Review: The Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato

clockwork crown by beth catoFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: steampunk, fantasy
Series: Clockwork Dagger #2
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date Released: June 9, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Narrowly surviving assassination and capture, Octavia Leander, a powerful magical healer, is on the run with handsome Alonzo Garrett, the Clockwork Dagger who forfeited his career with the Queen’s secret society of spies and killers—and possibly his life—to save her. Now, they are on a dangerous quest to find safety and answers: Why is Octavia so powerful? Why does she seem to be undergoing a transformation unlike any witnessed for hundreds of years?

The truth may rest with the source of her mysterious healing power—the Lady’s Tree. But the tree lies somewhere in a rough, inhospitable territory known as the Waste. Eons ago, this land was made barren and uninhabitable by an evil spell, until a few hardy souls dared to return over the last century. For years, the Waste has waged a bloody battle against the royal court to win its independence—and they need Octavia’s powers to succeed.

Joined by unlikely allies, including a menagerie of gremlin companions, she must evade killers and Clockwork Daggers on a dangerous journey through a world on the brink of deadly civil war.

My Review:

In Genesis, there is a famous quote that states, “So God created mankind in his own image…” While many of us might quibble about God as male, and whether mankind is the proper inclusive term for all humans, the essence, either way, is the same.

There is also a competing quote, often mangled, but I’ll use the version from Ludwig Feuerbach, “It is not as in the Bible, that God created man in his own image. But, on the contrary, man created God in his own image.”

For anyone who has read anything of Greek and Roman mythology, that second quote has a ring of truth as well, because their myths certainly reflect a perspective of deities who are all too often all-powerful and continually misbehaving humans.

In The Clockwork Crown, we, along with our heroine Octavia Leander, discover that in her world the second quote is all too true, and in ways that may prove life-altering if not disastrous for Octavia herself.

clockwork dagger by beth catoI read Clockwork Crown immediately after finishing The Clockwork Dagger (enthusiastically reviewed here), because it was obvious at that point that Octavia’s adventure wasn’t over, and that things might get pretty dark before all of the issues finally got resolved.

Also, Miss Percival had some redemption coming, and I wasn’t too picky how she got it. The way that particular plot point resolved was awesome. And truly redemptive.

But a lot of Octavia’s story in The Clockwork Crown has an element of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. Every time she thinks she’s solved one piece of the infernal puzzle, or has earned herself just a tiny break, events go spinning out of her control and she is back in the thick of it again.

There’s a bit of a “Perils of Pauline” aspect, except that Pauline’s perils mostly only affected herself, where the outcome of Octavia’s perils is either going to save or condemn two countries, and possibly the world.

Whether Octavia gets her own happy ending – well that is in the lap of the gods. Or at least one particular god who doesn’t even have a lap.

Escape Rating A: I don’t want to spoil the story, and there are so many possible ways to spoil things.

Everyone who Octavia has met along her journey has a part to play in this epic conclusion. Some of those parts are for good, and some, well, not so much.

Octavia finds out that nothing and no one in her life or history is exactly what she thought. There was a point in the story where I thought it was going to go the way that M.J. Scott’s The Shattered Crown (reviewed at The Book Pushers) or Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series (reviews here, here and here) have done. Meaning that the heroine would discover that the roles of good and bad were reversed from the way she had been taught.

The Clockwork Crown does not use that particular out. Admittedly, neither the Caskentians or the Dallowmen, as the Wasters prefer to be called, are particularly admirable by this point in a 50-year war. But neither of them is really evil. They are both corrupt and both exhausted and they both want victory after decades of violence and destruction.

It’s not that they don’t each perform some evil acts, because they both do. But there’s no Sauron and no forces of irredeemable darkness. They’re just people who have been hanging onto the end of their fraying rope for far too long.

There’s also an element in the story that I think of as coming from Battlestar Galactica, but of course this trope has been around forever. “This has all happened before and it will all happen again.” What drives this story is that it has been so long since it happened before, and the secret has been held so close, that no one knows what it means or even what “it” is, until the very end.

A point at which it is almost too late for everyone, especially Octavia. Who still just wants a cottage and a garden and people to help and heal. The only way that her dream has changed is that she now knows she wants Alonzo Garret to share it with her.

But she has to choose between her own dreams and saving the world. The questions are both “should she?” and “does she?” The answer is marvelous.

The Clockwork Crown Book Banner

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato

clockwork dagger by beth catoFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: fantasy, steampunk
Series: Clockwork Dagger #1
Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date Released: September 16, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Orphaned as a child, Octavia Leander was doomed to grow up on the streets until Miss Percival saved her and taught her to become a medician. Gifted with incredible powers, the young healer is about to embark on her first mission, visiting suffering cities in the far reaches of the war-scarred realm. But the airship on which she is traveling is plagued by a series of strange and disturbing occurrences, including murder, and Octavia herself is threatened.

Suddenly, she is caught up in a flurry of intrigue: the dashingly attractive steward may be one of the infamous Clockwork Daggers—the Queen’s spies and assassins—and her cabin-mate harbors disturbing secrets. But the danger is only beginning, for Octavia discovers that the deadly conspiracy aboard the airship may reach the crown itself.

My Review:

The world of Beth Cato’s Clockwork Dagger is so enthralling that I started the next book, The Clockwork Crown, the minute I finished this one, and in spite of the TBR pile from hell. I just had to find out what happens next.

Not that this one ends on a cliffhanger. It doesn’t. It’s more that the ending comes to a nice interim conclusion but it is so obvious that Octavia and Garret (and Leaf!) have many more adventures to survive before they reach their goal. A goal that they still haven’t completely identified by the end of Dagger.

deepest poison by beth catoWe start with Octavia Leander, the best medician of her generation, and possibly of every other generation. We first met Octavia in The Deepest Poison (reviewed here) and got a picture of her as gifted, talented and driven. Also as someone who obeys her own heart and her own conscience above any orders, no matter how sensible those orders might be.

Octavia is on her own now, traveling to take up a position as medician in the small, remote village of Delford, where an outbreak of plague requires the services of a medician in order to bring the village back to health.

The war between Caskentia and The Waste is over, or at least halted, so Octavia needs a position to keep herself occupied, employed and self-sufficient. Unfortunately for Octavia, and everyone else in both countries, this armistice, like all the ones before it, is deemed, or doomed, to be temporary.

Octavia has never traveled alone before. Medicians of the Percival School are generally protected and kept apart. The cacophony of voices who need their services makes it difficult for them to be among large groups of people. Octavia literally hears the music of their bodies, and can hear in an instant when someone is ill, or even just tired. In a large group, there are always lots of people who are not quite well. And even more who are demanding of the magical healing that only a medician can provide, whether they need it or not.

So even though Octavia is trying to hide her identity, she doesn’t know how to turn off her need to help people. A need that is sorely taxed when the airship she flies on is struck by a mysterious case of poisoning.

Medicinal magic as strong as that exhibited by Octavia in The Deepest Poison, can be a blessing or a curse. Octavia wants to heal all who need her, but realizes that her resources are finite, even if her desire is not.

The government of Caskentia fears her power. Even though she is a Caskentian citizen, the crown is all too aware that the power to heal can also become the power to kill. And Caskentia can’t afford for a potential weapon as powerful as Octavia to fall into the hands of the Wasters. The Wasters want to use Octavia’s power to heal their blighted lands, among other less benign “requests”.

Octavia just wants a cottage, an herb garden, and people to heal who like and respect her.

What she gets is a long-lost princess, a disabled and disgraced imperial assassin, and a grateful gremlin. While it is not certain that any faction specifically wants her dead, all the factions are certain that it is better for their side if she is dead instead of possessed by another.

As she dodges repeated assassination attempts, and fails to dodge repeated kidnapping attempts, she learns who she can really trust. And finds love in the arms of her greatest nightmare.

Escape Rating A-: In Clockwork Dagger we see the roots of, and the effects of, the battle that Octavia was caught in the middle of in The Deepest Poison. The battle, the war, the reasons surrounding it, even the people that Octavia relies on – nothing and no one is as it seems. Not even The Lady, the tree from whom Octavia derives her healing power and whom Octavia and all the Percival medicians worship as the source of all healing power and healing herbs.

The seeds sown in that earlier battle all bear fruit, much of it poisonous. Out of jealousy, the woman who raised and trained Octavia betrays her for money. Even worse, she also betrays the long-lost princess of Caskentia, the woman whose kidnapping began the war 50 years ago. Octavia’s solution to the poisoning plot brought her to the attention of the Wasters, who want to kidnap her and use her against her own country – or force her into become a short-lived broodmare like all the other Waster women.

Even her own government would rather have her killed than let the Wasters have her. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for Octavia, they sent Alonzo Garret to assassinate her, expecting him to fail. But certainly not expecting him to fall for his charge, and absolutely not expecting her to fall for him.

Alonzo is the son of the man who burned Octavia’s village and orphaned her. He is also an apprentice Clockwork Dagger, and he lost the lower part of one leg in battle. The clockwork mecha that replaced it keeps him from acting or appearing disabled, but also provides a weak point for enemies to attack.

The romance between Alonzo and Octavia is very sweet, actually quite courtly, and very slow. They each have layers and layers of lies and misdirection that they have to reveal to each other before they can reach a level of trust. It takes a lot of time and effort on both their parts to get there. It is a revelation for Octavia that she is able to trust Alonzo, when his father’s name has always been the source of her greatest fears.

My favorite character in this story is the gremlin Leaf. Octavia rescues the tiny creature from a brutal attack, and comes to love him as a pet without caring that he is part construct or realizing that he is much, much more intelligent (and communicative!) than he first appears. She needs someone or something to care for in her aloneness, and Leaf is there and adorable and loving. She loves and is loved in return, expecting nothing, but receives everything.

There is more magic than steampunk in the worldbuilding of this series, but the way it blends together is awesome. This is a war where there are no good guys, and frankly no bad guys, at least at the level of nation-states.

Plenty of individuals do plenty of bad things, but there are no evil causes, per se. Everyone is using their limited means to attempt to heal and fix two countries that have both become corrupted, albeit in completely different ways.

At the end of The Clockwork Dagger, it is clear that the necessary healing is going to be hard-won. And that Octavia is going to be at the center of it whether she wants to be or not.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Deepest Poison by Beth Cato

deepest poison by beth catoFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genre: fantasy, steampunk
Series: Clockwork Dagger #0.5
Length: 48 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse
Date Released: April 28, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

Octavia Leander, a young healer with incredible powers, has found her place among Miss Percival’s medicians-in-training. Called to the frontlines of a never-ending war between Caskentia and the immoral Wasters, the two women must uncover the source of a devastating illness that is killing thousands of soldiers. But when Octavia’s natural talents far outshine her teacher’s, jealousy threatens to destroy their relationship—as time runs out to save the encampment.

My Review:

clockwork dagger by beth catoThe Deepest Poison is a prequel novella for Beth Cato’s Clockwork Dagger Duology. However, it was written, or at least published, between book 1 (The Clockwork Dagger) and book 2 (The Clockwork Crown). I have not read either of the two books yet, although I’m reading The Clockwork Dagger next week and The Clockwork Crown in early June as part of a tour.

So for folks who read the first book when it came out, The Deepest Poison serves as a peek into the background of a character they already know. For new readers, it’s a 50 page introduction into the world of the novels.

When The Deepest Poison opens, we find ourselves in the midst of a war that seems to have gone on forever. Our point-of-view character is not Octavia Leander, but her teacher and mentor, the medician (read as healer) Miss Percival.

We are in Miss Percival’s head and it is not a comfortable place to be. Miss Percival is not a comfortable person, period, and she has a lot of very human thoughts about Leander. Miss Percival is the head of the medician order and is used to being the most powerful and most talented person around.

Octavia Leander forces her to acknowledge that she is neither, and Percival hates that acknowledgement and the person who forces her into it. It is all too human not to like people who upstage us, whether they intend to or not.

Percival wants age and treachery to beat youth and skill, but those days are inevitably numbered. Her jealousy of Leander’s talent and ability is a palpable force.

The setting is a military camp and its medical aid (medician) station. In spite of the use of magic instead of surgery, the camp felt a lot like a MASH unit, with meatball magic substituting for meatball surgery. Medical triage looks and sounds like medical triage, no matter how the medicine is performed.

The mystery in the story concerns that long-standing war between what we are supposed to see as the good guys (Percival and Leander’s side) and the bad guys, who are called “Wasters”. Not because they waste things, but because they come from a region called “The Waste”.

Either there is a highly contagious disease spreading through the camp, a disease that seems to be dysentery from hell, or someone has poisoned the water supply, which is not supposed to be possible.

One of the conflicts between Percival and Leander is that Leander believes the best of everyone. She is certain that her sanitation squad has been properly performing their jobs, and that the water supply is as magically protected as it ever was. She can’t solve the current problem because she is unable to let herself investigate all the possible causes.

At this stage in her career, Leander is a bit too goody-goody, or so it seems.

Percival, on the other hand, is older and much, much more knowledgeable about the dark side of human nature. She doesn’t trust, she verifies. Unfortunately, she verifies that someone has tampered with the water supply and that the tampering is an inside job.

It would seem like they could work together successfully – each provides something that the other lacks. But Percival is too protective of her own privileges, and Leander is just plain certain that their goddess, The Lady, has given her special talents and the requirements to use them, no matter what her worldly superiors might say.

While the conflict between the two women remains unspoken for the duration of this particular battle, the reader can see that there is trouble ahead, with no certainty which of them, if either, really has the right of it.

And the war goes on.

Escape Rating B: While this novella is too short to give new readers enough background on the war between the Kingdom and the Wasters, it does do a good job of getting the reader right into the midst of its action, and provides a fascinating portrait of its two main characters, particularly Percival.

Because Percival has more of a long view of her medician corps and the life and career of Leander, we get an absorbing peek into Percival’s unhappy head and a portrait of Leander from the outside. Leander comes off as incredibly gifted goody-two-shoes who would be a pain in the ass for almost any commander. She does what she thinks is best, regardless of orders or rules. When she’s right, as she is about the ultimate cure for the poison, she is very, very right. But when she’s wrong, she’s also very, very wrong. Without Percival’s practiced and practical intervention, the stage would never have been set for Leander’s miraculous cure.

clockwork crown by beth catoAs someone who is planning to read the rest of the series, I got a good taste of who these characters are, and I’m appropriately teased enough to want to know more about their world and how things proceeded from here.

I’m now eagerly looking forward to The Clockwork Dagger and The Clockwork Crown. This novella has definitely accomplished its job.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Brass Giant by Brooke Johnson

brass giant by brooke johnsonFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genre: steampunk
Series: Chroniker City #1
Length: 236 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

Sometimes, even the most unlikely person can change the world

Seventeen-year-old Petra Wade, self-taught clockwork engineer, wants nothing more than to become a certified member of the Guild, an impossible dream for a lowly shop girl. Still, she refuses to give up, tinkering with any machine she can get her hands on, in between working and babysitting her foster siblings.

When Emmerich Goss—handsome, privileged, and newly recruited into the Guild—needs help designing a new clockwork system for a top-secret automaton, it seems Petra has finally found the opportunity she’s been waiting for. But if her involvement on the project is discovered, Emmerich will be marked for treason, and a far more dire fate would await Petra.

Working together in secret, they build the clockwork giant, but as the deadline for its completion nears, Petra discovers a sinister conspiracy from within the Guild council … and their automaton is just the beginning.

My Review:

The story outline is a familiar one, but the steampunk setting changes up some of the elements in some very interesting ways.

The plot is simple – underprivileged girl with big dreams meets highly privileged guy who will help her realize her dreams, but only if she helps him with super-secret project. This is a society where no one believes that women have intelligence or capability, so no one important will suspect she is really helping him. And of course they fall in love, and get caught, not necessarily in that order, and discover that the entire enterprise is much more serious, and much, much more dangerous, than they ever imagined.

Add in one final element – that underprivileged girl is an orphan, who turns out to be the heir of someone very, very special.

The steampunk setting gives us somewhat of a time and place reference. Chroniker City is definitely in England (that turns out to be important later) and it is a university town like Oxford or Cambridge. It isn’t London, because London is referred to as the capitol far away.

As steampunk, The Brass Giant is set in a quasi-Victorian era. There is a queen on the throne, and some of the historical worthies who have their portraits in the great hall are familiar, most notably Charles Babbage, inventor of the difference engine that evolved into computers in our world.

In the late Victorian era, England was playing what has been called “The Great Game”, an undercover war of diplomacy and proxies. In the Chroniker City world, their main rival seems to be France instead of Russia. But then again, Britain and France were perpetual rivals, from the point where Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled England in 1154 until well after the end of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. This was a conflict that never seemed to end.

Petra Wade is an orphan. She works as a shop girl in a pawnshop, and has learned how to be a fantastically good practical engineer with the help of the clockmaker who co-owns the shop. More than anything else, she wants to become a Guild Engineer, but that dream is forbidden. Guild Engineers must graduate from the University, and women are allowed in neither the University nor the Guild.

But Petra wants more than her life is mapped out to be. In spite of constant humiliation, she pursues her dream, even attempting to enter the University pretending to be male. All she faces is more and more embarrassment.

Until one young Guild Engineer, Emmerich Goss, discovers her talent. He needs her help to build a giant automaton. It’s a top secret project for the Guild, and he can’t enlist the aid of anyone they might suspect. The project is so secret that it is treason for Emmerich to reveal it. So of course he does.

Petra is good at clockworks, and Emmerich has invented a remote control mechanism. Together, they create a marvel. Only to discover that someone plans to use their great invention to start a war. And that Emmerich is forced to save Petra’s life by condemning her as a traitor.

They say you always hurt the one you love. Emmerich finds that true in more ways than one.

Escape Rating B: This is fun steampunk. While there is a romance between Petra and Emmerich, it is very sweet and almost innocent for most of the book. Petra falls in love for the first time because Emmerich both shares her interests and treats her as an equal. Emmerich loves her brilliance and her dedication. They are good together.

One of the plot twists in the story is that the orphaned Petra is the daughter of the city’s founder and first engineer, Lady Adelaide Chroniker. Which both makes Petra kind of a secret princess and puts the lie to the current Guild malarkey that only men can become engineers.

The way that Petra and Emmerich find each other, and all the political secrets they get stuck dealing with, along with Petra’s lineage, reminded me more than a bit of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. (The original version of The Brass Giant came out before Cinder was published, so this is an interesting coincidence that just shows that great plots can come out of the same seed with no knowledge of each other).

While I like Petra as the heroine a lot, she is also an example of the plucky heroine who always “knows” that she doesn’t belong in the place where tragedy has dropped her.

On that other hand, one of the characters who seemed a bit too bad to be true was her childhood friend Tolly. Although they were clearly playmates as little children, when they grew up Tolly became an overbearing bully who spouted the same filth and degradation about women as his father, and then blamed Petra for not choosing him over Emmerich. The scene where Tolly attempts to beat and rape Petra into compliance, blaming her for his thuggery, came out a bit too much like a modern-day Men’s Rights Activist. He’ll give Petra everything she ought to want if she’ll just give in, and he’ll beat her until she admits that he’s right and it’s all her fault he has to beat her.

The plot that Petra and Emmerich find themselves caught in the middle of is suitably politically underhanded. Someone wants to start a war, and is looking for plausible causes and convenient scapegoats. The way that Petra and Emmerich try to either escape the evil clutches or foil the plot has many hair-raising moments, but is ultimately unsuccessful in the main. The small victories give Petra and Emmerich (and their readers) hope for the future..

They will live to fight another day. I’m looking forward to reading their further adventures.

The Brass Giant Book Banner

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro

Emissaries From the DeadFormat read: Paperback (purchased)
Formats available: ebook, audiobook, paperback
Genre: Science Fictions
Series: Andrea Cort #1
Length: 387 pgs
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date Released: February 26, 2008
Purchasing Info: Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & NobleBook Depository

Two murders have occurred on One One One, an artificial ecosystem created by the universe’s dominant AIs to house several engineered species, including a violent, sentient race of sloth-like creatures. Under order from the Diplomatic Corps, Counselor Andrea Cort has come to this cylinder world where an indentured human community hangs suspended high above a poisoned, acid atmosphere. Her assignment is to choose a suitable homicide suspect from among those who have sold their futures to escape existences even worse than this one. And no matter where the trail leads her she must do nothing to implicate the hosts, who hold the power to obliterate humankind in an instant.

But Andrea Cort is not about to hold back in her hunt for a killer. For she has nothing to lose and harbors no love for her masters or fellow indentures. And she herself has felt the terrible exhilaration of taking life

My Review:

Andrea Cort is considered a War Criminal by the standards of her society. Not because she participated in genocide, created weapons of mass destruction, or otherwise participated in a war. Andrea Cort has been a war criminal since the grand old age of 8, when she dared to survive the homicidal frenzy that whipped through and ultimately decimated her community.

The things that happened one night on Bocai had caused such a diplomatic firestorm that the authorities, including the Confederacy and the Bocaians themselves, had declared the survivors better off permanently disappeared.

I still don’t know what happened to most of the others. I suspect they’re dead, or still imprisoned somewhere. But I’d been shipped to someplace I don’t like thinking about, there to be caged and prodded and analyzed in the hope of determining just what environmental cause had turned so many previously peaceful sentients into vicious monsters.

My keepers spent ten years watching for my madness to reoccur. It had been ten years of reminders that I was an embarrassment to my very species, ten years of being escorted from room to room under guard, ten years of being asked if I wanted to kill anything else. The people who studied me during these years were not all inhuman. Some even tried to show me affection, though to my eyes their love had all the persuasive realism of lines in a script being read by miscast actors. Even the best of them knew I was a bomb that could go off again, at any time; if sometimes moved to give me hugs, they never attempted it without a guard in the room. Others, the worst among them, figured that whatever lay behind my eyes had been tainted beyond all repair, and no longer qualified as strictly human—and being less than strictly human themselves, treated themselves to any cruel pleasures they cared to claim from a creature awful enough to deserve anything they did to her.

Even freedom, when it came, came in a form of a slightly longer leash.

“We’ve gotten your latest test scores, Andrea. They’re quite remarkable. You deserve every educational opportunity we can provide for you. But we can’t quite justify letting you go. There are just too many races out there that don’t believe in pleas of temporary insanity, and unless we come up with some solution that stays their hand, they’ll do whatever they can to extradite you. But if you want, you can walk out of here and enjoy Immunity. All you have to do is allow us to remain your legal guardians, for the rest of your natural life.”

We meet Andrea well into her lifetime of servitude to the government that blamed a child for surviving a massacre, and subjected her to a cycle of hatred, rape, and torture before it realized the financial advantages of enslaving her mind in addition to her body.

Andrea is thus titled a Counselor – a Prosecutor for the Diplomatic Corps – authorized to conduct investigations into crimes occurring on various diplomatic bases, and prosecute the identified offenders. All while her supervisor continuously raises legal challenges to her Diplomatic Immunity and the criminals she prosecutes bask in their moral superiority over the Counselor busting them. They may sexually enslave their subordinates or brutally murder their colleagues, but they, at least, are not infamous War Criminals.

The primary plot of Emissaries for the Dead is pure murder mystery, as Andrea investigates the two deaths that brought her to the diplomatic nightmare that is One One One. These murders unexpectedly lead Andrea to uncover the long-buried truths of her past and the massacre that defines her existence. Both plots are skillfully intertwined and engaging, jumping with ease between the two so that we share Andrea’s fatigue and frustration at being forced to simultaneously juggle so many personal, professional, and political issues, but also cannot wait to discover what exactly is going on at One One One.

The supporting cast of characters, ranging from spies to victims to world-weary bureaucrats are as carefully developed as the protagonist. Andrea’s tendency to distrust ensures that she refuses to accept anyone at face value, and keeps digging until we have a full comprehension of each character we meet.

Adam Troy Castro creates an impressively vast world for Andrea to inhabit. There is never any doubt that she exists in a universe filled with hundreds of sentient species, thousands of governments, and one giant bureaucratic clusterfuck that barely manages to pull together the unified human front necessary for our species to navigate impossibly complex interstellar relations. He also manages to skillfully include one of the most apt descriptions (and criticisms) of administrative government that is as true today as it is in the future inhabited by Andrea Cort and the other denizens of One One One (just exchange the futuristic bonds to get off-world for modern student loan debt):

“As far as I’m concerned,” Lastogne said, with weary contempt, “the Dip Corps is a meritocracy in reverse. By its very design, nobody who sticks around is any good. The genuinely talented work off their bonds quickly thanks to incentives and bonuses. The incompetent get fined with extra time and find themselves shunted to more and more irrelevant assignments. Everybody in the great big mediocre middle, and everybody insane enough to fall off the scale entirely, winds up assigned to Management—and Management’s never been interested in really doing the job, not at any point in human history. Management’s true agenda has always been making things more pleasant for Management.”

Perhaps this is why the Diplomatic Corps went to such lengths to enslave Andrea? In the normal course of things, brilliant young minds such as hers flee government servitude, while she has been forced to embrace the slightly larger cage offered by her tormentors. I guess you’ll just have to read Emissaries From the Dead to find out!

Escape Rating A for Andrea Kicking Ass! In the end it is impossible to disclose too much about the plot without spoilers. It is safe to say that this War Criminal Turned Space Lawyer is a riveting read that you will not be able to put down. The world-building is top notch, the characters are fully-developed and consistent. The plot is a page turner that kept me up all night and forced me to immediately delve into Book 2, The Third Claw of God, which I will be reviewing next week. (Spoiler Alert: Loved It!)

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Phoenix Rising by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris

phoenix rising by ballantine and morrisFormat read: ebook purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback ebook
Genre: steampunk
Series: Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences #1
Length: 402 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date Released: April 26, 2011
Purchasing Info: Pip Ballantine’s Website, Tee Morris’ Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In Victorian England, Londoners wash up dead on Thames, drained of blood and bone. Clandestine Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is forbidden to investigate. But Eliza Braun, with bulletproof corset, fondness for dynamite, remarkable devices, drags along timorous new partner Wellington Books, of encyclopedic brain, against Phoenix intent on enslaving Britons.

My Review:

I read this by accident. Lucky for me, it was a good accident. If you’re wondering how to read a book by accident, it’s pretty simple. Just get on an airplane. Even with an ereader, all you’ve got is what you’ve already downloaded. Then hunt for a book by title, and forget to check the author. It also helps to have multiple books with the same title.

If you’re keeping score, I intended to read Phoenix Rising by Corrina Lawson, because it’s in my queue for Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly. Instead, I started Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. Obviously, I intended to read it at some point, or it wouldn’t have been on my iPad. And now that I have read it, I’m moving the rest of the series way up my TBR list.

It’s turned out to be a happy accident. It reminded me that a very long time ago, I read a book by Tee Morris and Lisa Lee titled Morevi, and utterly loved it. (If you love epic fantasy and can find a copy, it’s very worth it)

This Phoenix Rising takes place in a very steampunk version of London, and centers around two agents of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. The agents are, of course, chalk and cheese, as the British would say. Wellington Books is the Ministry archivist; he spends most of his time in the subbasement, organizing the very dangerous artifacts and sometimes dull case files that are sent down by field agents after they complete their assignments – or by their colleagues if the agent doesn’t come back.

Eliza Braun is a field agent with an insubordinate streak a mile wide. She’s looked down upon both as a female agent and as a representative from the far-flung colonies – she’s proud to be the only Kiwi (New Zealander) in the London office of the Ministry.

Books and Braun are thrown together when she is sent to make sure he doesn’t spill any Ministry secrets while in the torturing hands of the House of Usher. Thinking fast on her feet, or being insubordinate as usual, Eliza rescues Books instead of eliminating him as instructed. She was sure that he hadn’t broken yet, and she was right.

Not that they both don’t get punished for her actions and his gullibility at being taken in the first place. The head of the Ministry assigns Eliza to the archives as Books’ apprentice, taking her out of the field and giving him an assistant who upsets his sense of order at every turn.

Partially to keep from driving each other crazy, and partially because Eliza can’t stand being out of the field, and Books has now developed a taste for it, they take up a cold case from the archives. It’s not really all that cold, at least to Eliza – it’s the case that got her last partner sent to Bedlam.

She wants to finish what he started. Books wants to keep his new partner reasonably safe.

The Phoenix wants to create a country of pure-blooded Britons, and enslave the rest. But it will take all of Braun’s ingenuity as well as the dangerous side that Books keeps firmly in check in order to figure out who their real enemy is, and stop them before it gets any later.

The ride is wild and the stakes are high. The depths of the conspiracies will require extensive plumbing. Getting out alive is not just optional, but downright iffy. And it’s a blast!

Escape Rating B+: This story is an absolute blast, and not just because Eliza likes playing with explosives. A lot.

The setting reminded me of the TV series, The Wild Wild West (not that gawdawful movie), except of course this is London and not the American West. But the sensibilities of the thing, where the agents have access to a ton of cutting edge (bleeding edge) toys and there’s a hint that either the good guys, the bad guys, or everyone, is playing with stuff on the limits of rational and scientific theory. Sometimes, things slip over into the paranormal, but it’s a slip rather than a full-fledged paranormal setting. The sense that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

A big chunk of the story is Books and Braun managing to become real partners. I mean this is the working sense and not the romantic sense. There is some chemistry, but these are people who first need to find a way to trust each other to guard their backs. Partially because they constantly get themselves into situations where their backs need guarding, and partially because they both have negative experiences in trusting other people. If these two are intended to be romantic partners at some point, that point is a long way off at the end of this story.

This entry in the annals of the Ministry also serves as an introduction to this construction of Victorian England and the author’s particular version of the political skullduggery as well. An underlying subplot in the story is that there are wheels within wheels within wheels, and not just in the Ministry. The Phoenix may be the primary enemy in this story, but the notorious House of Usher looms in the background as an evil rival to both the Phoenix and the Ministry. And in the tradition of nasty politics everywhere, the Ministry and its chief Doctor Small have enemies within the government who either want to bring them down, or steal their funding.

The sense of urgency and adventure in Phoenix Rising rests on the characters of the two agents. Also on their mutual discovery of each other’s hidden depths. Neither of them are exactly what the personas they have adopted represent, and it is fun to see them figure out that the other is not what they believed. They fit, but not in the way that either of them expects.

If you like steampunk adventure, Phoenix Rising is the start of a tremendously fun adventure.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Queen of the Dark Things by C. Robert Cargill

queen of the dark things by c robert cargillFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genre: Fantasy, Contemporary fantasy
Length: 448 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date Released: May 13, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Screenwriter and noted film critic C. Robert Cargill continues the story begun in his acclaimed debut Dreams and Shadows in this bold and brilliantly crafted tale involving fairies and humans, magic and monsters—a vivid phantasmagoria that combines the imaginative wonders of Neil Gaiman, the visual inventiveness of Guillermo Del Toro, and the shocking miasma of William S. Burroughs.

Six months have passed since the wizard Colby lost his best friend to an army of fairies from the Limestone Kingdom, a realm of mystery and darkness beyond our own. But in vanquishing these creatures and banning them from Austin, Colby sacrificed the anonymity that protected him. Now, word of his deeds has spread, and powerful enemies from the past—including one Colby considered a friend—have resurfaced to exact their revenge.

As darkness gathers around the city, Colby sifts through his memories desperate to find answers that might save him. With time running out, and few of his old allies and enemies willing to help, he is forced to turn for aid to forces even darker than those he once battled.

Following such masters as Lev Grossman, Erin Morgenstern, Richard Kadrey, and Kim Harrison, C. Robert Cargill takes us deeper into an extraordinary universe of darkness and wonder, despair and hope to reveal the magic and monsters around us . . . and inside us.

My Review:

The Queen of the Dark Things is a very direct sequel to Dreams and Shadows. And I can’t exactly say that I liked Dreams and Shadows. I found it interesting, but it also reminded me quite a bit of Neil Gaiman’s early work, particularly Neverwhere, with a slice of American Gods thrown in to give it body. Or several bodies.

dreams and shadows by c robert cargillBoth Dreams and Shadows and The Queen of the Dark Things are contemporary fantasy, of that particular flavor where myth still lives alongside of our technological world, and where our lack of belief in magic and the old ways is squeezing out a great deal of what was once wondrous in the world. Which doesn’t mean that the nasty stuff in the shadows isn’t still there, just that most of us can’t see it. The dark things are still plenty capable of screwing us over.

The Queen of the Dark Things is about living with the consequences of our actions. Just because much of the setting takes place in a slightly fantastic version of Austin, Texas and among the myths of the Australian dreamtime doesn’t change the essential truth. This is a story about consequences.

It’s also about a very “Clever Man” playing a very long game, in the hopes and not the certainty of getting the right people into the right places at the right time to achieve what he hopes will be the best outcome. A case of the needs of the future outweighing the needs of the present.

He maneuvers two children into positions of power, one to become the wizard Colby Stevens, who we first met in Dreams and Shadows; and the other to become The Queen of the Dark Things. He does it to prevent seventy two demons from being free to wreck havoc on the world, and he hopes that he is not setting up a future that will be worse.

The demons have been planning this particular game for five hundred years, and they don’t care how much damage they do. They just want to win.

But the demons have misjudged Colby. He wants what he has always wanted. And it has never been any of the things that they want. Which might just be enough to save him.

Escape Rating C: The story in The Queen of the Dark Things takes a long time to set up, and that’s on top of having read Dreams and Shadows last year. It veers into literary science fiction, so if you like your explanations long and lyrical, this might be for you. I would have preferred that the story get to the action quicker.

The plot is incredibly convoluted. The demons made a bet 500 years ago, and in order to tally it up, they’ve been messing about with shadow puppets ever since. While Colby was still a child learning magic, his mentor left him with an Aborigine shaman for a while, the “Clever Man” Mandu, and Mandu set up this particular future in the Dreamtime.

It’s a long, sad, crazy story, but Colby and Kaycee, the girl who becomes the Queen, have been set up by the demons and Mandu to take the demons down several pegs.

The issue I have with The Queen of the Dark Things was that I didn’t feel enough for the characters to be invested in their story or what happened to them. Although Colby is the central character, so much of the story is based on something that happened when he was a child, and he’s remembering rather than feeling–his story is stripped of the emotions. We don’t see Kaycee’s feelings or thoughts in the now; what there is of the real her is stuck in the past. Even Mandu is a ghost.

The character whom I cared about the most was the dog, Gossamer. He’s an awesome dog.

The story told in The Queen of the Dark Things had the potential to be a fascinating re-imagining of old mythology into modern storytelling. But it just didn’t catch me by the heart.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.