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

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson BennettThe Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #2
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.
Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview: That Time I Got Drunk and Yeeted a Love Potion at a Werewolf by Kimberly Lemming

#BookReview: That Time I Got Drunk and Yeeted a Love Potion at a Werewolf by Kimberly LemmingThat Time I Got Drunk and Yeeted a Love Potion at a Werewolf (Mead Mishaps, 2) by Kimberly Lemming
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, romantasy
Series: Mead Mishaps #2
Pages: 288
Published by Orbit on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Cheesemaker Brie has the world’s worst luck in love, which is how she ends up falling for a lactose intolerant werewolf, in this raunchy, laugh-out-loud rom-com fantasy by the genre’s freshest new voice, Kimberly Lemming.

Brie’s never been particularly coordinated…or lucky. Who else would accidentally throw a drink at someone’s head only to miss entirely and hit a stranger behind them? And who else would have that stranger fall madly in love with them because it turns out that the drink she threw was a love potion? Yeah, probably just Brie.…

Running her cheese business and dealing with a pirate ship full of demons that just moved into town was hard enough. Now on top of it, she has to convince a werewolf that she’s not really his fated mate. Though even she’s got to admit…having a gorgeous man show up and do all her chores while telling her she’s beautiful isn’t the worst thing to happen to a girl.

My Review:

Unlike Cin in the first book in the Mead Mishaps series, That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon, Brie wasn’t quite THAT drunk, and she wasn’t even aiming at the werewolf. She caught him anyway, and thereby, quite literally, hangs a tail.

The tail that Felix, the werewolf of the title, can’t stop himself from wagging whenever Brie is anywhere near him – at least when he’s furry. There are plenty of other things bobbing and weaving when she’s around when he’s NOT furry.

But is obviously still very, very happy to see her.

I just started in the middle, didn’t I? That’s actually kind of apropos, as That Time I Got Drunk and Yeeted a Love Potion at a Werewolf is the second or even more on point, the middle book in the Mead Mishaps series that began with That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon.

Back to Brie, drinking at the local watering hole in Boohail, fending off the smarmy, amorous and utterly clueless advances of one of the local get-rich-quick-scheme types who’s after her for her small plot of land and not for any of her other abundant assets.

A man who won’t take “no” for an answer in the most teeth-grinding and utterly self-absorbed way possible. (I thought at this point we had a possible ‘Gaston’ situation here, but he’s not quite that bad and certainly can’t convince nearly enough people to form a mob to come after anyone with torches and pitchforks – otherwise one of his get rich quick schemes would have worked and he might not be pursuing Brie.) He’s just the unfortunately all too common variety of male who is certain that if he hears a woman say ‘no’ in his general direction that he must have misunderstood – or that she must be misunderstanding herself.

Unfortunately, we ALL know the type.

So he goes out and buys a love potion – does his damndest to get Brie to take it and drink it – and she’s had enough. Up to HERE and over it, and yeets the disgustingly pink potion (think Pepto-Bismol pink because I certainly did) across the room, intending it to hit the asshole in the face.

He ducks, the love potion hits Pirate Werewolf Felix in the face, and we’re back to the hanging – and or wagging – of that tail again.

Because the love potion works, dammit. Felix falls instantly in love with Brie. Which is GREAT because he really is everything that other guy thinks he is. With a cherry on top. Felix is the fulfillment of every single one of Brie’s not so secret yearnings.

What he’s not, or not exactly, or Brie isn’t nearly so certain as Felix is about the whole thing, is consenting. He says he’s imprinted and that Brie is his true, fated, mate, while she says he’s under the influence of a potion and CAN’T really consent and can’t possibly be sure whether she’s his mate or not. He says he is but she doesn’t want to be abandoned again and they’re both trying to be oh-so-damned noble about the whole thing.

Which is when unattached females in Boohail start disappearing and Felix has to do his best and his damndest – and he’s certainly capable of both at the same time – to get Brie as attached to him as he is to her and as permanently as possible.

Of course it’s too late for that. All the way around.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up because DAMN the first book was so much fun that I couldn’t resist collecting the set. (Which means I’ll be reviewing the third book in the series, That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Human, sometime in March.)

On the one hand, it’s hard to worry about spoilers with this series, because the titles do generally give the first part of the game away. In that first book, Cin really does get blind drunk and accidentally save a demon.

It turns out that Cin didn’t just save one demon – she saved ALL the demons. And helped a bunch of those demons to take over a pirate ship. And kill a goddess who was really just a different kind of demon in disguise imprisoning ALL the demons and leeching magic from all the humans.

It was a GREAT gig until Cin and Company spoiled it for her. It’s also where this second entry in the series picks up and runs away with the story – and not in any of the directions that first seem obvious. Which, come to think of it, is EXACTLY the way things worked out the first time around!

And just like in the previous book, and just as much fun as that first time around, this second cozy fantasy with sexytimes combines (frequently and often but not nearly as frequently and often as either Felix or Brie REALLY want) two tastes that go really GREAT together. There’s a surprisingly sweet romance between a girl who wants to do the right thing even if kills her and a werewolf who is sure that what they are doing IS the right thing if only she’d stop worrying about the love potion – at least right up until the point he realizes that he really, Really, REALLY should have worried a bit more about the love potion. And on the other hand, the need to foil a terrible plot to fill the worldwide vacancy in the deity department with a new face slapped on the same old trickster.

Mead Mishaps is the kind of lighthearted cozy fantasy romance to read when you’re just looking for a good reading time and to finish the last page with a smile on your face because it’s just a whole lot of fun. That the fun conceals a more fully-fledged than expected fantasy behind the gauzy but transparent curtains of its romance and sexytimes is just icing on an already delicious cake. A cake that foodie Cin would bake with oodles of cinnamon – of course – while Brie might prefer a cheese wheel. But it’s the thought that counts, after all.

I’m looking forward to one more trip to Boohail next month with That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Human. Because so far this series has managed to tickle both my sweet tooth and my funny bone and I’m happy to be coming back for one more round!

Grade A #BookReview: Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster Bujold

Grade A #BookReview: Demon Daughter by Lois McMaster BujoldDemon Daughter (Penric and Desdemona #12) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #12
Pages: 153
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A six-year-old shiplost girl draws the kin Jurald family of Vilnoc into complex dilemmas, and sorcerer Learned Penric and his Temple demon Desdemona into conflict—with each other. It will take all of Penric’s wits, his wife Nikys’s wisdom, and the hand of the fifth god’s strangest saint to untangle the threads of their future.

My Review:

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Seanan McGuire
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #5
Pages: 189
Length: 3 hours and 52 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.
Again.

My Review:

I’ve been winding my way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series for nearly three years now, since I first read Every Heart a Doorway back in early 2021. I’ve skipped around through the series and had both a grand and a thoughtful time each and every time I’ve returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Clearly, you don’t have to read the series in order to get into it. Although it probably does help to read that first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. And possibly, in this particular case, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before this one. But now I’m caught up with the whole thing, even though this particular book happens very much in the middle of the series.

All of that is to say that some of this review is bound to reflect my thoughts on the series as a whole because it’s just now whole for me, as well as this entry in the series in particular.

You have been warned.

Much as Jacqueline Wolcott warns her friends at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children just before they follow her through the lightning-keyed door back to her home, the horror-movie hellscape called ‘The Moors’.

A place where EVERYTHING is ruled by science and powered by lightning, where vampires contend with mad scientists and resurrection is as commonplace as blood, where Frankenstein’s monster would be seen as just another citizen – and quite possibly was.

Jack is in dire straits when she returns to the school, and she needs the help of the only friends she can trust to see that, in spite of appearances, she’s still Jack even though she’s in her twin sister Jill’s body. They are the only people who know her well enough to understand that her OCD will not allow her to just adapt to living her life in the unclean thing that murdered her mentor – even if Jill’s full, entire, complete and utterly nefarious plot is to destroy both her sister Jack and the balance that keeps The Moors relatively safe and functional for the human population that was born to a world where vampires contend with mad scientists and drowned gods prey upon ships and shorelines, where the sun only rises behind thick clouds and lightning storms happen whenever the Moon wills it so.

Jack needs help, so she’s gone to the one place where she knows she can get it. Even if it’s the one place she hoped never to return to, because it means that she’ll have to do the one thing she hoped she’d never have to do.

She’ll have to kill her twin sister. Again. She already did it once to save the world she was born to. She’ll have to do it again so that she can save the world that her heart calls home.

Escape Rating A-: The Wayward Children series winds itself around and around and back and forth and over and under and all over again. We first met the Wolcott twins in the very first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, but we don’t get their full story until the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, while book three, Beneath the Sugar Sky, deals with the effects of their actions in Every Heart a Doorway.

(After listening to the latest book in this series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, and liking it very much, I decided to grab this middle book in audio as well – although the readers are very different. The author herself narrates this story, as she did the previous books that featured the Wolcott sisters. McGuire has a formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense delivery that is utterly fitting for the formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense Jack Wolcott. Audiobooks just work better when the narrator fits the primary character’s voice and the author/narrator fit Jack to a ‘T’, even when Jack felt like she wasn’t fitting her own self very well at all.)

Come Tumbling Down is still dealing with the effects of Jill’s actions. Which have been the kind of actions that make her behavior and her very nature in this book make all that much more sense. As much as anything that happens in any of the worlds that the doors lead to make sense from the perspective of this world.

From the perspective of their own worlds, they are completely logical. Unless of course they are nonsense worlds to begin with.

One of the core tenets of the whole, entire, Wayward Children series, something that is said by one character or another over the course of the series, is that “actions have consequences”. This particular entry in the series is the story of the consequences of Jill’s actions in The Moors, which were the consequences of Jill’s actions in our world and Jack’s response to those actions, which were, in their turn, a consequence of both of their reactions when they found their door to The Moors. All of which were the consequences of their parents’ treatment and conditioning of them when they were still under their parents’ thumbs and had never gone through a doorway at all.

But that’s EXACTLY the kind of cause and effect that underpins this whole series. Which feels like it is set as a counterpoint to Narnia, where the Pevensie children went through the back of a wardrobe and lived an entire life to adulthood without their actions seeming to have had any consequences at all when they returned to the world they were born to.

As a result of their trips through the doors, the children return ill-adapted to the world where they were born. But that’s in the story. In reality – for certain select definitions of the word – what they exhibit upon their returns are psychological disorders that people are all too frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as having for reasons that have more to do with either parental or medical or societal assumptions and/or expectations than they do with what the people coping or not coping are coping or not coping with.

Which is a long way around to say that there’s more to this series than initially meets either the eye or the reader’s mind. Now that I’ve finished the whole thing – at least so far – the whole thing gets deeper and more meaningful the further you get into it, no matter the order that you get into it in.

So, on the surface there’s a story about vampires and mad scientists set in a place that the great horror movies might have used for their inspiration – if not their actual setting. Underneath that there’s a deeper story about balances of power and how devastating it can be when those balances become unbalanced. And the story of one heroine who is willing to throw her own body into the breach – along with her sister’s corpse – to preserve that balance at truly any and every cost.

At its heart – beating with the power of unbridled electricity – there’s a love story about a young woman who fell so much in love with a monster and the world that created her that she was willing to do anything at all to preserve that happy ever after – even to become a monster herself.

But the soul of the series, in each and every story, is that ‘actions have consequences’ for good and for ill, and that the most important thing, to do and to be, is to ‘Be Sure’ that your choices are the ones that you can live with – or die by.

#BookReview: That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly Lemming

#BookReview: That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly LemmingThat Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon (Mead Mishaps, #1) by Kimberly Lemming
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance, romantasy, cozy fantasy
Series: Mead Mishaps #1
Pages: 288
Published by Orbit on January 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Spice trader Cinnamon's quiet life is turned upside down when she ends up on a quest with a fiery demon in this irreverently quirky rom-com fantasy that is sweet, steamy, and funny as hell—perfect for fans of  Legends & Lattes  and  The Dragon's Bride. 
All she wanted to do was live her life in peace—maybe get a cat, expand the family spice farm. Really, anything that didn't involve going on an adventure where an orc might rip her face off. But they say the Goddess has favorite, and if so, Cin is clearly not one of them... 
After saving the demon Fallon in a wine-drunk stupor, all Fallon wants to do is kill an evil witch enslaving his people. And, who can blame him? But he's dragging Cinnamon along for the ride. On the bright side, at least he keeps burning off his shirt.

My Review:

There’s a reason this series is titled Mead Mishaps, and when we first meet Cin at the Hero’s Call Festival in her home village of Boohail, we’re dropped right into the thick of it. Or perhaps that should be right into the bottom of a mug of mead, because Cin is literally drunk off her ass when her story begins.

Not that she’d have wanted to think of it that way. Because Cin has become allergic to adventure after losing her sister Cherry to some kind of river monster while they were out on a little adventure of their own. And the Hero’s Call Festival is all about that call to adventure – and Cin wants no part of it.

Although she, along with most of the village, are happy to celebrate the departure of the young woman who has been called to adventure by their goddess Myva to defend the gate to the demon wastelands.

That’s kind of how those stories go, at least without the local attitude about the newly appointed heroine, Priscilla. She’s a lot, and she’s been even more of herself since she was called to join the band of heroes this time around. The village will be happy to see the back of her – in more ways than one.

Everyone in Boohail thinks that the whole adventure/hero thing is settled for the next 15 years, when the gate will open again. Cin is glad it’s not her – or so she believes – and not in the last bit sad that her ex has been chosen as one of the other heroes – or so she tells herself.

But keeping herself convinced requires a LOT of mead. Which is why she’s still more than a bit hungover when she saves the life of an injured man. Who is considerably more than merely a man – also and very much in more ways than one.

He’s a very large, very scary, and surprisingly articulate demon. All of which is supposed to be impossible. Demons are supposed to be safely kept far, far away from Boohail, on the other side of that gate that the just-departed heroes have run off to defend. Demons are supposed to be growling, grunting, inhuman monsters.

Fallon, however, is a big man with a very large plan, a plan that is about to shake Cin’s world to its knees – as well as knocking her straight into an adventure the likes of which she never could have imagined.

Escape Rating B: Every single thing that Cin thinks about her world and herself, and that the reader thinks is happening in it and to her, gets upended pretty much in the first few chapters. Except for one very important thing. As soon as we spend even half a minute inside Cin’s already half drunk head, it’s pretty damn obvious that this book is going to be an absolute romp of an adventure from beginning to end.

The fantasy setup has been done before. It’s one of those stories where everything the protagonist thinks they know turns out to be wrong, wrong, wrong. There are plenty of such stories built on those revelations being revealed, and everyone coming unglued along with them, and angsting over every betrayal.

That’s where this series turns that upending on its own head. Not that what turns out to be a quest and a road trip doesn’t have its serious side, but overall the quest is played mostly for laughs. The villain is truly villainous, and she absolutely has a damn good scam going with some terrible consequences, but overall it seems like her ultimate defeat is inevitable from the first reveal and the fun of the thing is in the journey.

The hard part of that journey, in so many senses of the word, many of which are played for salacious titters to VERY good effect, is the progress of the romance between the demon Fallon and the Spice Girl (literally, Cin’s full name is Cinnamon, she grows cinnamon on her family’s spice farm). It’s clear to everyone except Cin that Fallon is all in on their relationship – if not yet into all of Cin’s private places – from the moment they meet. Cin’s the one who needs some convincing – not about whether she and Fallon set each other on fire – but whether his fire and her desire to never get burned again have a chance at a future.

But they sure do have a LOT of fun, sexy times finding out!

That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon is a lighthearted romp of a cozy fantasy that never fades to black when the romance heats up and sets fire to the sheets. It’s an excellent reading time that will leave any romantasy reader with a smile on their face.

So it’s a good thing that this is the first of a trilogy, and that the next book in the series, That Time I Got Drunk and Yeeted a Love Potion at a Werewolf, will be coming (along with a whole new pirate ship load of sexy puns) next month!

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuire

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuireMislaid in Parts Half-Known (Wayward Children, #9) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Jesse Vilinsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #9
Pages: 160
Length: 4 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Dinosaurs and portals, and a girl who can find both in the latest book in the Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning series.
Antsy is the latest student to pass through the doors at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children.
When her fellow students realize that Antsy's talent for finding absolutely anything may extend to doors, she's forced to flee in the company of a small group of friends, looking for a way back to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go to be sure that Vineta and Hudson are keeping their promise.
Along the way, temptations are dangled, decisions are reinforced, and a departure to a world populated by dinosaurs brings untold dangers and one or two other surprises!
A story that reminds us that finding what you want doesn't always mean finding what you need.

My Review:

This book and certainly the Wayward Children series as a whole, feels like the perfect story to start off the new year.

Why?

Because new years are all about doors closing, doors opening, and taking the opportunity to start with a fresh slate and reinvent yourself and how you see the world, and that’s a big part of what the Wayward Children series is all about.

Beginning with Every Heart a Doorway, the series is a metaphor for finding the place where you belong, the place that your heart calls home, and then getting tossed out of that personal Eden and being forced to make a whole new start on a whole new you – whether you want to or not.

Especially when you don’t. And when you no longer belong in the place you originally came from. You really can’t go home again because it’s not the place you remember and the people who once loved you no longer see you as theirs.

The story in this particular entry in the series picks up where the previous book, Lost in the Moment and Found, left off. Antsy has returned to Earth from the Shop Where the Lost Things Go, nine-years-old in a sixteen-year-old body, still angry at the shopkeeper Vineta and terrified that someone will figure out her secret.

Which they do. Both of her secrets. Her friends figure out that she isn’t nearly as mature as her body appears to be. Her enemies figure out that Antsy left the shop with a talent for finding anything – including other people’s doors – and have absolutely no care in the world about what the doors cost and zero intention to pay for it themselves because that’s what other people are for.

But Antsy can find anything when she needs it badly enough. Including a way out when she and her friends are cornered by the magically mesmerizing head mean girl and her clique of magically reinforced sycophants.

Leading Antsy and company to break one of the School’s most sacred rules. They think they’re hunting for an escape route, but what they’re really searching for is the place that at least one of their hearts calls home. In other words, they’re going on a quest.

A quest to find the one place that Antsy literally can’t afford to return to. Unless she takes it over – for herself.

Escape Rating A: Before I get started on the book, I want to mention that I listened to this one in audio – and that feels like a bit of an afterthought, which is rare. The book was excellent, as you can tell from the rating. But this is a case where the fact I was listening to it instead of reading it didn’t impinge on my consciousness at all. The experience felt seamless, as though the narrator was downloading the story directly into my brain. Which was VERY much unlike Under the Smokestrewn Sky, where the narration detracted from the story.

I said at the top that this book was perfectly themed for the start of the year, because of its fundamental metaphor about doors opening and reinvention that just dovetails perfectly with the thoughts and feelings we all have about the old year ending and the new year beginning.

Ironically, however, this entry in the series is much more about closing doors than it is about opening them, although it definitely carries the theme of self-reflection and reinvention and finally being sure of who one needs to be in the world and their life in it.

At first, the story feels very much a part of the YA genre which the series is often pigeonholed into, as out-of-place, out-of-time Antsy is being persecuted by a powerful clique of ‘mean girls’. It’s only when she starts revealing herself for who she really is and what she really can do that we start to see her as considerably more capable and mature than either her nine-year-old head or her sixteen-year-old body would be capable of.

Because her moral compass is firmly pointed towards doing the right thing, and she’s very sure indeed what that right thing is – at least in the context of the Shop, its doors, its costs, and its purpose. It wants her back, and she wants to go, but it’s more than that. It’s that she’s ready to do the necessary for the shop and for herself. She’s grown up in the ways that matter, she just has to recognize that fact.

She has to ‘Be Sure’, and by the story’s end, she finally is.

But along Antsy’s journey we see other doors that open and close for other ‘wayward children’. Discovering that her best friend is happy and somewhat safe in the world her own heart calls home, even if it’s a world that none of the rest of the travelers would be remotely interested in staying, gives her strength and much-needed closure.

However, the series as a whole feels like it’s winding down, as it should. The young children in the first part of the series are now teenagers and their life paths are reaching out for them. One way or another, their doors are opening, giving them one last chance to be sure enough to go home.

What got me about this entry in the series was the way that the doors and the futures they represent felt like metaphors for life, for making or finding a life filled with magic and purpose. It doesn’t HAVE to be the magic of the doors – because happiness is a magic all its own. All one has to do is find it. And BE SURE.

I’m sure I’ll be back for the next book in this series, currently untitled but scheduled to be published this time next year.

Review: Paladin’s Faith by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Faith by T. KingfisherPaladin's Faith (The Saint of Steel, #4) by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, romantasy
Series: Saint of Steel #4
Pages: 446
Published by Red Wombat Studio on December 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Marguerite Florian is a spy with two problems. A former employer wants her dead, and one of her new bodyguards is a far too good-looking paladin with a martyr complex.
Shane is a paladin with three problems. His god is dead, his client is much too attractive for his peace of mind, and a powerful organization is trying to have them both killed.
Add in a brilliant artificer with a device that may change the world, a glittering and dangerous court, and a demon-led cult, and Shane and Marguerite will be lucky to escape with their souls intact, never mind their hearts. . .

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi OkoraforLike Thunder (The Desert Magician's Duology #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Délé Ogundiran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, climate fiction, fantasy, science fiction
Series: Desert Magician's Duology #2
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 23 minutes
Published by DAW, Tantor Audio on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

This brand-new sequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s Shadow Speaker contains the powerful prose and compelling stories that have made Nnedi Okorafor a star of the literary science fiction and fantasy space and put her at the forefront of Africanfuturist fiction
Niger, West Africa, 2077
Welcome back. This second volume is a breathtaking story that sweeps across the sands of the Sahara, flies up to the peaks of the Aïr Mountains, cartwheels into a wild megacity—you get the idea.
I am the Desert Magician; I bring water where there is none.
This book begins with Dikéogu Obidimkpa slowly losing his mind. Yes, that boy who can bring rain just by thinking about it is having some…issues. Years ago, Dikéogu went on an epic journey to save Earth with the shadow speaker girl, Ejii Ubaid, who became his best friend. When it was all over, they went their separate ways, but now he’s learned their quest never really ended at all.
So Dikéogu, more powerful than ever, reunites with Ejii. He records this story as an audiofile, hoping it will help him keep his sanity or at least give him something to leave behind. Smart kid, but it won’t work—or will it?
I can tell you it won’t be like before. Our rainmaker and shadow speaker have changed. And after this, nothing will ever be the same again.
As they say, ‘ Onye amaro ebe nmili si bido mabaya ama ama onye nyelu ya akwa oji welu ficha aru .’
Or, ‘If you do not remember where the rain started to beat you, you will not remember who gave you the towel with which to dry your body.’

My Review:

Like Thunder is the second half of the Desert Magician’s Duology, and the follow-up to the utterly excellent Shadow Speaker. Like that first book, Like Thunder is a story within a story, as the whole duology is a tale of a possible future, and a lesson to be learned, told by the Desert Magician himself.

But it is not the Desert Magician’s story, no matter how much that being meddled with the characters and the events that they faced. Just as Shadow Speaker was the story of Eiji Ugabe, the titular shadow speaker herself, Like Thunder represents her best friend Dikéogu Obidimkpa’s side of the events that followed.

Shadow speaking is but one of the many transformations and strange, new powers brought into this world after the ‘peace bombs’ were dropped and the oncoming nuclear catastrophe was transformed into something survivable for the human population.

A survival that seems to be more contingent on the adaptability of not just the humans of Earth, but also the sentient populations of ALL the worlds that have become interconnected after Earth’s ‘Great Change’ caused a ‘Great Merge’ of several formerly separated worlds.

The story in Shadow Speaker very much represented Eiji’s perspective on the world, as Eiji’s first impulse is always to talk, and to listen. An impulse that combines her youthful belief that people CAN be better if given the opportunity, and is likely a result of her talent for speaking with not just the shadows of the dead, but directly into the minds of other people and animals.

Her talent is to see others’ points of view and to project her own. She’s young enough to believe that if there is understanding, there can be peace.

Like Thunder is not Eiji’s story, and it shouldn’t be. Instead, it’s a kind of mirror image. Just as Eiji’s talent leads her to foster peace and understanding, her friend Dikéogu’s talent is violent. Dikéogu is a stormbringer, someone who brings all of the violence of nature and all of the violence visited upon him in his scarred past to every encounter with his friends, with his enemies, and with his world.

And within himself.

The world through which we follow Dikéogu in this concluding volume of the Desert Magician’s Duology is the direct result of Eiji’s peacemaking in her book. Because, unfortunately for the world but fortunate for the reader enthralled with their story, Eiji didn’t really make peace because peace is not what most of the people present for the so-called ‘peace conference’ had any desire for whatsoever.

And have been maneuvering in the background to ensure that the only peace that results in the end is the peace of the grave. Someone is going to have to die. Too many people already have. It’s only a question of whether Dikéogu and Eiji’s feared and reviled powers will save the world – or end it.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I loved Shadow Speaker, I came into this second book with some doubts and quibbles – all of which were marvelously dashed to the ground at the very beginning of Dikéogu’s story.

Eiji and Dikéogu were both very young when their adventure began, but by the time they met they had both already seen enough hardship and disaster to fill a whole lifetime for someone else. But Eiji was just a touch older than Dikéogu, and the differences between her fourteen and his thirteen mattered a lot in terms of maturity.

In other words, Eiji was definitely on the cusp of adulthood in her book, making adult decisions with huge, literally world-shaking consequences, while Dikéogu frequently came off as a whiny little shit, an impression not helped AT ALL by the higher pitched voice used by the narrator for his character.

Dikéogu had PLENTY of reasons for his hatreds and his fears – but that doesn’t mean that they were much more enjoyable to listen to than they were to experience. Less traumatic, certainly, but awful in an entirely different way.

But Like Thunder takes place AFTER the events of Shadow Speaker. (This is also a hint that neither book stands on its own) Whiny thirteen becomes traumatized fifteen with more experience, a bit more closure for some of the worst parts, a bit more distance from terrible betrayals – and his voice drops. (This last bit, of course, doesn’t matter if you’re reading the text and hearing your own voice in your head, but matters a lot in audio.)

Dikéogu’s life experience, particularly after he was sold into slavery by his own uncle at the age of twelve, have taught him that the world is pain and strife and that he has to defend himself at all times and that people will believe ANYTHING if it allows them to stay comfortable and maintain their illusions and their prejudices.

He learned that last bit from his parents, Felecia and Chika Obidimkpa, the power couple of THE West African multimedia empire. They betrayed him into slavery, they betrayed him by pretending he was dead, they betray him every single time they broadcast a program filled with ridiculous nostalgia for a past that never was and disallows and disavows Dikéogu’s existence as a stormbringer, a ‘Changed One’ with powers granted by the ‘Great Change’ they hate so much.

It’s no surprise that his parents are in league with his enemies.

What is a surprise, especially to Dikéogu, is how much of his story, how much of his trauma and how many of his tragedies, are directly traceable to that first betrayal AND his inability to deal with its consequences to himself and the magic he carries.

So, very much on the one hand, Like Thunder is a save the world quest with a surprising twist at its end. A twist at least partly manufactured, and certainly cackled over, by the Desert Magician. And absolutely on the other hand, it’s a story about a young man learning to live with the person he has become – and very nearly failing the test. ALL the tests.

Whichever way you look at it, it is compelling and captivating from the first page – or from the opening words – until the very last line of the Desert Magician congratulating themself on a tale well told and a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful message delivered.

Review: Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Valdemar by Mercedes LackeyValdemar (The Founding of Valdemar #3) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #3, Valdemar (Publication order) #58, Valdemar (Chronological) #6
Pages: 368
Published by DAW on December 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The long-awaited story of the founding of Valdemar comes to life in this 3rd book of a trilogy from a New York Times bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
The refugees from the Empire have established a thriving city called Haven with the help of the Tayledras and their allies. But the Tayledras have begun a slow withdrawal to the dangerous lands known as the Pelagirs, leaving the humans of Haven to find their own way.
But even with Haven settled, the lands around Haven are not without danger. Most of the danger comes in the form of magicians: magicians taking advantage of the abundant magical energy in the lands the Tayledras have cleansed; magicians who have no compunction about allying themselves with dark powers and enslaving magical beasts and the Elementals themselves.
Kordas, his family, and his people will need all the help they can get. But when a prayer to every god he has ever heard of brings Kordas a very specific and unexpected form of help, the new kingdom of Valdemar is set on a path like nothing else the world has ever seen.
Perfect for longtime fans of Valdemar or readers diving into the world for the first time, the Founding of Valdemar trilogy will delight and enchant readers with the origin story of this beloved fantasy realm.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an implacable enemy marches towards his borders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny edited by Jonathan Maberry

Review: The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny edited by Jonathan MaberryThe Good, The Bad, & The Uncanny: Tales of a Very Weird West by Jonathan Maberry, C. Edward Sellner, Keith R.A. DeCandido, James A. Moore, Greg Cox, Josh Malerman, Carrie Harris, John G. Hartness, Jennifer Brody, Scott Sigler, Laura Anne Gilman, Aaron Rosenberg, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, R. S. Belcher, Marguerite Reed, Maurice Broaddus, Cullen Bunn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, short stories, steampunk, Weird West
Pages: 350
Published by Outland Entertainment on December 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Gunslingers. Lawmen. Snake-oil Salesmen. Cowboys. Mad Scientists. And a few monsters. The Old West has never been wilder! THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNCANNY presents sixteen original and never-before-published adventures by some of today’ s most visionary writers who have spun wildly offbeat tales of gunmen, lawmen, magic, and weird science. Saddle up with Josh Malerman, Scott Sigler, Keith DeCandido, Cullen Bunn, R.S. Belcher, Greg Cox, Jeffrey Mariotte, Laura Anne Gilman, Aaron Rosenberg, Maurice Broaddus, John G. Hartness, Carrie Harris, James A. Moore, Marguerite Reed, C. Edward Sellner, Carrie Harris, and Jennifer Brody! These tales twist the American West into a place of darkness, shadows, sudden death, terror in the night, bold heroism, devious magic, and shocking violence. Each story blazes a new trail through very strange territory – discovering weird science, ancient evil, mythic creatures, and lightning-fast action. Edited by Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of A DEADLANDS NOVEL, the Joe Ledger Thrillers, V-WARS, and KAGEN THE DAMNED.

My Review:

I don’t normally start reviews by talking about the author’s – or in this case the editor’s – Foreword. In fact, I very seldom read the Foreword because I’m too interested in getting to the actual story – or in this case stories – to take the time. And they’re generally not all that fascinating. But I read this one and got hit with a sense of nostalgia so strong that I can’t resist mentioning it here. Because the editor and I grew up with those same Westerns on TV pretty much all the time in our childhood, and because we both emerged with the same favorite, The Wild, Wild West.

Not that awful 1999 movie. I mean – and the author meant – the one, the only, the original TV series with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. I still remember, and can hear Ross Martin’s voice in my head, talking mostly to himself, as he often did, as he was whipping up “the spécialité de la maison of the Hotel Desperation!” to get them out of whatever fix they’d gotten themselves into in that act of the four acts that made up each weekly episode. It’s a VERY fond memory.

So, if you have that same fondness for Westerns – especially those that touched on, or were touched by, or dipped their whole entire six-shooters into the very, very weird, or if you’re a fan of more recently published ‘Weird West’ inspired stories such as Charlaine Harris’ Gunnie Rose series and Laura Anne Gilman’s Huntsmen, or if you just plain love it when the things that go bump in the night are armed with fangs, claws AND six-shooters, this collection might just be your jam.

It certainly was mine. It was mine so much, in fact, that this is one of the rare occasions when I’ve rated each story in the collection individually, so that you can get the full-bodied flavor – complete with actual bodies, for each and every one.

“The Disobedient Devil Dust-up at Copper Junction” by Cullen Bunn
Mad scientist meets even madder gremlins as Professor Dimitri Daedalus and his Navajo partner Yiske arrive in remote Copper Junction Utah, summoned by the Professor’s old mentor to be his next sacrifices to the gremlins tearing up every single human tool in town with applied chaos and malice, only to end in fiery glory sailing off a cliff. Good fun. B

“Devil’s Snare” (Golgotha #1.5) by R.S. Belcher
In spite of being part of a series, this story stands quite well alone. Love-lorn scientist/engineer Clay Turlough, who combines bits of both Dr. Frankenstein AND his monster, gets dragged out of his latest attempt to ‘save’ his ladylove by a more strictly medical case of a poisoned boy, his widowed mother, and the man who is a bit too invested in both. A-

“Bad” by Josh Malerman
Borderline horror about two idiots who think they can rob the most secure bank on ‘The Trail’ by pretending to be one of the bank’s regular depositors. A pretense they intend to enact by literally stealing the man’s face. A hard read because the murdering bank robber wannabes are really, really TSTL to the point where the story is just blood, guts and idiocy. D

“Bigfoot George” by Greg Cox
Gold fever grips a gang of humans claiming a strike in Bigfoot country. The ringleaders think they can treat sasquatch the way they treat their fellow humans – only one of those fellow humans isn’t to both the humans and the sasquatch’ detriment. The humans are nasty in ways that are all too familiar, but the heel-turn of their not-so-human companion is epic enough to nearly redeem their mess – if not them. C+

“Story of the Century” by C. Edward Sellner
A tale of angels and demons, vampires and newspaper reporters. A reporter with a nose for news follows a bounty hunter on the trail of a demon who can wipe out whole towns in a single breath, only to find herself the last witness to an epic confrontation between celestial and demonic forces that wakes a legacy she had no idea she possessed. B

“The Stacked Deck” by Aaron Rosenberg
A card sharp with a magic touch wins his way onto a gambler’s paradise of a riverboat cruise only to learn that the stake he’s playing for is his soul and the deck has been stacked by a demon who believes he holds all the cards. The weird side of the weird West with a fascinating magical system of drawing cards from the ether. Maverick would have fit right in. And won. B+

“Desert Justice” by Maurice Broaddus
A black man with a righteous cause, the will to back it up and the grief not to care if he goes down in the fight takes up a magical badge to battle the evil spirit of the dead Confederacy that white men are using to vilify, subjugate and lynch blacks who stand up for themselves in the west after they fled the ‘legal slavery’ of the sharecropping system. If you enjoyed the author’s novella Buffalo Soldier you’ll love this one too. I certainly did. A

“In the End, the Beginning” by Laura Anne Gilman
A still heartbreaking but slightly more hopeful alternate magical version of the white man’s invasion of the west. It can’t be stopped, but powerful spirits CAN, if they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their magic in the cause, alter the means by which it happens, in the hopes that the ones who can’t be stopped are the best of their kind and not the worst.  A

“Nightfall on the Iron Dragon Line” by James A. Moore
The inevitable train story because no western or weird version thereof would be complete without one train story. The concept is interesting, and a story about a lawman bringing in a dangerous criminal always works in westerns but this one needed to be longer for all the disparate elements – especially the worm and the Chinese engineers – to come together. C

“Simple Silas” by Scott Sigler
This is straight up horror and the story relies on the protagonist having an undefined intellectual disability (because they were back then) in a way that just makes the whole thing more uncomfortable than compelling. D

“Hell and Destruction are Never Full” by Marguerite Reed
A bounty hunter captures a man for more money than she’s ever seen in her life and doesn’t want to hear about the real reason the bounty was set – until she comes face to face with a vampire and his renfield who plan to shut up a witness and get a meal out of it at the same time. That this has a happy ending is a big surprise. It’s not the standout in the collection but it was pretty good all the same. B

“The Legend of Long-Ears” by Keith R.A. DeCandido
A meeting that never happened between two legends, Calamity Jane and Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves. Calamity is a seer who drinks to keep her visions of the future at bay, while she does her best to keep the chaos agent known as Long-Ears from taking more lives than he’s due. She saves Reeves but can’t save them all. However, she saves so many that Long-Ears himself travels the west telling any who will listen the tale of his greatest and most respected enemy. This one seems like the quintessential weird west story, or at least one branch of it, with legends meeting, native spirits interfering, respect between enemies and tragedies all around. A+

“The Night Caravan” by Jennifer Brody
A post-apocalyptic tale where the desert has returned, while technology and fallout have bred monsters and settlements are far apart while travel puts you in danger of being ridden by one of the monsters. The mix of high tech and low villainy with a mythical utopia that is probably a boondoggle makes the story interesting. B

“Dreadful” by John Hartness
A middle-aged widow and a tired vampire-hunting cowboy team up to wipe out a nest of vampires that is eating their way across the west like locusts. Separately, they’re victims, together they might just be enough to get the job done. And if there’s an after, they might have a chance at being happy in it, together. B+

“Thicker Than Water” by Carrie Harris
Families are terrible. His brothers are human monsters. Her sisters are sea monsters. But family is family and blood is thicker than water, even when the deck of the ship is awash in it. This one just wasn’t my cuppa, and I’m trying really hard not to think about what the tea in that cuppa would be made of. C

“Barnfeather’s Magical Medicine Show and Tent Extravaganza” by Jeffrey J. Mariotte
Another one a bit too high on the creep-o-meter for me, about a magical circus tent that steals children and eats them to keep itself and its avatar powered – or perhaps the other way around, pursued by a lawman hoping to rescue children who are already gone. C

Escape Rating B: I had to do math to get to an overall rating, just as I did for the review of a previous collection by this publisher, Never Too Old to Save the World, which is going to end up on my Best Books list for this year because I’ve referred to it so often.

I enjoyed this collection, well, not quite as much as Never Too Old, but still quite a bit. Even the stories that went too far into horror for my personal tastes, or the couple that just didn’t work for me, still added to the overall feeling of ‘those thrilling days of yesteryear’ even if it was a weirder and more uncanny yesteryear than The Lone Ranger ever imagined.

Or perhaps especially because it was a whole lot weirder and considerably more uncanny. Just as marvelously as The Wild, Wild West so often was.