Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

Review: All the Ever Afters by Danielle TellerAll the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on May 22, 2018
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In the vein of Wicked, The Woodcutter, and Boy, Snow, Bird, a luminous reimagining of a classic tale, told from the perspective of Agnes, Cinderella’s “evil” stepmother.

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. . . .

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice when she is only ten years old. Using her wits and ingenuity, she escapes her tyrannical matron and makes her way toward a hopeful future. When teenaged Agnes is seduced by an older man and becomes pregnant, she is transformed by love for her child. Once again left penniless, Agnes has no choice but to return to servitude at the manor she thought she had left behind. Her new position is nursemaid to Ella, an otherworldly infant. She struggles to love the child who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, eventually, the celebrated princess who embodies everyone’s unattainable fantasies. The story of their relationship reveals that nothing is what it seems, that beauty is not always desirable, and that love can take on many guises.

Lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive, All the Ever Afters explores the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, all the while showing us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound, and ultimately more important, truth than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My Review:

As Agnes says, “The stories we tell ourselves have great power.” And that is as true of the story that Agnes tells of her own life as it is about the fairy tale that becomes wrapped around the life of her stepdaughter Ella – known to legend as Cinderella. Although Ella never spent a day amongst the cinders in her entire privileged life.

Well, there was that one day, but it wasn’t exactly like the fairy tale. Then again, nothing was like the fairy tale. Because fairy tales aren’t real. They are just more compelling than day-to-day reality.

At least reality according to Ella’s not-so-wicked stepmother. Who may, of course, be an unreliable narrator of her own life – but then, aren’t we all?

Agnes begins her life as the second daughter of a poor serf in the village of Aviceford. Her family is too poor to feed her along with everyone else, so she is sent to the manor to become a laundry maid. It’s the best/worst thing that ever happens to her, and pretty much sets the pattern for her entire life.

Agnes is a woman who never manages to take two steps forward without taking at least one step back. While there are some happy moments in her life, they seem to mostly occur in spite of every single deck stacked against her pretty much all the time.

It’s a sad tale.

Just when it seems Agnes has finally found a way to have a fairly good and productive life, if not exactly a happy one, she finds herself face to face, or tantrum to tantrum, with her stepdaughter Ella. The world may see Ella as a fairy tale princess, but Agnes has to deal with her as a spoiled little brat who grows into a spoiled and self-indulgent young woman.

Not that Agnes ever says any of that to herself. She’s doing her level best to raise Ella, and she’s actually a pretty reasonable stepmother, but circumstances, along with the girl’s father and her godmother – who is certainly no magical being – thwart any attempt at the slightest amount of discipline at every turn.

What we’re left with is the story of a young woman who managed to get her way all her life, and the poor woman who has been cast as evil not because of anything she actually said or did, but because it fits the fairy tale so much better.

Escape Rating B: The obvious comparison is to Wicked, which I admit I have not read. Just as in Wicked, we have the “true” story, told in her own words, of a character that myth has turned into an absolute monster. Of course no one ever sees themselves as a monster.

At the end, I found myself sympathizing with Agnes and her two daughters, and thinking that Ella is at best a spoiled and self-indulgent little brat, who barely has the intelligence to keep manipulating circumstances to her own advantage.

Agnes’ story, on the other hand, reads like a tragedy. She does her best, and life knocks her down at every turn. But I did like the way that the author turned the whole “ugly stepsister” trope on its tiny little head.

It is true that we have an unfortunate tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and that correlation is far from proven. Ella’s stepsisters Charlotte and Matilda are objectively not beautiful by the standards of the time. Their father was one of the Moors from Spain, and as a consequence their skin is too dark for conventional beauty. Charlotte suffered an accident with scalding water as a child, and Matilda survived a terrible case of smallpox. Both left scars. But they both are considerably more beautiful on the inside (and a whole lot cleverer) than Ella has the wit to be. I wish we saw a bit more of them.

I also enjoyed the way that Agnes simply questioned the logic of some of the stranger conclusions drawn by the fairy tale. Of course the Prince could easily find Ella. That’s what loyal retainers are for. And while he may have been completely smitten, he would instantly recognize her the moment they were face to face again. And that whole business of cutting off toes and heels – UGH!

I enjoyed Agnes journal entries in the present much more than her memories of the past. Her story seems to move from downtrodden tragedy to downtrodden tragedy, and while it feels at least somewhat true to medieval life and its lack of opportunities for women, it becomes disheartening to read after a time.

The story ends with poor Agnes worrying that she was not charitable enough in her behavior towards Ella. Not because that behavior has resulted in her current circumstances, but because she finds herself believing that she didn’t bend over backwards to indulge the child nearly enough.

In this version of the fairy tale, at least, the stepmother has nothing to feel guilty about.

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Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Review: Warlight by Michael OndaatjeWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction, World War II
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on May 8, 2018
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From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time, and it is this journey--through facts, recollection, and imagination--that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

My Review:

I picked this one up because of the World War II angle. It sounded like a combination of coming-of-age and voyage of discovery. At least it sounded like a boy with a murky past grows up and discovers what the murk was all about.

But it isn’t. Or he doesn’t. Perhaps a little bit of both.

The beginning is certainly promising. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are left in the guardianship of someone who begins as a temporary lodger in their house – at least as far as the children know. It is 1945 and the war is over. But for Nathaniel and Rachel, it seems as if the peace is going to be even more dangerous than the war.

Warlight is the semi-luminous shadowed darkness that existed at night, in Britain, under the blackout of World War II. Things were only seen in shadow, and people acted in that shadow.

In this story, the shadowy deeds conducted in that warlight continue to haunt the post-war period, and it is the warlight of his memory that Nathaniel attempts to navigate.

The first part of the book takes place during that immediate post-war period, when Nathaniel and Rachel are abandoned in the care of a man they nickname ‘The Moth’. They believe he might be a criminal. Certainly the lives that Nathaniel and Rachel lead while under his care are highly irregular, as are the characters that come to inhabit that life.

Those post-war, post-Blitz years are highly chaotic, and so is everything that surrounds them. But our perspective of those years is through Nathaniel’s memories, viewed through the lens of his adulthood in the 1950s, and his work with an unnamed secret agency, probably MI5 or MI6. His job is to sanitize the parts of the war that were conducted in a grey area. Probably in very deep shades of grey. Shades that seemed as if they were conducted ‘for the greater good’ in wartime, but that in peacetime are going to appear pretty damning. If they ever come to light.

It’s part of Nathaniel’s job to see that they don’t.

But his real purpose in the depths of that nameless agency is to hunt for traces of his mother. Because during the war, she was one of those people who operated in that grey. And during the peace, the results of those actions eventually came for her.

Nathaniel wants to learn why. Not just that why, but all the whys. And his search leads him back into his memories – and back into the grey warlight.

Escape Rating B-: I’m not actually sure I escaped anywhere with this one. It’s a weird book. From the description, I expected something more definitive, at least in the part of the book where Nathaniel is an adult and is searching for the past and the truth about that past.

But it doesn’t feel like there are any truly definitive events, at least until the very end when Nathaniel reconstructs what he thinks happened. But even then, he doesn’t really know, he’s only guessing.

And he is a very unreliable narrator. He doesn’t find much in the way of names and dates and places and documentation of any of the above. He finds bits and pieces and suppositions and suggestive blank spaces, both because his mother deliberately tried to erase her past and because the agency she worked for has erased anything murky in its past, and a lot of that murk is wrapped around his mother and her colleagues – many of whom were people that Nathaniel knew and didn’t know, both at the same time.

This is a book that I think people are either going to love or hate, but not much in the middle. It is very much literary fiction, in that it meanders a lot and not a lot clearly happens. But underneath that it says a lot of interesting things about what is condoned in war and condemned in peace, and the lengths that people and governments will go to in order to make sure that certain truths don’t ever see the full light of day.

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg WolitzerThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 454
Published by Riverhead Books on April 3, 2018
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Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women's movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer--madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can't quite place--feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she'd always imagined.

My Review:

There was just so much buzz about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up. But now that I’ve finished it, I have a whole boatload of mixed feelings.

I started this book in the morning, and kept returning to it. In the end, I finished it in one day, all 454 pages of it. It is extremely readable – at least after the first chapter. But once I finished, it just didn’t feel like there was all that much there, there.

As I said, mixed feelings.

The story feels like it sits right on the border between literary fiction and women’s fiction. If it wasn’t for the heaping helpings of feminism and feminist history, I’d be certain it was women’s fiction, because the focus isn’t just on the women in the story, but primarily on their relationships with each other. The few men who feature in the story are very much secondary characters.

Not that the women are not themselves interesting, because they certainly are.

The protagonist of the story is Greer Kadetsky, who is a college freshman when the story begins. Shy, awkward, withdrawn and miserable, at first it seems as if Greer is a character who will not be much fun to follow. That first chapter is all Greer’s perspective, and it is pretty shallow and self-absorbed. She’s eighteen, so while it may be forgivable, it doesn’t make particularly thrilling reading.

But her story really begins when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of second-wave feminism. (If Faith seems modeled on Gloria Steinem, that’s probably close to the mark.) When Greer meets Faith, she is inspired to do more, to be more, to step outside her comfort zone and finally begin speaking up for herself.

There’s no question it’s the making of her.

Fast forward to Greer’s graduation. Her arrival at the offices of Faith’s feminist magazine for an interview occurs on the day the magazine closes. But again, that event galvanizes Greer, and when Faith starts up a new venture, Greer is one of the first people she calls.

Faith’s new venture, Loci, a combination speaker’s bureau, event management company and charitable foundation, all focusing on women, seems too good to be true. When Greer finally discovers that truth, it nearly breaks her. It certainly breaks her relationship with Faith.

And it’s the making of her, all over again.

Escape Rating B-: As I said, a whole boatload of mixed feelings. A boat the size of a container barge might be about right. Or an oil tanker.

While the first chapter almost threw me out of the book, once I got past that point – in other words once Greer stops being so inward-turning and actually starts doing things, she gets less self-absorbed and the story becomes difficult to put down.

At the same time, this is very much in the literary fiction tradition that not a lot happens and when it does it happens offstage. While traumatic events definitely do occur, we see them through the characters chewing them over (and over) and dealing with the aftermaths – with one notable exception, we’re not actually present for the event itself. So the book feels more like its about how the characters feel than about what they do.

For a book that purports to be about feminism, or at least about a feminist icon, or even about said feminist icon passing the torch to a new generation, it still seems very much rooted in second-wave feminism, which was mostly about middle and upper class cisgender white women and didn’t have a whole lot of intersectionality. And while the fact is that Faith’s new foundation definitely has a problem in this regard, that the problem gets lampshaded repeatedly does not actually solve the problem. And while it may not be intended to solve the problem for Faith’s foundation, it remains a problem with the book as a whole, and adds to the ultimate sense of shallowness. At least for this reader.

In the end, The Female Persuasion doesn’t feel so much like a book about feminism as it does feminist-adjacent airport fiction. But it will probably make an excellent movie.

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara CleverlyFall of Angels (An Inspector Redfyre Mystery) by Barbara Cleverly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Redfyre #1
Pages: 384
Published by Soho Crime on May 15th 2018
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Great Britain, 1923: Detective Inspector John Redfyre is a godsend to the Cambridge CID. A handsome young veteran bred among the city’s educated elite, he is no stranger to the set running its esteemed colleges and universities—a society that previously seemed impenetrable to even those at the top of local law enforcement, especially with the force plagued by its own history of corruption.

When Redfyre is invited to attend the annual St. Barnabas College Christmas concert in his Aunt Henrietta’s stead, he is expecting a quiet evening, though perhaps a bit of matchmaking mischief on his aunt’s part. But he arrives to witness a minor scandal: Juno Proudfoot, the trumpeter of the headlining musical duo, is a woman, and a young one at that—practically unheard of in conservative academic circles. When she suffers a near-fatal fall after the close of the show, Redfyre must consider whether someone was trying to kill her. Has her musical talent, her beauty, or perhaps most importantly, her gender, provoked a dangerous criminal to act? Redfyre must both seek advice from and keep an eye on old friends to catch his man before more innocents fall victim.

My Review:

I keep wanting the author’s name to be Beverly Cleverly, but it’s not. Fall of Angels, however, is a very clever little mystery, filled with interesting characters and tempting red herrings – and a few flaws.

I picked this book up because I was looking for something a bit less weighty than the rest of my books this week. But while it is a bit shorter, after finishing it I’m not so sure that it was actually lighter, at least not in the end.

It feels as if there are two books in one in Fall of Angels, one a rather lightweight between-the-wars mystery, and the other an exploration of the suffragist movement in England in the post-WWI era counterpointed by the rise of misogyny as backlash to that same movement – with a few other even darker things thrown into the not completely well-stirred soup.

I’ve mixed my metaphors. Let me explain.

This is the first book in a new mystery series featuring Detective Inspector John Redfyre of the Cambridge CID. That part of the story feels like an homage to the classic mysteries of the era, with the attitudes of the principals updated a bit to appeal to 21st century readers. Redfyre feels like a combination of Lord Peter Wimsey and the TV version of Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Like Wimsey, Redfyre is from the upper-crust, although exactly how is not specified. So throw in a bit of Campion for spice on that score. Likewise, Redfyre is university educated, but Cambridge rather than Wimsey’s Oxford – although Campion was also a Cambridge man. Also like Wimsey, Redfyre served as an officer in the Great War, but seems to have come out relatively unscathed, at least in comparison with Wimsey’s horrific bouts of PTSD.

In his actions, Redfyre reminds me of Phryne’s Jack Robinson – the TV version and not the one in the books. They are both police officers, and even both have the same rank. And they are about the same age, somewhere in their 30s, and both came out of the war relatively unscarred. They are also both methodical investigators, and they are both above reproach as officers. And they are both rather handsome – but handsome is as handsome does, and they both do quite well.

The investigation that Redfyre finds himself in the middle of is dark and deadly. A young female trumpet player is receiving deadly poison pen letters, and an attempt is made on her life after a Christmas concert at the college – an attempt that Redfyre witnesses due to machinations on the part of his redoubtable Aunt Hetty.

As he investigates, he finds himself following a trail of bodies, all of young women who in one way or another challenged the status quo. A status quo that kept most women on their Victorian pedestals and subservient to or chattels of the men in their lives – even after all the changes wrought by the war.

Redfyre discovers that all the victims are members of an unnamed group of women’s suffragists who want universal female suffrage and so much more, and are willing to use rather underhanded means to reach their goals.

While those underhanded means fall short of murder, someone is willing to murder them to stop them from taking what he sees as places that are rightfully and properly reserved for men.

It’s up to Redfyre to figure out whodunnit before the killer gets to his Aunt Hetty’s name on his murder list.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about Fall of Angels. I liked John Redfyre, his “beat” in Cambridge, and what looks to be his cast of regulars.

The between-the-wars period is always interesting. The way things used to be was the first casualty of the Great War, and most people are aware that whatever happens next is going to be very different. It is also the period called the “Roaring 20s” when everyone was celebrating hard to forget the war. That it all comes crashing down at the end of the decade is not yet on the horizon in 1923 when this series begins.

University towns, and Cambridge is certainly that, are also hotbeds for mysteries. The college brings in lots of outsiders, and the town vs. gown conflict is ever ready to produce criminal activities, whether violent or not. And the faction rivalry results in a lot of conflicting pointing fingers once the deed has been done.

So there’s a lot to like. But the crime that Redfyre has to solve in his initial outing feels anachronistic, or at least his attitudes do. Or both.

Not that there were not plenty of women agitating for universal suffrage after the war. They were eventually successful in 1928. But much of what this nameless group is proposing feels too serious for the story, while their actions to achieve their ends seem almost farcical. It felt like it should either be melodrama or drama, but not both at the same time. Other readers may feel differently.

So for me, the blend did not quite work. But I liked Redfyre enough that I’ll probably come back for the next book in the series, just to see how things turn out.

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn BennisBy Fire Above (Signal Airship, #2) by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #2
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up the nation's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum―only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

My Review:

By Fire Above is the direct sequel to last year’s absolutely awesome The Guns Above. If you enjoy your SF with a hint of steampunk, really snappy dialog and fantastic kick-ass heroines, The Guns Above might just be your jam. It certainly was mine.

That this is a direct sequel to the first book is a zeppelin-sized hint that this book makes no sense whatsoever without having read the first book first. Not only is that where the situation is setup, but it’s also the foundation of all of the important relationships that power this particular series.

By that I mean the all-important frenemy relationship between Captain Josette Dupre and the foppish spy/supernumerary Lord Bernat Hinkal. If you don’t know how they began, you can’t really understand what happens between them here.

In this world where airships are not merely blimps but actual weapons of war not dissimilar to naval ships, Josette Dupre is an anomaly. Women are barely tolerated in the Garnian Signal Corps. She’s not supposed to be a “real” officer, and she’s certainly not supposed to command either ships or men. That she has turned out to be the best captain in the Signal Corps provides no end of embarrassment, consternation, annoyance and downright obstructionism at every turn.

Josette has no idea how the game is played, and she’s no good at playing it. She just wants her ship back in the air and back in the fight. But most of the first half of By Fire Above is tangled up in all the ways that the powers that be try to prevent that from happening.

So Josette spends the first half of the story on the ground playing politics badly and dealing with personal relationships she has no clue about. What makes this part of the situation so incredibly messy is that her hometown of Durum was captured by the enemy Vinz at the end of The Guns Above, with her mother trapped inside. She is desperate to persuade someone, anyone, that Durum can and should be retaken.

To make matters more confusing, Lord Bernat, usually called Bernie, seems to be in love with her mother. While on the ground, Bernie’s older brother Roland begins courting Josette. The relationship between Bernie and Josette was messy enough before their romantic lives became so weirdly intertwined.

The part of this story that focuses on the neverending war between the Garnians and the Vinz is way more compelling, and once the ship lifts, the story moves into high gear. And then it really flies, headlong into danger, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and keeps pouring on more power until the absolutely wild conclusion.

And we’ll be back, and that’s the best thing of all.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored The Guns Above. It was my first A+ review of 2017, and definitely made my Hugo ballot for the year – even if it wasn’t nominated.

So I had high hopes for By Fire Above. And those hopes turn out to have been a bit higher than the Mistral can actually fly. Which does not mean that I did not enjoy By Fire Above, or that it is not a good book and a great continuation to a marvelous story.

It just didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

This story flies highest when the ship is off the ground, even when Josette isn’t actually aboard her. The first part of By Fire Above is all on the ground. The Mistral is in tatters, Josette has to battle the quartermaster to scrounge parts, and she has to spend a lot of time biting her tongue.

Her side is losing the war. It is obvious to all of those fighting it, but to none of the aristocrats and fops back in the capital. It is axiomatic that generals fight the last war, not the current one. Garnia has not lost a war in over 3 centuries. None of the ruling class are able to wrap their tiny minds around the idea that just because it hasn’t happened before does not mean it can’t happen now – especially if that reputation is not backed up by well-trained boots on the ground and strong ships and crews in both the air and the sea. Garnia has been resting on its laurels for far too long, while the Vinz have lost too many times and are determined to win this time – and have the trained soldiers and top-notch equipment to make it not just possible, but downright likely.

A lot of what makes this book interesting is the relationship between Bernie and Josette, and so far at least, that relationship is not a romance and is not veering into “will they, won’t they” territory. Bernie is in love with Josette’s mother, and Josette is falling for Bernie’s brother. Whether those relationships are at least partially about dealing with their feelings for people they can’t have is anyone’s guess.

But Josette’s romantic life is certainly a distraction from her true calling as an airship captain, and her continuing battles against the bureaucracy to retain her rank, ship and crew. I found those battles in The Guns Above much more riveting than any digressions into Josette’s love life in By Fire Above.

However, Bernie’s character arc continues to fascinate. He began as a self-absorbed and self-confessed spy for the government, determined to bring Josette down by fair means or foul. But by the end of this book, he has both changed and not changed. He is still a fop, and he is still self-absorbed, although it feels like some of that is an act. He has also discovered that he has found a place where he belongs, whether because or in spite of the violence it requires. Underneath that overdressed exterior lurks the heart of a warrior, and Bernie is just as surprised as anyone to discover it.

One of the things that ties Josette and Bernie together, particularly in By Fire Above, is the way that both of their identities are shaken, and in completely different directions. On the one hand, Josette discovers that everything she knows about herself has been a lie. Whether those revelations will shake her in the present or the future are yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Bernie has spent his life, at least until he first boarded the Mistral, as an example of the dangers of being a second son. He had no purpose, no ambition, and nothing to spend his time on except wasteful frivolity. He was in danger of dying of boredom. Now he isn’t certain of who he is or what he is becoming, not to mention whether he’ll live to see the next morning – but he’s alive for every second of it. It may be the making of him. We’ll see.

The twists and turns of the battle to retake Durum kept me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t just about war and fighting – so much of that story had a surprising amount of depth and resonance, and definitely set the stage for book 3. This series is clearly not over.

Amazingly, By Fire Above ends on both a bang and a whimper – even if that whimper is coming from the reader. I can’t wait for the next chapter in this saga, hopefully this time next year!

Review: King of Ashes by Raymond Feist

Review: King of Ashes by Raymond FeistKing of Ashes (Firemane, #1) by Raymond E. Feist
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Firemane #1
Pages: 512
Published by Harper Voyager on May 8, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny.

For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as "the Firemane" for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the "Hidden Warriors," legendary assassins and spies, are trained.

Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.

Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.

My Review:

It takes a very special kind of magic to capture lightning in a bottle. Magician had just that kind of magic, but that was a long time ago and world away from Firemane and King of Ashes. In the intervening decades (Magician was originally published in 1982!) the author has been prolific, but all of the books he has written since Magician have been set in Midkemia, the world he created with Magician, with the exception of the standalone Faerie Tale in 1988.

Magician looms very large in my memory. I still have my original copy, a 1982 Science Fiction Book Club edition. I picked up King of Ashes because I wondered if the author had managed to magic that lightning into the bottle again, in this first book in a completely new series that does not hearken back to Midkemia.

King of Ashes begins with a bang. Not quite literally, more like a thwack. That thwack is the sound the headsman’s axe makes when it severs the neck of the last king of Ithrace, Steveren Langene. But Langene’s real cause of death wasn’t the axe – the axe was just the instrument. Truly, he died of betrayal.

Langene’s line, the line of the Firemane, was supposed to have died on that scaffold. It certainly looked like it did, as his wife and all his children were killed before him. But as two of his former barons speculate while standing in the crowd of watchers, there are rumors of a baby, one born not long before this terrible campaign began.

Of course those rumors are true, as one of the barons soon discovers. So even though he couldn’t save his friend without dooming his own people, Baron Dumarch does what he can to save his friend’s only remaining child. He conceals the boy, not in his own household, but in the hidden kingdom of Coaltachin, the country of assassins.

The story in King of Ashes is the story of the coming of age of young Hatushaly who knows that he is different, and not just because of his copper-red hair in a kingdom of mostly dark-haired people. He is raised the same as the masters’ sons, but he knows he will never become a master himself. He feels that he is being protected, even as he undergoes the same grueling training as all children in the Invisible Nation.

He learns to hide, he learns to hunt, he learns to kill. He learns how to lead, how to follow, when to question and when to obey without question. He learns to control the fire inside him, without ever knowing what it is, why it is there, or who he really is. And he learns to control his own anger that secrets are being kept from him that he absolutely needs to know.

When all is finally revealed, he understands everything, but not nearly enough. And his story has only just begun.

Escape Rating A: In answer to the question of whether the author has managed to capture that lightning in the bottle again, the answer is yes. Perhaps not quite as full a bottle as Magician, but nevertheless, the bottle sparks with more than enough magic to make King of Ashes a marvelous read for any epic fantasy lover.

In the best epic fantasy tradition, King of Ashes is a coming of age story. We first meet Hatu as a baby, but the story then fast forwards to Hatu as a young man, nearing the end of his training in the Invisible Nation and learning to master himself and his power.

But it is not just Hatu’s coming of age, and that’s part of what makes the book so good. In spite of their training, Hatu has two friends who stand with him through thick and thin, the master’s grandson Donte and the farmer’s daughter Hava. Together they are the three best students of their year, and it seems as if together they will change their world. If they don’t manage to kill each other first.

It is also, and on the other side of the world, the story of Declan, an young journeyman smith, who gains his mastery and sets out to make his own fortune as the story begins. While Hatu’s training and early missions are fascinating, Declan’s rise from journeyman to master and leader is totally different but equally compelling.

The story switches from one point of view to the other as they are slowly but inexorably drawn together, but the reader is never confused who they are following or what they are witnessing – and why.

I don’t want to give the game away, so I’m trying not to add spoilers, and it’s very hard. This book was pretty damn awesome. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one day (all 500 pages of it!) is that about 2 am I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, no matter how much I wanted to. I finished at breakfast the next morning because I just couldn’t stop.

There are elements of other epic fantasies, because these are classic tropes. The hidden prince story goes all the way back to King Arthur and the story of Excalibur in the stone. For a more contemporary parallel, the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher also has a similar feel. The loss and destruction of Ithrace has parallels to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, but that seam has also been mined time and again. The hidden kingdom of assassins also has its parallels in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini and even in the assassin kingdom of Antiva in the Dragon Age video game series.

But putting those elements together with Declan’s considerably more prosaic but still fascinating transition from journeyman to master to leader makes for a magically tasty read. I am also happy to say that although the focus is on Hatu, Hava’s story arc is not reduced to merely sidekick/love interest. It is clear from the very beginning that she is going to be a mover and shaker in this story in her own right as it continues.

And there’s the rub. Unlike Magician, King of Ashes is far from a finished arc for these characters. As the Baron Dumarch puts it, this is only the first chapter, and it is a long game for him and a long first chapter for readers, albeit a very satisfying one.

The author appears to be committing trilogy, with the succeeding volumes very tentatively titled King of Embers and King of Flames. And I can’t wait.

Review: The Other Lady Vanishes by Amanda Quick

Review: The Other Lady Vanishes by Amanda QuickThe Other Lady Vanishes by Amanda Quick, Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #2
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley on May 8, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Knew Too Much sweeps readers back to 1930s California--where the most dazzling of illusions can't hide the darkest secrets...

After escaping from a private sanitarium, Adelaide Blake arrives in Burning Cove, California, desperate to start over.

Working at an herbal tea shop puts her on the radar of those who frequent the seaside resort town: Hollywood movers and shakers always in need of hangover cures and tonics. One such customer is Jake Truett, a recently widowed businessman in town for a therapeutic rest. But unbeknownst to Adelaide, his exhaustion is just a cover.

In Burning Cove, no one is who they seem. Behind facades of glamour and power hide drug dealers, gangsters, and grifters. Into this make-believe world comes psychic to the stars Madame Zolanda. Adelaide and Jake know better than to fall for her kind of con. But when the medium becomes a victim of her own dire prediction and is killed, they'll be drawn into a murky world of duplicity and misdirection.

Neither Adelaide or Jake can predict that in the shadowy underground they'll find connections to the woman Adelaide used to be--and uncover the specter of a killer who's been real all along...

My Review:

Now that I’ve finished the second book in the Burning Cove series, after last year’s terrific The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I still want to know if Burning Cove is just down the road from Scargill Cove.

While this series does not have the same paranormal elements that the author’s Arcane Society series(s) do, it still has a lot of the same feel. In the case of The Other Lady Vanishes, that feeling includes a surprising touch of the Gothic, particularly for a book set in the 1920s and not the Victorian Era.

The Gothic influence is provided by remote Rushbrook Sanitarium, designed as a creepy Gothic Victorian castle, but situated in a small town in California. And the awful things that happen there are enough to give anyone nightmares.

We meet Adelaide Blake on the night of her desperate escape from Rushbrook. Adelaide is pretty sure she knows exactly why she’s in Rushbrook, and it’s not because she’s crazy. And not in the way that people in asylums say they’re not crazy when they really are.

She is a bit paranoid. But then again, they really are out to get her.

Her parents, a botanist and a chemist, created a hallucinogenic drug that they called “Daydream”, even though its effects turn out to be more of a nightmare. And anyone it is administered too certainly sees nightmares. But while under the influence of Daydream people not only experience terrible hallucinations, but are also highly suggestible – and incapable of lying.

Adelaide was kidnapped and locked up in Rushbrook so that someone could get hold of the fortune she inherited, and so that no one would look too carefully at her parents’ deaths in a lab accident. And so that the unscrupulous people who stole their research would have a guinea pig on whom to test the drug and who would not be missed.

Her escape screws up everything – at least for everyone involved except Adelaide. She may be on the run, nervous and rightfully afraid, but she’s also free. At least as long as she avoids detection by her pursuers. And her paranoia is certainly justified, because she is being pursued.

She’s made a good life for herself, and made friends, in the small town of Burning Cove, where Hollywood stars come to play at the resort and casino. Adelaide has even become a minor local celebrity, developing medicinal tea blends not just for the stars but also for the residents.

And businessman Jake Truett, supposedly in Burning Cove to calm his shattered nerves, comes to her tea room every day for a cup of calming green tea and the opportunity to watch the beautiful waitress with the shadows in her eyes.

When their first date results in the two of them being lured to the scene of a grisly murder, they discover that there’s something rotten in Burning Cove – and that whoever is behind it wants to add both of them to the list of victims.

Escape Rating B+: The Other Lady Vanishes has a much darker tone than The Girl Who Knew Too Much – even though they both begin with fairly grisly death scenes and feature heroines on the run for their lives.

Rushbrook is a very dark place. It sounds like it would make a marvelous setting for a horror movie, one that I personally would not want to watch. Everything that happens there, and not just to Adelaide, is terrible beyond description – even at the beginning where we don’t know the half of it.

The circumstances that placed Adelaide in Rushbrook have left her with a great many doubts about herself and her own judgment. At the beginning of the story, she constantly second guesses herself about her own sanity. And she rightfully fears that if she attempts to contact anyone to investigate her claims, or worse, if she is located by her pursuers, that no one will believe her because she was a patient in a mental institution. And she’s right to worry.

But it makes for a bit of rough reading at the beginning.

It’s only when Jake enters the picture that Adelaide really starts reclaiming her authentic self. But in order for them to have any kind of relationship, even the partnership necessary to investigate all the deadly chaos that surrounds them, they will have to accept each other’s truths.

For Adelaide to reveal her true story feels fraught with as much peril as her pursuers are attempting to drive her into. And it turns out that Jake is in Burning Cove under multiple false pretenses, not just about who he is, but also about why he’s there and what he’s after.

He’s pursuing a blackmailer – she’s running from a conman who locked her up to control her fortune. Those two cases do not seem to be connected – until they are. And while I didn’t totally buy the romance in this one, I certainly enjoyed the way that they worked together to wrap up everything that had gone wrong – for both of them.

At every turn, Adelaide and Jake are confronted by one twist after another. Just when they think they’ve figured everything out, they discover that they haven’t. Just when they, and the reader, think it’s over – it isn’t.

Those twists and turns will keep you turning pages until the very last word.

Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne BuistTwo Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion, Anne Buist
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, travel
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Rosie Project comes a story of taking chances and learning to love again as two people, one mourning her husband and the other recovering from divorce, cross paths on the centuries-old Camino pilgrimage from France to Spain.

“The Chemin will change you. It changes everyone…”

The Chemin, also known as the Camino de Santiago, is a centuries-old pilgrim route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Every year, thousands of walkers—some devout, many not—follow the route that wends through quaint small villages and along busy highways alike, a journey unlike any other.

Zoe, an artist from California who’s still reeling from her husband’s sudden death, has impulsively decided to walk the Camino, hoping to find solace and direction. Martin, an engineer from England, is road-testing a cart of his own design…and recovering from a messy divorce. They begin in the same French town, each uncertain of what the future holds. Zoe has anticipated the physical difficulties of her trek, but she is less prepared for other challenges, as strangers and circumstances force her to confront not just recent loss, but long-held beliefs. For Martin, the pilgrimage is a test of his skills and endurance but also, as he and Zoe grow closer, of his willingness to trust others—and himself—again.

Smart and funny, insightful and romantic, Two Steps Forward reveals that the most important journeys we make aren’t measured in miles, but in the strength, wisdom, and love found along the way. Fans of The Rosie Project will recognize Graeme Simsion’s uniquely quirky and charming writing style.

 

My Review:

Two Steps Forward, which begins as kind of the ultimate road trip journey of self-discovery and ends with a romance between two mature adults is absolutely charming from its beginning in Cluny, France to its ending in Santiago, Spain. It will remind readers of Eat, Pray, Love, but with a bit less self-indulgence.

And so are all of the places, and most of the people, that Zoe and Martin meet along the way, whether they are travelling separately, together, or a bit of both.

Their separate roads to that self-discovery, as well as their journey along the pilgrim’s path variously known as the Carmino de Santiago, the Chemin, or simply the Way, is definitely a story of two steps forward and one step back – and sometimes the other way around.

Both Zoe and Martin are at very loose ends in their mid-lives. It would be a cliche to say that either of them is having a mid-life crisis, and that’s not really the case. They are both in crises that have been thrust upon them. The story of Two Steps Forward is about coming to terms with those crises, the effects on their lives and hearts, and figuring out how to move forward.

They say that the Chemin changes everyone. That, at least, is Zoe’s purpose for taking her first ill-prepared steps along the Way. She is in her mid-40s, and has unexpectedly been widowed. Her daughters are adults, and don’t seem to need her much anymore. And after two marriages, one ending in divorce and one ending in death, she’s not quite sure who she is anymore. Only that the identities that she has crafted for herself – or compromised herself into – no longer fit.

So she walks.

Martin, on the other hand, is flat broke after a messy divorce, and an ill-considered dare. His ex had an affair with his boss, so he’s also out of a job. As he puts it, he’s 52 and skint. And British.

He’s not traveling the Chemin to find himself. Instead, he’s an engineer testing a prototype for a rolling cart that hikers could possibly use to travel the Chemin without either carrying a backpack, the traditional mode, or hiring the service that portages one’s bag(s) from one stop to another. Of course, the purists consider that to be cheating.

But just because he isn’t looking to find himself or resolve any of the many, many issues he’s running, well, walking, away from, doesn’t mean that those issues don’t follow him along the road. And it equally does not mean that he does not, after all, learn the lessons that the Chemin needs to teach him.

Along the way, they keep running into each other. And occasionally from each other. And it is absolutely charming, every step of the way.

Escape Rating B+: Your feet will hurt after reading this book, or at least mine did. In sympathy with their incredible journey. It’s a 2,000 kilometer walk, in other words, over 1,200 miles. On foot. Walking.

The description of the route, the places they stop or pass, and just the effects of the sheer volume of time, distance and effort, are lyrical, and they feel real, as they should. The authors of Two Steps Forward have themselves walked the Chemin, including the particular route taken by Martin in this book, and have traveled other trails along this pilgrim’s path in the years since.

The blisters in particular sound downright painful.

But as fascinating as the sheer volume of the mechanics of the journey are, what makes this story so charming are the characters of Zoe, Martin and everyone they meet along the way.

The story is told from alternating points of view, with one chapter seen from Martin’s perspective, and the other from Zoe’s. While we do read what they think and feel about each other, it’s more important that we also get to look at what brought them on this journey, what they discover about themselves along the way – and just what baggage they leave behind.

That they also find each other gives the story its happy ending, but this is one where the journey, and its fellow travelers, are infinitely more fascinating, may I even say moving, than the destination.

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Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. KuangThe Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, grimdark
Pages: 544
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

My Review:

The Poppy War is an absolute wow of a book. It’s also amazing that this is the author’s first novel, but that’s not what makes it such a marvel. It’s just completely, totally and utterly WOW! If you like grimdark (because this one is very grim and exceedingly dark) and/or if you like your fantasy-style alternate history set in a time and place that is totally f-ed up beyond saving, but the characters try anyway, then this book might be for you.

If you want a happy or at least a triumphant ending, where both good and evil are clear-cut and clearly drawn, this is not your book.

Instead, be prepared for absolutely anything, because this one sets off a whole pantheon of trigger warnings. And if you fall into it, dragging yourself out at the end is incredibly difficult. This is an epic book, and it will give you an epic book hangover – interlaced with tons of frustration, because it is clear from the way this book ends that this story is not over. Rumor has it that the author is committing trilogy, but there are no projected publication dates, or even titles, for those putative books 2 and 3.

Even though when you finish The Poppy War, you will want to read them right now – or at least right after a cocoa and a lie-down. I’d pass on the nap, because I think nightmares would probably be inevitable for a bit.

This book is so many things. It is a heroine’s journey, but it is not the usual heroine’s journey. Every time the heroine reaches a point that should be a triumph, the situation descends quickly into tragedy, anarchy or both.

There’s certainly an element of the “chosen one” to this story, but by the end one has the distinct impression that what Rin has been chosen for or by is operating by the old saying, that “those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

While the heroine is in her teens, and she certainly comes of age over the course of the story, this is absolutely, positively NOT a YA book. And while the first half of the story covers the trials and tribulations of fish-out-of-water Rin at the prestigious military academy at Sinegard, this is also not a “save the school, save the world” story in the way that Harry Potter is. At the same time, there are elements of Rin’s personality that may remind readers of a very, very dark Hermione Granger – at least the swotting parts of her personality.

The Poppy War is also an #ownvoices epic fantasy. The heroine is a brown skinned Asian woman, written by a brown-skinned Asian woman. The history that the author has chosen to use as her background is history that is all-too-familiar to her, but that we are not familiar with in the West, and should be. The unfamiliarity makes the story even more fantastic, while the grounding in the real gives it an authenticity that makes the tragedy all that much more tragic and awful.

And “awful” both in the sense of terrible and in the sense of “full of awe”.

Escape Rating A+: This may be the first week I’ve ever had two A+ books, and back-to-back at that. Epic fantasy is one of my first loves, and it’s certainly obvious in this week’s books.

The Poppy War is so many, many things, and all of them special and amazing. I was absorbed into this world from the opening pages, as our chosen heroine desperately seeks a way to escape her intended fate as concubine to an old man so that her foster parents can further their opium business.

Rin’s way out is through pain and achievement, and it sets the pattern for the rest of her story. At each turn she takes the more painful and dangerous route, no matter how dark the road seems or how often she is warned against it.

The Poppy War is a story where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. Then the scene lights up with fire, and everything is reduced to ash. And Rin, well, Rin does not so much emerge triumphant as she rises slowly to a standing position, bloody, broken and incandescent.

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa GrattonThe Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Pages: 576
Published by Tor Books on March 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A kingdom at risk, a crown divided, a family drenched in blood.

The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of barren crops and despondent subjects. Enemy nations circle the once-bountiful isle, sensing its growing vulnerability, hungry to control the ideal port for all trade routes.

The king's three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Reagan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm's only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign, proving a strong hand can resurrect magic and defend itself. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align and a poison ritual can be enacted.

Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.

My Review:

The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. It’s important to remember that the full title of the play is The Tragedy of King Lear. And while the author of Queens makes plenty of adjustments in order to make her source material into an epic fantasy, one thing does not change – the story, in the end, is still a tragedy. Maybe, just maybe, not quite as dark as the original version, but do not go into this one expecting a triumphant, happy ending, because it isn’t there.

And it wouldn’t be right or proper if it were. It feels like it ends the way that it is meant to. But happy is not any part of that. It ends as it must, not as the reader, or any of the participants, wish that it would.

Gaelan Lear is the king of the island of Innis Lear, and just like in the play, he’s more than a little bit mad. The reasons for that madness, however, are rooted in the magic that underpins the island of Innis Lear and everything that happens upon it.

The island’s founding and foundational magic seems to have several branches, represented by the worms of the earth, the winds and the rootwaters, and finally the stars of the heavens. Another way of looking at it would be death, life and prophecy. There are multiple possible interpretations.

But Lear is a star priest, and he has decreed that only the prophecies of the stars will hold any sway over his kingdom, and that all reverence and obeisance to the other branches of magic are forbidden. Over the following decade, the kingdom has become as unbalanced as its king.

Lear has three daughters, Gaela, Regan and Elia. Gaela is a warrior queen, Regan a witch queen and Elia a remote star priestess. They also are out of balance, but they are young and still capable of change. With their father in decline, it is on their shoulders that the fate of the kingdom rests. And it rests uneasily.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely loved this one. I got sucked in from the very first words. The prologue to this book is marvelous, mysterious and pulls the reader in. If epic fantasy is your jam, you’ll lick this one up with a spoon.

That being said, this is a sprawling epic of a story. A lot of what pushes and pulls it towards what becomes its inevitable conclusion are the internal motivations of all the characters. It is a slowly building story, where there isn’t a lot of action at points, but there is a lot of thought and memory and flashback.

So if you are looking for epic fantasy with big battle scenes and obvious good triumphing over obvious evil, this probably isn’t your book. All of the characters in this story operate very much in shades of gray. That is part of what makes them so fascinating, because you can see where things might have gone differently, and more happily, if people had made just slightly different choices.

This is also a story where, in spite of the king’s emphasis on star prophecies above all else, the quote from another Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, is apropos. As Caesar says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” In Queens, so much is blamed on star prophecy, and on the king’s exclusion of all other magic. But for the characters, it is not the prophecies, but their reactions to them, that drive their actions. The faults that doom so many of them are very definitely their own.

It has been said that this is a feminist interpretation of the play, because the emphasis in the story is not on Lear, but on his daughters and their reactions to him. In this version, Lear represents a past that is fading away, but is also the foundations of the sisters’ actions in the present. It is the conflict between the sisters, and between the two elder sisters’ husbands, that pushes the narrative. This is certainly a story where it is the women’s perspectives that carry the most weight, while the men, with very few exceptions, are mostly supporting characters. And when they try to become principals, it is to their cost. Whether that makes this a feminist interpretation or not, it certainly makes for a fascinating one.

In the end, this feels like the youngest sister Elia’s coming of age story. In the wake of their mother’s death, she chose to cling to her father and to follow the path he wanted her to follow, that of the remote star priest. The path that he had intended to take before the crown was thrust upon him. But in the turmoil surrounding the succession, she is forced to finally make her own choices, and to ultimately realize that duty triumphs desire.

Two final comments before I close. For those who have read Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series, The Queens of Innis Lear feels like a “Mirror Universe” version of that wonderful epic. I mean “Mirror Universe” in the Star Trek sense, where the characters are all the same, but have been reflected back as their own twisted twins. The Twelve Kingdoms beginning with The Mark of the Tala, is also the story of three sisters, who are also the daughters of a mad king. But because they made different choices in reaction to the same event, the early death of their mother, they emerge stronger and united, instead of weak and divided, and are able to wrest a happy ending from the same circumstances that drove The Queens of Innis Lear to their own near-complete destruction – along with that of the kingdom they fought both over and for.

And finally, more than anything else, The Queens of Innis Lear reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay’s awesome work of epic fantasy, Tigana. I found Tigana to be both triumphant and tragic, but as much as I loved it, and have kept multiple copies of it, I have never been able to read it again. The ending was perfect and harrowing at the same time.

The Queens of Innis Lear is strikingly similar. The setting, just as in most of Kay’s work, is a slightly altered version of our own history, with magic a part of the weaving of the world and the tale. Innis Lear is a version of England, and all the other countries mentioned have recognizable analogs to our own history.

But the most striking similarity is in the ending. Both stories end in ways that are ultimately necessary. They can’t be anything else. The way the story is woven, the way the characters have acted, have led to only one proper conclusion, and it not a happy one. But it is the one that has to be. And it is heartbreaking for the characters, and for the reader as well.