Cover Image: Under Lock & Skeleton Key

Under Lock & Skeleton Key

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Gigi Pandian's Under Lock & Skeleton Key gives us Tempest Raj and her family of "cursed" magicians/escape artists.  Tempest had worked as a magician specializing in escaping from dangerous situations but a disastrous show led to her losing her livelihood and her return to home. She moves back into her family compound, living with her grandparents and father and longtime friends. Her father builds unusual bespoke family homes which Tempest's mother used to personalize and design.  The homes incorporate the clients' interests through secret staircases and rooms, etc.  

But since Tempest has returned home, dead bodies surface and the strange events seem tied to Tempest.  Tempest investigates and we are drawn in by the family dynamics!
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Under Lock and Skeleton Key promises magic, mystery, and a family curse -- a perfect combination for a locked-room cozy. But Gigi Pandian's latest is too uneven and scattered to achieve any great magic or mystery, and as for the family curse? It felt like an accessory Coco Chanel would have told the story to take off before leaving the house.

Three-sentence summary: Disgraced magician Tempest Raj returns home to lick her wounds and work for her father's company, Secret Staircase Construction. When Tempest's traitorous stage double is found murdered, enclosed in a wall that appears to have been undisturbed for a century, Tempest is convinced she was the intended target. She resolves to solve the mystery.

I haven't done the exact math on this, but I'm pretty sure for every sentence of this book devoted to the present-day, forward-moving plot, there are at least 11 sentences devoted to exposition/the past. It makes for slow reading... so slow that at the 35% mark, I finally threw in the towel. An example of the kind of stop-and-go storytelling I'm talking about: We learn early on that Tempest's mother disappeared five years before the events of the book. Then we learn she disappeared during a performance (she was also a magician). THEN we learn that she disappeared during a performance... "when she was about to reveal the secret of her sister's killer." Information is doled out at such a slow trickle, it's impossible for to build any appreciable momentum/tension.

I skimmed the latter half of the book and can see how, once the story allows itself to be the locked-room mystery it aspires to be, it moves along at a more reasonable clip. The first third of the book, however, is so lacking in propulsion that some readers -- like me -- may find there's not enough power to move forward. The book leaps too quickly from family mythology to extended descriptions of (admittedly delicious-sounding) food to Tempest's personal history... and on and on and on. 

Ruthless editing and clever reorganization might have saved this narrative from itself, but in its current form... the magic fizzles before it can spark.
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While I love Pandian's other series (the accidental alchemist) and I was excited for this one, it just didn't work for me. I could not connect with the main character and I  found myself getting bored while I was reading it. There's nothing wrong with the book, it was well written and had an interesting story, it just didn't work for me.
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I found this book to be delightfully quirky and fun. I loved the idea of the Fiddler's Folly. The house just sounds to wonderful. I also loved the relationship that Tempest had with her grandparents. Ash was so charming and I enjoyed the descriptions of all the food and the place of love his cooking came from. There were multiple mysteries to solve in Under Lock and Skeleton Key. I was slightly disappointed that the mystery of her mother's disappearance was never fully solved. It does make me wish for a second book. A few times, I felt like the writing jumped around which made it a bit difficult to follow in those cases. There is also a lot of characters so sometimes I had to stop and think about who was who. All in all, I found it to be a great cozy mystery with a whimsical vibe. I loved the incorparation of other mystery books and authors and even a bit of true crime even though the main theme was magicians and misdirection.
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5 stars = Outstanding!

This was fantastic - from the characters to the clever set up (disgraced magician, family curse, family business building secret rooms) to the mystery itself! I was captivated from the beginning and my engagement never wavered. Sign me up for book 2 now because I am completely committed to this series after this launch!
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Such a fun mystery!  I loved the characters and was excited to see this is the first in a series. The plot moves quickly making this a really fast read. 
Mystery fans will love all the puzzles, hidden rooms, and interesting architecture delightful.
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What a delightful read!! What’s the last book you read straight through in one sitting? For me it was Under Lock & Skeleton Key. Tempest Raj is a magician who has been sabotaged and has returned to her family home. The house she grew up in is no ordinary home though - it’s the testing grounds for Secret Staircase Construction.

“As her dad loved to say: What happens when a carpenter and a stage magician fall in love? They form a Secret Staircase construction business to bring magic to people through their homes. 

The idea was quite romantic. Tempest’s parents specialized in building ingeniously hidden rooms for people who fancied a bookshelf that slid open when you reached for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew and then Hidden Staircase; or a secret reading book that only appeared when you said the words “open sesame”; or perhaps a door in a grandfather clock that led to a hidden garden.” 

Honestly - that quote from the book should tell you if this one is for you - I knew right then it was for me! If that’s not quite enough I’ll also share there’s a mysterious murder, a possible family curse, and a rabbit named Abracadabra. 

Thank you to Minotaur Books and Netgalley for the free advance reading copy. I also got the audiobook from the library and highly recommend the audio. Can’t wait for the next book in this series!!
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This book has a good premise and intriguing family history to get you interested, unfortunately that’s where most of my interest petered out. There was a lot of over-description of multiple trades that became very repetitive and over done, along with a strange pace that didn’t build satisfying tension leading up to the reveals. There were also a few messy contradictions in what characters were saying from one page the the next that felt careless for an author seemingly so invested in details. 
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review — I wish this story would have spoken to me more, alas.
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Under Lock & Skeleton Key:  A Secret Staircase Mystery

By Gigi Pandian

Minotaur 

March 2022

 

Review by Cynthia Chow

 

As much as Tempest Raj wants to deny the existence of the Raj family curse, five generations of mysterious deaths have her believing in the inevitability of bad luck. A magician act gone terribly wrong not only cost Tempest her job in Las Vegas, it forced her to sell everything she had and move back to California and help with her father's Secret Staircase Construction business.  As much as Tempest loves her grandparents' home of hidden reading nooks and secret gardens, building the same for paying clients was never her goal.  A stage trick that she believes was sabotaged ended Tempest's career as one of the Top 25 Under 25 entertainers though, and now the Scottish-Indian former stage magician is back home starting over.  It's on one of her first projects where they make a horrific discovery in a hidden closet, that of the body of her former assistant Cassidy Sparrow, the woman whom Tempest blames for ruining her career.

 

Needing to know the solutions to the puzzles that haunt her, Tempest reaches out to her loyal magician friend Sanjay Rai, otherwise known as The Hindi Houdini.  Socially oblivious, but undeniably as talented with magic tricks as he is attractive, Sanjay is the “Just Friends” she needs to help her build up her confidence and her career.  Through construction company new hire Gideon Torres readers are given an entry point to some of Tempest’s magic performances, which are a masterful mix of distractions and knowledge of human predictive behavior.  For five generations the Raj family have led a dynasty of family magical practitioners, and it is from them that she learned the art of building a story first and working a trick around it.  Now Tempest, Sanjay, Gideon, and her friend Ivy Youngblood will use their collective knowledge of construction, classical mysteries, and the art of distraction to solve a mystery and truth behind her family's curse.

 

This first in a series bursts out of the gate with an extraordinarily likable, fully developed character.  Tempest's Scottish-Indian heritage and work in a male-dominated profession taught her how to fit in everywhere without ever feeling like she truly belonged. Fans of the author's Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt series will welcome the reappearance of Sanjay Rai, who always hovers in the vicinity as a handsome possibility who never manages to land the girl.  That may change here, but Gideon seems to have a leg up on the competition even if he is still the New Guy in their construction business.  Delicious sounding - and very complicated - recipes of Grandpa Ash's Rajaloo potatoes and cookies that blend Tempest's Scottish and Indian heritage will tantalize readers into making their own attempts at recreating these spicy delicacies.  This is an outstanding new mystery series that revels in its multi-racial cast of characters, while also showcasing the fascinating, secretive art of magic.  While Tempest explains some of the secrets of her craft, so much is left to explore that readers will be left anxiously awaiting the next adventure of Tempest and the Secret Staircase Construction business.
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This is my first Gigi Pandian book but it won’t be my last. In this book she introduces Tempest Raj, a young woman from a family of magicians. Tempest is famous for creating complex magic performances that tell stories.

Magic runs in her family. In fact, her grandfather, a former doctor and now a chef, comes from a line of magicians in India, and her mother and deceased aunt carried on the family tradition. The other family tradition is a curse, where the eldest child in the family dies under unusual or terrible circumstances.

At the open, Tempest is back in the family‘s home after a terrible accident that almost killed her, and destroyed her finances and reputation. She is now looking to rebuild her life, but doesn’t want to join her father’s construction business: his company creates unique and unusual puzzle structures in homes.

After discovering the dead body of Tempest’s performance body double at a recent construction site, Tempest decides to dig for clues. 

She reconnects with her former best friend Ivy, ropes in Sanjay, a magician friend, and Gideon, one of her father’s employees and a stonemason, to help her in her sleuthing.

The tone is light, breezy, and fun. And, there is so much fantastic food in this book! I was perpetually hungry while reading.

This was an enjoyable mystery. I was able to figure out who  committed various crimes in the book, but I still liked the story and characters.

And, though I’ve never read the author’s other series, I liked that Jaya Jones got a nod, so I know this and her Jaya Jones series happen in the same world and similar time frames, so I am going to hunt down Jaya’s series, and I am looking forward to Tempest’s next outing.

Thank you to Netgalley and to St. martin’s Press for this ARC in exchange for my review.


 story I also liked that though I’ve never read the series that Jaya Jones in her gets annoyed at here so we know that the these stories happen in the same world and time frame so I am definitely gonna be picking up that series of Sandpoint in the meantime I’m really looking forward to the next garage mystery and adventure so to speak and I can’t wait
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This was a great beginning to a new cozy series, with a cool premise! I enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend it!

I received an e-ARC from the publisher.
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This was a cute cozy mystery.  I'm not a huge cozy fan but this one was just right imo.  Sometimes I find them over the top corny but I loved the magician theme in this one!  I do think it was pretty slow paced for majority of the book and then was way too quick and convoluted at the ending but I still enjoyed it!  I will be recommending to cozy fans.
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Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian is the first book in the Secret Staircase Mystery series. While this is the first book in this series, I enjoyed the appearance of some characters from her previous series. Having said that, you do not need to have read any of her other books to enjoy this story. Tempest Raj was working as a magician in Las Vegas but her last performance was sabotaged by her assistant and she almost died. She is in the midst of a law suit, so she has headed back to her childhood home in California. The home Tempest grew up in is unique to say the least with her family owning Secret Staircase Construction which specializes in hidden and intricate home designs so their home is a model of all the things they can do. As Tempest is settling in, she goes for a visit to her father’s latest project. Things become complicated when they find a body in a room that is supposed to have been closed for years. It is Tempest's assistant/stage double and they have no idea how she got there. Was Tempest the actual target? How did the body get in the closed room? Is this the Raj curse? Tempest decides they need to find the killer fast, so with the help of some friends, Tempest becomes a sleuth determined to answer these questions.

I enjoyed this story. The magic angle is interesting and opens up a lot of possibilities. Diverse characters, wonderful food and Indian Culture all add a different and interesting storyline. I love the family business as well. Adding secret rooms, staircases, passages etc. to an old house sounds quite intriguing and adds some red herrings and clues to the story. I did a read listen with this book and enjoyed both formats. I will say I enjoyed the ebook more, probably because of the slower story. Soneela Nankani does a wonderful job with the story. Her voices, expression, pacing and tone are all well matched to the story. The first book in a new series often contains a lot of character building so it moves a bit slower, but I was still engaged in this story. I will definitely be watching for the next book in this series.
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I enjoyed reading this book, which is the first in a new series.  It was fun to catch a glimpse behind the curtain to see how magicians work their illusions.  The main character is Tempest Raj, a member of a very unusual and talented multi-cultural family.  Tempest is a stage magician from a family of illusionists and magicians - she literally grew up learning magic tricks.  She was working in Las Vegas until an accident on stage sank her career and has returned home to her unusual family.  I loved their house although I'd probably get locked in a hidden room and never find the trick that would let you out.  

Her family has a construction company called The Secret Staircase - they literally build secret staircases, hidden rooms, etc. for people who want to add a little whimsy to their homes. Tempest is going to work in the family business while she figures out her next steps, and goes with her father to one of their new jobs.  They found something very unusual in one of the rooms - a room that has been locked for a very long time - and it is a fresh body, someone that Tempest knows.  An old enemy.   

If you are a fan of locked door mysteries and magic then you will likely enjoy this book.  I love mysteries and haven't read one this complex in a very long time.  

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher St. Martin's Press/Minotaur for an advance reading copy of this book.  It was a pleasure to read and review it.
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This was such a fun book! I really appreciated the main character's blended background, family history, and occupation. The family home and the lore the author presented were both compelling, and definitely made me want to read more in the series. The mystery in this one really tripped me up--I could not figure out who the culprit was.... which was perfect. I definitely recommend this one!
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Under Lock & Skeleton Key is an engaging cozy mystery series starter full of illusions and stage magic by Gigi Pandian. Released 15th March 2022 by Macmillan on their Minotaur imprint, it's 352 pages and is available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats. It's worth noting that the ebook format has a handy interactive table of contents as well as interactive links and references throughout. I've really become enamored of ebooks with interactive formats lately. 

I love stage magic and illusions and I'm completely crazy about old houses with hidden rooms and architectural easter-eggs like bookcases which are secret doors and mantlepieces with hidden catches to open secret panels. This book is full of them. The plot turns around an ensemble cast of specialty builders, stonemasons, and woodworkers who design and install secret rooms and hidden staircases. This is a locked room cozy with hidden rooms aplenty and skullduggery abounding. 

Although it's a murder mystery, it felt as though it were written more for a younger (YA/NA) audience. It's very much action driven with characters racing from one scene to the next at a frenetic pace. There's a fair amount of BFF drama between the main protagonist and her former BF with lots of heartfelt emotional dialogue between the two. There's also a literal locked room murder mystery with a recently dead corpse (and doppelganger of the MC) tumbling out of a wall which was just opened - no way in or out. It has a definite Nancy Drew vibe with a little whiff of Scooby Doo.

Throw in lots and lots of stage magic, a family curse (the eldest child shall die by magic), hidden motives, and crazy architectural prestidigitation, and stir well. Although I'm a few decades beyond the presumable intended audience, I found it engaging and entertaining. I was impressed over the author's expertise describing architecture and scenery; technically that's very challenging and she does it very well. Some of the dialogue is a bit choppy and some of the scenery dressing and illusions are a bit over the top and "Scooby-Doo-ish" but it's all good fun. 

I also liked that the protagonist's family is multi-ethnic and the requisite cozy recipes at the back of the book reflect her Indian/Scottish background. 

Four stars. Looking forward to what's coming next.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.
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What a fun start to a new cozy mystery series! I love that it features a Secret Staircase construction company, generations of stage magic performers, a super cool treehouse home base with plenty of secret rooms and surprises, and a Scottish/Indian/American main sleuth, Tempest. I loved the characters and setting and had a fun time reading this one. I’ll for sure check out the next in the series whenever that comes out! Thanks Net Galley and St Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books for an e-ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review!
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UNDER LOCK & SKELETON KEY by Gigi Pandian is a LibraryReads selection for March 2022. An entertaining plot with many literal twists and turns, the overall story seemed a bit slow. I liked the beginning and was intrigued by the description of hidden rooms. Another plus is the fun references to older mystery titles.  However, the mystery which centers on Tempest Raj, a young woman from a family of magicians, seemed repetitive and confusing at times. There supposedly is a curse on Tempest's family – that the eldest in each generation will die. Is it coincidence when Tempest's stunt double is found dead? How was her body hidden in a wall that appears to have not been disturbed? UNDER LOCK & SKELETON KEY, the first in a series, will likely appeal most to fans of locked room puzzles.
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Thank you to the publisher Minotaur Books for providing an e-ARC via NetGalley for an honest review.

I love reading about characters solving convoluted puzzles almost as much as I enjoy doing them myself - which is why Under Lock & Skeleton Key seemed like a fascinating read featuring a stage magician with a family construction business of making quirky hiding nooks in client’s houses. To first preface where my assumptions were wrong going into this book - it is most definitely a mystery and not a thriller. The mystery plays with a speculative element that is given a satisfying and fully realized conclusion. But there is only a single body that appears and the stakes feel low even while the main protagonist Tempest Raj fears her life may be in danger from a family curse that takes the firstborn child. 

Oddly enough, I feel like this book would have worked better onscreen. A lot of the explanations for Tempest’s tricks felt either overwritten or just outright confusing, and I think seeing them actually demonstrated would have worked much better in a different medium. The final reveal on who hid the body of Tempest’s former stage double in a wall came as a surprise to me not because of the subtle setup, but because I didn’t remember who the man even was. It was also the result of an egregious assumption one character makes that could have been completely avoided by a very necessary conversation one would think to have with a loved one they suspect of being a murderer. Miscommunication always rankles, especially when it results in something so outrageous. 

This book is going to stick in my mind most for the descriptions of the Indian food Tempest’s grandfather is constantly making for the family. While Tempest spends most of the novel fixated on a family curse she believes is lurking over her head, as well as her dead mother’s spirit, the mentions of her Scottish-Indian heritage brought something to her character outside of a typical mystery plotline. I wish her father’s business building hiding spaces in people’s houses featured as heavily in the book as part of her investigation, but that was the puzzle-lover in me wanting this to be explored more. 

Overall, I think this book is an interesting but not totally memorable mystery that takes a unique premise and never quite utilizes it to its full potential. But if you are looking for a cozy mystery that features a stage magician as its protagonist, something on a much smaller scale than something like Now You See Me, under Lock & Skeleton Key may be a good bet.
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Secret rooms, a dead body hidden behind wall, a family curse, and magicians? All this and more are included within Under Lock & Skeleton Key.

Tempest is from a family of magicians. She had a successful act in Las Vegas until she is betrayed by her jealous assistant. Tempest has no choice but to return to her childhood home. She is helping her father build a customer’s secret room when they find a dead body. All clues point to Tempest as the murderer so Tempest and her two friends must find the real killer. It won’t be as easy as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

The book is a clear homage to my reading favs in childhood. Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and even Trixie Belden are all mentioned in the young-at-heart nostalgic plot. Dramatic discoveries (and plot twists) are abundant. Unfortunately, the book follows the children’s mystery format of repeating the clues over and over until the reader feels as battered as a corpse. This results in the conclusion being very obvious from almost the first page.

Under Lock & Skeleton Key is great for those that remember their youthful excitement at solving the crime before the book's detective. It also would be a good choice for preteens who like to read mysteries. 3 stars.

Thanks to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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