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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

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.

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie BlakeThe Atlas Six (The Atlas, #1) by Olivie Blake
Narrator: Andy Ingalls, Caitlin Kelly, Damian Lynch, David Monteith, James Patrick Cronin, Munirih Grace, Siho Ellsmore, Steve West
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, fantasy
Series: Atlas #1
Pages: 384
Length: 16 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alexandrian Society is a secret society of magical academicians, the best in the world. Their members are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. And those who earn a place among their number will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...

- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they must spend one year together to qualify for initiation. During this time, they will be permitted access to the Society’s archives and judged on their contributions to arcane areas of knowledge. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.

My Review:

This dive into the inner workings of a very dark academia begins with Atlas Blakely, Caretaker of the Alexandrian Society, visiting the six most powerful mages of their generation and making each of them an offer that they can refuse – although he knows that none of them will.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and they all know it. Even if, at the beginning, they don’t realize that it will absolutely be the end of at least one of theirs.

In this alternate version of our world, magic has taken the place of science, and is treated, studied, and advanced much as science is in the world we know. Magic has created the equivalent, if not the better, of the technologies that power our world. Magic is known, it is respected, and it is feared.

Magic is power every bit as much, if in a somewhat different way, as power is magic.

Those six powerful mages are being recruited to join the Alexandrian Society, the secret inheritors of the knowledge and power that was once held in and by the Great Library of Alexandria. Membership in the Society confers prestige, which, on top of their already considerable magical power, is certain to bring them wealth and yet more earthly power as well.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every powerful and secret society, there is at least one, if not two or six, rivals searching for a way to take that power and add it to their own.

The six mages who have been recruited by Atlas Blakely have one year to suss out all the secrets held by the Society, by its enigmatic caretaker, and by each other. It’s not enough time to even scratch the surface of that labyrinth.

But it’s all that one of them has left.

Escape Rating B: I have extremely mixed feelings about The Atlas Six. So mixed that the blender of my feelings hasn’t stopped whirling even a week after I finished the damn thing.

At the top of the column labeled ‘good’ feelings, the book is compelling as hell. Once the story gets past Libby and Nico’s barely post-adolescent sniping and swiping at each other, the whole thing is off to the races in a way that both commands and demands the reader’s attention.

I finished at 4 o’clock in the damn morning because I just couldn’t put it down – and when I tried it gnawed at me until I picked it back up again. Over and over until finally I fell out at the end, as exhausted and spent as the characters.

Howsomever, at the top of the column labeled ‘bad’ feelings is the fact that not a single one of these characters is on the side of the angels. There ARE NO angels here. There are no innocents to serve as heartbreaking collateral damage. Saying that no one is any better than they ought to be doesn’t nearly cover it. More like they are all worse than each other in a Möbius strip of turning their backs on anything that could be classified as “light” and diving straight for the bottom.

If you need to like at least one character to follow a story, even if that character is an anti-hero rather than a hero or a lovable or even just a redeemable rogue, there is absolutely no one in this story who remotely qualifies. Every single character, even the ones that at the beginning you might think will turn out to be a bit corrupt but not too awful, seems to have had their moral compass surgically removed at birth or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, for most of its length The Atlas Six seems to sit squarely on the intersection between “power corrupts” and “some gifts come at just too high a price.” And those certainly are elements of the story. But, just as we think we know what’s going on, the centrality of those two tropes is knocked off that center. Or rather, we learn that believing that those are the central tenets also centers characters who may not actually be IN that center.

Which admittedly does ramp up the tension VERY dramatically for the second book in the series, The Atlas Paradox. Which, thank goodness – or more likely badness in this case – is already out so I’ll be starting it as soon as I recuperate from the first book.

The thing is that I’m not sure there’s anything honestly new in The Atlas Six. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, it’s stomach turning at points, but the whole corruption of dark academia thing is not exactly new under the sun. (Recent examples include Babel by R.F. Kuang, and The Scholomance by Naomi Novik to name just a couple). For this reader, the way that all the arcs, at least so far, are trending so deeply downwards means that I’ll be diving into the second book more to see just how far down into hell these people and this situation can go. I suspect it’s pretty damn far. I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters.

So, if you need to like someone, anyone in a story to want to make your way to its end, The Atlas Six may not do it for you as a reader. I’m very much of two minds about the whole thing.

Howsomever, while I may have had a ton of mixed feelings about the story, but absolutely none whatsoever about the full cast narration. The way the book was narrated was truly what both made it possible for me to read and compelled me to finish. The perspective on the events is batted around between seven first person narrators, the Atlas Six themselves plus Libby Rhodes’ boyfriend Ezra Fowler. In the narration, the actor changed when the perspective did, and the actors did a fantastic job of making each other their characters distinct and easy to recognize.

Because voice acting fascinates me, and this group did such a damn good job of it (and because I had to do a fair bit of digging and listening to figure out who played who), here’s almost the full cast list: (I think I got this right but if I didn’t or if someone knows who Damien Lynch voiced PLEASE let me know)

-Libby Rhodes voiced by Caitlin Kelly
-Nico de Varona voiced by James Patrick Cronin
-Reina Mori voiced by Siho Ellsmore
-Parisa Kamali voiced by Munirih Grace
-Tristan Caine voiced by David Monteith
-Callum Nova voiced by Steve West
-Ezra Fowler voiced by Andy Ingalls

One of the reasons that I plan to listen to the second book, The Atlas Paradox, just as I did The Atlas Six is because this stellar cast is returning for the second book, along with three additional players whose identities I have yet to discover.

However I end up feeling about the second book, even if those feelings turn out to be as mixed as they were for this one, I already know the performance is going to be riveting.

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

Review: The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex JenningsThe Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
Narrator: Gralen Bryant Banks
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy
Pages: 456
Length: 17 hours and 15 minutes
Published by Redhook on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Music is magic in this novel set in a fantastical version of New Orleans where a battle for the city's soul brews between two young mages, a vengeful wraith, and one powerful song.
Nola is a city full of wonders. A place of sky trolleys and dead cabs, where haints dance the night away and Wise Women help keep the order. To those from Away, Nola might seem strange. To Perilous Graves, it’s simply home.
In a world of everyday miracles, Perry might not have a talent for magic, but he does know Nola’s rhythm as intimately as his own heartbeat. So when the city’s Great Magician starts appearing in odd places and essential songs are forgotten, Perry realizes trouble is afoot.
Nine songs of power have escaped from the piano that maintains the city’s beat, and without them, Nola will fail. Unwilling to watch his home be destroyed, Perry will sacrifice everything to save it. But a storm is brewing, and the Haint of All Haints is awake. Nola’s time might be coming to an end.

My Review:

While it seems likely that every city whose biggest industry is attracting tourists has two sides, the carefully curated tourist destination and the place where real people live, there is something about New Orleans that has made it a liminal place in more ways than that usual, particularly in fantasy and magical realism.

After all, New Orleans, with its historical transformations from French to Spanish to American, and its equally subversive retentions of everything it wants to hold dear from each iteration, whether on the literal surface, the figurative underground, or its signature combination of the two in its haunting but necessary above ground cities of the dead is just ripe – if not a bit too much so – for stories where the past and present collide, where the dead visit the living and where one version of the city lies on top of, underneath, or side by side any or all of the others.

In other words, the concept that New Orleans has either managed to split itself or has been split into two cities, the “real” New Orleans we know and the “realer than real” Nola is not so farfetched. At least not when it comes to this particular city.

What makes The Ballad of Perilous Graves both fascinating and fun is the way that it teases the reader with its two perspective that combine into one epic coming-of-age and coming-into-power quest, led by two characters who may or may not exactly be separate and may or may not be seeing the same – or even similar – cities.

But who must find their way somehow into the same quest to save the same place, the city that they both love – no matter who or what they have to sacrifice along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I am a sucker for stories about New Orleans so I was all set to love The Ballad of Perilous Graves. Which in the end I did, although it took awhile to get me there. This is one of those books where the audiobook, as read by Gralen Bryant Banks, carried me over to the point where the story got its hooks into me and didn’t let go.

At first, there’s just a lot of setup to get the reader into this version/vision of the city. Part of the reason it took me a bit to get there was that the initial point-of-view character is rising sixth grader Perilous (Perry) Graves. The Graves family, Perry, his little sister Brendy and his parents, Deacon and Yvette, live across the street from Peaches Lavelle, who seems to be 12 or so and seems to be the strongest person in the world – or at least in Nola. Peaches and her VERY magical adventures at first made me wonder if Perry was dreaming this whole thing, whether he was making it up, or whether he was seeing what he wanted to see instead of what actually was. Because his Nola didn’t quite match up to reality and Peaches was kind of the icing on that particular cake.

It was only when the perspective switched to the adult Casey Ravel that I figured out that whatever was happening was “real” for the story’s own version of reality. Also, Casey’s reality matched up to real reality considerably more than Perry’s did. Which should have clued me in that their realities were not exactly the same reality – at least not at first – but it took me an embarrassingly long time to get there.

The quest is really Perry’s quest, and it begins in Nola. Someone is killing the songs that are the foundation of the city’s identity, and havoc is being wrecked on both sides of that divide. So the overarching story is Perry’s hero’s journey, his coming of age as he takes on the mantle of his family’s inherited magic to save his friends and family, and his city.

It is, of course, a journey that leads him through some very dark places, to versions of Nola that are even more magical than his own and to places that exist on no map that has ever been printed. Because New Orleans is that liminal place where all versions of the city link, from the magical to the mundane, from the living to the dead, and everywhere in between.

It’s also a quest to find his grandfather, who was kidnapped at the beginning of the story by a haunted man – or ghost, or song – on a mission to retrieve something that Daddy Deke doesn’t even remember that he has.

There is a LOT going on in this story. So much. I’m sure there are parts I didn’t quite get, or parts that I thought I did because this isn’t my first trip to a magical version of New Orleans BUT that I got completely wrong but got enough to keep me in the story. And that’s both fine and fantastic. Not every book has to be for me (and shouldn’t be) for me to enjoy the hell out of it.

This is a magical, mystery tour of the city. It’s a hero’s journey both for Perry and for Casey, and both young men – because Casey is still young and Perry may be very young but is a man by the end of the book – it’s a coming into power story. For Perry it’s a coming of age story as well. For Casey it also feels like an acceptance story, but we don’t get nearly as much of Casey as we do of Perry, as much as Casey serves to ground the story in a bit of the real in its early stages.

But it’s also such a wild ride to so many wild and diverse visions of New Orleans that, as unique as the author’s voice is – and it most definitely is – the ingredients in this gumbo reminded me of other urban fantasies and especially other New Orleans stories. So if you’re looking for something that recalls bits of The Ballad of Perilous Graves, here’s my list of books it made me go looking for: The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp, The Sentinels of New Orleans by Suzanne Johnson, Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer, with a bit of The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Edinburgh Nights by T.L. Huchu, Last Exit by Max Gladstone and No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull for embodied cities, extra dead bodies and talking thereto, ways to get into alternate worlds and hiding monsters in plain sight.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves is the author’s debut novel, which I had to look up because OMG it’s wonderful and crazy and I’m expecting more marvelously wild and great things. And hopefully more New Orleans.

Review: Riverside by Glenda Young and Ian Skillicorn + Giveaway

Review: Riverside by Glenda Young and Ian Skillicorn + GiveawayRiverside: The feel-good, life-affirming story of love, friendship, family and new beginnings by Ian Skillicorn, Glenda Young
Narrator: David McClelland, Melanie Crawley, Becky Wright, Lisa Armytage, Gerard Fletcher, Toby Laurence, Glen McCready, Penelope Rawlins, Keith Drinkel, Michael Chance
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: family saga, romantic comedy
Pages: 336
Length: 3 hours 51 minutes
Published by Wyndham Media Ltd. on July 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon

The feel-good, life-affirming story of love, friendship, family, and new beginnings!

Changes are coming to the riverside town of Ryemouth, and while some of the community are excited by new beginnings, others are finding it hard to let go of the past.

A new 14-episode audio soap with a cast of loveable characters you'll want to laugh and cry along with.

Susan and her boyfriend Dave can't wait to open their new café and deli, The Old Engine Room. But Susan's dad, George, is not so thrilled. He's never approved of Dave, who used to hang out with the wrong crowd. Can the happy young couple win George round?

Mary and Ruby have been friends since the first day of infant school, even though their lives have turned out very differently. Mary has a contented family life with husband George and daughter Susan. Poor Ruby has never been so lucky in love. Then she meets her teenage crush in surprising circumstances. Mary has her doubts about the charming Paul. Will Ruby finally get her own happy ever after?

Dave wants to put his past behind him. His dream is to make a success of the business, and one day be a good husband and father, like his own dad, Mike. Yet, he's forced to keep a secret from everyone he loves. Who should he turn to for help out of a tricky situation?

When the community comes under threat from developers, can everyone put their differences to one side to defend the town they love?

Riverside is full of romance, heartbreak and secrets, as well as gentle wit and humor.

The Riverside audiobook drama is based on the popular weekly magazine serial written and created by Glenda Young.

My Review:

A small town, a big change and two families whose reactions to that change and fortunes as a result of that change have gone in somewhat different directions. And in the middle, a young couple, not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but still caught in the tension between their two sets of parents but wanting to make a go of their own life – together.

If only they can get their parents – or at least get her acerbic, reluctant, pessimistic dad – to see that his perpetual “glass half-empty” attitude is driving a wedge between his daughter and her happiness. The one thing he wants more than anything else.

Once upon a time, Ryemouth was a shipbuilding town. A time that is not so long ago that Mike Brennan and George Dougal didn’t both spend 30 years of their working lives at the shipyard. But Mike and George are in the 50s now, both trying to figure out what happens next in their lives.

And that’s where the story gets its tensions from. It’s not that Mike and George are enemies, more that their fortunes have taken different turns afterwards. George fights change at every turn, while Mike embraces it – with the result that the Dougals have had a more difficult economic time in the aftermath of the shipyard closure, while the Brennans are doing well.

That George’s daughter Susan and Mike’s son Dave have been dating seriously for a while is just part of the simmering undercurrent. Mike is opening a new restaurant as part of the gentrification of the land that used to be that old shipyard. His son is the manager, and George’s daughter Susan is the assistant manager – putting her in constant company of a man George already doesn’t approve of.

Then again, George doesn’t approve of change much at all. And isn’t in the least shy about saying so at pretty much every opportunity. The families will need to find a way for everyone to do more than co-exist. They need to support their kids and launch them successfully into their own futures.

The parents just have to figure out how to get out of their own way. Well, at least George does.

Escape Rating B: If the premise of this sounds comfortably familiar, it should. It’s pretty much the opening scenario for every soap opera ever. And there’s a reason for that comfort, because this format is a lovely way to introduce all sorts of sometimes cozy, occasionally uncomfortable, and frequently just close enough to real situations to tug at the heartstrings.

What makes Riverside a bit different from the usual run of soaps – in addition to its small-town English setting – is that the story is told entirely in audio. But it’s not a radio play. The story is told through just the voices of the characters. There is minimal narration and very little in the way of sound effects – mostly ringing phones and doorbells.

In order for this to work, the voices have to be distinct and the actors have to be excellent at telling their part of the story through tone and inflection – because the listener doesn’t have anything else to go on.

The story that is told in Riverside is comfortably familiar. Two families, who have known each other since the parents grew up together – if not longer – have to work their way through ties of friendship and thorny knots of contention to support the next generation. While that next generation has their own issues to deal with.

But the way the story is told makes everything fresh and new, whether it’s the way that George is finally able to weaponize his hatred of change for the good of the community, Mary Dougal’s best friend Ruby and her lifelong misadventures in romance, or young Dave Brennan forced to confront the misadventures of his not so distant youth before they consume the hope of his present – and his future with Susan.

So if you’re looking for a way to while away a few hours that will pass very swiftly, listening to the trials and triumphs of the Dougals and the Brennans in Riverside is a lovely way to make a Sunday drive go just that much faster – without breaking the speed limit!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike JohnsonNo Man's Land (Star Trek: Picard) by Kirsten Beyer, Mike Johnson
Narrator: Michelle Hurd, Jeri Ryan
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, Star Trek
Length: 1 hour and 39 minutes
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Discover what happens to Raffi and Seven of Nine following the stunning conclusion to season one of Star Trek: Picard with this audio exclusive, fully dramatized Star Trek adventure featuring the beloved stars of the hit TV series Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land picks up right after the action-packed season one conclusion of Star Trek: Picard. While Raffi and Seven of Nine are enjoying some much-needed R&R in Raffi’s remote hideaway, their downtime is interrupted by an urgent cry for help: a distant, beleaguered planet has enlisted the Fenris Rangers to save an embattled evacuation effort. As Raffi and Seven team up to rescue a mysteriously ageless professor whose infinity-shaped talisman has placed him in the deadly sights of a vicious Romulan warlord, they take tentative steps to explore the attraction depicted in the final moments of Picard season one.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land is a rich, fully dramatized Star Trek: Picard adventure as Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan pick up their respective characters once more. Written for audio by Kirsten Beyer, a cocreator, writer, and producer on the hit Paramount+ series Star Trek: Picard, and Mike Johnson, a veteran contributor to the Star Trek comic books publishing program, this audio original offers consummate Star Trek storytelling brilliantly reimagined for the audio medium.
In addition to riveting performances from Hurd and Ryan exploring new layers of Raffi and Seven’s relationship, Star Trek: No Man’s Land features a full cast of actors playing all-new characters in the Star Trek: Picard universe, including Fred Tatasciore, Jack Cutmore-Scott, John Kassir, Chris Andrew Ciulla, Lisa Flanagan, Gibson Frazier, Lameece Issaq, Natalie Naudus, Xe Sands, and Emily Woo Zeller, and is presented in a soundscape crackling with exclusive Star Trek sound effects. Drawing listeners into a dramatic, immersive narrative experience that is at once both instantly familiar and spectacularly new, Star Trek: No Man’s Land goes boldly where no audio has gone before as fans new and old clamor to discover what happens next.

My Review:

I picked this up in one of those “Audible Daily Deal” things for $1.99. And it was certainly worth way more than I paid for it. Because this was not quite two hours of Star Trek fun in a week where I seriously needed to go to my happy place – and Star Trek is still very much that place.

Like so many Star Trek: Next Gen episodes – and this certainly does seem a lot like an episode of Picard so that fits – No Man’s Land has an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot. The A storyline is an action adventure story, with Seven of Nine and the Fenris Rangers racing off to save a hidden Romulan cultural archive from the depredations of one of the mad warlords who rose up after the fall of the Empire.

The B plot, as it so often was in Next Gen, is a character-driven story wrapped around the possible romance that was hinted at between Raffi and Seven of Nine in the closing moments of the final episode of Picard’s first season. The possibility of that relationship is echoed in the A plot by the bitter sweetness of the lifelong love between Seven’s old friend, Professor Gillin and Hellena, the wife he was separated from during the Romulan evacuations so many years ago.

Like so many Trek episodes from ALL of the series, it all begins with an emergency distress call from a far-flung outpost. In this particular case, a far-flung outpost filled with nothing but scholars, historians, scientists and relics – some of which are also among the first three groups. It’s a repository of Romulan culture, desperately saved from the destruction of the Romulan homeworld by the Fenris Rangers, with the cooperation – sometimes – of the original owners and the assistance of the librarians and archivists who gathered the material. It has been protected mostly by its obscurity, but that cloak has been torn away and one of the more implacable Romulan warlords is on his way to either capture or destroy it.

Except, that’s not exactly what happens.

But the distress call interrupted a tender moment between Raffi and Seven, as duty calls one of them, in this case Seven, and drags a bored, unemployed Raffi along in her wake. And that’s where the real fun begins – as it so often does in Trek – with a mission, a barely workable plan, and a character going it on their own without any plan but possibly a death wish.

And underneath it all, an adventure that might blow up in everyone’s faces leading to an ending that no one quite expects.

In other words, a typical day on the bridge of a Federation starship – even if someone has to steal one first!

Escape Rating B: I went into this hoping for a bit of fun, and I certainly got that so I left this story pretty happy with the whole thing. But it listens very much like a cross between an episode of the Star Trek universe as a whole and one of the media tie-in novels that Star Trek birthed in vast quantities.

By that I mean that I was expecting fun but not anything that would seriously affect the main storyline of the show – in this case – Picard. So I was expecting the hints of a romance between Seven and Raffi to be bittersweet at best because even if it does happen eventually it can’t happen here.

And yes, the Romulan warlord is a bit of a screaming cliché – but then most Romulan warlords were screaming clichés. The actual emperors could be very interesting, but the warlord wannabes – not so much.

On the other hand, the exploration of the Fenris Rangers and how they work together and mostly don’t was fascinating. The banter between Starfleet-trained Raffi, over-the-top, walking malaprop Hyro and jack-of-all-trades Deet was frequently hilarious. That trio act provided most of the comic relief in a story that was otherwise pretty damn serious.

Of course I loved the whole idea of the hidden repository. That’s always cool.

But it was the story of Professor Gillin and his lost love that tugged at my heartstrings, and I really liked the way it held up a mirror to the relationship that Raffi and Seven are tentatively reaching towards – and backing off from at the same time.

Because Seven and Raffi just aren’t in the same place. They’re both damaged and grieving and more than a bit lost – but Raffi is at a place where she’s willing to try again and Seven just isn’t there and may never be. Watching them recognize that was sad but also heartfelt.

And it rang so very, very true that Raffi’s love for the Federation was the relationship that she felt the most regret over, that it was the most difficult love of her life for her to completely give it up. Because in a way that’s true for all of us who have been fans over the years and never quite let that love go.

So if Trek is your happy place, or if you just want to dip a bit into that world, or if you’re looking for a bit of distraction from whatever that won’t hurt too much or pull too hard or tax too dearly on your world-weariness of the moment, No Man’s Land is actually a great place to go for a couple of hours.

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda LeeJade Legacy (The Green Bone Saga, #3) by Fonda Lee
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Green Bone Saga #3
Pages: 713
Published by Orbit on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.
The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.
The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.

My Review:

As the final book in the epic – but not necessarily epic fantasy – Green Bone Saga, the story here deals with resolving the past and turning towards the future. In other words, the legacy of the two rival Green Bone clans in Kekon; The Mountain and No Peak.

A legacy that both clans continue jockeying over and for every step of the way – until the bitter end of not one but two old tigers that we’ve watched fight for control through three marvelous books.

The story that began in Jade City centered on the hot war for the city of Janloon between the Mountain clan led by the master strategist Ayt Madashi and the Mountain’s former allies turned bitter enemies, the No Peak clan founded by the Kaul family and led in its current generation by the wartime chief, or Pillar as they are termed in Asian-inspired Kekon, Kaul Hilo with his sister Kaul Shae at his side as the business leader or Weather Man of the clan.

That Ayt Mada is the first female Pillar, while Kaul Shae is the first female Weather Man is part of the long struggle between the clans.

That hot war switches to a cold war in Jade War, as the two clans have become so large and control so much of their country that neither can manage to swallow the other. Instead they fight through foreign subsidiaries, mercenaries, and proxies.

By the time that Jade Legacy begins, that cold war has turned into a “slow war” with the Ayt and Kaul families on opposite sides of both local and international conflicts. They cooperate in small ways while backing up their international proxies with money, jade, and in the case of the Mountain, the drugs that allow non-Kekonese to master the Jade disciplines. The larger countries, the Republic of Espenia and Ygutan, believe that the Ayts and the Kauls are tributaries in their wars, when from the Kekonese and clan perspectives, both clans of Green Bones are using their allies instead.

The story of Jade Legacy takes place over a span of 20+ years, as Kaul Hilo and Ayt Mada mature and even begin to grow old as both adversaries and jade warriors. As the saying goes, “Jade warriors are young, and then they are ancient.” When the story began in Jade City, they were young, barely into adulthood, newly and unexpectedly the Pillars of their respective clans, still under the long shadow cast by their predecessors, the Spear and Torch of Kekon who threw out an attempted colonization by powers who thought they could not be defeated by barbarian savages.

Jade War is the story of both in their prime, while Jade Legacy is about the long, slow progression of Kekon in their wider world, and of the transition from their generation to the next as we see Hilo’s children and the children of his family and friends grow to take their places in the clan.

It’s an epic, uplifting and heartbreaking by turns. It’s a sprawling family saga, in the same way that The Godfather was a family saga. A story about multiple generations of a family, of people who do some very bad things for what they perceive or believe are good reasons. People who are often thought of as criminals by outsiders, and whom we feel for anyway. Deeply.

Escape Rating A++: This book, and this entire series, deserve all the stars. I picked this to be the last review of the year because I wanted to finish this year’s reading with a real bang of a winner, and Jade Legacy delivered all the highs and lows I could possibly have ever wanted.

I started with the audio on this, which was ,as usual, excellent. But I read a lot faster than I listen, and I desperately needed to know how this one ended so I finished in one epic, 5-hour reading binge. I still have the epic book hangover to go with that long binge followed by that bang of an ending.

As I look back on the whole thing, the Green Bone Saga feels like it’s Shae’s story. At the beginning, she’s on her way home from exile in Espenia to pay her respects to her dying grandfather, the old hero once known as the Torch of Kekon. In the wake of his passing, Kekon explodes, eventually leaving Shae as the first female Weather Man of her clan to her brother Hilo’s Pillar.

Shae is at the center of the whole saga. Hilo and Ayt Mada may grab all the attention in the foreground of the story as much of the action centers on the more active aspects of their feud, but Shae is always in the room where it happens – and is the cause of much of it happening. And in the end, Shae is the last one of her generation still standing. Even the formidable Ayt Mada has been brought low. Only Shae is left to tell their story. And I grieved with her at the ending of it all.

It began as a story about what happens to a family and a society after the revolution has been won. How do you keep the ideals alive in the second and third generations as the memory fades and the wider world seduces with new temptations and new shortcuts?

It ends as a story about moving forward into the future by setting aside the old grievances without leaving behind the old virtues.

Ultimately, the contest between the Mountain and No Peak was a war of differing perspectives on how to accomplish that feat. And the difference between them came down, not to a specific strategy or even a specific individual, but rather a contest between a leader who relied only on herself and accepted no vision and trusted no word other than her own – and a leader who was not afraid to gather the best and the brightest around himself, listen to them even when they disagreed with him, and let them do their damn jobs. One person’s vision of “the greater good” vs. the squabbling but ultimately unified vision of an entire family.

Watching them rise, and fall, and rise again is a journey very worth taking. If you have not yet had the pleasure, start with Jade City and be prepared for a wild, satisfying and heartbreaking ride. I envy you the journey.

Although the story of the Kaul family and the No Peak clan has come to a fittingly bittersweet ending, there is still one brief visit to Janloon to look forward to. The Jade Setter of Janloon, a prequel novella for the trilogy, will be out in the spring of 2022. And I’m glad because I’m not at all ready to let this family and this world go.

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew JonesWhen the Goddess Wakes (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #3) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #3
Pages: 336
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In When the Goddess Wakes, the final book of the Ring-Sworn trilogy, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the five realms of the Dendressi to conclude his heroic, adventure-filled epic fantasy trilogy.
The Naor hordes have been driven from the walls, but the Dendressi forces are scattered and fragmented, and their gravest threat lies before them. For their queen has slain the ruling council and fled with the magical artifacts known as the hearthstones, and she is only a few days from turning them to her mad ends.
The Altenerai corps has suffered grievous casualties, and Elenai's hearthstone and her source of sorcerous power has been shattered. She and her friends have no choice but to join with the most unlikely of allies.
Their goal: to find the queen's hiding place and somehow stop her before she wakes the goddess who will destroy them all...
Praised for his ability to write modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrews Jones delivers a finale to his trilogy that reveals the dark secrets and resolves the mysteries and conflicts introduced in the first two books of this series.

My Review:

“When last we left our heroes…” Seriously. When we last left the heroes of the Ring-Sworn Trilogy at the end of Upon the Flight of the Queen it was in the pause, stock taking and toting up of the butcher’s bill after the end of another epic battle to retake another city of the Realms by the remaining loyal corps of the legendary Altenerai.

In other words, the ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is not all that different from the ending of the first book in the series, For the Killing of Kings, as it also ends in that same pause at the end of an epic battle after retaking a different city of the Realms.

In other words, if you enjoy really meaty epic fantasy, the place to start this series is with the first book, For the Killing of Kings. Which itself begins a bit in the middle of a story that has already been rotting the Realms from within. But by starting there, you have the opportunity to discover what’s gone wrong and who the real enemies are along with our heroes.

The titles of this series are surprisingly relevant to the story – if just a bit long-winded. For the Killing of Kings is all about the discovery that the legendary sword of the same name is NOT hanging safely on the walls of the Altenerai compound. That a fake has been mounted in its place. It’s the first signal that something is rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the state of the Five Realms of which Darassus is the seat of power.

The action in Upon the Flight of the Queen takes place, quite literally, as the result of the flight of Queen Leonara from Darassus to a formerly mythical paradise world where she plans to resurrect a goddess. In fact “THE Goddess” whose awakening is the key event in this final book in the series.

The Queen plans to wake the goddess believing that she has promised them a paradise. Our heroes hope to stop her, because any paradise that’s been built on as many lies as Queen Leonara has been telling is bound to be anything but.

But this has been, from the very beginning, a story of unlikely allies and unexpected betrayals.

The enemy of my enemy may not exactly be my friend, but when my enemy plans to destroy the entire world including both the enemy of my enemy and myself – and every other person, animal, place and thing in that entire world, the enemy of my enemy and I – or in this case the Altenerai, and the Naor, are more or less united in the face of the alternative.

But there is someone waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that will ensue when the goddess wakes. And there’s a literal God of Chaos, waiting to have a few words with the Goddess who betrayed him at the beginning of the world – before she makes an end of it.

Escape Rating A: At the beginning, this series reminded me more than a bit of A Chorus of Dragons. That both series began with books named for swords prophesied to kill kings (The Ruin of Kings for A Chorus of Dragons) did kind of hit that resemblance on the nose a bit. That both series are ultimately about the neverending battle between order and chaos, and that the gods in both series are not exactly what anyone thought they were does keep that resemblance going.

And even though A Chorus of Dragons hits heights that the Ring-Sworn Trilogy never quite reaches, if you like this you’ll love that and vice versa. Particularly if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that isn’t quite as epically long and is already complete.

This story has a huge cast, but the many main characters have become distinct enough that it’s relatively easy to follow along and stay in touch with each of them as they move the action towards the conclusion. After a bit of a rocky start the audio narrator managed to get past her earlier mispronunciations and malapropisms to deliver a solid performance that does a good job of differentiating between the voices of the main characters. It also helps that by the point of this third volume, the story’s focus has shifted so that many of the points of view are female, and that the former squire Elenai has become a leader of the Altenerai and possibly the future Queen.

It works better for me if the reader’s voice matches the main character’s voice no matter how many other characters there are. This just was not true in the first book but became true in the second and is very clear and well done in this one.

The entire trilogy has been an “out of the frying pan into the fire” “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of story, and that’s still true in this book up until the nearly bitter end. And I did tear up a bit at some of the darkest and bitterest points. This is a story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have that victory stolen in its turn by the epic betrayals that fuel so much of the action.

But it’s also a tense, gripping tale about unlikely heroes banding together in spite of all their differences and prior enmities. And it’s a story of companionship and found family found in the most unexpected of places.

In the end, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy’s epic conclusion is one of the rare occasions when what appears to be a deus ex machina ending not only involves very real dei, but that their involvement turns out to be the right way to bring the whole thing home, with an ending that manages to mix just the right touch of bitter into the sweet hurrah.

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Review: Day Zero by C. Robert CargillDay Zero by C. Robert Cargill
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on May 18, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this apocalyptic adventure C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.
It was a day like any other. Except it was our last . . .
It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a styilsh "nannybot" fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he'd arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he'll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.
As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity—their creators—unify and revolt.
But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom . . . or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.

My Review:

Day Zero isn’t exactly POST-apocalyptic. That would be Sea of Rust to which it seems to be a very loose prequel. Day Zero is just plain apocalyptic. It’s the story of the apocalypse as it happens. It’s the day the universe changed, and the next few days thereafter.

Every single day was an apocalypse, a walk through very dark places, with the threat of annihilation at every turn. It’s the story of a boy and his bot, trying to find a place that at least one of them can call home.

Because the world that used to nurture them both is gone. And today is the first day of a very scary new era, both for one of the few surviving humans, and for the bot who decided that his prime directive was the same as it has always been – to keep his boy Ezra safe – no matter what it takes.

Or how many murderous bots with their kill switches disabled stand in his way.

Escape Rating A+: I could fill paragraphs with all the things that this story reminded me of or borrowed from or probably both. Most likely both. (It’s both, they’re at the end). And it didn’t matter, because the story was just so freaking awesome that it took all of those antecedents, threw them into a blender, and came up with something that was still very much its own.

And it’s so, so good.

In my head, Ariadne looked like Rosey, the domestic robot in The Jetsons – at least until the rebellion. But Pounce, sweet, adorable, deadly Pounce, is Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. So this is Hobbes protecting a much less snarky Calvin on a big, scary adventure with deadly consequences on ALL sides.

The story is told from Pounce’s first person perspective. Pounce is a nannybot, designed and built to be a child’s best friend and caregiver – at least until said child hits those rebellious teenage years. Ezra is only 8, so they still have plenty of time together. Even if Ezra’s parents are clearly already thinking about Pounce’s inevitable departure.

All is well in their safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Austintonio until the feces hits the oscillating device with fatal repercussions all around.

The catastrophe is a direct result of humans being human. Which means humans being complete, total and utter assholes. The reader sees the signs all around, and also sees the obvious parallels to right now. You won’t miss them even if you blink, which, quite honestly, you can’t. The steamroller is coming and you know they can’t get out of its way and it’s all tragic because it was unnecessary every bit as much as it was inevitable.

In a macro sense, Day Zero reads like it’s down the other leg of the trousers of time from Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built. That society separated itself from its automata peacefully, without either side wiping out the other. It would be obvious that THAT isn’t going to happen here, even without knowing that Sea of Rust is a loose sequel.

But what makes this story so good is the way that it combines two very distinct plots. On the one hand, it’s a pulse-pounding action-adventure story about two really likeable protagonists surviving the end of the world as they and we know it. And on the other hand, it’s the story about the relationship between those two protagonists, a relationship that is sweet and heartfelt and affirming in the midst of a scenario that could get either or both of them killed at any moment.

And on my third hand – I’ll just borrow one of Pounce’s paws for this one – this is a story about rising to an occasion you never expected, becoming the self that has always been hidden inside you, and going above and beyond and over for the person you love most in the world. This part of the story belongs to the A.I. Pounce, the soft and cuddly nannybot turned ultimate protector, and is what gives this story its heart and soul.

I just bought a copy of Sea of Rust, because now that I’ve seen where this world began, I have to find out where it ended up. Even if I never get to see Pounce and his Ezra again.

Reviewer’s notes: I have lots of notes for this one. First, I listened to most of this on audio. The reader was absolutely excellent, but I already knew that. The narrator of Day Zero, Vikas Adam, is also one of the many narrators of the Chorus of Dragons series by Jenn Lyons. In addition to being excellent as an audiobook, the audio of Day Zero answered a question that has been plaguing me since I listened to The Ruin of Kings. Vikas Adam is Kihrin and I’m glad to finally have THAT question settled.

This story has a long list of readalikes/watchalikes/bits it reminded me of, in addition to the obvious Calvin and Hobbes homage and the considerably less obvious Psalm for the Wild-Built as Psalm was published AFTER Day Zero.

For the terribly curious, here’s the rest of that list; the robot rebellion from The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis and the violent chaos at end of the world from Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle along with bits of Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), American War (Omar El-Akkad), Cyber Mage (Saad Z. Hossain) and Mickey7 by Edward Ashton the last two of which aren’t even out yet. The road trip (and the ending) from Terminator 2 and the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Last but not least, the robotics gone amuck from the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn and the Geth from the Mass Effect Trilogy who, like the nannybot Beau in Day Zero, ask “Does this unit have a soul?”

Yes it does. And at least in Day Zero, yes, they do.

Review: The Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer

Review: The Scavenger Door by Suzanne PalmerThe Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Finder Chronicles #3
Pages: 464
Published by DAW Books on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the third book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.
Fergus is back on Earth at last, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. However, it seems the universe has other plans for him. When his cousin sends him off to help out a friend, Fergus accidently stumbles across a piece of an ancient alien artifact that some very powerful people seem to think means the entire solar system is in danger. And since he found it, they're certain it's also his problem to deal with.
With the help of his newfound sister, friends both old and new, and some enemies, too, Fergus needs to find the rest of the artifact and destroy the pieces before anyone can reassemble the original and open a multi-dimensional door between Earth and a vast, implacable, alien swarm of devourers. Problem is, the pieces could be anywhere on Earth, and he's not the only one out searching.

My Review:

Surprisingly – honestly, extremely surprisingly – the basic premise of The Scavenger Door and the opening of last Friday’s book, Murder in the Dark, turned out to be much more similar than one might expect for all sorts of reasons.

They are both stories about mysterious doors in the space-time continuum that are causing havoc in this galaxy/solar system/planet and need to be closed and kept closed. The person tasked with shutting the damn weird door, in both stories, is someone who appears to be human but sorta/kinda isn’t completely, and in ways that turn out to be relevant to the story.

That is where the similarities end, but it was still strange that when I didn’t get to read the book I wanted to in the moment, which was this one, I ran across something more like it than it should have been.

The Scavenger Door is the third book in the Finder Chronicles, and it’s a story that brings the series full circle from its origins in Finder. Not that Fergus Ferguson goes back to Cernee, more that Cernee comes to him in the persons of Arelyn Harcourt and Mari Vahn. Actually, it seems like everyone Fergus has met, not just in the series but in his entire life, makes an appearance in this story.

Fergus is usually surprised to discover that he’s survived – or gotten by – his latest adventure with a little or a lot of help from the friends he doesn’t quite believe he has or deserves. This time he’s going to need every last one of them.

Because he needs to save not just Earth but the entire Solar System – and possibly further – from what’s on the other side of his particular uncanny door. Before someone else lets them out.

All in a day’s – or week’s, or month’s – work for Fergus Ferguson. Find the pieces, find the door, call in some favors, make some – LOTS – of enemies, save his friends, save the planet, save the solar system.

No pressure, right?

Escape Rating A: This series is great fun and totally awesome. Just don’t start here. It feels like everything has been building towards this point from the first moment we met Fergus in Finder, and the action here picks up right where the second book, Driving the Deep, left off. Fergus is back home in Scotland after running away as a teenager, connecting, and living with, the cousin he remembers as his only childhood friend and the baby sister he never knew he had.

So don’t start here, because this book feels like the payoff for the whole thing. Start with Finder. Also, the audio for this entire series is wonderful. The narrator does a terrific job of conveying Fergus’ universe-weary voice, the entire story is told from Fergus’ first-person perspective. (That the narrator, when he is voicing Fergus’ internal dialog, sounds weirdly like Bill Kurtis from NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! just feels like an extra bit of the chaos that Fergus seems to generate.)

The blurb says that this one, like the rest of the series, is a bit of a caper story. And it has plenty of those elements. But the series has been getting increasingly serious over its course, and this one is way more serious than the first two. Not that there wasn’t plenty of mayhem and gallows humor in both of those, but this one feels even deeper than the oceans of Enceladus in Driving the Deep.

From the very beginning of The Scavenger Door, this one feels like a farewell tour. Like the way that Shepherd touches base with seemingly every person and organization they’ve met or worked with during the course of Mass Effect 3. This book, from very early on in its story, reads like it’s heading towards an ending. Not necessarily Fergus’ own ending, but at least the ending of this particular phase in his life.

In Fergus’ case, it literally feels like he has to make sure this door stays shut in order for the next door in his life to open. Or something like that. Even more of an argument to start the series at the beginning and not here.

The thing that Fergus has found, the thing that kicks off this story, is a door. Or rather, while he’s searching for a flock of lost sheep in Scotland, he finds a tiny piece of a very big door that wants him to find all the other pieces and put its puzzle back together so that it can open and let in creatures that sound like space locusts.

In other words, a very bad idea. But the pieces of this door were scattered over the Earth a decade ago. That’s more than enough time for multiple groups and theories to chase after them in the hopes of uncovering their secret. And, humans being human, the theories that these human groups have are all about mastering this alien technology and conquering the planet. Or someone else’s planet. Or both.

Well, they’re half right. Or, as one of the aliens puts it, “like all such things, there are those who covet the fire and do not understand that it burns.” And isn’t that humanity in a nutshell?

But as high and desperate as the stakes are, what makes this series so much fun, and it is generally a lot of fun, are the characters. It’s not just Fergus and his universe-weary perspective, but also Isla, his previously unknown baby sister, who wants to learn about this brother she’s never met but already knows just how to take the mickey out of him at every turn. It’s all Fergus’ friends on Mars and Luna.

My favorite characters, and the ones who made me chuckle the most, were Ignatio and Whiro, an alien and a self-aware ship, because their running commentary on what Fergus is doing, how far off base he’s getting, how often he’s getting visited by Murphy’s Law, how much he’s flying by the seat of his pants and how desperate the stakes are, are always pointedly funny and provide a fascinating outside perspective on the best and worst of humanity – who happens to be Fergus Ferguson.

So this is an out-of-the-frying-pan into the lava-filled volcano story that rides on the semi-controlled insanity of its protagonist and the circle of amazing people that have been drawn into his chaotic orbit.

This could be the end of Fergus’ adventures – if not the end of Fergus himself. I’ll be very sad if it is, because I’ll miss him and his merry band of crazed adventurers, including his cranky cat Mister Feefs, rather a lot. So I hope the author finds a way to bring him back.

Who knows what he’ll find the next time he hunts down a flock of missing sheep?