ALICE was an unexpected but pleasant surprise for me. I don't read a lot of fantasy and I'm picky about retellings - unless they bring something new to the table, I don't really see the point in them. But ALICE was a dark, alien retelling of a familiar story, about a dystopian world run by sadistic crime lords, where magic is outlawed, and everyone fears for their lives - and sanity.
ALICE was a four star read that came close at several points to verging on five. The world-building was original, the villains were terrifying, and Alice was a strong character who managed to pay homage to her original namesake (I thought). Of course, when I saw book 2 was going up on Netgalley, I applied for an ARC immediately. And when I got said ARC, I did a little happy dance before settling back down to read.
Here's the thing. While reading ALICE, I was glued to the book. There were nights when I only got about 4 hours of sleep before working my overnight shift because I couldn't put the book down. It was so compulsively horrific that I had to find out what happened next. With RED QUEEN, I found myself reading complacently to a point, upon which I set it down and forgot about it for a little while. It isn't a bad book, it just doesn't have the same tight, compulsive writing style as before.
Alice managed to survive her adventures in the previous book and now, with Hatcher, continues on in her journey, which takes them to a small village on the edge of a blazing ruin. The place is glowing with magic, magic that belongs to three key players: red, white, and black...as well as another monster, a goblin, who is nothing like your mother's goblin king who was content to sing David Bowie songs while dancing around in a silver leotard. No, this goblin - he means business.
Henry weaves some celtic faerie lore in with this second book, and even manages to squeeze in that infamous quote - "off with her head!" - before the book is over. There was a clear effort and I do want to say that I could appreciate the consistency with the writing. The story, however, was completely different in tone and mood. If ALICE was Tim Burton, RED QUEEN is Angela Carter: unevenly paced, needlessly melodramatic, and aspiring to far more than it needs to to get the job done.
RED QUEEN was an okay sequel, but not great. I think it falls prey to that hated of all series-related conditions "middle book syndrome." I am curious to see how Henry chooses to bring this to a close, however (I'm assuming it's a trilogy), so all is not lost!
The last book I read by this author - ADORA - was so messed up that I almost gave it 5 stars for sheer daring alone. Even though her purple prose borders on ultraviolet, there's something about her style and her penchant for gleefully sadistic psychodramas that makes it hard to put the book down, no matter how raunchy & offensive it is.
DECEIVED is a completely different animal. ADORA took place in medieval times, during the end of the Ottoman Empire. DECEIVED takes place in Georgian-period England. It's about two step-sisters, Charlotte Calandra Kimberly and Charlotte Aurora Kimberly, who live on a sugar plantation in the Indies, on an island named St.Timothy that's a stone's throw away from Barbados.
When Aurora finds out that her father posthumously arranged for her to be engaged to be wed to the duke of Farminster, she is outraged, because she wants to marry for love and not because a pair of dead fathers said so. But the marriage contract never specifies exactly which sister is supposed to be married, and since Aurora and her step-sister both conveniently have the same first name (they go by their middle names to avoid confusion), Aurora cedes her inheritance (the plantation) to her half-sister with the understanding that Calandra will marry in her stead.
The duke, Valerian, thinks Calandra is beautiful, but there's something about headstrong Aurora that tickles his fancy, IYKWIM. And if you think his engagement to Aurora's sister stops him from spying on Aurora while she swims nude, pull up a seat, because you must be new here, and you're about to get schooled. Aurora is very much in tune with her sexuality and masturbates on the regular, but Calandra thinks of it with revulsion, and an awkward birds-and-bees talk with her mother and sister doesn't help (nor does an equally awkward, borderline incestuous mutual masturbation scene with her sister - thank you, Small, I was wondering when the weird sex stuff would rear its head).
Anyway, the marriage with Calandra goes through but horribly because Calandra has no interest in sex, and uses her duchess status to snub people she deems inferior while spending the duke's pocket money. He's not happy about this, and in his frustration, he begins to obsess over Aurora and what a better wife she would be (little does he know...). Eventually, we find out that Calandra hates men and sex in general because she was molested as a young girl by an overseer on the plantation. She confesses this to Valerian, who decides to deal with this information by raping her in order to get her with child. He shakes his head over it after the fact, bemoaning that she drove him to such acts.
Calandra gets pregnant and depressed. Aurora fights her attraction to the duke, and vice versa, while also waving her romance with his cousin, St. John, in his jealous face. Calandra ends up dying in childbirth, and we get to find out that her child was actually a deformed conjoined fetus (which, funnily enough, happened in ADORA, too). Valerian finds out that he married the wrong sister, and rapes Aurora before Calandra is cold in her grave, arranging for them to be married the day after. I guess this would probably be defined as "forced seduction" by the die-hards because there's a bit of "no-no-yes-yes-yes!!!" going on, and Aurora decides that her desires just can't be denied, after all.
The last third of the book is the most boring, because it's the section of the book where all the unresolved plotlines (i.e. the secondary characters) are resolved (i.e. punished or married, as befits their characters). Aurora and Valerian can't keep their hands off each other, but it's sooo scandalous because she's the widower's sister-in-law. Aurora ends up befriending Queen Charlotte & making all the jealous ladies jealous. One of Calandra's friends, whose name I can't remember or spell, makes a rather lame attempt to get revenge and sully Aurora's good name, and gets his comeuppance. I roll my eyes a lot at words like "love grotto" and "love juices". Also, the bad guy likes butt sex!
I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. There were several attempts to inject this book with some dime store feminism - about how terrible it is that men can sleep around and women can't, and how more women should masturbate because it makes sex less terrifying - but it doesn't really work, because all the men are very misogynistic and there is a lot of rapeyness. It feels censored, honestly, and since this book was written in the 1990s, I can't help but wonder if Small was starting to receive flack for the wild and outrageous plots of her earlier books from critics & was trying to tone it down.
Since I love me a good psychodrama, I read this book to the end. It was like candy; I finished it pretty much in one sitting. Like candy, it also didn't particularly sit well with me afterwards, but I didn't care, because candy is candy, and the regret is part of the reward. I would NOT recommend this book to people who are new to Bertrice Small, because her older books are much, much better. I also would not recommend this book to many of my feminist friends, because I think it would piss them off. But if you like romance novels that read more like malicious soap operas than actual depictions of love, then this is the book for you, my friend, this is the book for you.
Bertrice Small is the Regina George of historical romance; even if you hate her, you have to admit that she's inexplicably popular & her unapologetic in-your-face personality makes her hard to ignore. I find it amazing that I managed to avoid her books after all these years, despite reading so many historical romance books. I'd been told by many people that I should avoid her work because she was bad, but "bad" is highly subjective. Does Small write in lurid purple prose? Yes. Does she write about unpleasant and illicit activities? Yes. Including child abuse? Yes. Including bestiality? Yes (although not in this one). Including rape? Yes. Will you find the phrase "manroot" in here? I think you know the answer to that.
ADORA takes place in the late 14th century, during the late Ottoman Empire. Theadora is a Byzantine princess (part Greek) who ends up being forced to marry a man forty years her senior, the sultan, Orkhan. A child bride (only about 13), she waits out her days in the convent, where she ends up meeting the sultan's son, Murad, who thinks she is absolutely beautiful and wastes no time "grooming" her to be his sexual partner and future bride at the time of his aging father's death. His father's harem is so large, and Theadora so young, that Murad assumes that he will die before consummating the marriage. NOT SO, BOYS AND GIRLS. NOT SO.
With some intervention on Theadora's father's part, Orkhan ends up being nagged into having sex with his newest bride. And the sultan just so happens to be a pervert, so Theadora ends up getting raped on her marital night, along with some F/F action, sexy feathers, a long wooden phallus, and some bondage. She finds this humiliating, but knows that sex is power, so she decides to use the situation to her advantage and requests remedial sex lessons(!) in order to win Orkhan's heart so as to become his favorite.
Murad does not take kindly to this, and begins to hate Theadora, because he has fetishized the act of taking her virginity to such a great extent that he never (seriously, never) really gets over it. Because how dare she not fall into a weeping mess. Theadora dukes it out with Orkhan's other two wives, who of course are much less pretty, but eventually she has a son and the other two wives can suck it. Later, she ends up getting kidnapped by pirates, along with her son, and we find out that this is an assassination attempt executed by her jealous sister, Helena. But the pirate, who is named Alexander, thinks Theadora is sooo sexy he can't be bothered to kill her. He propositions Theadora, who is attracted to him but refuses out of loyalty to Orkhan, and after courting her for days, Alexander decides enough is enough, drugs her, and then after some F/F action and one wild, aphrodisiac-gobbling orgy later, Theadora thinks she's had the weirdest dream...
Alexander and Theadora end up together after the death of Orkhan, because Murad, in a wild fit of "we loves the precious! no, we hateses her!" invites her to be a part of his harem instead of his wife, and then actually calls her a whore. Because chicks - especially princess chicks - totally dig being called whores. Alexander and Theadora are very happy together, but jealous Helena and Murad are jealous (especially since Helenda propositioned Alexander, who lol'd and said she was too ugly and whorish). So Helena teams up with the sultan, arranges for Alexander to be assassinated, and then after that, for Theadora to be kidnapped and sold into slavery to the sultan.
Murad is basically a murderer. He's also a rapist. He rapes Theadora their first two times together. Then Theadora realizes that it's all her fault(!!!!!1!!) and comes to her senses and says, "Yes, I'm so happy you bought me as a sex slave," and begins to play harem politics in earnest while also currying favor with her husband and making the best of this situation. Harem politics get intense when Murad takes on another bride who, of course, hates Theadora. When sons get into the mix, things get really crazy, as everyone tries to force the emperor to play favorites, and nobody (except Theadora) wins.
ADORA has a lot of things in it that will either disgust, outrage, or squick people out. First off, the writing is very cheesy. Penises are called "manroots" and the heroine's breasts are referred to as "coral-tipped cones" many, many times. I did give this book bonus points for using the word "fuck" (and, more naughty still, "ass-fuck"), as that is a word that tends to be danced around in historical fiction romances published before the 1990s. There is also a lot of pedophilia. All the bad guys - and some of the good guys - have sex with underrage men and women. Which I guess happened somewhat more often back then, but that still doesn't mean that I'm cool with reading about it now, even if it was...*shudders*...canon. I'm sure this will upset some people, so be forewarned that it's in here, and yeah, it can be graphic. There's also some pretty brutal torture scenes. Especially towards the end, when one of the characters commits an act of treason and gets a pretty unpleasant and grotesque punishment that is, again, very detailed. And then there's the fact that every single love interest rapes Adora at least once.
If ADORA were written even slightly differently, I think I would have hated this book. It has so many subjects in it that I hate. But the plot is action-packed, and Bertrice clearly knows a thing or two about history. Even though I rolled my eyes or winced in disgust, I still couldn't put the book down. Imagine if V.C. Andrews co-opted GAME OF THRONES...I think that would be a pretty close approximation of what you could expect from this book. Icky sex, court intrigue, families dueling it out over power struggles, and rape. Books like these just aren't written anymore - to be honest, I don't think they could be...at least not traditionally - and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of speculation. I, personally, liked it, but I can see why others wouldn't.
P.S. Anyone else ever notice that in a Bertrice Small book, the villain always seems to have a thing for doing it up the butt? BECAUSE I NOTICED.
If you peruse the bodice ripper lists on Goodreads, you will consistently see two names near the very top the list: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsey. These two authors might not be the best writers in the genre, but they are prime examples of the most lasting and the most successful. I have a love-hate relationship with Woodiwiss's books - sometimes they're on on point, sometimes they miss the point - but I'd never actually read anything by Lindsey. I intended to rectify that.
FIRES OF WINTER is currently $1.99 on Amazon, as are some of the other first books in some of her other series, DEFY NOT THE HEART and WARRIOR'S WOMAN. I bought three of her books in three different genres - Medieval, Regency, and futuristic romance - to get a broad picture of her writing style. Since I like historical bodice rippers, I thought I'd start with FIRES OF WINTER.
FIRES is a Medieval Viking romance. The heroine, Brenna, is a Celt, pledged to a Viking by her father. She's unenthusiastic about the marriage but is willing to go through with it for the sake of honor. Brenna likes honor. And swords (no, that's not a sexual pun). The second most important thing that you need to know about Brenna is that she eschews anything feminine. When we first meet her, she's barging in to stop a rape, swinging her sword around while dressed in drag. Unfortunately, she doesn't stop the rape before it happens...but oh, well. She tried.
You probably noticed I said that's the second most important thing about Brenna. That's because the most important thing is that she's beautiful.
Anyway, the Vikings come and immediately start killing, raping, and pillaging, because the marriage was a lie. Not only do they not honor their agreements with the Celts (who they regard as their enemies because they once kidnapped the leader of their son and held him captive), but the man who was pledged to Brenna - Garrick - hates women and refuses to marry ever again. Why? Because some Bitchy McMeaners dumped him for a merchant with a full purse & he never got over it.
Brenna is the only woman who escapes being raped during the Viking raid because her glowering puts off the Vikings. They take her and the other Celtic women - including Brenna's half-sister, Cordella - to the Viking home, and Brenna is informed that she is a slave. She promptly throws the first of many temper tantrums, informing anyone who cares to listen that she doesn't do "woman's work." Nobody really punishes her for this. She gets lectured a lot instead, and at one point she gets thrown into a punishment cell - but the hero has second thoughts immediately afterward, so I'm not sure that really counts...
Speaking the hero, when Garrick comes back from his hunting trip, he's surprised to see Brenna in his bed. Especially what with his complete disavowal of women. But he's attracted to her, despite her stubbornness (and his hatred), and eventually rapes her after growing exasperated with her constant insults and refusal to do any sort of labor. Brenna is initially terrified because Cordella, who was jealous that her husband found Brenna way more attractive than she, has been feeding Brenna lies about how painful sex is, and how the act of intercourse is on par with torture or death. So after the first rape, Brenna actually thanks her rapist. Because she's like, "Oh, yay, that wasn't bad at all! NOW TO TEACH THAT LYING COW A THING OR TWO ABOUT HOW I FEEL ABOUT LIES."
Priorities. Brenna has them.
I think my biggest problem with this book is how the relationship between Garrick and Brenna plays out. Brenna's character is incredibly annoying. I could see how she could be a strong female character in another light, but the tantrums, crying, and inane arguments really made me dislike her, as did her insta-love with the hero. Garrick isn't much better. Because he got his heart broken by a woman, once, he's decided that all women, with the exception of his mother (who can do no wrong) must pay. I really hate the Madonna/whore complex, and Garrick has the worst case of it I've seen in ages.
The way rape is portrayed in this book is also problematic. I would consider what transpires between Brenna and Garrick rape, because most of the time, sex begins with her begging him or telling him not to. Most people would probably call this "forced seduction" because Brenna usually decides by the end of it that she's game after all, but it's still difficult to stomach. Especially since rape in this book is kind of divided into two categories: there's the hero's version of rape, where it always turns out to be good in the end, and then there's villainous revenge rape, where the rape is done by a bad guy because he gets off on pain or wants to hurt someone else through her, etc. etc.
Even Garrick himself admits it's rape, because at one point, Brenna asks him why he won't free her. Then he tells her that as a freewoman, she would have the right to refuse him as a lover, and he doesn't want to give that up. Yeah, you read that right. "I won't free you, because then I won't be able to legally rape you anymore." That just happened. It's there - in print.
Another problem is that not much happens. Maybe I could have mustered up some interest if this were crazysauce OTT goodness in the "it's so bad it's good" way, a la Betrice Small, but there are very few scenes with any action. There's an escape attempt, a surprising twist with the Other Woman that I did not see coming (which I appreciated), a couple fight scenes, and a birthing scene. Most of the book, though, consists of Brenna and Garrick arguing with each other, Brenna throwing another tantrum, and then Garrick getting frustrated and either a) threatening her with violence or rape, b) storming off to rage-hunt in the woods, or c) telling other men not to touch her. There are only so many times I can stand to see the heroine say, "Nay--nay!" This book danced all over that limit. Brenna says "Nay!" so many times, she's pretty much a horse. The overuse of "Nay" and "'tis" read more like written tics than they contribute to the historical accuracy of this book.
I can see why people might like FIRES OF WINTER - it has a lot of tropes that people find titillating (hero with issues, captive romance, Viking, "strong" heroine) - but this book wasn't for me at all. Trying to brush off the hero's rapes and portraying him as a "damaged" good guy caused the narrative to give off some unpleasantly mixed signals. Ditto Brenna's tomboyishness when juxtaposed with her completely irrational attraction to the man who treated her like dirt. I would have liked this book more if Garrick had been portrayed as the ruthless, unfeeling man he was & Brenna was portrayed as slightly less childish. But they weren't, so I didn't. I do love that cover, though. *_*
THE GOVERNESS AFFAIR is the fourth Courtney Milan book that I have plowed through this month. I regret nothing about this experiment, except for the fact that I have gone through all the books of hers that I already owned, so any further binges must be put on hold until I am able to obtain more books. Booooo.
GOVERNESS AFFAIR is the direct prequel to THE DUCHESS WAR. I think it could be read as a standalone, but reading it was also interesting in hindsight because it fleshed out some of the characters who were only alluded to in DUCHESS. This book is about the parents of one of the characters in THE DUCHESS WAR.
Hugo is known as the Wolf of Clermont because the Duke only has to snap his fingers before Hugo comes running in to deal with whatever problem is at hand. When a strange woman shows up one day, staging a quiet, sit-down protest outside of the Duke's estate, Hugo is surprised to learn that this quiet, not classically beautiful woman, is the latest problem.
Serena has good reason to hate the Duke, and she is determined to see that his dastardly deeds do not go unpunished, even if it means she has to wage war upon his intermediary first. The battle between Hugo and Serena is a battle of wills, and even as Hugo makes his attempts to crush her rebellion, he is curious to find out what, exactly, his employer has done to warrant such wrath.
I liked this book a little more than I did TALK SWEETLY TO ME, but that's mostly because of Hugo. Hugo is an amazing love interest. He's not quite as passive as most beta heroes, but he isn't exactly an alpha hero, either. I liked the power he had, and how he chose to wield it. Even though he was working for a bad man, he did not let that tarnish his personal sense of honor. Also, the sex scenes in this book are very good, featuring one scene in particular that was very inventive in how it went about showing that consent in sex can be very sexy, indeed.
I'm sorry to say that I did not particularly like Serena at all. I think she was probably my least favorite heroine out of all the Milan books I've read, which makes me unhappy, especially considering what this character had to go through. My problem her was that she struck me as very immature and a little petty. I would have liked to have seen her anger more fully realized, and to have gotten a better sense of her character beyond the victim mentality and the half-cocked quest for revenge.
That said, I enjoyed her banter with Hugo, and it was great to see her learn to trust again.
P.S. Milan seriously has the best romance novel covers ever. Just look at all those fabulous jewel-toned dresses on the covers. Looking at all the books she's published is like looking at a rainbow - especially in the new, as yet unpublished remainder of the Worth series.
Amelia Pembroke is a close approximation of what I imagine Mrs. Bennett was like as a young woman. She micromanages lovingly & is determined to make the best match for herself so she can move out of her brother's home. And what better place to meet a new beau than at the fête of the year?
Viscount Sheffield's parties are always full of men and women of the hour. But this year he has been forced to cancel because a bolt of lightning destroyed his dance hall. Amelia has ideas for replacements, though. She has contingency plans upon contingency plans set out for pretty much any occasion.
As Amelia forces herself into his life to set up the party (against his wishes), Sheffield finds himself developing first a healthy amount of respect for this stubborn and assertive woman, but then also admiration and even affection later on.
Since I just bought one of the full length novels in this series (I think it was THE BRIGADIER'S RUNAWAY BRIDE), it seemed like an opportune moment to test out the freebie I got. It wasn't a bad book, but Courtney Milan, whose works I just read, is a tough act to follow. Also, even for a short story, this moved much too fast. They went from hesitantly having crushes to totally being in love!
Imagine if Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino sat down at a table to do a book collaboration.
"Let's make a book with tons of over the top violence," Tarantino might say. "Sexual, physical, cannibalism - you name it!"
"Okay," Tim Burton might say. "But only if we get to ruin somebody's childhood classic with an existential nightmare set in a surrealistic landscape of angst and desolation."
"And let's have a female character go on a killing spree as she embarks upon a quest for revenge," Tarantino would add.
"Deal," Burton would finish, "just don't forget the purple spirals!"
That's kind of what ALICE is like. The eponymous main character, Alice, is not the Alice we know. She's a survivor of terrible acts she can't entirely remember, and imprisoned in a mental institution along with folks like Hatcher: a man ten years her senior who murdered his entire family with an axe.
When the two of them escape, they land up in a place purged of all magic, where evil crime lords have carved up the land into slices of terror and poverty and corruption. One of those crime lords is the man who raped and scarred Alice. Another is a brothel owner who tortures the girls in his employ. Another eats the girls he captures alive. And still another is dangerous because his motivations are completely secret. Alice and Hatcher have to deal with all of them in order to survive.
ALICE takes a while to get rolling. I actually started this months ago and lost interest around page 80. This time, I managed to finish the book, and let me tell you, once you hit page 100 or so, it's a nonstop thrill ride. To get the best effect of the world-building, I recommend reading this book at night. I had a graveyard shift last week, and as I headed to my car in the cold darkness, with mist circling the ground, and an eerie silence filling the air, it really did feel like the world of ALICE was not only possible, but also immediate. I locked the doors right away, just in case. ;)
The sequel is getting released this year. I'm hoping I can finagle an advanced copy, because that ending was frustratingly open-ended and I'm dying to find out what happens next.