A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson BennettThe Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #2
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.
Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.

My Review:

Just like winter in Westeros, the wet season is coming to the Empire of Khanum. There are monsters massing outside the fortifications that guard the border, and there are humans behaving monstrously within the walls, jockeying for political advantage without a care in the world for the amount of collateral damage they might cause in their quest for power.

Young, newly fledged, still probationary, assistant investigator Dinios Kol has been tasked with visiting his very first death scene on behalf of senior investigator Ana Dolabra. Din has been genetically engineered to remember everything, whether at a crime scene or not, and it’s his literal job to serve as Ana’s eyes and ears.

It’s her preference to never leave her house. If Din’s observations lead her to desiring an interview with a witness or a suspect, she’ll subpoena them to come to her. She has that right and that privilege.

Which doesn’t stop the privileged servants who maintain this particular murder scene for their highly ranked gentry masters from treating Din like dirt when he shows up at their door. In spite of pretty much everyone’s strong desire to get the corpse out of the house as soon as the evidence has been collected and the scene is released.

Even if they will need to cut the dead man out of both the floor and the ceiling of the room his body is occupying. It’s not every day that someone dies because a tree took root in their lungs and rapidly grew through their body to implant its roots in the room’s floor and interweave its branches in the ceiling.

As sensational as the murder appears on the surface (or rather, all the surfaces in the room), it’s only the beginning of the story, the case, and Din’s career as an investigator. Because the plot is thicker than Din imagines, the world is much darker and dirtier than his limited experience has led him to believe – and his mentor, the eccentric and seemingly disgraced Ana Dolabra, is considerably more than she appears.

The vast intellectual light that Dolabra is hiding in Din’s tiny, backwater village is enough to burn out a whole lot of the rot. It’s up to Din to learn enough on the job to keep himself from being caught in the flames.

Escape Rating A+: There’s been a rise in science fiction mysteries in the last couple of years, with books like Mur Lafferty’s Station Eternity, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man, and Eddie Robson’s Drunk On All Your Strange New Words leading the way. There’s also been a resurgence of urban fantasy, a genre which was always the bastard child of the paranormal (with or without romance) and mystery (If you’re interested, take a look at T.L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights (starting with The Library of the Dead) and James J. Butcher’s Unorthodox Chronicles that begin with Dead Man’s Hand). But there’s never been a LOT of purely fantasy mystery – at least not since Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy, which was also, come to think of it, every bit as much of a play on Sherlock Holmes as The Tainted Cup turned out to be.

The Tainted Cup, however, is very much an epic fantasy world, but a story whose plot is wrapped around the conventions of a mystery – albeit a mystery that is not in the least cozy. The only way you’d get something cozy out of this one would be if you chopped up the tree that grew through the first body and used it to build a cozy – if somewhat gruesome – fire.

The pairing of Ana Dolabra with Dinios Kol owes a lot to Holmes and Watson – but it will also remind readers of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – or possibly their more recent reincarnations as Pentecost and Parker in Stephen Spotswood’s series that begins with Fortune Favors the Dead. Din is young, naive and untried pretty much all the way around. He’s a small town boy who is about to be thrust into a wider and more dangerous world than he ever imagined. The Tainted Cup is just the beginning of his coming-of-age story, making him considerably more like Goodwin and Parker than Watson, although Goodwin and Parker were both more worldly wise than Din at the beginnings of their respective stories.

Dolabra, on the other hand, is very much Holmesian in her eccentricities, her extreme intolerance for boredom and consequent bad behavior in regards to alleviating it, but above all in her sheer genius for resolving the mysteries put before her. On all the other hands, her unwillingness to leave her residence to seek out the clues for herself is all Wolfe and to a limited extent, Pentecost.

But the setting of The Tainted Cup, and the epically FUBAR political situation therein, is very much fantasy of both the grimdark and steampunk varieties. The world, with its mixture of science and magic and scientifically based magic is similar to the setting of L.E. Modesitt’s Grand Illusion series that kicks off with Isolate. Din shows promise of becoming Steffan Dekkard someday, but he absolutely is not there yet. Part of the fascination of The Tainted Cup is watching Din grow into his job – especially the gray areas within it – without betraying his core principles.

It’s the story of Din learning how to bend without breaking OR breaking the truly important rules. Especially when presented with incontrovertible evidence that entirely too many people already have.

That all being said, the way that this fantasy empire works – and doesn’t – especially the alchemy of corruption and power that holds the empire back and pushes the story forward, brought both Age of Ash and In the Shadow of Lightning to my mind and might to yours as well. (A hint that if you liked either of those or The Grand Illusion you might like this as well.)

I’m writing a LOT about this book and what it reminds me of because I really, really loved it and hope others do as well, leading to what may seem like an epic number of readalikes because I’m hoping to drag people in by hook or by crook.

So, The Tainted Cup reads like a murder mystery, because it absolutely is. The story progresses because Din, sometimes at Dolabra’s request but sometimes on his own, unravels the puzzle of whodunnit, how it was done and most importantly why it was done in bits and pieces, one clue and one pull of the thread at a time.

But, while Din is pulling those threads, the tapestry of this crime and the tapestry of the empire are getting bigger and broader all around him, while at the same time fraying at the edges. Din can’t see the whole picture – he doesn’t know enough to see the whole picture. And neither do we.

Watching him work his way through lets us see the vast scope of everything, both the crime he’s uncovered and the empire that’s falling apart around it, and makes for a compelling page-turner of a story.

A story that is clearly not done when the reader turns the last page. Not that this particular case isn’t solved – because it is and satisfactorily at that – but because this case is just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

There are at least two more books planned for the Shadow of the Leviathan series. Which is a terrific thing because Din’s journey is far from complete and the depths of this empire have not yet been plumbed – and they surely need plumbing. Surely we’ll find out whether Dolabra and Din are up for THAT dirty job in those books yet to come.

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Seanan McGuire
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #5
Pages: 189
Length: 3 hours and 52 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.
Again.

My Review:

I’ve been winding my way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series for nearly three years now, since I first read Every Heart a Doorway back in early 2021. I’ve skipped around through the series and had both a grand and a thoughtful time each and every time I’ve returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Clearly, you don’t have to read the series in order to get into it. Although it probably does help to read that first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. And possibly, in this particular case, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before this one. But now I’m caught up with the whole thing, even though this particular book happens very much in the middle of the series.

All of that is to say that some of this review is bound to reflect my thoughts on the series as a whole because it’s just now whole for me, as well as this entry in the series in particular.

You have been warned.

Much as Jacqueline Wolcott warns her friends at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children just before they follow her through the lightning-keyed door back to her home, the horror-movie hellscape called ‘The Moors’.

A place where EVERYTHING is ruled by science and powered by lightning, where vampires contend with mad scientists and resurrection is as commonplace as blood, where Frankenstein’s monster would be seen as just another citizen – and quite possibly was.

Jack is in dire straits when she returns to the school, and she needs the help of the only friends she can trust to see that, in spite of appearances, she’s still Jack even though she’s in her twin sister Jill’s body. They are the only people who know her well enough to understand that her OCD will not allow her to just adapt to living her life in the unclean thing that murdered her mentor – even if Jill’s full, entire, complete and utterly nefarious plot is to destroy both her sister Jack and the balance that keeps The Moors relatively safe and functional for the human population that was born to a world where vampires contend with mad scientists and drowned gods prey upon ships and shorelines, where the sun only rises behind thick clouds and lightning storms happen whenever the Moon wills it so.

Jack needs help, so she’s gone to the one place where she knows she can get it. Even if it’s the one place she hoped never to return to, because it means that she’ll have to do the one thing she hoped she’d never have to do.

She’ll have to kill her twin sister. Again. She already did it once to save the world she was born to. She’ll have to do it again so that she can save the world that her heart calls home.

Escape Rating A-: The Wayward Children series winds itself around and around and back and forth and over and under and all over again. We first met the Wolcott twins in the very first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, but we don’t get their full story until the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, while book three, Beneath the Sugar Sky, deals with the effects of their actions in Every Heart a Doorway.

(After listening to the latest book in this series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, and liking it very much, I decided to grab this middle book in audio as well – although the readers are very different. The author herself narrates this story, as she did the previous books that featured the Wolcott sisters. McGuire has a formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense delivery that is utterly fitting for the formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense Jack Wolcott. Audiobooks just work better when the narrator fits the primary character’s voice and the author/narrator fit Jack to a ‘T’, even when Jack felt like she wasn’t fitting her own self very well at all.)

Come Tumbling Down is still dealing with the effects of Jill’s actions. Which have been the kind of actions that make her behavior and her very nature in this book make all that much more sense. As much as anything that happens in any of the worlds that the doors lead to make sense from the perspective of this world.

From the perspective of their own worlds, they are completely logical. Unless of course they are nonsense worlds to begin with.

One of the core tenets of the whole, entire, Wayward Children series, something that is said by one character or another over the course of the series, is that “actions have consequences”. This particular entry in the series is the story of the consequences of Jill’s actions in The Moors, which were the consequences of Jill’s actions in our world and Jack’s response to those actions, which were, in their turn, a consequence of both of their reactions when they found their door to The Moors. All of which were the consequences of their parents’ treatment and conditioning of them when they were still under their parents’ thumbs and had never gone through a doorway at all.

But that’s EXACTLY the kind of cause and effect that underpins this whole series. Which feels like it is set as a counterpoint to Narnia, where the Pevensie children went through the back of a wardrobe and lived an entire life to adulthood without their actions seeming to have had any consequences at all when they returned to the world they were born to.

As a result of their trips through the doors, the children return ill-adapted to the world where they were born. But that’s in the story. In reality – for certain select definitions of the word – what they exhibit upon their returns are psychological disorders that people are all too frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as having for reasons that have more to do with either parental or medical or societal assumptions and/or expectations than they do with what the people coping or not coping are coping or not coping with.

Which is a long way around to say that there’s more to this series than initially meets either the eye or the reader’s mind. Now that I’ve finished the whole thing – at least so far – the whole thing gets deeper and more meaningful the further you get into it, no matter the order that you get into it in.

So, on the surface there’s a story about vampires and mad scientists set in a place that the great horror movies might have used for their inspiration – if not their actual setting. Underneath that there’s a deeper story about balances of power and how devastating it can be when those balances become unbalanced. And the story of one heroine who is willing to throw her own body into the breach – along with her sister’s corpse – to preserve that balance at truly any and every cost.

At its heart – beating with the power of unbridled electricity – there’s a love story about a young woman who fell so much in love with a monster and the world that created her that she was willing to do anything at all to preserve that happy ever after – even to become a monster herself.

But the soul of the series, in each and every story, is that ‘actions have consequences’ for good and for ill, and that the most important thing, to do and to be, is to ‘Be Sure’ that your choices are the ones that you can live with – or die by.

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuire

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuireMislaid in Parts Half-Known (Wayward Children, #9) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Jesse Vilinsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #9
Pages: 160
Length: 4 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Dinosaurs and portals, and a girl who can find both in the latest book in the Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning series.
Antsy is the latest student to pass through the doors at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children.
When her fellow students realize that Antsy's talent for finding absolutely anything may extend to doors, she's forced to flee in the company of a small group of friends, looking for a way back to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go to be sure that Vineta and Hudson are keeping their promise.
Along the way, temptations are dangled, decisions are reinforced, and a departure to a world populated by dinosaurs brings untold dangers and one or two other surprises!
A story that reminds us that finding what you want doesn't always mean finding what you need.

My Review:

This book and certainly the Wayward Children series as a whole, feels like the perfect story to start off the new year.

Why?

Because new years are all about doors closing, doors opening, and taking the opportunity to start with a fresh slate and reinvent yourself and how you see the world, and that’s a big part of what the Wayward Children series is all about.

Beginning with Every Heart a Doorway, the series is a metaphor for finding the place where you belong, the place that your heart calls home, and then getting tossed out of that personal Eden and being forced to make a whole new start on a whole new you – whether you want to or not.

Especially when you don’t. And when you no longer belong in the place you originally came from. You really can’t go home again because it’s not the place you remember and the people who once loved you no longer see you as theirs.

The story in this particular entry in the series picks up where the previous book, Lost in the Moment and Found, left off. Antsy has returned to Earth from the Shop Where the Lost Things Go, nine-years-old in a sixteen-year-old body, still angry at the shopkeeper Vineta and terrified that someone will figure out her secret.

Which they do. Both of her secrets. Her friends figure out that she isn’t nearly as mature as her body appears to be. Her enemies figure out that Antsy left the shop with a talent for finding anything – including other people’s doors – and have absolutely no care in the world about what the doors cost and zero intention to pay for it themselves because that’s what other people are for.

But Antsy can find anything when she needs it badly enough. Including a way out when she and her friends are cornered by the magically mesmerizing head mean girl and her clique of magically reinforced sycophants.

Leading Antsy and company to break one of the School’s most sacred rules. They think they’re hunting for an escape route, but what they’re really searching for is the place that at least one of their hearts calls home. In other words, they’re going on a quest.

A quest to find the one place that Antsy literally can’t afford to return to. Unless she takes it over – for herself.

Escape Rating A: Before I get started on the book, I want to mention that I listened to this one in audio – and that feels like a bit of an afterthought, which is rare. The book was excellent, as you can tell from the rating. But this is a case where the fact I was listening to it instead of reading it didn’t impinge on my consciousness at all. The experience felt seamless, as though the narrator was downloading the story directly into my brain. Which was VERY much unlike Under the Smokestrewn Sky, where the narration detracted from the story.

I said at the top that this book was perfectly themed for the start of the year, because of its fundamental metaphor about doors opening and reinvention that just dovetails perfectly with the thoughts and feelings we all have about the old year ending and the new year beginning.

Ironically, however, this entry in the series is much more about closing doors than it is about opening them, although it definitely carries the theme of self-reflection and reinvention and finally being sure of who one needs to be in the world and their life in it.

At first, the story feels very much a part of the YA genre which the series is often pigeonholed into, as out-of-place, out-of-time Antsy is being persecuted by a powerful clique of ‘mean girls’. It’s only when she starts revealing herself for who she really is and what she really can do that we start to see her as considerably more capable and mature than either her nine-year-old head or her sixteen-year-old body would be capable of.

Because her moral compass is firmly pointed towards doing the right thing, and she’s very sure indeed what that right thing is – at least in the context of the Shop, its doors, its costs, and its purpose. It wants her back, and she wants to go, but it’s more than that. It’s that she’s ready to do the necessary for the shop and for herself. She’s grown up in the ways that matter, she just has to recognize that fact.

She has to ‘Be Sure’, and by the story’s end, she finally is.

But along Antsy’s journey we see other doors that open and close for other ‘wayward children’. Discovering that her best friend is happy and somewhat safe in the world her own heart calls home, even if it’s a world that none of the rest of the travelers would be remotely interested in staying, gives her strength and much-needed closure.

However, the series as a whole feels like it’s winding down, as it should. The young children in the first part of the series are now teenagers and their life paths are reaching out for them. One way or another, their doors are opening, giving them one last chance to be sure enough to go home.

What got me about this entry in the series was the way that the doors and the futures they represent felt like metaphors for life, for making or finding a life filled with magic and purpose. It doesn’t HAVE to be the magic of the doors – because happiness is a magic all its own. All one has to do is find it. And BE SURE.

I’m sure I’ll be back for the next book in this series, currently untitled but scheduled to be published this time next year.

Review: We Are the Crisis by Cadwell Turnbull

Review: We Are the Crisis by Cadwell TurnbullWe Are the Crisis (Convergence Saga #2) by Cadwell Turnbull
Narrator: Dion Graham
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Convergence Saga #2
Pages: 338
Length: 9 hours and 7 minutes
Published by Blackstone Publishing on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In We Are the Crisis—the second book in the Convergence Saga from award-winning author Cadwell Turnbull—humans and monsters come into conflict in a magical and dangerous world as civil rights collide with preternatural forces.
In this highly anticipated sequel, set a few years after No Gods, No Monsters, humanity continues to grapple with the revelation that supernatural beings exist. A werewolf pack investigates the strange disappearances of former members and ends up unraveling a greater conspiracy, while back on St. Thomas, a hurricane approaches and a political debate over monster’s rights ignites tensions in the local community.
Meanwhile, New Era—a pro-monster activist group—works to build a network between monsters and humans, but their mission is threatened by hate crimes perpetrated by a human-supremacist group known as the Black Hand. And beneath it all two ancient orders escalate their conflict, revealing dangerous secrets about the gods and the very origins of magic in the universe.
Told backward and forward in time as events escalate and unravel, We Are the Crisis is a brilliant contemporary fantasy that takes readers on an immersive and thrilling journey.

My Review:

This book is a monster. The kind with tentacles that slither into the sort of places where even fools’ hindbrains stop them from rushing in and angels rightfully fear to tread.

There are also monsters in this book, because that’s the premise behind the entire Convergence Saga, which began with No Gods, No Monsters. Which is both a play on the old anarchist slogan, “No Gods, No Masters.” as well as part and parcel of the whole mind screw of the series so far.

Because there are certainly people acting monstrously on both sides of the human/monster divide.

That divide was made apparent in that first book, as the ‘things that go bump in the night’ walked out of the shadows and confronted a line of cops who got scared and/or trigger happy and killed them all. Even though that particular set of monsters, werewolves one and all, did nothing overtly threatening. They merely threatened the human belief that garden-variety humans were at the top of the food chain.

Which they were suddenly and obviously not.

We Are the Crisis continues the exploration of a universe where at least some of the creatures who have always walked among us have come out of the monster closet and in a bid to live their lives openly among us. (Also, it is very much a continuation that expects the reader to have already been introduced to the multiple threads of this story in No Gods, No Monsters. In other words, start there, not here.)

Some humans are afraid, and some of those who are afraid are acting out of their fear in the most monstrous way possible. But isn’t that exactly what humans do?

But it’s not just about this world, and that’s where the story picks up its tentacles and shakes them at the reader along with shaking the reader’s view of what is going on and where it’s going on at and who is pulling the strings and the levers.

Because this is a story of the multiverse, one where the monsters are emerging on multiple worlds, generally with catastrophic results, at least for themselves. Those worlds are converging – and so are those catastrophic results.

And that crisis? It’s spreading, from one to another, like a multiverse-wide case of the plague. One that everyone is going to catch – unless someone, some monster, finds a better way. Even though they’ll more than likely die trying.

Escape Rating B+: The story so far, with the separation of its many and various threads and its detachment from its characters, reads like a kind of fever dream. Or at least it feels that way when read by its marvelous narrator Dion Graham.

I’ve listened to both books in the Convergence Saga, and Graham’s voice always hypnotizes me. He gives a terrific performance the perfectly matches the laid-back nature of the storytelling, ashe voices the character who stands outside the story and observes all the crises as they occur – and relates those crises and how they got there to us.

His narration carried me through points and places where even when it was clear what was happening in the moment the way it all fit together was totally obscured, which is exactly the way the story was being told – amidst not one but multiple fogs of a war yet to come.

(Full confession, I would cheerfully listen to Dion Graham read the most boring book in existence and I’d still be utterly enthralled. However, at least so far, the Convergence Saga has been anything BUT boring. Confusing at points, but never, EVER dull.)

Part of what makes this story so compelling is its blend of commentary about the real present with the historic paranormal with the outright fantastic. The treatment of the monsters and the meteoric rise of a well-funded organization to put them down has entirely too many parallels to both history and the present for that to be coincidental, and it makes the treatment of the so-called monsters just that much more chilling because it is just that much more real.

At the same time, there’s a dawning revelation that is easy to overlook – particularly in audio because the references to it flash by so quickly – that although the same kind of thing is happening to all these people – it’s not happening in the same universe. That the woman who met – and disliked – the real Aleister Crowley isn’t part of the same history as the woman who was mentored by a vampire which isn’t the same universe as the man who detaches from his world to view all the others.

So that crisis, which at first feels like it’s happening very fast and all over, diffuses across multiple worlds and then draws itself back in again. Just in time for what looks to be a resounding cataclysm that will hopefully be resolved in the third book in this projected trilogy.

Readers, including this one, will certainly be on tenterhooks waiting for that final book, because this story – and this crisis – is far from over.

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle Sagara

Review: Shards of Glass by Michelle SagaraShards of Glass by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Academia, once an elite proving ground for the rulers of the world, has been frozen for centuries. Now its strange slumber has ended, and a new Chancellor, an orange-eyed dragon, has reopened its lecture halls and readied its dorms. In order to thrive once more, however, the Academia needs fresh blood—new students with a passion and talent for learning.
One such student, Robin, has the perfect recruit in his friend Raven, an orphan who lives in the dangerous Warrens. Robin grew up in the Warrens, and he wouldn't have made it if not for Raven. He knows she’ll be safe at the Academia, where her unusual gifts can be appreciated.
But when students start turning up dead, the campus threatens to collapse completely. Raven and Robin will not let that happen to their new home…if they can survive long enough to figure out who—or what—is trying to kill them.

My Review:

Shards of Glass is a bit of a side story in the marvelously interwoven, intricately-plotted, and long-running Chronicles of Elantra series. It takes us deep into the heart and soul (and yes, it most certainly has one, literally as well as figuratively) of the formerly lost and presumed destroyed Academia, the institution that was found hidden in a misty pocket of Elantra’s fiefs in Cast in Wisdom.

The Academia, both in its function as a school and repository of knowledge, and in the person of its sentient building, majordomo, administrator and caretaker, Killianas, is slowly recovering from its long, well, let’s call it a coma.

But it seems, at least at first, that someone or something or some force or all of the above is trying to prevent or at least delay that recovery. By way of murdering the students. That is not a situation that either the Chancellor, the Dragon Lord Lannagaros, or Killianas himself can allow to continue – not if they’re doing their jobs and/or following the purposes their hearts have called them to.

Which is where Robin, his friend Raven, and the woman they call the ‘grey crow’ wing their way into this considerably disturbed nest of learning and scholarship. Initially, they seem to be a bit at cross-purposes. Giselle, the information broker and ‘grey crow’ of the downtrodden slum known as the Warrens, just wants to get paid for bringing a new student to the Academia. Robin, once a denizen of those Warrens, wants to bring his friend Raven to the Academia, where she’ll be safe and warm and fed and be able to learn more things – just as he is.

But Robin is not safe at all, and neither is the Academia. Since it is Raven’s duty to keep Robin safe, she comes to the Academia to save him. And it. And all of the students who have come to call the place home.

Someone is murdering the students. Or something. Or magic. Or all of the above. No one is sure how they are being killed – or if the students are the intended victims. Or why its happening. Or who might benefit – or think they benefit – from the blood and the chaos.

Raven only cares that Robin is safe. So that he can fulfill a duty he hasn’t been allowed to remember. Which will bring an end to hers – whether her duty ends in success or failure, it will end in blood and tears either way.

Or will it?

Escape Rating A+: I began reading the Chronicles of Elantra in 2011, at which point the series was already seven books in. I have a distinct memory of where we were living and exactly what the room looked like as I read them – the series made that much of an impression and I was so completely hooked. My first official review of the series here at Reading Reality was for book 7, Cast in Ruin.

But, and it is an unfortunately large but in this case, as much as I love the series – and I very much still do – at this point in the main series, last year’s book 17, Cast in Eternity, it’s gotten harder and harder to get into each successive entry as the backstory has gotten bigger, more convoluted and considerably both denser AND more sprawling as it’s gone along. (I have audio for both book 16, Cast in Conflict and Cast in Eternity and have hopes the whole thing will work better for me that way.

But I love the series. I really, really love it. Which is what made both the Wolves of Elantra prequel series (The Emperor’s Wolves and Sword and Shadow), as well as this latest book, Shards of Glass, so good, so much fun, and so much easier to get stuck into.

The Wolves of Elantra is a prequel series, so it can serve as an intro to the Chronicles, but it’s also an excellent way to slip back into Elantra without having to hold all the details of everything in one’s head.

Shards of Glass, on the other hand, is a side story within the Chronicles. It sets a story almost entirely within the formerly lost Academia that was rediscovered in Cast in Wisdom and expands upon that setting and that setting pretty much alone. And it’s a fantasy mystery, which makes it all just that much better, as I love the fantasy mystery blending AND the story is contained enough within the now-mostly-functional Academia that one again does not need to remember all the ins and outs of all of Kaylin Nera’s many, many unexpected ‘adventures’ to happily get ensconced in this one.

Kaylin, the protagonist of the main Chronicles series, isn’t even a side character in Shards of Glass. She’s mentioned – as she should be all things considered – but this is most definitely NOT her story.

Instead, Shards of Glass takes the reader into the heart of that formerly lost Academia, where school is finally back in session after over a millennia of abeyance. The school, both as an institution and in the person of its sentient building and grounds, Killianas, is recovering.

At first, it seems like it’s flailing around its mystery – or at least all the characters within it are flailing, including the Dragon Chancellor and the Giant Spider Librarian. (The varieties of species, histories and perspectives are a huge part of what make the Chronicles of Elantra so much fun. The Dragons are particularly acerbic and wry, but then they can afford to be.)

A big part of the flailing is that there are so many possible motives for the murders and so little ability to settle on which one is correct. The flailing keeps falling apart on, not the classic mystery question of ‘Why benefits?’ but more a matter of who is believed to benefit or who believes they benefit and none of those possible avenues of investigation resolve to the same set of possible motives or suspects.

And of course they all turn out to be wrong – and wrong in a way that is buried in the legends of the deep past and will cause catastrophic destruction if they’re not sussed out in time and by the right people.

So Shards of Glass, both in the way the story works itself and the way it dives deeply into one of Elantra’s fundamental institutions, both fits perfectly into the way the series as a whole works and yet still introduces – or reintroduces – the reader to a small enough corner of the vastness that it’s possible to get completely stuck into the whole thing without remembering all the details of what came before.

On top of all of that, it’s a beautiful story about the power and saving grace of friendship, and that was just wonderful. Shards of Glass is worth the read for that factor alone and I’m so very glad I read it. Hopefully, by the time the next book in the main Chronicles of Elantra series, Cast in Atonement, comes out next August I will have caught back up to that last couple of books in the series that I missed.

Review: Uncanny Vows by Laura Anne Gilman

Review: Uncanny Vows by Laura Anne GilmanUncanny Vows (Huntsmen, #2) by Laura Anne Gilman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Huntsmen #2
Pages: 384
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Following the events of the high-stakes and propulsive Uncanny Times, Rosemary and Aaron Harker, along with their supernatural hound Botheration, have been given a new assignment to investigate…but the Harkers believe it’s a set-up, and there’s something far more ancient and deadly instead.

Rosemary and Aaron Harker have been effectively, unofficially sidelined. There is no way to be certain, but they suspect their superiors know that their report on Brunson was less than complete, that they omitted certain truths. Are they being punished or tested? Neither Aaron nor Rosemary know for certain. It may be simply that they are being given a breather or that no significant hunts have been called in their region. But neither of them believes that.

So, when they are sent to a town just outside of Boston with orders to investigate suspicious activity carefully, the Harkers suspect that it is a test. Particularly since the hunt involves a member of the benefactors, wealthy individuals who donate money to the Huntsmen in exchange for certain special privileges and protections.

If they screw this up…at best, they’ll be out of favor, reduced to a life of minor hunts and “clean up” for other Huntsmen. At worst, they will be removed from the ranks, their stipend gone—and Botheration, their Hound, taken from them.

They can’t afford to screw this up.

But what seems like a simple enough hunt—find the uncanny that attacked a man in his office and sent him into a sleep-like state—soon becomes far more complicated as more seemingly unrelated attacks occur. The Harkers must race to find what is shadowing them, before the uncanny strikes again, and sleep turns into murder—and the Huntsmen decide that they have been compromised beyond repair.

But their quarry may not be the only uncanny in town. Botheration and Aaron both sense something else, something shadowing them. Something old, dangerous…and fey.

My Review:

If the idea that the Harker family is somehow involved with the things that go bump in the night feels familiar but you can’t quite remember why, it’s because it IS familiar. Jonathan Harker got himself mixed up with a famous vampire in a little place called Transylvania a mere couple of decades before we first met Aaron and Rosemary Harker in the first book in the Huntsmen series, Uncanny Times.

Because the times they live in are very ‘uncanny’ indeed, the Huntsmen their family has always been a part of have a very long tradition and there are vampires in Europe. Not in America, not so far, at least not yet. But still, the idea that an uncle or a cousin got themselves mixed up in that other uncanny business is not all that far-fetched once the reader gets themselves fully immersed in the Harkers’ not-quite-urban-fantasy, not-exactly-alternate-history version of 1913 New England where the ‘automotive’ has just started sharing the streets with horse-drawn carriages, the Great War seems to have already begun in Europe, and the ‘uncanny’ things that populated Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow have put down long, deep roots in the local landscape.

And occasionally slip into nearby houses and offices to practice their mischief. Or commit murder.

That’s what sends the Harkers, brother and sister, on a covert mission to Boston to investigate what might be an attack by an uncanny. The organization that monitors and dispatches the Huntsmen have asked/ordered/voluntold the Harkers that one of the organization’s financial backers has called in some favors, that the man wants a discreet investigation of his brother-in-law’s mysterious illness/fainting fit/possible attack, in order to placate his wife and get back to his business.

It’s a far from ideal situation, and both the Harkers know it. The Harkers feel like the organization no longer trusts them after the events in Uncanny Times, and that they’re being sent on this mission without information and with their hands tied behind their backs because its a test that someone wants them to fail.

And they could be right on all counts. But that doesn’t change the mission, only make it a whole lot more difficult to resolve – with that desired discretion or without.

Not that discretion is even possible while there’s something uncanny watching and waiting for them to make a mistake – the kind that either gets the all killed, or the kind that exposes all their secrets to a world that is absolutely not ready. Or both. The way that the Harkers’ luck tends to run – bet on both.

Escape Rating B+: So far, at least, the Huntsmen series still feels like it’s part of the ‘Weird West’ tradition. It obviously isn’t, not with the ‘automotives’ [sic] on the streets and the Great War looming on the horizon, but it still feels that way, like it would fit right into The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny collection coming out in a couple of weeks.

(Although, come to think of it, the author DOES have a series that is explicitly set in the Weird West, titled The Devil’s West and beginning with Silver on the Road. I think I just saw it shooting up the virtually towering TBR pile, chased by one of the Harkers’ specially-prepared bullets.)

With the first book in the series, Uncanny Times, I liked the idea of the story and the series more than the story I actually got. Although I loved the Harker’s hellhound Botheration and still do. He stole every scene he was in and does in this book as well. (Don’t worry, Botheration is a Very Good Boy and is just as fine at the end of this adventure as he was at the beginning – which is very.)

His humans, however, are a bit closer to the end of their tether than either of them realizes when this case gets wrapped up. Although it does, in spite of the roadblocks put in their way by both the organization and the favor-calling client and benefactor.

One of the things that makes this series work is that Rosemary and Aaron Harker are both of their time and place AND a bit outside it at the same time, making them excellent investigators of both the human and the uncanny aspects of the case. Even as they push at the boundaries more than a bit. Which is both the cause of their ‘outsiderness’ and its result.

That’s part of why I enjoyed this story more than the first, because we get a much fuller picture of the Harkers, their skills and their capabilities, we know more about what makes them who they are, and we see more of why the organization doesn’t exactly trust them but can’t afford to assign them to the equivalent of working in Siberia without proof of something. Not that some folks aren’t looking for that something, and haven’t been for most of Aaron’s life.

At the same time, the heavy lifting of setting up the world and the series has already been done in that first book, so this one is able to sink its teeth into the case from the very first page – and that they drive off in Aaron’s rented ‘automotive” gets things going that much faster, while Rosemary’s dislike of the speed, the dust, and Aaron’s relative inexperience driving the thing adds a bit of lightness to what is otherwise a rather dark story of obsession and possession.

I came back to this series for Botheration, but I stayed because the setting is getting more and more interesting as it goes, and the case was filled with plenty of twists and turns and still-fresh-from-the-water red herrings. All the while, Rosemary and Aaron’s different but equally jaundiced perceptions of their world grounded the story in characters that I could not merely empathize with but actually share the frustrations of along the way.

So if you like tales of the Weird West – even though this isn’t quite – or historical urban fantasy – which this most definitely is – or just like exploring a world that isn’t quite ours but is just enough like ours to really, seriously get into, take an ‘automotive’ trip to early 20th century Boston with the Harkers and their very good, and very large, boy, Botheration. It’s a wild ride from beginning to end – and not just because of Aaron’s driving!

Review: The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra Khaw

Review: The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra KhawThe Dead Take the A Train (Carrion City, #1) by Cassandra Khaw, Richard Kadrey
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Series: Carrion City #1
Pages: 391
Length: 12 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on October 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Bestselling authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey have teamed up to deliver a dark new story with magic, monsters, and mayhem, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill.
Julie Crews is a coked-up, burnt-out thirty-something who packs a lot of magic into her small body. She’s been trying to establish herself in the NYC magic scene, and she’ll work the most gruesome gigs to claw her way to the top.
Julie is desperate for a quick career boost to break the dead-end grind, but her pleas draw the attention of an eldritch god who is hungry for revenge. Her power grab sets off a deadly chain of events that puts her closest friends – and the entire world – directly in the path of annihilation.
The first explosive adventure in the Carrion City Duology, The Dead Take the A Train fuses Khaw’s cosmic horror and Kadrey’s gritty fantasy into a full-throttle thrill ride straight into New York’s magical underbelly.

My Review:

If someone told me that the Miskatonic River had sent a tributary (or a tentacle) down from Innsmouth to Manhattan, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. At all. The eldritch horrors of this book are VERY eldritch indeed, but it’s the human monsters that really make this story scream.

Besides, as a couple of the book’s characters remark, if the eldritch monster had actually BEEN Cthulhu it would have been much easier to deal with. Instead, Julie Crews and her ‘Scooby gang’ are stuck between the rock of The Mother Who Eats and the hard place of a fake archangel who thinks they have the chops to eat Mother. And certainly plans to scoop up Julie and her friends to pave the way.

But that’s not where we start. Where we start is most definitely at the human dimensions. Julie Crews is a down-at-heels, down-on-her-luck magic worker with plenty of brass, always willing to deliver a kick in the ass, with a knack for surviving stuff that no one should even know about, let alone throw down with.

So we begin with Julie, taking a job she knows she shouldn’t touch with someone else’s bargepole, from her lying, cheating, stealing ex-boyfriend. The one who trashed her and her reputation, stole credit for jobs that she did, and used that credit to slither his way onto and up the corporate ladder at the primo magical legal firm, Thorne & Dirk. (I always wanted it to be ‘Thorne & Dick’ and you probably will too.)

But the job pays real cash money, albeit not enough and under the table, and Julie needs that money to make her rent and pay for her many illicit, illegal and expensive habits – like cheap booze, epic amounts of drugs and high-quality magical equipment.

Her life has already gone more pear-shaped than the average person would expect to survive – and Julie doesn’t. Expect to survive, that is. People who do the kind of work she does and take the kind of damage she regularly takes don’t live to see 40. Or even 35. She’s the last and ONLY survivor of her class from magical training. And Julie’s 30th birthday is coming up fast.

What she doesn’t expect is for her best friend Sarah to show up at her door with one packed bag, a whole bunch of new verbal and physical twitches and dark shadows under her eyes that deserve their own zip code.

What neither Julie nor Sarah ever admit is that they are each other’s ‘one that got away’, or would be if either of them had ever womanned up and actually asked. They’re better together, always have been and always will be, whether they define that together as besties or roommates or the love of each other’s lives.

Something that they’ll have to test ALL the limits of, to hell and back (literally), when Julie’s ex and Sarah’s ex decide to fuck with them in entirely different ways at the exact same time. Putting Julie, Sarah, their friends and ALL of New York City into the crosshairs between the claws of a creature straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos and the many, many mouths of the Mother Who Eats.

Escape Rating B+: First and most importantly, this is your trigger warning that The Dead Take the A Train is a bloody, gory, gruesome reminder that urban fantasy as a genre is the uncanny child of mystery and horror, much like the uncanny babies being born in yesterday’s book, A Season of Monstrous Conceptions.

Meaning that, yes, while there’s a mystery at the heart of this story, there’s a monster or two – or ten – chewing that heart with their fangs as blood drips down their chin. Or chins, however many they just happen to have.

To the point where the horror elements go so far over the top that they come down in a splat of blood and viscera on the other side.

Second, for the first half of the story, both Sarah’s ex-husband Dan and Julie’s ex-boyfriend Tyler were so full of smug, self-congratulatory, evil, white dudebro entitlement that I just couldn’t hack listening to their perspectives. They both exhibited the kind of asshattery that is all over the news and if I wanted to listen to that there are entirely too many real places for it these days.

Which means that I switched from audio to text at that halfway point. I was finding the story compelling – if sometimes gross to the max – but every time the narrator retched out one of their perspectives I wanted to scream. I’ll confess that I gave up too soon, because just as I switched to text the dudebros started getting what they deserved and that was awesome.

While I fully admit that the above may be a ‘me’ thing and not a ‘you’ thing, the relentless drumbeat of just what terrible excuses for human beings Dan and Tyler were nearly threw me out of the story entirely, and that’s absolutely the reason this is a B+ and not any higher. Your reading mileage may vary.

Howsomever, the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one that I absolutely love, and she does a terrific job of voicing stories that feature last-chance, hard-done-by, bad luck and worse trouble heroines, just like Julie Crews, who would be able to stand, scarred but never broken, right alongside similar characters that Naudus has voiced, like Opal Starling in Starling House, as well as Emiko Soong in Ebony Gate, Zelda in Last Exit, and Vivian Liao in Empress of Forever. (Also Charlie Hall in Holly Black’s Book of Night, but I read that one entirely in text.)

As much as the first half of The Dead Take the A Train drove me around the twist, when the story hits that second half it hits the ground running hard towards a slam bang finish. Along the way we have Julie’s slightly otherworldly ‘Scooby gang’ coming together, with teasing clues to American Gods-type backstories to come, the set up of an almost impossibly compelling magical version of NYC with hints of The City We Became with even more blood and guts and eldritch horrors, and, to cap it off in a blaze of glory, a fulfillment of one of Shakespeare’s most famous sayings (from Henry VI, Part 2 if you’re looking for a hint.)

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in the projected Carrion City series by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. There’s certainly plenty of carrion to pin a horde of stories on. If this first book is a taste of what’s to come, I can’t wait to see what I’ll be reading next – absolutely with the lights on!

Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. Green

Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. GreenNight Train to Murder (Ishmael Jones #8) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #8
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads


When a body is discovered in a locked toilet cubicle on the late-night train to Bath, Ishmael Jones is faced with his most puzzling case to date.

When Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny are asked to escort a VIP on the late-night train to Bath, it would appear to be a routine case. The Organisation has acquired intelligence that an attempt is to be made on Sir Dennis Gregson's life as he travels to Bath to take up his new position as Head of the British Psychic Weapons Division. Ishmael's mission is to ensure that Sir Dennis arrives safely.
How could anyone orchestrate a murder in a crowded railway carriage without being noticed and with no obvious means of escape? When a body is discovered in a locked toilet cubicle, Ishmael Jones has just 56 minutes to solve a seemingly impossible crime before the train reaches its destination.

My Review:

Reading Reality is having a bit of a theme going in the days leading up to Halloween, and this visit with Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt is just horror-adjacent enough to be a part of it.

And I was having a hankering for some high-quality snarkitude and this author ALWAYS delivers!

Ishmael Jones is a fascinating character – to himself most of all at times. He’s an alien. Specifically, he’s a version of E.T. with no way to phone home because he doesn’t remember where it is. When he crash-landed his ship in 1963 the ship’s last act was to transform him into a human adult the best that it could – and erase all his memories of who and/or what he used to be.

It didn’t exactly do a BAD job at Ishmael’s transformation. He blends in just fine. But he doesn’t change or age, so he’s looked like a man in his mid-30s for almost 60 years at this point and has the same problem that vampires often do in paranormal stories. He has to move on every so often before too many people start to notice too much.

Ishmael’s solution has been to work for a series of agencies so black and so secret that they don’t even know what their own right and left hands are doing – let alone anyone else’s. They keep his secrets and in return he keeps theirs and does the kind of dirty work that actual humans aren’t capable of for very long – if at all.

His work and romantic partner, Penny Belcourt, knows as many of his secrets as Ishmael himself does. They met on a case, the first one in this series, The Dark Side of the Road, a story that began as a rather typical English country house mystery that went seriously far into the Dark Side of multiple Forces.

Ishmael and Penny are the coyly-named Organization’s best agents, so it’s not exactly a surprise for them to be ordered to report for a top secret, rush-rush and hush-hush job, not even to London’s St. Pancras Station. It’s just annoying and both of them are at least somewhat annoyed by being handed tickets to an express train to Bath with not nearly enough information about their instructions to guard a high-ranking politician who has just been promoted to an equally high-ranking top-secret job on said politician’s imminent journey to take up his new post via that London to Bath train.

The trip will take less than two hours. It shouldn’t be that difficult to keep the man alive for that length of time on a moving train that will not stop to take on anyone or anything until it reaches its destination.

But if it were an easy job the Organization wouldn’t be putting its best agents on the case. And they are, so it isn’t. It’s just that it’s even more clandestine and hush-hush than even Ishmael and Penny suspected. And they suspected a lot, and everyone, from the very beginning.

Escape Rating A-: There are two things I find pretty much endlessly fun about this particular series. One, of course and always, is the author’s trademark snarkitude. It’s a signature that follows him everywhere from urban fantasy like his Nightside series to science fiction such as his Deathstalker series to the genre-mashup that is the Ishmael Jones series.

The other thing is a particular feature of the Ishmael Jones series, and it’s that this series is a genre-mashup of pretty much everything. It’s a bit of SF in Ishmael’s alien origins, a bit of urban fantasy in that he often faces monsters that are believed at the outset to be things that go bump in the night, and there’s generally a bit of horror in that whatever he’s investigating leaves a thoroughly gruesome trail of dead bodies and parts thereof.

But ultimately – or at its heart or a bit of both – the Ishmael Jones series are mysteries. Someone gets dead early on in each book, if there isn’t already a corpse laying around at the start. It’s up to Ishmael and Penny to figure out whodunnit and put a stop to them one way or another before the story reaches its inevitably grisly end.

What makes the mystery so much creepy fun is that as the mystery deepens there’s always a sneaking suspicion that the perpetrator is paranormal in some way, and that in the end that suspicion is nearly always a very tasty red herring. This particular mystery takes that assumption one better, as there is, for once, something actually paranormal going on but it isn’t either the monster or even the victim.

Because one of the things that this series does so very well, and with so much high-quality snark and occasional sheer bloody-mindedness, is that the worst monsters in this or any other universe are inevitably human. And that’s what keeps me coming back to this series, over and over and over again.

If this series sounds like it might be your jam, or if you’ve ever wanted to see just how far a classic-type mystery like a country house mystery or a strangers on a train type mystery can be led very, very far astray, take a look at The Dark Side of the Road and see if you like the view from that side.

I’ll be continuing with my journey with Ishmael Jones and Penny Belcourt with the next book in the series, The House on Widows Hill, the next time I have a yen for either high-quality snark, horror-adjacent mystery, or a bit of both!

Review: An Inheritance of Magic by Benedict Jacka

Review: An Inheritance of Magic by Benedict JackaAn Inheritance of Magic (Stephen Oakwood, #1) by Benedict Jacka
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Stephen Oakwood #1
Pages: 384
Published by Ace on October 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The super-rich control everything—including magic—in this thrilling and brilliant, contemporary fantasy from the author of the Alex Verus novels.
The wealthy seem to exist in a different, glittering world from the rest of us. Almost as if by... magic.
Stephen Oakwood is a young man on the edge of this hidden world. He has talent and potential, but turning that potential into magical power takes money, opportunity, and training. All Stephen has is a minimum wage job and a cat. 
But when a chance encounter with a member of House Ashford gets him noticed by the wrong people, Stephen is thrown in the deep end. For centuries, the vast corporations and aristocratic Houses of the magical world have grown impossibly rich and influential by hoarding their knowledge. To survive, Stephen will have to take his talent and build it up into something greater—for only then can he beat them at their own game.

My Review:

In a famous exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald claimed that “the rich are different from you and me” to which Hemingway rejoined “Yes, they have money.”

That principle is at the heart of An Inheritance of Magic, as the story begins with Stephen Oakwood discovering that he’s related to a rich and powerful family – who have only looked him up in order to stomp him like a bug.

Because they are powerful because they are rich, and rich because they are powerful, and as far as they are concerned his only use to any of them is as a pawn in their games – both mundane and, more importantly, magical.

The magic is called drucraft, a talent in which Stephen has had only one teacher and little to no training. Which means that over his relatively short life, he’s learned to do things that organized training would have told him were impossible. And maybe they mostly are, but for him, some of them are not.

So Stephen’s story is about having the lesson literally beaten into him that the playing field is not level – because it isn’t. And it’s about Stephen deciding that even if that is true – and it is – there is nothing stopping him from doing his level best to level it – one way or another.

If he doesn’t have the training to play by their rules, he can develop the power and more importantly the will to make them play by his. Because they’ve already made him see what the worst case scenario might cost him and he’s not willing to go there again.

No matter how many rules – or people – he has to break along the way.

Escape Rating B+: An Inheritance of Magic is a combination of a coming-of-age story and a coming-into-power story set in an urban fantasy version of our world where magic hides in plain sight even as it magnifies the ambitions and the sheer reach of the rich and powerful.

Stephen Oakwood is the perspective through which we learn about this hidden world as he is rather forcibly jerked into it – initially very much to his detriment. He’s always known about drucraft, and has been doing his best to practice the first principles of the discipline that his father taught him, but Stephen is at multiple disadvantages when the story begins.

His mother disappeared when Stephen was barely a year old and he knows nothing about her. His father disappeared three years ago, just as Stephen turned 18, and no trace of him has ever been discovered. Stephen is supposed to be starting his adult life, but at 21 he’s barely scraping together enough to get by and can’t decide what he wants to do when he grows up.

He wants to find his dad. He wants to practice drucraft. But he needs to pay rent and keep himself and his cat Hobbes fed and watered. He’s drifting when he literally gets kidnapped by his mother’s obscenely rich and powerful family so that the members of his generation of that family can use him as a pawn in each of their games to become the sole heir to the seat of power.

The story of An Inheritance of Magic is the story of how Stephen stops being a pawn. But it’s only the barest beginnings of that story, because first he has to learn a whole lot more about what drucraft can do for him in his struggle, and the reader has to learn what kind of magic it exactly is and how it works. Meaning that a LOT of the story is taken up with our introduction to drucraft through his learning and training process.

It means that, while the beginning of this story is very scarily WOW, and the ending is slam-bang awesome, the middle is a whole lot of lonely exploration of both his craft and the world in which it happens. For some readers that’s catnip and for others it will be a bit of a slog and your reading mileage may vary.

And there’s more than a bit of a trigger warning for that scary WOW at the beginning. Because Stephen’s one true hostage to fortune is his cat, Hobbes, so, when his powerful but psychotic family wants to teach the upstart a lesson they take it out on poor Hobbes. While the cat does eventually get better, because Stephen’s combination of guilt and angst leads to a breakthrough in his craft and power, I almost DNF’ed at that point because the cat’s pain and Stephen’s anguish over it were almost too much for this cat lover to bear. Hobbes comes back stronger than ever and so does Stephen, but OMFG it was awful going through that with them. So consider yourself warned.

Hobbes’ situation aside, this type of story, of a young man discovering that his rich family are lying assholes who want to use him and him learning how to hoist them and the society they think they own on their own petards is not exactly new except for the drucraft. In fact, it’s the setup of a fair amount of Harry Potter fanfiction of certain stripes.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting setup for a series, because it most definitely is. Particularly if you’re the kind of reader who likes seeing a whole bunch of assholes get righteously taken down – because I think we’re going to get there in the end.

I most definitely AM that kind of reader, so I’m looking forward to seeing where Stephen Oakwood’s adventures in drucraft lead him, and us, to next!

Review: Bad Blood by Lauren Dane

Review: Bad Blood by Lauren DaneBad Blood (Goddess with a Blade, 7) by Lauren Dane
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Goddess with a Blade #7
Pages: 384
Published by Carina Press on June 27, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Trouble never takes a vacation in Bad Blood , the seventh installment in the epic Goddess with a Blade series by New York Times bestselling author Lauren Dane.

After spending the last two years locked in one deadly struggle after the next, Rowan Summerwaite deserves delicious meals, excellent sex and uninterrupted sleep on high-quality linens. But when two separate investigations converge in unexpected ways and a new threat to the Treaty blows into town, there’s no rest for the wicked.

And she’ll need help.

Genevieve Aubert, a seven-hundred-year-old witch from a powerful familial line, has become more than a formidable ally. To Rowan, she’s become a friend. To Darius, a Dust Devil from the Trick, where she’s now a priestess, she’s the key to unlocking his magic. The pretty flower to his motorcycles and bruised knuckles.

Soon, the dangerous reality becomes clear. It isn’t just wayward witches. It isn’t just egotistical Vampires. What’s brewing in the desert will take a witch, a Dust Devil and a human vessel to a goddess to save those they’ve sworn to protect.

My Review:

If Eve Dallas had set her cap at being police commissioner instead of refusing more rank in order to continue to do the job she does best, she’d be a lot more like Rowan Summerthwaite than she already is. And they most certainly already are sisters under the skin – even though Rowan takes down criminal vampires while Eve catches criminals of the more humanly monstrous variety.

But Rowan has moved, not exactly ‘up’ in her world, but into a position where she’s stuck dealing with political crap instead of just kicking ass and taking names to put on gravestones. For those of her enemies that are human enough to still require such things, that is.

(I’m not really digressing this time around. I’ve always thought that Rowan and Dallas would get along like a house on fire – especially if some of their enemies were righteously roasting in said fire!)

Getting back to Rowan, however, there’s an element of each book in the series where Rowan begins the story in the process of dealing with the fallout from the last clusterfuck she had to fix. And that’s certainly true in Bad Blood.

At the same time, Bad Blood feels like, not exactly a ‘fresh’ start, but rather a point in the series where that cleanup has hit a new phase where it’s more preventive than reactive, and it gives the intricacies of the plot a bit of a reset.

Which was absolutely terrific for this long-term reader, because it made it really easy to slip right back into this world without needing to recall all the myriad details of Rowan’s long-running battle to clean up both her ‘Father’s’ rogue vampires AND the human asshats in her own organization, Hunter Corp.

At least, the story begins with an attempt at moving forward, only to discover that not only are the vampires playing more games than usual – including playing games with her Father, the First and their leader – but that the witches’ Conclave is also up to some surprisingly similar crap.

Because Rowan and one of the Conclave’s leaders, Genevieve Aubert, became besties in the previous book in the series, Blood and Blade, Rowan is more than happy to help Genevieve clean up that mess even as Genevieve helps her with the lingering issues in Hunter Corp.

Those issues dovetail neatly – or perhaps that should be messily – or both. Definitely both, as they are the exact same issue, being played out in different arenas. Both the vampires AND the witches think that they are superior to the original recipe humans that surround them – and believe that superiority gives them the right to ‘play’ with humans as they please.

Hunter Corp. is there to stop them both, and to prevent any of these immortal idiots from revealing the existence of the supernatural to those self-same humans. It’s just too bad that a bunch of selfish and self-indulgent idiots are living too deeply in the past to consider all the angles of their ridiculous campaign.

Too bad for them, that is.

Escape Rating A: I have a soft spot in my heart for the entire Goddess with a Blade series. The first book in the series, the Goddess with a Blade herself, was part of the first batch of eARCs I downloaded from Netgalley. I’ve been hooked ever since.

But that first book was OMG TWELVE YEARS AGO. That averages out to a long time between books, which wreaks more than a bit of havoc with remembering all the details with a series as intricately plotted as this one. Every book in the series has been, not just a direct response to the book before it, but a direct response that is still dealing with pieces of a huge plot to undermine Hunter Corp from within – along with various other asshattery that happens in the wake of that big mess.

Bad Blood, while it’s still cleaning up a bit of the previous mess, does read like a bit of a fresh start – even if that’s likely to be a fresh start because of a new and different plot full of asshattery that hasn’t yet fully emerged.

Which means that Bad Blood is a good place to get into – or back into – the Goddess with a Blade series. It’s not exactly a new set of problems, but it feels enough like it is to let someone who hasn’t read or re-read the whole thing recently to get right into the thick of it.

The other thing that makes this entry work as either a start or a fresh start is that the problems this go around feel all too much like real life in spite of the paranormal setting. It’s not just a story of immortal vampires messing with each other because immortality is boring. Instead, what we have are factions in two separate hierarchies that are each oozing with privilege who want a return to the ‘good old days’ that never really were and don’t care how much they have to lie to themselves and cheat and steal from everyone else to make it happen.

And haven’t we all witnessed that before?

It’s that grounding in the real that makes it easy to step into Rowan’s world, and it’s the continued development of Rowan’s personal relationships with her husband, her father and especially her own personal ‘Scooby gang’ that keep us in there with her. And isn’t that just like Dallas and Roarke all over?

In the end, as Rowan gets the ‘bad blood’ among the vampires’ council and the witches’ conclave to behave – at least those that haven’t already gotten dead in the crossfire – it’s clear that this is only the tip of another iceberg of asshattery that thinks it’s going to crash Rowan’s plans. I hope it happens soon, because this series has just gotten fun again and I want more!