Peril in the Old Country, by Sam Hooker

38105469Sam Hooker’s Peril in the Old Countrythe first novel in a trilogy, is a new entry on the very short list of books that feel like they were written to spec for me. It has a shy, sheltered character who finds themselves suddenly way over their head in conspiracy and derring-do. The world is full of goofy details (goblins the appear when people swear, for example), with satirical subtext. It’s written with an old-fashioned loopiness with paragraphs that start with exposition and end with jokes dotted throughout the text. I loved everything about this book except for the cliffhanger ending.

Sloot Peril does his best to be the perfect citizen and accountant so that he can spend his life drawing absolutely no attention to himself. But then he corrects a report written by a coworker and gets a promotion. For anyone else, this would be great news. Sloot thinks so to, at first. When he tells his mother the wonderful news, he is stunned to learn that she has been a spy for the Old Country’s nemesis, Carpathia. No only that, but she’s retiring so that Sloot can take over. Being a spy is the last thing he wants. He doesn’t want to be caught and sent to the Ministry of Conversation (recently rebranded by the Ministry of Propaganda). Unfortunately for Sloot, everyone else in his life easily out-stubborns him. Sloot reluctantly takes up his new posts as Carpathian spy and financier for the scion of the richest family in Salzstadt, the capitol city of the Old Country.

Adventure arrives soon after. Before long, Sloot has to deal with all the people who think they can tell him what to do, getting involved in plots, trying not to swear, keeping a man-child from disaster, and not blow his cover. Peril in the Old Country runs along the fine line between action and comedy, with some touching little scenes in which Sloot tries to share his feelings for Myrtle (who is inconveniently possessed by the ghost of a philosopher). I enjoyed this book so much that I almost swore when I came to the cliffhanger ending. Now I have to wait who knows how long until the next book comes out and I can find out what happened to Sloot and Co.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

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Armistice, by Lara Elena Donnelly

36480645Armistice, the sequel to Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, picks up three years after the disastrous takeover by the fascist Ospies (One State Party). The characters who survived to live another day are now exiled in the neighboring country of Porcharis. Cordelia, the dancer turned guerrilla leader, had a narrow escape but is plotting her way back home. Artistide, however, is mourning the death of his lover and has buried himself in work and drink. When another character enters the scene, it gives both of them the opportunity to get what they want if they are willing to take the chance—and if their luck holds out.

That character is Lillian DePaul, Aristide’s lover’s sister. She is working for the Ospies as their publicist. She works under duress, as the Ospies have her son. One misstep and Lillian will never see the boy again. Her status quo is disrupted when her boss tells her that one of their colleagues, Memmidev, maybe plotting to right some historic wrongs of his own against the One State Party. Lillian is no spy, not like her brother was, but she does the best she can by using her own connections to try and dig up the necessary dirt. Her clumsy spying becomes the catalyst that drives a host of characters to up their game.

Most of Armistice is scheming. Plans are fleshed out, abandoned, and resurrected as characters uncover ever more secrets. Throughout all of this skullduggery, the characters ask the same question: who can I trust? In some cases, past relationships answer the question. Lillian can trust her old lover because he is her son’s father. Cordelia and Aristide can trust each other because they were friends at the old Bumble Bee in Amberlough. The answer is much more complicated for other characters. Can they trust a self-interested traitor who already betrayed them once? Can they trust the arms dealer who is really just out to preserve her illicit empire? And what about the dilettante foreign prince who seems much more interested in his movie star lover yet knows a surprising amount of state secrets?

Armistice was an great read, tightly written with plenty of character development and tense moments. I strongly recommend reading Amberlough first. Armistice pushes readers right into the deep end and it’s easy to get lost without the necessary background. There will be a sequel to this book, but I don’t think Armistice has even a whiff of middle book syndrome: lot happens in this book. Characters grow. Plots are hatched and executed. There are double-crosses and confrontations. This really was a lot of fun to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

Monstress, Vol. I, by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda

29396738Volume I of Monstress, by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda, contains the first six issues of the chilling but beautifully drawn comic series. As such, it plunges us into the deep end of the tense ceasefire between the Arcanics and humans. But Maika Halfwolf is on a personal quest that seems likely to send both sides back to armed conflict. Just to make things more interesting, Maika also finds herself on the front lines of a mystical battle that she never expected.

The first issue of Monstress opens with Maika apparently being sold to her enemies. I had no idea what was going on and I was instantly worried once Maika’s captors started to reveal what was going to happen to Maika and her fellow Arcanics. Fortunately (at least for some of them), Maika managed to achieve her goal. The problem is that she was working on her own and her bloody actions in the first issues of the series put the humans and the Arcanics back on war footing.

lot of people die in these first issues. If you’re at all squeamish, you might want to give this series a miss. Even with all the blood, Monstress is beautifully drawn. It has a steampunk art nouveau sensibility that I like a lot. The panels are so packed with detail that I had to go back to look at the background after I finished the dialog on a page.

The first issues of Monstress set up a massive story. There are brief pages, narrated by a scholarly four-tailed cat, that give a bit more of the history of this world and its peoples and conflicts. They’re welcome additions because the world-building in this series is astoundingly complex. I’m hooked because I just want to know what the hell happens next and how Maika is going to get herself out of the all the trouble she just landed in.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

23131088Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is a joy to read. I laughed my way through this unusual adventure fantasy, which had enough emotional depth and action scenes to keep it from being too arch to take seriously. Nimona is a young girl with unusual abilities who shows up one day and badgers supervillain Sir Ballister Blackheart into letting her be his sidekick. The rest of the book is mostly Blackheart trying to restrain his bloodthirsty assistant as they take down the sinister, fascist Institution (who claim to be good guys).

Sir Ballister used to be a good guy, until an accident with his friend Sir Goldenlion left him without an arm. Because a man with a robotic arm (and too much intelligence, let’s be honest) can’t be a hero for the Institution, he became a villain. Nimona, who has her own reasons for revenge against the Institution, signs up because she thinks she’ll finally be able to kills some people. Sir Ballister is not that kind of villain. Instead of killing people, he does everything he can to defeat the Institution without actually hurting anyone. His goodness annoys Nimona no end and her violence alarms him. In spite of their differences, they become close friends.

Nimona has a naive art style that reminds me a bit of Kate Beaton’s work. The characters are snakey and have odd proportions, but it all worked for me. I’m not a stickler for realistic art, especially when the style emotes so much and can convey such a strong sense of motion in the panels. The images of Nimona blowing her stack and Sir Ballister chasing after her are just hilarious.

The book follows Nimona and Sir Ballister as they face down the Institution, which is growing more evil by the day. Along the way, Nimona touches on questions of right and wrong, how far the ends justify or fail to justify the means, and what makes a monster. Because this book contains so much and tells its story in such an entertaining way, this is going to be a new go-to recommendation for me for anyone who says they like fantasy stories.

Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft

35271523There are many bad things that can happen on one’s honeymoon, but probably the worst thing that can happen is to lose one’s spouse within an hour of arriving at one’s destination. Even though he is armed with a guidebook and years of reading, this is precisely what happens to Thomas Senlin when he and his wife arrive at the Tower of Babel in Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin AscendsAfter Marya Senlin goes missing in the market on their way to their accommodations, Thomas vows to find her no matter how long it takes or what he has to do.

Based on the biblical Tower of Babel, the Tower in Senlin’s world never came down. As far as anyone knows, there are still people building new layers. The guidebooks all say that there is no experience like the Tower anywhere else in the world. It’s the perfect place to honeymoon. Unfortunately for the Senlins, their probably begin almost as soon as they arrive. There are so many people at the base of the tower that they have to force their way through a free form mob. Then they get separated at the market. Then Thomas gets robbed by a man he thinks might help him. Then he has to figure out what happened to Marya and follow her trail. Once he works out where she might have gone, Thomas has to make his way through the bizarre customs and governments of the different layers of the Tower to get to her.

Senlin Ascends riffs on Victorian travelogues and adventure stories (Thomas himself is a bit Victorian), with a dash of Pilgrim’s Progress. Because the Tower of Babel is at the heart of this book, it’s hard not to read parts of this book allegorically. Thomas not only travels upward but he becomes a better man. But, unlike Bunyan’s hero, Thomas becomes less naive and more ruthless on his path. As the novel progresses, the adventure takes over. By the end, Senlin Ascends is a rip-roaring yarn with sky pirates, conspiracies, and unstoppable assassins.

The only thing I’ll say about the end of this book is that it ends on a cliffhanger, which I hate. The good news is that the next book in the series, The Arm of the Sphinx, will be published shortly after Senlin Ascends. I just have to know if Thomas will be reunited with Marya—and what happened to her after Thomas lost her trail. Other than the cliffhanger issue, I really enjoyed this book. It’s highly original even with all the riffing, and Thomas’ journey and growth as a character is brilliantly handled. This book is just so damned much fun!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire

27366528Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in Seanan McGuire’s wonderfully imaginative and gritty series about children who travel through doors to worlds of Nonsense, Logic, Death, etc. On the other side of the doors, the children and teenagers usually find harrowing adventures and a place where they truly feel at home. In this entry, children from Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children go on a quest with a girl who fell out of the sky and into their turtle pond.

The books in the Wayward Children series are all blisteringly fast. After Rini—a girl with candy corn colored eyes—falls out of the sky and asks for help finding her mother, the students at the school immediately volunteer to help her. The fact that her mother was murdered before Rini was born is a complication, they admit. But since Rini and her mother belong to a world of Nonsense, cause and effect are fuzzy enough that their half-baked (‘scuze the pun) plan is crazy enough to work.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because a lot of the joy of these books is going on an adventure with the teens to bizarre words that seem more real than the earth they left behind. What I enjoy about this series is that all of the students were the heroes of their stories before they had to come back. They don’t shy away from things that seem difficult. They do what needs doing. But what I love about the series is that the characters have found places where their flaws are virtues, places that are the perfect home and no one gives them a hard time for being flighty or overweight or morbid. I’ve purchased the first two books in the series for my library and, as soon as they come in, they’re going to be my go-to recommendations for a lot of readers.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

Necessary Monsters, by Richard A. Kirk

32847778Although he considers himself a smooth criminal operator, I think it’s fair to say that Lumsden Moss has no idea what the hell he’s doing in Necessary Monsters, by Richard A. Kirk. At first, Moss is only involved in a little identity theft and a little vengeful larceny. Then his plans almost immediately go wrong and he finds out that there are much bigger fish in his pond than he realized. His little schemes are derailed when one of those bigger fish tells Moss that he has to find a women he thought had died many years ago. If he doesn’t find her, they will kill Moss. If he does find her, Moss will probably be killed anyway. Moss has been in tight spots before, but this one looks impossible to get out of.

Necessary Monsters is a modern-ish fantasy—so I wasn’t subjected to long journeys on horseback, stews, halflings, or lots of armor. I liked the odd world Kirk created for this novel; I actually wish that there had been a bit more world-building in Necessary Monsters. Like Moss, I had no idea what the stakes were nor did I understand the motivations of some of the weirder and sinister characters. Moss doesn’t ask very many probing questions, unfortunately for curious readers like me.

Moss’ mission in Necessary Monsters is to a) find an old friend who he thought had died decades ago in order to get a major criminal organization of his back (and possible dodge death) and b) to get his criminal ventures back on track. Moss has few allies in this. There’s his old friend, Irridis, who has even bigger fish than Moss has to fry. There’s also Imogene, who betrays the same criminal organization that’s after Moss in order to break free of it herself.

This much I understood. What I didn’t really understand was what kicked everything off in the first place. The prologue to Necessary Monsters and some clues dropped in the narrative hint at a huge, magical/historical conflict that is going on behind the scenes. This is what I wanted to know more about but, instead of world-building or filling in the blanks, we’re treated to a shoe-horned-in romantic subplot, Moss’ teenager-like moodiness, and a lot of flailing around as the protagonists try not to get killed.

Necessary Monsters, as far as I’m concerned, is a book with interesting possibilities that got derailed by some amateurish pacing and character development.

The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027It’s never easy to suddenly find oneself in the middle of a centuries’ old tangle of warfare, rebellion, and politics. Worse still, there’s magic in the mix. Nahri, at the beginning of S.A. Chakraborty’s astonishingly beautiful and thrilling The City of Brass, thinks she has a pretty good handle on life as a con artist in eighteenth century Cairo. But when she accidentally summons a djinn, Nahri is swept up into a strange world straight out of Arab and Persian myth and a lot of political wrangling. She is, quite simply, in over her head.

Nahri doesn’t know who her people are. She managed to bring herself up on the streets of Cairo by running scams. She’s always been able to do strange things like healing people and understanding every language spoken to her like a native. But when she attempts an exorcism (for the money, not because she believes in what she’s doing), Nahri manages to summon up a djinn from years of slavery and violence. The next thing Nahri knows, she’s on the run from ifrits, ghouls, and other mythical creatures. While she might have wandered into a fairy tale, this one is deadly serious. Not only that but her only guide, Dara, is irritated by her questions and his duty to shepherd her to the presumed safety of Daevabad.

Nahri is a scrappy survivor and I loved getting to know her. (Watching her needle the men around her is always a delight.) But I felt for her as she is forced to navigate her new world. There are the great expectations forced on her once Nahri’s heritage becomes clear. It’s as if Nahri has walked into a play in progress and no one handed her her lines. Everyone around her knows the city’s history, the properties of all the magical inhabitants, and what the all the factions are after. The former con artist is suddenly a pawn in a lot of different games.

It’s not all politics and magical training montages, however. There are several utterly thrilling action scenes in The City of Brass. I actually read through a few of them so fast that I had to go back and reread them; I raced ahead because I just had to know if my favorite characters survived. No one pulls their punches in this book and, even though this is a trilogy, it seems like no one is guaranteed to make it through to the next volumes apart from Nahri herself.

The City of Brass completely swept me away. (I loved it so much that I’m a little angry that I have to wait a little longer than everyone else to read the second book in the trilogy.) On top of the amazing, action-packed plot is a fully realized world full of magic and creatures from a tradition that hasn’t been thoroughly mined in English-language fiction. This review barely scrapes the surface of what I found in The City of Brass, but I will say that I was so hooked by this book that I read it in one sitting this evening after work. Dinner was whatever I could grab and eat with one hand. I am going to be singing this book’s praises for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake

28374007Some readers (at least those who remember Highlander) might sum up Kendare Blake’s series opener Three Dark Crowns with “there can be only one.” While I do remember Highlander, all I can say to summarize this book is “Oooh, you done fucked up.” In the world Blake created, three queens are born in every generation and, to rule, one has to kill the other two. The queens are born with special abilities—immunity to poison, power of nature, ability to manipulate the elements, etc.—to help them in their battles, along with advisors who are absolutely invested in holding or taking power. The problem is that his particular generation of queens and their advisors seem cursed. No one’s plans turn out right. Bad luck and misunderstandings just make everything worse. It’ll be a wonder if anyone manages to be queen after this not-so-comic series of errors.

Each chapter of Three Dark Crowns centers on a different potential queen. We meet Katherine, a poisoner who gets sick every time she takes poison. She and her guardians/advisors are desperate to keep this quiet. The previous three queens were poisoners and Katherine et al. don’t want to let down the side. Then there’s Arsinoe, who is supposed to be able to make things grow and bond with animals but can’t manage it. Her guardians and advisors seem to be already mourning her, knowing that she won’t be able to match her sisters. When we meet Mirabella, who can summon and control the elements, we get to see the queens’ magic. She is so talented that the contest is a forgone conclusion. The problem is that Mirabella does not want to kill her sisters.

Katherine and Arsinoe’s allies scheme to try and keep their queens alive. There are all kinds of underhanded plots, trickery, and dastardly deeds. Mirabella’s advisors, meanwhile, are trying to find a way to eliminate her competition since Mirabella is not willing to do so on her own. In spite of all this plotting, nothing goes right. There’s too much to explain (and too many twists to reveal), but everything gets incredibly complicated incredibly quickly. (Petyr Baelish would consider them very much amateur hour.) The only explanation for all the going awry is that whatever power behind the scenes (probably divine) is not happy with the way things are being done.

I was hugely entertained by Three Dark Queens but I hated the cliffhanger ending. The cliffhanger could be interpreted as a last bundle of twists. I, however, could only see it as a plot to make me by the next book in the series. I’m hugely tempted, but the third book in the series isn’t out and I’m worried that book two will end with more cliffhangers. I don’t want to be stuck wondering until it gets published; it would really hate that. This is such a fast paced series that having to wait is awful. This is definitely a series I should’ve waited until it was finished before I started.

I really want to know how everything turns out. Nuts.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

25526296Eleanor West runs a school for a very special group of students: young kids who’ve wandered into other worlds, had adventures, and really want to go back. The school is meant to help them cope with the “real” world again, or at least bide their time until the door to their preferred world opens up again. In Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, we watch as Nancy reluctantly attends the school while pining for the Halls of the Dead.

Nancy is used to quiet, stillness, and gravity—the exact opposite of her boisterous roommate—and is struggling to adjust. Things get even more uncomfortable when that roommate, then another student, and a third victim are murdered. Because Nancy just came from the Halls of the Dead, she’s a suspect. Every Heart a Doorway is a fast read, less than 200 pages. The plot races along as Nancy and the other “creepy” students try to figure out what’s going on using the skills they learned in their other worlds.

While the mystery gives the book structure, the book is more about finding a place to belong and feeling comfortable in one’s own, sometimes creepy skin. Nancy’s parents—and the parents of the other students—want to “fix” their kids and make them the way they were before their adventures. The cats are out of their bags and the horses have clearly left their stables. There are several long discussions about how much the students miss worlds where they could be the heroes of their stories, rather than being overlooked, pushed to conform to the wrong gender or be the parent’s idea of perfect.

I loved the set up of Every Heart a Doorway so much that I immediately bought the second book in the series and requested the third from NetGalley. I want to know more about Logical, Nonsensical, High Rhyme, and Mortis worlds. Each of the worlds has a kernel of another legend or folktale. (Nancy is a Persephone. Jack and Jill have stumbled into Dracula and Frankenstein.) I want more of this universe.