Thursday, April 29, 2010

So Long, Farewell, Until We Meet Again

No need to panic - I'm not dismantling the blog. I'm simply going on tour with my University choir, a uniquely awesome once-a-year experience. We go from small town to small town giving concerts, pulling pranks on our choirmates and coming up with new inappropriate innuendos to present on Skit Night (the last night of tour). Basically, I'm going to be MIA from the blog and Twitter and the internet in general until May 10th. Have no fear - along with my toothbrush and choir dress I am packing several books to read to while away the hours on the tour bus, so you can expect a lot of reviews to be posted once I return. With me on tour are:

Heir to Sevenwaters, Juliet Marillier.

In case you haven't realized, I'm pretty much the official Book-Bitch of The Booksmugglers, and for my non-romance read I decided to bring this one along instead of Incarceron (which I'll be reviewing for The Green Man Review) because it is a paperback and therefore easier to pack.

Honestly, the reason I never tried Marillier is for a really petty reason - I think she blurbed a book I hated (Child of a Rainless Year by Jane Lindskold - a book literally about the magic of paint drying and buildings that apparently fight each other) and assuming they might be authors of a similar style I avoided her. Which is a silly reason - my favourite YA authors Madeline L'Engle and Lloyd Alexander both blurbed T.A. Barron's Tree of Avalon series and those books were ridonkulous.

Next up is It's In His Kiss by Julia Quinn.

Thanks to my RITA Reading Challenge, I've been trying a lot of new authors, so now it's time to go back to one of my old faves - Julia Quinn. When her books are good - they're awesome. When they're bad - wow, they're annoying, but still, never so awful that I want to set them on fire.

This book in the Bridgerton series concerns Hyacinth - the youngest and quite possibly the most irritating of the siblings. Here's hoping her intended will be able to kiss the silliness right out of her.

The Fire King, by Marjorie Liu

I plan on chasing away the taste of historical with a RITA-nominated paranormal - Marjorie Liu's The Fire King. I'm still a Dirk & Steele newbie but The Wild Road blew me away, with one of my favourite heroes ever.

Hopefully this one will be just as good!

Lastly, Tempted All Night, by Liz Carlyle.

She's got a bit of a checkered history with me. I enjoyed Never Deceive a Duke, but disliked Three Little Secrets.

However, the hype for her new series (starting with Tempted) has been getting quite a bit of good press so I'm looking forward to giving this one a try.

EDIT: Okay, because I found out just how long the bus rides are predicted to be, I chickened out and packed another book - Laura Lee Gurhke's The Marriage Bed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The April Round-Up!

Yes, this is a little early for me to have my end-of-the-month round-up, but since I'm going touring with my choir on Friday and won't be back until May 10th, this will have to do for now. As it turns out, April was a bit of a slow month for me. I had a bit of a slump and didn't read as much as I usually do - I also had a whopper of a non-romance book to gnaw through that took some time to finish.

For Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Popular Queen Bee
  • 1 Blue-Haired Teen Rebel
  • 1 Darkhorse Heir to the Throne
  • 1 Pornographic Artist
  • 1 Ghost Whisperer
  • 1 Ghost Inpersonator
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Hot Prof
  • 1 Hot Cop
  • 1 Hot Ghost
  • 1 Sorta Spy
  • 1 Sorta Pirate
  • 1 Dirty Evil Sexy God
For Obstacles, we got:
  • "I totally love her - but she wants to put herself in danger! No! I must protect her!"
  • "I just can't win - everyone's trying to kill me! Even the sort-of good guys!"
  • "I can't love her - she's a liar and I'm a pirate. Sort of."
  • "I can't love him - he wants to stay in town and I'm on fire to leave!"
  • "I can't love him - he's a jerkface who's most likely already dead!"
  • "I can't love him - he's a nobody! And wears glasses!"
In Miscellaneous, we got:
  • 1 Secret Underwear Money Stash
  • 1 Accidental 69 In a Sarcophagus
  • Several Instances of Ghost Sex
  • Several Muuuuuuuurders
  • 1 Prophesy
  • Several Enslaved Gods and Goddesses
  • 1 Red Cravat
  • 1 Sexy Troubled Brother
  • 1 Saintly Martyr Sister

*April Pick* Going Too Far, by Jennifer Echols. A+
Winner of the Baggage-Handler Hero Award
Well-realized setting. High emotional tension. Highly empathetic, vivid characters. Hot cop hero. Great plot.
Cons: Ending seemed a little short, but otherwise this book is flawless.

*April Pick* Revealed, by Kate Noble. A+
Winner of the "Better Make Mine Beta" Hero Award
Pros: Fab
ulous heroine. Dreamy sorta-spy hero. Great description. Excellent characterization and banter. Good period detail.
Cons: Wow, this is hard. Um - there's a Big Mis, but it's teeny-tiny. Heroine can also occasionally be a witch with a B, but is awesome even then.

*April Pick* The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin A+
Winner of the Spike Award in Sexy Villainy
Pros: Great worldbuilding. Awesome awesome AWESOME evil(ish) death/darkness/sex god. Strong heroine.
Cons: Actual settings aren't totally described, a little bland.

Surrender of a Siren, by Tessa Dare. B+
Winner of the Victoria Dahl Award in Sexually-Aware Historical Heroines
Pros: Original characters. Unconventional setting. Good character motivation.
Big misunderstandings that last for way too long. Heroine a wee bit on the selfish side.

The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, by Leanna Renee Hieber. C+
Winner of the Pythagoras Love Triangle Award
Pros: Great secondary characters with angst and tangled romantic ambition. Good use of mythology. Heroine gains a backbone.
Cons: Heroine with backbone still has marshmellow centre. Hero is one-note. Writing tends towards overdescription. Ghost characters really annoying.

*April Dud* For The Earl's Pleasure, by Anne Mallory. C
Winner of the Heathcliff Lifetime Achievement Award in Asshat Heroism
Pros: Interesting paranormal element. Entertaining plot about alphhole hero forced into passivity.
Cons: Lame-ass ending. Doormat heroine. Dickwad hero. Plethora of useless characters and details.

The Other Novel I Read This Month:

The Duchess, by Amanda Foreman. A

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Revealed," by Kate Noble

The Chick: Phillipa Benning. The social Queen of London, when she overhears a conversation that reveals socially-invisible Marcus Worth is the famous English spy the Blue Raven, she sees a perfect opportunity to cement her status - by revealing his true identity at her annual fete.
The Rub: Phillipa discovers that Marcus is perfectly dashing all by himself - good thing he's the Blue Raven, otherwise he'd be a socially average nobody. Right? Right??
Dream Casting: Rosamund Pike.

The Dude: Marcus Worth. Socially, he's just a third son. Secretly, however, he's contributed to some of England's most important military victories. Unfortunately, secrets can't get him a date to the ton's biggest events, which he desperately needs in order to thwart an evil French spy.
The Rub: Phillipa Benning ends up being an invaluable resource, and an invaluable companion. However, the deeper they get, the more he risks her reputation - and her life.
Dream Casting: Who else to play a beta male spy? Zachary Levi.

The Plot:

Marcus: Oh no! A French spy is planning nefarious deeds at hoppin' shindigs!

Phillipa: Oh no! Some skank is trying to steal my Most Popular crown!

Lord Fieldstone, Leader of the War Department: Something something preposterous yadda yadda no clear evidence, et cetera et cetera famous spy Blue Raven!

Marcus: You did not just hear that.

Phillipa: Oh, I totally did. Listen, I'll get you into all the hot parties if you promise to unmask yourself as the Blue Raven at mine, making it the hottest party of them all. Deal?

Marcus: Um ... sure.

Shenanigans: *are had*

Trouble: *is made*

Byrne, Marcus' Hot Troubled Brother: By the way, I'm the Blue Raven.

Phillipa: WTF.

Byrne: Okay, technically only 30% of the Blue Raven. The sexy 30%.

Phillipa: Oh, okay then.

Evil French Villain: Yoink! *kidnaps Phillipa*


Marcus and Byrne: *Hot Brother Double Team!*

Evil French Villain: *defeated*
Phillipa: Know what would make my party totally awesome?

Marcus: A secret wedding?

Phillipa: TOTALLY.

Marcus: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Popular Queen Bee

1 Bespectacled Beta Male

1 Evil French Spy

1 Evil English Spy

Several Happenin' Parties

1 Bitchy Rival

1 Bitchy BFF

1 Boozy Chaperon

Several Lost Hairpins

Several Happenin' Hootenannies

The Word: Some of my regular readers know that I tend to really have One Rule when it comes to book buying: Thou Shalt Not Purchase More Than One Book By An Author Thou Are Not Familiar With. Despite the beautiful covers and the critical praise and the interesting blurbs, I never really know what a book is going to be like until I buckle down and just read it. And once I do, if I don't like it, it's a huge bummer to find two more of the same author's books on my shelf. I mean, once I read Anne Mallory's For the Earl's Pleasure, I didn't waste any time jettisoning The Bride Price off my TBR.

In this case, however, I have cause to be very, very thankful that I broke this particular rule for Kate Noble. Thanks to the Booksmugglers' praise, when I met Noble at the RWA 2009 Literacy Book Signing, I decided to buy both her available books (Compromised and Revealed) instead of just her first one. Unfortunately, her debut novel, Compromised, didn't wow me. It was by no means terrible, but it just came with so much hype that it didn't live up to. I'll admit I thought I had another Nalini Singh on my hands - i.e. an author everyone else in the romance world seems to like that I don't. It wasn't bad enough to make me kick Revealed off my TBR, but I can tell you right now that if Revealed hadn't already been on my TBR, I might never have gotten around to reading it.

And that, dear readers, would have been a colossal mistake.

At its heart, Revealed follows that time-honoured '80s highschool movie plotline - the Popular Girl and the Nerd. Phillipa Benning is the toast of the ton, possessing the Three Ws: Well-bred, Witty, Wealthy - and, as a lovely bonus, Widowed. She can make or break a debutante's reputation with a well-placed word, start a fashion trend by accidentally tearing her sleeve, and turn a boring dinner party into a climactic event with her mere presence. Moreover, she's fully aware of her awesomeness and loves every minute of it.

However, when her uppity nemesis Lady Jane starts honing in on her turf (in this case, the handsome Marquess of Broughton), Phillipa realizes she'll need a special edge if she wants to maintain her seat on London's social throne.

Meanwhile, Marcus Worth is - a nobody. A paltry third son and clerk for the War Department, he doesn't even merit a blip on the social Richter scale. He's not ugly, but he's not particularly handsome. He's certainly not a rake. He even wears reading glasses. What society doesn't know, however, is that Marcus was secretly involved in some of England's most significant victories against the French, attributed to the Blue Raven, a legendary spy. Marcus has a hunch that a French assassin the Blue Raven supposedly killed is still alive and planning to wreak havoc at some of the ton's swankiest parties, but no one will believe him. Even worse, he doesn't have half the amount of cachet required to be invited to the ton's events.

It's Marcus' own (mis)fortune when Phillipa accidentally overhears a conversation between Marcus and the head of the War Department that identifies Marcus as the Blue Raven. Phillipa comes up with a brilliant scheme - she'll use her Queen Bee status to land Marcus on the Invite list to all the events on the French Spy's hit list, and in return, he'll reveal himself as the Blue Raven at Phillipa's annual Benning Ball, granting her social immortality.

Things don't go as planned, however. Marcus discovers that Phillipa's fashionable coiffure hides a cunning brain and a photographic memory and as events escalate they become more involved in catching the French spy and averting disaster. Phillipa, meanwhile, comes to appreciate the extraordinary kindness, humour, and wit to be found in a man she normally would never have looked twice at.

Kate Noble takes two very unconventional characters (at least, unconventional in romance) and turns them into very three-dimensional, fully-realized and sympathetic people. Wealthy, popular party girls like Phillipa are usually given short shrift in historicals - too often they're the spoiled, bitchy villainesses who are ultimately snubbed by the hero in favour of the plain-jane poor relation.

Phillipa surprises by being a) an unrepentantly social person who b) actually enjoys her lifestyle, and all c) without being completely evil. She's unabashedly interested in and entertained by balls, clothing, and shopping, but she's also independent and supremely confident in who she is. While she develops, her character also remains consistent. She doesn't suddenly experience the blinding revelation that - gasp! - London Society is Empty and Hollow, and only Moving to the Country and Having Eight Babies Named Alphabetically Will Complete Her as a Person.

That being said, she does have her issues - there's a very good reason behind why she doesn't talk about her brief marriage, and Kate Noble explores the solitude of life at the pinnacle of popularity. Phillipa answers to no one - but she also has no one to turn to.

As for Marcus, he's a delightfully unorthodox hero, firmly in the Beta mold. He's intelligent, moral, self-sacrificing, humorous - but gentle and verbal instead of aggressive and forceful. Phillipa is used to flatterers and cynics, but not to Marcus' straightforward, honest vibe. He's got the smarts and the skills, but not the presentation: he can't help but be overlooked and dismissed, even by his direct superiors. It's a refreshing deviation from the romantic norm of the hero who sucks all the air from a room whenever he enters. Marcus' shortcomings in public are where the flamboyant and culturally savvy Phillipa comes in. And they truly make a fantastic team.

While before, in Compromised, I was bored by Kate Noble's setting descriptions (they came off as too derivative of Julia Quinn), she steps up her game in Revealed. The balls and houseparties, as well as the guests, that come under threat are sumptuously described, and Noble lets her protagonists describe the people and society around them. Often in historicals, because the hero and/or heroine are outcasts or jaded, their descriptions of the Regency are similarly cynical and negative. While Revealed's protagonists are practical in their own way, they have a more appreciative outlook on the world they live in, and this is reflected in the writing. Also, there is a definite lack of telling over showing (one of Noble's main problems in Compromised).

But really, my adoration of this book comes down to the protagonists, Phillipa and Marcus, and the wonderful pairing they make that is so unlike the usual historical romantic pairing. In fact, it's more of a gender reversal: in most historical romances, the hero is the popular, wealthy aristocrat with the title while the heroine is typically the unimportant social outsider with an acerbic point of view. Oh, but Phillipa and Marcus work it, and work it hard. Revealed is a 100% improvement over Compromised, and while this threatens to become a persistent refrain, I have to thank the Booksmugglers for allowing me to discover one of the best historicals I've read in ages.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"For the Earl's Pleasure," by Anne Mallory

The Chick: Abigail Travers, a.k.a. "Abigail Smart," a.k.a. "Ghostface Kissah." A nice if low-gentry girl just trying to get a husband without revealing she can see ghosts, she wishes her ex-childhood BFF Rainewood would leave her alone.
The Rub: Unfortunately, that becomes impossible when Rainewood shows up in ghost form, demanding she - the only person who can see or hear him - help him find his body.
Dream Casting: Amanda Seyfried.

The Dude: Valerian, Earl of Rainewood. Determined to be the perfect heir, he refuses to associate with those of low stock - but he can't seem to shake his attraction to Abigail Smart.
The Rub: When he's attacked and wakes up as a spirit, he refuses to believe he's really dead, and unfortunately the only person who can see him is Abigail.
Dream Casting: Sebastian Stan.

The Plot:

Abigail: I hate you! You're a prick who treats your inferiors with disrespect!

Valerian: I hate you more! You're a loon who thinks she can see ghosts!

Shady Dudes: *bonk*

Valerian: Where am I? How come only you can see me?

Abigail: Um, because you're dead and a ghost.


Abigail: Hate to say I told you so.

Valerian: *poke* Won't you help me? *poke, poke*

Abigail: No.

Valerian: *poke poke poke poke POKE POKE POKE*

Abigail: FINE, I'll help you.

Dr. Rapist: I see you're seeing ghosts again. Take two sexual assaults and call me in the morning!

Valerian: Wow, life is hard for you. I've been an ass.

Abigail: That's right, you have.

Valerian: Let's have ghost sex.

Abigail: Okely Dokely.

Ghost Sex: *is had*

Evil Villain: Ha haaaa! Now you are in my evil clutches!

Random Asylum Patient: *stabs Evil Villain*

Evil Villain: How inconveniently coincidental that a random person with no other part in the story should stab me right when the protagonists are the most in danger! Curses! *dies*

Valerian: *rehumanized* Now lets have REAL sex!

Abigail: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Arrogant Aristocrat

2 Cases of the Crazies

1 Comprehensive List of Crazies

Several Bouts of Ghost Sex

1 Horny Fake-Gypsy Maid

1 Inconveniently Public Orgasm

1 Negligent Con Artist Parent

1 Doctor Rapist

1 Mad Scientist

The Word: I've written reviews of bad books before. Sometimes the pacing is off. Sometimes the characters don't make sense. Sometimes the plot is incomprehensible or based solely on the most flimsy of coincidences. But I don't think I've come across a book that is just, at its most basic level, badly written, until coming across Anne Mallory's For the Earl's Pleasure.

But more on that later - let's start with the plot. Abigail Smart has a secret. Okay, actually a number of secrets but the Big Burninating Secret is that she has the power to see, hear, and speak to ghosts. When she was thirteen, she made the mistake of telling her aristocratic BFF Valerian, who refused to believe her or continue their friendship. Both protagonists spend the next decade trying to one-up each other in the Asshole Olympics. By the time the story starts, Valerian is convinced that Abigail is Le Crazeh and Abigail believes Valerian is an arrogant, titled bully who believes that with Great Power comes Great Douchebaggery. Abigail's unimaginative nickname for Valerian is "donkey," which she says so frequently I started to hear Chef Gordon Ramsey's voice in my head ("You DOHN-KAY").

Valerian is forced to rethink his whole "Abigail is a Nutjob" outlook when he's attacked in a dark alley and wakes up capable of phasing through walls - and incapable of communicating with anyone but Abigail. While Abigail is surprised and admittedly saddened when she sees Valerian's spirit (assuming, understandably, that if he's a ghost then he must be dead), she doesn't see how she can help him - besides, she has troubles of her own just trying to find a socially-acceptable husband despite her family's tenuous prospects.

Unfortunately, Valerian subscribes to the "Me, Me, Me - Now, Now, Now" Style of Prioritizing and proceeds to force Abigail to help him by being as hair-pullingly annoying and inappropriate as possible. This includes talking over her conversations with other men, insulting her, and (once he discovers he can touch her) constantly poking and stroking her like a five-year-old. And for most of the book he still doesn't have the stones to admit he was wrong about Abigail's power - nope, he assumes he must be in a dream and that ruining Abigail's life even more might make him wake up.

As you can tell, I'm not a fan of Valerian. For much of the book he comes across as blatantly nasty. Not only does he perform all the asshat behaviour mentioned above, we also learn later on that he's been secretly scaring off all of Abigail's hard won suitors, too, just for the thrill of it. The author attempts to sweep his childish antics under the convenient literary rug of He Was Just In Love With Her The Whole Time. This is a cliche that I absolutely despise, where the hero exhibits selfish, hurtful, and offensive behaviour towards the heroine but because he's secretly in love with her this somehow pardons acting like a moronic little shit.

However, the plotting of this book made his character bearable - how? Hilariously, because as a ghost Valerian is confined to an almost completely passive role. He's an AlphHole hero deprived of agency. He's used to being in control and in power, but thanks to fate he has to cajole (or beg, or coerce) the one woman he hurt the most to help him find where his comatose body is hidden. To the author's credit, while Valerian is an ass for most of the book, he is eventually forced by circumstances to rethink his past behaviour and I appreciated how the paranormal element helped develop that.

As for Abigail - well, I didn't like her much either. She's dim, easily manipulated and easily distracted, but other than that, I draw a blank, which speaks volumes about the vibrancy of her character.

As well, the plotting of the book just tries to stuff too much in. Too much of everything - too many subplots (we have Valerian's ghost, but we also have a secret list of people with Crazy Apples in their families trees, illegal mental asylums, balloon and bicycle races), too many secondary characters that muddy the waters without contributing to the plot, too many secrets (Abigail's family secret, in particular, made no sense and was particularly poorly explained) - it was all too much, and did little except complicate a ghost-story paranormal romance that would have been fine on its own.

Now, the characters of this novel, and the pacing, and the plot, all have their own flaws which I've detailed, but what struck me most about this novel was the absolutely abysmal writing - simply speaking, the words that the author strings together don't do their job. In what seems like an attempt to create imaginative metaphors, she neglects the consistency of imagery and they tangle, creating an incomprehensible mess. To quote:

"She ... pulled her dress from the gaping maws of the evergreen bushes" (p.131). Bushes don't have maws. Nothing about a bush's appearance even suggests a maw, the way a cave or a pit or something with an actual opening might. In an attempt to over-romanticize her language, it ends up not making sense.

"Her lips felt like the softest blanket" (p.201). Wow, nothing gets me hotter than thinking of warm crocheted afghans on a woman's face. There's nothing uncommon with comparing lips to certain kinds of smooth, soft fabrics - but comparing them to woolly, scratchy objects doesn't really rev up the old engine unless you have a Snuggie fetish.

"All of her fears reared" (p.359) - just plain awful word choice. Why not "her fears reared up"? We get odd rhyming and bizarre imagery.

"One that demanded he splay himself forward, give her his heart" (p.295) - again, bizarre word choice. Think of the image it creates - splay himself forward? It makes it sound like he'll throw himself onto his stomach. This doesn't sound like the image the author may have intended, although I could be wrong. At its heart, if it doesn't produce the image or meaning it should, the writing fails.

Or how about the fact that everyone's eyes in this book either "darken" or "tighten" - tightening eyes? Eyes don't tighten. They can blink, widen, narrow, roll - but not tighten. The imagery and wording is all wrong. That, ultimately, is what crippled this book for me. On nearly every page, thanks to unconventional word choice, the imagery in this novel always seems a little off or doesn't achieve what it's trying to. I might have been able to tolerate an asshat hero and a doormat heroine and a bizarre paranormal subplot if the writing had been better. It boggles the mind that this was nominated for a RITA this year in Paranormal Romance.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

History vs. Romance - "The Duchess"

So, I finally finished reading The Duchess, Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, the book upon which the Keira Knightley film The Duchess is based. Now, I loved the movie. Lots of drama, splendid costumes, Dominic Cooper. The book? WOW. The book was absorbing - Foreman condenses a lifetime of correspondence and research to present just how truly complex and unique a person Georgiana really was. Is the movie true to the book? No effin' way.

But what I ultimately decided to write this post about was not just how the film was different from the book - lots of cinematic adaptations of novels tread far from the written paths, with results either disastrous (Ella Enchanted) or damn entertaining despite their inaccuracy (Little Mermaid, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame). This post is going to be on how the movie deviated from the book in order to support a modern romantic narrative, which will in turn elucidate how romance narratives operate in today's cultural climate. Warning: Long-Ass Post Ahead.

Might as well start out with the most important character, shall we? Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is the heart and soul of both the film and (duh) the biography. Understandably, a great deal of her life is cut out of the film.

Physically, there is quite a bit of difference between Knightley and Georgiana. G's weight fluctuated rapidly based on her wild living and poor eating habits, true, but she was built like a Tudor (tall, big-boned, and red-haired) - she would have towered over the slender Keira Knightley if they'd ever met in person.

However, because the film chooses to focus on the romantic aspect of her life, so many of Georgiana's real-life accomplishments and disasters are left out of the film. The largest section of her biography is actually dedicated to G's passionate devotion and significant contribution to British politics. Some of her political work is hinted at in the film, such as the scene where G takes up the slack of a political dinner after the Duke leaves, or where she wears blue and buff (the colours of the Whig party) and watches Charles Grey make a speech. Her other accomplishments - she was a talented author, chemist, and mineral scientist! - are completely left out.

Another large and significant contributor to her persona was her gambling addiction. She lived wild and crazy in her youth, but gambling was her worst and most persistent vice and her incredible debts tormented her throughout her life, debts that by today's standards would have been in the millions of dollars. She insisted on concealing or lying about her debts for much of her life, and continually borrowed money from exasperated friends and only very rarely paid them back. Her gambling and reckless living are never mentioned once in the film.

Character-wise, the film's Georgiana is mainly a reactive and romantic character. Society manipulates and places her into different situations that she either accepts or rejects. She rarely takes action on her own initiative. Almost every situation concerns her romantic or married life - her marriage to the Duke, her friendship with Bess, her affair with Charles Grey, so we get a sense of the romantic and sexual side of her persona. Her character arc is how she initially sets out to play by society's rules, only to reject them, eventually learning to compromise between her desires and social mores by the end of the film.

It's somewhat similar to G's progress according to Amanda Foreman's depiction, but this is where the romantic element comes in - in the film, G's rejection of social mores springs from the very 21st century take she has on romance and marriage that the biographical G didn't seem to share. The film dwells quite a bit on Georgiana's tedious marriage to the Duke, but also on G's outrage about her husband's affair with her BFF Bess. In the biography, she's not so naive. Nor is she as nonplussed by the Duke's bastard daughter Charlotte as she is in the film - clearly, while G might have desired romantic love in her marriage, she wasn't oblivious to the existence or popularity of mistresses and extramarital affairs.

However, to promote the romantic nature of the film, Georgiana's character is developed as one who doesn't believe in adultery - to the point where others' adultery comes as a nasty shock, and where her own adultery only really takes place after she's severely provoked by her husband, the Duke. Historically, this wasn't the case. While Grey is depicted as the love of her life in both versions, G had other lovers before and after Grey - most notably, the Duke of Dorset, a devastatingly handsome playboy who was the English ambassador in Paris.

Much like the film itself, the character of Georgiana is depicted in a much narrower fashion than the historical Georgiana. In order to serve the romantic direction of the narrative she is also endowed with modern social norms, presumably so that the audience can relate to her story more. It works in this case - don't get me wrong, as a romantic film The Duchess is sumptuous and entertaining. It's simply interesting to note the modern adaptations of her character in order to fit the romance narrative.

But the changes to G's character to support the romance are nothing to what the film changes about Lady Elizabeth Foster, also known as Bess, the woman who befriends Georgiana only to steal her husband. She has a pretty unsavoury role from the get-go, so many of the changes the film makes to her character are attempts to justify her actions, in order to make her a more relatable character within the narrower narrative frame of the film. Are they accurate? Oh hell no.

Movie Justification #1: Bess' husband beats her with a stick.
Did this happen in real life? No. According to Foreman, Bess' husband Lord Foster was a royal douchebag, but he never employed physical violence. What he does do, however, is take her children away, desert her, and leave her without a penny. What the film fails to mention is that Foster's behaviour, while asshat-y in the extreme, was provoked by Bess' infidelity.

Movie Justification #2: Bess hooks up with the Duke to get her kids back.
Did this happen? Nope. Bess' two sons with Foster, Augustus and Frederick, remained in Ireland with their father for the majority of their childhood and adolescence. They eventually started coming back for visits and ended up on close terms with G's children and their various legitimate and illegitimate half-siblings, but they never came to live with Bess and the Duke as little children as depicted in the film and Foreman provides no evidence that Bess' affair with the Duke was motivated by a desire to see her sons.

Movie Justification #3: Bess and the Duke are a true love match.
While Bess and the Duke no doubt shared affection for each other, as depicted in Foreman's biography, Bess wasn't wholly dedicated to the Duke. According to Foreman, after Bess started her affair with the Duke (but before G knew about it), Bess was sent to the Continent to tutor Charlotte (the Duke's illegitimate daughter), where she spent more time having various lusty affairs than educating poor Charlotte. She's a bad babysitter, got her boyfriend in the shower. Whoo! She's making 100 pounds an hour! Furthermore, after the truth comes out, Bess and the Duke grow apart and she conducts an affair with the Duke of Richmond, hoping to eventually marry him. Only after Richmond dumps her and G dies do she and the Duke get back together, and their marriage scandalizes the ton and lasts only a few years.

As you can tell, the film sanitizes Bess' character pretty hardcore. Amanda Foreman portrays Bess as way more ambiguous. Her version of Bess is a calculating, affected, insincere woman who is ultimately only out for Number One: herself. While she does care about Georgiana, the Duke, and her children's futures, her affection lasts as long as her financial security does. While Georgiana and the Duke provide that for a while, her behaviour depicts a woman who's always wary of where her next meal ticket will come from.

In order to preserve the film's romantic narrative, Bess is transformed into a romantic, self-sacrificing woman wronged by fate (rather than the consequences of her own actions) who lives to devote herself to Georgiana and her children and is ultimately the love match of the Duke - thereby, thematically, justifying Georgiana's affair with Charles Grey, in the "As long as the Duke's found his true love, Georgiana's allowed a little sumthin' sumthin' on the side" vein.

Charles Grey is slightly more accurately portrayed in the film. Both the film and Foreman's biography assert that Charles Grey was the love of Georgiana's life, but the film fools around pretty roughly with history in the depiction of their relationship.

The introductory scene of the film shows a young Georgiana and Charles share a prior acquaintance before she is ultimately married off to the Duke of Devonshire, and his introduction to politics and her social circle is a sort of romantic reunion.

According to her biography, however, Georgiana was a total cougar - she meets Charles Grey for the first time when she is thirty and Grey is twenty-three. Again, this change seems to be an attempt of the film to justify Georgiana and Charles' relationship according to 21st century morals. Instead of Georgiana discovering she's in love and engaging in the affair after she is married to another, her love for Charles ignites safely before wedlock and is merely interrupted by marriage.

Lastly, let's deal with the character who, surprisingly given everyone else, remains pretty true to form with the personage depicted in Amanda Foreman's biography: The Duke of Devonshire. Quiet, shy, and deeply reserved, the Duke wasn't the best husband for the lively and passionate Georgiana. Publicly known for being good-natured and fair, he wasn't a great wit or conversationalist, and could be quite peevish. I thought his relationship with Georgiana in the film was right on the money (except for a few key scenes), and Ralph Fiennes' depiction managed to make him come across as wooden as well as human. Very much a man of his time, he wasn' t a terrible or abusive husband (and could often be very tolerant and patient with G and her ruinous debts), but clearly not the man to hold Georgiana's heart.

And these are just the main characters - lots of others (Charles Fox, Sheridan, Lady Spencer) are given short shrift in the film, and even more don't appear at all (most egregiously, Georgiana's delightful sister Harriet).

Now, I could go on forever about all the deviations from the biography this film makes, but instead, to focus on my theme that the changes are motivated by a desire to make this film more romantic by 21st century standards, I'll specifically discuss a scene that was not in the biography, but was added to the film.

The scene I am talking about is the rape scene. Georgiana tells her husband she'll grant her blessing to his affair with Bess if she can fool around with Charles Grey. The Duke, enraged, follows her to her room and rapes her. A few scenes later, the narrative jumps ahead and we are suddenly introduced to the infant Marquess of Hartington, or "Hart" for short, the heir the Duke's always wanted. The arrangement of these scenes appears to imply that Hart was conceived from the rape.

I was quite shocked when I read the biography after watching the movie and discovered that no rape occurs between the Duke and G, or is referred to, suggested, implied or brought up in any manner by Amanda Foreman. WHY then, is it in the movie? I present two theories:

1) It's further moral justification of Georgiana and Charles' affair for the 21st century viewer

2) It a true-blue example of the Sparkly Hoo-Ha Romance Trope, or in this case, the Sparkly Wang. In romance novels, once the hero and heroine have the meet-cute, it is a serious genre no-no for either of them to have consensual or pleasurable sex with anyone else. Some romance novels, depending on context, can get away with it but most tend to avoid it with tropes like the Impotent Evil Husband. In the film, Charles and Georgiana are in love but the Duke won't tolerate an affair because he doesn't have a legitimate heir yet. Sadly, even in the 18th century the cabbage-patch didn't produce offspring. But - gasp! - how can we have Georgiana have sex with anyone other than Charles Grey when she is totally in lurve with him? It's not right! Our 21st century romance viewers won't relate! Therefore, a rape scene is added, where the sex with her husband is non-consensual, and conveniently enough a son is born from it.

There have been other discussions about the importance that morality plays in modern romance narratives, but comparing The Duchess to Amanda Foreman's biography highlights it so well. The film decides to fashion a romantic narrative from an historical narrative, but in order to do so it makes historical changes in the characters' moral depictions, decisions, and behaviour that better reflect 21st century morals. Bess is "permitted" to have an affair with the duke because a) her husband hits her, b) she wants her kids back, and c) she loves him. Georgiana is "permitted" to have an affair with Charles because a) her husband's cheating on her, b) her husband raped her, and c) she loves him. Neither Bess nor Georgiana are depicted having sex with anyone who isn't their husband or their One True Love. Both Bess and Georgiana look down on adultery as a whole, except in their own exhaustively-justified cases.

It's interesting to consider. What role do morals play in the romances you read? Why do you think they play this role? SHOULD they play this role, do you think?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Going Too Far," by Jennifer Echols

The Chick: Meg McPherson. Wild and blue-haired, the town troublemaker refuses to be tied down - and she's just counting down the days when she can escape for Spring Break.
The Rub: After pulling a stunt on a railway bridge gets her arrested, the only way to avoid charges is to spend a week with the cop who arrested her - so much for Spring Break.
Dream Casting: Kristin Stewart.

The Dude: John After. Despite his youth, he's dedicated himself to law enforcement. He can't understand why girls like Meg want to throw their lives away, especially once he gets to know her.
The Rub: However, a relationship between them is impossible - he's determined to stay in his small town, and Meg seems just as determined to leave.
Dream Casting: Channing Tatum.

The Plot:

Meg: WHOO! Rebellion! Booze! Pot! Making out on dangerous, dangerous bridges!

John: BOO! Order! Law! Keeping the hell away from dangerous, dangerous bridges!

Meg: *arrested*

John: You'll be tagging along with me instead of going on Spring Break, you no-goodnik!

Meg: Worst Spring Break ever! Wait a minute, how old are you?

John: ... nineteen. Did I mention I'm also built like a wrestler and have secret issues?

Meg: Best Spring Break ever! Wait a minute, I wanna leave town, you wanna stay, how can we be together?

John: *shrugs, handsomely*

Meg: How about I manipulate a situation until you emotionally crack like an egg?

John: That'll work! Let's blow this Popsicle stand!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Troubled Partygirl with a Dark Past

1 Hot Cop with a Dark Past

2 Sets of Matching Emotional Baggage

2 Goody-Goody BFFs

1 Dangerous Bridge

1 Secret Tramp Stamp

1 Inconvenient Phobia

2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

The Word: WOW. I mean WOW.

This book has been hyped to kingdom come, and, as much as I wanted to read it, I was almost afraid to because of all the high praise. Yeah, sure, every reviewer is original and has their own opinion but sometimes it's a little depressing when everyone loves a book and you don't - and this has happened to me several times (Nalini Singh and C.L. Wilson, to name a few examples). But hey, when both Katiebabs AND the Booksmugglers and a HOST of others name it one of their favourite books ever, I gotta at least try it - especially now that it's been nominated for a RITA for Young Adult Romance. Yup, this fits into my RITA Reading Challenge.

But man, am I glad this fit up to the hype - and rose way, waaaay beyond the hype. I was a little hesitant about reading YA. This is horrible and hypocritical of me because I loves me some children's and teen's lit - even if most of it is nostalgic stuff I read as a kid. Even more hypocritical since I've only not been a teenager for about five years. When I think YA, however, I think, "Yes, everything is Big and Burninating in a Teenager's Life, but is it Interesting To Read?" This of course led to lots of completely stereotypical and ignorant assumptions about plot lines having to do with Dating, The Popular Crowd, and Lip Gloss.

Bad, bad me. Great, awesome book.

The story is told from the POV of 17-year-old Meg McPherson, the resident Bad Girl of her dinky little hometown near Birmingham, Alabama. She dyes her hair crazy colours (currently it's blue), she sleeps around (currently with the town's drug-dealing golden boy Eric), and she pisses off her parents. As we soon find out, she's claustrophobic - only her fear of small spaces and entrapment encompasses her entire life. She refuses to make plans, become attached or form commitments because she finds them just as terrifying as physical confinement. She's chomping at the bit for when her high school graduation frees her to flee her stifling backwater existence. Since graduation is three months away, she'll settle for Spring Break, when she plans to go to Miami on a school trip.

However, her plans go up in smoke when she, Eric, and few other teens get drunk and hang out by the railroad bridge that's been off-limits ever since a tragedy occurred there a few years ago. They're caught and arrested by police officer John After, who sentences them to spend their spring break tagging along with the town firemen, paramedics, and police officers to see firsthand where their thoughtless actions will inevitably lead them. As fate would have it, if Meg wants to avoid criminal charges, she'll have to spend a week working the graveyard shift with After himself.

Meg is pissed about losing her spring break thanks to some tight-assed, middle-aged, control-freak cop. However, once she's sober and sees Officer After in the light of day, she's astonished to discover that John is barely older than she is. He's only nineteen, but his build, confidence, and intense devotion to order and law enforcement make him seem older than he is.

This doesn't make their initial nights together any easier. Both initially view the other with less-than-veiled contempt: John sees Meg as a chaotic element who needs to be saved, by any means necessary, before she comes to a bad end. Meg, meanwhile, can't wrap her head around why a guy who got the highest grades in school one year ahead of her would choose to forgo college and devote himself to this podunk town.

In essence, John and Meg act as polar opposites of the same spectrum - Meg chooses Chaos, seeing it as freedom. John worships Order, which he identifies with safety. However, as they spend more time together, each begins to discover how many similar shades of grey exist between them. Jennifer Echols' magnificent character development demonstrates this slowly, pulling away layer after layer.

Meg, we soon learn, isn't as callous and self-destructive as she appears at the outset - quite the opposite in fact. She's smart and self-reliant with a wry and sarcastic attitude. The story is told from her voice, and while it's initially coloured by her phobias and enforced detachment, I loved watching how her voice gradually changes as she does. And even though the story is told from her point of view, there's still an element of mystery surrounding her claustrophobia and string-free existence.

I've had trouble with romances from a sole person's POV before, and my main problem with them was the uneven development between the protagonist who has the POV and the one who doesn't. Not so, here. John After is Meg's match in nearly every way. Through Meg's observations, we soon discover that his ordered, lawful attitude is just as much a reaction to personal trauma as Meg's wild-child ways - and just as stifling and unhealthy. His facade of law-abiding, ironclad, untouchable macho adulthood is an artful construction, but through poking at his vulnerabilities Meg finds there's still a boy (a cute boy!) underneath.

Despite the fact that our hero is a Hot Cop (which brings an entirely new meaning to Meg's desire to "Fuck Da Police"), there's very little action. Going Too Far is a vivid character study between two walled-off characters who loosen and develop before our eyes in a lovingly-described (if not always well-loved) small-town setting. Their developing romance is a study of contrasts, barbs and rough edges combined with shared humour and warmth.

And oh, the setting. I adored how John and Meg's small town is described - it's not a picture-perfect hunky-dory time capsule of bygone innocence and charm. It's often seen as a stagnant, backwards place of underachievers where anyone who can make something of themselves does so somewhere else. Still, the richness of the characters and the close-knit community are expressed as well.

Seriously, this book is amazing. When Nicholas Sparks snorts lines of burned hundred-dollar bills after the movie based on his novel Pretty Young People Who Will Encounter Death But Not Before Having Sex In the Rain First makes a bajillion dollars its first weekend, this is what he thinks he is writing.

If there is any justice in the world, Jennifer Echols has this RITA in the bag.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Surrender of a Siren," by Tessa Dare

The Chick: Sophia Jane Hathaway, a.k.a. "Jane Turner." Desperate to evade an unwanted marriage forced upon her by her ambitious parents, she hitches a ride to Tortola under an assumed name.
The Rub: She grows to like the ship's owner, Gray, but if she tells him the truth about her identity, who's to say he won't treat her with the same kid gloves as everyone else in her life has?
Dream Casting: Carey Mulligan.

The Dude: Benedict Adolphus "Gray" "Dolly" Grayson. A former privateer for England, he's only now going straight as an honest sea merchant with his brother, Joss, as captain.
The Rub: He longs for lovely English governess Jane Turner, but he'll hardly be upholding his respectable reputation if he seduces and beds her the way he truly wants to.
Dream Casting: Damian Lewis.

The Plot:

Sophia: I need to flee my unwanted nuptials!

Gray: I need to go straight after a history of piracy!

Sophia, as "Jane": One trip to Tortola, please.

Gray: Sure. Wow, you're pretty. But too pure for a naughty, naughty sailor like me.

"Jane": But I wants a naughty, naughty sailor! Did I mention I like erotic body painting and was trained in sex by a Frenchman?

Gray: Hot damn.

Gray and "Jane": *SexyTimes*

"Jane": *devirginized*


"Jane": Ohnoez!

Gray: Okay, after I nearly got blown up saving a ship on fire, I think I'm ready to forgive you and get married. Truth, please?

"Jane": Maybe later?

AnimeJune: You're a moron.

Skeavy Judge: I'm charging Gray with piracy!

"Jane": Oh, all right, fine. *tells truth*

Skeavy Judge: You're free to go!

Gray and Sophia: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Pathologically Lying Amateur Pornographer Heroine

1 Former Privateer Hero

Several Genial Sailors

1 Brother from Another Mother

1 Ornery Smuggler

1 Accidental Deflowering

Several Lewd Illustrations

1 Shark

0 Kraken

The Word: Okay, for my first book in my RITA Reading Challenge, I chose Surrender of a Siren by Tessa Dare, currently nominated in the Regency Historical category. I'd already read her debut novel, Goddess of the Hunt, where she managed the impossible by writing about an infantalized hoyden heroine in severe need of Ritalin, who was somehow not hair-pullingly annoying.

This whole series seems to be about redeeming Heroines I Normally Want to Push Out of Hot Air Balloons, for Siren's heroine is a Spoiled Brat AND a Sensual Innocent and the last book, A Lady of Persuasion, shows every sign of having a Pious Martyr for a heroine.

Anyhoo, this heroine (Sophia) is fresh off of playing the "other woman" from Goddess of the Hunt. In the last book, Goddess' Lucy was desperate to lose her virginity to her childhood crush Sir Toby Aldridge. However, Toby was all set to pop the question to perfect society beauty Sophia Hathaway. Goddess' angsty paranoid hero Jeremy thankfully scooped up Lucy, but it turned out that Sophia didn't want Toby either and ran away by the end of the last book, claiming she'd eloped with her handsome (but sadly fictional) painting master Gervais. Don't feel too sad for Toby, however - he's the hero of book three.

Sophia, it seems, suffers from her own identity crisis. While the first half of Goddess portrayed her as a delicate, proper English miss, in reality she's a ragingly horny pathological liar with a sexual imagination that would do a Victoria Dahl heroine proud. For years, she's put on the proper miss front for her social climbing parents and comforted herself with harmless, entertaining lies and pornographic sketches. However, she's tired of playing someone too pure to be touched - one of her problems with Toby from Goddess was that he was too daunted by her exalted virginity to make a move.

After discovering that her significant dowry is actually a trust that would be released to her when she reaches her majority, she decides "To hell with it!" and decides to flee her unwanted society wedding. She stuffs six hundred pounds into her underwear, assumes the identity of staid governess "Jane Turner," and finds a boat to take her to Tortola, where she plans to live on her panty cash until she turns twenty-one and can cash in the trust.

She goes to Benedict "Gray" Grayson, who currently owns the Tortola-bound ship Aphrodite, which is captained by his illegitimate black half-brother Joss. Gray is edgy about letting an unaccompanied female travel on his ship of only dudes, especially since this is his first professional foray into honest shipping after a history spent privateering for the Crown. He's determined to sail the straight and narrow, but the presence of a luscious blonde miss tempts him mightily. But money is money, and Gray has never been known to turn down a profit.

There's really nowhere to go on a ship, which ratchets up the sexual tension between Gray and Sophia as they keep running into each other. The interesting thing about Surrender of a Siren is that both protagonists believe they're too mad, bad, and rad for Society. Both of them feel too dirty for respectability, and that all their attempts to be proper are just a sham.

Gray's garnered a reputation not only for privateering, but for his willingness to do nearly anything in order to turn a profit. He and his brother Joss share a complicated and prickly history in which Gray did some not-entirely-brotherly things when he seemingly chose money-making over sensitivity to his brother's concerns. He's set on being the good guy now but is simultaneously convinced he'll never escape his bad-boy origins. While his feelings towards Sophia only grow larger and more painful as the story goes on, he feels unworthy of her affection.

Sophia, while near-intolerable at certain moments, is, very much like Goddess' Lucy, a heroine who is thoroughly unlikable on paper but intriguing as all get-out to read about because of her humanity, her self-awareness, and ultimately her self-acceptance. If you want to harangue her about her ridiculously stupid decision to ruin her reputation and run off to Tortola by herself without telling any of her loved ones where she's gone instead of, you know, just breaking her engagement to Toby, get in line - behind Sophia. She's fully ashamed of the lies and cowardice that led her to Gray's ship, and her development in the novel concerns her growing determination to be honest with herself about the kind of person she is.

In this case, Sophia one-ups Gray - Gray is ashamed of his improper past and tries to repress his feelings, whereas Sophia chooses to honestly embrace her Inner Wanton and to hell with Society.

Hilariously enough, this requires more lying. Sophia refuses to play the Virginal Miss any longer - she accepts that she's a horny young woman and wants sex. NOW. She's not satisfied getting her rocks off drawing graphic illustrations of dairymaids gettin' ploughed, but Gray is still all "I must not deflower this perfect English Rose with my long-fingered, nimble but sweaty gardener hands." This leads Sophia to lay claim to more sexual experience than she actually has in order to convince Gray to knock boots with her. Now, I get this. I really do - and I usually don't. Sophia wasn't brave enough to share her sentiments with Toby and so her behaviour with Gray is an evolution from that.

And, hey, Gray is more surprised than cheesed off to find out she was actually a virgin. The cheesed-off part, and the part where Sophia, as a character, veers into one of her intolerable moments, comes when their boot-knockin' reveals the six hundred pounds stashed in her underwear.

Gray is understandably appalled - Sophia introduced herself as impoverished governess Jane Turner who was incapable of paying for her own passage, but the gold coins nestled beneath her boobies effectively compromise his entire understanding of her identity. It's even heartbreaking when he realizes he doesn't even know his love's real name.

Sophia, however, gets huffy and self-righteous. They just had great sex - who cares about names? While she has a partial point how names and status do not a person make, and that she's shown Gray a truer side of herself than she's shown anyone else - she's still really clueless about how all this looks from Gray's POV. Worse - she still refuses to tell him her true identity, even when he comes round to forgiving her, until almost the very end of the novel. The couple of times when Gray does ask after her identity she either a) acts insulted that he should choose to ruin a Perfectly Romantic Moment to ask after something as inconsequential as Her Real Name, or b) gives him her Pleading Gaze and says, "Later" - the better to preserve their Perfectly Romantic Moment. Everything else was pretty well explained except for Sophia's reluctance in this regard and I just didn't understand it. It seemed contrived.

Other than this, though, Surrender of a Siren was an entertaining read. We have an unconventional setting (90% of which takes place on a ship), great humour, a reformed rake hero - and, let's face it, a pretty unique heroine. I usually hate the Sensual Innocent heroines who throw themselves at dudes for what seems like no reason (despite knowing nothing about sex), but Tessa Dare builds it up with great character description and plotting so that it by the time Sophia and Gray do get it on, it melds with what we understand of their characters. Yes, the plot does drag in points and I felt some of the lust speak was a bit repetitive, but all in all, Surrender of a Siren is a worthy successor to Goddess of the Hunt.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker," by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Chick: Persephone "Percy" Rychman, nee Parker. Firmly set in her love for Alexi Rychman and officially welcomed as the seventh member of the Guard, Percy is almost prepared to meet her destiny.
The Rub: Meeting her destiny means disobeying and possibly jeopardizing Alexi's affection for her, but the alternative means the end of the world!
Dream Casting: Romola Garai, 1 Bottle of Bleach and a Pound of Flour

The (Sort of) Dude: Alexi Rychman. He's overjoyed to be reunited at last with his legendary love, Percy Parker and is determined to protect her from danger at all costs.
The Rub: However, dread tidings suggest she'll have to walk into danger to save the world - without him. Ohnoez!
Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.

The Plot:

Alexi: I'm so happy you're not dead! Let's get married!

Percy: *giggle* Okay!

100 Pages Later

The Plot: Crap! I'm late!

Beatrice "Bitchy Ghost" Tipton: Don't mind me, I'm just here to open mysterious doors to the Whisperworld and pop up at random moments to complain at you.

The Darkness: *sniffle* I miss my wifey!

Bitchy Ghost: Epic battle incoming, y'all!

The Six Members of the Guard: Ohnoez! What will we do?

Percy: Quick! Chuck the relationship angst you've been hoarding for decades!

The Guard: ...

Percy: Dudes, if I have to grow a pair, you have to grow a pair!

The Guard: Oh, all right. *Relationship issues: resolved!*

The Darkness and His Army of Ghosts: It's on, bitches! BTW, when's the baby shower, Percy?

Percy: I'm pregnant?

The Darkness: *pokes* Not anymore!

Percy: *Goddess-ified* OH NO YOU DI'N'T! *defeats Darkness*

Member of the Guard Who Shall Remain Nameless for Spoilery Purposes: *dies*

The Rest of the Guard: Crap. Oh well. We won! Partaaay!

Partaaay: *is had by all*

Percy: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Crazy-Pale Personification of Prophesy

1 Hot Prof

3 Cases of Unrequited Love

2 Cases of Eventually Requited Love

1 Resurrected Baddie

1 Bitchy Ghost

Several Magic Feathers

2 Ghost Possessions

The Word: Okay, when I read Leanna Renee Hieber's debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, I had some qualms against the novel but generally enjoyed it. The worldbuilding was intriguing and original, the secondary characters strong, and the action scenes were well done. The only problem I had was with Percy Parker herself - a character with the skin colouring and emotional constitution of a marshmellow peep. She was a passive, weak crybaby who swooned at the drop of a hat and while the other elements of the novel made it possible for me to enjoy Strangely Beautiful, I worried about the rest of the series.

Still, I preserved high hopes - mainly because Leanna Renee Hieber is awesome in person and on Twitter. Leanna Renee Hieber, as a friend, I should tell you now that this will not be the best review you receive for this book. Not the worst, either, but I fear I may be damning you with faint praise. There were a many good, even a few great, elements to this book but I fear my problems with it overcame those good elements and rendered it an altogether inferior book to your debut.

The first problem is the pacing. First, we get a nigh-incoherent prologue where ghost Beatrice Tipton, the former leader of the Guard (the holy Ghostbustin' outfit started by the goddess of prophesy), spies on our heroes during the climax of the previous novel. Then, Alexi and Percy finally get married. I'm not spoiling anything by saying that the novel's title is a misnomer - but I guess Persephone Rychman doesn't have the same alliterative appeal.

The plot is promptly shunted aside as Alexi and Percy rejoice in their marriage in what amounts to a one-hundred-page epilogue for Strangely Beautiful. Disappointingly vague, metaphorically-described backstories are revealed, in which direct and explicit comparisons between Percy and Jesus are made no fewer than three times - a development that gave me some disquiet but ultimately didn't affect my read. Thankfully vague, metaphorically-described sex is had. Percy giggles and gasps and entertains several Garth-esque "I'm not worthy" moments at her new luxury. Alexi provides good fanservice by alternating between declarations of love and facetious pervy comments. Yawn.

While Alexi and Percy are on their honeymoon, the far more interesting supporting members of the Guard get up to various shenanigans once they're no longer supervised by Broody McAlpha. Sometimes their mannerisms can wear a bit thin (shut up already, Elijah) but Rebecca, Michael, Elijah, Josephine and Jane are, I believe, the heart and soul behind my appreciation for Strangely Beautiful and Darkly Luminous. I love their roles within the group of the Guard, their secrets, their painful longings and crushes and angst. Rebecca (who was a bit of a beyotch in the previous novel) gets some nice development here, as do Elijah and Josephine.

Eventually the plot gets underway, but very slowly. The extremely unpleasant Beatrice Tipton starts creating mysterious doors all throughout Athens, the school the Guard teach at, and claims (in between her bitter diatribes and vague advice) that the Whisperworld and the real world need to be brought closer together in preparation for a coming battle of epic proportions. This goes against everything the Guard have been taught, which is to keep the Whisperworld (ruled by Darkness, the Hades to Percy's Persephone) far, far away from the land of the living. In particular, Beatrice hints that Percy may have to venture into the Whisperworld by herself in order to do some World-Savin', which violates Alexi's Overprotective Alpha Male Sensibilities something fierce.

With such an epic mythological background and a sound cast of secondary characters, it's a shame that the main characters are so relentlessly one-note and uninteresting

Is Percy Parker still a damp kleenex of fate? Yes. But, at least at the start of the novel, she's evolved from a trembling, weeping heroine to a trembling, giggling heroine. I suppose it's a change for the better, but in the end it still seems as if she's being infantalized. She acts and behaves much younger than she actually is, which enlarges the already-considerable age gap between her and Alexi to borderline-creepy proportions. True, Percy's no longer a student but the whole professor-pupil kink is still being seriously vibed here.

I admit, stories where the heroine's greatest attraction is her "innocence" (i.e. total ignorance and inability to protect herself) tend to spoil my particular brand of cheese, so maybe I'm just bound to dislike Percy from the start. Also - is she still ghostly white? Yes - and the narrative never fails to remind us at least twice per page. WE GET IT, she's freakin' pale. In fact, the overwhelming repetitiveness of this description proves to be its own detriment. As in the last book, the novel goes to such huge lengths to describe her colourlessness, her shiny white flesh, her moonbeam hair, her glow-worm complexion, in an attempt to force us to accept her appearance as strangely beautiful, that, at least to me, it only emphasized the freaky-deakiness of her looks, to the point where I had to repress a shudder every time we get a description of her glow-in-the-dark midriff.

That being said, she does develop. True, she still flinches every time Alexi says anything even remotely non-positive within earshot of her, but in this novel she does, intentionally and actively, participate in the plot. She does things. She even (gasp!) defies Alexi and tries to solve things on her own and it does emerge as an organic development of her character rather than a sudden goddess-ex-machina twist (which was essentially how she saved everyone at the end of Strangely Beautiful). She's still a little flimsy, but in this case my dislike is more from my personal taste and less because of Hieber's character development.

Alexi, on the other hand, doesn't budge an inch. Still glowering and sneering, he now throws in an occasional grin or impassioned tear for good measure but he spends the majority of the novel being irritable. He was broody and hot in the last book but he's a bit obsolete here, as the story seems to have moved on without him.

While I had these similar reservations when I read Strangely Beautiful, Darkly Luminous still doesn't match up to the first novel for other reasons. This time around, the novel's dialogue is odd and stilted, especially during the Guard's group-huddle-discussion scenes, where it sounds like everyone is reading lines from backcover blurbs and cue cards. And, as mentioned before, the pacing is very slow and drags in numerous places, only to result in a slog of an elaborately-worded climax. I lost interest about halfway through this book.

I'd like to end on a positive note: the secondary characters and the magical set-up and the epic vendetta are all really good. I liked the glimpses of the other Guards and the use of magic. Unfortunately the pacing, the characterization of the protagonists and the dialogue don't past muster.

Monday, April 05, 2010

"The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms," N.K. Jemisin

The Heroine: Lady Yeine. When the royal grandfather she's never met bids her to come to the royal city of Sky to compete to be his heir, she has no choice but to agree.
The Rub: She knows she has little to no chance of winning - she's far too ignorant of court intrigue and her devious cousins obviously want the title far more. But if she stays, she might be able to solve her mother's murder - plus, the magical, enslaved weapons of the king have plans of their own, plans that also include her.

The Supporting Cast:

Dekarta: Evil Granddaddy Supreme. Soft spot for death matches. May or may not have heart of tarnished, tarnished gold?

Scimina: The Bitch Rival for the throne. Likes to torture and have sex with gods. Screams a lot. Deserves to die in a fire.

Relad: The Lameass Boozy Rival for the throne. Kind of a wimp. Possibly attracted to his sister Scimina but unlike Jamie from George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire doesn't really have to stones to go through with it.

T'Vrill: The steward - related to Dekarta by way of the king's deceased pedophile son. Red-haired. Wee bit resentful of those in power but otherwise a Righteous Dude.

Nahadoth: Enslaved God of Chaos, Death, Nighttime, and Bad Boy Romantic Heroes. Crazy. Immortal. Cursed to live as a mortal man during the day, during which he is kind of a prick. During sex he'll smash the bed and possibly kill you but what a way to go.

Sieh: Enslaved God of um, Childishness. Huggable. Eternally a child star without the inevitable drug problems. You're such a cute little child god, yes you are.

Itempas: Asshole God of Order, Light - and circles, oddly enough. Thousands of years ago he screwed his celestial siblings over big time and now Rules the School.

Enefa: Goddess of Balance and Twilight. Dead - by Itempas' hand, but not entirely gone. She and Nahadoth were kind of an item back in the day.

Viriane: Creepy creepy court wizard. May have shagged Yeine's mum.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

1 World-Saving MacGuffin

1 Contest for the Throne

1 Soul Too Many

Several Peeved Gods

1 Impending War

1 Murder Mystery

1 Inconveniently Dead Parent

The Word: Hey look, I'm doing a fantasy review! I don't think I'm going to go more into fantasy, a la The Booksmugglers, but I've been getting more fantasy books into my library so I figured why not. As you can see, the format is similar but still different - spoilers are different things in fantasy novels where the ending is not as pre-determined as romance. In romance, the secret is more like what exactly constitutes the Hero's Dark Brooding Past, or why is that Demented Pastry Chef determined to steal the Heroine's Secret Love Child - but the Hero and Heroine still inevitably get together.

I won't be doing this too often - sometimes, I just need a break and so I usually read and review three romances and then read something else in a different genre without reviewing it. This book, however, was so very good that a mini-review at the end of the month won't really cut it. Also, while not a romance, it has really strong romantic elements. If I choose to review other fantasy novels I read in between romances, I will, but it will be totally arbitrary because it's my blog and I can do what I want, nyaa nyaa nyaa.

Anyhoo - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Props again to The Booksmugglers for suggesting it. Most of the fantasy I'm reading nowadays is thanks to their suggestions, and I'm very, very pleased in this case.

Yeine is the young ruler of the backwoods, matriarchal Northern nation of Darre. Her father was a native of Darre, and her mother was a princess of the Arameri - the race that unofficially rules their entire world - but abdicated her position to marry Yeine's father. However, she recently died under suspicious circumstances and Yeine's convinced someone murdered her.

Now, however, Yeine's maternal grandfather Dekarta, the head of the Arameri, and essentially the King of the World, has commanded she travel to the city-palace of Sky to take her place as his heir. The only trouble is, he already has two heirs - the children of his deceased brother, Scimina and Relad. It's clear Dekarta means for them to compete for the crown, but the Arameri-raised Scimina and Relad have a clear advantage so Yeine isn't certain why she was summoned in the first place.

Yeine is a practical sort, thankfully, and decides that when the Gods give her inevitable-power-struggle lemons, she oughta make murder-mystery-lemonade and use her proximity to the Arameri court to learn who killed her mother.

However, the Gods also have a use for her. Thousands of years ago, there used to be three gods - Itempas (God of Order/Day), Nahadoth (God of Chaos/Night) and Enefa (Goddess of Twilight/Dawn/Balance) - and their various children. However, war erupted between the Big Three, and Itempas emerged as the victor after killing Enefa and cursing Nahadoth and his children to live as slaves, Godly weapons confined to mortal shells. These immortal, embittered beings believe Yeine might just be the key to freeing them from enslavement.

What is there not to like about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms? Okay, maybe the sadistic Scimina, who can go sit on a knife, thank you very much. But holy crap, everything else!

The world-building, for one, is wonderful - Jemisin provides lots of colour and imagery while at the same time reserving the details for when they're needed. We don't get a lot of infodumps about, say, the plumbing system or the boots that are currently in style, for one thing. The worldbuilding revolves mainly around the theology and the epic saga of the gods gives the world an equal richness. Through Yeine's eyes, we see a pale, deadened world of strict rules and empty pleasures - the result of the tyranny of the God of Order now that the gods of Chaos and Balance have been removed from the picture.

What steals the show, and what sets this book up for me as a Keeper, are the characters. I've always been a character-reader, and if the story and worldbuilding are good but the characters are ciphers, I may enjoy the read but I won't gush-love-adore it. Here, though, there is plenty to like and love.

Yeine is a fantastic heroine - strong, decent, courageous, but hardly perfect. Her mother's people see her as little more than a savage, and Yeine herself has trouble coming to terms with the fact that her loving mother was once one of them, and as manipulative and calculating as any of them. She knows she's in for a losing battle the moment she enters Sky, and she makes a lot of mistakes and occasionally succumbs to her temper, her fears, her longings, but it's the fact that she keeps moving forward that makes her the novel's hero.

Jemisin's excellent characterization extends beyond her human characters - she eloquently portrays the suffering and madness of Nahadoth, Sieh, and the other enslaved gods to whom Yeine finds herself allied. Nahadoth, especially - he's the god of Chaos, of seduction, of darkness. He's probably the most realistic depiction of an immortal I've ever come across in fiction. He has been alive for eons and he's not a sparkling pure marshmellow god. He's death and violence and evil as well as creativity, grief, and hotness. He's a very complicated character who's fractured by circumstance and nature - he's allowed to resume some semblance of his Godliness during night time, but he's still a slave to Itempas, and during the day he's forced into the form of a helpless human. Yet he's still a cohesive character - and his unorthodox, developing relationship with Yeine is one of the highlights of the novel. Yup! This novel has romantic elements in it! Yay! I won't say more, because reading it happen is one of the novel's joys.

As well, N.K. Jemisin's writing is just plain purdy. With fantasy, writers often have to wrestle between metaphorical scenery (such as what happens during magic spells, dreams, visions, etc.) and physical scenery and sometimes the narrative can be confused (S.M. Peters, author of Ghost Ocean and Whitechapel Gods has trouble with this), but Jemisin keeps the fantasy and action scenes of the novel very grounded so that the chain of events is never distorted or lost - but still uses very beautiful writing. Her pacing is good, her development is good, her intrigue is good - and more importantly, her narrative is good. The novel ends on a soundly concluding note that allows the novel to work as a stand alone but still leaves a lot open for future books (The Broken Kingdoms is out in the fall!).

If you're into a paranormal romance, or you're just a romance fan who wants to trip on over into epic fantasy to give it a try, I wholeheartedly suggest The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Do it for the Nahadoth, Sexy God of Sexy Darkness!