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: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds

Review: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion DeedsComeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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Seattle, 1929—a bitterly divided city overflowing with wealth, violence, and magic.
A respected magus and city leader intent on criminalizing Seattle’s most vulnerable magickers hires a young woman as a lady’s companion to curb his rebellious daughter’s outrageous behavior.
The widowed owner of a speakeasy encounters an opportunity to make her husband’s murderer pay while she tries to keep her shapeshifter brother safe.
A notorious thief slips into the city to complete a delicate and dangerous job that will leave chaos in its wake.
One thing is for certain—comeuppance, eventually, waits for everyone.

My Review:

This story opens at the close. Literally. It begins at the end, then works its way backwards, just like all the best caper stories. Which this most definitely is.

When we first meet Dolly White, she is leaving the scene of the crime she has just committed, wearing a mask that allows her to appear as the man she has just framed for that crime. We don’t really know who she is, or more importantly why she has just gone to all this trouble to set this man up, why she wants to bring him down, or what led both of them to the place she has just left.

We just know it’s going to be fascinating.

The story moves backwards, inexorably, until we know who Dolly White is – as much as anyone ever does – and why it was so extremely necessary that Francis Earnshaw get his just desserts. His comeuppance. And why and how the mysterious Dolly White turned out to be the instrument of so many people’s justice.

Escape Rating A-: This one is a lot of fun, especially for readers who have been wondering where urban fantasy went. Because this feels a lot like it, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if the genre isn’t coming back with a slightly historical twist under the “gaslamp” moniker.

There’s also just a bit of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children here. Dolly White, or Comeuppance Rather as she was named at birth, seems to be one of those Wayward Children who came back from wherever her door took her and either never found it again, or never looked for it again. As this story takes place in 1929, it’s considerably before Miss West opened her school, and Dolly/Comeuppance seems to have the nightmares and missing pieces to fit her right into that series.

Dolly is also the Tin Man. She isn’t certain that the fae didn’t take her heart when they abducted her as a child. She’s certain she doesn’t have one now. Not even when she feels like it’s breaking.

Comeuppance Served Cold sits on that uneasy border between fantasy and historical mystery. The setting is Seattle in 1929, just as the Great Depression is about to rain on EVERYONE’s parade. The magic added to the setting is a fascinating, darkly sparkling gloss on the story, but this didn’t HAVE to be fantasy. All the elements would work just as well in a historical thriller, as the story is about rich men behaving very badly and using money, influence and lies to slither out from under the consequences. Only to have someone they don’t expect exert some surprising leverage. And comeuppance.

The magic makes the explicit commentary about rich people, abuse, political shenanigans and misdirection a bit easier to swallow. And also sucks the reader in and makes everything just that bit more fascinating.

So if you’re looking for a little bit of magical sparkle to liven up your historical thrillers, Comeuppance Served Cold is a lovely, chilly little treat. Especially as it feels like the opening to a series. Which would be especially magical.

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes LackeyThe Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (Elemental Masters, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk
Series: Elemental Masters #16
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on January 11, 2022
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The sixteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series follows sharpshooter Annie Oakley as she tours Europe and discovers untapped powers.
Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.
As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.

My Review:

When I read the first few books in the Elemental Masters series – as they came out back in the early 2000s – I loved these retellings of classic fairy tales set in an alternate, slightly steampunkish late Victorian/early Edwardian era for the way that they mixed a bit of magic with a bit of alternate history to put a fresh face on a tale that was oh-so-familiar.

Now that I’m thinking about this the series is an alternate version of another of Lackey’s alternate ways of telling fairy tales, her Five Hundred Kingdoms series (begin with The Fairy Godmother) where the purpose of the story was to subvert the fairy tale to keep it from subverting someone’s life.

I digress.

I stopped reading the Elemental Masters series after Reserved for the Cat as a consequence of the “so many books, so little time” conundrum that all of us who live in books are faced with so often. But I came back when the series switched from fairy tales to legendary characters with A Study in Sable and the three books that followed (A Scandal in Battersea, The Bartered Brides and The Case of the Spellbound Child) because the legendary character that was introduced and followed in this subseries of the series was none other than Sherlock Holmes.

I can never resist a Holmes pastiche, and these were no exception.

But after following the “World’s Greatest Consulting Detective”, even an alternate version thereof, through an alternate version of Holmes’ London, the series took itself across the pond to the Americas while briefly turning to its roots of retelling fairy tales with Jolene. Which I have yet to read – even though just the title is giving me an earworm of Dolly Parton’s marvelous song – which I’m sure was the intention.

I was, however, all in to read this latest book in the series, The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, because I was wondering how the author would blend this historical character into this world where magic is hidden just beneath the surface.

It turns out that Annie Oakley herself, the real one, provided her own introduction to this world. As this story opens, we’re with Annie as she is in contracted servitude to a married couple she only refers to as “the Wolves” in her diary. Her real, historical diary.

The Wolves – whose identity has never been conclusively determined – starved her, cheated her, threatened her and physically and mentally abused her at every turn for two years, beginning when Annie was nine years old.

In this story, those two years of hell on earth become Annie’s introduction to the magic of this alternate world. Not just because the people she calls “the Wolves” turn out to be actual wolves – or rather werewolves – but because her desperate escape from the Wolves is facilitated by the magic of this alternate world – both the magic of the fairies AND magic of Annie’s very own.

After that shocking and heartbreaking beginning, the story shifts to Annie Oakley as an adult, the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, traveling in Europe.

Where she discovers that her childhood rescue by fairies was not the fever dream she tried to convince herself that it was. And that the magic she has hidden from herself all these years is hers to command – if she is willing to learn.

And that she’ll need all the training and assistance that she can get. Because the wolves are still after her.

Escape Rating A-: When I was growing up – back in the Dark Ages – there weren’t nearly enough biographies of women in my elementary school library. Honestly, there weren’t nearly enough, period. While there still aren’t, the situation has improved at least a bit.

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

One of the few that was always available was Annie Oakley. It was easy to find stuff about her, and as someone who read as much of that library as humanly possible, I found what there was. She’s a fascinating person, as a woman in the late 19th and early 20th century who was famous for what she herself DID, and not for who she married, who she killed (I’m looking at you, Lizzie Borden) or who or what she was victimized by. Nor was she famous for her beauty. (I’ve included a picture to let you judge for yourself on that score, but whether you like her looks or not they are not what made her famous.

Her ability to shoot a gun, accurately and at a distance, is what made her famous. It also put food on the table when she was young and her family was broke.

Blending her real history and real talents into this magical story, and keeping reasonably close to what is known about her while expanding it into this created world was fascinating and fun. This was also a terrific story to get new readers into this long running series, as Annie is an adult when she finds out that she has magic, and her training in her newly discovered powers helps the reader get on board with the way that this world works AND is fascinating in its own right.

So this story’s blend of history with magic just plain worked for me – even more than I expected it to. More than enough to make me not miss the Sherlock Holmes of the earlier stories in the series too much.

Obviously, I really enjoyed this particular entry in this long-running series. MORE than enough that I’ll be back the next time the author returns to it. In the meantime, I have plenty of entries in the series that I missed to dip into whenever I’m looking for this blend of magic, myth and history.

Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve CogmanThe Untold Story (The Invisible Library #8) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #8
Pages: 352
Published by Ace on December 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this thrilling historical fantasy, time-traveling Librarian spy Irene will need to delve deep into a tangled web of loyalty and power to keep her friends safe.
Irene is trying to learn the truth about Alberich-and the possibility that he's her father. But when the Library orders her to kill him, and then Alberich himself offers to sign a truce, she has to discover why he originally betrayed the Library.
With her allies endangered and her strongest loyalties under threat, she'll have to trace his past across multiple worlds and into the depths of mythology and folklore, to find the truth at the heart of the Library, and why the Library was first created.

My Review:

Heist and caper stories often open at the close, meaning that the reader – or viewer in the case of TV and movies – comes into the story as the caper either appears to be succeeding or failing. Then the story jumps back to the beginning and we get to see how the situation and characters got into the rather large pickle that they were in when we joined the action.

This final book in the Invisible Library series closes at the open. When we first met Irene Winters all the way back in the first book, also titled The Invisible Library, as far as the existence of the Library and Irene’s place in it were concerned, the story is in medias res, the middle of the matter.

As the story has progressed, many of Irene’s adventures have been heists or capers or both, as she generally finds herself and her friends and companions not just jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but in messes where it’s frying pans and fires all the way down.

But part of the reason for all the perils that Irene finds herself facing is that the situation between the worlds is deteriorating. The Library and its librarians guard the balance between the absolute order of the Dragons and the utter chaos of the fae.

Because the worlds in the center, the worlds that have enough chaos to prevent tyranny and allow for growth, but that also have enough order for laws and organizations and society in general to manage to function, are the only worlds on which humans thrive.

And all the librarians, except for Irene’s former apprentice, the Dragon Prince Kai, and her current apprentice, the fae bibliophile Catherine, have been human.

Someone is eliminating worlds at the far ends of the spectrum, both worlds of extreme order and worlds of absolute chaos. Someone wants to destabilize the Library and the fragile peace it brokers between the Dragons and the Fae.

In order to figure out who or what is leading their entire system into destruction, Irene will have to go all the way to the beginning of things. To the lost myths of the foundation of the Library itself. And to the truth of her own origins.

Escape Rating A: The madcap misadventures of librarian Irene Winters come to a rollicking conclusion in this final book in the epic Invisible Library series.

While this series has been very much one caper after another, the lighthearted tone of the series has slipped towards a more serious turn as it has continued. After Irene’s discovery at the end of the previous book, The Dark Archive, that she’s not the biological daughter of the two librarians who raised her, the foundations of Irene’s world have taken more than a bit of a beating.

It’s not just that her adoptive parents lied to her – along with the collusion of the Library itself, but that while Irene may not exactly be the Library’s equivalent of Luke Skywalker, her sperm donor is very definitely the Library’s version of Darth Vader – and he is her father, a revelation that lands with the same “THUD” that it does for Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.

Vader is, at least at that point in the series, exactly the villain that everyone thinks he is. Alberich’s status is a bit less clear. Not that he hasn’t committed a lot of terrible acts, but that the reason behind those terrible acts is not nearly so simple – or so black and white – as Vader’s turn to the Dark Side.

Just as Irene’s discovery of her parentage – and the Library’s role in covering it up – lead to questions that no one wants to answer, so too do her questions about the true origin of the Library itself. A truth that is shrouded in myths and legends that no one really wants to examine.

But that’s what Irene does, because that’s who she is. Librarians don’t know everything. What librarians know, in real life as well as in fantastic stories like this one, is how to find things out. Even things that no one wants found. Even things that will shake the foundations of the world.

The Untold Story has been untold for centuries because too many beings have a vested interest in NOT exposing the truth at the heart of their world. But Librarian Irene Winters tells that story anyway. And it’s the wildest ride she’s ever taken us on.

This is an intensely compelling ending to a fascinating saga. If you haven’t yet visited the Invisible Library, start at the beginning and settle in for a wild, woolly and wonderful ride.

Review: A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Review: A Marvellous Light by Freya MarskeA Marvellous Light (The Last Binding, #1) by Freya Marske
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, historical fantasy, M/M romance, gaslamp
Series: Last Binding #1
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on November 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He's struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents' excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what's been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he's always known.
Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it--not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.
Robin's predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they've been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles--and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

My Review:

In many stories, magic serves as a brilliant light upon the world, a light that is often hidden from those who are unable to share in its wonders. In many of the worlds portrayed by those stories, that light is lit within some, or sometimes many, of the people who populate the world of the story.

But with the presence of light comes its absence – darkness. Humans, whether magical or not, already have more than enough of that within themselves. Magic, whether for good or for ill, is power. And as the cliché explains all too well, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Thus, A Marvellous Light is a story about magic, and about the revealing of magic to someone who has none. But just as the light of magic is “unbusheled” for Robin Blyth, so too is the darkness that surrounds it – and him – cast into the darkest of shadows. Shadows that threaten to swallow him before he ever learns what is hidden within them.

But Robin has more experience with the darkness created by brilliant lights than anyone might ever suspect. And in the person of his reluctant guide, Edwin Courcey, he has a partner who has been battered by those shadows for far too long. Someone who might be willing to help Robin find his own light – and share it.

If they’re smart enough – well that’s Courcey’s department. If they’re brave enough – that’s Robin all over. And if they can find their way to the heart of the puzzle before it’s too late. For themselves. For their loved ones. For their country.

And for each other.

Escape Rating A-: A Marvellous Light is a story about power and privilege. Yes, it’s about the power of magic, but it’s also about the power of money, the power of knowledge, the power of social position and about all the privileges that power can buy, especially for those who are so steeped in its exercise that they can’t even see those with less power as people. Even when they are members of their own families.

It’s also a flamboyantly beautiful story, set in a world as complex and intricate as the Morris prints that Robin Blyth loves.

But it’s the “casual, unthinking malice” of nearly every person with magic that makes this book a frequently uncomfortable read, particularly in the early stages where it seems like all the jokes are on poor Robin and everyone else, including Edwin Courcey, is part of the circle laughing around him.

At least until the reader, along with Robin, figures out that Edwin’s cold, brusque manner is a defensive mechanism to cover up, well, pretty much everything that he feels about everything in his life, including, most especially, his casually, maliciously cruel family.

Because Edwin has been the butt of those exactly same painful “jokes” for his entire life, while Robin has only been suffering from them for a few days. And Robin has much, much better armor against them because the scars don’t run nearly so deep.

Someone has learned that objects of power in the magical world have resurfaced after centuries of quiescence. Forces are arrayed to procure those objects – no matter who or what stands in their way. Or how much collateral damage they do in the search. Starting with Edwin Courcey’s colleague and continuing through Robin, the civil servant assigned through malice – again malice – to take that man’s place.

Drawn to each other by happenstance, by circumstance, by affinity and by shared pain as well as shared inclinations, Edwin and Robin embark on a quest to thwart their opposition, never realizing that it will lead them to the highest circles of power – and back into the rotten heart of Edwin’s family.

But they’ll have each other – if they can just get past their own fears and their individual heartbreaks, and accept a bit of help from some surprising people along the way. It can be enough – if they just let it.

One final thing, something that took me until the next morning to figure out, and now I feel like I just got unbusheled. Or hit with a clue-by-four. Throughout the story, they’re all aware that something huge and terrible is coming, and much of what happens is due to too many people taking desperate and wrong-headed methods to stop that thing or overpower it. The “thing” that is coming, the doom that is hanging over all their heads, is World War I.

Which may not happen for quite a while during the course of this series, The Last Binding, of which A Marvellous Light is merely the first marvellous part. I searched high and low for a title and publication for the next book in this series, but it has not been “unbusheled”. At least not yet. But I live in hope that it will be soon.

Reviewer’s Note: I listened to the first third of this one, until it got past the really uncomfortable, tooth-gritting bits. Not that Edwin’s family got any better – actually they got worse – but once it heads towards Edwin and Robin against the world the pace picked up, the magic got even more fascinating and at least some of the awfulness became part of the much larger point. And I was hooked.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Isolate (The Grand Illusion #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, political thriller, steampunk
Series: Grand Illusion #1
Pages: 608
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of The Mongrel Mage, has a brand new gaslamp political fantasy Isolate.Industrialization. Social unrest. Underground movements. Government corruption and surveillance.
Something is about to give.
Steffan Dekkard is an isolate, one of the small percentage of people who are immune to the projections of empaths. As an isolate, he has been trained as a security specialist and he and his security partner Avraal Ysella, a highly trained empath are employed by Axel Obreduur, a senior Craft Minister and the de facto political strategist of his party.
When a respected Landor Councilor dies of "heart failure" at a social event, because of his political friendship with Obreduur, Dekkard and Ysella find that not only is their employer a target, but so are they, in a covert and deadly struggle for control of the government and economy.
Steffan is about to understand that everything he believed is an illusion.

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title is the illusion that the government (any government) can solve every problem and make everyone happy – all at the same time. But as the story unfolds it acknowledges that this is very definitely an illusion, that a government can possibly make nearly all of the people happy some of the time, that it can certainly make some of the people happy nearly all of the time, but that making all the people happy all the time is neither possible nor realistic.

Although good people in government can do their best to walk the tightrope, to do the best job they can for most people most of the time. If they devote their lives to it and are even willing to give those lives in order to do the most good for the most people most of the time – even in the face of those same people not recognizing that it’s being done while resenting that it isn’t being done nearly fast enough..

In other words, this is a political story, told through fascinating characters. It also reads like a story about how to potentially stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. That could just be reading the real-life present into the opening salvo in what I hope will be a long and fascinating series. But the interpretation feels right to me and your reading mileage may vary.

So Isolate examines the dirty business of politics, as seen through the eyes of someone with an intimate view of just how the sausage is made, as the saying goes, and finds himself on the inside of an attempt to make it better. Or at least tastier for considerably more people than is currently the case.

Isolate can be read as an exploration of how politics and government work as well as a continuous discussion about how they should work, but the story is wrapped around the characters and that both personalizes it and makes it easier to get swept up in the discussion right along with them. It can also be read simply as a “power corrupts” type of story and it certainly works on that level, but it’s also competence porn of the highest order and I absolutely could not put it down.

(Speaking of not being able to put this down, readers should be aware that the count of 608 pages is a serious underestimate. It’s 15,000 kindle locs. I know there’s not a direct translation from locs to number of pages, but as an example, Jade City by Fonda Lee, which is awesome, BTW, is 560 pages and 7684 kindle locs. No matter how loosely you do the math, based on my reading time Isolate is more likely 806 pages, or more, than it is 608, unless they are very large pages and the print is very, very small. It is absolutely worth reading, I loved every minute, but it will take more time than you might think it will from the page count.)

I recognize that I’m all over the map in this review. There is a lot to this book, and it’s one that made me think quite a lot as I was reading it.

As I said earlier, there were quite a few points where it felt like a story about how to stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. At first, I thought that those currently in power were setting up the kind of coup that nearly happened in the U.S. after the election, but it didn’t get to quite that level of skullduggery – not that there wasn’t plenty but it didn’t go quite that far in quite that direction.

But there’s also an element that the forces of “good” or at least the forces we follow and empathize with the most, are staging a coup from inside the government but outside of real power to make change. That feels kind of right, but as it’s handled in the story it’s legal and on the side of the “angels”.

While never glossing over the fact that politics is a dirty business, and even those on the side of the “angels” sometimes have to get their hands dirty – even if by proxy.

Escape Rating A+: What made this story work for me was the way that it completely embodied its political discussions and political maneuvering in its characters. There’s a lot of necessary exploration and explanation of what government can and can’t, and should and shouldn’t, do for its people, in this country that reads just enough like ours – or Britain – to feel relevant without feeling so close that it ends up being either a political treatise or a work of alternate history.

Instead, it ends up being the story of three people doing the best that they can to help their country in spite of everyone who tries to get in their way. In the process, they all rise above the place they expected to be, and that’s just the kind of story I love to sink into.

It takes a bit to get the reader firmly ensconced in this world with these characters, but once it does, it’s riveting. And it ends, not so much with triumph – although that element is there – but with the sure and certain knowledge that Steffan, Avraal and Obreduur have plenty of work left to do. They’re eager to get started, and I’m eager to read what happens next in Councilor, due in August 2022.

Review: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

Review: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine AddisonThe Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: gaslamp, historical fiction, historical mystery, steampunk, urban fantasy
Pages: 448
Published by Tor Books on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.
In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.
Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.

My Review:

The Angel of the Crows is the second book by Katherine Addison, after her completely, totally, utterly awesomesauce The Goblin Emperor. And this second book is nothing like the first book – except that both are terrific.

But they are terrific in completely different ways. Goblin Emperor was a political thriller of epic fantasy, featuring assassination plots, deliberately mislaid heirs and a young man’s desperate attempt to learn how to rule a kingdom he was never supposed to inherit. It’s marvelous and thrilling and fantastic.

The Angel of the Crows, very much on the other hand, is urban fantasy, with several fantastic twists. This is steampunk and gaslamp and a bit of supernatural horror set in an alternate version of Victorian London where vampires have a pact with the Queen, werewolves are both legal and respectable, and every old building has its very own Angel to watch over the flock of humans that inhabit their domiciles.

It’s also a world where Dr. J.H. Doyle of the (British) Imperial Armed Forces Medical Service was wounded in Afghanistan in a war where the opposing forces were led by the Fallen. Fallen Angels, that is. A wound that has left him with a painful limp and a desperate need to turn into a hellhound every night.

A world where the self-styled Angel of London, an Angel called Crow so often he became one, solves mysteries that the police find too difficult to master. Including a series of bloody murders in Whitechapel.

The blurb turns out to be both right and wrong. Because these are not the characters the reader thinks they are. Yet they so very much are. And it’s surprising and wonderful from beginning to end.

Escape Rating A: In spite of the author’s claim, and the many, many differences between this world and the world we know, calling The Angel of the Crows a Holmes pastiche is right on the money.

But it’s the kind of Holmes pastiche that combines Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald (collected in the author’s Fragile Things among other places) with Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow. By that I mean that this alternate world is invested – or infested – with a high quotient of the supernatural, but that this variation includes the detective and his friend desperate to solve the Whitechapel Murders. As they would have been if they had existed in real life, but that Conan Doyle probably couldn’t touch with the proverbial barge pole as that crime spree was probably too close to recent memory to be a fit subject for fictional crime-solving. But Holmes and Watson were operating at the same time as “the Ripper” and more than enough time has passed for historical mystery writers to have a field day looking into their investigation, as is the case in Dust and Shadow.

This variation is also genderbent and genderfluid in ways that fit within the world the author has created, and yet come as a complete surprise to the reader. Dr. J.H. Doyle reveals himself to be Joanna Henrietta Doyle when Miss Mary Morstan crosses his path. That Doyle has managed to not merely continue to live as a man but actually blackmailed the I.A.F. into allowing him to keep both his medical license AND his army pension turns out to be quite the story.

And ALL the angels are female – at least as much as celestial beings have gender. But humans have assumed them to be male, so that’s how they’re addressed and perceived. Only Doyle knows the truth of just how Crow managed to keep himself from becoming either Fallen or Nameless – as he so definitely should have.

(I continue to refer to Crow and Doyle as “he” because that is how they refer to themselves and to each other. They seem to have decided on their preferred pronouns, and I comply with their preferred form of address.)

The story of this book is a combination of many of the most famous cases in the original Holmes canon, notably A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, among MANY others, with their continued investigation into the Whitechapel Murders. While it is inordinately fun to spot the differences between the original version of those famous cases and this one, it is not required to be familiar with the Holmes stories to enjoy these versions. But if you are, the mystery that needs to be solved is often a bit anticlimactic as the resolutions aren’t generally THAT different. Even though James Moriarty turns out to be a vampire.

However, their exploration of how this version of the world works is fascinating, and their constant – and constantly frustrating – attempts to figure out who is – or who are – committing the Whitechapel Murders AND the Thames Torso Murders is definitely a new piece of both that puzzle and theirs.

The Angel of the Crows straddles, or perhaps that should be hovers over, a whole bunch of different genres. There’s historical mystery mixed with alternate history leavened with urban fantasy which includes more than a touch of the supernatural. And if any or all of that appeals to you as much as it does to me, The Angel of the Crows will sweep you away.