Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Like Thunder by Nnedi OkoraforLike Thunder (The Desert Magician's Duology #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Délé Ogundiran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, climate fiction, fantasy, science fiction
Series: Desert Magician's Duology #2
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 23 minutes
Published by DAW, Tantor Audio on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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This brand-new sequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s Shadow Speaker contains the powerful prose and compelling stories that have made Nnedi Okorafor a star of the literary science fiction and fantasy space and put her at the forefront of Africanfuturist fiction
Niger, West Africa, 2077
Welcome back. This second volume is a breathtaking story that sweeps across the sands of the Sahara, flies up to the peaks of the Aïr Mountains, cartwheels into a wild megacity—you get the idea.
I am the Desert Magician; I bring water where there is none.
This book begins with Dikéogu Obidimkpa slowly losing his mind. Yes, that boy who can bring rain just by thinking about it is having some…issues. Years ago, Dikéogu went on an epic journey to save Earth with the shadow speaker girl, Ejii Ubaid, who became his best friend. When it was all over, they went their separate ways, but now he’s learned their quest never really ended at all.
So Dikéogu, more powerful than ever, reunites with Ejii. He records this story as an audiofile, hoping it will help him keep his sanity or at least give him something to leave behind. Smart kid, but it won’t work—or will it?
I can tell you it won’t be like before. Our rainmaker and shadow speaker have changed. And after this, nothing will ever be the same again.
As they say, ‘ Onye amaro ebe nmili si bido mabaya ama ama onye nyelu ya akwa oji welu ficha aru .’
Or, ‘If you do not remember where the rain started to beat you, you will not remember who gave you the towel with which to dry your body.’

My Review:

Like Thunder is the second half of the Desert Magician’s Duology, and the follow-up to the utterly excellent Shadow Speaker. Like that first book, Like Thunder is a story within a story, as the whole duology is a tale of a possible future, and a lesson to be learned, told by the Desert Magician himself.

But it is not the Desert Magician’s story, no matter how much that being meddled with the characters and the events that they faced. Just as Shadow Speaker was the story of Eiji Ugabe, the titular shadow speaker herself, Like Thunder represents her best friend Dikéogu Obidimkpa’s side of the events that followed.

Shadow speaking is but one of the many transformations and strange, new powers brought into this world after the ‘peace bombs’ were dropped and the oncoming nuclear catastrophe was transformed into something survivable for the human population.

A survival that seems to be more contingent on the adaptability of not just the humans of Earth, but also the sentient populations of ALL the worlds that have become interconnected after Earth’s ‘Great Change’ caused a ‘Great Merge’ of several formerly separated worlds.

The story in Shadow Speaker very much represented Eiji’s perspective on the world, as Eiji’s first impulse is always to talk, and to listen. An impulse that combines her youthful belief that people CAN be better if given the opportunity, and is likely a result of her talent for speaking with not just the shadows of the dead, but directly into the minds of other people and animals.

Her talent is to see others’ points of view and to project her own. She’s young enough to believe that if there is understanding, there can be peace.

Like Thunder is not Eiji’s story, and it shouldn’t be. Instead, it’s a kind of mirror image. Just as Eiji’s talent leads her to foster peace and understanding, her friend Dikéogu’s talent is violent. Dikéogu is a stormbringer, someone who brings all of the violence of nature and all of the violence visited upon him in his scarred past to every encounter with his friends, with his enemies, and with his world.

And within himself.

The world through which we follow Dikéogu in this concluding volume of the Desert Magician’s Duology is the direct result of Eiji’s peacemaking in her book. Because, unfortunately for the world but fortunate for the reader enthralled with their story, Eiji didn’t really make peace because peace is not what most of the people present for the so-called ‘peace conference’ had any desire for whatsoever.

And have been maneuvering in the background to ensure that the only peace that results in the end is the peace of the grave. Someone is going to have to die. Too many people already have. It’s only a question of whether Dikéogu and Eiji’s feared and reviled powers will save the world – or end it.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I loved Shadow Speaker, I came into this second book with some doubts and quibbles – all of which were marvelously dashed to the ground at the very beginning of Dikéogu’s story.

Eiji and Dikéogu were both very young when their adventure began, but by the time they met they had both already seen enough hardship and disaster to fill a whole lifetime for someone else. But Eiji was just a touch older than Dikéogu, and the differences between her fourteen and his thirteen mattered a lot in terms of maturity.

In other words, Eiji was definitely on the cusp of adulthood in her book, making adult decisions with huge, literally world-shaking consequences, while Dikéogu frequently came off as a whiny little shit, an impression not helped AT ALL by the higher pitched voice used by the narrator for his character.

Dikéogu had PLENTY of reasons for his hatreds and his fears – but that doesn’t mean that they were much more enjoyable to listen to than they were to experience. Less traumatic, certainly, but awful in an entirely different way.

But Like Thunder takes place AFTER the events of Shadow Speaker. (This is also a hint that neither book stands on its own) Whiny thirteen becomes traumatized fifteen with more experience, a bit more closure for some of the worst parts, a bit more distance from terrible betrayals – and his voice drops. (This last bit, of course, doesn’t matter if you’re reading the text and hearing your own voice in your head, but matters a lot in audio.)

Dikéogu’s life experience, particularly after he was sold into slavery by his own uncle at the age of twelve, have taught him that the world is pain and strife and that he has to defend himself at all times and that people will believe ANYTHING if it allows them to stay comfortable and maintain their illusions and their prejudices.

He learned that last bit from his parents, Felecia and Chika Obidimkpa, the power couple of THE West African multimedia empire. They betrayed him into slavery, they betrayed him by pretending he was dead, they betray him every single time they broadcast a program filled with ridiculous nostalgia for a past that never was and disallows and disavows Dikéogu’s existence as a stormbringer, a ‘Changed One’ with powers granted by the ‘Great Change’ they hate so much.

It’s no surprise that his parents are in league with his enemies.

What is a surprise, especially to Dikéogu, is how much of his story, how much of his trauma and how many of his tragedies, are directly traceable to that first betrayal AND his inability to deal with its consequences to himself and the magic he carries.

So, very much on the one hand, Like Thunder is a save the world quest with a surprising twist at its end. A twist at least partly manufactured, and certainly cackled over, by the Desert Magician. And absolutely on the other hand, it’s a story about a young man learning to live with the person he has become – and very nearly failing the test. ALL the tests.

Whichever way you look at it, it is compelling and captivating from the first page – or from the opening words – until the very last line of the Desert Magician congratulating themself on a tale well told and a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful message delivered.

Review: Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Valdemar by Mercedes LackeyValdemar (The Founding of Valdemar #3) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: The Founding of Valdemar #3, Valdemar (Publication order) #58, Valdemar (Chronological) #6
Pages: 368
Published by DAW on December 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The long-awaited story of the founding of Valdemar comes to life in this 3rd book of a trilogy from a New York Times bestselling author and beloved fantasist.
The refugees from the Empire have established a thriving city called Haven with the help of the Tayledras and their allies. But the Tayledras have begun a slow withdrawal to the dangerous lands known as the Pelagirs, leaving the humans of Haven to find their own way.
But even with Haven settled, the lands around Haven are not without danger. Most of the danger comes in the form of magicians: magicians taking advantage of the abundant magical energy in the lands the Tayledras have cleansed; magicians who have no compunction about allying themselves with dark powers and enslaving magical beasts and the Elementals themselves.
Kordas, his family, and his people will need all the help they can get. But when a prayer to every god he has ever heard of brings Kordas a very specific and unexpected form of help, the new kingdom of Valdemar is set on a path like nothing else the world has ever seen.
Perfect for longtime fans of Valdemar or readers diving into the world for the first time, the Founding of Valdemar trilogy will delight and enchant readers with the origin story of this beloved fantasy realm.

My Review:

This final book in the Founding of Valdemar trilogy is the one that every fan of the series, both new and old, has been waiting for, not just since the first book in this trilogy, Beyond, came out in 2021, but frankly since the very first book in the very first series, Arrows of the Queen, was published back in 1987.

Because we finally get to see the advent of the beautiful, intelligent, beacons of light and conscience that have kept Valdemar the marvelous and marvelously liveable country it has been since that first book nearly 40 years ago.

It wouldn’t be Valdemar without the Companions, and it wouldn’t have been fair to title this book Valdemar unless it really was Valdemar as it should be. Fair however is very fair indeed, and Kordas Valdemar’s prayers (and ours), are answered.

That the Companions appear in the midst of a reluctant King Valdemar’s dark night of the soul is not a surprise when we get there. One of the things that has made Kordas such a terrific character to follow is that he thinks deeply, feels much and fears often that even if he is doing his best it just isn’t enough.

And he’s not wrong. His kingdom has barely begun. He’s a good man who has done his best but he’s made a few mistakes, as humans do. He’s seen the depths to which an empire and its rulers can sink in the Eastern Empire that he and his people fled from. He’s discovered tiny seeds of those same privileged attitudes in some of his own people, including his younger son.

He fears, rightly so, that no matter how good and fair and just a legacy he leaves, both in the laws being created and the standard of behavior he exhibits, that over time his descendants will fall prey to the same forces that eventually brought the empire to destruction.

So he hopes and he prays and he cries out for a way to keep his kingdom in the light. And he’s answered by the Powers with the galloping hooves of the first Companions.

Now he just has to figure out what comes next. For himself, for his heir, for his kingdom and for his people.

As an implacable enemy marches towards his borders.

Escape Rating A: Valdemar has always been a bit of an anomaly as far as fantasy worlds go. Most epic fantasies are set at times and in places that are in so much turmoil that that are just no nice places to visit and you really wouldn’t want to live there. There are a few exceptions, like Pern, Celta and Harmony, but for the most part, by the time that an epic fantasy series gets written about a place – or epic space opera or a combination thereof – the situation has gotten so FUBAR that liveability is a long way off even by the series’ end.

Which, in a way, means that the Valdemar series, at least the books that are set after the Founding of Valdemar, were cozy fantasy before it was cool. All the problems are human-scale even when they’re not precisely human-shaped, and those problems are not entrenched because the Companions keep them from reaching that point at least within Valdemar’s borders.

The Founding of Valdemar series has been the story of how Valdemar got to be that liveable place we’ve come to know and love, and it’s a humdinger of a start.

Things are never easy. At this point in the Kingdom’s history, they’re barely ten years into what will be a long and storied future. But the situation is neither long nor storied yet. They’re still at the point where the traditions that will sustain them haven’t been created, let alone settled, and Valdemar, both the person and the kingdom, are still figuring out how things are going to go.

Which means that a chunk of the story is involved with literally how the sausage of government gets made, as they have very little to go by. So the rules are being created as a combination of what the Duchy of Valdemar used to do that was good, not doing the things that the Eastern Empire did that were bad, and altering those ideas to fit their new circumstances.

It is generally a two-steps forward, one-step back proposition. We know that sausage is going to be fairly tasty by the time it reaches Queen Selenay in Arrows of the Queen, but making it is hard and frustrating work.

Work that’s hindered by nobles who think that normal means they can go back to some of their more self-indulgent ways, while it’s helped by those who have grown up in the new ways of doing things, like Crown Prince Restil has, and who are now adults and can pick up some of the reins of their own power.

And of course there’s an external threat on the horizon, and much of the action of this entry in the series shows how all those plans and new procedures both help and hinder the preparations for what they hope will be a small-scale war. Emphasis on small with fears focused on war.

To make a long but still beloved story short, Valdemar is a lot of fun to read, especially if you enjoy books where intelligent and competent people do their level best to make good things happen. If you liked L.E. Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio, The Founding of Valdemar trilogy has the same feel to it as that series did after Scholar.

If you read Valdemar back in the day but not recently, Beyond is a great place to get back into the series as it is so “foundational” to what happened later that you don’t need to remember what happened later to get back in there. I would not recommend starting here with Valdemar, as this is very definitely an ending of a chapter, even if it is a beginning for everything we already know.

One final note, and it’s a bit of a trigger warning. As part of the monumental events that bring the Companions to Valdemar, the mages’ beloved, and surprisingly long-lived cat, Sydney-You-Asshole – and yes, that moniker is the cat’s name and he’s EARNED it over the course of this series – choses to go off into the woods on his last journey in the moment the Companions arrive.

The tributes to Sydney-You-Asshole’s death were many and heartfelt, particularly deeply touching to the heart of any reader who has a beloved companion animal that is gone. There is still dust in this review as I write about it – so be prepared.

However, considering that the method of Sydney’s passing was to leave his friends and family as the gate to the Powers was open, I have to wonder if he didn’t turn out to be the archetype for the Firecats of Vkandis. Not that Sydney was a flame point – he was, in fact, a void – but learning at some later point that his attitude was passed down in some fashion to the firecats would not be a surprise. At all. Sydney-You-Asshole certainly had all the cattitude required to become the progenitor of a god’s avatar – but then again, most cats do.

Returning to Valdemar through this Founding series has been a joy and a delight, and has provided the opportunity to slip back into a series that I’ve always loved. Which means I have yet more trips to Valdemar to look forward to, starting with Gryphon’s Valor, the forthcoming follow up to this year’s marvelous Gryphon in Light.

Review: Anything with Nothing edited by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Anything with Nothing edited by Mercedes LackeyAnything With Nothing (Tales of Valdemar #17) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Tales of Valdemar #17, Valdemar (Publication order) #57
Pages: 368
Published by DAW on November 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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This 17th anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar high fantasy universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Mercedes Lackey.
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.
Join a variety of authors as they ride with Mercedes Lackey to the beloved land of Valdemar and experience the many facets of this storied high fantasy realm.

My Review:

A huge part of the charm of the Valdemar series is that, after so many years of chronicles, the world is large in scope, both in geography and in history, and there are plenty of times and places in which to set stories about how it came to be, what makes it tick – and the times and places when, in spite of everyone’s best efforts – situations have gone off the rails.

At the same time, it seems like a relatively livable place, allowing for stories where humans – with or without the help of magical, horse-like Companions – manage to fix what’s gone wrong or at least make a good stab at.

Or, when necessary, a good stab at whoever has done the wrong.

The stories in this SEVENTEENTH collection of Tales of Valdemar cast a wide net over Valdemar’s history, from not long after the Founding we’ve seen in the new Founding of Valdemar trilogy, all the way up to Selenay’s time, while geographically the stories spread across Valdemar and into the borderlands with Hardorn and Karse – if not just a bit over.

And it’s an absolute delight from beginning to end for anyone who has ever spent time in Valdemar, whether they’ve been visiting from the very beginning, back in Arrows of the Queen, just discovered Valdemar with the marvelous Founding of Valdemar trilogy (Beyond, Into the West, and the upcoming Valdemar) or who have dipped in here and there and then over the years.

Anything with Nothing, both the collection and the specific story by Lackey herself that closes out this collection, turned out to be the perfect way to get familiar with this world, once again, in preparation for discovering the final pieces of how Valdemar came to be in the soon-to-be-released book of the same title, Valdemar.

Escape Rating A-: The previous Tales of Valdemar collection, Shenanigans, featured stories that were all centered around the title theme, meaning that in one way or another they all featured tricks or pranks.

Likewise, the stories in this collection all center around the theme of making do or doing without, of persevering in the face of not having nearly enough. In other words, about creating pretty much anything out of not very much at all.

My favorite story in this collection is “Look to Your Houses” by Fiona Patton. It’s a slice of life story, as many of the stories in these collections often turn out to be, but in this case it’s the slice of a particular life, that of a City Guardhouse Sergeant caught between the rock of how things are supposed to be done and the hard place of how things actually get done when he’s forced to reconcile those two frequently opposing states of being in preparation for a new commander’s assignment to his station. The way that particular dilemma was handled, and the dichotomy between the rules and real life, gave me vibes of Sam Vimes and the City Watch in the Discworld. This story could have just as easily been part of the Discworld  City Watch subseries and it would have fit right in.

My favorite purely Valdemar story turned out to be the title story, “Anything, with Nothing” by Mercedes Lackey, for the way that the town comes together, the way that Herald Tadeus steps up, the way that his Companion manages to insert her own bit of shenanigans AND the way that the mercenaries got completely flummoxed by a ‘Ghost Squad’ of well-led villagers and the instant communication that Companions make possible.

Many of the stories in this collection take place either as magic was fading or after it was already gone. In other words, in the run up to the Last Herald Mage trilogy and in the centuries after of managing without the big, flashy magic gifts.

Quite a few of the stories center around characters who, because of that lack of magic, have more than a bit of imposter syndrome, as Herald Tad does in “Anything, with Nothing”. Those stories include “In Memory’s Vault” by Kristin Schwengel, “Warp and Weft” by Diana Paxson, “Enough” by Louisa Swann, “Wooden Horses” by Rosemary Edghill, “Intrigue in Althor” by Jeanne Adams, and “Old Wounds” by Terry O’Brien.

Even though the purpose of the Companions is to help keep Valdemar on the straight and narrow, to keep it working for most of its people most of the time, humans are still gonna human, especially when they believe they are away from the eyes and eyes of the Companions and their Heralds.

Meaning that several stories focus on the problems that result when, as the old saying goes, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” regardless of whether that power is ‘might makes right’ or ‘they who have the gold make the rules’ or the power of social opprobrium and the morality police.

Those stories include “Good Intentions” by Stephanie D. Shaver, “Beebalm and Bergamot” by Cat Rambo, and “What a Chosen Family Chooses” by Dee Shull.

There are also several stories about folks have either fallen into hard times or onto mean streets, both in Haven and outside it, or have otherwise been abused by the system in general, their fellow humans in particular, or a bit of both. “A Day’s Work” by Charlotte E. English and “Wooden Horses” by Rosemary Edghill are both particularly heartbreaking in this regard.

Last but not least, there are several marvelous stories in this collection that would have been equally at home in Never Too Old to Save the World, that marvelous collection of fantasy and SF stories that feature protagonists who become the ‘Chosen One’ in middle age or later. I particularly want to give a shoutout to four of these stories, “Needs Must When Evil Bides” by Jennifer Brozek, “What You Know How to See” by Dayle A. Dermatitis, “Warp and Weft” by Diana Paxson, and “Once a Bandit” by Brigid Collins.

While I haven’t listed every story in this collection, I did absolutely enjoy them all. And I’m aware that I’ve mentioned a few of the stories more than once, which hopefully gives you the idea that I liked them a LOT, because I absolutely did – even the ones that went to the darkest places and broke my heart.

So, if you’ve missed Valdemar the place and are looking for something to tide you over until Valdemar the final book in the Founding of Valdemar trilogy comes out between Christmas and New Year’s, I highly recommend picking up Anything with Nothing to get you in the mood for that truly epic story coming SOON!

Review: Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Shadow Speaker by Nnedi OkoraforShadow Speaker (The Desert Magician's Duology, #1) by Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Délé Ogundiran
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: African Futurism, climate fiction, fantasy, science fiction
Series: Desert Magician's Duology #1
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hrs 28 mins
Published by DAW, Tantor Audio on September 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Niger, West Africa, 2074
It is an era of tainted technology and mysterious mysticism. A great change has happened all over the planet, and the laws of physics aren’t what they used to be.
Within all this, I introduce you to Ejii Ugabe, a child of the worst type of politician. Back when she was nine years old, she was there as her father met his end. Don’t waste your tears on him: this girl’s father would throw anyone under a bus to gain power. He was a cruel, cruel man, but even so, Ejii did not rejoice at his departure from the world. Children are still learning that some people don’t deserve their love.
Now 15 years old and manifesting the abilities given to her by the strange Earth, Ejii decides to go after the killer of her father. Is it for revenge or something else? You will have to find out by reading this book.
I am the Desert Magician, and this is a novel I have conjured for you, so I’m certainly not going to just tell you here.

My Review:

Peace bombs. A phrase that only makes sense in the context of the future history of the world that leads to this story, as told by the chaotic trickster the Desert Magician about the coming of age of the titular Shadow Speaker, Ejii Ugabe, and her friend, the rainmaker Dikéogu Obidimkpa. It’s their story, but the Desert Magician is the one bringing it to us. Also messing with them and it at the same time.

The Desert Magician is not exactly a reliable narrator – but then trickster avatars seldom are. After all, the story is more fun for them if they get to mess with the protagonists a bit. More than a bit. As much as they want.

As Ejii describes the world in which she grew up, the Earth as it exists after the ‘Great Change’ brought about by those Peace Bombs, it’s not hard to think that the event was as much of a eucatastrophe as it was the regular kind. A whole lot of things seem to be better. More chaotic, but better. Certainly the climate has improved, even if entire forests sometimes spring up overnight, while the technology imported from other, more advanced worlds has made living with the remaining extremes considerably easier.

None of which means that humans are any better at all. Whatsoever. Because humans are gonna human. But it does mean that there are more possibilities, both in the sense of seemingly magical powers and animals, and in the sense of more opportunities for more people to rise above their circumstances – even if some people are still determined to fall into the traps laid by theirs.

Which leads the Desert Magician to Ejii’s story, and leads Ejii to Jaa, the great general who swept into Ejii’s village of Kwàmfà and struck off her father’s head with her sword, setting Jaa and Ejii on a collision course that will either save the world – or end it.

Shadow speaking, the ability to hear the voices of the spirits, is one of the many gifts that have arisen after the Great Change. Ejii is the shadow speaker of the title, and at fifteen is just coming into her power. A power that is telling her to follow Jaa to a great meeting of the leaders of the worlds that have merged into one interconnected system as a result of the change.

Jaa is going to the meeting to start a war in the hopes of preventing worse to come. Ejii has been tasked with finding a way to make peace. Neither task is going to be easy – and only one of them is right. The question is, which one?

Escape Rating A-: This version of Shadow Speaker is an expanded edition of one of the author’s out-of-print early novels. The original version of which, also titled Shadow Speaker, was a winner or finalist for several genre awards in the year it was published, as a young adult novel. Which it still both is and isn’t.

It is, on the one hand, aimed at a young adult audience because its protagonists are themselves in that age range, being merely fifteen when the story begins. As a consequence of their age, both Ejii and Dikéogu clearly still have a lot of growing up ahead of them in spite of the life-changing and even world-altering experiences that have led them to undertake this journey.

At the same time, Ejii at least is very much on the cusp of adulthood, and this is a journey that forces her to make adult decisions about, with no sense of hyperbole whatsoever, the state of the world. Howsomever, a good chunk of what she brings to those decisions has the flavor of the naivete of youth, particularly in the sense that the world SHOULD be fair, people SHOULD do the right thing, and that if only people would communicate honestly a peaceful solution SHOULD be within reach.

It’s not that she doesn’t know the world and the people in it are often stupid, self-centered, greedy and downright mean, it’s that she hasn’t yet been jaded enough by her experiences to truly believe that there can’t be a better way. Even though her personal experiences thus far in her life have seldom shown it to her.

Dikéogu is not nearly as mature as Ejii is. He whines a LOT. Not that his complaints aren’t justified, but it’s so very clear that he still has a lot of growing up to do and that expresses itself in a kind of ‘pity poor me’ whining that gets hard to take – particularly in audio as he’s voiced in a higher pitch to distinguish his speech from Ejii’s. Which works very well indeed as characterization while driving me personally nuts as I find high-pitched voices jarring. (I recognize this is a ‘me’ thing and may not be a ‘you’ thing, but if it is also a ‘you’ thing, you have been warned.)

While the Desert Magician is presenting this story, he’s not an omnipresent presenter. We see the story through Ejii’s perspective except at the very beginning and end. She is the person we follow, although the story is not told from inside her head. Rather, the story unfolds around her and her actions, and we only see what she sees and know what she knows and get as confused as she does at what she doesn’t.

Which means that while the narrator, Délé Ogundiran, does an excellent job of standing in as Ejii’s voice, that may not be true for the second book in the duology, which will be Dikéogu’s story. Hopefully by the point in Dikéogu’s life when that story takes place, his voice will have dropped.

As much as Ejii comes of age and into her power through her riveting adventures in Shadow Speaker, her world and all the worlds that have become interconnected as a result of the ‘Great Merge’ that was part and parcel of Earth’s ‘Great Change’ also have a great deal of maturing to do – or at least negotiations towards that goal – as this first story ends. Whether the merged worlds will survive that change or destroy each other is part of the subsequent story in this duology that I’m really looking forward to seeing. Or hopefully hearing.

Dikéogu’s story may have started here but his true coming-of-age-and-into-power story, Like Thunder, is coming just after Thanksgiving. And I’ll be very grateful to read it – or hopefully have it read to me like Shadow Speaker – over the holidays.

Review: A Study in Sable by Mercedes Lackey

Review: A Study in Sable by Mercedes LackeyA Study in Sable (Elemental Masters #11) by Mercedes Lackey
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Elemental Masters #11
Pages: 313
Published by DAW on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Psychic Nan Killian and Medium Sarah Lyon-White—along with their clever birds, the raven Neville and the parrot Grey—have been agents of Lord Alderscroft, the Elemental Fire Master known as the Wizard of London, since leaving school. Now, Lord Alderscroft assigns them another commission: to work with the famous man living at 221 Baker Street—but not the one in flat B. They are to assist the man living in flat C. Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, themselves Elemental Masters of Water and Air, take the occult cases John’s more famous friend disdains, and they will need every skill the girls and their birds can muster!

Nan and Sarah’s first task: to confront and eliminate the mysterious and deadly entity that nearly killed them as children: the infamous Haunt of Number 10 Berkeley Square. But the next task divides the girls for the first time since they were children. A German opera star begs Sarah for help, seeking a Medium’s aid against not just a single spirit, but a multitude. As Sarah becomes more deeply entwined with the Prima Donna, Nan continues to assist John and Mary Watson alone, only to discover that Sarah’s case is far more sinister than it seems. It threatens to destroy not only a lifelong friendship, but much, much more.

My Review:

I read A Study in Sable AFTER I finished A Scandal in Battersea. That’s definitely the wrong order. But A Scandal in Battersea served as a marvelous reintroduction for this reader to the Elemental Masters series. So marvelous, in fact, that when I closed that book I grabbed as much of the series as I could from various libraries and immediately started on A Study in Sable, order be damned.

I’m very glad I did.

With the exception of the villains, the cast of characters is the same between the two books. Our heroines are the psychic Nan Killian, Sarah Lyon-White the medium, their extremely intelligent and protective birds, and the famous Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, elemental masters of water and air, respectively.

And as deeply involved as ever in the life and casework of that most rational of men, Sherlock Holmes.

Just as in A Scandal in Battersea, the focus here is on the magic that functions in this slightly alternative version of our own world. But as in Scandal, a case that at first seems to rest entirely in the magical realm that Holmes refuses to believe exists, turns out to have so many potential effects on his rational universe that he finds himself involved in spite of himself.

Such is the case of A Study in Sable. A celebrated German opera singer – definitely not Irene Adler – is under siege by hordes of ghosts while she performs in London. She hires Sarah for her mediumistic talents, but unlike most of the people who hire either Sarah or Nan, makes it clear that ONLY Sarah’s presence is welcome, and that Nan is something less than the mud she scrapes off her expensive boots.

At first, Sarah is happy for the money, and feels duty bound to help the spirits “cross over”, but looks forward to the end of her task. But as the horde of ghosts seems to be nowhere near diminishing, Nan and Sarah’s bird Grey discern that Sarah seems to be falling under the sway of the opera singer, in a way that is not natural.

As Sarah’s natural enjoyment of the luxurious setting morphs into a kind of desperate, personality-altering hero-worship, Nan moved from being mildly jealous to seriously alarmed – and that is the point where the Watsons, and eventually Holmes, are drawn in.

The question is whether even their combined powers will be enough to draw Sarah out from under the spell before it is too late.

Escape Rating A-: I had every bit as much fun with this one as with A Scandal in Battersea. However, if you are coming to these fresh, start with Sable. The two stories flow together extremely well when read in the correct order.

Although there are no steampunk elements in these books, the way that this alternate Victorian and early 20th century England seems to function, along with its blend of magic and “normal” life, reminds me even more strongly of Cindy Spencer Pape’s excellent – but seemingly complete – Gaslight Chronicles.

But the story in A Study in Sable rests very much on the strength of its characters – particularly in this case the character of Nan Killian. She and Sarah are independent young women, who are partners in their independence but not romantic partners. At the same time, romance seems to be far from either of their current horizons. And I like that – that these young women are making identities for themselves and neither expecting nor even thinking that romance will solve things for them.

This book is particularly Nan’s show, as Sarah is increasingly not herself as the story progresses. We feel for Nan as she watches in horror as the friendship that has sustained both her and Sarah unravels under the influence of the supernaturally charismatic opera singer.

It is also fun to see a version of Dr. John Watson where he is definitely Holmes’ equal. Their spheres of talent and influence are different, but Watson in this series is a master in his own right, and never kowtows to the sometimes imperious and always self-absorbed Holmes.

The case in Sable is one where Holmes’ seemingly mundane missing persons’ case draws inevitably towards Watson’s case of malign psychic influence and Sarah’s never-ending ghostly horde. When the separate strands merge, the whole story makes wonderfully blinding sense.

I’m very glad I decided to delve into the world of the Elemental Masters. I’ll be back!

Review: Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Review: Heroine Complex by Sarah KuhnHeroine Complex (Heroine Complex, #1) by Sarah Kuhn
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Heroine Complex #1
Pages: 378
Published by DAW on July 5th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
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Being a superheroine is hard. Working for one is even harder.
Evie Tanaka is the put-upon personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, her childhood best friend and San Francisco's most beloved superheroine. She's great at her job—blending into the background, handling her boss's epic diva tantrums, and getting demon blood out of leather pants.
Unfortunately, she's not nearly as together when it comes to running her own life, standing up for herself, or raising her tempestuous teenage sister, Bea.
But everything changes when Evie's forced to pose as her glamorous boss for one night, and her darkest comes out: she has powers, too. Now it's up to her to contend with murderous cupcakes, nosy gossip bloggers, and supernatural karaoke battles—all while juggling unexpected romance and Aveda's increasingly outrageous demands. And when a larger threat emerges, Evie must finally take charge and become a superheroine in her own right... or see her city fall to a full-on demonic invasion.

My Review:

I read Heroine Complex on my way to Worldcon. What could be more appropriate than reading a book about superheroes on my way to a science fiction convention? And it was even better, because it was a book about superheroines!

One question that superhero origin stories always have to answer is: how did it happen? As far as we know there are no super-powered beings in our current world, so some explanation needs to be provided to ground what makes this world different.

In this case, it’s a demon invasion from another universe that hits San Francisco. When the portal explosively opens between the demon world and ours, some people near Ground Zero immediately discover that they have acquired some minor superpowers. There doesn’t seem to be anything major, just some telekinesis, or a bit of GPS enhancement.

(Someone needs to explain to me why it’s always either San Francisco or New Orleans. Those two cities seem to be the hot spots for everything other-worldly)

But one woman rises above all others: Aveda Jupiter. Not because her minor telekinesis is all that hot, but because she just plain wants to be a “real” superhero way more than anyone could possibly imagine. So she works at it. Partly, she pulls a Batman – she just works her body until she is incredibly fit and surprisingly strong for her size.

She also works social media. Every time she takes down one of the continuing minor demon invasions, her team of assistants makes sure that every super-moment is live streamed to Aveda Jupiter super-fans worldwide.

Although there is a bit of a team, most of Team Aveda’s work falls on one much put upon personal assistant, Evie Tanaka. If there is one thing that Evie is good at, it is taking care of all of Aveda Jupiter’s shit, including the shit she doles out to her close friends and supporters every minute the camera is off.

Aveda Jupiter is a super diva, and Evie is the person who takes care of her, no matter how super demanding or super obnoxious she gets.

220px-TheHeroicTrioBecause way back when Evie Tanaka and Annie Chang were girls watching Michelle Yeoh in the Hong Kong fantasy adventure superhero movie The Heroic Trio (this movie really does exist – see poster at left) Annie was Evie’s superhero. The brave and outgoing Annie always stood up for the shy and retiring Evie, not matter what the circumstances, so when Annie used the demon invasion to morph herself into Aveda Jupiter, Evie was right there for her.

But just as Annie kept all Evie’s secrets when they were girls, she’s keeping a big one for Evie now that they are both young women. The difference is that Annie, while she has always been the leader of their friendship, now thinks more about her image as Aveda Jupiter than she does about what got her where she is.

And Aveda Jupiter has accustomed herself to being the center of her new universe, so when she needs something she expects everyone to provide. Especially her long-suffering friend Evie, no matter what the cost might be to Evie herself.

When Aveda needs a stand-in, she doesn’t just ask Evie to step out of her comfort zone, she demands it. And Evie, used to giving in to Aveda at every point, steps way out of her safe place in the shadows to stand front and center as a pretend Aveda Jupiter.

Until it all stops being pretend and Evie has to become the superhero she’s been hiding all along.

Escape Rating B+: This story is a whole lot of fun, especially if you like urban fantasy in general, or superhero books in particular. Evie and Annie are interesting superheroines, and not just because they are among the very few Asian American women who take on that role.

But the beginning of the story makes for a bit of uncomfortable reading. Aveda Jupiter is a bitch, and she treats Evie, her best friend from childhood, like dirt. Aveda’s diva-esque tantrums are nasty, and as a reader one can’t help but wonder why Evie keeps taking her shit. Most of us would have bailed long ago.

It feels good when Evie starts standing up for herself, but her first steps on that journey are just a bit painful. We end up wanting Aveda to get taken down a peg or six long before it finally happens.

Built into this story is a hilarious but insightful takedown of the power and pitfalls of social media. The way that this story both builds up the power of social media and shows how easily it can turn one of its former darlings into virtual roadkill is fascinating to watch.

While the nature of the secret that Evie is hiding seems almost transparent from very early on, it’s the story of how Evie really comes into her own that makes this fun. That Aveda gets to see what a monster she’s turned into is icing on a fun cake.

That there turn out to be real monsters just made the story that much more fun, and made it fit perfectly within the comic book universe from which it deftly springs. If you like humor and a bit of humble pie with your superheroes, this book is a treat.

Review: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

Review: Revisionary by Jim C. HinesRevisionary (Magic Ex Libris, #4) by Jim C. Hines
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Magic Ex Libris #4
Pages: 352
Published by DAW on February 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
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The fourth installment in the popular Magic Ex Libris series.
When Isaac Vainio helped to reveal magic to the world, he dreamed of a new millennium of magical prosperity. One year later, things aren’t going quite as he’d hoped. A newly-formed magical organization wants open war with the mundane world. Isaac’s own government is incarcerating “potential supernatural enemies” in prisons and internment camps.
Surrounded by betrayal and political intrigue, Isaac and a ragtag group of allies must evade pursuit both magical and mundane, expose a conspiracy by some of the most powerful people in the world, and find a path to a better future. But the key to victory may lie with Isaac himself, as he struggles to incorporate everything he’s learned into a new, more powerful form of libriomancy.

My Review:

unbound by jim c hinesI dove into Revisionary the second I finished Unbound. I’ve been wondering why I waited so long to read Unbound (reviewed here) and now I know. It was so I wouldn’t have to suffer through a seemingly interminable wait to find out how the story continued. Unbound was marvelous, but the ending fairly clearly indicates that the story as a whole isn’t over.

Now it might be. It’s not that the author couldn’t continue to tell more stories in this world, but that the arc begun in Libriomancer (reviewed here) feels like it comes to a logical conclusion in Revisionary. So if you are thinking of diving into the series (recommended enthusiastically if you love urban fantasy), Libriomancer is definitely the place to start.

The story in Revisionary deals with the impacts of Isaac Vainio’s act at the end of Unbound – he reveals the presence of magic to the world. The world, as one might expect, has reactions varying from thrilled to appalled, with most of the politicians and power-brokers weighing in on the “appalled”, or possibly “fake appalled” side of the equation.

If the fear-mongering and brinksmanship remind readers of present-day politics and the extreme Islamophobia being presented and encouraged by political leaders on one side of the spectrum, I suspect it is intentional.

The reaction of the mundanes to the knowledge that there are magic users among us also has its antecedents in modern fantasy. Sonya Clark’s recent (and awesome) Magic Born series (start with Trancehack, lousy cover but great book) deals squarely with both the result of discovering that some people have magic and the social and economic fallout when the U.S. goes full-oppression and religious fanaticism against a small but growing population.

Katherine Kurtz’ classic epic fantasy of the Deryni, who were also magic-users in a mundane society that found themselves on the receiving end of religious oppression, said it best in her book High Deryni, “Beware, Deryni! Here lies danger!…The humans kill what they do not understand.”

In Revisionary, the humans, the non-magic users, are indeed killing what they do not understand. Even worse, they are pitting groups of magic users and magic beings against each other in vicious experiments to learn the best ways to either suborn or murder each group. Even more insidious, they have orchestrated events to blame all the attacks on the magic users, thereby reaping the political benefits of increased anti-magic laws and regulations.

Magic users and magical beings are being successfully “othered”, in the exact same way that Japanese-Americans were “othered” in WW2 before sending them to detention camps for crimes that not merely they did not commit, but for crimes that were not committed. The magic users are “othered” in the exact same way that too many politicians are currently “othering” members of the Islamic faith, and refugees from war-torn countries, and immigrants. And anyone else they do not approve of, or who is not a member of their race and class.

The political parallels, while difficult to miss, do not detract from the story. In fact, they add depth to it. We’ve seen all of this happen before. It’s happening now. That makes it all too easy to believe that it would happen in this just-barely-different-from-now future.

Revisionary is also the story of an accidental hero, and that is a big part of its charm. Isaac Vainio was content to be a magical researcher and occasional field agent, in that seemingly long ago future where Johann Gutenberg was still ruling the Porters with an iron hand, and knowledge of magic among the mundanes was suppressed by any means necessary, which generally meant a LOT of memory wipes.

In Revisionary, the magical genie is out of the bottle, and Gutenberg is dead. Isaac finds himself at the center of the oncoming storm, as politicians use and abuse magic users for their own nefarious ends, and the remnants of the Society of Porters turn against each other.

Power corrupts, the attempt to grab absolute power corrupts absolutely, and one man who never intended to lead anyone at all finds himself racing to save his life, his friends, and the future.

Escape Rating A+: Revisionary feels like the end of the Magic Ex Libris series. It might not be, but the end of this story does not leave our heroes hanging over a cliff in quite the same way as the previous books. It is possible, based on the ending of Revisionary, to believe that Isaac, Lena, Nidhi and Smudge the fire-spider might be heading into an adventurous and eventful happy ever after. They’ve certainly earned it.

Isaac spends a lot of this book dodging one bullet after another, and tracing the ever darker threads of one nefarious scheme after another. The action is non-stop, the pace is relentless, and the parallels to our contemporary world heighten the tension of the story. While I would love to discover that there is magic in the world, I fear that the world-wide reaction would be much too much like what happens here. The humans all too frequently do kill what they don’t understand, and usually after lying about it first. As happens in Revisionary.

It’s also kind of a delayed coming-of-age story. Isaac has been an adult throughout the series, but in Revisionary he finally becomes the person he was meant to be. Where Gutenberg was the leader of the Porters in the world he effectively created, Isaac is the leader needed now, someone who makes friends and builds alliances instead of creating sycophants and enemies.

The subthread through this story is about the burden of leadership. Isaac is communing with either the ghost of or the book of Gutenberg, and together they ruminate on just how difficult it is to be the person that everyone is looking towards. All the decisions are hard ones, and it never ends. Unless you fail. And in Gutenberg’s case, apparently not even then. The counseling of the old man to the younger one is often wistful, and certainly makes the reader think.

That a story about the magic in books makes its readers think about the consequences of the characters’ actions, and their own, is a fitting end to this terrific series.

Review: An Ancient Peace by Tanya Huff

Review: An Ancient Peace by Tanya HuffAn Ancient Peace (Peacekeeper, #1) by Tanya Huff
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Series: Confederation #6, Peacekeeper #1
Pages: 336
Published by DAW on October 6th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
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Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr had been the very model of a Confederation Marine. But when she learned the truth about the war the Confederation was fighting, she left the military for good.

But Torin couldn’t walk away from preserving and protecting everything the Confederation represented. Instead, she drew together an elite corps of friends and allies to take on covert missions that the Justice Department and the Corps could not—or would not—officially touch. Torin just hoped the one they were about to embark on wouldn’t be the death of them.

Ancient H’san grave goods are showing up on the black market—grave goods from just before the formation of the Confederation, when the H’san gave up war and buried their planet-destroying weapons...as grave goods for the death of war. Someone is searching for these weapons and they’re very close to finding them. As the Elder Races have turned away from war, those searchers can only be members of the Younger Races.

Fortunately, only the Corps Intelligence Service has this information. Unfortunately, they can do nothing about it—bound by laws of full disclosure, their every move is monitored.

Though Torin Kerr and her team are no longer a part of the military, the six of them tackling the H’san defenses and the lethally armed grave robbers are the only chance the Confederation has. The only chance to avoid millions more dead.

But the more Torin learns about the relationship between the Elder Races and the Younger, the more she begins to fear war might be an unavoidable result.

valors choice by tanya huffI love Tanya Huff’s Valor series. Yes, I know it’s really called the Confederation series, but in my head, it’s the Valor series. It’s all about the valor of Staff Sergeant (eventually Gunnery Sergeant) Torin Kerr of the Confederation Marines in her fight to bring her company back alive and discover who or what is really behind the interstellar war between the Confederation and the Primacy. In addition to being absolutely kick-ass military SF, the Valor Confederation series is also a standout in the long line of SF where what we think is going on has absolutely nothing to do with what is actually going on. If you have not yet had the pleasure, start with Valor’s Choice and settle in for a marvelous read starring a terrific character with a dry, laugh-out-loud, line of snark.

But Torin’s discovery that the long-running interstellar war is really a behavioral experiment on the part of some completely uninvolved alien bystanders excises some of Torin’s faith in her military, and pretty much all of her ability to follow orders without question. However, while you can take the woman out of the Marines, it turns out to be impossible to take the Marines out of the woman. Torin works better within a structure, even as she mostly goes her own way.

In An Ancient Peace, we see Torin still fighting the good fight, but this time on her own terms, especially because she is in the process of redefining what that”good fight” really is. And since she no longer has the structure of the Marines to operate in, she is looking for a way for her team to find a home and purpose in one of the structures that already exist.

Because it turns out that the Confederation is still being manipulated, the only question is whether that manipulation is coming from somewhere within, or from forces without. Or whether “Big Yellow” is still watching them.

Escape Rating A: The Valor Confederation series is one of my all-time favorite military SF series, along with Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, Jean Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why, and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. These are all thinking people’s military SF, because the protagonists all question what they are doing and why, even as they do their best to operate within the structure and safeguard as much as possible the lives within their care.

The Confederation was a classic of the “aliens are pulling strings from the shadows” school of SF. At the same time, Torin Kerr offers a terrific perspective of a senior NCO in the military, even the SF military. It’s not her job to determine or execute grand strategy, it’s her job to keep green lieutenants alive long enough for them to contribute to grand strategy. And most importantly, it is her job to keep her squad alive to come back home. One of the ongoing themes of the series and especially this book is that Torin isn’t able to let go of the dead she wasn’t able to save.

That she now knows that the war was an alien scam just adds to her feelings of guilt, along with an unhealthy dose of survivor’s remorse.

But this story is about Torin both finding a place for her and her team to fit into the new universe order, but also about Torin figuring out where she fits into a team that she leads by adoption rather than by assignment. Everyone is with her because they want to be, not because someone cut them orders. And Torin has to find a slightly different leadership strategy to make it all work.

At the same time, Torin and her band of merrymakers have a job to do. The High Command still uses Torin, but as a private contractor. And this time, they are sending her team in on a job where they want plausible deniability.

Someone is selling artifacts that were stolen from the cemetery planet of one of the Elder Races. It is clear to the military that someone is hunting for the weapons of mass destruction that the H’san buried with their long-ago dead. The military is certain that whoever that someone is, their plan is to start a new universal war. And as collateral damage, they will feed into the paranoia of the Elder Races who believe that Humans and all of the other Younger Races they brought into the Confederation to fight their war for them are really too barbaric and savage to remain in the Confederation now that there is no more need for warriors.

Of course, nothing is as it seems. Not the thefts, not the supposed plot, and not even the Elder Races. However, as Torin discovers there is a whole lot of war weariness among the general inner-ring populace, especially all the members of those Elder and Middle-Races planets who were not touched by the war because the Younger Races fought it for them. Those who were very far behind the lines really are thinking that the Younger Races are uncivilized savages who should be locked into their own planets until they learn better.

Any parallels between the way that the Elder Races populations treat Torin and her team as representatives both of their races and of the returning war veterans and the way that we treat returning soldiers who have difficulty fitting back into peacetime society is certainly intended.

The story in An Ancient Peace is certainly the adrenaline-fueled adventure that I have come to know, love and expect from this series. There is also an underlying thread that Torin’s eyes have been opened, and that she sees a lot more of both sides of any problem than her superiors expect or even like. Her solution to finding a place for her team that both keeps them from being used as a weapon and helps add to the peace that she almost single-handedly created is novel, and will provide ground for interesting stories in the future.

And just like in the earlier series, whoever or whatever started this particular mess is still out there, plotting more plots, until Torin and Company finally catch up to them.