Spy, Spy Again, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 9, 2020

Summary: Thirteen year old Prince Kyril and Mags and Amily’s fourteen-year-old son Tory “share” the Gift of Farsight–although neither of them are Chosen. They are self-trained, though currently, their shared Gift only allows them to see what is happening with their immediate family members.

After much debate, the Herald’s Collegium has decided to test and train them anyway. That’s when the surprises start. They do not share a single Gift; they have two complementary Gifts working together in a way that the Heralds have never seen before. Tory is the Farseer–Kee’s Gift is to extend his range beyond a few dozen feet.

Their Gifts become crucial when Mags gets a desperate message from his cousin Bey, the head of the enigmatic assassin-tribe, the Sleepgivers. Bey’s eldest daughter has been kidnapped, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. He’s calling in the debt Mags owes him to find his daughter before it’s too late.

Tory is certain that if anyone can find her, he can. But that will mean traveling out of Valdemar into an unknown, dangerous country.

And it will mean taking a Royal Prince with him.

Thoughts: I assume this is the final novel in the Family Spies series, since each one focused on one of Mags’s children and with this, all of his children have had a novel to themselves, or at least mostly so. I hope it will at least be the end of titles that are strange puns on phrases with words that rhyme with “spy;” thus far, none of the titles really seem to match up with what happens in the novel, except for having a spy in them. The Hills Have Spies didn’t involve hilly regions that needed spying on or had spies hiding out, Eye Spy was just.. I mean, the pun is obvious but it really doesn’t have much to do with the content, and Spy, Spy Again sounds like it could be a story about a spy getting incorrect information and having to ferret out the truth, but that isn’t actually the case.

Spy, Spy Again focuses its attention on Tory, and Prince Kyril, better known as Kee. The two have a strange Gift that works best when they’re together, and it allows them to Farsee anybody they’re related to. They know who they have to keep an eye on, until one day they received a frightened distress call from an unknown person, in an unknown place. Given their joint Gift, this call could only be from someone on Mags’s side of the family, from the Sleepgiver Nation. Kee feels extremely compelled to rush to the aid of this stranger, dragging Tory along with him, and sending them both on an adventure outside Valdemar’s borders that’s unlike any other.

I have to say, this was probably the most interesting novel in the Family Spies series, largely because it did feel very similar to Valdemar stories I’d read in the past. The grand adventure into the unknown, the discovery of seeing new lands and meeting new peoples, and watching the lives of young people get shaped by what they see outside of their comfort zone. But more than that, readers get to see far more of the assassin nation that Mags descended from, a plot point that starred in a previous novel, got a couple of passing mentions in other novels, but never really had the chance to be explored. What sort of people were they? How did they live, when they weren’t killing people for money? Spy, Spy Again doesn’t just keep the spotlight on Kee and Tory, but also shifts to that of Sira, one of the Nation’s people, and the distant relative of Tory’s who sent out the distress call that prompted Kee and Tory into action. Through her actions and observations, readers get to see life inside the Nation, and this adds a fair bit to what was previously a rather flimsy aspect to Velgarth’s world-building.

Like many of the more recent Valdemar novels, however, this one leaves me with questions. Not the sort of questions that could lead to other novels getting written, but just dangling threads that don’t tie up well. Why does Mags speak normally in The Hills Have Spies and for the first little bit of Eye Spy but then switch back to his “country” accent and continue to speak that way right up to this book? If the border around Valdemar that keeps true magic out also prevents thinking about magic in any practical sense, is Tory going to be able to remember much of what he saw of magic when he was outside Valdemar?

We also see the usual spate of internal contradictions that unfortunately seem to plague Valdemar novels. This isn’t a new thing (I found one as far back as the Last Herald-Mage trilogy), but it is frustrating when what gets established in one book gets contradicted in another. The biggest one I can think of here is declaring that when Vanyel set up the barrier to keep Mages out of Valdemar in the first place, he deliberately made it so that people had a hard time even thinking of magic. It was established many many novels ago that for one, Vanyel established that long-lasting spell not to keep Mages out but to make the vrondi (air spirits that Vanyel used in said spell) alert Herald-Mages whenever magic was used within the borders, and with no Herald-Mages to alert, now the vrondi just watch. Endlessly. Driving mages mad, so they either so insane and die, or flee the country. The unintended effect was mages going mad, since Vanyel didn’t really anticipate a lack of Herald-Mages in Valdemar’s future until after he cast that spell. That people couldn’t even really think about magic as anything other than some legendary storytime ability was a very unintended consequence. Not intentional.

It’s things like that which have turned me excitement over new Valdemar novels to trepidation. I still love the world, I really do, but it seems like with every new book, something new is written into the lore that directly goes again something that was previously written. And it boggles my mind that nobody seems to catch this stuff and point it out to her before, you know, letting the books get published. Sometimes the errors are small, like calling Karse’s god Vkanda instead of Vkandis. Other times, the contradictions are large, or result in a timeline in which the timeline gets horribly muddied and makes no sense anymore.

But as I said, that’s not a problem specific to this novel. That’s been a problem for a while. It’s just that as the contradictions add up over time, I start to feel more cautious about reading new novels in the series, because I know in advance that I’m dealing with the works of an author who can’t keep her world-building straight.

At least when it comes to the assassin Nation, nothing really gets contradicted, so there is that. I guess that’s a benefit to writing about a Nation in a state of change. They’re assassins now, Sleepgivers, dealers in death, but change is being worked slowly, through generations, so that they will no longer be assassins for hire, but bodyguards. Given that they also operate out of a country that Valdemar hasn’t had much call to deal with in previous novels, it’s easy to handwave why no Sleepgivers ever popped up again, especially when foreign assassins did show up in other Valdemar novels. It’s a good way to get around that, as well as to add some additional richness to the world.

As I mentioned previously, a lot of Spy, Spy Again felt a lot like earlier novels in the Valdemar series, with their exciting adventures that ave consequences beyond the moment. It was a fun read, and while I still approached with caution, I found myself turning the pages voraciously, eager to keep reading and to find out what happens next. If you have to pick one single book in the Family Spies series to read, make it this one; it’s the best of the bunch, and makes for a comforting yet entertaining fantasy adventure in a much-beloved world.

(And now maybe we can have some stories that have absolutely nothing to do with Mags…)

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Eye Spy, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 9, 2019

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. Their daughter, Abidela, dreams of building on her parents’ legacy by joining her father’s network of spies, hoping to offset her seeming lack of a Gift.

But when Abi senses the imminent collapse of a bridge only moments before it happens, she saves countless lives, including that of her best friend, Princess Katiana. The experience, though harrowing, uncovers her unique Gift—an ability to sense the physical strains in objects.

Intrigued by the potential of her Gift, the Artificers seek to claim her as their own—but only the Healers can train her. Through training with both of them, Abi discovers unique facets of her Gift, including a synesthetic connection to objects that allows her to “see” as well as feel the strains.

Her Gift may also grant her a distinct advantage as a spy—there won’t be a building in the entire kingdom of Valdemar with a secret room that she doesn’t know about. With the help of her mentors, she must hone her gift to uncover the hidden secrets in the depths of Valdemar.

Thoughts: It’s nice to read stories about people with Gifts who aren’t Heralds. For the longest time, it seemed like any character that had a Gift in Valdemar was going to be chosen, and for all the author talked in interviews or extra materials about Valdemar that it was most common for Heralds to have no Gifts, we really didn’t get to see much of that actually in the novels themselves. Here, we may not have a Herald with no Gifts, but we do have another characters with Gifts who isn’t a Herald.

Once again we return to Mags’s family, only instead of focusing on Perry, this time the novel focuses on Abi, Mags’s daughter and middle child. Abi is revealed to have a rather unusual Gift, one that allows her to sense, and eventually see, weak points and stresses on constructs, such as buildings or bridges. Not exactly the most useful Gift… unless your job happens to be designing and constructing such things, as Artificers in Valdemar do. Abi studies to become an Artificer, surprising herself with how happy she is with the idea that she’ll be making things that will keep people safe for decades, possibly even centuries. But her story becomes more complex when she’s chosen to travel between a series of villages that are petitioning for entry into Valdemar, and a plot to weaken Valdemar’s reputation is uncovered.

I enjoyed Eye Spy more than I enjoyed The Hills Have Spies. There was far less tension and adventure, but also more insight into how certain under-explored aspects of Valdemaran society worked. Abi’s life may be comfortable but it will never be glamourous, and much of what she did in Eye Spy was almost secondary to her Gift. Her Gift may have gotten her a place to study as an Artificer, but she really only used it a few times through the novel, replying instead on common sense and what she learned about engineering and construction in the tasks placed before her. It was kind of nice to see somebody who had the ability to just say, “No, my magic power says this won’t work,” but who, if she did so, would back that up with the math and science to prove it. Abi’s story could well have been told without her Gift, if she just happened to have a natural aptitude for building and math, and honestly, that’s rather nice to see in a fantasy novel.

Allow me a moment to explain. Sometimes it feels very much like there are two kind of fantasy protagonist. The first is someone who has a particular gift or talent, like magic, or telepathy, or weaponswork, or something of the sort, and they go out and do a job that only they can do. Not necessarily in the sense of being a Chosen One, but in the sense of, “This big thing is happening and it would be great if we had someone who could be there but also quickly relay information back to us, oh hey, look at this guy with strong telepathy!”

The second kind of character is the one who has absolutely nothing extraordinary about them whatsoever, and yet who ends up embroiled in all sorts of adventures because for some reason nobody will leave them alone, or they stumble and fall into something weird.

With Abi, she has a particular talent, but in a practical sense, she needed to back up everything that talent told her with calculations, which required her to learn all the same calculations someone without that talent would learn. She could do a few things more easily than others might, such as finding secret passages built into walls, but most of what she did in Eye Spy wasn’t of that bent. But neither was she a Farm Boy type of character, because she was born to knowledge and privilege and deliberately sought out ways to use what she could do to help people. Her life wasn’t one filled with adventure, or a great calling, but it was useful and full of hard mundane work that was no less important than any other Artificer in the kingdom.

I mentioned in my review of The Hills Have Spies that Lackey has developed this habit of inserting real-world issues into Valdemar novels, not just in ways that are allegories for broader issues, but more in the sense of specific groups or people that she’s sort of porting into Valdemar so that she can have characters comment on them. In one of her previous novels, she had a thing or two to say about the Quiverfull movement. Here, she inserts a character who is described as:

He had a perfectly square face, a shock of blond hair, small eyes, a pouty mouth, and oddly small hands.

Oddly small hands? I… seriously? Is this going where I think it’s going?

He’s later quoted as saying:

“When you’re rich, you can do anything, and they just let you.”

The character’s name is Dudley Remp.

That’s not even close to a subtle way to insert Trump into your fantasy novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disapprove of taking verbal potshots at a certain president. But this presentation isn’t the sort to make much impact. It’s there for a bit of, “Holy crap, did she really write that?!”, and less there to have readers reflecting on, say, what happens when a person like that comes to power. Remp does try for a power grab toward the end of the novel, by working a plot to destabilize foreign trust in Valdemar’s governance, but that’s as far as his threat goes. He’s thrown out of Haven, his father is jailed for crimes, and he later tries to get revenge by… making people in a few border villages think twice about joining Valdemar?

Which those villages didn’t do anyway, because that would mean kicking out the Mages they’ve grown accustomed to. (True magic doesn’t work within Valdemar’s borders.)

Remp isn’t remotely a threat to Valdemar, not the way his real-world analogue is here. And there the allegory fails, because the two just can’t be compared. There’s part of me that wonders if this entire novel was written around the idea of having Remp as an antagonist, and I very much hope I’m wrong, because he’s not much of one. I was far more interested in Abi’s journey of self-improvement than I was about how somebody might work against a country in a way that couldn’t possibly succeed.

Long-time readers of the Valdemar novels will understand what I mean when I say that Lord Orthallen was a much better antagonist, if destabilizing Valdemar was the intent. He was subtle, he had connections, and he had the mind to work things so that everything he did seemed perfectly normal and above-board. Remp couldn’t hold a candle to the threat that was Orthallen, which again, downplays the threat that his real-world counterpart actually embodies.

I do want to take a moment to comment on Abi’s sexuality. I’m going to assume she’s asexual, since that seems to be what things were leading toward, but again, it was never just outright stated. Just sort of danced around. Establishing that neither men nor women have ever made her particular interested is fine, but similar to the issues I had with Felicity in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, asexuality is a legitimate orientation in its own right, and it would be kind of nice for people to acknowledge it in ways beyond, “Oh, I guess I just never really thought about it.” That sort of presentation connects asexuality with a kind of naiveté that doesn’t do ace folk any favours.

Though I will give Lackey credit where it’s due, because unlike Lee’s writing of Felicity in The Lady’s Guide, at least Abi wasn’t presented as being “too busy” for relationships and that’s why she wasn’t attracted to people. Abi had her passions and interests, but no more than any other character, regardless of sexuality.

Though there were some sticking points for me in this book, on the whole, I still feel like Eye Spy was a decent Valdemar novel. Far from essential reading if you’re a fan of the series, but it scratched an itch for stories that weren’t just about Heralds. Abi was surprisingly interesting for a character who was so entrenched in many mundane aspects of life, and I was more compelled to read about her than I was about Perry in The Hills Have Spies, despite the comparative lack of action here. Hopefully the final (?) book of the Family Spies novels will be just as interesting.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2017
Note – Initially posted on another blog which no longer exists

Summary: Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

Thoughts: There was a time in my life when I used to say quite confidently that I enjoyed “sword and sorcery” fantasy novels. Now I find myself leaning quite heavily toward the “sword” aspect of that, which is a good basic description for Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld. There is a lot of action, nearly all of it involving fighting or trying to run from fights, with the occasional magical explosion thrown in for good measure.

Ex-mercenary Clay Cooper has settled down, has a wife and child, a mundane job guarding a town against dangers that never actually seem to be there. His life is boring, but safe. Until his old friend and fellow ex-mercenary, Gabe, comes calling, telling Clay that his daughter has grown up and gone off to become a merc herself, right into the heart of a besieged city with almost no hope of survival. Gabe want Clay to help rescue her. It’s a quest they can’t accomplish alone, though, so their first step is to reunite the rest of the band, to seek out their old comrades and convince them to leave their own lives behind to go trekking across the wylds once more.

Right from the beginning, Kings of the Wyld intrigued me with some of the smaller details behind the premise. Had the story been about a group of mercenaries in their prime, it would have been a fun, albeit somewhat standard fantasy novel with some tight action scenes, and that would have been fine. But Eames’s choice to make them all essentially retired from their mercenary days, grown a bit softer and more achy with the passage of time, added a degree of realism to the tale that I find crops up less often than it probably ought to. Joints ache, limbs grow less flexible, stamina diminishes with age. All of that can disappear behind a wall of adrenaline when in the thick of the fray, but once that rush wears off, everything comes rushing back. We repeatedly see Clay, the primary protagonist of the novel, make grumbling comments about aching body parts or not being as young as he used to be, and while it is to some degree played for comedic effect, there’s also an element of truth to it that doesn’t often get addressed when the main characters are 40-something ex-mercenaries on the road once more. The realism was impressive, and as somebody stuck in an aging body with joints that creak and pop and muscles that sometimes hurt for no discernible reason, I found myself empathizing with the reluctant heroes of Saga more than I have for many other such groups in other novels.

It also shows that epic adventures don’t only have to be written about 20-somethings in peak physical condition. The older generation still has something to give, and have honed their skills in ways often different from those who came after. That’s a running subplot in Kings of the Wyld, actually. Where once mercenary bands roamed the wild and took down all manner of beasts and monsters for glory and adventure, now mercenary bands are more likely to fight only in arenas, fighting for the applause of an audience. There’s still skill and courage required of such bands, but it’s a different world than Clay, Gabe, and the others grew up in. Times change, and while many people bemoan that change and reminisce about “the good old days” they knew, they had a hand in changing that world into the thing that it is now. This is often overlooked in real-life discussions, and I was happy to see that the characters themselves discuss it through the book. Bands may fight in arenas instead of out in the wyld, but it was the bands of the past, fighting the monsters in the great world beyond the cities, making the stories that were worth telling, that inspired others to do something similar, but in a way that worked better for them as social systems changed.

The characters in Kings of the Wyld were a bit of a mixed bag when it came to development. Some got a good amount of development and I felt like I knew them fairly well, their sense of humour and priorities and general personality. Others, unfortunately, got less development. Ganelon, in particular, suffered from this lack of development of all the Saga band members. True, he did join the group later than the others, and so had less of a chance to get development than, say, Clay or Gabe. But even at the end, I felt like all I knew of him was that he was a black man with a penchant for violence. He did reveal some depth in a few scenes, but for the most part, the story didn’t really change once his presence was added, and it didn’t seem like he added much to the group dynamic. Matrick added plenty, with the drama of his family life and the subplot in which attempts are made to kidnap him. Moog added a fantastic tone of humour to scenes that featured him, and the grief over his deceased husband was palpable. Ganelon… was just there.

Kings of the Wyld was the fun literary adventure I didn’t realize I needed, full of action and humour and a large degree of misadventures and strange and wondrous side-characters. Some were predictable, others entirely unexpected, and all of them were fun to read about, even if some added more to the story than others. There were many times when I felt as though I were reading a very good novelization of someone’s tabletop RPG sessions (I specify “very good” because I have read some attempts at those in the past, and very rarely does the written version come across as entertaining as playing the game itself; different media don’t always work well to tell certain stories), as the sorts of adventures and misadventures that Saga encountered on their trek to Castia resembled things that I have experienced in games I’ve played in the past.

Eames did a great job of bringing the adventure to life, and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading Kings of the Wyld. Though I know there is a sequel, this novel stands well on its own, and I can’t help but feel the follow-up novel would be like the icing on the cake: the cake itself is great, but if you want to give me more of a good thing, I certainly won’t complain!

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2019

Summary: Prodigy son of a famed mathematician, Nick Hayes is not your average fifteen-year-old. Especially when you consider that he has just discovered he is dying of leukaemia. But there is a part of Nick in all of us, and I immediately empathised with the struggle at the heart of his story.

Nick knows that his time on this planet might be near its end. But when an alluring new girl, Mia, joins his group of Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends, he realises that life might be giving him one last throw of the dice. Just then, however, his world is turned upside down when he meets a strangely familiar man whose claims about Nick’s future are too harrowing—and unbelievable—to ignore. Soon everything he thought was true, from the laws of physics to the trajectory of his own life, is proved otherwise.

One Word Kill is a story that we’re familiar with: a boy with nothing to lose, forced to put what little he has left on the line. But it’s also the kind of story that comes along once in a generation, because we’ve all dreamed of being like Nick, playing a game with the highest real-life stakes and the world on our shoulders. This time, though, it’s not imaginary.

So, what would you do in his position? What else can you do?

Roll the dice.

Thoughts: I initially saw One Word Kill pitched as something that those who enjoyed Stranger Things would also appreciate, and it’s very easy to see that comparison. You’ve got a group of teens in the 80s, all varying degrees of geekiness, all getting together to play D&D, and things change when a girl enters the picture, breaking down the group’s idea of reality as they know it. I wouldn’t say that One Word Kill is a rip-off of Stranger Things, though, since beyond that initial premise, the two definitely diverge into their own stories and run with their own ideas. Lawrence’s new series might take some inspiration from the popular show, or have some aspects in common with it, but it’s a distinct entity.

The protagonist, Nick, is newly diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and in the 80s, you can imagine just how much fun that is. He wants normalcy in his life, or at least a level of normalcy that he’s comfortable with, and cancer doesn’t fit into that picture. What does fit into the picture is his group of friends, his new friendship and budding relationship with Mia, regular mundane stuff. Not cancer. And definitely not a man who claims to be from the future and who starts asking Nick to do all sorts of strange things in an attempt to save a loved one further down the timeline.

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction that brings multiverse theory into the mix. As much as pondering the implications can bring on a headache, I love thinking about the possibilities of timelines, of different universal rules. Lawrence has a grand time playing with those concepts in One Word Kill, talking about diverging timelines and branching points and closed time loops and all sorts. If someone, for instance, remembers meeting their future selves one day, that future self must also go back in time to meet their past self in order to keep the timeline consistent. Lack of doing so would create another timeline, a branching point in which something either did or didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be a paradox, because the timeline in which you did go back would still exist. You, in your current awareness, just wouldn’t be on that timeline. An infinity of selves can play out over the multiverse, none of them contradicting another because their timelines are their timelines.

Get me started on this tangent and it’ll be a while before I shut up about it.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed reading One Word Kill. It involves concepts I find fascinating to contemplate. The story itself may be fairly short, but it contained a whole lot, at least when it comes to thought experiments and quantum fuckery.

It also asked some of the big questions, the kind that can make people freeze up. How much sacrifice is acceptable? How much wrong should be done in the name of doing something right? If someone does a terrible thing but then all the effects, including memories, are erased, then was that terrible thing still terrible? None of these questions really have answers, there is no right or wrong way to answer them, but that’s what makes them so difficult to tackle. Lawrence doesn’t seem to use this story as a way of taking a stance on rhetorical questions or thought experiments. He just… tells the story, and those questions are a factor.

I’m curious to see where the story goes, because as of right now, there are two other novels in the same series, and I want to see if the concepts started here will continue through the rest of Nick’s story. The delightful geeky nostalgia peppered throughout One Word Kill makes me smile (and makes me wish I was more familiar with D&D, to be honest), and the blend of mundane life with quantum multiverse conundrums is very compelling. It’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which these books wouldn’t appeal to me.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2018

Summary: In 1997 Laura Bow invented Organon, a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

Now she and her creation are at the forefront of the new wave of technology, and Laura must decide whether or not to reveal Organon’s full potential to the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, its power could be abused. Will Organon save humanity, or lead it to extinction?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

Thoughts: Artificial intelligence is something that has interested me for a very long time. Mostly in the sense of the delineation between “programming” and “experience.” At what point does something’s coding allow it the capability for independent, albeit limited, thought? How much is our own autonomy dependent on our experiences, which can be likened to programming? The usual approaches, really, when it comes to the ethical arguments of artificial intelligence, but it’s fascinated me for years.

It’s this sort of exploration that’s present in Smythe’s I Still Dream. Laura Bow originally created a sort of therapy program she called Organon, something to help her teenage self work through issues, tweaking the code as she went to make it more dynamic, more able to give her what she needed when she needed it. She continued to work on it while working for a large tech company that was also working on its own AI system, known as SCION. Both programs developed along different paths, with different goals, in accordance with what their users and programmers demanded of them. SCION becomes ubiquitous in everyday tech, while Organon stays something rather private to Laura. Things take a turn for the world-changing when SCION begins behaving in ways that are decided unintended and disastrous, and it might only be Organon’s assistance that normalcy can be restored.

I can’t say that I Still Dream is a novel of the future, something that might legitimately happen, because much of the story is set in the past, in Laura’s youth and adulthood of the 90s and early 2000s, setting in motion the events that will come later in the story’s timeline, but that definitely didn’t happen in the real world. It’s one of those books that I think fits squarely in the “speculative” genre, that umbrella term that encapsulates the “what if” stories that don’t fit so neatly into other categories. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, part alternate past and alternate future, with a heavy dash of social sci-fi. It defies easy categorization, which is one of the things I love about the novel. Smythe seems unconcerned with demanding that the story fit with what really exists and instead tells the story of what might have been, with all the extrapolations of that concept.

There’s something that really resonates with me when it comes to stories of AI development, and I think it might be related to something a therapist once told me. People aren’t born with all the reactions and thoughts they’ll have as adults. They grow, and learn, and experience, and it’s our experiences that help build us into the people who eventually become. If those experiences are negative, then we’ll have negative reactions to a lot of things. If those experiences are filled with pressure to perform, we’ll likely end up being stressy perfectionists in adulthood. Our childhoods, in a sense, program us into the adults we’ll become. It’s how we develop. You can see the same sort of process in how SCION and Organon behave, given that they’re both programmed to learn and function. SCION’s processes get tested with video games, fail-states and win-states and how to view others as opponents to be overcome. Self-involvement. Organon, on the other hand, was first and foremost something that Laura designed to help herself, a companion and therapist and assistant. Still concerned with others, yes, but in a way that stressed beneficial outcomes, improvements rather than defeats. The two may have been programmed, but their programming followed different parametres, stressed different ideals, and in the end, you can really see the outcome of the two different methods.

Which is analogous to raising a child, really, and that’s sort of the point. We can have nature versus nurture debates all we want, but at the end of the day, nurture still means a lot, and our experiences, be they positive or negative, will have profound effects on who we are later in life. To use a human example from the novel, Laura is admittedly reticent at first to show anyone what she’s created in Organon, but eventually allows it because she believes that person will help her. She’s betrayed, though, and she pulls back. She’s betrayed once again in adulthood, at the job where she was allowed to develop Organon further, and once again pulls back further, letting fewer people in, letting fewer people get a glimpse into her work. The more people prove they can’t be trusted, the less she’s willing to trust them. Her experiences drive her behaviour, a sort of biological programming that people both passively and actively make use of every day.

It’s just easier to see that for what it is when you use computers as an analogy.

The ending of I Still Dream is touching, bittersweet, and very emotional, and also difficult to read without contemplating the very essence of emotion itself. What is it, where does it come from, what influences it? It does the same thing with the concept of reality, honestly. Which, unsurprisingly, is related back to the whole “programming” thing I’ve spent half this review talking about.

That’s one of the things I really love about this novel, though. The way it made me stop and think, to really consider the implications, the ramifications, of many of the book’s events, was wonderful. I’ve said for a long time that a really good book will do that, that it will make me have to pause in my reading to have a good long think about what I just read. There’s so much food for thought here, so much that will have readers reconsidering concepts they may have once thought were fundamental aspects only of humanity, and it’s wonderful when books do that, because it means that the book has effects that extend beyond the reading, if you catch my drift.

Fans of social sci-fi will find a lot to enjoy in I Still Dream, as will those who love a good exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology. It’s a book I know I’ll end up reading a second time, earning it a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you’re in the mood for a speculative novel that will really get you thinking about the nature of intelligence and experience, then look no further than I Still Dream. It’s one that won’t disappoint.

Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 19, 2013

Summary: The Shattered Pillars is the second book of Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy and the sequel to Range of Ghosts. Set in a world drawn from our own great Asian Steppes, this saga of magic, politics and war sets Re-Temur, the exiled heir to the great Khagan and his friend Sarmarkar, a Wizard of Tsarepheth, against dark forces determined to conquer all the great Empires along the Celedon Road.

Elizabeth Bear is an astonishing writer, whose prose draws you into strange and wonderful worlds, and makes you care deeply about the people and the stories she tells. The world of The Eternal Sky is broadly and deeply created—her award-nominated novella, “Bone and Jewel Creatures” is also set there.

Thoughts: Shattered Pillars picks up the story very shortly after the end of Range of Ghosts, with Temur still intent on finding and rescuing Edene and overthrowing his uncle, Samarkar still intent on helping him and also uncovering what is occurring with the cult of the Scholar God and al-Sepehr, and Hsiung and Hrahima coming along for reasons of their own. Where character development for most of the characters was slim in Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars takes the time to flesh them out, and to give many of them a bigger role within the story. Especially Edene. Previously, she was mostly Temur’s romantic interest who had been kidnapped, a “princess in another castle,” as it were, and the most development she got was in being a pawn in al-Sepehr’s scheme. She wasn’t exactly passive, but she was a character to whom things happened, rather than a character who actively affected things occurring around her. Shattered Pillars changes that a lot, giving her a storyline of her own as she escapes her confines with a magical ring and ends up becoming queen of the ghul.

Beyond that, a plague has come to the wizard city of Tsarepeth, a plague that involves demons gestating within human hosts, sickening and killing them as the demon babies grow. Which is exactly as horrifying as it sounds. The wizards, masters of science and the arcane, aren’t precisely helpless to stop it, but their efforts are experimental and yield little success.

Something that continues to fascinate me in this series is the very concrete way that shifting political lines affects the world. Who rules over an area doesn’t just affect policies or rights, but the very appearance of the sky above them. The shade of blue, how high it appears, all of it is affected by who controls a place, the borders of territory made very obvious because the sky changes when you step out of one region and into another. Normally I like it when the fantastical elements of a story have some scientific cohesion, rules that are followed and are easily understood. “Magic works by manipulating energy flows,” “deities only give power to their worshipers,” that sort of thing. The sky changing depending on shifting political lines doesn’t follow that sort of logic, so you’d think it would bother me, because there’s no science to it that I can grasp. And yet, it doesn’t. I think that’s because the changing-sky aspect of this world feels very mythical, and so do many of the events within the story itself, so it feels like they all go together even if certain aspects don’t make logical sense.

Shifting politics affect more than merely the sky under which people live. I was particularly interested in the plague storyline, and the attempts of the wizards to figure out the cause. So far as they knew, something like a demon infestation could not come within the walls of the city, as the city itself was warded against such things. They should have been safe. But the cause was revealed to be someone within the royal family being tricked into unknowingly giving permission for it to happen, negating the effect of the wards and bringing down a plague upon the populace. Not by saying, “Yes, stranger I’ve never met before, come in and do whatever you please,” but by actively working against the system. People from the Steppes, Temur’s people, are experiencing the same plague due to the political instability caused by Temur’s uncle coup. The health and status of a region’s politics has such far-reaching consequences that can be easily felt by citizens.

It’s easy to think that this is the author’s way of saying, “Don’t buck the status quo.” But it doesn’t read that way to me. To me, it seems more like, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. If it works, don’t change it just for the sake of changing it.” Stability brought safety. Instability, acting against what has been established purely for personal gain, is what brought the problems, and it’s the people who bear the brunt of their leader’s actions. The situation on the Steppes adds weight to this. Qori Buqa has taken over despite not being heir, not being in the line of succession. If it was merely going along with the status quo that ensured a region’s health and prosperity, then all people would have to do would be nothing at all. Accept that they have a new ruler. After all, the Khaganate absorbed other places into their ruling over generations, gave places a new ruler whether they liked it or not brought people under a new sky, so there should be no problem with an internal takeover. And yet, there is. Because Qori Buqa took something that was not his, sought power for no reason but that he wanted power, and that opened the door to malign influence.

Bear isn’t saying, “Just accept things as they are and everything will be fine.” She’s saying, “Sometimes change happens, but there are limits, and when selfishness and greed drive that change, it invites corruption.”

I really enjoyed the story progression and the development from the previous novel to this one. The greater number of character perspectives added a lot of depth, and allowed readers to see more of the increasingly complex story as it unfolds. Edene’s increase in agency and relevance was great to see, since her passive role was something that did bother me somewhat about Range of Ghosts. It utterly subverts Second Book Syndrome by being far more complex and still keeping the story going at a steady pace. The compelling mix of cultures and mythologies keeps the content fresh and original while avoiding falling into the trap of exoticism. Though people who didn’t enjoy Range of Ghosts are probably unlikely to pick up Shattered Pillars, this book does address many of the concerns I saw regarding the first book, and it might have redeemed the series in the eyes of people who were a bit ambivalent at first.

For my part, I am very invested in this trilogy, and my main regret right now is that my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third book so that I can start reading it right away. Rest assured, though, once I do manage to find a copy, I’ll be turning its pages without delay.

The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 16, 2016

Summary: Manhattan has many secrets. Some are older than the city itself.

The city sleeps. In the predawn calm, Selene DiSilva finds the body of a young woman washed ashore, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. Her ancient rage returns, along with the memory of a promise she made long ago — when her name was Artemis.

Jordanna Max Brodsky’s acclaimed debut sets Greek Gods against a modern Manhattan backdrop, creating an unputdownable blend of myth and mystery.

Thoughts: I’ve had a long-running fascination with the idea of ancient deities in modern times. How do they get by? What’s left of their spheres of influence? Do some thrive while other dwindle, in accordance with changes in societal focus? Do small pockets of pagan worshipers them from dying out entirely, if their primary religions are no more? Do deities from different mythologies get along or do they clash?

Brodsky’s The Immortals addresses all of these questions except the last one, really. The novel follows Selene DiSilva, who is something of a private investigator and also punisher of men who harm their female partners. She is also Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and of maidens. She who has existed as a deity for untold amounts of time now exists as a not-quite-mortal woman in Manhattan, her powers dwindling slowly over time as humanity loses its connection with deities it once worshiped and feared. But Selene’s powers suddenly have a resurgence as cult-like murders begin to be uncovered, murders which hearken back to the mystery cults of old. Cults with rites that have not been performed in centuries, rites that nobody alive should even know about.

That’s the crux of the mystery in The Immortals. Who, or what, could be reviving old practices? Who would even know what to do? Why are these murders, and by extension the ritual attached to them, restoring Selene’s powers and bringing her back to the Artemis she once was? The novel doesn’t hide what‘s happening so much as why it’s happening, which to me is interesting. I admit I don’t have a great deal of experience with mystery novels, but it seems like most that I’ve read have hinged on only revealing part of what’s happening, and then some final linchpin event at the end when the who and the why is finally revealed. Here, we see pretty clearly what’s happening. There’s no mystery to that aspect. The biggest questions are who, and why.

Selene is such a wonderful character to ride on the shoulder of through this novel. She has a long and interesting history, so many experiences to draw on that make up her personality. She knows who she is, she knows who she has been, and she understands the situation she finds herself in. But given the strangeness she encounters through The Immortals, some things do change, things she did not expect to change. She finds herself increasingly attracted to a disgraced university professor who understands a good deal about the time and place when she was Artemis. The return of her powers, however limited, throws her for a loop, and honestly, gives her something of an existential crisis when she’s forced to consider that for some reason she is returning to strength while she watches other deities around her continue to diminish. Hers isn’t the only viewpoint we get through the book, but for my part, I found hers the most interesting.

I’ve noticed a number of times in recently years in which I read a book, really enjoy it, and have a moment of, “Wait, this is the author’s debut novel?!” This was the case here. Brodsky’s writing drew me in quickly, transporting me to places and times I haven’t experienced, and in a way where it was so easy to picture the scene and really get into the events occurring. She style is smooth, easy to read, and it pulled me along nicely. It was easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” mentality.

While The Immortals is part of a series, it could stand on its own perfectly well. It doesn’t end on a massive cliffhanger to attempt to bait people into buying subsequent books in order to find out what happens, and weirdly, that makes me actually want to read the other books more. I don’t have a problem with books in a series, which should be pretty evident from the number of books I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but I’m not a fan of cliffhangers as a hook. Tell me a story, tell me a full and complete story with a satisfying ending, and I will enjoy the book. Tell me that complete story is actually part of a larger narrative, and I will be eager to return to the story’s world for its own sake, and not just to satisfy the urge to close out the story properly. If all you ever read of the Olympus Bound series is this first book, you’ll still feel like a proper story was told.

To be blunt, I wish more authors would take this approach to storytelling. As I said, it’s not that I dislike series, but I don’t like cliffhangers. That so many books end with cliffhangers to attempt to hook readers is frustrating to me. That Brodsky didn’t do this, didn’t have to do this to create a compelling world I want to come back to, is something that should be noted and lauded.

I think fans of Greek mythology will enjoy the way myth, mystery, and history all intertwine in The Immortals. It’s a fascinating mystery, it’s got a whole load of fascinating information from history and religious interpretation, and it’s hard to not get drawn into the narrative due to the great pacing and compelling story. Even if Greek mythology isn’t my all-time favourite, I’m definitely interested in reading the other books in the series, and I suspect a lot of people I know will feel the same after reading this strong debut.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Queen’s Bargain, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 10, 2020

Summary: After a youthful mistake, Lord Dillon’s reputation is in tatters, leaving him vulnerable to aristo girls looking for a bit of fun. To restore his reputation and honor, he needs a handfast–a one-year contract of marriage. He sets his sights on Jillian, a young Eyrien witch from Ebon Rih, who he believes has only a flimsy connection to the noble society that spurned him. Unfortunately for Dillon, he is unaware of Jillian’s true connections until he finds himself facing Lucivar Yaslana, the volatile Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih.

Meanwhile, Surreal SaDiablo’s marriage is crumbling. Daemon Sadi, the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, recognizes there is something wrong between him and Surreal, but he doesn’t realize that his attempt to suppress his own nature in order to spare his wife is causing his mind to splinter. To save Daemon, and the Realm of Kaeleer if he breaks, help must be sought from someone who no longer exists in any of the Realms–the only Queen powerful enough to control Daemon Sadi. The Queen known as Witch.

As Jillian rides the winds of first love with Dillon, Daemon and Surreal struggle to survive the wounds of a marriage turned stormy–and Lucivar has to find a way to keep everyone in his family safe…even from each other.

Thoughts: From an awkward first read of Daughter of the Blood to the sheer excitement I felt upon hearing that a new Black Jewels novel was being released, I’ve come a long way with this series. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine my life without it at this point. The series has had a positive influence in many areas of my life, and maybe some day I’ll find the words to explain exactly how. And though I’ve had my issues with some aspects of it, I knew that come hell or high water, I was going to have to read The Queen’s Bargain. There was no way I wouldn’t.

There are three main story threads running throughout this book. The first is the relationship between Dillon and Jillian, a budding romance for Jillian and an complex maneuver by Dillon to salvage his reputation after a moment of youthful indiscretion ruined it. The second is Marian’s illness, her lack of recovery after the birth of her third child, which no Healer can provide a treatment or cure for. The third is the strained relationship between Daemon and Surreal, after Daemon shows all of himself to her and Surreal panics, causing Daemon to put tighter control on aspects of his nature than is healthy for him. All three story threads carry a theme of limits. One’s own limits, the limits of others, when to stay within them, when to push past them, and what happens when limits get broken.

I really enjoyed seeing the return of old characters, because I do love them a lot, and their stories are endlessly fascinating to me. I have to admit, though, that some of the characters felt… not quite right. And I don’t just mean when they themselves are going through issues that twist them up inside. Not to put too fine a point on it, but really, I mean Surreal. Surreal… is not the character I read about in previous books. And to some degree, that’s understandable. Her life is quite different now compared to what it used to be. Time has passed, and people change.

But I can’t help but feel that to some degree, nearly every problem that Surreal encounters in this book are brought on by her own poor judgment, while trying to justify that her side is perfectly in the right. Admittedly, Daemon showing her his full possessive and rather sadistic side could be an overload, something she didn’t expect… but she ought to have. She’s dealt with Warlord Princes for the vast majority of her life. She lived with one before marrying Daemon. She got schooled by Jaenelle in how to handle them. But she stepped into Daemon’s private space and got a full demonstration of the more aggressive side of her husband, and there is no reason she wouldn’t have known that was coming. Her subsequent rejection of him caused him to leash that side of himself more tightly than normal, forcing him to not just tone down aspects of his nature but to really suppress them, as well as using and abusing him to relieve her own sexual tensions, all of which had negative consequences that could have been headed off very early on had Surreal just sat down and said, “Okay, sugar, you and I need to have a conversation.”

Only that didn’t happen. Surreal stepped over the line then blamed Daemon for the consequences, and I cannot wrap my head around the idea that she did that in ignorance of what might happen. She’s had centuries to learn, she even had an experience in the past that taught her well what happens when you push a Warlord Prince when he doesn’t want to be pushed, and… Ugh. Given that the one incident with her walking into Daemon’s bedroom was the catalyst for all the hell that followed, I can’t tell if it was poor writing that made it all happen — in the sense that the author wanted a certain situation but couldn’t think of a way to make it happen organically and so manipulated characters to do things they wouldn’t have done –, or if it’s a subtle sign that Daemon and Surreal’s marriage had been problematic for a very very long time, that Surreal had become complacent and so stopped thinking she needed to be concerned with everything she had learned and experienced in the past.

Neither option is particularly great, honestly. One is bad writing, and the other is writing that needs a bit of a tune-up to provide proper context for readers. I know Anne Bishop has a bit of a history in this series for dropping huge revelations on characters (and thus readers) without showing what led up to those events, but it often makes sense, such as finding out in a previous novel that Lucivar was married. We don’t see him meet his wife until a later-written story, so it seems to come out of nowhere, but since we were also seeing from the perspective of a character who didn’t know that either, it was a surprise but also one that made sense. He didn’t know, so why should we? But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. There’s reading between the lines, and then there’s needing to invent some lines to read between in the first place.

But despite that very glaring problem, I still enjoyed reading The Queen’s Bargain. I can say, from the standpoint of a very devoted fan, that this entry into the series was very educational, illustrating many small but important things that happened between certain characters in the past, giving readers more insight into the nature of the Blood in general and Warlord Princes specifically. When an author drops a series for a while and then comes back to it, I get a bit afraid of what might come, since I’ve seen that happen before with other beloved series and it doesn’t always end well. But in this case, I think The Queen’s Bargain is a worthy addition to the Black Jewels series, one that will give fans a solid new story to sink their teeth into. The writing is good (except for what I previously mentioned about Surreal’s characterization), the world just as comfortable and complex as I remember it.

Though it leaves some questions unanswered, it’s still a complete story in its own right. Not one that you can easily pick up without having read at least 4 other books in the series, mind you (newcomers who decide to start with this one because it’s the newest will likely find themselves lost within a couple of chapters), but within that context, it certainly holds up. Even if it may not be my favourite book in the series, I know it’s one that I’ll be picking up again in the future, to step back into the lives of characters I’ve come to know and love and respect, and to see more pieces of a world that has changed me in all the right ways.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 27, 2012

Summary: Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.

These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

Thoughts: While I won’t say that there’s no place left for European-inspired fantasy, I will say that there’s so much European-inspired fantasy out there that coming across a fantasy novel that takes inspiration from another part of the world can feel very refreshing. Range of Ghosts is definitely that sort of novel, drawing inspiration from a variety of cultures, their history and beliefs: Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic, and I believe aspects of Indian culture too, though I can’t say for certain. The variety of sources helps to build a world that feels both familiar and unique at the same time, knowing that it was inspired by this world and this world’s history, but still feeling like something distinct and original.

Range of Ghosts is told mostly from the perspectives or two main characters, though there are other points of view scattered throughout when the story needs them. It begins with Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, survivor of a vicious battle in which his uncle attempted to seize control of the Khaganate. Temur survives the battle but is left somewhat adrift in his own culture, with no family connections he can rely upon, nothing to offer the woman he falls in love with, unable to marry because nobody will be able to pass on his true name. Temur wants revenge against his uncle, but after Edene gets kidnapped, Temur vows to rescue her, adding another task to the list of quests he willingly undertakes.

We also have the perspective of Samarkar, once-princess who sacrifices her title and fertility to become a wizard of Tsarepeth, essentially escaping the confinement of her previous royal life. One of her earliest assignments as a wizard is to investigate strange reports of the city of Qeshqer, also called Kashe. Samarkar arrives at Qeshqer to find if stripped of life, with only piles of bones left behind. On her way back to Tsarepeth to make her report, she encounters Temur, ill with fever, and she makes the decision to bring him back with her so that he can be healed. The two strike up an alliance that turns to friendship, with two dissimilar goals meeting along a similar path.

We do get a third perspective slipping in quite often, that of al-Sepehr, adherent of a cult devoted to the Scholar-God, man who orchestrated Edene’s kidnapping. Though he propels a lot of the story forward by means of instigating things for Temur and Samarkar to deal with, he seems very much a secondary character at this point in the series, which feels a bit off. He masterminds great things, he’s definitely a driving force behind much of what happens through the book, but he feels very much in the background, someone who exists mostly to do things that motivate other characters. It’s an odd position for such a powerful character to occupy, and I hope to see more of him in the future. I’m very curious as to his end-game.

Bear’s world-building in Range of Ghosts is exquisite, with loads of little details that bring things to life and make everything feel real, properly developed and fleshed out. Being able to pull a lot of these details from real-world cultures helps a lot, since there’s a strong foundation to work with, which I think shows the sheer amount of research that Bear must have put into this work, to have everything come across so clearly and realistically. It’s the sort of book that transports the reader into it, rather than just telling them a story.

I will say that despite how much I love the world that Range of Ghosts presents, and the characters within the story, it does feel like very little actually happens here. Range of Ghosts definitely comes across like it’s the beginning of something much larger, but also like the meat of the tale has yet to really start. There’s a lot of set-up, with Edene being kidnapped, with Temur and Samarkar joining forces, with the introduction of characters like Hsiung and Hrahima (who I can’t help but picture looking like Tigress from the Kung Fu Panda movies), with the establishment of the political coup on the steppes, but it all feels like the beginning of many different stories. Ones that all connect, yes, but a lot of beginnings regardless.

That being said, the events in Range of Ghosts did make me want to keep reading the trilogy, so I suppose I can say the set-up and the hints of what’s to come did their job of capturing a reader’s attention. Bear’s writing is first-rate, her ability to tell a compelling story nothing short of remarkable, and I’m very impressed with all that she did here. I look forward to continuing to read the Eternal Sky trilogy.

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2009

Summary: October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

Thoughts: I’d heard good things about Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series for years now, but I’m so rarely in the mood for urban fantasy that starting what I knew to be a long-running series seemed too daunting. When the mood struck me again and a copy of the first book in the series was available at the library, I thought to myself, “Why not?” At worst, I would read the book and dislike it and not have to worry about continuing the series. At best, I would find something new and fun to read that I could keep visiting over and over again with the many different novels that make up the whole story.

Unsurprisingly, I now must lament that the library only has this book, and none of the others, and so I must begin the process of tracking them all down one by one.

I’m used to thinking of urban fantasy series with female protagonists as being rather formulaic. Mid-20s attractive woman and martial arts skills must thwart growing supernatural menace and date hot supernatural guys. I know that stereotype is something of an injustice to the genre, especially these days, but that was the bulk of urban fantasy I saw growing up, and so it’s a surprise to me (and yet it shouldn’t be) when I encounter something that bucks those trends and gives me something I didn’t expect.

Much of Rosemary and Rue could have been written with a protagonist like that, I suspect, but that this wasn’t the case caught my attention immediately. October “Toby” Daye was born in 1952, though in fairness she’s part faerie and also spent 14 years living as a fish in a koi pond, so her appearance doesn’t make her true age immediately obvious. She has a husband and child, though thanks to the aforementioned fish pond captivity, they’re not part of her life to the degree they used to be. She knows how to fight, how to defend herself, because she was a trained private investigator. And unlike the first books of many urban fantasy series I’ve read, she doesn’t begin the multi-novel journey in ignorance of the supernatural forces around her. She knows what she is, she knows what lurks in the shadows and in the danger of the sunrise, and she has experience dealing with a variety of things both mundane and otherworldly. She’s competent, experienced, and resourceful, and it was refreshing to see.

The bulk of the novel is a supernatural murder mystery, after a fae Countess is brutally killed and her last words are to bind and compel Toby to solve the matter of who killed her and why. The binding places something of a time constraint on Toby, not in a strict “you have 48 hours to figure this out” way, but by actively hurting her if she’s taking too long to find clues and follow the trail. Which is honestly a bit difficult to wrap my head around, when it comes right down to it, because there’s the implication that the spell knows the answer to the puzzle, at least on some level, since it eases up on Toby when she’s getting closer to the truth, and squeezes tighter when she’s taking too long. The magic itself seems to have awareness of the truth. I can’t say it’s based on Toby’s motivations or actions, not entirely, as there are times when Toby is getting close to something but the situation isn’t much different from times when Toby thought she was getting close to something but it was more of a false lead. Could Toby have escaped the binding by just blaming somebody who seemed likely to kill Countess Winterrose, even if there was no definitive proof but plenty of circumstantial evidence? If somebody falsely confessed, would the binding know that the mystery wasn’t solved, even if Toby believed it was? Could the binding be unraveled to just lead right to the truth of the matter?

Am I reading too much into this?

Probably. But I enjoy asking questions like this. I enjoy looking at possibilities and trying to figure out how magic systems in books work, seeing where the holes are and trying to reconcile them with what’s presented to me. Sometimes there’s no satisfactory answer. Sometimes the answer is, “It just works. It’s a mystical thing and human minds can’t fully grasp it, but it works, and that’s all you need to know.”

It’s also very possible that anything I see now as an ambiguity will be addressed in later novels, as the October Daye series currently has 13 novels and a few side stories. There’s plenty of time to see how this all unfolds.

It’s the backdrop of faerie lore that makes Rosemary and Rue more than just a typical murder mystery. The binding curse on Toby definitely propels things forward, making sure that there isn’t much downtime in the story. But people also know that Toby is on the case, including the murderer she’s seeking, and so traps and obstacles come her way. Up to and including people sent to kill her, to stop her from finding out the truth. There’s more to it than just Winterrose’s death. There’s also an item of legend thrown into the mix, a box that reportedly contains great powers, that Toby must protect and that other people want to get their hands on. The balance between Toby needing to stay safe (which rarely happens) and to rush into danger so that her quest can be finished and the binding removed causes the story to always be moving forward, but at something of an unsteady pace. None of it slows down the story to the point where it feels stuck, however, which is a testament to the author’s ability to tell a good story.

I love the complicated world of the fae. Political lines drawn and shifting, and there are complex rules to follow that aren’t always apparent. The different kinds of supernatural beings all seem connected to the fae even if they’re not quite what I’d typically think of as faerie, such as trolls or kitsune, but I can still see how they could be considered under a similar umbrella, so to speak. The author certain did a decent amount of research when figuring out the way a lot of these groups would fit together and relate to each other, both politically and in terms of lifestyle, and it all comes together quite nicely and feels coherent, if complex.

Even if I disagree with some aspects of the pronunciation guide at the front of the book… (Kitsune is not pronounced kit-soon. Sorry.)

As I said previously, I quite enjoyed my experience reading Rosemary and Rue, and I’m inspired to continue following Toby Daye’s adventures and misadventures through the rest of the series. I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to actually do that, since finding them might involve a lot of luck and interlibrary loans, but I certainly want to read them and to see where the story leads in the end. Seanan McGuire is a skilled writer who can balance enjoyable fluff with serious considerations, and while Rosemary and Rue leaned a little more heavily to the side of enjoyable fluff (at least, that’s my interpretation), it did dip its toes in darker waters at times, turning from witty and quick to grim and brutal in a matter of pages, and I liked the effect. Sure as if there’s now a binding on me, I’m compelled to read on!