Guest Review: Sovereign by April Daniels

Guest Review: Sovereign by April DanielsSovereign (Nemesis, #2) by April Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, young adult
Series: Nemesis #2
Pages: 350
Published by Diversion Publishing on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Only nine months after her debut as the fourth superhero to fight under the name Dreadnought, Danny Tozer is already a scarred veteran. Protecting a city the size of New Port is a team-sized job and she's doing it alone. Between her newfound celebrity and her demanding cape duties, Dreadnought is stretched thin, and it's only going to get worse.
When she crosses a newly discovered supervillain, Dreadnought comes under attack from all quarters. From her troubled family life to her disintegrating friendship with Calamity, there's no trick too dirty and no lever too cruel for this villain to use against her.
She might be hard to kill, but there's more than one way to destroy a hero. Before the war is over, Dreadnought will be forced to confront parts of herself she never wanted to acknowledge.
And behind it all, an old enemy waits in the wings to unleash a plot that will scar the world forever.

I seem to be developing a pattern here; books that involve LGBTQ+ characters, somehow keep magically appearing in my inbox. I’m not complaining. [Editor’s note: I’ll take that as a sign to keep ’em coming. OK?]

Guest review by Amy:

A few months ago, Marlene sent me Dreadnought, the first work in this series, and I was impressed by author April Daniels’ debut book. Sovereign picks up at some time not-to-far in the future from the end of Dreadnought: our heroine Danielle is still a minor, and still wrestling in court with her parents for her emancipation. Meanwhile, the “cape” community of metahuman superheroes has begun to accept her, as she’s pulled off some pretty heroic saves for her community of New Port, with some help from the android Doctor Impossible, and her friend Calamity. But there is a looming threat out there in space, headed for Earth, which threatens to upset the normal order of things, and if someone tries to harness that threat, think of the damage they could do…

Escape Rating A: April Daniels continues to develop her chops as a writer, and her deeper exploration of Danielle and her friends is a strong point for her. In my review of Dreadnought, I called it a “rollicking adventure,” and this tale continues the tradition–there are a lot of subplots going on here, and keeping track can be a bit of a challenge if you’re not paying attention.

One of the high spots for me was Danielle’s relationship with Calamity. Our heroine has had the hots for her for a while, which was hinted at in the prior work, but Danielle was quite certain her feelings weren’t reciprocated, and as a result, she missed some useful clues. The ah-hah moment for her–and what follows–is really beautiful and tastefully done.

Another strong spot, in my mind, is in our cast of villains. There’s a stretch of time where it’s kind of unclear who or what our story’s antagonist is; the problem isn’t, of course, quite what it seems to be at first glance, and it’s only as things begin to unravel toward the end of the story, that you realize what’s really going on. The chief villains are appropriately nasty and fanatical, and when given the opportunity, treat Danielle with enough savagery that there’s no chance whatever they’ll be redeemable to the reader. As a mostly-invulnerable “tank,” Dreadnought is hard to harm, physically, at least in a permanent sense. Instead, they find a way to attack her that prods at the core of who she is. Reading that section of the story was particularly stress-inducing for me, as they were pushing a button that affects me, as well. I was pleased to see how Dreadnought escaped the villain’s clutches!

In the end, we have a “Chekhov’s Gun” situation:  That thing this villain said, while they were doing this and that? It’s important, and when you put all the pieces together near the end, that’s when you realize just how important. This level of foreshadowing is a step up for author April Daniels, as I didn’t notice that in the last book. In a book 70-ish pages longer than the last one, she’s managed to fit in a lot more story, and it’s wrapped up nice and neat at the end, with no leftover story to tell.

I’ll be watching for more great stories from April Daniels, either in Dreadnought’s world, or whatever new worlds she may choose to create for us.  Sovereign is a fantastic second effort from her, well worth a read.

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire BoothThe Branson Beauty (Sheriff Hank Worth, #1) by Claire Booth
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #1
Pages: 310
Published by Minotaur Books on July 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Branson Beauty, an old showboat, has crashed in the waters of an Ozark mountain lake just outside the popular tourist destination of Branson, Missouri. More than one hundred people are trapped aboard. Hank Worth is still settling into his new role as county sheriff, and when he responds to the emergency call, he knows he’s in for a long winter day of helping elderly people into rafts and bringing them ashore. He realizes that he’ll face anxiety, arguments, and extra costs for emergency equipment that will stretch the county’s already thin budget to the breaking point.
But he is absolutely not expecting to discover high school track star Mandy Bryson’s body locked inside the Captain’s private dining room. Suddenly, Hank finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, with the county commissioner breathing down his neck and the threat of an election year ahead of him. And as he wades deeper into the investigation, Hank starts to realize he’s up against a web of small town secrets much darker and more tangled than he could have ever imagined.
In her captivating debut novel, Claire Booth has created a broad cast of wonderfully compelling characters, and she perfectly blends humor with the emotional drama and heartache of a murder investigation.

My Review:

The Branson Beauty is an old paddle-wheel showboat, and the book about the events of her last cruise will stick the reader as fast between its pages as the poor old boat is stuck to the shoal its grounded on.

It really was supposed to be a “three-hour tour”, so when the Branson Beauty runs aground, and her passengers find themselves stranded aboard for much, much longer, the number of rescue workers who end up humming the Gilligan’s Island theme seem inevitable. Also hilarious.

But Sheriff Hank Worth stops finding any humor in the situation when he discovers the ship’s captain comatose and locked inside his piloting cabin. The situation turns downright grim when the Sheriff discovers the dead body of a local track star locked inside the captain’s private dining room.

Mandy Bryson was supposed to be away at college in Norman Oklahoma, running track and studying English at Oklahoma University, not dead on an aging cruise ship with finger-shaped bruises clearly circling her throat.

Worth is literally the new sheriff in town. When the previous sheriff moved up to the state legislature, his term as sheriff needed to be filled. Hank, an experienced officer from Kansas City, thought he was ready for a management role. He was certainly ready to move from KC to Branson, where his father-in-law was available to serve as a live-in babysitter for Hank and his wife Maggie’s children. Maggie is on constant call as a surgeon in the local hospital, and Hank’s hours as sheriff are far from predictable at the best of times. Her father needs a bit of their help, and they need heaping helpings of his.

Between the grounding of a local institution, and the murder of a home-town heroine, Hank has his hands overfull. This is his first homicide in Branson, and the first local homicide in a long time that wasn’t a screamingly easy case to solve of drug deals gone wrong or domestic battery gone deadly.

This case is a puzzle from beginning to end, not because the victim had no enemies, but because there are too many competing means, motives and even crimes for Hank to zero in on what parts thwarted young love, stalking, affluenza and insurance fraud played in Mandy’s death.

Or perhaps all of them did.

Escape Rating A-: This one grabbed me from the first undertone hum of “a three-hour tour” and didn’t let me go until I turned the final page. The mystery at the heart of this story kept me turning pages every spare minute all day long.

And that mystery is convoluted as it unfolds, but makes complete sense once it is all revealed. It kept me guessing from beginning to end. The red herrings are all delicious, and all the more convincing for often being partially correct while not necessarily contributing to the solution of the whole.

The author also does an excellent job of conveying the depths of the grief and sadness that consumes not just the family but the whole small community when a young and promising life is cut short so senselessly.

But The Branson Beauty, in addition to being a crackerjack mystery, is also the first book in a new series, and has to introduce its setting and its characters, preparing readers for the stories yet to come. We need to learn who these people are, and why we should care about what happens to them.

In that regard, The Branson Beauty is off to a good start, but there is plenty of work yet to do. This case is overwhelming, and Hank Worth is often overwhelmed by it as well as the responsibilities he has taken on as the sheriff of Branson. He’s still adjusting to his new job and to the small town politics he now must contend with. When his appointment is up in a few short months, Hank will need to run for re-election. To do that he not only has to please his constituents, but has to learn to play with the politicians who are both his peers and his rivals, and in some cases even his bosses. The county commissioners, after all, set his budget.

So while there’s a murder to be solved, that’s not the only crime that Hank uncovers, nor is it the only trail he has to follow. Some of those trails lead him into the murky undergrowth of political corruption and influence peddling, and the reality that the county’s biggest employer has too many ways of influencing people and institutions to look the other way as he bends and even breaks the law. Hank has a tough road ahead of him, and he’s only taken the first steps – possibly even the wrong ones.

The one place where The Branson Beauty needs a little work is in the development of the characters who inhabit Hank’s world. Only one member of his police force stands out, and only because she seems to be the lone female in the ranks, even if she is Hank’s second-in-command. Likewise, it took me quite a ways into the book to figure out whether the female at home Hank referred to was his wife or his daughter, and what she did and where she fit. (It’s his wife and she’s as overworked as he is) I left the story still not certain what the precipitating event was that sent Hank and Maggie to Branson, but I know there was one. I’m looking forward to discovering the answers to all these questions and more in future books. The next book in the series, Another Man’s Ground, is already on my reading schedule this month.

While the boat may have run aground, the story never does. It chugs along quickly and compellingly from its comic opera beginnings to its inevitably sad but ultimately satisfying resolution. I can’t wait to see what mystery Hank has to solve next.

Review: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan Mallery

Review: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan MallerySecrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Harlequin Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The relationship of sisters Kelly and Olivia Van Gilder has been, well… complicated ever since their mother left them as teens, though it's the secrets they have been keeping from each other as adults that have unwittingly widened the chasm. But one thing they do share is the not-so-secret torch they carry for the Martin brothers.
In the small enclave of New Holland, Washington, Griffith and Ryan Martin were demigods. While Griffith was the object of Kelly's high school crush and witness to her mortal teenage humiliation, Ryan was for Olivia the boy who got away-something she's never forgiven Kelly for-and the only person since her mother who appreciated her wild streak.
Now, ten years later, both brothers are newly returned to town. Believing they're destined to be together, Olivia's determined to get Ryan back, until she discovers that she's not the only one keeping secrets…and that perhaps he's not the handsome prince she remembered. And even though Griffith has grown up to be more irresistible than ever, Kelly's impulse is to avoid him and the painful memory he represents, despite his resolve to right the wrong he caused her long ago-and her desire to let him.

My Review:

I want to say that the Murphy family puts the fun back in dysfunctional – but too many of the relationships within this family are all dysfunction and damn little fun. Of course, those dysfunctions add to the drama of the story – and there is plenty of fun outside these very messy family dynamics.

This is a story about three women, Kelly Murphy, her sister Olivia, and her best friend Helen, in their little small town of Tulpen Crossing, Washington. Tulpen Crossing is a lot closer to Spokane than Seattle, on the eastern side of the Cascades – a location that matters a lot in Washington state. Tulpen Crossing, and nearly everything in town, is named for it’s annual tulip crop, the economic engine of the entire town.

The Murphy family have been growing tulips in Tulpen for generations. Kelly Murphy and her dad Jeff are continuing the family tradition. They also still share the Murphy family house, in spite of Kelly being well-past the age where most young adults fly out of the family nest – Kelly is 28. And seems to not think that love and marriage are for her. She watched her parents’ marriage implode, explode and every other ‘plode when she was in her early teens, and wants to stay as far away from that kind of mess as possible.

Until it comes looking for her.

Griffin Burnett is the prodigal son – he returned to Tulpen Crossing to set up his very successful Tiny House business. He’s had his eye on Kelly for a long time. He likes her no-nonsense no-games attitude, and he thinks her no-fuss, no muss style is beautiful, as is she. But he’s not interested in love and marriage either, just a long-term relationship of friendship, respect and, of course, benefits.

Kelly, whose self-esteem issues know very few bounds, thinks he’s nuts. But she’s willing to try.

And that’s where all the dysfunction in the Murphy family comes home to roost – and to stir up trouble. First Olivia comes back, after over a decade of absence. She got sent to boarding school when she was 15, not long after their mother abandoned the family – after seducing every single post-pubescent male for about 100 miles around Tulpen Crossing – and being far from discreet about it.

Just as Olivia and Kelly begin to rebuild their very strained sibling relationship, Marilee returns to Tulpen Crossing in Olivia’s wake, not because she’s missed either of her daughters, but because she wants to stir up as much trouble as possible.

She nearly succeeds beyond even her wildest expectations.

Escape Rating B+: As much as I hate the label, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters falls squarely into that category so awfully named “women’s fiction”. While there are not just one but three romances in this story, it’s really about the relationships between Kelly, Olivia and Helen, how they support each other and sometimes how they sabotage each other, and their relationships with the town and the way that all of them step forward, sometimes hesitantly and sometimes boldly, into their own futures.

One of the themes of the story is about the keeping of secrets. Olivia arrives in Tulpen Crossing with a huge secret. Every time she and Kelly begin to get their relationship back on track, a piece of that secret gets let out of its bag and derails their relationship. That the derailment is intended makes it all that much more heartbreaking.

Kelly also has plenty of secrets. A whole lot of it is self-blame – she has persisted in the belief that it is all her fault that her mother left, and even more damning, all her fault that Olivia was sent to boarding school. She was 15 when she and her mother had the supposedly fateful argument, and 18 when she convinced her father to send Olivia to boarding school. As much as she needs to tell Olivia about her part in some of the worst parts of Olivia’s life – Kelly was not the adult in either situation. Her mother was always going to leave – and it was her father’s choice to send Olivia to boarding school. It helps a lot that, in retrospect, Olivia realizes that Kelly was probably right, no matter how selfish her motivations seemed at the time.

And then there’s Helen. She too, has a secret that impacts the Murphy family. Helen, who is a few years older than her best friend Kelly, owns the local diner. And she’s been in love with Kelly’s dad for years. Jeff Murphy is clueless about Helen’s feelings, but well aware of his own – and can’t imagine that Helen, 16 years his junior, could possibly be interested in him.

Of course he’s wrong. He’s wrong about a whole lot of things, as we discover when Marilee breezes back into Tulpen Crossing to screw with everyone’s heads and screw up everyone’s life. She’s irredeemable. But everyone else, learning to cope with the crises she leaves in her wake, finally rise to the challenge to find their happy and boot her out of their lives, and especially out of the headspace she’s taken from all of them over the years.

At the end, everybody stands taller and stronger. And it’s wonderful.

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Review: Serenity Harbor by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Serenity Harbor by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySerenity Harbor (Haven Point, #6) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Haven Point #6
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the town of Haven Point, love can be just a wish — and one magical kiss — away…
Computer-tech millionaire Bowie Callahan is about the last person that schoolteacher Katrina Bailey wants to work for. As far as she can see, he’s arrogant, entitled and not up to the task of caring for his young half brother, Milo. But Kat is, especially if it brings her closer to her goal of adopting an orphaned little girl. And as her kindness and patience work wonders with Milo, she realises there’s more to sexy, wary Bo.
Bo never imagined he’d be tasked with caring for a sibling he didn’t know existed. Then again, he never pictured himself impulsively kissing vibrant, compassionate Katrina in the moonlight. Now he’s ready to make her dream of family come true…and hoping there’s room in it for him, too…

My Review:

I really enjoyed my first trip to Haven Point with Riverbend Road. I liked it so much that I went back again to experience Snowfall on Haven Point. So when this one popped up at Serenity Harbor, it seemed like a great time to go back!

I haven’t managed to go back and read the first four books in the series, but I’ll probably get around to it sooner or later – this is a nice place with terrific people. It also feels like it’s right next door to Robyn Carr’s Thunder Point, even if the geography doesn’t work out. But you don’t have to read them all to get right into the action of this one.

That being said, I’m kind of glad I had read Riverbend Road, because the wedding that all of the Baileys are back in town for is the one that is set up in Riverbend Road, the wedding between Wyn Bailey and her former boss, Haven Point Police Chief Cade Emmett. The story in Serenity Harbor is not really dependent on the previous book, but it is nice to see Wyn get all of her happy.

Serenity Harbor is Wyn’s sister Kat’s story. Katrina Bailey is back in town for her sister’s wedding. She’s spent the past year in Colombia, teaching English and helping out at a local orphanage, where she’s fallen hard for Gabi, a special needs child who has become her daughter in everything but blood. And paperwork. Endless, endless, EXPENSIVE amounts of paperwork.

And Wyn seems to be the only member of her family who really, really gets that Kat will do anything to take care of 4-year-old Gabi, even if that means moving to Colombia permanently. Kat’s overbearing mother is just certain that if the right man comes along, Kat will forget all about little Gabi.

Because that’s the way Kat used to be. She ended up in Colombia because she was following the wrong man. That’s what Kat used to do, fall for whoever was handy, without thinking. But since she found herself in Colombia, alone and broke with Gabi depending on her, Kat has been determined to become a different, better and more responsible person.

And that’s where Bowie Callahan steps into the picture, along with his little brother Milo. Milo, like Gabi, is a special needs child. But where Gabi has Down Syndrome, Milo is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Bowie, chief technical wizard at Caine Technology, has no idea how to cope.

But then again, until about a month ago, Bowie had no idea he had a little brother. It was only upon the death of their mother that Bowie learned that she had had another child long after he cut ties – ties that he desperately needed to cut for his own survival.

That’s where Kat steps in. Literally. She’s an elementary education teacher who specializes in kids with special needs, so when she sees Milo about to have a meltdown at the grocery store, she steps in and deflects him until he calms down.

Bowie offers Kat an absolutely outrageous salary to become Milo’s live-in nanny, baby-sitter, caretaker and teacher while she’s in town for her sister’s wedding. Kat, partially against her better judgment and partially to get away from her overbearing mother, takes the job, reasoning that the outrageous salary will help fund her quest to adopt Gabi.

What she doesn’t count on is falling in love with both of the Callahans. By the time she’s ready to go back to Colombia, she breaks both Milo’s and Bowie’s hearts, and very much vice versa. But Gabi needs Kat. And Kat needs to stand on her own two feet, for the first time in her life.

No matter what it costs.

Escape Rating B: The ending of this one seriously got me in the feels. So much so that it raised the grade from the Cs to the Bs in one single pang of my heart.

I also really liked Bowie and his relationship with Milo. He loves his little brother and manages not to resent all the changes that Milo has made in his life. He’s frustrated a whole lot of the time, and with good reason, but he never resents Milo himself. But his life is completely out of control, and he has no idea how to get it back on track. Not that he hasn’t tried, but Milo defeats anyone who doesn’t know how to care for him. There’s a specialist on the way, but she’s tied up for another three weeks, and Bowie has a gap he can’t fill. He’s tried. He loves Milo, but love is not enough.

Bowie is a computer programmer, and a damn good one. Also very successful at it. But I recognized his habit of losing all track of time when he’s “in the zone” because it’s a very familiar pattern to anyone who has a programmer in their life. When they’re coding, they are just gone. So I smiled every time Bowie did this, because it was so familiar.

I liked Kat as a person. She was a great heroine for this story, and the author did an excellent job of introducing the challenges and the joys of parenting a special needs child through Kat’s and Bowie’s relationships with Milo and Gabi. This story did a great job of making me feel for this situation, in spite of my not usually enjoying stories that center around difficulties with child-raising.

But, and it turned out to be a very big but, I had a difficult time understanding why Kat refused to let Bowie in. I didn’t feel as if I got enough of Kat’s past trauma to really buy into her belief that what she felt for Bowie, and what he felt for her, was just another one of her bad decisions about men, which don’t seem all that bad in retrospect. They seemed like typical high school, college and early 20s experiments.

I understood why she wanted to stand on her own two feet in regards to Gabi’s adoption, but she walled everyone out to the point of not discussing her her hopes, or her quite reasonable concerns about the process, with anyone who might help her think things through or even provide a sounding board. Every time she dithered about it, the story sagged a bit. At least for this reader.

But that ending made me tear up. Happy tears, but an intense reaction for a book that I struggled with a bit in the middle. I’ll be back to Haven Point this winter with Sugar Pine Trail. I want to see how they’re all doing! And the heroine is a librarian, which makes this one doubly irresistible!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Serenity Harbor to one lucky U.S. commenter.

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Review: Liar’s Key by Carla Neggers

Review: Liar’s Key by Carla NeggersLiar's Key (Sharpe & Donovan, #6) by Carla Neggers
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, romantic suspense
Series: Sharpe & Donovan #6
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An FBI legend, a mysterious antiquities specialist and a brazen art thief draw top FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan into a complex web of blackmail, greed and murder in the eagerly awaited new novel in the highly acclaimed Sharpe & Donovan series
Emma Sharpe is suspicious when retired Special Agent Gordon Wheelock, a legend in FBI art crimes, drops by her Boston office for a visit. Gordy says he's heard rumors about stolen ancient mosaics. Emma, an art crimes specialist herself, won't discuss the rumors. Especially since they involve Oliver York, an unrepentant English art thief. Gordy and Emma's grandfather, a renowned private art detective, chased Oliver for a decade. Gordy knows Wendell Sharpe didn't give him everything he had on the thief. Even now, Oliver will never be prosecuted.
When a shocking death occurs, Emma is drawn into the investigation. The evidence points to a deadly conspiracy between Wendell and Oliver, and Emma's fiancé, deep cover agent Colin Donovan, knows he can't stay out of this one. He also knows there will be questions about Emma's role and where her loyalties lie.
From Boston to Maine to Ireland, Emma and Colin track a dangerous killer as the lives of their family and friends are at stake. With the help of their friend, Irish priest Finian Bracken, and Emma's brother, Lucas, the Sharpes and Donovans must band together to stop a killer.

My Review:

I’ve read this series from the very beginning, all the way back to the prequel novella, Rock Point. (But don’t read Rock Point first. It makes more sense if you start with Saint’s Gate and meet ALL the characters. Not that you need to read ALL of the previous books to enjoy this one, but this entry in particular deals with so many previous threads (and people) that it helps a lot if you’ve read at least some of the earlier books.)

In this mystery series, the detectives are FBI Agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan, even though they find themselves working apart as often as they work together. Emma is an art specialist, and Colin, at least up until now, has usually worked alone on deep-cover assignments.

They are also originally from neighboring small towns on the Maine coast. But while they grew up a few short miles apart, they didn’t meet until an assignment threw them together. In the even smaller world of coastal Maine small towns, they knew of each other’s families, but just never met.

So as they count down the final days to their wedding in Emma’s home town of Heron’s Cove, there are plenty of intrusions from friends, family and old cases to keep everyone on their toes to the end.

Colin’s family are law enforcement in their little town, but Emma’s family are world-famous art detectives. And this time around it’s Emma’s family and their connections that cause all the trouble, as well as solve the mystery.

It all begins when a retired FBI Agent shows up in Emma’s Boston office. Gordy Wheelock is on a fishing expedition, looking for something to make him feel relevant a year after his sudden retirement. While Emma isn’t hooked enough to give Gordy any information, she is concerned enough to connect the dots and figure out that there is something going on that there shouldn’t be.

Whatever Gordy thinks he’s involved in, it ties into his last, unsolved case. And it also ties into the seemingly accidental death of an art expert and to Emma’s family’s business. There are too many loose threads. They all tie into something, but Emma isn’t quite sure what.

But as she investigates, and waits for Colin to make it back from his undercover assignment, she learns that at least some of her family are plotting more than just her wedding. And that someone is working, either for her or against her, to figure out not just whodunit but exactly what they done, before she does.

And Gordy Wheelock gets tripped up by his lies.

Escape Rating B+: I read this one on a plane, and completely lost track of where I was or just how much turbulence we hit. I got a copy of this last year when it came out, but for some reason lost track of it at the time. Now that the next book in the series, Thief’s Mark, is due out, it felt like time to pick this back up. And I’m glad I did.

Like so many mystery series, a big part of what makes Sharpe and Donovan isn’t due to Sharpe and Donovan, but rather to the group of people who surround them, and occasionally (or not so occasionally) help and/or hinder them in their investigations. They are smart and interesting people to follow, and they surround themselves with equally smart and interesting people. And as usual, while the wedding and the investigation are proceeding, some of those people have separate crises of their very own to add to the mix.

As families do. Because that’s what these people have become to each other, family.

The case is really all about Gordy Wheelock’s last hurrah. He made a hell of a mistake before he retired, and it’s cost him. Perhaps not enough.

But part of what Emma is investigating is cooked up by her grandfather and her frenemy Oliver York. Wendell Sharpe and Oliver are on the trail of someone who is stealing ancient mosaics and getting them onto the market with fake provenance. Basically, someone is money laundering, with mosaics substituting for money. The comparison is to “conflict diamonds” because these ancient artifacts are being expropriated from places where they shouldn’t and putting the money into the hands of people who underwrite terrorism.

But Wendell and Oliver are playing a dangerous game, particularly since they, as well as Gordy, leave Emma and the FBI out of their loop. It’s a misstep that will result in more bodies, more disruption, and less trust. Not a good combination. But it is a fascinating one.

In the end, the criminals do get unmasked, and Emma and Colin manage to get married. I am very happy to say, however, that this is not the end of their adventures. Thief’s Mark is coming in August. After all, Emma and Colin could not possibly have expected to have an uninterrupted honeymoon, could they?

Review: Take Out by Margaret Maron + Giveaway

Review: Take Out by Margaret Maron + GiveawayTake Out by Margaret Maron
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sigrid Harald #9
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sigrid is still reeling from the untimely death of her lover, acclaimed painter Oscar Nauman, when she is called to investigate the deaths of two homeless men in the West Village. The police at first assume an overdose, until they realize that one of the men shows no signs of drug use. Then when containers of poisoned takeout food are found nearby, Sigrid's case is suddenly much more complicated. As Sigrid investigates, she uncovers an intriguing neighborhood history: a haughty mafia widow and her disgraced godson, a retired opera star with dark secrets, an unsolved hit-and-run, and the possible discovery of a long-missing painting that will rock the art world. Soon the case is fraught with myriad suspects and motives. Who killed the two homeless men, and why? And which one was the intended victim? Or was the poisoned food meant for someone else entirely?
Throwing herself into the murder investigation to distract herself from her personal grief, Sigrid still can't stop wondering what led Nauman across the country to the winding mountain road that took his life. Until she meets a man who may hold the answers she seeks.
In her newest gripping mystery, Margaret Maron's beautifully drawn characters and unpredictable plot twists prove once again why she's one of today's most beloved writers.

My Review:

I think that NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald would recognize Eve Dallas’ 21st century New York as still being her city, and vice versa. And that if the two women ever met, they would see each other as kin. There’s a similarity to the two no-nonsense New York homicide detectives that transcends time.

Also a distinct difference. I read all of the Sigrid Harald series, starting with One Coffee With, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. But I never read the last one. Although there is a murder mystery in Fugitive Colors, that story also deals with the unexpected death of Sigrid’s lover, the artist Oscar Nauman. It was just too sad to contemplate, so I never picked it up. I have a copy, I just couldn’t bear to read it.

Take Out takes place in the aftermath of Nauman’s death. It’s been over a year since the tragedy, and Sigrid has learned to deal with her grief, even though it still sometimes strikes her down without warning. She has also resigned herself to being Oscar’s heir, and dealing with all the myriad details involved with protecting the legacy (and the fortune) of a famous artist.

But the mystery in Take Out turns out to be wrapped in the other loose ends of Sigrid’s life, as well as tying up the leftover bits of the mystery from Fugitive Colors. It all starts with a New York tradition – take out.

Two men are dead on a bench in an upscale NYC neighborhood. The remains of their last meal all around them – take out food from a neighborhood restaurant. Neither man is a resident. One is clearly a homeless drug addict, while the other is exceedingly down-at-the-heel. One death might have been accidental, but two is one too many for the long arm of coincidence, even in New York. When rat poison is found in both of the take out boxes they were noshing on, it’s clear that at least one of them was murdered, even if the other is merely collateral damage.

But which? And most importantly, why?

This is a case where the past threatens to overwhelm the present, from the recent death of an old mobster’s daughter to the long-ago murder of Sigrid’s own father – by a minion of that same mobster. And if the long-simmering rivalry between the two old women at opposite ends of the block has finally erupted into open warfare, why now?

Which of the many secrets has suddenly become too toxic to remain buried? And can Sigrid figure it out before the past dies with it?

Escape Rating B+: Take Out is closure. Not just for all the old secrets buried on that street, but for Sigrid as well. I loved this book, and I was very, very glad to see this old favorite get wrapped up.

At the same time, it’s been a LONG time since Fugitive Colors was published in 1995, the same year that Naked in Death (the first Eve Dallas book) was published. And as fascinating as the mystery in Take Out is, it also felt as if there was a definite strain in the story as the author needed to catch up new readers (and remind old ones) of just who all these characters were and why they mattered to Sigrid. Those explanations were both utterly necessary and took away from the rising tension of the mystery.

It’s that mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the end. There are two old women at the heart of this mystery. One is a mobster’s widow, and the other a famous opera singer. Both are in their 80s. It doesn’t seem possible that either is the murderer, and yet, they both had ties to the dead men. And potentially they both had reasons to want one of the men dead, but not both. And not the means to do the deed. And yet it was done.

This is a story that is all about the past. Not just the past of those two old women, but also Sigrid’s past, and Oscar Nauman’s past. And even the past wrapped up in an old museum, which desperately needs a new lease on life. It all ties neatly together at the end, and the case, and the series, close with satisfaction.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

After my review of Lockdown by Laurie R. King, I received an offer from the publisher to host a giveaway for 2 copies of Lockdown to lucky U.S. winners. As Laurie King is the author of one of my favorite mystery series, and Margaret Maron the author of two others, this seemed like a fitting post to which to attach the giveaway.

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Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + Giveaway

Review: Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi + GiveawayCover Fire (Valiant Knox #3) by Jess Anastasi
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Valiant Knox #3
Pages: 333
Published by Entangled Publishing on June 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He'll protect her with his life...but who will protect his heart?
If the assignment is crazy, dangerous, or a little of both, Sub-Lieutenant Sebastian Rayne can’t help but take on the challenge. So when Command Intelligence tags him to fly one of their agents behind enemy lines, it seems like just another routine death-defying mission. Crash landing on the planet was a piece of cake, but the gorgeous agent he delivered safely to her meeting is now believed dead and he must return to retrieve her body.
After Agent Jenna Maxwell realizes her own people attempted to have her killed, she enlists the hot stick jockey’s help. His new mission? Sneak her back onto his ship to ferret out who wanted to get rid of her and why. But she fears her growing feelings for Seb have blinded her to his reckless insistence on helping her stay alive, and his rash behavior will cause them both to lose their lives.

My Review:

Cover Fire is the third book in the Valiant Knox series, and it both lives up to its predecessors and takes the action in several new directions. If you like science fiction romance, start with Escape Velocity and jet right on over to Damage Control before jumping into Cover Fire. You’ll be glad you did.

And if you have a friend who likes military romance but is hesitant about the whole SF thing, this series is a terrific gateway drug for those who are thinking about trying SFR. It definitely has the flavor of military romance, but in setting that easily evokes contemporary military romance.

Because that Valiant Knox that the series is named for? She’s a battleship. She just happens to be a space battleship.

She’s also a floating city in space, much like a considerably less battered Battlestar Galactica, or a Babylon 5 that does more than just orbit a planet.

While the previous two stories in this series have focused more on the military side of the military police action to embargo the planet Ilari and its fanatic CSS soldiers, Cover Fire is all about the truly dirty side of war. Not black ops, but much, much dirtier. Jenna Maxwell is a member of Command Intelligence. She’s a spy, an infiltrator, and on occasion, assassin.

And somebody on her own side wants her dead. The question in her mind is whether she did something wrong that CI thinks needs to be “cleaned up”, or whether someone in CI is a mole for the CSS. All too many CSS moles have been uncovered among the crew of the Valiant Knox, so there’s plenty of reasons to believe that CI might have some too, in spite of the extreme vetting its agents go through on their way in.

That’s where our story begins. Hot-shot pilot Sebastian Rayne is still reeling after the revelation that his best friend was a CSS mole all along. They were best buds for years, and Seb never noticed a thing. He’s still kicking himself, and questioning his own judgment at every turn.

And taking suicide missions, like the one he’s offered to drop Jenna behind enemy lines on Ilari, the enemy stronghold, in a top-secret mission using a POS stolen CSS space shuttle. Of course the whole thing goes FUBAR. There was a damn good reason that shuttle didn’t look spaceworthy. It wasn’t.

But in their enforced togetherness while running from the wreck and escaping the CSS soldiers sent to investigate, Jenna and Seb have a little too much time to spend together. Just enough for Seb to notice that the tough-as-nails exterior doesn’t always match the woman who begins to question, just a little, whether her lonely, dark place in the underbelly of this war is worth the price she has to pay for it.

And just when both their missions seem to be back on track, Jenna is betrayed by her own side, and Seb is sent to pick up the pieces – pieces that are supposed to include Jenna’s body. Instead, he finds a live, scared and pissed off Jenna who has been forced to expose her real appearance, because that’s the only face that CI doesn’t have on file.

Jenna needs Seb’s help to track the reasons for her would-be assassination. And she needs Seb to remind her that the lonely life of a field agent is no life at all. And Seb needs Jenna to help him find closure for the biggest betrayal of his life.

But there is someone gunning for them both. Whether that’s CI, a CSS mole, or a player to be named later is anyone’s guess. But running for their lives together is the best thing that’s ever happened to both of them.

And it might just turn the tide of the war.

Escape Rating B+: I always have a great time aboard the Valiant Knox – or flying around it. But as much as I like the stories and the setting, I’m still not totally clear on the motivations of the CSS. They come off as “standard evil repressive fundamentalist cult” which is a common trope but doesn’t give me enough.

It also, as this story discovers, isn’t enough for some of its adherents. The CSS claims they want independence to go about their evil, repressive ways, but they may not be the only dog in this fight. We’ll see. That possibility gives me very high hopes for subsequent books in this series.

But about Cover Fire. All the stories in this series, so far, have dealt with forbidden romances in one way or another, and this one is no exception. Unlike the standard trope of the fighter pilot jock, Seb is not out to notch his bedpost. He is much more interested in a real relationship, or at least trying for one. And as much as he comes to want Jenna, as long as she believes that she has to run, he’s not after just a one-night-stand, no matter how he wants her.

He’s also going through a lot of self-doubt after the exposure of his friend as a CSS mole. He’s not sure what he feels, or with Jenna, who he feels it for. She turns her CI mask on and off like flipping a switch. Meanwhile, Jenna isn’t sure not just what she feels, but who she really is and whether she has a life expectancy longer than a few hours. She thinks her own organization is out to get her, and they are very, very effective at tying up loose ends.

Any relationship between them is the ultimate distraction from the effort to find out who ordered the hits and to keep them both alive long enough to expose the rot. There are plenty of times when that effort seems doomed, and often by their own mistakes.

I’ll admit that I did figure out whodunnit quite a bit before the end. I had the motives wrong, but the perpetrator seemed obvious, and was. Which didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the story and the series one iota.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. In the somewhat ominously titled War Games, coming out later this year.

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Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi CharishOwl and the Japanese Circus (The Adventures of Owl, #1) by Kristi Charish
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Adventures of Owl #1
Pages: 432
Published by Pocket Star on January 13th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief, Alix—better known now as Owl—has one rule. No supernatural jobs. Ever. Until she crosses paths with Mr. Kurosawa, a red dragon who owns and runs the Japanese Circus Casino in Las Vegas. He insists Owl retrieve an artifact stolen three thousand years ago, and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: he’ll get rid of a pack of vampires that want her dead. A dragon is about the only entity on the planet that can deliver on Owl’s vampire problem – and let’s face it, dragons are known to eat the odd thief.
Owl retraces the steps of Mr. Kurosawa’s ancient thief from Japan to Bali with the help of her best friend, Nadya, and an attractive mercenary. As it turns out though, finding the scroll is the least of her worries. When she figures out one of Mr. Kurosawa’s trusted advisors is orchestrating a plan to use a weapon powerful enough to wipe out a city, things go to hell in a hand basket fast…and Owl has to pick sides.

My Review:

In this story, the Japanese Circus is a glitzy Las Vegas casino – owned by a Japanese Red Dragon. And Owl is almost as good as she thinks she is – and as all the hype said her story is.

This is urban fantasy, so a contemporary 21st century setting in a world not that much different from our own – except that the things that go bump in the night not only exist, but also go bump in the daytime, too.

Owl, a disgraced archaeology student formerly known as Alix, seems to have the worst radar in the world for telling the supes from the mundanes. And that’s what got her in so much trouble. Because in a world where supernatural creatures have been apex predators for centuries, it’s only logical that all too many archaeological digs would find powerful artifacts and dangerous creatures.

Alix’s disgrace was that once she stumbled into it, she wasn’t willing to cover it up.

As Owl, her luck continues to plummet. When we meet her, she and her trusty companion, her Egyptian Mau cat Captain, are on the run from a vampire gang after she accidentally exposed one of their ancient leaders to a fatal dose of sunshine. Owl’s method of running is to stay off the grid in a patched up Winnebago, stopping at out of the way places for supplies, cat treats and internet connections to her favorite MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game) where she plays, of course, a thief. And to check her contacts for more illicit archaeology gigs.

That’s how Owl makes her living now, when she can manage it. She steals treasures from archaeological digs. And she’s good at it. A little too good.

So when Mr. Kurosawa makes Owl and offer she quite literally can’t refuse, she finds herself up to her neck in bloodthirsty supernaturals. Only to discover that she’s been there all along.

Escape Rating B+: If fools rush in where angels fear to tread, then Owl jumps in where even fools would back away slowly. Part of Owl’s appeal, and the engine that drives the story out of the frying pan into the fire (and then straight into oven and on down) is the manic way that Owl barrels into every situation without ever pausing for either breath or thought. No matter how much trouble she is in at the beginning, she seems to have an absolute genius for making it worse.

And while at first the breakneck pace of Owl’s disasterrific nature was a whole lot of fun, by the end it feels like it’s walked its tightrope just a bit too long or a bit too high. She should be dead six times over. But more importantly, she doesn’t seem to learn. A tendency that I hope changes for the better over the next books in the series. She’s going to have to grow to remain interesting – not to mention, to plausibly survive the messes she keeps throwing herself into.

However, the characters that she surrounds herself with have hidden depths that just keep getting deeper and more fascinating as the story progresses. Owl seems to have the worst supe-radar in her universe, because all of her friends, acquaintances and enemies are all supernatural, except for her best friend and business partner Nadya. Even Captain has hidden talents. That cat is much, much too smart to be merely a cat and a vampire detector. That his scratches and bites are also highly poisonous to vamps is a big plus, but still doesn’t explain why his IQ occasionally seems higher than Owl’s. I bet there’s a story there, and I can’t wait to read it.

When Owl and the Japanese Circus came out a couple of years ago, there was an absolute outpouring of great reviews. Urban fantasy is not as popular as it used to be, and it’s not often these days that a new world gets created with the depth of worldbuilding that anchors Owl and her story. There’s a fantastic amount to explore here, and I have high hopes for that exploration.

And now I understand completely why this is the one book in my Netgalley queue that has never expired. The publishers know it’s a gateway drug. And they were right.

Review: Lockdown by Laurie R. King

Review: Lockdown by Laurie R. KingLockdown: A Novel of Suspense by Laurie R. King
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Bantam on June 13th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A classroom is held hostage by someone with a thirst for revenge in this stunningly intricate, ripped-from-the-headlines novel of rich psychological suspense from the New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell mysteries.
Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School: a day given to innocent hopes and youthful dreams. A day no one in attendance will ever forget.
New York Times bestselling author Laurie R. King is an award-winning master of combining rich atmospheric detail with riveting, keen-edged mystery. Now, in her newest standalone novel of psychological suspense, King turns her sharp eye to a moment torn from the headlines and a school under threat. A year ago, Principal Linda McDonald arrived at Guadalupe determined to overturn the school's reputation for truancy, gang violence, and neglect. One of her initiatives is Career Day--bringing together children, teachers, and community presenters in a celebration of the future. But there are some in attendance who reject McDonald's bright vision.
A principal with a secret. A husband with a murky past. A cop with too many questions. A kid under pressure to prove himself. A girl struggling to escape a mother's history. A young basketball player with an affection for guns.
Even the school janitor has a story he dare not reveal.
But no one at the gathering anticipates the shocking turn of events that will transform a day of possibilities into an expolsive confrontation.
Tense, poignant, and brilliantly paced, Laurie R. King's novel charts compelling characters on a collision course--a chain of interactions that locks together hidden lives, troubling secrets, and the bravest impulses of the human heart.

My Review:

Lockdown was a surprise. In the end, it was nothing like I expected. Also, in the end, absolutely fascinating. Just not in the way that I expected at the beginning.

I was not expecting Holmes and Russell. Not that I wouldn’t love another entry in that series, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Instead, Lockdown is a story that starts out slowly and picks up steam, much as Guadalupe Middle School Principal Linda McDonald starts her day out early but slowly and ends with an exhausted rush at the end of this long and very surprising day.

It’s Career Day at Guadalupe, and Linda expects something to go wrong. Because, well, middle school. Take a whole herd of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, all rushing headlong into puberty at varying rates, mix well and throw them all together into a single steaming pot. It’s a guaranteed recipe for trouble at the best of times and in the best of places. The San Felipe neighborhood that Guadalupe serves is neither. And the varying differences of circumstances and misery that surround the students reflects both on their hyper-hormonal age group and the mostly working class racial melting pot neighborhood that surrounds them.

And in the middle of it all are two long-simmering tragedies. At the beginning of the school year, sixth grader Bee Cuomo went missing, and has neither been found, seen or heard from in the months since. And last year gang-leader Taco Alvarez murdered Gloria Rivas in cold blood, witnessed by two of Guadalupe’s students – Gloria’s sister Sofia and her friend Danny Escobedo. As the school prepares for Career Day, Taco’s trial is also proceeding, while his young cousin, still a Guadalupe student, tries to figure out what he owes to a cousin he both fears and worships.

But as the day moves forward and winds up to its explosive conclusion, the story peeks into the lives of every standout character in the school. That exploration begins with the Principal and her husband, from their surprising meeting in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to his rather murky past as a gun-for-hire. But everyone involved has secrets of their own, from the janitor who keeps the school running in some mysterious ways to the Coach who tries his best to save young boys before their eyes go completely dead to the students themselves.

They say that all happy families are alike, but that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own ways. And we see that here as their worlds collide with explosive violence, and it all goes wrong. But some things, after all, go right.

Escape Rating A-: At first, I wasn’t sure where this story was going. Based on the blurbs, it was pretty obvious that it was going to end in a school shooting, but I’ll admit to being completely misled about the shooter and their motivation until the very end.

And it does go slowly at first. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of tiny, individual portraits to sort through. At the beginning it felt as if the only characters we lingered on long enough to get a clear picture were Linda McDonald and her very mysterious husband Gordon Kendrick. Through Linda’s memories, we see their first meeting, and it’s obvious from the very beginning that Gordon has a very big secret that is finally catching up with him. It takes a while before that secret finally bites him in the ass, and the way that it happens just adds to the drama.

There are a lot of threads to this story. As the focus shifts from person to person, we see the way the wind blows. But there is more than enough misdirection for the reader to think that the explosion is coming from a completely different direction than it actually is.

The school is faced with so many crises, and both the students and their guardians have so many violent secrets. It’s not surprising that something erupts, only the how and the when are mysterious. Even the why becomes a bit obvious early on, or at least the reader thinks it does.

I went down the wrong path for a long time, and at the end was forced to back up and see where I missed the fork in the road. The misdirection was very well done.

While in her Career Day speech McDonald focuses on all the threads that make up the school and its community, the story is about all the threads that make up the tragedy and its aftermath. Once Linda’s day, and the story, get going, it’s impossible to stop until the end.

So I didn’t.

Review: Silver Silence by Nalini Singh

Review: Silver Silence by Nalini SinghSilver Silence (Psy-Changeling Trinity, #1; Psy-Changeling, #16) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: , Psy-Changeling #16
Pages: 464
Published by Berkley Books on June 13th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh returns to her extraordinary Psy-Changeling world with a story of wild passion and darkest betrayal...
Control. Precision. Family. These are the principles that drive Silver Mercant. At a time when the fledgling Trinity Accord seeks to unite a divided world, with Silver playing a crucial role as director of a worldwide emergency response network, wildness and chaos are the last things she needs in her life. But that's exactly what Valentin Nikolaev, alpha of the StoneWater bears, brings with him.
Valentin has never met a more fascinating woman. Though Silver is ruled by Silence--her mind clear of all emotion--Valentin senses a whisper of fire around her. That's what keeps him climbing apartment buildings to be near her. But when a shadow assassin almost succeeds in poisoning Silver, the stakes become deadly serious...and Silver finds herself in the heart of a powerful bear clan.
Her would-be assassin has no idea what their poison has unleashed...

My Review:

An answer to entirely too many of the questions, problems and issues in the entire Psy-Changeling series boil down to the truism that “human beings suck”. This isn’t a criticism of the series, merely an observation, because, after, all, human beings do suck. And for all of their differences, all of the races in this series, whether Psy, Changeling or original recipe human, are still all variations of human, and human beings suck.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, there’s a reason for the rant within the story. So much of the non-romantic action in Silver Silence is a response to some particular human beings sucking very, very much.

Silver Silence, as the first book in the Psy-Changeling Trinity sub-series, follows the events in Allegiance of Honor, and everything that led up to this point. What was once a world with three separate and equally distrustful if not equally powerful factions is beginning to coalesce into the alliance brought about by the Trinity Accords.

The Psy, the Changelings and the Humans, at least through the loose coalitions that speak for each group, are determined to work together for the greater good. And for the continued survival of all three.

But there is an awful lot of bloody water under the damn bridge, and there are a lot of very wary members of all three groups. Particularly the humans. The Changelings and the Psy, while always distrustful of each other at best, always did have somewhat equal power. Changeling minds are immune to Psy interference. But humans, less physically threatening than the Changeling and always open to mental interference from the Psy, have a lot to forgive, particularly of the Psy. Changelings mostly left them alone, while the Psy have spent a century plucking advances out of the minds of humans, keeping those advancements for themselves and breaking the human’s minds in the process.

All too many of the Psy were a force that lived up to the old maxim about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. No one could stop them, so they felt empowered to do whatever they damn well pleased to whoever they could.

Those days are over. Not necessarily or always out of altruism, but because the PsyNet that all Psy must connect to in order to remain healthy and function is itself sick. By walling themselves off from human emotions in specific and humans in general, the Psy have closed off a necessary safety valve for the PsyNet’s sentient mind. Psy need humans (and changelings) to willingly form bonds with them, and those bonds can’t be coerced. Without those bonds, without the breaking of the Silence conditioning that keeps them emotionally barren, the Psy will all die, but not before going on a psychopathic rampage of planet-wide proportion.

So the seemingly all-powerful Psy, whether reluctantly or willingly, must cooperate and intermingle with the Changelings and the humans. But it is in all three groups’ best interests to learn to get along. They each have something that the other lacks, strengths that the others need, and weaknesses that the others can shore up. Now that they are not all out to merely exploit each other. Business is still business, and that’s fair. But they’ve all finally acknowledged that they have to work together or things will get very, very ugly, and it won’t necessarily be anyone in particular’s fault. Once you start treating groups as “the Other”, bad things happen to both parties.

And that’s where this story comes into the whole. The Human Alliance, led by Bowen Knight, is willing to work with the Psy and the Changelings on an equal footing. There is still some distrust, but it is reasoned and reasonable distrust. But there are other human agencies working in the shadows who condemn any human who works with the others as either under Psy influence or a traitor to their race. (And haven’t we all heard those words before?)

The shining symbol of interspecies cooperation is Em-Net, a global crisis response team that provides assistance to all whenever and wherever needed. And it is personified by its extremely capable director, the Psy Silver Mercant. So Silver is attacked by stealth, from the shadows, by a patient predator who wants to see Em-Net in disarray and unable to respond, while also crippling the future of the powerful Mercant family.

But Silver is not alone when she ingests the poison that has been lurking unsuspected in her stored nutrition packets. Instead, the Bear Alpha Valentin Nikolaev is in her apartment, attempting to bait her into an un-Silent response to his rather less-than-subtle wooing. Valentin rescues Silver, and sets the events of the rest of the story in motion.

Despite her being Psy, Valentin knows that Silver is his mate. And he will do anything to protect her and keep her safe. And if that anything includes taking her to the Denhome and giving her ample opportunities to fall for both him and his clan, so much the better.

But Silver has a secret weakness, and not just her weakness for slightly clumsy Alpha Bears. Silver’s Silence conditioning is failing, and her growing emotional connection to Valentin is breaking her already vulnerable walls. But that conditioning, the Silence that keeps her ice cold and unemotional, is also the only thing keeping her alive.

Escape Rating B+/A-: This one came out right on the border between B+ and A-. I loved the relationship between Valentin and Silver. We watched it build from very small pieces into something big and wonderful and, at times, tissue-grabbing tragic. There is so much love and fear and hope built into their story, and that was marvelous.

There were also some fascinating reactions/revelations on the parts of Silver’s grandmother Ena and her brother Arwen. The Mercant family, for all of their reputation as ice-cold operators, clearly has never been completely Silent. We’ve seen other Psy families where loyalty comes to serve in place of love, and provides many of the same motivations that love does, but this is the first time we see love expressed within a Psy family, even though the words are never said. Not just that Silver loves her E-designation brother Arwen, for whom emotion is strength, but also the love between Silver and her grandmother Ena.

Valentin’s bear clan, even with the tragedy currently darkening its heart, is always a joy. Bears are real charmers, especially the cubs. And the story needs the lighter moments that they bring.

But the thing that kept this story at the border for me were the two unnamed human evil-doers who operate from the shadows and propel much of the political action of the story. They are both definitely evil. They both hate Psy, and to a lesser extent, Changelings. They both have a “Humans First” agenda that they are willing to press forward with mass murders. And they are both fanatics who are willing to murder massive numbers of humans to prove that Psy can’t be trusted, an irony which is totally lost on both of them.

They are not the same person and many of their goals and methods are not completely aligned. But as the story progresses and we get small glimpses from their own perspectives about their thoughts and motivations, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. I think one of them is exposed by the end, but because they were so amorphous and so much alike, I’m not sure who, or which, or completely if.

None of which changes the fact that I love this series, and can’t wait for the next installment. Hopefully next summer and not any later.

But I have one final comment. The covers for the US editions of this series are never as good as the UK editions. The US covers are often vaguely “cheesy”, and sometimes not even vaguely. Or, are just blah, as this one is. The UK covers are crisp and evocative portraits of the hero, and they just work. See for yourself.

US Cover
UK cover