fantasy


The first book in an alternate reality noir mystery series.

Publication year: 2015
Format: ebook
Publisher: Red Dog Press
Page count: 243 at GoodReads

In an alternate USA, four big families rule the city of Bridges. The city has been divided into four quadrants, each ruled by one family, and it’s very difficult to move from one quadrant to the other. The families are Spadros, Clubb, Hart, and Diamond.

Jacqueline was born in a whore house to the madam. She was also a member of a kid gang. When she was twelve her best friend, Air, was shot and she still has nightmares about it. She grew up not knowing who her father was, until one day he appeared. He had made a deal with the Spadros. Jacq was to be the bride of the Spadros heir. Despite being a “Pot rag”, as the very poorest are called, she was trained to be a lady and married Tony Spadros. Except that Jacq loved someone else and never saw him again after she was promised to Spadros. Roy Spadros, the head of the family, is a ruthless, cruel man who delights in torture and beating his wife. But Tony is different. He’s still a man who has spent his whole life in luxury, wanting for nothing. But he’s usually not cruel, only when it serves a purpose. He orders men killed when that’s required but not tortured. And he loves Jacq. Jacq has learned to pretend love but has never forgotten her only love, Joe. She also knows that if something would happen to Tony, she would be thrown back to the streets. So, in secret from Tony she has her own business as an investigator. It doesn’t make much money but she saves what she can.

The story starts when a woman calls Jacq for help. The woman is Air’s mother. Her youngest son is missing and nearby is the mark of the Red Dog Gang. Jacq refuses to help at first but the case won’t leave her alone: she can’t allow the little boy to just vanish. When the little boy’s older brother is found strangled in another quadrant, Jacq knows that she must investigate. But she has troubles of her own: she must support Tony or someone could murder him. She must keep her investigations a secret from him because it would ruin their delicate relationship. She must also keep her investigations a secret from everyone else who could ruin her life.

Jacq has a lot of contacts around the Spadros area, some of whom know who she is and others don’t. She uses a lot of disguises and lies. The story has a lot of characters, as well. Jacq herself is a tough and determined woman but she’s in a very vulnerable position and she also has hard time letting of the past, her childhood friend’s death and her first love. So, she’s also a vulnerable character.

The story is told from Jacq’s first person POV. Since she was born poor and then rose to the elite (although unwillingly) she has a different perspective than many of the other wealthy people. The story touches on the disenfranchisement of the poor, class struggles, and women’s rights, which are, sadly, still ongoing issues today.

The start of the story dropped us readers right in the middle of the story. Explanations came later mostly through Jacq’s thoughts. For the most part, this worked well and I enjoyed the story. Jacq is a very interesting character and her dilemma drew me in. The book is labeled as steampunk but there are very few steampunk elements in the story.

At the end, the current case is resolved (kind of) but the larger mysteries remain. We also get a timeline of this alternate history and a list of characters at the end.

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A fantasy novella set in Bujold’s Five Gods universe. While it’s the newest in publication order, according to internal chorology, it’s the third. I recommend starting with the first novella “Penric’s Demon” to get the most out of the novella series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Narrators: Grover Gardner

This story takes place about eight months after the events in “Penric and the Shaman” where Penric met some of the characters appearing in this story.

Learned Penric of the Bastard’s order is fishing with his friend who is a shaman when Locator Oswyl, this world’s equivalent to a detective, comes to get them. Someone has murdered a temple sorceress and he needs help from Penric to locate the demon which was living inside the sorceress. Much to his dismay, Penric can’t locate the demon and they come to the conclusion that someone, most likely the murderer, has stolen the demon.

This is essentially a murder mystery with some intrigue and sorcery added to it. While the temple sorceress is very much dead, her demon (an elemental spirit) which was inside her has mostly likely jumped to another person or animal. Wild demons are very dangerous so Penric must find the missing spirit. The story touches on life and death of humans and the spiritual beings who can be part of the them.

It’s a nice little story. I enjoyed the story and characters, as usual for Bujold. I’m particularly fond of Penric’s demon Desdemona and her interaction with Penric has, so far, always been delight.

The third book in the historical superhero series set in 1961 USA. It can be read as a stand-alone but you get more out of it by starting with the first book, Serpent’s Sacrifice.

Publication year: 2018
Format: ebook
Page count: 276

Chronologically, this book goes between books one and two in the Serpent series because it follows Marco Myers, the close friend of Alice Seymore who is the heroine of the two first books. At the end of Serpent’s Sacrifice, Marco and his best friend Lionel left Jet City and Alice. They were looking for a cure for Lionel, but later they parted ways.

Now, Marco is a private detective in Metro City trying to scrape together a living. His aunt Allegra, who owns a gym, helps him from time to time. He also has an assistant Colleen Knight who is a black woman with secrets of her own.

Marco used to be superhero Shadow Master. He can sense others’ emotions and using shadows which come out of him, he can manipulate others’ memories and emotions. Unfortunately, he can only affect bad and hurtful memories, forcing the other person to relive them. He hasn’t used his powers much during the past year. Now he’s plagued by dreams of a boy he doesn’t know. He has only one person left who could lead him to the cure and when he dies in Marco’s arms, he’s at a loss at what to do.

However, a beautiful woman approaches him, telling him that she’s just escaped from a facility where superpowered people are held and experimented on. She can help Marco find the cure if he helps her and the doctor who escaped together with her. Out of options Marco agrees but that means that her enemies are now his, too.

Colleen is the granddaughter of a mafioso boss. Her mother Tina is also a mafioso, but never been able to protect Colleen from her grandfather. Colleen has fire-based powers, but she’s always tried to suppress them and doesn’t control them well. Her brother Andrew is missing and she hasn’t told Marco that she’s trying to find him. When she finds out that Andrew was working in the place that experiments with superhumans, she realizes that he might be a prisoner there, too. And that Andrew likely has secrets of his own.

Colleen doesn’t want anything to do with her family. She fell in love with a woman while she was in collage and she’s hiding her sexuality in addition to her powers. Her grandfather knows her well and knows just how to blackmail her. The only one she loves in her family is her brother. She’s not comfortable with her powers at all and has to learn to use them.

Marco is a sensitive man. He loves Alice but thinks that she loves his best friend Lionel and he’s desperate to find a cure for Lionel. He has to confront quite terrible things from his past in addition to dealing with the people who hate and fear superpowered people.

The story is again quite grim and intense, with lots of people getting hurt and Marco dealing with betrayals. The pace is quick with lots of twists.

I really enjoyed most of the characters. Marco is a tortured hero trying his best to do good. Colleen’s family dynamics were very interesting. Some of the more minor characters had depth, too, such as Tina and Marco’s aunt Allegra. I hope we get to see more of Colleen in the future.

The sequel to “Penric’s Mission” and “Mira’s Last Dance”. A fantasy novella. I recommend starting with the first novella “Penric’s Demon” to get the most out of the novella series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 5 hours and 25 minutes
Narrators: Grover Gardner

Penric is a sorcerer in the Bastard’s Order and therefore carrying a chaos demon inside him. He’s also a scholar and a healer, using the demon’s abilities for the healing. He named his demon Desdemona. Des has had 12 previous hosts, both animal and human, but Penric is the first male host. Penric is supposed to return to the temple where he is stationed but has put it off because he has romantic interest towards Nikys Khatai. She’s the widow of a general and the sister of another general. Penric wants to stay near her but is running out of excuses.

Nikys receives a letter which tells her that her mother is kept a prisoner in a Daughter’s House in Limnos. Because of political repercussions, Nikys wants to rescue her quietly. Penric happily volunteers and they set out for another mutual adventure. However, the letter could be a trap.

This is quite a gentle and heart-warming fantasy novella, like a cozy mystery but without the murder (or other crime). The characters are great, as usual for Bujold. There were some tense moments, but I didn’t think the characters were never in any serious danger. Which was fine, for a change. There are a lot of various disguises, daring escapes, and sneaking around.

The story has two POV characters: Penric and Nikys. While Pen is quite a gentle and understanding man, he’s also very powerful because of his demon. But having the demon does have its drawbacks, too, and several of the previous hosts have their own personalities which come to the surface from time to time. Nikys is a very practical and loyal woman. She’s falling for Pen but the thought that he has another person, or rather several people, really, inside him all the time, gives her pause. However, she does seem to take Pen for granted: right at the start she doesn’t even bother to ask him if he’s going to help, just assumes it.

We’re also introduced to a group of new characters. The letter was sent by a woman Nikys’ brother courted before he was declared a traitor. She’s apparently still waiting for him. She and her household agree to help Nikys even with such a questionable and dangerous mission as a prison break. While the Daughter’s House is a temple and not a dreary dungeon, it does have a loyal and dedicated staff. I also really enjoyed several of the new characters, especially Ikos and Bosha, and I’d loved to see more of them.

Overall this was a great continuation and I’m looking forward to seeing Penric and Nikys adventuring as a couple.

The first book in the Blackthorn and Grim fantasy series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 17 hours and 44 minutes
Narrators: Scott Aiello, Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan

This story has three POV characters and so it has three narrators. Each reads the chapter which is written in the POV of his or her character. I really liked this technique.

The story starts with Blackthorn, although she’s a nameless prisoner in a terrible prison. She tells us that she rose against the local ruler, who was raping women and then discarding them, and so she was locked up. However, she’s endured and is waiting for her one chance to talk in front of the council and tell everyone what happened. But one of the jailers tells her that she’s going to be murdered before that can happen. However, she’s brought in front of a strange, a fey calling himself Conmael. She’s suspicious and sullen. When Conmael offers her a chance to freedom but at a cost, she’s hesitant. Conmael demands seven years of service from her. During that time, she will stay in another country, Dalriada, and help everyone who asks for help, and those who need it but won’t, or can’t, ask. She will be a healer and a wisewoman. She will also put aside her need for revenge during the seven years. That need has sustained her through her terrible year in prison, so it’s not easy. Finally, she accepts.

Grim is another inmate, a huge and strong man. He’s latched on to Blackthorn who is his life line even though they don’t really know each other. Nor are they friends. But when chance comes, in the form of a prison break, he tries to help other inmates and follows Blackthorn. They travel together to Dalriada and there Grim works for the local people and lives with Blackthorn (but not romantically).

Dalriada’s Crown Prince Oran needs to make a political marriage. He’s known that all his life but still dreams about a love match. When he starts to exchange letters with Lady Flidais he becomes convinced that she can be the girl of his dreams: gentle, compassionate, and intelligent. She also shows that she, too, has been brought up to serve the people instead of using power for her own benefit. But when the lady’s group arrives, she’s not at all as Oran imagined her to be: she snaps at even her own people, seduces Oran, and even her own dog seems to hate her. Oran can’t help but to feel that something is terribly wrong. Maybe the new local wisewoman Blackthorn can help?

This is a lush fantasy book. The world-building is intricate. It’s not an epic fantasy; it’s not based on fighting at all. Instead, people are the center of this novel. Both Blackthorn and Grim are wounded and flawed characters. They can barely tolerate the company of other people. But they’re also used to working for their bread. Oran has been reared to serve justice as best he can and he’s a very down-to-earth royalty. He doesn’t enjoy the noble pastimes of hunting or gaming. He much rather reads old tales.

Grim and Blackthorn are suspicious of other people, especially of people in power.

This was another long book and it took quite a while until Oran approaches Blackthorn. I knew (or thought I knew) what had happened to the lady, but I didn’t grow impatient with the story. Marillier builds the characters meticulously and also revealed the world, bit by bit. We didn’t much see the fey but I like what I saw. In this world, they’re tricksters with a lot of magical power and humans don’t trust them.

The book has quite obvious themes: corrupt people using their powers over others, most of them are men but women are just as capable of using power, if usually differently. The way that people will close their eyes and not see obvious bad things around them, when they don’t like the people to whom these bad things happen.

While I liked most of the book, it does have some rather questionable stuff about (female) sexuality.

The book doesn’t end in a cliffhanger and can be read as stand-alone.

A mystery book which has two intertwined timelines. One starts at 1972 and the other 1790.

Translator: Seppo Loponen
Publication year: 1988
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2010
Format: print
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Bazar
Page count: 667

This book has multiple POV characters and two distinct timelines. While it’s advertised as a thriller, I think it’s too slow to really call it that. The two timelines especially slow it down.

It has one first person POV who is Catherine Velis, a young computer expert who is working for a very influential company. But when she’s ordered to do something against her ethics and she refuses, she’s put into the company’s shit list. She isn’t fired but instead is sent to Alger which isn’t a welcoming place to a working woman in 1970s. But she has no choice. The book starts in the New Year and her friends want her to hear a prophecy from an old seeress. But the prophecy turns out to be strange and disturbing, a warning of danger. Some months later, Cat is getting ready to move to Alger for a year, but first she goes to a chess game between international masters. Strange things start to happen.

In 1790, two girls are novices in a nunnery where they’ve lived almost their whole lives. Valentine is an impulsive, passionate girl who finds it hard to stay in the confined life. Her cousin Mireille is a more calm and thoughtful girl. But the French revolution is sweeping across the country, even to the remote nunnery of Mountglane and the abbess is sending her nuns away before the state can confiscate the nunnery’s possessions. The nunnery holds a great secret: for hundreds of years the abbesses’ have guarded the pieces and board of a magical chess game. Now, the abbess knows that her enemies want the pieces and the only way to safeguard them is to give some of the nuns a piece and send them away.

The abbess chooses Valentine and Mireille as lynchpins who can help the others when needed. So, the cousins are sent to Paris for a distant relative Jacques-Louis David, a famous painter. The girls are introduced to various people and the Parisian lifestyle. However, they don’t know whom they should trust. The abbess herself goes to Russia, to see her childhood friend who is now known as Catharine the Great.

The book has a lot of parallel storylines and in the historical section we’re introduced to a lot of famous people from the times of the French revolution. I liked that most of all.

Cat is a confident woman and it takes quite a while for her to even start believing in the magical chess board and its powers. The person who tags along to her journey is a rich chess master who is eager to solve the puzzles. She also has a small dog whom Cat doesn’t like. Both Cat and her friend are quite impulsive and do a couple of things which could have easily killed them. Mireille is a more thoughtful character but she, too, must make quick decisions because of events. She and Valentine are caught up in people and events in the French revolution and its aftermath.

Unfortunately, I felt that the book was too long. While the historical sections were actually more interesting to me than the present-day parts, I’m not sure if they really added much to the book. The story has some puzzles but not many.

Perhaps I had too high expectations. A blogger said that it was “the book DaVinci Code wants to be”. Yet, the only similarity is that there’s a historical mystery at the root of both books. It did have elements I quite enjoyed, like the evolving relationship between Cat and her friend, and pretty much all of the historical stuff.

The third and final book in the series about Greek gods in modern times.

Publication year: 2018
Format: Audio
Running time: 16 and 30 minutes
Narrator: Jordanna Max Brodsky and Robert Petkoff

The book begins six months after the end of the previous book, Winter of the Gods, which parted our heroes. Selene, the goddess Artemis’ modern form, is looking for her father Zeus. The king of the gods is almost powerless and enfeebled. He was kidnapped by the enemy who was revealed in the previous book. He wants to bring about an age of humanity by killing all the remaining Greek deities, so Selene’s whole extended family is in danger. The enemy’s also a Pater Patrum to a Mithraist cult so his has a lot of fanatical underlings to help him, but Selene isn’t alone, either. Flint (the modern-day Hephaestus) is with her. He apparently has been long in love with her but while she has been thinking that she should move on from Theo and form a relationship with Flint, she hasn’t been able to do so and doesn’t really want to, either. Flint is able to help Selene with both weapons and equipment and also with planning.

Her former lover Theo thinks that Selene is dead, just like Selene wanted. She thought he would soon fall for a human and lead a happy human life, safe from immortal enemies. Instead, his experiences with the supernatural has made him think that he can bring Selene back from the dead. Unfortunately, that will mean his own death but he’s planning to keep that brief. Scooter, or Hermes, is helping him despite knowing that Selene is alive. Also, Theo’s best friend Ruth is reluctantly helping him.

Selene’s quest takes her and her allies from the sewers of the Vatican to modern Greece. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the places and all the mythology and science which were part of the story. I’d love to visit those places someday.

Throughout the whole series it was also fascinating to see how Brodsky had modernized the deities and made them, well, more palatable to a modern audience, Artemis herself especially. Selene muses a few times who she was different during the ancient times but doesn’t really want to return to that older self. She seems quite content to be the protector of women rather then a goddess who demands human sacrifices. The other goddesses and gods, too, are modernized and humanized in ways I rather enjoyed.

I greatly enjoyed Theo’s circle of scientist friends: Ruth, Gabrielle, and Minh Lo. The new goddesses in the book are also a delight.

Unfortunately, I really didn’t like how Selene treated Theo in the previous book and their relationship isn’t much better in this one. In the previous book, Theo wanted a relationship with Selene and pursued her even though she was cold and uncaring towards him. Now, Selene misses Theo and wants him back. I think she thinks more about him now than ever when they were together. It’s too much drama for me especially when paired with Flint, or Hephaestus’ unrequited love for Selene. She and the other deities don’t really have powers anymore, either.

This was an enjoyable end to the series. The ending especially was fast-paced and the book surprised me a couple of times.

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