Review: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Review: Acadie by Dave HutchinsonAcadie by Dave Hutchinson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 5, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.
The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.
Earth has other plans.
The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.
Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review:

“I think, therefore I am,” or so goes the quote from French philosopher René Descartes. But Descartes lived in the 17th century, well before the popularity of science fiction. In Acadie, the quote needs to be a question, “I think, therefore I am, what?”

Duke Faraday thinks that he is the president of a renegade colony of genetic researchers and tinkerers who made him president because he wanted the job the least. And he knows he’s pissed off because his admin/majordomo/minder has just woken him up too damned early on his day off because there’s a crisis.

And his desk is where the buck stops. Even if his so-called desk is generally parked in a bar – and there are no bucks of any kind on The Colony. (Unless the scientists who really run things have genetically engineered something since he went to bed the night before.)

The Colony is filled with a bunch of renegade scientists who are still paranoid about the Earth that they escaped from five centuries before. They left with a ship full of kidnapped colonists, an overabundance of genius and a complete lack of willingness to stop experimenting with the human genome – and any other they can get their gloved hands on – no matter how many people, organizations, and even governments tell them “no”.

So when a trigger-happy pilot brings down what is obviously a probe from the Earth they left behind, it’s all-hands-on-deck to bug out before Earth returns to take whatever fancy tech their geniuses have invented and bring home any survivors from that original hijacking back for trial.

Everyone gets away except for Duke and his “Dirty Dozen” of advisors who are left to look after the last of the technology clean-up. They are sitting ducks for the next Earth probe that comes along, and come along it does.

Duke thinks he’s holding the line against a rapacious colonization agency that likes to cut corners and doesn’t care how much collateral damage it does along the way. After all, that’s how he ended up in the Colony in the first place.

But the pilot of the probe has a different idea about his mission, and Duke’s, altogether. An idea that just might turn Duke’s entire universe on its head – or bust his wide open.

Escape Rating A-: At first, the tone of Acadie and its protagonist reminded me more than a bit of Heinlein by way of Scalzi. The way that the entire Colony pulled itself together to escape the threat had some of the feel of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although I should have been thinking more of The Man Who Sold the Moon, which is as much of a hint as I’m giving.

I also can’t help but think that Duke Faraday and John Perry (Old Man’s War) would have had a lot to talk about in that bar, possibly along with Fergus Fergusson from Finder.

The Colony as a form of government, a working utopia, an escape hatch, all of the above, seems like a fascinating place. The idea that the person elected president is the one who wants it the least honestly seems like an idea that might have merit and broader application. (And also adds to that Heinlein-like feeling. I keep thinking that sounds like something he would have said, but I can’t find a citation so maybe not.)

That the real powers-that-be are the scientists, possibly even the mad scientists, who escaped from Earth’s laws and proceeded to write their own and the human genome at the same time certainly does make the story interesting. And picturesque, as the scientists, called ‘The Writers’ because they rewrite the genome seemingly at a whim, often mine popular culture through the ages for their material and their whimsy.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the habitats that the Colony uses are one of the very few, if not the ONLY, beneficial uses of that plague of the South, kudzu, that has ever appeared in fiction.

So the story hums along, seemingly about a plucky band of scientists and other colonists doing their best to stay out of the clutches of the evil – or at least benighted – bureaucrats from Earth. We’re rooting for them and we’re sure they’ve found the right answers.

They are too.

But at the end, the whole story turns itself upside down, twists itself inside out, and spits the reader out of the book kicking and screaming, wondering what the hell went wrong. And it’s upsetting and glorious all at the same time.

(Reviewer’s Note: I’m on the horns of a dilemma here because of the brevity of the story versus the price of the book. On the one hand, this is only 112 pages. It’s a novella. On the other hand, the kindle version is $7.99 which is a bit much for the length. And on the third hand, because of that kick in the pants ending, I’m not sure this actually should have been longer. If Amazon is still selling used copies of the paperback at $1.50 that might be a better bet or at least a better cost/benefit ratio. YMMV)

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys Ford

Review: Detroit Kiss by Rhys FordDetroit Kiss by Rhys Ford
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: M/M romance, urban fantasy, vampires
Pages: 150
Published by Dreamspinner Press on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

For Javi Navarro, Detroit will become another blood-splattered city in his rearview mirror after he puts its dead back into the ground. Expecting an easy hunting job, Javi instead finds a kiss of ancient vampires on the hunt for a descendant of their long-dead creator.

Reclusive Ciarnan Mac Gerailt abandoned his family legacy of blood and death magic after it nearly destroyed him. Unfortunately for Ciarnan, the Motor City can only be saved if he resumes his dark arts and joins forces with Javi Navarro, the hunter who brought the vampire apocalypse—and hope for the future—straight to Ciarnan’s front door.

Previously published as "Legacy of Blood and Death" in the anthology Creature Feature 2

My Review:

Have you been wondering where urban fantasy went? I certainly have. Once upon a time, it was the hottest thing since, well, whatever metaphor seems appropriate for the 1980s or thereabouts, but then it kind of died off, sort of like the vampires that seemed to be the backbone of its antiheroes and tormented villains, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Not that ongoing series didn’t continue, but new ones just didn’t emerge from the shadows.

So to speak. Ahem.

I love urban fantasy and missed it when it slunk back into those shadows. It was one of my go-to genres when I was in a reading slump. But it’s starting to feel like it’s back from the dead. Or the graveyard. Or wherever it’s been hiding for the last decade or so. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at Holly Black’s Book of Night when it comes out next month. Because the heroine Charlie Hall is pretty much every hard luck and worse trouble kick ass heroine to ever stalk the pages of an urban fantasy. But I digress. Sort of.)

Because when I started reading Detroit Kiss, the first, second and third things I thought of were just how much it reminded me of the early Dresden Files books, to the point where I’m not sure whether Javi’s musings as to why so many magic-wielding heavy-hitters ended up in Detroit instead of Chicago. It felt like half explanation, half intercity rivalry and half homage to Harry Dresden’s stomping ground.

I realize that’s too many halves, but there are always too many somethings nasty in this kind of urban fantasy. In the case of Detroit Kiss, too many feral vampires. The bloodsuckers are definitely not the heroes of this piece. They’re the evil pests, to the point where the good guys call them “ticks” because they are mindless evil bloodsuckers.

So the tone of Detroit Kiss, with Javi Navarro working as a bounty hunter for the beleaguered Detroit Police Department, had the same feel as the early Dresden books, minus Harry’s somewhat leery male gaze. Plus, however, a slightly better love life – eventually – as Javi’s luck turns out to be better than Dresden’s frequently was. At least so far.

We’re introduced to this version of Detroit in decay when a construction crew attempting to revive the city yet again uncovers a “kiss” of vampires who have been trapped underground, gnawing on the bones of their makers and each other for a century. They’ve been stuck in the ruins of a speakeasy since Prohibition with nothing to drink except each other.

Until they eat the construction crew, that is.

But these ticks are fixated on the two magic users whose bones they’ve been picking clean all these years, so once they escape they go hunting for whoever is left of the bloodlines that made them.

And that’s where Ciarnan Mac Gerailt comes in, the only descendant of one of those mages within easy reach. Ciarnan is existing someplace between hiding out and living in an old theater he’s never bothered to refurbish in one of the many down-at-heels neighborhoods in this version of the city. He’s given up the death magic that is his family’s heritage and taken up growing vegetables and just trying to get himself, his wolf dog Elric and his fae familiar Shaddock through the day and the sometimes very long and dark nights.

Ciarnan looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back and took his friends, his apprentice and very nearly his life. He’s given up magic. Really, truly.

At least until Javi Navarro helps him put down one of the entirely too many ticks that has come after him in place of his several greats-grandfather. Javi wants Ciarnan to help gather up the ticks so they can pick the place and time and have a better chance at bringing them down.

And honestly, he just wants Ciarnan the minute he sees him – even though Ciarnan clocks him with a shovel the minute after.

But in order to help Javi, Ciarnan will have to look back into that abyss – and hope to heaven or hell that this time it doesn’t swallow him whole. While praying that the vampires don’t either.

Escape Rating A-: I have one and only one complaint about Detroit Kiss. It’s too damn short.

I mean that. Seriously. It’s too damn short and there aren’t any more. Rather like the author’s Dim Sum Asylum, which was another gem of urban fantasy that bordered just a bit on paranormal romance AND also had a fascinating world that seemed like there was oodles of backstory to explore, a riveting case to solve, a terrific pair of heroes and DAMN no sequel.

I loved the way that this almost-now/nearish future Detroit felt like an all too easy extension of where the city has been for the past decade or two (or maybe three), partially devastated and partly gentrifying and still trying to get back up on its feet in spite of all the forces trying to tear it down.

The magic system seems cool and interesting, and the whole idea of finding a buried speakeasy filled with rogue vamps was an absolutely chilling way to kick things off.

Ciarnan is one of the author’s signature wounded-but-trying heroes who do the right thing even if sometimes for the wrong reasons and are always one half-step away from backsliding into darkness.

The climactic scene is dark, deadly, dangerous AND squicky and heroic at the same time. I’d absolutely adore seeing where these guys and their world go next. I hope the author gets there someday because I’d be all in for it!

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen Odden

Review: Down a Dark River by Karen OddenDown a Dark River by Karen Odden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Inspector Corravan #1
Pages: 328
Published by Crooked Lane Books on November 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the vein of C. S. Harris and Anne Perry, Karen Odden’s mystery introduces Inspector Michael Corravan as he investigates a string of vicious murders that has rocked Victorian London’s upper crust.
London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.
An Irish former bare-knuckles boxer and dockworker from London’s seedy East End, Corravan has good street sense and an inspector’s knack for digging up clues. But he’s confounded when, a week later, a second woman is found dead in a rowboat, and then a third. The dead women seem to have no connection whatsoever. Meanwhile, Mr. Stiles makes an alarming discovery: the shipping magnate’s missing wife, Mrs. Beckford, may not have fled her house because she was insane, as her husband claims, and Mr. Beckford may not be the successful man of business that he appears to be.
Slowly, it becomes clear that the river murders and the case of Mrs. Beckford may be linked through some terrible act of injustice in the past—for which someone has vowed a brutal vengeance. Now, with the newspapers once again trumpeting the Yard’s failures, Corravan must dredge up the truth—before London devolves into a state of panic and before the killer claims another innocent victim.

My Review:

This first book in the Inspector Corravan series begins in the middle in a way that just plain works. For one thing, Corravan is 30 or thereabouts, meaning that he had not just a life but an adult life for years before this story begins. Howsomever, the book does a terrific job of telling the reader enough about his previous life AND his previous cases for us to get a feel for the man as a character as well as how good he is at his job and how often he rubs his superiors the wrong way.

It’s also a bit in the middle when it comes to the circumstances of Scotland Yard and the London Metropolitan Police Department. The situation that the department is in when we first meet Corravan is taken from history. The corruption trial that rocked the Met and still influences the public’s acceptance or lack thereof towards the police really happened. The man who is in charge of the newly formed CID (Criminal Investigation Department) that Corravan serves is a fictional avatar of the real C.E. Howard Vincent who held that position at the time this book takes place..

So the story is grounded in the real a bit more deeply than the usual historical mystery, and that’s part of what makes the story so fascinating. But the truly compelling part of this story is the mystery itself. As it should be.

It all starts with the discovery of a woman’s body floating down the Thames in a lighter, a small boat used to carry cargo along the river. She’s relatively young, blond, pretty and appears to have been well-off if not outright wealthy based on her clothing and her physical condition. She wasn’t raped, but the skirt of her dress was cut open, her wrists were slashed post-mortem and there were flowers in the boat.

Whoever killed her, whyever they did it, the dead woman left behind a fiancé, parents and friends who loved her and are devastated by her death. Corravan begins an investigation, under pressure from his superiors, who are under pressure from theirs. Everyone wants the murder solved before the public loses even more confidence in the police.

A week later there’s a second body. Then a third who the mysterious killer lets go, possibly because she’s pregnant. Corravan is out of his mind, losing his temper, and losing his battle against the demon drink all at the same time.

Because the victims seem to have nothing in common save their gender, station and appearance. He’s not making any headway and the powers-that-be are losing patience – although not as fast as Corravan is.

Just when he’s at his wit’s end – and about to be demoted for it – a key witness steps out of the shadows. He learns just how heinous this crime really is – and just how hard it will be to bring absolutely everyone responsible to any kind of justice.

Escape Rating A: I picked this up because I read and enjoyed two of the author’s previous books, A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit, also Victorian-set mysteries. And also books that center women’s stories and women’s lives even though much of the investigation is driven by a male protagonist.

So when I learned this book existed, I was happy to set aside the books I’d bounced off of this week and dive right in. Especially as I was even more tempted by the description of the story appealing to readers of C.S. Harris and Anne Perry, as I loved both authors’ 19th century-set mystery series.

While Down a Dark River resembles C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr series in the way that it is so firmly grounded in its time and place, and the way that it borrows from real history using real people as secondary characters, the true resemblance is to Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series and her William Monk series. Corravan’s background – and his temperament – resemble Monk, but the time period in which this series is set makes him contemporaneous to the Pitts. A time when the world was obviously changing as a result of the Industrial Revolution, both for good and for ill.

This case, as Corravan himself remarks, feels like a new kind of crime. He’s chasing a serial killer – someone organized but with a deranged mind or at least worldview. Not someone who kills in the heat of the moment, but someone who plans meticulously and seeks out victims who make sense for reasons that exist only in his own head.

The process of the investigation, and the way that Corravan nearly loses not just control of it but control of himself, gives us a window into a fascinating character who does not want to adapt to the times or the circumstances, only to discover that the cost of not doing so is greater than he is willing to pay.

Earlier I said that this book centers women’s stories and lives in spite of its male protagonist. And the way that is worked out in the story made for a compelling twist that carries the reader, the detective and eventually his department along to a stunning conclusion that satisfies in one way but can’t possibly do so in another.

Nor should it, which is what made this so very good.

I expected to like this, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I most definitely did. So I’m very happy that Inspector Corravan’s investigations will continue later this year in Under a Veiled Moon.

Review: Love Code by Ann Aguirre

Review: Love Code by Ann AguirreLove Code (Galactic Love #2) by Ann Aguirre
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Galactic Love #2
Pages: 324
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

He's cute. He's cranky. His code is sleek as hell.What's an amnesiac AI doing in a place like this? Helix has no idea. He knows he planned to build a life for himself on Gravas Station, but he has no clue what he's been doing for the last half cycle. Nor does he understand why his ship crashed. A genius Tiralan scientist saved him by copying his code into an organic host, and after meeting her meddling mothers, it seems like his problems have only just begun...
She's clever. She's creative. She claims that he's her mate.Qalu has no interest in relationships. She'd much rather be working in her lab, innovating instead of socializing. Problem is, the Tiralan believe that one cannot be happy alone. When a solution literally falls from the sky, she leaps at the opportunity to advance her research and teach Helix how to be Tiralan while calming her mothers' fears. It might be unconventional, but she's ready to break all the rules for a little peace.
They agree to pose as each other's mates for the most logical reasons, but love always finds a way.

My Review:

Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Data wanted to experience what it meant to be human. Howsomever, Helix, the self-aware, self-willed and occasionally downright deceptive AI of Strange Love had no desire to experience “meat space”.

So of course he gets what he absolutely did not wish for. The chance to experience “life” in a mostly organic body. And in a case of karma being a bitch galaxy-wide, his program has been deposited into an organic construct on Tiralan. He knows plenty about Tiralan history, customs and behavior because he fabricated a Tiralan identity in order to lure his friend Zylar off of Baranth, through an equally fabricated data glitch so that he could get the shy, self-effacing Baranthi to Earth where his friend had the best chance of meeting someone who would be willing to go through his planet’s Mating Trials with him.

That was the story in the first book in this series, Strange Love. And it’s absolutely marvelous, so if you like science fiction romance or alien romance at all – read it before picking up Love Code.

By the end of Strange Love, Helix the rather conniving AI had become self-aware, sentient and even sapient – making him too much AI to get around the laws of Baranth. So Zylar set Helix free and on his way to a place where he might be safe to explore his own destiny, while untethering the AI from the shit that is just about to hit Zylar’s personal fan.

The best laid plans and all that meant that Helix crash landed on Tiralan instead, to be rescued by Qalu, a femme Tiralan cybernetic engineer who was experimenting with placing AI consciousness into mostly organic constructed bodies. Who just so happens to have the perfect body all ready for her to transplant Helix’ code into.

Well, it’s perfect from her perspective. The body she designed is ready in an engineering sense, as well as fully functional and perfectly designed to trip every single one of her triggers. After all, even in the ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, that long ago sculptor didn’t design nor fall in love with an ugly statue.

When Helix recovers from the surgery/transplant/metamorphosis, he has a difficult time adjusting to his new circumstances. He’s never experienced ANYTHING to do with having a meat space body made of real meat. The scene where Qalu has to explain hunger, eating, and the inevitable result of the latter is a marvel of cringing hilarity.

The story here is initially about the dovetailing – you might almost call it fated – of Qalu’s needs with Helix’. Helix needs a safe place to learn and recover – both his newly physical self and the puzzling gaps in his memory. Qalu needs to evaluate the results of her experiment – which is after all her life’s work.

More immediately, she also needs a fake potential mate to fend off the well-meaning interference of her four mothers, all of whom want Qalu to find a nice partner or two or three (love groups are the usual form of family on Tiralan), stop spending so much time alone in her laboratory or with her pet Pherzul Aevi (think intelligent, talking cat – which may not be strictly correct but works anyway).

So Helix and Qalu – with Aevi’s agreement – choose to tell a bit of a white lie. But just as their fake relationship tilts towards a actual one, reality rears its ugly head. A bounty hunter has come to Tiralan, chasing Helix. Possibly just for existing as a self-aware AI, but more likely for something Helix did before he crashed on Qalu’s doorstep.

It’s time for them to run, in the hopes of escaping whatever is dogging Helix’ heels. It’s already too late for them to run from each other – no matter how much Helix believes that they should.

Escape Rating B+: While Love Code wasn’t quite as much fun as the first book in the trilogy, Strange Love, it was still an awful lot of fun. Which is exactly what I was looking for as yesterday’s book wasn’t quite up to its series and the book I planned to review today just wasn’t working for me. It happens.

I loved Strange Love so much that I was reasonably sure that I’d have a good reading time with Qalu and Helix – and I was NOT disappointed.

Howsomever, the planet Tiralan turned out to be a surprising place for a meet-cute and a fake relationship type of romance – especially with the fascinating issues of power dynamics and informed vs. forced consent in all their permutations.

Helix is very much in the experimental stage with his new and initially unwelcome body and all of its many sensations – not all of which are pleasurable or even seemly from his perspective. He’s learning, he’s trying, he’s adapting and he’s confused more often than not. He also doesn’t know what either attraction or love feel like. So he doesn’t recognize those feelings when they start happening to him.

Qalu knows what she wants, and also knows that it would be unethical for her to reach for it. Or rather, reach for Helix, the way that she wants to. She recognizes that he’s dependent on her on Tiralan.

But when they go on the run, the situation changes. Helix has traveled the stars. He may be in a meat space body now, but he knows how to act and react and has lots of information to help them on their clandestine journey.

Now Qalu is lost. She’s always stuck close to home, not just the planet but her own homespaces. She’s scared, she feels inadequate and useless, and she’s homesick. So is Aevi. Qalu doesn’t know how to help and fears she’s an actual hindrance that Helix will eventually leave behind. (She kind of regrets that she made him so very handsome for their species!)

What makes this story work so well is the way that their power dynamics shift, and the way that they both adapt in spite of so many things standing – sometimes literally – in their way.

The story in Love Code ended up being a bit more of a straightforward romance than Strange Love, which is probably why I liked Strange Love a bit more. I enjoyed the journey of exploration of this new universe as much as I did the romance. But I definitely had a good reading time with Helix and Qalu so I’m glad I was able to follow up with this series so quickly.

The final book in the series, Renegade Love, is set up in this book, just as this one turned out to be set up in the first book. And I am so looking forward to reading it!

Review: Strange Love by Ann Aguirre

Review: Strange Love by Ann AguirreStrange Love (Galactic Love #1) by Ann Aguirre
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Galactic Love #1
Pages: 304
Published by Ann Aguirre on January 20, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

He's awkward. He's adorable. He's alien as hell.Zylar of Kith Balak is a four-time loser in the annual Choosing. If he fails to find a nest guardian this time, he'll lose his chance to have a mate for all time. Desperation drives him to try a matching service but due to a freak solar flare and a severely malfunctioning ship AI, things go way off course. This 'human being' is not the Tiralan match he was looking for.
She's frazzled. She's fierce. She's from St. Louis.Beryl Bowman's mother always said she'd never get married. She should have added a rider about the husband being human. Who would have ever thought that working at the Sunshine Angel daycare center would offer such interstellar prestige? She doesn't know what the hell's going on, but a new life awaits on Barath Colony, where she can have any alien bachelor she wants.
They agree to join the Choosing together, but love is about to get seriously strange.

My Review:

“We like someone because. We love someone although.” Or so goes the quote. Another way of putting it as far as Strange Love is concerned, wraps around the question about where does love spring from? Does it come from the heart, from the brain, or from somewhere below the waist?

Is it possible for Beryl Bowman and Zylar of Kith Balak to fall in love with each other and make a strong partnership, although they are not from the same planet, they don’t breathe the same air, and their anatomical parts do not line up AT ALL?

Their people even took different evolutionary paths. Humans evolved from mammals and share common ancestors with the great apes, way, way, way back when. Zylar’s people seem to have evolved from something insectoid, also way, way, way back when. And on the other hand, or grabber, or limb, or whatever other species call it, Zylar’s people managed planetary unity and intergalactic space flight quite some time ago, while we’re definitely not there yet.

Garrus Vakarian from Mass Effect

I went into this story because I wanted to see that happy ever after in spite of all the factors that would argue against it even being possible. That predisposition to see them make it work can be laid at the door of the Mass Effect trilogy and the possible romance (if you chose it) of a female Commander Shepard and the Turian Garrus Vakarian. Whose people also evolved from their planet’s insectoids, and who may give great voice (he really does) but otherwise isn’t anatomically compatible with the human Shepard.

And yet, it’s the sweetest romance in the game (IMHO) and I wish they’d gotten their HEA (There is no HEA no matter which romance you choose because reasons.) So I went into Strange Love hoping for a vicarious happy ending for that epic tragic romance.

I got EXACTLY what I was hoping for. With bells on!

Escape Rating A: The romance in Strange Love combines a “meet cute” – for intergalactic definitions of that phrase – with a version of the TV shows The Bachelor AND The Bachelorette combined into a multi-day gladiatorial contest. A contest which it is possible to “win” but still lose at the same time.

To mix SFnal metaphors even further, it’s as if the Vulcan mating ceremony from the Star Trek Original Series episode Amok Time or the Next Generation episode Code of Honor involved multiple potential couples in a competition for both parties rather than only one side of the potential partnership being decided by a fight to the death.

The Strange Love that arises between Beryl and Zylar is also a romance between a “beta” male who has been told all of his life by his family that he is just not good enough in any possible way – especially in comparison to his alphahole sibling Ryzven. Zylar has HUGE confidence issues – and understandably so.

Beryl, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels the fear and does it anyway. She leaps and hopes the net will appear, but even if it doesn’t, she’ll survive. Not that life hasn’t also beaten her down, but her reaction to that metaphorical beating has been to pick herself up, dust herself off, and survive. She fakes it till she makes it, and if she doesn’t really think she’s made it no one else has to know.

It’s a confidence she can pass to Zylar – if he’ll let her. If his family will let them try. And that’s the story – the two of them trying to survive the Choosing, together, and win his family’s grudging acceptance if not approval. If they can.

That they manage to give his alphahole sibling the comeuppance he so richly deserved is the icing on the cake. Bittersweet icing, as the douchecanoe manages to do a LOT of damage along his selfish, self-centered, spoiled and self-indulgent way.

That Zylar and Beryl learn that love can be found in the strangest places with the strangest people makes Strange Love a strange and wonderful story. That Beryl’s “bestest boy” dog Snaps learns to talk and becomes part of their strange little family made the story, which was already lovely and exactly what I was hoping it would be – just that much better.

Strange Love is the first book in what looks to be a marvelous series. I bought the whole thing, and now I can’t wait to start reading the next book, Love Code, the minute I get the chance!

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda QuickGarden of Lies by Amanda Quick, Jayne Ann Krentz
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Pages: 359
Published by Berkley on April 21, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Kern Secretarial Agency provides reliable professional services to its wealthy clientele, and Anne Clifton was one of the finest women in Ursula Kern’s employ. But Miss Clifton has met an untimely end—and Ursula is convinced it was not due to natural causes.   Archaeologist and adventurer Slater Roxton thinks Mrs. Kern is off her head to meddle in such dangerous business. Nevertheless, he seems sensible enough to Ursula, though she does find herself unnerved by his self-possession and unreadable green-gold eyes…   If this mysterious widowed beauty insists on stirring the pot, Slater intends to remain close by as they venture into the dark side of polite society. Together they must reveal the identity of a killer—and to achieve their goal they may need to reveal their deepest secrets to each other as well…

My Review:

The popular perception of heroines in historical romance is that their lives were restricted and that they were supposed to be innocent even into adulthood and as a consequence were naïve and/or ripe to become damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by the hero.

An image that probably wasn’t true even among the aristocracy, and certainly couldn’t have been outside it. Which doesn’t prevent it from still being a popular perception. But readers aren’t looking for innocent damsels in distress nearly as much as they used to. We’re looking for women we can manage to identify with.

In that sense, Ursula Kern is a fascinating choice as a heroine. She’s a widow. She’s permitted to no longer be innocent or naïve. She’s on her own, and she owns her own business – not as a member of the demimonde – but a respectable business employing respectable women who are able to earn respectable incomes.

Whatever hopes and dreams she may have, she is expected to present herself as a responsible, respectable, professional adult person. She’s been through enough to know that the only person who will take care of her is her. As a woman with neither a husband nor living parents nor male siblings, there is no one to gainsay her determination to make a living for herself and to provide good livings for as many women as possible in her employ.

Ursula may not have family, but she does have friends as well as colleagues and employees. The late Anne Clifton was all of the above; an employee who became a colleague and friend. Ursula Kern is certain that Anne Clifton was murdered. Finding her killer is the last thing that Ursula can do for her friend – and she’s determined to do it.

She just needs a bit of help. Or at least she hopes for it. And that’s where Slater Roxton comes in. Slater, a man with a mysterious incident in his past that has fueled the gossip rags and gutter press for years, is an expert on finding lost artifacts and tombs – where he once got trapped.

(Come to think of it, he’d probably be a contemporary of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Sr., the father of archeologist, treasure hunter and troubleshooter Indiana Jones. If there turned out to be some influence there I wouldn’t be at all surprised.)

Slater, for reasons of his own, some more obvious than others, can’t let Ursula go off on her investigation all alone. It’s not that he doesn’t believe she quite capable as an adult and as a businesswoman, but ferreting out the truth about dastardly murderers who have so far been successful at making their crimes look like accidents is a dangerous business.

A business with many more dangerous tentacles – or should I say twisted roots and entangling vines – than either Slater or Ursula ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I read this for fun. I was bouncing hard off of everything and went looking for a story that I knew would be instantly absorbing. I was highly tempted to read this author’s Lightning in a Mirror which is out next week, but then I remembered that Garden of Lies was STILL on my “Highly Anticipating” Shelf on Edelweiss. In fact, it was the oldest book on that shelf. So here we are.

Garden of Lies was every bit as instantly absorbing and fun as I hoped, even if I didn’t completely buy the inevitable romance between Slater and Ursula. The rest of the story, especially the uncovering of the full scope of the criminal plotting AND the nefarious dealings on both sides of the pond, was absolutely riveting.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the way that all the women in the story, including the secondary characters, dealt with their world in a way that seemed realistically sensible. Not just that Ursula and the women she employs have made their own way independently, but the way that Slater’s mother, the actress who was the lifelong paramour of a titled noble, knew exactly what she was letting herself in for and moved through the world as she found it and not as anyone dreamed or hoped it would be. That his late father was sanguine enough to not merely acknowledge Slater was his but to trust his illegitimate son to protect his legal widow and legitimate heirs from her abusive father.

Their approaches to their world make sense in a way that isn’t always true in historical romance.

The mystery plot was marvelously convoluted and the reveal of it was appropriately painstaking. Ursula starts with the death of her friend, finds evidence that her death was murder, and then begins to dig. The solution is revealed in layers, as each new bit of information leads to a place that no one had foreseen from the opening. The web was woven very tightly, and it takes and appropriate amount of time and effort to unravel it fully.

As Ursula and Slater eventually manage to do. I liked them as partners, I just didn’t see enough of them “falling” in love to buy that they really were in love. But I’m still glad they found their slightly unconventional HEA.

There was no paranormal woo-woo in this standalone book, as there so often is in the author’s Arcane Society series, yet it still had some of the same feel with its nefarious plot, double-dealing, wheels within wheels criminal organization, and the investigation into dirty deeds done in very dark places for both evil and mercenary ends.

But the author has two books with some of that paranormal vibe coming soon, Lightning in a Mirror next week and When She Dreams in April. My reading appetite for both has certainly been whetted!

Review: Fated Blades by Ilona Andrews

Review: Fated Blades by Ilona AndrewsFated Blades (Kinsmen, #3) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Kinsmen #3
Pages: 222
Published by Montlake on November 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

An uneasy alliance between warring families gets heated in this otherworldly novella from bestselling author Ilona Andrews.
At first glance, the planet Rada seems like a lush paradise. But the ruling families, all boasting genetically enhanced abilities, are in constant competition for power―and none more so than the Adlers and the Baenas. For generations, the powerful families have pushed and pulled each other in a dance for dominance.
Until a catastrophic betrayal from within changes everything.
Now, deadly, disciplined, and solitary leaders Ramona Adler and Matias Baena must put aside their enmity and work together in secret to prevent sinister forces from exploiting universe-altering technology. Expecting to suffer through their uneasy alliance, Ramona and Matias instead discover that they understand each other as no one in their families can―and that their combined skills may eclipse the risks of their forbidden alliance.
As the two warriors risk their lives to save their families, they must decide whether to resist or embrace the passion simmering between them. For now, the dance between their families continues―but just one misstep could spell the end of them both.

My Review:

This book was an absolutely delightful surprise in more ways than one!

First, I have to say that it was a surprise that it existed. The first two books in the Kinsmen series, Silent Blade and Silver Shark, came out over a decade ago. When I reviewed them both in 2014 for the late and much lamented Science Fiction Romance Quarterly, they were all there were.

But that’s a long time ago in, let’s call them, “book years”.

They were both terrific – although unfortunately terrifically short – and I stopped hoping for more a long time ago. Yet here we are.

After a very long hiatus, the Kinsmen series is back in Fated Blades. And it’s every bit as much fun as the previous books, as well as blissfully more than a bit longer.

That’s always been my one complaint about the series – that the books aren’t nearly long enough. And it’s still true – although getting better each time.

The story, on its surface, is simple enough. This is an enemies to lovers story with a vengeance. Literally. The Adlers and the Baenas have been enemies and rivals for centuries – all the way back to the founding of the colony on the planet Rada.

A rivalry that has occasionally bloomed into a hot war, but has always simmered as a lukewarm if not cold conflict between merciless rivals. An evenly matched antagonism between rival clans with the same business interests and the same dedication to continuing the extreme martial training of their ancestors.

But the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And this story begins when Ramona Adler stalks into Matias Baena’s office – into the heart of her enemy’s territory – because she and Matias have a desperate common cause – he just doesn’t know it until her one-woman invasion of his family’s corporate tower.

His wife has run off with her husband. Not that either of them loves their arranged spouse any more than those spouses love them. Or anyone but themselves. This betrayal isn’t nearly that simple.

Both companies have invested all their resources, pushing themselves to the brink of collapse, in order to research the genetic modifications that made them both the warrior clans that they are. And both of their spouses have run away with each other and with all of both companies’ research with the intent to sell it to the highest bidder.

Leaving both companies, and both families, destroyed in their wake. Not that either of their errant spouses give a damn.

Ramona and Matias must ally with each other – their deadliest rival – in order to stop the destruction of everything they hold dear.

In their hunt to stop their traitorous spouses, they discover two things. That said spouses are even bigger traitors than either of them thought.

And that Ramona and Matias, the heirs of generations of mutual hatred, are each other’s perfect match. In love and in war.

Escape Rating A-: Fated Blades is a tremendously fun use of all of the best tropes in science fiction romance – not that most of them can’t be applied to other types of romance as well!

But seriously, the thing about SFR is that both sides have to be balanced. The SFnal worldbuilding has to be self-consistent and hold together, and the romance has to be a solidly satisfying romance set in that well-built SFnal world.

Fated Blades delivers a story that walks that tightrope balance beautifully.

Even three books in, the world of the Kinsmen has plenty of facets to explore – but what we do have feels solid. It’s a well-established Earth-diaspora colony in a sector filled with more of them. The world of Rada and its sector read like a livable place that is just enough like our own time and place to seem familiar while being just different enough to seem exotic. Rada and its sister worlds have an established history that we get just enough glimpses of to think we know what’s going on and what went on in their past.

While the real enemy that they face is the stuff of SFnal nightmares that combine the Reavers from Firefly with every 21st century totalitarian nightmare into an enemy that must be feared, respected and eliminated to the last soldier and damn the diplomatic consequences.

At the same time, the romance combines the classic enemies to lovers trope with just a touch of fated mate syndrome and more than a bit of the crash and mutual rescue dynamic of Shards of Honor. A winning combination if ever there was one.

I had a great reading time returning to the Kinsmen universe, even after all these years. I loved the stuttering, back and forth relationship between Ramona and Matias, although I wish I’d gotten a bit more about their families and how their part of this universe came to be. I’d love to read more in this world, hopefully sooner rather than quite this much later after the previous book.

And they’re still too damn short.

Review: Ghost of the Bamboo Road by Susan Spann

Review: Ghost of the Bamboo Road by Susan SpannGhost of the Bamboo Road: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Shinobi Mystery #7
Pages: 272
Published by Seventh Street Books on November 12, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When a vengeful spirit terrorizes a mountain village, a ninja and a Jesuit must save the villagers from the phantom’s wrath.
January 1566: En route to Edo, Master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo spend the night in a rural mountain village whose inhabitants live in terror of a legendary vengeful ghost. When the innkeeper's wife is murdered and Father Mateo’s housekeeper, Ana, is blamed for a crime she did not commit, Hiro and Father Mateo are forced to investigate and reveal the truth. But when another woman turns up murdered in the snow, the detectives must face the shocking truth that the vengeful yurei the villagers fear might be more than just a legend after all.

My Review:

No one wants to think that one of their neighbors is capable of committing murder – or even any lesser crimes. It’s why so many small town and country house mysteries usually start out with everyone involved pointing the finger, not at each other, but at some unknown wandering stranger. We all want our own little closed group to be blameless – it’s too uncomfortable to think otherwise.

But for the blame for not one or two but eventually four recent deaths in an isolated rural village to be attributed to ghosts and not any living humans at all is a bit too much for either shinobi (read ninja) Hiro Hattori and his friend and protectee Father Mateo to credit. The villagers may believe in ghosts, but Hiro has too much practical experience of the world to believe in ghosts. Father Mateo’s faith means that he does not believe in ghosts either – no matter how many times one of the villagers claims that he already is one.

Both Hiro and Father Mateo also have way too much experience in investigating mysterious and uncanny murders that always turn out to have been committed by humans and not any supernatural creatures at all.

Color them both skeptics. Even in the face of seemingly an entire village quivering in fear of an avenging ghost who seems to be systematically eliminating every remaining villager who refused to help her when she was alive.

It’s too easy for the logical Hiro to see that while the deaths may be mysterious, placing the blame on a ghost is a bit too convenient for someone. Or perhaps more than one someone. But the inconvenience of the local samurai refusing to allow them to leave until the crime is solved is all too real – and his blackmail attempt all too transparent.

It’s up to Hiro to suss out the real killer and their real motives – along with discovering who is responsible for a string of thefts that is somehow tied up in the murders – before they can continue on their self-appointed journey to Edo.

Escape Rating A-: I was so tempted to start with a Ghostbusters riff, because neither Hiro nor Mateo are afraid of any ghosts. Making this story an attempt to tell a ghost story with two total non-believers at its center.

The journey that Hiro and Mateo are on, from the disaster at Mount Koya in the previous book in the series, Trial on Mount Koya, is self-appointed or self-inflicted on Hiro’s part. The organization and family that trained him in the hidden arts of the shinobi is under threat from the capital, and Hiro is trying to warn all the covert agents along the way to Edo. Father Mateo is on the run after the events in a previous book in the series, The Ninja’s Daughter.

That being said, this story does stand somewhat alone. Not that knowledge of the previous events in the series isn’t handy or that acquiring that knowledge by starting at the beginning in Claws of the Cat isn’t a great reading time, but it would be possible to pick this up without starting at the beginning as this is set in an isolated part of their longer journey.

However, this series as a whole is an absolute treat for historical mystery and historical fiction readers. At the time the story takes place, Medieval Japan was mostly closed to outsiders. Father Mateo’s presence as guide and audience surrogate provides a window into a time, place and culture that was just opening to outsiders. We have been able to explore and discover along with him, while helping – or sometimes hindering – Hiro’s investigations along the way.

And while watching their relationship, initially curious strangers, bodyguard and protectee, change into friendship verging on brotherhood – with all the affection and exasperation inherent in that kind of family tie.

The case they have to solve here is both fascinating because of its setting and familiar because of the all-too-human motivations that set these crimes into motion. Hiro and Mateo are always outsiders even in places where they are most familiar, but in this tiny village they are more obviously so. It’s clear that much is known but not spoken of, and it’s up to these two strangers to bring those secrets into the light of day.

If only so that they can finally escape the place with their own mission also accomplished and their household intact!

I’ve followed this entire series, and loved every minute of it. But somehow I missed this book when it came out, and didn’t discover it existed until I learned about the upcoming publication of the next book in the series, Fires of Edo, which is due out in mid-February. From the title, it looks like their rather fraught journey to Edo is going to reach its destination, but hopefully not its end.

I’m looking forward to traveling with them again. Soon!

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster BujoldKnot of Shadows (Penric & Desdemona #11) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #11
Pages: 111
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on October 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
Goodreads

When a corpse is found floating face-down in Vilnoc harbor that is not quite as dead as it seems, Temple sorcerer Penric and his chaos demon Desdemona are drawn into the uncanny investigation. Pen’s keen questions will take him across the city of Vilnoc, and into far more profound mysteries, as his search for truths interlaces with tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a fine line between justice and vengeance. In the World of the Five Gods, that line is the white of the Fifth God, the Lord Bastard, the god of chaos, criminals and unexpected blessings, often of the “may you live in interesting times” and “be careful what you wish for” varieties. The Bastard is the god that Learned Penric, sorcerer and divine, serves in whatever way his god deems best – or whatever way will screw up Penric’s life the most at the time. If the White God has his way – and he usually does – it’s generally both at once.

After all, if Murphy’s Law has a god, it’s the Lord Bastard.

Penric gets called when uncanny things happen in the port and city of Vilnoc, or in the Court of the Duke of Orbas, which are the same place in summer. But not in winter when the port city is cold and the Duke retreats inland where it’s a bit less so, leaving Penric, who is also the court sorcerer, to concentrate on his other duties and avocations, like his growing family, his service to the Temple, and his scholarship.

But there are always interruptions, and this one is a bit of a mystery that gets bigger and has more profound implications as it goes along.

A corpse was washed ashore, not uncommon in a port city. The dead man was assumed to be a drowning victim, also not uncommon. Until he “woke up” and began knocking on the locked door of the hospice morgue – from the inside.

That’s not common at all. It’s also not all that rare in a world where rogue demons can possess the dead. When THAT happens, putting things to rights is the province of the Bastard, so Penric, as the highest ranked priest of the White God in Vilnoc, trudges to the hospice with the intent of sending the rogue demon to his god and letting the hospice deal with the funeral rites for the unnamed deceased.

But the case isn’t nearly that simple. The body has not been possessed by a demon, but it has been possessed. One of the many ghosts that naturally haunt a place where people meet their end has found a new home in the body. Which leaves Penric on the horns of a serious moral and ethical dilemma, as well as a chilly quest to discover both who the victim was and who wanted him dead so badly that they were willing to sacrifice their own life in order to achieve it.

The Bastard is, among his many other titles and attributes, the deliverer of justice when all justice fails. Worldly justice failed this man’s victims, but divine justice has not. It’s up to Penric to figure out who and how and why, to clean up any loose ends that his god might have left behind.

Escape Rating A-: OMG this was the right book at the right time. Last week’s reading ended on a major fail, so I was looking for something that I was even more certain would be a terrific read. I was also looking for a story of people being competent and accepted for their competence, as Penric finally has been. (He needed to grow up first, and he has.) What I especially loved about this entry in the series is that it’s both a puzzle to be solved AND displays the way that things in this world WORK, both in the sense of how things are done as well as in the way that justice is finally served. The way that even though human justice failed, divine justice was able to balance the scales.

The fascinating thing about this series is that we view the story from inside Penric’s rather crowded head. It’s not just Penric in there, it’s also his temple-trained demon Desdemona, and the memories of all the people (and a couple of animals) that Desdemona rode before she came to Penric. From Penric’s perspective, it’s rather like having a dozen older sisters living in his head, because all of Desdemona’s previous companions have been female. Even the animals.

Desdemona has a personality all her own. She doesn’t always agree with Penric, and she often knows best because her experience is considerably longer than his. They are partners and the relationship is deep and rich and frequently hilarious, because Desdemona sits on Penric’s shoulder like a demon of temptation, and Penric doesn’t need anyone to lead him in that direction. He already knows the way.

In this particular case, it’s Desdemona who is able to identify what’s going on, but it’s Penric’s logic and his legwork that discovers the solution to the mystery. Which turned out to be sad but ultimately cathartic.

Still, this is a story where the journey is what keeps the reader – or at least this reader – turning pages. It’s whodunnit and whydunnit wrapped into one tantalizing package, with just a bit of philosophy added for seasoning.

All the novellas in this series are wonderful little reading treats, just right for a change of pace or something to fill in the corners after a big epic book hangover. If epic fantasy by the mouthful appeals to you, start with Penric’s Demon – just as Penric himself did – and be prepared for a wonderful reading time.

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda James

Review: Fixing to Die by Miranda JamesFixing to Die (Southern Ladies Mystery, #4) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Southern Ladies Mystery #4
Pages: 294
Published by Berkley Books on October 3, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries and Digging Up the Dirt returns with the latest Southern Ladies Mystery...
It's autumn down south, and An'gel and Dickce Ducote are in Natchez, Mississippi, at the request of Mary Turner Catlin, the granddaughter of an old friend. Mary and her husband, Henry Howard, live in Cliffwood, one of the beautiful antebellum homes for which Natchez is famous.
Odd things have been happening in the house for years, and the French Room in particular has become the focal point for spooky sensations. The Ducotes suspect the ghostly goings-on are caused by the living, but when a relative of the Catlins is found dead in the room, An'gel and Dickce must sift through a haunted family history to catch a killer.

My Review:

What is it that makes cozy mysteries just so cozy and so much of a comfort to read? You’d think that the fact that they all start with a dead body would act against that, but it doesn’t. At all.

I’m caught up in this question because so many of my “comfort reads” are cozy mysteries. Because this has been a week where the weather has been so wet and gloomy that it makes a person want to curl up with a good book, a hot cup of tea and a cat and just wait for it all to go away – which won’t be until Saturday at the earliest and it’s been raining since Sunday. I couldn’t focus on any of the things I planned to read and ended up looking for a cozy mystery to sink into.

And here we are, Fixing to Die. Because this is the last book in the author’s Southern Ladies mystery series, although the adventures of the Cat in the Stacks seem to be continuing. Thank goodness.

So, on a damp and chilly autumn evening, when I couldn’t get into anything else, I found myself, along with sisters An’gel and Dickce Ducote, traveling from their home in Athena Mississippi to Natchez to help the granddaughter of an old friend out with her haunted antebellum bed and breakfast.

Only to find themselves in the midst of an acrimonious family drama – although thankfully one not even remotely their own this time, unlike the events in Dead with the Wind.

The practical-minded An’gel is certain that the ghostly happenings at Cliffwood are the result of a worldly rather than an otherworldly agent. Dickce is a bit more open-minded about the whole thing. After all, their own antebellum home has its share of inexplicable door-closings and perambulating knick-knacks.

But the humans who have gathered at Cliffwood make both the sisters more than a bit suspicious. Mary and Henry, the owners of the house, are fighting over just how much of their lives should be devoted to the care and feeding of the house and the guests they need to keep on keeping the house up to the standards of the Historical Society.

Mary’s cousin Nathan believes he’s entitled to the contents of one of the rooms in the house – based on an old will that he can’t find. That the room contains priceless antiques just adds to his motivations to make his cousin Mary and her husband Henry’s lives even more miserable. Nathan’s sister invites herself and her lawyer to the house in the hopes of loosening her brother’s grip on her trust fund.

Then a psychic medium knocks on the door, claiming that the spirits in the house have called to her to give them peace, and it’s clear that some kind of fix is in. If not multiple fixes.

When Nathan’s dead body is found in the morning in the room he claimed he owned, it’s more of a relief than it is a surprise. One of the lovely things about this series is that the person you most want to end up dead usually does in short order.

But with a corpse on their hands – again – the Ducote sisters can’t resist playing Nancy Drew in order to figure out how the murderer got into and out of the locked room containing the victim. So they can figure out whodunnit, and why, and how.

Because that’s what they do. They help the police solve murders – even when the police would much, much rather NOT be helped!

Escape Rating B: And we’re back to what makes cozy mysteries cozy, and why this particular series – and this particular author – have turned out to be such a cozy and comforting read for me.

I think what makes cozy mysteries cozy is a combination of two factors. A big one is the gang or group or family (found or birth or a combination) that surrounds the detectives, whether amateur or professional. An’gel and Dickce have each other of course, but they also have their 19-year-old ward, Benjy, and their companion animals, the Labradoodle Peanut who thinks An’gel hung the moon, and the Abyssinian cat Endora, who is certain that Dickce provides the best lap in the universe.

The sisters know everyone in Athena, and their friends and friends of friends, especially Athena’s chief homicide detective Kanesha Berry, extend their reach far and wide. And make everyone they come into contact with feel familiar – only because in a way they are.

There’s also the element of cozy mystery that’s sometimes referred to as the “romance of justice”. The reader knows going in that someone who might deserve it is going to die, and that whoever murdered them is going to get what’s coming to them. And that the murder will happen safely off-screen and that the murderer will receive their just desserts legally as well as righteously. No vigilantes, very little blood and gore, and everybody walks away, with the perpetrator walking away in handcuffs in police custody.

All’s well that ends well. And cozy mysteries invariably end well. It’s part of their charm, and it’s part of the comfort they provide, that the world can be rational, that good triumphs and evil gets an appropriate punishment.

Fixing to Die turned out to be exactly what I was looking for on a very rainy autumn night. The cast of characters is a lot of fun, the family shenanigans are interesting and are somebody else’s, the murder victim needed to be taken out of the gene pool and his murderer got their just desserts. The sisters saved the day – as they always do – and their animals are along to provide just the right touch of comic relief.

This series has just the right amount of sass mixed in with the sweet, and I’m sorry that it seems to have ended with this story. Although I wouldn’t mind visiting with the Ducote sisters again, either in a future book of their own or whenever Athena’s amateur detective and professional librarian, Charlie Harris and his big Cat in the Stacks Diesel need a bit of the Ducote’s local knowledge or wide span of influence around town.

I’ll be back to visit Charlie and Diesel in Athena early next spring with Hiss Me Deadly, and I’m definitely looking forward to the trip!