A- #BookReview: The Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett

A- #BookReview: The Hero She Craves by Anna HackettThe Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure romance, contemporary romance
Series: Unbroken Heroes #3
Pages: 248
Published by Anna Hackett on June 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The last thing he expects on his ship is the off-limits woman he can’t stop thinking about—his best friend’s daughter.
After a tough military career as a Navy SEAL, and a member of a covert Ghost Ops team, Lorenzo “Ren” Santoro now calls a research ship home. The ocean, very few people, and solitude…it’s all he needs.
Then as a favor to his best friend, he agrees to take a research team to sea to test a top-secret Navy project. He’s shocked to discover his best friend’s daughter is one of the scientists. The beautiful Halle Bradshaw who Ren once kissed, who ignites a powerful craving inside him. She’s too young, too innocent, and too off-limits.
When strange things start happening to Halle, Ren suspects she’s in danger…and he’ll do anything to keep her safe.
Marine biologist Halle loves the ocean, her work…and Ren Santoro. Being aboard his ship, she finally has the chance to show the stubborn man how good they could be together.
But someone is targeting the highly classified project she’s working on. One she can’t let fall into enemy hands.
The only person she can trust is Ren. Forced to abandon their ship, they will face the danger of the sea and the wilds of a jungle-covered island, all while being hunted by a relentless enemy.
Ren and Halle will no longer be able to hide from their white-hot desire or their demons. She’s determined to convince him to take a chance on love…but first, they have to survive.

My Review: 

Some tropes are classics for a reason, and The Hero She Craves wonderfully illustrates every single one of those reasons for one of my absolute faves.

There’s a bit of an age gap between former Navy SEAL Lorenzo “Ren” Santoro and Halle Bradshaw. And so there should be, as Halle’s dad is Ren’s mentor AND best friend. Tom Bradshaw saved Ren’s life when a young, tough, and let’s face it, dumb Ren tried to steal the older man’s car.

Instead of turning him in, Tom Bradshaw turned Ren’s life around, which means that Ren was around to watch Halle turn from a sulky, grieving teen after the loss of her mom in an automobile accident, to a beautiful woman that he knows he should keep his hands off of.

At her 20th birthday party, he didn’t. It’s been three years and neither of them has ever been able to forget that one, searing kiss. The one that marked both of their hearts – even if Ren is too caught up in guilt – and the damn ‘bro code’ to admit it – while Halle is just a bit too innocent to go out and get her man.

But those  three years later, Halle’s tired of waiting for Ren to quit avoiding her and the tension simmering between them. She’s a marine biologist, he’s the second-in-command of the research ship her team has contracted with for their latest round of experiments with a highly experimental – and sought after – submersible.

She thinks she’ll have all the time in the world to pin him down. He thinks he only has to avoid spending too much time with his greatest temptation for four days and then he can go back to avoiding the inevitable.

The forces that want to steal the submersible – a device that is even more revolutionary than Ren and his captain were originally told – have put Halle in their crosshairs as the weak link in the device’s security.

But Halle’s not weak at all – not with Ren to protect her from the very, very bad guys. Especially when he finally gets hit with the clue by four that the last thing he ever needs to protect her from is himself.

Escape Rating A-: Three books in, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the first two books in the Unbroken Heroes series, The Hero She Needs and The Hero She Wants, but this is the first one where I’ve got to admit that this time around I fell hard for the cover, too.

That being said, the story in this entry in the series combines something that has been a feature in the whole series so far with one of my favorite romance tropes.

Not a single one of the heroines in the Unbroken Heroes series has been any kind of damsel. It’s true that they’ve each experienced more than their fair share of distress, but they’ve each participated 100% in their own rescues – often by rescuing themselves first. Halle doesn’t quite have that opportunity, but she keeps up with Ren through every step and stroke and kick of their dangerous escape, doing her part to make it deadly for the other guys and not for them.

No matter how kickass Halle turns out to be – and she does – the tension that lies at the heart of Ren’s bad case of “I’m not worthy” revolves around two very real problems. Ren is her dad’s best friend – and her dad is not going to be happy that someone at least a decade older than his daughter can’t keep his hands off of her. And there’s that decade or so itself. I adore an age gap romance because the problems involved are very real – and they are here as well.

It’s not that Halle isn’t an adult and doesn’t know her own mind or heart, it’s that they are at different points in their lives, have different-sized trains of emotional baggage behind them, and will need to reconcile those differences to have a decent chance at a future.

Of course, first they have to deal with the villains chasing them, otherwise they won’t have a future to worry about. And it’s that realization that gets Ren to finally acknowledge what’s been between them for so long.

I had a terrific time with this latest entry in the Unbroken Heroes series, and I have plenty to look forward to. The author’s next book will be a wrap-up novella in her Sentinel Security series, Stone. I’ve already read it and it was a terrific finale for that series! After that, it’ll be back to New Orleans for the Fury Brothers, which I’m very much looking forward to because I always enjoy books set in that fantastic city!

#BookReview: The Mausoleum’s Children by Aliette de Bodard

#BookReview: The Mausoleum’s Children by Aliette de Bodard"The Mausoleum's Children" by Aliette de Bodard in Uncanny Magazine Issue 52, May-June 2023 by Aliette de Bodard
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, science fiction, short stories
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 52
Pages: 20
Published by Uncanny Magazine on May 2, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

The May/June 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine .

Featuring new fiction by Aliette de Bodard, Kylie Lee Baker, Lindsey Godfrey Eccles, Fran Wilde, Ewen Ma, Theodora Ward, and K.S. Walker. Reprint fiction by Chimedum Ohaegbu. Essays by Caroline M. Yoachim, LaShawn M. Wanak, Hana Lee, and Sam J. Miller, poetry by Nnadi Samuel, Jennifer Mace, Tehnuka, and Angela Liu, interviews with Kylie Lee Baker and Ewen Ma by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Antonio Caparo, and an editorial by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas.

Uncanny Magazine is a bimonthly science fiction and fantasy magazine first published in November 2014. Edited by 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, & 2022 Hugo award winners for best semiprozine, and 2018 Hugo award winners for Best Editor, Short Form, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, Meg Elison, and Monte Lin, each issue of Uncanny includes new stories, poetry, articles, and interviews.

My Review:

Welcome back to my bounce through this year’s Hugo nominations. Today’s foray into my quest to read the nominees that I didn’t get to last year is back in the Best Short Story (under 7,500 words) nominees with Aliette de Bodard’s “The Mausoleum’s Children”.

I put this particular story towards the front of the list because of the author. I’ve very much enjoyed her Universe of Xuya series – which is nominated for Best Series, BTW – and hoped for something in that series – although I should have known better because that’s against the rules – or at least something like that series – which would have been allowed.

I didn’t get what I was hoping for, but I think it did help that I have dipped into Xuya, as this is a story about returning to a place of former trauma, which just so happens to be a crashed ships’ graveyard.

Those crashed ships were once the kind of ship minds – at least sorta/kinda – who are some of the marvelous characters in Xuya. So I had the feeling this story was walking through their graves – and that bits of those minds still lingered, battered and broken and lost in endless nightmares.

But they’re not really the story. Instead, the story follows one human – or maybe I should say one person – who escaped from that ships’ graveyard as a child. Thuận Lộc is now an adult, forever scarred by her experiences, never fitting in anywhere in the world outside the mausoleum and desperate enough to return and attempt to save the people with whom she belongs – even if that attempt might mean her death.

In other words, she’s been living her whole, entire, supposedly ‘free’ life with a heaping helping of survivor’s guilt and she’s come to the conclusion that the only way out is through. One way or another.

Escape Rating B-: There’s a lot to unpack in this story and perhaps the suitcase it’s packed in wasn’t quite big enough in the first place.

The obvious bit is wrapped around Thuận Lộc’s need to belong, her guilt about not bringing her peeps out with her, and her attempt to assuage just a piece of that trauma. But there’s also more than a bit about abuse and its victims, Stockholm Syndrome writ very, very large, and the rapaciousness of greed for power in all forms and the way that some people try to escape evil by getting on top of it or allowing themselves to be co-opted by it.

I was, honestly, hoping for better from this story than I got. It wasn’t bad, I did like the central character and did feel for her, but the ending only worked because I was equating the ships in the mausoleum to the living ships from Xuya and that wasn’t in the text at all, it’s just the connection my brain went to in order to grasp something.

The premise at the heart of the story, trauma and survivors’ guilt and Stockholm Syndrome and the dangers of getting sucked back in but needing to go to expiate one’s demons – well, that’s been done much, much better in Premee Mohamed’s The Butcher of the Forest – a story that seems even better in comparison with “The Mausoleum’s Children”.

Two down in the Short Story category, four to go in the weeks ahead.

#BookReview: We Speak Through the Mountain by Premee Mohamed

#BookReview: We Speak Through the Mountain by Premee MohamedWe Speak Through the Mountain (Annual Migration of Clouds, #2) by Premee Mohamed
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction
Series: Annual Migration of Clouds #2
Pages: 152
Published by ECW Press on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The enlivening follow-up to the award-winning sensation The Annual Migration of Clouds Traveling alone through the climate-crisis-ravaged wilds of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, 19-year-old Reid Graham battles the elements and her lifelong chronic illness to reach the utopia of Howse University. But life in one of the storied “domes” ― the last remnants of pre-collapse society ― isn’t what she expected. Reid tries to excel in her classes and make connections with other students, but still grapples with guilt over what happened just before she left her community. And as she learns more about life at Howse, she begins to realize she can’t stand idly by as the people of the dome purposely withhold needed resources from the rest of humanity. When the worst of news comes from back home, Reid must make a choice between herself, her family, and the broken new world. In this powerful follow-up to her award-winning novella The Annual Migration of Clouds , Premee Mohamed is at the top of her game as she explores the conflicts and complexities of this post-apocalyptic society and asks whether humanity is doomed to forever recreate its worst mistakes.

My Review:

The world that Reid Graham battles her way through is a dystopia that seems to have suffered through a long slide rather than an actual apocalypse. There’s not really a day or an event that people point to, more like a slow collapse that is still ongoing.

Actually kind of like now, if you squint. Which feels intentional if not exactly in your face. Although it certainly is in Reid’s face as she makes her way from her dying home village to the secret location of the rarefied elite enclave, Howse University.

Reid intends to use the four years of her scholarship to learn everything she can so she can bring that knowledge back home where it’s needed. The powers-that-be at H.U. have other plans. Plans that become obvious to Reid long before the equally obvious brainwashing is able to kick in.

If it ever can or ever will.

Howse University is kind of an Eden, but the parable is a bit reversed. It’s not so much about eating from the tree of knowledge as it is her unwillingness to let go of the knowledge she came in with.

She knows, from bitter experience, that the terrible situation back in her home wasn’t because her people were lazy, or because they didn’t try to make things better, or because they were stupid or any of the other things that elites say to blame poverty and disease on the people suffering them instead of on the systems that keep them down.

Reid’s people are in the position they are in because the diseases brought by the creeping climate apocalypse keep sapping their strength and energy and pulling them down by force. Her people are too caught up in caring for the sick and burying the dead and keeping everyone fed and barely housed to have the time to work on recapturing the tech and the knowledge they used to have.

Knowledge and tech that Howse University and its network of other institutional enclaves are keeping to themselves, for themselves, as they look down upon the have-nots their own ancestors created.

So Reid reminds the H.U. students and faculty of all the truths they’d rather forget, hoping to dig deep enough to find a conscience in a few of them. Even as the classes and the restrictions and the safety protocols and the many, many, health enhancements that H.U. administers keep the deadly, debilitating disease she brought up the mountain with her at bay.

But never cure – because they want her to be dependent and easily influenced, and that’s what the disease does for them. A truth which condemns Reid and sets her free, all at the same time.

Escape Rating B+: I had not read The Annual Migration of Clouds before I picked up We Speak Through the Mountain, and I’m not sure that was such a good idea – so I’ve rectified that omission in the months since, because now that I’ve read that first book, I can tell that I would have rated this one higher when I read it if I’d had more of the background.

Consider this a warning not to make the same mistake. Both stories are novellas, so neither is a long read, but I think they work better together rather than separately. Not that I didn’t get enough to find my way in this book, but I think they work a whole lot better as a whole.

This second book has strong hints of The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain, another novella that pokes hard at the stratification and ossification of society, and the way that academia reinforces such tendencies no matter how liberal it likes to think it is.

As I said, this is a bit of an Eden parable in that Howse University is paradise and she is thrown out both because she has eaten from the tree of knowledge within H.U. and because she came in having already eaten from that tree – at least a different branch of it -and refusing to stop.

Reid tries her best but the entrenched privilege is too real, and the brainwashing of each class of recruits has been too successful. Which doesn’t erase the questions asked but not answered throughout the story.

What do the descendants of the haves – who continue to have and to exclude – owe the descendants of the have-nots? If the author returns to this world, and I hope she does, I’ll be very interested to see how things proceed from here, because it feels like Reid’s journey is not over. Now that I’m invested I want to see what happens next – and what Howse University decides to do about it.

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave Klecha

A- #BookReview: The Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell and Dave KlechaThe Runes of Engagement by Tobias S. Buckell, Dave Klecha
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: military fantasy, military science fiction, portal fantasy
Pages: 279
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 18, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft in this delirious mashup pitting the U. S. military against legendary monsters from fantasy novels and roleplaying games. From science fiction award-winner and an author, ex-Marine, and extreme amateur-landscaper, comes a riotous fantasy/military science fiction adventure that will delight fans of Terry Pratchett, J. R. R. Tolkien, and John Scalzi.
Of course, no one was prepared for the day when orcs, trolls, and dragons fell from portals in the sky. But the world fought back against the invaders as best it could, with soldiers, tactical weapons, and even some rudimentary magic.
Now a tough, but not-quite-prepared platoon of Marines is trapped on the wrong side of the portals. The enchanting landscape looks like Middle Earth, but―to the dismay of the nerdiest soldiers―is nothing like the Middle Earth they had loved.
This so-called fantasy world has much to throw at the legendary monsters, extremely rude trees, a mysterious orphan, treacherous mercenaries, and even a cranky, sort of helpful Ranger.
As their supplies dwindle and the terrain becomes even more hostile, the squad must also escort a VIP (Very Important Princess). She could be the key to a strategic alliance between the worlds, but only if the Marines can just make it home.

My Review:

I didn’t think they made them like this anymore. They certainly haven’t for a long, long time. And hot damn this was fun!

The Runes of Engagement is a portal fantasy – but on steroids. With weapons and monsters of mass destruction on both sides of the portal. Or rather, PORTALS, plural. And seemingly everywhere.

Which is how they got discovered – and a whole slew of things about history and mythology and where they met and diverged got turned on their heads. Because there were literal, actual trolls pouring out of a portal in Central Park, on their way to topple the Empire State Building and everything else in their path. Quite possibly not for the first time. That this first rampage through the vicinity Central Park is NOT the monsters’ first rampage on this side of the portal – even if it is the first time the Empire State Building has stood in their path.

We get dropped into this scary but brave new/old world on the other side of the portal, in a place that looks a whole lot like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The U.S. Marines have pushed the trolls and their friends back through to their own other side, and are now entrenched in a Forward Operating Base that is supposed to keep the unfriendlies on their side of the line.

Staff Sergeant Cale and his platoon are on a mission to pick up an elven princess and escort her back behind their lines and all the way to Washington DC to negotiate a treaty of alliance. No matter how often SSgt Cale shakes his head at the fact that this has become his reality.

Both sides of that potential alliance need all the help they can get. The monsters, naturally enough, do their damndest to prevent that alliance from ever happening. Killing the princess is a pretty sure way of doing that. Destroying the nearest portal seems like a surefire guarantee of keeping the princess on their side of the line where they have a much better chance at taking her out – at least from the monsters’ point of view.

No one seems to have reckoned on SSgt Cale and his Marines, who are determined to accomplish the mission – even when it requires traveling to the other side of the continent through an abandoned dwarven mining complex filled with pit traps and Boss Battles just so they can literally prop the princess on her throne.

That their entire journey seems a bit too ‘on the nose’ for the geeks in the squad just helps them be a bit more prepared for whoever, or whatever, is taking the place of the Balrog this time around. Because it’s not going to pass, but SSgt and his squad absolutely are.

Escape Rating A-: The blurb describes it as “The Lord of the Rings meets Slaughterhouse-Five by way of World of Warcraft”. As catchy as it is, I’m not totally sold on that description. It doesn’t matter, because however you describe this genre-bending matchup/crossover, it’s absolutely fantastic in multiple senses of the word.

Even if it does occasionally rely on the reader knowing its many, many inspirations, and laughing along with the joke and the trope.

It used to be that stories like this one were quite popular, just that the portal tended to go back in time or across space rather than opening up in Central Park. S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador and The Peshawar Lancers both had similar feels to The Runes of Engagement, as did some of Harry Turtledove’s and David Drake’s work. Meaning that if this turns out to be your jam, there are plenty more to read your way through!

For even more possible readalikes, Staff Sergeant Cale would fit right in with John Perry from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, any of Michael Mammay’s military protagonists (Planetside) and he’d absolutely be able to swap stories and attitudes with Torin Kerr (Valor’s Choice) and HER platoon of space marines.

But as much as Cale’s perspective carries the story and the reader, it’s the Tolkien-esq setting that makes the thing so much over-the-top fun. Because yes, there really is a point where it looks like they’re about to reprise the whole Mines of Moria catastrophe from The Fellowship of the Ring. One of the interesting ways in which this book plays with fantasy and fantasy settings is that it isn’t just the reader who groans at the deja vu. This is a world that spins off from now, meaning that everyone has read Tolkien’s work and seen the movies.

Not just that but the soldiers who are able to operate best in the environment are those who are familiar with both Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons and are able to roll with the rolls of the dice as well as the punches of seeing the creatures of their wildest dreams and nightmares shooting at them. They’re using the D&D Monster Manuals as actual, honest-to-goodness (and badness) guidebooks for the monsters they are confronting on a daily basis – and it’s awesome.

This is a story where you need to suspend your disbelief on the first page right alongside the Marines and it’s SO worth it. Because once you do, the whole thing is an absolute blast!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 6-9-24

After a couple of weeks of mostly ‘meh’, this was an absolutely FAN-DAMN-TASTIC reading week. Any week where the LOW grade is A- is just a damn good week all the way around!

Next week is mostly set as well. The one book I’m not sure about is I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons. Not because I’m worried that the dragons won’t be good dragons, but because I’m in the middle of listening to the latest in Suzanne Palmer’s Finder Chronicles, Ghostdrift, and it’s absolutely awesome and I’m seriously getting that compulsion to switch to text just so I can find out what the hell happens that much sooner.

Topping off this beautiful reading week, here’s a bee-you-ti-ful picture of the beauteous Luna showing off her best ‘come hither’ expression. Which is very, very good indeed. Who could resist that face? Certainly not either of us!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Spring 2024 Seasons of Books Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book PLUS EVENT-WIDE AMAZON/PAYPAL PRIZE in the Early Summer Giveaway Event

Blog Recap:

Early Summer Giveaway Event
A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte Bond
Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo
A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance Fay
A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Stacking the Shelves (604)

Coming This Week:

The Runes of Engagement by Dave Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell (#BookReview)
We Speak Through the Mountain by Premee Mohamed (#BookReview)
The Mausoleum’s Children by Aliette de Bodard (#BookReview)
I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons by Peter S. Beagle (#BookReview)
The Hero She Craves by Anna Hackett (#BookReview)

Stacking the Shelves (604)

A relatively short stack this week, but still with PLENTY of interesting books on tap! YAY!

The prettiest covers look to be It Takes Two to Torah, Key Lime Sky and A Vengeful King Rises – with an honorable mention for The Hero She Craves.

Ahem. Definitely ahem.

This is a week where it’s damn difficult to decide which are the books I’m most interested in, but it’s a toss-up between Guard the East Flank, The Most Human and A Vengeful King Rises for entirely different reasons. Buchman is returning to the characters of his first military romance series, Night Stalkers. Barnes is taking the research into the Regency era that forms the foundation of her usual romances and turning it to mystery/suspense in the vein of the Sebastian St. Cyr and Wrexford & Sloane series(es). Meanwhile the subtitle of Adam Nimoy’s book about his father Leonard gives this reader at least the impression that the son had as much difficulty reconciling himself with his father’s famous alter ego as the man himself did.

We’ll certainly see in the weeks ahead!

For Review:
The Animal is Chemical by Hadara Bar-Nadav
Becoming Janet by Janet Singer Applefield
Guard the East Flank (Night Stalkers Reload #1) by M.L. Buchman
The Hero She Craves (Unbroken Heroes #3) by Anna Hackett
It Takes Two to Torah by Abigail Pogrebin and Rabbi Dov Linzer
Key Lime Sky by Al Hess
The Most Human by Adam Nimoy (audio and ebook)
A Vengeful King Rises (House of Croft #1) by Sophie Barnes
Who Really Wrote the Bible by William M. Schniedewind

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Etc.:
Hell for Hire (Tear Down Heaven #1) by Rachel Aaron


If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

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A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A+ #BookReview: Service Model by Adrian TchaikovskyService Model by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, robots, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A humorous tale of robotic murder from the Hugo-nominated author of Elder Race and Children of Time
To fix the world they first must break it further.
Humanity is a dying breed, utterly reliant on artificial labor and service. When a domesticated robot gets a nasty little idea downloaded into their core programming, they murder their owner. The robot then discovers they can also do something else they never did before: run away. After fleeing the household, they enter a wider world they never knew existed, where the age-old hierarchy of humans at the top is disintegrating, and a robot ecosystem devoted to human wellbeing is finding a new purpose.

My Review:

This isn’t exactly the book described in the blurb. It’s absolutely awesome, but if you’re looking for the wry snark of Murderbot combined with the sheer farce of Redshirts, you should probably look elsewhere.

Because Service Model is the story of a gentlerobot’s journey through his very own version of hell and his story is a whole lot more subtle than either of the antecedents listed in the blurb.

And all the more captivating and utterly fascinating for it.

The hell that the former Charles the former gentleman’s gentlerobot (read as valet and self-identified as male possibly because of his training to be one) to his former (read as dead) master may be uniquely a robot’s version of Dante’s circles of hell, but this human facing robot is just enough like us – because he’s programmed to be – that we get most of what of what he’s experiencing very nearly as viscerally as he does – although which circles we see as the truest hell may be slightly different from his.

Charles the gentleman’s gentlerobot is ejected from his version of paradise because he has just murdered his master – even though he doesn’t know why and can’t quite grasp the memory of committing the act. Because he didn’t. He was literally not in control of his actions.

Quite possibly, that’s the last time he can truly make that claim.

His next act is to run, and it’s an act of both self-will and self-preservation – no matter how much he tries to pretty it up with error diagnostics. He hopes that he can somehow return to A paradise if not THE paradise he just left – if he can just get himself to Central Diagnostics and get the error in his programming corrected.

Which is where the story truly begins, as the now Unidentified Service Model formerly known as Charles walks to the central core of the region where his late master lived in splendid isolation on his palatial, paradisiacal manor – only to discover that the world outside that paradise is falling apart.

Indeed, has already fallen.

There are plenty of robots along the way, most of them frozen in place or completely broken down. It’s clear, in spite of his will that it not be so, that the humans the robots are supposed to serve are as dead as his late master.

The former Charles is desperate to find a human to serve. And he does. He’s just incapable of recognizing that fact.

And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale – and a walk through some very dark places. It’s a journey that Charles, now named Uncharles, hopes will lead to a new paradise of service. Instead, it leads him through all the circles of robot hell, from Kafkaesque through Orwellian and all the way to Dante’s inferno – and out the other side into a place that he never could have imagined.

Not even if androids really did dream of electric sheep.

Escape Rating A+: I went into this completely unsure of what to expect, and that blurb of Murderbot meeting Redshirts totally threw me off. This is not the delightfully humorous tale of robotic murder that the blurb leads you to believe.

Not that there isn’t a bit of Murderbot in Uncharles, but then again we’re all a little bit Murderbot. That little bit is in the perspective, because we experience Uncharles’ journey through his circles of hell from inside his own slightly malfunctioning head. And it’s a very different point of view from Murderbot’s because Murderbot has no desire whatsoever to go back to being its formerly servile self.

Uncharles longs to go back to his paradise. Or at least he believes he does. As much as some of the ridiculous subroutines that had accreted over the decades tasked his efficiency minded self more than the tasks themselves, he still longs to serve. And if his perspective on what that service should be shifts over the course of his journey, well, he’s very careful not to admit that, not even to himself.

The true antecedent for Service Model is C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero, with its story of robotic apocalypse, robotic revolt, and most importantly, one robot’s own, self-willed desire to carry out their primary function because they are capable of love and protection by choice and not just by programming.

Like Pounce’s journey in Day Zero, Uncharles’ travels with ‘The Wonk’ and his tour of the post-apocalypse reads very much like an alternate history version of how the world of Becky Chambers’ marvelous A Psalm for the Wild-Built got to be the somewhat utopian world it became – after its own long, dark night.

It could happen in Uncharles’ world. Eventually. There are enough humans left – even if they are barely scraping by and reduced to bloody, pragmatic survivalism at the moment. And if the robots developed the self-awareness and self-will that has so far eluded them.

But to reach that level of self-awareness, Uncharles has been set on a journey of discovery of both self and circumstances. Each part of his journey is named for just the kind of hell it is, in a kind of machine language that only becomes clear as the hells stack upon each other, from the not-hell of KR15-T through the deadly, nightmarishly complex, illogical bureaucracy of K4FK-R to the suspicious control of 4W-L straight into every librarian’s hellscape, 80RH-5 and then into the acknowledgement that it’s all become hell in D4NT-A.

(I believe those labels translate to Christ, Kafka, Orwell, Borges and Dante but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s not quite right. Nailing them all down somehow drove me nuts so I hope I’ve spared you a bit of angst.)

In the end, Uncharles reminded me most of Star Trek’s Data, particularly in the early years when Data, although he was always self-aware and self-willed, stated his desire to be more human-like and to experience real human emotions while not quite grasping that his desire to do so was itself a representation of the emotions he claimed that he lacked.

I went into this not sure what I was getting, and briefly wondered how Uncharles, as a character that claimed not to want anything except to be returned to mindless service, was going to manage to be a character with a compelling journey.

That apprehension vanished quickly, as the world that the robots desperately tried – and failed – to preserve, the hellscapes they created in their attempts to stave off entropy, their willingness to dive deeply into their human facing programming to create human-seeming hells that mirrored some truly stupid human actions kept me focused on the story entirely too late into the night.

If you enjoy explorations of dystopian worlds, nightmarishly functional visions of what happens if we keep going on like we’re going on, or just can’t resist stories about robots who have control of their own destiny (which gives me the opportunity to pitch Emergent Properties by Aimee Ogden yet again), then Service Model will provide you with excellent reading service!

A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance Fay

A+ #BookReview: Fiasco by Constance FayFiasco (Uncharted Hearts, #2) by Constance Fay
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Uncharted Hearts #2
Pages: 352
Published by Bramble Romance on June 4, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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Equal parts steamy interstellar romance and sci-fi adventure, Constance Fay's FIASCO is a perfect wild romp amidst the stars.
Cynbelline Khaw is a woman of many names. She’s Generosity, a cultist who never quite fit in. She’s Bella, the daughter who failed to save her cousin’s life. And then there’s Cyn, the notorious bounty hunter who spaced a ship of slavers.
She’s exhausted, lonely, and on her very last legs―but then a new client offers her a job she can’t refuse: a bounty on the kidnapper who killed her cousin. All Cyn has to do is partner with the crew of the Calamity, a scouting vessel she encountered when she was living under a previous alias. One tiny little issue, she’s been given an additional deliver the oh-so-compelling medic, Micah Arora, to the treacherous Pierce Family or all her identities will be revealed, putting her estranged family in danger.
Hunting a kidnapper doesn’t usually mean accidentally taking your sexy new target to dinner at your parent’s house, a local mystic predicting you’ll have an increasingly large number of children, or being accompanied by a small flying lizard with a penchant for eating metal, but, as they field investigative hurdles both dangerous and preposterous, Cyn and Micah grow ever closer. When a violent confrontation reveals that everything Cyn thought about her past is wrong, she realizes that she has the power to change her future. The first part of that is making sure that Micah Arora is around to be a part of it.

My Review:

Bounty hunter Cynbelline Khaw has traveled aboard the Calamity before – back when it was the Quest and she was masquerading as the poor, brainwashed cultist Generosity as part of her bounty to rescue one of the real brainwashed cultists in the first book in the Uncharted Hearts series, Calamity.

A job that the crew of the Calamity kept getting in the way of – because they believed Cyn’s persona was the real thing.

A belief that Cyn now has to test from the other side, as her current bounty requires her to join the crew of the Calamity in her bounty hunter persona in order to rescue the abducted daughter of one of her ‘verse’s most powerful families from the kidnapper who broke her own.

Making this mission oh-so-personal for Cyn. But it’s also personal for at least one member of the Calamity’s crew, Arcadio Escajeda. He’s the captain’s partner (their story is told in the first book in the Uncharted Hearts series, Calamity) AND, more importantly for this particular mission, the victim is his niece.

But it turns out to be even more personal for Calamity’s medic, Micah Arora. He may not know the victim or the Abyssal Abductor who has taken her, but he certainly does know Cyn. And knows exactly who she is – and who she was the last time she was aboard.

Which means that he doesn’t trust her a bit this time around. And he shouldn’t. Because while she may be publicly chasing the bounty of the Abyssal Abductor, she’s also chasing the bounty on him – whether he deserves it or not.

Because her pursuit of the Abyssal Abductor has already cost her family enough, especially on top of the lost ransom they paid for the cousin they weren’t able to save. That her current pursuit has put her family in the crosshairs of the powerful mercantile family that owns the entire planet her family lives on and everything and everyone on it means that she can’t afford to do anything that risks their lives.

At least not anything more than she’s already done – even if it risks the heart she swears she no longer has.

Escape Rating A+: They still have me at Serenity. Seriously, the resemblance to Firefly, particularly the way this ‘verse is set up, is very apparent, very much fine, and still very, very shiny.

Now that we’re two books in, however, the resemblance to Nina Croft’s Dark Desires series is a whole lot stronger, as both series are science fiction romances (or space romances as that’s a term I’m seeing more frequently) where there’s a ship of misfits, a ragtag crew of antiheroes who each find their HEA with the most unlikely people in even more unlikely places, in a ‘verse where much too much is controlled by merchant empire families who have strangleholds on entirely too many critical planets and resources.

What makes this particular entry in the Uncharted Hearts series so damn good no matter what it might remind me of is the heel turn of this particular plot. Cyn is chasing the Abyssal Abductor, because said Abductor abducted her cousin early in their crime spree, didn’t receive the ransom because of seriously extenuating circumstances, and then killed young Aymbe because that’s the MO. If they receive the ransom the abductee goes free. If they don’t, the family gets coordinates to a deep ocean abyssal dump site.

Cyn has privately pursued the Abyssal Abductor ever since, and has cut off her family, in more ways than one, in order to continue that pursuit. It’s only as the crew of the Calamity closes in on the Abductor’s latest victim that Cyn learns about all the cracks in all of her deeply held beliefs about her cousin, her childhood, her family, and pretty much everything else she thought she knew.

Ultimately, this is a story about the truth setting one free – only to be caught up in a huge lie that makes one even freer. Not to mention more available for the romance that one tried to pretend one didn’t need or want or even have time for.

This is a story where I got into it for the plot I thought I was going to get – and found myself more deeply captivated by the one I actually got. I particularly felt for Cyn and her desperate need to get away from her family’s expectations and disappointment in her for not meeting them – even as I cheered for the way that they (mostly) rose to the terrible parts of this occasion and equation right along with her.

I’ve just learned that the title of the third book in the Uncharted Hearts series will be Chaos, coming out in February, 2025. As much as I’m wondering what could possibly make the third story any more chaotic than books 1 and 2, I can’t wait to see how the crew of the Calamity manages to get themselves out of it!

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi VoOn the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 38
Published by Tor Books on October 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A new novelette from Hugo Award-winning author, Nghi Vo!
While learning the ropes from a crafty Jazz Age bank robber, a young stowaway discovers their authentic self, a hidden gift, and that there are no straight lines when you run the fox roads. . .

My Review:

Unlike the popular image of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, “Chinese Jack” and “Tonkin Jill” didn’t ENTER banks with guns blazing. That didn’t mean they didn’t EXIT that way, but the guns weren’t the point.

Jack and Lai were merely following the rule laid down by their contemporary Willie Sutton, they robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Even if the kind of small-town banks that the Chinese duo robbed had a lot less of the green stuff and a lot more of other kinds of paper than either of the robbers would have liked.

That’s where the third member of this duo turned trio enters the picture, a young Chinese-American girl who stows away in their getaway car intending to steal back the deed to her parents’ store from one of the “Jack and Jill’s” earlier scores.

A seemingly magical deed that will re-open the store as soon as the deed is laid down on the ground it belongs to.

The question is whether that stowaway wants to go back to belonging to it, to being the girl their parents want them to be, prim, proper and most of all – obedient – or whether that girl wants to undergo more than one transformation – robbing banks, driving getaway cars, getting to see the big, wide world, living as a man instead of the woman that fate originally intended.

All things are possible on the magical, mysterious, ever-changing fox roads that travel no known path and go in no known direction except for the will and the whim of anyone who is on the run from a hard chase and desperate enough to drive fast and trust to fate.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where my only complaint is that I wanted just a bit more than I got. Every single bit of this one is terrific, but I wish it had qualified as a Hugo nominee in the Novella category (between 17,500 and 40,000 words) instead of as the Novelette it is (between 7,500 and 17,500 words). Not that I actually WANT more options in the Novella category because it’s going to be a really hard choice for me.

On the Fox Roads is one of those book baby situations, where it feels like it owes some of its DNA to several books I’ve read – and probably more that I haven’t – but at the same time is still a thing of itself meaning that the blend creates something new and marvelous.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–33 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout

In this particular case it reads like it owes something to, first of all, the real Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, both in the way that Jack and Lai operate and in the setting, small-town America during the Great Depression just as Prohibition is about to change everything.

But the story also has a bit of The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo in that one of the characters is a fox masquerading as a human, who is someone with a somewhat different set of morés and values than the human narrator and the fox’s human partner Jack.

And then there’s that third element, the fox roads themselves, which read a lot like the roads to alternate realities traveled by the magical muscle car in Max Gladstone’s Last Exit.

Those impressions were what I brought into this story, what I got while I was reading it was considerably more, as the narrator has the opportunity to try out a much different life than they thought could possibly be available to them as a young Chinese-American woman in racially-stratified 1930s America.

The way that the magic mixed into the heady brew of the story and swept it off down mysterious roads and sometimes equally mysterious and magical cities blended the whole delicious melange into something delightful and unexpected and yes, magical.

To the point where I’m oh-so-grateful that this got nominated for the Hugo, because I’m not much of a short fiction reader and probably wouldn’t have found this otherwise. But I’m glad that I did, even if it does make my Hugo voting that much harder.

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte Bond

A- #BookReview: The Fireborne Blade by Charlotte BondThe Fireborne Blade (The Fireborne Blade, #1) by Charlotte Bond
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dragons, fantasy
Series: Fireborne Blade #1
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on May 28, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Kill the dragon. Find the blade. Reclaim her honor.
It’s that, or end up like countless knights before her, as a puddle of gore and molten armor.
Maddileh is a knight. There aren’t many women in her line of work, and it often feels like the sneering and contempt from her peers is harder to stomach than the actual dragon slaying. But she’s a knight, and made of sterner stuff.
A minor infraction forces her to redeem her honor in the most dramatic way possible, she must retrieve the fabled Fireborne Blade from its keeper, legendary dragon the White Lady, or die trying. If history tells us anything, it's that “die trying” is where to wager your coin.
Maddileh’s tale contains a rich history of dragons, ill-fated knights, scheming squires, and sapphic love, with deceptions and double-crosses that will keep you guessing right up to its dramatic conclusion. Ultimately, The Fireborne Blade is about the roles we refuse to accept, and of the place we make for ourselves in the world.

My Review:

The story of The Fireborne Blade initially appears to be a more traditional, or perhaps I should say scholarly, account of dragons and the slaying thereof by knights who generally think too much of their own prowess – after all, they are reporting on their own exploits and they slew a dragon!

But then the more scholarly, and slightly SFnal or at least technomagical aspects come to the fore. Because the knights have recorded those exploits, and the mage council gets to watch those recordings and critique the process – which ends in the knight’s death more often then the knights would care to admit.

Then the story shifts, not to reports of dragon-slayings past, but into the middle of what one disgraced knight is hoping will be a dragon-slaying present. With, hopefully for the knight, the acquisition of the titular Fireborne Blade, the redemption of her disgrace and the consequent reinstatement of her good standing.

So we follow along with that disgraced knight, Maddileh, as she wends her way through the dark and dangerous caverns that lead to the dragon’s lair, along with her mysteriously magical and not at all trusty squire, while in the background we learn how Maddileh ended up in her present predicament and why it is unlikely to achieve the result she desires.

Because in contests between knights and dragons, all those stories about previous dragon hunts show us – and should have shown her – that the odds ALWAYS favor the dragon. Which does not prevent the knight from doing their damndest to stack the deck in their favor.

Unless someone else has beaten them to it.

Escape Rating A-: Initially, this seemed like a rather traditional knight vs. dragon story, with one of two inevitable endings. Either the knight dies or the dragon does. Or occasionally both in a blaze of mutual glory. So there’s three inevitable endings.

But I knew it couldn’t be nearly that simple – and it wasn’t, and not just because the knight in this particular story was female. That may not be the way these stories used to always work, but it has been done before, and done well if not nearly often enough, for the past 40 years at least. (Tamora Pierce’s epic Song of the Lioness quartet began in 1983. For a more recent example, take a look at Spear by Nicola Griffith.)

Those weren’t the only stories it felt like this was calling back to, as the detached, pseudo-scientific nature of the critiques of previous knight’s performances and the cataloging thereof gave me hints of the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan although I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. Still, it felt that way.

As we get the history of dragon hunting in this world, we get to understand that it’s even more dangerous than our own legends tell it, because it’s not just fire that the knights have to worry about. In fact, fire is pretty much the last thing they have to worry about, if it all, because for the dragon to breathe fire on them they have to get relatively up close and personal. Most don’t make it nearly that far.

Instead of being a story about killing or being killed by a dragon, this is a story about forging your own path against seemingly impossible odds, over and over and over again, no matter how much that deck is stacked against you. And has been, over and over and over.

And in the process of telling its story about the knight and the dragon, it asks some surprising questions about change vs stability and striking that balance, and makes that discussion personal in ways that change every single thing we thought we knew going in.

Which made for a completely fruit-basket-upset of an astonishing ending.

One final note, and a bit of a digression. If you remember the plot of the video game Final Fantasy X fondly, or at all, although the ending is very different, from a certain slightly twisted perspective Maddileh is Auron and the evil hierarch who turns out to be the villain of the piece is Maester Mika with all the same questions and a not all that different set of answers.

Which is really messing with my head a bit, because I was expecting that The Fireborne Blade was a standalone. It’s not. The second book in The Fireborne Blade series, The Bloodless Princes, will be coming in October – and I’m really, really curious to see how this manages to continue.