Guest Reviewer Noah Hill Reviews “Schooled in Magic” by Christopher Nuttall

Folks, please forgive the rather unenticing title of this review. As I’ve been working hard at turning in my third novel, CHANGING FACES, I haven’t been able to review for a few weeks.

A few months ago, I asked Noah Hill if he’d like to do another review for SBR, and he said, “Sure!” So this is his second review, with more to come in the weeks that follow.

Now, on to the review!

Today I have the pleasure of reviewing the first book in the Schooled in Magic series by Christopher Nuttall. (Also titled Schooled in Magic. — BC)

Schooled in Magic is a familiar story, told in an interesting way. Emily, our unlikely protagonist, is transported to a magical world against her will, where she must learn magic, try to make friends, and fight against the forces of evil. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, no! Not another Harry Potter rip off!” Have faith, and keep reading; I thought the same thing at first.

Overall, I found Schooled in Magic to be quite enjoyable. The characters were fun, the evildoers were properly evil, and there were several twists and turns that left my head spinning. Mr. Nuttall was able to capture the darker side of fantasy, while keeping the story fun and lighthearted. It made me smile, it sent chills down my spine, and it made me laugh, all within the space of a few pages. This ability to rapidly shift mood is something that many authors lack.

The one flaw that I saw in Schooled in Magic was voice, or a lack thereof. There were several places in the book where I thought that voice was missing. More specifically, I felt that our protagonist wasn’t given the voice that she deserves. A part of the problem is that at times I felt as if the author were using Emily’s internal monologue as a vehicle for his own beliefs about our world. I could very well be wrong, but I think that there were times when she was thinking and acting in a way that was very strange for a young girl, without a solid explanation in her character background. Despite this, Schooled in Magic is a story that was able to grip me fairly early and pull me through those spots.

If you love a good fish-out-of-water story, a fun look into another world, and a quick read that pulls you along by your collar, then Schooled in Magic is a good, solid read that you will probably devour in one or two sittings, as I did.

Grade: B-minus

Reviewer’s note: Keep an eye out, as I’ll be reading and reviewing more of this series in the weeks to come!

–reviewed by Noah Hill; posted by Barb Caffrey

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Rysa Walker’s “Time’s Echo” and “Time’s Edge” are Smart, Interesting and Surprisingly Hopeful

Rysa Walker’s Chronos Files have quickly become one of the best-known young adult (YA) sagas around, and it’s easy to see why. With crisp dialogue, excellent characterization and an intriguing premise, the story of Kate Pierce-Keller and the people who surround her is engrossing and thought-provoking. I reviewed the first book of the Chronos Files, TIMEBOUND, here. (If you haven’t read that review, go do so now, or what I’m about to say will make little sense.)

smallTimesEchoCoverChronologically, TIME’S ECHO is a novella that explains just who Kiernan is — the mysterious, dark-haired stranger who seemingly popped up every time Kate was in trouble during TIMEBOUND has an interesting backstory of his own. Kiernan, you see, is from the early 20th Century, and like Kate, is able to use a Chronos device in order to travel through time. Not being limited to the world he grew up in, Kiernan has been to the 21st Century, 22nd Century, even the 23rd Century…but his heart belongs to Kate.

However, the Kate he knew — a nineteen-year-old, rather feisty Kate who’d entered into something akin to a common-law marriage with him — is not the Kate we got to know in TIMEBOUND. You see, the same bad actors who were causing trouble in TIMEBOUND have already caused trouble for Kiernan and Kate…and the history and life experiences that created his version of Kate Pierce-Keller are so altered that the Kate who now stands is not only younger than the one he knew, but no longer recognizes him.

See, this is where I have to describe some of the doings of the bad actors (stuff I decided to gloss over in my previous review). They are known as Cyrists, and they’ve created a new religion that dates back to roughly the 15th Century. The founder of this religion, Saul, is actually Kate’s grandfather — and like Katherine, Kate’s grandmother, is from the 23rd Century. Saul and Katherine had a huge blow-up, because Katherine believed that timelines should be preserved — what she’d been taught all her life — while Saul believed that time-traveling historians (like himself and Katherine) should be able to alter time any way they wanted. (You can see where this would be a huge problem, yes?)

Anyway, Katherine didn’t know it, but she was already pregnant by Saul when she became marooned in the 20th Century. She married, had twins — one being Kate’s mother, the other being Kate’s long-missing and presumed dead aunt, Prudence — and settled into a new life as a historian and teacher. She no longer can time-travel due to the actions of Saul, and Saul cannot time-travel either — but their descendants can, at least some of them. (Prudence can, for example, while Kate’s mother cannot. And those who can’t time-travel mostly disbelieve those who can. Keep that in mind.)

So in TIME’S ECHO, we actually get to see a little bit of nineteen-year-old Kate. She’s deeply in love with Kiernan. They have built a life that’s unconventional in that they both time-travel at will, but it works for them. And so long as they both maintain their Chronos devices (an amulet that glows a different color for each time-traveler, but looks like a dull metal to non-time-travelers), they will continue to be in the same timeline and be able to stay together.

Then disaster strikes. The Cyrists decide that nineteen-year-old Kate is too meddlesome, so they figure out a way to remove her as a threat to them by some adroit shifting of the timeline. This also takes nineteen-year-old Kate away from Kiernan, who pretends he doesn’t know who she is when asked by Prudence, Kate’s aunt. But in reality, he is steamed, and vows to find out just what happened to Kate.

That’s why Kiernan shows up to protect Kate so often in TIMEBOUND. She’s not the Kate he knew, no. She’s younger, more innocent, hasn’t had the same experiences, and is in love with another young man, Trey. But she’s still Kate, and he still loves her.

TIME’S EDGE goes back to the Kate we know. She’s working with Kiernan and her aunt, Katherine, to retrieve as many Chronos devices as she can in order to keep them out of the hands of Saul and his Cyrists. Working with a man who’s in love with you when you’re in love with someone else is not easy…but Kiernan has vowed to help bring down the Cyrists, and Kate needs his help, so they’re doing the best they can.

As for Trey, he’s learning to love Kate all over again, but their relationship isn’t quite the same as before. (This is because the original relationship Kate built with Trey was wiped out by a time-shift. Note the parallels here between what happened to Kiernan’s Kate, and Kate’s Trey.) But they’re working at it, and Trey still does feel something for Kate…Kate has hopes that eventually, their love relationship will be as strong as it was before.

There are more time-traveling adventures, this time to the 1930s, the 1960s, and of course a bit back to the early 1900s (Kiernan’s original time). These are all well-written and engrossing, and show the problems of several other stranded time-travelers, including an interracial married couple who unfortunately got stranded in the Southern U.S. of the 1930s. (It was still illegal for white women and black men to be together, much less sleep with one another, at that time.)

Throughout TIME’S EDGE, there is a palpable sense of danger. Kate has already been targeted by the Cyrists before, and they’ve missed twice. How long can she keep going before they kill her and wipe away all memory of her from the timeline? And what will happen to the other time-traveling historians in the wake of the Cyrists’ new religion?

All of these questions will be answered, but in turn will raise even more questions — which is the main reason why I can’t wait to read TIME’S DIVIDE (book three in the Chronos Files)…but I digress.

These are excellent stories, full of action, great characterization, witty dialogue, and fine romance. Despite the apocalyptic nature of the Cyrists and all of their menacing power, there’s somehow a sense that Kate, Trey, Kiernan, and Katherine can prevail. This hopefulness suffuses the entirety of the Chronos Files series, and is the main reason I find these stories to be so addictive.

Bottom line: Read Rysa Walker’s Chronos Files, or you’re missing something extraordinary.

Grades: TIME’S ECHO — A

TIME’S EDGE — A-plus

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: “Station Eleven” and “Timebound”

Folks, I’m sorry about the length of time between reviews here at Shiny Book Review. There are a number of reasons for that, including a catastrophic hard-drive failure and putting the final touches on A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE while also trying to hash out editorial changes for CHANGING FACES. Both are due out within weeks of each other (no more than six weeks between them), so I’ve been completely focused on that to the detriment of much else — including book reviewing.

That’s why you’re getting a 2-for-1 special today. I’d hoped to review Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN on Thursday, but time did not allow. And I’d planned already to review Rysa Walker’s TIMEBOUND for our Romance Saturday at SBR promotion.

So, here we are…let’s get started!

Emily St. John Mandel’sStation Eleven STATION ELEVEN is a post-apocalyptic dystopia of an unusual type. Mandel postulates that a nasty flu, something thousands of times worse than the Swine Flu or even the Spanish Flu of 1918 has hit the entire world. This flu devastates the world economy, to the point that almost nothing can function. People are thrown back into barbarity, left without electricity, without phones, without computers. And must try to survive.

You’re probably rolling your eyes by now and thinking, “So, Barb, what’s so interesting about that? Other people have done that before. What gives?”

Well, Mandel uses an unusual device to structure her novel. She finds a way to revolve everything around one man — an actor, Arthur Leander. While he’s not the plague-carrier, and while he’s also not truly the protagonist, everyone at the heart of this novel knows something about him and are connected, in a weird way, to one another — whether they know it or not.

We start out in our world, as Arthur Leander is on stage for the very last time, performing as King Lear. The fiftyish Leander is about to have a heart attack — meaning he misses the plague and all its fallout — and several people try to revive him, including Jeevan Chaudhary. Jeevan comes into contact with a child actress named Kirsten Raymonde, who’s been standing by watching Leander die without anyone paying attention…then as we see Jeevan struggle to keep himself and his paraplegic brother alive during the next few desperate weeks, Kirsten fades to the background.

She’s next seen at the age of twenty-eight, still an actress, performing with the Traveling Symphony — a group of actors and musicians who travel about using horse-drawn wagons cannibalized from old pickup trucks. She’s grown old before her time, has lost teeth, has dealt with privation and even had to kill people who’d tried to hurt her or others in the Traveling Symphony. But she still believes in what she does, and feels it’s the only way she can make any sort of positive difference in the world.

See, in twenty years, the world has lost nearly everything. Medical care has devolved; if you step on a nail, you can die of lockjaw as no medicines are available to help you. If you get food poisoning, you probably will die, because you’re weaker than you should be due to the lack of decent food. If you have a fever, the only treatments that seem to work are holistic things like soaking rags in water (which maybe isn’t even cold, as most people can’t figure out how to make ice any more, absent electricity and refrigeration).

And groups like the Traveling Symphony are warmly welcomed as a way to break up the monotony.

Then Mandel shifts again to Leander and his three ex-wives. We see the first of them, Miranda, who’s an artist — it’s her graphic novel, not-so-coincidentally called “Station Eleven,” that Leander gives to Kirsten a day or two before he dies, as Leander was given it as a present by Miranda and he doesn’t know what else to do with it. And we view her life before and after Arthur — she becomes a powerful executive and dies in Malaysia of the plague.

And we see Leander’s best friend, Clark, who gets stranded in a regional airport in Michigan due to plague concerns, who eventually runs into Kirsten as well.

All of this sounds much more amorphous than it actually is. Mandel found a way to make this humane. She shows all of these people in a nonjudgmental way. They are all flawed, including Kirsten. But they all have their strengths, too — and what’s good about them, what’s creative about them, is what somehow survives despite the way the economy has collapsed and also despite the way many humans have actually seemed to embrace the barbarism.

Mandel looks at consumer culture — iPhones, laptops, even handheld book readers — with a jaundiced eye, but even there shows the good things about it. How it helps to connect us. How losing it suddenly actually makes the barbarism that follows even worse. And how some people in this new, post-apocalyptic world don’t even want their children to know just how far the human race has fallen — because they’re afraid if they admit it, they’ll have to deal with their own buried grief over what they have become.

All of this is told in a decidedly matter-of-fact way. This is just what life is, after the plague (a word Mandel doesn’t use by the way). This is how they all have to survive.

But the hope is that if some — like Clark, who’s decided to make a museum out of the airport and collects the non-working technology of the early 2000s to show people what life was once like — can remember well enough, perhaps at least some of the “old world” can be restored.

Or at least kindness can continue, in its odd and disparate ways.

STATION ELEVEN is a phenomenal novel. It is strong, it is uncompromising, and yet it is somehow very hopeful.

The only thing Rysa Walker has in common with Emily St. John Mandel is that they both were once indie writers. (Well, they’re also both very good writers — but I’ll get to that.)

TimeboundCover_smallWalker’s debut novel, TIMEBOUND, was originally published independently as TIME”S TWISTED ARROW. (But as I didn’t read it or review it while it was an indie — shame on me! — I’m only going to refer it as TIMEBOUND from here on out.) It stars Kate PIerce-Keller, whose real first name is Prudence — but of course she hates it. She’s sixteen, a prep school student in Washington, DC, and is told two things very early on: Her grandmother, Katherine, is dying of cancer. And her grandmother is a time-traveler, marooned in time due to some deliberate machinations by other time-traveling bad actors.

Of course Kate doesn’t want to believe this. But Katharine shows Kate a medallion which glows blue; her parents can’t see it, but Kate can. And once Kate is nearly dragged somewhere in time by the medallion, Kate believes that it’s definitely out of the ordinary.

Then something happens to alter the timestream. Her parents never met each other, and Kate should not exist; she does solely because she wore one of these medallions (called a “Chronos device”) around her neck when the timestream shifted. And the school she’s been going to doesn’t recognize her, either. Even Kate’s best friend, Charmayne, no longer recognizes Kate.

Obviously, Kate is in big trouble. Time-traveling malcontents are out to stop her, because they believe that she can somehow stop them from perverting the timeline and doing whatever they want. And she has next to no allies.

Then, a young man, Trey, fortuitously comes into Kate’s life. (Trey would not have met Kate except for the timeline being muddled by the others using the Chronos device for their own gain.) And he decides he’s going to help her, because despite it all, he believes that Kate is telling the truth even though he can’t see the glow from the Chronos device any more than her parents could.

Kate’s only other allies are her grandmother and her grandmother’s “research assistant” (a younger man who lives with Katharine and wants the original timeline restored for reasons of his own). This is useful, because it means Kate isn’t entirely alone — but only Kate can use the Chronos device due to being genetically suited for it.

Then an attempt is made on Katharine’s life. And Kate must go back to 1893 to stop it.

Will Kate manage to survive long enough to save her grandmother? And will her new boyfriend, Trey, remember her if she does?

Also, what’s going on with the mysterious Kiernan — a dark-haired, enigmatic young man who seems to know Kate, even though Kate’s never laid eyes on him in her life?

All of these questions will be answered. But of course they lead to even more questions…which is just as well, as there are a number of sequels (and prequels) yet to be read and savored.

TIMEBOUND’s a fun, fresh, fast-reading YA novel. It has romance, intrigue, derring-do, excellent characterization and plot up the ying-yang.

My recommendation? You should grab both of these novels and read them as fast as you can. Then turn around and read them again. And yet again.

Grades: TIMEBOUND and STATION ELEVEN both get an A-plus.

Go read these impressive novels already!

–reviewed by Barb

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Nonfiction Friday Returns with Charles Leerhsen’s “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty”

It’s Nonfiction Friday at SBR! So I thought I’d take a look at the most recent biography of Ty Cobb by author and baseball historian Charles Leerhsen.

Why does Cobb continue to fascinate me so? Well, for decades, Ty Cobb has been drawn as a foul-mouthed, brawling racist. This is largely because of Al Stump’s now-controversial “autobiography” of Cobb (Stump ghost-wrote it), and partly because of the movie Cobb featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the virulently racist title character.

Ty Cobb.09cYet Leerhsen, in TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty, has drawn a picture of a much different man. Someone difficult to know, but interesting to read about — a man of his times, but also a man of learning, and quite possibly baseball’s first superstar.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was not always an easy man to get along with. He appears at this remove to have been somewhat thin-skinned, someone who, as Leerhsen says, names “could always harm.” He played a tough brand of baseball during a tough era, where guys often had fistfights to settle bets, then shook hands and became friends again.

Cobb wasn’t always a gentleman on the field, no. But Leerhsen’s exhaustive scholarship proves that Cobb was not a racist.

Instead, Cobb is famous for saying that “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” And Cobb put it on the record that he enjoyed watching Roy Campanella and Willie Mays play, among other black baseball greats, something I’d never read before I’d picked up Leerhsen’s new biography (but was able to independently verify afterward).

How in the world did Cobb’s legacy get so distorted?

Leerhsen believes Stump needed money, and portraits of monsters sell better than balanced portraits of tough-but-fair baseball players. And since there’s almost no film of Cobb’s play — very few still pictures exist, and most of Cobb’s efforts predate radio broadcasts as well — Leerhsen seems to think Stump must’ve figured it would be easy to make up anything Stump liked and call it “history.”

Yet it wasn’t the truth, and Leerhsen explains why.

You see, just because there isn’t much in the way of radio coverage or pictures or film, there were valid accounts of Cobb’s play to be had in various newspaper archives. Stump apparently couldn’t be bothered to study them, as that would’ve likely messed up his narrative framing something fierce, but Leerhsen made a comprehensive study of them. And what he found led him to the belief that Cobb had been badly maligned by both Al Stump and the movie Cobb, all because Cobb played during that twilight “dead ball” early-1900s era.

Leerhsen viewed Ty Cobb as the perfect ballplayer for that time. Cobb had a take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed attitude, and desperately wanted to win. But he did not sharpen his spikes; he did not set out to intentionally hurt anyone; he did not go out of his way to cause trouble.

All of those latter things were either made up or distorted out of proportion to the actual events by previous biographers, most notoriously Al Stump.

Granted, for modern readers, it can be challenging to read about Cobb’s encounters with a disabled heckler. This particular heckler was causing trouble for Cobb and several other players, by the newspaper accounts Leerhsen dug up. But most of his fingers were missing, so the contemporary reader has to wonder why Cobb just didn’t leave the guy alone after hitting him once.

(That is, if the guy even needed to be hit.)

Perhaps it needs to be said just why Cobb did this (according to Leerhsen). At the time, players were not protected at all from unruly fans. Fans had actually hurt players and umpires before, after, and sometimes even during games, and no one was doing anything about it.

You have to realize this before you can understand just what might’ve been going through Cobb’s mind as he methodically beat up this disabled fan.

The picture I gained of Cobb after reading TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty was that of a difficult, prickly man who could be quick to anger. But he had depth, and quite probably charm. He loved to read, particularly biographies of Napoleon and Les Miserables. As you’d expect from one of baseball’s all-time best hitters, Cobb had exhaustive baseball knowledge. And he loved making the other team nervous.

Ultimately, Cobb was someone fans loved to see. They never quite knew what they were going to get from Cobb — but they knew it might be something great.

Ty Cobb the man was a far different person than the monster Al Stump drew him to be. While hardly a saint, Cobb was a brilliant ballplayer and a smart, well-read man.

Bottom line? Prepare to have your assumptions challenged, because Charles Leerhsen conclusively proves that Ty Cobb the man was far different from Cobb, the movie, or Al Stump’s writing made Cobb out to be.

Grade: A

–reviewed by Barb

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Deborah J. Ross’s “The Seven-Petaled Shield” — an Exceptional Epic Fantasy

Sorry about the delay in reviewing, folks. Life hath interrupted again…but I promise to make up for that in the coming days and weeks.

Seven petaled shield 9780756406219_500X500Deborah J. Ross’s THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an interesting epic fantasy about a strong, scholarly woman, Tsorreh, and her royal son, Zevaron. But to say just that is like saying chocolate-dipped strawberries are just a fruit…it’s not half as appetizing as it should be.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tsorreh is the Te-Ravah of Meklavar, a small but prosperous mountain city. This may not sound like much, but Meklavar has a long and illustrious heritage as defenders against evil, and because she is much more scholarly than your average queenly co-ruler, she well knows it. She’s also the second wife of the much-older Te-Ravot Maharrad, and the stepmother to Shorrenon, the heir (Ravot) to Meklavar, as well as mother to Zevaron.

Why does all this matter? Because there’s an army — a huge one — on its way to obliterate Meklavar unless Meklavar will bow its head in tribute. This army is from the large and sprawling country of Gelon, a place which has gobbled up many other smaller principalities. But because Gelon is headed by a particularly hard-headed and evil-spirited King, Meklavar wants no part of them.

However, the army of Gelon is so big, there’s no way for Meklavar to stand against them. Tsorreh realizes this early on, though she doesn’t exactly put this into words; still, it’s so clearly in subtext that any observant reader can figure it out (almost from the first page). And because Tsorreh knows this, she decides to do her part to keep the true treasure of Meklavar — holy books — well-hidden.

No one can help her do this, except her aged attendant and her even more aged grandfather, a particularly well-known scholar-priest. So she mostly uses her own foot-power, while she continues to offer sparing and thoughtful advice to her husband Maharrad.

Then he dies, and the city falls.

When Meklavar falls, the catastrophe is worsened by one thing: Ravot Shorrenon’s impetuous action. (No, I won’t tell you what it is.) Because of this, Tsorreh must get away fast, and only barely extricates herself and her son Zevaron from the mess. But her grandfather gives her a gift just before he dies that she not only hadn’t expected, but hadn’t even realized existed — the fabled Seven-Petaled Shield, which is tangibly felt but not, strictly speaking, corporeal.

You see, Tsorreh has to take the Seven-Petaled Shield, because if Gelon somehow gained access to it, all would be lost. There’s a legendary evil that Meklavar helped to keep at bay, you see, but time has eroded the how and why of it except for a few scholars like Tsorreh and her late grandfather. And even they know more legend than fact.

But now, she must get used to the idea of being the holder of the Shield. (She’s not the wielder, mind. She’s more of a caretaker, as I read it. Still a very important and vital position.) And she can’t give away to the Gelonese that she has it.

As she flees with her son, they become separated. Zevaron, being younger and even more impetuous in some ways than his half-brother Shorrenon, vows revenge on Gelon for their actions thus far. But he’s captive, for a time, and only breaks free with the help of a very unlikely source.

And when Tsorreh ends up taking refuge in Gelon, of all places, she realizes that not every person in Gelon is her enemy. That realization gives her more strength, even as her body starts to fail her. (Carrying that Shield around is very taxing, especially if you aren’t destined to wield it. Again, this is much more subtextual than not, but if you’re a careful and thorough reader, you should pick this up.)

This episode ends with one question — what will happen when Zevaron and his mother Tsorreh meet up again? (Further reviewer sayeth not…at least, not about this.)

Now, this sounds much less meaty and interesting than it is. (Remember what I said before about chocolate-dipped strawberries being more than a fruit?) So even though it sounds like any other epic fantasy out there, it isn’t.

Instead, THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is spiritually deep in a way I rarely see in fantasy. Ms. Ross did an outstanding job in rendering a strong and quiet woman who takes comfort in books, and shows just how relevant such a heroine can be. (I could live without Zevaron, quite frankly, but I know he’s needed for the sequels.)

Bottom line? THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an exceptional epic fantasy, one that’s deep and broad in ways that I’ve rarely seen. More epic fantasy should be like this. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Brenda Cooper’s EDGE OF DARK

Edge of Dark coverIt’s Romance Saturday at SBR! And today, I have a special treat for you…and a question: Can robotic intelligence really feel love? And if it does, what form would that love take?

While Brenda Cooper’s EDGE OF DARK is about many things, perhaps it’s mostly about just that: love, and its various forms.

But describing how EDGE OF DARK gets there is somewhat convoluted.

Within the first few chapters, we meet Nona — scion of a powerful family from an area of space known as the Glittering Edge, her soon-to-be-love-interest, Charlie (a ranger and conservationist from the planet Lym), and Nona’s best friend Chrystal and her family (Chrystal’s wife Katherine, husband Yi, and husband Jason). We also meet a race called the Next.

Now, the Next are hard to describe. They’re a form of artificial intelligence that’s gone way beyond AIs and robots; they’ve actually found a way to digitize human experiences and put them into inanimate objects. How and why they did this in the first place is unclear, but one thing’s for sure: The Next don’t particularly like humans, and they doubly don’t like the humans who reside in the Glittering Edge.

Anyway, Nona and Charlie’s story arc is easier to follow. They meet on the planet Lym, which is a type of natural paradise — one the people of Lym have worked hard to restore over time, as technology once nearly wrecked their world. Charlie, as a ranger, believes in conserving nature. But sometimes he has to “do the pretty” and meet up with important dignitaries, then show them around as Lym depends on tourism for a good amount of its income in order to continue staying as pristine as it is. Nona is one of those dignitaries, a visitor from the Glittering Edge (a bunch of space stations and artificial planetoids, roughly); she was asked by her now-deceased parents to please visit Lym, as it’s the closest planet around.

And of course, this being Romance Saturday and all, Charlie and Nona eventually pair off.

But that’s not the end of the story by a mile. (Especially as I promised robots in love. Trust me, I’m getting there.)

Chrystal and her family are by far the more important storyline. They originally reside on a space station called High Sweet Home, and are scientists who create genetically engineered animals. They live and work together, and are a totally self-sufficient unit.

Then the Next comes to High Sweet Home. They gather various humans, purposes unknown; they only take the healthiest, the strongest, those in their physical prime. Babies, the elderly, the crippled, and the injured are all killed out of hand.

The remaining humans of High Sweet Home are offered a choice. They can become part of the Next — become artificial intelligences. Or they can die.

Chrystal and her family definitely do not want to die. So they decide to go along with the Next.

But becoming an artificial intelligence isn’t easy. Even though the Next have a way to make their new bodies look and feel much like their old ones, Chrystal and her family will no longer be able to have sex; they also do not eat or breathe. And while they can and do move, talk, and think, it’s not exactly the same.

Yet their love for one another survives this horrible displacement. (Hold that thought.)

Now, why did the Next do this? They needed someone in between the humans and the full-blown, ancient Next. These newly-made Next — Chrystal and her family, among others — are meant to become ambassadors, so the humans will be able to understand what the Next wants.

And one of those things the Next wants, inexplicably, is the planet Lym. Which is why Charlie is so important. (But I digress.)

Of course, Chrystal and Nona are best friends, which means Chrystal in particular is well-placed to begin negotiations. (Thus why Nona is important.) But Chrystal is ambivalent; she is still angry at the Next for doing this to her and her family.

The rest of the story is for you to read. But I have a few more thoughts for you before you do.

First, the stronger human element is obviously Chrystal and her family. Their love matters whether they’re in human bodies or robot bodies. Their personalities do not change when they become digitized.

Second, Nona is a very weak protagonist. She is smart, but she is not driven; the first thing she has ever cared much about — Chrystal becoming a robot through no fault of Chrystal’s — is not really strong enough to do much with.

Third, Charlie is stronger, but somehow isn’t as strong as he should be, either.

I don’t know why Nona and Charlie weren’t stronger as a couple. I liked them both, even though Nona is nowhere near strong enough to compete with Chrystal and Chrystal’s family. I believed that Charlie and Nona would have a dalliance. And I believed they would both become better people for it — which is what a good romance is all about.

Even so, I just didn’t care that much about them. And I don’t know why.

That’s why the real romance that I cared about here was between Chrystal and her family. How they adjusted to becoming Next was well worth reading, even though in some spots it’s incredibly disturbing.

That said, I have to believe Ms. Cooper wanted it this way. She must’ve wanted to show that love is more important than the nature of the form. I get that.

However, I don’t understand why Nona is even in this book (much less Charlie and the whole issue of Lym’s fate as a planet). She’s not strong enough to compete with Crystal and her story.

And I really don’t understand why Lym is so important to the Next. They’re artificial intelligences. Why do they need anything at all? (The whole bit about the Next needing raw materials that only Lym can provide is very flimsy, to my mind. If you have all of space to get your raw materials from, as it appears the Next does, why would you be so hot on trying to get a foothold on Lym?)

Bottom line: EDGE OF DARK is compelling and disturbing, and I appreciated reading about Chrystal and her family. But somehow, I felt disconnected from most of the book, even though I liked the characters.

That said, I do want to find out what happens to Chrystal and her family next (pardon the pun), so I do intend to read the second book in the Glittering Edge duology. But I hope that somehow I will be able to become more invested, emotionally, in what happens with all involved.

Grade: B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Valour and Vanity” Is a Perfect Alternate-Regency Read

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks. I was getting one of my books to bed, and that took some time…now, since A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE has been turned in, I can get back to reviewing.

Valour and VanityVALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories featuring Lady Jane and David, Lord Vincent — a married pair of glamourists (read: magicians) living and working in the Regency era. (Please see SBR’s previous reviews for SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, and WITHOUT A SUMMER for further details.)

VALOUR AND VANITY starts off with Jane and Vincent being on a trip with Jane’s family — particularly Jane’s newlywed sister and brother-in-law. They’ve been enjoying themselves on a family mini-tour of Europe, but Jane and Vincent need to go take care of some glamourist business…as they’re nobles, and as Vincent knows Lord Byron (yes, that Byron), they’ve decided to go to the island of Murano (in Italy, now considered part of Venice) as he’s staying there. But their real purpose in Murano is to consult with the legendary glassmakers of that island.

Note that Jane is a full partner in this marriage. It’s viewed as a loving eccentricity by most, as Vincent does not like to be away from Jane for very long. But Jane’s gifts are just as strong as Vincent’s…and that’s going to be needed.


Let’s put it this way. The trip to Murano does not go off without a hitch. Instead, Jane and Vincent are robbed. Lord Byron isn’t around and his “housekeeper” (actually his mistress) doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And the man who “restores” their belongings and puts them up in style isn’t all that he seems.

So they’ve been robbed. Some of their wealth has been temporarily restored, which they take at face value. And they find a glassmaker — one “recommended” by the same shady figure who “rescued” them– and start in with the work they need to do. And they create some glamour in glass, something that may aid soldiers and others during daylight in hiding themselves rather than something for art’s sake.

Then the shady character disappears, with their belongings…most especially the enchanted glass Vincent and Jane just spent so much time creating. And the law shows up.

You’d think this would be a good thing, but it isn’t. While the law does say this shady figure was not the nobleman he was pretending to be, the law doesn’t seem to believe Jane and Vincent. Further, the shady guy managed to get the “replacement funds” Jane and Vincent had written for…which means their bank account is empty. They’re left impoverished, without resources, and have no allies.

So what’s to do?

If you’ve read the previous three books in this series, you know Jane and Vincent will not go down without a fight. Of course they’re going to find a way out of this mess. They will find allies — some quite unexpected, some expected (as Byron eventually shows and wants in on the action) — and they will do whatever they must to set the record straight.

(Note that I would not normally give away so much of the plot in a review, but Ms. Kowal’s site (and the book’s own front matter) says that VALOUR AND VANITY is much like what would happen “if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.”)

Anyway, while there’s plenty of plot — it’s a heist novel, after all! — the main things I adored about VALOUR AND VANITY were the quieter touches. Jane and Vincent get along very well in all circumstances, both personally and professionally, and that’s great to see. I admired their indomitable spirits, and believed that together they truly are stronger than apart.

Of course, Jane and Vincent cannot see themselves from the outside. But we can. And we know they are heroes…even though they, themselves, definitely don’t.

Bottom line? VALOUR AND VANITY couples realistic romance with genuine action, excellent historicity, entirely believable magic and genuine pathos for a perfect read.

Grade: A-plus

–reviewed by Barb

**For readers of romance: I’ve been asked to give “heat levels,” and I’m going to try to remember to do that. The “heat level” here is very mild…they’re married, and we know they enjoy marital relations. But those relations, beyond a kiss or two, are not shown.

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