Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb

Review: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha LambWhen the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb
Narrator: Donald Corren
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 400
Length: 9 hours
Published by Levine Querido on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of “Good Omens”—a queer immigrant fairytale about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn't have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America. But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
P R A I S E
“Liars, lovers, grifters, a good angel and a wicked one—all held together with the bright red thread of unexpected romance, enduring friendship and America’s history. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Sacha Lamb—you only have to read.”New York Times Bestseller, Amy Bloom
★ “Steeped in Ashkenazi lore, custom, and faith, this beautifully written story deftly tackles questions of identity, good and evil, obligation, and the many forms love can take. Queerness and gender fluidity thread through both the human and supernatural characters, clearly depicted without feeling anachronistic. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun.”Kirkus (starred)
★ “Richly imagined and plotted, this inspired book has the timeless feeling of Jewish folklore, which is further enhanced by the presence of two magical protagonists, and not one but two dybbuks! In the end, of course, it’s the author who has performed the mitzvah by giving their readers this terrific debut novel.”—Booklist (starred)
“I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!!! I read it in two days and then I spent the next two weeks thinking about it. Literally forgot to take my lunch break at work because I was busy thinking about it. This book is SO fun and funny and beautiful. Inherently, inextricably deeply queer-and-Jewish in a way that makes my brain buzz. I am obsessed.”—Piera Varela, Porter Square Books
“I love this book more than I can say (but I’ll try!) I was delighted by the wry narrative voice of this book from the first paragraph. The author perfectly captures the voice of a Jewish folk tale within an impeccably researched early 20th century setting that includes Yiddish, striking factory workers, and revolutionary coffee houses. It gave me so many feelings about identity, love, and their obligations to the world, themselves, and each other. This story will forever have a place in my heart and in my canon of favorite books. I can’t wait to have it on my shelves!”— Marianne Wald, East City Bookshop
“A beautiful story of an angel and demon set on helping an emigrant from their shtetl, and the fierce girl that joins them on the way... A must read for all ages—one filled to the brim with heart.”—Mo Huffman, Changing Hands Bookstore

My Review:

This is utterly lovely, but I’m not sure any description could do it justice. It’s just such a surprising mélange of fantasy, historical fiction and magical realism set in a time and place that manages to be both far away and very close, all at the same time.

It’s also steeped in the experiences of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe to the new, exciting, strange and sometimes dangerous “golden land” of America. And in this particular case, all the ways they got fleeced and all the ways they fought back and endured along the way.

What makes the story so much fun and works so very well is that the story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash the demon and his study partner – an angel who begins the story with no name at all. Little Ash is a very small demon with very little magic, while his friend the angel hears the voice of heaven and lets it guide him into good deeds. Which, most of the time, consists of keeping his friend the demon busy studying the Torah and the Talmud.

But Little Ash is getting bored in their tiny shtetl, so small it doesn’t even have a name. The demon wants to follow all the young people from their shtetl who have left for America, because they were all the interesting people he enjoyed following while they made a bit of mischief. Which Little Ash likes very much.

Little Ash searches for a way of convincing the angel to go to America with him. When they learn that Simon the baker’s daughter Essie arrived in America but hasn’t written since, they have a mission. A mitzvah, or good deed, that the angel can undertake, and a whole lot of mischief that Little Ash can make along the way.

Neither of them is remotely prepared for what they find, not along the way, and certainly not after they arrive in America.

Escape Rating A+: In the foreword, the publisher claims that they’ve been referring to this book as the “queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholem Aleichem” – which is a lot to live up to. I think it read as Good Omens and Fiddler on the Roof (the original story for which was written by Sholem Aleichem) had a book baby midwifed by The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (which I wish I popped up every time there was a Yiddish or Hebrew phrase that I don’t remember – but don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end) resulting in When the Angels Left the Old Country. Up to and including the ineffable relationship that is finally acknowledged at the end.

The story is told from the perspectives of Little Ash and the angel, who initially does not have a name and never takes on a gender no matter what its identity papers say. And the story is significantly the angel’s journey from being an entity that exists mostly as a vessel to serve the purposes of heaven to a person in its own right. Without a name, it doesn’t have an identity of its own to hang its memories on, to help it retain any purpose of its own. It’s easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and missions.

Little Ash likes that his friend is a bit forgetful and easily manipulated. He’s able to get away with rather a lot. But Little Ash is a small demon with little magic and small sins. He likes causing trouble but even that is a bit childlike. As childlike as the angel’s innocence.

One of the things they lose on the trip to America is their naivete. The angel, now calling himself Uriel, still tries to see the good in everyone – but now it can see the evil as well even if it doesn’t want to. Little Ash, who always looked for people’s sins, can see more of the good and feel more duty towards fostering that good than he ever imagined.

When they arrive in America they become deeply involved with the Jewish immigrant community on Hester Street, taking on the cheats who keep people nearly enslaved to the garment shops, getting caught in the middle of a strike – and doing their best to exorcise not just one but two dybbuks – malicious spirits who haunt evildoers hunting for revenge.

With the help of their friend Rose, a young immigrant they met in steerage on the way to America, with more than a little bit of mischief and a whole lot of seeing the best while preparing for the worst, they manage to rescue Essie and make a new life for themselves in America.

Still studying Torah and Talmud, and always together.

Personally, I found this book to be utterly enchanting. An enchantment that was multiplied by listening to the audiobook as narrated by Donald Corren. My grandparents were part of the same immigrant generation as the characters in When the Angels Left the Old Country. My mom’s parents came from the Pale of Settlement just as everyone in this story did. (My dad’s parents came from a bit further south and west.) Everyone in my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish as well as English – and generally used Yiddish as a way of hiding what they were talking about from child-me. The rhythms of their speech, whether in Yiddish or in English, sounded just the way that the narrator reads this book. It was a bit like sitting in the room when they spoke with my great-aunts and uncles, hearing the sounds of all their voices and the way that the ‘mother tongue’ of Yiddish influenced not just their accents but the way they phrased things, even in English.

In other words, I loved this book for the story it told, and I loved the narration for the nostalgia it invoked. For this listener, the entire experience was made of win. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne Gilman

Review: Uncanny Times by Laura Anne GilmanUncanny Times (Huntsmen #1) by Laura Anne Gilman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook,
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Huntsmen #1
Pages: 384
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Huntsmen, according to the Church, were damned, their blood unclean, unholy. Yet for Rosemary and Aaron Harker the Church was less important than being ready to stand against the Uncanny as not being prepared could lead to being dead.
The year is 1913. America—and the world—trembles on the edge of a modern age. Political and social unrest shift the foundations; technology is beginning to make its mark.
But in the shadows, things from the past still move. Things inhuman, uncanny.
And the Uncanny are no friend to humanity.
But when Aaron and Rosemary Harker go to investigate the suspicious death of a distant relative, what they discover could turn their world upside down—and change the Huntsmen forever

My Review:

Uncanny Times feels like it’s set in the ‘Weird West’, but it’s not. Still feels that way though. Rather, it’s set in a kind of alternate early-20th century New England, but the New England that grew out of Washington Irving’s creepy folklore-ish stories such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker might never have hunted a ‘headless horseman’ but whatever they’re after in tiny Brunson, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario – in November! – is certainly equally uncanny. They just don’t know exactly what it is – at least not yet.

It’s their job to find out. The Harkers are Huntsmen, from a long line of people who have the ability to deal with the uncanny. They go where they are sent, figure out the nature of the threat they have to face – and eliminate it without involving local law enforcement or putting the local populace in danger – or at least in any more danger than they already are.

But this case is different from the beginning. They are summoned, not by one of their superiors in the Huntsmen but rather by an old family friend who always knew about the uncanny and those who are tasked with fighting it.

Or rather, by the man’s widow, who makes it clear that his death was as uncanny as the creatures that Rosemary and Aaron usually hunt. One of the man’s last requests was that if there was anything suspicious about his death that his wife ask the Harkers to come. There was and she has.

And the man was right – his death was at the hands of something uncanny. Something that doesn’t seem to be recorded in the rather extensive records of the Huntsmen. But whatever it is, or was, or wants to gorge itself into becoming, it’s up to Rosemary and Aaron to take it out – or go down trying.

Escape Rating B-: Uncanny Times is kind of a gothic version of historical and/or urban fantasy, with a bit of alternate history thrown in for bodies and spice. I call it gothic because the creeping horror is very slow burn, and it’s imbued in the atmosphere of the town long before we see it manifest as any sort of creature that the story can sink its teeth into – or that can sink its teeth into the characters.

This also doesn’t read like the version of 1913 that history records. Instead, it reads like the Weird West, an alternate version of the late 19th century – or what followed in this case – where the things that go bump in the night are real and history has gone down a different – and much creepier – leg of the trousers of time.

So this may be pre-World War I by our calendar, and Woodrow Wilson is President – but he’s no pacifist in this version of history. So it’s 1913 by way of something like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker – we just haven’t seen what the equivalent of the massive earthquake was. At least not yet. The world of the Huntsmen reads more like that of Charlaine Harris’ Gunnie Rose, or Lindsay Schopfer’s Keltin Moore than it does the pre-WW1 world we’re familiar with. While the Huntmen organization and what it fights reads as very similar to the Circuit Riders of The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley’s alternate world.

The story in Uncanny Times is a slow build of creeping horror mixed with more than a bit of confused investigation. It takes quite a while to get itself going, but that feels like its a necessary part of the entire story. Not only is this the first book in a projected series, but the creature that the Harkers are hunting for isn’t something that is supposed to exist even in their version of the world.

Added to that, they have to operate in plain sight while concealing pretty much everything they really are and really do. Most people don’t believe, and the ones that do mostly can’t be trusted. They even have to hide the true nature of their dog, because he isn’t just a dog. Botheration (best name ever!), besides being a VERY good boy, is also a hellhound and an expert tracker of both ordinary humans AND the creatures that the Huntsmen hunt.

And he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Botheration is an awesome dog. (Don’t worry about Botheration, he’s bigger and stronger than most things that he hunts – and he comes out of this story every bit as fine as he went into it. I promise!)

I recognize that I’m a bit all over the map about Uncanny Times. I picked this up because I loved the author’s Retrievers series, which still has a place in my heart and on my physical bookshelf even 20 years later. But I have to confess that the lightning hasn’t struck again in that I’ve tried some of her later series but haven’t gotten hooked.

And I have to say that I liked Uncanny Times but didn’t love it as much as I hoped. It takes a long time to get itself going, and its two points of view characters are very private people. We don’t get to see nearly enough of what makes either of them tick. A lot of their investigation is obscured by fogs of various kinds and it makes the story murky as well.

But I loved Botheration. And the setting is fascinating because it feels like alternate history but the reviews don’t make it sound like it actually is – which really makes me wonder if I read the same thing everyone else did. So I’m torn, but whole in my conviction that I’ll pick up the next book in the series, whenever it comes out, at least to see what Botheration is bothering next!

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

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


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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And prophecies are self-fulfilling.

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

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

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

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi PatelKaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 496
Length: 17 hours, 22 minutes
Published by Redhook on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions — much good it did me.”
So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.
Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.
But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak — and what legacy she intends to leave behind.
A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

My Review:

Kaikeyi is a story that gave me mixed feelings on top of my mixed feelings, much as the character of Kaikeyi herself has inspired multiple interpretations of her story and her character in the centuries since the Ramayana, one of the two important legends of Hinduism, was first written – or amassed – or compiled – or all of the above – sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E.

The closest Western parallel is probably the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in age, size and in the scope of their importance to the canon of literature.

And, like the recent spate of modernized retellings of Homer’s famous tales such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as Claire North’s upcoming Ithaca, the Ramayana, particularly the story of the reviled Kaikeyi, was ripe for a contemporary retelling.

Which is just what Kaikeyi is, an account of Queen Kaikeyi’s life from her early childhood to the terrible events that made her so despised in the Ramayana. But told from Kaikeyi’s own first-person point of view, we’re able to see the famous story in which she plays such an infamous part told from a feminist perspective rather than the patriarchal, male-centric version that was written by the all-male Sages who denigrated her during her life and controlled her narrative after her death.

While the Ramayana itself is the epic history of Kaikeyi’s son Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu, in Kaikeyi’s part of that story we are at the end, where she poisons the mind of her husband King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, persuading him to exile Rama from the kingdom he is supposed to rule, for 14 long, bitter years. But that event – and the worse things that follow after it, are the last part of Kaikeyi’s story when it is told from her own perspective.

For her, the story begins at the beginning, the tale of a young woman, the only princess of Kekaya, with eight younger brothers and a disapproving father, the king who exiled her mother as a result of machinations in his own court.

Kekaya is a warlike kingdom, and Kaikeyi, in spite of her gender, learns many of the arts of war under the tutelage of her twin brother. But for all her agency and independence, she is forced to obey when her father marries her off to the King of Ayodhya, as Ayodhya is a larger, more prosperous country that Kekaya cannot afford to anger.

It is as one of the three Queens of Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finds both her purpose and her eventual downfall – at least according to the legends.

What we have in this fictionalized version of her life is the story of a strong woman who was forsaken by her gods for acts she had not yet committed, who began her rise with a little magic and less agency, but who eventually managed to carve herself a place at her husband’s side in war and in the highest councils of their kingdom in peace.

And who managed – in spite of the dire pronouncements of the Sages who denounced her as angering the gods by not staying in her “woman’s place” – to raise the standard of living and responsibility for many of the women of her kingdom.

Until it all went straight to something like hell – right along with damnation.

Escape Rating B: I said at the top that my mixed feelings had mixed feelings about this story. There were points where it seemed like a fairly straightforward feminist interpretation, where the conservative forces of the patriarchy who claimed they were speaking for the gods were just part of the cycle of men making god in their own image. In other words they wanted to maintain the status quo that kept them in power and women less than the dust under their feet by claiming that was what the gods wanted.

But then there are actual gods in this story who actually claim that those men are, in fact, speaking for their divine selves. Which does undercut some of that interpretation.

And on my rather confused other hand, as Rama and his brothers grow up, it’s clear, at least from Kaikeyi’s point of view, that knowing he was the avatar of a god from such a young age had done Rama absolutely no favors whatsoever. That he’s a puppet of divine forces beyond his control or understanding – and that he is just as much a pawn of men who get their hooks into him when he is young and corrupt him to their purposes – one of which is to strike Kaikeyi down through their control of her son.

In other words, these facets of the story read like an entirely different saying about the gods, the one that goes “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” variations of which go all the way back to Sophocles’ play Antigone – which was also written sometime in the 4th century B.C.E.

Because this is Kaikeyi’s story rather than Rama’s, this is not a story about a great man fighting great battles against great evil and having great adventures. In many ways it’s a much quieter story than that as Kaikeyi reaches maturity in Ayodhya, learns how to control her own magic, and makes changes in the ways that all women are treated in her adopted country.

But this is also a story that is effectively forced to serve two masters. On the one hand, it hits many of the same beats as epic fantasy. The use of magic, deities meddling in the affairs of their worshippers, the battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Howsomever, as the retelling of a foundational document in religions that have millions of adherents to this very day, the story must still conform to the major plot points of the epic poem it derives from. Kaikeyi the character can explain, to herself and to the reader, why events are remembered and recorded as they eventually were – but she can’t change the outcome no matter how much the reader might want her to or even expect her to because this does read much like epic fantasy.

Still, what makes Kaikeyi’s story so interesting is the way that she works through relationships, aided by her magic, to garner influence and power to help the women of her kingdom. One of the unusual facets of her story is that Kaikeyi herself is both Ace and Aromantic in this interpretation. Whatever her husband feels for her, this is not a romance. She comes to see him as a dear friend and a partner, but she has no romantic or sexual interest in him or anyone else in her life. She does not use ‘feminine wiles’ or seduction to make her point or to gather followers. It’s always fascinating to see a woman in a historical-type story that does not ever play those obvious tropes.

But as much as I found Kaikeyi’s campaign for increased women’s rights in general and greater agency and authority for herself in particular, the last quarter of the story fell flat for me. At that point, the bitter ending is coming fast, and Kaikeyi spends a great deal of time and energy castigating herself because she didn’t see it coming and can’t seem to stop the destruction that cannot be turned aside. She blames herself for absolutely everything that happens to a degree that just bogs down a whole chunk of chapters leading to the ending.

So I loved the first three quarters and was ready to throw the thing across the room in the long, drawn-out, “it’s all my fault, I’m to blame for everything” final quarter.

June is Audiobook Month and I listened to Kaikeyi rather than reading the text – which would have made throwing it across the room not just difficult but downright dangerous as I was generally driving while listening. And I’d hate to throw my iPhone out of the window. Seriously.

One of the reasons I kept going even when the story hit that big slough of despond at the end was because I was listening rather than reading. Stories that are in the first-person-perspective, as Kaikeyi is, lend themselves particularly well to audio when the narrator’s voice matches the character, as was certainly the case here. While I had mixed feelings about the story she was telling, the audio teller of the tale was excellent.

Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear by Nicola GriffithSpear by Nicola Griffith
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Arthurian legends, historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 192
Length: 5 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on April 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.
And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

My Review:

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table are myths that we seem to absorb by osmosis, as the stories are told and retold – and have been for centuries. King Arthur is one of those legends that seems to reinvent itself for each new generation, and Spear, with its heroine Peredur, is a fine addition to that long and proud tradition.

As this story opens, Peredur doesn’t even know her own name. She is growing up in complete isolation, with only her mother for company, in a remote valley in Wales. Her mother has two names for the girl, one meaning gift which she uses on good days, while on bad days, she calls her “payment”. Whichever the girl might be, her mother tells her stories of the Tuath Dé, their great treasures and their terrible use of the humans they see as beneath them. Humans like her powerful but broken mother, who has isolated herself and her child out of fear that the Tuath, or at least one of them, will hunt her down in order to take back what she stole from him.

Peredur, like all children, grows up. She finds the valley small and her mother’s paranoia, however righteous, constricting. And she wants to fight. So she leaves the valley and her mother behind and goes out in search of the King and his companions – who she saved once when they wandered into her mother’s secluded valley and found themselves facing more bandits than they planned.

Peredur is searching for a place to belong and a cause to serve. But she has had dreams all of her life of a magical mystical lake and a woman who lives by its side. This is the story of her quest to learn who she really is, what is the true nature of her power, and to find a place where she can belong and can bring her skills to fight on the side of right. To make something, not just of herself but of the place to which she joins herself.

In the court of Arturus at Caer Lyon, Peredur finds a place she wants to call her own. And a king who is reluctant to let her claim it.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. The language is beautiful, and the reading of it by the author gave it just the right air of mystery and myth. It felt like a tale of another world, as all the best variations on the Arthurian legends do in one way or another.

From one perspective, Spear stands on the shoulders of many giants, previous retellings of the “Matter of Britain”, from Monmouth to Mallory to T.H. White to Mary Stewart. In particular, it reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (beginning with The Crystal Cave), not for its focus on Merlin but for its attempt to set the story in a more likely historical period, in both cases sometime in the 5th Century AD, after the Romans abandoned Britain and left a vacuum of power which Arthur did his best to fill.

By setting the story in 5th Century Wales, the author is also able to loop in the stories of the Tuath Dé, or Tuatha Dé Danann, and weave one set of legends with the other, to give Peredur both her origin and the source of her power. That she was then able to link the whole thing back to Arthur through his mad quest for the Holy Grail made for a delightful twist in the story – albeit one with an ultimately sad ending. (If the Tuath Dé sound familiar, it may be from The Iron Druid Chronicles where they play an important part even to the present.)

But Spear is an interpretation for the 21st century, in that Peredur, better known as Percival in many versions of the Arthurian Tales, is a woman who has wants to fight like a man and has chosen to present herself as a man because she lives in an era when women do not become knights, much like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.

This is also a queer interpretation of the Arthur tales, not just because Peredur is lesbian, but because she moves through a world where same-sex relationships and poly-relationships are simply part of the way things are. That includes Peredur’s love of the sorceress Nimüe, but also changes the eternal triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot into a quietly acknowledged triad as a normal part of the way things are. Just as quietly acknowledged that the Lance of this Arthurian legend was born with one leg malformed. He’s still a capable fighter, and a veritable centaur on horseback. The world and its heroes are not now, nor have they ever been, made up entirely of straight, 100% able-bodied, white men, and this story acknowledges that heroes are everywhere, everywhen and everyone. As they, and we, have always been.

Spear turned out to be a lovely, lyrical, magical extension of the Arthurian legends that borrows rightfully and righteously, as all Arthurian tales do, from what has come before, from what fantasy writers have added to the period and the interpretation, from the time in which it is set, the time in which it is written, and the author’s magical stirring of that pot into a heady brew.

One of these days I need to pick up the author’s Hild, because it sounds like it will be just as fantastic (in both senses of that word) as Spear turned out to be.

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Review: Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca MayWild and Wicked Things by Francesca May
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, historical fantasy, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 432
Published by Redhook on March 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the aftermath of World War I, a naive woman is swept into a glittering world filled with dark magic, romance, and murder in this lush and decadent debut.
On Crow Island, people whisper, real magic lurks just below the surface. 
Neither real magic nor faux magic interests Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s only on the island to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. 
Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the biggest one may be her enigmatic new neighbor. 
Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of the island's extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world. A world where the boundaries of wickedness are tested, and the cost of illicit magic might be death.

My Review:

The wild and wicked things of Wild and Wicked Things weren’t quite like anything I was expecting.

That may be because both “wild” and “wicked” are in the eyes of the beholder. And there seems to be plenty of both to behold on Crow Island, somewhere mythical and magical just off the coast of England.

Part of the fascination for me in this story was the setup. This is a post-World War I story, but the variation of the Great War that this story is post of isn’t quite the one we know. Because in this version of history, the gas that killed so many in the trenches wasn’t mustard gas.

It was magic. A magic that transformed the soldiers it touched into supersoldiers with no conscience, no morals, no scruples and no fear of death. It’s only hinted at, but it seems as if it was worse than that. It certainly left behind a version of “shell shock” or PTSD that gave the survivors even more regrets and worse nightmares than they suffered in our real history. Which is definitely saying something.

But the war is over. Politically, the powers-that-be that embraced witchcraft when they needed it to prosecute the terrible war are now backing away. Magic has fallen from favor – and from legality – and faces a Prohibition that will probably be just as effective as the real Prohibition was in U.S. history. Meaning not at all.

Still, the “Lost Generation” has even more they want to forget about than in real history. And one of the places they come to do that forgetting – at least among the rich and glittering – is Crow Island, where magic has seeped into the blood and bones of the place and its people.

Annie has come to Crow Island to pack up the estate of a man she never knew. Her absent father. She’s been warned all her life against magic and has no plans to get caught up in the mystery and glamour of the island. But as that old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men (and women) often go astray.

Especially as her best friend, Bea, ran away to Crow Island and married there. Annie feels compelled to find out what happened to the girl she grew up with. And the house that is just down the beach from her rented cottages shines so brightly in the night that she can’t resist exploring, no matter how many times she’s already been warned to stay away from magic in general, and from the residents of Cross House in particular.

Because they practice magic. Also sin, debauchery and perhaps a bit of drug dealing along with the fortune telling. But definitely magic – which is to be avoided at all costs.

But for once in her life as a timid little mouse, Annie doesn’t listen to all those cautioning voices. She finds herself caught in Emmeline Delacroix’ glamorous and glittering web. Only for Emmeline to discover that she has landed a much bigger fish than she expected, and that naïve, innocent Annie has caught her as well.

Or the magic has caught them both.

Escape Rating A-: The lesson of Wild and Wicked Things is to be very, very careful what you wish for, because you might get it at a cost that is not fully revealed until it is much, much too late. Along with a reminder that some gifts most certainly do come at way too high a price.

Initially, the person who got what they wished for was Annie’s friend Bea. But Bea has refused to pay the price for her wish, is refusing to acknowledge that it was her wish in the first place, and seems to be perfectly willing to let Emmeline Delacroix pay the price for it – even if that price is Emmeline’s own life.

Then again, one of the things we learn over the course of the story is that Bea is a user and a bitch to pretty much everyone. As we learn more about Annie and Bea’s shared girlhood, and Bea’s involvement with Emmeline and Cross House, we lose pretty much any sympathy for her and end up wondering why Annie put up with her for so long or why Emmeline didn’t see right through her.

But Bea is just the catalyst for everything that happens and that she refuses to accept any responsibility for. The story is Annie’s. It’s Annie’s story of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Of coming into her own and admitting who she really is.

In a way, it’s one of those things that still felt like a mystery at the end. Was Annie a mouse because that was her nature, or was Annie a mouse because so much of her true nature was suppressed? We never do find out, although there are hints.

As Annie gets herself involved in all the things she’s not supposed to be involved in, like magic, witchcraft, murder, raising the dead and falling in love with Emmeline, she breaks out of the straightjacket her life has been contained in. It is, very much on the one hand, the making of her.

And on the other, thinking that raising the dead is a good idea that will solve all the problems they are all already in feels like seriously the wrong way to go about things. As the situation proves.

Considering the period in which this is set, it has a surprisingly gothic feel to it. Cross House has a mind of its own, and it’s a brooding one filled with darkness and secrets. The story also reminds me a lot of Amanda Quick’s Burning Cove series (start with The Girl Who Knew Too Much), with the way that the paranormal has been turned so completely dark.

War is dangerous. Witchcraft is dangerous. Love is dangerous. Mix them together and it’s all too easy to end up with a whole big ball of explosive wrong.

However, following along with Annie as she figures out all of the above may not exactly be “right” (for select definitions thereof) but it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

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
Goodreads

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: Westside Lights by W.M. Akers

Review: Westside Lights by W.M. AkersWestside Lights (Westside #3) by W.M. Akers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Westside #3
Pages: 288
Published by Harper Voyager on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alienist meets the magical mystery of The Ninth House as W. M. Akers returns with the third book in his critically acclaimed Jazz Age fantasy series set in the dangerous westside of New York City, following private detective Gilda Carr's hunt for the truth--one tiny mystery at a time.

The Westside of Manhattan is desolate, overgrown, and dangerous—and Gilda Carr wouldn’t have it any other way. An eccentric detective whose pursuit of tiny mysteries has dragged her to the brink of madness, Gilda spends 1923 searching for something that’s eluded her for years: peace. On the revitalized waterfront of the Lower West, Gilda and the gregarious ex-gangster Cherub Stevens start a new life on a stolen yacht. But their old life isn’t done with them yet.

They dock their boat on the edge of the White Lights District, a new tenderloin where liquor, drugs, sex, and violence are shaken into a deadly cocktail. When her pet seagull vanishes into the District, Gilda throws herself into the search for the missing bird. Up late watching the river for her pet, Gilda has one drink too many and passes out in the cabin of her waterfront home.

She wakes to a massacre.

Eight people have been slaughtered on the deck of the Misery Queen, and Cherub is among the dead. Gilda, naturally, is the prime suspect. Hunted by the police, the mob, and everyone in between, she must stay free long enough to find the person who stained the Hudson with her beloved’s blood. She will discover that on her Westside, no lights are bright enough to drive away the darkness.

My Review:

Westside is a place caught between “never was” and “might have been”. It’s a kind of road not taken made manifest in a world where “something” happened at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th that cleaved the west side of New York City away from not just the rest of the city – or even the rest of the country – but from reality itself.

Not completely. It is still possible to cross from one side to the other. But those crossings are regulated and controlled. There are fixed checkpoints between them. Because the shadowy darkness that looms over the Westside holds beasts and terrors that no one in the rest of the city wants to let slip through any cracks.

There are monsters on the Westside. Especially the two-legged kind that humans get reduced to when things get darkest – right before they turn completely black.

The first Westside story, simply titled Westside, was a surprise and a delight and a descent into darkness – all at the same time. The second book, Westside Saints – began with a real bang.

This third book, Westside Lights, begins with a whimper. It begins with Gilda Carr, solver of tiny mysteries, waking to the blood-soaked mess of a really big one. Leaving her to discover just who murdered all her friends and left her holding the quite literally bloody bag.

We start this story at seemingly the end. Gilda wakes up, everyone she’s been spending this strange, mysteriously light-saturated Westside summer with is dead all around her. As the only survivor of what looks like a massacre she is accused of the crime.

So she runs, intending to discover just who set her up to take this terrible fall – and turn it back on them before it’s too late for her.

But her search for the truth sees her examining the recent past, and the odd “miracle” that brought light back to the dark Westside – and tourists and pleasure seekers along with it.

Someone should have remembered that things that are too good to be true usually are, one bloody way or another. Especially in Westside.

Escape Rating A: Everything about the Westside is weird and weirdly fascinating. Also just weird. Did I say weird? The whole idea that part of NYC could just separate itself into another reality is weird, fascinating and a whole bunch of other bizarre things.

Even after three books we still don’t really know why it happened or how it happened, just that it did. And that the humans have self-sorted between the two sides – and even between the various criminal factions on the Westside itself since it happened.

But it’s every bit as complicated as it is fascinating. Which means that this series goes further down into the rabbit hole as it goes along. Meaning that Westside Lights is NOT the place to start. The place to start is Westside, where the reader gets introduced both to this place and to its denizens – especially Gilda Carr, that solver of tiny mysteries.

Tiny mysteries are the little things that make you wake up at 2 am – but aren’t so big that you won’t be able to get back to sleep. They’re niggling little questions that pop up at odd moments and just beg to be solved – even though the solution will have little to no effect on anything important.

Gilda solves tiny mysteries because she’s not crazy enough to pull at the threads of the big mysteries that lie under Westside. What makes these books so compelling is that no matter how much she tries to confine herself to the little things, she usually finds herself neck deep in the big things anyway.

Like Gilda’s previous “adventures” in this one she starts out investigating one thing – the death of the people she’s spent the summer with – and ends up looking into something entirely different. She starts out looking for a crazed, garden-variety murderer and ends up trying to figure out why the birds are dying.

But that’s part of Gilda’s charm, a charm that has carried her through three surprising adventures so far. I never expected this series to even BE a series, but I’m glad it is. And I’d love to follow Gilda as she solves as many “tiny” mysteries as she can find!