Review: Seize The Fire, Laura Kinsale


Wherein Kinsale makes me cry. Again.

My take in brief: Another great from the great. In intensity and sense of rollicking adventure, it reminded me of Outlander.

Setting: 1820s England, Madeira (Portugal), Falkland Islands, Saudi Arabia

Series?: I don’t think so.

Heroine and Hero: Sir Sheridan Drake, recently retired Royal Navy captain. Although celebrated for his heroic service to the King, Sheridan is a selfish — and quite destitute — lout who suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome. Her Serene Highness Olympia St. Ledger of Oriens (a tiny country between France and Savoy) is a naive, sometimes foolish, but goodhearted princess, raised in exile in England, who hopes to enlist Sir Sheridan’s help to return to Oriens to lead a revolution, paving the way for democratic rule.

Plot: Like a wolf asked to guard a sheep, Sheridan agrees to help Olympia travel to Oriens, all the while hoping to gain something for himself — either through theft or ransom — in the process. Things go awry, and the book follows the pair on a series of incredible high seas adventures.

Fun facts: Originally published in 1989, this is one of three Kinsale reissues from Sourcebooks Casablanca, a small independent publisher who sent me this copy. Initial hopes that the reissues signaled a new Kinsale (her most recent work, Shadowheart, was published in 2004) appear to have been unfounded. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about Laura Kinsale, read Janine’s “If You Like” article at Dear Author or Keishon’s retrospective at Avid Book Reader.

Seize the Fire was a finalist for the Golden Choice Award for Best Romance of 1989, Romance Writers of America, and a Finalist for the 1990 Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Historical (the latter award went to Silver Noose by Patricia Gardner).

Word on the Web (How can there be so few reviews of this book??)

Musings of a Blbiophile (Brie), A 4.5 stars after 18 reviews

The Racy Romance Review:

Seize the Fire is my fourth Kinsale. I began with Flowers From the Storm, which still ranks as my most memorably intense romance reading experience. FFTS fixed my impression, still unshaken, that Kinsale is among the best writers in the genre. I then read The Shadow and the Star and The Hidden Heart, both terrific, although I enjoyed STF even more than either of those.

I almost hate having to let readers know that Sheridan suffers from PTSD, because so many romance readers are sick unto death of that “trope”. But wait. Have you ever liked a song or a movie, and then found out it’s a cover or a remake? And then experienced the original? And then wondered how you could ever have been satisfied with the copy? That’s how I feel about Sheridan. I don’t know whether Sheridan was the first romance hero with PTSD, but I would bet he was one of the first, and he’s a true original.

Some romance authors seem to think, falsely, that experiencing war automatically causes PTSD. With Sheridan, Kinsale gives us a convincing combination of temperament (self-interested, wry, charming, and witty, yet wise, honorable, and deeply sensitive), childhood neglect, truly horrific wartime atrocities for which he bears responsibility, and undeserved lionization, that together serve to explain why this character acquires PTSD.

The scene when Olympia and Sheridan meet — she arrives as a humble supplicant at his crumbling manor home with a dying potted plant and a copy of Rousseau (The Social Contract, I’m guessing) — sets up the dynamic of the first half of the book: Olympia’s naive but noble determination to save her countrymen from tyranny, and her admiration and puppy love for Sheridan, butting up against the reality that he’s a dissolute cynical rake who plans to take full advantage of her.

There’s something very Rousseauian in the whole text, actually, and someone ought to write a paper on it. Olympia is described as having “the kind of face that looked out of burrows and tree-knots and hedgerows, unblinking innocent and as old as time.” From the start, Kinsale signals that while Olympia may be dangerously hopeful, there’s a wisdom and necessity in her optimistic view of human nature.

Sheridan, corrupted by the horrors of civilization, has a visceral response (and this is classic dreamy-psychological Kinsale, a style I love. But then, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books):

As he observed her in musing silence, a novel thought occurred to him. It slipped through his mind so subtly that it seemed to mingle like smoke with his physical perceptions, with the way the dim light through the stained-glass window fell across her hair in little iridescent rainbows, and the scent of old tobacco and dust lingered in the room. He wondered — absurdly — if this was what she had come for — simply to sit in the stillness and be alive and share it with him.

Something inside, something tiny he hadn’t even known was there, seemed to unfold, to spread tentative petals open like a desert flower sensing rain.

She turned and looked up at him, her great unblinking eyes full of forest wisdom. He thought foolishly: Let me stay here. I need this.

The first half of the book is a lot like other rake/virgin dynamics, only way better, and is almost light in comparison to the second. Here’s a typical Sheridan reflection from the first half of the book:

It was the first and last occasion, Sheridan thought, that he would attempt to be a felon. Being a natural-born bastard was quite stimulating enough. He didn’t need this kind of excitement.

And here’s Sheridan sizing up the competition, another captain with an eye for Olympia:

Captain Fitzhugh was hardly older than Princess Olympia herself — not a complete fool but managing to conceal the fact, torn between the dignity of his first command and eagerness to impress Captain Sir Sheridan Drake and his sister. He talked too loud and gave his opinion on every possible subject. His only redeeming quality was a modicum of sense: his opinions weren’t hopelessly stupid as long as he kept off religion, which he generally didn’t.

As their adventures unfold, they both change and grow. Olympia becomes stronger, wiser, and more pragmatic as she begins to see the real Sheridan, warts and all, and, through him, the harsh truths of the world. Sheridan, who is, like all romance rakes, truly good underneath it all, slowly begins to make himself vulnerable to Olympia, revealing his deepest, most shameful secrets.

Much of their reassessment of each other and themselves takes place when they are stranded on an island in the middle of the book. Their interlude on the island is probably the best 100 pages of romance I have ever read, with one of the most loving, adult, and frank virginal seductions and one of the most heartbreaking unrequited declarations of love in all of romance.

Because this is a Kinsale, just when you think things are as bad as they could possibly be, they get much much worse. Thus, in the last 2/5 of the book, Olympia and Sheridan find themselves at odds again, and Sheridan descends into a bitter, distant, suicidal funk.

I loved this book, but I don’t think it’s perfect. Here are a few things that didn’t work for me:

1. Frequent references to Olympia as pudgy or plump. Her weight was used as a shorthand for her character in a way I found appalling.

2. The back stories of Olympia as a princess and Sheridan as a frustrated musician.

3. Sheridan pushes Olympia away late in the novel, and she buys it.

4. The reversal at the end.

Seize the Fire asks us to think about some very difficult questions, as you might expect with a book that begins with Rousseau and ends with Plato (the Laches of all things!). The meaning of loyalty, courage, love and war. The purpose of life in the face of tragic contingency. Sheridan and Olympia both come to see that there was no fork in the road where they could have chosen to live life unscathed, without the crushing burden of responsibility for their fellow humans. “We’re dominoes” Sheridan says, “We fall one way or we fall another.”

When I read Kinsale, I’m deeply moved — and not just by negative emotions, like fear or sadness or heartbreak, but by positive ones, like relief and happiness and joy.

It’s a paradox that fictional characters can move us in this way. We know they are not real. Yet the emotions we feel for them are. Professionally, paradoxes like this bother me. But personally, they make me glad to be a human being who can experience the gift of literature. And that probably sums up my review of this book.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 10:49 pm  Comments (8)  
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Review: Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris

My Take in Brief: A terrific second installment.

For background on this series, and introductions to the main characters, see my review of Dead Until Dark. This review contains spoilers for Dead Until Dark.

Word on the Web:

Avid Book Reader, Keishon, positive

Book Smugglers, Ana and Thea, both 7 out of 10

AAR, Rachael, B+

LoveVampires, 5 stars (btw, this is one of the coolest looking blogs I have ever seen)

TRR, Susan, 4 hearts (she gave Dead Until Dark 5) (Ok, I have to take issue with this line: “Bill is caring, protective, and sexy.” Um. No, no, and …hmmm… let me think … NO! Explanation below.)

Thrifty Reader, B+, 4 stars after 149 reviews

Plot: One plot involves solving the mystery of who murdered Sookie’s friend and coworker, who is found dead in a car outside Merlotte’s early on in the book. Another involves the appearance of the maenad, another supernatural creature, who wreaks havoc at pivotal moments. A third involves Sookie’s trip to Dallas to help the vampires find a kidnapped vamp.

The Racy Romance Review:

I loved Dead Until Dark and I also loved Living Dead in Dallas. (I love this series so much that I have turned it into an academic interest. You can read the abstracts for the papers I am working on here.) However, romance fans should know that this second installment is even less of a romance than the first, for several reasons, the main one of which is that Sookie’s relationship with Bill is now steady, and often takes a back seat to other things. Another reason is Sookie’s sexual interest in other men. For example, she shares a lusty kiss with Sam, her boss:

Sam’s lips actually felt hot, and his tongue, too. The kiss was deep, intense, unexpected, like the excitement you feel when someone gives you a present you didn’t know you wanted. His arms were around me, mine were around him, and we were giving it everything we had, until I came back to earth.

A third reason I find it less of a romance is Bill’s utter lack of typical romance hero traits. I’ve already blogged about how how odd a hero a vamp makes.  Bill has always been not just reserved and quiet, but flat. For example, after an emotional separation and even more heated reunion, here’s Bill’s line:

“Let’s not separate again.” Bill said.

Makes you go all melty, huh? For another, Bill is never around when Sookie needs him — she always gets out of her jams without Bill’s help. Third, he’s inconsiderate. He never thinks about how his presence in her life can make hers better, nor about how it’s making it worse, which it is. He seems mostly interested in having sex with Sookie and having her look good enough to make other vamps jealous. Fourth, when he’s not horny, he’s disengaged, spending most of his time on the computer (a circumstance that takes on some significance in the next book). The guy is just not good boyfriend material, by either human or vampire standards.

I don’t like Bill, and I sure wish Sookie would show him the door (she’d wouldn’t be alone for long. Sookie’s like catnip to males — human, vamp, and shapeshifter alike — a fact which bothers some readers) but the way Harris writes him, he’s very real. Besides, I read the Southern Vampire Mysteries for Sookie, Bon Temps, and the vampire culture Harris has created, and on all those counts, it was very rewarding.

I love the distinctions — both large and fine — that Harris draws between vampires and humans. For example, when Sookie and Bill are preparing to leave their Dallas hotel room to meet Stan, the local head vampire, she makes this observation:

He gave me a dark look, patted his pockets like men do, just to make sure they got everything. It was an oddly human gesture, and it touched me in a way I couldn’t even describe to myself.

And this one:

People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.

(I did notice one very rare slip in Harris’s mythology. Sookie and Bill are getting amorous against the hotel room door — all the sex scenes in these books are briefly described and nonexplicit, by the way — and Harris writes, Sookie “wriggled against him and his breath caught in his throat.” Hmmm.)

Sookie grows quite a bit in this installment (although her habit of frequent crying remains unchanged). She goes to the big city for the first time as an adult, takes on a job that offers new challenges, and takes decisive action at several points in the story, often without Bill’s knowledge or approval. She becomes more comfortable with her negative emotions, such as anger and jealousy, and more confident of her telepathy, using it in new purposeful ways. And, most interesting to me, she acknowledges not just the gray areas in morality, but the fact that we sometimes have to make choices which compromise our integrity regardless of how careful or well-meaning we are.

But she’s still uniquely Sookie. She hasn’t turned into your generic super heroine. She relies on her Word of the Day calendar, her copious reading of genre fiction, especially mystery, her knowledge of movies, and her common sense to figure things out, often long before the supposedly superior vampires do.

(Although I have a slight beef with the telepathy. In an early scene Sookie says “I could hear my temper creak and give way. Bill, unfortunately could not” but later, Sookie thinks, “[Bill] could pick up my slightest mood, which was wonderful about eighty per cent of the time.” This is one of my pet peeves in books with empathic or telepathic characters — it seems to come in and out at the author’s will, not the characters’.)

Happily, we learn more about how the vampires are organized, and how their power is structured. We discover that some vampires experience remorse or ennui after years of immortality, and commit suicide by “meeting the sun”. Others, rejecting the new era of assimilation into human society, become “rogues”, drinking and killing humans to encourage renewed social division.

Human attitudes towards vampires vary correspondingly, from the wannabe “Fangbangers”, to the Brotherhood of the Sun, an anti-vampire cult. Parallels to race relations in the US are not hard to draw, especially when Sookie herself explicitly compares the cult to the KKK.

There’s so much more going on in Living Dead in Dallas that this review hasn’t touched. There’s a development with Sam, for example, that I felt was very out of character for him, basically a klunky way to get him involved in the action at the climax. But one thing I had to mention was Eric, Bill’s vampire boss. Harris, via Sookie, tells us over and over that Eric is pure vampire: selfish, sex obsessed, violent without remorse. But in his actions toward Sookie, Eric is thoughtful, kind, generous, restrained, tender, helpful, and protective. Everything, in short, which Bill, despite the appellation “boyfriend” is not. Hmm.

I’ve already read the third installment, Club Dead, and since the series shows no sign of letting up, neither will I!

Published in: on November 13, 2008 at 10:59 pm  Comments (9)  
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Review: Immortal Warrior, Lisa Hendrix

Cover Comment: Ok, this males only thing is no longer a trend. It’s a takeover.

Series?: Yes. This is Book 1 of The Immortal Brotherhood, Viking warriors cursed to be immortal were-creatures. Book 2, Immortal Outlaw, comes in 2009.

Setting: Early 1000s Northumberland, mainly in a castle and surrounding woods.

Heroine and Hero: Alaida, competent red haired virgin mistress of the keep at Alnwick,  future home of the great Alnwick castle. Known to the Normans as Ivo de Vassy, Ivor Graycloak is actually a Viking warrior cursed a couple of centuries earlier to live eternally as a man by night, an eagle by day.

Plot: King William of England offers Ivo a gift for his help, and when Ivo, tired of wandering for centuries, asks for land, he unexpectedly gets a wife as well. The plot revolves mainly around Ivo and Alaida becoming close while he attempts to keep his secret, but they do face external threats, both human and paranormal.

My Take in Brief: I found the setting unique, the premise compelling, and the historical detail fascinating. However, the plot was slow and the premise did not allow for much interaction between the h/h, who were not particularly compelling individuals.

Fun factoid: This is author Lisa Hendrix’s sixth novel, but her first foray into paranormal romance.

Word on the Web:

Book Smugglers, 5 out of 10

Literary Escapism, very positive

Yankee Romance Reviews, very positive, 5 stars after 4 reviews (although, it must be said, one of these is Harriet Klausner’s)

The Racy Romance Review:

I wasn’t sure at first about mixing historical and paranormal, having only experienced Beyond the Highland Mist, which inspired my snarkiest review ever. Then again, I enjoyed the movies Ladyhawke and Highlander back in the day (and yes, I saw them both during their original theatrical run). And since originality is often a good thing in a genre that tends to sameness, I said yes when asked by the publisher if I would review it.

After reading many so called “wallpaper historicals”, in which a mention of the marriage mart and a curricle suffices to establish the Regency England setting, I wasn’t prepared for the incredible detail of Immortal Warrior. I’m sure specialists will have bones to pick, but every time I picked up this book, I felt like I was smack dab in the center of daily life of an early middle ages keep. The food and drink, the clothes, the relationships between servant and master, the language, the politics, the church’s influence, it’s all there. In its richness and in the way it was seamlessly weaved into the story, I would compare Immortal Warrior’s history to Outlander, which is, for me at least, high praise. (The one thing I caught was an emphasis on the importance of the queen in chess, which I believe she doesn’t merit until centuries later. I only have this in mind because I showed the Bergman film The Seventh Seal to my class last week, and he made the same error).

Here’s a little example, which gives you a flavor of Ivo and Alaida’s relationship as well:

“It is you.” His fingers closed around her arms, gripping them so she couldn’t turn to face him. He inhaled deeply. “That scent has tickled my nose all evening, but I thought it was the rush-herbs. What is it?”

What was this distraction? Brows knit in suspicion, Alaida sniffed, first the air and then, realizing what he smelled, at the sleeve of her chainse.

“Wormwood and rue … and tansy, I think,” she said, trying not to let on how distracted she was by the pressure of his hands. “For moths. They were on the gown I wore.”

“Ah.” He sniffed near her ear and it tickled. “I thought you might have doused yourself in some strange perfume in an effort to drive me away.”

“I had not thought of it. Would it work?”

“No.” Bending to the curve of her neck, he inhaled deeply once more. “I am not a moth.”

Another major strength of this book is the way the hero’s curse is portrayed. As a reader, I felt what a burden it is on Ivo. I would compare Ivo in this sense to the stoic, resigned, and dignified Captain Navarre in Ladyhawke. Unlike other shapeshifter books where this condition is portrayed as a kind of a mild kink, it’s very painful for Ivo to change over to his animal form, and it separates him from normal human attachments and patterns of living, making him lonely, and motivating him compellingly to accept King William’s offer of a bride.

I also liked Alaida, who knows the score — she’s a woman alone in 1097, not a modern heroine who expects to choose her own husband — and tries to make the best of her unchosen marriage, wielding power to keep her dignity in the ways she can.

Here’s an example:

“She is my horse, my lord. I will ride her.”

“Behind a groom, you mean.”

“No, my lord, nor with a man leading her. I ride her.” She dipped another plum apricot off the trencher and held it out to him. “These are very good. Would you care for one?”

The gesture caught him off guard. In the weeks they’d been married, not once had she offered him a taste of anything. Wanting to encourage this small intimacy before he questioned her further about her riding, he smiled and leaned forward, intending to take a bite. Instead, she shoveled the entire fruit into his mouth. It was swollen with honey and wine, and, as he bit down, it spurted so much spiced liquor down his throat that it made his eyes water.

As he choked and gasped, she leaned forward. His heart scuttered a beat or two as she smiled up at him.

“You may as well hear it now, my lord”, she said more sweetly than she’s spoken to him in weeks. “Not only do I ride without a groom, I ride astride. Wearing a pair of braies beneath my gown.”

I wish there had been many more of these scenes, but the two only shared dinners together, and, after the marriage is consummated, Ivo decides he cannot risk getting her pregnant, so he doesn’t even come up to bed until she is asleep for most of the book. I am one of those people who likes a lot of h/h interaction — not necessarily sexual, mind you — so the fact that so much time was spent with Alaida alone during the day and Ivo alone at night made the book less enjoyable for me. To be fair, I don’t know how it could have been otherwise, given the premise. The hero and heroine are likable, with many good qualities, and no vices at all, but are not particularly memorable as characters, and it’s not all that clear why they fall in love. Ivo’s attachment to his men, especially Brand, who becomes a bear at night, seemed somehow more intimate and enduring.

All of Ivo’s friends will get their own books, eventually. I’m hoping that subsequent books in the series will realize the potential I sensed in Immortal Warrior.

Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 5:27 pm  Comments (6)  
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Review: Demon Bound, Meljean Brook

Cover comments: What do you think of the trend towards hero only covers? Those are some long arms, and his obvious youth makes me feel like a perp, but we can’t have the perfection of Ethan every time. Sigh.

Series? Yes, this is the 7th installment of the Guardian series, which includes shorter pieces.  Ms. Brook promises 8 full length novels, and since Demon Bound is (I think) the 4th, we’ll get a few more. Click on the cover above for more info.

Setting: The one really misleading thing about the cover, actually, is that it suggests an urban setting, like Demon Moon or Demon Night. In fact, most of the action takes place in Caelum (the heavenly realm where the Guardians hang out), in Hell, or excavating temples strewn around the world.


Published in: on November 2, 2008 at 9:11 pm  Comments (10)  
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Review: Romeo, Romeo, Robin Kaye

Cover comment: Well… it’s better than this one. Nothing says sexy like green latex gloves!

My take in brief: Despite the fact that this book forced me to ingest way more than my daily allowance of pernicious stereotypes, I did enjoy this light sweet contemporary overall.


Published in: on October 27, 2008 at 6:52 am  Comments (5)  
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Review: Games of Command, Linnea Sinclair

My Take in Brief: A lovesick cyborg hero, an intelligent and fun heroine with a secret past, and great worldbuilding and plotting made this a real pleasure. While the secondary romance and some big unexplored questions detracted from the overall experience, I would recommend this one to anybody who enjoys an action packed space romance, and will certainly be reading more from Ms. Sinclair.

Series? : No.

Setting: Future space. There’s a lot of time on board ships of various sizes, with some scenes “dirtside” and some in a mysterious void.

Hero and Heroine: Triad Admiral Branden Kel-Paten, artificially enhanced for extra intelligence, speed, endurance, strength, firepower, and the ability to plug in to other computers through a port in his wrist, is a company man all the way, loyal to his superiors and devoted to the cause. Despite being programmed to have no emotions except anger, he has been in love with Captain Tasha Sebastian for years. Tasha is uninhibited, funloving, shortcut taking and rule breaking. She is also, unbeknownst to Kel-Paten, a former smuggler called Lady Sass.

Plot: There’s a lot going on, but mainly, this is the story of Branden coming to grips with his feelings for Tasha, and Tasha coming to love Branden, against the backdrop of two threats: political, in the form of a faction within the Triad which hopes to undermine the fragile Alliance, and metaphysical, in the form of an unknown evil presence, on board their ships and in their minds. There’s a secondary romance involving Tasha’s best friend, empathic Chief Medical Officer Eden Fynn, and telepathic rakish prisoner Jace Serafino.

Distinctive Features: Coming from a romance point of view, the fact that the hero is head over heels for the heroine, while she’s a footloose relationship-phobe, is pretty unique.

Fun Factoids: GOC was a RITA award finalist for 2008 Paranormal category (the winner was Lover Revealed by JR Ward) and a 2007 P.E.A.R.L. award winner for Best Sci Fi Fantasy. Also, Games of Command is a reworking/extension of two books (novellas?) – the previously published Command Performance (Jace and Eden’s story), and the unpublished Command Decision (Kel-Paten and Sass’s story).

Word on the Web

Dear Author, Janine, B+

The Romance Reader, Wendy, 4 hearts

Rosario, A-

Ciara Stewart, 5 hearts

AAR, Jeanne W, A-, 4.5 stars after 21 reviews

The Racy Romance Review:

I knew this book was good when I wasn’t turned completely off by the realization that a portion of it was going to be told from the point of view of the heroines’ cute furry pets, the furzels. Normally, I would hate that sort of thing, but Sinclair managed to make Reilly and Tank cute without being cloying, and actually made them believably important to the action.

You can link to any of the other reviews above to get more on plot. The TRR review is particularly concise and lucid on that score. I did feel like I entered a series in the middle, never sure whether a proper noun referred to a political body, a species, or a planet.  But in this review I’m going to focus on what jumped out at me:

Like everyone who has read this book, I loved the hero, who is truly heroic: self-sacrificing, altruistic, noble. In his teens, he became a Biocybe, cybernetically enhanced, and while a few of you with dirty minds might be thinking about the sexual possibilities, in fact his cyborg nature detracts considerably from his attractiveness, not just because he’s not supposed to feel emotions, but because of widespread prejudice against humans of his altered state.

Branden can actually feel emotions when he lowers his psychic shields, and he’s hopelessly in love with the Captain he met years ago and has now arranged to have on his ship. The scenes when he tries to have a friendly conversation with his subordinate (flirting is way beyond his abilities) are heartbreaking. The dynamic is a little bit like the nice but oblivious popular girl and the nerd (think Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker).  Branden is the type of hero that makes the reader want to reach into the book and give him a hug. You want desperately for him to be loved as he deserves, and the emotional payoff when it happens is hugely satisfying, easily the best part of the book for this reader.

We discover that Branden became a Biocybe in his late teens, but never why or how. This was a backstory I would have loved to read. I had other questions about how he functioned as a cyborg that interfered with my immersion in the story. We are told he is programmed to feel only one emotion, anger, but he feels many more, including shame, love, lust and others. The explanation is that Branden has managed to keep a part of his mind separate from Psy-Serv programming. That worked for me, but why and how did he do it? Why not go Psy Serv all the way? What, besides love of Tasha, motivates him?

An intriguing issue for me was the question of trust. Tasha is not sure she can trust Branden because he is a loyal Triad admiral. But she is also mistrustful of him for a super interesting reason: because Psy-Serv can control his mind when he jacks in to the ship computers. She wonders whether he is feeling things because he has been “programmed” to.  What’s “him” and what’s “machine”? She comes to trust his feelings, of course, but more based on intuition than in coming to understand his mental processes.

Despite their limited screen time, as a reader I was very invested in Branden and Tasha. In fact, there’s a moment in this book when Tasha says something to Branden that is so hurtful, that it has inspired me to make a list of the most heartbreaking moments in romance (stay tuned).

Tasha is just as likable and admirable as Branden. She’s more impulsive, intuitive, emotional, and social, but also goodhearted and heroic. It’s not clear why she went from outlaw to dutiful soldier. I felt almost as if I had missed the first book in the series. Tasha’s past, as far as her character went, was very much “ancient history”, its only significance being the worry that the Branden would discover it.

Tasha’s friend Eden, the intelligent doctor, is also a very good person, her empathic abilities enhancing her ability to tend the sick. She is more reserved and plays more by the rules. The appearance of prisoner Jace throws her off when she discovers she can meet him in a secret mental place. A Psy-Serv implant, designed to harness Jace’s telepathic abilities, has divided him into a flirty devil-may-care rake in person, but a sensitive loving soul in the mental realm where he meets Eden. The intriguing possibilities of dealing with the two Serafinos were not explored at any length, unfortunately, and they fell in love at first mental touch.

The book is like a romance in that it’s pretty focused on the four main characters. We don’t have a parade of shipmates or many other identifiable secondary characters. However, there is so much action and mystery that the two couples don’t spend a lot of time falling in love. Many of their conversations involve trying to get out of jams and figuring out who the bad guys are. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but it made me think of this as more of an SFF book than a straight romance. It’s funny: I recently read Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, which is labeled SF. Games of Command is labeled “romance”. I would have reversed those labels, I think, if I were the God of Publishing.  When I think about why, it has to do with the fact that none of the 4 characters in GOC changes much: they start out being really good people you root for, and that’s how they end. I guess when I think of romance, I think of the h/h altering each other, filling in each other’s missing pieces, and making each other better people. I didn’t see that happening in GOC.

While I wish the gaps had been filled in, I did enjoy this one very much. I think it’s worth reading just for the hero, but there is a lot more on offer, including great world building, intense mystery, and a stable of characters to root for. It will definitely not be my last read by this author.

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 10:24 pm  Comments (7)  
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Review: Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris

←Cover comment: I love these covers. Whimsical, gothic, and reminiscent of the old PBS Mystery series. The cover reflects that this is an unusual book. Unlike the cover below, blech.

Series: Yes, Dead Until Dark, published in 2001, is the first of 8 Southern Vampire Mysteries in print (and Ms. Harris was an established mystery writer prior to that). Here’s the full list at Amazon. There are also several short stories which are listed on Ms. Harris’s website.

Setting: Rural present day Louisiana

Heroine and Hero: This is not really a romance, but a paranormal mystery with very strong romantic elements. Sookie Stackhouse, raised in working class Bon Temps, is a pretty blond twentysomething waitress at a local bar with the ability to read minds. She is sincere, naive and goodhearted. Bill Compton is a darkly attractive, polite vampire, old enough to be a Civil War veteran. He has returned to his family home in Bon Temps to attempt to “mainstream”, i.e. live among the human population.


Published in: on October 19, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Comments (10)  
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Review: Broken Wing, Judith James

Cover comment: Look closely at this cover: it tells you more than you can imagine about this book, including how hero-centric (but not in a bad way) it is. I never would have picked this one up if it hadn’t been for Kristie(j)’s enthusiasm, but I am so glad I did.

Series?: No.

Setting: Napoleanic era (very early 19th century) Paris, London, Falmouth, the high seas, and the Barbary coast (north Africa, especially Algiers)

Heroine and Hero: Sarah Munroe, the “Gypsy Countess”, an unconventional, pantaloon wearing, intelligent, mentally healthy, and loving young widow, and Gabriel St. Croix, beautiful but deeply wounded and socially inept young man, orphaned and raised in a Parisian brothel, trained to service every sexual desire, no matter how sadistic, of both women and men.

Plot: This is an epic, sort of like Outlander, and it’s almost two books in one. Sarah and Gabriel meet in the very first chapter, when she and her brother, Ross, come to a Paris brothel to collect their younger brother, Jamie, who disappeared 5 years earlier. Realizing that Gabriel has protected Jamie, and that his presence will make Jamie’s transition to normal life easier, they invite him to their seaside home in England for one year. Once there, the focus is on Gabriel’s adjustment to post-prostitute life, and his growing friendship with and love for Sarah. Eventually, they are parted again — for a good 125 pages (1/4 of the book) —  as Gabriel takes to the seas, and the adventure aspect of the book dominates as he fights to save himself and return to Sarah.

Distinctive Features: This book is really Gabriel’s story, told from his point of view, and he is quite unusual for a romance hero, not fitting in to any of the old categories (alpha, beta, gamma). The romance, while strong, takes place against a very elaborate historical backdrop.

Word on the Web:

The first entry has to go to Kristie(j), of Ramblings on Romance, who loved Broken Wing so much that she not only gave it 6 out of 5 stars (Is this kind of like Spinal Tap’s amp volume dial that goes to eleven?) but emailed me and every other romance blogger out there to encourage us to read it. Her partner in crime, Katiebabs, also is also giving it positive feedback so far.

Rosie, Nobody Asked Me, “a very good book”

Amy C., Romance Book Wyrm, excellent

Barbara, Happily Forever After, 5 of 5 hearts

Anna Vivian, 5 stars

Kati, Romance Novel TV, 5+ stars

Leslie’s Psyche, A

Dear author, Janet, B- (I fully expected some soberness from the DA review. I’m not sure why.), 5 stars after 2 customer reviews

My take in brief: Although not everything in this book worked for me, I am really glad I read it, and am excited about discovering this new author.

The Racy Romance Review:

Right away, I was hooked on the plot, the hero, and the writing, and Broken Wing kept me interested all the way until the last — 434th — page. In the Prologue, we meet Gabriel, the hero, sitting outside of the Paris brothel where he has been basically imprisoned since early childhood. His character’s internal conflict is immediately set up: he wants love and human relationships, but feels both that he is unworthy of them, and at that they will only cause him pain.  Here are the last few lines of that chapter:

Taking one last look at the angry sky, he sketched an elegant, mocking bow to whichever almighty sadist ruled the universe. Crossing his arms over his chest, shirt wet with blood, rain, and tears, he made his way back toward the sounds of shrill laughter, and the soft moans of men and women in pleasure and in pain. Opening the door, he stepped inside. Moist and seething, it smelled of whiskey and rum, tobacco and semen. It smelled like sex and desperation. He grinned. It smelled like home.

Gabriel doesn’t know it, but he will soon be leaving Paris to live with the family of the young boy he has protected for the past five years. The bulk of the book is spent on Gabriel’s journey from tortured young man to mature loving and productive adult. It doesn’t come quickly or easily, despite the warmth and inclusiveness of his new hosts. James does a great job of communicating Gabriel’s social awkwardness and self-loathing, as in this scene:

They’d invited him to join them, of course, several times; they were nothing if not polite, but he had no desire to perch, awkward and sullen, an ugly cuckoo soiling their nest, spoiling the intimacy of their evening.

It is through Gabriel’s friendship with Sarah that he becomes human again, and their many scenes together, often watching the stars from her balcony, are very romantic. Gabriel has to learn to turn everything he hated to have to use as a whore into something good – his sexuality, his humor, his musical gifts, even his looks, and Sarah sensitively helps him with all of it.  In fact, reading this book made me realize that it’s not too common in this genre to watch a true friendship slowly unfold between the hero and heroine, and also, that, while sex is in abundance these days, it’s rare to have so many poignant scenes of platonic caring and sharing with one another.  While Broken Wing is an intense book, and things get worse before they get better for Sarah and Gabe, I hope readers will not be put off by the sexual sadism, the bloody battles, etc., because there is a genuine, heartbreaking, and very rare sweetness to be found in these pages.

Sarah is somewhat naive, not realizing at first what an invitation to her bedroom to watch the stars must seem like to a man with Gabriel’s experience of women, and while she has her own semi-tragic back story, it pales in comparison to the personal growth and struggles of Gabriel.  She’s spunky and independent and caring and kind and intelligent and endlessly giving and patient: she’s just about perfect, actually, which makes her a lot less interesting (aside from falling in love, her character really doesn’t grow or change), although she’s probably exactly what Gabriel needs.

There are other interesting and well drawn secondary characters especially Sarah’s family, including the somewhat uptight and disapproving Ross, the semi-wild pirate (or privateer, depending on how you view it), Davy, and Gabriel’s sardonic friend and fellow mercenary in Africa, the disgraced nobleman Valmont. Davy eventually takes Gabriel under his tutelage, and this sets the stage for the lovers’ long separation, during which we hear very little of Sarah but instead follow Gabriel out to sea on his many adventures.

I am probably wrong, but I feel like I can understand why the author did this: Gabriel has been buffeted by events his whole life. Indeed, as a hero he is the most passive I can recall. Things aren’t helped by so many other characters referring to him as young, childlike, boyish, lithe and lanky, awkward, and angelically beautiful. Given Sarah’s matching naivete, I almost felt at times as though I were reading YA, rather than romance.

Gabriel’s adventures away from Sarah give his character a chance to do all the things a young man is supposed to do on this kind of hero quest: deal with his childhood, become mentally stronger, and establish his own career and wealth.  However (I don’t want to give too much away) things don’t turn out quite as we expect when Gabriel finally does return to Europe, and in many ways his character is back to square one, for reasons I found unclear or at least unconvincing. While Gabriel is tortured, needy and basically a good person, his character did not leap off the page for me.

I felt, all the way through this book, that there was a slight distance between me and the goings on. I wasn’t completely moved as I should have been. I think this was partly due to the author telling us a lot of what was going on rather than showing us through the characters’ own feelings and actions, and that was partly due to her having such a complex and long story to tell.  Lines that quickly describe the passing of great swathes of time,  like, “they fought throughout the rest of the winter and into the spring, for Mashouda Murad Reis, who fought for the Sultan Mulai Slimane, who fought for control of Morocco…” were common. And sometimes, those time leaps were present in the most intimate of scenes, like Sarah and Gabe’s first kiss, one of those deeply touching scenes I mentioned above:

Not much experienced with kissing, he was nevertheless a sensual man. He’d thought it a curse until this moment. now he surrendered to it, trusted it, softening his kiss as he stroked her lips with his tongue, dragging his full firm mouth back and forth across hers, gentle and slow, then hard and deep. Mouth, tongue, soft whispers and tender caresses, they continued long into the night, drugged and lost in each other.

I remember feeling very jarred out of the moment by the words, “they continued long into the night”.

But it’s also probably just one of those things, that subjective element of reviews I keep trying to minimize or explain away. This book has so much to offer, and I am betting this author does as well. I hope you will give it and her a try.

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 6:41 am  Comments (39)  
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Review: Seduce Me At Sunrise, Lisa Kleypas

Cover Comment: Luscious, and the models in the stepback are perfect

Series?: Yes. This is the second of the Hathaway series, the first of which was Cam’s story, Mine til Midnight, and the next installment is (I think) Poppy’s story, followed by Leo’s.

Heroine and Hero: She’s Win Hathaway, serene virginal young woman, newly recovered from a dread illness, hopelessly in love with Kev Merripen, orphaned Rom gypsy who came to live with the Hathaways after a horrendous and violent childhood, leaving him more beast than man, but man enough to be hopelessly in love right back with Win.

Distinctive feature: Requited love from page 1. Name another romance that has that! Oh, and the heroine is described as a “fastidious little cannibal” during one of the love scenes.


Published in: on October 10, 2008 at 11:39 pm  Comments (10)  
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Review: Beauty and the Spy, Julie Ann Long

Cover Comment: You know how every so often that old debate flares up about how unrepresentative and diminishing romance covers are? Well, this should be exhibit A the next time around. Ugh.

Here’s Ms. Long’s balanced take on this issue: “Covers may have a lot to do with [the negative image romances have]; many remain quite beef-cakey and florid. LOL. Some readers and authors like this; others are less thrilled with it, as it frightens off some readers who might otherwise really enjoy very good storytelling. I once had an email from a 65-year-old man who out of desperation for something to read grabbed one of my books in an airport, then wrote to tell me he “actually really loved it.” LOL. “Actually” being the operative word—he never expected to, obviously, because of the cover. (It was BEAUTY AND THE SPY.) Then again, those covers are familiar signals to people looking for passionate stories with happy endings—they know to expect those kinds of stories between those covers. If those covers didn’t help sell books, they wouldn’t exist. But even the nature of covers is in a constant state of evolution and calibration. Publishing is stratified, and in order to sell your book effectively, a publisher needs to be able to position it and market it to its most likely audience.”


Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 4:52 am  Comments (8)  
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