Wormhole – by Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Mystery

Angry Robot; November 22, 2022

433 pages (ebook)

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5.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The world has changed. A combination of climate change, overpopulation, and resource shortage has led to mass migration of humanity and the need to explore outside the bounds of Earth’s gravity well. Thus an expedition has been launched to Mu Arae, an earth-like planet and trip of about 80 years. The crew are to be kept in suspended animation for the duration, and expected to investigate the planet before deploying a highly experimental contraption as a means of creating a stable wormhole back to Earth.

London, 2190

Gordon Kemp is a former homicide detective, stuck investigating cold-cases as his career winds down. Assigned to a high-profile case named top priority, he and his partner Danni Bellini are surprised to discover that the main suspect—long since departed on the Mu Arae expedition—is not as out of range as they once believed. In fact, with the wormhole expected to be opened within the week, the Kemp’s superiors have instructed him to be ready to depart and retrieve the suspect at first convenience.

The suspect: Rima Cagnac, wife of the illustrious Sebastien White—one of the richest and most influential people on Earth. Accused of killing her husband, she was somehow allowed to leave Earth on the expedition, having been cleared of suspicion. For roughly a century, at least.

While what Kemp and his partner uncover while investigating this case may well change the course of history, what Rima Cagnac discovers on the distant Mu Arae will well shape the future.

Let’s start with the investigation. A cold-case into one of the most prolific unsolved murders in history, dismissed due to lack of evidence, the main suspect allowed to walk (to another planet no less)—and pretty much assumed off-limits afterwards. But instead of focusing on solving (or framing up) the crime that they had eighty years to perfect, they decide to half-ass it on the spot a week before the wormhole is set to open. The conspiracy—because obviously the new evidence is bogus—is so thin that it can be picked apart by two down-on-their-luck detectives and their hacker friend in about a week.

Despite this, the story is actually not terrible. Engaging, interesting (if not deep), and at least somewhat mysterious and immersive. While I developed issues with the plot somewhere around the three-quarters mark—and while I was never absolutely in love with every aspect of the story—it wasn’t a hard book to get into. A decent plot; there were problems with it, but they could be overlooked (early on). The characters, at least those of Danni and Gordon and Rima, were interesting and relatable. But when we stray from the main cast… the depth peters out in a hurry.

Enter Edouard Bryce: key story element and unrepentant chauvinistic ass. Unveiled as Danni’s love interest halfway through the story, he doesn’t change to attract the independent, modern professional that she’s portrayed as. Instead, she changes to suit him. I know it’s very much possible and realistic, but it was still frustrating. He’s probably likable to someone, but that someone was never me.

Okay, now let’s address the twist. It’s… well, it’s too much.

The main issue with Wormhole is that it tries to do too much. A detective story quickly becomes a space exploration—a planet exploration event with potential first contact. With a wormhole added as an afterthought. With a conspiracy that draws secrets from the plot that it can’t even know. There’s just too much going on, too much continually competing to be the center of attention, especially as we approach the latter half of the novel.

TL;DR

Wormhole is a mystery, exploration, adventure, thriller, that tries to appeal to all genres equally yet ultimately manages to succeed in none of them. The reason? It continually tries to do too much. A mystery becomes a space exploration, which becomes a scientific wonder, which begets conspiracy, revolution, dystopia, thriller, aliens, romance, memoir, philosophy… yeah, you get the idea. It’s a bit like Great North Road—the Peter F. Hamilton novel, only crammed into about one-third of the space. Too much, too hectic, not well-enough thought out or built or explained. While there is a decent story within, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Think about any one element for too long and everything breaks down. All in all, a disappointment for sure.

The Dark Between the Trees – by Fiona Barnett (Review)

standalone

Horror, Gothic

Solaris/Rebellion; October 11, 2022

304 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for the Dark Between the Trees.

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris/Rebellion, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

In 1643, two soldiers from the Roundhead company—a unit of Parliamentarian soldiers—stumble into the small village of Tapford, wounded and shaken. Here, the men are taken and gaoled for desertion. Only one man, Thomas Edgeworth, sees the sunrise the following day, his companion, Josiah Moody, having succumbed to his injuries during the night. Upon asking to speak with a local priest, he tells his tale, the one that eventually drew Dr. Alice Christopher to him—and to the Corrigal.

Onto the present day, which finds five women heading into the confines of Moresby Wood in an effort to trace the footsteps of the Roundhead company, as provided by Edgeworth, the sole survivor of the incident. In addition to the stories and legends passed down by locals over the years, the history of Roundhead company remains one of the most promising pieces of the puzzle—a tale that Alice has staked her entire career on.

And so, while Dr. Christopher leads her team of wardens and grad students into the Wood, some 350 years prior, Captain Alexander Davies leads his company of seventeen men into Moresby as well. Neither know what they’ll find here—though one has a much better idea.

Something dark lurks in Moresby Wood. Something ancient, something unnatural.

The Corrigal.

I was surprised by just how much of this book wasn’t about the Corrigal. I mean, the starring, almost titular villain, and it plays just a footnote to the real mystery of Moresby: that of the… what exactly?

There’s a witch in there—or so it’s said, as we never see one. Like the Corrigal, after a time it’s just abandoned in place of… a mystery.

But let’s not get too far ahead.

The Dark Between the Trees starts out as a gothic, atmospheric horror story, set in the disorientating and often claustrophobic confines of Moresby Wood—a place that might’ve been lightened up somewhat had anyone had the idea of climbing a tree. Plastered by rain and often choked by mist, the two groups follow more or less the same pathways along their journey to the center of the mystery—one to find what has befallen the other. There are two main POVs: that of Dr. Christopher’s group, and that of Captain Davies. They are told in alternating form, with the two groups progressing at around the same rate. It actually works quite well, for a time, as the tension and atmosphere of the tale plays well in the confines of the Wood.

The dueling legends of the Corrigal and the Witch wreak havoc with each group, albeit for different reasons. The scientists are divided in two on the legend—between skeptics and believers. The soldiers, on the other hand, are divided into three—those that fear the Witch (and through her the Devil), those that fear the Corrigal (an ancient beast predating religion), and those that scoff at both notions. It’s honestly hard for me to pick which group I related to more, as I think they’re all a bit disillusioned. The Witch never really materializes into anything. The Corrigal does, but likewise is dropped in favor of the more mysterious mystery. A mystery which I still don’t really understand even though it was the center of the last handful of chapters.

Okay, so what am I saying here? I realize it’s a bit confusing, as even I’m a bit confused. The story was good until it wasn’t. The atmosphere, the tension, the plot all start off strong, but wither long before the end. I experienced some genuinely terrifying moments when we are at last confronted by the Corrigal, but then it’s whisked away and never really holds the same place in the story again. The end was confusing. And a letdown. Not to mention a complete departure from the rest of the book. The pacing—again, which started off quite well, and continued that way for most of the tale—went to pieces near the close. The characters followed its lead.

So… pretty much what I’m saying is that the Dark Between the Trees is 50-80% of a good book. After that it’s a book, and after that it’s just confusing and dark. I… wouldn’t recommend it, but I’d keep an eye on the author, as this was her debut, and there’s a lot to like in this story. Just maybe not enough.

Tread of Angels – by Rebecca Roanhorse (Review)

novella / standalone (?)

Fantasy, Mystery, Novella

Gallery / Saga Press; November 15, 2022

208 pages (ebook)

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5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Gallery Books, Saga Press, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The year is 1883. Goetia is a boom town that draws the rich and poor, the ambitious and desperate, miners and prospectors, doves and demons alike in search of work, wealth, and a life to call their own. The town’s main source of income is not gold nor iron, silver nor lead, but Divinity. Goetia is a town gotten rich on mining the long dead corpses of angels and demons, fallen in the age old war that defined heaven and hell.

Celeste is a card sharp. Goetia’s native daughter, she grew up in the poorest slums but has since managed to make a name for herself, at least among some. She is also part Fallen herself, though she bears none of its marks. Something that would relieve Celeste, if not for their presence about her sister.

Mariel is a singer accused. Arrested and charged with the murder of a Virtue—law and morality enforcers who can trace their blood back to divinity as well, they despise the Fallen and their descendants purely on principle—Mariel is hauled off to a pit for execution, and it’s up to Celeste to save her. Something that may yet cost her more than just the life of her only sister.

Angels and demons, guns and dusters, corruption and ambition collide in Goetia—and it’s important to know: there are no innocents in this story.

Sadly, the mystery wasn’t terribly mysterious. As a whodunnit, it never really gets off the ground. There’s really only one person it could be and even the lead doesn’t really try to spread the blame overly long. From then it’s less of a who and more of a why. Unfortunately, this too is cleared up rather easily. Honestly, I found what happened next more entertaining than the entire mystery.

Not enough world building. The set dressing is nice enough, but the world behind is might as well be a cardboard cutout. There’s very little depth, and I’m entirely lost on much of the history and rules. Everything we know is what is told on the fly, as there’s nothing granted up front. It’s not exactly that every term or concept worth knowing has its own info-dump, however. Some things we’re just expected to figure out—but mostly, yeah, everything has its own info-dump.

Goetia reminds me of Landfall (the Boy with the Porcelain Blade). Just as Landfall is covered in a dense fog, anything outside of immediate purview in Goetia is ignored as unimportant. The outside world may as well not exist. Certainly don’t remember it being mentioned, except as a vague concept like, “I’ve stayed here too long, there’s an entire world to see”—but that’s it. I’m not getting any kind of sense of either the city or the world as a concept. They’re simply ignored unless absolutely pertinent to the story. I understand keeping the novella on track, but occasionally you can do that while giving the slightest peeks into the world beyond.

I could do without some of the references to Jesus, such as Calvary or Golgotha. In a world still reeling from an open war between heaven and hell, where angels and demons live openly alongside the humans, well, surely Jesus wouldn’t be a thing? They’re only really mentioned as descriptions, place names, but still. The story is listed as taking place in 1883—in the blurb—though this seems more about setting up the western narrative more than anything else.

Despite my criticisms of this book, I would actually be interested in seeing more of this world. Not the characters from Tread, however. I’m a fan of the angels and demons, western aesthetic. Tread of Angels reminded me quite a bit of Golgotha (from R.S. Belcher), only with a more openly biblical presence. Anyway, same concept, different story, different cast?—sure, I’m on board, let’s do this.

TL;DR

While I feel Tread of Angels—as a concept, at least—has promise, the novella itself came off a bit half-cocked. Actually, instead of the concept itself being solid—I’d say the proof of concept has promise. That’s because the chosen setting of Goetia falls a bit flat. It needs more world-building. Like, anything outside the story’s immediate purview. The entire outside world is ignored. I’m honestly not sure if it was entirely destroyed or just not designed in the first place. The mystery isn’t terribly mysterious, as the whodunnit quickly devolves into a whydunnit more than anything. The best thing I can really say about this is that as a read, it wasn’t bad. I moderately enjoyed the majority of the time I spent in Goetia, and while there’ll have to be a number of improvements to lure me back in the future, it is a world I would consider revisiting. But it needs work.

Death in the East – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Wyndham & Banerjee Investigations #4

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; November 14, 2019

414 pages (hardcover)

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8 / 10 ✪

Where there are witches, should we not hunt them?

Please beware spoilers for the Wyndham and Banerjee Investigations Books #1-3.

Review of A Rising Man
Review of A Necessary Evil
Review of Smoke and Ashes

London, 1905

As a young constable, Sam Wyndham walks the streets of the Jewish quarter, his assigned beat, only to come across an assault. Two men assailing one woman. Only after chasing the men from the scene does Wyndham recognize her—Bessie Drummond, a former flame, brutally beaten and left for dead. He hails a cab and rushes her to the hospital, where Bessie recovers.

But only days later, Bessie is attacked again, this time in her own rooms. And this time, she is not so lucky.

The resultant investigation goes far deeper than Wyndham could possibly imagine, and will test his desire to see it through to the end.

India, 1922

Death in the East finds Sam Wyndham departing Calcutta, hopping a train bound for the jungle interior of Assam, seeking out an ashram in the hopes of curing him of his long-standing opium addiction. The monastery takes all; natives and Europeans, young and old, rich and poor. But there’s a catch. The monks of this ashram seek to cure men of their addiction, but should any relapse, they are turned away. In short: there are no repeat customers.

The Harvill Secker cover of Death in the East

The trial is hell, that much is certain, but it’s a worthy price in escaping addiction. Only amidst the throes of withdrawal and hallucination, Wyndham sees a ghost from long before. A man he assumed dead, one he thought he’d never see again, and hoped he wouldn’t. But when Wyndham recovers from the episode, there is no sign of the man. He pushes it to the recesses of his mind, trying to tell himself it was all a dream. But doubt gnaws at him.

The doubt reasserts itself when another addict from the ashram turns up dead, one that looks very much like Wyndham. Now Sam must pursue this spectre in the hopes of preventing another murder—and to finally put his own ghosts to rest.

“I have noticed,” said Surrender-not as we walked back up the hill towards the club, “that wherever you go, people tend to die.”
“That’s nonsense.”
“What about that railway sub-inspector out near Bandel last year? You ask him for a railway timetable and twenty minutes later he’s dead.”
“He was hit by a train,” I said. “I don’t see how that was my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was your fault. Just that people seem to die around you. Remember my paternal grandmother? She died two days after she met you.”
“She was eighty-nine years old.”
“You have to admit, it’s curious. I’m thinking I should introduce you to my uncle Pankaj. I’ve never liked him.”

And so we come to the novel that every detective/mystery author must write: that with a pair of interconnected mysteries, happening at different time periods. I swear, there are so many of these there should really be an easier way of defining them. Pastbacks? Dual timeline mysteries? Overlapping post-time cases? I dunno—I’m really hoping that someone will just tell me what they’re called. Although I kinda liked “pastbacks”.

Anyway, despite the cliché that these types of mysteries have become, we enter Death in the East, the fourth Wyndham and Banerjee, and the second outside the city of Kolkata. While Wyndham enters the story alone, don’t fret—Banerjee will join him before its end. After the crowded, chaotic beauty that is Calcutta, the countryside ashram is a whole new setting entirely. And unlike A Necessary Evil, England still rules this corner of India; the local natives cowed, despite whatever sway Gandhi has elsewhere.

It’s a new setting, one that the author brings to life just as effectively as the choked and diverse streets of Colonial India. Out here the Europeans have taken to the countryside, only to find it wanting. Instead of adapting, they’ve carved out their own little England, while duly complaining about how it’s not the same. It’s quite a different backdrop to the tale, though one equally as enthralling as any that preceded it.

The mystery itself—of course—takes place in two parts. One set in 1905 London, the other in 1922 India. The two alternate chapters for a time, though each begins to repeat as we come to both the meat of their respective tales. I found that this worked quite well, and was relieved to see that the book didn’t just stick to the alternating style the whole way through, as some novels do. In general, I’m not a fan of the dual timeline kinda mystery. Again, I find it overdone and cliché, but Death in the East was at least told and constructed well—not getting into any of the nitty gritty details of what went on. Both mysteries were entertaining, and when they came together, the resulting conclusion was well done.

The book has a good sense of humor, while still maintaining the atmosphere of a good murder mystery. The series continues to poke fun at all things England while underlining some of the positives of the Empire, and its many underlying failures with racism, bigotry, and colonialism. My favorite such point was made somewhere in the middle and complains that what “godforsaken place” would see the sun rise in the middle of the night—poking fun at the fact that for quite a while, the entire Empire was managed by one timezone. That’s India, Fiji, the Bahamas, and England—all on Greenwich time.

TL;DR

Honestly, the main complaint I have with Death in the East is the whole dual timeline mystery thing—they’re overdone and overused to the point that everyone and their sitcom has to have at least one. Otherwise, it was a good entry to the series, one that sees Wyndham address his long-running opium problem, while still managing to get some work done. Banerjee joins him, of course, but we are left with out some fantastic running characters from Calcutta, and provided with a few throwaways that probably won’t feature in any additional tales. The mystery—BOTH mysteries—were solid, interesting, entertaining, deep. Even though there aren’t any compelling new additions to the series (character-wise), those replacements we do get are unique and interesting enough to see us through this entry. Plus, it’s good to get out of the city once in a while and stretch your legs, right? Go to an ashram in the jungle to puke your guts out and take in a lovely murder. It’s almost as though you never really left.

Station Eternity – by Mur Lafferty (Review)

Midsolar Murders #1

Scifi, Mystery

Berkley Publishing; October 4, 2022

336 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ace, Berkley, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Mallory Viridian is a walking death-trap. For as long as she can remember, death has followed her, often striking those closest. Her first kiss, her first boyfriend, her college professor, even her uncle. Adjacent to three deaths in her early years, Mallory solved her first murder shortly after, a crime that baffled the police.

But detectives were not impressed. Soon, Mallory was a suspect in not only that murder, but an entire string of them—some even going so far as to accuse her of being a serial killer. While she continued to solve these murders, it did little to help her case.

After one particularly bizarre and traumatic double-murder, Mallory had had enough. She left Earth behind, seeking asylum aboard Station Eternity, a sentient space-station not far from Sol. A station that bans humans. Her plan: to stay as far away from other humans as possible; if she’s not near them, they won’t die.

When the station agrees to allow human visitors, Mallory is nearly catatonic. But before she can run, a tragedy befalls the human shuttle prior to its arrival. And when the survivors are finally brought aboard, bodies continue to drop. Not to mention Eternity, who’s in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. And Mallory must rush to solve this case before humans and aliens alike are killed.

“It’s a small base. Shouldn’t be too hard to find that guy who ran.”

“Yeah… this is the part you’re really going to hate,” Mallory said, wincing. She’d been trying to figure out how to drop this bit of information, and she hadn’t come up with a good opener, so she just told him,” You won’t find him. He’s been abducted by aliens.”

Six Wakes was one of my favorite releases of 2017—a mystery set aboard a vessel in the depths of space, where a murdered crew must find the perpetrator before they kill again. Five years later, Station Eternity aims to replicate its success, to nominal results.

See, Six Wakes succeeded because it was isolated, claustrophobic, and tense. A classic whodunnit, with a twist: clones, spaceships, and a secret worth dying for. Likewise, Station Eternity is a whodunnit, with a different twist. Mallory knows where the murders will happen—after all, they follow her around—she just doesn’t know when, or why they do so. And in solving one, she just might discover it all.

But it’s not only the setup that has changed between these two stories, but also the tone. Where Six Wakes was tense and thrilling, Station Eternity attempts to be light and comedic. At least, at first. Later it has a go at introducing some tension, to mixed results. Neither did the tone immerse sell me on this, not the way the author’s earlier works managed. That said, it’s still an entertaining mystery. The setting is interesting—a sentient space-station in a universe that is still wary of humanity—as is the the mystery. And while nothing is as simple as it seems, neither is it as immersive. While I enjoyed the characters, I didn’t love the conflicting threads. While I liked the mystery, I didn’t love the plot. And when it all came together, I’d argue that everything was just too convenient, too readily explained—in the way that only sentient space-stations and hive minds can get away with.

Additionally, there was one remaining loose end to this mystery, one that annoyed me upon reaching the final wrap-up. It was (probably) a meaningless detail, but still—if you’re going to explain everything else via a hive mind, it makes no sense to overlook this.

TL;DR

As much as it pains me to admit, Station Eternity and Six Wakes are just two different beasts. While I loved the latter, the former filled me with mostly indifference. The most recent Lafferty release attempts a different tone, a wider setting, a less immersive experience but with on a grander scale. And it… I guess kinda works? An entertaining read, if not an amazing one. A decent mystery, if not a repeat of the last one. All in all, Station Eternity ends up being a little meh, much to my disappointment.

The Half Life of Valery K – by Natasha Pulley (Review)

Standalone

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Bloomsbury Publishing; July 26, 2022

384 pages (ebook)

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7.75 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Bloomsbury & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

In Soviet Russia, the government monitored everything, but especially its own citizens. In 1937, Valery Kolkhanov was sent to Germany by the government to study biochemistry and radiology so that he could use what he learned for the benefit of his motherland. It was an educational and cultural experience that Valery never forgot, though it exposed him to more than he bargained for.

And then, in 1956, it got him arrested.

Jump forward to 1963, where we find Valery in a Siberian gulag, a Zek (a political prisoner) interred for that fateful time spent abroad. Time, if you remember, that the government sponsored. Serving his sixth year of a ten-year sentence, Valery’s priorities are food, warmth, avoiding frostbite, and keeping his head down—though he’s under no illusions regarding his future. He will die here; it’s just a matter of when.

Only the government still has use for him, it seems. Scooped up from Siberia, Valery is transported thousands of kilometers only to be dropped in another site, albeit a much different one. There are townsfolk and apartments, a lake and a reactor, scientists and guards. This, is Chelyabinsk 40.

Chelyabinsk 40, or simply City 40, is a radioecological research facility established to study the longterm effects of radiation on the environment, so that it might one day benefit humanity (i.e. the Soviet Union). Valery is but one of a growing population of scientists stationed at the Lighthouse, a scientific facility built to study the effects of the Event that occurred in the Techa River basin in 1957. An event that is never spoken of, but that left the lake and forest in a 40km radius heavily irradiated. But from what, no one is saying.

Even as Valery begins his research, he’s struck by so many more questions than solutions. In part due to the faulty data he’s been provided. Intentionally faulty, it seems. More than that, why is there so much radiation in the region? Or even, how?

Even more mysteries emerge the more he looks into it. Where is the radiation coming from, and why aren’t the citizens informed about it? Who are the mysterious people living in the forest, and why are they disappearing? What happened in 1957, and how does it relate to the present?

And if he’s to go fishing for answers to these questions Valery might not even live as long as he had had they just left him in Siberia.

That peculiar thing was happening, the one that had happened in Leningrad when Valery was young; everyone knew one thing to be true, but everyone was obliged to keep insisting it wasn’t. Gosh, of course everyone who’s arrested is guilty. Of course Truth only prints the honest-to-god truth, it’s in the name.

Of course the radiation is fine.

It was Sunday, and Valery was still curled up in a ball in bed, watching Albert turn his tank heater right up. On the reasoning that an octopus was the best person to know how warm or cold an octopus wanted to be, Valery had shown him how to use it and put an octopus-friendly lever on the dish, in case dripping shorted the electronics. It seemed to work, and it saved him from worrying that Albert would freeze in the night.

I’ll admit that I mostly just skimmed the prompt for this one before requesting it. An epic from the Cold War set in a mysterious town in the USSR. It got classed as science fiction and fantasy, so it was a shoe-in. Vibes of Wayward Pines and various Cold War spy thrillers. Therefore upon starting it I was curious about exactly how fast and loose it was going to play with history.

It turns out not very much.

Before reading this I was at least familiar with the Malak incident in Russia, which was at the time the worst nuclear disaster in history (it has since been moved to third—behind Chernobyl and Fukushima), despite the wider world not knowing much about it. Like, for example, what the hell happened, or how. Or why. But this book—despite being a work of fiction—fills in many of the blanks. Now, the story is still fantasy; Valery and Shenkov, Resovskaya, the octopus, pretty much the entire plot. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of what happened in it was real. The gulag may not have homed a chemist named Valery Kolkhanov, but it held thousands of political prisoners (and millions more), sent for the very real crimes of speaking English, have visited Europe, getting drunk and vocally disagreeing with the government, or getting outed by people they’d never met on charges that couldn’t possibly have been real. City 40 may not have been the scene of a thrilling plot like this, but it was the scene of a very real and very secretive nuclear incident, a radioecological research zone, and a real laboratory know as “the Lighthouse”. Sufficient that I was wondering how much would be real and how much would be fiction: the setting was entirely real; the history was entirely real; the plot was entirely plausible, but just as much fiction.

Natasha Pulley totally nailed the USSR vibe. Pretending everything’s fine even when everything points to the contrary. Paranoia is rampant. Everyone overanalyzing everything they say with the fear of being sent off to Siberia. Optimism also being a trip to Siberia rather than a bullet in the head. Women actually being contributing members of society, except where science is concerned. Communism and Russia seem to go hand in hand, except that the two together is almost completely nonsensical.

This was a slow build, one that took me longer than I’d’ve liked to get into. For the first third/half of it I had it pegged as a six star (out of 10) read. But as the mystery stretched, the story dug its hooks into me, and there was an octopus introduced—it gradually ranked higher and higher. So much so that I’d class this at about an 8—quite enjoyable and entertaining, but just ever so unfeasible.

This part, however, was easy for me to peg. For as much as I appreciated the romance, it was just hard to sell as anything more than a friendship. Yes, it was plausible, but not in a way that felt very real to me. Now, this might’ve been because I’d been immersed in the plot and the romance felt like a distraction from it, or it might have been that it felt like something inane—a budding friendship that just kept pushing the bounds of belief. Whatever the case, it was mostly this that I objected to. Sure, there were a few little things in the story as well—some of the language, the flashbacks—but the science seemed on point (I’m a physicist, not a chemist), and the story was wickedly entertaining, so who am I to argue?

TL;DR

A story set around the mysterious Malak incident in Russian USSR, the Half Life of Valery K takes place in a secret Soviet city where everyone is expendable and no one is safe. Radiation has crippled the countryside and permeated its citizens. And it’s up to the scientists of City 40 to stop it from happening again. An entertaining and immersive mystery once it gets going, the Half Life features strong characters and an interesting story, if a weak romance that only really takes over on its back half—like it was added as an afterthought to everything else. With vibes of Wayward Pines and every spy thriller set in the Cold War, this was definitely a book I’ve no trouble recommending, and an author I’d very much like to see more of!

Titanshade – by Dan Stout (Review)

The Carter Archives #1

Urban Fantasy, Mystery, Detective

DAW; March 12, 2019

416 pages (ebook)
12hr 50m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

Welcome to Titanshade, an oil boomtown grown up, struggling to find its identity in a new era, lest it collapse in on itself, just another footnote on the path of history. Cater is Titanshade’s native son, a local become homicide cop, one who knows his way around the sleazy, corrupt underside of the city that makes up his beat. But the city is so much more than that, as he is soon to learn.

Looming over the sleazy, corrupt underside exist the sleazy, corrupt businessmen and politicians that run it all. Men, women, creatures Carter has known of his whole life, but were always far too high profile for him to concern himself with.

Enter the Squib—a squat, amphibian being—a political delegate involved in funding a project aimed to save the city from itself, providing alternative energy to the dwindling oil business. While such a high-profile case would normally have been above Carter’s station, it’s all-hands on deck, as the more than just the city turns its gaze to the murder. Because in addition to being a high-profile political target, the fact that the delegate was a Squib could have dire consequences to inter-species relations. See, when a Squib bleeds, it releases a highly odorous pheromone along with its cinnamon-scented blood—the combination more than enough to drive many a human mad with lust. Many such Squibs have been killed before, but none in so gruesome a fashion or so bright a spotlight.

To make matters worse, the police already have a suspect: Carter’s adopted daughter Talena, who was in the wrong place at the very wrong time. And with such a high-profile murder already filling the news, tensions between the races of Titanshade at their highest point—the pressure is on to tie everything up as quickly as possible.

And so Carter has only a short amount of time to prove Talena’s innocence, find the true killer, and do it all before the city tears itself apart. Throw in a rookie Mollenkampi (named Ajax) assigned to keep an eye on the wildcard Carter; a second Mollenkampi, Angus, who’s essentially Carter’s nemesis while still managing to be a good cop in his own right; gritty commissioner Bryyh, Carter’s boss; and the feeling even before the mystery starts, that he’s already missing something vital.

Even if he manages to pull everything together in the nick of time, Carter may still alienate everyone and everything important to him, and end up eating his gun in the process. It’s just that kind of day in Titanshade.

I’d heard good things, yet Titanshade still managed to exceed my expectations. Instead of the underwhelming mashup between a high urban fantasy and a detective/mystery, I got a thought out mystery/detective urban fantasy not unlike the Dresden Files, but one set in its own fantasy world—one with its own rules and fantastical beings and creatures and magicks. Now, this is quite an Earth-like world, but still there are key and unique differences. The different races of beings are one; Mollenkampi alongside Squibs (which are called something different that I can’t remember right now) alongside Humans alongside still others, all packed together into the same society.

Honestly, I expected this to go together a bit like the SyFy show Defiance: a unique and interesting idea, but one where all the classes of humanoids basically blend into one when you get right down to it. Instead, the author has them written and designed his creations well—with their own diets and characteristics and languages and ideals. So much so that I’ll say it again: I’m surprised that this went together so well.

The story itself is a gritty detective one, full of morally ambiguous characters and two-faced diplomats, politicians, cops, witnesses, and more. And Carter is just the gritty, hard-nosed detective to handle it. For a guy that most people seem to hate (and everyone seems to be annoyed by), Carter makes a pretty good lead. I was pretty much in his corner from the outset—though if I’d hated him too (being the sole POV), I’d’ve probably quit reading. Twists and turns affect everyone in the plot differently and this is where Carter’s interactions with his new partner, Ajax, take center stage. Carter is a hard-nose detective who’s set in his ways and doesn’t play by the rules. Ajax is a bit fresh faced, but not enough to put up with his partner’s bullshit. He bends at times, stands firm at others, but never really breaks one way or the other. This pairing actually works quite well—and makes the story.

I’d like to see where the story goes next (and if the 2nd installment is just as solid), and will hopefully get to it later in the year. While I listened to Titanshade as an audiobook—and while Books #2 & 3 are out in print—it is thus far the only book in the series that’s been professionally narrated. Not that that’s an issue. I just decided to take a wee break before switching from audio to print. I’d definitely recommend this in either format, really, but I really enjoyed the audiobook. Mikael Naramore does an excellent job bringing both Carter and the world around him to life—complete with its gritty feel and moral ambiguity. If you were after more of him, you’re in luck! I hear Book #2, Titan’s Day, is due to be recorded and/or released sometime soon; just COVID went and delayed its production. Whether or not you enjoy this via audio, print, or digitally, I’d certainly recommend its reading. Especially if you’re a fan of urban fantasy or mystery, or even gritty cop dramas.

Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Horror, Mystery

G.P. Putnam’s Sons; May 10, 2022

240 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware minor spoilers (and major spoilers—in one paragraph that’s marked as spoilery).

1980’s New England. An 11th century manuscript of untold value and much deeper worth has gone missing from haut monde boarding school Danforth Putnam, where the elite intermingle with the destitute. Sam Gregory—insurance investigator and scarred war vet—sets forth to the isle to investigate.

Upon landing Sam finds more cause for concern than just a lost manuscript. There are students missing—not that anyone seems too concerned. Danforth Putnam has an interesting system on the books to balance its aristocratic pedigree. Namely, granting orphans a full tuition at the school so long as they help out with some of the more unsavory labor, below the status of the rich and famous. The students that have gone missing, of course, belong to the lower class—motherless urchins that no one will miss. And indeed no one seems to.

But Sam is only here for the book. And while the missing students worry him—he really can’t do anything about them.

But the longer he spends at Danforth Putnam, the more Sam worries that the missing students might tie-in to the absence of the book. Confronted with wild rumors of witchcraft and murders, he must navigate the warren of gossip and lies that exist at any school, at least so long as he hopes to find the book. But Sam is tireless and ardent in his duty, which is good—for one never knows just how deep the rabbit hole might go.

“Cops know how much the book’s worth?”


Thomas Arundel sighed. “Danforth Putnam is technically in West Cabot County. Last year, West Cabot County had three murders, two dozen rapes, nearly four hundred aggravated assaults and eighteen arsons. I called about a stolen book. Trust me, Mr. Gregory, they don’t care what it’s worth. As far as anyone own that side of the Atlantic is concerned, this is an island full of spoiled rich kids with spoiled-rich-kid problems, and a stolen book, even a valuable one, fits firmly in that category.”

The story is entertaining, exciting, and immersive. The mystery itself is interesting and fast-paced, so I never had any trouble reading it. Sam Gregory is a little bit of a cliché—a Vietnam vet who uses cigarettes and a wise-ass routine to mask his PTSD, while refusing to play by the rules. Good thing he’s a PI and not a detective, or it would’ve been an unacceptable level of cliché. But I guess my tolerance for freelance or third-party gumshoes is a lot more lenient than beat cop. I actually quite enjoyed his renegade persona and sarcasm, though I still feel like it’s the default state for any 80’s cop. Don’t get me started on the reporter angle. If there are two POVs in any mystery/thriller nowadays, odds are they’re a reporter and some kinda detective.

The character development in this was about as deep and intricate as the characters themselves. As in, they weren’t. Everyone—even Sam and Harriet—were one-sided and shallow. Only one character showed anything even remotely like growth, and yet I really wouldn’t’ve called it that.

While Friend of the Devil doesn’t try anything new at the outset, the more you dig into the story, the more it threatens to exploit these clichés in unexpected ways. Overall, the story was interesting, immersive, and thrilling. An 11th century manuscript missing, a wayward teen obsessed with magic and power, missing students, terrible secrets, a plot that refused to slow down once it got rolling. And then comes the end.

And the main issue I had with it. The scene comes close to the end and is the lynchpin for everything that follows. And it’s… ridiculous. It’s clear that the author had an ending in mind, and had written up a thrilling conclusion to match, but was having trouble connecting the two. And instead of reworking one or the other—they forced it.

°°

Beware spoilers for the following paragraph
The scene in question takes place between a teenage girl and a grown man. The girl is noted as being undersized, appearing much like a twelve-year old instead of her actual sixteen. The man is described as strong, 6’3, 220, built a bit like a boxer. Additionally, the teenager has no history or interest in martial arts or dedicated exercise (yes, I know one can be physically fit without an interest in such things—that’s not the point I’m trying to make—just give me a minute here). She also suffers from none-too-rare epileptic seizures. The lynchpin exchange has her suffering a seizure just after taking the man’s hand. She proceeds to judo-throw him over her shoulder ten feet. While seizing up. No, he’s not off-balance. Yes, this is vital to the plot. If it were reversed, and it were a 200+ pound man seizing up and throwing a girl over his shoulder teen feet, I’d still be calling bullshit, so it makes perfect sense that I’m equally incensed about it the other way around.

°°

And forcing it—particularly in this manner, in this case—just doesn’t work. Like, at all. It soured me on the ending, and a bit on the plot to this point. Which just had (I’ll point out) dropped another bombshell on us, which I was still working through, deciding if it made any more sense (it DID, but only just, not that that mattered for very long). I’m not saying that this was the intent, but it just struck me as lazy: you’ve written a thrilling and entertaining story; you dropped your big twist; and now see fit to ruin it with some uncooked scenario just so you wouldn’t have to rewrite a conclusion that actually makes sense.

Two weeks out, and I still find myself looking back on the tale: the immersion of the setting, the story; the way the tense atmosphere slowly devolves into horror and terror; the mystery that’s there to solve, that has you looking one way for so long and then suddenly opening your mind to a dozen new possibilities—and then I remember the ending. And it’s mostly soured.

TL;DR

If you happened to read the entire review—welcome to the end! If you didn’t, that’s okay too, I guess. But only one of you will understand just how hard it is for me to rate this book. I mean, you’ve seen my star-rating above, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book—or around 90% of it. Around the 80% mark things started to get a little weird, but that’s to be expected with these horror titles. 9/10ths of the way down, Friend of the Devil was sailing towards an 8 star rating, with little that could derail its bright, bright future. But at the close, everything fell apart. An impossibility; a ridiculous moment that should’ve been laughed off and rewritten, but instead went down as a major plot-point, something the entire ending hinged on. And it soured everything for me. And yet… I guess I’m still going to recommend this. Maybe it won’t be as big an issue for you. Maybe you’ll be willing to overlook a few clichés, a few shallow characters, a few stumbles.

After skimming the other reviews of this, it seems I’m hardly alone in my disappointment. So, maybe… wait for it to go on sale. Or look for it at your local library. Or go in with an open mind, but temper your expectations.

The Harbor – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #3

Mystery, Nordic Noir

Gallery/Scout Press; February 22, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
9hr 38m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Scout/Gallery Books for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

He looked around and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free.

So ends the first and only clue in the disappearance of fifteen year-old Oscar Dreyer-Hoff. As clues go, this one’s shit, but Anette Werner and Jeppe Kørner are used to much worse. Odds are the missing teen is no more than a runaway, but as he’s from an influential family—one used to kidnapping and threats before—the Copenhagen Police are taking it seriously. Thus the inclusion of detectives Kørner and Werner.

But as each hour passes, and the potential for finding the boy alive grows ever more slim, the case itself changes to match. Patterns form and fade, relationships appear and vanish, and the mindset of a trouble teen slowly begins to reveal itself. But rather than helping the case, these revelations instead push the search into murkier waters still.

A possible sexual relationship between Oscar’s brother Viktor and his only real friend, Iben. A family bed. Something shared between Oscar and his teacher. A banished sister, a middle child, a shared secret. Another disappearance. A love of boating, of the water. Everyone has something to hide, everyone has something to lose—though some more than others. Clues come and go—but which relate to the disappearance and which are just there to distract? Will Kørner and Werner be able to locate the missing teen while he yet lives, or will the inevitable finally come to pass?


Eroticism has many faces.

This was an intricate, murky case set on the Øresund between Zealand and Scania, between Copenhagen and Sweden. The Sound gives the whole book an overcast, grey feel—much like the cover itself. Though not all the case and its avenues take place or have anything to do with the waters, they certainly feel like the focus for the book.

I want to make this clear up front: I really enjoyed this one. The murky, grey, confusing feel to the case, with all the clues that may or may not relate, the leads that sped off on tangents or eventually wormed their way back to the heart of it all—it all worked quite well for me. And when everything came together in the end: oh, it was magnificent! The thing is, however, that when you have a story with so many false-starts, with so much deception, it doesn’t help to add other, less… related aspects to an already twisting tale.

While I enjoyed the initial release, the Tenant, I definitely liked the second book better due in no small part to its inclusion of the detectives’ lives. Anette and her baby; Jeppe and his search for love. Both main characters return in the Harbor and once again their personal lives take center stage, but this time it’s all about love. Jeppe and Sarah have taken their relationship to the next level (Sarah has introduced her boyfriend to her daughters, Jeppe has pretty much moved in with the three), but things could be going better. Anette is having problems of her own at home, as her husband Sven hasn’t appeared interested in her anymore. And so she’s been letting her mind wander at work, envisioning sex with all kinds—colleague or suspect alike. Jeppe’s best friend Johannes returns to play a bit part, and while I loved having him (after not seeing him at all in the Butterfly House), I would’ve liked even more from him still. Well, maybe next time. The thing I still cannot fathom is Esther de Laurenti’s (and Gregor’s) inclusion. I complained about it in Book #2—as it didn’t really feel tied to any part of the story, or the main characters within—and I’m going to roast it even more now. Esther, a literature major, is consulted briefly about the opening quote, which is apparently a passage by Oscar Wilde. Full stop. Nevertheless, despite being out of the story after this brief interlude, we continue to share her POVs. In a book of false-leads and tangents, where the story toes an ever-murky line, her inclusion does little other than to distract from an already confusing story, something that is as nonsensical as it is infuriating. “So, we’re going to take a break from this twisting, confusing, but immersive case to go check in on Esther, who really has nothing to do with anything.” While I love developing more backstory on the leads, visiting their lives and seeing their problems and how it all affects their jobs—I don’t understand checking in on someone who barely relates at all to the case, to the detectives, or to the story at all.

As with other Engberg mysteries, or some Nordic Noir, don’t expect a happy ending. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t one. Just that Nordic Noir is so-named for a reason. It’s not grimdark, but it’s not “and they all lived happily ever after”. I mean, there’s certainly a conclusion—which I quite liked, in fact—and it’s definitely enjoyable to the reader, as it ties up any loose ends quite nicely, just: it might not be the happiest. Think of it as “some of them lived, some were happy, and there was some measure of after”.

TL;DR

All in all, the Harbor is probably Katrine Engberg’s most ambitious mystery to date. It’s certainly the most intricate, thrilling, and entirely plausible one. Reality aside, not every mystery can end with a mountain of corpses and a serial killer behind bars. A murky, twisting tale set out over the Øresund and its isles in the Copenhagen harbor, the Harbor chooses an already dark and overcast setting to stage its latest tale, one that replaces a world of greys with that of blues instead. And while it delves even more into the lives of its characters than any release before it, the inclusion of previous characters and their lives—which don’t seem to relate to the case at all—is a mystifying choice, and one that holds the story back from being something truly special. Because at no time during your already twisting and intricate, highly immersive investigation should you take a break to visit someone who has nothing to do with anything, and talk for a while about their lives. This aside, I’d thoroughly recommend the Harbor, and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Kørner and Werner, and where the series goes from here!

Audio Note: Once again, I loved Graeme Malcolm’s narration! It brought the story to life and helped sell the characters not just as individuals, but as part of a whole, interconnected to each other and the world around them A great read, all around. Thoroughly recommended!

Review of The Tenant (Kørner & Werner #1)

Review of the Butterfly House (Kørner & Werner #2)

Stars and Bones – by Gareth L. Powell (Review)

Stars and Bones Universe #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Titan Books; February 15, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
8hr 28m (audiobook)

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Author Website

6.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When worst came to worst, the Angel stepped in to save us. Not an actual Angel mind, but super advanced aliens that stepped in in humanity’s last hour and saved it from destruction. So, kinda an actual Angel. Something that saved humanity. Or, rather, saved the Earth from humanity.

Now, cast out upon the stars, humanity exists on a multitude of great Arkships, where everything is provided and no one is left behind—a true paradise. And so the fleet wanders, knowing that the eye of the Angels will forever remain on them, and knowing that they can never return to Earth.

Eryn is a scout pilot. Together, she and her ship, the Ferocious Ocelot, scout the edges of the Arkships’ path as they wander through space. When her sister Shay disappears while responding to an alien distress call, Eryn insists on being part of the crew to find her.

Candidate-623 is a lonely rock, but harbors something both terrifying and deadly. Something that might spell humanity’s doom should it reach the Arkships. When the crew is attacked, Eryn races to warn the fleet, all the while dreading whether or not this certain something might have followed her home…

“Holy shit,” she breathed, “You are not going to fucking believe this.”

And she was right, I didn’t. At least, not at first. Because high above the atmosphere, something vaster and older than the Earth had reached down and snatched every ICBM from the sky, every torpedo from the ocean, and every tank shell, mortar round, and bullet from every battlefield on the planet.

And is was not at all amused.

Man, this was a weird one.

First off, if you’re put off by language, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or terribly done romance—maybe skip this one, eh? Otherwise, read on.

It started out like a house on fire: an extraterrestrial attack right out of the gate that quickly transformed into a desperate race against time. That transformed into a… mystery? Whereupon suddenly introducing several new characters and plot-lines around the third- or halfway mark. The last third read a bit like the latest Star Wars movies, where they just ran with whatever thing first came to mind (despite it making little sense in the overall narrative) and made sure to add plenty of action sequences.

Beware spoilers ahead for the romance! If you want to avoid them just skip the next paragraph.

The romance was… cringeworthy. What happens between Eryn and Li isn’t so much a will-they-or-won’t-they as it is a why-is-something-going-on-i-hadn’t-noticed. What starts out as a one-night stand (or, a not-even one-night stand) in the face of a certain-death mission, slowly resolves into… nothing. There are a couple of kisses, interspersed by long gaps where Eryn looks at Li like a guest, but a stranger. Seriously, they talk only a handful of times—and it actually equates to anything meaningful once. And yet I’m supposed to believe that they’re madly in love by the end? That Eryn is so smitten with the person she routinely describes as a stranger that she actually says “I realized that I was always going to love her unconditionally and forever” at the end. Now I realize that some people can go head over heels damn quick but… were they reading the same book I was, or did I just miss something? Because this romance seems so forced it literally made me cringe, and gape when they so unexpectedly ended up in love.

In addition to a truly cringeworthy romance, the conclusion to the story was a bit of a blur. By which I mean confusing. I’m not going to get into it because of spoilers, but… I spent half of the time lost and the other half either experiencing deja vu or wondering how it’d possibly come to this point. But despite all odds when the end actually came, all my questions had been answered. As far as I could tell, all major threads had been tied up. It was extremely odd, but extremely impressive.

Yes, there was a talking cat, no, I don’t want to talk about it.

Despite it all, Stars and Bones wasn’t bad. It had a solid story, so long as you overlooked all the tangents, pseudo-parenting, and the romance (ye gods, don’t get me going on the romance again). A race against the clock as humanity faces extinction. Where Eryn must do everything she can to save the human race, despite the fact that all of it should be so, so far over her pay grade. From an action and adventure stand point: it was a decent read; there was a lot of both action and adventure. As an existential crisis: it wasn’t bad; it tackled several surprising issues like the nature of love and friendship, parenting, existence, and perseverance. As a mystery: it was crap; a bit like playing pin-the-tail while ignoring any and all hints or clues—you’re bound to get it eventually, monkeys and Shakespeare and all. As a book though… Stars and Bones was certainly a mixed bag. It had a lot of strong points, but some weak ones as well. And there was a lot to unpack.

I believe that was the biggest problem I had with Stars and Bones: its identity. This is simply a case of trying to do to much. In its bones, this was a Science Fiction/Space Opera. But with a little bit of thriller thrown in. Political thriller too. Romance, as well. Mystery. Adventure. Allegory for life. Philosophical endeavor.

TL;DR

There’s a lot to love about Stars and Bones, partly due to the fact that there’s just so much going on in it. Too much, I’d argue. A science fiction/space opera by nature, the story tries to hit up every single genre on the way from start to finish. Thriller. Romance. Mystery. Philosophy. Existentialism. The list goes on. And in the end, there was just too much going on. Stars and Bones couldn’t seem to make up its mind on what it wanted to be. And while it pulled some of these transitions off seamlessly, others it definitely didn’t. The mystery and romance, to start. But either way a number was done on the pacing; what started out as a house on fire quickly transformed to a barnburner, then an… allegory for life? A decent read, but one that I just never could get a handle on. I promise you—there’s a good story in here somewhere, even if I could never find it.

Audio Note
I suffered a few burnouts reading this. I started it only to lose interest fairly quickly. Part of this could be down to timing—early March is a busy time of year for me, then I got the flu immediately after. But then these both happened in the early part of the story, when it’s all action all the time in Eryn’s POV, and we’re just learning the fate of Earth in Haruki’s. Eventually, I picked it up as an audiobook and read it to fruition. Rebecca Norfolk did a great job—most of the time. While her reading of Eryn and most other POVs proved excellent, whenever she contrived to do an accent it… just sounded ridiculous. Frank was passable; Sheppard and Ginet were decidedly not. The AIs were night and day; the Ocelot was great, while any others were flat and emotionless, even when they seemed to be expressing emotion.