Saturday, 21 January 2017

#CBR9 Book 2: "Breath of Fire" by Amanda Bouchet

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC copy of this through NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.

Spoiler warning! This is the second book in The Kingmaker Chronicles and as such this review may contain mild spoilers both for the first book in the series, A Promise of Fire and for the beginning of this book. If you're new to the series, start with book one. If you like going in not knowing anything, come back and read this review once you've finished the book.

Griffin has discovered the truth about Cat's parentage and past and is none too happy about it. After throwing one hell of a tantrum, he seems very surprised when Cat has retreated to her old room in the barracks, believing that he can no longer stand to be near her. After revealing the full truth of her past to him, they reconcile most ardently and then begin to consider what to do about the upcoming Power Bid in the region. Cat is the rightful heir of Fisa and knows that at some point, she has to confront her tyrannical and sadistic mother and end her reign once and for all. The third country in the region, Tarva, are making overtures towards invading Sinta and Griffin and his family need to figure out what to do to protect themselves until they can further consolidate power.

Cat suggests recruiting the aid of magical creatures to guard their borders. In order to do so, they first have to go see a Chaos Wizard and then complete a dangerous and elaborate quest in a maze in the ice caves in the mountains. Only Cat and Cato, one of the other members of Beta Team are allowed into the caves. Griffin, Carver and Flynn have to wait outside. Cat has been granted Ariadne's thread, which will never run out, so she and Cato can find their way back out, but inside the caves, they have to face a number of challenges and Cat comes to discover new and surprising gifts granted to her by her godly protectors.

Once they've survived the maze and Artemis' challenges, they have to travel to actually persuade the giant centaurs they want to recruit to join their cause. This involves trying to outsmart a hydra and another set of challenges. When they finally do make it back to Sinta, it's clear that the best way to gain access to the Tarvan capital and its royals is by competing in and winning a hugely popular bloodsport tournament, held every four years. The winners are granted an audience with the Tarvan rulers. Gaining access to the palace could allow Beta Team to usurp power without having to go to war. The tournament is fiendishly difficult, however, and it's going to take a lot for them to win.

A Promise of Fire was one of my favourite books last year and combined an interesting and elaborate fantasy world, complete with a lot of influence from Greek mythology, with a satisfying, slow-burning romance. One of the few things that annoyed me about the book was that Cat had yet to tell Griffin about her mother and her true identity when the book ended. Extremely frustratingly, Bouchet chooses to have Griffin discover the truth between books, so to speak, off-page and not from Cat directly. He is absolutely livid, throws the mother of all temper tantrums, completely trashes their bedroom (to the point where he cleaves their bed in two with his sword) and generally manhandles and yells at Cat (who is still recovering from a near-death experience), acting completely at odds with the character we got to know in book 1.

When Cat is hurt and heartbroken and leaves to take refuge in her old room in the barracks, believing Griffin to be so disgusted with her and her family legacy that he can no longer love her, she is surprised to find that when she wakes up from a long, healing sleep, he has been frantically looking for her since she disappeared and wonders why she would leave him. Having read the preceding chapters, I am totally with Cat - confused about Griffin's mercurial turnaround and sudden declarations of eternal devotion and crazed possessiveness. What follows is several chapters of slightly uncomfortable love making, as it's clear that Griffin really needs to assert his dominance over Cat (or something). This beginning really threw me off and made me wonder if I was reading the same writer.

Luckily, the book got better again, with Cat getting over some of her deeply held trust issues and confessing the truth about her past and her abilities to Griffin's entire family. She and Griffin then take Beta Team and go off to fight/recruit mythological monsters and you get more of the road trip feel that worked so well in the first book. Yet during Cat and Cato's ordeals in the ice caves, there was another misstep that made me feel uncomfortable and which I've seen described in other reviews as likened to male rape, and I find I have to agree. Event specific spoilers to follow!

Artemis the goddess is attended by a very skilled archer, who insists that in order for them to succeed in their quest, Cato has to service her (and possibly the goddess). If he refuses, it's quite clear that the archer will kill both him and Cat, so it's not like he's able to give clear and unforced consent here. It is later described how he was pretty much drugged with an aphrodisiac and had to provide his sexual services for the best end of two days, while the goddess Artemis watched them the whole time. The whole incident has clearly not been very enjoyable for him, but is just glossed over, as the female archer was really hot, after all (as it often is in other popular media too, season one of Orphan Black springs to mind - if the woman is hot enough, consent is probably not required from the man).

Spoilers over!

With the beginning of the book, and this storyline leaving a bad taste in my mouth, I still enjoyed much of the book. Even so, the plot felt more disjointed in this book than in the previous one, jumping around a lot more, from challenge to challenge. While I appreciate the author skipping out on all the boring transport bits, it got a bit frenetic at times.

Apart from his initial flip into bizarro Griffin, our hero is mostly very supportive of his incredibly powerful lady love. As is often the case with very alpha dudes, there is a lot of assertions of "Mine!" in a way that I've never found guys to need to do in real life, but so often happens in these kinds of stories. Once assured that Cat loves him just as much as he does her, though, he seems perfectly comfortable with her magical and political legacy and ceding power and authority to her, as she is clearly the one prophesied to overturn the current (and pretty shitty world order) and unite the three countries into one new super-realm. At the beginning of the book, he gets a bit bull-headedly protective, but this too changes and he mostly lets Cat do what she does best, which is kick ass.

Cat grows a lot more comfortable with the idea that she can be a ruler without being like her crazy, psychopathic mother and that the prophecies about her doesn't necessarily spell out doom and apocalypse, just a much needed revolution with power being wrested from those who abuse it. The three countries need more benevolent rulers and she and Griffin can do a lot of good, if they succeed in their mission. Having learned the hard way not to make any attachments, she comes to accept that she can love and trust Griffin, his family, Beta Team and her found family at the circus, without being worried that they'll reject her because of her psycho mother or her scary powers. Becoming more comfortable with accepting affection and support from others also makes her more confident and skilled.

I hope that the final book of the trilogy has less of the things that seriously bothered me in this book (and that nearly reduced my rating to 3.5 stars) and more of what made the first book so good. Sadly, Heart on Fire is not out until January 2018, so I'm in for quite the wait.

Judging a book by its cover: Yet again a cover that focuses on the strong female protagonist (and not any of the many dudes of the story), I still think it's sad that they appear to have changed cover models, so the woman portraying Cat looks completely different. Nonetheless, she's wearing leather armour and looking impressively muscled, while holding a sword and trailing fire. I'm assuming the heavy use of blue mist is meant to evoke the ice caves where a dramatic part of the novel takes place. I don't like this as much as the first one, but it's still better than a LOT of fantasy covers out there.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

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