Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

So you’ve decided to commit a murder.


Murder Your Employer is a genre mash-up, and great fun. It purports to be a how-to manual on how to commit a murder (the Conservatory prefers “deletion”) without getting caught – in this case, specifically the deletion of one’s employer, with future volumes promised. (Other popular deletions include work rivals, financial advisors and spouses.) The book’s narrator is Dean Harbinger Harrow – Dean being not a first name but a title, as he serves as Dean of the McMasters Conservatory for the Applied Arts, a top-secret institution that trains would-be deletists to remain successful and forever unknown. It contains narratives within, however: short on actual training-manual-style directives, instead the bulk is made up of examples in the form of the stories of three McMasters students, all majoring in employer deletions.

The central protagonist is Cliff Iverson, who botched his first attempt to murder the toxic, womanizing, belligerent boss at his aircraft manufacturing job. Instead of criminal charges, he faces involuntary admission to McMasters (for very mysterious reasons). We are treated to his journal throughout, as well as the Dean’s notes on the progress of Cliff and two fellow students: Gemma Lindley, who needs to get rid of her blackmailing boss, and a woman known at the school as Dulcie Mown, although everyone finds her dimly familiar (the reader knows why).

So we have a how-to-manual, framing an epistolary novel (journal entries and other documents), in an idyllic boarding school milieu, on the absurdist subject of ‘an education in murder,’ filled with wordplay, puns and humor, with a certain amount of suspense as our three students aim to successfully complete their theses (intended deletions), wrapped up in a mystery (who is responsible for Cliff’s enrollment at McMasters in the first place?). Oh and the setting is historical, in the 1950s, so bookies and bad guys have a certain style and type. It is a mad, beautiful mess of genres, and I found it enormous fun (despite a rather crabby review from Kirkus, who does not think it cute). Yes: it does require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief; I would think that would be obvious, since it’s a slightly unhinged promotion of the murderous arts. (Somewhat in their defense, McMasters does have some moral standards. Make sure your target is deserving and all other options have been exhausted; no innocent bystanders; certainly no serial killings or mass murders; etc.) It’s ridiculous and it knows it (think The Princess Bride).

The pacing is not snappy, but I thought it was nice to linger with each of our characters – Harrow rather silly, Cliff earnest and serious, Gemma haunted, Dulcie driven – and in the slightly cartoonish historical setting. The McMasters world itself is a sort of madcap Opposite Day, and the ‘real’ world features caricatures. Dean Harrow is a bit of a buffoon (and yes, pun-obsessed). It was fun and, I admit, relaxing. The whole conceit is ludicrous enough that it let me let go. I don’t think real life murders are cute, but this book surely is.

Rating: 7 MacArthur-style sunglasses.

Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson

The fifth Stevie Bell novel, and the last to date, although I saw that Johnson is writing more.

Stevie’s back at Ellingham, with most of her friends: Janelle, Vi and Nate are there as well, hard at work on their college applications, while David is away at school in London. Stevie is struggling: she lacks focus except when hyperfocused on a case, and right now there’s no case. “[Hers] was a good brain, but it had only two modes–fog and frenzy.” She’s not functioning well at ‘just’ going to school; she pines for David, and she’s unmotivated. She can’t wrap her head around the college stuff at all. (I begin to think that there’s something diagnosable about Stevie, between her unfocused/hyperfocused poles and her difficulties with social cues, but that’s not my job and she’s fictional. That’s Johnson’s job.) To save the day, a drunken late night call from David sets up a trip for Stevie and her friends to visit London: ostensibly for a little study abroad but mainly, obviously, for the couple.

There’s a cold case – Stevie’s specialty. It involves nine friends who called themselves ‘the Nine’ when they were college students back in the 1990s, and they are obviously counterparts to Stevie and her crew in some respects. There is also Stevie’s evolving relationship with David, her troubles relating to other humans in general, her detective mastermindedness, and everyone’s anxiety about college applications.

I had some frustrations about this novel. I’m disappointed in Stevie, and in David, and frankly, in Johnson as well. [Mild spoilers follow.] In this installment, Stevie makes a big error in her friendship with – well, with all of them, but particularly with Janelle. It is in line and in theme with the title, and the themes of the case she’s working on (which she points out to us herself, in case we’d missed it): the friend group who’ve experienced the murders (two in an old cold case and one present-day missing) are guilty of lying, and so is Stevie. Her crime against Janelle feels so serious to me, and I’m dreading Janelle busting her because I know Stevie’s life is going to change so profoundly when that friendship takes the blow. And then it just fizzles out, like, oh, everything is fine. I feel that Stevie doesn’t suffer consequences appropriate to her misstep. I was dreading the consequence; but when she gets to skip it, I feel that the author has let us down. I feel it was out of character for Janelle to respond the way she did.

And then comes David’s big bonehead move at the end. I guess it’s not entirely out of character, nor out of character for dumb teenagers. But I feel the let-down pretty hard. This one is less about inconsistency, at least, and more about my frustration with the character himself. My bigger gripe here (especially after it’s been a few days) is about the cliffhanger she’s left us on! (I think it was book two that also ended on a big one. But I was already holding book three! And book six doesn’t even exist yet!)

If anything, my frustrations are because I feel so much love for this series, so all is not lost yet. But I am now anxious for the next book in more ways than one.

Rating: 6 and a half slices of doner kebab.

Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary

In this bittersweet coming-of-age story, scrappy childhood friends from Dublin’s outskirts grow tenuously into young adults with only one another for support.

Juno Loves Legs is a sensitive, scarred coming-of-age story by Karl Geary (Montpelier Parade) set in a troubled housing estate and nearby Dublin in the 1980s. Amid poverty, a harsh and judgmental Catholicism, family dysfunction and personal torment, preteens Juno and Seán form an unlikely but sturdy friendship that will carry them through trauma and violence and–if they’re lucky–into a wider, freer life.

Juno’s harried mother takes in sewing alterations for the neighbors, who look down on her family’s poverty and cheat her out of her meager pay. Her father drinks his days away. “Mam shouted up at him; he shouted down at her. They were two mouths and I was their ear.” Her older sister is absent following her own particularly awful childhood. Catholic school is a trial for a girl as headstrong and underprivileged as Juno. “We were beaten. A sour-smelling odour emerged from Father before he was done. And even Sister’s hands were crimson.” Then she meets Seán, who is shockingly clean but whose home life is equally, if differently, disturbed. For his awkward height she dubs him Legs, and they form an alliance, until an extraordinary act of violence tears everything apart. Years later in Dublin, with new troubles, the young adult versions of these childhood friends attempt a beautiful, possibly doomed, second start.

Juno’s first-person voice is angry, indignant, righteous, both jaded and pitifully innocent: at 12 she sets out to save the family by calling in the small debts owed her mother by their neighbors, but in her temper botches the job. She blusters to hide her vulnerability, where Legs leaves his tender side open and allows the blows to land. Not only the world at large–strangers, predatory adults, a grimly punishing Catholic church, the big city–but their own families are hopelessly cruel to these misfit children: Juno for her poverty, Legs for his sexuality. (A kind librarian provides an appealing single point of light.) They are stronger together, and their bond is artless, crude and true. This is in part a story about the families we build for ourselves: an ode to friendship in which the friends may still not survive. Geary’s young protagonists will face shocking pains before the ending, which glimmers with a touch of hope.

Juno Loves Legs is tender and heartbreaking. Young friendship takes on all the world’s challenges–love, art, family, the simple and overwhelming task of survival–with tragic, poignant results. Readers will find Juno’s bravado and Legs’s persistent sweetness unforgettable.

This review originally ran in the March 23, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 small debts.

Maureen by Rachel Joyce

Following The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014), the recently released Maureen completes a trilogy of novels about pain, loss, forgiveness, self-discovery, and kindness. [This review contains spoilers for the previous two books.] I love, among other things, that these books explore self-knowledge later in life, that it’s not just the young people who grow and find themselves.

This is a slim novel, just beyond novella length. The events of Pilgrimage and Love Song are past – that is, Queenie’s illness and death, and Harold’s surprising (to everyone including himself) walk across England to visit her at the end of her life. Harold and his wife Maureen are living quietly again. He found some peace on his walk, but Maureen not so much. The absence of their son David, whose suicide at age 20 is now fully thirty years past, is still a daily haunting for her. (We don’t get access to Harold’s interior here; this story is told in close third person in Maureen’s perspective. In her eyes, however, he lives a simple, happy life, playing drafts with neighbor Rex and birdwatching.) It has come to Maureen’s attention, via a postcard from Kate (Harold’s friend from his walk), that Queenie had a garden, that her garden was famous, and that she had a monument to David in it. This information has bothered Maureen enough that Harold has finally told her to just go on and make the trip. Maureen opens with her hitting the road – she will drive, not walk, thank you – while fretting about Harold’s ability to use the dishwasher or find a mug.

This is therefore Maureen’s own version of Harold’s big journey. Hers is shorter but in some ways she’s less well-equipped, being a less intrinsically nice person. Not to say she’s entirely unlikeable; our access to her interior means we can appreciate how difficult all of this is for her, and her own painful knowledge that she’s doing the wrong thing (the not-nice thing, frequently) even as she’s doing it. She’s a prickly person, but she feels a lot of pain, and knowing this goes a long way.

I won’t give away too much about Maureen’s travels. It’s a hard time. She’s not great at asking for help, and she does run into some difficulties. (Rex, offscreen, remains deeply loveable. Is there a Rex book??!) But she makes efforts, and they are terribly rewarding for her readers and rather for her, too. In the end, I think we see that she gains from the experience.

The Harold trilogy (if you will) are quiet, British stories, about older people suffering life’s small and large injustices, troubles and traumas. Even Maureen, easily the most challenging of the three, tugs hard at my feelings. These are very feeling books.

Rating: 8 sandwiches.

The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson

The Stevie Bell series continues, but we’ve left Ellingham behind, Stevie having solved the Truly Devious murders (although the world only knows a bit of that story). At this novel’s start, she’s puttering around at home with her parents, selling deli meats and cheeses at the grocery store and cleaning up the salad bar by night. Then she gets an invitation to really go to work: as far as her parents know, she’ll be a counselor at Camp Sunny Pines, but she’s really there to investigate the Box in the Woods murders of 1978, from back when this was Camp Wonder Falls. The tech-bro who’s hired her says he’ll employ her friends, too, which means Nate and Janelle, because David is enjoying his voter registration work in a different (and I’m pretty sure unnamed) part of the country. Stevie’s a bit disappointed, but she respects his mission.

Camp Sunny Pines is an amusing setting. Massachusetts is warm and muggy in the summertime, and Stevie is more cerebral than outdoorsy. She buys into the idea of rugged go-everywhere detectiveship in theory, but she quickly runs out of signature black t-shirts because she has to change them so often – these are sweaty environs, and she’s also doing far more running and biking than she’d like. It’s kind of fun to see her challenged in these ways. Her tech-bro boss does not have a good bedside manner for engaging with the community; Stevie is better at this, but less adept with her personal relationships, and one in particular: David (now her actual boyfriend) finds a reason to come out after all, but Stevie’s responsibilities and preoccupation with the case mean she doesn’t engage all that well with him. He does some driving her around, and tries to have an important conversation, but she’s too checked out. In contrast to what I said about the last few books, I felt sorry for David, who tries to be a good boyfriend and friend, while Stevie’s a bit awkward and inattentive.

I remain baffled by her friendships: Janelle, the purported best friend, is totally rad but much less a day-to-day ride-or-die joined-at-the-hip BFF than Nate, who I feel doesn’t get enough credit.

One of the things that made Nate and Stevie such good friends was their mutual hatred of sharing emotional things. Somehow, they managed to have a deeper bond by staying on the surface–as if they were snorkeling their feelings, floating along side by side, observing all of nature’s wonders without getting close enough to be stung by something under a rock.

That Janelle gets the best friend label is a feature of Johnson’s writing that just confuses me.

But I still love Stevie herself, even in her bumbling. There was, again, a passage that I hold onto as emblematic of her loveable personality. She’s preparing to meet David, and considers fixing herself up a bit, and then just kind of gives up – I love this facet of her, that she’s aware she’s not quite meeting an external social measure of so-called beauty but can’t bring herself to entirely care. (And David doesn’t. It’s fine.) I relate to this entirely.

The mystery is compelling, and I appreciate the final scene, even if the solution is a bit awkward too… I’m really here for Stevie’s clever mind, her interactions with other humans (for better and for worse), and her dear strangeness. I enjoy Johnson’s use of the classic feature wherein the detective just talks it out with her friends and acquaintances, and lets her mind drop things into place. I’m definitely excited about book five.

Rating: 7 crafts.

Old Flame by Molly Prentiss

A young modern woman explores and redefines her roles as advertising copywriter, creative writer, friend, daughter, lover, partner and mother in this exquisitely detailed rendering.

Following Tuesday Nights in 1980, Molly Prentiss presents another ambitious and brilliant novel. Old Flame stars a young woman seeking connection in busy New York City and picturesque Bologna, while wrestling with its many permutations.

Emily is performing a life. She’s about 30 years old, has graduated from bartending to a “real job” writing advertising copy for an iconic department store. She has a boyfriend and “a shitty but workable basement apartment in Williamsburg that, because of my real-job salary, I did not have to share.” She steals time at work to read poems and even do a little writing, but her lofty artistic goals aren’t coming together in the gaps between witty headlines about bras and descriptions of leather satchels. She perpetually feels the absence of her mother, who died in childbirth, and the shortcomings of her rigid, distant adoptive mother.

As the novel opens, Emily’s creative department is finalizing the Women’s Book, a biannual catalogue, and Emily is moving from just-work-friends to real-friends status with Megan, a graphic designer. Megan sends Emily a drawing, Emily responds with a short story, and the two are off and running on a truly creative project: The Other Women’s Book, Emily proposes, and Megan responds: YES. In quick succession, a troubled affair, a layoff and a wedding invitation both cement the women’s friendship and upend their circumstances. More or less spontaneously they travel together to Italy, where Emily spent an important year abroad when she was about 20. And in Italy, an unplanned pregnancy and a devastating fight with Megan shatter Emily’s tenuously structured life.

Old Flame considers the particular challenges of being a young artist in New York, balancing the kind of work that pays (“the magnet was capitalism, but I couldn’t see that then”) with the kind that inspires. It considers feminism and appearances, how people see themselves versus how others see them: in literal terms, Emily’s boyfriend is a photographer, and she questions the pictures he takes of her and the ones he displays in his studio; figuratively, of course, the possibilities multiply. Prentiss is a master of detailed descriptions, character studies, highly specific lists and meaningful settings. New York is hectic, fast-changing and inspirational; Bologna is romantic and somehow simultaneously disorienting and comforting. Emily’s deepest struggle is in navigating personal relationships: as a romantic partner, a daughter, a friend, a mother. By novel’s end, she will have learned a little about what these roles mean.

With Old Flame, Prentiss offers a sensitive story, gorgeously detailed and painfully realistic, about the lives and ordeals of women and artists, and what it means to seek and shape connection in the modern world. Filled with both snark and wisdom, this novel is a gift of love and forgiveness.

This review originally ran in the March 17, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 pajama shirts.

The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson

On a day that I claimed to be overwhelmed with the student papers I had to grade, I also managed to wake up and immediately begin this book… and then stay up til midnight finishing its nearly 400 pages in the same day. I loved Truly Devious and was even more entranced by The Vanishing Stair, which annoyed me with a cliffhanger the night before and sent me directly into this one, book three. My main goal today is not to read a whole book by accident when I’m supposed to be working.

The Hand on the Wall is book three of three in the Truly Devious series – but the Stevie Bell series continues for two more books, a bit confusingly. The Truly Devious murders themselves (aka the crime of the century, the murder/kidnapping at Ellingham Academy in the 1930s) are wrapped up in this book, but newly minted detective hero Stevie apparently continues on. (I haven’t read book four yet! I’m staying strong.) This installment sees the advancing of Stevie’s investigations and her modest decline in terms of personal hygiene and nutrition; the beginning of real fears for her personal safety and/or that Ellingham may indeed be cursed; the continuing friendship and alliance with Security Larry (this is a relationship I have really enjoyed in two books now); and the bumpy evolution of Stevie’s match with the troubled David. I said in my last review that getting to know him a bit better would yield more sympathies, and we do get that here. I still find him a bit obnoxious and don’t appreciate his treatment of Stevie, but they’re making progress.

Stevie grows in her relationships with others. A bit weirdly, the amazing Janelle continues to be identified as Stevie’s best friend, but our hero actually spends more time talking with and confides more in Nate, a hilariously Eeyore-like blocked writer. Janelle is a great friend, but involved in her own love match (that’s going more smoothly than Stevie’s), and it’s actually Nate who ends up fulfilling a day-to-day best-friends role. We have a new friend as well, Mudge, who is loveable if a bit of a cariaciture: he’s here to exhibit exactly how drolly eccentric Ellingham students can be.

Mudge was Stevie Bell’s lab partner–a six-foot-something death-metalhead who wore purple-colored contacts with snake pupils and a black hoodie weighed down with fifty Disney pins, including some very rare ones that he would show off and explain to Stevie as they dissected cows’ eyes and other terrible things for the purposes of education. Mudge loved Disney more than anyone Stevie had ever met and had dreams of being an animatronic Imagineer. Ellingham Academy was the kind of place where Mudges were welcomed and understood.

Security Larry, mentioned above, is a former police detective and becomes a mentor to Stevie in her own work, both cautioning and trying to enforce the rules upon her and gradually, increasingly, viewing her as a peer. He’s great. Several other faculty members develop as well. I very much related to poor Dr. Quinn trying to convince her students to do the readings before class.

I love Stevie more and more. She “would rather eat bees than share her tender inner being with anyone else–she didn’t even want to share it with herself.” She undergoes an actual epiphany (pages 108-109) when she realizes that her weird, awkward self is just a perfectly fine version of a human, and that her own unique combination of qualities is precisely what’s gotten her where she is in life; this is a passage I would like to share with everyone I know, but especially young people and especially girls just making their way and finding themselves. I would follow this protagonist anywhere.

As befits the final book in a trilogy, this one ends on a note of triumph, closure, and hope – perhaps a bit neatly tied up, in fact, but I know there’s another Stevie Bell book to follow. Again, for the sake of my sleep I’m taking a day or two off, but expect more any time now. Maureen Johnson is my new favorite. Thanks again, Liz.

Rating: 9 moose.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

Book two of the Truly Devious series flew by. I stayed up late to finish this one and it ended on a serious cliffhanger, so look for my review of book three to follow this one immediately.

At the close of Truly Devious (for which there are mild-to-moderate spoilers here), The Vanishing Stair opens with Stevie glumly returned home to her parents’ house and her public high school. The gamechanger comes quickly in the form of the despicable Senator Edward King, her parents’ hero and employer and (surprise) the father of her love interest from Ellingham Academy. King has arranged everything for Stevie to return to Ellingham – funding the trip, heightening security following a student’s mysterious death, and convincing her parents of her safety. He wants Stevie, in return, to keep an eye on his wayward son David, with whom Stevie’s not on particularly good terms anyway. She’s thrilled to be back at the school where she feels stimulated: with her friends Nate and Janelle again, working on her life’s greatest passion, the solving of the 1930s Ellingham murders, and yea, David. Quickly a second body is added to the modern Ellingham count. Stevie gains a new advisor, an eccentric academic from the local (Burlington, Vermont) university with a drinking problem and a very nice nephew. David’s moods and attitude toward Stevie continue to swing wildly, hot to cold to nuclear.

The best thing about these books is Stevie herself. She’s socially awkward but mostly doesn’t care; she’s occasionally bothered by her inability to fit in back in the ‘normal’ world (of which Ellingham is not part), but only when she remembers. Despite sometimes showing signs of a standard teenager’s low self-esteem, she generally carries on as herself, unbothered. I like her. She’s an extremely focused detective – perhaps to the point of mild self-neglect, but that’s part of a long tradition of detective types in fiction (a fact she’s aware of). Johnson’s prose is downright funny: after camping out overnight in the school’s yoga studio, Stevie “felt a waffle pattern of yoga blanket on the right side of her face and the faint smell of lavender and patchouli permeating her being. It was like she had been run over by a boulder made of hippies.” Our young hero can be a little bumbling and dense – just like a teenager, no matter how smart. I have a little less patience for David’s antics, perhaps in part because he’s a rich boy? but mostly, I think, because we don’t have the close third person window into his interior self that we have into Stevie’s. He’s a suffering kid, too, and I think if we got inside his head it would be just as sympathetic as hers.

The mystery plot remains compelling: this book focuses in on the riddle that Albert Ellingham left behind on his final day, which the title of this book nods to. We’re learning things, about the historic murders as well as the modern suspicious deaths, but not the big final thing we want to know. Again: this one ends on a mad cliffhanger; I was actually a little peeved, and even more relieved that I already had book three ready and waiting. I recommend you do the same.

Liz was (as ever) 100% correct about this one. I’m pretty sure she said she ripped through the whole series, as I am clearly going to do as well.

These books are recognizably YA in a few ways: teenaged protagonists, a gentle handling of gore, violence, and sexual content, and humor. But the plotting is not too simplified for adult readers to enjoy, and a strong female lead who is still in her teens appeals to this reader at any age. I’m a fan.

Rating: 8 cats.

The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts by Soraya Palmer

A fracturing family in Brooklyn with roots in Jamaica and Trinidad navigates love and loss in this debut novel influenced by Caribbean folktales and the power of stories.

The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts is Soraya Palmer’s first novel, a phantasmagoric interweaving of family and folktale. Readers first meet two sisters, Sasha and Zora, when they are young girls in Brooklyn’s Flatbush, dealing with the household complexities of their father Nigel’s violence and infidelity and their mother Beatrice’s headaches and distance. Soon this timeline meanders to visit Nigel and Beatrice as children in Jamaica and Trinidad, respectively, and then as a young couple. These individual and family histories blend with folktales of Anansi (spider, god, man, woman, trickster storyteller), demons and exorcisms. The Rolling Calf haunts butchers, and Mama Dglo is the protector and mother of the ocean and “all things water,” among other mythical tales. The narrator of these time-jumping tales, with the repeating refrain “Let me tell you a story,” is mysterious, driven by motivations not always clear nor necessarily reliable–but always concerned with the power of storytelling itself: “You see I am what they call Your Faithful Narrator, found in places the West calls fairy tales, what men call gossip, what children call magic.” Small actions can be revolutionary: “They realize there is nothing more dangerous than a story with an owner that no one can touch.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, Sasha discovers chest binding as she navigates gender and sexuality. Zora studies her book of Anansi stories and hones her craft (that of her namesake) in her diary. As much as the sisters love each other, their respective self-explorations push them apart. In different ways, Nigel and Beatrice separate but remain intertwined. Caribbean and West African folktales continue to influence each of these threads until they come together again in Trinidad with a 106-year-old grandmother, several reunions, an ending and a new beginning. None of these characters is entirely innocent or faultless, but they are finely drawn with compassion and compelling, colorful pasts. Love and family contain both beauty and pain in this telling.

Palmer imbues her novel with both snappy pacing and deep feeling in a lovely prose voice with music and poetry behind it. The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter has big things to say about sisterhood and family; race, sexuality and class; life and death; and above all, the power of storytelling. “Why do we remember some stories more than others? And what happens to the ones that we forget? Let me tell you a story.” The result is wide-ranging and thought-provoking–but also an immersive and sumptuous read. Palmer shines.

This review originally ran in the March 3, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 Apple J’s.

The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

It’s getting hard to keep track of (let alone rank) the Jemisin novels I’ve read, but this feels like one of the best. I was absorbed by The Killing Moon (book one in this duology), but this feels better still. We’ve returned to the same world, where Hananja is the most revered Goddess in Gujaareh. We’ve kept the systems – for example, Hananja’s worshippers following the four Paths to become Sharers, Teachers, Sentinels and Gatherers; but now, ten years after the action of book one, Kisua rules Gujaareh as an occupying force. Sunandi, who we know from book one, returns as Kisuati governess of Gujaareh; despite her role as occupier, she retains a certain sympathy and understanding for those she rules over, and an uneasy near-friendhip with the Gatherer Nijiri (also returning from the earlier book). Our protagonist is new: Hanani is a Sharer-Apprentice, the first woman to serve on any of the four Paths (the Sisters are an unofficial fifth route of service, but not as respected or formalized in the same way on the Council). Hanani experiences the prejudices and underestimation you would expect as the first woman in her world, but she soldiers on, so to speak.

Both within the city of Gujaareh and outside of it, revolution is brewing. The occupiers’ forces have begun to step out of line, the locals have begun to chafe, uppercaste nobility are angling for advantages, and a would-be prince of the Sunset Lineage has surfaced, living with the nomadic and so-called barbarian Banbarra tribes of the desert. Meanwhile, a nightmare plague (literally – it is spread, and kills, in dreams) is racing through the city, even infiltrating the Hetawa (Hananja’s church). In an unlikely turn, Sharer-Apprentice Hanani is given an opportunity to prove herself through a most difficult trial, which lands her in the desert, in a canyon full of Banbarra tents, and in the company of Wanahomen, heir of the Sunset Lineage.

Wana is a prickly one, and despite the lingering traces of Hananja’s Law and Wisdom in his memory and his heart, he has been with the Banbarra long enough to be quite a cultural leap away from Hanani’s devout obedience to her faith. (Hint: the “barbarians” are in some ways the more enlightened.) The two are bound together by a common goal to save Gujaareh, and soon by shared traumas and a bit of something like chemistry to boot. They will struggle sometimes against each other but often together, both learning about themselves and from the other. They grow into stronger versions of themselves in hopes of saving their shared homeland.

Wana is an interesting and eventually sympathetic (although never perfect) character, but Hanani is the star, followed by other women she meets along the way, including Wana’s mother and his former lover, a really fun one who helps outfit Hanani with Banbarra clothing, ornamentation, wealth and customs. Hanani fears that as the first and only woman in her line of work, any mistake she makes will reflect on her entire gender (isn’t that familiar), but eventually learns that this also means she gets to chart a course no one’s ever known. I love what she does with that.

Reading these two books in proper sequence is a must, and familiarity with the world of the first absolutely enriches the second. This was one of the deepest, richest pieces of fantasy reading I’ve done lately. Only wish there were more.

Rating: 8 polished rubies.
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