Whispers of the Night, by Lydia Joyce

>> Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lydia Joyce was one of my best discoveries last year. She had her first two books out in 2005, and both of them made my Top 10 Picks of 2005 list. The Veil of Night was very different from The Music of the Night, and her latest, Whispers of the Night (excerpt), is very different from them both.

When four London seasons fail to find her a suitable match, Alcyone Carter does the unthinkable and treks across Europe to marry a foreign nobleman she's never met. But on her wedding night, she discovers her handsome, enigmatic husband is not the man he claimed to be. Rather than live a lie, she escapes his estate into the darkness.

But her husband-ignited by his desire and pride--risks everything to follow her from the depths of the forests into the decadent heart of an empire, where they're forced to confront the passion they've discovered--and the dire threat that could cost them both their lives.
WOTN is different from Joyce's previous book, I say, but only in terms of things like setting and tone and type of plot. When it comes to the things that really make a book for me, like the characterization, the writing, and so on, it's just like those two... just as good. It's the best of both worlds: I get variety, but not variety in quality. A B+.

After four Seasons without finding a husband, Alcyone Carter has all but given up on the idea. So Alcy takes a bold step: she'll marry an impoverished foreign aristocrat, thus getting the title her merchant father wants for her. She doesn't do it lightly and takes plenty of precautions, from securing part of her bridal portion in her name, to corresponding with her future husband for some months.

The book starts as Alcy arrives at her betrothed's castle on the Hungary/Romania border, after a long and exhausting trip. And the minute she sets foot on it, she finds herself practically dragged to the chapel and married on the spot, still wearing her travel-stained clothes.

The reason for this haste becomes clear to the very intelligent Alcy the minute she gets a chance to catch her breath and think: the man she's married is not her fiancé, and she's not even in the geographical location she thought she was. Instead of Baron Benedek, of Hungary, the man who's now her husband is Romanian count Dumitru Constaninescu.

When Alcy comes out with her conclusions, right during their wedding night dinner, Dmitru is chagrined, but confesses it all. He'd been reading Baron Benedek's letters, and since he needs a great deal of money, when he saw the Baron was going to marry a very rich Englishwoman, Dmitru decided to steal her and marry her himself.

Alcy is understandably upset at the deception, but several things make her decide to carry on with the marriage. For one thing, she wasn't particularly particularly attached to the Baron (she didn't even know him, really), so there's not much difference between marrying this impoverished aristocratic stranger or that one, especially once Dmitru explains that many of the promises Benedek had made wouldn't have been fulfilled. But most decisive of all, Alcy finds Dmitru extremely attractive, and she likes the fact that this man still seems to be attracted to her once her intelligence and forceful personality become clear.

But after only a couple of months of a very promising beginning to their marriage, Alcy faces yet another betrayal from Dmitru, and that's more than she can bear. She runs from him, unleashing a chain of events that puts them both in mortal danger.

Both Alcy and Dmitru are what I've come to expect from Joyce: complex, believable, original characters. Nothing is simplistic about them, and Joyce takes no shortcuts in showing us who they are and how they feel about each other and themselves. I'm not going to go into a description about who exactly they are, because it would take pages... that's how amazingly done they both were, but I was especially captivated by the nuances in things like Alcy's attitude towards her beauty or Dmitru's internal contradictions between the enlightened and the feudal parts of his personality.

I also loved the the development of their feelings for each other, especially Alcy's for Dmitru. Her eyes were wide open with him, and it wasn't unthinking adoration. Her love for him felt much more real for it.

From the reviews and blog posts I've read, it seems to me that most people enjoyed this very much right up to the point when Alcy runs away from Dmitru. My position is a bit different.

Yes, I enjoyed the first half of the book much better than the second, but it wasn't because I thought Alcy's actions in running from her husband were TSTL. Not at all, I completely understood why the woman acted as she did. The way I see it, she had been able to forgive Dmitru's initial lies mainly because it wasn't something he was doing to her. There was an impersonal quality to his actions, he wasn't deceiving Alcyone Carter, he was stealing "Benedek's English Bride".

What he was trying to do now, however, he was doing to the wife he'd been passionately making love to for months, the woman he'd been showing affection and tenderness, the woman he'd come to know very well. And that made it betrayal, rather than just trickery. Add to that the way Alcy felt about what he was planning to take from her (it's the fruit of endless labour and sacrifice on her part, after all), and I was cheering her on when she ran.

Plus, I also considered that she had no knowledge at all about her husband's extracurricular activities. She had no way of knowing that his spying made it so dangerous for him to be caught.

But as much as I sympathized with Alcy's reasoning, I still thought the book took a downward turn after she ran. In my opinion, Joyce is best at character-driven conflict, and Alcy and Dmitru's adventures weren't as fantastic as the initial section.

They were much better than average, though. I especially liked that they weren't portrayed as superheroes, not even Dmitru. I thought it read exactly like it would have been in real life, a smart but decidedly human man and an inexperienced woman trying to outwit people, some of which were easy to outwit, some not. But they have bad luck and make mistakes, mistakes anyone might make. There's a point there near the end where I feared Joyce was going to turn the notoriously untactful and forthright Alcy into some kind of legendary seductress, but the way she turned this on its head was just perfect.

The main problem, however, was that it all went on a bit too long. It felt like it was never going to end. Almost exactly 50 pages from the end, when they're captured for what felt like the millionth time, Alcy thinks "Oh, damn, not again", and I found myself laughing, because it so exactly echoed what I was thinking.

On the whole, however, I thought this was a wonderful book. In addition to all the above, we get a fascinating, extremely original setting (Romania and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century? That's not to be seen in your regular romance!) and beautiful writing. I can't wait for the next book!


The Seeker, by Kathleen Nance

>> Monday, October 30, 2006

As far as I can tell, before she published the two books that brought her name to my attention (Jigsaw and Day of Fire), Kathleen Nance wrote two groups of books. There are her djinn books, like the one I read recently, More Than Magic, and there are her Greek mythology-related books, like this one, The Seeker.

Stuck with her sister's two sets of teenage twins and a magic show about to go on tour, Dia Trelawny needs help fast. Her irresponsible sibling has disappeared as inexplicably as a rabbit in a hat, but Dia has learned of a man who specializes in finding missing persons, no matter how lost. Hugh Pendragon's piercing green eyes appear to look right into Dia's soul, reading her anxiety about her sister, her unexpected attraction to him. Dark and mysterious, he seems a creature of moonbeams and nighttime, while she lives in the spotlight. But as he draws her into his web of seduction, she wonders which of them is the true magician. She may be a mistress of illusion, but Hugh has performed real magic in bringing her heart back from the dead.
This book has at its core a very appealing romance. Unfortunately, much of what surrounds this romance only distracts from it, and doesn't really add anything. A B-.

Dia Trelawny is a magician with a show on her hands that could be about to go big. Dia comes from a family of fakes and conwomen, and her mother and sister still specialize in putting on fake séances and the like. She always hated having to help her mother trick people, and so she decided on a line of work that took advantage of her innate talents, but in a way that makes it clear that what she's doing is an illusion.

A few days before her show is due to go on a tour that's crucial to the future development of her career, Dia receives a huge surprise. Her sister has gone after a rich man she means to marry, and she's sent Dia her four kids, accompanied by a note that says, in essence "You don't mind, do you, darling?".

With her upcoming tour and her very demanding schedule, there's no way Dia can take care of the children, so she decides to go to a private detective. And the man she chooses is Hugh Pendragon, who she met in a friend's wedding. She had found him attractive, and she got the impression he felt the same way, but they haven't seen each other ever since.

She doesn't find Hugh in the best of moods. He has temporarily retired from his usual missing person cases, because the visions he used to rely on to solve his cases have disappeared in the last few months, and he's in a bit of a funk over that. When Dia comes to hire him, Hugh turns her down, but he then reconsiders when handling an earring she left behind triggers a vision.

And so Hugh begins to work to find Dia's sister, and they become closer and closer. But Dia is in trouble: a few months earlier, she performed a magic trick at a museum, and a very unscrupulous woman used her as a front to steal some of the jewels involved in the trick. Jewels, she discovers later, belonged to Hugh. Jewels, he's began to suspect, are linked to his visions.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned any of those Greek mythology elements I talked about above. That's because, though there was a lot of space devoted to them, they weren't really relevant to the story. Yes, the jewelry Dia unwittingly helped steal from Hugh were a couple of bracelets that used to belong to Hades, "the Seeker", and the woman who used Dia to steal them is the goddess Demeter, but that's about it. Both these elements could have been very easily changed to something not related to Greek mythology without losing anything.

And anyway, a lot of the space spent of gods and godesses and such wasn't spent on these two things, which were at least related to the central story, but on Hera and Zeus and their plans to matchmake for Dia and Hugh. There's pages and pages about how what were known as "gods" in Ancient Greece weren't really gods, but extremely powerful beings from another planet, who thought it was fun to be worshipped as deities (hmmm, Roberta Gellis did something similar once. I read one of those books, Shimmering Splendor, not that long ago), and about how Zeus and Hera are not posing as gods anymore, but now simply live among humans, many of whom are actually descended from them.

Lots and lots of pages are spent on Zeus and Hera's reconciliation, too, which was something I couldn't care less about (they separated after Zeus' constant infidelities.... so romantic, that). Plus, it was something that had obviously started in an earlier book, so both their rapprochement and that whole deal about acting as matchmakers for people descended from the gods read as a continuation of something I never got to know how it started.

And in the same way as all this crap about gods is distracting me from the main story in this review, it distracted me from it in the book.

And it's a shame, because it was a lovely romance. I especially enjoyed Hugh, serious, intense Hugh, who falls like a stone for Dia and can't keep away from her, no matter how much she tries to stay back. And Dia was great, too. At one point I feared a silly conflict would develop between them because of her insistence on not asking for his help with her problems, but Nance neatly avoided that, and the ending was very nicely done.

This book comes after The Warrior and The Trickster. I'm planning to give them a try.. maybe the gods aren't as irrelevan there as they were here.


The Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis

>> Friday, October 27, 2006

The Silver Pigs is the first book in Lindsey Davis long-running series (the 18th book is coming out next year) about Marcus Didius Falco, a private informer in Ancient Rome.

When Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman “informer” who has a nose for trouble that’s sharper than most, encounters Sosia Camillina in the Forum, he senses immediately all is not right with the pretty girl. She confesses to him that she is fleeing for her life, and Falco makes the rash decision to rescue her—a decision he will come to regret. For Sosia bears a heavy burden: as heavy as a pile of stolen Imperial ingots, in fact. Matters just get more complicated when Falco meets Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who is connected to the very same traitors he has sworn to expose. Soon Falco finds himself swept from the perilous back alleys of Ancient Rome to the silver mines of distant Britain—and up against a cabal of traitors with blood on their hands and no compunction whatsoever to do away with a snooping plebe like Falco….
This is a book I would have enjoyed for the setting alone (Rome in the year AD 70, including a visit to Roman-occupied Britain? I'm so there!), but I'm glad to report it also has an interesting plot, engaging characters and even a spot of very nice romance. A B+.

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer (kind of like a private detective) living in Rome in the early days of Vespasian's reign. Falco isn't particularly successful in his work, and the main worry in his life is to avoid the gladiators his landlord keeps sending after him to get his unpaid rent (oh, and to keep his mother from sweeping out the young women she finds in his appartment when she comes to visit in the morning).

This seemingly careless life starts to change when Falco rescues a senator's young niece from kidnapping in the Forum, and gets mixed up in a situation involving stolen "silver pigs" (lead ingots with silver still in them) from the British mines, which someone is planning to use to bribe the Praetorian Guard into deposing Vespasian.

Now, Falco is a Republican, so he ordinarily would stir himself to expose a plot of this nature, but things become personal when someone murders the senator's niece, the very pretty and sweet Sosia Camillina, and Falco will do anything in his power (even go back to that godforsaken place, Britain, where he'd once served as a soldier) to avenge her death.

Falco is a wonderful narrator. At first he seems to be just a wise-cracking, care-for-nothing lout, but you soon beging to see that though he tries to paint himself as disreputable and cynical, there's a very noble core under that. From the way Sosia's death hits him so hard, to the way he's taking care of his dead brother's little girl, this is a guy who's much more of a softie than he'd care anyone to know.

I also loved reading his take on things. This is actually a very funny book, not because the situations are particularly funny, but because Falco has a somewhat skewed way of looking at things, and the deadpan way in which he puts his observations is hilarious.

Having this lovely man be living in the time and place he lives is just gravy. I've no idea if Davis's Rome is accurate or not, so I can't comment on that, but I can say that it's a fascinating, colourful place, and that she really brings it alive. The book's chock-full of wonderful details that never come across as info-dumps, and I loved every one of them. Only one thing: I wish we'd seen more of Britain.

What else? Well, the actual mystery is ok, nothing spectacular and a bit convoluted, but it kept my interest. And the romance... very nice! I'm not going to reveal any details, but the woman Falco finally falls for is just perfect for him. At first I feared it might be Sosia (I knew there was a bit of romance in this one, and he does initially have some attraction towards Sosia, something that made me very uncomfortable, because the girl was 16!), but it's someone much, much more interesting.

So now to try to collect the other 17 books. *sigh* I'm exhausted just to think of it! ;-)


The Power of Two, by Patti O'Shea (2176 #4)

>> Wednesday, October 25, 2006

This is a review I've been meaning to write for over a month now. As I was reading it, I never would have expected for it to turn out to be a difficult book to review, but every time I started to write I found myself stuck and turned to something else.

Anyway, The Power of Two (excerpt), by Patti O'Shea is the fourth book in the 2176 continuity series, coming right after Liz Maverick's somewhat frustrating The Shadow Runners.

Cai Randolph

The UCE: In the 21st and 22nd centuries, the United States changed and grew. Now the United Colonies of Earth dominate the globe. But a mysterious voice is broadcasting treason, inciting revolution and referring to the "Ideals of 1776"—and to an enigmatic figure named Banzai Maguire.

To find Banzai, the UCE assigns Cai. She's the "anchor," the techie half of a Quandem; a pair of elite operatives intended for just such covert action. Neural implants allow her to sit back in a chair and feed information to her partner, the dark-souled Jacob Tucker. He's as rigid as he is deadly...or handsome. But this time, it can't be business as usual. This time, Cai needs Jake to trust her completely. Whether he likes it or not, she can't sit back while he fights the bad guys. Wherever this mission takes her, Cai is going to be the one kicking a little tail.
This one was much better than the last. In fact, I can't decide if TPOT or Kathleen Nance's Day of Fire (book #2) are the best of the lot so far. It's a very solid B+.

Cai Randolph and Jake Tucker are a Quandem: they were part of a UCE military experiment that put implants in their brains to allow them to comunicate with each other even from far away. Cai is the "anchor" in the team. She received a second implant, which allows her to mentally access computers and to process reams of information instantly. Her role is to then convey that information and the results of her powerful analysis to Jake, to help him when he's on the field on a mission.

As the story starts, Cai and Jake have been a Quandem for years, but Jake doesn't know Cai's a woman. He initially assumed she was a computer, and Cai never corrected that impression. Why? Well, it took Jake a while to get the hang of how to block his transmissions when he was feeling intense emotions, and the then 17-year-old Cai got a mental eyeful a few times, so she was too embarrassed to say anything when she realized what Jake was assuming.

But things change when Cai is told she will go with Jake and his team in a mission to the Raft Cities. Cai really, really wants to go (in fact, she more or less arranged for the powers-that-be to find the information that made this mission happen), because she has long suspected her parents, who disappeared a few years earlier, were kidnapped and are being held there. Unfortunately, it's up to Jake to okay her inclusion in the mission, and Cai knows he'll need some convincing when he realizes who she is.

Jake is extremely surprised when this beautiful young woman tells him she's Cai, and his first reaction is to feel betrayed. But various circumstances convince him that it's best for him to take her along, and so off they go to the Raft cities, where among constant dangers, their friendship turns into something else.

This is the best kind of futuristic romance, one where the adventurous plot and fascinating world-building are equally important and equally well done as the romance.

Cai and Jake are great characters. They themselves aren't anything I haven't read before (Cai's a former child-prodigy whose passage through school and college among much older classmates, who resented her for screwing up the curve, did a number on her self-esteem, and Jake's a pretty standard military hero), but their brain implants added a very interesting intimacy to their relationship. Also, even though Jake at first resents Cai for tricking him, as he sees it, and is embarrassed that she saw all those intimate moments, these two soon become friends, and it's from that point that there relationship develops into becoming lovers, something I very much appreciated.

I was also very impressed with the world-building here, which was miles better than that of the two other books I've read by O'Shea. As much as I enjoyed Ravyn's Flight and its sequel, Eternal Nights, their settings were a little bit corny. Not so the Raft Cities in TPOT.

The Raft Cities, are basically what was left of the currently sea-level Maldives when global warming increased the level of the oceans a bit: a collection of rafts of various sizes, and a refuge of pirates and all kinds of criminals. O'Shea paints a very intriguing picture, creating an enjoyably dangerous atmosphere.

There's nothing here that I disliked, really, only something I was a bit ambivalent about, and that was what Jake and Cai's mission was all about: capturing Banzai Maguire. Both have some doubts about their government's actions, but they're military, so no matter how they feel about their mission, they do it, and to the best of their abilities. *sigh* That's why I tend to stay away from military romance.

Before I close this review, I should also mention that TPOT stands alone quite well. You'd do better reading it if you've read the rest of the books, of course, but you don't need to remember every detail of them to understand it. In fact, even if this is the first 2176 book that you try, you'll probably understand it well enough.

So now there's only Susan Grant's The Scarlett Empress left in this series. I've got high hopes for it. Grant also wrote the first book in the series, The Legend of Banzai Maguire, and that one was interesting, though the world-building was much better than the romance, which felt a bit shallow. I'm hoping now that the world has been established and Grant will have more space for the romance, this aspect will be even better.


Emergency Marriage, by Olivia Gates

>> Tuesday, October 24, 2006

After my complaints in the comments of Doctors on the Frontline about how hard it was to get some of Olivia Gates British-published Mills & Boons (I could only buy her two Bombshells, which I'm looking forward to reading), the author herself was kind enough to send me the four books in her backlist that I was missing.

My first impulse was to read the Argentina-set Emergency Marriage (excerpt). Then I saw that The Heroic Surgeon's heroine was a secondary character I'd found very intriguing in DOTF, so I changed my mind. Only to change it again, and go with my first choice. But I'll definitely read The Heroic Surgeon next! ;-)

A marriage made in...crisis!

Dr Laura Burnside is pregnant, single and alone. Her dream job as head of Global Aid Organization in Argentina has been snatched out of her hands by the arrogant Dr Armando Salazar. She has nowhere to go. And then Armando makes a proposal that turns her world upside down.

Marry him. Give her child a father. Continue her vital emergency work in this beautiful country. And give in to the passion that has raged between her and the devastating Argentinean since their first meeting...

Olivia Gates returns to the dedicated men and women of the Global Aid Organization - international medical drama and passionate affairs!
Just like DOTF, Emergency Marriage gives us a good romance against a fascinating, action-filled backdrop. A B.

Dr. Laura Burnside went to Argentina to head the Global Aid Organization there and help rebuild medical services after the big economic crisis at the end of 2001 crippled the local system. When she arrived, however, things didn't go as she'd hoped. Diego, the Argentinian man she'd been having an online relationship with (one of the reasons she was so excited to be going to Argentina) was a disappointment, for some strange reason she became the darling of the paparazzi and her constant efforts to get things done met with very little success.

But things could get worse, and did. Diego didn't take their break-up well and a fit of reckless driving left him dead and Laura gravely injured. And his cousin Armando, also a doctor, managed to manouver things in such a way that, as the local counterpart to the GAO operation, he sidelined Laura and her team. And did I mention Laura accidentally got pregnant by Diego?

But in steps Armando, who's been very attracted to Laura from the very beginning. Armando offers her a marriage of convenience, ostensibly so that she can stay in Argentina without her child having to bear the heavy stigma of illegitimacy. Laura accepts. But between the constant dangers they both face and the possibility that Diego's memory will come between them, will they be able to turn their marriage of convenience into a real marriage?

When I started reading this book, the setting was at the same time what drew me to it and my main reservation. Uruguay, for those of you who don't know, is right next to Argentina (see map), and as it often happens when a tiny country neighbours a huge one, we're always very much aware of what's going on there. There's a saying here: when Argentina catches a cold, Uruguay sneezes. So I knew that if the author got anything wrong, I was going to notice.

Well, I was very impressed. Gates did make some mistakes, but it was mostly small ones, stuff like the language not being always right. But compared to the things she did right, this didn't even begin to register.

What I loved the most was that the setting here was recognizable to me as Argentina. Most books set in a Latin American country feel very generic... the politicians are corrupt (and usually dictatorial), the men are macho, the people are long-suffering, there are guerrillas in the hills and... uh, that's about it. And I'm not talking about just Harlequins, though Harlequin Presents are probably the worst offenders.

This Argentina wasn't generic. And not only that, it didn't feel like my country, it didn't feel like Chile, it didn't feel like Paraguay, it didn't feel like any other Latin American country; it felt like Argentina, and like Argentina a couple of years after the 2001 crisis, too. There were the demonstrations and protests that can turn violent at the drop of a hat (only the day after I finished this book, there were clashes on the streets of Buenos Aires when the body of Peron was moved from one cementery to another), there were the floods (I suppose inspired on the Santa Fe floods of 2003), there was even a factory occupation (though I thought the attitude towards this was a little simplistic).

And not only that, there were plenty of other details that rang true, like the very fact that GAO's mission was to help restore the healthcare system that had pretty much been destroyed, or Armando's history (with those hints that he'd lost a lot of money during the crisis), the conflict between the local doctor who knows the way things are done in Argentina and this American doctor coming in trying to import her protocols and procedures, which are not really adequate to the situation and many more.

The only thing that felt wrong was the whole deal about how it would be such a horrible stigma for Laura's child to be born out of wedlock, so she needs to enter a marriage of convenience. Er, no, that's just not so anymore. In that, Argentina is just like Uruguay, and that has stopped being a big deal. Even Chile, a supposedly very conservative country when it comes to social issues, has chosen a woman who's a single mom as their President.

But anyway, I'm sure you're thinking, enough with the setting, how was the story itself? Well, I liked it. The characters are interesting, and the marriage of convenience, however much I doubted the reasoning behind it, puts them in a situation of close proximity that created some very good romantic and sexual tension.

Armando was an especially likeable character. He is half in love with Laura from the beginning and wants a real marriage, but he fears she might still have feelings for Diego. Maybe I'm a bit sadistic, but I love this type of plots.

At first, Armando comes across as a bit high-handed and domineering, maybe even sexist, especially given the way he forces Laura out of the way. But right after that, we begin to see that isn't quite right. The reasons behind his actions that sidelined Laura and her team were justified, and though he is an alpha (and therefore, yes, his personality's pretty dominant), this is a guy who has no problem accepting that he's been wrong and apologizing for it. Such an attractive quality! And I liked that he respects Laura's medical abilities and doesn't second-guess her opinions and actions.

Laura was as interesting a character as Armando: a competent, idealistic doctor trying to prove her worth in spite of her socialite reputation. I appreciated that, as Scherezad's in DOTF, Laura's backstory was pretty subtly drawn. Her past story with Diego is barely touched upon, just enough for us to understand perfectly what happened. It was a good choice, I thought. This is a short book, so if too much time had been spent on backstory, there wouldn't have been much space left to fully develop the romance.

The only thing I wish I'd known more about was Laura's history growing up, the reason why she so fears that staying with Armando might not be the best choice for her child. Or rather, I wish we'd known about it a bit earlier. Without this, Laura's fears seem unfounded for a long time.

Anyway, so far, Gates' books are two for two with me. I'm hoping the others will continue this trend!


The Praise of Eggplant, by Abel González

>> Monday, October 23, 2006

The original title of this book by Argentinian journalist Abel González is Elogio de la Berenjena, so as it paraphrases the Spanish translation of Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, I translated it as The Praise of Eggplant, as weird as it might sound.

This book proposes to look through the keyhole to see up close the kitchen of some famous characters. Picasso, James Joyce, George Sand, Marilyn Monroe, Rossini, Caruso, Freud, General San Martín, Simón Bolívar, Gardel, Fangio, Kafka, Perón, Che Guevara, Cortázar y García Márquez, among many others, sit at the table to reveal the intimacy of their palates and, by the way, tell us their favourite recipes.

The author starts out from the premise that what we put in our mouths -whether raw or cooked- is enough to define an entire civilization. And the same is valid for individuals. Because a person who eats caviar on toast for lunch is not the same as the person who has a ham and cheese sandwich.

Anecdotes, fantastical biography, gastronomic commentary and recipe book join here to make up a hilarious repertoire, which only seeks to entertain. Thus, the characters who populate this book eat not only to satiate their appetite (which they also did), but to allow the reader to better know who they were and how they lived.
Sounds interesting, doesn't it? The descriptions of what historical characters used to eat would have been enough to make me want to take a look, but what really sold me was the promise of gaining some insight into their personalities through this exercise.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the author didn't really succeed in doing this. Out of the 50 characters who each had their own chapter, I only feel like I got a clearer picture into a few, like Freud, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Manuel de Rosas, Peggy Guggenheim, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound.

The others were mainly a collection of anecdotes, some amusing (I'd mention the Caruso anecdotes in the Toscanini chapter, for instance), some not, most of them extraneous to who these characters were.

Other than this...

The good: Each chapter contained one recipe at the end, something that the character in question either cooked often and well or liked to eat frequently, and most of those were pretty interesting. Especially outstanding:

  • Farfalloni à la Umberto Eco

  • Brótola (red cod, in English, I think) al cartoccio, from the George Sand / Fréderic Chopin chapter

  • Carrots in white wine, à la Heidegger

  • Chicken à la Marengo, a recipe prepared for Napoleon

  • Calamari à la Guggenheim

  • Bolognese sauce, as prepared for Arturo Toscanini

  • Sweetbreads in champagne sauce, Juan Manuel de Rosas' favourites
The bad: the writing style, which was coy and affected, most especially when the author was talking about food and sex. The language used revealed an old fashioned and immature attitude towards female sexuality. The women in this book don't make love, or have sex: they submit and/or lose their innocence, events narrated in a tone that's the literary equivalent of Beavis and Butthead's huh-huh-huh laughter.

Final grade: a C+.


Touch Not the Cat, by Mary Stewart

>> Thursday, October 19, 2006

Touch Not the Cat is late-ishMary Stewart; a book from the mid-70s, rather than the 50s and very early 60s, like the 5 titles I'd read before it.

She had the "gift" The gift of the Ashleys - the power of thought transference, ESP. Bryony had known of it since childhood. She had been getting messages for years. It was always the same voice. A dear voice. A man's voice.

She began to think of him as her mysterious lover, her "psychic" lover. But it was years before she was to discover whose voice it was -and whose love she was waiting for.

Now it was telling her something she did not want to hear. Telling her that something terrible had happened. Something about her father.

It was too late when Bryony arrived at Ashley Court. Her father was dead -the victim of a strange hit-and-run accident. But his last words had been for her. To warn her she too was in danger...
Very nice! A lovely combination of mystery, romance and an intriguing touch of the paranormal. A B.

Bryony Ashley is alone in her room in Madeira when she receives the news that her father was in an accident and she needs to go to him. Did the phone ring, did a letter arrive? Nope. Since childhood, Bryony has been in mental contact with a man, a man she's come to consider her psychic lover. She's not sure who he is, exactly, but she knows he's an Ashley, like her, so the possibilities are limited.

Anyway, after her "lover" tells her the news, Bryony heads to her father's deathbed, in Bavaria, where he'd been staying for his health (and that's the end of Madeira, damn it! I'd hoped for a bit more description of the place, since Stewart is so wonderful with settings). Unfortunately, Jon Ashley didn't survive the hit-and-run accident, and when Bryony arrives, all she finds is a transcription of his very cryptic last words, warning her of danger.

Ashley Court, the beautiful white elephant in which Bryony spent her childhood, is entailed, so it goes to her uncle, but she hasn't been left penniless. She still has her unentailed cottage right next to it, and so she goes there to settle all those matters that are left and decide what to do (and that's the end of Bavaria, as well. *Hmph!*).

Bryony also hopes to finally find out just who her mysterious lover is. And on the very first night, she becomes aware that he's right there. But that's not the only mystery Bryony needs to solve. There's her father's last words to decipher, and all's not well at Ashley Court, with various objects going missing, from small, portable objects d'art to seemingly worthless parrish registers, and unless Bryony is very careful and makes the right judgments, she could be in grave danger.

I don't want to give too much away here, because half the fun is to discover what's going on as Bryony does, but I'm just going to say I loved the combination of old family secrets and history and modern suspense. When the resolution comes, it all makes perfect sense, and thinking back, I could see all the little clues that I hadn't paid attention to.

Speaking of the resolution, the scenes in which all is revealed were probably the weakest part of the book. Not the actual revelations, because those come out perfectly, but the "suspense" portion and sort-of action scenes which come afterwords, which I found simply confusing.

I didn't mind all that much, because the rest was lovely. I enjoyed the romance very much, though I do think Stewart could have done a bit more with the psychic connection. But it's all very romantic, anyway. I especially liked how, like Bryony, her lover had also been waiting for her -in every way!


Archangel, by Sharon Shinn

>> Wednesday, October 18, 2006

book coverIt's been a busy couple of days, so sorry for the lack of posts. But when I got back to writing, I wrote. This is probably much too long, but I just couldn't stop writing!

I read Sharon Shinn for the first time a couple of years ago, when, in a now-defunct reading group I belonged to, her Heart of Gold was set as the book of the month. It was an excellent read, and I meant to read more by Shinn as soon as I could. I checked out a couple of reviews, saw that her first Samaria book, Archangel, sounded great and got it, but then didn't pick it up immediately when it arrived, and it's languished in my TBR ever since. I finally picked it up when at DearAuthor.com they had a Sharon Shinn week and that of Archangel was one of the first reviews posted. It really was a wonderful review; it made me wild to read the book!

BTW, you romance readers who are hesitant about trying Shinn for fear of unhappy endings, etc., go read this interview, also posted at DearAuthor.com. That should put your minds at ease ;-)

And so it came to pass...

Through science, faith, and force of will, the Harmonics carved out for themselves a society that they conceived of as perfect. Diverse peoples held together by respect for each other and the prospect of swift punishment. Angels to guard the mortals and mystics to guard the forbidden knowledge. Jehovah to watch over them all...

An age of corruption has come over the land, threatening peace and placing the Samarians in grave danger. Their only hope lies in the crowning of a new Archangel. The oracles have chosen Gabriel, and further decreed that he must first wed a mortal, Rachel. It is his destiny and hers. And Gabriel is certain that she will greet the news of her betrothal with enthusiasm, and a devotion to duty equal to his own.

Rachel, however, has other plans...
Archangel is my first A+ of the year. The first! This time last year I had 6, 2 of new books, plus 4 of rereads (which included the entire Harry Potter series, in preparation for the release of book #6). Not that 2006 has been a bad reading year for me... I mean, I have plenty of A's and A-'s already, but I just hadn't found any really perfect books. Until now, that is.

Archangel takes place in Samaria, a world in very close contact with its god, Jovah. Among mortal men live angels, who act as go-betweens between them and Jovah. If the weather is bad and crops are threatened, if there is a plague in the village and they need medicine, if there is famine and they need food, mortals ask the angels to intercede with Jovah -and Jovah usually responds.

These angels are basically normal men and women, only they have wings, which allow them to take to the heavens and speak to Jovah from closer, helping them to be heard. They also have especially beautiful voices, which please Jovah and make him more likely to grant what they're asking. But other than those physical differences (and a couple of trifling details, like colder blood, which helps them tolerate flying so high), there's not that much difference between angels and mortals. Shinn's angels aren't vapid, otherwordly beings; their personalities and wants and needs are much the same as those of regular humans.

So, after our little introduction, on to the story. Every 20 years, the Archangel (the leader of the angels and, in effect, the ruler of all Samaria) changes in accordance to what Jovah orders through his oracles. The story starts as the Archangel Raphael's term is drawing to a close, and Gabriel is getting ready to ascend.

It's been known for many years that Gabriel would replace Raphael, so he's been preparing ever since, and has some very definite ideas about what he wants to accomplish during his term as Archangel. Gabriel isn't too happy with the way Raphael has carried out his duties, allowing such things as the enslavement of the Edori, a group of nomad tribes, by the Jansai, and not paying much attention to the pleas of ordinary, not powerful people.

But as much as Gabriel has been preparing for his upcoming role, there's one key thing he's been postponing, and that's marriage. One of the Archangel's main responsibilities is to lead the Gloria with his wife, the Angelica (or, if the Archangel is female, the Angelico, her husband).

The Gloria is a gathering of all Samarian people, where they sing to Jovah in harmony. If it doesn't happen on the day prescribed, it is said tragedy will strike. On the first day Jovah will strike and destroy the Galo mountains, then on the second, if the Gloria still hasn't been sung, he will destroy the city on the river, and on the third day, if the situation remains the same, he will destroy the entire world.

See why it's important for Gabriel to find the Angelica determined for him by Jovah? As crucial as this matter is, though, Gabriel doesn't really think leaving it so late is excessively risky. After all, no woman in Samaria could dream of a higher honour than to become the Angelica, so it should all be pretty straightforward. Go to the oracle, ask Jovah the name, break the glad news to the fortunate chosen woman and get married. Simple.

But it's one rude shock after the other for Gabriel. First, the oracle names Rachel, a woman who isn't the daughter of a wealthy, upper-class family, as he expected, but a girl from the hills. And then, when he goes to seek her at the village where she was born, Gabriel finds it razed to the ground. He searches and searches for her, but no luck. Until he finds her quite by chance, and in the least likely place.

After her village was destroyed, the very young Rachel joined a tribe of Edori who were passing by and grew up with them. But the marauding Jansai attacked her adoptive family and enslaved the survivors, so she has spent the last 5 years as a slave girl in Semorrah, where Gabriel finds her when he attends the wedding of the lady of the house and Rachel is assigned to build the fire in his room.

But seeing that his bride-to-be has been a slave isn't the rudest shock Gabriel receives... no, it's the fact that Rachel doesn't want the honour of being his wife. Rachel wants freedom. She's about to be set free by her mistress when Gabriel finds her, so to her, his proposal isn't a wonderful opportunity, it's simply the ruin of her cherished new plans. Still, finding herself with no other options, Rachel agrees to a marriage of convenience.

Obviously, given the circumstances, Gabriel and Rachel's relationship isn't smooth. She resents him and the whole situation, and the somewhat arrogant Gabriel finds it difficult to deal with this. But as the events around them build up for potential tragedy, and it becomes clear that Gabriel's accesion to the Archangel post won't be as smooth as it should be, their relationship grows.

As I said, I started this one with very high hopes, and not only did it fulfill those hopes from the very beginning, as the book progressed I got more and more excited about it. The characters! The romance! The plot! The setting! The world-building! Everything was simply perfect.

I loved how Shinn wrote Gabriel and Rachel, not because they were so likeable and perfect, but because they were not. These two are good and honourable people, but this doesn't mean they are always easy to live with, or even to like.

Rachel is strong and very stubborn, and the pressure she's under (to marry Gabriel, to become the perfect Angelica, to sing at the Gloria and thus preserve the whole world... it piles on and on) brings this out. She's not above being a bit resentful, but you totally understand her. She's spent a long time without control of her life, and just when she's about to get some, her whole destiny's taken over by Gabriel. It's no wonder she resists it.

As for Gabriel, he's as stubborn as Rachel, and crosses the line between proud and arrogant quite a few times. But given the responsibilities the man has and the difficulties he's facing, you also understand why he is the way he is. His rigidness and arrogance are born from his wanting to be the best Archangel possible and do the best by his people, not from any power-hungry impulses.

Their marriage at first brings out the worse in each of them, but the very gradual process of their falling in love (a subtle but extremely romantic process) allows them to see their faults and rise above them, becoming even more heroic.

Right until I started writing the first draft of this review, I was going with an A, not an A+, but then, when I was getting ready to write my reason, how I would have liked to have had a bit more romance, maybe for Rachel and Gabriel to have spent a little bit more time together, I realized that was reflex speaking. In fact, this aspect was perfect, too. I really can't think of how this romance could be improved, especially with that absolutely perfect ending! So that's my A+ there :-)

I was just as captivated by Samaria itself as I was by Gabriel and Rachel's story. Shinn's descriptions are wonderfully vivid, and the world she portrays is one that is just beautiful. She takes us everywhere, from the Eyrie, where Gabriel's host of angels live, to Windy Point, home to Raphael and as different from the Eyrie as Raphael is from Gabriel, from the cities to the countryside, I could see everything in my mind. I could even hear the singing, and I'm not a musical person!

Unmistakably, there are quite a few biblical references. There's a lot in Archangel that is reminiscent of the Bible and the Middle East: places, stories, people... But I consciously tried to ignore the paralells.

For one thing, I don't know enough of the Bible to trust myself to be drawing the right paralells. Is Semorrah a combination of Sodom and Gomorrah? The first angelica, Hagar, how is she related to the biblical figure of the same name? I would have been puzzling over a thousand of those questions, especially since most characters have Old Testament-sounding names, names I've heard of, but whose owners I don't *really* know all that much about.

[[ETA: when I finished writing this, I went to read the review at AAR (what can I say, I'm obsessed!) and the reviewer mentions seeing echoes of the biblical stories of Saul and David, Rachel and Leah, Esther, Judas and Lucifer. Now I'm a bit intrigued!]]

For another thing, in a way, I actually prefered not to know if there was a message here, if the Jansai or the Edori would actually correspond to a particular Middle East people. It was less distracting that way, and it allowed me to better appreciate the story for what it was and not feel as if I was being preached to (I'm NOT not saying that Shinn was preaching, simply that I don't know if she was, and I prefer it that way).

Another thing I found interesting was Shinn's treatment of the subject of faith. As an agnostic, someone without faith myself, maybe I should have felt offended by the attitude felt towards those who didn't believe, either. But in this particular universe, with the god so near and the effects of his actions so clear and immediate, it did seem as if those who professed not to believe did so, not because of a honest loss of faith, but, if it makes sense, because they wanted to do certain things, and since believing in a god who wanted them to live in harmony with their fellow man was inconvenient, they'd convinced themselves they didn't believe.

Faith here seems to be the only way all these diverse groups, all with different cultures and agendas, can live together in a certain harmony. It's a pessimistic view of humanity, actually, as it seems to say that the only way to keep people from preying on one another is to have the threat of a punishment from the god hanging over them. Pessimistic, but I'm afraid it's a view I have to agree with. On a more positive note, however, this faith doesn't just act as a deterrent for those ugly impulses, it also brings out the good in people, as symbolized in the beautiful singing.

I mentioned the very romantic ending above, but it's not just the resolution of the love story that's great, it's the whole finale. There's a huge climax, one of epic proportions, and for some reason, this is something I always enjoy. It was especially well done here.

A special mention should be made of the writing. I did talk about how I loved the descriptions, but that wasn't all that was good. The dialogue is amazing, and the writing flows flawlessly. There's even something that probably would have frustrated me and brought the flow to a grinding halt in a book by a less talented author, but worked perfectly here. We see the action from one of the protagonists' POV up until a certain climactic moment. Then, rather than see what happens next, we go back and see the events leading up to that moment again, but from the other protagonist's POV. This is something Shinn did in Heart of Gold, too, but while I was a bit ambivalent about it there, here, I loved it. Of course, I really wanted to know what was going to happen, but I liked seeing those things from another perspective. And it worked because for the most part, we weren't simply reading the same scene from a different character's POV, but seeing what they were doing when they were not with the other, as they often weren't.

I've been trying to figure out what the order for reading the rest of the books should be, because, apparently, the one which takes place right after this one, and with some of the same characters, was the last one written, Angel Seeker. In her interview at DearAuthor.com, however, Shinn says she always thought they should be read as they were published, even though many people have said it was better in chronological order. I'm going to follow the author's advice, then, and go with Jovah's Angel.

But before I finish this review, I can't help but speculate a bit about what's going on here. I'm going to write this as a spoiler, even though I'm probably completely wrong and it's got nothing to do with what's actually happening (and thus wouldn't really be a spoiler), so you know what to do:

(((I'm writing this when I've already read the first couple of chapters of Jovah's Angel, and between a certain little reference about an "interface" being used by the oracles to comunicate with Jovah, those Kisses they've got in their arms that remind me so much of implanted microchips, and the very distinct impression of something staged that I got from the apocalyptic Gloria, I get a feeling that's a cross between The Truman Show and The Village. I don't know, I might be wrong, but I won't be surprised if it turns out to be something of this sort.)))


Uncommon Vows, by Mary Jo Putney

>> Friday, October 13, 2006

More and more rereading lately. My beloved spreadsheet tells me I didn't reread all that many books in the first few months of the year, but my rhythm is picking up.

Mary Jo Putney is one of the authors I've been revisiting. River of Fire reminded me of just how incredibly good her books used to be, and so I've decided to work through her backlist. First up was Uncommon Vows.

Lady Meriel de Vere had deceived Adrian, Earl of Shropshire. Standing in the royal forest, her falcon perched on her arm, she boldly claimed to be a Welsh commoner, not a noble Norman. Lord Adrian beheld in wonder her raven-black hair and defiant blue eyes, heard her lies, and felt a dark, primeval passion rob him of all reason.

In one irrevocable move of fate, he ordered this fair beauty locked in his castle's tower, vowing to entice her into surrendering her kisses with lips as hungry as his own. Never to give in, to die if she must, was Meriel's vow . . . until one rash moment of impetuousness swept them both up in the royal battles of kings . . . and into a dangerous intrigue of sweet caresses . . . and fiery, all-consuming love.
My very few memories of UV were that I'd liked it, but only moderately. I vaguely remembered feeling a bit frustrated by some of Meriel's actions. This time around I liked it much, much better. Even the things that frustrated me back then (basically, Meriel's refusal to make certain explanations that would have probably protected her) felt well justified. It's so good that I'm putting it right at the top of my favourite MJPs. An A.

Adrian de Lancey is fifteen and about to become a monk when he receives the tragic news that his entire family has been massacred. Adrian sees the abbey as a refuge from his dark side and would very much like to remain there, but the new circumstances dictate that he become a different man. Now he will need to get in touch with his inner darkness, and devote his life to avenging his family's deaths and rebuilding their holdings.

Fast-forward eleven years. A young woman named Meriel is hunting with her falcon a few miles from her brother's holding. She accidentally goes into the royal forest after her falcon and is unfortunate enough to run into Adrian's hunting party. They mistake her for a peasant and think she's been poaching, an offense aggravated by her possession of a falcon, a bird English peasants aren't allowed to own.

Simple enough to explain who she is, right? But once Meriel realizes the hunting party's leader is Adrian, Earl of Shropshire, she knows she can't say anything. This is the 1140s, right in the middle of the civil war, and Meriel's brother and Adrian are on opposite sides. Adrian's got a reputation for being a fearsome warrior, and Meriel doesn't want to give him an excuse to attack her brother's keep while her brother's away.

So Meriel remains silent about her true identity and allows them to believe she's a Welsh peasant. Given that they have no proof that she was poaching, and that being Welsh allows her to own a falcon, she's sure they'll just reprimand her and let her go on her way.

But Meriel isn't aware of what's going on inside Adrian. The minute he saw her, Adrian became completely obsessed with Meriel. There's just something about her that tells him he needs her. So even though he's really got no reason to do so, Adrian takes her prisoner and has her brought to his castle. There, he offers her the chance to become his mistress, an offer she refuses. But Adrian won't take no for an answer, and locks her in the tower until she changes her mind.

So, how about it? Sounds like something I'd absolutely hate, right? A hero who takes the heroine captive and really applies the pressure to make her his mistress (for instance, not content with locking her up, Adrian stops her from having contact with anyone, hoping extreme boredom will help change her mind), oh, yeah, there's a prince of a guy. There's even an almost-rape scene, to make things even better.

But you know what? It works, and this ends up being one of the most wonderful romances I've ever read.

I think I've managed to understand why I liked it so much here, when captivity in most romances makes me grit my teeth, and in 99.9% of cases, a hero who would seriously entertain the idea of forcing himself on someone would be completely repellent and unredeemable.

There's two elements which separate Adrian holding Meriel prisoner from those other silly books. The first is something I explored at length in an old column I wrote for Romancing the Blog: Adrian knows he's wrong in holding Meriel. He fears for his very soul for doing this evil thing, and tortures himself about it, but can't stop himself (more on the "can't stop himself" thing later). And that makes all the difference for me. A guy who'd thought he was perfectly justified in doing so and had every right to do this to her, I would have considered an asshole. With Adrian, I felt for him, especially because the tension between what he was doing and what he knew he should do was so well written.

A second element that makes this succeed is that Meriel never gives in to Adrian. Yes, as she interacts more with Adrian, she finds herself liking him more and more, and is even attracted to him, but she always says no. She just cannot fall in love with someone who's holding her captive, and she sticks to this, not through pride or to spite Adrian, but because she really does feel it.

So how about the almost-rape? How could I accept a hero who probably would have forced himself on the heroine if she hadn't instinctively found a way to make him see reason? Well, first because, like with the captivity, Adrian knows his actions are wrong and he hates himself for them afterwards. And second, because unlike real-world sexual violence, his actions were all about how much he loves and needs Meriel, not about violence and power over her. Let me stress what I just said: this is not something I would accept in the real world, with real people, but in this book, Putney made me believe it. And it's the same reason why I accepted that he really couldn't stop himself from taking Meriel captive.

Adrian's obsession with Meriel is written in such a way that it is very interesting. This is not a promiscuous man, or even one with an insatiable sexual appetite. He's not one to whore around; rather, he's had a couple of stable relationships over the years, and those, as we could see when he went to talk to his old mistress, were more about comfort and warmth than about passion and hunger. This makes the tempestuousness of his feelings for Meriel extremely out-of-character, and much more powerful, for that.

I'm not going to go into how Putney resolves this untenable situation, with Meriel refusing to give in and Adrian not being able to force himself to release her, but suffice it to say that she takes a romance cliché that should have made me groan and roll my eyes and turns it into something fresh and fascinating.

Something I especially appreciated about UV was the sense of religiousness that imbues the characters and really, the whole book. Both Adrian and Meriel are people of strong beliefs, and these beliefs shape them and influence their actions. And I'm not a great fan of organized religion myself, but I did like that unlike in so many Medievals, here religion was portrayed as a positive thing, not simply as a weapon for power-hungry zealots and mysoginists.

The only reason UV is not an A+ is the very final parts, when the actions of the cartoonishly evil villain come to the forefront. I suppose it bothered me that this unnecessary plot intruded in the romance. I thought there was more than enough tension right there without those events that take place. It felt almost like a "well, we can't have a medieval without a fight scene" moment.

But this is really a minor point, and doesn't diminish the wonderfulness of the romance one whit. If I'm not mistaken, this is Putney's only Medieval, and considering how great it is, this is a real shame.


Poison Study, by Maria V. Snyder

>> Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I was tempted to read Poison Study (excerpt), by Maria V. Snyder by a recent spate of very positive reviews in the blogs I visit. Oh, it was in my TBR already, and I meant to get to it sooner or later, but the raves brought it up.

Love the cover, BTW. The Luna line always has the best ones.

CHOOSE: A QUICK DEATH OR SLOW POISON. About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered a reprieve. She'll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace, and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia. And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly's Dust, and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison.

As Yelena tries to escape her dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and she develops magical powers she can't control. Her life's at stake again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren't so clear!
Well, I'm so glad I finally picked up this one. It was great: excellent world-building, wonderful heroine and a very interesting hint of romance. A B+.

Yelena is about to be executed. The former kingdom of Ixia, where she lives, became a military dictatorship a few years earlier, and one of the main changes instituted by the ruler, Commander Ambrose, is a legal system called the Code of Behaviour. Under these new rules, the punishment for taking a life is losing your own... no excuses. It doesn't matter if you killed in self defense, or even by accident. You killed someone, you are executed. It's that simple.

That's what happened to Yelena. She was living in an orphanage run by the governor of one of Ixia's districts, General Brazell, and she killed the man's son. From the beginning we know this was self-defense, but we only gradually get the details, so I won't reveal them here. Suffice it to say that Yelena was justified in what she did. But she did kill him, and she did admit that she killed him, and so her punishment is clear. She'll be killed herself.

At the eleventh hour, however, Yelena gets an unexpected reprieve. Commander Ambrose's food taster has died, and the Code of Behaviour dictates that the next person in line for execution be offered the job. And that's Yelena.

She's taken to Valek, the Commander's right hand man, and though she knows this is probably just postponing her inevitable death for a little while, she accepts. Maybe she can even get lucky and find a chance to escape? But those small hopes are soon dashed, when Valek reveals he's just fed her a lethal, slow-acting poison, and that unless she shows up at his office every morning for her antidote, she'll die.

And so Yelena begins her training and then her work as food taster. But her new life in the castle isn't simple. General Brazell still wants her dead, Code of Behaviour or no Code of Behaviour, powerful magicians from Sitia (south of Ixia, where everyone with magic powers took refuge after magic was outlawed and became punishable with death) are after her, a plot to depose Commander Ambrose seems to be brewing, and last, but not least, her initially very wary relationship with Valek is developing into something more.

I should start my review by saying this is not romance. As I mentioned above, there is a bit of it, but it's more some nice tension and a promising beginning than anything else. So if you were considering reading it for the romance, you might want to think again. The reason why you should read it is because Yelena is a wonderful character, and the world in which she lives is just as good.

Yelena is such a great character because she rings true. Her reactions, her actions, her feelings, they all feel like what a real person would be thinking and feeling and doing. She's not perfect: she makes mistakes, trusts some wrong people, makes some wrong choices, but they are all things I could actually see a person doing, especially someone not used to intrigue and deception who's suddenly thrust into a situation like the one Yelena is living in. Even with her emerging magical powers and the things her childhood training as an acrobat allows her to do, Yelena is always completely human. She's no kick-ass robot; when she's in dangerous situations, she can handle herself, but is no fighting machine.

The characters surrounding Yelena are just as interesting and well drawn as she is. Valek and Commander Ambrose are probably the most fascinating. They are complex and impossible to categorize easily, and though we see everything from Yelena's point of view only, we get some very illuminating insights into who they are and why they act the ways they do.

The world in which these people live was one of the things I liked best about the book. Snyder writes about Ixia in such away that we quickly get a feel for it and how it works. There are many areas about which I'd love to know more (like, what kind of support does the military have among the people? Are they happy about things as they are? Or would they like their monarchy back?), but everything feels consistent.

I also liked the way Snyder wasn't heavy-handed in her portrayal of Ixian politics, never demonizing or idealizing either the old monarchy or the new military rulers. Rather, she showed us both had their good and bad points. For the current system, for instance, we see that the Code of Behaviour is obviously much too rigid, not even trying to contemplate the many exceptions possible, which means it will often be tragically unfair. But at least you can always know what the exact consequences of your actions will be, unlike with the monarchy, who pretty much administered justice as they saw fit. Or the dehumanizing system of everyone having to wear uniforms and having to work at an assigned job, in an assigned place. Again, much too rigid, but at least women can now choose to work in jobs which were previously banned to them.

Among the multitude of things going on, from Yelena's run-ins with the magicians, the plotting, and so on, I think my favourite was what we saw of her job as food taster. I really never dreamed it could be so complicated. If I ever thought of it (which I probably haven't, other than after reading the news article a couple of months ago about how this security guy of the President's thinks he needs to hire a food taster. Paranoid idiot.), I guess I'd imagined something more straightforward. You eat, then if if you're still alive, the food's ok and the bigwigs can eat it. Obviously, this is silly, but even some reflection wouldn't have predicted just how complex and intriguing it all can be.

If there's anything to criticise here, it would be the ending. Not really because it's got a very obvious "to be continued..." feel to it (I already knew about that, and in this case, forwarned is forearmed), but because it felt a little bit too rushed and hurried, compared to the pace of the rest of the novel.

The sequel, Magic Study is out already, and the couple of reviews I've seen have been great. I've been eyeing it at fictionwise, where it's being offered with a 20% micropay rebate, which would leave it at just under $12. Maybe I'll splurge :-)


Strangers in the Night, by Linda Howard

Strangers in the Night, by Linda Howard collects three of her novellas from the mid- and late-90s.

The first one was Lake of Dreams, and it was the only one I'd read already. It was in the Everlasting Love anthology, where it had originally been published. I'll just paste here what I wrote then, to save you the trouble of clicking on the link ;-)

"Lake of Dreams, the Linda Howard story, was the best of the lot [Yep, this is true in Strangers in the Night, as well]. I was expecting good things, because a friend had told me this one was wonderful, and I wasn't disappointed.

For the past month, Thea has been having dreams so real that they're almost visions. In them, she sees herself as other women from the past, and a man who's always the same, even though she sees him under different identities.

Her dreams somehow instinctively draw her to the lake house her family always spent their summers in, and the moment she gets there, who should turn up but a man she recognizes as the one from her dreams?

This was a lovely story. There is a romance that feels real in spite of being so fantastic, and I found myself truly intrigued by what exactly might going on. There are no distractions whatsoever here, and this makes for a very intense romance. A B+."

The next two stories, however, were new to me. First came Blue Moon, which, like Lake of Dreams, had a paranormal element.

Sheriff Jackson Brody hates blue moons. People do go a lot crazy during full moon, so it's just not fair to get two in a single month. When his dispatcher tells him he might want to go to the old Jones place, because a certain local thug was heading in that direction, Jackson is resigned. He doesn't really see the urgency, but his dispatcher hasn't been wrong yet.

Well, she wasn't wrong this time, either, because Jackson finds the thug shooting at a very attractive young woman he believes to be a witch. And after the danger is over, Jackson finds himself stranded with the woman in question, Lilah Jones

This one was pretty good. The romance did feel a bit hurried, but I thought the whole fate thing (Lilah does, in fact, have some powers, and the minute she sees Brody she knows he's her one and only love) worked well to make their immediate actions more justified. And those love scenes were very nice!

Best thing in the story: I'd say the atmosphere. Howard gave it the perfect touch of eeriness. A B.

The final story was White Out, not paranormal at all. I'll quote the back cover blurb, since this one actually reflects the plot of the story (the one about Blue Moon sucked).

In the midst of an Idaho blizzard, Hope Bradshaw offers shelter to a stranger-and an instant, hungry passion flares between them. When a radio bulletin warns of a dangerous escaped convict, her blood runs cold: has desire blinded her to the risks of trusting a man who is an expert at covering his tracks?
Simple plot: young widow in Idaho runs a small ski resort. Huge storm is coming, so she very efficiently secures everything and tucks herself in until it's over. But a mysterious man arrives in the middle of the night, half frozen, and before long, their relationship turns intense. The guy says he's a deputy sheriff, but certain details don't seem to fit...

Another good one. I liked Hope, who was competent and smart, and I loved the plot. There's just something about the whole snowstorm - half-frozen man appearing out of the blue scenario that appeals to me. Even the clichéd "I'll warm him with my naked body" incident worked. And how! That scene was smoking hot!

I also liked how Howard portrayed Hope's emerging doubts about Price and how she was so very sensible about what she did about them. That's one of the reasons why I said she was smart, see?

The only negative is that at the end of the story, I didn't really know who Price was. Maybe it's because the whole story is narrated from Hope's POV. That makes sense, of course, since we need a sense of mystery around Price; we need to wonder just who this guy is. But still, I had no real sense of his personality when the story was over.

Even with that, a B+. I loved all the rest.

The most consistently good anthology I've read in years. Overall grade: B+.


Tiger Eye, by Marjorie M. Liu

>> Monday, October 09, 2006

Angie's TBR challenge for October is to read "a paranormal romance or a fantasy". I don't want to be on the Wall of Shame, so I'm getting this one in early.

Title: Tiger Eye (excerpt, extras)

Author: Marjorie M. Liu

Year published: 2005


He looks completely out of place in Dela Reese's Beijing hotel room—like the tragic hero of some epic tale, exotic and poignant. He is like nothing from her world, neither his variegated hair nor his feline yellow eyes. Yet Dela has danced through the echo of his soul, and she knows this warrior would obey.

Hari has been used and abused for millennia; he is jaded, dull, tired. But upon his release from the riddle box, Hari sees his new mistress is different. In Dela's eyes he sees a hidden power. This woman is the key. If only he dares protect, where before he has savaged; love, where before he's known hate. For Dela, he will dare all.
Why did you get this book?: IIRC, because of the review at AAR.

Do you like the cover?: Yep. I like the colouring, I like the cover model (don't even mind she's half-naked), I like the skyline at the bottom....

Did you enjoy the book?: Very much, especially the beginning. It became not quite as wonderful near the end, but it was still good. A B+.

Tiger Eye starts out in Beijing, where Dela Reese is on vacation. Everything's going fine until the day she decides to go treasure-hunting at the Beijing Dirt Market.

Right after a vendor she's just finished haggling with insists on selling her a puzzle box for the extremely low price of 1 yuan, Dela is almost kidnapped by a creepy-looking guy. And the kicker comes when she gets back to her hotel room, and manages to open the puzzle box. In a moment reminiscent of Sherrilyn Kenyon's Fantasy Lover, a 7-foot-tall enraged warrior appears, fully-armed, in the middle of her room.

Dela is stunned, but maybe not as stunned as you or I might be. That's because she's no stranger to the weird, being part of a family in which psychic gifts are the norm, not the exception. Her family have even founded Dirk & Steele, an agency which recruits people with gifts such as theirs and channels their talents to help people.

While not really part of the agency, Dela has, herself, a mental affinity for metal. Metals "talk" to her in her mind, which allows her to do things like mentally scan people for weapons. Oh, she prefers to call what she and her family and friends do "science", rather than "magic", but her mind is obviously more open to possibilities than the regular person's would be.

So anyway, rather than faint upon the big warrior's appearance, Dela talks to him and soon gathers the pertinent facts. The guy's a 2000-year-old shapeshifter named Hari, who was imprisoned in the box by an evil Magi, intent on torturing him. The curse the Magi has put on him means that he's compelled to obey the commands of anyone who owns the box and summons him. He is their slave, and over the years this has meant he's been through a lot. He's been used as weapon and as sex-toy (Liu takes care to imply that he's only been used thus by women, though), so he's been forced to do horrible things, things he never would have wanted to do and forced to endure horrific torture whenever his masters and mistresses wanted to punish him.

Dela is horrified by all this, and after touching one of Hari's knives and "seeing" the imprint of his soul, assuring herself that he's a good person, quickly assures him that he's free. Or at least, as free as he can be, given that the curse doesn't allow him to wander far from his owner. Hari is doubtful at first, afraid to hope, which is understandable when you consider that he hasn't really been in contact with the best part of humanity since he's been imprisoned, but he soon begins to realize that Dela is different. Unlike with his past masters, he actually wants to protect her. And a good thing, too, because it soon becomes clear that someone is after her, a very determined someone who wants her dead.

It's been a while since I read a book so immediately absorbing as this one. The plot is original and interesting, but it was the characters who drew me in.

I might have expected, given the plot, that this would turn out to be an extremely hero-centric book (come on, a shape-shifter, extremely tortured hero? Most authors would write the book as being all about him, with the heroine being nothing but the possessor of the magic hymen that will save him). That wasn't the case here.

I LOVED Dela. She's the best kind of kick-ass heroine, perfectly capable of protecting herself, but knowing when to accept help. What I loved best was how protective she was of Hari, realizing immediately that though he was invincible physically, he was still very vulnerable emotionally, and doing all she could to make him feel better.

As for Hari, well, I liked him almost as much as I liked Dela. I liked that he's an extremely powerful warrior, so scary even the box's owners, who knew he was their slave, feared him, but with Dela, he's a total marshmallow. For a seven-foot-tall killing machine, the guy's positively beta!

I love the way their relationship developed, from Hari's initial mistrust to his realization that this woman is serious when she says she means to do anything she can to help set him free. I loved how his increasing trust is mirrored by his sexual feelings for her.

Tiger Eye is at its best while Hari and Dela are still in Beijing, but about half-way through the book, they go back to the US, and the book becomes merely good. Part of the reason why I liked it a bit less after that was that the Beijing setting was wonderfully enough done that I hated to lose it. Beijing is not written as "anonymous Far East city". Liu paints a city with a strong identity, and I loved it. From the food to the smell of the air, from the fact that people pay no mind to police, but fear the soldiers, to the ubiquitousness of 2008 Beijing Olympics souvenirs, the little details rang true.

But the problem wasn't just the change in settings. Maybe the reason why I thought this part wasn't so amazing as the first one is that by the time they get to the US, there's just practically no conflict between Dela and Hari. They each have accepted that they love the other, and Hari knows perfectly well that he can trust Dela. The only thing left is the love scenes, which Liu holds off for a long while, and this was probably a wise decision. When those love scenes come, I'd been waiting for them, and they do pack a punch. They might squick out some readers, but they worked for me!

There's also the problem that we have two suspense subplots running, completely unrelated from one another. There's the danger from the Magi, and then there's people with a much more mundane reason for wanting Dela dead, a reason I never completely bought. And during the second half, it's the second killers who get all of the author's attention. The Magi, so much more interesting, only appears at the end, and when he does, those scenes feel somewhat anticlimactic and confusing.

Still, even with those small problems, it's an excellent debut. In addition to the good things mentioned above, Liu has a very vivid voice. Her writing sometimes comes a bit close to purple territory, but I think she dodges the bullet most of the times, and the style is simply beautiful, not purple.

Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again?: She was new to me (this is her debut, actually), and there's no doubt that I'm reading anything of hers I can get my hands on. I've already got Shadow Touch (sometimes glomming without having read works out), and a friend is sending me The Red Heart of Jade. All I need to do now is to get her story in Dark Dreamers. It pisses me off that apparently 2/3 of the book is a Christine Feehan story, but what can you do.

Are you keeping it or passing it on?: Keeping it, definitely.

Anything else?: I forgot to mention that in the second half, we're introduced to some of the other members of the Dirk & Steele agency. While very obviously sequel-baiting, these are interesting secondary characters, and I liked the dynamics of the group of friends, into which Hari is quickly inducted.


Midnight Bride, by Susan Carroll

>> Friday, October 06, 2006

And now, finally, the third in Susan Carroll's St. Leger series, Midnight Bride. Considering the comments left after The Bride Finder, I think many people are going to disagree with my impressions...

For generations, the St. Legers of Cornwall have borne strange talents: visions of the future, spirit walking, healing - their inheritance from the sorcerer Prospero St. Leger. For each generation there is a Bride Finder, whose gift brings to each St. Leger a love that will last forever, even through death and beyond.

To reject the Bride Finder's choice is said to guarantee tragedy. Valentine St. Leger is a compassionate doctor whose touch can perform miracles, though he must bear the pain of those he tends. Years ago Val used his talent to save his twin - and was left lame, haunted by constant pain. But his greatest burden is facing his empty future - for the Bride Finder has decreed that there will never be a bride for him.

Kate Fitzleger loves Val more than life itself and is certain they are meant for each other. So the wild, passionate beauty steals powerful sorcery, intending to bend fate to her will - even as an old enemy unleashes a treacherous plot to refashion Val St. Leger's destiny.
Can I call a book I liked very much a disappointment? In a way, that's what Midnight Bride was. It disappointed me because after The Night Drifter, I very much wanted to read kind, gentle, sweet Val St. Leger's story. The way Carroll wrote this, however, we didn't get to explore the kind, gentle, sweet man we'd met already. In terms of quality, however, nope, no disappointment, because though Carroll took the story in a direction which wasn't the one I was eagerly anticipating, it was a direction I enjoyed anyway. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that MB is thisclose to being my favourite in the series. A B+.

The whole story in this book is an off-shoot of the secondary plot of The Night Drifter, so please be warned that this review will have spoilers for that.

In TND we saw that the St. Leger sword had been stolen by Rafe Mortmain and came back to the St. Legers missing a chip of the powerful crystal embedded in its pommel. As MB starts, we find out that possession of this chip of crystal has proved disastrous to Rafe. He's sick and feels like he's about to die, and he's on his way back to return the crystal, hoping he'll get rid of some of the curse, if possible.

Also in TND, we saw Val St. Leger be disappointed when he went to consult the Bride Finder, full of hope of finding the woman for him, and was told that this woman didn't exist. Val, says Effie Fitzleger, has no chosen bride. And since family legend states that marrying anyone other than one's chosen bride leads only to disaster, this means Val is condemned to spending his life alone.

Val is relatively resigned to this, but Kate Fitzleger, Effie's adopted daughter, refuses to accept it. She's been in love with Val forever, since the very day she arrived at Effie's house from the orphanage. Kate thinks the family legend is silly, and now that she's old enough, she is determined to get Val.

Kate's plans are proceeding in fits and starts, until the night Rafe Mortmain returns. Rafe manages to get to Val's cottage, but collapses on the entrance right after handing over the crystal. Even though he has always mistrusted Rafe, doctor Val just can't tolerate to see anyone in pain, so as he always does with his patients, he uses his magic gift to take on some of Rafe's pain. But having the crystal on him sends everything out of control, and in addition to his physical pain, Val also takes in Rafe's emotional pain and mabye even some of his very soul?

The Val who wakes up the next morning without any memory of what has happened is a different man from the sweet and noble gentleman Val always was. Not only has he been cured of the crippling injury he had taken years earlier, when he was using his gift to take the pain from his brother, but he now cares nothing about the legend or about propriety, and so he doesn't hesitate to pursue Kate.

Kate, however, doesn't know anything about Rafe's visit, and since that night she was also trying out a love spell from the spell book of the St. Leger ghost, Prospero, she believes this was the motive of Val's change. Kate loves that Val seems to have changed his mind about being with her, but she's not so happy about his personality change, feeling responsible about it.

As I mentioned above, my first reaction when realizing what had happened to Val was disappointment. I had wanted to read about this truly nice guy, and instead, Carroll had magically turned him into a reckless, jealous, selfish scoundrel? Yawn... been there, done that.

But as I went on reading, I realized my first impression hadn't been exactly right. The incident with Rafe hadn't really changed Val into someone else, but had rather allowed the dark side already inside him to come to light. Rather than making the nice guy into a different person, as I had feared, Carroll was showing us the complexity of his personality. She was showing us that even though he'd superficially seemed to have perfectly adjusted to the crippling injury in his leg, and had seemingly never blamed his brother for it, deep inside his soul, a part of him was angry about it... angry because he couldn't ride anymore as he used to, angry because he had to endure pain often, even angry at his brother for being so stupid to have gone almost suicidally into battle and getting this injury. Carroll was also showing us that even though Val seemed resigned to never finding a bride, deep inside, he was angry at fate about it and completely desperate to have Kate. The guy we were seeing was Val, the real Val, warts and all, and this made all the difference. There was a danger here, though: it's all well and good that Val isn't repressing his feelings any more, but the extra pain he took on is allowing his darker side to go out of control.

Kate was an interesting character, too, even though compared to Val, she was much less compelling. I didn't much like her at first, because she initially came across as simply a reckless hellion, but she grew on me, mostly because of her reactions to Val's changes. Part of her is ecstatic at having the man she loves finally as crazy about her as she is about him, but another part hates that it's not real, that it's only happening because of her love spell. The new Val is exciting and sexy, but Kate doesn't like the recklessness and pain she now sees in him and of course, blames herself for putting them there.

As Val and Kate's new relationship develops, we also see how Rafe is faring. The night that so changed Val also changed Rafe. He not only recovered his lost health, but he also lost the years and years of emotional pain and rejection that had been poisoning him. That moment of connection brought out the darkness inside Val's goodness, but it did the exact opposite to Rafe: it allowed the goodness inside his bitterness to come out, and some of the most powerful moments in the book come when Rafe has to decide if he'll help Val, the man who didn't hesitate to help him, and risk having things go back to the way they were.

I loved the romance, but even more, I loved how MB explored the characters of Val and Rafe and who they really were.


The Night Drifter, by Susan Carroll

>> Thursday, October 05, 2006

I read Susan Carroll's St. Leger's series without reading any reviews or even the back cover blurbs. So as I finished The Bride Finder, I kept wondering: who would The Night Drifter and Midnight Bride be about? I was thinking probably the doctor, Marius, with his tragic history, but Carroll surprised me.

The eldest son and heir to Castle Leger, Lance St. Leger is plagued by an infernal restlessness that cannot be appeased, perhaps because the family legacy of strange powers is most pronounced in Lance's own dubious gift. He calls it night drifting--his ability to spirit into the night while his body remains behind. And it is on one wild night that he finds Rosalind, a young, sheltered widow who mistakes Lance's "drifting" soul for the ghost of Sir Lancelot. Lance teases and tempts her, fills her with a yearning her chivalrous phantom knight cannot satisfy. But in this place imbued with both true love and otherworldly magic, a new dire portent vows to come full circle. As a murderous enemy challenges the St. Leger power, Rosalind must tempt magic herself to save her beloved from the cold depths of eternal damnation.
Yes, indeed, I was completely wrong. I very definitely wasn't expecting to go forward over 25 years and read about Anatole and Madeline's twin sons! And I wasn't expecting such a different tone, either. A good one, a B.

Lance St. Leger, the eldest of the twins by a few minutes, is a man used to disappointing everyone around him. But when on a Midsummer night he manages to lose the legendary St. Leger sword in the most stupid of ways (he gets mugged while wearing it as a prop for his knight costume), he knows this might be the last straw. He needs to get it back before his parents come back from their trip and find that only disaster can come from leaving Lance in charge of things.

Lance's gift is the ability to night drift (that is, at night, his spirit can drift out of his body as a kind of ghost and can move around, even going through solid objects, while his body rests where he left it), so he decides to use it to find the sword. And it is as a ghost, while searching the town's inn, that Lance meets young widow Rosalind Carlyon.

Of course, Lance can't reveal who or what he is to the woman, no matter how attractive he finds her, so he uses the fact that he's wearing his knight costume (his physical body was still wearing it when he lay down on his bed and drifted out) to convince her that he's the ghost of Lancelot du Lac. He even tells her an adaptation of the truth... that he's looking for Excalibur.

Lance doesn't think he'll ever meet Rosalind again, but wouldn't you know it? It turns out the Bride Finder decrees that she's his chosen bride, and so he ends up having to convince her to marry him. And it's a difficult job, because Rosalind is in love with the ghost of Sir Lancelot, and thinks Lance St. Leger, no matter how physically similar to her beloved, is a bit of a boor. The only thing he can talk her into is a marriage of convenience, and so Lance soon finds himself in love with his wife and competing against himself for her love.

If you're anything like me, you might be a little bit leery of a plot which depends on the heroine not noticing that her husband is the same person as this man she loves so much. Fortunately, Carroll makes it convincing. The very fact that Sir Lancelot is transparent while Lance is very definitely solid makes it understandable, but there's also the way the personalities of these two men seem so different. As Sir Lancelot, Lance is able to express his most chivalrous, noble impulses, those he's decided he's too jaded and cynical to have. And he's able to get Rosalind's love, something he feels unworthy of in his Lance identity.

Carroll was also very good in the way she wrote Rosalind's conflicted feelings, as she loves Sir Lancelot, but feels increasingly attracted to her husband, both physically and emotionally, when she begins to see the real man under the mask.

There's plenty of built-in conflict in their relationship: how will Rosalind resolve her ver conflicted feelings? What will her reaction be when she finds out about Lance's deception? But Carroll also writes a very interesting relationship between Lance and his brother Val, one that reminded me a little bit of that between Kit and Sydnam in Balogh's A Summer to Remember. It wasn't quite as deeply done as that one, but I liked how Carroll resolves Lance's guilt for being the unwitting cause of his brother's injury. Same thing with the relationship between Lance and his father. Anatole didn't immediately become the perfect father, and Lance has some very real doubts about his father's feelings for him, which are put to rest in a lovely scene at the end of the book.

There's also the whole deal about the stolen sword and Lance's friendship with Rafe Mortmain, the last descendant of his family's deadly enemies, but though this was interesting, I got the feeling too many things were left unresolved here. They're probably to be further developed in Lance's brother Val's story, Midnight Bride, which is right here waiting for me!


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