Friday, 6 August 2010

73: "Last Night's Scandal" by Loretta Chase

Publisher: Avon
Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: August 4th, 2010
Date finished: August 4th, 2010

The hero and heroine of Last Night's Scandal first met when she was 12 and he was 14, in Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect. Ten years have passed, and Peregrine Dalmay, Earl of Lisle, has spent as much time as possible in Egypt, excavating and discovering with Rupert and Daphne Carsington (from Mr. Impossible). Now he is back in London, and his melodramatic and over-emotional parents want him to go to Scotland to restore a family property that is rumoured to be haunted. Just the thought of the dark, dank climate of Scotland fills Lisle with dread, and he has no intention of going along with their plans - he just wants to return to Egypt as soon as possible.

Miss Olivia Carsington is one of the richest girls in London, and a favoured gossip topic as she constantly seems to be doing something dramatic and has broken countless engagements. She has faithfully corresponded with Lisle for the past decade, and is delighted to see him home again, but knows that Egypt comes first in his heart, and she needs to help him outwit his parents and return there. Extremely independent and adventurous, she knows that soon she will have to settle for being some lord's wife, and all the grand adventures and quests she dreamed of as a young girl will be beyond her. She comes up with a grand scheme to put Lisle back in his parents' good graces (they threaten to cut him off entirely) and have one last adventure before she must accept the strictures of society.

With two old widows for chaperons, a small army of servants, Olivia and Lisle go to Scotland to see if they can't restore the ruined castle, get to the bottom of the hauntings, and possibly find the buried family treasure. In the five years that passed since Olivia and Lisle last met, they have both changed, and Lisle is especially shocked to realize that the freckled redhead who beat him over the head with his sketchbook the first time they met is now a stunning beauty with a very appealing figure. Despite being pretty much opposites when it comes to personality, the two old friends find themselves very attracted to each other, and try as best they can to fight the sexual tension, while bickering and sparring and nearly driving each other mad.

Loretta Chase's previous novel, Don't Tempt Me, was a great disappointment to me. She is probably my favourite romance author of all time, only rivalled by Julia Quinn, and hence my expectations to her books are very high. Last year's novel did not in any way live up to them. So when I heard that she was returning to characters I had first read about and loved in Lord Perfect, I was very excited, and I'm relieved that this book was a lot more like her other classics.

Having mentally gone through my list of her novels, this is probably my sixth favourite, but that is only because she has written some truly amazing books before - compared to almost any other romance novelist, this is an amazing book. The book is funny, and seeing how the children she first depicted have grown into adults is very rewarding. Both characters know each other so well, and love each other as friends, but also exasperate each other deeply. To see the friendship develop into romantic love is great.

72: "Eternal Kiss of Darkness" by Jeaniene Frost

Publisher: Avon
Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: August 3rd, 2010
Date finished: August 4th, 2010

Mencheres is an ancient Master Vampire, and "older than dirt". He is actually older than several of the pyramids, and while he once held amazing powers, like visions of the future, telekinesis and the ability to track people all over the globe, he now sees only darkness when he tries to see the future, and most of his powers seem to be fading. As he is millennia old, he is pretty much determined to meet his death soon.

Kira is a private detective, whose mentor taught her that her goal in life should be to "save one life". When walking home from a stakeout early one morning, she hears a commotion, and runs to see if she can help. She sees Mencheres being tortured by five ghouls, and they nearly kill her. Mencheres is touched that a human would risk her life to save a stranger, and saves her with his super powerful blood. Unfortunately, he is unable to use his vampire mesmerising powers on her afterwards to make her forget, she appears to be immune to them. While keeping Kira captive, worried that she will tell the police about the strange new supernatural world she has discovered, he grows more and more fascinated by her.

Kira, who is at first scared and confused by all the new things she is discovering, has always had very strong instincts, and fairly quickly starts trusting Mencheres, reasoning that he could just have killed her right away if he wanted to. He uses some of his blood to help her chronically ill sister, and when he lets her go, she is unable to forget him. This leads her to a vampire strip club where Mencheres' oldest enemy manages to set things up so that Kira will almost certainly be killed. Mencheres has no choice but to turn her into a vampire.

Mencheres' enemy soon has him framed for arson, multiple murders and worst of all from a vampire point of view - of leaking a video showing the existence of vampires on YouTube. Kira and Mencheres have to prove his innocence to the rather old-fashioned and extremely conservative council of Law Guardians, which is not easy considering his nemesis is a Law Guardian too. But Kira has had experience with dirty cops before, and refuses to let Mencheres sacrifice himself for her and die just because he's convinced his lack of visions is a sign he is nearing the end of his long existence.

While not as good as First Drop of Crimson, Eternal Kiss of Darkness was still a fairly entertaining read. Of all of Frost's novels, I would put it somewhere in the middle. There was a bit too much of Mencheres' self-pitying "I'm so ancient and some of my powers are gone and I may as well just curl up and die". Towards the beginning of the book, it also got a bit tedious that Kira was the only one for millennia who dared to interrupt him, or shush him, or generally stand up to him, just because she didn't realize how old, and rich and super powerful he was.

Kira was a very good heroine, though. Smart, strong, independent and no beating around the bush accepting her attraction, and later love for, Mencheres. Refusing to suffer his self-pity, and also being very understanding, but not overly judgemental when he tells her about the many terrible things he's done in his looong life as a vampire. She adores her sick sister, is kind to her dead-beat brother and adapts to a scary and fairly shitty situation in a very admirable way. She is absolutely what saved this book from being a bit long-winded in places.

71: "Mistress of the Art of Death" by Ariana Franklin

Publisher: Bantam Books
Page count: 512 pages
Date begun: July 22nd, 2010
Date finished: July 25th, 2010

Someone is killing children in 12th Century Cambridge, and the Jews are being blamed for it. Since the Jews are forced to hide in the sheriff's fortress, Henry II can't tax them, and is losing a lot of much needed revenue. He also has to deal carefully with the Church, after that unfortunate incident where his Archbishop, Thomas Becket, got brutally murdered by some knights who misunderstood the king's wishes. Adelia, a Mistress in the Art of Death (a Medieval pathologist, basically) is sent to Cambridge with her eunuch manservant, Mansur, and one of the chief agents of the King of Sicily, Simon of Naples.

As women are not allowed to practice medicine in England, and they are afraid she may be accused of witchcraft, Adelia poses as Mansur's assistant. He only speaks Arabic in front of the patients, and she "translates" the doctor's orders and carries them out. With the help of the local prior, who Adelia saves during their journey, the little band of investigators are housed safely in Cambridge, given a capable housekeeper, and Adelia is given access to the bodies of the dead children. It quickly becomes clear to Adelia and Simon that the murderer's most likely a Crusader, and the local tax collector is both a former crusading knight and very interested in the case and Adelia's findings.

Mistress in the Art of Death is a very entertaining read, with a fascinating cast of characters. The author freely admits that some things in the book are anachronistic. Adelia is a stubborn, fiercely intelligent and prickly heroine. She feels out of place with most women, and is loathe to suffer the foolishness of people in general. Simon of Naples is a much more patient and pleasant man, who has realized that by appearing gentle and a bit simple one can find out a great many things, and being met unassuming and non-threatening, but very good listener, most people will spill their secrets unwittingly.

The book's tension builds gradually. The various suspects are presented fairly early on, but there are enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The author manages to present a lot of history while still writing a compelling murder mystery. While the book started a bit slowly, it did not take long before I had trouble putting it down.