Lord Roworth’s Reward is technically the second book of a trilogy, but most of the characters are new and the set-up is easy to grasp. Felix is an agent for a banker who needs the latest news from the war against Napoleon to help conduct his affairs. Felix is an impoverished nobleman, but due to his experiences in the first book (which are revealed in outline in this book), he is accepting of people from a wide range of social backgrounds — setting the stage for a rather obvious unrequited (but Is It Really) love with the woman lodging in the same house. Fanny is the sister of an artilleryman, and has been following the drum since she was a child. Now she has an adopted child of her own, and Felix’s way with the child brings her over all a-flutter even as she teases him and lets him underburden himself about his courtship of a society lady.
The book is never particularly surprising, but it’s a competent romance that manages to have some very sweet moments. There was Jewish characters and those of lower income, all portrayed positively, which sets it apart from a lot of Regency romances. I’m not great at the historical stuff, but it’s full of detail (perhaps a little too much at times for those here for the romance) about the political situation, and I think it’s quite well situated in a known moment in history.
I found it very enjoyable, even if I could call every step of the dance, and I’ve reserved the first book and already have my hands on the third.
In Any Old Diamonds, Alec has a score to settle with his family, and to do so, he enlists the help of a notorious pair of jewel thieves: the Lilywhite Boys. To get them into his father’s home in order to steal his mother-in-law’s jewellery, Alec must put aside all pride and grovel to his father, and then pass Jerry off as a friend who can be invited as a guest to a fancy party, giving him the opportunity to complete the theft. In the meantime, he must work closely with Jerry, taking his advice on how to ingratiate himself with his father, and create the impression of intimacy between the two of them.
Alec and Jerry quickly discover that they’re attracted to one another, and their tastes align in particular ways; it’s worth noting for any potential readers that Alec’s submissive side, and Jerry’s eagerness to exploit that in a consensual way, are rather key to the plot. There are several sex scenes which are important both to the overall plot and to the relationship between the two characters, and if that’s something you can’t even stand to skim through, this will not be the book for you. Nonetheless, I thought the romance was beautifully handled: they communicate with one another (with one notable plot-specific exception which is not to do with sex), they’re clear about their desires, needs and intentions, and despite Jerry being a criminal and fully capable of awful violence, the relationship between the two of them is always completely frank and consensual.
I did wring my hands rather about a certain development partway through the book — I was sure it was going to put paid to any easy resolution between them — but everything turned out beautifully. Alec and Jerry might not have quite a conventional romance, but I adored their dynamic and how everything turned out. There are some very difficult parts of the story to do with Alec’s family, but I promise, there’s a happy ever after and excellent payoff.
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, Olivia Waite
This is a lovely historical romance in which a young girl, Lucy Muchelney, seeks a patron to help her continue her work as an astronomer after her father’s death. She did much of his work in the years before his death, but has never been acknowledged as the author — though she has high hopes that the Lady of Moth, Catherine St. Day, will listen to her and sponsor her as the translator of an important astronomical work written in French. Catherine St. Day is a widow, freed from an unhappy marriage to a scientist, and reluctant to jump into supporting yet another scientist, even in his memory.
Obviously, she decides to do so (early on — that isn’t a spoiler) and the two quickly grow close. Their romance is sweet, though I was frustrated by the miscommunication plotline in the last section of the book. I know constant communication between partners can’t be the norm because everybody seems weirded out by my relationship, but yeeesh, I am tired of it as a complicating trope in romance fiction. On the other hand, I am glad that fear of exposure wasn’t a huge plotline here — it’s hard to shape a happily ever after around constant massive fear of exposure or disgrace, so in that light I was glad Waite steered clear.
I do kind of wish that the former lover wasn’t so petulant… I loved the sympathy with which her husband was treated by the narration and the characters, and I wish she as a character seemed more worth all the devotion she supposedly inspires.
For my folks who’re asexual/demi/just not interested in sex in books for whatever reason, this book does contain sex scenes. They’re not 100% necessary to the plot, though they do demonstrate the emotional connection between the protagonists, and deepen it through intimacy.
All in all, enjoyable enough and I’d read more in the series, though it didn’t blow me away.
This short story features something just alluded to in Any Old Diamonds (which is in my review backlog, oops): the backstory of Stan Kamarzyn and Christiana Morrow. Christiana is trans, working as a female impersonator, and Stan admires her from afar — until he hears that she’s being threatened by a certain would-be crime lord who wants to ruin her to make an example. He’s the fence for the notorious pair of thieves, the Lilywhite Boys, and it turns out they’re more than willing to roll in and help him out. He’s family, after all.
It’s a delight to see Jerry and Temp from this perspective. Someone on Twitter mentioned that Alec (from Any Old Diamonds) is like one of those people with a big angry dog on a leash going around telling everyone ‘he’s a softie, really’, only Jerry is the dog and Jerry is not a softie. He’ll do anything for the people who belong to him, but if you’re not, get out of his way.
The defenestration scene is pretty fucking epic.
They stole the stage a little bit for me, because I so recently read Any Old Diamonds — but Stan and Christiana are adorable too. I love the time they take over their relationship, the pitfalls they avoid, the fact that they end up communicating… their squishes on each other are adorable, and the “wait, you too?!” moment when they each reveal that they’re asexual is just the best. I have a couple of quibbles about the way it’s presented (I worried that there would be a sudden “But It’s Different With You” moment, due to Stan seeming to feel some degree of attraction to Christiana which allegedly he’s never felt before), but mostly it’s very sweet.
It’s more difficult to comment on how the trans aspect is handled. Christiana has a degree of freedom given the circle she frequents, but the time period is restrictive. There is some misgendering, all by non-sympathetic characters, and definite transphobia (same). There are also threats of sexual violence… again. All appropriate to the scenario as presented, really, but it’s not comfortable to read and worth avoiding if you think it will be upsetting to you. Christiana herself is positively portrayed, and Stan has a serious conversation with her at one point about how she prefers him to see her, which is nice.
Thornbound is the sequel to Snowspelled, set in a Britain where Boudicca beat back the Romans, leading to a British system where women rule and make the hard decisions, and softer, more emotional men do magic. The partnership between a spellcaster and a political woman is important in this world, leaving somewhat more equality between the sexes in some ways, but shutting down the career prospects of women who are capable of magic or men who wish to do otherwise. Cassandra chose to do magic while her brother chose to be a historian, despite their famous family and legacy, and though Cassandra has lost her own magic, now she’s set up a school to teach other girls like herself. Unfortunately, there are certain political forces set against her…
I don’t 100% love the gender role flip, to be honest. It feels a little too, well, flippant. I’d like to see a bit more of how it works and why it works before I really believe in it? Which these novellas are a little too slight to provide.
Nonetheless, in other respects I like this book a lot: I enjoy Cassandra’s relationship with her family, and particularly her relationship with her sister-in-law. I adore that these are people who care about each other and build each other up (and I wish it wasn’t set against the petty woman who wants her to fail because it might disturb the social order — obviously in this setting a man wouldn’t have the pull a woman would, but I hate the tropes of women bullying and sniping at each other in rivalry, and this kind of hit that for me).
I also adore Cassandra and Wrexham; there’s not really enough of that relationship in this book for my tastes, and yet it is at the heart of what Cassandra is doing… I adore that they sit down and talk about it (eventually) and start figuring out a course in life that will work for both of them, fulfil all of their dreams.
I’d happily read more in this world, for sure, I’d just like some things firmed up a bit so they don’t feel so contrived.
Spectred Isle is set in the aftermath of the First World War, and much of the book is spent trying to find sense and a place in that post-war world. One main character is Saul Lazenby, an archaeologist who ended his war in disgrace after his homosexual love affair landed him in hot water; the other is Randolph Glyde, heir to an illustrious family and last survivor. Saul’s getting by through working for a harmless crank who wants every last sacred well or mysterious ghost story investigated, and Randolph’s trying to do all kinds of jobs at once, carrying on his family’s ancient duty to protect the land from supernatural influences.
Naturally, the two come together, both personally and professionally; they spend a good portion of the book dancing around it, but then quickly find that the other offers everything they’ve been lacking — Saul gets a purpose again, while Randolph finds Saul the answer to his worries about a significant part of his family duty, but then also they offer healing and hope to each other on a personal level as well. I love the way their relationship is written: they communicate forthrightly, make it clear what they each want, and also make it clear what the catch is. Randolph might be eager to have Saul in his life, but he’s not eager to do so on false pretences.
(For those mostly here for the romance, yes, there is a HEA, and there are several sex scenes.)
I’d love to know so much more about this world, which means I’d happily read any other books in this world, which at the moment means The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I have so many questions about the other characters, about the way things work, about the complications doubtless ahead for Randolph and Saul with the guardianship of the Moat, with the Shadow Ministry, etc, etc. Sadly, looks like book two has got into some tangles and is on hold. Luckily, Saul and Randolph’s story is complete enough in itself to be satisfying, so don’t let that hold you back!
Volume 2 of Heartstopper basically just continues the adorableness. If you’re not interested in a comic about a pair of boys — one gay, one bisexual — becoming friends, figuring out they’re into each other, and coping with things like coming out and getting along with each other’s friends, then it probably isn’t for you. The art is all in the same style on the cover, kind of doodly, and somehow that makes it more adorable to me, as well as quite distinctive (though there’s a couple of other artists with a similar sort of aesthetic).
I love the way Charlie and Nick are with each other; they have a couple of misunderstandings, and yes, one of those is at the start of this volume and is due to not actually communicating… but for the most part, they do communicate, and it’s lovely.
Look! It’s just adorbs:
They’re consistently adorable and I am so tempted to race ahead and read the whole darn thing. Buuut instead I’m being good and purchasing it volume by volume as it comes out.
(That Patreon with so many pages ahead is tempting, though…)
In the third book in this series, Kate finds that Derek’s got himself into some kind of trouble, and it seemed to be tangled up with Saiman’s involvement with an underground arena that pits people against one another in gladiatorial bouts, with real blood, guts and death. It’s pretty obvious where that’s going to lead, and yes, there are some epic team-ups in the arena. There’s also progress on Kate’s non-courtship with Curran, and we get to see several characters old and new kicking butt in lovely ways.
(There’s also finger-gnawing anxiety for one particular character, and no shortage of high stakes, but that’s what you get with Ilona Andrews!)
As always, I find myself pondering the classification of these books as paranormal romance. I’m wary of saying a thing isn’t paranormal romance just because I like it… but I think that genre label is sometimes used to dismiss a book that (if written by a man) would be urban fantasy, and I’m also wary of that. The thing is, I really don’t see these books as being all that much about the romance, especially not the first two or three. The real driver of these books is Kate’s given purpose in life — to kill her biological father — and the way she struggles with it, sometimes willing to follow it, sometimes throwing caution to the wind. It’s a slow process of her letting people in, and that doesn’t mean Curran, primarily: it means having a best friend, it means having an adopted kid, it means trusting and protecting Derek…
I mean, there is romance there: there’s a lot of sexual tension between Kate and Curran, and their stupid banter is the reason these books crease me up with laughter. (A particular kind of laughter which my wife can pinpoint to meaning “ah, Nikki’s reading that series”, embarrassingly.) But I’d more readily categorise something as romance when the plot is all about driving the characters together and the end payoff is the relationship. The drive in romance is typically toward Happy Ever After — to the point where people get very upset if something is billed as romance and doesn’t have a Happy Ever After — but I think the real drive here is about Kate facing her demons, and the romance is just one part of that.
On the other hand, I am also totally ready for Kate and Curran to hurry up and get together already, so that’s probably a vote that it is romance — I don’t have opinions this strong about Peter Grant and Beverley Brook, after all. And there are things about the relationship that are pretty tropey: His Furry Majesty can be kind of creepy at times, in a way that can be very wish-fulfillment-y for some people. (Never mind that Kate usually flings that back in his face and things are rarely less than equal between them.)
The point is, there’s a lot going on in these books, and though romance and sex are a part of it, there’s also a very long game being played concerning Kate and her biological father, and that story is also pretty riveting. This book takes a step further in that direction… but just a step.
When I read this, I more or less straightaway gave it to my sister. It’s light, sweet, and very easy to read — though it has some Moments, certainly. The basic premise is that it follows a group of knights, and one thief, who have returned from a fairly traditional fantasy quest. This is after everything’s gone down (mostly), and the story is shaped instead around the social conditions. For example, the fact that becoming a knight is so expensive that many knights get themselves set up and then have to go off and have an arranged marriage to pay for it all. Or the fact that after the end, there’s not much for a thief to do except go back to thieving.
It turns out, of course, that it wasn’t quite the end — there’s still something that needs doing. The thief Olsa ends up wrapped up in that, while the knight she fell in love with during the quest — Kalanthe — gets busy on that whole getting married thing. I’m going to say a spoiler now, so look away if you don’t want to hear it: there’s a happy ending. And that’s great, because we need lady knights and the lady thieves that love them and their happy endings, because gosh the world can be awful, and especially for ladies who love ladies.
There’s also other representation too, from the cover on down — a tutorial from one character to another in how best to deal with their tangled, tightly-curled hair, for example; a trans knight… If I recall rightly, there’s also an asexual character.
It’s a little piece of happy fluff, though there is a little bit of angst and longing in the middle, and a couple of genuinely painful and poignant moments. But mostly, it’s a feel-good book — not something Deep and Meaningful, except insofar as life and the bonds between people ever are Deep and Meaningful (which of course they are, but I’m digressing) — and I am so glad I got to give it to my sister.
(Who is not a teen anymore, of course, and I wish I could go back in time and give it to her as a teen, but I can’t. She can have it now, though.)
Here Mary Robinette Kowal takes on yet another genre crossover. We’ve had the fantasy romance, the fantasy spy book, the fantasy revolution, all wrapped up in a historical analogue. Now we get the spy caper novel, as Jane and Vincent find themselves robbed on their way to Murano to work with the glassmakers there. The novel continues to explore their relationship, and the limits of their art and magic, while also bringing in some new characters, and another whole new backdrop. I love that Kowal had Byron only visiting on the days he visited in our history (according to records) — I love that eye for detail she brings for the world, like her Austen dictionary.
Valour & Vanity probably isn’t my favourite — actually, during the scam I get a little second-hand embarrassment for them being taken in. But as a chapter in the Vincents’ lives, it’s entertaining and pushes the historical fantasy a little further. What Kowal does in these books is clever, and always completely readable.