Tag: romance

Review – Jackdaw

Posted January 23, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Jackdaw by K.J. CharlesJackdaw, K.J. Charles

Jackdaw is part of the Charm of Magpies series, but follows a different pair of characters. It’s probably best for those who’ve read Flight of Magpies in terms of the plot, but you might actually be able to enjoy the at least one of the characters more on their own terms if you don’t know them already, because that character is Jonah Pastern, he who nearly brought Stephen and Lucien to disaster in the last book. I trust Charles to bring me to the point of enjoying even a total scoundrel’s love story, honestly, but it took a little more time because I already knew Jonah deeply endangered a character I love, and Ben Spenser — his lover — turns out to be rather dour and angry at first.

It’s worth noting that among the sex scenes in this book, there’s one with strong non-consensual themes. Ben is angry and wants to punish Jonah, and knows what he’s doing is wrong, and though he stops short of actually doing it and then Jonah wants to continue, it’s still pretty discomforting. It obviously coloured how I saw Ben: the kind of man who, in anger, seriously considers using rape to punish his lover. It is clear that Jonah has conclusively ruined Ben’s life at that point: you very quickly realise Ben lost his job, was imprisoned, etc, etc, but that isn’t an excuse.

This is also the only story in this series that really engages with the homophobia of the time. It’s not just hinted here that there could be trouble: Ben can’t do magic, can’t soften his way out of a terrible situation, so he ends up imprisoned, sentenced to hard labour, beaten, rejected by his parents, and at one point you can read him as being suicidal. He’s definitely without hope, only a grim anger, blaming Jonah for everything.

That’s not the sort of book you expect after the casual way Crane deals with even blackmail about his homosexuality; Stephen and Lucien duck almost all consequences through being able to protect themselves. It’s also not what you’d expect from Jonah’s flamboyant devil-may-care attitude in the last book. Ben doesn’t have that protection, and in the first half of the book in particular, the damage, anger and shame are all on display. It’s very grim, given the previous book, and more realistic; that’s something to bear in mind.

Aside from that, the story is essentially a redemption arc for Jonah, and somewhat for Ben as well. It has the great dialogue I expect in a novel by K.J. Charles, and in the last half or so of the book, you can start rooting for the characters again. It stands or falls, really, on the extent to which you can forgive Jonah (and Ben, if that near-rape scene bothered you as much as it did me) for what he’s done. I got there in the end — there are some delightful bits when the two of them finally feel free and comfortable — but this definitely is not a favourite in this series or among Charles’ books.

For those who are fans of the series, it does include cameos by Stephen and later Lucien, Merrick and Saint. It wraps up into a lovely conclusion, and there are some great bits of dialogue between Lucien and Stephen, as seen from outside.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Captain Ingram’s Inheritance

Posted January 20, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Captain Ingram's Inheritance by Carola DunnCaptain Ingram’s Inheritance, Carola Dunn

In Captain Ingram’s Inheritance, it’s Frank’s turn to find love. It begins with the move to Felix’s home, and part of it happens concurrently with the end of Lord Roworth’s Reward, as Felix and Fanny figure out their feelings and sort out their misunderstandings. Constantia, Felix’s sister, decides to nurse Frank and help him through his recovery from his injuries, and is overjoyed to be invited to help him set up home when he discovers that he is in fact heir to a substantial property. She’s reluctant to have a Season and go looking for a husband, and finds herself daydreaming about the (admittedly lower-class) soldier while nursing him.

Now, the main barrier for her and Frank is no longer class (as it was for Felix and Fanny) but a secret both are hiding… Constantia has a raised scar across her chest from a childhood accident, while Frank’s injuries have left him heavily scarred. Both feel they’re not desirable as a result, have nothing to offer a partner, might shock/frighten a partner, etc, etc. Now, I can understand having those feelings, but it makes it very much not a story I — scarred literally from head to food by my long history with skin excoriation disorder — thought I could really get into. But I enjoyed the previous two books, so I gave it time.

For the most part, it does not focus on the scarring. The two have fears about it and try to hide it, but the reveal doesn’t do anything too awful like “I’m damaged too” or such lines/ideas. They eventually each find out about the other’s scars, and are supportive of each other without focusing on it. I still don’t love this as a plotline, but I do enjoy Constantia and Frank, and the ending scene is very sweet.

There is also a non-romance plot involving Fanny and Frank’s inheritance; it’s almost something out of Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple novels, with a rather wicked uncle doing his best to cause havoc. I found it fairly obvious, and also surprisingly slapstick in terms of the humour. Not my favourite bit of the novel. Also, sadly, Miriam is only mentioned, so no cameo from her.

Overall, I did still enjoy it, but maybe a bit less than I enjoyed Miss Jacobson’s Journey or Lord Roworth’s Reward. I think I will be trying to get myself a copy of all three of these, though!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Flight of Magpies

Posted January 13, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Flight of Magpies by KJ CharlesFlight of Magpies, K.J. Charles

Flight of Magpies rounds this trilogy off beautifully. Of course, as it opens, the two are struggling: Stephen’s work-life balance is dreadful, while Crane has too much time on his hands. They’ve come a ways from the start of the last book, but they haven’t really resolved their priorities and their future intentions. That has to play out against the background of even more work issues for Stephen, something going on with Saint, and mysterious deaths that are clearly magical in some way, but hard to trace back.

That’s really just the start of the problems, but I shan’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that everything comes together beautifully, and Stephen and Crane get the ending they deserve. I’ll confess to wandering through the flat with my hands flailing saying “aaaaa” and refusing to spoiler it for my wife, having started and finished the book in one evening.

I’m intrigued by the glimpses of Pastern and his story — which is good, since I have Jackdaw lined up to read soon. None of the revelations in that part of the plot were particularly surprising, but the climax was nail-biting all the same. I’ll admit I was surprised about Merrick, and still don’t quite understand how that relationship developed, as such — like Crane, I was blindsided by it.

There were several sex scenes, some of them including plot-relevant information, for those who might be averse to reading them or might prefer to skip.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Case of Possession

Posted January 12, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Case of Possession by KJ CharlesA Case of Possession, K.J. Charles

A Case of Possession follows up on The Magpie Lord fairly closely; Stephen Day and Lord Crane have returned to London, but not quite to their previous lives, setting up as many clandestine meetings as they can (perhaps not as secretly as they should). Rackham, the man who introduced them in the first place, wants a lot of money fast, and of course, they can be blackmailed. Stephen’s in a spot of trouble too, with even his nearest and dearest fearing his newfound power is a sign he’s gone to the bad.

Also, people are being found mauled by giant rats, and shamans from Shanghai are involved, bringing Lucien into Stephen’s world as a translator, putting him right at the centre of everything again.

I do enjoy these characters so much, and the fact that they can be relatively happy and open despite the homophobic setting; Lucien has no shame due to his time in Shanghai, and Stephen is reasonably sure he can handle any issues that arise, so Charles can tread lightly around the wretchedness that I’m sure many in the period faced. It’s not wholly forgotten, of course, but it isn’t a huge barrier between them. There are some adorable bits in this book as they figure things out and put their relationship on a firmer footing.

It’s also fun to see the new characters, including an excellent scene with some of Stephen’s closest friends, and some more glimpses of Lucien’s past. Some excellent quips and comebacks, too, which I shan’t quote in order to let anyone who wants to find them for themselves.

The mystery of the giant rats is also a nice nod to Sherlock Holmes, and it works together to create a very good excuse for Lucien to be part of it again — there’s no perfectly coincidental constant stumbling over bodies. (Okay, I know the Daisy Dalrymple books are very different in many ways, but it does grate that a whole series is hinged on Daisy finding murder everywhere she goes, and it’s becoming a slight pet peeve.)

Finally, there are several sex scenes in this book; none of them are plot-necessary, but they do advance the characters and show their states of mind, so that’s worth knowing.

It all comes together well, and as a bonus there’s a short story featuring a little more about Merrick.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Magpie Lord

Posted January 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Magpie Lord by K.J. CharlesThe Magpie Lord, K.J. Charles

My wife was planning to try reading some K.J. Charles, and I suggested these books… and then as she started reading, realised I couldn’t remember the first book well enough to go on the second myself. So, obviously, I had to do a reread! Right up front, the book itself contains triggers for quite detailed attempts at suicide, sexual (and incestuous) assault off-screen, and some mind-manipulation stuff that really isn’t cool (mostly by villains). There are also some scenes where enthusiastic consent is absent, though it isn’t assault.

It starts with Lord Crane being overcome by seemingly outside impulses to harm himself after a return from Shanghai where he made a living for himself after being kicked out and sent away by his father. His father and brother killed themselves too, the only reason he’s inherited, and his manservant reckons there must be something going on — they’ve seen magic before and know it’s real, so he persuades Crane to ask for the help of a local equivalent. Enter the Justiciar Stephen Day, with a family grudge against Crane’s family and an unbending need to do the right thing. Naturally, Crane’s not as bad as his family, and sparks fly between the two of them as they get to grips with the rather sordid details of the curse.

There are a couple of scenes I’m less than comfortable with between Lucien Crane and Stephen Day. I read an older version of the book, so it’s possible the 2017 version softens this somewhat — I don’t know if it was edited. But Crane’s tendency to push Stephen around is less than attractive for me, even if Stephen is actually enjoying it — and the scene where he does explicitly consent but only out of a sort of spite isn’t so great. It isn’t that I don’t love the characters together, because I do, and these kinds of stumbles and miscommunications are entirely human, but it is best to go into them forewarned if it’s something that might trip your wires.

Despite that caveat, I do love the way they come together, and especially the epilogue/added bit in the re-issue (which I did read as well after realising I somehow had the old version). Their relationship is genuinely exciting, and I love Crane and Merrick’s protection of each other, and the hints about Stephen’s life elsewhere. I hope to see something of Esther in the second or third book!

It stood up to a reread, and I’m looking forward to the second book.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Tea and Sympathetic Magic

Posted January 6, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Tea & Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner RobertsTea & Sympathetic Magic, Tansy Rayner Roberts

Saw this described on Twitter and thought, hey, I’ll give that a go! So I signed up to Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon, and snagged a copy. It’s set in a place called the Teacup Isles, with a vaguely Regency-ish mindset and morality, except there’s magic too. All the ladies at the fashionable parties are trying to snare a duke — except Mnemosyne, who grew up with said duke, doesn’t think that much of him, and would really rather be reading a book. This endears her to the spellcracker tasked with protecting the duke from matrimony, who is run ragged trying to stop everyone using charms to make themselves irresistible.

Naturally, hijinks ensue. I’d have loved a little more time spent developing Mnemo and Mr Thornberry’s relationship; it’s obvious where it’s going, but sometimes one wants to enjoy the ride. I did enjoy that the relationships between the women are largely friendly, even when they’re rivals; Mnemo and Letty are rather fun, and I like that nobody is a stereotype and the women work together.

Overall, cute and enjoyable! It’s quite short and not particularly surprising or substantial, but that makes it feel very much like a cupcake — sweet and indulgent, and not too fattening (to the TBR).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Hidden Hope

Posted January 6, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of A Hidden Hope by Laura AmbroseA Hidden Hope, Laura Ambrose

A Hidden Hope is such a familiar love story; I’ve been to a couple of SF/F cons; I could almost imagine the panels, the nervous debut authors, the stupid and not-so-stupid questions about the attendees. I definitely remembered the whirlwind romance-ness of sharing story critiques, loving each other’s writing, fiercely supporting one another — and then just as fiercely falling out, over stupid things that only a few years later I’d feel daft about, and now would solve by talking. This is a story about getting past that and learning: Natalie and El get a second chance when they meet at a convention in London, having expected that they’d be totally safe from running into each other there, and Natalie lets El sweep her back off her feet despite the bruised feelings.

It feels a little rushed, partly because I didn’t get much of a feel for the characters outside their relationship — even within fandom, there’s only a little glimpse of that. It means they didn’t quite feel real to me, despite how much I recognised their relationship and how they worked together. It felt like it was a little sketched in.

It’s sweet enough, and I’m glad of the HEA that they get, though Natalie’s negativity and self-sabotage is a bit of a downer and makes me wonder if I believe they’ll make it as a couple. There are several sex scenes, and I think the relationship seems rather built around sex and their sexual connection in a way I’m not interested in, so perhaps that didn’t help me connect to it. I’m not sure I particularly recommend it, but it’s not bad either. I’m pretty sure the same story wrapped in just a few more details would have worked for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Wanted, A Gentleman

Posted January 2, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Wanted, a Gentleman by K.J. CharlesWanted, a Gentleman, K.J. Charles

This one is a slim volume, but it’s just as satisfying as the longer stories I’ve read by K.J. Charles! Theo runs the Matrimonial Advertiser, a lonely hearts publication which allows ladies of some means to put in an ad seeking gentlemen of the right sort, gentlemen to put out an ad for a wife, and so on. One day Martin comes in because of some ads placed by a young woman of his acquaintance, and it all ends with Theo entangled in a quest to follow the young lady to Gretna Green to prevent her from making a decision about marriage that she can’t undo.

I won’t spoil the ups and downs of the plot, but “oh Theo no” and “oops” and “ohhhh no” were all things I said while reading! Theo and Martin’s relationship develops quickly, without ever being treated with sentimentality, and you can root for their HEA despite the mess-ups along the way. There are several explicit sex scenes; they build the rapport between the characters, and given the shortness of the book, I’d say they’re not really skippable — how the characters interact in every scene is important to the payoff.

It was especially interesting that Martin is a person of colour, a former slave, and indeed one who was previously owned by the family for whom he’s doing a favour. It changes the narrative and provides an interesting way of looking at the period in its discussion of gratitude and privilege.

I suppose my one critique was that the twist in the middle — or at least, the way it plays out — is pretty obvious, but then, this is a romance, and you know there’s a HEA in store somehow.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

Posted December 29, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa ColeOnce Ghosted, Twice Shy, Alyssa Cole

It’s probably bit weird to come to this book without reading the main series, but the cover is so lovely! Likotsi is essentially the personal assistant (“Advisor Most High”) to the prince of a fictional African country. She was in New York working for the prince a while before the story opens, where she met Fabiola through a dating app. They clicked quickly, and were well on the way to falling in love when suddenly Fabiola decided, out of nowhere, to tell Likotsi that it was over between them. Back in New York, Likotsi’s planning to forget her… and of course a chance meeting makes that impossible.

(No, there is no actual ghosting in this story. Fabiola makes the end of the relationship explicitly clear, and then enforces her boundaries in not wanting to talk to Likotsi.)

There’s something too much about the narration at times — here’s an excerpt from early in the book: “New York City didn’t have majestic mountains or roaring waterfalls or rolling plains, but it was a beautiful city in its own way. It deserved better than to be the receptacle of memories that impeded her forward motion like a badly tailored suit that was too tight at the knees and elbows.” It would be perfectly fine — and smoother to read — if it was more like this instead: “New York City didn’t have mountains or waterfalls or rolling plains, but it was a beautiful city in its own way. It deserved better than just to provoke the memories that kept constraining her at odd moments, like a badly tailored suit.” That’s not the best, but it makes the point: you know mountains are tall and waterfalls roar, you know that a badly tailored suit fits badly.

I don’t normally nitpick too much at the prose level, and thankfully it did smooth out once it stopped being self-conscious and the leads started going around the city together. It ended up pretty cute, and Fabiola’s reasons for the abrupt breakup are obviously such that she is not in fact an asshole.

There is one sex scene which is very explicit; it’s totally fine to skip, it’s just a culmination of their relationship, without significant character development or plot relevance. It’s pretty clearly signalled and at the end of the book.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Pursuit of…

Posted December 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pursuit of by Courtney MilanThe Pursuit of…, Courtney Milan

The Pursuit of… is the story of two men from opposite sides of the American Civil War. John Hunter spares Henry Latham at a key engagement, and Henry goes to find him to repay the debt afterwards. John expects him to duck out at every turn, but he doesn’t, and they head across country to John’s home — with Henry talking nineteen-to-the-dozen the whole way. It took me a while to warm up to John — though I liked Henry right away — but as he warmed up to Henry, so I warmed up to him. The cheese thing is silly and cute.

In fact, the whole thing is oftentimes silly and cute, though there are also serious parts: the discussion of what truly constitutes equality, Henry’s learning process, Henry figuring out that he has to go home and figure things out with his family… There’s also a scene with non-sexual intimacy that is just lovely.

There is a sex scene, of course; it’s pretty explicit, but skippable if that’s not your thing. It isn’t all about sex, by far, and it has a lovely happy ending — though it doesn’t go with the easiest happy ending. I enjoyed it a lot.

Rating: 4/5

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