Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction, Horror

Canada Reads Along 2023: Mexican Gothic

Cover image for Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 9780525620792

“It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books.”

When her father receives a strange letter from her recently married cousin Catalina, Noemí Taboada is dispatched from Mexico City to check on her. Noemí arrives at High Place, a moldering mansion in the mountains built on the largesse of a now-defunct silver mine, to find an odd and eerie situation. High Place is like something right out of one of the gothic novels her cousin always favoured, right down to the fact that the Doyle family doctor says that Catalina has tuberculosis. Her strange letter to the Taboadas is attributed to a fever caused by her condition. Self-assured Noemí isn’t about to let herself be scared off by Catalina’s coldly enigmatic husband Virgil Doyle, nor any of the other odd members of the Doyle clan. She may even be able to use Francis, Virgil’s awkward younger cousin who has never left High Place but clearly longs for escape. As the mystery deepens, not only may Noemí be unable to extract Catalina from High Place, but she may also find herself trapped there as well.

The Doyles are an English family that built their fortune tossing Mexican labourers into the rapacious maw of their silver mine before losing almost all of it during Mexican Revolution. Some thirty years later, the last vestiges of the Doyle family live cloistered away in High Place under the iron dictates of their dying patriarch, Howard Doyle, while Catalina’s husband Virgil stands poised to inherit. The family rarely leaves the house, and never goes to town, where strange rumours about them circulate among the local population that once provided the labour for their now-crumbling estate. The series of disasters that reduced them to their present circumstances remains shrouded in mystery.

Mexican Gothic is an eerie post-colonial horror novel set in rural 1950s Mexico. Noemí grew up in the city, with all the arts, culture and education that entails. But history still casts a long shadow over her country, and in particular the legacy of colonialism touches everything. The huge but rotting library at High Place stands as a symbol of the Doyles’ lack of interest in real knowledge, favouring instead the pseudoscience of eugenics. While Noemí studies and debates the latest in anthropology at the university, the Doyles cling to eugenics even as their supposedly superior bloodline dwindles, blaming their falling fortunes on the Revolution and the quest for Mexican independence. Only Francis, with his interest in mycology, shows any real inclination for the life of the mind.

For the first fifth of the novel, High Place is disturbing but in a relatively mundane way. Virgil is lecherous, and his father openly racist. Florence openly aids and abets them in this behaviour. Mexican Gothic is layered with history, biology, anthropology, and Moreno-Garcia’s usual dab hand for incorporating the traditions of the genre she is working in while also making it her own. As the novel progresses, the atmospheric horror ramps up steadily even as the Doyles try to keep a polite English façade on their efforts to control Catalina and manipulate Noemí. The quagmire grows deeper as Noemí becomes determined to save not just her cousin, but also Francis, the only Spanish-speaking member of the Doyle household, a sad young man who has spent his short life trapped at High Place under the thumb of his more assertive family members.

Mexican Gothic will be defended by BookTok content creator Tasnim Geedi on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“This is not just a story about dark family secrets but the lingering effects of colonialism. And Silvia does not waste a single sentence to immerse you in this chilling story, which will have you questioning everybody, including yourself.” -Tasnim Geedi

You might also like:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Fantasy, Fiction

The Goblin Emperor

Cover image for The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

by Katherine Addison

ISBN 9781429946407

“Dach’osmin Ceredin had warned him about Min Vechin, but he wanted a dutiful companion no more than he wanted a mercenary one. He wanted a friend, and that, it seemed, was exactly what he could not have.”

When an airship crash leads to the death of the Emperor of the Elflands and all his immediate successors, the youngest son of Varenechibel IV unexpectedly finds himself on the throne. Half-goblin prince Maia Drazhar has lived his life in exile from his father’s court. Since the death of his mother when he was eight, he has been raised by a relegated cousin who was also out of favour with the emperor. Friendless and largely unschooled in the customs of the court, the new emperor will need to find allies quickly if he is to seize control of a country in turmoil. But there are factions of the court that will never stand for a half-goblin on the throne, and to survive the Untheileneise Court Maia will have to outwit the opposition while also investigating the suspicious deaths of his estranged family.

The Goblin Emperor gets off to a relatively slow start, opening with Maia receiving the stunning news that he his emperor but then spending the first quarter of the book getting him crowned. Add this to the esoteric naming conventions, and the formal court speech style which can feel quite stilted, and this is the type of worldbuilding that it can take a while to sink into. The setting is introduced via an excerpted travelogue or guidebook that gives an overview of the Elflands and the customs of the court. There is also an extensive glossary of places and characters. Please see below for a much livelier introduction to the important characters, humorously detailed by my friend Amelia, who recommended the book!

Presenting: "Who the heck is that!?" by Amelia Garcia Scott, A Very Accurate Guide to the Characters in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia never imagined himself at court, let alone on the throne, and he has little taste for power. In fact, in Maia we find a surprisingly kind and reflective character who is determined not to perpetuate the injustices he has suffered at the hands of his father. As much as he would like to abdicate the responsibility of the crown, the only other possible heirs are still children, and Maia knows enough history to understand that the regency of a minor could result in a disastrous power struggle. At eighteen, he is barely more than a child himself, but the task nevertheless falls to him. The plot follows Maia as he reluctantly learns the ways of the court while also trying to mount an investigation into the airship crash the landed him on the throne.

While the plot follows the investigation into the crash of the Wisdom of Choharo, the emotional arc of the story bends around Maia’s loneliness from his time in exile, and the new form of loneliness he discovers at court as the newly crowned emperor Edrehasivar VII. Surrounded by courtiers, servants, secretaries, and bodyguards, he is nevertheless more isolated than he has ever been. What Maia wants more than anything else is a friend, but it seems that is the one luxury even the Emperor of the Elflands cannot obtain. Everyone at court wants something from him or has their own agenda. However, The Goblin Emperor is more character- than plot-driven, resulting in a surprisingly cozy court intrigue as Maia builds the relationships he will need to rule long and well despite the prejudice that surrounds him.

You might also like:

A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

Hell Bent (Alex Stern #2)

Cover image for Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9781250313102

“To pay your debts, you had to know who you owed. You had to decide who you were willing to go to war for and who you trusted to jump into the fray for you. That was all there was in this world. No heroes or villains, just the people you’d brave the waves for, and the ones you’d let drown.”

After the events of Ninth House, Daniel Arlington—the part of him that isn’t trapped in hell—is bound in the warding circle in ballroom of Black Elm, but that binding will not hold forever. Without his soul, the gentleman of Lethe isn’t quite human, and there is no saying what destruction might be unleashed when the circle finally fails. Alex Stern and Pamela Dawes will need to find the gateway to hell rumoured to be hidden in New Haven and either steal Darlington’s soul back or destroy him before he harms anyone. Forbidden by Lethe from attempting the rescue, Dante, Oculus and Centurion shed their official roles and—with the help of an unexpected ally—set about planning a covert operation to extract Darlington. But no one can walk into hell without paying a price.

Heading into her second year with Lethe, Alex is trying to keep too many balls in the air. She needs to attend class, save Darlington from hell, appease the reactionary new praetor of Lethe, assuage her mother’s worries, and ensure that her roommates don’t find out anything they shouldn’t about the supernatural. Worse, the past she thought she’d left behind in Los Angeles has come calling, and now she has a drug lord to worry about. And if that weren’t enough, Alex doesn’t just see the Greys, she now hears them as well, raising more questions about what it means to be a Wheelwalker.

In Hell Bent, Leigh Bardugo employs a non-linear narrative structure similar to Ninth House; we get a glimpse into a moment of crisis before returning to the beginning of the school year and learning how Alex came to that critical point. The story is told predominantly from Alex’s point of view, but with additional sections from the other characters. In particular, on the descent to hell, we see from the perspective of each of the four pilgrims the murder that qualifies them to descend, deepening our insights into the secondary characters. The not-quite-human Darlington also gets a stint in the second half.

Hell Bent comes in at nearly 500 pages, and is divided into two parts, entitled “As Above” and “So Below.” While there are constant puzzles and dangerous occurrences driving the action, the pacing was recursive, particularly around the mid-point when a failed first attempt to extract Darlington from hell sets Alex and her allies back to square one in many respects. And with the door to hell cracked open, additional complications rear their heads in the second act, not all of which are resolved in this installment. On Twitter, Bardugo has hinted there may be as many as five book in the series, though nothing is certain in publishing.

Like its predecessor, Hell Bent absolutely runs the gamut of possible content warnings for everything from death and violence to police brutality and animal cruelty. If you need more information, consider checking out the book’s page on Storygraph. This Goodreads alternative allows users to submit warnings along with their reviews, an extremely useful feature for helping you decide if a book or series might be your speed right now. However, do note that since these are user submitted, the feature necessarily works better for more popular books that have a lot of reviews. I’ve been trying it out for the last year or so, and you can find me here on Storygraph.

You might also like Babel by R.F. Kuang

Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Stolen Heir

Cover image for The Stolen Heir by Holly Black

by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316592703 

“My greatest weakness has always been my desire for love. It is a yawning chasm within me, and the more that I reach for it, the more easily I am tricked. I am a walking bruise, an open sore. If Oak is masked, I am a face with all the skin ripped off. Over and over, I have told myself that I need to guard against my own yearnings, but that hasn’t worked. I must try something new.”

New to the world of Elfhame? Start here with The Cruel Prince!

Prince Oak, heir to the Greenbriar line, has grown up under Heather and Vivi’s care in the mortal world and has now returned to the treacherous fae court in Elfhame. General Madoc is being held prisoner in the Court of Teeth, and despite his betrayals, Oak is still determined to save the father who raised him, with or without help from Jude and Cardan. But to do that, he’ll need find Lady Suren, the true queen of the north and the one person with the power to defeat Lady Nore thanks to the oath the High Queen forced Lady Nore to swear to her daughter and queen. Meanwhile, Wren has been living half-wild in the mortal world, close but not too close to her former human family. She makes a place for herself breaking the curses and traps that faeries try to trick mortals into. But without a strong talent for glamour, she cannot truly become part of the mortal world again thanks to her blue skin and knife-sharp teeth. When Oak appears in the mortal world asking for her help, Wren knows she cannot not trust him, but nor can she deny the desire to follow him.

The adventure of The Stolen Heir takes the form of a quest, crossing from the mortal world and traveling north to the Ice Citadel where Lady Nore is holding Madoc captive in her dungeons. After stealing Mab’s bones from the bowels of the court of Elfhame, Lady Nore has been using the magic of the dead fae queen’s remains to raise a terrible army. But she is still bound by oath of fealty to Lady Suren; a word from her could ruin all of Lady Nore’s plans—if Wren can get close enough. Doing so will require her to work closely with Oak. Our protagonists are two damaged children who have spent their lives being used as political pawns and now find themselves on the verge of adulthood. A true alliance between them could reshape the political landscape of Elfhame, but trust is terribly hard to come by.

Since the events of The Queen of Nothing, mischievous little Prince Oak has grown up to be beautiful and charming. Wren is afraid that Oak is a gancanagh—a lovetalker, like his birth mother before him, who ensnared first the High King, and then his son. Having spent her time in the mortal world as a cursebreaker, Wren knows all too well that she should never trust the beauty or charm of one of the fair folk. It does not help matters that Oak and Tiernan still hold Grimsen’s bridle, the magical artifact that Wren’s parents once used to control her. Worse, they are actively using it on Hyancinthe, keeping him prisoner and taking him north with them on their mission. Wren fears being put back in the bridle, but it is terrible in an entirely different way to see it inflicted upon another, and to do nothing.

In Holly Black’s new duology set in the world of Elfhame, Oak and Wren take center stage, with a side plot featuring Oak’s bodyguard Tiernan and his former lover Hyacinthe, who found themselves on opposite sides of the war. Jude and Cardan are firmly off-page, though the conclusion of The Stolen Heir makes it likely that they will feature more significantly in The Prisoner’s Throne, due out in 2024.

You might also like:

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

A Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Fantasy, Fiction

The Angel of the Crows

Cover image for The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

by Katherine Addison

ISBN 97880765387394

“I know losing your name isn’t as disastrous for you as it would be for one of us. But it still seems terrible to me that all of these women, either nobody noticed they were gone, or nobody cared enough to go to the police and tell them the dead woman’s name.”

The Angel of the Crows is set in a fantasy 1880s England where angels and demons, werewolves and vampires, all are real. But so too are the depravities of mankind, and an all too human serial killer is stalking London’s East End, preying on the vulnerable women who reside there. Guardian angels protect churches and public houses and train stations, but no angel can protect the streets, or claim an entire city. But the Angel of the Crows, who sometimes styles himself the Angel of London, is determined to try, even if it makes him a pariah among his own kind. Meanwhile, Dr. J.H. Doyle has returned from Afghanistan with a secret, following a near-death encounter with the Fallen, former angels who have lost their names. When Dr. Doyle takes up rooming with Crow, unable to afford London living alone on his meagre pension, he finds himself pulled into Crow’s cases and discovers a new sense of purpose.

Unique among angels, Crow is not bound to a single habitation, nor has he slipped back into the ranks of the Nameless or become one of the dreaded Fallen. Crow is a contradiction of a character who both understands humans intimately enough to deduce their motivations, and yet is baffled by certain social conventions and mores. Doyle is more worldly, however he is still grappling with ableism and self-hatred, disgusted by the infirmity of his war wound but unwilling to seek out a aetheric practitioner for fear of his secret being exposed. Together they make approximately one fully functional detective, albeit still very much in need of the services of their landlady and her kitchen staff for day-to-day sustenance.

The book opens with two epigraphs, one from the BBC’s Sherlock, and the other from the Arthur Conan Doyle canon. In episode three of the second season, “The Reichenbach Fall,” Sherlock says “I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.” But as the author’s note at the end of the book acknowledges, this book “began as a Sherlock wingfic.” Crow and Doyle are, of course, the analogues for Sherlock and Watson. The majority of the secondary characters, from Inspector Lestrade to Mary Morstan, retain their canonical names. The novel is no racier than the Victorian source material, but Addison does lightly explore gender and sexuality, if perhaps not in the ways that you might be expecting if you’re a Johnlock shipper.

The Angel of the Crows interleaves the Whitechapel Murders with the traditional Sherlock Holmes cases, some of which include A Study in Scarlett and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Katherine Addison mixes in some supernatural elements, but keeps human grievances and motivations at the core. The Whitechapel Murders have been added as a connecting throughline with middling success. Crow has empathy for the women killed by the Whitechapel Murderer, particularly when they are nameless and friendless, unidentified. It is perilously close to the dissolution of a Nameless angel that has lost its habitation. But while there was empathy, there was little nuance or humanity added for these women, and the final resolution—in which Crow and Doyle catch the murderer—felt rushed and anticlimactic.

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The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

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Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Speculative Fiction

A Restless Truth (The Last Binding #2)

Cover image for A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

by Freya Marske

ISBN 9781250788917

“There was a high, firm wall beneath the constant performance that was Violet Debenham. She was the opposite to Edwin; his walls were all up front, the warmth there beneath them if you had the patience to wait to be granted entry. Violet’s warmth was on the outside. Sweets spread temptingly out on a blanket. Pause and let yourself accept the entertainment, the offering, and you might not notice the wall at all.”

In an effort to help her brother, Maud Blythe has set sail for New York to find Emily Navenby, one of the women who protects a piece of the Last Contract. Following the death of Flora Sutton, it is more important than ever that the other pieces be protected. However, things go amiss when Mrs. Navenby is murdered on the return journey to England, and all her silver is stolen in an attempt to recover her piece of the Last Contract. In order to solve the shipboard mystery before the RMS Lyric arrives in Southampton, Maud will need to enlist some unusual allies, including the actress Violet Debenham, and the former magician Lord Hawthorn.

A Restless Truth is a follow up to Freya Marske’s 2021 debut, A Marvellous Light. In this installment, the focus is on Maud Blythe, Robin’s sister, who played a minor role in the first book. In some ways this seems like a more fitting focus for this series, which has at its heart a coven of older women who broke away from the patriarchal British magic system and went their own way. They not only defied expectations and cultivated magic that should not have been possible, they made an active choice to protect against the greed of men who would seize power, even at the expense of their own personal relationships. Unfortunately, most of these bad ass elders are dead or dying, including Emily Navenby, with whom the prologue begins. In a fun twist, however, Mrs. Navenby’s unfinished business results in a ghost, meaning that we do get to enjoy the continued presence of her character, albeit in a less corporeal form. The series turns on the next generation of misfit magicians figuring out how best to protect the legacy of the Forsythia Club.

As if the murder mystery were not enough, the journey is also full of personal revelations for Maud. Violet’s somewhat scandalous company forces Maud to consider that perhaps her previous lack of interest in romantic relationships has less to do with her capacity for them, and more to do with her assumption that such a relationship would have to be with a man. Even having lived with her brother and his partner, Maud has not quite made the leap to considering how such a concept might apply to herself. I became invested in her character and didn’t miss Robin and Edwin as much as I feared I would when I learned that the second book was changing perspective.

Violet is an interesting character in her own right, a bright, shining façade that hides a girl who has put up barbed defenses to protect herself from ever being hurt or taken advantage of again. Having run away from home several years ago, she has lived in the world enough to have had the lesson that trust is a luxury beaten into her bones. Maud, however, has little respect for Violet’s walls, and the injuries they might be protecting. Maud’s determination to go on a journey of self-discovery at times ties into Violet’s agenda for causing scandal, at other times wars with her instinct for self-protection, creating a push-pull dynamic that was both frustrating and compelling.

A final installment in the series, due out this fall, will focus on Lord Hawthorn, who was once part of the very magical elite they are fighting against, before he lost all his powers. While each book has its own romance, the series is best read in order.

You might also like:

Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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Canadian, Fantasy, Fiction, LGBTQIA+, Novella

Even Though I Knew The End

Cover image for Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

by C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781250849458

“I had done the worst thing anyone could imagine. Soul-bargaining was the only likely act in the whole Anathemata—who had ever seen a unicorn or an angel, much less killed one?”

A decade ago, Helen sold her soul to save her younger brother, Ted. For her trouble, she was exiled from her remaining family and the larger magical community. Now she gets by doing magical odd jobs, knowing that her clock is ticking; a demon bargain only gets you ten years, and her time is almost up. That is, until Helen is offered a new, once in a millennium bargain. All she must do is find the serial killer known as the White City Vampire and she can have her soul back, along with a chance to make a new life with her girlfriend, Edith.

Even Though I Knew the End is a noirish mystery novella set in a magical version of 1940s Chicago haunted by angels and demons alike. Helen is a magical private eye, but she must tread carefully in order to avoid the Brotherhood, the magical order from which she was expelled as anathema. When Helen takes one last job from a wealthy client in order to put by a little more money for Edith, she stumbles into more than she bargained for: a serial killer being hunted by the Brotherhood, including her own estranged brother Teddy.

Helen is a gruff character who plays her cards close to the chest. She hasn’t told Edith, her girlfriend of two years, about her bargain, even though she has been putting her affairs in order so that Edith will inherit all her earthly goods. The possibility that Helen and Edith might get to be together after all adds a thrumming core of urgency to the mystery. Only three days remain before Helen’s bill will come due but perhaps if she solves this mystery they can still fulfill their dream of moving to San Francisco and buying a little house together in a city that “didn’t mind us much.” However, Helen is far from the only one keeping secrets in this relationship.

While there is a certain magical romanticism to Polk’s Chicago, it also has an undeniable dark side. Raids are an ever-present threat for queer clubs like the one where Helen and Edith first met. Sometimes women disappear from their community, perhaps found out by their families or worse. When they visit an asylum for women to try to interview a victim, Helen is confronted by the imprisonment of a woman she recognizes from the club. We are reminded that this is a setting where electroshock aversion therapy is considered a valid treatment for homosexuality. At the same time, in a world where demons and angels are real, Polk makes it extremely clear that “the revulsion for homosexual love is a human prejudice.”

With an excellent setting and characters, Even Though I Knew the End is a haunting story with a bittersweet ending. It is the kind of novella that makes you absolutely want more, even while you grudgingly acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is.

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Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction

Ocean’s Echo

Cover image for Ocean's Echo by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758866

“They were working together, they were rooming together, and every time he turned around, there was Tennal—unpredictable and razor-edged, crackling like the end of a live wire. Surit worked in a universe of fixed possibilities. Tennal was a chaos event. Surit was drawn to it like a gravity well.”

Tennalhin Halkana is a reader, capable of perceiving the emotions of those around him and even their thoughts if he pushes deeper. But deep reading is incredibly illegal in Orshan, and even a rebellious runaway like Tennal has moral limits. Unfortunately for Tennal, his powerful aunt will stop at nothing to bring him back into the fold. Conscripted under questionable orders into Orshan’s military, Tennal may find himself permanently bound to an architect who is charged with controlling his reader powers and bending them to their only acceptable use: navigating the maelstrom of chaotic space.

Lieutenant Surit Yeni is the son of an infamous traitor, his own so-far exemplary military career notwithstanding. Intent on securing a pension for his one surviving parent, Surit accepts a questionable transfer to the regulators for a salvage mission. While Surit is surprised by his orders to sync with a reader, he is shocked when he finds that the reader is neither a volunteer nor under a properly sanctioned court order for abuse of their powers. Surit believes the orders he has received are illegal, but when his superior officers refuse to listen, he and Tennal strike upon an unusual plan: fake a sync bond for as long as it takes to help Tennal escape.

Ocean’s Echo is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit, but otherwise stands alone with little crossover. Orshan, like Iskat, is part of the Resolution but wary of its influence. Neuromodified readers and architects are forbidden by the Resolution to leave Orshan space, and Orshan has done everything in its power to avoid drawing attention to their military use of these assets. In terms of genre, it’s neither entirely science fiction nor really romance, and I think this may be a sticking point for some readers as everyone will be looking for a different balance of these two elements. This installment has an even slower burn on the romance side than its predecessor, pushing the balance slightly towards science fiction.

I was initially rather confused by the world building surrounding readers and architects, and why it would be socially acceptable for architects to control people, but taboo for readers to perform even surface reading, which provides little more information than body language or tone of voice. It took the story going on a bit for it to become evident that this wasn’t a bug, but one of the central conflicts Maxwell was building the narrative around. Control is useful to governments, but readers have proven difficult to control and can access information the government would prefer to keep secret. Tennal, snarky chaos incarnate, is prime example of this difficulty, although his reader powers are honestly the least of his problems given his struggles with drugs and other self-destructive behaviour (full content warnings are available on the author’s site). As the primary POV character, it isn’t always easy being inside his head.

Tennal and Surit come to their relationship under the most fraught circumstances. Surit’s brief is to sync and control Tennal, but while his scruples prevent him from carrying out the order, he is still Tennal’s superior officer for as long as he is nominally in the military. In other circumstances, however, the power tilts in Tennal’s favour; he is the son of a powerful family, nephew of the Orshan Legislator, while Surit is the orphaned son of a traitor. It is no surprise, then, that the slow build towards deeper feelings is complex and fraught with both political and emotional landmines. And while Surit vows that he will never sync Tennal under any circumstances, events constantly conspire to push them towards this end, tempting them to seize the one tool at their disposal.

You might also like A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland