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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: 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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Finna
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.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Harrow the Ninth

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Harrow the Ninth
Written by Tamsyn Muir
Audiobook ready by Moira Quirk
Published by Recorded Books

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The Skinny: The sequel to Muir’s impressive debut novel delivers more mystery, gothic weirdness, and dad jokes. (Spoilers for Gideon the Ninth)

Any novel can make you think the main character is mad. It takes a very special book to make you wonder about the author. Harrow the Ninth, manages to do both, with style and grace. And it does it leaving my desperately looking forward to the last volume of the trilogy, due out sometime next year.
And how does Muir follow up the massive success of her debut Gideon the Ninth? In second-person, and with the conspicuous absence of any mention of the first book’s beloved title character. Harrowhark the Ninth has done what she set out to do, and became a Lychtor at Canaan House. But instead of waking up a mighty immortal in the full flush of her powers, she’s sick, dying, and probably going mad. There’s something wrong with her, and she cannot understand what. Also, she is dreaming of her time at Canaan House, and those memories don’t match the events of the first book at all.
Things only get worse when she’s brought to the Emperor’s haunted Space Station for training. The other Lychtors are as likely to kill her as teach her, and the Emperor Himself is far from the living god she imagined. Her only remaining friend is Ianthe, her fellow newbie necromancer, who has plans of her own. Oh, and a monstrous undead Death Star is on its way to kill them all, so no rush getting all that sorted out.
Muir has struck gold once again with this space opera that is equal parts Gothic and Arch. The mysteries are tantalizing, the characters are that same signature mix of badass and horrible people, and her writing just sets the page on fire. The second-person perspective and jumbled nature of the first sections of the novel might be a bit of work to get through, but the payoff is definitely worth it, and it’s a brilliant use of literary device.
Moira Quirk also returns to read the audiobook version, and her narration and voice work are spot-on.
Harrow the Ninth is exactly what I wanted out of this sequel, full of gothic space crypts, planet-sized undead, and witty dialog from decadent lesbian space necromancers. It’s not a good place to start the series, but if you enjoyed the Gideon don’t miss it!

Hugh Likes Fiction: Gideon the Ninth

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Gideon the Ninth
Written by Tamsyn Muir
Audiobook read by Moira Quirk
Published by Recorded Books

The Skinny: Shirley Jackson’s Lesbian Space Necromancers.

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is an extraordinary novel that is a bit difficult to describe, pithy sentence above not withstanding. In a crumbling space empire built on necromancy, eight Necromancers, along with their Cavalier bodyguards, return to a long-abandoned planet to search for a secret power that could save their civilization. It’s a dense concept, and my attempts don’t do it justice, but Tamsyn sells it with from the first incredible opening line.

“In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!— Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

A postmodern space fantasy/ghost story, Muir fills her novel with deeply rich characters like the eponymous sassy swordswoman Gideon and her Necromancer charge, Harrowhawk. Harrow is the teenaged leader of the Ninth House, and Gideon’s only childhood companion, so of course they hate each other, and are only working together to keep the other houses from finding out that a tragedy befell their planet, and they are literally the only suitable candidates. Her characters are outstandingly drawn and painfully real. And her setting, from the nearly-lifeless frozen tomb planet the Ninth House calls home to the abandoned, crumbling palace of Canaan House is a character in its own right; melancholy, ferocious, and disarmingly witty.
Muir’s handling of equal parts tension and farce are deft, constantly surprising, and utterly delightful.
Just as delightful as the writing is Moira Quirk’s narration on the audiobook version. Quirk does an excellent job brining Muir’s already vivid characters to life. She does a stunning job performing a large cast of strange and complicated characters.
Gideon the Ninth draws from the work of masters like Agatha Christie, Shirley Jackson, and Ursula K. Le Guin, while also building something modern and wholly unique. It is unlike anything I’ve read in a very long time, and not to be missed. You can listen to the remarkable audiobook version via Audible, or purchase a physical or ebook copy from your retailer of choice.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: This Is How You Lose the Time War

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This Is How You Lose the Time War
Written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Audiobook read by Cynthia Farrell and Emily Woo Zeller
Published by Simon and Schuster Audio

The Skinny: Two time-traveling agents begin a correspondence that will have epic consequences.

This beautifully written novella follows Red and Blue, two agents of opposed possible futures working to ensure their side wins history, as they begin an exchange of letters that will, well, change history.
El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s writing is lyrical and beautiful. The locations for the two agents’ missions are tiny glimpses into beautiful and compelling worlds. From neolithic labyrinths to ruined battlefields on crumbling, distant planets. But the letters themselves are as fascinating as their correspondents’ adventures. The reader watches as their exchange starts as a taunt, gradually becomes more friendly as the two begin to understand one another, and eventually become something more intimate, in letters written on plain paper, and hidden in more devious methods, in the bottom of a teacup, in the rings on a fallen tree, or the boiled water in an abandoned hospital MRI machine. Each exchange is surprising and engaging, and the reader is left to wonder what they’ll think of next, and to worry as a shadowy figure stalks behind them.
The audiobook, although short, was particularly good, which a pair of excellent narrators that give the poetic descriptions and intimate epistolary sections real gravitas. Often an audiobook is either well narrated or well acted, and finding not one but two narrators that excel at both is a triumph in and of itself.
This Is How You Lose the Time War is a confection of time travel mystery romance that will leave you aching for more, and heading back through to see how they pulled it off when you’re done. It’s certainly award-fodder, and it breathes new imagination into it’s sub-genre. Don’t miss this one!

Hugh Likes Fiction: Storm of Locusts

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Strom of Locusts
Written by Rebecca Roanhorse
Audiobook read by Tanis Parenteau
Published by Audible Studios

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The Skinny: Roanhorse’s second novel in her Sixth World series takes heroine Maggie outside the walls of Dinétah and into the ruins of post-apocalyptic America.

The sequel to 2018’s Trail of Lightning, this novel picks up shortly after the first, with Maggie back at home, having come to terms with her powers and her past and literally buried, it in the form of her demigod mentor, behind her. But when she discovers that her estranged partner Kai has been kidnapped, she’ll have to venture outside the walls of Dinétah to save him, and the whole nation from a doomsday prophet.
While I never wrote a full review for her first book, I greatly enjoyed it, and this is a worthy sequel. Roanhorse builds on the first book in interesting and organic ways, and she provides enough backstory for new readers to jump in without being lost or sitting through a slog of exposition. My favorite bit is the inclusion of Ben, a teenage girl with her own clan powers that relies on Maggie as a mentor. She becomes a great foil for the heroine, whose own mentorship ended so badly.
In reading the first book, I struggled with the Navajo language used in the book, as I was unfamiliar with it. I listened to Storm of Locusts as an audiobook, and the book flowed much better for me. Narrator Tanis Parenteau does a great job with the material and her performance of the characters is natural and easy to listen to.
Storm of Locusts is available in print, ebook, and audiobook. It is a cool adventure story in a brilliantly imagined and unique post-apocalypse. I highly recommend it for fans of the series and newcomers alike.

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