Binti: The Complete Trilogy

BintiBinti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: Earth, Ooma Uni, and spaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 358 pp

Published by: Daw

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Binti is a young woman from Earth, a member of the Himba people of Namibia. She is what is known as a master harmonizer, a person who has a skill in bringing balance to all, usually through math. Her role is to succeed her father as her tribe’s master harmonizer. However, that is upended when Binti is accepted into the prestigious Oomza Uni, an entire planet devoted to learning. Binit runs away against her parents’ wishes to study, but while her ship is en route, it is attacked by the warlike Meduse, leaving her the traumatized only survivor. Binti eventually forms a bond with Okwu, one of the Medusae from the attack, and a link is created between their two peoples, paving the way for an unusual peace.

I read these novellas in the form of an omnibus paperback, so I can’t really separate the three stories in my mind. To me, they’re all one story. But, as always, I am impressed with Okorafor’s skill in creating such rich characters and culture in a relatively short span of pages. The Himba people are not fictional; they have a long and complex culture from which Okorafor could draw. But she fleshed out the people in ways that made them entirely real. I cared about every character on the page, which is a rare thing for me. 

I loved Binti’s search for herself, her bravery in leaving the only home she’d ever known in an attempt to create a different life for herself. The act of leaving home, becoming independent, learning new things about yourself is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. I feel bad for people who never experience that in any way. 

The ways that humans and the Medusae were at conflict and how they resolved their problems is sadly still a relevant metaphor for human society as a whole. We seem plagued with people, whether groups or individuals, who only care about enriching themselves or enforcing their agenda and worldview. There isn’t enough peace anywhere. So much can be said about this but, as I’ve said for years, SFF is an ideal medium in which to discuss real-world issues. Binti is no different. There were many themes that made me think: home, community, identity, conflict, colonialism, friendship. I’m sure examinations of these themes and more could be made, and wind up longer than the book itself. I love that; books that make me think while also providing a good story are to be treasured.

Overall, I liked this story, though I think I enjoyed Okorafor’s other works that I’ve read a little more. This trilogy (plus the short story included in the omnibus edition) seemed to focus more on how to fit in social issues than how it impacts the plot, so I think there are some gaps that need to be filled. But still, the Binti trilogy is a terrific story and one I definitely recommend. 

Favorite lines:

  • Will his happiness kill him? (Okwu asked this without a hint of irony or sarcasm. Me, too, Okwu. Me. Too. Deeply suspicious of happiness.)

Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

nemesis gamesNemesis Games (The Expanse #5) by James S.A. Corey 

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaaaace! 

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 532 pp

Published by: Orbit

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In book 5 of The Expanse series, the crew of the Rocinante all go their separate ways. Temporarily, of course. The crew are family now and the Roci is home. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have business elsewhere to tend to, though, and they do. Holden is the only one who stays put; Naomi goes to Ceres Station to deal with a family  problem, Alex goes to Mars with a vague idea of getting his ex back, and Amos goes to Earth to make sure the death of someone he cared about was natural or not. Naturally, the entire solar system goes up in flames while the crew is scattered every which way.

The political situation is fraught in this entry. A radical branch of the OPA is behind the most devastating attack in history, their attempt to carve out a place for themselves within the larger political landscape. Because terrorism totally works. That was sarcasm for anyone who can’t parse Kristen-speak. 😊 Holden tries to work with Fred Johnson to reign in the violent nutjobs while, elsewhere, Alex researches why ships are going missing, with some help from Bobbie Draper. Amos makes an unexpected new friend. Or old friend, depending on how you look at it. And Naomi finds herself in the middle of everything in some strange ways.

The last few entries of The Expanse series, I have hoped for the other primary characters – Naomi, Alex, and Amos – to be point-of-view narrators. I got my wish in this novel! All of the POV characters were the crew of the Rocinante. We get a glimpse into their histories and some parts raised more questions. I learned, though, that there are Expanse novellas that dive into their past selves in more depth, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading those at some point as well. Because I am a giant sucker for a good back story. 

I like that there was a theme of family and home woven throughout. Everyone kept reflecting on home in terms of their past, but now that isn’t home, it isn’t their family. Home is where you make it, and family is who you choose. Birth and blood don’t really factor into either of those unless you want them to. I liked that the crew knows with a deep certainty that they are each other’s family. 

All in all, another fun entry in The Expanse series. Can’t wait to read the rest!

The Second Blind Son

the second blind sonThe Second Blind Son by Amy Harmon (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: Saylock

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Rob Shapiro

Source: my own collection 

Length: 15:58:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Second Blind Son is a sequel of sorts to Amy Harmon’s earlier novel, The First Girl Child. I say of sorts because this story ran concurrently to the events of TFGC, rather than portraying a continuation of that story. In this, the focus is on Hod, a blind man who is raised to be a Keeper of the Temple by Arwin, a cave keeper. Arwen has taught Hod how to listen, smell, feel in ways that are uncanny to help him compensate for his blindness. As a result, Hod is adept at hunting and fighting through the use of his heightened senses. He can identify the heartbeats of individual people, their specific scent, and so forth. And then one day, he rescues a girl who washes up near his cave from a shipwreck. Ghisla is the sole survivor from her people, the Songers, whose voices are ethereally beautiful, and she wants to die. Slowly, she and Hod become the best of friends and, when she uses a rune carved upon her hand, Hod is able to see. Their paths are often separated but they retain their connection through the years, through political upheaval, and across vast distances.

I loved this book so much. I really liked the way it wove into the earlier story of TFGC and made you remember events from that story alongside this new one. I hadn’t realised it was that sort of timeline, so I kind of wish I had reread TFGC before jumping into this one, but it in no way hindered the ease of following the story. It is just a thing I would have done to refresh my own memory. And yes, it can probably be read as a standalone, but I truly think readers are short-changing themselves not to read TFGC first. Not only will you become familiar with the world of Saylock, but the characters from that book who make appearances in this one are familiar and welcome. You’d miss out on that if you only read TSBS as a standalone.

The narration was excellent as well. The narrator did some different voices for various characters, but only enough to differentiate them within the scene. He didn’t go crazy with melodrama, he just read the story in an engaging way. There were times when he sounded just like Tuvok, though, so that was a bit of cognitive dissonance. I kept expecting Star Trek. 

The character development throughout was decent, though I would have liked to get more scenes with the other Daughters of the Temple. They were an important part of the story but I feel like I didn’t get to know them very well. Maybe future Saylock books will focus on them more in some way. Ghisla becomes one of the Daughters when she is forced to leave Hod’s cave and is given in lieu of a clan chieftain’s daughter to the Keepers. There, she is known as Liis of Leok and no one learns her true identity. Hod is the only one who knows her real story. Also, YAY for the book sample on Amazon having the spelling of characters’ names! I would not have gotten some right from just listening to it.

I thought it was interesting how King Banruud was a hateful, horrible person but Ghisla could help keep him from raging too much with her music. I don’t remember his madness at all from TFGC, but here it struck me as horrific, persistent tinnitus. I know that can make people crazy – mine sometimes wakes me up – but if one is already crazy and cruel to begin with, what new horrors could the condition bring about? Doesn’t make his actions at all ok, but I thought it was an interesting reading of madness. 

Keeping Hod and Ghisla apart in distance but giving them the means with which to communicate with each other was a great touch. It allowed them to grow and mature, and their relationship did likewise. The rune magic that helped them speak to one another really keeps things humming along for readers so we can sense their desire to be together but we don’t get bored by the separation. 

Probably there is a message in there about how true love doesn’t need to see to recognize one’s beloved. Or something. Ick. I don’t really do romance, though I find this sort of non-melodramatic, non-bodice-ripping romance within many fantasy novels to be entirely acceptable. 

Overall, a thoroughly lovely story, nicely paced, and I can’t wait to read more of Harmon’s fantasy novels!

Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3)

abaddons gateAbaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3) by James S.A. Corey (Website, Twitter, Expanse Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 539 pp

Published by: Orbit

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this third Expanse instalment, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are freelance contractors now, parted way somewhat acrimoniously with Fred Johnson and the Outer Planetary Alliance. When one of their clients, a rather shady bunch, suddenly back out of their contract with Holden, the crew discover that they are being sued by the Martian government to get the Roci, formerly a Martian Marines battle ship, back. Coming to their rescue is Monica Stuart, a journalist from the UN Public Broadcasting, who contracts Holden on an exclusive if he takes her and her team out to a mysterious ring. The ring was constructed by the protomoluecule creature that launched itself off Venus at the end of the previous book, and it is weird. It appears to be a simple ring construct, and yet ships that go through it do not come out on the other side as expected. It’s like it’s a…stargate… 

A flotilla of ships from Earth, Mars, and the OPA is on the way to the ring to investigate, each government hoping to gain the upper hand. When a person from Holden’s past sabotages his reputation, he is forced to flee with his crew and ship through the ring. What they discover on the other side is not at all what they expected. 

The thing about book series, for me, is that if they are longer than a trilogy, I tend to lose interest. Usually around book three or four. However, that isn’t close to being the case with this series. Yes, it follows the same core of characters. Yes, it has an overarching plot revolving around a weird protomolecule. But each novel has a large and diverse cast of secondary characters and a new basic plot, each different from the previous book. It isn’t a cliffhanger from one book to the next where you have to keep reading about the exact same goddamn characters over and over. Corey’s style works wonders for me.

Holden is evolving as a character in a good way. He can still be a sanctimonious bastard, but he is self-aware enough now to know it. He is making a concerted effort to be a better person, not only for himself, but for his crew, and especially his lover, Naomi. We know a bit more about Holden’s past than the other main characters, possibly because he is the captain. But we get tidbits of information about Naomi, Amos, and Alex as well. I hope we get to learn more about their past lives as the novels progress. What drove them to be on the Canterbury way back in book one? Why did they end up on a bottom-of-the-barrel ship when they all clearly have crazy skills and can do what they want in much better positions? These things, I want to know. 

The secondary cast this go round is Carlos Baca, called Bull, a security officer for the OPA. He is assigned as the security chief to the Behemoth when it heads out to the ring. He’s kind of bitter about his position since he should really have been the captain, and Fred Johnson knows it. But he’s not, because politics! Instead, some jackoff called Ashton is captain, and he seems like a skinny Trump, all ego and narcissism and demands of loyalty. We hate Ashton. But we love Bull.

Joining the Behemoth is Sam, the engineer from Tycho Station and Naomi’s best friend; Clarissa Mao, in disguise as someone called Melba Koh, who is on a private mission of vengeance against Holden for his perceived harm to her family’s good standing; and Pastor Anna, a Russian, well, pastor who is on the Behemoth because she believes God called her there to help in some way. And of course a colorful variety of various others ranging from Martian Marines to news reporters to a neurotic socialite. Each one is there for their own reasons, and each one ends up playing parts they hadn’t anticipated. 

Also, Joe Miller is a recurring presence, despite having ridden Eros on its collision course with Venus at the end of book one. So there’s that. 

The biblical and religious allusions are inescapable. I mean, it’s built right into the title. Abaddon is the Hebrew word for “place of destruction,” or hell, or the realm of the dead. Pastor Anna has a lot of things to say about the place of religion in human society, about forgiveness, and about the ways in which humans must fit in with the greater universe. It was not a “beat you over the head” sort of religious discussion. It was interesting and in the background. I’m sure others who are more inclined could find a lot more to say about it. I can, too, but find that I can’t be bothered with religion today. Suffice to say, the title is a perfect highlighting of the plot in this one. 

Themes of loyalty and bravery are front and center as well, which I’m coming to expect from this series. There are so many ways in which these characters, and those in the previous books, have displayed these concepts. I think one of the most important discussion on bravery in this instalment is when Holden figures out how scared he really is by anything to do with the protomolecule. And yet, he does whatever has to be done, despite his fear. I guess Ned Stark was right – when you’re scared, that’s the only time you can truly be brave. 

I have to take a forced break in the series to read a couple books I promised to a friend for a review, and that’s cool, but I can’t wait to get back into this series!

Interdependency

The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox (The Interdependency) by John Scalzi (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaace! And various habitats, space stations, and occasional planets

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:24:00, 8:19:00, and 8:07:00, respectively

Published by: Audible Studios

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars, both for each book and for the series as a whole

In Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, humans have managed to colonize a lot of the galaxy. They do not do this, however, through the use of any sort of FTL or warp drive. The laws of physics prevent that. They do, however, have something called the Flow, which sounds a little like wormholes through which a ship can travel and arrive at a location in a matter of days, weeks, or months, depending on distance. Ships can only enter or exit at Flow shoals, and the Flow streams only go one direction. So if a Flow stream goes from Hub, the Capital of the Interdependency, to End, the one planet that supports human life and which is at the farthest reach of the Flow streams, then they need to use a different stream from End to get back to Hub. 

Oh, and the streams are beginning to collapse.

This is a problem because, as the title implies, every human habitat is interdependent upon each other for survival. The places where humans settled are all, with the exception of End, not compatible with human life. They’re either on tidally locked moons and planets, too hot or too cold to survive, or on space habitats in orbit somewhere. The Interdependency is organized around Guild Houses, each of which have a monopoly on a certain aspect of manufacturing things needed to sustain life. Once the Flow streams collapse, everyone will be well and truly fucked. 

Enter an inexperienced Emperox, Cardenia Wu Patrick (Imperial name Greyland II), a young woman who was never supposed to be Emperox and only became so when her half brother the Imperial heir died in an “accident.” The various noble Houses think this will be a good thing because they expect to be able to manipulate her. The main houses of Wu (the hereditary Imperial house as well), Lagos, and Nohamapetan, are the political powerhouses and are out for blood and profit. Also, I listened to these, so I may be WAY off on how the names are spelled. Just saying.

The Houses of Lagos and Nohamapetan are particular enemies. On one run between Hub and End, Kiva, the Lagos representative to the Guilds, learns that her House’s entire crop on End had been sabotaged and she naturally suspects the Nohamapetans. Having just spent 9 months in the Flow traveling to End, Kiva is righteously pissed because now she will have spent the best part of 2 years on a trip that is profitless. Kiva soon learns, however, that there is something wrong with the Flow and she ferries a young noble and Flow physicist, Marce Claremont, back to End to meet with the Emperox and come up with a plan to save the billions of people dependent on the Flow for survival. She also comes up with a way to make money on an otherwise failed venture, as one does. 

There’s a lot of politics in this story, but Scalzi makes it fun! Kiva is definitely my favorite character. She’s so thoroughly outspoken and rude and it’s just delightful. She’s also crazy skilled at strategy and politics and is the best person the Emperox could possibly have in her corner. Cardenia is sweet – on the outside. Then she manages to deflate the machinations of everyone conspiring against her, which is especially fun when she hamstrings the Nohamapetans. Really, the characters in this series are the best thing about it. Yes, the overarching story is bomb, and is very Scalzi-ish. But, as Renay Williams wrote, the central characters are all women, and they’re all truly awesome in their own ways. 

Also, the trilogy covers a lot of ground that lovers of sci-fi space operas will appreciate seeing, happily updated with a lot of modern thought, because actual colonialism is gross. There’s far-flung human colonization, empire, the ways in which all these things are connected and, like, interdependent on each other. It is really a good commentary on a lot of our actual current events and politics. I have screamed for years that sci-fi is the ideal medium in which to discuss and analyse current events; Scalzi’s trilogy is further proof. 

As I mentioned above, I listened to The Interdependency trilogy on audiobook. Wil Wheaton did a phenomenal job narrating. I honestly think it is one of his best performances. His timing and tone were spot on and turned elements of the book that were already amusing into laugh out loud hilarity. I loved listening to these books so much that when the third one ended, I wanted to start the series all over again. I didn’t, only because I have so very many audiobooks to listen to that I haven’t even touched yet. But I did go and buy the trilogy in paperback, even though I swore I wouldn’t buy any more books until I get through more of my TBR and cull ones I know I’m not going to read ever again. 

I can’t wait to read these again, and I can’t wait to see what Scalzi publishes in the future. If you haven’t read, or even better, listened to, this series yet, you are really missing out!

Star Trek Discovery: Wonderlands

Disco WonderlandsWonderlands by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 333 pp. It’s only half evil.

Published by: Gallery Books (18 May 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Remember in the first episode of Discovery’s third season? When Burnham came plummeting out of the sky and figured out she made it nearly 1000 years into the future and her mission to stop Control from annihilating sentient life was successful? And she landed practically on Book? Then there was that year-long jump between the first and second episodes? Remember that? This is the story of that year in between. 

Michael Burnham is lost and alone in more ways than one at the beginning of this book. She’s almost a thousand years into the future from her point of view, the Federation is shattered, and Starfleet is more a figment of the imagination than a real institution. The economy is money-based and everyone is looking out only for themselves. Philanthropy on any appreciable scale is nonexistent and there are violent wannabe kings of local regions, plotting and betraying and backstabbing their way to the top of the pile. In other words, the polar opposite of the society Burnham is accustomed to. And the Discovery is nowhere to be found.

Circumstances naturally dictate that Burnham adapt to her new environment, and she does, though reluctantly. She convinces Book to help her get on her feet and get the lay of the land. She gets herself a tiny, tiny little ship of her own. She finds a Starfleet holdout in the form of one Aditya Sahil, the de facto commander of Starbase Devaloka. Burnham, being who she is, manages to browbeat everyone into at least trying things her way sometimes, just for kicks, and usually they are pleasantly surprised. It is a nice little lesson in playing nicely with others. 

This was also a rather sad book. Not sad as in pathetic. Sad as in fucking sad. She misses her chosen family, her friends, her society where everything really was better despite the Klingon War. She misses knowing the basics of technology, even though she’s the quickest study ever and gets up to speed in a flash. She misses her ship. It is an interesting commentary on how we contemplate the future. Star Trek is known for its optimism. Discovery has, from the start, turned that optimism on its head; that very darkness is why I love this series so much. Utopia doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t without its struggles. Without that darkness, how would we ever know the light or the good? To me, that is what this series is good at – showing the good that is possible even if it isn’t there yet. 

I even wrote about this very thing about a year and a half ago for StarTrek.com. See? This Is Why Starfleet Needs Gabriel Lorca. *I* wrote it first, not that individual from Den of Geek who apparently read MY article, nicked my idea, and rewrote it a couple months ago. Fuck her.

Anyway.

There were several smaller missions, or side quests if you like, throughout the novel. Burnham (and usually Book as well) go off on various aid missions to give help to various groups. Very much in line with Star Trek ethics. I wish these could have been longer, or had a standalone book devoted to them like in the good old days of numbered Trek novels. But I suppose, because this was only one book, those side quests had to be truncated for the sake of expediency.

It is ok, though, since the novel’s true strength is in its character development. So far, all the Disco books, actually, have done a brilliant job at giving us the character development and back stories we know and love from other Trek series. I loved getting to see how Michael grew and changed in her new time, and how she tries to change it as well. I loved getting to know Book a little better. And Grudge is certainly the best character in the whole thing. 

I think the overarching theme in this story is that, when you can’t go home or have no home to go to, then you make a home as best you can, with the best people you can find to gather round you. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

“They’re not doing anyone any harm.”

“Mostly harmless.” He laughed. “There are worse epitaphs, I suppose.” 

[High five to McCormack for that nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide…! 😀 ]

Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

Spiteful Bones (Crispin Guest #14)

Spiteful BonesSpiteful Bones by Jeri Westerson (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fiction/ medieval noir

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 178 pp

Published by: Severn House (1 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this 14th instalment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, some fun characters from the past feature in this story. Nigellus Cobmartin has inherited his father’s house upon the death of his older brother. He and his lover, the delightful John Rykener (under the guise of Eleanor) are in the process of restoring it, the house having fallen into disrepair. The workers discover a gruesome scene – a skeletonized body tied up within the walls of the manor house. It is determined that the body belonged to a former servant who the Cobmartin household thought stole a relic and then took off with the wife of another servant. At the same time, Nigellus and John are victims of extortion, under threat of their lifestyle being exposed if they fail to pay the unknown villain. But nothing is as it appears at first glance, and so Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, find themselves on the hunt for an extortionist who may also be a murderer. 

The character development over the course of this series has been excellent. Crispin is now in his forties and is beginning to feel the effects of a hard and active life, though he rails against it. Jack is taking on more of the lead role in the sleuthing duo and is the image of a young and vital man. There were a few times that he saved Crispin’s neck, literally and figuratively, and while it was lovely to see, I also miss little boy Jack even as I revel in the upstanding man he has become.

Crispin himself has long since accepted that he is no longer nobility and has made a family for himself with Jack, Jack’s wife Isabel, and their growing brood of children. He seems content enough with his lot and takes pleasure in the simple joys in life in ways he was unable to do before. One of his greatest joys is in his son, Christopher, who he is unable to acknowledge. His friends, too, are his joy, and he throws himself into investigating who would murder a friend’s servant, driven to protect those he loves. 

As always, Westerson creates vivid scenery in her settings. It is easy to picture the sights (and, unfortunately, the smells!) of the Shambles and other places in medieval London. The strength of her descriptive writing is exceptional and that, along with complex character development, have made Westerson one of my favorite authors. She creates characters readers genuinely care about and then develops them into rich and multidimensional people, even secondary characters. Take, for example, Nigellus Cobmartin and John Rykener. Nigellus is a fictional character, but Rykener was a real man who dressed as a woman and was a whore and a skilled embroideress. Their relationship, while it may seem implausible to us given the time period they were from, could well have happened. Rykener was listed as having a husband in one of the documents Westerson referenced, though the man was not named. Why not let the husband be Nigellus? There have always been LGBT people, even if they had been vilified, shunned, or even killed at various points in history. A lack of understanding does not mean they didn’t exist, and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. I think it is really important to discuss social issues in all their many elements, but literature is an ideal medium in which to do so. Readers get to know both Rykener and Nigellus over the course of a few books, and can see them as people rather than ideas, mere figures on a page, or solely by their sexual identity. Having other characters like Crispin sometimes struggle with how they see Rykener helps create depth but also gives a nuanced examination of our own society. A long-winded way to say that I love their relationship, the characters themselves, and how Westerson approached it.

I was sad while I was reading this story because I had thought it was the final entry in the Crispin Guest series. But I was wrong! There is one final adventure to share with Crispin, Jack, and friends, The Deadliest Sin, which Westerson’s website says will be released in 2022. 

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book, as well as the rest of the series, to anyone who loves a good, complex, brooding protagonist and a delightful cast of secondary characters.

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope

The Last Best Hope (Star Trek: Picard #1)

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 322 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (11 Feb 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Last Best Hope is the story of the mission Jean-Luc Picard led to evacuate Romulans from their home world and nearby planets when their sun went supernova. It is the prequel that forms the foundations of the Star Trek: Picard series. On its surface, it is the story of how one of the most beloved figures in all of science fiction ended his career. Digging deeper, it examines some of the darker aspects of humanity that we all carry.

I confess that I didn’t like the first season of STP very much. I only watched the season once and didn’t care at all for, well, most of it. Not because it wasn’t just TNG rebooted. I neither wanted nor expected that. I think it’s mostly that I didn’t recognize the characters in it. They were too changed, too damaged. I went into this book hoping it would help me like the show better, especially since McCormack is one of my favorite Trek authors.

I suppose it did that. I can understand how it would completely fuck with you to be put in command of THE biggest humanitarian mission in history, only for it to fail. And to fail largely because of politics? Adding insult to injury. Star Trek has always been political. It’s one of the many things I love about it. The Picard series, and this book, are no exceptions. The difference this time is that the politicians here are truly awful, with not the remotest veneer of idealism that they portray in the series. The political leaders of the Federation in this book are concerned with optics, with PR, with the cost to themselves. Councilor Quest is repugnant. She represents, to me, the worst of certain American political parties. I won’t say which but it starts with an R and ends with -epublican. Nationalism and only looking after one’s own interests is such bullshit and yet it’s on the rise. This book takes a look at the potential impact of nationalism, distanced through the lens of sci-fi. There were lots of oblique references to the Trump administration, trumpism, and nationalism. I’m so fucking glad he’s out of office and fuck anyone who gave this book a lower review just because it rightly was critical of those kinds of politics. We should take care of everyone, not just those in our immediate circle.

Picard, in TNG, is an idealist and a compassionate man. But he’s tempered with logic and pragmatism as well. Picard here gets so involved in the mission to save the Romulans that he becomes pretty myopic in his determination to fulfill the mission. If millions and millions of lives were in my hands, I probably would be myopic about my job, too (Actually, no, you could just put me in a padded room and have done with it if that task fell to me). I know some readers felt this Picard was a bit too starry-eyed, almost naive especially with regards to political machinations, but I felt that he was throwing himself headlong into the ideals of what Starfleet stood for. His doing so is the only way I can see to really explain his utter disenchantment with the fleet when the Romulan star blows and he fails in his mission. If he hadn’t been so involved, maybe more of his pragmatism would have prevailed and he would have been able to remain in the service. He still would have been horrified and grief-stricken at the loss of life, but he could have taken that extra distance to realize it was a futile effort from the start and to celebrate the lives they WERE able to save. But he wasn’t, and didn’t, and so railroaded his career, thus setting up the premise for the TV series. 

I do wish there had been more detail from the planets. We got some, but it would have made the story more visceral if we had seen more scenes from Romulus, the effect the supernova had on the citizens. What scenes we do get felt rushed a bit, more told than shown. Not that I want vivid descriptions of dying and suffering people. But it would have been just that much more depth to the story. 

And, maybe not super relevant to the story, but I thought Maddox/Jurati was gross. I can’t remember how her character was in the show so maybe McCormack picked up on something from that and ran with it. But Jurati in this novel was like everything I wouldn’t want to be as a woman. Yes, it’s rad she has a doctorate in robotics and is whip smart. I love that part about her. But she acts like a submissive, insecure little mouse who is desperate for Maddox’s approval, which makes her come off as pathetic. It’s such a big dichotomy, and unlike most of the other women in Star Trek that McCormack has written, and I haven’t figured out why it exists. 

Rereading what I just wrote, it sounds like a negative review. It absolutely is not. I loved this book, but I hated a lot of the people in it. I think that’s a sign of good writing, to make me hate a thing about a figure I’ve loved for the majority of my life, or to hate elements of the society I grew up watching and hoping to achieve in reality. I unreservedly recommend this book, especially if you haven’t yet seen the Picard series. It fills in a lot of gaps in the Picard series. I think it will be a good book to help build the Picard series canon. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • He turned to the helm. 

“Lieutenant Miller…”

“Go on,” Raffi whispered. “They’re dying for you to say it.”

And why not?

“Engage!” (p 55)

  • The admiral shrugged. He had never seemed so French. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, Raffi.”

“I’ll look forward to using that on you one day,” she said.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.” (p 115)

  • “Who knows. An encounter with Beethoven might be the making of the man.”

“It might do something to him. Jeez, though, this might backfire. He might make us listen to Romulan indeterminate polyphony.” (p 130)

  • Mistakes are, after all, how we learn. (p 143)
  • “Warrior nuns. Romulan warrior nuns. You know, Raffi, I am grateful.”

“Grateful?”

“That the universe can still delight me.” (p 154)

  • “Story?”

“A fiction. A tale. Something made up.”

“A lie?” The boy looked puzzled.

“No,” said Picard gently. “A human way of telling certain truths.” (p 158)

  • “Tell a lie often enough, someone will believe it.”

“It’s worse than that, Kirsten. Tell a lie often enough, and it stands a good chance of becoming the truth.” (p 214)

  • Just a general comment that I thoroughly approve of Star Trek finally embracing the word fuck, as well as many others. To quote Tilly, this is so fucking cool.

Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended!