Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi VoOn the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 38
Published by Tor Books on October 31, 2023
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A new novelette from Hugo Award-winning author, Nghi Vo!
While learning the ropes from a crafty Jazz Age bank robber, a young stowaway discovers their authentic self, a hidden gift, and that there are no straight lines when you run the fox roads. . .

My Review:

Unlike the popular image of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, “Chinese Jack” and “Tonkin Jill” didn’t ENTER banks with guns blazing. That didn’t mean they didn’t EXIT that way, but the guns weren’t the point.

Jack and Lai were merely following the rule laid down by their contemporary Willie Sutton, they robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Even if the kind of small-town banks that the Chinese duo robbed had a lot less of the green stuff and a lot more of other kinds of paper than either of the robbers would have liked.

That’s where the third member of this duo turned trio enters the picture, a young Chinese-American girl who stows away in their getaway car intending to steal back the deed to her parents’ store from one of the “Jack and Jill’s” earlier scores.

A seemingly magical deed that will re-open the store as soon as the deed is laid down on the ground it belongs to.

The question is whether that stowaway wants to go back to belonging to it, to being the girl their parents want them to be, prim, proper and most of all – obedient – or whether that girl wants to undergo more than one transformation – robbing banks, driving getaway cars, getting to see the big, wide world, living as a man instead of the woman that fate originally intended.

All things are possible on the magical, mysterious, ever-changing fox roads that travel no known path and go in no known direction except for the will and the whim of anyone who is on the run from a hard chase and desperate enough to drive fast and trust to fate.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where my only complaint is that I wanted just a bit more than I got. Every single bit of this one is terrific, but I wish it had qualified as a Hugo nominee in the Novella category (between 17,500 and 40,000 words) instead of as the Novelette it is (between 7,500 and 17,500 words). Not that I actually WANT more options in the Novella category because it’s going to be a really hard choice for me.

On the Fox Roads is one of those book baby situations, where it feels like it owes some of its DNA to several books I’ve read – and probably more that I haven’t – but at the same time is still a thing of itself meaning that the blend creates something new and marvelous.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–33 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout

In this particular case it reads like it owes something to, first of all, the real Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, both in the way that Jack and Lai operate and in the setting, small-town America during the Great Depression just as Prohibition is about to change everything.

But the story also has a bit of The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo in that one of the characters is a fox masquerading as a human, who is someone with a somewhat different set of morés and values than the human narrator and the fox’s human partner Jack.

And then there’s that third element, the fox roads themselves, which read a lot like the roads to alternate realities traveled by the magical muscle car in Max Gladstone’s Last Exit.

Those impressions were what I brought into this story, what I got while I was reading it was considerably more, as the narrator has the opportunity to try out a much different life than they thought could possibly be available to them as a young Chinese-American woman in racially-stratified 1930s America.

The way that the magic mixed into the heady brew of the story and swept it off down mysterious roads and sometimes equally mysterious and magical cities blended the whole delicious melange into something delightful and unexpected and yes, magical.

To the point where I’m oh-so-grateful that this got nominated for the Hugo, because I’m not much of a short fiction reader and probably wouldn’t have found this otherwise. But I’m glad that I did, even if it does make my Hugo voting that much harder.

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica Roth

A+ #AudioBookReview: When Among Crows by Veronica RothWhen Among Crows by Veronica Roth
Narrator: Helen Laser, James Fouhey, Tim Campbell
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 176
Length: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When Among Crows is swift and striking, drawing from the deep well of Slavic folklore and asking if redemption and atonement can be found in embracing what we most fear.
We bear the sword, and we bear the pain of the sword.
Pain is Dymitr’s calling. His family is one in a long line of hunters who sacrifice their souls to slay monsters. Now he’s tasked with a deadly mission: find the legendary witch Baba Jaga. To reach her, Dymitr must ally with the ones he’s sworn to kill.
Pain is Ala’s inheritance. A fear-eating zmora with little left to lose, Ala awaits death from the curse she carries. When Dymitr offers her a cure in exchange for her help, she has no choice but to agree.
Together they must fight against time and the wrath of the Chicago underworld. But Dymitr’s secrets—and his true motives—may be the thing that actually destroys them.

My Review:

There’s an old Polish saying – not the one you’re thinking of, at least not yet – that translates as “Not my circus, not my monkeys” Which pretty much sums up the attitude of the first zmora that Dymitr approaches in regards to the very dangerous trade he wants to make.

The second zmora comes to him, because what he’s offering IS her cursed circus and those are her damned monkeys. Or, to be a bit more on the nose about the whole thing, it is her murder – or at least it will be – and those are her crows, who are already flocking to the scene.

Dymitr has acquired a legendary magical artifact that holds the possibility of a cure for the curse that Ala suffers from. A curse that killed her mother, her aunt, and her cousin, and is now killing her. A curse that will pass down her bloodline to the next female relative in line – no matter how distant – until the whole line is wiped out.

In return, Dymitr wants an introduction to another legendary ‘artifact’, the powerful witch Baba Jaga [that’s how her name is spelled in the book]. As merely a human, Dymitr does not have access to the places and people that will get him to his goal. As a zmora, while Ala does not know Baba Jaga at all, she does have contacts who can at least get Dymitr a few steps further along on the quest that he refuses to either name or explain.

Their journey proves to be a very different “magical mystery tour” than the one that the Beatles sang about, observing the different magical populations that have migrated to Chicago from his native Poland, and how each group abides by the proverb, “When among crows, caw as the crows do.”

The zmora, who feed on fear, operate movie theaters that feature horror movies, the strzygi, who live on anger and aggression, run underground fight clubs, while the llorona, who collect sorrow, own a chain of hospice centers. It’s all perfectly legal, or at least most of it is. And the parts that aren’t, the strzygi fight clubs, fit right in with the rest of the organized crime and corruption that operates in Chicago.

The supernatural have learned to caw like the crows do, the better to hide from the powerful so-called ‘Holy Order’ that hunts down anyone and anything it deems to be ‘not human enough’. And isn’t that the most human impulse of all?

An impulse, and a life, that Dmitry is willing to cut himself off from – literally as well as figuratively – at any and all cost. Even the cost of the humanity that his family has held so dear over the centuries.

All he needs to do is find Baba Jaga – and pay whatever price she demands in order to cut the sword out of his back once and for all.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve frequently said that a story has to be just about perfect to make the leap from an A- to an A. This one absolutely did, and listening to the audio put it over the top into A+. With bells on. To the point where I have to restrain myself from just squeeing all over the place.

The tone of When Among Crows felt very much like ‘old school’ urban fantasy before it left its horror with mystery roots behind to fall down the paranormal romance rabbit hole. Not that I don’t love a good paranormal with a kickass heroine posed on the cover in an utterly impossible position, but those got to dominating the genre and that’s not all I wanted from it.

(The blurb implies a romantic relationship between Dymitr and Ala. Don’t be fooled, that is absolutely not what is going on here – and it shouldn’t be. The relationship they are scrabbling towards is family, that the pain they have both suffered, and from the same source, can lead to them finding the family ties that pain has cost them with each other.)

At the same time, the way this story drew in so many Slavic myths and legends that I itched for a mythopedia (I was driving, that would have had terrible consequences) reminded me, a lot and very fondly, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because that book gave me the same vibes – along with the same dilemma – and I listened to it well before the Annotated Edition was published. I won’t say that When Among Crows was better, because American Gods had a much larger scope, but for the smaller size of the package of Crows, it still managed to evoke that same sense of memory and wonder, that so much that is old and weird still walks among us hidden in plain sight – made all that much more poignant in that the place the weird is hiding is the darker corners of Chicago – a city that has always had plenty.

When Among Crows was utterly enchanting, and I was totally enchanted by it, staying up entirely too late to finish the audio because it was just that good. While the story was relatively short, it also went surprisingly deep, and then came around full circle in a way that surprised and delighted even as it led to a delicious sort of closure that I wasn’t expecting but utterly loved.

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie Tidhar

#BookReview: Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law by Lavie TidharJudge Dee and the Limits of the Law (Judge Dee, #1) by Lavie Tidhar
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal, short stories, vampires
Series: Judge Dee #1
Pages: 32
Published by Tor Books on November 11, 2020
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No vampire is ever innocent…
The wandering Judge Dee serves as judge, jury, and executioner for any vampire who breaks the laws designed to safeguard their kind’s survival. This new case in particular puts his mandate to the test.

My Review:

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked this up, but what I got was kind of interesting and sorta cute and blissfully short yet still told a good story and somehow managed to fit – albeit weirdly and oddly – into the whole Judge Dee rabbit hole I fell down last week.

Like many vampire stories, it needs a human touch. And it has one in this case, as it is told by vampire Judge Dee’s current human assistant, Jonathan. Who is often just a bit hard done by the Judge, as poor Jonathan needs the occasional meal of real food, and the occasional break to catch his labored breath, while the vampire clearly does not. And sometimes forgets to care.

That the human is a considerably messier eater than the average vampire, let alone the rather fastidious Judge Dee, is just part of the byplay between these two unequal companions.

The story here still manages to display Judge Dee’s much vaunted ability to, well, judge evildoers within the limits of the law and render a fit punishment – when punishment is what’s due.

The case that introduces this pair to readers is just such a case – more convoluted that one might expect leading to a rather elegant ending – and not the one the reader expects when Judge Dee first knocks on the door.

Escape Rating B: I picked this up this week for two reasons. The first is part of the reason I grabbed this at all, that I fell down a reading rabbit hole about Judge Dee and discovered this series and simply couldn’t resist. A lack of resistance that may have had something to do with the cover art which is just this side of comic but bizarre in a way that pulled me in.

The second reason, and the why right now reason, is that these are blissfully short. I’ve overcommitted myself this week and needed that really, really badly.

But I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a lot, because there is literally not a lot here. Howsomever, I got more than I expected.

Judge Dee does his damndest to stick to the letter of the law while leaning over it just enough to find justice in a situation where there might not have been any to find. He’s beyond clever and yet is amused when a potential defendant before his traveling bench manages to out-clever him.

What makes the story fun – more than fun enough that I’ll be picking up the next story the next time I need something short to tide me over an overcommitted calendar – is the first person perspective of poor, put upon, Jonathan. He’s snarky, he’s both world-weary and vampire-weary, but he’s always aware of the side on which his bread is buttered – when he can get any, that is. So his commentary covers the Judge, the law he administers, his opinions and predilections, but also the companionship they provide each other.

Along with Jonathan’s constant scramble to get enough food in his belly to keep him upright for another day trudging after the indefatigable vampire Judge Dee. And one of these days soon I’ll be, not trudging but skipping along right beside him with Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels.

Grade A #BookReview: The Bezzle by Cory Doctorow

Grade A #BookReview: The Bezzle by Cory DoctorowThe Bezzle (Martin Hench #2) by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: financial thriller, mystery, thriller
Series: Martin Hench #2
Pages: 240
Published by Tor Books on February 20, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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New York Times bestseller Cory Doctorow's The Bezzle is a high stakes thriller where the lives of the hundreds of thousands of inmates in California’s prisons are traded like stock shares.
The year is 2006. Martin Hench is at the top of his game as a self-employed forensic accountant, a veteran of the long guerrilla war between people who want to hide money, and people who want to find it. He spends his downtime on Catalina Island, where scenic, imported bison wander the bluffs and frozen, reheated fast food burgers cost 25$. Wait, what? When Marty disrupts a seemingly innocuous scheme during a vacation on Catalina Island, he has no idea he’s kicked off a chain of events that will overtake the next decade of his life.
Martin has made his most dangerous mistake trespassed into the playgrounds of the ultra-wealthy and spoiled their fun. To them, money is a tool, a game, and a way to keep score, and they’ve found their newest mark―California’s Department of Corrections. Secure in the knowledge that they’re living behind far too many firewalls of shell companies and investors ever to be identified, they are interested not in the lives they ruin, but only in how much money they can extract from the government and the hundreds of thousands of prisoners they have at their mercy.
A seething rebuke of the privatized prison system that delves deeply into the arcane and baroque financial chicanery involved in the 2008 financial crash, The Bezzle is a sizzling follow-up to Red Team Blues .

My Review:

When we met Martin Hench in the first book in his series, Red Team Blues, the ‘scam’ of the day that Marty needed to unravel – before it unraveled him – was all wrapped in the cryptocurrency shenanigans of its – and our – present day.

I say our present-day because Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial for his cryptocurrency-based fraudulent shenanigans had not yet come to pass when The Bezzle was written, but has between the point when The Bezzle was written and when it is being published next week.

So Red Team Blues was a story about now – or at least now-ish. The Bezzle is a story about then. Particularly the early 2000s, when the scam of the day was yet to be uncovered in the dot com boom that has not yet busted when we go back in time with Marty and whoever he is telling this story to. Which we never do find out and I surely wish we did.

Bezzle is a real term in economics that has never gotten the study it deserves. It’s related to the crime of embezzlement, but isn’t the embezzlement itself. Instead, it’s the time between two events; the commission of the crime and its discovery. It’s a weird sort of net-positive financial limbo, or an even stranger Schrödinger’s cat situation, where both the embezzler and their victim believe they have the money and act accordingly, only for one or the other or both to suffer a rude awakening when the crime is discovered.

Now that I’ve thought about it a bit, the story in The Bezzle is a bezzle within a bezzle in a kind of möbius strip of bezzling that doesn’t so much end as shift into a state of mutually assured destruction. A state that Marty, fortunately for him, is finally able to observe from the outside looking in, instead of either from the inside of a jail cell looking out the way that his friend Scott ends up, or up from six feet under, as the villain of this story certainly intended.

Very much like Red Team Blues, The Bezzle is a story about leverage. Not just in the financial sense, but mostly in the sense of who has power over whom, and how much they are willing to pay to exercise it.

Escape Rating A: The Bezzle is a LOT of things, all of which are fascinating and make for a compelling read, but absolutely none of which are remotely science fiction, whether it is marketed as such or not. And not that SF readers won’t enjoy The Bezzle, because they certainly will and I absolutely did.

On the surface, The Bezzle is a combination of 2000 aughts’ nostalgia, a metric buttload of social commentary about the state of the State of California and its seemingly deliberately FUBAR’d penal system, some surprisingly deep analysis of the socio-economic conditions in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, all wrapped inside a crunchy thriller coating, making it a tasty read from beginning to end.

It starts out deceptively simple, in what looks like a small time con on an equally small island. It’s even a bit silly, as no one in their right mind would think that trading in hamburgers could bring down an entire island’s economy. At least not until Marty Hench figures out that cornering the underground fast-food market on Santa Catalina Island – where fast food franchises were illegal – is more than just a small scale attempt to make a few bucks off the local craving for forbidden fruit. It’s the public front for a Ponzi scheme that is going to bankrupt the local economy. At least until Marty gives the intended suckers some hints about leverage.

And puts a price on the heads of both Marty and the friend who brought him to Catalina in the first place.

From there, the story is off to the races. And it continues racing at a breakneck pace, even through places that might bring other stories and other writers to a screeching halt – but instead detail the long and painful process of bringing a villain to his knees while still exposing and eviscerating the system that made his villainy possible.

What makes the whole thing fly – and it absolutely does fly by – is the charm of its storyteller, Martin Hench himself. Because Marty is really, really good at three things; figuring out which way the books have been cooked, making friends, and storytelling. If you are drawn in by Marty’s world-weary, wry, sarcastic but ultimately caring voice, he’ll carry you through this trip down his memory lane. And if you enjoy caper stories, Marty is a terrific companion for this madcap thrill-ride of a tale.

If Marty manages to dig another story of good friends, filthy lucre, and tech wizards behaving badly out of his capacious memory, this reader will definitely be there for it!

Review: The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow

Review: The Lost Cause by Cory DoctorowThe Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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It’s thirty years from now. We’re making progress, mitigating climate change, slowly but surely. But what about all the angry old people who can’t let go?

For young Americans a generation from now, climate change isn't controversial. It's just an overwhelming fact of life. And so are the great efforts to contain and mitigate it. Entire cities are being moved inland from the rising seas. Vast clean-energy projects are springing up everywhere. Disaster relief, the mitigation of floods and superstorms, has become a skill for which tens of millions of people are trained every year. The effort is global. It employs everyone who wants to work. Even when national politics oscillates back to right-wing leaders, the momentum is too great; these vast programs cannot be stopped in their tracks.

But there are still those Americans, mostly elderly, who cling to their red baseball caps, their grievances, their huge vehicles, their anger. To their "alternative" news sources that reassure them that their resentment is right and pure and that "climate change" is just a giant scam.

And they're your grandfather, your uncle, your great-aunt. And they're not going anywhere. And they’re armed to the teeth.

The Lost Cause What do we do about people who cling to the belief that their own children are the enemy? When, in fact, they're often the elders that we love?

My Review:

The younger generation has ALWAYS been going to the dogs. Graffiti found by Napoleon’s soldiers, stating EXACTLY that point, that “This younger generation is going to the dogs!” was written in hieroglyphs and was determined to have been etched on that wall in 800 BCE. There’s a similar quote from Socrates that merely goes back to sometime between 470 and 399 BCE. If we ever discover a stone carving or the equivalent left by the Neanderthals, they probably thought it too. Just as we do today.

And as we undoubtedly will thirty years from now, or thereabouts. But the generational fight we’re in the midst of right now isn’t just that – although it is certainly also about that.

It’s also about the same neverending, utterly frustrating argument that 18-year-old Brooks Palazzo has been having with his grandfather – and witnessing his grandfather and his old cronies have with the country and the world around him – for his entire life.

Because Dick Palazzo and his friends are members of the local Maga Club, wearing faded red hats and spouting the exact same neo-Nazi conspiracy-tinged quasi-conservative rhetoric that the original Magas did back in the day – which just so happens to be our day.

But in Brooks’ Palazzo’s 2050s, climate change and progressive policies have come 30 years down the road they’re already on. Universal Basic Income is part of the Green New Deal the Magas hate so much, but the climate change they’ve denied until it’s too late to fix has created a new class of refugee in American citizens, born and bred, whose homes and entire cities have either burned up in uncontainable wildcat fires, become Superfund sites because those same fires exploded something toxic that should never have been buried in the first place, or simply got washed away by the rising oceans being fed by runaway global warming.

Young Brooks Palazzo and his young and idealistic friends are all set to welcome a caravan of internal refugees to the hometown they know and love, Burbank, California. They know they have the resources, they know they have the room, they know they have the skills to pull Burbank into the future and bring all their friends and all the friends they’ll make in the future along for the hard work as well as the ride.

But his Gramps’ old buddies, all those old Magas, have a plan to stop that future before it happens. Because they are dead certain that the ship is sinking, and that Burbank doesn’t have enough resources to support the people it already has, let alone the ones that are coming.

They’ll do anything they can to stop the future and the Green New Deal in its tracks. No matter what it takes. And no matter who or what they have to kill. Democracy, the rule of law, innocent children, their neighbors who don’t believe as they do. Themselves even, because martyrs are a great recruiting tool.

And haven’t we seen it all before?

Escape Rating B: In spite of everything I’ve said above, this isn’t actually a dark book. But it’s easy to get caught up in its implications and see a long dark night coming that may make the historical Dark Ages look like a shining beacon of light – if only because the human species wasn’t in danger of extinction at the time.

And there I am, going dark again.

Let me try and wrench this back to the lighter side of this story – which is very much present. The story is told from the perspective of Brooks and his friends as they do their damndest to push forward towards a future. On every page, and in spite of every setback, they still have hope and they’re still working towards it.

They have a vision for a better Burbank, a better country, and even a better world, by taking the lessons they’re learning in this crisis and applying them to the next. They may very well be “fighting the long defeat” to paraphrase Tolkien, but they are there for that long haul and have hopes that it will be made – even if they aren’t the ones to make it.

Because that’s not the point of the struggle but a struggle it most definitely is. They do get down, and some of them bail and all of them want to at different points but they keep living and keep trying.

I found this a compelling read. I groaned when Brooks and Company lost a fight, and grinned when they overcame one of the many, many obstacles in their way. They may be fighting the long defeat but they are glorious in that fight. But part of the premise of the story is that neither side truly wants to let the world burn, they just have diametrically opposed beliefs about the way to prevent that burning or if preventing that burning is even possible. And I’m not sure I still believe that, although I wish I did.

Review: Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree

Review: Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis BaldreeBookshops & Bonedust (Legends & Lattes, #0) by Travis Baldree
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy
Series: Legends & Lattes #0
Pages: 352
Published by Tor Books on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When an injury throws a young, battle-hungry orc off her chosen path, she may find that what we need isn't always what we seek.
In Bookshops & Bonedust, a prequel to Legends & Lattes, New York Times bestselling author Travis Baldree takes us on a journey of high fantasy, first loves, and second-hand books.
Viv's career with the notorious mercenary company Rackam's Ravens isn't going as planned.
Wounded during the hunt for a powerful necromancer, she's packed off against her will to recuperate in the sleepy beach town of Murk—so far from the action that she worries she'll never be able to return to it.
What's a thwarted soldier of fortune to do?
Spending her hours at a beleaguered bookshop in the company of its foul-mouthed proprietor is the last thing Viv would have predicted, but it may be both exactly what she needs and the seed of changes she couldn't possibly imagine.
Still, adventure isn't all that far away. A suspicious traveler in gray, a gnome with a chip on her shoulder, a summer fling, and an improbable number of skeletons prove Murk to be more eventful than Viv could have ever expected.

My Review:

Legends & Lattes was all about Viv fulfilling a dream that she’s had for a very long time, to retire from the mercenary life and open a coffee shop, a place where she can hang up her sword (literally) and dispense peace and life-giving liquid in equal measure – instead of dealing death to people who generally deserved it.

The story in Bookshops & Bonedust is the story of way back when Viv was considerably younger and a whole lot dumber (as we often are) and first caught the inkling of that dream. Not in bustling Thune but in tiny, tacky, tawdry Murk, a seaside town that has certainly seen better days.

But it’s the most convenient place for Rackham’s Raiders, the mercenary company that young Viv is signed up with, to deposit her after she gets herself ahead of her team in a fight and gets skewered in the leg for her trouble. Or her hubris. Or just her belief that as a young orc in her first big skirmish she’s both immortal and indestructible.

Of course she’s neither, and has the bleeding holes in her leg to prove it. So she’ll be rusticating and recovering in Murk while Rackham’s Raiders are off to bring down Varine the Necromancer and her horde of skeletal warriors.

Viv is scared that Rackham won’t come back for her. She’s worried she won’t heal properly. But more than anything else, she’s frightened half to death that she’ll go out of her mind with boredom while she’s stuck, literally on her ass, in Murk.

Which is what leads her, albeit very indirectly and with a whole lot of excruciating steps, to Maylee’s bakery and Fern’s bookshop. The bakery because damn it smells good and the dwarf baker looks every bit as yummy as her freshly baked wares. The bookshop because there’s nothing to while away a whole lot of quiet time quite like a good book. Or a whole series of them.

And that bookshop, Thistleburr Booksellers, looks like it has lots and bunches of books, all sort of moldering away in a place that reeks of mold and moist and uncleaned rug and unwashed gryphlet. It smells ‘yellow’ to Viv, and any pet owner knows EXACTLY what that means.

But that doesn’t stop Viv from stepping in to while away a few minutes as she certainly has plenty to spare. The bookshop owner, desperate for both companionship and custom, induces Viv to take a book that she is certain will suck the orc right into its pages for a few hours.

And she’s right – of course she’s right – and it’s the beginning of the kind of friendship that will save them both, the store, and eventually and surprisingly the entire town of Murk.

Because Rackham’s Raiders are chasing that necromancer. A necromancer who is already on her deadly and deathly way to Murk – where Viv and Fern are waiting to beat her. Not with swords – but with just the type of cleverness that eventually will make Viv and her coffee shop such a success in Thune.

All it will take is a bit of ingenuity and a whole lot of help from Viv’s newly found friends.

Escape Rating A+: Anyone who sunk straight into the cozy fantasy vibe of Legends & Lattes is going to sink into Bookshops & Bonedust and not emerge for much of anything until they fall out the other side with a huge smile, a taste for Maylee’s lassy (molasses) buns and a hankering for more stories just like this one – especially for more set in this marvelous world.

What makes this world, and this cozy fantasy style, just so much of a comfort read is that, although bad things do happen to good people, that is most emphatically NOT what the story is about. It’s not about big wars and bigger politics and gigantic battles between good and evil resulting in stupendously high butcher’s bills.

Not that there isn’t danger, and not that there isn’t a confrontation. Because there is most certainly both along with plenty of tension, both dramatic and romantic, to push the whole thing along.

But the way that things get solved and resolved is through less bloodthirsty means – and just as occurred in Legends & Lattes, quite often problems, from small to world-shattering, get solved with a whole lot of ingenuity and more than a bit of help from the friends – and even the frenemies – that Viv has made along the way.

So it’s all cozy in the best way, where the reader slips under a warm blanket of story and gets told a marvelous tale that displays more of the best in people than it does the worst.

Even better, Bookshops & Bonedust, while it has all the charm of Legends & Lattes, is a prequel and not a sequel. Meaning that if you somehow missed the sensation that is Legends & Lattes, you can start here. The story, after all, does start here. If this is where you start, you’ll be thrilled and charmed and ready to start Legends the minute you finish.

But if you started with Legends, reading Bookshops & Bonedust will almost certainly inspire you to pick up Legends again the moment you finish, so you can discover how all the little clues about Viv’s later adventures fit into her first one. I know it certainly inspired me! Which is a good thing because, both fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, the author has three more cozy fantasies lined up, but the first won’t be published until 2025. Plenty of time to reread – or maybe listen this time around – to both Legends and Bookshops (and maybe my other cozy favorite, Can’t Spell Treason without Tea) before my next visit with Viv!

Review: Starling House by Alix E. Harrow

Review: Starling House by Alix E. HarrowStarling House by Alix E. Harrow
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, Gothic, horror
Pages: 320
Length: 12 hours and 26 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on October 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

I dream sometimes about a house I’ve never seen….

Opal is a lot of things―orphan, high school dropout, full-time cynic and part-time cashier―but above all, she's determined to find a better life for her younger brother Jasper. One that gets them out of Eden, Kentucky, a town remarkable for only two things: bad luck and E. Starling, the reclusive nineteenth century author of The Underland, who disappeared over a hundred years ago.

All she left behind were dark rumors―and her home. Everyone agrees that it’s best to ignore the uncanny mansion and its misanthropic heir, Arthur. Almost everyone, anyway.

I should be scared, but in the dream I don’t hesitate.

Opal has been obsessed with The Underland since she was a child. When she gets the chance to step inside Starling House―and make some extra cash for her brother's escape fund―she can't resist.

But sinister forces are digging deeper into the buried secrets of Starling House, and Arthur’s own nightmares have become far too real. As Eden itself seems to be drowning in its own ghosts, Opal realizes that she might finally have found a reason to stick around.

In my dream, I’m home.

And now she’ll have to fight.

Welcome to Starling House: enter, if you dare.

My Review:

They’ve been telling stories about Starling House and the woman who built it, Eleanor Starling, since Eleanor first came to Eden over a century and a half ago. Some of those stories are even halfway true – but it doesn’t matter because no one in Eden has ever cared about the truth if that truth made them the least bit uncomfortable.

They’ve been telling stories about Opal and her mother Jewel since the day they came to town, too. And even though her mother drowned a decade ago, they’re still telling stories about her too. But mostly, they tell stories about Opal, and most of those are halfway true, too.

One of the stories that no one tells about Opal, because she never reveals truths about herself to anyone at all if she can help it, is that she’s more haunted by Starling House than anyone else in town – because the rest of them just complain about the eyesore, and the bad luck it brings to Eden. While Opal has been dreaming that Starling House was HERS, and has been dreaming those dreams since she was a little girl whose only even somewhat permanent address has been Room 12 at the Garden of Eden Motel since her mom brought her and her little brother Jasper to Eden.

Opal never knew that her mother brought them back to the only home that Jewel had ever known. At least, not until Opal lied, cheated, and inveigled her way into a job at the broken down and dilapidated Starling House. A job that looked to rival Hercules’ task of cleaning the Augean stables.

But Opal doesn’t care. Because Starling House seems to want her there – even if the current Starling, Arthur, claims that he doesn’t. But the house is true because it needs her, and Arthur is lying because of the same damn reason.

While the vultures that have always circled Starling House see Opal’s lies and secrets as a lever they can use to finally pry their way into a place where their dreams will come true.

Someone should have been careful what they wished for, because they’re about to get it.

Escape Rating A-: Starling House sits at the confluence of the River of Dreams and the Stuff of Nightmares, at the four-way stop between the darkest of dark fantasy, outright horror, the angstiest of angsty romance and power corrupts, catty-corner to the Inn of No One Believes the Truths that Women Tell because it’s inconvenient for their wallets, their consciences or even just their privilege.

At first, it’s Opal’s story, a story that is considerably more honest from the confines of her own head than it appears to anyone on the outside, but Opal lies like she breathes – especially to herself. Sometimes she even does as good a job of convincing herself as she does everyone else, but there are always cracks in the facade in her own head. Even if she can’t admit it.

The only love and the only weakness that Opal will admit to is her younger brother Jasper. She will do anything – and everything – to get him safely out of Eden. Because he’s been the only sunlight in her world since their mother drove her car into the river and drowned. And Eden is slowly killing him. Not just his spirit, although probably that too, but literally. Jasper has asthma, they have no health insurance and sometimes not enough for groceries, and the power plant has never met an environmental regulation that they haven’t bribed someone to let them off the hook for. The air is toxic and the whole place is a cancer cluster and Jasper needs to be somewhere else – even if Opal can’t make herself go with him

But Opal also has a weakness for Starling House and the children’s classic, The Underland, that the house’s first owner wrote from within its walls. Starling House captures her dreams, and she can’t resist following those dreams in waking life.

Which is where this story catches her and drags us all down to Underland with her.

Starling House takes all the elements of a gothic romance; the dark and creepy house concealing secret rooms and family secrets, an uber angsty romance between star-crossed would-be lovers both believing they’re not worthy of redemption, adds in myths and monsters from the depths of the imagination, sets it in a hard-scrabble, hard-luck town and then takes the whole story through a metamorphosis when the truth quite literally sets everyone – or at least everyone worthy – free.

Even if more of those people than would ever have imagined at the beginning of this descent into dreams choose to take their hard-won freedom and spend it in that same hard-luck town that might just have won a freedom of its own.

So, even though the angst of the romance sometimes goes way over the top, described in overblown language of desire and denial – at least within the confines of Opal’s head – and if the monsters and the myths turn out to be relics of bad choices and just desserts, the story of Opal, and Arthur and Eleanor descending down into Underland takes the reader along for the wildest of wild rides. Often in the wake of the Wild Hunt itself.

And even if some of both Opal’s and Eleanor’s secrets become obvious to the reader very early on, the journey is still well worth taking with them.

I took this journey in audio, with Natalie Naudus as the most excellent narrator. As a narrator, she seems to specialize in heroines who think that everything is all their fault and that they have to do it all alone, and her voice made me think of her other characters, Emiko Soong in Ebony Gate, Zelda in Last Exit, and Vivian Liao in Empress of Forever. Opal is a fine addition to that illustrious company of women who stand on their own two feet but ultimately get by with a little help from their awesome, kickass friends.

I loved the author’s Fractured Fables, A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended, so I’m looking forward to her next book whenever it appears. I already have Natalie Naudus’ next narration in my TBR/TBL (To Be Read/To Be Listened) pile in The Dead Take the A Train.

Review: Starter Villain by John Scalzi

Review: Starter Villain by John ScalziStarter Villain by John Scalzi
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: publisher, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, superheroes
Pages: 272
Length: 8 hrs 5 mins
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on September 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Following the bestselling The Kaiju Preservation Society, John Scalzi returns with Starter Villain, another unique sci-fi caper set in the strangest of all worlds, present-day Earth.
Inheriting your mysterious uncle's supervillain business is more complicated than you might imagine.
Sure, there are the things you'd expect. The undersea volcano lairs. The minions. The plots to take over the world. The international networks of rivals who want you dead.
Much harder to get used to...are the the sentient, language-using, computer-savvy cats.
And the fact that in the overall organization, they're management...

My Review:

It’s a truism that “dogs have owners, cats have staff” and in that context, Charlie Fitzer is absolutely the staffer for ‘his’ cat, Hera, and her newly adopted kitten sister Persephone. In fact, Charlie is more Hera’s pet than she is his, something that he is forced to become all too aware of as Charlie’s situation sinks its teeth into him – figuratively and even literally.

As the story begins, Charlie is so far down that he can’t even see ‘up’ from where he’s standing. He’s a journalist without a job because journalism is dying. He’s divorced. The dad he spent the last several years taking care of is dead, and Charlie is living in his dad’s house but only owns one quarter of said house – while his three siblings want him OUT so they can sell it. He wants to buy a local bar so he can get out of substitute teaching and maybe build a life again.

And his great uncle Jake just died, which Charlie only knows about because he used to be a finance journalist – and a good one – and he still can’t resist listening to the finance news. He’s not expecting a legacy from Uncle Jake because Charlie hasn’t seen Uncle Jake since he was FIVE and barely remembers the man nearly 30 years later.

But Uncle Jake, who Charlie always believed was a parking lot magnate – which he was – was also something else. Something Charlie gets more than a glimpse of when he attends Uncle Jake’s funeral and one of the other attendees attempts to stab the corpse.

Uncle Jake was clearly not just in the parking lot business. And now, neither is Charlie. Which is how he discovers that Hera isn’t just a cat, and that truth is not only infinitely stranger than fiction – but that it downright inspires it in ways that Charlie could never have imagined.

At least not until he found himself mediating labor disputes between the management of the not-exactly-secret, über high-tech, super villain headquarters that Charlie himself is now in charge of and a pod of genetically engineered, super-intelligent and seriously pissed off dolphins who are planning to go on strike.

Escape Rating A: Charlie starts out Starter Villain in WAY, WAY over his head. Part of his charm is that he never loses sight of that fact. He’s always aware that he hasn’t got a clue, and isn’t likely to get one any time soon, and is secretly panicking about it every other minute. Which is a big chunk of why we like him and end up rooting for him so hard, because his inner voice is asking the same questions that a lot of us would be asking in his place.

The setup of Charlie’s world is hilarious and frightening AF at the same time. So much of what happens is utterly silly and bizarre, but with Charlie as our window into this universe we get to secretly giggle – sometimes guffaw – and Kermit-flail in panic right along with him. What makes it work is that the only thing about the over-the-top-ness of it all that Charlie takes seriously are the murders and death threats – which are legion. The trappings of wealth and power are hollow – at least as they apply to him – and he takes all of it with a grain of salt and a look behind the curtain.

So Starter Villain starts out looking like a short course in how to become a supervillain in a few, not so easy, morally ambiguous lessons, only for both Charlie and the reader to ultimately learn that they’ve been outvillained every single hilarious step of the way – and so has everyone else.

There are a couple of niggles that kept this from being an A+ grade, and one that almost put it over the top anyway, because in the end I had an absolute ball with Starter Villain, and not just because of the cats. Although they certainly helped – in exactly the way that cats always do.

The early part of the story is a really hard read – pretty much right up to the point where ‘Tobias the Stabber’ tries to stab Uncle Jake’s corpse to make sure the old man is really dead this time. It’s hard because Charlie is just so far down during that first part of the story, and circumstances continuously hammer that point home to both Charlie and the reader to the point where it feels a bit like ‘piling on’. That’s probably intentional, but it still makes that first part a bit more of a slog than I generally expect from this author.

Speaking of whom, the other niggle that is not a ‘me’ thing but may be a ‘you’ thing is that Charlie is very much the author’s avatar in this one. The bleed through from the author’s public persona to Charlie’s character is obvious. I like the author’s public persona, I’ve been to a whole bunch of his readings and events and often read his blog, Whatever, for his signature brand of giggles, snark and well-thought-out malleting. But I recognize that he’s an acquired taste. I’ve been rather thoroughly infected, and clearly so have a lot of others or his books wouldn’t make the New York Times Bestseller list on the regular. But if you’re not at least neutral to that taste, Charlie Fitzer may not be your jam. If so, I think you’re missing out but YMMV.

The thing that almost put Starter Villain over the top into an A+ anyway is that this is my second ‘read’ of Starter Villain. The first time around, I read it for a Library Journal review, which turned out to be Starred Review and the SFF Pick of the Month that month. So I did love it but that first bit was just hard. (I liked Charlie too much to enjoy watching him suffer – especially from inside his own head.)

This time around I was able to listen to the audiobook (THANK YOU TOR BOOKS!), narrated by Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: Next Gen fame. Wheaton is channeling the author’s public persona so hard and so well that I nearly caught myself checking a couple of times that it really was him and not the author himself – who does do an excellent job of reading his own work at conventions and on book tours.

But all of the above means that, as the character reads like an avatar of the author’s public persona, and the actor is excellent at channeling that same voice, the reading feels almost seamless, like we’re directly in Charlie’s head the whole time and Kermit-flailing right along with him.

In short – which I realize I haven’t been AT ALL – this means that you really, really need to read Starter Villain – especially if you like cats and are sure they’re the ones really in charge of you, your house, and pretty much everything else in the world. And if you have or can create an opportunity where listening to this book in audio will work for you, make it so because it’s even better in audio.

Review: Devil’s Gun by Cat Rambo

Review: Devil’s Gun by Cat RamboDevil's Gun (Disco Space Opera #2) by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Disco Space Opera #2
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on August 29, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

No one escapes their past as the crew of the You Sexy Thing attempts to navigate the hazards of opening a pop-up restaurant and the dangers of a wrathful pirate-king seeking vengeance in Cat Rambo's Devil's Gun .
Life’s hard when you’re on the run from a vengeful pirate-king…
When Niko and her crew find that the intergalactic Gate they're planning on escaping through is out of commission, they make the most of things, creating a pop-up restaurant to serve the dozens of other stranded ships.
But when an archaeologist shows up claiming to be able to fix the problem, Niko smells something suspicious cooking. Nonetheless, they allow Farren to take them to an ancient site where they may be able to find the weapon that could stop Tubal Last before he can take his revenge.
There, in one of the most dangerous places in the Known Universe, each of them will face ghosts from their Thorn attempts something desperate and highly illegal to regain his lost twin, Atlanta will have to cast aside her old role and find her new one, Dabry must confront memories of his lost daughter, and Niko is forced to find Petalia again, despite a promise not to seek them out.
Meanwhile, You Sexy Thing continues to figure out what it wants from life―which may not be the same desire as Niko and the rest of the crew.

My Review:

Devil’s Gun picks up the story of You Sexy Thing and its crew just after the moment at the end of the first book in the Disco Space Opera series, named after the ship and the damnable earworm of the song that the title comes from.

It’s the point where they’ve just learned that the evil space pirate they hoped they’d killed as they escaped his imploding, exploding ship/space station. Which, to be totally fair, was entirely deserved as he had already murdered one of their number and spent years brainwashing Captain Niko Larson’s former lover against her.

Pirate King Jubal Last is a bad, bad man, and the universe wasn’t going to miss him if he was gone. The only problem is that he isn’t. Meaning that Larson and her crew are on the run, away from Last and towards someone who they hope will help them figure out a way to take him out. Again.

If only they can find her. And if only she’ll give them the time of day. Because it’s that same brainwashed ex-lover that Larson still hasn’t gotten over. Just as the rest of the crew hasn’t gotten over the damage that Last did in their recent encounter.

And in the midst of Larson chasing down what once was, and one of her crew members trying to breathe life back into someone who has lost theirs, a new member of the crew searches for purpose while the sentient, sapient bioship that Larson is nominally – sometimes very nominally – in command of pursues its own interests for its own purposes. Specifically, for the purpose of creating drama and not getting bored.

It’s a recipe for disaster – but that’s not the problem it would be for most ship’s crews. Because if there is one thing that this crew is good at, it’s making a tasty dish out of a completely mismatched and even downright dangerous list of ingredients!

Escape Rating B: I picked this up because I enjoyed the first book in the series, You Sexy Thing, very much in spite of its unfortunate case of villain fail. The crew is as motley as you’d expect, but their bone-deep respect and reliance on each other – and the way they deal with their life and their livelihood through bantering away the stress made it an overall fun read with a heaping helping of heartbreak at the end.

But thank goodness that there’s a “when last we left our heroes” summary of that first book in the beginning of this second one, because it’s been over a year since I read it and almost two years since it came out.

I liked Devil’s Gun but didn’t love it nearly as much as I did You Sexy Thing in spite of that villain fail. Jubal Last was just a bit too over-the-top bwahaha to make sense as a character. But I loved the crew and got invested in their situation more than enough to feel for them as things went down.

Devil’s Gun reads like a middle book. It also reads as a chase for a macguffin that no one, least of all Niko Larson herself, is ever sure isn’t a scam. And it felt like a collection of separate plot threads that don’t quite braid together into a whole, as several members of the crew have their own problems to pursue and keep themselves to themselves more than a bit.

With the ship in pursuit of its own goals – to the detriment of everyone and everything else – as the story goes along. Admittedly, that part is fascinating. It’s as though Moya in Farscape took the ship where she wanted to go instead of where the crew wanted to go ALL THE TIME.

Which would have been cool – even as the crew would have been infuriated. As Larson often is in this story.

The sentient ship You Sexy Thing will certainly make readers think of Farscape and its sentient ship, Moya, although You Sexy Thing has considerably more personality. I’m not sure about the regular comparisons between this series and the Great British Bake Off as there’s no food competition going on – although there is plenty of cooking and baking. There’s also more than a bit of a resemblance between this universe and its intergalactic ‘gates’ left behind by an ancient race of Forerunners and Mass Effect and its mass relay travel gates left behind by the ancient Prothean race.

In other words, there are elements of Devil’s Gun and the Disco Space Opera series that will ring a lot of bells and bring back a lot of memories for SF readers, (I’m sure I’ve seen the Devil’s Gun itself, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in Simon R. Green’s intertwined universes) blended into a story that’s a whole lot of fun and rides or dies on the interpersonal relationships among the crew. Which is also not an uncommon element of SF and space opera in general.

So if that’s your jam as it is for this reader, take a trip on the You Sexy Thing with Devil’s Gun. And the fun – for certainly deadly and sometimes insane definitions of fun – isn’t over yet. Devil’s Gun, like You Sexy Thing before it, ends on a mic drop. There is clearly more to come for this crew, and I’m looking forward to it!

Review: Contrarian by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Contrarian by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Contrarian (The Grand Illusion #3) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, steampunk
Series: Grand Illusion #3
Pages: 624
Published by Tor Books on August 15, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his gaslamp political fantasy series which began with Isolate and Councilor . Welcome to the Grand Illusion

In Contrarian , protests against unemployment and poor harvests have become armed riots as the people sink deeper into poverty. They look to a government struggling to emerge from corruption and conspiracy.

Recently elected to the Council of Sixty-Six, Steffan Dekkard is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths―but not the recent bombing of the Council Office Building by insurrectionists.

His patron, the Premier of the Council, has been assassinated, leaving Dekkard with little first-hand political experience and few political allies.

Not only must Dekkard handle political infighting, and continued assassination attempts, but it appears that someone high up in the government and corporations has supplied arms and explosives to insurrectionists.

Insurrectionists who have succeeded in taking over a naval cruiser that no one can seem to find.

My Review:

If diplomacy is war conducted through other means, then it can be argued that politics must be civil war conducted by other means. There’s certainly a civil war going on between the three political parties in Guldor, complete with campaigns, strategies and entirely too many casualties.

The first book in this series, Isolate, ended in triumph. The second, Councilor, ended in tragedy. This third book, Contrarian, ends in – well, you’ll see – or at least you’ll see enough to make you want to pick it up. I hope.

The overall theme of The Grand Illusion series (Isolate, Councilor and now Contrarian) is wrapped around the grand and all-too-often grandiose illusion that government can somehow take care of all of the people all of the time even as it caters to the elites at the top of the dogpile.

While spinning pretty much everything they can – or can invent – to convince people that the folks who are sincerely trying to fix things are actually the people causing it because they are the ones bringing attention to the injustices.

We all know it works because we’ve seen it in action, much too often and much too recently, in real life.

However, by setting this intense political discourse in a gaslamp fantasy world and embodying it in the literal body of one political neophyte who is doing his damndest to make real life better for average people, we get to see the arguments from the outside and can pretend, if necessary for our psyches, that the story doesn’t have relevance to the real world.

The first book ended in triumph, as the middle-class, working-class Craft Party was swept into power in the constitutional monarchy of Guldor because they had a charismatic leader at the head of the party, his security aides were exceptionally good at keeping the man alive in spite of the number of assassination attempts he faced, AND the competing parties, Landor (nobility) and Commerce (megacorporations) had screwed the pooch so thoroughly and so often that their abuses of power became too obvious to cover up.

The second begins in the triumph of starting to stab at the myriad problems afflicting the country, only for that triumph to be cut tragically short when that charismatic and effective Craft leader was assassinated along with many of his most able councilors.

All except one, who was one of those exceptionally good security aides turned councilor in his own right. In Contrarian, Steffan Dekkard is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas and in the midst of overwhelming changes both personal and professional.

Dekkard is the ‘contrarian’ of the title. He is one of THE most junior councilors in the Council of Sixty-Six, both in age and political experience. He is also the clear ‘spiritual’ heir to the assassinated Axel Obreduur, but can’t take up the reins of power – at least not yet. This is the story of him finding a way to operate, not so much from the shadows but from the back benches, managing up the levels of his party while continuing to dodge the political machinations of his enemies – along with the increasing number of assassins they aim at his head.

The opposition Commerce party is like a hydra, sprouting two heads for every one of their plots he manages to thwart. It is part of the cut and thrust of politics even at the best of times, but he knows he can and will lose some of the battles in pursuit of the greater war.

An assassin only has to succeed once. If Dekkard, with the assistance of his friends, working under the eagle eye and mind of his security aide and new bride Avraal, has to practice ‘Constant Vigilance’ while still serving his office, taking care of his constituents, and somehow managing to have a life – for as long he can.

Escape Rating A+: This series is my catnip. I could read about Steffan’s work day, his colleagues, his attempts to maneuver around a great many of them, and the crises in his country that he tries to prevent, pretty much all day long. As I did for the two days it took me to finish the book a few months ago for Library Journal, AND the day it took me to skim-read just now for this review. .

The book – and the previous books in the series – combine a kind of ‘slice of life’ story with an ongoing exploration of how the sausage of politics is made and why most people really don’t want to know about exactly what goes into it.

What makes it work, or at least work fantastically for this reader, is the way that all of the political maneuvering, whether for good or for evil, is embodied in the characters. Which means that this isn’t traditional epic fantasy, even though it is certainly epic in scope.

But we are meant to like Steffan Dekkard and his wife Avraal Ysella-Dekkard, and we do. We believe they’re working for, not an abstract good, not a ‘greater good’ but to make the lives of as many people as they can better by getting their government to work for all its citizens and not merely a privileged few who grease the wheels.

They are fighting the good fight, and it’s fun to watch them do their work – surprisingly so as watching them work often involves just watching them go through their day. It shouldn’t be riveting but it is and I was every step of the way.

The progress of the series so far reminds me a lot of the author’s Imager Portfolio, although not so much the first three books as the rest of the series that started (honestly re-started) with Scholar. Which means I’m expecting the Grand Illusion series to encompass Steffan Dekkard’s political career and end with a book titled Premier – or at least with Steffan holding that title in the book.

Whether or not my surmise about the far-off ending of the series is correct, Contrarian ends in a way that absolutely begs a return to this world and this series. It is clear from the book’s conclusion that neither the series nor Steffan’s career is remotely near done. And that he’ll have plenty of political battles to get through before it is. So, even though the author has returned to one of his other series this year, I have high hopes that we’ll get to see more of Guldor through Steffan and Avraal’s eyes in the years and books to come.