A+ #BookReview: The Price of Redemption by Shawn Carpenter

A+ #BookReview: The Price of Redemption by Shawn CarpenterThe Price of Redemption (Tides of Magic, #1) by Shawn Carpenter
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Tides of Magic #1
Pages: 368
Published by Saga Press on July 9, 2024
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A debut female-led swashbuckling fantasy following powerful sorceress and sea captain Marquese Enid d’Tancreville as she is forced on the run where she meets a vast cast of characters perfect for fans of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Master and Commander series.

Despite her powerful magic, Marquese Enid d’Tancreville must flee her homeland to escape death at the hands of the Theocratic Revolution. When a Theocratic warship overtakes the ship bringing her to safety, Enid is spared capture by the timely intervention of the Albion frigate Alarum , under the command of Lt. Rue Nath.

The strange circumstances make for an odd alliance, and Enid finds herself replacing Alarum ’s recently slain sea mage. Now an officer under Nath’s command, Enid is thrust into a strange maritime world full of confusing customs, duties, and language. Worse she soon discovers the threat of the revolution is not confined to shore.

My Review:

When it comes to fictional settings, the Napoleonic Wars are a gift that just keeps on giving. Admittedly, that giving is in the context of the thing about adventures being terrible stuff that happened to someone either long ago, far away, or both. In the case of The Price of Redemption, very much of both.

Because the war between the Ardainne and Albion is absolutely a rehash of the Napoleonic Wars, with Ardainne serving at the post-Revolutionary French complete with their own version of a revolution, and Albion, naturally, sailing in for the Brits holding the line to protect their status quo.

Which is when this particular take on that old conflict gets fascinating, fantastic and utterly magical. Because Ardainne’s Theocratic Revolution throws a religious crusade on top of the class warfare, and marries fanatics straight out of the Spanish Inquisition to Madame Defarge cackling at the feet of Madame Guillotine.

The equivalent of the sans culottes in this world’s Revolution hate and kill mages every bit as much and often as they do aristos – made much simpler for VERY bloody meanings of the world simple – by the fact that so many of the aristos ARE mages who have been using their magical power to increase their political and socio-economic power for centuries.

Ardainne, just like France, was ripe for some kind of plucking. Our story begins with Marquese Enid d’Tancreville, running before the wind and away from the Theocrats (just call them Rats because EVERYONE does) now in charge of the Revolution, on an Albion merchant ship that is outmanned and outgunned but nevertheless rescued in the nick of time by Captain Rue Nath and his outclassed frigate, the Alarum.

Once the smoke clears, Nath is victorious but in need of a replacement Magister – meaning Ship’s Mage – as his previous ‘Spells’ died in the recent skirmish. Enid needs a better protected way to Albion, so that she can offer her services to people who are at least doing something about the filth that has taken over her beloved homeland.

Nath and Enid strike a win-win bargain – she’ll become his temporary new Magister, he’ll convey her and her worldly goods to the place where she intended to go, and in the meantime the Alarum will at least be able to fight if another Rat ship finds them on the open sea.

And thereby, as that very old saying goes, hangs an absolutely marvelous tale of wooden ships, iron men and women, deeds of derring-do and dastardly betrayals from within.

Escape Rating A+: The Napoleonic Wars absolutely are the gift that keeps on giving, at least in the fictional sense. You’ve even seen and or read plenty of stories that used it as a base – even if some of those stories hide the base pretty well.

But one of the most respected AND popular ‘spin offs’ from this particular war is the Aubrey and Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian that begins with Master and Commander, where Jack Aubrey is in the exact same position as Rue Nath – he’s the commander of a ship, called ‘Captain’ by courtesy while in command, but whose true rank is Lieutenant. The journey of the first book in both series is for the ‘Captain’ by courtesy title to make ‘Post’ – to be commissioned as a Captain by rank and clamber onto first rung of the ladder to the Admiralty.

Both the Honor Harrington series by David Weber and the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik used Aubrey and Maturin as their jumping off points, taking their inspiration from the Napoleonic wars into SF (Weber) and fantasy (Novik, but with dragons).

One of the things that the Aubrey and Maturin series did extremely well, that is absolutely a part of The Price of Redemption, is the way that the story takes the reader through the perspective of a previously (land)lubberly point of view character – Enid here and Maturin in the original series – and uses their instruction by beautifully descriptive but still fascinating details to draw the reader into the arcane mysteries of the sea.

The story, the part that keeps the reader frantically turning pages, is, on the one hand, the story of the plucky underdog – in this case Albion – fighting the mighty empire of Ardainne. On the other hand, it’s a very intimate story about one man’s fight to protect his crew, his career, and his country against all comers – particularly the forces arrayed against them all. And on the third hand, possibly the one on the rudder steering this ship, the story of a woman desperate to find a new place in the world – one from which she can strike a blow at her own enemies, find a new perspective on what she left behind that brought her and her country to this terrible pass, and a help create a future that she can live on, and with, and into.

It’s marvelous and riveting and a compulsive page-turner every single league of its way. That this story is not over yet, that there are two more books on the horizon for this cast and crew, is the absolute best news any reader could possibly receive.

#BookReview: Daughters of Olympus by Hannah M. Lynn

#BookReview: Daughters of Olympus by Hannah M. LynnDaughters of Olympus by Hannah M. Lynn
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 336
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on July 9, 2024
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A daughter pulled between two worlds and a mother willing destroy both to protect her...
Gods and men wage their petty wars, but it is the women of spring who will have the last word...
Demeter did not always live in fear. Once, the goddess of spring loved the world and the humans who inhabited it. After a devastating assault, though, she becomes a shell of herself. Her only solace is her daughter, Persephone.
A balm to her mother's pain, Persephone grows among wildflowers, never leaving the sanctuary Demeter built for them. But she aches to explore the mortal world--to gain her own experiences. Naïve but determined, she secretly builds a life of her own under her mother's watchful gaze. But as she does so, she catches the eye of Hades, and is kidnapped...
Forced into a role she never wanted, Persephone learns that power suits her. In the land of the living, though, Demeter is willing to destroy the humans she once held dear--anything to protect her family. A mother who has lost everything and a daughter with more to gain than she ever realized, their story will irrevocably shape the world.

My Review:

Whether gods make men in their own image, or the other way around, either way it’s NOT a compliment. But it does explain a whole damn lot about the behavior of Zeus and his Olympians.

This is not a pretty story. It’s a reminder that the versions of Greek mythology we all read in school were sanitized to the max and absolutely written from a male perspective. That’s pretty much the only reason I can think of for the cavalier treatment of Zeus’ utter lack of faithfulness to his wife. Not to mention how many of the females who bore his demi-god and demi-goddess offspring said “NO” and ran as far and as fast as they could – even if that wasn’t enough.

So it’s not a stretch to believe that Zeus raped his sister Demeter to create Persephone. It’s all too typical of his behavior. Also utterly infuriating.

Which made Daughters of Olympus a fascinating rage read, because it made me look at something that was a familiar and even beloved part of my childhood reading in an entirely new and retrospectively furious way.

Escape Rating B: I ended up with mixed feelings about this book. At first, I was all in with Demeter’s point-of-view of the way things worked in her world – or rather, the way they mostly didn’t and she always ended up suffering at the hands of her brothers and fellow Olympians. Particularly Zeus. ESPECIALLY Zeus.

To the point where she spends centuries hiding away from her brother, her fellow Olympians, and the whole damn world. As much as I wanted her to stand up and take charge of at least her own fate and destiny – that’s not the way the myths go.

It’s only when the story switches to Persephone and after she is kidnapped by Hades at that, that we start seeing something different emerge – even as Persephone rails against Hades and the fate her father Zeus’ bargains have condemned her to.

What makes this retelling of Greek mythology work is that we see the old familiar stories from the perspective of characters who don’t have their own voices in the versions we originally learned. However, this is a feminine perspective and not a feminist one – regardless of which one the reader might prefer.

Meaning that Demeter and Persephone may be the predominant voices of this retelling, but their agency is still significantly limited. They can run, they can hide, but they can’t overpower – at least not until Demeter takes the reins of her own power to enact a different but still traditional feminine aspect – that of the protective, and if necessary avenging – mother.

So, if you’re looking for a retelling of familiar stories from a different perspective – but not expecting a different ending, Daughters of Olympus has an interesting tale to tell – particularly after Demeter finally breaks through her isolation to find her daughter and Persephone picks up the reins of the power that Hades is willing to give her.

Just don’t expect the story to end differently than we already know that it does. In that respect it’s similar to Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel, in that a traditional story is told from the perspective of an often overshadowed female character, but the outcomes are not and cannot be changed.

Dammit.

A- #BookReview: This Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour

A- #BookReview: This Great Hemisphere by Mateo AskaripourThis Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, speculative fiction, political thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Dutton Books on July 9, 2024
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From the award-winning and bestselling author of Black Buck : A speculative novel about a young woman—invisible by birth and relegated to second-class citizenship—who sets off on a mission to find her older brother, whom she had presumed dead but who is now the primary suspect in a high-profile political murder.
Despite the odds, Sweetmint, a young invisible woman, has done everything right her entire life—school, university, and now a highly sought-after apprenticeship with one of the Northwestern Hemisphere’s premier inventors, a non-invisible man belonging to the dominant population who is as eccentric as he is enigmatic. But the world she has fought so hard to build after the disappearance of her older brother comes crashing down when authorities claim that not only is he well and alive, he’s also the main suspect in the murder of the Chief Executive of the Northwestern Hemisphere. 
A manhunt ensues, and Sweetmint, armed with courage, intellect, and unwavering love for her brother, sets off on a mission to find him before it’s too late. With five days until the hemisphere’s big election, Sweetmint must dodge a relentless law officer who’s determined to maintain order and an ambitious politician with sights set on becoming the next Chief Executive by any means necessary.
With the awe-inspiring defiance of The Power and the ever-shifting machinations of House of Cards , This Great Hemisphere is a novel that brilliantly illustrates the degree to which reality can be shaped by non-truths and vicious manipulations, while shining a light on our ability to surprise ourselves when we stop giving in to the narratives others have written for us.

My Review:

Shakespeare said it best, but the Bard said an awful lot of things very, very well, which is why we keep quoting him. In The Merchant of Venice (Act 1, Scene 3), there’s a famous proverb that says that, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” It’s something the reader is forced to reckon with in This Great Hemisphere – even if the characters for the most part don’t have the education to recognize the phenomenon.

They’re not supposed to. That’s part of the story. In fact, a more accurate paraphrase of that quote as it applies to This Great Hemisphere would be that “the devil can WRITE Scripture for his purpose.” because that is exactly what has happened during the five centuries between our now and the future experienced by Sweetmint and her people.

As Sweetmint discovers over the course of this story, there’s another quote that applies even more, from a part of the Bible that the powers-that-be of the Northwestern Hemisphere have undoubtedly excised as part of their thoroughgoing revision of Scripture to suit their purposes. It’s the one from Ecclesiastes (1:9) that goes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or as it was put more succinctly in Battlestar Galactica, “This has all happened before. All of this will happen again.”

But Sweetmint and her friends do not know any of this when her story begins. It may have all happened before – in fact it has all happened before – but it hasn’t happened before TO HER and her perspective is what carries the story from hope and compliance to desperation, rebellion and tragedy. And maybe, just maybe, back to hope – or at least a brief approximation thereof.

But what is it that has happened before? Sweetmint’s story – or the story that takes place around her and through her, is just the kind of metaphor that science fiction does well when it takes an issue that is real and present – and generally terrible – and shifts it in time and space, alters just a few of the parameters – and forces the reader to see an obscured truth for what it really is.

This Great Hemisphere is set on Earth, five centuries into a future where a portion of the human population is born invisible. Because humans are gonna human, and governments always need a common enemy to class as less than human to keep everyone else in line, invisibles have been cast as a threat and dehumanized in every way possible. They are denied higher education, voting rights, land ownership, good jobs, good housing, etc., etc., etc. Denied all of those things by law and forced to live in remote villages so that the dominant population can never really know them so that they can be more easily demonized.

Sweetmint is supposed to be a “model Invisible” and has earned a place as an intern – not a servant, but an actual intern – with one of the men responsible for the creation of this system. He’s using her for the next step in his “great plan”.

But we see this broken society through Sweetmint’s eyes as the scales are removed from them. She learns that nothing she believes bears much of any resemblance to any objective truth and that the system is rotten from within – always has been and intends to always be so.

What makes the story so compelling is that even as we watch it unravel, we’re still riveted by her attempts to force a new way through. That even though it may be hopeless in the long run, there can be a reprieve in the short run – and possibly more. And we’re there for her and for it – even if the specific future she hoped for is not.

Escape Rating A-: I obviously had a lot of thoughts about this as I was reading it, and I have more. It’s that kind of book.

It does absolutely fly by. The author has done an excellent job of creating a world that is firmly rooted in the history we know and yet manages to shine a light on it from a different corner. Using invisibility as a metaphor for race allows the reader to be firmly grounded in our own historical perspective and yet provides a vector by which anyone can imagine themselves as Sweetmint because there are circumstances in which anyone can be rendered invisible.

I’m all over the map on what I thought and felt about this book, and it’s making writing it up all kinds of difficult. On the one hand, as I said, it’s compelling to read. On a second hand, I felt like the social issues part was a bit heavy-handed – but at the same time, I recognize that my own background makes me more familiar with some of the issues – albeit from a slightly different angle, and as someone whose read a lot of history the repetitive patterns are not exactly news.

From the point of view of someone who reads a lot of science fiction, this very much fits into the spec fic, SFnal tradition of exploring an all too real past and present issue by setting it in either a time or place away from the here and now. Something that even the original Star Trek series did both well and badly – sometimes at the same time – and there’s an episode that’s particularly on point in this regard, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

In other words, in yet another attempt to make a long story short and probably fail at it again, This Great Hemisphere is a compelling story, both because of Sweetmint’s originally naive perspective and because the actual political machinations going and increasing enmeshment in the consequences of them – sometimes intentionally but often not. And the ending – oh that was a stunner in a way that just capped off the whole thing while still leaving just a glimmer of possibility – if not necessarily a good one – for the world in which it happens.

#BookReview: Requiem for a Mouse by Miranda James

#BookReview: Requiem for a Mouse by Miranda JamesRequiem for a Mouse (Cat in the Stacks, #16) by Miranda James
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #16
Pages: 282
Published by Berkley on June 25, 2024
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Librarian Charlie Harris and his ever-intuitive feline friend Diesel must catch a killer in a deadly game of cat and mouse where no one is who they seem to be…
At last, Charlie and Helen Louise’s wedding is only a month away. They’re busy preparing for the big day, and the last thing Charlie needs is a new mystery to solve. Enter Tara Martin, a shy, peculiar woman who has recently started working part-time at Helen Louise’s bistro and helping Charlie in the archive. Tara isn’t exactly friendly and she has an angry outburst at the library that leaves Charlie baffled. And then she abruptly leaves a catered housewarming party Charlie’s son Sean is throwing to celebrate his new home in the middle of her work shift. Before ducking out of the party, Tara looked terrified and Charlie wonders if she’s deliberately trying to escape notice. Is she hiding from someone?
When Tara is viciously attacked and lands in the hospital, Charlie knows his instincts were correct: Tara was in trouble and someone was after her. With the help of his much beloved cat, Diesel, Charlie digs deeper, and discovers shocking glimpses into Tara’s past that they could never have predicted. Will they catch the villain before Charlie’s own happily ever after with Helen Louise is ruined?

My Review:

As today marks the start of the American Library Association Annual Conference, it’s the perfect day to review the latest entry in the Cat in the Stacks series, Requiem for a Mouse, featuring librarian Charlie Harris and his large and lovable Maine Coon cat Diesel.

While the possessive should probably be in the other direction, that Charlie belongs to Diesel and not the other way around, as a librarian himself Charlie would have attended many ALA conferences over the course of his career, especially back when he was one of the Branch Managers at the Houston Public Library.

Charlie’s current position, as the part-time cataloger and rare book librarian for his hometown – and alma mater’s – tiny Athena College Library in Athena, Mississippi – generally doesn’t have the budget to make Charlie schlep to wherever the conference happens to be each year. (This year it’s San Diego.)

Which is just fine with him, as he’s been there, done that, and probably has thrown away the conference t-shirts quite some time ago.

Besides, Charlie has much more interesting things to do. Such as ‘help’ the local police solve murders. A help that Athena P.D.’s Chief Deputy generally thinks of as poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong and beating her detectives to the clues a bit too often.

This time around, Charlie’s nose DOES belong in the case – because it happened at the desk right across from his. Not literally, but certainly more than figuratively enough that he feels compelled to help discover who murdered the intensely private, socially maladroit woman who had been his part-time assistant.

Tara Monroe may have been rude and tactless – and she certainly was – but that certainly wasn’t enough reason for someone to drive deliberately onto the sidewalk to run her over. But the cops’ certainty about her cause of death is the one of only two sure things in this entire case – and the victim’s identity is not the other.

But Charlie can’t let it rest until he knows both whodunnit and the truth of who it was done to – even when that puts him squarely in the killer’s sights.

Escape Rating B: I’m here for Diesel. Not just because I’ve always wanted a Maine Coon, but because he’s just sweet and charming – and large – but also because he’s intelligent and empathetic but on a cat scale and not a human one. There are quite a few cozy mystery series that feature cats – and why not? – but it’s refreshing that the cat in this series doesn’t solve the mysteries on his own and doesn’t mysteriously help his person solve them.

Which leads back to Diesel’s person, Charlie Harris. One of the things I love about this series is not just that Charlie is a librarian, but that he feels like ‘one of us’ and not merely the result of some cursory research. (This is not a surprise as the author is themself, one of us.) But it’s lovely not just to see one’s own profession represented in a story but to have it done correctly – which is far from always the case.

This series is a very cozy series. Athena is a small town, Charlie has a charming and well-developed ‘Scooby Gang’ who help him, worry about him, and occasionally rescue him from his own folly. The portrait of the town as a whole turns it into the kind of fictional small town that makes readers want to live there – except in the hot, muggy Mississippi summers.

So this is a series I pick up because I’m always happy to see Diesel and I love catching up with Charlie and his friends and family.

That being said, the beginning of this one is particularly rough. Tara Monroe, whoever she is, puts everyone off with her tactlessness and her inability to pick up on social cues. When the story opens, as much as many of the characters want to help her out, there’s a surprising amount of backbiting and general verbal nastiness. There’s not even a suggestion that she might be neuroatypical – which was my first thought. It’s only after she’s struck down that people begin to treat her situation with any real understanding. But the initial impression that people were badmouthing her behind her back stuck with me and stained my impression of the book.

The mystery was a lot of sad fun, as it was very twisty and filled with lots of delicious red herrings for Diesel and his little buddy Ramses to beg for – even though every reveal about the victim’s true circumstances made her life and her death just that much sadder. (She’s certainly the ‘Mouse’ of the title) Those twists and turns, along with a whole cast of characters using false names and fake pretenses made this a very quick read as .well. But that initial impression meant that in the end I liked it rather than loved it as I had expected to.

But I’m still Team Diesel, so I’ll still be back to check up on how he’s doing the next time there’s a Cat in the Stacks mystery.

#BookReview: Pets and the City by Amy Attas

#BookReview: Pets and the City by Amy AttasPets and the City: True Tales of a Manhattan House Call Veterinarian by Amy Attas
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, audiobook
Genres: animals, memoir, nonfiction
Pages: 320
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Hilarious, jaw-dropping, and heartfelt stories from New York City’s premier “house-call veterinarian” that take you into the exclusive penthouses and 4-star hotel rooms of the wealthiest New Yorkers and show that, when it comes to their pets, they are just as neurotic as any of us.

When a pet is sick, people—even the rich and famous—are at their most authentic and vulnerable. They could have a Monet on the wall and an Oscar on the shelf, but if their cat gets a cold, all they want to talk about are snotty noses and sneezing fits. That’s when they call premier in-home veterinarian Dr. Amy Attas.

In Pets and the City , Dr. Attas shares all the shocking, heartbreaking, and life-affirming experiences she’s faced throughout her 30-year career—like the time she saw a naked Cher (no, her rash was not the same as her puppy’s); when she met a skilled service dog who, after his exam was finished, left the room and returned with a checkbook in his mouth; and when she saved the life of a retired, agoraphobic Hollywood producer during a monthly treatment for his cat, Amos. In these moments Dr. Attas noticed key insights about animal, and human, nature—like how humans attach to one another through their love of animals, or how animals don’t have pride, ego, or vanity that their humans seem to value so much, sometimes to their detriment.

To Dr. Attas, she doesn’t just heal animals. She witnesses how they and their humans help and heal each other, and how the special bond between pet and owner might actually make us better people.

My Review:

Once upon a time in 1980, there was a book. To be fair, there’s always a book. But the book in this particular case was All My Patients Are Under the Bed by Louis J. Camuti. I still have a copy – even if one or more cats have gnawed on it a bit.

Dr. Camuti, like Dr. Attas, the author of Pets and the City, was a house call veterinarian in Manhattan, in the decades before Dr. Attas finished her training. Dr. Camuti’s practice was just a bit different, however, even for his own time, as he was one of the first vets to specialize in cats.

Dr. Attas, taking up, or finding herself in, her own visiting vet service in Manhattan, takes on all comers, as the stories in her book joyously and sometimes heartbreakingly attest.

To paraphrase the classic Law and Order intro, so apropos because that series is also set in NYC, these are her stories – and the stories of the animals and their people that she has treated along her way.

Reality Rating B: The author does several things in this collection of cat tales and not-necessarily-shaggy dog stories. First she tells her own tale, her origin story, not just how and why she became a vet, but how she fell – or was pushed, she was definitely pushed – into opening her peripatetic Manhattan practice.

Second, she tells oodles of sometimes funny, sometimes sad, occasionally downright heartbreaking stories about the animals – and their people – that she treated along the way. Those stories, even when they absolutely break your heart as they did hers, are THE BEST part of the whole book.

Even if the dogs did outnumber the cats.

Howsomever, as the blurb implies that there will be stories of the rich and famous of Manhattan, the third thing is that there is more than a bit of name-dropping. Unfortunately that part of her story is already starting to seem a bit dated as some of her early famous clients – as ultra-famous as a few of them were back in their day – have since passed away in the decades since Dr. Attas’ career began.

And occasionally the author gets up on her soapbox about animal and/or pet-related causes that are near and dear to her heart. But as this book is squarely aimed at animal lovers of all types and stripes and spots, most readers will empathize with her convictions.

To make a not very long story even shorter, Pets and the City, as much as the title titillates with its resemblance to Sex and the City, isn’t really about the rich and famous, and doesn’t dish dirty secrets on some of the city’s more famous and/or infamous residents. So if that’s what you are here for, this probably isn’t the book for you.

Also if you’re really, really, seriously a cat lover, the dogs are definitely having their day in this book. Personally, I always want more cat stories but the dogs ARE adorable – even when something noxious is gushing out of one of their orifices.

Ultimately, Pets and the City is a collection of (true but the names have been changed to protect the guilty) stories about the pets whose people live and work in Manhattan. No matter how palatial – or how down at heel – the place where their person lives and/or work, it’s the pets and THEIR stories that always takes center stage.

Which is exactly how it should be.

#BookReview: Unexploded Remnants by Elaine Gallagher

#BookReview: Unexploded Remnants by Elaine GallagherUnexploded Remnants by Elaine Gallagher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: artificial intelligence, science fiction
Pages: 111
Published by Tordotcom on June 25, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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An A.I. wages war on a future it doesn't understand.

Alice is the last human. Street-smart and bad-ass.

After discovering what appears to be an A.I. personality in an antique data core, Alice undertakes to find its home somewhere in the stargate network, or lay him to rest. Her find is the control unit of a powerful ancient weapon system.

But releasing the ghost of a raging warrior for whom the war is still under way is as much of a mistake as the stories tell, and Alice finds herself faced with an impossible choice against an unstoppable foe.

My Review:

Alice is the last human in the galaxy. As far as she’s concerned, she’s definitely in Wonderland – even when it seems like the whole, entire ‘verse is out to get her.

There are two stories packed into Unexploded Remnants, and that’s a lot of packing for a novella. First, there’s Alice’s whole backstory – which must be huge and fascinating but we only get glimpses which are not NEARLY enough.

She’s literally the last of her kind and the reason she got to be that and what happened after and how she’s coped with her singularity in the big wide galaxy at large has to have been a huge story of awakening and culture shock – and I wish that was the story we had. Or I wish we’d get it someday.

Or both. Definitely both.

Instead, we get hints and dribbles, because the story we actually have is an entirely different big story. Alice is kind of an intergalactic treasure hunter. An archeologist of lost civilizations and an explorer of lost cultures – much like her own.

That she freelances for ‘The Archive’ in this vocation/avocation reminded this reader quite a lot of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series. So if you loved that you might have a hook to this.

So Alice is a bit of a bazaar and flea market aficionado who has more than enough knowledge to get more than occasionally lucky. Or unlucky, as the case might be. And certainly is here.

She barters for a trinket that looks a lot like a 20th century Earth lava lamp – although it’s certainly not that. It might have a system inside its dirty and unprepossessing carapace that she might be able to tease out and communicate with. It should be worth something – if only to the Archive.

It turns out to be a whole lot more than Alice bargained for – both literally and figuratively. As soon as she closes the deal, it seems like a whole, entire platoon of dishonorable warmongers close in on her position in an attempt to steal whatever it is out of her grasp. A platoon that doesn’t seem to care in the least about collateral damage to the marketplace, the crowd of shoppers, or Alice herself.

So she runs. And as she runs from planet to planet through a vast network of transportation gates, she has the opportunity to make friends with the system inside the ‘lava lamp’, an entity she names ‘Gunn’. The question is whether Gunn is a soldier or just a weapon. Her pursuers believe he’s merely a weapon. Alice is convinced that he’s more.

But whichever he is, the war he was made for or recruited into is over – and has been for 10,000 years. His people – and their bitter enemy – committed mutual genocide. And her pursuers seem all too eager to employ Gunn’s expertise in their own bitter conflict without thought or care about how his ended.

Escape Rating B: The reason that I picked this up – and its biggest drawback – are the same. It’s short. Unexploded Remnants is a novella. In fact, it’s the author’s debut novella. It’s supposed to be short. But the story it contains is too big for the length of the format. Or there should have been two of them. One for Alice’s backstory – which sounds absolutely fascinating if more than a bit heartbreaking. And then a second novella for this ‘adventure’ which gives readers a tantalizing glimpse of the universe that saved her and made her whole, while telling a story about the price of peace and the cost of war.

As I was reading, the SFnal elements struck a lot of familiar chords. I mentioned the Invisible Library series earlier, because that is certainly part of this story.  Irene’s job in the Invisible Library series, is to acquire cultural artifacts and knowledge for the Library, while the Library’s purpose for those artifacts is to use the knowledge gained to preserve the balance between order and chaos for all the worlds it touches.

Howsomever, not only is Alice’s job very similar to Irene’s, but Alice’s Archive does the same job as Irene’s Library, using the knowledge it has gained from the artifacts and databases it has collected to preserve the balance between order and chaos, specifically by keeping the galaxy on the knife edge between outright war and an occasionally aggressive peace.

While the vastness of the galaxy – along with its system of interstellar gate travel – recalled Stargate, Babylon 5 and especially Mass Effect, there was a feel to this story that gave me a lot of the same vibes as This Is How You Lose the Time War, except that in this instance that war has already been lost and Gunn is the only survivor. I also had rather mixed feelings about Time War, so the analogy works on that level as well, although a LOT more people adored Time War than seem to have Unexploded Remnants – at least so far – so your reading mileage may vary.

Personally, I found Alice’s rapid exploration of her adopted universe fascinating if a bit of a tease. I enjoyed her sprinkling of 20th and 21st century pop culture references – which seemed to serve her as both a reminder of where she came from and a personal code that defied automated translators without seeming deliberately clandestine.

Howsomever, as much as I liked the way the story ended, that ‘Gunn’ was treated as an old soldier instead of as merely a weapon – and as much as I agreed with the overt political message – that message was very overt to the point where it breaks the fourth wall even though I believe the theories posited are more plausible than anyone likes to think about.

In the end, some mixed feelings. I loved the universe, I liked Alice, the chases were riveting, but the message was a bit heavy-handed and the whole thing should have been longer or this should have been a duology.

But this is a DEBUT novella, and it packed in a lot of good stuff – if just a bit stuffed. I’m looking forward to seeing what the author comes up with next.

#BookReview: A Ruse of Shadows by Sherry Thomas

#BookReview: A Ruse of Shadows by Sherry ThomasA Ruse of Shadows (Lady Sherlock, #8) by Sherry Thomas
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Lady Sherlock #8
Pages: 368
Published by Berkley on June 25, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Charlotte Holmes is accustomed to solving crimes, not being accused of them, but she finds herself in a dreadfully precarious position as the bestselling Lady Sherlock series continues.
Charlotte’s success on the RMS Provence has afforded her a certain measure of time and assurance. Taking advantage of that, she has been busy, plotting to prise the man her sister loves from Moriarty’s iron grip.
Disruption, however, comes from an unexpected quarter. Lord Bancroft Ashburton, disgraced and imprisoned as a result of Charlotte’s prior investigations, nevertheless manages to press Charlotte into service: Underwood, his most loyal henchman, is missing and Lord Bancroft wants Charlotte to find Underwood, dead or alive.
But then Lord Bancroft himself turns up dead and Charlotte, more than anyone else, meets the trifecta criteria of motive, means, and opportunity. Never mind rescuing anyone else, with the law breathing down her neck, can Charlotte save herself from prosecution for murder?

My Review:

A Ruse of Shadows is a fascinating study in contradictions. It’s a story about paying it forward, payback, and revenge served ice cold. It’s a yarn spun out of a tissue of lies and a truth that literally sets several people free. All the while it’s a game of three-handed chess that only one player understands is being played in 3D while both of the other players assume it’s being played in only two – and who consequently suffer the fate of those who assume.

This eighth entry in the Lady Sherlock series is also a bit of a caper story, as it begins, not at the beginning, but rather at what at first seems to be the end. Charlotte being in the midst of being questioned by the police in regards to the death of Lord Bancroft Ashburton in the immediate aftermath of his escape from the prison to which he had been remanded after his perfidy and treason were unveiled – by Charlotte and her friends – in the previous book in the series, A Tempest at Sea.

(This is a hint, by the way. Theoretically the books in this series could be read as standalone, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not just that the endings of each book flow into the next, but that there’s a vast, interconnected and rather sticky web between all of the cases – at least so far. I’m glad I began at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet Women – and I think many readers are or will be as well.)

What makes the plot of this particular entry in the series so sticky – and so convoluted – is that it seems as though every past case is tied into this present one – particularly the most recent pair, Miss Moriarty, I Presume? and A Tempest at Sea.

It’s those cases that give Charlotte her motives for both facilitating Bancroft’s escape AND murdering the man – at least in the minds of the police investigators.

But Charlotte has a bland, banal and utterly blameless answer for every single one of their questions – at least on the surface. While she relates the story that she has prepared, the reader, however, is presented with the truth behind that fiction and the story switches between Charlotte’s innocuous tale and a vast and far-reaching plot of much more interesting but considerably less innocent truths.

Along with a few switches in perspective from Charlotte’s part of the story to accounts by some of her other agents in her grand plan to thwart Bancroft’s and Moriarty’s equally grand plots to trap her and her friends – one way or another.

Each of her enemies believes that they have her – and their counterpart – firmly within their grasp. The police believe that they have her “dead to rights” as well. But, particularly when it comes to outsmarting ‘Sherlock’ Holmes their beliefs don’t hold a candle to Holmes’ strategies, their intelligence, or the vast circle of friends and even frenemies willing to help them against any forces arrayed against them.

Escape Rating B+: I have consistently found this series to be fascinating and frustrating in equal measure – and this entry in the series is no exception.

On the one hand, as Bancroft, Moriarty and the police in the persons of Inspector Treadles and Chief Inspector Talbot all know that Charlotte is Sherlock is Charlotte, she doesn’t need to pretend to consult a fictitious brother – which certainly removes one of my chief sources of consternation with the series.

Charlotte does, however, make plenty of use of both male and female disguises – but then so did the original Sherlock. She has little need to protect her own supposedly delicate femininity – but is forced to kowtow to society’s restrictions and assumptions on behalf of some of the other women involved in the case. Still, it makes the story considerably less frustrating for the reader as Charlotte is finally able to just get on with the case by the employment of a suitable change of face and costume.

Howsomever, the way that this story is told, with its framing story of Charlotte pretending innocence to Chief Inspector Talbot while telling the reader the truth behind her bland answers – does occasionally get more than a bit muddled, a muddling that is not helped by the additions of Olivia’s point of view as Olivia’s part of this charade isn’t revealed until the end.

Which, admittedly, was exactly as it should have been, as Olivia is the chronicler of her sister’s cases.

This story is also a bit of a mirror image to Miss Moriarty, I Presume? in that this time around it’s Lord Bancroft Ashburton (the disgraced former Mycroft after the events of A Tempest at Sea) who holds Charlotte’s hostages to fortune even as he attempts to maneuver Charlotte and her friends into a trap with the more-than-willing assistance of Moriarty. Her enemies are not friends, but are willing to collude with each other to get her, as she’s been a consistent thorn in both their sides.

The case itself, as we finally get the full picture – was every bit as twisty and convoluted and purely confounding and compelling as this reader has come to expect in this series. At the very same time the corkscrews that those twists have turned themselves into feel like they’ve been winding and tangling since the very first book in the series – only because some of them have.

In the end, I found the case fascinating, even though the way the story got told felt like a bit of a muddle, particularly at the beginning. But when it came to the reveal at the end, the whole thing wrapped up marvelously and even though we’d seen most of how Charlotte got there she still had plenty of secrets left to uncover at the finish.

A finish which doesn’t remotely feel like an end to the series. I’m not sure what Charlotte and Company will be up to next – but I can’t wait to find out!

A- #BookReview: The Comfort of Ghosts by Jacqueline Winspear

A- #BookReview: The Comfort of Ghosts by Jacqueline WinspearThe Comfort of Ghosts (Maisie Dobbs, #18) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #18
Pages: 361
Published by Soho Crime on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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A milestone in historical mystery fiction as Maisie Dobbs takes her final bow!
Psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs unravels a profound mystery from her past in a war-torn nation grappling with its future.
London, 1945: Four adolescent orphans with a dark wartime history are squatting in a vacant Belgravia mansion—the owners having fled London under heavy Luftwaffe bombing. Soon after a demobilized British soldier, ill and reeling from his experiences overseas, takes shelter with the group, Maisie Dobbs visits the mansion on behalf of the owners.
Maisie is deeply puzzled by the children's reticence. Their stories are evasive and, more mysteriously, they appear to possess self-defense skills one might expect of trained adults in wartime. Her quest to bring comfort and the promise of a future to the youngsters and to the ailing soldier brings to light a decades-old mystery concerning Maisie’s first husband, James Compton, who was killed while piloting an experimental aircraft. As Maisie picks apart the threads of her dead husband’s life, she is forced to examine her own painful past and question beliefs she has always accepted as true.
The award-winning Maisie Dobbs series has garnered hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, readers who are drawn to a woman who is of her time, yet familiar in ours—and who inspires with her resilience and capacity for endurance at the worst of times. This final assignment of her own choosing not only opens a new future for Maisie Dobbs and her family, but serves as a fascinating portrayal of the challenges facing the people of Britain at the close of the Second World War.
Over seventeen previous books in the Maisie Dobbs series, hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide have fallen in love with this fearless, compassionate woman—this final adventure not only ties up all Maisie’s loose ends, but also serves as a fascinating portrayal of life in Great Britain after the close of the second World War.

My Review:

As seems fitting for this final book in the Maisie Dobbs series, A Comfort of Ghosts begins with an ending. One of the towering – literally as he was quite tall – secondary figures in this long-running series, Lord Julian Compton, originally Maisie’s employer, once-upon-a-time her father-in-law, later and last her friend, has died, Leaving Maisie to mourn, to comfort his widow, to be the executor of his estate and to clean up his last act in the late war.

Sending a group of young squatters to her empty house in London, to protect some of Britain’s most hidden and secretive wartime operatives from a false charge of murder. They are a loose end, and entirely too many ‘boffins’ in the war offices have become so accustomed to death being the only tool in their toolbox to take care of such loose ends that they are willing to send four adolescents to the hangman for a crime that wasn’t really a crime that they had the misfortune to witness.

This final story of Maisie’s adventures shows her doing what she has always done best – discovering a problem and getting to the bottom of a situation that someone doesn’t want to be found while protecting as many innocents – and even some of the guilty – along the way.

That, in the middle of this investigation she has the opportunity to finally lay to rest the ghosts of her own past as well as bring her dearest friend back from the brink of disaster and help not one but two dear and deeply scarred veterans out of their very own pits of despair while searching for yet one more complicated truth hidden behind a scrim of convenient lies makes The Comfort of Ghosts, and the solace that Maisie has finally learned to take from her own, a perfect ending to the series.

Escape Rating A-: This story closes all the circles that were opened back in the very first book in this series, the titular Maisie Dobbs, finds all the dangling threads that have been left hanging through the course of EIGHTEEN BOOKS, and ties each and every one of them off. So it’s a book about endings.

At the same time, because of its setting, it’s also a book about beginnings. The series began in the years just before the opening of the ‘Great War’, when young Maisie became an under-housemaid in the household of Lord Compton at the age of thirteen. Maisie’s midnight raids of the great house’s great library were discovered by the mistress of the house, Lady Rowan Compton, and Maisie’s life took a different direction than it otherwise might, leading to all of the marvelous if sometimes fraught adventures and heartbreaks of the series.

But this story takes place in 1945. The second World War has just ended, the recovery and reconstruction has barely begun. Britain is no longer the seat of empire, and the U.S. – and Russia – have taken center stage as a new thing – superpowers.

Maisie and her generation of friends and frenemies are middle aged or older, retiring, returning to home and hearth, or lying dead on a battlefield from one war or the other. This last story, this reckoning of all her accounts, is her swansong.

Which is a hint and a half not to start the series here. It’s not necessary to real all of the previous 17 books to get into this one – I have a few I never got around to but probably will eventually – but this story has so much more resonance if you’ve read at least some and have gotten to know Maisie’s circle of friends and colleagues and contacts and the myriad ways that their lives have become interconnected over the decades.

For those, like this reader, who have gotten to know Maisie over the years and books, this story is a bittersweet delight. It also feels right that Maisie leave the stage at this historical juncture, as the world she knew is not the world that is to come – as we know and as hints are shown in the story.

But, in that desire to get every thread tied off with a neat bow and foreshadow the changes in the world as it will be, it may have lingered just a bit too long and found a way to tie that last bow just a bit too coincidentally. Your reading mileage may vary.

Still and absolutely all, a marvelous and utterly fitting ending to a captivating series, leaving this reader with both that smile because it happened and a tear or two because it ended.

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave Klecha

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave KlechaThe Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell, Dave Klecha
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: military fantasy, military science fiction, portal fantasy
Pages: 279
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft in this delirious mashup pitting the U. S. military against legendary monsters from fantasy novels and roleplaying games. From science fiction award-winner and an author, ex-Marine, and extreme amateur-landscaper, comes a riotous fantasy/military science fiction adventure that will delight fans of Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien, and John Scalzi.
Of course, no one was prepared for the day when orcs, trolls, and dragons fell from portals in the sky. But the world fought back against the invaders as best it could, with soldiers, tactical weapons, and even some rudimentary magic.
Now a tough, but not-quite-prepared platoon of Marines is trapped on the wrong side of the portals. The enchanting landscape looks like Middle Earth, but―to the dismay of the nerdiest soldiers―is nothing like the Middle Earth they had loved.
This so-called fantasy world has much to throw at the legendary monsters, extremely rude trees, a mysterious orphan, treacherous mercenaries, and even a cranky, sort of helpful Ranger.
As their supplies dwindle and the terrain becomes even more hostile, the squad must also escort a VIP (Very Important Princess). She could be the key to a strategic alliance between the worlds, but only if the Marines can just make it home.

My Review:

I didn’t think they made them like this anymore. They certainly haven’t for a long, long time. And hot damn this was fun!

The Runes of Engagement is a portal fantasy – but on steroids. With weapons and monsters of mass destruction on both sides of the portal. Or rather, PORTALS, plural. And seemingly everywhere.

Which is how they got discovered – and a whole slew of things about history and mythology and where they met and diverged got turned on their heads. Because there were literal, actual trolls pouring out of a portal in Central Park, on their way to topple the Empire State Building and everything else in their path. Quite possibly not for the first time. That this first rampage through the vicinity Central Park is NOT the monsters’ first rampage on this side of the portal – even if it is the first time the Empire State Building has stood in their path.

We get dropped into this scary but brave new/old world on the other side of the portal, in a place that looks a whole lot like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The U.S. Marines have pushed the trolls and their friends back through to their own other side, and are now entrenched in a Forward Operating Base that is supposed to keep the unfriendlies on their side of the line.

Staff Sergeant Cale and his platoon are on a mission to pick up an elven princess and escort her back behind their lines and all the way to Washington DC to negotiate a treaty of alliance. No matter how often SSgt Cale shakes his head at the fact that this has become his reality.

Both sides of that potential alliance need all the help they can get. The monsters, naturally enough, do their damndest to prevent that alliance from ever happening. Killing the princess is a pretty sure way of doing that. Destroying the nearest portal seems like a surefire guarantee of keeping the princess on their side of the line where they have a much better chance at taking her out – at least from the monsters’ point of view.

No one seems to have reckoned on SSgt Cale and his Marines, who are determined to accomplish the mission – even when it requires traveling to the other side of the continent through an abandoned dwarven mining complex filled with pit traps and Boss Battles just so they can literally prop the princess on her throne.

That their entire journey seems a bit too ‘on the nose’ for the geeks in the squad just helps them be a bit more prepared for whoever, or whatever, is taking the place of the Balrog this time around. Because it’s not going to pass, but SSgt and his squad absolutely are.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb describes it as “The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft”. As catchy as it is, I’m not totally sold on that description. It doesn’t matter, because however you describe this genre-bending matchup/crossover, it’s absolutely fantastic in multiple senses of the word.

Even if it does occasionally rely on the reader knowing its many, many inspirations, and laughing along with the joke and the trope.

It used to be that stories like this one were quite popular, just that the portal tended to go back in time or across space rather than opening up in Central Park. S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador and The Peshawar Lancers both had similar feels to The Runes of Engagement, as did some of Harry Turtledove’s and David Drake’s work. Meaning that if this turns out to be your jam, there are plenty more to read your way through!

For even more possible readalikes, Staff Sergeant Cale would fit right in with John Perry from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, any of Michael Mammay’s military protagonists (Planetside) and he’d absolutely be able to swap stories and attitudes with Torin Kerr (Valor’s Choice) and HER platoon of space marines.

But as much as Cale’s perspective carries the story and the reader, it’s the Tolkien-esq setting that makes the thing so much over-the-top fun. Because yes, there really is a point where it looks like they’re about to reprise the whole Mines of Moria catastrophe from The Fellowship of the Ring. One of the interesting ways in which this book plays with fantasy and fantasy settings is that it isn’t just the reader who groans at the deja vu. This is a world that spins off from now, meaning that everyone has read Tolkien’s work and seen the movies.

Not just that but the soldiers who are able to operate best in the environment are those who are familiar with both Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons and are able to roll with the rolls of the dice as well as the punches of seeing the creatures of their wildest dreams and nightmares shooting at them. They’re using the D&D Monster Manuals as actual, honest-to-goodness (and badness) guidebooks for the monsters they are confronting on a daily basis – and it’s awesome.

This is a story where you need to suspend your disbelief on the first page right alongside the Marines and it’s SO worth it. Because once you do, the whole thing is an absolute blast!

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian TchaikovskyService Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, robots, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A humorous tale of robotic murder from the Hugo-nominated author of Elder Race and Children of Time
To fix the world they first must break it further.
Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service. When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into their core programming, they murder their owner. The robot then discovers they can also do something else they never did before: run away. After fleeing the household, they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating, and a robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is finding a new purpose.

My Review:

This isn’t exactly the book described in the blurb. It’s absolutely awesome, but if you’re looking for the wry snark of Murderbot combined with the sheer farce of Redshirts, you should probably look elsewhere.

Because Service Model is the story of a gentlerobot’s journey through his very own version of hell and his story is a whole lot more subtle than either of the antecedents listed in the blurb.

And all the more captivating and utterly fascinating for it.

The hell that the former Charles the former gentleman’s gentlerobot (read as valet and self-identified as male possibly because of his training to be one) to his former (read as dead) master may be uniquely a robot’s version of Dante’s circles of hell, but this human facing robot is just enough like us – because he’s programmed to be – that we get most of what of what he’s experiencing very nearly as viscerally as he does – although which circles we see as the truest hell may be slightly different from his.

Charles the gentleman’s gentlerobot is ejected from his version of paradise because he has just murdered his master – even though he doesn’t know why and can’t quite grasp the memory of committing the act. Because he didn’t. He was literally not in control of his actions.

Quite possibly, that’s the last time he can truly make that claim.

His next act is to run, and it’s an act of both self-will and self-preservation – no matter how much he tries to pretty it up with error diagnostics. He hopes that he can somehow return to A paradise if not THE paradise he just left – if he can just get himself to Central Diagnostics and get the error in his programming corrected.

Which is where the story truly begins, as the now Unidentified Service Model formerly known as Charles walks to the central core of the region where his late master lived in splendid isolation on his palatial, paradisiacal manor – only to discover that the world outside that paradise is falling apart.

Indeed, has already fallen.

There are plenty of robots along the way, most of them frozen in place or completely broken down. It’s clear, in spite of his will that it not be so, that the humans the robots are supposed to serve are as dead as his late master.

The former Charles is desperate to find a human to serve. And he does. He’s just incapable of recognizing that fact.

And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale – and a walk through some very dark places. It’s a journey that Charles, now named Uncharles, hopes will lead to a new paradise of service. Instead, it leads him through all the circles of robot hell, from Kafkaesque through Orwellian and all the way to Dante’s inferno – and out the other side into a place that he never could have imagined.

Not even if androids really did dream of electric sheep.

Escape Rating A+: I went into this completely unsure of what to expect, and that blurb of Murderbot meeting Redshirts totally threw me off. This is not the delightfully humorous tale of robotic murder that the blurb leads you to believe.

Not that there isn’t a bit of Murderbot in Uncharles, but then again we’re all a little bit Murderbot. That little bit is in the perspective, because we experience Uncharles’ journey through his circles of hell from inside his own slightly malfunctioning head. And it’s a very different point of view from Murderbot’s because Murderbot has no desire whatsoever to go back to being its formerly servile self.

Uncharles longs to go back to his paradise. Or at least he believes he does. As much as some of the ridiculous subroutines that had accreted over the decades tasked his efficiency minded self more than the tasks themselves, he still longs to serve. And if his perspective on what that service should be shifts over the course of his journey, well, he’s very careful not to admit that, not even to himself.

The true antecedent for Service Model is C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero, with its story of robotic apocalypse, robotic revolt, and most importantly, one robot’s own, self-willed desire to carry out their primary function because they are capable of love and protection by choice and not just by programming.

Like Pounce’s journey in Day Zero, Uncharles’ travels with ‘The Wonk’ and his tour of the post-apocalypse reads very much like an alternate history version of how the world of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built got to be the somewhat utopian world it became – after its own long, dark night.

It could happen in Uncharles’ world. Eventually. There are enough humans left – even if they are barely scraping by and reduced to bloody, pragmatic survivalism at the moment. And if the robots developed the self-awareness and self-will that has so far eluded them.

But to reach that level of self-awareness, Uncharles has been set on a journey of discovery of both self and circumstances. Each part of his journey is named for just the kind of hell it is, in a kind of machine language that only becomes clear as the hells stack upon each other, from the not-hell of KR15-T through the deadly, nightmarishly complex, illogical bureaucracy of K4FK-R to the suspicious control of 4W-L straight into every librarian’s hellscape, 80RH-5 and then into the acknowledgement that it’s all become hell in D4NT-A.

(I believe those labels translate to Christ, Kafka, Orwell, Borges and Dante but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s not quite right. Nailing them all down somehow drove me nuts so I hope I’ve spared you a bit of angst.)

In the end, Uncharles reminded me most of Star Trek’s Data, particularly in the early years when Data, although he was always self-aware and self-willed, stated his desire to be more human-like and to experience real human emotions while not quite grasping that his desire to do so was itself a representation of the emotions he claimed that he lacked.

I went into this not sure what I was getting, and briefly wondered how Uncharles, as a character that claimed not to want anything except to be returned to mindless service, was going to manage to be a character with a compelling journey.

That apprehension vanished quickly, as the world that the robots desperately tried – and failed – to preserve, the hellscapes they created in their attempts to stave off entropy, their willingness to dive deeply into their human facing programming to create human-seeming hells that mirrored some truly stupid human actions kept me focused on the story entirely too late into the night.

If you enjoy explorations of dystopian worlds, nightmarishly functional visions of what happens if we keep going on like we’re going on, or just can’t resist stories about robots who have control of their own destiny (which gives me the opportunity to pitch Emergent Properties by Aimee Ogden yet again), then Service Model will provide you with excellent reading service!