Friday, June 30, 2023

#Review - Talon's Wrath by Steve McHugh #Fantasy

Series: Talons # 3
Format: Kindle, 264 pages
Release Date: June 13, 2023
Publisher: June 13, 2023
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Lucas Rurik faces unwanted celebrity, ancient enemies, and dangerous zealots in a thrilling urban-fantasy noir from the author of the Hellequin Chronicles.

Centuries of life experience inside and outside the Rift couldn’t prepare former Raven Guild member and riftborn detective Lucas Rurik for his latest set of challenges. First, when his capture of a prominent political figure “trends” on social networks, he finds himself the target of both the media and the public. Then, Noah Kaya, an Ancient, tracks him down for help on a job. As a rule, Lucas doesn’t trust the Ancients; they always seem to have an ulterior motive. But something about this gig just won’t let Lucas say no.

It seems one of Noah’s close friends disappeared right after becoming the lead suspect in a murder case. The problem is the guy in question isn’t the type to knock someone off. Not to mention a whole lot of rift-walkers have recently gone missing, the crime scene reeks of pure rift energy, and a deranged killer who Lucas thought was long deceased might not actually be dead after all.

Soon, what was originally a simple search for a missing person devolves into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an age-old enemy—and it could bring Lucas face-to-face with Dr. Callie Mitchell, the depraved scientist he’s been hunting for months . . .

Talon's Wrath, by Steve McHugh, is the third installment in the authors Talon's series. This story picks up 4 months after the ending of Blessed Odds. For Lucas Rurik, the last member of the Raven Guild, and perhaps the last member of the Talon's, notoriety after arresting a member of the British Parliament comes with unwanted problems including new villains, and the hunt for Callie Mitchell, who Lucas has been hunting since The Last Raven believing she was partially responsible Lucas's coven being wiped out.

Callie, who is a murderer, a torturer, and a war criminal, has been experimenting with various formula's trying to find the perfect monster for a plan which may be close to completion with the help of some powerful villains. Then, Noah Kaya, an Ancient, tracks him down for help on a job. As a rule, Lucas doesn’t trust the Ancients; they always seem to have an ulterior motive. But something about this gig just won’t let Lucas say no. It seems one of Noah’s close friends disappeared right after becoming the lead suspect in a murder case. 

The problem is the guy in question isn’t the type to knock someone off. Not to mention a whole lot of rift-walkers have recently gone missing, the crime scene reeks of pure rift energy, and a deranged killer who Lucas thought was long deceased might not actually be dead after all. Soon, what was originally a simple search for a missing person devolves into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an age-old enemy—and it could bring Lucas face-to-face with Dr. Callie Mitchell, the depraved scientist he’s been hunting for months. 

Is it me, or do villains never die in this world? No, seriously. Callie has been avoiding capture by Lucas and his crew which includes Ravi Gill, head of the RCU, Ji-Hyun, who took charge of the RCU in the United States, Nadia, who is a chained revenant who can see a variety of futures, as well as others like Hiroyuki Matsuno, a Silver Phoenix who works with Noah, and ends up working side by side with Lucas to hunt down not only Callie, but Matthew Pierce who is so dangerous, that he killed a Talon which is hard to do. 

I wasn't sure how many books were in this series until I read the last page and saw that the author plans on continuing with this series. As I said, too many loose ends that have not been tied up. Too many mysteries that remain unsolved, including who was responsible for murdering Lucas Raven Coven, and whether or not he plans on reforming the Raven Coven. The action in this book is hot and heavy and nearly non-stop. It takes place on Earth and in the void where we find the Tempest and introduces many new characters who form the ending of this story.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

#Review - Little Girl Vanished by Denise Grover Swank #Mystery #Suspense

Series: Harper Adams # 1
Format: EBook, 385 pages
Release Date: June 20, 2023
Publisher: DGS
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Mystery / Suspense

With a friend’s child missing, and the police failing, disgraced ex-detective Harper enlists the aid of a former crime boss to untangle a mystery that strikes too close to home.

Disgraced, ex-detective Harper Adams is perfectly content wallowing at rock bottom. She’s lost her job, house, and reputation, and it only gets worse when she’s forced to move back home to Jackson Creek, Arkansas, the one place she swore she’d never return.

But everything changes when she gets chilling news. A childhood friend’s daughter is missing…and it’s eerily reminiscent of Harper’s sister’s kidnapping and murder two decades ago.

Not her business.

Except with the police fumbling the case at every turn, Harper realizes she might be the only one who can save the girl.

And she might need the help of James "Skeeter" Malcolm a former crime boss to do it. 

Little Girl Vanished, by author Denise Grover Swank, is the first installment in the authors Harper Adams series. 36-year-old Harper Adams is a former detective in Little Rock who shot and killed a suspect 4 months ago who shot at her first. Because no weapon was found, Harper was charged with second degree murder. She lost her job, her home, her reputation, and everyone truly believes that she got away with murder after being found not guilty. Harper was forced to move back to her home town where she currently takes up space in an apartment over her parents garage.

Harper is by all accounts, an alcoholic who has lost the reason for living. 20 years ago, her younger sister was kidnapped at gun point, and later murdered. The police believe that Harper could have done more to save her sister, including the Chief of Police who is still on the job. Enter James "Skeeter" Malcolm a former Fenton County crime boss who allegedly first appeared in the authors Rose Gardner Investigations. For most of the story, Malcolm is more of a thorn in Harper's side than a person who she could find any connection to. 

So, when there appears to be yet another kidnapping just 2 short weeks after Harper returned home, trouble once again appears to be following Harper where ever she goes. What's even more suspicious is that the kidnapped girl, Ava, is the daughter of Harper's sister's best friend Vanessa Peterman. With her sisters kidnapper and apparent killer behind bars, could this be a copycat? Could the kidnapper be sending Harper herself a message that she should have been the one taken, not her sister? As for Malcolm, he's basically a thorn in everyone's side including Chief Larson who wants Malcom behind bars. 

Someone, it appears, is going to great lengths to make it seem as though Harper is not only a murderer, but she's not wanted in Lone County. That includes Harper's own mother who seems especially sad to see how Harper turned out. I am going to differ from most reviewers so I beg your indulgence. I think Harper has severe case of PTSD that has not been healed. The more she drinks, the more she ignores the fact that her life was destroyed in a moment's notice and now it appears that someone wants to finish what they started 20 years ago. 

Fact is that I did not read the authors previous series with Malcolm in it so I don't know his past, nor does the author address it fully in this book which is fair. In this book, he is the bad guy who tries to do good, but has numerous people trying to take him down. Malcolm, however, may be Harper's only ally whether she wants him around or not. Harper has to find Vanessa's daughter quickly or face another shocking loss of life that may shatter what hope she has of finding happiness.  

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

#Review - Only Good Enemies by Jennifer Estep #SyFy #Fantasy

Series: Galactic Bonds # 2
Format: EBook, 443 pages
Release Date: July 18, 2023
Publisher: Jennifer Estep
Source: Publisher
Genre: Science Fiction / Romance


My name is Vesper Quill. I used to be a lowly lab rat, toiling away in obscurity developing brewmakers and other household appliances. But thanks to my seer magic and my own ingenuity, I’m now a Regal lady and the head of a successful corporation.

My mission? To destroy the Techwave, the dangerous group that has stolen my designs and plans to weaponize them against the Imperium. But when my mission takes an unexpected turn, I’m once again surrounded by enemies and fighting for my life.

Further complicating matters is Kyrion Caldaren, an arrogant Regal lord whose fate is bound to mine. Kyrion doesn’t realize the two of us still have an unwanted connection that puts us both in grave danger . . . or does he?


My name is Kyrion Caldaren. As the leader of the Arrows, the Imperium’s elite fighting force, I’ve been tasked with tracking down and destroying the Techwave before they seize control of the Archipelago Galaxy.

My other mission? Find a way to assassinate Lord Callus Holloway, the Imperium ruler who wants to take my psion power for his own. Holloway is also a threat to Vesper Quill, who haunts my thoughts, despite the broken bond and distance between us.

When I realize Vesper is in danger, my priorities change, and I vow to use all my telepathic, telekinetic, and other abilities to help her. I will save Vesper from her enemies and mine—even if I have to burn down the whole bloody galaxy.

Jennifer Estep's Only Good Enemies is the second installment in the authors Galactic Binds series. The story begins 3 months after the ending of Only Bad Options. The series features two main characters in Vesper Quill and Kryion Calderen. Vesper used to be a lowly lab rat, toiling away in obscurity developing brewmakers and other household appliances. But thanks to her seer magic and her own ingenuity, she discovered a nefarious plan by Rowena Kent to equip new space cruisers with faulty systems. 

When Vesper uncovered Rowena's deadly conspiracy, she crossed paths with Kyrion Caldaren, a psion and an Imperium Arrow who is one of the most notorious killers in the Archipelago Galaxy. As a seer, Vesper can never forget anything she hears, or sees, or experiences. After standing in front of the dangerous Callus Holloway and denying her true bond connection to Kyrion, she was put in charge with what's now called Quill Corp and made a Regal lady and has made the company profitable with her own designs. Vesper, however, has yet another mission.

To destroy the Techwave, the dangerous terrorist group that wants to destroy Holloway and the Imperium. After she is kidnapped by Techwave, she discovers that they are using her stolen designs to weaponize them against the Imperium and her own mother is involved. Enter Kyrion who has tried to ignore the true bond connection knowing that Callus was directly responsible for the deaths of his parents. If Callus knows about Vesper and Kryion, they will become lab rats, and their powers will be drained until they are nothing but human husks.

Kyrion is the leader of the Arrows, the Imperium’s elite fighting force. He's been tasked with tracking down and destroying the Techwave before they seize control of the Archipelago Galaxy. With people like Zane Zimmer chomping at the bit trying to remove Kyrion from leadership, Kyrion needs to focus on his other mission. Find a way to assassinate Lord Callus Holloway, the Imperium ruler who wants to take his psion power for his own. Holloway is also a threat to Vesper Quill, who haunts his thoughts, despite the true bond and distance between us. 

This rollicking space opera features a mix of magic and technology, along with a soul mates, slow burn, and enemies-to-lovers story. If you are a fan of the author, you will learn quickly that the author loves food. What's even more impressive is that she's made Kyrion a helluva cook who can quickly stir up a meal within 30 minutes, including dessert! I think the connection between Vesper and Kyrion has finally come to the point where they can't deny that they are bonded in ways others may not be. This story also focuses a bit on Vesper's parentage. A father she never knew and doesn't want to know, and a mother who is disgusting as any villain in this series. This story does end on a curious cliffhanger ending that is likely to lead to a story focusing on Zane and another character introduced in this book. 

Read the book, enjoy the action, and the romance.  

Monday, June 26, 2023

#Review - Zero Days by Ruth Ware #Thrillers #Psychological

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Release Date: June 20, 2023
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Psychological

An adrenaline-fueled thriller that combines Mr. and Mrs. Smith with The Fugitive about a woman in a race against time to clear her name and find her husband’s murderer.

Hired by companies to break into buildings and hack security systems, Jack and her husband, Gabe, are the best penetration specialists in the business. But after a routine assignment goes horribly wrong, Jack arrives home to find her husband dead. To add to her horror, the police are closing in on their suspect—her.

Suddenly on the run and quickly running out of options, Jack must decide who she can trust as she circles closer to the real killer in this unputdownable and heart-pounding mystery.

Ruth Ware's Zero Days is a psychological thriller that sends Jacintha (Jack) Cross on a twisted journey to discover who murdered her husband. Jacintha Cross and Gabriel Medway are a married couple who run Crossways Security. They are the best in the business. Jake's job is to run penetration tests and stress test on companies security companies so that they can avoid being targeted by Russian, Chinese, and North Korean hackers who have no problems stealing proprietary information from companies in the West.
Sometimes, you get caught on a job. Sometime you walk away and make the company embarrassed by their lack of security. While Jack does the pen testing, Gabe is the digital security expert and “hacktivist.” But after a routine assignment goes horribly wrong, Jack arrives home to find her husband dead. To add to her horror, there are no signs of breaking in, and the murder weapon, a knife, has only Jack's fingerprints on it, making her a person of interest. Suddenly on the run and quickly running out of options, Jack must decide who she can trust as she circles closer to the real killer.
Despite the fact that Jack suffered a major injury that should be attended to at a hospital, she decides to run from Police, especially Detectives Miles and Malik, rather than cooperate-preferring to solve the case on her own, and clear their names, especially Gabe's who may have discovered something damaging that certain powerful individuals didn't want uncovered. As with every mystery, the authorities always focus on the survivor. In this case, Jack has the means and the opportunity but what is her motive? 
To make matters even more twisted, it appears that someone took out a huge life insurance policy shortly before Gabe's murder. This is a pretty damaging occurrence that could prove that it was Jack who was involved in Gabe's murder. Without the means, and the money, Jack finds herself in a cat and mouse game, and the most shocking revelation will soon be revealed to her who was actually responsible. Could her former abusive boyfriend who is a cop be involved? Could Gabe's best friend and fellow hacker be responsible for Gabe's death?
When I finished the book, I said to myself this needs a sequel to see what Jack does next. Especially with the little surprise at the end, and the fact that Jack is really good at what she does, even if she does occasionally get caught by security guards. Overall, this is a pretty solid story, but with some curious parts, especially when it came to how unlikely a person with the damage that Jack takes in the story is able to keep going without dying. 
My thanks to the Publisher and the Author for providing a complimentary digital Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of this novel via NetGalley. This is my fair, honest and personal review. All opinions are mine alone and were not biased in any way.

Chapter 1
The wall around the perimeter was child’s play. Six feet, but no spikes or barbed wire on the top. Barbed wire is my nemesis. There’s a reason they use it in war zones.

At five foot two I couldn’t quite reach to pull myself up, so I scaled a nearby tree with a sturdy branch overhanging the car park, lowered myself until my feet made contact with the top of the wall, and then ran softly along it to a place where I could drop down out of sight of the CCTV cameras that circled the building at intervals.

On the other side of the car park was the fire door Gabe had described, and it looked promising. A standard half-glazed door with a horizontal release bar on the inside. I saw with satisfaction that it was poorly fitted, with a gap at the bottom that you could practically get your hand through. It was the work of about thirty seconds to slip my long metal slider underneath, swing it up so the hook caught on the bar, and pull firmly down. The door opened and I held my breath, waiting for the alarm—fire doors are always risky like that—but none came.

Inside, the lights flicked on automatically—big fluorescent squares in a tiled ceiling that stretched away into the darkness like a chessboard. The far end of the corridor was still pitch-black, the sensors there not yet picking up my movement, but the section I was in was bright as day, and I stood, letting my eyes adjust to the glare.

Lights are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re a huge red flag to anyone monitoring the security cameras. There’s nothing like a screen lighting up like Christmas to catch a security guard’s eye and make them glance up from their phone. But you can sometimes style it out if you’re caught walking confidently around a building at night when the lights are on. It’s much harder to explain your presence if you’re creeping along an unlit corridor with a torch. You might as well be wearing a striped T-shirt and carrying a bag marked Loot.

Right now it was 10:20 p.m. and I was wearing my “office” clothes—black trousers which looked like they could be the bottom half of a suit but were actually stretchier and more breathable than any regular office wear, a dark blue blouse, and a black blazer that was standard, off-the-rack from Gap. On my feet were black Converse, and I had a gray Fjällräven backpack slung over my shoulder.

Only my hair was out of place. This month it was dyed a fluorescent scarlet that wasn’t close to any natural shade and didn’t really fit in with the slightly stuffy atmosphere of this company—an insurance group called Arden Alliance. Gabe had suggested a wig, but wigs were always a risk, and besides, I was getting into character. Jen—I had decided my imaginary office worker was called Jen—worked in customer services but had fond memories of her gap year after university and still thought she was a little bit cool. Jen might have buckled down to achieve promotion, but her hair was the last flicker of a personality she hadn’t quite abandoned to the nine-to-five. That, and perhaps a touch too much liquid eyeliner, plus a tattoo on her shoulder blade that said stick ’em with the pointy end.

The eyeliner was real—I didn’t feel properly dressed without a smooth flick of Nyx Epic Ink. The university degree was imaginary. So was the tattoo. I wasn’t sufficiently into Game of Thrones to ink it, though admittedly if I had been, Arya was the best character.

Jen had been working late, lost track of time, and was heading hurriedly home for the weekend. Hence the comfortable shoes. The backpack was for her office heels—although that was where my role play broke down. Jen might keep heels in her backpack. Mine was full of housebreaking tools and computer equipment loaded with some deeply shady software Gabe had downloaded from the dark web.

I walked softly down the corridor, my rubber soles silent on the carpet, trying to look as though I belonged here. On either side were the doors of empty offices, just the occasional LED glowing in the darkness where people had failed to turn their computers off properly for the weekend.

A photocopier in an alcove blinked hypnotically and I stopped, glancing up and down the hallway. It was illuminated behind me but dark around the corner up ahead, the motion sensors not yet detecting my presence. So much the better—the lights might alert security, but that worked both ways. The guards were unlikely to be coming from behind me; that corridor was a dead end out to the car park. If they came from up ahead, the lights flickering on would give me enough warning to double back or duck into one of the offices. Gabe would probably tell me to get on with finding the server room—but the chance was too good to miss.

Behind the copier were, as I’d hoped, a tangle of wires and two LAN ports for hooking up devices to the main company network. One was in use, connected to the copier. The other was empty. Heart beating, I glanced up and down the corridor and took one of the little Raspberry Pi computers out of my backpack.

The Pi was smaller than a paperback book, and I slid it down behind the copier, nesting it snugly into the mass of abandoned pages that had fallen off the back of the document feeder. I plugged it into a power socket and snaked the LAN cable into the empty port. Seconds later my Bluetooth earpiece crackled and my husband’s deep voice came into my ear, strangely intimate in the hush of the deserted building.

“Hey, babe… your Pi just came online. How’s it going?”

“Okay.” I spoke quietly, not quite a whisper but not much more. “I’m just trying to get my bearings.” I tugged a stray photocopy over the Pi, hiding it from view, then shouldered my bag and continued up the corridor, rounding the corner. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, you know.” Gabe’s tone was dry. “Just a little Dark Souls on the PS. Not much I can do until you get me into the server room.”

I laughed, but he was only half joking. The part about Dark Souls might not be true—I knew full well there was no way he’d be gaming; on the contrary, he was undoubtedly hunched at his monitor anxiously tracing my progress on the blueprints we’d obtained from the planning department—but the bit about the server room was. This was always the hardest part of any job for Gabe—where he had to just sit back and listen, powerless to help if I ran into any trouble.

“Where are you?” he asked now.

“In a corridor running east-west from that fire door you found. This building is—Oh, shoot.”

I stopped dead.

“What?” Gabe’s voice was alert but not overly alarmed. Oh, shoot wasn’t what I would have said if I’d just stumbled into a guard. That would have been something a lot stronger.

“There’s a security door up ahead. Was that on the plans?”

“No,” Gabe said a little grimly. “They must have updated.” I could hear his fingers racing across the keyboard. “Hold up, I’m trying to get into the security system via your Pi. What can you see?”

“There’s a PIR sensor.” I looked up at the blinking infrared oval mounted above the door. I was just out of range.

“Okay, then wait, the sensor might trigger an alarm.”

“Well, duh,” I said. I knew that, of course. I wasn’t worried about the door itself—between us, Gabe and I could get through most things. But a PIR sensor usually meant a motion detector—and activating it after hours risked some kind of alert to the guards. Still, the fire door hadn’t been alarmed, which was a good sign. I began walking closer.

“Jack?” Gabe said. His fingers stopped clicking. “Jack, honey, talk to me, what are you doing? We don’t want another Zanatech.”

Zanatech. Ugh. One word: dogs. I’ve got nothing against them as pets, but I hate security dogs. Those things can really do damage. And they can run. Fast.

I ignored Gabe and took another step, holding my breath.

The sensor lit, registering my presence, and I shut my eyes, bracing myself for the sound of alarms, running feet… but the only thing that happened was the door swinging smoothly open.

Jack?” Gabe’s voice came into my ear more urgently as he heard my exhalation. “What just happened?”

“It’s fine. The door’s open. Don’t think it’s set anything off.”

I could literally hear Gabe clenching his teeth on the other end of the line, trying not to snap the retort he wanted to make, but I knew the words he was holding back. He’d wanted me to wait while he tried to access the security system via the Pi and figure out if the door was alarmed. But that could take hours, and in this job, doing nothing was a risk in itself. Sometimes you just had to go on your gut—act on impulse.

Besides, it wasn’t really impulse, and Gabe knew it. It was instinct, honed by years of doing exactly this kind of thing.

“You hope it hasn’t set anything off,” he said at last, and I grinned. I could afford to be magnanimous. If there had been an alarm screaming out, or worse, the sound of barking, while Gabe yelled I told you so, I would have been laughing on the other side of my face. But one of Gabe’s many good qualities was that he wasn’t a sore loser. I could tell he’d already moved on to the next challenge when he asked, “Where are you now? Lift lobby?”

“Yes.” I looked around me. The lobby was furnished with a tall yucca and a futuristic metal chair. “There’s three corridors coming off and…” I looked up at the dial above the lift doors. “Blimey, fourteen floors. Do we know where the server room’s supposed to be?”

“Hang on,” Gabe said. I heard the click of computer keys. “Looks like IT’s on the fifth floor, so start there. What floor are you on? Ground?”

“I’m not sure.” I looked around me. “The car park’s on two different levels.”

A long sign opposite the lift listed the different floors. Apparently I was on the first. And 5—IT and HR was helpfully listed four lines above. So much for Gabe’s computer wizardry.

I sent him a quick snap of the sign on my phone, captioned no shit sherlock, and I heard his rumbling laugh come over the earpiece as the message landed.

“Look, what can I say—we tech heads are used to being asked to solve problems people should be able to figure out themselves.”

“Go screw yourself, Medway,” I said amiably, and he laughed again, this time a low, meaning chuckle that made my stomach flutter.

“Oh, I would, but I’ve got someone much hotter in mind. And she’s going to be home in an hour or two. If she gets off her arse.”

I felt a smile tug irresistibly at my lips, but I made my voice stern.

“I won’t be home at all if you don’t get me into the server room, so keep your mind on the job and leave my arse out of it.” I looked at the lift panel. It was the high-tech kind where you had to beep your card and select a floor. “The lift’s got a card reader on it, so I’m assuming the upper floors are pass-card protected.”

“Well, I probably can’t override that until you’ve got me access to the server room, so time to get your steps in, babe.”

I sighed theatrically and looked around for the fire escape route—aka the stairs. A labeled door in the corner of the lobby showed me the way, but before I took it, I dropped a bugged USB stick outside the lift doors. Gabe had handed me half a dozen before I left, innocent-looking little things loaded with a Trojan horse program of his own devising. With any luck, someone coming in on Monday would pick it up and plug it into their computer in an effort to locate the owner. When they did, they would find a bunch of bland Word documents and a sneaky little bit of code that would embed itself in their hard drive, make contact with its mothership, and allow read/write access to their computer as long as it was connected to the internet.

Coming out onto the fifth floor I dropped another USB and then touched my headset.

“You are in a small lobby,” I said to Gabe in a robotic voice. “Corridors lead to the north, east, and west. To the south of you is a lift. In the distance is a tall, gleaming white tower. No, wait, that last part’s from Colossal Cave Adventure.”

“Drop USB device,” Gabe said, and I laughed.

A, that’s three words. And B, I’ve already done that. As you’d know if you’d managed to hack the CCTV system. So—which corridor?”

I glanced up and down the three equally featureless hallways, listening to the click of Gabe’s mouse as he tried to make sense of the layout.

“You came in the fire door we talked about and lift C is at your back, is that right?” he asked.

“Yes. At least, I assume it’s lift C. There’s a door marked HR to the left, if that helps.”

“Yeah, it does. You need the corridor straight ahead, I think.”

I gave a thumbs-up, remembered Gabe couldn’t see me yet, and then walked across to the glass door straight in front of me. This time it didn’t slide open automatically.

“Okay, we’re at another security door—and I’m on the wrong side. There’s a card reader. What next, Inspector Gadget?”

“Anywhere to enter a code?”

“Yes, a key panel. Numerical.”

“That’s something. Give me a second. I don’t know if I can override it yet, but I might be able to get the code off their system via your Pi.”

I nodded and stood, arms crossed, listening to the frantic click of Gabe’s fingers racing across the keyboard and his voice as he muttered the occasional swear word under his breath. I felt that smile tug at my lips again, and for a fleeting moment I wished I were with him, in our living room at home, so that I could snake my arms around his broad torso and press a kiss to the back of his warm neck where the black hair was shaven short in an undercut. I loved Gabe, loved everything about him, but this was the time I loved him most, when he was head-down and completely absorbed in his work. It wasn’t just the sexiness of watching someone doing something they were very, very good at. It was the camaraderie, the sense that it was him and me against the world.

And, well, sometimes against each other. We might be husband and wife, but that didn’t mean we weren’t competitive. I was good at what I did too. Very good, as it happens.

While I waited, I strolled across to the keypad and entered 1234. Nothing happened, just a brief red light on the sensor. I shrugged. I hadn’t really expected more, but it was always worth a try. Then I typed in 4321. Nothing again. I didn’t risk a third attempt in case there was some kind of lockout, but something else occurred to me and I fished in my bag for the can of compressed air at the bottom.

“How’s it going, honey?” I asked Gabe while I unscrewed the cap. I got a muttered grunt in response.

“Not great. I’m in their system, but I can’t seem to access the admin side. Trying to get into someone’s emails to see if they’ve mailed the code to anyone.”

“Well, tick tock, Medway. If you want me home anytime soon. Time to get off your shapely arse, maybe?”

The only answer I got was a low growl, half frustration, half laughter.

I fitted the can of condensed air to the crack in the door and pressed the trigger. There was a long, loud hiss of air being forced through the narrow gap—and then the door slid open. I let out a delighted crow. Gabe’s fingers stopped clicking.

“Uh… what just happened?”

“Just me, solving problems tech heads should be able to figure out themselves.”

“Wait, you got the door open? How?”

“You know it, baby. Condensed air through the gap. The temp change confuses the PIR sensor. Hack that.

“Oh, fuck you.”

“I thought we already established that was your job, Mr. Medway?” I teased, and heard Gabe’s annoyance at being beaten a second time dissolve into laughter.

“Yeah, we did. And talking of shapely arses, hop to it, babe. Tick tock.”

“Tick tock,” I agreed, and began walking down the corridor, the lights coming on one after the other as I did.

It was a long hallway, lined with offices like the ones four floors below, none of them server rooms. I peered inside an unmarked door—but it was a closet, filled with janitorial supplies and a mop and bucket. Another light flicked on. I could see right down to the end now, where the corridor turned. That was all of them; if someone was coming from ahead of me, I would get no warning. There was a crackle from my headset.

“Still nothing?”

“Not yet,” I said shortly, and then halted, listening.

“Did you—” Gabe began.

“Shh!” I hissed. He didn’t need to be told twice. There was a soft click as he muted his mic, so that even his breathing wouldn’t distract me.

There was a noise coming from up ahead. Not footsteps, thank God, but the low hum of computer fans and of air-conditioning working overtime. You hear server rooms before you see them.

“I’ve got it,” I whispered back to Gabe. “At least, if I haven’t, they’ve got a Cessna behind that door up ahead.”

As I drew closer, I could make out a vented door with a sign reading NO ENTRY EXCEPT TO AUTHORISED PERSONNEL.

Ignoring that, I tried the handle. It was locked, of course, but the fact that there was no keyhole was a bummer. A physical lock I could probably have picked, but this door had only a swipe card reader to the left of the handle. No panel to enter a code. And the door was well fitted, with absolutely zero gap underneath. There was almost certainly some kind of internal release button, but I doubted I could press it with so little room to maneuver. The vent was installed so that the louvres angled downwards, not up, and the aperture was too small to be useful. Even if I jimmied off the grille, I couldn’t fit through, and besides, I wasn’t really supposed to damage anything.

“Babe?” I heard in my ear.

“There’s a swipe reader. No way of entering a code.”

“Balls.” I knew Gabe would be pulling thoughtfully at his beard, trying to figure out our options. Encoding a swipe card wasn’t hard if you had the equipment and knew the code, but we didn’t know the code. And even if he managed to dig it out of the intranet files, I was here and the encoder was back at home. We had to finish this tonight.

“Up and over?” Gabe asked, his question chiming with my own thoughts, and I nodded.

“You read my mind.”

Glancing up and down the corridor, I took stock of the rooms to either side of the server room. To the left was an ordinary office with a glazed wall fronting the hallway and two desks. The door probably wasn’t locked, given it was a shared space, but the glass wall wasn’t ideal—anyone walking down the corridor would see me in there. To the right… and now I felt a jolt of satisfaction. To the right was a restroom. Men’s—but that didn’t make any difference for my purpose. The point was that the corridor wall was solid plasterboard.

“Houston, we have a toilet,” I muttered to Gabe.

“Easy as A, B, WC.”

“Easy for you; you’re the one sitting on your arse at home,” I shot back, and heard his answering laugh as I swung open the door.

Inside I stood for a moment, peeling off my jacket and waiting for my eyes to adjust as the lights flickered on. Behind me, against the corridor wall, was a bank of sinks. To my right were two urinals, and directly ahead were the stalls. I pushed open the door of the leftmost cubicle and saw to my immense satisfaction that it was a standard design—a bowl resting against a cistern sturdily boxed in to chest height. The new fad for concealing cisterns inside the wall is sleek but rubbish for what I needed.

I put the toilet lid down, climbed onto it, and then jumped on top of the cistern, where I stood, crouched below the paneled ceiling. I waited a beat to take stock, making sure my balance was centered and my equipment secure, then pressed gently upwards on the ceiling panel.

It shifted immediately, a cloud of dust and dead flies fluttering to the bathroom floor, and I pulled myself up, praying as I did so that the wall between the two rooms would be solid enough to hold my weight. It creaked gently as my biceps flexed, and again as I folded one leg up and inside the narrow aperture. But nothing gave, and in less than twenty seconds I was lying flat on my belly in the shallow void between the drop ceiling and the real one. It was very, very hot. The heat was coming from the snaking silver ducts of the air conditioners working hard to cool the racks of servers in the room below. When I pulled out my torch and swung it around, I could see the crawl space stretching away into the darkness ahead of me.

Carefully, very carefully, I put the torch between my teeth and edged my way across the ceiling, keeping as close to the supporting wall as I could. Then I dug my nails into a ceiling tile right above what I judged to be the corner of the server room. It pulled up as easily as a trapdoor, but the drop beneath was daunting. Banks of blinking servers, too tightly packed to be climbable, and an eight-foot fall to the floor. I could lower myself down—my upper-body strength was pretty good—but there was a high chance I would not be able to reach to pull myself back up. Which left one fairly urgent question: Did the server room door open from the inside without a swipe card?

Lying flat across the dividing wall, I leaned down between the struts and flashed the torch through the gap in the ceiling. By craning my head I could see there was some kind of panel beside the door handle, but I couldn’t make it out—the shadow from one of the server banks made it impossible to see any detail. It might be a door release… or a fire alarm. Or simply a light switch. I would have to get closer to check.

With great caution, I laid aside the panel I had just lifted and commando-crawled further across the ceiling, closer to the center of the room. The supporting struts creaked a little but didn’t move, and I held my breath as I began to pry up a second panel. This one was stiffer for some reason, maybe held in place by the air-conditioning duct taped over the adjacent panel, and I found myself straining at the edge, pulling at it with all my strength. One corner gave and I pulled harder. One whole side had come loose…

And then, with a sound like a crack of thunder, the entire panel snapped in half and I sprawled backwards.

For a long moment I lay there, frozen, the broken panel in my hand. The bang had been so loud that my ears were ringing, and I could imagine it echoing through the narrow ceiling space all along the hallway, reverberating through the ducts, making the whole ceiling vibrate like a drum. I could feel the gritty dust settling around me, the carapaces of tiny insects floating down to land in my hair and on my face, and I could hear Gabe’s panicked voice in my ear.

“Jack. Jack! Are you okay? Babe, are you all right? What just happened?”

“I’m okay,” I whispered. I put my hand up to the earpiece, checking that it was still secure. My fingers were shaking with shock. “I—I just snapped a ceiling tile.”

“It sounded like a gunshot!” I could hear the relief in his tone, and suddenly, piercingly, I wished he were here with me, and I knew he was feeling the same. This was the hardest part—when something went wrong, or almost did, and the other person could do nothing to help. “Christ, sweetheart, don’t do that to me. I thought you’d been shot.”

I nodded soberly.

“I’m fine, but fuck, Gabe, that was really loud. If anyone’s still working on this floor, they’ll definitely have heard.”

“Well, I can’t get into the CCTV system to check until you’ve plugged in that drive,” Gabe said. The teasing had gone from his voice and he sounded like he was worried but trying not to show it—both because he didn’t want to pass on his nerves to me, and because he knew I didn’t always take protectiveness well. “For real, love, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I laid the broken tile aside and propped myself back onto my elbows, cautiously patting myself down. My heart rate was slowing and nothing seemed to be missing from my pack or pockets. Then I realized—the torch had fallen through the hole in the ceiling and was lying on the floor of the server room, pointing away from the door. I still had no idea whether there was a release button.

Well, fuck it, there was only one way we were getting into that server room—and if I couldn’t get out, so be it. If I had to sleep there, I could cope. I’d done worse.

I made my voice firm.

“I’m going down.”

Gabe’s laugh was a little tremulous.

“You know I love it when you talk dirty, babe, but now’s not the time.”

“Fuck you,” I grunted, hauling myself into position, and this time his laugh sounded reassured.

“That’s my girl. How big is the drop?”

“Eight feet? Maybe nine? Not more.”

“Good luck. Break a leg. I mean, don’t.”

“I won’t,” I said tersely. I braced myself on the struts surrounding the ceiling panel, assessing the drop, dipped my fingertips into the climber’s chalk tied onto my backpack, and began to lower myself slowly into the apartment, my muscles tense with the effort of controlling my descent. This was why I spent five boring mornings a week in the gym. Not so I could fit into my skinny jeans, and certainly not for Gabe, who didn’t give a rat’s arse what my dress size was. But for this. This moment when everything depended on the strength of my biceps and the tenacity of my grip.

Well, this and running from security guards, but I hoped it wasn’t going to come to that tonight.

A few moments later I was hanging by my fingertips, arms at full stretch. I glanced down. I was maybe three feet from the floor. The drop was further than I would have liked, and I wished I’d worn something more shock-absorbent than Converse, but my fingers were already protesting. I counted to three.

And let go.

I landed on all fours, silently, like a cat.

“I’m in,” I said to Gabe.

“You’re bloody brilliant. Do I tell you that often enough? Now, have you got the thumb drives and that second Pi?”

“Yeah.” I straightened up and dug in my pack for the padded envelope Gabe had handed me just a few hours ago, filled with his carefully prepared devices. “Where do I put them?”

“Okay,” Gabe said, and now there was no teasing left, and his voice was pure concentration. “Listen carefully: here’s what I need you to do…”

IT WAS MAYBE FIVE MINUTES later that I plugged in the final drive, then wiped down my sweating palms, straightened up, and looked around for my torch. For a minute I couldn’t see it—but then I noticed a glow coming from underneath the furthest bank of servers. I must have kicked it there by accident when I dropped down.

It was right at the back, but I was able to hook it out with my metal slider and now I swung it around the room, aiming it at the panel beside the door.

A green knob. Unmarked, but it had to be a quick release, didn’t it? Fire regulations surely meant that locking employees into rooms filled with masses of electronic equipment was a big no-no.

Before I pressed it, I glanced at the ceiling. There were two panels missing: one dislodged, the other snapped in half. Damaging fixtures and furnishings hadn’t been part of the plan, but accidents couldn’t be helped—everyone knew that. Perhaps I should climb up again via the men’s loos to replace the panel I’d moved across, though.

I was considering this when Gabe’s voice crackled over my earpiece, a new note in his tone.

“Babe? You still there?”

“I’m just leaving. What is it?”

“They’re onto you. I’ve just got access to their cameras. There’s a guard coming up the back stairs and another by the main lift. They’re leaving the third floor now.”

“How much time have I got?”

“Two minutes, tops. Maybe less.”

“Should I stay put?”

“No, they’re searching rooms. Someone must have heard the noise.”

“Okay. I’m going for it.”

With a frisson of trepidation and excitement, I pressed the green button. For a moment nothing happened and my stomach lurched. Had the guards somehow disabled the override? I pulled the handle—and the door swung inwards.

“Where are they?” I whispered as I ducked into the corridor. The lights flickered on as I retripped the motion sensors. As soon as they came into the lobby, the guards would know that someone was on this floor.

“Think it’s the fourth.” Gabe’s voice was terse. He must be hunched over the monitors, trying to match the layout of the building to the camera views he was seeing. This was the stuff I sucked at—blueprints and tech gobbledegook—and that he lived for. “Hey, I can see you.”

I glanced up, and sure enough there was the unblinking black eye of a security camera. I blew Gabe a kiss and pictured him grinning back, then wondered whether some puzzled guard in the back office was watching this same camera.

Gabe’s voice broke into my thoughts with a new urgency.

“Nope, scrap that. You’ve got a guard directly ahead, about to go into the fifth-floor lobby. Turn around, head for the back stairs; you may be able to get down before the guy below finishes on the fourth. Don’t run—he’s right underneath you, he’ll hear the noise.”

Silently, obediently, I began speed walking in the other direction, thankful for the rubber soles of my shoes. I was almost at the stairs when Gabe spoke, sharp and peremptory.

“Abort! He’s on the stairs.”

Fuck. I couldn’t say anything, and Gabe knew it. He could see his wife on the monitors, caught like a mouse between two cats. There was no way out. I would have to hide.

“Duck in an office,” he ordered, but I was way ahead of him, already trying door after door. One locked. Two locked. Who were these people? Didn’t they trust their colleagues? A third one locked. Frantically I dug in my backpack for my lockpicks and stuck them in the keyhole, digging around with a force that was as likely to break the picks as trip the lock. But luck was on my side, and with a heart-quickening click, the lock gave. I slid inside, wrenched the locking mechanism shut, and stood with my back to the wooden door, trying to quell my thumping heart.

“I can see you,” Gabe said urgently in my ear. Craning my head to one side, I realized he was right. Even flat against the door, I was visible through the office window, and the guards were getting closer. Gabe had muted his mic so that I could listen better, and now I could hear their footsteps in the corridor, their voices getting louder.

I had only seconds to decide what to do.

They’re searching rooms, Gabe’s warning came into my head. If they opened the door, I was sunk.

I flung myself onto the floor, rolled sideways under a sofa, and lay there, my face pressed to the carpet, my heart thudding in my ears. For a moment I had a sudden, surreal image of my imaginary office worker, Jen, and what she would make of this, and I had to suppress a hysterical urge to laugh.

Instead I lay, holding my breath, twisting the ring on my left hand round and round with my thumb. It was my usual tic in moments of stress—a habit somewhere between biting my nails and crossing my fingers, only one that involved Gabe. It made sense; at least half the time, my fate was in my husband’s hands.

Outside the door I heard the footsteps stop and the rattle of a handle.

“This one’s locked as well.”

“They’re all locked on this floor,” said another voice. “Here, I’ve got the master.”

I heard the jangle of keys being thrown and stifled a laugh as the catcher missed and they fell to the floor.

“Do me a favor and just hand it to me next time?” I heard, and then the scratch of a key in the lock and the door opening. A torch swung around the space and I held my breath, praying they wouldn’t direct the beam under the sofa. There was the sound of a roller chair being moved… then the shhhhhh of a door closing.

I let out a trembling breath as quietly as I could.

“Nothing in there,” I heard from outside. “What about the bogs?”

“Empty.” The second speaker’s voice had an echoing quality, as though he was speaking from inside the bathroom itself. There was a pause and then, “Wait, hang on a sec…”

From my position under the sofa I could see nothing, and very carefully I raised my hand and touched my headset.

“Talk to me,” I mouthed, the words barely above a breath.

“They’ve discovered the ceiling panel,” Gabe whispered back.


“Have a look at this,” the second guard said.

I listened to the sound of footsteps as the first guard, the one who had searched the office I was in, made his way up the corridor. There was a creak as the bathroom door swung open… then a gentle thump as it soft-closed behind him.

I was slithering out from under the sofa when Gabe’s voice crackled to life in my ear, a low scream of urgency.

“Go, go, go. Now!”

I didn’t need to be told. I was already on my feet, wrenching open the door, looking up and down the corridor, unsure which way to go.

“Opposite way from the lifts!” Gabe said, and I took off, pounding down the corridor, careening round the corner, where I would have face-planted into another set of security doors had Gabe not already triggered them. They stood open, waiting for me as I skidded through into a little lobby.

“Fire door to your right,” Gabe said, and I slammed through, finding myself in a vertiginous stairwell, spiraling down into darkness. The heavy fire door banged shut behind me, but I didn’t care. I’d already blown my chances of a stealthy exit. Nothing mattered now except getting away.

Down one flight. Down two. My heart was hammering in my ears.

“You’re nearly there.” Gabe’s voice in my ear. “You can do this—three more flights and then hang a sharp left and you’re at another fire door.”

“Wh-what if there’s an a-alarm?” I panted. Another flight. One more to go after this.

“Fuck the alarm. The other door wasn’t alarmed. But if there is I’ll override it. You got this, you hear me? You’ve got this.

“Kay.” I was too out of breath to talk now. Last flight and I staggered left, ducking back under the stairs. Sure enough, there was the fire door—and outside lay freedom.

I banged on the bar, wincing preemptively for the sound of a siren—but again, none came. I made a mental note for the report, but that could wait. For the moment, I was outside, in the blessed fresh air.

“Fuck!” Gabe howled in my ear, laughing now, the shaky, half-hysterical laugh of someone watching a movie with their heart in their mouth. “Jesus. You were incredible. I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

“I didn’t either.” My heart was banging in my chest, but I forced myself to slow to a walk as I crossed the car park. If there were more guards out here, no point in making it obvious who they were looking for. “Oh fuck me, I did not enjoy that.”

Gabe laughed, that chest-deep dirty rumble that I loved.

A, I most definitely will, and B, we both know that’s a lie. You loved every minute of it.”

I felt a grin spread over my face.

“Okay… I did enjoy it a little bit.”

“A little bit? You looked like you were having the time of your life.”

“Are they still searching for me inside?”

“Yeah, they’re still poking around on the fifth floor. One of them’s opened up the server room, but they haven’t noticed the drives. You did brilliantly, babe.”

“I know,” I said modestly, and heard Gabe’s answering laugh.

“Have you got it from here? I need to get inside the network before they figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, I’m almost at the car. See you in…” I glanced at my phone. “Forty minutes? Traffic should be clear this time of night.”

“You want me to order some food?”

I realized that I was starving. I never ate before a job—running around on a full stomach doesn’t feel great—but now the idea of food made my mouth water.

Yes,” I said emphatically. “A large pizza with mushrooms, peppers… No, actually scrap that. What I really want is the portobello veggie burger from Danny’s Diner with truffle mayo and extra onion. Think they’ll still be open?”

“Should be.”

“Great. Don’t forget the slaw. And extra fries. No, make that sweet potato fries. And tell them not to put it in the same bag as yours. Last time I was left picking your gross bacon jam out of my veggie burger.”

“Copy that. No fries. Extra bacon. See you soon, babe. I love you.”

“Love you too,” I said, and then, with a happy sigh, I hung up and disconnected the earpiece.

Scaling the wall was harder this time round, with aching muscles and a heart still pounding with spent adrenaline, but I scrambled up a recycling bin and dropped down from the top of the wall just around the corner from where I’d left the car, already rummaging in my bag for the key as I straightened up. I wasn’t even looking, but if I had been, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Because when I rounded the corner they were waiting.

I walked straight into the arms of the head of security.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

#Review - Savage Crowns by Matt Wallace #Fantasy

Series: Savage Rebellion # 3
Format: Paperback, 336 pages
Release Date: June 13, 2023
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy

The final installment in Hugo Award–winning author Matt Wallace’s epic and spellbinding Savage Rebellion trilogy about a utopian city with a dark secret—and the underdogs who will expose it, or die trying.

The final war for the nation of Crache has begun.

At the helm of the people’s rebellion is Evie, the Sparrow General. She has been captured by the Skrian, Crache’s vicious army, and is being brought back to the Capitol for punishment. But reinforcements are coming for her.

Dyeawan, who has climbed from street urchin to Crache’s highest seat of power through clever schemes and ruthless bloodshed, finds trouble on every front once she arrives. The rebellion approaches, and there are whispers of a martyr within the city who holds enough sway to stage a coup. If she doesn’t act quickly, her rule will be short-lived.

As the women who hold the nation’s future meet each other from different sides of the battlefield, will they be able to find a shared vision of Crache, or will they destroy each other first?  

Matt Wallace's Savage Crowns is the third and final installment in the authors Savage Rebellion trilogy. The story takes place in a country called Crache and alternates between several key characters; Evie aka Sparrow General; Sirach, a Sicculant soldier who has become Evie's second in command of her rebellion; and Taru, a retainer who was trained to protect important members of the Crache society, but ended up being forced into being a member of a group of soldiers called Savages. 

The fourth character is Dyeaman aka slider who is a member of the Crache's Planning Cadre. Dyeaman recently discovered that she has a sister, and that was after she murdered several players in the Planning Cadre. Dyeaman is called slider because set gets around in what's called a conveyance which she built herself. Dyeaman is an extremely intelligent character, but she is outgunned by the Protectorate Ministry that would love to see her fail and be replace to someone more aligned with their ideology.

At the end of Savage Bounty, another key character, Lexi Xia, was in a bad place and likely did not survive. But now we have a new character that has risen from the ashes, and it seems she may be Evie's once chance to escape her fate. Meanwhile, Evie, the Sparrow General, has been captured by the Skrian, Crache’s vicious army, and is being brought back to the Capitol for punishment. Taru, who hooked up with a group called Rok Islanders, now has to convince them to align with the surviving members of Evie's rag tag game of rebels or face her own demise.

It is apparent that Wallace chose to write about strong women who have their backs against the wall. How they fight and survive will keep you entertained. Evie was given a job to find her employer, Brio, and ended up being one of the strongest characters in this series. She turned the world on its head, and brought together the     rag tag, and those tossed away like garbage. If you have read this series, and are curious about Lexi and her confrontation with the Ignobles who want to take over Crache, I suggest you read the book since anything I say will spoil the book for you.

In the end, Evie, Dyeawan, and others like the Ragged Matron, have to come together and align in a war for the very fabric and soul of the country that has done them all wrong. How do you save a country that hates you and wants to destroy you? Wallace ties everything together quite entertainingly and I will look forward to seeing what he creates next. 

1. Jailbird


A BIRDCAGE. THEY HAVE ACTUALLY built a giant fucking birdcage and locked Evie inside of it.

A long time after waking, curled up at the bottom of the thing, she is still at a loss. Not by her capture or witnessing what may have been the fall of her rebellion, but by her prison. It’s entirely out of character for the Skrain. It’s out of character for any artifice of the Crachian machine, really. Crache isn’t much for flair or imagination. The symbol that adorns every Skrain banner, the sparse, simple shape of an ant, is well chosen. Crache is a nation of utility above all else. The long caravan currently slouching at a glacial rattle over the countryside has more than a few wagons fitted with cages; Evie can see them from her perch, the ants headed back to their colony. Constructing this ornate monstrosity especially for her (at least she surmises that as its purpose) instead of simply chucking her into a regular prison wagon like refuse is decidedly un-ant-like.

Yet here Evie sits, between tall wrought-iron bars wrapped around her to form a perfectly slim cylinder. There are a few flourishes of concentric circles and sculpted ants adorning the spaces between those bars, as well as the square pad on the cage door, from which hangs the largest key lock Evie has ever seen. The Skrain have lined the hard bottom of the cage with stale-smelling hay. She isn’t certain whether it’s for effect or for when she will inevitably have to piss inside this contraption.

Evie can only guess the whole “Sparrow General” persona must really be shaking up the status quo back in the Capitol, so much so they feel they have to lean into that persona to defeat the newly spun legend.

Not that she thinks of herself as a “legend,” of course.

Even if she did, her current status as a source of amusement for the Skrain foot soldiers constantly trudging past her is humbling, to say the least. They revel in treating her like a shaved monkey in a menagerie. She can only imagine what a welcome distraction it is from lugging their full armor kits along with spear and shield on foot through the wretched heat of the day.

If they’re not bending over and flipping up their tunic flaps to give her a view of a full moon, they are flashing their poorly groomed genitals at her. The accompanying verbal abuse is just as crude, if less imaginative.

“That’s a proper sparrow, that is!” one of the soldiers chuckles. “Bloody proper!”

What accent even is that? Evie wonders, digging a fist against her churning guts.

Their attempted humiliation of her isn’t as wrenching as Evie is certain they’d hoped. The motion is the worst part. The whole cage is constantly swinging from a hook arched behind the largest horse-drawn wagon in the Skrain caravan. It hasn’t stopped swaying and jostling her for hours. She’s felt like she’s been throwing up for at least half that time, but Evie is always intent on waiting until one or more of the soldiers rides or walks close enough to the cage for her to vomit through the bars onto them.

The only feeling strong enough to divert Evie’s attention from her stomach is the searing pain in her left leg. The back of her calf muscle feels as though angry hornets are nesting there. She can’t contort herself to see how long or how deep the gash from the battle is, but it definitely feels deep and long enough. They haven’t yet given her any water to drink, let alone an excess to clean her wounds. Neither has a surgeon, or even a drunken Skrain field medic, so much as tended to a single scrape. They seem to have simply checked her armor for weapons and then tossed her into her current confines.

Perhaps, if she’s really lucky, the infection in her leg will kill her before they reach the Capitol. She knows that’s where they’re taking her. Her constant audience has made that clear enough. The whole Skrain army is very excited about the prospect of Evie being paraded inside her cage up and down the narrow streets of Crache’s greatest city, on display for the whole of the citizenry to see.

Evie doesn’t really want to die, of course. But the idea of that spectacle seems a pale alternative at the moment.

Mostly she just wishes she’d seen that lance coming, the one that slashed her calf and pierced her horse on the battlefield. If she’d avoided that single sharp edge, her horse wouldn’t have gone down, and even if the outcome of the battle had remained unchanged, her own fate might have been different, perhaps even cage-free. At the very least, she’d be more comfortable right now.

Evie still doesn’t quite understand what happened there at the end of the battle, only that more of her people survived and hopefully escaped than she imagined was possible when she saw the Skrain, regrouped, bearing down on them and realized their sudden guests, the Rok Islanders, weren’t charging to the rebellion’s rescue.

Except they did, finally, or at least enough of the Islander army charged to make a difference.

It didn’t make any sense to Evie. If the Rok had indeed come to join the rebellion, why hadn’t they charged sooner, and in full force? If the reverse was true, and they were willing to sacrifice the rebels to weaken the Skrain, why hadn’t they waited longer? Why hadn’t they continued to sit on the horizon until the last of Evie’s rebels had fallen, taking as many Skrain soldiers with them as possible?

Evie remembers thinking at the time, as much as she could cogently form thoughts while deflecting blades trying to end her, that the Rok’s charge seemed half-hearted and uncoordinated as it barreled towards the fray. Whatever the truth of those events, when the Rok chariots crashed into the wreckage of the Skrain siege towers and practically rode over the clashing armies, Evie knew only that she had to get what was left of her people to safety. It was too late to hope to turn the tide of the battle, and Evie did not trust the Islanders as allies enough to be sure they wouldn’t turn their blades and chariot spikes on the rebels.

The last truly vivid memory she has of the battle’s end was opening the throat of a Skrain soldier, then turning her head to seek Bam with her gaze. She found him pummeling enemy soldiers not half a dozen yards from where she stood, Sirach cutting Skrain to ribbons not far beyond that. Evie had shouted a simple order at him, to gather everyone he could and retreat. No sooner had the words screeched out than several Rok chariots blasted the ground between them and she lost sight of Bam, Sirach, and the rest.

Immediately after that, her world went to black. She must have been hit from behind, knocked out, because her next conscious memory is of the bottom of her birdcage. She had a headache for a while, but that pain has since faded into the background, replaced by the worsening fire in her leg.

The pounding of shod horse hooves tearing up the ground below breaks Evie from her reveries. She peers through the bars of her birdcage at a mounted Skrain who rears his horse to heel so he can gaze up at her. His helmet is more elaborate than the average ground-pounder, marking him as a captain. His face shows the wear and scars of advancing age, but the expression on it says the man thinks quite a lot of himself.

Skrain soldiers generally all look the same to Evie, regardless of rank or added pomp. She remembers this captain, however. That face is burned into her brain. He was the master of ceremonies who presided over the deathmatch between Sirach and Mother Manai, Evie’s mentor and most trusted advisor among the former Savage Legionnaires. Evie watched from concealment in the massive Skrain encampment as her lover was forced to kill her best friend while the soldiers laughed and drank and made merry.

“How is our most honored guest enjoying her accommodations?”

“I could use a drink,” Evie, too tired and too cut up to conjure witty banter, admits in a voice that is labored and hoarse. “And a surgeon, to be honest.”

The blustery man’s expression takes on a look of mock horror. “What inconsiderate hosts you must find us.”

The Skrain captain fishes a deflated wineskin from his saddlebags, unstopping it and tipping his head. Evie watches as he squeezes a brief jet of rice wine from the skin.

Licking his lips, he tosses the empty-looking thing through the bars and into Evie’s cage.

Evie sighs. Without shame or hesitation, she picks up the skin and tips back her own head, both hands twisting the flattened bladder into a single braid, as if she’s attempting to wring the neck of an animal. She manages to force a few remaining droplets of rice wine to fall upon her cracked, blood-scabbed lips, her tongue greedily lapping them up.

She ignores the pleasure Evie knows is plastered all over the captain’s face as he is treated to the sight of her demeaning herself.

Evie extends a hand through the bars, offering the captain his wineskin.

“Keep it,” he says, sounding more cautious than generous.

Not as stupid as he looks, she thinks.

“Besides, it might be the only thing you have to chew on for a goodly while. Our larders are a bit on the empty side—this rebellion of yours has played hell on food production in every city.”

“Might I have the honor of your name, Captain?”

“Silvar,” he informs her proudly. “Feng Silvar.”

“Thank you. I won’t forget it.”

“You honor me, Sparrow General. I’ll see about that surgeon for you. We can’t have you falling out before we’ve had the chance to formally introduce you to the people of Crache. They’ve heard so much about you, after all.”

“I hope to live up to my reputation.”

“Few do,” Captain Silvar says, snapping the reins of his mount and galloping away grandly.

When he’s gone, Evie drops the wineskin to the dirt below, leaving it to rot under the wheels and hooves of the caravan. It’s a useless gesture, but it feels good.

Sinking back against the bars, she tries to ignore the itching and minor agony of her leg, closing her eyes and sending her mind elsewhere far away.

What remains of her life may be brief and unpleasant, but at least Evie has a new goal.

Before the Crachian machine finally crushes her between its jaws, she will see Captain Feng Silvar dead by her hand.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

#Review - Garden of the Cursed by Katy Rose Pool #YA #Fantasy

Series: Garden of the Cursed (#1)
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Release Date: June 20, 2023
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance

In this romantic, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy/mystery duology from Morris Award finalist Katy Pool, Veronica Mars meets a glitzy and gritty Gilded Age-inspired fantasy world in which cursebreaker Marlow pretends to be in love with a powerful noble as she searches for her missing mother.

Since fleeing glitzy Evergarden for the gritty Marshes, Marlow Briggs has become the best cursebreaker in Caraza City. But no matter how many cases she solves, she's still haunted by her mother’s disappearance.

When Adrius Falcrest, Marlow's old crush and scion of one of Caraza's most affluent spell-making families, asks her to help him break a curse, Marlow wants nothing to do with him . . . until she uncovers a new lead in her mother's case. Marlow reluctantly agrees to help Adrius so she can return to Evergarden society. To avoid drawing suspicion, Marlow and Adrius pretend to be madly in love. Soon, Marlow comes to learn that the truth behind Adrius’s curse and her mother’s disappearance may be clues to a larger mystery—one that could unravel the very foundations of Caraza and magic itself. Perfect for fans of These Violent Delights and Chain of Iron.

Katy Rose Pool's Garden of the Cursed is the first installment in the authors Garden of the Cursed duology. The story is told in the first person narrative by 17-year old Marlow Briggs who works for Bowery Spellshop with her best friend, Swift. The story takes place in the fictitious country of Caraza, well Caraza city actually. Marlow was able to get the same education as the Evergarden kids of the fluent Five Families that control the country and magic. These are the rich kids from influential families. 

They get a special education with magic. There are five main families and Marlow's mother Cassandra worked for one, the Vale family. When her mom went missing a year ago, and her best friend/crush stopped talking to her, Marlow returned to the Marshes where she quickly became the best cursebreaker around and that's how she makes her money. Then, her ex -best friend Adrius Falcrest who she had a crush on found her after a year and told her about a compulsion curse. At first Marlow says she won't help him. But the curse is something that only the old destroyed magic books would have.  

Adrius has to obey any order given to him. Marlow agrees to help while still trying to find out what happened to her mother. The closer she comes to finding the secrets behind Cassandra's disappearance, the deeper she gets into a well of twisted mysteries and secrets that have long been kept away from the gentry by the 5 families. She's thrown back in with the rich society kids as Adrius date, and has to go to balls and events. She finds one friend that seems genuine, but most others don't like her and think she's below them. Adrius's sister is getting married to a son from another family. It's a way for two families to combine and become more powerful. 

The worldbuilding was very interesting! Magic exists as spells that require a hex card and the corresponding incantation. Magic and the resources needed to create spells are also gate kept by the Five Families, who essentially run the city. So, let's just say that a little birdie told me that if you really pay attention to this story, you will see why the story has been compared to Veronica Mars. The little birdie also tells me that if you are aware of the former TV series, you will recognize characters in this book, the history of our main lead, and even some of the plot points that play out throughout this book.

"Everyone wants to feel in control. But that feeling isn't real. None of us are in control, not really. So I say, stop pretending and embrace it. If I can't control my life, then at least I'm going to have a damn good time living it."