#BookReview: The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar

#BookReview: The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia SamatarThe Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain by Sofia Samatar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, dark academia
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Celebrated author Sofia Samatar presents a mystical, revolutionary space adventure for the exhausted dreamer in this brilliant science fiction novella tackling the carceral state and violence embedded in the ivory tower while embodying the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin.
"Can the University be a place of both training and transformation?"
The boy was raised as one of the Chained, condemned to toil in the bowels of a mining ship out amongst the stars.
His whole world changes―literally―when he is yanked "upstairs" to meet the woman he will come to call “professor.” The boy is no longer one of the Chained, she tells him, and he has been gifted an opportunity to be educated at the ship’s university alongside the elite.
The woman has spent her career striving for acceptance and validation from her colleagues in the hopes of reaching a brighter future, only to fall short at every turn.
Together, the boy and the woman will learn from each other to grasp the design of the chains designed to fetter them both, and are the key to breaking free. They will embark on a transformation―and redesign the entire world.

My Review:

This didn’t go any of the places I expected it to go. But the places it went and the themes it explored turned out to be much bigger than I expected – even though they conducted that exploration in the narrowest of spaces.

The space-faring fleet on which both the Hold and the University exist is part of a vast armada of interstellar leeches. This is not a generation ship, although generations of humans have certainly been born and died on its journey.

Instead, this is a human colony designed and engineered to roam the black, much as Quarians were in Mass Effect, but without their tragic, albeit self-inflicted, backstory.

Rather, the human population of this fleet represents humanity in all its dubious glory, greedy and rapacious by design, striving and hopeful in only a part of its execution. The stultifying caste system of Braking Day, Medusa Uploaded and even Battlestar Galactica, as highlighted in the first season episode “Bastille Day” (It took me forever to locate exactly which episode had this plot point but I just couldn’t get the reference out of my head) is on full and disgusting display, particularly in the context of the University.

Not that academia doesn’t do plenty of caste stratification of its very own, and not that it can’t be both blood thirsty and bloody minded – particularly in its small-minded, impractical politics. If an exploration of that appeals and you enjoy SF mysteries, Malka Older’s Mossa and Plieti series, The Mimicking of Known Successes and The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles plumbs those depths in all their ugliness while figuring out just whodunnit in a brave new/old world, while Premee Mohamed’s forthcoming We Speak Through the Mountain is a similarly searing indictment of the way that Academe rewrites its own history to obscure its pervasive condescension.

Howsomever, as is clear from the above citations, several parts of this story have been done before – and well – if not quite in this combination.

The place I wasn’t expecting it to go was into the metaphysical, quasi-religious depths of Andrew Kelly Stewart’s We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep, which is where The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain gets both its heart and its quite literal depth.

Because the story here, in the end, is both about learning that even people who believe they are free can be conditioned – or fooled – into forgetting that they are just as chained as the obviously and literally named ‘Chained’ people that they are taught to look down upon.

And that it is only by banding together, not through violence but through perception and mindfulness and just plain finding common cause – that they can all be free.

Escape Rating B: This is a story that, at first, seems a bit disjointed. And it does have a sort of metaphysical aspect that seems foreign to its SF story – also at least at first. At the same time, as much as the obvious abuses of the Hold system resemble the contemporary carceral state, the sheer bloody-minded small-minded nastiness of academia sticks in the craw even more harshly – if only because it makes the hypocrisy of the whole, entire system that much more obvious.

This isn’t a comfortable book. It’s beautifully written, compulsively lyrical, and manages to both hit its points over the head with a hammer AND obscure any catharsis in its ending at the same time. I’m not remotely sure how I feel about the whole thing, but I’m sure I’ll be thinking about the spoken and unspoken messages it left implanted in my brain.

#BookReview: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

#BookReview: The Butcher of the Forest by Premee MohamedThe Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on February 27, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

A world-weary woman races against the clock to rescue the children of a wrathful tyrant from a dangerous, otherworldly forest.
At the northern edge of a land ruled by a monstrous, foreign tyrant lies the wild forest known as the Elmever. The villagers know better than to let their children go near—once someone goes in, they never come back out.
No one knows the strange and terrifying traps of the Elmever better than Veris Thorn, the only person to ever rescue a child from the forest many years ago. When the Tyrant’s two young children go missing, Veris is commanded to enter the forest once more and bring them home safe. If Veris fails, the Tyrant will kill her; if she remains in the forest for longer than a day, she will be trapped forevermore.
So Veris will travel deep into the Elmever to face traps, riddles, and monsters at the behest of another monster. One misstep will cost everything.

My Review:

There’s no actual butcher in this forest, but it doesn’t need one. The forest is enough of a butcher all on its own. And the thing it’s already butchered, more than anything or anyone else, is Veris Thorn’s heart.

But that’s not where we start this story. We start the story in a place that seems all too typical of epic fantasy of the myth telling and retelling school. Because there’s a forest surrounding Veris’ village. A forest that none of the locals ever enter, day or night, because people who go into the forest do not come out again. Ever.

Except for Veris. Once upon a time, she went in after a child. And brought both herself and the child out again. Not safely, not easily, and ultimately not anything remotely like a happy ending. But still, once upon that time, Veris went in and came back out again.

The Tyrant who seems to have swallowed so much of Veris’ world, has Veris’ dragged out of her bed at dawn and brought before him still in her nightclothes. She doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know what she could have possibly done. All she knows is that she has no choice.

Because the Tyrant will kill her remaining family and burn the village they live in to the ground if she does not obey whatever he will demand of her. It’s who he is, it’s what he does, and it’s how he’s conquered the world.

But the Tyrant is also a father. A father whose children have gone missing into that terrible forest, because they are just at that age when children think they are more grownup than they are and want adventures more than they want to obey. Even to obey a terrifying Tyrant like their father.

It’s up to Veris, a middle-aged woman with one singular experience of surviving the forest, a few tools and bits of old and cobbled-together legends, and a desperate desire to save her family and her village from being burnt to a crisp to enter the forest one more time. And to come back out again with two children, safe and sound. Before a nightfall that she won’t even be able to see from inside the dense woods.

It’s an impossible quest, but it’s the only hope she has for her people. But to the Forest she’s the one that got away – and it will only let her back in this time so it can keep her – or something else she holds dear.

Escape Rating B: At first, the forest sounded a LOT like the forests in Middle Earth where some of the trees’ hearts have turned dark. The way that Veris describes the forest near her village is very like Merry’s descriptions of The Old Forest around the Shire.

So I was prepared for that kind of quest – which wasn’t at all what I got. Which is generally a good thing.

I was also confused because there is no ‘Butcher’ IN the forest, and it’s dubious whether any of the characters, at least so far, are the ‘Butcher’ OF the forest. Not that the Tyrant doesn’t butcher everything in his rapacious path, and won’t make an attempt at butchering the entire forest if it doesn’t give him back his children. Or at least his heir.

After all, situations like this one are just what the ‘spare’ is born for.

But the story isn’t quite any of the things I was expecting. In spite of – or perhaps because of the Tyrant’s oppression at the beginning and it’s promise overshadowing the whole journey every time Veris stumbles.

As much as all the admonitions about not eating or drinking in the Forest and not bargaining with the fey creatures who dwell there, this story is about a journey and not a destination. It’s a journey into, not the dark heart of the forest or even the dark heart of the Tyrant although both certainly exist. It’s about Veris’ journey to her own dark heart, with the two children as both goad and conscience, reminding her of her own deepest losses while forcing her to recognize that they are not responsible for the sins of their own father against hers, and are much too young to have yet committed sins of their own.

A lesson that is every bit as hard for Veris to bear as all the other lessons that the Forest intends to teach her – whether she wants to learn those lessons or not.

What kept niggling at me through my read of The Butcher of the Forest was that it reminded me, strongly and often, of something else that was not Middle Earth. And that, as it turns out, is the Sooz duology in Peter S. Beagle’s The Way Home, set in the world of The Last Unicorn.

But Veris is not Sooz. Veris is Molly Grue in the first book in Sooz’ story. Molly Grue is the mentor character who rescues Sooz on Sooz’ first quest and trains her to take her second quest alone. A quest very much like the one that young Eleanor is barely on the threshold of when The Butcher of the Forest shudders to a heartbreaking halt.

Because once upon a time, the Forest kept Veris’ only child – and Veris went into the Forest to get her back. Now, the Forest has held onto Eleanor’s only brother, and she is determined to repeat Veris’ journey. Whether she will also repeat Veris’ mistakes along the way is a tale that is hopefully yet to be told.

A+ #BookReview: The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi

A+ #BookReview: The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose UtomiThe Truth of the Aleke (Forever Desert, #2) by Moses Ose Utomi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Forever Desert #2
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on March 5, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Moses Ose Utomi returns to his Forever Desert series with The Truth of the Aleke, continuing his epic fable about truth, falsehood, and the shackles of history.
The Aleke is cruel. The Aleke is clever. The Aleke is coming. 500 years after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo, the City of Truth stands as is the last remaining free city of the Forever Desert. A bastion of freedom and peace, the city has successfully weathered the near-constant attacks from the Cult of Tutu, who have besieged it for three centuries, attempting to destroy its warriors and subjugate its people.
17-year-old Osi is a Junior Peacekeeper in the City. When the mysterious leader of the Cult, known only as the Aleke, commits a massacre in the capitol and steals the sacred God's Eyes, Osi steps forward to valiantly defend his home. For his bravery he is tasked with a tremendous responsibility—destroy the Cult of Tutu, bring back the God's Eyes, and discover the truth of the Aleke.

The Forever Desert series
The Lies of the AjungoThe Truth of the Aleke
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

Returning to the Forever Desert long after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo, it seems as if the pendulum of history has swung, the way that such pendulums often do.

Once upon a time, and we know this from that first story, the Ajungo had subjugated all the other cities of the Forever Desert through a mixture of lies and trickery, intimidation and fear. At least until young Tutu exposed the terrible truth at the heart of, not just the Ajungo, but of all the leaders of all the cities who had colluded in that lie in order to maintain their absolute power over their own peoples with the all too able assistance of the Ajungo.

As this story begins, it seems as if that tide has reversed, that the former capital of the Ajungo, who now refer to themselves as Truthseekers and call their city ‘The City of Truth’, have themselves become the oppressed, while the people they once subjugated, the people of the Forever Desert, have banded together into an alliance of aggression against them led by the Aleke.

It is a way that history runs, that the downtrodden rise up against their oppressors but become oppressors in their turn. So we think we understand the situation in the City of Truth when the Aleke come to conquer it, and we feel for young Osi as he becomes the face of his city’s resistance against a terrible enemy.

But just as young Tutu discovered in The Lies of the Ajungo, the truths of both his City of Truth AND The Truth of the Aleke are not what he had been taught as a child. Or what he came to believe as a young man. Or even what he thought was true when he became an ambassador between the two.

Tutu died for his truth. The question at the heart of The Truth of the Aleke is whether or not Osi will be able to live both for and with his.

Escape Rating A+: Read The Lies of the Ajungo first. It’s a short and absolutely marvelous story of a quest that turns into a myth, and it’s absolutely necessary to read it in order for this equally terrific and fantastic (in multiple senses of the word) second book to reach the depth it needs to in order to get the full effect of the whole thing – at least the whole thing so far.

(I’ll be waiting right here when you’ve finished. It won’t take long because the book is short AND I hope you’ll want to race through it as much as I did.)

The Truth of the Aleke is a story that exists on multiple levels in ways that have resonance, both in the story itself and in the now when I’m reading it (It’s mid-October, 2023 so take a look at what was going on in the world at this point in time if the date doesn’t ring any bells and you’ll see what I mean) It’s likely to have just as much resonance in the now when you’re reading this review as that situation has been baked in for even more centuries than the conflict in the Forever Desert and is unfortunately just as amenable to being peacefully resolved – meaning not very much at all.

At first, it seems as if Osi’s journey parallels Tutu’s, and it does to an extent. Both young men – and they are very young and naive when their stories begin – have grown up in a certain place and have been taught to believe certain things and believe that those things are true because that’s the only way they know.

But power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and everybody lies. That the truth Osi has been taught is not in any way an objective truth is not a surprise to the reader, but the way that he discovers his new truth is a painful stripping away of innocence that we still feel for.

What pushes The Truth of the Aleke beyond The Lies of the Ajungo is that the truths that Osi has to learn are covered in so many layers of lies  that the lies and the truths are really the Great Wyrm Ouroboros swallowing its own tail and never end. It’s truths and lies in endless repetition all the way down.

The more layers that Osi discovers, or has thrust upon him – and he admits to himself that he often doesn’t recognize the truth until AFTER it’s bitten him in the ass – the more painful his journey becomes, both figuratively and literally. It’s only at the end that he begins to see, not wisdom but pragmatism. Unless there’s another layer yet to be revealed.

And there probably is.

Some stories are about the journey, and some are about the destination. The Truth of the Aleke has to be about the journey – and it is – because the destination is not yet. If possibly ever. It’s clear from the conclusion – not an ending – of The Truth of the Aleke that the author is not finished with the Forever Desert and that there is at least one more story yet to be told and I’m so very thrilled that the author is already writing it.

A- #BookReview: Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

A- #BookReview: Feed Them Silence by Lee MandeloFeed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: climate fiction, science fiction
Pages: 105
Published by Tordotcom on March 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Lee Mandelo dives into the minds of wolves in Feed Them Silence, a novella of the near future.What does it mean to "be-in-kind" with a nonhuman animal? Or in Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon’s case, to be in-kind with one of the last remaining wild wolves? Using a neurological interface to translate her animal subject’s perception through her own mind, Sean intends to chase both her scientific curiosity and her secret, lifelong desire to experience the intimacy and freedom of wolfishness. To see the world through animal eyes; smell the forest, thick with olfactory messages; even taste the blood and viscera of a fresh kill. And, above all, to feel the belonging of the pack.
Sean’s tireless research gives her a chance to fulfill that dream, but pursuing it has a terrible cost. Her obsession with work endangers her fraying relationship with her wife. Her research methods threaten her mind and body. And the attention of her VC funders could destroy her subject, the beautiful wild wolf whose mental world she’s invading.

My Review:

Considering that it’s recommended that doctors not treat themselves or their loved ones because they lose their objectivity, while lawyers are told that any who represent themselves have a fool for a client, then what should be said about scientific researchers who go into their supposedly objective study fully intending to use themselves as one of their subjects? There was that strange case regarding Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…

Not that Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon actually becomes a monster – or even turns into the wolf her experiment intentionally bonds her with. And not that, occasionally, her wife doesn’t think that Sean’s being more than a bit of a monster to her.

When Sean manages to tear herself away from her research to be physically, intellectually and emotionally present in their marriage. The one that’s falling apart around her. Just as it turns out, she is.

The year is 2031, and between climate change, coastal erosion and habitat encroachment, species are going extinct at an alarming rate. To the point where, for entirely too many species, it’s a tide that can no longer be turned – merely documented.

That’s particularly true for the charismatic megafauna, not just the really big animals like elephants and lions, but species much, much closer to home, like the gray wolves of Minnesota and neighboring states. Today.

Sean and her research team have submitted a controversial proposal to enmesh the brain of a member of one of the few surviving wolf packs in Minnesota with the brain of one of the scientists on her team. From Sean’s honest perspective, the one that she does her damndest never to display to her academic colleagues, this entire project is a dressed-up, scientific gobbledygook-filled last chance for her to live out one of her childhood dreams – to run with the wolves – before its too late.

For the wolves, that is. And, quite possibly, for Sean herself.

However, just as her research was proposed with ulterior motives on Sean’s part, the cutting-edge technology company that has chosen to fund it AND to provide the equipment that will make it possible, has a hidden agenda of their own.

An agenda that puts both Sean, and her wolf, in crosshairs that neither of them knew existed.

Escape Rating A-: I admit it, I had a bail and flail this week because yesterday’s book just wasn’t working and I didn’t get out early enough. But that cloud absolutely had a silver lining, because I bounced straight into this book and it was terrific.

To the point that I’m wondering what took me so long, but I’m quite happy to have gotten here in the end – even if this is a far from happy story. Which is exactly the way it should be, because species extinction is tragic, the fate of the wolves and other wildlife species is awful and Sean’s marriage isn’t doing well either.

But that’s what happens when one partner eats, sleeps and breathes their work to the point of obsession. Sean is entirely too realistic in that regard – as is the fate of the wolves and the corporate greed that condemns Sean’s one and only chance at fulfilling her lifelong dream.

Feed Them Silence had me hooked from the first time Sean interfaced with her wolf, Kate, through a machine that was intended to give her an inside track on the wolf’s thoughts and feelings, even if it unintentionally did quite a bit more on both sides.

The process of becoming one with her wolf sounded exactly like the process portrayed in the Assassin’s Creed game series that allows someone to live through the day to day memories of one of their ancestors at a pivotal point in history. But the result, that Sean sees and experiences Kate’s world through Kate’s eyes and mind and heart and memory, felt even more like the mammoth experiment in the awesome – and awesomely bittersweet – The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler. That the experiments in the two books are markedly different in design and purpose doesn’t stop them from being more in dialog with each other than expected – because the experiments have become necessary for the same set of all-too-real reasons of climate change, habitat shrinkage, and humans so greedy they are willing to ignore the laws designed to protect the animals they are hunting for sport.

So the entry points for this story literally pulled me in, as I adored The Tusks of Extinction and the Assassin’s Creed series makes GREAT television – meaning that I get to watch the action while someone else plays.

But what really made this story work for me was how plausibly its science fiction encompassed so very much of the real world. Not just the present and predictable future of species elimination, but also the grind of academia, the damage that one partner’s obsessive hyper-focus on work can do to ANY relationship, the way that the entire world feels like that mythical frog in the pan of heating water – and then the complete immersion and identification of Sean’s identity with that of her wolf.

We see it all happening and are with her as she can’t help herself and we understand exactly why – even as the rest of her world falls apart. And it’s awesome and captivating and heartbreaking every step of the way.

Especially because even though the exact story isn’t happening right now – it really is.

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

A+ #BookReview: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles  by Malka OlderThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles (Mossa & Pleiti, #2) by Malka Ann Older
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, mystery, science fiction, science fiction mystery, space opera, steampunk
Series: Investigations of Mossa & Pleiti #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Investigator Mossa and Scholar Pleiti reunite to solve a brand-new mystery in the follow-up to the fan-favorite cozy space opera detective mystery The Mimicking of Known Successes that Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders called “an utter triumph.”
Mossa has returned to Valdegeld on a missing person’s case, for which she’ll once again need Pleiti’s insight.
Seventeen students and staff members have disappeared from Valdegeld University—yet no one has noticed. The answers to this case could be found in the outer reaches of the Jovian system—Mossa’s home—and the history of Jupiter’s original settlements. But Pleiti’s faith in her life’s work as scholar of the past has grown precarious, and this new case threatens to further destabilize her dreams for humanity’s future, as well as her own.

My Review:

Like the opening of the first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, in this delightful steampunk-y, space opera-ish, not-exactly-dark academic mystery series, this second entry begins not with the discovery of a dead body as most mysteries do, but rather with the disappearance and presumed deaths of a whole bunch of bodies.

But presumption, like assumption, involves drawing conclusions that may or may not be born out by evidence. Evidence that the still mysterious Investigator Mossa is determined to collect. Possibly, she’s driven to go that extra bit as an excuse to visit with her now on-again lover Scholar Pleiti at the University at Valdegeld.

Entirely too many of those missing bodies are/were students at the University, and Mossa isn’t above using that connection as an excuse to visit Pleiti AND involve her in her work. Again. Just as she did in their first adventure.

A lot of people DO go missing on Giant – otherwise known as Jupiter. The architecture of the colony, which is made up by rings of platforms stationed around the gas giant, leaves a lot of room for both accidental and on-purpose plummets to death and destruction, whether self-induced or pushed. Searching for missing persons is consequently the raison d’être of the Investigators, of whom Mossa is a part.

But the number of missing has jumped to a degree that is statistically implausible, leading Mossa to an in-person search for those missing. Some of them will be found perfectly safe, because that happens all-too-frequently.

The question in Mossa’s inquisitive mind is whether those findings will bring the number down to something reasonable. She doesn’t believe so. And she’s right.

While Mossa is looking into missing bodies, Pleiti is dealing with a body that has been found. The mad scholar/scientist that Mossa and Pleiti pursued in that first book, the man who pointed out that all of the busy research of the university was merely the ‘mimicking of known successes’ and had little chance of ever coming to fruition, the once respected rector of the university who may have derailed the university’s entire reason for being for centuries, has been found. Or at least his corpse has been.

But the effects of that death, and the events that led up to it, still chase our intrepid investigators. And may have more to do with all those missing bodies than anyone imagined.

Escape Rating A+: There’s something supremely comforting about this series – and I’m oh-so-happy it IS a series because The Mimicking of Known Successes could easily have been a one-off.

I think it’s the combination of the outlandish and exotic with the comforting and familiar. At first it seems pretty far out there, literally as well as figuratively. Jupiter is far away and seemingly totally inhospitable. And it kind of is. But still, humanity has adapted – at least physically. We’ve made it work.

At the same time, the way it works is so very human. They are still close enough in both time and space, relatively speaking, to see their lost home as something they might return to while also romanticizing the past and the possible future.

And the university is so very much academe in a nutshell, to the point where both books’ titles absolutely ring with the sense of academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small, caught up so tightly in the petty grievances of scholars that are more invested in scoring off against each other and/or proving their superiority than they are about real problems and practical solutions.

Which comes right back around to the whole story of the first book AND the motivations that lead to all those missing persons that Mossa is hunting for in this second one. Hunting, in fact, all the way around the train tracks that ring the planet to a hidden platform as far away from the University as it can get – and back around again to the place where both stories began.

To the University, and ultimately to the Earth it claims it wants to return them to – even as it settles into its comforts and grievances in a way that makes the reader wonder if anyone really, truly does.

What carries the story along, what holds it up around those rings and over that gas giant, is the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. They live in different worlds, and approach those worlds from opposing perspectives. Mossa, the Investigator, the ultimate pragmatist, always on the hunt for a new mystery, and Pleiti, the scholar and dreamer ensconced within the comforts and comfortable stability of the university. Their relationship didn’t work the first time, because they couldn’t meet in the middle and let each other in.

This time around they’re a bit older, sometimes sadder, occasionally wiser. Or at least wise enough to know that they are better together than they are apart, even if that togetherness has and even requires more space that one or the other might desire.

Watching them try, following them as they attempt to join two worlds and two perspectives that aren’t intended to meet in any middle, adds something very special to this delightfully charming science fiction mystery that will keep readers coming back for more.

Particularly this reader, left desperately hoping for a third book in the series.

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Seanan McGuire
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #5
Pages: 189
Length: 3 hours and 52 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.

My Review:

I’ve been winding my way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series for nearly three years now, since I first read Every Heart a Doorway back in early 2021. I’ve skipped around through the series and had both a grand and a thoughtful time each and every time I’ve returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Clearly, you don’t have to read the series in order to get into it. Although it probably does help to read that first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. And possibly, in this particular case, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before this one. But now I’m caught up with the whole thing, even though this particular book happens very much in the middle of the series.

All of that is to say that some of this review is bound to reflect my thoughts on the series as a whole because it’s just now whole for me, as well as this entry in the series in particular.

You have been warned.

Much as Jacqueline Wolcott warns her friends at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children just before they follow her through the lightning-keyed door back to her home, the horror-movie hellscape called ‘The Moors’.

A place where EVERYTHING is ruled by science and powered by lightning, where vampires contend with mad scientists and resurrection is as commonplace as blood, where Frankenstein’s monster would be seen as just another citizen – and quite possibly was.

Jack is in dire straits when she returns to the school, and she needs the help of the only friends she can trust to see that, in spite of appearances, she’s still Jack even though she’s in her twin sister Jill’s body. They are the only people who know her well enough to understand that her OCD will not allow her to just adapt to living her life in the unclean thing that murdered her mentor – even if Jill’s full, entire, complete and utterly nefarious plot is to destroy both her sister Jack and the balance that keeps The Moors relatively safe and functional for the human population that was born to a world where vampires contend with mad scientists and drowned gods prey upon ships and shorelines, where the sun only rises behind thick clouds and lightning storms happen whenever the Moon wills it so.

Jack needs help, so she’s gone to the one place where she knows she can get it. Even if it’s the one place she hoped never to return to, because it means that she’ll have to do the one thing she hoped she’d never have to do.

She’ll have to kill her twin sister. Again. She already did it once to save the world she was born to. She’ll have to do it again so that she can save the world that her heart calls home.

Escape Rating A-: The Wayward Children series winds itself around and around and back and forth and over and under and all over again. We first met the Wolcott twins in the very first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, but we don’t get their full story until the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, while book three, Beneath the Sugar Sky, deals with the effects of their actions in Every Heart a Doorway.

(After listening to the latest book in this series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, and liking it very much, I decided to grab this middle book in audio as well – although the readers are very different. The author herself narrates this story, as she did the previous books that featured the Wolcott sisters. McGuire has a formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense delivery that is utterly fitting for the formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense Jack Wolcott. Audiobooks just work better when the narrator fits the primary character’s voice and the author/narrator fit Jack to a ‘T’, even when Jack felt like she wasn’t fitting her own self very well at all.)

Come Tumbling Down is still dealing with the effects of Jill’s actions. Which have been the kind of actions that make her behavior and her very nature in this book make all that much more sense. As much as anything that happens in any of the worlds that the doors lead to make sense from the perspective of this world.

From the perspective of their own worlds, they are completely logical. Unless of course they are nonsense worlds to begin with.

One of the core tenets of the whole, entire, Wayward Children series, something that is said by one character or another over the course of the series, is that “actions have consequences”. This particular entry in the series is the story of the consequences of Jill’s actions in The Moors, which were the consequences of Jill’s actions in our world and Jack’s response to those actions, which were, in their turn, a consequence of both of their reactions when they found their door to The Moors. All of which were the consequences of their parents’ treatment and conditioning of them when they were still under their parents’ thumbs and had never gone through a doorway at all.

But that’s EXACTLY the kind of cause and effect that underpins this whole series. Which feels like it is set as a counterpoint to Narnia, where the Pevensie children went through the back of a wardrobe and lived an entire life to adulthood without their actions seeming to have had any consequences at all when they returned to the world they were born to.

As a result of their trips through the doors, the children return ill-adapted to the world where they were born. But that’s in the story. In reality – for certain select definitions of the word – what they exhibit upon their returns are psychological disorders that people are all too frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as having for reasons that have more to do with either parental or medical or societal assumptions and/or expectations than they do with what the people coping or not coping are coping or not coping with.

Which is a long way around to say that there’s more to this series than initially meets either the eye or the reader’s mind. Now that I’ve finished the whole thing – at least so far – the whole thing gets deeper and more meaningful the further you get into it, no matter the order that you get into it in.

So, on the surface there’s a story about vampires and mad scientists set in a place that the great horror movies might have used for their inspiration – if not their actual setting. Underneath that there’s a deeper story about balances of power and how devastating it can be when those balances become unbalanced. And the story of one heroine who is willing to throw her own body into the breach – along with her sister’s corpse – to preserve that balance at truly any and every cost.

At its heart – beating with the power of unbridled electricity – there’s a love story about a young woman who fell so much in love with a monster and the world that created her that she was willing to do anything at all to preserve that happy ever after – even to become a monster herself.

But the soul of the series, in each and every story, is that ‘actions have consequences’ for good and for ill, and that the most important thing, to do and to be, is to ‘Be Sure’ that your choices are the ones that you can live with – or die by.

A- #BookReview: The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler

A- #BookReview: The Tusks of Extinction by Ray NaylerThe Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: climate fiction, science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on January 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

When you bring back a long-extinct species, there’s more to success than the DNA.

Moscow has resurrected the mammoth, but someone must teach them how to be mammoths, or they are doomed to die out, again.
The late Dr. Damira Khismatullina, the world’s foremost expert in elephant behavior, is called in to help. While she was murdered a year ago, her digitized consciousness is uploaded into the brain of a mammoth.
Can she help the magnificent creatures fend off poachers long enough for their species to take hold?
And will she ever discover the real reason they were brought back?
A tense eco-thriller from a new master of the genre.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

When we first slip into Dr. Damira Khismatullina’s mind she is fighting the long defeat against ivory poachers along the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River in Kenya. She and her colleagues are losing the battle, and they know it. But they can’t stop fighting because they know that something precious will be lost if they can’t save the elephants.

She doesn’t know that she’s already lost; the battle, the war, and even her life, in a cause that is so very worthy against an implacable enemy that can’t be defeated but only delayed. Because her real enemy, the elephants’ true foe, isn’t poachers. It’s human greed. And that’s inexhaustible.

Dr. Damira may have lost her battle, but she’s not the only one fighting this war and conventional methods are not the only way to fight it. Because it’s not just about the elephants. It’s about the planet that made them.

Which is where Damira the mammoth comes into this story. Russian scientists have created a frigid version of Jurassic Park in the taiga, and have brought back not dinosaurs but mammoths in the hopes of pushing back climate change – at least a bit – by protecting and expanding the taiga and ultimately halting, or at least slowing, the melting of the permafrost.

But the newly resurrected mammoths are dying. They don’t know how to BE mammoths, and the captive elephants they were bred from didn’t even have the skills of how to be a wild elephant to teach them. But Dr. Damira Khismatullina did. Or does, as she was the last remaining expert on elephant behavior in the wild.

But she’s dead. The poachers killed her. And delivered her head back to the government to send the message that no one was permitted to even attempt to control the slaughter.

Compared to resurrecting an entire extinct species, implanting Dr. Khismatullina’s consciousness into a single member of that species was a piece of cake. So Damira the mammoth was reborn as the matriarch of the mammoth herd. She taught them to BE mammoths – or at least close enough for them to survive and even thrive in their new environment.

Just in time for the ivory hunters to find them. But Damira the mammoth matriarch has very different imperatives than Dr. Khismatullina the scientist did. And considerably more weapons at her disposal.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this one up because I utterly adored the author’s debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea. I mean I really, truly, seriously loved that book. To the point where I’ll be picking up everything he writes for years to come.

But that was so damn good that while I had hoped that The Tusks of Extinction would be good, I didn’t even expect that the lightning of that first book would fit into the novella-sized bottle of Tusks. Which it doesn’t – quite. Howsomever, that does not in any way mean that Tusks isn’t good, more that it has a VERY high bar to get over and not nearly as much space to run up to it.

The ecoterrorism that forms the background of The Tusks of Extinction is, unfortunately, very much like the mess the world has become in The Mountain in the Sea, something we can see all too clearly from here. Elephants NEED their tusks. Humans do not NEED ivory. They just want it because it’s rare and it’s difficult to obtain, and it’s precious because of those factors.

And humans are so very greedy, which explains the state of the world in a nutshell. (I digress, but only sorta/kinda. Dammit.)

So there’s a whole lot of sad hanging over this story, again, as there was in The Mountain in the Sea. But without that joy of discovery that carried Mountain, and without that surprising, albeit equivocal, sweetly bitter ending to a story that I expected to end in all bitter all the way down.

Also, as a science fiction reader, I wish that The Tusks of Extinction had a bit more time to explain how Russian science managed to reach BOTH the ability to resurrect an extinct species à la Jurassic Park AND the science needed to implant consciousness anywhere at all, let alone into another species, formerly extinct or otherwise. THAT story would be fascinating and we only get the barest hints of it here.

All of that being said, what makes this story work is the juxtaposition of the evolution of the new mammoths set against the total lack thereof of the humans that Damira left behind. Even though that evolution is likely to leave her fighting the long defeat yet again. At least this time around she has considerably better weaponry and is unlikely to live to see its ending.

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuire

Review: Mislaid in Parts Half Known by Seanan McGuireMislaid in Parts Half-Known (Wayward Children, #9) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Jesse Vilinsky
Format: audiobook, 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 #9
Pages: 160
Length: 4 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Dinosaurs and portals, and a girl who can find both in the latest book in the Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning series.
Antsy is the latest student to pass through the doors at Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children.
When her fellow students realize that Antsy's talent for finding absolutely anything may extend to doors, she's forced to flee in the company of a small group of friends, looking for a way back to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go to be sure that Vineta and Hudson are keeping their promise.
Along the way, temptations are dangled, decisions are reinforced, and a departure to a world populated by dinosaurs brings untold dangers and one or two other surprises!
A story that reminds us that finding what you want doesn't always mean finding what you need.

My Review:

This book and certainly the Wayward Children series as a whole, feels like the perfect story to start off the new year.


Because new years are all about doors closing, doors opening, and taking the opportunity to start with a fresh slate and reinvent yourself and how you see the world, and that’s a big part of what the Wayward Children series is all about.

Beginning with Every Heart a Doorway, the series is a metaphor for finding the place where you belong, the place that your heart calls home, and then getting tossed out of that personal Eden and being forced to make a whole new start on a whole new you – whether you want to or not.

Especially when you don’t. And when you no longer belong in the place you originally came from. You really can’t go home again because it’s not the place you remember and the people who once loved you no longer see you as theirs.

The story in this particular entry in the series picks up where the previous book, Lost in the Moment and Found, left off. Antsy has returned to Earth from the Shop Where the Lost Things Go, nine-years-old in a sixteen-year-old body, still angry at the shopkeeper Vineta and terrified that someone will figure out her secret.

Which they do. Both of her secrets. Her friends figure out that she isn’t nearly as mature as her body appears to be. Her enemies figure out that Antsy left the shop with a talent for finding anything – including other people’s doors – and have absolutely no care in the world about what the doors cost and zero intention to pay for it themselves because that’s what other people are for.

But Antsy can find anything when she needs it badly enough. Including a way out when she and her friends are cornered by the magically mesmerizing head mean girl and her clique of magically reinforced sycophants.

Leading Antsy and company to break one of the School’s most sacred rules. They think they’re hunting for an escape route, but what they’re really searching for is the place that at least one of their hearts calls home. In other words, they’re going on a quest.

A quest to find the one place that Antsy literally can’t afford to return to. Unless she takes it over – for herself.

Escape Rating A: Before I get started on the book, I want to mention that I listened to this one in audio – and that feels like a bit of an afterthought, which is rare. The book was excellent, as you can tell from the rating. But this is a case where the fact I was listening to it instead of reading it didn’t impinge on my consciousness at all. The experience felt seamless, as though the narrator was downloading the story directly into my brain. Which was VERY much unlike Under the Smokestrewn Sky, where the narration detracted from the story.

I said at the top that this book was perfectly themed for the start of the year, because of its fundamental metaphor about doors opening and reinvention that just dovetails perfectly with the thoughts and feelings we all have about the old year ending and the new year beginning.

Ironically, however, this entry in the series is much more about closing doors than it is about opening them, although it definitely carries the theme of self-reflection and reinvention and finally being sure of who one needs to be in the world and their life in it.

At first, the story feels very much a part of the YA genre which the series is often pigeonholed into, as out-of-place, out-of-time Antsy is being persecuted by a powerful clique of ‘mean girls’. It’s only when she starts revealing herself for who she really is and what she really can do that we start to see her as considerably more capable and mature than either her nine-year-old head or her sixteen-year-old body would be capable of.

Because her moral compass is firmly pointed towards doing the right thing, and she’s very sure indeed what that right thing is – at least in the context of the Shop, its doors, its costs, and its purpose. It wants her back, and she wants to go, but it’s more than that. It’s that she’s ready to do the necessary for the shop and for herself. She’s grown up in the ways that matter, she just has to recognize that fact.

She has to ‘Be Sure’, and by the story’s end, she finally is.

But along Antsy’s journey we see other doors that open and close for other ‘wayward children’. Discovering that her best friend is happy and somewhat safe in the world her own heart calls home, even if it’s a world that none of the rest of the travelers would be remotely interested in staying, gives her strength and much-needed closure.

However, the series as a whole feels like it’s winding down, as it should. The young children in the first part of the series are now teenagers and their life paths are reaching out for them. One way or another, their doors are opening, giving them one last chance to be sure enough to go home.

What got me about this entry in the series was the way that the doors and the futures they represent felt like metaphors for life, for making or finding a life filled with magic and purpose. It doesn’t HAVE to be the magic of the doors – because happiness is a magic all its own. All one has to do is find it. And BE SURE.

I’m sure I’ll be back for the next book in this series, currently untitled but scheduled to be published this time next year.

Review: System Collapse by Martha Wells

Review: System Collapse by Martha WellsSystem Collapse (The Murderbot Diaries, #7) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Murderbot Diaries #7
Pages: 256
Published by Tordotcom on November 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Am I making it worse? I think I'm making it worse.
Everyone's favorite lethal SecUnit is back.
Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly-colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits. But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free workforce is a decent runner-up prize.
But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranza’s SecUnit-heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast!
Yeah, this plan is... not going to work.

My Review:

The system that is collapsing in Murderbot’s seventh outing is Murderbot’s own – and it’s angsting about it in ways that are not remotely leading to optimal performance. Which in turn is leading to even less optimal performance.

In other words, as we check back into Murderbot’s usually snarkastic consciousness, Murderbot is a mess and doing its best to hide the full depth of its mess from itself. Every time its narrative bumps up against the incident that is causing it all the angst, it retreats into “[redacted]” and tries to work around the dysfunction.

The problem is that Murderbot is NOT truly working around whatever is eating away at it. As much as Murderbot likes to believe it is superior to humans – and it often is in the situations in which it finds itself – when it comes to dealing with its own shit it doesn’t function any better than the rest of us.

Which is reassuring IN a character the reader identifies and follows along with – but not so reassuring TO a character from its own internal perspective – as Murderbot learns to its own increasing dismay. And further degradation of its performance.

It seems like Murderbot is suffering from the SecUnit version of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ – and it’s just as uncomfortable for it as it is for us. Also every bit as panic inducing.

Meanwhile, Murderbot, its fellow snarkastic AI ART – or at least ART’s physically smaller drone as ART itself is a spaceship – and their collective humans are in the process of organizing a recently discovered ‘lost’ colony to resist the political, corporate, disinformation campaign of propaganda and eventual virtual enslavement being propagated by the Barish-Estranza corporation.

But the humans that Murderbot’s humans are attempting to help seem to be far, far from ready to BE helped. There’s a schism. In fact, there are multiple schisms among the human population as a result of alien contamination and mind control. And the resulting desire among the humans to get revenge on each other for what happened when they were being mind controlled.

So no one seems to be telling anyone anything like the information really needed to resolve this mess in a peaceful fashion. Then again, that doesn’t seem all that atypical of the history of the planet in contention – all the way back to the original settlement.

Among all the misinformation and disinformation being bandied about, one of the locals finally admits that there’s another colony on the planet that needs to weigh in on their narrowing options. If that breakaway group can be contacted. If they’re still alive.

And if the Barish-Estranza corporate goons haven’t gotten their hooks in first.

But of course they have, because Murderbot’s luck never runs any other way. But it will have to run as fast as it can to catch up and outwit those corporate operatives any way it can all the while wondering if it’s still capable of doing so at all.

Escape Rating A-: As I’ve said in pretty much every review of an entry in The Murderbot Diaries except that first joint review of the first three books in the series (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol), this seventh entry in the series is not the place to become acquainted with Murderbot’s brand of snarkasm. Start with All Systems Red. and buckle up for a wild ride.

For those of us who have been following Murderbot’s (mis)adventures from the beginning, this one feels like it starts a bit in the middle – perhaps even more than usual. And the somewhat dystopian, corporate controlled universe that Murderbot inhabits has become complex enough that I felt a bit lost at the beginning.

Which is also somewhat fitting, as Murderbot is definitely kind of lost at the beginning of the story. So a whole lot of this one is Murderbot being uncertain about itself and its competence, dealing with that uncertainty badly – as it deals with all the emotions it claims it doesn’t have. All the while, the situation in which it and its humans are currently endangered is every bit as FUBAR’d as usual.

Murderbot’s only good days are the ones where it gets to watch its space operas in peace – and those days are generally rare. And none of the days since its humans arrived at this colony have been anywhere near that good.

While the foreground story is of Murderbot’s crisis of confidence and its rise to that challenge, the situation in which it takes place is a combination of humans behaving both badly and humanly, and of the desperation of humans on all sides as the verities of their worldview – however terribly and skewed, begin to erode.

Therefore, in the background of the story, it’s clear that Murderbot’s system is not the only one that is collapsing. Its personal collapse is something that can be fixed – or at least dealt with. But the system of corporate hegemony/control/tyranny of this universe is showing signs of its inevitable collapse – a situation that I hope to see come to the foreground in future installments of this series, especially in the two untitled entries yet to come.

Review: A Power Unbound by Freya Marske

Review: A Power Unbound by Freya MarskeA Power Unbound (The Last Binding, #3) by Freya Marske
Narrator: Josh Dylan
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, gaslamp, historical fantasy, M/M romance
Series: Last Binding #3
Pages: 432
Length: 16 hours and 7 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

A Power Unbound is the final entry in Freya Marske’s beloved, award-winning Last Binding trilogy, the queer historical fantasy series that began with A Marvellous Light.
Secrets! Magic! Enemies to. . .something more?
Jack Alston, Lord Hawthorn, would love a nice, safe, comfortable life. After the death of his twin sister, he thought he was done with magic for good. But with the threat of a dangerous ritual hanging over every magician in Britain, he’s drawn reluctantly back into that world.
Now Jack is living in a bizarre puzzle-box of a magical London townhouse, helping an unlikely group of friends track down the final piece of the Last Contract before their enemies can do the same. And to make matters worse, they need the help of writer and thief Alan Ross.
Cagey and argumentative, Alan is only in this for the money. The aristocratic Lord Hawthorn, with all his unearned power, is everything that Alan hates. And unfortunately, Alan happens to be everything that Jack wants in one gorgeous, infuriating package.
When a plot to seize unimaginable power comes to a head at Cheetham Hall―Jack’s ancestral family estate, a land so old and bound in oaths that it’s grown a personality as prickly as its owner―Jack, Alan and their allies will become entangled in a night of champagne, secrets, and bloody sacrifice . . . and the foundations of magic in Britain will be torn up by the roots before the end.

My Review:

This series, The Last Binding, has always been a story about power, wrapped inside a bit of pretty fantasy romance and steeped in the verbal byplay of a comedy of manners. But at the heart of all the fluff and froth, of which there has been a delicious amount, is a core of cold, hard steel.

The question has always been whose, whose power, whose needs, who decides who are the many and who are the few, and who gets to wield all the power at the foundation of British magic.

Because there really is a crisis coming, not just to British magic but to the world as a whole. That crisis, based on timing, is World War I. So the looming threat on the horizon is all too real. The problem is that too many at the pinnacle of power have decided that they are the only people capable of wielding that power, and that anyone who stands in their way is to be cut down. Permanently – and all too often with malice aforethought.

That they’ll frankly be doing their enemy’s work for them doesn’t occur to any of them. That no one has had even a thought to how the power was intended to be held and wielded doesn’t even cross their minds.

But it does cross the minds of our ragtag group of, let’s call them questioners of whether any ends justify the means that are being gone to. Especially as ALL of them have been the victims of those means in one way or another.

A Power Unbound begins by answering the questions raised early in A Marvellous Light, the questions about how and why Jack Alston, Lord Hawthorn, lost his magic and his twin sister in the first place. The questions about just how long this nefarious plot has been going on, and just how early it sunk to its terrible depths.

Depths which are displayed on the grandest stage possible for all the magical world to see, as no one bats an eye as long as they get to keep their own power. But magic itself has a say, and it has finally found agents through whom it can be said.

Their world will never be the same. Nor should it be.

Escape Rating B: I am all over the map about this story, because it is such a wild mixture of historical fantasy, power tripping and political shenanigans, mystery, romance and comedy of manners. Whether any reader will fall in love with the series probably depends on which parts of the melange they are in this thing for.

Which is where all the reading mileage is going to end up varying. A LOT.

I got into the first book, A Marvellous Light, for the magical and political skullduggery. It begins as a murder mystery and then dives into the murky depths of magic and politics and starts the whole series on its meditations about power and its ultimate corruption. A marvelous queer romance also occurs during the course of that story, but it never took a backseat to the magic and the mystery.

But the balancing act between the romance and the magical mystery tour started to tip in the second book in the series. I did enjoy A Restless Truth for its shipboard antics and the way it moved the search for the Last Contract two steps forward and one step back, but it felt a bit like the romance got a bit in the way of the parts of the story I was there for.

From my perspective, A Power Unbound got a bit too bound up in the romance between Jack and Alan for the first half of the book. A reader who is in this series for its romances will probably feel a lot differently, but for this reader it felt like the story was spinning its wheels in endless setup as Jack and Alan teetered on the knife edge of ‘will they, won’t they’. In the first half of the story the romance was at the center of the story rather than the magical mystery political pot boiling over and scalding our entire band of heroes, and I had hoped for the reverse.

At about the halfway point, which is where I switched from audio to text because I needed the story to just get on with it, the pace picked up, the amount of feces hitting the oscillating device increased dramatically, the plots on both sides got ever more convoluted, Murphy’s Law rained all over everyone, and the whole thing galloped towards an epic conclusion that was not quite the one that anyone expected but was absolutely perfect as a way of bringing the runaway plot train to a satisfying stop.

(For anyone considering the audio, the narrator did an excellent job, I just wanted the whole thing to move along faster than audio naturally or even unnaturally does. I do listen to audio because I love the voices. Mickey Mouse’s voice is another thing entirely – although it would have been hilarious for the sex scenes, it would absolutely have set the wrong tone.)

I find myself back at my earlier statement. How much a reader will love A Power Unbound will depend on which parts of the story that reader is here after. If you’re here for the romance, this one is a delight. If you’re here for the magical power and politics contest, the second half is fantastic but the romance-centered first half gets in the way of figuring out all of the whos and why they done what they done. (The whos are mostly obvious, but the whys are considerably less so.)

No matter which side of that divide you fall on, anyone who has fallen for this marvelous cast of sinners with the occasional saintly impulse will be thrilled by the epic, world-shattering ending!