A+ #AudioBookReview: The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC Rosen

A+ #AudioBookReview: The Bell in the Fog by Lev AC RosenThe Bell in the Fog (Andy Mills, #2) by Lev A.C. Rosen
Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Series: Andy Mills #2
Pages: 261
Length: 9 hours and 40 minutes
Published by Forge Books, Macmillan Audio on October 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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The Bell in the Fog, a dazzling historical mystery by Lev AC Rosen, asks―once you have finally found a family, how far would you go to prove yourself to them?
San Francisco, 1952. Detective Evander “Andy” Mills has started a new life for himself as a private detective―but his business hasn’t exactly taken off. It turns out that word spreads fast when you have a bad reputation, and no one in the queer community trusts him enough to ask an ex-cop for help.
When James, an old flame from the war who had mysteriously disappeared, arrives in his offices above the Ruby, Andy wants to kick him out. But the job seems to be a simple case of blackmail, and Andy’s debts are piling up. He agrees to investigate, despite everything it stirs up.
The case will take him back to the shadowy, closeted world of the Navy, and then out into the gay bars of the city, where the past rises up to meet him, like the swell of the ocean under a warship. Missing people, violent strangers, and scandalous photos that could destroy lives are a whirlpool around him, and Andy better make sense of it all before someone pulls him under for good.

My Review:

The typical San Francisco fog hides a lot in this historical mystery set in the early 1950s, and gay ex-cop turned private investigator Andy Mills is caught in the thick of it.

It all begins with a case, as most noir-ish detective stories do. A case told from Andy’s often anguished, confused and frequently pained point of view. Because whatever the actual case is, the thing it investigates most is the past that Andy has done his best to get, well, passed.

And failed.

A former lover is being blackmailed. Someone has pictures of the man in a ‘compromising position’ with another man in a hotel room. Pictures that will scuttle Andy’s ex James’ promotion to Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and send him straight to the stockade with a dishonorable discharge.

Andy needs the case because he needs the money. Business for an ex-cop turned P.I. isn’t good when EVERYONE remembers that he used to be a cop – the people who hassle and roust and beat up guys just like them Just like him, which makes the betrayal that much worse.

But more than the business, Andy needs closure. About James. About what happened to the lover who disappeared from his shipboard bunk one night at the end of the war and didn’t even bother to say goodbye. A disappearance that left Andy desperately afraid that they were caught and he was next. A disappearance that caused Andy to nearly blow up his entire life to get away from.

Andy has four days to find the blackmailer and the evidence – or James’ life goes up in smoke. He has no leads and no clues and no certainty that he doesn’t want James to go down for all the agony he left behind when he disappeared to catch the promotions ladder.

It’s only when Andy solves THAT case that he learns that his nostalgia-washed memories of the war and his relationship with James were a lie, and that the real search for identity is the one that Andy has just begun – a search for who he will be and what life he will live now that he has at least caught all the edges he can of living his own truth instead of hiding behind a scrim of lies.

Unless it gets him killed first.

Escape Rating A+: I initially picked up this series in audio for the voice actor, Vikas Adam, who was one of several fantastic narrators of Jenn Lyons’ A Chorus of Dragons series. The funny thing is that when he’s narrating Andy Mills, the picture I see in my head is Oscar Isaac, but that’s not at all who I see when he’s Kihrin in A Chorus of Dragons and CERTAINLY not the image in my head from when he was Pounce in Day Zero. That’s the alchemy of story for you.

It’s also ironic that, as much as I loved the voice narration, this is one where I flipped to text halfway through because I absolutely HAD to learn whodunnit – and that just wasn’t happening fast enough in audio and I didn’t want to spoil the narration by increasing the speed.

C’est la reading – or listening – vie.

What I loved about this second entry in the Andy Mills series – after 2022’s marvelous Lavender House – was that it combines a typical noir case of searching for an unknown person – actually several missing and/or unknown persons – with a search for identity. And the way that both of those searches are wrapped in fog, smoke and mirrors. Sometimes all at the same time.

Then, wrapped around that mystery like an even denser fog are the questions raised by the historical setting and the damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t problems of living while gay at a time and place where being real was illegal and pretending was illegal and seemingly everyone and everything was peering at every life through a microscope for anyone and anything that could be labeled different from any and every norm.

And what that means for anyone trying to just live their life the best they can where that life has already been declared a criminal act.

In the case of this particular mystery, it leads to a situation where the mystery gets solved but its not possible for good to totally triumph or for evil to get any full measure of its just desserts – and yet it still manages to satisfy as a mystery because Andy has done the best he can and he lives to solve another case another day and that’s all the triumph possible.

Speaking of living to solve another case another day, one of the advantages of waiting a few months to listen/read The Bell in the Fog is that I already know when Andy gets to start on his next case. He’ll be returning to the scene of the crimes and the punishments of his first case in Rough Pages, coming in October. I can’t wait!

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Grade A #AudioBookReview: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireCome Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire
Narrator: Seanan McGuire
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #5
Pages: 189
Length: 3 hours and 52 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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When Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.
Again.

My Review:

I’ve been winding my way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series for nearly three years now, since I first read Every Heart a Doorway back in early 2021. I’ve skipped around through the series and had both a grand and a thoughtful time each and every time I’ve returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Clearly, you don’t have to read the series in order to get into it. Although it probably does help to read that first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. And possibly, in this particular case, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before this one. But now I’m caught up with the whole thing, even though this particular book happens very much in the middle of the series.

All of that is to say that some of this review is bound to reflect my thoughts on the series as a whole because it’s just now whole for me, as well as this entry in the series in particular.

You have been warned.

Much as Jacqueline Wolcott warns her friends at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children just before they follow her through the lightning-keyed door back to her home, the horror-movie hellscape called ‘The Moors’.

A place where EVERYTHING is ruled by science and powered by lightning, where vampires contend with mad scientists and resurrection is as commonplace as blood, where Frankenstein’s monster would be seen as just another citizen – and quite possibly was.

Jack is in dire straits when she returns to the school, and she needs the help of the only friends she can trust to see that, in spite of appearances, she’s still Jack even though she’s in her twin sister Jill’s body. They are the only people who know her well enough to understand that her OCD will not allow her to just adapt to living her life in the unclean thing that murdered her mentor – even if Jill’s full, entire, complete and utterly nefarious plot is to destroy both her sister Jack and the balance that keeps The Moors relatively safe and functional for the human population that was born to a world where vampires contend with mad scientists and drowned gods prey upon ships and shorelines, where the sun only rises behind thick clouds and lightning storms happen whenever the Moon wills it so.

Jack needs help, so she’s gone to the one place where she knows she can get it. Even if it’s the one place she hoped never to return to, because it means that she’ll have to do the one thing she hoped she’d never have to do.

She’ll have to kill her twin sister. Again. She already did it once to save the world she was born to. She’ll have to do it again so that she can save the world that her heart calls home.

Escape Rating A-: The Wayward Children series winds itself around and around and back and forth and over and under and all over again. We first met the Wolcott twins in the very first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, but we don’t get their full story until the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, while book three, Beneath the Sugar Sky, deals with the effects of their actions in Every Heart a Doorway.

(After listening to the latest book in this series, Mislaid in Parts Half-Known, and liking it very much, I decided to grab this middle book in audio as well – although the readers are very different. The author herself narrates this story, as she did the previous books that featured the Wolcott sisters. McGuire has a formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense delivery that is utterly fitting for the formal, somewhat dry, no-nonsense Jack Wolcott. Audiobooks just work better when the narrator fits the primary character’s voice and the author/narrator fit Jack to a ‘T’, even when Jack felt like she wasn’t fitting her own self very well at all.)

Come Tumbling Down is still dealing with the effects of Jill’s actions. Which have been the kind of actions that make her behavior and her very nature in this book make all that much more sense. As much as anything that happens in any of the worlds that the doors lead to make sense from the perspective of this world.

From the perspective of their own worlds, they are completely logical. Unless of course they are nonsense worlds to begin with.

One of the core tenets of the whole, entire, Wayward Children series, something that is said by one character or another over the course of the series, is that “actions have consequences”. This particular entry in the series is the story of the consequences of Jill’s actions in The Moors, which were the consequences of Jill’s actions in our world and Jack’s response to those actions, which were, in their turn, a consequence of both of their reactions when they found their door to The Moors. All of which were the consequences of their parents’ treatment and conditioning of them when they were still under their parents’ thumbs and had never gone through a doorway at all.

But that’s EXACTLY the kind of cause and effect that underpins this whole series. Which feels like it is set as a counterpoint to Narnia, where the Pevensie children went through the back of a wardrobe and lived an entire life to adulthood without their actions seeming to have had any consequences at all when they returned to the world they were born to.

As a result of their trips through the doors, the children return ill-adapted to the world where they were born. But that’s in the story. In reality – for certain select definitions of the word – what they exhibit upon their returns are psychological disorders that people are all too frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as having for reasons that have more to do with either parental or medical or societal assumptions and/or expectations than they do with what the people coping or not coping are coping or not coping with.

Which is a long way around to say that there’s more to this series than initially meets either the eye or the reader’s mind. Now that I’ve finished the whole thing – at least so far – the whole thing gets deeper and more meaningful the further you get into it, no matter the order that you get into it in.

So, on the surface there’s a story about vampires and mad scientists set in a place that the great horror movies might have used for their inspiration – if not their actual setting. Underneath that there’s a deeper story about balances of power and how devastating it can be when those balances become unbalanced. And the story of one heroine who is willing to throw her own body into the breach – along with her sister’s corpse – to preserve that balance at truly any and every cost.

At its heart – beating with the power of unbridled electricity – there’s a love story about a young woman who fell so much in love with a monster and the world that created her that she was willing to do anything at all to preserve that happy ever after – even to become a monster herself.

But the soul of the series, in each and every story, is that ‘actions have consequences’ for good and for ill, and that the most important thing, to do and to be, is to ‘Be Sure’ that your choices are the ones that you can live with – or die by.

Review: Stephen Leeds: Death and Faxes by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Stephen Leeds: Death and Faxes by Brandon SandersonStephen Leeds: Death and Faxes by Brandon Sanderson, Max Epstein, David Pace, Michael Harkins
Narrator: Oliver Wyman
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1.5
Length: 5 hours and 54 minutes
Published by Recorded Books on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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From #1 New York Times Bestselling, Hugo Award-winning author, Brandon Sanderson, and co-authors Max Epstein, David Pace, and Michael Harkins comes an audio-first techno-thriller addition to the universe of Stephen (Legion) Leeds.
Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are all quite mad.
A one-man team of experts, Stephen Leeds is a genius of unparalleled mental capabilities who can learn new skills or master entire scholarly disciplines in mere hours. However, these skills come at a price. Stephen must compartmentalize his brain, with each of his new skill sets being held by an “aspect”—a hallucination his mind creates with their own fully-developed personality, life, and limitations. Without these aspects, and the delicate construct of reality they provide for him, Stephen is unable to control his mind and engage with the real world.
So when an unprecedented Internal Revenue Service data breach stumps the FBI, Stephen is brought in to investigate. With the help of his aspects, he must uncover the connection between millions of stolen tax returns, a mysterious hacker named Enoch, a strange, cutting-edge technology that uses soundwaves to transfer data, and a nearly extinct Mesopotamian religion which once rivaled Christianity. What Leeds discovers along the way will reveal the devastating consequences of this new technology, test the limits of his aspects, and lead him face to face with a man hell-bent on vengeance, for which no cost is too high.
Stephen Leeds: Death and Faxes is a new entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stephen Leeds saga and chronologically takes place between the novellas Legion and Legion: Lies of the Beholder.

My Review:

The case that finds Stephen Leeds in this audio-only entry in the Legion series is rather more mundane – and initially less personal – than the cases he solved in the three novellas that make up Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds; Legion, Skin Deep and Lies of the Beholder.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is left up to the reader – or in this case listener – to judge.

The title gives a hint, as it’s both a play on the saying about the inevitability of ‘death and taxes’ as well as a mystery that begins with a very high-tech application of a rather old technology. A massive data breach at an IRS datacenter has been perpetrated by using the still-functioning fax machines as both a backdoor into the once-believed secure system AND a method of transmitting sound waves that can either soothe or destroy.

Those sound waves certainly soothed the IRS staff into an entire afternoon of hazy dreaming that allowed the hack to take place while the entire staff was quite literally blissfully unaware – and unremembering.

That’s not the case when Stephen Leeds is finally called in. With the help of his ‘aspects’, his mental projections of the many facets of his strange genius, he was able to determine both when and how the hack took place.

Which is when the mysterious hacker struck directly at Stephen and his abilities for the first, but absolutely not the last, time, rendering his aspects comatose and taking Stephen himself nearly to the edge of collapse.

It’s only the beginning, because Stephen is determined to get to the bottom of this case, following a trail of victims around the country even as the structure of his increasingly fragile mental landscape falls into tatters.

While a seemingly omniscient enemy waits in the shadows of cyberspace, blocking Stephen’s every avenue to both resolution and escape.

Except one, hidden in the very place that the hacker has done his best to destroy. Inside Stephen Leeds’ own mind.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about this one, and I’m not even sure if I can completely articulate why. But I’m certainly going to try.

I picked this up because I loved this series as it originally stood, which may be part of the problem. Initially, the Legion series was really a single story broken up into three parts that were published as separate novellas. It may not have been intended that way when the first book, Legion, was published 2012, but by the time the third book, Lies of the Beholder, came out in 2018 it seemed as if the trilogy told a complete story that came to a satisfying ending for the whole thing – even if, or especially because – it was a bit of a mind screw at the end.

So I wasn’t expecting to see Stephen Leeds again when I found this audio-only entry in the series. An entry that doesn’t occur AFTER Lies of the Beholder, but instead between the first book, Legion, and the second book, Skin Deep. So it took a bit of mental adjustment on my part to get back into the world of ten years ago and back into what was then still an incomplete story.

In other words, Stephen Leeds had himself and the aspects of his genius a bit better figured out by the end of the final book, so it was weird to see him back to a more uncertain state of himself. A combination of angst, uncertainty and even impostor syndrome that felt like it pervaded this book even more than in the stories published previously.

At the same time, it also seemed as if that very angst and uncertainty was an intent of the mysterious hacker, and it’s a part of Stephen’s perspective that didn’t get fully resolved at the end.

One of the things that struck me about Death and Faxes, and it’s the impression I’m left with now that I’ve finished, is that Stephen doesn’t feel quite like himself in this story – although his aspects are very well drawn. As this production was a cooperative effort rather than just a single writer, it may be that the characterization felt a bit off because this time around it ironically came from more than one mind – just as Stephen’s genius often appears to.

Also, Leeds just plain angsts a LOT in this story, even more than in the other parts of the series, and that angst dragged the resolution of the mystery out even more than the hacker’s admitted genius and manipulation did. This was a case where I would have gladly switched to text, just to get on with it, if there had been one, but there isn’t.

So, a whole lot of mixed feelings, leaving me with the conclusion that fans of the series, like me, will probably enjoy the trip down memory lane to visit Stephen and his aspects again. (However, the comment in the blurb about Stephen being perfectly sane but his hallucinations all being quite mad isn’t merely a bit off – it’s completely wrong. A fair number of his aspects are quirky and/or eccentric, but none of them are actually ‘mad’, and neither is Stephen Leeds. His coping mechanism is just eccentric and sometimes expensive, but works for him and does no harm to anyone else. There are worse ways to get by.)

If you’ve enjoyed the previous entries in the series, Death and Faxes is an interesting but not 100% successful addition to Leeds’ story. And if you’ve listened to any of the other books in the series, that this production is voiced by Oliver Wyman, the same actor who worked on the rest of the series, helps carry the listener along into accepting this later work as part of the whole.

But if the description of Stephen Leeds’ genius and methods of coping with it sound like fun but you’ve not met him before, it would be better to start your acquaintance with the first exploration of Stephen’s journey in Legion.

Review: Warriorborn by Jim Butcher

Review: Warriorborn by Jim ButcherWarriorborn: A Cinder Spires Novella (The Cinder Spires) by Jim Butcher
Narrator: Euan Morton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, steampunk
Series: Cinder Spires #1.5
Pages: 146
Length: 3 hours and 1 minute
Published by Podium Audio on September 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Benedict Sorellin-Lancaster hasn’t even broken in his lieutenant’s insignia when he’s summoned to meet with the Spirearch of Spire Albion himself for a very special—and very secret—purpose. The Spirearch needs Benedict to retrieve a bag he’s “misplaced” on the Colony Spire known as Dependence, which has strangely cut off all contact with the outside world. It’s a delicate mission at best, a potential bloodbath at worst.

To this end, the Spirearch has supplied Benedict with backup in the form of three Warriorborn. But unlike the courageous lieutenant, this trio has formerly used its special gifts for crime, carnage, and outright bloody murder. And all of them were caught and imprisoned because of Benedict. Now, if they behave—and make it back alive—they’ll go free.

But when the odd squad reaches Dependence, they soon discover something waiting for a horrific weapon that could shatter the balance of power among the Spires. And Benedict will have to bring his own Warriorborn skills to bear if he, his team, and Spire Albion are to have any hope of survival . . .

My Review:

Warriorborn is the perfect method for readers who remember the first book in the Cinder Spires, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, fondly but may not remember the details of its vast array of political shenanigans all that clearly to get back into this series.

It’s perfect, not just because it’s much, much shorter than that first book, but mostly because it glosses over those major political shenanigans – although I’m sure they’ll be back in The Olympian Affair – in order to tell a sharp, compelling story about a military/espionage mission that goes FUBAR in every possible way that it can.

And keeps the reader on the edge of their seat for the entire wild ride.

Our hero in Warriorborn is one of the many point-of-view characters from Windlass, but the way that this story is told it doesn’t matter whether you remember that much or at all. I kind of vaguely did, but not in any detail. It doesn’t even matter if you know or remember the start of the current conflict between our protagonists from Albion and their enemies from Aurora.

This story is all about one singular encounter. One of the Spirearch’s (read as king) covert operatives in a far-flung province has communicated that there’s trouble brewing – but with no details. Guard Lieutenant Benedict Sorellin-Lancaster is being sent from the capital to said remote province to investigate the situation, not with a squad of his fellow guards but rather with a group of convicted criminals who have been promised a commutation of their sentences and a pardon for the rest if they get him there and back again in one piece WITH the information they’ve been sent to retrieve.

Benedict doesn’t expect the job to be easy. Neither he nor the reader are exactly surprised to discover enemy agents have infiltrated the tiny provincial town. But he doesn’t expect the acid slime monsters who have literally eaten all the townsfolk, the dragon parked on the only way out of town, or the tribe of sentient cats who save Benedict’s mission and his own clawed up ass – even as he saves theirs.

Just barely and with a whole lot of luck – all the way around. Even though most of that luck was worse than Benedict ever imagined.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up this week because I was having a “flail and bail” kind of day. Post Halloween, I was horror’ed out. Even at the horror-adjacency level I’m more comfortable in. I hit the “I can’t evens” and went looking for something a bit more comforting. This would not, I admit, normally have filled that bill, but the NetGalley app was having a flail of its own which is now fixed, but at the time was knocking me out of the book I’m listening to.

I had picked up Warriorborn in both text and audio for a couple of reasons. That it was short is the reason it’s being reviewed here and now, but the main reason was the upcoming publication of the second book in the author’s Cinder Spires series, The Olympian Affair. It’s been EIGHT whole years since the first book in the series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, came out. That’s a long time in book years, and I was wondering more than a bit whether I’d remember enough of how this world is put together to be able to get stuck back in this series.

As Warriorborn is both rather short and takes place after The Aeronaut’s Windlass but before The Olympian Affair, it seemed like a good book to solve all three problems; both NetGalley and my own flailing, and that niggling question about whether I could jump back into the series without at least a serious skim of that once upon a time series opener.

There’s a bit in Warriorborn where Benedict tells the story of an uncle of his who claimed that “if you have one problem, you have a problem. If you have two problems, you might have a solution. And if you can’t craft a solution out of that, what are you even doing?”

I fell right back into this world. We get just the tiniest hint about Benedict’s role in the first book, just enough info to understand why the Spirearch trusts him with this mission, wrapped in a whole bunch of bantering misdirection between himself and his king. It’s a setup, he knows it’s a setup, the Spirearch knows it’s a setup, but everything has to seem above board until the ship lifts and Benedict and his crew are out of reach of meddling politicians.

The true story in Warriorborn is about the mission itself, and that is utterly FUBAR from the outset and EVERYONE knows it. We see just enough of Benedict’s internal perspective to be aware that as calm as he appears on the surface, he’s paddling as fast as he can under the roiling waters.

Which are roiling pretty damn hard as the whole thing becomes a series of out of the frying pan into the fire maneuvers that just keeping getting worse and worse as the mission goes to hell, his crew mostly falls apart and his own chances of survival get smaller with each passing moments.

At which point, just as in The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the mission is saved by sentient cats. I’d be tempted to read the whole damn series – possibly more than once – for more of Rowl of the Nine Claws, the one character I truly remember from the first book and hope to see more of in the second, and Saza and Fenli and the entire clan of Swift Slayers in this one.

One final note, one that is in danger of making this review longer than the actual book. I did have this both in audio and in text. I switched back and forth from one to the other as my circumstances shifted over the course of the day, and I enjoyed it both ways. The text moves compellingly, from one near-disaster to another, while the audio narrator, Euan Morton, did an excellent job of differentiating between a cast of several different characters and personalities to the point where I ended up playing solitaire for an hour just so I could finish the book listening to his narration.

A good reading – and listening – time was absolutely had by this reader no matter which way I absorbed this story!

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi VoInto the Riverlands (The Singing Hills Cycle, #3) by Nghi Vo
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #3
Pages: 112
Length: 2 hrs 21 mins
Published by Tantor Audio, Tordotcom on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themselves far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be.
Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story-beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel-bears more than one face.

My Review:

The entire Singing Hills Cycle is a story about stories; the collection of them, the interpretation of them, and especially the way in which that interpretation changes over time as those stories fade in and out of conscience and memory.

Cleric Chih has come to the Riverlands to learn what the Riverlanders themselves have to say about the many, many martial arts legends that once walked the Riverlands, only to find themselves in the middle of one.

Or perhaps two. Or even an infinite number of interpretations of the very same one.

Chih, with their friend, mascot and memory recorder, the neixin bird Almost Brilliant, are on the road to Betony Docks, intending to wind their way home to Singing Hills to deliver their report of the stories and legends they have found along their most recent journey.

It’s who they are. It’s what they do. It’s what Singing Hills is all about.

Chih sees the opportunity to travel with the young martial arts master Wei Jintai, her sworn sister Mac Sang, and the middle-aged couple Lao Bingyi and Mac Khanh as a way of traveling the rather dangerous road through the Riverlands in somewhat greater safety while taking the opportunity to hopefully learn some new stories to take home.

However, the stories come to life – and death – as they travel into the lands of the Hollow Hand sect of bandits, thugs and marauders. The Hollow Hand is supposed to have been wiped out long ago, and the martial heroes who did the wiping, Wild Pig Yi and Gravewraith Chen, are assumed to be long dead.

But legends never die. Sometimes they don’t even fade away. They just become different legends. Over and over and over again. Even as they hide in plain sight and boss everyone around.

Escape Rating A+: At first, Into the Riverlands seems as if it’s a play on the Canterbury Tales, with Cleric Chih taking the place of Geoffrey Chaucer himself (who, come to think of it, by certain definitions was himself a ‘cleric’). Into the Riverlands is a journey, and every person in the party has at least one story to tell. It’s Chih’s duty to record those stories – not to become a part of one themselves.

Which most definitely doesn’t stop that from happening anyway.

It’s pretty clear from the beginning of their trip that Lao Bingyi and Khanh are more than they seem – a devoted middle-aged married couple where the wife knows everyone and everything and can’t stop from bossing people around and telling them all about themselves, while her husband is a man of few words who indulges her every whim.

And that portrait is manifestly true – while still only being one face that they wear. It’s who people expect them to be at this point in their lives. But it’s not who they have been, or even who they ARE. Those are faces they reveal only in part, and only when they must.

It’s only when the crisis comes upon them – or they come upon it – that Chih gets a glimpse of those true faces, and even those are masks that conceal one or more truths that they are not ready to reveal – if they ever will be.

It’s as though Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, the protagonists of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had managed to survive their tragic story and outlive their legends into middle age. If they had, or if their tragic ending was either smoke and mirrors on their parts or literary license on the part of some chronicler, they might have become Mac Khanh and Lao Bingyi. And perhaps they did.

Certainly Lao Bingyi lies at the heart of a whole host of tales that Chih gets the barest glimpse of and is informed in no uncertain terms that it’s all they are entitled to get. That the story is hers and not theirs and NOT the Singing Hills Abbey’s.

And that’s the right ending of this tale, which was lovely in the telling even if a bit nerve-wracking for the participants in the doing.

But, as I said in last week’s review of Mammoths at the Gates, throughout the Singing Hills Cycle Chih has been moving steadily from the periphery of the story to the center of the narrative. Their own story is in Mammoths at the Gates, and it was marvelous to finally see their perspective on their own world rather than merely being a witness and recorder to others.

I read Into the Riverlands before it came out in 2022 for a Library Journal review and loved it at the time but didn’t take the opportunity to write it up for Reading Reality while it was still fresh in my memory. After re-reading Mammoths at the Gates last week in the same circumstance, I wasn’t ready to leave Chih’s world and decided to take a trip back through audio. It seemed appropriate as the stories that Chih records are stories that they are being told and I wanted to experience them the same way.

I’m very glad I went back, as Into the Riverlands made an excellent audiobook, thanks to the expert narration of Cindy Kay. And the story had added depth and meaning after reading Mammoths at the Gates and exploring the neixen birds in general, and Almost Brilliant in particular, in a story that better showcased her talents and personality. On the whole I enjoyed this book even more the second time around, to the point where it’s making me think I might want to pick up the audiobooks for the first two books in the series, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and go all the way back to the very beginning!

One final note in reference to the ‘neixin’ and the audiobook. The thing about reading without hearing the words is that you learn how to spell words like ‘neixin’ without knowing how they sound. Listening to an audiobook is the reverse, in that you hear the word without knowing how it’s spelled (which can be frustrating when writing a review!) ‘Neixin’ does not sound at all like I thought it did, and I’m glad to sit corrected.

So reading/re-reading the Singing Hills Cycle has been lovely, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, The Brides of High Hill. But listening to the story, as I think it’s meant to be told, has been a delight.

Review: Prophet by Sin Blache and Helen MacDonald

Review: Prophet by Sin Blache and Helen MacDonaldProphet by Sin Blaché, Helen Macdonald
Narrator: Jake Fairbrother, Ryan Forde Iosco, Charlotte Davey
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, mystery, science fiction, thriller
Pages: 480
Length: 17 hours and 1 minute
Published by Grove Press, Recorded Books on August 8, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Daring, surprising and superbly plotted, this is a fresh, thrilling page-turner from a dynamic new duo in genre fiction
Your happiest memory is their deadliest weapon.
THIS IS PROPHET.
It knows when you were happiest. It gives life to your fondest memories and uses them to destroy you. But who has created it? And what do they want?
An all-American diner appears overnight in a remote British field. It's brightly lit, warm and inviting but it has no power, no water, no connection to the real world. It's like a memory made flesh - a nostalgic flight of fancy. More and more objects materialise: toys, fairground rides, pets and other treasured mementos of the past.
And the deaths quickly follow.Something is bringing these memories to life, then stifling innocent people with their own joy. This is a weapon like no other. But nobody knows who created it, or why.
Sunil Rao seems a surprising choice of investigator. Chaotic and unpredictable, the former agent is the antithesis of his partner Colonel Adam Rubenstein, the model of a military man. But Sunil has the unique ability to distinguish truth from lies: in objects, words and people, in the past and in real time. And Adam is the only one who truly knows him, after a troubled past together. Now, as they battle this strange new reality, they are drawn closer than ever to defend what they both hold most dear.
For Prophet can weaponise the past. But only love will protect the future.

My Review:

From the opening of Prophet, two things are immediately clear. Sunil Rao and Adam Rubenstein are both FINE, and the situation they are in is already FUBAR.

Whatever is going on – which neither they nor the reader know yet – Adam and Rao are both Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic (and) Egotistical (although Rao is way more of the last than Adam) and the world is already Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. FINE and FUBAR to the max, both of them and all of it.

In other words, they’re both hot messes and not a single thing that happens in Prophet helps either of them get any better.

Pretty much the opposite, in fact.

Calling Sunil Rao a human lie detector isn’t nearly enough of a description. It is TRUE, which matters a lot because that’s what Rao, as he prefers to be called, really does. He can tell when someone or something is true. Which explains why Rao gets called in – and out of a psychiatric institute after a suicide attempt – to the sight of something that so clearly does not belong even as he’s staring at the manifestation of it.

Come to think of it, Rao’s ‘gift’, for lack of a better word, also explains the psych hold, as well as why his work partner/keeper, Lt. Colonel Adam Rubenstein, has been brought in to make sure that Rao doesn’t go off the rails, again, no matter how much the situation they have been dragged into might justify it.

And that’s where both the thriller and the SFnal aspects come into this story. Prophet isn’t a person, there is no one predicting the future. And it’s not ‘profit’, which is what I first thought when I heard the title and hadn’t yet seen it in print.

Although, that’s for select definitions of both of those things, as there is a cabal that intends to make profit on Prophet in the long run, and they do believe that they can control the future with it. They’re oh-so-far off base on both counts.

Prophet is a drug. It’s an attempt to weaponize nostalgia. Which would be one hell of a power IF the side effects could be dealt with. At least the side effects that are a bug and NOT an actual feature. (As we already know because it’s already sorta/kinda happening IRL)

But Prophet isn’t exactly what anyone thought it was, and Rao’s special talent isn’t exactly what anyone has been led to believe, while Adam’s motivations for letting himself get roped into this FUBAR are not what anyone who thinks they are in charge of the whole thing has any reason to have a clue about.

Which leads to this story about finding those clues, the truth about Prophet, who thinks they’re behind it and what actually is. The truth about what Rao can really do. The truth about who Rao and Adam really are. The truth about the relationship between them that they have spent years trying to hide from themselves and each other.

And especially the truth about the nature of the universe, which is not a place that anyone would have predicted this story would go – but is oh-so-utterly fascinating once it gets there.

Escape Rating A+: The thing about Prophet as a story is that it is damn difficult to categorize. It’s kind of like Michael Crichton and Robert Ludlum had a book baby, and as wild and crazy as that thought is the whole thing still needs a lot of midwives and stepparents to get a glimpse at just how much is packed into the story.

But still, that’s a start. (It’s also a clue that any expectations that Prophet will have any resemblance at all to co-author Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk are going to be thoroughly disappointed.)

At first it all seems a bit SFnal, of the laboratory school of science fiction – much like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Prophet is created in a laboratory, and tested in a more-or-less scientific fashion. Or at least a scientific fashion for scientists who had their ethics surgically removed – which would also be science fiction. (We hope, we really, really do!)

But the way the story works is as a kind of mystery/thriller, particularly of the spy thriller school. Which is interesting because espionage fiction is usually about governments spying on other governments and that’s not what’s happening here. It’s not even, exactly, corporate espionage. Although it’s not exactly not either. (There are a LOT of things in Prophet that are not exactly what they seem but not exactly not what they seem, all at the same time.)

It’s more that Adam and Rao are kind of but not exactly undercover within the organization that is working with Prophet, playing with things they don’t understand, and trying their damndest to figure out what the hell is going on.

Which leads to the mystery. At first it’s the mystery of what created a 1950s era, American-style diner in the middle of the English countryside in a literal instant with someone actually watching the whole time. And what keeps happening to the people who get exposed to Prophet, whether accidentally or on purpose. Mostly on purpose.

Along with the mystery of why Adam Rubenstein is immune and Sunil Rao can safely extract it from people who have been exposed. It’s all a puzzle and a mystery and Adam and Rao become deeply invested in solving it – because they must.

Mixed in with ALL of that, and it’s a lot, is the relationship between Rao and Adam that is, that isn’t, that might be, that can’t be, and that is always more and different than anyone thinks it is. Which includes themselves. And quite possibly, the multiverse.

The inability to figure out what box Prophet falls into will drive some readers bananas. Certainly it gave the reading group that recommended it to me a whole bunch of very mixed reactions because it’s not easily defined. They collectively liked it and were not sure about it at the same time.

What carries the story, and carries the reader through the story, is the ever-evolving, often hidden, always on the verge of heartbreak relationship between Sunil Rao and Adam Rubenstein. They are not who they appear to be – not even to each other. Their histories are both shared and opaque to each other. And they’re both so FINE (in the sense of the acronym) that they are on the edge of mutually assured destruction almost all the time. And yet, they’re always on the same page and always have the same goals, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first, not even to them.

If the reader falls for them and their relationship, and I did, the story is an absolute WOW from beginning to end. An end which still manages to be a bit deus ex machina in spite of the reader being able to see it coming a mile away AND the way that it’s not the deus that saves the day. It’s the machina.

I listened to this one all the way to the end, and the readers were terrific every step of the way, even when they were voicing each other’s characters because the story is told in three, sometimes dueling, first person perspectives. This is the kind of first-person narration I love listening to, because the readers were so good and the story so compelling and the characterization, both in the text and in voice was so very much each of them individually that I really did feel like I was in their heads. Which made for an awesome listening experience.

One of my ongoing frustrations with multiple narrators in audiobooks, as much as I utterly love the style and how much it adds to the storytelling, is that while the list of narrators is credited, it’s seldom detailed into precisely who narrates whom. In this particular production, I believe that Jake Fairbrother ‘played’ Rao and Ryan Forde Iosco took Adam’s part, but I can’t be 100% certain of that in the way that I’m sure that Charlotte Davey voices Veronica, the absolutely psychopathic researcher in charge of Prophet R&D.

To sum things up, Prophet is absolutely bonkers in the best of all possible ways. If you like laboratory-based SF, the implications of the story are fascinating. If you love espionage fiction, especially if you miss it and wonder how those kind of stories are going to be told post-Cold War, this is a fantastic exploration of who might still be spying on whom and why. And if you love a good bromance/buddy thriller, especially one that has the potential for more, Prophet could be your jam across the board, and even better in audio.

It absolutely, positively was mine.

Review: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T.L. Huchu

Review: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T.L. HuchuOur Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T.L. Huchu
Narrator: Kimberly Mandindo
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Edinburgh Nights #2
Pages: 357
Length: 9 hours and 1 minute
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Opening up a world of magic and adventure, Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T. L. Huchu is the second audiobook in the Edinburgh Nights series.

Ropa Moyo’s ghost-talking practice has tanked. Desperate for money to pay bills and look after her family, she reluctantly accepts a job to look into the history of a coma patient receiving treatment at the magical private hospital Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments. The patient is a teenage schoolboy called Max Wu, and healers at the hospital are baffled by the illness which has confounded medicine and magic.

Ropa’s investigation leads her to the Edinburgh Ordinary School for Boys, one of only the four registered schools for magic in the whole of Scotland (the oldest and only one that remains closed to female students).

But the headmaster there is hiding something and as more students succumb, Ropa learns that a long-dormant and malevolent entity has once again taken hold in this world.

She sets off to track the current host for this spirit and try to stop it before other lives are endangered.

My Review:

In the wake of the tumultuous events at the conclusion of The Library of the Dead, ghost talker Ropa Moyo is in an even deeper hole now than she was then. She’s broke (always), unemployed and indebted to both the Director of the Society of Skeptical Enquirers (read as Mages’ Guild) and the leader of the criminal gang that controls Edinburgh. And that’s before she’s voluntold into finding the source of the magical ailment affecting young men who make the mistake of astral projection – for no pay whatsoever, while chasing down any opportunity she can to make enough money to support her grandmother and baby sister. Meanwhile her gran is predicting the end of the world, and the Society’s nobs and snobs are relentless in trying to kick Ropa off the tiny foothold she’s gained in scientific magic.

There are days when she wonders if it might be easier, safer AND more profitable to go back to just being a ghost talker. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Ropa after that first awesome book, it’s that she always keeps moving forward and never back. Not even when perhaps she should.

Escape Rating A+: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments is just like The Library of the Dead in one very important point. The story rides or dies on the voice of Ropa Moyo. Both her narrative voice and her actual voice in the audiobooks – even though she is not voiced by the same narrator this time around. This series so far is one of those stories, because of the strength and the idiosyncratic thought processes of its first-person narrator, that works infinitely better in audio than text.

I read this book last year for a Library Journal review and loved it then. But the audiobook, this time narrated by Kimberly Mandindo, was just that much better that I stayed up late listening to finish even though I already knew how it ended. The audio is just that good.

Ropa’s Edinburgh is a hot mess in the summer – and a cold mess in the winter. The city is just a mess, period. It’s clear from hints in the books that there was some kind of apocalypse – and not all that far in our future. A part of me wants to call this story dystopian, but my mind balks at that a bit. Not that the situation isn’t FUBAR’ed but it feels like most of what’s wrong isn’t all that different from what’s wrong with the world right now.

Which is part of the point. Because one of the excellent and screamingly frustrating things about this story and Ropa’s journey within it is that it does such a damn good job of showing just how high and how thoroughly the deck is stacked against someone because of the circumstances of their birth. Ropa is still only 15 in this story and works her butt off every single second and it’s never enough because she’s female, she’s black, and she was born in a slum project.

What makes her worth following is that she knows the game is rigged against her and she keeps playing anyway, striving for a decent present and future for her family that nearly every authority has already decided they don’t deserve.

And she just might make it. Or she might be disappointed yet again. But she keeps moving forward anyway.

At first in – also at – the private magical hospital Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments – Ropa is brought in to investigate just what magic a group of privileged students at Edinburgh’s most prestigious – and of course exclusively male – magical academies got themselves mixed up in was so stupidly dangerous that it’s killing them by boiling them up from the inside.

Her investigation takes a detour when she’s presented with the opportunity to help a lost heir claim a stolen fortune – the finder’s fee for which she and her family need rather badly. Particularly as she’s not allowed to make a penny on that first job.

Between the two gigs Ropa is taking too many shortcuts, assuming much too much about the veracity of what she’s been told, and getting way too much exercise in jumping to conclusions without having all the facts in her hands – or head.

Only to find herself in the real, actual Library of the Dead, reading the book made from a dead practitioner, learning that there’s way more rotten in the state of Scotland in general and Scottish magic in particular than she ever wanted to know.

And that the plots go higher and deeper than anyone ever wanted a mere unpaid intern to discover. Which may be the reason that “opportunity” was presented to Ropa in the first place.

We’ll find out more – by digging deeper into the political muck – in the next book in this fantastic series, The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle, coming in July. I am eagerly anticipating the eARC, but I expect I’ll be picking up the audiobook as well. Because I want to read the new book ASAP, AND I still want the extra pleasure of hearing Ropa tell me her story in her own, inimitable style.

Review: Junkyard War by Faith Hunter

Review: Junkyard War by Faith HunterJunkyard War (Shining Smith #3) by Faith Hunter
Narrator: Khristine Hvam
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, urban fantasy
Series: Shining Smith #3
Length: 6 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Audible Audio on December 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

It’s find retribution or die trying in Shining Smith’s ultimate challenge, from the author of the “Jane Yellowrock” and “Soulwood” series.

Shining Smith and her crew have obtained the weapons they need to rescue one of their own from the grips of their mortal enemy, Clarisse Warhammer. But to mount an assault on her fortified bunker, they have to cobble together an army of fighters.

That could be the biggest battle of them all.

Shining will need to step back into the biker world she left behind to broker an uneasy peace, then lead rival factions into a certain death trap. Can Shining take Warhammer down without having to compel more and more people to do her bidding? And will her feline warriors, the junkyard cats, remain loyal and fight alongside her? Or will Shining have to become something and someone she hates, so that vengeance can finally be hers?

My Review:

“Bloody damn!” as Shining Smith would say. Bloody damn this was a wild ride in Shining’s sidecar. I meant brain – although occasionally also sidecar.

Because Shining’s post-climate-apocalypse AND dystopia is run by the biker gangs – or at least Shining’s little corner of it as well as her mental landscape are. Shining herself is famous and infamous – in equal measure – among the Outlaw Militia Warriors as ‘Little Girl’ – one of the first female ‘made men’ in that fiercely misogynistic culture.

When Shining was literally a little girl her daddy sent her inside the carapace of one of the enemy’s giant ‘mamabots’ with a nuke strapped to her back. Those mamabots were crawling, rolling factories of nanobots designed to infect and kill anyone or anything they came across. They were helping the enemy to conquer the West Coast of the U.S. one klick at a time.

Shining expected to die in that bot – and she very nearly did. Instead, she came out changed, infected by the bots’ poison and transformed by her own exceedingly stubborn will into the human equivalent of the mamabot – a queen constantly emitting a poison that turns anyone that touches it into her thrall.

Including the ever-increasing crew at her junkyard. Especially the cats. Her Cats, who have a queen of their own who is probably the person truly running the place.

But Shining is not the only human queen, because every true hero – especially if that’s not remotely what they want to be – creates their own archenemy – or the other way around. Clarisse Warhammer targeted Shining all the way back in Junkyard Cats, sending the dead body of her best friend back to her junkyard in the trunk of a rusted out car.

Shining has been gunning for Clarisse ever since.

Junkyard War is the final showdown between Shining and Warhammer, the culmination of every single thing that’s happened since the opening of Junkyard Cats. Shining has pulled every string, coaxed every friend, bribed every enemy she has in order to bring enough firepower to bear to have the best chance possible of crawling out alive after sending herself into the lair of someone much worse than that first mamabot.

This time she doesn’t even have a nuke. What she has this time is better. She has friends. And, more importantly, particularly from their point of view, she has the Cats.

Escape Rating A+: I picked up the audio of the first book in the Shining Smith series, Junkyard Cats, three years ago when the audio was all there was. And did I ever wish there was more.

I got that more in 2021’s Junkyard Bargain, and that still wasn’t enough of Shining Smith, her totally FUBAR’d world, or especially her telepathic battle cats who have probably been running things for a lot longer than Shining either knows or wants to think about.

It’s been a long wait but here we have the climax – sometimes in multiple senses of that word – or Shining’s story in Junkyard War. And I have to say that it has SO been worth the wait.

But it has been a hell of a wait because the three books in the series aren’t so much separate books as they are chapters in a continuing saga that now reads like it has skidded, heart first, into a WOW! of a conclusion.

Which means two things. First, the books pile layer upon layer building Shining’s world, so you really need to start at the beginning in Junkyard Cats. Fortunately, the first two stories, Junkyard Cats and Junkyard Bargain are both available as ebooks as well as audio, and they’re fast, compelling reads.

Second, this does feel like an ending, after an edge-of-the-seat thrilling battle that literally plucks at the heart – because the whole series has been told from Shining’s jaded, world-weary, all too often jaundiced and misanthropic point of view. So when she’s directing her friends, her people and the Cats around an ever changing battlefield and worrying over every single one we’re right in there with her, both because Shining’s voice is so singular and wry, and because the narrator who brings her to us, Khristine Hvam, has done a consistently excellent job of embodying Shining through this entire riveting series.

As this story ends, Shining is confronted with something she’s never really had before – the power to choose her own future. There could be new stories in Shining’s world from this point, but they’d be fundamentally different from what came before. So this is at least a break but also quite possibly as close to an HEA as Shining will ever get considering the state of the world she inhabits.

Either way, it’s a wild ride and a total rush and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Whether or not you’ll feel the same way probably relies on whether or not you are able to fall into Shining’s voice because you see everything from inside her head. I loved riding her journey with her but your reading and/or listening mileage may vary. I hope it doesn’t because she’s one hell of a character experiencing a fantastic and utterly absorbing story.

Review: Babel by R.F. Kuang

Review: Babel by R.F. KuangBabel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang
Narrator: Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Billie Fulford-Brown
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 545
Length: 21 hours and 46 minutes
Published by Harper Voyager on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A novel that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire.
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.
Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.
For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…
Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

My Review:

What if Britain’s “Imperial Century” had been powered, not just by the economic expansion that resulted from a combination of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, the previous century’s legacy of colonialism and imperialism AND the supremacy of the high seas, but was also bolstered and even increased by magic?

And it seemingly changed little to nothing about much of anything important except to make the evils of colonialism and imperialism and bigotry even more obvious, odious and offensive than they already were and still are?

That’s Babel in a nutshell, at least in this reader’s opinion, which means that this is not going to be a kind review.

Rather, it’s going to be an extremely frustrated one. This book had so much promise and so much potential, but the longer I read and/or listened, the more I felt that it squandered all of that and then some.

I know I really need to explain all of that, and I’ll try. Keeping this from becoming an outright rant at points is probably going to be impossible. You have been warned.

At first, and for a rather long time thereafter, the story focuses on Robin Swift, who was required to pick up a ‘suitably’ English name at the age of 11 when his English ‘parent’ – although sperm donor is a much better description – quite literally plucked him out of the bed where Robin was dying of cholera right next to the corpse of his dead mother. In Canton, China. Robin, half-Chinese and half-English, is pretty much groomed from that day forward to present the appearance and manner of a perfect little English gentleman while constantly holding onto the truth that he exists in two worlds and is at home in neither.

But that truth is essential, because what Robin was literally born and bred for was to become a Chinese translator at Babel, the language institute at Oxford University where his now-guardian (not father, never father) is a professor. Babel is the place where the empire is expanded, and Robin is expected to be  ever so grateful to have been rescued from death in his homeland that he should never question that the whole purpose of his existence is to assist Britain in subjugating that homeland while never even making a token protest for the daily micro- and often macroaggressions he faces for being part Chinese.

He’s been groomed to martyr himself on the altar of an empire that intends to sacrifice him to make his own people virtual slaves. Also quite literally, as he’s supposed to help his guardian and the empire smooth over the situation between Britain and China in the run up to the First Opium War. A situation that Britain deliberately created and exacerbated in order to have a pretext for that war.

It’s at the point when Robin finally admits the depths to which his guardian and the institution that he loves so dearly are willing to sink that Robin finally goes off the rails and starts doing something about all of it. And gets to fulfill what seems to be a lifelong desire to escape the whole thing through martyrdom.

Robin’s entire story can be summed up all too well in this exchange, about 2/3rds of the way through this excruciating long story, between Robin and his best friend Ramy.

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ [said Ramy]
‘You’ve been saying that a lot.’ [replied Robin]
‘You’ve been ridiculous a lot.’ [Ramy rejoined]

And that’s the truth of it. Robin is ridiculous a lot and not in any way that’s funny.

Babel, through Robin’s eyes, builds a painstakingly detailed portrait of life among the “Babblers” – right before it tears it all down. But some of the pain that’s taken is on the part of the reader as there are plenty of times when you just want to yell at Robin and his cohort to “Get on with it!”

Something that I waited for through the entire book, but even when it does finally happen, it still takes such a long way about it that while the story ends, the ending is so equivocal that it doesn’t satisfy at all.

Escape Rating D: Because I didn’t. Escape, that is. I listened to about an hour of this thing every day for three weeks and came home and ranted and fumed for the rest of the day.

(The narrators did a fine job, which carried me through well past the point where I would have DNF’ed if I’d been reading. Sometimes a great reader can overcome a mediocre book but that task would have been too herculean for a normal human in this particular case.)

I have to admit that the magic system is utterly fascinating, as are the early stages of Robin’s journey, while the treatment he received from his guardian is generally neglectful at best and occasionally downright cruel, we see things through Robin’s eyes and he’s literally groomed to ignore and bury the offensive things he experiences. He does enjoy his studies and the whole world of learning that he’s been dropped into, and it’s easy to get caught up in his general pleasure even when specific incidents are beyond the pale.

The magic system relies on translation, specifically the bits that the act of translation occludes, obscures or ignores in an attempt to reach roughly similar meanings. It literally draws its magic from the things that are ‘lost in translation’, and requires the ability to hold the fullness of both languages in one’s head at the same time. To make magic, one has to be able to dream in both languages in order to know fully what the two disparate meanings are and make the variances between them manifest.

That the British Empire uses the pre-eminence of its Babel scholars to translate everything that passes through their hands in a way that favors themselves above all others and to such a degree that it is detrimental to others is not a surprise. Rather it takes the concept that ‘history is written by the victors’ and carries it out to its ultimate degree, that the ability to write the history actually makes the victors.

But all of that is background that becomes foreground as Robin and his group of friends are expected to not just participate in it but outright facilitate the subjugation of their own people through its use.

Because Robin is not alone in his training and education at Babel. He is part of a cohort of four scholars; Ramiz Rafi “Ramy” Mirza from Kolkata, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti by way of France, and Letitia “Letty” Price, the lone white person in their group. The person who, in nearly four years of close, loving friendship, never manages to grasp that her friends’ experience of Britain and the world it rules is vastly different from her own.

And that they might resent her for her willful blindness and pigheaded obstinacy. She’s not really one of them, and everyone is pretending. That no one ever truly blows up the whole thing in spite of extreme provocation by Letty at every imaginable turn means that the rest of the group, particularly Victoire who has to room with her, must have the patience of an entire choir of saints. That they must work together is a fact of life, that they never try to explain the facts of life to her until nearly the end makes their relationship frequently intolerable while being codependent at the same time.

A reviewer referred to the book as “Authorial Filibustering” and that feels right. There are plenty of points to be made here. Colonialism and Imperialism are evils in the world. Both outright in their practice and in the sense that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As a reader, I get it. I agree with it. And I felt like I was being bludgeoned with it from very nearly the beginning to the bitter end.

In a work of historical fantasy, particularly one that cleaved so close to this period, those evils would be impossible to ignore and no reader should expect them to be ignored. But Babel is fiction, which means I also went into it expecting a story to be told that would captivate me – and in this particular case captivate me every bit as much as the author’s Poppy War series – which managed to deal with many of the same themes while still telling a fascinating, fantastic and compelling story.

For this reader, Babel turned out to be none of the above. Based on the reviews and ratings, clearly there are a lot of people who loved it. I’m disappointed not to be among them, but I’m just not.

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellanIn the Shadow of Lightning (Glass Immortals, #1) by Brian McClellan
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Glass Immortals #1
Pages: 576
Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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From Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage trilogy, comes the first novel in the Glass Immortals series, In the Shadow of Lightning, an epic fantasy where magic is a finite resource—and it’s running out.
"Excellent worldbuilding and a truly epic narrative combine into Brian's finest work to date. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a new favorite fantasy series to read."—Brandon Sanderson

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.
Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.
"Powerful rival families, murderous conspiracies, epic battles, larger-than-life characters, and magic."—Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga
"Engaging, fast-paced and epic."—James Islington, author of In The Shadow of What Was Lost
"Clever, fun, and by turns beautifully bloody, In the Shadow of Lightning hits like a bolt through a stained glass window."—Megan E. O'Keefe, author of Chaos Vector

My Review:

As the story opens, Demir Grappo is Icarus, and we see him in the moment of his spectacular fall. A cocky young genius both in politics and on the battlefield, we catch him just at the moment when he learns that someone has decided that he has flown too close to the sun – and that it is time to clip his wings. Or burn them.

It’s a broken man who slinks away from that battlefield, covered in disgrace where there should have been glory. To say that Demir plans to hide in the lowest and meanest places he can find is a bit of an overstatement. We’d call it a psychotic break. He just runs away from his shame and his responsibilities.

Nine years later the young man is a bit older, even sadder, and doesn’t see himself as any wiser at all. He is doing a better job of getting through the days, but he has no plans, no hopes, no dreams beyond doing that for another day.

Until an old friend finds him in the back of beyond, to tell Demir that has mother Adriana Grappo, the Matriarch of the Grappo guild family, has been assassinated. And that Demir is now Patriarch, if he is willing to take up the mantle, the reins, and the responsibility he left behind.

He’ll go home to protect his guild family and hunt down his mother’s killers. Even on his worst day – and he’s had plenty of them in the intervening years – he’d be able to smell the stink of a coverup no matter how far away he was from the seething cesspit of politics and corruption that is the capital of the Ossan Empire.

Demir is willing to tear the Empire down to get the truth. Little does he know that the plot he plans to uncover will require him to save it – whether it deserves it or not.

Escape Rating A+: “Glassdamn.” It rolls easily through the mind, or trippingly off the tongue, as though it’s an epithet that we’ve always used – or at least could have if we’d had a mind to. And glassdamnit but this is a terrific story.

It’s “glassdamn” because the scientific sorcery that powers the story and the world it explores is based on the use of specifically tuned, resonating glass to provide its power. While there are multiple religions in the world none of the deities or pantheons rule much of anything. Glass is king, queen and knave and everyone swears by it and at it and about it all day long.

Glassdamn, indeed.

The title is a bit of a pun. Our protagonist, if not necessarily or always our hero, Demir Grappo, spends the entire story living in the shadow of the political and glass dancer prodigy “The Lightning Prince” – his own former self, the self that he has been running from for all these years. Demir and the man he once was are going to have to come to some kind of resolution if he is going to have even half a chance at fixing everything that’s wrong with Ossa, with his guild family, with sorcery and especially with himself. It’s difficult to tell which will be the hardest job.

The story is told from several perspectives, so that the reader is able to see what’s happening over the vast sprawling canvas that is this first book in a protected trilogy. While we follow Demir, we also have a chance to see the Ossan empire from other points of view, including the childhood friends he brings back to the capital to help him in both his quest and his more mundane work, the master craftswoman he partners with in order to carry out his mother’s last request, and his uncle Tadeus, an officer in Ossa’s much vaunted Foreign Legion, an army that takes nearly as big a fall as Demir once did.

They may rise together – or they may discover that the game is beyond them all. It’s a question that is not yet answered when the story concludes. Which is utterly fitting for the first book in a trilogy. I just wish I had an inkling of when the second book is going to be available, because this is a story that left me with a terrible book hangover. I can’t wait to go back.

One of the things that both sucked me in and drove me crazy about In the Shadow of Lightning, but which also explains why I liked it so glassdamn much, is the sheer number of recent stories it reminded me of, as well as one long-loved classic and, surprisingly, a videogame.

Throwing Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham, Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford, and Isolate by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. into an industrial-strength book blender will get you close to the feel of In the Shadow of Lightning. All are stories of empires that have already rotted from the head down. All have ‘magic’ that is treated scientifically, to the point where their worlds are all much closer to steampunk than to epic fantasy – which doesn’t stop all of them from BEING epic fantasy anyway. None of them are about classic contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; instead all are about people attempting to turn back the tide of the type of evil that results from power corrupting. These series starters are not exactly like each other, but they all ‘feel’ very similar and if you like one you’ll probably get equally immersed in one of the others.

The individual character of Demir Grappo, that mercurial broken genius, appearing as antihero considerably more often than hero, trying to save as much as he can and willing to sacrifice whatever it takes into the bargain, recalled a character from a much different time and place, but whose story was still conducted over a sprawling canvas. If you’ve ever read the Lymond Chronicles (start with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett, Demir is very much in Lymond’s mold – and it was a bit heartbreaking to watch Demir making entirely too many of the same mistakes and sacrifices. I’m also wondering if he’s going to face some of Lymond’s desperate compromises and am trepidatiously looking forward to finding out.

And for anyone who has played the Dragon Age series of videogames, the corrupt guild family political power brokering – as well as the open use of assassination as a political tool – bears a surprisingly sharp resemblance to the Antivan Crows. I half expected someone to leave a message that “the Crows send their regards,” because they most certainly would, with respect upfront and a knife in the back.

The audio made that last bit even more evocative because the narrator did one hell of a job with all the accents. He also told a damn good story, giving the feeling that we were in each character’s head when it was their turn “on stage”, and making each and every voice distinct. AND he managed to put me so completely inside both Demir’s and Tessa’s heads that I would have to stop for a few minutes because I could tell that whatever was coming next was going to be awful, and I cared so much that I almost couldn’t bear to experience it so closely with them.

So, if you enjoy big sprawling epics, whether fantasy or SF, In the Shadow of Lightning is just the kind of world-spanning, world-shattering, monsterful and wonderful binge read just waiting to happen!

I can’t wait for that glassdamned second book in the trilogy. I really, really can’t.