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
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Elemental Masters #11
Pages: 313
Published by DAW on June 7th 2016
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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
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: superhero romance, urban fantasy
Series: Heroine Complex #1
Pages: 378
Published by DAW on July 5th 2016
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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
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Magic Ex Libris #4
Pages: 352
Published by DAW on February 2nd 2016
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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
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Confederation #6, Peacekeeper #1
Pages: 336
Published by DAW on October 6th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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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.