Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboYou Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Farscape meets The Great British Bake Off in this fantastic space opera You Sexy Thing from former SFWA President, Cat Rambo.
Just when they thought they were out...
TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that's just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it.
Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance.
But, some wars can't ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren't content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive.

My Review:

This one gave me an earworm. And as a song from just two years later proclaimed, “It’s my own damn fault.” (I’m also experiencing one of those terrible moments when it slaps you upside the head that the 1970s weren’t 20 or 30 years ago but 40 going on 50 years ago.)

“I believe in miracles” is the first line from a 1975 hit by the British band Hot Chocolate. The title of the song is, you guessed it, “You Sexy Thing”. In this particular story, it’s also the name of a self-aware, sentient, sapient bioship.

A ship that thinks it’s being stolen because of that “I believe in miracles” password, given to retired Admiral Niko Larson by the ship’s once-and-future owner. A man who will hopefully be a bit less of a douchecanoe in his next incarnation.

No, he’s not King Arthur, or any kind of hero whatsoever. He’s just a rich, self-indulgent asshat who has paid for the kind of quasi immortality you can buy in an SFnal universe where cloning and downloading one’s consciousness is a thing. Not a sexy thing, but an expensive thing. The kind of thing that is very do-able with enough money.

Niko and her crew are on the run. Not because they’re criminals, but because TwiceFar Station, where they have been operating The Last Chance Restaurant since they managed to leave the military service of the Holy Hive Mind, has just been destroyed as collateral damage in the neverending game played by a race called the Arranti.

It’s what the Arranti do. And it has set Niko’s plans back by years if not decades as the crew scrambles to grab what they can and get off the station while they can. Along with everyone else who isn’t dead yet.

Once aboard the Thing, things start happening. Or rather, things are revealed. The ship is taking them to a prison planet, where their stories will be officially judged. They’re not actually worried, because they’re telling the truth about how they acquired the ship. Not that they don’t have plenty of secrets – just that THAT isn’t one of them.

But there are plenty of secrets aboard just the same. Secrets that are about to bite Niko and her crew in the ass. Because the hijacked ship is being hijacked again, this time for real. And it’s taking Niko and her crew back to the site of her greatest failure, in the domain of her greatest enemy.

A man with a long reach, and an obsessive desire to make Niko pay for even attempting to “steal” something that he had declared was his. Even if he had to twist it beyond almost all recognition to make it so.

Escape Rating A-: There are two stories aboard the Thing. One is an adrenaline-inducing tale of torture and death with little chance of escape, and the other is a sort of Great British Bake Off in space where everyone aboard has the opportunity to learn to cook – including the ship! – while they all figure out who they want to be – and who they want to be with – when they “grow up”.

Not that they are not all adults – more or less – but as a group of people who have spent most of their adult lives either in military service or on the run or both there haven’t been many opportunities for any of them to figure out what they want in life when they’re not either chasing an impossible goal or running from an enemy.

Or both, all too frequently, both.

The heartwarming parts of this story, the bits about figuring out their places in the universe and with each other, are lovely and sweet and a whole lot of fun. One of the best parts is the way that they all treat the ship as another member of their crew and the Thing gets to experience quite a bit of self-actualization along with everyone else. The ship’s perspectives on events – including their thoughts about their own journey, are terrific. I could have been immersed in those parts of the story forever.

The other part of the narrative is what happens after their arrival in the den of that sadistic pirate. The circumstances were obviously terrible. The reason for all that terribleness was even more terrible. What happens there is yet more terrible again.

The danger there is ramped up to 11 and the torment of envisioning how much worse it’s going to get is even, well, worse. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as the parts of the story about all of them cooking together is heartwarming.

I have to say that something about the villainy of the villain didn’t quite work for me. Not in the sense that I didn’t feel their danger, not even in the sense that I didn’t get his motivations – or not exactly. After all, even villains believe that they are the heroes of their own stories.

He just didn’t feel like a person. He was more of a cartoon villain, a supervillain who was consumed with his revenge obsession. He tipped over the top of the villain scale into bwahaha territory. It’s not that he wasn’t a real threat – because he most definitely was – but that he didn’t feel like a real character.

The ship read as more of a real character than the villain did. Also as more of a real character than the ship Moya does in Farscape, I think because we hear the Thing’s comments directly and not through an interpreter.

In the end, as much as the two parts of this story didn’t quite gel, I did enjoy reading about Niko and her crew and I’m terribly curious about what happens next as they jump out of the frying pan and into the fire yet again. So I’ll be back next summer when their (mis)adventures continue in Devil’s Gun. I have a feeling that’s just what they’re going to find – and that it will probably be aimed straight at them.

Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher + Giveaway

Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher + GiveawayNettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 256
Published by Tor Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.
Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.
On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra's family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

My Review:

“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.” “I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?” While the quote is from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the sentiment is one that could easily be attributed to Marra, the central character in Nettle & Bone. Throughout this proto-fairytale, Marra frequently bemoans the unfairness of her world, even as she continually puts on her world’s equivalent of “big girl panties” and just keeps right on dealing with that unfairness.

I call this a “proto-fairytale” because it reads like just the kind of story that will be a fairytale someday, after the events have passed through the hands of this world’s versions of the Brothers Grimm AND Walt Disney in order to shape, knead and mold this “adventure” – in the sense that an adventure is something terrible that happens to someone else either long ago, fair away or both – into the kind of morality tale/object lesson that fairy tales end up being once they become “tales” rather than “history”.

This is also a tale that can be looked at as either “this is the house that jack built” or it’s opposite where “jack” goes on his journey of tasks and errands so damn mad at the situation that sent him that by the time he reaches his destination he tells everyone to stick it where the sun don’t shine.

In other words, Nettle & Bone is a tale of accretion, where Princess Marra starts out with a vague plan that takes on weight, depth and followers as she travels. And it needs all of those things and people because her task is large and she is small. She plans to save her second sister – the one who doesn’t even like her all that much – from certain death at the hands of the evil prince who already murdered their oldest sister AND threatens their parents’ kingdom.

Which is another way that this is a story about fairness, privilege, and the actual powerlessness that afflicts people in positions of seeming power – at least if those people are female.

So Marra is on a quest to save her sister. She thinks she needs to kill the evil prince, so that’s the task she sets herself. But she needs magic to counteract the prince’s magic, so she goes looking for a witch. The witch sets her three impossible tasks, not unlike many such stories. And not unlike those stories, Marra completes the tasks she has been set. She makes the cloak of nettle thread, and brings a dog made of bones back to the witch. The witch herself presents Marra with the third, the moon captured in a jar because she’s so astonished by Marra’s completion of the first two tasks that she decides to help her with her quest.

And they’re off! Along with the witch’s familiar, a hen with a demon inside her. Otherwise known as Strong Independent Chicken, a bird who really exists and to whom this book is dedicated.

But the plan is barely a sketch – and one not nearly as easy to fill in as Marra originally thought – or hoped. Along the way they add two more members to their already assorted party – a soldier they free from the Goblin Market, and Marra’s family godmother, who is both a bit more AND a bit less than she seems.

Off they go in search of, not adventure, but a way of bringing a little more fairness into their world. Marra thinks they’re going to kill the prince. The soldier is just happy to be free of the Goblin Market. The witch is coming to speak to the dead and the godmother is coming to magic the living. The chicken and her demon are along for the ride, in the hopes of causing whatever mayhem they can on the way. And there’s plenty of that every step of the way!

Escape Rating A+: I was looking for something by T. Kingfisher AKA Ursula Vernon to review as part of this Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week because so far I’ve loved everything of hers that I’ve read, especially A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and her Saint of Steel series (Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength and Paladin’s Hope). And because I enjoyed every single presentation she did on the recent JoCo Cruise – especially her stories about, you guessed it, Strong Independent Chicken. So I was looking for a book to review as a gateway drug for the giveaway and Nettle & Bone will be out later this month. So here we are.

Like the other books of hers that I have read, there’s a lot going on in Nettle & Bone and the story feels much bigger underneath than it is on the surface. On the surface, there’s the adventure of it all, which is marvelous and a perfectly good way of getting into this story and the rest of her work.

But underneath that there’s all this other stuff going on. There’s a lot in this story about the contrast between power and powerlessness, and the way that the perception of privilege depends on where you are in the neverending pecking order of the universe. It’s something that Marra comes to have a wider and more expansive view of on this journey. That’s partly because she’s a princess who is almost but not exactly a nun. While she thinks her mother the queen is powerful and can fix everything, she’s also aware that it is easier to travel as a nun than either a princess or a woman. Princesses are hedged ‘round with restrictions, while women in general are always subject to the whims and physical size and power of men.

Her whole quest is about reconciling the fact that those rules apply in the end to princes and princesses and even kingdoms. Someone is always more powerful and someone is always abusing that power.

At the same time, this is a women’s quest from start to finish. Although they have a soldier with them, and Fenris is certainly useful – as well as easy on the eyes – everything that happens in this story is driven by its female characters. The plan and the solutions they come to are not about men and arms and armies – it’s about women and soft power and seeing the truth of things. With the result that soft power turns out not to be soft at all, because power is a hard thing to seize no matter who is doing it.

In the end this is a story about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, even when you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t in the least bit sure you’re going about the right way of doing it. Marra’s quest is to save her sister, and she does. At the same time, her sister also saves herself. And both the kingdoms. It’s never easy and it’s always on the knife edge of failing – but it gets done.

And it’s utterly marvelous along every single step of its impossible way.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

As part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week I’m giving away one copy of ANY one of T. Kingfisher’s books, in any format, up to $30 (US) in value. That should be enough to get the winner any book of hers they want, including the new and coming titles like Nettle & Bone and What Moves the Dead. If you don’t know where to begin I highly recommend A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Paladin’s Grace or the subject of today’s review, Nettle & Bone as excellent places to start!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John ScalziThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Tor Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi's first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.
When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls "an animal rights organization." Tom's team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.
What Tom doesn't tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They're the universe's largest and most dangerous panda and they're in trouble.
It's not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that's found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too--and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

My Review:

It feels like this is the first thing I’ve read that actually deals head-on with life during the COVID pandemic. Plenty of things talk around it, and often those were written about the plague before it ACTUALLY happened, but The Kaiju Preservation Society just slams right into it.

It also feels like this is going to be one of the archetypes for how it gets dealt with in fiction, because this book is just plain damn funny. Even if, or especially because, much of the humor is gallows humor because there was an actual gallows looming over everything as lives, careers, hopes and dreams died with abandon – and sometimes abandonment – during those strange, unreal years.

So it’s entirely fitting that this is a story about giving not just the pandemic but the whole, entire Earth the middle finger and sloping off to a place that no one ever imagined existed. No matter how much we were ALL looking for a complete escape just like this at the time.

With or without Godzilla. Because that’s what a kaiju is, a Godzilla-type monster that occasionally slips between the cracks of the multiverse to terrorize our version of Earth.

But Jamie Gray, who gets fired from his fairly cushy job as an executive for a meal delivery service start up JUST as the country in locking down, then becomes a desperate “deliverator” for the company that fired him, lucks into the experience of a lifetime when his very last customer offers him a job at the mysterious “KPS” because the person on their crew who does heavy lifting is unavailable at the absolutely last minute.

Jamie’s in. He’s been down and out for six months, running through his savings, keeping his best friends from becoming homeless because their jobs have dried up too, and he’s at the end of all his ropes. KPS, whatever and wherever it is, has to be better than what he’s doing now. And the money is fantastic.

So, it turns out, is the experience.

Escape Rating A-: The Kaiju Preservation Society reads like vintage Scalzi of the Old Man’s War and Redshirts variety. The message sneaks up on the reader, much as it does in Old Man’s War, but it’s not quite as deep, while the snark-o-matic is dialed all the way up as it is in Redshirts.

So it’s light if not fluffy and not so much a laugh riot as filled with nerdy jokes, rueful chuckles and occasional outright guffaws from beginning to end. And not dissimilar to the author’s actual voice if one has ever seen him in person. (Scalzi read a bit of KPS on the recent JoCo Cruise and let’s just say that the man doesn’t have to act AT ALL to be the voice of Jamie Gray.)

While the pandemic provides the perfect excuse for Jamie Gray to sign up for a 6 month tour with KPS, as it turns out on Kaiju Earth, it’s his experiences once he steps through the portal in remote, chilly Labrador to the steamy jungle of an alternate Earth where one of the big extinction events just didn’t happen and kaiju evolved to be the apex predator that give the story its heart, its snark and its lesson.

It doesn’t matter how much bigger and more badass the monsters actually are, humans are always the most truly monstrous thing we ever encounter.

But first we get the joy and camaraderie of a whole bunch of very smart, very savvy, very geeky and extremely nerdy people having the absolute time of their lives doing really cool science in this most alien of places that is surprisingly close to home.

The feel of this part of the story, the sheer joy of doing stuff that literally no one has ever done before surrounded by people who are just as into it as you are reminds me a lot of Dan Koboldt’s Domesticating Dragons – and not just for the dragon/kaiju connection. But the love of doing science and breaking new ground and having great colleagues all in it together is very similar, so if you’re looking for another taste of this kind of SF try that.

Yes, there’s a bit of Jurassic Park in this. That’s kind of a “well, duh” comment after all. But the story is a lot more like The Rogue Retrieval (also by Koboldt) and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador, in that someone with more power than sense, ethics or morals finds a gateway or portal to a place that already exists – and then invades with the hope of conquering it with as much firepower as they can muster.

In all of these portal stories the central problem is kind of the same, in that whenever we humans find someplace new we bring ourselves – which is about the worst thing we could do anywhere to anything. That the author manages to circle that all the way back to the very beginning of this story – all the way back to that start up and the very asshole who fired him was just plain epic. With a heaping helping of utterly marvelous schadenfreude and revenge slathered on top.

And that was just delicious.

Review: The Starless Crown by James Rollins

Review: The Starless Crown by James RollinsThe Starless Crown (Moon Fall, #1) by James Rollins
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Series: Moon Fall #1
Pages: 560
Length: 22 hours and 5 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in this captivating, deeply visionary adventure from number-one 'New York Times' best-selling thriller-master James Rollins.
A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.
Fleeing into the unknown, she is drawn into a team of outcasts:
A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he's forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.
A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother's shadow and claims a purpose of his own.
An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact - one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.
On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.
But with each passing moment doom draws closer.
Who will claim the starless crown?
A Macmillan Audio Audio production from Tor Books
©2022 James Rollins (P)2022 Macmillan Audio

My Review:

“A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.” At least according to Robert A. Heinlein in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.

From that perspective, The Starless Crown is the story of Nyx, the authentic soothsayer – not that she would think of herself as such – receiving the full force of that kicking around. Deserved or not.

Definitely not – at least not in regards to anything that she personally has done. Not that she’s had a chance to do all that much when the story begins – as she seems to be just fifteen or thereabouts.

We meet her in school, in her astronomy class, as they study their “Urth’s” tidally locked rotation around the sun. A sun which they all refer to as the “Father Above,” the capital letters implied in the reverent way they speak of it. The Father Above is part of their pantheon of gods, along with the Mother Below (the Urth), the dark Daughter (the new moon) and the silvery Son (the full moon).

A catastrophe, shrouded in the mists of time, created the Urth that Nyx knows from the Earth that we now live on, locking our rotating world in a fixed position relative to the sun, so that only a relatively narrow circle is habitable for humans, in that relatively thin slice where the sun does not boil and its lack does not freeze. A circle that surrounds the Urth in just the same way that a crown surrounds the head of a monarch.

The story of The Starless Crown is Nyx’ story, as she breaks free of the shell she has been enclosed by her entire life. A story where she dreams of the destruction of her world – and the one thin chance where she might save something from the inevitable wreckage.

At a cost much higher than anyone is willing to pay.

Escape Rating A-: I listened to The Starless Crown from beginning to end. I enjoyed the listening – the narrator was very good and did an excellent job of differentiating the many, many voices of this story’s large cast.

At the same time, I didn’t feel compelled to finish it more quickly, so I didn’t pick up the ebook at all. The slower pace of listening worked better for me, because this is a slow burn kind of story. It takes a lot of chapters to get all the characters set up because they begin in far different locations under far different circumstances. We are seeing the plot come together from a great many disparate eyes.

And it takes a long time for all of those disparate – and sometimes desperate – parts to come together into the whole that is going to push this saga forward.

Part of my fascination with this story is that this is post-apocalyptic story that takes place in the far aftermath – an aftermath so far into the future that the people living it no longer recognize from whence they came – although we do.

Not that civilization as we know it wouldn’t break down and reform fairly quickly, messily and bloodily. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy, Stirling’s Emberverse starting with Dies the Fire, and the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn.

But the way the situation has evolved and devolved posits a corollary or an antonym to Clarke’s Law, the one that goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Starless Crown is an example of something I’d want to call Harris’ Permutation if I were the person naming such things. Because this story is an example of a different principle, that “Any science sufficiently muddied by time or religious claptrap is indistinguishable from magic.”

They don’t know what they don’t know. Too much was lost in either the initial cataclysm or the long dark night that inevitably followed. What they’ve managed to find is now interpreted through a lens of religion, to which what we call science has become enslaved. And some of its methods are used to enslave others.

This is also a story of “Mother Nature bats last”. Whatever happened in the past that created the tidal lock, the coming moon fall feels like its inevitable result. The moon controls the tides. It can’t. So it keeps getting closer in order to try harder. Or something like that.

So we have a group that is not unlike the Fellowship of the Ring. A young seeress, a disgraced prince, a thief, an escaped slave, a living statue from the distant past on a quest to save their world – even if they don’t know it yet.

Arrayed against them are the forces of the powers that be. They’re not all evil, although some of them very much are. Some of them are willfully blind and some of them are just blind. There’s a lot of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but there’s a fair bit of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But the villains are fascinatingly – if occasionally stomach turning-ly – twisted, the heroes are plucky to the max and the escapes are nail-biting, hair-raising, edge of the seat last minute scrapes. The reveal of the past, the fear in the present and the desperate hope of even a fractured future are handled in lush descriptions and buckets of regrets, recriminations and tears.

I have no idea how this band of misfits is going to get themselves and their world out of the mess they are in, but I look forward to finding out.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Isolate (The Grand Illusion #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, political thriller, steampunk
Series: Grand Illusion #1
Pages: 608
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of The Mongrel Mage, has a brand new gaslamp political fantasy Isolate.Industrialization. Social unrest. Underground movements. Government corruption and surveillance.
Something is about to give.
Steffan Dekkard is an isolate, one of the small percentage of people who are immune to the projections of empaths. As an isolate, he has been trained as a security specialist and he and his security partner Avraal Ysella, a highly trained empath are employed by Axel Obreduur, a senior Craft Minister and the de facto political strategist of his party.
When a respected Landor Councilor dies of "heart failure" at a social event, because of his political friendship with Obreduur, Dekkard and Ysella find that not only is their employer a target, but so are they, in a covert and deadly struggle for control of the government and economy.
Steffan is about to understand that everything he believed is an illusion.

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title is the illusion that the government (any government) can solve every problem and make everyone happy – all at the same time. But as the story unfolds it acknowledges that this is very definitely an illusion, that a government can possibly make nearly all of the people happy some of the time, that it can certainly make some of the people happy nearly all of the time, but that making all the people happy all the time is neither possible nor realistic.

Although good people in government can do their best to walk the tightrope, to do the best job they can for most people most of the time. If they devote their lives to it and are even willing to give those lives in order to do the most good for the most people most of the time – even in the face of those same people not recognizing that it’s being done while resenting that it isn’t being done nearly fast enough..

In other words, this is a political story, told through fascinating characters. It also reads like a story about how to potentially stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. That could just be reading the real-life present into the opening salvo in what I hope will be a long and fascinating series. But the interpretation feels right to me and your reading mileage may vary.

So Isolate examines the dirty business of politics, as seen through the eyes of someone with an intimate view of just how the sausage is made, as the saying goes, and finds himself on the inside of an attempt to make it better. Or at least tastier for considerably more people than is currently the case.

Isolate can be read as an exploration of how politics and government work as well as a continuous discussion about how they should work, but the story is wrapped around the characters and that both personalizes it and makes it easier to get swept up in the discussion right along with them. It can also be read simply as a “power corrupts” type of story and it certainly works on that level, but it’s also competence porn of the highest order and I absolutely could not put it down.

(Speaking of not being able to put this down, readers should be aware that the count of 608 pages is a serious underestimate. It’s 15,000 kindle locs. I know there’s not a direct translation from locs to number of pages, but as an example, Jade City by Fonda Lee, which is awesome, BTW, is 560 pages and 7684 kindle locs. No matter how loosely you do the math, based on my reading time Isolate is more likely 806 pages, or more, than it is 608, unless they are very large pages and the print is very, very small. It is absolutely worth reading, I loved every minute, but it will take more time than you might think it will from the page count.)

I recognize that I’m all over the map in this review. There is a lot to this book, and it’s one that made me think quite a lot as I was reading it.

As I said earlier, there were quite a few points where it felt like a story about how to stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. At first, I thought that those currently in power were setting up the kind of coup that nearly happened in the U.S. after the election, but it didn’t get to quite that level of skullduggery – not that there wasn’t plenty but it didn’t go quite that far in quite that direction.

But there’s also an element that the forces of “good” or at least the forces we follow and empathize with the most, are staging a coup from inside the government but outside of real power to make change. That feels kind of right, but as it’s handled in the story it’s legal and on the side of the “angels”.

While never glossing over the fact that politics is a dirty business, and even those on the side of the “angels” sometimes have to get their hands dirty – even if by proxy.

Escape Rating A+: What made this story work for me was the way that it completely embodied its political discussions and political maneuvering in its characters. There’s a lot of necessary exploration and explanation of what government can and can’t, and should and shouldn’t, do for its people, in this country that reads just enough like ours – or Britain – to feel relevant without feeling so close that it ends up being either a political treatise or a work of alternate history.

Instead, it ends up being the story of three people doing the best that they can to help their country in spite of everyone who tries to get in their way. In the process, they all rise above the place they expected to be, and that’s just the kind of story I love to sink into.

It takes a bit to get the reader firmly ensconced in this world with these characters, but once it does, it’s riveting. And it ends, not so much with triumph – although that element is there – but with the sure and certain knowledge that Steffan, Avraal and Obreduur have plenty of work left to do. They’re eager to get started, and I’m eager to read what happens next in Councilor, due in August 2022.

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

Review: Under the Whispering Door by TJ KluneUnder the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, paranormal, relationship fiction
Pages: 373
Published by Tor Books on September 21, 2021
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When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.
Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop's owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.
But Wallace isn't ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo's help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.
When the Manager, a curious and powerful being, arrives at the tea shop and gives Wallace one week to cross over, Wallace sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
Under the Whispering Door is a contemporary fantasy about a ghost who refuses to cross over and the ferryman he falls in love with.

My Review:

To paraphrase a classic that isn’t nearly as different as you’d think, Wallace Price was dead: to begin with. He was also an asshole.

The first condition is beyond Wallace’s own ability to change. The second, surprisingly, not so much. But unlike Scrooge’s situation, the spirits aren’t capable of doing anything to change it, and it’s going to take a whole lot more than one single night.

I know that Scrooge isn’t the one who dies in A Christmas Carol, but he was certainly headed down that road before the spirits staged their one-night intervention. The parallels are way closer than I was expecting.

Because the story about what’s behind the whispering door – not exactly under because the door is on the ceiling – is definitely a redemption story. It’s just that this redemption takes place after Wallace Price has already died. Even if he initially doesn’t want to admit it. Or accept it.

The purpose of Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats is all about that acceptance. The redemption appears to be optional, but the acceptance, that’s required. Charon’s Crossing, pun and all, is a waystation for people who have died but who just aren’t ready to move on to their next great adventure – or the peace of the hereafter – or whatever happens next.

They need time, and that’s just what the people who make up Charon’s Crossing are there to provide. Hugo the ferryman, Mei the reaper, the irreverent Nelson who gives lessons in being dead, and Apollo the dog who won’t leave his person, not even after he’s supposed to have gone to the Rainbow Bridge, or wherever it is that good dogs go. And Apollo was, and is, a very good dog indeed.

The late and completely unlamented Wallace Price, one of the founding partners of the white shoe law firm Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington, is brought to Charon’s Crossing by Mei the Reaper on her first solo gig. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t want to be there, and he doesn’t want to accept that he’s dead.  He’s unwilling to admit that the life he barely lived is already over. And he’s still angry that his funeral was so poorly, and disrespectfully, attended.

But he’ll have all the time he needs at the tea shop to get over who he used to and learn to be who he should have been. Or so he thinks. And so Hugo hopes. Until the mysterious Manager comes to tell him that the found family he’s become a part of isn’t meant for him – no matter how much they’d love for him to stay.

So Wallace plans on one last hurrah. One final pleading before a being who is judge, jury and from a certain perspective, executioner. And it’s a doozy. The question is whether it’s enough.

Escape Rating A: Under the Whispering Door is a lovely book about the power of change and the two steps forward one step back of the process of making the attempt to change. In the end, I loved all the characters and especially the story about how they made their little found family pretty much in spite of themselves.

This is also one of the best “sad fluff” books you could possibly ever find, even though it does surprisingly manage to have a happy ending. It’s just that one person’s happy can also be another person’s letting go.

But I almost didn’t finish this. Actually the first time I read it I mostly skimmed it because the first third is hard going. Wallace Price really, truly is an asshole. Which means that the way the story is centered around him is a bit of a slog, because he’s more than a bit of a slog. And a bastard, and definitely a bastard.

To the point where the best parts of that first third are when Mei and/or Nelson get the best of him. Because Wallace SO deserves it.

So that first time I skimmed the book I missed a lot of what made it so good because I found Wallace so hard to care about. Or be in the company of. But when the audio popped up on NetGalley I decided to give it another try. And this time I fell kind of in love with the residents of Charon’s Crossing and Wallace’s redemptive story. Wallace may not just be “mostly dead” but actually all the way dead, but he still manages to get better. And isn’t that a trick and a half!

And in audio that slow but steady upwards climb captivated me and I loved every minute. Especially the times when Wallace really screws up – or gets screwed up and over – and I was laughing so hard I had to pull the car over to wipe my eyes.

One final set of thoughts. This is being marketed as fantasy because of the author’s previous work in the genre, like the lovely House in the Cerulean Sea, and because of the “I help dead people” angle. But if this is fantasy, it’s mostly of the magical realism variety, like the now-old movie Heaven Can Wait or the even older Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It’s fantastic but not fantasy as the term is generally used.

Instead, it’s more about Wallace’s developing relationships with his found family, the town that Charon’s Crossing is located in, and his growing romantic attachment to Hugo – and very much vice-versa.

At the same time, it feels like the story hints at deeper roots to the whole setup of the ferrymen and ferrywomen (ferrypersons?) and the somewhat supernatural organization that recruits them. The mysterious Manager reads like an avatar for the Horned God of ancient myth, someone like Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter or the Green Man or even Pan. But that’s all just a hint and if you squint you might miss it.

Besides those two movies, there are other stories that touch of bits of what this does. Peter S. Beagle’s classic A Fine and  Private Place is another story about redemption after death and living the life you’ve got to the fullest.

And I believe that Hugo, the ferryman and expert tea advocate, would have a great deal to share with Sibling Dex, the tea monk of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built, as both their stories, in spite of the separation of millennia, are about the joy of found families and the surprising power of a good, well-chosen blend of tea.

Review: The Scholars of Night by John M. Ford

Review: The Scholars of Night by John M. FordThe Scholars of Night by John M. Ford
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 256
Published by Tor Books on September 21, 2021 (first published February 1988)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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John M. Ford's The Scholars of Night is an extraordinary novel of technological espionage and human betrayal, weaving past and present into a web of unbearable suspense.
Nicholas Hansard is a brilliant historian at a small New England college. He specializes in Christopher Marlowe. But Hansard has a second, secret, career with The White Group, a “consulting agency” with shadowy government connections. There, he is a genius at teasing secrets out of documents old and new—to call him a code-breaker is an understatement.
When Hansard’s work exposes one of his closest friends as a Russian agent, and the friend then dies mysteriously, the connections seem all too clear. Shaken, Hansard turns away from his secret work to lose himself in an ancient Marlowe manuscript. Surely, a lost 400 year old play is different enough from modern murder.
He is very, very wrong.

My Review:

The Scholars of Night is a book that lives at multiple crossroads. Or perhaps that should be multiple turning points. The world was changing under pretty much all of the axes at which this book is written, and it was obvious to those in the story – as well as those with eyes to see in the real world – that the verities which they lived under were about to change dramatically even if no one knew at the time what the results would be.

When The Scholars of Night was written, and when it was originally published, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which had been at various temperatures between below 0 Fahrenheit and barely above 0 centigrade since the end of World War II, was about to end. Not that it was actually thawing, more that one of the sides was about to undergo a seismic shift that would change the nature of the game entirely.

And it was a game, as the players involved in this story make very clear. It’s just that it was a game with very real and deadly stakes.

The other factor, that other crossroads, and one as it turned out with equally deadly consequences, was the continuing miniaturization and coming ubiquity of omnipresent and seemingly omniscient information technology. Personal computers had started their shift from hobbyist tinker toys to working business devices with the production of the IBM PC in 1981, while the shift of the U.S. Department of Defense’ ARPANET into the internet we know today was already well on its way.

The intellectual games of espionage and their deadly consequences were shifting from the domain of people who were good at solving puzzles to people who programmed computers to make decisions at the speed of light.

That gamesmaster, academic and occasional intelligence asset Allan Berenson is slated for death by one of those speed of light decisions, and that his protege Nicholas Hansard and Berenson’s lover, the agent known only as WAGNER, do their best and worst to carry out Berenson’s last plan through a combination of intelligent puzzle-solving, ruthless determination and willful blindness to its consequences is a perfect metaphor for the death and the life of one old Cold warrior and the world he knew entirely too well.

Escape Rating A: The story in The Scholars of Night is complex and convoluted and wonderful. No one trusts anyone else, no one is really on anyone else’s side, everyone is waiting for everyone else to betray them – with good reasons – and everyone is unreliable because no one is telling the truth about anything even when they think they know the truth.

Which they usually don’t. This is a story about lies and the lying liars who tell those lies to the point where no one really knows what the truth is anymore or whether the truth even exists. So the truth becomes a fungible commodity, and the lines between collateral damage and just damage are so blurred they don’t even exist any longer.

The way that the story echoes back and around to Christopher Marlowe, his work for Elizabeth I’s spymasters, and the dirty deeds that he participated in and covered up just makes the point with even more emphasis that espionage is always a dirty business. No one involved is on the side of the angels.

(In a peculiar way, The Scholars of Night is a bit of a readalike for A Tip for the Hangman, which covers Marlowe’s forays into spycraft more directly. At any rate, if you like this you’ll probably like that, and there’s enough of Marlowe in the background here to make it very much vice versa.)

The story of The Scholars of Night is not a straightforward one by any means. WAGNER compartmentalizes her plan to enact Berenson’s last play so very well that the right hand and the left hand never even seem to be in the same country or on the same playing field and the reader spends as much of the story trying to piece the clues together as the agent does. Certainly the agencies following her are always at least one step behind, and we often feel that we are, too.

On the one hand, this story feels historical. 1986 or thereabouts are a lifetime ago. So in some ways, the story feels prescient as Berenson’s last big play foreshadows both the end of the Cold War and the rise of intelligent machines controlling the world instead of intelligent people. And yet, the story was contemporaneous at the time it was written.

And excellently well done at that. Especially if you like puzzles as much as Berenson and WAGNER did.

Reviewer’s Note: The story about how this book and the rest of John M. Ford’s work went so thoroughly out of print – with the exception of his Star Trek novelizations – and how they finally got back into print (and ebook for the first time!) is a bit of a puzzle story in and of itself.

A story I got into in a lot more detail in my review of Ford’s best known and most beloved work, The Dragon Waiting, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1984. And is still one of the awesomest pieces of alt-history ever.

Review: The House of Always by Jenn Lyons

Review: The House of Always by Jenn LyonsThe House of Always (A Chorus of Dragons, #4) by Jenn Lyons
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chorus of Dragons #4
Pages: 523
Published by Tor Books on May 11, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For fans of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, The House of Always is the fourth epic fantasy in Jenn Lyons' Chorus of Dragons series that began with The Ruin of Kings.
What if you were imprisoned for all eternity?
In the aftermath of the Ritual of Night, everything has changed.
The Eight Immortals have catastrophically failed to stop Kihrin's enemies, who are moving forward with their plans to free Vol Karoth, the King of Demons. Kihrin has his own ideas about how to fight back, but even if he's willing to sacrifice everything for victory, the cost may prove too high for his allies.
Now they face a choice: can they save the world while saving Kihrin, too? Or will they be forced to watch as he becomes the very evil they have all sworn to destroy.

My Review:

“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” Or so says Ecclesiastes, Peter Pan, and at least a couple of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. But as at least one of the characters responds in BSG, “But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?”

And I’m beginning to believe that THAT is the central question of this entire projected-to-be-five-books epic. Whether just because the history has repeated means that it has to repeat yet again. But I’ve thought I’ve figured out the central theme of this epic before, and so far I’ve been wrong every time.

Absolutely fascinated, but wrong. So we’ll see.

Like the previous books in the series, The House of Always is told from two different perspectives, seemingly from a point in the future, which does not necessarily mean that any of the characters survived, only that their chronicles did.

This time it’s Kihrin, trapped in Vol Karoth’s prison all by himself, discovering that all of his assumptions about the Dark God’s maturity, capability and power were seriously off the mark, and that he’s in so far over his head that he may never surface except as a tortured facet of the King of Demons.

That the other half of the story is narrated by the mage Senera from the Lighthouse at Shadrag Gor – otherwise known as the House of Always from the title – means that I finally know which of the two actors from the previous audiobooks was Kihrin and which was Thurvishar. Not that I needed to know, but it was niggling at me and now it’s not.

The story being told by these two narrators ranges backwards and forwards in time, as Kihrin and the companions who eventually join him in Vol Karoth’s mindscape prison AND the remaining members of the quest equally trapped at the Lighthouse find themselves being repeatedly mind-raped by the Dark God.

Vol Karoth doesn’t believe in love or friendship or faith or trust or any positive emotion of any kind. As far as he’s concerned, it’s all lies and deception, whether of the self or others. Kihrin believes the exact opposite. Their battle of minds and memories is a device to convince each other in a contest where the winner will take all, literally, of the world and of each other’s very existence.

It’s a battle that Kihrin somehow has to win. In spite of how everything seems, Vol Karoth is not really Kihrin’s enemy. Kihrin’s enemies are waiting outside, so far unaware that Kihrin has become another player of their game and not a pawn on either of their boards, as he has been in all of his previous incarnations.

If Kihrin wins, there’s a chance this time to stop the endless cycles of history. If he loses, the demon Xaltorath will have another turn of the cycle to keep bending history to their will. And the wizard Relos Var will have another turn of the cycle to try to destroy the world before that happens.

Not that either of them is on the side of the right or the angels. Even if one of them thinks he is.

Escape Rating A: There is, as is ALWAYS true of this series, a lot to unpack in this entry. And just like all of the previous books in the series, you won’t care to unpack it or understand why it’s important to unpack if you haven’t read the previous books. Start with The Ruin of Kings and be prepared to be swept away, only to be left ashore at the end of this one with an epic book hangover and an intense desire to get the final book immediately.

All of that being said, and as much as I love this series as a whole, this is the first time that the book in hand isn’t even more epic than its predecessor. Not that it isn’t downright excellent, just that it suffers a bit in comparison. Also, this is kind of a middle book, not that it ends in a slough of despond as middle books often do, but rather that it contains a lot of character development and exposition and filling in of the corners and footnotes (this whole series is built on footnotes!). There’s a lot of process in this one, as we get a lot of the underpinning of the worldbuilding and a lot of pieces moving into place to set up the finale.

Also, this one is a bit harder to follow than usual. Not that all the stories haven’t jumped back and forth in time more than a bit, but the nature of this entry in the series is that neither group we’re following is in a place where time is in any way fixed. Kihrin, and eventually others are literally inside Vol Karoth’s head, and the rest are in the Lighthouse at Shadrag Gor, which is nicknamed the House of Always because “real time” outside passes very, very, very slowly.

The entire story, except for the very end, is framed in places that are essentially moored in an eternity of limbo. Or limbo of eternity. Stuff happens, and it happens in a kind of order, but it’s interspersed with memories that happened before that happen out of their order at least some of the time and it’s easy to get a bit lost.

Which doesn’t mean that a lot of important stuff doesn’t happen, just that it’s difficult to get a handle on when and in what order it happened. It all comes together at the end to set up the final volume, but in the middle it gets a bit muddled.

One of the very interesting things that gets revealed is that the Eight Immortals who are worshipped as gods are much more like the Incarnations of Immortality from Piers Anthony’s long ago series than they are the Elven Gods of Dragon Age. Meaning that the functions of those Eight Immortals; Death, Luck, Magic, etc., are offices that have been held by different people through the repeated cycles of history. After several of the so-called gods were killed at the end of The Memory of Souls, those offices are vacant and the concepts they represent are searching for replacements.

Which leads directly to the final book in the series, The Discord of Gods. It’s possible that the new gods who begin to assume their mantles in this book are going to have very different visions of what they should do about the forces that are contending for power. Not that they were all exactly getting along swimmingly before.

But the gods aren’t the only players on this particular field. The demon Xaltorath has been shifting history in order to create a version of the world where they and the demons win – so they can eat everyone. Relos Var has been manipulating everyone towards his vision of the “greater good” in the hopes of destroying everything so that he can save the pieces that are left.

Both sides believe that Kihrin is just a pawn they’ve been playing with for cycles and millennia. He thinks he’s got them fooled, and that he’s playing them in order to save the people he loves – and everyone else – into the bargain.

They could all be right. They could all be wrong. Or any combination thereof. We’ll all find out in The Discord of Gods, which would seem to be the version of Ragnarok to which the entire epic has been leading. The end of the world as they know it is coming next April. And I’ve never looked forward to doomsday so much.

Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine AddisonThe Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2) by Katherine Addison
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mystery, steampunk
Series: Goblin Emperor #2, Cemeteries of Amalo #1
Pages: 240
Published by Tor Books on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Katherine Addison returns at last to the world of The Goblin Emperor with this stand-alone sequel.
When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honesty will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Celehar’s skills now lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

My Review:

I read this because I absolutely adored The Goblin Emperor – and I’ve liked many of the author’s books written as Sarah Monette as well. So if you like the one there’s a fairly good chance you’ll like all the others and vice versa.

There’s irony in the above as I picked up The Witness for the Dead because I was hoping for more like The Goblin Emperor. But The Witness for the Dead, in spite of the titular witness being one of the characters introduced in the first book, is absolutely nothing like the first book.

Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t marvelous and well worth reading in its own right, because it’s both. But if you’re expecting another story about high-level political shenanigans and corruption at the heart of the empire wrapped around a coming of age or coming into power story, check those expectations at the door before opening this book.

The Witness for the Dead is a murder mystery, with Thara Celehar, the titular witness for the dead who witnessed for the young emperor’s dead in the earlier story, reaping the “fruits” of his labor in a far-flung corner of the empire that the young goblin emperor Maia now rules.

And that’s as much as there is to the connection between the two stories, meaning that you do not have to have read The Goblin Emperor to get right into The Witness for the Dead. Because court intrigues are pretty much the last thing that Thara Celehar wants to ever be involved with ever again and quite possibly the last thing that anyone with any power whatsoever will ever let him get near even with someone else’s bargepole.

The clerical intrigues he’s stuck in the middle of are quite enough. More than enough. From his perspective, more than annoying and infuriating enough, too, but he’s stuck with those.

Celehar has been assigned to remote Amalo in order to serve his calling as a witness for the dead. Because that’s what he does. He legally serves as a witness for whatever messages or entreaties or truths – especially for the truths – that the recently – make that the very recently – dead are able to transmit through him before they leave all their worldly concerns behind along with their bodies.

He doesn’t hear them speak, not exactly. What he does is witness, as in watch and listen to, their final sights, sounds, impressions and thoughts. And then he acts upon what he has witnessed, whether to bring justice to the dead – or to bring justice or restitution to those the recently departed has wronged.

Some people seek out his services. Some people are not happy with the answers he gives or the results he gets. Some people are frightened to see him coming, while some are grateful that he did.

The cases that find Celehar as he witnesses for the dead in Amalo are a mix of all of the above. A dead opera singer whose murderer should be brought to justice. A grieving family searching for the burial site of their missing sister. A wealthy family caught in the turmoil left behind by their late patriarch and his two contradictory “last” wills and testaments.

It’s Celehar’s job as well as his calling to find answers for the friends and families left behind. Even if those answers are not the answers they wanted. And no matter what Celehar has to go through – or whom – in order to find them.

Escape Rating A+: Based on the blurb, this wasn’t exactly what I expected. And it doesn’t matter because I absolutely loved it.

For one thing, in spite of the fantasy setting, Celehar’s story mostly reads very much like a historical mystery. The past is as much another country as Amalo is. But people are still people, and murder is still murder. Some of the investigative techniques may be different, but the principles are still the same. “Who benefits?” is an investigative concept that is equally applicable no matter what language it is in.

In the case of the duplicate wills, benefit is the easiest to determine, but the most difficult to bring about. Money, after all, talks, and when the competing sides of this case start using theirs to talk to the powers-that-be, each trying to influence the ultimate decision in their favor, Celehar is caught in the middle – with nearly catastrophic results. Not for the rich beneficiaries, but for poor Celehar whose only interest is in a truth that no one expected to hear.

There is a common element among all three cases. They are all about money. The opera singer was also a blackmailer, and the woman whose burial site was hidden was married for her money – and possibly murdered for it. (There’s that not-so-old saying about money being the root of all evil and every woman needing roots. In these two cases perhaps not so much.)

While there is plenty of satisfaction in the resolution of his cases, what makes this story such a pleasure to read is Celehar’s exploration of this city and the people in it in his pursuit of the truth, as well as the character of Celehar himself. Who is humble, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, and yet supremely talented and more intolerant than is safe or politic of the way that most people are treated – even as he bites his tongue and seems to just accept the way that people in power treat him.

He’s also someone who is bearing up under a load of guilt that he can’t let go of, but as he helps and befriends the people along his path we see that load begin to let go of him. He’s fascinating in his contradictions and I hope we see him again.

Even though this story is part of the world of The Goblin Emperor, the story it reminds me of is not its own predecessor but rather the saga of Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold. Penric and Celehar have a surprising amount in common, as both find themselves in the midst of situations and investigations through the offices of a being who expects them to get on with their work on his behalf without much material assistance. These are both worlds where the supernatural of one type or another is not mythical but actual, and where gods expect work as much as if not more than worship and are not shy about manifesting in one way or another to nudge their agents when needed.

While Penric is considerably less self-effacing than Celehar, I think they’d have as much in common as their stories feel like they do. They also share the fact that I’d very much like more of both!

In the end, The Witness for the Dead was just a story that worked for me on pretty much every level. I loved the protagonist, enjoyed exploring his world, wanted to hang with his friends and punch out his enemies – even though he wouldn’t – and had a grand time following him as he investigated his cases and witnessed for the dead as well as the living who would otherwise have no voice in the world. A fantastic read all the way around!