A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #1

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; May 5, 2016

390 pages (ebook)

11hr 37m (audio)

Goodreads

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

The year is 1919.

The Great War has ended. The British Empire spans the globe. Former Scotland Yard Detective Sam Wyndham has recently returned home from the continent to find the life he lived pre-war is at an end. All the friends he shipped out with are dead. As is his young wife, Sarah, to whom he was wed not two days before leaving for the war. With nowhere to turn, Sam soon finds himself in the gutter, addicted to the morphine they’d given him to dull the pain of his war wounds. After the morphine runs out, he turns to opium—a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.

A chance telegram saves Sam’s life. A few months later, Sam Wyndham sets foot on the Indian subcontinent for the first time. His new life as a Captain in the Imperial Police Force in Bengal to begin on the second of April, one day after his arrival. A week later, the body of a senior official is found in the sewer, a note in his mouth warning of a potential insurrection among the natives.

So begins an investigation that will drag Wyndham all across Kolkata (Calcutta)—from the slums packed with native Indians to the upscale mansions of the British Elite, from seedy opium dens to the jungles of the rural countryside. A son of the empire and a native son rub elbows in the Imperial Police, while an intoxicating woman split between both worlds may yet steal his heart away. From natives to expats, Wyndham must choose his allies wisely, as there’s no telling which allegiance they hold any more than whose pocket they may be in. The only certainty is that Wyndham must solve this murder and soon, before tensions between the Indians and the Empire boil over.

I stumbled upon A Rising Man while shopping for a Christmas present for my father. While I ultimately did not get him this, I ended up buying it for myself as it sounded so interesting. A historical mystery, A Rising Man does a pretty good job of transporting us to Colonial India—a melting pot of English “civility” and native “savagery”. With Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Indians, and more alike all forced together by the hands of capitalism, Colonial India feels like a caldera waiting to erupt. Abir Mukherjee does an incredible job capturing the atmosphere of the place: the tensions, the humidity, the jungle and predators and flies, the wealth and poverty all jammed together. It’s quite good.

The mystery itself toes the line between fascinating and convoluted, with so enough twists and turns that kept me on my toes throughout. While everything is a bit thick and murky at the outset, the waters eventually cleared enough for me to get a handle on everything as the mystery progressed. While I did call one major reveal very early on, it actually took me quite some time to figure out whodunnit in time for the conclusion. The pacing was a bit stop-start, but I realize that’s a tough ratio to hit, especially for a new author and in a debut series. While it’s not a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot calibre mystery, A Rising Man kept me easily entertained throughout, and guessing until the final page was turned.

One final note on A Rising Man is the issues it tackles. The story takes place at a global crossroads, where many historically rival cultures compete with one that is very heterogeneous, and used to having its own way. At the time it would’ve been one of the few places on earth with so many different cultures locked in a war against homogenization, as opposed to somewhere like Colonial America where everything seemed to just blend together (well, not everything, sadly). From bigotry to religious discrimination to who and whom its acceptable to love, the story is really set at a very interesting—if incredibly tense—time period. While it does an adequate job of addressing the tension between the English and Bengali people, I would like to see more of the region’s minorities in ethnicity and religion in later books. Additionally, I really would’ve liked to have more of a look into the caste system at this time—which is only rarely mentioned, but never focused on.

TL;DR

A Rising Man combines historical fiction with a complex and engrossing mystery with twists and turns enough to have me guessing until the very end. Though Sam Wyndham isn’t the greatest narrator, he does an adequate job of tackling both the investigation and the region’s tensions. He’s also a bit of git. But while you probably won’t buy A Rising Man for the romance or action, the mystery itself is more than enough of a reason to. All combined with a one of a kind setting that finds opulent wealth rubbing shoulders with crippling poverty and a melting pot of cultures, religions, ideals, and ethnicities, makes A Rising Man a great read, and a mystery you won’t want to put down until the last page is turned.

The Sam Wyndham series continues with A Necessary Evil, out since 2017. I can’t wait to continue this series!

Instinct – by Jason M. Hough (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Mystery

Skybound Books; April 6, 2021

336 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Skybound Books and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 602.

Actually no, scratch that.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 665.

I honestly have no idea who wrote the official blurb. Clearly, they didn’t read the book.

Officer Mary Whittaker is the town’s latest resident, and was the 666th resident when she moved two months back. A few of the more superstitious townsfolk still avoid her on the street and cast dirty looks as they mutter behind her back. Most didn’t take the omen at face value.

But perhaps they should’ve.

As the population of Silvertown begins to decline.

The story begins with a funeral. Johnny Rogers, a certified homebody falls to his death after a spontaneous midnight hike. A few weeks later, a hiker terrified of animals dies after trying to hug a bear. Then a helicopter parent ditches her toddlers to have lunch with a complete stranger.

From there, things… just get weirder. It seems as if many of the townsfolk—Mary included—have lost their survival instincts. But as Whittaker continues to dig into the investigation, a conspiracy begins to take form. One that threatens not only Silvertown, but the world itself. And it’s up to Mary to stop it.

Wow. So this one was… quite something.

Up to the 2/3 mark, I was quite invested. Instinct contains a fairly interesting mystery, with a slow build that had me wrapt up through the first big reveal. The revelation that the townsfolk were losing their instincts due to something unknown was an interesting turn, if a bit confusing. The tense and mysterious atmosphere that permeates the text through its 75% mark is nothing short of masterful, and provided me with more than enough reason to keep going even after things got a little… weird.

The main issues start around the halfway mark. Let’s begin with the first big reveal. It was too revealing. It was so obvious who was behind the conspiracy that I knew inside of the first few chapters. So when the curtain is pulled back late in the story—well, mind-blowing it was not.

My second issue was with the setting. A small and isolated town in the mountains is a picture perfect backdrop for a grassroots conspiracy, but it has to actually feel like a small, mountain town in Washington. And to me it didn’t. Now the author lives in Seattle. And I’m not sure he did enough research on the setting before he dove right in. Early on, there’s a hiker that gets mauled by a bear. Now that’s definitely strange, yeah, as bears are usually more afraid of you than you are of them. And they point this out. But mostly they focus on “What was the bear even doing here?” Bears are all over the Pacific Northwest. For one to turn up on the outskirts of a small, rural, mountain town is hardly new. But this is a big clue, apparently. And gets revisited more than once. Our town has one main street. And six-hundred odd people. Which is pointed out. But then a lone car leaves the middle of town, the townsfolk lose sight of it before it reaches the end. A majority of the tale involves roughly two dozen people, with the rest of the community conspicuously absent. In the beginning Silvertown is billed as “one of those towns where everyone knows everyone”, but by the end 95% of the townsfolk remain AWOL.

Speaking of the end, you know how in some stories there’s a lot of jumping from one outlandish conclusion to the next, only for our heroine to hatch an insane plan that probably shouldn’t work but somehow does, and then pass out only to wake up and have everything be magically solved for them. They’re patted on the back, good guys win, life back to normal. It’s done all the time. And I’m sick of it. It’s convenient, sure, but lame. Now, I’m not saying that Instinct does this, but if it did, it probably would’ve soured me on the whole ending.

The real problem with Instinct is its consistency. Now, it was pretty consistent in the first half. The second half less so. As the plot makes the turn for home however, it really goes to pieces. Previously held rules about the conspiracy are broken. It’s going to be hard to get into this with no spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s say we have a Coke. It can only be called a Soft drink so long as it has carbonation and sweetener. And it can only be called a Cola if it is a soft drink that has the proper flavorings. It can only be called a Coke if it is a cola that is made and distributed by the proper company (yes, I know these are generalizations—please bear with me). Now suppose all of these things were rules everyone adhered to. And that all the people of Silvertown prefer to drink Coke. Over everything. They’ll drink other cola, but only if there’s no Coke. They’ll even drink other soft drinks, so long as there’s neither any Coke or other colas around. Get it? Good, but in the latter half of Instinct, all we thought we knew about soda is thrown out the window. There’s a chase scene. Our heroine snags an RC out of the mini-fridge despite the fact that there’s a Coke right next to it. There’s an angry mob. Armed with pitchforks and ginger ale, the citizens storm the town—ignoring the gigantic truck full of Coke parked by the side of the road. There’s a celebration at the bar. Citizens raise mugs of beer in toast while their bottles of Coke go flat beside them.

Get the picture? While for the first half of Instinct everyone eschews Pepsi in favor of dying of thirst while in the second half people are eyeing Mr. Pib with intense longing. And in the back half people are even occasionally drinking water. The rules are forgotten, but in the end they’re back, and no one seems to notice they’d been broken at all.

TL;DR

Instinct is a tense, atmospheric mystery that quietly transforms into an interesting and thought-provoking thriller that makes your head hurt as you try to wrap it around just what it is that’s going on in Silvertown. At least, the first half is, anyway. Up to the 65% mark, I was pretty well invested in it. But wow did it ever go to pieces quick. Among the issues include an unrealistic setting, a strange pacing, a conspiracy that doesn’t really work, a cheap and disappointing ending, and an instigator so diabolically and comically evil they might as well have horns. My biggest problem was with the consistency. Instinct works, until it doesn’t. Until the rules are bent to make some of the more outlandish ideas work. Until the same rules are broken, and then reinstituted again like nothing happened. I asked for a Coke—and got a dozen raw eggs. Better in some ways, but not in others.

Book Loot – Christmas 2020 & January 2021

Didn’t get a ton of books for Christmas this year, for whatever reason. Combined with the amount I was working over the holidays and an inherent lethargy on my part, I didn’t get a haul post done for December. Not that I bought a bunch of books during Ketchup Month anyhow (nor did I get much in the way of catch-up done). So we’ll just combine December and January here.

ARCs for January

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child (1/07 UK • 1/12 US)

The second Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson spinoff features our favorite duo in the wastes of New Mexico and includes a gold cross, a mummified corpse, a missing gold mine, and a famed event in US/World history.

Doors of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (1/12)

My first Pratt book, Doors of Sleep features capital-T Traveler Zaxony Delatree, who travels to a new universe every time he falls asleep. Seriously, that’s all I needed to hear about this one to want to read it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an enemy, the fate of the multiverse, and a talking crystal.

Fable – by Adrienne Young (1/26 UK)

A title I thoroughly regretted missing in 2020 despite its mixed reviews gets a release in the UK, which allows me to score a review copy. This survival YA features 17-year-old trader Fable in a quest to find her missing father and reclaim her place at the head of his trading empire. There’s some pirates, a desert island, and a good quest—always solid.

Extraterrestrial – by Avi Loeb (1/26)

The science entry well-known astrophysicist Avi Loeb examines the possibility that the first extrasolar object that we know of to enter our solar system—’Oumuamua, which passed through in 2017—was in fact a sign of extraterrestrial life. Though it’s not a common theory in academia, it is quite the hypothesis, and one that made highly interesting read!

Purchases

I decided to re-up Audible this year, but had a few credits to use before they expire later this month. Enter a flurry of new books:

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee

Set during Colonial India, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives in Kolkata to investigate the murder of a senior crown official, whose death comes at a time of rising tensions and dissent between the empire and the colony. Taking him luxurious palaces to seedy opium dens, the mystery will test all of Wyndham’s skill set—and may just prove too much for him altogether.

Warrior of the Altaii – by Robert Jordan

Meant to be the first in a brand new series, this standalone was published posthumously in 2019. As the plains dry up, Wulfgar of the Altaii must lead his people past dangers, wizards and prophets in order to secure their future.

Trail of Lightning – by Rebecca Roanhorse

The rise of the sea has wrought an apocalypse but also somehow returned gods and daemons to once more walk the land. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter tasked with returning a missing girl to her small town. But the truth behind the girl’s disappearance may well unearth secrets better left buried—particularly those of Maggie herself.

Great North Road – by Peter F. Hamilton

What do a murdered clone, a convicted killer, and an alien monster have in common? Well, for one, they’re all featured in the blurb for this book. An absolute brick of a tome, this Hamilton novel features an investigator, wormhole tech, and maybe some aliens. It’s a lengthy one—that I’ve had on my TBR for years but has always intimidated me with its sheer size.

Gifts

Rhythm of War – by Brandon Sanderson

I’m not even going to introduce this one. It’s self-explanatory. Might take me a bit to get to what with the Stormlight reread and all—but I WILL GET THERE. And I can’t imagine it won’t be worth the wait, but I still kinda want to read it straightaway.

Made Things – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Coppelia is a street thief, one very good at making friends. But instead of flesh, some of her friends are made out of wood or steel. Their partnership is sometimes tenuous, but mostly solid. But when a threat threatens (“threat threatens”, yeah I know) their city, these friends must solve it together, or die apart. Not a huge novella fan, but Tchaikovsky is an obvious exception to that.

So, these are the swags for this January/December. As of writing this, the world is… I seriously have no words. I just… I just don’t know anymore. Anyway, lemme know if you’ve read any of these, or if there’re others I should have on my radar. Everyone keep safe and be well!

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #2

Thriller

Grand Central; January 12, 2021 (US)
Head of Zeus; January 7, 2021 (UK)

400ish pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Grand Central, Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The Scorpion’s Tail is the second in the Nora Kelly spinoff, a collaboration between the archaeologist and FBI newbie Corrie Swanson. As both are prominently linked with Special Agent Pendergast, the man still crops up from time to time, solving mysteries and annoying law enforcement.

Note: The length of the book is suspect. The ebook version claims to be 309 pages, while the hardcover is 416, and the large print is 592. Short answer: I have no IDEA how long this is.

All Sheriff Watts wanted was a day off. A nice, lonely stream; a quiet bit of fishing. What he got was a wounded looter and a mummified corpse. High Lonesome was once one of the premier gold mining towns in the West. Like most early Western mines, it busted out and was left as little more than a ruin. Due to its remote, inaccessible locale, the ghost town is pristine, rarely looted, and intact. But when Watts comes upon a mummified corpse, the ruin is about to become the site of an FBI investigation.

Enter Corrie Swanson, junior agent. She in turn enlists the help of Nora Kelly, to ID the body and determine cause of death. It’s going along well enough at first—due to the lonesome nature of High Lonesome, the pair (plus Nora’s brother, Skip) don’t have to contend with a large team or crowd of reporters—until two unexpected details come to life. The first is that the mummified man died in horrible agony—in a fetal position, skin falling off in sheets, rictus of horror plastered on his face.

The second is the solid gold, 16th century Spanish cross hidden on the corpse.

When these details emerge, they expose Kelly and Swanson to the dangerous world of looters and treasure hunters, conspiracies and cover-ups. Throw in a mystery so strange it involves the Army, the Pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan, a certain sexy sheriff, a terrible secret, and the most explosive moment in American history.

If nothing else, this will be a case neither Swanson nor Kelly will ever forget—should they live long enough to solve it.

The story of Scorpion’s Tail is a good one, for the most part. The author combo can sure spin an addictive yarn. As usual, the story, the setting, the mystery drinks you in in its early stages. And when the story really gets rolling you’re already heavily invested. I had no problem reading—again, up to a point.

The main issue (and my main complaint with the recent Preston & Child books) concerns the ensuing conspiracy theory and ridiculous leap of faith that always follows. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a conspiracy theory. They can be practical, ridiculous, and sometimes even true. The first several times can even be a fun adventure. But eventually the fun stops. Now if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, and that everyone has their own point of disillusionment. Scorpion’s Tail eventually leads me past my own. It’s… absurd. And honestly, neither terribly intricate nor well formed. On the positive side, it waits until the 2/3 mark to kick in, when I was already invested in the story. So, while it soured things, I still wanted to finish the book. Whether it does the same for you is the question.

The details—usually Preston & Child’s bread and butter—aren’t as sound in this one. From referring to Spanish Friars (Jesuits don’t have friars, and they were the choice of Colonial Spain), to cutoff words in Spanish translating to cutoff words in English, to the change in language for a few key characters at the 2/3 mark—everything seems a little less polished, a little less cared for.

The pace is as amazing as ever. The mystery begins with an action-packed opening chapter and keeps upping the ante throughout, so that there’s never a dull moment. Hiccups in the plot aside: I never had trouble reading this book. And I never thought about putting it down. So, while there may be some less than stellar action sequences, there were also those that were genuinely heart-pounding. The conspiracy theory soured my opinion, but the mystery redeemed it. The characters are a nice contrast of likable and unlikable that the authors write so well, and every character has their own history and motives. No cardboard cutouts here.

Now, let’s talk about the ending.

So, as spoiler free as possible, without getting into specifics, let’s say that there are two mysteries to solve. The former is settled through most of the book. The latter is summed up in its conclusion. The latter mystery is annoying as we’re provided almost none of the details such that I was expecting it would be the premise of the next book. But then it’s summed up and solved in but a few pages. The way this was done, the manner of it… was annoying.

Also, not all characters get resolution at the end. In fact, one of the two leads (Corrie and Nora) doesn’t. The fledgling romance is left completely in the wind, and isn’t even addressed in the conclusion. It was like: here’s the wrap-up, oh and this second mystery solved, then a brief snapshot of one character’s resolution—the end. I was on-board throughout; the leap of faith, the absurd bits, the annoying bits, the action, mystery, tension, romance—but this lost me. It was an incredibly disappointing and abrupt ending. And I really expected better.

TL;DR

Once again, Preston & Child deliver a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching thriller with an intricate mystery, fascinating location, and highly believable characters. Unfortunately, while I never had a problem reading it, Scorpion’s Tail suffers from a lack of polish, a ludicrous leap of faith, absurd conspiracy theory, and a disappointing lack of resolution for most of its characters. While there’s no denying that this is a very good ride, the final third sours what could’ve been a really good book. And the conclusion tests even that. For fans of the first, I’d still recommend Nora and Corrie’s follow-up. For fans of the Pendergast series, I’d still recommend Scorpion’s Tail as there’s no Constance. For people looking for a book to read on a plane, yeah, you could do much worse. For people who are looking for a intricate, believable, amazing, or inventive thriller—keep looking. For the bottom line: I had no trouble reading this. And while the ending was a disappointment, at the end of the day it was still a mostly good read.

The Subjugate – by Amanda Bridgeman (Review)

Salvi Brentt #1

Detective, Mystery, Cyberpunk

Angry Robot; November 6, 2018

398 pages (PB)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot) for the book! All opinions are my own.

A hardboiled detective novel with elements of cyberpunk, the Subjugate is an interesting tale of purity married with violence, crossed through with the themes of faith, deceit and redemption. It’s quite a good mystery; the crux of which hinges on the detectives’ own ability to separate the past from the present, especially when it comes to rehabilitated criminals and their supposed “redemption”.

A murder rocks the deeply religious town of Bountiful, one of their brightest young souls, Sharon Gleamer, raped and beaten before being killed and carved up. The community is beside themselves, but disbelieving that any of their number could commit such an atrocity. Instead, they point the finger at the nearby Solme Complex, a revolutionary prison where the inmates are conditioned with injections and experimental neural technology to remove their violent tendencies. And while the complex has seen nothing but success, this murder casts doubt on them. For could the town of Bountiful harbor dark secrets of its own, or are the subjugates at the Solme Complex not as reformed as they would have the world believe?

Enter Salvi Brentt, Bay Area detective. When she and her new partner, Mitch Grenville, are assigned the murder, their focus quickly lands on the subjugates at the Solme Complex. While the Complex vaunts its tech as the reason the inmates have been reformed, the detectives are not so sure. Years prior in 2040, an event known only as “the Crash” destabilized the world’s economy and nearly sent humans to war not amongst themselves, but with their very minds. Neural enhancements—technology implanted into people’s minds—were at the very heart of the trouble, but the text is very vague about the specifics. Ever since, humanity has taken a step away from neural tech—all except those at the Solme Complex. Their Halos (silver discs worn about the head) are used to slowly transform the Subjugates into Serenes. As the obvious first step, the detectives investigate the Complex, but here their investigation falters.

For not only do the inmates at the Complex seem reformed, they seem like different men entirely than those they were before. Violent and sexual offenders all, now they appear timid, demure, and serene. But appearances can be deceiving, and the past is often difficult to overcome—something Salvi knows better than most. Even as Mitch scours the Complex, Salvi herself begins to focus on the townsfolk themselves. For it wouldn’t be the first time that the heart of religion had become blackened with sin.

But as the murders escalate, the detective remain divided, quickly exposing their deepest secrets and blurring the lines between friend and foe, between purity and sin. The question remains: who committed these atrocities? And will Salvi be able to stop them while the body count is still low, or will the detectives become the next victims?

I said that I’d class this as detective fiction with cyberpunk elements, instead of a cyberpunk detective novel. The main reason for this is the world-building. Or the lack thereof. It’s not that there isn’t any—but other than the occasional visit from the police AI Riverton, or the infrequent use of other advanced tech (like the detective’s holo badges), there isn’t much mentioned. As I said before, references to the Crash are vague at best, mentioning something about neural augmentations but providing little detail. In fact, the Solme Complex seems to boast the bulk of the enhancements: and it’s really only the Halos. I would’ve liked to have seen more about the Crash, or more about the advanced technology of the world—but it just never comes up.

The mystery itself is more enjoyable. Very complex and unique. Until maybe the last quarter I had no idea who done it, and even then my guess was tentative at best. Though I ended up being right, it felt more a vindication than a disappointment when the killer(s) were revealed.

The themes of the Subjugate were more mixed. And there was no shortage of them. Though I enjoyed the battle between history and redemption, the anti-religious sentiment within got tiresome quickly. Additionally, there were more than a few absolutely cliché detective…—uh, blanking on the term—tropes? Motifs? Whatevers later on, none of which I can talk about without spoilers.

TL;DR

With a grisly murder and an unknown killer on the loose, the Subjugate starts off with a bang and rarely slows down afterwards. Right up to the end I was divided on who the killer(s) were, and absolutely enjoyed my journey there. All in all I’d recommend The Subjugate, but not without a few small caveats. One is that while the story includes cyberpunk and transhumanist elements, it is not inherently either. It’s a detective mystery-thriller first, science fiction second (not that that’s a deal-breaker, it’s just important to note). The second is that while the resolution is enjoyable, the wrap-up is entirely cliché. I was in equal parts thrilled and disgusted by the ending, but that’s just me. I look forward to how the second entry, the Sensation, handles the world, the detectives, and the story the author has built thus far.

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Novella

Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; September 22, 2020

160 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

How long does it take for a lie to unravel? How long for an empire to fall? While it might be set in motion by a single rock falling, it might take ten thousand years for all the stones to fall.

Manet is having a rather bad day.

Amanuensis to the God-King, she had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and evolving her mind into something past the point of humanity. Something approaching perfection. She remembers everything that has happened to her since arriving ashore the White Isle. She can sing, play the harp—perfectly—she can keep numbers and translate; she can serve her God—perfectly.

What Manet cannot do, however, is forget.

When a locket with a certain photo appears on her doorstep, it reveals a secret from her childhood that Manet hadn’t remembered. A secret that she just can’t forget. A secret that rips a gargantuan hole in the story of the God-King’s ascension, a story that she has taken as gospel her entire life. But when Manet goes down the rabbit-hole to follow this thread, she soon learns that doing so is a step she can never untake. But Manet will learn the truth, no matter the cost to her life—and that of the world itself.

This one was a bit of a slow build, to be honest. I actually thought of abandoning it—twice—prior to reaching the quarter mark. Glad I continued!

I could never really figure out what Age this story took place in. Some parts seemed to indicate an alchemical, maybe industrializing fantasy world, others a more science fiction, advanced dystopia. I’m pretty sure it was intended this way, however, as you’ll find out.

The story is told entirely through the viewpoints of others, with no input from Manet herself. This took some getting used to. We don’t hear (or see) what Manet has to say, what she thinks, what she knows, her wants, her desires, her dreams—not exactly, at least. At first this drove me crazy (yes, to the point where I considered stopping), but around the quarter mark something changed. And I began to read between the lines. I started to read Manet’s questions and responses in precisely how the narrator (whomever it happened to be at the time) responded. And then Manet took on a life of her own. A life, directly affected by my depiction of her.

Even though I couldn’t see her exact words, I got the gist of them—and then my imagination took hold. See, in my story she was both sarcastic and passionate. She used sarcasm to cope with her life unraveling but was passionate about discovering the truth. Once I got a feel for Manet—once my imagination began to fill in the gaps the author had left—the story took off. And I didn’t even think of abandoning it again.

While it’s possible that this was a terrible way to write a story, I’m chalking this up as an innovative idea. Now, I’m not sure it would’ve made an effective novel (being a bit vague and out there), but for a day’s read, I’d say it worked. It could certainly come across as a lazy way to tell a story, or a hard way that didn’t work; but it worked for me. And my version of Manet wouldn’t’ve been the same as everyone else’s. The main plot is written—but how you arrive there changes depending on how your opinion of who exactly Manet is. Does that make any sense?

TL;DR

Though it’s a bit of a slow build and the writing style takes some getting used to, the Seventh Perfection was one of my favorite novellas of the year thus far. With a lead that never speaks—but is only spoken to, told entirely through the words of the people she converses with—it is up to the reader to read between the lines, using hints and clues, along with their own bias and preference, to determine Manet’s very words. In my version she was passionate but sarcastic (which might tell you something about me), but in someone else’s version she might be cold and dismissive, or warm but skeptical. While the Seventh Perfection is very much something of Daniel Polansky’s creation, and he tells a complete tale—I felt something of myself in the story at the end, and I could not help but wondering where the story went from there.

Hopefully this (more or less) makes sense. If not, I guess you’ll have to read it to find out more! Or, if you’d prefer, head over to Re-Enchantment of the World to find a much more positive review, and take it from there.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill – by Sophie Hannah (Review)

The New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #4

Mystery, Historical Fiction

HarperCollins; August 20, 2020 (UK)
William Morrow; September 15, 2020 (US)

346 pages (ebook)
8 hr 54 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to HarperCollins, Willam Morrow and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

It is 1930. Hercule Poirot is traveling by coach to the illustrious Kingfisher Hill Estates when he uncovers a murderer. Prior to the tale’s start, Richard Devonport had written the famous detective and requested he come to the Estates to investigate the murder of his brother, Frank. A year previous, Frank had fallen to his death within the Devonport’s house of Little Key. The incident was ruled a murder, with Richard’s fiancée Helen as the prime suspect. Helen has been arrested and is awaiting hanging, as the authorities are convinced of her guilt. But Richard is not as convinced.

But on the coach to Kingfisher Hill, Poirot uncovers yet another mystery. A woman is convinced that she will be murdered if she sits in a certain seat. To allay her fears, the detective switches seats with her. Putting him next to a woman that later confides in him that she herself has committed a murder. But when the woman disembarks before he does, will Poirot be able to find her again? And how can he solve a murder that he knows all of the details of, yet none of them names for?

This is all before reaching Kingfisher Hill Estates, where another murder mystery awaits. One that may be connected to the hysterical woman, may be connected to the self-confessed murderer, or may be an entirely separate mystery entirely. All that is certain is that Poirot and his associate Catchpool are in for a difficult week, one that they’ll never forget.

First off, Hercule Poirot doesn’t ride in coaches. That’s a thing—look it up.

As a fan of Agatha Christie’s original Hercule Poirot, when Sophie Hannah originally revived the series, I was somewhat dubious. But as we approach the fourth book in the renewed series, I figured it was time to give it a try. By book four, Hannah has had time to fine tune her portrayal of the Belgian detective. And she does a pretty decent job of it. But as I’ve mentioned previously, there are exceptions to this.

All in all, I actually found the book enjoyable, though it took me a bit to warm up to it. This is helped quite considerably by the narrator—Julian Rhind-Tutt—who did such an incredible job as Poirot, that I had to double-check that David Suchet wasn’t actually involved. While I had issues with the depiction of Poirot himself, the mystery is really quite a good one; enjoyable, challenging, interesting, full of twists and turns. As a mystery, I’d say it’s probably a 4+ star read. As a continuation of Agatha Christie’s classic detective however—it leaves a little to be desired.

As Hastings occasionally was before him, Edward Catchpool acts as a friend and narrator for the brilliant detective—one that, while he infrequently picks up on Poirot’s hunches, is most often in the dark. It took me quite a bit of time to warm up to Catchpool enough that I didn’t find him simply exhausting. He’s a bit of a dry narrator. I mean, Hastings wasn’t exactly colorful and interesting. He was English. Old Empire English. But Catchpool seems to be a bit more of a bore, in addition to being even slower on the draw. He is frequently behind Poirot in even the most obvious of deductions, though every now and then he has his moment. It’s done this way for a reason—to make Poirot seem more impressive and amazing. But while Hastings was a captain in the British Army, he was no detective. Edward Catchpool is supposedly an Inspector of Scotland Yard, so he really should be less hopeless.

Poirot just feels different. It’s mostly little things; the bit about the coach, the perhaps inflated sense of superiority. He doesn’t mention any bit of his history beyond that of Hannah’s last novel. There’s actually little I can pinpoint exactly. Poirot seems nearly (nearly!) normal. His ego, his methods, his attention to detail, his cleanliness are all on point. Combined with Cacthpool’s dry witticisms, it’s almost like the old Poirot is back. It’s like running into an old friend, but their recollection of history is different and some of their mannerisms are wrong. But they look the same, they talk the same, and more than anything it’s good enough to have them back that you don’t want to look too closely lest you be disappointed.

TL;DR

Like an old friend you haven’t seen in years, Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot looks like you remembered, sounds like you remembered, and is more than anything a sight for sore eyes. Provided you don’t look too closely. Otherwise you’ll unearth a slightly stranger looking Poirot—one that shares much in common with his predecessor, but is subtly different. Nothing too overt here, but his mannerisms, his inflated sense of ego, his peculiarities, his knowledge of and regard for his own history—are all off. If you take the mystery as it is, it will seem an interesting, twisting, and often exciting distraction from the world. But should you look too close, you may just find a doppelgänger masquerading as an old friend. Someone that has nearly fooled you once, but won’t again.

Two Bits: Slab City Blues – by Anthony Ryan

Slab City Blues #1

Scifi, Cyberpunk, Mystery, Novella

Smashwords; April 1, 2011

35 pages (ebook)

1.9 / 5 ✪

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An early work of Anthony Ryan—I believe his first published works—are the Slab City Blues. I got an omnibus edition from the author himself; it’s taken a while for me to get around to them. However much I tend to hate on everything that isn’t Blood Song—it all could be much, much worse. But then, this is an early work. Remember that.

Welcome to the Slab, a back alley of a station where the rats and trash piles grow big but the people only get older and uglier. There’s a stranger in town, but why he’d want to visit doesn’t make sense. No one visits the Slab. But this stranger is here for a reason. He’s killing assassins, with tooth and claw.

It’s up to Inspector Alex McLeod to find him. Detective, war vet and reluctant widower. 2,199 murders in the Slab a year and only 5% go to him. If only it was so easy to let his wife go. But she’s still around, which is impressive, her being dead and all. Maybe he’ll finally be strong enough to let her go. Or maybe not. Thing is, Alex’s no saint, and he can’t do everything.

It reads like a Richard K. Morgan story, where the reader is thrown in the deep end—no explanations, no hand-holding—just the story and the action and the slang and lingo and they have to piece everything together themselves. Well, for the most part Morgan pulls it off, but Ryan fails to. Why? Possibly because his intro to the world is under a hundred pages. Like, way under. I was only just wrapping my head around everything when it ended. And it ended suddenly.

As stories go, Slab City Blues #1 wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t very good. Again, this had a lot to do with the length. Built around a hard-boiled, ex-mercenary, current detective that gets results but plays by his own rules—well, you see where this is going. Action heavy. I mean, the lead does his detective thing, a little, but it’s mostly about the action. Which is a shame. I would’ve liked to see a little more effort go into everything. The story is straightfoward: Point A to Point B, with very little in-between. And very little recap necessary. I guess that’s why half a page after we stumble onto the truth, the book ends.

I couldn’t get around to caring about the main’s relationship with his wife. She’s been dead for years and currently inhabits a simulation, which essentially is stealing her from death. For now. It’s not well explained, only that they’re fighting about it. And have been for a long time. Again, maybe if the story was longer, but whatever. I really think the author should’ve left it out, but I suppose he wanted to try to humanize his lead. But it doesn’t work. Especially since his lead isn’t human. This is just touched on briefly and then abandoned. Which, is frustrating.

Oh, and some of the language is… outdated? Like, some people are called straight “oriental” and other places where it’s “two Chinese were” doing something and… I dunno. It really could’ve been cleaned up.

TL;DR

Heavy on lingo, short on conclusions. Okay, okay, I guess we technically concluded the story. Then skipped through the bit where we tie everything together nicely and shot right to the emotional conclusion of the character’s arc. Which we did in a couple sentences. It was… it was almost as if the author ran out of time. Or couldn’t be bothered. Because who really runs out of time on a thirty page story? Especially when he took so much time setting the world up. Doesn’t take too long to read, though I’m not saying that’s a good thing. The best that I can say about Slab City Blues #1 is it’s not… horrible. It’s just not good. My copy was free, so I didn’t lose much by reading this. You can buy the first one for a buck, but I wouldn’t. Dunno whether it’s worthwhile to buy the collection, but I’ll update you after I read #2 (A Song for Madame Choi) and maybe 3. Til then, I guess.

The Hazel Wood – by Melissa Albert (Review)

The Hazel Wood #1

Fantasy, YA

Flatiron Books; January 30, 2018

356 pages (ebook)

12 hr, 11 min (audio)

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4 / 5 ✪

When Alice Proserpine was six, a strange red-haired man came to kidnap her. Now, unlike most kidnappers, he didn’t cover his face or hers. He didn’t bundle her into a van and threaten her or her mother. He didn’t demand a ransom for her, or much of anything else. He simply pulled up in an old blue Buick and asked if she’d like a ride to meet her grandmother. And Alice, being a child, said yes.

Years later, Alice still remembers the man. The way he spoke and laughed. How he’d bought her pancakes and told her the strangest stories while she ate them. How the police found them after 14 hours, and how they were amazed to hear he hadn’t mistreated her. She remembers him, and how panicked her mother, Ella, was to find her. Years later, Alice’s mother is still haunted by this event—although Alice remembers it fondly, through a haze of being young and impressionable, she reasons. It is the reason they move from town to town like drifters. The reason Alice concocts a different last name and life story each time they do. The reason that some days she awakens to find her mother up, the car packed and waiting. It—and her grandmother, Althea—is the reason they are never safe.

Alice is seventeen now, and her mother has settled down somewhat. They currently reside in New York City, where her mother has married wealthy businessman Harold. Now Alice shares a penthouse loft with him and her mother, and his daughter Audrey, a stereotypical rich, popular, snob who’s addicted to her phone and fashion. That is, until one day when Ella vanishes, and Harold throws her out at gunpoint, wild-eyed and raving nonsensically. Newly destitute and—well, more destitute than usual—desperate to find Ella, Alice turns to the only person she can: billionaire’s son Ellery Finch, and the closest thing she has to a friend. But not only is Ellery the awkward, geeky slush fund of disposable income that Alice has never wanted, he’s also the only person she has ever met who’s read “Tales from the Hinterland”, her grandmother Althea’s book, and—apparently—the reason this whole fiasco started.

A cult classic, Tales from the Hinterland is nothing but a collection of loosely-tied fairy tales, though each one featuring a strange and dark ending. Not that Alice has ever read them. But Finch has. And it’s his knowledge that may be the key for finding Ella. All Alice has to do is disregard Ella’s final message to her: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

The Hazel Wood was not at all what I expected. I mean, going into it, I didn’t know what to expect. Something about fairy tales, surely. But we really don’t get into the fairy tales until the halfway mark or so—prior to that there’re only snippets and clues. An adventure-thriller, with mystery and fantasy thrown in—the Hazel Wood defied my expectations as surely as it will your own.

It’s a great read, for the most part. What begins as a thought-provoking mystery soon becomes a heart-pounding pursuit, which itself becomes a rescue op gone wrong. It’s quite the ride, on the whole, twisting and turning plot-lines that weave and intersect so frequently that there’s never any problem reading. But in the end—which I’m totally NOT giving away—it all kinda fizzles out. Not that there isn’t any resolution. Just that it isn’t entirely satisfactory. It’s certainly lackluster. Althea, Ella, and the Hazel Wood have all been the driving factors to this point. But following the resolution, what Alice wants gets… muddied up a bit. The results of this are a bit anticlimactic, but hopefully get resolved in the next book. In fact, “The Boy Who Never Came Home”, a short told from Ellery’s POV, helps fill in some bits and pieces. This was included with the edition I read, though you may have to find it elsewhere if you get a different one. While this novella and the original story combine to create a MORE satisfactory ending, it’s still far from what I’d hoped. But as I said, hopefully the second book pulls everything together.

The setting of the Hazel Wood is spectacular. Not so much New York City, which looks and sounds like a city no matter how you spin it—once we get Upstate, or to the Hazel Wood itself, the depiction really takes a turn. It certainly reads like a dark fairy tale from that moment on, and I was left picturing a world like that of Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll which had been dipped in ink and left to absorb around the edges. A truly dark and twisted world that inspires both dreams and nightmares alike.

The characters—Alice and Finch in particular—are impressive. While none else have the depth, the attention to detail that these two command, no others are around quite as much as they are. From the relationship between the two (whatever it is), to the way it affects their actions, to the manner in which it changes over the course of the telling, I was absorbed by the way Melissa Albert uses it to strengthen her story. Though it can’t be said that individual character growth and development are nearly so strong, their mutual bond shows that such a thing can be possible [in the future].

TL;DR

The Hazel Wood was quite a read—action, adventure, mystery and enjoyable but dark fantasy all twirled into one. While I’m definitely interested in anything more Melissa Albert has to offer, the ending somewhat soured me on it, thus I did not go out and buy the next book directly upon finishing it. Where the individual character development disappointed, the twisting way in which Alice and Finch’s relationship changes more than makes up for it. The dark fairy tale setting is lovely, as the author seems to have captured the very essence of fairy tales and brought them to life, but with a dark, bloody twist. I hear a copy of the Tales of the Hinterland is in the works, and would love to read it! But until 2021, you’ll have to make do with The Night Country, which follows the Hazel Wood and hopefully ties up some loose threads. If you get to it before me, could you stop by and let me know how it is? Thank you!

Audio Note: It actually took me some time to get used to the reader, Rebecca Soler, but once I did I thought that she encapsulated Alice quite nicely. While I’d certainly recommend it (and her) for the heart-pounding moments of anticipation or the slow, methodical mysteries throughout—I’m less than sold on the fast-paced action elements. It may just be me but I found that she sorta slurs the words together a bit to get them out faster (like I do when I talk fast), and at protracted times it became more difficult to follow. Just my opinion, not a shot or anything.

The Last Smile in Sunder City – by Luke Arnold (Review)

Fetch Phillips Archives #1

Dark Fantasy, Mystery

Orbit Books; February 25, 2020

368 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the ARC!

Fetch Phillips has been called many things in his life, though few worse than those he calls himself. He was born nowhere, a settlement that was soon reduced to even less. The sole survivor of the massacre, Fetch was taken in by Weatherly—a human city that wanted nothing more than forget the magic outside its walls. And for much of his young life, Fetch tried. Tried, and failed, to forget the magic. To forget what he’d seen, what he’d heard, what fate had claimed his family. In Weatherly he had a new family, new kin, and a place that he’d never wanted. But in the end, he couldn’t escape the call of the magic—and left Weatherly behind, en route to Sunder City.

Much has happened since then. Too much, for Fetch’s reckoning. He still calls Sunder City home, eking out his living amidst the magical creatures and humans alike as a Private Eye—one available to the magic community only. Or should we say the FORMERLY magical community. For, several years after Fetch’s escape from Weatherly, the magic in Sunder—in the whole of creation—died. But the monsters remain.

Edmund Rye is a teacher at the first school for all the descendants of the formerly magical. Ogre, gnome, elven children rub elbows and play tag with goblins, kobolds, sirens, and dwarves. The professor is a delight, fully committed to his work, the future, and the students themselves. That is, until recently when Rye disappeared.

Enter Fetch Phillips, Man for Hire, contracted to find the professor and if possible return him to his duties. But the deck is stacked against him. For the professor is a member of the Blood Race—a vampire. Of course, when the magic died, the vampires lost their thirst for blood. Except that maybe, somehow, Rye’s has returned. Or maybe he’s just dead, rotting in a ditch somewhere. Phillips doesn’t care—he gets paid the same either way.

But when a young siren girl—and Rye’s prodigy—turns up missing as well, Fetch’s life complicates further. For as little as he cares about Rye, the girl has untapped potential. Something Fetch himself is fresh out of. Maybe something he never even had. And as he begins to give a damn about the case, several inopportune things happen. The ghosts from Fetch’s past begin to turn up in the present. And things that should’ve remained buried come to life. And though the magic is well and truly dead, hope is not quite gone, and neither is Fetch Phillips.

‘ Maybe nobody gets better. Maybe bad people just get worse. It’s not the bad things that make people bad, though. From what I’ve seen, we all work together in the face of adversity. Join up like brothers and work to overcome whatever big old evil wants to hold us down. The thing that kills us is the hope. Give a good man something to protect and you’ll turn him into a killer. ‘

A life without hope is no life at all, but a desperate hope is little better. For a person who has lost all hope is nothing but predictable, but a desperate person is completely unpredictable. And unpredictability begets chaos.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the fantasy debut from Black Sails actor Luke Arnold. And it is—as you may’ve guessed—a story of hope. Set in a dark but beautiful world, Sunder City is an amazing, if depressing setting. Arnold fills the pages with history and lore, both before and after the death of all magic—filling the story with a sense of desperation, and of hope.

Now where the world-building is pretty solid, the story is somewhat blah. It’s not bad exactly, just straightforward. The mystery itself wasn’t too deep or inventive, and I sometimes lost track of things when Arnold attempted to set the scene. These glimpses into the history of the world were interesting, but ultimately distracted from the plot itself. Where an open world full of side-quests may work well for an RPG, it doesn’t really work for a book. Additionally, sometimes Fetch takes unbelievable leaps in his logic, relating two or more clues that don’t appear to add up.

A deliciously dark setting, combined with a story of hope and hopelessness, make Last Smile a must-read for any fans of dark fantasy. Indeed, I found a world recently relieved of its magic to be an unique and immersive setting, particularly as the main character has his own history surrounding the event. Not only did the Coda cost the world its magic, but it cost Fetch Phillips more than a little bit of himself. The effects that the loss has on the world’s formerly magical inhabitants proved as fascinating as they were horrible, from death and disfiguration to hopelessness and despair. The effect upon mankind were much less severe, with only those few wizards and witches affected by the loss, but now humans are universally loathed for their part in the Coda. A part that you can read about in the book (I’m not giving it away).

While I’d definitely recommend the Last Smile for its world and setting, if nothing else, I must admit I had one notable issue with it. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what era this world was set in. Likely because Arnold has just made up something all on his own; a world that had little need for innovation or technology before the magic left. And yet, there’re things like phones and hospitals and automobiles and police, but no guns or radios or the like.

TL;DR

Set in a dark and dreary world newly devoid of magic, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a solid four star debut from actor Luke Arnold. While the main mystery leaves something to be desired, the journey of Fetch Phillips more than makes up for it. At times seemingly random and disoriented, this amalgamation of history, mystery and lore bespoke of heart, redemption, and—more than anything—hope. And in a world of darkness, even the smallest spark can give light to an even greater hope, no matter how unlikely it seems.

The Fetch Phillips Archives continues with Dead Man in a Ditch, due out October 6, 2020.