Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. FordEngines of Empire (The Age of Uprising, #1) by Richard S. Ford
Narrator: Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve, Stephen Perring
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Age of Uprising #1
Pages: 624
Length: 22 hours, 3 minutes
Published by Orbit on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This epic fantasy tells the tales of clashing Guilds, magic-fueled machines, intrigue and revolution—and the one family that stands between an empire's salvation or destruction.
The nation of Torwyn is run on the power of industry, and industry is run by the Guilds. Chief among them are the Hawkspurs, and their responsibility is to keep the gears of the empire turning. It’s exactly why matriarch Rosomon Hawkspur sends each of her heirs to the far reaches of the nation. 
Conall, the eldest son, is sent to the distant frontier to earn his stripes in the military. It is here that he faces a threat he could have never seen coming: the first rumblings of revolution.
Tyreta’s sorcerous connection to the magical resource of pyrstone that fuels the empire’s machines makes her a perfect heir–in theory. While Tyreta hopes that she might shirk her responsibilities during her journey one of Torwyn’s most important pyrestone mines, she instead finds the dark horrors of industry that the empire would prefer to keep hidden. 
The youngest, Fulren, is a talented artificer, and finds himself acting as consort to a foreign emissary. Soon after, he is framed for a crime he never committed. A crime that could start a war. 
As each of the Hawkspurs grapple with the many threats that face the nation within and without, they must finally prove themselves worthy–or their empire will fall apart. 

My Review:

This was a first for me. Engines of Empire turned out to be a total rage read that I enjoyed anyway – and does that ever need a bit of an explanation!

The story is fascinating – and compelling. It’s a political story about empires – well, duh – rising and falling. This first book, at least, is about the fall. Or at least the fall-ing. Since this is the first book in the series, I expect the rising to happen later. Whether that will turn out to be the rising of the empire from its own ashes, or merely the rising of the family through whose eyes we saw this chapter of the saga, remains to be determined.

So far, neither of them deserve it. Which is where the rage part of my rage reading came into play.

The story of the falling of the empire maintained by the Guilds of Torwyn is told through the first person perspectives of five characters; Rosomon Archwind Hawkspur, her three adult children, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, and her secret lover, Lancelin Jagdor.

And I hated all of them except Lancelin. I particularly detested Rosomon, to the point where I’d have been more than thrilled to read a book about her getting EXACTLY what she deserved – if there hadn’t been quite so much collateral damage in giving it to her.

Of those five characters, Lancelin is the only one who has ever had to face ANY of the consequences of his actions. It’s not just that the rest of them have led very privileged lives, it’s that they never seemed to have grasped the concept that their privilege comes on the back of just so damn many other people.

They are all arrogant and they are all thoughtless about that arrogance. This is particularly true of Rosomon – in spite of a whole bunch of crap that should have given her some insights into the ways that the other half lives.

Instead, she’s a narcissist, to the point that she only sees her children as extensions of herself and not so much as people in their own right. So a big chunk of this story is about how they all escape her very clutching clutches and how those escapes help to make their world burn.

But those escapes manage to send them to the far corners of Torwyn’s empire, which gives the reader the opportunity to see just how the whole empire is hanging by a thread. A thread that is fraying anyway and that can be all too easily snipped if someone provides the right pair of scissors.

Which of course is exactly what happens. With catastrophic results – and an aftermath that we’ll see in the future books in the series. Which I will be unable to resist reading, pretty much in spite of myself.

Escape Rating B: I hate most of the characters in this book SO HARD. But I still feel compelled to see what happens next.

Part of the fascination with this story is that it becomes clear early on that something is very rotten in the heart of Torwyn. A rot that is hidden so completely in plain sight that no one even suspects it is there until it is much, MUCH too late for pretty much everyone.

At the same time, the source of that rot, once it is revealed, turns out to be just the kind of villain that we’ve seen before, and that is so often effective and not just in fiction. It’s someone who truly believes that everything they are doing, no matter how morally repugnant in the moment, is in the service of some “Greater Good” that only they can see. So when the manipulator of events is finally revealed, it makes for a lovely, thoroughly disgusted AHA!  It’s obvious in retrospect, but as you’re going along, it’s only the barest whisper of a possibility.

One of the good things about the way this story is told is that in spite of my hatred of pretty much everyone, the voices are very distinct, and not just because the audiobook narrators (one for each POV character) did a damn fine job. Still, even in print it is impossible to mistake Conall’s voice for Tyreta’s or Fulren’s.

Howsomever, one of things about those distinctive voices was that it seems that both Rosomon’s and Tyreta’s roles are restricted to a significant extent BECAUSE they are women. And yet, we don’t see that in the female secondary characters, who seem to be everywhere doing everything. Conall’s own second-in-command in the military is female, and it’s clear that she has lower rank not because she’s female but because she’s of a lower caste in the social hierarchy.

So the quasi-secondary status of noblewomen may be because they are noble, or it maybe because Rosomon’s a bitch and she’s treating her daughter the way she herself was treated. But it’s left for the reader to assume because of our history – not theirs. It doesn’t have to be that way in a fantasy world and isn’t always. I didn’t like the transfer of assumptions – especially once self-indulgent Tyreta turned into a total badass.

Which, I think is part of the story being told, and what I hope will redeem the later books. That Rosomon may go on being the overbearing, thoughtless narcissist that she has always been, thinking she knows the one true right answer only to discover that she was led astray by her own hubris feels likely – as well as likely to lead to several falls before any ultimate rise. Conall’s future, whether he sinks or swims after his experiences in this book, still feel up in the air. But Tyreta looks like she’s set on a fascinating, redemptive and possibly even heroic path. The question is whether she will let her mother push her off it yet again.

I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Willberg

Review: Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. WillbergMarion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Willberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, steampunk
Series: Marion Lane #2
Pages: 304
Published by Park Row on February 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


The envelope was tied with three delicate silk ribbons: “One of the new recruits is not to be trusted…”

It’s 1959 and a new killer haunts the streets of London, having baffled Scotland Yard. The newspapers call him The Florist because of the rose he brands on his victims. The police have turned yet again to the Inquirers at Miss Brickett’s for assistance, and second-year Marion Lane is assigned the case.
But she’s already dealing with a mystery of her own, having received an unsigned letter warning her that one of the three new recruits should not be trusted. She dismisses the letter at first, focusing on The Florist case, but her informer seems to be one step ahead, predicting what will happen before it does. But when a fellow second-year Inquirer is murdered, Marion takes matters into her own hands and must come face-to-face with her informer—who predicted the murder—to find out everything they know. Until then, no one at Miss Brickett’s is safe and everyone is a suspect.
With brilliant twists and endless suspense, all set within the dazzling walls and hidden passageways of Miss Brickett’s, Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose is a deliciously fun new historical mystery you won’t be able to put down.   

My Review:

The tunnels under post-war London that house Miss Brickett’s top secret and extremely secretive agency of Inquirers and Gadgeteers stretches far under the city in 1959. It seems to reach from an occasionally tenuous connection to the reality above the ground to imaginary realms as diverse as the Invisible Library, Unseen University’s library in the Discworld, all the way north to Hogwarts and out to the Scholomance. It’s a place where the science is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic, and the magic has tentacles in entirely too many places labelled “Here be Dragons”. The monsters there are more than monstrous and dangerous enough to be, if not quite real dragons, entirely too close for comfort.

But the story in Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose, for all the secrets concealed in, for and by Miss Brickett’s, touches more on real-world dangers of the time, along with the darkness that oozes out of the human heart.

Marion Lane, who we were introduced to in the marvelous first book in this series, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, is now in the second year of her (hopefully) three year apprenticeship at Miss Brickett’s. The events of that first year (and first story) have left her scarred but undeterred. She loves her work, she loves Miss Brickett’s, and she is determined to become a full-fledged Inquirer at the end of her three year apprenticeship.

(This is a broad hint, even a hint and a half, to read the first book first. There are a lot of players in this game and one definitely needs a firm grasp on the scorecard.)

But Marion, like the Librarian Irene Winters of the Invisible Library, has a tendency to be the fool that rushes in where angels would rightfully fear to tread. Not that Marion is anymore foolish than Irene, but they both have that tendency bordering on compulsion to leap in hopes that the net will appear – or at least in certainty that if it doesn’t they’ll be able to think of something on the fly – sometimes literally – before they reach that sudden stop at the bottom of their current plummet towards seeming doom.

The case that Marion finds herself in the middle of, whether she planned to be there or not, has dimensions that encompass the world above and the heart of Miss Brickett’s. A case that at first seems like two cases with little to do with one another.

Out in the real world, a Russian spy known as “The Florist” has left behind a series of corpses with ugly calling cards. His victims are branded with a rose on their torsos. Through rather roundabout means, Marion’s mentor at Miss Brickett’s has been informed that Scotland Yard is stumped but is not asking for assistance from Miss Brickett’s as usual because something that has been discovered in the case has put the agency under suspicion.

At the same time, Marion has received an anonymous letter that one of this year’s intake of new recruits is not to be trusted. As the three newbies begin their first year apprenticeship, something rotten is exposed in Miss Brickett’s that may or may not have anything to do with either “The Florist” or the untrustworthy first-year. But the rot that is exposed will turn out to be the most dangerous secret of all.

Because it has divided the formerly unified Miss Brickett’s into a hotbed of suspicion, lies and power-hungry madness that has pit friend against friend and protegee against mentor. All in an attempt to satisfy greed, a lust for power, and a desperation not to be caught at all costs.

A cost that may, quite possible, include the lives of Marion and her friends.

The gorgeous UK cover

Escape Rating A-: Marion Lane and Miss Brickett’s have tunneled under the crossroads between mystery, fantasy and science fiction and sit in the center of a vast web that encompasses all three genres.

With more than a bit of espionage fiction tossed in to make this mixture a very tasty stew indeed.

While Miss Brickett’s strongly reminds me of the universe of The Invisible Library – and would serve well as a readalike for that series especially now that it has concluded – the way that things work also gives hints of Hogwarts, or the world of A Marvellous Light in that it exists in plain sight, that people in high places know about it, but that it operates in a bit of a hidden pocket of its own.

And even though Miss Brickett’s doesn’t teach or use magic, it still feels a lot like a fantasy.

Very much on my other hand, however, the two issues that Marion feels compelled to solve are both grounded in the real. The case of The Florist, his spy games and his ties to the KGB and the Soviet Union read like a fantasy or alt-history version of the historical case of the Cambridge Five and the infamous British double agents including Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. The Florist himself may have been considerably over the top, but it’s an over the top version of stuff that actually happened.

The rot in Miss Brickett’s is also all too real, but in an entirely different way. We’ve seen, in real life, in very recent history, just how easy it is to sway people with persuasion, with lies, with propaganda, by seeding doubts, planting suspicions and reaping fears where none originally existed.

Watching those poisoned flowers bloom in a closed, hothouse environment like Miss Brickett’s was chilling – and entirely too real. The tense atmosphere created by the club that becomes a cult just added to the sense of claustrophobia, paranoia and deadly danger that always exists at the fringes of the place.

The two cases fed into one another in ways that were both completely expected and utterly chilling at the same time. We know it’s going to get worse before it even has a chance at getting better – because that part, at least, is something that has happened before and will happen again. It’s humans being human, and sometimes we suck.

As Marion Lane’s adventures (and most definitely misadventures) with the Florist and his “Deadly Rose” come to a close, it’s clear that this case may be wrapped up but that Marion’s adventuring career is FAR from over. I’m looking forward to following Marion Lane’s further escapes whenever she next emerges from the tunnels of Miss Brickett’s.

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes LackeyThe Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (Elemental Masters, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk
Series: Elemental Masters #16
Pages: 320
Published by DAW Books on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The sixteenth novel in the magical alternate history Elemental Masters series follows sharpshooter Annie Oakley as she tours Europe and discovers untapped powers.
Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.
As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.

My Review:

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Untold Story by Genevieve CogmanThe Untold Story (The Invisible Library #8) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #8
Pages: 352
Published by Ace on December 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this thrilling historical fantasy, time-traveling Librarian spy Irene will need to delve deep into a tangled web of loyalty and power to keep her friends safe.
Irene is trying to learn the truth about Alberich-and the possibility that he's her father. But when the Library orders her to kill him, and then Alberich himself offers to sign a truce, she has to discover why he originally betrayed the Library.
With her allies endangered and her strongest loyalties under threat, she'll have to trace his past across multiple worlds and into the depths of mythology and folklore, to find the truth at the heart of the Library, and why the Library was first created.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Isolate (The Grand Illusion #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, political thriller, steampunk
Series: Grand Illusion #1
Pages: 608
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
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L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of The Mongrel Mage, has a brand new gaslamp political fantasy Isolate.Industrialization. Social unrest. Underground movements. Government corruption and surveillance.
Something is about to give.
Steffan Dekkard is an isolate, one of the small percentage of people who are immune to the projections of empaths. As an isolate, he has been trained as a security specialist and he and his security partner Avraal Ysella, a highly trained empath are employed by Axel Obreduur, a senior Craft Minister and the de facto political strategist of his party.
When a respected Landor Councilor dies of "heart failure" at a social event, because of his political friendship with Obreduur, Dekkard and Ysella find that not only is their employer a target, but so are they, in a covert and deadly struggle for control of the government and economy.
Steffan is about to understand that everything he believed is an illusion.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine AddisonThe Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2) by Katherine Addison
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mystery, steampunk
Series: Goblin Emperor #2, Cemeteries of Amalo #1
Pages: 240
Published by Tor Books on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Katherine Addison returns at last to the world of The Goblin Emperor with this stand-alone sequel.
When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honesty will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Celehar’s skills now lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

My Review:

I read this because I absolutely adored The Goblin Emperor – and I’ve liked many of the author’s books written as Sarah Monette as well. So if you like the one there’s a fairly good chance you’ll like all the others and vice versa.

There’s irony in the above as I picked up The Witness for the Dead because I was hoping for more like The Goblin Emperor. But The Witness for the Dead, in spite of the titular witness being one of the characters introduced in the first book, is absolutely nothing like the first book.

Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t marvelous and well worth reading in its own right, because it’s both. But if you’re expecting another story about high-level political shenanigans and corruption at the heart of the empire wrapped around a coming of age or coming into power story, check those expectations at the door before opening this book.

The Witness for the Dead is a murder mystery, with Thara Celehar, the titular witness for the dead who witnessed for the young emperor’s dead in the earlier story, reaping the “fruits” of his labor in a far-flung corner of the empire that the young goblin emperor Maia now rules.

And that’s as much as there is to the connection between the two stories, meaning that you do not have to have read The Goblin Emperor to get right into The Witness for the Dead. Because court intrigues are pretty much the last thing that Thara Celehar wants to ever be involved with ever again and quite possibly the last thing that anyone with any power whatsoever will ever let him get near even with someone else’s bargepole.

The clerical intrigues he’s stuck in the middle of are quite enough. More than enough. From his perspective, more than annoying and infuriating enough, too, but he’s stuck with those.

Celehar has been assigned to remote Amalo in order to serve his calling as a witness for the dead. Because that’s what he does. He legally serves as a witness for whatever messages or entreaties or truths – especially for the truths – that the recently – make that the very recently – dead are able to transmit through him before they leave all their worldly concerns behind along with their bodies.

He doesn’t hear them speak, not exactly. What he does is witness, as in watch and listen to, their final sights, sounds, impressions and thoughts. And then he acts upon what he has witnessed, whether to bring justice to the dead – or to bring justice or restitution to those the recently departed has wronged.

Some people seek out his services. Some people are not happy with the answers he gives or the results he gets. Some people are frightened to see him coming, while some are grateful that he did.

The cases that find Celehar as he witnesses for the dead in Amalo are a mix of all of the above. A dead opera singer whose murderer should be brought to justice. A grieving family searching for the burial site of their missing sister. A wealthy family caught in the turmoil left behind by their late patriarch and his two contradictory “last” wills and testaments.

It’s Celehar’s job as well as his calling to find answers for the friends and families left behind. Even if those answers are not the answers they wanted. And no matter what Celehar has to go through – or whom – in order to find them.

Escape Rating A+: Based on the blurb, this wasn’t exactly what I expected. And it doesn’t matter because I absolutely loved it.

For one thing, in spite of the fantasy setting, Celehar’s story mostly reads very much like a historical mystery. The past is as much another country as Amalo is. But people are still people, and murder is still murder. Some of the investigative techniques may be different, but the principles are still the same. “Who benefits?” is an investigative concept that is equally applicable no matter what language it is in.

In the case of the duplicate wills, benefit is the easiest to determine, but the most difficult to bring about. Money, after all, talks, and when the competing sides of this case start using theirs to talk to the powers-that-be, each trying to influence the ultimate decision in their favor, Celehar is caught in the middle – with nearly catastrophic results. Not for the rich beneficiaries, but for poor Celehar whose only interest is in a truth that no one expected to hear.

There is a common element among all three cases. They are all about money. The opera singer was also a blackmailer, and the woman whose burial site was hidden was married for her money – and possibly murdered for it. (There’s that not-so-old saying about money being the root of all evil and every woman needing roots. In these two cases perhaps not so much.)

While there is plenty of satisfaction in the resolution of his cases, what makes this story such a pleasure to read is Celehar’s exploration of this city and the people in it in his pursuit of the truth, as well as the character of Celehar himself. Who is humble, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, and yet supremely talented and more intolerant than is safe or politic of the way that most people are treated – even as he bites his tongue and seems to just accept the way that people in power treat him.

He’s also someone who is bearing up under a load of guilt that he can’t let go of, but as he helps and befriends the people along his path we see that load begin to let go of him. He’s fascinating in his contradictions and I hope we see him again.

Even though this story is part of the world of The Goblin Emperor, the story it reminds me of is not its own predecessor but rather the saga of Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold. Penric and Celehar have a surprising amount in common, as both find themselves in the midst of situations and investigations through the offices of a being who expects them to get on with their work on his behalf without much material assistance. These are both worlds where the supernatural of one type or another is not mythical but actual, and where gods expect work as much as if not more than worship and are not shy about manifesting in one way or another to nudge their agents when needed.

While Penric is considerably less self-effacing than Celehar, I think they’d have as much in common as their stories feel like they do. They also share the fact that I’d very much like more of both!

In the end, The Witness for the Dead was just a story that worked for me on pretty much every level. I loved the protagonist, enjoyed exploring his world, wanted to hang with his friends and punch out his enemies – even though he wouldn’t – and had a grand time following him as he investigated his cases and witnessed for the dead as well as the living who would otherwise have no voice in the world. A fantastic read all the way around!

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli ClarkA Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Pages: 400
Published by Tordotcom on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city - or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems....

My Review:

From a certain perspective, A Master of Djinn is urban fantasy of the old alternate history school of urban fantasy. Urban fantasy so often revolves around one of two premises, either that magic has always been here, and most of us just haven’t noticed – or the other side of that coin, that once upon a time there was magic that either slowly or quickly left, but that something or someone has made the magic return. Usually with world shaking or world shattering results.

A Master of Djinn is definitely one of those stories where the magic has returned. But it isn’t a story about what happens when that magic returned. Instead, and more interestingly, this is a story that takes place about 50 years later, when the magic has more or less become part of the new fabric of the world and history has adapted around it – whether people have or not.

This story takes place in Cairo – Egypt and definitely not Illinois (a tip of the hat to American Gods which is surprisingly apropos in the end) – in an alternate 1912. The re-introduction of magic has changed the world in a whole lot of ways while at the same time the great forces of history that brought about World War I in our history are still very much in train. A train that might still be forced off the metaphorical rails – but might not. And will certainly cause worldwide destruction either way.

At the same time, also very much a part of urban fantasy, there’s a mystery to solve. And someone to solve it, in this case Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fatma is one of the few women in an agency that is still mostly male dominated, and a native Egyptian in a world where Egypt has thrown off the yoke of British colonial power – no matter how reluctant the British are to accept that the Raj is dying and that the new world order looks like it will push the countries with old magic – the countries they once colonized – into the forefront.

The case that Fatma has to solve very much intertwines the new world and the old. From the very outset, it seems like it’s a crime of magic. And so it is. But like all the best of urban fantasy, which A Master of Djinn very much is, magic may be the modus operandi but it is not the reason behind any or all of the crimes involved.

Someone in Cairo wants to become the master of all the djinn that have become part of the city’s rise to power, and part of the brave new world that they brought with them. And they don’t care how much of the city – or the world – they have to destroy in order to get their way.

After all, the aphorism about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, is entirely, completely and utterly about humans. Especially the human at the heart of this case.

Escape Rating A++: Honestly, I want to just sit here and squee. A lot. This was amazingly awesome from beginning to end and I don’t say that lightly. This is one of those stories that made me think pretty much all the thoughts and I’m still reeling a bit from the absolutely epic book hangover.

I also think the 400 page count is a bit of an underestimate. This is a lot of book, in scope, in depth and in size. If It sounds interesting but you’re wondering whether you will like it or not, there are three very short reads set in the same universe but not direct prequels to this story. So if this universe sounds like fun, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is only 32 pages and is available free at Tor.com,  A Dead Djinn in Cairo is only 45 pages and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is 116 pages. Long enough to give you a taste without devoting the weekend that A Master of Djinn really, really consumes.

And I’m telling you that because I loved this book and just want to shove it at people to read. I’m not above using ANY of the short works in this universe as a gateway drug in order to accomplish that.

Speaking of gateway drugs, two books that A Master of Djinn reminded me of A LOT are Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone and Snake Agent by Liz Williams. In combination, they represent two of the elements of the Dead Djinn Universe, that mix of the cities powered by magic and worlds where the divine and the supernatural walk among humans as ordinary citizens. Three Parts Dead has a similar steampunk “feel” as A Master of Djinn while Snake Agent is also urban fantasy in that the continuing character is a government agent who solves crimes involving the supernatural and the other-than or more-than human.

One more digression, probably not the last. The way that the world has been pushed onto a new axis has endless possibilities and not just in Agent Fatma’s Cairo. This is a world where the colonizers have all been pushed hard off their thrones and dominions because they either don’t have old magic in their history and/or have deliberately pushed aside and suppressed old magic in the places they thought they “conquered”. It’s not all djinn. We already know it’s not djinn in Germany because we meet Kaiser Wilhelm and his goblin advisor. It’s not going to be djinn in the Americas, either. But whoever and whatever comes back wherever, the colonizers are already the ones finding themselves ground under someone else’s bootheel – and they don’t like it and are going to fight back. All of which has the potential to be totally epic.

But those are stories for another day. Today we have Agent Fatma, her Cairo, and the would-be master of the djinn. Who don’t want a master at all – thankyouverymuch.

The story is mostly told from Fatma’s perspective, although not in the first-person. It’s more that she’s the character we follow rather than seeing the story from inside her head. Still, I think the reader needs to like her and feel for her as she does her best to work the case that has the powers-that-be so upset. As I most definitely did.

She’s caught between frustrations and multiple nexus (nexi?) of power. She’s a woman in what is still a man’s world, constantly needing to prove herself by being better than the best. At which she mostly succeeds.

At the same time, she’s part of a world that is, in its entirety, in the midst of change. Not just the change that women are slowly but steadily invading what were formerly all-male preserves, but also a world where the political status quo has turned upside down. While the political and economic power in Egypt and elsewhere around the world has been taken out of the hands of the British and other colonizers and returned to the citizens and residents – and their own elected or hereditary leadership – who are part of the once-colonies – there is still plenty of residual feeling, both reverence and resentment – for individuals who used to be part of the colonial power structure.

And money always talks. The rich are still different from you and me, as that saying goes. The wealthy, in any time and place and of any origin, are able to buy their own version of justice.

We follow Fatma as she navigates those waters, balancing her need to investigate the case, her necessity of not pissing off her bosses and getting herself demoted or fired, her desire to protect her city and those she loves, and the absolute necessity of exposing a criminal who is trying not just to reach the sky and touch the sun, but to bring it down to earth and make it work at her command.

Fatma will need all of her wits and all of her friends in both high and low places in order to bring justice and save not just her city but her world from utter destruction. As we follow her on her quest, we learn exactly why she’s the right woman – and the right agent – for the job.

I sincerely hope we get to read more of her adventures, because she’s awesome and so is her story.

Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg

Review: Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. WillbergMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, steampunk, thriller
Series: Marion Lane #1
Pages: 336
Published by Park Row on December 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The letter was short. A name, a time, a place.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.
Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant for Miss Brickett’s named Michelle White receives a letter warning her that a heinous act is about to occur. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see—her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.
Almost unwillingly, Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself being drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and mentor is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie—style locked-room mystery with an exciting new heroine detective at the helm.

My Review:

Somewhere in the depths of Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries, which masquerades as Miss Brickett’s Secondhand Books and Curiosities, there must be a door that leads to the Invisible Library as well as some stacks that wander into the “L” space that leads to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Or if there isn’t, there certainly ought to be. While the Discworld librarian would probably just throw some bananas at the entire mess, Irene Winters, the Librarian who serves as spy, agent and occasionally thief on behalf of the Invisible Library would fit right into Miss Brickett’s. To the point where I wonder if the Library hasn’t used Miss Brickett’s as a training program on multiple occasions.

Because first-year Miss Brickett’s apprentice Marion Lane has exactly what it takes to become Irene’s kind of librarian, and her misadventures read like just the kind of thing that Irene probably cut her teeth on.

And just as much the kind of misadventure that cut its teeth on her.

Marion Lane, like Miss Brickett’s itself (and Miss Brickett herself, for that matter) is more than she appears to be. Miss Brickett’s (the agency) is the kind of place that feels like it ought to exist, even though it really doesn’t. Both in the sense that it would be marvelous if there were people whose lives were dedicated to resolving issues and solving crimes for anyone who needs help, and it would be marvelous if said secret agency operated in secret tunnels under one of the great cities – like London.

London in particular, is so large, has been a city for so long, and has such a many-layered history that we’re not surprised when real things that have been lost for decades – or centuries – turn up under it. Like lost Underground Stations – something that has really happened.

Miss Brickett’s, both the agency and the person, also intersect with the post-World War II history of women who found important jobs and purpose during the war and just weren’t interested in giving it all up afterwards. Particularly women who served at Bletchley Park as codebreakers.

Come to think of it, Sparks and Bainbridge (The Right Sort of Man, A Royal Affair and the upcoming A Rogue’s Company) would have fit right into Miss Brickett’s – even if they would have chafed at some of its many rules and restrictions.

But there are secrets in and under Miss Brickett’s. Not just the secrets its Inquirers investigate, but the secrets that they are keeping. Including their own. Because Miss Brickett’s conceals some of the very shady parts of Britain’s involvement in the late war. And because it guards the mysterious and deadly “Border” between the worlds we know – and someplace we very much don’t.

So when the “Border Guard” is murdered in a locked room named the “Lock Room” Marion Lane risks her apprenticeship and her life to determine who really done it. Because it couldn’t have been the person who was framed for it.

It’s up to Marion and her friends and frenemies to discover the truth – before that truth discovers that they are out to get it – and definitely before it gets them.

The gorgeous UK cover

Escape Rating A-: The blurb is a bit misleading. While the murder at the heart of this mystery is a locked-room mystery, the totality of Marion’s story bears no resemblance to anything by Dame Agatha.

Rather, this reads like it sits at the dangerous crossroads between The Invisible Library and the Scholomance of A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. The dark passages under Miss Brickett’s, the atmosphere of “here be dragons”, complete with monsters that serve as the equivalent of real, honest to goodness dragons, feels very much like the dark, dank and deadly corridors – and especially the lost halls – of the Scholomance.

It’s also clear that survival skills are an unstated but absolutely necessary part of all three curriculums.

While Marion’s misadventures read like some of Irene Winters’ training at the Invisible Library, Marion as a character is very much like El in A Deadly Education. She’s young, she’s still learning, the apprenticeship feels like her last chance to save herself, she’s in over her head and the place and everyone in it really are out to get her.

Not everyone in either case, but that’s how it feels from each of their perspectives at the time the stories open.

Marion’s situation is in many ways more poignant because it is based in the real. She knows that she doesn’t want the life everyone thinks she should want – marriage and children – and she definitely doesn’t want it with anyone that her grandmother picks out for her. She’s desperate to escape her situation and Miss Brickett’s is more than just a job, it’s Marion’s ticket out of her life and into something meaningful, purposeful and marvelous.

She has a lot riding on this apprenticeship – if she can just stick it for the three years required, not merely survive but receive good evaluations,  she’ll be offered a full-time position as an Inquirer – which includes room and board at Miss Brickett’s and away from her harridan of a grandmother.

But, as much as the creepy monsters under the agency, the mysterious “Border” and the hidden laboratories add to the chilling atmosphere of both Miss Brickett’s and the story, it’s the human side of all the equations that compels the reader to explore this world with Marion.

We feel for her personal predicament in the outside world, but it’s her motivations inside Miss Brickett’s that push her to investigate the murder. And it’s those same human motivations that are behind everything; pride, ambition, greed, jealousy and revenge, set against the need to keep the agency’s actions secret at all costs.

And it’s that balance and its breaking, the need to give justice to both the many – the people of London who rely on Miss Brickett’s services – as well as to the few – both the victim of the murder and the man framed for it, set against Miss Brickett’s own need to keep the agency secret so that “Official” London doesn’t shut down its clandestine and frequently illegal operations, that underpins the whole story and provides both its dramatic tension and its relief and release.

Marion and Miss Brickett’s are both fascinating characters. Marion’s career at Miss Brickett’s and her life are both at their starting points. Based on this initial outing, it’s clear that both have many more marvelous stories to tell us.

I hope we get to read them.

Review: The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Dark Archive by Genevieve CogmanThe Dark Archive (The Invisible Library, #7) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #7
Pages: 336
Published by Ace on November 26, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A professional spy for a mysterious Library which harvests fiction from different realities, Irene faces a series of assassination attempts that threaten to destroy her and everything she has worked for.
Irene is teaching her new assistant the fundamentals of a Librarian's job, and finding that training a young Fae is more difficult than she expected. But when they both narrowly avoid getting killed in an assassination attempt, she decides that learning by doing is the only option they have left - especially when the assassins keep coming for them, and for Irene's other friends as well...
In order to protect themselves, Irene and her friends must do what they do best: search for information to defeat the overwhelming threat they face and identify their unseen enemy. To do that, Irene will have to delve deeper into her own history than she ever has before, face an ancient foe, and uncover secrets that will change her life and the course of the Library forever.

My Review:

The Invisible Library series could also be titled, “The Perils of Irene” – without any sort of a stretch at all. Irene’s adventures aren’t just “out of the frying pan into the fire” but frying pans and fires all the way down. Until the last jump lands Irene (and company) straight into a pit where it’s always darkest just before things turn completely black. Then a light shines at the end of the tunnel and it’s always an oncoming train.

Which Irene and her friends manage to board and escape – only to have both the train and the station it crashes into transform into another frying pan and another fire. Each and every one bigger and hotter than the last.

And so it goes with this seventh book in the series, as Irene and her friends are still dealing with the fallout from the previous adventure in The Secret Chapter, only to discover that the mess that they thought they’d wrapped up hasn’t really begun. It’s just moved itself to a new home. Theirs.

Irene’s adventures tend to be caper stories. Well, they at least begin as caper stories. The opening scenes are of Irene sent somewhere questionable and doing something slightly dodgy, in order to “acquire” a book that the Library needs and that Irene has been ordered to get.

Sometimes (rarely) Irene’s methods of acquisition are on the relatively up and up – either an exchange of money or an exchange of more-or-less above board favors. When this story begins, Irene is in Guernsey in her analog of Victorian London intending to buy a copy – or possibly THE copy, of Le Morte de Merlin by Thomas Malory. (If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s this particular world’s foundational book of the Arthurian legends – except they’re based around Merlin instead. As if Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave were both rare and historical canon.)

Howsomever, as so often happens in the parts of Irene’s life that we are privileged to witness, the slightly clandestine but otherwise above board goes pear-shaped. The meeting place is attacked, the sellers are assassinated and Irene and her new apprentice escape the clutches of evil by the skin of their teeth – WITH the book firmly in hand.

While the beginning of this story is far from atypical for the series – and very much part of the reason that I love it so much – the farrago of death, danger and derring-do that Irene and her friends find themselves in this time turns out to be a walk through some very dark places.

Because it’s not just a book or even the future of the Library that’s at stake this time. What opens as just another one of Irene’s “little” adventures turns out to be the opening act in a fight for her very soul.

Escape Rating B: This turned out to be more of a mixed-feelings read than I was expecting. Because I absolutely adore this series and have been waiting all year for this book, so I expected to fall into instantly and love every minute of reading it.

But, but, but, it took me a while to get stuck back into Irene’s world, longer than usual. That may partly be ‘tis the season as well as ‘tis the year 2020 and everything is weird. I think it was also that the opening of this story reads like so many of the other books with tiny variations, that it felt like it started a bit in the middle – as in the opening is very dependent on events in the previous book – and that this book represents a change in direction for the series – or at least an expansion in scope as well as a contraction in focus – and it took a bit to switch from just another caper to “the end of the world as we know it” to “the end of Irene’s world as she knows it”. Which is not the same thing at all.

Also, Irene spends a lot of this story not just being reactive instead of proactive – because that’s normal – but because she’s reacting in confusion and obfuscation to the point where I as the reader felt more confused and obfuscated than I either liked or expected. Irene has a reputation for “getting shit done” but spent the beginning and middle of this book flailing around and worrying about her new apprentice instead of just dealing with shit.

At least it felt that way.

Then all of the various enemies’ schemes collapsed into (finally) one big ball of wrong instead of a whole lot of bouncing little balls of wrong and the whole story took flight even as Irene’s life crashed and burned.

The ending pushes the whole story off the original “light” rail and onto a much deeper and darker track. It’s going to be marvelous and probably heartbreaking and I can’t wait until this time next year when we’ll probably (hopefully) get book 8 in the series.

One final note, when I saw the title of this entry in the series, it sounded familiar – only because the title is oh-so-similar to another book that came out this fall, written by a real-world librarian and archivist. That similarly titled but not similar in subject book is Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom. You’d think it wouldn’t be remotely relevant. But it sorta/kinda is in a much creepier way than I could ever have expected.

Read this series, starting with The Invisible Library, and you’ll see.