Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Review: The Gown by Jennifer RobsonThe Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

My Review:

Wedding dress of Elizabeth II. Photo taken on her wedding day, 20 November 1947

This is not about Elizabeth. Instead, it is a story of friendship, and family. And it is a story about the making of what is now a historical artifact, but was, once upon a time not so very long ago, a dress in which countless young women invested their hopes and dreams.

That one of those young women became the Queen of England is not the point of this story. Instead, this story is about two of the women, representing so many more, who worked tirelessly to make not just Elizabeth’s dreams but their own come true.

Even if theirs, at least, turn out to be rather different from what they expected.

There is a 21st century framing story wrapped around this gown, but the purpose of the frame is to take the reader back into the lives of two women in 1947, Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, one English and one French, who have both been scarred by the war – one more than the other.

And who were equally marked by the dark and dismal years after, but again, one more than the other.

Ann and Miriam meet in the embroidery room of the designer Norman Hartnell, whose signature was his use of embroidery in the gowns he designed for the upper crust of English society, particularly the royal family.

So we are there with Ann and Miriam as they work together on one of the studio’s great creations, and as they survive the intense furor that surrounds its secrecy. An intensity that costs them both so much.

As the story begins, we are at the end. Ann has died, and left her granddaughter Heather a mysterious legacy – a box of intricate embroidery samples – but no clues. Ann was extremely reticent about her life before she moved to Canada in 1948, and her family knows nothing about who she was, where she came from or why she emigrated. And that’s the way she wanted it.

But the mystery intrigues Heather. When she discovers that the beautiful samples in the box match the designs on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown, she is determined to discover whether her grandmother was one of the women who worked on it – and why she kept it a secret.

Heather’s search leads her back to the past – and into her own future.

Escape Rating A: It’s not the framing story that really grabs the reader – it’s what’s within that frame. Heather’s search is interesting for what it reveals, not for itself. But what it reveals is an incredible story with light and color, depth and heartbreak.

Miriam and Ann come from entirely different backgrounds. Ann is as English as the Tudor roses that she embroiders on the gown. Miriam, on the other hand, is a transplant. A refugee from Paris, a young woman who spent the Occupation hiding in plain sight from the Nazis until she was finally caught as a member of the Resistance. She was fortunate that the Nazis never discovered that she was also a Jew. Unlike the rest of her family, Miriam survived the war. But could not make herself remain in France and found herself in the studio of Norman Hartnell, working beside Ann.

As they work side by side on the gown, and eventually become friends, roommates and sisters-of-the-heart, the paths of their lives meet and eventually switch. Ann is forced to leave behind the work she loves and go to Canada. She never takes up the needle again – or at least not the embroidery needle. Miriam, after so much tragedy in her early life, finds happiness and eventually fame.

But the two never forget each other, even though they never meet again. That Ann sends Heather to Miriam brings the story beautifully full circle.

This is a story that is all about the feels. The desperation of the post-war austerity years, the fast friendship between two women who are otherwise alone in the world, the joy of doing fulfilling work and the pain of hard decisions.

And it’s as beautiful as the gown it celebrates.

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Review: Dare to Love a Duke by Eva Leigh

Review: Dare to Love a Duke by Eva LeighDare to Love a Duke (The London Underground, #3) by Eva Leigh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: London Underground #3
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on December 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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For a dashing duke and the proprietress of a secret, sensual club in the London Underground, passion could lead to love… if they dare

Thomas Powell, the new Duke of Northfield, knows he should be proper and principled, like his father. No more dueling, or carousing, or frequenting masked parties where Londoners indulge their wildest desires. But he’s not ready to give up his freedom just yet. The club is an escape, a place where he can forget about society and the weight of his title… and see her, the woman he’s wanted forever.

Lucia—known as Amina—manages the Orchid Club, a secret society where fantasies become reality. But for Lucia, it’s strictly business, profitable enough to finance her dream: a home for the lost girls of the streets. Surrounded by lovers, she only observes, unwilling risk her future for any man. No member has ever intrigued her...until him, the masked stranger whose heated looks sear her skin. After months of suppressed longing, they dare to give in to temptation…

But the late duke’s legacy comes with a shocking secret, and the scandal threatens to destroy everything Tom loves… his family, the Orchid Club, and even Lucia.

My Review:

This is the third book in the author’s London Underground series, and it makes a fine and fitting conclusion to that series. But it also works as a standalone. The story in this entry bears some resemblance to the circumstances in the first two (From Duke Till Dawn and Counting on a Countess) but the reader knowing where they are and who the characters are in Dare to Love a Duke is not dependent on having read the other books first.

Not that they are not a lot of fun in their own right!

As has been true in the previous books in the series, the romance here is between a newly minted nobleman and a woman of not merely lesser rank and status but also someone who has been operating on the shady side of the street in one way or another. The heroine of From Duke Till Dawn is a confidence trickster, while the heroine of Counting on a Countess is a smuggler. There weren’t a lot of legal, well-paying professions for women during the Regency, or let’s face it, for centuries before or after.

The heroine of Dare to Love a Duke is the manager of an unusual but not exclusive sex club. A club that admits anyone and everyone. All the participants are masked. Anything goes, and anyone can have sex with anyone else – or multiple anyone elses. The only requirement is that consent is king, queen and knave. People can, and do, do whatever they want – but only what they want. No force, no coercion, no “persuasion”. Only freely given consent.

The hero is the newly invested Duke of Northfield. His father has just died and Tom has inherited the title, along with a whole slew of expectations and a tonne of responsibility. On what he believed was his last night of relative freedom, he finally seduces, or is seduced by, or they both simply give in to the sexual chemistry that has always swirled between himself and Lucia, the manager of the Orchid Club.

Only to discover the following morning that his father can’t possibly have been the paragon of virtue that he claimed to be – because Lucia comes to the Duke of Northfield’s house to deliver the monthly profits from her club which he owns – only to discover that the new duke is the man she just spent a long and very pleasurable night with.

The situation is a mess. If it comes out, it will be a scandal that will affect his mother’s place in society and his sister’s prospects for marriage – not that those aren’t already threatened enough.

Tom’s father was a staunch Tory, a member of the conservative political faction that wants to preserve the status quo, keep power in the hands of the wealthy aristocrats, and oppress the poor, the nascent middle-class, and pretty much anyone else who isn’t one of them.

His father’s friends are pressuring him to remain in their faction, and are holding his sister’s marriage to the man she loves as hostage. Sparing her will force him to reject the stirrings of his own conscience.

When he can’t decide he turns to Lucia, spending a weekend in the house he owns while working incognito as one of the team. A few short days working himself to exhaustion, while spending blissful nights with Lucia, give him the space he needs to decide whose man he will be, and at what price.

The courage of his convictions nearly costs him everything – but it also gives him the greatest prize of all.

Escape Rating B+: Eva Leigh also writes action-adventure romances as Zoe Archer, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Zoe Archer also writes historical romances as Eva Leigh. In either case, one of the reasons that I love this author is that she does an excellent job of writing heroines who are able to kick ass, figuratively always and occasionally also literally, while still fitting into their time and place.

This is particularly important when it comes to historical romance. I’ve frequently talked about the tightrope walking involved in creating historical heroines with enough agency for 21st century readers to identify with while making sure that these standout women still feel like they fit into their setting. A book I reviewed last week failed to walk this tightrope, and when that happens it does break the willing suspension of disbelief At least for this reader.

Lucia has had a difficult life, and it’s a life that has left scars. She’s not a pampered princess in a gilded cage. She’s had to make her own way in the world since she was 12, and she’s done it any way she could. Including on her back. It’s brutal but it’s also realistic – there just weren’t that many options. Being forced to make her own way has given her very different attitudes from the kind of privileged ladies that have often been the heroines of historical romance. She knows how to take care of herself because she’s had to. And she’s all too aware that in the end she only has herself to rely upon. No one has ever rescued her, and until she meets Tom she has no reason to believe that anyone ever will.

She’s aware of what society thinks of her, but she’s also all too aware that pride and propriety will not fill an empty belly or keep a roof over one’s head. She tries not hurt anyone, but she does what she must and she lives with the consequences.

On the one hand, Tom has had an easy life. And on the other, he is suddenly weighed down by a huge responsibility – and it’s a responsibility he takes seriously. He knows that he’s privileged and he wants to use his position to make life better for others as much as he can. He’s between a rock and a hard place when his father’s old allies attempt to blackmail him into following their dictates instead of his conscience. His dilemma is made all too real by throwing his sister’s happiness under the carriage wheels rather than his own. He is caught between warring duties – his duty to protect his sister and his duty to help others.

It was a relief when he finally told his sister what his choices were and what the cost would be – and that she agreed with him all the way – as their mother initially does not. And when the feces hits the oscillating device his sister stands by him.

In the end, as with the other books in this series, the story is about the unconventional couple finding a way to defy convention, rise above it, and grab their happy ever after with all hands.

 

Review: Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Review: Kill the Queen by Jennifer EstepKill the Queen (Crown of Shards, #1) by Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Crown of Shards #1
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Voyager on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

My Review:

This fantastic (in multiple sense of the word) story starts and ends in pretty much the same place – the Queen is dead, long live the Queen. It’s just that it’s a different queen each time. And in the middle – well the story in the middle is absolutely awesome – and edge of your seat, can’t turn the pages fast enough riveting.

For a story that goes so fast once it gets going, the beginning is a bit leisurely. That beginning is our introduction to this world, and to our heroine, Lady Everleigh Winter Blair. Her very, very few friends in the palace call her Evie, because she’s a low-level – make that very low level – royal.

Queen Cordelia is a cousin, but Evie is at the lowest end of the family pecking order, an orphan with no fortune, no influential relatives and no powerful magic – at least no powerful magic that anyone knows about.

But she’s still a royal, so to earn her keep she handles all the crappy jobs that no one else in the royal family can be bothered to do. Basically, she’s a presence for events where a royal presence is required but where little can be gained from that royal presence in the way of power or prestige.

When we first meet Evie, she’s complaining about her dance instructor and stuck making pies for the ambassadorial visit from a neighboring country. It would be an insult for anyone other than a royal to make these particular pies – and thanks to the magic, they would know if someone else did the baking.

So Evie is stuck, just as she is always stuck, doing the jobs that no one else wants to do.

She plans to use the diplomatic banquet to ask her cousin for permission to leave. After all, Evie is in her late 20s, she’d like to buy back her late parents’ estate and work for herself. It’s a good plan – until it all goes spectacularly – and bloodily – pear-shaped.

That banquet turns into a slaughterhouse, with all of the Blairs, including the Queen, dead on the floor. Except for two – Evie and the Crown Princess Vasilia, the perpetrator of the slaughter.

Vasilia got tired of waiting for her mother to die so she could become queen, so she decided to push her own timetable forward – with a blade to her mother’s heart. (It is deliciously appropriate that her mother is Queen Cordelia, named after the one faithful child of King Lear in Shakespeare’s epic. One of the famous lines from that tragedy, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Ironically, in the play, the comment refers TO Cordelia.)

Evie escapes the, let’s call it the “Red Banquet”, by the skin of her teeth, and mostly by accident. Vasilia uses her lightning magic to toss Evie over a wall that puts her outside the killing the zone – admittedly onto a steep hill that drops her in the river. She’s lucky she doesn’t drown, but then she’s just lucky to be alive.

All she has to do is figure out how to stay that way long enough to topple Vasilia from her ill-gotten throne. Because Evie is now the last of the Blairs, and only she can save her country and her people from the machinations of a madwoman who only became queen so that she could lead their country into other people’s wars for other people’s causes.

Evie must return and become the Winter Queen that she was meant to be. If she can just figure out how to survive the night – and all the long nights to come.

Escape Rating A: The thin line between A and A+ for this one is that it does start surprisingly slow. Once that “red” banquet begins, the story is off to the races, and doesn’t stop until it leaves the reader gasping at the end.

So read that first third for the character introductions and worldbuilding, and then hang onto your hat for the rest of the ride – because it’s wild from that point forward.

Kill the Queen is emphatically a heroine’s journey, and Evie Blair is our heroine. She begins the story as someone who is self-effacing and retiring at every turn. It has been drummed into her for 15 years that she is powerless and that the only way to survive is to keep her head down and obey everyone about everything. That doesn’t mean that she’s a natural doormat, just that being a doormat has been her only way to survive, and she’s drummed that lesson into herself to the point that it feels like a new awakening for her to finally be able to stand up for herself and let her inner rage, of which she has plenty, off its leash.

So this is a story about Evie first learning to stand up for herself, and then pushing that outward so that she is both able and willing to stand up for others. It’s a painful learning process – literally. Evie has to learn to fight, and she learns those skills as part of a gladiator troupe. And it is, as they say, the making of her.

Unlike the author’s previous series (and in spite of the cover image), Kill the Queen and the Crown of Shards series of which it is the first book, are epic and not urban fantasy. This first installment is a big sprawling story, and the world is only going to expand from here as Evie will be forced to unravel the plots that put Vasilia on the throne in the first place, and those plots have their origins in countries outside of her own.

While many have made comparisons between this story and Game of Thrones, and those comparisons are certainly there to be made, the two stories it reminded me of most were The Queen of the Tearling series and The Empress Game. Those are also stories where a woman must fight to control her throne and learn her own strength. The Empress Game (in spite of it being SF and not Fantasy) also has a similar element of using gladiatorial contests to determine who holds the crown.

Surprisingly, for me the beginning also had a lot of echoes from the plot of the video game Dragon Age Origins, particularly the two noble origin stories, where the crown and royal family are betrayed from within, and one young and disregarded member of the betrayed family survives to bring down the usurpers and wreak vengeance.

Kill the Queen is a big, sprawling epic of a story, with plenty to love for readers of the genre – and more to come. Protect the Prince is coming in July and I can’t wait to see how Evie manages to hold her crown, protect her kingdom – and apparently her prince. Or at least someone’s prince. We’ll see come summer.

Review: Not the Duke’s Darling by Elizabeth Hoyt

Review: Not the Duke’s Darling by Elizabeth HoytNot the Duke’s Darling (Greycourt, #1) by Elizabeth Hoyt
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Greycourt #1
Pages: 496
Published by Forever on December 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Hoyt brings us the first book in her sexy and sensual Greycourt Series!

Freya de Moray is many things: a member of the secret order of Wise Women, the daughter of disgraced nobility, and a chaperone living under an assumed name. What she is not is forgiving. So when the Duke of Harlowe, the man who destroyed her brother and led to the downfall of her family, appears at the country house party she's attending, she does what any Wise Woman would do: she starts planning her revenge.

Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, is being blackmailed. Intent on keeping his secrets safe, he agrees to attend a house party where he will put an end to this coercion once and for all. Until he recognizes Freya, masquerading amongst the party revelers, and realizes his troubles have just begun. Freya knows all about his sins—sins he'd much rather forget. But she's also fiery, bold, and sensuous—a temptation he can't resist. When it becomes clear Freya is in grave danger, he'll risk everything to keep her safe. But first, Harlowe will have to earn Freya's trust-by whatever means necessary.

Features a bonus novella from New York Times bestselling author Grace Burrowes!

My Review:

This is going to be a mixed feelings review. I’m all over the map about this one – and I didn’t expect to be. While I haven’t read ALL of the author’s Maiden Lane series, I’ve generally liked the ones I have read quite a bit.

But this one, well, yes and no.

On the one hand, it starts out with a bang, with Freya helping a desperate woman and her child escape from the man who wants to abuse them both. This particular escape isn’t about sex, it’s about money. The child is the rightful earl, her husband is dead, and his cousin plans to basically imprison the little boy and ransack the estate during his minority while keeping the boy’s mother away from him so she can’t support or protect him.

Women and young children were chattel, this chilling scenario was entirely possible – and legal. Freya has rescued both the mother and child, and is spiriting them away to a ship bound for America. But her pursuers are relentless, so she jumps into a nobleman’s carriage – only to discover that the nobleman in question is someone she knows – and loathes.

It should have been the start of a wild adventure, but the tension kind of fizzles out. Or at least it did for me.

While we do eventually find out why Freya hates the Duke of Harlowe so much (and those issues do reach resolution) what we really don’t get nearly enough information about is why Freya is participating in the rescue in the first place.

Not that the woman and her baby don’t need rescue, and not that someone shouldn’t do it. But how Freya got involved in the situation is murky. She’s a “Wise Woman”, a member of an order of independent women that has existed since the Roman occupation, if not before. She’s the “Macha” of the Wise Women, a title that seems to mean covert agent and spy as the situation requires.

But the Wise Women, while potentially interesting, never seem to get enough explanatory background, or at least not for this reader. What it felt like was simply a quick and dirty way of providing the 19th century heroine with the education, attitudes and perspectives that would appeal to 21st century readers. She’s so close to us that she feels anachronistic for her time.

That also seems to make her perfect for Christopher Renshaw, the aforementioned Duke of Harlowe, if they can get past the gigantic amount of baggage that stands between them.

Because the real backstory of this series seems to be the long-ago Greycourt scandal. Fifteen years ago, Harlowe, Freya’s brother Ranulf, and Julian Greycourt were the best of friends. Until one night when Julian’s sister tried to run off with Ranulf de Moray, and somehow she got herself killed and Ran got the blame. As well as a beating that cost him his dominant hand and his family’s place in society.

Freya has blamed Harlowe all these years, but as he eventually explains to her, he never believed that her brother was guilty of murder. And all three of the young men were, in fact, very, very young, only 18, and none of them had the position or the maturity to prevent the ensuing mess. Now he does, but the damage has already been done.

Personally, I believe that the overarching story in this series will be the eventual discovery of what happened that night, and that the individual books in the series are going to focus on all of the people who were affected by the scandal. Not just Harlowe and Freya, but eventually Julian Greycourt, the Greycourt sisters who were Freya’s friends once upon a time, Freya’s brother Ranulf, and whoever the hell the guilty party or parties turn out to be.

But we are not there yet. Much of this particular entry instead focuses on Freya’s activities with the Wise Women and their foes the Dunkelders, who believe that the Wise Women are witches who should be burned at the stake. They aren’t witches, but then, the great majority of those who were the victims of the witch hunts weren’t either.

Along with yet another rescue of another woman who desperately needs it.

The problems I have with the story all come back to the Wise Women. We don’t know enough for that piece of the story to really work. The Greycourt scandal grabbed my interest, as did the eventual romance between Harlowe and Freya, but it always felt like there was a hole in the back of the story – like a tooth cavity that you can’t stop sticking your tongue into – even though it hurts every time.

Escape Rating B-: I keep harping on the problem with the Wise Women, or rather the lack of enough information about the Wise Women. That’s because Freya’s participation in the group provides her with too many 21st century attitudes for too little data. One of the issues with historical romance is the difficulty of giving readers a heroine who has enough agency that we can identify with her while still having her fit into her time and place. And Freya doesn’t manage to walk that tightrope, at least not for this reader.

Your mileage may vary, or your version of the tightrope may be a bit wider than mine.

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’DellA Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles #1) by Claire O'Dell, Beth Bernobich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, mystery, science fiction
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.

Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.

My Review:

This was a wow. Even better, it was a wow in ways that I wasn’t expecting, so excellent all the way around.

Admittedly, I bounced off A Study in Honor the first time I started it. I was expecting a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which it sorta/kinda is, but that’s not really apparent at the beginning. At the beginning, we’re following Dr. Janet Watson as she gets the shaft from the VA after losing her arm in combat.

Dr. Watson is a surgeon, and to go back to that job in civilian life, she needs two good hands. And the combat-damaged prosthetic that was supposed to be a temporary fix, well, it isn’t even good enough for much in civilian life – it certainly isn’t good enough for surgery.

But the war isn’t going well, is extremely unpopular, and the VA is sucking hind tit in the federal budget. Some things never change.

Other things do.

This war, unlike the perpetual war in Afghanistan that injured both the original Dr. John Watson and his 21st century incarnation in Sherlock, is a civil war. In what has become the not-so-United States.

The very frightening thing about this war is that it is so close we can see it from here. And entirely possible for all that. It’s a variation on the civil war in the darkly awesome book American War by Omar El Akkad, where the “reactionary” forces of the Old South have picked up the guns they are always afraid are going to be taken away from them and started a shooting war with what they see as the liberal-leftist North and Left-Coast West.

Unlike in American War, in this version, the so-called “Conservative” forces seem to be winning, if not all of the battles, at least the battle for hearts and minds in the North. It’s as though they made Robert E. Lee’s strategy work – just keep going long enough for the North to get too tired to fight.

This is also a scary close near future in that in 2016 Trump did get elected. Then after his administration overthrew as many of the civil rights of minorities as they could possibly manage, got replaced by the backlash of a progressive female Democratic president. After spending part of her first term turning back as much of the damage as possible, the folks who want their idealized 1950s back began the war in Oklahoma.

But this isn’t quite a dystopia, although it’s certainly getting there. Back home in Washington DC, away from the fronts in the states surrounding Oklahoma, the world seems to be going on as normal.

Unless you’re a wounded veteran trying to get the benefits you’re entitled to out of a VA that only cares about its bottom line.

Just as in the original stories, and in most of the remixes and pastiches, Watson is living off her military pension and needs a job. Holmes, in this case Sara Holmes, wants a roommate for the apartment she needs but claims to not be able to quite afford without said roommate.

But this Holmes is not what she seems. She’s every bit as brilliant (and enigmatic) as her original, but unlike the original Sherlock Holmes, Sara Holmes is not an independent agent.

As Janet Watson eventually discovers.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve written a lot about the setup of this story, because a lot of this book is setup. While this world unfortunately feels like a logical extension of current events, it is not current events and needs to get us fixed firmly into its vision of the future.

Which does not mean it isn’t a vision of the future that doesn’t include a whole lot of the present. Unfortunately for our protagonists, the parts of the present that carry over are quite frequently the worst bits. I said this isn’t a dystopia, but a better description would be that it isn’t a dystopia yet.

Those roots in the contemporary present form a good part of the terrible case that Janet unearths and that Sara helps her resolve. Part of what makes this book an A- rather than a A is that the case was fairly obvious. All too plausible, but also all too easy to figure out from the very first clue.

What makes this story, this version of Holmes and Watson, so fascinating are the characters of the two women. Instead of two white men in Victorian England (or 21st century England, for that matter), the Holmes and Watson in A Study in Honor are two black women at a time and place where the hope for true equality that shone during the Obama era has receded into the past and is dying under the lash of “conservative” dog-whistles that are pitched so any human can hear.

Which also means that in addition to the many indignities visited upon Janet Watson because she’s a wounded veteran, even more are heaped upon her because she’s black and because she dared to aspire to a profession that some people still believe should have been reserved for whites. And where the lesbianism of both of the protagonists just adds yet another layer of potential for prejudice.

A Study in Honor is a dark and gritty portrait of a world going to hell in a handcart, as seen from the perspective of someone who has visited that hell, and sometimes seems to have only left it in body but not in spirit. And investigates a mystery that plows right into the hell of that war and the dark heart of the people and governments that are waging it.

Watson and Holmes’ adventures continue in The Hound of Justice. I can’t wait.

Reviewer’s Note: Claire O’Dell is a pseudonym for author Beth Bernobich.

Review: Ask Me No Questions by Shelley Noble + Giveaway

Review: Ask Me No Questions by Shelley Noble + GiveawayAsk Me No Questions (A Lady Dunbridge Mystery #1) by Shelley Noble
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Lady Dunbridge #1
Pages: 352
Published by Forge on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble, Ask Me No Questions is the first in the Lady Dunbridge Mystery series featuring a widow turned sleuth in turn-of-the-twentieth century New York City.

A modern woman in 1907, Lady Dunbridge is not about to let a little thing like the death of her husband ruin her social life. She’s ready to take the dazzling world of Gilded Age Manhattan by storm.

From the decadence of high society balls to the underbelly of Belmont horse racing, romance, murder, and scandals abound. Someone simply must do something. And Lady Dunbridge is happy to oblige.

My Review:

Although this is the first book in a new series, it has a bit of the feeling of starting in the middle (in a good way), as Lady Philomena Dunbridge seems to have already solved at least one mystery ahead of the police when we first meet her. In London. Being lectured to and ordered about by her father.

Who seems to have forgotten that Phil is a widow of independent means, and no longer under his control. He also doesn’t seem to understand just how determined she is to stay that way.

In her determination, Phil takes herself off to America to stay with her best friend, Beverly Reynolds. Phil is hoping that Bev’s membership in the smart set of Gilded Age New York City will provide her with the entree that she needs into New York high society.

And far, far away from the stultifying traditions of “jolly olde England” where she will be forced, one way or another, to occupy the place reserved for dowager countesses. At 30ish, Phil is much, much too young to be a dowager, or to put herself on any kind of shelf.

She comes to New York to live.

Only to be greeted at the dock by the corpse of Bev’s husband, leaving her with a mystery to solve.

That Reggie Reynolds was shot by Bev’s gun would automatically make her a suspect, even if he hadn’t been found in the arms of his mistress.

At first, the police seem determined to pin Reggie’s murder on either Bev or the mistress. And while Phil has no compunctions about letting the poor floradora girl face the music if she’s guilty, it doesn’t seem possible. Especially when a second dead body turns up in Bev’s library, also shot with her gun.

And that’s where the story goes off to the races. Literally. Because Reggie had a horse running at Belmont, and Devil’s Thunder was favored to win. Favored to win enough that all of Reggie’s many, many creditors should have been paid off.

Unless, of course, that was the point of his murder after all.

Escape Rating A-: Phil reminds me a great deal of Phryne Fisher, and for this reader, that’s an excellent thing. Although the Lady Dunbridge series is set in Gilded Age New York, as is Joanna Shupe’s marvelous Four Hundred series, it’s Phil’s likeness to Phryne that sticks in my mind. And also more than a bit of Lydia Kang’s excellent A Beautiful Poison)

Both women are more than a bit cynical and jaded. While the both acknowledge benefits of kowtowing to society expectations, they also are very much aware of just how hollow and hypocritical those expectations are. Phil has to live by her wits a bit more than Phryne does, so she gives a bit more than lip service to those expectations, but their attitudes are similar.

And while Phil does not bed hop to the degree that Phryne does, it is clear that she also takes her pleasures where she finds them, if a bit more discreetly than her Australian counterpart.

Phil has also become an amateur detective, although in her first official outing she is still at the point where she becomes involved because a friend – and also herself – are under threat of being embroiled in the police investigation. She’s not yet taking paying clients – although there’s a hint that she may have an unofficial, semi-official paying client in future books.

What makes Phil so much fun is that she definitely has all of her wits about her, and never, ever looks down her nose at anyone who might be able to help her in her investigations. Like her butler and her lady’s maid, both of whom seem to be quite a bit more than they seem.

She also never looks a gift horse in the mouth, especially when it’s an actual horse – or at least an actual clue about a horse. The recommendation she receives from a mysterious stranger to read Sherlock Holmes’ Adventure of the Silver Blaze is a bit of a clue-by-four, but her pursuit of said clue is every bit as much fun as her pursuit of the mysterious stranger.

I simply had a lot of good fun with Phil, much as I do with Phryne. If you enjoy historical mysteries featuring intelligent and cynical female detectives, this is a real gem and I sincerely hope the series continues. Soon.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Review: A Duke Changes Everything by Christy Carlyle

Review: A Duke Changes Everything by Christy CarlyleA Duke Changes Everything (Duke's Den, #1) by Christy Carlyle
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Duke's Den #1
Pages: 371
Published by Avon on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the first novel in Christy Carlyle’s sizzling Duke’s Den series, three men, intent on making a fortune, discover irresistible opportunities . . .

Nicholas Lyon gambled his way into a fortune and ownership of the most opulent, notorious gentlemen’s club in England. But when Nick’s cruel brother dies, he inherits a title he never wanted. The sooner Nick is rid of the estate that has always haunted him, the sooner he can return to the life he’s built in London. But there’s one obstacle—the exquisite Thomasina Thorne.

When the new heir to the Tremayne dukedom suddenly appears in Mina Thorne’s life, she’s flustered. Not only is he breathtakingly handsome, but he’s also determined to take away her home and position as steward of the Enderley estate. If Mina learns what makes the enigmatic duke tick, perhaps she can change his mind—as long as she doesn’t get too close to him.

With each day Nick spends with Mina, his resolve weakens as their colliding wills lead to explosive desire. Could she be the one woman who can help him finally bury the ghosts of his past?

My Review:

There are multiple ways to interpret the title of this lovely historical romance, and all of them are equally applicable to the story.

It could be that BECOMING a duke changes everything, because it certainly does for Nick Lyon.

It could be that the ARRIVAL of a duke changes everything, because it definitely does that for both Thomasina (Mina) Thorne and the ducal estate at Enderley.

It could also be that the new duke himself, Nick Lyon, changes everything related to being a duke, to dealing with his own past and forging his own future.

And it’s a whole lot of fun every single step of the way.

There’s also just a bit of a “Beauty and the Beast” vibe to this story. Nick Lyon certainly thinks of himself as a beast. He isn’t but his late and unlamented father drummed the idea into him often enough – and left Nick with the physical as well as the emotional scars to make it seem all too inevitable.

Mina is every bit as practical a girl as Belle, and also very much in love with books, as the heroine of the Disney version of the story certainly was. There’s even Gaston-a-like in this tale if you squint a bit.

Mina and Nick begin on opposite sides. She has devoted her life to taking care of the estate, but most importantly its people. Nick’s plan is to strip the estate bare and rent it out to whoever will give him the most money. Not because he actually needs the money, but because he absolutely cannot stand the place. Every moment he is forced to spend there reminds him of the torment he and his mother suffered at the hands of his abusive father.

On the one hand, it’s hard to blame Nick for his feelings. And on the other, the old man is dead, as is Nick’s older brother. Any of the people who participated in or colluded with his abuse are dead and gone. He can’t make them suffer anymore. But abandoning his responsibilities will hurt the people of the estate and the nearby village.

Mina tries to make him see the place through her eyes of love and duty, while he tries to avoid letting her see the depth of his pain. When they manage to meet in the middle, the find a place where they can both belong – together.

Escape Rating A-: A Duke Changes Everything is an absolutely delightful historical romp – without being nearly as frothy as historical romances can sometimes be.

Just because no one talked about either child abuse or spousal abuse, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen in historical eras. It just wasn’t punished, at least not unless the spouse or the child had enough and either ran away and/or killed the perpetrator. Then the victims got punished.

Nick was beaten, starved, imprisoned and eventually escaped with the help of his mother and the butler. His mother died in exile in Paris and Nick lived by his wits, eventually returning to England and opening an extremely successful gambling den. He remakes himself completely, but never heals from the abuse.

Mina was a child on the estate when Nick left, younger than he. And the sons of the duke, even if the duke believed that Nick was a bastard, did not associate with the daughter of the steward. Mina grew up in the same place Nick was tortured under the loving care (and occasionally benign neglect) of her father. When he died, she slid into his place – and Nick’s brother either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

What makes this story work so well is the way that they change each other’s lives. Mina gets Nick to see that his responsibilities don’t have to be the painful burden that they have been, and he gets her to see that she can both take care of her responsibilities and also let go enough to enjoy the world she’s always longed to see.

Part of what made this story so lovely was the way that it ended, as Nick and his partners decide – with a bit of a push from Mina – to change the focus of their gambling den from betting on games of chance to betting on inventors. The next book in the series, Anything But a Duke, looks like it will be loads of fun!

Reviewer’s Note: I KNOW I’ve read a book with a similar premise (Lord inherits estate and arrives to discover his steward is a woman) sometime in the not too distant past. I’ve been trying to find it, but so far, no joy. If you recognize it, please let me know in the comments. I’m going bananas!

Review: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Review: Markswoman by Rati MehrotraMarkswoman (Asiana, #1) by Rati Mehrotra
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Asiana #1
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on January 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.

When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.

Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

My Review:

This one sits right on the border between YA fantasy and Adult epic fantasy. I say this as more of a warning, in that the “official” genre designations on both Goodreads and Amazon emphasize the epic fantasy aspects and gloss over the young adult heroine. I enjoyed the book a lot, and am hoping to get an eARC for the second book in the series, Mahimata, but I’m not sure I would have picked it up if I’d known it was YA. So I’m not sorry in the least that I did, but your mileage may vary.

The Asiana series is also part of the “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but isn’t actually a duck” school of fantasy-flavored science fiction. Or, if you prefer, science fiction that feels like fantasy. Like Pern or Celta, worlds that were created or found by science but have either regressed or chosen to live in a way that feels fantasy-like. I suspect that the SFnal origin will come into play later in this series, just as it does in both Pern and Celta.

In the case of Asiana, this world is a far-future, extremely post-Apocalyptic version of quite possibly our own Earth. The Apocalypse in question is so far back in the distant past that it is by this point a matter of myth and legend rather than history, but it is definitely there. The Orders of Peace of which the Order of Kali that Kyra belongs to is one, are known to be descendants of that long ago catastrophe.

More than long enough ago that the rules, regulations, strictures and beliefs have morphed considerably over the centuries. But at their heart lies that long ago, planetary-wide devastation.

But this story takes place in that far-future “present” and focuses on the struggles of the young Markswoman, Kyra.

Markswomen are bonded to their specially forged blades, and serve as peacekeepers, guards, judges and sometimes assassins throughout the world of Asiana. We meet Kyra as she undertakes her first Mark, the death that signifies a change in her status from apprentice to full-fledged Markswoman.

For Kyra it is also a personal quest, as her mark is the son of the man who wiped out her entire clan. It is justice, as his father murdered her clan’s future, she in turn kills his.

But it also marks the beginning of a long journey. One in which Kyra discovers that what she has been taught is not all that it seems – and that betrayal comes most easily from those that are closest to us.

It is a lesson that sends Kyra on a journey across the continent and back, because the person who has been betrayed is Kyra’s teacher and not herself. And Kyra is the only person capable of resetting the balance.

Escape Rating B+: Markswoman is the opening of a terrific epic fantasy – one that is all the better for having its roots somewhere other than the Western traditions that so often flavor epic fantasy.

The story also sits on that dividing line between coming-of-age and coming-into-power. Kyra is on the cusp of becoming a full Markswoman as the story begins. She is uncertain about her place in the Order of Kali and in her world in general. And she has to leave home in order to figure out what her destiny is and where she truly belongs. For most of the story, she is constantly learning lessons – not the formal lessons that comprised her novitiate and apprenticeship in the order, but the life lessons that will allow her to move forward.

One of the hardest, as it so often is, is the lesson about letting go. Not giving up, but of learning which are the battles to be fought and which are the injustices to be forgiven. We feel her indecision, her desperation, her frustration and her impatience. We also feel her need to make things right, and the conflict that brings to her heart.

But, as I said at the beginning, this story lies on the knife edge between YA and epic fantasy. The one place where it slips into YA territory is in its treatment of potential romantic relationships, as it very nearly falls into the dreaded love triangle trap. It doesn’t quite fall, but it gets a bit too close for comfort.

This also leads to wondering about the complete gender segregation of all of the Orders of Peace and how on Earth – or Asiana – that possibly works. Admittedly, we do get hints that it doesn’t. But it does make one wonder how Kyra’s nascent relationship with a Marksman from another order is going to work – if at all – or how much trouble it’s going to get them both into if they survive.

Which leads to my fair warning about the end of the book. Because Markswoman ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. While I wonder what took me so long to read it, I’m also glad that the eARC for the second book is already available. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Review: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

Review: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene TurstenAn Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, short stories
Pages: 184
Published by Soho Crime on November 6, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Maud is an irascible 88-year-old Swedish woman with no family, no friends, and…no qualms about a little murder. This funny, irreverent story collection by Helene Tursten, author of the Irene Huss investigations, features two-never-before translated stories that will keep you laughing all the way to the retirement home.

Ever since her darling father’s untimely death when she was only eighteen, Maud has lived in the family’s spacious apartment in downtown Gothenburg rent-free, thanks to a minor clause in a hastily negotiated contract. That was how Maud learned that good things can come from tragedy. Now in her late eighties, Maud contents herself with traveling the world and surfing the net from the comfort of her father’s ancient armchair. It’s a solitary existence, but she likes it that way.

Over the course of her adventures—or misadventures—this little bold lady will handle a crisis with a local celebrity who has her eyes on Maud’s apartment, foil the engagement of her long-ago lover, and dispose of some pesky neighbors. But when the local authorities are called to investigate a murder in her apartment complex, will Maud be able to avoid suspicion, or will Detective Inspector Irene Huss see through her charade?

My Review:

I picked this up because I loved the title. And because I read one of the author’s previous books in her Inspector Huss series (Who Watchetch) and liked it very much. So I was hoping for more of the same, both in the style and of the character.

And I was in the mood for a mystery. I got a tiny taste of Inspector Huss – but I’m not so sure about the mystery – because we always know whodunit.

Mostly, I got a variation on Arsenic and Old Lace, with a much smaller cast and no lace. Also, the old lady administering the equivalent of the arsenic isn’t nearly so lovable. – but she’s twice as irascible.

She’s also much better at hiding her tracks.

There’s a part of me that wants to be Maud when I’m her age. After all, she’s in her late 80s in these stories, and is perfectly capable of traveling around the world by herself at a whim, as well as able to climb through her own apartment windows in order to cover up a bit of murder.

I’d want the first part but not the second. Maud’s answer to taking care of situations that bother her is just murder. And she doesn’t even seem to have much of a conscience about it.

Great health, lousy ethics. Not that the people that we see her eliminate aren’t due for a bit of trouble, but murder seems a bit drastic. Most of the time.

The stories in this collection that are the most interesting are the two at the end, The Antique Dealer’s Death and An Elderly Lady is Faced with a Difficult Dilemma, because they show the same crime from two rather different perspectives.

In The Antique Dealer’s Death Inspector Irene Huss is called to Maud’s apartment, The elderly lady has found a dead body stewing in one of the unused rooms. We see Maud at her best, pretending to be confused and frail, but by this point in the collection we know it’s an act.

The police, however, do not. They take the old lady’s behavior at face value, which is always a huge mistake. Maud’s behavior can never be taken at face value. We watch both the police and even an amateur detective who gets roped into the scene fix their sights on the dead antique dealer having an accomplice who killed him and scarpered when they attempted to rob the old lady. And we know they are all barking up the wrong tree – or scaffolding.

But in the companion story, An Elderly Lady is Faced with a Difficult Dilemma, we see Maud in all of her excellent health, equally excellent planning, and slightly sociopathic glory as she discovers the antique dealer in the process of robbing her and decides not just to kill him but also how to fool the police.

As she does, and does well. The Inspector does figure out at the end that the only logical conclusion to the crime is that Maud did it, but she is also aware that there is no way to prove it.

Maud is just too good when she is up to no good.

Escape Rating A-: Lesson to be learned, never take an old lady for granted, she may be more than she seems. Maud’s “adventures” make for grisly fun, and a quick read if you’re in the mood to dip into a bit of Scandinavian noir.

Review: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Review: Kingdom of the Blind by Louise PennyKingdom of the Blind (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #14) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #14
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The new Chief Inspector Gamache novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author.

When a peculiar letter arrives inviting Armand Gamache to an abandoned farmhouse, the former head of the Sûreté du Québec discovers that a complete stranger has named him one of the executors of her will. Still on suspension, and frankly curious, Gamache accepts and soon learns that the other two executors are Myrna Landers, the bookseller from Three Pines, and a young builder.

None of them had ever met the elderly woman.

The will is so odd and includes bequests that are so wildly unlikely that Gamache and the others suspect the woman must have been delusional. But what if, Gamache begins to ask himself, she was perfectly sane?

When a body is found, the terms of the bizarre will suddenly seem less peculiar and far more menacing.

But it isn’t the only menace Gamache is facing.

The investigation into what happened six months ago—the events that led to his suspension—has dragged on, into the dead of winter. And while most of the opioids he allowed to slip though his hands, in order to bring down the cartels, have been retrieved, there is one devastating exception.

Enough narcotic to kill thousands has disappeared into inner city Montreal. With the deadly drug about to hit the streets, Gamache races for answers.

As he uses increasingly audacious, even desperate, measures to retrieve the drug, Armand Gamache begins to see his own blind spots. And the terrible things hiding there.

My Review:

The original quote is from the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” There’s irony in the use of the quote, as Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, currently the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec , albeit under suspension, would never put himself in the place of the one-eyed man. He always believes that he is one of the blind – even as he fervently prays that he is not.

This is a story where there are two cases, as there often are in this series. One case initially seems trivial, but of course turns out to be much larger than it appears. But it does not tie into the other case in this story, the one that not only starts out large, but started out in the previous book in the series, Glass Houses.

Which itself was the culmination of a story that begin several books before that. Which is a hint that this series is best read in order and from its beginning in Still Life. And that it’s worth every moment of immersion with these people and in the quirky, semi-lost village of Three Pines.

The small case seems to be the easy part, at least at first. Someone has named Gamache, his neighbor Myrna Landers, and a builder from Montreal as the liquidators, we would call them executors, of her will. None of them knew the dead woman, and have no idea why she named them in her will. But Gamache and Myrna, a psychologist turned bookstore-owner, are intrigued enough to agree, as does the young builder.

When they all get blizzard-bound in Three Pines, it provides plenty of opportunity for Gamache to investigate the possible connections between the three of them and the dead woman, and for the residents of Three Pines to pass judgment on the young man unwittingly stuck in their midst.

This case, while it turns out to be a great deal larger than it originally seemed, also provides the source of most of the lighter moments in the story – as any protracted sojourn in Three Pines generally does.

Those lighter moments are needed, as the decisions that Gamache and his team made in Glass Houses are still hanging over their heads like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Gamache has planned that the sword will fall on his head alone, but he is still making one last desperate attempt to clean up the deadly mess he created in order to eliminate the rot in his beloved Sûreté.

That his career will end as a result of his actions is a consequence that he can live with. Leaving the deadly opioid carfentanil on the streets of Montreal is not. But the piece he has left on the chessboard to clean up that mess may not be enough.

If she is not, her death will only be the first of thousands that will be rightfully laid at his door.

Escape Rating A+: I was riveted by this story, and at the same time there were points where I had to stop and literally turn my eyes away – it was just too much. There were times when I nearly lost faith with Gamache, it seemed against the character of the character I have grown to love and admire that he would send an agent into the literal heart of darkness and that the agent would be unaware that they had been sent. I should have known better.

And yet there was a point where that had seemed to happen. That a young Sûreté cadet had either committed a heinous act or had been set up to take the fall for one, and that the agent had been sent into the hellish streets where addicts wasted their lives in pursuit of their next fix of a drug that was certainly killing them. It seemed that the cadet had been sent out into the cold, into the streets from which they had been rescued, with no resources and no backup, in the hopes that the missing drugs could be found before they hit the streets and set off a wave of death from which there could be no escape.

It didn’t seem as if Gamache could have committed such a terrible betrayal, and yet it seemed that he had. It’s only at the end of the story that we discover the truth, bitter but not black after all.

The other, initially smaller case is equally bitter, if at a slight remove – throwing the parallels into stark relief. Gamache has taught all of his agents many hard lessons, among them the lesson that betrayal can only come from those who are closest. That is what it appears has happened with the young agent sent into the wild streets, and that is also at the heart of the story of the dead woman and the three confused liquidators.

In the end, the story is brought full circle, as the betrayals are revealed, the cases are closed, and the reckonings come due. The open arcs of story that began 30 years and many books ago have finally closed. It is possible that this is the end of the series. It could conclude at this point, but I truly hope not. These characters have taken on a life of their own, and I want to see it continue with all my heart.

If it does not, I’ll be echoing Gamache’s grandson Honore’s first words, imitating Rosa the duck. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”