Not gonna lie, I’ve always been hard on the romances in my fiction. While I have nothing against romance, I’ve always said that if there’s going to be a romance arc in any book, it needs to be convincing—not to mention I also want the characters, plot and other story elements to be strong. It also helps when a novel is upfront with the reader on what to expect. In the case of Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, it is an example of a sci-fi romance mashup that handles all these points very well.
The protagonist of this tale is Lady Ada of High House von Hasenberg. As the fifth of six children, her usefulness to her family only extends to her marriageability into one of the other High Houses, and only so that her father can have a spy in a rival’s house. To avoid that fate, Ada ran away years ago and has since survived on her own by living under the radar on space stations and mercenary ships. But unfortunately, her luck has just run out. As our story begins, Ada finds herself in a holding cell with another high-profile prisoner named Marcus Loch aboard a bounty hunter’s ship, soon to be handed off to Richard of High House Rockhurst, the man she was supposed to marry. Though Ada knows better than to trust Loch, a known dangerous criminal, she’s also aware he’s her only chance to escape. And so, the two of them strike up a tenuous alliance, agreeing to work together until they make it some place safe. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Loch is hot as hell and has the body of a Greek god.
However, Richard is not about to give up so easily. For some reason, House Rockhurst is really keen on having his and Ada’s arranged marriage go forward, presumably to get their hands on her dowry. But what exactly is it that they want? And why does Richard also seem to want to capture Loch as badly as he wants Ada? As our two fugitives go on the run together, they end up finding the answers to all these questions and more. In order to protect her house and prevent war, Ada will need to recruit more help and put a stop to Rockhursts’ plans. Meanwhile, she’s also realizing that Loch is more than he seems. He’s certainly not the heartless mercenary she had expected him to be, and as the two of them grow closer, Ada must also admit to herself that Loch has become more to her than just an escape plan.
In case it’s not glaringly obvious, Polaris Rising is mostly a romance first, and a genre novel second. By that, I mean it can be awfully self-indulgent at times, being predominantly interested in focusing the attention on the romance arc between Ada and Loch, and it does that boldly with no apology. For one, the plot is light and leaky and doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. World-building elements are plentiful but just robust enough to get by. Characters are also on the conventional side, with Ada being your typical heroine with a fierce personality and a strong independent streak, while Loch is even more clichéd as the tall, dark, brooding and possessive alpha male whose sculpted face and abs appear to be his main appeal. As they’re both archetypal to an extent, neither instilled much likeability at the beginning, though credit where credit’s due: both scored high on the believability meter. Ada and Loch are flawed characters each dealing with a painful event in their past. Ada’s prevents her from letting anyone get close, while Loch has done some terrible things that he’d rather forget. Again, it’s not the most original setup, resulting in drama that could have been predicted from miles away. And yet, the emotional growth they each experienced was convincingly written and fun to watch, and in the end, isn’t that why we read such stories?
Another point for this book: the supporting cast. Characters like Veronica, Rhys, and Bianca are fully-fleshed individuals in their own right, adding much flavor to the story (not to mention a nice break from the smoldering gazes our two protagonists are constantly throwing at each other). Even if romance isn’t your thing, you’ll love the meaningful relationships that these other characters add to the equation. And ultimately, that’s what I enjoyed most about Polaris Rising—the fact that there’s so much else to like beyond the main romantic arc. In spite of the light world-building, there is also a clear and strong effort to make the sci-fi setting as authentic and full-bodied as possible. It feels developed from the ground up along with the story, and not as though it was slapped on as an afterthought. And of course, if you’re here for the romance you’ll leave very happy, but those of us who require an actual plot with some action too will certainly not be disappointed either. Mihalik manages to balance the sexy times with enough suspense and thrills so that neither aspect overshadows the other, leaving both coming through very naturally.
Overall, I had a really good time with Polaris Rising. Admittedly, the romance genre is still not something I can take in large doses, but I love throwing a book like this into my reading repertoire whenever I feel like I need a change. Like a rich, fluffy, decadent dessert, I can only read these types of novels once in a while, but whenever I do, it’s always oh so satisfying and delicious....more
The first and only other book I’ve ever read by Grace Draven is Master of Crows, and clearly she has come a long way in the almost ten years since then. What hasn’t changed at all though, is her knack for writing a swoon-worthy fantasy romance. Speaking of someone who typically stays away from this subgenre, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Phoenix Unbound.
Set in a world inspired by the bloodier and more decadent elements of the Roman Empire, this story follows the journey of two people thrust together under unfortunate circumstances. Every year during the Rites of Spring, the capital holds a lavish festival in which a great bonfire ceremony takes place requiring each village to offer up a young woman as sacrifice to be burned alive. However, the village of Beroe has a secret: for the last five years, they have sent the same woman. Gilene is her name, and as a fire witch, she cannot be burned. Using her magic, she changes her appearance, takes her place on the pyre, and then conjures up an illusion of a grand inferno to mask her escape so that she can survive to do it all over again in a year’s time. While this process is painful, demoralizing, and traumatic, Gilene sees it as her sacred duty to perform, as it means sparing the other young women in her village a horrifying fate.
But this year, she did not anticipate Azarion. For close to a decade, he has been forced to fight in the brutal arenas to satiate his empress’s bloodlust, becoming a gladiator of much renown. And for some reason, he can see through Gilene’s illusions. Using her as a key to his escape, Azarion kidnaps Gilene after the ceremony, threatening to expose her secret if she doesn’t accompany him back to his village and help him reclaim his birthright. Trusting in his people’s reverence for fire witches, he hopes that Gilene’s support would allow him to challenge for the role of clan head, a position that was his before a traitorous cousin sold him into slavery. Thinking of Beroe and her own family, Gilene has no choice but to do what he says, realizing that the sooner Azarion can get his revenge, the sooner she can return home and prevent more death. What she didn’t foresee, however, was how the idea of home would also change for her.
I’ll admit it. There’s a lot of fantasy romance fiction out there that makes me want to cringe, tear my hair out with frustration, or roll my eyes at the cheesiness of it all. Apparently though, I’ve just been reading all the wrong books. Phoenix Unbound is proof that good writing can make all the difference. Building a believable, complex romance is an art, and too many authors try to rush the process without first establishing a connection between the characters. It is a step that becomes even more critical when considering relationships like the one between Gilene and Azarion. Hate-to-love romances are immensely popular, but I find they also get bungled a lot in many books, mainly because timing and rhythm have to be just right. Happily, Draven doesn’t miss a beat. Readers already know Gilene and Azarion will fall in love, but the narrative makes them (and us) work for it, drawing out their courtship and delaying the gratification until the two characters are emotionally invested in each other, and we’re emotionally invested in them.
This does mean the romance takes longer to develop, but it’s worth it, and I think the results speak for themselves. Far from making me want to cringe (or tear my hair out, or roll my eyes) the final scene in the book almost moved me to tears because it was so perfect and beautiful. Plus, I can’t say the measured pacing of the romance really bothered me at all, since there was so much else going on in the story to occupy my attention. Despite some of the more well-trodden tropes, there are many other aspects of the book that feel genuine and unique, like the personalities of the characters, both major and minor. Each person comes across as real and lived-in, with distinct attitudes, motivations, strengths and flaws. Draven also brings her Fallen Empire world to life with lushly described details and stunning imagery, instilling feeling into her environments which provides an extra emotional layer to the events and character interactions playing out on the page.
My point is, Phoenix Unbound isn’t simply about a love story. It is the full package. Grace Draven has been working hard at her craft, and it shows. This book is full of beautiful and tragic moments, scenes of both ferocious violence and intense passion. The exquisite slow-burning romance between Gilene and Azarion is balanced with outstanding characterization and world-building, fueling my enthusiasm and interest in the story as its developments unfolded. Fantasy romance authors and readers take note, because this is the way it should be done. This novel drew me in completely, and I hope we’ll be seeing more from this universe....more
Described as one half of a “bold two-tiered release”, The Shape of Water is the companion novel to the Guillermo del Toro film of the same name. But what exactly does this mean? Curiosity piqued, I decided to do some digging around, and found out that the idea for a story about a mute woman falling in love with an imprisoned river monster actually came to author Daniel Kraus when he was a teenager. In the years that followed, he continued to incubate the concept, until a meeting with del Toro became the spark that motivated Kraus to finally write the novel. The director also expressed interest in turning the idea into a movie, and so, both projects went forward at the same time while the two creators kept in touch. Eventually though, Kraus decided he wanted to finish his book without knowing any more about the film, so at that point both author and director agreed to each proceed with their own individual interpretation of the story.
As a result, while there are many similarities between the movie and novel, there are quite a few differences as well. The key elements, however, are the same: the setting is 1962 Baltimore, at the height of the Cold War; the protagonist is Elisa Esposito, a woman who has been mute her whole life; and the conflict begins when Elisa, working as a night janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, meets and falls in love with the laboratory’s top secret asset—an amphibious man captured from the Amazon.
From the moment Elisa first laid eyes on him, she was enraptured by his terrifying beauty. He was worshipped as a god where he came from, but now he is a prisoner and an experiment to be studied for Cold War advancements. Day after day, he is tormented by Richard Strickland, the soldier who spent nearly two years hunting rumors of a “fish man” through the South American rainforest before he finally caught up with his prey. At the research center, Elisa is the only person who shows the creature any kind of compassion, secretly teaching him sign language so the two of them can communicate. Later, when Strickland’s plans to dissect the amphibious man come to light, Elisa and her friends risk everything to save her beloved with the help of an impassioned scientist who is also an undercover Russian spy.
I opted to watch the movie before tackling this book—a decision I’m glad I made, because I think it helped me understand and appreciate the story more fully once I experienced both mediums in this order. There are differences between them, but not really so much that calling this one a novelization would be wholly inaccurate, since after all, both film and book follow the same basic plotline and events. And yet, what I got here also turned out to be much more than what I watched on screen. One major difference comes to light right off the bat, with the book opening on Strickland’s POV as he makes his trek through the Amazon jungle trying to capture the river creature. The novel definitely gives us a more well-rounded picture of the story’s villain—not enough to get us to truly sympathize with him perhaps, but these early chapters do go a long way in explaining why he might be so messed up. The second major difference in the book version is the subplot involving Strickland’s wife Lanie, whose character was almost a non-entity in the film. In contrast, she is a powerful presence in the novel, her sections adding a great deal of depth to the story by expanding the narrative beyond the events taking place at Occam.
Other than that, the characters and their roles are generally very similar between both versions. Readers do get to enjoy a few extra perks in prose form, however, namely being able to get into the heads of the characters, thus gaining more insight into their thoughts and emotions. Supporting personalities like Zelda, Giles, and Mr. Hoffstetler were all better developed, and once or twice, we even get brief glimpses into the mind of the amphibian man himself. Since neither he nor Elisa could speak in the film, audiences were limited with regards to the interpretion of what the characters were thinking or feeling, but this was obviously not an issue in the book where readers were actually able to experience the story from their perspectives.
The writing was also beautiful, and there were definitely a few scenes in this tale where only the written format could do them justice. Unfortunately, those were not the love scenes, which, as some other reviewers have already pointed out, were dismally bad. To be fair though, I was never too keen on the romance to begin with; Elisa’s character always struck me as too guileless and practically childlike, while the narrative kept driving home the point that the creature was at his core an animal. With these images in mind, thinking about the two of them together simply became a little too disturbing and off-putting.
Still, narratively speaking, overall The Shape of Water was a fascinating and worthwhile journey. Although I was unable to enjoy the romance on an emotional level, I nonetheless felt a connection with many of the characters, and the premise itself appealed to my sense of wonder and imagination. I would highly recommend this book if you enjoy character-driven stories with a touch of the uncanny and fantastical, or if you are interested in the subgenre many have come to describe as fairy tales for the modern age.
Audiobook Comments: I was quite impressed with the narration by Jenna Lamia, whose lilting voice made for a good fit with this novel. She brought the tale to life with her pitch-perfect tones, accents, and inflections, adding another layer of personality to the characters. It made for a very rich and enjoyable listening experience....more
When I first learned of Dragonshadow, I admit I was taken a bit by surprise. I honestly hadn’t expected a sequel to Heartstone, mainly because the first book did such a good job of being a faithful retelling of Pride and Prejudice, albeit set in a high fantasy setting. Things ended well for our protagonists Aliza Bentaine and Alastair Daired, and I thought that was the end of that.
But apparently, the author had more planned for her characters, and I suppose in this world full of magic and extraordinary monsters, I should have anticipated the possibility of more stories. Dragonshadow picks up not long after the end of Heartstone, which saw the dragonriders prevail over the monstrous forces at the Battle of North Fields. Aliza and Alastair are now married, enjoying the final few days of their honeymoon when an unexpected visit from a messenger arriving from the Castle Selwyn forces them to return home early. It appears that an unknown monster has been terrorizing the rural countryside, killing other preternatural creatures for their precious hearts. But now a young serving girl has gone missing, and everyone fears that the monster must have taken her too.
Reminded of the way her own little sister had been attacked and killed by a wild gryphon, Aliza’s heart immediately goes out to the people of Castle Selwyn, and she convinces Alastair to take the contract. Not content to remain at home, however, she also persuades him to let her come along. The journey will be long and arduous, taking them through dangerous territory infested with monsters, but Aliza knows in her heart this is something she must do, or else she will forever be left behind and shut out of the most important part of her husband’s life.
As unexpected as this sequel was, I am happy that we got it. After the first book, I think many readers, myself included, were keen to know more about this world beyond the Jane Austen elements. I wouldn’t say the story was one of Heartstone’s strong points, mainly because Elle Katharine White was working under so many constraints in order to follow the original plot of Pride and Prejudice so closely, though she more than made up for it with her incredible world-building. Hence, the more I thought about it, Dragonshadow seemed like the perfect opportunity for the author to further spread her wings and explore her characters and develop her storytelling more fully.
This moment, I’m pleased to say, was not wasted. With retellings you always run the risk of readers having preconceived notions of how your characters should think and act, using their familiarity with the original work as a template. However, Elle Katharine White immediately leapt to the task of making these characters her own. The attention is shifted to more serious matters, now that the honeymoon period is literally over. Every marriage comes with its own unique problems, and Aliza is trying to figure out her new role as a dragonrider’s wife, knowing she has certain traditions to uphold. However, she also has her own hopes and dreams for the future and is reluctant to let Alastair shoulder all his responsibilities without her, a thread of conflict that runs though much of this book. That said, their love for each other remains unshakeable, and romance still plays a prominent role in this book, only now it feels even deeper and more meaningful.
I was also glad to see this sequel expand the world that so enchanted me in Heartstone. There was much less focus on dragons and their lore in this one, sad to say, but this also gave the author a chance to show off other aspects of the setting, because there is so much more to this series. The story is a mix of mystery and drama, as Aliza and Alastair come in contact with all sorts of amazing fantastical creatures in their quest to discover who or what it is responsible for all the killings, and why the two of them might have become targets themselves. White puts our couple through plenty of challenges and ordeals, both physical and emotional. It’s heartbreaking, but also rewarding in the end to watch the characters support and pull each other through hard times.
If you liked Heartstone, I would highly recommend picking up Dragonshadow, especially if you enjoyed the general concept and wanted to see more. With this sequel, I felt the series has come into its own, moving beyond any restrictions a retelling would have placed on characters and plot. I felt that Elle Katharine White took full advantage of her new freedom to deeply explore Aliza and Alastair’s relationship, and fans of fantasy adventure and romance should find plenty to sink their teeth into with this one.
Audiobook Review: I was fortunate enough to also receive a listening copy of Dragonshadow in audio, which I enjoyed just as much as the print version. I wasn’t familiar with Billie Fulford-Brown as a narrator, though she sounded very familiar and had a distinct elegance to her voice that I felt was perfectly suited for Aliza. She did a wonderful job and brought an extra layer of dynamism to the experience.
I feel like this book and I could have gotten along better, had I known more about its background and context. Or maybe not, because in essence, this kind of paranormal YA romance is generally not my bag at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what kind of book this was until after I started; nevertheless, I still gave it my best shot, but in the end, I simply couldn’t connect to either the characters or story.
The Darkest Star, while being the first book of a new series, is a spin-off marking Jennifer L. Armentrout’s return to her Lux universe, and one of her side characters from it, called Luc, gets the spotlight in this one. Co-starring with him is our narrator, seventeen-year-old Evie Dasher. The story begins as Evie and her friend sneak into a club that’s known to be friendly to both humans and the alien Luxen. Although it has been several years since the end of the war between the two species, some of the tension and hostilities are still there.
At the club, Evie meets Luc, whom she is sure is a Luxen, since he is by far the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. But as it turns out, he is much more—and to Evie’s confusion, he appears to know a lot about her and her family. No matter what she does, everything seems to lead back to him. And now there is a murderer on the loose, and among the victims is one of Evie’s classmates. The manner of death suggests that the perpetrator may be a Luxen, which is causing no small amount of fear and anti-alien sentiment at Evie’s school.
To the author’s credit, she has written a spin-off that can be enjoyed on its own without having read the main series. I knew nothing about the Lux universe before I started, but at no point did I feel lost or out of my depth, despite the frequent references to characters from the previous books or events in the past. That said, I got the impression that world-building wasn’t too deep to begin with, which was why learning the ropes was so easy. Character development also felt perfunctory, as nothing really sets Evie apart from your generic female teen protagonist from any number of YA paranormal romance novels. Luc fared even worse. I didn’t have the advantage of knowing him from the original series, but something tells me that if I had, I probably wouldn’t have even picked up this book. Luc was a grade-A asshole from the moment he meets Evie, but apparently, she’s okay with forgoing all her self-respect and dignity as long as the dude is hot as sin.
Books like this and Twilight are reasons why I tend to stay away from this genre, it’s just not my cup of tea. Everywhere I turned, I seemed to encounter another pet peeve, including the dreaded annoying pet nickname that the guy gives the girl, despite her repeated protestations to not call her that. I mean, how hard is this to understand! It is NOT cute. It is harassment that would earn you my boot up your ass. But again, we’re back talking about Evie, whose policy when it comes to guys seems to be “you can get away with being a cad as long as you look great without your shirt.”
The plot was also ludicrously contrived. It’s got one of those third-act twists that’s not actually a twist because anyone even mildly paying attention could have predicted it coming a mile away. The murder arc with the mysterious killer also felt tacked on, because it was clear that Evie and Luc’s burgeoning romance was the only story this book wanted to tell.
So if you enjoy YA paranormal fiction where the romance is the focus, then The Darkest Star is a book you might want to take a look at. Unfortunately, it was just not to my personal tastes. Even if I were to find myself in the mood for this kind of novel, I would have preferred a bit more originality and better characters beyond the usual cookie-cutter variety. This was good for a light read, but nothing about it really stood out or helped it be memorable. I’m disappointed, because Jennifer L. Armentrout is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while, but now that I know more about her writing style, I probably won’t seek out any more of her work....more
Although this book is now published by St. Martin’s Press, my first encounter with Song of Blood & Stone was in 2016 when an earlier version of it was entered into the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, the writing competition created by author Mark Lawrence. Ever since the SPFBO’s launch, several of its alum have already been picked up by traditional publishing, and it’s always great to see that number grow by the day. As I understand it, the novel has gone through many changes to get to this point, and as I am fascinated by indie publishing success stories, I was excited to check it out.
At its heart, Song of Blood & Stone is a fantasy romance. Starring Jasminda, a young woman of mixed descent, the story is set in world split by a veil called the Mantle which separates Elsira, a land with no magic, from the country of Lagrimar, whose people possess the power of Earthsong. However, the two nations are divided by a lot more. On one side, citizens are forced to worship and fear the True Father, a power-hungry tyrant who hoards the world’s magic for himself, while on the other side, the Queen Who Sleeps lies dormant, leaving her subjects directionless and without their true ruler for centuries. The Mantle has only been breached a few times in history, but every time it has happened, chaos and death have been the result due to the intense fighting and struggle for power.
As a child of two peoples, Jasminda grew up as an outcast in her mother’s homeland on the Elsiran side of the Mantle simply because she has inherited her Lagamiri father’s darker skin as well as his magical abilities. Ever since the deaths of her parents and siblings, she has lived alone maintaining a small goat farm by the mountains. One day, her quiet existence is interrupted by a group of Lagamiri soldiers at her door. Not realizing they have crossed the veil into Elsira and believing her to be one of their own, they demand that she open her home to her country’s soldiers and shelter them from an incoming storm. With them is a battered and broken prisoner named Jack, whom the soldiers claim is an Elsiran spy. Using her Earthsong, Jasminda heals Jack and helps him escape, and together they embark on a dangerous journey to warn the capital that the Mantle is about to fall once again—and that their people must prepare for war and another incursion from the brutal True Father.
Well written with beautiful and detailed flowing prose, Song of Blood & Stone showed immense promise right from the beginning. The world-building was compelling, and it is clear that L. Penelope put a lot of work and thought into formulating the book’s background and premise. The author’s characterization of Jasminda was also very well done, establishing her situation and making her a sympathetic protagonist to readers right away.
However, bearing in mind that this is a fantasy romance, these developments soon give way to the themes surrounding Jasminda and Jack’s burgeoning love story, which may prove frustrating to those who aren’t big readers of the genre. Personally speaking, I wish there had been a better balance between all the elements of the story, especially when the romance started taking priority over developing the characters and world-building. I also felt that there was very little lead-up to the romance itself, as Jack started developing feelings for Jasminda from the start, even as he was being held captive. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it insta-love, I still wish that the author had held off on exploring their emotions for each other until after they actually managed to escape (or at very least, waited until they’d known each other for more than a few days).
In time, the plot also revealed itself to be rather simplistic, despite the complex nature behind the history and politics of Elsira and Lagrimar. Part of this is due to the aforementioned lack of world-building once the characters arrive in the city. Queue the romance drama at this point, which—unsurprisingly—also began to impinge upon the story’s pacing. Racial conflicts and the problem of Lagamiri refugees in Elsira also started becoming central to the plot, and in this middle section I felt that the author was trying a bit too hard to inject real-world issues into the book. Normally I wouldn’t mind this, except that it was done very blatantly and at the expense of world-building and character development, ultimately making me feel less connected to the protagonists and their world, which became confusing to me. I had trouble picturing the characters’ surroundings and was never truly able to grasp the setting which came across as a mishmash of genres and time periods thrown together, with ancient magic, mysterious visions and immortals mingling with steampunk elements like airships and more modern tech like automobiles. World-building was certainly creative and ambitious, but due to the lack of attention in developing these ideas, things ended up being rather messy, which was unfortunate.
In sum, parts of this book worked well for me, while others didn’t so much. However, I do think readers who are more inclined towards the romance genre will probably like this one a lot better. While I personally prefer my stories, love or otherwise, to feature a more balanced approach to plot, characters, and world-building, if a fantasy romance is something you think you’d enjoy, then I highly recommend giving Song of Blood & Stone a try....more
After my disastrous time with Empire of Storms, I wasn’t sure that I would be continuing this series, especially when I found out that there would be not one but two more books left until its completion. However, that was before I realized that Tower of Dawn would be focusing exclusively on Chaol Westfall, whose absence in the previous novel was one of the main factors that rattled my cage. Thing is, despite Chaol’s many faults, I still like him. I also consider him to be one of the better Throne of Glass personalities amidst this sea of unlikeable characters. And so, just like that, I was suckered in once again.
But flying in the face my initial concerns, this book actually turned out to be pretty good (it’s amazing what a difference it makes not having to put up with Aelin’s brattiness and endless self-absorbtion). Tower of Dawn is basically a story that runs alongside what we’ve been seeing from the point of view of Aelin, Dorian, and Rowan so far. While those peeps are off busy fighting a war, Chaol and Nesryn are instead traveling south to the land of Antica where they hope to convince more allies to join their cause. Moreover, it is said that the empire’s best healers dwell in kingdom’s Torre Cesme, and after having his lower body paralyzed from a magical blow that shattered his spine, Chaol is desperate to see if there’s anyone there who can cure him.
In fact, there is indeed someone at the Torre who has the specialized skills to help. Yrene Towers is a powerful healer who has recently treated a similar injury in another patient, with great success. As heir apparent to the Healer on High, she has completed many difficult trials to get to where she is today, but the task she receives now could be the greatest challenge she has ever faced. Tasked to oversee Chaol Westfall’s convalescence, Yrene is at first vehemently against the idea of treating the former Captain of the Adarlan Royal Guard, a man she considers an agent of the enemy that invaded her homeland when she was a little girl. Adarlan soldiers burned her mother alive, leading Yrene to flee her native land and ultimately end up in Antica.
In news that should surprise no one, Tower of Dawn is mostly a romance with 90% of the story concerned with how Chaol and Yrene eventually get together. Yes, there is some mystery and action involved as well as some political maneuvering, but these were mostly distractions to give readers the semblance of moving the series arc along. Still, let’s not kid ourselves—most are likely here primarily for the love story, and secondarily for Chaol’s redemption, so the question is, how did Maas do this time?
Well, I’m not going to lie, there are still a lot of aspects of her writing I find annoying, like her overly dramatic, flowery prose, or the fact that her characters all seem to follow a particular template. The story was also very clichéd, and for a book that was supposedly giving fans a chance to follow a different protagonist and visit a new setting, I frankly expected a lot more.
That said, this was still an enormous improvement over the previous novel. Maas may have taken her sweet time developing Chaol and Yrene’s relationship, but at least she always stayed on point, avoiding the lengthy and pointless conversations and meandering plot threads that plagued Empire of Storms. And while the romance itself was still eye-rollingly predictable, it deserves some credit for at least giving us some meaningful questions and themes to chew on.
In my time spent working in the rehabilitation field with individuals with disabilities, one of the main principles drilled into all of us care providers was the importance of client dignity. Kudos to the author, I believe she did her due diligence in researching the related issues, and I probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn if some of these efforts had involved actual conversations and interviews with people living with paraplegia. A lot of Chaol’s thoughts and emotions echoed closely to those from real clients I have worked with in wheelchair and seating clinics, immediately making his character feel genuine to me. Yrene, too, is like a representation of a caregiver’s guide of dos-and-don’ts as it relates to medical professionalism, exploring how her mistakes can affect Chaol. Hence, compared to the series’ other couples, I just felt like there was something a little deeper and more heartfelt to their romance.
My one big complaint, though? I did not like how Nesryn’s storyline was sacrificed for the main couple’s happiness. Oh sure, true to form, Maas made sure she was paired off with someone else, but as other reviews have mentioned, there is some serious grey area cheating happening here, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Strangely, infidelity as a plot device has never bothered me as much as some people, but in Chaol and Nesryn’s case, it was the way it was handled that didn’t quite sit right. Emotional affairs are not something to take lightly, and there were times I felt all the characters involved were really pushing the boundaries of appropriateness. That everything worked out in the end is irrelevant; it’s the principle of it that irked me. Plus, considering how it was Nesryn who carried out most of the difficult investigative work while Chaol was busy making moon eyes at his healer, she didn’t get nearly the attention or recognition she deserves.
Final thoughts? I make it no secret that I disliked the previous volume, but in truth, I’ve been unhappy with the series’ new direction since Queen of Shadows. So if nothing else, Tower of Dawn was a welcome reprieve as it meant simply taking a break from all the obnoxious Aelin drama, and overall this book was a much needed high point even if it was just a modest bump in rating. At the moment, I’m feeling way too cagey to say whether or not I’m looking forward to the next installment, but seeing as it will be the series finale, I will most likely read it for completion’s sake.
Audiobook Comments: As usual, Elizabeth Evans rocks. Her excellent performance has always been my main motivational reason to continue picking up these books in audio format. I actually thought they would go with another narrator for Tower of Dawn, perhaps a male one because of Chaol being the main character, but in the end I’m glad they didn’t. A new reader would have been interesting no doubt, but to me, Elizabeth Evans will always be the voice of this series....more
Badlands is the final volume of the Laura Elliston trilogy, bringing this magnificent emotional journey that began with Sawbones to a gripping and satisfying conclusion. Still, I confess there had been a lot of initial hand-wringing on my part over how all this would end, though I really should have known better than to be worried—Melissa Lenhardt knew what she was doing and was in control the whole time, providing closure to the series while bringing things full circle.
Needless to say, if you haven’t gotten the chance to start the trilogy yet, please keep in mind that this review may contain spoilers for the previous two novels. Last we saw Laura in Blood Oath, she and her husband William Kindle had become separated, with him being taken into custody for abandoning his post in the Army to aid and abet her. Wanted in New York for a crime she did not commit, Laura is now one of the most sought after bounties in the West and is forced to go into hiding again, with only a dubious ally named Rosemond Barclay for protection and support.
As a prostitute and a past lover of her husband, Rosemond is practically the last person Laura wants to be traveling with. However, she is also claiming to be helping Laura on behalf of Kindle, and since there is no one else our protagonist can turn to now that she is alone and penniless once more, she will have to go along with the other woman’s plans—at least for now. Not that she has much of a choice, anyway. Terrified of what might happen to Kindle, Laura is desperate to be close to him again even if it means walking right into the hands of the law, and it doesn’t help that at the time she is struggling to pull herself out of a laudanum-induced haze. For better or worse, Rosemond is the only thing holding her back—serving as both her kidnapper and voice of reason. The two women end up in Cheyenne under the guise of sisters trying to start a new life, though in truth Laura is biding her time while she awaits for further news of Kindle, and Rosemond is following her own plan that only she knows about. Laura knows better than to trust the former prostitute, but after everything the two of them have been through together, neither can she bring herself to simply walk away.
For the last two books, things for Laura have been anything but easy, and so I think readers will welcome this concluding novel which finally lets our protagonist experience some semblance of peace again, even with plenty of heartbreak still in her life. It was however a nice change of pace to see her return to practicing medicine, giving care to the needy as she once did in New York before she went on the run. Despite all the horrors she has been through, at her core Laura is still the same good person—which can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you view things. Often she puts aside all rational thought and concern for her own wellbeing when it comes to others (especially with matters related to Kindle), leading her to make several mistakes in the first half of Badlands which she will come to regret for the rest of the novel. Laura’s willfulness in this regard is both a source of admiration and frustration, because on the one hand her empathy is what makes me love her character, but on the other her tendency to care too much has also led to a lot of tragedy for herself and those around her.
I also thought that I would be disappointed at Kindle’s severely diminished role in this novel, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. It’s true that without him, there is a lot less passion and romance in this installment, but the amazing complexity between Laura and Rosemond’s interplay more than makes up for it. In spite of all her efforts to help other women, Laura has always had a rough time making female friends, mainly because she’s met so few others who share her interests and drive. While Laura and Rosemond have little in common (besides a history with the same man), the two of them manage to strike up a solid rapport if not a true friendship, due to the fact that they both are outcasts in their own way. Rosemond is also a fascinating and enigmatic character who kept me guessing at her motives the whole time, wondering if she truly cares about Laura or if she is simply manipulating her for her own ends.
The best part about Badlands, however, is Laura’s realization that she cannot keep running anymore and that enough people have been hurt because of the choices she has made. The only thing left to do is to return to the place where all this began—except this time, she won’t be alone anymore. Our protagonist has come a long way and has proven herself capable of anything she sets her mind to in an era in which women had little to no power. She has suffered loss but also found love, and I am pleased that we got to see Laura confront her past so that she can finally have the future she deserves.
These books are really something special. I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth saying again: the author does not pull any punches, and her rendition of the Wild West is a brutally authentic one, which sometimes makes all of the injustices and violence difficult to read. However, it also makes our characters’ struggles more heart-wrenching and their eventual triumph all the more powerful and poignant. The ending was everything I wanted, featuring a touching and joyous scenario that tied everything together perfectly. Melissa Lenhardt has accomplished a superb achievement in bringing the fantastic Laura Elliston trilogy to a phenomenal close, and I can’t wait to see what future stories she will tell.
Audiobook Comments: Suehyla El-Attar has long since won me over with her narrating work, and her performance in Badlands is even better than in Blood Oath, if that is even possible. She is a talented voice actress and a real natural with accents and inflections, adding an extra layer to the story. For instance, in sections where Laura was thinking of Kindle, I could practically hear the hopelessness and despair in her reading. This was an emotional tale, and El-Attar’s narration made the experience even more unforgettable. I highly recommend this series in audio....more
I’ve often been asked for advice from friends who are interested in giving audiobooks a try, but are worried that they might have trouble getting into them. In response, I always say that starting with a good book and a good narrator is key, but also important is finding a story well-suited to the format. While it’s true some books simply work best in prose form, there are also plenty of times where I’ve come across audiobooks that made me think, “Wow, I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed this as much if I had read the print version.”
The Beautiful Ones is the perfect example of such a book. As soon as comparisons to an Austenesque romance and descriptions of a Belle Époque-inspired fantasy-of-manners started floating about, I made the decision to listen to this one in audio, and I don’t regret that one bit. Featuring a slow-building love story and only a light touch of the fantastical, I might have become dreadfully bored by the long drawn-out expository sections on propriety and high society had I chosen to read this in print (not to mention all the endless romantic drama based on manipulation and miscommunication would have worn me down). However, a good narrator along with some excellent characterization ensured that I was never bored while listening to this audiobook, and the entire experience was pleasant, even relaxing.
Set in a world reminiscent of late 19th century Europe with inspiration from the pre-WWI “Golden Age” era of France, The Beautiful Ones introduces us to a tri of central characters. First is Hector Auvray, a telekinetic entertainer who has arrived back in the city of Loisail after spending nearly ten years traveling and performing abroad. Now rich and famous, he has returned to his home country hoping to meet up with his old flame Valérie Beaulieu, to whom he had been engaged when they were both young and penniless, but pressured by her family, she had ended up breaking his heart to marry someone else with wealth and status.
To Hector’s disappointment though, the emotional reunion he had planned for was spoiled when Valérie fails to show up to the high society ball he attends. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of another young woman at the gathering, the interesting but socially awkward Antonina who is in the city for her first Grand Season. It’s not until after the party that Hector learns, to his surprise, that Nina is the beloved cousin of Gaetan Beaulieu, the man Valérie ended up marrying. In fact, Nina is staying with the Beaulieus right now, tasked to learn the ropes of etiquette from Valérie, who is supposed to be helping the young girl find a suitable husband. But unfortunately for Nina, she also has telekinetic talents similar to Hector’s, which is considered inappropriate for a young lady of her stature. Along with her eccentric personality, they have a pesky way driving off potential suitors. Yet Hector sees Nina’s powers as a gift—as well as an opportunity. Under the guise of courting her, Hector offers to teach Nina how to control her powers, when in reality he is hoping their relationship will help him get close to Valérie, convinced that she still loves him the way he still loves her.
I won’t lie, I wanted to throttle nearly everyone in this book, but in this they have something in common with characters in a soap opera—you just love to hate them. Likewise, I found it impossible to tear myself away from the drama, and I would even hazard to say I enjoyed The Beautiful Ones more than the author’s previous novel Certain Dark Things, despite this one being much slower paced and having none of the action. This is because Silvia Moreno-Garcia knows how to spin a good yarn, and more importantly, she knows what it takes to capture the reader’s attention. Rather than shy away from the usual conventions of the fantasy of manners genre, she instead revels in them, offering up a lavish feast of romantic melodrama, high societal punctilio, and weaponized etiquette. Within this context, the fantasy element almost feels like an afterthought, having little to no impact on the overall story.
Still, the novel came together very well. By taking such a huge departure from her previous work, Moreno-Garcia might have been risking a lot in writing something like The Beautiful Ones, but ultimately I thought it was a move that paid off. I practically hung onto every word, even though the plot played out exactly as I thought it would, with the requisite frustrations and misunderstandings between the characters. I’ve lost count of how many times I wanted to slap Hector silly or to shake some sense into Nina, and don’t even get me started on how much I absolutely loathed Valérie, but at no point was I not completely 100% invested in the outcome of their story.
Like I said, the fact that I had the audiobook version may have helped with my enjoyment, and the time simply flew by as I was listening to this. The only thing that might have made the experience better was if they had multiple narrators, one for each of the three POV characters, but then P.J. Ochlan also managed to do a fine job by himself so in the end I really have no complaints. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy of manners novel, The Beautiful Ones definitely fits the bill, and it’s probably one of the best ones I’ve read in a while....more
An Enchantment of Ravens is a pretty standard Young Adult fantasy novel as far as the genre is concerned, but it was also exactly what I needed. Telling the story of a young woman who runs afoul of the immortal fair folk, the book featured just the right balance of magic, beauty and romance—and if the premise itself might sound a bit conventional, at least the plot was fun and always kept me entertained.
Our protagonist, Isobel, was only twelve years old when she began painting portraits for the Fae. Although they can live forever and are capable of creating breathtaking displays of glamour and other magic, the fair folk lack the ability to perform human Craft. Anything that requires art, design or construction—whether it involves writing a play, weaving cloth, or even baking bread—they simply cannot manage without all their efforts turning into dust. And so, this leaves the Fae with an insatiable thirst for incredible talents and skills like Isobel’s, and as a result her services have become highly in demand. Paying her with enchantments instead of money, her Fae patrons have helped Isobel support her aunt and two adoptive little sisters with their charms ensuring that they will always have food, shelter, and safety.
But then one day, Isobel is visited by Rook, the Autumn Prince—the first royal Fae patron who has ever contracted her for a portrait. Wanting badly to please Rook, she paints the prince exactly as she sees him, inadvertently capturing the mortal sorrow in his eyes, thus exposing his weakness to the entire Fae court. Furious, Rook kidnaps Isobel, dragging her back to his autumnlands to be tried for her crime. Along the way, they are harassed by all kinds of hostile creatures, from the minions of the Alder King and the Wild Hunt to the horrible barrow monsters that prove a match for even a Fae prince like Rook. Before long though, the two of them are beset with worse concerns. Relying on each other for their survival has resulted in Isobel and Rook growing close, but love between a human and a Fae is strictly forbidden, leading the couple to face some difficult choices.
I wasn’t all that impressed with the overarching plot, to be honest, for stories about young women being whisked off to the faerie realm by their kidnappers-turned-lovers have been done to death, and An Enchantment of Ravens does not deviate much from the usual themes. The romance didn’t sweep me off my feet either, and I was actually annoyed with Isobel at the beginning for becoming smitten with Rook so quickly. Also, both are saddled with such terrible emotional baggage from their pasts that I felt any chemistry between them was snuffed out before it could even begin.
That said, I still had fun, because it’s the little details that makes this book such an enjoyable read. For one I loved the fact that Isobel is artist, and her reverence for the craft made it easier to relate to her. I also quite liked how the Fae would compensate her for her paintings with enchantments, leading to some interesting forms of payment—like guaranteeing a certain number of eggs laid each week by the farm’s chickens, or a cord of firewood magically appearing on their doorstep every month. Being the resourceful young woman she is, Isobel has found a clever way to help her family thrive, though it means having to be extra careful with her wording when it comes to asking the Fae for her fee. The fair folk can’t lie, but they are still very devious and they like to play tricks on humans unless every possible loophole is covered.
Against my better judgment, I also found that I liked Rook. When he initially made his first appearance, I thought for sure he would be one of those insufferably arrogant and broody Fae princes, and for a while it really felt like that would be the case. The truth, however, came about once he and Isobel started journeying towards the autumnlands, especially following the attacks from all kinds of monsters while they were in the wilderness. In the face of these dangers, a vulnerable, clumsy and even inept side to Rook began to surface, making him feel more genuine and relatable. The fact that he wasn’t perfect also meant that there was less of a power imbalance between him and Isobel, with both characters having to rely on each other for survival, and I won’t lie, this equal footing made the kidnapper-hostage nature of their relationship somewhat easier to swallow. Light humor in their conversations also made Rook more endearing.
All told, I wouldn’t say there’s anything too “special” about An Enchantment of Ravens, but sometimes that it is a good thing, considering how many books I’ve read recently that have tried doing something new and different but ended up falling flat. At least you know what you’re getting with a book like this. I knew I wanted a fun and light fantasy about the Fae, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed....more
Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
Pride and Prejudice retellings and other Austenesque-inspired stories have traditionally been hit-or-miss with me, but there was something about Heartstone that drew me to it right away. Might it have been the dragons? Okay yeah, it was the dragons.
While I’ll be the first to admit I’m no aficionado on the works of Jane Austen, I am familiar enough with Pride and Prejudice to know that Heartstone is actually a pretty faithful rendition of the original, in some places following the plot so closely that I was surprised the author took such a direct route. The story follows Aliza Bentaine, the second of five daughters in a family living at Merybourne Manor. Their home has been set upon by monsters as of late, and six months ago tragedy struck as Aliza’s youngest sister was attacked and killed by one of the wild gryphons that have invaded the surrounding woods. This has led to the arrival of a band of Riders who have come to Merybourne to eradicate the creatures, and among them are the warriors Master Brysney and Master Daired.
Excited to have two noble bachelors visit the household, Aliza’s mother quickly ensures that her daughters would be present at the party to receive the Riders, and her hopes are answered as Brysney takes an immediate liking to Anjey, the eldest. Aliza herself, however, is unimpressed by Daired, whom she finds rude, arrogant, and standoffish. It also didn’t help that due to a hilarious misunderstanding, Daired started off their introductions by kicking Aliza’s good friend Tobble the hobgoblin clear across the yard. But in order to be polite to their guests, Aliza makes an effort to get to know the Riders and help them hunt the gryphon hordes in any way she can, even befriending Daired’s majestic mount, the dragon Akarra.
The publisher blurb for this book describes it as Elle Katharine White infusing Austen’s classic with her own brand of magic, and I find that wholly accurate. If you know your Pride and Prejudice, many of the major plot points in Heartstone won’t come as much of a surprise, i.e. just as Elizabeth and Darcy manage to find common ground and eventually fall in love, Aliza and Daired also come to an understanding with each other and gradually a romance blossoms between them. With the exception of the ending, I wouldn’t say that the strength of Heartstone is in its story since most of the plot closely mirrors the original, but what really shines is the world-building. White doesn’t stop at populating her book with all sorts of extraordinary creatures from hobgoblins and wyverns to lamias and lindworms, for she has also fleshed out the world with a vibrant culture that’s entirely of her own imagination. I loved how this world had its own history and religion, and even the dragons had their own set of traditions. One of the elements I most appreciated about this book was the fact that White did not set out to copy Austen’s style or reproduce the Regency period, because I doubt that would have worked as well for me.
Still, just when you think you’ve taken this book’s measure, the author does have a couple surprises hidden up her sleeve, waiting for the perfect time to spring them on the unsuspecting reader. I had briefly mentioned the ending, which definitely deserves more attention. For one thing, you most certainly won’t find anything like it in the original, and in a way I’m really glad this is where White decided to go “off-script” because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this book so much. Pride and Prejudice retelling or not, when a story features wyvern and dragon-riding warriors, I think it’s a safe bet that most readers would expect a battle scene or two to see them in action, and in this regard, I’m pleased to say Heartstone did not disappoint. That epic ending capped off what was for the most part a relatively tame and faithful retelling, and it was exactly what the book needed because I don’t think things could have wrapped up more perfectly.
In sum, Heartstone is described as a Pride and Prejudice retelling with fantasy elements, and for better or worse, that is exactly what you get—as in, right up until the grand finale, the plot matches up with the original almost perfectly, down to the similarity in character names, which at times can feel a bit disconcerting. That said though, I thought the decision to depart from the Regency style and language made this book a lot more readable and engaging, and the author’s own additions to the world are wonderfully original and well integrated. Whether you’re an Austen fan or not, I think you’ll also find that the world-building elements are a key highlight along with the story’s superb ending, and despite its strength of being a rather close retelling, there’s no denying Heartstone was at its best when it was doing its own thing, delving into the fantastical. All told it was a delightful experience that felt comfortably familiar and fresh all at once, and I highly recommend it....more
Few things get me more excited than a new book from Jacqueline Carey, and on the list of my must-read authors, her name definitely sits way up near the top. I also owe so much of my love for fantasy to amazing and talented woman. Her novel Kushiel’s Dart was among the handful of gateway books that first sparked my interest in the genre, and to this day I have not encountered anything else quite like it. But while Carey may have branched out into other areas like Young Adult and Urban Fantasy in recent years, I’ve continued to enjoy her work because I just love the way she writes, no matter what style or topic she decides to tackle. And with the growing trend in Shakespeare retellings these days, I suppose I wasn’t too surprised when I initially discovered that she was working on a retelling of The Tempest.
That project ultimately became Miranda and Caliban. As the book’s blurb states, many of us are already aware of how the original story goes, with Prospero and his quest for revenge against his usurping brother as well as the complicit king. But in her version of this classic tale, Carey has chosen instead to shine the light on Prospero’s gentle and kindhearted daughter Miranda, reimagining her in a coming-of-age romance with the other titular character Caliban, who was actually the monstrous antagonist of The Tempest. In this book, however, Caliban is the misunderstood feral boy who opens up to Miranda after being enslaved by her father, with the bond between them increasing in strength over the years as the two grow up together on the lonely island under Prospero’s overbearing tutelage.
Miranda and Caliban also presents a scenario to fill in what happened in the twelve years that Prospero and his daughter are stranded on the island after their exile. The book begins eight or so years before the great storm, when Miranda is just a six-year-old helping her father in a ritual to capture the wild boy they’ve seen lurking around the woods. After the boy is caught, Prospero attempts to civilize him by using harsh methods, but it is Miranda who succeeds in drawing him out of his shell by showing him kindness and compassion, convincing him to reveal that his name is Caliban. Seeing how his daughter has made such progress, Prospero decides to use the children’s friendship to his advantage, compelling Miranda to also ask Caliban about the spirit Ariel that the boy’s mother imprisoned in a tree.
Despite some of its close ties to the original play, you really don’t need to know a lot about The Tempest to enjoy this book. Case in point, I am in no way an expert on anything Shakespeare and yet I was still utterly enchanted by Miranda and Caliban. This is a love story, one that begins with the two eponymous characters meeting as children. With no knowledge or understanding into anything pertaining to the birds and the bees (Prospero may be a master sorcerer, but he was a complete failure of a sex ed teacher), awkward physical changes and confusing emotions eventually arise as both of them experience puberty and wind up falling in love.
But even if you’re not a big romance reader (and I don’t consider myself one either), there’s still plenty to appreciate about this tale. I found Carey’s portrayal of this world and its characters utterly fascinating, as well as the way she has flipped certain elements from The Tempest on its head. Caliban is of course a very sympathetic character here; his POV chapters show him gradually transforming from a wordless feral boy to a well-spoken young man, though he remains self-conscious about his physical appearance. Instead of being the protagonist you root for, Prospero is the menacing shadow that seems to hang over everything. Not that he was the nicest guy to begin with in the original play, but this story further plays up his use of magic to control everyone, including his own daughter, and exposes the hypocrisy of his faith and quest. At times Prospero’s love towards Miranda may seem genuine, but then his true colors will come out and the reader will despise him all over again. In this version, Ariel is also a villainous creature who constantly does things to thwart Miranda and Caliban’s relationship over the years, seeming to take much joy in making them both miserable. Still, it’s interesting to note that being able to arouse such powerful sentiments for even the most obnoxious of characters is one of Carey’s finest talents; you can’t help but connect with the people she writes about because she fleshes them out so well without having to resort to common tricks.
That said, Miranda and Caliban is very different from previous books I’ve read by the author. Much of it probably has to do with the constraints of this book being a Shakespeare retelling, which just goes to show what a versatile writer she is, though there’s also a part of me which feels immensely glad she wrote something like this. Carey’s last three novels were from her urban fantasy series Agent of Hel, and while I had a blast with those casual fun books, they certainly don’t exemplify just how spectacularly she can write. In that domain, they simply can’t compare to Miranda and Caliban, which perfectly showcases the gorgeous, lyrical prose that I love her for. I honestly believe that even if the story doesn’t appeal, one can still surely appreciate this book for the writing.
The Tempest fans will love this beautifully written and richly imagined retelling which approaches the story differently from an interesting and thought-provoking angle, but you also don’t need to be familiar with the original play to enjoy this book. After all, being able to appreciate ideas like the purity of love or the tumultuous emotions of growing up requires no prerequisites. Jacqueline Carey explores these themes and more in Miranda and Caliban, a poignant and heartbreaking novel that infuses a beloved Shakespearean classic with a welcome layer of depth, complexity, and feeling. Highly recommended....more
Last year I fell head over heels in love with Melissa Lenhardt’s Sawbones, a post-Civil War western filled with equal parts gritty adventure and passionate romance. Needless to say, I was barely able to contain my excitement when I found out there would be not one but two follow-ups to the novel, rounding out a trilogy chronicling the extraordinary journey of a woman doctor on the run from the law.
While Blood Oath picks up not long after Sawbones, it is also a new beginning of a sort for our protagonist. The woman from New York known as Dr. Catherine Bennett is dead. Now she is Laura Elliston, a fugitive wanted for a crime she did not commit. Still, despite a new name and a new life on the frontier, she could not escape her past. And following the brutal events of the previous book, Laura now finds herself with even more personal demons to confront.
Fortunately, this time she has the help and companionship of her lover William Kindle, a former captain of the US Army. Traveling in disguise, the two of them persist in trying to find safe refuge, dodging every soldier, vigilante and two-bit bandit eager to collect the bounty on their heads. Already on edge from the dangers and stresses of the journey, the couple’s relationship is further strained from the uncertainties left after Laura’s horrific kidnapping and their showdown with Kindle’s vicious brother, Cotter Black. As a doctor, Laura understands better than most how even the worst physical pain can eventually fade and be forgotten over time, but when it comes to the emotional scars, she is not so sure, fearing that the damage on both their spirits may have broken them in ways they can never be healed.
Poor Laura and Kindle. The two of them can never catch a break, even after being put through the wringer in Sawbones. I wish I could tell you everything comes together for them, but apparently, they still have a little longer to wait for their happily-ever-after. Following her characters’ nightmare ordeal with Cotter Black, Melissa Lenhardt isn’t about to let up on her protagonists, throwing them into new situations full of hardships and horrors. Blood Oath might just be slightly less intense than its predecessor, but rest assured it still has its fair share of harsh injustices and gut-churning violence. Dark as it is though, this series reminds me of why I love Westerns, perfectly capturing a sense of danger and the atmosphere of constant threat in an untamed country. This tone of raw candidness keeps me coming back, not to mention the author’s storytelling skills and no-holds-barred style.
And yet, despite the brutal realities of the era, we also have the passion as a counterpoint. Laura and Kindle had excellent chemistry in Sawbones, and it pained me to read about what happened to them at the end of that book and to see the emotional aftermath of those events here. Neither of them are the same people anymore, which made me sad—but I’m also encouraged by their efforts to talk it out and make things work. First, the story had to address Laura’s trauma from her experiences in the first book, and the effects on her relationship with Kindle have not been easy, as one would expect. Second, misunderstandings and secrets are also awakened as the two learn more about each other and their pasts. Reading about Laura and Kindle’s struggles broke my heart, but at the same time, I had been prepared for a lot of these obstacles in a second novel. Historical romances are often fraught with drama and uncertainties, and this is especially true when you’re dealing with post-war turmoil and the ruthless conditions of the Wild West. Luckily though, there are moments of hope and lightness as Laura is determined to never abandon her humanity, and she will also never stop fighting for her and Kindle’s future.
Bottom line, I love a good Western. Sawbones was amazing and its sequel Blood Oath was no slouch either, so I would highly recommend picking up this series if you are a fan of historical fiction or historical romance with a bit of grit. Like I wrote in my review for the first book, it was this juxtaposition of loveliness and gruesomeness that made the story so compelling, and considering how shockingly things ended in this one, it’s looking like the trend will be continuing into book three, Badlands. I just can’t wait.
Audiobook Comments: I might have read the first book in print, but as soon as I found out this series was getting audiobooks, I just knew I had to give them a try. Having heard narrator Suehyla El-Attar perform on other books before, the moment I saw her name attached to this project, I had a good feeling she would make a perfect Laura Elliston and indeed I was not disappointed. Her accents, tones and inflections are all spot on, and she managed to bring both Laura and Kindle to life in a way I never imagined in this absolutely brilliant and immersive experience....more
Sawbones was a book that caught my eye the moment I saw it, because HELLO! Western setting? An independent, determined woman doctor as its protagonist? Only problem was, its genre was straight-up historical fiction without even the ittiest bittiest hint of a speculative element, and I was already being crushed under the weight of review books that I’ve committed myself to on behalf of my Sci-fi & Fantasy book blog. Reluctantly, I decided to give Sawbones a pass at the time, and probably wouldn’t have thought about it again if it weren’t for a strong recommendation I received weeks later, from someone whose bookish opinions I highly respect. Now I’m on the other side of reading it to say how utterly thankful and glad I am to have given this one a try after all, because it was damn brilliant and I absolutely loved it!
The book’s blurb likens the story to “Outlander meets post-Civil War unrest” which is a comparison I find both very appropriate and also a little misleading. Like I said, Sawbones is completely devoid of any magic or sci-fi, time traveling or otherwise, but that said, I believe it would indeed appeal to fans of Diana Gabaldon’s series who might be looking for a similar blend of romance and adventure set in a very harsh time and place, whose brutal realities we are not spared from at all. It is especially hard for our protagonist Dr. Catherine Bennett, a New York woman practicing medicine in the 1870s in spite of those who regard her profession as scandalous and highly unseemly for someone of her sex.
That is why when Catherine is falsely accused of murder, she finds little support in her societal circles and is forced to go on the run with a $500 bounty on her head. And for anyone looking to start a new life or to disappear, the answer lies west. With her loyal maid Maureen in tow, Catherine escapes to Texas and joins the Warren wagon train under the new identity of Dr. Laura Elliston. Even though female doctors are rare enough to draw attention, Catherine—now Laura—loves her work too much to give it up, and hopes to start fresh with her own practice out in the uncharted territories of Colorado where no one will know her face.
But of course, things don’t go as planned. Those who already know what became of the Warren wagon train can probably guess, but if not, I’m not going to spoil the details of the plot’s early bombshell. I think up until this point, I was still expecting a whole different kind of book, but afterwards it finally hit me what I was really in for. Suffice to say, if you’re like me and picked this one up thinking it would be your typical lighthearted historical romance, you’re going to be in for a huge surprise. To tell the truth, the first 20% of the novel didn’t impress me overly much, but when things took a graphically violent, traumatic, and heart-wrenching turn for our protagonist, that was the moment I realized the kind of story author Melissa Lenhardt has set out to tell, and she’s not pulling any punches. This book had my full attention after that.
The first thing you should know about Sawbones is the merciless, no holds barred portrayal of life on the frontier. Lenhardt confesses to taking a few minor liberties with history in order to make the story work, but a lot of the people, places and events in this book were real. Much research and effort was clearly put in to bring the setting and historical era to life in all its harshness. Racism was rampant. Women had very little say about anything, even when it came to their own business. Settlers in this part of the country were frequently raided by native tribes and white bandits alike. People were raped, killed, mutilated, abducted and abused in the worst of ways. The injured often did not survive, succumbing to infection, bad weather, poor nutrition, or any number of factors that could doom you. This book does not gloss over any of those gory, gut-twisting details.
The second thing you should know is that the characters are amazing. Told from Laura’s point of view, readers are accorded a real treat going deep into the mind of an unconventional protagonist who has followed her heart and given up so much to keep pursuing a dream. Her personal growth as a character follows a riveting arc made even more complex by the subtler themes, which come full circle by the end of the book when Laura is forced to acknowledge that life is not so clear-cut in the isolated wilderness of the west. As a doctor, her principle tenet is to save lives and do no harm, but when push comes to shove, she is also capable of making the difficult choices. Even in her stubbornness, she is likeable and relatable, and I wanted to see her succeed.
There’s also a fantastic love story, featuring a forbidden romance that is at once passionate and convincing. From the moment Laura saves the life of Captain William Kindle, they set off an undeniable chemistry. I enjoyed their sweet interactions and the well-written dialogue between them, making it easy to get on board with their blossoming relationship. Kindle himself is a dedicated and honorable soldier, good to his men and kind to Laura, so I’m glad that the romantic interest in this novel ended up being someone worthy of our protagonist’s devotion and respect.
It was this mix of loveliness with the book’s vicious, ruthless side that made Sawbones so compelling. I must emphasize again that this one is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a strong stomach for some of the more unpleasant things I described in this review, you might find plenty to like in this splendid hidden gem of a historical novel. The story is pretty much self-contained, even if the ending felt just a tad abrupt, but I was ecstatic to find out that there will be a follow-up called Blood Oath coming out later this year. You can be sure I’ll be devouring it as soon as I can get my hands on it....more
Lately, most of my audio listens have been on the darker and heavier side, so when I was given the opportunity to review the audiobook of The Weight of Feathers, it didn’t take much convincing to give this lighter, more romantic title a try. Magical realism can be hit or miss with me, but even though I hesitated over some of the mixed reviews I’ve seen for this book, ultimately the theme of forbidden love won me over.
With shades of Romeo and Juliet, this novel tells a tale of two feuding families of traveling performers, the Palomas and the Corbeaus. The Paloma family’s claim to fame has always been their underwater attraction, with their women dressing up like mermaids to swim in elaborate dance routines, while the Corbeaus strap feathered wings to their bodies and put on tightrope acts and other feats of acrobatics high up in the treetops. Their competing exhibitions have always made them rivals, but twenty years ago, something happened between them to turn them into full-blown enemies. Since then, children of both families have been brought up to believe the worst of the other, adding superstition and lies to the flames of mutual hatred.
While the two families travel all across the country, every year they cross paths in Almendro, taking advantage of the large crowds drawn there by the annual Blackberry Festival. So it is there where Lace Paloma first meets Cluck, youngest son of the Corbeau matriarch. When disaster strikes the small town, Cluck rescues Lace from certain death, mistaking her for a local. Horrified that she now owes her life to the enemy, and cast out by her own relatives for being “cursed” by the Corbeaus’ black magic, Lace tracks down Cluck and inadvertently gets caught up in his family’s business. Not surprisingly, our two young protagonists end up falling in love, but the beginning of their relationship also sparks a mission to unravel the truth of what really caused the rift between their families all those years ago.
All told, I think I ended up liking this book a lot more than I thought I would, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Before I start singing its praises, I want to get the negatives out of the way first: for one thing, I had a seriously rough start with the first few chapters. Anna-Marie McLemore appears to trip up on the same hurdle that traps so many other talented but inexperienced authors, weighing down her writing with an overkill of flowery words and phrases. The thing about purple prose is that it is a lot more obvious in audio. The spoken words gave the impression of the writer trying too hard, with absolutely no subtlety or attempt to dial back at all.
But just as I was starting to regret my audiobook choice, the story started to grow on me. At first, I worried that the magical realism would hinder my enjoyment, since those aspects can sometimes get in the way of meaningful character development. Instead, I found the opposite. There’s no doubt that the romance between Lace and Cluck is the central focus, with magic being more of a background element and even downplayed. In truth, The Weight of Feathers is rather light on fantasy, with the exception of the ending and little smatterings of details here and there—like the fact members of the Paloma family bear birthmarks on their skin that look like fish scales, while those in the Corbeau clan grow feathers near their hairline. Even so, to me this is more about symbolism than magic. This book is filled with all sorts of opposing themes and imagery, contrasting the Corbeaus and Palomas: crows vs. doves, black vs. white, birds vs. fish, sea vs. sky, etc.
Strip that all away though, and the plot itself is actually very straightforward. It’s a love story, pure and simple, with a bit of family drama thrown in. I’ve seen people compare The Weight of Feathers to The Night Circus, but I really don’t see it. This one is much better in terms of featuring a more passionate and developed romance with a pair of lovers with whom you can feel more fully connected and engaged, relative to my lukewarm experience with Erin Morgenstern’s novel. I also highly recommend the audiobook, with Kirby Heyborne and Cynthia Farrell narrating Cluck’s and Lace’s chapters respectively. The two of them did a great job bringing the characters to life.
Ultimately, once I learned to look past the affectations in the prose, it was the simplicity and elegance of The Weight of Feathers that appealed to me. The plot and pacing was nice and tight with just the right amount of twisty familial relationships to keep me interested, and once I got caught up in the story, it was damn near impossible to break free from its spell. A quick and very enjoyable listen!...more
And to think, I almost gave this one a pass when I was compiling a list of books I wanted to read from the new Star Wars canon. What a mistake that would have been. Yes, this is categorized as Young Adult, but to be sure, this is not the kind of Star Wars YA from the old EU when the stories tended to lean more towards middle-grade audiences and few children’s series stood out strongly enough to make an impression. Lost Stars, in a word, was awesome. I have been reading Star Was novels for years and have read many of them during that time, but this has got to be one of the best I’ve ever read.
The book tells the tale of two childhood friends who became lovers before ending up on opposite sides of the galactic war. Ciena and Thane grew up on the same planet just after annexation by the Imperials, but one was born in the more rural valley while the other came from an affluent second-waver family. However, the two met and bonded over a shared love for piloting and a dream to one day fly for the Empire. They entered the Imperial academy together, excited to be with each other as they made that dream come true. But as the war waged on, their fates diverged as one grew disillusioned with the Empire and joined the Rebel Alliance, while the other remained in Imperial service and rose through its ranks to become a high-ranking officer.
The beauty of this book is in its simplicity. At the heart of it is a love story, so you might not enjoy it as much if YA Romance isn’t your cup of tea. At the same time though, it is surprisingly free of the tropes that usually clog up this genre, and I didn’t feel as if the plot was made more complicated by any needless drama. Instead, all the good stuff comes through, themes like: honor versus duty, love and grief, opportunities lost and things left unsaid. Ciena and Thane are the loves of each other’s lives, but they were raised in very different homes, with very different values. Because of that, there will always be a part in each of them that can and never will be reconciled.
And you know what else is great? How deeply and intimately Lost Stars is tied to the original trilogy. You get to relive the major events of each movie from a whole different perspective. No doubt about it, while reading this book I felt like I was 100% in the Star Wars universe. And yet, the story also retains its own uniqueness. You ever think to yourself, surely, the Empire can’t be one homogenous body working in unison towards the same goal? Of course there had to be different factions, as well as good people in the Imperial forces who couldn’t stand by and do nothing while their side committed all sorts of atrocities. This book does a really good job showing this, and in a way it humanizes the Empire by portraying the protagonists as average everyday people.
Like anyone, both Ciena and Thane have close family and friends. They each have their own personal hopes and dreams. They experience desire and longing. My heart ached for the two of them and I wanted so badly for things to work out for them in the end. Move over Anakin and Padme and Episode II, because this is romance done right. Heck, this is “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens” done right.
“Look through my eyes…look through my eyes.” *Happy sigh*...more
Winterwood and I were love at first sight, and all you have to do is take a gander at the book’s myriad subjects to see why: Magic. History. Fantasy. Romance. Fae. Ghosts. Shapeshifters. PIRATES. It’s like an irresistible smorgasbord of all my favorite themes and fantasy elements all in one place, and a strong, compelling female protagonist was the cherry on top.
Set in Britain in the time of King George III, Winterwood tells the tale of Rossalinde Tremayne, a young woman gifted with magical abilities. Seven years ago, she eloped with privateer captain Will Tremayne along with the Heart of Oak, the ship meant as her dowry, and Ross’s mother hasn’t forgiven her since. Now Will has been dead these past three years, and Ross has taken on the mantle of the Heart’s commander, adopting her late husband’s identity and disguising herself by wearing men’s clothing.
The book begins with Ross returning home to visit her ailing mother on her deathbed. In doing so, she learns more about her family than she ever bargained for, including the fact that she has a half-brother named David, who was fathered by the household’s rowankind bondservant. Ross also inherits a beautiful winterwood box, an object of great magical power that she is told only she can open, but the repercussions of that may be far-reaching and dire. Add to that, a shadowy enemy is on the hunt for Ross as well, and he would do anything to stop her from unlocking the box’s mysteries. With the crew of the Heart and the help of her newfound brother and a dashing wolf shapeshifter named Corwen, Ross sets off on a swashbuckling chase across the high seas to seeks answers and uncover the truth about her family’s secrets.
In news that I’m sure will surprise no one, I absolutely adore stories about women characters disguised as men, and even better when the book is a maritime fantasy and the protagonist is a capable heroine who captains her own ship. I love how Rossalinde is a strong and intelligent woman, but that she also listens to her heart. She gave everything up to marry the man of her dreams, and even though she and Will only had four short years together, she doesn’t regret her decision one bit. Interestingly, while Will’s death occurs before the book even begins, we still get to meet him in Winterwood in the form of his ghost. Back when her grief was still a raw and open wound, Ross unwittingly summoned him and now his spirit is a constant presence in her life. Will’s ghost and Ross share some humorous moments, but for the most part his appearances are a reminder of tragedy; he is a symbol of her past at a time when she should really be looking to the future. Being torn between two paths is devastating for a woman like Ross who is so in tune to her emotions, which is why I felt for her.
In addition to offering a well-crafted main protagonist, Winterwood also offers an altogether tantalizing blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Jacey Bedford’s prose is elegant and evocative of the setting, which is an alternate version of early 19th century Britain steeped in magic. The world feels familiar yet new, plus we get the added benefit of being on the ocean for a substantial part of this book, deeply immersed in the life of privateering during this time period. The battles at sea against pirates and French ships alike are thrilling and dramatic, where victory may come at a high cost but the rewards are well worth it. The dialogue is also superbly done, especially when it comes to the crew of the Heart and their nautical jargon and rough accents.
In terms of magic, this book is practically full to brimming with it. Perhaps the foremost fantastical element comes in the form of the rowankind, a docile and subjugated race of people exploited for their labor. Britain’s entire economy is dependent on these unpaid servants, and yet their history and origins are mostly unknown, lost to time. However, there are rumors that connect them to the Fae, who also have a large role to play in this story. Moreover, the realm of the Fae is completely separate from the domain of The Green Lady, who rules over the natural world. While the inner workings of the various kinds of magic go largely unexplained, it is clear that there are many sources of it, and their powers mingle and react in very interesting ways.
Also, when a book’s tagline reads “A tale of magic, piracy, adventure and love”, you’d be correct to expect a heavy dose of romance. Love is something Ross is just starting to allow herself to explore again after losing Will, and Corwen proves to be a good match for her, with lots of chemistry and sexual tension between the privateer and the wolf shapeshifter (just don’t call her a pirate, or him a werewolf—them’s fightin’ words!) But to my surprise, there’s more to this book than just romantic love. Familial love is an important part of this story too, with Ross accepting her half-brother David, becoming overprotective when he is threatened or treated poorly because of his rowankind heritage. I was impressed with the emotional level and complexity of the relationships in this book, as well as its unique perspective on social prejudice.
The best thing about Winterwood is its many fascinating components, which Jacey Bedford weaves into one amazing story of magic and adventure. Rollicking action is expertly balanced with passionate romance in this novel which will leave you salivating for more, and I loved every moment! I’m already looking forward to the next installment and dreaming about a return to this exciting, magical world....more
As someone who was totally new to Cathy Clamp’s work, I was very excited about the opportunity to read Forbidden, book one in a new series set in the Sazi universe. A “reboot” of sorts, the novel takes place ten years after the events at the end of The Tales of the Sazi, featuring a new story and new characters – a fresh start, essentially, and a perfect jumping-on point for a newcomer like me.
Indeed, there’s not much you need to know before starting this series, and any required knowledge is helpfully provided by the author. For example, I found it interesting that the two protagonists of Forbidden actually first appeared in the original series as relatively minor characters. According to Clamp’s afterword, the heroine Clarissa Evans (who goes by Claire Sanchez here) was in Moon’s Fury as one of the young victims of a child abductor. All grown up now and an agent of the Wolven, Claire is being sent to investigate a string of missing children cases in the remote town of Luna Lake.
For obvious reasons, the mission hits a bit close to home, and Claire finds herself struggling to deal with unpleasant memories on top of trying to figure out the complex hierarchy of her new pack. The community at Luna Lake is unlike anything she’s had to deal with before, on account of it being a former refugee camp for displaced Sazi and lost orphans. Shapeshifters of all sorts live together here, including owls, falcons, bears, cougars, and of course wolves like Claire herself. On her first day, she meets another wolf named Alek, a Sazi orphan who grew up in Luna Lake after being adopted into a family of owls. Sparks fly between them immediately – both the good and bad sort – but whatever attraction or differences they have between them, solving the mystery must come first…before it’s too late for the missing kids.
Right away, I was captivated by the magic of this world. There are all sorts of Sazi, like those who can turn into wolves, big cats, birds of prey, snakes, etc. There were also the little things that charmed me, like the fact they can talk in their animals forms, or use food smells (most often desserts, I find. Or maybe I just notice them more because of my sweet tooth) to identify the emotional states of other Sazi.
I was also amazed by the social dynamics of Luna Lake. You don’t have to be familiar with the Sazi series to understand that it’s a very special community. The bird shifters aren’t big fans of the cats, the cats don’t much like the wolves, and the wolves can’t stand the smell of the birds, but at Luna Lake all the groups manage to live in relative harmony because that’s the only way to ensure survival. For Alek and other Sazi like him who were adopted by the Williams, the town is literally one big family. Even though he is a wolf, Alek is a big brother to owls, eagles, bobcats, other wolves and more, and there’s this sense of solidarity and togetherness about Luna Lake that gave me all the warm and fuzzy feels. Yet, there’s also a cost to that peace. Over the years the pack has developed a way to identify their “omegas”, and these low ranked individuals are treated poorly and forced to do all the dirty jobs in town. It made me feel really unsettled and angry towards Luna Lake’s leaders and those townsfolk who turn a blind eye to this blatantly unfair and broken system.
Be aware too that while Forbidden is described as an Urban Fantasy mystery, in some ways it actually reads more like a paranormal romance. Claire and Alek’s relationship is often the focus of the story, and the mystery elements of the plot are in truth not that substantial. To really get into the story, you would need to buy into the chemistry between Claire and Alek, and that was perhaps my problem; I didn’t feel like I got a chance to know either of them very well before they were thrust together, and right on the heels of them falling in lust came the obligatory plot contrivances to introduce conflict between them. I also found Alek too self-absorbed for my tastes and Claire too much of a “special snowflake”, which all made it harder for me to care about their developing relationship. That said, I’m not a big reader of PNR so there may be a lot genre norms and nuances that I’m not accustomed to, so feel free to take my opinion on the romance with a grain of salt!
The world of the Sazi does have the benefit of being fully fleshed out and realized though, from all the groundwork that has been established by the original series. Just this little taste of it has gotten me hooked, and I find myself wanting more. Certainly if you have a love for stories about shapeshifters, you need to check this one out for the many different kinds of creatures alone. Recommended for urban fantasy/paranormal romance readers and fans of strange and beautiful magic....more
Boy is a Mage, brought up on lessons about the power of illusions, taught that reality is a sham and that people are shadows – and oh, no matter what you do, do NOT trust those lying, stinking Mechanics.
Girl is a Mechanic, a master of logic and equations who prides herself on the fact that no machine is beyond her abilities to fix, and of course, Mechanics are just so much better than those useless Mages.
Then boy meets girl. Everything changes. Alain and Mari come together after their caravan is destroyed by bandits, only managing to survive the treacherous journey back to civilization with each other’s help. They begin to discover just how much their Guild elders have kept from them, secrets and misconceptions that have been keeping the Mage-Mechanical rivalry alive for all these hundreds of years.
Then the power of Foresight unexpectedly comes to Alain. He learns something that Mari doesn’t know – that she is in fact the prophesied chosen one who will unite the two great guilds and save the world. As the two are sent to Dorcastle amidst rumors of uncontrolled dragons and sabotage, Alain can hardly begin to describe the way he feels for Mari, but he does know staying away from her as his masters had ordered is not an option.
The Dragons of Dorcastle is a sweet little story about the serendipitous partnership between two people from different divides, who end up realizing they were wrong about everything they thought they knew about the other. I’d never read anything by John G. Hemry AKA Jack Campbell before, though I do know a bit about his military sci-fi Lost Fleet series, which I can’t imagine can be any more different than this book, a Young Adult-ish fantasy and steampunk romance.
Surprisingly though, this was very good. A little standard, perhaps, and playing a bit too safe when it comes to ideas. However, seeing as this book was originally written to be an audiobook exclusive for Audible Studios, it wouldn’t surprise me if a fun and practical story like this – intended to appeal to a wider and more general audience – was a conscious decision. And it was probably the right decision; I can see it being the perfect choice for anyone in the mood for an entertaining and light read looking to pass the time, though it’s possible that diehard genre readers may be left unsatisfied.
But hey, here be dragons. Well, okay, maybe not exactly. I don’t actually hold this against the book, but I think it’s worth mentioning anyhow that I find the title a bit misleading. There’s some dragon activity for sure, though it doesn’t come until very late in the book, and relatively briefly. Relating this to my thoughts above, I can’t help but to think the name was another clever move to boost appeal. Granted, the story does present a rather intriguing mystery about the dragons at the end, so even though they aren’t the center of attention, we are left with some major dragon-related questions to ponder and there’s no doubt they will play a bigger role in the next book.
Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is its focus the characters. Most of the book is spent developing the relationship between Alain and Mari, even when the two aren’t even in the same scene. We’re in their heads all the time, experiencing their thoughts and emotions as contemplate the other. The narrative does an especially good job with Alain, whose capacity for emotions has been all but stripped by the Mage guild. The way I looked at the situation, it’s actually a lot like reading about Spock falling in love. That is to say, it’s no easy feat. The author deserves my admiration for pulling it off.
Let’s face it, too: I’m a sucker for Forbidden Love. Despite being YA and the style of prose leaning towards younger audiences, I really enjoyed the delightful romance blooming between Alain and Mari. It’s a relationship I find more “cute” than “passionate”, but nonetheless it worked surprisingly well for me.
In the end, The Dragons of Dorcastle is not a terribly original or noteworthy book, but I really liked it. Its down-to-earth style, entertainment value, and wonderful characters made it very hard for me to resist its charms. All told, a very good book to just curl up and relax with....more
I admit The Wrath and the Dawn wasn’t initially a book I was drawn to, but as time went by, the concept started to grow on me. I still would have preferred a stronger fantasy component, but its hook – the fact that its story is inspired by A Thousand and One Nights – became more intriguing the longer I thought about it.
The book introduces us to sixteen-year-old Shahrzad, getting ready for her marriage to Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. It’s a sad affair for her family, who all believe it will be the last time any of them will see Shazi alive. Everyone says that young Khalid is a monster, for what kind of man would take a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise the next day? Shazi, however, had volunteered herself for this, and she has a plan (arguable, but more about that later). Not long ago, her own best friend was taken and killed by the Caliph. Now Shazi is determined to find out why Shiva and all those other young girls had to die, and she won’t stop until she gets her revenge.
Things are not as they seem, though. Shazi may have escaped death for a day by captivating Khalid with a story, cleverly withholding the ending by the time dawn arrives, forcing the Caliph to put off her execution in order to find out what happens. The more time she spends with the boy king, however, the more she realizes he is not the monster everyone made him out to be. Still, he did kill all those women, and the reason for that is a closely guarded secret that no seems to know or want to talk about. While seeking answers, Shazi finds herself slowly drawn to Khalid and even begins to fall for him. But when her first love Tariq learns of her marriage to the Caliph and comes riding to her rescue, Shazi will have to make a choice.
I found this book to be one part romance, and one part A Big Question. The former is relatively straight forward; Shazi marries Khalid, realizes that he’s actually not that bad, the two fall in love. It happens very quickly, almost too quickly for my tastes. Here’s another Young Adult novel, where in its eagerness to get its two lovers together, we lose out on a lot of the emotional layers that make the relationship convincing. And how was Shazi supposed to take revenge on the Caliph after marrying him anyway? She didn’t even really try. Her half-baked plan didn’t seem to go much farther beyond enticing him with stories (and I do wish she had been able to tell more of them), so all I can see is the instalove being a decision of convenience. Thing is though, I could easily look past this in favor of what I really felt was the most interesting aspect of the whole book.
Enter the big question: Why did Khalid kill Shazi’s best friend Shiva and all those other wives of his? That’s the mystery that really caught my interest and kept me reading, and it was treated in the exact opposite way as the romance, an intricate puzzle that slowly unravels. For that I was very happy, and I liked how the author took the time to make the answers worth it.
I was also most impressed with Shazi’s character above any of the others. I liked that she had such class and dignity, but also a strong personality that wouldn’t stop her from teaching a lesson to someone who shows her disrespect. She’s also truly fearless, as evidenced by the calm and quiet way she decided to volunteer to marry the Caliph knowing very well it could mean her death, and also by a scene where she strikes out at an attacker even when she very literally had a blade to her throat.
There was really one factor about the writing that made me stumble. Five words: Attack of the purple prose.
“But the thought that she might lie to him – that those eyes, with their unpredictable onslaught of colors, flashing blue one instant and green the next, only to paint his world gold with the bright sound of her laughter…”
Occasionally there will be a glaring overkill of these flowery phrases or paragraphs. I think it’s pretty common with relatively new authors who are also extremely talented writers though, who maybe just need to know when to dial it back a little.
Still, on the whole I do think Renée Ahdieh writes beautifully and has a bright writing career ahead of her. While it may not be perfect, The Wrath and the Dawn impressed me and so I’m on board to see what happens next....more
Son of the Shadows may be the second book of the Sevenwaters series, but it is not a direct sequel. Instead, the story follows the youngest daughter of Sorcha, the brave young woman in Daughter of the Forest who was set upon a quest to save her six older brothers from a terrible curse – and succeeded. Liadan proves to be just as resourceful as her mother when she is abducted by outlaws on the road, managing to maneuver her way out of the dilemma by offering her healing services to an injured member of the group. This is also how she meets the Painted Man, the leader of the band known to be a cold and heartless killer.
Despite it not being a direct sequel, it is still perhaps necessary to read Daughter of the Forest first before tackling Son of the Shadows. Threads from the first book’s story carry over to this one, and if you aren’t familiar with them it is easy to become confused or lost. In fact, as someone who jumped into this book right after reading the first one, I still feel like I’m missing something. The meddling Fae are back, reminding us that there is still a prophecy to be fulfilled and a darkness to vanquish. Sorcha may have set Sevenwaters on the right path, but it is up to Liadan to take up the mantle now and continue what her mother started. However, nothing really develops in the grander scheme of things; we don’t get to see the great evil rear its ugly head even once in this novel, and I’m not sure if the Fair Folk’s prophecy progresses that much at all.
For all that, Son of the Shadows was an enjoyable read, almost as much as Daughter of the Forest. It does lack a bit of the cohesion I found in the first book, which had a clear direction given how it was a very faithful retelling of a well-known fairy tale. Marillier plays around more with her characters and plot with this one, having freer reign to do as she pleases with the story. For one thing, the romance here is much heavier and more in the forefront. Liadan and the Painted Man fall swiftly for each other, whereas Sorcha’s relationship in the previous book was a much slower burn. The love story elements are more overt and in your face this time around and doesn’t come across as naturally, but it’s still very deep and full of passion.
Still, it’s an excellent follow up and a worthy addition to the saga of Sevenwaters, which looks to have more in store. It’s clear now that there’s a lot more to the narrative, and the effects aren’t going to be limited to just a few characters. Instead, multiple generations in the same bloodline will be touched forever. Son of the Shadows is different from the first book, but in a good way. And it doesn’t stray too far from the overall themes that I’ve come to appreciate about this series, mainly the fairy tale and mythological undertones to the setting and story. And of course, Marillier’s writing is beautiful as always.
This book is put together slightly less elegantly and doesn’t tread as lightly as its predecessor, but I still loved it....more
Echo 8 is the first novel I’ve read by Sharon Lynn Fisher, but I’d known from before that her work is usually characterized by mixture of Science Fiction and Romance elements. That sounded just fabulous to me, and well, ultimately I believe one’s overall enjoyment of this book will entirely depend on how much you prefer in your balance of each genre!
With themes like alternate worlds and parapsychology at its core, Echo 8 follows a brilliant young researcher named Tess Caufield in a near-future where doppelgangers have begun appearing mysteriously and randomly from a parallel universe. As far as Tess and her team could tell, these shadowy “Echoes” are from an alternate earth that has been struck by an asteroid, but how these hapless individuals ended up being here, and how to keep them alive on this world after they have teleported are questions scientists are still trying desperately to work out.
However, Echoes also have the unfortunate tendency to drain the life energy from people they come in physical contact with. This consequently led to the assignment of FBI special agent Ross McGinnis to Tess’s security detail, much to her chagrin. This arrangement is further strained when Jake, the latest Echo to dislocate to Seattle Psi from the other earth touches Tess and almost kills her, setting off a chain reaction that will have profound significance for all three lives.
Remember what I said earlier about how you like your balance of sci-fi and romance? After finishing Echo 8, I’ve determined that this book is without question heavier on the latter. The scientific theory and technology involved in here is sufficiently explained but clearly written in a way so that the reader can enjoy the story without having to look beyond the surface details. Those used to harder sci-fi with a stronger emphasis and comprehensive look at the technical aspects won’t really find it here. On the other hand, if you’re fancying yourself a good romance, then you definitely won’t be disappointed.
No question about it, Fisher has a real talent for writing hot, sweaty, passionate lurrrrrve. Perhaps a bit too fast and intense for me, if I’m to tell the truth. Heck, I’m all for scorching love scenes, and I’m not exactly a fan of crawling slow burn romances either, but I’d prefer to see a relationship proceed at more of a simmer. In Echo 8 we’re thrust into a complicated love triangle almost right away, and the first time two characters get together it happened very quickly, too quickly for me to be truly convinced of their feelings for each other.
In general, the weight of the romance also came at the expense of story and character development. Often I could tell that the plot yearned to be something bigger, something more, but all told it ended up being rather straightforward and predictable. There’s not much depth to Tess beyond her obsession to help Echoes and her complete lack of concern over whether or not she gets killed trying to do it. This drives Ross crazy of course, but his soft spot for Tess means it never takes much to talk him into letting her do anything she wants. We go through this cycle repeatedly with these two characters, while Jake pines for Tess and struggles with his feelings for someone he knows he can never have…or can he? Like the science fiction aspects, we’re given just enough information about the three main characters to appreciate the twisty relationship dynamics behind their…unique situation. The level of romantic drama here is extremely satisfying, but once again, some readers might find themselves wishing for more out of the plot and characters.
In sum, Echo 8 has a very interesting and ambitious premise, even if it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. It is first and foremost a Romance, and in this area the book indubitably excels, practically burning up the pages with its fast-paced love story and red-hot desires flying all over the place. It’s perhaps too strong on the romantic side of things for my tastes, but I suspect those readers who are more inclined towards that will enjoy this novel very much. Everything about it is designed to appeal to genre fiction readers who enjoy a very healthy dose of romance, and without a doubt it is successful in this endeavor. And I have to say, even with the issues I mentioned above, I liked this book and found it to be a fun read....more
I was a bit taken aback by the tepid to cool reviews I’ve been seeing for this one. Not that my own review is all that glowing, I realize, but while Talon probably won’t rank among my favorite Young Adult novels read this year, I had a lot of fun with it. By all means not a bad book. Surprisingly, most of the disappointment appears to be from fans of Julie Kagawa’s other series. I’ve never read anything else by her though, so there’s really nothing for me to compare this to.
But let’s move on to what the book is about. Talon is about dragons…but also not really. If you’re looking for a novel featuring these magnificent creatures in all their winged and scaly fire-breathing glory, you’re not going to find much of that here. What you have instead is a small group of dragonkind who spend most of their time in human form, hoping to infiltrate our society and one day take over the world again. A secret faction of dragon slayers called the Order of St. George is determined not to let that happen, and their members continue to hunt dragons like they have for time immemorial.
The book begins as two young dragon siblings, Ember and Dante Hill travel to California in their human forms to begin training for their future positions to serve their home base of Talon. Ember is fascinated with humankind, and wants nothing more than to enjoy the summer living out the full teenager experience – beaches, arcades, ice cream parlors, the whole shebang. Her brother Dante on the other hand is a lot more disciplined, and does not like it one bit when a rogue dragon shows up in their territory, distracting Ember from her training. Meanwhile, St. George has received the rumors of new dragon recruits in the area, and the young soldier Garret Xavier Sebastian and his partner are tasked to hunt these Talon agents down and kill them.
Encouraged to mingle and blend in with other teenagers, Ember and Dante spend most of this book as humans. But unlike other books with shape-shifting dragons (like Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina for example, which I thought did a really good job developing the culture and world of the draconic characters), it’s difficult to think of the dragons here as anything but human. This is what I meant when I cautioned not to think of Talon too much as a “dragon” book. Despite a few scenes of Ember thinking as a dragon and being a dragon – and they are quite few and far between – the author often seems to put her human persona before her draconic one. Plus, the setting is modern and urban. Ember’s life revolves around surfing, parties, friends and boys. Very little is known about the dragon home of Talon and Kagawa doesn’t really get into it. For those craving a bit more fantasy and world building, I can see how that could cause some frustration.
As such, this ends up being your rather typical contemporary young adult novel with a light fantasy twist, complete with love triangle and just a dash of forbidden love. Despite being exactly what I expected, it was undeniably entertaining.
After reading this, however, I admit to being skeptical of Kagawa’s writing. It’s obvious that she can spin a good yarn, but there were some plot elements that were so illogical and downright silly, it can be difficult to take these characters seriously. First of all, if you can take any form and you’re trying to covertly infiltrate and gain influence in human society, I would not do it as a teenager. Good luck gathering any useful information to bring back to your overlords, unless they’re interested in how your airheaded friend thinks so-and-so is so totally gorgeous and has nice abs. Talon is also so bad at this undercover secret agent stuff, I’m not surprised St. George managed to narrow their search down to Ember and Dante and their group of beach bum friends in like all of two seconds. You’re a dragon spy, and you’re seriously going to stick with Ember for your name? You might as well paint a target on your back and wear a big sign that says “I’M THE DRAGON!” and hang it around your neck. The Order of St. George doesn’t seem that much more competent either. At one point, Garret admits to his partner that he is getting too close to Ember and recommends stepping back from the mission. Instead of allowing Garret to do so, what does his partner do but tell him to take advantage of this new development to go even deeper into the case. Um, no! As soon as one of your soldiers gets emotionally involved and becomes compromised like that, you pull them the hell out. A lot of the problems that St. George experience near the end, they brought most of them on themselves.
These little moments aside, not much else detracted from the experience. Yes, the story is pretty standard but ended up being more interesting than the description made it sound, and it held my attention to the end, which isn’t something I can say for a lot of YA. The next book, predictably called Rogue, looks like it will delve deeper into the both the secret Order of St. George and the dragon organization Talon, so hopefully readers get the world building we want there....more
I’m disappointed to say the least. Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls was a trilogy I read a few years ago, and while it might not rank up there as one of my favorite Young Adult series of all time, it had its moments. One of the highlights was the supporting character of Isabel Culpeper who was a bit of a queen bee, plus she’s angry and bitter to boot. And yet, I found her to be a lot more interesting than the very blah protagonist of Grace Brisbane, and I was rather fond of Isabel. I was also intrigued when I found out she would be starring in her own book Sinner along with Cole St. Clair, the rock star/werewolf with whom she started a budding romance towards the end of the Mercy Falls trilogy.
Sinner begins in California, where Isabel has started her new life, going to school preparing to be a doctor while working part time at a clothing designer’s store. Cole on the other hand is trying to make a comeback to the music scene after being rehabilitated from a life of booze and drugs, by — ugh! — agreeing to be the focus of a godforsaken reality TV show, of all things. When he arrives in LA, the first thing he does is look up Isabel, hoping to rekindle what they had from their days back in Mercy Falls, Minnesota.
There’s really not much else to say about the plot. The story zips along at the speed of molasses, and for the longest time I tried to figure out what the conflict was, only to resign myself to the fact that there really isn’t one. Cole does his reality TV show thing while acting like a prima donna, and Isabel goes about her daily life putting up with his crap.
To be fair, Sinner ended up being a completely different book than I expected it to be. First of all, it probably falls more into the New Adult category instead of YA, following the characters like Isabel in their post-high school life, and werewolves or not, the themes are more contemporary rather than related to speculative fiction. It has very few paranormal elements compared to the Mercy Falls trilogy, so few that I was just barely able to label this one a fantasy.
My main issue, however, wasn’t the lack of fantasy elements or the fact that there was hardly any story. My problem was the vacuous, insufferable prat that was Cole St. Clair.
For the love of God, I don’t remember him being so annoying in the original trilogy. A big pet peeve of mine is bad boys who try oh so very hard to be a bad boy. Let’s face it, if Cole hadn’t gotten lucky and become a rock star, he would have ended up living in a cardboard box in some alley, offering to take your verbal abuse for chance at a bit of change. And who knows, he still might end up that way. He’s already washed up at this young age, reduced to dancing-bear status on an insipid reality TV show.
The sad part is, I still really like Isabel’s character, which made it doubly hard to watch her fall for this joker when all I wanted to do was scream at her to run, run away! Get as far away as you can from this idiot because God forbid if you end up marrying him he’ll end up a worthless thirty-five-year-old has-been, having pissed away his royalties on cars and parties, with no aspirations other than to be a professional layabout because working for an honest living is just sooooo lame. He’d probably let his looks and physique go too, because exercise and taking good care of one’s health is something, like, everybody does! And we all know Cole’s just too cool to go along with everyone else!
I feel kind of bad for being snarky, but it just makes me so ANGRY. I think this was my problem with the Wolves of Mercy Falls series as well. The trilogy started well enough, but things went downhill in the last book Forever when the characters suddenly developed these horribly bratty and angsty attitudes. To a certain extent you have to expect a fair dose of youthful naiveté in YA, but this whole “OMG I hate everyone and everything!” and “Adults are stupid morons and I totally know better than all of them!” kind of thinking gets a bit old, especially in Sinner when we’ve supposedly left high school far behind. Frankly, Cole’s behavior towards his parents made me sick, especially considering how by all accounts they are perfectly good, sensible people. The worst thing Cole can think of to happen to him is if he became his dad, because apparently, Cole thinks being a responsible contributor to society is boring. Go figure.
As a novel, it saddens me to say this, especially since according to her foreword it sounds like a pretty important book for the author, but Sinner felt kind of pointless. For me, it was also 300-ish pages of teeth-grinding aggravation, thanks to the big, cuddly ball of phony that was Cole. Read this if you’re fan of the Mercy Falls books because you’ll probably want to see what happened to two of the more important side characters from the trilogy. That’s what I told myself I wanted to do, and I don’t regret reading this because at least I got to follow up with Isabel, but unfortunately not even her chapters could make up for her co-star....more
This book would be perfect for readers looking for a well-balanced blend of fantasy with a historical fiction-type setting, overlaid with a story laced with a heavy dose of the kind of chaste, slow-burn romance one might find in a traditional Regency novel.
Graham Marshall – Gray to family and friends – finds himself out of favor at Merlin College when a midnight errand goes terribly wrong, landing himself and a couple friends in the infirmary while another boy loses his life. Disgraced, Gray is sent away to the summer home of the arrogant and unpleasant Professor Appius Callendar until such time the college can decide his fate. It’s there that Gray has the pleasure of meeting the professor’s middle daughter Sophie, who for some reason Professor Callendar seems to neglect and disdain. There’s certainly no love lost between father and daughter.
Even though he was told none of the Callendar girls were born with any magical talent, Gray senses something strange about Sophie. Because proper women studying magical theory is considered scandalous in their society, Sophie has been secretly learning it herself from the books in her father’s library. She’s delighted to meet Gray, finding him very different from the pretentious and foppish young men her father usually invites home from the college, and is grateful when he offers to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. The two of them strike up a friendship, and so when astounding revelations are revealed about Sophie’s past, Gray is wrapped up in the whirlwind of events. And here he was, thinking his life was complicated!
From page one, I was drawn in by the gorgeous writing. Admittedly, it can be somewhat difficult to get used to. Clunky and awkward in some places, it’s not exactly what I would call easy on the eyes, with a style and tone suited to the historical era. But it’s extremely effective when it comes to setting the mood, and once you adapt to it, the reading goes much faster and smoother.
The novel’s greatest strength is the characterization. Gray and Sophie take center stage, and the whole book is told through their perspectives, which alternate back and forth – a lot. Again, it can be distracting, at least initially. The author jumps between Sophie and Gray whenever it suits her, so that sometimes you can get a few paragraphs of Gray’s point of view and then abruptly we would switch to Sophie as she picks up the narrative. Regular readers of romance are probably used to this, but it was something else I had to adjust to at the beginning.
After getting the hang of things, it was easier for me to simply sit back and soak in the story. It bears emphasizing again that the characters are just great in this; because the relationship between Gray and Sophie are so integral to the story, it makes sense to establish and build upon them early, and that’s what we get here. Before Gray and Sophie can get to know each other intimately, the reader has to get to know them as individuals, which makes their eventual coming together that much more satisfying. As I mentioned before, theirs is a slow-burn romance (the kind where everyone around them can see what’s going on before the two can even admit it to themselves) so if you’re looking for instant gratification, this is not the book you’re looking for. We’re also not talking fiery passion or red hot love scenes here, keeping things clean and proper with good manners!
The heavy focus on G+S notwithstanding, that’s not to say the other characters were forgotten or underdeveloped. In fact, my favorite character was a supporting character, Joanna Callendar, who probably has more personality in her little finger than her sister Sophie had in her whole body. Sad to say, as much as I liked Sophie, she was an idealized character, a special snowflake that came across just a little too perfect in a lot of ways, and that makes her less interesting than the spunky, lippy and slightly insolent Joanna.
By the same token, plot is probably not this novel’s strong suit. A lost princess, a prophecy foretelling the return of “The One” and the pivotal role they play in the fate of a monarch and the kingdom…it’s a little clichéd, perhaps, but it’s also not a negative if you go in knowing what to expect. This book is obviously more interested in telling Gray and Sophie’s story, it makes its intention loud and clear right from the start, and so a lighter, less original plot is something I could overlook.
Bottom line: The Midnight Queen is a very beautiful, very atmospheric novel about young love, slow-going at times, making it feel like very little happens while the author develops the two characters. You can probably predict the outcome of the story with no effort at all, but the emotional payoff is worth it if you stick around and give the book a chance to let Gray and Sophie to resolve their feelings for each other. Recommended for fantasy lovers who want romance, but who also won’t mind the slower, sweet-and-tender but also more subtle approach....more
Erin Lindsey is also E.L. Tettensor, author of the mystery-fantasy Darkwalker that I enjoyed so much last year. So needless to say, I was really excited to read her new novel The Bloodbound, a sword and sorcery adventure with a more romantic bent.
The book introduces readers to Alix Black, a soldier and scout in the king’s host. I always enjoy it when I come across fantasy stories that feature both men and women fighters, and seeing someone like Alix, who is a noblewoman of a sort, in the army is doubly refreshing. Despite being one of the Greater Houses, the power and influence of the Blacks have waned over the years, leaving only Alix and her older brother Rig. Alix has left the life of luxury behind, trading in her gowns and lavish balls for leathers and her blood blade, swearing her service to King Erik.
But what she didn’t expect was actually becoming Erik’s bodyguard. When the king is betrayed on the battlefield by his own brother Prince Tomald, Alix rescues Erik and is named his protector. Leaving her comrades in the scouts behind, Alix becomes Erik’s personal guard but also a trusted confidante as the two grow closer. Complicating matters is Alix’s relationship with her former fellow scout and more-than-just-a-friend Liam, but what is a loyal soldier to do when her sovereign ruler requires her protection and the fate of their entire kingdom rests on the outcome of a brutal war?
While The Bloodbound might not be breaking new ground, it has all the ingredients for a winning fantasy novel. It has a strong female protagonist, who is deadly capable without being a cutting, embittered warrior. No damsels in distress here; we see a gender role reversal from the norm, with Alix doing her fair share of the rescuing, saving Erik’s kingly hide time and time again. There’s also an intriguing, fast-paced plot involving a traitorous royal brother and an invading foreign army. The world building is also rich but subtle, with plenty of the magic, history and politics of the book’s world getting through to the reader without ever becoming overbearing. And then, of course, there’s the romance.
I’ll admit, I had my reservations when I first encountered the love triangle. Torn between Erik and Liam who have both expressed their true feelings to her, Alix knows that eventually she will have to choose between them. But love is not as important as duty when you’re a king, a noblewoman, or even a common soldier who may be more than he appears. Meanwhile, a usurper threatens to take the throne and an attacking enemy force has the dark magical power to do great evil, so the Alix-Liam-Erik situation is further muddled by political need.
While I knew going in that The Bloodbound would have strong emphasis on romance, the love triangle still threw me off a little. Considered a staple of the Young Adult novel, at first I wasn’t sure how I felt to see it in my adult epic fantasy. However, after pondering the matter, I realized that even though love triangles are a common trope, my problems that stem from them have nothing to do with the love triangles themselves, but actually how they are written. Erin Lindsey ends up avoiding a lot of the common pitfalls, opting to forego the angst and melodrama, sparing me a lot of frustration and eye-rolling. Without the drawn-out dramatics of your typical love triangle, I ended up enjoying this one quite a bit. The romance is almost in perfect balance with the rest of the novel, and doesn’t distract too much from the overall bigger story.
All in all, this makes The Bloodbound a very special book. It mixes the modern with the classic, with the result being an epic fantasy type novel that would also be very easy to get into for fans of YA romance or Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance. An engaging love story is something I feel is missing in a lot of epic fantasy, so this book worked very well for me. It gives equal weight to both the romance and the fantasy world-building elements.
All told, this is a very well-written novel that I believe has wide appeal as well as the potential to connect with many kinds of readers. It can be read as a standalone, with a satisfying story and no cliffhangers, though it does keep the door open for future possibilities. I love the author’s style: simple and elegant, which is how I like it. No matter what name she writes under, I’m a fan....more
It’s been a while since I’ve read a satisfying maritime fantasy. “I wish you luck, love, and adventure,” says a character to the protagonist in the beginning of this novel, and incidentally that’s exactly what we get. Starring a princess masquerading as a young man, along with pirates, magic, a secret map and untold treasures, perhaps the “adventure” part is what we get the most of all in this story that takes place mostly on the high seas.
Princess Clarice is the daughter of the Duke of Swansgaarde, the eldest of twelve girls (I know…YIKES!) and one boy. While the arrival of a son and heir apparent was a much celebrated event, this left the family with a dilemma – they cannot possibly secure the futures of Clarice and her eleven sisters, as that many royal dowries would surely bankrupt the already small and modest Duchy. The girls, therefore, were raised from an early age to be able and independent, preparing for the day they would be expected to make their way into the world and find their own fortunes.
Sometimes, I get the feeling that a book really wants you to get into the action right away. These books tend not to weave the world’s history into the story and instead the authors push everything you need to know right up front. Readers of House of the Four Winds might find its prologue and the first couple of chapters to be exposition-heavy, outlining the Duchy of Swansgaarde’s circumstances and thus also explaining Clarice’s fighting prowess and motivations for traveling on her own to see the world. Granted, it’s not the most subtle way relaying the information, but it’s efficient and fast, and looking back, the introduction gave the book an almost fairy tale-like “Once upon a time…” quality, which was actually quite nice.
Then we get to the meat of the story, an action-adventure tale with a bit of romance thrown in. As the first princess to seek her fortune, Clarice has decided to play to her strengths as a sword fighter, and intends to hone her skills in the New World across the ocean. Disguising herself as a young nobleman named Clarence Swann, she is charmed by the charismatic and handsome navigator Dominick Moryet and books passage on his ship the Asesino, sailing under Captain Samuel Sprunt who is said to be extraordinarily lucky. There might have been more to Sprunt’s “luck”, however, as the unfortunate crew come to discover when tensions mount and an uprising becomes inevitable.
If your fancies run towards the nautical, then you’ll be in for a treat. Your journey will start with the down-and-dirty details of everyday ship living, as well as meeting the various crew members and officers, all of this seen through Clarice/Clarence’s eyes so it is all very natural and relevant to the young princess’ learning. The authors make it a fascinating experience and the story only gets better as the events unfold, leading to a mutiny and the discovery of a hidden island controlled by pirates and an evil enchantress. Pirates, of course, are always a fan favorite. The plot is also kept fun and lighthearted with the protagonist’s efforts to keep her disguise a secret, even as she begins to fall for the winsome Dominick. Mistrust between the factions aboard the ship keep the story interesting, not to mention the possibility of the crew of Asesino turning privateer themselves.
My only issue with this book involves certain aspects of the writing, especially when we are reading about significant events that I feel should hold more weight and suspense. In my opinion, these scenes weren’t very well executed. Deaths of important characters were glossed over unceremoniously. Fight scenes were cut-and-dried without much sense of urgency. And of course, the prime example was the critical and inevitable moment when Clarice’s identity is revealed to Dominick, and the result was a fizzle at best. There was no outrage and no shock of betrayal, and even if Dominick were the most understanding person in the world, I would not have expected his response to be “OMG I LOVE YOU TOO!” Things tied up just a little bit too neatly. Considering how Clarice kept the truth of her identity from the whole crew for pretty much the whole book, with everyone believing she was a man this whole time, I would have expected a more realistic reaction.
These tiny quibbles aside, The House of the Four Winds is a fine tale of swashbuckling adventure. The story is to be taken lightly and enjoyed at face value, and the book is the boisterous seafaring romp it was meant to be. As another bonus, it wraps up nicely with satisfying ending. This conclusion along with the series name of One Dozen Daughters leads me to wonder if future books will focus on Clarice’s sisters’ individual journeys instead, rather than continue with Clarice herself. If that turns out to be the case, then there’s no telling the places this series can go; the possibilities are exciting and endless. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing more....more