Vicky Peterwald: Target by Mike Shepherd
Another spin-off of Shepherd’s successful Kris Longknife series, this one focusing on Kris’ frenemy* Vicky. This one starts a few books back in the Longknife series, just after they came back to human space after encountering the paranoid alien motherships. Vicky goes out and betrays Kris by vilifying her in the press, for reasons that I still don’t understand (Kris had just saved Vicky’s life several times over, and they were kinda starting to be friends). Since she’s still technically an ensign in the Peterwald navy, she gets picked up by a flagship of their fleet and starts on the journey home.
However, things are not happy in the Peterwald spread. Vicky’s new step-mother, not much older than she is, is pregnant with a boy, who will be the new heir to the Peterwald throne. Her family is spreading their control over the Peterwald empire, and naturally they don’t want Vicky around drawing resources away from them. Many attempts are made to Kill Vicky, but she fights through them with wits, luck, and sex appeal.
I was actually looking forward to this one, as Vicky is kind of Kris’ Shadow. I thought it would be interesting to see her different problem-solving approach, but for some reason the story just didn’t grab me. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t and I can’t really say why. Mildly not recommended, but it still might work for you.
Oh, and trigger warning for threats of sexual violence.
Shanghai Sparrow by Gaie Sebold
Steampunk! Yay! Eveline Duchen is a street kid in a 19th century London where “the Folk” are known to exist but discounted by the people of (temporal) power. Mr. Holmforth,, who works for the British Government in a minor capacity in Shanghai, stumbles across a device using “Etheric Science” that he sees a use for; but if he takes it away from its inventor he’ll need someone who understands Etheric Science to make it work. Evie is his chosen operator; her late uncle was an inventor who brought some etheric devices to Holmforth (or was he?) and Holmforth hopes the talent runs in the family. He pulls Evie off the streets and warehouses her in a government-run school for female spies which, unbeknownst to him, is more a dumping ground for unwanted noble bastards than a real school, though the schoolmistress is doing her best.
Evie won’t be used, though: she has agendas of her own and with the help of a budding young mechanic and the school’s new Chinese language tutor (who may be a sailor from a Chinese airship who jumped ship to get close to Evie or may be something else entirely), she intends to defeat Holmforth and his backers and win her freedom.
It’s nice to see more Steampunk dealing with the lower classes (though Evie’s youth was comfortably middle-class, she does wind up living on the streets and stealing for a living) instead of the nobles/wealthy of so many other tales. Evie is a likeable trickster hero, and Holmforth, who is well-aware he will never rise in the civil service of the Empire he has devoted his life to, is a sympathetic villain. And there’s a really great ending.
If I had one complaint, it would be that Shanghai barely appears in the story at all. It is page 329 out of 373 when Evie and her associates finally arrive there, and by 365 they’re back in Britain. And most of that period is actually spent outside the city itself. There are a few more pages here and there, but most of the book is spent away from Shanghai.
Overall, though, I’m gonna call this one recommended. Unless you were really looking forward to Steampunk Shanghai, you’ll find much to enjoy here.
Double Booked For Death by Ali Brandon
The front cover calls this, “A Black Cat Bookshop Mystery”. Darla Pettistone’s a Texan in New York, having inherited her late great-aunt Dee’s bookstore, Pettistone’s Fine Books. It’s in a converted Brooklyn brownstone; apartments on top and bottom, with the bookstore in the middle. She also inherited some staff: a manager (a retired professor who handles their rare books collection) and a part-time empty-nester clerk, as well as two tenants: Jacqueline “Jake” Martelli, an ex-cop who rents the basement apartment and Hamlet, the large black cat who owns everything else (just ask him). Jake helps provide security for the store, as well as being Darla’s friend.
Jake’s security services are going to be needed, because the store has got a big event on its hands: YA author Valerie Baylor will sign her latest book in the “Haunted High” (Dead But Still Doing Homework) series. It’s a massive coup for a small store and Darla can expect great sales, if nothing goes wrong.
And of course, right away things start threatening to go wrong. There is already a protester outside the store; a young gothy-looking girl holding a sign accusing Baylor of stealing her manuscript, and Darla gets a letter from a Texas church group (friends of her family, to boot) who plan to protest the signing, feeling Baylor’s books are satanic in nature. The last time this group picketed a place, it went out of business.
Still, the protestor keeps her distance, and the church group hasn’t shown up by the time Baylor comes for the signing. And the line stretches around the block. Baylor is a bit of a jerk, but not too much and she likes cats, so she’s got to be good at heart, right? But when she disappears after a smoke break only to turn up arguing with, apparently, the protestor she falls into the street and is hit by a van (belonging, fittingly, to the religious picketers, finally showing up) and killed. Did she fall or was she pushed? And, given that everyone in the area was wearing Baylor’s trademark black cape, who dunnit?
I liked the characters in this one, and the bookstore seems realistically set-up. I’ve never been to NYC, so I can’t really say how well Brandon handles it, but there are a few interesting, probably fictional, locations. One thing that really annoyed me was the outbreak of generic product syndrome (the tendency to avoid product placements by genericising what should be specific names). Example: “[a small girl] came flying around the display of Boy Wizard books”. Ironically, they later drop J. K. Rowling’s name!
Also, there’s enough description of the Haunted High books that I found myself wishing Brandon would write them, even if it means giving up this series.
*holy fuck, I actually used the word “frenemy” in a sentence, and it made sense, and I don’t feel dirty. The world is changing quickly.