusive preview of the next Flame Sea novel, Gods of the Flame Sea
Praise for Jean Johnson   “Johnson’s writing is fabulously fresh, thoroughly romantic, and wildly entertaining.”—Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author   “A fresh new voice in fantasy romance, Jean Johnson spins an intriguing tale of destiny and magic.”—Robin D. Owens, RITA Award–winning author

My Review:

dawn of the flame sea by jean johnsonThis is the book that Dawn of the Flame Sea should have been. When my friend Lou and I reviewed Dawn of the Flame Sea over at The Book Pushers, we complained that the book was all set up and no delivery – meaning that although there was lots, plenty, positively oodles of worldbuilding – not a damn thing happened. We both like solid worldbuilding in our fantasy and SF romance, but there also needs to be some there, well, there. All that worldbuilding needs to lead to some world unbuilding, in one way or another.

In Demons of the Flame Sea, we finally get to experience what happens on that world that was so solidly (and occasionally stolidly) built. And now it all begins to make sense. And feel worthwhile.

The set up in Dawn of the Flame Sea showed us an advanced civilization from somewhere “out there”, the Fae Rii, literally Fair Traders, who come through an interplanetary gateway to start a settlement on the planet of the Flame Sea. Instead of having the chance to sit back and observe the local Bronze Age natives, they are witnessed the minute they come through the gate, and the cat is out of the bag.

The Fae Rii, led by the Healer Jintaya, settle in the Flame Sea. They bring peace and prosperity, as well as a certain amount of enhanced technology, to the local tribes and clans. They also interbreed with the locals – the Fae Rii find the local humans quite attractive, and very much vice versa. There are lots of children, all raised cooperatively. It seems like a little bit of paradise.

Demons of the Flame Sea takes place 40 years after the end of Dawn. The Fae Rii are very long-lived, so they have not changed much physically. Nor has the one outworlder they brought with them, the man called Ban, a word that means Death in the local languages. Ban’s name is both fitting and ironic. He is a warrior without peer, and very efficiently brings death to any enemies of the Fae Rii, especially anyone who thinks of attacking Jintaya. But Ban is also immortal, so while he deals death to others, he comes back from it himself, over and over and over.

At the beginning of Demons, Ban has been on walkabout for many years, surveying the lands around the Flame Sea. On his way back, he discovers that another group of outworlders has opened a gateway onto this planet. The Efrijit are the opposite of the Fae Rii. Where the Fae Rii trade fairly with their friends and neighbors, the Efrijit always observe the letter of any contracts strictly, and make sure those contracts are written in their favor. Where the Fae Rii are benevolent, the Efrijit are self-serving. They are not particularly warlike, but they are very exploitative. The difference in philosophy between the two cultures is extreme.

The conflict in Demons of the Flame Sea is about both the conflict between these opposing forces and the negotiating of contracts and the jockeying for position between them, with all of the local humans in both spheres of influence caught very much in the middle. Those negotiations are protracted, legalistic, and still fascinating, as the two philosophies battle not with force of arms, but with force of words. It will make readers remember the famous Shakespeare quote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Escape Rating B+: I liked this one SO MUCH better than Dawn, it’s almost impossible to believe it’s the same series from the same author. Demons reads like the Jean Johnson I know and love, where Dawn was completely and atypically meh.

So, while the worldbuilding is important in Dawn, there’s a rather large glossary at the beginning of Demons. Read the glossary and skip Dawn, unless you are a compulsive completist or a glutton for punishment. There was so little significant action in Dawn that what there is is easily recapped within the pages of Demons.

While there isn’t a whole lot of action in the action/adventure sense in Demons, there is plenty of conflict. The tension between the Fae Rii and the Efrijit is integral to the plot. Their philosophies are so opposed, it is kind of amazing that both sides try very hard not to come to actual blows.

The ways that the Fae Rii explain to their own adherents just how damaging the nature of the Efrijit can be make for a fascinating and still very readable philosophical discussion, and there aren’t many of those in SF and fantasy.

gods of the flame sea by jean johnsonWe also see the slow warming of what will eventually become a romance between Ban and Jintaya. Ban is immortal and Jintaya is extremely long-lived. They have all the time in the universe to work their way towards an emotional and physical partnership, and it looks like they plan to take it. It’s a very different way of writing a romance, but it works well in this instance.

The story ends on multiple cliffhangers. The Fae Rii and the Efrijit have worked out a means of coexisting, and are essentially kicking the can of who will control the planet down the road. I expect the continuation of that story and their conflict to be resolved in book 3 in this series, Gods of the Flame Sea.