Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs: Mercy Deals with Unexpected Threats from Every Direction

Smoke Bitten

Smoke Bitten

by Patricia Briggs
Series: Mercy Thompson, #12

Hardcover, 342 pg.
ACE, 2020

Read: March 24-28, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

There’s just so much going on in this novel, it’s hard to know where to start—this may be the busiest Mercy Thompson novel yet. Well, okay, we’ll start with the titular bit. Something/Someone has escaped from Underhill. This seems fairly impossible, but I guess even nigh-omnipotent sentient spaces make mistakes every now and then. Doubtlessly the Columbia Basin pack would’ve gotten involved at some point, but since Mercy recognized the threat before the Fae—or anyone else—did, they were on the front line for this. Whoever it bites, it controls. It can shape-shift to look like anyone, too. It’s deadly and doesn’t seem to have much of a plan beyond creating as much chaos and gathering as much power as it can.

While dealing with that, another threat to the pack presents itself. There are some new werewolves in the area, and their goal is simple: become the new pack in town. As Adam’s pack is now independent of The Marrok, these wolves have decided they’re ripe for a takeover. None of these are wolves to be taken lightly—some have recently left a pack run by very dominant Alpha, which took some strength. All of them have strong reputations amongst the wolves (generally positive), although one is known as the wolf who’d do things that Charles Cornick wouldn’t do for his father. These are not going to be easy to face off against.

The thing that’s the most distressing (and given what I’ve just talked about, that’s saying something) for Mercy is that there’s a problem between her and Adam. The roots of the issue go back to before we met Adam, but something happened in Storm Cursed to tip Adam over the brink. The latest meddling by Adam’s ex, Chrissy, made it all boil over and threatened the peace and stability of the pack—as well as their marriage. We see Mercy at her most vulnerable since…well, probably since the attack at the garage (or what The Monster tried to do in Bone Crossed), which stresses for the reader how bad the situation is. The two take some positive steps, but things aren’t resolved wholly here—and I hope Briggs doesn’t patch things up quickly between the two between novels. I think we need to see the pair continuing to work through things.

There’s a few more things going on, too, including some fun with Sherwood (who is quickly becoming a favorite character), some interesting developments with Jesse’s life, and some interesting character development in general with pretty much each of the pack members we usually get time with. Oh, and lest I forget, an old friend comes back.

One final thing to mention: last year, while talking about Storm Cursed, I said:

There’s something that happens in the climactic battle scene that I want to talk about more than I want to talk about anything else in this book—because in the long run it’s going to be bigger and more important than anything else that happens or I’ll eat my hat. It’s so small, so quick that it’d be easy to miss—2 sentences on one page, then twelve pages later 2 more sentences. And Briggs has at least one novel’s worth of plot seeded right there. I love when I see an author do something like that and make it look effortless. And I think I’m underselling it. But I’ll have to leave it there—maybe in book 12 (or 15) when it happens, I’ll remember to say, “Remember that thing I didn’t talk about in Storm Cursed? This is it.”

Well, Briggs gave that seed plenty of water and a little fertilizer in these pages. I still don’t feel comfortable talking about it in detail for reasons I can’t explain. But whoo-boy, I can’t wait to see what Briggs has in mind.

So, yeah, like I said—a lot of balls in the air. Or plates spinning. Pick a metaphor you like best. And I think Briggs did alright by them all—yeah, I’d have liked a bit more time with the new wolves, but we didn’t need it—and I’m not sure we’re done with them (maybe in the next Alpha and Omega book if not in an upcoming Mercy novel?). To deal well with all these elements and keep the novel moving quickly and resolving in a satisfactory manner (with a few more strings than usual left for the next installment) speaks highly of Briggs’ skill. Fans of Mercy Thompson shouldn’t wait to grab this, people who are curious about the series should be able to come on board now, too (although, you really ought to read them all). Briggs is at the top of her game now, and it’s just fun to watch.

4 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Dryad Teas Inspired by the Dresden Files

And Now for Something Completely Different

This is not what I typically post about, but it sort of fits.

I’m not a big tea drinker—but I dabble from time to time, and we’re in the middle of another attempt to drink more (health benefits, no sugar, etc., etc.—oh, and it tastes good, too). While I’m playing around with this blend and that, someone posts on one of the Dresden Files Fan Facebook pages a link to Dryad Teas’ Dresden Files inspired teas (and then someone posts about another company’s varieties, too!). I have to be honest, my mind is boggled, how do you come up with tea blends based on fictional characters? Sure, I can see a Picard-branded Earl Gray variety or something that Lady Mary or Count Grantham might drink; but thinking about a character and coming up with a tea blend based on them? I wouldn’t know where to start—and I’m freakishly impressed (and incredibly curious about it).

Anyway, I ordered some samples from Dryad’s Dresden teas, and thought I’d share a thought or two about them.


Inspired by the amazing ‘Dresden Files’ book series by Jim Butcher, this blend is a thought provoking mix of peach and apricot with deep undertones of black tea.

I’m not sure that this says, Karrin Murphy to me. It does make me think of her house—left to her by her grandmother, and I don’t think she re-decorated it much (I’m ready to be corrected on that front). In the end, it was too fruity for me. It smells great, though, and tastes very pleasant.

Bob the SkullBob the Skull

…this blend is a delicious mix of genmaicha and citrus. Notes of raspberry and lime pair with the depth of the genmaicha to create a light blend with promise, fitting for Bob the Skull.

Another one that I’m not sure about—it’s too floral, and too mild for me to drink regularly. I’m also not a big green tea guy. But there’s something about this blend of flavor that is very, very pleasant. I would absolutely drink it again (I’m not sure I’d buy it though). I think they drew too much from Bob’s love of Romance novels when they came up with the blend. (just a wild guess)


…this blend is inspired by Dresden. Smoky and spicy, the text of “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” explains the character perfectly. This tea is no different.

Now this? This was my cup of tea.* Going from that quoted line, it’s smokey, dark, deliciousness. I tried to explain the flavor to my wife by saying it’s like “a tea made from pipe tobacco, but it tastes good.” She told me I shouldn’t ever tell anyone that. I tried explaining it to a friend, who is also a Dresden fan, by saying “Imagine the ashes of the building that was on fire (but wasn’t his fault), made into a tea, that somehow tastes good.” She didn’t tell me that I shouldn’t repeat that description, but her expression pretty much did.

Basically, I don’t know how to describe how things taste–this was strong, smokey, bold, full of flavor. I’d drink this by the gallon.

* Had to be done.

Anyway, check out Dryad Teas. Even if these don’t appeal, they have a lot of geeky teas/accessories.

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch: Peter Grant Gets a New Job and a Great Series Gets Better

False Value

False Value

by Ben Aaronovitch
Series: The Rivers of London, #8

Hardcover, 294 pg.
DAW Books, 2020

Read: February 28-March 3, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“Somebody else came during the night and magicked them,” I said.

“Is that a real term—’magicked?'” asked Guleed.

“And it’s spelt with a ‘k,’ too,” I said. “But the technical term is actually ‘enchanted.’ Only the trouble with that word is that everyone starts thinking glass slippers and spinning wheels.”

There’s very little that I don’t like in The Rivers of London series, you may have noticed, but the friendship and banter between Peter and DS Sahra Guleed is possibly my favorite part of the books. The way they slip between discussions of magic (or magick) theory, police procedure, family stuff, the cases they’re working without missing a beat—or doing so professionally or like a couple of teenagers having too much fun under the nose of authority figures. It feels real, it feels natural, and it’s fun.

It’s also much more beneficial for each character—and the Queen’s peace—than his friendship with Leslie May.

After the series-altering events of Lies Sleeping, the question most readers had was, “Will the series be any good post-Martin Chorley?” Most were likely like me, with a firm “Very probably. Hope so.” False Value demonstrates that things are just fine without Chorley—better than fine, really (although everyone is dealing with the aftermath of everything he did).

Also, as nice as The October Man was, it’s great to be back with Peter and the rest of the Folly.

Most of the books in this series are about a Wizard-in-Training who happens to be a police officer. This book was a Crime Fiction novel about a guy who happens to be a wizard in training.

With the suspension he received at the end of the last book, and his future with the Police uncertain, Peter Grant goes off in search of a new job. He ends up finding work investigating some internal shenanigans for a tech giant headquartered in London. Peter’s computer-geek gets the chance to shine a bit as well as flexing his investigative muscles.

It’s not long before he discovers the source of the shenanigans, and that’s where things get interesting. The source is associated with The New York Libraries Association, “the militant magical wing of the New York Public Library Services.” Which is one of the American analogues to The Folly (just without the official police sanction). He and his superior are also investigating the company—because they’re convinced that SCC is utilizing magic in a potentially hazardous way, paving the way for something huge. I am beyond curious about the Libraries Association and hope we get to see them in action again soon. The whole thing is ripe with possibilities and it’s going to be great to see it all play out.

If you were to draw a Venn diagram with circles for Charles Babbage/Ada Lovelace, Artificial General Intelligence, and Wizardry—the overlap is where you’d False Value. Who wants more? The mix of contemporary cutting-edge technologies and Newtonian magic is just fantastic.

This all leads up to a wonderfully exciting climactic showdown between Nightingale, Peter and the rest on one side, The Librarians on another, and SCC on the other.

If we act now we might be able to roll them up before they know what’s hit them.”

Nightingale frowned into his teacup.

“Perhaps,” he said.

“What have we got to lose?” I said.

Nightingale looked up and gave me a strange, sad smile.

“Oh, everything, Peter, “he said. “But then such is life.”

Yeah, sure, there’s plenty of things going on with Abigail, Molly, Foxglove, and (of course) a very pregnant Beverly. But I just don’t have the time to talk about it all. I think it’s safe to say that this is the busiest novel in the series with something for every fan (more than one something, too).

We also got to check in with our favorite FBI Agent. She was able to give Peter all sorts of background about SCC and its founder (an American), which proved vital and interesting (she got some information about the Librarians in return). Better yet, some of what she uncovered changed Peter’s understanding of some of what went on in Lies Sleeping (the reader’s understanding, too). I’m betting this will prove to be at the core of the next arc for the series.

So now we have an idea about two groups in the States, German practitioners, ,and then a smattering of some in the UK. I love how they’re all very diverse, while sharing a lot in common.

I stopped short in the first sentence of the book:

My final interview at the Serious Cybernetics Corporation…

Serious Cybernetics Corporation? As in,

The Encyclopedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun to Be With.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy defines the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation as “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes,”

from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So I thought that Aaronovitch was having a little fun with an in-joke and moved on. But no, it was a theme throughout the entire tech company. HR is referred to as “the Magrathean Ape-Descended Life Form Utilization Service,” and Security (where Peter was applying) is “the Vogon Enforcement Arm.” The book is full of these things, and after page 14, I stopped counting them. There’s so many of these that around page 150, Peter says something about SCC “pushing copyright” after a particularly egregious example. I had a great time with this book anyway, but all this was a thick layer of icing on the cake.

A carefully and intricately plotted main story, some fantastic action scenes, and character growth—coupled with Aaronovitch’s signature style and wit. I just can’t think of anything wrong with this book—this is exactly the kind of book that I want to read.

5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Top 5 Saturday: Trilogies

The Top 5 Saturday weekly meme was created by Amanda at Devouring Books.


  • Share your top 5 books of the current topic—these can be books that you want to read, have read and loved, have read and hated, you can do it any way you want.
  • Tag the original post (This one!)
  • Tag 5 people (I probably won’t do this bit, play along if you want)

This week’s topic is: Trilogies. I immediately wrote down three of these, and then thought a bit and came up with 8 more. I whittled those down to five—the ones that had the biggest impact on me/my development as a reader. I left a lot of good candidates out, but at the end of the day, these are the biggies for me. I’ve read them all multiple times (except #4, honestly—only read that twice), and would gladly do so again tomorrow (well, okay, in three weeks, am too busy in the meantime).

The Foundation Trilogy
Isaac Asimov

Hari Seldon, uber-mathematician, creates a new science combining mathematics and social sciences to predict (and shape) how humanity will react to the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire. He uses this science to come up with a way to shape the future, helping humanity survive the challenges on their way. I read this sooo many times in high school—for years it served as the ruler by which I judged all SF. Also, other than his Black Widowers mysteries, my favorite works by Asimov.

Yeah, there were a couple of sequels (not nearly as good) and other related works, but these were a trilogy for so many years, I have no problem ignoring the others.

The Deed of Paksenarrion
Elizabeth Moon

Wow. This is just…wow. Rather than submit to the arranged marriage her father has planned, Paksenarrion, takes off and joins the army. Eventually is trained and recognized as a Paladin. A fantastic hero’s journey that I wish I remembered more of. I remember being blown away by it and hating that the trilogy ended.

The Barrytown Trilogy
Roddy Doyle

Can I talk about these in less than 1500 words? These books focus on the Rabbitte family in Dublin. The first chronicles the oldest son’s attempts to launch his career as the manager of The Commitments, the second is about the very unplanned pregnancy of the eldest daughter (and her father’s struggle to accept it—followed by his outrageous pride for the kid), and the last focuses on the father’s attempt to provide for his family after he becomes unemployed by opening a chip van (a precursor to today’s food truck obsession). They’re all as funny as you could hope, full of hope, sadness, and love. I’m getting excited just by writing this snipped about them.

The Dragonlance Chronicles
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning were my obsession in eighth grade—one I shared with as many people as I could. I’m pretty sure the fantasy I respond to today is the fruit of these books. And I’m totally okay with that. Say what you will about the quality of these, they hold a special place in my heart (right above the cockles, near the blockage on the right)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy
Douglas Adams

Was there any doubt? I can’t stop talking about Adams/This Trilogy (see my Annual Towel Day posts, for example). From the moment I read the first chapter (three or four times before I moved on to Chapter 2) to the point when I heard the radio series to getting the planet icon tattooed on my arm to today and all points between. This Trilogy has been at or near the top of my list, and will stay there for a long time to come.

I maybe should’ve added Colfer’s 6th volume, but…I decided to go old school.

Top 5 Saturday: Books Inspired by Mythology

The Top 5 Saturday weekly meme was created by Amanda at Devouring Books.


  • Share your top 5 books of the current topic—these can be books that you want to read, have read and loved, have read and hated, you can do it any way you want.
  • Tag the original post (This one!)
  • Tag 5 people (I probably won’t do this bit, play along if you want)

This week’s topic is: Books inspired by Mythology. Which you’d think would be super-easy—and it was fairly easy—but coming up with a fifth took a little more work than I expected.

Bad Blood
Lucienne Diver

An Urban Fantasy featuring a strong, snarky, female PI who doesn’t believe the family legend that she’s descended from Pan and Medusa. But when Apollo himself shows up to hire her, she starts to come around . . . I admit I don’t remember a lot of this (I read it 7 years ago), but it was one of the first I thought of when I decided to do this list and I do keep asking myself why I never got around to reading the rest of the series.

American Gods
Neil Gaiman

Honestly, not my favorite Gaiman (maybe on a second read that’d change). But man, there are passages in this book that are pure magic. Epic in scope, but filled with fantastic characters, and Gaiman’s prose, you can absolutely understand why it’s beloved and so widely-read.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
Douglas Adams

Unless I read something I cannot recall, this was the first book I read that made use of mythological characters in a contemporary setting. I absolutely loved the idea and wondered why more people didn’t do that. Clearly, they do (just see the rest of this post and the others posting on this theme today), but at the ripe old age of 15, it was revolutionary to me. Odin, Thor, Loki and a few other Norse dignitaries are flitting about London and the area, inflicting damage, killing innocents, and driving nursing home staff crazy. Throw in Dirk Gently and Adams at his best and you have a killer read.

Kevin Hearne

Members of five (I think) pantheons show up in this book—in what’s probably Hearne’s finest use of them all. A good story for Atticus, Oberon, and Granuaile (Oberon has his best dramatic moment, as I recall) aside from that, but a great way of blending the various pantheons into the Iron Druid’s world. One of my Top 2 in the series.

The Lightning Thief
Rick Riordan

How can you have a list like this and not include this book (or one of the legion it spawned)? The book that started a craze and gave Riordan the ability to quit teaching. This set the template for all of Riordan’s myth-inspired books (be it Greek, Roman, Egyptian or Norse mythology) and is just fun (unlike some of the latter books which got a bit preachy and tedious). It’s not quite Potter-level of fame/influence, but it’s the closest we have in the States, a nice collection of kids, a creative way of brining myths to the 21st Century, and a rollicking good time.

Winterkill (Audiobook) by C. J. Box, David Chandler: Pickett Battles Winter and Paranoia to Find Justice

I wish I knew what it was about Joe Pickett novels that made them difficult for me to write about. I ended up not writing anything about the first two books in the series and it took me three attempts to get this done (which was followed, naturally, by saving this as a draft rather than scheduling the post…). In the end, I was a bit more spoilery than I like to be, but the book has been out since ’04 (the audiobook since ’14), with 17 more books in the series. I’m giving myself a little more leeway with it than I’d normally grant myself.



by C. J. Box, David Chandler (Narrator)
Series: Joe Pickett, #3

Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 25 mins
Recorded Books, 2014

Read: January 29-31, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Joe Pickett is wrapping up a pretty routine day when he stumbles on to a U.S. Forest Service Supervisor acting in an irrational (at best) manner. While Joe’s trying to apprehend him (I’ll spare you the details, but it’s similar to the incident that kicked off the first book, and will give Joe’s critics plenty to mock him about), he’s murdered in a noteworthy manner.

As he was a witness (and the only one who can lead anyone to the crime scene), Joe’s attached to the investigation that features state officials, the Sheriff’s office and a Forest Service official (who brings a reporter in her wake). They quickly identify a suspect and make a fast (and brutal) arrest. Something in the way that the suspect reacts makes Joe wonder if they’ve got the right guy.

This wondering is compounded when the suspect reaches out to Joe a couple of days later to ask him two favors. Nate Romanowski is, among other things, a falconer who left two birds behind when he was arrested. Favor one is to feed the birds. Favor two is to get him out of jail—Nate and Joe have never met before, but Nate’s read about him and figures Joe’s his best shot after the events of the last two novels.

From a thing or two I’ve read, I think Nate’s going to be around for awhile. Which is fine with me, I enjoyed his character a good deal. He’s a former special-ops guy who wants nothing to do with any governmental entity anymore. He just wants to live on his own terms and take care of his birds. I could be wrong, but at this point, it looks like Box is establishing Nate as Joe’s Hawk/Joe Pike/Bubba Rogowski/Henry Standing Bear-figure. Although really, to qualify as Joe’s lethal pal, is a low standard—it’s not like Joe can use a firearm with any kind of accuracy. If my hunch is right, and he’ll be around more in the future, I’ll be very happy to know him better.

As before, Joe’s daughter Sheridan is a Point-of-View character as well. She doesn’t play as large a role in this novel, but when she shows up, it matters. Her appearances in the narrative are also a pretty good signal that it’s time for something heart-wrenching to happen.

Before I forget, I want to say something about Joe’s family. I love, love, love his family. His wife, Marybeth, may be the best Significant Other in crime fiction—supportive, tough, she’s not a wilting flower nor an obstacle to his work. His other daughter, Lucy, is as cute as you could hope for (am sure we’ll get something more than cuteness from her in a while). And how many crime fiction heroes are plagued by a mother-in-law like his—the dynamic between the two is wonderful.*

* Wonderful to read, that is. It’d be a miserable, unhealthy, and precarious situation to live through.

There are three factors that make it difficult for Joe (or anyone else) to investigate a murder. The first is snow. The novel takes place in the days before and after Christmas and even for this section of Wyoming, the snow is heavy. The second complicating factor is the arrival in town of a large group of people trying to shake off their pasts and find a peaceful place to live (I’ll explain in a bit). The third factor is that one of this group is Lucy’s mother—we saw her last in the first book when she abandoned Lucy after her husband’s murder. In the ensuing two years, Joe and Marybeth had taken her in as a foster daughter and were trying to adopt her. Until Mom showed up with a court order form a crooked judge demanding Lucy be turned over to her.

One of these would be difficult for Joe to overcome—all three? That’s just mean.

The group of people that came to town (technically, a campground outside of town) could be considered Survivalists, I’m not sure the best way to describe them. Most are those who were around during the biggest law enforcement stand-offs in recent history: e.g., Waco, Ruby Ridge, Montana Freemen. Their leader assures Joe (and would assure others if they’d listen) that they’re just looking to live a quiet life outside of Federal control.

But Strickland (the Forest Service official) doesn’t see them that way. She’s convinced that they’re anti-government activists, probably terrorists. They’re a threat that she’ll do anything to put down. And she (and her FBI cronies) are looking for a way to create another stand-off. Given the out-of-the-way nature of their location—and the snow—it’ll be a stand-off they can end without the press interfering. No press means the Feds can do whatever they think they need to in order to stop the stand-off.

By and large, the people working for the Federal Task force looking into the murder, the Survivalists, etc. are decent people trying to do their job—but Strickland and her cronies (and the Sheriff) are focused on their goals. The Survivalists/Freemen/whatever are antagonistic to the government, but they’re not necessarily trying to overthrow anything. Box does a truly commendable job of being sympathetic to their concerns/issues without coming down in their favor. It’s a real tightrope he’s walking along here, and he pulls it off magnificently.

I’ve now read six books by Box—the first three in two series.* And three of those (you could argue four of those, I guess) Box does something almost unthinkable to his protagonists/their family/friends. So many authors would do the kind of thing I’m talking about once very 5-8 books, and it’d be a big deal (think of the Battle in the Ministry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). But Box does it routinely. Does this lessen the impact? Not for me yet. In fact, I couldn’t believe that he’d done what he did in this book for a few minutes, I kept waiting for something to happen revealing X had only appeared to have happened. It’s just brutal. How Pickett can make it to book 20 boggles my mind given the beating these people take. I’m not sure I’ll survive that long, given only The Highway Quartet Book 2, and Winterkill (I’m honestly still reeling from the first Pickett novel, Savage Run

* Okay, I read a stand-alone back in 2009, but that’s beside the point.

I do not think that Box did a sufficient (or credible enough) job explaining the odd behavior of the victim in the books opening pages. He does spend all of a sentence or two giving us Joe’s theory about it. I don’t buy it. This single point has been driving me crazy since the murder—yes, it’s overshadowed by the rest of a very strong book that shocked, surprised and entertained me so well. But…it’s going to be a long time before I can read a Pickett novel without hoping that he’ll revisit this and explain it better (I don’t expect Box will do so, but I’ll hope for awhile).

I really don’t have a lot to say about Chandler’s narration. It’s good, without drawing attention to itself. I’m pretty sure that when/if I get to the point I’m reading the novels rather than using an audiobook, I’m going to hear Chandler’s voice in my head. He is the voice of Joe Pickett for me.

At the end of the day, most of the “White Hat” guys really were “Black Hats.” The suspected “Black Hats” mostly wore a dirty gray. And almost everyone was just trying to do the right thing with limited knowledge (some of those with the most knowledge were deliberately taking illegal and immoral steps, but they’re the exception). There are a lot of moral questions to wade through in this novel and it’ll keep you thinking about it for a good amount of time.

In the midst of all that, Box managed to tell a pretty decent Crime Story, a compelling family story, and introduced us to a fascinating new character—while developing characters we’ve known and liked (or known and distrusted) already. It’s not going to be long at all before I’m fully addicted to these books if the next few are almost as good as this one.

3.5 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

A Beginning At The End by Mike Chen: Love, Uh, Finds a Way in this Optimistic Dystopian Novel

A Beginning At The End

A Beginning At The End

by Mike Chen

Hardcover, 391 pg.
Mira Books, 2020

Read: January 28-February 4, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“Mommy’s not coming home.”

“No! Mama now! Want Mama!” Desperation had taken over the child’s face, eyes pooling With the Whiplash turn of raw emotions. She tossed the plastic spoon across the prison-cell-turned-living-space, her voice ramping up in volume and intensity. His arms wrapped around his daughter, even though she punched at his thigh in frustration; he held her as if she was the last thing in the world.

Rob blinked as the realization came to him. She was.

His home, his old life was gone. His parents and brother, killed by MGS. Their friends, their community, scattered and ravaged. And now Elena gone too.

Sunny was all he had left.

Well, I really painted myself into a corner with my In Medias Res post about this book a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what else there is to say! Oops.

I was more right than I was wrong about where Chen was taking some of the story—but while I had the destination correct the route he took totally caught me off-guard (and it was so good!). The parts of the story I was wrong about, however. I could not have been further off the mark if I’d tried. Both of those results are so satisfying to me, Chen nailed the nuts and bolts bits of plotting—conclusions that seem right and expected (and earned) while being very unexpected.

While Chen knows how to plot a book, characters are his strength (see also Here and Now and Then).
I could absolutely see where Moira was coming from and understood (and applauded) what she did to change her life. I felt like I got Krista’s pain and the way she reacted to her mother and uncle made sense to me (I’m not sure she was fair to her college boyfriend, even if he should’ve known better than to do what he did). And Sunny should win over even the most jaded reader. But Rob? The way Chen wrote him made me empathize with Rob to a degree that I wasn’t prepared for. That sentence I quoted above, “She was,” just about broke me.

I assume that other readers will gravitate to other characters (and Moira is probably my favorite in the novel), and they should. But Rob is going to stick around in my subconscious for a while.

All of this happens against the backdrop of a world trying to recover from a global pandemic that wiped out an unimaginable number of people. Sure, other apocalyptic scenarios seem worse (zombies, whatever lead to Panem, the First-through-Fifth Waves, etc.)—but what makes this scenario chilling is just how possible it really seems. And I’m not just saying that with one of my sister’s kids dealing with being quarantined in Asia around the time I read this.

Nevertheless, Chen’s novel is optimistic. Human beings, human society, human families prevail. Like Dr. Ian Malcolm famously said, “Life, Uh, Finds a Way.” So does humanity in Chen’s world.

Like all good Science Fiction, this is more about our present than it is our future. In a survivor’s group, Rob has a lot to say about living in fear with the source of the past hanging over is and letting the two dictate our lives. Without trying I could think of a dozen ways that could be applied to pre-apocalyptic Americans (who knows how large the number would be with some effort).

There’s more I feel like I should say, if only just to flesh out some of what I’ve put down—but at this point, I think I’ve said enough about this book over the two posts, so I’m going to stop here (so much for that corner I painted myself into). I want to do 400-600 words on the title alone (many of which would be devoted to the indefinite article).

A Beginning at The End is the kind of SF that should appeal to SF readers. It’s the kind of SF that should make non-SF readers (including those antagonistic to genre fiction) think there’s something to the genre after all. Because this isn’t “just” a SF novel. It’s a novel about humans being very human, with hopes, fears, loves, joys, sorrows, failures, and successes—it just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic future. Chen’s first novel was among the best I read in 2019. I fully expect that this will be among the best I read in 2020. I’m going to jump on whatever Chen has coming in 2021 without bothering to note the title or even skim the blurb. He’s earned an auto-read from me for at least the next two novels.

4 1/2 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

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