When I saw this month’s prompt was to read Something Different, I knew pretty much exactly which genre and which book I was going to choose.  Last year sometime, Maria Rose reviewed a Sci-Fi romance called Quantum, which was the second book in Jess Anastasi’s Atrophy series.  I really liked the sound of it and it struck me that while I’m actually a fan of Sci-Fi in TV and film, I don’t read it  – so I picked up the first book in the series, Atrophy for the May prompt.

I admit that I hadn’t realised, going in, that it’s part of a series in which there is an overarching story that runs through all the books (there are three so far).  Still, it’s a thumping good read and I’m sufficiently invested in that particular plotline to want to read the other books – when I can find the time!  I also liked that the book is very much an ensemble piece, with a handful of principal characters to start and a few new ones introduced along the way. There’s a romance with an HEA to be sure, but that’s not the primary focus of the story and I was perfectly okay with that; there’s plenty of action and the gradual emergence of a really intriguing plot, all of it skilfully woven together into a rip-roaring, enjoyable yarn.

Due to the latest in a string of mechanical failures, the cargo freighter Imojenna is forced to land on the prison planet, Erebus in order to pick up spare parts and make repairs.  On duty when the ship applies for permission to land is Tannin Everette, one of the number of inmates who is allowed to work in the prison administration.  Twelve years earlier, he was convicted of a murder he did not commit, and when the chance of escape presents itself, he takes it, planning to stow away aboard the Imojenna. He’s not without misgivings; the penalty if he gets caught will be heavy and he’ll be a fugitive for the rest of his life.  But on balance, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Crew member – and captain’s sister – Zahli Sherron, is in the marketplace buying supplies for the next leg of the Imojenna’s journey when she is approached by an officer and taken into a deserted building.  Knowing the officer for one with an unpleasant reputation where women are concerned, Tannin is immediately suspicious and follows the sounds of a struggle only to come upon the young woman kneeling on the officer’s body with her hands around the knife in his chest. Tannin helps Zahli escape – and she later returns the favour by sticking up for him when he is discovered aboard the ship.  There’s an instant attraction thrumming between them, but her immensely scary brother makes it clear that Zahli is firmly off-limits; and ship’s captain Rian Sherron reminds Zahli that while she’s his sister, as a member of the crew the same rules apply to her as to everyone else – which includes the non-fraternization policy.

Tannin is a likeable character, a whizz-kid hacker who somehow managed to keep the authorities on Erebus from finding out about his mad hacking skillz.  These make him very valuable to Rian, who has his own reasons for choosing to captain a rickety freighter instead of returning to the military where he could be hero-worshipped until the end of his days.  I liked the way the author shows Tannin’s loyalties becoming more conflicted the more time he spends aboard the ship; he’s falling for Zahli and he owes her his freedom and his life, but Rian, once he’s realised that Tannin has useful skills, has allowed him to stay on board and in effect given him a home of sorts.  Tannin wants to be with Zahli but owes Rian, too, and doesn’t want to repay the trust he is gradually being given by directly disobeying orders.

I didn’t warm to Zahli all that much, though.  She’s supposed to be kick-ass and competent, but even she sometimes questions her position among the crew, seeing herself as someone who just deals with the finances and does the shopping. I suppose she’s the crew’s peacemaker, sometimes standing between them and Rian and frequently calling her brother on his shit the way no-one else can.  The sibling relationship is quiet well done, but she’s rather a bland character on her own.

The romance between Zahli and Tannin works well-enough for all it’s based on insta-lust, but the thing which really captured my interest is the plotline that is clearly going to run through all the books concerning Rian, a former military officer with a reputation for bad-assery of the highest order.  Three years before the end of the Assimilation War, he disappeared without trace and was presumed dead, and then, just as suddenly, he reappeared and single-handedly ended the war with one daring, completely mad and potentially suicidal act.  But he returned a changed man, bitter, reckless and distanced, always careful not to let anyone see the bleak darkness inside him, the intense and barely-leashed rage that he battles daily to contain.  Ever since his return, he has been set on achieving one goal – to hunt down the shape-shifting aliens who captured and tortured him and make them pay.  His quest for revenge sees him sometimes making questionable decisions, ones which could have disastrous outcomes for him and his crew, but he makes them anyway, putting nothing ahead of his achieving his goal.  One such decision is to accept another shipment of cargo from a known shady-dealer, which turns out to be a woman, more specifically, high-priestess Miriella from the planet Aryn.  The Arynian priestesses are known to have powerful psychic abilities and it’s immediately clear to Rian she could be a valuable bargaining chip, weapon or both.  But he’s wary of her; her telepathic abilities unsettle him and he keeps his distance, although there’s definitely a spark there which I really hope is going to be explored in future books.

Ms. Anastasi weaves a fast-paced, complex (but not unintelligible) and enthralling story with nary a dull moment as the Imojenna wends its way across the skies, evading pursuers, avoiding traps and generally making more enemies than friends along the way.  The various crew members are engaging and have important parts to play; these are secondary roles, but they are all clearly defined as characters and all contribute to the overall feeling of camaraderie among this closely-knit bunch.

While there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me – there’s a situation near the end which is resolved in a way that feels like a bit of a cop-out, for instance – on the whole Atrophy is a terrific read and one I’d certainly recommend.  The world-building is excellent and while there are quite a few characters and plotlines introduced, I was never confused as to who was whom or who was doing what.  Lucky for me, there are two more books in the series (Quantum and Diffraction) available with a fourth book, Entropy, coming in 2018.

Grade: B+                Sensuality: Warm

A/BK/iB/K

– Caz Owens

The Devil in Music by Kate Ross

When prompted to choose a little “something different” for the multi-blog TBR challenge this month, I opted to leave romance in favor of my other beloved genre – mystery. Twenty years ago, Kate Ross published the fourth (and last) of her Julian Kestrel mysteries, The Devil in Music. The entire series is strongly written and wonderful to read, but this last book contains an intricate mystery and adds depth to Kestrel’s character. It was a fantastic reading experience, though bittersweet, because I knew as I read that this would be the last visit to Julian Kestrel and his world. Kate Ross died in 1998, but the four books she left behind are a wonderful legacy.

Readers familiar with the first three books (Cut to the Quick, A Broken Vessel and Whom the Gods Love) will already know Kestrel as a somewhat mysterious English dandy in the early 19th century,with a penchant for solving mysteries. Kestrel is witty, urbane and at times rather distant as a character. One of the great delights of this series is that readers see Kestrel becoming more human and more real with each volume.

In this installment, Kestrel has left England in search of the solution to an Italian mystery. A powerful marchese was killed at his own villa and the crime hidden for four years. Now that the murder has come to light and it has become known that an English tenor being trained by the marchese is suspected of the crime, Kestrel thinks he may be able to lend some aid to the investigation. As is his habit, the well-traveled Kestrel manages to ingratiate himself with at least part of the marchese’s family and he starts digging.

The mystery itself winds its way through dark secrets, public family embarrassments, the world of music and Italian politics of the 1820s. The author does a wonderful job of setting up her backdrop, making the Italian-Austrian power struggles and other political issues of the day feel real and planting each of her characters firmly in their time and place. As in Ross’ other books, Kestrel seems at home both nowhere and everywhere while the other characters in the book – the marchese’s family, a British gentleman on the Grand Tour with his tutor, a renowned musician, and others all spring to life and interact with one another.

The complexity of the story as well as of the characters’ lives and choices makes for a rich tapestry. While the dysfunctional family dynamic and political tensions running through the story make for sometimes fraught reading, the love various characters have for music also plays an important role and brings a certain richness to the story.

Kestrel himself is in rare form with his ability to notice small details and exchange witty dialogue. However, what sets him apart as a character is his ability to not only understand human nature on a fairly deep level but also to accept and empathize with the emotions of others. By the end of this book, when many of the secrets in Kestrel’s own past get revealed along with those behind the murder in this story, I had to admire the hero Ross had created over the course of the series.  This is the last book of the four and in my opinion, this book and Whom the Gods Love are the very best, but all of them are well worth reading.

Grade: A               Sensuality: Kisses

A/BN/iB/K

– Lynn Spencer