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 Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah LotzThe Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Romance, science fiction
Pages: 483
Published by Ace Books on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This isn't a love story. This is Impossible.
***
Nick: Failed writer. Failed husband. Dog owner.
Bee: Serial dater. Dress maker. Pringles enthusiast.
One day, their paths cross over a misdirected email. The connection is instant, electric. They feel like they've known each other all their lives.
Nick buys a new suit, gets on a train. Bee steps away from her desk, sets off to meet him under the clock at Euston station.
Think you know how the rest of the story goes? They did too . . .
But this is a story with more twists than most. This is Impossible.

My Review:

Every once in a while, even in real life, someone will text or call a wrong number, and instead of getting a hang-up or a brush-off, a connection gets made. There’s that famous story about the Arizona grandma who texted a complete stranger to come for Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. He not only came for dinner that year, he and his now-wife are still invited and attending that Thanksgiving dinner every November.

But the connection between Bee and Nick, while it still begins with a text to a complete stranger, has much further to travel, even if they don’t realize it at first.

The hook into this story is the witty and emotionally honest banter between Nick and Bee. Both are well into adulthood if not necessarily adulting, they both have serious shit to deal with and both of them, frankly, are clinically depressed in one way or another.

Bee is avoiding relationships by playing spin the one-night-stand roulette wheel on Tinder. She’s self-supporting, her business of re-purposing used wedding dresses is going gangbusters, and she’s completely alone except for her lifelong friend Leila and her upstairs neighbor. It’s an OK life but she’s lonely.

Nick sees himself as a failure – only because he is. His marriage is dying if it isn’t already dead. His career as a novelist produced one self-absorbed book and nothing since. His only real friends turn out to be his dog, Rosie and his stepson Dylan – because his wife is cheating with his other best friend so that relationship is clearly over.

Bee and Nick find each other at a point where they each desperately need a lifeline – and they become that for each other in text after text after text, all day and sometimes all night long.

Until they agree to meet. Under the clock at Euston Station. They both say they’re there, but neither can see the other. And that’s when things go wildly pear-shaped.

Eventually, after railing at each other, cursing at each other, and obsessively reading over their correspondence, they come to the heartbreaking realization that the multiverse is real and that they are not living in the same version of it.

Each of their worlds is the other’s “road not taken”. The worlds aren’t SO different. The divergence isn’t all that far in the past. In Bee’s world Clinton’s two terms were followed by W.’s two terms, then Obama’s two and then, let’s call him The Former Guy.

Nick thought Bee’s reference to The Former Guy as president was a bad joke, because his world split off at the hanging chads in Florida in the 2000 election. Clinton was followed by Gore’s two terms, then Obama’s two terms. His world managed to skip both 9/11 and Brexit. Not that his world is unequivocally better, but it is different in ways that don’t seem too surprising if you remember anything about Al Gore’s political platform.

Accepting that they can’t meet in person, they also decide that the relative closeness of their parallel worlds means that they CAN meet their world’s equivalent of each other. As they discover, however, that just because they can, doesn’t mean they really should.

Escape Rating B: This book is bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is going to be strictly in the eye of the beholder, and honestly I’m still not sure. It’s a wild ride, but I’m not sure I liked where that ride ended up.

I’m also none too sanguine about labeling this as a romance. An emotional if not physical romance does occur, but there’s no HEA for Bee and Nick. There can’t be and that’s the point of the story. It really is impossible for the two of them to become an “us”.

This is more of a story about that “road not taken”, or an example of the quote from John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.”

Nick and Bee might have been something special, but once they meet their actual doppelgangers in each other’s realities, I’m not so sure. Or I’m not sure that Nick has it in him to find his own happy ending, Bee, who has better coping skills in the first place (admittedly that’s a REALLY low bar to get over) ends the story with at least the possibility of an HEA somewhere down the road.

(Nick reminded me a bit too much of an old quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Nick is firmly stuck in “can’t” to his own and the story’s detriment.)

But this is being marketed as a romance, which is going to lead entirely too many people to pick it up thinking there’s a happy ending, and those readers are going to be seriously disappointed. OTOH, while the SFnal elements are more than enough to push it to SF, the way the doomed romance is centered in the story is going to turn off many of those readers as well. And on my third hand in an alternate universe, although this is SFnal and does center a romance, it doesn’t gel in the right way to make it a science fiction romance, either.

For people who know what they are letting themselves in for, there is plenty of satisfaction to be had on this wild and crazy ride through the multiverse of other worlds, other selves and other lives. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Skinwalker by Faith Hunter

Review: Skinwalker by Faith HunterSkinwalker (Jane Yellowrock, #1) by Faith Hunter
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Jane Yellowrock #1
Pages: 320
Published by Ace Books on July 7, 2009
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

First in a brand new series from the author of the Rogue Mage novels

Jane Yellowrock is the last of her kind—a skinwalker of Cherokee descent who can turn into any creature she desires and hunts vampires for a living. But now she’s been hired by Katherine Fontaneau, one of the oldest vampires in New Orleans and the madam of Katies’s Ladies, to hunt a powerful rogue vampire who’s killing other vamps.

Amidst a bordello full of real “ladies of the night,” and a hot Cajun biker with a panther tattoo who stirs her carnal desire, Jane must stay focused and complete her mission—or else the next skin she’ll need to save just may be her own...

My Review:

I picked this because, well, I was bouncing off pretty much everything, both to read and to listen to. When you start cheering for one of the characters in the story you’re on to get eaten by an alligator – and quickly – it’s time to pick up something different. I picked up Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter to listen to, and got sucked in enough that I also picked up Skinwalker to read. I have a friend who adores this series, and I have a thing about books set in New Orleans. So it seemed like kismet – or something like that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve sunk my teeth, pun intended, into a new-to-me urban fantasy series. I’d forgotten just how much they are. As far as the pun goes, well, there are plenty of vampires in this version of post-Katrina New Orleans – and everywhere else. This is one of those worlds where vamps not only exist but have come out of the coffin. And the witches have come out of their gingerbread houses as well.

The weres and all the other supernatural creatures are still on the down low, but that situation can’t continue in the days of the intrusive, invasive, all-encompassing internet.

But Jane Yellowrock is none of those things. She’s something else altogether, something even she isn’t completely sure about. While she isn’t exactly a were, she’s probably closer kin to them than anything else. Because she can transform into an animal, full moon or no. Technically, she can transform into ANY animal, but her most familiar form is that of a female mountain lion, a creature who exists in her head as Beast.

Except when Beast stalks the night, and Jane exists in the back of Beast’s head.

It’s an uneasy alliance, made even more fraught by Jane’s belief that Beast remembers how they merged – as well as a whole lot of other things about Jane’s past – that Jane herself doesn’t remember. And that Beast is still mad about.

As the story begins, Jane has arrived in New Orleans at the surprising behest of the local Vampire Council. It’s surprising to Jane that she’s received this invitation/job offer because the job that Jane usually performs is hunting rogue vamps. And that’s just what the local council wants her to do – hunt a rogue vamp who has managed to elude them all – and make him, her or it true dead as fast as possible.

No matter what it takes. Or what it costs.

Escape Rating B+: First, I want to say that I had a whole lot of urban fantasy fun with Jane Yellowrock. This book had everything that I read urban fantasy for, a kickass protagonist with a mysterious background and otherworldly powers, a version of our world that is close enough to be familiar while different enough to be fascinating and a supernatural puzzle to solve that is not quite what it appears on the surface. Vampire politics add just the right amount of danger, depth and color to the story. The combination is always a win.

Jane Yellowrock strikes me as a combination of Joanne Walker, C.E. Murphy’s Urban Shaman with the post-Katrina New Orleans – along with the supernaturals and their neverending political shenanigans and grudges – of Suzanne Johnson’s Royal Street and her Sentinels of New Orleans series. From my perspective, that’s damn good company to be in.

But as much as I enjoyed the story, there were a couple of things that seriously niggled at me. One is just how different the world of 2020 feels from the world of the mid-2000s. In our current climate I don’t believe that the reveal of the existence of either vampires or witches would have gone nearly as smoothly as it does – and it hasn’t been completely smooth in Jane’s world either. Or perhaps their version of backlash is yet to come. But it feels like a more hopeful version of how things might go, in spite of the rogue vamp running around killing vampires, humans and animals all over New Orleans.

And the other thing that bothered me even more was a question about the Native American protagonist, her visions and memories of her past, and whether the interpretation of the character respected her heritage or constituted cultural appropriation. I know that I don’t know. It felt respectful, but it’s not my heritage so I’m not the best judge. And it made me wonder equally about the protagonist of the Walker Papers whose powers come from her Native American heritage.

And I’m just as bothered by the idea that when both of these books were originally published those questions might not have even been asked. And I’m not sure what to do with all of those thoughts.

But I liked Jane as a character, especially with the addition of Beast. The story is told from their first-person perspective, so we are inside both of their heads. That first person perspective takes on a different flavor when Beast is in the ascendant, and we experience the world through her not-completely animal nature. Beast sees the world differently from Jane – or from the reader – and there are plenty of times when Beast’s more direct approach feels like the right one. The push-pull between the two personalities has oodles of dramatic possibilities for future stories.

As does the intense level of vampire politicking. Their hierarchical structure feels positively Byzantine – and may well date back at least that far. The sheer level of convolution and posturing is reminiscent of Goddess with a Blade by Lauren Dane – also excellent company for an urban fantasy heroine. At the same time, the level of unfinished business that Jane has with Leo Pellisier, the vamp in control of NOLA, has a similar feel to the early Anita Blake books. The VERY early Anita Blake books.

Like much of urban fantasy, there is no romance in Skinwalker. There are possibilities hinted at for future stories, but at this beginning point, the people who have emerged as those possibilities are at the moment either too unstable, too dangerous, or too much asshole to be worth bothering with. The most likely possibilities have the longest journeys in front of them to make them remotely worthwhile so I’m happy she falls for none of them. Lusts after several, yes and rightly so from the sound of things. But none of them are relationship-worthy – at least not yet.

All things considered, I certainly had a good reading time with Jane Yellowrock. A more than good enough time that I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series, Blood Cross, when I want another urban fantasy fix.

Review: The True Queen by Zen Cho

Review: The True Queen by Zen ChoThe True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) by Zen Cho
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Sorcerer Royal #2
Pages: 384
Published by Ace Books on March 12, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the follow-up to the "delightful" regency fantasy novel (NPR.org) Sorcerer to the Crown, a young woman with no memories of her past finds herself embroiled in dangerous politics in England and the land of the fae.

When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.

If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.

My Review:

Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favorite books of 2015. From the joint review Lou and I did at The Book Pushers in 2015, it’s pretty obvious that it was one of her favorites too. The hoped for sequel has been on my most anticipated list ever since.

That long awaited sequel has finally arrived in the manifestation of The True Queen. I wanted to love this book. I expected to love this book. And I’m SO disappointed that I didn’t.

It’s not a bad book. It certainly has some interesting moments. But, and in this case it’s a very large but, it just doesn’t have the same verve as the first. Sorcerer to the Crown was epically readable, because there’s just so much going on from the very first page.

Definitely on the other hand, The True Queen just doesn’t have that compulsive readability.

Instead, the first half of the book plods. It’s slow. Not much seems to happen.

Part of that is that we need to be re-introduced to this world and its characters. 2015 was a long time ago, even if not much time has passed within the series.

But a lot of it is that the protagonists of The True Queen are passive, where the protagonists of Sorcerer to the Crown were both very active participants in the story. Instead, one of the main characters of The True Queen is fridged for a big chunk of the story. And while Sakti is frequently annoying, especially to her sister Muna, she is also the more active of the pair.

Of the sisters, Sakti is proactive – even if usually wrongheaded – while Muna is reactive. Unfortunately, it’s Muna the passive that we end up following for the first half of the story. And while Sakti always overestimates her capabilities, Muna underestimates hers. As a consequence, Sakti is the one who makes things happen – even if they are often the wrong thing.

Muna usually cleans up after Sakti. Without Sakti around to push her, she spends a lot of time waiting for something to happen, for someone to help her, or for the situation to become clear.

The two very active protagonists of Sorcerer to the Queen are relegated to background roles, and the story misses their drive immensely. Instead, the true standout character in The True Queen is Prunella’s shy and retiring friend Henrietta.

About halfway through the book, once all of the situations are set, the action finally kicks into gear. That’s the point where Henrietta finally takes her courage into her hands, and Muna sets plans in motion to rescue her sister instead of waiting for someone else to tell her what do it and how to do it.

From the point where the action moves to the court of the capricious Queen of Fairy, the situation becomes both more interesting and more dangerous. Not just because Henrietta manages to find out what she’s really made of, but because Muna takes the lead and figures out who she really is and what she’s been meant to be all along.

Escape Rating C+: This is a book that does reward sticking with it, but it takes a lot of stick. The action does not really get going until the book is half over, and that’s a lot of set up. In the end, it makes sense that Muna is as passive and reactive as she is – but it still makes The True Queen a disappointment in comparison with its predecessor. And I’m so, so sorry about that.

Review: Wild Country by Anne Bishop

Review: Wild Country by Anne BishopWild Country (The Others, #7) by Anne Bishop
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: The Others #7, World of the Others #2
Pages: 496
Published by Ace Books on March 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this powerful and exciting fantasy set in the world of the New York Times bestselling Others series, humans and the shape-shifting Others will see whether they can live side by side...without destroying one another.

There are ghost towns in the world—places where the humans were annihilated in retaliation for the slaughter of the shape-shifting Others.

One of those places is Bennett, a town at the northern end of the Elder Hills—a town surrounded by the wild country. Now efforts are being made to resettle Bennett as a community where humans and Others live and work together. A young female police officer has been hired as the deputy to a Wolfgard sheriff. A deadly type of Other wants to run a human-style saloon. And a couple with four foster children—one of whom is a blood prophet—hope to find acceptance.

But as they reopen the stores and the professional offices and start to make lives for themselves, the town of Bennett attracts the attention of other humans looking for profit. And the arrival of the Blackstone Clan, outlaws and gamblers all, will uncover secrets…or bury them.

My Review:

Having read the rest of the series, I’m still trying to figure out exactly where Bennett is in relation to the world we know. Lakeside is probably Buffalo NY. Lake Silence takes place in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, and I think that Hubbney is either Syracuse, Oneida, Utica or Schenectady NY. We don’t actually see maps.

Bennett is in the upper Midwest Region in this world, so it could be any small town. It’s certainly not Chicago, because that’s Shikago.

But the problem of where things are relative to where they are in our world is starting to feel relevant. Or, more to the point, the ways in which the World of the Others does and doesn’t match our world keeps getting both more interesting and more troubling at the same time.

One of the things that makes this world so interesting is the way that human nature really isn’t any damn different in spite of all of the different ways that this world developed than our own. At the same time, that’s also one of the issues that keeps tripping me up.

I can accept that human beings would be just as self-centered as individuals in this alternate of our own history, and would also have just as short of a collective memory as they clearly do in this series. That really, really short collective memory is the thing that keeps getting them in trouble, over and over and over.

But this is a world where humanity did not evolve as the apex predator. The Others, especially the Elders of the Others, are the apex predators, and always, always have been. There is also a well-known long history of those Elders slapping humanity back into the Stone Age whenever they stop taking care of the planet and forget that they are not the ones in charge of this world.

The part of me that loves science fiction is becoming increasingly perturbed by this. If humanity is not the apex species, wouldn’t it have evolved differently? That the human race in this story is so much like us in spite of the differences is part of what draws readers into the story, but it’s also starting to make less and less sense overall.

YMMV

The story in Wild Country takes place simultaneously with the events of Etched in Bone. I don’t think you have to have read that in order to get into this one, however. The story in Wild Country is the story of a group of humans and terra indigene (The Others) starting over in the abandoned town of Bennett, somewhere in the upper Midwest.

The terra indigene are there to see if they can control a town that will mostly be populated by humans. It’s an experiment. It’s also a favor to their allies in the nearby Intuit town of Prairie Gold.

The humans who are drawn to the place are either there to make a fresh start, or are there because this empty little village at the edge of nowhere provides them with an opportunity that does not exist in the settled places that remain after events in Marked in Flesh, where the Elders got tired of the neo-Nazi shenanigans of the Humans First and Last Movement and simply decimated the human population. Again.

And there are a few who think they can take advantage of the unsettled conditions that exist at the margins of every human frontier – forgetting entirely that the humans are not in charge and never will be.

And that the Elders cannot be conned.

Escape Rating B: I couldn’t resist reading this book as soon as I received the eARC, in spite of not being able to post the review for two months. So far, every book in this series has been like reading crack, once I start I can’t stop until I finish.

The narcotic seems to be wearing off.

I still enjoyed this book, but it didn’t grab me the way the previous books have. It also didn’t hold me the way that the previous ones did. It turned out to be interesting but not compelling.

I think part of the problem was that there isn’t really a central character. Or there are too many characters contending for the position. It felt like we’re supposed to see either Tolya Sanguinati, Virgil Wolfgard or human police officer Jana Paniccia as the POV, but perspective seems to pass around a bit too much for it to work completely and there are too many others, like Jesse Walker vying for a position. Just as we start to get invested in one character we’re on the move to another.

One of the reasons that Lake Silence worked so well is that it did focus on a singular, sympathetic character. That’s missing here.

I found the whole setting up of the town to be complex, intricate and downright fascinating, but I also seem to be on a kick where complicated political stories are really working for me at the moment. There is a LOT of minutiae involved (driving Tolya Sanguinati bananas) and it doesn’t exactly make for a fast read. Interesting, but not quick.

And then there’s the Blackstone Clan invasion, along with the knot wrapped around one of the few family members to escape them. Abigail has been hiding in plain sight in Prairie Gold, but moving to Bennett has exposed all of her secrets just at the point where her nightmare of a family comes back into her life.

The invasion of the Blackstones provides a lot of danger and dramatic tension at the climax of the story, but their kind of evil didn’t feel like it fit into this world. Or possibly it’s that Abigail’s particular talent didn’t feel as well-thought-out as the other human talents we have seen.

All in all, an interesting outing in the series that kept me entertained but didn’t live up to its predecessors. Which doesn’t mean that I won’t be back for any future forays into The World of the Others – because I certainly will.

Spotlight + Giveaway: Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven

Spotlight + Giveaway: Phoenix Unbound by Grace DravenPhoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire, #1) by Grace Draven
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Fallen Empire #1
Pages: 384
Published by Ace Books on September 25, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire's capital--her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village's tithe has been the same woman. Gilene's sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire's most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion--and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire--and burn once more.

Grace Draven has been recommended to me over and over (and over) again, pretty much ever since my dear friends at the late, lamented Book Lovers Inc all read Master of Crows and squeed out their love for it. After reading Draven’s entry in Amid the Winter Snow last year – and absolutely loving it – she definitely moved up the towering TBR pile. Phoenix Unbound, as the first book in a new series, seems like the perfect time to read more of an author that everyone just loves.

My review of Phoenix Unbound will appear in a couple of weeks, closer to its release date.

But in the meantime, in honor of the forthcoming release, because it is the first book in a new epic fantasy romance series, her publisher, Ace Books, is sponsoring an epic giveaway of not just Phoenix Unbound but also the first novels in FIVE other epic fantasy romance series. I’ve read four of the five (the fifth also moved up the towering TBR pile), and they are all fantastic, marvelous, wonderful and epic in their own ways. If you’ve ever had a yen to read Patricia Brigg’s Alpha & Omega series, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, Chloe Neill’s Heirs of Chicagoland series or Anne Bishop’s The Others, the first book in all of those series is included in this Romantic Fantasy Starter Kit along with Phoenix Unbound.

That’s plenty of books to warm up a few of the upcoming cold winter nights, especially when you factor in your inevitable addiction to all of these terrific series.

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

To enter the giveaway click HERE!

The winner will receive all of the following:

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews
Written in Red (The Others #1) by Anne Bishop
Cry Wolf (Alpha & Omega #1) by Patricia Briggs
Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire #1) by Grace Draven
Wild Hunger (Heirs of Chicagoland #1) by Chloe Neill
Slave to Sensation (Psy/Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh

20 runners up will receive an Advance Reading Copy of Phoenix Unbound!

The giveaway runs from 9/3-9/19: https://sweeps.penguinrandomhouse.com/enter/fantasy-romance-starter-kit-giveaway

Review: Night Fall by Simon R Green

Review: Night Fall by Simon R GreenNight Fall by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Secret Histories #12
Pages: 464
Published by Ace Books on June 12, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of Moonbreaker comes the epic final Secret Histories adventure, where the Droods will take on the most unexpected of enemies: the inhabitants of the Nightside.

The Droods are all about control, making people do what they're told for the greater good. The Nightside is all about choice: good and bad and everything in between. The Droods want to make the world behave. The Nightside wants to party. They were never going to get along.

For centuries, ancient Pacts have kept the Droods out of the Nightside, but now the Droods see the Nightside as a threat to the whole world. They march into the long night, in their armour, to put it under their control. All too soon, the two sides are at war. It's Eddie Drood and Molly Metcalf against John Taylor and Shotgun Suzie. The Drood Sarjeant-at-Arms and their Armourer against Dead Boy and Razor Eddie. More groups join in: the London Knights, the Ghost Finders, the Spawn of Frankenstein, Shadows Fall, and the Soulhunters. Science and magic are running wild, there's blood running in the gutters, and the bodies are piling up.

Is anyone going to get out of this alive?

My Review:

It’s the end of the world as they know it, in a hail of bullets and a shower of blood, with a chaser of hellfire. This is where the implacable force meets the immovable object – and both decide that they’ve had enough.

Night Fall is the official 12th volume of the Secret Histories. Unofficially, it’s also the 13th book of the Nightside and the 7th story about the Ghost Finders. And also the unofficial last and final volume of all of this author’s current long-running series, at least according to the note at the back. Night Fall, as its name implies, is an ending and not a beginning. An ending with a bang – and plenty of whimpering. But that’s the Nightside for you.

Consider that a warning – this isn’t the place to start with any of these series.

For those who have at least a nodding acquaintance with the Nightside and the Secret Histories, this is a conflict that feels inevitable. The Droods, the keeper of those ultra-secret histories, have felt duty-bound throughout the centuries to protect humanity at all costs – even from itself.

The Nightside feels like the Droods moral opposite. Where the Droods believe in law and order above all, as long as its their law and their order, the Nightside is a place of absolute freedom of choice. Even if those choices lead a person straight to heaven, or hell, or somewhere above or below either of them. Or out of this world, and possibly their minds, altogether.

The Droods have always wanted to bring the Nightside under their domain. The Nightside just wants to be left the hell alone. The Droods never leave anyone or anything alone – not once they have it or them in their sights.

The story begins as a cascade of events that start wrong and just go downhill from there. The dominos are falling, and the war that both sides say they don’t want moves from inevitably to being splashed bloodily and viscerally all over the Nightside.

But if dominos are falling, then who, or what, flicked that first tile?

And can John Taylor, the Walker of the Nightside, and Eddie Drood, the family’s rebel agent, figure out who set them against each other before the long night falls – and takes the Droods with it.

Escape Rating A: For readers familiar with at least some of this author’s worlds, Night Fall is an absolutely smashing, bang-up, explosive ending. Complete with smashing, banging and explosions, as well as at least a tip of the hat to possibly every major, interesting, colorful and/or profane character that has been created along the way.

It’s a blast. Sometimes with actual blasting powder – or substances even more explosive.

At the same time, Simon R. Green is an acquired taste, like oysters, or escargot, or chocolate-covered ants. Possibly complete with the “Ewww, I’m not really sure about this” reaction. And it’s the only one of the four that I’ve ever bothered to acquire.

The level of constant, utter, bloody-minded, so arch that it needs a keystone, snarkitude is bitter, wry and incredibly addictive – while at the same hard to swallow in a sustained gulp bigger than one book at a time. It’s marvelous and crazy and sometimes absolutely exhausting.

I love his work, but I can only read them one at a time. Part of that is because the uber-clever descriptions, introductions and backstories for each and every character tend to repeat if one attempts to binge-read. It’s been long enough for me that re-reading the character portraits of John Taylor, Eddie Drood, Suzie Shooter, Molly Metcalf and the rest gave me a sense of nostalgia. It was good to catch up with all my old friends, one last time.

Underneath the constant snark there are several interesting stories being told.

The biggest one is the one about just how thickly the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Droods do want what’s best – admittedly for their definition of best, but their hearts at least begin in the right place. But the veneer of respectability proves to be much thinner than any of them expect. While there is an outside force that pushed the first domino, once it falls the Droods are more than happy to keep knocking more dominos, even extra dominos, all on the own.

The people of the Nightside are stuck playing defense. The Droods invade, and begin conquering their home block by block and street by street, leaving everything behind them paved with blood and guts. Some of it even their own. Surrendering doesn’t even feel like an option – because it isn’t.

While the Droods would frame this fight as a fight of good vs. evil, that’s only their interpretation. A closer interpretation, at least for their initial motivations, is a battle between order and chaos. But the Nightside isn’t truly chaotic, and the Droods have taken order to its tyrannical extreme. At which point they’ve lost the moral high ground they came in with.

It’s also interesting to see just how many older and darker powers both sides end up calling on, and how all of those occupying the thrones and dominations tell them to get stuffed and clean up their own messes.

Diving into Night Fall reminded me just how much I’ve enjoyed all of this author’s work, and why science fiction and fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, are always my go-to genres. Night Fall is the wildest of wild rides from its slam bang opening to its quiet close – and I savored every page of it.

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

Review: The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanThe Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Invisible Library #4
Pages: 367
Published by Ace Books on January 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

After being commissioned to find a rare book, Librarian Irene and her assistant, Kai, head to Prohibition-era New York and are thrust into the middle of a political fight with dragons, mobsters, and Fae.

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Free Space by Sean Danker + Giveaway

Review: Free Space by Sean Danker + GiveawayFree Space (Evagardian #2) by Sean Danker
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Evagardian #2
Pages: 320
Published by Ace Books on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the follow-up to Admiral, the intergalactic war has ended and hostilities between the Evagardian Empire and the Commonwealth are officially over, but the admiral is far from safe. . . .
"I'd impersonated a prince, temporarily stopped a war, escaped a deadly planet, and survived more assassination attempts than I could conveniently count. After all that, there shouldn't have been anything simpler than a nice weekend with a charming Evagardian girl.
However, some corners of the galaxy aren't as genteel as the Empire, and Evagardians aren't universally loved, which is how I ended up kidnapped to be traded as a commodity.
Their timing couldn't have been worse. I'm not at my best, but these people have no idea whom they're dealing with: a highly trained, genetically engineered soldier in the Imperial Service who happens to be my date."

My Review:

What kind of story do you get when a completely unreliable narrator attempts to be at least semi-reliable? And when the rest of the story is from the perspective of someone who always plays it straight but in this case just doesn’t know what part or game she is playing?

It makes for one hell of a wild and crazy ride, in some ways even crazier than the ride in the first book in this series, Admiral.

We still don’t know the man’s real name. We know that he spent quite a few years pretending to be Prince Dalton of the Ganraen Empire. We know that he used to be an Evagardian Imperial Agent, and that now he is on the run from everyone on all sides. The Ganraens would execute him as a traitor. The Empire just wants to clean up their very loose end.

Whoever he is, he wants to live. But first, he wants one last chance with Jessica Salmagard, one of the three cadets he both bamboozled and helped rescue in Admiral.

But like so many of his plans, this one goes very, VERY “gang aft aglee”. Because the Admiral and Jessica get themselves kidnapped. By accident.

And that’s where all the fun and adventure really begins.

The story is one of those “out of the frying pan into the fire” and then into the oven and then into the blast furnace kinds of things. Events are always on the brink of disaster, it’s just that the disaster they are on the brink of gets bigger and bigger as they go along.

Until the disaster is so big that the only thing bigger is a black hole. And look, there one is, right on the event horizon!

And we’re left wondering who exactly ended up saving whom in this insane adventure. Not to mention, we still don’t know who the Admiral really is. And neither does Jessica. Possibly at this point neither does the Admiral himself.

We’re all left hoping that someday we’ll find out. If the Admiral can manage to escape, yet again, from whomever has captured him. This time.

Escape Rating A-: At the start of this book, there’s a brief portion where events seemed to take a bit to get going. And it takes the reader a bit to catch themselves back up on previous events. So much of Admiral was kind of a locked room (or locked ship) mystery, and it happened so much in isolation that we don’t get much of a handle on events in this universe.

And just like in Admiral, we pretty much get dropped into the middle of the story yet again.

But once this thing takes flight, meaning once they get kidnapped, the ever escalating sequence of perils keeps the reader hanging on tight until the very end.

Unlike in Admiral, the narrative here is split between the Admiral and Jessica Salmagard. The Admiral is a completely unreliable narrator. He never reveals what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, or who he is. He embodies the idea of wheels within wheels within wheels. He’s always playing a part. But in this book we start to get the sense that even he is no longer certain exactly what part he is playing.

But very early on in the story the Admiral and Salmagard are separated. This leaves part of the story tied to her separate actions and events. Unlike the Admiral himself, we don’t see Jessica’s story from inside her head, but rather in an omniscient third-person. We really don’t need to see inside her head, because she is much more of “what you see is what you get” kind of person. She’s mostly straightforward in her actions, even if she is starting to wonder about a whole lot of the things she’s been taught to believe.

The universe, and the people in it, do not conform to the simple stereotypes that she was trained to expect. The experience for her is both unsettling and eye-opening, often at the same time.

One of the great things about the way that Free Space progresses is that the separation works to throw some of the usual expectations on their heads.

Once they are separated, it’s Salmagard and another female soldier who break themselves out of captivity, shoot up a couple of space stations, steal a ship, and generally commit all the mayhem and badassery that is usually reserved for the male protagonists in this kind of story. The two women become the rescuers, and the Admiral and a male soldier kidnapped with them become the rescuees.

Also, it’s the men who suffer from the comedy of errors, falling from one bad situation to an even worse one, tied up, gagged and often drugged through the entire mess as they descend through what feels like, instead of a descent through the seven circles of hell, a descent through the seven circles of illegal intergalactic human trafficking as perpetrated by a pair of unprepared idiots.

This is an adventure where not only does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing, but all the participants are either incapacitated, incompetent, or just plain lying every step of the way. Including the hero and heroine.

At the end, we’re left gasping, wondering if this was a real rescue, or just a setup for even more (and probably worse) yet to come.

In the next book. May it be soon.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I really enjoyed Free Space (and Admiral) so I am very pleased that the publisher is letting me give away one copy of Free Space to a lucky US/Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway