Friday, August 30, 2019

Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All the stars.

In a rich and thought-provoking novella, Hugo Award-winning author Becky Chambers offers a unique perspective on human exploration in space. From an alternate view of the the space-faring goals/requirements of genetic engineering to the emotional and philosophical toll of leaving everyone you know decades behind, to the implications of chirality for life in other planetary systems, this is a jewel of a novella. It's also a tribute to Chambers' mother, astrobiologist Nikki Chambers, a HHMI scholar and JPL researcher who does research at UC Berkeley and the University of Edinburgh. One of the things I loved about this book (and I note that by training, I am a scientist) is the closing discussion between Becky and Nikki Chambers about the relationship between science and science fiction, a discussion I've had simmering for a while now with both my husband (also a scientist) and a friend who is a writer. I can also talk about how Becky Chambers' writing has the capacity to elevate both in the eyes of her readers. I have so much love for this author.

A beautiful novella.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review: The Poppy War

The Poppy War The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has taken a bit to collect my thoughts about this sprawling grimdark novel. While the story begins as a magical school kind of experience, the novel progressively darkens into an exploration of the grimmest and darkest things humanity has seen during wars in history. While there are many aspects of this book drawn from aspects of classical Chinese culture, literature and history, the horrifying recasting of history's Nanjing Massacre,* as played out in the latter third of Kuang's novel are powerful, poignant and ask the reader to contemplate the great darkness in the human soul. It is difficult to read, but readers need to realize these are real events in China's history.

I am frankly astonished at the scope and skill of this debut. While the pacing and disjuncture points in the three main sections of the novel are a bit rough, this is a debut of incredible prowess. I am looking forward to the second book, in spite of the darkness of the topic.

*As one of my parents was a student of Chinese culture and history, I was, perhaps shockingly, raised with the events of the Japanese massacre in Nanjing in late 1937 well within my awareness. The atrocities that occurred during those weeks are real and likely deeply embedded into the non-Diaspora Chinese consciousness. Their use here is a cautionary tale about what the collective human ethos is capable of in war.

I received a courtesy copy of this book at an event and an electronic copy in addition to a paper ARC of the second novel in the series.

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Review: Dead Voices

Dead Voices Dead Voices by Katherine Arden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Winternight Trilogy Katherine Arden's second installment in her Middle Grade series that began with Small Spaces is a polished middle grade ghost story featuring the trio of friends Coco, Ollie, and Brian, who survived the scarecrows of the first novel. When Ollie's father receives a free ski trip at a newly opening ski lodge (the deadly sounding Mount Hemlock Resort) the three friends are looking forward to a fun time (with Coco feeling the usual tinge of apprehension) at a winter resort. After a scary drive to the Lodge, the children are progressively unsettled to find that the resort used to be an orphanage. When they start having nightmares about a girl searching for her bones, you know you're in for that bone-chilling ghost story! How will the three friends keep themselves and their parents safe?

I actually enjoyed Dead Voices even more than the first novel, since Arden felt less constrained by the scarecrow themes of the first book. A fun story that's not just for Halloween!

I received a Advanced Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: The Eyes of Tamburah

The Eyes of Tamburah The Eyes of Tamburah by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.75 Stars, bumped to 4 because this really should be published in the US, Harper Voyager. Come on!

Popular YA author Maria V. Snyder (Study series, Glass series) has begun her new Archives of the Invisible Sword series by introducing us to Shyla, a young woman who is largely ostracized in her community thanks to her blonde hair. Dubbed "Sun-Kissed" by those around her, the fate that usually awaits the fair-haired is death in the searing desert above Zirdai. Zirdai is an underground city where the deepest levels represent safety from lethal sun exposure and access to water. The deepest levels of this subterranean world are those occupied by the Water Prince and the Heliacal Priestess (who would love to see Shyla thrown out to die from sun exposure) the two powerful and opposing forces of Zirdai. Raised until age eighteen by monks who rescued her from being a sacrifice to the Sun Goddess, Shyla has kept a low profile after choosing to live in Zirdai, rather than becoming a monk like those who rescued her. She is living on the edge of safety, on level three, eking out a living doing historical artifact research until her friend Banqui loses a legendary treasure that her research helped him find. The Eyes of Tamburah, a relic that supposedly grants the possessor magical powers, is sought by the two opposing powers of Zirdai who are more than a bit dissatisfied upon hearing Banqui say they have been stolen from him. When he is arrested for their theft by the Water Prince, a man with a reputation for torture, Shyla seeks to help her only friend recover the lost Eyes.

Snyder has created aa fascinating world in Zirdai. In a pronounced difference from her earlier Inside Out series, the deeper levels of Zirdai are for the most privileged as they are better distanced from the unforgiving sun. Shyla is a lonely character for whom the reader feels great sympathy. Unfortunately, I didn't always feel that some of the secondary characters were as well drawn as Shyla and some of the turnabouts for characters like Rendor and Jayden felt a bit thin. The pacing of the novel slowed in a few places as Shyla is forced to go up and down again and again through the levels of Zirdai, in pursuit of items or information that will help her in the task of recovering the Eyes and freeing Banqui. I was also left with uncertainty about several figures in the story based on where the Eyes are actually finally located. I'm hoping a lot will be cleared up with 2020's publication of the second book in the series, The City of Zirdai. And I hope that HarperCollins will get a move on publishing this novel in the USA.

CW: mentions/brief descriptions of torture, something that may give nightmares to readers that the protagonist chooses to do, and scenes of tight spaces that may be difficult to read for those with claustrophobia.

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Review: The Accidentals: A Novel

The Accidentals: A Novel The Accidentals: A Novel by Minrose Gwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Accidentals is a novel that explores the social constraints placed on women in the 1950s and 1960s. We also see some of the effects of racism on justice. June and Grace are two sisters who suffer the loss of their lovely mother Olivia after she seeks a back alley abortion to end a pregnancy she didn't want and that her husband has effectively tricked her into having by sabotaging their birth control method. Olivia had dreams of a creative and fulfilling existence but is trapped in her narrow life as a wife and mother in Opelika, Mississippi. The escape she makes, her death from the botched abortion, has profound and lasting effects on her daughters' lives. Each heartbroken teenage daughter seeks solace in relationships, since their father, Holly, seems incapable of dealing with his guilt and responsibility, and comforting the girls who have lost their mother. Grace and June are further driven apart by June's untimely reveal of Grace's pregnancy, from an unconventional relationship situation, to their father. Grace's story is heartbreaking, as from a few weeks of perfect bliss, she descends to an intense maelstrom of loss and abuse. June, meanwhile, marries a friend, ignoring the stirrings of her own heart. Two thirds of the way through the novel, June poignantly muses about the sorrows of women while facing the exact same problem her mother did. At the edges of the story is Ed Mae, a black woman with a good heart, no education and few rights, who is, unbeknownst to all, falsely convicted in the death of an infant (I'll leave that to the reader to explore.) Equal parts an examination of what pre-Roe v. Wade America was like for women, and an exploration of the constrained lives of women as a whole, The Accidentals makes clear that the "good ole days" when America was "Great" were not at all great for many, many women.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Review: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bandgladeshi author Saad Hossain (Djinn City) has written a wry novel about the awakening of a long buried (for millennia!) djinn king by the name of Melek Ahmar, Lord of Mars, The Red King, the Lord of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of the Djinn. He's awakened by melting ice, in the Kanchenjunga in the high Himalayas. This melting business is your first clue that we are dealing with a a sort of post-climate apocalyptic future. He encounters a lone gurkha by the name of Bhan Gurung who lives in cave (one would almost think he was hiding out there) and keeps track of the goings on in the world by a streaming system called the Virtuality. The second hint we are dealing with a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future is that nearby Kathmandu, one of the only cities to survive, is controlled by some sort of vast tech called Karma. The climate, controlled by nanites, is maintained for the safety, wellbeing, and convenience of all citizens. *cough* Karma is all-knowing and all-seeing, in part by virtue of a personal medical device (PMD) implanted in every citizen. It's called an Echo. (Yep!) The Echo allows citizens to interface with the Virtuality directly, and access physical services like transportation, homes, and food vats. (Sounds yummy.) It also might be a means for say, scoring people on a karma scale. You know, like a numerical caste system? It's not like those numbers really mean anything, or that anyone could rig the system or anything. (BTW, Bhan Gurung has removed his PMD in order to stay off Karma's radar, or perhaps due to other reasons, like overall objection to the entire process?) Bhan and Melek Ahmar, Lord of Tuesday, sneak into Kathmandu because a king needs a kingdom and all. And requisite mischief ensues.

This rollicking satire has me interested in reading Djinn City, because Hossain has a wonderful sense of satire.

I received a paper review copy of this novella in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Review: Jade War

Jade War Jade War by Fonda Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this jaw-dropping sequel to Jade City, Fonda Lee keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. As the Kaul family battles to remain in the fray, to remain alive in the Kekon jade world, Lee broadens the scope of the story by setting portions in Espenia and the Uwiwan Islands. Following the stories of Kaul Hilo, Kaul Shae, Kaul Maik Wen and Emery Anden, we see ever mounting pressure on the No Peak Clan. Moving forward a year from the events of Jade City, Anden is sent to study in Port Massey. While he considers it exile, Shae and Hilo consider it an important opportunity to expand their presence into Espenia. And with his green heart, whether he wears jade or not, Anden soon encounters the expat Kekonese community that secretly wears jade. Meanwhile, back in Kekon, Hilo and the Maiks face growing strife with Zapunyo, a purveyor of illegal jade based out of the nearby Uwiwan Islands. They surmise the Mountain is involved, but how? And early on, Ayt Mada, Pillar of the Mountain, exploits the vulnerabilities of No Peak's Weatherman, Kaul Shae by bringing to light painful information about Shae's past, shaking the No Peak Clan and the Kekon community.

This world is so vividly envisioned that the reader feels like they are wearing jade, Perceiving these characters, these unfolding events. This second book is even more powerful than the first, in its exploration of honor and sacrifice. There were moments so chilling that I had to take a break from reading, and other moments so searing that I did the same. I continue to admire Shae's strength of character, her loyalty to her family, and her willingness to sacrifice for them in spite of her initial reluctance to be part of the dark world of the Jade Clans. Anden also remains a favorite character, and I'm left with hope for his future after the terrifying events at the end of this book. Kaul Maik Wen's stone-cold (and stone eye) courage is amazing in this book. I do, however, continue to feel so conflicted about Hilo-jen, who continues to be one of the most complex anti-heroes I've read in a while. For every positive attribute he has (his complete acceptance of Anden's sexuality, his love of children, his love of his wife Wen, his ability to lead his men, like Eitan, to see hope when they need it) he has a downright fiendish counterpoint. (What happens with Mudt is a case in point.) Hilo is less reckless now, but every bit as entitled and self-justifying as he was in the first book, if not more so. (Just ask Enyi.) And then there is Ayt Madashi, as ruthless and formidable an opponent as one can envision, a woman willing to do whatever it takes to advance her goals, who fluidly plays both ends against the middle and when necessary will just put the middle in a totally different place. These characters become so real and alive to the reader, that any adversity they encounter is breathtaking and chilling, and any success breathtaking and joyous (until you stop and think about the fact that we are talking about mob success.) Fonda Lee is such a master storyteller that she even has you rooting for that jade thief Bero (talk about anti-heroes!) in the end. Amazing.

How will I wait for Jade Legacy? I guess I will just have to listen to the 44 hours of Jade City and Jade War, beautifully narrated by Andrew Kishino, all over again.

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Review: Things You Save in a Fire

Things You Save in a Fire Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

So I've been sitting on this review for a few days after finishing this book, trying to frame my thoughts a bit. There are things I really enjoyed about Things You Save in a Fire but there are things that had me rather upset. I greatly enjoyed Center's last novel How to Walk Away and note that over the past decade she's made a career of writing novels about women on the brink of disaster, over the edge of disaster, recovering from disaster. She writes books that brim with hope and humor. In the present case, we follow Cassie Hanwell, a female fire fighter who has built a fortress around herself with her prowess as a firefighter, athlete, and all around genuine hero(ine). Cassie has, again and again, put her life on the line to save those in need. But so much of the strength she has built has been a reaction to two grievous life injuries she sustained when she was sixteen years old. And after an event that was supposed to be a celebration of her bravery turns into a major PTSD trigger she finds herself moving across the country to save her career and take care of a mother from whom she's been estranged for more than a decade. The triggering event, along with having to deal with her ailing mother, seems to unleash all kinds of emotions that Cassie doesn't want to deal with. And herein lies one of my problems with the structure of the trauma portion of this narrative. I'm going to discuss the issue below, under a spoiler tag.

I heartily enjoyed the firefighter portions of the book, which I know that Center put a huge amount of research into in order to have them ring with authenticity. And they do. Her Austin and Lillian stations were interesting in their huge contrasts and the technical aspects of firefighting were quite fascinating. The differing compositions of her crew members, and the varying degrees in which sexism is an issue in the career, were also interesting. And I enjoyed the character of Owen Callaghan, the rookie firefighter who comes from a long line of firefighters and who is, just like other male protagonists Center has written in the past, nursing his own guilt and pain. While one could say some aspects of Center's stories are formulaic within her own works, it's a formula that works because it mirrors real life- we all have our hurts, guilts, and traumas to overcome in order to connect with our fellow humans.

While I was less on board with this novel than her last, Center can write engagingly and I'm sure the novel is going to be a popular one.

Spoilers Below. No, Really. Spoilers


CW: sexual assault, untreated PTSD

Cassie, as written, has a dissociative way of processing physical closeness to others. She tolerates it for work but as no ability to tolerate that closeness on a personal level. Unless... it's the cute Irish rookie in her new fire station. Mind you, as an assault survivor myself, I can get the complex feelings of attraction and fear that go with moving forward in life "after." But the way Cassie's character arc is written makes it seem like recovering from sexual assault is just about waiting long enough for the right guy to come along, which is... offensive. First, once you surmise these revelations about the character, you look back at the first chapter, in which she wonders if Hernandez is right about his suggestions that she needs to get laid, and think it's ridiculous that she would even contemplate such a thing! How!? The woman has never even been kissed, for gosh sakes! Thereafter, I found the passages with her dealing with Owen practicing on her, touching all over her, when she realizes her profound attraction to him, to be immensely frustrating to read. She's described as uneasy, but in a real world this might likely result in out and out panic. He hooks her up to an EKG and doesn't even notice anything stress related? Really? Sure, he eventually realizes that something is wrong many chapters later, but how fast is that fix as we careen toward the dramatic events at the end? As an assault survivor, her dissociative way of processing, which she self-recognizes as viewing his physical contact with her as just work-related, becomes imperiled once she steps over that work-related boundary into a "friendship." Because friendship involves trust and trust involves vulnerability and vulnerability is not something Cassie deals with well. While she asks Owen about therapy for his issues, at no point do we hear about her having therapy for her issues, nor do we have any indication that her father, distracted by his own pain of his wife's rejection, notices anything about his daughter's physical and emotional suffering, her being bullied at school, her withdrawing from any connections with peers. No adult notices. (I know this stuff really happens but the point is that it sharply deepens the trauma and that increases the difficulty in overcoming the trauma.) 

Frankly, the way this was handled had me even questioning the entire premise of her being a firefighter, sleeping in quarters with a bunch of guys, and wondering whether she would/could ever really sleep in that kind of vulnerable setting. (And yes, I know she believes that firefighters are the good guys. A PTSD brain doesn't so much care about that sort of belief.) In any case, I'm supposed to believe that this strong, stoic assault survivor just meets the right guy and works through her immense barriers to physical intimacy, gets married in short order, has babies, and lives happily ever after, boom!? Naaaaah, chica. No way. Not buying it. Why not have her had past therapy on her Austin Department's insurance? Why not have her female chief in Austin, who just saw her most talented firefighter derail her career insist she must see a therapist after Cassie implies why she did what she did to Heath Thompson? And though Captain Harris helps her get the new job in New England, why doesn't she express concern as to whether going off to a sexist all male department was the right thing for Cassie to do? Why doesn't that female chief ever touch base with her later, and make sure she's okay? The simple addition of a bargain with Captain Harris that she'd help her if she sought therapy would have made this whole thing more believable. I just fail to believe that a captain so proud of her junior officer would leave this unaddressed. There was more work to be done here. Most of all, leading anyone who hasn't been an assault victim to believe that trauma recovery is as simple as finding the right partner is a disservice to assault victims. 

I received a Digital Review Copy and paper copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Review: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to this story thanks to Ruthanna Emrys, an author whose fine deconstruction and reformulation of Lovecraft in her Innsmouth Legacy series has underscored the struggle for hope in the marginalized. Emrys recently discussed hopepunk, a term coined by author Alexandra Rowland (A Conspiracy of Truths), on her Patreon, which you can find here. Rowland stated in 2017 that "The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk" (source) and Emrys, in referring to The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas, says Rowland has further stated "hopepunk is about the ones who walk away from Omelas and come back with lockpicks and axes." Emrys has links this idea to the Talmudic concept of "whoever saves a life saves the world" and by that same token, whoever destroys a life, such as that of the poor child, locked in a filth-overflowing closet in this story, has destroyed their world, whether they realize it yet or not. Emrys feels hopepunk is not idle hope but a call to action. And this story, written almost fifty years ago, feels almost prescient.

We live in times in which America leadership has told us that in order to be safe and happy, we must lock immigrant children in cages. No one knows how many children still remain in that "closet" because no one is releasing numbers. There's a direct connection to stories like The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and the philosophical and moral questions they pose. If ever there was a time to read this story, that time is now. I hope readers contemplate this powerful Le Guin statement and take to heart Ruthanna Emrys' idea of hopepunk being a call to moral action. There's a phrase in the Judaic tradition called tikkun olam- it means "repairing the world." The ones who walk away hopefully will come back with the tools to make the world right.

The edition of this story that I have reviewed here is a standalone story rereleased in 2016 with additional commentary by Le Guin. Her additional thoughts and the origins of this story make that rerelease well worth your time.

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Monday, August 5, 2019

Review: Bursts of Fire

Bursts of Fire Bursts of Fire by Susan Forest
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bursts of Fire is the first book in a new trilogy, Addicted to Heaven and it would seem to have many elements I love in fantasy, in particular a strong bond between three sisters facing steep odds. However it also suffered from poor pacing, and what felt like an oddly developed plot. The Falkyn sisters, Meg, Janat, and Rennika are daughters of the imperial mage, or magiel, of Orumon, Talanda, and yet though their mother is a seer who sees a dark future or lack thereof ahead, she seems to do nothing to prepare her daughters with skillsets to deal more easily with what lies ahead, which seems to involve the worldings committing genocide. Seventeen-year-old Meg faces the daunting task of keeping her sisters safe, in a world where they cannot easily hide due to the "wavering" luster of their skin, revealing their magiel heritage. I found the world-building in the story to be frustrating due to a magic system that seemed overly elaborate. There are prayer stones of different precious and semiprecious stones, spells, and magiel abilities, which also appear to include traveling on different time lines. While I enjoyed relationship between the three sisters at times, I often felt the writing, particularly in the first half of the book, was somewhat choppy even though the pacing of the story itself seemed quite slow.

Bursts of Fire might interest older middle graders or high school students patient enough to get through the first half of the book. The politics and faith elements of the story will eventually engage the reader and could be thought-provoking. But it will take some effort to get there.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Laksa Media in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front

Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front by Mara Altman
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

I was on the fence about whether this book's ongoing takes are funny neurotic or just reinforcing how much we, as women, can be filled with self-loathing body image issues. From head (and hair) to toe (and hair, and warts) Altman covers many ways women beat (or carve) themselves up. I'm still not sure how I feel about the book, although some portions of it made me laugh out loud. With tones of Mindy Kaling, Mary Roach and a dash of Chelsea Handler, Altman offers up a variety of anecdotes and observations but the sum of them just made me feel sad about everything women will put themselves (the labiaplasty section was especially a painful read) through to feel "okay." The humor here isn't enough to remove the sting of how hard it is for women to feel at home in their own bodies as they are.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Review: Sapphire Flames

Sapphire Flames Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

Authors Ilona Andrews have come up with a winning formula in their Hidden Legacy series, which is about the Baylor family and a magical world set largely in a alternate-world Houston metropolitan area, where powerful families are represented as Houses. The first three novels of this series focused on magical Truthseeker detective Nevada Baylor, oldest daughter of a matriarchal family, led by her engineer, Grandma Frida, and military sharpshooter mom, Penelope. Sisters Catalina and Arabella, along with their cousins Bern and Leon, round out the Baylor family. Nevada has, over the course of the first three books, managed to keep things moving forward to form House Baylor. Although Sapphire Flames can be read as separate from the earlier books in the series, I won't spoil any more of the events from those books, other than to say we only really started to get to know Catalina as a character in a recent novella, Diamond Fire. (All the books in this series toy with the "hot/heat" concept in their titles and they are worth a read because they are such fun.) Having moved forward three years from the events of Diamond Fire we find that Catalina is now the Head of House Baylor (and series readers know why). Catalina's magical abilities, termed Siren abilities at the time House Baylor formed, have not, until now, been shown off in full fashion. And of course, in keeping with the Baylor Detective Agency tradition, she'll be showing them off after taking a case everyone told her to avoid. Everyone including the mysterious Alessandro Sagredo, the young Italian Count Antistasi Prime (in this world magical power is rated Prime, Significant, etc.) who helped certify her as one of the three Primes of House Baylor when it was founded. The case involves the murder of some of the family of Runa Etterson, the young Prime Venenata who saved the day at Nevada's wedding by purging poison from the food served at her reception. Catalina feels for Runa's terrible loss and wants to help her, and her suicidal younger brother Ragnar, but the timing is terrible. House Baylor's three years of protection as a new house are about to run out, along with their insurance coverage, and the added shield of the powerful House Rogan. (Nevada, her husband, and mother-in-law are off in Spain while the events of this novel unfold.) Catalina wants her House to stand on its own merits, but she also wants to help seek justice for a young woman that is sure to become a powerful ally in later books. Just as Nevada did with animal mage Cornelius and his daughter Matilda, Catalina and the Baylor family risk sheltering Runa and Ragnar and hunting down the parties that harmed their mother and sister. The stakes are high but two fateful events (or an event and a promise) seem bound to change the future course of Catalina's life and the stature of House Baylor.

While the plot of these novels is formulaic, it's a truly enjoyable formula in these authors' hands. Catalina is beautiful, smart, compassionate and loyal. Alessandro is handsome, dashing, and, of course, deeply troubled by something that we're sure to get to the bottom of by the end of Catalina's trilogy. The warm camaraderie of the Baylor family and Runa's easy integration into their safe haven are a pleasure to read. These authors can write about family and sibling relationships the whole long day and always manage to make it fresh, real, and delightful without being twee.

If you are looking for a Labor Day weekend beach read to close out your summer, be sure to pre-order the novel, which releases August 27. If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Ilona Andrews before and are looking for a light and diverting series, just ignore the overwrought romance-style covers of the Hidden Legacy books. (Oh, Avon, those covers! Ugh!) Or get them on an e-reader, so no one will judge you. Like everything this husband and wife team write, you're in for a great time.

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Review: Jade City

Jade City Jade City by Fonda Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fonda Lee's 2017 Jade City is a sprawling, epic fantasy that is full to the brim with originality, brilliant world building, and memorable characters who feel real in their strengths and flaws. Set on the fictional Kekon Island, we follow the saga of the Kaul family and their "No Peak" clan. If you'd have told me that I'd become completely engrossed in a fantasy novel about a jade cartel and cartel warfare, I'd have told told you that you were crazy. But here we are.

The Kaul family, led by its young Pillar, Kaul Lan, hovers on the edge of instability. While Kaul Lan is an enlightened leader, his Horn (the enforcer) younger brother, Kaul Hilo, has the reputation of being short-tempered and reckless. Their father is deceased, their ambivalent sister Kaul Shae is, as the novel opens, returning from a jade-less self-imposed exile/time abroad, and their rather addled grandfather, Kaul Sen, the Torch, is elderly and in sharp decline. Emery Anden, a Kaul by adoption, is a senior at the Kaul Dushuron Academy, a prep school that largely turns out the future members of the Kaul family's No Peak Clan. Their business leadership is managed by a Weatherman, one Yun Doru, who early on seems to have duplicitous intentions, adding to the worries borne by Kaul Lan. Dipping outside the immediate family, Maik Tar and Maik Kehn, Kaul Hilo's longtime friends, are the Fists of the Horn, providing the strong-arm tactics needed to maintain the social "order." Kekon's opposing clan, the Mountain Clan, is led by the formidable Ayt Madashi, a woman who upon her father's death killed off the entire upper administration of the Mountain Clan (before his funeral, no less) in order to seize unquestioned control of the clan as its Pillar.

At the heart of the story of Kekon and the jade cartels lies the jade itself, which imbues the so-called "Green Bone" wearers with power. The more jade worn, the more power wielded. But this power comes at a price: too much jade can drive the wearer mad. The Kaul Academy, where Anden will soon graduate, seeks to train young Green Bones to wield jade safely. Some on Kekon are stone-eyes- those who are unaffected by jade and unable, without intervention (more on that account below) to wield jade power. The fickle heritability of Green Bone ability is demonstrated by the Maik brothers' beautiful stone-eye sister, Maik Wen, lover of Kaul Hilo. Of course, the stone-eyes of the world envy those that can wield jade power and thus it's no surprise that a dangerous illegal drug, Shine, has been created to allow stone-eyes to wield some jade power and Green Bones to wear more jade than they normally can or should.

As the novel opens, the balance of power between the two clans on Kekon are tipping in favor of the Mountain as a plot for control of jade and Shine begins to unfold. The pacing of the novel is such that the 560 pages fly by. The struggles of the Kauls evolve like a train wreck that steadily accelerates toward the inevitable collision between the No Peak and Mountain clans. And it's a testament to Lee's skills as a writer that some of the fight scenes, which I normally dislike, are truly breathtaking. I'm eagerly moving on to the newly released Jade War to see where Lee takes us, and follow the story of Kaul Shae, my favorite Kaul family member.

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