Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon

Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth MoonInto the Fire (Vatta's Peace, #2) by Elizabeth Moon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: military science fiction, science fiction
Series: Vatta's Peace #2
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
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
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction
Series: Dragonriders of Pern (Publication Order) #15
Pages: 422
Published by Del Rey on January 12th 1998
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, steampunk, urban fantasy
Series: Crown & Key #1
Pages: 320
Published by Del Rey on June 2nd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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.