Tuesday, 8 February 2011

12. "The Iron Queen" by Julie Kagawa

Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Page count: 368 pages
Date begun: February 7th, 2011
Date finished: February 7th, 2011

This is the third book in what I thought was going to be a trilogy, but turns out is shaping up to be an ongoing series (don't you just love fantasy?). So, once again, if you're bothered by spoilers for previous books in said series, you may want to skip this one. Cause my first paragraph here spoils the heck out of the first two books. 

Meghan Chase has had a heck of a year. Having to go into Faerie to rescue her little brother, she discovers that she's the half-human daughter of King Oberon of the Seelie Fae, that her best friend is actually the legendary Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck. She does manage to save her brother, kidnapped by the Iron Fey (faeries made from technology, basically, sort of like cyborgs) by killing the Iron King. Along the way, she also falls in love with Ash, a Prince of the Unseelie court. As she is the daughter of Oberon, and he is the son of Mab, their love is forbidden, and since they refuse to break up, they are both banished from the Faerie realms forever.

Or so you might think. Only it turns out that there is a new Iron King, whose vast armies are moving through both the Seelie and Unseelie lands with terrifying speed, poisoning the earth and making it uninhabitable for the traditional Fae. Mab and Oberon are willing to pardon them, and revoke the banishment of Ash, Meghan and Puck (who can't stay away from Meghan and has defied his king to help protect her) on the condition that Meghan, the only one who can go into Iron Fey territory without being poisoned, tracks down and kills the new Iron King. Meghan has already realized that her mother, stepfather and little brother will never be left in peace, and has had to fend off several attacks from the aggressive Iron Fey, so she agrees.

She needs to figure out a way to use her Summer and Iron glamour without getting really sick; she needs to convince Puck that while she's very fond of him, she only loves him as a friend; she needs to figure out her new relationship with the overprotective and immortal Winter Prince who has abandoned his home and everything he knows to be with her; she needs to find a way to keep her mortal family safe; and lastly, she needs to venture deep into Iron Fey territory and defeat the usurper Iron King, who wants to kill her to get the powers she  received when she killed his predecessor. Simple, right?

I was a little bit wary about starting The Iron Queen as the previous book in the series, Iron Daughter, was a bit boring, and dragged, and most of the characters, who had seemed perfectly decent in the first book were annoying, melodramatic and extremely deserving of a hearty slap. Happily, it seems that Kagawa is back on form, and Meghan, who was wishy-washy and whiny and mostly TSTL in the previous book, has now matured a bit, and is a much more enjoyable character to read about. Not that there weren't bits when I wished she'd THINK more, it was painfully obvious to me from the start who the new Iron King was, yet she seemed to be totally flabbergasted by it.

Ash gets more of a personality in this book, which is good, because cold (literally, he's one of the Winter Fae), dark and brooding was getting a bit dull. The rather forced love triangle of the second book seems to have been resolved without too many problems, and just to make sure the star-crossed lovers don't get too comfortable - the events at the end of this book sets up interesting new challenges for the Summer Princess and the Winter Prince. I'm not as dismayed as I might have been that this series will continue, after all. 

11. "The Curse of Chalion" by Lois McMaster Bujold

Publisher: HarperTorch
Page count: 502 pages
Date begun: February 1st, 2011
Date finished: February 6th, 2011

The country of Chalion has been at war for a long time, and Castillar Cazaril has suffered more than many. After the fortress he was in charge of was surrendered to the enemy, an alleged clerical error caused him to be left of the ransom lists, and instead of being returned home with his soldiers, he was sold into slavery and lived two years as a galley slave for the enemy, nearly dying in the process. When he finally returns home to Chalion, he is scarred both physically and mentally. He returns to the household where he once served as a page, and the is welcomed by the elderly Provencara, who decides that his many adventures and previous courtly experience makes him a perfect secretary-tutor for her headstrong and willful young granddaughter, half-sister to the ruler of Chalion.

Cazaril is grateful for the post, and hopes that in the rural outskirts, he will be safe from the court intrigue. But the roya (king) of Chalion is childless, and sends for his younger half-siblings. Cazaril has to go with Iselle and her brother, the Heir to the throne, to court, and there he won't be able to escape the notice of the noblemen who betrayed him. The same nobles now hold a lot of power, and Carazil has his work cut out for him, trying to keep his young mistress from their grasp, and to save her from being taken over by the insidious curse that lies over the royal family.

A friend of mine loves Lois McMaster Bujold, and has been nagging me to read something by her for years. I'd read several very positive reviews of her work. As it is, I liked The Curse of Chalion, but I wasn't exactly filled with "where has this book been all my life?" Cazaril is an interesting protagonist, and he sure has a sucky backstory. The historical Spain-inspired world, the magic and the religion of Chalion is all cool, too, but it took me a while to get into the book, and even when I was invested in seeing where it was going, I found bits of the story a bit confusing. I would also have liked to see both Iselle and Beatriz (the object of Cazaril's affection) developed slightly more as characters, it seems to me that Bujold was more interested in the the male characters. A good book, but it didn't wow me as much as my friend and internet hype suggested it should. Still, I'll get through the rest of the trilogy at some point this year.

Friday, 4 February 2011

10. "Scandal of the Year" by Laura Lee Guhrke

Publisher: Avon
Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: February 4th, 2011
Date finished: February 4th, 2011

Scandal of the Year is a sequel of sorts to Wedding of the Season, and in it, the man jilted in the previous book, Aidan Carr, the Duke of Thathen, finally finds his Duchess, but only after yet another broken engagement. While his first engagement was broken once he found Lady Beatrix Danbury in the arms of her childhood sweetheart, in a particularly passionate snog, his second attempt at matrimony was ruined about a year later, when he was found naked in bed with Lady Julia Yeardley (Beatrix' cousin, a supporting character in the previous book) by her husband.

Having tried to get a divorce from her beastly husband for years, Julia finally managed it by getting Aidan incredibly drunk on champagne and seducing him, knowing her husband would find them in bed together, and the public scandal wouldn't allow him to stay married to her any longer. She knows that Aidan probably hates her afterwards, and that his previously perfect reputation was rather tarnished by the incident. So she's surprised when he not only acknowledges her at social functions, but seems quite pleased to see her. Deeply in debt, as her husband made sure she had no money of her own for most of their marriage, Julia is in desperate need for gainful employment, not something easy to find for a woman of rank, and a notorious divorcee to boot. When Aidan offers to make her his social secretary, she gladly accepts, even though her primary role will be to help him find a suitable wife, and she'll have to spend lots of time in close proximity to the only man who's ever really made her feel passionate.

Aidan seen from Julia's perspective is rather a different man than the one presented in Wedding of the Season, and as it's clear that he's always fancied her cousin since the first time he met her, it's probably a good thing he didn't end up marrying Beatrix. He's still a perfect gentleman, kind, honourable, protective and chivalrous, but instead of coming across as a bit of a boring prig here, it's clear that he keeps his true emotions tightly shackled, for fear of repeating his father's mistakes. He knows that unless he keeps his desires reigned in, he'll hurt the people around him, who depend on him, and he strives to do the right thing always. Like Beatrix, he thinks he knows exactly what he wants in a life partner, only to have his mind changed for him. When he realizes what he does want, however, he doesn't hesitate as long as she did, he pursues it with a singleminded determination.

While Wedding of the Season was a nice bit of escapist fluff which I wouldn't necessarily remember a year from now, I'm glad I read it, as it set up the scene for the protagonists of this book. Scandal of the Year was a great romance and a much more satisfying read, more so because Aidan and Julia, who seemingly couldn't stand each other in the previous book, are clearly meant for each other. Having met at chance encounters throughout the years, the first time shortly before Julia was about to make her disastrous marriage, they've got a much more interesting backstory than Beatrix and Will, and Julia's vulnerability and vehement unwillingness to ever commit to a man are very understandable. Both protagonists seem like much more complex characters, and their sufferings and struggles make their happy ending so much more rewarding. This book reminded me in turns of Blue Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas and His at Night by Sherry Thomas, and stood up well in comparison to both books. There is apparently a third book in this series coming out, and I now can't wait to read it.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

9. "Wedding of the Season" by Laura Lee Guhrke

Publisher: Avon
Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: January 30th, 2011
Date finished: January 31st, 2011

William Mallory, the Duke of Sunderland, is back in England for a brief time to see to his estates and borrow more money to fund his archaeological expedition in Egypt, where he's searching for the tomb of King Tutankhamen. He knows he can't avoid seeing his former fiancee, Lady Beatrix Danbury, as he wants to borrow the money off her cousin. Six years earlier, Will asked Beatrix to come with him on his adventures in Egypt, shortly before the couple were due to marry in a huge society event, but she turned him down. Now she's engaged to the Duke of Thrathen and likely to have all her dreams of a big family fulfilled.

Beatrix was shocked when Will asked her to come to Egypt. Her cousin's best friend, she always knew they'd get married, and she loved him since she was a little girl. Leaving one's family, estates and social obligations to go off digging for elusive treasures in the desert was never part of her plans, and she felt forced to turn Will down. Hoping for years that he'd return and choose her over Egypt, she finally convinced herself that she was over him, and accepted the proposal of another man, Aidan Carr, who is everything Will is not. He has a sense of tradition, honour, family and plans their honeymoon around his obligations on his estates and in Parliament. Some may consider him dull, Beatrix knows that he is safe and trust-worthy, if a bit overprotective.

Shortly before Beatrix is due to finally get her wedding of the season, she and Will are thrown together at the house party of a mutual friend. Upon seeing her again (when she nearly runs him over in her Daimler), Will is determined to win her back, and convince her to come with him to Egypt this time. Can he awaken Beatrix' dormant sense of adventure and persuade her that she's not over him after all?

I'd read a few romances by Laura Lee Guhrke before, and I like that she doesn't feel the need to set them during the Regency era, standard setting for a vast majority of historical romances (or so it seems, anyway). I'd heard mixed reports of this one, mainly from historical sticklers who couldn't get over the fact that Will is looking for the tomb of King Tutankhamen far earlier than the actual excavations for said tomb actually took place. I did not feel that this factual error in any way detracted from the story. Will and Beatrix are a nice couple, and complement each other well. It's clear that they're meant to be together, and that to an extent, it's a misunderstanding of each other's expectations of marriage, and Beatrix's controlling father that caused them to break up in the first place.

It's always a tricky thing when your hero has to steal the heroine away from another man. How do you do that without making him an unsympathetic cad? Sometimes the author chooses to make said other man utterly unlikable, but Guhrke has chosen not to make Aidan (the hero of a companion romance) a villain or a freak who clearly doesn't deserve the heroine, just someone who doesn't suit her very much, and who is clearly the rebound guy. He's kind and honourable, and reacts remarkably calmly to losing his fiancee, and I'm actually looking forward to reading the novel where he gets his own happy ending.