Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ALICE PAYNE ARRIVES, first time-travel novella in what I hope and expect will be a long series

(Alice Payne #1)
Tor.com Publishing
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time.

It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse.

It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal.

It’s 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better!

But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new.

Little did they know, but they’ve all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.

My Review
: I love writing about an excellent alt-hist novella by a woman, about women acting to improve/change the timeline, in women's history month.

Why does there need to be a women's history month? Same reason there needs to be a Black Lives Matter movement, an LGBT Pride month, any number of other celebrations of not-white not-straight not-male not-US-centric etc etc history/achievement/identity. Y'all've had the megaphone long enough. Hand it over.

Kate Heartfield earned my delighted approval when I read her novella The Course of True Love in the five-star Shakespeare-as-fantasy anthology Monstrous Little Voices. What a pleasure it is to encounter an author whose command of the demanding art of novella-writing is so complete. Her gift for concise but not reductive prose is flatteringly highlighted in this form. With more scope than a short story, not as much elbow room as a novel, the usual fate of the novella is to exist like old Lycra workout shorts: Way too tight at entry and exit points, uselessly baggy everywhere else.

Ha, says Canadian Author Kate Heartfield, hold my soy chai latte.

This novella, single-needle tailored to fit three women who share a spirit if not a soul, tells the origin story of an eighteenth-century temporal crusader named Alice, her anchor Jane, and their twenty-second century quarry Major Prudence Zuniga of the Teleosophic Core Command. We'll start the admiration engine here: Teleosophy. Time travel, that is. "Tele-" means to, or at, a distance; "-soph-" from "sophos" means wisdom, learning, knowledge. Seeking knowledge at a distance; going far away to impart wisdom. Combined with "Core" or central point and "Command" or the illusion of control, it makes the whole concept of this story's time travel crystal clear: Traveling in time to create or control events in accordance with a master plan. Implicit in that is both hubris and desperation.

I'm putting my own words to Author Heartfield's ideas, and can't be certain they represent her thoughts, but there are others just as lovely that she explains. I'd suggest to all who belong to Goodreads that they consult Heartfield's Kindle notes, where she offers sixteen "end notes" about various inspirations and sources for tidbits in the story. I was made particularly smug by "Fleance Hall"'s note; I'd thought to myself, "Oho I see the Shakespeare-based novella wasn't an accident!" and was proved correct.

That type and level of intellectual play is a joy. The idea that someone would use the well-worn time travel trope of coming from the future to save the past in this piquant and creative way is a surprise. The demise of Netflix's extraordinarily well-made and -thought-out series Travelers had rather dispirited me as to the trope's pop-culture future. This novella, and its sequel, exist; there is a pulse in these veins, so there is hope yet!

Alice is unusual in any number of ways. Her created identity of "the Holy Ghost," a feared highwayman, as a means of avenging the powerless and simultaneously assisting the father she still adores; her secret self, lover of the young and supremely intelligent Jane; and her given existence as the dark-skinned Caribbean daughter of a well-to-do white Englishman are none of them ordinary. Alice is over thirty and unmarried. She has carefully kept it that way, despite her attraction to one particular, though completely unsuitable for marriage, man. She makes the awful discovery that a deeply unsuitable and unpleasant man wants to offer her marriage in the course of the story. Jane, no fool and surprisingly quick on the social uptake when her happiness is at stake, squashes both the intent and the desire to marry in the suitor with simple, elegant finality.

Prudence, the Major with a mission to change Time, meets these ladies in the course of the Holy Ghost's highwayman-ing. She's been through the mill, spending a decade making a serious attempt to save an unworthy-but-better-than-the-alternative man from his fate. It should tell you all you need to know that it took a decade...apparently character will out no matter what. As Prudence learns she's failed and her superiors in the Teleosophic Core Command are reassigning her, she concludes that teleosophy is not the answer to humanity's problems. A long-cherished and well-planned act of sabotage, assuring that time travel will stop and not be restarted, is her only hope. She needs someone at several points in time to execute a technological action. Jane, known to be a technological tinkerer but also a socially inept naïf, is her target for 1788, but she gets Alice instead. Alice is anything but a naïf...and anything but socially inept....

Oh dear. Things go pear-shaped in several spectacular ways, and the teleosophical implications are simultaneously dire and delicious. The second volume of the series, Alice Payne Rides, is out now. How you can resist dashing away to buy them both is beyond me.

Oh, you haven't. Addressing empty space never felt so good.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

ANY OLD DIAMONDS, first entry in the Lilywhite Boys series of caper novels

(Lilywhite Boys #1)
KJC Books
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary — so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke's remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: he'll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec's new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman's most secret desires, and soon he's got Alec in his bed—and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what's between them... all without getting caught.


My Review
: Three instances of the vile, not-to-be-countenanced w-bomb. Two heinous, one of those so so so horrible (ON THE LAST PAGE!) it alone cost that quarter-star dock. One actually not that awful.

I can not believe I just typed that.

The cover art of this book makes me smile big'n'pretty. I'd've read it just to have that on my Kindle, had I known nothing of KJ Charles's previous ouevre. (I did...see my The Magpie Lord et seq. reviews.) But lucky me, this is vintage Charles! This is a lovely excursion into late Victorian London via a young, hard-up aristocrat who finds some jewel thieves to do his wicked stepmother dirt by relieving her of an £11,000 (about £150,000 today) diamond parure.

Hijinks ensue...as always...but let me just warn you that there are quite some several events on the way to resolution that cause the sensitive reader some serious collywobbles. I came close to invoking Cthulhu's attention to Author Charles during one or more of those moments (e.g., 63%, 86%), pulling back from the brink of madness barely in time. After all, we're taught from the cradle to praise Cthulhu...He hasn't noticed you yet. So. There's that.

But what a treat the good bits were. I am a sucker for Dominant/submissive romantic reads. This is clearly something Author Charles gets to the tips of the typing digits. These scenes are just flat wonderfully imagined, created, and inserted into the narrative. (Yes, that was me *not* making the dirty double entendre. You're welcome.) In this book, the submissive's consent and limits are so deftly woven into the narrative that I had to flip back to be sure they were there (even when they weren't one memorable time). Yeah, that's my story and you can't prove that's not why there's a finger-dent in my Kindle's screen.

Which brings me to a point I should make very clear: I am not recommending this to my heterosexual acquaintances. You will blench and clutch your pearls at least four times. Not straight safe! No! Don't!

Then there's the other great pleasure of this read. The big one, maybe, since it's something I like in series reads. We're dealing with new stories populated by characters from books past...but honest and truly, that's not a requirement to understand the motives and impulses front and center in this book. The relationships are there, but they aren't foregrounded. Whatever you need to know in order to enjoy this story is put there on the page, economically but unstintingly.

Anyone into the D/s lifestyle will find a welcome, sensitive aura of acceptance here (as in The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, which is also excellent); anyone inclined to read MM romantic fiction should already know Author Charles's work; but don't hesitate to adventure into these waters, caper-story readers. At its heart, Author Charles has given us a well-made caper with twists and turns to satisfy all but the sexually squeamish among us.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

THE GRAVE'S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, somewhat befuddling ninth Flavia mystery

(Flavia de Luce #9)
Delacorte Books
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Flavia is enjoying the summer, spending her days punting along the river with her reluctant family. Languishing in boredom, she drags a slack hand in the water, and catches her fingers in the open mouth of a drowned corpse.

Brought to shore, the dead man is found to be dressed in blue silk with ribbons at the knee, and wearing a single red ballet slipper.

Flavia needs to put her super-sleuthing skills to the test to investigate the murder of three gossips in the local church, and to keep her sisters out of danger. But what could possibly connect the son of an executed killer, a far too canny police constable, a travelling circus, and the publican's mysteriously talented wife?

My Review: Not the best entry in the series. The subplot about the poet was underused; the subplot about the kid, Hob Nightingale, was rushed through and gave nothing useful to the resolution; Carl Pendracka is mentioned but not meaningfully (being American, I suppose he was destined not to be anything except comic relief); I liked Dieter's cameo...but really, is there any point to mangling the book? It's the NINTH in a series by an 80-year-old accidental author!

The major news, at least for me, comes from the author's announcement month before last of the CBC TV series based on the books. I can't imagine how they'll make this into anything like the fun thing the reads are; somehow it seems unlikely they'll find a Flavia, but it's not my job to do any of it so good luck to 'em all.

If you're not already a series fan, don't start here. If you stalled out around book seven, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as I did, it's worth keeping on. If your stall came earlier in the series, maybe it's not for you. This book won't, in my never-humble opinion, change anyone's mind one way or another.

The issue really is about the sense I have that Author Bradley is losing control of, or interest in, his subplots. The Nightingale family is at best sketched in; Flavia's discursive ruminations on chemistry are foregrounded; in fact, quite a lot of verbiage that feels to me like filler is Flavia's tangential blahblahblah. Some of that is charming, and too much (where I feel this book's iteration of it falls) is tedious and takes page time away from more important or, at least to me, interesting subjects to cover. Some of them, like the aforementioned Nightingale family, could very reasonably be seen as crucial to the plot and therefore the scanted attention to them and their history is a significant defect. I felt the same way about Undine's sketchy appearances after being introduced. At least she's mentioned again in this book.

Well...everything has its time, and permaybehaps the time for Flavia has ended. The next book, likely to be the last, has not come too soon.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

THE MORTAL WORD, fifth Invisible Library delight from Genevieve Cogman

(The Invisible Library #5)
Ace Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In the latest novel in Genevieve Cogman's historical fantasy series, the fate of worlds lies in the balance. When a dragon is murdered at a peace conference, time-travelling Librarian spy Irene must solve the case to keep the balance between order, chaos . . . and the Library.

When Irene returns to London after a relatively straightforward book theft in Vienna, Bradamant informs her that there is a top secret dragon-Fae peace conference in progress that the Library is mediating, but that the second-in-command dragon has been stabbed to death. Tasked with solving the case, Vale and Irene immediately go to 1890s Paris.

Once they arrive, it seems that the murder victim had uncovered evidence suggesting that he may have found proof of treachery by one or more Librarians. But to ensure the peace of the conference, some Librarians are already hostages in the dragon and Fae courts. To save the captives, including her parents, Irene must get to the bottom of this murder—but was it dragon, Fae, or even a Librarian who committed the crime?

My Review: Unexpected. That's the best word I can use for this book. The resolution wasn't entirely unexpected but the path we're led down to get to it was. The murder was unexpected, the murderer was unexpected, the terrible trials of the heroes were largely unexpected.

Just how I like my series fiction.

At the end of book four, some serious developments take place that are central to the plot and climax of this book. If you haven't read The Lost Plot, stop reading and come back when you have.

So after Kai leaves Irene's tutelage and establishes a less romantically squicky relationship with her, we're treated to another of Author Cogman's exciting escapade-scenes to bring us to this story's reality: She starts off by wishing she still had Kai's backup for those tight corners she routinely ends up in. Then back to B-659 London to assist Peregrine Vale (whose rigid spurning in The Lost Plot of her determined sexual advances surprised me in no small degree) and Kai on a minor but intriguing case that's quickly and completely forgotten when Bradamant, of all people, shows up to demand Irene's presence among the Senior Librarians immediately.

And that's the starting bell for ten rounds of boxing, shadow boxing, and mixed martial arts cage-match to-the-death political, magical, and ethical battling. Irene manipulates events in her inimitable "why is it always me?" style. She gets Vale and Kai to the scene of a horrible crime despite the Librarians' unenthusiastic responses to their inclusion in the proceedings. The Librarians have been tasked with leading this peace initiative, they're not interested in handing a party to the treaty (and the murdered dragon's fellow creature) a privileged place in the criminal proceedings. Never one to be daunted, Irene makes sure Kai is there. After all, her inamorato being a dragon, he was never likely to take a warn-off very seriously. Luckily, the dragon negotiator is one of Kai's uncles and accepts Kai as a partial replacement for his secretary and right-hand dragon, the murder victim.

The Fae, meanwhile, have sent the archetypes of scheming amorality, the Cardinal, and dewy-eyed sweetness and loyalty-inducing honor, the Princess, to be their main negotiators. These august personages use their chosen archetypes to manipulate all the humans they can reach into cooperating or even conniving with them for advantage over the dragons and the allegedly impartial human Librarians. The trouble is well and truly stirred into Irene's investigation, conducted with Sherlockian character (and part Fae!) Vale, when the Fae appoint Lord Silver...yes, that Lord Silver, the B-659 Ambassador from Liechtenstein, nemesis of both Vale and Irene in past books!...to be their being in place. Oh joy! And believe me, Lord Silver takes advantage of his position to rile up Irene in the ways that he's so very good at...condescension and sarcasm are only part of it.

As events unfold, the Fae are at a serious disadvantage: The prime suspect in the dragon's murder is none other than the archetypal evil female aristocrat, the Blood Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed! The peace conference's locale, Paris (where else?) in a very 19th-century world, offers anarchism and grisly public entertainment like the infamous and terrible Théâtre du Grand-Guignol...a very real unreality guaranteed to appeal to Fae sensibilities and the Blood Countess's unique archetype of behavior. Irene is on the hunt for the killer, and the Countess is such an appealing choice, and there's no better diplomacy than to give people what they want....

She is at a crossroads. Choose the easy solution that will keep everyone in power happy? Seek the truth, damn the costs? When the truth finally hoves into view, Irene has a horrible choice ahead of her. The trail leads to the kind of moral quandary that the series excels at presenting. The cost of revealing the guilty murderer is unprecedentedly high, but Irene uses her position as a leader to lead everyone involved, whether her senior or another race's ruler, into a multiverse-changing brand new idea of diplomacy. She acts, in short, like Woodrow Wilson at Versailles in 1919.

The question is, has she birthed a United Nations or a League of Nations?

To be continued....

Monday, February 18, 2019

THE LOST PLOT, fourth Invisible Library novel and best to date

(The Invisible Library #4)
Ace Books
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: After being commissioned to find a rare book, Librarian Irene and her assistant, Kai, head to Prohibition-era New York and are thrust into the middle of a political fight with dragons, mobsters, and Fae.

In a 1920s-esque New York, Prohibition is in force; fedoras, flapper dresses, and tommy guns are in fashion: and intrigue is afoot. Intrepid Librarians Irene and Kai find themselves caught in the middle of a dragon political contest. It seems a young Librarian has become tangled in this conflict, and if they can't extricate him, there could be serious repercussions for the mysterious Library. And, as the balance of power across mighty factions hangs in the balance, this could even trigger war.

Irene and Kai are locked in a race against time (and dragons) to procure a rare book. They'll face gangsters, blackmail, and the Library's own Internal Affairs department. And if it doesn't end well, it could have dire consequences on Irene's job. And, incidentally, on her life...

My Review: Quite extraordinary. This is a high-stakes story within the Invisible Library series. Many, many things have changed since book one and in this story the changes truly come home to roost in the attic. Action, excitement, and several passages of astonishing violence are the key drivers of events down surprising channels.

It isn't often that I finish a series read, immediately procure the next, and devour that one in a day. I did that for this series because I am besotted with the idea of the Library and its multiverse-trotting spy/burglar/diplomats the Librarians. I am even, if you can believe this!, completely okay with the presence of magic in the series.

I know, right?!

I who lift my brow, crinkle my nose, draw my lips into a sneer, at the merest whiff of majgickq, actually *approve* of the system invented and presented in this series. It's actually inexplicable to me that I am not having literary hives every time the Language is used and at each Fae sighting. What has happened to me? I'm putting it down to the revolting fact, recently revealed to me, that I share an ancestor with *gag* Tom Cruise *retch*, which blow to my self-esteem causes me spiritual pain.

The story in this book is, from the opening scene, one of peril and menace to Irene. She is most often alone to face her adversaries. Kai is, as a developing theme in the series, going to have to learn to take action on his own behalf. Irene's worries that she isn't teaching him the skills she possesses so much as grooming him as her sidekick have been woven through the stories. It's a sign of the character's deeply seated identity, created by a talented and careful author. I buy into the characters's reality in this really quite daft alternative view of reality because Author Cogman spent the time to think through these small moments of self-reflection.

The main action takes place in a Prohibition-like New York after Irene and Kai land in the ruins of a library in Boston. Readers of the previous book will appreciate the emotional impact of this venue, and readers in general will share the appalled horrified revulsion that Kai and Irene express at the idea of a soul so bereft of respect as to perpetrate vandalism on a library. (As an aside, I note that [author:Susan Orlean|45374] just published [book:The Library Book|39507318] which non-fictional take on the subject I ended up abandoning as it was too painful to continue reading.)

The local mob boss, Giorgio Rossi aka George Ross, has a lady sidekick-cum-enforcer, Lily. Lily knows who, more accurately what, Kai is on sight. That's because Lily is Fae, and despite her chosen position as murderous muscle for the mob, is really the brains of the crime boss's operations. Irene's somewhat bizarre (and wholly unintentional) cover identity as an English crime boss visiting New York to drum up new business piques Lily's interest.

Crime boss Irene is hunting a vanished Librarian straight into the clutches of two dragons operating without sanction in this bizarre, lawless New York. They're aiming to win an internal political battle by supplying their dragon queen with a special alternative edition of an ancient Chinese novel. (She's interested in a re-read of this novel, a fondly remembered diverting entertainment from her past. That procuring this book for her amusement causes numerous deaths and a vicious war between her subordinates is...uninteresting.) Irene's hunted Librarian, Evariste, is doing his dead-level best to accommodate one of the dragons by procuring the book because his daughter is being held hostage by the dragon's clever henchman. Kai and Evariste, separated from Irene, go off and procure the desired book...but who receives it and how aren't in the least sure until the moment the event occurs.

The climax of the hunt for the book, for Evariste, and for justice (and Justice) takes place in the Court of the Dragon Queen. As always when the extremely Order-centered dragons are involved, there is a price to pay for the lies one tells, and a price to pay for telling the clear, unmuddied truth. Justice and fairness each have their innings, though neither one takes the field in unsullied glory at the end of the proceedings. The guilty...everyone is guilty, that's the nature of the world, the multiverse in fact, but here we mean "those whose actions and inactions caused irreparable harm" by it...suffer, and the wronged are made as whole as Justice can make them. Irene is required to suffer her personal agonies in the search for and service of Justice served to violators of Order.

But there is, as there always is, a reason in Author Cogman's relentless and grinding tale of Truth's victims. And it makes the ending of this book so very, very special. I seldom laugh with exuberant happiness as I read endings. That is exactly what happened here.

Author Cogman:

Saturday, February 16, 2019

GIRL SLEUTH, author Melanie Rehak's recounting of Nancy Drew's origins


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$8.41 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A plucky "titian-haired" sleuth solved her first mystery in 1930. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the Sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women's libbers) to enter the pantheon of American girlhood. As beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers, Nancy Drew has both inspired and reflected the changes in her readers' lives. Now, in a narrative with all the vivid energy and page-turning pace of Nancy's adventures, Melanie Rehak solves an enduring literary mystery:
Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to icon?

The brainchild of children's book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was brought to life by two women: Mildred Wirt Benson, a pioneering journalist from Iowa, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a well-bred wife and mother who took over as CEO of the pioneering Stratemeyer Syndicate after her father died. In a century-spanning story Rehak traces their roles--and Nancy's--in forging the modern American woman. With ebullience, wit, and a wealth of little-known source material, Rehak celebrates our unstoppable girl detective.

My Review: When I was about nine, I went through a Hardy Boys phase. My mother, who went from buying Oldsmobile-priced cocktail dresses at Henri Bendel and Chevrolet-priced suits at Bonwit Teller to working three jobs to support us, never said no when it came to buying me a book. So I read my way through the catalog, and looked around for more. Mama somewhat diffidently pointed out the Nancy Drew books. I asked if she solved crimes. “Yes, and drives a blue roadster,” said the wily old girl, and I had another school year's reading at a quarter a book. (Used. We most often bought used...Mama said the words didn't wear out and who cared about the cover anyway?)

Ever after, I've had a “thing” for All-American boys and girls who just damn well do it for themselves. From such acorns....

Mystery-reading pleasure was a given. Mother and sister were big consumers of the genre. I got my own books, and they were not mysteries, but good heavens a boy can't survive on a book a week! I mean really! So I read their mysteries. I checked mysteries out of the liberry. I read all the Hardy Boys (always preferred Joe to Frank, Iola be hanged) and Nancy Drew (what a maroon Ned Nickerson was!) a couple times each. They lost their luster about the time I found good SF.

But do you ever forget that first kiss? I know I haven't. Nancy, Frank, and Joe...oh my how I treasured their orderly world. No one behaved badly (my narcissistic parents were astonishingly insensitive and ill-mannered in their divorcing) without consequences, and crimes were punished. I liked that a lot! And I still do.

Melanie Rehak apparently did, too. She set out to tell the story, public since the 1970s at least, of the origins of Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth. All the ookie bleccchhhy part about families in conflict over Smothers-Brothers-y “dad always liked you best” and “I sit here with mom and you swan about” and so on; all the fish-out-of-water growing up of a major tomboy with a ginormous brain, in a rinky dink dink little wide spot in the road, leading to Iowa State and college degree in the 1920s; all the nasty mean greedy behind-the-scenes moneygrubbing everyone seems to have thought nothing of.

It's as good as a novel. It's as much fun as a Nancy Drew story to unravel. It's not perfect, but it's got a lot of story and it tells the story concisely, yet without leaving annoying holes or piling numbing crap all over the reader.

The focus is on Nancy, her “father” Edward Stratemeyer, her “mother” Midred Wirt, and wicked stepmother Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. That's enough for a 600pp doorstopper, let me assure you! Author Rehak got out her laser, finely cut and carefully etched the truly important bits from these three peoples' lives and then soldered and electroplated the whole thing into a lovely, solid bracelet shaped like Nancy Drew.

Even if you've never read one of these books, THIS book is a very good read, and an intriguing side window onto American culture in the mid-20th century. As a hallmark of that finger-on-the-pulse quality that Stratemyer and his heirs have always had, Nancy Drew is getting her own TV show! The long-awaited CW TV adaptation has tapped a newcomer to play Nancy Drew. Exciting news, since the CW is the logical home for a drama based on her career.

Friday, February 15, 2019

THE BURNING PAGE, third Irene Winters the Librarian adventure novel

(The Invisible Library #3)
Roc Books
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Real Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Librarian spy Irene and her apprentice Kai return for another “tremendously fun, rip-roaring adventure,” (A Fantastical Librarian) third in the bibliophilic fantasy series from the author of The Masked City.

Never judge a book by its cover...

Due to her involvement in an unfortunate set of mishaps between the dragons and the Fae, Librarian spy Irene is stuck on probation, doing what should be simple fetch-and-retrieve projects for the mysterious Library. But trouble has a tendency of finding both Irene and her apprentice, Kai—a dragon prince—and, before they know it, they are entangled in more danger than they can handle...

Irene’s longtime nemesis, Alberich, has once again been making waves across multiple worlds, and, this time, his goals are much larger than obtaining a single book or wreaking vengeance upon a single Librarian. He aims to destroy the entire Library—and make sure Irene goes down with it.

With so much at stake, Irene will need every tool at her disposal to stay alive. But even as she draws her allies close around her, the greatest danger might be lurking from somewhere close—someone she never expected to betray her...

My Review: Irene Winters is, comme d'habitude, in the stinky stuff up to her modest pseudo-Victorian neckline. We join Kai, the elegant and toothsome dragon prince and Irene's apprentice Librarian, as they receive desperate new instructions from the Powers That Be. The Library is not aligned in the power struggle between the orderly dragons and the chaotic Fae, officially anyway, but it seems that the battle is joined...many worlds not safe for Librarians (a combination of spy and thief and bibliophile...I want to be a Librarian so bad I can taste it) to traverse. Something is clearly up. Irene and Kai are damned near killed by the Something, in fact, as a door into the Library from their current assignment literally bursts into flames as they try to use it.

Well, I ask you, is there any more exciting a way to bring a reader into the book's world?! And to set the stakes as high as they can be (personal survival)? I was prepared for a rollicking good time. I got one.

Vale, Irene and Kai's good friend in the alternate London where they are stationed as Librarians in Residence, is a relatively high-chaos world...magic works, there are werewolves all over, that kind of thing...whose life is analogous to Sherlock Holmes's in Conan Doyle's novels. The poor man, in the last book, was exposed to an EXTREMELY high-chaos world while rescuing Irene and Kai. (He nurses Feelings for...well...I suspect for both of them.) As a result his morphine addiction is in high gear. Since he's using the drug to self-medicate his inner demons, it makes sense that a chaotic world would cause his turmoil to reach a boil. It does...and in the universe of these novels that means he's literally, physiologically infected with chaos, to his severe detriment. Irene and Kai are desperately worried about him, but forced to focus on their Librarian issues.

It seems that the Big Baddie of the series, Alberich, has his sights on Irene again. He wants her to join him in his war to replace the Library with his own Chaotic sphere. Failing that, he wants her dead, because she's just too adroit and clever to allow to continue opposing him. He even takes on the bodies of others, killing them in the process, to reach her.
He swept her round another turn, his hand warm on the small of her back, gloved in a dead man's skin.

Their battle runs across multiple dimensions, includes innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders, and causes Irene to do something...a desperate survival tactic in the face of imminent death...that will cause her endless nights of grief and remorse. She has to set all the books in Alberich's Library alight! She destroys all the unique and irreplaceable volumes he's stolen from across the multiverse!! It comes close to ruining her, which I *totally* get.

Kai, in this story, turns himself into his draconic form for the first time. He's magnificent as one would expect. Author Cogman describes his dragon form in lavish, luxurious terms though not at any great length. The real focus is that he has the power to fly across the multiverse! This is new, or it was to me. He takes acrophobic Irene into the space between the worlds where she can see alternate realities as if she was in a jetliner. It's horrible for her, but amazing for the reader. It becomes urgent for Kai to do this multiple times and in some very high-stress situations.

Vale, meanwhile, is sinking fast. His save-the-day actions in The Masked City are reaping the whirlwind of his addiction. He spirals deeper and deeper into depression. Vale's best friend Inspector Singh of Scotland Yard (how you can tell it's an alternate London, South Asian inspectors?! Yeah, not so much in reality) is frantic with worry. He and Kai and Irene are locked in conflict about how to save their friend, with no good options appearing and the bad ones piling up. Ultimately, the problem of how to help someone in self-destruct mode is resolved...but having known self-destructive people well, I don't entirely buy it. The ultimate resolution is one I truly wish we had a way to implement in reality.

It's an exciting ride to get to the ending, and the fact is that it's a middle book so that's not as easy as one might think. I felt that this book was a step UP from its predecessor in action and excitement. That's a good, good thing. Series reads are deeply satisfying, as I've said elsewhere. I'm a happy boy when I'm among familiar faces doing fun things while thinking interesting thoughts, and that's how series reads are at their best. I was pleased enough with the last book to read this one, but it suffered from a, well, a bagginess at the knees that wasn't a good omen. This book didn't have that issue. The action was well-grounded in the reality of the series and the characters weren't Playing Parts...which might have been the point of the last book but wasn't to my taste.

Irene and Kai and Vale emerge from this entry in the series as a stronger team and a better bunch of individuals. Their interdependence is coming clearer and making them all stronger. I'm thoroughly hooked on these reads and can't wait to get to The Lost Plot.