King of Ashes


You may recall that I used to be a huge Raymond E. Feist fan. Like many fantasy readers from my generation, my teenage years and early adulthood were spent reading the author's popular Riftwar, Serpentwar, and Empire series. I have so many fond memories from those books and their characters. The same goes for the Riftwar Legacy and Krondor's Songs sequences. These novels showcased a Raymond E. Feist writing at the top of his game and each new installment was an immediate bestseller.

And then, SFF authors such as Robert Jordan, Steven Erikson, and George R. R. Martin burst on the market and changed the face of epic fantasy forever. These bigger, more ambitious, and more convoluted works of fiction made books by Eddings, Salvatore, Brooks, Weis and Hickman, and Feist feel somewhat inferior in comparison. These bestselling writers retained the better part of their fan bases for a long time, yet it seemed evident that their best years were behind them.

My last forays into Feist's body of work was in 2007-2008 when I read and reviewed his then latest trilogies, Conclave of Shadows and the Darkwar Saga. Sadly, I found little to like about either and was in no hurry to read whatever came next. A part of me regrets not finding out how storylines which were born in Magician: Apprentice ultimately ended in the Demonwar and the Chaoswar sagas. But those two series turned out to be such lackluster efforts that I never did pick up the sequels.

King of Ashes marked the beginning of a brand new series and I knew I wanted to give it a shot. Needless to say, I wanted nothing more than to see Feist return to form and produce the sort of ripping yarn on which his fame and success were based. Something awesome akin to titles such as Prince of the Blood, The King's Buccaneer, or Shards of a Broken Crown. Alas, I'm sad to report that this new novel is pretty much a failure to launch. Based on my last experiences with the author, my expectations were relatively low. And still, the first installment of the Firemane Saga was a major disappointment. Had this been written by anyone else, I would have quit after a few chapters. This being a Feist book, I persevered till the very end, only to discover that there was no payoff and nothing that made me want to read the next volume.

Here's the blurb:

The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny.

For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as "the Firemane" for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.

As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the "Hidden Warriors," legendary assassins and spies, are trained.

Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.

Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.

I was curious about the worldbuilding. The Midkemia-related plotlines were built over the course of ten series spanning twenty-nine novels. Of course, there was no way Raymond E. Feist could create something that could resound with as much depth for King of Ashes. And yet, I expected more than this rehashing of several fantasy tropes and themes. Sadly, there is nothing new within the pages of this book. If anything, the worldbuilding felt bland and déjà vu. I found it hard to believe that Coaltachin managed to gain control of crime over the entire world, and it's never properly explained how the Kingdom of Night was able to maintain its stranglehold on every single country's underworld. Other than showing off his knowledge of both navigation and blacksmithing, King of Ashes featured nothing special. To all ends and purposes, this Firemane universe is a decidedly generic fantasy environment made up of a panoply of elements that we've seen before. The discovery that there are more power players out there towards the end of the novel hints at a more ambitious overall story arc. And yet, there is no denying that this first installment has little to show for it. I'm well aware that opening chapters in SFF series usually work as introductions meant to establish the protagonists, their world, and principal storylines. However, even seen from that angle, King of Ashes felt decidedly uninspired.

Characterization, an aspect in which Feist habitually excels, is subpar throughout the book. Shockingly, I couldn't connect with any of the characters. Hard to believe that the man behind Hatu, Donte, Hava, and Baron Daylon Dumarch is the same author who created such memorable protagonists such as Pug, Nakor, Miranda, and a slew of others. Hatu and Donte are the most emo characters I've encountered in a long while. Always thinking about sex, love, and the feelings they engender. I have a feeling that Feist wanted to grimdark this tale to a certain extent, but the results are probably not what he had in mind. The darkness, the blood, the gore, the violence, and the sex more or less occur off stage, so to speak, and there are no true shades of gray to speak of. Hava, who will undoubtedly gain a lot of importance in subsequent installments, is little more than a token female protagonist. The rest of the supporting cast is comprised of equally mundane and uninteresting men and women.

Feist has often demonstrated that he doesn't fear killing major characters like Jimmy the Hand and Arutha. Perhaps we'll get lucky and the author will get rid of Hatu and Donte. But I have a feeling that they're in for the long haul. Considering the number of unforgettable characters Feist created over the years, one has to wonder how he could settle for such an unoriginal trio to take center stage in this novel. Other than their thoughts on sex, Hatu, Donte, and Hava's storylines felt like something straight out of 1992.

In addition, King of Ashes suffers from numerous pacing issues. The rhythm can be atrocious in certain portions of the book and rushed in others. For the most part, as I mentioned it reads like something from the early 90s. Problem is, the fantasy genre has evolved quite a bit in the last few decades and I'm not sure this new series can truly satisfy genre readers in 2018.

In the end, uneven pacing, clichéd fantasy elements, and poor execution sunk this plot before it ever had a chance to lift off. Things pick up near the end of the book, but it's a case of too little, too late. It's obvious that there is more to Hatu's tale than meets the eye, and more players involved than we expected, but it remains to be seen if readers will be willing to fork out their hard-earned money to read the next volume. Myself, I'm ambivalent on the issue. On the one hand, it's Feist and he has shown in the past just how good he could be. On the other hand, King of Ashes shows so little potential that I doubt the author can somehow elevate his game and save this series. Time will tell. . .

As was the case with Stephen R. Donaldson's Seventh Decimate last year, King of Ashes was supposed to be Raymond E. Feist's big return with brand new material. And like the Donaldson, this novel was nothing but a big disappointment. . .

The final verdict: 5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

More inexpensive ebook goodies!


You can now download J. D. Horn's The King of Bones and Ashes for only 4.99$ here. It's only £1 in the UK.

Here's the blurb:

From the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Witching Savannah series comes the story of a young witch’s quest to uncover her family’s terrifying history...

Magic is seeping out of the world, leaving the witches who’ve relied on it for countless centuries increasingly hopeless. While some see an inevitable end of their era, others are courting madness—willing to sacrifice former allies, friends, and family to retain the power they covet. While the other witches watch their reality unravel, young Alice Marin is using magic’s waning days to delve into the mystery of numerous disappearances in the occult circles of New Orleans. Alice disappeared once, too—caged in an asylum by blood relatives. Recently freed, she fears her family may be more involved with the growing crisis than she ever dared imagine.

Yet the more she seeks the truth about her family’s troubled history, the more she realizes her already-fragile psyche may be at risk. Discovering the cause of the vanishings, though, could be the only way to escape her mother’s reach while determining the future of all witches.

This week's New York Times Bestsellers (April 16th)

In paperback:

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One maintains its position at number 1 (trade paperback).

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale is down four positions, ending the week at number 13 (trade paperback). For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

30 years of Drizzt!


30 years of Drizzt!

Wow! That headline made me feel old as fuck! :/

Three decades since I read The Crystal Shard!

Follow this link to check out the stories! =)

Extract from K. R. Richardson's BLOOD ORBIT


Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Pyr, here's an extract from K. R. Richardson's upcoming Blood Orbit. Don't let that cover deceive you. The book has garnered some rave reviews. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

This science fiction police procedural pairs an idealistic rookie with an officer who uses cybernetic implants to process forensics; in solving a mass murder, they will uncover a vast conspiracy.

Eric Matheson, an idealistic rookie cop trying to break from his powerful family, is plunged into the investigation of a brutal crime in his first weeks on the job in Angra Dastrelas, the corrupt capital city of the corporate-owned planet Gattis. A newcomer to the planet, Matheson is unaware of the danger he’s courting when he’s promoted in the field to assist the controversial Chief Investigating Forensic Officer, Inspector J. P. Dillal, the planet’s first cybernetically enhanced investigator. Coming from a despised ethnic underclass, the brilliant and secretive Dillal seems determined to unravel the crime regardless of the consequences. The deeper they dig, the more dangerous the investigation becomes. But in a system where the cops enforce corporate will, instead of the law, the solution could expose Gattis’s most shocking secrets and cost thousands of lives—including Matheson’s and Dillal’s.

Enjoy!
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CHAPTER ONE

Day 1: Wednesday

Dreihleat Angra Dastrelas—0221

“Matheson! Get here now!” Santos, his training officer, sounded panicked. Matheson snatched the mobile data device out of its two horizontal loops on his shirt. “Where are you?”

“At the—At Paz. Y’know, the jasso on the alley. Fuck . . . somethin’s wrong. Door’s locked. The door should be open—it’s always open!”

Matheson turned back the way he’d come and started running for the alley. He knew they shouldn’t have split, not even to finish rounds on time. He raced through wisps of rising fog, the multi-colored glow from OLED vines woven to form pictographic signs above every shopfront scattering copies of his tall, thin shadow along the walls. His boot steps were loud in the twisty, filthy streets, and the tropical humidity made his breath rasp in his throat and his hair cling around his face in straight, black strands.

Everything legal in the ethnic ghetto was closed now, and most of the tourists had gone back to their clean, safe hotels near the quay. If there was anyone else around aside from drunks dozing in alleys between the squat low-rise buildings of carved blue stone, they slipped out of sight as Matheson approached. Only a handful of jassos—illegal gambling clubs, fight pits, and the more genteel variety of drug dens—were still operating at this hour. They were inescapable features of the city’s tourist-based economy, and not the priority of rookie patch-pounders like Matheson—so Santos had told him.

Santos whipped around as Matheson rushed into the narrow passage. The older, shorter ofiçe was halfway across the alley as if he’d been pacing and his sudden turn made his injured knee wobble. He caught his balance by grabbing at the club’s massive entryway pillars. A discreet lamp barely illuminated the door within the deep shadow cast by an overhanging second story. No other light shone from around the doorframe.

Santos pointed toward the door with a shaking hand. “Check it.”

Matheson hesitated. Santos was trembling more than his weakened knee should have caused and his brown eyes showed too much white. “Didn’t you do that already?”

“Yeah. But—This door ain’t never locked before 0500 on a festival night and if there’s somethin’ wrong, I don’t want nobody sayin’ we didn’t do this right. You check it.”

Warily, Matheson pulled the Sun Spot off his belt—why wasn’t Santos using his?—and shined it on the door as he edged up to it. He stayed well clear of a dark shadow on the ground as he reached to try the handle. “It’s locked. As you said. Did you try your override?”

“Not that kinda lock, kid. That’s a bolt-and-key—old school.”

“But there’s a lock pad—”

“Don’t you tell me what there is and isn’t, Fishbait. Override won’t do shit—you try it.”

Matheson ran his ID badge through the lock and entered his access code, pressing his shoulder to the door so it would spring free.

The door lurched a little under his weight, but remained closed. Santos moved up beside him and drew his baton from his belt as Matheson tried again.

Nothing changed.

Matheson pounded on the door. “GISA ofiçe! Open up!”

Silence. Then a metallic slide and rattle as Santos flicked his baton out to full extension. “Break it,” the older man said. “Break it down.” His voice was rough and Matheson could smell him sweating.

“Why? Maybe they closed up early.”

“It’s an after-hours club for the locals! They should be open by now on a festival night and Loni or someone should be in there, but they’re not sayin’ nothin’. Break the fuckin’ door!”

Santos’s nerves convinced him. Matheson stowed his light and badge, and used his own baton to break the handle. Then he stepped back and drove his heel hard against the latch plate.

The door groaned and splintered around the lock. Matheson’s second kick popped it open and he reached for his Sun Spot again as Santos lurched into the darkened room beyond.

The stink hit at the same time the light cast harsh illumination inside. The thin green and white carpet and gold-trimmed walls were splashed crimson around four human figures that lay like broken dolls on the bar room floor. Merry fucking hell. Matheson gagged and turned his head and the light to the right, but there was no relief there. More bodies lay in a loose arc across the floor of the gaming room. His spot-light’s beam gleamed white on an eye that had been blown from its socket, and sparked a rainbow glitter from a woman’s jeweled shoe and stocking. The smell of bloody death clotted in his nose and, for an instant, it seemed like there were a hundred corpses—a thousand brown-and-yellow bodies—sinking into darkness that swelled from the unlit corners.

Santos let out a choking sound as Matheson wrenched away from the scene.

Santos’s leg folded under as he twisted away, and he fell forward, slamming his head and shoulder into the pillar. He collapsed against the wall and down to the ground as Matheson bolted past him and vomited in the alley. When the heaves stopped, the shivers started. Matheson put all his weight against the nearest wall and keyed his mobile. But he couldn’t remember the codes or what to say. He managed to give his identification but the rest was still out of his grasp. “We need assistance. My partner—my TO—is down. He’s injured . . . And we have a murder. No. Ten . . . at least ten bodies here . . .”

“I’ll get the Investigation Officer of the Day for you and dispatch assistance to your location.”

How can she be so calm? Matheson thought.

“Stay put and keep your comms open.”

He gulped and nodded before he remembered to speak. “O-okay.” Santos didn’t move as Matheson slid down the wall to sit shivering and tasting the bile in his mouth as he waited.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 1: Hospital—Pre-dawn

Merry hell, what a nightmare. Matheson had escorted Santos to Public Health, but he wasn’t allowed to leave, yet, because it took three Gattis Corporation regional directors arguing for hours to decide if a mass murder in an ethnic ghetto was worth investigating, how it would be paid for, and who would get stuck with it.

Sit tight, they’d ordered, and then accompany the CIFO to the site. Without his TO to whisper in his ear, the Assistant Regional Director had had to remind Matheson: “Chief Investigating Forensic Ofiçe—not ‘Officer.’ You’re employees of Gattis Corporation, not officers of the law.” It wasn’t what he’d learned at the academy, but if they didn’t want a real policeman, he didn’t know why he’d been sent to Gattis. He felt he was barely treading water in the sea of everything he didn’t know.

Callista said I wouldn’t last three days as a cop. She was wrong, but . . . did I really know what I was getting into? Or was I just being contrary? He was five months and six days out of the academy, galaxies removed from Central System, and so horrified and tired he could barely stand.

Matheson had lost track of how many hours he had been awake and his eyes itched from lack of sleep, but he kept them open as he rested his forehead against the window, watching the changing illumination of the city below. The hospital had been gouged into the cliff at the beginning of the terraform, so long ago now that no one noticed it had a view billionaires would vie for. The upper half of the Angra Dastrelas—the Cove of Stars for which the city was named— was framed in the waning night sky by the Pillars of Archon. The two megaliths guarded a hole in the stone scarp that circled the crater and pinched the throat of the shallow inlet forming the actual cove. The nighttime water reflected and multiplied innumerable stars, while the landscape and a quirk of the tropical atmosphere made it look like they swirled from the bay and flooded upward into space. Beautiful. But now dawn crept in, and Gattis’s planetary capital seemed to ooze from the bottom of the cove and across the floor of Trant’s Crater like a stain.

Behind him the endless news feed and its chatter about upcoming festival schedules, politics, unrest in the agricamps, and which impossibly pretty celebrity was visiting town for Spring Moon poured through Matheson’s ears as an irritant. That and the cool, dry air of the building on the back of his neck were all that kept him from falling asleep on the spot. He fought the urge by recalling his first view from the jumpway: Gattis, its single thin ring and solitary moon above a slowly spinning ball of vibrant deep-water blue with two vast continents—Ariel and Agria—and the jeweled scatter of the Verdan Archipelago between them. Then the long flight down from jumpway to orbital, and the planetward fall until Ariel filled every view and the planetary capital seemed to rise out of the tropical jungle cut clean by the crater’s edge. Now he concentrated on trying to pick the Angra Dastrelas spaceport out of the riot of city lights and emerging shapes. He spotted the tidy squares of the pad lights at last, far across the crater floor, remembered the instantly sticky heat, and the stink of fish and fuel that had wrapped him as he’d stepped out of Worker Intake—

“Ofiçe!”

Startled, he turned toward the shout. The lab-coated woman glaring at him was a hard, compact package of restrained fury under a shock of brush-cut, light-colored hair that was going gray. Early fifties, a little under average height, her complexion would have been a bland shade of Central System light brown if she hadn’t been slightly ruddy with anger. Her face was far from beautiful and her expression was sharp enough to cut ice.

“Just what sort of rear-echelon idiocy is this?” she demanded, brandishing the digital data pad she was holding. “I have an order to release my patient to you. He’s supposed to have six weeks recovery and evaluation after surgery and he’s only had two. This is a delicate experiment and the system isn’t fully integrated yet.”

Matheson blinked and frowned at her, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Doctor. It’s not up to me. I was just told to fetch him.”

“I don’t care what you were told to do. If you take him and anything goes wrong he could die, and I won’t be set back to square one on this project because Director Pritchet can’t hold his water.”

Matheson glared back. “This is not my doing. And I have no other orders but to wait for his release. If you expect me to do anything other than stand here until you give way or I get redirected, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

She glowered at him a moment longer. “You always do what you’re told?”

I am too tired for this. “No, but in this case, I don’t have a choice.” She growled as she thought about it, and then her mouth set into a sour quirk. “You break him and I’ll hold you responsible.” “It’s not my—”

“Hah! Oh, yes it is. He’s not ready to go into the field. The surgery breached the blood/brain barrier and if the site gets infected, things will go very wrong very fast. So until he’s back in my hands for reevaluation, you are not to let him wander around unattended. The instant—and I do mean the instant he seems to be in distress, you will return him to me. Got it?”

Probably hunt me down and flay me alive if I don’t. He didn’t relish being a nanny, but it beat explaining to Regional Director Pritchet why he hadn’t done as ordered. “Fine,” he snapped.

“Right answer.” She slapped the digital pad flat against his chest. “Sign this—and what the hell’s your name, anyway?”

“Matheson,” he replied, laying his ID on the pad and verifying it with his official hashmark. “Who are you?”

She took the pad back. “Doctor Andreus. The Forensic Integration Project is my baby, which makes Inspector Dillal my special concern.” She gave him a shrewd look. “Here’s what you need to know, in a nutshell: The system I’ve installed is part on-the-fly forensic sampling and analysis, and part communication and data integration, which makes him the link between Forensic Tech and Investigation. Theoretically, he can sample and analyze a simple crime scene on the spot, but I haven’t been able to test him. He’s functionally and physiologically unique. He’s also a pigheaded pain in the ass.” She paused and studied Matheson again. “You’ll be two of a kind.” Matheson might have taken exception if he’d had the energy, but he only cared about getting it over with.

“Against my better judgment, I’m letting you take him.” Dr. Andreus turned and pointed deeper into the facility. “It’s the room at the end of the green slideway.” She turned back and gave him a hard look. “Don’t fuck me over.”

Matheson let his eyes close a moment. “Thank you.” His eyelids were so gritty and heavy that they seemed to scratch his eyeballs raw. He tugged at his wrinkled uniform and headed for the slideway, happy to leave the doctor behind.

His head was spinning with fatigue by the time he reached the room at the end of the sliding walkway. The door stood open, so he entered. The room was gloomy and it had an odd smell, like industrial solvent and copper. Better than the jasso . . .

A small, bright light snapped on over the bed and he took a step back, dazzled for a moment. A soft rustling sound, then nothing. He peered toward the glare.

“Dillal?” He stumbled over the pronunciation a little and moved deeper into the room. “I’m SO Eric Matheson. I’m looking for Inspector J. P. Dillal.”

The figure in the bed moved, and the room lights came up.

Even after what he had already seen that day, Matheson flinched away from the half-human visage that stared up into his own face. What did Andreus do? The left side of the patient’s skull had been shaved from the temple down all the way to the back. Cinnamon-red hair hadn’t grown out enough yet to hide the inorganic shape of something inserted beneath the flesh and bone. The orbit of the left eye had been redefined by an unnatural, hard edge and a livid incision, patched all around forehead and cheek with brown and olive spray skin that didn’t match the patient’s muddy amber complexion. The eye itself was too large and open to match the one on the right, and the iris was not the same brown, but a transparent gold color through which light reflected red.

Matheson tried to catalog the person lying in the bed. Male, thirty to thirty-five, under average height . . . but there he stumbled. The man was too distinctly colored for most of Central System, yet didn’t fit any of the planet’s ethnic groups, either. Too short for Dreihle, too slight for Ohba, and he certainly wasn’t Gattian, with their skin and hair tinged the same vivid blue as the planet’s pervasive sand. Judging by the size of his remaining pupil and the way he clenched his jaw, the patient was in some pain, but if he was drugged, it wasn’t much. That jarred Matheson back to his duty.

He swallowed and asked, “Are you Inspector Dillal? Did I say that right?”

The man in the bed shrugged one shoulder and tilted his head. Only the brown eye blinked. “Close enough.” His voice was soft and tired.

Matheson dropped his gaze. “Sir, you’re being recalled to active duty. The Regional Director pushed the paper through and Dr. Andreus released you to me. I know you’ve only had surgery recently, but this case—Well, Pritchet opened full cooperation and funding for a week, through half-moon.” He glanced back up, half expecting to be told off.

Dillal eased up to sitting. Then he narrowed his eyes and peered at Matheson. Something clicked as the lid around the strange golden eye tightened. “The case . . . is what sort of crime?” The inspector rolled his Rs slightly and his slow voice had an odd, round intonation.

Matheson’s empty stomach churned. “It’s a—a massacre, sir. Maybe a gang execution. In a jasso.”

Dillal rubbed his face gently with both hands and pushed his fingers through his hair and stubble. Then he swung his feet out of the tall hospital bed. They didn’t quite reach the floor. Matheson started forward to help him, but Dillal waved him off and pointed at the closet. “My clothes. Please.”

Matheson retrieved a flat, vacuum-sealed package and laid it on the bed. Then he turned his back, grateful not to look at the inspector for a moment—nothing Pritchet or Andreus had said had prepared him for that unsettling face, and only the horror he had recently seen kept sick fascination at bay.

He could hear Dillal drawing the clothes on and hissing at sudden pains. The bed squeaked and then there was silence. Matheson edged back around. Discarded vacuum wrap lay at the end of the bed beside a scuffed MDD and a closed ID folder. The inspector, now fully dressed in a loose charcoal suit, was turned half away from Matheson and had braced his hands against the mattress. His head hung between his stiff arms and he’d clenched his eyes shut while he took impossibly deep, slow breaths.

“Are you all right, sir?” Matheson’s voice scraped his throat like a handful of tacks.

Dillal gave a low grunt as he straightened and turned his head to regard Matheson over his shoulder. “You have a report?” he asked, taking a few things from the bedside table, then tucking his mobile and ID into his jacket pockets.

“We don’t have one, yet, sir. Senior Detive Neme is waiting on-scene to hand off to you.”

The inspector turned all the way around, then put his hand over his strange eye for a moment. “Yes. All right.” He took another long breath, dropped his hand, then started out the door at a steady pace. “Which jasso? Which district?”

“The Paz da Sorte in the Dreihleat.”

Dillal stopped. “Paz?” He looked startled. Or that’s what half his face looked. The left side didn’t move above the merest downturn of his mouth.

“What?” Matheson asked.

Dillal shook off his concern, his whole mismatched face going blank. “Irony—Paz means ‘peace.’ There’s no preliminary whatsoever?” Preliminary peace? Oh. “Only my own recording, which isn’t much.” “You were on-scene?” “It was on our patch—my TO’s and mine. I can send what I have to your mobile . . .”

“If you would,” the inspector said, taking the battered device from his jacket pocket and holding it out as they walked on.

Odd. He expected Matheson to transfer the file directly by contact link. It was a more secure protocol than sending it though the data system, but harder to track and not much used. Dillal’s strangeness lay in more than his face.

The inspector’s mobile was strictly as-issued and displayed nothing personal; it bore only the Gattis Investigation and Security Administration’s orange logo of an eight-pointed star with the horizontal arms extending into a stripe across the top of the screen and the acronym just below. Matheson’s own Peerless MDD—even at three years old—looked like a thoroughbred trying to mate with a broken down pony. Ugh, there’s an image to forget. He handed the device back as soon as the confirmation pinged.

Matheson glanced at the message—it didn’t give the inspector’s rank or regional, only his name. Huh. He slipped the Peerless back into its loops on his shirt front.

The humidity clung the moment they were outside and Matheson was quick to open the passenger door of the GISA-issued skimmer, hoping the inspector would get in before the interior of the vehicle caught too much thick air. He hurried to his own door and ducked in, flipping the environmental controls even as he slid into the seat, sighing in the first whiff of drier air. Everyone said it wasn’t too bad yet, but even this early in the morning, the moist air felt like wool in his throat. It smelled of earth and fish and industrial waste near the health center—not much improvement on the Dreihleat, and summer would be worse.

Matheson dove the skimmer into Angra Dastrelas traffic, concentrating on that, not on the inspector beside him, and not on the scene that awaited ahead. He jinked it through the anarchy of vehicles rushing across and around the crater, with no airway markers or apparent rules but those the pilots made up on the spot. It still scared the shit out of him, even though he’d yet to be hit by another skimmer. He understood why most tourists stuck to cabs and the slideways, rightly terrified to go aloft in anything less than a continent-class transport.

“What do you know about this jasso?” Dillal asked as they plunged into the maelstrom of traffic. He spoke as if he measured out every word from a limited ration.

“Almost nothing—some kind of local business owners’ after-hours place that doubled-up in legal drinking and illegal gambling. I barely knew it was there. I’ve only been on Gattis for a month and I was assigned to this patch in the Dreihleat with my TO two weeks ago. First posting after graduating Fresnel.”

Dillal nodded without turning to look at him. “Gattis’s corporate-ruled security and investigation protocols differ from Central System law enforcement you learned at the academy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you falling in?”

Matheson hesitated, and twitched the skimmer into a momentarily empty stretch of air. “I’m . . . coming to terms.”

As the skimmer shrieked on its way, Dillal said nothing and turned his attention to his mobile. After a minute or so, he pressed his head back against the seat and covered his golden eye with one hand. By the time Matheson set the skimmer down on the street near the Paz da Sorte, Dillal had closed both eyes and set the MDD down on his leg. Matheson thought the inspector was asleep, but his eyes opened—the left eye emitting another quiet mechanical click—just as the skimmer leveled to land. The inspector was out of the little vehicle before Matheson had flipped the engine switch down.

CHAPTER THREE

Day 1: Early morning

Matheson fell in behind the inspector’s brisk stride down the street, surprised by the man’s resilience and apparent cool, and sure his own singlet and uniform shirt were clinging to the small of his back by the time he’d gone four steps.

A handful of early-morning loiterers, mostly Dreihleen and a few hard-luck out-system immigrants, stared toward the alley that was now choked with GISA personnel and official vehicles. Most winced and stepped aside with averted eyes when they saw the inspector; one Dreihle looked at Dillal as if he were a thing that had crept up from a sewer full of nightmares. The man backed away before turning and hurrying off.

Beyond the gawkers, SOs and a few Investigation Ofiçes blocked the way while a scattering of technicians in white coveralls moved purposefully in the alley behind them. Matheson saw no sign of issued firearms; plainly the situation didn’t merit breaking that part of the administration’s “don’t scare the tourists” policy. Dillal stopped beside the Security Ofiçes forming the cordon at the edge of the crime scene. The nearest of them, a muscular woman with shoulders that would do a transport cargo master proud, glanced down at the inspector as if to shoo him away, then stiffened and gaped at his patchwork face.

Dillal ignored her expression and put his left hand out palm up, showing the shiny black-and-red checkerboard of a high-level ID array incised in the skin just above his wrist. “I’m the Chief Investigating Forensic Ofiçe.” His voice remained soft, measured, and cool.

The SO swiped her mobile’s screen in a pro forma wave over the ID crystals, still appalled. If the inspector unnerved her, she hadn’t seen the inside of the nightclub.

“Detive Neme is in the transport down the alley,” the ofiçe mumbled and added, “In-inspector.”

Dillal nodded and stepped past her, motioning Matheson to follow. The ofiçe muttered as they passed, “Mother of fucking stars. Couldn’t pay me enough to do that, promotion or not.” The inspector gave no sign that he’d heard, but he couldn’t have missed it.

Dillal paused inside the cordon and looked around, his gaze moving slowly over the exterior of the buildings, then down to the ground. He squinted a little and rubbed at his shaved temple with his fingertips.

“Matheson. I need a light, here,” he said, pointing to the ground in front of the jasso’s broken door.

A broadening arc of stares followed as Matheson walked over, pulled his Sun Spot from his belt, and turned the bright white light where the inspector indicated.

The spotlight illuminated a curving red-brown line on the old ash-clay tiles. Two rippled blotches of the same color lay within the bracket-shaped line. Was there something here earlier? He couldn’t recall.

Dillal crouched down and peered at the marks, his golden eye gleaming. He squinted and a series of quiet clicks sounded as he touched his temple. Then he humphed to himself and closed his eyes, leaning forward a little while breathing deeply through his nose and mouth. Finally he rocked back and rested on his heels with his forearms on his knees. He frowned as he opened his eyes.

“What is it?” Matheson asked.

Dillal seemed to have forgotten him. “Hm? It’s a sole impression. In blood.” He indicated the curved line. “That’s the outside edge of someone’s right shoe.” He pointed at the enclosed blotches. “Those are part of the traction pattern at the ball and heel. I’m not getting a clear idea of the blood constituent or origin. It’s dried, but that shouldn’t cause such a problem.” He stood up, still scowling, and tapped the shaved side of his skull. “The equipment is still strange to me. The calibration—there’s so much noise . . .” he muttered.

He shifted his disconcerting stare to Matheson’s face and studied him with the same intensity he’d turned on the bloody footprint.

Does he know I lost it earlier? He can’t. Matheson drew himself up and stared back. An approving smile flickered across half the inspector’s face before he turned his gaze back down.

Dillal pointed to the bloodstain. “ForTech will take a reference still, if they haven’t already, but take an additional one now, please, and join me inside.” Then he stepped over the footprint with care and eased through the open doorway, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets.

Matheson took the picture with his mobile and tagged it. He was just a pace behind Dillal when he heard him gag. A reek of blood, human waste, and burned flesh still hung on the air inside. The room was growing stuffy as well, now that the sun was rising, intensifying the stench that attracted flies and scavenger centipedes.

The ventilation system was off and racks of lamps had been set up in the corners. Hard white light fell on the crusting pools of blood that surrounded the bodies and stuck everything to the floor in gruesome tableaux. In the harsh illumination, it all looked worse than before. Most of the victims had black zip tape sealed across their mouths. More swathes of the stuff bound their arms at the wrists and their legs above the knees. Most lay on their sides or face down in the gore and fluids that had poured out of them. There were small ragged holes—some charred around the edges—in their heads and necks. Twelve dead in the gaming room, lying amid the scatter of brightly colored chips, white dice, and cocktail glasses rimed red, game tiles, and cards going rust brown as they dried. Directly before them, four bodies in the bar room had fallen randomly at the foot of the bar. A small table had been overturned, spilling cups of tea and a plate of food, now writhing with insects, across the white-clad belly of a Dreihle youth, his expression of shock punctuated with a small bullet hole in his forehead.

Matheson forced down the acid creeping up his throat.

Dillal had covered his eyes and mouth, then slowly drew his hands away again. He swept the rooms with his strange gaze, and took a short breath through his mouth. He coughed and gagged a little, shaking his head like a wet dog. He tasted the air again, then he shuddered and switched to sniffing, the right side of his mouth curling in disgust. “This will take a while. Fetch Detive Neme, please.” Dillal skirted the walls with his hands once again in his pockets as he stepped deeper into the room.

I should stay with the inspector. But even the threat of Dr. Andreus’s ire if something went wrong didn’t stop Matheson leaving. It was a relief to retreat from the slaughter house scene and leave Dillal alone for a moment. The carnage was repellant—even the worst virtuals his instructors had thrown at him hadn’t hardened him against whatever had played out inside the club. It should have been better in the light, where his imagination couldn’t fill in horrors, but it wasn’t, and remaining detached and observant was a struggle.

Outside, he tapped the nearest ofiçe on the shoulder—a guy he didn’t recognize, wearing Investigation Ofiçe insignia on his uniform. “Go in and assist the CIFO until I get back.”

The IO bristled and shook his head. “No fucking way. I have seen some gruesome shit—race riots, some drug dealer dismembered by his gang for going grass . . . Bad enough to get hauled in on my off shift to cover something that makes those scenes look cheery, but on top of that, you think I should work up close and personal with that bong met? You’re out of your blighted mind, junior.”

Met he’d heard before—an insult that meant “mixed,” though some embraced it as a badge of identity. Matheson didn’t know this new slur, but it carried a lash of corrosive loathing. He gaped at the IO—who certainly couldn’t claim to be pure anything, unless it was asshole. “What? You won’t even give the man your spray seal and stand by the door? Why? You think his color will rub off on you?”

The IO glared. “You don’t get it, do you? That’s J. P. Di-frigging-llal. He just disappeared about a year and a half ago and we all figured somebody’d finally whacked the half-yellow bastard. Now we got a bunch of dreck clan boys killing another bunch, and he’s in charge? That’s some messed up shit.”

Fury tightened Matheson’s fists.

A bored voice came from close behind Matheson before he could lose his horror-frayed temper. “Shut it, Vicenne.”

Matheson spun, expecting more trouble, and found a mild-faced man whose cheap tan suit clashed with his smoky, dark brown complexion. He had to be from Investigation and was clearly a step up from IO Vicenne. Not a Detive. An IAD?

The stranger offered an apologetic smile and stepped around him to address Vicenne. “Your gutter mouth could be why you’re still an IO.” The IO spat on the ground. “Go jump, Istvalk.”

The man in the suit sighed. “Still wouldn’t boot you up if I did. Give me your kit and I’ll take it in.”

Vicenne glowered, but he took the compact scene kit from his pocket and handed it over. “Kiss ass,” he muttered.

Istvalk rolled his eyes and waved the other man away. Then he started for the jasso door without another word.

Matheson frowned after him. “Thanks,” he called, but the other just shrugged and walked on. Matheson took a deep breath and started down the narrow alley.

The operations transport was set down in the crossing alley like a gargantuan cat that had chased a rat into a too-narrow hole. He shook his head. They’ll have to vertical the damned thing out when they’re done here. Not sure how they got it in to begin with.

When Matheson stepped inside, Aleztra Neme was pacing the width of the transport and talking to someone out of view. She was in her mid-thirties, slim to average build, a little over average height for a Gattian woman, and could trace her family back to before First Settlement—as they all could. She didn’t have the typical deathly, cyanic pallor—her skin was dusty gray and the distinctive Gattian blue tinge seemed to float over it like the sheen on the surface of a pearl. She dressed in casually expensive simplicity that only the wealthy could afford, and she might have been beautiful if she hadn’t had the personality of a rogue crocodile.

“. . . Not like courts martial investigations—” she was saying. She cut herself off and turned her glare on Matheson. “Well?” Neme snapped. Her curling indigo hair seemed to spark with the static electricity of her annoyance.

He’d met Senior Detive Neme only twice before, but had come to dislike her the first time. “Inspector Dillal would like to speak with you in the jasso.”

“Inspector! All that cut-rate surgery comes with a nice promotion. How’s he doing?”

Matheson shrugged, as non-committal and bland as possible. Don’t give her an opening. “Fine, sir.”

“I’ll bet.” Neme glanced at the other GISA investigator who sat farther back in the transport. “Well, we now know that the price of ambition is one eye and a chunk of your brain,” she said.

The older detive sprawled in his seat, drinking something that steamed from a black mug between his grit-spangled hands. Investigation Officer of the Day . . . what’s his name? They’d met earlier, but Matheson hadn’t been tracking well at the time. The man offered Neme a thin smile. “It’s less than a soul.”

“Maybe, but you wouldn’t catch me handing that over to the lowest bidder, either. Not just to vault GISA’s ladder, anyway.”

“Not your damn problem, though, is it, Neme?” the man said. “Privilege of birth.”

Rank.” Neme sniffed and turned back to Matheson. “Okay, let’s go. Orris, you’re coming, too.”

Orris sighed and followed them out of the transport. He looked about fifty and his Central-tan skin had acquired an indoor pallor. He was on the tall side of average, but stooped a little and carried extra weight around his middle that exaggerated his bad posture. His graying blond hair was thinning on top and brushed straight back, and he clearly gave no sort of a damn for elegance—over his street clothes he wore an ancient uniform jacket so stained and worn it looked pale blue rather than the buff-and-khaki Matheson wore. Neme’s barbs didn’t bother him either.

They crossed the few meters of alley in silence and entered the building. Matheson stayed at the rear, rubbing the back of his sweaty neck as fine needles of tamped panic stabbed into his empty gut.

Neme coughed in revulsion and Matheson looked past her, searching for Inspector Dillal. He saw Istvalk lurking near the inner security door and taking shallow breaths through his mouth. He continued his visual search for the inspector, not sure what to do next.

Dillal was crouching beside one of the bodies in the gaming room and, aside from the stirring and breathing of the people beside Matheson, all was silence.

“GISA graces us with its new Forensic Ofiçe,” Neme observed aloud, shattering the momentary calm. She began to walk across the bar room floor. “Quite a jump—IAD to Inspector in a year. I didn’t think Pritchet would send his precious new toy out for a gang war.”

Without turning, Dillal pointed a warning finger at Neme. “Don’t contaminate my scene.”

“The hell—?” Neme snorted and stared at him in affront.

Dillal turned without rising and gave her a baleful stare. The artificial eye cast a red gleam toward the Gattian and Neme stiffened, recoiling from her first view of Dillal’s face before she stopped herself and let a flicker of disgust curl her lip.

The inspector did not break his cold expression with an answering reaction. “The blood in the carpeting is still fluid,” he said. “If you step onto the floor here, you’ll track DNA into these samples. I’ve already found several patches of cross-contamination. I’d prefer not to have more.” His tone could have chilled nitrogen liquid from the air.

Surprise rippled over Neme’s face before her usual sneer slid back into place. “Really? What about your own feet, you officious little rag?”

Dillal, entirely composed, rose and pointed to a bit of clear sheeting nearby. “IAD Istvalk provided me spray seal and sheath—per procedure.” He looked at the IAD. “You can go now.”

Istvalk’s gaze flickered to Neme, who narrowed her eyes and twitched her head at him in dismissal. As the IAD left, Dillal stepped over the body and onto the sheath material, making his way back along the edges of the room to the bar.

Neme glowered, but stepped back onto the ash-clay tiles near the vestibule, waiting in the less-sensitive zone away from the blood-soaked carpets. Self-important ass, but not stupid. And it appeared that the inspector had decided to own her insult rather than take umbrage. Orris stood slightly behind Neme with his arms crossed over his chest, hands tucked into his armpits so a band of scruffy wrist was all that showed.

Dillal joined them, glancing at Matheson as he stepped onto the tiles. He rubbed his fingertips together and the spray seal peeled here and there, rolling into tiny gray grains that clung to his skin. Orris reached in front of Neme and handed the inspector a packet of clean up wipes from his own pocket. Matheson caught himself frowning at the gesture, too tired to wonder why.

“Thank you.” Dillal wiped the translucent coating off his hands and wrists. He didn’t move to clean the spray off his shoes, though Matheson could see the film on their surfaces.

“So,” Neme began. “I assume your magical analysis has already solved the case and it’s just a matter of rounding the bastards up. Right?”

Dillal shot her a dismissive frown. “There are sixteen bodies here and a great deal of other material to be sorted out. The forensic system does not run any faster in my skull than it does in the lab, Detive, though it does run more discreetly.” He finished wiping down his hands and looked up at Neme, who was practicing her superior smile. “However, it should allow me to proceed with a thorough investiga tion much faster than you would.” He looked at Orris.

The older man just shrugged, his hands tucked away again. “If Pritchet says it’s yours, I got no argument.”

Neme bridled and her expression went cold. “For the record, what does the evidence say, right now?” She was following protocol on handing it off, though normally she’d be the one reciting sit rep, not the incoming investigator. She doesn’t like handing off, or is it just handing off to him?

Dillal tilted his head and studied her for a long moment. He quirked the right corner of his mouth into an ironic smile and turned back to regard the scene. “The victims are all Dreihleen adults—six female and ten male, from fifteen to seventy-two years of age. All local and all recorded in the database as required—do you want the names?” Neme scowled and shook her head. “Get on with it.”

Dillal nodded. “They died about four hours ago—between oh-one-thirty and oh-two-thirty, most likely. Causes of death are variously trauma or blood loss from wounds to the head and neck. These wounds were inflicted with two types of weapons—short-plasma projectors, and small-caliber firearms. As yet, no casings or bullets have been recovered, so I can’t say if all the shots were from the same weapon or from several—”

Neme smirked. “You’re not sure?”

Dillal cast his red-sparked stare back at her. “The bullets will have to be removed from the bodies for comparison before I can make absolute statements. We’re not set up for an autopsy here—much less sixteen of them.” He returned his gaze to the bodies. “The plasma burns are most likely from pen torches, but, even if we find them, the weapons wouldn’t be much evidentiary use in court without DNA and prints to tie them to suspects.”

Neme clenched her teeth. Orris stood and watched the byplay with a sarcastic smile of long familiarity and Matheson had an inkling of what had induced Dillal to submit to such ghastly surgery.

The inspector continued, “By the evidence, the victims were robbed, bound, and gagged, and placed on the floor, but not all at once. They were collected over an hour or more while the killers robbed the premises and lay in wait for more victims. Two of the victims weren’t tied when they died.” He paused to point to two bodies that lay the farthest back in the room, away from the rest. “They appear to be the only ones with defensive wounds—but all were killed within a few minutes of each other. Then the killers left. Possibly one of them—or one of our own men—tracked blood onto the tiles in the vestibule and alley, leaving partial sole impressions. Either before or after the robbery, the door lock was broken.”

Neme had glowered through the whole recitation, now she interrupted again. “Santos and Matheson were first on the scene. The rookie says they broke the lock to gain access.”

Dillal turned to Matheson, inquiring with a look. “Santos—my TO—ordered me to break it when I arrived,” Matheson said, scowling. All of this was in my report. “We’d split the block because of the alley and his knee was slowing him down—he’d twisted it earlier while we were in pursuit of a pickpocket. I was about halfway around, rousting a dealer from a doorway, when he called me. When I got here, Santos was just outside the door. He thought the situation was suspicious, so I checked the door myself and broke the lock. We stepped inside and saw the scene, then I called it in.”

“Why did Santos call you?”

“He was concerned that the jasso was locked up when it should have been open for after-hours business. He’s been on this patch for a long time and I guess—”

“Don’t guess. Where is Santos?”

Matheson shifted his eyes away from Dillal’s gaze. “He . . . was injured, sir.”

“He went jumpwise,” Orris answered, “and knocked his brain loose. He was just sittin’ up again when I got here. The rook—” he added, jerking his thumb at Matheson, “blew lunch, but he stuck on until I arrived. Sent Santos to Public Health, and Admin held Matheson there to spring you while they argued with the docs. The rest of us have been standin’ around like the Pillars and readin’ the graffiti until you got here.”

Matheson was sure he could see something moving in Dillal’s head. What sort of machine did Andreus shove in there?

“Do you surmise that the killers locked the door as they left?” Dillal asked.

“Must have,” Matheson replied, feeling a little queasy.

“Was the ventilation off when you arrived on the scene?” Matheson had to think before he could answer. “No. It was on.” “Who turned it off?”

Orris answered for him. “ForTech. To put collection filters in the vents.”

Dillal’s right eyebrow descended into half a scowl. “Humidity and insects degrade evidence and the filters will catch nothing if there’s no draft.” Orris nodded, but didn’t move.

“What about the shoe?” Neme asked.

“Shoe?” Dillal seemed thrown by the question.

“The one that made the bloody print by the door. Can’t you tell whose it is?” she sneered.

“It’s an indeterminate print. I need to make comparisons and eliminate all the GISA personnel on scene. It may be Santos’s or Matheson’s as easily as one of the killers’.”

“You seem pretty sure there’s more than one perp.”

“Yes. The holding and binding of the victims would require two, but it was probably more.”

“The more gang members there are, the more likely one’ll grass,” Neme said. “You know the fucking drecks and humps always brag their kills—they’ve been slaughtering each other over clan rights since before First Settlement.”

“This wasn’t clan against clan or Ohba against Dreihleen,” Dillal stated in his dry, measured tone. “The Paz da Sorte is neutral territory in the Dreihleat, and there aren’t any society marks in evidence, either Ohba or Dreihleen.”

Neme peered down her nose at the inspector. “And you should know.” Dillal cocked an eyebrow at her. “As well as you should.” Then he changed the subject. “Have the ofiçes learned anything from witnesses, yet? It’s not likely anyone heard the shooting with such small caliber projectiles and plasmas, but perhaps something—”

“Something is nothing,” Neme snapped back. “So far, no one saw or heard anything. Which is why it’s got to be a clan thing. It’s not system-hoppers, and if it was humps or mets, the drecks would be crushing each other in their rush to point fingers. These insular duck-fuckers are tighter than a mouse’s ass when it’s their own people for the chop.”

Dillal didn’t seem to hear Neme’s slurs. “Then we’ll continue asking. Coordinate the canvass in the Dreihleat before you go, and turn the reports over to me later. Matheson and I will continue with the scene. Detive Orris, are you still on shift as IOD?”

“About four hours into overtime, just like the kid, here. Half the guys assigned to this patch were up too late the night before, too—you know this fuckin’ festival schedule.”

Matheson had had his baptism by fire: his first week on the street was the second week of Spring Moon—a month-long mutation of some agricultural fertility festival Angra Dastrelas clung to like a greedy monkey that couldn’t stand to pull its fist empty out of a nut jar. With engineered agribusiness, the festival’s timing was moot these days, but the tourism and its revenue stream remained—which was all the planetary corporation cared about. The showier events were staged in more glamorous or family-friendly venues near Cove Quay, run by and for people higher on the social scale, but the hardcore traditionalists and culture mavens could still find the real thing in the Dreihleat—if they didn’t mind the pickpockets and drug dealers.

Dillal nodded at Orris. “No reason for you to stay. Tell someone to turn the ventilation back on as you go, and send your report to my office before your next shift. I’ll check on Santos.”

Orris flipped a sardonic salute to the inspector and wasted no time leaving the building. Dillal, Neme, and Matheson followed him outside and toward the transport. Matheson sucked in purging lungfuls of thick air scented with boozy urine and the odors of early breakfasts cooking. The keyhole glimpses of sky over the alley showed pink. He looked at his mobile: 0537. He’d thought it was later.

The comparatively clean air was no substitute for sleep. He was abraded by exhaustion and the rough grit of his reined and unsorted emotions—he was too tired to be horrified, now—he only felt chilled, and so detached from his own brain that he moved in slow motion.

“You going to toss it again, rook?” Neme asked.

Matheson squeezed his eyes and ground his teeth against a surge of fury that was pleasantly warm. Probably thinks overtime’s beneath her. He caught a breath through his nose and cut a look at the senior detive. “No, sir.” “Detive,” Dillal said.

Neme turned her superior smirk toward Inspector Dillal. Rank or not, she thinks he’s beneath her, too.

Neither spoke for a moment.

“As Santos is not available,” Dillal said, “I’ll require SO Matheson’s presence here a while longer, and I’d like to second him to my office for the duration of the investigation. As you are handing off, do you have an objection?”

Neme frowned and flipped a hand dismissively. “Oh, now you’re by the book are you?”

“Have you ever known me not to be? I could go to Belcourso, or Pritchet, if you prefer . . .”

She snorted—it almost seemed as if she spat. “No. Why should I object? What good is he on this patch if he falls apart over a bit of blood? He’ll be your millstone, now.”

Matheson scowled after her as she walked away into the alley, patting her pockets.

New extract from Jacqueline Carey's STARLESS


The folks from tor.com just posted a new extract from Jacqueline Carey's forthcoming Starless (Canada, USA, Europe).

Here's the blurb:

Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

Let your mind be like the eye of the hawk…Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

Follow this link to read te extract.

New epic fantasy from Serial Box; Avatar the Last Airbender meets The West Wing


This from the folks at Serial Box:

This week, on April 18th, Serial Box will release Born to the Blade, a series combining the visionary high fantasy setting and tense politics of series like Game of Thrones and Mistborn. Created by Michael R. Underwood, Born to the Blade is Serial Box’s first release in the high fantasy genre, and was written in a TV-like writer’s room by the talented team of Underwood (Ree Reyes series), Marie Brennan (World Fantasy Award finalist), Malka Older (Infomocracy), and Cassandra Khaw (Bearly A Lady). You can find more about the creative team here and read a feature on the series from Io9 here.

Youth. Ambition. Power. Oda no Michiko and Kris Denn have much of the first two, and crave the last. To get it, all they must do is survive.

For centuries, the Warder's Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the nations of the sky a way to avoid war, as their chosen warders settle disputes through magical duels of blade and sigil. But that peace is on the edge of crumbling, crushed between the aggression of the Mertikan Empire and the determination of the still-free nations to not be consumed.

Twaa-Fei may be neutral, but it is also home to a million intrigues, schemes, and deadly intentions. Michiko and Kris arrive in this treacherous world together, bladecrafters eager to serve their countries -- Michiko as a junior warder for Katuke, a vassal of the empire, Kris as an upstart challenging to win a seat for his home, Rumika, in the Circle. But before the young bladecrafters have even settled in, a power struggle erupts, a man's head is parted from his shoulders, and every good thing Michiko thinks she knows about the empire comes into question.

A storm is coming, and Kris and Michiko stand at its eye. Will it bind the nations of the sky together... or tear it apart?

Serial Box publishes serialized fiction created by teams of critically acclaimed and best-selling writers. Serials are released through the Serial Box app(s), website, and third party retailers in weekly installments in both e-book and audio formats. During a three-month season, each episode is a 30 minute read or an hour listen.

Since launch, Serial Box has been called “The HBO for reading” by NPR, “a must have app for 2018” by Buzzfeed, “a best app of 2017” by Apple, and Den of Geek says that “Serial Box brings HBO style storytelling to prose.”

-----------------------

The first episode of Born to the Blade is available for free in text and audio here.

Jacqueline Carey news!!

This from her Twitter account:

Okay, so I was kinda waiting until all the "i"s were dotted and "t"s were crossed to reveal this, and I'll have more to say later, but in brief... yeah, almost 20 years after writing the original, I'm telling Joscelin's side of the story.

You may squee now.

Holy shit!!!

Awesome news! She hinted about that in our interview last year and I'm super happy that she's making it happen! =)

More inexpensive ebook goodies!


You can now download The Sarah Zettel Collection omnibus for only 3.99$ here. There is a price match in Canada.

Here's the blurb:

Four galaxy-spanning novels by an award-winning author with a “gift for creating fully realized cultures” (Booklist).

In Fool’s War, Katmer Al Shei has done well with the starship Pasadena, cutting corners where necessary to keep her crew paid and her journeys profitable. But there are two things she will never skimp on: her crew—and her fool. For a long space journey, a certified Fool’s Guild clown is essential, to amuse, excite, and otherwise distract the crew from the drudgeries of interstellar flight. Her newest fool, Evelyn Dobbs, is a talented jester. But does she have enough wit to save mankind?

In Playing God, the planet of the Dedelphi has been riven by war for two centuries. Though delicate, swanlike creatures, the planet’s natives are fierce in battle, and their ceaseless conflict has reduced their world to a wasteland. To save themselves and their world, the Dedelphi have forged a fragile peace and called for outside intervention. The Earth corporation Bioverse constructs a plan to heal the shattered planet. It’s the most ambitious engineering project the universe has ever seen, and if it backfires, the result will almost certainly be genocide.

In The Quiet Invasion, Dr. Helen Failia is nearing middle age at eighty-three, but has lost none of her fighting spirit. The founder of Earth’s first fully functioning colony on Venus, she will do anything to ensure that the home she’s built and nurtured not only survives, but thrives. Despite her constant work, funding for the colony is running out, and she’s dreading telling the ten thousand colonists they must move to Earth, a world some of them have never even seen. When one of her probes returns with the unprecedented proof of an ancient alien artifact on the surface of Venus she cannot believe her luck. This is the first evidence that humanity is not alone, and the discovery will surely secure the research colony’s future.

In Reclamation, Eric Born knows his way around the universe. He’s a quick-thinking merchant blessed with natural telekinetic skill. He’s also that rarest of creatures, a human being. Humans have been scattered across the universe, powerless and oppressed, dispersed so widely that no one knows what planet they first came from. Eric survives by selling his talents to the mysterious galactic tyrants known as the Rhudolant Vitae, but has never forgotten he belongs to the human race, and the distant world, the Realm of the Nameless Powers. The Realm may be a backwater, but Eric will do anything to protect his home from the merciless and powerful Vitae.

Jon Sprunk contest winner!

To help promote the release of Jon Sprunk's Blade and Bone (Canada, USA, Europe), this lucky winner will receive a full set of the Book of the Black Earth up for grabs, courtesy of the folks at Pyr. The prize pack includes:

- Blood and Iron
- Storm and Steel
- Blade and Bone

The winner is:

- Dion Baldwin, from Tukwila, Washington, USA

Many thanks to all the participants!

More inexpensive ebook goodies!


You can now download Robert R. McCammon's Stinger for only 2.99$ here.

Here's the blurb:

Ever since the copper mine closed, the West Texas desert hellholes of Inferno and Bordertown have been slowly dying. Snake River isn’t the only thing that divides them. Racism, gang wars, and anti-Mexican sentiment have turned the sun-scorched flatlands into a powder keg. If anything can unite them for now, at least in awe and wonder, it’s the UFO that comes soaring out of the clouds like a flaming locomotive.

In the wake of the crash, a young alien named Daufin has arrived, too. A fugitive who has taken the form of a human, she knows the terror that awaits the inhabitants of this planet—because it is looking for her.

When Stinger, the monstrous alien bounty hunter, arrives, it’s with a destructive fury and a devious plan to find Daufin—by entombing the residents in an impenetrable and inescapable dome. A relentless killing machine, Stinger has an infinite capacity for death and destruction. And over the next twenty-four hours, this town is going to bleed and burn. Now, the few remaining survivors must come together to protect Daufin, themselves, and the world beyond from total annihilation.

From the New York Times–bestselling and Bram Stoker Award–winning author of Swan Song, Stinger was called “one of the best suspense novels of recent years” by the Science Fiction Chronicle.

The Grace of Kings


A lot has been said regarding Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings. Some of it good and some of it decidedly bad. Although the novel garnered a slew of rave reviews, it remains a divisive works among readers. A quick perusal of online ratings and reviews shows that lots of people didn't like it, and some of them did not even finish it. This being the author's first novel-length epic fantasy project, I figure it was to be expected. Given the fact that Liu won virtually every genre literary award out there for his short fiction, I knew I'd read the book at some point.

My biggest concern was that most of the rave reviews came from the SJW speculative fiction clique. Which is why it took me so long to finally give The Grace of Kings a shot. Though reticent, the promised Asian setting that gave epic fantasy a much-needed breath of fresh air, as a fellow fantasy writer opined, intrigued me and ultimately enticed me enough to sit down and read it.

Here's the blurb:

Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

Right off the bat, I need to elaborate on that Asian/Chinese setting. This was, for me at least, one of the biggest selling points about this novel. I was expecting an environment with a political, social, and historical backdrop as researched and well-executed as those found in quality works of fiction like James Clavell's Shogun and its sequels, or Guy Gavriel Kay's memorable Under Heaven and River of Stars. Unfortunately, other than the occasional custom or food item, or the names of places and characters, very little about the setting and the traditions truly felt Asian or Chinese. This was extremely disappointing. I mean, when you read something by Nnedi Okorafor, the African setting influences every single aspect of her stories. Given his background, I was expecting Ken Liu to come up with something akin to that in terms of depth and authenticity. Problem is, this Asian setting, which was supposed to be a world away from the habitual medieval European environment that has become the norm in the genre today, was a bit half-assed. Unlike the aforementioned Clavell and Kay titles, novels in which everything down to the last minute detail reflects the Japanese/Chinese way of life and customs, as was the case with Kate Elliott's Black Wolves very little in The Grace of Kings feels different from other fantasy works on the market today.

One of the book's most annoying shortcomings according to readers has to be the omnipresent POV style. It takes some getting used to, but in the end it wasn't as much of a problem for me as it turned out to be for other readers. It does create a narrative structure that can be off-putting, though. It relies on massive info-dumps to convey information to the reader which have a tendency to kill whatever momentum the novel has going for it. Every time a new protagonist is introduced, a full back story is immediately provided and can last for several pages. Personally, I prefer to get to know characters by increments and see events unfold before my eyes in sequences. Hence, that narrative approach took something away from my overall reading experience and I can understand why it totally killed it for some people.

In scope and vision, some people claimed that The Dandelion Dynasty was similar to Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen and Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least based on this first installment. Though the worldbuilding can be original and inventive, The Grace of Kings is fantasy "light" for the most part and simply cannot compete with epic fantasy's signature series for the time being. True, there are elements that hint at a more ambitious story arc that might resound with more depth. Time will tell if Liu can elevate his game and bring The Dandelion Dynasty to another level. Also, the relative absence of magic and the level of technological advancements make certain plot points like the tunnels and the submarines appear ludicrous. I know this is fantasy, but a certain level of realism needs to be maintained. In addition, many aficionados stated that this is a literal retelling of the Chu-Han Contention. Hence, anyone familiar with Chinese history may find it difficult to get into the novel. Finally, there is an entire pantheon of gods that get involved in world's events. Which means that there are a number of Deux ex Machina moments that kill whatever tension build-ups Ken Liu managed to sustain.

The characterization leaves a lot to be desired. The info-dumps that characterize the narrative structure make it hard to relate to many of the protagonists. The two principal perspectives are those of two immensely different men. Kuni Garu is a scoundrel with a do-gooder's heart. Think of an Asian version of Mat Cauthon with a beer belly, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. Mata Zyndu is an 8-feet-tall unstoppable killing machine. Imagine a stiff-necked and stubborn-to-the-death Jeovah's Witness with the body and the strength of Karsa Orlong and the invulnerability of Drizzt Do'Urden. In many ways, Mata is a veritable caricature and it's impossible to connect with him. The love/hate relationship between these two protagonists doesn't always make much sense. And since this relationship is at the heart of the tale that is The Grace of Kings, in the end it hurts the plot in a myriad of ways. To a certain extent, this book is an ensemble of vignettes featuring the perspectives of a number of men and women and gods. But these many narratives often create an incongruous whole. Moreover, the depiction of women is definitely so-so. Jia Matiza, the main female character, spends the years spawning this novel picking herbs, getting pregnant and having babies, encouraging her husband to take a second wife for the good of the realm, getting jealous of the other woman, reconciling with the fact that this needed to be done, etc. She basically only exists to allow Kuni's storyline to progress. Gin Mazoti, who'll become Marshal of Dasu, is little more than a token female warrior. Given her importance in the resolution of the conflict, one would have thought that her portrayal would have shown her as a more complex and well-drawn protagonist.

Due to the number of info-dumps and the vignette-like structure of the narrative, it's no surprise that The Grace of Kings suffers from pacing issues. Weighing in at 623 pages, this is not a slender book. I have a feeling that it would have benefited from excising a few scenes and even full chapters that brought little or nothing to the plot. Although he won multiple awards for his short fiction, the author needs to learn to better pace his novel-length material. Still, given its size, thanks to Ken Liu's evocative prose I went through the novel in a few short days. Regardless of its flaws, The Grace of Kings recounts a compelling tale and you want to find out how it all ends. And while the endgame was nothing to write home about, the ending itself was quite satisfying.

Though The Grace of Kings was far from perfect, there is something about the plot and the worldbuilding that makes me want to discover what happens next. Hence, I'll surely give the sequel, The Wall of Storms, a shot. However, I'm not sure I'll stick with it until the end if Liu has not improved his game in the aspects of his writing that showed the most flaws in this first volume. . .

The final verdict: 7.5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

More inexpensive ebook goodies!


You can now download The Novels of the Jaran omnibus by Kate Elliott for only 3.99$ here.

Here's the blurb:

In Jaran, the Earth of the future is just one of the planets ruled by the vast Chapalii empire. The volatility of these alien overlords is something with which Tess Soerensen is all too familiar. Her brother, Charles, rebelled against them and was rewarded by being elevated into their interstellar system. Struggling to find her place in the world, Tess sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, one of her brother’s planets. On the ground, she joins up with the native jaran people, becoming immersed in their nomadic society and customs. As she grows ever closer to the charismatic jaran ruler, Ilya—who is inflamed by an urgent mission of his own—Tess must choose between her feelings for him and her loyalty to her brother.

In An Earthly Crown, the nomadic tribes of the jaran are uniting the settled cities of their homeland one by one. Their charismatic leader, Ilya Bakhtiian, has his loyal wife by his side, but there is something about her he doesn’t know: Tess Soerensen is a human. Back home, her brother, Charles, led an unsuccessful revolt against the all-powerful Chapalii empire. Charles’s insistence that Tess join him is as strong as Ilya’s reluctance to part with his beloved wife—and neither considers that Tess may have her own plans for the future. As three fiercely independent spirits struggle for a solution, the fates of both the human race and the jaran hang in the balance.

In His Conquering Sword, the jaran have been taking over towns and bending all non-jaran to the law of their rule. With Ilya Bakhtiian in charge, the nomadic fighters are now preparing an assault on the royal city of Karkand. But within the campaign, another struggle looms. Charles, the brother of Ilya’s wife, Tess, is still driven by thoughts of revolt. Charles travels to Rhui for key information about the past, hoping to bring back his sister—his only heir.

And in The Law of Becoming, Charles Soerensen’s revolutionary inclinations have been reignited. In this final book, the story of Tess, Ilya, and Charles comes to its stunning conclusion as new generations get involved in the intrigue, Earth’s exiled jaran people resurface, and the Chapalii overlords make one last, unexpected move.

This week's New York Times Bestsellers (April 9th)

In paperback:

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One maintains its position at number 1 (trade paperback).

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale is up two positions, ending the week at number 9 (trade paperback). For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

More inexpensive ebook goodies!


You can now get your hands on the digital edition of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince for only 2.99$ here.

Here's the blurb:

First in the bestselling Dragon Prince series, explore a lush epic fantasy world replete with winged beasts, power games of magical treachery, and a realm of princedoms hovering on the brink of war • “Marvelous!”—Anne McCaffrey.

When Rohan became the new prince of the Desert, ruler of the kingdom granted to his family for as long as the Long Sands spewed fire, he took the crown with two goals in mind. First and foremost, he sought to bring permanent peace to his world of divided princedoms. And, in a land where dragon-slaying was a proof of manhood, Rohan was the sole champion of the dragons, fighting desperately to preserve the last remaining lords of the sky and with them a secret which might be the salvation of his people...

Sioned, the Sunrunner witch who was fated by Fire to be Rohan’s bride, had mastered the magic of sunlight and moonglow, catching hints of a yet to be formed pattern which could irrevocably affect the destinies of Sunrunners and ordinary mortals alike. Yet caught in the machinations of the Lady of Goddess Keep, and of Prince Rohan and his sworn enemy, the treacherously cunning High Prince, could Sioned alter this crucial pattern to protect her lord from the menace of a war that threatened to set the land ablaze?

Stronghold, the first volume in the second trilogy, is also 2.99$ here.

More inexpensive ebook goodies!


You can now get your hands on the digital edition of Raymond E. Feist's Magician: Apprentice for only 1.99$ here. There is a price match in Canada.

Here's the blurb:

A worthy pupil . . . A dangerous quest.

To the forest on the shore of the Kingdom of the Isles, the orphan Pug came to study with the master magician Kulgan. But though his courage won him a place at court and the heart of a lovely Princess, he was ill at ease with the normal ways of wizardry.

Yet Pug's strange sort of magic would one day change forever the fates of two worlds. For dark beings from another world had opened a rift in the fabric of spacetime to being again the age-old battle between the forces of Order and Chaos.