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Review

“Capricious: Gender Diverse Pronouns”

ed. A.C. Buchanan

Like I mentioned in my most recent read of an anthology, I’m used to them being centered around a specific theme. In this case, the theme is pretty easy to see, and also pretty vague, overall—I think the core concept was “at least one person in the story uses pronouns other than he/him/his or she/her/hers.”

Which gave the authors a lot of room to play around, and it wound up being a really cool variety of stories! From distant-future sci-fi to swords and sorcery, there’s some interesting things that happened in here.

The one that stands out the most, that I feel I’m going to have to go back and reread once or twice more to really wrap my mind around it, is the story of someone moving to a new country and learning the new language. At first, the pronoun bit is easy to miss, until it becomes important to the story: their home country—and, more importantly, their native language—doesn’t have gender as a concept. The character mentions a total of 9 pronouns in their language, which I believe are I/me/mine, you/you(?)/yours, and they/them/theirs. Which is, itself, already an interesting concept, but to make it even more so, the new country they’ve come to has at least three genders, and a gendered language to boot, bringing them to a total of 45 pronouns. (I didn’t count all of them, but think of things like, several different versions of the second person!)

It’s a really effective story; none of the three genders aligns with the masculine/feminine that we’re used to, and so, as the reader, I wound up latching on to the protagonist’s genderless way of speaking, because it’s more familiar. And we get to be confused and frustrated with them, because what the hell are these three genders? Why are there so many pronouns? Why does this language gender the word “you,” for crying out loud, obviously the second-person pronoun refers to the person you are speaking to… and, hey, actually, now that we’re thinking about this… why do we apply gender to things it doesn’t need to be applied to? Why is it so important to us?

That’s what made that story, to me, the best out of the anthology. It gave me a new way to look at an issue that, frankly, I thought I already had a reasonable grasp on. There’s absolutely value to that.

And hey, there’s a bunch of other stories in there too! Some of them thought-provoking, some of them fun, some of them heartwarming; as I said, a very impressive variety. I heartily recommend it. Check it out.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Augie & the Green Knight”

Zach Weinersmith

Y’know, I can’t say that I’ve ever before read a children’s book that includes a mathematical proof as an appendix. But then, Weinersmith is an interesting writer like that.

The core of the story is an old Arthurian myth, Gawain undertaking a quest that comes down to an exploitation of the knight’s code. There’s a certain amount of adaptation for young audiences possible from that, but where Weinersmith really shone was in splitting the story to also follow the Green Knight. Or rather, to follow Augie as she tries to teach the Green Knight not to, y’know, behead people willy-nilly. A bit difficult an argument to make to someone who, upon being beheaded, waves cheerfully, picks up his head, and reattaches it with about as much effort as one puts into reattaching the head that fell off a snowman.

The writing style actually feels very Pratchettian in style—not just because the footnotes, but because it’s got that same sort of “approachable for kids, with jokes that will make them laugh, but not as hard as they’ll make their parents laugh” thing going on.

This feels like a great book for the folks the age it’s aimed at, and I also enjoyed reading it. (Someone remind me, in a couple years, to get a print copy and give it to some of the young folks in my extended family.) Check it out!1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Unseen Academicals”

Terry Pratchett

Taking a break from my reading new books to reread a favorite of mine! Some friends of mine took part in a recreational soccer league recently, and watching their games put me in the mood for Unseen Academicals. And, upon finishing the reread, I was surprised to find that I’d never posted a review of it.

As with everything Pratchett wrote, the book is a delight to read, a perfect blend of serious story and characters with comedy. It is, frankly, utterly unsurprising that he was awarded a knighthood for his writing; it’d be a shame if he hadn’t been honored.

The thing that makes Unseen Academicals such a long-standing favorite for me is Nutt. And now, in reading it again, there’s a part of me that doesn’t like how neatly his arc is tied together in the end. It’s hardly realistic—that degree of anxiety doesn’t just go away like that. But then, it’s a work of fiction, and more importantly, it’s telling a story. A story has to have a neat ending, or it won’t feel complete.

Still, though, I’ve always loved the portrayal of his fighting through it. The Sisyphean struggle to be worthy:

“But he makes wonderful candles,” she added quickly. “He’s always making things. It’s as if… worth is something that drains away all the time so you have to keep topping it up.”

I really can’t say how much I adore this book. I’ve given copies of it to people before, and likely will again. Go read it.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories”

A.C. Wise

I continue to like short story collections and anthologies, because there’s less of a sense of obligation to them. In this case, I probably only read 2/3 of the stories—a fair few just didn’t stick as I was starting them, and I thought, oh well, it’s just a few pages to skim past.

Wise’s writing style is distinctly more poetic in character than I tend to go for, and I think that was a lot of what lead me to skip as many of the stories as I did. At least as I was reading, I wasn’t in the headspace to be putting quite that much effort in; maybe this was the wrong book for the moment, but it’s the one I was reading, so.

Even the ones I did read don’t felt like they stuck to my mind super well.1

I did like the note it ended on, though—a weird little high school love story mashed up with a horror movie in a fun way. And it successfully got a song stuck in my head, so that’s something!

At the end, I don’t know that I’d give this book my usual highly-positive “go read it” review; maybe see if your local library has it and come to your own decision?

  1. Admittedly, part of that may be because I finished reading this book after going for a swim, and my brain feels like it’s about 35% chlorine at the moment.
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Review

“H.I.V.E.”

Mark Walden

I started reading this series when I was the actual target age group for it, and sometime in the last few months it popped back into my head. From there, I found out that the final book in the series had been published, and I figured I’d go back through and reread the whole thing, now that it was done, see what it’s like.

Honestly, it stands up pretty well. I still feel like this could be adapted into a movie franchise pretty well—it’s got some of that Harry Potter vibe to it, but for the people who love James Bond rather than people who like general fantasy novel stuff.

What’s nice about the ‘finished series’ part of it is that I feel like most of the plot threads got pulled together very well. Everyone gets closure, everyone you like gets a happy ending. And there’s enough room in the state of things for there to be a spin-off series afterwards, if the author feels like writing more!1

As far as what the series is actually about goes, here’s the tl;dr: the Higher Institute of Villainous Education is a boarding school with a very selective, and mandatory, acceptance rate. From the villainous children of the world, the worst of the worst find themselves snatched up and brought to a sprawling facility carved out of the inside of an active volcano, and taught to be not just better villains, but villains with panache. This is where all the classic Bond villains went to school; there are class sessions on space station logistics, how to choose between sites for your underwater base, and how to effectively monologue while slowly executing the hero.

This series is just fun. It perfectly captures that stylistic aplomb, the undeniable cool of the bad guys in the classic Bond films, and mixes it with the staples of the YA genre better than the “young Bond” series ever managed to.

I wasn’t sure how this reread was going to go, but I’m delighted with the end result. I absolutely recommend these books—at very least, check out the first one and see what you think.2

  1. And, by the way, if Walden ever sees this: give me a sequel about Nigel and Franz falling in love, damn you. That little line in the epilogue, “it’s not just the ladies,” that’s the bare minimum of queer representation possible, and I want more.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Signal Moon”

Kate Quinn

This is one of those stories that, going in, you know is going to hurt. Voice-only time travel does not a happy ending make, especially across 80 years. But it’s still worth reading—it’s quite short and to the point, and very effectively told. Spend an hour being sad.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Stealing the Elf-King’s Roses”

Diane Duane

I picked this up for a reread as a break from my “read all the ebooks I’ve got” project, and upon finishing it was surprised to find that I’d never written a review. Well, no time like the present to correct that!

In short, I adore this book. It’s a truly wonderful piece of alternate-history fiction, and the way that’s expressed is done so very perfectly. I’ve got the revised edition, which includes at the end some of the author’s notes about the differences between the worlds it takes place in and ours—and yes, worlds, plural, one of the divergences is the discovery of interdimensional travel, but it’s clearly stated that we’re due to figure that out soon. But even without that, it feels like if you were given the chance to ask Duane about anything in here, pull at any of the strings, she’d have a bunch of notes already prepared. My favorite moment of this is a couple words in passing, where the characters are finally shocked enough by something to say it full out, and suddenly their previous swear of “Suz!” makes more sense: “Suzanne H. Christ!”

Beyond that, the story is weird and fun, and the whole ‘mix of universes’ thing, with the politics that comes from having all these different timelines coming together, makes for a fascinating setting. And, of course, I absolutely love any book that showcases great friendships, and doesn’t fall over itself trying to shoehorn in a love story.1

Overall, this book is a delight, and I heartily recommend it. Pick it up directly from the author’s ebook store, and browse around while you’re there—I love everything of hers that I’ve ever read.2

  1. It was, apparently, a common complaint with the earlier edition that the cover art and title made it sound like a romance novel; I assure you, a romance novel it is not. You’re welcome to read it as if it is one, though, and I bet you’ll find your expectations subverted in a very fun way!
  2. Citation: I’ve got a quote from one of her books as a tattoo.
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Review

“Venom and Vanilla”

Shannon Mayer

I picked this at random out of the pile of unread books on my Kindle, and it lined up oddly well with the last book I read, though in a way that gave me mental whiplash. Where Song of Achilles was a powerful and emotional read, Venom and Vanilla was just kinda silly and fun. It feels like an action-adventure novel written in the style of a pulp-paperback romance.

I found the protagonist a bit irritating at times—her background was “escaped from a religious cult,” and I do get that part of the story arc for her is meant to be getting over the leftover indoctrination from that. Except the escape part happened like a decade gone, and the interim, she was a small business owner in Seattle; there’s a certain amount of naïveté that I just can’t really believe someone would hold on to through that.

Similarly, the worldbuilding has a lot of characteristics that remind me of Teen Wolf fanfiction. It’s an interesting concept, and fun to play around in, but if you try to examine it closely, it gets really hard to figure out the intervening steps between “the world as it really was 20 years ago” and “the world as it is in this book, having had One Big Thing change.” Do I believe that the reveal of the existence of supernatural creatures would trigger massive waves of xenophobia, especially in the US? Yes! No suspension of disbelief required. Do I believe that we’d then built a 40-foot concrete wall the entire length of the US-Canada border, move all the humans out of Canada, and start dumping every supernatural we could find onto the Canadian side? No, sorry, I’m actually not capable of suspending my disbelief enough to get past the idea of the US Congress trying to sell that concept to the average Québécois. Much less the Canadian Parliament as a whole.

For my overall opinion, I’m calling back to the first paragraph I wrote: it’s silly and fun. I don’t know that I’d recommend actually spending money on this, but you could maybe find a copy in the library and give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Song of Achilles”

Madeline Miller

It may be possible to read this book without knowing how the story has to end. I suspect it’s not possible for anyone raised in the global West, and even outside of that, by the time you know enough English to read this book, you’ve probably picked up enough cultural background knowledge to have a good idea. The phrase “Achilles heel” isn’t exactly uncommon.

With that foreknowledge, the entire novel feels like a growing weight, the crushing inevitability of that end coming towards you. It’s the sound of rushing water as your paddle-less boat approaches the falls; the growing vibration of the rails you’re tied to as the train approaches.

The rending heartbreak of one of the most beautiful love stories I can remember ever reading. So much of this stories is about Achilles and Patroclus growing up together and falling in love. Their first kiss is another inevitability by the time it arrives, something you’ve been waiting for for what feels like months—that just-out-of-reach realization, the word hovering on the tip of your tongue, and then the satisfaction of grasping it.

Truth be told, I haven’t finished the book yet. I’m nearly to the end, and as I’ve done many times while reading, I have to take a break. Set it down, and give myself time to process the feeling of grief coming in all out of order.

This may be one of the greatest books I have ever read. For someone who grew up reading Greek mythology, it was entirely predictable, and yet so very new. A breath of fresh air, and the pounding weight of a waterfall, crushing you down into the deep, cold water. I cannot recommend it highly enough; please, read it.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Dark Matter”

Blake Crouch

A friend of mine gave me this book and told me I have to read it. Which was a good push to have, because if I hadn’t had that in the back of my head, I don’t think I would’ve stuck it through. The whole first half of the book is… not all that interesting. It’s a generic sci-fi trope (oh, what’s that, there’s infinite realities, and each choice we make splits off into two or more??? unprecedented) and a protagonist who takes way too long to figure out what’s going on. (And, frankly, he never really figures much out until the end, and even then it feels like he’s still running behind, but at least by then it was somewhat understandable.)

Really, it just felt like it spent entirely too long setting up the premise. Which is probably useful for a broader audience, but in that regard I’m the wrong person to read it—as is, really, anyone who’s watched Rick and Morty.

But if you stick with it, it actually does a good job of exploring the concept in a new way. One that even the aforementioned Rick and Morty hasn’t delved into. The narcissism of small differences, the sheer overwhelming number of uncanny valleys you can have in an infinite multiverse. And the issues that arise when those infinitely-splitting choices keep infinitely splitting.

So, overall, I found myself quite enjoying the book. It’s not at all hard sci-fi, and sitting here looking at the cover, the little “a novel” down in the corner is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s far more about the characters than it is about the adventure. If that sounds interesting to you, check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Sandstorm”

James Rollins

I, for whatever reason, grew up reading Clive Cussler. My favorite was always The Oregon Files, because I’m a sucker for the high tech kinds of things, and a ship with sci-fi engines and a bunch of hidden weaponry worked quite well for my teenage aesthetic.

These days, though, I don’t ever read much Cussler; thanks to his “get someone else to write a book, stamp his name on it for the Brand Recognition” methodology, there’s a great deal of them that I’ve never read. But, between the aforementioned mass-production, and the same plotline getting reused in every book, they just can’t hold my interest. They’re airplane reading—the kind of thing I’ll go for when I’m gonna be mildly oxygen-deprived.

The rest of the time, though, I’m good working through big pile o’ backlogged books. And, when I’ve got the hankering for that Cussler-esque adventure novel, I go for James Rollins.

And that’s the best way I can think of to explain what Rollins’ writing feels like. He’s the upmarket Clive Cussler; there’s fewer of the books, but each one feels like a lot more care went into writing it. Plus, his treatment of female characters, while not perfect, feels a lot better than Cussler tends to manage. They exist to be more than a motivation for the male protagonist; in fact, I’d argue that the male protagonist in “Sandstorm” is a supporting character, as just about everything driving the plot is either Safia’s doing or Cassandra’s. Palmer is largely just along for the ride, which in a way gives it a bit of a “space opera” feel.

That’s my review, then: if you want an action-adventure novel, James Rollins is a solid bet. And hey, may as well start with “Sandstorm”, since it’s how he kicked off his Sigma series.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Work for a Supervillain”

Richard Roberts

I consistently forget how much I like Richard Roberts’ books. They’re a really excellent take on the superhero genre, embracing the ridiculousness of the whole thing while at the same time doing an excellent job of exploring some of the implications of living in a world that regularly has said ridiculous things happening. And, even better, doing things that would only work in the written form—there’s a truly delightful bit with a character named Retcon that I can’t imagine working in any format except first-person-written. A bit of their introduction, roughly paraphrased:

“You’re wasting your time, Retcon never comes to Chinatown.”

“Normally I don’t, but once I’d read that letter, I’d been here all day.”

And, beyond that little bit of messing with tenses to establish their power, you get the only-in-writing aspect: every time they speak, we get the “this is the first time I’ve seen this person, let me describe” them happening over again, and they’re described completely differently each time. (You may not the ‘they/them’ pronouns—the book doesn’t use those, but does switch between ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’ a couple times.)

And that? That’s delightful. A character whose power is that they’re constantly being retconned? Just, chef’s kiss, beautiful, I love it.

As I said, I really like Roberts’ writing. It’s fun, and light, without being vapid. This book is nominally eighth in the series, but it’s eighth in the same way that, say, a new Marvel movie is the hundredth Marvel movie: sure, if you’ve seen the others, you get a bit more background on people, but it’s not required to understand what’s going on. So, if you haven’t read any of the others, this is a pretty solid jumping-in point. Give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Meet Me in the Future”

Kameron Hurley

What’s with me and depressing short story collections lately? This is not my vibe.

There’s some interesting things in here, and occasionally a bit of “there’s hope if we work together,” but the general feeling of all the stories is “the world is terrible and any good things that happen only happen because we fight to our last breath for them.” Which, I must reiterate, is not my vibe! The real world has enough bad stuff going on that I don’t want my fiction reading to reiterate that. I’m here for escapism, thank you.

And, to double down on that for the current age, a word cloud of this book would prominently feature the word “plague.” Sure, biotech can build some cool things, but wow can it ever build some horrifying weapons!

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Review

“Iron Truth”

S.A. Tholin

Ebooks are fun, because unlike a paper book, you don’t have that physical sense of how far through the book you are. With a paperback, the first page feels very different from the second-to-last—the weight is distributed differently, it’s thicker or thinner in the hand. Not so for an ebook. I tend to leave the “percent complete” display on to try to get that back, but it fades into the background pretty quickly.

I became very aware of that… less than halfway through the book. Because, by the way the story was going, I thought I was nearly at the end. But no, that wasn’t the peak, just a local maximum, and then it was off again, with more to uncover.

Pretty early on, I was having a bit of a struggle, trying to decide if I was going to keep reading. (I did, and I’m glad of it!) As part of that, I skimmed a few reviews, and from that I remember a mention that “the book has a lot of sci-fi tropes.” That stuck in my mind a bit, because after all, nothing is original, it’s all just remixes. If you’re wondering, this book is a touch of Passengers, a great deal more Pandorum, a little bit of Halo, a splash of Doom, and a surprising little bit of Killjoys. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s fun to pick apart the pieces that made something, and try to figure out which piece you’re going to find next.

That’s what made this book so interesting, and why, despite the fact that it’s not at all a short book, I powered through it in just a couple days. I didn’t want to put it down—I had theory after theory of what was going on, why the planet it’s taking place on is like that, and wanted to know which was correct. Is this going the way of The Satan Pit, or is it a political intrigue whose cover-up is falling apart? Are the high-tech, vaguely church-y guys the good guys, or are the eco-terrorist-inspired people actually in the right? Or is it the—well, okay, no, it’s pretty easy to discount the cannibals as “the good guys,” but then, maybe nobody is the good guy. (That aspect of the story really shines as the book switches between two narrators—one, a true believer in one of those causes, the other, an outsider to everything, just as confused as the reader.)

For as creepy as the book was, I didn’t wind up jumping at shadows nearly as much as I was expecting. Because, sure, it’s a science-fiction horror thing, but it’s also a military piece and, more than all of that, a big ol’ mystery. And if I’m trying to solve a mystery, well, no time to be scared of the monsters in the dark—in mystery solving mode, I default to being Velma, and a jump scare just gets a “you stop that!”

All in all, this was a great read, and I highly recommend it if you love a good mystery, and a cool setting, like I do. Check it out.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Nucleation”

Kimberly Unger

For the most part, I like the tech that provides the setting for this book, but it’s got a couple things that are very clearly “it needs to work this way for the story to have the right amount of tension” and instead broke the illusion. “There isn’t enough bandwidth for us to talk to you while you’re remote controlling the robot”? You’re in the same room; bandwidth constraints don’t apply, because why would you be round-tripping that data through the remote thing?

That aside, though, this was quite a fun read. And hey, most of the tech makes a lot of sense—if you can make a little wormhole, you send through some little tech, and use that to build bigger stuff. The insistence on calling nanobots “eenies” instead of, y’know, nanobots, felt a bit odd, but kinda worked as a way to displace it from ‘near future’ to… ‘slightly more distant future.’ It is an inhabited colony that this is happening on, and not Earth, so some amount of linguistic drift makes sense.

And while I griped a bit about the tension overtaking the illusion, the book did a great job of maintaining that narrative tension throughout. There were a couple times in there where I really couldn’t put it down, because I had to know what was going to happen next. Or, one notable time, where I already knew what was going to happen next, and was desperately hoping I was wrong.

In short, this is a good read, not too long, and while there’s room for a sequel, it feels like it was written to be a stand-alone story.1 Give it a go.2

  1. The ending feels less “alright, see you next book!” and more “a movie ending a note that would let them create a spin-off show if they wanted.”
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.