Review: A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny

Review: A World of Curiosities by Louise PennyA World of Curiosities (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #18) by Louise Penny
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #18
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on November 29, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns in the eighteenth book in #1 New York Times bestseller Louise Penny's beloved series.
It’s spring and Three Pines is reemerging after the harsh winter. But not everything buried should come alive again. Not everything lying dormant should reemerge.
But something has.
As the villagers prepare for a special celebration, Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir find themselves increasingly worried. A young man and woman have reappeared in the Sûreté du Québec investigators’ lives after many years. The two were young children when their troubled mother was murdered, leaving them damaged, shattered. Now they’ve arrived in the village of Three Pines.
But to what end?
Gamache and Beauvoir’s memories of that tragic case, the one that first brought them together, come rushing back. Did their mother’s murder hurt them beyond repair? Have those terrible wounds, buried for decades, festered and are now about to erupt?
As Chief Inspector Gamache works to uncover answers, his alarm grows when a letter written by a long dead stone mason is discovered. In it the man describes his terror when bricking up an attic room somewhere in the village. Every word of the 160-year-old letter is filled with dread. When the room is found, the villagers decide to open it up.
As the bricks are removed, Gamache, Beauvoir and the villagers discover a world of curiosities. But the head of homicide soon realizes there’s more in that room than meets the eye. There are puzzles within puzzles, and hidden messages warning of mayhem and revenge.
In unsealing that room, an old enemy is released into their world. Into their lives. And into the very heart of Armand Gamache’s home.

My Review:

Armand Gamache’s chickens come home to roost – and lay rotten eggs all over Gamache’s past cases, his present peace, and even Three Pines itself in this 18th book in the series.

A World of Curiosities is a story about reckonings, about settling up accounts and finding out that one has been found wanting. Even Armand Gamache. And that all of his mistakes, omissions and oversights have followed him home and put his family and friends in danger.

The roots of this story go deep, back to events that have been previously touched on but not described in detail, back to Armand’s own early cases as well as to the horrific case where he found Jean-Guy Beauvoir languishing in the basement of an outlying Sûreté office. Because Jean-Guy, being himself, was considered insubordinate. Because he wouldn’t play along.

A case that initially seems to be at the heart of it all. And is. But isn’t. But is after all. Again, one of Gamache’s oversight chickens that has come home to roost and shit all over Three Pines.

At first it all seems like an interesting bit of curiosity. A hidden room is found over the bookstore. It’s been bricked over – actually stoned over – for well over a century, lost to time and hidden from sight until a very old but newly discovered letter makes its way from an archive, to a dead woman, to the descendant of the man who bricked that room over all those years ago.

It’s not a straightforward path, rather a convoluted set of fits and starts that seems to have been in motion for years of its own. As was the intent of its patient and painstaking creator. A man who has been plotting his revenge against Armand Gamache for decades, and now has the perfect pawns in place to make Gamache pay.

Or so he believes.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not conveying this one well at all. Obviously, I loved it. I was also a bit disturbed by it, because all of the past crimes that lead up to this present danger were very disturbing.

The story opens at a combined commemoration and graduation ceremony at the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal. The massacre was a real event, a 1989 mass killing of female engineering students by a man who was outraged by women moving into what were formerly male-only preserves.

In addition to bringing this horrific crime back into the light, it also serves as a way of introducing two of the important characters of this entry in the series, two young women, Harriet Landers and Fiona Arsenault, who both graduate as engineers during the ceremony.

It’s Fiona who links back to the earlier case, and it’s that earlier case that is so very disturbing. Because it began as a missing persons case, which turned into a murder case, which led to the discovery that Fiona and Sam Arsenault, ages 13 and 10 respectively, were being pimped out by their now-dead mother. And the damage that was done to them, that echoed through their lives and their personalities from those foundational experiences to the present day.

One of the questions that echoes down through this entire book is the question about not whether they were permanently damaged by their early experiences but just how much they were damaged and whether they can ever be something that might be considered saved or rehabilitated. That Gamache believes that Sam is the true sociopath while Jean-Guy believes it is Fiona doesn’t alter the question about whether either of them can contain their true natures well enough not to spend their lives harming themselves, each other and everyone around them.

Part of what makes the story such a riveting tangle, however, is the way that the focus is solidly on the Arsenaults and the questions about will they, won’t they, did they, don’t they that the true evil hiding in plain sight isn’t even glimpsed until very late in the game.

A World of Curiosities, like so many of the books in this marvelous series, was just about a one-sitting read for me. I started it at dinner and finished just before bed. Which was after midnight and the only reason it was before bed was that something about the story shook me up enough that I didn’t want to take it to bed with me. It was also one of the rare cases with this series where I did thumb to the end about midway through, not because I needed to find out whodunnit – I was happy to follow that trail with Gamache – but because I needed the reassurance that all my friends, the characters who have come to inhabit the series and the village of Three Pines, were going to come out of this alive if not unscathed.

I also realized that the characters are what I love this story for, rather than the process of the investigation and the sheer brilliance of the detectives. Not that Gamache and his colleagues are not generally brilliant, but that’s not the point for me. Every book in this series is such a deep character study, of Gamache, his family and friends, the villagers, and of course the perpetrators and even the red herring characters. Not that forensics and all the trappings of modern policing don’t play a part in the ultimate solution, but Gamache solves crimes by knowing and understanding the people involved and that’s what makes the series so compelling.

While the mystery in A World of Curiosities is a page-turning twisting, turning, swirling – and occasionally stomach-churning whodunnit, the real charm of the series is in its characters, and the best way to get every single drop of that charm is to start at the very beginning with Still Life.

Now I have a year at least to wait for the hoped-for 19th book in the series. In the meantime, there’s a brand new TV series titled Three Pines, based on the novels, that begins tonight on Amazon Prime. I know what I’ll be watching this weekend!

 

Review: The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

Review: The Twist of a Knife by Anthony HorowitzThe Twist of a Knife (Hawthorne and Horowitz Mystery, #4) by Anthony Horowitz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #4
Pages: 384
Published by Harper on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

'Our deal is over.'
That's what reluctant author Anthony Horowitz tells ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne in an awkward meeting. The truth is that Anthony has other things on his mind.
His new play, Mindgame, is about to open in London's Vaudeville theatre. Not surprisingly Hawthorne declines a ticket.
On opening night, Sunday Times critic Harriet Throsby gives the play a savage review, focusing particularly on the writing. The next morning she is found dead, stabbed in the heart with an ornamental dagger which, it turns out, belongs to Anthony and which has his finger prints all over it.
Anthony is arrested, charged with Throsby's murder, thrown into prison and interrogated.
Alone and increasingly desperate, he realises only one man can help him.
But will Hawthorne take his call?

My Review:

In this fourth outing of the extremely unlikely duo of Daniel Hawthorne and his reluctant scribe – and all too frequently foil – Anthony Horowitz (yes, the author, really, truly and probably sorta/kinda all at once), it’s Horowitz himself who is accused of murder and quite thoroughly stitched up into the bargain.

He needs Hawthorne, which puts Hawthorne very much in the catbird seat of their strange partnership. Horowitz, referred to as ‘Tony’ in the book to differentiate himself as character from his real self as author, has just turned down Hawthorne’s request that they pair up for yet a fourth book, after The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death and A Line to Kill.

Tony feels like he’s both out of punny titles and out of patience with Hawthorne. The former, obviously not as it turns out. The latter, frequently and often.

But Hawthorne is sure they have an entire series in them, and lo and behold, they do!

Escape Rating A+: The Hawthorne and Horowitz series is a quirky read. If you like it, you really, really like it (obviously I do), but if its quirks don’t quite set your tastes on fire, they don’t. It’s a break the fourth wall kind of series, with a heaping helping of art imitating life rather a lot.

The Horowitz of the series title is the author of the book, Anthony Horowitz. He’s a version – at least I presume it’s a version – of his real-life self, Anthony Horowitz the novelist and playwright, the creative mind behind the still totally awesome TV series Foyle’s War, etc., etc., etc. But he is far, far from the hero of this series.

He plays Watson to the Sherlock of ex-London Metropolitan police detective Daniel Hawthorne. And it’s a bumbling Watson who sometimes makes the most vapid and insipid portrayals of Watson look like absolute geniuses. (Edward Hardwicke’s wonderful and intelligent take on Watson in the Granada TV series with Jeremy Brett ‘Tony’ most certainly is NOT.)

In other words, the author resisted what must have been a great temptation to make himself the hero of this series and instead turned himself into its everyman substitute for the audience, the character who is not able to follow the ‘great detective’, in this case Hawthorne, and requires that every clue be explained to him – and therefore to the audience as well.

Which is part of the charm of this series, and also part of why it runs so much against type for me as a reader and yet I still adore the damn thing. Because I usually read mysteries for their competence porn aspects. The investigator in the series usually demonstrates extreme competence in order to solve the twisty murder. And that’s not exactly what happens here.

Tony is far from competent as an amateur detective, in spite of the many mysteries he’s written. He’s always at least two steps behind Hawthorne. Which actually isn’t too bad as the real police are at least three or four steps behind him. But still, he’s made his own character a bit of a nebbish and I can’t help but wonder if that reflects real life AT ALL. I suspect not or he wouldn’t be half as successful as he is.

But I digress.

Hawthorne, on the other hand, is über-competent. He’s just a secretive asshole about it. So we don’t get to see what he’s really doing or thinking until the very end when he makes everyone involved look like utter fools. Because they were. So he’s extremely competent but we don’t get to enjoy it because he’s such a jerk about pretty much everything.

Like most mysteries where the official police are more interested in scoring off the private detective – in this case Hawthorne and by extension his ‘associate’ Tony – than solving the crime, the first suspect is never the real murderer. So it can’t be Tony, no matter how the evidence seems stacked against him.

That the victim was a vile individual that had made a career out of publicly venting their spleen should have led even the dimmest bulb to the possibility that the line of possible murderers would be long enough to circle the country at least twice. To the point where I was beginning to wonder if it was going to turn out to be a Murder on the Orient Express situation.

In the end, the solution is ingenious, the motive was both simple and complex at the same time, the killer was exposed but no one got their just desserts except the woman who was already dead. And that was exactly right.

While Hawthorne got his series after all. Which is fantastic!

While I can’t find any word on when the projected fifth, sixth and seventh (!) books in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series will be out, or even the next book in the Susan Ryeland series which I also love (even when it’s driving me crazy), the first book in that series, Magpie Murders, is now available as a 6-episode TV series. And I’m off to watch it ASAP!

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine Mathews

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine MathewsDeath on a Winter Stroll (Merry Folger #7) by Francine Mathews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, mystery
Series: Merry Folger Nantucket Mystery #1
Pages: 288
Published by Soho Crime on November 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

No-nonsense Nantucket detective Merry Folger grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and two murders as the island is overtaken by Hollywood stars and DC suits.

Nantucket Police Chief Meredith Folger is acutely conscious of the stress COVID-19 has placed on the community she loves. Although the island has proved a refuge for many during the pandemic, the cost to Nantucket has been high. Merry hopes that the Christmas Stroll, one of Nantucket’s favorite traditions, in which Main Street is transformed into a winter wonderland, will lift the island’s spirits. But the arrival of a large-scale TV production, and the Secretary of State and her family, complicates matters significantly.

The TV shoot is plagued with problems from within, as a shady, power-hungry producer clashes with strong-willed actors. Across Nantucket, the Secretary’s troubled stepson keeps shaking off his security detail to visit a dilapidated house near conservation land, where an intriguing recluse guards secrets of her own. With all parties overly conscious of spending too much time in the public eye and secrets swirling around both camps, it is difficult to parse what behavior is suspicious or not—until the bodies turn up.

Now, it’s up to Merry and Detective Howie Seitz to find a connection between two seemingly unconnected murders and catch the killer. But when everyone has a motive, and half of the suspects are politicians and actors, how can Merry and Howie tell fact from fiction?

This latest installment in critically acclaimed author Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger series is an immersive escape to festive Nantucket, a poignant exploration of grief as a result of parental absence, and a delicious new mystery to keep you guessing.

My Review:

The Nantucket Stroll sounds like a lovely holiday tradition. Setting this mystery at the time of the 2021 Stroll, just after the President’s own traditional visit with his family, the first visit and first ‘regular’ Stroll as everyone hopes the worst of COVID has passed grounds the mystery into the here and and the now.

(No, the President, whose identity is screamingly obvious – and also quite real as he and his family did visit Nantucket for the 2021 Stroll and do have a family tradition of attending – is not an actual part of this story. But the Secretary of State, who is very much and very obviously fictional – certainly does.)

After the President and his Secret Service detail leave the island, Police Chief Folger faces not one but two invasions. There’s the Secretary of State, her husband, his restless, shiftless adult child of a son, the Secretary’s security detail, her staff, her childhood on the island and her husband’s big ego and bad memories of the place.

Pretending that they are on the island for a happy family vacation is just a bit of a stretch.

Then there’s the even bigger incursion from Hollywood filming a direct-to-streaming TV series on the sprawling estate of THE local tech billionaire. Between the director, the co-stars, the producer and chief financial backer and all the other members of the cast and crew – not to mention their egos and outsized personalities, the horde at the property known as Ingrid’s Gift is even bigger than the gang that SecState brought home with her.

Not that all is exactly well in either of the invading “armies” but their problems are not Merry’s problem – at least not until the first dead body turns up, with links to more of the visitors in both parties than could possibly be explained by the long arm of coincidence.

Which Police Chief Folger, being a very good cop, does not believe in. At all.

Escape Rating A+: In spite of its small-town setting, Death on a Winter Stroll is not a cozy mystery, even though it’s a setup that could easily lend itself to one. But Merry Folger isn’t a cozy sort of person – and I like her a lot for that – and the murders she has to solve, at least in this outing – are far, far from cozy. Not so much the murders themselves – as cozies manage to cozy up all sorts of ways that people shuffle off this mortal buffalo. But the motives for these murders and the slime that is revealed in their investigation are simply not the stuff of which cozies are made.

But if you like your murder mysteries seasoned with the nitty-gritty of real life and real people – even really disgusting people – Death on a Winter Stroll is absolutely excellent. And Merry Folger is a terrific avatar for competence porn. She’s very human – not superhuman – but she’s extremely good at her job and not afraid to display it – especially to people who think she’s less-than because she’s relatively young, because she’s a woman, because she’s a small-town police chief and not a big city cop or federal agent – or just because they’re assholes used to throwing around their power and privilege.

Death on a Winter Stroll turned out to be a one-sitting read for me, I sunk right into it and didn’t emerge until I was done three hours later. I was completely absorbed in the mystery, the setting and the characters, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all, in spite of this book being book SEVEN in an ongoing series that began with Death in the Off-Season. Whether it’s because this is the first post-pandemic book in the series, or whether the author is just that good at keeping things self-contained, I got what I needed about Merry’s past – including the loss of her grandfather to the pandemic – without having read the previous books.

Howsomever, I enjoyed this so damn much that I am planning to get them all. This series has all the hallmarks of an excellent comfort read, and I need more of those. Doesn’t everyone these days?

In addition to liking Merry as a character, and being able to identify with her in all sorts of wonderful ways, I appreciated the way that the mystery in this story worked, and that it dealt with real, important and ugly issues without either sensationalizing them or trivializing them.

One of the things that also made this story work for me is that the red herrings were more than tasty. There was one character who started out in a hole – or at least a whole lot of suspicion – and couldn’t seem to stop digging himself deeper. It would have been an easy solution to make him the murderer – or to have the cops attempt to pin it on him. The actual solution was much more devious and it was great the way the investigation didn’t fall into the trap of zeroing in on the obvious suspect first.

There was both compassion and redemption for a lot of the people who got caught up in the mess. None of the solutions were easy, most of them included a lot of pain and either past or present trauma. But the characters felt real, Merry and her family, friends and colleagues most of all.

In short, I loved this mystery, am so, so glad that I joined this tour and was introduced to this author, and can’t wait until I have the chance to dive into the rest of the series. And I’m utterly gobsmacked that the author also writes the Jane Austen Mysteries as Stephanie Barron. I think I hear my virtually towering TBR pile piling up another turret!

About the Author:

Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written thirty books, including six previous novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-SeasonDeath in Rough WaterDeath in a Mood IndigoDeath in a Cold Hard Light, Death on Nantucket, and Death on Tuckernuck) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the pen name Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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Review: Cold Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann

Review: Cold Fear by Brandon Webb and John David MannCold Fear (Finn Thrillers, #2) by Brandon Webb, John David Mann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Finn Thrillers #2
Pages: 432
Published by Bantam on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Finn's search for his memory of one fateful night leads him to Iceland--only to be followed by an unhinged assassin intent on stopping him--in the riveting follow-up to Steel Fear, from the New York Times bestselling writing team Webb & Mann, combat-decorated Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann.
Disgraced Navy SEAL Finn is on the run. A wanted man since he jumped ship from the USS Abraham Lincoln, he's sought for questioning in connection to war crimes committed in Yemen by a rogue element in his SEAL team. But his memory of that night--as well as the true fate of his mentor and only friend, Lieutenant Kennedy--is a gaping hole.
Finn learns that three members of his team have been quietly redeployed to Iceland, which is a puzzle in itself; the tiny island nation is famous for being one of the most peaceful, crime-free places on the planet.
His mission is simple: track down the three corrupt SEALs and find out what really happened that night in Yemen. But two problems stand in his way. On his first night in town a young woman mysteriously drowns--and a local detective suspects Finn's involvement. What's worse, a SEAL-turned-contract-killer with skills equal to Finn's own has been hired to make sure he never gets the answers he's looking for. And he's followed Finn all the way to the icy north.

My Review:

Cold Fear is every single bit as good as Steel Fear, but entirely different at the same time. Which may sound like a bit of a surprise for the second book in a series, but is absolutely excellent and completely riveting all the same – even if that riveting is more than a bit chilling in both the figurative and literal senses. Or perhaps especially because it is.

When last we left our hero, Navy SEAL Chief Finn had just disappeared into thin air, on the run from the agent and/or assassin he was certain was waiting at the dock to pick him up – or take him out – when the USS Abraham Lincoln came into port at the end of Steel Fear.

We meet him at the opening of Cold Fear watching the police cut a woman out of a frozen pond in a Reykjavik city park, on the trail of his missing memories of his team’s last operation in Yemen. He’s still not sure whether he himself committed the atrocity he only half remembers – or if he was merely set up to take the fall for it.

All he’s certain of about that operation is that someone on his team was rotten – and it might be him.

But he’s tracked three of his former teammates – who probably know the truth about that clusterfuck – to a contract job in Reykjavik. They’re on the hunt for someone – and he’s on the hunt for them.

Someone is also certainly hunting for him, but he believes he has a few days’ grace to get the information he needs – or at least the next link in the chain – and get out. But with the way that his missing memories and the possibilities of what he might have done during them haunts both his waking and his few sleeping hours, Finn is not exactly at the top of his game. Not nearly close enough to that top to recognize that he’s letting hope triumph over experience and that his pursuit is both closer and more numerous than he thought.

He should be concentrating on his own problems – he certainly has enough of them. But just as he did aboard the Lincoln, while he’s trying to cope with his own crap, of which there seems to be a literal metric shit-ton, he can’t seem to stop himself from getting involved with another murder.

At least this time he’s sure he didn’t do it. Which doesn’t mean he can resist finding out who did. Even if it gives his pursuit a little too much time to get a bead on him.

Escape Rating A+: While Cold Fear is every bit as excellent as Finn’s first outing, Steel Fear, the stories are completely different. Although Steel Fear wasn’t about the military, per se, it still had the feel of a military thriller because of its setting aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and the way that the serial killer aboard the ship was manipulating the situation, the rules and regulations of the military, and all the people aboard.

Cold Fear is a bit of a cross between Nordic noir and police or investigator-led serial killer thrillers. (In tone, it reminds me a bit of The Silence of the White City – possibly because of the involvement of the local police). Finn’s investigation into his own situation often takes a backseat to the serial killer hunt being led by the Reykjavik police inspector – who can’t make up her mind whether she’s hunting for Finn or with him.

There are two tracks in this story that dovetail together. One is Finn’s search for the truth about his own past. The other is the search for the present serial killer – who is only in Reykjavik to hunt for Finn. So it’s all his fault even if it’s not directly all of his own making. Watching Finn juggle the two things so precariously creates a lot of the tension in the story.

Although Cold Fear is the second book in the series, it truly does stand alone. The first book is excellent but it is absolutely not necessary to read it to get into Cold Fear. The big thing that Finn learns in Steel Fear is that his memory has had holes in it because he experienced a childhood tragedy and suppressed the memory. Events in Steel Fear, although unrelated, brought that earlier tragedy back into light – and showed him that his past isn’t what he remembered it was. So his quest in Cold Fear is an attempt to close all the holes in his memory. He still doesn’t even know what it is that he doesn’t know when Cold Fear opens, so if the reader doesn’t know either they can learn together.

Howsomever Steel Fear is a riveting thriller and well worth reading. Don’t let the page count turn you away because it reads VERY fast in spite of the length.

And so does Cold Fear. I read the first two books in this series back-to-back because once I got into Steel Fear Finn’s story just wouldn’t let me go. Which means that now I have an unfortunately long wait for the third book, Blind Fear, which is planned for July 2023.

I’m certain it will be worth the wait!

Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann

Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David MannSteel Fear (Finn Thrillers, #1) by Brandon Webb, John David Mann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Finn Thrillers #1
Pages: 441
Published by Bantam on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An aircraft carrier adrift with a crew the size of a small town. A killer in their midst. And the disgraced Navy SEAL who must track him down . . . The high-octane debut thriller from New York Times bestselling writing team Webb & Mann—combat-decorated Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann.

The moment Navy SEAL sniper Finn sets foot on the USS Abraham Lincoln to hitch a ride home from the Persian Gulf, it's clear something is deeply wrong. Leadership is weak. Morale is low. And when crew members start disappearing one by one, what at first seems like a random string of suicides soon reveals something far more sinister: There's a serial killer on board.
Suspicion falls on Finn, the newcomer to the ship. After all, he's being sent home in disgrace, recalled from the field under the dark cloud of a mission gone horribly wrong. He's also a lone wolf, haunted by gaps in his memory and the elusive sense that something he missed may have contributed to civilian deaths on his last assignment. Finding the killer offers a chance at redemption . . . if he can stay alive long enough to prove it isn't him.

My Review:

Steel Fear wasn’t any of the things I expected it to be. But it sure was good.

At first, this seems like it’s going to be a military thriller. Navy SEAL Finn has been hustled aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed in the Persian Gulf, after a failed SEAL operation in Yemen. What he doesn’t know is why. Why the operation failed. Why he’s cooling his heels on the Lincoln with no orders to head either back to the U.S. for a debriefing reaming, or back to his Team for further assignment.

Why no one on his Team is getting back to him, even on a back channel, to let him know what he’s being blamed for or what he’s heading into. Which is currently nowhere at all.

As he determines that there’s something rotten about the way he’s being kept on ice on the Lincoln, he also determines that there is something rotten going on ON the Lincoln. And that if he doesn’t figure out who is doing what and why, he’s the one who’ll get blamed for it.

After all, it’s clear that he’s already been set up to be the scapegoat for something that went wronger than he remembers in Yemen. He’s the perfect patsy to take the blame for everything amiss on board as well.

But the problems aboard the Lincoln are bigger than just one man – even a Navy SEAL at loose ends. In Finn’s estimation, that fish has rotted from the head down. But it will still slime all over him unless he can figure out whodunnit before he leaves.

Even if his manner of leaving will put an even bigger target on his back from an even more deadly opponent.

Escape Rating A+: I skimmed this last year but wasn’t able to give it the detailed read it really deserved. But I remembered it as being very good competence porn and whatever was going on last year, I was definitely in a mood for it right now. Especially since I’ve been having such good luck with rereads recently. So I decided to go back to this book and am I ever glad that I did!

The story combines a military thriller with a murder mystery. While in the end it leans heavily on the mystery side, everything about the setup, from the protagonist to the location grounds the whole thing very deeply on the military side.

And it is definitely on the thriller side of mystery.

There are two plots running in parallel. On the one hand, there have been an escalating series of deadly incidents aboard the Lincoln. First a helicopter went down with all hands, leaving behind an aching grief and an endless number of questions.

Then it starts looking like people can’t cope with the resulting stress and start throwing themselves off the ship. Into the Gulf. Then things get worse. And worse.

In the middle of all this is Finn. He can’t help but observe everything and everyone around him. It’s what he was trained for. And those observations are telling him that the escalating series of events are escalating because someone is getting off on the chaos they’re creating. He senses that he’s circling in on the perpetrator even as that perpetrator is closing in on him.

What makes this story so compelling, however, is its third track. Because in the midst of Finn’s meticulous detailing of the ship and the ever-spiraling circle of tension and stress is Finn’s increasing realization that there are holes in his memory. That he can’t even rely on himself any longer.

He might be the killer, and he might not remember. He might have committed atrocities in Yemen – and he might not remember. He doesn’t remember vast swathes of his childhood. There’s something in his memories that his conscious mind refuses to approach. He might not be who or what he thinks he is.

And someone seems determined to make sure that he doesn’t find out.

If you’re looking for a thriller within a thriller, for a compelling story of people doing their best jobs in the face of the worst that can be thrown at them, if you enjoy a story where the tension ratchets up every second and then finds itself a whole new ratchet to climb, Steel Fear is a winner that will keep you on the edge of your seat for every single fast-reading page.

And there’s more! The second book in the Finn Thrillers series, Cold Fear, is already out and I dived straight into it. So far, it’s every bit as compelling as Steel Fear turned out to be.

Review: Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji

Review: Braking Day by Adam OyebanjiBraking Day by Adam Oyebanji
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, space opera, thriller
Pages: 359
Published by DAW Books on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

On a generation ship bound for a distant star, one engineer-in-training must discover the secrets at the heart of the voyage in this new sci-fi novel.
It's been over a century since three generation ships escaped an Earth dominated by artificial intelligence in pursuit of a life on a distant planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Now, it's nearly Braking Day, when the ships will begin their long-awaited descent to their new home.
Born on the lower decks of the Archimedes, Ravi Macleod is an engineer-in-training, set to be the first of his family to become an officer in the stratified hierarchy aboard the ship. While on a routine inspection, Ravi sees the impossible: a young woman floating, helmetless, out in space. And he's the only one who can see her.
As his visions of the girl grow more frequent, Ravi is faced with a choice: secure his family's place among the elite members of Archimedes' crew or risk it all by pursuing the mystery of the floating girl. With the help of his cousin, Boz, and her illegally constructed AI, Ravi must investigate the source of these strange visions and uncovers the truth of the Archimedes' departure from Earth before Braking Day arrives and changes everything about life as they know it.

My Review: 

This debut science fiction thriller combines both “We have met the enemy and he is us” with “No matter where you go, there you are” into a story about the baggage that we literally carry with us as we attempt to make a seemingly fresh, new start.

Three colony ships, the Archimedes, the Bohr, and the Chandrasekhar, have been traveling through the black of interstellar space for 132 years. That’s seven generations of shipboard life, all in service of a single goal – reaching Destination World and disembarking for a return to planet bound life that is otherwise so far in the past that no one alive remembers any sense of gravity other than that generated by the gigantic revolving rings that make up their ships.

But all of that is about to change when we first meet Midshipman Ravi MacLeod aboard the Archimedes. Because Braking Day is only weeks away. On that day, the ship will fire up its main engines to start their final push for their new home.

When everything that has become familiar over so many decades of shipboard life will finally change.

But there are always plenty of people who prefer the status quo, and that’s just as true aboard the Archie and her sister ships as it is in any other gathering of humans. Some are just afraid. Some don’t want to take the chance of screwing up a pristine new world the same way that their ancestors – meaning us, now – made a mess of Earth.

And some, the privileged few of the officer class in particular, are not looking forward to the loss of their purpose or especially those much vaunted privileges. After all, a planetary colony won’t need an officer class to run things anymore. At least it won’t need the same people and skills in that officer class that it has needed while aboard.

First, however, Archie and her sister ships have to get there. The crew has always been told that there’s no one out there to stop them – except their own internal squabbles. And not that they don’t have plenty of those to be going on with.

But as operations gear up for Braking Day, engineer-in-training Ravi and his hacker-extraordinaire cousin Boz hack their way into secrets that no one was ever supposed to find.

Archie, Bohr and Chandrasekhar are not alone – and never have been. The officers have a plan for dealing with the threat that they’ve never officially acknowledged. The problem is that the so-called enemy has a plan to deal with them, too.

And Ravi and Boz are caught right in the middle of it.

Escape Rating A+: This was another reread for me, from another STARRED Library Journal review. So I went back to this after several months and, like The Bruising of Qilwa yesterday, it was every bit as good the second time around. I don’t have the opportunity to reread terribly often these days, so this was kind of a treat!

I got caught up in this right away, both times, because this complex story in this large, artificial ecosystem is anchored in one, multi-faceted character, Ravi MacLeod. From one perspective, Braking Day can be seen as Ravi’s coming-of-age story. When we first meet him, he’s a cadet in engineering, but that’s just the tip of a ship-sized iceberg. And from another, it’s a gigantic mystery with potentially deadly consequences. Certainly for Ravi, and quite possibly for everyone else as well.

After 132 years, the social stratification of shipboard life has reached the level of downright ossification. Children of officers become privileged officers in their turn. Children of crew become crew. Children of criminal lowlifes eventually get recycled (literally) as “Dead Weight”, just like their parents.

Ravi is a maverick who gets punished at pretty much every turn because he comes from a criminal family. He doesn’t “belong” to the officer class and few people on either side of that divide ever let him forget it. (If this part of the story sounds interesting, take a look at Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport, which shows what happens after century upon century of such ossification. It’s not pretty but it is compelling.)

There’s also a gigantic secret hidden in the history of the Archie’s expedition – as there was in David Ramirez’ The Forever Watch. It’s a secret that was born out of the same kind of fear and that results in the same deadly consequences.

There is also an enemy within Archie, in a place and position that all the powers that be refuse to even look at. It’s an issue that has more resonance to today than I originally saw. The privileged classes, the officers, don’t want to lose their power and privilege, and fear the changes that landfall will bring. Some of them don’t care that if they don’t land that eventually the ship’s recycling will fail and they’ll end up drifting in space. After all, it won’t happen in their generation. But the officers who are investigating the increasing incidents of sabotage never look among “their own” for the perpetrators.

Add in an actual, living, breathing enemy that has been raised for generations to hate everything about the Archie and her sister ships, that wants nothing more than revenge for past wrongs, and you have multiple recipes for disaster all playing out at the same time – a disaster that just keeps on getting bigger and having more facets every minute.

The question of whether the fleet will cripple itself, whether they and their old enemy will wipe each other out, or whether the cybernetic space dragons will decide that they are all collectively too stupid to live creates the kind of non-stop adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats even after the big, explosive climax.

Braking Day was the author’s debut novel, and it was wild and marvelous and thoughtful all at the same time. I literally gobbled it up not once but twice and still wished there were more. His next book is a complete surprise as it’s a contemporary mystery thriller. A Quiet Teacher is coming out next week, and I’m terribly curious to see where the author takes me next.

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Review: Lavender House by Lev AC RosenLavender House by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Pages: 288
Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes
Published by Forge Books on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen's Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.
Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.
Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.
Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.
When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

My Review:

When Andy Mills meets Pearl Velez in a bar that’s just on the edge of seedy, they need each other – just not in any of the ways that one might expect at the opening of this dark, very noir-ish historical mystery.

Andy needs a purpose, and Pearl needs to give him one. Pearl needs an experienced detective that she can trust to investigate the recent death of her wife. And she knows that Andy is both experienced and trustworthy because he just got fired from the SFPD for being caught with his pants down, literally, in a police raid on a gay bar. His career is over. His life feels like it’s over, because all he’s been doing for the past 10 years is living his job and doing his best to keep his secrets. Now he has no secrets, no job, no apartment, no friends and nothing to fall back on.

He’s planning to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge once it gets dark enough – and once he gets drunk enough. At least that’s the plan until Pearl steps into his life with something that looks like it might BE purpose. And might give him the opportunity to help someone one more time.

Or hurt them worse than he ever imagined – depending on whether the case Pearl wants him to investigate turns out to really be a case. And depending, of course, on whodunnit.

So Pearl whisks Andy off to Lavender House, the beautiful home that the late soap magnate Irene Lamontaine and her wife Pearl created for themselves and their entirely queer family. A place where all of them can safely be themselves – as long as no one reveals their secret to the outside world.

Irene’s death might have been an accident. She might have lost her balance and fallen over the railing she was found under. But the fall wasn’t that far and Irene was healthy and energetic in spite of her years. The fall shouldn’t have killed her.

Between her family’s secrets and her family’s money there are plenty of motives for murder. It’s up to Andy to navigate the family’s murky relationships while not letting himself be seduced by living in the first place he’s ever known where he can finally be his authentic self.

Because Lavender House is a kind of paradise, and it’s up to Andy to find the snake in the garden.

Escape Rating A+: There are so many ways to approach this story, and all of them work. Frankly, the story just works. It had me from that opening scene in the bar and didn’t let go until the bittersweet end. To the point where, as much as I LOVED the audiobook, I read the last third as text because I simply had to find out how it ALL worked out.

I was pretty certain I knew whodunnit – and I did – but that wasn’t the most important part of the story. Still, I was glad to be vindicated.

But I did absolutely adore the narrator, Vikas Adam, whose performance definitely added the plus in that A+ Rating. I’ve fallen under his spell before, as he is one of the primary readers for Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series, and he’s every bit as good here. To the point where I had to triple-check the credits for the audio. I expected him to do a terrific job with voicing Andy – and he certainly does – but he managed to not sound like himself AT ALL while voicing most of the female characters. I did that triple check because I kept thinking there was a female narrator working with him. But it was all him and it was fantastic.

The story is both a mystery and a heartbreaker, and the hard parts were that much harder to listen to because the narration was just so good.

Lavender House is being promoted as a gay Knives Out – and it certainly is that from the mystery perspective. (The comparison works even better now that it’s been revealed that private investigator Benoit Blanc is also gay.) At least on the surface, it seems as if the Lamontaine family is every bit as wealthy as the Thrombeys, and just as dysfunctional and eccentric. It’s just that the causes of some of the dysfunction at Lavender House can be laid directly at the feet of the 1950s and the circumstances they are forced to live under.

The mystery in Lavender House is fascinating, but it feels like the bleeding heart – sometimes literally – of this story is Andy’s journey. And in some ways the two parallel each other more than I expected.

At the heart of the murder – and at the heart of Andy’s journey, is a story about finding a purpose for one’s life. Andy begins at his lowest ebb because he’s just lost his and doesn’t know how to replace it. He’s lived for his job and now it’s turned on him because of an innate part of his being. Investigating Irene’s death gives him that purpose – even as it forces him to confront all the ways that he stifled himself in order to hang onto that job.

At the same time, all of the tensions at Lavender House, along with most of the motives and dysfunction, also have to do with purpose. For the staff, it’s a VERY safe place to work. But for the family it can sometimes be a gilded cage. Not because they can’t actually leave, but because they have to hide their real selves from the world when they do. And if they have no purpose within the house, as is true for two members of that family, they also have no way of making one outside it.

In the end, the solution to the mystery of Irene Lamontaine’s death was a catharsis but not a surprise. The case does come together just a bit suddenly at the end after a lot of often fruitless digging into scant clues and overabundant motives. But the investigation does hold the reader’s interest well, even when it delves into the angst in Andy’s head as much as it does the death that kicked things off.

But Andy’s journey from pretending to be ‘one of the boys’ at the cop shop through closed doors and literal beatings from his former colleagues to the realization that even if he can’t remain in the paradise of Lavender House that he can have a good and fulfilling life – if not always a totally free or completely safe one – as a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, with all the potential for pain and heartbreak and joy, is one that will haunt me for a long time.

Reviewer’s Note: Also that cover is just really, really cool. It’s almost like that damn dress that was either blue and black or white and gold. The more I look at it the more I see. Not just that it’s a silhouette, but there’s a face. And the rabbits. And eyes. So many facets – just like the story it represents.

 

Review: Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

Review: Station Eternity by Mur LaffertyStation Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1) by Mur Lafferty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: Midsolar Murders #1
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From idyllic small towns to claustrophobic urban landscapes, Mallory Viridian is constantly embroiled in murder cases that only she has the insight to solve. But outside of a classic mystery novel, being surrounded by death doesn’t make you a charming amateur detective, it makes you a suspect and a social pariah. So when Mallory gets the opportunity to take refuge on a sentient space station, she thinks she has the solution. Surely the murders will stop if her only company is alien beings. At first her new existence is peacefully quiet…and markedly devoid of homicide.
But when the station agrees to allow additional human guests, Mallory knows the break from her peculiar reality is over. After the first Earth shuttle arrives, and aliens and humans alike begin to die, the station is thrown into peril. Stuck smack-dab in the middle of an extraterrestrial whodunit, and wondering how in the world this keeps happening to her anyway, Mallory has to solve the crime—and fast—or the list of victims could grow to include everyone on board….

My Review:

Mallory Viridian is a murder magnet. Wherever she goes, whenever she is in a group long enough, big enough, or both, somebody ends up dead. She’s never been the intended victim, and she’s never been the perpetrator, either. No matter how many times any number of different law enforcement agencies have tried to pin the murder on her. Because she nearly always solves the case. In fact, she has a downright preternatural ability to solve crimes. She’d be perfect as a cop or a private investigator, but law enforcement is so perturbed by her ability to be in the room where it happens AND figure out whodunnit when they can’t that she’s been blackballed from any possibility of using her weird talent where it will do some good.

She’s also tired of being in the midst of all the carnage as well as the suspicion that goes along with it.

Which has led her to Station Eternity, one of only three humans permitted on the alien, self-aware, sentient station. In the hopes that, with only three humans aboard her gift – or curse – won’t kick in. As long as she doesn’t let herself get too close to either of her fellow exiles.

So when she learns that an entire shuttle full of humans is already on its way to the station, she starts to panic. A panic she manages to pass along to her fellow exiles; an AWOL US Army soldier with a whole lot of military secrets, along with the human ambassador who is sure the shuttle contains his replacement. The soldier is sure that someone is coming to get him, while Mallory is dead certain that when the shuttle arrives, somebody is going to end up dead.

They’re all equally correct. And equally screwed.

When the shuttle approaches the station, chaos erupts. Mallory expected a murder – but not on the scale she is forced to confront. Or the people she’s forced to confront along with it.

The station lashes out at the shuttle, killing half the humans aboard, along with all of the non-human crew. Why? Because someone attacked the station’s very own symbiotic partner, setting off a chain of catastrophes, evolutions, and revelations that no one aboard is prepared to deal with.

Especially Mallory.

Escape Rating A-: This delightfully bonkers story combines a locked-room – or at least locked station – mystery with a fascinating premise and a species-diverse post-First Contact setting to create a puzzle that will drive its readers every single bit as panic-stricken as its protagonists.

The world of Station Eternity isn’t all that hard to fathom – from a certain point of view. The concept that someday – possibly even someday soon as in this story – beings from the galaxy at large will visit Earth. And most likely decide that we aren’t nearly as impressive as we think we are.

We don’t impress the rest of the galaxy because we’re so…singular. Isolated. Unable to form symbiotic bonds with other species, which those other species believe are required for higher development.

While humans – at least those of certain mindsets – see threats to our existence in what are most likely just threats to their own sense of self-importance and manifest destiny.

So what begins as a seemingly simple crash turns into a life-threatening crisis that places Mallory and her uncanny talent for solving murders at its center. And very nearly out its airlock.

What holds the story together is the way that everyone involved, including the non-humans, is linked to Mallory. In spite of her fear of becoming linked to much of anyone. The station has permitted her sanctuary, one species of insect-type aliens is studying human biology through her, several of the rock-type aliens are her friends, the camouflage-type aliens respect her ability to help solve problems, and the officious administrative-type (both human and alien) want her off the station.

Even what seems like a grab-bag of assorted humans aboard the shuttle are all connected to her – or connected to the other human-granted-sanctuary aboard, that AWOL soldier Xan. Who is also connected to Mallory – not just because of their time on the station but as a result of all the times they interacted on Earth.

It’s the connections to Mallory, those things she has avoided much of her life, that glue both the reader and Mallory into the story. Some of that holding together peeks back at how they all got there, and occasionally that peering into the past puts a bit of a hitch in the narrative – but that always manages to stutter back around.

So it’s bonkers. And weird. And fascinating. And a bit too on the nose at some points. It’s also perfect that in the end Mallory finally has the three things she’s been looking for. A purpose she can really sink her teeth into. A place where she can have friends and a real life for herself. Best of all, she finally has answers to all the puzzles of her life – and a way to move forward. With hope.

It’s not surprising that Station Eternity is the first book in a series. The premise of the uncanny detective on the alien station just seems perfect for continuing. And it will be, sometime next year.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to tide you over, I can recommend two recent books that are also wrapped around solving mysteries on spaceships or colonies which have put different but still fascinating spins of their own onto their SFnal mystery. So if you like the sound of Station Eternity, or are looking for more after you finish it, check out The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal and the upcoming To Each This World by Julie Czerneda. They are both excellent and will make the wait for the (so far untitled) next book in The Midsolar Murders series go just a little bit faster.

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace Robb

Review: A Fox in the Fold by Candace RobbA Fox in the Fold (Owen Archer #14) by Candace Robb
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery
Series: Owen Archer #14
Pages: 256
Published by Severn House on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Owen Archer suspects an old adversary is on his tail as he seeks to solve the mystery surrounding a dead body found on the road to York.
October, 1376. Owen Archer is summoned by sheriff Sir Ralph Hastings regarding a stripped and bloodied body discovered on the road north to York. Could it be connected to an attack on a carter and his labourers who were transporting stone destined for St Clement's Priory? The carter fled, but his men stayed to fight and are now missing. Is the victim one of them?
At first Owen believes the catalyst for murder and menace in York is the arrival of the political pariah William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. But he soon suspects that a formidable and skillful adversary from his past has arrived in the city, thrusting him and his family into grave danger, and his investigation becomes a race to uncover the truth before his old nemesis destroys all he holds dear.

My Review:

This latest entry in the Owen Archer series is wrapped around Archer’s past. The past when he was a captain of archers for the Duke of Lancaster and was betrayed by one of his own men. A betrayal which resulted in the loss of his left eye and set him on the path readers’ found him on in the first book in the series, The Apothecary Rose.

In other words, in a peculiar way Owen owes everything he has to this betrayal and the man who arranged it. Owen has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams, becoming a respected officer and landowner, the confidant of kings and princes, with a beautiful and intelligent wife and several wonderful children by birth and adoption.

Owen has it all – just as it seemed he did, in an entirely different way back when he was still a soldier. And the same man who tried to take it all away – along with Owen’s life – back then has followed him to York to try again.

But this time Owen has hostages to fortune. It’s not just his own life on the line, but the lives of his wife, his children, his friends and his colleagues. He has a lot to live for, and a lot to fight for.

All he has to do is finally get the fox Reynard out of his fold of the city of York without losing anyone he holds dear along the way.

But the case is complicated – as nearly all of Owen’s cases are complicated – by the machinations of the high and mighty. Reynard may be acting on his own, determined to finally best the man he has both envied and hated for all these years.

Or he might be in the pay of someone determined to bring disaster on Owen and on the city of York for political reasons of their own. If Reynard has an influential patron, Owen’s case may be much, much harder to solve.

And possibly even more deadly, and with even more dire consequences than he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: Owen Archer is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas when this story opens, and he barks up more than a few of the wrong trees before he finally realizes that not just all of the cases that confront him are one but that the instigator of those cases is not at all who he thought it was.

And his confusion and split attention does lead to a bit of the same on the part of the reader until Owen finally manages to focus his one eye on the true threat to his city and to everyone that he holds dear.

What makes the Owen Archer series so fascinating, at least to this reader, is the way that the mysteries he faces touch on both the big and the small. By big, I mean the roiling politics of his time, and by small, I mean the everyday crimes that are the bread and butter of all mystery stories.

This particular mystery at first looks small, a dead cart driver and a missing load of building stones. At first, the biggest part of the mystery seems to be where the stones might have gone. How, exactly does one “fence” or whatever the medieval term might have been, a load of building stones?

But, as with so many of Owen’s cases, the simple opening leads to some dark and twisty alleys – in the streets of York, in Owen’s past, and in the political upheaval yet to come.

King Edward III is going to die in less than a year, after 50 years of ruling England. His Prince of Wales has predeceased him, and his country is going to be left in the hands of a child who will rule (badly) as Richard II. As the old king falters, the jockeying for position on a regency council has already begun – and friends and advisors of the dying Edward are in danger of losing their places and perhaps even their lives in the coming storm.

Owen believes that King Edward’s former Chancellor has brought bad luck to York when he arrives in the midst of what seems to be a pilgrimage of atonement. And he has, but not in the way that Owen thinks. But Owen saw the man as a ‘bird of ill omen’ in A Choir of Crows and is reluctant to change his mind – especially as death has followed in the man’s wake yet again.

Instead, someone from Owen’s past has taken advantage of the visit to strike Owen down one more time. But this fox operates in the shadows, and Owen doesn’t sense the true nature of the threat for almost too long.

So, as with other entries in the series, this mystery begins small but unfolds large – while forcing Owen to look back at who he was and who he is. It gives him the chance to understand that what he once thought would break him was the making of him after all.

One of the things that I love about this entry in the series is the way that it both reflects back on earlier books in the series, particularly the first book, The Apothecary Rose, and the more recent A Choir of Crows while also casting a reflection on events in its period that reflect the present. If historical mystery is your thing, and you haven’t yet walked the streets of Owen Archer’s medieval York, I highly recommend starting this series from the beginning with The Apothecary Rose.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever it may appear, because I expect it to cover an event that we’ve just experienced – in pomp and circumstance but diluted actual impact. In our own time, the Queen is dead, long live the King. In Owen’s time, the King will be dead, and the realm will be in for one hell of a mess.

Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.