Thursday, August 31, 2023

#Review - Omen of Ice by Jus Accardo #YA #Fantasy #Romance

Series: Omen of Ice (#1)
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Release Date: August 1, 2023
Publisher: Entangled: Teen
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance

Serpent and Dove meets These Hollow Vows in this all-new YA fantasy series about a druid and the Fae royal she’s been tasked to protect.

When a spell goes wrong, linking the life force of 18-year-old druid Keltania to the Fae royal she's been tasked to protect, the two must embark on a dangerous trek through a violent wilderness.

Betrayal, stolen magic, and lies taint their journey as they work to break the magic linking them together before it consumes them both.


Omen of Ice, by Jus Accardo, is the first installment in the authors Omen of Ice series. This story revolves around two key characters: 18-year-old Keltania Tunne, and 19-year-old Prince Valen of the Winter Fae Court. Keltania has spent her whole life training to be an Aphelian, one of the few druids left descended from the nearly mythical Aphelian who helped to save everyone by giving up most of her magic to a fae whom she loved. Tania is one of the more skilled fighters to come along. Her ability and her cunning makes her the idea candidate to become Fae protector.

Tania's first job is to guard Valen, nephew to the king of the Winter Court, who is potentially the heir to the throne. Valen, who has survived numerous assassinations attempts, doesn’t want her protection, but when a spell goes wrong, linking her life force to each other, the two must embark on a dangerous trek through a violent wilderness in order to unravel the spell, along with a kelpie named Daroose, and uncover secrets about themselves, and the truth about what really happened years ago between a famous druid, and a King of the Winter Court which led to the destruction of the courts.

Unlike Valen, Keltania was raised to take her job as Aphelian Druid seriously which means putting up with Valen's escapades, and the hidden dangers that lurk below the surface at the court. Valen is the heir because of who his mother was, and the fact that he is likely the only one in the entire court who was born with magic. Magic that is slowly being drained from him in order to keep up the lies that have been built upon for generations. Even though Valen has his load of secrets, the relationship between the two characters grows as the connection between them solidifies making it possible for Tania to use his power, as well as her own. 

*Thoughts* Truth be told, this story was entertaining. Tania is the serious character, Valen is the playboy who has a deeper truth to his character than just someone who seems not to care. He has a sense of duty and responsibility. He willingly endures pain to keep his court and its people thriving. Yet, it is Tania who opens his eyes to other possibilities, and on their shared journey, they both get more than they could ever imagine leading to a curious ending which is an obvious set up for the sequel. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

#Review - A Multitude of Dreams by Mara Rutherford #YA #Fantasy #Romance

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 384 pages
Release Date: August 29, 2023
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance

In this gothic fantasy retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” with a bloody twist, the author of The Poison Season gives us a dual-POV story set in a plague-ravaged world about a commoner posing as a princess, a destitute gentleman posing as a prince, and the web of lies they must navigate to defeat the monsters coming for them both.

The bloody plague is over, and the survivors are finally safe…or so they think.

Princess Imogen is living a protected life at the castle on borrowed time. The illusion of order is fading, and she must escape before the fast-dwindling rations run out and all hell is unleashed.

Now-destitute Nico Mott wouldn’t have survived the aftermath of the plague if not for the generosity of Lord Crane. But does owing Lord Crane his life mean he owes him his silence?

When Lord Crane sends Nico to search for more plague survivors in the castle, Nico collides with a princess who has her own reasons for wanting to break out—into a world where fresh horrors lie in wait. 

Mara Rutherford's A Multitude of Dreams is a gothic fantasy retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” with a bloody twist. The story alternates first person narratives between Seraphina Blum and Nicodemus Mott. The characters in this post-pandemic world of Goslind must navigate a land that’s been changed forever after a bloody plague, grapple with what’s been left behind, and consider how they can move forward. 

Seraphina has been sequestered in Eldridge Hall for the past 4 years posing as Princess Imogen youngest daughter of a Mad King. She is afraid to reveal her true identity because of lifelong persecution she’s suffered due to her heritage and social class but one of her sisters is the reason she is here, and among her people. As a Jew in this world, her people were blamed for the plague that created Immaculate's, Immune's, and people who die, and came back to life. 

You may call them vampires since that's what the publisher and author are pretty much making them out to be instead of zombies. Before the Mori Roya plague, Nicodemus Mott used to live a good life before the plague took everything and everyone from him. Thanks to Lord Crane, Nico, who wanted to become a doctor, is not relegated to doing anything from being a gravedigger, to a valet, to a horse groomer. 

Nico and his friend Colin Chambers begin to question everything around them when a visitor who is looking for her brother at Eldridge Hall, goes missing and her horse wanders back to Crane manor. Nico suspects that things are even more twisted than he realized. Soon thereafter, he and Colin are order to Eldridge Hall to see if there are any survivors. Nico poses as the Prince from Pilmond who is supposed to be engaged to Prince Imogen.  

Princess Imogen is living on borrowed time. The illusion of order is fading, and she must escape before the fast-dwindling rations run out and all hell is unleashed. Her one ally Lord Greymont has true feelings for her, and may be her hope to get out of Eldridge and see the rest of the world. When Nico runs into Imogen (Seraphina) and learns she wants to leave, he has to stall to keep them alive and away from the horrors that lie outside of the castle walls.

*Thoughts* Rutherford takes the sad historical fact of Jews being accused of causing and spreading plagues during the Middle Ages and harshly scapegoated for it whenever there was an outbreak, and uses it to create a world ravaged by the Bloody Plague, a terrible disease that has exterminated a great chunk of the population. There is still antisemitism in the world today, especially by certain members of Congress who I shall not name. 

Anyway, this was more "inspired by" instead of a retelling. The story leaves a bit to be desired like the dark rooms in the original story. Even the author herself stated she was drawn to the story including the macabre ending, and yet she changes her own ending for reasons that elude me. The book takes place in a fantasy world that was very similar to Europe during the Black Plague which makes sense. I don't hate either character. I think Seraphina was more drawn out than Nico, but Nico actually spend 4 years surviving while Sera was being pampered and living with a shuttered castle.  

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

#Review - All The Dead Shall Weep by Charlaine Harris #Fantasy #Western #Alternative

Series: Gunnie Rose # 5
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
Release Date: September 5, 2023
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

#1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author returns with the fifth installment in the bestselling Gunnie Rose series as sisters Lizbeth Rose and Felicia as well as brother Eli and Peter, are reunited in Texoma only to break apart before the Wizard’s Ball held in San Diego, which will determine all their fates.

Following the murderous events of the “gripping…thrill-ride” (Karin Slaughter) Serpent of Heaven, Lizbeth Rose is awaiting the arrival of her sister Felicia and her husband’s younger brother Eli in Texoma. Both needed to leave the seat of the Holy Russian Empire in San Diego after Felicia’s burgeoning wizardly power in death magic became the reason for kidnapping and assassination attempts from her mother’s family of high-powered wizards in Mexico.

Yet bad news has traveled ahead of them, as Eli is called back to San Diego, taking Peter along with him, splitting them apart in more ways than one as their enemies’ plans for revenge come to fruition. In this fifth installment in the beloved and bestselling Gunnie Rose series, #1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Charlaine Harris has crafted a family drama of murderous and magical thrills. 

All The Dead Shall Weep, by author Charlaine Harris, is the Fifth installment in the authors Gunnie Rose series. Lizbeth Rose Savarova is awaiting the arrival of her 1/2 sister Felicia Dominguez Karkarova and her husband Eli Savarova’s younger brother Peter in Segundo Mexia in Texoma which used to include Texas and Oklahoma. Both needed to leave the seat of the Holy Russian Empire in San Diego after Felicia’s burgeoning wizardly power in death magic became the reason for kidnapping and assassination attempts from her mother’s family of high-powered wizards in Mexico.

Yet bad news has just begun. Eli, who I called a coward numerous times, is called back to San Diego, taking Peter along with him, thus splitting them apart in more ways than one as their enemies’ plans for revenge come to fruition. It so happens that neither Eli nor Peter return again until the story is nearly finished. From the onset of this story, things are pretty intense. First, Lizbeth is mourning a personal loss and with Eli running away like a coward, it is Lizbeth and her sister Felicia who have to deal with a slew of dangerous situations. Second, it appears as though someone is financing a large army to take Texoma from the residents. 

This army appears to have been well trained, and well financed, and one of Lizbeth's adversaries may be encouraging the invasion of Texoma. Then it appears that powerful grigori families have set their sights on Felicia because of her death magic. Anyone who can do what Felicia does in this story, and in the past, means that one family could have their very own weapon to use against other grigori families around the world. This means that Lizbeth's nemesis Isabella Dominguez, who is Felicia's blood relative from a powerful witch family, shows up to create more chaos. 

The only way to get to Felicia, is to get rid of Lizbeth. If Lizbeth is not around, there's nothing to keep Felicia safe. But, even after knowing that Lizbeth killed their father, Felicia is not going to allow her sister to be removed just so that someone can use her powers for their machinations. With the Wizard's Ball coming up in a few months where everyone's fates will be decided, the sisters must stand against enemies who can move through space and time, and enemies who are hidden behind secrets not yet revealed.

*Thoughts* First of all, you must read this series in the order the books are released. There are some scenes which are replayed as Lizbeth tries to bond with a sister she met while in Mexico. Second, this book has lots, and lots of questions that need to be resolved, and yes, I do believe that the author needs to write at least one more book to reveal the answers to those questions. There is a bit of a shock at the end of the book, that I did not see coming, nor do I feel it was necessary since it basically isolates Felicia. In the end, I still do not like Eli for what he did to Felicia. While I understand loss, you don't just run away and leave the sisters to face enemies that literally come out of nowhere to cause trouble. 

Gallery Books, Gallery / Saga Press provided a complimentary digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Eli was working, so I met the train at Sweetwater by myself. I’d just returned from guarding a shipment of farm implements on a leg of its journey between Canada and Mexico; I’d had to travel to take the job, but it had been ten days of work, and lucrative. And it had gotten me out of the house.

All of which meant I could afford to rent the old car from the Segundo Mexia stables and drive to Sweetwater to meet the train.

The station at Sweetwater was little more than a shack clinging to a platform, but at least there were a couple of benches under a roof. I was grateful for the shade. It was June, and June in Texoma is hot and dry… unless it rains. Then it’s hot and steamy. Today was a dry day.

The stationmaster, a sprightly sixty-ish woman named Molly Lerma, came out of the shack to sit with me. I expect she was glad of the company.

“You’re Jackson and Candle’s daughter, ain’t you?” she asked, and spat into an old can positioned at her feet.

“Candle’s daughter and Jackson’s stepdaughter. Lizbeth Rose. Lizbeth Rose Savarova, now.” My outlandish married name still got a lot of stares in Texoma, which used to be Texas and Oklahoma, more or less.

Molly Lerma gave me the expected long stare. “You the one married that wizard?”

I wasn’t going to tell her that Eli was a grigori, not a wizard, especially since I wasn’t sure there was a big difference. “Eli Savarov,” I said. I didn’t tack the “Prince” on first because it just sounded silly.

“And he wanted to live in Texoma?”

I wasn’t surprised Molly sounded incredulous. Texoma was poor, remote, and the smallest of the five countries created when the United States had fallen apart.

“He did,” I said, and left it at that.

“How’s Jackson doing? I knew him from school,” the stationmaster said. She spat again.

“He’s doing well.” Jackson had worked hard and carved himself out a position of power in Segundo Mexia, our little town.

Molly smiled. She was missing some important teeth. “Jackson always was a go-getter.”

I nodded and smiled back, hoping the conversation was at an end. Not that I minded talking about my stepfather. I was real fond of Jackson Skidder. He’d taught me how to shoot and given me my Colts. Couldn’t ask for anything better than my Colt 1911s. I had to stop myself from reaching down to pat them. Jackson had been way more of a dad to me than my actual father, whom I’d only met once, the day I killed him.

After a pleasant few minutes of silence, I asked Molly if the train was on time. She said, “I reckon.” That was the end of our conversation. Which suited me. I had a lot to think about.

I was waiting at the train station to pick up my half sister Felicia, who was coming in from San Diego (capital of the Holy Russian Empire) with Eli’s brother Peter. Not only had Eli and I not had company since we’d been married, but Felicia was over fifteen, and Peter was eighteen and a bit. The last time I’d seen them, they’d been sweet on each other. Their sleeping arrangements were kind of up in the air.

Also, though my half sister (same father, different mother) had started life in a Mexican slum, she was an educated city girl now. Segundo Mexia, my hometown, was humble and small, as Eli had carefully not said during the past few months. After we’d come home married and built the addition to my cabin and Eli had begun scouting around for work, I’d seen lots of mouth-tightening and tense shoulders. He was having a hard time adjusting.

During their stay, would Peter and Felicia be content to hunt with me or practice magic with Eli? Did you have to entertain company?

I knew that moving dirt, finding water, and warding businesses was not what Eli, now Prince Savarov, had planned to do as a grigori. In his life in San Diego, Eli had been in Tsar Alexei’s service. He’d had access to the palace and a relationship with the royal family. He’d had good friends among the other grigoris, the top of the magic hierarchy. He’d had a disagreeable but powerful partner named Paulina. He’d been able to visit his mother and sisters and Peter. He’d lived in the grigori dormitory. He’d been independent and important and on the way up.

Now Eli lived in Segundo Mexia with me, doing work that was anything but exalted. The people in my little town were just getting over regarding Eli with suspicion. Grigoris were not highly regarded in Texoma, unlike in the Holy Russian Empire. Of course, Eli lived with me, his wife, and I had only a trace of magic. I was a gunnie. I made my living—our living—with my shooting. In Texoma, that had more prestige.

Eli hadn’t complained about any of this. It was the silence that worried me.

If I ran out of concerns about my husband, I could fret about how my mother would feel when she met Felicia, the other daughter of my father. I’d been conceived when Oleg Karkarov raped my mother. Later, back in Mexico, Oleg had married Felicia’s mother before Felicia had come along. My mother had been beautiful; Felicia’s mother had been the scion of Mexico’s most prominent witch family.

I could see a black dot way down the tracks. I breathed out, relieved and worried and happy.

“Thar she comes,” Molly Lerma said. “Right on time.” She sounded triumphant, as if I’d told her I doubted the train would arrive.

“Right on time,” I agreed.

Hooting and screeching, the train came to a stop at the little station. Old Mrs. Guthrie got off first. Molly Lerma helped her down the steps. Mrs. Guthrie carried an ancient carpetbag and a cage with a bird in it. You would have thought she was carrying a horse, the fuss she made.

I was on my feet and waiting impatiently for her to clear the way, because I knew my sister would be next off. Felicia propelled herself from the steps, and I caught her, and we laughed and held each other, and she cried a little before she drew back. Felicia was so grown-up! So pretty! We didn’t look alike… but we did, in some ways.

By that time, Peter had gotten off, too. He was carrying two modest suitcases. He gave me a quick hug and a peck on the cheek before looking up and down the little platform. “Where’s Eli?” he said.

“Oh, my God!” Felicia was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. There was more of her to bounce than there had been a few months ago, especially in the chest department. “We’re here! We’re out of the city!”

That made me feel a little better. “I’m really glad to see you,” I said. “Peter, Eli’s working, but he’ll be home soon. Maybe by the time we get there.”

Peter smiled. That turned him into a man you’d look at a second time.

My half sister sure looked… and smiled back.

“This all your luggage?” I pointed at the two bags Peter carried.

“Peter said I had to travel light.” Felicia was still bouncing.

I asked Peter to put the bags in the car, and after some exclaiming over the luxury of getting to ride—which was a real luxury in Texoma, they both realized—Peter tossed the bags into the trunk, and we admired the car, which had been created out of bits and pieces of vehicles that had gone before. The body had come from a Ford, but the doors had been grafted on from another car line, and so on.

“Let’s get going,” I said. I opened the driver’s door. Peter went around to the other side.

“Who is your doctor?” Peter asked as he slid into the front seat.

“What doctor?” I sounded angry, and I knew it. I couldn’t help it. I was going to have to talk about what had happened.

They both froze. They glanced at each other. Then back at me.

Felicia said, very slowly, very cautiously, “Lizbeth, it seems to Peter and me that you are pregnant.”

“I’m not,” I said, and then I fainted.

It only took me a minute to come around, and then I scrambled to my feet, weaving as I stood, just for a moment. Felicia was kneeling beside the open car door, Peter looked horrified, and stationmaster Molly was gaping.

“Liar,” Felicia said, standing to put her arm around me. In a vague sort of way, I noticed she didn’t have to reach up to do that now. She was six years younger than me, but she was going to pass me height-wise, probably in the next few months.

That was not what I was supposed to be thinking about.

“I’m really not,” I said.

“But you fainted.”

“I lost the baby fifteen days ago,” I said, in a voice that told them to close the subject. I got back in the driver’s seat.

“Do you think I ought to drive?” Peter offered. “I’d be glad to do that.”

“I feel fine now.” And I did. Almost normal. I looked in the rearview mirror at my sister, who was trying not to cry.

After a moment’s hesitation, Peter climbed in beside me. The car started up just fine. The soft upholstery smelled like dust, probably because the windows had to be left open for air circulation. We drove out of Sweetwater with my two visitors looking around them at the gently rolling countryside, the patches of green (mostly mountain cedar), the dry grass, the beating sun.

“How’s Eli?” Peter said. “Where is he working?” He yawned widely.

“He had to go over to Cactus Flats early this morning. He’s doing some earthmoving to help with their new town sewage system.”

“An air grigori working on earth?” Peter frowned.

“It’s a job that pays,” I said, as mildly as I could. Though Eli’s specialty was air, that didn’t mean he couldn’t move some earth. Just required a little more work. Same way I’d taken on a job guarding a bank in Homer’s Corner while there was a large payroll in its safe, which was not my favorite job. It was what I called a sitting duck situation.

But Eli and I needed extra money to pay for the expense of additions to our cabin. Until the year before, my home had been one large room with a walled-off bathroom in one corner. In time, I’d gotten on city water.

Even later, after I’d met Eli and he’d come to care about me (and I’d done him some favors), he’d added electricity. Several of the houses on the hill had tied into it, too. So my monthly bills, which had been almost nonexistent, were now a factor in my budget. But I hunted for my meat, I’d gotten some vegetables in return for helping with my mother’s garden, and I swapped for other things I needed.

That had been good living for a single woman but not ideal for a couple, we’d found. It had been easy enough to add our bedroom, but it had put a hole in our savings. Now we’d added yet another bedroom to the cabin. We were managing, but we had to consider every expenditure. Eli wasn’t used to that.

I realized neither Peter nor Felicia had spoken in a few minutes. Felicia’s eyes were shut, and she’d leaned against the door. Peter’s eyes were open but droopy.

“You tired?” I asked him.

He nodded. In another minute, his eyes closed. I remembered how exhausted I’d been when I’d traveled to San Diego and back.

Felicia stirred a little when we got to the outskirts of Segundo Mexia. “We there?” she said, her voice full of sleep.

“Yep. You and Peter share a bed?” I asked Felicia quietly. I wanted to get that settled before we got home. “We can put a partition between two beds in the new room, or we can shove the beds together. We didn’t want to take anything for granted.”

Felicia was nodding off again. “We can share,” she muttered. “Either way is fine. When will we meet your mother?”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “When you’ve woken up.”

“?’Kay,” she said, and her eyes shut.

The rest of the ride was completely silent. It was brief, too, because there wasn’t much to Segundo Mexia even when you drove through the whole town, as I had. I hated to wake my passengers, but we’d have to walk up to the cabin. There was no track for a car. None of us who lived up the hill had one. Not enough money.

I roused my passengers to start them walking. I followed with the bags. We passed Rex Santino on his way to town and exchanged greetings. Jed Franklin was working on some leather at a table outside his cabin, and we nodded at each other. Chrissie popped out of her front (and only) door long enough to wave at me, shake her head at the sight of my guests (who were just about walking in their sleep), and begin to hang out her wash. Her two boys were at school, though it was about to close for the summer.

My mother, the town schoolteacher, had told me Chrissie’s boys were not too bright, very lively, and good-natured. Took after their ma, in other words. Chrissie’s youngest, a girl, began to cry from inside the shack. Chrissie pegged one last shirt on the line and went in.

Our cabin was the last one on the town side of the hill, near the top. I was glad to see the front door open as we approached. Eli leaped out to hug Peter, then Felicia.

“They need to go right to bed,” I called.

“I can see that.” Eli was smiling. He was very happy to see his brother. He’d talked about his sisters and his mother from time to time, but I think he’d missed Peter most of all. Eli raised his eyebrows over Peter’s head, silently asking if I’d gotten the word on the bed situation. I held up a finger for one. He nodded and made big eyes at me to show his astonishment.

I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. I was so glad to see Eli acting like himself.

Felicia turned to look, her eyes heavy with sleep. “Bathroom?” she said groggily.

“Indoors to the back right,” I said. It made me proud to need to give directions to the inside of the cabin. Before, it had been completely obvious where everything must be. Having a bathroom inside was not a given in Segundo Mexia or anywhere in Texoma.

Eli was showing Peter their bedroom (to the right of the big original room). He stowed the suitcases on the bench at the foot of the bed, which we had built… both bed and bench. Without another word, Peter collapsed onto the mattress. At least he’d pulled his shoes off.

After a couple of minutes, Felicia trudged out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, her face clean. When she saw Peter asleep, she half-smiled before she slid into the bed beside him. Eli and I backed out and shut the door behind us.

That was the last we saw of our company until early evening.

Eli and I ate sandwiches outside at the picnic table under the live oak tree. He’d gotten cash for the job this morning, which was not always the case. Sometimes he was paid in produce or chickens or rabbits. Once a goat. At first, this had astonished and disgusted him, but now he’d adapted. I’d dug a pit and barbecued the goat, and it had been delicious. We’d fed everyone on the hill. Jackson and my mother had come, too.

“What shall I do?” Eli said after we’d eaten. He glanced at the house, hopeful he’d see Peter come out. He would be restless until he could talk to his brother. This was a thing I’d learned about Eli after we’d gotten married: he was not good at just being. He didn’t mind a good project, but he was not one to just take a morning off to fish or hunt.

“You can return the car to John Seahorse,” I said. “Tell him it drove fine. And if you could drop by the hotel to tell Jackson our company got here safely, I’d appreciate it.” I handed him the car key.

Eli jumped up and started downhill. There was a breeze, and his long light hair blew back in a pretty way. He was wearing his grigori vest, of course, with its many pockets and crannies, over a sleeveless shirt. He was a sight. I sighed at the picture he made.

Jackson and my mom seemed to like him, though there was a certain reservation in the way they treated him. I sighed again, this time not so happily.

I went into the cabin to wash our plates and found that Felicia had tossed their travel clothes outside the bedroom door. I gathered them and heated water over the outside fire. I used it to fill the washtub outside, added some soap flakes, and plunged the clothes into the hot water. I scrubbed them and rinsed them and hung them to dry, which wouldn’t take any time at all on this hot, sunny day.

I thought about the hundreds of times I’d watched my mother do the same thing. I didn’t think Candle Rose Skidder (her name for fifteen years now) was exactly looking forward to meeting my half sister—yet she was glad that I had one, she’d told me so.

I was very lucky. Though I’d been the result of rape, I’d been brought up with love. My mother had trained to be a teacher so she could support me, and my grandparents had taken care of me while she did so. Mom might have hidden her head in disgrace all her days, but she did not. She toughed it out. She’d ended up respected, and she’d made a good marriage to Jackson Skidder.

My half sister, who was legitimate, had lost her mother and been neglected by our father. Her mother’s father had denied her. I, the bastard, had come out the luckier of us two. I could only be grateful.

I yawned wide enough to swallow a deer whole. Maybe a nap would be a good idea. I lay down on our bed, leaving the door open. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I was dreaming of broad deserts.

Friday, August 25, 2023

#Review - Zero Day Ghost by Scott Olson #Thriller #Suspense

Series: Standalone
Format: Kindle, 314 pages
Release Date: September 1, 2023
Publisher: The Book Whisperer
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Thriller / Suspense

Emily Hernandez, a reformed hacker turned NSA analyst, is on a relentless mission. As a once rogue hacker, she's now determined to dismantle The Collective, a ruthless cybercriminal syndicate led by the cunning Zahra Kartal. Their deadliest creation, "APRIL," an AI botnet, lurks in the shadows of compromised computers.

Caught between her duty to destroy The Collective and her personal connections within the enemy's ranks, Emily faces heart-wrenching decisions. Tragedy strikes, igniting a fiery fury within her soul.

In an adrenaline-fueled quest through Hong Kong's neon-lit battleground, Emily battles ruthless adversaries and relentless authorities.

Scott Olson's Zero Day Ghost is a techno-thriller that plunges into emotions of revenge, redemption, and life-and-death choices. Will Emily Hernandez triumph and weave her destiny from vengeance and forgiveness, or will she be ensnared in haunting shadows forever? Emily, who was one of the members of a group known as "The Collective," was previously arrested for computer fraud and abuse and convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She served only a few months before the NSA came knocking and Emily tried to find her own form of redemption.

Emily is  now determined to dismantle The Collective, a ruthless cyber-criminal syndicate led by the cunning Zahra Kartal. Their deadliest creation, "APRIL," an AI botnet, one that Emily has intimate knowledge of since she helped create it, lurks in the shadows of compromised computers. But before she can find a way to track down Zahra, tragedy strikes. Her mother, Audrey Ng, a terrorist who married yet another terrorist, Sebastian Hernandez, ends up dead when a late model volkswagon kills her mother. To top it off, her co-worker Ben has disappeared.

After trying to investigate who may have been responsible, Emily learns that all video footage of the incident has been erased. This brings her to the doorstep of Seymour Frey, who is yet another terrorist who idolizes Antifa like many rich white kids who didn't get enough love from their parents. In all reality, this book is filled with criminals not only in the US, but in Hong Kong where Emily flees to keep out of the hands of the authorities, especially the FBI, and her boss Director Leonard Chip.  

Caught between her duty to eradicate The Collective and the haunting presence of her own flesh and blood within the enemy's ranks, her cousin Kaylin, Emily grapples with heart-wrenching decisions. She also finds herself on the run from the people who she thought had her back, as well as the Chinese Communist State who would love to put Emily in a box for life. Who is really the good guys and who are the real bad guys? But the deeper she digs, the more she uncovers in the corrupt world of organized crime and secret agencies who don't give a damn who they hurt as long as they complete their mission.

*Final ThoughtsYou know what I hate? Open ended endings where you don't really know if this is a standalone, or part of a series. Emily tries to be a white hat hacker working for the NSA, but when push comes to shove, her friends and her family are either terrorists or criminals. Yet, I am not supporting the NSA. I haven't been a fan since I learned they were literally spying on all of us without a warrant. I am not a fan of authors who think Antifa is anything but a group of terrorists who have beaten up journalists, burned down hundreds of businesses from coast to coast, and in Europe. Stop making these people out to be heroes fighting fascism!


Thursday, August 24, 2023

#Review - Fortune's Ashes by Helen Harper #Fantasy

Series: Firebrand # 7
Format: Kindle, 271 pages
Release Date:  June 23, 2023
Publisher: Helen Harper
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

A new power. A new threat. And some very new dangers.

Everything is falling apart. I've been cursed with the ability to catch glimpses of the future. It's a power which Lukas despises but it's one that I can't seem to get rid of. I'm also in trouble at work. Somebody else is claiming that they are the one true phoenix and that my entire existence is built on lies.

At least I have a cold case to investigate which will take my mind off my woes. Investigating the mysterious disappearance of an entrepreneurial gremlin is bound to keep me busy and focused - and surely nothing else is going to go wrong and nobody is going to get hurt.


Fortune's Ashes, by author Helen Harper, is the Seventh and apparently final chapter in the Firebrand series. Detective Constable Emma Bellamy, who works for the Supe Squad keeping the peace between werewolves, vampires, and other paranormals, is not exactly a happy camper. Not when she was passed the powers of the Cassandra by the former Cassandra as she was dying and now she is having flashes of shocking, obscure, confusing, and frightening prophecies. 

Her relationship with Lucas Horvath, who proposed to her 23 days ago, is on the rocks because of his hatred of those who carry the title of Cassandra. And, it seems as though someone is trying really hard to destroy her life one step at a time. First, Emma is suspended by her boss Chief Inspector Lucinda Barnes after after someone alleges that Emma at birth somehow mysteriously stole someone else's powers and this person has hired a lawyer who is normally friendly with Emma. Curious that this pops up now as though someone is trying to get rid of her.

Emma's next problems happen when she gets a vision of a man killing a woman which sends her to the fabled location of the infamous Sherlock Holmes where she witnesses a man stabbing a woman. Coincidentally, the person who was trying to sue Emma, ends up dead thus making her a prime suspect in his murder. This incident pretty much means that Emma has no warrant, and on authorization to work any case until the human cops are done with their investigation. 

Thankfully, it appears that both vampires, as well as the 4 werewolf clans, especially Buffy, are firmly in Emma's court and willing to stand by her. Meanwhile, Emma, who has been looking into a cold case from more than 10 years ago, starts making inquiries. It appears not only were a vampire and a werewolf murdered, but a gremlin who may be related to attorney Phileas Carmichael went missing around the same time. 

Since Emma is suspended from her job, other members of the Supe Squad, Owen and Fred, are targeted as they decide to pick up where Emma left off with the investigation. Emma must put things right with Lukas, especially when she has a shocking announcement to make, while also dealing with someone who appears to want to get rid of her, and blame everything on her since she is no famous for dying and waking up 12 hours later even stronger than before.

*Thoughts* I will say this. I am sad and happy at the same time. I read every single book in this series which is a rarity these days from giving up or patiently waiting for another book in other series to come out. Emma's happy ending is just what readers can expect, and enjoy. I am happy to see Buffy and Scarlett also getting their own happy endings. Buffy's is sort of adorable if I may say so.   

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

#Review - Only The Dead by Jack Carr #Thrillers

Series: Terminal List # 6
Format: Hardcover, 576 pages
Release Date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Source: Library
Genre: Thrillers

Navy SEAL James Reece faces a devastating global conspiracy in this high-adrenaline thriller that is ripped from the headlines—from the #1 New York Times bestselling author and “one of the top writers of political thrillers” (Bookreporter), Jack Carr.

In 1980, a freshman congressman was gunned down in Rhode Island, sending shockwaves through Washington that are still reverberating over four decades later.

Now, with the world on the brink of war and a weakened United States facing rampant inflation, political division, and shocking assassinations, a secret cabal of global elites is ready to assume control. And with the world’s most dangerous man locked in solitary confinement, the conspirators believe the final obstacle to complete domination has been eliminated. They’re wrong.

From the firms of Wall Street to the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and Moscow, secrets from the past have the uncanny ability to rise to the surface in the present.

With the odds stacked against him, James Reece is on a mission generations in the making. Unfortunately for his enemies, the former SEAL is not concerned with odds. He is on the warpath. And when James Reece picks up his tomahawk and sniper rifle, no one is out of range.

"Only the dead have seen the end of war. None of us can outrun time."

Only The Dead, by author Jack Carr, is the Sixth installment in the authors Terminal List series. Before we get to what happened to James Reece after the ending In The Blood, let's start with the beginning which connects the past to James future events. It is 1980, and Walter Stowe, a US Congressman, and his wife Martha are returning to Newport, Rhode Island after a day on the ocean. When out comes an assassin who kills Walter, and leaves Martha for dead. Why does this matter? Patience grasshopper.

If you have read the last few books in this series, you know that former Navy SEAL James Reece has been investigating the reason why his father, Tom Reece, was killed, and why he left a curious lock box behind. Before we get to the box, and what's in it that is so important that Russians and even Americans want to see the box destroyed. Reece has spent the past 3 months locked up in a US Penitentiary in Colorado where the baddest of the bad end up. Reece's crime? Assassinating the US President.

Someone has created a trail that blames Reece for the assassination of a US President while he, and his friends, (Raife and his family plus Katie) had just survived yet another assassination attempt by Russians. Reece knows he's innocent and so does the CIA but there are those who would love to see Reece stopped at all costs. As usual with this series, Russians are front and center to everything that happens in this book, and in the past, including to one Tom Reece, former Navy SEAL and CIA operative who was investigating the reports of US POW's from Vietnam and Korea being used as political pawns not only by the Russian government, but the US government as well. 

Well, let's say there's a "Collective" of powerful men who want to destroy the country for something that happened in 1944. One could say this is a convoluted conspiracy that goes back to the end of World War II when the US had all the power in the world, and could have turned into another British Empire stretched World Wide, or the Roman Empire who changed history with their inventions. But instead of doing so, America created institutions like the World Bank, and the IMF.

James is on his feet a lot in this story either running, or getting kidnapped, or fighting for his life against Russians, and paid assassinations, all while thinking that it is time to retire once and for all and setting down with reporter Katie. The story jumps from Russia, to Colorado, to Afghanistan, to Washington, D.C. to Israel, and Cyprus to name a few places. There are parts of this book, meaning Ukraine, and Taiwan, that are ripped from the headlines and realistic. And, like it or not, most of the scenarios that Carr writes about are based on first hand accounts, and books that have been written on the subject. 

*Thoughts* If you were alive in the late 70's early 80's you know that a certain Republican Senator from Arizona lied to the families of the POW's who never came home from war. Hundreds of Americans are still missing from Vietnam and Korea and Laos and Cambodia. John McCain had every opportunity to tell the families the truth about what really happened. But he only cared about power, and maybe he was part of an actual conspiracy to cover up the truth about why nobody seems to be able to find any of the POW's. 

Reece isn't a superhero as you seen in the movies. He is a human being who bleeds, and hurts, and loves not only Katie, but his best friend Raife and those who have stood with him over the course of this series. Reece uses literally every weapon I've ever heard of to take on the conspirators and save the world. The story is one that takes Reece all over the world, including back to Israel in order to save it from a Russian conspiracy. 

The ending of this book seems as thought the author wants to give Reece a break so that he and Katie can finally settle down, and open their Whiskey Bar and Book store. 

Chapter 1


United States Penitentiary

Florence Administrative Maximum Facility

Range 13

Special Housing Unit

Fremont County, Colorado




Of the mind.

His soul in chains.

His body in solitary confinement.

Nothing but darkness.

All life is suffering, Reece remembered.

How long have I been in here? Days? Weeks? Certainly not a month.

It was hard to tell when you were living in darkness.

But he wasn’t living in silence.

The voices were his companions.

What are you looking for?

“Salvation,” Reece said.

What truth do you seek?

“I seek a reckoning.”

You’ve found it.

“Have I?”

You are going to die in here, Reece. You deserve to die in here. In the dark. Alone. Your wife died alone.

“No, she didn’t. She had Lucy.”

And an unborn child. You failed them, Reece. You failed them all. Just as you failed your men in Afghanistan. Freddy died on that rooftop in Odessa because of you. You deserve what’s coming.

“And what is that? The grave?”

Death would be too merciful for you. You killed them, Reece.


You are beyond redemption. You killed your wife and daughter. Had you been home, had you hung up the gun years earlier, they would still be alive. It was an unwinnable war. You knew that from the start. You studied your history. Those who sent you neglected to study theirs.

“Imperial hubris,” Reece whispered.

They failed you and those they sent to fight. For twenty years. They filled the coffers of their defense industry allies, enjoying dinners and drinks with lobbyists, none of whom had the balls to step into the breach. You knew it. You went anyway. And you didn’t do it for God and country.

“Then who did I do it for?”

You did it for you.


Where is your faith?

“It’s gone.”

Gone or dormant?

“I don’t know.”

It never fully disappears.

“I feel forsaken.”

You should. By surviving the ambush in Afghanistan, you sentenced your family to death. Had you died in the Hindu Kush, they would not have been killed in your home. You know it’s true.

“I wanted to hold those responsible accountable.”

But accountability wasn’t enough, was it?

“There needed to be consequences.”


“Yes. I believe in consequences. Judgment.”




Is vengeance yours? How does it feel?

“I did what was necessary.”

Did you?


Or was it because that is all you know? Because that is what you do best? Because that is where you feel most alive?

“I wanted to die.”

You needed to die. Death becomes you, Reece. War—it’s in your blood. You became war.

“It was the only way.”

And you are beyond redemption.

“I know.”

You brought it home. You brought war home to those who sent a generation into combat. You put the fear of God into those growing fat off the dividends of death. You got what you wanted.

“I wanted justice.”

No, you didn’t.

“I wanted revenge.”

You became vengeance.

“A reckoning.”

Did you get it? And what of Katie?

Reece tensed.

If you stay with Katie, she will die.

“I’ll protect her.”

The way you protected your wife and daughter? The way you protected your troop? The way you covered Freddy on that rooftop?

“I need to get out of here.”

You won’t leave this cell. Its walls are already closing in. Soon, even you won’t be able to survive.

“I will.”

Are you a survivor, Reece?

“I’m a fighter.”

Every fighter goes down.

“But they get back up.”

Darkness. Welcome it. Become it. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. You are sealed in your tomb. Forever.


Life is pain. Life is suffering. Why didn’t they just kill you? Why didn’t you kill yourself? Save Katie. She deserves her life.

“There’s a safe-deposit box I need to find.”

What’s inside is poison. And now Katie has the safe-deposit box key. A key to a box you will never find. You put her in danger again. If she dies, you are responsible.

“What’s in it?”

Your father knew.

“What was his tie to Russian intelligence?”

What do you think?

“I don’t know.”

You will rot in this cell, Reece. You will die in darkness. You will never get answers.

“Where there is darkness, there is light.”

Somewhere, but you will never see it again. Death is on the wind.



“Then this is what I deserve.”

It is what you deserve.



This room will drive you to madness.

“I know.”

All you have is your mind. Your mind and one meal a day. Why do they want you locked up?

“Who is ‘they’?”

Did Alice betray you?

“She warned me.”

Maybe she did both. Is she friend or foe?

“Alice, where are you?”

All those who killed Lauren and Lucy are dead.

“I know.”

You killed them. The man behind 9/11; you killed him, too.

“I did.”

The man responsible for Freddy Strain’s death.


The man responsible for your father’s death?


Is he?

“They are all dead.”

Then what of Russian intelligence? Why would Mikhail Gromyko take his own life? The head of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, went to the grave with your father’s list on his last breath. The list and Thomas Reece. What was Gromyko protecting? Who was he protecting? You will never know, Reece.

“I will.”

You are not leaving this cell alive. Be it a day or decades, you will die here. Your brain will deteriorate, and you will spend whatever time you have descending into madness. You should smash your head against the wall until death comes. Force yourself to choke on what passes for food. Get creative. End it. Everyone will be better off without you.

“They will.”

No one even knows where you are.

“Someone knows I am here.”

You don’t exist.

“The food coming in once a day tells me someone knows where I am. Existence is enough.”

Is it?

“It has to be. There is still work to do.”

You will never do it.

“Katie is looking for me. She will find me.”

Then she will die.


Just like all those you have loved. Dead.


You are granite, Reece. You will not change. But those who love you—Katie, the Hastings family—they will be battered to death against you, protecting you. Save them now.

“That’s not true.”

It doesn’t matter. You are locked in this cell. A prisoner of your own mind.





“To exist. That is enough.”

Pain is life. Life is pain. Suffering and pain. That was your life out there. That is your life in here.

“Someone killed the president.”

Someone killed him and framed you.


The answers are out there.

“I am in here.”

You need to get out.

“I do.”

You will never get out. That is your truth.

“What is truth?”

Give up.







“Not today.”


Nothing but darkness.

Life is darkness.

All life is suffering.

“It must be enough to exist.”

For now. But if you once again see the light of day, existence won’t be enough.

Reece felt the cold concrete wall against his back.

“No. But it’s enough for today. I’ll get out and get my answers. And when I do, there will be a reckoning.”

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

#Review - The Enemy at Home by Kevin O'Brien #Thrillers #Historical

Series: Standalone
Format: Paperback, 416 pages
Release Date: August 22, 2023
Publisher: Kensington Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Historical

As WWII rages overseas, a serial killer preys on women working in Seattle’s factories in this provocative blend of vivid, richly detailed historical fiction and taut suspense from New York Times bestselling author Kevin O’Brien.

1943, Seattle. While raging war reshapes the landscape of Europe, its impact is felt thousands of miles away too. Before the war, Nora Kinney was one of countless housewives and mothers in her comfortable Capitol Hill neighborhood. Now, with her doctor husband stationed in North Africa, Nora feels compelled to do more than tend her victory garden or help with scrap metal drives . . .

At the Boeing B-17 plant, Nora learns to wield a heavy riveting gun amid the deafening noise of the assembly line—a real-life counterpart to “Rosie the Riveter” in the recruitment posters. Yet while the country desperately needs their help, not everyone is happy about “all these women” taking over men’s jobs. Nora worries that she is neglecting her children, especially her withdrawn teenage son. But amid this turmoil, a sinister tragedy occurs: One of Nora’s coworkers is found strangled in her apartment, dressed in an apron, with a lipstick smile smeared on her face.

The Enemy at Home, by author Kevin O’Brien, marks his trade paperback debut with this historical serial killer thriller set in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle) during WWII! This shift from his previous contemporary suspense novels allows us to expand his readership to historical fiction and upmarket WWII-era fiction readers. Unlike much of the WWII historical fiction being published right now, The Enemy at Home doesn’t take place in Europe or revolve around espionage or other wartime machinations. 

It takes place in Seattle, where the impact of WWII is felt through the absence of men, women’s entrance into the workforce with “Rosie the Riveter” factory jobs, and the presence of Japanese internment camps. The primary character in this story is 37-year-old Nora Kinney whose husband, Pete Kinney, a physician, joined the military to help out in the war effort. At the Boeing B-17 plant, Nora learns to wield a heavy riveting gun amid the deafening noise of the assembly line—a real-life counterpart to “Rosie the Riveter” in the recruitment posters. 

Yet while the country desperately needs their help, not everyone is happy about “all these women” taking over men’s jobs. Nora worries that she is neglecting her children, Chris (17) and Jane (12) especially her withdrawn teenage son who has been carrying not only a lot of baggage, but some eye popping secrets as well. But amid this turmoil, a sinister tragedy occurs: One of Nora’s coworkers is found strangled in her apartment, dressed in an apron, with a lipstick smile smeared on her face. 

She will not be the first nor the last as the serial killer seems to be sending a message to the women in the workforce providing vital resources that will eventually help the US win World War II that they belong at home, not in the workplace. As more women are killed, Nora also takes on the task of investigating the murders and she finds herself in over her head, putting both herself and her loved ones in danger. Nora's life twists in ways she never knew possible when she rents out an apartment to a man named Joe, and her brother returns after being hurt in the Pacific.

*Thoughts* I know I have said this before, and I say this again, but I love taking notes while I am reading. I make a list of characters, as well as places, and follow them to uncover who may or may not be involved in the serial killings. I figured out who it was about half way in the story. Nora has so much baggage on her shoulders in this story. She has to deal with a missing husband, she has to deal with ration cards, and she has to deal with Chris who seems eager to push all of Nora's buttons by doing really idiotic, and yes, brave things behind her back. 

This story hits on several key subjects, but the one that most concerns me is the treatment of Japanese-American citizens who lost their Constitutional rights because of a President who saw them as an enemy. Those who had sheltered them in the past with jobs and places to live were the targets of that anger. Pete's wife and two children were part of that targeting. If you know anything about History, you know that the US has also done similar things under then President Wilson. Politicians love to say that we can't move forward without understanding our future, but today people in schools want to ignore the past, or rewrite it in ways that make no sense.

Friday, August 18, 2023

#Review - The Witch and The Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Release Date: September 20, 2022
Publisher: ACE
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Historical

In this stunning historical fantasy debut, an isolated witch will risk all that she has to save her country and her people from dangerous gods and the twisted hearts of men.

In this stunning debut novel, the maligned and immortal witch of legend known as Baba Yaga will risk all to her country and her people from Tsar Ivan the Terrible—and the dangerous gods who seek to drive the twisted hearts of men.
As a half goddess possessing magic, Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her hut in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the tsar, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves.
As she travels to Moscow, Yaga witnesses a sixteenth-century Russia on the brink of chaos. Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine.

The Witch and The Tsar, by author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, is the authors debut novel. The story itself takes place in 16th Century Russia from 1560 until 1581. The story weaves a rich tapestry of mythology and Russian history, reclaiming and reinventing the infamous Baba Yaga, and bringing to life a vibrant and tumultuous Russia, where old gods and new tyrants vie for power. This fierce and compelling novel draws from the timeless lore to create a heroine for the modern day, fighting to save her country and those she loves from oppression while also finding her true purpose as a goddess, a witch, a woman, and later a mother.
As a half-goddess possessing magic, Yaga, along with her companions Noch (meaning night) is an owl. Noch specializes in reconnaissance and intel-gathering. Dyen (meaning day) is how Yaga ends up getting around from place to place. Yaga is used to living on her own, her prior entanglements with mortals having led to heartbreak. She mostly keeps to her chicken legged hut (Little Hen) built in the woods, where those in need of healing seek her out, even as they spread rumors about her supposed cruelty and wicked spells. 
But when her old friend Anastasia—now the wife of the Tsar Ivan IV, and suffering from a mysterious illness—arrives in her forest desperate for her protection, Yaga realizes the fate of all of Russia is tied to Anastasia’s. Yaga must step out of the shadows to protect the land she loves. It was Anastasia who was, according to historians, was likely poisoned that ended up pushing Ivan over the edge to become Ivan the Terrible. Yaga witnesses a sixteenth century Russia on the brink of chaos and destruction of it's people and it's culture.
Tsar Ivan—soon to become Ivan the Terrible—grows more volatile and tyrannical by the day, and Yaga believes the tsaritsa is being poisoned by an unknown enemy. The tsar has fallen under the influence of a dark-hearted ageless sort, someone Yaga knows. And the game is afoot. But what Yaga cannot know is that Ivan is also being manipulated by powers far older and more fearsome than anyone can imagine. Yaga loves her Mother Russia and considers it her duty to defend her against enemies foreign and domestic. 
Ivan definitely counts among the latter with his later day idea to create an entire new country under his rule with boyars loyal to him along with his son Ivanovich who more or less stands by his father even when he is destroying town after town and killing what is said to be upwards of 60,000. You think Stalin, and Lenin were bad men? Add Ivan the Terrible to that list. Through Baba's eyes, readers discover the brutally of Ivan. Ivan's Oprichnina (the kingdom he carved out from Russian territory for his own totalitarian use), his oprichniki (the brutal soldiers who razed countless Russian villages and oppressed/murdered their inhabitants at Ivan's command)
The one difference that the authors makes is the introduction of Vasily Alekseyevich Adashev as a love interest. Vasily is written as a warrior, but mortal, which is a problem. It gets complicated since Yaga is allegedly the immortal daughter of a Goddess of Earth. Gilmore, who was born in Russia before coming to the US, has succeeded in making Yaga, and her companions appealing. The devastation wrought by Ivan and those driving him provide all the motive force anyone might require to do everything possible to stop it, which gives us a lot to root for.


Late May 1560

When my owl landed on my shoulder, I knew heartbreak was not far behind.

It was not that twilight tasted different, though on my tongue, the humid spring air had the bitterness of snowfall. It was that, even this deep in the Russian forest, dusk bled into the light with infuriating leisure. The clouds had smothered the last of the sun's rays in scarlet. Yet day clung on, delaying what mortals intended to find their way to my izbushka.

The log hut stood on chicken legs, not swaying or spinning or even pacing, as unnaturally still as me. I usually fidgeted with impatience, eager for my first client to appear, for my work to begin. Now, unease wrapped around my throat, silent as a viper.

My owl could only be here to deliver bad tidings. Like her namesake, night, Noch came in the company of darkness and shadows. It was then the mortals arrived with their fevers, skin infections, and stomach poisons; with the burns from the fires that spread too quickly in their cramped wooden villages. They did not approach me in the light of day, even if it was waning. Not unless they brought disaster.

Noch's bright yellow gaze fixed on me pointedly. She let out a screech loud enough to reanimate the skulls on the fence encircling my izbushka.

They are here, Ya. Her voice, in the language she spoke, reverberated through my mind, becoming words I could understand.

"Already?" I asked in Russian. Someone was coming. Someone desperate enough to risk being seen. "Who is it?"

What am I, your servant? You will see. A downy wing brushed against my cheek teasingly as Noch ascended into the air. But instead of hurling herself back into the sky, she flew into my hut through the open door, shedding several dove-gray feathers in her wake.

I picked up a feather, considering it. My owl never went inside of her own volition, valuing open sky and freedom above all. I strained my ears and waited for the first footfall. All I heard was the song of the crickets and the leaves, rippling in the breeze that had rushed toward me, insistent and oddly cold. Fluff drifted from the ancient cottonwood trees, settling onto the wooden steps of my hut like tufts of snow. And I had just cleaned them.

"Come down, Little Hen," I said to my izbushka, and she obeyed, folding the chicken legs beneath her so she looked almost like a regular house.

I tightened my hold on the broom and swept at the steps with renewed vigor. The hut jerked away, being unbelievably ticklish. The two shuttered windows, one on either side of the door, glowered at me. Their red and blue carvings brightened in indignation.

"Hold still, Little Hen," I said, and swept on. But I kept a close eye on the wood beyond the skulls.

My hut sat in a lush glade surrounded by towering, age-old trees. Overgrown pines and spruces jostled against starved yet stubbornly resilient birches. The oaks stood gravely, expansively, ready to pass on their energy to anyone who asked politely. The wispy grass had grown knee-high and tangled, the forest floor ripe with mushrooms, wild strawberries, and violet petals fallen from geraniums in bloom. Out of this chaos of living things a large man stepped out, all in black, face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat.

I stilled. "Who goes there?"

The man halted at the fence, no doubt trying to decide if the skulls there were human. "Is this the izbushka of Baba Yaga the Bony Leg?"

With my unease temporarily forgotten, my cheeks flushed with familiar indignation. Not many dared to say that name to my face. "It is the izbushka of Yaga."

Fool, I almost added. Do I look like a baba? I was not a babushka, lying on my stove in the throes of advanced age and infirmity. Nor was I a hag, a demon, or an illness. Nothing about me was ill or demonic or old, except the occasional thread of silver in my wild black hair. My father may have been mortal, but Mother had been a goddess since before the Christian god had come to Russia. Because of her immortality, my body had not aged past thirty after centuries on Earth. I sent a little prayer of thanks up to her.

The man stood motionless. His features were weathered and very plain, most covered in coarse black hair, as was the fashion. No outward ailment spelled disaster. His illness, though, could be of the internal or spiritual variety, even of a romantic one.

Either way, it was best to put him at ease, as was my practice with new clients. Those who came for succor found it in my hut. Healing filled the empty hours of my days, kept my hands occupied and my mind busy, gave me a sense of purpose. If I could live among mortals, healing and advising them, I would.

But the legend that clung to me-the legend of Baba Yaga, built on lies and ill will-prevented it.

Afraid now that he would flee, I reverted back to politeness. "The skulls are not human," I said softly. This part of me labored tirelessly to convince the mortals that I was not the Baba Yaga they had heard of, that I was no human-eater. "Animal bones ward off evil," I added. Near the skulls, thistle and juniper grew thickly to protect against demons.

His dark eyes narrowed as he drew closer. "Where is she, this Yaga?"

"I am Yaga." Who else could I be?

"Pah! A fine trick this is, woman!" he blustered. "I have traveled all the way from Moscow to see the vedma, and I will not be trifled with."

I had not flinched at the word witch. I had made my peace with it long ago. But I shuddered at the man's mention of the capital. Though I had never been there, I knew Moscow was at least a day's ride on horseback. Whoever came from there did so when their prayers had gone unanswered, when the mortal healers had thrown up their hands. They came in the depths of their despair. But this man was not despairing. Quite the opposite.

"By all accounts," he went on, "Baba Yaga is practically at death's door, she is so old. Deformed, too, with an iron nose and a bony leg, fangs for teeth, barely any hair. Yet here you stand, young enough to be my daughter, claiming to be the crone herself!"

My cheeks burned. It had not occurred to this thick-headed muzhik, this idiot of a man, that what he had heard was nothing more than a rumor. One that was viciously invented and flung out into the world to reduce any unmarried, reclusive woman to a hag or a witch.

"You go too far, sir," I said in a hard voice, forgetting the fear and any attempt at politeness. "You who are in such need that you seek me out in broad daylight only to ridicule me. Well, good riddance." I gripped the broom and spun on my heel toward my hut, about to tell her to stand and take me with her.

"Wait," said the man. Desperation had crept into his tone. "If I am indeed speaking to the one whom I seek, then I meant no offense-"

"Even so, you had best be on your way-" I couldn't help turning to look at him. Now he was despairing; his face had paled beneath his beard.

"Please-" He raised a hand as if to physically pull me back. "Do not punish my illustrious mistress for my ignorance."

My brow furrowed. "Your mistress?"

The man gave a solemn nod. He glanced toward the wood and let out a whistle that shook the very cottonwoods above us. Fluff fell in clumps onto the hut's steps.

I hardly noticed. On the well-bred white mare emerging from the trees sat a hooded figure, elegant as only a highborn woman knew how to be. My eyes caught on the rich velvet of her cream cloak; the fur trim, odd given the warm weather; the little bejeweled fingers gripping the reins. A pull on the hood revealed a headdress encrusted in bloodred rubies, then the face beneath, thin and drawn, cold as marble.

Though it had been years since we had last seen each other, I would have recognized her anywhere. It was Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yurieva-the tsaritsa and wife of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia. But what was Anastasia doing here? Nothing short of disaster could have compelled the tsaritsa to risk her reputation by seeking out a reclusive witch.

Indeed, she was a shadow of the rosy-cheeked maiden who had come to my izbushka more than a decade ago, on the cusp of greatness, days away from the bridal show that would catapult her into royalty. The viper of unease tightened around my throat. That girl was gone. Here was a wraith at death's door. This day had brought heartbreak. I could see the tsaritsa's situation was not just disastrous; it threatened her very life.


Leaving the guard to keep watch outside, I ushered the tsaritsa into the darkened innards of my hut. Little Hen was used to clients coming and going and usually behaved herself enough by staying low to the ground so as not to frighten anyone. I hastily lit a few stubby beeswax candles. The scent of burning honey filled the air as I turned back to my royal visitor, swallowing hard.

Her tears had dried, her dull brown eyes taking on a chillingly distant look. Where were the flecks of gold, the quick wit, the uncharacteristic warmth of someone of her social standing? Her vibrancy was gone. Her skirts rustled like dried-up leaves as she sank onto the stool I offered her with the tired, defeated air of one who wishes never to rise again.

A few wandering chickens clucked at my feet. Noch hooted from a shadowy corner. The tsaritsa probably found this-me-uncivilized, disgustingly rustic, even.

But she only said, "It has been months. The doctors do not know what it is. I do." She struggled out of her cloak. "I am dying."

The bell-sleeved, flower-patterned letnik gown dragged her down as if bloated with seawater. A little shiver darted up my spine, almost prompting me to ask the tsaritsa how many dresses she wore. For wealthy women, it was customarily a minimum of three. But it was clear it was not the dresses plaguing her.

There was sweat on her brow, a redness at her mouth and eyes, though her skin was missing the telltale blotches and swellings of pestilence. An internal imbalance was possible, but those were the hardest to heal. An illness of the mind or spirit? Stooping under the dry herbs and flowers hanging from the slanted ceiling, I crossed the room to an iron cauldron bubbling over a fire that never went out. Iron possessed mystical and protective powers.

"It has been some time since you visited me," I said slowly, brushing aside a purple lavender blossom. "Thirteen years?"

"With the wedding, I . . ."

"I have heard weddings eat into time like moths. What about after? I tended to your family for years. To be forgotten so quickly by you and your mother was quite the revelation." I bent over the cauldron and ladled out hot water into a bowl fashioned from bone. Steam billowed into my face as I flushed with resentment. Or maybe disappointment.

How would the great Earth Goddess Mokosh feel about such neglect? I thought about my beloved mother, the protector of women-of their work and destiny, the birth of their children. I glanced up at her symbol, the wooden horse's head hanging above the cauldron.

We provide succor regardless of wounded pride, she had once told me. Pride is an illusion and the path to conceit. Gods may be guilty of it, Yaga, but not you.

But our gods, the ancient ones born of the Universe, had been worshipped then. While Mokosh had not spoken of it, tales say she helped to create the Earth with Perun, the Supreme God and Lord of the Heavens, and many other gods besides. Perun forged the sky with his thunderbolts; Mokosh gave birth to the land. Her spindle spun the cloth of humanity, thread by thread, woman by woman, life to death, generation after generation. She was Moist Earth, mother of all living things and my actual mother.

Eventually, mortals began to worship the Christian god. While some believed in the old gods as well as him, I doubted the tsaritsa was of their number, living as she did in the center of the Orthodox Christian faith in Russia. Yet before her ascent to the court, she had gladly partaken of what infuriatingly limited talents I had inherited from Mokosh.

"I made you a tsaritsa," I said. "I provided your mother with the herbs and charms that got the court to take notice of a dead aristocrat's daughter. Or have you forgotten?"

The tsaritsa stared into my too-light blue eyes, at my unbraided hair and exposed browned arms. They were covered in pictures inked into my skin-of suns and moons and stars, of living things. Perhaps she assumed the nails and teeth studding the belt on my tunic were human.

To my surprise, she said, "Of course I remember." Then she swept off her stool and knelt at my feet. "Yagusynka, I do not fear death. I fear what would happen to the tsar and to my sons, especially to our heir, Tsarevich Ivanushka, if I were to die. I am desperate for your counsel." Her voice was soft, charged with emotion.

The heat left my face. It was so like her to fear not for herself but for others. Rumor had it that marriage had tamed the tsar's naturally violent ways, that his tsaritsa restrained his worst impulses. Her intelligence and faith guided him. If something were to happen to her, it would not just be her sons who suffered. It would be Russia and her people.

"I am providing you counsel, am I not?" This was said tartly but with a twinkle of good humor. I did not hold on to anger for very long. And I was remembering not Anastasia's neglect but her. Mother had been right. This was not about my pride, wounded though it may have been. This was about Russia's tsaritsa, about Anastasia herself, the girl I had known.

In the hut's only room, an oak table was wedged against the window adjacent to the brick, flat-topped pech oven where I prepared my potions and salves, performed my rituals, cooked my meals, even slept.

I beckoned the tsaritsa over to the table and bade her to hold a wire dowsing rod over a bowl of water. But when she did, it did not stir. This meant there was no illness of mind or spirit.