Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin ChupecoSilver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Pages: 512
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Full of court intrigue, queer romance, and terrifying monsters—this gothic epic fantasy will appeal to fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast is many things: the only son of the Duke of Valenbonne (though his father might wish otherwise), an elite bounty hunter of rogue vampires, and an outcast among his fellow Reapers. His mother was the subject of gossip even before she eloped with a vampire, giving rise to the rumors that Remy is half-vampire himself. Though the kingdom of Aluria barely tolerates him, Remy’s father has been shaping him into a weapon to fight for the kingdom at any cost.
When a terrifying new breed of vampire is sighted outside of the city, Remy prepares to investigate alone. But then he encounters the shockingly warmhearted vampire heiress Xiaodan Song and her infuriatingly arrogant fiancé, vampire lord Zidan Malekh, who may hold the key to defeating the creatures—though he knows associating with them won’t do his reputation any favors. When he’s offered a spot alongside them to find the truth about the mutating virus Rot that’s plaguing the kingdom, Remy faces a choice.
It’s one he’s certain he’ll regret.
But as the three face dangerous hardships during their journey, Remy develops fond and complicated feelings for the couple. He begins to question what he holds true about vampires, as well as the story behind his own family legacy. As the Rot continues to spread across the kingdom, Remy must decide where his loyalties lie: with his father and the kingdom he’s been trained all his life to defend or the vampires who might just be the death of him.

My Review:

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into this book, and now that I’ve read it I’m still not entirely sure. Except that it was fantastic. Heart-pounding, fingernail-biting, stay up until 3 in the morning to finish fantastic.

But the question about whether this is fantasy or horror still feels a bit up in the air.

Let me explain…

Remy Pendergast is a Reaper. In this world that means vampire hunter. But Remy only hunts so-called “rogue” vampires – ones who are causing mischief in human-controlled countries like Aluria. Vampires also have fiefdoms of their own where the rules are undoubtedly different.

Where Remy wouldn’t exactly be welcome because he’s famous for hunting their kind.

Not that Remy is exactly welcome in his own country, either. And not because he’s a Reaper. There are plenty of Reapers in high positions in Aluria’s government. In fact, his father used to be one of them.

But his father, who is a cantankerous old bastard at the best of times – of which he has damn few – is also in the midst of a lifelong feud with the head of the Reaper’s Guild – who also happens to be the Royal Chancellor. A man who is just as big a bastard as Remy’s father, and who is taking his feud out on the son now that the father has publicly retired.

And that’s just the tip of the really massive and ugly iceberg of why Remy is persona non grata in his own country – unless they need something killed and everyone else is too scared or too prissy to get their hands dirty.

That’s where the zombies come in. Well, not really and not exactly zombies. But sorta/kinda and close enough.

Someone is creating monsters that at first seem to be super-duper enhanced vampires. But they’re not. They’re mindless husks who regenerate at will and seem to be impossible to kill. Upon closer scientific study (this world is steampunk-ish so there’s plenty of mad science at least of the medical variety) it’s revealed that these mindless husks were never vampires – and that vampires are immune to the infection that creates them.

Lord Malekh and Lady Song, leaders of the Third and Fourth vampire Courts, have come to Aluria to ally with its Queen in order to combat what they call “The Rot” and whoever is behind that threat.

They need a human liaison. They both want Remy (in more ways than one) – who isn’t at all sure what he wants except to get out of Aluria for a while. The political temperature is getting way too hot for him and his father’s demands are becoming even more outrageous than they always have been.

And he’s tempted. Even though becoming a vampire’s familiar is against the law. Even though he’s fought vampires all his life. Even though a vampire killed his mother and he was born from her corpse.

Even though Malekh and Song are clearly in love and engaged to marry each other. Remy can’t understand why either of them wants him when no one else has ever wanted to do anything except use him for their own purposes.

He has a chance at having the kind of happiness that he never expected to even get a glimpse of. And he’s so, so certain that someone will take it away from him – unless he does it to himself first.

Escape Rating A+: Clearly, the setup for this is ginormous. It’s also endlessly fascinating. I got stuck into this and absolutely could not get out until I finished the last page at about 3 AM. It was just that good.

To the point where I’ll probably be squeeing uncontrollably more than reviewing per se. But I did love it so, so hard.

While the blurbs reference the anime series (and videogame) Castlevania, I think that’s because of the vampires, the politics and the monsters. I haven’t played or watched that so it’s not where my mind went. Instead, I kept seeing Remy as a younger, less confident Geralt of Rivia, in a world where hunting magical creatures gone rogue is needed while the people who do it are reviled. I would call it a bit of a coming-of-age story for The Witcher but I’m not sure Remy is fully adulting even by the end of the story – although he’s finally getting there.

Where I started with this review was that I still wasn’t sure whether the book was horror or fantasy. It was presented to me as horror and the scientific experimentation with zombie-like monsters who roam the countryside and infect others definitely has that vibe. There’s even a Doctor Frankenstein who is entirely too proud of his work even if he doesn’t use electricity to achieve his goals.

And then there’s the vampires, both the rogue vampires and the sexy vampire nobility. Which pushes the whole thing towards the paranormal which is an offshoot of horror.

But the form of the story reads like a big, sprawling epic fantasy. The world is huge and vastly complicated. The political agendas have political agendas and everyone is trying to knife everyone else in the back. The grudges seem to last for centuries – and not just among the vampires who have the excuse of living that long.

Basically, the politics behind everything are beyond Byzantine – as much as that is still an understatement if I ever heard one.

All of that makes the story feel epic in scope in a way that horror seldom is. And most of what is truly horrible in this story isn’t the monsters. It’s all the endless betrayals. It feels like the foundations of Remy’s world get pulled out from under him over and over as he keeps learning that under the corruption of everything if you scrape it away there’s yet another layer of, you guessed it, rot and corruption. Nothing he thinks he knows turns out to have any bearing on any truth.

That the triad relationship between Malekh, Song and Remy becomes both his only source of solace and a never-ending well of betrayal AT THE SAME TIME is just the icing on what is an utterly decadently delicious devil’s food cake of a story.

Whether it’s horror or fantasy or gothic or all of the above it’s riveting and downright compelling every step of the way. But whatever genre it falls into, I’m absolutely thrilled that the story isn’t over. Silver Under Nightfall is the first book in a projected duology, so there’s more dark, deadly and decadent delights to come!

Review: Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck

Review: Small Town, Big Magic by Hazel BeckSmall Town, Big Magic by Hazel Beck
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, paranormal romance, urban fantasy
Series: Witchlore #1
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of THE EX HEX and PAYBACK'S A WITCH, a fun, witchy rom-com in which a bookstore owner who is fighting to revitalize a small midwestern town clashes with her rival, the mayor, and uncovers not only a clandestine group that wields a dark magic to control the idyllic river hamlet, but hidden powers she never knew she possessed.

Witches aren't real. Right?

No one has civic pride quite like Emerson Wilde. As a local indie bookstore owner and youngest-ever Chamber of Commerce president, she’d do anything for her hometown of St. Cyprian, Missouri. After all, Midwest is best! She may be descended from a witch who was hanged in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials, but there’s no sorcery in doing your best for the town you love.Or is there?
As she preps Main Street for an annual festival, Emerson notices strange things happening around St. Cyprian. Strange things that culminate in a showdown with her lifelong arch-rival, Mayor Skip Simon. He seems to have sent impossible, paranormal creatures after her. Creatures that Emerson dispatches with ease, though she has no idea how she’s done it. Is Skip Simon…a witch? Is Emerson?
It turns out witches are real, and Emerson is one of them. She failed a coming-of-age test at age eighteen—the only test she’s ever failed!—and now, as an adult, her powers have come roaring back.
But she has little time to explore those powers, or her blossoming relationship with her childhood friend, cranky-yet-gorgeous local farmer Jacob North: an ancient evil has awakened in St. Cyprian, and it’s up to Emerson and her friends—maybe even Emerson herself—to save everything she loves.

My Review:

Once upon a time (mostly in the 1980s and 1990s) there were a whole lot of books telling stories about people (usually young women) who discovered that the mundane world all around them hid secret places and even more secretive people filled with magic – and danger. And that the protagonist of those stories either belonged in those magical places or discovered them or had to save them.

Or all of the above.

Emerson Wilde used to read all of those books, tucked inside the safe and comforting shelves of her beloved grandmother’s bookstore, Confluence Books. But her grandmother has passed, and left the store, her quirky Victorian house, and her legacy to Emerson.

Even if Emerson doesn’t remember the full extent of that legacy or her family’s place in St. Cyprian Missouri, a beautiful little town that sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Emerson thinks of St. Cyprian as a magical little town, one she’s proud to be a part of as a small business owner and president of its Chamber of Commerce. She doesn’t know the half of it.

But she’s about to find out.

Escape Rating B: Just like Emerson, I read all those books too, which meant that I sorta/kinda knew how this one was going to go. If you took a selection of those books and threw them in a blender with A Marvelous Light by Freya Marske, Witch Please by Ann Aguirre, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson and just a bit of Manipulative Dumbledore-style Harry Potter fanfiction you’d get something a lot like Small Town, Big Magic.

Not that that’s a bad thing, as each of those antecedents has plenty to recommend it. And if you like any of them you’ll probably like at least some parts of this first book in the Witchlore series.

But as much as I loved the premise – or most of the premises – that make up this story, there were a few things that drove me utterly bananas.

Many of those original urban fantasy-type stories focus on a relatively young protagonist who has their world view overturned when they learn that magic is real, all around them, and that they have at least some of it.

Emerson’s “unbusheling” as it’s called in A Marvelous Light isn’t like that at all. Because she did know about magic until she was 18 – and that’s where the Harry Potter fanfiction reference comes in. Emerson’s memory of magic was wiped because she failed a test of power – and that whole scenario is suspicious in a way that does not get resolved at the end of this first book in the series.

Second, she is an adult when her memories come back after an attack by a magical creature. The tragedy of this story is that her closest friends have all stayed with her, stayed her besties, for the decade or so that her memory has been gone. And they’ve all retained their magic, their complete memories, and have kept the secret. The thought of that compromise is kind of hellish, that they all loved her enough to stick by her – and that they all feared the witchy powers-that-be enough to keep her utterly in the dark about the truth of their world.

So when Emerson’s powers start coming back, her friends are equal parts scared and thrilled. Thrilled they can finally be their full selves around her. Scared that the powerful witch council will learn that she’s broken the memory block and that they’ve all told her all the things they promised not to tell under threat of their own memory wipes – or worse.

And they are collectively even more frightened because Emerson’s powers must have returned for a reason. A reason that is likely to be even bigger and more threatening than whatever that council will do to them.

What kept making me crazy was that in the midst of all this her friends were just as over-protective and condescending as any of the adults assisting a young first-time magic user are in any of those stories from the 80s and 90s. The situation frustrated the hell out of Emerson, and I was right there with her.

I also think it made her learning curve drag out a bit more than the story needed.

But there’s something else, and it looms even larger now that I’ve finished the book. There are two antagonists in this story. The first, and the largest by nature, is, quite literally, nature. An evil menace is filtering into the confluence of the rivers that sustain the magic of not just St. Cyprian, but the entire magical world. Emerson’s powers have emerged because it is her task to lead the coven that can stop it – even if she has to sacrifice herself in the stopping.

Howsomever, the focus through the entire story is on the other big bad – that leader of the local council who memory-wiped Emerson, exiled her sister Rebekah, drove her parents out of St. Cyprian and has generally been manipulating the entire town through her coven/council for some reason that has not yet been revealed.

And isn’t revealed by the end of the story. So everything ends on a ginormous freaking cliffhanger. The evil menace in the waters seems to have been dealt with – at least for now. But the council has just arrived to deliver what their leader believes is a well-deserved smackdown for saving everyone’s asses.

Literally just arrived as the book doesn’t so much end as come to a temporary and frustrating halt in mid-looming threat.

And we still don’t know what the root cause of that conflict even is. The ending isn’t satisfying. I need to know why the leader seems to have had it in for Emerson and her entire family long before the events of this book. The evil in the water, as much as it needed to be eliminated, wasn’t personal – at least as far as we know. It needed to be resolved but it’s difficult to get invested in. I’m invested in seeing that manipulative witch get exactly what’s coming to her. And I didn’t even get a hint.

Hopefully the answers – or at least some of them – will be revealed in the second book in the series, Big Little Spells. Because I’m salivating for some just desserts to be served.

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, retellings, young adult
Pages: 236
Published by 47North on November 24, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Young Rhea is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.

Lord Crevan demands that Rhea visit his remote manor before their wedding. Upon arrival, she discovers that not only was her betrothed married six times before, but his previous wives are all imprisoned in his enchanted castle. Determined not to share their same fate, Rhea asserts her desire for freedom. In answer, Lord Crevan gives Rhea a series of magical tasks to complete, with the threat “Come back before dawn, or else I’ll marry you.”

With time running out and each task more dangerous and bizarre than the last, Rhea must use her resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery to rally the other wives and defeat the sorcerer before he binds her to him forever.

My Review:

I picked up The Seventh Bride because I love T. Kingfisher’s work and especially because I love her stories of young women – often very, very young – who have found themselves in a seriously large and potentially deadly pickle of epic proportions. Who, instead of whining, “oh woe is me!” or their world’s equivalent, put on the big girl panties they may not even be old enough to actually have yet and set about the business of saving themselves and everyone around them.

Just like Mona in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and especially Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is a young woman who is forced to adult really hard because the adults around her are either not up to the job (Mona) or are in positions of powerlessness relative to the evil aristocratic villain who is pulling everyone’s strings (Marra).

Rhea knows there’s something seriously wrong in the whole idea of a nobleman sweeping in to marry a miller’s daughter. Not because fairy tales don’t occasionally happen, and not that this won’t be one someday, but she knows it doesn’t happen to relatively plain girls in working-class families without some kind of magical intervention.

She’s also all too aware that no matter how the mysterious Lord Crevan might phrase his proposal, neither Rhea nor her parents have any real choice in the matter. He’s manipulating them all and he’s enjoying it.

Rhea’s just as aware that her parents are doing their best to pretend that this mess isn’t as wrong as it really is. She’s angry and frustrated because she knows there’s something rotten going on, and she’s exasperated almost beyond bearing that her parents keep trying to pretend that things might be okay after all. It takes a long time and a lot of thought for her to acknowledge that they are basically whistling past the graveyard and that they are hoping that if they pretend hard enough that things might not be quite so bad – although they probably will be.

But when Rhea arrives at Lord Crevan’s hidden country estate she discovers that actually – the whole thing is much, much worse than she imagined. That there are fates worse than death and that six of Crevan’s previous wives have all landed in those situations. And that Rhea is next unless she can find a way to stop him before its too late for her- and her hedgehog – if not for them.

Escape Rating A: The Seventh Bride is right at the crossroads between fairy tales, fantasy, horror and young adult. Or it is if there’s a skeleton buried under that crossroads.

It also reads like a bit of a ‘dress-rehearsal’ for Nettle & Bone, having been originally published eight years before Nettle. The two stories have a lot of the same elements, but as they are all elements that I love, that’s an excellent thing.

Like Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is in an impossible situation, one in which she knows she’s utterly powerless. At least in any traditional sense of power. She’s low born, she’s young, she’s female, her family is dependent on the local lord’s goodwill. Even if Lord Crevan mistreats her – as she expects he will – if she refuses him her family will, at best, be thrown out of their house and livelihood. At worst, they’ll all be killed. She’s in that squeeze between the rock and the hard place. She expects the hard place to be hard, but her parents will survive her going there and it might not be AS bad as she fears. The rock will crush them all for certain if she doesn’t.

But that’s where the magic of the tale comes in, in its horrible, beneficent, and human aspects. All at once. Because if there’s one thing Rhea is good at, it’s making the best of her situation. There’s a band of sisters waiting for her at Lord Crevan’s estate – his other wives. She has allies – and she gives them hope. She finds a way to fight back that is both underhanded and subversive.

And why shouldn’t she? It’s not as if Crevan is playing fair.

The more she sees of the horror that she’ll have to endure if she submits, or is ground under, the more determined she is to find a way out. And the more she shows that he can be subverted, the more of his other wives are willing to help her do so.

The creepy factor in this one is very high. The sense of a band coming together is very strong. And the possibility of a villain getting EXACTLY what’s coming to him is EXTREMELY satisfying.

So don’t let the idea that this might be YA-ish stop you from picking up this marvelously creepy story of magic, helpfully intelligent animals (Rhea’s hedgehog friend is adorable), found sisterhood and evil getting hoist on its own pointy petard. (Especially as the ebook is currently on sale for 99 cents. It’s an absolute STEAL!)

And if the author ever writes a bonus scene of Rhea, Marra and Mona sitting down for tea in some place between the worlds, I’d love to be a fly on that wall – or at least a reader of that story!

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.Councilor (The Grand Illusion #2) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, gaslamp
Series: Grand Illusion #2
Pages: 528
Published by Tor Books on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his brand new, gaslamp, political fantasy series with Councilor the thrilling sequel to Isolate. Welcome to the Grand Illusion.
Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers.
Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths.
This makes him dangerous.
As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.

The Grand Illusion
Isolate

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title seems to revolve around the illusion that political action can “fix” things, whether what needs fixing is a country or a system or a person’s circumstances. Even, in a peculiar way, the weather. Or at least the effects of that weather.

This second book in the series, after last year’s marvelous Isolate, continues to follow Stefan Dekkard on his journey from being a political outsider, merely a security aide to one of the 66 councilors of Guldor, to his new position as a councilor in his own right. In other words, Stefan has gone from being an observer of the process – albeit an active and sometimes intimate one – to someone who is part of how the sausage gets made.

There’s a reason why politics is such a dirty business that no one REALLY wants to learn the truth of the process. Which doesn’t mean that some people don’t have to – and that some people don’t enjoy manipulating that process as much as they are able.

The setup of Guldor as a country, and its government, is a fascinating one. The setting is gaslamp fantasy, so they have steam power and electric power, they can make some unfortunately high-powered military ordinance. They are also in the middle, maybe a bit later than that, into the throes of their Industrial Revolution. Meaning that there is a lot of change and a lot of damage as a result of that change. Land and farming don’t convey the power that they used to. Large commercial interests have large amounts of money and therefor large amounts of influence. Small businesses and artisan business are on the rise but have not yet caught up in the power games being played.

If one thinks of the Guldorian political parties; Landor, Commerce and Craft, as being (very) roughly analogous to the British Tories, Liberals and Labour parties respectively, that’s probably not TOO far off.

Stories that take place in times of great upheaval are always interesting, because there are so many opportunities to go both right and wrong and so many people lining up to push in one direction or another. Guldor is at such a crossroads. The Landor (traditional) party has lost some of its sway but still thinks they could get back to their “good old days”.

The Commerce party has been the ruling party for 30 years, and have gotten so used to being on the top of the heap that they seem to have stopped bothering to cover up their abuses of power. To the point where the monarch of this constitution monarchy was forced to call for new elections – and to the point where voters were so fed up that they were willing to make a radical choice and vote in a Craft Party administration.

A circumstance that the Commerce Party doesn’t merely want but absolutely NEEDS to discredit and outright reverse by ANY means necessary. Not merely the quiet assassinations of Craft Party councilors that has been going on for YEARS at this point, but outright terrorism and revolution.

After all, they have an existing scapegoat for all their actions in the subversive Meritorist movement. Or, perhaps, and much more likely, they created one for just such a potentiality. So far, it’s been working out well for them, even if badly for everyone else.

And the entire situation is about to get a whole lot worse.

Escape Rating A: Just as with the first book in the series, Isolate, the story in Councilor is a story about politics that is told through people. Stefan Dekkard is, on the one hand, a bit of an everyman, and on the other a very singular individual with a specific set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. He is very good at observing the world around him, reaching synthesis of disparate and often contrary bits of information and then swiftly acting on his conclusions. He’s also damn good at keeping himself alive in a situation where, maybe not everyone, but certainly entirely too many people really are out to get him.

At the same time, he’s been an actual Crafter, he attended the military academy and has been a security guard to an active councilor. He’s also an isolate, think psi-null, in a society where nearly everyone can be read by elite psi-users who can both read and influence everyone except Stefan and the relatively rare others like him.

We’re following him and his career because Stefan is always an outsider in his own society and can observe without being psychically influenced or read by anyone who might want to probe his secrets or control his actions. Which does not mean that he doesn’t feel emotions or that he can’t be swayed by them, just no more or less than any of us, and in the same ways that we’re used to. It makes him an excellent surrogate for the reader.

As a new councilor, Stefan faces all of the newbie insecurities, and also starts out not knowing nearly enough to do the job. As he learns, we learn how things are – and are not – working right along with him.

He’s also newly married – to his former security partner – as this book begins. Theirs has always been a relationship of equals, and that does not change now that they are married (The author generally does an excellent job of creating these kinds of relationships and making sure that females are equally represented and equally powerful throughout his stories.)

At the same time, their relationship is changing in ways that they have to adjust to – and we see them do it. All in all, the way this story is told is that we see both the exciting things and the prosaic things and we keep following along because we get involved with the people to whom these events are happening. The story literally pulls the reader along because we want to see how they cope with the next load of feces that hits the oscillating device, whether large or small.

So this is a story about watching people do the best they can in circumstances that are less than ideal but that they know they need to get through anyway. And it does its best, which is very well indeed, to pierce through the veil that obfuscates the grand illusion that politics or political action can make absolutely everyone happy and solve everyone’s problems every time.

While still presenting the idea that a government – and the people who are part of it – doing their very best to act to promote the common weal and not for the interests of themselves and their partisans, will, by its very nature, satisfy more of the population more of the time more fairly than anyone in the game for the pursuit of their own private interests.

This is the second book in the series, and it looks like we’re going to be following Dekkard’s political career wherever it might lead him, most likely, or perhaps hopefully, from his beginning as a security aide in Isolate through his first term as a Councilor and on up the ladder of achievements and setbacks until he reaches some pinnacle that we can’t see from here. But I hope we do in the future books in this series.

Howsomever, based on the title, it’s quite possible that the next book in the series will represent one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. The title will be Contrarian according to the author’s blog, and I already can’t wait to read it.

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea AbdullahThe Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah
Narrator: Nikki Massoud, Sean Rohani, Rasha Zamamiri
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, retellings
Series: Sandsea Trilogy #1
Pages: 480
Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes
Published by Hachette Audio, Orbit Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, this book weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Neither here nor there, but long ago . . . 
Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.
With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan's oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie's past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

My Review:

“Neither here nor there, but long ago…” or so the storytellers begin their best tales. Of which The Stardust Thief is most definitely one.

Loulie al-Nazari is the legendary Midnight Merchant, an infamous smuggler of magic relics left behind in the world of humans by the powerful, dangerous and deadly jinn. But she has a secret – of course she does. She finds the jinn relics that she sells to discerning buyers at extravagant prices with the help of a jinn relic of her own – along with the able assistance of her taciturn bodyguard, Qadir. Who is one of the hated and feared jinn, hiding in very plain sight. Only Loulie knows Qadir’s true identity – not that she knows even as much of that identity as she believes she does.

Mazen bin Malik is the second son of the Sultan. He’s been sheltered to the point of imprisonment for most of his life, while his older brother Omar has become their father’s heir, not just to the throne in the hazy future, but even now to their father’s position as the leader of the infamous ‘Forty Thieves’ – jinn killers who steal and murder on behalf of their leader, the prince they call ‘King’.

Mazen would rather be one of the storytellers in the souk. At least that way he’d have some freedom – and some purpose.

They shouldn’t have anything in common – a smuggler and a prince. But they are both people who hide their real selves behind masks; the Midnight Merchant is a persona Loulie puts on, while Mazen bribes the palace guard so he can escape the confining safety of his palace prison.

They meet in the souk, where Loulie is wandering incognito as Layla, while Mazen is pretending to be Yusuf the storyteller. Where Mazen is ensorcelled by a jinn, and Loulie can’t resist following their trail where it leads.

It leads to the palace. Not directly, and certainly not in a way that either expects. But the Sultan coerces the Midnight Merchant into finding a jinn king’s relic for him, deep in the desert, and sends his older son, Omar along to ‘protect’ her – and ensure she comes back with the prize.

But Omar has schemes of his own, so he trades places with Mazen, using a relic to switch their identities. He sends one of his ‘Forty Thieves’, Aisha bint Louas with the disguised prince as a bodyguard.

As the adventure bleeds into one danger after another, and their journey comes to feel more like a trap than a quest, they begin to learn the hidden truths about themselves and each other. Only to discover that not a single one of them is what they seemed, or what they thought they were, when they set out.

And that as many times as each of them promises themselves and each other that they will not run away – at least not this time – they are forced to accept the truth that “he (or she) who runs away lives to fight another day.” If only because they must in order to prevail against the powerful forces, both human and jinn, who stand in their way.

Escape Rating B+: I’m having the same kind of mixed reaction to writing this review as I did to reading this book. Which doesn’t explain anything at all, does it? The dilemma I’m having is that I loved the story, but did like or empathize with many of the characters, and it’s a real conundrum.

The story is utterly fascinating. The jinn (or djinn or genies) are such powerful mythical and mystical creatures. This story posits a much more nuanced interpretation of the jinn, and much of what happens is based on a fundamental dichotomy in that interpretation. Humans have been taught that jinn are dangerous and evil and hate humanity. Jinn, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of myths and legends about the first encounters between themselves and humans. Encounters in which the humans coveted the jinn’s powers and murdered them indiscriminately, as they still do. Some jinn do kill humans, but it’s more often in self-defense than outright murder.

As the story continues, it certainly seems like the jinn perspective is more likely the true one – particularly based on the behavior of the humans that Loulie and Mazen meet along the way.

But the story is a nearly endless ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ kind of story, as one near-death adventure – and escaping therefrom – leads directly into another. Much as the tales that Shafia – who we know as Scheherazade – told to the Sultan to keep him from killing her. This adventure is clearly intended to remind readers of One Thousand and One Nights, as it should. Shafia was Mazen’s mother, and the Sultan of the famous story was his father.

It’s the truth of that tale, as well as so many other truths, that Mazen, Loulie and their companions must discover on their dangerous quest.

Speaking of the party, that’s where I felt conflicted. The story is told in the first person, from three different points of view; Loulie, Mazen and Aisha. I listened to the audio for about 90% of the book, and the three narrators made the differences in their perspectives quite clear. They all did an excellent job of portraying their respective characters. The problem I had was that I found that both Loulie and Mazen spent a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, self-flagellation and adolescent angst. Not that their situations weren’t more than worthy of some considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth – because they are in deep sand up to their necks. It’s more that because the story is told from inside their heads, it got repetitive. If I’d been reading instead of listening I’d have skimmed through those bits.

So I loved the adventure. This story is a thrill-a-minute ride with plenty of fascinating exploration of this world. The way that the legends come to life was absolutely riveting. But the one character I really liked and wished I had more of was Qadir, and he’s the one really important perspective we don’t have in the first person – or nearly enough of at all.

But I have hope – in a slightly twisted way. The Stardust Thief is the first book in a trilogy, although the second book doesn’t even have a title yet, let alone a publication date. It can’t come nearly soon enough because this first book doesn’t exactly end. Like the other adventures in this book, like the adventures Shafira told the Sultan, this one ends just as our heroes have jumped out of yet another frying pan but are still in freefall before they land in the inevitable fire.

It’s going to be a long, nail-biting wait to find out how hot things get in the next installment!

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky ChambersA Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot, #2) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.
They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.
Becky Chambers's new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

My Review:

This book is the prayer, and we are all, all of us who read this marvelous story, the crown-shy.

Crown shyness is a real-world phenomenon. About trees. Which is totally fitting for this story that features two people – even though one of them doesn’t refer to itself as “people” – who are exploring both friendship and all the myriad wonders of their world together.

Some trees spend their early years growing taller as fast as they can, reaching for the open sky and the sun. Then they start growing outwards, filling in branches and creating their part of the canopy of a forest. You’d think that those leaves and branches up in the canopy would overlap with the trees on all sides, creating a barrier between the sun in the sky and the ground far, far below.

But they don’t. Many species are “crown-shy”, meaning that they somehow know where their limits are and leave just a bit of space, a channel, between where their leaves end and the next tree’s leaves begin. So that the sun does reach the ground to give other denizens of the forest a chance to grow.

The communities in Panga are like that. They grow but so big and no further, so that each village has enough – actually more than enough – to sustain itself and its people. No one needs to want for more.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the Monk & Robot series so far. That question about what do beings want, either as individuals or as a community. What, for that matter, is there to want once society has somehow evolved past our current, endless hunger for more?

The tea-monk Sibling Dex and the robot Mosscap met in the first book in this terrific series, A Psalm for the Well-Built, because they were both asking variations of that question. Sibling Dex had pulled off the beaten path into the woods because they were in the throes of burnout and were asking themselves if what they were doing was what they wanted to do. If their endless journey was all there was or would be to their life.

While Mosscap was asking itself what had happened to the humans after the robots achieved self-awareness and walked away into the depths of the forest. What did humans need? And more specifically, was there anything that robots could do for them or with them?

The first book followed Dex’ journey deep into the wilderness, into Mosscap’s territory, to a remote location that was once sacred to their god and their service as a tea-monk. This second journey goes the other direction, as Dex and Mosscap head towards the City, home of the University and all its scholars, so that Mosscap can ask its questions of the people in Dex’ world who are supposed to have all the answers.

Only to discover that they’ve both already found their destination. And that what they truly need is each other.

Escape Rating A: If you’re looking for a story that will shed some light into the darkness, just as those crown-shy trees let light through to the forest floor, read A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Because they are the purest of hopepunk, and we all need that right now.

This is a book that asks some pretty big questions, and then lets its two protagonists work out the answers for themselves as they travel through a lovely world that may have solved many of the problems we have today but still doesn’t have all the answers.

As Mosscap discovers, the value is in both asking and being asked the questions. The robot started out with “what do humans need?” The answers that it finds surprise it. In a world where striving for more for more’s own sake seems to have been eliminated, what humans need seems to boil down to one of two things.

Either someone needs help with a very specific concrete issue that either they haven’t gotten around to or for which there isn’t anyone local with the right skills or knowledge. Or, the answer is more existential, where the short version is often something like “purpose” or “fulfillment”. The kinds of things that a person needs to determine for themselves.

As does a robot. Mosscap discovers that it has no answer for itself to its own question. It doesn’t know – at least not yet – what it needs or what its fellow robots need. I sincerely hope that the series will continue, and that we’ll get to follow Mosscap and Dex as they hunt for their own answers.

In the end, this book is an antidote to so much that is happening right now in the world. It’s a walk through light and beautiful places, led by two beings who have learned that friendship is the most important journey of all.

Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances by Aliette de BodardOf Charms, Ghosts and Grievances (Dragons and Blades #2) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #2, Dominion of the Fallen #3.6
Pages: 110
on June 28th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

From the author of the critically acclaimed Dominion of the Fallen trilogy comes a sparkling new romantic adventure full of kissing, sarcasm and stabbing.

It was supposed to be a holiday, with nothing more challenging than babysitting, navigating familial politics and arguing about the proper way to brew tea.

But when dragon prince Thuan and his ruthless husband Asmodeus find a corpse in a ruined shrine and a hungry ghost who is the only witness to the crime, their holiday goes from restful to high-pressure. Someone is trying to silence the ghost and everyone involved. Asmodeus wants revenge for the murder; Thuan would like everyone, including Asmodeus, to stay alive.

Chased by bloodthirsty paper charms and struggling to protect their family, Thuan and Asmodeus are going to need all the allies they can—and, as the cracks in their relationship widen, they'll have to face the scariest challenge of all: how to bring together their two vastly different ideas of their future...

A heartwarming standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.

My Review:

I still need to read the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, of which the Dragons and Blades series is an offshoot. But I really enjoyed the first Dragons and Blades book, Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, so this followup has been whispering my name for a month now and I decided to listen to that whisper.

Little did I know that it was the whisper of blades dragging across silk and piercing the hearts of everything they touched.

This charming little story starts out as a bit of a family tale. A dragon prince and his fallen angel spouse take their adopted children on a bit of a picnic. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to quell the restlessness that both the children and the fallen angel are all too frequently subject to.

It’s supposed to keep the children from wrecking any further destruction on the dragon palace that is destroying itself with rot and mold entirely too quickly as it is.

It’s supposed to keep the fallen angel from threatening, maiming or killing any of his husband’s imperial relatives. Or anyone else who might or might not deserve it.

It’s not supposed to turn into a ghost story. But then, Asmodeus the fallen angel isn’t supposed to adopt a ghost child, either.

The dragon prince Thuan sees a hungry ghost who might (most probably, will beyond a shadow of a doubt) either kill his husband or get his husband killed or both. Not that it will matter after the fact either way.

Asmodeus sees a child who died terribly and alone for reasons that should never have happened in the first place. The ghost child starved to death in an empire that is supposed to at least feed all of its people.

But when it comes to Thuan and Asmodeus, not even a ghost story is simply about a ghost. Because Asmodeus sees a child who witnessed a murder, even if that murder happened after the child became a ghost. And Asmodeus can’t let either the murder or the ghost child go.

Not even if he has to tether the ghost child to his own life. Not even if his husband is scared to death that the ghost child is either going to kill him or get him killed before any of them can figure out the mystery that started it all.

Escape Rating A-: As I said I still haven’t read Dominion of the Fallen, so I know I’m missing some stuff, but after Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders I figured I had enough background to be going on with. Not that I wouldn’t love more – because I always love more backstory – but this read like it followed directly from Of Dragons and that the original trilogy was a bit more distant both in time and place.

Or I was just looking forward to this and didn’t care about the backstory for a change.

One of the bits that fascinates me about this subseries is the setting. The imperial court that dragon prince Thuan came from is underwater and his people all seem to be shapeshifters – or shapeshifter-ish. Thuan is a dragon who appears human – except for the horns. That’s Thuan on the cover of Of Charms, which makes me even more certain that it’s Asmodeus on the cover of Of Dragons – even though Asmodeus is not the dragon of the pair.

I’m wandering because this story does so much in its rather short length.

What I started with was the underwater nature of the dragon’s imperial capital. One of the pervasive elements of the capital is that everything is rotting. Water, even water kept back by powerful magic, still manages to do the damage that water naturally does all the time and everywhere. It’s constantly somewhat damp and damp causes mold and rot and rotting things eventually disintegrate.

But the story of the ghost and the murder and the reasons why those things happened are also about rot. The child should not have died of starvation. The shrine where the child became that ghost and witnessed the murder is a shrine that should never have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. The worship that was supposed to occur at the shrine should not have fallen into dust and rumor. It’s all rot.

And the story here is about something rotten, and it’s not really about the ghost. It’s about the murder and the reasons for it. The resolution of that part of the story was all the more chilling because underneath all of the fantasy setting and characters, the reasons for the murder were all too human, much too possible, and entirely too familiar – not from fantasy but from real life and real tragedy and unfortunately, dammit, the real news.

Just as the motives for murder and even god-killing (would that be “deicide” or deity-cide?) were entirely familiar, the heart of the conflict that arises between Thuan and Asmodeus, feels equally familiar. What shakes their marriage is fear of losing each other’s respect, regard and affection. Some of the reasons it occurs may be fantasy, but the emotions at the heart of the story, and in their hearts, felt equally real.

A slice of life story that seems like it’s going to be eaten by a hungry ghost, but in the end is almost consumed by someone entirely human and all the more dangerous for that.

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

Review: Legends and Lattes by Travis BaldreeLegends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 305
Published by Cryptid Press on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

High Fantasy with a double-shot of self-reinvention
Worn out after decades of packing steel and raising hell, Viv the orc barbarian cashes out of the warrior’s life with one final score. A forgotten legend, a fabled artifact, and an unreasonable amount of hope lead her to the streets of Thune, where she plans to open the first coffee shop the city has ever seen.
However, her dreams of a fresh start pulling shots instead of swinging swords are hardly a sure bet. Old frenemies and Thune’s shady underbelly may just upset her plans. To finally build something that will last, Viv will need some new partners and a different kind of resolve.
A hot cup of fantasy slice-of-life with a dollop of romantic froth.

My Review:

An orc, a succubus, and Ratatouille (the rat who wanted to be a chef from the Pixar film but in this case a baker named Thimble) open a coffee shop in Thune, a rather typical medieval-style fantasy town that has never seen, heard, smelled or especially drunk coffee before. Then Thimble the rattkin starts baking and honestly, they’ve opened the world’s first Cinnabon – complete with heavenly aromas pumped out to ensnare the masses who are about to learn just what they’ve been missing all their lives.

As much as that opening sounds like the start of a very bad joke, it isn’t at all. Instead, the story is every bit as sweet as one of Thimble’s soon-to-be-famous cinnamon rolls, and sticks in the pleasant corners of the reader’s mind just as much as Thimble’s icing sticks to everyone’s fingers.

This is one of those fantasy stories where the hero (or possibly the anti-hero) of entirely too many battlefields decides to retire while they’re still above ground and have all of their limbs and haven’t had their bell rung too many times.

And it’s a story about what happens after when anyone decides to live their dreams.

Viv visited a coffee shop once, and fell in love with pretty much everything about it. The aroma, the taste, the peace that filled her from both the drink and the ambiance of the place she drank it. She wanted to recreate all of those tastes and smells and feelings somewhere that hadn’t been introduced to coffee – at least not yet.

When she found a legendary treasure that was supposed to guarantee good fortune, she took it and her savings, retired from the mercenary life, and opened the first coffee shop in busy, bustling, Thune.

Along the way she gathered a group of friends and comrades to help her spread the word and run the business, while taking on trouble from both the local “protection racket” and from an old frenemy who believed that Viv hadn’t been honest about that treasure.

As much as Viv is determined to start a new life that doesn’t involve slicing throats or any other body parts, there are plenty of times when she’s tempted to solve her problems the way she used to. Especially when she loses the lucky charm that made all of her success possible.

Only to learn that it wasn’t the charm at all. It was all Viv, and the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls, and the love and respect of her friends, her neighbors, and her new-found family.

Escape Rating A+: Legends & Lattes is one of those stories that no one knew they needed until they read it. Only to realize that the whole story is pretty much the best thing ever. I pulled this one off the virtually towering TBR pile because I seriously needed a comfort read after last week and I wanted something new at the same time. I also wasn’t in the mood for anyone who didn’t deserve it to die, or for anyone to get abused. I just wanted all good things in an interesting story and that’s actually kind of hard. Fictionally, all good things and interesting are contradictory, there’s no story without at least some drama.

Somehow, Legends & Lattes just delivered on all counts. (The only thing that would have made it better would be if one of Thimble’s cinnamon rolls had popped out of the book while reading!) Viv has a dream and she doesn’t step on anyone to fulfill it. She gathers great people around her, she accepts them as they are, treats them well, and they grow together into a lovely found family.

The course doesn’t always run smooth. There’s a lot of hard work involved in starting a business – especially one that no one is looking for or understands. Her carpenter calls the coffee “bean water” and he’s not wrong.

There are a few books with orcs as protagonists, but usually they’re doing the things that we expect of orcs in fantasy even if the orcs are the good guys. Viv is turning over a new leaf, trying not to be what everyone expects an orc to be. It’s hard but it’s working – mostly.

Her assistant-turned-business partner (and eventual romantic interest) Tandri, is a succubus, another character we don’t see being on the side of the angels. But she’s yet another character in this story who is cast against type and it works.

Viv even manages to deal with the protection racket without paying protection. Well, not exactly paying protection. Also without busting heads. It’s a bit tense and a bit of a gamble but it works.

And honestly, Thimble the rattkin baker is the best character in the whole story. I love Thimble – and I love that the little guy is a genius and that this shy and self-effacing character gets his own chance to shine.

But what makes the story so wonderful is that the treasure wasn’t really treasure. It was a stone full of karma and because Viv put good into it she got good out of it. The next person to own it seems to be on the road to getting exactly what he puts into it as well.

And that’s a story I wouldn’t mind reading – along with anything else this author comes up with. Now that Legends & Lattes has been picked up by Tor Books, maybe we’ll see more stories set in Thune! Pretty please! With cinnamon on it?

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno DawsonHer Majesty's Royal Coven (Her Majesty's Royal Coven, #1) by Juno Dawson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal
Series: HRMC #1
Pages: 448
Published by Penguin Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


A Discovery of Witches meets The Craft in this the first installment of this epic fantasy trilogy about a group of childhood friends who are also witches.

If you look hard enough at old photographs, we're there in the background: healers in the trenches; Suffragettes; Bletchley Park oracles; land girls and resistance fighters. Why is it we help in times of crisis? We have a gift. We are stronger than Mundanes, plain and simple.At the dawn of their adolescence, on the eve of the summer solstice, four young girls--Helena, Leonie, Niamh and Elle--took the oath to join Her Majesty's Royal Coven, established by Queen Elizabeth I as a covert government department. Now, decades later, the witch community is still reeling from a civil war and Helena is now the reigning High Priestess of the organization. Yet Helena is the only one of her friend group still enmeshed in the stale bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is trying to pretend she's a normal housewife, and Niamh has become a country vet, using her powers to heal sick animals. In what Helena perceives as the deepest betrayal, Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven, Diaspora. And now Helena has a bigger problem. A young warlock of extraordinary capabilities has been captured by authorities and seems to threaten the very existence of HMRC. With conflicting beliefs over the best course of action, the four friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with preserving tradition, or doing what is right.
Juno Dawson explores gender and the corrupting nature of power in a delightful and provocative story of magic and matriarchy, friendship and feminism. Dealing with all the aspects of contemporary womanhood, as well as being phenomenally powerful witches, Niamh, Helena, Leonie and Elle may have grown apart but they will always be bound by the sisterhood of the coven.

My Review:

Most prophecies are self-fulfilling. Oedipus’ father made that whole story happen by trying his damndest to keep that whole story from happening. And don’t get me started on Harry Potter and Voldemort and bringing that whole prophecy into being by trying to cut it off at the knees when Harry was a toddler.

Or maybe do get me started on that. Because I’ll be getting back to it later.

Because while the blurb for this book compares it to A Discovery of Witches and The Craft, Harry Potter is really a LOT closer to the mark. In the Potterverse, magic is real and it works and there’s an entire hidden society devoted to training new magic users and keeping the secret that there is power and influence to be had by literally waving a magic wand.

The girls in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven are inheritors of a long and grand tradition of using magic on behalf of the Crown of England in order to defend the realm from threats both foreign and domestic that use magic to make and be those threats.

They are, quite literally, the few and the proud, and the night before they make their official witch’s oaths and become part of HMRC, they are sure they will be friends forever.

That’s one prophecy that seldom works out, and so it proves when the story picks up 25 years later. Now they are all adults, and all survivors of a great magical war that scarred their bodies and their futures, freezing them into the places and positions they now hold – sometimes by their fingernails.

Helena, the leader of the girls they were and the leader of the hidebound covert government department that HMRC has been for generations, is facing the impending doom of the organization she heads. Or so she believes.

The witches who watch the future, the seeresses who prophesy on behalf of HMRC and of Britain, are all seeing the same dark future. That the end of their world is going to be brought about by a young warlock of immense power that the prophecies call “The Sullied Child”. He will be their downfall, and he has been found.

The prophecies are right. And they’re wrong. But mostly, they are completely, totally and utterly self-fulfilling to the nth degree and the entirely bitter end.

Escape Rating B-: There are so many things going on in this story, and so many of them are good. But there’s something rotten at its heart that I can’t get past, although I suspect that other readers will have less of a problem with it.

This is a story about feminism and female friendship. It’s also a story about how the ties that bind in childhood can strangle in adulthood.

The four women who are at the center of this story have all gone their different ways. Helena has taken the path of power and leadership that her considerable privilege has led her to believe is her right as well as her duty.

But the noblesse oblige that underlies that privilege has no room for any who would choose a different path – as all of her former friends have done. Helena’s HMRC has no place for intersectionality, so anyone not white, not British, not wealthy and not privileged, in other words anyone not like Helena herself, is a threat to her power.

Leonie is black, Elle has retreated into a mundane life, and Niamh has no desire to be under anyone’s thumb – and certainly not under Helena’s. They have all been, in their various ways, outcast from the HMRC.

When Niamh takes that so-called “Sullied Child” under her wing, she learns that the young warlock who is such a threat to the HMRC is actually a transgirl who wants nothing more than to be the witch she was meant to be and not the warlock that Helena continues to see as the ultimate threat.

Niamh, Elle and Leonie want to do what is right rather than what is easy. Helena wants to preserve the HMRC’s traditions and believes that those ends justify any means she might employ – no matter how heinous. Helena is certain that she is working for the “Greater Good” without ever taking a hard look at who it might be good for.

And prophecies are self-fulfilling.

But what struck me as I read Her Majesty’s Royal Coven was just how much it mirrored Harry Potter considered in context of that author’s heinous beliefs about transwomen. She used Hermione Granger as an avatar for herself in the series, to the point where she had Hermione marry Ron at the end because the author was working out issues in a romantic relationship of her own rather than taking that part of the story in the direction it had been heading from the beginning. (My 2 cents and I’ll get down off this soapbox now).

To me, Helena read like Hermione as her own author; smart, a bit stuck-up, worshipful of authority while determined to join it, and single-minded in pursuit of a goal. Also someone who seems to be doing her level best to destroy her own legacy because she can’t deal with the concept that other perspectives are as valid as her own and especially that transwomen are women. Full stop. For this reader, the obviousness of the woman behind the curtain, Helena as Hermione as her author, is the interpretation that remained fixed in my head through my entire reading and drenches my feelings about the book. I think it would have better served the story if the callback to Harry Potter’s author hadn’t been quite so obvious or so pointed.

Your reading mileage, even if by broomstick, may definitely vary.

Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard

Review: Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de BodardOf Dragons, Feasts and Murders (Dragons and Blades, #1) by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Series: Dragons and Blades #1, Dominion of the Fallen #3.5
Pages: 80
on July 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.
But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.
It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….
A sparkling standalone book set in a world of dark intrigue.
A Note on ChronologySpinning off from the Dominion of the Fallen series, which features political intrigue in Gothic devastated Paris, this book stands alone, but chronologically follows The House of Sundering Flames. It’s High Gothic meets C-drama in a Vietnamese inspired world—perfect for fans of The Untamed, KJ Charles, and Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves

My Review:

Is it my imagination or are there a lot more fantasy/mystery and SF/mystery blends then there used to be? And isn’t it a wonderful thing?!

Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is a marvelous little fantasy mystery wrapped inside a bloodthirsty bit of political upheaval and tied up with a bow of romance sprinkled with the ashes of a fallen angel’s wings.

I picked this up because I had grabbed the second book in the Dragons and Blades series from Netgalley because I fell in love with the author’s work after reading The Tea Master and the Detective. Upon discovering that Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances is the second book, I had to get the first book so I could read it first.

Little did I know that Dragons and Blades is a subseries of the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and that I probably should have started there. Not that I couldn’t get into and didn’t enjoy Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders – because there are plenty of all three  so I most certainly did – but because the relationship between the married protagonists Asmodeus and Thuan hinted at depths that I couldn’t fully appreciate.

Which did not make this little gem sparkle any less, only that I wish I’d gotten ALL the nuance. Something I’ll have to remedy one of these days (I bought the rest of the series immediately!)

The mystery in this book is steeped in court intrigue. I wanted to say “degenerate” court intrigue to capture some of the flavor, but that’s not quite right – although it is close.

The undersea dragon court that Thuan came from is quite literally rotting from within and without. Whether the spells that keep the sea out of the palaces are fraying around the edges, or the empire is no longer able to attract and/or capable of supporting enough “people” to keep the rot and mildew out of the walls is an open question.

(I put “people” in quotation marks in the above because the “people” in this story are, for the most part, anthropomorphized sea creatures. Thuan is a dragon, as is the rest of the royal family of which he is a very minor part. The assistant who helps with their investigation is a crab. One of the court functionaries that Thuan deals with is a shark literally as well as figuratively.)

Thuan and Asmodeus are visiting Thuan’s former home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Tet. While the reader is not quite certain whether Thuan’s marriage to Asmodeus – whose throne is in a Gothic, devastated Paris – constituted an actual ‘escape’ from the intrigues of his Second Aunt’s court or not, Thuan is very clear that while he does miss some members of his family he doesn’t miss being part of that court at all.

Considering that the beginning of their visit is punctuated by the murder of a member of the staff, Thuan’s departure may very well have saved his life.

But he still cares. They are still his family. Even the ones he doesn’t like all that much. Which makes it easy for his cousin to guilt him into solving one of her problems for her.

His cousin is the head of the secret police, and the murder was part of a plot to undermine the regime. His cousin wants Thuan and his husband to solve the murder and foil the plot to overthrow the empress. Thuan can unofficially question people and explore places that she cannot. And Thuan’s husband Asmodeus is a fallen angel, or something similarly demonic and bloodthirsty. (Exactly what Asmodeus is isn’t quite clear, but his name is a fairly big hint. This is one of those things that’s probably a bit clearer if one has read the Dominion of the Fallen series.) But whatever Asmodeus is exactly, he is clearly one scary dude.

From this point, the story becomes one of political intrigue, political skullduggery, and poking one nose or the other, whether Thuan’s or Asmodeus’, into places and people that shouldn’t concern them, while trying to figure out exactly what the nature of this nebulous plot against the empire is and how its perpetrators expect whatever they are doing to result in whatever they hope to achieve.

There are false arrests and true kidnappings and too many people who think that revolution will solve their problems without understanding what their problems really are, while Asmodeus just wants to get Thuan out of harm’s way before his sense of duty gets them both into water hotter than they can stand – or survive without creating an even bigger diplomatic incident then they are already in.

It’s a very frothy comedy of manners and mayhem couched in a murder mystery and wrapped in a rebellion. And it’s way more fun than I was expecting it to be.

Escape Rating B: This is not what I was planning to review this week. But we spent most of the weekend either taking the cat (Freddie) to the vet, sitting at the vet or worrying about the cat that was staying at the vet. (He’s still there but on the mend.) As a result I went hunting for something quick and absorbing and this looked like enough of a puzzler to get me hooked.

And so it proved. I know I didn’t get anywhere near all the references or the backstory, but it was still a very enjoyable fantasy mystery. Admittedly now I feel almost compelled to start The House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series of which this is a part. (My virtually towering TBR pile towers ever higher…)

But even though I didn’t know nearly as much as I would have liked about Thuan and Asmodeus’ backstory, the way that the story worked hooked me the same way that Katharine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead did, in that it’s a mystery set in a fantasy world where the investigator is a minor court functionary who is poking their nose into things that no one in power really wants any noses poked into. And who will not let go no matter what the provocation – or the threats.

So it has the appeal of a mystery in that there’s a dead body and an investigator, while it also has the things that make epic fantasy work so well, just on a smaller scale. There are political shenanigans and court intrigues, everyone is trying to get one over on everyone else – whether they’re part of the murder plot or not – and the throne is under threat by forces unknown who either committed the murder or plan to take advantage of it.

All of which makes for a fascinatingly good time for readers who love those elements, of which I am most certainly one.

Now that I have both the previous books in the series and the next one I know I’ll be back to see what I missed AND to see what happens next!