A Thief in the Night, KJ Charles
I always enjoy KJ Charles’ less murdery books, and this novella’s a nice one. There’s not much of a supporting cast, just Miles and Toby, getting to know each other, getting past their hangups, and figuring out how to take a chance on each other. Toby’s a sweetie, and Miles is… somewhat incidentally grumpy — which is to say, not permanently grumpy by constitution, but in a terrible position and not sure how on earth to turn things around.
As always, I love Charles’ careful attention to issues of consent. It really doesn’t take much to show characters being aware of it and ensuring it, and it makes the situations so much more satisfying. You don’t end up thinking “ugh, but X was relying on Y for food to eat, so of course he couldn’t really say no” — because the characters realise that and work with it (or don’t, and later have to work with it, perhaps). It’s not some unspoken, unexamined grossness.
As a result, it’s easy to just enjoy Toby and Miles and how they find happiness together. I really liked Toby, and I really felt for the panic-stricken moments near the end… but of course, Miles comes to the rescue (I won’t spoil you as to how).
Rattling Bone, Jordan L. Hawk
I didn’t realise this was coming out, and leapt on it as soon as I did! It’s lovely to revisit Oscar and Nigel, and see them a little further into their relationship — in fact, with Oscar taking Nigel to meet his parents. It’s… predictably awkward, especially as soon as they discover Nigel’s job and what the two of them work on together. I like that the contention isn’t about Nigel being trans or about it being a queer relationship, and there’s no tension about the non-binary character either; instead this is pure family dynamics, secrets being kept, etc. I enjoyed that there were complexities there, that it wasn’t just both parents being a united front of anger for exactly the same reasons.
Of course, those secrets are relevant to the story, and Oscar finds himself having to use his newly acknowledged talents to help his family — whether they want him to or not.
I was a little worried that the jealousy/inferiority complex stuff so characteristic of Whyborne in the early Whyborne & Griffin books was going to come out here with the references to Oscar’s childhood friend, but luckily it didn’t really go that way too much. The ending is cute, too.
So much more I’d like to know about the background stuff and their sponsor…
The Lawrence Browne Affair, Cat Sebastian
The Lawrence Browne Affair features a side character from the first book: none other than Georgie Turner, conman and thief extraordinaire. I wasn’t a huge fan of his character from his portrayal in the first book, but I’ve thought that before with Sebastian’s books, and she made it work once we’re in close-third POV and can see Georgie’s thoughts and understand his damage.
Once again, she surprised me with the way the plot worked out. The easy and obvious conflict was not what happened, and the characters trusted each other and the bond they were forming, in a way that often doesn’t happen in romance novels (and presumably real life, but I don’t enjoy it there either). Okay, people didn’t quite manage to communicate properly and talk out their problems — but at least they avoided throwing away all the evidence they’d seen with their own eyes, and avoided just believing the worst of each other instantly. Even though it would, in fact, be all of a piece with their pasts. (I’m trying to be a little vague here.)
It’s sort of a Beauty and the Beast story, which amused me too, and I enjoyed the way Georgie came to realise that he actually liked a lot of his marks — it’s what made him a good conman, and also a part of why he was so unhappy as a conman.
Overall, a sweet book and one I enjoyed. I loved Lawrence finding himself.
The Language of Roses, Heather Rose Jones
Received to review via Netgalley
The Language of Roses is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast which also pulls in elements of other fairy stories (the girl from whom pearls drip from her mouth whenever she speaks, the fairy wife enduring three strikes and then leaving), featuring an aromantic lead character who is not going to follow the fairy tale and fall in love. It also features Grace and Eglantine, who are in love despite Eglantine’s courtship by Philippe, Grace’s brother.
And that’s perhaps already saying too much — it’s worth experiencing this storyline for yourself and seeing how Heather Rose Jones works it out and weaves together the fairy tales. It was very satisfying for me despite the novella length: I enjoyed it a lot. Alys is a lovely character, interested in helping those around her, in being kind, and also in being true to herself.
I could wish to see a little more of the aftermath — not just as a “and they all lived happily ever after”, but what Alys’ role is exactly in the life of the estate after everything is over and done.
Restless Spirits, Jordan L. Hawk
In Restless Spirits, there’s an appealing cast of main characters: Henry, an inventor, and his assistant and ward, Jo, and then Vincent, a medium, and his friend, Lizzie, also a psychic. They’re all assembled at the site of a haunting as a contest between the mediums and the inventors, to prove who can best dispel a haunting, with money at stake for the winners — which each group badly needs. Needless to say, Henry and Vincent are powerfully attracted to each other, though the humiliations of Henry’s past risk coming between them.
This is very much a first book, with the ending only a “happy for now” — there’s a lot that the characters have to work out. I’m looking forward to reading more, because I completely tore through this. I was worrying that it would feel a bit too much like Whyborne and Griffin’s adventures, but no: there are some similarities, but the characters’ hangups are very different, and the relationship doesn’t have (so far, at least) the desperate insecurity that is the initial cause of rifts between Whyborne and Griffin. Henry and Vincent are made of different stuff.
On a slightly spoilery note, I did see another review complaining about Henry, and I get it, but at the same time… as a boy, he was taken advantage of by someone his family trusted, including sexually. His life was taken apart by the guy, leaving him with deep-seated trust issues. Sure, he doesn’t behave the best (and he’s incredibly naive about what his revelation to the group will do to Lizzie), but it’s partly ignorance, partly because he has a good heart and fails to see the worst of others, and partly due to the betrayal he’s felt.
Dragon Physician, Joyce Chng
Dragon Physician had some pretty awesome stuff going on: a bunch of trans people choosing to stand up and break gender boundaries, a dragon vet, elements very reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books (come on, Linking vs Impression, these are the same picture).
The problem is mostly the pacing: it’s fairly quick all the way through, but it speeds up to a dead run in the last couple of chapters, covering world-changing events in a couple of pages. Massive social change doesn’t generally happen that quickly, and it felt like there was a lot of detail missing in how that change came about. For one Rookery to change and accept them wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, but the societal change feels odd against the generally personal background of the rest of the book.
It also felt like it needed some more work editing-wise. Sometimes it was just sentences that were missing words, and sometimes it was an odd word choice that felt more like confusion than innovation (you can move “gingerly”, but movement can’t typically be “gingerly movement” and definitely not “gingery movement”; the word “gingerly” is not related to “ginger”, so it feels like confusion about how that word should be used). It’s possible that it was on purpose, but given the word “gingerly” exists and almost fits, using the word “gingery” instead felt odd.
I think it’s a fun world and a fun read, but I was left wanting a bit more. I’d definitely have given it more stars if the pace and detail of the first chapters had been maintained; loved the stuff about treating the dragons and taking care of them.
The Bone Way, Holly J. Underhill
The Bone Way is a sweet novella, which is basically a Sapphic Orpheus and Eurydice story: Teagan has been poisoned by a creature belonging to the Shadow Princess, a sort of underworld figure. Her wife Cress is determined to find her a cure by travelling the Bone Way to reach the Shadow Princess and make a deal with her. They originally plan to set out together, but Teagan has doubts, fearing that Cress will lose her life for nothing if the deal doesn’t work or they don’t make it to the end… so Cress sets out alone, and Teagan has to follow.
It’s a short book, and slips by quickly; there are a few flashbacks to help build the picture of their relationship and what they do, and which help provide a little worldbuilding, and then there’s the description of Teagan’s journey. It reads so fast that I didn’t quite get the passage of time out of it; the time limit on their return to their normal world felt easy (three days), although the journey did actually take them almost all of that.
The story is sweet and fairytale-like; it’s not a thick satisfying novel that fleshes out the whole world, but a glimpse of a couple’s story within that world. Behind it lurks a story I was perhaps a little more interested in: the story of the Shadow Princess and why she turned to dark magic, why she brought all her people with her, and exactly how those people live and what they feel about it. I’m especially curious about the little girl who helps Teagan, because she seemed more switched on and alive, and it felt like there was a story there as well…
The love between Cress and Teagan comes across as strong, but also realistic: they screw things up, they get angry with each other, they have mismatched priorities. The whole thing ends well and sweetly, and despite the Shadow Princess’ dire pronouncements (which say more about her untold story than anything), you get the feeling that Cress and Teagan can figure things out, together.
Subtle Blood, K.J. Charles
Subtle Blood brings an end to the adventures of Will Darling and Kim Secretan — at least for the reader, though it’s fairly clear they’re going to go off and get into trouble together again, as soon as possible. It beautifully resolves much of their issues with Zodiac, and features Kim being much more open, less willing to lie (at least to Will), and totally committed to the future he’s realised he can have. It’s adorable and satisfying, as adorable as anything can be when it involves this pair.
It was pretty much everything I wanted from the finale of this series, and everything I wanted for these characters. What more can I say?
Don’t forget to read the coda free on Charles’ website — particularly if you know who Daniel da Silva is. (If you don’t, hie thee to a purveyor of books and grab Think of England first.)
Maelstrom, Jordan L. Hawk
Maelstrom cranks things up another notch for Whyborne and Griffin. It’s difficult to review without spoilering either this book or at least its predecessors, but let’s see what I can do. First, I’d highly recommend against trying to start here if you haven’t read the others. Details from the other books are important here, particularly the first book and Bloodline, and a bunch of things come together.
What’s nice is that, if nothing else, at this point Whyborne and Griffin rely on each other instead of letting tension crack them apart (and we’re starting to see Christine and Iskander have the same kind of bond). I also really liked the careful tightrope-walking of Niles Whyborne’s increased part in the story: he was still an asshole and a terrible father, but in losing almost all his family, he’s begun to see that he was wrong and that he misjudged Whyborne completely.
That said, I thought people were a little unfair in pushing Whyborne toward that insight, because they’re basically asking him to reconcile with an abuser. Griffin’s wistfulness about his own family is getting in the way of him seeing that clearly, of course — but others don’t have the excuse.
Anyway, all in all an exciting book, and a pretty awesome development. I’m guessing a gathering together of allies must come next…
The Councillor, E.J. Beaton
I really enjoyed this book. Reviews that mention it being slow aren’t wrong, but that was part of the appeal: it took a while for me to get into the world, to understand Lysande’s place in it and how to interpret everything that was happening, and once I did understand that, I was immersed. I’d regularly pick it up to read a couple of pages and emerge again half an hour later unaware that time had passed.
The characters are all flawed in their own ways, despicable in their own ways, like real humans. Lysande has her addiction and her ambition; Luca Fontaine is a cold-blooded snake; everyone in Axium is wedded to an “everything has a place” motto that means “the poor stay in their place”… and Sarelin Brey, the queen who is murdered (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the blurb), is the most flawed of all: a good warrior, a victorious leader with the gift of making people love her, and a poor queen for those who won’t stay in their place, or who happen to have been born with magic. I think the book does a great job of exploring that, of how you can be both flawed and great.
The relationships between Lysande and Derset, and Lysande and Luca, are pretty amazing — the power plays between them, done subtly, without explicit detail, but leaving it very clear what everyone wants.
I have one frustration, and that’s the fact there were two plot points that I grasped a long time before Lysande, despite her supposed intelligence. Partly that’s because she got blinkered by looking in the wrong place, which is very human, but it’s still a bit frustrating. They felt very obvious to me, and it felt a touch clumsy that she didn’t get it.
I wish there was more right now.