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So, Chris Kluwe wrote a novel. And you know something? It was pretty damn good.

I picked up an eARC of Otaku a while back, courtesy of the fine folks at NetGalley, and I was very impressed by Kluwe’s fiction debut. While it wasn’t the first time he’d published a book, Otaku was a bold step in a new creative direction.

In a world ravaged by the Water Wars (or the Dubs), only one thing keeps the general public entertained: Infinite Game. Infinite Game is the ultimate virtual reality experience, fully immersive, played in a full-body haptic feedback suit. Players strive for physical fitness because real world skills transfer one-to-one into gameplay. And in the world of Infinite Game, one guild stands above the rest: the Sunjewel Warriors. Their leader, Ashura the Terrible, is one of the top-ranked players in the world, and people in-game and out are willing to do whatever they can to stop her. Threats of death and sexual violence follow her everywhere.

Ashura, aka Ashley or Ash, lives in Ditchtown, a series of massive towers that soar above the raging waters where Miami used to be. Her dad hasn’t been in the picture for years, and her mom was never the same after her time fighting in the Dubs. Most of Ash’s income goes to paying for her mother’s treatment. Then there’s Kiro, Ash’s younger brother. A newbie in Infinite Game, Kiro is struggling to find his own place, outside of his sister’s long shadow. She’s doing well enough in Infinite Game, with her streams bringing in viewers (and revenue) like never before, but things are still hard. So, to supplement her game income, Ash occasionally engages in real-world operations. Working through some members of her mom’s old unit, she puts her Infinite Game skills to the test, flying drones, conducting recon missions, and so on. No one needs to know.

Things take a drastic turn when one of Ash’s guildmates, Brand, vanishes, only to reappear on the opposing side of one of Ash’s less-than-public missions. Sent to infiltrate a supply shipment, Ash finds haptic suit components that override the gamer’s own control, leading them out into the real world while still believing themselves to be immersed in Infinite Game. Soon, people are dying, and Ash and the rest of the Sunjewel Warriors are “recruited” to find out who is trying to turn gamers into their own private army.

Reminiscent of Ready Player One and Snow CrashOtaku is a great debut novel, full of clever technology, intense action, and badass women setting out to save the world. While Kluwe’s prose is not as strong as it has the potential to be, he’s off to a good start. His own experiences in online gaming (in World of Warcraft, League of Legends, etc.) and social media definitely shine through. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with the eARC in exchange for a fair review.

“In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

Or, that was the plan.

Eight houses have sent their necromancers to the First House, that they might undergo special training to better serve the Emperor. For the first time in ten thousand years, he is summoning the heads of the lower houses to prove that they are worthy to become his new lyctors. They are summoned, and so they arrive.

From the Second House, Judith Deuteros and her cavalier, Marta Dyas. They’re professionals, elite military leaders, with a necromantic focus in draining and redirecting energy from one living being to another.

From the Third, Coronabeth & Ianthe Tridentarius and their cavalier, Naberius Tern. The Tridentarius twins are the Crown Princess and the Princess of their house, respectively, and are the trendsetters of the system. They specialize in drawing energy from the dead.

From the Fourth, Isaac Tettares and his cavalier, Jeannemary Chatur. The Fourth House serves on the front lines of the Emperor’s wars, and Tettares focuses on an aspect of necromancy that allows him to turn the dead into high-yield explosives through fission.

From the Fifth, Abigail Pent and her cavalier and husband, Magnus Quinn. A house of tradition, frequently looked to by other houses for their stability (as demonstrated by a husband and wife serving as cavalier/heir). The Fifth speak to the dead, and hear their voices.

From the Sixth, Palamades Sextus and his cavalier, Camilla Hect. The House of Librarians, the Sixth are the record keepers and historians. In keeping with their theme, their specialty is psychometry, reading the energy left behind by the living and the dead alike.

From the Seventh, Dulcinea Septimus and her cavalier, Protesilaus Ebdoma. The The Seventh specializes in preservation of both body and soul after death.

From the Eighth, Silas Octakiseron and his cavalier and uncle, Colum Asht. The Eighth serves as the Emperor’s judge and jury, their fervor knowing no bounds. Octakiseron practices a form of necromancy which siphons his cavalier’s soul from his body, using him as a conduit to power his magics.

And from the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Necromantic specialty: skeleton constructs. Harrow is a genius of her art, capable of generating full skeleton constructs from a single fragment of human bone, unmatched in her field by any necromancer in generations. She does bones. Also, Gideon Nav. Not really a cavalier, but faking it pretty well so far.

Harrow is a genius of her art, capable of generating full skeleton constructs from a single fragment of human bone, unmatched in her field by any necromancer in generations. Gideon is one of the greatest fighters alive, albeit far more comfortable with her two-handed longsword than with the lightweight rapier favored by the official cavaliers. However, if she’s going to maintain the facade that she is the official cavalier of the Ninth House, she has to adjust and adapt. After all, Harrow has promised Gideon full freedom and enrollment in the Cohort to serve the Emperor on the battlefields ishe helps Harrow become a Lyctor.

The First House is devoid of almost all life when the necromancers and their cavaliers arrive, save for Teacher and his two cohorts. All services are provided by a staff of skeletal constructs, and the new guests quickly find that they have no way to leave, save for solving the mysteries of the House itself. Teacher provides them each with a single rule. “We ask,” began Teacher, “that you never open a locked door unless you have permission.”

Harrow swears Gideon to silence as they begin their exploration of the First House, seeking to unlock the secrets of Lyctorhood that lie within. Not all of the House’s secrets, however, are benevolent, however, and the other necromancers and cavaliers are eagerly searching for answers as well. Some may be willing to do whatever it takes to triumph over the challenge and win the Emperor’s favor.

In short, y’all, I fucking loved this book. Easily in the top 3 novels I read in 2019. I cannot wait until Harrow the Ninth comes out this summer. I’ve already pre-ordered it. Do yourself a favor and give it a read. My only regret is that it took me so long to finish writing the review I felt it deserved.

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series has been one of my favorites for a couple of years now, and I leaped at a recent opportunity to check out Come Tumbling Down, the 5th novella. Warning: Some spoilers for earlier books in the series follow.

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Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a school for children who have ventured to other worlds and come back again. The school has three rules. No solicitation. No visitors. No quests.

Rule #3 gets broken a lot.

Some time ago, Jack Wolcott killed her twin sister, Jill, in order to protect the other students at Eleanor’s school. With Jill in her arms, Jack returned through their door to the Moors, where Jack intended to resurrect Jill and maintain the balance of power there. At the outset of Come Tumbling Down, Christopher (a fellow student, and a bit of a musical necromancer), has moved into Jack’s old room in the basement, and is suddenly interrupted by a lightning storm that generates a door from the Moors. Through the door steps Alexis, Jack’s beloved, bearing a Wolcott twin in her arms. Which Wolcott twin is slightly more complicated, and where our quest begins.

With the aid of Cora (a mermaid doomed to life ashore unless her own door returns for her), Christopher quickly rallies Kade (the Goblin Prince in waiting) and Sumi (the future savior of the world of Confection) to travel to the Moors. There, they plan to defeat Jill and her vampire Master, save Jack, and restore the now-disrupted balance of the world. That is, of course, if they all survive the many other monsters that dwell there.

Seanan McGuire continues to weave an incredible tale across the many worlds of the Wayward Children series. Come Tumbling Down is no exception to the brilliance. This latest novella is just as tightly paced, filled with a diverse cast and McGuire’s signature snarky humor. I loved this book just as much as I’ve loved the rest of the series to date, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

“New things are the best kind of magic there is.”

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor.com for an e-arc of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Steel Crow Saga is brilliant, y’all. I had the phenomenal happenstance of meeting Paul Krueger in person back at Denver Pop Culture Con, and knew almost instantly that I was going to love his newest book. I thought that Seven Blades in Black was going to be the most anime-esque fantasy novel that I read in 2019, and I was happily wrong. Steel Crow Saga hits on a lot of classic anime tropes while still managing to be wholly original.

Jimuro is the Iron Prince, heir to the throne of Tomoda. He’s a steelpacter, like many of his fellow Tomodanese. By bonding his soul with metal, he can sharpen/harden/heat the blade of a sword he wields, and fire bullets with unerring accuracy. He is, however, a peaceful man at heart, and longs to return from his exile in Sanbuna, even if it means serving as a puppet king in his late father’s place.

Tala is a Sanbuna soldier, a sergeant assigned to ensure Jimuro’s safe return to the capital of Tomoda. Through the Sanbuna tradition of shadepacting, she has an animal soul bonded to her own. Her companion, Beaky, can be summoned to fight alongside her, or to provide aerial reconnaissance. Tala harbors a deep grudge against Tomoda for the deaths of her parents and her brother, Dimangan.

Xiulan, like Jimuro, is royalty. As the 28th princess of Shang, however, she is nowhere near the top of the line of succession. With her own shade, a white rat named Kou, she operates as a detective of the Li-Quan. She hopes to find Iron Prince Jimuro and deliver him to her father, the Emperor of Shang, in order to raise her own standing.

Lee Yeon-Ji is a thief from the streets of Jeongson. Her chief rule of looking out for herself has gotten her through until now, but she’s on the verge of being executed before Xiulan arrives. The princess needs her help to track Jimuro. At the promise of a shade of her own, something no other Jeongsonese has ever had, she leaps to the detective’s aid.

En route to Tomoda, Sergeant Tala is forced to take drastic action to ensure Jimuro’s survival when a splintersoul attacks her. This man has done what was believed to be impossible, and bonded to more than one shade. Now a walking army unto himself, he seems set upon destroying Jimuro’s guard, and Tala and her team are quickly overwhelmed. Soon, she and Jimuro are left to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, Xiulan and Lee are attempting to intercept Jimuro so that they can turn him over to Shang.

This book was an utter joy to read. Brilliant action sequences, a Pokémon-esque summoning system, and heartbreakingly beautiful characters make Steel Crow Saga an absolute treasure. I can’t wait to see what Paul writes next, even if he never returns to the blend of Asian cultures that is this world. Check it out.

Sal the Cacophony has a list of seven names, and a very large gun.

The self-professed “manhunter” (because it sounds more dramatic than “bounty hunter”) brings ruin wherever she goes, and she is hellbent on her revenge.

See, for generations, the Imperium sought to rule the world through magic, and for the most part, they succeeded. The nuls, who lack the Lady Merchant’s gift of magic, began the Revolution, uncovering and crafting mighty weapons to secure their freedom from Imperial forces. Residents of the Scar were frequently caught in the middle.

Then the Empress gave birth to a nul, and declared that her child would still become the next Emperor, despite objections that a mage must lead the Imperium. A conspiracy was hatched. A group of powerful mages led by Vraki the Gate launched a secret plot, hoping so install a magic-wielder to the throne instead. The members of the Crown Conspiracy, as it came to be known, failed in their initial attempt and scattered across the Scar, becoming Vagrants. Despite this setback, it was inevitable that Vraki and his followers would eventually regroup and begin their plan anew. These wandering mages soon became aware that someone, or something, was hunting them down: Sal the Cacophony.

Sal is a wreck of a human being. She bears countless scars, both physical and emotional. She drinks and swears excessively. She’s willing to sink to almost any depth in order to cross every last name off of her list. She may very well be my favorite fantasy protagonist of all time. She is the only one capable of wielding the Cacophony, the fearsome gun from which she takes her name. With the assistance of Liette (Sal’s lover, and the brilliant spellwright who crafts the enchanted shells used by the Cacophony), Congeniality (her carnivorous, Chocobo-inspired mount), and a kidnapped Revolutionary soldier named Cavric, Sal just might be able to track down the members of the Crown Conspiracy before Vraki the Gate can complete his newest plan. They may even save a few lives along the way. Or at least keep the collateral damage to a minimum.

Seven Blades in Black is an absolute blast of  a book. The creativity and care that Sam Sykes has put into his worldbuilding this time around is undeniable, not that his previous work had been lacking. This book gave me all of the best Trigun feels, y’all. It’s high-action fantasy with a gunslinger as a protagonist. Sykes combines gunfire with one of the most clever magic systems I’ve ever seen. Mages make a Barter for their powers. In a very Fullmetal-Alchemist-equivalent-exchange manner by way of The Monkey’s Paw, they must pay a cost. Maskmages, for example, gain the ability to shapeshift, but the more they do so, the more their own physical features will fade away. Skymages can control winds, soaring above a battle, but will slowly lose the power to draw breath, and eventually suffocate. The world itself is just as scarred as Sal, as it turns out that putting these spellcasters into combat situations tends to screw up, well, everything. Cities crumble, burn, or freeze at the whims of the Imperium. Then there’s the Revolution, whose massive suits of powered armor wield Gatling-style cannons that pulverize anything they aim at. They counter Vagrants and Imperium mages alike with gunpikes, tanks, and Relics, pieces of ancient technology that may or may not be alive.

Sykes skillfully blends military might and magic, thieves and merchants, cultists, and eldritch abominations ripped from their homes and deposited into Sal’s world. The journey is a long one, but well worth it, and I can’t wait for the second book in this series.

Eres va atali.” 

“I used to fly.”

Hey y’all. It’s been a while since my last book review, so I’m going to talk to you for a minute about Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead. Minor spoilers for Scythe will likely occur throughout, given that this is book #2 in trilogy.

Thunderhead is set in a future world of plenty, where death and poverty and illness and war have been eliminated by the Thunderhead, an artificial intelligence developed from what we currently call “the cloud.” Every human has nanites in their blood that reduce pain from any injury, and slowly repair any damage. And if by some unfortunate accident, you happen to die, a drone will recover your body and take you to the nearest facility where you can be revived (your first one’s free!).

However, in order to curb overpopulation, the Thunderhead allows for the Scythes. Scythes are an order of highly skilled assassins (of sorts) who exist to keep humanity’s numbers in check. They maintain a quota of gleanings, permanent deaths for a chosen few to remind people of the mortality that the entire race once faced. Anyone who is gleaned by a Scythe earns immunity for their family for a year.

Book one in the series, Scythe, follows Rowan and Citra, two young teens who are chosen as apprentices to Scythe Faraday, who intends for one of them to become his successor. Their training leads to the widening of schisms within the Scythedom, and soon they find themselves pitted against each other over the right and wrong ways to go about their duties of gleaning.

Thunderhead picks up several months after the events of Scythe, with Citra now serving as Scythe Anastasia, and Rowan operating in the shadows, gleaning other Scythes who he deems to be immoral and corrupt. Dubbed Scythe Lucifer, he lives a life on the run while Anastasia is honored for her rather benevolent take on gleaning (giving her victims a month’s warning, and allowing them to choose the means by which they will die).

This book introduces more perspectives from the Thunderhead itself, giving the reader powerful insight into the all-powerful AI’s thoughts and concerns. We also meet Greyson Tolliver, a young man who has devoted his entire life to serving the Thunderhead, and has his loyalty tested to the extreme. While this can feel like it’s drawing attention away from Rowan and Citra, it contributes to the worldbuilding. And while Scythe had a phenomenal dystopian feeling, there were many questions left unanswered that are picked up in these chapters and monologues.

Now Anastasia and her current mentor, Scythe Curie, have been targeted by a mysterious attacker who seems intent on ending them both permanently, while Rowan grapples with the consequences of his actions as Scythe Lucifer. The Thunderhead muses on the Separation of Scythe and State, lamenting its decision to refrain from interfering with the actions taken by members of the Scythedom, finding clever ways to work around the various safeguards that it has installed in society (and maybe finding out more than it was ever meant to know).

All in all, Thunderhead is a powerful followup to Scythe, a worthy companion and, to my simultaneous joy and rage, the second book in a trilogy. Book three is due in 2019, and I can’t wait to see how this all wraps up.

This has been a hectic year for me, as evidenced by my rather sporadic posting schedule. Despite this, I’ve been attempting to take in as much literature as is humanly possible. That means that I’ve been tackling a lot of novellas. Tor has been publishing loads of new novellas over the last few months, and I’ve loved every one that I’ve read this year.

Among my favorites:

The Builders by Daniel Polansky
Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

The Builders is a revenge story at heart, about a group of friends attempting to overthrow a corrupt leader and identify the member of their group who betrayed them the last time they tried. It’s gritty, violent, and dark, and it’s fabulous to watch the team come back together. Why? Because they’re all animals. That’s right. The Builders is essentially Redwall crossed with your favorite grim western film.

Mapping the Interior starts humbly, introducing the reader to a young Native American boy whose mother, following the suspicious death of their father, has moved him and his younger brother into an off-reservation trailer house. Junior sleepwalks, and one night he sees someone while in the middle of his wandering. His father. It’s a haunting story in the truest sense, and the voice is one that’s sorely missing in much of contemporary literature.

River of Teeth hooked me on premise alone. A debut piece from Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth is an alternate history of the Deep South, a what-if tale in which hippos were imported to the bayous of Louisiana to be bred for meat in areas that were too swampy for cattle. Much like The Builders, this one is a tale of revenge featuring a motley crew of adventurers, trading the galloping stallion of the more traditional western for the lumbering but ferocious hippopotamus as a mount. This one has a sequel, Taste of Marrow, that picks up immediately where the first leaves off, and I can’t wait to read it.

Next in line to read: All Systems Red by Martha Wells, book one in a series called The Murderbot Diaries. I’m hooked!

Do you have a favorite novella? Tell me about it in the comments!

In the 18th century, it was rather common for young wealthy English folks to embark on a Grand Tour of continental Europe between their school years and their careers or higher education. Henry “Monty” Montague’s Grand Tour, however, is anything but common. Monty’s formal education at Eton ended rather abruptly, due to being caught in a rather compromising situation with another one of the boys. Now his future as his father’s heir is in jeopardy, and his tour is his last chance to redeem himself.

So it is that Monty departs for the continent, knowing that if he doesn’t manage to behave himself (at least in his father’s eyes), he’ll be left penniless. He’s accompanied by his younger sister, Felicity, herself off to a school in France, and his best friend Percy, who will be leaving England for law school at the end of their tour.

Monty naturally feels a bit overwhelmed by the mounting pressure on him to completely turn his own life around. However, understanding the plights of others isn’t something he’s ever been good at, and Felicity and Percy each have their own deep concerns about what awaits each of them at the end of their trip. None of them expect Monty’s knack for attracting trouble to draw them into a web of intrigue that leads them from France to Spain to Italy, pursued by highwaymen, pirates, and vengeful nobles. And none of them, least of all Monty, expected him to fall desperately in love with Percy along the way…

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee was everything I wanted it to be and more. Adventure, mystery, and romance all fall neatly into place in this YA treasure. It’s available now, so do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Note: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve been following Sam Sykes on twitter for a while, and given my affinity for both well-crafted fantasy worlds and action-adventure stories, it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy of The City Stained Red, the first book in Sam’s Bring Down Heaven series.

At almost 650 pages, The City Stained Red is a doorstopper of a book, but a fast, fun, vicious read. The book follows Lenk, an adventurer that some readers may recognize from Sykes’ previous series, The Aeon’s Gate Trilogy (though reading that series first is by no means a prerequisite for Bring Down Heaven). Lenk has finally decided that he’s done with killing, and wants to put aside his sword and pick up what he believes will be a normal life in the trade hub city of Cier’Djall. He and his friends, Denaos the thief, young wizard Dreadaeleon, khoshicht (Sykes’ clever take on elves) archer Kataria, healer/priestess Asper, and dragonman Gariath have killed scores of people and monsters. With the money owed to them for their services, they could happily retire from their violent lives. However, the man who owes them is not so easily found.

Cier’Djall is a massive, sprawling city, and the wealthy who rule over it have made their gold by selling silk produced by enormous spiders. However, the beautiful silk-draped spire that towers over the city leaves long shadows. In darker corners of the city, some of the poor are disappearing, and the ruling fashas may be to blame. Two rival churches seek to position their armies within the city, and tensions are running high as negotiations between them loom. Then, there’s the small matter of the local thieves guild and their ongoing conflict with a new but powerful cult that claims to have demons backing them. This is reality in the city where Lenk hopes to find Miron Evenhands, the priest at whose behest they have been doing what they do best. Cier’Djall is a bonfire piled high, drenched in oil, and awaiting a spark, and Lenk and his friends are unwittingly bringing lit torches through the gates.

The City Stained Red takes a page from A Song of Ice and Fire by presenting chapters from the perspectives of each member of Lenk’s band of adventurers. After arriving in Cier’Djall, they split up to try to located Miron, each using their unique skills and connections to make their way through the city. Denaos has connections from his previous life in the thieves guild, the Jackals. Dreadaeleon seeks the assistance of the Venarium, the wizard’s alliance. Asper, a follower of the same church as Miron, travels to the various temples in the city. Kataria finds herself in Shichttown, a slum where the non-humans try to live out of the way of the fiercely racist upper class. Gariath attempts to gather information from another dragonman who works as a bodyguard for one of the fashsas. Lenk is trying to cope with the fact that his pursuit of retirement may lose him the closest thing he’s ever known to a family. None of them are remotely ready for what they find.

After a footwar between the Jackals and the Khovura cult spills from the back alleys into the streets, every faction with an interest in controlling the silk trade comes out of their corners swinging, and Lenk and company can do little more than hope to survive.

I absolutely loved this book. Sykes blends dark humor and trope deconstruction beautifully. I’m already reading the sequel, The Mortal Tally, because I couldn’t wait to see what happens to these folks next. Reading about these characters is like watching my college Dungeons and Dragons group in action. There’s violence and bloodshed, but also fervent emotion. It’s a wonderful thing.

Edit: As of 7/26/16, a copy of this review can also be found here and here.

The world is burning, one person at a time. A new sort of plague, a spore known colloquially as Dragonscale, is infecting hundreds of thousands around the globe. It begins with something small. It gets into your head. It grows. You feel fine until you see it on your skin-a small stripe, like a gold-flecked stain. You might even mistake it for a bruise at first. But then you know you have it. You know that you’re going to burn, and it’s only a question of when. No one knows exactly how it spreads, and there’s no sign of a cure short of being killed before you ignite. You’ll smoke a bit first, and then you’ll combust, unless someone decides to end your life before then.

In the midst of the chaos is Harper Willowes, a Portsmouth nurse who sincerely wishes for nothing more than to be able to help others through the crisis. She volunteers her services caring for the infected while her husband Jakob works for the Public Works Department, helping to clean up the devastation left behind by the burning infected. It’s at work that Harper first meets the Fireman. He brings a child in for treatment, not for the Dragonscale covering him, but for a ruptured appendix. After the boy, Nick, is taken in for surgery, the Fireman vanishes. A few days later, Nick is gone as well, leaving only questions in his wake. Then, disaster strikes and the Portsmouth Hospital burns to the ground. Harper escapes, but soon makes two discoveries. She’s pregnant and she has the ‘scale. Believing himself to be infected as well, Jakob snaps and Harper is forced to flee for her life and that of her unborn child.

When all seems lost, the Fireman intervenes. He rescues Harper from Jakob’s pursuit and secrets her away to a small camp where over a hundred and fifty infected are living in hiding, including Nick. Living and thriving, to Harper’s great surprise. While there’s no cure for the spore, the people of the camp have found a way to live in harmony with the Dragonscale, under the leadership of Nick’s grandfather. Harper’s medical skills quickly make her indispensable. The camp, however, is no paradise. As panic grips the nation, marauders seek to eliminate any infected. Harper only wants to survive long enough to deliver her baby, but internal power struggles in the camp threaten to expose them all to the roving Cremation Crews. The Fireman may be the only one who can save them all, but he hides a dark secret of his own.

Joe Hill takes on an apocalypse of his own, one that rivals The Stand in scope and violence (not to mention pop culture references). As the world around them burns, his characters must face the fact that other humans may be a greater threat to them than the Dragonscale ever was. The Fireman is a hell of a ride from beginning to end, and is every bit as intense as the flames it evokes.

The Fireman, hits store shelves on 5/17. Go check it out.

[My most sincere thanks to William Morrow for the Advance Reader Copy of The Fireman, acquired at PLA 2016]