Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman

Review: A Wish for Winter by Viola ShipmanA Wish for Winter by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, holiday fiction, holiday romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Graydon House on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I love this book—funny, perfect and wonderfully good. A not-to-be-missed delight.” —New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery
With echoes of classic Hollywood love stories like Serendipity and An Affair to Remember, Viola Shipmans latest winter charmer following the USA TODAY bestseller The Secret of Snow is sure to tug on heartstrings and delight readers who love books about books, missed connections and the magic of Christmas.
Despite losing her parents in a tragic accident just before her fourteenth Christmas, Susan Norcross has had it better than most, with loving grandparents to raise her and a gang of quirky, devoted friends to support her. Now a successful bookstore owner in a tight-knit Michigan lakeside community, Susan is facing down forty—the same age as her mother when she died—and she can’t help but see everything she hasn’t achieved, including finding a love match of her own. To add to the pressure, everyone in her small town believes it’s Susan’s destiny to meet and marry a man dressed as Santa, just like her mother and grandmother before her. So it seems cosmically unfair that the man she makes an instant connection with at an annual Santa Run is lost in the crowd before she can get his name.
What follows is Susan and her friends’ hilarious and heartwarming search for the mystery Santa—covering twelve months of social media snafus, authors behaving badly and dating fails—as well as a poignant look at family, friendship and what defines a well-lived and well-loved life.
“Viola Shipman has written a captivating story for anyone whose memories run deep… This book keeps faith and hope alive!” —New York Times bestselling author Sherryl Woods

A Country Living Magazine Best Christmas Book to Read This Holiday Season!

My Review:

First of all, A Wish for Winter is a heartfelt love letter to the entire Mitten State of Michigan. Every single square inch and winter snowflake of it, from the hungry lakes to the deep bays to the very rocks, specifically the Petoskey stones that are foundation, the bedrock, the official state rock and the name for the tiny tourist town where the Claus family, officially known as the Norcross family, make their home.

Second, this is very much a paean to the spirit of Christmas – not necessarily in the religious sense but rather in the faith and belief that is strangely but sometimes beautifully displayed by the more ‘Hallmark-y’ aspects of the season. The idea that with a bit of belief in the magic of the season, it is more than possible to reach out and pluck a star – or at least a happy ending – down from the heavens, the top of a tree, or the place where dreams really do come true.

It is also a sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story of Susan Norcross, the owner of the Sleigh by the Bay bookstore in beautiful Petoskey, Michigan, where her grandparents play the part of Mr. and Mrs. Claus every December in the front window of the store she inherited from them.

Susan’s grandparents may keep Christmas in their hearts all year round, and display it pretty much every chance they get, but Susan hasn’t felt all the joy of the holiday since she was ten years old. Because that’s the holiday season when her parents were killed by a drunk driver. Susan is now forty, the age her mother was when she died, and she’s been stuck cycling through the first four stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) for the past thirty years without ever reaching acceptance.

Without ever managing to forgive either the drunk driver – in a coma all these years – or herself.

Not that Susan hasn’t had her own version of a wonderful life. Her grandparents are everything anyone could ever have wanted in mentors, parents AND grandparents. She’s an integral part of a town that loves and supports her and her bookstore, she’s respected in the publishing industry to the point where authors, their agents and their publishers court her for appearances at her store and cover quotes.

And she has the best, most supportive even if sometimes a bit too up in her business best friend in the world. Along with excellent colleagues who have become the greatest found family she could ever have imagined.

As her 40th year approaches she’s becoming aware that there’s something missing. Both her mother and her grandmother met their perfect matches when said matches were wearing Santa suits. As a child, Susan expected to do the same. Then her parents were taken from her and she walled herself off from getting too involved and being too hurt.

But those friends, those wonderful, loving, a bit too intrusive friends, have a solution to Susan’s missing ‘Single (Kris) Kringle’ by putting Susan’s search for the Santa of her dreams on social media and inviting the entire country to watch her hunt for her very own one true Santa.

They’re going to pull Susan out of her uncomfortably comfortable rut – no matter how many likes and ‘thumbs up’ emojis it takes to make it happen.

Escape Rating B: If you’ve ever heard of “sad fluff” and wondered what it was, look no further because A Wish for Winter is a perfect example of the type. “Sad fluff” is a story where a whole lot of sad stuff happens but at the same time there’s an earned happy ending – whether romantic or not – and there are plenty of happy or even funny bits in the story. There’s lots of good support for the main character, but that character is still going through the story with a sucky place inside and the tone of the book is ultimately just a bit, well, sad.

And that’s A Wish for Winter in a nutshell. Susan has plenty of reasons to be sad, reasons that still overwhelm her at times even after 30 years. And there’s no one process or amount of time needed for an individual to process their grief, which in Susan’s case is not just real but also overwhelming. Because Susan suffered such a big loss so young, it has affected her entire life. It’s not something she’s ever going to get over or get past, nor should she. But she’s well past the point where she needs to reach the acceptance stage of grief and not hold onto it quite so tightly because the only person it’s hurting is herself.

The story of Susan taking those two steps forward, one step back towards that acceptance is a bit halting – not in the pacing sense but because her journey is supposed to be halting and uncertain. Still, her journey through that slough of despond hangs over all of the lighter moments in the book.

Although there certainly are plenty of those lighter moments. Her friends are an absolute delight even as they are invading her comfort zone, pushing her out of it and making her hesitant search for her HEA go viral.

I also adored the love of books and reading and bookstores, and the transformative power of all of the above that practically shines through every page. This story has all the elements of being a book lover’s delight from the very beginning.

As a reader, I found the sadness of the sad fluff took a bit too much of the joy out of a story that is ultimately joyful. For me, that pall took a bit too long for the book to process – making no comments whatsoever on how long it took the character to process it because no one can go there for another.

In the end, I liked the book, I liked some aspects of it quite a lot, but didn’t quite love it as much as I did my first exposure to the author’s work in The Clover Girls. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

Review: The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

Review: The Twist of a Knife by Anthony HorowitzThe Twist of a Knife (Hawthorne and Horowitz Mystery, #4) by Anthony Horowitz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Hawthorne and Horowitz #4
Pages: 384
Published by Harper on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

'Our deal is over.'
That's what reluctant author Anthony Horowitz tells ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne in an awkward meeting. The truth is that Anthony has other things on his mind.
His new play, Mindgame, is about to open in London's Vaudeville theatre. Not surprisingly Hawthorne declines a ticket.
On opening night, Sunday Times critic Harriet Throsby gives the play a savage review, focusing particularly on the writing. The next morning she is found dead, stabbed in the heart with an ornamental dagger which, it turns out, belongs to Anthony and which has his finger prints all over it.
Anthony is arrested, charged with Throsby's murder, thrown into prison and interrogated.
Alone and increasingly desperate, he realises only one man can help him.
But will Hawthorne take his call?

My Review:

In this fourth outing of the extremely unlikely duo of Daniel Hawthorne and his reluctant scribe – and all too frequently foil – Anthony Horowitz (yes, the author, really, truly and probably sorta/kinda all at once), it’s Horowitz himself who is accused of murder and quite thoroughly stitched up into the bargain.

He needs Hawthorne, which puts Hawthorne very much in the catbird seat of their strange partnership. Horowitz, referred to as ‘Tony’ in the book to differentiate himself as character from his real self as author, has just turned down Hawthorne’s request that they pair up for yet a fourth book, after The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death and A Line to Kill.

Tony feels like he’s both out of punny titles and out of patience with Hawthorne. The former, obviously not as it turns out. The latter, frequently and often.

But Hawthorne is sure they have an entire series in them, and lo and behold, they do!

Escape Rating A+: The Hawthorne and Horowitz series is a quirky read. If you like it, you really, really like it (obviously I do), but if its quirks don’t quite set your tastes on fire, they don’t. It’s a break the fourth wall kind of series, with a heaping helping of art imitating life rather a lot.

The Horowitz of the series title is the author of the book, Anthony Horowitz. He’s a version – at least I presume it’s a version – of his real-life self, Anthony Horowitz the novelist and playwright, the creative mind behind the still totally awesome TV series Foyle’s War, etc., etc., etc. But he is far, far from the hero of this series.

He plays Watson to the Sherlock of ex-London Metropolitan police detective Daniel Hawthorne. And it’s a bumbling Watson who sometimes makes the most vapid and insipid portrayals of Watson look like absolute geniuses. (Edward Hardwicke’s wonderful and intelligent take on Watson in the Granada TV series with Jeremy Brett ‘Tony’ most certainly is NOT.)

In other words, the author resisted what must have been a great temptation to make himself the hero of this series and instead turned himself into its everyman substitute for the audience, the character who is not able to follow the ‘great detective’, in this case Hawthorne, and requires that every clue be explained to him – and therefore to the audience as well.

Which is part of the charm of this series, and also part of why it runs so much against type for me as a reader and yet I still adore the damn thing. Because I usually read mysteries for their competence porn aspects. The investigator in the series usually demonstrates extreme competence in order to solve the twisty murder. And that’s not exactly what happens here.

Tony is far from competent as an amateur detective, in spite of the many mysteries he’s written. He’s always at least two steps behind Hawthorne. Which actually isn’t too bad as the real police are at least three or four steps behind him. But still, he’s made his own character a bit of a nebbish and I can’t help but wonder if that reflects real life AT ALL. I suspect not or he wouldn’t be half as successful as he is.

But I digress.

Hawthorne, on the other hand, is über-competent. He’s just a secretive asshole about it. So we don’t get to see what he’s really doing or thinking until the very end when he makes everyone involved look like utter fools. Because they were. So he’s extremely competent but we don’t get to enjoy it because he’s such a jerk about pretty much everything.

Like most mysteries where the official police are more interested in scoring off the private detective – in this case Hawthorne and by extension his ‘associate’ Tony – than solving the crime, the first suspect is never the real murderer. So it can’t be Tony, no matter how the evidence seems stacked against him.

That the victim was a vile individual that had made a career out of publicly venting their spleen should have led even the dimmest bulb to the possibility that the line of possible murderers would be long enough to circle the country at least twice. To the point where I was beginning to wonder if it was going to turn out to be a Murder on the Orient Express situation.

In the end, the solution is ingenious, the motive was both simple and complex at the same time, the killer was exposed but no one got their just desserts except the woman who was already dead. And that was exactly right.

While Hawthorne got his series after all. Which is fantastic!

While I can’t find any word on when the projected fifth, sixth and seventh (!) books in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series will be out, or even the next book in the Susan Ryeland series which I also love (even when it’s driving me crazy), the first book in that series, Magpie Murders, is now available as a 6-episode TV series. And I’m off to watch it ASAP!

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia Dade

Review: Ship Wrecked by Olivia DadeShip Wrecked (Spoiler Alert, #3) by Olivia Dade
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Spoiler Alert #3
Pages: 416
Published by Avon Books on November 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After All the Feels and Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade once again delivers a warm and wonderful romantic comedy about two co-stars who once had an incredible one-night stand--and after years of filming on the same remote island, are finally ready to yield to temptation again...
Maria's one-night-stand--the thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man she left without a word or a note--just reappeared. Apparently, Peter's her surly Gods of the Gates co-star, and they're about to spend the next six years filming on a desolate Irish island together. She still wants him...but he now wants nothing to do with her.
Peter knows this role could finally transform him from a forgettable character actor into a leading man. He also knows a failed relationship with Maria could poison the set, and he won't sabotage his career for a woman who's already walked away from him once. Given time, maybe they can be cooperative colleagues or friends--possibly even best friends--but not lovers again. No matter how much he aches for her.
For years, they don't touch off-camera. But on their last night of filming, their mutual restraint finally shatters, and all their pent-up desire explodes into renewed passion. Too bad they still don't have a future together, since Peter's going back to Hollywood, while Maria's returning to her native Sweden. She thinks she needs more than he can give her, but he's determined to change her mind, and he's spent the last six years waiting. Watching. Wanting.
His shipwrecked Swede doesn't stand a chance.

My Review:

This third book in the Spoiler Alert series may seem a bit detached from the previous books, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels. Which makes total sense as all of Peter and Maria’s scenes in the infamous (and fictional) God of the Gates TV series (all resemblances to the final seasons of Game of Thrones indubitably intended) were filmed on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Ireland.

The Aran Islands substitute for the remote island where the characters they play in the series, Cyprian and Cassia, were literally shipwrecked early in the book series that was adapted – sometimes very badly indeed – for the hit TV series. An island where their characters spend six long and frustrating years pining for each other, transforming from enemies into lovers.

Into dead. Because it’s that kind of series. As we know even if we never watched the thing.

Life has imitated art more than a bit, as Peter and Maria also spent their six years filming the series pining for each other every bit as much as their characters did. Only to give in to temptation after the cameras film their final scene – just before they are scheduled to leave the island and go their separate ways.

While they don’t immediately end up dead in real life – because they haven’t really been guarding a hellmouth for six years that has finally opened to bring their doom – their much longed-for relationship keeps tolling its own death knell even as they find ways to spend yet more glorious days and nights together.

Both Peter and Maria came to that deserted island with some serious abandonment issues, and not just in romantic relationships. They may love each other, they certainly want each other, but they can’t seem to get past the trauma in their pasts to realize that they both want the same things – but are no good at expressing what they need and want to the most important person either of them will ever find.

Their characters were shipwrecked, and the real-life (relation)ship that fans have been shipping throughout the entire run of the series looks like it’s wrecked as well. Unless they can find a way to turn it into an HEA with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of the one thing that Peter is bad at – communication.

Escape Rating A-: The beginning of this was just a bit jarring – not their one-night stand, not at ALL – but that the story went all the way back to the early days of the series, back when the showrunners were still adapting the author’s work. When the scripts were still more than halfway decent even if the two showrunners were already scum.

The earlier books in the series, Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, started during the final seasons of the series, at the point where the showrunners had gone past the author’s work and were, well, winging it. Badly. Destroying all the character arcs and most of the characters along with them. Both of those earlier stories center around stars of the series behaving badly because they so desperately want to reveal that the final season is AWFUL with a capital AWE and they fall in love either while behaving very badly (All the Feels) or while violating their NDA (non-disclosure agreement) in new and creative – literally and literarily – ways (Spoiler Alert and All the Feels).

Peter and Maria and their film crew, while not exactly shipwrecked themselves, are isolated from the rest of the cast and crew except via group chats and off-season convention appearances. Their story arc was completely separated from everyone else’s and so are they.

Which doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with the shittiness of the showrunners every bit as much as the rest of the cast – or maybe even a bit more because the showrunners think their physical isolation gives them some sort of psychological advantage. Or simply because they are asshats. Which they most definitely are.

And that’s where one of the more interesting threads of the (book) series in general and this entry in it in particular comes in. Peter and Maria are playing shipwrecked Vikings. They are both big people – which is appropriate for the characters they play. So, while the books don’t specify that they are bigger than the usual Hollywood actors, it seems like good casting.

But the showrunners, being slimeballs, have a plan to make Maria – and by extension Peter, but honestly it’s aimed at Maria – go on a crash diet before her second season because they’re supposed to be starving on the island. And she refuses and makes it stick – even in the face of being fired and re-cast. Maria is righteously all about body positivity, and not wrecking her body for life for anyone or anything, and she’s very aware that her body positivity campaign has played extremely well in the media. AND that the slimy showrunners are already in trouble on every side and need her way more than she needs them.

Those showrunners pulled similar shitty stunts on the plus-sized heroines of both Spoiler Alert and All the Feels and got their heads handed to them both times, but it was terrific to see it happen again – with bells on – this time around.

Oh yeah, there’s a romance in here too. And it’s a bit of a heartbreaker – not that it doesn’t come around to an HEA in the end. As it should. Because ALL the best shipping fics do – no matter how much angst the characters have to go through along the way.

But it’s a heartbreaker both because they nearly break each other’s AND because they’ve had both of theirs broken so many times in ways that have nothing to do with romance but still rear their ugly heads when they might just manage to reach that HEA. Because they’re both afraid of getting left – again – and think they’d rather walk away than have it happen. Again.

Not that they’re both equally stubborn and clueless about it or anything like that.

Last but not least, and speaking of things coming around again, the book series as a whole is rooted both in fanfiction as a labor of love and in the complaints and gossip about the final seasons of the real TV series, Game of Thrones. Which also ran two seasons beyond the last published book in its series and also did “interesting” things with its characters and their arcs. Earlier in the book series I wondered whether Spoiler Alert  would lose the pointedness of some of its inside jokes after Game of Thrones finished.

But then House of the Dragon came along, a prequel series based on the same author’s work that is equally unfinished in book form. So we might have more of Spoiler Alert  to look forward to no matter how, if, or whether House of the Dragon ever floats your shipping boat.

And that is an EXCELLENT thing!

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine Mathews

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine MathewsDeath on a Winter Stroll (Merry Folger #7) by Francine Mathews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, mystery
Series: Merry Folger Nantucket Mystery #1
Pages: 288
Published by Soho Crime on November 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

No-nonsense Nantucket detective Merry Folger grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and two murders as the island is overtaken by Hollywood stars and DC suits.

Nantucket Police Chief Meredith Folger is acutely conscious of the stress COVID-19 has placed on the community she loves. Although the island has proved a refuge for many during the pandemic, the cost to Nantucket has been high. Merry hopes that the Christmas Stroll, one of Nantucket’s favorite traditions, in which Main Street is transformed into a winter wonderland, will lift the island’s spirits. But the arrival of a large-scale TV production, and the Secretary of State and her family, complicates matters significantly.

The TV shoot is plagued with problems from within, as a shady, power-hungry producer clashes with strong-willed actors. Across Nantucket, the Secretary’s troubled stepson keeps shaking off his security detail to visit a dilapidated house near conservation land, where an intriguing recluse guards secrets of her own. With all parties overly conscious of spending too much time in the public eye and secrets swirling around both camps, it is difficult to parse what behavior is suspicious or not—until the bodies turn up.

Now, it’s up to Merry and Detective Howie Seitz to find a connection between two seemingly unconnected murders and catch the killer. But when everyone has a motive, and half of the suspects are politicians and actors, how can Merry and Howie tell fact from fiction?

This latest installment in critically acclaimed author Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger series is an immersive escape to festive Nantucket, a poignant exploration of grief as a result of parental absence, and a delicious new mystery to keep you guessing.

My Review:

The Nantucket Stroll sounds like a lovely holiday tradition. Setting this mystery at the time of the 2021 Stroll, just after the President’s own traditional visit with his family, the first visit and first ‘regular’ Stroll as everyone hopes the worst of COVID has passed grounds the mystery into the here and and the now.

(No, the President, whose identity is screamingly obvious – and also quite real as he and his family did visit Nantucket for the 2021 Stroll and do have a family tradition of attending – is not an actual part of this story. But the Secretary of State, who is very much and very obviously fictional – certainly does.)

After the President and his Secret Service detail leave the island, Police Chief Folger faces not one but two invasions. There’s the Secretary of State, her husband, his restless, shiftless adult child of a son, the Secretary’s security detail, her staff, her childhood on the island and her husband’s big ego and bad memories of the place.

Pretending that they are on the island for a happy family vacation is just a bit of a stretch.

Then there’s the even bigger incursion from Hollywood filming a direct-to-streaming TV series on the sprawling estate of THE local tech billionaire. Between the director, the co-stars, the producer and chief financial backer and all the other members of the cast and crew – not to mention their egos and outsized personalities, the horde at the property known as Ingrid’s Gift is even bigger than the gang that SecState brought home with her.

Not that all is exactly well in either of the invading “armies” but their problems are not Merry’s problem – at least not until the first dead body turns up, with links to more of the visitors in both parties than could possibly be explained by the long arm of coincidence.

Which Police Chief Folger, being a very good cop, does not believe in. At all.

Escape Rating A+: In spite of its small-town setting, Death on a Winter Stroll is not a cozy mystery, even though it’s a setup that could easily lend itself to one. But Merry Folger isn’t a cozy sort of person – and I like her a lot for that – and the murders she has to solve, at least in this outing – are far, far from cozy. Not so much the murders themselves – as cozies manage to cozy up all sorts of ways that people shuffle off this mortal buffalo. But the motives for these murders and the slime that is revealed in their investigation are simply not the stuff of which cozies are made.

But if you like your murder mysteries seasoned with the nitty-gritty of real life and real people – even really disgusting people – Death on a Winter Stroll is absolutely excellent. And Merry Folger is a terrific avatar for competence porn. She’s very human – not superhuman – but she’s extremely good at her job and not afraid to display it – especially to people who think she’s less-than because she’s relatively young, because she’s a woman, because she’s a small-town police chief and not a big city cop or federal agent – or just because they’re assholes used to throwing around their power and privilege.

Death on a Winter Stroll turned out to be a one-sitting read for me, I sunk right into it and didn’t emerge until I was done three hours later. I was completely absorbed in the mystery, the setting and the characters, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all, in spite of this book being book SEVEN in an ongoing series that began with Death in the Off-Season. Whether it’s because this is the first post-pandemic book in the series, or whether the author is just that good at keeping things self-contained, I got what I needed about Merry’s past – including the loss of her grandfather to the pandemic – without having read the previous books.

Howsomever, I enjoyed this so damn much that I am planning to get them all. This series has all the hallmarks of an excellent comfort read, and I need more of those. Doesn’t everyone these days?

In addition to liking Merry as a character, and being able to identify with her in all sorts of wonderful ways, I appreciated the way that the mystery in this story worked, and that it dealt with real, important and ugly issues without either sensationalizing them or trivializing them.

One of the things that also made this story work for me is that the red herrings were more than tasty. There was one character who started out in a hole – or at least a whole lot of suspicion – and couldn’t seem to stop digging himself deeper. It would have been an easy solution to make him the murderer – or to have the cops attempt to pin it on him. The actual solution was much more devious and it was great the way the investigation didn’t fall into the trap of zeroing in on the obvious suspect first.

There was both compassion and redemption for a lot of the people who got caught up in the mess. None of the solutions were easy, most of them included a lot of pain and either past or present trauma. But the characters felt real, Merry and her family, friends and colleagues most of all.

In short, I loved this mystery, am so, so glad that I joined this tour and was introduced to this author, and can’t wait until I have the chance to dive into the rest of the series. And I’m utterly gobsmacked that the author also writes the Jane Austen Mysteries as Stephanie Barron. I think I hear my virtually towering TBR pile piling up another turret!

About the Author:

Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written thirty books, including six previous novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-SeasonDeath in Rough WaterDeath in a Mood IndigoDeath in a Cold Hard Light, Death on Nantucket, and Death on Tuckernuck) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the pen name Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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Review: Cold Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann

Review: Cold Fear by Brandon Webb and John David MannCold Fear (Finn Thrillers, #2) by Brandon Webb, John David Mann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Finn Thrillers #2
Pages: 432
Published by Bantam on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Finn's search for his memory of one fateful night leads him to Iceland--only to be followed by an unhinged assassin intent on stopping him--in the riveting follow-up to Steel Fear, from the New York Times bestselling writing team Webb & Mann, combat-decorated Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann.
Disgraced Navy SEAL Finn is on the run. A wanted man since he jumped ship from the USS Abraham Lincoln, he's sought for questioning in connection to war crimes committed in Yemen by a rogue element in his SEAL team. But his memory of that night--as well as the true fate of his mentor and only friend, Lieutenant Kennedy--is a gaping hole.
Finn learns that three members of his team have been quietly redeployed to Iceland, which is a puzzle in itself; the tiny island nation is famous for being one of the most peaceful, crime-free places on the planet.
His mission is simple: track down the three corrupt SEALs and find out what really happened that night in Yemen. But two problems stand in his way. On his first night in town a young woman mysteriously drowns--and a local detective suspects Finn's involvement. What's worse, a SEAL-turned-contract-killer with skills equal to Finn's own has been hired to make sure he never gets the answers he's looking for. And he's followed Finn all the way to the icy north.

My Review:

Cold Fear is every single bit as good as Steel Fear, but entirely different at the same time. Which may sound like a bit of a surprise for the second book in a series, but is absolutely excellent and completely riveting all the same – even if that riveting is more than a bit chilling in both the figurative and literal senses. Or perhaps especially because it is.

When last we left our hero, Navy SEAL Chief Finn had just disappeared into thin air, on the run from the agent and/or assassin he was certain was waiting at the dock to pick him up – or take him out – when the USS Abraham Lincoln came into port at the end of Steel Fear.

We meet him at the opening of Cold Fear watching the police cut a woman out of a frozen pond in a Reykjavik city park, on the trail of his missing memories of his team’s last operation in Yemen. He’s still not sure whether he himself committed the atrocity he only half remembers – or if he was merely set up to take the fall for it.

All he’s certain of about that operation is that someone on his team was rotten – and it might be him.

But he’s tracked three of his former teammates – who probably know the truth about that clusterfuck – to a contract job in Reykjavik. They’re on the hunt for someone – and he’s on the hunt for them.

Someone is also certainly hunting for him, but he believes he has a few days’ grace to get the information he needs – or at least the next link in the chain – and get out. But with the way that his missing memories and the possibilities of what he might have done during them haunts both his waking and his few sleeping hours, Finn is not exactly at the top of his game. Not nearly close enough to that top to recognize that he’s letting hope triumph over experience and that his pursuit is both closer and more numerous than he thought.

He should be concentrating on his own problems – he certainly has enough of them. But just as he did aboard the Lincoln, while he’s trying to cope with his own crap, of which there seems to be a literal metric shit-ton, he can’t seem to stop himself from getting involved with another murder.

At least this time he’s sure he didn’t do it. Which doesn’t mean he can resist finding out who did. Even if it gives his pursuit a little too much time to get a bead on him.

Escape Rating A+: While Cold Fear is every bit as excellent as Finn’s first outing, Steel Fear, the stories are completely different. Although Steel Fear wasn’t about the military, per se, it still had the feel of a military thriller because of its setting aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and the way that the serial killer aboard the ship was manipulating the situation, the rules and regulations of the military, and all the people aboard.

Cold Fear is a bit of a cross between Nordic noir and police or investigator-led serial killer thrillers. (In tone, it reminds me a bit of The Silence of the White City – possibly because of the involvement of the local police). Finn’s investigation into his own situation often takes a backseat to the serial killer hunt being led by the Reykjavik police inspector – who can’t make up her mind whether she’s hunting for Finn or with him.

There are two tracks in this story that dovetail together. One is Finn’s search for the truth about his own past. The other is the search for the present serial killer – who is only in Reykjavik to hunt for Finn. So it’s all his fault even if it’s not directly all of his own making. Watching Finn juggle the two things so precariously creates a lot of the tension in the story.

Although Cold Fear is the second book in the series, it truly does stand alone. The first book is excellent but it is absolutely not necessary to read it to get into Cold Fear. The big thing that Finn learns in Steel Fear is that his memory has had holes in it because he experienced a childhood tragedy and suppressed the memory. Events in Steel Fear, although unrelated, brought that earlier tragedy back into light – and showed him that his past isn’t what he remembered it was. So his quest in Cold Fear is an attempt to close all the holes in his memory. He still doesn’t even know what it is that he doesn’t know when Cold Fear opens, so if the reader doesn’t know either they can learn together.

Howsomever Steel Fear is a riveting thriller and well worth reading. Don’t let the page count turn you away because it reads VERY fast in spite of the length.

And so does Cold Fear. I read the first two books in this series back-to-back because once I got into Steel Fear Finn’s story just wouldn’t let me go. Which means that now I have an unfortunately long wait for the third book, Blind Fear, which is planned for July 2023.

I’m certain it will be worth the wait!

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan BannenThe Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.  
Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. 
After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.  
If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most—Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares—each other?
Set in a world full of magic and demigods, donuts and small-town drama, this enchantingly quirky, utterly unique fantasy is perfect for readers of The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Invisible Library.

My Review:

Hart Ralston and Mercy Birdsall each think they have a fairly big problem when the story opens. Each other. And they are both so, so wrong, which is what makes this fantasy romance so cozily familiar even in the midst of all the dangerous creatures that are getting more numerous – and ever more dangerous – in nearby Tanria.

What makes their mutual enmity an even bigger problem is that they have to work together – sorta/kinda – in dealing with all of those dangerous creatures. Or at least in handling the remains of all of their victims.

Marshal Hart Ralston’s job is to go into Tanria and hunt down both the dangerous, deadly and also quite dead drudges – as well as get any illegal poachers out of the area before they become victims of those dead and deadly drudges and are turned into drudges themselves.

It’s a thankless job, but somebody has to do it. And lone wolf Ralston prefers to do it alone, so he doesn’t have to try to protect anyone else – and fail at it.

Mercy Birdsall is the only actual working member of Birdsall and Son, one of the undertaking companies in Eternity, just over the border from Tanria. It’s her company’s job to provide funeral rites for the dead victims – and occasionally for the dead monsters – that marshal’s like Ralston bring back from Tanria.

Hart and Mercy got on each other’s bad side the very first time they met over Birdsall and Son’s shop counter. And it’s been all downhill ever since.

Or has it?

Escape Rating B: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, besides being a very punny title, is one of those stories that invokes that question about whether two great tastes go great together. This is a fantasy romance, but romance readers may think it leans too much on the fantasy side and fantasy readers may have the same reaction to the romantic angle that Hart and Mercy initially had to each other.

Or, as in my case, this may seem like a strange setting for a reimagining of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom classic movie You’ve Got Mail. Although it does work – particularly because of the marvelously sarcastic nimkilim that deliver the mail – there are a few scenes where it seems like the graft didn’t quite take. Or that the stitching of the graft is just a bit too obvious. Or both.

Not that the idea doesn’t work well in this setting because it does – with the help of the nimkilim. Hart is lonely and withdrawn. He desperately needs to reach out to someone but doesn’t know how and is afraid to try. Hence his anonymous correspondence with his nameless “friend”.

Mercy, on the other hand, is lonely in a crowd. She has family and some friends, but she’s carrying a boatload (literally in this case) of secrets and responsibilities that consume her energy while isolating her from anyone who might be able to help her in dealing with them. Which results in her responses to those letters addressed by heart, from Hart, to his nameless friend. Who turns out to be Mercy, the woman he believes is his worst enemy.

This is kind of a fence-straddling book, complete with the inevitable splinters up its ass. It was presented to me as a romance, and there certainly is a romance in it. But the fantasy setting is more than just setting. It’s an important enough element of the story that the book as a whole doesn’t sit comfortably in romance because it has more than a foot over that line into fantasy.

Even if that foot belongs to a dead body that has become a drudge.

At the same time, as much as I loved the banter between Hart and Mercy, there was something about Mercy’s situation that just didn’t sit right. I never fully got why she couldn’t take over the family business – at least until the villain of the piece took his villainy to heights (or depths) that the business couldn’t survive no matter who was in charge of it. I understood that her father wanted to pass it to her brother – who was not suited to the work AT ALL and did not want it under any circumstances whatsoever. Work that Mercy wasn’t merely suited for but actually loved.

A fact which Mercy’s family totally ignored. She does the work, she loves the work. She wants to keep doing the work. But her entire family decided that the business was a burden on her and that it would be best for her if it was sold. Without asking her what she wanted. (BTW Mercy is THIRTY YEARS OLD and very well able to decide what is best for her for her own damn self.) A lot of story water goes under that bridge before the Birdsall family stops assuming they know what’s best for each other and have an honest conversation about what each of them as an individual actually wants.

The story picked up its pace – or at least stopped frustrating the crap out of me – after that conversation finally happened.

For this reader, the thing is that this was presented to me as a romance, but it reads like a fantasy that includes a romance, which is a bit of a different beast. Both elements have to be present and fully-fleshed out for a fantasy romance to succeed. If only one is working, it falls over.

In the end, this doesn’t fall over. It works – although it does take a while to get all of its (auto)ducks in a row. In fact, it works a whole lot like Can’t Spell Treason without Tea and Legends & Lattes. Between the life of the town of Eternity and the Birdsall family dynamic – along with Mercy’s lovable big dog Leonardo – the fantasy is very cozy, with just the right amount of danger. The romance is angsty in a way that really works well, and the issues between Hart and Mercy feel real in spite of the fantasy setting, but also rising at least in part from elements that are integral to that fantasy setting.

Readers coming to The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy just for the romance may find this to be more fantasy than they bargained on. But if you loved Legends & Lattes or Can’t Spell Treason without Tea, or if you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series you’ll fall for The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy every bit as hard as Hart and Mercy eventually realize that they have for each other..

Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David Mann

Review: Steel Fear by Brandon Webb and John David MannSteel Fear (Finn Thrillers, #1) by Brandon Webb, John David Mann
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Finn Thrillers #1
Pages: 441
Published by Bantam on July 13, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

An aircraft carrier adrift with a crew the size of a small town. A killer in their midst. And the disgraced Navy SEAL who must track him down . . . The high-octane debut thriller from New York Times bestselling writing team Webb & Mann—combat-decorated Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann.

The moment Navy SEAL sniper Finn sets foot on the USS Abraham Lincoln to hitch a ride home from the Persian Gulf, it's clear something is deeply wrong. Leadership is weak. Morale is low. And when crew members start disappearing one by one, what at first seems like a random string of suicides soon reveals something far more sinister: There's a serial killer on board.
Suspicion falls on Finn, the newcomer to the ship. After all, he's being sent home in disgrace, recalled from the field under the dark cloud of a mission gone horribly wrong. He's also a lone wolf, haunted by gaps in his memory and the elusive sense that something he missed may have contributed to civilian deaths on his last assignment. Finding the killer offers a chance at redemption . . . if he can stay alive long enough to prove it isn't him.

My Review:

Steel Fear wasn’t any of the things I expected it to be. But it sure was good.

At first, this seems like it’s going to be a military thriller. Navy SEAL Finn has been hustled aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed in the Persian Gulf, after a failed SEAL operation in Yemen. What he doesn’t know is why. Why the operation failed. Why he’s cooling his heels on the Lincoln with no orders to head either back to the U.S. for a debriefing reaming, or back to his Team for further assignment.

Why no one on his Team is getting back to him, even on a back channel, to let him know what he’s being blamed for or what he’s heading into. Which is currently nowhere at all.

As he determines that there’s something rotten about the way he’s being kept on ice on the Lincoln, he also determines that there is something rotten going on ON the Lincoln. And that if he doesn’t figure out who is doing what and why, he’s the one who’ll get blamed for it.

After all, it’s clear that he’s already been set up to be the scapegoat for something that went wronger than he remembers in Yemen. He’s the perfect patsy to take the blame for everything amiss on board as well.

But the problems aboard the Lincoln are bigger than just one man – even a Navy SEAL at loose ends. In Finn’s estimation, that fish has rotted from the head down. But it will still slime all over him unless he can figure out whodunnit before he leaves.

Even if his manner of leaving will put an even bigger target on his back from an even more deadly opponent.

Escape Rating A+: I skimmed this last year but wasn’t able to give it the detailed read it really deserved. But I remembered it as being very good competence porn and whatever was going on last year, I was definitely in a mood for it right now. Especially since I’ve been having such good luck with rereads recently. So I decided to go back to this book and am I ever glad that I did!

The story combines a military thriller with a murder mystery. While in the end it leans heavily on the mystery side, everything about the setup, from the protagonist to the location grounds the whole thing very deeply on the military side.

And it is definitely on the thriller side of mystery.

There are two plots running in parallel. On the one hand, there have been an escalating series of deadly incidents aboard the Lincoln. First a helicopter went down with all hands, leaving behind an aching grief and an endless number of questions.

Then it starts looking like people can’t cope with the resulting stress and start throwing themselves off the ship. Into the Gulf. Then things get worse. And worse.

In the middle of all this is Finn. He can’t help but observe everything and everyone around him. It’s what he was trained for. And those observations are telling him that the escalating series of events are escalating because someone is getting off on the chaos they’re creating. He senses that he’s circling in on the perpetrator even as that perpetrator is closing in on him.

What makes this story so compelling, however, is its third track. Because in the midst of Finn’s meticulous detailing of the ship and the ever-spiraling circle of tension and stress is Finn’s increasing realization that there are holes in his memory. That he can’t even rely on himself any longer.

He might be the killer, and he might not remember. He might have committed atrocities in Yemen – and he might not remember. He doesn’t remember vast swathes of his childhood. There’s something in his memories that his conscious mind refuses to approach. He might not be who or what he thinks he is.

And someone seems determined to make sure that he doesn’t find out.

If you’re looking for a thriller within a thriller, for a compelling story of people doing their best jobs in the face of the worst that can be thrown at them, if you enjoy a story where the tension ratchets up every second and then finds itself a whole new ratchet to climb, Steel Fear is a winner that will keep you on the edge of your seat for every single fast-reading page.

And there’s more! The second book in the Finn Thrillers series, Cold Fear, is already out and I dived straight into it. So far, it’s every bit as compelling as Steel Fear turned out to be.

Review: Lute by Jennifer Thorne

Review: Lute by Jennifer ThorneLute by Jennifer Marie Thorne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 274
Published by Tor Nightfire on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Wicker Man meets Final Destination in Jennifer Thorne's atmospheric, unsettling folk horror novel about love, duty, and community.
On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less.
Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored.
Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It's all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line.
Then The Day begins. And it's a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina―and Lute―will never be the same.

My Review:

Hugh Treadway has every intention of going right on and having his cake and eating it, too. As this story begins, Hugh plans to continue having all the privileges and reaping all the benefits of being the Lord of Lute island, just as he always has, but Lute has other plans.

Which means that this is not his story – even though it should have been. Because Lute seems to have had enough of him dancing the dance but unwilling to take the chance of having to pay the piper.

Every seven years, on the longest day, the day of the summer solstice, the island of Lute takes seven people. They die. It’s not necessarily a gruesome death – or even a painful one. Often it’s an accident. But the island, or the spirits that dwell within, choose who will pay that piper among those present on the island on The Day.

And in return, Lute enjoys prosperity – no matter how well or how poorly the economy of Britain, or even the entire world, happens to be doing. The weather is milder and even sunnier than anyone has a right to expect. There’s always enough food and no one goes hungry. Lute takes care of its own and its people take care of each other. And there’s peace – even in the midst of war.

Lute has the only war memorial in Britain with no names on it. No Lute resident has ever died in any war her country has fought. EVER.

But in return, she takes seven people every seven years – one for each of those years of peace and prosperity. Long, long ago, the people of Lute made a bargain with the Shining Ones, the Tuatha dé Danann, and that bargain is kept. Or so the legend goes.

American-born Nina Treadway, the Lady of Lute, doesn’t believe in The Day. She’s sure it’s just superstitious nonsense. That the very specific death toll on that very particular day is either chance or confirmation bias – that the deaths have been recorded on that day to keep the legend alive.

But she’s never experienced The Day, either. She met Hugh Treadway on a cruise, seven years ago on The Day. Hugh thinks he’s going to take them all to the mainland for an anniversary trip so that he can avoid, yet again, the potential consequences of The Day. When Lute keeps them home, Nina gets to experience The Day for herself – as she and her children are held hostage to a potential fate that she refused to believe in – until it was too late.

Escape Rating A-: I usually say that I prefer to sidle up to horror, rather than hitting it head-on, and that’s so very true of the story in Lute. It’s easy to believe, right along with Nina, that whatever happens in Lute on The Day isn’t quite what actually occurs, so the dread creeps up on the reader just as it does on Nina.

But once it’s there, it’s really, really there. Particularly as, just as in the Final Destination movies, the cause of the horror isn’t a specific villain or monster. Not that there doesn’t turn out to be a villain in Lute – just that the villain isn’t the cause of The Day. More like its result.

More than anything else, though, the thing that Lute kept reminding me of was Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery”. Not that anyone gets stoned, and certainly not that there’s any overtones of scapegoating that many readers see in “The Lottery”, but the impersonal nature of the choosing, that for once the game is not rigged, and that the sacrifice seems to be made for a real benefit and not just superstition.

Howsomever, the way that Lute works kept me riveted not just because of the way the horror creeps up on Nina and the reader but because of the way that the creeping horror forces Nina to reckon with herself and her own issues.

In the end, Lute is Nina’s story in a way that it never was Hugh’s, even though it should have been. The sacrifices and the responsibilities of being the Lady of Lute make Nina even as they break her husband and their marriage. And the story worked for me, even as horror, because in spite of just how serious and in the end terrible the situation gets to be, there still manages to be a bit of sweet and a sort of happy ending mixed in with the bitter.

Lute turned out to be the perfect book to read – and review – this Halloween season.

Review: The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia

Review: The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem JamniaThe Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tachyon Publications on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In this intricate debut fantasy introducing a queernormative Persian-inspired world, a nonbinary refugee practitioner of blood magic discovers a strange disease that causes political rifts in their new homeland. Persian-American author Naseem Jamnia has crafted a gripping narrative with a moving, nuanced exploration of immigration, gender, healing, and family.
Firuz-e Jafari is fortunate enough to have immigrated to the Free Democratic City-State of Qilwa, fleeing the slaughter of other traditional Sassanian blood magic practitioners in their homeland. Despite the status of refugees in their new home, Firuz has a good job at a free healing clinic in Qilwa, working with Kofi, a kindly new employer, and mentoring Afsoneh, a troubled orphan refugee with powerful magic.
But Firuz and Kofi have discovered a terrible new disease which leaves mysterious bruises on its victims. The illness is spreading quickly through Qilwa, and there are dangerous accusations of ineptly performed blood magic. In order to survive, Firuz must break a deadly cycle of prejudice, untangle sociopolitical constraints, and find a fresh start for their both their blood and found family.
Powerful and fascinating, The Bruising of Qilwa is the newest arrival in the era of fantasy classics such as the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Four Profound Weaves, and Who Fears Death.

My Review:

On its quietly beguiling surface, The Bruising of Qilwa combines medical mystery with a Persian-inspired fantasy world to tell a story that seduces its reader into exploring the hidden depths of its world. As it tells the story of Firuz-e Jafari and their refugee family, it also manages to say quite a bit about immigration, refugees, and colonialism from the perspective of both the colonizers and the colonized.

But it all starts with Firuz doing their level best to support their family and practice their calling. Firuz is a healer, but there are so many hedges around that word that they almost can’t manage to separate the things they are allowed to say about themselves from the things they must keep hidden at all costs.

Firuz is a refugee in Qilwa. A despised refugee from a country that once upon a time ruled over Qilwa with a heavy, imperial hand. Those days are long gone, but the current refugee crisis has awakened all of the Qilwans old fears of being overwhelmed by masses of ‘others’.

That refugee crisis is exacerbated by a health crisis. Not just the old canard about refugees bringing disease, but an actual disease that is sweeping the overcrowded conditions in the slums that are the only housing the refugees are permitted to occupy. That the disease is making its way into the ‘better’ parts of the city has everyone on edge.

Firuz presents themselves to the only healer even bothering to treat the refugees, offering their services as an apprentice and assistant. Because Healer Kofi needs help every bit as much as Firuz needs both to help the Healer and to have a job to support their mother and brother.

Firuz and Kofi form what at first seems like an unlikely but quite fulfilling partnership. After all, Firuz is a refugee, their people are hated, feared and despised in Qilwa, and they are a secret practitioner of the forbidden science of blood magic.

Kofi is a native Qilwan, well-respected if not always liked, fully trained as an elemental healer and willing to go anywhere, do anything and work with anyone in order to fulfill his healing oaths. Including breaking them.

Escape Rating A+: This was a reread for me. I read this back in May for what turned out to be a STARRED Library Journal review. Because the book is awesome, and turned out to be even more so on the second go around.

The plot that powers the whole thing is the medical mystery. The first plague was just a disease of poverty and poor living conditions, malnutrition and hopelessness. But it spawns a second plague, and that’s the one that seems to drive Healer Kofi, Firuz, and Firuz’ friend Mortician Malika to desperation. Corpses of refugees are turning up that aren’t completely dead. Not that they are zombies, but that the person is dead while the body is still busily producing blood and other fluids. It’s weird, it’s wrong, and it’s a mystery that Malika and Firuz feel compelled to solve.

But the vehicle through which that story is told is the story of Firuz and their life in Qilwa – and the life of the city of Qilwa that surrounds them. Firuz’ story manages to say a whole lot of things without talking about them directly and certainly without lecturing about them. The reader is absorbed in their story rather than have it thrust at them, and it’s lovely and immersive.

As Firuz reveals themselves, we learn that they are ace, aromantic and trans. But those are things that just are in their world, as innate and unremarkable as what color eyes one has. They live in a world where those are all just a part of life and no one remarks on them.

And yet those factors still cause conflict, a conflict which intersects with their magic, which leads to all the other things the story makes the reader aware of, in a way that both points out the normalcy of Firuz’ person as they are and highlights the factors that make them different from their current neighbors. Their refugee status, their language and country of origin, the forbidden magic they practice and can’t hide well.

So, as Firuz looks into the medical mystery, the reader looks into Firuz’ perspective on their world, and we get a glimpse of just how the past of Qilwa’s colonization by Firuz’ people and the way that Firuz’ people interpret the world because they were once colonizers but no longer are has shaped current relations between the two countries and the refugee crisis that is straining that relationship to its limits.

Firuz, as they live their life in Qilwa, finds themselves at the crux of all those underlying issues of immigration, colonialism, and fear of change and fear of the unknown. But the medical mystery comes back to a bigger and more immediate question – that old one about whether the ends justify the means. Can evil ever be justified by the good that might result from its use? Who gets to decide? And who will be left to pick up the inevitable pieces?

The Bruising of Qilwa is one of those stories that makes the reader think, and feel, and think again, long after the last page is turned. As witnessed by my picking this back up months later to see if it was as good as my memory made it – only to discover that it was even better than I first thought.

Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah Baker

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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