Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke NatsukawaThe Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa, Louise Heal Kawai
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, coming of age, fantasy, magical realism
Pages: 198
Published by HarperVia on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A celebration of books, cats, and the people who love them, infused with the heartwarming spirit of The Guest Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and Tiger and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners. 
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter...

My Review:

When we first meet Rintaro Natsuki, he has come to a fork in his road, at the point where he’s going to have to take it whether he wants to or not. He’s just been orphaned for the second time. When his parents died, he was still a child, and packed off to his grandfather without any choice or protest on his part.

At his grandfather’s death, Rintaro is in high school, even if he skips class a lot. He’s old enough to have a voice in his future – if he can come to terms with the reality of his loss. And if he can manage to reach out of his own social isolation to take it.

His legacy from his grandfather is a beautiful, marvelous and just barely profitable second-hand bookstore. A place that Rintaro has no desire to leave, but he seems to have no option to stay. At least not until the talking cat Tiger the Tabby swaggers out of the back of the bookstore and demands that Rintaro come with him on a journey to save books.

Rintaro loves books and reading. He also has nothing better to do and no motivation to do it. So he follows the cat through the suddenly endless book stacks and emerges into a labyrinth of wonder and danger. He’ll need not just courage and a bit of cunning, but every single drop of his love of reading to save the endangered books – and himself along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one up for the cat and the books, in that order. Which reminds me that the cat pictured on the US cover does not do Tiger the Tabby justice. The UK cover (pictured at left) does a much better job of giving Tiger his due.

But the story, of course, isn’t really about the cat. It is, however, at least in part about the way that cats – or any companion animals – can save us even from ourselves if we just let them. And the way that books and reading can give us time and space and tools to save ourselves if we let them into our minds just as the cats do when we let them into our hearts.

It’s also a bit of magical realism that leads into a very modern type of fairy tale. Tiger leads Rintaro into a series of labyrinths where books and reading are under assault in the guise of the love of books combined with bowing and scraping to market pressures and other distractions of modern life to save books by means that will, in the end, destroy them.

I think the story does conflate the love of the container – the physical book – with the love of what it contains and the experience of reading. I’m a bit concerned about that as I’m mostly an ebook reader because the genres I read are not widely represented in large print. If I were confined to the physical artifact I’d miss out on the thing I really want out of reading – the immersion in the story that the physical AND the electronic article contain and present for my enjoyment.

I digress just a bit.

What makes The Cat Who Saved Books such a lovely little read, however, is the totality of Rintaro’s journey. Not just the thoughtfully scary labyrinths where books go to die in the name of loving them, but Rintaro’s first steps on that path to adulthood. Because the story is about Rintaro’s chance to choose his life. To stay a socially withdrawn hikikomori, always dependent on someone else to deal with the world he has retreated from, or to take up the reins of the bookstore and his own life and learn to stand on his own. And that’s the part of the story that grabs the heart in its sharp, feline claws.

Because this is a book about books and reading, I can’t resist leaving this review without including a couple of readalikes. Any reader of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld will recognize that the way the back of the bookstore opens into endless shelves means that the store connects to ‘L’ space, the liminal place where all great libraries connect. The Discworld is not at all like The Cat Who Saved Books but that love of reading certainly exists in both places. The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury is another lovely story about someone looking for a purpose who finds it in books and reading and loving them and the people she associates with them. And last but not least, more in tone than in specific, “All the World’s Treasures” by Kimberly Pauley, included in Never Too Old to Save the World, a story about a young woman inheriting a shop from her grandmother and discovering that there are connections to more places and infinitely more treasures than she ever imagined.

Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather FawcettEmily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries (Emily Wilde, #1) by Heather Fawcett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance, historical fantasy
Series: Emily Wilde #1
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love, in this heartwarming and enchanting fantasy.Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world's first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party--or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.
So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily's research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.
But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones--the most elusive of all faeries--lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she'll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all--her own heart.

My Review:

Emily Wilde is writing/compiling an encyclopedia of all the faerie species in the world. That’s not exactly a spoiler as the title does rather give it away. But what is a surprise and a delight is the story that she tells about herself and her world in the process of researching what will be a weighty reference tome.

Emily’s story isn’t weighty or tome-like at all – even if it does very nearly lead her to her own tomb as she finds herself in the midst of one of the stories of the fae that she intended to merely tell and most definitely not participate in.

Although, considering the vast amount of research she has done in her speciality, she certainly should have known better.

Emily Wilde, PhD, MPhil, BSc, DDe is an Adjunct Professor of Dryadology at Cambridge in this slightly alternate, early 20th century story of fantasy and academe. The alteration to the world is that the study of faeries and the fae has become a real academic discipline, similar in many ways to anthropology and/or sociology, because the fae are real in this world. Hidden, elusive, all-too-frequently dangerous, but entirely real.

Studying them has been Emily Wilde’s lifework for half her life, since she arrived in Cambridge at 15 and is now 30. But the academic tropes feel all too real, as Emily’s trip to remote, frozen Ljosland to add one last chapter to the Encyclopedia on the subject of the equally remote and equally frozen native fae, the Hidden Ones.

The encyclopedia is not just a labor of love, or even just labor. The whole point is for Emily to publish what will be the foundational reference work of her speciality and gain tenure in the process so that she can, in future, remain comfortably in her rooms at Cambridge and study to her heart’s content.

She’s tired of field work, she’s tired of being the lowest person on the academic ladder (adjuncts still get no respect) and she’s tired of dealing with people outside of academic circles. So she goes off to Hrafnsvik, the remotest village in remote Ljosland to finish the work. Alone.

Really alone because she offends the villagers almost as soon as she arrives. Not intentionally, but she’s just not good with people. Or small talk. Or letting anyone help her.

Which is when her best friend, chief nemesis and fellow dryadology scholar, Wendell Bambleby, appears unannounced on her rather Spartan doorstep in very chilly Hrafnsvik and proceeds to turn both her world and her research upside down.

He’s there to protect her from his kin. His dangerous and deadly fae kin. As well as, more than a bit, from herself. And does she ever need it!

Escape Rating A-: Whether readers will fall in love with Emily Wilde’s story depends a lot on whether they fall in love with the meticulous, misanthropic genius that is Emily Wilde herself. This is her diary, so we view nearly all of the events from Emily’s sometimes-blinkered point of view. So if you like her voice, you’ll like her book.

Emily seems a LOT like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series. Both in her obsessive desire to learn ALL THE THINGS, her preference for getting lost in her books and her research, and especially for her inability to even see the real-life consequences of her actions – which I fully admit may come a bit more from fanfiction than from the actual books. But still, Emily is very much a Hermione grown up and slightly oblivious about other people.

Emily is also a bit of Regan Merritt from yesterday’s book, in that she’s not traditionally feminine and for the most part is totally okay with that. She’s used to taking care of herself and finding solutions for herself and most importantly, rescuing herself. She doesn’t fit into any of her society’s boxes that are labeled “female” and she’s at peace with that – if not always with her inability to deal with the unwritten social rules that provide a whole lot of lubrication in dealing with other humans.

It’s obvious from the beginning that Wendell is following Emily because he loves her – even if it’s not obvious to her. At all. On that other hand, it’s been obvious to Emily for quite some time that Wendell is probably fae and in hiding. What makes their interactions so much fun to watch is that he charms everyone – and she resents just how easily people fall for his charm – but he never attempts to charm her. Their relationship, in all its push-pull banter, mutual annoyances and attraction to the opposite, is grounded in who they each really are and not a charmed or better version of themselves.

I particularly loved that this is an academic fantasy that isn’t about dark academe the way that The Atlas Six and Babel are – even though Emily would probably make an excellent ‘Babbler’. At the same time, the story is rooted in some of the darker things about academia in the real world, that place where the politics are so vicious because the stakes can be so damn small. That her world’s academia feels rooted in the real even though the world is not grounds the whole story and lets the reader fully get aboard its flight of dark fantasy.

Because there is darkness here. Not in academia, but in the way that the fae intrude upon and exploit Emily’s real world and the real people within it. What makes Emily’s journey into dark places drag us along with her is that the mistakes she makes that get her into so much trouble are so very human and so much a part of her personality.

So many characters in fiction literally seem ‘Too Stupid to Live’. That’s never Emily. What makes her so easy to empathize with, at least for this reader, is that she believes she’s too smart to be taken in. And she’s almost, but not quite, right.

I adored this as I was reading it. I was charmed from the very beginning and that charm didn’t leave me when I turned the final page. Howsomever, now that I’ve had some time to think about it I’m wondering a bit about exactly how Emily’s and Wendell’s relationship is going to work in the future. He’s essentially immortal and she’s absolutely not. Whether he’s remotely capable of being faithful is a seriously open question. There’s a significant power imbalance just on the academic side even without him being fae. So I’m left with a whole encyclopedia full of questions.

Which means that I’m very pleased that this is billed as the first book in an Emily Wilde series. Hopefully I’ll get to find out the answers to those questions in the not too distant future.

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate Elliott

Review: The Keeper’s Six by Kate ElliottThe Keeper's Six by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on January 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Kate Elliott's action-packed The Keeper's Six features a world-hopping, bad-ass, spell-slinging mother who sets out to rescue her kidnapped son from a dragon lord with everything to lose.
There are terrors that dwell in the space between worlds.
It’s been a year since Esther set foot in the Beyond, the alien landscape stretching between worlds, crossing boundaries of space and time. She and her magical travelling party, her Hex, haven’t spoken since the Concilium banned them from the Beyond. But when she wakes in the middle of the night to her son’s cry for help, the members of her Hex are the only ones she can trust to help her bring him back from wherever he has been taken.
Esther will have to risk everything to find him. Undercover and hidden from the Concilium, she and her Hex will be tested by dragon lords, a darkness so dense it can suffocate, and the bones of an old crime come back to haunt her.

My Review:

There’s a popular image in science fiction – fostered by pretty much all of Star Trek (apropos of yesterday’s book) where Earth and Earth humans seem to be the center of the galaxy no matter how many other races and species might populate it.

(And now I’m wondering if that attitude might have been at least part of the reason why Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t do so well. Because it showed us being on the back foot and under someone else’s thumb. I seriously digress.)

But in fantasy, when Earth gets connected to the rest of the ‘verse, whatever that ‘verse might be, we’re often considered a backward place whose population can’t be trusted to accept that we’re not alone, we’re not on top, and we don’t have anything like a manifest destiny at all.

We’re a protectorate – or at least a protected world of some kind. Because most of us can’t handle the truth that is out there and that we’re not in charge of it and never would be.

That’s the situation in the Wayward Children series, particularly in its most recent entry, Lost in the Moment and Found. And it’s very much the case in Ilona Andrews’ Innkeeper Chronicles, which the universe of The Keeper’s Six rather strongly resembles – and not just for that.

Daniel Green is a Keeper. Certainly his mother Esther and his spouse Kai would both agree. But in the context of this universe, being a Keeper is a specific and rather uncommon thing to be. Keepers maintain Keeps, and Keeps are the structures that straddle the line between the realm of that place’s “real” world and the dangerous and limitless Beyond that links the worlds together.

The Keeps and their Keepers are essential to maintaining trade routes between the worlds. But Keepers themselves don’t generally travel. Trade is conducted by special groups of talented magic users called Hexes because there are six specific talents required to navigate the Beyond. More than six in any single group invites death and destruction. Less is theoretically possible but likely to get itself killed because the group doesn’t have the necessary when the feces hits the oscillating device.

Esther Green is the Lantern, or light maker, of the freelance Hex that operates out of Daniel’s Keep. But she’s also Daniel’s mother. So when she gets a call that he’s been kidnapped, she drops everything – including the restriction against her Hex returning to the Beyond for ten years – to ride to his rescue.

A rescue that is going to be fraught with even more danger than Esther initially imagined – and she imagined a LOT.

But as Esther and the rest of her Hex get back together to storm the one place they’re not supposed to return to, we get to see just how this world does and doesn’t work, we get introduced to a fascinating group of people and an even more fascinating kind of magic.

While Esther has to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with obstreperous bureaucrats, nefarious smugglers and villainous slave traders while chasing down old clues and new betrayals on her quest to rescue her son from the dragon who thinks that he’s running the show AND Esther.

He’s not. He just doesn’t know it – yet.

Escape Rating A-: Like the author’s previous novella, Servant Mage, The Keeper’s Six introduces us to a world that is much larger than the relatively small slice we get. Howsomever, very much unlike that previous book, The Keeper’s Six feels like it is just the right length for this story. It would be fantastic to have more, and there are certainly hints in what we have that there could be a more at some future point – but we don’t need that more to feel like this story doesn’t come to a lovely and satisfactory conclusion – because it absolutely does.

But this universe is fascinating and seems to have so much more to explore and I’d love to go back. To the point where this is my second reading of the book. I read this for a Library Journal review during the summer and liked it so much that I wanted to visit the world again and liked it even more on the second trip.

Part of what made me pick this back up again was that Esther would fit right into Never Too Old To Save the World, a collection of stories about people in midlife – or a bit later – who get called to be the ‘Chosen One’ for fantasy or SFnal worlds and how their change in fate melds and conflicts – sometimes at the same time – with the life they have already built.

(Never Too Old To Save the World will be out next month. I’ve already read it and it’s wonderful. Review to come!)

Esther is in her mid-60s in The Keeper’s Six. She’s been part of a Hex for most of her adult life, leading expeditions into untracked places, facing untold dangers, never knowing whether she’ll make it back or not. She’s addicted to the adrenaline of the work but aware that her days at it are numbered. The mind and spirit may be willing but time is taking its toll. Her quest has her between the proverbial rock and the opposing hard place. A dragon has kidnapped her son, and what that dragon wants in return is her son’s spouse and the co-parent of their four children.

This dragon eats books – literally not figuratively. But when he does, people – not necessarily humans but people – arise out of nowhere in the midst of his hoard as living representations of the books he’s consumed. I’m amazed and appalled in equal measure – and so is Esther.

There’s just so much going on in The Keeper’s Six. The way the Beyond is stable and unstable at the same time, keeps the Hex on their toes and the reader guessing what will come next. The juxtaposition of the Hex’ utter trust in each other with their interpersonal conflicts makes every situation precarious.

That there are wheels within wheels spinning around their suspension, this quest, the dragon’s questionable motives and their own group dynamics keeps all the plates spinning in their air in a way that kept me riveted through both readings.

The icing on this lovely little cake was that Esther is Jewish and that it wasn’t just window dressing. Her religion and her practice of it mattered both to the story and to the way she conducted herself within it. (That representation also mattered to me on a personal level.) That there is just a touch of romantic possibility between Esther and the dragon’s lieutenant, a man who seems to be the embodiment of the 14th Century Judeo-Persian poet Shahin who wrote about Queen Esther, the biblical queen for whom Esther Green was named provided just the right amount of rueful sweetness in the midst of all the danger and the necessary and important derring do required to fix it.

On top of everything else that made The Keeper’s Six so much fun was the way that it seemed to link to so many other wonderful books. Not just the previously mentioned Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews, Never Too Old to Save the World and Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire, but also Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune and even a bit of The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross. Portal fantasy seems to be having a moment these days, and I’m absolutely here for it. Because I still want my own door to open.

In the end The Keeper’s Six was a terrific story set in a world that I’d love to visit again. But if that never happens I’ll still be very satisfied with the trip I did get to take.

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. BeagleThe Last Unicorn (The Last Unicorn, #1) by Peter S. Beagle
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Last Unicorn #1
Pages: 320
Published by Ace Books on June 26, 2022 (first published January 1, 1968)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

She was magical, beautiful beyond belief—and completely alone...
The unicorn had lived since before memory in a forest where death could touch nothing. Maidens who caught a glimpse of her glory were blessed by enchantment they would never forget. But outside her wondrous realm, dark whispers and rumours carried a message she could not ignore: "Unicorns are gone from the world."
Aided by a bumbling magician and an indomitable spinster, she set out to learn the truth. but she feared even her immortal wisdom meant nothing in a world where a mad king's curse and terror incarnate lived only to stalk the last unicorn to her doom...

My Review:

The story of The Last Unicorn can be summed up simply. A unicorn, happy alone in her special forest, hears from a passing human that all the unicorns are gone, and she realizes that she’s the last one left. So she goes out to find them.

In other words, the short and bittersweet summation is that The Last Unicorn is a quest story. But saying that is like saying that The Princess Bride is a romance. It’s a completely true statement that manages to leave out all the important bits as well as all the things that make the story so great and wonderful and so much worth reading and/or seeing. The whole is so very much greater than the short summary of its parts.

There is something about The Last Unicorn that does remind me of The Princess Bride that I can’t quite put into words, but is still true. They use language and fantasy in similar ways and both are awesome. If you loved one I think you’ll love the other. But I digress a bit.

Howsomever, The Princess Bride, in all of its wonderfulness, has a happy ending – no matter how much it middles in some very dark places.

The Last Unicorn, so very much on my other hand, ends on the bitter side of that sweet. Good does conquer evil, but in that triumph there are so very many regrets. It’s an ending that is very fitting while leaving both the reader and the characters looking back at what might have been with sadness and more than a bit of longing.

It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, and it’s as perfect a story in its own way as The Princess Bride is in its. Read it and quite possibly weep, but read it all the same.

Escape Rating A+: The Last Unicorn is a fantasy classic. Seriously. It’s on every single list of fantasy canon for the 20th century and probably for all time. To the point where I assumed I must have read it back in the day, because it came out in 1968 and I read a hella lotta fantasy in the 1970s. I KNOW I read the author’s first novel, A Fine and Private Place, back then, but it turns out that I hadn’t read The Last Unicorn until now.

And oh what a wonderful story I’ve been missing all these years!

While the unicorn starts out her quest alone, she doesn’t remain that way. In her travels she picks up two companions, Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue. Schmendrick is a wizard looking for his magic, while Molly is searching for the woman she might have been.

They run headlong, or are herded into, or a bit of both, a king who has spent a life searching for something to interest him – but has never found it because the fault, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” He is the rock on which all their quests crash and very nearly burn.

There is just so much in The Last Unicorn. It’s the kind of story that sinks deep into the reader’s soul and doesn’t leave. I’m so glad I finally read it and hope that you will be intrigued enough to do so as well.

It’s also the kind of story that isn’t quite done, no matter how many years pass between visits. There are two followup novellas set in the world of The Last Unicorn, “Two Hearts” and “Sooz”. “Two Hearts” has been previously published but “Sooz” is brand new. The two have been gathered together in a single volume, The Way Home, which will be out in early April, just in time for my birthday. And a better birthday book present I couldn’t possibly imagine.

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellanIn the Shadow of Lightning (Glass Immortals, #1) by Brian McClellan
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Glass Immortals #1
Pages: 576
Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage trilogy, comes the first novel in the Glass Immortals series, In the Shadow of Lightning, an epic fantasy where magic is a finite resource—and it’s running out.
"Excellent worldbuilding and a truly epic narrative combine into Brian's finest work to date. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a new favorite fantasy series to read."—Brandon Sanderson

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.
Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.
"Powerful rival families, murderous conspiracies, epic battles, larger-than-life characters, and magic."—Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga
"Engaging, fast-paced and epic."—James Islington, author of In The Shadow of What Was Lost
"Clever, fun, and by turns beautifully bloody, In the Shadow of Lightning hits like a bolt through a stained glass window."—Megan E. O'Keefe, author of Chaos Vector

My Review:

As the story opens, Demir Grappo is Icarus, and we see him in the moment of his spectacular fall. A cocky young genius both in politics and on the battlefield, we catch him just at the moment when he learns that someone has decided that he has flown too close to the sun – and that it is time to clip his wings. Or burn them.

It’s a broken man who slinks away from that battlefield, covered in disgrace where there should have been glory. To say that Demir plans to hide in the lowest and meanest places he can find is a bit of an overstatement. We’d call it a psychotic break. He just runs away from his shame and his responsibilities.

Nine years later the young man is a bit older, even sadder, and doesn’t see himself as any wiser at all. He is doing a better job of getting through the days, but he has no plans, no hopes, no dreams beyond doing that for another day.

Until an old friend finds him in the back of beyond, to tell Demir that has mother Adriana Grappo, the Matriarch of the Grappo guild family, has been assassinated. And that Demir is now Patriarch, if he is willing to take up the mantle, the reins, and the responsibility he left behind.

He’ll go home to protect his guild family and hunt down his mother’s killers. Even on his worst day – and he’s had plenty of them in the intervening years – he’d be able to smell the stink of a coverup no matter how far away he was from the seething cesspit of politics and corruption that is the capital of the Ossan Empire.

Demir is willing to tear the Empire down to get the truth. Little does he know that the plot he plans to uncover will require him to save it – whether it deserves it or not.

Escape Rating A+: “Glassdamn.” It rolls easily through the mind, or trippingly off the tongue, as though it’s an epithet that we’ve always used – or at least could have if we’d had a mind to. And glassdamnit but this is a terrific story.

It’s “glassdamn” because the scientific sorcery that powers the story and the world it explores is based on the use of specifically tuned, resonating glass to provide its power. While there are multiple religions in the world none of the deities or pantheons rule much of anything. Glass is king, queen and knave and everyone swears by it and at it and about it all day long.

Glassdamn, indeed.

The title is a bit of a pun. Our protagonist, if not necessarily or always our hero, Demir Grappo, spends the entire story living in the shadow of the political and glass dancer prodigy “The Lightning Prince” – his own former self, the self that he has been running from for all these years. Demir and the man he once was are going to have to come to some kind of resolution if he is going to have even half a chance at fixing everything that’s wrong with Ossa, with his guild family, with sorcery and especially with himself. It’s difficult to tell which will be the hardest job.

The story is told from several perspectives, so that the reader is able to see what’s happening over the vast sprawling canvas that is this first book in a protected trilogy. While we follow Demir, we also have a chance to see the Ossan empire from other points of view, including the childhood friends he brings back to the capital to help him in both his quest and his more mundane work, the master craftswoman he partners with in order to carry out his mother’s last request, and his uncle Tadeus, an officer in Ossa’s much vaunted Foreign Legion, an army that takes nearly as big a fall as Demir once did.

They may rise together – or they may discover that the game is beyond them all. It’s a question that is not yet answered when the story concludes. Which is utterly fitting for the first book in a trilogy. I just wish I had an inkling of when the second book is going to be available, because this is a story that left me with a terrible book hangover. I can’t wait to go back.

One of the things that both sucked me in and drove me crazy about In the Shadow of Lightning, but which also explains why I liked it so glassdamn much, is the sheer number of recent stories it reminded me of, as well as one long-loved classic and, surprisingly, a videogame.

Throwing Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham, Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford, and Isolate by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. into an industrial-strength book blender will get you close to the feel of In the Shadow of Lightning. All are stories of empires that have already rotted from the head down. All have ‘magic’ that is treated scientifically, to the point where their worlds are all much closer to steampunk than to epic fantasy – which doesn’t stop all of them from BEING epic fantasy anyway. None of them are about classic contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; instead all are about people attempting to turn back the tide of the type of evil that results from power corrupting. These series starters are not exactly like each other, but they all ‘feel’ very similar and if you like one you’ll probably get equally immersed in one of the others.

The individual character of Demir Grappo, that mercurial broken genius, appearing as antihero considerably more often than hero, trying to save as much as he can and willing to sacrifice whatever it takes into the bargain, recalled a character from a much different time and place, but whose story was still conducted over a sprawling canvas. If you’ve ever read the Lymond Chronicles (start with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett, Demir is very much in Lymond’s mold – and it was a bit heartbreaking to watch Demir making entirely too many of the same mistakes and sacrifices. I’m also wondering if he’s going to face some of Lymond’s desperate compromises and am trepidatiously looking forward to finding out.

And for anyone who has played the Dragon Age series of videogames, the corrupt guild family political power brokering – as well as the open use of assassination as a political tool – bears a surprisingly sharp resemblance to the Antivan Crows. I half expected someone to leave a message that “the Crows send their regards,” because they most certainly would, with respect upfront and a knife in the back.

The audio made that last bit even more evocative because the narrator did one hell of a job with all the accents. He also told a damn good story, giving the feeling that we were in each character’s head when it was their turn “on stage”, and making each and every voice distinct. AND he managed to put me so completely inside both Demir’s and Tessa’s heads that I would have to stop for a few minutes because I could tell that whatever was coming next was going to be awful, and I cared so much that I almost couldn’t bear to experience it so closely with them.

So, if you enjoy big sprawling epics, whether fantasy or SF, In the Shadow of Lightning is just the kind of world-spanning, world-shattering, monsterful and wonderful binge read just waiting to happen!

I can’t wait for that glassdamned second book in the trilogy. I really, really can’t.

Review: Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire

Review: Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuireLost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #8
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A young girl discovers an infinite variety of worlds in this standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Wayward Children series from Seanan McGuire, Lost in the Moment and Found.
Welcome to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go.

If you ever lost a sock, you’ll find it here.If you ever wondered about favorite toy from childhood... it’s probably sitting on a shelf in the back.And the headphones that you swore that this time you’d keep safe? You guessed it….
Antoinette has lost her father. Metaphorically. He’s not in the shop, and she’ll never see him again. But when Antsy finds herself lost (literally, this time), she finds that however many doors open for her, leaving the Shop for good might not be as simple as it sounds.
And stepping through those doors exacts a price.
Lost in the Moment and Found tells us that childhood and innocence, once lost, can never be found.

My Review:

If you’ve ever wondered where the odd socks or the missing Tupperware lids go, well, that’s where Antsy finds herself on the other side of that door. The Shop Where the Lost Things Go. Which is completely, totally and utterly appropriate, because Antsy is certainly lost herself. And has lost herself, along with some things that she wasn’t aware of, like her belief that adults would keep her safe, along with her innocence of all the horrors the world has to offer.

In that shop she finds two “people”, the intelligent magpie Hudson and the old woman Vineta. She also finds safety, purpose and the joy of discovery, not just by helping in the shop but by venturing out into all the new doors that open every morning leading out of the shop to worlds of wonder.

It’s a good, happy, fulfilling life. It’s the life she might have chosen for herself, if only she knew it was available to choose. But she thinks she’s paying for her safety and her happiness, along with her room and board, through her work in the shop AND in venturing through the various doors to help keep it stocked.

And she is. But not in the way that she believes she is. Perhaps in a way she might have chosen anyway – perhaps not. But the choice was taken away from her because the magic of the Doors didn’t want her to know – and knows just how to punish her when she discovers the terrible truth.

Escape Rating A-: Considering that the author spoils this in an Author’s Note at the very front of the book, I don’t feel at all bad about doing it here as well. Because honestly, if she hadn’t told me up front that Antsy was going to rescue herself from the grooming, gaslighting monster in her own house I wouldn’t have made it through the first chapter.

Other strange, wondrous and terrible things happen to Antsy after she gets herself through that door marked “Be Sure”, but that particular horror is NOT among them. After all, this is a book about the Wayward Children and many of those children have passed through some very dark places. Antsy will not be an exception.

But be both warned and reassured – she will get herself out of that first, most terrible place. And all the terrible and wonderful things that happen to her in the story are able to happen because she was able to get herself out and onto the road that leads her to this story.

Antsy’s story is about everything having a price, a realization that is part of everyone’s loss of innocence. At seven, as Antsy is when she steps through that door, while her loss of some innocence is what made her run in the first place, she’s still naive enough not to realize that prices can be levied even when one is not aware that a bargain has been struck.

For an adult, the price of most things is often simply that we never get to know what might have been down the road less taken or the other leg of the trousers of time. Some costs are more explicit, whether it’s the choice of a profession of service that may cost one’s life, a decision to or not to have children, or even the famous one posited by Benjamin Franklin, that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” But we generally know the bargain we’re making when we make it – or at least we think we do.

When Antsy opens the door to The Shop Where the Lost Things Go, and starts opening all the fascinating doors that open within the shop to all those fascinating places, she too is making a bargain and paying a price for it. But she’s only seven years old, she’s lost, alone and scared, and not nearly savvy enough to understand that the price she’s paying may or may not be something she’s willing to give.

But it’s not an unknown price. Both Vineta and Hudson are perfectly aware of what Antsy is giving away, even though she is not. They are all too aware that they are using her for their own purposes – and choose not to tell her, not even when she matures enough to understand.

In a way, the woman and the bird are using Antsy just as much as someone in her original world intended to use her. Which intent was worse or more heinous is one the reader will have to decide for themselves.

What’s fascinating about Antsy’s trip through the Doors is the way that the Doors are revealed to be much closer to full sentience than was apparent in the earlier stories. Antsy’s door took her to the Shop because that’s where the Doors wanted her to go. And they’ve deliberately obscured her awareness of what’s happening to her because the Doors want her to stay – no matter what it will cost her.

That they have the wherewithal to punish her when she tries to break free is a shock – both to Antsy and to the reader. It makes us rethink some of the events of the previous books in the series and quite possibly makes the whole thing more dark and even less of a lark than it previously appeared to be.

Which won’t stop me from reading the next book in the series, still untitled but scheduled for publication next January. In the meantime, I still have one previous book to read, Come Tumbling Down, and quite possibly a re-read of the whole marvelous thing now that I know a whole lot more about the Doors and their universe work – although I’m certain there’s more to discover.

This award winning series began with Every Heart a Doorway, which means it starts at the end of a whole bunch of the Wayward Children’s stories. Lost in the Moment and Found ends in the place if not the time where that story begins, and would be a perfect place to get into the series if you haven’t already found your way to the reading door that leads to it. Wherever you begin, it’s an awfully wonderful journey, particularly in the sense that it is chock-full of both awe and wonder.

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie BlakeThe Atlas Six (The Atlas, #1) by Olivie Blake
Narrator: Andy Ingalls, Caitlin Kelly, Damian Lynch, David Monteith, James Patrick Cronin, Munirih Grace, Siho Ellsmore, Steve West
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, fantasy
Series: Atlas #1
Pages: 384
Length: 16 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alexandrian Society is a secret society of magical academicians, the best in the world. Their members are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. And those who earn a place among their number will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...

- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they must spend one year together to qualify for initiation. During this time, they will be permitted access to the Society’s archives and judged on their contributions to arcane areas of knowledge. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.

My Review:

This dive into the inner workings of a very dark academia begins with Atlas Blakely, Caretaker of the Alexandrian Society, visiting the six most powerful mages of their generation and making each of them an offer that they can refuse – although he knows that none of them will.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and they all know it. Even if, at the beginning, they don’t realize that it will absolutely be the end of at least one of theirs.

In this alternate version of our world, magic has taken the place of science, and is treated, studied, and advanced much as science is in the world we know. Magic has created the equivalent, if not the better, of the technologies that power our world. Magic is known, it is respected, and it is feared.

Magic is power every bit as much, if in a somewhat different way, as power is magic.

Those six powerful mages are being recruited to join the Alexandrian Society, the secret inheritors of the knowledge and power that was once held in and by the Great Library of Alexandria. Membership in the Society confers prestige, which, on top of their already considerable magical power, is certain to bring them wealth and yet more earthly power as well.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every powerful and secret society, there is at least one, if not two or six, rivals searching for a way to take that power and add it to their own.

The six mages who have been recruited by Atlas Blakely have one year to suss out all the secrets held by the Society, by its enigmatic caretaker, and by each other. It’s not enough time to even scratch the surface of that labyrinth.

But it’s all that one of them has left.

Escape Rating B: I have extremely mixed feelings about The Atlas Six. So mixed that the blender of my feelings hasn’t stopped whirling even a week after I finished the damn thing.

At the top of the column labeled ‘good’ feelings, the book is compelling as hell. Once the story gets past Libby and Nico’s barely post-adolescent sniping and swiping at each other, the whole thing is off to the races in a way that both commands and demands the reader’s attention.

I finished at 4 o’clock in the damn morning because I just couldn’t put it down – and when I tried it gnawed at me until I picked it back up again. Over and over until finally I fell out at the end, as exhausted and spent as the characters.

Howsomever, at the top of the column labeled ‘bad’ feelings is the fact that not a single one of these characters is on the side of the angels. There ARE NO angels here. There are no innocents to serve as heartbreaking collateral damage. Saying that no one is any better than they ought to be doesn’t nearly cover it. More like they are all worse than each other in a Möbius strip of turning their backs on anything that could be classified as “light” and diving straight for the bottom.

If you need to like at least one character to follow a story, even if that character is an anti-hero rather than a hero or a lovable or even just a redeemable rogue, there is absolutely no one in this story who remotely qualifies. Every single character, even the ones that at the beginning you might think will turn out to be a bit corrupt but not too awful, seems to have had their moral compass surgically removed at birth or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, for most of its length The Atlas Six seems to sit squarely on the intersection between “power corrupts” and “some gifts come at just too high a price.” And those certainly are elements of the story. But, just as we think we know what’s going on, the centrality of those two tropes is knocked off that center. Or rather, we learn that believing that those are the central tenets also centers characters who may not actually be IN that center.

Which admittedly does ramp up the tension VERY dramatically for the second book in the series, The Atlas Paradox. Which, thank goodness – or more likely badness in this case – is already out so I’ll be starting it as soon as I recuperate from the first book.

The thing is that I’m not sure there’s anything honestly new in The Atlas Six. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, it’s stomach turning at points, but the whole corruption of dark academia thing is not exactly new under the sun. (Recent examples include Babel by R.F. Kuang, and The Scholomance by Naomi Novik to name just a couple). For this reader, the way that all the arcs, at least so far, are trending so deeply downwards means that I’ll be diving into the second book more to see just how far down into hell these people and this situation can go. I suspect it’s pretty damn far. I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters.

So, if you need to like someone, anyone in a story to want to make your way to its end, The Atlas Six may not do it for you as a reader. I’m very much of two minds about the whole thing.

Howsomever, while I may have had a ton of mixed feelings about the story, but absolutely none whatsoever about the full cast narration. The way the book was narrated was truly what both made it possible for me to read and compelled me to finish. The perspective on the events is batted around between seven first person narrators, the Atlas Six themselves plus Libby Rhodes’ boyfriend Ezra Fowler. In the narration, the actor changed when the perspective did, and the actors did a fantastic job of making each other their characters distinct and easy to recognize.

Because voice acting fascinates me, and this group did such a damn good job of it (and because I had to do a fair bit of digging and listening to figure out who played who), here’s almost the full cast list: (I think I got this right but if I didn’t or if someone knows who Damien Lynch voiced PLEASE let me know)

-Libby Rhodes voiced by Caitlin Kelly
-Nico de Varona voiced by James Patrick Cronin
-Reina Mori voiced by Siho Ellsmore
-Parisa Kamali voiced by Munirih Grace
-Tristan Caine voiced by David Monteith
-Callum Nova voiced by Steve West
-Ezra Fowler voiced by Andy Ingalls

One of the reasons that I plan to listen to the second book, The Atlas Paradox, just as I did The Atlas Six is because this stellar cast is returning for the second book, along with three additional players whose identities I have yet to discover.

However I end up feeling about the second book, even if those feelings turn out to be as mixed as they were for this one, I already know the performance is going to be riveting.

Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes LackeyShenanigans (Tales of Valdemar, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tales of Valdemar #16, Valdemar (Publication order) #55
Pages: 336
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This sixteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

Last week’s Into the West – and Beyond before it – focused on the very serious adventure of the Founding of Valdemar. Kordas Valdemar and Company’s epic journey gave series fans a much better idea of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the creation of the place that we all love. But that’s certainly not all there is to Valdemar.

Shenanigans, the sixteenth book in the Tales of Valdemar subseries (after last year’s Boundaries), presents series readers with a treat of a present for this holiday season, as the stories within are exactly what the title names them – shenanigans.

While there’s a bit of derring-do, Shenanigans is a collection of marvelous, funny and often marvelously funny stories set in all the periods of Valdemar history among all of the many peoples and creatures that make the place so much fun to read about for so many glorious years.

In spite of the blurb, most of the stories in Shenanigans do not revolve around the Companions and their Chosen. Some do, of course, or it wouldn’t be a Valdemar collection, but quite a few of the shenanigans in the collection thereof are more slice of life stories, and there are a fair number that feature people with telepathic “gifts” that are not Chosen and may not even wish to be.

Of course, there are also several stories set among the students of the Collegium, because, well, students and pranking make for a fun story no matter what world they’re set in.

Which leads to my two favorite stories in the collection, “Pranks for the Memories” by Dee Shull and “Fool’s Week” by Anthea Sharp. The stories are similar, but they are still both excellent. It’s spring. The students are restless. (Probably every teacher everywhere is nodding their head at THAT idea). In “Pranks” one student mentions a family tradition of a week of pranking. In “Fool’s Week”, someone remembers that there used to be a traditional “fool’s week” at the Collegium until the practice, not unsurprisingly, got out of hand.

It’s suddenly in hand again, to the point where even the teachers are participating. And it’s hilarious!

The other standouts – at least for this reader – come in pairs. “All Around the Bell Tower” by Stephanie Shaver and “A Bouquet of Gifts, or The Culinary Adventures of Rork” by Michele Lang. Both are stories about young girls who have gifts that the people around them can’t quite identify – and that give them each more than a few problems. What each child needs is someone to both listen and understand. The story in “Bell Tower” is a bit more traditional Valdemar in that it’s her Companion that finally brings help in the persons of both themself and their accompanying Heralds. In “A Bouquet of Gifts” we get a much fuller than usual portrait of the helpful hertasi as Rork the chef, as he sets up a feast for a returning friend, also makes a new one – along with a menagerie of mischievously ‘helpful’ creatures and animals.

We saw a lot of the hertasi in Into the West and it’s lovely to see them again here.

And then there are the two stories that include both romance and adventure in equal measure – if on nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic strata. “A Cry of Hounds” by Elisabeth Waters and “One Trick Pony” by Diana Paxson. “Hounds” is set in the King’s Court of Valdemar. Lord Repulsive’s father is dead, and Lord Repulsive himself is trying to marry off his 12-year-old stepdaughter. In reality, he’s selling his 12-year-old stepdaughter and trying to keep the King from finding out that the child is only 12. Because he will not approve the marriage once he learns, and he will not be amused when he discovers the deception. And he is not. Lord Repulsive gets what’s coming to him with the help of his castoff brother, his sister-in-law and every dog she talks to with her AnimalSpeech. And he deserves every bit of it. (Lord Repulsive really is repulsive. It’s not his real name but “if the shoe fits” or in this case, more like “if the Foo shits”…)

Last but not least there’s, Diana Paxson’s “One Trick Pony”, which mixes a bit of the bittersweet memory of heartbreak and the horrors of war into its story about a man who has found peace after grief and war by gardening, and the way that peace is invaded by a woman who reopens his heart and a newly born Companion who is learning the limits of their own power one prank at a time.

Escape Rating B: After the necessary seriousness of Into the West, the mostly lighthearted tales of Shenanigans were an absolute delight. As with most collections, not every single story hits its mark, but more than enough of them to make Shenanigans a treat for Valdemar fans. Certainly something to tide us all over as we wait for Gryphon in Light, coming in June.

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex JenningsThe Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
Narrator: Gralen Bryant Banks
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 456
Length: 17 hours and 15 minutes
Published by Redhook on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Music is magic in this novel set in a fantastical version of New Orleans where a battle for the city's soul brews between two young mages, a vengeful wraith, and one powerful song.
Nola is a city full of wonders. A place of sky trolleys and dead cabs, where haints dance the night away and Wise Women help keep the order. To those from Away, Nola might seem strange. To Perilous Graves, it’s simply home.
In a world of everyday miracles, Perry might not have a talent for magic, but he does know Nola’s rhythm as intimately as his own heartbeat. So when the city’s Great Magician starts appearing in odd places and essential songs are forgotten, Perry realizes trouble is afoot.
Nine songs of power have escaped from the piano that maintains the city’s beat, and without them, Nola will fail. Unwilling to watch his home be destroyed, Perry will sacrifice everything to save it. But a storm is brewing, and the Haint of All Haints is awake. Nola’s time might be coming to an end.

My Review:

While it seems likely that every city whose biggest industry is attracting tourists has two sides, the carefully curated tourist destination and the place where real people live, there is something about New Orleans that has made it a liminal place in more ways than that usual, particularly in fantasy and magical realism.

After all, New Orleans, with its historical transformations from French to Spanish to American, and its equally subversive retentions of everything it wants to hold dear from each iteration, whether on the literal surface, the figurative underground, or its signature combination of the two in its haunting but necessary above ground cities of the dead is just ripe – if not a bit too much so – for stories where the past and present collide, where the dead visit the living and where one version of the city lies on top of, underneath, or side by side any or all of the others.

In other words, the concept that New Orleans has either managed to split itself or has been split into two cities, the “real” New Orleans we know and the “realer than real” Nola is not so farfetched. At least not when it comes to this particular city.

What makes The Ballad of Perilous Graves both fascinating and fun is the way that it teases the reader with its two perspective that combine into one epic coming-of-age and coming-into-power quest, led by two characters who may or may not exactly be separate and may or may not be seeing the same – or even similar – cities.

But who must find their way somehow into the same quest to save the same place, the city that they both love – no matter who or what they have to sacrifice along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I am a sucker for stories about New Orleans so I was all set to love The Ballad of Perilous Graves. Which in the end I did, although it took awhile to get me there. This is one of those books where the audiobook, as read by Gralen Bryant Banks, carried me over to the point where the story got its hooks into me and didn’t let go.

At first, there’s just a lot of setup to get the reader into this version/vision of the city. Part of the reason it took me a bit to get there was that the initial point-of-view character is rising sixth grader Perilous (Perry) Graves. The Graves family, Perry, his little sister Brendy and his parents, Deacon and Yvette, live across the street from Peaches Lavelle, who seems to be 12 or so and seems to be the strongest person in the world – or at least in Nola. Peaches and her VERY magical adventures at first made me wonder if Perry was dreaming this whole thing, whether he was making it up, or whether he was seeing what he wanted to see instead of what actually was. Because his Nola didn’t quite match up to reality and Peaches was kind of the icing on that particular cake.

It was only when the perspective switched to the adult Casey Ravel that I figured out that whatever was happening was “real” for the story’s own version of reality. Also, Casey’s reality matched up to real reality considerably more than Perry’s did. Which should have clued me in that their realities were not exactly the same reality – at least not at first – but it took me an embarrassingly long time to get there.

The quest is really Perry’s quest, and it begins in Nola. Someone is killing the songs that are the foundation of the city’s identity, and havoc is being wrecked on both sides of that divide. So the overarching story is Perry’s hero’s journey, his coming of age as he takes on the mantle of his family’s inherited magic to save his friends and family, and his city.

It is, of course, a journey that leads him through some very dark places, to versions of Nola that are even more magical than his own and to places that exist on no map that has ever been printed. Because New Orleans is that liminal place where all versions of the city link, from the magical to the mundane, from the living to the dead, and everywhere in between.

It’s also a quest to find his grandfather, who was kidnapped at the beginning of the story by a haunted man – or ghost, or song – on a mission to retrieve something that Daddy Deke doesn’t even remember that he has.

There is a LOT going on in this story. So much. I’m sure there are parts I didn’t quite get, or parts that I thought I did because this isn’t my first trip to a magical version of New Orleans BUT that I got completely wrong but got enough to keep me in the story. And that’s both fine and fantastic. Not every book has to be for me (and shouldn’t be) for me to enjoy the hell out of it.

This is a magical, mystery tour of the city. It’s a hero’s journey both for Perry and for Casey, and both young men – because Casey is still young and Perry may be very young but is a man by the end of the book – it’s a coming into power story. For Perry it’s a coming of age story as well. For Casey it also feels like an acceptance story, but we don’t get nearly as much of Casey as we do of Perry, as much as Casey serves to ground the story in a bit of the real in its early stages.

But it’s also such a wild ride to so many wild and diverse visions of New Orleans that, as unique as the author’s voice is – and it most definitely is – the ingredients in this gumbo reminded me of other urban fantasies and especially other New Orleans stories. So if you’re looking for something that recalls bits of The Ballad of Perilous Graves, here’s my list of books it made me go looking for: The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp, The Sentinels of New Orleans by Suzanne Johnson, Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer, with a bit of The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Edinburgh Nights by T.L. Huchu, Last Exit by Max Gladstone and No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull for embodied cities, extra dead bodies and talking thereto, ways to get into alternate worlds and hiding monsters in plain sight.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is the author’s debut novel, which I had to look up because OMG it’s wonderful and crazy and I’m expecting more marvelously wild and great things. And hopefully more New Orleans.

Review: Into the West by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Into the West by Mercedes LackeyInto the West (The Founding of Valdemar, #2) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #2, Valdemar (Publication order) #54, Valdemar (Chronological) #5
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this second book in the new series from a New York Times-bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
Baron Valdemar and his people have found a temporary haven, but it cannot hold all of them, or for long. Trouble could follow on their heels at any moment, and there are too many people for Crescent Lake to support. Those who are willing to make a further trek by barge on into the West will follow him into a wilderness depopulated by war and scarred by the terrible magics of a thousand years ago and the Mage Wars. But the wilderness is not as empty as it seems. There are potential friends and rapacious foes....
....and someone is watching them.

My Review:

We already knew the destination. What Valdemar is, what it became, seemed fully formed all the way back in Arrows of the Queen, which takes place almost 1400 years after the founding of Valdemar and was originally published in 1987. We’ve known the destination for a very long time.

This is the journey. Literally. Just as Beyond was the final push to start that journey, Into the West is the journey itself. Complete with all the cold, mud AND bugs that any adventure requires.

But, where Beyond was a story of running away, Into the West is a story about running towards.

As high as the stakes were, and still are, in the events that opened the way for Valdemar and his people to leave the corrupt Eastern Empire, the story itself built to a big climax – even bigger than Kordas Valdemar himself expected.

That part’s over. They’ve gotten away – at least for the moment. They believe that they left enough of a mess behind that it will take some time for the Empire to get its political shit into a big enough and unified enough pile to come after them.

Leaving a crater where the capital used to be should keep things back in the Empire in disarray for quite some time. At least until the surviving nobles and warlords and military commanders shake out which of them is going to be in charge and possibly charge after the fleeing Valdemarians.

If they can even find them after however much time that’s going to take.

So the big thing that everyone was working towards has been accomplished. Everyone was willing to unite towards that gigantic and hugely dangerous common goal. Into the West is the story of what happens next.

On the one hand, it’s an adventure. They are headed, as the title proclaims, into the west. To the place where the Mage Wars magically corrupted the land and everything on it centuries before. Kordas Valdemar knows that the land is still dangerous, but hopes that the intervening centuries have allowed the land to recover enough to make it habitable for his people.

On the other hand, it’s every bit as much of a political story as Beyond. But like the difference between running away and running towards that is the lynchpin of each book, Beyond’s portrait of the Eastern Empire was a lesson in what NOT to do and what NOT to be. It’s up to Baron Valdemar, the man who will be Valdemar’s first king, to figure out what his country and its people should do and will be in the centuries to come.

All they have to do is get past all the things and people that want to kill them along the way.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve read Beyond – and I highly recommend it – Into the West picks up just where Beyond leaves off. That Valdemar and his people are now beyond the reach of the Empire and are headed into the west.

Which makes this a much different type of story than the previous book – one that isn’t quite as exciting – but is very much necessary – in the opening several chapters.

The big story, of course, centers around Kordas Valdemar, the man who will be the first king of the country that will be named after him. If one has even read a cursory summary of the previous published books in the Valdemar series – which nearly all come AFTER this one in the internal chronology – one already knows that Kordas succeeded. He did become the legendarily good king that the history books talk about nearly a millennium later in The Last Herald-Mage series.

Which, by the way, doesn’t mean you have to have read any of the series previously in order to enjoy Beyond and Into the West. And certainly not that you have to have read any of them recently. Like even in this century recently.

But Into the West is the story of Kordas, not as a myth or a legend, but as a man facing a seemingly impossible job with an all-too-real case of impostor syndrome. He has to do this, He promised his people he’d do this. He’s in over his head and knows it – not that anyone wouldn’t be over their head under the circumstances.

He’s doing the best he can to make the best decisions he can to save not just the most people but the most people with the right ethics and the right moral compass along the way.

So this is the portrait of the legend as a real man, with all his flaws and all his virtues. And by the nature of that portrait, it is also an up close and personal view of how the sausage of government gets made.

For a lot of the story, their journey reads as more of a series of vignettes than a continuous narrative. While there are hints of the everyday drudgery of getting this mass of folks moving, the high points of the story naturally occur when things happen. Sometimes disastrously but just as often when conflicts are avoided or when kindness is paid forward and back along the way.

And then at the end they learn just what it is they’ve let themselves into – and it’s explosive and page-turning and even brutally epic.

But the getting there has a couple of hitches that Beyond didn’t, one which deals with the story in its present, and one which has its impact because of the future that is known but hasn’t happened yet. And one bittersweet heartbreaker to tempt us all to keep reading or go back and read again.

There’s a piece of Into the West that is a coming of age story for Kordas’ much younger sister-in-law Delia. In order to help her get over her entirely too obvious and cringeworthy crush on him, Kordas assigns her to a forward scouting party. It’s the making of her and gives the story a way of seeing the perils, trials and tribulations of this big journey at a much smaller and more easily encompassed scale. But her mooncalf obsession over Kordas really slowed the story down until she finally started to get over it.

The second hitch was the expedition’s winter rescue by the Hawkbrothers. As it occurs, it reads very much like a deus ex machina that shortcuts past a lot of what would have been a hard, killing winter even without the surrounding monsters. Once it happens, it does feel like something that had to have happened because it already did. It also provides a touching pause between disasters just before the newly fledged Valdemarians discover that their oh-so-convenient rescuers weren’t nearly as all-knowing as they pretended to be.

When Into the West wraps up after a truly epic concluding battle, the story is at a point where it could be the end of this Valdemar subseries. But I hope it isn’t, and that’s because of that bittersweet little heartbreaker at the end.

The one signature feature of the entire Valdemar series that we do not see in either Beyond or Into the West are the marvelous, magical, horse-like Companions who serve as guides, friends and even consciences of the best and brightest that Valdemar the country has to offer. But I think we’ve met the people who will become them, and in a scene that just about breaks the heart we get just a hint of what depth of love and kind of sacrifice was needed to make the Companions possible. And I want there to be a third book in the Founding of Valdemar so I can find out if I’ve guessed right.

But in the meantime there’s a new collection of Valdemar stories, Shenanigans, that I’ll be reviewing next week followed by a new novel about Valdemar’s legendary gryphons, Gryphon in Light, coming this summer.