Review: Eversion by Alastair Reynolds

Review: Eversion by Alastair ReynoldsEversion by Alastair Reynolds
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Orbit on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the master of the space opera, Alastair Reynolds, comes a dark, mind-bending SF adventure spread across time and space, Doctor Silas Coade has been tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact, but as things keep going wrong, Silas soon realizes that something more sinister is at work, and this may not even be the first time it's happened.
In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it's up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.

My Review:

Humans process ideas, events and catastrophes through stories, whether by telling them, making them or being swept away by them. It’s why things like Aesop’s Fables and the Arthurian legends, the Greek tragedies and Pride and Prejudice have all lasted so very long yet still change in interpretations and retellings as society changes. Those stories still have universal things to say about the human condition, so we keep telling them.

This is a story about processing a tragedy by telling stories around and about it until it can be approached directly. So the reason the story is told, and re-told, very nearly ad infinitum, is to give the protagonist enough time and distance to process something that he can’t bring himself to face.

No matter how much he needs to.

The way he does it is to put himself inside a story. It’s the story of a doomed exploratory ship, at the edges of the known world, searching for a possibly mythical ice fissure that will lead to an epic, world-shaking, discovery.

First, it’s a sailing ship in the Arctic. Our hero is the ship’s surgeon, who is also writing a fictional tale of adventure in the vein of Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson. And when the doctor’s tale went awry, and he effectively rebooted his story, moving it forward to the age of steam and erasing the disaster that killed all his passengers, I was lulled into thinking this was about the story he was writing.

And it sort of is, but it really isn’t.

As the doctor successively retells the tale, it moves forward in time, from the age of sail to the age of steam to outright steampunk and into the stars. Always with the same crew, always relating the same events, getting just a little further and going just a little deeper each time.

It’s only then that he, and we, discover what looks like the truth. And that it’s even worse than anything he ever imagined.

Escape Rating A: The author of Eversion is best known for his epic, space opera type science fiction, but if that’s what you’re looking for you’re not going to find it in Eversion. Very much on the other hand, if you enjoyed the small-scale, small-cast, intimate story of his Permafrost, which I most definitely did, there’s a LOT to love in Eversion.

In the first iteration, the reader, or at least this reader, gets caught up in the story of the sailing ship Demeter’s expedition to the Arctic fjords of Scandinavia to find a mysterious ruin, or artifact, or both, referred to as the edifice. There was more than enough creeping dread, combined with the hunt for treasure and the details of sailing ship life to make me think this was a very strange but compelling combination of The Route of Ice and Salt, the Aubrey and Maturin series (Master and Commander) with Dr. Silas Coade as Maturin, and something like Indiana Jones and the Edifice of Doom. At least until Coade is forced to rewrite his story after a catastrophe kills off all the characters.

And that’s the first inkling that they might be HIS characters, part of the adventure story he’s writing.

At least until it happens again. And then again. At which point I thought I’d wandered into Groundhog Day. or to use more genre-appropriate references, the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity or the Star Trek Next Gen episode Cause and Effect.

Along with one fascinating variation on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

As I said at the beginning, stories are one of the ways that humans process, and Eversion reminded me of more and more stories, also more and more SFnal stories, as it went through its iterations, or versions.

Until we finally get to the point of “eversions” and discover that everything we thought we might be reading isn’t quite right at all. Although in a very peculiar way it is at the heart of all of the stories.

And that even though the heart they have isn’t quite the one we thought it was, it still manages to break ours. If you’re looking for the kind of SF that will blow your mind and break your expectations, Eversion is a gem.

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan BannenThe Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.  
Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. 
After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.  
If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most—Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares—each other?
Set in a world full of magic and demigods, donuts and small-town drama, this enchantingly quirky, utterly unique fantasy is perfect for readers of The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Invisible Library.

My Review:

Hart Ralston and Mercy Birdsall each think they have a fairly big problem when the story opens. Each other. And they are both so, so wrong, which is what makes this fantasy romance so cozily familiar even in the midst of all the dangerous creatures that are getting more numerous – and ever more dangerous – in nearby Tanria.

What makes their mutual enmity an even bigger problem is that they have to work together – sorta/kinda – in dealing with all of those dangerous creatures. Or at least in handling the remains of all of their victims.

Marshal Hart Ralston’s job is to go into Tanria and hunt down both the dangerous, deadly and also quite dead drudges – as well as get any illegal poachers out of the area before they become victims of those dead and deadly drudges and are turned into drudges themselves.

It’s a thankless job, but somebody has to do it. And lone wolf Ralston prefers to do it alone, so he doesn’t have to try to protect anyone else – and fail at it.

Mercy Birdsall is the only actual working member of Birdsall and Son, one of the undertaking companies in Eternity, just over the border from Tanria. It’s her company’s job to provide funeral rites for the dead victims – and occasionally for the dead monsters – that marshal’s like Ralston bring back from Tanria.

Hart and Mercy got on each other’s bad side the very first time they met over Birdsall and Son’s shop counter. And it’s been all downhill ever since.

Or has it?

Escape Rating B: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, besides being a very punny title, is one of those stories that invokes that question about whether two great tastes go great together. This is a fantasy romance, but romance readers may think it leans too much on the fantasy side and fantasy readers may have the same reaction to the romantic angle that Hart and Mercy initially had to each other.

Or, as in my case, this may seem like a strange setting for a reimagining of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom classic movie You’ve Got Mail. Although it does work – particularly because of the marvelously sarcastic nimkilim that deliver the mail – there are a few scenes where it seems like the graft didn’t quite take. Or that the stitching of the graft is just a bit too obvious. Or both.

Not that the idea doesn’t work well in this setting because it does – with the help of the nimkilim. Hart is lonely and withdrawn. He desperately needs to reach out to someone but doesn’t know how and is afraid to try. Hence his anonymous correspondence with his nameless “friend”.

Mercy, on the other hand, is lonely in a crowd. She has family and some friends, but she’s carrying a boatload (literally in this case) of secrets and responsibilities that consume her energy while isolating her from anyone who might be able to help her in dealing with them. Which results in her responses to those letters addressed by heart, from Hart, to his nameless friend. Who turns out to be Mercy, the woman he believes is his worst enemy.

This is kind of a fence-straddling book, complete with the inevitable splinters up its ass. It was presented to me as a romance, and there certainly is a romance in it. But the fantasy setting is more than just setting. It’s an important enough element of the story that the book as a whole doesn’t sit comfortably in romance because it has more than a foot over that line into fantasy.

Even if that foot belongs to a dead body that has become a drudge.

At the same time, as much as I loved the banter between Hart and Mercy, there was something about Mercy’s situation that just didn’t sit right. I never fully got why she couldn’t take over the family business – at least until the villain of the piece took his villainy to heights (or depths) that the business couldn’t survive no matter who was in charge of it. I understood that her father wanted to pass it to her brother – who was not suited to the work AT ALL and did not want it under any circumstances whatsoever. Work that Mercy wasn’t merely suited for but actually loved.

A fact which Mercy’s family totally ignored. She does the work, she loves the work. She wants to keep doing the work. But her entire family decided that the business was a burden on her and that it would be best for her if it was sold. Without asking her what she wanted. (BTW Mercy is THIRTY YEARS OLD and very well able to decide what is best for her for her own damn self.) A lot of story water goes under that bridge before the Birdsall family stops assuming they know what’s best for each other and have an honest conversation about what each of them as an individual actually wants.

The story picked up its pace – or at least stopped frustrating the crap out of me – after that conversation finally happened.

For this reader, the thing is that this was presented to me as a romance, but it reads like a fantasy that includes a romance, which is a bit of a different beast. Both elements have to be present and fully-fleshed out for a fantasy romance to succeed. If only one is working, it falls over.

In the end, this doesn’t fall over. It works – although it does take a while to get all of its (auto)ducks in a row. In fact, it works a whole lot like Can’t Spell Treason without Tea and Legends & Lattes. Between the life of the town of Eternity and the Birdsall family dynamic – along with Mercy’s lovable big dog Leonardo – the fantasy is very cozy, with just the right amount of danger. The romance is angsty in a way that really works well, and the issues between Hart and Mercy feel real in spite of the fantasy setting, but also rising at least in part from elements that are integral to that fantasy setting.

Readers coming to The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy just for the romance may find this to be more fantasy than they bargained on. But if you loved Legends & Lattes or Can’t Spell Treason without Tea, or if you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series you’ll fall for The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy every bit as hard as Hart and Mercy eventually realize that they have for each other..

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

Review: The Monsters We Defy by Leslye PenelopeThe Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope, L. Penelope
Narrator: Shayna Small
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 30 minutes
Published by Orbit on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Washington D. C., 1925
Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.
Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

My Review:

This fantastic, marvelous historical fantasy, set in Black Washington DC during the Jazz Age, brings its time, its place and its people to glorious life. It also tells a tale of big thrills, big fears and deep, deep chills. Because under its glitter and walking in its footsteps is a cautionary tale that hovers just at the point where being careful what you wish for drops straight through the trapdoor of some favors come with too high a price.

Clara Johnson was born with the ability to speak to the dead. It’s not a one-way street, because they can speak to her, too. And not just the dead, anyone or anything that exists ‘Over There’ can get her attention – or she can get theirs.

An attention she took advantage of, once upon a time, in order to save her life.

She made a bargain with a being calling herself ‘The Empress’. In return for a literal ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, Clara made a deal. A deal, like all deals with the enigmas that exist Over There, that left Clara with both a charm and a trick.

The charm she refuses to use or even talk about – after that one and only time it got her out from under a murder charge. The trick, however, is a binding on her soul. Whenever someone asks her for help making contact with the spirits, she has to help. She’s not allowed to take payment for that help, and she’s not permitted to make too strong a case against taking that help to the person who has made the request.

Because the help they ask for will result in that person receiving their own charm, and their own trick. And Clara has learned, to her cost, that in the end neither are worth it. A lesson she should have kept much more firmly in mind as she gets herself deeper into a case that catches her up in a battle that may cost her entire community their souls, their futures, and their destinies.

Escape Rating A+: I know I’m not quite doing this one justice because I loved it so hard. I just want to squee and that’s not terribly informative. But still…SQUEE!

Now that I’ve got that out of my system – a bit – I’ll try to convey some actual information.

The Monsters We Defy combines history, mystery and magical realism into a heist committed by a fascinating assortment of characters on a mission to save themselves, each other, and all their people. And just possibly the world as well.

The historical setting is ripe for this kind of story. On the one hand, there’s the glitter of the Jazz Age. And on the other, the divided reality of the District’s black community, where the ‘Luminous Four Hundred’ holds itself high above the working class and the alley residents, while pretending that the white power brokers who control the rest of the city don’t see everyone who isn’t white as less than the dirt beneath their feet.

It’s not a surprise that someone would take advantage of that situation for their own ends. What makes this book different is that the someone in this case is an enterprising spirit from ‘Over There’ rather than a human from right here.

And into this setting the author puts together one of the most demon-plagued crews to ever even attempt to pull off a heist. All of them, except for Clara’s roommate Zelda, are in debt to one enigma or another in a burden that they wish they could shake. Vaudevillian Aristotle can play any role he wants to or needs to, but is doomed to be invisible when he’s just himself. Musician Israel can hypnotize an individual or a crowd with his music – but no one ever cares about the man who plays it. His cousin Jesse can take anyone’s memories – make them forget an hour or a day – but the woman he loves can never remember him for more than a day.

They all thought they were getting a gift – only to discover that it’s a curse they can’t get rid of. Unless they steal a powerful ring from the most famous and best-protected woman on Black Broadway.

Unless the spirits are playing them all for fools. Again.

It all hinges on Clara, who is tired and world-weary and desperate and determined. She doesn’t believe that she’ll ever have any hope of better, but she’s determined to try for literally everyone else. And the story and her crew ride or die with her – no matter how much or how often she wishes she could do it all alone.

Because the story is told from Clara’s perspective even though it’s not told from inside her head, it was critical that the narrator for the audiobook embody Clara in all of her irascible reluctance to take up this burden she knows is hers. The narrator of the audiobook, Shayna Small, did a fantastic job of both bringing Clara to life AND making sure that the other voices were distinct and in tune with the characters they represented.

And she made me feel the story so hard I yelled at Clara to look before she leaped and think before she acted more than a few times, because I cared and I wanted to warn her SO MUCH. (Luckily I was in the car and no one could hear me.)

I found The Monsters We Defy to be a terrific book about a high-stakes heist committed by a desperate crew that led to a surprising – and delightful – redemptive ending. And the audio was superb.

If you’ve read either Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia or Bindle Punk Bruja by Desideria Mesa, you’ll love The Monsters We Defy because it’s a bit of both of those books with a super(natural) chunk of T.L. Huchu’s The Library of the Dead‘s “I speak to dead people,” thrown in for extra bodies and high-stakes scary spice!

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel AbrahamAge of Ash (Kithamar, #1) by Daniel Abraham
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Kithamar #1
Pages: 448
Length: 14 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Orbit on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From
New York Times
bestselling and critically acclaimed author Daniel Abraham, co-author of
The Expanse
, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all.
“An atmospheric and fascinating tapestry, woven with skill and patience.” –Joe Abercrombie, New York Times bestselling author of A Little Hatred
Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.
This is Alys's.
When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives. 
Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.
For more from Daniel Abraham, check out: The Dagger and the CoinThe Dragon's PathThe King's BloodThe Tyrant's LawThe Widow's HouseThe Spider's War

My Review:

There’s a secret at the heart of the city of Kithamar, but I’m not sure that we’ve plumbed the depths of it by the end of the first book in this projected trilogy. We’ve seen it as if through that glass very darkly indeed. I imagine that we won’t get the view face-to-face until much nearer the end.

So what do we have here?

Age of Ash is, at its own heart, a whole lot of setup and worldbuilding, in a world that really, really needs it in order for the reader to see where they are and why it matters. That setup, that story is told from the perspectives of two (very) young women at the bottom of this city-state-world’s economic ladder.

Alys and Sammish are descendants of Kithamar’s indigenous population, the Inlisc. Like most Inlisc they live in the downtrodden community-not-quite-ghetto of Longhill. They are both what the city calls “street-rats”, a term that is applied to all Longhill residents, but particularly to those who are so close to the bottom of the ladder – not that anyone Inlisc or anyone in Longhill is anywhere near the top – that they are one bad break or poor choice or unprofitable “pull” from sleeping on the streets.

(A “pull” in Longhill parlance is a theft or a cheat or a con game. Everyone does it in one fashion or another, if only to get one-up on their friends or get enough coin to spend a night out of the weather.)

But someone in the rich quarters, in the palace of the Prince of the City, has committed what looks like the biggest pull of them all. They’ve managed to steal the city from the direct line of royalty by putting a “cuckoo” in the royal nest.

The forces that are arrayed to steal the city back are deeper, darker and much more dangerous than anyone imagines. The doings of the power-that-be or would-be should be far above the tiny influence of people like Alys and Sammish.

But these two young women find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy larger, deadlier and with more far-reaching consequences than either of them ever imagined.

Neither they nor their city will ever be the same. No matter how much the city itself tries to maintain the status quo that keeps it in power.

Escape Rating B: Oh do I have mixed feelings about this one, but let me get this out of the way first. I listened to the audiobook of Age of Ash, and the narrator did an excellent job with the material. But, but, but I had some serious issues with the material. This turned out to be one of those books where I was content enough to continue the audio because the reader was terrific but had absolutely ZERO compulsion to switch to the ebook because I just wasn’t compelled to finish the story any faster. The couple of times I tried to switch to the text it kind of turned me off so I went back to the audio.

One of the things that bothered me about the story, and I think it’s something that has been growing on me as an issue, is that it seems as if when a male author writes a heroine’s journey the heroine – or in this case heroines plural – is just way more angsty and suffers considerably more, well, angst, but also grief and are just generally more downtrodden than a hero would be going through the exact same circumstances. This was also true in both Engines of Empire and The Starless Crown. Don’t get me wrong, i’s great to see more female-centric stories, but male writers just seem to give their heroines more baggage than is necessary, and it’s baggage that comes from our world’s issues with female centric-stories that are not romances, and not baggage that is inherent in the created world.

There were entirely too many points where it seemed as if the two women were in a race to see which of them would win the TSTL (that’s Too Stupid To Live), award and get themselves killed. I was both amazed and pleased to see them finally get themselves out of that spiral, but it made for some rough reading.

I’m contrasting all of this with T. Kingfisher’s female-centric stories (A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Nettle & Bone and pretty much all the women in the Saint of Steel series but especially Bishop Beartongue), because her heroines just GET ON WITH IT, whatever it is. They don’t have the time or inclination to angst about their personal issues and they don’t have to start their stories completely downtrodden. They have a problem and they set about solving it. Like male heroes do. Like women do in real life.

The above is all my 2 cents pitched from the top of a very tall soapbox. But it tasks me. It seriously tasks me.

<Give me a second, I need to summon a stepstool to get down off this box.>

Back to Age of Ash in particular. The part of the story that is both fascinating and completely shrouded in mystery is the nature of the city and its ruling class, which is the secret at the heart of both. I don’t want to spoil it completely, although we do get hints of it fairly early, but it takes concepts from Dragon Age, The Anubis Gates, The Ruin of Kings and even more surprisingly The City We Became and wraps them up into a spiky ball with an overwhelming – but very interesting – swath of collateral damage.

And I don’t think we’ve nearly found out just how deeply awful that whole situation is yet. Probably all the way down to a circle of hell that not even Dante imagined.

Particularly because there’s plenty rotten at the heart of Kithamar, and it doesn’t all have to do with the mystical, magical mess that the plot – and the political plots IN the story – all circle around. It’s like an Ankh-Morpork without Vetinari at the helm to keep the city functional. Even the weather seems to be getting worse.

It feels like Age of Ash is an attempt to show a revolution starting at the bottom, with the tiny pebble starting an avalanche that will eventually consume the city – in spite of the city’s attempts to stop it. It’s certainly a very sympathetic portrait of life at the bottom of an epic fantasy city. By centering on Alys and Sammish barely getting by the reader gets an intimate view of just how firmly the deck can be stacked against people by accident of their birth, and how much effort, legal or illegal, is required just to get through another day in circumstances that can’t be changed easily or at all.

Also, the blurb feels wrong, because in the end this is not Alys’s story. It may start out that way, but by the end it’s Sammish’s story. And it’s the city’s story all along. It always has been. Whether it always will be is something that we’ll discover in the later books in the series.

Which I think will still be worth a listen – if only to discover what happens next.

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. FordEngines of Empire (The Age of Uprising, #1) by Richard S. Ford
Narrator: Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve, Stephen Perring
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Age of Uprising #1
Pages: 624
Length: 22 hours, 3 minutes
Published by Orbit on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This epic fantasy tells the tales of clashing Guilds, magic-fueled machines, intrigue and revolution—and the one family that stands between an empire's salvation or destruction.
The nation of Torwyn is run on the power of industry, and industry is run by the Guilds. Chief among them are the Hawkspurs, and their responsibility is to keep the gears of the empire turning. It’s exactly why matriarch Rosomon Hawkspur sends each of her heirs to the far reaches of the nation. 
Conall, the eldest son, is sent to the distant frontier to earn his stripes in the military. It is here that he faces a threat he could have never seen coming: the first rumblings of revolution.
Tyreta’s sorcerous connection to the magical resource of pyrstone that fuels the empire’s machines makes her a perfect heir–in theory. While Tyreta hopes that she might shirk her responsibilities during her journey one of Torwyn’s most important pyrestone mines, she instead finds the dark horrors of industry that the empire would prefer to keep hidden. 
The youngest, Fulren, is a talented artificer, and finds himself acting as consort to a foreign emissary. Soon after, he is framed for a crime he never committed. A crime that could start a war. 
As each of the Hawkspurs grapple with the many threats that face the nation within and without, they must finally prove themselves worthy–or their empire will fall apart. 

My Review:

This was a first for me. Engines of Empire turned out to be a total rage read that I enjoyed anyway – and does that ever need a bit of an explanation!

The story is fascinating – and compelling. It’s a political story about empires – well, duh – rising and falling. This first book, at least, is about the fall. Or at least the fall-ing. Since this is the first book in the series, I expect the rising to happen later. Whether that will turn out to be the rising of the empire from its own ashes, or merely the rising of the family through whose eyes we saw this chapter of the saga, remains to be determined.

So far, neither of them deserve it. Which is where the rage part of my rage reading came into play.

The story of the falling of the empire maintained by the Guilds of Torwyn is told through the first person perspectives of five characters; Rosomon Archwind Hawkspur, her three adult children, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, and her secret lover, Lancelin Jagdor.

And I hated all of them except Lancelin. I particularly detested Rosomon, to the point where I’d have been more than thrilled to read a book about her getting EXACTLY what she deserved – if there hadn’t been quite so much collateral damage in giving it to her.

Of those five characters, Lancelin is the only one who has ever had to face ANY of the consequences of his actions. It’s not just that the rest of them have led very privileged lives, it’s that they never seemed to have grasped the concept that their privilege comes on the back of just so damn many other people.

They are all arrogant and they are all thoughtless about that arrogance. This is particularly true of Rosomon – in spite of a whole bunch of crap that should have given her some insights into the ways that the other half lives.

Instead, she’s a narcissist, to the point that she only sees her children as extensions of herself and not so much as people in their own right. So a big chunk of this story is about how they all escape her very clutching clutches and how those escapes help to make their world burn.

But those escapes manage to send them to the far corners of Torwyn’s empire, which gives the reader the opportunity to see just how the whole empire is hanging by a thread. A thread that is fraying anyway and that can be all too easily snipped if someone provides the right pair of scissors.

Which of course is exactly what happens. With catastrophic results – and an aftermath that we’ll see in the future books in the series. Which I will be unable to resist reading, pretty much in spite of myself.

Escape Rating B: I hate most of the characters in this book SO HARD. But I still feel compelled to see what happens next.

Part of the fascination with this story is that it becomes clear early on that something is very rotten in the heart of Torwyn. A rot that is hidden so completely in plain sight that no one even suspects it is there until it is much, MUCH too late for pretty much everyone.

At the same time, the source of that rot, once it is revealed, turns out to be just the kind of villain that we’ve seen before, and that is so often effective and not just in fiction. It’s someone who truly believes that everything they are doing, no matter how morally repugnant in the moment, is in the service of some “Greater Good” that only they can see. So when the manipulator of events is finally revealed, it makes for a lovely, thoroughly disgusted AHA!  It’s obvious in retrospect, but as you’re going along, it’s only the barest whisper of a possibility.

One of the good things about the way this story is told is that in spite of my hatred of pretty much everyone, the voices are very distinct, and not just because the audiobook narrators (one for each POV character) did a damn fine job. Still, even in print it is impossible to mistake Conall’s voice for Tyreta’s or Fulren’s.

Howsomever, one of things about those distinctive voices was that it seems that both Rosomon’s and Tyreta’s roles are restricted to a significant extent BECAUSE they are women. And yet, we don’t see that in the female secondary characters, who seem to be everywhere doing everything. Conall’s own second-in-command in the military is female, and it’s clear that she has lower rank not because she’s female but because she’s of a lower caste in the social hierarchy.

So the quasi-secondary status of noblewomen may be because they are noble, or it maybe because Rosomon’s a bitch and she’s treating her daughter the way she herself was treated. But it’s left for the reader to assume because of our history – not theirs. It doesn’t have to be that way in a fantasy world and isn’t always. I didn’t like the transfer of assumptions – especially once self-indulgent Tyreta turned into a total badass.

Which, I think is part of the story being told, and what I hope will redeem the later books. That Rosomon may go on being the overbearing, thoughtless narcissist that she has always been, thinking she knows the one true right answer only to discover that she was led astray by her own hubris feels likely – as well as likely to lead to several falls before any ultimate rise. Conall’s future, whether he sinks or swims after his experiences in this book, still feel up in the air. But Tyreta looks like she’s set on a fascinating, redemptive and possibly even heroic path. The question is whether she will let her mother push her off it yet again.

I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda LeeJade Legacy (The Green Bone Saga, #3) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #3
Pages: 713
Published by Orbit on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.
The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.
The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

My Review:

As the final book in the epic – but not necessarily epic fantasy – Green Bone Saga, the story here deals with resolving the past and turning towards the future. In other words, the legacy of the two rival Green Bone clans in Kekon; The Mountain and No Peak.

A legacy that both clans continue jockeying over and for every step of the way – until the bitter end of not one but two old tigers that we’ve watched fight for control through three marvelous books.

The story that began in Jade City centered on the hot war for the city of Janloon between the Mountain clan led by the master strategist Ayt Madashi and the Mountain’s former allies turned bitter enemies, the No Peak clan founded by the Kaul family and led in its current generation by the wartime chief, or Pillar as they are termed in Asian-inspired Kekon, Kaul Hilo with his sister Kaul Shae at his side as the business leader or Weather Man of the clan.

That Ayt Mada is the first female Pillar, while Kaul Shae is the first female Weather Man is part of the long struggle between the clans.

That hot war switches to a cold war in Jade War, as the two clans have become so large and control so much of their country that neither can manage to swallow the other. Instead they fight through foreign subsidiaries, mercenaries, and proxies.

By the time that Jade Legacy begins, that cold war has turned into a “slow war” with the Ayt and Kaul families on opposite sides of both local and international conflicts. They cooperate in small ways while backing up their international proxies with money, jade, and in the case of the Mountain, the drugs that allow non-Kekonese to master the Jade disciplines. The larger countries, the Republic of Espenia and Ygutan, believe that the Ayts and the Kauls are tributaries in their wars, when from the Kekonese and clan perspectives, both clans of Green Bones are using their allies instead.

The story of Jade Legacy takes place over a span of 20+ years, as Kaul Hilo and Ayt Mada mature and even begin to grow old as both adversaries and jade warriors. As the saying goes, “Jade warriors are young, and then they are ancient.” When the story began in Jade City, they were young, barely into adulthood, newly and unexpectedly the Pillars of their respective clans, still under the long shadow cast by their predecessors, the Spear and Torch of Kekon who threw out an attempted colonization by powers who thought they could not be defeated by barbarian savages.

Jade War is the story of both in their prime, while Jade Legacy is about the long, slow progression of Kekon in their wider world, and of the transition from their generation to the next as we see Hilo’s children and the children of his family and friends grow to take their places in the clan.

It’s an epic, uplifting and heartbreaking by turns. It’s a sprawling family saga, in the same way that The Godfather was a family saga. A story about multiple generations of a family, of people who do some very bad things for what they perceive or believe are good reasons. People who are often thought of as criminals by outsiders, and whom we feel for anyway. Deeply.

Escape Rating A++: This book, and this entire series, deserve all the stars. I picked this to be the last review of the year because I wanted to finish this year’s reading with a real bang of a winner, and Jade Legacy delivered all the highs and lows I could possibly have ever wanted.

I started with the audio on this, which was ,as usual, excellent. But I read a lot faster than I listen, and I desperately needed to know how this one ended so I finished in one epic, 5-hour reading binge. I still have the epic book hangover to go with that long binge followed by that bang of an ending.

As I look back on the whole thing, the Green Bone Saga feels like it’s Shae’s story. At the beginning, she’s on her way home from exile in Espenia to pay her respects to her dying grandfather, the old hero once known as the Torch of Kekon. In the wake of his passing, Kekon explodes, eventually leaving Shae as the first female Weather Man of her clan to her brother Hilo’s Pillar.

Shae is at the center of the whole saga. Hilo and Ayt Mada may grab all the attention in the foreground of the story as much of the action centers on the more active aspects of their feud, but Shae is always in the room where it happens – and is the cause of much of it happening. And in the end, Shae is the last one of her generation still standing. Even the formidable Ayt Mada has been brought low. Only Shae is left to tell their story. And I grieved with her at the ending of it all.

It began as a story about what happens to a family and a society after the revolution has been won. How do you keep the ideals alive in the second and third generations as the memory fades and the wider world seduces with new temptations and new shortcuts?

It ends as a story about moving forward into the future by setting aside the old grievances without leaving behind the old virtues.

Ultimately, the contest between the Mountain and No Peak was a war of differing perspectives on how to accomplish that feat. And the difference between them came down, not to a specific strategy or even a specific individual, but rather a contest between a leader who relied only on herself and accepted no vision and trusted no word other than her own – and a leader who was not afraid to gather the best and the brightest around himself, listen to them even when they disagreed with him, and let them do their damn jobs. One person’s vision of “the greater good” vs. the squabbling but ultimately unified vision of an entire family.

Watching them rise, and fall, and rise again is a journey very worth taking. If you have not yet had the pleasure, start with Jade City and be prepared for a wild, satisfying and heartbreaking ride. I envy you the journey.

Although the story of the Kaul family and the No Peak clan has come to a fittingly bittersweet ending, there is still one brief visit to Janloon to look forward to. The Jade Setter of Janloon, a prequel novella for the trilogy, will be out in the spring of 2022. And I’m glad because I’m not at all ready to let this family and this world go.

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers

Review: Beyond the Empire by K.B. WagersBeyond the Empire (The Indranan War, #3) by K.B. Wagers
Format: eARC
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #3
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 14, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The adrenaline-fueled, explosive conclusion to the Indranan War trilogy by K. B. Wagers.
Gunrunner-turned-Empress Hail Bristol was dragged back to her home planet to take her rightful place in the palace. Her sisters and parents have been murdered, and the Indranan Empire is reeling from both treasonous plots and foreign invasion.Now, on the run from enemies on all fronts, Hail prepares to fight a full-scale war for her throne and her people, even as she struggles with the immense weight of the legacy thrust upon her. With the aid of a motley crew of allies old and new, she must return home to face off with the same powerful enemies who killed her family and aim to destroy everything and everyone she loves. Untangling a legacy of lies and restoring peace to Indrana will require an empress's wrath and a gunrunner's justice.

My Review:

This rose to the top of the TBR pile because my husband is playing the Mass Effect Legendary Edition and has been for the past three weeks. We’ve both played the Trilogy before, so we both know how the story ends. I picked up Beyond the Empire because I was looking for a female-led big space opera story (he’s playing as FemShep) that hopefully doesn’t have as heartbreaking an ending as Mass Effect 3 did. Does. That entire third game is a goddamn farewell tour and it just hurts. I may not replay it after all because as the old song says, “you won’t read that book again because the ending’s just too hard to take.”

The action of Beyond the Empire follows directly upon the events of After the Crown, which, in its turn, started just about the minute after Behind the Throne ended. In other words, this is not the place to begin Hail’s story. If you love big space operas with snarky heroines and dirty, rotten underhanded politics as much as I do, start with Behind the Throne and be prepared to immerse yourself in a fantastic binge read.

As this story begins, Hail and her company of friends, advisors and found family are on the run. In trilogy terms, this beginning is similar to the opening of The Return of the King, where the situation looks desperate and Aragorn and the Rangers have to take the Paths of the Dead while Sam has started out alone for Mordor. In other words, the situation is in a very dark place but there are ways they can retake the empire IF they are willing to take a hell of a lot of risks.

Empress Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the empress formerly known as the gunrunner Cressen Stone, is always up for entirely too many risks. She’s just not used to so much and so many people riding on her success – or dying for her failure.

But a gunrunner-turned-reluctant-empress is the only person who could possibly rescue Hail’s friends, her found family, her loved ones and especially her empire, before it’s too late for them all.

Escape Rating A+: This was, again, the right book at the right time. Both for the Mass Effect Trilogy with a less destructive ending (any ending is less destructive and heartbreaking than the end of that saga) and for its “woman in charge who takes no prisoners” heroine. Because I’ve read too many books recently where women are at the mercy of men, and I just wasn’t there for THAT again at the moment. (Although there’s an irony in that desire that turns out to be part of the denouement of this trilogy that I’m not going to go into here.)

As Hail and company close in physically on the home planet and the capitol, and close the noose around their enemies, they also finally draw close to the architect of everything that has happened, not just in this trilogy, but in pretty much everything that has gone wrong or strange or tragic in Hail’s life since her father was killed and she ran away to become Cressen Stone and chase down his killer.

I’m referring to the mysterious “Wilson” who seems to be more ghost than man. Who has disappeared and reappeared to wreck destruction in Hail’s life over and over for the past 20 years, and who seems to be the architect – or perhaps the puppet master – behind all Hail’s recent tragedies.

The mystery of who and how and why Wilson has been after Hail’s family and her empire has lain behind every event in this series. As Hail closes in on Pashati and retaking the seat of her empire, she and her companions also close in on Wilson’s true identity and the reasons behind his decades-long campaign to destroy the Indranan Empire and its ruling family.

Wilson is clearly out for revenge for something – even if Hail has no idea what.

But, as that other old saying goes (a lot of old sayings seem to be turning up in this one), if revenge is a dish best served cold, then this story, in fact this whole trilogy, turns out to be a case study in what happens when someone lets their cold revenge warm up. Wilson has let his revenge heat to a boiling point, along with his temper, his ego and his aggression, and that revenge curdles as much and as badly as you think it will. But the story that results from that curdle is absolutely EPIC.

Having finished Beyond the Empire in a few all-too-brief hours, and after picking it up because I wasn’t ready to deal with another big space opera with a heartbreaking ending, I’m “pleased as Punch”, as that saying goes, to say that while Hail’s butt seems to be firmly on the throne of the Indranan Empire at the end of Beyond the Empire, her adventures are FAR from over. Her future adventures form the second trilogy in this series, The Farian War, beginning with There Before the Chaos – a fitting title if ever there was one, as Hail is usually around before, during AND after the chaos. I have it in both ebook and audio, and I’m looking forward to diving into it the next time I need a reading pick-me-up.

Review: Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Review: Behind the Throne by K.B. WagersBehind the Throne (The Indranan War #1) by K.B. Wagers
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Indranan War #1
Pages: 413
Published by Orbit on August 2, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Meet Hail: Captain. Gunrunner. Fugitive.
Quick, sarcastic, and lethal, Hailimi Bristol doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has made a name for herself in the galaxy for everything except what she was born to do: rule the Indranan Empire. That is, until two Trackers drag her back to her home planet to take her rightful place as the only remaining heir.
But trading her ship for a palace has more dangers than Hail could have anticipated. Caught in a web of plots and assassination attempts, Hail can't do the one thing she did twenty years ago: run away. She'll have to figure out who murdered her sisters if she wants to survive.
A gun smuggler inherits the throne in this Star Wars-style science fiction adventure from debut author K. B. Wagers. Full of action-packed space opera exploits and courtly conspiracy - not to mention an all-out galactic war - Behind the Throne will please fans of James S. A Corey, Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold, or anyone who wonders what would happen if a rogue like Han Solo were handed the keys to an empire . . .

My Review:

The blurb talks about Star Wars, implies that Hail Bristol is someone like Han Solo who has just found themselves at the head of an empire. But that isn’t strictly true and sets up a whole lot of assumptions about who Hail Bristol is and what she might do as empress. It also sets up some false expectation of just how much running and gunning there will be in this space opera.

But that reference to Lois McMaster Bujold hits the nail a LOT closer to the head, particularly as regards Bujold’s definition of science fiction as the “romance of political agency” because this first book in the Indranan War trilogy is ALL up in the politics of the Indranan Empire in a very big way.

Even if it’s the absolute last place that Hail Bristol EVER wanted to be again.

If this series, at least as far as this book goes, has a Star Wars analogy in it, the resemblance sits much more firmly on Princess Leia’s braided crown. If Leia ran away from her responsibilities as Princess, Senator and leader of the Rebel Alliance to take up with Han Solo and live the life he’s been leading as a mercenary and gunrunner for twenty years, the person she’d be at the end of those decades would be someone like Hail.

Because, as Hail discovers the deeper she gets stuck back into Imperial politics, you can take the girl out of the palace intrigue but you can’t take the talent for palace intrigue out of the girl, not even after twenty years of becoming the woman she has become, a gunrunner, a mercenary, and most definitely when the job calls for it, a killer.

And that’s just who and what the Indranan Empire needs when Hail is dragged back to the palace to take up her rightful but resented place as Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, the last remaining heir of the Empress of Indrana.

Hail’s sisters and her niece are all dead. “Gone to temple” as they say in Indrana. Her mother is dying, poisoned by a slow-acting drug that is about to reach its endpoint – and hers.. It’s going to be up to Hail to find out who eliminated her family – and who is now gunning (and knifing, and bombing) for her.

It’s going to take a killer to catch all the killers – before it’s too late. For Hail – and for Indrana.

Escape Rating A++: I picked up Behind the Throne because I absolutely adored the author’s A Pale Light in the Black, which is also space opera and also the first book in its series. I loved the writing, the world building, and the way that the characters are drawn, and I just wanted more and wanted a story that I would be sucked right into and wouldn’t want to leave. I started this in audio and fell in love with it, but audio was just not going fast enough so I switched to the ebook fairly early on. I did listen long enough that every time Hail says “Bugger me,” which she does often, with good reason and plenty of emphasis, I hear the voice of the audiobook narrator – who was excellent.

This story isn’t the action-oriented adventure that the blurb makes it out to be. It was published in 2016, so that is certainly known and I wasn’t expecting it to be. I was expecting it to be like A Pale Light in the Black, and it definitely is that.

The characters are well-drawn. They feel like real people – admittedly real people in a very unreal situation. Hail has made a life for herself, a life that she’s good at. She doesn’t want to go back for reasons that become obvious early on and are not the result of the current crisis. She didn’t want the life that she’d have been required to lead if she stayed – so she went. Coming back to pick up the pieces of that life is hard and painful and makes her do and think and feel realistic things. She feels inadequate, she feels guilty, she sees herself stepping back into old patterns, she’s lost, she’s confused – and she’s driven. All at the same time.

This is also a story about trust. Trust in yourself, and trust in others. Hail returns to the palace knowing that the only people she trusts are either missing or dead. And that the life she thought she’d built for herself was based on not just one lie, but on a whole damn pack of lies, so she’s lost trust in herself as well.

But she has to find people she can trust, if not absolutely then at least trust enough, to help her wade through the morass and save herself and her empire. And that exercise, of figuring out who is on which side and why and how and whether it’s enough, is a big part of this story.

Because, just like the protagonist of A Pale Light in the Black, Hail is building a team that will see her through. If she trusts them enough. If they trust her enough. And if they are all absolutely excellent at their very difficult jobs.

In the end, in spite of how different their origin stories are, the character that Hail reminds me of the most is Emperox Grayland II in The Collapsing Empire and the rest of Scalzi’s Interdependency series. Although the crises they face are very different, Grayland and Hail come at them from the same direction. They are both outsiders to their respective Imperial systems and Imperial politics, stuck in positions they didn’t want but must defend at every single turn.

Even though they are both extremely unconventional for the positions they hold, their very unconventionality makes them not just the only people by inheritance for those positions at the time they are forced to take them, but the only people by talent, skill and capacity to pull the nuts of their respective empires out of the fires that they have inherited along with their thrones.

So if space opera is your jam, or if you love stories with terrific SFnal worldbuilding and absolute craptons of political skullduggery, Behind the Throne is a winner on every level along with its gunrunner empress Hail Bristol.

I’m already buckled up for Hail’s next adventure/imperial catastrophe in After the Crown, because this ride isn’t over yet and that is the most excellent thing ever!

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian TchaikovskyThe Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, espionage, science fiction
Pages: 640
Published by Orbit on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden is an extraordinary feat of the imagination and a page-turning adventure about parallel universes and the monsters that they hide.They thought we were safe. They were wrong.Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.Lee thought she'd lost Mal, but now she's miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal's reappearance hasn't gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn't the only one with questions.Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power - and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.Dr Khan's research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through."Tchaikovsky weaves a masterful tale... a suspenseful joyride through the multiverse." (Booklist)

My Review:

Spy games, cryptids (Sasquatch, Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters, OH MY!) with a nod to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. PLUS a bit of Doctor Who – at least in the audiobook. These are things that absolutely should not go together, but somehow do anyway in The Doors of Eden.

It’s really all about the butterfly. You know the one. That hypothetical butterfly who flaps its wings on one side of the world and causes a tornado on the other.

Only in this case there are perhaps thousands, or even millions of butterflies, each flapping their wings on a slightly different version of our Earth. Or, to put it another way, “the problem with wanting things to change is that things change.” Sometimes by quite a lot and not necessarily for the better.

Depending on who, or what, is defining better, along with who, what or why the change is happening at all.

It all begins with two young women out on Bodmin Moor hunting cryptids. Let’s unpack that a bit. Lee and Mal are childhood best friends who are now in college. Their intense relationship has shifted from friends to lovers over the years they’ve been together. They’re on holiday, between semesters, doing what they do when they’re together. They’re somewhere creepy, looking but not expecting to find something even creepier. And possibly mythical or magical, or maybe even both.

It seems like their cryptid hunting (cryptids are animals whose existence is unsubstantiated, like Bigfoot, or Nessie) is mostly a manifestation of their shared nerdiness. Their admission that they are both a bit weird and might as well embrace the identity they’re going to have to live with anyway.

Neither of them believes that they are EVER going to find real evidence of cryptids. They’re just having fun looking. That is, until the cryptids, or at least one set of cryptids, find them.

And take Mal away to a place that Lee can’t follow, no matter how much she wants to. When Mal returns four years later, she brings the entire rest of this story with her, the spies, the cryptids, the criminal masterminds – and entirely too many signs and portents of the end of the world, not just as we know it, but the impending extinction of all the Earths in all of the multiverse.

Along with one single, one in a billion chance of saving them all.

Escape Rating A+: There was SO MUCH going on in this book. It went to so many fascinating places, dragged in so many interesting possibilities and ended with such a marvelous bang that it’s still an A+ story in my book even if the spies did faff around a bit in the middle.

On the other hand, anyone would flail a bit at all the strange and bizarre things going on in this absolute WOW of a story.

The elements that go into this absolutely should not work together, and yet they oh so very much do. To the point where, although I started out listening to this one – and it is an excellent listen – I got impatient with needing to know how it all managed to get itself together at the end and switched to the ebook just so I could figure things out.

But the audio is where I thought two of those disparate elements came into the mix, although in the end it turned out to be only one.

The reader of the audio is Sophie Aldred, who played Ace on Doctor Who many, many moons ago, when Sylvester McCoy was the Seventh Doctor. Although, now that I think of it, the way that the parallel worlds work in The Doors of Eden could be said to have its own parallels in Who.

But I digress.

The other element that I thought came from the audio was the resemblance to Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, his fascinating and eminently readable book about the Burgess Shale. I listened to that book a LONG time ago, but it stuck with me. And it seemed like the tone of that reading was echoed in The Doors of Eden in the interstitial parts where Dr. Ruth Emerson’s treatise on “Other Edens” is read. Her work on alternate Earths had the same tone as Wonderful Life. I thought it was a coincidence, but it’s not. Wonderful Life is cited by the author as one of the inspirations for The Doors of Eden, and now that I know that it’s obvious that at least part of what it inspired was these sections of the story.

Which leads us to the story itself.

The action and the dramatic tension in this story come from Mal’s return to our own Earth, the mess that return makes of Lee’s life, and the reason for that return in the grand scheme of things.

After all, no matter how much Mal wants to return to her lover, the reason that the Nissa, just one of the so-called cryptids, bring Mal back to the Earth she calls home is a whole lot bigger and vastly more important. Mal is there to rescue mathematician and physicists Dr. Kay Amal Khan so that she can help them save ALL the Earths.

But just as Mal’s friends want to save all the Earths, there are forces that want to, not exactly prevent the rescue, but let’s say, direct that rescue. There’s a criminal mastermind who has, naturally enough, criminal plans. And there are government agencies, in this case MI5, who are tasked with protecting Kay Amal Khan from anyone who wants to either do her harm or co-opt her genius for their own purposes.

That’s where the spy games, in the persons of Julian Sabreur and Alison Matchell come in. Only to find themselves caught up in trying to save the worlds, which is way above both of their official pay grades – even if it’s all still subject to the Official Secrets Act..

There’s a saying that “Mother Nature bats last.” The quote from environmentalist Rob Watson in full goes like this:

Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000.

In short, that’s what this story is about, Mother Nature batting last. For select versions of Mother Nature, where she’s really a supercomputer bigger than a planet who has been trying for eons to find a way for her last “at bat” to not kill off all of everything everywhere.

Well, not exactly that either. Mother Nature doesn’t care, as the quote says so succinctly. But in this story that supercomputer does. It’s trying to help the beings on various versions of Earth, of which it is one of the few, who have developed enough sentience to not only figure out that the end is coming, but who are working to prevent it.

Which drags in Dr. Khan, and all kinds of cryptids, including the Nissa and the rat people, and Lee and Mal and the spies and the criminal masterminds. This is a story whose plot boils and bubbles – and occasionally squeaks – until the very end.

Until it ends with an almighty bang, as well as a whole lot of whimpering on the part of many of the characters, who are left with a story that they can never, ever tell and the chance to live a life much bigger than the one they thought they had to settle for.

Unless and until Mother Nature comes to bat again. Unless she already has.

Review: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Review: The City We Became by N.K. JemisinThe City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Great Cities #1
Pages: 437
Published by Orbit on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She's got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

My Review:

Four years ago, N.K.Jemisin published what was then a standalone short story, The City Born Great. It’s the story of a city, specifically New York City, as it is born, or perhaps reborn, as one of the great, self-aware and self-conscious cities of the world. It’s also the story of the city choosing its combination midwife and avatar, a young black man, a homeless graffiti artist, who embodies the city in all of its grand, glorious and sometimes shady history and all of its sprawling, brawling glory. And who directs and embodies its fight to be born against the wishes and will of a great, but nameless and faceless, enemy.

The story was also included in the author’s 2018 collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

But the original story ended on a happy note, with New York City’s avatar on his way to help the next new city, Los Angeles, with its imminent birth and induction into the ranks of the “great cities”.

That original story is included as the prologue to The City We Became, but without that happy ending. Instead, the newly born New York City wins his battle, but is forced to withdraw from the field to heal his grievous wounds.

And that’s where this marvelous book, the opening chapter in a projected trilogy, begins. With the central avatar out of the picture, and the avatars of the cities that make NYC what it is, the avatars of the 5 boroughs, coming to awareness of their roles with absolutely no help or guidance – while the battle their primary fought moves to a new and even more potentially catastrophic phase.

The personifications of those five boroughs, those places that could be cities in their own right, have a job to do. Find the primary, become the city they were meant to be, and send the forces of their great enemy back to the shadows from which they sprang.

But the enemy’s avatar will not go quietly – and she has one of their own tucked tightly into her rapacious grasp.

Escape Rating A++: I’m pretty sure that this is next year’s Hugo AND Nebula winner for Best Novel. I can’t believe I’m saying that and the year still has 8 months to go, but this story was so marvelous that I can’t believe anything will top it the rest of the year. (Not that there isn’t plenty of interesting SFF yet to come, but this one is just beyond awesome.)

There have been plenty of stories wrapped around the concept of a genius loci, or spirit of a place, including last year’s marvelous Silver in the Wood. But The City We Became takes that concept to a whole new level, with the city not just having one, but six of them (the plural is genii locorum). The way that this story takes that concept and magnifies into a race of such “city beings”, with hints of a society of them, works so well it feels like it has always existed. That there is a council of such beings, and that they have a great enemy, moves the concept from its origin in Roman religion (I said there were plenty) right into SF and Fantasy. And that’s kind of where this story sits, squarely on the borderline between the two genres.

It reads as SFnal, but the fantasy feels like the story’s true home – especially after the big reveal near the end! But those SFnal elements are definitely there, especially the element of SF as a romance of political agency. Because the machinations of political agency and political corruption turn out to play a much bigger role than that council of city avatars originally believed.

At the same time, while the story is building and we are getting to know these people and places – and the places/people – the operations of the Woman in White, the embodiment and avatar of the great enemy, reminded me so very much of the operations of the Black Thing on Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time.

There are also oodles of Lovecraftian allusions scattered throughout the story, to the point where Lovecraft becomes Chekhov’s Gun. But I was still shocked and awed when the Woman in White turns out to be the avatar of R’lyeh, the lost city of the Cthulhu Mythos. If her mysterious boss turns out to be the Great Old One himself it’s going to be seriously – and marvelously – freaky. But I’m guessing, we don’t know yet.

What we do know is that this is a well-thought out and marvelously written story of the battle for the soul of the city, rife with allusions to NYC’s beliefs in itself and fights with itself. The individual avatars are distinct characters that blend the ethos of each of their boroughs with the characters they are as individual humans. They don’t become the boroughs, they embody the boroughs because they already do.

The avatars of the NYC boroughs have to find a way to work together, even as all of their instincts tell them to fight. And also tell them that they can’t win without their missing member, the reluctant, stand-offish, contrary and captured Staten Island. They’ve almost lost hope, until they figure out that the city they are becoming isn’t about geography, it’s about being in “A New York State of Mind”.

I loved this author’s, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I bounced hard, multiple times, off of her Hugo-Award winning Broken Earth series. But The City We Become isn’t like either of those. It’s its own wonderful thing. It’s also absolutely the best thing I’ve read this year so far, and I’m not expecting much, if anything, to top it. What I am expecting, and am, in fact, eagerly awaiting, is the second book in the trilogy. May it be soon!