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

A+ #BookReview: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson BennettThe Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Shadow of the Leviathan #2
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.
Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Quiet Room by Terry Miles

Review: The Quiet Room by Terry MilesThe Quiet Room (Rabbits, #2) by Terry Miles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, technothriller, thriller
Series: Rabbits #2
Pages: 432
Published by Del Rey on October 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The lore and legends around the underground game known as Rabbits gain new dimensions in this twisty tale set in the world of the hit Rabbits podcast.
After nearly winning the eleventh iteration of Rabbits, the mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses the entire world as its canvas, Emily Connors suddenly finds herself trapped in a dimensional stream where the game does not exist. At all. Except . . . why do sinister figures show up to stop her every time she goes looking? Does Rabbits truly not exist, or is it being hidden? And if it’s being hidden, why—and by whom?
Meanwhile, architect and theme park designer Rowan Chess is having the weirdest month of his life, full of odd coincidences and people who appear one moment and vanish the next, with no trace they ever even existed. The game that is hiding from Emily seems to have found Rowan—with a vengeance.
But only when Rowan and Emily meet do things start to get dangerous, for together they uncover a conspiracy far deeper and deadlier than either of them expected—one that could forever change the nature not only of the game, but of reality itself.

My Review:

R U playing Rabbits? Or is Rabbits playing you – along with the rest of the multiverse? That’s the question at the heart of The Quiet Room, a wild ride that is anything but quiet. Or peaceful. And only sorta/kinda a room.

The story is, as one of the chapter headings put is, “a Bumpy Fucking Ride” every single step of its sometimes meandering but always terrifyingly dangerous way.

Fair warning, there be “wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff” here, with absolutely no Doctor in sight – even if this version of the multiverse could definitely use one.

Emily Cooper, one of the protagonists of Rabbits, seems to have dimensionally shifted into a corner of the multiverse where Rabbits is hiding – not in plain sight as it was in the first book – but so completely underground and under the radar that even Emily can’t find it.

There’s clearly something very, very wrong going on, and the ‘Rabbit Police’ all too frequently mess with any progress that she makes in figuring out what.

They’re not really called the ‘Rabbit Police’, in fact Emily doesn’t know what they ARE called. What she does know is that they operate a bit like a cross between the Men in Black, and SPECTRE or some secret super-spy organization. They show up in suits and masks, kidnap her or one of her friends, sedate her, imprison her and ask her questions about Rabbits. Over and over and over again.

While Emily is running from the ‘Rabbit Police’, Rowan Chess seems to be running straight towards them. The extreme coincidences that form the backdrop of Rabbits seem to be chasing him down in that same world where Rabbits is emphatically not being played. Except by him – even if he has no clue what it is.

As the Rabbits players scurry, and the Rabbit Police chase after them, Emily & Co., discover that the end of this world is coming – even as the ongoing playing of Rabbits in other dimensions is intended to save the rest of it.

They have to find their way to the Quiet Room, the one place where this dying stub of a world connects to the rest of the multiverse. But they have no clue where it is – or even when it is – and no idea who is with them or against them.

Or even if one of them is the entire reason that the AI that controls Rabbits has decided that the whole stub – and everyone in it – should be shut down for the greater good. Or even whether that greater good is greater or good or even halfway well defined at all.

Escape Rating B: I honestly did not expect to like The Quiet Room. The first book in the series, titled Rabbits after the game at the heart of the podcast series of the same title, was a bit of a confused mess that didn’t completely gel for me as a story. I wanted it to, but it just didn’t quite.

The Quiet Room is still a very wild and chaotic ride, but the action is, for the most part, confined to a single stub of the multiverse, and the problem that the characters have to solve is a bit more contained and refined as a result. Meaning that the story hangs together better and makes considerably more sense to a reader looking for a story with at least a somewhat defined beginning, middle and end.

The Quiet Room does a considerably better job at particularly the beginning and the middle, although the end it reaches isn’t so much an end as it is an opening for further adventures. Still, the cast of characters is a bit smaller and their motivations are a bit easier to suss out, so the story feels like it’s on a fast set of rails that keeps the reader on their toes, guessing what comes next, and hanging on for the next corkscrew without flying off into the walls and ceiling.

The ending is only the ending to this particular adventure, but the way it delivers its last twist means that there’s plenty of room for the series to continue. And I’m rather surprised to say that I’ll be more interested in reading that continuation than I ever imagined when I first poked my way into The Quiet Room.

Review: Mother of All by Jenna Glass

Review: Mother of All by Jenna GlassMother of All (Women's War, #3) by Jenna Glass
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Women's War #3
Pages: 656
Published by Del Rey on July 20, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

An evil new magic threatens to undo all the progress women have made in the third and final book in Jenna Glass's riveting feminist fantasy, following The Women's War and Queen of the Unwanted.
In the once male-dominated world of Seven Wells, women now control their own reproduction, but the battle for equality is far from over. Even with two thrones held by women, there are still those who cling to the old ways and are determined to return the world to the way it was.
Now into this struggle comes a darker power. Delnamal, the former King of Aalwell, may have lost his battle to undo the spell that gave women reproductive control, but he has gained a terrible and deadly magic, and he uses these new abilities to raise an army the likes of which the world has never seen. Delnamal and his allies seem like an unstoppable force, destined to crush the fragile new balance between men and women.
Yet sometimes it is possible for determined individuals to stem the tide, and it comes down to a unique triad of women--maiden, mother, and crone--to risk everything...not only to preserve the advances they have won but to change the world one final time.

My Review:

Three “things”, three truths, lie underneath the entire Women’s War trilogy. One is the old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. This is a world where men have absolute power over women, a power so absolute that it has corrupted the entire society. A power that is used so callously and so heinously that it takes three generations of planning and sacrifice for a trio of desperate women to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to even make a dent in the absolute supremacy of male power.

The second truth is a much more recent saying, the one about man making “God” in his own image. The entire myth of the “Creator”, his “Mother” and the “Destroyer” that squats at the heart of the religion of Seven Wells is certainly a deity made in the image of men. Not humankind, just men. They use their state-entwined religion to explain and excuse the systemic abuse of women at every turn.

It is, however, equally true that if man makes his god in his own image, so does woman. Which is where the title of this entry in the series derives its meaning.

And last, but not least, something that is not so succinctly phrased as the above two concepts, but feels like a truth for this series, is that when a society yokes political power and religious authority, all they are really doing is greasing the skids down the road to hell.

The story of Women’s War is a single story spread over three not insubstantial parts, meaning that it begins in the first book, The Women’s War, continues in Queen of the Unwanted, and concludes here in Mother of All. This is very much NOT three books that each stands alone, but one long and complex story that must be begun at the beginning in order for the ending to have the weight and heft and gravitas that it deserves.

Because it most definitely does deserve all those things. And I say all of the above in spite of the fact that, as much as I enjoyed both the first book, The Women’s War, and this one, that middle book drove me right straight up the wall. But what happened there is necessary in order to understand how all the characters and this world reach the events of this final book in the trilogy.

As this final chapter opens, the chess pieces are all on the board, but not necessarily in the places we expect. Sovereign Princess Alysoon of Women’s Well begins the story believing that the situation in Seven Wells might get better, albeit as slowly as the reactionaries in most other countries can arrange. Her friend, Sovereign Queen Ellinsoltah, is on the throne of neighboring Rhozinolm, and Ellin’s Prince Consort Zarsha is one of the very few men in this story who is not an absolute ass. Not that he’s perfect, because he’s far from that, but he is on the side of change and is eager to help both Ellin and Alys effect that change.

That he is also Ellin’s spymaster makes him an extremely useful player on their side.

Aaltah, Alys’ birthplace, is now in the hands of her brother Tynthanal as Prince Regent. Their hated half brother Delnamal, the previous king, is believed to be dead as the result of an accident or incident or catastrophe or all of the above at the site of Aaltah’s Well, the source of the kingdom’s magical power. Whatever happened to the former king, a catastrophe certainly happened both at and to the Well, a catastrophe that Tynthanal is expected to fix.

A catastrophe that has impacted Aaltah’s magic, its ability to create the magical items that fuel its import/export trade agreements and therefore its economy. A catastrophe that appears to have had even more dire consequences that are just beginning to make themselves known. And unfortunately for pretty much everyone, reports of Delnamal’s death turn out to be, not exactly greatly exaggerated, but terrifyingly incorrect in those all-important pesky details where the devil, or in this case the Destroyer, is considered to reside.

But the situation in Seven Wells is much more precarious than first appears. It must be or there wouldn’t be an entire book yet to come. This world, and the gains that women have made in it, are not yet safe. It will require another trio of women to make another potentially grave sacrifice in order for this place to have a future. Not just a future where everyone can thrive, but any future at all.

Escape Rating A: Short summary of the series – loved the first book, wasn’t all that thrilled with the second but it was necessary, loved the third book. This book. Mother of All brought this epic trilogy to an appropriately epic conclusion, and it made wading through all the setup and political positioning and maneuvering in the second book worth the wade. Also worth the wait of anticipating this conclusion.

Seriously, I planned to listen to this one, but switched to the much faster ebook at barely the halfway point because I was so caught up in this and needed to find out how they collectively got out of the many, many catastrophes that were heading in their direction with all the speed of a juggernaut careening down the side of a mountain.

One of the things that is true throughout this series, that the reader is kind of bludgeoned with at the very beginning, is that this world is seriously messed up, totally FUBAR’d beyond not just recognition but beyond all reason, and that the overall arc of the series is the one-step-forward and sometimes ten-steps-back need to, well, unfuck the whole thing. Especially as it seems as if 90% of the men would rather life went back to the way things were when they could rape and murder women at will without repercussions of any kind. (There are fantasy worlds I might be interested in living in, like Pern and Celta. I wouldn’t touch Seven Wells with someone else’s severed hand.)

It’s not just that women have not just few but absolutely ZERO rights and are not just considered property but are legally chattel to either their fathers or their husbands is just the tip of the rotten iceberg. It’s honestly much worse than that. But, and a huge but, as much as some readers may want to see that as a situation for epic fantasy without application to the real world, I believe that there are and were plenty of patriarchal societies, past and present, in the real world that may not have been quite as awful for women but only missed this level of horror by a hair’s breadth.

All of the above makes this series not exactly a comfort or even a comfortable read, no matter how much one might love epic fantasy. Rather it makes for a searing and emotional read, as the reader is taken on an emotional roller coaster ride with characters who seem all too real in their hopes, their challenges, and the danger they face just for being women in a society that believes they are barely human and punishes them harshly if they attempt to assert even a minimal level of control over their own lives.

And that’s what makes this story, in spite of its frequent walks through very dark places, such a compelling read. It’s the characters. It’s walking by their sides and hoping with them against all hope that they might have made just enough of a difference in their world that their daughters will have a better future than their mothers.

Reviewer’s Note: If you’ve ever played Dragon Age Inquisition, Delnamal is kind of a dead ringer for Corypheus, all puns intended, although Delnamal manages to come to a much better end.

Review: A Blight of Blackwings by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Blight of Blackwings by Kevin HearneA Blight of Blackwings (Seven Kennings, #2) by Kevin Hearne
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #2
Pages: 512
Published by Orbit on February 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling creator of The Iron Druid Chronicles comes the highly anticipated sequel to A Plague of Giants: A world-breaking war--an invasion of giant warriors--that inspires a movement to fight back.

SOLDIER AND AVENGER Daryck is from a city that was devastated by the war with the Bone Giants, and now he and a band of warriors seek revenge against the giants for the loved ones they lost. But will vengeance be enough to salve their grief?

DREAMER AND LEADER Hanima is part of a new generation with extraordinary magical talents: She can speak to fantastical animals. But when this gift becomes a threat to the powers-that-be, Hanima becomes the leader of a movement to use this magic to bring power to the people.

SISTER AND SEEKER Koesha is the captain of an all-female crew on a perilous voyage to explore unknown waters. Though Koesha's crew is seeking a path around the globe, Koesha is also looking for her sister, lost at sea two years ago. But what lies beyond the edges of the map is far more dangerous than storms and sea monsters. . . .

In this sequel to A Plague of Giants, these characters and more will become the voices of a new generation bringing hope and revolution to a war-torn world.

My Review:

Like the character Dervan in this story, I became so caught up in the tale as it unfolded that I wanted spoilers! Or at least I wanted Fintan the Bard to get on with it a whole lot faster. Which meant that as much as I love the audio version of this story, I switched to the book at about the ⅓ point just so I could find out what happened next. And next after that. And after that. And so on right until barreling through to the end, even knowing that this story as a whole is not done yet.

Dammit.

Just as in the first book in the series, the extremely awesome and utterly marvelous A Plague of Giants, the story that we are reading is mostly the story itself being told by Fintan the Bard to the crowd camped on Survivors’ Field in Pelemyn. The people who survived the events of the first part of the story and fetched up in Pelemyn as refugees from the multiple crises that have afflicted Teldwyn.

Not just one but two plagues of giants.

The title of this entry in the series is a tad more subtle. The book A Plague of Giants contained actual plagues of giants, after all. But the blight of blackwings referred to this time is not a literal plague of the same sort.

Instead, a blight of blackwings feels like it’s the equivalent of “a murder of crows,” or “an unkindness of ravens.” Or possibly both, as the blackwings of Teldwyn occupy the same niche as crows and ravens do. They are carrion birds. They eat the dead, and they feast after a battle.

They also hover over trouble in the hopes that said trouble will result in some dead for them to eat. Hopefully soon, from their perspective. Which means that if you are a human blessed by the sixth kenning, and your gift is communication with blackwings, you can spot trouble coming before your blackwings get a meal.

And that’s the story of A Blight of Blackwings, the spotting of trouble on the horizon. However, just like in A Plague of Giants, there are lots of blackwings hovering over trouble in lots of places. A concept which the UK cover for the book makes much more clear!

With even more on the horizon by the end of this portion of the Bard’s tale. And it’s awesome every step of the way. For multiple definitions of the word “awe”.

UK cover

Escape Rating A++: To paraphrase Hanima the Hivemistress, this book is the BEST!

This is a huge story, covering an entire world. You do have to have read A Plague of Giants to get into A Blight of Blackwings. If you love epic fantasy you’ll be glad you did. This world-spanning story is a real treat.

That being said, it’s necessary to talk about what makes it such a treat.

A big part of that for me was that the author’s experiment in voice really worked. The author said that he was trying to recreate the feeling of the old bardic tales as Homer used to tell them. While we don’t know what that was really like, what he has created here turns out to be a fascinating way of telling a big story with a huge cast of characters while making sure all of those threads are easy to follow.

The framing story is that Fintan the Bard is telling the tales using the voices and faces of the people who experienced each part, strung together with a bit of what is going on in the city through the eyes of Dervan, the chronicler and confidant of the city’s ruler. So we see what has happened in the past through Fintan’s tale, and what is happening in the present through Dervan’s first-person asides.

I will also say here that the two voice actors do a terrific job of making all of the voices distinct. Even when I switched to reading the ebook I was still hearing their voices in my head and it definitely helped form my picture of who each of the different characters was.

The invention of the “kennings” the magic of this world, is a new take on the whole magic in fantasy idea, and the way that it works underpins the politics and people’s perspective on their world. On the one hand, there’s the sense that the kennings kind of function like the old saying about when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, just writ very, very large.

At the same time those kennings underpin both politics and religion, so the discovery of a sixth and possibly even a seventh upsets a whole fleet of apple carts.

One other thing that makes this magic system different is the price that is paid to wield it. One of the terrible things that frequently happens in other magic systems is that magic is either the ultimate power or so easy to use that everyone gets lazy. The cost of magic in this world is extremely dear, both to acquire it and to use it. Magic users always have to think about whether the ends they have to achieve justify the loss of years of their lives. Perhaps even all the years they have left.

This is also a story where the use of language can shock you with it’s terrible beauty. After discovering that his entire town has been slaughtered in his absence, the leader of a band of hunters reflects that, “Most of us were still in the shock stages of grief, the foyer to a mansion of pain in which I knew we’d dwell for many years. Just beyond, however, a red room beckoned, a spacious expanse for rage, and I had little doubt the entire band would step in there with me for an extended period.” I was struck by that phrase, and chilled by an intense feeling of recognition. It feels right and true and haunting in the vividness of the image. A haunting that returned every time that character refers back to it. Because he’s right, they are all heading for that red room of rage – and possibly taking the rest of the country with them.

We’ll find out in book 3 of the series, tentatively titled A Curse of Krakens. I want it so bad, and I want it now! But I expect I’ll have to wait a couple of years, based on the time between A Plague of Giants and A Blight of Blackwings. And it will be SO worth it!

Review: Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Review: Midnight Riot by Ben AaronovitchMidnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1) by Ben Aaronovitch
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Rivers of London #1
Pages: 298
Published by Del Rey on February 1, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

My Review:

I’ve had this in my kindle app forever, to the point where I had to check to see exactly how I got it. Finding out that it was 6 years ago was kind of a shocker. I do get around to things eventually, but eventually can clearly be a very long time.

I picked it up now because I have to read the latest book in the Rivers of London series for one of my reviewing commitments and wanted to at least see where it all began.

I was not disappointed. Midnight Riot is a terrific introduction to the Rivers of London and definitely lives up to all the marvelous things that have been said about it.

This book reminds me of so very many things. First, it is absolutely urban fantasy. In some ways, kind of old school urban fantasy, hearkening back to urban fantasy’s roots in the mystery genre.

Because we sure do have a mystery. What we also have is a cop. An honest-to-goodness sworn police officer, Peter Grant, just out of his probationary period in the Metropolitan Police and really hoping to do something more interesting than push paper for his entire career.

Ghost-hunting, however, was not on his career radar. Not even remotely. When the ghost of Nicholas Wallpenny tells PC Grant that he witnessed the previous evening’s sensational murder, Grant isn’t quite sure he believes the evidence being presented right before his eyes. And ears. And slightly stunned brain.

But going back the next night to interview the witness again brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the one man in the Met who will believe him.

The next morning Constable Peter Grant’s career has possibilities that he never even dreamed of. And dangers that may be way, way more than the Academy ever trained him to handle.

Escape Rating A-: First and foremost, I had a whole lot of fun with this one. It’s a terrific book and a great intro to the series.

One of the things that struck me as I read was just how “British” the book felt. It seemed like there were no concessions made for any potential American readers. Either you’ve read enough/seen enough on PBS to get the points where the two nations are divided by the common language, or you don’t.

If you have, it adds to the immersion, as it did for me. If you haven’t, I suspect you spend either a lot of time Googling Britspeak or get bogged down and give up. I was fully immersed from the opening page. Your mileage may vary.

Howsomever, one thing I did wonder about was whether it is/was common practice for single constables to have their living quarters in their stations. Or to at least have that possibility. Because that didn’t feel contemporary to me, I found myself thinking of this as a bit near-future, or at least more alternate history than urban fantasy sometimes is.

After flailing around for what Rivers of London reminded me of most, I think in the end it’s a cross between a police-procedural and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Possibly with a bit of his American Gods added to put some actual deus into the occasional ex machina.

Whatever it is, it’s fascinating. As the first book in the series, Peter Grant finds himself introduced to the world of magic, including the standard opening lessons in his brave new world. As well as a drop into the deep end of the pool (river) when his Chief Inspector is temporarily knocked out of the action by a bullet.

Peter makes for an interesting insider/outsider investigator. He begins as a mixed race man in London, already somewhat of an outsider in spite of having been born there. The story is told from his first-person perspective, which exposes his interior thoughts on being a black man in a white city to the reader in all their world-weary cynicism – particularly when he’s riding the tube.

He’s also the newbie in the world of magic, and everyone seems to want to take advantage of his lack of knowledge – as people frequently tend to do – even if, or especially because they are either deities, genii locorum, or both.

In a fight between gods, ghosts and monsters, Peter feels like the one sane voice attempting to hold it all together. Even during a midnight riot.

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikSpinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 480
Published by Del Rey on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders... but her father isn't a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife's dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty--until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers' pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed--and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it's worth--especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

My Review:

This is the story of Persephone at Night on Bald Mountain, with a bit of an assist from Rumpelstiltskin. In other words, Spinning Silver is another from the mind of Naomi Novik, a fitting follow up to the utterly marvelous Uprooted.

Spinning Silver is also a story where those myths and fairy tales, and all of the tropes that have been based on them, have been turned right on their pointy little heads, and where, in the end, the princesses all rescue themselves, without much, if any, help from the princes, thank you very much.

And where everyone gets what they’ve earned – nothing more and absolutely nothing less.

As fits a story that has been brewed from multiple source myths, Spinning Silver has multiple perspectives – and all of them are female. We begin (and end) the story from the point of view of Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a moneylender in a fairy tale land that has more than a passing resemblance to Russia.

Miryem is a young woman who does not believe in fairy tales. She has always seen the classic trope of the princess bargaining for wealth and riches from a fairy godmother as a cheat, where someone else does all the work and the princess gets out from under her obligations and wins by cheating someone else.

That’s Miryem’s reality. Her father is the moneylender in their small town, and everyone cheats him and spits on him because he is a Jew. They think it is right and proper to borrow money from him whenever they want and then pretend they have nothing to pay him back with when the money is due. And because Jews are hated and despised, he’s just supposed to take the abuse even though his own family is starving.

Miryem takes over her father’s failing business, and learns to spin silver into gold. It’s not magic, it’s just good business. But the cold and magical Staryk covet gold above all things, and when they hear her claim, they press her into their service.

But this is also the story of Wanda Vitkus. Wanda begins the story even poorer than Miryem. She is the daughter of the town drunk, who beats her and her two brothers mercilessly whenever he is drunk. Which is often. Wanda is every bit as starving as Miryem, because her father drinks away the money they owe the moneylender. But when Wanda begins working for Miryem and her family to pay off her father’s debt, both Miryem and Wanda are richer by the exchange, even if neither of them is aware they are helping the other.

And this is also the story of Irina, daughter of the local Duke, and her nurse Magreta. Once neglected and disregarded, Irina finds herself at the center of her father’s political machinations once events are set in motion. It is up to Irina to find a way to survive her marriage to the young tsar, a man who hides a terrible demon.

Working separately, Irina and Miryem, who would normally never meet, both discover that their world is under threat by competing magics, and that they only way they can save not only those they hold dear but save themselves, is to band together in a terrible plot to pit two gods against each other – and pray that the world survives their cataclysmic war.

Escape Rating A+: If you loved Uprooted, you will love Spinning Silver. If you love fractured fairy tales, or female-centric retellings of myths and legends, you will love Spinning Silver. This was marvelous and beautiful and even heartbreaking. And it is glorious.

These are myths that should not go together. They are from completely different belief systems and pantheons and traditions. And yet, in this version, they do.

If you read fractured mythologies, you may recognize Chernobog from Neil Gaiman’s tour-de-force American Gods. Or you may remember the name from Disney’s Fantasia. Chernobog is the dark god that is the evil in that particularly classic rendition of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

Persephone, or Proserpina to use her Roman name, is the goddess of Hades and the consort of the lord of the Underworld in those mythologies. She’s the goddess who spends six months in the underworld and six months in the sunlit worlds.

And Rumpelstiltskin, of course, is the imp who changes straw into gold after making a bargain with a princess who then refuses to pay what is due. Miryem would say she wins by cheating. Not that Miryem doesn’t also rather loosely interpret the bargain she finds herself in, but she does all the work herself in the end.

I found myself feeling for all of the heroines in this tale, but particularly Miryem. Miryem is Jewish, and her circumstances reflect the difficulties that Jews faced in medieval and renaissance Europe, including Russia. There were few professions open to Jews, with moneylending being the one that was the most profitable, and became the most infamous. The Jews were blamed for everything from bad crops to epidemics, walled up in ghettoes, and murdered with abandon whenever things went wrong – or whenever the local lord needed to wipe out all his outstanding debts. Within the circle of her family she is safe and loved, but the world is not merely cold and cruel, but actively dangerous for reasons that are totally unjust but that she can’t fix. She is always in a no-win scenario – until she finds a way to break out.

Irina, Wanda and Magrete are equally trapped in situations not of their making. Both Irina and Wanda are forced to obey men who want to kill them merely because they are women. That they find ways to survive and conquer in spite of their situations is what makes them equally the heroines of this tale.

One of the important points in this story, and one that will resonate long after the book is closed, is a meditation on the Shakespearean quote, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but once.” In Spinning Silver, the same is true for a brave woman. Each of the women of this story face multiple situations where they have to choose between dying a little at a time, or being brave in the face of imminent danger and taking the risk of standing up for themselves, no matter what the cost. For each of them it feels like a choice between striving for what is right and proper, for what is their due, or letting society and circumstances beat them down into less than nothing. They stand, and that’s what makes them heroines.

Surprisingly, considering how much these women have to fight along the way, love does conquer all and they do live more or less happily ever after, although not all in the same way. But in every case, it’s because they’ve earned it.

Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon

Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth MoonInto the Fire (Vatta's Peace, #2) by Elizabeth Moon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Vatta's Peace #2
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this new military sci-fi thriller from the author of Cold Welcome, space fleet commander Kylara Vatta uncovers deadly secrets on her latest mission--shedding light on her own family's past.

As Admiral Kylara Vatta learned after she and a shipfull of strangers were marooned on an inhospitable arctic island, the secrets she and her makeshift crew uncovered were ones someone was ready to kill to keep hidden. Now, the existence of the mysterious arctic base has been uncovered, but much of the organization behind it still lurks in the shadows. And it is up to the intrepid Ky to force the perpetrators into the light, and finally uncover decades worth of secrets--some of which lie at the very heart of her biggest family tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a saying about war being the continuation of diplomacy by other means. So, also, is politics, particularly the politics of Slotters Key in this second book in the Vatta’s Peace series. And in the case of this series, it’s that politics are the continuation of diplomacy by other means, diplomacy is the continuation of politics by other means, and even, finally, that war is the continuation of politics by other means, which was not what von Clausewitz originally meant.

But it all makes for compelling reading.

Into the Fire is the second volume in the series, after last year’s marvelous Cold Welcome. And it is a direct sequel to the first. All of the action in Into the Fire is a result of the mess that was uncovered in Cold Welcome, as well as the culmination of strikes against the Vatta family that have been going on since all the way back in the first book in the Vatta’s War series, Trading in Danger. And it turns out that some of that mess relates to events far, far back in the past of the Vatta family, particularly back into the past of Ky’s Great-Aunt Grace, currently the Rector for Defense (think Secretary of Defense in the US Cabinet). The skeletons in Graciela Vatta’s closet have burst out of hiding, and with a vengeance. Or certainly with vengeance in mind.

The first half of Into the Fire is almost completely political. There are forces moving against Grace, Ky, Ky’s fiance Rafe Dunbarger, and all of the soldiers that she found herself in command of in the snafu that occurred in Cold Welcome. In that first book, Ky and her shipmates crashed on what was supposed to be the barren continent of Miksland on Slotter Key, only to discover that Miksland was far from barren, rich in mineral wealth, and that someone had been conducting military exercises on its supposedly empty landscape. And that whatever may be happening on Miksland now, someone, or rather a whole succession of someones, has been successfully hiding the truth about Miksland not just for years, but for centuries.

There’s a lot rotten somewhere in the military, and its up to Ky to ferret it out. Particularly after whoever is rotten systematically whisks all of the soldiers who were part of Ky’s discovery into quarantine, where they can be abused, drugged and eventually murdered without ever being able to reveal what they saw.

At first, Ky is both kept hopping and stuck in her own version of purgatory. At the same time that she discovers that her crew is imprisoned, she finds herself under house arrest and Grace is poisoned. Someone very high up in the government is questioning Ky’s Slotter Key citizenship, with an eye to having her arrested by Customs and Immigration, and then whisked away to the same drugged confinement as her crewmates.

But Ky is wilier than that, and she has the vast resources of Vatta Enterprises behind her, even if she is no longer a shareholder in the company. She’s still a Vatta. And someone is clearly out to get the Vattas. Still. Again.

And someone has upped their timetable on whatever it was they were planning and plotting out in desolate Miksland. Whether those are the same someones, and what Ky can manage to do about them, take the story from politics straight into war.

But if there’s one thing that Admiral Kylara Vatta is good at, it’s war. She and her allies just have to hope that she is better at it than her well-entrenched enemies. And that the butcher’s bill won’t be too high.

Escape Rating A: This was a “just sit there and read” kind of book. It sucked me in from the very first page, and didn’t let go until the end. Actually, I’m not sure it’s let go even yet.

That being said, this is a book that will make no sense to someone who has not read Cold Welcome. I think that the background from the further past is explained enough that you don’t have to read all of Vatta’s War to get into Vatta’s Peace or at least you certainly don’t have to have read it recently. But if you like mercantile/military SF I highly recommend it.

I initially read Vatta’s War in roughly the same time period that I read the Honor Harrington series and Tanya Huff’s Valor (Confederation) series. All three series feature kick-ass military heroines who we meet roughly at the beginning of their careers and who face bigger enemies and greater dangers as they advance. They also pick up great friends, a cohort of companions, and soldiers that will do sacrifice anything for them, and sometimes pay the ultimate price. In the end I gave up on Honor as she seemed to become her very own deus ex machina, but I’ve stuck with both Ky Vatta and Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr of the Valor series, and still enjoy their adventures. All of this to say if you like one, you’ll probably like the other. And I’d love to be a fly on the wall if Ky and Torin ever go out for drinks together.

Into the Fire is a densely political book. The entire first half is primarily the set up, as Ky and company find themselves stuck in various places, trying to find ways around the corrupt and/or clueless branches of officialdom that are trying to keep the truth about Miksland under wraps for as long as possible.

This part of the story reads very much like a spy thriller, with the villains trying to flush out the heroes and the heroes trying to get information without tipping off the villains. Meanwhile the disinformation campaign fomented by the villains just confuses the civilians and makes the job of the heroes that much harder. A lot goes wrong in the first half of the book, leaving Ky, Grace and the reader all frustrated at just how difficult it is to fix this mess.

The second half of the book is all action. Once Ky and company find enough trustworthy people to work with on both the military and the civilian sides, the official logjam gets broken and Ky and her friends are on the move – rooting out the corruption, investigating the conspiracy and most importantly, rescuing Ky’s people before they can be wiped out. It’s a wild and compelling rollercoaster ride from that point on. The reader just can’t turn the pages fast enough. Or at least this reader certainly couldn’t.

This isn’t a story that delves a lot into personalities. It’s all about the action. And that’s non-stop from the moment Ky gets out of house arrest until the book’s breath-stealing conclusion.

The comment at the end of the book is absolutely marvelous, and so completely true. “Vatta’s peace may not be perfect, but it could have been worse.” The book, on the other hand, could not have been better.

Into the Fire does end in a proper closure, as Cold Welcome did not. However, there are enough small loose ends that the series could continue if the author wished. This reader certain wishes very, very hard.

Review: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin Hearne

Review: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin HearneThe Grimoire of the Lamb (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #0.4) by Kevin Hearne
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #0.4
Pages: 64
Published by Del Rey on May 7th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

There's nothing like an impromptu holiday to explore the birthplace of modern civilisation, but when Atticus and Oberon pursue a book-stealing Egyptian wizard - with a penchant for lamb - to the land of the pharaohs, they find themselves in hot, crocodile-infested water.
The trip takes an even nastier turn when they discover the true nature of the nefarious plot they've been drawn into. On the wrong side of the vengeful cat goddess Bast and chased by an unfathomable number of her yowling four-legged disciples, Atticus must find a way to appease or defeat Egypt's deadliest gods - before his grimoire-grabbing quarry uses them to turn him into mincemeat.

My Review:

With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to the Spiderman mythos. But there are plenty of people who want that great power, but want to completely sidestep that whole great responsibility price tag. While history and politics are both littered with the bodies of the victims of those “great” figures, in urban fantasy that shortcut to great power usually travels down the road to hell, often paved with no good intentions whatsoever. That shortcut is nearly always dark magic.

And so it proves in Grimoire of the Lamb.

The Druid now known as Atticus O’Sullivan is 21. That’s 21 centuries old, not 21 years. But his magic keeps him looking much closer to 21 years old, and if that’s what people want to assume, he’s happy to let them.

While Atticus isn’t old enough to have visited Egypt when the pyramids were built, he is more than old enough to have visited Egypt before the Library at Alexandria was burned to the ground. And that long ago bit of library looting is the root of this story.

In the 21st century, Atticus lives in Tempe, near Arizona State University, and owns a shop that sells a combination of new age trinkets, minor magical items for the knowledgeable practitioner, arcane-seeming (and sometimes really arcane) used books and very special herbal teas that help students study just before exams.

While Atticus does seem to sell a few safe or relatively safe used books, most of his collection belongs in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts, or the nearest local equivalent, which happens to be a magically locked case in his shop.

And that case contains at least two books that are on semi-permanent loan from the defunct Library of Alexandria. One is that Grimoire of the Lamb, which Atticus believes is an ancient cookbook. The other is a book he calls Nice Kitty, which he describes somewhat like an illustrated guide to tantric sex to be practiced in the worship of Bast.

Bast is not happy that Atticus has that book. She’s so unhappy, in fact, that Atticus has avoided going to Egypt for centuries. But now he’s stuck.

An evil wizard has just stolen the cookbook, but only after informing Atticus that it isn’t a cookbook. That poor lamb isn’t for dinner, it’s a blood sacrifice to one of the ancient Egyptian gods. And it’s a sacrifice that will let the sorcerer kill his (and his god’s) enemies and place himself in a position of power. Someone has seriously given in to the dark side of the Force, and not just because he discovered the book by conjuring up a demon.

So Atticus, along with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon, takes off for Egypt to track down that stolen (or is that re-stolen) book, before it’s too late.

Escape Rating B+: I was looking for something quick and fun, and this certainly filled the bill. I was tempted to say light and fun, but Atticus often isn’t light. There are always plenty of humorous moments, if only within the confines of Atticus’ own thoughts, but there’s also always something darker at work.

And even if Atticus doesn’t provide a lot of levity, Oberon always does. When Bast’s many, many, MANY minions chase Atticus and Oberon through the streets of Cairo, poor Oberon’s attempts to visualize just how many cats are following them nearly breaks the poor dog’s enhanced brain. Bast commands a lot of cats. All the cats. And they all chase Atticus and Oberon with a vengeance. Possibly literally.

Grimoire of the Lamb is a prequel story to the Iron Druid Chronicles. Although it takes place before the absolutely marvelous Hounded, it was written after it, so while it introduces the characters we are familiar with, it also already knows who they are and what they are supposed to be.

This story is more intimate than Hounded in that the only two characters that we are familiar with are Atticus and Oberon. His werewolf lawyer appears in a phone call, but doesn’t participate in the action. This one is all on the druid and his dog.

Especially on Atticus. Just as in Hounded, the story is written in first-person singular, so we are always inside Atticus’ head, even when he’s gibbering to himself in pain. Which is often. Atticus gets knocked around a lot.

Tangling with a crocodile, let alone a crocodile god, is always messy. Especially when, as so often happens with Atticus, he’s making it all up as he goes along.

One of the fun things about this series is the way that it mixes multiple ancient mythologies with contemporary sensibilities. Atticus has survived by adapting from century to century and country to country. He never forgets who he is, where he comes from, or what he remembers, but he doesn’t cling to the dead past. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.

Most of the time when Atticus is forced to deal with myths, legends and deities, they are from his own Celtic pantheon. But he remembers the other old gods, and they certainly remember him. Bast certainly does. And will. He’s planning to steal Nice Kitty back, as soon as he heals up from dealing with Sobek the Crocodile God. Hopefully for the last time.

But this is certainly not my last time visiting Atticus and Oberon.

Guest Review: The MasterHarper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Guest Review: The MasterHarper of Pern by Anne McCaffreyThe MasterHarper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 422
on January 12th 1998
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Goodreads

In a time when the deadly scourge Thread has not fallen on Pern for centuries--and many dare to hope that Thread will never fall again--a boy is born to Harper Hall. A musical prodigy who has the ability to speak with the dragons, he is called Robinton, and he is destined to be one of the most famous and beloved leaders Pern has ever known.

It is a perilous time for the harpers who sing of Thread--they are being turned away from holds, derided, attacked, even beaten. In this climate of unrest, Robinton will come into his own. But despite the tragedies that beset his own life, he continues to believe in music and in the dragons, and he is determined to save his beloved Pern from itself--so that the dragonriders can be ready to fly against the dreaded Thread when at last it returns . . . .

Guest review by Amy:

Dragonflight by Ann McAffreyMost any Pern fan will tell you that the best way to read the series is in publication order, and I would mostly agree with that. By 1998, Pern was a richly-populated world, with loads of great stories told–and plenty more to tell. One of the most interesting characters in the series is Robinton, who at the beginning of the Ninth Pass of the Red Star is the MasterHarper. In the very first Pern novel, Dragonflight, we get to meet this fascinating, talented man, and the first six books of the series feature him heavily. He’s shown as an older man, late middle-aged, exceedingly gregarious, with a taste for fine white wines and a glib tongue for diplomacy, but we’re told nothing whatever of his backstory.

In The MasterHarper of Pern, McCaffrey corrects this glaring gap, and she takes us back to the very beginning, to his birth to the MasterSinger Merelan and MasterComposer Petiron. Growing up in the Harper Hall is difficult, especially with his father being so inattentive and difficult to get along with, but Robinton excels at every part of the musical tradition, and is composing tunes of his own at three Turns of age. This, of course, annoys Petiron when he finds out, when the boy is almost 10, and we have a clash of parenting that feels almost modern, that lasts for years, ending only with Merelan’s death. Even then, Petiron is difficult, and the battle comes to a head when Robinton is elected MasterHarper.

But Robinton has other things to worry about. In the High Reaches, where he had served on his first journeyman assignment, a young bully named Fax is taking over more and more territory, and gradually building himself an empire, going against every custom, and against the Charter. The other Lords Holder won’t confirm him as a Holder, but are powerless to stop him. Robinton must watch, and do what he can, as he protects his Harpers and the common folk as best he can.

The Weyrs are of mixed mind, as many of the Lords Holder are, whether Thread will ever return to Pern. Without Thread, the great dragons that protect the planet are no longer needed. But if it returns, so few dragons remain, that they may not be able to protect all of Pern! Robinton’s lifelong friendship with F’lon and his sons F’lar and F’nor are part of the puzzle–they believe Thread will return, and Robinton’s association with them harms his reputation with those who disagree.

Action, drama, romance, political intrigue: this epic has it all, just like our own lives do over that much time.

dragonsong by anne mccaffreyEscape Rating: A-. The great strength of this book, in my opinion, is that it ties together a great many loose threads from a whole bunch of other books. For instance, why did Petiron (yes, the same one) not communicate better with the MasterHarper in Dragonsong? And the mentally-disabled Camo, who appears in that book as a drudge at the Harper Hall–what’s his story? The headwoman Silvina seems exceptionally tolerant and caring of him, but why? These things, and so many more, are gathered up into a nice neat package for us, and we can begin to see how some of the stray stories fit together. When we meet F’lon, he’s not yet Impressed his dragon, and is called Fallonner; astute Pern fans will figure out the honorific contraction many chapters before Robinton hears the drum message that his friend has Impressed, but it’s a fascinating peek into life before the events of Dragonflight and the tale of his two sons.

Where The MasterHarper of Pern falls slightly short for me is that we’re telling an epic tale almost as a series of connected short stories or novellas.  One chapter actually starts with “While the MasterHarper waited over the next five Turns,” and these skips clearly hop over things that could be interesting. It’s a bit of a quibble, really, because it does set us up for the timetable in the other books, but as a big fan of the character, it wouldn’t have bothered me a bit to make this epic even moreso, by filling in some of those gaps. McCaffrey liked this length of book, it seemed–all three of the original trilogy, and many of the subsequent novels, were about as long as MasterHarper, and she never really stretched out into “epic fantasy,” like any number of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, or Jacqueline Carey’s grand epics of Terre D’Ange (otherwise known as the Kushiel series). She could have, I’m reasonably certain, and sold just as many books, so I’m unsure why she didn’t.

With the caveat that my only complaint about this book is that it’s not long enough, I can heartily recommend this book. Pern fans will see so many loose ends tied up for them, and even if you’ve not read all the other stories in the series, you’ll find a great tale of a fascinating person!

Review: The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith

Review: The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith and Susan GriffithThe Shadow Revolution (Crown & Key, #1) by Clay Griffith, Susan Griffith
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Crown & Key #1
Pages: 320
Published by Del Rey on June 2nd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

They are the realm’s last, best defense against supernatural evil. But they’re going to need a lot more silver.
As fog descends, obscuring the gas lamps of Victorian London, werewolves prowl the shadows of back alleys. But they have infiltrated the inner circles of upper-crust society as well. Only a handful of specially gifted practitioners are equipped to battle the beasts. Among them are the roguish Simon Archer, who conceals his powers as a spell-casting scribe behind the smooth veneer of a dashing playboy; his layabout mentor, Nick Barker, who prefers a good pub to thrilling heroics; and the self-possessed alchemist Kate Anstruther, who is equally at home in a ballroom as she is on a battlefield.
After a lycanthrope targets Kate’s vulnerable younger sister, the three join forces with fierce Scottish monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane—but quickly discover they’re dealing with a threat far greater than anything they ever imagined.

My Review:

In my week of bouncing off of everything, I finally looked for an urban fantasy, because they always reset my reading slumps. I found The Shadow Revolution in my towering TBR stack and it definitely fit the bill!

Urban fantasy generally borrows from both mystery and fantasy. In the case of The Shadow Revolution, it borrows from mystery, fantasy, steampunk and horror. Both urban fantasy and steampunk can sometimes have a very light touch, with elves in Minneapolis (The War for the Oaks by Emma Bull) or the Knights of the Round Table in Victorian London (The Gaslight Chronicles by Cindy Spencer Pape).

Except for the frequent line of snark, there is nothing light about The Shadow Revolution. It draws its inspiration from gaslight horror, and things are often darkest just before they turn completely black.

I called it gaslight horror because the settings are frequently the scariest in Victorian London, Bedlam and the neighborhoods around St. Giles. Also because while there are werewolves, the most frightening monsters in this story are the all too human mad scientist and his homunculi, part human, part machine survivors of his torturous experimentation. The homunculi are much more frightening than the werewolves. The werewolves, good or evil, are who they are born to be. The homunculi are what we could become at the hands of an evil person who loves to experiment for its own sake and doesn’t care who he hurts. In fact, he enjoys his victims’ pain, especially their pain at losing their humanity.

Then again, he’s clearly lost his a LONG time ago.

The story here is the coming together of forces to fight the tide of evil sweeping over this steam-powered Victorian London. We have three warriors, with vastly different skills, band together for their own sometimes selfish motives.

Simon Archer is a scribe, what we would call a wizard or a mage. While he hides behind a fashionable, rakish exterior, he has tattooed his greatest spells on the canvas of his skin, to be called upon when his need is most dire. Malcolm McFarlane is the tank. He is a pure warrior who always has guns up his sleeves and cannons for fists. That his father was tasked with murdering Simon’s father, and failed, does not make their relationship an easy one.

In the midst of what would otherwise be testosterone overload, we have the expert alchemist Kate Anstruther. In an era when women were supposed to be merely decorative and ornamental, Kate runs her missing father’s vast estate and continues with (and improves) his experiments in alchemy. Kate’s father and Simon’s father also have history, but not of the deadly variety, at least as far as they know. Their fathers worked together on something that enables instantaneous matter transportation, and the forces of evil want the device and its power. Many of those forces have an axe to grind against Simon or Kate or both. The hunt for the device has been long in the making, and the dark side wants someone to pay for their frustration in their search.

When the forces of evil target Kate’s willful younger sister Imogen as the way to get both the device and the revenge they crave, Kate, Simon and Malcolm are forced to use their powers to the fullest to get the girl back. At any cost.

Escape Rating A: While the point of view we see most often is Simon’s (I think the cover picture is intended to be Simon) we do get inside the heads of Kate and Malcolm enough to see everyone’s point of view. This story is filled with thrills and very, very definitely chills as the action and danger never let up for an instant, not even when the story ends.

One of the things I liked about this story was the way that it brings together all the characters. Everyone has history with everyone else, and everyone gets past it in order to fight the good fight.

My favorite character is Kate Anstruther. It is always refreshing to see a woman who has no compunctions about displaying that she is the equal of the men in the fight. Where Simon uses his spells, and Malcolm his brute strength, Kate comes into battle with a sword and a bandolier filled with potions. And while both men make the token attempt to protect her, when she refuses to be protected they back off and respect her right to fight alongside them.

Two characters drove me slightly crazy. A lot of what happens happens because Kate’s sister Imogen is an idiot. She’s also a very young woman, and to say someone is a young idiot is so often an oxymoron. Also the only mess Imogen might have expected to get into was to be seduced into marriage with a wastrel. No one expected werewolves and black magic until they burst onto the scene, and by then it was much too late for Imogen, she had already been ensorcelled in some way. That Kate doesn’t recognize Imogen’s condition even after her first disappearance and recovery surprised me. It was so easy to see that Imogen was compromised that her sister should have been the first to figure things out, instead of the last.

Simon’s mentor Nick Barker provides some fascinating insights on sorcery in steampunk London and on both courage and cowardice, sometimes at the same time. It’s clear that Simon looks up to Nick, who has helped him learn his craft. But once the stakes are raised, Nick lets Simon down. Where Simon has always wanted to use his craft to help set things right, Nick has been trying to get Simon to stay in the shadows and hide from both fellow practitioners and whatever evil is brewing. It was a very different way of seeing someone’s mentor fall. Usually they die, like Merlin and Gandalf and Dumbledore. This failure is more a failure of courage, as Nick just leaves the fight behind.

I wonder if he’ll be back?

This one will keep readers on the edge of their seats from start to finish. Also frequently shaking with the creeps. Those homunculi are very scary, but not, in the end, as scary as the man who creates them.

undying legion by clay griffith and susan griffithThank goodness this is a trilogy and part two, The Undying Legion, is available. So, for that matter is part three, The Conquering Dark. I can’t wait to see where this story goes, and how dark things get before they finally find the light.