Hugh Likes Fiction: Even Though I Knew the End

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Even Through I Knew The End
Written by C. L. Polk
Audiobook Read by January LaVoy

The Skinny: A quick mix of Fantasy and Noir that hits hard and fast.

Helen Brandt is a Private Investigator living in 1940’s Chicago. She’s also a lesbian, and a warlock. She takes on magical work for her mysterious clients, gets paid well for her work, and doesn’t ask questions. But when she’s recruited to investigate a notorious serial killer whose murder scenes have a magical connection, she turns the job down. There’s too much risk involved, and people she cares about could get hurt, including her estranged brother and her girlfriend. But she changes her mind when her client offers her something she can’t refuse: Her soul.Even Though I Knew The End is a delightful little jewel of a fantasy noir novella. Polk’s recreation of 1941 Chicago, layered with a tantalizing hint of a rich magical world, is stunning and vibrant. The city breathes, and you can practically smell the stale cigarette smoke and stale coffee on the narrator’s breath. The combination of enticing fantasy world and impending doom with palpable and exciting. Polk’s well-researched noir prose is spot on, giving just enough to bring the story to life without turning purple.The audiobook, read by January LaVoy, is outstanding. Her narration brings the characters to life, and her performance of Brandt brings out the perfect amount of hard-luck noir sympathy for a protagonist who has undoubtedly done awful things for awful people (Marlowe in particular) but we want to root for her anyway, even though, well, we know how things are fated to turn out. Her performance of the rest of the cast is also excellent, giving otherworldly touches to the characters where appropriate and garnering sympathy when necessary.Even Though I Knew the End is a brilliant Fantasy Noir novella. You can find it in Print and eBook from the usual marketplaces, and as an audiobook from Audible.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Fevered Star

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Fevered Star: Between Earth and Sky Book 2
Written by Rebecca Roanhoarse
Audiobook Read by Christian Barillas, Darrell Dennis, Cara Gee, Nicole Lewis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett
Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc
Listened to via Audible

Spoilers for Rebecca Roanhoarse’s previous novel, Black Sun. Also, I listened to the audiobook, so please forgive any misspelled names.
The sequel to 202’s Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhoarse returns to her Pre-Columbian America inspired epic fantasy world of the Meridian, expanding the focus of the story from the canyon city of Tova to encompass its neighbors, as the fallout from the first book’s climax reveals the charactersWith both the Crow God’s champion of Serapio and the Sun Priest Naranpa having unexpectedly survived, but the city itself in a shambles, the new year dawns in Tova with the sky frozen in an eclipse, as Shadow and Light struggle for dominance. While the office of the Watchers has been destroyed, the Sky-Made clans and their matrons still plot, and Serapio and Naranpa both return home to their clans and families, unsure of what to do next. But as the sorcerers who engineered Serapio’s rise plan their next move, so to do the disaffected masses of Clan Carrion Crow, and the clanless criminal underclass of Coyote’s Maw. While it is difficult to say much about the book without getting into spoilers, I really enjoyed this epic fantasy. Roanhoarse is a master of the dramatic irony and pacing that are the life’s blood of the sub-genre. The unique setting of the Meridian, with its pre-Columbian America vibes is a delight to return to. I’m glad this book gives the characters more figurative and literal room to breathe. The first book was a race towards the climax, which coincided with a solar eclipse and a big festival for the city. This book feels less like an impending crash and is a bit more quiet, as the characters recover and consider their next moves. The Sun Priest and the Crow God’s avatar spend the book circling one another, looking for advantage, or a way out.That isn’t to say this book is dull. There’s plenty of drama and action, and cool magical powers and fights. Everything that was great about the first book returns here, and is enhanced. With more cliffhangers at the end, I am fully invested in this series, and can’t wait for the next entry.The audiobook features five different narrators, each of whom brings one point-of-view character to life. I enjoy this style of narration for epic fantasy, and it works well here. The different voices highlight the different points of view of the characters to great effect. I just wish that the producer had made sure all of the readers were on the same page for pronunciations, as some of the proper names and places would shift depending on the narrator.Fevered Star is available in print, ebook, and audiobook from your local bookseller or internet-based megastore.

Hugh Likes Fiction: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built
Written by Becky Chambers
Published by Tor.com
Read as a part of a promotional ebook from Tor.com

The Skinny: A post-industrial story so cozy, it should come with a cup of tea.

Cover image: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Sibling Dex is a tea monk. They peddle the roads of Panga delivering brews and a comforting shoulder as a part of a society that long since gave up on automation and the creature comforts of industrialized society. But they are restless. Dex is good at what they do, and proud of their work, but they are no longer satisfied by it. On a whim, they pedal their bike-mounted home into the forbidden wilderness, where they meet Brilliant Speckled Mosscap, the first robot to make contact with humans in centuries.
A Psalm for the Wild Built is a sociological sci-fi novella built in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin. It is an optimistic story in that it predicts a world (or in Panga’s case, a moon) where humanity looked at its actions and changed course before it was too late to avoid catastrophic climate change. Much of the novella is devoted to worldbuilding and the technology that makes such a world possible, as well as the values that the people hold that make it sustainable.
The novella is also is also pessimistic, in its way. Much like in her other writing people are still at the end of the day people, and all the green technology and cups of tea in the world can’t solve the problems we carry inside us. A lot of the story is devoted to Dex and Mosscap’s respective existential crises and goals. Mosscap isn’t sure it will be able to complete its mission to determine what humanity needs after their long separation, and Dex doesn’t even know what they need themself anymore. Chambers’s writing is witty, their worlds are richly imagined and technologically fascinating. She doesn’t stumble over the hard science of how an ox-bike works or a get bogged down in the precise history of Panga, but gives just enough detail to bring her world to life.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a quick, engrossing read about utopia, friendship and the limits of each. It is available in print and ebook wherever books are sold, and I highly recommend it.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Legends and Lattes

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Legends and Lattes
Written by Travis Baldree
Audiobook read by Travis Baldree

The Skinny: What if the Coffee shop A. U. was the story?

Viv is a barbarian warrior ready to get out of the mercenary’s life. But before she hangs up her greatsword for good, she needs a plan. Fortunately, she has two things going for her: A lucky, if gross charm in the Skalvert Stone, a sort of a magical bezoar she takes from the skull of a monstrous giant insect. Trophy in hand, she travels to the town of Thune, following the ley lines to the place where she’ll start her new life: Opening a coffee shop.
Unfortunately, there are a few hurdles for her to overcome, including the local organized crime boss, the fact that nobody in town has even heard of coffee before, and her prime location is in fact an abandoned livery. But with the help of some new friends, and the occasional assistance of her former adventuring party, she’ll give her new life a go.
Legends and Lattes is the coziest of cozy fantasy stories. Not so much a tale of adventure and blood, but of steam and baking. There is some tension as Viv attempts to break from her old life and settle into the new one, but most of this audiobook’s six-hour run time is more concerned with the day-to-day running of the shop than fighting monsters or fantasy politics. It’s clear that these things are all going on somewhere, but this story is all about the beans.
As a professional narrator, Baldree does an outstanding job reading, and the text feels right as an audiobook. His voices for the characters feel distinctive without becoming forced, which is no mean feat as a male actor reading a book with two female leads.
While the story was engaging and satisfying, It did feel a bit on the short side to me. We get an eclectic cast of characters, both from Viv’s old life and her new one, but they are mostly supporting Viv. It would have been nice to have spent more time with Cal, Thimble, Tandry and the rest of the supporting cast. Also, this is a romance, but a very fluffy one. It doesn’t go much farther than awkward stammering and acknowledged feelings. I would have liked it to have been more, well, steamier.
Legends and Lattes  is a +5 cozy little story that is sure to warm your heart like a warm cup of coffee on a cold winter’s morning. It is available as an audiobook, print or ebook from the usual locations.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Fireheart Tiger

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Fireheart Tiger
Written by Aliette de Bodard
Published by Tor.com
Read on Kindle

The Skinny: A tightly plotted fantastic historical romance about power and politics

Thanh is a princess bereft of options. Sent as a hostage to the distant and powerful nation of Ephteria, she returned home after the royal palace burned down with her inside. She still has nightmares of the fire. Lately, these have been getting worse, and she’s been smelling smoke and seeing flames in impossible places.

 Worse still, her cold and uncaring mother the Empress has put her in charge of the latest negotiations with Ephteria led by her former lover the princess Eldris. Caught between impossible duties, irresponsible desires, and the terrifying prospect that she is either a witch or madwoman, Thanh fights to make a future for herself where she remains free.

 The author of novellas such as The Teamaster and the Detective and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, I have been a fan of Aliette de Bodard’s writing for years. She has a signature grasp of political melodrama, with characters caught between the things they want and the duties and destinies of empires. She is a master of using that drama to humanize her characters, even when they’re sentient spaceships. And while I won’t spoil the twist in this novella, she uses that skill no less effectively in this secondary world echoing historical Vietnam and France in the colonial period. Thanh is an intriguing protagonist, limited in her options and constrained by her position. But she is always moving, always fighting, even while she bemoans her lack of power. This novella burns through fantasy and romance tropes like well, again, no spoilers but it is a delightful trick to see her use those tropes and the echoes of Vietnamese history to such excellent effect here. In another kind of story, Eldris would have been the protagonist with all her poise and strength, swaggering into a political negotiation with her sword bouncing on her hip.

 The major complaint I have for this story is that I would’ve liked to have seen more of it. de Bodard confines the action to the Imperial Palace, with lots of discussion concerning Thanh’s sisters and the Empire’s neighbors. While I understand the reason this story is so intimate, I would’ve also liked to have seen a longer novel, or perhaps a sequel that incorporates more of those elements.

 Fireheart Tiger is an enchanting queer fantasy romance that burns away the illusions and deconstructs some of the tropes of the subgenre. You can find it in print from your local indie bookstore, or digitally from the usual storefronts.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Revenant – Star Trek Deep Space Nine

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Revenant: Star Trek Deep Space Nine
Written by Alex White
Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio

The Skinny: A thrilling and thought-provoking stand-alone story set in the middle of a sci-fi classic.
Revenant by Alex White is an excellent reintroduction to the world of Star Trek Deep Space Nine.  Set midway through the series, it follows one crewmember, Jadzia Dax, as she delves into a mystery concerning her own past. Dax is actually, technically speaking, two people in one. The humanoid Trill Jadzia and Dax, a long-lived symbiotic creature that is surgically implanted. The symbionts are implanted in the best and brightest of Trill society and can remember their hosts’ lives with such clarity that they are effectively a gestalt, granting their hosts lifetimes of experience. But when an old friend of both herself and Dax’s previous host comes to her with a problem, Dax becomes trapped in a conspiracy that stretches through lifetimes, and the highest echelons of their society.
 White does an excellent job of telling a fascinating science-fiction mystery that delicately balances introducing the story to new readers and giving sly nods to long-time fans. This is no mean feat for a series that has been off the air for over two decades. They pull the trick off by not merely presenting the characters who flit in and out of the story but establishing the characters from Dax’s point of view. As in their excellent Salvagers series, White balances character development and world-building to fill out their universes with style and panache. From the gaming tables of an alien casino to the tunnels beneath a sinister hospital, these don’t feel like a TV soundstage, but a living, breathing universe. As someone who fell off of Star Trek midway through the series, I felt like I got just enough of the characters to be reminded of who they were, and managed to catch a few of the winks directed to long-time fans.
 I listened to this book in audio, and narrator Robert Petkoff does a good job. The performance is not over-produced and doesn’t distract from the story. It was an exciting, fast-paced read as Jadzia and her allies delve into Dax’s past and uncover an imaginative sci-fi conspiracy.
 If you are completely uninvested in the series, this book probably won’t be what changes your mind. But as a former fan who hasn’t seen the series in decades, Revenant lit a nostalgic fire in my heart. You can find it wherever books and audiobooks are sold.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Elder Race

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Elder Race
Written by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published by tor.com

The Skinny – A braided novella that plays well with two very different set of tropes.

Lynesse Fourth Daughter is a princess on a noble quest. Perhaps the queen forbid her to get involved, and she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, but she’s off to a good start. She’s even recruited the legendary sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder to her side. Except that ‘Nyrgoth’ is in fact Nyr Illim Tevitch, a shlubby, depressed anthropologist from Earth, who should be studying the regressed society of interstellar colonists instead of playing wizard. But the rest of his team headed back to Earth centuries ago, and he hasn’t heard anything from them. And he’s lonely and depressed. But everything should work out fine, right?
Elder Race mixes far-future science fiction with old school sword and sorcery. Author Adrian Tchaikovsky weaves a deft course between genre tropes and delivers a stunning gut-punch of a novella packed with complex characters.
The story is split between the points of view of the main characters, switching off between Lynesse and Nyr as they go to confront a ‘demon’ causing havoc on the planet’s surface. Nyr is sure that this is just another bit of old technology that’s gotten out of hand. Lyn is sure that the Ancient Sorcerer will have no problems dealing with evil magic, as he did centuries before, when her ancestor called him. Of course, they’re both super wrong.
One of my favorite tricks Tchaikovsky plays with in this story is in the use of language. Nyr is constantly frustrated by the fact that he can’t even confess that he’s a charlatan, because all of this post-Earth cultur’e’s words for ‘scientist’ are also cognates for ‘wizard.’ By shifting perspective, the reader gets to understand both characters better than they do each other. There is even a great sequence where their text appears side by side, and the reader sees the same story as Nyr means to tell it and as Lyn hears it.
Tchiakovsky takes a warrior princess and a displaced sci-fi crew member and puts them into what amounts to a comedy of manners, with each struggling to both use the other to their own ends, and to understand one another. It’s a clever little story, and it surprised and moved me more than I expected.
Elder Race is a delightful spec-fic gem of a novella, and I highly recommend picking it up, whether you’re a fan of quests or post-human existential angst, it’s a cocktail sure to delight the palate.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Comfort Me With Apples

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Comfort Me With Apples
Written By Catherynne M Valente
Read By Karis Campbell
Published by Tordotcom and Dreamscape Media LLC

The Skinny – This puzzle box of a novella about a woman living in an exclusive gated community is a suspenseful, surprising little treat.

Sophia’s life is a paradise. She keeps her husband’s house in the Arcadia Gardens, the ultimate gated community, and even though he is away with work much of the time, he’s the perfect husband, who has given her the perfect life. She was made for him, and everything is perfect. But she begins notices cracks in the veneer of her supposedly perfect life. She finds a hairbrush that isn’t her’s and her neighbors seem just a bit too eager when they ask her if she’s happy. And then there’s the basement, which she is forbidden to enter. When Sophia’s perfect life begin to unravel, and the temptation to destroy the illusion becomes overpowering.
Giving much more of a description to this fast-paced and engaging novella would give away the game, but Valente’s luscious prose unfolds like a puzzle box, with Sophia’s narrative interposed with her contract from the unseen but all-powerful Arcadia Gardens Home Owners’ Association. It’s a clever trick that works beautifully. The story is a perfect novella length, giving just enough clues to resolve the mystery while keeping a sharp and suspenseful pace.
Karis Campbell’s narration is spot on, making this quick but engaging audiobook well worth the full credit, even if it only clocks in at a couple of hours of listening time. Each character is unique and distinct, and her read of their narration is subtle. She doesn’t give the game away, but still highlights all the incongruous and unsettling bits of Valente’s story.
Comfort Me With Apples was an unexpected and gripping little story that is well wroth your time, and works best if you go in not knowing the twist. It’s available in print, ebook and audiobook from all the usual retailers.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Black Sun

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Black Sun: Between Earth and Sky Book One
Written by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published by Saga Press

The Skinny: An epic adventure full of fascinating characters in a unique and vibrant setting.

Serapio is a god reborn. Before he was born, his mother’s people, the Crow clan, were brutally slaughtered in the city of Tova. His mother barely escaped with her life, bearing an unslakable thirst for revenge. Now, blinded and raised for a single purpose, he must make his way back to Tova and confront the Sun Priest, whose office orchestrated the genocide. But the path ahead lies through rough seas, and his only ally is a ship captain with mysterious powers who is distrusted by her own crew.Meanwhile in Tova, the newest holder of the office of Sun Priest, Naranpa, is caught in a web of political intrigue, and narrowly avoided assassination attempts. As the winter solstice and a historic eclipse approach, will there even be a city still standing when Serapio arrives?
With this this new epic fantasy series, Rebecca Roanhorse gives readers a look into a richly imagined world filled with deep and complex characters. Broadly based on Pre-Colombian cultures surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, The Meridian is a land full of mysterious magic, warriors fighting from giant crow-back, and Machiavellian ruling castes of priests and merchants. It is a very fresh take on the genre, and breathes new life into tropes so soaked in the trappings of medieval England.
But the real highlights of this compelling work are the deeply realized characters and the ratchet-tight pacing. Epic fantasy has a tendency to ramble and repeat itself, wallowing in feasts and camp tents, as heroes and heroines brood over politics. From the first page, Black Sun rushes towards the destined climax, as political machinations, ancient prophecies, and even the sky itself push the players towards their destinies as surely as Captain Xiala sings up a current. Speaking of which Xiala was my favorite character, an opportunistic and morally gray wanderer searching for a home she doesn’t know how to even ask for, let alone find. Her chemistry with Serapio was easily the most fascinating part of the book for me.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse is available in print, ebook, and audiobook, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local independent bookstore. I strongly recommend it!

Hugh Likes Fiction: Finna

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Written by Nino Cipri
Published by Tor.Com

The Skinny: A broken-up couple adventures through a muliversal furniture store on a desperate rescue mission.

Imagine an IKEA that goes on forever. In this retail hellscape, Ava and Jules find themselves on a quest to find a missing shopper that has gone missing not merely between aisles, but between realities. Even though they have just broken up and are avoiding each other, they have been sent by their manager to rescue a lost grandmother, with no hope of overtime, but if they can prevent any bad press or leakage from a dystopian parallel Earth, there might be a Pasta and Friends gift card for them when they get back.
Cipri has pulled off something magnificent with this quirky novella. I’ve never seen the existential dread of modern retail work so elegantly expressed. They also set this story not at the beginning of a relationship, but at the fractious end, throwing together two humans who are still emotionally raw and wondering what comes next. They cover a huge amount of thematic issues in such a scant story, and they thread the needle beautifully, providing a moody, atmospheric story full of sympathetic characters. But Cipri’s compelling fantasy worlds will be what really draws you in. From a floating city of merchant ships to a forest of carnivorous furniture, Cipri creates a multiverse of dangers and wonders that is not to be missed.
Finna is available in print and ebook from Tor.Com and all the usual retailers.

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