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My Best Reads of 2020, Part 3: The Final Seven

Here are reviews of seven more books to round out my best reads for this strange year.

Death’s Detective (Malykant Mysteries #1-4) by Charlotte E. English

Book Description:
Konrad Savast is the Malykant: foremost and most secret servant of the God of Death. His job? To track down the foulest of murderers and bring them to The Malykt’s Justice. No mercy. No quarter.

My Review:
The book consists of four novella-length stories, all of which feature Konrad Savast and his friend the apothecary Irinanda Falenia. Each of the four presents a murder for which retribution must be delivered, but supernatural justice is quite different from that found in most detective stories.
The city of Ekamet, in which the stories are set, is dark, cold, and gloomy. It’s almost always snowing, raining, or blowing. Nearby is the weird Bone Forest, where Konrad has a hut on stilts. It features in every one of the stories, adding its own brand of shivery attraction. Most of the characters’ names have a Russian flavour, and there’s a nineteenth-century feel to the place, but it’s entirely fictitious.
Even though the stories are about death and strangeness, Konrad and Irinanda’s conversations are lightened with humorous banter. Their friendship is an overarching theme of the four episodes, along with the difficulties that come with the job of Malykant and how Konrad copes with them. His spirit-serpent helpers, Eetapi and Ootapi, also furnish the odd subplot as well as unexpected funny moments.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries with an additional touch of Slavic-style shivers.

The Termite Queen. Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead, and Volume Two: The Wound That Has No Healing by Lorinda J. Taylor

Book Description:
In the 30th century, an off-world expedition returns to Earth with a specimen of giant termite whose behavior suggests intelligence. Kaitrin Oliva, a strong-willed and ambitious young linguistic anthropologist, is charged with finding a way to access its unique form of bioelectric communication. However, the insect dies and the team members realize too late that they have unintentionally murdered an intelligent lifeform. A second expedition is mounted with the purpose of making first contact and reparations. Griffen Gwidian, the entomologist heading the expedition, is a complex man with a dark personal secret. He falls in love with Kaitrin and against her better instincts Kaitrin responds. The result is a love story by turns turbulent and funny, passionate, tender, and troubled. Meanwhile, civil discord is brewing on the termite planet. Ultimately, the two plotlines intersect in an explosive climax, after which the team must return to Earth and try to come to terms with what they have experienced.

My Review:
I have to admit I was hesitant to read these books (even though I’ve read and enjoyed several others by this author) because they are in part about giant termites. Big bugs. How could a book featuring big bugs, however intelligent, be anything but off-putting? I’m happy to say it’s not so, and I’m glad I decided to read The Termite Queen.
This is a multi-dimensional and ambitious work. Set in the 30th century, its characters include several species of non-human intelligent life forms besides the giant termites. Even more, the author has invented languages for these life forms. These conlangs give depth and richness to the reading experience.
This may sound intimidating, but The Termite Queen is eminently readable, with clear, coherent prose and careful pacing. The scenes that include only termite characters are written rather like scenes from a play, and indeed the sub-plot involving these creatures resembles a Shakespearean drama. The primary termite characters are distinct and memorable, although their intricate names took a bit of getting used to.
Kaitrin Oliva, the linguistic anthropologist, is a sympathetic character. Her part of the story involves both her academic interests and the development of a significant personal relationship. Important background details of the future society in which the story is set are artfully conveyed in a way that enhances the reading experience.
Volume One is an absorbing read because of the clever combination of familiar human story elements with boldly original ones.
The primary focus of Volume Two is Kaitrin Oliva’s recovery from the traumatic events that conclude Volume One. This process involves revisiting many of the events of the first book from a psychological point of view. At times I felt the story bogged down in these details. but there are intriguing aspects, such as parallels between ancient Welsh mythology and the 30th century tragedy.
I re-read both books recently (October 2020) and changed my rating of Volume Two to 5 stars because I better appreciated its poignant interweaving of language, culture, storytelling, and spirituality.

Innerscape Omnibus by A.C. Flory

Book Description:
Welcome to Innerscape, a virtual reality in which anything is possible, even murder. Includes Book 1, Miira; Book 2, The Godsend; Book 3, Nabatea.

My Review:
Having greatly enjoyed Miira, Book 1 of this work, I was delighted when this omnibus edition, comprising all three books, became available earlier this year. I intended to read it slowly, savouring the strange setting and intricate plot, but that didn’t work out. In Book 2, The Godsend, the tension ratchets up to an unbearable degree. I simply had to know how things turned out for Miira, Kenneth, and Jaimie. These characters have so many strikes against them to start with that the new complications, resulting from greed, deception, and brutal self-interest on the part of those around them, are totally compelling.
The setting is Australia in the 22nd century. Climate change has altered the environment to the extent that those who can afford it live in domed communities. But the Residents of Innerscape, a select and privileged group, can travel–virtually–almost anywhere–to Paris, for example, or the ancient city of Petra, or Japan. They can also enter hyper-realistic gaming worlds. In reality, though, these individuals’ surgically altered physical selves are sealed in confinement units, kept alive by advanced technology. That means they’re totally dependent on the technology working as intended, a fact that makes them vulnerable to clever and inventive individuals pursuing hidden agendas. And there are plenty of those.
The point of view shifts from one character to another at times, but the shifts are clearly signalled and not confusing in the least. The plot moves along steadily, building on previous incidents and revelations. Along the way, the reader is treated to vivid images of places, technological wonders, and characters’ clothing and physical characteristics — enough to create thrills but not so much as to be tedious. This contrasts chillingly with brief glimpses of a dystopian world, especially the truly frightening penal system.
Altogether, these three books combine human drama with a futuristic vision that add up to an engrossing read with a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion. I recommend them to any reader who enjoys a glimpse beyond the boundaries of present day reality.

One Night in Bridgeport by Mark Paxson

Book Description:
Jack McGee is on his way to having it all — a promising legal career, marriage to his high school sweetheart, and a happy normal life — when his boss sends him to do some legal work in Bridgeport, California. There he meets a gorgeous local girl, Lea Rogers, and he throws caution to the wind — for one night.
The next morning, Jack panics when he realizes what he’s risked and rushes home, content to leave Bridgeport, Lea, and their steamy night together buried forever. A few days later, Jack loses everything when he is arrested for rape and hauled back to Bridgeport, a small town full of secrets and intrigue and citizens determined to destroy Jack.
One Night in Bridgeport is an intriguing tale of lust and vengeance, and of one man’s desperate attempt to salvage his life.

My Review:
This realistic legal thriller shows how it feels to be a man accused of rape. Its methodically constructed plot benefits greatly from the author’s firsthand knowledge of legal processes. Jack, the main character, although innocent of the crime with which he’s charged, is immature, often petulant, and at times downright annoying. His lawyer, Tammy Evans, is tough but sympathetic. Watching her deal with Jack and do her job, both in and out of the courtroom, was a pleasure.
The book is fast-paced, even as it shows that legal processes take a wearisomely long time. Jack makes his initial bad choice in summer, but winter arrives before his trial begins. The third person omniscient point of view shows the thoughts and actions of different characters, but at times the narrator steps away from the story to explain things to the reader. I found that helpful but a little jarring. I also appreciated the descriptions of Bridgeport (a real place) and environs.

The Inn at the Edge of Light by Michael Graeme

Book Description:
Do you think you’ve only the one life to live? Well, how about two, at the same time, or maybe more? And if you think that sounds complicated you’d be right. So, beware of dreams of the Inn at the Edge of Light in case you go to sleep in one life and wake up in another.
In the summer of ’87, Chris Marshal travels to the Western Isles of Scotland and spends the night in a remote mountain hut. There, he’s joined by an adventurous backpacker, Jen Munroe, who invites him to go with her on the trip of a lifetime, just the two of them, hiking along the old Hippy trail, all the way to India.
But Chris is shy of and afraid of this bold, confident woman, so he says no, then wakes the following morning to find her gone. It’s then he realizes going with her was actually the one thing his life actually needed, that he’s now doomed to spend the rest of it searching, for the essence of what it was he lost that day.

My Review:
This book is written in second person present tense. The person experiencing the events that make up the plot isn’t “he” or “I,” but “you.” It took me a while to get used to that, but I’m glad I kept reading. The experience was like undoing a tight knot in a string, maddening but ultimately worth the effort when the tightly twisted strands loosen and open up.
The main character is at times a young man, at others middle-aged and living in a harsh world where the social order is collapsing into chaos. The time period ranges from the 1980s to the 21st century, a near future projected from the actual present. Scenes circle from the inn of recurring dreams to episodes in Chris’s real life (referred to as “topside”). At first, it’s all pretty obscure, but eventually patterns and a sense of progress emerge.
The narrative is full of symbols and references to mythology, psychology and philosophy. Recurring images include Scotch whiskey, bottles (with and without messages), watches, cameras, keys, and a pebble. There are references to the enneagram, inner journeys, and mystical quests. Almost all the action is interior, a scrutiny of Chris’s memories, thoughts, expectations, and hopes. It’s almost claustrophobic at times, but ultimately, the knot opens to an ending that, although ambiguous, is satisfying. This is a book I will think about for a long time and probably re-read at some point.

Beneath the Lanterns by C. Litka

Book Description:
No good deed goes unpunished.
The historian Kel Cam enjoyed a pleasant life in Azera, the colorful capital of the Azere Empire. In the dark days, he taught classes at the University. In the bright days, he traveled the wide steppes to visit Blue Order communities, seeking clues about the mysterious, long dead civilization of the Elders in their libraries of ancient texts. However, when his best friend, Lefe Sol, the son of the ruler of Azere, discovers that his father has arranged his marriage to Ren Loh, the fourth daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne, Kel offers to stand by and help Lefe deal with his unexpected, and unwanted, bride-to-be. Kel soon finds himself caught up in the intrigues of empires which not only upset his well ordered life – they lay it to ruin.
Beneath the Lanterns is an old fashioned novel of adventure and travel set in an imaginary land – a land of colorful cities, sweeping steppes, and lush valleys littered with the ruins of a lost advanced civilization. It is a world of sixteen days of day light under the Yellow Lantern and sixteen days of night lit by the Blue Lantern. And across this wide and wild world under the Yellow and Blue Lanterns, Kel Cam finds that he must flee for his freedom, if not his life.

My Review:
There are really only two important characters in this book: scholar Kel Cam and the eccentric Ren Loh. Brought up by her father as one of his Imperial Lancers, Ren is dead set against the marriage her mother has arranged for her. Kel’s friendship with the prospective bridegroom gets him entangled with Ren early in the book, and the rest of the story is about how the two of them work things out while eluding the clutches of those who want to drag Ren back to the politically expedient marriage. Kel is serious and methodical; Ren is an adventurous risk-taker. To escape discovery, the two disguise themselves as caravan guards and later as pilgrims to a mystical city. More than once, Kel hopes he’s seen the last of her, but chance, and eventually loyalty, keep bringing them together. Engaging secondary characters include a dog with personality and a couple of horses.
Well, there is another noteworthy “character,” and that is the world in which the action takes place. The landscapes and urban scenes reminded me of old China, but the long days and nights under the Yellow and Blue Lanterns suggested a different world. Places called Cauldrons, of unstable ground and toxic gases, resemble volcanic features, but not exactly. Remnants of the Elder Civilization are also tantalizing, for example the building material called “poured stone” and the enormously tall Blue Lantern Tower. That’s another thing–the story is full of colour, starting with the two Lanterns. There is a White City, a Green City and communities of something called the Blue Order. I would love to learn more about this world.
As the author’s description says, this is indeed an old-fashioned adventure story, with comradeship, conflict, hard choices, and narrow escapes. It reminded me of movies like High Road to China and Romancing the Stone. I hope a sequel is in the works.

Almost all of these books are available in the usual place, but some of them may be acquired at the Smashwords store, which is having an end-of-year sale right now. In fact, two of these titles are permanently free at Smashwords.

Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 of these 2020 reviews.


24 comments

    1. Thanks, Robbie. Those are both excellent books with engaging protagonists. Kaitrin Oliva, of The Termite Queen is sympathetic and relatable. Miira of Innerscape is an admirable person making the best of a desperate situation.

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  1. Great selections! The Termite Queen books and the 2nd and 3rd Innerscape books are both on my TBR list. I read another book by C. Litka (“A Summer in Amber”) and enjoyed it very much, so now “Beneath the Lanterns” is also on the list.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Audrey, Thank you for your generous review and posting it here. And really, thank you for giving it, and my other stories, a try. I daydream up and write down the stories I want read and, fingers crossed, hope someone else enjoys them as well. Nice to know that someone did. I gather that you’ve embarked on your sequel to She Who Comes Forth, and I hope the ideas flow and the story just unfolds for you. And I hope France is a little more reflective this time — she made me nervous with all the rather daring things did in the last book. Chuck

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks so much for the expanded review of my 2-volume The Termite Queen. Personally, I have also thought that the lengthy exploration of Kaitrin’s psychological odyssey in v.2 was too repetitive (I actually deleted one whole chapter where Kaitrin’s mother watches the video of Kaitrin’s wedding), but it was a case of an author who is reluctant to give up a character (Griffen in this care).
    Don’t be put off by the insectile nature of the aliens. When I viewed the documentary “Mysterious Castles of Clay” in the 1970s, I knew immediately that termite were the perfect candidate to develop intelligence. That germ of an idea had to wait till the year 2000 to come to fruition. And of course the sequel that follows (The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head) is the best thing I’ve ever done (in my not-so-humble opinion – ahem!)
    Anyone who is interested just missed a 99c sale (it ended at Dec.1) but my books are never more than $2.99.
    I really liked acflory’s Vokhtah – sometime I’ll have to give Innerscape a try. It’s definitely not my concept of a future world, but every SF author has a different idea.

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    1. I used to be terrified of large insects, but I got over it (mostly), and I’m really glad I read your termite books. You’ve combined human and non-human qualities really well to produce relatable stories.
      I have to admit, I found Griffen somewhat problematic, but by the end of The Termite Queen, his instability is explained. I still think Kaitrin is the real hero of that book. I do understand not being able to let go of a character–in my case Herbert/Francis.
      Indie ebooks are a great bargain; since ebooks published by the Big 5 (or maybe they’re the Big 4 now) are so expensive, readers really should look elsewhere.
      Innerscape isn’t all about tech, although that is an underlying premise. There is a lot of human drama there.
      Wishing you a happy and healthy new year, Lorinda!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Same wishes to you! Oh, I agree – Kaitrin is the real hero – a really strong female character. Griffen is not meant to be a hero – he wants to be one, and he does act pretty heroically at that one point, thus gaining a little peace within himself, but I meant him to be a kind of Rochester – a man with a dark secret (although all internal, not a literal mad wife in the attic).
        Personally, I’m not so crazy about large insects, either, but in fact termites are small, non-poisonous, and not very scary bugs, although I was told once by an entomologist I correspondended with, that the soldiers can bite you if you invade the termitarium. Remember, one real African termite does bite Kaitrin in that mysterious sceen near the end of the book. It’s sort of her wake-up call.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Audrey,

    I just wanted to say thanks for featuring me among your best reads. I know you were kind enough to review the “Inn at the Edge” earlier this year, but it was still a surprise to come across it here. Much appreciated and most encouraging. It’s not done particularly well on Smashwords, even for a free title – a bit of a downloads wilderness when compared with my other books, to be honest, and I’d sort of given up on it – but I’m glad it caught your eye.

    All the best for the New Year,

    Regards,

    Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, Michael. Inn at the Edge was one of my 5-star reads in the second half of the year, so I included it in the post. I can’t remember the Smashwords version being substandard, but ebooks do tend to be bare-bones text.
      Happy New Year to you as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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