Saturday, December 29, 2018

THE QUEEN OF ALL CROWS, best steampunky fantasy in a line of them by Rod Duncan

(The Map of Unknown Things #1)
Angry Robot Books
$6.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Only one woman can stop the world from descending into endless war, in this thrilling return to the world of the Gas-Lit Empire

The year is 2012. The nations of the world are bound together in an alliance of collective security, overseen by the International Patent Office, and its ruthless stranglehold on technology.

When airships start disappearing in the middle of the Atlantic, the Patent Office is desperate to discover what has happened. Forbidden to operate beyond the territorial waters of member nations, they send spies to investigate in secret.

One of those spies is Elizabeth Barnabus. She must overcome her dislike of the controlling Patent Office, disguise herself as a man, and take to the sea in search of the floating nation of pirates who threaten the world order.


My Review
: It is not necessary to read the first trilogy featuring Elizabeth Barnabus to appreciate this novel. It would add incalculably to your pleasure in the read, but it isn't necessary.

The plot picks up where The Custodian of Marvels leaves off. Julia has vanished after embarking for America, there to join her hard-won happiness with husband Richard in his law firm's Patent-law practice there. Julia will make herself a new life by studying Patent law at Columbia University. All of that struggle and fight is now gone for naught with her airship's disappearance. Her bestie and earliest supporter Elizabeth is on the hunt for her at great personal cost. It seems, as of now, that Elizabeth's main supporter and illicit lover, John Farthing, has lost her via her betrayal of his trust as well as her disappearance.

For someone who picked this book up because of its terrific cover art, this should be enough: the friendship between the women is explicitly made the stakes of the story within two chapters. Possibly the most intriguing idea in the series is the existence of the International Patent Office. Those who have read The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire may read the spoiler below:
Elizabeth's journey from Patent-Office battling terrorist to one of their own is a delightful part of that series's arc, and the basis for this series's stories. In these tales we will follow the intrepid, genderfluid Elizabeth as she resumes her part-time identity as her own brother in service of, not in fleeing from, her former enemy-turned-employer the Patent Office. That by itself would make this an astounding series to follow. But the stakes are far greater than merely serving those that Barnabus once despised. Mr. Barnabus is outed as Miss Barnabus memorably and completely for the duration of this book's search for Julia when we discover the truth of a tall tale of sea monsters eating ships.

The action of the story is set largely among the all-female pirate society, the Sargassans, operating in the North Atlantic Gyre. It's a world constructed around the Unicorn, which name made me snigger as I realized it was chosen to be the center of an all-female society. But I show my juvenile sense of humor. The novella-length time we're aboard the constructed world of the Sargassans is spent politicking and coping with human nature's ickier corners. Women, it turns out, do much as men do when left to rule themselves. I wonder if this is, in fact, true; I don't know how much of the world is based on women being women and how much on women reacting to the male-dominated world they hated enough to run away from. I suspect the truth is the latter by Author Duncan's design.

Now the design itself becomes an issue. This is the first book of a trilogy, whose second book has only recently appeared. The ending of this book's two-fold story is complete only on one strand, and that dangling second strand is going to itch and niggle the entire time we're embarked on a new quest in Elizabeth's emotionally battered and physically exhausted condition. The ending of The Queen of All Crows will not resolve the Barnabus case internal to the International Patent Office. It is clear that echoes of "O brave new world..." in the ending are not accidental. And with it, the opening of vast new vistas and fresh perspectives on the Gas-Lit Empire.

Because the action of this book, airship crashes and pirate republics and long sea voyages, all takes place in 2012.

Friday, December 28, 2018

CIRCE, my annual six-stars-of-five read, the delight and demand of a peak reading experience


Lee Boudreaux Books
$14.99 ebook platforms, available now

NOW $4.99 ON KINDLE! (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 6 stars of five (not a typo)

The Publisher Says: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.


My Review
: What does it mean to be a god?

I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.
You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.
But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.
Circe learns in this novel that gods aren't much more than vessels crafted to serve a purpose. The gods exist relative to us humans so that they may be filled and emptied; all the roots and seeds of the universe's awareness reside in them. The gods woke, they were not born, they did not (as humans, created solely in acts of personal union, always do) represent the culmination of anything. The gods were not, then they were.

Where we struggle to find purpose in, a frame for, our human existence, the gods in the myths and tales struggle to find individual, personal meaning. Athena, born of her male parent's really bad headache, has shape and purpose from the instant she arrives in the world. She's got to spend human lives by the scores in a cataclysm like the Trojan War to perceive the dimmest outline of personal meaning. Her existence is framing the story of this war; her fighting for one side and against the other is what her identity, her meaning, derives from. She's defining herself through this war. Her purpose, Goddess Athena the Personification of Wisdom, was with her always.

Down here on Earth, meaning is an inevitable precondition of human life. Priam, Helen, Agamemnon represent the culmination of generations of royal births. Their meaning in life is to lead large groups of Greeks to their glorious deaths, reduced to simplest terms and presented only in the purpose or frame of the goddesses's desired war. We complete patterns we cannot ever see because we are always amid them, albeit without a sense of our orientation within them. Odysseus, our stand-in in Circe, exemplifies humankind's multivarious searches for a purpose to plop our meanings into. These searches go by many names, religion and art and philosophy and sex. Odysseus returning from the Trojan War experiences all of them. The Odyssey leads its reader a merry chase as one of us humans dashes offstage, leaving Troy to its goddess-war driven fate. Circe, non-combatant, is placed in Odysseus's path as her godlike purpose forms a deepening meaning from Odysseus's yearning to return to his most meaningful role, husband of Penelope and father of Telemachus. Circe, the gods's local presence, sees (and therefore creates) a new pattern of meaning for Odysseus. Like all humans he weaves what he has before him in new searches for "Personal Purpose" in the world.

The only place to see the pattern, that image created by the interaction, interweaving, interdependence of the many meanings human lives have, is from the outside looking in. This means that the gods can offer their clear and purposeful selves as guides, guideposts, guiding lights. Changeable as meaning is, purpose is not; when new purposes are required, new gods arise (eg, a world like Late Imperial Rome that's without security creates an omniscient, omnipotent god). The gods endure an essential lovelessness in their assigned purposes. Love, I contend, is a culmination of human striving to wrest a purpose from existence. Therefore, of necessity, love in this context is confined to the plane of meaningful, pattern-creating existence. The gods crave us as creators of their meaning; our respective positions demand it. A being defined by Otherness, an existence that demands separation from the masses, experiences fascination with the Others. Thus their endless pursuit of human love, carnal or spiritual or intellectual, can never result in satisfaction for them or us.

Circe has to contend with the eternal human wellspring of meaning: Falling in love. What does it mean to be in love?
I wake sometimes in the dark terrified by my life's precariousness, its thready breath. Beside me, my husband's pulse beats at his throat; in their beds, my children's skin shows every faintest scratch. A breeze would blow them over, and the world is filled with more than breezes: diseases and disasters, monsters and pain in a thousand variations. I do not forget either my father and his kind hanging over us, bright and sharp as swords, aimed at our tearing flesh. If they do not fall on us in spite and malice, then they will fall by accident or whim. My breath fights in my throat. How can I live on beneath such a burden of doom?
I rise then and go to my herbs. I create something, I transform something. My witchcraft is as strong as ever, stronger. This too is good fortune. How many have such power and leisure and defense as I do? Telemachus comes from our bed to find me. He sits with me in the greensmelling darkness, holding my hand. Our faces are both lined now, marked with our years.
Circe, he says, it will be all right.
It is not the saying of an oracle or a prophet. They are words you might speak to a child. I have heard him say them to our daughters, when he rocked them back to sleep from a nightmare, when he dressed their small cuts, soothed whatever stung. His skin is familiar as my own beneath my fingers. I listen to his breath, warm upon the night air, and somehow I am comforted. He does not mean it does not hurt. He does not mean we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.
To be fully alive, all the way woke, is a gift denied to a god and granted to all mortals (as Circe must become to atone for her crimes as well as create her purpose) because, in the end, it is sin and atonement, pleasure and punishment, in one long drink from the River Lethe. All things end. Mortals end sooner than gods, of course, but all things end, and in ending become meaningful and beautiful. Poems have endings (despite the interminable versification of Milton, even Paradise Lost stops...after 10,000 lines) and songs do, so must lives; the life of a being is art, ask Atropos or Urd. The weavers of worlds see our little lives as threads in a grand tapestry. The comfort of ages is to imagine that Norns or Fates see a beautiful representational tapestry, say The Hunt of the Unicorn

when actually it seems likely to me that the various gods see that and also see Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist

in its unedited...uneditable...complexity and structural uniqueness, and they derive all the pleasures of life from both.

Author Miller, a divinely inspired bard, has her own divine creation to design and execute, to wrest from the blankness of Chaos; her apotheosis hasn't occurred yet so let us be sure to grab each thing she makes. Do this so we can experience in our fleeting passage through life the reflected glory of the Divine walking among us. You won't get closer than this while wearing a body.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Happy Yule! Celebrate the Returning of the Light with Joy!

The Solstice is upon us. In the North, we're coming to the end of longer nights and colder temperatures. We celebrate the return of the Sun's warmth and, even globally warmed, we're glad to see the Sun for more hours.

In the South, you're celebrating the brightest, longest day of the year. I hope you're outside soaking up warmth and Vitamin D to bolster you for your journey to harvest and rest.

For us all, I hope we can use this symbolic and energetic turning point to aim ourselves directly toward spreading the best and the brightest gifts we have within us to all who share our home the Earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

COTTONMOUTHS, a GritLit Lesbian take on "Winter's Bone"


Skyhorse Publishing
$22.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: This was Drear’s Bluff. Nothing bad happened here. People didn’t disappear.

College was supposed to be an escape for Emily Skinner. But after failing out of school, she’s left with no choice but to return to her small hometown in the Ozarks, a place run on gossip and good Christian values.

She’s not alone. Emily’s former best friend—and childhood crush—Jody Monroe is back with a baby. Emily can’t resist the opportunity to reconnect, despite the uncomfortable way things ended between them and her mom’s disapproval of their friendship. When Emily stumbles upon a meth lab on Jody’s property, she realizes just how far they’ve both fallen.

Emily intends to keep her distance from Jody, but when she’s kicked out of her house with no money and nowhere to go, a paying job as Jody’s live-in babysitter is hard to pass up. As they grow closer, Emily glimpses a future for the first time since coming home. She dismisses her worries; the meth is a means to an end. And besides, for Emily, Jody is the real drug.

But when Emily’s role in Jody’s business turns dangerous, her choices reveal grave consequences. As the lies pile up, Emily will learn just how far Jody is willing to go to save her own skin—and how much Emily herself has risked for the love of someone who may never truly love her back.

Echoin*g the work of authors like Daniel Woodrell and Sarah Waters, Cottonmouths is an unflinching story about the ways in which the past pulls us back . . . despite our best efforts to leave it behind.


My Review
: You probably went to Sunday school. Your mama and daddy taught you about Right and Wrong and never the twain shall meet and you either rolled your eyes and agreed to shut them up or absorbed it with every spongy fiber of your kid-soul. Most likely some of both.

But that "moral grounding" does el zippo to prepare you for end-stage capitalism's vampirous demands.

It sure as Hell didn't prepare li'l Emily.
Where she was headed, the cast iron skillet had been seasoned before she was born.
Her mom would cook the beans, potatoes, and cornbread the way her own mother had taught her. Dad would recite the Lord’s Prayer because it required no thought. And Emily would stare at her plate of food and let it go cold while pondering the headset and the cash register and the brown and blue uniform in her back seat, whose fibers still held its last tenant’s stench of fryer grease and body odor—items for a life she had not expected to return to when she left for college, for a job that would not have been offered to her at all had she not removed the name of the state university from her resume—though two years hardly called for its inclusion.

Now you name me a worse feeling than being forced, as an adult, to go to the place you're used to calling Home when it's about as much home as that deep-fat fryer you're smellin' right now.

For a Lesbian sister in a christian-values community, this is WORSE than being in so much debt that you can never dig yourself out, right? Hold my beer, says Author Kelly, I am about to make this fryin' pan seem nuclear powered:
Watching her walk away, Emily felt as dirty as if she’d been watching porn. The craving came on like a fever, as if a coal had been stoked within and blurred the edges of reasonable thought. Rather than push it away, she sat on the floor and let the desire consume her.
Then an ache no bigger than a marble pulsed inside Emily, an ache born in the woods across the creek. An ache that beat on inside her, steady, steadier, growing until her whole body shook.
That was the worst of it, to be accused but denied the pleasure of what everyone thought.

That is how Emily responds to the sight of Jody, her long-ago never-was one-that-got-away. Everyone...yeah. Lots of Everyone in Drear's Bluff (isn't that a superb distillation of Home, fellow former Southerners?), and man are they a bunch of self-righteous goobers. Nothing new there...that's how most people are. That's how so many can't help but be, given their lack of moral fiber to resist group-think.

Emily's true self, her inner self, is under siege at home, and she's got to get out...Jody, the woman who revs up her nights this decade-plus, has a solution: Come watch my baby for me! Live here, I'll give you some cash, and you're out of the house. Remember that frying pan?
“This is like the worst stereotype of the South come to life. All you need is a Confederate flag over the fucking door.”
All those wasted moments of guilt and shame and feeling downright wrong about what she’d done in the bed the night Jody left.
No matter how tempting the offer, she knew that half a life was no life at all.

It's never, ever the same, not after leaving or coming back; the world's moved on, so have your feelings, so has the person you once had the feelings for. You're in for it, though, while the ride lasts; you're not going to get off until the merry-go-round's slung you onto the bouncy-castle at 55mph and you've gone sailing through the air but there's a landing you don't have any way to cushion, or even prepare for....
Lovers would come and go. Maybe there’d be one who would be unafraid and teach Emily how to be brave, brave enough to wake up next to her, to walk hand in hand. Someone with whom she’d have a nice life, without trouble and with love. But in the twilight hours of her life, when her body and memory failed, this above all others would be the buoy she would cling to, the memory she would repeat and repeat until the darkness ripped her away. Because this moment, so small, the smallest, had seared her heart.

I wish I'd been able to full-five-star the read; the thing that kept me from doing it was a certain soap-opera quality that, while I didn't hate it (I used to watch All My Children, FFS, I'm not immune to the appeal!), I found...wearing. I wanted something that rose above it more often than something planted squarely in it, and that little niggle took the luster off just enough to be noticeable.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

EUROPE AT DAWN, fourth Fractured Europe novel, wraps a terrific series

(Fractured Europe Sequence #4)
Solaris Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Alice works at the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn in Estonia as a member of the Cultural Section. When two men bring her the jewelled skull of a Scottish saint her world gets turned on its head, and she becomes the latest recruit to Les Coureurs des Bois.

On a Greek island Benno is just one of hundreds of refuges dreaming of a new life in Continental Europe. After hatching an audacious escape plan, he may just get his dream, but at the price of serving some powerful mysterious new masters.

Rudi and Rupert, the seasoned Coureur and the scientist in exile from a pocket universe, discover that someone they thought long dead is very much still alive. Not only that, but the now defunct Line – the railway that once bisected the European continent – may be being used for nefarious means.



My Review
: Old friends make reappearances...old problems need solutions again, the only ones at hand are the ones that didn't work faces wear old clothes and frighten us out of our sleep because the monsters under the bed never left.

An island in the Aegean Sea, the Scottish Embassy in Tallinn, a folk duo of no discernible talent but a huge reputation, and a pair of refugee teenagers tear through the pages trailing clouds of story as Author Hutchinson makes his last scheduled stop in hideously Fractured Europe.

So let me start with this. You're not going to make this your first stop on the route of the Coureurs des Bois. It would be a serious error of judgment to jump in any old how. It is necessary to read EUROPE IN AUTUMN first because so many things that happen in each book suddenly make sense in light of remembering events from the ones before; and starting from the first story helps make the experience of reading the fourth richly textured and satisfying.

The multiverse that Author Hutchinson posits, with its pocket universes and its bizarre cartographic secrets and its stunningly amoral and conscienceless elite, doesn't suddenly make sense in this book's denouement. It doesn't really ever make sense. It all—all the books, all the maps you hear about, all the baggy, wrinkled bits of story-cloth left on bushes here and there drying at their own pace—makes perfect sense as soon as you realize that. I'm not trying to be sibylline or obfuscatory. I'm giving you the effect of reading Author Hutchinson's deeply sculpted, complex story. What vistas open to you are important, but not decisive and defining. They're fractal artifacts of a universe possessed of no higher law than randomness. Remembering the things in your subjective past isn't always helpful, though it's always a good idea to rattle the dice in the brain-cup and see if boxcars or snakeyes come up. Either roll can be the winner because, like the real universe, shit just happens, what the hell. (Yes yes, it's a Terry Pratchett line, but believe me when I tell you that Author Hutchinson has a similarly depraved sense of humor to Sir Terry's.)

What you need to know about this book in particular is that Rudi coming back into focus, Rudi from the Krakow restaurant who really never wanted too much of what happened on his watch to happen...Rudi snaps the pieces of this shattered place's soul into focus as only he could. He still wants to feed people and be a cog in a machine that lacks malevolence for its constituent parts. And he is the reader in that sense, he is the character who does what he must but wants some of his work to matter in a simple way without Overtones.

He wants to live a boring life in boring times. The opposite of the "ancient Chinese curse" we've grown up hearing about. Europe's fracture due to the hideous plague of dubious origins is irreparable. The world cannot be put back together again. I think the Western Romans, especially the Britannians, of 500CE must have felt this way. It look the same. The sky's the same. The birds didn't change. But nothing will ever work again so what shall we do now?

Then there are those alternate places that aren't a thing like Fractured they fit together better, are they functional societies, and what are we all going to use as glue to hold all the truly jagged pieces in place? There are no answers. There are no better-framed questions. There are a lot of smug bastards pretending they're on top of stuff. They're not. And you know what? Since no one is, since there's no top to be on, the world will sail on. Over the falls. Off the edge. Into safe harbor. Simultaneously.

This, my friends, is why I read Author Dave Hutchinson's books. Do not kid yourself. He sees reality, he tells you what's happening in eleventeen voices, he weaves disparate strands of story together and snips others without warning. This is what life actually is without the comforting lie of linear time to soothe our monkeybrains with story. Author Hutchinson tells us the story but unwraps it so we can get down in the gearbox that only quantum mechanics know how to grok.

I want you to read these novels. Don't start here. This is your reward for making a turbulent and beautiful journey. This is the final cataract on the river. You're prepared for it. And it's a great sense of understanding and accomplishment as you finish this book. For this is what it means to be awake and alive and fully present in a unique place. Control? None. Power? Illusion. A good dinner, some wine, and companions to enjoy. Do what it takes to keep that safe for the greatest number of people.

Happen I agree.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

MY FAIR CAPTAIN, a sci-Regency...Regency romance set in a science fictional world.

(Sci-Regency series #1)
2nd edition
$5.48 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: When Intergalactic Navy Captain Nathaniel Hawkins goes undercover to investigate the theft of an IN weapons stash, the mission raises painful memories from his past. Using a title he fled nearly two decades earlier, Nate once again becomes the Earl of Deverell, heir to the Duke of Hawthorne, in order to navigate the ins and outs of a Regency world. But planet Regelence—where young lords are supposed to remain pure until marriage—has a few surprises for Nate, not least of which is his attraction to Prince Aiden.

A talented artist, Prince Aiden Townsend isn’t interested in politics and the machinations of society gentlemen, and he adamantly rejects the idea of marriage and a consort. Aiden wants the freedom to pursue his art and determine his own future. But the arrival of the dashing and mysterious Deverell awakens feelings of passion and longing the young prince can’t deny.

As Nate uncovers a conspiracy reaching far beyond the stolen weapons, his future is irrevocably altered by the temptations of a life he never thought he could have. Drawn into the web of intrigue, Aiden is in danger of losing his life… and his heart.


My Review
: Not what I'd describe as a cohesive world-building job...and more fun than is strictly speaking allowed. Isn't all entertainment, written or spoken or performed, supposed to adhere to {rules selected by internet consumer of said medium}?

I mean, a Regency romance follows some quite strict rules and uses a deeply familiar, verifiable-by-research backdrop. This book, not so much. We're on a human-colonized planet in a galaxy-spanning civilization. The planets Regelence and Englor have a human population in a spacefaring culture, and each has elected to emulate Regency England as its social model. Seriously. That's what we're told. The story unfolds among the aristocracy, as Nate is a Captain of the Intergalactic Navy (who pays for this military force and to whom it owes its loyalty are not addressed here) as well as the heir to a Ducal title on his native Englor; he is sent to Regelence, home of the gay Royal Family whose second son Aiden is Nate's dream made flesh. And vice versa, though I'd be shocked if either of 'em was versa-tile. Hyuk.

Too bad he's Englorian and Regelence is being sabotaged by his planet's government, eh what? That's the non-bedroom action of the story. It's a pleasant if slight espionage story that leads to much suspicion between the planetary governments and the Intergalactic Navy. There are comparatively few moments of tension between Nate and the Regelence royals, oddly. There are also comparatively few major obstacles to resolving the spying case, though the second edition makes the story much more grounded in a reasonable if not believable milieu.

For example, my overarching and burning unaddressed question: Why would any living human consent to be anything but an aristocrat in this universe of Author Langley's? It is beyond me. How they got people to do any work at all when there are AIs and robots and flying cars (oof)...well...go with it, I told myself, for the sheer audacity of the thing, then decide if you want to come back for more. It's not for the SF fan, it's for the romance reader. Very special romance reader at that. The story's not-universally-popular tropes include:
--age gap: Nate's a parent-type dad in his latest possible 30s, Aiden's 19
--status gap: Naval Captain top on submissive aristocrat
--relatability-to-reader gap: gay parents of gay kids galore
The faint-heartedly hetero are strongly cautioned. The sex is, as a seasoned romance reader knows from this short list, very much a matter of roles and fantasies.

I myownself read this hawt sexy story with my disbelief on heavy suspension and it worked for me. The idea of planets settled by those whose psychosexual-sociological needs are in sync with my own is one I feel deep identification with. Ethan of Athos was the first of this type that I encountered, and its many pleasures left me wanting more. J.L. Langley was the second author I found (back in the Aughties) to use this deeply appealing trope.

For reasons surpassing my comprehension, man-on-man romance and sex are burgeoning in popularity among the ladies. I don't really understand it any more than I understand straight men getting all hot and bothered by lesbian sex, and honestly I just don't care anymore. All the stuff that goes on in others' fevered brains ain't none of my lookout, and I get to benefit from their imaginings in my own search for satisfying entertainment. (Except for the seven {7} instances of the dreaded, horrible w-bomb, "to w-i-n-k.")

In what is most likely the last quarter-century of my life, I hope to see the taboo against gay male romantic and sexual passion in mainstream entertainment media die. I'd love for Ryan Reynolds to get his way and have Deadpool get into a gay relationship in an upcoming film. Like the gay kiss on Glee years ago, it would be a before-and-after moment worth waiting for, and kudos to Reynolds being the kind of ally to put his career on the line.

Friday, December 14, 2018

NORTHWEST SMITH, collected pulp tales by C.L. Moore, charming and a little pervy


Diversion Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$7.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From C.L. Moore, the legendary pioneer of classic sci-fi, comes the collected adventures of the iconic space outlaw, Northwest Smith.

First published in Weird Tales in the early 1930s, C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories, especially SHAMBLEAU, were hailed as some of the most imaginative and vivid science fiction stories ever to come out of the golden age of sci-fi. At a time when women were heavily underrepresented in the genre, C.L. Moore was among the first to gain critical and popular acclaim, drawing comparisons to contemporaries like H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber.

Northwest Smith, now recognized by many as the archetypal space smuggler and gunslinger, is an adventurer in the classic sense of the word, and these thirteen stories chronicle the bizarre dangers, interstellar wonders, and titillating romances that captured the imagination of a generation.

My Review: C.L. Moore was a phenom. She was a popular pulp goddess in an era that welcomed not the talented female, not even the grudging welcome of the feminist awakening time or the offhand occasional kudo of today's dismal cultural landscape. She muscled her way through the door of a paid writing career on talent, nary a "feminine wile" or a compromise in her integrity to be seen. It's true that she married...Henry Kuttner...and that she and her husband frequently collaborated, as they together earned more than she did alone on a per-word basis. But that seems a quibble as, in this our good day of the 21st century, women still earn almost 1/3 less than men in identical jobs. Why this should be is, was, and always will be a complete bafflement to me. No one has ever given me a remotely sensible answer to the question of why this should be true, now especially but really ever.

Anyway. Northwest Smith is, next to Jirel of Joiry, Moore's most famous character. Jirel gets more attention because she's a badass warrior queen in a fantasy setting, where NW is a man in spacer's leathers that Moore very lovingly describes more than once. And Moore also makes NW an object of desire, mostly for women but occasionally for men, and in one *very*memorable*story* even has ol' Northwest delivering a whole bunch of barely euphemised blowjobs to, well, to an unclearly described sentient and possibly even animate divine...thingy. No, not that thingy exactly, but a kind of numinous, umm, like cock-fountain-feeding trough thingy. Hell, I dunno, it's her kink not mine, but believe me when I tell you that the acts NW performs are most definitely and most lovingly described in such a way that any adult (even non-pervy ones, if you can find one to ask) knows *exactly* what she's talking about.

The coda in this book is what we today call flash fiction. A story called Song in a Minor Key that's about 500 words of homecoming nostalgia for Northwest as he at last returns to Earth after more than 20 years of exile in the alt-physics Solar System committing petty crimes and saving damsels in distress among the three inhabited planets of the inner worlds and one foray to the inhabited moons of Jupiter. It's a Golden Age Solar System for sure, everything has earth-standard atmospheres and earthly gravity or close to it; a naive world that she builds from her era's very different understanding of how the whole other-planets thing works. She even makes a nod towards the dawning realization among scientists of the unlikeliness of her premise in a story set on Earth's Moon. But I like the idea of reading about Otherness, and there's very little more Other than a Solar System with other human races on other worlds.

I don't think this collection will be for everyone. I suspect modern women will find much to sneer at in Moore's seductive enchantresses, mantraps to a woman. Stick to Jirel of Joiry, female persons. Men addicted to modern worldbuilding will buck and rear at the setting. But a few of us weirdos exist who want to revisit the dear dead days, and this is a means to do so; even though we can't undo modernity's death grip on our vitals, for some of us there is enough of the old-fashioned sexist racist unquestioningly accepting of that status quo left to resonate unironically with assumptions we no longer hold. All fifty of us should probably read this book.

Just not all in a gulp. It goes down easier in tapas-like savorings, best replicated by using the Bryce Method...story-by-story notes and ratings.

Shambleau hot damn! No wonder my memories of this collection are so...fond. Golden Age perversion of pleasure as Medusa's master pattern introduces Northwest Smith to delights so revolting that he can't stop himself from reveling in them while hating the perverse pleasures he's enjoying.

Black Thirst was daring stuff in the 1930s. It explicitly makes Northwest Smith into the object of a male-like alien creature's dark and hungry desire for male beauty. Shocking! And ever so humidly written.

Tree of Life is another "nameless horror infinite dread defeated by the steely honour of Northwest Smith refusing to be violated" story. Much of a muchness, in other words. Thag's little pocket universe is cool. The Botticelli grass is a great and lasting image.

Scarlet Dreams appeared in May 1934. They were more innocent times. This story, presented today, would only be published in one of those one-handed reading magazines. (Do those still exist or is wordy porn all on the web like visual is now?) Northwest gets completely hooked on tube steak, the literal only source of sustenance in a weird alternate dimension, and just loves it. A woman sacrifices her life to unhook him. *whew* This could easily be retitled "The B.J. Story." And now it has an illustration! Artist Gary P. DeSalvo painted a perfect atmospheric rendering of the story called Energy Source at Horror Sleaze Trash, which site one should put on the webtour of life.

Dust of Gods features Northwest and his Venusian partner in crime Yarol seeking the supercharged ashes of the Elder God Pharol (itals in the original, and always used in referring to this particular god) at the behest of a Peter Lorre-esque little smoothie, that he may...who knows, destroy the universe or summat, he seems like that kind of guy. Spoiler alert: They don't give the ashes to him.

Paradise Lost makes it clear that Moore's weird physics, allowing inhabited Venus and Mars, knows no limits save those of the Divine as Northwest in his atheism resists the Will of the Gods to astonishing effect.

Julhi has Smith spending a very long time in the Venusian Atlantis-cum-Brigadoon called Vonng. He is accompanied by a Venusian woman/seer and a totally wacked devilangel named Julhi who seduces him with what resembles closely the acid trips I remember from my misspent youth. Just as he's about to pay the bill for his ecstatic adventure, he escapes by committing a violent act. Comme d'habitude.

The Cold Grey God finds Northwest in a very unwilling near-death experience of battle with the titular god. While committing theft in service of an dead-ish pop idol, NW opens a gate for Mars's long-gone dread god to return after a million-year plus exile to resume its bloody rule. His steely mettle is tested from within as never before by expelling IT from his own body. Big fun.

Yvala places the Circe legend among the inhabited moons of Jupiter, a tropical paradise where Yarol and Northwest go on behalf of some slavers to procure women for the sex trade. Icky, right? But it's really evocative and atmospheric and I reveled in the ending, major ickiness aside.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

THE DREAMING STARS, second of a series I like better and better as I read along

(Axiom #2)
Angry Robot Books
$7.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Ancient aliens, the Axiom, will kill us all – when they wake up. In deep space, a swarm of nanoparticles threatens the colonies, transforming everything it meets into computronium – including the colonists. The crew of the White Raven investigate, and discover an Axiom facility filled with aliens hibernating while their minds roam a vast virtual reality. The treacherous Sebastien wakes up, claiming his altered brain architecture can help the crew deactivate the swarm – from inside the Axiom simulation. To protect humanity, beleaguered Captain Callie Machedo must trust him, but if Sebastien still plans to dominate the universe using Axiom tech, they could be in a whole lot of trouble.


My Review
: While 500-year-old time-tossed refugee Sebastien wasn't a great friend to Humankind in his Axiom-enhanced state, he also wasn't as powerful as an actual Axiom being...and still the crew of the White Raven kept him alive because their adopted crewmember and the other 500-year-old time-tossed refugee Elena asked them to...and now we're about to find out if that was really such a good idea.

Does anyone really know the secret truth of another being? It's an ancient question and it's been, it's not possible...many times and in many ways. Why, then, do we as a species keep asking it? Because it's endlessly fascinating? Why should smacking your nose into a plate glass window at speed be fascinating?

Dunno, but it is.

So here we are, not long after The Wrong Stars ends, picking up the pieces of life as the White Raven's crew has been living it after the upheavals of discovering a Goldilocks ship, a genocidal alien race's existence and plans, and the real reason the Liars lie. Also the real reason the Free, or religious Liars, both lie and refuse to speak anything but the truth. (It makes sense in the books.) Callie and Elena are rockin' the relationship game. Stephen's his usual lugubrious self and even more so—he's lost his Church of the Ecstatic Divine congregation after all—but he's no slacker, he's busy trying to put Elena's ex-crush object Sebastien's brain back together in the new home base that the White Raven won off the space pirates they were hired by the now-destroyed Meditreme Station "government" to...well...deter, which in practice meant get them killed. It has a souped-up version of virtual reality, and Elena goes with him into Sebastien's head as they endure iteration after iteration of the man's megalomaniacal, unfettered-by-empathy actions to kill the crew that saved him.

After we get a high-concept comedy scene of Callie returning to the Jovian Imperative's coolest, most gentrified-Portland of a moon, in order to crash her funeral, the action commences. Her ex-husband (after recovering from the shock of seeing her in the flesh for the first time since his actions ended their marriage—and at the funeral he's hosting for her no less!) needs White Raven's unique skill set to accomplish something his corporate drones can't. What's causing shipload after shipload of company employees to vanish in the Owain system? The local old-timey bohemian hippie trippers aren't doing it, they've lost some of their own people.

Callie and the crew need money. Callie doesn't hate the ex anymore since Elena busted down the closet door and dragged her out. The ex is part of a family corporation that has more money than God. We'll take the job, says Callie, and thanks for the spiffy funeral.

In the course of setting up the main conflict of the book, we're back into the same group of characters that we had in The Wrong Stars. A similar quest is run, in that we have to deal with the Axiom's universe-domination fetish, not unexpectedly, but with some surprising new stakes added plus a super-dooper uber-cool new playground to duke it out on.

And here we come to my main source of deep satisfaction, my enhanced appreciation for the world Author Pratt's going for. At every turn the Axiom are godlike in their technological achievements, but still their bestial selves; their Achilles heel is their animal nature and it can be exploited even by the "suffering slime," their charming pet name for the technologically inferior beings that clutter up their Lebensraum. The Final Solution that we thought we were appalled by last book? Ha! Small potatoes compared to the revelations in this book.

When an author plays in the much-churned sand of the "xenocidal aliens with humanity in their sights" sandbox, I appreciate some effort being made to titillate me with novelty. Author Pratt gives me the gift of characters working out their deep truths. Callie, the domineering captain, also has an emotional side: Elena is her little lost waif in need of rescue plus the ex who banged up her heart by banging his boyfriend in their bed while she was self-centeredly off flying the spacelanes for adrenaline rushes that she still can't do without. Stephen the XO-cum-doctor, whose world blew up not once but twice, and whose response was to turn back to the comforting arms of Mother Church and lose himself in the designer-drug sacraments that both connect him in loving communion to all the universe while dulling the acute agony of individual loss and grief. These aren't mere cardboard cutouts, these are well-realized characters with important things to offer the reader. Their individuality is their weakness, their brokenness, and in time their greatest and strongest weapon.

The battle between the motley crew and the xenocidal aliens is played out in a virtual reality with enhancements that are as far beyond the VR Callie and company are accustomed to and the VR Elena and Sebastian know from 500 years back. The beings in this VR are self-aware. They experience themselves as we do, they are possessed of inner lives and self-awareness; the Axiom couldn't enjoy torturing and murdering them otherwise. And that's mostly what the Axiom are doing in their space station beyond the asteroid belt of Owain's system. They're playing the equivalent of video games while their meat-bodies slumber in a perfect stasis, awaiting a cosmic-era-long program to run in order to accomplish a truly, amazingly vile thing. The only reason Callie and company know about it is that the game needs an expansion module and the way that this is added involves the death of Planet Owain. Omelettes, eggs....

Sebastien is central to the crew's plans to stop the Axiom because he's been co-opted by them before and therefore has insight into the workings of these cosmic scumbags's minds. Callie trusts him about as far as she can throw him, but he's a useful tool...a thing that Sebastien is now bitterly accustomed to being. How he comes out of the battle is a major source of satisfaction for me as it involves his deepest character traits surfacing, changing the entire future in the process. Callie and Elena can finally agree on Sebastien's future and not have to compromise for the other's feelings.

The crew of the White Raven alters in composition and in character, the threats are neutralized but this is only the beginning of a much larger, more important struggle. The battle and resolution in the Dream, as the VR is called, and in Owain's system, and in the galaxy at large, are not really over. The game is afoot.

I'd like to mention the ending of this book in a most approving way: It gave me chills. I see a pattern developing that I'm not sure I'll like, if it plays out as I think is almost inevitable it will; but the last line of the book gave me horripilation. To my own surprise, I'll trust Author Pratt to deliver the goods.

THE WRONG STARS, first of a series I like better and better as I read along

(Axiom #1)
Angry Robot Books
$6.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A ragtag crew of humans and posthumans discover alien technology that could change the fate of humanity... or awaken an ancient evil and destroy all life in the galaxy.

The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials... and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.


My Review
: I enjoyed it. Lesbian sex scene averted, blessedly, so I had no need to flee screaming. I never heard of a "demisexual" before, so my education continues (unexpectedly for someone so old).

One instance of the dreadful pollutant w-verb on p244. I damn near unswallowed on the page. But to be fair to the writer, both characters (sender and recipient) were in imminent danger of death when the heinous abuse of my eyestalks took place, so I don't doubt but what he was under some significant existential stress.

The characters, Captain Callie and Xenobiologist Elena anyway, are all as well made as one could wish. Lantern the Liar, of an alien race called "the Liars", was less three-dimensional but that's not really surprising or remediable for a character whose backstory is related late in the game via infodump. Lantern is positioned now to be a regular in future books, and she and her race and her religious order are fascinating to me, so patience is a must in reading this first volume.

The master aliens are creepy and xenocidal, and their tech is to die for (haw). The slave-alien Liars have been making hay off selling the said tech to humans for a good while. They've sold more than trinkets and trash to humanity, though it's all come on one Bill of Goods. The Liars have told their customers, who despite knowing the species' tendency to prevaricate whenever they feel like it, that the amazing permanent wormholes the Liars let them use to get to twenty-nine different star systems that humanity is allowed to colonize are the only ones and the big dumb schmucks bought it!

The truth is, needless to say, a lot more nuanced. And a lot scarier: The tech the Liars are selling turns out to have been developed by a race that's so evil that the Liars are terrified of them returning one day. After all, the Liars are their genetically engineered slaves.

Okay, yeah, it's all very Flash Gordon versus Ming the Merciless, but it's fun and it's got humor and heart, so I'm in for one more read before I decide its fate at my readerly hands. Far from the worst I've read, not the best either, and the author's willingness to take the slow road out to a higher vantage point is in his favor. Can't *quite* get to another half-star, but it's not because the story is bad but because it's been good for the past hundred years.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

SIDE LIFE, a beautiful trip to the inside of reality


Soho Press
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Vin, a down-on-his-luck young tech entrepreneur forced out of the software company he started, takes a job house-sitting an ultra-modern Seattle mansion whose owner has gone missing. There he discovers a secret basement lab with an array of computers and three large, smooth caskets. Inside one he finds a woman in a state of suspended animation. There is also a dog-eared notebook filled with circuit diagrams, beautiful and intricate drawings of body parts, and pages of code.

When Vin decides to climb into one of the caskets to see what happens, his reality begins to unravel, and he finds himself on a terrifying journey that asks fundamental questions about reality, free will, and the meaning of a human life.


My Review
: I want to tell you everything about the story because I can't imagine you'll pass up the book if I do. The problem is that the Spoiler Stasi will come drag me away, never to be seen or heard from again. So here:
“The machines of the mind are more difficult to recognize than machines of iron and steam.”
That's the basic building block of the entire imaginarium that Author Toutonghi creates. The story of Vin, a tech startup failure, is predicated on the principle that he will know what machinery is when he sees it. Of course, the story's existence means that there is no way he will.

What's a tech bro to do when he fails to make his wad of cash from creating a new, wild Thing That'll Change The World? Vin decides to house-sit for fabulously rich but vanished Nerdean. Her house is an amazeballs mansion on Queen Anne Hill, the beating heart of Seattle's too-rich too-young $10-coffee-drinking yuppies (as my generation sneeringly called them). Author Toutonghi, a lifelong Seattleite, made me feel the city was a character in short, deft strokes. No long paean to place, this, rather a grounded in particularity poem. I like the latter just as much as the former. My lip-curling snark at the expense of Vin's generational cohort comes with being old and poor, so YMMV as always.

Vin's obsessive nature, in fact the Asperger's he seems never to have had diagnosed, leads him to disassemble the interior of this beautiful piece of architecture. He's searching for the one-name owner, convinced she's invisibly there somewhere although not likely to be either safe or, in fact, necessarily even alive. Vin keeps going, ignoring his only friend and the remnants of his family, not heaving his less and less clean body into sunshine or showers, until he finds what he most wants: Escape.

What are these crèches in the sub-basement hideaway? There are three...why? Can Vin, who recklessly and quite necessarily climbs into one, rely on coming home from wherever it is he's about to go? Hell, who cares, what the guy's leaving behind just ain't that great so off we go! I'd do precisely the same thing. See that weird device that can't be explained in any framework I possess? Notice the craptastic life I've got? Tally-ho! Let's see what happens.

And here is where I got that half-star thump. Author Toutonghi wrote Join, which I gave a good solid review in 2016. I liked that book a great deal as well. I didn't like the major missed opportunity I saw in it, and complained a bit about in my review. That's my issue here: Major missed opportunity again. If someone comes onto the stage I want them to be somehow explained and/or justified. Not necessarily even all that thoroughly, although I'd like that better as a reader, just tied in to the subtle and complex framework of this inner-space novel. Several pieces of the puzzle of Vin's multiversal travels and lives weren't given enough shape to assume real meaning in the story. NOTABLY included here is the cruel tease of introducing the fascinating scientification of the art of cliodynamics, utterly dropped...which means not explicitly tied into the story.

Now, the story itself: It's not a rollicking sci-fi thriller, as the publisher's comparisons to Philip K. Dick and Blake Crouch imply. Instead it's a well-built and deeply affecting interior novel, an exploration of Vin in all his multivarious selves, and in that sense a very French sort of récit. We're always a step away from the action due to the nature of our trip down the rabbit hole with disintegrating Vin. He's lost everything, he's throwing the dregs away with both ungrateful hands, and now he's found an out. Well, well, Vin, how shocking that you'd choose to duck out, so not like a guy like you. *snort*

But that character trait (I damn near typed "flaw" but had a stern talk with myself) makes possible a thoroughly fascinating self-autopsy. Vin's travels through the multiverse are all about working through a dreadfully wasted life, assigning blame and meaning, and all without consequences...except death, insanity, and Armageddon. Y'know, little bagatelles like that.

In the end, we get to this exact moment in identity discovery, this basic building-block of reality:
"But think about this, maybe even though there are infinite versions of you, maybe every single one of them is an asshole."

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

INTRODUCING MR. WINTERBOURNE and MR. WINTERBOURNE'S CHRISTMAS, two novellas in a (better be) long series

(Winterbourne novellas #1)
Kindle original
99¢ and available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Lysander Winterbourne appears to lead a charmed life. Handsome, amiable, and a renowned sportsman, he is the darling of London society. As far as Adam Freeman is concerned though, Lysander is just another spoiled aristocrat.

A wealthy mill owner, Adam has no time for the frivolous world of the ton, but when his younger brother becomes engaged to Althea Winterbourne, he reluctantly agrees to be introduced to society–with the Winterbourne clan’s golden boy as his guide.

Resigning himself to a few days of boredom, Adam is surprised to learn that there is much more to Lysander than his perfect surface. But will Adam have the courage to introduce Lysander Winterbourne to his own secret self?

My Review: No points for realizing that Adam's secret self and Lysander's are in perfect harmony. Their spirits are, to each other's and their own deep surprise, perfectly made for the other man's wants and needs.

Why is that a fun story to read, grumble the po-faced. People fall in love every day, grouse the eat-your-spinach crowd, and look what hell it gets them. Everything is awful, sneer the small-souled, so quit distracting yourself from it and be wretched like you're supposed to be!
Get over it for an hour (it's that short a novella). Join Lysander the inexperienced youth as he does his best to entertain a man he's never met before, whose background isn't a thing like his own, and make sure his duty to his family is done. All the while wondering how he can haul this big fish into his arms.

Spend some time with a man so sure he can never let himself do something so risky, so suicidal in fact, as fall in love with another man. Get inside the head of a wealthy and non-conformist outsider who takes one appalled look at a scion of insiderdom, a perfect Golden Boy, and loses his heart and his mind at the same time.

Go fencing with two fit, athletic studmuffins who come to understand each other's bodies intimately without ever touching a naughty bit to a naughtier bit. Revel in their physicality, their competitive edge, as they learn and comprehend what their honed and powerful bodies want most from each other.

And then I dare you not to come unglued from the sheer sexual frustration of waltzing with your dream and imaging that's all you'll ever get.

And then when it is not...not at all...all you will ever get...!

Recommended reading for its happy, happy ending. What could be better than each new lover getting what his heart most desires?


(Winterbourne novellas #2)
Kindle original
$2.99 available now, so hop to it!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Lysander Winterbourne has been living happily at Edgeley Park for the last eighteen months. By day he is Adam Freeman's estate manager, by night, his lover...but Adam never speaks of his feelings and Lysander has no idea whether their relationship is any more than a convenient arrangement for Adam.

When the two men are invited to Winterbourne Abbey for a family Christmas, matters quickly come to a head. Snowed in at the Abbey with a house full of guests, Lysander has to face up to shocking revelations, long-held secrets and a choice he never expected to have to make...

My Review: So, after eighteen months left to their own devices, whither Lysander and Adam? Why on EARTH would one expect the happy ending to remain happy? After all, both men have families (those well-known sources of misery and dissatisfaction), the world outside is chock-a-block with superstar divas whose lives require you as audience-slash-extra in the blockbuster that is their drama, etc etc ad nauseum.

And it's Christmas. Oh Tide Pods of comfortless boys. I mean tidings of comfort and joy, of course I do, silly old faggot.

Adam is besotted. Lysander is deeply in love. Each man is eagerly disfruiting the tree of carnal knowledge; each is contentedly launched into work that satisfies his soul; what could possibly be wanting?

Nothing. Until the snake arrives in their Edenic Buckinghamshire manor. A well-meaning, lovely man called Jonny, long-time friend of Adam's school days, is recovering from his most recent emotional devastation as the men's guest. We join the party just in time for goofy Jonny to plant the seeds of doubt and fear into Lysander's inexperienced, needful-of-reassurance soul: "Adam's so in love with you that he's even got rid of his harem!"

Harem. HAREM?!
Is that why Adam's gone for weeks at a time?! Is that why Adam hasn't said he loves me?!? Well yes, okay, I haven't said it either but...
You know the drill. You've been there. So has Adam. After all, he's gnawing his store of happiness like a rat in a granary because beautiful, accomplished, socially desirable Lysander couldn't want to spend the rest of his life stuck in Nowheresville with old fuddy-duddy Adam, not when the world that dislikes a starchy, focused businessman adores Golden Boys...
And hoopla! It's Christmas, their second as mates, and guess what? Lysander has to go home. Again. Hold on...wait for it...Lysander's useless arrogant git of a daddy invites ADAM, of all people, to spend it with them! No one is more surprised by this than Adam. Except Lysander. Whose shock and horror continues to mount as Adam is led off to the east wing. Lysander's back in his old room, of course.

In the west wing.

Teatime! Into the drawing room pile all the guests, and of course Lysander must greet them, be introduced to a few, catch up with childhood bestie Perry...uber-hunky Lord Peregrine Cavendish to Adam's uneasy eyes...and his bratty sister Bella, husband-hunting minx in need of a rich, single man. Say, like Adam.

So we get to see all the charming (and not-so-charming) aspects of Family. The Winterbournes are not to be trifled with. It takes a serious commitment to endure the silly, frivolous people causing actual and damning harm, the timorous people failing to reach out for what they most want and what's more what they're wanted for, the selfish absentees who simply won't. Luckily for Lysander, his timidity is rattled a good hard one, and Adam is the most committed man ever born when he's decided what he wants.

So why can't they just say it?

Because someone's always inter-bloody-rupting them!!
Every. damn. time. someone opens the door to the room they're in, knocks on it, drags one off to do something tedious, you name it! And then when they least expect it, are least prepared for it, a deeply felt and long held secret rocks Lysander's (and by extension Adam's) world.

It was delicious.

I won't tell you what it is because spoilers, but I was on the edge of my seat! But no. No. Too cruel of me to tease, it was the long-time building
Anyway, I know you're as floored as I was, so we're all on the same page now! And just imagine how awful that was
Can you even imagine the sheer cruel audacity of that Author Chambers wench! Treating our men so cavalierly. They have feelings, you know! Dreadful person.

But it was all in service of a good story well-told, so all is forgiven.

Except those five (5) ghastly w-bombs.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

THE BARROW WILL SEND WHAT IT MAY, second Danielle Cain supernatural investigation

(Danielle Cain #2) Publishing
$3.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Margaret Killjoy’s Danielle Cain series is a dropkick-in-the-mouth anarcho-punk fantasy that pits traveling anarchist Danielle Cain against eternal spirits, hypocritical ideologues, and brutal, unfeeling officers of the law.

Now a nascent demon-hunting crew on the lam, Danielle and her friends arrive in a small town that contains a secret occult library run by anarchists and residents who claim to have come back from the dead. When Danielle and her crew investigate, they are put directly in the crosshairs of a necromancer’s wrath — whose actions threaten to trigger the apocalypse itself.


My Review
: You don't know how good an author's work is until you realize, when reading their new work, that you've missed these characters, this world, this skewed vision of life. That's what happened to me when I finally got around to reading Author Killjoy's latest tale of Danielle Cain and her band of merry pranksters (and now is the moment I say to the spoilerphobic that this next bit is a HUGE HONKING SPOILER for The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, which see):




...okay, are the spoilerphobes gone? Good. Here's the moment I came home:
A demon killed those police officers, sir. It wasn’t us. They probably shouldn’t have pulled guns out around a bloodred, three-antlered deer with obvious supernatural agility, so whose fault was it really.
That's just effin' awesome. I can't even with Killjoy!

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the following lines made my evil, withered soul batten like a leech on an artery:
Sometimes I think I let myself become addicted to coffee not because I liked it, not because caffeine did me any favors, but because it takes the urge of a physical addiction to provide any kind of upside to getting out of bed in the morning.
*oooo aaah* Killjoy speaks my mother(fuckin) tongue!

But the story. Yes, the story, the story, one must always serve the story. I found the events of this outing with Danielle and company a little bit on the rushed side, that is, until I realized we're in the same continuum as the last story and the data we need is all going to be relevant one day soon. I liked the new people the group met; I found the Montana setting used more as a form of social shorthand than a background character the way Freedom, Iowa, was in the last book. That it was effective I grant you, since it wasn't until a scene taking pace in Glacier National Park came and went without my so much as smelling a pine tree before I noticed it fully. Prior to that, I had a niggling sense of something not quite full about my cup of story. I understand how little room there is in under 200pp for the author to go hog wild with scenery and such-like. I'd've liked just a bit more, though.

The supernatural elements, the raising of the dead and concomitant magjicqkal spooky do's, the visuals and olfactories that go with, were here in plenty! I was deeply interested in The Killjoy Take on the omnipresent and worn-thinner-than-gossamer zombie trope. I must say it was a relief not to hate it. I was down with the whole idea, the way it's managed, and the fascinating departure from the more...meaty...tone that most fictioneers use in the wake of The Walking Dead.

Most of all, though, I love these stories because Danielle is a great character. She's a traveler, she does not put down roots but instead epiphytically sucks nourishment from the heavy air of mystery and magjicqk that surrounds her and, I think, likely always has. I find her love for another person realistic and well-realized. She doesn't go into frothing fits of adoration but she sure as hell notices when Brynn, her love object from last book, pays a little too much attention to someone new. Yet she's not possessive, really, she doesn't do the victim's-rights polka all over Brynn. After all this is a character who thinks:
There’s never enough air or something once you barricade the doors. There’re always too many people, both inside and outside, when you barricade the doors.
Yes. I concur, and like Author Killjoy, I don't limit my sense of being suffocated to my own personal body, but to everyone everywhere.

Should you read these novellas? If you come in with the spirit of adventure and of acceptance for difference that Author Killjoy does. Yes, The Other is demonized...when The Other is an actual demon, or the slave of one. It's the **intent** that Author Killjoy uses to brand The Other. Their appearance, their state of lifedeath, none of that matters so long as one isn't attempting Livingism by radical means of forcing an unconsulted, non-consenting Other to be alive!

You know what I wish more than anything? I wish Margaret Killjoy would get inspired and write some *good* Social Justice Warrior stories of Doctor Who, that's what. The tedious, lumpen things Chibnall and company are turning out, well, just not that good I'm afraid. This book is *good* woke supernatural bloody scary fiction. Find you way to the UK, Margaret Killjoy, just don't forget about Danielle and Scooby-group of Doom! (Would Vulture like that one, or Danielle?)

Friday, November 30, 2018

BLESSED ISLE, a Hearts-of-Oak era tale of forbidden love


Pronoun Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: 1790 British Age of Sail

For Captain Harry Thompson, the command of the prison transport ship HMS Banshee is his opportunity to prove his worth, working-class origins be damned. But his criminal attraction to his upper-crust First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, threatens to overturn all he’s ever worked for.

Lust quickly proves to be the least of his problems, however. The deadly combination of typhus, rioting convicts, and a monstrous storm destroys his prospects . . . and shipwrecks him and Garnet on their own private island. After months of solitary paradise, the journey back to civilization—surviving mutineers, exposure, and desertion—is the ultimate test of their feelings for each other.

These two very different men each record their story for an unfathomable future in which the tale of their love—a love punishable by death in their own time—can finally be told. Today, dear reader, it is at last safe for you to hear it all.

My Review: I've been reading Alex Beecroft's books since her debut, Captain's Surrender, came out in 2008. I loved it. I gave it to my then-dating partner, Frank, because as a firefighter and a closeted married man I thought he'd really identify with the plight of Peter Kenyon; he ended up coming out, though not divorcing, and pursuing his career as a professional full-time firefighter instead of a cop volunteering as one. "Life's too short," he told me, "and I can't hide anymore."

Well done, Author Beecroft. Your words inspired a positive life change.

So now I read all Author Beecroft's books because I like them and because I have a great memory associated with her work. This short tale of Paradise Lost and Purgatory Gained is in the Age of Sail, the Hearts of Oak days, and features the same reality that opened Frank's eyes and heart: Hiding your true self for fear of the consequences. Hiding love, impossible as that really is, to protect your livelihood and your loved one's safety. How horribly painful that is for all concerned. How unfair to even the worst of one's associates. No one is unscathed by this level of dishonesty, and Author Beecroft makes that clear, and illuminates the awful consequences to all concerned.

The way the story ends, since this is a romantic work, isn't really in question. There will be the requisite HEA. Maybe that's the strongest calling card for reading romantic fiction: Things work out well, unlike much of "real life." The means by which these two men get their HEA was satisfying in a "nyah-nyah" way. The heat level was, it seems to me, modest, but I am a terrible judge of these things because if it's not out-and-out porn I don't think book-sex is overdone. Usually. It's not overdone here.

And the storytelling format, the journal entry end of epistolary noveling, is a further guarantor that both the HEA and the sex levels will remain clear from the start. Not many people speak openly and honestly about their sexual experiences even in a journal. So, well, some glossing is expected, right?

Garnet loves Harry, Harry loves Garnet, society keeps them apart and the entire time they're complicit in the social order's disapproval of their feelings they hate themselves for being so dishonest. What does it cost a man to leave The System?
It shall not be the least of my regrets that I misjudged you so. I am always doing it. You make play of being charmingly reckless, a rake without responsibility, but I should have known you better than that. I am not worthy of you. Not now, and not then.
Less than it costs to stay.
Hours spent either in solitude or in the company of other men seemed grey and barren. Yet my hours with him were a torment of constant awareness and yearning. Without him in the hammock beside me, hot and restless and fidgeting in his dreams like a big dog, I could not sleep.
This, then, is the gift that Author Beecroft has: Making the pain and the passion of loving outside the edges of Society's limited vision vivid and real to those who don't or can't or won't go there themselves.
But as he continued to work out the details of our onward journey, it did finally occur to me that he was giving up his refuge, his true self, for my sake. He was facing again everything he feared, simply because I wished it.

Another happy Royal Navy Read. Thanks, Alex!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

FEAST OF STEPHEN, charming Christmas coda to the third A Charm of Magpies series

(A Charm of Magpies #3.5)
KJC Books
FREE DOWNLOAD, also included with Flight of Magpies ebooks

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A Charm of Magpies Christmas coda.

Stephen and Crane have finally got away on their long-awaited Christmas break, along with Crane’s henchman Merrick and Jenny Saint. A promised gift is made, and a request unexpectedly and magically fulfilled…


My Review
: A trip away from London to celebrate the new family's first Yule together. Stephen Day and Jenny Saint, guttersnipes elevated by Lord Crane's love for one and acceptance of the other, revel in fine new clothes, fine old brandy, and good company with many tales to tell.

But here's what you should really know: The entire series is about making what many of us, and sadly many QUILTBAG folk around the world, do not come with automatically: a logical family instead of a biological family. Crane and Merrick are closer than most people ever become, bonded by their adventures and their utter aloneness in the world. Day, always different, always apart and other, comes to bask in the inclusion he feels when he's with the two men. Now young Miss Saint, whose magical talent is never going to win her friends in the staid community of witches, comes at last to feel what the men are offering her.

She is home.

It makes the fact that we're not getting another tale with these four as its focus for...well...who knows. And that's okay.

(Actually no it's not okay at all and I'd like to take this moment to let Author Charles know that I have a voodoo dolly and a working knowledge of the operations of plantar fasciitis and I'm not afraid to deploy both in service of the need for more stories.)

FLIGHT OF MAGPIES, third book in A Charm of Magpies series

(A Charm of Magpies #3)
KJC Books
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Danger in the air. Lovers on the brink.

With the justiciary understaffed, a series of horrifying occult murders to be investigated, and a young student flying off the rails, magical law enforcer Stephen Day is under increasing stress. And the strain is starting to show in his relationship with his aristocratic lover, Lord Crane.

Crane chafes at the restrictions of England’s laws, and there’s a worrying development in the blood-and-sex bond he shares with Stephen. A development that makes a sensible man question if they should be together at all.

Then a devastating loss brings the people he most loves into bitter conflict. Old enemies, new enemies, and unexpected enemies are painting Stephen and Crane into a corner, and the pressure threatens to tear them apart...


My Review
: Wow. What a way to lead out of these characters' time as the focus of this universe! I am truly amazed at how deep and visceral my emotional response to this story was. Author Charles made me go there, that dark and violent place of fear, more than once in this read. Stephen and Lord Crane are stretched to their individual and collective breaking point by the stupidity and venality of the Victorian society they live in, they are each brought low by their shared but challenged love and respect for each other, and they are as far away from (and as close to) their richly deserved Happily Ever After as two can be. From here on, it's
so stop if you don't want to know!
My favorite scene of the entire series happens in this story. Lord Crane, goaded by Stephen's evident lack of care for his own safety and health, blows up and has it out with him. In that special way that only those committed to each other by bonds stronger than romantic love can afford to risk, Lord Crane lets loose the concentrated and deeply buried agonies of a law enforcement man's spouse:
“I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”
This howl of resentful fearful worry for self and spouse can't happen between romantic partners. It's the sole province of the spouse. It's real and it's raw and it's why Author Charles has legions of dedicated customer/reader/followers. This isn't fluff romance, this is full-blown and genuine relationship fiction. If one of the parties was female, this story would be in hard covers and have a Noble Profile lady with a Big Brute walking away down rainy streets. What keeps Crane there?
“I'm a very busy man," Crane said. "But I suppose I could force myself back here, lick you all over till you're begging for my cock, and then fuck you so hard they'll hear you screaming in the street. If you insist.”

There are several other wonderful scenes, of course, as Stephen battles the all-too-human idiocy of the Justiciary (the bureaucracy that polices magic in this universe); but few to top that one for utter fidelity to the reality of being an ordinary person's mate. Another fun moment later in the story is:
“Listen. Whatever the hell is going on...we will face it together. You and me. No more pissing about, Stephen, no more trying to do it all yourself, or to run the world single-handed. You will ask for help, you will take it, and you will put us first. That's not negotiable, understand?”
Lord Crane's had his fill of being the supplicant waiting for Stephen's time to free up, and not one second too soon if you ask me. Stephen's talents as a crime-fighter are being stretched too far quite deliberately. He's even set on the trail of someone quite reminiscent of the young Stephen, and of whom he says:
You're remarkably uninteresting for a flying trollop.
Savor that for a moment...the pungent tang of sarcasm, the rotting reek of jealousy, the chilly snark of condescension...leading at last to the moment when Stephen realizes:
Arrogant, beautiful, domineering Lord Crane, with the caring that made Stephen’s heart break, and the vicious streak that made his knees bend, had chosen him among all the men’s men of London, and treated him with a loyalty, generosity and almost painful honesty that made Stephen’s heart hurt. And his reward was a few doled-out crumbs of Stephen’s time in a country he hated.

Thank the good goddesses it's positioned where it is, at the ending of this strand of the story, because I dearly want these stories to remain fresh!