Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah BakerInto the Windwracked Wilds (The Up-and-Under, #3) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #3
Pages: 224
Published by Tordotcom on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Adventurous readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books will be sure to soar among the dark marvels that can be found in Into the Windwracked Wilds, by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
When the improbable road leaves Avery and Zib in the land of Air and at the mercy of the Queen of Swords, escape without becoming monsters may be impossible. But with the aid of the Queen's son, the unpredictable Jack Daw, they may emerge with enough of their humanity to someday make it home. Their journey is not yet over; the dangers are no less great.

My Review:

Looking back at my review of the first book in the Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, I discovered that one of my early guesses was wrong. One of Zib and Avery’s companions does need to find a heart – a particular heart – after all.

They all need to find more than a bit of ‘the nerve’ by the time the Improbable Road whisks them off again, further away from who they were when they first climbed that wall but hopefully closer to getting home. Or deciding that they are already there.

Into the Windwracked Wilds makes no bones (although there are bones) about the fact that it is a middle book, with pretty much all of the darkness such books generally hold. A darkness that is not toned down all that much in spite of the series being theoretically aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.

Don’t let that fool you. The trappings of the story may make it seem like a book for younger readers – and it certainly can be read that way. BUT, like a more overtly dark version of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the seriousness of its story appeals equally, if not perhaps a bit more, to adults.

Well, certainly to this adult. Although adulting is both in the eye of the beholder and can be seriously overrated.

Howsomever, the lovely thing about the book acknowledging that it’s in the middle of a much longer story is that it does an equally lovely job of explaining why middle books are important for the journey of the protagonists – as well as giving the reader enough details about what came before to be going on with.

After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and traveling Along the Saltwise Sea with the pirates, Zib, Avery, Niamh the Drowned Girl and the Crow Girl with no name begin their journey Into the Windwracked Wilds by making the Improbable Road angry enough to dump them back into the Sea. And disappear – at least until they manage to do something improbable enough to bring it back.

Which is how they find themselves blown towards the Queen of Swords’ castle in the Land of Air. Doing their level best not to get turned into monsters. Or at least, Avery and Zib need to do their best, because monsterization has already happened to both Niamh and the Crow Girl.

In fact, the Crow Girl, whatever her name used to be, was turned into a monster by the very same Queen of Swords who has just swept them into her castle. And wants to keep them there.

This is the story of how this ragtag band of lost souls were forced into a castle of nightmares – and managed to find their way out again. With just a little bit of help from a new friend – by finding the one thing that none of them had thought to look for – the Crow Girl’s missing heart.

Escape Rating A-: From the beginning, it has seemed as if the direct progenitors of the Up-and-Under were Oz and Narnia. The similarities between the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and the ‘Improbable Road’ are a bit hard to miss, after all.

But this particular entry in the series makes me think of Narnia. A lot. Not the Narnia of the great lion and Aslan saving the day, but the Narnia of choices of consequence made by uninformed children, and the lesson that adults are often cruel and that words and actions may have terrible consequences even if the words are said or the deeds are committed in ignorance of those consequences. The world where the kindly Mr. Tumnus plans to betray the children, refuses to do so, and is tortured for it. The island where dreams come true – and the realization that it does NOT refer to daydreams, but rather the monsters summoned from deep in the subconscious.

A place where children have to pay their own debts and forfeits – no matter how much they hurt or how often the adults cheat. The Up-and-Under feels like it’s filled with those same kinds of hard lessons – no matter how magical and even beautiful it might sometimes be.

But I think the return from the Up-and-Under to Zib and Avery’s ‘real’ world is going to be a lot more difficult than what the Pevensies encountered. Because the point of Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under seems as if the entire point of it is change, not just for the Up-and-Under to impact them, but for them to impact it, as well.

Unlike Along the Saltwise Sea, which felt very much like a rest stop along their journey, Into the Windwracked Wilds reads like they are really getting somewhere – even if that somewhere is not the return home that Zib and Avery were originally seeking. This may eventually turn out to be a ‘There and Back Again’ story, but at this middle point it’s starting to feel like their journey and the changes it brings is infinitely more important than the destination.

As much as their travels have been clearly changing Avery and Zib all along, Avery and Zib are also changing the people and even the structure of the Up-and-Under in ways that we’ll probably only see the full picture of at the end. Which was originally planned to be the fourth book, which was originally planned to be published in October 2023. I hope that all holds true. At least that the next book comes out this time next year. If we get a bit more story in this world than was originally intended, this reader, for one, would not be in the least disappointed.

Review: Lucky Girl by Mary Rickert

Review: Lucky Girl by Mary RickertLucky Girl: How I Became A Horror Writer: A Krampus Story by Mary Rickert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: holiday fiction, horror
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Lucky Girl, How I Became A Horror Writer is a story told across Christmases, rooted in loneliness, horror, and the ever-lurking presence of Krampus written by World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Award-winning author M. Rickert.
“Smooth and ruthless, Lucky Girl is M. Rickert at her ice-cold best.”—Laird Barron
Ro, a struggling writer, knows all too well the pain and solitude that holiday festivities can awaken. When she meets four people at the local diner—all of them strangers and as lonely as Ro is—she invites them to an impromptu Christmas dinner. And when that party seems in danger of an early end, she suggests they each tell a ghost story. One that’s seasonally appropriate.
But Ro will come to learn that the horrors hidden in a Christmas tale—or one’s past—can never be tamed once unleashed.

My Review:

Once upon a time there was a girl who survived the deaths of her entire family – because she was waiting to meet a boy in a deserted park on Christmas. People called her a “lucky girl” for her survival, but if this was luck it was certainly of the perverse variety. The kind of luck that generally described as “if it wasn’t for bad luck she wouldn’t have any at all.”

Once upon a time there was a college student who met four other lonely students at a diner on Christmas and invited them back to her low-budget student apartment so they could all be lonely together. They ended the evening by telling each other creepy stories that fit the season. She took one of those ghost stories and turned it into her first novel, launching her career as a horror writer.

Considering how difficult it is to make a living as an author, receiving the seed of that story that she turned into a career could certainly be considered “lucky” for some of the better definitions of luck. At least at the time.

But the girl who survived and the student who became the horror writer of the subtitle of this book are the same person. And just as young Ro the survivor is the same person as Goth writer Ro, so too the horror of her family’s murder, and the horror of that story she turned into her first novel turned out to be continuations of all the horrors she had already experienced.

Neither of which was going to EVER be over.

Krampusz és Mikulás (Krampus and Saint Nicholas) ca. 1913

Escape Rating C: Horror is not usually my cuppa. Come to think of it, Christmas isn’t either. So these are not exactly two great tastes that go great together. The combination is a bit more like black licorice and anchovies. There are people who like both, but they are also most definitely, acquired tastes that not everyone manages to acquire. And I can’t imagine combining the two in the same dish, although I’m sure there’s someone out there who has or will try it. Hopefully far away from me.

There are two stories in Lucky Girl that also feel like they don’t quite go together. The first story is the murder of Ro’s entire family after she sneaks out of the house on Christmas to meet a boy who has been leaving her anonymous cards. She doesn’t know who he is, she doesn’t know what he looks like, but she’s a teenager and the whole thing sounds more romantic than it does dangerous.

But it’s not nearly so romantic when he doesn’t show. When she returns to her family home, her family is dead and the house has been consumed in the fire that killed them. Ro doesn’t know whether it was all a horrible coincidence, whether she’s lucky to be alive, and/or whether her mystery suitor planned on kidnapping her for sex trafficking.

Whatever the cause or the intended result, it’s a non-fiction horror that leads her to pursue a career in fictional horror.

The ghost stories that Ro and her impromptu lonely hearts club share that Christmas night at college is supposed to be some of that fake horror. Ghost stories. Just stories. But one has that haunting quality that makes it seem like it might be more.

Still, the two stories, the real-life familicide and the holiday Krampus story, don’t seem like they are part of the same thing. One is all-too-real, while the other can’t possibly be. At least not until they both turn out to be, not just real, but worse than even Ro’s gothic imaginings ever dreamed of.

Because Ro’s origin story was real-world horror, and its denouement managed to be even more horrific real-world horror I can’t help but wonder if that real-ness was intended to make the other story, the ghost story that wasn’t just a story – seem more real as well. To make it seem more real than it could have been.

Ro’s own story, as horrific as it was, creeped me out but didn’t send my willing suspension of disbelief off gibbering into the night. The horror of that story was in its plausibility. The holiday ghost story, the Krampus story, would have been mythic-type horror if told on its own, but the two looped together just didn’t gel into one horrific whole, at least not for this reader. And the combination of the two did give my willing suspension of disbelief a very bad case of the gibbers.

Your reading mileage – quite possibly while in full flight from the gruesomeness – absolutely may vary.

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice BroaddusBuffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 144
Published by Tordotcom on April 25, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari.
Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.
Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.

My Review:

As yesterday’s book was a fictionalized story of a world that was, then today’s is a leap into world that might have been.

A leap somewhat like being dropped into a roller coaster just as its about to crest that first big hill and then a wild, screaming ride all the way to the end of the ride. Only to discover that, while the ride may be over, the story is just beginning.

Although the historical turning points that created the steampunk-fueled world of Buffalo Soldier are different, in some ways the feel of the story is similar to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century that begins with Boneshaker. As well as, come to think of it, A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark as all three take the world down different legs of the trousers of time, and yet some forces of history seem immutable in the face of huge changes of circumstances.

The United States, well, isn’t. Not that the manifest destiny ambitions of “Albion”, the English colony that encompasses at least the East Coast and Midwest, aren’t entirely too similar. But Albion hasn’t succeeded by this point in this world’s late 19th or early 20th century.

So this story opens in independent Tejas, caught between Albion on one side and the Five Civilized Tribes on the other, as Jamaican fugitive Desmond Coke finds himself and the boy he’s guarding caught in the crosshairs between the Pinkertons, the agents of Albion, and the agents of his own truly pissed-off government as he attempts to cross the contested border.

Everyone is out to get him. Actually, only his own government really wants him all that badly. But everyone wants the boy he calls Lij. Because Lij is entirely too many things to entirely too many people.

A symbol. An experiment. An abomination. A resource. Even all of the above.

But Desmond just sees him as a little boy who deserves the chance to BE a little boy and determine his own path when he grows up. If Desmond can keep them both alive and on the run long enough to have that chance.

Unless he can find them a sanctuary. Or he dies trying.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where the reader is dropped into the midst of a world that has already been fully created. We just don’t know exactly what that world is, so it comes into focus through the characters, particularly the point-of-view character Desmond Coke.

We’re not in his head, but the action follows his perspective, so we’re not omniscient. We see what he sees and know what he knows. And he knows a lot about the world in which he lives as once upon a time he was an espionage agent for his home country of Jamaica.

At least until he scooped up Lij and ran away into the predicament in which we find him as the story opens.

While the hints of how his world differs from ours and how it got that way are absolutely fascinating – at least to this reader – what kept me turning the pages was the quick, sharp peeks into his out of the frying pan into the fire journey. He’s desperate, he didn’t plan things out nearly as well as he should have, and no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Or, in this case, no plan survives contact with situations where there are enemies on every side with their weapons pointing at each other while Desmond is caught in the crossfire. Sometimes literally.

The story is a thrill-a-minute ride as every time Desmond tries to take them a little further away, he just ends up in a bigger mess, his steps dogged at every turn by agents from pretty much every power involved in North America. Some are hunting him down, some are using him as bait to hunt each other down, and some are using him as a distraction while they go after their real goals.

And in the middle, there’s a little boy who deserves the chance to grow up and become his own man instead of just the sum of all the things he was created to be. The truth of which is revealed over the course of the story and manages to catch at both the heart and the throat at the same time.

So, come to this one for the wild ride. Shake your head in rueful recognition at the ways that the powers-that-be are exactly the same as they are even in an entirely new world. Stay for the story, and the stories about stories, at its heart.

Whatever brings you on this steampunk journey, I believe you’ll find it well worth the trip.

Initially, I picked this up because I needed a couple of really short books this week and this looked like fun. Which it was! So I’m really glad I read it because it made for a terrific reading pick-me-up. It also made me look and see what else the author has available and now Sweep of Stars has moved considerably up the virtually towering TBR pile. There are so many books, and so little time, but now that I’ve read something of his work I can’t wait to dive into his latest!

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky ChambersA Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot, #2) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.
They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.
Becky Chambers's new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

My Review:

This book is the prayer, and we are all, all of us who read this marvelous story, the crown-shy.

Crown shyness is a real-world phenomenon. About trees. Which is totally fitting for this story that features two people – even though one of them doesn’t refer to itself as “people” – who are exploring both friendship and all the myriad wonders of their world together.

Some trees spend their early years growing taller as fast as they can, reaching for the open sky and the sun. Then they start growing outwards, filling in branches and creating their part of the canopy of a forest. You’d think that those leaves and branches up in the canopy would overlap with the trees on all sides, creating a barrier between the sun in the sky and the ground far, far below.

But they don’t. Many species are “crown-shy”, meaning that they somehow know where their limits are and leave just a bit of space, a channel, between where their leaves end and the next tree’s leaves begin. So that the sun does reach the ground to give other denizens of the forest a chance to grow.

The communities in Panga are like that. They grow but so big and no further, so that each village has enough – actually more than enough – to sustain itself and its people. No one needs to want for more.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the Monk & Robot series so far. That question about what do beings want, either as individuals or as a community. What, for that matter, is there to want once society has somehow evolved past our current, endless hunger for more?

The tea-monk Sibling Dex and the robot Mosscap met in the first book in this terrific series, A Psalm for the Well-Built, because they were both asking variations of that question. Sibling Dex had pulled off the beaten path into the woods because they were in the throes of burnout and were asking themselves if what they were doing was what they wanted to do. If their endless journey was all there was or would be to their life.

While Mosscap was asking itself what had happened to the humans after the robots achieved self-awareness and walked away into the depths of the forest. What did humans need? And more specifically, was there anything that robots could do for them or with them?

The first book followed Dex’ journey deep into the wilderness, into Mosscap’s territory, to a remote location that was once sacred to their god and their service as a tea-monk. This second journey goes the other direction, as Dex and Mosscap head towards the City, home of the University and all its scholars, so that Mosscap can ask its questions of the people in Dex’ world who are supposed to have all the answers.

Only to discover that they’ve both already found their destination. And that what they truly need is each other.

Escape Rating A: If you’re looking for a story that will shed some light into the darkness, just as those crown-shy trees let light through to the forest floor, read A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Because they are the purest of hopepunk, and we all need that right now.

This is a book that asks some pretty big questions, and then lets its two protagonists work out the answers for themselves as they travel through a lovely world that may have solved many of the problems we have today but still doesn’t have all the answers.

As Mosscap discovers, the value is in both asking and being asked the questions. The robot started out with “what do humans need?” The answers that it finds surprise it. In a world where striving for more for more’s own sake seems to have been eliminated, what humans need seems to boil down to one of two things.

Either someone needs help with a very specific concrete issue that either they haven’t gotten around to or for which there isn’t anyone local with the right skills or knowledge. Or, the answer is more existential, where the short version is often something like “purpose” or “fulfillment”. The kinds of things that a person needs to determine for themselves.

As does a robot. Mosscap discovers that it has no answer for itself to its own question. It doesn’t know – at least not yet – what it needs or what its fellow robots need. I sincerely hope that the series will continue, and that we’ll get to follow Mosscap and Dex as they hunt for their own answers.

In the end, this book is an antidote to so much that is happening right now in the world. It’s a walk through light and beautiful places, led by two beings who have learned that friendship is the most important journey of all.

Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

Review: Spear by Nicola GriffithSpear by Nicola Griffith
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Arthurian legends, historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 192
Length: 5 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on April 19, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.
And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, rides on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

My Review:

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table are myths that we seem to absorb by osmosis, as the stories are told and retold – and have been for centuries. King Arthur is one of those legends that seems to reinvent itself for each new generation, and Spear, with its heroine Peredur, is a fine addition to that long and proud tradition.

As this story opens, Peredur doesn’t even know her own name. She is growing up in complete isolation, with only her mother for company, in a remote valley in Wales. Her mother has two names for the girl, one meaning gift which she uses on good days, while on bad days, she calls her “payment”. Whichever the girl might be, her mother tells her stories of the Tuath Dé, their great treasures and their terrible use of the humans they see as beneath them. Humans like her powerful but broken mother, who has isolated herself and her child out of fear that the Tuath, or at least one of them, will hunt her down in order to take back what she stole from him.

Peredur, like all children, grows up. She finds the valley small and her mother’s paranoia, however righteous, constricting. And she wants to fight. So she leaves the valley and her mother behind and goes out in search of the King and his companions – who she saved once when they wandered into her mother’s secluded valley and found themselves facing more bandits than they planned.

Peredur is searching for a place to belong and a cause to serve. But she has had dreams all of her life of a magical mystical lake and a woman who lives by its side. This is the story of her quest to learn who she really is, what is the true nature of her power, and to find a place where she can belong and can bring her skills to fight on the side of right. To make something, not just of herself but of the place to which she joins herself.

In the court of Arturus at Caer Lyon, Peredur finds a place she wants to call her own. And a king who is reluctant to let her claim it.

Escape Rating A: This is lovely. The language is beautiful, and the reading of it by the author gave it just the right air of mystery and myth. It felt like a tale of another world, as all the best variations on the Arthurian legends do in one way or another.

From one perspective, Spear stands on the shoulders of many giants, previous retellings of the “Matter of Britain”, from Monmouth to Mallory to T.H. White to Mary Stewart. In particular, it reminded me very much of Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (beginning with The Crystal Cave), not for its focus on Merlin but for its attempt to set the story in a more likely historical period, in both cases sometime in the 5th Century AD, after the Romans abandoned Britain and left a vacuum of power which Arthur did his best to fill.

By setting the story in 5th Century Wales, the author is also able to loop in the stories of the Tuath Dé, or Tuatha Dé Danann, and weave one set of legends with the other, to give Peredur both her origin and the source of her power. That she was then able to link the whole thing back to Arthur through his mad quest for the Holy Grail made for a delightful twist in the story – albeit one with an ultimately sad ending. (If the Tuath Dé sound familiar, it may be from The Iron Druid Chronicles where they play an important part even to the present.)

But Spear is an interpretation for the 21st century, in that Peredur, better known as Percival in many versions of the Arthurian Tales, is a woman who has wants to fight like a man and has chosen to present herself as a man because she lives in an era when women do not become knights, much like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.

This is also a queer interpretation of the Arthur tales, not just because Peredur is lesbian, but because she moves through a world where same-sex relationships and poly-relationships are simply part of the way things are. That includes Peredur’s love of the sorceress Nimüe, but also changes the eternal triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot into a quietly acknowledged triad as a normal part of the way things are. Just as quietly acknowledged that the Lance of this Arthurian legend was born with one leg malformed. He’s still a capable fighter, and a veritable centaur on horseback. The world and its heroes are not now, nor have they ever been, made up entirely of straight, 100% able-bodied, white men, and this story acknowledges that heroes are everywhere, everywhen and everyone. As they, and we, have always been.

Spear turned out to be a lovely, lyrical, magical extension of the Arthurian legends that borrows rightfully and righteously, as all Arthurian tales do, from what has come before, from what fantasy writers have added to the period and the interpretation, from the time in which it is set, the time in which it is written, and the author’s magical stirring of that pot into a heady brew.

One of these days I need to pick up the author’s Hild, because it sounds like it will be just as fantastic (in both senses of that word) as Spear turned out to be.

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí ClarkThe Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, steampunk
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on August 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air--in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.

Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

My Review:

There is just something about New Orleans that makes it seem, not just possible but downright plausible, that there is magic on those streets and always has been. Whether the version of the city is the one we know from history, or some other New Orleans out there in the multiverse of parallel universes and alternate histories.

The U.S. Civil War has its own magic – not that magic with a capital “M” happened, but rather the magic of possibility, that so many never weres and might have beens hinge on the events that occurred during those few years that must have felt like they lasted forever.

It’s not just that the history and meaning of that conflict have been reinterpreted, re-imagined and re-written in the century and a half that followed, but that the entire enterprise balanced on a knife edge and could have tipped in pretty much any bloody direction.

That particular “might have been” has been the stuff of much alt-history science fiction. One very readable toe in that water is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but he needed time-travel to make it work. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and her saga of the grim, steampunk Clockwork Century posits a U.S. Civil War that never ended as collateral damage of a catastrophic event in Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush that created zombies.

The Black God’s Drums takes place in an alternate version of New Orleans in a world where the U.S. Civil War tipped off the knife edge in the direction of a negotiated almost-peace, into an armistice between the Union and the Confederacy. An armistice that left the crucial port of New Orleans as an independent neutral city-state, governed by its citizens – ALL its citizens, black and white.

The Union counts this New Orleans as an ally, if not officially, while the Confederacy views it as a repudiation of all they hold dear. Under the armistice, the city may not be an open battleground, but it is sometimes a covert one. Which is what takes place in this story.

Right alongside the coming-of-age story of Creeper, a girl on the cusp of adulthood (Creeper’s OK with creeping up to adulthood, but she’s much less sanguine about approaching womanhood in any way, shape, or form) who wants more than anything to find a way out of the city she has lived in all of her life. She thinks her accidental discovery of a plot to drown the city in magically created storms can be traded for a berth on a smuggler’s airship.

But Creeper has magic of her own, a magic that leads her to be in the right place at the right time to save her city. And the knowledge that this place is hers to love and hers to defend – for as long as she has the favor of her goddess.

Escape Rating A-: The Black God’s Drums was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novella back in 2019 – and I meant to read it then but it got swallowed by the “so many books, so little time” event horizon and it didn’t happen. Then I read the author’s A Master of Djinn last year and this popped back up to the top of the virtually towering TBR pile. So when I went hunting for novellas for this week, there it was near the top of the heap.

And am I ever glad that it was – even though this is nothing like A Master of Djinn. Instead, it reads like a combination of every book of magical New Orleans from the Sentinels of New Orleans to The City of Lost Fortunes to The Map of Moments combined then tossed in with steampunk like Boneshaker but stirred with the perspective of the author’s Ring Shout in the way that magic of the African diaspora is interwoven into the story and to the events of the alternate history.

So Creeper’s New Orleans feels like New Orleans even if it isn’t exactly the one that history records. Even though the work (and misuse of the work) of those gods, the orishas, have produced effects that both remind the reader of Katrina and make the hurricane seem tame in comparison.

And on top of all that, we have not just the coming-of-age story, but a pulse-pounding adventure with deadly danger both in the immediate term and in the consequences if things go wrong. As they very nearly do. Along with the possibility of a daring rescue by pirate airship – or an ignominious crash of defeat.

The thing about novellas is that even when they are complete in and of themselves, and The Black God’s Drums does tell its story beautifully in the length it has, I’m left wanting more. This adventure does come, rightly and properly, to its end. But what happens next? And what happened before? There’s so much of this alternate version of the city – and the country – to explore.

So, just as the author’s short works, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 embiggened their Dead Djinn Universe into the utterly captivating A Master of Djinn, I hope that someday the New Orleans of the orisha and the pirate airships will embiggen into something bigger, bolder and even more grand.

Review: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Review: Acadie by Dave HutchinsonAcadie by Dave Hutchinson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 5, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.
The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.
Earth has other plans.
The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.
Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review:

“I think, therefore I am,” or so goes the quote from French philosopher René Descartes. But Descartes lived in the 17th century, well before the popularity of science fiction. In Acadie, the quote needs to be a question, “I think, therefore I am, what?”

Duke Faraday thinks that he is the president of a renegade colony of genetic researchers and tinkerers who made him president because he wanted the job the least. And he knows he’s pissed off because his admin/majordomo/minder has just woken him up too damned early on his day off because there’s a crisis.

And his desk is where the buck stops. Even if his so-called desk is generally parked in a bar – and there are no bucks of any kind on The Colony. (Unless the scientists who really run things have genetically engineered something since he went to bed the night before.)

The Colony is filled with a bunch of renegade scientists who are still paranoid about the Earth that they escaped from five centuries before. They left with a ship full of kidnapped colonists, an overabundance of genius and a complete lack of willingness to stop experimenting with the human genome – and any other they can get their gloved hands on – no matter how many people, organizations, and even governments tell them “no”.

So when a trigger-happy pilot brings down what is obviously a probe from the Earth they left behind, it’s all-hands-on-deck to bug out before Earth returns to take whatever fancy tech their geniuses have invented and bring home any survivors from that original hijacking back for trial.

Everyone gets away except for Duke and his “Dirty Dozen” of advisors who are left to look after the last of the technology clean-up. They are sitting ducks for the next Earth probe that comes along, and come along it does.

Duke thinks he’s holding the line against a rapacious colonization agency that likes to cut corners and doesn’t care how much collateral damage it does along the way. After all, that’s how he ended up in the Colony in the first place.

But the pilot of the probe has a different idea about his mission, and Duke’s, altogether. An idea that just might turn Duke’s entire universe on its head – or bust his wide open.

Escape Rating A-: At first, the tone of Acadie and its protagonist reminded me more than a bit of Heinlein by way of Scalzi. The way that the entire Colony pulled itself together to escape the threat had some of the feel of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although I should have been thinking more of The Man Who Sold the Moon, which is as much of a hint as I’m giving.

I also can’t help but think that Duke Faraday and John Perry (Old Man’s War) would have had a lot to talk about in that bar, possibly along with Fergus Fergusson from Finder.

The Colony as a form of government, a working utopia, an escape hatch, all of the above, seems like a fascinating place. The idea that the person elected president is the one who wants it the least honestly seems like an idea that might have merit and broader application. (And also adds to that Heinlein-like feeling. I keep thinking that sounds like something he would have said, but I can’t find a citation so maybe not.)

That the real powers-that-be are the scientists, possibly even the mad scientists, who escaped from Earth’s laws and proceeded to write their own and the human genome at the same time certainly does make the story interesting. And picturesque, as the scientists, called ‘The Writers’ because they rewrite the genome seemingly at a whim, often mine popular culture through the ages for their material and their whimsy.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the habitats that the Colony uses are one of the very few, if not the ONLY, beneficial uses of that plague of the South, kudzu, that has ever appeared in fiction.

So the story hums along, seemingly about a plucky band of scientists and other colonists doing their best to stay out of the clutches of the evil – or at least benighted – bureaucrats from Earth. We’re rooting for them and we’re sure they’ve found the right answers.

They are too.

But at the end, the whole story turns itself upside down, twists itself inside out, and spits the reader out of the book kicking and screaming, wondering what the hell went wrong. And it’s upsetting and glorious all at the same time.

(Reviewer’s Note: I’m on the horns of a dilemma here because of the brevity of the story versus the price of the book. On the one hand, this is only 112 pages. It’s a novella. On the other hand, the kindle version is $7.99 which is a bit much for the length. And on the third hand, because of that kick in the pants ending, I’m not sure this actually should have been longer. If Amazon is still selling used copies of the paperback at $1.50 that might be a better bet or at least a better cost/benefit ratio. YMMV)

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm DevlinAnd Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, horror, post apocalyptic
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of Mira Grant and Stephen Graham Jones, Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up is a creepy, layered, literary story about false narratives and their ability to divide us.
"A scathing portrait of the world we live in and a running commentary on what’s story, what’s truth, and what’s not."—Stephen Graham Jones

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

My Review:

“How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on,” or so goes one very old joke about the theory of the relativity of time. Which may not exactly reflect what Einstein was thinking, but it is still unarguably true. That “minute” takes a lot longer if you’re the one on the outside of the door holding it in than if you’re the one on the inside of the door letting it out.

And the measurement of those 60 seconds can still take the same amount of objective time while still seeming to be of different duration on the opposite sides of that door.

But what happens to objective “truth” when truth becomes so mutable that all perspectives are considered equal? This may not be of earth-shattering importance when it’s a question of whether a particular dress is blue and black or white and gold. But when the differing perspectives revolve around an issue of even middling importance, such as the size of the crowd at a particular presidential inauguration, or something larger and more fundamental, such as whether an ‘impromptu’ event in the U.S. Capitol was a peaceful demonstration or an attempted coup, those differences of “opinion” can be crucial. And the tribalism that lies behind them can make those perspectives impossible to change.

To put it another way, the way that Jonathan Swift put it, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” There’s also a version from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And Then I Woke Up is a story about what happens when all truths are created equal, when every perspective on every issue is considered equally valid. To the point where the concept of any objective truth is under attack by what one side considers to be the barbarians at the gate and vice versa.

To the point when those who oppose us not only look and sound like monsters, but they become actual, rotting, shambling, tear out our throats and feast on our flesh murdering creatures so terrible that the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and we fight.

It’s a nightmare scenario, when our friends and loved ones don’t just turn on us, but turn into monsters by doing so.

Unless it isn’t that at all. Unless we’re sick and they’re doing their best to keep us from infecting them.

Or the other way around.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that I wanted an unequivocal ending to this, where the point-of-view character does finally wake up, take the red pill or the blue pill, and learn what is real. The frightening thing about this story is that what is real depends so much upon our own perspectives. Those on one side see monsters in anyone who opposes them, and those on the other see sick people who can’t accept what seems like the truth of their circumstances or the way the world really works.

And I’m trying not to assign value to either side of that equation, because that’s the whole point of the story. That what we believe becomes our truth – whichever side of whatever divide we are currently on.

The point is hammered home with the way that the plague seems to work, at least as defined by one side of this divide. It’s that some people have so much charisma, are so invested in their own beliefs in their own side, that they sway followers into their perception of what the “truth”, the true narrative, really is.

What stuck in my mind after I turned the last page was the question of which side truth was really on? Are the ones who saw monsters and killed them the ones with the right answer? Or is it the side who finally tried to sway the “monster-killers” with isolation, compassion and sanitized news?

Because that divide, plague-driven or not, seems like it is headed this way at breakneck speed. And there are way more people pouring fuel on that fire than there are trying to find a way to divert the coming conflagration.

Which is the part that scares me most of all. Because as much as I wish I KNEW, in the context of the story at least, it feels true – if not very comfortable in the least – that the main character doesn’t. And neither do we.

Review: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds

Review: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion DeedsComeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Seattle, 1929—a bitterly divided city overflowing with wealth, violence, and magic.
A respected magus and city leader intent on criminalizing Seattle’s most vulnerable magickers hires a young woman as a lady’s companion to curb his rebellious daughter’s outrageous behavior.
The widowed owner of a speakeasy encounters an opportunity to make her husband’s murderer pay while she tries to keep her shapeshifter brother safe.
A notorious thief slips into the city to complete a delicate and dangerous job that will leave chaos in its wake.
One thing is for certain—comeuppance, eventually, waits for everyone.

My Review:

This story opens at the close. Literally. It begins at the end, then works its way backwards, just like all the best caper stories. Which this most definitely is.

When we first meet Dolly White, she is leaving the scene of the crime she has just committed, wearing a mask that allows her to appear as the man she has just framed for that crime. We don’t really know who she is, or more importantly why she has just gone to all this trouble to set this man up, why she wants to bring him down, or what led both of them to the place she has just left.

We just know it’s going to be fascinating.

The story moves backwards, inexorably, until we know who Dolly White is – as much as anyone ever does – and why it was so extremely necessary that Francis Earnshaw get his just desserts. His comeuppance. And why and how the mysterious Dolly White turned out to be the instrument of so many people’s justice.

Escape Rating A-: This one is a lot of fun, especially for readers who have been wondering where urban fantasy went. Because this feels a lot like it, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if the genre isn’t coming back with a slightly historical twist under the “gaslamp” moniker.

There’s also just a bit of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children here. Dolly White, or Comeuppance Rather as she was named at birth, seems to be one of those Wayward Children who came back from wherever her door took her and either never found it again, or never looked for it again. As this story takes place in 1929, it’s considerably before Miss West opened her school, and Dolly/Comeuppance seems to have the nightmares and missing pieces to fit her right into that series.

Dolly is also the Tin Man. She isn’t certain that the fae didn’t take her heart when they abducted her as a child. She’s certain she doesn’t have one now. Not even when she feels like it’s breaking.

Comeuppance Served Cold sits on that uneasy border between fantasy and historical mystery. The setting is Seattle in 1929, just as the Great Depression is about to rain on EVERYONE’s parade. The magic added to the setting is a fascinating, darkly sparkling gloss on the story, but this didn’t HAVE to be fantasy. All the elements would work just as well in a historical thriller, as the story is about rich men behaving very badly and using money, influence and lies to slither out from under the consequences. Only to have someone they don’t expect exert some surprising leverage. And comeuppance.

The magic makes the explicit commentary about rich people, abuse, political shenanigans and misdirection a bit easier to swallow. And also sucks the reader in and makes everything just that bit more fascinating.

So if you’re looking for a little bit of magical sparkle to liven up your historical thrillers, Comeuppance Served Cold is a lovely, chilly little treat. Especially as it feels like the opening to a series. Which would be especially magical.

Review: Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

Review: Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina RatherSisters of the Forsaken Stars (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2) by Lina Rather
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita navigate the far reaches of space and challenges of faith in Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, the follow-up to Lina Rather's Sisters of the Vast Black, winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society Award.
“We lit the spark, maybe we should be here for the flames.”
Not long ago, Earth’s colonies and space stations threw off the yoke of planet Earth’s tyrannical rule. Decades later, trouble is brewing in the Four Systems, and Old Earth is flexing its power in a bid to regain control over its lost territories.
The Order of Saint Rita—whose mission is to provide aid and mercy to those in need—bore witness to and defied Central Governance’s atrocities on the remote planet Phyosonga III. The sisters have been running ever since, staying under the radar while still trying to honor their calling.
Despite the sisters’ secrecy, the story of their defiance is spreading like wildfire, spearheaded by a growing anti-Earth religious movement calling for revolution. Faced with staying silent or speaking up, the Order of Saint Rita must decide the role they will play—and what hand they will have—in reshaping the galaxy.

My Review:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

The quote is from W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. I went looking for the source of the line “the center cannot hold” and found this glorious thing and was absolutely gobsmacked. In a rather poetic nutshell, this is the story of Sisters of the Forsaken Stars writ even more gloriously than the book itself – which was pretty damn good indeed.

The overarching story of this duology (at least so far) that begin with the wonderful Sisters of the Vast Black, is the widening gyre that turns around the center of this Earth-based hegemony turned empire is that that very center that wants to be a control nexus for an entire galaxy, is not going to be able to hold. No matter how hard it tries and how much damage – both direct and collateral – it causes along its way.

The remaining sisters of the Order of Saint Rita have spent the past several months hiding on a series of backwater planets, hoping to put the tumultuous events of their rescue mission at Phoyongsa III behind them. That story is told in Sisters of the Vast Black. They are desperately hoping that Earth Central Governance has lost interest in finding them.

Even though they know that hope is in vain, because the secret they are keeping is just too big to hide.

On Phoyongsa III the sisters discovered that the ringeye plague that is the scourge of the colonial planets is not a naturally occurring disease. Instead, ringeye is the actual blood-dimmed tide from the poem, and Earth Central Governance releases it deliberately on colony planets that have become either desirable or rebellious to the central authority they are intent on re-establishing.

It’s a secret that carries within it the seeds for rebellion. A rebellion that will be planted on fertile ground, as the remote colony planets have zero desire to submit to Earth Central Governance again after decades of relative freedom and independence.

It’s a rebellion that the sisters of St. Rita have neither the desire nor the conviction to become a part of. But there are plenty of others, full of passionate intensity, eager to fan the flames of war.

Escape Rating A-: What is making this series so special is a bit more in the implications than in what is actually on the page, which may not quite make sense but nevertheless feels true. On the surface, this is still OMG nuns in space, but not done for laughs any more than last year’s We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep took the idea of a monastery on a submarine for laughs. There be kraken hidden in both stories.

The crisis of faith among the nuns, especially the new Abbess of their little breakaway order sometimes take away from the action and yet feel necessary to the development of the story. At the same time, the mundanities of keeping a ship on the run from authority will remind readers of Firefly while the liveship feels like a taste of Farscape.

And the scenario of the central governance reasserting control and the colony planets’ reluctance manages to take a page from A Memory Called Empire while also reading very much like every real world scenario of a central organization with branches. Because the thoughts and opinions in that familiar set up ring very true. People at the center think they are superior by virtue of being at the center; people in the colonies are certain that the central authority is irrelevant at best, tyrannical at worst, and utterly clueless about what life outside the center is like. (If this sounds like it echoes recent political discourse about “flyover states” that’s probably not accidental.

Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, and its predecessor Sisters of the Vast Black, are stories that fascinated me in all the ways they take the surprising set up and project it out into a far flung star empire while the individual characters didn’t get quite enough development for me to be hooked into them as individuals – only into the story they told as a whole.

But that hook into the story as a whole set deep. This story ends much as the first one did, the immediate crisis has been dealt with – mostly by being escaped from – but with their long term course and consequences still very much in doubt.

I hope there’s a next book, because I want to see where those consequences lead.