Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Shenanigans by Mercedes LackeyShenanigans (Tales of Valdemar, #16) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tales of Valdemar #16, Valdemar (Publication order) #55
Pages: 336
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This sixteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

Last week’s Into the West – and Beyond before it – focused on the very serious adventure of the Founding of Valdemar. Kordas Valdemar and Company’s epic journey gave series fans a much better idea of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the creation of the place that we all love. But that’s certainly not all there is to Valdemar.

Shenanigans, the sixteenth book in the Tales of Valdemar subseries (after last year’s Boundaries), presents series readers with a treat of a present for this holiday season, as the stories within are exactly what the title names them – shenanigans.

While there’s a bit of derring-do, Shenanigans is a collection of marvelous, funny and often marvelously funny stories set in all the periods of Valdemar history among all of the many peoples and creatures that make the place so much fun to read about for so many glorious years.

In spite of the blurb, most of the stories in Shenanigans do not revolve around the Companions and their Chosen. Some do, of course, or it wouldn’t be a Valdemar collection, but quite a few of the shenanigans in the collection thereof are more slice of life stories, and there are a fair number that feature people with telepathic “gifts” that are not Chosen and may not even wish to be.

Of course, there are also several stories set among the students of the Collegium, because, well, students and pranking make for a fun story no matter what world they’re set in.

Which leads to my two favorite stories in the collection, “Pranks for the Memories” by Dee Shull and “Fool’s Week” by Anthea Sharp. The stories are similar, but they are still both excellent. It’s spring. The students are restless. (Probably every teacher everywhere is nodding their head at THAT idea). In “Pranks” one student mentions a family tradition of a week of pranking. In “Fool’s Week”, someone remembers that there used to be a traditional “fool’s week” at the Collegium until the practice, not unsurprisingly, got out of hand.

It’s suddenly in hand again, to the point where even the teachers are participating. And it’s hilarious!

The other standouts – at least for this reader – come in pairs. “All Around the Bell Tower” by Stephanie Shaver and “A Bouquet of Gifts, or The Culinary Adventures of Rork” by Michele Lang. Both are stories about young girls who have gifts that the people around them can’t quite identify – and that give them each more than a few problems. What each child needs is someone to both listen and understand. The story in “Bell Tower” is a bit more traditional Valdemar in that it’s her Companion that finally brings help in the persons of both themself and their accompanying Heralds. In “A Bouquet of Gifts” we get a much fuller than usual portrait of the helpful hertasi as Rork the chef, as he sets up a feast for a returning friend, also makes a new one – along with a menagerie of mischievously ‘helpful’ creatures and animals.

We saw a lot of the hertasi in Into the West and it’s lovely to see them again here.

And then there are the two stories that include both romance and adventure in equal measure – if on nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic strata. “A Cry of Hounds” by Elisabeth Waters and “One Trick Pony” by Diana Paxson. “Hounds” is set in the King’s Court of Valdemar. Lord Repulsive’s father is dead, and Lord Repulsive himself is trying to marry off his 12-year-old stepdaughter. In reality, he’s selling his 12-year-old stepdaughter and trying to keep the King from finding out that the child is only 12. Because he will not approve the marriage once he learns, and he will not be amused when he discovers the deception. And he is not. Lord Repulsive gets what’s coming to him with the help of his castoff brother, his sister-in-law and every dog she talks to with her AnimalSpeech. And he deserves every bit of it. (Lord Repulsive really is repulsive. It’s not his real name but “if the shoe fits” or in this case, more like “if the Foo shits”…)

Last but not least there’s, Diana Paxson’s “One Trick Pony”, which mixes a bit of the bittersweet memory of heartbreak and the horrors of war into its story about a man who has found peace after grief and war by gardening, and the way that peace is invaded by a woman who reopens his heart and a newly born Companion who is learning the limits of their own power one prank at a time.

Escape Rating B: After the necessary seriousness of Into the West, the mostly lighthearted tales of Shenanigans were an absolute delight. As with most collections, not every single story hits its mark, but more than enough of them to make Shenanigans a treat for Valdemar fans. Certainly something to tide us all over as we wait for Gryphon in Light, coming in June.

Review: Into the West by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Into the West by Mercedes LackeyInto the West (The Founding of Valdemar, #2) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #2, Valdemar (Publication order) #54, Valdemar (Chronological) #5
Pages: 496
Published by DAW Books on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this second book in the new series from a New York Times-bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
Baron Valdemar and his people have found a temporary haven, but it cannot hold all of them, or for long. Trouble could follow on their heels at any moment, and there are too many people for Crescent Lake to support. Those who are willing to make a further trek by barge on into the West will follow him into a wilderness depopulated by war and scarred by the terrible magics of a thousand years ago and the Mage Wars. But the wilderness is not as empty as it seems. There are potential friends and rapacious foes....
....and someone is watching them.

My Review:

We already knew the destination. What Valdemar is, what it became, seemed fully formed all the way back in Arrows of the Queen, which takes place almost 1400 years after the founding of Valdemar and was originally published in 1987. We’ve known the destination for a very long time.

This is the journey. Literally. Just as Beyond was the final push to start that journey, Into the West is the journey itself. Complete with all the cold, mud AND bugs that any adventure requires.

But, where Beyond was a story of running away, Into the West is a story about running towards.

As high as the stakes were, and still are, in the events that opened the way for Valdemar and his people to leave the corrupt Eastern Empire, the story itself built to a big climax – even bigger than Kordas Valdemar himself expected.

That part’s over. They’ve gotten away – at least for the moment. They believe that they left enough of a mess behind that it will take some time for the Empire to get its political shit into a big enough and unified enough pile to come after them.

Leaving a crater where the capital used to be should keep things back in the Empire in disarray for quite some time. At least until the surviving nobles and warlords and military commanders shake out which of them is going to be in charge and possibly charge after the fleeing Valdemarians.

If they can even find them after however much time that’s going to take.

So the big thing that everyone was working towards has been accomplished. Everyone was willing to unite towards that gigantic and hugely dangerous common goal. Into the West is the story of what happens next.

On the one hand, it’s an adventure. They are headed, as the title proclaims, into the west. To the place where the Mage Wars magically corrupted the land and everything on it centuries before. Kordas Valdemar knows that the land is still dangerous, but hopes that the intervening centuries have allowed the land to recover enough to make it habitable for his people.

On the other hand, it’s every bit as much of a political story as Beyond. But like the difference between running away and running towards that is the lynchpin of each book, Beyond’s portrait of the Eastern Empire was a lesson in what NOT to do and what NOT to be. It’s up to Baron Valdemar, the man who will be Valdemar’s first king, to figure out what his country and its people should do and will be in the centuries to come.

All they have to do is get past all the things and people that want to kill them along the way.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve read Beyond – and I highly recommend it – Into the West picks up just where Beyond leaves off. That Valdemar and his people are now beyond the reach of the Empire and are headed into the west.

Which makes this a much different type of story than the previous book – one that isn’t quite as exciting – but is very much necessary – in the opening several chapters.

The big story, of course, centers around Kordas Valdemar, the man who will be the first king of the country that will be named after him. If one has even read a cursory summary of the previous published books in the Valdemar series – which nearly all come AFTER this one in the internal chronology – one already knows that Kordas succeeded. He did become the legendarily good king that the history books talk about nearly a millennium later in The Last Herald-Mage series.

Which, by the way, doesn’t mean you have to have read any of the series previously in order to enjoy Beyond and Into the West. And certainly not that you have to have read any of them recently. Like even in this century recently.

But Into the West is the story of Kordas, not as a myth or a legend, but as a man facing a seemingly impossible job with an all-too-real case of impostor syndrome. He has to do this, He promised his people he’d do this. He’s in over his head and knows it – not that anyone wouldn’t be over their head under the circumstances.

He’s doing the best he can to make the best decisions he can to save not just the most people but the most people with the right ethics and the right moral compass along the way.

So this is the portrait of the legend as a real man, with all his flaws and all his virtues. And by the nature of that portrait, it is also an up close and personal view of how the sausage of government gets made.

For a lot of the story, their journey reads as more of a series of vignettes than a continuous narrative. While there are hints of the everyday drudgery of getting this mass of folks moving, the high points of the story naturally occur when things happen. Sometimes disastrously but just as often when conflicts are avoided or when kindness is paid forward and back along the way.

And then at the end they learn just what it is they’ve let themselves into – and it’s explosive and page-turning and even brutally epic.

But the getting there has a couple of hitches that Beyond didn’t, one which deals with the story in its present, and one which has its impact because of the future that is known but hasn’t happened yet. And one bittersweet heartbreaker to tempt us all to keep reading or go back and read again.

There’s a piece of Into the West that is a coming of age story for Kordas’ much younger sister-in-law Delia. In order to help her get over her entirely too obvious and cringeworthy crush on him, Kordas assigns her to a forward scouting party. It’s the making of her and gives the story a way of seeing the perils, trials and tribulations of this big journey at a much smaller and more easily encompassed scale. But her mooncalf obsession over Kordas really slowed the story down until she finally started to get over it.

The second hitch was the expedition’s winter rescue by the Hawkbrothers. As it occurs, it reads very much like a deus ex machina that shortcuts past a lot of what would have been a hard, killing winter even without the surrounding monsters. Once it happens, it does feel like something that had to have happened because it already did. It also provides a touching pause between disasters just before the newly fledged Valdemarians discover that their oh-so-convenient rescuers weren’t nearly as all-knowing as they pretended to be.

When Into the West wraps up after a truly epic concluding battle, the story is at a point where it could be the end of this Valdemar subseries. But I hope it isn’t, and that’s because of that bittersweet little heartbreaker at the end.

The one signature feature of the entire Valdemar series that we do not see in either Beyond or Into the West are the marvelous, magical, horse-like Companions who serve as guides, friends and even consciences of the best and brightest that Valdemar the country has to offer. But I think we’ve met the people who will become them, and in a scene that just about breaks the heart we get just a hint of what depth of love and kind of sacrifice was needed to make the Companions possible. And I want there to be a third book in the Founding of Valdemar so I can find out if I’ve guessed right.

But in the meantime there’s a new collection of Valdemar stories, Shenanigans, that I’ll be reviewing next week followed by a new novel about Valdemar’s legendary gryphons, Gryphon in Light, coming this summer.

Review: Braking Day by Adam Oyebanji

Review: Braking Day by Adam OyebanjiBraking Day by Adam Oyebanji
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, space opera, thriller
Pages: 359
Published by DAW Books on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

On a generation ship bound for a distant star, one engineer-in-training must discover the secrets at the heart of the voyage in this new sci-fi novel.
It's been over a century since three generation ships escaped an Earth dominated by artificial intelligence in pursuit of a life on a distant planet orbiting Tau Ceti. Now, it's nearly Braking Day, when the ships will begin their long-awaited descent to their new home.
Born on the lower decks of the Archimedes, Ravi Macleod is an engineer-in-training, set to be the first of his family to become an officer in the stratified hierarchy aboard the ship. While on a routine inspection, Ravi sees the impossible: a young woman floating, helmetless, out in space. And he's the only one who can see her.
As his visions of the girl grow more frequent, Ravi is faced with a choice: secure his family's place among the elite members of Archimedes' crew or risk it all by pursuing the mystery of the floating girl. With the help of his cousin, Boz, and her illegally constructed AI, Ravi must investigate the source of these strange visions and uncovers the truth of the Archimedes' departure from Earth before Braking Day arrives and changes everything about life as they know it.

My Review: 

This debut science fiction thriller combines both “We have met the enemy and he is us” with “No matter where you go, there you are” into a story about the baggage that we literally carry with us as we attempt to make a seemingly fresh, new start.

Three colony ships, the Archimedes, the Bohr, and the Chandrasekhar, have been traveling through the black of interstellar space for 132 years. That’s seven generations of shipboard life, all in service of a single goal – reaching Destination World and disembarking for a return to planet bound life that is otherwise so far in the past that no one alive remembers any sense of gravity other than that generated by the gigantic revolving rings that make up their ships.

But all of that is about to change when we first meet Midshipman Ravi MacLeod aboard the Archimedes. Because Braking Day is only weeks away. On that day, the ship will fire up its main engines to start their final push for their new home.

When everything that has become familiar over so many decades of shipboard life will finally change.

But there are always plenty of people who prefer the status quo, and that’s just as true aboard the Archie and her sister ships as it is in any other gathering of humans. Some are just afraid. Some don’t want to take the chance of screwing up a pristine new world the same way that their ancestors – meaning us, now – made a mess of Earth.

And some, the privileged few of the officer class in particular, are not looking forward to the loss of their purpose or especially those much vaunted privileges. After all, a planetary colony won’t need an officer class to run things anymore. At least it won’t need the same people and skills in that officer class that it has needed while aboard.

First, however, Archie and her sister ships have to get there. The crew has always been told that there’s no one out there to stop them – except their own internal squabbles. And not that they don’t have plenty of those to be going on with.

But as operations gear up for Braking Day, engineer-in-training Ravi and his hacker-extraordinaire cousin Boz hack their way into secrets that no one was ever supposed to find.

Archie, Bohr and Chandrasekhar are not alone – and never have been. The officers have a plan for dealing with the threat that they’ve never officially acknowledged. The problem is that the so-called enemy has a plan to deal with them, too.

And Ravi and Boz are caught right in the middle of it.

Escape Rating A+: This was another reread for me, from another STARRED Library Journal review. So I went back to this after several months and, like The Bruising of Qilwa yesterday, it was every bit as good the second time around. I don’t have the opportunity to reread terribly often these days, so this was kind of a treat!

I got caught up in this right away, both times, because this complex story in this large, artificial ecosystem is anchored in one, multi-faceted character, Ravi MacLeod. From one perspective, Braking Day can be seen as Ravi’s coming-of-age story. When we first meet him, he’s a cadet in engineering, but that’s just the tip of a ship-sized iceberg. And from another, it’s a gigantic mystery with potentially deadly consequences. Certainly for Ravi, and quite possibly for everyone else as well.

After 132 years, the social stratification of shipboard life has reached the level of downright ossification. Children of officers become privileged officers in their turn. Children of crew become crew. Children of criminal lowlifes eventually get recycled (literally) as “Dead Weight”, just like their parents.

Ravi is a maverick who gets punished at pretty much every turn because he comes from a criminal family. He doesn’t “belong” to the officer class and few people on either side of that divide ever let him forget it. (If this part of the story sounds interesting, take a look at Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport, which shows what happens after century upon century of such ossification. It’s not pretty but it is compelling.)

There’s also a gigantic secret hidden in the history of the Archie’s expedition – as there was in David Ramirez’ The Forever Watch. It’s a secret that was born out of the same kind of fear and that results in the same deadly consequences.

There is also an enemy within Archie, in a place and position that all the powers that be refuse to even look at. It’s an issue that has more resonance to today than I originally saw. The privileged classes, the officers, don’t want to lose their power and privilege, and fear the changes that landfall will bring. Some of them don’t care that if they don’t land that eventually the ship’s recycling will fail and they’ll end up drifting in space. After all, it won’t happen in their generation. But the officers who are investigating the increasing incidents of sabotage never look among “their own” for the perpetrators.

Add in an actual, living, breathing enemy that has been raised for generations to hate everything about the Archie and her sister ships, that wants nothing more than revenge for past wrongs, and you have multiple recipes for disaster all playing out at the same time – a disaster that just keeps on getting bigger and having more facets every minute.

The question of whether the fleet will cripple itself, whether they and their old enemy will wipe each other out, or whether the cybernetic space dragons will decide that they are all collectively too stupid to live creates the kind of non-stop adventure that will keep readers on the edge of their seats even after the big, explosive climax.

Braking Day was the author’s debut novel, and it was wild and marvelous and thoughtful all at the same time. I literally gobbled it up not once but twice and still wished there were more. His next book is a complete surprise as it’s a contemporary mystery thriller. A Quiet Teacher is coming out next week, and I’m terribly curious to see where the author takes me next.

Review: The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey

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

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

My Review:

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie Oakley ca. 1903

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Boundaries edited by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Boundaries edited by Mercedes LackeyBoundaries (Tales of Valdemar #15) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Valdemar (Publication order) #53, Tales of Valdemar #15
Pages: 368
Published by DAW Books on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This fifteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

After reading – and loving – Beyond, the opening book in the Founding of Valdemar prequel series, I was reminded of just how much I loved this world, and how many stories it still had to tell. So when Boundaries popped up, it seemed like a good time to see if that good feeling about Valdemar still held up.

Because there are so many stories yet to tell in this world, and Boundaries is the fifteenth book of a long-standing series of Tales of Valdemar told by writers who have fallen in love with this well-developed world and have been given the opportunity to explore a bit of it that has piqued their love and interest.

Some collections I dip into and out of in various places within the collection, looking for stories with certain features or certain characters. And not that I don’t love the Firecats, because cats. There’s a long, long ago Valdemar story where two Firecats, at the end of an adventure, have a taste for “field mice on toast” and are planning to go out and hunt for their field mice, admonishing their human on the way out the door that “Toast will be provided!” And isn’t that just cats all over?

The theme of this collection is, just like it says on the label, boundaries, particularly the boundary between Valdemar and Karse. A border that has been a tense place where two countries with conflicting views on just about everything – magic, religion, freedom and opportunity – observe an uneasy peace that is all too often neither easy or peaceful.

Borders are always interesting places, as they are where unlike things and people rub up against each other with interesting, and occasionally even incendiary, results. As it proves in several of the stories in this collection.

Escape Rating B+: Like all collections, some entries are stronger than others. And some work for more people than others. But it was still wonderful to visit Valdemar and its neighbors again, so I’m happy I picked it up.

My favorite story in the collection is “A Time for Prayer” by Kristin Schwengel as it manages to tell a story that both displays the fear in which the hierarchy of the Sunpriests of Karse is held by most people while at the same time showing the service of the priests at the local level to their communities and the surprising flexibility of how that service is performed. Priests are supposed to be men – and only men – in Karse. And yet this is the story of a woman who has been trained by the previous priest in this little village as his acolyte and who, in spite of all the laws and strictures against it, steps fully into his place upon his death. Who, in spite of her fears is not found wanting by her god, no matter what those who believe they speak in his name might believe.

There are also two lovely stories about healers, “Tides of War” by Dylan Birtolo and “Final Consequences” by Elizabeth Vaughan. The first is about a young soldier during and after his first battle (against Karse, of course!) discovering that in spite of what everyone else thinks, both he and his country would be best served if he became a battlefield medic rather than one of their patients.

While “Final Consequences” takes place far from a battlefield, it tells a lovely story about the life of a healer, the demands on their time, the joy of their work, and the way that their service leads to both a full life and just occasionally, a happy ever after. In a setting where not all battles involve obvious bloodshed.

And of course, last but not least for this reader, there’s a cat story. Not a Firecat story, but a cat story. “A Clutter of Cat” by Elisabeth Waters is just an adorable story, not entirely filled with kitten fluff, about a community centered around the ability to Mindspeak animals – and some of the resistance to that gift. Along with some resistance to the cats who are, after all, just being cats.

Review: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Noor by Nnedi OkoraforNoor by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 224
Published by DAW Books on November 9, 2021
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From Africanfuturist luminary Okorafor comes a new science fiction novel of intense action and thoughtful rumination on biotechnology, destiny, and humanity in a near-future Nigeria.
Anwuli Okwudili prefers to be called AO. To her, these initials have always stood for Artificial Organism. AO has never really felt...natural, and that's putting it lightly. Her parents spent most of the days before she was born praying for her peaceful passing because even in-utero she was wrong. But she lived. Then came the car accident years later that disabled her even further. Yet instead of viewing her strange body the way the world views it, as freakish, unnatural, even the work of the devil, AO embraces all that she is: A woman with a ton of major and necessary body augmentations. And then one day she goes to her local market and everything goes wrong.
Once on the run, she meets a Fulani herdsman named DNA and the race against time across the deserts of Northern Nigeria begins. In a world where all things are streamed, everyone is watching the reckoning of the murderess and the terrorist and the saga of the wicked woman and mad man unfold. This fast-paced, relentless journey of tribe, destiny, body, and the wonderland of technology revels in the fact that the future sometimes isn't so predictable. Expect the unaccepted.

My Review:

Two lost people find themselves, each other and a secret that the biggest corporation in the world hoped would never be found. A secret that the powers-that-be will do anything to protect. As the saying goes, once a can of worms is opened they never go back into the can. Especially when the secret that’s been hidden is as earth-shattering and sand-spewing as this one.

And no, we’re not talking about Arrakis. We’re talking about Earth. A future Earth after an ecological/climatological disaster has created the equivalent of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in northern Nigeria. A sandstorm of such speed and force that the windpower it generates is powering great cities all over the world.

Even as it eats up and eats away the land that gave it birth.

The Red Eye is the place where people who don’t fit, where those who have nothing left to lose, and those who refuse to be monitored by giant corporations 24/7 take themselves when they have nowhere else to go. Or when they can no longer make themselves pretend that they belong in the world that has left them behind, in one way or another.

This big story, like that big ecological disaster, starts small. With AO and DNA, those two lost people who have each survived a trauma on the very same day. AO, born with multiple birth defects both internal and external, is now part cybernetic. In fact, AO is a lot cybernetic, with two cybernetic legs and one cybernetic arm to replace the nonfunctional limbs she was born with. And with cybernetics in her brain, not because there was anything wrong, but because she wanted the enhanced memory and permanent internet connectivity.

But the more AO looks like the “Autobionic Organism” she had named herself for, the less she is accepted by the people around her. Many object on religious grounds. Some do so out of fear – not that that’s much of a difference. Some find her rejection of traditional appearances and roles for women to be anathema. Many call her an “abomination”.

When the safe space she believes she has carved out for herself suddenly becomes anything but, AO refuses to submit. Instead, she uses her greater strength to not merely subdue her tormentors but to kill the men who expected her to submit to her own execution at their hands.

In the aftermath, AO runs. Away from the towns and towards the desert. Heading away. North. Towards the Red Eye. Driving as far and as fast as she can in an unthinking fugue state. At least until her car runs out of power and she continues on foot towards an unknown but probably brief future.

Where she runs into a herdsman named DNA, who is just as lost and traumatized as she is. Who has also just defended himself with deadly force against a mob that killed his friends and most of his herd of cattle in an act of misplaced revenge against terrorists posing as herdsmen.

Now DNA has been labeled a terrorist, just as AO has been labeled a crazed murderer. Everyone is literally out to get them.

But the context of both of their stories is missing. When they find that context, when they are able to dig down through the layers of propaganda and misinformation that surrounds the most traumatic events in both their lives, they find a deep, dark, deadly secret.

A secret that many people will kill to protect. A secret that brought them together – and is tearing their continent apart while entirely too many people, including both of their families, go complacently about their business.

Just the way the biggest corporation in the world had planned it.

Escape Rating A: One way of looking at Noor is that it is two stories with an interlude in the middle. Another way, and a better metaphor, is that it is a story that winds up like a hurricane or a tornado, pauses in a calm storm’s eye in the middle, and then unwinds quickly in an explosive ending as the storm dissipates.

I listened to Noor through the eye of that storm, and then read the rest because it and I were both so wound up that I couldn’t wait to see which direction all those winds ended up blowing. And the narrator, particularly for that first part, had a wonderful voice that was just perfect for storytelling. She helped me to not just hear, but see and feel that oncoming storm.

At first, in the story’s tight focus on AO, it all seems small and personal. AO is different, and she is all too aware of those differences. She, and the reader, are equally aware that one of the ways in which human beings suck is that anyone who is deemed by society to be different gets punished by that society in ways both large and small. AO’s constant awareness of her surroundings and her ongoing attempts to be less threatening and less “herself” in order to carve out a safe space in which to live will sound familiar to anyone who has bucked the way it’s supposed to be in order to be who they really are.

The violence against her is sadly expected and both she and the reader sadly expect it – until it becomes life-threatening and she strikes back.

When she meets DNA and his two steers, GPS and Carpe Diem, he is in the same emotional trauma coming from an entirely different direction. Where AO has embraced the future – perhaps too much – DNA has clung to his people’s past as a nomadic herdsman. That they find themselves in the same situation is ironic and tragic, but not in any way a coincidence.

And that’s where things get interesting. The more that AO and DNA search for answers, the bigger the questions get. The more they find friends and allies, the bigger the forces arrayed against them.

And the less the story is about those two lost people and the more it is about the forces that put them in that situation in the first place. The story expands its tent to encompass colonialism, complacency and exploitation in ways that make the most singular acts have the most global of consequences – and the other way around – in an infinity loop at the heart of the storm.

Review: Brothers of the Wind by Tad Williams

Review: Brothers of the Wind by Tad WilliamsBrothers of the Wind by Tad Williams
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 272
Published by DAW Books on November 2, 2021
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Set in the New York Times bestselling world of Osten Ard, this short novel continues the saga that inspired a generation of fantasists
Pride often goes before a fall, but sometimes that prideful fall is so catastrophic that it changes history itself.
Among the immortal Sithi of Osten Ard, none are more beloved and admired than the two sons of the ruling family, steady Hakatri and his proud and fiery younger brother Ineluki -- Ineluki, who will one day become the undead Storm King. The younger brother makes a bold, terrible oath that he will destroy deadly Hidohebhi, a terrifying monster, but instead drags his brother with him into a disaster that threatens not just their family but all the Sithi -- and perhaps all of humankind as well.
Set a thousand years before the events of Williams's The Dragonbone Chair, the tale of Ineluki's tragic boast and what it brings is told by Pamon Kes, Hakatri's faithful servant. Kes is not one of the Sithi but a member of the enslaved Changeling race, and his loyalty has never before been tested. Now he must face the terrible black dragon at his master's side, then see his own life changed forever in a mere instant by Ineluki's rash, selfish promise.

My Review:

It’s hard to believe that The Dragonbone Chair was published over 30 years ago. A whole lifetime ago. I read it as it was published, and I remember loving it and waiting impatiently for each book but don’t remember anything about the story. I DO remember attempting to read one of the author’s later series (Otherland) and failing miserably.

But that was a long time ago, and the past is another country, so when this book popped up on Edelweiss I thought, “Why not?” As this is a prequel to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, the trilogy that began with The Dragonbone Chair, I figured that I didn’t NEED to remember anything at all to get into this one.

And I was right. The writing was as lush and descriptive as I sorta/kinda remembered, but I didn’t need to look up anything about the plot of the original books to get into this one – because none of those events had happened in this world. Not yet anyway.

So the story here stood alone. And thankfully didn’t stand nearly as long as the original trilogy, which I may remember fondly but also remember as doorstop-sized. Each. (Also, don’t worry about the designation of this book in some places as following or being part of the Last King of Osten Ard series. Last King is a sequel to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Brothers is a prequel.)

Brothers of the Wind is, as it says right there on the label, a story about brothers and brotherhood. But the brothers are immortal princes in their world, so the family dynamics and family squabbles and sibling rivalries are both neverending and potentially world-shattering in their impacts.

A shattering that is still being felt a thousand years later.

Escape Rating A-: More than anything else, Brothers of the Wind is a story about overweening pride going before a very big fall. And it’s a story about the difference between pride and honor. It’s also, playing into that pride, a story about the braying of privilege and the horrifying results of its exercise.

As I was reading, I found myself wondering if Ineluki was what we would call bipolar or something much too similar. He doesn’t have much of a brain-to-mouth filter, but that reads like a consequence of his overwhelming privilege. When Ineluki has a tantrum, which he does, frequently and often and with terrible consequences, he gets placated and indulged because he’s a prince which makes him powerful in his own right. He doesn’t face the consequences of his actions because everyone, especially his brother Hakatri, cleans up after him. Which just makes Ineluki resent him all the more.

But Ineluki really reads like someone who has a gigantic dose of impostor syndrome. He never seems to feel like he’s equal to his brother Hakatri in the hearts of either their parents or their people. The way that the brothers’ actions play out over the course of the story read very much like the dynamic between Thor and Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and wasn’t that a surprise?

I think it fits though. Hakatri, like Thor, is the golden favorite, the older brother who is beloved by absolutely everyone and seems utterly perfect to everyone he meets. While Ineluki is dark and always trying to make his own mark in a world where it seems like his older brother has already taken all the best bits. Ineluki is a resentful second son who nurses his grudges and his temper like a spoiled child.

A spoiled child whose tantrums remake the face of the world, and not for the better, with consequences that will ring down through the ages in the tolling of funeral bells.

But this isn’t just the story of the two brothers, because the perspective of the story is told by Hakatri’s faithful servant, Pamon Kes. While Brothers of the Wind isn’t quite as epic as The Lord of the Rings, The Dragonbone Chair and the whole of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn definitely are. Which means that this book reads very much as if The Lord of the Rings had been written by Sam Gamgee entirely from his first-person perspective. A perspective that shows that even the compassionate, golden Hakatri took a tremendous amount of advantage of the goodwill and hero worship of an awful lot of people, whether his motives were pure or not.

So Brothers of the Wind can be read on more than one level. It’s a story about brothers who can’t manage to escape the roles that have been ordained for them. It’s certainly a story about a whole lot of pride going before a huge, world-shattering fall. And it’s a fascinating prequel for one of the modern classics of epic fantasy, a story that will take lovers of the original straight back to Osten Ard, and will hopefully carry a new legion of readers off to those faraway shores.

Review: The Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer

Review: The Scavenger Door by Suzanne PalmerThe Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #3
Pages: 464
Published by DAW Books on August 17, 2021
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From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the third book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.
Fergus is back on Earth at last, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. However, it seems the universe has other plans for him. When his cousin sends him off to help out a friend, Fergus accidently stumbles across a piece of an ancient alien artifact that some very powerful people seem to think means the entire solar system is in danger. And since he found it, they're certain it's also his problem to deal with.
With the help of his newfound sister, friends both old and new, and some enemies, too, Fergus needs to find the rest of the artifact and destroy the pieces before anyone can reassemble the original and open a multi-dimensional door between Earth and a vast, implacable, alien swarm of devourers. Problem is, the pieces could be anywhere on Earth, and he's not the only one out searching.

My Review:

Surprisingly – honestly, extremely surprisingly – the basic premise of The Scavenger Door and the opening of last Friday’s book, Murder in the Dark, turned out to be much more similar than one might expect for all sorts of reasons.

They are both stories about mysterious doors in the space-time continuum that are causing havoc in this galaxy/solar system/planet and need to be closed and kept closed. The person tasked with shutting the damn weird door, in both stories, is someone who appears to be human but sorta/kinda isn’t completely, and in ways that turn out to be relevant to the story.

That is where the similarities end, but it was still strange that when I didn’t get to read the book I wanted to in the moment, which was this one, I ran across something more like it than it should have been.

The Scavenger Door is the third book in the Finder Chronicles, and it’s a story that brings the series full circle from its origins in Finder. Not that Fergus Ferguson goes back to Cernee, more that Cernee comes to him in the persons of Arelyn Harcourt and Mari Vahn. Actually, it seems like everyone Fergus has met, not just in the series but in his entire life, makes an appearance in this story.

Fergus is usually surprised to discover that he’s survived – or gotten by – his latest adventure with a little or a lot of help from the friends he doesn’t quite believe he has or deserves. This time he’s going to need every last one of them.

Because he needs to save not just Earth but the entire Solar System – and possibly further – from what’s on the other side of his particular uncanny door. Before someone else lets them out.

All in a day’s – or week’s, or month’s – work for Fergus Ferguson. Find the pieces, find the door, call in some favors, make some – LOTS – of enemies, save his friends, save the planet, save the solar system.

No pressure, right?

Escape Rating A: This series is great fun and totally awesome. Just don’t start here. It feels like everything has been building towards this point from the first moment we met Fergus in Finder, and the action here picks up right where the second book, Driving the Deep, left off. Fergus is back home in Scotland after running away as a teenager, connecting, and living with, the cousin he remembers as his only childhood friend and the baby sister he never knew he had.

So don’t start here, because this book feels like the payoff for the whole thing. Start with Finder. Also, the audio for this entire series is wonderful. The narrator does a terrific job of conveying Fergus’ universe-weary voice, the entire story is told from Fergus’ first-person perspective. (That the narrator, when he is voicing Fergus’ internal dialog, sounds weirdly like Bill Kurtis from NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! just feels like an extra bit of the chaos that Fergus seems to generate.)

The blurb says that this one, like the rest of the series, is a bit of a caper story. And it has plenty of those elements. But the series has been getting increasingly serious over its course, and this one is way more serious than the first two. Not that there wasn’t plenty of mayhem and gallows humor in both of those, but this one feels even deeper than the oceans of Enceladus in Driving the Deep.

From the very beginning of The Scavenger Door, this one feels like a farewell tour. Like the way that Shepherd touches base with seemingly every person and organization they’ve met or worked with during the course of Mass Effect 3. This book, from very early on in its story, reads like it’s heading towards an ending. Not necessarily Fergus’ own ending, but at least the ending of this particular phase in his life.

In Fergus’ case, it literally feels like he has to make sure this door stays shut in order for the next door in his life to open. Or something like that. Even more of an argument to start the series at the beginning and not here.

The thing that Fergus has found, the thing that kicks off this story, is a door. Or rather, while he’s searching for a flock of lost sheep in Scotland, he finds a tiny piece of a very big door that wants him to find all the other pieces and put its puzzle back together so that it can open and let in creatures that sound like space locusts.

In other words, a very bad idea. But the pieces of this door were scattered over the Earth a decade ago. That’s more than enough time for multiple groups and theories to chase after them in the hopes of uncovering their secret. And, humans being human, the theories that these human groups have are all about mastering this alien technology and conquering the planet. Or someone else’s planet. Or both.

Well, they’re half right. Or, as one of the aliens puts it, “like all such things, there are those who covet the fire and do not understand that it burns.” And isn’t that humanity in a nutshell?

But as high and desperate as the stakes are, what makes this series so much fun, and it is generally a lot of fun, are the characters. It’s not just Fergus and his universe-weary perspective, but also Isla, his previously unknown baby sister, who wants to learn about this brother she’s never met but already knows just how to take the mickey out of him at every turn. It’s all Fergus’ friends on Mars and Luna.

My favorite characters, and the ones who made me chuckle the most, were Ignatio and Whiro, an alien and a self-aware ship, because their running commentary on what Fergus is doing, how far off base he’s getting, how often he’s getting visited by Murphy’s Law, how much he’s flying by the seat of his pants and how desperate the stakes are, are always pointedly funny and provide a fascinating outside perspective on the best and worst of humanity – who happens to be Fergus Ferguson.

So this is an out-of-the-frying-pan into the lava-filled volcano story that rides on the semi-controlled insanity of its protagonist and the circle of amazing people that have been drawn into his chaotic orbit.

This could be the end of Fergus’ adventures – if not the end of Fergus himself. I’ll be very sad if it is, because I’ll miss him and his merry band of crazed adventurers, including his cranky cat Mister Feefs, rather a lot. So I hope the author finds a way to bring him back.

Who knows what he’ll find the next time he hunts down a flock of missing sheep?

Review: The Godstone by Violette Malan

Review: The Godstone by Violette MalanThe Godstone by Violette Malan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 304
Published by DAW Books on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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This new epic fantasy series begins a tale of magic and danger, as a healer finds herself pulled deeper into a web of secrets and hazardous magic that could bring about the end of the world as she knows it.
Fenra Lowens has been a working Practitioner, using the magic of healing ever since she graduated from the White Court and left the City to live in the Outer Modes. When one of her patients, Arlyn Albainil, is summoned to the City to execute the final testament of a distant cousin, she agrees to help him. Arlyn suspects the White Court wants to access his cousin's Practitioner's vault. Arlyn can't ignore the summons: he knows the vault holds an artifact so dangerous he can't allow it to be freed.
Fenra quickly figures out that there is no cousin, that Arlyn himself is the missing Practitioner, the legendary Xandra Albainil, rumored to have made a Godstone with which he once almost destroyed the world. Sealing away the Godstone left Arlyn powerless and ill, and he needs Fenra to help him deal with the possibly sentient artifact before someone else finds and uses it.
Along the way they encounter Elvanyn Karamisk, an old friend whom Arlyn once betrayed. Convinced that Arlyn has not changed, and intends to use Fenra to recover the Godstone and with it all his power, Elvanyn joins them to keep Fenra safe and help her destroy the artifact.

My Review:

This is a first. I’ve never read a blurb for a book that managed to reveal too much AND say too little at the same time. It doesn’t really do a good job of describing or teasing the book at all, but still manages to reveal the thing that if it were in a review would be labelled a spoiler. ARRGGGHHH!

So, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting, except in that this is an author I really enjoy (start her Dhulyn and Parno series with The Sleeping God or her more recent book, Halls of Law, written under V.M. Escalada but it’s still her.) So I was expecting a good reading time – and I certainly got that – I just didn’t get it quite the way I started out thinking I would.

This is one of those stories where it feels like you’re dropped in the middle. Which can be a good thing, because it makes the world and the characters seem fully formed from the very beginning. On the other hand, because no one is getting introduced to this world or coming of age in this story we don’t get the explanations that help ground readers into a new world.

It’s more like an immersive language course. The language, after all, already exists and is fully formed when the student begins the class. The newbie is then in a sink or swim situation to get up to speed as soon as possible.

So it is in The Godstone. As the story begins, we’re in a small village out in the hinterlands somewhere. Far from the capital, which is just how both Arlyn Albainil and Fenra Lowens like it. Arlyn is a world-renowned furniture maker, and Fenra is the village healer. Arlyn is also Fenra’s long-term patient, as he suffers from what we would call periodic bouts of severe depression.

Both characters are well into adulthood when we meet them, even if Arlyn is a whole lot further into adulthood than anyone – including his healer – could possibly imagine. They are who they are going to be. What makes them interesting is that they are not exactly who they appear to be, and especially not precisely who they have told each other they are.

The Godstone is an adventure story. And a quest. And a story about being forced to dismantle a comfortable persona in order to do what desperately needs to be done.

Which just so happens to turn out to be saving the world.

Escape Rating A-: This turned out to be an absorbing little world, and a surprisingly compelling story, in spite of the fact that I a)knew way too much from the blurb going in and b)went down a rabbit hole of my own making and couldn’t get myself out. Only to eventually realize that the rabbit hole was not quite as much of a wild goose chase as I originally thought.

And that many of my assumptions about the way that things work here, based on what they remind me of, may be considerably more off-base that rabbit hole that sorta/kinda wasn’t.

The story at first seems straightforward enough, in a sense, because it’s obvious to Arlyn from the very beginning that there are some seriously screwy political shenanigans going on in the capital that someone wants to entangle him in. So even though the political shenanigans themselves are more convoluted and dangerous than first appears – because of course they are – that initial framework itself is easy to understand.

Arlyn knows that his summons to the capital is not exactly on the up and up because he’s being summoned as the nearest relative of a powerful practitioner (read as magic-user). He knows it’s not legit because he himself is the supposedly dead practitioner he’s been pretending to be the relative of for, let’s say, lo these many years.

Fenra, who is the local practitioner in their remote village, assumes its not totally legit because the rise of political shenanigans in the capital was the reason she decided to set up her practice in a remote village in the first place. Paraphrasing Shakespeare a bit, because this story made me borrow bits from pretty much everywhere – It’s Denmark, and the state of the place is rotten and getting rottener by the year. Fenra doesn’t want her patient getting caught up in someone else’s game of political or magical one-upmanship, whoever and whatever it might be.

The exact nature of Arlyn’s illness – or at least how he became ill – is suddenly and perpetually relevant. Arlyn has periodic bouts of what appears to be a deep depression. Fenra is able to level him out so he can be functional – and also not waste away into nothingness – but she can’t cure him.

What makes Arlyn’s illness so fascinating, and what turns out to be the central puzzle of the whole story, is how he got that way. Once upon a time, the practitioner he used to be created an artifact that could literally destroy the world. He couldn’t destroy the artifact or at least not without potentially doing the thing he didn’t want to do in the first place, i.e. destroying the world that he himself was living on, so he locked it away where it could never be found. Except, of course, it has been, hence the original not-exactly-legit summons.

Arlyn thought that when he locked away the artifact, the Godstone, he lost his power in the locking away. Instead, he split himself in two, kind of like the episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk splits into good and evil twins. So there are two Arlyns, and both of them are telling their bits of the story in the first person, as are Fenra and Arlyn’s long-lost – seriously lost – friend, Elvanyn.

I found myself following the story by using equivalences. The Modes, the different neighborhoods, or counties or villages, seemed to be like the Shards of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood. Not quite, but close enough. Political skullduggery is it’s own mess, but the forms it takes tend to be similar, and so it seems here. Arlyn’s personality split echoes that Star Trek scenario, as what he’s divided into are a half with knowledge but no power, and one with power but no knowledge. Arlyn is actually a fairly decent person, while his other half, Xandra, has all of his power and all the arrogance that goes with it, but none of Arlyn’s wisdom or empathy to temper it.

Arlyn was a bit of a puzzle because his name echoes a character in, of all things, Final Fantasy XV. I kept mentally equating Arlyn Arbainil with Ardyn Izunia. Then I thought I’d fallen down a rabbit hole, then I decided that there was more carryover than I first thought, and not just because both characters are considerably older than they appear. Also much more of a psychological mess than they first appear. And while Arlyn is not as nasty as Ardyn, his long-buried counterpart, Xandra, certainly is.

So there’s a lot to process in this one. I enjoyed the hell out of it, even the times I was a bit confused. The round-robin of first-person narratives got a bit confusing with both Arlyn and the other Arlyn telling their parts of the story under the same name, but they were so opposite to each other that it didn’t take too long to get back on track.

There are still so many things about this world I don’t know, things that occasionally got a bit in my way but never for long. I loved that the other two voices were so distinct, and that Fenra was keeping just as many secrets as Arlyn – even if hers were not nearly as world-shattering. Although, come to think of it, they could be if this turns out to be the first book in a series after all. The Godstone didn’t end in a way that felt like it led to more adventures in this world, but it could.

I certainly had a more than good enough reading time that I’d sign up for the sequel – right this minute if I knew where to sign!

Review: Beyond by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Beyond by Mercedes LackeyBeyond (The Founding of Valdemar #1) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, anthologies
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #1, Valdemar (Publication order) #46, Valdemar (Chronological) #4
Pages: 384
Published by DAW Books on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this new series from a New York Times bestselling author and beloved fantasist

Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire’s exploitative and militant leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Korda’s father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protect the people of the Duchy from tyranny.

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and "milking" of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor's Court.

Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skills buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?

My Review:

Time flies whether you’re having fun or not. Come to think of it, that kind of applies in the story, too, as there are certainly times when Kordas Valdemar is not having any fun at all, but time is flying because he and his duchy have way, way, way too much to do to get the hell out of, not exactly Dodge, but out of the corrupt Eastern Empire before it either wipes them out or topples from within under the weight of its own corruption.

I read what became the first book in the very long running Valdemar series, Arrows of the Queen, when it first came out back in 1987. My initial paperback copies crumbled to dust long ago, but I still have the Science Fiction Book Club hardcover omnibus edition of that original trilogy. It feels like that was a lifetime ago and very far away.

I remember the series fondly, because at the time it was published there wasn’t much like it at the time. It was female-centered, it was a heroine’s journey, the worldbuilding was deep and fascinating and felt like a place that one would want to live. It all just worked and I loved the whole thing and seem to have read the first 30 books or so before it fell under the wheels of “so many books, so little time”.

So it had been a long time since I traveled to Valdemar, but remembered it so fondly, that when the eARC for Beyond popped up I was, well, beyond interested. I love foundational stories anyway, and here was a foundational story for a world I still sorta/kinda knew. That it was set at a time in that world’s history that hadn’t really been touched on before meant that I could pick back up here and not feel the compulsion to go back and read the 15 or so books in the series that I missed before reading this one.

Not that I might not take a look at them afterwards! But events later don’t usually impact events before – and Beyond was certainly before pretty much everything else.

So here we are, in the far past, before Arrows of the Queen or Magic’s Pawn, and, as it turns out, headed beyond the borders of the Eastern Empire that Valdemar and his people came from. This story is the story of the leave-taking, and very much the story of why they left.

And it’s a doozy. If you have fond memories of Valdemar, as I very much did, Beyond is a fantastic way to go back. If you’ve never been, it’s a terrific time, and place, to start.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that I remember from my previous reading is that, in spite of more than a few crises along the way, Valdemar as a place felt livable. Like Pern and Celta and Harmony but surprisingly few other fantasy (or fantasy-ish) realms, the world seems to be functional. Not that humans aren’t more than occasionally idiots – because we are – but the foundations seem to be solid and the place seems to work, more or less, most of the time.

The story in Beyond is the beginning of the story of why Valdemar mostly works. The Eastern Empire is the horrible warning of what happens when bad follows worse in endless succession for centuries. At the point we meet Kordas Valdemar, it’s not a matter of if the empire will fall, its when – and how much collateral damage that fall will do.

What we have, in a way, is kind of a fix-it fic. Not that Kordas can “fix” the empire, because it is way too late, the corruption is much too thorough. There have been too many generations trained and “nurtured” in the belief that all the corruption is the way that things are supposed to be.

Rather, this is the story of a whole bunch of people from all walks of life who have said, “enough” and have the means and the method to find a way out. Beyond is the story of a PLAN, definitely all caps on plan, and the implementation of that plan. It’s about the last coming together, of the getting of all the ducks in their rows, and of all the things and people and events that conspire to make it happen AND that get in the way.

And I loved the two-steps forward, one-step back of the whole thing. The meticulous organization running headlong into the desperate measures. And I especially loved the people making it happen in spite of the odds and the risks and the strong possibility that it will all go pear-shaped.

Which it kind of does, but in the best way possible.

So if you enjoy watching a plan coming together, if you like watching people work hard and sweat much in order to bring off the work of decades, if you don’t mind just a bit of villain monologuing and love a story of unlikely heroes, Beyond is a delight.

Especially if you’ve never been to Valdemar or are, as I was, looking for an excuse to go back.

The one thing I missed in Beyond that was part of the magic of the original series are the magical, fascinating, horse like Companions. I kept waiting for them to appear because they were such a marvelous part of the original stories. There are beautiful and intelligent horses, because that’s what Valdemar-as-a-duchy was famous for, but no Companions – at least not yet.

Therefore, it made me very, very happy to learn that Beyond is the first book in The Founding of Valdemar trilogy. The Companions are coming, and I can’t wait for them to get here!