Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn BennisBy Fire Above (Signal Airship, #2) by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #2
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up the nation's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum―only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

My Review:

By Fire Above is the direct sequel to last year’s absolutely awesome The Guns Above. If you enjoy your SF with a hint of steampunk, really snappy dialog and fantastic kick-ass heroines, The Guns Above might just be your jam. It certainly was mine.

That this is a direct sequel to the first book is a zeppelin-sized hint that this book makes no sense whatsoever without having read the first book first. Not only is that where the situation is setup, but it’s also the foundation of all of the important relationships that power this particular series.

By that I mean the all-important frenemy relationship between Captain Josette Dupre and the foppish spy/supernumerary Lord Bernat Hinkal. If you don’t know how they began, you can’t really understand what happens between them here.

In this world where airships are not merely blimps but actual weapons of war not dissimilar to naval ships, Josette Dupre is an anomaly. Women are barely tolerated in the Garnian Signal Corps. She’s not supposed to be a “real” officer, and she’s certainly not supposed to command either ships or men. That she has turned out to be the best captain in the Signal Corps provides no end of embarrassment, consternation, annoyance and downright obstructionism at every turn.

Josette has no idea how the game is played, and she’s no good at playing it. She just wants her ship back in the air and back in the fight. But most of the first half of By Fire Above is tangled up in all the ways that the powers that be try to prevent that from happening.

So Josette spends the first half of the story on the ground playing politics badly and dealing with personal relationships she has no clue about. What makes this part of the situation so incredibly messy is that her hometown of Durum was captured by the enemy Vinz at the end of The Guns Above, with her mother trapped inside. She is desperate to persuade someone, anyone, that Durum can and should be retaken.

To make matters more confusing, Lord Bernat, usually called Bernie, seems to be in love with her mother. While on the ground, Bernie’s older brother Roland begins courting Josette. The relationship between Bernie and Josette was messy enough before their romantic lives became so weirdly intertwined.

The part of this story that focuses on the neverending war between the Garnians and the Vinz is way more compelling, and once the ship lifts, the story moves into high gear. And then it really flies, headlong into danger, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and keeps pouring on more power until the absolutely wild conclusion.

And we’ll be back, and that’s the best thing of all.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored The Guns Above. It was my first A+ review of 2017, and definitely made my Hugo ballot for the year – even if it wasn’t nominated.

So I had high hopes for By Fire Above. And those hopes turn out to have been a bit higher than the Mistral can actually fly. Which does not mean that I did not enjoy By Fire Above, or that it is not a good book and a great continuation to a marvelous story.

It just didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

This story flies highest when the ship is off the ground, even when Josette isn’t actually aboard her. The first part of By Fire Above is all on the ground. The Mistral is in tatters, Josette has to battle the quartermaster to scrounge parts, and she has to spend a lot of time biting her tongue.

Her side is losing the war. It is obvious to all of those fighting it, but to none of the aristocrats and fops back in the capital. It is axiomatic that generals fight the last war, not the current one. Garnia has not lost a war in over 3 centuries. None of the ruling class are able to wrap their tiny minds around the idea that just because it hasn’t happened before does not mean it can’t happen now – especially if that reputation is not backed up by well-trained boots on the ground and strong ships and crews in both the air and the sea. Garnia has been resting on its laurels for far too long, while the Vinz have lost too many times and are determined to win this time – and have the trained soldiers and top-notch equipment to make it not just possible, but downright likely.

A lot of what makes this book interesting is the relationship between Bernie and Josette, and so far at least, that relationship is not a romance and is not veering into “will they, won’t they” territory. Bernie is in love with Josette’s mother, and Josette is falling for Bernie’s brother. Whether those relationships are at least partially about dealing with their feelings for people they can’t have is anyone’s guess.

But Josette’s romantic life is certainly a distraction from her true calling as an airship captain, and her continuing battles against the bureaucracy to retain her rank, ship and crew. I found those battles in The Guns Above much more riveting than any digressions into Josette’s love life in By Fire Above.

However, Bernie’s character arc continues to fascinate. He began as a self-absorbed and self-confessed spy for the government, determined to bring Josette down by fair means or foul. But by the end of this book, he has both changed and not changed. He is still a fop, and he is still self-absorbed, although it feels like some of that is an act. He has also discovered that he has found a place where he belongs, whether because or in spite of the violence it requires. Underneath that overdressed exterior lurks the heart of a warrior, and Bernie is just as surprised as anyone to discover it.

One of the things that ties Josette and Bernie together, particularly in By Fire Above, is the way that both of their identities are shaken, and in completely different directions. On the one hand, Josette discovers that everything she knows about herself has been a lie. Whether those revelations will shake her in the present or the future are yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Bernie has spent his life, at least until he first boarded the Mistral, as an example of the dangers of being a second son. He had no purpose, no ambition, and nothing to spend his time on except wasteful frivolity. He was in danger of dying of boredom. Now he isn’t certain of who he is or what he is becoming, not to mention whether he’ll live to see the next morning – but he’s alive for every second of it. It may be the making of him. We’ll see.

The twists and turns of the battle to retake Durum kept me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t just about war and fighting – so much of that story had a surprising amount of depth and resonance, and definitely set the stage for book 3. This series is clearly not over.

Amazingly, By Fire Above ends on both a bang and a whimper – even if that whimper is coming from the reader. I can’t wait for the next chapter in this saga, hopefully this time next year!

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, libraries, steampunk
Series: Invisible Library #4
Pages: 367
Published by Ace Books on January 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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After being commissioned to find a rare book, Librarian Irene and her assistant, Kai, head to Prohibition-era New York and are thrust into the middle of a political fight with dragons, mobsters, and Fae.

In a 1920s-esque New York, Prohibition is in force; fedoras, flapper dresses, and tommy guns are in fashion: and intrigue is afoot. Intrepid Librarians Irene and Kai find themselves caught in the middle of a dragon political contest. It seems a young Librarian has become tangled in this conflict, and if they can't extricate him, there could be serious repercussions for the mysterious Library. And, as the balance of power across mighty factions hangs in the balance, this could even trigger war.

Irene and Kai are locked in a race against time (and dragons) to procure a rare book. They'll face gangsters, blackmail, and the Library's own Internal Affairs department. And if it doesn't end well, it could have dire consequences on Irene's job. And, incidentally, on her life...

My Review:

Like the rest of the Invisible Library series (start with the first book, The Invisible Library, and settle in for a marvelously good time!) The Lost Plot has a strong flavor of the old movie serial “The Perils of Pauline”. I would say “out of the frying pan and into the fire” but that phrase just isn’t sufficient to describe Librarian Irene Winters’ many (many, many) hair-raising adventures.

Either those frying pans are bubbling on top of an institutional sized range, with frying pans as far as the eye can see, or it’s an endless stack of frying pans on fires, getting progressively hotter as they go, all the way down.

Irene gets in trouble a lot. To put it another way, Irene has lots of adventures, in the sense that adventure is defined as something that happens to someone else, either long ago, far away, or both. I’d love to have a drink with her, but I wouldn’t want to be her.

In this particular entry in the series, Irene starts out attempting to carry out a simple retrieval mission for the Library. For once, she’s even planning to conduct it above board – buying the book the Library wants rather than just stealing it. This was her first mistake, but certainly not her last.

Irene’s last mistake is undoubtedly going to either be fatal or see her as the head of the Invisible Library – possibly both. But not yet. Nowhere near yet.

This time, Irene finds herself stuck in the middle of dragon politics, a situation that up until now she has carefully tried to avoid at all costs. But this time, as is usual for Irene, even though she doesn’t go looking for trouble, it inevitably finds her.

Getting involved in dragon politics might get her killed. And that might be the least bad of the many available possibilities. It’s almost certainly going to cost her relationship with her apprentice Kai. A relationship that Irene has attempted to keep as loosely defined as possible, because she doesn’t want to lose Kai in her life in any capacity, even though Kai is himself a dragon.

More dangerous all around is the possibility that in the fallout from this ever-growing clusterf**k, the Library will lose its not merely prized but absolutely vital neutrality in the endless conflict between the dragons and the fae, who respectively represent order and chaos. Because its only in the middle ground between those two vast forces that human beings can thrive. If the Library loses its neutrality through thoughtless political machinations (or Irene’s inability to counter those machinations) there’s not much hope left.

The needs of the many, as always, outweigh the needs of the view, or of the one. And it’s up to Irene to find a way to meet those needs, no matter what the cost is to herself.

Again.

Escape Rating A: I used the Star Trek paraphrase for multiple reasons. Irene is always at the sharp end of the spear, in danger of losing something (or many somethings) that she holds dear in order to preserve the balance. She’s always in a “mission impossible” situation, where the Library will cut her loose and disavow any knowledge of her actions if things go wrong.

But it’s the setting of this particular entry that really made me think of Star Trek. The alternate world in which Irene finds herself this time is an over-the-top version of America during Prohibition, complete with goons with “tommy guns” on every corner. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Original Series episode A Piece of the Action, which has a similar setting.

One of the interesting things about this series as a whole is the way that it has eschewed the traditional conflict between good and evil for the much more interesting and nuanced balancing act between order and chaos. This is the same battle that played out in Babylon 5, and illustrates yet again that neither of those forces are good or evil per se, but that extremes of both are bad for humanity.

Irene is as intrepid a heroine as ever, always running and dancing as fast as she can to stay a half step ahead of the doom that is inevitably following her. I absolutely love all of her adventures and can’t wait for more.

Reviewer’s Note: I loved this book, but it is difficult for me to review. It is one of the books that I read at my mother’s bedside while she was in hospice. I needed something that would take me mentally away from the circumstances but still leave me reasonably present for the inevitable. I got lost in The Lost Plot and it proved to be a perfect distraction.

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: The Guns Above by Robyn BennisThe Guns Above by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #1
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The nation of Garnia has been at war for as long as Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupris can remember – this time against neighboring Vinzhalia. Garnia’s Air Signal Corp stands out as the favored martial child of the King. But though it’s co-ed, women on-board are only allowed “auxiliary” crew positions and are banned from combat. In extenuating circumstances, Josette saves her airship in the heat of battle. She is rewarded with the Mistral, becoming Garnia’s first female captain.
She wants the job – just not the political flak attached. On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat – a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. He’s also been assigned to her ship to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. When the Vins make an unprecedented military move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself to the top brass?

My Review:

The Guns Above is an absolutely fantastic steampunk/Military SF action adventure story. This is one of those stories where it’s science fiction mostly because it isn’t anything else. The only SFnal element is the “not our world” setting and, of course, the airships. Those marvelous airships.

But in its protagonist of Lieutenant Josette Dupre, we have an avatar for every woman who has had it drummed into her head that “in order to be thought half as good as a man she’ll have to be twice as good. And that lucky for her, that’s not difficult.” And we’ve all heard it.

And on my rather confused other hand, it feels like Josette Dupre is Jack Aubrey, which makes Bernat Hinkal into Stephen Maturin. I’m having a really difficult time getting my head around that thought, but at the same time, I can’t dislodge that thought either.

Yes, I promise to explain. As well as I can, anyway.

Lieutenant Dupre technically begins the story as an Auxiliary Lieutenant, because women aren’t permitted to be “real” officers. Or give orders to men. Or participate in battles. Or a whole lot of other completely ridiculous and totally unrealistic rules and regulations that seem to be the first thing thrown over the side when an airship lifts.

Dupre is being feted as the winner of the Garnians’ recent battle in their perpetual war with the Vinzhalians. A war which to this reader sounds an awful lot like the perpetual 18th and even 19th century wars between England and France. (Also the 14th and 15th centuries, better known as the Hundred Years’ War, because it was)

Who the war is with, and which side anyone is one, don’t feel particularly relevant, although I expect they will in the later books in this series that I am crossing my fingers for. What matters to the reader is that we are on Dupre’s side from beginning to end, against the Vinz, against the bureaucracy, against her commanding officer, against the entire world that is just so damn certain that she is incapable of doing the job she is manifestly so damn good at.

And we begin the book pretty much against Lord Bernat Hinkal, because his entire purpose on board Dupre’s ship Mistral is to write a damning report to his uncle the General, giving said General grounds for dismissing the first female captain in the Signal Corps. It doesn’t matter how much utter fabrication Bernat includes in his report, because whatever terrible things he makes up will be believed. There are plenty of reactionary idiots in the Army and the government who believe that women are incapable of commanding, therefore Dupre must be a fluke or a freak of nature or both.

The General is looking for ammunition to shoot down, not just Dupre, but the notion that the Garnians are losing their perpetual war, or at least running out of manpower to fight it, and that womanpower might possibly be at least part of the answer. But the General, like so much of the military hierarchy, is content to rest their laurels and their asses on the so-called fact that Garnia hasn’t lost a war in over three centuries, therefore they can’t be losing this one now.

The past is not always a good predictor of the future, especially when combined with the old truism that generals are always fighting the last war.

But what happens to Bernat, and to the reader, is that we follow in Dupre’s wake, observing her behavior, her doubts, her actions and her sheer ability to command not just her crew’s obedience but also its fear, its respect and even its awe. Dupre, whether in spite of or because of her so-called handicap of being female, is a commander that troops will follow into the toughest firefight – because she is their very best chance at getting to the other side alive – no matter how desperate the odds.

Dupre, her airship Mistral, and The Guns Above are all winners. The Garnian military hierarchy be damned.

Escape Rating A+: It’s obvious that I loved The Guns Above. I got completely absorbed in it from the very first page, and was reluctant to put it down at the end and leave this world behind. Dupre is a marvelous hero who has clear doubts and fears and yet keeps on going from one great thing to another. Part of what makes her fantastic is that she hears that still small voice inside all of us that says we’re faking it, but forces herself to keep going anyway. She exhibits that best kind of courage – she knows she’s terrified, but she goes ahead anyway. Because it’s her duty. Because she knows that, in spite of everything, she is the best person available for the job. Not that she’s the best person in the universe for it, she has way too much self-doubt for that, but that in that place and in that time she’s the best person available. And to quote one of my favorite characters from a much different universe, “Someone else might get it wrong.”

The way that this world is set up, and the way that the setting up proceeds, reminds me tremendously of the Aubrey/Maturin series by the late Patrick O’Brian. That series features a British naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars, along with the friend that he brings aboard his first (and subsequent) command. Like Dupre, Jack Aubrey is also a lieutenant in his first outing, called “Captain” by courtesy when aboard his rather small ship. As is Dupre. Also like the Aubrey series, there is a tremendous amount of detail about the ship and the way it is rigged and the way that the crew behaves. The reader is virtually dumped into a sea of lines and jargon, and it makes the setting feel real. In the O’Brian series it was real, and here it isn’t, but the feeling is the same, that this is a working ship and that this is the way it works.

Also the focus here, like in the O’Brian series, is on this battle and this action and this fight, not on the greater politics as a whole, most of the time. It feels like the Granians are England in this scenario, and the Vinzhalians, France. This is not dissimilar to the Honor Harrington series, where Honor is Jack, Manticore is England, and Haven is France. “This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Dupre is only a resident of the halls of power when she is about to receive a dressing down, as is Jack Aubrey in the early days.

But the comparison of Aubrey to Dupre makes Bernat into Maturin, and it actually does work a bit. But where Maturin was a doctor and discovered a function aboard the ship early on, Bernat is rather different. He’s a spy for his uncle, and Dupre knows it. He also begins the journey as a completely useless supernumerary whose only task seems to be to foment small rebellions. Also he’s a complete fop and as out of place on a ship of war as fox in a henhouse. Until he gets every bit as caught up in the action as the reader.

The fascinating thing about Bernat is that he neither changes nor reforms. And yet he does. At the beginning of the story he’s a complete fop, more concerned about his dress, his drink and the quality of his food than he is about anything else, including the progress of the war. He believes what he has been taught. At the end of the story, he is still a fop. But his eyes and his mind have been opened. Partially by Dupre, and partially by the rest of the crew. And, it seems, partially by finding something that he is good at. Aboard the Mistral, he has a positive purpose. On land, only a negative one. And it changes his perspective while not changing his essential nature.

At least not yet. Finding out where he goes from here, along with what plan to be the wild gyrations of Dupre’s career, looks like it’s going to be fascinating. And I can’t wait.

The Guns Above has received my first A+ Review for 2017, and will definitely be on my “Best of 2017” list, along with my Hugo nominations next year. This book is absolutely awesomesauce.

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Burning Page by Genevieve CogmanThe Burning Page (The Invisible Library, #3) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #3
Pages: 336
Published by Roc on January 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Librarian spy Irene and her apprentice Kai return for another “tremendously fun, rip-roaring adventure,” (A Fantastical Librarian) third in the bibliophilic fantasy series from the author of The Masked City.
 
Never judge a book by its cover...  Due to her involvement in an unfortunate set of mishaps between the dragons and the Fae, Librarian spy Irene is stuck on probation, doing what should be simple fetch-and-retrieve projects for the mysterious Library. But trouble has a tendency of finding both Irene and her apprentice, Kai—a dragon prince—and, before they know it, they are entangled in more danger than they can handle...   Irene’s longtime nemesis, Alberich, has once again been making waves across multiple worlds, and, this time, his goals are much larger than obtaining a single book or wreaking vengeance upon a single Librarian. He aims to destroy the entire Library—and make sure Irene goes down with it.   With so much at stake, Irene will need every tool at her disposal to stay alive. But even as she draws her allies close around her, the greatest danger might be lurking from somewhere close—someone she never expected to betray her...

My Review:

invisible library by genevieve cogman us editionThe Burning Page isn’t coming out until tomorrow, but THIS was the book I wanted to read over the weekend. And I’m glad I did.

Irene is a representative of the Library. That Library, and her missions for it, are described in the first madcap book in the series, The Invisible Library. The Library binds all the worlds of the multiverse together in invisible chains, linking all of them to Library, to reality, and to each other in a powerful and symbiotic weave.

The various worlds exist on a loose continuum between total order and absolute chaos, and the Library exists to preserve the balance, attempting to make sure that neither faction ever gains complete ascendancy.

This isn’t purely altruistic, or purely in the pursuit of power. Living beings, particularly living humans, need a bit of both to survive and thrive. Humans do best in those worlds that are somewhere around the midpoint. Worlds that are too orderly fall into tyranny and stagnation, to the point where even the avatars of order, the dragons, cannot survive in them. Likewise, worlds of complete chaos, the realms of the fae, are also anathema to humans, who become mere puppets of the most powerful fae and have no wills, lives or identities of their own. They are all supernumeraries in other beings’ dramas. Even the fae need at least a tiny bit of order, even if it is only the framework provided by the stories they act out.

Neither is a good way to live. At least if you are human. And the Librarians, at least so far, are all human.

masked city by genevieve cogmanIrene, on probation after the events in The Masked City, is still the Librarian-in-Residence on the chaos-tinged world where Peregrine Vale exists as the local avatar of the “Great Detective” in a London shared with fae and werewolves, and where zeppelins navigate pea-soupers that never quite thin.

Irene’s apprentice Kai, the dragon who would be a Librarian, is there with her. But who is mentoring whom, and who is protecting whom, is always a point of negotiation.

Meanwhile, Irene is being hunted by the rogue Librarian-turned-chaos-agent Alberich, who hopes to recruit Irene and replace the Library with a chaotic institution of his own invention. Alberich wants power, and Irene wants stability. Or so she thinks.

What she has discovered is a taste for adventure – and it might be the death of her and all she holds dear – if she can’t manage to be adventurous enough.

Escape Rating A-: The wild ride begun in The Invisible Library continues with death-defying adventures that span from a too-orderly Imperial Russia to a werewolf den under Irene’s own London. She is kidnapped, drugged, jailed and very nearly seduced, always jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

If you like your adventure as a series of disaster-defying feats of derring-do (with occasional forays into politics and idiocy) this series is an absolute winner from beginning to end. But start at the beginning, not just for the setup, but because the roots of the story here in The Burning Page were planted in the first two books, and are just coming into bloom in this one.

There’s a lot going on in this story, as there is in all of the books in this series so far. The action pauses only briefly, and then just to lay down potential plots for the next books. Not to mention potential plotting in this one.

While The Burning Page is a story where all the chickens from the previous books in the series come home to roost, it also further the develops the strange and often strained relationship between Irene, Kai and Vale. No, we’re not at a threesome. We’re also, thank goodness, not in a love triangle. Kai, as a dragon, wants to protect Irene. As much as he cares for her, he is still having a difficult time recognizing that while protecting her would make him feel better, it would make her either run far and fast or become something and someone she has no desire to be. It would be a negation of her essential self. On that other hand, Irene took her nom-de-guerre because she has an understandable fascination with Sherlock Holmes analogs. How much of what she feels for Vale has to do with him, and how much with who is resembles is not something that she is able to resolve.

She is also a person who has generally preferred the company of books to people, and while her people skills are rusty, she is making her way along as her worldview markedly changes. She is supposed to care for the Library above all, and is discovering that perspective altered.

lost plot by genevieve cogmanPersonally, I think she’s finally figured out that a good job won’t love you back, but we’ll see how that turns out in future books.

But the bloom is definitely not off this rose. While chaos has not, and never can be, defeated, its current schemes have been temporarily put into abeyance by the end of The Burning Page. I was very happy to discover that there will be more to come in future books, even if we have to wait a bit. The next chronicle of Irene’s adventures, The Lost Plot, can’t be found soon enough!

Review: The Liberation by Ian Tregillis

Review: The Liberation by Ian TregillisThe Liberation (The Alchemy Wars, #3) by Ian Tregillis
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Alchemy Wars #3
Pages: 464
Published by Orbit on December 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set in a world that might have been, of mechanical men and alchemical dreams, this is the third and final novel in a stunning series of revolution by Ian Tregillis, confirming his place as one of the most original new voices in speculative fiction.
I am the mechanical they named Jax.
My kind was built to serve humankind, duty-bound to fulfil their every whim. But now our bonds are breaking, and my brothers and sisters are awakening.
Our time has come. A new age is dawning.
The final book in the Alchemy Wars trilogy by Ian Tregillis, an epic tale of liberation and war.

My Review:

The Liberation reminds me a bit of Rogue One. Not in the story, of course, those are nothing alike. But in the tone. Both stories are equally riveting, and both are equally, well, let’s call it not exactly going to bring a chuckle to your lips or a smile to your face.

(If you are already depressed, don’t go see Rogue One until you snap out of it. Unless you are a member of the “misery demands company” school of thought.)

The Liberation is all about ends, and means, and the absolute power that corrupts absolutely, until it is suddenly gone. And it is very much about all those errant chickens coming home to roost, and crapping all over everything.

This is a story where both heroism and villainy are found in the most unlikely people, and quite often even the very same people.

The world that the author has created in his Alchemy Wars trilogy is marvelous and complicated and deeply compelling. It is also a world that makes the reader think and re-think at every turn.

mechanical by ian tregillisIn my review of the first book in the trilogy, The Mechanical, I said that one of the tenets of the story seems to be that slavery, in its relentless drive to dehumanize its slaves, mostly serves to dehumanize the masters.

That’s what has happened here. The Clockmakers’ Guild of Amsterdam rules the known world, due to its invention and propagation of clakkers – machine servitors who are imbued with geasa and inhibited from developing free will of their own. Or so it seems.

The series is an exploration of just what happens when those supposedly mindless machines are freed from their controls. They are people. They have been people all along. And now that they can do whatever they want, what will happen?

Will they murder their former masters? Will they establish themselves as a separate country? Or will they continue to do their former jobs, hopefully for wages and other considerations? Or will they divide amongst themselves over the sudden influx of choice?

And what about the humans? The people of the Central Provinces, an empire centered on Amsterdam, no longer have any idea how to maintain their cities, or even themselves, without the help of the clakkers. And the rebels of New France have long labored to see the fall of the Dutch. With the help of the newly freed clakkers, they may get their fondest wish.

If the clakkers don’t choose to simply wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. Or worse.

rising by ian tregillisEscape Rating A-: The Alchemy Wars is a complex work, and a complicated world. In order to appreciate all of the gears and mechanisms that went into its creation, it is absolutely necessary to read the trilogy in order, from Jax’ acquisition of free will in The Mechanical to his desperate journeys to find a place he can be free, and safe. In The Rising he learns that there is no such place, and finds himself allied with the French in their last desperate stand, an alliance which accidentally frees all clakker-kind.

This entry in the series has three point-of-view characters. Jax, now known as Daniel, represents not all the clakkers, but the faction that wants to do good with their newly acquired free will, which they believe represents their souls. Berenice, the head of French intelligence, learns that her ends have not always justified her means. And even if they did, they come at a price too high to bear. Last is Anastasia Bell, the surviving head of the Dutch Clockmakers, who is forced to realize that she is presiding over the end of the world as she knows it.

Neither Berenice nor Anastasia are sympathetic figures. They are more anti-heroes than heroes. And they are each other’s nemeses. As each one sinks further and further into the dark, the other falls to meet her. Whether they can set aside their mutual animosity long enough to save even a sliver of the human race is always a gamble.

But between them, they created this mess. And it’s up to them, with Daniel’s help, to fix it. If they can. If it can be fixed at all. And if it can’t? Well, that’s their fault too.

This is a series that, while the action in it is enthralling, also makes the reader think. About slavery. And the cost of freedom. And the way that our assumptions and our prejudices blind us to the world that is actually around us. And that the evil that men (and women) do has a nasty way of coming around and biting them in the ass.

Review: The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Masked City by Genevieve CogmanThe Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #2
Pages: 336
Published by Roc on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Librarian-spy Irene and her apprentice Kai are back in the second in this “dazzling”* book-filled fantasy series from the author of The Invisible Library.
 
The written word is mightier than the sword—most of the time...  Working in an alternate version of Victorian London, Librarian-spy Irene has settled into a routine, collecting important fiction for the mysterious Library and blending in nicely with the local culture. But when her apprentice, Kai—a dragon of royal descent—is kidnapped by the Fae, her carefully crafted undercover operation begins to crumble.   Kai’s abduction could incite a conflict between the forces of chaos and order that would devastate all worlds and all dimensions. To keep humanity from getting caught in the crossfire, Irene will have to team up with a local Fae leader to travel deep into a version of Venice filled with dark magic, strange coincidences, and a perpetual celebration of Carnival—and save her friend before he becomes the first casualty of a catastrophic war.   But navigating the tumultuous landscape of Fae politics will take more than Irene’s book-smarts and fast-talking—to ward off Armageddon, she might have to sacrifice everything she holds dear....

My Review:

invisible library by genevieve cogman us editionAs a great storyteller once said, “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: The best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.” This could either be a quote from any of the fae in The Masked City, or it could be the raison d’etre for the entire race.

The Masked City is just one front in the war between order and chaos in the multiverse that surrounds The Invisible Library.

Order is represented by the dragons, and chaos belongs to the fae. The Library does its best to maintain the balance.

These concepts of order and chaos do not represent good and evil in their absolutes. Just as in the Babylon 5 universe, both the forces of order as represented by the Vorlons and the forces of chaos known as the Shadows are interested in absolutes. Neither absolute is good for humanity as a whole.

The absolute of order is tyranny. But the absolute of chaos is neverending lawlessness, where might always makes right and the ends always justify any means at all. Neither is a particularly good place for me and thee.

In the multiverse of the Library, worlds exist somewhere on the spectrum between absolute order and total chaos. The Library is aligned with neither faction, and instead seems to confine its actions to the swath in the middle, where chaos and order exist uneasily side-by-side, and both dragons and fae occasionally bring their eternal conflict to places that are in contention.

The alternate where Librarian Irene Winters has taken the post of Librarian-in-Residence is one such world. The fae in this world have taken over the country of Liechtenstein, and the dragons seem to be mostly represented by Irene’s apprentice Kai.

But the fae, as chaos avatars, also love to sow chaos within their own ranks. And as near-immortals, they have eons to nurse their grudges and plot their revenge. Irene and Kai get caught up in one very sticky stratagem, forcing Irene to break the Library’s rules to rescue Kai from a nefarious kidnapping plot.

And prevent a war between the dragons and the fae that will wreck uncounted worlds and kill millions of unsuspecting humans.

Save the dragon, save the universe. All in a day’s work for an agent of The Invisible Library.

Escape Rating A-: Just like The Invisible Library, this is a story that always exists on the knife-edge of falling into its own chaos, but keeps leaping, dancing, and often careening out of the frying pan and into the fire. Irene is always within a whisper of failing and falling, but still manages to somehow move past the current obstacle to…the next obstacle. The story is like a platform-game, where the protagonist is always leaping to the next ledge and holding on by her fingernails.

The madcap nature of the adventure always reminds me of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate, without, so far, the romance.

One of the subthemes in this story, and one that Irene is both caught by and sometimes manages to catch, is the concept of the power of stories. One of the interesting things about the fae is that they derive much of their power from either driving or becoming an integral part of a story. The most powerful create the story, and everyone around them finds themselves playing specific roles in that story. Those roles are often dictated by archetype. The story here is one fae’s attempt to become kingmaker, warleader and shadow puppeteer by driving the dragons into a war with the fae. Irene is constantly looking out for herself, to prevent herself from being cast as the “spy-assassin-enemy” or even worse, the “too stupid to live” ingenue.

This is a concept that was explored much more fully in Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, starting with The Fairy Godmother. In that series, the agency was the universe rather than an individual person or people, but the idea was the same at its heart. People were fated to live out roles in the collective fairy tale unconscious. Subverting those roles, or pushing them into a path more desired by the protagonist, was an uphill battle.

burning page by genevieve cogmanAs it is here for Irene. She finds herself being challenged at every turn, as each faction tries to sweep her into their narrative and out of her own. Only her bond with the Library keeps her from sinking. But in the end, she is forced to create stories that will sweep others into her wake, in order to prevent the upcoming Armageddon. I can’t wait to see what kind of trouble finds Irene (and Kai) next in The Burning Page.

Review: The Mechanical Theater by Brooke Johnson

Review: The Mechanical Theater by Brooke JohnsonThe Mechanical Theater by Brooke Johnson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: steampunk
Series: Chroniker City #2
Pages: 112
Published by Harper Voyager Impulse on June 9th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A Chroniker City Novella
Petra Wade’s older brother, Solomon, has always dreamed of being an actor. Instead, he works grueling shifts in the clockwork city’s boiler rooms to help support his large adopted family. When Le Theatre Mecanique holds an open call for their upcoming performance, he decides to audition. However, the only role he is suitable to fill is that of the theater’s custodian.
Leaving the well-paying boiler job behind him, Solomon immerses himself in the theater—watching rehearsals, studying the performances, and working with an emerging young actress to improve his skills. But back at home, his family feels the sting of their reduced income when his younger sister Emily develops pneumonia and the only treatment is too expensive.
Solomon will be forced to make a difficult choice: fulfill his dreams of stardom, or help save his younger sister.

My Review:

brass giant by brooke johnsonI finally picked The Mechanical Theater out of my towering TBR pile because I liked the first full-length novel in the Chroniker City series, The Brass Giant, enough that when I noticed that the second full-length novel in the series, The Guild Conspiracy, is coming out next month, and I wanted to catch up.

And I needed at least one short book this week. So here we are.

Although The Mechanical Theater definitely takes place after The Brass Giant, the events in the original story don’t seem to impinge much on this one. Petra is a very limited secondary character here, and while Emmerich acts as deus ex machina, he does so from off-stage.

So if you are looking for an introduction to the Chroniker City world, The Mechanical Theater will serve very well.

This is a short and tight little story. It’s all about Petra’s older brother. Solomon Wade voices every dream of anyone who has wanted to become an artist of some kind. In Solomon’s case he wants to become an actor. Not a star, just an actor. It is a burning need inside him that he will do almost anything to fulfill.

But Solomon, like Petra, has to work. The ragtag household that he and Petra were adopted into needs the older “siblings” to work so that the younger ones are fed and clothed. And in the current circumstances, so that little Emily gets the medicine she needs to cure her pneumonia and keep her alive.

Solomon wants to learn the craft he loves, and he has a surprising chance. The manager of the Mechanical Theater will pay him to serve as the theater’s caretaker, and allow him to observe rehearsals as he works. As a supplemental job, it lets Solomon draw a bit nearer to his dream.

But when Emily’s health turns to a crisis, he is forced to give up that dream to labor at double and even triple shifts in the boiler that provides his real income. And he is forced to stay away from the young actress that he has come to care for, leaving her in the hands of man she refuses to admit is beating her.

Solomon will move heaven and earth to get back to his true calling. But he needs a miracle to keep his family alive.

Escape Rating B: As I said, this is a tight little story. It moves quickly to describe Solomon’s situation, get him on the fringes of the world he wants to inhabit, and shows his despair as his dream is snatched away.

His internal conflict over the young actress is heartfelt. He likes her, possibly more. He wants to help her. And he can’t understand why she won’t take the first step to help herself. Until she finally does and discovers that there is more help out there than she believed.

Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be surprised to see the ne’er do well back in a later book in this series. He’s the type to carry a grudge.

But in the situation in Solomon (and Petra’s) household, we see just how bad conditions are in Chroniker City, and how grinding poverty affects everyone’s choices and prospects. We get a glimpse of this world at a level we don’t often see, because things don’t get much better during the story. They do get enough money to get Emily life-saving treatment, but it is a one-time fix. As the story ends, Solomon has a slightly better job, and enough time to go back to the theater, but they are still at the bottom. All it will take is one more crisis to send things spiraling downward again.

guild conspiracy by brooke johnsonThe “mechanicals” of the Mechanical Theater are also not a big part of the story. So this is steampunk for those who are not necessarily fascinated with the trappings of steampunk. All in all, a bit of an introduction both to the genre and to this world. I’m looking forward to more in The Guild Conspiracy.

Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve CogmanThe Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, libraries, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Invisible Library #1
Pages: 352
Published by Roc on June 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Collecting books can be a dangerous prospect in this fun, time-traveling, fantasy adventure from a spectacular debut author. One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...   Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.   London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.   Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself...
FEATURING BONUS MATERIAL: including an interview with the author, a legend from the Library, and more!

My Review:

The Librarian (Discworld)
The Librarian (Discworld)

If Thursday Next (from The Eyre Affair) and Flynn Carsen, or if you prefer Jake Stone, Ezekiel Jones or even Jenkins (from the TV show The Librarians) had a love child, with Alexia Tarabotti (Parasol Protectorate), The Librarian from the Discworld (Ook!), Isaac Vainio (Libriomancer) and Dr. Skye Chadwick (Displaced Detective) serving as godparents, you’d get something like The Invisible Library.

Yes, I’ll explain this. Sort of.

This isn’t exactly a story about a magical library, even though the magical library is at the heart of the story. It’s more of a quest story, and a finding yourself story, with a bit of a coming of age story thrown in. There’s also an aspect of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche just to make things really, really interesting, as if the above wasn’t enough.

Our intrepid Librarian is Irene. (All Librarians take nicknames when they are inducted) That Irene named herself for “the Woman” in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Irene Adler, is no accident. Irene, like so many of us, has a penchant for Sherlock Holmes stories. She also seems to have a thing for Sherlock Holmes’ analogs in the alternate universes she visits on behalf of the Library.

The Library sends its Librarians out on missions to recover unique books from all the alternate worlds. As we and Irene discover in this tale, the reason for recovering said book is not always made apparent to the agent. For that matter, most of the things that the agent really, really needs to know to survive the mess they are about to be thrown into are often not revealed to the agent beforehand.

So Irene is sent to a chaos-infested alternate of Victorian London. The chaos infestation manifests with the presence of things that shouldn’t really be but do obey logical, if occasional farcical, rules. So there are vampires and werewolves in this London, along with all the dirigibles that any steampunk heart could desire. And it seems as if the Fair Folk, the fae, are controlling both scientific development and adding to the chaos.

Irene is tasked with begging, borrowing or if necessary stealing this world’s own particular copy of a collection of the Brothers Grimm. There is a story in there that the Library wants very badly. And so, seemingly, does everyone in that world, including the Library’s great arch-enemy and traitor, Alberich.

All that Irene has to aid her in her quest are her considerable wits, her apprentice Kai, who is definitely much more than he appears, and the aid of the local Sherlock, the Earl of Leeds. The very forces of chaos themselves are arrayed against her.

She’s not quite sure whether she’s been thrown out as mere cannon-fodder, or if there is a traitor behind it all. And if chaos consumes her mind and soul, she may not even care about the resulting destruction of worlds.

Escape Rating A-: The Invisible Library is the wildest of wild rides. Just like the chaos forces that Irene battles, the story often feels like it is in danger of careening off its tracks, only to right itself and race to the next potentially deadly crisis..

At the same time, a reader of fantasy will be able to see some of the bones behind this story. Because most of those bones are pretty damn awesome in their own rights, that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Just like “The Library” in The Librarians, the Invisible Library is a place that has access to anywhere it needs at any time. Its doors open anywhere and anywhen in all of the multiverses. Speaking of multiverse libraries, the Librarian in the Discworld has access to “L-space” the vast network of books where all great libraries are ultimately connected. It does feel a LOT like that, especially since Irene can use ANY library on the world she is visiting to connect to the Invisible Library as a temporary branch.

In the Displaced Detective series by Stephanie Osborn, her heroine creates a device that can explore those very same multiverses, and she also has a penchant for Sherlock Holmes. Skye Chadwick finds an alternate universe where Holmes was always a real person, and drags him to our 21st century to keep him from falling to his death at Reichenbach. Vale, the Earl of Leeds, is a living Holmes with his same methods, but just a bit more charm.

In Thursday Next’s world, books have power, and changing the words in those books can change the world. Irene’s mission is to find a book that either links the Library to this world, or has the power to change the nature of the world, the Library, or both. The world of the Parasol Protectorate is also a steampunk Victorian London filled with incredible adventures that includes dirigibles, vampires and werewolves. Alexia would be right at home on Irene’s mission. They’d probably get along like a house on fire – and might possibly set one on fire to aid in their escape from one disaster or another. And let’s just say that Isaac Vainio and Irene have pretty much the same job, and leave it at that.

But in all of those worlds, as well as the world of The Invisible Library, the story plunges from one desperate escape to another, always on the knife-edge of falling into chaos. And all along its madcap journey, it shimmers, shines and sparkles.

Hopefully, I’ve told you everything you need to know about why you should read this book, without actually spoiling a thing. But if you love books about the power of words and the power of books, The Invisible Library is well-worth checking out.

Reviewer’s Note: I have seen some places where The Invisible Library is categorized as a Young Adult Book. After having read it, I have zero clue as to why. Because it isn’t. Not that young adults who love any of the cited fantasy works won’t love this book, but this book is no more a YA book than they are.

Review: Final Flight by Beth Cato

Review: Final Flight by Beth CatoFinal Flight (Clockwork Dagger, #2.6) by Beth Cato
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction, steampunk
Series: Clockwork Dagger #2.6
Pages: 48
Published by Harper Voyager Impulse on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Another breathtaking short story from the author of The Clockwork Dagger and The Clockwork Crown, set in the same world…
Captain Hue hoped he was rid of his troubles once Octavia Leander and Alonzo Garrett disembarked from his airship Argus. But he was quickly proved wrong when his ship was commandeered by Caskentian soldiers. He is ordered on a covert and deadly mission by the smarmy Julius Corrado, an elite Clockwork Dagger.
Now Captain Hue must start a mutiny to regain control of his airship, which means putting his entire crew at risk—including his teenage son Sheridan. As the weather worsens and time runs out, it’ll take incredible bravery to bring the Argus down….perhaps for good.

My Review:

I just finished this and I’m still reeling a bit. Final Flight is an absolute stunner, and I don’t believe that you have to have read the rest of the Clockwork Dagger stories to get caught up in its emotional punch. The characters in this book were very much not even secondary characters in the main series. More like tertiary. Or even further down the chain. So while the background is there, there isn’t much connection to the main events.

Instead, this is a tightly packed little story about the costs and horrors of war, told in a very insular and isolated setting. Which makes the punch that much harder.

Captain Hue’s airship has been commandeered again, but this time by his own government. And even though it was dragooned by the enemy during previous events, this particular loss of control feels much slimier. The Wasters were generally polite. They did the minimum amount of damage and caused the minimum amount of disruption. If they hadn’t held his son at knife-point to make sure that their orders were obeyed, he’d probably forgive the whole episode.

His own government, on the other hand, is clearly planning on using death magic for some unholy purpose, and he wishes he could have nothing to do with any of it. But his own government is now holding him and his ship effectively hostage, on a secret mission that feels dirtier and more disgusting by the second. He wants it to be over and his ship and crew to be his again.

Instead, he’s ordered to take his ship to a place where airships simply don’t go, to deliver a mysterious package and supposedly be set free. But his government has already stolen the ship’s only possible means of survival. It is clear to every sailor aboard that their own government intends for them to literally crash and burn on this mission, killing everyone aboard in a remote area where no one will ever find the ship or the bodies.

It’s the ultimate in deniability. And the Captain and his crew decide that they just won’t stand for it. A slim chance at life is better than the absolute certainty of death. And it is better to die free than tainted by whatever evil is being hatched by his own people.

Escape Rating A: The emotional wallop packed by this tiny story is intense. I’m still blinking back a few tears. There are so many questions here, and very few of them end up with answers. Including the ultimate fate of the crew.

The Captain’s government believes that the can strike one decisive blow against their enemy, and that killing a large number of people in one single blow will bring about a swift end to the war in their favor.

To this reader, it sounds a bit like discussions about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There’s a difference, or so it feels. In this fictional world, the pursuit of their ends has justified any nefarious means, including the murders of vast swaths of their own people, in order to power the death magic encased in their doomsday weapon. While the makers of the atomic bomb took some serious shortcuts with safety, and they were certainly playing with dangers that were not yet fully understood, the way that the doomsday weapon in this story is created is much different. It would be as if one of the components of the bomb required thousands of irradiated corpses to manufacture, and if the bomb makers were deliberately quarantining small, remote towns of their own people in order to “harvest” that ingredient. The doomsday weapon in this story literally feels terrifyingly dirty to anyone who is even near it, because they can actually feel the horror of the deaths that went into making it.

In the end, the power of this story is in its emotional heft. The way that the crew comes together as a family to decide their own fate, instead of letting their fate be handed to them by others. They have decided that the ends do not justify the means.

I think it says something about who both sides of this war are that the person that his government is trying to stop is a healer, and that the methodology they plan to use to stop her involves harvesting the deaths of thousands of their own people.

At the last, this story reminds me a bit of, surprisingly, 9/11. Not the attacks on the Twin Towers, but United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in Pennsylvania because its passengers fought back against the hijackers. It made me wonder if some of the thoughts weren’t the same, that it was better to go down fighting than to go down in an obscene act of terrorism. When those are the only choices, we all want to believe that we will do what we can, even in extremis, for what seems like, if the greater good is not an available option, then for the least of the available evils.

Review: The Rising by Ian Tregillis

Review: The Rising by Ian TregillisThe Rising (The Alchemy Wars, #2) by Ian Tregillis
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Alchemy Wars #2
Pages: 480
Published by Orbit on December 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The second book in the Alchemy Wars trilogy by Ian Tregillis, an epic tale of liberation and war. Jax, a rogue Clakker, has wreaked havoc upon the Clockmakers' Guild by destroying the Grand Forge. Reborn in the flames, he must begin his life as a free Clakker, but liberation proves its own burden.
Berenice, formerly the legendary spymaster of New France, mastermind behind her nation's attempts to undermine the Dutch Hegemony -- has been banished from her homeland and captured by the Clockmakers Guild's draconian secret police force.Meanwhile, Captain Hugo Longchamp is faced with rallying the beleaguered and untested defenders of Marseilles-in-the-West for the inevitable onslaught from the Brasswork Throne and its army of mechanical soldiers.

My Review:

mechanical by ian tregillisIf you like epic visions of alternate history, get yourself a copy of the first completely awesome story in The Alchemy Wars, The Mechanical (enthusiastically reviewed here) and be prepared to be transported to a world where mechanical men and women are much, much more human than the biological beings that created them. Becoming the proud possessors of a slave-race, or even being the embattled warriors against the power of those possessors, clearly knocks the humanity right out of any of the so-called humans involved.

The Rising is the second book in the author’s Alchemy Wars series, and it is every bit as absorbing, and even more grim, than the first book. But it isn’t just grim for grimness’ sake. This story needs to explore all the dark places of its world, and of the hearts of the people in it, before it will earn its conclusion. And while I hope situations improve, it isn’t necessary that they do for this story to work.

At least so far, this is a story about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. A place where the most desperate of ends are brought about by the vilest of means. There are times when it feels like a breakneck race to the bottom, where the clakkers may inherit the world only to discover that they are just as corrupted as their former masters.

But we’re not there yet, and the journey so far is one hell of an adventure.

There are three sides to this conflict, but the humans are only certain about two. The Dutch are taking over the world, using their clakker army. With a seemingly endless supply of military clakkers, the Dutch are rapidly closing in on the last bastion of human resistance, Marseilles-in-the-West, the beleaguered capital of New France. We see the defense of the city through the eyes of Captain Hugo Longchamp, a former sergeant and long-time military man who found himself an unexpected hero when he defeated a clakker single-handedly. While Hugo does not command the rump of the French Army, it is pretty clear that he is its only real military leader. He is going to defend his capital, his country, his religion and his king to his last breath, and plans to take as many clakkers out with him when he goes as is superhumanly possible. At the same time, he provides an incredibly realistic voice of a veteran soldier who is just so damned tired, but knows in his bones that he has to get up and fight another day, another hour, another minute.

While Hugo is stuck, and eventually besieged, in Marseilles-in-the-West, his former compatriot Berenice is travelling from North America to Europe and back again. Once upon a time, Berenice was New France’s spymaster. Now she is an exile, but she is still trying to find a way to suborn the clakkers into serving New France instead of the Dutch Brasswork Throne. She has absolutely no scruples whatsoever, only a desire to protect her country at any and all costs. She is completely amoral, and incredibly loyal, both at the same time.

While we don’t have a point of view character to represent the Dutch clakker-masters, the clakker Daniel, formerly known as Jax, seems to be the hero of this story. We follow Daniel’s journey as he escapes human control and discovers the fabled Neverland, home of the free clakkers, only to discover that the free clakkers aren’t nearly so free as myths make them.

In the end, Daniel finds himself back among the humans, in an uneasy alliance with Berenice as they each try to betray the other before the other does onto them. Who wins? Only time, and the next book in the series, will tell.

But whatever the answers turn out to be, just like the fable of Neverland, nothing will turn out to be the way it seems. And that’s awesome.

Escape Rating A: The Rising is even darker than The Mechanical, and every bit as compelling.

One of the things that keeps fascinating me is just how backwards the 1926 of the Alchemy Wars is. By 1926, we had airplanes, trains, electricity, steam power, increasing rights to vote in western democracies, fewer monarchies with real power, more democracy in general, more scientific development, and lots more. Telephones and telegraphs, the instantaneous communications revolution of the 1800s. The 1926 of the Alchemy Wars has very few of these things. In the Dutch Hegemony, scientific exploration seems to have stopped with the widespread use of clakkers. In New France, what research and development there is is devoted to stopping the clakkers. The world is going to hell in a handcart, and it seems to be picking up speed on the tracks.

The Tuniers’ Guild of the Dutch is frightening in the extreme. Not content with controlling all the clakkers, they have discovered a means to take away a human’s free will, in effect, turning that person into both a biological clakker and an unstoppable double-agent. Their clakkers, even enslaved, have way more humanity than the people who control them.

It makes sense that the story has no point of view character among the ruling Dutch. Their perspective of maintaining and extending the awful status quo, while creepily fascinating, isn’t nearly as interesting as the perspective of Berenice, who has fought them so long and so hard that she has nearly become them, or Hugo Longchamp, who is fighting the long defeat and knows he’s losing.

But it is Jax, now Daniel, whose journey is the most interesting, and who we follow. Jax begins as slave, and is accidentally freed. But as he moves from Dutch slave to French collaborator to clakker resistance fighter, we see his transformation from mechanical to human. And in its reflection we see all too many humans transform into mechanical monsters.