Review: The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman + Giveaway

Review: The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman + GiveawayThe Mortal Word (The Invisible Library, #5) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, mystery
Series: Invisible Library #5
Pages: 368
Published by Ace on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the latest novel in Genevieve Cogman's historical fantasy series, the fate of worlds lies in the balance. When a dragon is murdered at a peace conference, time-travelling Librarian spy Irene must solve the case to keep the balance between order, chaos . . . and the Library.

When Irene returns to London after a relatively straightforward book theft in Vienna, Bradamant informs her that there is a top secret dragon-Fae peace conference in progress that the Library is mediating, but that the second-in-command dragon has been stabbed to death. Tasked with solving the case, Vale and Irene immediately go to 1890s Paris.

Once they arrive, it seems that the murder victim had uncovered evidence suggesting that he may have found proof of treachery by one or more Librarians. But to ensure the peace of the conference, some Librarians are already hostages in the dragon and Fae courts. To save the captives, including her parents, Irene must get to the bottom of this murder—but was it dragon, Fae, or even a Librarian who committed the crime?

My Review:

In this version of the multiverse the Library serves to provide the balance between the fae worlds of chaos and the dragon worlds of order. Humans don’t do well at either extreme, and it’s the Library’s function to guard and preserve the middle ground where human beings thrive.

Just because the Library serves as a point of balance does not mean that the lives of any of the Librarians that serve it are remotely balanced in any way. It could be said that the Librarians are like that metaphorical duck, “calm on the surface but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”

Librarian Irene Winters’ life feels more like the old adage about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire – except that for Irene, it’s frying pans and fires all the way down.

When I first started this series, all the way back with The Invisible Library, it felt a lot like the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, because both stories are all about the power of words, especially the power of words in books.

But now that we’re five books in, that resemblance has faded. As much as I loved The Eyre Affair,  the first Thursday Next book, the series as a whole felt like a one-trick-pony, or a story that was only “funny once” and not “funny always”. It seemed as if the story was more interested in being incessantly clever than in telling a story – or that there wasn’t nearly enough worldbuilding underneath the gimmick to sustain a series.

What makes The Invisible Library different – and better as a series – is that there is plenty of worldbuilding below the madcap adventure. And you really, really need to start with the first book for the world to make sense – because the scaffolding of that worldbuilding becomes more solid with each story.

And they are absolutely oodles of fun – every single one. That there will be at least THREE MORE after this one is excellent news.

Because while this book does have a story that wraps up within the volume, as does every entry in the series so far, it is equally clear that the author is not done with either the world of the Library or the life and adventures of this particular Librarian.

And neither are the readers.

Escape Rating A: This is a complex story in a complicated world. I can’t imagine it making much sense without having read the previous volumes first. And possibly recently. Certainly this is a series that rewards readers who have knowledge of how our heroine got into the fix she’s currently in, and how much her previous fixes – and the fixes for those fixes – have contributed (or conspired) to put her in the awkward, uncomfortable and dangerous place she now finds herself.

I also have the distinct impression that one of these days Irene is going to stop being expendable to the Library and become a power within it, but that day is not yet. And first she has to survive her expendability. That’s never an easy task, as Irene has a tendency to be the fool that rushes in where the angels quaver to tread.

One of the things that I have found fascinating about this series is its treatment of good vs. evil, because there really isn’t one. Individuals commit terrible acts in the service of their particular perspective on the eternal argument, but the eternal argument in this world is between order and chaos, and explicitly not between good and evil.

The plot in The Mortal Word is essentially that of a murder mystery with political overtones. The dragons and the fae are meeting on a neutral world in order to forge a peace treaty. Or at least a non-aggression pact. The Library will take whatever it can get, and it is the Library that is brokering this attempt at detente.

In the middle of the negotiations, someone is murdered. As much high tension as is in the air, it’s not actually surprising that someone ends up dead. However, the victim was the most trusted lieutenant of the dragon monarch who represents that side of this equation. While said monarch wants to blame his arch-enemies the fae for the murder, he also claims that the victim implicated the Library in a possible plot to sabotage the negotiations.

Events are at a standstill until the perpetrator is discovered, and that’s when Irene is brought in. Yes, because she’s expendable. She’s always aware that she will take the blame if anything goes wrong – or if the solution is not satisfactory to all the parties involved. Which is far from the same thing.

She is both shadowed and assisted by agents from both of the courts, and there is treachery at every turn, as well as an entire city full of red herrings – some of them still bloody.

But Irene’s adventures, as she doggedly – and very, very dangerously – follows the clues to their unpopular but necessary conclusion, are always worth following. Every twisty step of the way.

I can’t wait for her next adventure!

~~~~~~ PUBLISHER GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

In celebration of the publication of the Ace Books, the publisher of The Invisible Library series is offering a giveaway of the ENTIRE series. If you like madcap adventures, traveling through the multiverse, stories about the power of words, and DRAGONS this series is a real treat.

Click HERE for the giveaway or go to https://sweeps.penguinrandomhouse.com/enter/invisible-library-sweeps

Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Imager (Imager Portfolio, #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr., William Dufris
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Imager Portfolio #1
Pages: 432
Published by Tantor Media on April 13, 2009
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Although Rhennthyl is the son of a leading wool merchant in L'Excelsis, the capital of Solidar, the most powerful nation on Terahnar, he has spent years becoming a journeyman artist and is skilled and diligent enough to be considered for the status of master artisan—in another two years. Then, in a single moment, his entire life is transformed when his master patron is killed in a flash fire, and Rhenn discovers he is an imager—one of the few in the entire world of Terahnar who can visualize things and make them real.

Rhenn is forced to leave his family and join the Collegium of Imagisle. Because of their abilities (they can do accidental magic even while asleep) and because they are both feared and vulnerable, imagers must live separately from the rest of society. In this new life, Rhenn discovers that all too many of the "truths" he knew were nothing of the sort. Every day brings a new threat to his life. He makes a powerful enemy while righting a wrong, and he begins to learn to do magic in secret. Imager is the innovative and enchanting opening of an involving new fantasy story.

My Review:

This was a re-read for me. I first read Imager when it originally came out in 2009 because the cataloger in the next office was cataloging it and said it looked good. He was right. In fact, he was so right that I continued to read the series over the next decade. I finished the current final book in the series, Endgames, last month, and just couldn’t let this world go.

I hope I don’t have to, but the jury is still out on that.

The Imager Portfolio was written in a different order than the events take place in the created world of Terahnar. In the internal chronology, Scholar is first and Imager’s Intrigue is last. As the stories were written, Imager is first and Endgames is last. The internal chronology has the events of the, let’s call it the Quaeryt Quintet, first, the Alastar/Charyn Quartet second and the Rhenn Trilogy third – even though Rhenn’s story was the first one written.

I found myself really curious to see if the circle closed, if the events that occurred in Quaeryt’s, Alastar’s and Charyn’s stories actually led to the situation that Rhenn finds himself in at the beginning of Imager.

Also I remembered the original trilogy as a damn good story, and wondered if that would be true on a re-read. Actually a re-listen, as this time I got the unabridged audio.

There are themes that occur in all three of the subseries. I remembered Rhenn as a young man who had already planned his life, and was executing that plan, when fate intervened and he discovered that he had imaging talent.

I’ve invoked Rhenn’s memory often over the years, because his story is an interesting variation on the coming-of-age theme that so often permeates epic fantasy. Neither Rhenn, nor the author’s other heroes in this series, come of age during their stories. They are already adults, albeit generally in their 20s.

Instead, these are coming-into-power stories, where the protagonists have to adjust life plans that they have not only already made but have already begun working towards. They find themselves in unanticipated situations and things go sideways. They have to adjust and change to survive.

Or they won’t.

Within the opening chapters of Imager, I was both pleased to learn that the earlier history of Terahnar, and the country of Solidar, was anticipated from the beginning. Rhenn tours the Council Chateau with his father, and sees portraits of both Rex Regis, the man who becomes Rex in the Quaeryt Quintet, and Rex Defou, the Rex who is overthrown in Madness in Solidar. He also eyes a bust of Rex Charyn, the last Rex, whose exploits are completed in Endgames.

I’ll admit this worries me a lot about the possibility for further crises in the history of this place to be explored. Because the circle does seem to close and the loose ends do seem to get wrapped up.

I can still hope.

On re-listening to the story, I discovered that while I had lost most of the details of the story over the years, the outline was still clear. And still wonderful to read – or have read to me.

While at times Rhenn feels a bit too good to be true, he is also an intelligent and likeable hero. We do see more of his early years than I remembered, but the story really kicks into high gear when Rhenn is in his mid-20s, at the point where he is forced to give up his dreams of becoming a master portraturist and crosses the Bridge of Hopes to Imagisle.

From there, the story is off to the races, almost surprisingly so for a story that goes into a great deal of detail about Rhenn’s training as an imager. If you enjoy books that cover intensive training periods, this one is a treat.

Because Rhenn is not just learning to become an imager, he’s learning to become a spy and assassin and whatever else the College of Imagers needs him to become to keep the College, and the country of Solidar that defends it and that it defends, safe.

If he can manage to survive all the assassination attempts on his own life, that is.

Escape Rating A: This was as good as I remembered it. The story spends a bit more time than I recalled on Rhenn’s early years as a journeyman portraturist, which are necessary but not nearly as interesting (or potentially deadly) as his life rising through the imager ranks while trying not to end up dead.

One of the themes that has carried forward through the entire series is just how important the female characters are to the survival and success of the male protagonist. Seliora, like the life-partners of the heroes of the other stories, is Rhenn’s equal – and he recognizes that.

On the flip side, one of the things that grates more than I remembered is the negative attitude that Rhenn’s mother in particular displays towards everyone of Pharsi origin, like Seliora. Her constant stream of prejudice wears on the reader’s ears every bit as much as it does Rhenn’s.

Scholar by L. E. Modesitt Jr.As much as I wanted to slap his mother silly, it’s Rhenn’s story that I came to see. Or rather hear. It does feel like it fits in its proper place in this history, and follows very well after finishing Endgames.

Anyone who loves epic fantasy and has not indulged in the Imager Portfolio could happily start here, as I did in 2009. Scholar would make an equally fine start, at the beginning of the internal history.

Wherever you begin, there’s a LOT to love in this series, If you have not yet begun, I envy you the journey.

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan FrenchThe Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Lot Lands #1
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A raucous, bawdy, blood-soaked adventure fantasy debut that's The Lord of the Rings reimagined by way of Sons of Anarchy.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man's-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards' existence--one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity's tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion--even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

My Review:

A hero’s journey is still a hero’s journey, even if the hero has tusks, and so does his hog.

In spite of the many comparisons to Sons of Anarchy, the hogs ridden by the Grey Bastards and their half-orc kin are real hogs. The kind that sometimes get turned into bacon – although certainly not in this case. These hogs are bred for riding into battle – and for loyalty to their riders.

The story in The Grey Bastards starts out small, and at the same time in just a bit of in media res. On the one hand, the focus is fairly tight on young Jackal and his band of brothers – even though one of them is actually a sister. Except when she’s not.

The story begins with Jackal’s perspective and Jackal’s point-of-view, in the world that he knows and is completely familiar with – although we don’t. It’s not our world and doesn’t seem to be an analog for any of the traditional mythological or fantasy worlds, in spite of its inclusion of humans, orcs, half-orcs, elves, halflings and centaurs – all under different, descriptive and occasionally vulgar names.

Those familiar casts of beings also have different functions and attributes in this world than in more traditional fantasy. But I hesitate to call these versions twisted because they aren’t that. They feel organic to this created world, just different from what we are used to.

Jackal also doesn’t explain the way that things in his worldview are different from ours, because for him that’s the way it’s always been and always will be – at least at the beginning.

But as the story continues, Jackal’s world expands as the expected patterns of his life begin fragmenting and eventually falling apart. He tries to fix the wrongs that he observes – and they are wrongs – by attempting a takeover of the established order.

However, he’s young and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He may be partly right, but he is also still partly wrong, and just a bit young and dumb. He gets outmaneuvered and is forced to learn about his world as it really is, and not just the way he’s always told that it has been.

It’s clear that the expansion of his worldview is going to be the making of him – if that world survives the chaos that is rapidly descending upon it.

Escape Rating A+: There are going to be people who want to label this one grimdark. Jackal’s world is certainly in a state of decay, and there are plenty of times when his situation seems pretty grim. But this world isn’t operating in the shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark, in spite of the title.

Jackal wants to make things better. That the situation is actually worse than he has any clue about when the story begins doesn’t change the fact that he is always trying to improve the situation for not just his own people but also anyone else that he comes across who seems to be innocent or downtrodden or just caught up in a bad mess that is not of their own making.

Not that he isn’t more than willing to kill anyone on the other side – particularly those who perpetrated some of the “wrong” situations he comes across. He’s not sweetness and light, he’s a warrior from a brutal and warlike people, but he is trying to leave his world better than he found it.

It’s just that he’s naive enough in the beginning not to see just how bad it is – and how much worse it’s going to get. But he does seem to have a very real chance of fixing at least some of the things – once he gets his head out of his own ass.

There are certainly things about The Grey Bastards that will perturb some readers. The book is incredibly profane. Nearly all of the characters in this book cuss as much as Kiva Lagos in The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. These two books otherwise have nothing to do with one another, except that both are first books in series that look to be awesome. But Kiva’s constant stream of cussing is epic in scope. None of the individual characters in The Grey Bastards cuss as much as Kiva does alone, but the sum totals feel similar. And equally appropriate for the characters and the story.

There is also a thread of what could be considered misogyny throughout The Grey Bastards, and not just because the story opens in a brothel. The leader of Jackal’s settlement claims that females are only good for two things, and I quote, “fucking and fetching.” His attitude, that females are only capable of being whores, bedwarmers (whores with only one partner) or errand runners is one that seems to be commonly held among the half-orcs – or at least the old guard.

At the same time, the pivotal character in this story is Fetching, the only female member of the warband. And her importance to the story is not as a love interest, but as a formidable fighter and one who ultimately makes the crucial decisions and takes up the mantle of leadership.

Many of the other strong and/or important characters are also female, the elf female Starling who helps to create a critical partnership and Beryl, the adopted mother of virtually the entire half-orc clan. They are, in every way, the equal of any of the males – and their roles in the story are much more important than most.

It feels like a “do as I say, not as I do” dichotomy. The world seems to be male dominated, while at the same time the female characters are crucial and mostly not in traditional female or in only traditional female roles. And it does seem to be one of the things that Jackal finds repugnant at least some of the time.

On my third hand, there’s definitely an attitude that all the whores are happy and enjoy their work and don’t wish for anything different. And while that’s theoretically possible, it feels beyond unlikely.

Obviously I have divided feelings on this particular score.

While I am completely out of hands on this, one of the things that I found fascinating was the way that foundational myths were used for so many purposes. Jackal and his cohort are taught a version of their story that was designed to inspire pride and loyalty AND cover up ugly truths. When it becomes necessary for Jackal to learn more and BE more, he is forced into learning the REAL truth about the formation of the Lot Lands and their true purpose in the scheme of things. While that truth doesn’t exactly set him free, it does give him better perspective and even more reasons to fight – and it also changes the battlefield.

I absolutely do not have divided feelings on the book as a whole. It was a compelling read from its intimate beginning to its eye-popping and world-breaking end. It feels like the opening of a huge, sprawling, brawling, epic fantasy series.I want more, and I want it now. But I’ll have to wait just a bit. The True Bastards ride next July.

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe KennedyExile of the Seas (The Chronicles of Dasnaria #2) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #2
Pages: 420
Published by Rebel Base Books on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Around the shifting borders of the Twelve Kingdoms, trade and conflict, danger and adventure put every traveler on guard . . . but some have everything to lose.

ESCAPEDOnce she was known as Jenna, Imperial Princess of Dasnaria, schooled in graceful dance and comely submission. Until the man her parents married her off to almost killed her with his brutality.

Now, all she knows is that the ship she’s boarded is bound away from her vicious homeland. The warrior woman aboard says Jenna’s skill in dancing might translate into a more lethal ability. Danu’s fighter priestesses will take her in, disguise her as one of their own—and allow her to keep her silence.

But it’s only a matter of time until Jenna’s monster of a husband hunts her down. Her best chance to stay hidden is to hire out as bodyguard to a caravan traveling to a far-off land, home to beasts and people so unfamiliar they seem like part of a fairy tale. But her supposed prowess in combat is a fraud. And sooner or later, Jenna’s flight will end in battle—or betrayal . . .

My Review:

Exile of the Seas is a middle book that absolutely does not have even a trace of middle-book syndrome. And that’s marvelous.

The Chronicles of Dasnaria are a prequel/sidequel to the author’s absolutely awesomesauce Twelve Kingdoms series. As a prequel it is not required to have read the Twelve Kingdoms before beginning this series As the Chronicles of Dasnaria have continued we have met some of the characters who will be major players in the Twelve Kingdoms, but it hasn’t happened yet, as they are all still children, or at least teenagers, at this point in their stories.

However, it is crucial – albeit heartrending, that one read the first book in the Chronicles of Dasnaria, Prisoner of the Crown, before essaying into Exile of the Seas. The Chronicles of Dasnaria, are the story of former Crown Princess Jenna of Dasnaria. In order to appreciate where she finds herself at the beginning of Exile of the Seas, and why she begins her transformation from Princess Jenna to Priestess Ivariel, it is necessary to see where she came from and why she fled. And definitely what she is fleeing from.

Her courage often feels of the one step forward, two steps back variety, but considering the events of Prisoner of the Crown, one is constantly amazed that she found that courage AT ALL, let alone enough of it to not merely leave but to defy every expectation that her society has of women in general or herself in particular.

Like Prisoner of the Crown, this feels like a story about becoming. In the first book, Jenna was mostly a victim, over and over and over. What saved the whole book from being merely a litany of despair and disaster was the ending, where Jenna escapes with the help of her brother Harlan.

But escape is not enough. The women of the seraglio are hothouse flowers, pets and playthings, with no tools or experience to allow them to live outside its walls. Jenna may be physically out, but mentally she has not yet begun to escape its confines. A free woman anywhere else in her world has many more options than she ever believed were possible. This is the story of her learning to grasp for at least some of those options.

The story begins with a fortuitous meeting. Or possibly a goddess-ordained one. Aboard the ship Robin, bound for anywhere away from Dasnaria, the frightened and ignorant Jenna crosses paths with Kaja, a priestess of Danu. In a bit of foreshadowing, Kaja is on her way to the court of the Twelve Kingdoms to guard the Queen and train her daughter Ursula in the way of the warrior. But Kaja feels that her goddess has led her to Jenna, to provide Jenna with aid in her quest to escape Dasnaria – or to at least be ready for it to return and attempt to reclaim her.

Under Kaja’s brief but extremely effective tutelage, Jenna becomes Ivariel, and takes the first steps on the road to becoming a warrior priestess of Danu. She takes vows of both silence and chastity – to cover both her accent and her complete unwillingness – or inability – to cope with anyone’s sexuality, including her own.

As Kaja makes her way to her destiny, Jenna, now Ivariel, lets the goddess guide her steps. Steps that take her far, far, away from Dasnaria, to a place where “seeing the elephant” is not just a metaphor.

But in keeping with that metaphor, Ivariel gains experience of her world at significant cost – but not only to herself.

Escape Rating A-: I didn’t pick up on that resonance, between seeing the elephants and “seeing the elephant” until just now. Jenna has always had a dream of seeing elephants – its a dream she was even punished for in the seraglio. Women in Dasnaria don’t get to see much of anything, and certainly not the elephants that live in far away places.

“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th century Americanism that refers to gaining experience at great cost, and was often used in conjunction with serving in the Mexican-American War or the Civil War, or heading west on one of the great stagecoach drives, or of participating in the Gold Rush.

All times and places where a lot of people got a whole lot of experience through a whole lot of hardship, peril and pain. As does Jenna/Ivariel in her own way.

For followers of the Twelve Kingdoms series, it is fascinating to see a completely different part of this world. But it IS a completely different place, so new readers get to see it for the first time along with the rest of us.

This is Jenna’s story as she transforms into Ivariel. We see her grow and stretch and reach out – and sometimes pull back. This is a story of her healing and becoming – even though some of that process is painful, bloody and violent. It feels necessary for her to get past what she lived, and the way that she accomplishes that feels right for her – if not for the faint of heart.

Because the arc of this book is on a constant rise, it does not have any of the feel of a middle book. This is overall a positive story, something that middle-books seldom are. She grows, she changes, she gets better, she takes a step backward and then she reaches forward again. She stumbles, she falls, she doubts, she gets up and tries again.

And after the pain she experienced in the first book, it is not merely good but downright cathartic to see her begin to come into her own.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series, Warrior of the World, coming this winter. A trip to hot Nyambura should warm at least one chilly January night.

Review: Gift of Griffins by V.M. Escalada

Review: Gift of Griffins by V.M. EscaladaGift of Griffins by V.M. Escalada
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Faraman Prophecy #2
Pages: 352
Published by DAW Books on August 7, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The second book in the Faraman Prophecy epic fantasy series returns to a world of military might and magical Talents as Kerida Nast continues the quest to save her nation.

Kerida Nast and her companions have succeeded in finding Jerek Brightwing, the new Luqs of Farama, and uniting him with a part of his Battle Wings, but not all their problems have been solved. Farama is still in the hands of the Halian invaders and their Shekayrin, and it's going to take magical as well as military strength to overcome them.

Unexpected help comes from Bakura, the Princess Imperial of the Halians, whose Gifts have been suppressed. As the Voice of her brother the Sky Emperor she has some political power over the Halian military, and she will use it to aid the Faramans, if Kerida can free her from what she sees as a prison. But whether Kerida can help the princess remains to be seen. If she succeeds, Bakura may prove their salvation. But should Kerida fail, all may be lost....

My Review:

Gift of Griffins is the direct followup to last year’s terrific Halls of Law. The action in Gift picks up right where Halls leaves off, and the two books as a whole feel like one single story that was just too long to fit into a single volume. So the author committed duology.

Gift makes no sense whatsoever without Halls. Consider yourself warned.

The story told in the two, however, is a lot of fun. This is epic fantasy that plays with some of the standard tropes in neat twisty ways.

Our point of view character is Kerida Nast. Ker was planning to be a soldier, like pretty much all of the women and men in her family before her. Two of her older sisters have risen to high rank in the Faraman military, and Ker expects to follow in their bootsteps.

So from the very beginning, the story feels like a heroine’s journey rather than a hero’s journey. One of the truly neat things about the story is the way that it turns out that Ker Nast is not the heroine whose journey fulfills the epic prophesy and saves the day.

Ker is only a piece, admittedly a big piece, of the prophecy that kicks the invaders out of the Faraman Peninsula and brings the mythic griffins back to their long abandoned home.

As we discover in Gift of Griffins, all of the various magics used by the human population of this world were literally gifted to them by the griffins centuries if no millennia ago. But humans being human, pretty much the first thing those magic users did was band into tribes based on exactly which kinds of magic they used in exactly what way. Then they bickered amongst themselves until, humans being human again, wars broke out, different groups gained ascendancy, and then ruthlessly tried to wipe out whichever faction was sucking hind tit.

Humans do kind of suck sometimes. The griffins, taking the very (very, very) long view, are none too happy with the way that their gift is being abused.

So when Ker finds their stronghold, courtesy of her friend Wiemark – a very, very young griffin that she found and “woke” in the griffins old ancestral home – the griffins tell her to solve her own problems and refuse to let Wiemark go back with her to help her.

Ker has a lot of problems to solve. Her homeland has been invaded by the forces of the Sky Emperor of Halia across the ocean, along with their mages. The Halians believe that women are chattel, and therefore maraud through Faraman killing every woman they see who does not immediately obey their every command – as well as all the women in the military because of course women bearing arms is absolute anathema.

They also kill every single Faraman mage (called Talents) that they find. Because Faraman magic is also utterly corrupt – because they believe it is used by women to deceive and enslave men.

(Any commentary on any contemporary groups, issues or problems feels intentional to this reader. Your mileage may vary.)

Ker, along with the friends and allies that she has gathered along her journey, has to figure out a way to defeat a force of magic users who specialize in mind control – and are all too proficient at it.

But she has an unexpected ally – in the middle of the enemy stronghold. If she can be rescued. If they can join forces. If Faraman can be saved. If the prophecy can be brought to fruition.

The odds are long, the stakes are high – and not everything is quite the way it seems.

Great fun.

Escape Rating B+: On the one hand, it is very nice indeed to have an epic fantasy that seems to be complete in merely two books – and only a year apart at that. On the other hand, the ending felt a bit rushed. It seemed like Ker was still getting her allies lined up when the villains essentially delivered themselves into her waiting (and fully armored) arms.

Not that I wasn’t perfectly happy to see more-or-less good triumph and for definitely evil to get its just desserts – but it felt like 1.9 books of build up and only .1 books of resolution. It felt like the ending happened awfully fast. I wasn’t ready and it didn’t feel like they were, either.

Again, not that they are supposed to be so fully ready that the final battle turns out to be a cakewalk – but they didn’t feel quite ready enough.

On my third hand (so, I’m an alien – or Kali the Destroyer. Sue me if you dare! BWAHAHAHAHA) and not that Ker and her allies couldn’t have used Kali’s power, one of the things I really liked about Gift of Griffins was the discover that while Ker is part of the prophecy, she is not the usual “prophesied one” or “chosen one” who is supposed to save the day. And that the “chosen one” in this story was also a woman and not the boy king – a character who does exist in this story and does help but is also just part of the prophecy and not its culmination.

The characters, well, the ones on the side of the angels at least, are all interesting and Ker in particular is a lot of fun to follow. One of the things that also makes this story work, at least for me, is that Ker’s side, while it is manifestly better than the villains, is never claimed to be perfect. Ker’s people have certainly done their share of murder and suppression, just not on the grand and horrific scale that the Halians are engaging in.

That the Halians turn out to not be the cookie-cutter villains they first appear to be makes the story just that much more involving.

That Ker is working to restore a system that may very well separate her from the man she loves, because it is a better system overall for everyone else, is a big and interesting part of her internal conflict – and we like her because of it. We want her to both help save the day and find a way to keep her own personal happiness.

She’s earned it.

Review: Hard in Hightown by Varric Tethras with Mary Kirby

Review: Hard in Hightown by Varric Tethras with Mary KirbyHard in Hightown by Varric Tethras, Mary Kirby, Stefano Martino, Álvaro Sarraseca, Andrés Ponce, Ricardo German Ponce Torres, E.M. Gist
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy, graphic novel, mystery
Pages: 96
Published by Dark Horse Books on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Prolific dwarven author and heroic companion of the Dragon Age games, Varric Tethras brings us the collected edition of his breakthrough crime-noir drama, Hard in Hightown (with help from his trusted human confidante, Mary Kirby)! This volume is beautifully illustrated by Stefano Martino, Alvaro Sarraseca, Andres Ponce, and Ricardo German Ponce Torres, with a painted cover by E.M. Gist!

Twenty years of patrols have chiseled each and every stone of the Kirkwall streets into city guardsmen Donnen Brennokovic. Weary and weathered, Donnen is paired with a recruit so green he might as well have leaves growing out of his armor. When the mismatched pair discover a dead magistrate bleeding out on the flagstones, they're caught up in a clash between a shadowy organization known only as the Executors and a secretive group of Chantry agents--all over some ancient artifact.

This is a prose novel featuring 24 black and white full page images.

My Review:

This book seems like it’s kind of a joke. Admittedly an in-joke for people who love the Dragon Age games, of which I am certainly one.

But it also sorta/kinda isn’t a joke. Like many stories that are part of long-running series, it’s also a visit with old friends. Both of the slightly disguised and not-so-slightly disguised variety. After having a book epically fail this week, I needed something that was sort of a joke and definitely a visit with some old and dear friends.

That this was the first thing I ordered sent to the new house that has arrived so far was kind of icing on the cake. It was meant to be.

On the one hand, this story is pretty much steeped in the Dragon Age universe. Varric Tethras, the “author” of the book, has quite the reputation as an author within the series. When asked about his writing, his response rings true for the real world as well as his fictional world, “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.”

Hard in Hightown is one of his most popular. It’s also a lot of fun, mixing fairly standard genre tropes into what feels like a fully realized fantasy setting. It’s the story of a guardsman nearing retirement who falls headfirst into one last big case. A man with a reputation for breaking the rules in order to get things done, Donnen doggedly follows the sparse clues from person to person, place to place and ambush to ambush.

The path takes him through punishment, betrayal and ultimately a reward that is better than money. Or at least he hopes it will be.

And it’s the kind of tale that would easily fit into one of the old shared world series like Thieves’ World or Liavek. It also sounds like the kind of case, and in the kind of place, that Sam Vimes used to tackle in Ankh-Morpork before he married into the nobility.

In other words, Hard in Hightown is a mystery set in a fantasy universe. Reading it brought back a lot of fond memories, both of the game and of the fantasy mysteries it strongly resembles.

And it was a load of fun from beginning to end, at least for this fan. I’m not sure it would work for anyone who did not have at least a passing familiarity with Dragon Age, particularly Dragon Age II. Admittedly, I’m not sure why anyone who wasn’t already a fan would pick this up in the first place, except as a joke.

But Varric was every bit as much fun a storyteller as he is as a character. Reading this made me nostalgic. I think another playthrough of the series is on my horizon – at least as soon as we dig out from the worst of the moving debris.

Escape Rating B: I was looking for a palate-cleanser of a book, something to wash the taste of a complete failure out of my mouth. So I switched from a book that managed to make what should have been an exciting story into a dull recitation, and turned to a writer I knew could make falling down the stairs into an epic tale. And I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.

Review: Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S Dawson

Review: Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S DawsonKill the Farm Boy (The Tales of Pell, #1) by Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Series: Tales of Pell #1
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey Books on July 17, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In an irreverent new series in the tradition of Terry Pratchett novels and The Princess Bride, the New York Times bestselling authors of the Iron Druid Chronicles and Star Wars: Phasma reinvent fantasy, fairy tales, and floridly written feast scenes.

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a hero, the Chosen One, was born . . . and so begins every fairy tale ever told.

This is not that fairy tale.

There is a Chosen One, but he is unlike any One who has ever been Chosened.

And there is a faraway kingdom, but you have never been to a magical world quite like the land of Pell.

There, a plucky farm boy will find more than he's bargained for on his quest to awaken the sleeping princess in her cursed tower. First there's the Dark Lord who wishes for the boy's untimely death . . . and also very fine cheese. Then there's a bard without a song in her heart but with a very adorable and fuzzy tail, an assassin who fears not the night but is terrified of chickens, and a mighty fighter more frightened of her sword than of her chain-mail bikini. This journey will lead to sinister umlauts, a trash-talking goat, the Dread Necromancer Steve, and a strange and wondrous journey to the most peculiar "happily ever after" that ever once-upon-a-timed.

My Review:

If Robert Asprin’s Myth-Adventures series had a love child with Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, and then if that love child had a child with Monty Python – or possibly a love child with each individual member of Monty Python, all midwifed by The Princess Bride, you might get something like Kill the Farm Boy.

Or you’d get a cheese sandwich. Or possibly both.

On the one hand, the description of this book can easily be read as a fairly typical epic fantasy. A group of adventurers, including a ”chosen one” set out from obscurity to undertake a quest.

But this particular fantasy is fractured from beginning to end. Like so many fantasies, the adventuring party consists of a wizard or two, a rogue, a warrior, a bard and a trusty steed. The opening salvo in the quest is to rescue a fairy tale princess from a sleeping castle. In a twisted cross between Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast.

That beast is a rabbit. Or at least sort of a rabbit. And sort of a girl. The rogue is a klutz, and a not very bright klutz at that. Of the two wizards, neither is exactly the leader of the Light. One fancies himself a budding Dark Lord, and the other is as grey as grey can get – except for her hair, because the natural color of that has been hiding behind magic for decades at the very least.

The dangers they face are life threatening and never ending. But there’s no farm boy in sight. Oh, there was a farm boy all right, but he gets chosen for death relatively early in the story. The real “Chosen One” is the trusty steed, but he’s neither trusty nor exactly a steed. And he likes to eat boots.

If the tongue was any further in the cheek, it would poke out the other side.

Escape Rating C+:Some of the reviewers make the comparison between Kill the Farm Boy and the Discworld. If that comparison holds at all, it’s only between Kill the Farm Boy and the first two Discworld titles, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, where Sir Terry was merely skewering the genre and not exactly plotting a story. And where he clearly had no clue yet that he was at the beginning of something that needed a real plot, sympathetic characters and at least a bit of internal consistency to wrap around that skewer.

While I love the work of both of this book’s authors, Delilah Dawson for the Blud series and Kevin Hearne for the Iron Druid Chronicles, this collaboration does not live up to either of their previous work, nor to any of the many antecedents I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

And that’s a real pity, because Kill the Farm Boy had so much promise. And it does have its funny moments. But in the end it doesn’t deliver – even though it’s obvious that the co-authors had tons of fun in the process of writing this.

The snark is too thick and the plot is too thin. It reminds me of the lesson that Mike the computer learns in Robert A. Heinlein’s marvelous The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Mike is trying to teach himself humor, and his human friend introduces him to the difference between “funny once” and “funny always”. Kill the Farm Boy attempts to be “funny always” by keeping up a nonstop torrent of snark and in-jokes.

And those are almost always “funny once”.

But we’ll be back in Pell for No Country for Old Gnomes. It took Sir Terry until at least Mort (Discworld #4) for that series to really get its legs under it. Maybe The Tales of Pell will manage to get there a little sooner. We’ll see.

Review: Prisoner of the Crown by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Prisoner of the Crown by Jeffe KennedyPrisoner of the Crown by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #1
Pages: 160
Published by Rebel Base Books on June 12, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

She was raised to be beautiful, nothing more. And then the rules changed . . .   In icy Dasnaria, rival realm to the Twelve Kingdoms, a woman’s role is to give pleasure, produce heirs, and question nothing. But a plot to overthrow the emperor depends on the fate of his eldest daughter. And the treachery at its heart will change more than one carefully limited life . . .   THE GILDED CAGE Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.   But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…   Praise for The Mark of the Tala   “Magnificent…a richly detailed fantasy world.” RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars, Top Pick   “Well written and swooningly romantic.” Library Journal, starred review

My Review:

This book comes with ALL the trigger warnings. Jenna’s story is not for the faint of heart, should not be read with the lights off, and probably should not be read just before bedtime. She has to survive a nightmare before she begins to step into the light, and reading her travails just before one’s own bedtime is likely to result in some epic nightmares.

I didn’t even risk it.

What keeps the first two thirds of this story from merely being page after page of increasing, unrelieved terror is that the story is narrated in the first-person, from the perspective of an older, wiser and cannier Jenna. A Jenna who clearly survived all of the terrible abuse she suffered in the first two thirds of the book.

It’s not just that the women of the imperial seraglio in Dasnaria are kept in a prison. Albeit a gilded, perfumed prison with regular, excellent meals as well plenty of companionship and entertainment. They are pampered pets who are raised not to even be aware that they are pets and playthings and not even considered exactly people.

It’s that Jenna is first abused by her own mother, who whips her, poisons her and punishes her to train her to survive what the outside world will do to her. And who is using Jenna to further her own ends and extend her own power.

Then Jenna is married off in a strategic alliance to a man who has murdered his four previous wives – because they couldn’t survive his constant abuse. Jenna’s parents, her father the emperor and her mother the empress, know that King Rodolf is a man who is only sexually aroused by beating women into terrified submission. All the emperor asks is that Jenna’s new husband refrain from damaging her face when he can see it.

The only “help” she gets from her mother is a servant who will provide her with enough drugs to keep the pain and terror at bay.

Jenna’s life is hard to bear, and difficult to read about. Just as she has reached the point where a quick death seems like her best option, her brother opens the bars of her cage, and sets her on the journey to freedom.

We’ve met her brother Harlan before in the Twelve Kingdoms series, of which The Chronicles of Dasnaria is an offshoot. A grown-up Harlan, exiled from his father’s kingdom of Dasnaria, becomes the consort of Princess Ursula in the absolutely marvelous The Talon of the Hawk.

Jenna’s rescue is clearly the first step in Harlan’s journey to become the man worthy of the Crown Princess of the Twelve Kingdoms. But the hero of Prisoner of the Crown is clearly the young, deluded, beaten, abused but ultimately unbroken Jenna.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard book to rate, because Jenna’s journey from pampered child to determined woman take her through one dark place after another. We feel for her, we want better for her, but we spend most of the book terrified that she isn’t going to get anything approaching that better.

Although Harlan certainly provides a big assist, in the end, Jenna rescues herself, and that’s important for her story and her journey. She begins the book as a child who does not look beyond her cage, and ends by taking her life into her own hands and breaking free.

What makes the story so difficult to bear is that we see the cage tighten around her for so much of the book. Her hard-won freedom barely has time to register before the book ends – while clearly the story does not. She has taken just the first few steps on a journey that is far from over, but readers will have to wait until September to see how Jenna handles and protects her dearly-bought freedom. It’s going to be an exasperating wait.

But for those who have not read the previous series, The Twelve Kingdoms and its followup The Uncharted Realms, this is not a bad place to start as all of the action in this story takes place before The Mark of the Tala, the first book in the Twelve Kingdoms opens. We do meet both Harlan, the hero of The Talon of the Hawk, and Kral, the hero of The Edge of the Blade, as young men. In Harlan’s case, very, very young as he’s only 14 in Prisoner of the Crown. Prisoner, at least, presupposes little previous knowledge of this world. However, I suspect that the future books in the Dasnaria series are going to edge closer to the time period of The Twelve Kingdoms. If you get caught up in Jenna’s journey, there’s plenty of time to catch up with the rest of this world before the next book.

Jenna’s journey continues in Exile of the Seas. And I can’t wait to continue it with her.

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 480
Published by Del Rey on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders... but her father isn't a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife's dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty--until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers' pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed--and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it's worth--especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

My Review:

This is the story of Persephone at Night on Bald Mountain, with a bit of an assist from Rumpelstiltskin. In other words, Spinning Silver is another from the mind of Naomi Novik, a fitting follow up to the utterly marvelous Uprooted.

Spinning Silver is also a story where those myths and fairy tales, and all of the tropes that have been based on them, have been turned right on their pointy little heads, and where, in the end, the princesses all rescue themselves, without much, if any, help from the princes, thank you very much.

And where everyone gets what they’ve earned – nothing more and absolutely nothing less.

As fits a story that has been brewed from multiple source myths, Spinning Silver has multiple perspectives – and all of them are female. We begin (and end) the story from the point of view of Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a moneylender in a fairy tale land that has more than a passing resemblance to Russia.

Miryem is a young woman who does not believe in fairy tales. She has always seen the classic trope of the princess bargaining for wealth and riches from a fairy godmother as a cheat, where someone else does all the work and the princess gets out from under her obligations and wins by cheating someone else.

That’s Miryem’s reality. Her father is the moneylender in their small town, and everyone cheats him and spits on him because he is a Jew. They think it is right and proper to borrow money from him whenever they want and then pretend they have nothing to pay him back with when the money is due. And because Jews are hated and despised, he’s just supposed to take the abuse even though his own family is starving.

Miryem takes over her father’s failing business, and learns to spin silver into gold. It’s not magic, it’s just good business. But the cold and magical Staryk covet gold above all things, and when they hear her claim, they press her into their service.

But this is also the story of Wanda Vitkus. Wanda begins the story even poorer than Miryem. She is the daughter of the town drunk, who beats her and her two brothers mercilessly whenever he is drunk. Which is often. Wanda is every bit as starving as Miryem, because her father drinks away the money they owe the moneylender. But when Wanda begins working for Miryem and her family to pay off her father’s debt, both Miryem and Wanda are richer by the exchange, even if neither of them is aware they are helping the other.

And this is also the story of Irina, daughter of the local Duke, and her nurse Magreta. Once neglected and disregarded, Irina finds herself at the center of her father’s political machinations once events are set in motion. It is up to Irina to find a way to survive her marriage to the young tsar, a man who hides a terrible demon.

Working separately, Irina and Miryem, who would normally never meet, both discover that their world is under threat by competing magics, and that they only way they can save not only those they hold dear but save themselves, is to band together in a terrible plot to pit two gods against each other – and pray that the world survives their cataclysmic war.

Escape Rating A+: If you loved Uprooted, you will love Spinning Silver. If you love fractured fairy tales, or female-centric retellings of myths and legends, you will love Spinning Silver. This was marvelous and beautiful and even heartbreaking. And it is glorious.

These are myths that should not go together. They are from completely different belief systems and pantheons and traditions. And yet, in this version, they do.

If you read fractured mythologies, you may recognize Chernobog from Neil Gaiman’s tour-de-force American Gods. Or you may remember the name from Disney’s Fantasia. Chernobog is the dark god that is the evil in that particularly classic rendition of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

Persephone, or Proserpina to use her Roman name, is the goddess of Hades and the consort of the lord of the Underworld in those mythologies. She’s the goddess who spends six months in the underworld and six months in the sunlit worlds.

And Rumpelstiltskin, of course, is the imp who changes straw into gold after making a bargain with a princess who then refuses to pay what is due. Miryem would say she wins by cheating. Not that Miryem doesn’t also rather loosely interpret the bargain she finds herself in, but she does all the work herself in the end.

I found myself feeling for all of the heroines in this tale, but particularly Miryem. Miryem is Jewish, and her circumstances reflect the difficulties that Jews faced in medieval and renaissance Europe, including Russia. There were few professions open to Jews, with moneylending being the one that was the most profitable, and became the most infamous. The Jews were blamed for everything from bad crops to epidemics, walled up in ghettoes, and murdered with abandon whenever things went wrong – or whenever the local lord needed to wipe out all his outstanding debts. Within the circle of her family she is safe and loved, but the world is not merely cold and cruel, but actively dangerous for reasons that are totally unjust but that she can’t fix. She is always in a no-win scenario – until she finds a way to break out.

Irina, Wanda and Magrete are equally trapped in situations not of their making. Both Irina and Wanda are forced to obey men who want to kill them merely because they are women. That they find ways to survive and conquer in spite of their situations is what makes them equally the heroines of this tale.

One of the important points in this story, and one that will resonate long after the book is closed, is a meditation on the Shakespearean quote, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but once.” In Spinning Silver, the same is true for a brave woman. Each of the women of this story face multiple situations where they have to choose between dying a little at a time, or being brave in the face of imminent danger and taking the risk of standing up for themselves, no matter what the cost. For each of them it feels like a choice between striving for what is right and proper, for what is their due, or letting society and circumstances beat them down into less than nothing. They stand, and that’s what makes them heroines.

Surprisingly, considering how much these women have to fight along the way, love does conquer all and they do live more or less happily ever after, although not all in the same way. But in every case, it’s because they’ve earned it.

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle TellerAll the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the vein of Wicked, The Woodcutter, and Boy, Snow, Bird, a luminous reimagining of a classic tale, told from the perspective of Agnes, Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My Review:

As Agnes says, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power.” And that is as true of the story that Agnes tells of her own life as it is about the fairy tale that becomes wrapped around the life of her stepdaughter Ella – known to legend as Cinderella. Although Ella never spent a day amongst the cinders in her entire privileged life.

Well, there was that one day, but it wasn’t exactly like the fairy tale. Then again, nothing was like the fairy tale. Because fairy tales aren’t real. They are just more compelling than day-to-day reality.

At least reality according to Ella’s not-so-wicked stepmother. Who may, of course, be an unreliable narrator of her own life – but then, aren’t we all?

Agnes begins her life as the second daughter of a poor serf in the village of Aviceford. Her family is too poor to feed her along with everyone else, so she is sent to the manor to become a laundry maid. It’s the best/worst thing that ever happens to her, and pretty much sets the pattern for her entire life.

Agnes is a woman who never manages to take two steps forward without taking at least one step back. While there are some happy moments in her life, they seem to mostly occur in spite of every single deck stacked against her pretty much all the time.

It’s a sad tale.

Just when it seems Agnes has finally found a way to have a fairly good and productive life, if not exactly a happy one, she finds herself face to face, or tantrum to tantrum, with her stepdaughter Ella. The world may see Ella as a fairy tale princess, but Agnes has to deal with her as a spoiled little brat who grows into a spoiled and self-indulgent young woman.

Not that Agnes ever says any of that to herself. She’s doing her level best to raise Ella, and she’s actually a pretty reasonable stepmother, but circumstances, along with the girl’s father and her godmother – who is certainly no magical being – thwart any attempt at the slightest amount of discipline at every turn.

What we’re left with is the story of a young woman who managed to get her way all her life, and the poor woman who has been cast as evil not because of anything she actually said or did, but because it fits the fairy tale so much better.

Escape Rating B: The obvious comparison is to Wicked, which I admit I have not read. Just as in Wicked, we have the “true” story, told in her own words, of a character that myth has turned into an absolute monster. Of course no one ever sees themselves as a monster.

At the end, I found myself sympathizing with Agnes and her two daughters, and thinking that Ella is at best a spoiled and self-indulgent little brat, who barely has the intelligence to keep manipulating circumstances to her own advantage.

Agnes’ story, on the other hand, reads like a tragedy. She does her best, and life knocks her down at every turn. But I did like the way that the author turned the whole “ugly stepsister” trope on its tiny little head.

It is true that we have an unfortunate tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and that correlation is far from proven. Ella’s stepsisters Charlotte and Matilda are objectively not beautiful by the standards of the time. Their father was one of the Moors from Spain, and as a consequence their skin is too dark for conventional beauty. Charlotte suffered an accident with scalding water as a child, and Matilda survived a terrible case of smallpox. Both left scars. But they both are considerably more beautiful on the inside (and a whole lot cleverer) than Ella has the wit to be. I wish we saw a bit more of them.

I also enjoyed the way that Agnes simply questioned the logic of some of the stranger conclusions drawn by the fairy tale. Of course the Prince could easily find Ella. That’s what loyal retainers are for. And while he may have been completely smitten, he would instantly recognize her the moment they were face to face again. And that whole business of cutting off toes and heels – UGH!

I enjoyed Agnes journal entries in the present much more than her memories of the past. Her story seems to move from downtrodden tragedy to downtrodden tragedy, and while it feels at least somewhat true to medieval life and its lack of opportunities for women, it becomes disheartening to read after a time.

The story ends with poor Agnes worrying that she was not charitable enough in her behavior towards Ella. Not because that behavior has resulted in her current circumstances, but because she finds herself believing that she didn’t bend over backwards to indulge the child nearly enough.

In this version of the fairy tale, at least, the stepmother has nothing to feel guilty about.

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