Heartstopper is just freaking adorable. Charlie and Nick attend an all-boys grammar school, and they really meet when they find themselves in the same form (odd, since Nick is in year 11 and Charlie is in year 10? but what do I know, grammar schools can do what they want in many ways; or mine certainly did, anyway). They quickly become friends, and Nick even coaxes Charlie to join him in playing rugby. They hang out together… a lot… and Nick quickly becomes Charlie’s defender and closest friend. And, of course, a mutual crush develops.
The art is cute, and while there is a little bit of angst and confusion, it doesn’t feel gratuitous. I’m a little mad about the cliffhanger this book ends on — and I know I could go looking for the rest online, and probably will, but aaarggghh, that so typical plotline where — well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that I want to get back to them being adorable, whether that’s as friends or boyfriends.
It’s also kind of awesome how British it is. And a grammar school, too! That’s a world I know well.
I’d call this a quiet story, but there is in fact plenty that happens once it kicks off. Tobias Finch has a quiet life within the forest, dealing with supernatural threats within its boundaries and protecting the forest. He’s a Green Man, a creature of mythology — not quite a male Dryad, but a man whose existence is nonetheless deeply entwined with that of a vast oak growing near his cottage. One day the owner of the lands, Henry Silver, comes by, stays the night due to a rainstorm, and awkwardly flirts with Tobias. Naturally, that isn’t the last they see of each other, though Tobias tries to protect Henry from his own interest in the myths of the forest — myths of wildness and sacrifice, to which Tobias also has links.
The relationship between Tobias and Henry is a quiet centre of this story, along with Tobias’ own development and rejoining of the world outside the forest. There is also a badass older lady who takes down supernatural threats, the coming to life of some myths that would have been better left quiet, and an awesome Dryad called Bramble. Despite the atmosphere of quiet greenery, there’s a lot going on — which is true of all forests, really.
I enjoyed this both as a telling of a less-used myth and for the queer love story. And I’d happily read a lot more about the adventures of Tobias and [spoiler], solving supernatural mysteries and dealing with mythological threats — that part could’ve been a lot longer and a lot more detailed and I’d have been happy.
Snowspelled is a short read, so be prepared for that going in. It opens on an invitation: Cassandra Harwood, her brother, and his wife Amy have been invited to a house party, which Cassandra’s ex-fiancé is due to attend. The story unfolds from there: it’s not quite a direct flip of the gender/power dynamics of British history, because though women rule Britain (as a body called the Boudiccate), men wield magical power… traditionally, at least. Cassandra is one of the few women who has ever mastered magic, and despite her successes at school, has failed to really make her way in the magical world. Which makes it doubly bitter that she tried to work a spell too strong for her, and nearly died in the attempt, leaving her unable to use the least magic for fear of her life.
Her ex-fiancé is naturally still a brilliant magician — and still deeply in love with her. It’s inevitable, then, that their paths immediately cross as soon as she arrives at the party, and he becomes sucked into her conundrums. And naturally she immediately gets herself into trouble through a rash promise… and this is a world where Faerie and the Boudiccate are (sometimes uneasy) allies.
I really wanted certain things to happen in this book, and they didn’t. Which is probably for the best, because the solution you want isn’t always the best story, but gaaah. I’m looking forward to reading the second book: in many ways, the novella format makes the worldbuilding rather sketched-in, so another book exploring that will be nice. And knowing it’s about Cassandra and her efforts to help other people like her find their places in the Boudiccate… well. I’m intrigued!
Glamour in Glass follows the Vincents as, early in their relationship, they take a trip to the Continent to study and work glamour together with one of Vincent’s friends. This time, Kowal explores the way her magic system might affect pregnant women, while playing with the historical backdrop as well. The Vincents find themselves at risk from Napoleon’s followers, and their trip becomes less about the glamour and more about spying out what exactly might be happening — perhaps even betrayal from the people they call friends.
This was where the series took off for me, the first time I actually read this book, and while I’ve come to appreciate the first book, this is still where I would say the series really gets interesting. This is where Kowal starts to work out the implications of the magic and how it changes society, eclipsing the primarily romantic plot of the first book. I’d say the third book is even stronger in that sense, but this one is certainly nothing to sniff at, either. It’s all up from here, and this has really become a series I think about fondly.
I’ve found this author’s romances entertaining before, so I expected this to be a fairly solid entry in that vein. And indeed, it began as expected with the rather Gothic setting on the coast. The hero and heroine are immediately obvious, and the fact that they’ll end up together just as clear. It went more or less as I expected for the first part of the book: Christina arrived at the house, met her cousin, quickly realised he was the smuggler she met on the way to the house, gets sucked into what he’s doing…
It felt like it was all about to wrap up, at around 50% of the way through. And then it took a left turn and went off to do some more plot things… not very coherent plot things. The hero comes off extremely badly, being fickle and tasteless, while Christina shows very little backbone for someone previously so stubborn. Of course, things end as you expect, which is more than a little whiplashy after Ross’ inconsistency in the second half of the book.
“Georgette Heyer, but queer,” they [being people on Twitter] said.
“I’m there!” I said.
That’s pretty much the summary of this book, though there’s significantly more sex in this than Heyer would’ve got away with, and a lot more free-thinking, philosophy and queerness. The situation, though, is kind of classic: Guy and Amanda live in significantly straitened circumstances, trying their best to be as quiet as possible while a relative holds the purse strings, making them live on her charity. Amanda chafes at this somewhat and hits on a way she can earn them some money: she writes a Gothic novel and easily sells it. The hitch? Well, she based it on the stories about a neighbouring family — with whom her family has a long, storied and unpleasant history.
Then she decides to ride over there to do research, falls from her horse, is seriously injured, and her brother has to go join her in the den of iniquity as a chaperone. Thus do Guy and Phillip meet — and of course, Phillip is in fact much-maligned and really not at all as dreadful as he’s painted (albeit admittedly being queer, and atheist, and fairly promiscuous).
What follows is mostly a delightful exploration of a relationship based on communication — albeit with one or two snags — and consent. If anyone tries to claim consent isn’t sexy, send them this: it absolutely is in this book, and makes the sex scenes worth reading even for those who have no interest in the mechanics, because the emotional content is there. It’s not insta-luv, but the respect and carefulness is there throughout.
The happy ending is decidedly Heyer-ish in tone and effect, and it delighted me. The characters also delighted me — Guy is a dork, and Phillip a sweetheart, and both of them care immensely about the things close to them in a way that draws you into their feelings and motivations just perfectly.
And you know, I was going to automatically give it 4/5 stars, but I didn’t actually have any quibbles. It was deeply enjoyable from start to end, both for the pastiche and on its own merits, and K.J. Charles can write more Heyer-esque stuff any day and just set up a direct debit on my bank account for it.
Shades of Milk and Honey is essentially meant to be the novel Jane Austen would write if a magic called “Glamour” was considered an art that gently bred women should practice as part of the small touches that make a house a home. Jane Ellsworth is a plain woman, almost old enough to be entirely on the shelf, but she has a good heart and a talent for magic. Despite her fears of being a spinster forever, her talents draw the attention of several men in this book. And despite her fears of being eclipsed by her pretty sister Melody, her good sense and her talent are what carries the day, as she finds romance with someone who initially overlooked her and disparaged her talents, but who grows to appreciate what she can do and the person she is.
I don’t know what it is about this book, but it’s really grown on me with each reading — and even though it wasn’t something I loved the first time I read it, it really stuck in my head somehow. Partly because Kowal does do a compelling job of weaving magic into a fairly Austen-esque Regency novel: she’s fit it into society, thought about the implications for various trades, for war, etc. Possibly I’m also a bit of a sucker for the romance, for the way plain Jane and surly Vincent come together.
Also, it’s just really good to sink into and read all in one go.
I suspect it also helps that the later books use the setting but go on to fill it out: it’s not just magic and manners, but also political implications, and a bit more of the alternate history that would result. Having read Glamour in Glass and Without a Summer, this sets up a larger plot about progress and change; this book doesn’t contain much of it, but without it the themes couldn’t be developed so easily in the other books. If you do find Shades of Milk and Honey a little slight, but find the world interesting, the other books definitely expand on that!
But I’ve come to appreciate it for itself, as well. Possibly I was still being a snob about romance the first time I read it…
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.
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!
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.