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.

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
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This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Review: Servant Mage by Kate ElliottServant Mage by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on January 18, 2022
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Fellion is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines.
Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good.
But Fellion has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…
In Kate Elliott's Servant Mage, a lowly fire mage finds herself entangled in an empire-spanning conspiracy on her way to discovering her true power.

My Review:

In the immortal words of humorist Lewis Grizzard, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” The story of the Servant Mage, Fellian the Lamplighter, shows just how much of a surprise it is to the lead dog – or the ass that thinks they’re in front of you – when one of those dogs in the back gets sick of viewing that ass and decides to take themselves out of the pack.

I’ve carried this metaphor far enough, but it is still the lingering image in my mind after reading Servant Mage.

Fellian is the servant mage of the title, a mage in forced indentured servitude – in other words enslaved – as all mages are in these lands ruled by the so-called “Liberationist Council”. The weren’t really “liberators”, of course, or anything even close to that. They’re a theocracy, a religious tyranny that blames mages for all the ills of the world and has forced them into slavery to keep their spirits diminished and their magic untrained so that they won’t rise up and overthrow the tyrants.

Which makes Fellian ripe for recruitment into a conspiracy to overthrow the Liberationists and bring back the monarchy. All she has to do is rescue a bunch of monarchists trapped in an underground mining complex.

The conspirators assume that Fellian will be grateful for her rescue. And she is. Who wouldn’t be? They assume that her gratitude will extend to her continuing to serve the rebellion as a second class citizen because that’s considerably better than the slavery-conditions she had been forced to serve under. And that’s all they think she’s worthy to be. A second-class citizen, useful to them but not as equal or worthy as themselves.

But Fellian considers a bargain to be a bargain. Once her work is done, she has plans for her own future. As far as the monarchists were concerned, Fellian was a means to an end. Aren’t they surprised to discover that in the end, they were EXACTLY the same thing to her!

Escape Rating B: Let me begin by indulging in my usual complaint about novellas; this book was too short. I know I say that all the time but this time I really, really mean it even more than I usually do.

It’s not that Fellian’s journey from “servant mage” to epic heroine isn’t wonderfully complex – because it is. And it’s not that the cause she is recruited for isn’t worthy even if it’s not exactly perfect – because it is. And it’s absolutely not because the worldbuilding in this story isn’t fantastic – because it certainly is that.

And that’s kind of where the too short complaint comes seriously into play. The worldbuilding feels even deeper than the mining complex where Fellian stages that all-important rescue that she was recruited/strong-armed into performing. We get so much about the way this world works – and mostly doesn’t at the moment – that it feels like we’re at the entrance to something much bigger and greater.

Like a truly epic epic fantasy.

Especially when we view the world through Fellian’s eyes and especially Fellian’s mind. Because Fellian is from a land with a surprisingly egalitarian political structure – a place she can’t wait to get back to once this job is done.

From our view of Fellian we can see that she notes every single microaggression and disrespect that she receives, not just from the people who have enslaved her, but from the people who have rescued her as well.

Which leads right back to paraphrase my opening quote, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Her rescuers are sure they are the lead dogs and that they don’t have to be anything more than barely kind to the ones they perceive as being in the back of the pack. Which makes their reaction all that much more satisfying when Fellian rejects their oh-so-kind offer to help them in their quest.

Their privilege makes them blind, which does make the reader wonder how that will bode for their quest to restore the monarchy. Which may make things better for them, but not necessarily for anyone else. At least not better enough.

All of which leaves the reader with all sorts of interesting and lingering questions. What is going on where Fellian came from? What does she face when she returns? What’s going to happen to the rebellion? Can it possibly succeed and on what terms?

And, and, and…ad infinitum. Not quite ad nauseum but reaching towards there – at least in the sense that the questions left unanswered in this too-short story are downright legion.

In the end Servant Mage read as the beginning of something that might be marvelous and fascinating. But I’d feel a whole lot better about it’s incompleteness if I had an inkling that more were on the horizon.

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuireWhere the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children, #7) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #7
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you've already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.
There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. And it isn't as safe.
When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn't save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.
She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...

My Review:

We were introduced to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway. The children aren’t “wayward” in the way that the word is usually meant. Rather, the children who come to the school, like Eleanor West herself, once upon a time opened a door from our world to another – a place their hearts called home.

They come to Eleanor after they, like she, found their way, or were forced or pushed or stumbled, back to the world they were born in, will they or nil they. It’s usually nil. Whatever world they went to, they’ve been gone a long time from their young perspectives, have grown and changed and adapted to their new circumstances in ways that don’t fit in the old ones.

They’ve left our world as children and come back as teenagers. They left as dependent children and come back after having been forced to look after themselves. They left as innocents and come back with experience that no one believes.

Their parents desperately want them to be “normal” again, unable or unwilling to recognize that they ARE normal for the life they led on the other side of their door.

The lucky ones find themselves at Eleanor West’s, a place where their experience is accepted as having been real – even if their hope for return to it is seen as extremely unlikely at best. Eleanor West gives them the chance, not so much to accept that they’re stuck as to find a way to live with their situation rather than pretend that it never happened.

Not all of the children are lucky enough to end up at Eleanor West’s Home. Some of them end up in psychiatric institutions, and/or drunk or drugged into insensibility, whether by themselves or others.

And some of them end up someplace worse. They get sent to the Whitethorn Institute. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the Whitethorn Institute is that opposing reaction to Eleanor West’s. In every possible way.

Cora Miller, whom we met in Beneath a Sugar Sky and whose story continues in Come Tumbling Down (which I haven’t read and I seriously need to!) feels like the Drowned Gods she invoked in that second adventure have followed her back to Miss West’s. And that they’re coming for her.

In desperation, Cora turns to the one place where belief in the doors and the worlds on the other side of them is ruthlessly suppressed. She believes it’s done with the power of science and cold, hard logic. So she commits herself to the Whitethorn Institute in the hope that they will cure her of her longing for the worlds behind the doors – and of their hunger for her.

What she finds is something else altogether. And it’s just as hungry for her and her power as the Drowned Gods ever were.

Escape Rating A-: Where the Drowned Girls Go, at least so far, was the hardest read in this series. Not that any of them are easy, because much of the series is about accepting yourself for who and what you are, and finding a family that will accept you as the person you are and not the person they want you to be.

Overall, it’s a series about diversity and acceptance. That means two things. One, that it explores all types of diversity, not just race – actually not explicitly race at all – but rather the way that people don’t fit into stereotypical boxes at all and learning to celebrate those differences.

What makes this a particularly hard read is that the way the story showcases that acceptance is by first showing its lack – in intense and painful detail. Cora is already outside the box labeled “normal” because she came through a door. She’s asexual due to a birth anomaly. And she’s built tall and strong and plump, because she lived in water worlds where those were survival traits. And none of them are what girls in this world are supposed to be.

She’s already internalized the messages for girls to be “girly”, flirty and tiny and weak and thin, and has a lot of self-hatred because she’s none of the above. The Whitethorn Institute encourages the children in its dubious “care” to show the worst of themselves, so Cora is bullied and teased for being different – in addition to everything else that’s wrong at Whitethorn.

It starts out being a school where the mean girls seem to be pampered princesses and everyone else is either under their thumbs or outcast. It’s an environment that was hard to take before Cora starts digging deeper into just how wrong things really are.

The Institute’s methods are cruel and repressive, forcing the children to lie to themselves and each other about their experiences, punishing transgression and nonconformity through bullying, and as Cora discovers, using the magic of the doorways to suppress individuality and identity. Cora has a choice to make, to let herself be lost or to be a hero one more time.

And that’s the point where things finally start looking up.  Because that’s where the adventure aspect of the series kicks in, when Cora accepts that she can’t do it all alone and that she needs her friends from Miss West’s to help her get to the bottom of a situation that is way too big for one girl to solve alone.

Which is part of the message of the whole series. None of the stories so far have been just one person’s story. These are stories about accepting people for who they are, and learning to accept oneself the same. They’re adventures that require friends and found family to come out the other side, whole as part of a greater whole.

While this particular entry in the series turned out to be an unexpected readalike for A Spindle Splintered, the whole series interweaves back and forth in ways that make a bit of mockery of any concept of reading order and downright encourage readers to rove from book to book, from door to door, and back again.

I read Where the Drowned Girls Go in the middle of my exploration of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. I started with the first book first, Every Heart a Doorway, Then book 6, Across the Green Grass Fields (Cora finds the heroine of that story at Whitethorn’s), then this book, and finally books 2 and 3, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky.

The next book in this series, Lost in the Moment and Found, won’t be found on bookshelves and ereaders until a whole, entire year from now, so I’m lucky I still have In an Absent Dream and Come Tumbling Down to look forward to!

Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Elder Race by Adrian TchaikovskyElder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In Adrian Tchaikovsky's Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.
Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.
But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).
But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

My Review:

No one believes there really is a demon attacking the borders of her mother’s kingdom, except for the Queen’s frequently ignored fourth daughter. Because Lynesse, the disrespected and disregarded Fourth Daughter of the Queen, believes in the old hero tales of her ancestors. So when a demon attacks the borders of the kingdom, Lynesse goes to the tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the great sorcerer who helped her great-grandmother defeat a demon over a century ago.

Because Nyrgoth, rather foolishly in his own opinion, promised Astresse that if she, or any descendants of her line, called upon him in his remote tower and requested his aid, he would answer. Even though he knows he shouldn’t.

Even though he secretly hoped that she would come herself, and soon, to rescue him from his profound loneliness. Just before he went back into the deepest of sleeps for another century, only to be awakened by the great-granddaughter of the woman he loved to face a promise he should never have made.

If this sounds like fantasy, it is. But it’s also science fiction, part of a long and storied list of works where Earth seeded other planets by sending out colony ships to far distant worlds – and then forgot about them, one way or another.

And those colony worlds, either deliberately or through the fullness of time, distance and absence, forgot that once upon a time their ancestors traveled the stars.

Like Pern, and Darkover, and Harmony and Celta, among many others, the descendants of those colonists lost the knowledge of how to use the high-tech that brought them, or deliberately buried that aspect of their history, until something happens to remind them. Either by discovering the wreck of the original ship, as occurred in both Pern and Celta, by rediscovering the documentation, a la Harmony, or by Earth ships returning to reclaim their lost colony – only to learn that their supposedly lost colony wants little or nothing to do with them, as was the case in Darkover.

Elder Race represents an entirely different possibility, one that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the Star Trek Next Gen episode “Who Watches the Watchers”, where a Federation science outpost is observing a proto-Vulcan culture as an anthropological study. The planetary inhabitants are not supposed to know they’re being watched, but technology glitches and damage control ensues in an attempt to minimize the cultural contamination that was never supposed to have happened in the first place.

Nyrgoth, actually Anthropologist Second Class Nyr Illim Tevitch, takes the place of the Federation in Elder Race. Earth sent a team of sociologists and anthropologists to Sophos 4 to observe the progress of the colony that had been implanted centuries before, had no knowledge of their high-tech origins, and had returned to a much lower level of technology than the one they came from.

But his team returned to Earth centuries ago. As often happens in lost colony stories, Earth was in a crisis and sent a recall. Nyr was left behind, in the belief that his teammates would return in the not too distant future. Which hasn’t happened yet and Nyr no longer has any expectation that it ever will.

He’s done his best to maintain his mission. Except that one time when Astresse banged on the door of his tower, dragged him out of said tower to fix something that was a direct result of the high-tech left behind by the original colonization, and pretty much broke his heart when she went to rule her now-safe kingdom and he took himself back to his lonely tower because that was what he was supposed to do.

Now one of Astresse’s descendants has banged on his door, intending to remind him of his promise but inadvertently reminding him that he’s all alone on this world and that his choices are limited to putting himself out of his own misery, going mad with loneliness, or admitting that his mission is over and it’s time to join the world he has instead of mourning for the one that has forgotten him.

If he can just find a way to get rid of this pesky bit of hybrid technology that is masquerading as a demon, before the situation gets more FUBAR’d than it already is..

Escape Rating A+: The story in   alternates from fantasy to SF and back again as it switches its point of view from Lynesse to Nyr and we see from inside their heads how vastly different their worldviews are.

But no matter whose eyes we’re using to see the world, their emotional landscape is surprisingly similar while being not just miles but actually lightyears apart at the same time. There’s a point in the story where Nyr attempts to tell Lynesse the unvarnished truth about her world and his place in it, but the chasm between their respective understandings is so huge that no matter what he says, she still hears his story in the terms that she understands, terms of myth and legend, tales of heroes and demons, and magic capable of changing or destroying her world.

While Nyr is constantly aware that the only magic he is capable of is of the Clarke variety, the kind that “all technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from.”

In the end, this felt like a story about opposing beliefs and perceptions. She believes he’s a great wizard. He believes he’s a second-class and second-rate anthropologist. She believes he’s a hero out of legend. He believes that she’s the hero and that he’s a faker, a failure, or both. She believes that he can save her people, because she’s not capable of doing it herself. He believes that she’s every bit the hero that her great-grandmother was, and that he’s just along for the ride.

They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. They are also both, in spite of appearances, very, very human.

One of the best things about this story is the way that they manage to save the day, fight their own demons, and ultimately develop a strong and sustaining friendship that never trips over the line into the possibility of romance. Because it really, really shouldn’t. They’re too far apart and too unequal in too many ways for that to work. Instead, they hesitantly reach towards a friendship that is strong and true and forged in fire – and looks to be the saving of each of them.

And it’s a terrific read that manages to be both perfect in its relatively short length while still leaving the reader wishing there were more.