A Heart of Blood and Ashes, by Milla Vane

>> Sunday, February 16, 2020

TITLE: A Heart of Blood and Ashes
AUTHOR: Milla Vane

PAGES: 560

SETTING: Futuristic 'barbarian'-type world
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in A Gathering of Dragons

A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.

Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.

Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own...
What better to end my long break from blogging than with Meljean Brook's new book after several years? A Heart of Blood and Ashes is the first in a new series called A Gathering of Dragons, and set in the same world as the author's short story in the Night Shift anthology, The Beast of Blackmoor. It's written under another name, Milla Vane, and Meljean warns that this is because these books are a lot darker than her other ones. I wasn't super excited about that particular aspect, but this is one of my favourite authors, so it wasn't going to keep away!

This is set in a world recovering from huge trauma. A few decades earlier, a being called the Destroyer  rampaged through the world. After a while he left, leaving destruction behind. In the years since, several of the realms in the area entered into an alliance, hoping it would make them stronger to resist an eventual return.

The hero, Maddek, is the son of the king and queen of the Parsatheans, a nation of nomadic barbarians from the North. He's Commander of the armies of the Alliance, and has been spending his time defending the southernmost realms from the incursions of savage humanoid beings. And then he receives news of the death of his parents.

Initial reports are vague, but after weeks of riding back to the seat of the Alliance Council, Maddek arrives to the news that his parents were executed while visiting another realm. In the weeks since, the Council has investigated the matter, and determined that the execution was a justified response by the king of that realm to crimes on his parents' part, an accusation Maddek knows is untrue. Maddek is expected to respect the Council's decision, and any direct revenge on his part risks destroying the alliance his parents so valued.

But even if direct revenge is forbidden, Maddek intends to have revenge all the same, and the perfect opportunity appears when he finds out the enemy king's daughter will be secretly travelling to marry the king of a neighbouring realm. Kidnapping her on the way is child's play. But the king's daughter, Yvenne, turns out to hate her father just as much, and co-operating with her, in spite of his mistrust for her, offers Maddek an even better potential revenge.

Let's talk about the dark tone thing first, shall we? Honestly, to me it was not anywhere near as bad as I feared. Yes, there is violence in this world and a fair bit of gore, but I found all that really easy to take. I think that was because of two key reasons. First, what was distinctly missing here was the constant threat of sexual violence that is so prominent in so many 'dark' fantasy books. I hate that. It stresses me out, and I often find it exploitative and titillating. It's just not part of this book. Yes, there is sexual violence in this world (off the page, in the book), but for reasons that are very well-justified by the culture of this world, it's not normalised and expected. That made a lot of difference for me. Second, there is an element of idealism and respect for personal autonomy in the (good) leaders of this world. In so many dark fantasies there is a sense that power is the only ideal anyone sensible would strive for, and caring about justice and goodness is the mark of idiocy. Cynicism is the only sensible response. Not here. In this world, being a good ruler means caring about the ruled. Naive of me to prefer this? Maybe. But I do.

So yeah, that out of the way, onto the what I thought about the other aspects. Well, I loved basically everything.

First, I loved the world. In addition to being dark in a way that worked for me, the world this is set in is exceptionally well-developed. You get the very real sense that the author knows so, so much more about this world than is on the page, that it is fully-formed in her mind. I can't wait to know more.

But most of all, I loved the characters. They feel as well-developed as the world. Maddek at first comes across as a stereotypical angry barbarian, but in his interactions with Yvenne and with his 'dragon' (the sort of retinue that accompanies and protects the rulers of his people), his depths do emerge. And I loved that he grows during the book. The character development here is explicit, but nuanced. He starts out as a warrior, and Yvenne warns him that a warrior is not a king, and that if he wants to become one, he needs to learn to think as one. And we see as he does. It's very satisfying.

It's even more satisfying to see Yvenne come into her own. All her life his father's fear about her power has led him to brutally try to keep her weak. He's succeeded with her body (in certain ways), but she and her mother managed to keep her spirit strong. Her journey is about fully realising this, and about using her strengths to become a true warrior queen.

These two characters are wonderful on their own, and I also loved them together. For all that there is plenty of plot and action, this is actually a character-driven romance, in that the internal conflict was, to me, just as important as the stuff going on around them. Maddek starts out angry at Yvenne and convinced that she played a part in his parents' deaths. He starts realising the truth earlier, but full trust takes much, much longer. I guess it could be argued that after a while, the main conflict between them is just based on miscommunication, and why won't they actually talk about this certain key fact to each other???. That was a bit frustrating, but then when I thought about it properly, it was clear that the reasons for Yvenne not to tell Maddek that certain key thing were well-justified. What she feared his reaction would be was something she was probably correct about, at least at first. And she was lacking a certain key bit of information about the meaning of this fact. So while not loving it, and screaming in my mind to them not to be idiots, I was able to understand them.

I also loved that we have an overarching storyline here that will be developed throughout the series. In a way, it's a bit like Meljean's Guardians series, in that it's a battle between good an evil. This first book sets up the fact that this battle is coming, while still providing very satisfying closure for the romance. I expect the upcoming books will show the preparations for the battle (and maybe tell us a bit more about what happened during the years the Destroyer was ascendant in this area?), leading up to a final confrontation that I'm hoping will be as amazing as that in the Guardians series.


NOTE: To understand the characters' movements, it was useful to have a map, and I was glad to have seen it posted in the author's facebook feed. If you're going to read the book (and you should!), you may want to keep this on your phone to refer to!


Coming back!

>> Saturday, February 01, 2020

Happy 2020, everyone! I've taken a little bit of a longer break than I was intending, but new year, new resolutions. I have recently returned from my usual month-long holiday in Uruguay (very timely; Helsinki has been stuck in a perpetual grey autumn), and my reading has gone into overdrive. I look forward to reviewing these.


The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan

>> Tuesday, April 09, 2019

TITLE: The Unquiet Dead
AUTHOR: Ausma Zehanat Khan

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Contemporary Canada, Bosnia during the war in the early 90s
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Rachel Getty & Esa Khattak #1

Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she's still uneasy at Khattak's tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton's death. Drayton's apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn't seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak's team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.

If that's true, any number of people might have had reason to help Drayton to his death, and a murder investigation could have far-reaching ripples throughout the community. But as Rachel and Khattak dig deeper into the life and death of Christopher Drayton, every question seems to lead only to more questions, with no easy answers. Had the specters of Srebrenica returned to haunt Drayton at the end, or had he been keeping secrets of an entirely different nature? Or, after all, did a man just fall to his death from the Bluffs?

In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice that will linger with readers long after turning the final page.
Esa Khattak is a Canadian police detective who has been put in charge of a unit that deals with crimes that are perceived to be in some way delicate and could have an impact on community relations, particularly when it comes to race. It's seen by some as a bit of a demotion, but Esa, who is of Pakistani background, does believe in what the unit is trying to do, so there's very little angst on his part about it.

Esa's partner is Rachel Getty, a woman of a very different background. Rachel is white Canadian, and comes from a police family. She's rough and awkward, to Esa's sophistication, and she still lives at home with her alcoholic, abusive father and her enabling mother. But she and Esa get along really well. They respect each other's skills, even when their styles don't match.

In this, the first book of the series, Esa and Rachel get involved in investigating the seemingly accidental death of a man called Christopher Drayton. It's not initially thought to be suspicious, but a friend of Esa's, who's the Department of Justice's historian, wants them to take another look. It turns out that Drayton was not actually Drayton, but a war criminal, a man involved in some of the worst events to take place during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. And it quickly becomes obvious that there were quite a few people who knew about this, people who may have wanted to take revenge.

This book was so frustrating! The setup was really interesting to me, but I thought the execution was really not great, at least not in the first half, which was as far as I got. It felt to me that the investigation lacked logic, possibly because Esa was keeping his cards very close to his chest and being annoyingly cryptic and mysterious and refusing to communicate, even to Rachel. It didn't feel like good police work.

But that was something I could have continued reading through, hoping it would improve. What made me put the book down in disgust was the misogyny. In about 150 pages we're introduced to, not one, but two female characters who are ridiculously and cartoonishly horrible, and in a stereotypically "feminine" way, too. There's Drayton's fiancée Melanie, an utter and complete bimbo. Manipulative, uses her sexuality as a weapon, doesn't give a shit about her daughters and just uses them to hurt her poor, nice ex-husband, the works. And then we meet Esa's former partner Laine. Also manipulative, also uses her sexuality as a weapon. Even worse, she went after Esa and when he rejected her, she falsely accused him of sexual harassment as revenge. And not only that, she had started dating Esa's best friend, and did her best to destroy that friendship.

These days, this sort of crap "characterisation" is not something I'm prepared to put up with. It was made even worse by Rachel's attitude. She's a bit of a jock, uninterested in all stereotypically female things. Which is absolutely fine. What is not fine is the way she (and, to an extent, the narrative) puts down any woman who does like girly stuff. Laine an Melanie, of course, but also any woman who's beautiful. Fuck that noise.



Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl

>> Sunday, March 24, 2019

TITLE: Delicious!
AUTHOR: Ruth Reichl

PAGES: 380
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: Fiction

In her bestselling memoirs Ruth Reichl has long illuminated the theme of how food defines us, and never more so than in her dazzling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts.

Billie Breslin has traveled far from her California home to take a job at Delicious, the most iconic food magazine in New York and, thus, the world. When the publication is summarily shut down, the colorful staff, who have become an extended family for Billie, must pick up their lives and move on. Not Billie, though. She is offered a new job: staying behind in the magazine's deserted downtown mansion offices to uphold the "Delicious Guarantee"-a public relations hotline for complaints and recipe inquiries-until further notice. What she doesn't know is that this boring, lonely job will be the portal to a life-changing discovery.

Delicious! carries the reader to the colorful world of downtown New York restaurateurs and artisanal purveyors, and from the lively food shop in Little Italy where Billie works on weekends to a hidden room in the magazine's library where she discovers the letters of Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, who wrote to the legendary chef James Beard during World War II. Lulu's letters lead Billie to a deeper understanding of history (and the history of food), but most important, Lulu's courage in the face of loss inspires Billie to come to terms with her own issues-the panic attacks that occur every time she even thinks about cooking, the truth about the big sister she adored, and her ability to open her heart to love.
Ruth Reichl is a food writer and journalist, and I understand her work is very well known in the US. She's written a few memoirs (including one I have on my TBR as well, covering her time as restaurant reviewer for the New York Times), but she's also written a novel, and this is it.

Billie Breslin is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. She happens to have an incredibly sensitive palate, and that and her fascination with food land her a job in the offices of famous food magazine Delicious. It's a lowly secretarial job, but there are definitely prospects for moving into journalism there, and Billie is soon taking steps in that direction.

And then suddenly, everything is up in the air. The magazine is closed down by the money-grubbing corporate owners, and the whole staff is out of a job. Everyone but Billie, that is, because there's one bit of Delicious that must continue. See, the magazine has always offered the "Delicious Guarantee", promising that if a recipe doesn't work, the reader gets their money back. And someone needs to deal with the enquiries that still regularly come in about it.

It is while answering sporadic Guarantee-related calls in the now-empty offices that Billie discovers some fascinating letters. It turns out that James Beard (even I have heard about him!) used to work for Delicious way back when, and the archive still contains letters sent to him by a young girl during the war. The girl's story, revealed through her side of the correspondence, grips Billie completely, and finding out the rest of the story requires her to embark on a treasure hunt designed by the ghost of librarians past.

I had such mixed feelings about this one! On one hand, Billie is the ultimate Mary Sue. She's got this supernatural palate, lands this amazing job through not real effort on her part, and everyone immediately adores her. She has a Very Tragic Past that makes her sad and stops her from doing what she's meant to be doing with her life, but absolutely no flaws. Everything about her feels clichéd. We even get a make-over scene where she figuratively takes off her glasses, gets some clothes that fit, and becomes a proper knock-out. Oh, and she's not only beautiful, but an instinctive genius at putting together incredibly cool outfits. That inborn genius matches well with her food-related inborn genius. Her story is basically wish-fulfilment, and she herself was incredibly boring.

The thing is, all the food stuff is the kind of wish fulfilment that works for me, unlike other kinds of wish-fulfilment books like the ones with the Plain Jane heroine falling for the rock star. Billie's New York City really is the city of dreams, filled with eccentric deli owners whose shops are veritable wonderlands and who want nothing but to feed the enchanting heroine mouth-watering morsels. That's a dream I can get behind!

So while I kept rolling my eyes as I was reading, I did enjoy myself quite a bit. The whole story-line about the letters was pretty ho-hum for me, but spending time in foodie New York with Billie and her cool friends was super fun in spite of my cynicism.

MY GRADE: It's a B-. Flawed, but it did work for me more than maybe it should have.


The Reluctant Detective, by Martha Ockley

>> Friday, March 08, 2019

TITLE: The Reluctant Detective
AUTHOR: Martha Ockley

PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Faith Morgan series

Faith was a cop, and a good one. She and her boss (and boyfriend) Detective Inspector Ben Shorter tackled criminals and solved crimes across south-east England. They were a good team. But Faith grew disillusioned with Britain's tough police culture.

As her disquiet grows, she starts to ask bigger questions - and ends up as a priest in the Church of England, a job from which she considers she can do more good than any police investigation. In the process she and Ben part company: he can't stand God-botherers, and she finds his convictions-at-any-cost attitude treads on too many vulnerable people.

Faith may have quit the world of crime, but crime has not let her go. Newly ordained, she arrives in the village of Little Worthy, near Winchester, to look around the parish. Within an hour of her arrival she witnesses the sudden shocking death of a fellow priest. To her distress, the DI assigned to the case is Ben.

At the Bishop's urging, Faith stays on to look after the improbably named parish of Little Worthy. As she meets her parishioners she learns some surprising details about her apparently well-loved predecessor, and starts to suspect a motive for his death.

The cop may have donned a clerical collar, but the questions keep coming. How will she reconcile her present calling with her past instincts? Is she in danger herself? What should she do about Ben?
The Reluctant Detective's blurb put me in mind of one of my favourite mystery series, Julia Spencer-Fleming's books following Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyn. Like Clare with her years in the military, Faith Morgan started out her life in a profession quite far from priesthood. She was a police detective, right up until she decided she couldn't do it any longer and decided to become a Church of England vicar. So she left her boyfriend, fellow detective Ben, and went off to pursue her calling.

As the book starts, Faith has just been ordained. The priest in the parish of Little Worthing (pretty much exactly the sort of small village the name evokes) is about to retire, and Faith has travelled there to take a look around, see if it seems like the right place for her. But she arrives just in time for a shocking event: the outgoing priest dies under suspicious circumstances, right while he's celebrating mass.

Faith is asked by the bishop to stick around for a while to help take care of the understandably shocked parishioners. She's not trying to investigate the death, just doing her (new) job and counselling her parishioners, but somehow she keeps discovering all sorts of interesting details that her police training tells her the investigators need to know. And the leading investigator happens to be none other than Ben.

This was... well, it was ok. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it. These sorts of reviews are the hardest to do!

There were good things about it. It flowed well, and the mystery was well-constructed. I was interested in finding out what had happened, and I liked that Faith is genuinely not trying to play detective. She behaves perfectly sensibly and reacts in what I thought were believable ways. And though the book was probably in the 'inspirational' subgenre, any inspirational elements were relatively subtle and definitely non-preachy (at least, nothing that annoyed this atheist reader).

There were also some things I didn't like. My main problem was that several characters felt a bit off. Everyone seems quite... well, the word that comes to mind is 'uncool'. That was fine for some of the characters, but for others that vibe really didn't fit.

I also got a bit frustrated because we get lots of hints about what exactly it was that drove Faith away from Ben, but we never do find out what happened, at least not in this book. I'm assuming this is something that Ockley is leaving for later, to develop in a future book. So since I didn't like this enough to keep reading, I'll never find out. Mildly annoying (but not enough to make me read further!).

MY GRADE: A very middle-of-the-road C.


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