Category Archives: Reviews

A Big, Bold Series Ending: INTO DARKNESS (Night Prowler #6) by J.T, Geissinger – Review

Into Darkness 3D

Into Darkness (Night Prowler #6) by J.T. Geissinger
Genre: Adult Paranormal Romance
Publisher: Montlake Romance
Release date: October 21 2014
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Pages: 400

five stars

Wow, what a ride it’s been…a six book, two-year wild ride full of big, bold characters, sizzling sexytimes, and first-rate world-building. It’s rare that I ever make it through an entire series these days, and even rarer when the series is six books long. But I’m so happy I’ve stuck with Geissinger’s Night Prowler books, because I’ve enjoyed every one immensely. This is one series that could go on and on, in my humble opinion, because even in this last book I could see plot threads that begged to be expanded upon. But all good things must come to an end, yes? And no matter how much Geissinger must love her characters, I’m sure she’s ready to move on as well.

One big difference with this book is that I wouldn’t recommend reading it as a stand-alone. The previous five books worked well in that respect, because they each encapsulated their own plots and characters. But this time around, you will get more out of Into Darkness if you read the previous five books first.

I know how difficult it can be to read a review of the last book in a series, especially if you haven’t started that series. Will there be spoilers? Will the review make any sense if you aren’t already invested in the characters and world-building? Will you even read this review? I personally tend to skip reviews like this one, for all the above reasons, and so this time around, I’m leaving out spoilers for those of you who may want to start this series, but don’t want lots of plot details. Instead, I’m giving you my top ten reasons I loved Into Darkness, and some reasons in general that you should read the Night Prowler books:

1. Geissinger brings back all the characters from her previous books. This book was, in many ways, like a family reunion. Each couple (remember, these are romances, people!) from each book makes an appearance, and I can’t tell you how much fun I had reacquainting myself with them!

2. We get to see “what happens next” after Darkness Bound‘s startling events. At the time I wouldn’t have called those events “cliff-hangers,” but reading more about them made me jump up and down with glee!

3. Sisters! In this book, we meet twin sisters Lumina and Honor, who were separated as babies and are now reunited for the first time in twenty-four years. Can I just say, this may be my very favorite “sister” relationship ever? These two girls have some baggage to get past before they can really get to know each other, and each time they are in the same scene, the story leaps off the page. And for the first time during this series, I’ve actually enjoyed a sibling relationship more than the romantic one.

4. The Ikati. I’ve grown to love this race of shape-shifters more and more as the series has progressed, and Geissinger makes me love them even more in her final book. They are a race of great power and beauty, but they are also hunted and must stay hidden if they are to survive.

5. The Ikati’s gifts. Each Ikati has special gifts that add to the strength of the group, and in Into Darkness, Geissinger really steps up her game and gives her characters some very unique and cool gifts. Color me jealous! I would love to be able to turn solid matter into dust like Magnus, or foretell the future in my dreams like Demetrius.

6. Into Darkness takes place in the future. I was pleasantly surprised to find out this is more of a post apocalyptic story that I expected, but by setting her story in the future, Geissinger is able to not only show the horrible effects of a certain event from the past, but also to give her characters more devastating problems to overcome.

7. Dragons! I don’t want to spoil the actual reason for dragons being part of the series, but let’s just say I was surprised and delighted by the unexpected way that the author uses dragons, especially in this book.

8. A fast-paced plot that is perfectly balanced with quieter, more emotional moments. You may not equate “romance” with “fast-paced plot,” but let me tell you, Geissinger is a master at pacing, and she really does know how to strike a satisfying balance between action and romance.

9. The relationships. I already mentioned how wonderful the relationship is between sisters Lumina and Honor, but there are other emotional and heartwarming bonds as well, like the one between Lumina and her father. Yes, the romance between Lumina and Magnus is hot, but this time around, I was more interested in the other relationships.

10. Happy endings! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that all ends well at the end of Into Darkness. After all, this is a romance at heart, where such things as happy endings are expected. (And for those of you with smut on your minds, this book has a satisfying amount of that type of happy ending as well!)

And so I bid a fond “farewell” to the Night Prowler series. I can’t wait to see what J.T. has in store for us next! I, for one, will be the first in line. Now please excuse me while I go cry in the corner…

Big thanks to Montlake Romance for supplying a review copy.

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Murder, Mystery & Miracles: CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett – Review

City of Stairs 3D

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Broadway Books
Release date: September 9 2014
Source: Finished paperback courtesy of Blogging for Books
Pages: 464

 five stars

The nitty-gritty: This book has it all: strong but flawed characters, murder, danger, fighting, humor, and a world that will knock your socks off.

Spiral staircases rise up to halt completely in midair, some only ten feet off the ground, some twenty or thirty. There is something faintly osseous about them, resembling the rippled horns of some massive, exotic ruminant. Birds and cats have nested in the top steps of some. In one ridiculous instance, a huge basalt staircase slashes down through an entire hill, sinking a sheer forty feet into the earth in a veritable chasm that has apparently managed to undermine several small houses, whose remains totter unnervingly on the lip of the gap.

After seeing so many gushing reviews of City of Stairs, I was anxious to start reading it myself. And I was not disappointed. Reading Bennett’s multilayered fantasy was like opening presents on Christmas morning as a kid: each surprise was more wonderous than the next. This novel is one you will savor; it’s not what I would call a quick read, although it does have its page-turning moments. Bennett develops his amazing world with care, dropping detail after detail into our laps without resorting to info-dump. (Although some readers may disagree with me on this. There are a few places in the story where the author uses devices such as journals to convey information.) The world-building blossoms slowly, and by the end of the book I was frankly in awe of Bennett’s imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Everything about City of Stairs is beautifully done. The characters in particular jumped off the page, and it was hard picking a favorite.  Bennett has a talent for conveying intimate moments between his characters without over-explaining things. His humor is subtle, and each character in the story made me laugh out loud at one time or another. This is one book that I might actually read again, not only to savor the writing, but to catch the things I inevitably missed.

The story is deliciously complex. The city of Bulikov lies in ruins after a bitter war where a people called the Saypur took vengeance and killed the six gods that the people of Bulikov worshipped, at the same time destroying the city and many of those who lived there. When the gods died, the city was destroyed along with them during a phenomenon called The Blink. Now the Saypuri rule, and any form of worship or performing miracles is forbidden.

Shara is a Saypuri diplomat—and a spy in disguise—who is sent to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a Saypuri scholar named Efrem Pangyui. But as she begins to slowly uncover the truth, she also makes some startling discoveries about the dead gods, the city of Bulikov, and even her own shadowy origins. There are many secrets in this strange city, and Shara is determined to find them all, even if it means risking her own life.

One of my favorite characters was Sigrud, who seems to be a favorite of many readers. Sigrud starts out as a silent, hulking brute with murderous tendencies (he’s one of the most awesome killing machines I’ve ever run across!). But as the story goes on, Sigrud’s back-story paints him in a different light, and I grew to love him even more. He’s fiercely loyal to Shara, who helped him out of a tricky situation, and together they make a fantastic team—she’s the brains and he’s the brawn.

Mulaghesh was also a surprising character, a woman who comes across as ballsy and harsh, but ends up being somewhat of a softie, after Bennett peals back some of her prickly layers. And I loved Shara as well, a petite but fierce woman who has a few tricks up her sleeves and isn’t afraid to use them. But what really made the characters shine for me were their interactions with each other. What appears to be one sort of relationship can quickly turn into something entirely different, and I loved how the author kept me guessing.

Which brings us to the world-building. What can I say about the world-building that hasn’t already been said? Here are some things you should watch out for when you read City of Stairs—because I know you’re going to run right out and find yourself a copy, right? The Unmentionable Warehouse; miracles; the Bell Tower; Urav (!!!); Divine objects; old Bulikov; and many more. This story is chock-full of cool ideas that all worked seamlessly together, and that isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. I don’t want to give too much away, because half the fun is discovering each new element for yourself. But I did love that when the gods were alive, they granted their followers “miracles,” small acts of magic that made life simpler for people. For example, Shara finds some notes that Efrem made about old objects with miraculous properties, supposedly destroyed during the Blink:

Small iron key: Name is unknown, but when used on any door the door sometimes opens onto an unidentified tropical forest. Pattern has yet to be determined. Still miraculous.

City of Stairs has plenty of emotional moments as well, since the characters seem to be in danger from the beginning. It’s during these most desperate times that they choose to reveal how they feel about each other, or feel compelled to tell their most private secrets. If it weren’t for these human connections, this book would not have worked nearly as well as it did.

In the end, most everything is resolved, and yet…Bennett leaves us with a glimmer of things to come. Clearly Shara and Sigrud and Mulaghesh have more adventures in store. I have heard he’s writing a sequel, so let’s hope that’s true! Horror story, murder mystery, fantasy tale—City of Stairs is all this and more. Highly recommended!

Big thanks to Blogging for Books for supplying a review copy. All opinions are strictly my own.

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Adventure in the Skies: FALLING SKY by Rajan Khanna – Review

Falling Sky 3D

Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna
Genre: Adult fantasy/steampunk/dystopian
Publisher: Pyr
Release date: October 7 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 255

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A rollicking adventure tale, in the air and on the ground, an unpredictable main character, and lots of humor to keep things grounded.

I stare into a woman’s face. Brilliant blue eyes, A jagged scar across one of them. Black hair spilling down shot through with grey.

“Claudia,” I say. “Your scar is looking good.”

She pulls me up more. “You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re the one who sewed it up.” She flashes me a humorless smile, then throws me back onto the ground.

One of the most interesting—and frustrating—parts of this book was the main character, Ben Gold, who loses his precious airship, and then tries to get it back. Ben is a hot-headed sort of character who acts before he thinks, and often makes terrible choices. For many readers he is the sort of “unreliable character” that one might hope to find, and for this reason he kept the story interesting for me. But he also did some fantastically terrible things (which I won’t mention in this review), and one scene in particular nearly made me put the book down for good. So in the end I would have to say I didn’t like Ben’s character all that much. But did he compel me to keep reading Falling Sky? Yes, he did!

Despite my feelings for Ben, you can tell from my four-star rating that I enjoyed this book, and even though Goodreads doesn’t mention a sequel in the works, Falling Sky ends on a cliffhanger (and not a bad one, by the way!) and I am very excited to see what happens next.

The story takes place in an apocalyptic future, after a terrible virus called the Bug decimates the human population, turning people who catch it into “Ferals” who are deadly not only because they might attack you, but because the Bug flows through their blood and saliva, making it nearly impossible to escape the virus if you come into physical contact with one. Ben is the proud owner of an airship that he inherited from his grandfather, and he keeps to the skies as much as possible, where Ferals can’t go. But he’s taken on a job protecting a girl named Miranda, a determined scientist who is looking for a cure for the Bug. With Ben’s help, Miranda captures Ferals and draws blood samples to take back to her laboratory for study. After discovering something new in her latest sample, however, Miranda realizes that a cure might actually be possible, if only she can capture and bring back a live feral.  Ben disagrees, and after a bitter fight, they part ways.

As Ben is leaving, he inadvertently gets caught between two warring airships, and after setting down on the ground to help, his ship is stolen. The rest of the story is more or less Ben trying to find his stolen ship and take it back, but it’s a little more complicated than that, as he finds himself stuck between two factions: Gastown, a peaceful community of people who have grouped their airships together to form a city in the sky; and Valhalla, an organized group of thugs who are determined to take over Gastown and steal their most precious commodity.

No doubt about it, Falling Sky is a gritty and violent story, but it had many humorous moments as well. Khanna has a great ear for dialogue, something I always appreciate, and Ben, as annoying as he was (to me), has a sarcastic streak that kept me laughing. I especially loved his relationships with the women in his life—notice I said “women”?—and yes, there is a bit of a love triangle brewing, but it didn’t bother me. Although I wasn’t convinced by his growing closeness to Miranda, I did love his interactions with old flame Claudia.

Despite the women who are vying for his affections, Ben’s true love is his beloved airship, The Cherub. Because Ben tells the story in first person, we get some very personal descriptions of the ship. Ben will do anything to find her and get her back, and at times I felt as if he were too single-minded in his quest. But this focused determination gives the story a place to go, and even though I found the first half a bit meandering at times, the story takes off like a rocket once Ben loses his ship.

An oddly sweet side story about Ben rediscovering his religion could have been overly sentimental, but it worked for me, mostly because it gives him a much-needed human side. But most of the best character sketches were the scenes where Ben and Miranda clash over what to do with the Ferals. Miranda is a true scientist and risks her life to find a cure for a creature that she truly believes is innocent. But Ben wants nothing to do with helping Ferals at all. Ben’s fear of getting too close to a Feral and his attitude in general that Ferals are lost causes reminded me of the AIDS scare during the 1980s.

Falling Sky is a solid start to an exciting series (I hope!). The ending was perfect, in my opinion, and leaves us anxious to see what trouble Ben will get into next.

Big thanks to Pyr for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Victorian Fun in the U.S.A.: JACKABY by William Ritter – Review

Jackaby 3D

Jackaby by William Ritter
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release date: September 16 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 304

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A quirky yet charming main character, a puzzling mystery, some unexpected supernatural elements, and a lively and humorous story.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, sir—but that hat is a priceless finery?” I asked hesitantly.

“Silk is more precious than cotton because of the nature of its acquisition, is it not? Fine threads are collected from tiny silkworms over countless hours, whereas cotton can be pulled off nearly any farm in the States, and it ships by the boatload. My hat, Miss Rook, is made from the wool from one of the only surviving yeti of the Swiss Alps, dyed in ink mixed by Baba Yaga herself, and knit by my very good friend Agatha as a birthday present. Agatha is a novice knitter, but she put quite a lot of care into this hat. Also, she is wood nymph. Not a lot of nymphs take to knitting. So, tell me if my hat is not more precious than the finest silk.”

I had such fun reading Jackaby, which wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. This book is definitely geared more towards the young adult crowd, even though all the characters are adults. The story is mostly funny and light and issue-free, with lots of humorous moments, snappy dialogue between the characters, and only a smidgen of blood. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, and takes place in a Victorian-esque time period (although in the United States, not in England). But our clever and slightly off-putting hero Jackaby has a talent that is well suited to his job: he is able to see supernatural creatures that are invisible to other people. This was a great concept that made what would otherwise be a pedestrian murder mystery, something unique and interesting.

The story takes place in the late 1800s in the fictional town of New Fiddleham, a quaint and old-world town somewhere in New England. Abigail Rook has just arrived from overseas on a boat, and is trying unsuccessfully to secure work, when she sees an advertisement for a job as an investigator’s assistant. She answers the ad and meets the unconventional and mysterious R. F. Jackaby, an investigator with quite the reputation (and not a good one, might I add!) Jackaby agrees to “try her out” and immediately takes her to a crime scene, where a man has been brutally murdered. As Jackaby evades the unpleasant Inspector Marlowe, he notices some unusual things at the crime scene that lead him to believe that the murder in question was not committed by a human.

With Abigail in tow, Jackaby scours the city for clues, as similar murders begin to pile up. Jackaby begins to suspect that there may be a political reason behind the killings, and it becomes a race with the clock to stop the murderer before he kills again. In the midst of the action, Abigail is introduced to Jackaby’s very unusual roommates, taught the intricacies of being an investigator, and shown the scary yet fascinating world of the supernatural, all the while wondering whether or not she’s made the right decision in joining Jackaby.

Ritter’s prose was a delight and evokes the Victorian era perfectly. He has a keen ear for dialogue, and I especially loved the banter between Jackaby and Abigail. Jackaby himself was a joy to read, and although I didn’t always like him, I thought he was wonderfully drawn. He always says what’s on his mind, even if he unintentionally hurts others with his words (and he manages to insult Abigail over and over). And while I didn’t care for the way he treated Abigail, I could understand it as part of his personality.

One of my favorite parts of the story were the many supernatural creatures who made an appearance. Everything from banshees to trolls to werewolves crossed paths with our investigators, and without them this story would not have been nearly as fun. Only one creature seemed completely out-of-place in the story (and I won’t say what he is so I don’t spoil it for you), and for me, this side-story left me puzzled rather than charmed, which I think was the author’s intention. Abigail meets this character near the beginning of the story, and I kept waiting for some kind of explanation as to why he was in the story at all. Unfortunately, that explanation never came.

Strangely, Abigail seemed like more of an observer than a participant in Jackaby. Yes, she was part of the action, and yes, she did her part to help solve the murders, but Jackaby’s reactions to her bothered me, for some reason. Honestly, the story would have been just as good without Abigail, as she feels like more of a device to tell Jackaby’s tale than a character in her own right. Jackaby barely tolerates her presence for most of the book, and hardly seems to realize she’s even there most of the time. Their relationship, such that it was, felt stilted and formal, and I never had the sense that Jackaby even liked Abigail very much. A little more emotion between the characters would have gone a long way for me.

Despite this, however, I did enjoy Jackaby quite a bit. William Ritter’s writing alone will make me pick up his next book, and the character of Jackaby—in all his snarky, rude and quirky glory—will be someone I’ll remember for a long time.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Survival is Insufficient: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel – Review

Station Eleven 3D

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Adult Dystopian/Literary Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Release date: September 9 2014
Source:  eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 352

five stars

The nitty-gritty: A luminous, end-of-the-world story full of hope, multiple elements and characters that are skillfully knit together, all written in beautifully spare prose and evocative imagery.

But first there’s this moment, this lamp-lit room: Miranda sits on the floor beside Elizabeth, whose breath is heavy with wine, and she leans back until she feels the reassuring solidity of this door frame against her spine. Elizabeth, who is crying a little, bites her lip and together they look at the sketches and paintings pinned to every wall. The dog stands at attention and stares at the window, where just now a moth brushed up against the glass, and for a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.

I could save you all some time and simply say “Read this book!” But I suspect most people need some convincing when it comes to deciding to invest your scant free time in reading a particular book. This may turn out to be my favorite book of the year, although we still have three-and-a-half months to go. However, I feel certain that Station Eleven will always be a book that I will fervently recommend, even years from now. It’s that good. I’m going to have to compare my reading experience to other wonderful books like Life of Pi, The Secret History, Bel Canto, or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I’m sure most of you are familiar with that feeling, when you finish the last page of a book and time stops. When you’re afraid to breathe or you might break the spell. When you want to run out into the streets and tell anyone who might listen that this is the book they should read next.

Everything came together for me, and I’m going to attempt to tell you why. If you like linear stories, then you may have some trouble with this book, because the story loops around from the past to the present and back again, and at first it isn’t easy to see how the author could possibly make sense of all her separate vignettes. But make sense she does, and it doesn’t take long before you begin to realize just how brilliant this story is.

We begin in the past—or rather, the moment where everything starts to fall apart. On stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, famous actor Arthur Leander is performing King Lear. In the middle of a speech, he drops dead of a heart attack. But this horrible event is only the beginning of what’s to come: a pandemic called the Georgia Flu is about to wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population, and before the week is out, millions have succumbed to this terrible virus.

The survivors, a handful of people who are either immune to the disease or just lucky, begin their tentative steps into a new life, trying to survive in a world that gradually loses everything familiar: electricity, the internet, airplanes, gasoline. How these characters are related is the driving force that propels the story forward. Twenty years after the flu devastates the human population, a travelling band of performers sets out to find the lost members of their troupe, not knowing that their journey will end in a new place with familiar faces. And tying all these people together is a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven, a comic that eerily mirrors the future.

There are so many wonderful pieces to this complex story, and I certainly don’t want to spoil anything for you. But I will say that this is a much different apocalyptic story that I thought it would be. You won’t find any vampires, or zombies, or cannibals in Station Eleven. The survivors face real dangers: running out of food and water or getting caught out in the elements. One story thread, however, follows a mysterious and sinister man simply called “the prophet,” who has coerced a band of innocent people into following his crazy religious beliefs. Our intrepid Traveling Symphony comes upon them at one point in the story, and things get tense for a while.

But most of the book is filled with quiet and introspective moments written in Mandel’s gorgeous and simple prose, moments that make you feel sad, or grateful, or remind you that the world is indeed full of wonder. I came to care about these characters deeply, even those who appear to only have bit parts. Kirsten, who was only eight when the flu hit, has mostly grown up in a world without technology. She only remembers certain things about “before,” and only in flashes. Kirsten has carried two comics with her ever since Arthur Leander gave them to her right before he died, comics that were written and drawn by Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda. Mandel uses these comics as a device to bind her characters together, as they are passed from hand to hand. I won’t tell you what happens to them at the end, but it was a wonderful moment.

Many of the characters were older than Kirsten when the flu struck, and feel a lingering sadness towards the things they don’t have any more: movies, oranges, television, and especially, electricity. One of my favorite story lines is that of Clark, Arthur’s boyhood friend, who was stranded in an airport when the world stopped. Clark eventually creates the Museum of Civilization, where he collects old artifacts to preserve for the future: credit cards, iPhones, and more. I loved the feeling of nostalgia that the Museum evoked. The characters in this story have lost so much, and there are many heartbreaking scenes that will linger long after you’ve finished reading the book. But there is also a glimmer of hope at the end, and the feeling that all is not lost.

I could go on and on, but I’d rather you simply read Station Eleven for yourself. Emily St. John Mandel has written something very special. She weaves a story where both characters and objects keep reappearing in completely unexpected places, and she never seems to lose track of her many story threads. Station Eleven is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad at the same time, and I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon it.

Many thanks to Knopf for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

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A Dazzling World, But a Confusing Story: THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley – Review

The Mirror Empire 3D

The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga #1) by Kameron Hurley
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 539

three and a half

The nitty-gritty: A fabulous and fantastical world, a dense and complex plot, female characters that steal the show, but ultimately a fractured story that left me dazed and confused.

When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with Lilia’s blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorn fence.

“Nothing can cross the thorn fence,” Lilia’s mother said as she poured the blood onto the hungry, gnarled fence. The boars on the other side licked up the blood. Lilia liked the boars’ yellow eyes and wrinkled, mucus-crusted snouts. They reminded her of hungry babies. The thorn fence kept out the semi-sentient walking trees and conscription gangs who sometimes climbed up from the churning bay that clung to the base of the cliffs. The cliffs and the fence should have protected them forever. Her mother was a blood witch, and never doubted her power. If you fed enough blood to a thing, her mother said, it would do all you asked.

We all know books are subjective. It’s rare to find that special snowflake that EVERYONE agrees is the Best Book Ever. Often, I tend to fall on the side of the masses when reading books like this. Usually the big trade reviewers—Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews—get it right for me: when they love something, I usually do too. So it’s frustrating to fall on the other side of the fence when a book just doesn’t click. Unfortunately, The Mirror Empire was one such book. The hype, the glowing reviews, the Hugo Awards—all these things spelled out a five-star book, but although the individual elements are truly unique and wonderful, they didn’t come together as smoothly as I would have liked.

It’s hard to even give you a synopsis of the plot, because I lost track of the individual plot threads more than once. But what’s basically happening is this: two worlds, very similar to each other but not, exist side by side. In one world, a star called Oma is about to rise, after being absent in the sky for hundreds of years. Oma’s rise portends tragedy and destruction, and so the people who live in this world want to find a way out, to get over to the “mirror world.” Thus begins a terrible war, and the two worlds begin to destroy each other.

Now this is a very simplistic description of a complicated plot which has many rules that hold the different societies together. There are magic rules: Some people are sensitive to the satellites that rise and fall in these worlds, and when their particular satellite is in orbit, that person can draw power from it. There are social rules: Women dominate in The Mirror Empire, and Hurley has done a great job of turning normal society on its head. And there are political rules: The death of the Kai means that her brother must take up the job, a job he doesn’t want at all.

One of the most interesting things about this book—and there are a bunch of them—is Hurley’s matriarchal society. We are introduced to a character named Zezili, an assassin who is commanded by the Empress of her world to begin systematically destroying the lower caste members of society. Apart from the fact that she willingly does this, she is also married to a man named Anavha, whom she uses as little more than a sex slave. Anavha stays home while his wife goes to war, pining for her while she’s gone. He is kept hidden away from Zezili when she is home, and is only brought to her when she needs him. My reaction to this set-up surprised me. Rather than cheering for the strong female character who doesn’t let men push her around, I felt sympathy toward Anavha, who became one of the most intriguing characters in the book for me. Zezili is also fond of raping and torturing her husband, and this respect I thought Hurley took the role reversal thing too far. Feminists may applaud this decision, but I was mostly left with a sick feeling in my stomach. After all, rape is rape, no matter who does it.

Other male characters were not nearly as interesting to me. Ahkio takes over his dead sister’s role as Kai, the leader of his society, but he isn’t respected at all, and he came across as quite weak. In another part of the world, Roh lives and works in the Temple of Oma, and his story starts out promising. But with so many story threads, I soon lost track of why I found him so interesting in the first place. Hurley was deliberate in the way she created her male characters to be weak and uninteresting. Even a man named Taigan, who seems powerful in the beginning, turns out to be, not just a man, but someone who can change his sex! So in the end, he turns out to be a powerful woman!

If you are squeamish, then The Mirror Empire probably shouldn’t be your next read. Being a horror fan, I can take a fair amount of graphic violence in books, but this story contains a never-ending stream of it. Everything from beheadings to disembowelments to limbs being hacked off was standard fare in The Mirror Empire, and not unusual for a book dealing with war. However, I wanted just a glimpse of something lighter and happier to balance it all out, but those moments rarely came.

There is no disputing the fact that the world-building is amazing. Hurley has intricately crafted a very complex world, with wonderful touches of imagination that I was drooling over. Poisonous sentient plants litter the landscape and are a danger to everyone. (Watch out, or you may be pulled into a bladder trap underground, where a plant’s poisons will start to dissolve your body!) Instead of riding horses, Hurley has her characters riding giant dogs and bears! And the bears have forked tongues! There is blood magic, which although horrifying, I actually loved, and the idea behind the mirror of the title and the way it ties into the two parallel worlds was fascinating.

I also loved her frank approach to sex and sexual relationships. In a society with more than two sexes, marriages often involve five or six people. There’s also no “sneaking around” in this world, because adults often have affairs with people they aren’t married too. It’s just an accepted part of society, and I found it refreshing.

It took me two weeks to finish The Mirror Empire, mostly because I kept putting it down. I actually picked up and read two other books during that time, which tells me that there just wasn’t enough to hold my interest. I wanted to love this book, and at times I did. But the constant back-and-forth between story lines was confusing, and the characters whose stories I really wanted to follow kept being interrupted by other less interesting ones. Kameron Hurley is a supremely talented writer, but this one just didn’t work for me.

(**Tammy’s note: After writing my review, I did have a brief correspondence with the publisher regarding changes that were made from the ARC version to the finished copy of the book. According to editor Caroline Lambe, “…the ARC is quite different.” Hurley also addresses the changes briefly on her  website here. I was surprised to find out that the finished book contains not only a map that explains her world, but a glossary in the back! Neither of these appeared in the ARC (which is not uncommon), and having these tools available while I read the book would have helped me enormously. Although, I’m not sure whether they would have changed my option of the book or not.)

Thank you to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may be different in the final version of the book.

Want more insight into Hurley’s method of world-building? Stop back here on Thursday for Kameron Hurley’s guest post, and a giveaway of the book!

 You can find The Mirror Empire here:

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One Boy’s Unusual Search for Himself: 100 SIDEWAYS MILES by Andrew Smith – Review

100 Sideways Miles 3D

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 2 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 288

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: An unusual but fascinating main character, a unique and touching friendship, and a journey of self-discovery that completely immerses the reader.

How can I ever describe the wordless universe I enter at times like these, and do it on paper, using words?

There’s one for the books.

I know this: First, I smelled flowers. Cade and Julia drifted toward me, down the trash-strewn and swirling corridor, followed by two shadow puppets. Maybe they were just the shadows of my own scattered atoms. The flower smell got thicker, almost sickening. I looked up and saw the outline of a horse lying on its side, suspended in the mesh net of chain-link overhead.

Here I come, Caballito!

This was my first Andrew Smith book. I have his other books, Winger and Grasshopper Jungle, on my reading list, but I just haven’t had time to read them. You can bet I’ll be finding time now, though, after reading 100 Sideways Miles.  Many of you may be looking at the odd cover and wondering what the heck this book is about. And I can tell you the horse on the cover does play a big part in the story, but not in the way you might think. Smith not only immerses us in the mind of a seventeen-year-old boy, but a seventeen-year-old boy with some very heavy baggage. The story is told in first person from Finn’s rambling and desperate point of view, and covers several months near the end of the school year and into the following summer.

Finn Easton is an epileptic, and has occasional seizures, after a freak accident killed his mother and landed him in the hospital with a broken back. Finn has all the problems of a normal teenaged boy: trying to find a girlfriend, wanting to get rid of his virginity (but not really), and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after high school. But he also has another problem: his father is a famous writer, having written a popular science fiction story called The Lazarus Door which describes a boy named Finn, with an odd scar on his back, who is a human-devouring alien. Finn feels trapped in the version of himself that his father has created, and therefore feels as if he doesn’t have an identity of his own. Even his own scars from back surgery look exactly like the scars on book-Finn’s back.

Near the end of the school year, Finn meets the lovely and mysterious Julia, and suddenly his life seems to have new meaning. But as Finn and Julia grow closer, Finn’s seizures start to happen more frequently, and an upcoming trip to a college in Oklahoma means he will soon need to make some choices about his future. But can Finn truly choose his own path when he’s still living under the shadow of his father’s book?

100 Sideways Miles was not at all what I was expecting, and that is a very good thing! Although there isn’t much of a plot, it doesn’t really matter, because what’s important here are the characters. The story centers around Finn, his best friend Cade, and Julia, the new girl in town. Finn is a dreamy sort of boy who lives much of his life in his own head, making excuses for his annoying and unlikable friend Cade and describing the passage of time in distances—based on the theory that the earth moves twenty miles per second, which becomes an equation for everything he does. Finn’s thoughts are all over the place, which may bother some readers. He jumps from subject to subject, often without any transitions, which made for some jarring sections. He also tends to repeat himself, which I found annoying at first. He talks about his “heterochromatic eyes” (two different colors) over and over, for example. But soon I realized it was just the way his character thinks, and this repetition didn’t bother me much after that.

Cade Hernandez is nearly the complete opposite of Finn, although oddly enough, they look as if they could be brothers. Cade is a character than many readers will hate. He’s extremely rude when he wants to be, he has no filter at all, and he embarrasses people whenever he opens his mouth. But despite all that, his peers seem to look up to him, and I was touched by what a loyal friend he is to Finn.

Julia was a quirky character in her own right, but she almost felt like background noise to me, in some ways. She seems to develop the beginnings of a deep relationship with Finn, but she never lost her unattainability, and felt more like a dream than a real character.

Finn has a dog named Laika, named after the famous dog who went to space in the Sputnik 2, but I spent most of the book feeling sorry for poor Laika. I was worried at first that Finn was going to mistreat his dog, at which point I would have thrown my Kindle across the room and called it quits. But luckily I never had to do that, although Finn isn’t very nice to Laika (he calls her stupid and keeps her in a crate at night), you can tell he really loves her.

There are some spectacularly funny scenes between Cade and Finn involving condoms, as Finn worries about whether or not Julia will want to have sex with him, and much of the humor comes from teenage hi-jinks, as the boys discuss girls, sex and erections. But there is also an air of sadness to the story, with its abandoned prison, dry lake, and William Mulholland’s famously failed dam, which reminded me of my own childhood growing up in the Mojave desert.

In the end, I was rooting for Finn to become the person he wanted to be, not the made-up version that his father created. Smith’s characters are definitely going to stick with me for a long time, particularly Finn, whose sideways view of the world gave me lots to think about.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

You can find 100 Sideways Miles here:

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“It’s Not Just a Job. It’s the Rest of Your Life.” HORRORSTOR by Grady Hendrix – Review

 

Horrorstor

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Genre: Adult horror
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release date: September 23 2014
Source: Purchased at Comic Con
Pages: 243

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A clever and wry look at the big-box retail business, an unexpectedly graphic horror story, all wrapped up in a truly brilliant book design.

FRÅNJK: Dining is not about the table and chairs. It’s about the conversations and companions that you invite into your home, making memories that will sparkle tonight and last forever. FRÅNJK is the frame—your life is the picture.

(available in Night Birch and Beaver Oak)

I was very excited to find this book at the Quirk booth at San Diego Comic Con in July, especially since it’s not out until later this month. I happy purchased a copy, thinking I’d eventually get around to reading it. But I found myself in a frustrating reading slump this past week, while trying to get through the massive page count of The Mirror Empire, so rather than continue to struggle, I decided it was time for something fun and light (which by the way, are two words that cannot be applied to The Mirror Empire!) I rarely do that—stop reading a book in the middle—because what usually happens is that I never go back to it. (Although I will be finishing it this weekend.)

But I’m so glad I picked up Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix’s first traditionally published novel (I believe). It was just what I needed to clear my head, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how good this was. As you might be able to tell from the cover, Horrorstör is a spoof on IKEA, and takes place in a big-box store called Orsk, which claims to have “below-IKEA prices.” Now, like many people, I have a long and complicated relationship with IKEA. My house is only five minutes away from an IKEA. At one point, it was furnished entirely with their build-it-yourself furniture, and it’s only been in the past few years, as my kids have grown out of their destructive phase, that my husband and I have spent real money on real furniture, although I’ll admit I do still have a few IKEA pieces scattered here and there. (Oh hell, I’m working at an IKEA desk, for crying out loud!)

I say “complicated relationship” because as anyone who has ever attempted to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture knows, it’s not as easy as they make it seem. What the author has done with his book is taken the idea of retail marketing, blown it out of proportion, and turned it into a top-notch horror story. It’s such a brilliant idea, I don’t know why it hasn’t been done before. And serious kudos to the design team at Quirk Books! The book not only looks like an IKEA catalog and follows a similar format, but it’s the same trim size as well. Fake ads for Orsk products begin each chapter, and the highlighted item actually plays a part in the story. (Brilliant!) But as the story progresses, these ads begin to turn sinister, and the reader can’t help but start to feel uncomfortable when faced with something like this:

Horrorstor inside

But this isn’t just a gimmick: there is an actual story in Horrorstör. Amy is a disgruntled employee at Orsk who wants a transfer to another store. Her boss, overachiever Basil the deputy store manager, has it in for her and is always trying to tell her how to be better at her just-above-minimum-wage job. After some very disturbing vandalism is discovered on a Brooka sofa one morning before the store opens, Basil decides to take control of the situation and recruit Amy and model employee Ruth Anne to work a night shift with him in order to catch the culprit in the act. Offering them “double overtime,” Amy quickly agrees, knowing the extra money is just what she needs in order to pay her rent.

The evening starts innocently enough, as the three take turns patrolling the vast showroom floor of Orsk, but things soon turn weird. Amy and Ruth Anne stumble upon two fellow co-workers named Trinity and Matt (making out in a Müskk bed) who have broken into the store. Trinity is certain that Orsk is haunted, and she and Matt are determined to start their own cable ghost-hunting show by catching some real paranormal activity on film.

As the night wears on, strange things begin to happen. Amy discovers some odd graffiti in the women’s room, graffiti that wasn’t there only minutes earlier. Matt’s camera suddenly shows a different part of the store than the one he’s pointing the camera at. And they discover a homeless man who’s been camping out in Orsk and who turns out to be a catalyst for much of the horror that follows. When Trinity decides to hold a séance to call forth the spirits, things quickly begin to go downhill, and they begin to wonder if they’ll even survive until dawn.

Hendrix does a great job of slowly ramping up the tension, as Amy, Ruth Anne, Trinity, Basil and Matt discover that something terrible is going on in Orsk. I was expecting the story to mostly be a comedy, but there were some truly terrifying moments with plenty of graphic violence thrown in for good measure. The author’s explanation for the ghostly presence is a good one, although I did wish he’d gone into more detail about the origins of the evil (my only criticism of the book). Check out the back cover, which gives you a glimpse of the bad things to come:

Horrorstor back

As I mentioned before, the packaging design of Horrorstör is simply ingenious. Every inch of the book stays in character, and it even manages to poke fun at itself. The flap copy reads:

“A traditional haunted house story in a thoroughly contemporary setting, Horrorstör is designed to retain its luster and natural appearance for a lifetime of use. Pleasingly proportioned with generous French flaps and a softcover binding, Horrorstör delivers the psychological terror you need in the elegant package you deserve.”

Hendrix clearly has his own IKEA experiences to pull from.  At several points during the story, the characters get lost in Orsk’s maze-like floor plan, which was both funny and terrifying. This combination of horror and humor was part of what worked so well with the book.

I was a little worried about how Hendrix was going to wrap things up, but I shouldn’t have been. Although the ending was way over the top, somehow it managed to work, and even the characters, who you might expect to be cookie-cutter horror types, show some real grit and emotion at the end. After reading Horrorstör, I can tell you that I will never look at IKEA the same way again. Highly recommended!

Horrorstör is available on September 23rd! Find the book here:

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Ghosts and Gods: THE APEX BOOK OF WORLD SF 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar – Review

Apex Book of World SF 3 3D

The Apex Book of World SF 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar
Genre: Adult Science Fiction Anthology
Publisher: Apex Books
Release date: June 15 2014
Source: Finished paperback from publisher
Pages: 266

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A tasty buffet of choice stories from all over the world, some stronger than others, but all of them great examples of diversity and imagination.

Before she became a ghost, Xiao Qian tells me, she had lived a very full life. She had been married twice, gave birth to seven children, and raised them all.

And then her children got sick, one after another. In order to raise the money to pay the doctors, Xiao Qian sold herself off in pieces: teeth, eyes, breasts, heart, liver, lungs, bone marrow, and finally, her soul. Her soul was sold to Ghost Street, where it was sealed inside a female ghost’s body. Her children died anyway.

Apex Books continues to delight me with the way they stretch the boundaries of what science fiction and fantasy can be. In this collection, the third in a series, editor Lavie Tidhar has collected sixteen stories from many countries, including China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Nigeria, Greece, Mexico, Germany, France, Sweden and India. I was thrilled to discover some new favorite writers, and I intend to keep them on my radar. Some of the stories are translated into English, others are written in English, but all of them have not only an other-worldliness about them, but at the heart of each one, you’ll recognize the ups and downs of simply being human. For the most part, it was a very strong mix, and while not every story grabbed me, there were two or three that either made me cry or left me speechless.

As is my habit when I review anthologies, I would like to highlight my top five favorites. All five of these have everything I look for in a short story: lovely writing, an engaging story, characters who change and grow during the course of the tale, and emotional impact at the end. Imagine how hard it must be to achieve all these things in only a handful of pages! And yet these writers managed to do so:

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia. Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu. A young boy named Ning lives in an odd family of ghosts, mechanical creatures with a human soul trapped inside them. But what happens when Ning finds out he’s not exactly who he thought he was? This heartbreaking tale had me bawling at the end.

Waiting with Mortals by Crystal Koo.

The neon in Hong Kong is like the past: an image of blurred points of light, and haste and shallow focus where the only certainty is a vivid experience eventually misremembered.

Koo’s writing is so beautiful, and this strange ghost story tells the tale of a group of ghosts who have not yet “crossed over,” but instead spend their days inhabiting the bodies of the living. Ben is a ghost who still pines for his friend J.G., a girl who is slowly losing herself by letting ghosts take over her body. A powerful and emotional story.

To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar. This author is truly metropolitan: she is a Lebanese-Canadian who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, so I’m not really sure how to categorize her story! This tale was particularly sneaky. It begins as a dreamy story about a woman who has been taught to weave dreams into stones for profit. But when she spies an intriguing and beautiful woman in a café, and begins to use her image as a catalyst for some very erotic dreams, the story suddenly turns dangerous.

Regressions by Swapna Kishore. A gorgeous story about time travel, as a group of “futurists”—women who are tasked with travelling back into India’s past and gently changing the tide of the Indian woman’s lot in life—must make sacrifices in order to improve the lives of women. I loved this story!

The City of Silence by Ma Boyong. Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu. Just like George Orwell’s dystopian future, this 1984-esque story describes a future where the “appropriate authorities” control all language and publish a daily “List of Healthy Words” that citizens are allowed to use. When one man discovers a secret “Talking Club,” where one can speak whatever words he wants to, life becomes brighter—for a little while, at least. As with any dystopian, this is a chilling look at how dangerous government control can be.

Four other stories that nearly made this list are: Act of Faith by Fadzlishah Johanabas. A lonely man named Daud decides to teach his only companion, an android, the ways of his faith; The Foreigner by Uko Bendi Udo. A Nigerian boy seeks acceptance in a world filled with hate and mistrust. Jungle Fever by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar. One of the few horror stories in the bunch, a girl contracts a nasty scratch while in the jungle, a scratch that changes her life forever. And Dancing on the Red Planet by Berit Ellingsen. An international group of astronauts, about to set foot on Mars for the first time, decide to make that special moment memorable.

So do yourself a favor and check out this anthology. I guarantee it will make you look at the world a little differently. Big thanks to Apex Books for providing a review copy.

You can find the book here:

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Adventure & Airships: THE BULLET-CATCHER’S DAUGHTER by Rod Duncan

The Bullet Catcher 3D

The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter (The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #1) by Rod Duncan
Genre: Adult Steampunk
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 384

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A rollicking steampunk adventure, filled with intricate twists and turns, top-notch world building, and a heroine that quickly became one of my favorites ever.

Illusion was my inheritance, fed to me on my mother’s lap as the drowsy rocking of the caravan and the slow rhythm of iron-shod hooves lulled me. It was a ripe strawberry conjured from the air, or a silver coin caressed from my soft cheek by the touch of a loving hand.

The first great illusion given me by my father was the gift of being, when needed, my own twin brother. I learned by stages to move as he moved and to look as he looked. My voice would always be the weakest part of the illusion, but even this could be covered by misdirection. At a distance of twenty paces, under the deceiving illumination of the stage lights, my friends could not tell me from a man.

From the opening paragraph of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, I was enchanted by just about everything this book has to offer. Duncan’s novel takes place in an alternate history UK that feels very much like Victorian England but with the steampunk addition of airships. Elizabeth Barnabus is the young narrator, and her voice was so clear and, frankly, feminine, that I kept having to remind myself that the author is male. I’ve run across several brilliantly written books with a male narrator written by a female author, but I think this might the best male author writing a female character that I’ve ever read. A delicious air of mystery and hijinks pervades this story, and I was immediately drawn into the unique world Duncan has created. True, there are many steampunk novels out there with airships and mechanical devices, but this book has much more, including a circus of illusion, a menacing organization called the Patent Office, and two lands divided by a hard-to-cross border.

Elizabeth, our heroine, lives in exile in the land of the Republic, an old-fashioned and oppressive place where women aren’t allowed in bars or out on the streets unchaperoned. Her true home, the Kingdom, lies just out of reach on the other side of the border. After the ruin of her family, she barely survives by eking out a living as an “intelligence gatherer,” except there’s a twist—Elizabeth makes her living at night by dressing up as a man and pretending to be her twin brother.

After the Duchess of Bletchley approaches “Mr. Barnabus” and begs him to find her missing brother, offering a king’s ransom for completing the job, Elizabeth agrees, knowing the money will get her out of debt for good. But Mr. Orville’s (the Duchess’ brother) trail proves hard to find, until Elizabeth stumbles upon Harry Timpson’s Laboratory of Arcane Wonders, a wondrous circus that just might hide clues as to his whereabouts. Elizabeth finagles herself into the ranks of the circus-folk and gets a job cleaning out the lion pens, but the mysteries keep piling up. Why is the dreaded Patent Office after Mr. Orville? Who is John Farthing and why is he following Elizabeth? And what does the mysterious contraption, a box that Mr. Orville supposedly stole, do anyway? There are dangers aplenty, as well as adventure, all wrapped up in a lively narrative that whisks the reader along with barely time to take a breath.

I have to begin by talking about the character of Elizabeth, because she was such a bright and vivacious part of this story. Many of the other characters were strong and engaging as well, but none can compete with Elizabeth, who really steals the show. One of the ongoing and unexplained mysteries of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is whether or not Elizabeth’s twin brother actually exists (and by the end of the book, I still wasn’t sure!). She has been taught by her father from a very young age the art of “becoming” a man, in dress, makeup, hair and attitude, and in this way she conceals herself and is able to move among men and conduct her intelligence gathering. Duncan’s descriptions of how quickly she can change into her brother, and back again, were fascinating. Elizabeth is never without her battered old case that hides the clothing and wigs necessary for her illusion.

But disguising herself as a man isn’t without its challenges. Elizabeth’s friend Julia, who believes there are actually two siblings, begins to fall for the brother (awkward!). And throughout the story, not everyone is fooled by the disguise. Eventually Elizabeth’s dual life becomes rather complicated, and you can imagine the hilarity that ensues.

The details of Elizabeth’s backstory and the reason she now lives in the Republic are slowly doled out over the course of the book. Duncan does a great job of avoiding “info dump” by letting the story unfold in its own way and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.

Part of the plot revolves around the circus that Elizabeth briefly joins, but this is by no means a “circus story.”  However, she meets several colorful and endearing characters while working there, most notably a young boy named Tinker who melted my heart, who also used to live in the Kingdom, and a fortune-teller named Tania who seems to know exactly what Elizabeth is up to.

The steampunk elements were so interesting, and Duncan goes into detailed description at one point about exactly how an airship runs. In fact, there were so many interesting touches that remind you this world is very unfamiliar. Details like the avian post (birds that deliver letters) and the hub ship that Elizabeth lives on (an old boat no longer in use) and even a strange holiday called Ned Ludd Day (which explains the meaning of the word “Luddite”) were so charming. Even though at its heart this story is what I would call a “caper” and is filled with chase scenes and misdirection, it’s also an alternate history story that is rich with colorful details.

The author includes a glossary called The Bullet Catcher’s Handbook at the end of the book, which explains some of the unfamiliar terms used in the story (including  “bullet catcher”) which I found very useful. He also begins each chapter with short excerpts from the handbook, like this pithy statement:

“Lying is an art form. It becomes sin only if the deception is discovered.”

By the end of the story, many of the mysteries are solved. But Duncan teases us with a hint of what’s to come in the next book, which luckily for us is not that far away (January 2015!). Run, don’t walk, and pick up this wonderful adventure tale with one of the most clever and resourceful heroines you’ll ever meet.

Many thanks to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

You can find The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter here:

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews