Tag: romance

Review – Daughter of Mystery

Posted 2 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose JonesDaughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

It took me ages to get round to reading this, but it turned out to be pretty delightful once I finally did, and I want to read more set in the same world. (Good thing there is more!) It’s basically around (I think) 18th century Europe, only with magic, and it’s set in a Ruritania-like fictional European country, with mixed European elements to the language and culture. The two main characters are two rather different girls: one girl from a well-off but not noble family, and one girl with no family name who serves the nobility as a swordswoman. The general cultural attitude toward women is somewhat straitlaced, and Margerit is headed for a dancing season and then marriage as quickly as possible, despite her scholarly tendencies — while Barbara is an oddity and not exactly socially acceptable, though protected by the patronage of the baron she serves.

Of course, the Baron has it in mind to meddle, and the two girls are quickly thrown together after he dies, leaving his title to an annoying relative but all the non-ancestral lands — and his wealth — to Margerit, his goddaughter… along with Barbara, who remains in service and thus can be more or less given to Margerit through the terms of the will.

As the story unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that there’s a deeper game going on, with political implications — and also that Margerit is more remarkable than those around her thing, as she’s able to see and manipulate the ‘mysteries’ by petitioning the saints. There’s a solid and satisfying story there even without the relationship that develops between Margerit and Barbara. In itself, the romance is a fairly slight story, with the standard impossibilities and misunderstandings and lack of communication: it kept my attention because of the larger story within which it plays out.

It’s a fascinating take on the usual ‘medieval European fantasy’ type setting (although not quite medieval, I know), and I enjoyed it. It mostly steers clear of tarring any character with too black a brush, though I found it weird that Margerit’s cousin is quickly forgiven by her for attempting to sexually assault her, and I wasn’t entirely keen on how often the threat of rape and abduction arose (often just to explain why Barbara would need to stay so close to Margerit, I think). Some of the side characters are fascinating, and I’ll be glad to see more of them in the other books, particularly Antuniet.

Overall, as a fantasy novel alone it’s not groundbreaking, and as a romance alone it’s probably too focused on the other plot. Taken together, and with the fact that it’s a lesbian romance, it turns into something quite absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – In the Vanishers’ Palace

Posted 1 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 10 Comments

Cover of In The Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de BodardIn the Vanishers’ Palace, Aliette de Bodard

Received to review via Netgalley

I wanted and expected to love this story. It’s a queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast, based on Vietnamese folklore with sci-fi elements as well, and dragons. There’s even a sci-fi library that I really want to exist. I pre-ordered it, requested it on Netgalley, and generally waited on tenterhooks. How did I find it? Well.

It opens promisingly enough: Yên, the daughter of a healer, is traded to a dragon in exchange for her healing powers. It’s clear they live in a post-apocalyptic universe, with viruses wracking the human population and contagion spreading from person to person. As a failed scholar, she’s just not valuable to her village, and so she’s traded away in order to save one of the leaders’ daughters. Off she goes to live with Vu Côn, the dragon, to look after her children — and it turns out that Vu Côn lives in a palace made by those who wrecked the world and disappeared, and the children aren’t any ordinary dragons.

After the start, though, I rarely felt like I understood what was happening or why. Or rather, I could give you a running summary for the whole story, but I felt all adrift; I didn’t know why things were happening, I didn’t catch the undercurrents, and the relationship between Vu Côn and Yên came completely out of nowhere from my point of view. I do like a story where I have to work for it, where I have to figure out where I stand and how this world is different to ours, but I don’t think that was the problem. It was more the characters and their motivations that never worked for me (or when they did, it was only for a few pages). The setting itself was fascinating, but. But.

I seem to be fairly alone in that, looking around at bloggers I trust, which makes me almost reluctant to admit that I just really did not get it. And it makes me reluctant to give this a poor rating, but… my ratings have to be my ratings, not how I think I ought to rate a book.

It’s clear there’s plenty here that’s enchanting other people, and in many ways I’m an aberration. I’ll be passing on my copy to my sister and seeing if it ticks her boxes!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Witchmark

Posted 11 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Witchmark by C.L. PolkWitchmark, C.L. Polk

Received to review via Netgalley

Witchmark is a little bit of a lot of things — a romance, a mystery, a family power struggle against a fantasy background, dealing with social upheaval and war… It feels like quite an odd mixture of things if I think about it from outside, but while I was reading it I had no quibbles.

Miles is the only character who I feel is really well fleshed out, and I really could use knowing more about Tristan before I can really fully buy into the romance and the Big Romantic Thing that happens near the end. Grace is… interesting, and surprisingly weak — and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. It’s just that she comes along and takes command and she’s meant to be the strong one, and yet she’s so led by her family and by adhering to the social customs. It’s interesting as a character study, and I think there was a surprisingly good job done of making her likeable if only she wouldn’t participate in what’s expected of her.

Everything builds together pretty well for the finale, except maybe that romantic plot. I felt like we needed less of the magical attractiveness and more of the two talking to one another and figuring each other out: there wasn’t enough to make me really root for them. It’s the interplay between Grace and Miles that really made the story, for me.

I’ve kind of been avoiding getting this review written, because I wasn’t wholly sure what to say. I wasn’t as wowed as I hoped to be, but I think on reflection it was enjoyable and I’d read more. If I went in for half-stars, this would probably get another 0.5.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Have His Carcase

Posted 4 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. SayersHave His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers

As ever, a beloved reread. Okay, the cypher bits can be kind of annoying unless you’re really interested in figuring out, but this time I paid close attention so I could use the Playfair cypher to write a daft message to my wife, so there’s that. I love the care Peter takes to try and be fair to Harriet, not to push her, and to do his best by her. I do think sometimes he’s rather self-pitying, but mostly his sense of humour about it alleviates that.

The mystery itself is a fun one to break: if you figure out the key to it too soon, the back and forth as Harriet, Peter and the police try to break the wrong alibis can be a bit infuriating, but it’s also pretty clever. If you don’t love Peter and Harriet (and mostly their banter), I can’t imagine it being a favourite, but for me… yeah. <3

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Gallows in the Greenwood

Posted 1 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Gallows in the Greenwood, Phyllis Ann Karr

This novel does a surprisingly good job of weaving together a lot of disparate threads of Robin Hood folklore, while putting its own spin on the story, given that it’s so short. It’s a fascinating attempt at exploring what a female Sheriff does to the story, while also including a romantic plot that’s straight out of that kind of ballad without being directly like any of the ones I can think of. I really enjoyed noticing the references to the traditional ballads, but I also really appreciated the way the female Sheriff became part of the story and explained various aspects of it by her presence.

There’s quite a lot going on below a deceptively simple plot: an attempt to reconcile the Robin Hood folklore into a whole story that makes sense. Whatever Karr says in her notes on the text, I find the figure of Robin quite interesting — he’s not a straightforward villain, as the epilogue shows (and as the loyalty of Maid Marian suggests too).

There’s also Denis and Midge, and I just ended up loving Denis — the kind of honourable idiot of a character I can really get involved with. He has principles, but he’s not so honourable he won’t break them in order to do what is actually the right thing. His romance is a little sudden, but it makes a certain amount of sense, especially in the context of the Robin Hood ballads the story uses and echoes.

Nonetheless, it is all comparatively light and the most interesting/valuable thing to me was the inclusion of Karr’s notes on the text, including a letter to her agent in which she categorically (and correctly, in my view) refused to change a lot of key parts of the story. I loved her firm emphasis on things being believable: she’s not just doing lip-service to feminism by completely inventing a role for a woman that doesn’t exist: she found records that supported the position she put her character in.

All in all, enjoyable and interesting, and I’m a little disappointed I never read it in time to work it into an essay for the tutor of mine who really had me digging into the oldest ballads.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Henchmen of Zenda

Posted 25 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Henchmen of Zenda by KJ CharlesThe Henchmen of Zenda, K.J. Charles

If you don’t know The Prisoner of Zenda, then I doubt this will be of much interest — and I think you’d also have to be interested in m/m romance to really appreciate it, as well. With both those things in mind, it’s a fun romp, turning aspects of The Prisoner of Zenda on their head and making a little more of two background characters, and particularly the flamboyant and unrepentant Rupert of Hentzau. Detchard is a total cipher in the original book, really, so he makes good ground for Charles to play with in rewriting the story.

Ultimately, is it an amazing work of literature? No. Does it do anything particularly new or interesting in rewriting The Prisoner of Zenda? Also no (though I enjoyed that Charles didn’t try too hard, Black Michael is still as black as he’s painted). It doesn’t depart too far from the original, though I enjoyed the friendship between Detchard and Antoinette, and Rupert’s actual loyalties, as additions to the original plot.

It may not be very startling, but it’s solid fun, and I do enjoy the bantering, slightly adversarial relationship between Detchard and Rupert. Charles doesn’t lay it on too thick or try to change the essentials of the characters, and it produces a good romp.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Madam, Will You Talk?

Posted 1 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary StewartMadam, Will You Talk? Mary Stewart

I don’t know why I keep coming back to this book: there’s something about it. The sense of place, of course — that’s a given in Mary Stewart’s work. But the lead male character in the romance is just so… for a good chunk of the book he’s violent and unpleasant, and there’s a whole sense of dread about him ever catching up with Charity. The moment when they end up on the same side feels jarring — I don’t feel like the reader is prepared well enough for the switching of sides.

But on the other hand, there’s Charity and her attitude to her relationship with her late husband. Like this bit, just — ahh:

Past and future dovetailed into this moment, and together made the pattern of my life. I would never again miss Johnny, with that deep dull aching, as if part of me had been wrenched away, and the scar left wincing with the cold; but, paradoxically enough, now that I was whole again, Johnny was nearer to me than he had ever been since the last time that we had been together, the night before he went away. I was whole again, and Johnny was there for ever, part of me always. Because I had found Richard, I would never lose Johnny. Whatever I knew of life and loving had been Johnny’s gift, and without it Richard and I would be the poorer. We were both his debtors, now and for ever.

It’s not just a whirlwind romance with a weird love/hate thing going on, and nor is just the mystery and adventure. There’s also this maturity towards relationships underneath that… yeah. I think that’s a big part of why I enjoy Charity — plus, of course, her fast driving and her determination to take care of David, for all that he’s a stranger to her.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Seafarer’s Kiss

Posted 3 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Seafarer's Kiss by Julia EmberThe Seafarer’s Kiss, Julia Ember

This one sounds pretty exciting: queer retelling of The Little Mermaid, with Ursula as the heroine, including a Norse warrior girl and visits from the god Loki. There was a lot to like about this: I enjoyed the strength of Ersel’s relationship with her mother, and the complicatedness of her relationship with her friend. Loki’s character is also rather enjoyable: they’re genderfluid, and a true trickster: you’re never quite sure what they want and why.

Ultimately, it did feel a little thin to me at times, though, and the general background of misogyny and nastiness toward the female merpeople was a little unbearable to read. Not that I’d expected pure sunshine and puppies, but I wasn’t quite ready for the torture and enforced pregnancies, etc, etc. I could’ve done with more development of the relationship between Ersel and Ragna, too: it started well, but I found myself wondering how well they really knew each other at all, how likely it would be for their bond to actually be stable and lasting, given all the differences between them and the slenderness of their acquaintance.

So, an interesting retelling, but not in the end my thing.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Seven Dead

Posted 29 May, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Seven Dead by J. Jefferson FarjeonSeven DeadJ. Jefferson Farjeon

This is a really entertaining entry into the British Library Crime Classics line-up: the premise had me from the word go, for sure. It’s a locked room mystery with a rather creepy beginning: a would-be burglar stumbles on a room full of corpses in a seemingly empty house. There’s a serious romantic plot that I think might put some readers off, especially as it involves a guy getting rather creepily fixated on a painting of a young girl and deciding he has to know her (though at least he knows she’s an adult now); sometimes it doesn’t feel like the primary point is the mystery, but instead the relationship between two people who are mostly on the edge of it.

There’s also some rather odd banter between the inspector and the policeman who works with him. Sometimes I seemed to be missing context — which makes no sense, considering they weren’t supposed to know each other long before the case, so it should all be perfectly comprehensible — and sometimes it just seemed like the dialogue was trying to be too clever.

Nonetheless, it’s entertaining and the weirdness of that opening kept me interested in how the mystery itself worked out. Unlike with some of the other books reissued by the British Library for the Classic Crime series, I do actually find myself rather eager to pick up another book by Farjeon, instead of just pleasantly entertained but not ready to leap on it. The Z Murders and Thirteen Guests are now on my TBR pile.

Rating: 4/5

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Discussion: Romance

Posted 28 May, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

I’m not primarily a romance blogger, or even frequently, but I do pick up the occasional romance — usually not contemporaries, at least not for straight romance, though there’s Susanna Kearsley, but more classic stuff like Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. (I do read LGBT romance, but that’s a rather separate genre in many ways.) I think that mostly lets me duck some of the rubbish said about romance books: I don’t constantly get shamed for the interest, though I’ve seen that attitude out there. Heck, my grandma always dismisses what she reads as ‘penny dreadfuls’, and as far as I can tell at least some of it is mushy romance and family sagas (though she also likes Dorothy Dunnett, so there’s that for comparison).

I can totally understand people for whom romance isn’t a thing they want to read about — but I do hate the attitude that reading romance is pointless or inferior in general. First off, I don’t believe in disparaging people for what they enjoy, because enjoyment is something humans crave and even need. And secondly, I hate the attitude that reading romance is just escapism or whatever: it deals with powerful emotions that real people feel and have to deal with, and with relationships between people and how they’re negotiated. I don’t know how anyone can act like reading about the invention of flying cars is more important than reading about how to navigate complex human relationships!

Like any genre, romance has its problems. It comes with a whole bag of tropes that can be really problematic, and romance just isn’t a priority for a lot of people (or even an interest at all for some). That’s great. But let’s not label it as pointless for everyone in every situation — and that’s the attitude that comes across sometimes, especially when people just dip into the genre and talk about it as a “guilty pleasure” or “a bit of fluff”… or a “penny dreadful”. It just sounds so dismissive.

Fiction is, for the most part, designed to entertain the reader. Let’s not disparage romance just for being really successful at doing that!

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