Barb Caffrey

Musician, writer, editor, composer . . . AN ELFY ON THE LOOSE, A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE, and CHANGING FACES are available now. Also, four stories of my late husband Michael B. Caffrey are available -- three are military SF, one is romantic fantasy/alternate history.

Homepage: http://elfyverse.wordpress.com

Michael Z. Williamson’s “Freehold” — The Story that Started it All…

Long-time readers of Shiny Book Review are most likely aware of Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold series, particularly because of Jason’s reviews of ROGUEDO UNTO OTHERS and WHEN DIPLOMACY FAILS. But what about the novel that actually started this whole series in the first place, FREEHOLD? The one that’s spawned several sequels and prequels and has been wildly popular has never been reviewed at SBR . . .

Until now.

You might be asking, “So, Barb. Why are you reviewing this instead of Jason?”

Well, it’s simple. I asked Jason if I could do it. He said, “Sure. Why not?” So here we are.

 FREEHOLD is the story of Sergeant Kendra Pacelli, an honest soldier in the armed forces of the United Nations. But her higher-ups have implicated her in an embezzlement scheme, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll be able to prove her innocence to anyone.

As Kendra is no fool, she quickly decides that she’s not going to stick around to be framed for anything. After a few harrowing adventures, she decides to flee to the only place that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UN — the Freehold of Grainne. And the way she gets the Freeholders’ attention is by forcing her way into their Embassy on Earth to ask for asylum.

Fortunately for her, the Freeholders appreciate good soldiers and decide to grant her request. But the Freehold of Grainne is much different from Earth, Kendra is warned; for one, she will have to start off life in the Freehold as an indentured servant of sorts as the Freehold does not grant free passage even to political refugees. (Perhaps especially not to political refugees.)

Over time, Kendra gets slowly acclimated to the Freehold and its culture. She pays off her debt and meets two interesting people, Rob McKay, a pilot and reserve officer in the Freehold Military Forces, and Marta Hernandez, a high-end escort (a respectable profession, in the Freehold) and also a reserve soldier, and forms a tripartite relationship with the pair of them. And eventually, she, too, becomes a soldier for the FMF . . . just in time for the war with Earth to break out.

Because of course there has to be a war with Earth, doesn’t there? Earth’s society, in Williamson’s conception, has gone so far toward socialism and its society overall has become so debased and corrupt that a war with the Freeholders — capitalists who believe in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and nothing else — must be inevitable.

Williamson skillfully renders all of the military planning that’s going on in the FMF to try to avoid the worst of it, then when those actions fail, the actions of the individual soldiers in the FMF to rally the countryside and fight an insurgency against the UN.

And Kendra, as an honest soldier for the FMF, is in the thick of the fighting every step of the way. Because she is in a unique position, the reader gets to see many different sides of this conflict. As an immigrant, she loves the Freehold and doesn’t want to give it up, but knows that there are many good soldiers fighting on behalf of the UN despite the stupidity and moral vapidity of the UN’s titular leadership (she should; she used to be one of them). But some of what she does while fighting for the FMF during the insurgency is deeply disturbing, including psychological warfare and worst of all, torture.

Kendra doesn’t like doing this, mind. It appalls her. But the Freehold has been invaded, and she has to do her part to throw the invaders — the UN — back out again. So she’ll do anything it takes, anything at all, to get rid of them.

I’ve deliberately skipped over much of the plot, partly because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading pleasure, partly because I’d rather talk about something else. Namely, the structure of this novel.

Most debut novels are not as well-structured as FREEHOLD. Everything Williamson does at the beginning is mirrored at the end, and there are references throughout that seem like throwaway lines that will reward the patient reader down the line.

That said, I also have one main criticism of FREEHOLD. I didn’t see anywhere near enough internal monologue from Kendra. Most of the time, I had no idea what she was feeling until I’d read the whole section, gone back to read it again several times, and then grasped that Williamson was showing Kendra’s reactions through other people (usually Rob or Marta). I’d much rather have seen a 60/40 mix of internal monologue/showing reactions through others as it would’ve strengthened the overall emotional impact.

Bottom line: FREEHOLD’s military action and “fish out of water” storyline with Kendra acclimatizing to the very different society of Grainne was enjoyable, and I appreciated the strength of Williamson’s world building and how he structured his novel. But I wanted much more of an emotional reaction from Kendra, and didn’t get it.

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: “Digital Disconnect” and “The Word Exchange”

Today’s 2-for-1 special features two books that discuss the future of the Internet in two different ways. One, THE WORD EXCHANGE by Alena Graedon, is fiction; the other, DIGITAL DISCONNECT: HOW CAPITALISM IS TURNING THE INTERNET AGAINST DEMOCRACY by Robert W. McChesney is non-fiction. But both cover many of the same themes, and discuss many of the same problems.

In a nutshell, both books warn of the problems of too much information going to the wrong people. Whether it’s words or ideas or political campaigns, the fact remains that when privately held corporations know too much about us — whether it’s Graedon’s mega-corporation Synchronic, or McChesney’s take on Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook (to name only a few) — our choices get taken away. And life as we know it gets that much more difficult.

We begin with McChesney’s DIGITAL DISCONNECT, which is a frightening, yet plausible tale about what could be the future of the Internet. McChesney starts out with a brief history of the Internet, including the halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s, where users could do anything online and not be tracked by mega-corporations like Google, Facebook, etc. The people who came of age back then believed that the Internet could be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (OK, I’m misquoting, but it’s apt); the Internet was supposed to be an open-sourced forum that was free from corporate misrule. And knowledge was supposed to be paramount, so everyone could educate themselves as they saw fit.

But that idyllic vision turned into the rough-and-tumble 2000s and beyond. Corporations like Google and Facebook, which were unknown in the 1980s and 1990s (or much lesser presences, at best), started to collect all sorts of data on the people who used their services — without oversight of any sort. And while they said they were not putting people’s names with all this data collection, after a while it gets fairly easy to match names with data.

Then, couple all of that knowledge with the fact that it’s now legal in the United States and much of the civilized world for companies to watch what you’re doing online. So if you go to, say, the New York Times, there are many companies that are observing what articles you click on and are trying to figure out why you wanted to read those particular articles rather than, say, the newest stuff about Kim Kardashian West.

That means the range of information that’s available, over time, is harder to come by. Advertisers have started steering people to content, more so than ever before, and due to the collapse of journalism in the United States, it gets harder and harder to sort the wheat from the chaff — the truth from the falsehood, as it were — while many Americans don’t seem to realize just how much information these monolithic corporations actually have.

Granted, McChesney’s take has been described as liberal, even partisan, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. McChesney discusses many things from the perspective of freedom of information — and the freedom of a person to hold his or her own information without the “help” of various corporations.

The final part of McChesney’s narrative discusses what could happen when the next “smart devices” come onto the market. For example, a “smart” refrigerator can tell you when you need to buy some milk, which seems innocuous enough. But it also tells whoever and whatever is gathering that data that you like milk, which means corporations can send you more milk coupons (harmless), send you more advertising with milk in it (less so), or even start telling you about how you’re not a child, so you shouldn’t really drink cow’s milk any more and should drink the super-expensive coconut milk (which is flat-out wrong).

And that’s not all. Because your “smart” refrigerator’s contents would no longer be your own private affair. The fact that you like chocolate mousse at three a.m. would not be a surprise to anyone (possibly harmless); the fact that you have a sweet tooth might actually cause your health insurance premiums to go up (detrimental and flat-out wrong).

You see, who controls the information when everything is available online? And where is the oversight?

McChesney is right when he says this is deeply worrisome. And he’s also right that if the flow of information can be disrupted entirely — whether it’s by Verizon, Comcast, Sprint, or any of the other telecommunications giants — we’ll have a less informed populace, which leads to a less informed democracy almost by definition.

DIGITAL DISCONNECT is a spirited, entertaining, educational book that everyone should read. There are parts of it you will not agree with, even if you are an ardent liberal; there are parts of it you will absolutely agree with, even if you are an ardent conservative. And that’s because the issue of who controls the flow of information is the most important debate we’re not having.

Now, why do I think THE WORD EXCHANGE, Graedon’s fictional tale of word flu and Memes (souped-up smartphones with seemingly all-encompassing power), has anything to do with DIGITAL DISCONNECT? It’s simple: here, we have a tale of technology that has gone way too far and has fulfilled McChesney’s dystopian vision of the future.

In Graedon’s conception, very few people actually read any more. They instead use Memes, and will look up any word they’re not familiar with. While this seems benign, what would happen if one corporation, Synchronic, decided to put nonsense words into people’s Meme feeds and charge money for looking up the meanings? Because people apparently don’t have any memory any longer, apart from these Memes . . . they can’t remember the definitions of hardly anything.

Synchronic starts their reign of terror slowly, by first changing the meanings of well-known words to see if they can get away with it. (We know this mostly because of subtext, but it’s there.) When they realize no one except a bare, literate few have twigged to this, they start adding more and more nonsense words to the lexicon in order to get the fee every time users look up these nonsensical words.

But their actions backfire spectacularly, causing the word flu — aphasia mixed with a physical virus. Very few have any immunity to this excepting academics who read more than one language or people who write e-mails or journals or actual books, which means the word flu is immediately devastating to the world economy.

While I didn’t totally buy the idea that aphasia can also transmit as a harmful virus, I liked Graedon’s conception quite a bit. Her take on power and who controls it is frightening. Synchronic, through their ever-present Meme devices, knows everything there is to know about everyone with the exception of people trying to stay off the grid. And those are vanishingly rare in Graedon’s version of the near-future, because everyone wants to be connected to the Internet via the Memes, and almost no one recognizes the dangers of this.

Ultimately, Graedon’s world fights back against the word flu, Synchronic is vastly reduced, and people realize the dangers of the Memes. But it takes a long time to get there, and I never once believed in any of the characters, only in what they were doing. (Don’t get me started on “heroine” Anana, a woman I considered far too dumb to live, or we’ll be here all night. And why Bart, an academician with a formidable intellect, would ever like Anana was completely off-putting.)

Bottom line: DIGITAL DISCONNECT and THE WORD EXCHANGE have many of the same themes. But one thing is clear: Whoever and whatever controls the medium controls the message, and both authors have clearly understood the costs of that in their disparate ways.

Grades:

DIGITAL DISCONNECT: A-plus.

THE WORD EXCHANGE: B

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Sherry Thomas’s “The Bride of Larkspear”

It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review, so you all know what that means…it’s time for a new review, this time of Sherry Thomas’s erotic novella The Bride of Larkspear. This is written for adult readers, and is a bit sexier than I usually read, but I was willing to take a chance due to liking all of Thomas’s other work. It’s also a companion piece to Thomas’s TEMPTING THE BRIDE (reviewed here), and as such, many of the same plot elements exist in both stories.

The Bride of LarkspearBecause it is a companion piece, The Bride of Larkspear has to be discussed in the context of TEMPTING THE BRIDE. The hero of TEMPTING, David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, has loved publisher Helena Fitzhugh for a long time. But it’s an unrequited love, mostly because David’s one of those guys who just doesn’t seem to know how to approach a woman, much less the woman he’s loved his entire life. So instead of being kind to her, asking about her interests, her inner feelings, or even trying to go out with her, he insults her. Repeatedly.

Mind, Helena is not a shrinking violet living a blameless life. Instead, she’s been seeing a married man and insists that no one else will do. Even if David were different and knew how to properly approach her, it’s likely he still wouldn’t be heard. That’s fueled his bitterness.

You have to know all that before the plot of The Bride of Larkspear makes any sense, as this is a book David wrote (sub rosa) to express his feelings for Helena on the night of their future wedding. Because of all his pent-up rage and frustration (in all senses), David’s titular hero Lord Larkspear starts the novella by tying up his new bride and insisting on her submission. He doesn’t say he loves her; he just says he desires her, and that he’ll make her submit…or else.

This was not an appealing beginning.

So why did I go on? Two reasons. One, I have liked everything Sherry Thomas has written. And two, I knew that David (AKA Lord Larkspear) truly loved Helena in this fantasy of his. Or I’d have stopped reading right away.

But I’m glad I didn’t.

Larkspear, you see, is a closet romantic. He’s a well-intentioned guy with a good heart, and he desperately desires a woman who has no interest in him. Yet if she could see him for who he was, he’s sure they could build a life together. (Of course, this being an erotic novella, he’s also sure that he can satisfy her like no one else. That’s part of the price of admission.)

He’s right that he’s a better fit for “Lady Larkspear” (AKA Helena) than anyone else. He’s also right that if she just got to know him without all the pre-conceived notions he’s set into motion (all those stupid things he said), she would like him.

In that context, the erotic content amounts to window dressing.

That said, this is written from a man’s perspective. He’s a generous lover, yes, and he wants to please his partner. But at the beginning, he’s talking about what he wants — not what he wants to do with or for her. And he’s doing that to provoke some sort of reaction from her, even if it’s just revulsion.**

This means the way he approaches sex is much more direct than you often see in romances — erotic or otherwise — that are written for the female audience. It also means that some of the sexual fantasies he’s having (as this is all one sexual fantasy, in essence) are not particularly realistic.

However, it does make sense in the context of “Larkspear’s” time that he’d have exactly these types of fantasies, plausible or no. (See FANNY HILL if you don’t believe me.)

If you’ll forgive one spoiler — one of the reasons I was able to appreciate The Bride of Larkspear is because Lady Larkspear ultimately says that Lord Larkspear also must submit to her. And within the context of a marriage, I have no issues with that, even if the way toward this mutual submission isn’t exactly to my taste.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the romance but I did not think some of the sexual situations were realistic. That said, it’s a nice companion piece to TEMPTING THE BRIDE, and I’m willing to recommend it to readers of adult/erotic e-books.

Grade: B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Note: I’m dancing around exactly what he says and does mostly because I know we have pre-teen readers. I know when I was that age, I could handle the idea of sex, I understood there were many ways to please someone else (as I’d taken sex education), but it was ultimately embarrassing and somewhat distasteful to think about at the time. (Now, not so much.)

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The Wait is Over — Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s Long-Awaited “Spiral Path” is Out!

It’s been a few weeks in between reviews here at Shiny Book Review (or as we affectionately call it, SBR); this is mostly because life has interfered. But having to wait for a review may just prove beneficial after all, as we have the best news imaginable for any reader of fantasy: The third book in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s acclaimed Night Calls series — the long-awaited SPIRAL PATH — is now out! (Note that NIGHT CALLS was reviewed here, while KINDRED RITES was reviewed here.)

In the previous books in the Night Calls series, we met Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson, a practitioner — and student — of magic. Allie grew up on a farmstead in an alternate version of 18th Century America, so she has tons of practical skills and is resourceful and intelligent, seeming much older than her actual years. (When Allie actually started her training, she was the ripe, old age of eleven.)

Along the way, Allie has faced a number of problems: a were-wolf. A soul-sucking vampire of an unusual type. Healing the sick, comforting the aged, and birthing a number of babies. She’s also met Azrael, the Angel of Death, and has been given a name by him — Alfreda Golden-Tongue — and appears to have more power than the average five other practitioners.

However, she doesn’t seem to know this. At all. So while she does a number of things that surprise the older (and presumably wiser) magicians around her, she also can get tripped up by the oddest and most ordinary of things because she’s just not all that experienced. (Which is what makes her human and worth rooting for . . . but I digress.)

Onto the story.

SPIRAL PATH opens with an unusual set of births. One is that of Allie’s much-younger sister, Elizabeth, who promises to be a force to be reckoned with down the line (we can tell this by the highly unusual things that happen during the birthing); the other is that of a unicorn. While Elizabeth’s birth is straightforward, the unicorn’s is not; in fact, the unicorn’s mama bespells Allie to help her rather than just ask, for reasons that probably make sense only to unicorns.

It’s because of what the unicorn mama does that Allie is packed off to a first-rate magical school in the state of New York in order to learn how to better protect herself by the use of ritual magic. Because the next person (or unicorn, or whatever) who bespells Allie may not be benign . . . and Allie knows it.

Of course, Allie isn’t told this is a first-rate school. She’s only told she’d better learn, and quickly, because her talents need honing.

So she’s tested in various classes, taking lessons in some while teaching others, and has a number of interesting adventures — including one on the docks of old New York that I refuse to spoil.

All of Allie’s adventures (not just the one in the port of New York) are rousing.  And the quieter challenges Allie faces of being a farmgirl among some rather high-in-the-instep types at the specialty school are equally absorbing. But the best moments are those between Allie and her almost-boyfriend, fellow practitioner/student Shaw Kristinsson. (I say “almost” because Allie is, after all, only thirteen.) These interpersonal moments show Allie at her best — which, oddly enough, is also when Allie is just like anyone else: a bit shy with her friend, who she wants someday to be more than a friend . . . but still herself, with joy and sorrow intermixed as it is for any living creature.

It’s because of these moments that I seriously considered holding this review for SBR’s Romance Saturday promotion. But SPIRAL PATH, all in all, is more than a romance: it’s all about finding yourself, even if the person you are consists of layers within layers without end . . . a spiral path indeed.

Bottom line: SPIRAL PATH was most definitely worth the wait, and is a worthy addition to the outstanding Night Calls series.

More, please, and soon!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Victoria Alexander’s Latest “Scandalous” Adventure

It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review! So what could be better than a frothy little Victorian Era English romance by Victoria Alexander?

 THE SCANDALOUS ADVENTURES OF THE SISTER OF THE BRIDE stars Delilah, Lady Hargate, and American entrepreneur Simon Russell. Delilah, a widow, is attending the wedding of her sister Camille (note that Camille’s story was reviewed here), and so is Simon, who just so happens to be an eligible bachelor — and friend of the groom, to boot.

So what’s the problem? Well, Delilah and Simon shared one night of passion a few years prior to this wedding and didn’t tell anyone about it for obvious reasons. Making matters more dicey yet is the fact that both Delilah and Simon did their best to blur the lines of who they really were — Simon didn’t talk about his business doings, while Delilah simply called herself “Mrs. Hargate” and passed herself off as her sister’s long-suffering chaperone.

Now, they’re supposedly meeting each other for the first time, and sparks fly — but are flying for all the wrong reasons. Simon is angry that Delilah didn’t tell him that she’s a member of the nobility, and presumably wealthy in her own right, while Delilah is angry that Simon led her to believe that his business doings were far less than they actually are — and that Simon didn’t even tell her that he was a good friend of her sister Camille’s intended, Gray.

While Delilah’s extended family continues to be befuddled by Delilah’s seeming antipathy to Simon, Gray actually figures out that Simon and Delilah must know one another no matter what they’re saying. But, of course, he’s in the midst of planning his wedding to Camille. As Camille is a Bridezilla of the first water, Gray mostly stays above the fray and makes only a few, mild comments here and there.

Simon’s purpose in England isn’t just to attend Gray and Camille’s wedding, mind. He’s also there to look into “horseless carriages” — the ancestor of today’s modern automobiles — as there’s some interesting experimentation going on with Karl Benz (yes, the same Benz from the famous auto brand Mercedes-Benz), and now some French and English investors have decided to get involved as well. All of this is historically accurate, and it is sensible that Simon, who in our terms might be considered a venture capitalist, would take a liking to the various automotive prototypes available in the very late 1880s/early 1890s.

However, Delilah is a sensible kind of gal, and she does not like the idea of motor cars. They are dangerous. They belch toxic fumes — a lot. They barely work. And their steering apparatus (much less their primitive brakes) are no match for a competent horseman driving a traditional coach-and-four.

At any rate, the sexual spark is very strong between Delilah and Simon, so as you’d expect, they don’t refrain from sexual activity despite their strong disagreement about the merits of motor cars. But they try to keep the fact they’re sleeping with one another to themselves . . . and that doesn’t work too well.

Complicating things further, Delilah has a problem with her finances. Her late husband, Lord Hargate, wanted Delilah to remarry within two years. Her two years are nearly up, and because of that, she’s been cut off without a penny from Hargate’s fortune even though he had no known heirs at the time of his death besides herself.

Delilah comes to realize that she loves Simon — granted, she has to be dragged to this realization kicking and screaming, but still — but she refuses to marry for money. Instead, she’d rather drive Simon away . . . so she gets her second cousin to step in and pretend to be interested in Delilah so Simon won’t marry her out of pity.

So, will these two get together, or won’t they? (Hint, hint: bet on the happy ending. In fact, bet large.) And will the rest of the family be able to bear with Camille as she continues her “Bridezilla from Hell” routine? You’ll have to read the book to figure these things out, but you’ll mostly enjoy every minute of it.

Now, why did I say “mostly?” It’s simple. There’s some really poor editing here, which is unusual in a mass market romance. I saw numerous sentences with twenty-five or more words in them with zero commas.

Yes, I said zero.

This is something that’s hard to overlook for three reasons:

  1. To be accurate for the period, commas are needed to set off clauses. The Victorians were much bigger sticklers than I am about proper punctuation, so if you’re going to evoke the Victorian Era, you need to keep this in mind.
  2. It is nearly impossible to read a twenty-five word sentence (or longer) without commas. So for ease of reading alone, commas should’ve been inserted . . . but they weren’t.
  3. This particular romance had a big budget behind it and should’ve had proper editing as a matter of course. Why this book was so poorly edited is both inexplicable and inexcusable.

Look. I have dinged numerous self-published and small press novels for poor editing. So it’s only fair that I ding a big publisher — in this case, Zebra Books — for its own poor editing.

Because of the vagaries of the editing — almost nonexistent in spots — an otherwise A-minus read must be downgraded by one full letter grade to a B-minus.

Bottom line? This is a good, frothy romance with several laugh-out-loud moments. I liked the characters and believed the automobile subplot was plausible. But the editing was absolutely appalling — and I can’t pretend it wasn’t.

Recommendation: Get this one as an e-book, and hope the editing for the e-book edition is better by far than the mass market paperback.

Grade: B-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill’s “Victories”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! So what could be better than a little YA romance coupled with suspense and neo-Arthurian myth?

VICTORIES, the fourth and final book of the Shadow Grail series by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, again takes up where book three, SACRIFICES, left off. (Books one and two were reviewed here.) Muirin is dead, but her friends Spirit White (pictured on the cover), Spirit’s boyfriend Burke Hallows, and their BFFs Addie Lake and Lachlann “Loch” Spears are on the run from the evil Shadow Knights. They now know for certain that the head of Oakhurst Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is not just evil, but is actually Mordred . . . and he’s been around since the fall of Camelot.

Why is this important? Well, Mordred was imprisoned in an oak tree for millenia, and only “woke up” as himself in the 1970s, only to then “borrow” a body from a biker for his own, personal use. Ever since, has been using his magic to recreate the conditions of Camelot — but on his terms.

And Ambrosius/Mordred knows very little about the modern world, despite the technology he and his school have been using throughout. Which is much more of a problem than it seems — but I’ll get back to that momentarily.

Anyway, Spirit and her friends end up being guided by the mysterious QUERCUS to a deserted missile silo out in the middle of nowhere. A strange woman, who seems to know them somehow, helps them get down into the silo, where food and rest awaits. Then, after they sleep the sleep of the truly exhausted (or maybe the just, I don’t know), they find out from this woman that QUERCUS wants to talk . . . via the very old computer equipment in the silo, which uses extremely old technology that has to warm up for quite some time to be used — but is still operational.

So far, so good. The story is told with breathless abandon, and the technology is explained enough that it passes and sounds logical, as it’s conceivable that this silo would be both abandoned and discounted by Mordred.

But QUERCUS gives Spirit some very bad news. He is the Merlin — yes, that Merlin — and he now exists solely as a computer program. Because of this, he’s been able to warn her and her friends . . . but because he no longer has corporeal form, nor any way to regain it (as he won’t do what Mordred did as it’s the blackest of black magic — possession), he cannot fight the Shadow Knights or Mordred directly. All he can do at this point is advise.

Making matters worse yet, Spirit finds out for certain that she and all of her friends — including the departed Muirin — are “Reincarnates” — that is, people who lived during the time of Camelot and have reincarnated at this time in place in order to fight Mordred one, last time.

In fact, Spirit was once Guinevere — the sword Spirit is carrying is actually Guin’s, in fact — and Burke was King Arthur. Addie was once the Lady of the Lake, famed for her healing abilities, and Loch — well, he was Lancelot. (I had hoped he’d be Sir Gawain, personally. Ah, well.)

And all of that is important, too, because these four must find something called “the Four Hallows” — four talismans of great power — in order to invoke their prior memories as these fabled people. Because they cannot beat Mordred if they stay the way they are, even with their magic . . . and they must beat Mordred, as Mordred’s idea of “winning” starts with all-out war and goes downhill from there.

Worst of all, because Mordred didn’t live through the Cold War (much; one assumes he wasn’t paying much attention after he “borrowed” the biker’s body he’s been using), Mordred has no fear of a nuclear holocaust. But his own Shadow Knights — those who fought on Mordred’s side back in the day, who have been reincarnated in our time and were awakened by Mordred — definitely do.

Which may give Spirit and the others an opening . . . (further reviewer sayeth about the plot — at least not yet).

There’s a lot to like about VICTORIES. It’s a rip-roaring action-adventure with some mild romance, a good amount of mystery and magic, and a believable fight against the darkest evil magician ever created for the highest of stakes — life itself. I loved the good characters, hated the evil ones, and wanted good to win out — all fine and dandy.

That said, because the book went by so fast, I missed some of the characterization I’d so adored in the previous three books. I like Spirit, Burke, Addie, and Loch, you see — but I wasn’t overly fond of Guinevere, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Sir Lancelot. And while I liked how they faded in and out of focus — that is a very tough trick to pull off, having one soul with two full sets of memories in one body, and I give Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill full “props” for doing so — I mostly got annoyed whenever Guin, Arthur, etc., showed up to talk in “High Forsoothly” (what Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill called the more formal Renaissance-sounding English constructions, something that amused me very much).

Another thing that frustrated me a tad was the nature of Spirit and Burke”s romance. These two love each other in a somewhat chaste teenage way, which is sensible considering the context. (Who wants to make out in front of your two best friends in such close quarters?) But finding out these two had been married, and had many remembrances of being with each other as full adults, was a little tough for me to handle. I kept thinking that if I were Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, I’d want to steal away to some little grotto somewhere and just get it on — using proper safe-sex practices, of course — as these two supposedly had a legendary romance. And as Spirit and Burke were sometimes also Guin and Arthur, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why they didn’t do that.

Maybe it’s a good thing that this element didn’t come into play, mind. This is a series meant for tweens and teens. Too much sexual activity would’ve perhaps taken the focus away from all of that action-adventure. But finding out some information through pillow-talk between Guin and Arthur would’ve been extremely interesting; having Burke and Spirit have to deal with the aftermath of that also would’ve been quite riveting.

The reason this is only a minor quibble, though, is because Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill clearly set it up that Guin and Arthur’s marriage was more one of state than one of love. (Which would be accurate for the times they lived in, granted. Damned few people married for love back then.) They were great friends, yes. And they cared about each other deeply. But there was actually more romance between Spirit and Burke in this time than there seems to have been between Guin and Arthur.

The other teensy issue I had with VICTORIES is that the ending goes by too fast. (Spoiler alert! Turn away now. You have been warned.) I wanted to see Mordred suffer, and I wanted to see our four heroes be able to luxuriate in the victory while thinking about how terrible it is that Muirin didn’t live to see the day — and while I got a little of the latter, I just didn’t get anywhere near enough of the former to suit me.

Bottom line? This is a nice evocation of the Arthurian mythos for the 21st Century Millenial crowd, and I enjoyed it very much. But it doesn’t stand alone — please read LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, and SACRIFICES first.

Grades:

VICTORIES — B-plus.

Shadow Grail series — A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Spirit Me Away” — Fast, Fun Mystery

Aaron Paul Lazar’s latest mystery in his long-running Gus LeGarde mystery series is SPIRIT ME AWAY. The time is 1969, the place is (mostly) Boston, Gus and his newlywed wife Elsbeth are college music students, and they encounter a strange, yet hauntingly beautiful young woman named Valerie — just Valerie — who’s lost her memory and most of her belongings, and is in need of a family, stat.

Now, Gus and Elsbeth may be young, but they have strong familial instincts. Because of them, they can’t leave her at a hospital and forget about her, as many would . . . besides, Gus has a talent for solving mysteries, and the mystery of just who Valerie is won’t let him go.

So Gus and Elsbeth bring Valerie into their lives, and into their apartment. They feed her, nurture her, and try to figure out who she is and where she came from. They want her to find her family, if she has one; until then, they will be her family.

Besides, it’s not as if they don’t already have a family of sorts around them already. There’s Byron, a black British tenor from the music school, a love ’em and leave ’em type; Lana, a sexy young Latina whose job as a “waitress” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; and Porter, a young Vietnam vet Elspeth works with. The first two are Gus and Elsbeth’s roommates, while Porter seems to be a frequent visitor.

All five of them take a solid interest in Valerie, because she truly needs the help. And over time, they find out about just enough of Valerie’s past to sincerely upset them. Valerie herself is good, but the people who’ve been in her life in the not-so-distant past definitely aren’t. And white slavers have targeted her for an acquisition due to her ethereal beauty, too . . . how will they keep Valerie away from such dangerous people, especially considering the fact that Gus is decidedly nonviolent?

All of this is a great deal of plot to handle. But it doesn’t feel unwieldy thanks to how thoroughly Lazar grounds SPIRIT ME AWAY in reality. First, Gus and Elsbeth’s romance is realistic and earthy — hey, they’re newlyweds! — and gives a very solid sense of who they are. Second, because they’re both “foodies,” the need for comfort food comes into play often. (Never underestimate the power of this, not in books, not in real life.) Third, there truly was a problem with white slavery in the late 1960s in many big cities, Boston among them, partly due to the nature of the times. And fourth, because Gus and Elsbeth already have many friends around them, it truly doesn’t seem like a hardship for them to add one more in Valerie.

So will Valerie find out where she comes from and who she is? Will her nascent romance with Porter bear fruit? And what does Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock) have to do with it all?

I enjoyed SPIRIT ME AWAY quite a bit. There’s a lot of plot here, some wonderfully realized characters, a goodly amount of romance, a whole lot of suspense, and it’s not quite as cozy a mystery as most of the others in the LeGarde mystery series (a mystery with white slavery as one of its components probably couldn’t qualify as a cozy anyway, methinks). But it’s a fast, fun, and furious read with some really good characterization and a number of excellent  musical references.

Bottom line? Whether you’ve read any of the Gus LeGarde series before or not, you should enjoy SPIRIT ME AWAY if you love mysteries — particularly mysteries mixed with a dash or two of romantic suspense.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Lady Blues” — a Warm, Comforting Mystery

Aaron Paul Lazar’s LADY BLUES is the tenth novel in his ongoing series of mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth and music professor Gus LeGarde. These are warm, comforting books full of food and atmosphere, where Gus solves mysteries partly through deduction, partly through his own friendly nature and partly because he knows everyone else in his community. (Note: an earlier book of Lazar’s that did not feature LeGarde, THE SEACREST, was reviewed here.)

The biggest part of the plot of LADY BLUES has to do with a musical mystery. Who is “John Smith,” a man with no past in a local nursing home? Why does he remember a singer named Bella (also nicknamed “Lady Blues”) when nearly all his other memories have flown? And what do his half-remembered snippets of musical knowledge have to do with anything?

The octogenarian man without a past is eventually revealed to be Kip Sterling, a musician who went missing in 1944 during World War II.  Sterling is a standout character you can’t help but root for, especially when you realize he’s taking a new drug to combat his memory loss (perhaps due to Alzheimer’s disease) . . . and the drug, Memorphyl, has actually worked.

But then, a new formulation of the drug makes every patient in the nursing home ill, and all the patients — including Sterling — start to lose their memories again. Then a friendly nurse goes missing after giving Gus samples of both the “old pills” (the older formulation, that worked) and the “new pills” (that don’t). And then, as if that weren’t enough, Sterling himself goes missing, too . . . just after Bella has been found, still alive, and wishes to reunite with him. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

So there’s plenty of plot and drama, though it’s not the in-your-face type . . . and as if that central mystery isn’t enough, there are plenty of other, smaller mysteries for Gus to solve during LADY BLUES as well.

For example, one of the biggest subplots is about a mysterious Korean seamstress named Lily. She worked in her brother’s shop for years, but he watched her like a hawk and she never learned much English. Now, the shop has burned down and her brother is gravely ill, she doesn’t even know where her legal paperwork is, and is at some risk of being deported (before the papers are found).

Why is Lily in America at all? Why didn’t her brother let her mix with other people? And finally, is her attraction to Gus’s friend Siegfried — who’s also the brother of Gus’s deceased first wife — legitimate, or not?

Mind, all of the mysteries will eventually be solved in a way reminiscent of the gentler episodes of the old TV show “Murder, She Wrote.” But plot is not the only reason to read LADY BLUES . . . oh, no. The story itself was fast-paced, well-researched, and interesting. And I appreciated all of the atmospheric touches, including the various dishes Gus makes along the way and the descriptions of a rambunctious, loving extended family.

However, there were some things that bothered me about LADY BLUES, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out.

First, at least two of the mysteries were very easily solved. I would’ve preferred a few more red herrings to throw me off the scent a bit.

Second, I also would’ve preferred a bit more obvious frustration in a few spots, such as when Sterling goes missing. Considering Gus has taken to Sterling in a big way, it didn’t make much sense that Gus was able to be so serene about the poor old gentleman being missing after the drugs that had brought back his memory were switched.

Third, I had a hard time believing that no one in Gus’s family — save his put-upon housekeeper, that is — ever gets angry or says cross words to another. (Even the housekeeper immediately apologized, the one time she snapped.) That is not realistic, even in a cozy mystery, and it snapped me out of the reader’s trance on more than one occasion.

Bottom line? LADY BLUES is an intelligent, warm cozy mystery with atmosphere galore and a hero to root for in Gus LeGarde. It’s a fun, fast read and I enjoyed it immensely. But the lack of even the most minor family arguments in a big, boisterous family did not seem plausible.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Cedar Sanderson’s “Trickster Noir” — A Solid, Romantic Sequel

Cedar Sanderson’sTrickster Noir TRICKSTER NOIR is a sequel to PIXIE NOIR (reviewed here by Jason), and features the same main characters — Bella, the human/fairy hybrid with amazing powers she can barely control, and Lom, her pixie detective love interest. Lom is shorter than Bella, and recently sustained a major injury that’s drained him near to death.

All of that is relevant because up until now, Lom has, for lack of a better term, been used as an enforcer by his King. He takes on the jobs no one else wants to deal with, and handles them efficiently. But now that Lom is on the shelf while he heals (providing he can, of course), Bella has to take those jobs instead. While she lacks experience, she has so much power, she’s the most logical choice to take Lom’s place.

And everybody knows it. Including the bad guys.

Of course, Bella also is the newest Consort for the King, which isn’t at all the same as being romantically entangled (in an arranged marriage or otherwise). Which is a good thing, or her nascent relationship with Lom would never be able to get off the ground. But that also adds in many more complications.

And Lom has his own problems, as he’s been named a Duke, yet is still weak both physically and magically. He’s a self-sufficient guy, so healing up and rehabilitating would be very difficult for him even if he didn’t have to watch as Bella goes off to do the jobs he used to do.

Worse yet, he’s denigrated at every turn due to his current magical weakness by nearly everyone save Ellie (his housekeeper), his own mother, and Bella. Which imperils not only his Dukedom, but Bella as well…so what’s a pixie detective to do?

And there’s a great deal going on that Bella and Lom — both separately and together — need to deal with, too. There’s the evil Baba Yaga, who’s cropped up at the most unexpected time and in the most unexpected place, for a reason which may surprise. There are some sasquatch, kitsune, dragons, and of course the great Trickster God himself, Raven, and they all make their various marks on the narrative (as you might expect).

While the adventures cannot be faulted, to my mind the romance between Bella and Lom is the main attraction. They are both well-drawn characters with strengths and weaknesses, and seem like the perfect complement to one another. I liked watching them get to know each other through “sickness and in health,” and believed in them as a couple.

Bottom line? The romance is solid and enjoyable, the magic system is workable, and the adventures were sensible in context. I’d buy it as an e-book, read it, and then decide if you want the “dead-tree edition” down the line.

Grade: B.

— reviewed by Barb

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Veronica Roth’s “Allegiant” — An Unexpected Ending to a Decent Trilogy

When Veronica Roth’s third book in her Divergent series, ALLEGIANT, came out, there were spoilers galore. And due to the Divergent trilogy’s crossover into pop culture, most people know that at least one character came to a shocking end.

That makes writing a review for ALLEGIANT nearly impossible without giving away the entirety of the plot. So this is your one and only warning — if you do not want your reading spoiled, and you have yet to read ALLEGIANT, look away now.

(Ready…set…go!)

The end of INSURGENT left Tris (née Beatrice) Prior and her boyfriend, Tobias (also known as Four), in a terrible spot.  (Both DIVERGENT and INSURGENT were reviewed at SBR here.) Their near-future Chicago has been rent asunder. The former leader of Erudite, who’d tried to take over everything, has been slain…and Tobias’s own mother, Evelyn Johnson, has come back from a long exile and has taken over. But there are people from the former five-faction system upset over this — the Allegiant — and they are continuing to fight against Evelyn’s rule.

Because Tris’s Chicago was built on the five-faction system (Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Amity), being without factions (or “factionless”) is a challenge. The city is unsettled and quite frankly, on edge. And Tris, because her brother was high up in the Erudite hierarchy despite his youth, is right in the thick of things even though she was all for the downfall of Erudite and the demise of the former five-faction system.

Why?

Well, her brother, Caleb Prior, is being tried as a traitor. And even though Tris has solid reasons to be angry with Caleb and never talk with him again for the rest of his life, Tris does not believe her brother deserves the death penalty. So she’s going to try to save his life, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

While this is only one of the threads of the story, this is the one that resonated the most with me.

The second-best thread was the ongoing romance between Tris and Tobias. They truly care for one another, yet do not agree all the time, which of course is healthy but must feel awful when you’re in a war zone with all of those heightened emotions. And because Tris must somehow save her brother while doing her best to help institute a truly factionless system that doesn’t have all the sturm und drang of the Evelyn Johnson-led version, that adds depth and complexity to the romance.

And the third-best thread was Tobias having to deal with both of his complicated, difficult parents. Evelyn, his mother, was damaged due to Tobias’s father, the former leader of the Abnegation faction — she was beaten, Tobias himself was beaten, and it’s a miracle either one of them survived.

I fully believed in all three of these plot-threads, and wish that the book had concentrated more on them…but, as always, I digress.

The rest of ALLEGIANT deals with stuff like memory serums (which erase memories rather than restore them), death serums (which cause instantaneous deaths, naturally), whether or not you can have “pure genes” (supposedly there was a Purity War long ago, and the people with the most-damaged genes fled to Chicago and other enclaves in order to rehabilitate them), and if being Divergent means you must have pure genes.

The last in particular is vexing because Tobias is Divergent, just like Tris. But he supposedly has damaged genes, while Tris’s are pure. So he starts thinking of himself as a low-class citizen, partly because of some intrigue with the people who’ve been watching the people of Chicago all along — a bunch of scientists and latter-day nogoodniks who watch the goings-on of the factions as if it’s contemporary reality TV — and partly because Tris is going around kicking butt and taking names while he’s been forced into more of a diplomatic role due to his mother’s uneasy ascension to being the unofficial ruler of Chicago.

Eventually, Tobias figures out that his genes being damaged matters a whole lot less than the type of person he is. But by this time, the biggest plot-wrinkle of them all has occurred…

(Big spoiler alert!)

You see, Tris sacrifices herself. She does it to save her brother, because he’s volunteered to keep the memory serum from being distributed to everyone in Chicago in order to reinstitute the five-faction system due to the nogoodniks I mentioned before by infiltrating a lab. Tris has a partial immunity to some of the serums, which is why she and only she can do what she does. And of course, she dies a heroine.

Because of this, Roth had absolutely no way to keep telling the story unless she added a second point-of-view character. (The first two novels were told only in Tris’s POV.) Which is one reason we get so very much of Tobias’s thoughts, mind you, as only he can talk about what happens after Tris is dead and the world goes on without her.

Eventually, Chicago comes to a new beginning. Tobias eschews violence, becomes of all things a political aide, and keeps in good contact with all of those who helped him in those last, desperate hours. He is sad, and frustrated that Tris is dead, but his life has gone on and perhaps someday, he will date again.

Now, what do I think about all of this? Mostly, I’m befuddled. There was a good amount of plot, but much of it revolved around Tris and Tobias because of what the other people around them were doing rather than what they were doing.

Or, put bluntly, in DIVERGENT, Tris and Tobias/Four act. In INSURGENT, while they are unsettled and are clearly scrambling and are in panic mode due to being in a war zone, they again act.

But here, they react.  I didn’t like that.

I didn’t like that at all.

Bottom line? The trilogy has a nice, narrative arch, but I don’t truly buy why Chicago’s in this terrible spot to begin with. The five-faction system seems like something that could never work in the real world, but I do believe that it would break up and there would be strife.

While I liked Tris as a character and believe that, as a heroine, she did what was right for her (the action flowed out of her characterization, and thus were authentic), I felt many of the things that led up to her authentic ending were a bit off.

And as for Tobias and his grief? I think his grief was real, but I honestly do not believe it would only take him two and a half years to put Tris and her memory behind him. I think it would take much, much longer than that — something like what’s going on with Katniss Everdeen and her husband, Peeta, during the very end of MOCKINGJAY is much more likely (Katniss does have the love of her life, thank goodness, but she’s still incredibly sorrowful over everything else — and that is realistic).

So I have a real problem here when it comes to grading. I like the writing; I like it a lot. I like the characterization, too. But the actual plotting needed some smoothing out.

Thus, we have some split grades to follow, as well as a grade for the overall series:

Writing: A. Characterization: A. Plotting: C-minus (and that’s being generous)

Overall: B

Grade for trilogy: B

— reviewed by Barb

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