Sunday, January 31, 2010

January Round-Up

It's that time again - time to hilariously poke fun of and lampoon all the books I've read this month. I think my skills are improving because I managed to finish a lot of novels this time around (13 in all, counting the non-romance). Not as many as, say, Katiebabs (who seems to average one romance novel every 12 hours), but I do okay.

For Heroines, we got:
  • 2 Self-Hating Redheads with Low Self Esteem
  • 1 Independent Pastry Chef
  • 4 (!) Plucky Orphans Who Fleece Aristocrats to Survive
  • 1 Psychic Amnesiac
  • 1 Secret Authoress
  • 1 Intrepid Reporter
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Fake Highwayman
  • 1 Sexy Superhero
  • 1 Broody Angsty King
  • 1 Broody Angsty Fake Duke
  • 1 Broody Angsty Reformed Rake
  • 1 Broody Angsty Soon-To-Be-Reformed Rake
  • 1 Non-Psychic Amnesiac
  • 1 Lovable Gargoyle Bookworm
  • 1 Lonely Science Nerd
  • 1 Haughty Aristocrat
For Romantic Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't love her - she's got an Evil Mole of Evil on her boob!"
  • "I can't love him - he's just like my abusive, now-dead husband!"
  • "I totally love her - but she might think I'm ugly and weird!"
  • "I can't love her - she works with her hands! Gross!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm wanted for forgery!"
  • "I can't love him - the sex is just too tempting!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm trying to solve the Case of the Murdered Sheep!"
  • "I can't love her - for all I know, I could be married already!"
  • "I can't love her - she made my best friend commit suicide!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm too busy micromanaging my estates!"
In Miscellaneous Oddities, we got:
  • 1 Vanishing Bull
  • 4 Happy Hookers
  • 1 Elephant (Metaphorical and Literal)
  • 1 Vengeful Ghost
  • Several Hardcore Guilt Trips
  • 1 Seven-Hour, Magically-Induced Orgy
  • 2 Unwelcome Stalkers
  • 1 Stolen Hair Ribbon
  • 2 Cases of Amnesia

*January Pick* The Wild Road, by Marjorie Liu. A+
Winner of the "Better Make Mine Beta" Hero Award
Liu's novel impresses - we have a gripping narrative, a tough but vulnerable heroine, an absolutely adorable gargoyle hero (described as a "creature of books and tea"), great worldbuilding and description, a self-contained story - and it's the eighth book in a series, if you can believe it. It's difficult to find anything wrong with this story - but the best aspect is undoubtedly Lannes, our sweet-natured bookworm hero who has to hide his gargoyle face under a glamour for fear he'll be rejected by the heroine, whom he saves from bullets and magic even though he'd rather be safe at home in Maine with his books and a nice cup of Green Chai.

Lessons in French, by Laura Kinsale. A
Winner of the Best Reason To Learn a Foreign Language Award
Many readers around the blogosphere are doing jumps for joy at the prospect of the legendary Laura Kinsale returning to writing after a five-year absence. I've only become a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth fangirl within the last year, and have so far only managed to devour three of her excellent novels, Lessons in French included, but the rest (except for the frustratingly hard-to-find Dream Hunter) are on my TBR, I swear! I just feel the need to parcel them out, to spread out the joy of discovering them over a long period, like a squirrel with nuts over the winter. Lessons in French doesn't disappoint, even as it represents a departure from her signature dark-drama style. And hey, if you're interested in more - be sure to check in when I interview her on February 16th!

Scandal, by Carolyn Jewel. A-
The "Holy Crap" Surprise Death Award
Scandal surprises with a slow, delicate narrative where the rake is already reformed - he just needs 300 pages to help the damaged, heartbroken love of his life realize it. The story may seem familiar at first, but Jewel works it from a different angle and doesn't pull the usual narrative punches while doing it (hence the award - be warned, my review contains serious spoilers).

A Rake's Guide to Pleasure, by Victoria Dahl. A-
Winner of the Eloisa James Award in Historical Sexual Education
I opened this book expecting a run-of-the-mill Cold-Rake-Seduces-Damaged-Heroine story, but discovered so much more. With beautiful writing and graphic but relevant sex scenes, Dahl presents an insightful and developed examination of lust, the rules of morality society applies to it, and ultimately the damage loathing one's own sexuality can inflict.

Slightly Sinful, by Mary Balogh. A-
Winner of the "Which Award?" Medal in Amnesiac Characters
Ah, consistently good and prolific mainstay Mary Balogh, where would I be without you? I'd be without interesting amnesia plotlines and a well-written turnaround of the Distant Evil Uncle cliche, that's where! This second-to-last book in the Bedwyn series finds our second-youngest Bedwyn, Alleyne, trying to find love and recover from a memory-erasing head injury at the same time.

Proof By Seduction, by Courtney Milan. B+
Winner of the "I'm So Ronery" Hero Award
Making her full-length novel debut, Milan gives us a con artist heroine, an elephant, several oranges, and a hero who longs for friendship but has all the social skills of a Ken doll. The best part of this novel is watching Gareth struggle to express his feelings without insulting people (sometimes failing, but in failing, remaining endearingly earnest), and the second-best is encountering a heroine who demands respect as well as love from her significant other.

Before the Scandal, by Suzanne Enoch. B-
Winner of the Lamest Pay-Off Award
Enoch writes a pretty good mystery in this novel, where a soldier returns to his brother's estate only to discover a mysterious conspiracy to vandalize the land, but she forgets to add in a credible romance and a full-fleshed out female protagonist. Add to that a half-hearted climax at the end, and you have a solid novel that nevertheless feels lacking.

Lady of Light and Shadows, by C.L. Wilson. C+
Winner of the Gold Medal in FeminismFAIL
Fantasy-wise, this second novel in the Tairen Soul series is a definite improvement from its predecessor - it has better pacing, better drama, more world-building, good description. However, character-wise, it still suffers from two lame protagonists and a dearth of female characters who a) contribute to the story and b) aren't conniving, vain, whorish shrews.

Karma Girl, by Jennifer Estep. C+
Winner of the "Where's the Beef?" POV Award
This novel, about a reporter who, after building her career unmasking superheroes, is attacked by supervillains and forced to rely on the very people she persecuted, suffered from the most common problem in Paranormal Romance today: great world-building, great science-fiction/fantasy, but boring writing and underdeveloped characters. It didn't help that the story is told entirely from the woman's POV, giving us little to no character development in the male protagonist, a sexy superhero named Striker.

*January Dud* Secret Desires of a Gentleman, by Laura Lee Guhrke. C+ (Note: While technically Lady of Light and Shadows and Karma Girl received the same letter grade, LoLaS skips ahead by virtue of the fact that it is an improvement over its previous novel, and KG had some good worldbuilding and action - so in this case, SDoaG and its Asshat hero sink to the bottom of the pile)
Winner of the Heathcliff Lifetime Achievement Award in Asshat Heroism
In the third book in Gurhke's Girl-Bachelor series, strong, independent Maria falls for a man who first ignores her, than insults her, then says they can never be together because they are too different, then insults her again, then has sex with her, and then somehow convinces her to give up her entire life's work to be with him. It's essentially Twilight with pastry, and twice as dull.

Non-Romances I Read This Month:

Beastly, by Alex Finn A-
Okay, I'll admit I read this book for the movie adaptation which is due out in July, but I found I really enjoyed this modern YA retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told from the Beast's point of view. In this case, our monster is Kyle Kingsbury, a popular but vicious high-school Adonis who pisses off the wrong witch by giving her a bogus invite to prom. In revenge, the witch turns him into a hideous beast - with two years to fall in love and be loved in return. Kyle's experiences as a beast, especially after being abandoned by his selfish and vain news anchor father, are evocative, painful, and incredibly sad - Finn does a great job capturing Kyle's voice, which is at times immature but often unwittingly perceptive. When he ends up falling for Lindy, an honours student from a severely broken home, the result is unsurprising but emotionally satisfying nonetheless. How many months until July again?

In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant A
Dunant's lushly-described historical novel about a 16th century courtesan and her dwarf companion Bucino who flee the sack of Rome for the safer shores of Venice, doesn't have much of a central plot line but doesn't really need one. Simply reading about Bucino (the narrator) and his efforts to restore his courtesan's career, all the while surrounded by gorgeous descriptions of Venice and its colourful inhabitants, is a satisfying read.

Iron Khan: A Detective Inspector Chen Novel, by Liz Williams. C+
How do demon seneschals, evil Mongolian war leaders, jolly British ghosts, giant cranes, insane Heavenly Empresses, and magical fetuses combine to make a story? Read my take from The Green Man Review.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Lady of Light and Shadows," by C. L. Wilson

Spoiler warning: This post contains pretty explicit spoilers, both for the last book and for this one. You have been warned.

The Chick: Ellysetta Baristani. Formerly just a woodcarver's daughter, she's now the truemate of the King of the Fey and the bearer of strange magic powers - which mainly consist of making everyone within a hundred-foot radius insatiably horny.
The Rub: The mysterious Shadow Man now knows who and where she is, leaving her unable to hide from him - and the truth of her birth.
Dream Casting: First it was Kirsten Dunst, but I changed it this time around to Felicia Day.

The Dude:
Rain Tairen Soul. While what the Fey King really wants to do is pleasure his truemate senseless, he also has to convince the Council of Celieria to vote against a law that will allow the evil Elden mages access to their country.
The Rub: Ellie's nice, but damn, what a huge political liability she is!
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:

Ellie: Crap! I magically turned a classy dinner party into a seven-hour orgy!

Some Nobles: We didn't mind!

Other Nobles: We totally mind!

Rain: Let's just do nice, happy things like flying around in transparent robes and having spirit sex! Let the secondary characters worry about the repercussions, shall we? I can show you wooooooorld....

Lauriana, Ellie's Mum: My daughter is going down the path of evil heresy! I must arrange for unsavoury priests to stick her full of poison needles! I'm just a good mother that way!

Rain: Shining, shimmering, splendid....

Annoura, Queen of Celieria: People aren't looking at me! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! Gaaaar, this is all the Baristani girl's fault!

Rain: Tell me, Princess, since when did you last let your heart decide?

Angsty Fey Warrior: I found my truemate, but she's already married! FML!

Captive Fey Lovers: Woe is us! We have been tortured for a thousand years and there is no end to our torment! Except when we're allowed to have sex, that is! FML!

Selianne: My children are being held captive and I have to betray my friend to save them! FML!

Ellie: A whole new woooooooooooooooorld.....

Elden Mages: STOP! EVIL TIME! Dooo do do do - can't touch this!

Lauriana: Remember me as a competent parent....*dies*

Selianne: *fried*

Elden Mages: We're winning!

Ellie: THE HELL YOU ARE. *Magic Explosion*

The Fey: OMG we won!

Rain: OMG, Ellie's totally hotter now!

Ellie: I totally am! So worth it. Let's get married!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 SoulMate Romance

1 Evil Whore Villainess

4 Sad Parents

2 Counts of Spirit Sex

1 Count of Real Sex

1 Seven-Hour Sexfest

1 Magical Makeover

The Word:
As some of my readers know, I wasn't a fan of the first book in C.L. Wilson's Tairen Soul series, Lord of the Fading Lands. I felt that while the fantasy was good, the romance was dreck - the hero was an oversensitive despot who plugged his fingers in his ears and drummed his heels against the floor whenever he didn't get his way, and the heroine was a drippy Mary Sue who despite an utter absence of spine or gumption is somehow necessary to the survival of the world.

I was rather surprised to discover that I enjoyed Lady of Light and Shadows a bit more than its predecessor - but maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the fantasy and the drama become more complex, and the romance doesn't backpedal. Okay, so it doesn't really move all that much forward either but at least it doesn't get worse. Which still makes Lady of Light and Shadows a below-average romance, but it raises its worth as a fantasy novel.

The novel picks up right after the last one left off, roughly a week after Ellysetta Baristani, a plain peasant girl, managed to call Rain, the shapeshifting King of the Fey, out of the sky. In the last book, they discovered they were truemates, which meant Ellie became the de facto Queen of the Fey. Of course, the nobles in the human kingdom of Celieria were less than pleased to defer to a peasant girl, particularly Queen Annoura. Apparently mistaking herself for a character from a teen soap on the CW, Annoura tricked Ellie into getting drunk at a dinner party, hoping the girl would embarrass herself in front of the nobles and prove once and for all that Annoura was the most popular girl in high school rightful Queen of Celieria.

Heavily under the influence of booze and a coffee-like aphrodisiac, Ellie ended up accidentally casting a spell that made everyone in the room absolutely ravenous for sex - for seven hours. Rain (having promised Ellie's father to leave her virginity intact until after they married) fled to give himself the wank-off of a lifetime, leaving Ellie vulnerable to a psychic attack from an evil mage, in which the Shadow Man, the mysterious personage who hunted Ellie in her dreams since she was a small child, finally discovered her identity.

This book opens as the effects of the Ultimate Bender are wearing off. Rain returns to find Ellie's personal bodyguards groggy, hungover, and severely chafed in very intimate areas. Ellie is shaken but fine, but she's unintentionally thrown a monkeywrench into Rain's political plans. The kingdom of Celieria is debating whether or not to open its borders to the Eld, a northern nation. Rain and the Fey know that the people of Eld are ruled by evil mages and want to keep the borders closed. However, the Mage Wars ended centuries ago and human memories are short.

Many nobles think that Celieria, as a strong and independent nation, shouldn't have to take orders from the Fey anymore. Others feel outright threatened by the Fey and think an alliance with the Eld will keep them in their place. In the last book, Rain tried (very clumsily) to convince the nobles that Eld is All That Is Evil and Wrong Forever and Ever and the Fey are all just misunderstood teddy bears whose entire purpose in life is to distribute free medicine and hugs - unless, of course, you defy them in which case they will SQUASH YOU LIKE A WORM.

Ahem. But I digress - Rain's political manoeuvrings go awry after Ellie casts her Magical Viagra Spell. Turning a bunch of sophisticated, arrogant aristocrats into crazed nymphomaniacs is a bit hard to explain away without a considerable amount of diplomatic skill. While some nobles are willing to laugh it off (and avoid sitting down on any hard or rough surfaces for the next couple of days), others are just as quick to label the whole Lovefest another example of the mischief Fey can wreak on human free will. While the King himself is loyal to the Fey, he's outnumbered by the Anti-Fey (including his wife, Annoura) and doesn't want to veto them unless he absolutely has to.

Meanwhile, Elden spies for the High Mage start planting seeds of hatred and distrust against the Fey all over the kingdom - and now that they know who Ellie is, they start moving against the ones she loves, including enslaving her friend Selianne and exacerbating Ellie's mother's fears about magic.

The first couple chapters of this book were just as difficult to read as the last novel, since it was basically more of the same: Ellie repeats ad nauseum how she's just a simple woodcarver's daughter and is ugly and useless and a blight on everyone's lives - this doesn't annoy me because it's inaccurate or exaggerated. This annoys me because it's redundant - the author has already spent a novel showing us what a passive Mary Sue deadweight Ellie is. And Rain, once again, tries to convince the Celierian nobles of the Eld evil but is baffled by their strange, foreign concepts like "evidence," "proof," and "baseless conjecture." I actually think most of the nobles' concerns are pretty reasonable, but of course Rain is 1000 years old and magical, which means he's always right and silly mortal humans are always wrong.

However, as the novel progresses, Rain and Ellie actually do us a favour by retreating from the storyline to do silly, gratuitous but infrequent fluff scenes. Rain and Ellie fly around the city and give each other presents and have magical hymen-proof sex and basically take a vacay from the plot, leaving most of the narrative up to the more interesting secondary characters like Gaelen - a dahl'reisen (or Super-Emo Fey) whose inner despair and taste for Simple Plan songs got him banished from Fey society, and Lauriana - Ellie's conservative, religious and bigoted mother who worries about the state of Ellie's immortal soul in the company of godless, magic-practicing Fey.

From this angle, the book's not half bad - there's some real drama, and even the really, really, ridiculously stupid bullshit some of these characters pull has some motivation. Some plot points genuinely surprised (like Ellie's true parents - they're not who you think!), and the author builds on our knowledge of the Fey and Eld, helping us learn more about them without giving us a huge infodump. Ellie even develops a glimmer of a spine, even as it comes at the cost of a cringe-inducing magic scene that suddenly reveals she's been beautiful and perfect all this time, it was just hidden under a spell.

However, C.L. Wilson's style of writing remains irritatingly twee (the elf language is described at one point as the "sound of a waterfall in a sun-dabbled forest" - what, exactly, is the sound of sun dappling?) and Ellie and Rain's romance develops in a slow, inconsistent and contrived way. Yes, despite being psychically bonded, showered with presents, and told repeatedly that she is the light of his heart and the saviour of his soul, Ellie still doesn't believe Rain loves her UNTIL THE VERY END, a perfect example of my most hated cliche, Those Three Little Words.

I could go on about the silly writing and the protagonists, but while I was discussing this book with my Twitter friends, I realized something else that had really bugged me about this book: the portrayal of the female characters. Now, the fantasy genre is no stranger to the Bland Female Love interest, particularly the princess who must be rescued from the correct castle, as well as the Beyond Evil Villainess, who wears evil stilettos and carries a whip. In a romance, however, female characters tend to be better developed. Looking back on Lady of Light and Shadows, when I thought about the characters who did the stupidest things and had the flimsiest motivation and were the most annoying - they were all women. Let's meet the Top Three Stupids:

1. Queen Annoura. She's petty, vain, selfish, and completely loses her shit at the smallest provocation - namely, Ellie. Her enmity has nothing to with political or moral reasons and everything to do with the fact that Ellysetta's presence at court has sucked all the attention away from herself. A flamboyantly superficial attention whore who runs with an entourage of Dazzles (gorgeous men and women), she rages and wails that her husband the King would give matters of international diplomacy more consideration than her fucking pride. This, of course, leaves her completely open to the manipulations of Kolis (an Eld spy).

Meanwhile, of course, her husband is perfectly wise and reasonable and doesn't see seven hours of nonstop orgasms as anything to complain about.

2. Lauriana. Ellie's mother has never had a high opinion of magic, and raised her daughter to believe it's evil and wrong. She also thinks the Fey are godless heathens. Even when a priest in her church tells her the Fey are God's creatures too and there's nothing wrong with using the gifts God gave you, she sniffs and says, "I'm from the north, you don't know our ways." Yes, of course, the north, where everyone is good and pious and - oh, did I mention? If any babies, toddlers or children develop signs of having magic, they abandon them in the woods to starve, including Lauriana's two year old sister. Yes, yes, the Fey with their healing spells and innovations are all that is evil, but Lauriana and her righteous baby-killing folk are Good People.

She can't stand to see her perfect baby girl using magic, and is very easily manipulated into believing the only way she can help her daughter is to submit her to an exorcism where men in long robes tie her down, torture her with spiked manacles and fill her full of needles. Celieria's Mother of the Year, everybody. Her blinding stupidity and bigotry also leave her open to manipulations by Eld spies.

And, once again, her husband is totally cool with his daughter marrying a Fey prince and is completely rational and tolerant of other people's beliefs.

3. Jiarine. One of Annoura's ladies-in-waiting and a servant of the Elden spy. She has a relatively small role, but represents a huge burn on my ass as she's one of the most heinous examples of the Evil Whore character I'm come across - i.e., the female character whose obvious evilness is obviously demonstrated by the fact that she likes sex, lots of sex, and with an unorthodox number of partners. Every other woman in the book is strictly monogamous, and when Jiarine is confronted by Kolis the spy with the number of men she shagged during the sex spell, Kolis makes some sort of laughing comment about how she's the perfect evil minion since her appetites were nearly as voracious as his are.

Because as well all know, having a higher-than-average sex drive practically guarantees evil, especially in a woman, doesn't it?

I wouldn't have minded these three morons so much if there had been other women in the book who were well-developed. Um, but what women? We have:
  • Ellie (dishrag)
  • Selianne, Ellie's friend (helpless victim)
  • Marissya, the healer (she heals, uh, and that's it)
  • Elfeya, captured Fey (another helpless victim)
Two books in, and we have one borderline-strong female character (Ellie - and she's still a long way from having a full spine), and the rest are either non-characters or shrieking, irrational shrews who are easily manipulated by men, thanks to their own moral failings.

I'm sorry, but I gave C.L. Wilson two shots. The fantasy is interesting and well developed, but the romance is still nothing to write home about and the female characters are cartoons.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Library Loot: Made to Order

Another week, another Library Loot post. It's so not fair. I have a huge enough TBR as it is, but not only is my library improving its inventory in the library, but it's also improving its catalogues, so that some romance paperbacks are actually available to order (usually they're not, on the basis that paperbacks endure fewer circulations than hardcovers). Also, I saw a teaser for a movie that looked both interesting/terrible, and found out it was based on a book so I just had to get that too!

First off, though, let's start with the literary fish I decided to throw back:
Sorry, With Seduction In Mind. I know you're about writers and writers' block and sexy fun artistic times, but Secret Desires of a Gentleman really drained the Gurhke-Goodwill-Well. Not enough to scare me off the books I've already got of hers on the TBR (Guilty Pleasures, The Marriage Bed, She's No Princess), but enough to make me send you, already thrice-renewed, back to the public shelves.

It's just too soon. Secret Desires of a Gentleman really annoyed me and my attempt to read your first two pages didn't help - really? A feisty red-headed heroine who just can't keep a job because she's so unbelievably sexy that her evil bosses can't keep their hands off her? Um, no. Not yet. Give me a chance to recover from Gentleman's "strong" culinary heroine giving up her life's work after three months because buttering her hero's baguette takes up all of her time.

Now, this week's haul:
Pieces of Sky by Kaki Warner has been garnering buzz and reviews all over the place as an excellent Western historical epic romance, and lo and behold! Since it's a trade paperback it can be searched and put on hold from my library's online catalogue!

It's practically new since I placed a hold on it while it was still ON ORDER (I was #2 in line!). People sometimes complain when authors, particularly the big ones, have hardcover releases - but readers, LISTEN. You can order hardcovers much more easily from libraries, and reading it in hardcover will make it easier to wait the additional 6-months-to-a-year to buy it cheaply in paperback if you liked it, and if you don't end up liking it, you haven't wasted $30 - or even $10.

Stop complaining about romance in hardcover, for the love of Balogh!

What really surprised me was finding an actual, and not utterly recent romance paperback on the online catalogue - but that's exactly what I found when I searched "Marjorie M. Liu" on a lark, expecting to find hardcovers and large print editions.

Instead, I had the incredible good fortune to find the Dark Dreamers anthology, which has the novella that tells what actually happened to The Wild Road's Lannes and his brothers when they were turned to stone by an evil witch. Yes, technically it's Charlie's story (his presence in The Wild Road is restricted to the occasional phone call with his stepdaughter's Disney movies blaring in the background), but still! It explains more about Lannes!

And, last but not least,
we have Beastly, by Alex Flinn. Confession: I saw the teaser and info for the upcoming movie adaptation (out in July) and I was kind of hypnotized. Mary Kate Olsen as a teen witch! Neil Patrick Harris as a blind tutor! That Disney Actress Who Unlike Hannah Montana Never Learned to Keep Her Bra On When Taking Sexy Photos Of Herself and Mailing Them to Untrustworthy People (Twice!)!

Yeah, this modern take on Beauty and the Beast looks like it has every chance to be huge success or a massively entertaining and campy failure. I'll admit to a certain weakness towards Beauty and the Beast stories in romance novels - and I mean the real stories where the dude is actually hideously scarred/deformed/cursed, not the silly knockoffs where the hero is considered beastly because he acts like an asshole or doesn't know/care about using the correct salad fork at dinner. Or worse - he's just "romance ugly," which usually means he has craggy bone structure a la Liam Neeson. Very quickly the heroines of those stories learn that "romance ugly" is just another code word for "I don't have to squint or check the inseam of his pants to see that he is a dude." I suppose the convenience of that sort of appearance appeals to these feisty historical heroines, since they have a large tendency to want to prance about in breeches themselves and wouldn't want to unintentionally bat for the other team and make doe-eyes at a fellow, er, doe in buckskins.

But I digress! I like Beauty and the Beast stories and Beastly is an interesting modern take - both the book and the movie deal with a spoiled, rich teenage boywho has everything - money, status, hawtness, and then he loses everything when he decides to bully and humiliate the one Goth girl in school who actually does practice the Dark Arts! How could this not be awesome? Or at least awesomely bad?

Here's to good reading!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Slightly Sinful," by Mary Balogh

The Chick: Rachel York. After a swindler makes off with her friends' life savings thanks to her naivete, she'll do anything to pay them back - even trick a distant relative into handing over her inheritance early. She just needs a man to pretend to be her husband.
The Rub: Amnesiac "Jonathan Smith" fits the bill, plus he owes her his life - but their enforced intimacy may have deeper consequences than she realized.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.

The Dude: Alleyne Bedwyn, a.k.a. "Sir Jonathan Smith." After taking a fall from his horse, he wakes up in a brothel with no memory of who he is - but at least he's surrounded by pretty ladies, not least of whom is the lovely Rachel York.
The Rub: He rather enjoys playing the part of her loving husband - but he still has no memory of who he is, including whether or not he's already married.
Dream Casting: James McAvoy.

The Plot:
Alleyne: War sucks! *falls off horse, bonks head*

Rachel's Friends: *swindled* Poverty sucks!

Rachel: Guilt sucks! *rescues Alleyne*

Alleyne: Amnesia sucks!

Rachel: Virginity sucks.

Alleyne and Rachel: *SexyTimes*

Alleyne: You're right, virginity sucks. *glowers*

Rachel: Hmph. Wanna fake a marriage to get my inheritance?

Alleyne: What about your relative?

Rachel: Oh, don't worry, negligent uncles suck!

Uncle Richard: Being all alone and never getting to see my niece sucks.

Rachel: Utterly wrong first impressions suck. *tear*

Alleyne: Not being able to marry you sucks.

Rachel: Really? 'Cause I checked and you're single.

Alleyne: HOORAY!

Wulfric, Duke of Asshat: What about me?

Mary Balogh: Not until the next book!

Wulfric: Damn, that sucks.

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Amnesiac Hero

1 Guilt-Trippin' Heroine

1 Bad Childhood

1 Forgotten Childhood

1 Kindly Uncle

1 Traumatic Head Injury

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

4 Happy Hookers

2 Drunken Servants

2 Evil Con Artists

1 Unpleasant Deflowering

The Word:
In this penultimate volume of the Bedwyn series, we're dropped into Alleyne's story. During Slightly Tempted (Morgan's book), he went MIA during the Battle of Waterloo while delivering a letter from the Duke of Wellington and was believed to be dead. The Bedwyns held a memorial service, Morgan got some war-angst, and Wulfric, Duke of Asshat had a nice little scene where he cries his Asshat-y eyes out in the privacy of his study.

Of course, since the Bedwyn series is penned by Mary Balogh and not, say, Carolyn Jewel, Alleyne's status as a Hot Brother hands him a Get Out of Death Free Card. While galloping towards Brussels, he's shot in the thigh, knocked off his horse, bonked by a tree root, and stripped naked by war scavengers instead.

Meanwhile, in a brothel in Brussels, our heroine Rachel York tries to apologize to four whores (Geraldina, Flossie, Phyllis and Bridget - who was Rachel's childhood nurse) who have been swindled out of their retirement fund by a con artist Rachel unwittingly introduced them to. Rachel admired the Reverend Nigel Crawley for his supposed goodness, decency and tolerance and agreed to be his betrothed - and now she blames herself for her friends' misfortune.

While the kindhearted birds of paradise consider Rachel as much a victim of Crawley's deception as they are, Rachel still feels responsible and so she, Flossie and Geraldina form a half-baked plan to see what valuables can be found on the battlefield outside the city, in the hopes they'll at least make enough cash to hunt down Crawley for the rest. However, it takes about two minutes for them to realize they haven't the stones to rob the dead, but in the process Rachel discovers an unconscious Alleyne and brings him back to the brothel to recuperate.

What follows is an admittedly trite setup, in which Alleyne wakes up and panics over not remembering anything, the four painted ladies made an exhausting number of thinly-veiled references to how much they want to bang him three ways from Sunday, and Rachel intentionally allows Alleyne to infer she's a whore for some ridiculously martyrish reason. She also jumps into bed with him after knowing him for all of two weeks, then gets all huffy when Alleyne, discovering she's a virgin mid-thrust, is understandably too appalled to perform to her satisfaction.

Okay, so the set-up is tiresome, but it doesn't last for too long and it pays off in spades later. Rachel finally figures out a way to pay back her prostitute pals: while her gambling-addict father left her with nothing when he died, she still has a sizable inheritance of her mother's jewelery held in trust for her by an estranged uncle, to be doled out when she turns twenty-five (three years from now) or when she marries someone her uncle approves of.

Rachel figures if she and Alleyne can convince her uncle they're a happily married couple, he'll have no reason not to hand over her bling, which will restore the hookers' nest egg while leaving a hefty chunk for herself. Despite her tendency to guilt-trip, Rachel feels no qualms about deceiving an uncle who participated very little in her life after disowning her mother for her elopement.

Alleyne agrees to help in her scheme, partly because he owes her big time for saving his buck-naked ass, but partly due to his own cowardice. While in theory he wants to discover who he is and if he has any family, he's also terrified at the thought that his memories might never return. He'd much rather procrastinate for a while to see if his memory returns on its own and posing as Rachel's husband gives him an excellent excuse.

However, things are not so cut-and-dry: Alleyne (now called "Jonathan Smith"), Rachel, and the ladybirds head off to the cold-hearted uncle's impressive estate for a few days only to discover - a) the uncle isn't as cold-hearted as he seems, b) the estate's no longer so impressive thanks to its owner's debilitating illness, and c) the frail Uncle Richard declares that "Jonathan" and Rachel must stay with him for a month before he'll consider relinquishing her jewels.

And here is where the novel goes from pleasant to good, and from good to very, very good. Mary Balogh plays on some familiar themes - mainly, a deep and abiding love for the countryside and intense and understandable personal drama. Alleyne, much like his older brother Aidan from Slightly Married and the Marquess of Hallmere from Slightly Scandalous, discovers an affinity for Rachel's uncle's estate and how it's managed and run. In fact, all the Slightly books so far have taken place at lovingly-described country estates, with plenty of scenes where the characters grow to admire and appreciate the proximity to nature and its beauty (which, in itself, was a popular cultural theme during the Regency). Freed from social constraints and personal limitations that a knowledge of his specific identity might have placed on him, Alleyne pursues what naturally calls to him and uncovers the true essence of his identity.

As for Rachel, well, she's a very flawed character - and I mean flawed in the human way, and not in the badly-characterized way. While I didn't always like her or agree with her, thanks to Balogh's writing I almost always understood her. In many ways, she tries to feel the way she "ought" to feel, repressing her true emotions, and this is poignantly demonstrated in her relationship with her Uncle Richard. She wants to hate him and think the worst of him for not taking part in her life but she responds to the situation of his illness and his generous treatment of his guests nonetheless, and then she ends up resenting her feelings of sympathy as weakness.

Rachel is a woman who is very bound up in the past - she cannot forget her lonely and poverty-stricken childhood spent with a father who threw every penny away at the gaming tables, or her belief that Uncle Richard could have helped if he'd only forgiven her parents for their elopement. She can't overcome her memories of being alone in the world enough to stop taking responsibility for everything and misinterpreting what other people say to her (Alleyne in particular) as slights against her. Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense that it takes a man without memories and without a past to help awaken Rachel to the joys of the present and the possibilities of the future. Some people joke about how cliched the amnesia plotline is (especially in romance), but I'm always willing to suspend my disbelief in an overfamiliar or unrealistic plot device if it expresses an insightful theme or literary idea, and at the risk of repeating myself, Mary Balogh is a champion at this.

The secondary cast, primarily comprised of the four whores, are meant to be lively and humorous but their banter quickly becomes tiresome - however, even they start to grow and develop in pleasant (if predictable) ways. They seem surprisingly healthy and cheerful and well-adjusted for 19th-century prostitutes, which made me a little curious about their pasts and backstories, but otherwise they were harmless.

All in all, another thoroughly enjoyable Mary Balogh novel. You'll have to blame the predictability of my Balogh reviews on the fact that she is one of the most consistent novelists I've ever read - she's not always heart-stoppingly fabulous, but she is always good, and I have never not enjoyed reading her novels.

"Lessons in French," by Laura Kinsale

Note: Please forgive the bizarre formatting - I wrote this review some time ago and saved it to Word before copy-pasting it to Blogger today, so the formatting may be a little weird.

The Chick: Lady Callista Taillefaire. After being abandoned at the altar by three different men, she decides to take the hint and settle for being a wallflower. Unfortunately, it's at that moment that her childhood sweetheart, Trevelyan decides to reappear.

The Rub: He's still up for fun and adventure - but he's definitely hiding something.
Dream Casting:Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude: Trevelyan D’Augustin, Duc of Monceaux. 10 years ago, Trevelyan was banished from Callie’s side and vowed to make something of himself. He now returns successful and wealthy, the conquering hero – to discover the love of his life still hasn’t shacked up yet.
The Rub: And he can’t do the honour himself – because his glittering, golden success is really all a sham. Perhaps, however, he can interest her in one last hurrah before he leaves.
Dream Casting: Matthew Bomer.

The Plot:
Callie: What are you doing?
Trev: I’m returning to take care of my mother.
Callie: What are you doing?
Trev: I’m stealing your precious bull back for you!
Callie: What are you doing?
Trev: I’m pretending to be a Belgian nobleman to spare your reputation!
Callie: What are you doing NOW?
Trev: I’m running away because I’m not worthy of you and thanks to some shady things in my past that are too shady to actually tell you about. Way too shady.
Callie: You know that I literally work with bullshit for a living, right?
Trev: Well, crap. Wait, what are you doing?
Callie: Getting you a pardon! Let’s get married!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Unconventional Redheaded Heroine with Self-Esteem Issues
1 Fraudulent Frenchman with a Secret Past
1 Mischievous Bull with a Taste for Bath Buns
1 Romantically Lacklustre Re-Rival
1 “Just Friends” Agreement Doomed to Failure
1 Really Dumb Blonde
Several Big Misunderstandings
1 Secret Blackmailer
1 Big Fat Ho Cousin
2 Fake Belgians

The Word: Laura Kinsale indicates in her author’s note at the end of her latest novel, Lessons in French, that this is her attempt to write a “light” novel, as opposed to her regular “dark” style. From my experience reading For My Lady’s Heart and Prince of Midnight, I can somewhat understand what she means by light and dark, and how this novel is a bit of a departure from her normal milieu.

Lady Callista Taillefaire is sitting out yet another country dance when a familiar personage from her youth reappears and asks for a waltz. Trevelyan D’Augustin, the Duc of Monceaux, left England to make his fortune after he and Callista were driven apart by her outraged Earl father ten years ago. While of impeccable French pedigree, Trevelyan’s family lost everything during the French Revolution and Callista’s father saw him as nothing better than a foreign fortune-hunter. 
Now he’s back, apparently having recovered his family’s ancestral holdings, but is appalled at the state his mother’s been reduced to – her house is filthy, her servants have deserted her, and her health is in rapid decline. Desperate, he asks his dear Callie to help him set things to rights, since money is no longer an object. Their renewed proximity brings back all of the heady emotions of their youth – but times have changed, and neither feels they can reveal their feelings.

Thrice engaged, and thrice jilted within the last ten years, Callie lives under the assumption that she’s completely unmarriageable – despite her fortune, she’s too dull, too plain, too antisocial, and too obsessed with her cattle farming to be a good wife to anyone. Especially to a French duke as wealthy, charming and sophisticated as Trevelyan has become. Trevelyan, meanwhile, cannot risk an attachment to the woman he still adores – while his newfound wealth is real, the stories he tells Callista and his mother about where it comes from are not.

It sounds so – familiar doesn’t it? By choosing to write a “light” romance rather than a “dark” one, Laura Kinsale sets herself a much riskier literary challenge. Light romances, as opposed to dark or epic romances, must work within a much more limited scope. Without broad obstacles like pirates, spies, or continental travel, light historical romances tend to focus instead on the politics of the drawing-room or small country village – a tinier stage where the smallest misstep could lead into tedium or cliché. Because of the narrower field, many well-used character types tend to flourish. Look at a Julia Quinn or Mary Balogh novel – how many cynical rogues are there? Or virginal bluestockings?

Light romances work by wringing emotional truth and sentimental originality from familiar surroundings and tropes – a trying task to walk between the expected and unexpected, creating realistic and difficult emotional obstacles without going overboard and making your characters exaggerated and unrealistic. Go too far one way and you’ll end up with a completely predictable, boring piece of drivel with tired jokes and overused social observations. Lean too far in the other direction and you get cartoonish situations where the scandalous rake refuses to marry because he blinded his saintly twin brother with a shuttlecock when he was seven and feels unworthy of love (and badminton). 
I mean, objectively, look at the protagonists of Lessons in French – Callie is just another apple from the ever-abundant tree of Self-Hating Gingers, who are numerous enough in Romance Land to have their own political party. And Trev, who believes he’s too dark and scandalous and unworthy of the heroine? What a novel idea! Keeping reading, however.
I don’t know if it actually took five years to complete Lessons in French, but however long it took, it was worth it, for Laura Kinsale accomplishes a near-perfect romance, her beautiful writing lending depth and originality to familiar characters. Trev and Callie have a sizzling, fun dynamic that ten years haven’t lessened. In what seems to be Kinsale’s favourite style, we have a sentimental hero tied to a practical heroine. Trev was always the adventurer, the charmer, the prankster – the kind of bolder, braver friend who could sweep the straight-laced Callie off to join him in his hilarious shenanigans, convincing her that she, too, could be audacious and daring. 
This continues, even now that both are older and (one hopes) wiser. After Callie’s cousin thoughtlessly gambles away her prize bull, Hubert, only for Hubert to escape and (mysteriously) wind up in Trev’s kitchen, dyed black (don’t ask), Trev devises a plan to return Hubert to its new owner without casting suspicion on Callie that involves subterfuge, fake Belgian identities, and a popular cattle fair. How, exactly? You’ll have to read for yourself.

However, Trev isn’t just a happy-go-lucky rogue who swings through life with no strings attached – I loved how Kinsale portrayed his impulsive, emotional nature as being a doubled edged sword. Trev is just as likely to Fuck Things Up (and does so repeatedly) as he is to discover a last-minute solution to a problem. Meanwhile, Callie, as the practical one, is always saying, “No! We mustn’t! Are you mad?” who nevertheless thinks quickly on her feet and can adapt to any situation Trev throws at her with wit and ingenuity. The best thing about this novel is Trev and Callie’s chemistry – there’s none of this “I-hate-you-I-love-you” nonsense. Even after a decade apart they can’t help being friends and they gracefully revert to sharp, knowing banter like returning to a familiar dance whose steps they’ll never quite forget. 
Along with all of this comes the marvellous historical detail – from the gossip papers and village politics to the fashions, and especially the settings we don’t normally read about in Regency romances, like the cattle fair Trev and Callie attend. I enjoyed the subtle flavours Kinsale added to Trev’s character thanks to his French nationality and his family’s status as poor aristocrats in exile. Trev (born during his family’s escape from the guillotine) was raised in England but spent his childhood being constantly impressed with the importance of regaining his French lands and birthright – and his inability to do so shapes him in powerful, even devastating ways.

As I said before, however, this was a near perfect romance. There were a few things that bothered me – and I while I still adore this book, these flaws kept it from becoming the complete emotional bulldozer that For My Lady’s Heart and The Prince of Midnight were. One of my main issues with this romance was Callie – there were many things I loved about her, but I felt her “Woe Is Me I’m So Completely Undesireable” kick pushed too far. It’s not that she doesn’t have a reason for it, having been jilted three times (more on that in a sec), and it’s not like I was expecting a stars-and-sparklers “I Feel Pretty” moment, but I would have liked a little more development of her self-image in reaction to the very obvious indications Trev gives her regarding how attractive he finds her. 
Her low sense of self-worth also leads to some frankly puzzling life choices on her part – such as her decision to accept the marriage proposal of Major Sturgeon, the first man to jilt her who unexpectedly turns up again to re-pledge his troth. She knows for a fact that a) he’s marrying her for her money, b) he tried to hook up with another woman during their engagement and c) that he considers her uninteresting and plain (and all this without even mentioning the fact that he abandoned her at the altar the first time), but, oh, it would be so much more humiliating to be Trev’s pitied and unloved wife than Major Sturgeon’s pitied and unloved wife. I never got this – it just seemed too pathetic of her, especially considering Callie’s easily wealthy and connected enough to live independently without marrying anyone. 
My last nitpick with the novel comes with a revelation at the end regarding the reason and motivation behind Cassie's three jiltings. I won't spoil it, but when it's uncovered Cassie just laughs it off, which I thought was uncharacteristic considering how much pain and self-consciousness she endured after being left at the altar three times.

These slight problems aside, Laura Kinsale demonstrates her trademark wit, depth, detail and romanticism can serve a light-hearted historical romance just as well as they can with a darker one. Laura Kinsale convinced me a knight can learn oral sex from devout Catholic priests, cold water in the ear feels remarkably like acid, and that bulls love bath buns stuffed with white currants. I’m pretty sure Laura Kinsale can write just about anything.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Proof By Seduction," by Courtney Milan

The Chick: Jenny Keeble, a.k.a. "Madame Esmerelda." Through smarts and cunning, Jenny spent 12 years making a decent living as a fortune-teller, feathering her nest egg with gullible, wealthy clients.
The Rub: Her livelihood is threatened when Lord Blakely, the aristocratic relative of one of her regular clients, makes it his mission to reveal her as a fraud.
Dream Casting: Michelle Ryan.

The Dude: Gareth Carhart, Marquess of Blakely. Cold, autocratic, and fully aware of his aristocratic duties, he's determined to groom his heir, Ned, into a responsible future marquess - and that means cutting off the boy's dependence on a sham psychic.
The Rub: For all she's a fake, Madame Esmerelda very easily sees past his unfeeling facade to the more private person within - and Gareth doesn't like it.
Dream Casting: Colin Firth.

The Plot:

Ned: Blakely, meet my fortune teller.

Gareth: She's a fake.

Jenny: You're an ass.

Gareth: You're a product of abandonment.

Jenny: You can't play well with others.

Gareth: You're sexy.

Jenny: You're hawt.

Gareth: But you're beneath me.

Jenny: I'm outta here.

Gareth: I'm sorry.

Jenny: You're too late.

Gareth: I bought you an elephant.

Jenny: I ... wait, what?

Gareth: Marry me?

Jenny: Oh, all right, I will.

Gareth: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Interclass Romance

1 Orphaned Heroine

1 Science Nerd Hero

1 Elephant Carving

1 Actual Elephant

1 Inconvenient Compromisation

1 Bout of Depression

2 Meddlesome Relatives

Several Unwanted Gifts

The Word: Right off the bat, I'm going to admit that I didn't read Proof By Seduction without outside expectations and influences. On one hand, I went in with the knowledge of how awesome Milan's debut novella ("This Wicked Gift") was, which raised my expectations. On the other, this book had recurring themes similar to two books I didn't particularly care for - that is, the Hero Dedicated to Truthiness who Falls for a Liar theme from Connie Brockway's So Enchanting and the Emotionless Aristocrat Who Knows His Place (And Yours) schtick that was so irritating in Laura Lee Guhrke's Secret Desires of a Gentleman. I opened this novel with both wonder and misgiving, a toss-up as to which would win out.

Madame Esmerelda, a fortune teller, prepares for an appointment with her regular client Ned Carhart, but she's nonplussed when the young man brings along his cousin, the Marquess of Blakely. Lord Blakely, it seems, is grooming young Ned to be his heir and the first item on his list is to yank Ned's head out of his ass and break his unseemly attachment to a lying fraud like Madame Esmerelda.

It doesn't help Esmerelda's case that she actually is a fraud: her real name is Jenny Keeble. For twelve years she's pretended to converse with the spirits in order to make a living - lacking family or friends, her other options are decidedly less savoury. However, after more than a decade she's running out of justifications for her work and is starting to feel the tug of loneliness.

However, she defends herself against Lord Blakely's attempts to uncover her sham - for Ned's sake. Despite the lies at the foundation of their relationship, Ned's the closest thing to a friend she has. Also, for the last two years, she's helped Ned deal with some very real personal problems - and revealing her deception could undo everything Ned's accomplished as part of his recovery. Jenny's further justified by the fact that Blakely is an overbearing ass who treats Ned like a whining, witless burden instead of as a cousin and heir.

As the scientifically-minded Blakely tries to prove that Jenny's a fraud, she bites back by predicting Blakely's marriage - provided he complete three tasks. Blakely is forced to obey these tasks because if he doesn't, then he can't prove her prediction false - and thus starts off a battle of wits.

Interestingly enough, my experience reading Milan's "This Wicked Gift" made reading the first chapters of Proof By Seduction difficult, while my reactions to So Enchanting and Secret Desires of a Gentleman kept me reading. The narrative pacing in novellas is naturally faster thanks to their shorter length, so I had problems with how slowly Proof By Seduction started out and how conventional it seemed at the beginning. Yes, yes, of course - here we have the stuffy peer who is brought low by the feisty heroine's trickery, let's watch them banter, ha ha, now he's attracted to her against his will, how will he get out of this mess? etc. etc.

However, despite the sloooow start, once it reaches a certain point, the narrative starts speeding up ... and speeding up... until it's barrelling downhill and you're staying up late and getting up early to read the rest of it!

Instead of making the entire novel a farce where Blakely tries to prove Jenny a fake, Blakely and Jenny come to the mutual agreement that Jenny's a sham pretty early on. What Jenny's profession does is establish a contrast between Jenny's white lies and Blakely's complete lack of tact. Blakely has a pretty negative view of life and other people in general. He's inclined to believe the worst of people - including his cousin Ned and his sister Laura - and thinks he's just being scrupulously honest. Meanwhile, Jenny tries to see the good in people and uses it to her advantage as a fortune teller by convincing her clients of their own strengths and talents - in essence, making self-fulfilling prophesies. Who's being the most truthful?

Despite the lack of pacing, Courtney Milan's characters are still warm, bleeding people. Milan even aces the tremendous feat of making the Antagonistic Snob Hero Who is Constantly Insulting the Heroine an unexpectedly adorable character. When I first started reading about Gareth, I'll admit I flashed back to Phillip from Secret Desires of a Gentleman, a ruthlessly blue-blooded gent who just can't believe that his penis salutes the heroine without giving the woman's lack of breeding and connections the consideration it deserves. "Curse my democratic wang!"

However, Milan gives us a hero who holds his nose in the air to distract others from the fact that he is as hopelessly riddled with insecurities as a block of Swiss cheese. The truth is, Gareth is ... a science nerd. Yes - a socially awkward, bookish misfit who was teased and made fun of as a child and mercilessly trained into the superiority of his position as an adult, so he grew up using his cold hauteur as a shield to keep people away - and consequently developed no social skills whatsoever. One of Jenny's mystical tasks is for Gareth to befriend his man of business -and he simply has no idea how to do it and is subsequently humiliated in the attempt. As a bit of a social outcast myself, I found him easy to empathize with and know first-hand just how quickly social skills can atrophy when you isolate yourself.

Gareth tries very hard but often can't help the unintentionally offensive things that come out of his facehole. He's graceless and bumbling but always honest and well-intentioned, so that instead of annoying, it's very sweet when he says the wrong thing because you know he's thinking the right thing and will do the right thing.

As for Jenny, I had a harder time understanding her in the beginning - primarily because she develops an inexplicable attraction to Gareth while he's saying horrible things to her and promising to ruin her. He poses an enormous threat to her reputation and way of life - but gosh darn it she just wants to kiss him!

Her development improves as the novel progresses. Gareth's accusations force her to examine the last twelve years of her life, and determine whether the "life's a dog-eat-dog world" is enough of an excuse to continue with what she's doing. However, once she regains her sense of self-respect, she refuses to let it go - and this ends up complicating Gareth and Jenny's relationship. She knows it's unlikely that they have a wedded future - but she's become too tired of compromising her principles for her own comfort to consent to being a mistress. Gareth may love her, but until he respects her as much as she respects herself she won't have him. One of my main problems with romance novels with Alphhole heroes is that the heroines often settle for love but leave respect out of the equation - how refreshing that we get a heroine who won't settle for less!

As for the secondary cast - it's a pretty shallow pool. Blakely's cousin Ned gets the most attention as someone who seems way too devastatingly young to be battling depression (presumably that will be handled in his book, Trial By Desire), and "Wicked Gift"'s William White has a pleasant cameo. Other than that, we have Blakely's sister Laura who has all the depth, brains and nuance of a wet kleenex and seems to serve as a whinging crybaby plot device upon which Gareth practices his stunted nurturing abilities. Thankfully, she only has about four scenes in the book before she's married off so she won't be popping up in any sequels (fingers crossed).

Proof By Seduction, while it doesn't dazzle as much as "This Wicked Gift," is still a solid debut with enjoyable protagonists. Milan's writing still sparkles, her plotlines are still unique - let's just hope her pacing improves.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Before the Scandal," by Suzanne Enoch

The Chick: Alyse Donnelly. After a failed elopement turned her into a social pariah, she's had to live on the grudging charity of her cousin and aunt, living as a lowly companion and unpaid servant.
The Rub: When her friend Phin Bromley returns after a 10-year absence, convinced that someone's intentionally vandalizing his brother's land, his investigations turn up hinky things about her family - can she risk the roof over her head to help him?
Dream Casting: Robin Hood's Lucy Griffiths.

The Dude:
Colonel Phineas Bromley. For ten years, he's avoided returning to his family after a drunken horse race ended up crippling his brother. When a heartfelt letter from his sister demands his return, he discovers his family's estate is in worse shape than he thought.
The Rub: As much as he wants to help, his brother clearly doesn't welcome his assistance and most of society's unconvinced he's changed from the rakehell he used to be - including his childhood sweetheart Alyse.
Dream Casting: Elliot Cowan.

The Plot:
Phin: Hey kids, I'm home - is my brother dying?

Beth, Phin's sister: I lied.

Phin: Why'd you write me, then?

Beth: Can't say.

Phin: I want to help.

William, Phin's Brother: Sure.

Phin: No, really.

Alyse: Right.

Phin: So I just rode all the way back here for nothing, then?

Alyse: Well, we could have sex.

Phin: Yay! You're awesome.

Alyse: Uh-huh.

Phin: I think Lord Donnelly's trying to steal our estate.

William: Okay.

Phin: I love you.

Alyse: Of course you do.

Phin: ...

Bad Guys: *do bad things*

Alyse, William, Beth: PHIN, HELP!

Phin: Right.

Alyse, William, Beth: No, REALLY.

Phin: *defeats Bad Guys* Might as well get married.

Alyse: Okay.

Phin: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Reformed Rake

1 Fallen Woman

1 Crippled Brother

2 Sexy BFFs

1 Yellow Horse

3 Evil Dudes

1 Incompetent Scottish Valet

1 Guilt Trip

The Word:
I wanted so much to like this novel, especially after reading After the Kiss, in which a spoiled but sweet Society miss falls for a righteous art thief. I rather enjoyed Kiss because our heroine was an unabashed girly-girl who liked dresses and balls and thought blackmailing a masked intruder into hanging on her beck and call would be an awesome idea to spend the time.

And Before the Scandal starts out strongly enough - our hero, Phineas Bromley (a soldier who served with Sullivan from Kiss and Bram from Always a Scoundrel, the next book) returns to the family estate of Quence when his sister Beth writes to tell him that his older brother's on his deathbed. He returns to find his brother William very much alive, albeit not kicking thanks to an accident ten years ago that Phin instigated back when he was in his Drink-Gamble-Fuck phase.

Clearly, Beth lied to him in order to ensure his return, but she refuses to tell him why. However, Phin, being an observant fellow, comes to his own conclusions: over the last year, an unusually high number of accidents have befallen Quence (poisoned horse feed, fires, floods), and it's clear to Phin that these misfortunes might not be accidental at all. However, most of the people in town - hell, in his own family - are disinclined to believe he's changed his irresponsible ways, so he decides to masquerade as a French highwayman in order to suss out the answers without bringing attention to his siblings. Yeah, it's a pretty flimsy excuse to become a highwayman, but noble thievery seems to be the theme of Enoch's The Notorious Gentlemen trilogy so I tried to suspend my disbelief.

Phin's plans are threatened somewhat by the distraction of Alyse, his childhood sweetheart. Back in the day, she was the cream of the social crop, so Phin's surprised to discover she's still unmarried. The years haven't been kind to Alyse - five years ago she was seduced and then cast aside by a fortune hunter, dropping her down to the bottom of the social totem pole. She's since been living on the suffrage of her odious cousin and aunt. She's been skimming money off for herself whenever they send her on errands, hoping to eventually secure some kind of independence, but she's not in the clear yet and too much feistiness on her part could send her out onto the street.

Phin and Alyse don't discover their romance so much as re-kindle it after a break of ten years. Phin already likes and respects her, and Alyse still has fluttery feelings for him. However, he feels he owes his family and their troubles the bulk of his attention and still feels undeserving of happiness. She, meanwhile, has been ruined before and is determined to look out for her own interests.

I should first point out that the mystery/suspense aspect of the book - such as who's behind the vandalism and why they're so determined to drive the Bromleys off their land by any means necessary - is very interesting. It's well-paced, revealing new information at crucial points, and the villains' motivation is developed and surprisingly mature (their plans are neither as simple as a greedy land-grab nor as cartoonish as world domination). Phin's investigations make sense but at the same time he's not perfect, so the reader has time to discover things before he does. My problems with this novel have nothing to do with the mystery/suspense aspect, except for one thing which I'll mention later.

My main problem with this novel is that the mystery, and not the romance or the characters, was what kept me reading. The romance itself is rather tepid, and in fact seems to play second fiddle to the mystery. Alyse, for her part, doesn't contribute all that much to the story - she comes off more like a spunky love interest than a protagonist. After all, her own problems have little to do with the plot - she's a Cinderella who decides to assist Phin in his mystery-solving by playing spy. That's the key word here - she assists in the plot, without really being a subject of the plot.

As such, her romance with Phin seemed abbreviated - I personally thought they jumped into bed together way too early, without proper motivation, and in a ridiculously inappropriate situation. Phin arrives at her house bleeding to death from a bullet wound and Alyse is by turns horrified, then outraged that he lied to her, and then horny for him. Uh, yeah, because nothing says "do me" like being covered in blood. Similarly, Phin has the Alpha Male Pain Tolerance - no measly flesh wound can tame his mighty Alpha Boner.

That's not to say that Alyse has no development - she does start out pretty self-absorbed at the start (mainly huffing and puffing over how Phin didn't return after ten years for her, but for the frivolous reason of protecting his family's livelihood), but it's somewhat understandable since she's spent the last five years being the only one to look out for herself. As the story progresses, and it becomes more and more obvious that her cousin is behind the vandalism, she has to decide whether helping Phin's family is worth rocking the boat and possibly jeopardizing her shelter.

Phin, meanwhile, is refreshing in his own way as a martyr hero. More often then not, heroines tend to make themselves the emotional punching bag because the Hero! He is Just So Angry and Passionate In His Ways! If Only He Had an Outlet He Could Also Have Sex With! Ten years ago, Phin was a reckless bad boy, but spent a decade making himself a better person after a horse race with William left his older brother crippled. After he returns, many people (his brother included) continue to treat him like dogshit and expect very little of him, and Phin merely turns around and bends over to make his ass all the more easier to kick with a frozen steel-toed boot.

To the author's credit, Phin is responsible for William's accident - it wasn't a "I sent him a letter and he got a papercut and the infection cost him his hand, woe is me I am a blot on mankind" situation. It just gets a little repetitive - Phin refuses to argue or even disagree with his brother or demand even the slimmest benefit of the doubt. "My brother is dead from the waist down" puts a damper on pretty much any discussion. He retains enough self-respect to continue to hunt for clues despite his brother's disapproval, but refuses to see that ten years cleaning up his act should earn him a little leeway.

However, while the mystery aspect was the better part of this novel than the romance, at the end, it also fails by having a disappointing, lazy ending that reeks of cop-out. Spoilers and an exacting rant ahoy - the first half of this mystery was so intelligently set up that I expected Phin and his allies would find a clever way to have Richard (Lord Donnelly) and his cronies expose themselves.

Instead, Phin breaks into Richard's house, ties them all up and forces a confession from Richard by gunpoint - after shooting him in the leg first. First of all, Richard confesses under duress - he even gets blood on the freakin' confession! Of course, the solicitor Phin brings along with him says nothing about how this is totally illegal and invalid or that what Phin is doing is wrong - even though Phin and his friends have produced no evidence that proves Richard isn't an innocent person with a strong motivation to keep himself bullet-free. Even an innocent person, when shot in the leg, could be persuaded to sign a confession. Oh, and a draft that promises Phin's girlfriend ten thousand pounds.

This was such a terrible ending because it a) didn't do justice to the clever writing of the mystery's first half, b) it was unnecessary, and c) it demeans the hero. Phin acts like many a fictional sleuth - tracking the criminals by the clues they leave behind and by their behaviour - and yet, he doesn't solve the mystery by outing the villains using evidence or tricking them into revealing themselves - often the thrilling climax of a mystery. He "solves" the crime with the simple, ham-handed fact that, at this particular moment, he holds a gun and they do not. See my paragraph above for why I think that's a crock-of-shit cop-out ending for what was initially a cunning plotline.

As for B), Phin had evidence - several living witnesses (including a viscount, the sister of a viscount, and the son of a duke) who the criminals tried to murder by setting their house on fire. Why didn't he go to a magistrate or a higher authority?

And C), the ultimate reason why I didn't buy the ending and thought it was a cheap n' easy way out - was that the hero, Phin, had to do something illegal and unethical in order to "solve" the problem. He forces a man to sign a confession at gunpoint, and robs him of ten thousand pounds (also at gunpoint!). To me, it felt like Suzanne Enoch had spent 350 pages or so crafting this beautiful meal, roasting the turkey, mashing the potatoes, mixing the stuffing - and then at the last minute goes and picks up McDonalds. Yeah, it solves the problem (dinner), but how lame is it to have McDonalds after a lead-up like that?

No, the book isn't terribly written, but as I've said - this romance/mystery is lukewarm in the romance department and ultimately unsatisfying in the mystery part. Think before you get Before the Scandal.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"The Wild Road," by Marjorie Liu

The Chick: "The woman," a.k.a. "Lethe," a.k.a. Alice Hardon. When she wakes up covered in blood, surrounded by corpses, and emptied of memories, the only thing she can think to do is run.
The Rub: By purest luck, she runs into a strange man who agrees to help her, but without memories, who can she trust? What if her memory doesn't return - and does she really want it to?
Dream Casting: Yvonne Strahovski.

The Dude:
Lannes Hannelore. A gargoyle who hides his true appearance underneath a human illusion, he cannot disguise his instinct to guard and protect people - especially a blood-soaked woman whose mind has been magically altered.
The Rub: Without any identifiable memories, the woman could be anyone, and she clearly isn't wholly human. Lannes has been hurt before - is he putting more than simply himself in danger by protecting her?
Dream Casting: Tom Hardy.

The Plot:
Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: You're stealing my car, apparently.

Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: You're murdering an old man while under someone else's power!

Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: You're really pretty. And nice. And soft. Did I mention pretty?

Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: ... ... ... loved.

Woman: ...

Lannes: Who am I?

Woman: A hot piece of gargoyle ass!

Lannes: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Virgin Bookworm Hero

1 Damaged Heroine

1 Case of Amnesia

2 Magical Detectives

1 Evil Children's Pact

1 Vengeful Spirit

1 Horny Fairy Queen

The Word:
Oh my word. I need to start this review off with a big, GIANT THANK YOU to the Booksmugglers, from whom I won this book. As other writers such as Meljean Brook have demonstrated, I might have declared myself over and done with paranormals a mite prematurely. Having a fantasy setting and otherworldly obstacles does not necessarily mean that the characters' internal development will be neglected (although in wretched paranormals that tends to be precisely the case). Reading The Wild Road, I was just as captivated by the characters' personal weaknesses and struggles as I was by the very real and very dangerous external conflicts they have to confront.

In one is one of the best openings I have ever read in a romance, well, ever, our heroine (who for a large chunk of the novel is just referred to as "the woman") wakes up in a hotel room. She's drenched in blood. She's sharing the room with a bunch of dead guys riddled with bullet holes, and she's holding a gun. She has absolutely no memory of who she is. None. Nada. The only clue she has is a slip of paper pinned to her shirt that says, RUN.

Oh, did I mention the hotel room was on fire?

Our hero, Lannes, a creature his elderly friend Frederick describes as a "creature of books and tea"(*le sigh*) discovers the bedraggled, hysterical, and injured woman trying to break into his car and his protective instincts flare up. It's a good thing too, because Lannes' in a better position to help the woman than the police: he's actually a gargoyle, and possesses natural powers of telepathy and empathy. He quickly detects that someone deliberately cut the woman's memories out of her mind in a brutal and permanent fashion.

When someone leaves the woman a clue in the form of a name, Lannes accompanies her to the old man's house only to watch in horror as a foreign power invades the woman's mind and forces her to kill the old man in a particularly gruesome manner. As they soon discover, someone is intent on using the woman as a tool of revenge - and someone else, just as powerful, is equally determined to kill the woman before that can happen. Together, Lannes, the woman, and two members of the paranormal Dirk & Steele detective agency have to solve the mystery of who's using the woman as a weapon, who the woman actually is, and how they can set her free.

First things first - it came as a pretty large surprise to me when I looked up this book of Marjorie Liu's website only to find out that The Wild Road is actually book eight in the Dirk & Steele series, because this book worked excellently as a standalone. There are some references to Lannes' brother Charlie, and to some nasty things that happened to Lannes in a previous installment (more on that later), but the author skillfully weaves them into the backstory, informing the reader without intruding on the present story. I never felt lost or like I was missing something terribly crucial by not reading the other seven (now nine) books in the series.

As I mentioned in my introduction, The Wild Road does a marvelous job of keeping the external suspense/mystery/fantasy plot fresh, entertaining and interesting, without sacrificing the characterization in the process. I'm usually turned off by what my blogger friend Kmont describes as "everything but the kitchen sink" fantasy - the kind of setting common to Urban Fantasies where every other character is a dragon or a witch or a vampire or a half-vampire-half-golem-accountant in a freakin' United Nations of Weird kind of way, but I never got that vibe from The Wild Road.

Marjorie Liu handles the magic in her book with a delicate balance between the fascinating and the mundane - where the supernatural is everywhere, but isn't normalized in an I'm-Pre-Ordering-My-Demonic-Grimoire-From-Amazon way that sucks all the wonder and discovery out of it. Part of this is also thanks to her gorgeous writing style, particularly with description, that maintains the beauty and poetry both of the supernatural and of the perfectly ordinary joys and despairs our characters undergo.

And, oh boy, our characters. Our heroine, in particular - even though she spends nearly half the novel without even a name (she eventually settles on Lethe, after the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology), she manages to keep her wits together as best she can. She's an intriguing character study because she's basically had every memory that's shaped who she is stolen from her forever - she's a blank slate. School, friends, how she was raised - it's all gone, so what kind of person is left? In this sense, both she and the reader discover who she is at the core of herself, once all the trappings of upbringing and education are stripped away, and we discover she's whip-smart, goodhearted, and determined to survive and fight what's been done to her.

However, the question of identity continues to plague her throughout the novel. We get hints and glimpses at who she was, who she used to be, but what Lethe has to struggle with is whether she wants to return to the person she was, or remain what magic and necessity have made of her. As pieces of the puzzle start clicking into place, she starts to wonder if she's better off as she is, and that maybe her past life isn't worth remembering. Yeah, if you're expecting a big info-dumpy explanation of who she was, this book doesn't give it. Why? Because the novel eloquently points out how little it really manners.

As awesome as Lethe is on her own, she hits the Ultimate Hero Jackpot with Lannes. Lannes! I want to write him a theme song. I want to knit him a sweater. I want to buy him a kitten. Already he's up there on the Best Heroes Cloud drinking Orange Pekoe with Adam and S.T. and Kel-Paten. Lannes is a shy, bookish fellow who restores ancient tomes for a living and likes jazz music, but he's trapped in the seven-foot-tall, lavender-skinned, huge-ass winged body of a gargoyle. He rarely leaves his isolated home in Maine, but whenever he does, he hides his craggy appearance underneath an illusion of a human male, and binds his wings to his body with a belt in order to keep from frightening people.

When he first meets Lethe, he wants to help her but he's wary. Years ago (apparently the plot of an earlier story), Lannes and his gargoyle brothers were tortured by a witch who turned them to stone. On top of leaving Lannes terrified of small spaces (and, conversely, of leaving his protected home for unfamiliar places), he's wary of revealing the truth about gargoyles to strangers for fear he'll make his dwindling species a target for magical exploitation again. As he gets to know Lethe, however, his fears deepen to the very personal terror that she'll find his true appearance repulsive.

I adored Lannes, the best part of an already stupendous novel. I love how despite the fact that he has the larger-than-life, feet-the-size-of-baby-dolphins body of a typical Alpha Male, he's such a sweet teddy bear on the inside. Because of what happened to him, he's afraid of stepping beyond his comfort zone and he doesn't want to assume the role of the hero - but he can't help it. There's an excellent dichotomy demonstrated between the Hero and the Villain(s) that deftly explains why Lannes is the perfect companion for Lethe. Lethe is tormented by people who are evil, vengeful or manipulative - but physically weakened or absent, and she finds salvation with a man who is physically ginormous with claws, wings and teeth - who is, nevertheless, a gentle, tender, and incredibly lonely soul.

Lethe, in turn, is a perfect fit for Lannes and I loved reading their tender, slow, and mostly non-physical romance develop (although it does get physical eventually). Lethe, without memory, has no frame of reference. Incapable of recognizing anyone, even family, she has to trust people based on their actions, rather than their words or appearance. While she soon figures out about Lannes' illusion (although not what lies underneath it), she trusts how he's treated her up until that point, and as they eventually form a psychic bond, she learns even more about how awesome he is on the inside.

I'll definitely be reading more Marjorie Liu, for this book satisfied on all counts - it had a great fantasy setting, beautiful writing, an engaging mystery, exciting suspense and wonderful, flawed, tender characters.