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: When She Dreams by Amanda Quick

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda QuickWhen She Dreams (Burning Cove, #6) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #6
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Return to 1930s Burning Cove, California, the glamorous seaside playground for Hollywood stars, mobsters, spies, and a host of others who find more than they bargain for in this mysterious town.
Maggie Lodge, assistant to the reclusive advice columnist known only as Dear Aunt Cornelia to her readers, hires down-but-not-quite-out private eye Sam Sage to help track down the person who is blackmailing her employer. Maggie and Sam are a mismatched pair. As far as Sam is concerned, Maggie is reckless and in over her head. She is not what he had in mind for a client but he can't afford to be choosy. Maggie, on the other hand, is convinced that Sam is badly in need of guidance and good advice. She does not hesitate to give him both.
In spite of the verbal fireworks between them, they are fiercely attracted to each other, but each is convinced it would be a mistake to let passion take over. They are, after all, keeping secrets from each other. Sam is haunted by his past, which includes a marriage shattered by betrayal and violence. Maggie is troubled by intense and vivid dreams--dreams that she can sometimes control. There are those who want to run experiments on her and use her for their own purposes, while others think she should be committed to an asylum.
When the pair discovers someone is impersonating Aunt Cornelia at a conference on psychic dreaming and a woman dies at the conference, the door is opened to a dangerous web of blackmail and murder. Secrets from the past are revealed, leaving Maggie and Sam in the path of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

My Review:

When I first visited Burning Cove, back in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I wasn’t expecting it to become a series – but I’m very glad that it did!

Burning Cove is kind of a liminal place, and the 1930s were a liminal time. Burning Cove is in California, a place where dreams are made and lost and found. It is an offshoot of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of all that dream making machinery at a time when movies and their magic were blossoming into their heyday.

While the 1930s were a time when the world was holding its breath. WW1 was in the rearview mirror, but its avatars are men and women in their 30s – in the prime of their powers and their adulthood – no matter what shadows darken their pasts or their futures. But the world is also on the brink of war, at least for those with eyes to see, while the world’s economy is still in shambles, feeding the causes and hatreds of the war about to be born.

Among all those dreams, visions and nightmares, it seems fitting that Burning Cove has become a center of dream powers, dream research and possibly dream control. Or, in this particular entry in the series, fulfilling a couple of con artists’ dreams of avarice.

And onto that stage, in this 6th entry in the series, step Maggie Lodge and Sam Sage. Maggie is a lucid dreamer with a realistically cynical view of the pros and cons of her talent. In control, she can wield it like a weapon, out of control it can be used as a weapon against her. As too many in her past have already attempted.

Sam is a private detective, still reeling from the hard knocks of divorce from a woman he never should have married, and being fired from his job as an LA police detective for being too good and too incorruptible at his job. He also happens to be the only private detective in Maggie’s tiny California town who is sober at 9 in the morning. He’s sure the job, whatever it is, will be better than divorce work.

Maggie hires Sam to investigate the blackmail attempt directed at her employer, the advice columnist known as “Dear Aunt Cornelia” in newspapers all around the country. Cornelia is out of the country on an around the world cruise, leaving Maggie with her house, her column and her checkbook to take care of any business while Aunt Cornelia, AKA Lillian Dewherst, is away from home.

Sam, Maggie and the erstwhile blackmailer converge on Burning Cove, where a dream research conference – or con game – is being held under the auspices of the suspiciously glitzy Guilfoyle Institute.

Maggie’s suspicions are already heightened, as the scientific legitimacy of what is obviously a con game or even a pyramid scheme is being shored up by the participation of a real dream scientist who once attempted to drug Maggie and experiment on her talents under the guise of “therapy”.

Sam is just as suspicious, because the Guilfoyles are so obvious about their intentions to fleece the attendees – at least according to a hunch that is so strong that it might well be a talent on its own.

And because the would-be blackmailer is found dead of a drug injection on opening night.

Escape Rating B+: Burning Cove straddles a whole bunch of genre lines. In a nutshell it’s historical paranormal romantic suspense, with pretty much the entire kitchen sink encompassed by those genres in evidence.

When She Dreams is the 6th book in this series, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to get into this one. While a couple of main characters from previous entries in the series turn up as side characters in this book, they are far from the focus and are not an intimate part of any of the events. The true continuing element of this series is the location, and since it neither has any dialog nor participates in any romance, not having visited before isn’t a problem for first time visitors.

The paranormal element to this series, as it is to much of the Jayneverse as the author (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz) calls it, revolves around Maggie’s dream talent. She’s not the first character in these interconnected worlds to manifest a psychic power related to dreams and nightmares, and I’d be willing to bet she won’t be the last, either.

It’s not like that particular talent isn’t hotly debated in real life, after all.

What makes Maggie, and the other women in Burning Cove so fascinating is her realistic grasp on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world at a time when it’s all too easy for a woman to be overlooked, ignored, or in Maggie’s case, locked up for “her own good” by people who claim to love her and have her best interests at heart.

Maggie is a fighter who comes by her distrust of the world in general and men in particular unflinchingly honestly. She has carved out an independent life for herself against the odds, and she’s determined to maintain that independence, and the reader likes her all the better for it.

Sam is not as interesting a character as Maggie is. Maggie sparkles, and it’s easy to see why Sam is attracted to her, even if we don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that attraction until fairly far into the book. But he is a worthy partner for her in the investigation, and not just because he’s able to reluctantly admit that they are partners whether that’s what he planned on or not.

What does sparkle is the way that Sam and Maggie close in on this case that did not originally look like a whole, entire case. It goes from blackmail to murder to fraud to murder to obsession and then reaches back into the past to yet more murder. Following in Maggie’s footsteps as she and Sam unravel the clues one dark and dangerous step at a time makes for a terrific, page-turning thriller, clinging to the edge of one nightmare after another.

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: Crowbones by Anne Bishop

Review: Crowbones by Anne BishopCrowbones (The World of the Others, #3; The Others, #8) by Anne Bishop
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: The World of the Others, #3, #3, #3, #3, The Others, #8, #8, #8, #8
Pages: 384
Published by Ace on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this engrossing and gripping fantasy set in the world of the New York Times bestselling Others series, an inn owner and her friends must find a killer-before it's too late....
Crowbones will gitcha if you don't watch out!
Deep in the territory controlled by the Others-shape-shifters, vampires, and even deadlier paranormal beings-Vicki DeVine has made a new life for herself running The Jumble, a rustic resort. When she decides to host a gathering of friends and guests for Trickster Night, at first everything is going well between the humans and the Others.
But then someone arrives dressed as Crowbones, the Crowgard bogeyman. When the impostor is killed along with a shape-shifting Crow, and the deaths are clearly connected, everyone fears that the real Crowbones may have come to The Jumble-and that could mean serious trouble.
To "encourage" humans to help them find some answers, the Elders and Elementals close all the roads, locking in suspects and victims alike. Now Vicki, human police chief Grimshaw, vampire lawyer Ilya Sanguinati, and the rest of their friends have to figure out who is manipulating events designed to pit humans against Others-and who may have put Vicki DeVine in the crosshairs of a powerful hunter--

My Review:

In this third book in the World of The Others series – after Lake Silence and Wild Country, the remote, mostly human town of Bennett seems to be putting down roots. The Sanguinati – the vampires of this particular not-quite-our-history-alternate-Earth have learned to work with the human somewhat-authority and the humans who are staying for good in Bennett have generally figured out the boundaries of what they can and can’t do in a town that is surrounded by the Elders.

That whole paragraph has so many caveats and so much explanation because this series has established a version of Earth that may physically resemble this one BUT has had a totally different evolution and history.

This is a version of our world where humans are not and have never been the apex predators. A fact that is well-established and periodically reinforced. But a fact that short-lived humans with even shorter memories keep forgetting – with catastrophic results.

For the humans, that is.

In this World of the Others, which began in the Courtyards of The Others in Written in Red, humans are very much as we are now – which is one of those things that honestly makes no sense in a world where we did not evolve as the apex predators. But it does make the shenanigans of the humans in this “Otherworld” a whole lot more relatable.

What makes this particular story even more relatable is that it is set around this world’s version of Halloween, which they call Trickster Night.

Because Bennett is an experiment for the Elders, part of that experiment is seeing if humans other than those who have self-selected for life in Bennett can manage to obey the unwritten rules, provide some much-needed income for the town and give the local “Other” residents more opportunities to interact with more, different humans.

After all, the Elders don’t need us at all, for anything, but some of the “lesser” Others – the vampires and the shapeshifters in particular – have discovered that some of the things we make are useful. Being able to trade peacefully and live side by side is desirable if WE can manage to follow the rules.

But Trickster Night, just like Halloween, is a time when rules get bent if not outright broken. Strangers in masks can get up to all kinds of mischief once the sun goes down. But the myths and legends are real in the World of the Others, so when someone pretends to be the legendary “Crowbones” with the intent to stir up trouble, that same Crowbones might just see fit to come out to get them.

Escape Rating A-: Somehow, in spite of the fact that I read ebooks and not print, there’s reading crack embedded in the pages of this series and it’s still working on me in spite of the technological impossibility. I can’t resist this series AT ALL, I always start the book as soon as I get it, and can’t put it down until I’m done.

No matter how much that whole issue about humans behaving just as badly and in the same ways in the series as we do in real life, when the possibility of that happening in these circumstances is unlikely as hell. My “willing suspension of disbelief” seems to be operated remotely the minute I pick the book up, I’m all in while I’m reading it, and then the thing shuts off as soon as I’m done and I’m all WTF about the evolution of humanity thing again.

That being said, the setup of this version of our world is fascinating and complex and this is not the place to start. Start either at the very beginning with Written in Red, or pick the series up when it moves to Bennett in Lake Silence. We’re way too deep in Crowbones to start here.

But speaking of being in too deep, the story about this particular Trickster Night focuses on a bit of human rot that has burrowed deep into the fabric of this remote village. That rot is a manipulative beast that has plans to see just what it takes to make the Others who share Bennett with humans act out in ways that will get the attention of the Elders. Someone who has been entirely too successful “breaking” humans and wants to move on to bigger and more dangerous prey.

The leadership of the town, which has not yet completely gelled and isn’t fully vested in trusting each other yet, has a limited amount of time – because the Elders have an extremely limited amount of patience where humans are concerned – to figure out what’s gone wrong and FIX IT – before the Elders decide that the Bennett experiment was a failure.

A decision that will be fatal for both the humans and the lesser “Others” who want to call Bennett home.

The Elders may not have much patience, but I’ll be patiently waiting to see if there are more stories in this series. It may drive me bonkers – but I can’t resist this place or it’s people one little bit.

Review: A Matter of Death and Life by Simon R. Green

Review: A Matter of Death and Life by Simon R. GreenA Matter of Death and Life (Gideon Sable #2) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Gideon Sable #2
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House Publishers on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Master thief, rogue and chancer Gideon Sable is back for another fast-paced supernatural heist - and this time he has the vault of a Las Vegas casino in his sights

Judi Rifkin is one of the world's most successful collectors of the weird and unnatural. In a London underworld filled with criminals with very special talents, Judi is a force to be reckoned with.
And Gideon Sable - thief, rogue and chancer - owes her a very large favour.
Judi makes him an offer he can't refuse: steal her the legendary Masque of Ra, tucked up safe in a Las Vegas casino, and she'll wipe the slate clean.
This isn't Gideon's first heist by a long shot. But with old grudges threatening to cloud his judgment, an unpredictable crew who don't entirely trust each other and a formidable supernatural security team guarding his target, this job might be a gamble too far . . .
A Matter of Death and Life is the sequel to The Best Thing You Can Steal, and is the second supernatural heist thriller featuring master conman Gideon Sable from British SFF veteran and New York Times bestselling author Simon R. Green.

My Review:

The snark is turned up past 11 and all the way to 13 in this second book in the author’s Gideon Sable series. But don’t let the indication that this is the second book in the series fool you into thinking that all you need to read to get completely up to speed is that first book, The Best Thing You Can Steal.

Not that it isn’t a whole lot of snarky fun.

But the thing about the author of this urban fantasy series – along with several others, a couple of paranormal series and some epic space opera – is that all of his stories are told in the first person singular voice of the main character – in this case Gideon Sable.

Whether that featured antihero – because honestly, none of them are exactly heroes in any classic mold whatsoever – is John Taylor (Nightside), Eddie Drood (Secret Histories) or a whole host of others, the truth is that the voice of the protagonist reads like its the voice of the author. Because they all more or less the same voice – with just a few minor variations.

Not that that’s a bad thing, because I like my snark dial turned all the way up. This is an author who always makes me laugh out loud because his snark – and his characters – are clever in their actions and especially in their way with words. And those characters are more often archetypes than actual individuals. For readers who are familiar with the author’s previous works, they are archetypes that seem very, very familiar. Like old friends that you can’t totally trust not to either break your heart or your bank account. Or both.

Most likely both.

All of the above means that he’s an acquired taste. He just happens to be a taste I acquired a long time ago. Just like my nostalgia for Cincinnati Chili. It’s not something I’d want all the time, or even too often too close together, but when I have a taste for it, nothing else will do.

And I definitely had a taste for it – the author, not the chili – this weekend.

The story in A Matter of Death and Life is a direct followup to the events in the first book, The Best Thing You Can Steal. Gideon and his girlfriend, Annie Anybody, are roped into committing a heist for the person they cheated in the earlier book.

This time, they have to steal a supernatural and extremely creepy mask from a Las Vegas casino. The mask is supposed to grant eternal life and youth. Gideon’s, well, let’s call her his patron, wants the mask in order to get one up on her ex-husband. Gideon wants to get his own back from the current owner of the mask. His patron also wants to get one up on him – and it sure seems like someone is manipulating them both.

It’s going to be the job from hell. And it might just send them all there – and possibly back again – before it’s over. One way or another.

Escape Rating B+: This is a story where I don’t have any mixed feelings. I had a cracking good time with Gideon Sable and his more-misfit-than-usual crew as they took on Las Vegas. Calling this book a fantastic, slightly supernatural version of Ocean’s Eleven – complete with ALL the wisecracks – would be more accurate, and more fun, than anyone might have expected.

Clearly, I had fun. In fact, I had laugh out loud fun. It helps that Las Vegas as the public sees it, the casinos, the glitz and the fake glamor hiding a rapacious money machine, is a setting that is just ripe for all of the snarkitude that Gideon Sable can muster.

It’s also a wheels within wheels within wheels kind of story. As much as the setting reminds me of Ocean’s Eleven, the caper itself just screams Leverage – but with a twist. With multiple twists, some with lime and some with cyanide – or something worse, creepier and deadlier.

Under the supernatural gloss, this is a story about power, greed, paranoia and revenge all tied up in a great big ball of wrong. It’s also a cat and mouse game where each character believes they are one of the cats – only to discover that they are one of the mice after all. And that the real cat has been preparing them for dinner the entire time.

But the characters, especially Gideon and his crew, are also more than a bit of an in-joke. A joke that the reader only gets if they are familiar with at least the author’s previous urban fantasy series. Because Gideon Sable used to be someone else, before the real Gideon Sable died and our protagonist assumed his identity. The author closed out all of his previous urban fantasy series with Night Fall back in 2018. But Gideon and his crew sound an awful lot like many of his previous bands of misfits. So it’s possible that Gideon in particular used to be part of one of those other stories – until he had to find another identity.

Which means that the whole setup of Gideon Sable’s twisted version of our world could be one we’ve already seen, and Gideon himself could be someone we’ve already met. A possibility that teases me no end. But probably would not resonate with someone who had not been previously exposed to this author’s brand of Gordian Knot worlds within worlds and shadows hidden behind shadows.

But when I’m in the mood for extreme snarkitude, there’s none better. Gideon Sable, and all of this author’s characters, have refined smart-assery into a fine art – and sometimes that’s just what a reader needs to get through. So I hope Gideon Sable will be back in the not too distant future.

Review: A Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox

Review: A Lullaby for Witches by Hester FoxA Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Gothic, historical fiction, paranormal
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on February 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings across the centuries.

Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin.
Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.
One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore.
But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.

My Review:

A Lullaby for Witches is a time slip story whose 21st century anchor is a woman who time slips for a living. Or at least that’s what she set out to do when she graduated college – and probably a master’s program – with a degree in museum and archival studies.

As the story begins, Augusta Podos is working in her field – sorta/kinda – in a dead end job as a tour guide and “interpreter” at the historical Salem, Massachusetts jail. She spends entirely too much of her work time dealing with disgruntled tourists who neglected to read the brochure and are unhappy that the infamous Salem witches were never housed in that jail – BECAUSE THE JAIL WAS BUILT MORE THAN A CENTURY AFTER THE WITCH TRIALS!

She’s also in a dead end relationship with a guy who may be financially stable – but is also emotionally unavailable and manipulative. Someone who has spent the four years of their relationship isolating Augusta from her friends, and who Augusta has spent the same four years making excuses for – over and over and over.

The “dream” job at Harlowe House – an amazing well funded private house museum – knocks Augusta out of her rut in more ways than one. She suddenly has a job she loves, with people who appreciate her, she makes enough money and has enough benefits that she can afford to strike out on her own if she can muster up the fortitude AND she has the chance to stretch her professional wings and use all of her skills and talents.

Augusta is also more than a bit obsessed by the resident ghost of Harlowe House, the mysterious and possibly even apocryphal Margaret Harlowe. Who may have lived a couple of centuries AFTER the witch trials, but who was still, most definitely, a witch.

A witch who has found in Augusta a woman she can use. Augusta believes that Margaret just wants to get her story finally told. Margaret, however, plans to use Augusta to finally get for herself that dish that is best served cold. In Margaret’s case, as cold as the grave.

Escape Rating B: I wanted to start out by repeating the old quote about the more things change, the more they remain the same, but that’s not quite right. And it’s not that history repeats, because that’s not exactly what’s happening here either.

A Lullaby for Witches feels like it’s a story about blame. Or shame, or responsibility, or all of the above. Augusta Podos, the contemporary heroine of this witch’s brew, is a woman who always takes the blame for everything that goes wrong – whether she’s at fault or not. Usually not. She spends her mental energy making excuses for everyone around her and making herself smaller at every turn.

Margaret Harlowe, who anchors the 19th century parts of this hidden history, is Augusta’s opposite. Margaret always was a woman who took up as much space, with expansive gestures, outrageous behavior and mysterious doings, as possible. Also, Margaret never accepts the blame or the responsibility for anything that happens around her, not even – or perhaps especially not – the trouble that she causes and is absolutely responsible for.

To the point where her need for revenge against those she believes have wronged her – no matter how much she may have wronged them first or equally or in return – keeps her spirit from finding rest. Margaret has spent the century and a half of her “afterlife” waiting for a woman of her bloodline to let her live again.

Whether that woman is willing or not.

So, on one side of this story, we watch Augusta finally break out of her self-imposed imprisonment and start to take charge of her own life. And on the other side (pun intended) we see the past from Margaret’s self-aggrandizing and self-justifying perspective – and we observe her start moving Augusta like a pawn on her own personal chessboard.

This ends up being kind of a mixed feelings review. I appreciated Augusta’s journey – but her relationships with her manipulative, isolating ex hit a bit too close to home. I loved her raptures about her new job at Harlowe House, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much fantasy was involved in the creation of a small museum like that being THAT well funded. (One of my best friends is an archivist and I think she’d be laughing a lot at the setup.)

On my third hand, I enjoyed, as I generally do, the portrayal of the research and digging involved with Augusta’s search for history, and I loved the idea of showcasing the forgotten histories of the women of Harlowe.

On my fourth hand – I think I’m co-opting Augusta’s and Margaret’s hands at this point – I didn’t get into Margaret’s story at all. She’s vain, she’s shallow, she’s self-serving to the max. Admittedly, she’s also just barely 20 so her out-of-line-ness isn’t really so far out-of-line. But I found her perspective to be a bit one-note. That meant that I didn’t empathize with her at all, because when it comes to empathy there’s almost no there there.

So the story didn’t feel like it was so much about female power as it was about one woman, Augusta, finding a way to climb out of one rut after another – including one that reached out to her from the shadowy past. But I liked and felt for Augusta, so that worked out alright for this reader.

Review: Lightning in a Mirror by Jayne Ann Krentz

Review: Lightning in a Mirror by Jayne Ann KrentzLightning in a Mirror (Fogg Lake #3) by Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Fogg Lake #3
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The final installment in the chilling Fogg Lake trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz.
Olivia LeClair's experiment with speed dating is not going well. First there was the nasty encounter with the date from hell who tried to murder her and now the mysterious Harlan Rancourt—long believed dead—sits down at her table and tells her she's the only one who can help him locate the legendary Vortex lab.
This is not what Olivia had in mind when she signed up for the Four Event Success Guaranteed package offered by the dating agency. She doesn't have much choice, though, because her psychic investigation firm works for the mysterious Foundation and Victor Arganbright, the director, is adamant that she assist Harlan. There's just one problem—no one knows Harlan's real agenda. His father once ran the Foundation like a mob organization, and Harlan was destined to be his heir. There's a real possibility Harlan has returned to claim his inheritance.
For now, however, it's a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend because others are after the secrets of the long-lost lab. Unfortunately for Olivia, the one thing friend and foe have in common is that everyone is convinced she is the key. Her unique psychic talent is required to defuse the ticking time bomb that is Vortex.
Neither trusts the other but Olivia and Harlan soon realize they must work together to survive and unlock the Bluestone Project's most dangerous secrets before more innocent people die.

My Review:

At least in some variations, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you,” is one of the three biggest lies. In Fogg Lake, and the paranormally powered world of this series, “We’re from the Foundation and we’re here to help you,” seems to be the psi-powered equivalent.

But so far in contemporary Fogg Lake it actually seems to be true. Well, it’s true NOW. It wasn’t true back in the day. Come to think of it, the government version wasn’t true then or now.

The entire Fogg Lake series, starting with The Vanishing and All the Colors of Night, has been all about dealing with the mysteries and the dangers that remain from the Bluestone Project and it’s offshoot Vortex, that came into being back in that day when both the government – in the form of that top-secret Bluestone Project, and the Foundation were doing their level best to figure out how to enhance and weaponize psychic powers.

Something that never ever ends well. At this point, the Foundation, at least in the person of Harlan Rancourt, is just trying to make sure it ends – before anyone else gets dead in the process. The Vortex process.

Fogg Lake turns out to be part of the ‘Jayneverse’ of connected stories that encompasses the Arcane Society and Harmony. In the Fogg Lake series, that connection is tangential. You don’t have to have read any of the Arcane Society books to get hooked into Fogg Lake in The Vanishing. (But the Easter Eggs sure are fun to find!)

It’s not like we aren’t aware of plenty of shady government projects that have disappeared without a trace – at least in fiction. It’s also possible to see the now-moribund government office that ran Bluestone as the cramped, dusty office that would later house Mulder and Scully.

But Lightning in a Mirror is the last book in the Fogg Lake series, so if contemporary paranormal romantic suspense sounds like your cup of tea, start with The Vanishing.

This story, while the romance is totally encompassed in this one book, the suspense factor is not. The Foundation, both its current directors, Victor Arganbright and Lucas Pine, as well as the investigators of the Lark & LeClair Detective Agency, Catalina Lark (protagonist of The Vanishing) and Olivia LeClair (this book’s heroine), have been hunting for the remnants of Bluestone and Vortex throughout the series.

As this story opens it looks like Vortex is hunting them as well. At least, they’re hunting Olivia LeClair for the Oracle talent that entirely too many people seem to think she inherited from her grandmother. Vortex would have caught her, just as they caught her mother, if not for the intervention of Harlan Rancourt.

Which is where the story kicks into gear. High gear. Rancourt has been hiding from the Foundation for five years, investigating the death of his own father in a mysterious accident. With Vortex on the rise he returns to the fold to prevent the catastrophe that his own talents tell him is coming.

Rancourt is a wild-card to everyone. A chameleon talent who fools everyone, all the time, about the true nature of the threat he presents. But he never fools Olivia. She sees him for the predator he is – and doesn’t run.

At least she doesn’t run FROM him. Running WITH him to keep one step ahead of Vortex – and to stay together – turns out to be just what both of them have been waiting for.

Escape Rating A-: First and most important, the ENTIRE ‘Jayneverse’ is a whole lot of fun – especially if you like a bit of the paranormal mixed with romantic suspense. She writes the historical parts of the series as Amanda Quick, the contemporaries as Jayne Ann Krentz, and the futuristic Harmony as Jayne Castle. And they are all just oodles of fun.

The links between the series are loose, but like a tangled thread, once you pull at one and get invested in THAT part of her world, you’ll be led to the others. (And I prefer ‘Arcaneverse’ as the collective title but that’s a “me” thing)

There are, as usual for this series, two stories blended into the book. One is the overall series arc, which is the suspense part, and the other is the, well, romantic part. Which, as is also usual, isn’t all that “romantic” in a hearts and flowers sense.

Neither Harlan nor Olivia are hearts and flowers kind of people – and that’s been true of the protagonists for most of the series. They meet because they’re on the trail of a serial killer, or a series of serial killers, they’re both in danger and they’re both capable of taking care of that danger themselves (I love that there are no damsels in her series). But they are better – and safer – together than they are apart.

For select definitions of both “better” and “safer”.

So their romance begins with the forced intimacy of being on the run together, combined with the adrenaline thrills and crashes of facing deadly danger together> That rush to romance is ably assisted and enhanced by psychic compatibility that validates the attraction into becoming something more. It doesn’t feel “romantic” in any of the traditional senses, but insta-lust is a real thing and the insta-love that surprises them both does manage to feel earned.

Nevertheless, what captivated me about this book – and about the Fogg Lake series and everything else this author writes – is the overarching suspense plot. I always enjoy a black-ops project/government agency/conspiracy gone wrong kind of story, and this one is a doozy.

It’s not hard to believe that there are government agencies so secret that no one knows about them, because they’re doing things the government can’t afford to acknowledge. In fact, it’s downright easy to believe this and it’s a stock in trade of lots of genres. Bits of it have even happened in real life – just look up the history of the Manhattan Project, secret towns and all.

That such a project would be rife with criminal shenanigans isn’t a stretch either. And neither is the idea that some people wouldn’t be able to let it go. That’s where Fogg Lake and the Bluestone Project sit, at that intersection of conspiracy theories and government black operations.

So the romance didn’t seem all that romantic, but I was all in on the conspiracy parts, and that’s what kept me flipping pages as I poured through this story and this series.

While we may be finished at Fogg Lake, I’m looking forward to visiting another corner of this universe in May, when we return to 1930s Burning Cove, California in When She Dreams.

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen ChoBlack Water Sister by Zen Cho
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: magical realism, paranormal, urban fantasy
Pages: 370
Published by Ace Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there's only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she's determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god--and she's decided Jess is going to help her do it.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she'll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

My Review:

It may be true that happy families are all alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but it’s also true that, at least in fiction, all intrusive families are somewhat alike.

But Jess’ family isn’t quite like all the other intrusive families. Not that it isn’t very like them in a number of ways, but there’s one aspect that is definitely unique to them. Or one intrusion that’s unique to them, anyway.

Jess starts hearing voices. Well, specifically one voice, that of her recently deceased grandmother Ah Ma. Now that Jess and her family have moved back to Penang, her late grandmother has decided that Jess is the member of the family who can help her handle her unfinished business in this world so that she can move on to the next.

Ah Ma is living inside Jess’ head, sometimes taking over Jess’ body, and generally poking her ghostly nose into all of Jess’ business in order to make sure that Jess finishes up all of hers.

And that’s where the family secrets start, let’s call it manifesting, all over Penang and all over Jess’ currently drifting life.

Ah Ma needs to pull off one last score against a gangster – who she declares is not merely her biggest enemy but also the enemy of the god that Ah Ma was a medium for during her life. A duty she plans to pass on to Jess, whether Jess wants it or not.

But as Jess does her best to hold firm against the more extreme parts of her grandmother’s agenda – such as Ah Ma’s attempt to murder the gangster’s son using Jess’ hands as the weapon. Ah Ma knows that she herself is out of reach of Earthly justice, but her assertions that her god will protect Jess from the same don’t have nearly the same reassuring effect on Jess.

Along the way, Jess learns more than she bargained for about the real reason behind her family’s move from Malaysia to the U.S. And she comes to understand just what her mother has been trying to protect her from all these years.

And that none of it is exactly what any of them thought.

Escape Rating B: This is very much one of those mixed feelings reviews. On the one hand, there is SO MUCH to love about this story. And on the other hand, there are the trigger warnings. Some people will be disturbed by the abuse and the violence that her grandmother suffered as a young woman, and that Ah Ma enters the service of the god in order to get her revenge. A revenge that Black Water Sister is willing to grant her because she suffered the same thing in her life. Which also says important things about the utter, horrific pervasiveness of violence against women throughout history.

While those experiences were both terrible, but unfortunately all too historically plausible. The way that they are revealed to Jess, as dreams and nightmares sent by both vengeful female spirits, is also manipulative and abusive in its own way.

I also have to say that the extreme intrusiveness of Jess’ family, and what she feels as her lifelong servitude to her parents, are triggers for me, to the point where the constant overshadowing of Jess’ entire life by her family almost forces her to live in constant self-repression in order to not upset anyone about anything, is difficult for me to read.

From a certain perspective, her Ah Ma’s manipulations to force Jess into the same servitude to Black Water Sister that Ah Ma chose willingly is just a continuation of Jess’ extreme self-effacement. Almost to the point of self-erasure. That Jess has kept as much of her true self hidden as she has, and that she still demonstrably loves her family very much, makes her a compelling character who is just hard for me to read.

The author does a fantastic job of exploring and capturing the beauty of not just the place where the story is set, but also its culture and its history is marvelous. Using Jess as the outsider/insider who is remembering and rediscovering her heritage and her family’s history lets the reader immerse themselves along with her.

A part of me wants to call Black Water Sister a magical realism type of fantasy. There is magic in the world that in this particular story uses humans as its avatars to let it act on the world. Jess, when either Ah Ma or Black Water Sister is using her body to wreck their own revenge, is able to see all the gods and spirits that inhabit this place that feels familiar and yet isn’t quite the place her heart calls home.

Another perspective would be that it’s really humans doing everything all along, and yet, from Jess’ god-enhanced perspective, it’s clear that there is way more under the surface than is dreamt of in any Westernized philosophy. And that’s it’s all real, and that it all seems to want revenge.

This also reminds me more than a bit of Nothing But Blackened Teeth, not in that book’s horror aspects but in the way that the queer outsider is the person who is able to see the ghosts and spirits who move so much of the action and so many of the humans. There’s also a bit of, oddly enough, Dragon Age: Origins in the way that Ah Ma has given herself to Black Water Sister as an agent of their mutual revenge in much the same way that Flemeth merges with the goddess Mythal. And that the need for women to find supernatural assistance to avenge themselves on the men who have abused them feels universal.

In the end, the secrets that have been hidden and the revenge that is sought are all for very human reasons. But sometimes, even gods, especially gods that used to be humans, need a very human thing called closure.

Review: Hex Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Hex Work by TA Moore + Excerpt + GiveawayHex Work (Babylon Boy, #1) by T.A. Moore
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Babylon Boy #1
Pages: 136
Published by Rogue Firebird Press on November 23, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

My name is Jonah Carrow, and it’s been 300 days since I laid a hex.

OK, Jonah Carrow isn’t actually an alcoholic. But there’s no support group of lapsed hex-slingers in Jerusalem, so he’s got to make do. He goes for the bad coffee and the reminder that he just has to take normal one day at a time.

Unfortunately, his past isn’t willing to go down without a fight.

A chance encounter with a desperate Deborah Seddon, and a warning that ‘they’re watching’, pulls Jonah back into the world he’d tried to leave behind. Now he has to navigate ghosts, curses, and the hottest bad idea warlock he’s ever met…all without a single hex to his name.

But nobody ever said normal was easy. Not to Jonah anyhow.

My Review:

The central theme of Hex Work might be “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.”

It’s not merely that Jonah Carrow has to resist turning his truck down the road to temptation – and his family’s home place in Babylon, Pennsylvania – every single day, but that something happened when he left home a year ago that made him swear off using his family gift. A gift for casting – and warding off – hexes.

We may not know what went wrong – at least not yet – but we are riding along with Jonah as his old life does its best to drag him back under its spell. Literally.

A woman enlists his help in a way that seems so random and nebulous that he isn’t exactly sure what it’s about. Not until the people who are chasing her drag him in for a little “chat” about ghosties and ghoulies and just how many of them are going to be set upon him if he doesn’t figure out what she’s up to. Or why she stole something nasty from them. Or both.

Everyone thinks he doesn’t know what it’s all about. Because he’s left his home, his name and his reputation behind in the hopes of making a new start – or outrunning his own ghosts. Except the ghost of his brother who haunts his front yard at night. He’s stuck with that one. Why? We don’t exactly know. Yet.

And even though this wasn’t initially his fight, his circus or his monkeys, by the time he solves the supernatural mystery that stalks Jerusalem (PA) he’s right back in the thick of it. Even if he has, at least so far, still managed to resist falling off the hex wagon.

It’s only a matter of time – and the things that stalk the night have plenty of that.

Escape Rating A-: I was looking for something, let’s say.a bit less complicated after a long weekend reading marathon (because reasons). Not that I expected the characters in the book to be in an uncomplicated situation – from that perspective the more messed up the better. Rather I was looking for something where the story would suck me right in and take my mind away – not tie it up in knots that I wouldn’t be able to unravel for hours or days later.

Urban fantasy has always been my go-to when I want a world to slip right into, and Hex Work certainly fulfilled all my dark, dirty magical expectations. Although, at least so far as this series starter goes, all of the dirt is quite literally dirt. Grave dirt. Not the other kind – at least not yet. This series may eventually switch from urban fantasy to paranormal romance at some point – but neither it nor Jonah are there yet.

The story of Hex Work is told from Jonah’s first-person perspective. We’re inside his head and it’s a pretty damn snarky place to be, which is just fine as one of the things I love about urban fantasy is that it is generally snarky as hell – and sometimes snarky IN hell- and Jonah is no exception.

So we know what he’s thinking in the moment, and we see what he’s struggling with. But we also see that there are plenty of shadowy places in his past that he’s definitely, absolutely, obsessively trying his best NOT to think about. The places that I really hope this series goes as it continues.

Right here and right now, Jonah is in a kind of limbo. He’s sworn he’s not going to lay another hex. He’s left Babylon in order to get away from the supernatural world. But it’s found him. The story is of his struggle to get to the bottom of the grave that the hag that is chasing him pulled itself out of, so he can maybe get back to that fresh start he’s working on.

Only to discover that even though the hag has been laid to rest and the mystery has been solved, he’s still neck deep in the supernatural – and not getting out. We’re left wondering if, in his heart of hearts, he truly wants to.

This reader certainly doesn’t want him to at all. The magic of this world is fascinating, both simple and complex by turns. It feels like it’s been drawn right out of myths and legends and has been hiding in plain sight all along. (It also feels a bit like Midnight Crossroads, so if you liked either the book series or the TV series you’ll probably love this.)

Jonah himself has secrets that I’m itching to discover. I can’t wait to see what trouble finds him next!

Guest Post from TA Moore + Chapter 2 of Stories of Babylon (check out Chapter 1 at Book Gemz)

Hi! Can you believe it’s November already? I feel entirely adrift in the calendar these days. It’s 1934th of Morch! One thing I have managed to keep on track for, more or less, is the whole publication schedule for Hex Work…more or less! 

Hex Work is NOT the book I was meant to be writing, but it’s the one that wanted to come out of my head. So I hope people like it in order to make the absolute shambles it made of my writing schedule worth it. I like it, so I guess that’s a good start!

Thanks for having me and I hope you enjoy the exclusive short story prequel to the Hex Work novella!

Read the rest of the story at TAMooreWrites.com

Stories of Babylon: Chapter Two

He followed the crushed crash and tire tracks to a pick-up truck wrapped around a beech tree. The front end was crumpled and the windows smashed in over the burned, half-melted sheets. It had been red once, but it was smoke-scarred now with black, brittle patches of cracked blisters on the doors.

The kid sat on the rutted ground with his head in his hands. He looked up when Jonah cleared his throat.

Shit, the kid said, my dad’s going to kill me.

His name was John Samuels and he’d been dead for a week. His funeral was tomorrow. That always…cut some sort of thread. Not that John would move on, but being John would start to wear off him. He’d not think he was alive anymore.

“You weren’t meant to have the truck?” Jonah asked. 

He already knew the answer. John was fifteen and he’d gotten home early from football practice. There’d been a casserole in the oven for him and chores to do before his homework. He knew better than to take the truck. His Dad had said that over and over.

Lot—always friendlier—squeezed by Jonah and stuck his nose into the John’s face. His tongue slobbered up, and through, John’s vaguely insubstantial nose until he got a snuffle of laughter and a hand came up to pet his ears.

No, John said. He looked up at Jonah through his tangled fringe, His voice changed—breathy and light, the catch of fear wet in the back of his throat—but his face didn’t. We have to go. Jonah, Joey, we have to go. He’s COMING.

Wife leaned against Jonah’s legs and sighed heavily. The hot, living weight of her anchored Jonah and he pulled away from the hook of that voice. It hadn’t been his name, not when he played it back in his head, it probably hadn’t been John’s either.

“Who was she?” Jonah asked. “Did you know her?”

Some girls are like that, John said, some segment of memory queued up to suit the question. I thought we were the same, but she was….she was…

The words glitched together. Awful/Beautiful/DEADDEADFUCKINGDEAD/Lost. Jonah took a step back and shook his head to clear it. There was blood in his mouth, but when he turned his head to spit it was just saliva. Not his copper and salt thick on his tongue, not his fear thick and clotted in his throat.

For a second John knew what he was and it peeled the facade away. A chunk of glass glittered in his cheek as he talked—speared through flesh and into the mess of broken teeth and gums the impact had left of the kid’s mouth—and the side of his skull was caved in. Blood matted dark blond, curly hair and when he raised a hand it was gone.

He gaped that ruined mouth and screamed. It was a thin, pinched sound that just made the dogs look curious, but it spilled over to something and awful on the unnatural side of things. A handful of confused birds were jostled from their roost as it grated on them, and took off into the sky.

John lurched up from the ground and lunged at Jonah, his hand curled into a claw tipped with bony spikes that poked through his fingertips. His breath hung in the air, dark and oily as smoke.

You have her touch her take her away. I wontletyouhurtheragaaaaaaaa!

The words ran into each other, slurred back into the harrowing, static howl of the scream that drew the other side closer. Moonlight faltered and faded into a grey miasma as the air thickened and chilled.

It was always cold in Babylon, even in summer. A climatic anomaly apparently. Good for the shop that sold coats in town, not so great for tourism. 

Jonah snapped the piece of chalk in his pocket and crumbled the bit he hung onto between his fingers. He threw it into the air.

Technically it should have been drawn on a door or a wall, or a bit of paper to shove down the hag’s throat. Jonah was a Carrow, though, and magic still owed one him for that. Chalk powder dripped from his fingers as he sketched the rune in the air and it hung between him and poor, dead John.

“Holy, holy,” he said and clenched his hand into a fist, thumb extended, to cross himself in a quick, careless swipe. The hex burned on his tongue and stung his lips as he spat the words out. They’d probably meant something once, years and books ago. Now it was just sounds that worked and who cared why? In the moment. “Salt and dirt. Hold your breath and it won’t hurt.”

John smashed into the rune. The little bits of chalk dust stuck to him and spread, white and powdery skin that filled in the holes of his death and clogged up his mind. He staggered to a stop as he forgot, again, why he was so angry. He coughed and licked his lips with a greyish tongue.

I’m thirsty, He said and reached up to rub his head, breaking off sections of crust. It dusted the ground under his feet. What happened?

Catch the next chapter tomorrow at Two Chicks Obsessed and follow the tour for the rest of the story!

About the Author:

TA Moore is a Northern Irish writer of romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and contemporary romance novels. A childhood in a rural, seaside town fostered in her a suspicious nature, a love of mystery, and a streak of black humour a mile wide. As her grandmother always said, ‘she’d laugh at a bad thing that one’, mind you, that was the pot calling the kettle black. TA Moore studied History, Irish mythology, English at University, mostly because she has always loved a good story. She has worked as a journalist, a finance manager, and in the arts sector before she finally gave in to a lifelong desire to write.

Coffee, Doc Marten boots, and good friends are the essential things in life. Spiders, mayo, and heels are to be avoided.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads |

 

 

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

TA Moore is giving away a $10 Amazon Gift Card to one lucky winner on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Review: Grave Reservations by Cherie PriestGrave Reservations by Cherie Priest
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery, paranormal, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Booking Agents #1
Pages: 304
Published by Atria Books on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A psychic travel agent and a Seattle PD detective solve a murder in this quirky mystery in the vein of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files and Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series.
Meet Leda Foley: devoted friend, struggling travel agent, and inconsistent psychic. When Leda, sole proprietor of Foley's Flights of Fancy, impulsively re-books Seattle PD detective Grady Merritt’s flight, her life changes in ways she couldn’t have predicted.
After watching his original plane blow up from the safety of the airport, Grady realizes that Leda’s special abilities could help him with a cold case he just can’t crack.
Despite her scattershot premonitions, she agrees for a secret reason: her fiancé’s murder remains unsolved. Leda’s psychic abilities couldn’t help the case several years before, but she’s been honing her skills and drawing a crowd at her favorite bar’s open-mic nights, where she performs Klairvoyant Karaoke—singing whatever song comes to mind when she holds people’s personal effects. Now joined by a rag-tag group of bar patrons and pals alike, Leda and Grady set out to catch a killer—and learn how the two cases that haunt them have more in common than they ever suspected.

My Review:

Grave Reservations is a “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of story. Or a “may you live in interesting times” kind of story. With a heaping helping of karma being a bitch and being careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Although not all of those things are visited on Leda Foley. It’s more like she sets all of them in motion with one surprising act. Leda Foley is a travel agent. She’s also a somewhat erratic psychic. Those two things combine when she gets a really bad feeling about one of her (very) few client’s upcoming flight from Orlando back home to Seattle.

She has a really bad feeling that if Grady Merritt makes his originally planned flight from Orlando to Seattle that he’s not going to make it home. Ever. Leda doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, only that it’s going to be fatal – at least for Grady.

So she rebooks him through Atlanta. (Leda’s not wrong, if you die in the south your corpse really will have to go through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.) Grady would have missed his flight anyway thanks to accident-delayed traffic on the way to the airport, but Leda rebooked him before he missed that plane. Which has Grady angry and yelling at her on the phone right up until the point where the plane he should have been on catches fire on the runway.

Leda’s relieved. Grady is too – but also a bit spooked. Once he gets over the shock and the gratitude, he turns up in Leda’s tiny office hoping that her psychic powers, the ones that saved his life, might also save this murder case that he can’t get out of his head.

Grady Merritt is a detective in the Seattle Police Department, and he’s got a multiple murder to solve that has been at a dead end for over a year and made very little sense even when it was all fresh. Asking Leda for help is pretty much the equivalent of grasping at straws, but he hasn’t had any better ideas – or actually even any worse ones – for months of digging.

He’s desperate. She’s wary but game. Very wary and not very game at all, so she tries her level best to lower his expectations as much as possible. Like all the way to the ground.

Only to hit paydirt on their very first try. Not much, and not something that he can take to a judge or even to his lieutenant, but enough to give him a place to start looking again.

Leda can’t resist helping – even when she shouldn’t – because her “spidey senses” are telling her that Grady’s case is linked to another unsolved murder – the murder of Leda’s fiancé. But the closer that Grady and Leda get to a solution, the more death follows in the wake of their investigation.

Leda has clearly found Grady a lead that someone else wants to close off – by turning as many investigative possibilities into “dead ends” as possible – before it’s too late.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. In fact, this was a whole lot of fun. It hits just the right note of seriousness – after all, they are investigating not just one murder but a continuing series of murders – but the tone is still fairly lighthearted. It reminds me a bit of the early Stephanie Plum books with its lighthearted mayhem and quirky cast, while having more of a beating heart – and a few more brain cells – than it seemed like the later books in that series did. (While the blurb compares this to Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, it reminded me more of Harper Connelly. Your reading mileage may vary.)

The beating and broken heart of this story is Leda’s still healing (sometimes badly) trauma over the murder of her fiancé. Her life has gone on, but it’s not the same, it’s not going to be the same. Even if she gets her questions finally answered, her world has gone down a different path than it otherwise would have, and the scene of her in their storage locker still hunting for his scent among his old clothes was heartbreaking. As it should be.

At the same time, the life that Leda has cobbled together, while it isn’t quite working in a financial sense – at least not yet – does give her the emotional support that she needs and she is healing in that heartbreaking two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way.

Even through her tears, her thoughts and actions are often funny as hell. I’m still laughing about Princess Pookie and Mr. Wiggles, felines who were discovered to be the opposite genders of their names when Princess Pookie got Mr. Wiggles pregnant. The entire scene was just a perfect explanation of cats and their owners and how much we love them and they tolerate us. It was a literal laugh out loud moment that gave just the right amount of lift in the story when it was needed, as Leda reactions often did.

But the story manages to follow the conventions of a cozy mystery – even as it deals with situations that are far from cozy. Leda’s found family among the denizens of the bar Castaways, where she does her “Psychic Psongstress” (the manager’s name for it) act of “Klairvoyant Karaoke” (Leda’s name for it) are sweet and funny and affirming of a talent that Leda used to hide but is learning to use.

There was so much about this story and the people in it that I just fell in love with. It also does a terrific job of representing the Seattle that I used to live in, which made for a much more fun blast from the past than my actual residence there. I was just about ROFL at the description of the downtown Seattle library building where I used to work. It is exactly as the author described. Including the neon and the vertigo.

Main Seattle Library (photo from Wikipedia)

But I will also confess that the conflation of the King County Library System with the Seattle Public Library drove me nuts. They are two separate entities. Not that plenty of residents don’t totally mix up the two, because libraries. But still, it read wrong because I knew better.

That being said, now that my personal pet peeve is out of the way, I have to say that I loved Leda’s story and this opening chapter in a series that looks like it’s going to be Leda’s journey. I can’t wait to see what comes next!