Review: The Temple by Jean Johnson

Review: The Temple by Jean JohnsonThe Temple (Guardians of Destiny #4) by Jean Johnson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Guardians of Destiny #4
Pages: 333
Published by Penguin on February 20, 2018
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Synod gathers, tell them lies:

Efforts garnered in your pride
Lost beneath the granite face.
Painted Lord, stand by her side;
Repentance is the Temple's grace.

The Guardian of the Fountain of Mendhi is dying, and her successor must step up to the task. Disciplinarian Pelai is ready to accept the burden of managing the powerful magics, but the timing is inconvenient. She has one last Disciplining to perform: assigning the punishment of the three Puhon brothers--men whose lives are entwined with a prophecy of a cataclysmic demonic invasion.

Six months of travel have given Puhon Krais time to reflect on, regret, and repent his many mistakes. But the worst lies just ahead: defying the leadership of Mendhi means suffering harsh punishments at the hands of the Disciplinarians once he comes home. Commanded by his Goddess, the proud Painted Warrior must find the strength to submit to his destiny...or find himself, and his whole world, on the wrong side of history.

For in the end, one brother is destined to save humanity, one will betray humanity, and one will walk away from his humanity.

My Review:

I’ve frequently said that the wait between Jean Johnson’s books is a torment. That’s both especially true in the case of The Temple (it’s been four YEARS!) and especially appropriate in light of the story itself.

Waiting for fulfillment is just one of the sweet torments practiced by the Disciplinarians of the Temple of Menda in this fourth book in the Guardians of Destiny series. Although in the story it’s usually a different kind of delayed gratification used in that torment.

This story takes place in the aftermath of the events of the previous books in the series, The Tower, The Grove, and especially The Guild. At the same time, it also follows the pattern set by those stories, and the prophetic verses that begin each book in the series.

Two of those events have particular bearing on this story. In this world, nations exist to worship a particular deity, or perhaps two. Those deities are not myths, they are real and can manifest in the world. And occasionally do.

The societies reflect their god, and the gods reflect their society. One of the recent events that is still reverberating is the just finished Convocation of Gods and Man, where new nations and new gods are ratified, and gods that have really, really misbehaved get dissolved by their peers.

At the Convocation, the god Mekha was dissolved. His former country is picking up the pieces under the guidance of the Guardians Alonnen and Rexei. Their story is told in The Guild.

But the priests who served Mekha and were powerful because of that service are not willing to go gentle into that good night. Instead, they are desperately searching for any means, no matter how underhanded or terrible, to become powerful again. And they’re not in the least picky about what they’ll have to do, manifest, or summon in order to retake their lost power. Up to and including raising demons from the Netherhells.

The Guardians in all of the lands of this world are studying the prophecies in order to thwart them, and it is far from an easy job. Changing circumstances in one area can make things better in another – or it can actually make things worse later on.

It’s a big butterfly, and the wing flaps can have some seriously nasty consequences if everyone on the side of the light isn’t very, very careful.

The priests power-search has led them to the Great Library of Mendhi, and that’s where that part of the overarching story intersects with both the romance at the heart of this book in the series and the careful balancing of prophecies to make sure that what must happen does happen.

The country that hosts the Convocation gathers a lot of political power, and that ties into the rest of the events. The Elder Disciplinarian of Mendhi sent his three sons on to the Convocation in an attempt to disrupt it and move the location to Mendhi. All the gods were against this attempt, and all the prophecies were clear that this attempt would fail, but the Elder Disciplinarian and his political party refused to be swayed.

The Puhon Brothers have returned home, having failed as expected. Equally, their father expects them to be officially punished for their failure. Which kicks off another round of prophecy, as well as a surprising romance between two people who used to think of each other as enemies, only to discover that they are perfect for each other, after all.

Or after all the prophecies have had their way.

The Grove by Jean JohnsonEscape Rating B+: In spite of the high grade, this is still a mixed feelings kind of review.

First, I have to admit that I loved this story, and found myself sinking right back into this world, even after the unfortunate long absence. It took awhile for all of the threads from the previous books to gather back into my conscious, but the process was helped by a fair amount of backstory that was worked reasonably well into the story at hand.

This entry in the series is a particularly interesting mixture of sex and politics. There are aspects of the Disciplinarian Order and its administration that will remind readers a bit of Kushiel’s Dart. And like that series, it is made very clear in The Temple that discipline is not all about pain, and that people exist at every point on the pleasure/pain/dominance/submission grid. While there is more “academic” discussion of sex and desire than is usual in most romances, and it goes into quite a bit of interesting territory, there is more discussion than there is actual sex. Or even sexual play and exploration.

I found the discussions to be fascinating and very tastefully done, but there are some readers who may be made uncomfortable. As the discussion within the story is about each person finding what works for them, it seems appropriate to say that it won’t work for some people but it will work for others and that reading it with an open mind may be enlightening.

Your mileage may vary.

The politics of this particular country are very interesting. The Goddess Menda is the goddess of writing, so books and libraries are under her purview. (So is bureaucracy!) That one of the members of the ruling body is the Elder Librarian certainly warmed this librarian’s heart – especially when she invoked powerful spells to protect the secrets of the Great Library.

As much as I enjoyed the story, and as absorbing as I found it, this missed being an A grade because the editing was so terrible that it often threw me out of the story. I read a lot of ARCs, and in an ARC I expect editing errors – that’s part of what the ARC process is for. But this was a finished book, and it contained so many typos and word errors that occasionally even the meaning was obscure and I had to reread in order to put the pieces together.

But once I did piece it together, it was a lot of fun. I just wish that it hadn’t been quite so long since the previous book in the series, and I sincerely hope that it won’t be nearly this long until the next one.

Review: Demons of the Flame Sea by Jean Johnson

Review: Demons of the Flame Sea by Jean JohnsonDemons of the Flame Sea by Jean Johnson
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Flame Seas #2
Pages: 112
Published by Penguin on November 15th 2016
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The second thrilling Flame Sea novel from the national bestselling author known as “a must-read for those who enjoy fantasy and romance” (The Best Reviews).  Raised to understand and control advanced magics, the Fae Rii know they must be careful with the wild, abundant energies of their new desert homeland. They must also downplay the awe they inspire in the Bronze Age humans around them. Still, they have managed to create some equilibrium between the two factions, primitive versus advanced—at least, until new outworlders arrive, tipping the scales out of balance.   Strict and power-hungry, the ruthless Efrijt take the phrase “deal with the devil” to a new level. A treaty may be possible; however, the solution proposed will in turn give birth to a new problem: A chaos that will dance its way through all three races trying to survive in the burning heat of the Flame Sea…
  Includes an exclusive preview of the next Flame Sea novel, Gods of the Flame Sea
Praise for Jean Johnson   “Johnson’s writing is fabulously fresh, thoroughly romantic, and wildly entertaining.”—Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author   “A fresh new voice in fantasy romance, Jean Johnson spins an intriguing tale of destiny and magic.”—Robin D. Owens, RITA Award–winning author

My Review:

dawn of the flame sea by jean johnsonThis is the book that Dawn of the Flame Sea should have been. When my friend Lou and I reviewed Dawn of the Flame Sea over at The Book Pushers, we complained that the book was all set up and no delivery – meaning that although there was lots, plenty, positively oodles of worldbuilding – not a damn thing happened. We both like solid worldbuilding in our fantasy and SF romance, but there also needs to be some there, well, there. All that worldbuilding needs to lead to some world unbuilding, in one way or another.

In Demons of the Flame Sea, we finally get to experience what happens on that world that was so solidly (and occasionally stolidly) built. And now it all begins to make sense. And feel worthwhile.

The set up in Dawn of the Flame Sea showed us an advanced civilization from somewhere “out there”, the Fae Rii, literally Fair Traders, who come through an interplanetary gateway to start a settlement on the planet of the Flame Sea. Instead of having the chance to sit back and observe the local Bronze Age natives, they are witnessed the minute they come through the gate, and the cat is out of the bag.

The Fae Rii, led by the Healer Jintaya, settle in the Flame Sea. They bring peace and prosperity, as well as a certain amount of enhanced technology, to the local tribes and clans. They also interbreed with the locals – the Fae Rii find the local humans quite attractive, and very much vice versa. There are lots of children, all raised cooperatively. It seems like a little bit of paradise.

Demons of the Flame Sea takes place 40 years after the end of Dawn. The Fae Rii are very long-lived, so they have not changed much physically. Nor has the one outworlder they brought with them, the man called Ban, a word that means Death in the local languages. Ban’s name is both fitting and ironic. He is a warrior without peer, and very efficiently brings death to any enemies of the Fae Rii, especially anyone who thinks of attacking Jintaya. But Ban is also immortal, so while he deals death to others, he comes back from it himself, over and over and over.

At the beginning of Demons, Ban has been on walkabout for many years, surveying the lands around the Flame Sea. On his way back, he discovers that another group of outworlders has opened a gateway onto this planet. The Efrijit are the opposite of the Fae Rii. Where the Fae Rii trade fairly with their friends and neighbors, the Efrijit always observe the letter of any contracts strictly, and make sure those contracts are written in their favor. Where the Fae Rii are benevolent, the Efrijit are self-serving. They are not particularly warlike, but they are very exploitative. The difference in philosophy between the two cultures is extreme.

The conflict in Demons of the Flame Sea is about both the conflict between these opposing forces and the negotiating of contracts and the jockeying for position between them, with all of the local humans in both spheres of influence caught very much in the middle. Those negotiations are protracted, legalistic, and still fascinating, as the two philosophies battle not with force of arms, but with force of words. It will make readers remember the famous Shakespeare quote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Escape Rating B+: I liked this one SO MUCH better than Dawn, it’s almost impossible to believe it’s the same series from the same author. Demons reads like the Jean Johnson I know and love, where Dawn was completely and atypically meh.

So, while the worldbuilding is important in Dawn, there’s a rather large glossary at the beginning of Demons. Read the glossary and skip Dawn, unless you are a compulsive completist or a glutton for punishment. There was so little significant action in Dawn that what there is is easily recapped within the pages of Demons.

While there isn’t a whole lot of action in the action/adventure sense in Demons, there is plenty of conflict. The tension between the Fae Rii and the Efrijit is integral to the plot. Their philosophies are so opposed, it is kind of amazing that both sides try very hard not to come to actual blows.

The ways that the Fae Rii explain to their own adherents just how damaging the nature of the Efrijit can be make for a fascinating and still very readable philosophical discussion, and there aren’t many of those in SF and fantasy.

gods of the flame sea by jean johnsonWe also see the slow warming of what will eventually become a romance between Ban and Jintaya. Ban is immortal and Jintaya is extremely long-lived. They have all the time in the universe to work their way towards an emotional and physical partnership, and it looks like they plan to take it. It’s a very different way of writing a romance, but it works well in this instance.

The story ends on multiple cliffhangers. The Fae Rii and the Efrijit have worked out a means of coexisting, and are essentially kicking the can of who will control the planet down the road. I expect the continuation of that story and their conflict to be resolved in book 3 in this series, Gods of the Flame Sea.

Guest Review: I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein

Guest Review: I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. HeinleinI Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Pages: 512
Published by Penguin on April 15th 1987
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Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is immensely rich— and very old. His mind is still keen, so he has surgeons transplant his brain into a new body —the body of his gorgeous, recently deceased secretary, Eunice.
But Eunice hasn't completely vacated her body...

Guest review by Amy:

to sail beyond the sunset by robert heinleinRobert Heinlein, often dubbed “the Dean of Science Fiction,” is a difficult author to review, in my opinion. My first exposure to Heinlein was To Sail Beyond The Sunset, which I read at a relatively young age. It was his last work, released 1987, and it amazed me in its frank treatment of social, moral, and sexual issues; I’ve often said since that once you’ve read that one, you’re corrupted beyond all redemption, and nothing else Heinlein ever wrote will surprise you. Robert Heinlein’s work–particularly his later work, after the mid-1960s–is nothing if not thought-provoking.

For me, at least, I Will Fear No Evil gave me much to think about not only on my first reading years ago, but on my second reading recently. You see, six years ago, I came out as a transsexual, and began the process of transitioning to life full-time as a woman. So this story of a most-unusual sex change has a special sort of resonance with me, and I can read it with a unique set of eyes.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is old–in his late nineties, he’s kept going by rather extreme life-support measures, but he can afford it; he’s easily one of the wealthiest people on the planet. He and his attorney come up with a scheme where people with his rare blood type (AB-Negative), will be kept on retainer–if one of them dies of some trauma, he would have his brain surgically moved into the younger body. Before too very long, it happens, and he is stunned to discover that the body is none other than that of his former secretary, a beautiful young woman named Eunice Branca. Shortly, he begins to hear her voice in his head, coaching him on how to be a better woman–but in truth, he doesn’t really need much coaching, it seems.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but I don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you; I’d rather you read it for yourself. There are a few angles I want to talk about, though, for this review.

First, let’s look at the mechanics. When Heinlein had just finished the first draft of this book, he suffered a life-threatening case of peritonitis, which put him on hiatus for two years. It is widely thought that I Will Fear No Evil suffered as a result, through not getting his usual level of attention to detail and polish. I’ve read quite a lot of his work, and I would agree; indeed, the Kindle edition I downloaded contained numerous typos (something that could be an artifact of the digitization process, to be fair), and there were a number of continuity errors that I spotted–in particular, we’re never made entirely certain of Smith’s age. He asserts at several points that he grew up during the Depression of the 1930s, and several times states his age as ninety-five years old, but there are minor discrepancies here and there; none that truly influenced the story, but it was the kind of detail failure that you don’t see often in well-edited works. Overall, our cast is well-developed, interesting, and approachable, and we’re given a sense of time and place that makes clear the state the United States is in–but more on that in a moment. Smith is a lovable, crusty old coot, who’s seen it all and grown cynical, even after his transformation, and I’ve seen this pattern in so many of his later-era male leads that I sometimes wonder if it isn’t the Mary Sue effect–Heinlein casting his male leads as he saw himself. I don’t consider this book Heinlein’s best effort, from this perspective, but it’s still classic Heinlein, in many ways. My one complaint about it is that the main friction point of the story–the “struggle”, if you will–just isn’t much of one. Johann Smith has virtually endless money, so this wild scheme of his actually pans out. Her healing as Joan Eunice is breathtakingly quick–implausibly so–and her transition into life as a woman went remarkably smoothly–wish I had it so easy! With the voice of Eunice helping, and with the assistance of her nurse/maid Winifred, she manages to make the switch very easily; as someone who’s lived through that particular struggle, I’d have liked to have seen more about that process.

What makes Heinlein stories so thought-provoking, for me at least, is the commentary that he blends with his stories. Robert Heinlein had a number of interesting viewpoints on the world around him, and he was not a bit shy about writing them in. Whether it was society, religion, sexuality, space travel, gender roles, or economics, you know he has an opinion, and it shines through in his work. His earlier juvenile works were frequently mellowed somewhat by the audience he was writing for, but even then, he was not above taking a poke at what he saw as a society slowly crumbling around him.

farmer in the sky by robert heinleinFor an example of this, and as a glance at Heinlein’s commentary on society, take a look at Farmer in the Sky, a juvenile work, and contrast it with Friday, a very late work. In both cases–and indeed, in I Will Fear No Evil–we have leads who are seeing society slowly getting more and more intolerable; in Farmer, there is overcrowding and excessive regimented structure, in Friday, it manifested in many small nations, with an overarching corporate shadow-government, while in Evil, we see a world where the government has basically given up; violence and lawlessness are common. Heinlein described himself in his later years as a libertarian, or even a philosophical anarchist; from this story among many others, he makes it clear that the only way to prevent the downfall and collapse of a society is not through top-down government action, but through individuals strong-willed enough to stand against the tide and do something about it. In the present work, we find a nation that has possibly slid past the point of no return. Judge McCampbell, who helps Smith in court with identity hearings that establish that he–no, she–is not, in fact, dead, is a bit of an atavism; he demands that his courtroom be civil at all times, and isn’t afraid to throw everyone out–which triggers a riot, as people have lost the spectacle they came to see. If you read a number of Heinlein’s works, you’ll see his social commentary over and over, and the different paths he places society on to try to stem the tide–few of which actually work.

The other issue that Heinlein speaks to in this work, understandably, is human sexuality and the role of gender.  I’ll say it point blank: by the late 1960s, Robert Heinlein was a dirty old man. By this time in his life, Heinlein was absolutely unafraid to write openly about sexual liberation and freely-practiced sexuality; he was not at all against polyamory, when practiced among consenting people. So much so that I have observed among the “poly” people I know a trend toward modeling their households along a very Heinlein-esque axis. As someone who does not quite grasp jealousy as exhibited in this day and age, I can appreciate his jealousy-free, love-as-you-will approach, and I approve of that aspect of it. Where Heinlein’s notions about sexuality become problematic, for me, is in his too-stereotypical treatment of gender roles; while his female leads are strong and empowered–and most of them, bisexual–they’re almost unilaterally willing to defer to the strong man who is central in their life–or, as in Joan Eunice’s case, at least make it appear so, to him.  Heterosexual women in Robert Heinlein’s later works are somewhat uncommon, and it’s taken as a matter of course that any woman who is hetero, or who isn’t an enthusiastic connoisseur of sex, is easily converted.  Even the men are not immune to this sort of treatment, but with women, it is just de rigueur. I find this, as well as Heinlein’s total lack of lead characters who are not as sexually active, somewhat frustrating. He paints us an attractive vision of the future where people don’t have to be jealous of their one-and-only, because the notion of one-and-only is accepted as one possibility among many. But if he could have been alive somewhat later, and paired that vision with the enormous breadth of sexuality and gender role experience that the 21st century holds, his vision would have been even more beautiful.

Escape Rating: A-. As I said earlier, this is not Heinlein’s best-crafted work; ask any fan you know, and you’ll probably get several good recommendations for better ones, depending on what you’re looking for. But this one, for me at least, provided plenty of fun story, with interesting people, and the thoughtful and challenging commentary that marks Robert Heinlein as one of the great authors of 20th century science fiction.

moon is a harsh mistress by robert heinleinMarlene’s Note: A review of one of Heinlein’s works in singularly appropriate for this particular weekend. I will be at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, and Heinlein’s name will be invoked multiple times in multiple contexts. The context that would be nearest-and-dearest to his heart if he were still among us will be the Heinlein Society Blood Drives, conducted every year at Worldcon in his honor and memory. Some other invocations of his name will be much less charitable, for any possible definition of invocation and/or charitable.

I read I Will Fear No Evil a long, long time ago. For me, his dirty-old-man-ness overwhelmed the story, which wasn’t nearly as well written as some of his best. I think my first exposure to Heinlein was probably Stranger in a Strange Land, which made interesting reading for a teenager. My favorite work of his is still The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. While some of his attitudes towards women are both on display and slightly obnoxious in Moon, the story as a whole still stands up. And his lesson to Mike on humor, the difference between “funny once” and “funny always” is a distinction I still use whenever applicable.

Review: Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline WinspearBirds of a Feather (Maisie Dobbs #2) by Jacqueline Winspear
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Maisie Dobbs #2
Pages: 320
Published by Penguin on January 1st 1970
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It is the spring of 1930, and Maisie has been hired to find a runaway heiress. When three of the heiress's old friends are found dead, Maisie must race to find out who would want to kill these seemingly respectable young women before it's too late. As Maisie investigates, she discovers that the answers lie in the unforgettable agony of the Great War.

My Review:

After feeling somewhat equivocal about the latest book in this series, A Dangerous Place, it was a real treat to go back to the “original” Maisie in this second book in the series, Birds of a Feather. This feels like the Maisie we first met in Maisie Dobbs  and who set off on a grand adventure in Leaving Everything Most Loved. It was good to spend time with her again, as part of this year’s Month of Maisie Readalong. After returning to Maisie’s roots, now I’m eager for Journey to Munich at the end of the month.

Birds of a Feather follows about a year after the contemporaneous events in Maisie Dobbs. It has been a successful year for Maisie, and she has been able to afford a better office and upgrade her wardrobe. As her client list grows, she needs to be able to appear as well-to-do as some of her clients, while never forgetting where she came from, a costermonger’s daughter who had some very lucky educational breaks.

This story, like the stories in Maisie Dobbs, is about Maisie discovering more about herself through solving the case that has come to her. Her mentor, Maurice Blanche, never believed in coincidences, and neither does Maisie. While searching for Charlotte Waite, Maisie will also be searching for something in her own life that she has been avoiding – until it confronts her with a crash.

As with the earlier book, Maisie is still very much in the post-WW1 era, and both this case and the surrounding events in Maisie’s life reflect this. The case itself revolves around actions during the war, and her assistant’s difficulties are the result of his war injuries. Maisie herself is still trying to move on from the loss of her lover during the late War – not directly to death, but to brain-damaging injuries. His body is still alive, but the man he was is locked inside his head, never to return. And her visits to Simon also become part of her case.

So this story begins, as so many mysteries do, with a case. Charlotte Waite is missing. Again. Her wealthy father wants her found, again. There are no signs of foul play, and no one is asking for ransom. Charlotte seems to have merely bolted. Again.

It’s only as Maisie begins to investigate the “whys”, not just of Charlotte’s current disappearance but of Charlotte’s life as a whole, that Maisie discovers that Charlotte may have run, not just from her overbearing father, but in very real fear for her life. And that like it does for so many others, what is wrong with Charlotte is still, very much, part of the war.

Escape Rating B+: I enjoyed returning to this second entry in the series, but not quite as much as either the first book or Leaving Everything Most Loved. I’m also not sure whether to say it is best to read the series in order or not. Obviously, I haven’t and have still enjoyed them so far. I do think one needs to read the first book in order for the rest to make sense.

However, some readers who seem to be reading the series in order were frustrated by the inclusions of Billy Beale’s problems and Maisie’s agonized decisions about her relationship with her father. Because I’ve read the later books, I saw these seeming digressions as necessary to her future story, but that can’t be obvious to people reading the series in order.

At first, it seems as if the case that Maisie is involved in is pretty simple. Most 21st century readers probably sympathize with Charlotte’s situation, and would have bolted long ago from the household of her overbearing father. In the story, he is so dictatorial as to border on abusive – Charlotte is in her early to mid 30s at this point, and should be living her own life, whether that’s independently or with a husband and children. Something is obviously wrong here.

But as Maisie begins to dig into the case, she discovers connections to the war that illuminate a bit of World War I history that may or may not be familiar to readers. The Order of the White Feather really did exist portrayed in the book. Women really did shame men into enlisting by publicly giving them a white feather, which had long been held as a symbol of cowardice in Britain and the Empire.

Whether or not groups of socialites competed to see how many feathers they could give away, and how many of those men they later saw in enlistments lines they got “points” for, is anyone’s guess. But it is certainly plausible. And the results have to have been tragic. A generation of young British men died in World War I. Some of the dead have to have been prompted by that white feather.

So, even though the War is now a decade in the past, its shadow still looms over Charlotte Waite, her father, a desperate killer…and Maisie Dobbs.

If you like historical mysteries set in the WW1 and post WW1 era, take a look at Charles Todd’s two historical mystery series, Bess Crawford and Inspector Ian Rutledge. Bess is a WW1 nurse who often stumbled on old fashioned murder in the midst of the trenches. Rutledge is a war veteran still suffering from shell-shock who is also a police detective. His experiences during the war often inform or aid his post-war criminal investigations. And for a real treat, dive into the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, as related by Laurie R. King.

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