Flamebringer (Heartstone #3)

Cover image for Flamebringer by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274798-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “You humans with your saints and heroes. Learn the truth as I did, both you and your husband: they will always disappoint you. If Alastair returns to Pendragon a wiser man for my honesty, then I will have done some good. It is all I have left to offer House Daired.”

Weary and disenchanted by their adventures in the north of Arle, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra return south bearing a dire warning. Their old enemy Wydrick lives, ghast-ridden and merely the harbinger of a greater evil yet to come. Old things are stirring in Arle and abroad, and war is coming. The Silent King of Els is coming to Edonarle, even as the Tekari range ever further southward, terrorizing the towns and villages in their path. But will either the dragons or the human rulers of Arle listen to their warnings, or it will it be up to the Daireds to mount a lonely defense against the old grudges that are finally being called to account?

While Heartstone began as a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, by the third volume that scaffolding has largely fallen away, as Flamebringer is well beyond the bounds of that plot, leaving only the characters to hint at the origins of the tale. The story becomes about grappling with history and tradition, both for Aliza and Alastair personally, and the Kingdom of Arle as a whole. The return of Tristan Wydrick forces both Aliza and Alistair to face up to their previous relationship to him, and the social disparities that led him down his current path. As the plot develops, it becomes evident that Wydrick’s fate ties back to old Daired secrets, which House Pendragon has wilfully forgotten, but other still remember, and do not forgive. House Daired is an old power in Arle, but on what foundation was that power built?

After setting Dragonshadow in the north of Arle, and separating Aliza and Alistair from their family and friends, Flamebringer returns south, catching up with the Bentaine sisters, as well as Julienna Daired and Cedric Brysney. Bearing dire news about the war to come, Aliza hesitates to share all of her misadventures in the north with her sister, even though she is delighted to be reunited with Anjey. Their reunion sparks doubt in Aliza, as she realizes that Anjey has embraced the identity of Rider as her own, training and fighting alongside her husband. Still more healer than warrior, and attuned to the fact that Rider culture will never fully accept her, Aliza has a harder time leaving her old life behind as she tries to settle into the new one. Together the two form an interesting contrast in adapting to a new culture, and new life circumstances. The complex relationships depicted between the sisters remain one of my favourite aspects of the series.

Dragonshadow (Heartstone #2)

Cover image for Dragonshadow by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274796-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“I won’t play this game. Aliza is your wife, not your servant. You can’t dismiss her and you certainly can’t slip away in the night without telling her. Frankly, I’m a little ashamed to see you try.”

The Greater Lindworm is dead, and Aliza Bentaine and Alistair Daired are happily wed and settled at House Pendragon. But only a couple of weeks into their honeymoon, reality has come calling. The Tekari continue to wreak havoc on the Kingdom of Arle in the aftermath of the Battle of North Fields, and the offers for Alistair and Akarra to take a new contract are mounting. The question of which contract to accept is settled when a desperate messenger from the far north of the kingdom collapses on their doorstep, bringing news of a threat that hunts Idar, and has now begun to claim human victims as well. But as Alistair and Akarra prepare to travel north, Aliza is determined not to be left behind

The second installment in this series follows on Heartstone, which could be best described as Pride and Prejudice with dragons. However, Dragonshadow stands alone, having left the parameters of the original scaffolding story behind. I was curious to see if White would try to pull in another narrative, perhaps using elements of a different Austen story, but Dragonshadow instead delves deeper into the fantasy elements to explore the fallout of the Battle of North Fields. Old, dark things are stirring in Arle, and the lindworms were only the beginning. While humans freely harvest heartstones from the Tekari, they do not take them from the Idar, and wearing the heartstone of a Shani is unthinkable. But meeting some of the Idar, and talking to one Centaur in particular, causes Aliza to beginning thinking about how these distinctions among Arle’s magical creatures arose in the first place.

Many of the supporting characters from Heartstone do not feature in Dragonshadow, as Alistair and Aliza wing north to Castle Selwyn with Akarra. None of Aliza’s sisters make an on page appearance, and nor does Alistair’s sister Julienna feature. I found this a bit disappointing, since I really enjoyed the sibling dynamics in Heartstone, but White highlights other relationships here. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Aliza and Akarra. Although Akarra is bonded to Alistair, she accepts Aliza into that bond as an equal, despite her lack of Rider pedigree. More than that, she calls Alistair on his nonsense when his protectiveness borders on infantilizing. It would have been easy to set up a conflict between Aliza and Akarra, but their friendship is much more interesting.

This final point is a bit spoilery, but also falls into the category of content warnings. Over the course of the story, Aliza discovers, and then loses, a very early pregnancy. It’s rare to see miscarriage depicted in a fantasy novel at all, let alone sensitively handled. I was a bit worried that it would be used as a destructive plot point for Alistair, who would blame either himself or Aliza for killing their child by allowing her to accompany him on the contract, but fortunately White does not take the story down that road. Instead, Aliza is surrounded by empathetic and supportive women from Castle Selwyn, some of whom have known loss of their own.

In order to live happily ever after, Aliza knows she needs to figure out how she will walk the line between the traditions of the dragon riders, and staying true to her own heart. As Lady Daired, new expectations threaten to hem her in at every turn, but she is determined to forge her own path, and set her own terms for what it means to be a Rider’s wife. Sequels with newly married characters often find an excuse to separate them in order to add tension to the plot, but Dragonshadow stands out by having Aliza and Alistair face the difficulties together, weathering their first disagreements as newlyweds. I look forward to the Daireds’ further adventures in Flamebringer.

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1250-31307-2

 “Nothing is going to stop this. Too many powerful people rely on what the societies can do. Before Lethe existed, no one was keeping watch. So you can make futile bleating noises in protest and lose you scholarship, or you can stay here, do your job, and do the most good you can.”

Alex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watch dog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. She was supposed to have an entire year to learn the rules from outgoing delegate Daniel Arlington before he graduated and moved on. But then Darlington disappears, and a girl is murdered, and it is up to Alex to ensure that none of the societies were responsible.

Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. Alex’s past is murky, and the precise events the led her to the hospital where Dean Sandow made her his offer even more so. She doesn’t want to think about it. The circumstances around Darlington’s disappearance are equally mysterious; no one is supposed to know that he isn’t just spending a semester abroad, lest the societies get any funny ideas. What quickly becomes evident is why Alex was chosen; she can see the Grays, the ghostly shadows of the dead that haunt New Haven and the Yale campus, and threaten to disrupt occult rites if not banished by graveyard dirt or death words. Every watcher before her has had to swallow a nasty, toxic potion to perform this duty, but Alex can see the Grays all the time, even when she would rather not.

Ninth House might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie. Some of the horror is magical in nature, but much of it is real. Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.

In many respects, Ninth House is an examination of structural inequality. It is all too easy to imagine the privileged secret societies of an Ivy League school keeping magic to themselves, and using it to increase their power, wealth, and influence, widening the gap between themselves and everyone else. Alex is trying to bear the weight of the responsibility she has taken on, but she is being slowly crushed under the burden. Her aborted high school career left her utterly unprepared for the rigours of study at Yale, just as Darlington’s sudden disappearance leaves her utterly unprepared for performing the full scope of her responsibilities. Lethe House is supposed to monitor and curtail the excesses of the other eight houses, but Lethe is also dependent on the houses for the very funding that allows it to continue to exist, creating a conflict of interest that threatens to bind Alex’s hands at every turn. Power dynamics are constantly in play.

At nearly five hundred pages long, Ninth House is a slow burn. Bardugo plays her cards close to the vest, and only doles out information grudgingly. This opening and build up contrasts sharply with the dramatic twists and rapid turns of the ending, which comes to more than one false conclusion. While the main plot is largely wrapped up in this volume, Bardugo leaves the door open for more mysteries in the world of Alex Stern.

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenholdby Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

“Much like the occupants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation.”

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end.

Rubenhold opens The Five on Trafalgar Square in 1887, a year before the events that would claim the lives of her five subjects. Hundreds of homeless Londoners descended on the Square each night, bedding down on the paving stones, in a Victorian precursor that modern audiences might recognize in the more recent Occupy movement. Among them was Polly Nichols, who was no stranger to sleeping on the streets when she did not have enough money to buy a bed for the night. She had no fixed address. In opening on this scene, Rubenhold emphasizes that poverty and homelessness were rife in Victorian London, and that many factors contributed to the situation.

Most of the victims were born into working class families, with trades such as printing, tin making, and soldiering. Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in London to work as a servant. Of the five, only Mary Jane Kelly’s early life remains a mystery, lost to a series of fabrications and name changes. Four of the women were, or had been married, and three of them had children. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are commonly remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. Though it is impossible to definitively rule out occasional engagement in survival sex, she finds clear evidence of sex work in the histories of only two of the women. In the case of Elisabeth Stride, she may have left Sweden in part to escape a reputation that lingered even after she had left the trade behind. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were, or ever had been sex workers. They were poor, vulnerable women struggling to survive on the streets of London’s East End. They were victims of a brutal murderer who felt entitled to take their lives, knowing that society would not value their loss.

If not prostitution, there are other common threads along the path that led each of the women to one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The breakdown of a marriage was a common catalyst; unable to legally divorce, they simply left. And since the work available to women did not pay a living wage, leaving meant falling into a makeshift existence, trying day by day to scrape together four pence for a bed in one of the East End’s filthy lodging houses. The other option was to commit oneself to the workhouse, exchanging a day’s labour for a night’s lodging and a meagre meal. However, the workhouse was fraught with shame, and many would choose to sleep rough rather than submit. Alcoholism was also a shared problem, though the relationship between cause and effect is murky. Which of the women landed on the streets because they drank too much, and which drank too much to dull the difficulties of poverty and homelessness?

The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is very clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. No attempt is made to build suspense up to the moment of their deaths, or to speculate about what they endured in their final moments. The deaths are not lingered over, and the mutilation of their bodies is minimally described, noted only in the difficulties they lent to identifying the victims, and the impact seeing this desecration had on the family members who were called upon to performance this office. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

I would have liked to learn more about how Rubhenhold sifted through the conflicting and biased evidence that survives in order to piece together the lives of these five women. However, I think that such a method would ultimately have detracted from Rubenhold’s focus on centering the lives of the women, rather than their deaths, and the legend that grew up around their murderer. To ruminate too much on methodology would be to slip back into the amateur sleuthing that defines so much of the modern obsession with Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold notes in the text when the coroner’s records of an inquest do not survive, forcing her to rely on newspaper accounts of dubious and conflicting accuracy. She also states that she privileged the evidence and testimony of the people who knew the women in life. Otherwise, she steadfastly keeps her attention on the women, and the social context in which they lived.

You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji Yoshinoby Kenji Yoshino

ISBN 978-0-375-76021-1

 “In the new generation, discrimination directs itself not against the entire group, but against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms.”

Kenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on gay rights and marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Yoshino attributes the term “covering” to Erving Goffman’s 1963 book, Stigma, from which he quotes, “passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness.” Despite the significant progress made for civil rights in general, and gay rights in particular, Yoshino was left feeling that the transformation was incomplete, and that there were gaps yet to bridge to achieve true acceptance. American culture has largely moved past the demand that gay people convert to being straight (conversation therapy) and even somewhat past the demand that gay people pass for straight within society (don’t ask, don’t tell). Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs.

Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. He identifies four areas where covering takes place, including appearance, affiliation, activism, and association. He also delves deep into the possible problems and potential pitfalls of protecting behaviour as well as identity. First, he acknowledges the complexity of identifying what counts as covering. For example, for some members of the gay community, gay marriage might be considered a form of covering because it asks them to assimilate to straight cultural norms by adopting a straight cultural institution that is not compatible with their values or preferences. Yoshino also stresses that rejecting covering cannot come with an inverse demand that minorities act “gay enough” or “black enough,” thus inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. “My ultimate commitment is to autonomy as a means of achieving authenticity, rather than to a fixed conception of what authenticity must be,” he concludes.

As a gay Japanese American, Yoshino is able to personally touch on covering as it pertains to both race and sexual identity, and he weaves his personal experiences into these discussions, sharing how he continued to cover aspects of his identity long after he came out to his parents. However, he also addresses gender and disability, even though he does not personally experience these covering demands. He identifies a unique double-bind experienced by women in the workplace, where they are “pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but “feminine” enough to be respected as women.” Motherhood also offers a unique example of contextual covering. Outside of work, “mothers seems like paragons of normalcy,” but on the job they are “the queers of the workplace,” forced to downplay this aspect of their identity in order to avoid the mommy track.

Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. But he chose the law, because “a gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person. Law school promised to arm me with a new language, a language I did not expect to be elegant or moving, but I expected to be more potent, more able to protect me.” However, his command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

You might also like Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino

Aurora Blazing (Consortium Rebellion #2)

Cover image for Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik by Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-28241-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “I would personally storm the gates of hell for any of my brothers or sisters. To claim otherwise was to fundamentally misunderstand me as a person.”

With House von Hasenberg at war with House Rockhurst over the rare mineral called alcubium that will revolutionize faster than light travel, tensions are running high, even in the neutral territory of Serenity. When Bianca, daughter of House von Hasenberg, is attacked, and her brother, Ferdinand, heir to the House is kidnapped, the Rockhursts seem like the natural suspects, but something more complicated seems to be afoot. Bianca deals in information, and thanks to a cruel experiment conducted by her dead husband, she has unique code cracking abilities that no one can know about, not even Ian Bishop, Director of Security for House von Hasenberg. Bianca knows that together they would be an unstoppable force, if only she could convince Ian to stop protecting her, and start working with her to find Ferdinand and bring him home before it is too late.

In the second volume of the Consortium Rebellion trilogy, Jessie Mihalik shifts her attention to the recently widowed Bianca, who is still recovering from the abuse she endured at the hands of her husband in an unhappy political marriage. Bianca is back home in House von Hasenberg, quietly working intelligence for her family, while rumours fly through Consortium society that she murdered her husband. Bianca pretends to mourn, when in fact she is guarding a deadly secret; Gregory was using her as a guinea pig in a science experiment. Thanks to his work, she can pick up and decrypt electronic signals, though the barrage often leaves her head pounding, and her guts churning with nausea. Even her father cannot be let in on the secret, because the ruthless Albrecht von Hasenberg has already demonstrated that he will use his daughters to gain an edge, however small, and the technology implanted in Bianca’s body is priceless. Her time trapped in Gregory’s lab has left her physically weakened, but those limitations only make her a more compelling heroine. What she lacks in physical stamina she more than makes up for with wits and poise.

Like Polaris Rising, Aurora Blazing is as much romance as sci-fi adventure, and will appeal most to readers who enjoy both. Bianca’s love interest is Ian, the mysterious Head of Security. Seven years ago, he was her bodyguard, but back then he spurned her advances to further his determination to rise quickly through the ranks. Ian is somewhat less of an alpha love interest than Marcus Loch was in the first volume, which I found more appealing, though his insistence on ignoring Bianca’s wishes was still infuriating. After being spurned seven years earlier, establishing trust is key if Bianca and Ian are ever to have a relationship, and this is made more difficult by the fact that he technically works for her conniving father, who decidedly does not have her best interests at heart. The tension between them is a slow, cautious burn that lasts through the book.

The first volume of the series focused on Bianca’s younger sister, Ada, and her love interest, Marcus, a supersoldier who escaped a secret government experiment. Ada, Marcus and their allies have a role to play in Aurora Blazing, though Bianca and Ian take center stage. I enjoyed the sibling relationships portrayed between the von Hasenbergs in Polaris Rising, and that continues to be a strong feature in Aurora Blazing. Ada provides critical support to Bianca in her mission to save their oldest brother, and Bianca’s twin Benedict also features, though not as much as I would have hoped. The most interesting glimpse is Catarina, the youngest von Hasenberg, who all the older siblings have strived to protect from their parents’ brutal machinations. But Catarina is beginning to chafe at being constantly sheltered and sidelined, despite her obvious smarts and resourcefulness. She will not be content to sit by for long. The final installment of the trilogy will follow Catarina’s adventures, as her father determines to make her a political match that will solidify their House’s position in the war with the Rockhursts—but Catarina has other plans. Looks for Chaos Reigning in May 2020.

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Range

Cover image for Range by David Epsteinby David Epstein

ISBN 978-0-7352-1448-4        

“Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

Most people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule, as studied by Anders Ericsson, and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength.

It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, he is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving. He specifically identifies “kind” domains in which the rules are relatively fixed, and feedback is immediate, and more “wicked” domains where results take longer to reveal themselves, and the rules are subject to change at any moment, if any patterns can be discerned at all.

Epstein has a great eye for stories, and a knack for telling them well. He opens each chapter with a case that illustrates the point, before he lays out the somewhat drier data that buttresses his argument. One of the most fascinating of these is the story of the figlie del coro, female orphans and foundlings from the Venetian ospedali. Given over to the orphanage by their mothers—who were probably sex workers—the girls were raised to music from an early age, taught to sing and play a variety of instruments. Although these women were hailed as among the best musicians of the period, and had the vaunted early start, they spent much less time per day practicing than today’s classically trained musicians, and they switched and sampled instruments often. In fact, they were known to switch places mid-performance. Their story illustrates that even in “kind” domains like classical music, there are paths to outrageous success that do not follow what we think of as the typical path. And the examples provided are not just historical; in the world of modern music, Yo-Yo Ma tried violin and piano before settling on the cello.

Yet another of Epstein’s gripping stories comes from endeavours like InnoCentive, a company founded to search for unusual solutions to sophisticated problems that have stumped experts in the fields from which the problems arose. Thus, a man with experience working with concrete solved the problem of how to remove congealed oil from an environmental recovery barge, and the dean of a library school who had no library science background discovered a potential link between migraines and magnesium deficiency, which was documented in the available literature, but which no researcher or neurologist had ever connected before. These cases make for a compelling argument not only for individual range, but for diversity within teams that are solving problems, so that not everyone is working out of the same toolbox.

Given the early pressure for students to specialize, and the popularity of books such as Grit, which valourize persistence to a fault, Range offers an interesting counterpoint to this tendency to try to get ahead. Yet Epstein points out that students who chose to specialize early were more likely to switch fields later. Education doesn’t just provide work skills, it also helps students identify the areas that are a good match for their strengths and preferences. Experience is never wasted, and exploration is part of the point of education. We cannot know in advance how seemingly unrelated skills may help us down the road.

You might also like Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Chilling Effect

Cover image for Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes by Valerie Valdes

ISBN 978-0-06-2877239

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “I’m not working for you filthy bastards. I won’t even work for my own father, and he’s a saint compared to you.”

As captain of La Sirena Negra, Eva Innocente does her best to find honest work for her crew of misfits, human and alien alike. After finally getting out from under the thumb of her dishonest father, and her manipulative first employer due to a job gone disastrously wrong, she finally has a chance to deal fairly, on her own terms. But when Eva’s sister, Mari, is kidnapped by a mysterious crime syndicate known as The Fridge, she has no choice but to take on some shady deals. Can someone as rash and accident prone as Eva really pull off a rescue, especially when she is trying to keep it a secret from her crew? And if that wasn’t bad enough, Eva has attracted the ire of an egomaniacal alien emperor by refusing his amorous advances. Plus, she has a cargo hold full of troublesome psychic cats, and no buyer in sight.

In many space operas, the ship is as much a character as any of the people or aliens. This is certainly how Eva feels about La Sirena Negra, a ship she got from her father after a job gone particularly badly, and the vehicle for her new life where she can set her own rules. However, La Sirena Negra is part and parcel with Min, the pilot who is so jacked into the ship’s systems that she regards it as an extension of her own body. Also on board are the ship’s medic, and Eva’s long-time best friend, Pink, and Leroy, a damaged ex-merc who was used as “meat puppet” in a remotely controlled army. The engineer, and Eva’s love interest, is the charmingly literal Vakar, a quennian with a mysterious past who can’t help but share his emotions through his ever-shifting scent signals. Eva herself is a pretty salty character, fully of punchy dialogue in both English and Spanish. The unitalicized, untranslated Spanish is peppered throughout, and while it isn’t necessary to translate to get the gist, pop a few words into your favourite translator if you want to learn some interesting new insults.

Valerie Valdes clearly likes to play with tropes, of which women in refrigerators is the most central. Usually, this refers to a male protagonist’s female love interest being murdered to serve as motivation for a revenge storyline. In Chilling Effect, the woman in a refrigerator is Eva’s sister, Mari, except that Mari isn’t dead; she’s being held in cryostasis to ensure that Eva submits to the demands of the shadowy crime syndicate that has taken her sister hostage. While Eva’s found family is comprised of a compelling cast of characters, her biological family is a little less likeable. Unfortunately, we don’t meet Mari, or know much about their sibling relationship before her sister is turned into leverage.

I was a bit disappointed that the cats didn’t play a more central role in the story, because everyone knows that if you introduce psychic space cats in act one, you should make good use of them by act three. But they do add to the atmosphere of La Sirena Negra, and I can hope that they will feature more prominently as the series continues. The trade paperback includes a preview chapter for the next installment, Prime Deception, which will deal with the fall out of Eva’s misadventures in Chilling Effect.

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