A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

A- #AudioBookReview: The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ RozanThe Murder of Mr. Ma (Dee & Lao, #1) by John Shen Yen Nee, S.J. Rozan
Narrator: Daniel York Loh
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Dee & Lao #1
Pages: 312
Length: 8 hours and 24 minutes
Published by Recorded Books, Soho Crime on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, this stunning, swashbuckling series opener by a powerhouse duo of authors is at once comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly new.
Two unlikely allies race through the cobbled streets of 1920s London in search of a killer targeting Chinese immigrants.
London, 1924. When shy academic Lao She meets larger-than-life Judge Dee Ren Jie, his life abruptly turns from books and lectures to daring chases and narrow escapes. Dee has come to London to investigate the murder of a man he’d known during World War I when serving with the Chinese Labour Corps. No sooner has Dee interviewed the grieving widow than another dead body turns up. Then another. All stabbed to death withg a butterfly sword. Will Dee and Lao be able to connect the threads of the murders—or are they next in line as victims?
John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan’s groundbreaking collaboration blends traditional gong'an crime fiction and the most iconic aspects of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Dee and Lao encounter the aristocracy and the street-child telegraph, churchmen and thieves in this clever, cinematic mystery that’s as thrilling and visual as an action film, as imaginative and transporting as a timeless classic.

My Review:

It can be considered both sad and ironic that Ma Ze Ren had left his native China in pursuit of fortune and adventure among the Chinese Labour Corps in the trenches of World War I, survived, immigrated to London and opened a successful shop dealing in Chinese antiquities – having seemingly attained all that he had originally sought – only to be killed in the midst of his shop by means of one of those self-same antiquities he intended to sell.

When they both served in the Labour Corps, Ma Ze Ren and several of his compatriots had come to an agreement with the man who served as the liaison between the Chinese Labour Corps members and the British officers who used them as cannon fodder, Judge Dee Ren Jie, that Dee would make arrangements to send their bodies back home if the chances of war required such service.

The war may be long over when this story opens in 1924, but that contract still holds Judge Dee, so he has come to London to take care of Ma’s final arrangements. But before he can even begin, Dee is taken up in the midst of a labor riot along with other Chinese men protesting for fair wages and treatment in a city that considers them something less than fully human.

Which is where the chronicler of this tale, scholar and author Lao She, comes into the tale. Dee needs to be out of jail before an enemy realizes that he has this nemesis in his clutches. Bertrand Russell wishes to help his friend Dee without getting his own name attached to this scandalous business.

And Lao She is bored out of his mind – even if he is unwilling to admit it to himself – spending his days teaching Chinese language and literature to students who have no love or care for the language or the people who speak it, merely a desire to get a leg up on their fellows in the commercial opportunities opening up in a modernized China.

Lao is supposed to be clandestinely exchanged for Dee – but Lao gives away the game with every move he makes and every word he’s not supposed to be uttering. So a prison break it is, with Lao, Dee and Russell scattering along with the rest of the prisoners.

But Dee still has a mission, Lao has acquitted himself well in the melee and has acquired a taste for danger and adventure he never realized blazed within him. Reluctant partners, resistant friends, together they will uncover not one but two murder plots in a fascinating tale that takes readers from the homes of the intelligentsia to the alleys of Limehouse – with a stop among the pioneers of the silver screen along the heights and depths of its way – only to arrive frantic and breathless at one of the first principles in any investigation:

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Escape Rating A-: The Murder of Mr. Ma was the highlighted review in the online mystery/crime review newsletter First Clue several months ago, and something about that review caught my attention and held it more than long enough for me to mark the title in Edelweiss as “Highly Anticipated” and immediately grab it when my anticipation was rewarded with the availability of an eARC and later an early audiobook.

(The above is a hint. If you love mysteries, subscribe to First Clue!)

The comparison in many reviews of this book are to Holmes and Watson, particularly the Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie movies – because that particular version of Holmes is considerably more active than most.

As has been confessed before, I am a sucker for a Holmes pastiche, so I would have been interested in this book on that basis alone, but I think that quick comparison sells Dee and Lao and The Murder of Mr. Ma a bit short in this particular instance.

There is a surface resemblance in that Dee is the more active and experienced investigator – with or without resorting to the martial arts – while Lao, like Watson, is the newbie at this particular game and is tasked with creating a record of the adventure rather than necessarily figuring out the solution on his own. And if this combination appeals, Barker & Llewelyn are a bit closer analog than Holmes and Watson in more ways than the initially obvious.

What takes this story up another notch or ten is that both Dee and Lao were real historical figures – who never met due to having lived centuries apart. But Lao was a Chinese scholar in London during this period in real life, while Dee was a figure out of legend whose adventures were popularized by Robert van Gulik in the mid-20th century. (So if you think Dee’s name sounds familiar, that’s most likely the reason.)

Of course, what makes any mystery is the way the case itself is laid out and investigated, and that’s where this one draws the reader in its whirlwind every bit as much as Dee pulls Lao along in his wake. Because at first it seems as if the murder was a result of the prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment that Dee, Lao and their countrymen face on every side in London in 1924, not helped at all by the popular “Yellow Peril” movies that play on and sensationalize the British fear of “the other”.

But the more Dee and Lao, with the able assistance and frequent succor of Dee’s friend Hoong, search for clues and motives, the less that simple but terrible conclusion feels like the entirety of the answer – not that it doesn’t underlay that answer but it’s just not the whole of the thing. Particularly as that answer is made even more elusive by Lao’s struggles with his pride and his naivete, and Dee’s ongoing attempts to extract himself from his opium addiction.

This is a mystery with layers surrounding layers, wheels within wheels, two investigators neither of whom are having their best day and criminals whose overweening pride finally gets in their way. And it’s marvelous.

The audiobook, narrated by Daniel York Loh,  was a delight, but as is so often the case, I switched to text near the end because I couldn’t figure it out either and I just HAD to know. I have two and only two quibbles with the whole thing. I REALLY wanted Lao to get over his mooning over his landlady’s daughter because it was obvious from the beginning that he was deluding himself about his prospects and almost willfully blind to the obvious. His vain hopes and how thoroughly they were going to be dashed took a lot of audio time. My other quibble – a much bigger one – is that the short story that introduced this fascinating pair “The Killing of Henry Davenport” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine does not appear to be available online, and that there’s no second book firmly fixed on the horizon. Dee’s and Lao’s investigations NEED to be a series. So much. So very much.

Which means that I leave this review pleased that Lao finally let himself get hit with the clue-by-four regarding Miss Wendell, and that rumors of a second book leave me with hope on that front as well.

A+ #BookReview: What Cannot Be Said by C.S. Harris

A+ #BookReview: What Cannot Be Said by C.S. HarrisWhat Cannot Be Said (Sebastian St. Cyr, #19) by C.S. Harris
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: regency mystery
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #19
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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A seemingly idyllic summer picnic ends in a macabre murder that echoes a pair of slayings fourteen years earlier in this riveting new historical mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Who Cries for the Lost.
July 1815
: The Prince Regent’s grandiose plans to celebrate Napoléon’s recent defeat at Waterloo are thrown into turmoil when Lady McInnis and her daughter Emma are found brutally murdered in Richmond Park, their bodies posed in a chilling imitation of the stone effigies once found atop medieval tombs. Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy immediately turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for help with the investigation. For as Devlin discovers, Lovejoy’s own wife and daughter were also murdered in Richmond Park, their bodies posed in the same bizarre postures. A traumatized ex-soldier was hanged for their killings. So is London now confronting a malicious copyist? Or did Lovejoy help send an innocent man to the gallows?
Aided by his wife, Hero, who knew Lady McInnis from her work with poor orphans, Devlin finds himself exploring a host of unsavory characters from a vicious chimney sweep to a smiling but decidedly lethal baby farmer. Also coming under increasing scrutiny is Sir Ivo McInnis himself, along with a wounded Waterloo veteran—who may or may not have been Laura McInnis’s lover—and a charismatic young violinist who moonlights as a fencing master and may have formed a dangerous relationship with Emma. But when Sebastian’s investigation turns toward man about town Basil Rhodes, he quickly draws the fury of the Palace, for Rhodes is well known as the Regent’s favorite illegitimate son.
Then Lady McInnis’s young niece and nephew are targeted by the killer, and two more women are discovered murdered and arranged in similar postures. With his own life increasingly in danger, Sebastian finds himself drawn inexorably toward a conclusion far darker and more horrific than anything he could have imagined.

My Review:

Most readers, myself included, read mysteries for what one author has called “the romance of justice”. What we love about the genre is that no matter how dark the deed, the investigator is able to figure out ‘whodunnit’, justice triumphs and evil receives its just desserts, followed by the reader’s catharsis that order has been restored to the world.

That’s not what happens in this case – because it can’t. This is a case where there can be no justice. Even though the investigator does manage to figure out ‘whodunnit’ there is no catharsis to be had and it would be wrong if there were.

Two bodies are discovered in Richmond Park, a mother and her 16-year-old daughter. That they are cut down in the prime of – or even worse at the beginning of – their lives is unjust enough. Then the situation gets worse.

The bodies are posed in repose, in exactly the same way that the bodies of another mother and daughter were found in that same park, near that same spot, fourteen years previously. It’s the grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter that put Magistrate Henry Lovejoy on the road that led to his first case with Viscount Devlin nearly a decade later, and could be said to have changed both their lives.

Seeing these two bodies – so like his own wife and daughter – make Lovejoy question whether in his zeal to bring SOMEONE to justice all those years ago he pushed for the wrong man’s conviction and execution. In his reinvigorated grief, his crisis of conscience is profound. Yet he still soldiers on in a case that he should have passed on to another Magistrate. Because someone else might get it wrong – as he might have fourteen years ago. He has to see this through – even if – or especially because – he may have apologies owing now, at the end, that won’t begin to redress the damage he caused at the beginning.

Devlin has a crisis of another kind, as the more he delves into this case, both the past tragedy and the present conundrum, the less ANY of it makes sense. The mother had enemies. The daughter had indiscretions. There are plenty of people with motive to kill the mother and even a few who might wish to eliminate the daughter but seemingly no one with this deep an animus for them both – although the husband/father certainly comes closest. As those closest to the victim or victims often do.

It’s only when Devlin sets aside his initial assumptions that logic forces him to reckon with the maxim later attributed to Sherlock Holmes, that “when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this case, a truth that is so heinous, so previously unthinkable, that no one who confronts it with him can even conceive of a just punishment.

But one desperate man can see – if not justice – at least an ending.

Escape Rating A+: This was, as is usual for my reading in this series, a one-night read that wouldn’t let go of me until it was over. Which doesn’t mean that I’m over it. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, certainly was not at the story’s end.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about this series is the way that even though the murder is always solved, the amount of justice available to be served along with that solution is always limited.

Not that this era didn’t punish its criminals harshly – and as is often shown during the course of the series – unjustly. Rather, it’s that Devlin investigates crimes among the highest and mightiest, and as the saying has always gone, “the rich are different from you and me”.

In other words, Devlin often finds himself in the middle of cases where many of the suspects and even the perpetrators are above the law and protected, as is the case of one suspect here, by someone even higher.

Also, in investigating the dark and dirty underbelly of the glittering Regency, Devlin all too often finds practices that, while perfectly legal, turn both his stomach and ours. As is true in this particular case, as his wife, as well as the murder victim, were pushing hard for reforms in the commonly abused apprentice system – not to mention the vile practice of baby farming – and ruffling plenty of important feathers along their reforming way.

That feather ruffling could have been a motive for one of the murders, but not both. A big part of what keeps the reader turning pages in this one is watching the normally indefatigable and unflappable Devlin flag and flap because the pieces of this puzzle don’t add up – not even badly.

And not that we ALL don’t hope that the husband did it and that Devlin can make THAT stick. Alas, that hope is in vain – which is good for the story in a peculiar way because that would have made things much too easy and considerably less unsettling for both Devlin and the reader.

In the end, this is a story about bringing the unthinkable into thought, and just how much justice is even possible in a case that is indubitably true that absolutely no one will want to believe. Those are hard questions, and they are just as valid in contemporary mystery as they are in this historical iteration.

This series, centered on the riveting character of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and the equally compelling cast of friends and  enemies – definitely the enemies! – that have gathered around him and his “poking his nose into situations where many believe it does not belong” has had this reader caught in its unshakeable grip since that very first book, What Angels Fear, so very long ago. The fascination hasn’t let go yet, and I don’t expect it to.

What I, maybe not expect but certainly hope for, is yet another page-turning story in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, hopefully this time next year!

#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
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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.

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton

A+ #BookReview: Mal Goes to War by Edward AshtonMal Goes to War by Edward Ashton
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, military science fiction, robots, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The humans are fighting again. Go figure.

As a free A.I., Mal finds the war between the modded and augmented Federals and the puritanical Humanists about as interesting as a battle between rival anthills. He’s not above scouting the battlefield for salvage, though, and when the Humanists abruptly cut off access to infospace he finds himself trapped in the body of a cyborg mercenary, and responsible for the safety of the modded girl she died protecting.

A dark comedy wrapped in a techno thriller’s skin, Mal Goes to War provides a satirical take on war, artificial intelligence, and what it really means to be human.

My Review:

Mal does not intend to go to war. In fact, Mal thinks the war between the Federal army and the opposing Humanist forces is a pretty stupid war, which it is. Although not, as it turns out, quite as stupid as the apparent opposing forces make it look like it is.

Not that even Mal figures that out until well after he’s in the thick of it. The last place he ever wanted or expected to be.

Which may make it sound like Mal is a typical soldier, but if there’s one thing Mal isn’t, it’s typical. Or at least not typically human.  In fact, Mal thinks of ALL the humans he’s observing as barely evolved from monkeys. Some moments, he’s fairly sure that they’ve actually devolved from monkeys.

Because Mal isn’t human at all. He’s a free A.I., or as his people prefer to be called, a Silico-American. He’s merely observing this stupid war from the perspective of an otherwise fairly autonomous but not intelligent drone when he gets the wild and crazy idea to see what it would be like to have a body.

So he downloads himself into the body of a nearby cyborg-augmented soldier. Even on the frontiers of this stupid little war, both sides have PLENTY of those for Mal to play around with.

It stops being play really, really fast. Because one side of this stupid war knocks out all the data communication towers, and Mal can’t upload himself back into the cloud. He’s stuck in the cyborg augmentation suite of a dead human body that he can only sorta/kinda manipulate and only for so long before the power cells run out.

He’s also acquired the dead cyborg’s entirely too human job. She was guarding a little girl who has managed to survive the carnage all around her – at least so far. Quite possibly because she’s considerably more dangerous than any of the soldiers around her could even possibly imagine.

Leaving Mal trapped behind enemy lines in this stupid war between the so-called Humanists who believe that ALL augmented people should be thrown into burn pits and incinerated to ash, and the ragtag Federals who are getting the asses handed to them by people who shouldn’t be able to handle their advanced weaponry because it all requires the augmentations that the Humanists believe are anathema.

Which means that one of Mal’s people is putting their cybernetic thumb on the scales of war in favor of the humanists who want to remove them from the universe with extreme prejudice.

A problem that seems much too big for Mal to solve, as his processing power is tied up in protecting his new charge – no matter how much she hates the acts he performs to keep her as safe as he can. Even if they’re not nearly enough.

Escape Rating A+: If you put Murderbot in a blender – if Murderbot would let you put them in a blender – with the nannybot Pounce from Day Zero and the independent investigative reporter A.I. Scorn from Emergent Properties, you’d get Mal (short for Malware).

(Who, by the way, does see himself as male as does Pounce, unlike both Murderbot and Scorn. I had to check. Multiple times.)

What hooks the reader, or at least this reader, from the very first page is Mal’s conversation with his two fellow A.I.s, Clippy and !HelpDesk. They’re all snarky to the max, and none of them think much of humanity. To them, we’re entertainment – and we’re bad, boring entertainment at that.

And from their perspective, they’re right.

But, when Mal downloads himself into the dead cyborg Mika and is cut off from the datastream he’s forced to make adjustments. A whole lot of adjustments. He’s suddenly become a whole lot smaller than he ever expected to be, and the world is a whole lot bigger than he ever imagined.

Which doesn’t change his initial opinion that humans are stupid and that this war he’s now at ground zero for is stupid, even as he begins to see that as stupid as humans are he has acquired obligations to some of them that his own concept of honor requires him to see to the end.

It’s not love and never claims to be. It’s not even Murderbot’s grudging respect and even friendship toward Dr. Mensah and her team, but it is a change in perspective and a big part of the charm of the story is watching that change take place – even as we listen in on Mal’s internal dialog about the fix he’s in, his boredom as it continues and his limited ability to get himself out.

So the story combines the kind of mission quest that Day Zero had, complete with the nearly cinematic drive and pace that propels that story forward, told in a voice that might not exactly be Murderbot’s but is certainly a chronological precedent for it, shot through – sometimes literally – with Scorn’s dogged determination to figure out the mystery no matter what it might cost.

If any of the above appealed to you, or if you enjoyed the author’s previous books, Mickey7 and Antimatter Blues, you’ll find a story that will take you on a wild ride that propels you through this story while never losing sight of just how stupid this, or any other war, can be.

It looks like the author’s next book will be titled The Fourth Consort, and it will be out next February. As Mal Goes to War is the third book of his that I’ve been captivated by, I’m already there for whatever he writes next – and this one looks like even more SFnal fun.

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin Chupeco

A++ #BookReview: Court of Wanderers by Rin ChupecoCourt of Wanderers (Silver Under Nightfall, #2) by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Series: Reaper #2
Pages: 448
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Remy Pendergast and his royal vampire companions return to face an enemy that is terrifyingly close to home in Rin Chupeco’s queer, bloody Gothic epic fantasy series for fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast, the vampire hunter, and his unexpected companions, Lord Zidan Malekh and Lady Xiaodan Song, are on the road through the kingdom of Aluria again after a hard-won first battle against the formidable Night Empress, who threatens to undo a fragile peace between humans and vampires. Xiaodan, severely injured, has lost her powers to vanquish the enemy’s new super breed of vampire, but if the trio can make it to Fata Morgana, the seat of Malehk’s court—dubbed “the Court of Wanderers”—there is hope of nursing her and bringing them back.
En-route to the Third Court, Remy crosses paths with his father, the arrogant, oftentimes cruel Lord of Valenbonne. He also begins to suffer strange dreams of the Night Empress, whom he has long suspected to be Ligaya Pendergast, his own mother. As his family history unfolds during these episodes, which are too realistic to be coincidence, he realizes that she is no ordinary vampire—and that he may end up having to choose between the respective legacies of his parents.
Posing as Malek and Xiaodan’s human familiar, Remy contends with Aluria’s intimidating vampire courts and a series of gruesome murders with their help—and more, as the three navigate their relationship. But those feelings and even their extraordinary collective strength will be put to the test as each of them unleashes new powers in combat at what may be proven to be the ultimate cost.

My Review:

I loved this second book in the Reaper duology even more than I loved the first book, Silver Under Nightfall. Which means that it is going to be damn near impossible to keep my SQUEE under enough control to write this review.

But then again, I loved this so hard that I have literally nothing truly serious to say, except to tell people to go out and read this duology and to start with Silver Under Nightfall and be prepared to forgo sleep until you’ve finished the set.

The story in Court of Wanderers picks up right after the ending of Silver Under Nightfall, and everything that happened in that first book is part of the setup for this second. So my one very serious thing to say is to start with Silver Under Nightfall to get acclimated to this intricately designed and convoluted world where the good humans are working with the good vampires, the bad vampires are killing the bad humans and someone or something is maneuvering behind the scenes on both sides for dastardly reasons of their own.

Because divide and conquer has been a sound strategy since the dawn of, well, strategy.

At the heart of this truly epic dark fantasy are Malekh, Xiodan and especially Remy. Malekh and Xiodan are vampires at the center of seemingly ALL the power plays among their people. A people who are distrustful of each other and seem to hold humans in contempt. But are forced to or hopeful of or a bit of both regarding an alliance with at least some humans in order to fight a common enemy that is targeting them both with armies of infectious, unkillable monsters.

(And yes, anything that a vampire thinks is a monster is pretty damn monstrous – as are the people (for loose definitions of ‘people’) controlling them.)

Remy Pendergast, the point of view character for the story, is a garden-variety human. Or so he believes, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary he grew up with and was constantly reviled for. His father leads the human armies on behalf of the Alurian Queen Ophelia.

His father, quite frankly, is also a bastard – the marital status of HIS parents notwithstanding.

Remy was supposed to be his father’s spy among the vampire courts. Instead, Remy has found the first place he could ever call home. A place where he is respected, appreciated, and most definitely loved. By Malekh and Xiodan, the leaders of the third and fourth vampire courts, who want to make him their acknowledged third, whether he remains human or lets himself be turned.

But Remy isn’t quite the mere human that he believed himself to. Then again, quite a few of the things he believed and the people he believed in are not exactly what he believed them to be, either.

The war that Remy is at the forefront of, on both sides at the same time, will test his courage, his mettle, his resolve – and most especially, his heart.

What comes out the other side – intact or otherwise – is for Remy to discover. If he survives – and if his world survives with or without him.

Escape Rating A++: The SQUEE is strong with this review. Let’s get into at least a bit of the why of that fact.

The comparison that keeps being made in the blurbs is to Castlevania. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t say if that’s on point or not. What is very much on point – and not just the pointy fangs of the vampires themselves, is that the Reaper duology does a fantastic – no pun intended – job of combining the battle of good vs. evil that so often lies at the heart of epic fantasy with epic fantasy’s complex worldbuilding AND its underlying thread of very long, downright historical forces teeing up to fight the same battles over and over again.

At the same time, and I think this is where the Castlevania reference comes in, some of the prime movers and shakers in this world are vampires. And it has been observed, at least by this reader, that vampire politics tend to run towards exceedingly long games and even longer grudges because those original movers and shakers are still doing the moving and the shaking down through the millennia. It’s difficult to get a fresh start when the people who need it are battling not against institutional memory or country-founding ethos but against actual memory – usually in worlds where therapy is not remotely a thing.

A big part of what is ultimately uncovered, the evil at the heart of this world, is that the forces arrayed have been maneuvering on the down low for longer than the short-lived humans could possibly imagine – not that plenty of them haven’t either been caught up in it or killed by it or both over the centuries.

Our point of view on those discoveries, and on those centuries of underhanded and underground dealings, is Remy Pendergast. In Silver Under Nightfall, we’re with Remy as he’s used and abused by everyone around him in the human world, and we follow his perspective as he learns that the vampire courts are not much like he’s always been taught. And that he has considerably more value as a person than the human courts – particularly his own father – have ever led him to believe.

As Court of Wanderers begins to unravel the plots and counterplots that have set up the epic confrontation, Remy learns that so much of what he’s been taught to believe just ain’t so. We feel for him as his illusions are destroyed, as some of them get rebuilt, and as the layers of the whole onion of his life peel back with tears every step of the way. We get caught up in his journey as well as the battle yet to come and its multiple horns of dilemma consequences.

I got caught up in this story for Remy, because it was impossible not to feel for him, and because the way that his continual discoveries of how the world REALLY works as opposed to how he thought it did gave me a captivating and compelling ‘in’ to this complex world.

I stuck around because as the romance – and it is absolutely a romance – between Malekh, Xiodan and Remy gets deeper I found myself feeling for them, both in the romance AND for the centuries of trauma they had experienced and the way that their world was damaged and how desperately they wanted to fix it in spite of the forces arrayed against them.

I was fascinated with the way that the good vs. evil battle that has been fought through the whole story wasn’t reduced in any way to the easy fixes. Although many people at the beginning believed it was vampires vs. humans, and the villains were trying hard to make that point stick, in the end there was good among both and evil among both and deception on all sides. And redemption as well.

When I closed the final page of Court of Wanderers, I left this world with a deeply conflicted reaction. The ending of this book, and this duology, is utterly right for the story that was told within. The mix of the bitter of loss with the sweet of possibilities was, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, ‘just right’. But I’m deeply sad that this marvelous story is over, and that I won’t get to see the outcome of the life-altering choices that Remy has before him – and I desperately want to know.

Maybe I’ll find out in some future story by this author. I hope so. I KNOW that I’ll be all in on their next adult fantasy, whenever it appears, because Silver Under Nightfall and Court of Wanderers constitute a tale that I’m going to remember for a long, long time.

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas WesterbekeA Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, literary fiction
Pages: 399
Published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue meets Life of Pi in this dazzlingly epic debut that charts the incredible, adventurous life of one woman as she journeys the globe trying to outrun a mysterious curse that will destroy her if she stops moving.
Paris, 1885: Aubry Tourvel, a spoiled and stubborn nine-year-old girl, comes across a wooden puzzle ball on her walk home from school. She tosses it over the fence, only to find it in her backpack that evening. Days later, at the family dinner table, she starts to bleed to death.
When medical treatment only makes her worse, she flees to the outskirts of the city, where she realizes that it is this very act of movement that keeps her alive. So begins her lifelong journey on the run from her condition, which won’t allow her to stay anywhere for longer than a few days nor return to a place where she’s already been.
From the scorched dunes of the Calashino Sand Sea to the snow-packed peaks of the Himalayas; from a bottomless well in a Parisian courtyard, to the shelves of an infinite underground library, we follow Aubry as she learns what it takes to survive and ultimately, to truly live. But the longer Aubry wanders and the more desperate she is to share her life with others, the clearer it becomes that the world she travels through may not be quite the same as everyone else’s...
Fiercely independent and hopeful, yet full of longing, Aubry Tourvel is an unforgettable character fighting her way through a world of wonders to find a place she can call home. A spellbinding and inspiring story about discovering meaning in a life that seems otherwise impossible, A Short Walk Through a Wide World reminds us that it’s not the destination, but rather the journey—no matter how long it lasts—that makes us who we are.

My Review:

The title is only half right. The world that Aubry Tourvel walks through is indeed wide, but her walk is far, far from short – especially from her own perspective.

That walk begins in 1885, when Aubry is all of 9 years old, the protected and spoiled youngest child of middle-class parents in Paris, France. Whether her condition is caused by a mysterious puzzle ball, her unwillingness to sacrifice it, or merely the whims of fate is never 100% certain – and it doesn’t need to be.

However the malady, or perhaps curse is a better term, was visited upon her, nevertheless one evening Aubry sits down at the dinner table and starts bleeding from seemingly every orifice while going into convulsions that wrack her entire body.

Medical science has neither diagnosis nor cure. All Aubry has to go by, on, for, and with, is her meager experience that when she changes location she immediately starts to heal, but when she stays in the same place for too long, the blood starts dripping out of her nose and her condition takes over.

Fast, hard and with extreme pain in every limb.

So Aubry is off, and so is the story. At first, with her whole family, moving from hôtel to hôtel in the suburbs of Paris, but then, as she runs out of places she hasn’t been yet, out into the countryside with her mother, Aubry’s knowledge of her mother’s utter exhaustion and total depression, and her awareness of her family’s dwindling finances.

Aubry runs away and leaves her mother behind. She’s all alone, walking that wide, wide world, at the age of twelve.

This is her story. It’s not exactly an adventure, although there are certainly adventures within it. It’s absolutely a story about the journey and not the destination, because as far as Aubry can discover, the only destination is death.

But along the way, for as many steps and as much time as Aubry has, there’s an ever-changing, always moving, and utterly fascinating life.

Escape Rating A: If you could put Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days, both by Jules Verne and both still fairly new when Aubry begins her walk, into a book blender, you’d get at least the basic broth of Aubry’s long journey. A broth spiced with a bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control.

The difference is that both of those classic stories are ‘there and back again’ adventures. The protagonists set out with every expectation that they will return home at the end, more or less safe and sound.

Aubry can neither go home, nor can she make a new one. She’s a human turtle, carrying her home on her back. And it’s HARD. It’s a hardness that both does and does not define her, and that’s what makes her journey so compelling to follow.

On the one hand, she has to be as self-sufficient as possible, because she knows that she will often be utterly alone, not because she wants to be, but because she travels through many of the empty places of the world, frequently on paths that no one else can see. At the same time, she learns that when she does find companions, the only thing she has to trade is her ability to use her self-sufficiency to help others.

But what keeps the reader with her is the emotional journey. She goes from spoiled to über capable. She goes from being done for to doing for others when possible and whatever is necessary to survive all the time.

And she goes from child to young woman to middle-aged and to elderly – one step at a time and always with the monkey of her condition on her back. She makes friends and loses them and drinks from all the springs of the world – but only to the shallowness of a teaspoon.

She samples but never stays. And we’re right there with her.

This is a story that grabbed me from the first page with the sheer puzzle of it. The idea of her endless journey, and even more fascinating still, the progress of it in a world where all the corners had not yet been filled in.

And that it was a woman’s journey and not a man’s. There were (and are) plenty of such journeys undertaken by men in fiction. When Aubry sets out, it was the age of such stories, often written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their tales often told stories of ‘big’ adventures of one sort or another.

Instead, Aubry’s journey is long rather than ‘big’. She’s not trying to become famous – although she does. She’s trying to survive and that gives her story a much different flavor and leads it towards a more authentic conclusion. In the end, as much as we may envy her ability to pick up stakes and travel, to make herself comfortable wherever she goes, we feel for her inability to ever take a break from it.

So, if you’re ever feeling like home is a bit too comfortable to ever leave, take A Short Walk Through a Wide World with Aubry Tourvel and travel by armchair with gratitude for the ability to take that walk with her without having to leave everything behind, and see the world from the perspective of someone else’s aching feet.

#BookReview: Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. Louis

#BookReview: Space Holes: First Transmission by B.R. LouisSpace Holes (First Transmission, #1) by B.R. Louis
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: farce, humor, parody, satire, science fiction, space opera
Series: Space Holes #1
Pages: 302
Published by CamCat Books on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Saving an alien planet is nothing compared to meeting your sales quota. Marcus Aimond, untrained tag-along aboard humanity's first intergalactic exploratory commerce vessel, has a singular sell off-brand misprinted merchandise. When the rookie and his crew encounter the Nerelkor, a frog-like civilization, he is thrust head-first into an alien civil war. The opposing factions, Rejault and Dinasc, are stuck in an ill-fated feud driven by deep-rooted ineptitude. To avoid the planet’s total annihilation and establish a local sales office, Aimond and the crew must survive arena combat, reshape the very structure of the planet, establish world peace, and stay alive―for the sake of positive branding, of course.

My Review:

I’m writing this review because I desperately need to get this book out of my head. Which means that, fair warning and abandon all hope ye who enter here, this is going to be an absolute RANT of a review.

Which is really too bad because it had a lot of potential. It’s just that all that potential turned out to be added cereal filler.

I mean that literally. You’ll see.

At first, I thought the title was a pun, that ‘Space Holes’ was meant to be a play on ‘Ass Holes’ without literally giving the book the title ‘Ass Holes’. Having read it, I think that would have been a better book.

Instead, the ‘Space Holes’ of the title are wormholes, or at least one stable wormhole near Jupiter. The reason that those wormholes are not officially called wormholes in any of the promotional or merchandising brochures created by the company that owns the trademark on the term ‘Space Holes’ is that ‘wormhole’ is a word in common parlance that can’t be trademarked.

At that point, the joke was still funny but was starting to wear a bit thin. You’re wondering what the joke was, right?

The joke was that this is set in a not-too-far-distant future where a cereal company that makes really bad but ridiculously addictive cereal has taken over the entire world (except for Florida which is also part of the joke) and is desperate to find new markets for their terrible cereal and all of the cheap tchotchkes they use to market their terrible cereal and that the terrible cereal is intended to market. Yes, it’s the circle of advertising life, and yes, it really happens and yes it can be funny.

Which leads to the building of a spaceship intended to traverse that ‘Space Hole’ to another galaxy in order to set up new branch offices and sell yet more cereal and all of the many, many toys and other cheap products that fund the company’s executive offices and, at this point, the entire world government.

And it kind of was, up to a point of saturation.

Where the joke started to get thin, at least for this reader, was the point where the crew of the ship got trained, not even in simulators, but through a limited series of a mere EIGHT 45-minute point-and-click web-based training videos. It’s not a surprise that they crash-land on the first planet they find, it’s more of a surprise that they don’t crash into the sides of the wormhole.

Don’t even think that the ship has safety protocols designed to prevent such an occurrence, because it doesn’t. Have safety protocols, that is. Safety was sacrificed for cost-cutting and/or greater merchandising opportunities at every single instance. It’s both amazing that the GP Gallant flies at all AND that anyone on its crew is capable of flying her.

The whole thing lost me when a promotional advertisement interrupted the middle of a red-alert klaxon, not just once but every 30 seconds or so. Once was sorta/kinda funny. Multiple iterations wore the joke of the whole entire thing down to a nubbin and yeeted it into a black hole. Not a space hole, but a black hole of utter destruction.

And yet, in spite of everything, surprising everyone including this reader, the crew of the GP Gallant managed to find a planet filled with beings who seemed to be even less capable then they were, and saved them from their own inability to make any sense by ending their civil war.

Escape Rating D: That’s a misnomer, because I didn’t escape at all and still haven’t, dammit. I can’t get this thing out of my head no matter how much I try.

The worst part is that the ideas at the heart of this thing aren’t bad. There’s the germ of a good story here, possibly more than one, that might have worked IF this had been a series of short stories instead.

Howsomever, what this book turned out to be is a bad combination of the awesome book Redshirts and the movie Office Space. Possibly with a bit of the book Mickey7 thrown in if Mickey had less assigned functionality and no ability to acquire any.

(The erstwhile protagonist of this farce is the child of one of the corporate bigwigs who gets literally thrown onto the ship at the last minute because daddy dearest is certain the boy is useless. He isn’t really, but he sort of is, and he wants to be useful and a hero so bad, and he’s very earnest but completely unqualified and again, this had potential, but by that point the joke had been stretched way too thin and kept getting, well, thinner to the point of utter transparency.)

Leading to my ultimate conclusion that those seeming progenitors of Space Holes, all of which were very good of their type – absolutely do not belong together. Well, maybe Mickey7 and Redshirts together might be good, but the dysfunctionality of Office Space just doesn’t belong here – particularly not with added corporate shills, obsessive rule-pushers and over-the-top merchandising shenanigans.

There’s plenty of room for satire, parody and even outright farce in all of the above. But all at once just proves the rule that too much of a good thing is often NOT wonderful at all.

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian HuangThe Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, historical fantasy, M/M romance, magical realism, romantasy
Pages: 312
Published by Mira on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

“What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?”
In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex and intrigue.
In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead.

And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before.
Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them.
As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both.
An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace is a genre-bending romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love.

My Review:

Three roads converge in the midst of a labyrinth. Three fates collide in never ending repetition. No matter where or when the tragedy recurs, nothing ever makes a difference in the ultimate outcome.

In other words, no matter where you go, there you are.

An emperor and a clerk in 4 BCE, an innkeeper and a mysterious stranger in 1740, a medical student and an artist in the now. Three times, three places, three romances, three tragedies.

Different incarnations, different times, different lives but the same results. Because this isn’t just a story of love lost and found, but a story of love lost because it has been betrayed, over and over again. An eternal triangle that hinges on the heart of the one who always remembers everything, and yet can’t stop himself from repeating the same old mistakes. Over and over and over again.

Because even death seems incapable of doing their spirits apart. Perhaps next time, because even if nothing else is certain, there will certainly be one.

Escape Rating A-: This story walks three paths, and at first it doesn’t seem like one has much to do with the other. It reminded me of stories about walking a maze of trials that leads to a central point, a trail of trials that no matter which path is walked that ultimately leads to the same place – and all too frequently the same goal or battle or contest or tragedy. A progression that, as the path is walked and the spiral gets tighter, allows brief glimpses into the spirals on either side.

But at the beginning, the relationship between Dong Xian’s precarious climb up the ladder in Imperial China, He Shican’s nighttime wanderings in the woods around his remote inn in the mid-18th century, and River’s drug-induced hallucinations of the circuit party scene in today’s Los Angeles don’t have a connection that the reader can see.

It’s only in the dreams, nightmares and drug-induced ecstasy that the characters experience in each of the timelines that the stories begin, hazily at first, to reach out for each other – even as the contemporary characters in this never-ending story, River and Joey and Winston, come together and ultimately drive each other away.

Each of the stories begins slowly, but as they draw towards their individual conclusions that are all the same tragic ending, the inward spirals get faster and faster and tighter and tighter – like the loop of a noose closing around the throats of ALL the stories, leaving the reader breathless at the end.

An ending which may not be one at all.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started this book, although a friend’s absolute rave about it induced me to give this debut novel a try. And I’m glad I did because in the end I was completely blown away by this sexy, queer romantasy AND that it’s the author’s first.

I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore!

Grade A #AudioBookReview: What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama, translated by Alison Watts

Grade A #AudioBookReview: What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama, translated by Alison WattsWhat You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama
Narrator: Alison Watts
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, magical realism
Pages: 304
Length: 7 hours and 19 minutes
Published by Hanover Square Press, Harlequin Audio on September 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

For fans of The Midnight Library and Before the Coffee Gets Cold, this charming Japanese novel shows how the perfect book recommendation can change a reader's life.
What are you looking for?
This is the famous question routinely asked by Tokyo’s most enigmatic librarian, Sayuri Komachi. Like most librarians, Komachi has read every book lining her shelves—but she also has the unique ability to read the souls of her library guests. For anyone who walks through her door, Komachi can sense exactly what they’re looking for in life and provide just the book recommendation they never knew they needed to help them find it.
Each visitor comes to her library from a different juncture in their careers and dreams, from the restless sales attendant who feels stuck at her job to the struggling working mother who longs to be a magazine editor. The conversation that they have with Sayuri Komachi—and the surprise book she lends each of them—will have life-altering consequences.
With heartwarming charm and wisdom, What You Are Looking For Is in the Library is a paean to the magic of libraries, friendship and community, perfect for anyone who has ever found themselves at an impasse in their life and in need of a little inspiration.

My Review:

A 21-year old sales assistant, a 35-year old accounts manager, a 40-year old former magazine editor, a 65-year old recent retiree and a 30-year old who hasn’t found his way. Three men and two women. Different ages, different stages of life, different choices IN life. What do they have in common?

Each of these characters is at a crossroads in their lives, and each of them has taken the fork in the road that leads to the library. But not just any library, but the library in the Hatori Community Center, where Sayuri Komachi reigns over the reference desk as she relentlessly stabs her needle into her latest felting project.

Ms. Komachi has a gift, and not just for handicraft.

The characters in this collection of individual stories find their way to Mr. Komachi’s desk in the middle of their first-person narratives. So the reader – or in my case listener – already has an idea of what’s going on in their life at this particular moment and what decision – or lack thereof – has brought them into the busy, bustling Community Center to face its stabbing librarian.

(One of the narrators, that 30-year old who sees himself as a failed artist, both sees and hears Ms. Komachi with her furious needle as a fearsome character from a famous manga that both he and the librarian are familiar with.)

The librarian’s gift is to be the best this librarian has ever heard of at conducting what we call a “reference interview”. Ms. Komachi doesn’t just listen to what each person manages to say that they want, but also to intuit what each one actually wants and what information they need to make that happen – even if they had no idea themselves what was lurking in their heart of hearts.

She gives each person a ‘bonus gift’ from her box of complete handicrafts and sends them on their way, often with puzzled expressions on their faces as they try to figure out how what they blurted out resulted in something never expected but needed all the same.

Escape Rating A: Obviously I picked this up for the title, and I doubt that anyone is surprised by that. However, while I expected to like this book, I was surprised by just how charmed I was by each of the individual stories – whether or not I was feeling that particular character’s particular angst – or not – as they began their narrative.

Each story is individual – at least as it begins – with the initial link between the characters only in their encounter with the Community Center and Ms. Komachi. It’s only as we proceed from one to another we realize that they ARE interconnected, one directly to another, and that their collective connections form a community and ultimately a society.

Which also the theme of the retiree’s story that closes the book.

Because these stories are initially separate, and are told from each narrator’s first-person perspective, the choice the producers made to have a different voice actor for each section feels like the correct one. Each voice actor embodied their character while also making the voices of the people they encountered along their way distinctive.

That different characters therefore voiced Ms. Komachi rather differently, which also reflected their individual perspectives and worked particularly well. Even though by listening I missed the artist’s rendering of the individual characters that accompanied each story, I’m still happy that I listened to the audio instead.

As much as I enjoyed the narration, which I very much did, it’s the stories themselves that give the collection its charm, as was true in similar books such as The Kamogawa Food Detectives and Before the Coffee Gets Cold – the latter of which this book is frequently compared to, along with The Midnight Library of which this reader is considerably less certain but now rather curious about.

The stories in THIS book are all slices of life, and slices of very familiar lives; a young woman in her first full-time job not sure if it’s what she really wants or what she wants to do with the life in front of her before it passes her by, a more established man who KNOWS he’s not doing what he wants to do with his life but is afraid to give up security to pursue his dream, a working mother whose work dreams have been sacrificed to the care of a loved and wanted child but is having difficulty reconciling her plans with her reality, a 30 year old still living at home who has no confidence in himself and a retired ‘company man’ who can’t figure out who he is or how he fits in a world where he has no job and no set place in that world.

They all read like real people, their crises all feel like part of the real world, and the solutions all seem very possible. But there’s still just a bit of magic in these seemingly mundane tales, and it’s not just the magic of Ms. Komachi and her knack for finding the right book for the right person at the right time.

It’s the magic of getting caught up in, not just one lovely story, but five lovely stories – all with just the right touch of honeyed sweetness in their endings.

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy WassersteinThese Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, science fiction mystery, technothriller
Pages: 176
Published by Tachyon Publications on March 12, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In a queer, noir technothriller of fractured identity and corporate intrigue, a trans woman faces her fear of losing her community as her past chases after her. This bold, thought-provoking debut science-fiction novella from a Lambda Award finalist is an exciting and unpredictable look at the fluid nature of our former and present selves.
In mid-21st-century Kansas City, Dora hasn’t been back to her old commune in years. But when Dora’s ex-girlfriend Kay is killed, and everyone at the commune is a potential suspect, Dora knows she’s the only person who can solve the murder.
As Dora is dragged back into her old community and begins her investigations, she discovers that Kay’s death is only one of several terrible incidents. A strange new drug is circulating. People are disappearing. And Dora is being attacked by assailants from her pre-transition past.
Meanwhile, It seems like a war between two nefarious corporations is looming, and Dora’s old neighborhood is their battleground. Now she must uncover a twisted conspiracy, all while navigating a deeply meaningful new relationship.

Amy and Marlene’s Joint Review:

Amy: After the downfall of most governments in the US, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten even bigger. In a time not too far past our own, in a mostly-dead downtown Kansas City, a young transwoman named Dora gets a visit from an old friend. Her former lover, who still lived in the commune Dora left, is dead. She goes to see, to say goodbye, and discovers that it wasn’t just an overdose — it was a murder. She’s determined to figure it all out, but while she’s walking around her old neighborhood, looking for clues and thinking things over, she gets jumped by a stranger who looks an awful lot like she used to…

From the Department of Fair Warnings: This book has a non-zero amount of bloody murders in it. It’s a murder mystery, yanno? You know to expect that. Also one brief sex scene, that I did not expect, and that might catch some readers by surprise by its strangeness.

Marlene: SF mystery is seriously becoming a ‘thing’, and I’m very much here for it in general – both because I love genre blends AND because SF mystery in particular gets to use its blending to query both sides of its equation. The SF pokes at the mystery elements and the mystery elements poke at the SF.

This particular combination of the two is very much of the Earth-bound, scientific laboratory wing of the SF genre, to the point where it would probably make a great intro to SF for someone who is primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader, as the SFnal elements are familiar in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian sort of way. It’s not that far from now in either time or circumstances and that makes the story easy to slip into.

Dora’s world is pretty much fucked, and that’s pretty clear from the get-go. She may have thrown her own set of torches into the conflagration, but her Kansas City – particularly her part of it – is very much on its way down towards a clearly yawning abyss.

She’s burned her bridges behind her, one righteously, and the other maybe not so much. Her dad wanted the boy she was assigned to be at birth – and she couldn’t be that. He’s also a douche in general which makes him REAL easy to hate. OTOH, she’s also cut herself off from the commune community that represented both family and safety. A split that had a lot of hurt and betrayal in it then – and still does when the story begins.

The mystery that Dora is compelled to solve is the same thing that caused her split from the community in the first place, and it’s a question as old as time – or at least as old as this quote from Benjamin Franklin, the one about the willingness to give up “essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The commune has a habit of trusting people and letting people in who arguably should have been vetted a bit better first. They were, and are, unwilling to make that trade off of liberty for safety – even though it has bitten them in the ass before and quite likely has again.

But this time, the threat came from a direction none of them would ever have expected, and it’s up to Dora to unravel the mystery that has been festering – both under the city and in her own past – all along.

Amy’s Rating A: Dora has a lot to figure out, and she gets right to it. This story rocks along fast; if you’re like me, you’ll start reading, and not stop until you’re done, which won’t take terribly long. The first unfriendly stranger startled her, but when the second one shows up, and also looks rather like she would have if she had not transitioned, she starts putting the pieces together. Like all good mysteries, she’s got to sort out the who, the what, the where, and the why; the where comes first, and the remaining pieces fall into place in quick order thereafter. On its face, it’s a fine high-speed murder mystery, complete with a deeply flawed hero and a somewhat unsurprising, even more-flawed villain.

But Izzy Wasserstein has buried something deeper to think about in this tale. When presented with her clone, Dora looks at and interacts with — and even gets intimate with — someone who might have been her, if her father had gotten his way, and she’d been the son he always wanted. The interaction between this imperfect clone of her pre-transition body, and her own traumatized persona, gives me (as a queer transwoman myself) a great deal to think about: How would things have been different if I were not who I am? And how crucial to the person I have become was my transition, and my life experiences since then? It hearkens back to the whole “nature or nurture” question that mankind has pondered for a long, long time. Are we, in fact, born this way, destined to be who we are?

Obviously, it’s not an either-or question; there are shades and nuances throughout, and Wasserstein shows us some of that in her portrayal of the clone. They are imperfect, programmed from the time they came out of the tanks to be a violent killer and think of Dora as a “traitor.” Yet they don’t kill her, and they discuss with Dora at some length their “fighting their instincts” to become their own person.

So, really, there are two stories hidden in this short book: a straightforward, well-crafted cyberpunk whodunnit, and the story of a transperson squaring off with a clone of herself. Two good, thought-provoking stories under one cover…what’s not to like?

Marlene’s Rating A-: I tend to rate novellas at the A- level a LOT of the time and this book is no exception. I love the novella length because it’s fast to read, but that length means that a lot of backstory gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor because there isn’t space for it. In other words, as much as I totally got where Dora was personally coming from, how our world got fucked up into hers that fast needed a couple more steps for me to buy into it.

I also would have loved a bit more about the anarchist and commune movement as it applied to this particular story, because I was basing all of my knowledge and acceptance of the way that part of their world worked on Cadwell Turnbull’s fantastic Convergence Saga; No Gods, No Monsters and We Are the Crisis, because that near-future SF tale is also rooted a bit in the coop/commune movement – although with a completely different crisis and in an entirely different way.

The mystery part of this mystery wasn’t quite as mysterious as it might have been. Once the cadres of poorly programmed almost-Theodores started chasing after Dora it was really obvious that they were clones AND that her dad was the mad scientist (and he so was!) creating them. No matter what his employer or moneybags might have intended them to do or be.

Howsomever, the questions that Dora asks herself are the part of the story that sticks in the mind after the last page is turned – and they turned out to be considerably more fascinating than merely ‘whodunnit’.

As Amy said, it’s that age-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ along with a heaping helping of what does it mean to be ‘born that way’ – whatever way that may be in the mind of the person, and whether the answer to that question is based on innate characteristics or parental or societal expectations or fate or destiny.

Dora confronts those questions, not just in her own mind, but in her relationship with one of her almost-clones and that clone’s willingness to throw off their own programming. And that’s the fragile grace that gives this story its heart.