Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" It has been quite some time since I've read a fantasy story other than Harry Potter, and I can't say that I've eve...moreReviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" It has been quite some time since I've read a fantasy story other than Harry Potter, and I can't say that I've ever read a science fantasy before. Even though the book was released some months ago, Vijaya Schartz sent me an ARC copy of White Tiger, so that I could get up to speed for the release of her latest book in the series, Red Leopard, this month (April 2010). I have to say that I'm so glad I got the opportunity to read and review it. Ms. Schartz has deftly melded futuristic technology with a pseudo-medieval society on a far distant planet known as New Earth. The human inhabitants of Old Earth (our present planet) crash landed there long ago, and because of the harsh conditions on this wintry planet, they had to fight for survival and lost most of their technology along the way, setting them back centuries. Then came the Godds, an alien race who the humans began to revere as deities because of their perceived benevolence and “magical” technology, but little did the humans know that they were to become mere pawns in a game of political intrigue. When White Tiger opens, the humans and Zerkers (humans who have reverted to an extreme barbaric state) are about to engage in a war, but neither side knows that they are being used as the military tools of the Godds and their mortal enemies, the Reptoids. In the midst of this brewing epic conflict, there is even more foul treachery afoot within the human ranks, and stuck in the middle are the Mutants (half-Godd/half-humans) who are genetically programmed to be loyal to the Godds and not interfere in the the affairs of humans but who long for a more human form of freedom. It all makes for a very complex story that kept me engaged wondering how all the evil-doers would possibly be overcome so that good would prevail in the end.
White Tiger is definitely a more plot-driven story which combines the elaborate fantasy world that I attempted to detail above with lots of intense actions sequences and intrepid adventure. The action scenes are part medieval warfare and part science fiction. The author doesn't try to gloss over the stark realities of primitive fighting, and the Zerkers in particular can be downright brutal and sadistic, leading to some rather gory scenes of violence. The hero and heroine embark on all sorts of adventures, both alone and in each other's company, as they battle to save both their races from total annihilation by nuclear and biological weapons as well as more primitive means. It took a little while to build the intricacies of the world and get everything up to speed, but once it takes off (which I would say is about ¼ of the way in), White Tiger becomes a very fast-paced story that rarely slows down until the final epilogue.
With all the action going on, there isn't a lot of really deep character development where the hero and heroine's emotions and motivations are explored in detail, but in those quieter moments, I felt like I got to know both Dragomir and Tora enough to really like them. Dragomir is the first and oldest Mutant on New Earth, and one of the Godds most trusted sons. He is a brave and skilled warrior, but also an honorable and compassionate man who doesn't like to see any living creature suffering, even the vile, barbaric Zerkers. I really liked that Dragomir was an intelligent man who thinks for himself and resents the Godds control over him and his fellow Mutants. In spite of his genetic predisposition for loyalty to the Godds, he maintains a certain independence and distance from them, not only in his thinking but also in his way of life. Tora, AKA White Tiger, is also a brave, strong warrior and one of the highest ranking and well-respected officers in the human army, but she has always known that she is different from other humans. Tora is seeking vengeance on the one who killed her father when she is called into battle. Sometimes tough, independent heroines can become annoying to me, but Vijaya Schartz seems to have a talent for creating the delicate balance between her female protagonist's self-reliant, kick-butt side that can confidently take on the vilest enemy by herself and her softer, more vulnerable side that enjoys the hero's love and companionship, while also exhibiting empathy for others. Tora was just such a heroine, and I really liked her and thought she was a great match for Dragomir.
I ended up having a hard time rating this book. I think this was because it seems to be primarily classified as a romance, yet I know that many readers would not be fully satisfied with the romantic element of the story. Dragomir and Tora are actually apart for a large part of the narrative and when they are together, there aren't a lot of deeply intimate interactions between them. There are a couple of mild to moderately descriptive love scenes, but not a great deal of sexual tension or relationship building leading up to them. There is an allusion to the possible life-mate type scenario which is often found in paranormal stories, but overall, I'd have to say that the attraction is mainly played as love-at-first-sight. Normally, this isn't my favorite way to start a love connection, but I wasn't overly bothered by it because of the strength of the other elements in the story. In some ways, I suppose that the adventures Dragomir and Tora shared, as well as their rescuing of one another, could be interpreted as a type of relationship building and expressions of love. At the very least, it added to the romanticism of the tale as a whole. If I had been rating the book solely on its fantasy, action and adventure elements, it would have been a five-star for sure, and even now, I was so intrigued by those things, I only feel the need to drop a half star for any misgivings I had about the romance.
In addition to everything else, there were lots of supporting characters to keep the plot moving along at a brisk clip and make it all interesting. Being the animal lover that I am, I was quite taken with the animal characters, particularly the big cats who were trained to fight alongside the humans, as well as the psychic connection that Dragomir and Tora share with them. I could clearly see the grace, beauty and ferocity of the cats in my mind's eye. I also had no trouble at all envisioning this fantasy world. The plot played out in my head like a movie or television show, and I couldn't help but think as I was reading that it would make a very good one. Overall, White Tiger was a very enjoyable story that had just the right amount of complexity to engage my intellect while entertaining me at the same time. Anyone who likes a good fantasy with lots of action and adventure and doesn't mind the love story taking a back seat should really enjoy this one. Other than my minor complaint about the romance, I can't think of a thing I didn't like about White Tiger. It has earned a spot on my keeper shelf, and I eagerly look forward to reading Red Leopard, the next book in The Chronicles of Kassouk very soon.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews Vijaya Schartz recently sent me an ARC copy of Red Leopard, the latest book in The Chronicles of Kassouk that was just release...moreReviewed for THC Reviews Vijaya Schartz recently sent me an ARC copy of Red Leopard, the latest book in The Chronicles of Kassouk that was just released this month (April 2010). The story picks up eighty years after the end of White Tiger, the first book of the series. Throughout this time, peace has reigned on New Earth, but things get shaken up when a Goddian ship visits the planet on a geological mission. Their leader, the Goddian princess, Galya, is there to search for a rare red crystal which has prime hyper-conductor properties, but her mutinous crew has other ideas. They temporarily join forces with another vile betrayer on the planet who is a former member of the Mutant Princes Council. With the King and Queen off-planet on a diplomatic mission, the human, Terek, aka Red Leopard, is left in charge of the council, and in the process of fending off the invasion, he discovers his ultimate destiny as a legendary prophecy regarding his people begins to unfold. It all made for another good read in this fantasy romance series that is packed with action and adventure.
Terek and Galya were really two peas in a pod. Both are highly educated and trained as warriors for their respective races, but neither feels like they truly belong. Terek is the only human on the Princes Council and as such is resented by some Mutant members of the council who still believe themselves superior to humans. Because he was a rare human who was educated and allowed access to Mutant technology, Terek doesn't really fit in among his own people either. Little does he know that his future lies in an ancient prophecy surrounding Yalta, the land of his birth, deep in Zerker territory. I like that Terek is humble and doesn't take the prophecy nor his heritage lightly. He has worked hard to become the man he is and to temper his baser nature through meditation which keeps his genetic temperament in check. Galya is a Godd by birth but considered defective by her race, because she looks human and has a much shorter human life-span. She only received command of her ship because her father is a high-ranking Godd, and she is regarded as unfit for reproduction. Due to her perceived imperfections and the highly paternal culture of the Godds, most of her Goddian crew members don't think very highly of her, and her second in command actually resents her being in charge. To add fuel to the fire, once on New Earth, Galya exhibits an “abnormal” fascination with all things human and an empathy for their cause. I initially wasn't quite sure how the author would make a Godd character sympathetic, because they had, for the most part, been portrayed as oppressors in the first book. Galya's status as a misfit among her own people and her concern for humans which the other Godds didn't exhibit, left me having no trouble at all warming up to her. The only thing that gave me pause is that at one point she thinks of seducing Terek to get control of the red crystal mine, but at least she came to her senses pretty quickly and realized she loved him too much to take unfair advantage. Galya was also another one of Vijaya Schartz's heroines who is a tough warrior but has a sweetness about her that makes her easy to like.
Red Leopard has an extensive cast of secondary characters. King Dragomir and Queen Tora, the hero and heroine of White Tiger make an appearance and are mentioned throughout the story as still being the benevolent and respected rulers of Kassouk after all these years. Lady Leah, the Mutant healer who was also introduced in book #1 plays a fairly significant role in Red Leopard, but I did find myself wondering where her mate was as he didn't appear in this book. I couldn't help but like the straight-talking Zerker, Brock. Once he comes around to Terek's cause, he becomes his best friend and most ardent supporter which is something I thought Terek really needed. Then there are the evil baddies, General Kyril, the Godd who betrays Galya, and Yaman, the former Mutant Prince who has gone rogue. Both of them keep everyone one their toes. Last but not least was Terek's feline friend, Rascal, a red leopard of course. Once again, I loved the use of big cats who act as brave warriors alongside their human handlers. Unlike Dragomir and Tora in the first book, Terek doesn't have a psychic connection to Rascal, but the cat does have a very high level of intelligence and understanding. I loved how Rascal was Terek's faithful companion and defender throughout nearly the entire story.
I really like how Vijaya Schartz has taken all the different races and cultures in this series and mingled them together with each one playing an important role in the ultimate destiny of New Earth. Although some of the races (or at least certain individuals) try to subjugate others, she makes it clear that all of the people are important. At the end of White Tiger, she even foreshadowed a future for the formerly barbaric Zerkers which played out in Red Leopard. I've read enough of Ms. Schartz's work now to know that her writing style tends to focus more on the fantasy and action/adventure elements with the romance playing a role but not necessarily being front and center. That said, I thought that the romance was perhaps a little stronger in Red Leopard than it was in the first book. This time, the hero and heroine were in each others' company for most of the story which gave them more opportunity for their chemistry to develop, although their burgeoning love does still come about fairly quickly.
Overall, I really liked Red Leopard, but there were a few things that I thought could have been a little better. Although a lot of events take place within the narrative, the pacing of Red Leopard just didn't seem quite as tight and snappy as it was in White Tiger, and I thought the plot was a bit more predictable too. I didn't find myself sucked into the story quite as thoroughly or as eager to get back to it when I had to put it down as I was with the first one. It was also quite a bit longer as well, and I found myself loosing track of some of the finer plot points as the story progressed. I'm willing to admit though that it might have been my issue more than the book's, as I was pretty tired while reading certain parts of it and may not have been as focused as I could have been. There were a few minor areas where I thought that transitions could have been smoother and/or things explained better, such as where Galya's Goddian crew in the final chapters came from. I could surmise in context that they simply weren't all killed in battle like I initially thought and had resumed their positions, but that wasn't entirely clear to me. Since I was reading an unedited ARC, it's possible that some of these little things might have been cleaned up before the final copy was released. Overall, Red Leopard was another entertaining read in The Chronicles of Kassouk which I am enjoying so far. I'll be interested to see if the author gives readers any more clues about the ancient race that preceded both humans and Godds on New Earth, and I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing more of my favorite characters from the series when it continues in November 2010 with the release of Black Jaguar.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews Vijaya Schartz sent me an ARC of her latest novel, Black Jaguar, for review, and I'm pleased that she once again gave me the o...moreReviewed for THC Reviews Vijaya Schartz sent me an ARC of her latest novel, Black Jaguar, for review, and I'm pleased that she once again gave me the opportunity to read one of her stories. Ms. Schartz's books have been consistently enjoyable for me, and Black Jaguar was no exception. It was yet another worthy entry into The Chronicles of Kassouk series.
Black Jaguar fast-forwards about 30-40 years from where the previous book in the series ended. It opens with Kahuel aka Black Jaguar, Prince of Yalta and son of Terek and Galya from book #2, Red Leopard, sailing away to the far eastern continent on his brother's ship. Accompanying them is Esperana, Princess of Kassouk and daughter of Dragomir and Tora from book #1, White Tiger. She is on an unsanctioned mission to find out more about her ancestry. Interference from an unknown alien race causes them to be shipwrecked on a island that no one knew existed and which they soon discover is inhabited by a group of indigenous humans with psychic abilities known as The Chosen. Kahuel and Esperana develop romantic relationships with the sibling Prince and Princess of the island, Vanaru and Talina, but both of their romances may be doomed when the alien Estrell aka the Star People, try once again to kill the “foreigners” in an attempt to keep The Chosen isolated for their experiments purposed to prevent the extinction of the Estrell race.
Kahuel and Talina are the main hero and heroine of the novel, and I really liked them both. Talina is a little different than the other heroines of the series in that she wasn't raised and trained as a warrior. She isn't really the kick-butt heroine I'm used to seeing from Vijaya Schartz, but in some ways, I related to her better because of that. Talina is a peaceful, gentle soul whose psychic and empathic abilities tie her to all people and animals, making the death of any one of them a very painful experience for her. She may not have innate warrior tendencies, but she is a bit of a rebel, being the first to question the Star People's motives for associating with The Chosen. She defied her brother to save Kahuel, and she was bravely willing to stand up for what she thought was right and fight when the freedom of her people was at stake.
By going on this mission, Kahuel hoped to turn over a new leaf and leave his dissolute, libertine past far behind. However, that past catches up to him rather quickly when he realizes that Talina's people value chastity very highly which causes some fairly serious conflict when he beds Talina not realizing he's making a lifetime commitment or that she expected him to virginal as well. I thought Kahuel had a great balance between being tough and being tender. He is a strong warrior with the Zerker blood of his ancestors running through his veins, and also really steps up to the plate to lead the human contingency on the mission when his brother is killed. Still, he had more gentle moments which were evidenced not only in his interactions with Talina, but also in the connection to his jaguar, Diablo. I was impressed with his open-mindedness toward Talina's people and his willingness to forgo hunting and eating meat in deference to their beliefs. In my opinion, he proved his worthiness as a mate for Talina by willingly putting his life on the line for her more than once.
The beginning of Kahuel and Talina's romance had a rather enchanting quality to it with them meeting by a waterfall in the jungle. They have something of a curious attraction, just wanting to know more about one another. I really enjoyed these parts, but beyond that, there isn't as much relationship development or building of sexual tension as I would typically expect from a romance novel before the consummation and declarations of love. I've come to realize though that this is just the author's style. She tends to play the romantic angle as more of a love at first sight scenario and is simply stronger on the action, adventure and fantasy elements which is OK, as I enjoy those parts too. It's kind of like watching a good sci-fi movie in my head with a sweet little romance on the side.
I think this may be the first of Vijaya Schartz's books I've read that had a secondary romance. Being a Mutant, Princess Esperana can seem a little cold and aloof, but not enough to make me dislike her. She is trained as a warrior like her parents, and she exhibits intelligence and confidence. I liked that she was seeking out her heritage. Prince Vanaru could be rather stubborn, initially remaining steadfastly loyal to the Star People even though their orders fly in the face of everything The Chosen have been taught so far, and he is also none too pleased with Kahuel and Talina's relationship. He does come around though, and I liked when he started thinking for himself. Vanaru and Esperana's romance is sweet and limited to looks, touches and Vanaru's thoughts about Esperana. There was even a bit of romance for the alien villains with the leader of the Estrelle hoping to “ride off into the sunset” with one of his ship's female officers. Last, but not least, I love how the big cats always play a significant role in this series fighting alongside their masters, and perhaps as a reward, even Diablo found a love interest.:-) I also really enjoyed spending time with Dragomir and Tora and Terek and Galya again, as well as seeing that both couples are still very much in love after so many years have passed.
As with the first two books in the series, Black Jaguar took a little time to get up to speed (about ¼ of the way in), but once it got going, there was virtual non-stop action. One small complaint I had was that the formatting of the dialog and mind-talk was done in such a way that I often found myself confused as to who was speaking. Glancing ahead and/or re-reading certain parts usually cleared that up, and I'm willing to allow that since I was reading the ARC version, perhaps this was cleaned up before final publication. Overall, Black Jaguar was an enjoyable read. It will be interesting to see if there is any more story for Esperana and Vanaru and whether the fate of the Estrell eggs that were implanted in The Chosen females will be revealed. Although I don't know much about it yet, Blue Lioness, the next book in The Chronicles of Kassouk, is due to be released in August 2011, and Ms. Schartz also has a prequel to the series, Noah's Ark, in the works for 2012, which will tell the story of the settling of New Earth. I look forward to reading both when they come out.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews Blue Lioness was another enjoyable read in the Chronicles of Kassouk. If my memory and calculations are correct it picks up ab...moreReviewed for THC Reviews Blue Lioness was another enjoyable read in the Chronicles of Kassouk. If my memory and calculations are correct it picks up about a century after the third book, Black Jaguar ended. I was sad to see Dragomir and Tora, the King and Queen of Kassouk and the hero and heroine of White Tiger, murdered in the opening chapter. In fact, with this book taking place so far into the future, I cannot help but presume that all the past heroes and heroines of the series are now dead and gone. There were a few other characters from previous books, Mutants with a long enough lifespan, that were able to return. Dragomir and Tora's daughter, Esperana came back in a supporting role and is said to be a matriarch of the Star Children. Her exact relationship to them is not spelled out, but since she fell in love with Vanaru, the leader of The Chosen who it appears evolved into the Star Children, I assume that she is probably an ancestor. It also was not said what became of her romance with Vanaru, but perhaps her lifespan outlasted his. Lady Naya, one of the Mutant Princesses, who if memory serves was in all of the previous books, is Areila's grandmother. Also returning was the evil Brother Kohl as the villain. He had been Dragomir's archenemy and was exiled by the King in White Tiger. I had been quite curious at the end of Black Jaguar as to what would become of the Estrell eggs which had been implanted into the Chosen, and although once again, it was not spelled out in so many words, it's pretty obvious that Starro and his people are descended from them. I guess one could say that Blue Lioness is primarily a next generation story in the Chronicles of Kassouk, but there are also some threads from previous stories that are picked up again.
Starro is a sweet, gentle beta hero. Normally, I'm not as likely to go for the bald guys, but it just goes to show that I'm equal opportunity and beauty is more than skin-deep to me, as Starro is now the second bald hero in as many months that I've been crazy about. As a Star Child, he is a pacifist who reveres all life, and he also values chastity until bonding with his life-mate, making him a rare virgin hero. However, his collective mind connection with his people and with Ariela gives him knowledge that makes him a good lover in spite of his inexperience. I absolutely loved his special powers: telepathy, telekineses, the ability to heal both himself and others, just to name a few. They are exactly the type of powers I would want if I were a superhero. I must say that for all of Starro's supposed arrogance and superiority, he didn't really come off seeming that way to me. I'll grant that he did once or twice come out and say that the Star Children were a superior race, so maybe it was just because I was rather in awe of his powers that it seemed to me like he was simply speaking the truth, but not in a hurtful or purposely condescending way. Starro did act a bit differently when he was among his own people than he did when he was with the humans in Kassouk, and I'm not entirely clear as to why that was. His easy acceptance of Ariela as his life-mate and his willingness to do things that went against the teachings of the Star Children made it obvious to me that he had a distinctive way of thinking that was unlike the belief system in which he was raised. I really wish that the reasons for that had been more fully explored, but overall, Starro was a really sweet guy that I couldn't help but like.
Ariela is another one of Vijaya Schartz's kick-butt heroines, except that she didn't seem to have as much of a softer, more vulnerable side as many of the author's other female leads. She is a trained warrior who is as skilled in combat as any man, and is the captain of an elite garrison of soldiers know as the Black Swords. It can be difficult to be respectful of another race's culture while still being who one is inside, so I did understand and admire Ariela for wanting to maintain her individuality when she was among the Star Children. However, Ariela seemed to go back and forth a lot. One minute she can be loving and adoring of Starro and the next be irritated with him for being arrogant and condescending, or she might go from being in awe of his powers to being fearful of them in a heartbeat. I already addressed Starro's supposed arrogance, and since he had never harmed her and tried very hard not to harm anyone else with his powers unless it was for the greater good, I didn't quite understand her reasoning. Ariela was highly educated by her grandmother, and although the Star Children's powers went beyond anything she had personally experienced before, she couldn't entirely claim ignorance of such things. I can also understand a person running an emotional gamut, but I just think I needed a little more insight into her thinking processes to fully grasp her feelings about these things.
As I've come to expect of Vijaya Schartz's novels, the actual romance is pretty low-key. I did really enjoy the psychic connection between Starro and Ariela. The way he spoke directly into her mind and called her “Beloved” was not only a great way to break the ice, but also kept up some semblance of romance throughout the story. There is only one mild love scene, but because of Starro and Ariela's mind-link, I think it may have been the most intimate scene I've read in one of Ms. Schartz's novels. Them being able to share pleasure through that mental/emotional link, as well as physically, made it almost as sensual for me as if the scene had been more detailed and explicit.
I have to admit that I occasionally had a little trouble figuring out who I should root for. Starro and Ariela were pretty much continuously likable, while Kohl and his son, Kaleb were certainly the primary antagonists. However, some of the other characters tended to fall in between. I guess with any race there are good and bad elements within it, and the humans, Mutants, and Star Children were no exception. I was especially uncertain about the Star Children. Starro is one of them, and I thought since he was a good guy, that all his people might be too. Ariela was also relying on an alliance with them to defeat Kohl, which I thought would place them squarely on the side of good, but as it turned out, they could be rather selfish and very similar to their ancestors, the Estrelle, who were the villains of the last book. The only character who didn't have any ulterior motive was Hellion, Areila's lioness companion. At least animals can always be counted on to be uncomplicated.:-) Overall, Blue Lioness was another fun, action-packed fantasy novel from Vijaya Schartz that I enjoyed. I'll now be looking forward to the release of the Chronicles of Kassouk prequel, Noah's Ark, which is due to be released in Feb. 2012. Maybe I'll finally get to learn about the mysterious ancient beings who built many of the structures on Kassouk before the humans arrived.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.(less)