Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

Review: Heroic Hearts edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. HughesHeroic Hearts by Jim Butcher, Kerrie Hughes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 368
Published by Ace Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An all-star urban fantasy collection featuring short stories from #1 New York Times bestselling authors Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, and more . . .
In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes--ordinary people who do the right thing--bravely step forward.
But running toward danger might cost them everything. . . .
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher's "Little Things," the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he'll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs's "Dating Terrors," the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more--if she can escape the dark magic binding her.
In #1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris's "The Return of the Mage," the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they've bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.
And in #1 New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong's "Comfort Zone," the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can't refuse a ghost pleading for help.
ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi

My Review:

I was looking for a bit of a change of pace to wrap this week’s reviews, so I turned to my favorite pick-me-up genre, urban fantasy, and to this excellent collection of it, Heroic Hearts, which features stories by some of the stars in the genre, while giving me a chance to explore worlds both familiar and not.

Four of the stories were set in worlds that I am at least somewhat familiar with; Jim Butcher’s Little Things, set of course in the Dresden Files, The Dark Ship by Anne Bishop in previously unexplored part of her World of the Others, Fire Hazard by Kevin Hearne in the Iron Druid Chronicles and Patricia Briggs’ Dating Terror in her Alpha & Omega spinoff of Mercy Thompson’s world.

What made both Little Things and Fire Hazard so much fun to read wasn’t just their familiarity but the way that both stories gave that familiarity a bit of a twist by telling the story from alternate points of view.

Harry Dresden is too busy to be the main character or narrator of Little Things. That role is reserved for the pixie Toot-Toot who leads the castle’s forces of pixies and other small creatures to fend off a gremlin invasion. While Toot-Toot and his minions start out just defending their beloved pizza, by the time the story is baked to its conclusion they’ve saved the whole castle and everyone in it – with a bit of assistance from Dresden’s cat Mister. Even if they can’t manage to help Dresden with his angst about the terrible “conomee” and his regular fight with the dread monster “budget”.

Fire Hazard, which deals with the very serious issue of the wide-spread fires in Australia, is both lightened and made a bit more profound – surprisingly so! – by being told from the perspective of Oberon, Atticus’ Irish wolfhound. While the fires were started through either natural causes or human error, there is something supernatural that is, quite literally, fanning the flames. That Atticus can take care of. But it’s Oberon’s meditations on the nature of courage and sausage that give this story both its heart and its humor.

The Dark Ship is one of the darker stories in the World of the Others, and that’s saying something because the world as a whole is often plenty dark. But what makes this one chilling isn’t the looming threat of the Others, it’s that the evil that men do is so terrible that the reader completely understands why the Others get involved – even though on this occasion the Others are not the target of that evil. I still think there’s reading crack somehow embedded into this series, because even in ebook form once I start one I can’t put the damn thing down.

I haven’t kept up – at all – with the Mercyverse. I read the series as it stood a long time ago, including the first Alpha & Omega book, and that was enough to make the world of this story feel familiar. In the end Dating Terror is a story about taking control of your own life with a bit of help from your friends, but it does it through a fake dating agency scenario that blends a subtle bit of humor with the righteous takedown of a monster.

The rest of the stories in this collection are either standalones or set in worlds I’m not familiar with. And for the most part that didn’t matter either way. Except for one story, Silverspell by Chloe Neill. It’s part of her Heirs of Chicagoland series. I liked it well enough as a standalone but I think there would have been more there, there if I were familiar with the series.

The one story that didn’t work for me was The Vampires Karamazov. There were plenty of villains in this one, but no real hero and the story was just dark and grim.

On the other hand, my favorite stories in the collection, Troll Life by Kerrie L. Hughes, Grave Gambles by R.R. Virdi and The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic by Jennifer Brozek were all set in worlds completely new to me.

Troll Magic features the troll probationary station master of a train line that takes paranormal creatures from one realm to another. It’s part of his magic to manage the station, make sure that no one is aboard who shouldn’t be, and keep the vending machines stocked. When a couple of runaways – and the villains who are chasing them – use his station for their confrontation, it’s up to the station master and his pet barghest to see justice done and evil get its just desserts, along with some help from some sentient and surprisingly gossipy trains.

Grave Gambles was interesting as a kind of paranormal variation on Quantum Leap – which seems apropos as that classic series might be coming back. But instead of science powering the leaps, it’s magic. Specifically the magic of meting out deathly justice to those who have escaped the earthly kind. It’s a quietly atmospheric story with a fascinating premise.

I liked The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic because it features two elderly ladies, one of whom would probably be excellent friends with the protagonist of An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good. It’s the story of two old witches who are comrades a bit more than they are friends, bringing their magical power to bear on an ancient terror that wants to consume their favorite museum – along with, most likely, the town it sits in.

I had mixed feelings about Return of the Mage by Charlaine Harris, and based on the reviews I’m not alone. I did rather like it, even though it isn’t really urban fantasy, but that’s because it reminds me a lot of episodes of both Stargate and Star Trek. It’s a story about a mage who has settled down on a primitive planet and made himself king, emperor and god even though he really ought to know better. The mage/mech/merc forces that come to pry him out of his cozy, exploitative little nest certainly do.

The last two stories are Train to Last Hope by Annie Bellet and Comfort Zone by Kelly Armstrong.

Comfort Zone reminded me a bit of the Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris, in that Chloe sees – and speaks to – dead people. So the story is about helping a ghost save his little sister from the mess he got her in before he died because of said mess.

Train to Last Hope is the kind of Weird West story that haunts. Two women go on a quest to find out what happened to their daughter. They broke up a decade ago, because one accepted that the girl was dead while the other refused to let go. Not that either of them truly ever has let go of the girl or each other. One became a Reaper to harvest the souls of the dead in order to extend her search, while the other waits at Last Hope, the last stop of the train of the dead, hoping that one day her daughter will pass by. This story about closure is bittersweet and sticks with the reader once it’s done. It also reminds me more than a bit of T.J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door.

Escape Rating A-: This was a collection with plenty of great reading but surprisingly just the one story that didn’t work for me. There’s always at least one, but usually it’s more, so I’m very happy to have picked this up and read the lot. I do think the ones that are set in established worlds work better with at least some familiarity, but it is a great way to sample and see if you like what those worlds have to offer.

To make a long story short, if you love urban fantasy, this collection is fantastic – pun certainly intended. If you’re curious, this is a great place to start!

Mister rules, as cats always do, but Oberon, as always, is a very good boy indeed.

Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda Lee

Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon by Fonda LeeThe Jade Setter of Janloon (Green Bone Saga #0.5) by Fonda Lee
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #0.5
Pages: 112
Published by Subterranean Press on April 30, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Fonda Lee returns to the world of the Green Bone Saga with a new standalone novella.

The rapidly changing city of Janloon is ruled by jade, the rare and ancient substance that enhances the abilities and status of the trained Green Bone warriors who run the island’s powerful clans.

Pulo Oritono is not one of those warriors. He’s simply an apprentice jade setter with dreams of securing clan patronage and establishing a successful business. His hopes are dashed, however, when a priceless jade weapon is stolen from the shop where he works.

Now, Pulo has three days to hunt down the thief, find the jade, and return it to its rightful owner if he wants to save his future prospects, the people he cares about, and his very life. The desperate mission will lead Pulo to old vendettas, vast corruption, and questions about everything and everyone he thought he knew.

My Review:

When I finished Jade Legacy at the end of the year, as much as it felt like the appropriately bittersweet ending to the epic Green Bone Saga, I was far from ready to let Janloon go. Settling into the opening pages of this book felt like a return to a place well-loved, and I sunk beneath its pages without even a ripple of wondering where or how things were. I was just glad to be back.

Even better, this little story, which combines a bit of the “Portrait of the Pillar as a young man” with a bit of mystery and features not the doings of the high and mighty but rather gives the reader a glimpse into the life of an average person in Janloon just two years before the events that open the awesome Jade City and kick off that saga.

So for readers who loved the Green Bone Saga, this is a great way to visit those old friends and see what they were like before they became old. But for readers who have heard how terrific the series is, but aren’t quite ready to tackle all 2,000 pages of it, The Jade Setter of Janloon is a great way to dip a toe into these deep waters to see if you’ll enjoy the swim.

It begins simply enough, through the eyes of the apprentice to the most respected jade setter in Janloon. Pulo Oritono is in his mid-20s, full of both ideas and disappointments. He wanted to be a jade warrior, but didn’t have the required ability to wear and master the quantity of jade necessary for even the middling ranks of the discipline. But he has a paradoxically and usefully high tolerance for being around jade – even if he can’t control the use of it. It’s the perfect combination for someone to be a jade setter – which is emphatically NOT what Pulo wanted. But it’s turning out to be something he can be good at, and Isin Nakokun is an excellent master.

But Pulo is in his mid-20s, and still thinks he knows everything. He has all sorts of ideas for expanding the shop – among other things. This story is about Pulo learning just how much he REALLY doesn’t know.

The shop is emphatically neutral, belonging to neither the Mountain nor the No Peak clans. Which allows the shop to cater to discerning jade warriors on both sides of the clan divide that is already beginning to roil the city.

The trouble begins when the Mountain clan brings the ceremonial blade of its leader, Pillar Ayt Madashi, to Isin for repair. That sets off a chain reaction that tears the lives of Pulo, Isin, and Isin’s assistant Malla into pieces. The knife is stolen. Malla is accused and jailed for the crime during an investigation that seems to run into nothing but roadblocks. Isin disappears, and a desperate Pulo calls on the No Peak clan for help.

And uncovers a tragedy of blood and honor that can only be answered with blood.

Escape Rating A+: The Jade Setter of Janloon is an absolute chef’s kiss of a coda to the marvelous Green Bone Saga. One that paradoxically will give readers who already loved the epic a taste to start all over again in Jade City.

And if this is your first exposure to this rich, tasty reading treat, it’s more than meaty enough to serve as an appetizer to get new readers to devour the complete, three-course, utterly delicious meal. I meant series.

My metaphors are mixed because it feels like I’m still there, at a table at the Twice Lucky restaurant watching it all begin again. I just wish I didn’t have to leave.

 

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys FordDetroit Kiss by Rhys Ford
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, urban fantasy, vampires
Pages: 150
Published by Dreamspinner Press on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

For Javi Navarro, Detroit will become another blood-splattered city in his rearview mirror after he puts its dead back into the ground. Expecting an easy hunting job, Javi instead finds a kiss of ancient vampires on the hunt for a descendant of their long-dead creator.

Reclusive Ciarnan Mac Gerailt abandoned his family legacy of blood and death magic after it nearly destroyed him. Unfortunately for Ciarnan, the Motor City can only be saved if he resumes his dark arts and joins forces with Javi Navarro, the hunter who brought the vampire apocalypse—and hope for the future—straight to Ciarnan’s front door.

Previously published as "Legacy of Blood and Death" in the anthology Creature Feature 2

My Review:

Have you been wondering where urban fantasy went? I certainly have. Once upon a time, it was the hottest thing since, well, whatever metaphor seems appropriate for the 1980s or thereabouts, but then it kind of died off, sort of like the vampires that seemed to be the backbone of its antiheroes and tormented villains, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Not that ongoing series didn’t continue, but new ones just didn’t emerge from the shadows.

So to speak. Ahem.

I love urban fantasy and missed it when it slunk back into those shadows. It was one of my go-to genres when I was in a reading slump. But it’s starting to feel like it’s back from the dead. Or the graveyard. Or wherever it’s been hiding for the last decade or so. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at Holly Black’s Book of Night when it comes out next month. Because the heroine Charlie Hall is pretty much every hard luck and worse trouble kick ass heroine to ever stalk the pages of an urban fantasy. But I digress. Sort of.)

Because when I started reading Detroit Kiss, the first, second and third things I thought of were just how much it reminded me of the early Dresden Files books, to the point where I’m not sure whether Javi’s musings as to why so many magic-wielding heavy-hitters ended up in Detroit instead of Chicago. It felt like half explanation, half intercity rivalry and half homage to Harry Dresden’s stomping ground.

I realize that’s too many halves, but there are always too many somethings nasty in this kind of urban fantasy. In the case of Detroit Kiss, too many feral vampires. The bloodsuckers are definitely not the heroes of this piece. They’re the evil pests, to the point where the good guys call them “ticks” because they are mindless evil bloodsuckers.

So the tone of Detroit Kiss, with Javi Navarro working as a bounty hunter for the beleaguered Detroit Police Department, had the same feel as the early Dresden books, minus Harry’s somewhat leery male gaze. Plus, however, a slightly better love life – eventually – as Javi’s luck turns out to be better than Dresden’s frequently was. At least so far.

We’re introduced to this version of Detroit in decay when a construction crew attempting to revive the city yet again uncovers a “kiss” of vampires who have been trapped underground, gnawing on the bones of their makers and each other for a century. They’ve been stuck in the ruins of a speakeasy since Prohibition with nothing to drink except each other.

Until they eat the construction crew, that is.

But these ticks are fixated on the two magic users whose bones they’ve been picking clean all these years, so once they escape they go hunting for whoever is left of the bloodlines that made them.

And that’s where Ciarnan Mac Gerailt comes in, the only descendant of one of those mages within easy reach. Ciarnan is existing someplace between hiding out and living in an old theater he’s never bothered to refurbish in one of the many down-at-heels neighborhoods in this version of the city. He’s given up the death magic that is his family’s heritage and taken up growing vegetables and just trying to get himself, his wolf dog Elric and his fae familiar Shaddock through the day and the sometimes very long and dark nights.

Ciarnan looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back and took his friends, his apprentice and very nearly his life. He’s given up magic. Really, truly.

At least until Javi Navarro helps him put down one of the entirely too many ticks that has come after him in place of his several greats-grandfather. Javi wants Ciarnan to help gather up the ticks so they can pick the place and time and have a better chance at bringing them down.

And honestly, he just wants Ciarnan the minute he sees him – even though Ciarnan clocks him with a shovel the minute after.

But in order to help Javi, Ciarnan will have to look back into that abyss – and hope to heaven or hell that this time it doesn’t swallow him whole. While praying that the vampires don’t either.

Escape Rating A-: I have one and only one complaint about Detroit Kiss. It’s too damn short.

I mean that. Seriously. It’s too damn short and there aren’t any more. Rather like the author’s Dim Sum Asylum, which was another gem of urban fantasy that bordered just a bit on paranormal romance AND also had a fascinating world that seemed like there was oodles of backstory to explore, a riveting case to solve, a terrific pair of heroes and DAMN no sequel.

I loved the way that this almost-now/nearish future Detroit felt like an all too easy extension of where the city has been for the past decade or two (or maybe three), partially devastated and partly gentrifying and still trying to get back up on its feet in spite of all the forces trying to tear it down.

The magic system seems cool and interesting, and the whole idea of finding a buried speakeasy filled with rogue vamps was an absolutely chilling way to kick things off.

Ciarnan is one of the author’s signature wounded-but-trying heroes who do the right thing even if sometimes for the wrong reasons and are always one half-step away from backsliding into darkness.

The climactic scene is dark, deadly, dangerous AND squicky and heroic at the same time. I’d absolutely adore seeing where these guys and their world go next. I hope the author gets there someday because I’d be all in for it!

Review: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds

Review: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion DeedsComeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Seattle, 1929—a bitterly divided city overflowing with wealth, violence, and magic.
A respected magus and city leader intent on criminalizing Seattle’s most vulnerable magickers hires a young woman as a lady’s companion to curb his rebellious daughter’s outrageous behavior.
The widowed owner of a speakeasy encounters an opportunity to make her husband’s murderer pay while she tries to keep her shapeshifter brother safe.
A notorious thief slips into the city to complete a delicate and dangerous job that will leave chaos in its wake.
One thing is for certain—comeuppance, eventually, waits for everyone.

My Review:

This story opens at the close. Literally. It begins at the end, then works its way backwards, just like all the best caper stories. Which this most definitely is.

When we first meet Dolly White, she is leaving the scene of the crime she has just committed, wearing a mask that allows her to appear as the man she has just framed for that crime. We don’t really know who she is, or more importantly why she has just gone to all this trouble to set this man up, why she wants to bring him down, or what led both of them to the place she has just left.

We just know it’s going to be fascinating.

The story moves backwards, inexorably, until we know who Dolly White is – as much as anyone ever does – and why it was so extremely necessary that Francis Earnshaw get his just desserts. His comeuppance. And why and how the mysterious Dolly White turned out to be the instrument of so many people’s justice.

Escape Rating A-: This one is a lot of fun, especially for readers who have been wondering where urban fantasy went. Because this feels a lot like it, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if the genre isn’t coming back with a slightly historical twist under the “gaslamp” moniker.

There’s also just a bit of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children here. Dolly White, or Comeuppance Rather as she was named at birth, seems to be one of those Wayward Children who came back from wherever her door took her and either never found it again, or never looked for it again. As this story takes place in 1929, it’s considerably before Miss West opened her school, and Dolly/Comeuppance seems to have the nightmares and missing pieces to fit her right into that series.

Dolly is also the Tin Man. She isn’t certain that the fae didn’t take her heart when they abducted her as a child. She’s certain she doesn’t have one now. Not even when she feels like it’s breaking.

Comeuppance Served Cold sits on that uneasy border between fantasy and historical mystery. The setting is Seattle in 1929, just as the Great Depression is about to rain on EVERYONE’s parade. The magic added to the setting is a fascinating, darkly sparkling gloss on the story, but this didn’t HAVE to be fantasy. All the elements would work just as well in a historical thriller, as the story is about rich men behaving very badly and using money, influence and lies to slither out from under the consequences. Only to have someone they don’t expect exert some surprising leverage. And comeuppance.

The magic makes the explicit commentary about rich people, abuse, political shenanigans and misdirection a bit easier to swallow. And also sucks the reader in and makes everything just that bit more fascinating.

So if you’re looking for a little bit of magical sparkle to liven up your historical thrillers, Comeuppance Served Cold is a lovely, chilly little treat. Especially as it feels like the opening to a series. Which would be especially magical.

Review: Westside Lights by W.M. Akers

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

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

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

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

She wakes to a massacre.

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Crowbones by Anne Bishop

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

For the humans, that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

Most likely both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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