Firebreak

Monday, October 11, 2021

Firebreak
Nicole Kornher-Stace, 2021

Premise: Sure, Mal has a weird obsession with one of the famous SecOps, but doesn't everyone? She's just trying to keep her head down and earn enough water to survive until she learns something she can't ignore.

This book starts with the protagonist playing a video game, but unlike some books, this doesn't have any time for nostalgia or wish fulfillment. In a dystopia ruled by warring factions that evolved from corporations, resources are severely rationed or for sale at exorbitant prices, and the prevalence and importance of immersive video games (before power curfew, anyway) is clearly meant as the local "bread and circuses."

The people are encouraged to idolize a small group of superpowered soldiers who fight in the constant war and have doppelgangers in the game. The plot kicks off when Mal and her friend and gaming partner Jessa are given some damning information about the origins of these soldiers. They end up hip-deep in conspiracies and cover-ups before they know it. Soon they have to figure out if there's anything they can do that will allow them to a) survive and b) live with themselves.

I found this an extremely compelling read that was hard to put down. It somehow manages to be both realistically brutal and horrific (in how the characters are treated by people and organizations with power) and fundamentally hopeful. Several times in the course of the story, people with very little are willing to try to pull together and stand up for what's right against those who would seek profit at all costs. 

My main quibble was about the relationship between Mal and 22. Not that I think her obsession has to be anything more in action than it is, but it seemed to come literally from nowhere. At the same time, it was important enough that I kept expecting a reveal about its origin (based on plot developments). Unless I missed something, that never happened, and although I didn't want a big dramatic scene, the final act felt like it was missing some small element, and that could have been it. 

Still, a very effective and emotional read based in a too-plausible corporate dystopia. Highly recommended.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book 

The Will Darling Adventures

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Will Darling Adventures
(Slippery Creatures, The Sugared Game, Subtle Blood)
K.J. Charles, 2020, 2020, 2021

I've sung the praises of K.J. Charles here before, but not in proportion with how many of her books I've actually read. It's a lot. It might be all of them. It's definitely so many that I'm not 100% sure whether it's all of them. 

I just love the way she balances romance with well-researched history and adventure. Her romance protagonists always face dire dangers as well as emotional struggles. This series is a romance trilogy that's also a 1920s action-spy-thriller. 

Will Darling is many things, an ex-soldier, a reluctant "war hero," a man with a rather large knife he knows how to use, a man who unexpectedly came into possession of a bookshop, and bisexual. Kim Secretan is a dashing, effeminate nobleman who comes into Will's life just when he needs a friend and ally. It's clear from the start that Kim is full of secrets, though, and those secrets almost tear them apart over and over, not to mention nearly get them both killed. 

I found the first book a little awkward at first while I was waiting for whatever the reveal was going to be about Kim. It's obvious that something is too convenient about his presence, even as his attraction to Will seems genuine. But once those reveals started to land, I was completely on board with this series. Will is our perspective character, and he's a stubborn, good-hearted (occasionally moralizing), hotheaded brawler. Kim, meanwhile, depends on charisma, intelligence, deception, and finesse. 

They are both great at what they do well, and incredibly bad at the other's specialty. Together they make a powerful team, but only after they can trust each other. Their romance is passionate and tempestuous, complicated by all the secrets and lies. The scenes where they are struggling with their emotions and their relationship are every bit as compelling as the ones where they are fighting for their lives. 

Each book builds on the twists and turns of the previous book as Will and Kim dive deeper into conspiracies to find new enemies. By the end, the series tells a sprawling story of espionage, danger, and love that reads like a breathless thriller. I adored it. 

4, 5, 5 Stars - Awesome Books

The Witness for the Dead

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Witness for the Dead
Katherine Addison, 2021

Premise: Set in the world of The Goblin Emperor. As a Witness, Thara Celehar investigates murder and deception while navigating hostility from other religious and political personnel.

Did...did I just read a fantasy noir? That was really good? Be still my heart! 

Don't misunderstand, this book isn't overtly stylized like a hardboiled detective novel, it doesn't read like a pastiche or parody. However...

  • The protagonist, despite being a sort of priest with a religious calling/inborn magical ability, functions as a private investigator on behalf of those who have passed away
  • The plot concerns several interwoven cases that involve corruption and/or scandal
  • The protagonist has a scandal in his backstory that sets him apart socially and emotionally from others
  • The protagonist is undermined by others in authority due to their own selfish motivations
  • The protagonist does good things because someone ought to do them, and few others in the city understand or believe this motivation
  • The city is described with the small, concrete details of daily life
  • The ending has a sense of ambiguity and melancholy

So it's got a lot in common with my favorite classic hard-boiled novels. It also includes magic, fantastic racism, LGBT issues, and just a wonderfully detailed and fascinating world.

Much as I remember from The Goblin Emperor, the author throws you in the deep end with terms, naming conventions, political structures, etc., and expects you to keep up without too much exposition. She does a fantastic job balancing the realistic use of terms with enough context clues so that you can keep up.

So much happened in this book, y'all. Read it for yourself.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book