2021.01


Payback’s a Witch: A fizzy paranormal rom-com

Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

In 2021’s effervescent Payback’s a Witch, the stakes are low, hearts are worn on people’s sleeves, and love is the answer. (Note: No hearts are literally outside the body in this book.) Lana Harper, who writes YA fantasy as Lana Popovic, enters the world of adult paranormal romantic comedy with a story of two modern witches who plot to win a magical tournament while navigating the rocky path of their increasing mutual attraction.

A few hundred years ago, four magicians founded the town of Thistle Grove. Three of them, Avramov, Blackmoore, and Thorn, had powerful magic. The fourth, the actual founder of the town, Elias Harlow, was a far weaker magician. Since the founding, the four families have presided over the magical town. Every fifty years they hold an event called the Gauntlet, and the sci... Read More

You Sexy Thing: A sure-fire recipe for entertainment

You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

You Sexy Thing (2021) is space opera, with no FTL chase scenes or space battles. Check the list of ingredients: a sentient bioship, space pirates, old feuds, at least one interstellar-conquest scheme, interesting non-human characters, a newcomer with secrets, and lots of cooking. It’s a foolproof recipe for entertainment.

All Niko needs is a Nikkelin Orb award from the food critic coming to the Last Chance, the restaurant she runs with the rest of her ex-military crew. Niko was a captain, briefly an admiral, in the Holy Hive Mind army, and her connection to most of her retired crew was augmented by the hive-tech. It felt like they were all one. Technically, they are all retired, but the Holy Hive doesn’t like to let go of its soldiers. Niko’s pursuing a long-range plan to rescue a childhood friend kidnapped by space pirates, and a successful restaurant is one step in that... Read More

Grave Reservations: A quirky, engaging protagonist anchors this Seattle mystery

Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest

Leda Foley is trying to keep her single-person travel agency afloat. Grady Merritt is a Seattle PD detective away at a conference. When Leda changes his return flight plans without notice or explanation, she saves his life — and outs herself as a psychic. Back home in Seattle, Grady hires her to assist on a baffling cold case he won’t let go of. Abruptly, a psychic episode shows Leda that this case and unsolved murder of her fiancé Tod three years earlier are connected.

2021’s Grave Reservations is a slight departure for Cherie Priest; no airships, no horror and hardly any ghosts. It isn’t exactly her first foray into mystery, because I am Princess X has strong mystery elements. ... Read More

No Gods, No Monsters: Thoughtful and well-crafted

No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters (2021) is one of the books that had me admiring it more than enjoying it. Strongly crafted on a sentence level, built on a structure both complex and deftly handled, and dealing with some seriously weighty themes, the book still left me, despite all that, a bit cold, a bit resistant to its charms. Still, as you’ll see, I’m mostly strongly recommending it, even if it didn’t wholly win me over.

We begin with a scene that seems all too familiar. One of the main characters, Laina, is at the morgue standing over the body of her brother Lincoln, an unarmed black man killed by a policeman as he was “running through the streets as bare as on the day he was born.” High, Laina assumes of her drug-addicted brother, but then rumors of a tape being kept secret by the police crop up, followed by a visit from Rebecca, one of Lincoln’s friends, who... Read More

The Desert Prince: The next generation of THE DEMON CYCLE

The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett

The Desert Prince is the newest installment in Peter V. Brett’s fantasy universe where humans have been battling demons for ages. The prior series (THE DEMON CYCLE) ended mostly in seeming victory for the good guys (the humans), but as is often the case in these sorts of stories, victory only lasts until the next trilogy. This new series picks up about fifteen years later, and while some characters return from the prior series, the focus here is on their children as they battle with an old demonic evil risen anew, humans who can be just as monstrous, the strictures of a too-rigid society, and their own inner conflicts.

The two first-person POV protagonists are Olive Jardir and Darin Bales, children respectively of Ahman Jardir and Arlen Bales (“The Deliverer”), the two larger-... Read More

The Empire’s Ruin: A successful return to an engaging world

The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley 

The Empire’s Ruin (2021) kicks off a new series in Brian Staveley’s universe first introduced in his CHRONICLES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE trilogy and then expanded upon via the standalone novel, Skullsworn. The new series, ASHES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE, is a direct sequel to the earlier trilogy, and I strongly recommend reading in publication order, as several of this book’s characters appeared in the first series, while the events of that series drive the plot and characters of this new one. I will note that I found Staveley’s first Read More

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: Tea and empathy

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambersfirst novella in the MONK AND ROBOT series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021), is a lovely and optimistic tale of a tea monk who, while seeking an answer to the question of “What am I looking for?” meets a robot looking for an answer to the question of “What do you need, and how can I help?” More generally, the robot is trying to answer the question of what all people need, but upon the moon of Panga (or anywhere you might find humans, truthfully), that’s not exactly a simple question to answer.

Sibling Dex, the tea monk, is an acolyte of Allalae (God of Small Comforts, represented as a bear), one of the six gods of Panga. Dex has been a tea monk for only a few years, having left Panga’s only City in search o... Read More

For the Good of the Realm: Genderswapped swordplay for Three Musketeers fans

For the Good of the Realm by Nancy Jane Moore

2021’s For the Good of the Realm is a gender-swapped swashbuckler heavily inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Author Nancy Jane Moore creates a world of nation-states much like France and its neighbors of the Musketeers. Against this backdrop, Anna D’Gart, a swordswoman in the Queen’s Guards, serves the queen and the realm against enemies foreign and domestic — although one domestic adversary is powerful, and Anna finds herself swimming in very deep waters.

In the opening chapter, Anna and her friend Asamir are given a secret assignment to recover a necklace the Queen gave to an admirer, because the King wants her to wear it at an upcoming ball. Fans of The Three Musketeers will recognize this plot. In this adventure, we the readers learn that the King and Queen shar... Read More

The Blacktongue Thief: Has a true sense of history

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief (2021), by Christopher Buehlman, is a book that more than most will either win you over or not by virtue of its voice. More specifically, the bawdy, vulgar, romantic, scatological, jaded, at times lyrical (sometimes literally) voice of its thief narrator Kinch Na Shannack. For me, the voice was hit and miss, not in its execution, which was always consistent, but in my reaction to it. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I didn’t care for it, but it mostly carried me smoothly along in a book that throughout my reading and at the end I felt I should have enjoyed a lot more, even with its four-star ranking.

Thanks to being in debt to the Takers Guild (i.e. the usual thieves guild of fantasy works), Kinch finds himself tasked with joining a quest und... Read More

Victories Greater Than Death: Share it with your teen, then enjoy it yourself

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

2021’s Victories Greater That Death is the first book in Charlie Jane Anders’s new Young Adult space opera series, UNSTOPPABLE. The book is filled with smart, heroic young people, extraterrestrials, space adventures, horrifying villains, bad food and plenty of relationships, as six Terran humans get pulled up onto The Royal Fleet warship Indomitable. The Royal Fleet is smack-dab in the middle of a war with a faction that calls itself Compassion. If you’ve read Anders before, you know that name means nothing good. Within the book, a clue is in the name of one of their ships, Sweet Euthanasia.

Tina Mains is a California girl and a true Chosen One with an extraterrestrial homing beacon in her chest. When it activates, a sta... Read More

Oddity: In a folkloric USA, a brave girl fights magic with magic

Oddity by Eli Brown

2021’s Oddity is a wonderful middle-grade adventure, with a valiant and compassionate young heroine, a beguiling take on alternate early-USA history, and a plethora of action and magic. Adults who read it with younger readers might discover it sparks a serious conversation about loyalty, values, and how we decide what’s right and what’s not.

Karin Rytter’s illustrations, which look like woodcuts, enhance the reading experience. So does the tone Brown employs, which reminded me a little of some of Philip Pullman’s middle-grade books, like The Ruby in the Smoke and The Tin Princess. Brown captures the nuance of a folktale while still giving us living, breathing people we care about. Some of those people are other than human.

Clover Constan... Read More

A Hole in the Sky: An audio-only story by Hamilton

A Hole in the Sky by Peter F. Hamilton

Hazel, who’s 16, lives on a huge starship called Daedalus. It left Earth around 900 years ago with plans to terraform a new habitable planet. But when they arrived, they found a nearly sentient species that they didn’t want to disturb, so they decided to try another planet. A few decades later, citizens who were disgruntled about that decision mutinied and, in the battle, much of their knowledge and technology was destroyed.

Now, 500 years later, most of the people of Daedalus live in separate primitive farming communities where they work hard to eke out an existence. To protect resources, those who can’t work and adults over age 65 are “recycled.”

When Hazel’s brother has an accident that prevents him from working, he and Hazel run away. That’s how they find the “cheaters” — the old people who escaped from the villages and hide in the forest so they won’t... Read More

Weaver’s Folly: Great secondary characters enrich a great spring-break read

Weaver’s Folly by Sarah Madsen

Warm weather’s coming, and pandemic restrictions are easing as vaccines become readily available, at least in the USA. It’s almost the time of year for a beach book, a park book, a camping book or even just a sitting-on-the-front-porch-sipping-iced-tea book, and Sarah Madsen’s Weaver’s Folly (2021) is an excellent candidate.

Madsen and I share a publisher, Falstaff Books. I bought my copy of Weaver’s Folly on Amazon and I’m getting no special consideration for this review. Weaver’s Folly is the first book of the SHADOWSPINNER Series.

Weaver’s Folly features elves in a futuristic Atlanta. Alyssa is a “runner” or a thief, whose (charming!) cover job is selling “antiques” — MP3 players, cell phones and tablets, for instance. ... Read More

The Councillor: Strong writing balances out familiar plotting

The Councillor by E.J. Beaton

E.J. Beaton’s The Councillor (2020) is a political fantasy whose smooth prose carries one smartly if slowly through the well-worn grooves of the genre. And therein one can see both the novel’s strengths and its weaknesses, which together result in a solid if somewhat overly long and overly familiar story.

Lysande Prior — commoner, orphan, and scholar — has risen to become advisor and friend to the warrior Queen Sarelin, who recently put down a nearly-successful attempt by the White Queen to restore elemental magic users (a currently persecuted minority group) to their former ruling position in Elira. When Sarelin is assassinated, though, Lysande finds herself named Councillor, and thus tasked with choosing Elira’s next ruler from amongst the rulers of its four major regions. A job made more complicated by their inherent sense of rivalry, the impendi... Read More

The Conductors: Slow and muddy

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors (2021), by Nicole Glover, has lots of elements I’d normally eat up like a buffet: a historical setting (late 1800s Philadelphia), a focus on social injustice, a murder mystery, magic systems. Unfortunately, the elements never cohered into a story that held my attention, making the novel a real struggle. I thought about giving up on it relatively early, but kept pushing through despite my instincts, probably helped by the fact that my Kindle wasn’t showing my progress despite my repeated attempts to force it to do so. Eventually, I picked it up on a different device, realized I’d hit the two-thirds point, and figuring that was more than fair, skimmed through the rest.

Henrietta (“Hetty”) and Benjy Rhodes are known as “The Conductors” for their fabled exploits leading slaves from captivity into the free s... Read More

A History of What Comes Next: Good concept, weak execution

Reposting to include Tadiana's new review.

A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel

Sylvain Neuvel’s A History of What Comes Next (2021) has both an intriguing premise and a potentially tense conflict at its core, but due to some issues with structure and style, the execution didn’t allow the book to achieve its potential.

Two women, Sara and her daughter Mia, are sort of Space Race Zeligs (look him up, youngsters), inserting themselves in key times and places to push humanity toward the stars. To that end, we see Mia go undercover in Germany at the tail end of WWII to spirit Wernher von Braun and key assistants to the US as part of Operation Paperclip (a real mission). Later, the two move to Russia where they jumpstart the Russian space program in the (correct) belief that it would... Read More

Blood Heir: The return of Julie, princess incognito (Blog Tour Review!)

Blood Heir by Ilona Andrews

This review is part of the Blood Heir blog tour (#BloodHeirKD).

Julie is returning home to Atlanta after a long eight-year absence. Kate Daniels’ adopted daughter is now twenty-six, and she’s been busy the past eight years: fighting with the Canaanite god Moloch, the Child Eater, stealing one of his eyes for herself after he ripped out one of hers, being remade inside and out by the magical eye, learning about ancient powers and civilizations from her adoptive relatives … and still pining for Derek, the shapeshifter wolf she’s had a crush on since she was thirteen. But now she’s moved on. For sure. Definitely.

But it’s not the hope of seeing Derek again that brings Julie (now going by Aurelia Ryder) back to Atlanta, or even of seeing Kate.... Read More

The Mask of Mirrors: Does just what you want a first novel in a series to do

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick

As a reader, it’s rare for me to find a book that has nearly every trope I love. The Mask of Mirrors (2021), Book One of M.A. Carrick’s ROOK AND ROSE series, manages just that. Reading the Advance Reader Copy of this book was like nibbling my way through a box of gourmet chocolates curated just for Reader Me. A large box of gourmet chocolates.

And what are those favorite tropes? Well, con artists, secret identities, false identities, masked outlaws who fight for the common people, dangerously suave criminals, sword fights, dramas of manners, verbal duels, physical duels, intriguing magic, family secrets, cool clothes, masks of course, and, yes, chocolate. I was going to say, “there were no magic books,” but I’m revising that — there are divination cards that function much the way a good magical book does.
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