Review: King of Dublin by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau

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Ratings 3.75 stars out of 5 (rounded up to 4)

ARC fullcoverTwenty years ago a virus spread around the world, and the resulting deadly pandemic left all countries in ruin, its populations and governments destroyed in the aftermath.  Darragh Fergus Anluan and the other children of the Irish village Cuíl Aodha survived when their elders died but only just.  Hard winters and a disease which seems to return on a cycle has left the small group further decimated.  Desperate for medicine, Darragh is leaving his home against the pleas of the others to search for medicine to help them survive another winter in their small village.  Unsure of what has survived, Darragh is horrified to find that Dublin is nothing more than a ruin, ruled by a sadistic despot who has taken the name of King Boru.

King Boru rules by fear and force, accumulating an army of thieves, murderers and rapists eager to do his bidding.  Those who oppose him are killed or sold off as slaves.  And sitting at his feet is his Boy, a pretty sex slave, whose looks entrance Darragh even as the abuse and rape the Boy endures at the hands of the King and his soldiers draw out Darragh’s protective instincts.  If Darragh is to get his hands on any medicine, he must appear to join the ranks of the king’s men.

Ciaran Daly is the son of a high official in Belfast, a place of relative civility and safety. Ciaran wanted to help out Ireland, believing good deeds and good intentions would triumph over the problems and issues he thought he  would find in Dublin.  So Ciaran and his band of naive friends gathered together supplies and snuck away from their families and friends. But they were unprepared for their capture at the hands of the brutish soldiers of Boru as soon as they crossed the border.  All died except for Ciaran.

Ostensibly held as a hostage, Ciaran has been reduced to Boy, King Boru’s sex slave.  The continual abuse Ciaran suffers has torn away all hope but the arrival of Darragh in the King’s court sparks it back to life.  Darragh is different no matter how hard he tries to hide it.  And Darragh’s gentle attraction to the King’s pet is a dangerous one should anyone notice.  The madness that is King Boru is just the type, however, that incites treason instead of loyalty.  And soon Darragh and Ciaran realize that if their hopes are to become reality, then the King must fall.*

Heidi Belleau has a fondness for Ireland and its culture, all of which translates to her writing (see The Druid Stone).  Lisa Henry shares Belleau’s fascination with the Irish people and their culture.  So a dystopian society based in Ireland, where the characters bear Irish names that speak of the past and the lore of the people makes perfect sense. From the names to the places and mentions of Irish history, this story is steeped in the love of Ireland.  And no matter how bad it gets (and it gets very bad indeed), the moments of cultural recognition and love shine as in scenes at Newgrange, home of The Dagda, and the high kings of Tara.

If you are familiar at all with the novels of Heidi Belleau and Lisa Henry, than the shear scope of the universe and the enormous amount of attention to detail given to the world building here is to be expected from these remarkable authors.  So too is the level of darkness and brutality of existence in the dystopian society created they have created. As society and governments fell, so too did all laws and structure that would have protected the remaining populace.  Instead, it deteriorated into a deadly scramble for power and the acquisition of material wealth and modern vehicles such as cars and gasoline.  Dublin becomes a harsh and deadly world, ruled by gangs and petty despots of which King Boru is at the top of the corrupt pile.

Belleau and Henry are never ones to shy away from difficult material or subject matter. The descriptions of the ruined Dublin are vivid and intense.  Urine soaked courtyards and streets full of human misery, and waste, the authors bring their dystopian society alive.  Here is an excerpt as Darragh goes on his first patrol with King Boru’s soldiers:

People.

The warehouse was full of people, penned in like cattle. Worse somehow than the heads on posts, because they were still alive. Still full of fear and hope.

“Trader can get three hundred for one in good condition,” Hugh said. “That’s worth a few bags of supplies our way.”

“What happens to them then?” Darragh asked. His brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He couldn’t think.

Hugh shrugged. “Don’t much care.”

“Isn’t that the way of it though,” Seamus said, “Even in the old days, the only thing Ireland ever had of value for export was the Irish.”

But never like this.

“These traders. They are . . .” Darragh struggled for the word. It seemed so childish, a word from a fantasy like elves or wizards, but no, he knew it was real as well, even if it seemed absurd. “Pirates?”

Noel laughed, the sound terrible and twisted in this place of human suffering. “I think Viking’s the better word, considering, but sure, some are pirates. And some are pirates in the hire of governments, not that the ones paying them would ever admit it.”

Governments trading in human chattel, and the king turning a profit.

And now Darragh was aiding them in the effort.

Medicine. He needed medicine. Not wealth or power or boys dripping with gold.

Medicine, upon which the lives of his people depended.

He looked down at the pens below, at the people standing huddled together, shifting and hugging themselves in the cold. Men, women, and even children. The whole place stinking of desperation and human waste.

Their lives for the lives of Darragh’s kin.

A grim trade, to be sure.

As grim as any the king might make.

With its rank slave markets down by the docks, heads of Boru’s enemies on stakes lining the harbor, the grim reality of life in Dublin is made real to both Darragh and the reader.  Death and enslavement have been made common. So when abuse and rape arrive as part of the norm of this brutal regime than it follows that those details and sometimes hard to read scenes are included in the narrative as well.

The characters found here are as intense as the situations they find themselves in.  There are scenes of constant degradation and humiliation to go along with the continual rape and abuse.  Its overpowering and its meant to be.  Darragh is everything that King Boru and Dublin is not.  Darragh is the best that Ireland has to offer.  He is compassionate, unwaveringly loyal to those who deserve his loyalty, and he has a moral center that did not decay along with rise of disease.  The contrast of Darragh against the terror and horrific extremes of the court of Boru is frightening, heightening up the anxiety and suspense for Darragh safety and mission.

Ciaran’s character is far more complicated.  Ciaran’s naive idealogical crossing of borders without thinking of the possible consequences seems so unbelievably unworldly and gullible. Sheltered in Belfast, a northern city that remains healthy and relatively safe, Ciaran and his friends actions and belief that their ideological and righteous intentions would act like a shield to keep them safe seems idiotic. But one only has to look to current events and the media to find examples of just such behavior in like minded American youths today. Ones who expect their nationality and beliefs to raise them up over the problems they think they will face only to find it a chimera, no more solid than smoke and or able to keep the worst from happening. Which it did.  For them and for Ciaran.

Kept starved and in the dark in a state that mimics a deprivation tank, Ciaran’s isolation by Boru is such that the alternative however hellish is preferable.  That seems authentic as a state of mind.  Victimized, abused, raped, Ciaran struggles to hold onto remnants of who he was, fearing he will disappear into Boy for good.  However, later on in the story, that same naïveté and stubbornness that brought him to Dublin and into the clutches of Boru continues, surfacing and impacting his actions until I had problems with staying invested in this character. At what point does naivete turn into stupidity and stubbornness become a cover for self centered delusion?  Each reader will have to answer those questions for themselves.

Moments of shattering emotional impact are made more hurtful because these characterizations are so well done that it feels as though it is happening to people we have gotten to know. And  instead of being able to keep our distance as we could with one note personas we are trapped in the moment with Darragh, Ciaran and Rabbit (another wonderful character). When the authors put these people in danger, then scenes such as these demand a response from the reader equivalent in emotion to the ones the characters are experiencing. Trust me when I say it will double the impact of the events unfolding in front of you.

And just when the graphic abuse and the horrific intensity of Ciaren’s pain and humiliation get to be too much, then Belleau and Henry give their characters and the readers a much needed  break as the narrative takes a turn towards hope and freedom.  For me, it didn’t come too soon.  I was starting to have some issues with the major characters starting with Ciaran. He’s learned nothing apparently until its almost too late.  And in my opinion, that aspect of his character makes it a tougher sale in keeping the readers fully invested in Ciaran.

Darragh too has gone through some transformations, understandable given the events he survived. Part of that is that Darragh apparently forgets all about the medicine his people need in his obsession over Ciaran who continues to lie and manipulate him. We can relate to his actions  to some degree but still I am not sure that Henry and Belleau made that case here for Darragh completely dismissing his mission to the degree that he does so.

But other characters arrive to take hold of your affections, chief among them is Rabbit, a young boy of extreme resourcefulness and rough charm.  He actually became my favorite at the end.

King of Dublin has much to recommend it, great characters, intense storytelling, and a realistic dystopian Irish society.  If you find that the descriptions and scenes of graphic abuse are ones that you can adjust to, then I recommend this book to you.  If, on the other hand, sexual violence and scenes of non consent are outside your comfort zone, then I would look to many of these authors other stories. I am sure you will find one there to love.

Cover Art by Vongue, http://vongue.deviantart.com.  This cover is well done in conveying the characters and the setting in Dublin.

Book Details:

ebook, 375 pages
Published February 24th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published February 22nd 2014)

Review: One Breath One Bullet (The Borders War #1) by S.A. McAuley

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Rating: 5 stars out of  5

One Breathe One BulletThree hundred years of the Borders War has seen the world reduced to five nations.  In the year 2548, a treaty was signed ending the war, and ensuring a peace between countries, at least on the surface.  Now in the year 2558, all nationalities have gathered for the first Olympic games since the war started.  Attention from the world media and citizens are focused on two men and one competition, the Rifle competition which pits soldiers from each army against the other, this time in tournament rather than battle.   And one duel has been raised above them all, that between the Dark Ops officer from the People’s Republic of Singapore, Armise Darcan and  the Continental States Peacemaker Merq Grayson.

Both men were trained from the very youngest of age to be the most highly skilled and dedicated soldier possible, and the most accurate sniper each side produced.  On mission after mission throughout the Borders War Merq and  Armise battled each other as they pursued the goals of their own countries, neither coming out ahead of the other.  And now they face each other once more, only this time on the field of competition.  But while their relationship has always been one of violence and physical brutality, they have also hidden another aspect to their relationship, one neither truly understands but is compelled to continue.

Against the backdrop of peace and the Olympic Games, another conflict is playing out, one that will have consequences not just for Merq and Armise but for the world they live in.  Only their skills and maybe something more will keep both men alive to survive another day.

One Breath One Bullet is only 80 pages long but within its small frame it packs a much larger punch and more powerful story than I could have imagined.  S.A. McAuley has created a world where war has raged for over three hundred years, with devastating results, wiping out half the world populations, reducing the planet’s air to a toxic cloud and numerous environs to desert unfit for human habitation.  McAuley’s descriptions paint a grim and despairing picture of the cost of prolonged warfare on both the planet and it citizens.  It’s a gritty, noxious universe and the author makes it horribly real in every aspect.

This is an intense story and at its heart are the two soldiers from opposing countries and ideologies. Despite being on opposing sides, Merq Grayson and Armise Darcan have much in common.  They are close in age and physique, even closer in their mentalities and emotional makeup.  These are brutal, dangerous predators masquerading as highly skilled soldiers at the top of their professions and yet, they are also something far more. Merq and Armise are also highly complicated personalities with more layers than can be described.  They will dishearten you with their characters and then turn around and astonish you with surprises.  McAuley has created, in Merq and Armise, two characters so real and memorable, that you will be insatiable in your need for more than just these 80 pages and luckily we will get them.

The story is told from Merq’s pov and jumps time periods from mission to mission.  Through Merq’s perspective, we see the world as it has become and watch the past as the two men compete to complete a search for an object both countries desperately want to acquire.  The real measure of each man slowly seeps out like a small blood trail the reader must follow to get to the truth behind the facades erected by man and nation.  Those expecting a romantic love story will be disappointed as the relationship between these men is not for the faint hearted but authentic to the characters we are slowly coming to know.  I don’t think I can adequately describe how compelling these brutal, war hardened men become or how thrilling and suspenseful the plot turns involved.  There are some beautiful twists and turns involved that just make this story and its characters all the more amazing considering the length of the book.

McAuley has created a three page Index at the end of the book detailing time lines, characters, glossary etc.  I am not a fan of this element as readers of my reviews already know.  Happily, I can report it is not necessary to refer to the Index to understand the basics of the world the author has created or some of the war weaponry used in the conflict.  McAuley folds that necessary information into the story just as it should be, making those pages interesting but optional.

One Breath, One Bullet is the opening salvo to a new series, The Borders War and I, for one, can’t wait for more.  The men, their world, and the events to come are deserving of a grand scale series to equal their measure.  I am confident in S.A. McAuley’s ability to deliver it.  Consider this a must have, must read and look for it on the Best of lists at the end of the year.

This is how the sage begins:

I hated the heat of the desert.

The mask on my face was confining, filling with the condensation of each breath I dragged into my lungs and forced back out in shallow gasps. The goggles over my eyes should have protected me from the yellow and grey cloud of Chemsense the Dark Continental Republic Army had unleashed on our battalion, but I could feel my eyes watering, the liquid gathering in pools that threatened to make my skin too damp to maintain the protective seal.

I was on my knees and I couldn’t remember when I’d stopped walking. I wasn’t far enough away yet. The shouts of the DCR soldiers—and the sonicpops of their weapons as they picked off States soldiers—were muffled but still too close. My body tilted, and I planted my hands into the sand without thought. I collapsed into the dune when my right shoulder ground together, bone against bone, tendons ripping. I thought those DCR goons had only managed to dislocate it, but this pain was worse than that—a grinding impact of racking, vision-blackening pain that didn’t ebb even when I flopped onto my back and let my arm lie unmoving in the scorching sand.

My mantra, pounded into me through years of training, repeated in my head as I consciously stilled my body.

One breath.

Inhale.

Hesitation is my enemy.

Solitude my ally.

Death the only real victory.

Exhale.

Cover art by Posh Gosh is disappointing.  Who is that cover model supposed to be?  And that modern shirt?  So many missed opportunities to do justice for such an incredible book.

Book Details:

ebook, 88 pages (includes excerpt from another Total E-Bound book)
Published June 3rd 2013 by Total-E-Bound
ISBN 1781843317 (ISBN13: 9781781843314)
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.total-e-bound.com/product.asp?strParents=&CAT_ID=&P_ID=2133
seriesThe Borders War #1

Glorious Books, A Web Hunt and Glorious Weather Too! What A Week It’s Going To Be!

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The weather is perfection today so I am getting ready to pull on the gardening gloves, turn the water for the outside faucets back on and prepare to spend the day getting down and dirty.  I have ferns, some grasses and even an English Daisy or two to plant and weeds to uproot.  To say the least, I am grinning like crazy in anticipation.

Also this week I am reviewing some books that are not only on Scattered Thoughts “Must Read” lists, they have made my Best of 2013 List as well.  Among them are Sarah Black’s The General and the Horse-Lord, T.J. Klune’s Into This River I Drown, Abigail Roux’s Touch & Geaux and Jay Kirkpatrick’s Freedom.  I can’t remember when I had so many wonderful books to read and recommend that released almost at the same time.  A surfeit of riches for us all to enjoy time and time again.

And on Monday, Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is participating along with many other websites in Riptide Publishing’s Web Hunt for ???????????????????????????????????????Abigail Roux’s Touch & Geaux, book 7 in the amazing Cut & Run series.  On April 8, 2013, all participating book blogs will be joining the party by posting about the book and including one of their favorite quotes from any book in the Cut & Run series. Readers who collect each quote and submit their findings to marketing@riptidepublishing.com will be eligible to win one of two runner-up prizes and one grand prize.  More about this Cut & Run fun will be posted tomorrow along with my blog of Cut & Run favorite moments in the afternoon.

What a week!  So here is the full schedule, don’t miss a day!

Monday, April 8:          Riptide Publishing’s Web Hunt for Touch & Geaux,

Scattered Thoughts Favorite Cut & Run Moments

Tuesday, April 9:          Touch & Geaux (Cut & Run #7) by Abigail Roux

Wed., April 10:             Freedom by Jay Kirkpatrick

Thursday, April 11:      The General and the Horse-Lord by Sarah Black

Friday, April 12:           Brute by Kim Fielding

Saturday, April 13:       Into This River I Drown by T.J. Klune

Really, just turn this week’s lineup into a shopping list because you won’t want to miss a single one.  Now the flowers and worms are calling me, really I can hear them right now.  So off I go or should I say Geaux in keeping with the books this week.  Have a wonderful Sunday everyone and I will see you right here on Monday.

Review: Something New Under The Sun (Falling Sky #2) by L.A. Witt

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Rating: 5 stars

Something New Under The SunLiam  Lansing is a genetically modified vampire who makes his living as a contract killer but once lived as a favored scion in his wealthy family’s compound in The Sky.  Daniel Harding, heir to  Cybernetix, hated the modifications his father’s corporation built and loved one person, Liam.  Their relationship cost Liam everything as his family disowned him for loving Harding and cast him into The Gutter.  Daniel remained behind working surreptiously to bring his father down, imprisoned in an ivory tower and thinking his former lover was dead.

Former lovers and antagonists, Liam Lansing and Daniel Harding have been reunited and resumed their relationship under the most traumatic events.  Daniel’s father, head of Cybernetix a modification empire, hired Liam to kill his son but had  laid a trap for Liam as well. But the father’s plans backfired when the men united to escape into The Gutter where they schemed to destroy Daniel’s father and his corporation along with him.  But there are more things at stake than Liam is aware of.  Hidden secrets hold the key to the destruction of their plans and the future of their relationship. Can Liam and Daniel put aside the past to maneuver through the obstacles looming before them?  Or will the forces combining against them bring them down once and for all?

Something New Under The Sun picks up right after the events in A Chip In His Shoulder.  I loved reading one book right after the other and felt that it maximized my enjoyment of this intense, suspenseful series. Not necessary but it satisfied my impatience to more forward after the events that occurred in the first book.  Over twice as long, this second book achieves everything L.A. Witt set out to accomplish with her first story.  We are back in The Gutter, that distempered landscape of grimy factories and downtrodden workers, the unholy existing along side the broken. It is a hellish place that L.A. Witt brings to life and where we meet up with Liam and Daniel once more.

In a neat twist, the pov switches from Daniel Harding to Liam Lansing at the beginning of the story and more of Liam’s back history is revealed to the readers. Witt outlines enough of her previous book that any reader fresh to the series is not totally confused by the events of this story.  From the beginning, the author starts to build the suspense and reader anticipation as we watch Liam and David weave together their plans for retribution and the destruction of Cybernetix.  As they cobble together the plans and equipment, more of The Gutter and its inhabitants are revealed.  We traverse the filty, narrow alleys and meet up with Gizmo, a modifications wizard who has been helping Liam, for a price of course, with his own “enhancements”.  Gizmo is quite a wonderful character and I could see him so clearly in my mind, from his dialog to his physical form.  Gizmo made such an impact on me that I hope to see more of him in the coming installments.

And this brings me back to the marvelous characters that L.A. Witt creates for her stories.  Daniel and Liam, larger than life in the first story, have been given additional depth and dimension here in the second.  We learn more about what drove Daniel to take the actions that set in motion Liam’s fall from grace and his own isolation.  And even more of Liam’s past seeps out to tease the reader further about those first years of survival in The Gutter.  I cannot help but think that more will be forthcoming in future stories to flesh this out this part of Liam’s past.  Even though we still have gray areas with respect to their backgrounds, these are beautifully realized people, flawed and determined to regain what was once theirs.  I loved them more as I discovered the basis for the hurt and pain their past has cost them.

The author, after establishing characters that grasp at our hearts and minds, proceeds to set the reader on a thriller of a ride when Daniel and Liam actually set their plans in motion.  Quickly upping the suspense and anxiety we feel for our heros, Witt moves the action along at a fast pace as they set out for The Sky and the Cybernetix building.  Really, the events escalate so rapidly that it is breathtaking.  We barely get through one nasty surprise, then another is quickly upon us. And neither the reader and the two men we have come to care are allowed a moments rest.  This is a A Ticket white knuckle ride and I loved every hair raising minute of it.

The dystopian society L.A.Witt has created for her Falling Sky series is a vividly realized world populated with people I cannot get enough of.  The ending came a little too soon and perhaps too easily for me but I am greedy like that.  I would have wished for a more drawn out resolution to Liam’s family issues.  Perhaps that is coming in the next books in the series and I still want to hear more of Gizmo, he deserves his own story within this remarkable framework.

After finishing this book, I immediately wanted more, a testament to the author’s power to create a world easy to escape into and dwell for a while.  I absolutely recommend Something New Under The Sun.  Buy it and settle down for a wild ride of action, adventure and romance as lovers reunite in the Gutter and aim high for The Sky.

Cover art by LC Chase is lovely with its easy to read titles and dark towers behind the model.  Again I only wished that there had been a way to put some of the physical modifications on the model that are so important to the plot.

Books in the Falling Sky series:

A Chip In His Shoulder (Falling Sky #1)

Something New Under The Sun (Falling Sky#2)

Review: A Chip in His Shoulder (Falling Sky #1) by LA Witt

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Rating: 4.5 stars

A Chip in his ShoulderWhen assassin Liam Lansing receives the name of his next target, he sees the chance for not only a big monetary pay off but a chance for revenge as well. The name of his next victim is Daniel Harding, heir to the Cybernetix empire and the reason for Liam’s descent into hell and his life as a contract killer.  A formerly wealthy vampire, Liam now lives in The Gutter, the place where all the earth’s industry and refuse (material and human)  is consigned. Liam once lived in The Sky, with the clean air and fantastic skyscraper towers where the wealthy live and play, where Liam’s family still live.  All lost because he took a human lover, Daniel Harding.

Daniel Harding hates his father and Cybernetix, the modification empire his father founded.  The firm exists on the exploitation of it’s workers, the environment, and Daniel hates that the modifications are turning people into more machines than human beings.  Even the vampires has been seduced into the modification frenzy that Cybernetix promises.  But Daniel has been imprisoned by his father in his condo in The Sky and waits his father’s next move in their war between them.

Liam’s hatred for Daniel runs to the father as well.  So taking money from Harding to kill his son seemed like a wonderful idea until he finds out that Harding doubled crossed him and has laid a trap for Liam, with Daniel being the lure.  But when Liam and Daniel comes together again after years apart, will Liam’s hatred hold true or  can he put it aside long enough for them to work together and escape the trap planned for them both.

It is hard for me to believe that A Chip in His Shoulder is a mere 78 pages, as it is such a densely packed vision of a vividly described dystopian world.  Witt really makes both The Gutter and The Sky come to life, especially the torments of life in The Gutter.  I had visions of Victorian England in the worst parts of the city, blackened by coal, air dense with sooty particles.  The Gutter has much the same acrid flavor and the author makes you feel the grimness of life there and the poverty of spirit acutely.  The Gutter is contrasted beautifully by The Sky with its dwellings, sleek structures of steel and glass that shine brightly in air that is being constantly cleaned to the detriment of all who live beneath in The Gutter.

Dropped into this setting are just wonderful characters that will find you craving more of their backhistories.  Liam, the reluctant contract killer, who once was an idealistic young man in love with the wrong person.  Liam was then, like many a fallen hero, thrown out of heaven or in this case The Sky for his impudence and life choices and lands in hell.  During his confrontation with Daniel, we get glimpses of just how far Liam fell but nothing further.  Perhaps that will come in future books.  But it all adds up to a marvelous, multilayered character who captures our empathy and imagination from the start and never lets it go.

Daniel Harding is that recognizable erstwhile well off idealist whose privileged background has given him the reason as well as outlet for his pent-up anger and outrage.  He is perhaps not as immediately emotionally accessible as Liam, but as their confrontation continues, it becomes clear that the author has given just as much thought to Daniel as she has Liam, and that there are hidden depths waiting to surface in him.  Daniel really grew on me in this story and one of it’s major frustrations is that the book stops just when you feel you getting a handle on him as a character.

The plot is tightly woven and intense, the swift-paced action  moving the story forward at a clip.  Really, parts of this story will take your breath away.  Had this been a movie, the popcorn would have been munched at as rapid a pace as the story unfolded.  The au;thor really knows how to build the suspense and keep it balanced right on the edge, before she drops you  over.  L.A. Witt does such a great job that when the end does come, you are not quite prepared to let this couple and their story go.

And that is my major and only quibble with this story – the length.  The author just did not seem to complete the picture she started painting.  The outline and major elements are brilliant, the swatches of paint bold and applied with fervor but just a little more detail was needed to complete this portrait of a couple and world in the first stages of revolution.  I just loved it and am moving on quickly to its sequel,  Something New Under The Sun (Falling Sky #2).  Really, what an amazing start to a new series.  A Chip in His Shoulder is another example of why L.A. Witt has become a “must read” for me and many others.  Don’t pass it by.

Cover:  Cover art by L.C. Chase.  I find the cover very dramatic.  I only wish there had been some way to convey some of the modifications on the model that are so central to the characters and the story.