Sunday 25 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 107: "Once Broken Faith" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 420 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is book ten in an ongoing series, and as such, REALLY not the place to start. While my review may not have too many spoilers about earlier books in the series, there is a whole lot of history in the books before that is required for this book to be fully satisfying to a reader. Start at the beginning with Rosemary and Rue

After changeling knight and sometime champion of the realm, October "Toby" Daye's adventures in the Kingdom of the Silences, there is now an actual functional cure for elf shot (poison arrows that make a pureblood fae sleep for a hundred years). Queen Arden Windermere pops up unexpectedly while Toby is hosting a slumber party for the various teens in her life. Arden wants Toby to be there while the elf shot cure is administered to the queen's seneschal, as well as her brother, both struck down by her enemies. It needs to be done before the High King can show up and forbid them to use the cure. As it happens, they manage to wake one of two, before High King Aethlin Sollys arrives and postpones any further awakenings until they've had a big conclave, discussing whether the cure should be allowed, or buried forever.

Toby is ordered to appear at the conclave and is none too pleased about it. With so many different faerie rulers and high powered dignitaries in one place, it is important that Tybalt assert himself fully as the independent and aloof King of the Court of Dreaming Cats. As the Court of Cats doesn't swear fealty to anyone, even the High King, Tybalt can't really associate publicly with Toby, a knight to with a very set allegiance to the Divided Courts. The enforced distance hurts and unnerves them both.

As well as more faerie royals in one place for over a generation, the conclave is attended by the oldest of the Firstborn, the Sea Witch herself (and Toby's aunt), the Luidaeg. She intends to bear witness to proceedings and brings along Karen, Toby's honorary niece, an oneiromancer (she can walk in and interpret the dreams of others). She's been tasked with speaking the opinions of Evening Winterrose, Toby's nemesis, and the original inventor of elf shot. While Evening herself is sleeping through a hundred years after being elf shot herself, she wants to make sure that her case is heard at the conclave and has no qualms about emotionally blackmailing a vulnerable teenage girl to enable it.

What initially seems to be likely to be a boring few days of pureblood faeries yelling at each other, turns a lot more sinister when one of the kings are murdered and the Duchess of Saltmist is unexpectedly elf shot in her quarters. As always, when Toby starts investigating, things get bloody and fraught with several near-death experiences, taking turns for the very bad before getting better again.

With Toby being almost invincible because of the gifts inherited from her mother, it seems as if Seanan McGuire needs to come up with new and horrific ways in which to injure our intrepid protagonist. While I'm not sure anything can top the book where she was disemboweled more than once (!), the pain and horror Toby has to suffer in this book is still pretty gruesome.

Being close to Toby is always dangerous and the people out to cause havoc will happily target those nearest and dearest to her if it means taking her out of the game, even temporarily. As I adore all of Toby's little found family and neither of them have the near-immortality that she does, I was absolutely terrified for a while when things were at their darkest in this. No matter how much I've enjoyed this series, and how much I look forward to each new instalment, there are some character deaths that will make me drop the series immediately, should they occur. Not only that, I will never read any of the other series she's written either. I can be deeply unforgiving if crossed.

Luckily, to my deep relief, I did not have to make this decision now, and hope I won't have to do so in future either. This is the tenth book in the series, and it seems from the preface that Ms McGuire has no intention of ending the series any time soon. As I love spending time with Toby, Tybalt, May, Quentin, Raj, Sylvester and the Luidaeg, I'm quite happy to follow wherever the story takes me next.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't know who the cover artist who makes these for Seanan McGuire is, but whoever it is, they are very good at their job. As always, Toby is featured front and centre, here in a clear defencive pose (which considering the events of the books is probably wise). There's nothing to get too excited about on this, but considering the awfulness of a lot of paranormal covers, this is still tons better than what I'm used to.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 106: "Magic Binds" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book nine in the Kate Daniels series. The penultimate book in the series, in fact. I will not be able to review this book without there being spoilers for earlier books. Don't read this if you're not all the way caught up. Do pick up the series if you like good Urban/Paranormal fantasy, though, it's pretty much the best out there at the moment.

 Private detective and supernatural powerhouse Kate Daniels is finally getting married to Curran Lennart, former Beast Lord of Atlanta. They ask Ronan, Black Vohlv of the Death god Chernobog to perform the ceremony, and he is beyond delighted, even after (or possibly because) he realises that he'll also have to tak on the role of wedding planner (seriously, after this book, I'd love to get a look at Ronan's Pinterest boards). Kate doesn't really see why the wedding can't just amount to people they care about showing up at a set date, they have some cake and get the deed done? Who cares about invitations, a fancy dress, cake, flowers or the like? Even being told by a number of different people that no, the wedding night is for the bride and groom, the wedding itself is for everyone else. Everyone who is anyone in Atlanta is going to want an invitation to this event and Kate and Curran can't half-ass it.

Kate has more pressing matters than her impending wedding to worry about. Her best friend, Andrea, alpha of the Bouda clan, is extremely pregnant, restless and freaking out because the baby might go loup at birth. If that happens, someone's going to have to put the baby down, and no one wants that.
Roland, Kate's ancient demi-god father, keeps challenging Kate's authority over Atlanta in all sorts of little ways, all while building a giant fortress just outside the area she's claimed as her own. Despite the friction, they still somehow seem to end up in seafood restaurants, having family dinners.

Now Roland has abducted Saiman, Kate's former ally. This is an insult he knows she cannot overlook. Kate needs to make a decision and the future is not looking bright. The Witch Oracle informs her that a massive battle is imminent, where the city will burn and people will suffer. Kate will suffer a terrible loss, and in every possible future the witches have seen, someone she loves, is killed by Roland. If she marries Curran, he dies. If she doesn't, the battle won't happen immediately, but her son will die instead. Naturally, neither option is acceptable to Kate and she is the only one with even the faintest chance to change the future, by doing something wholly unexpected and drastic. She's running out of time, and doesn't feel she can confide in Curran, the man she loves above everything.

While she's struggling with the knowledge that loss, death and warfare are looming in her future, Kate is also having to come to terms with her own growing powers, ever more tempted by her own dark side. She's getting snappish and impatient with those close to her and sees clearly that with each badly handled decision, she's more likely to becoming like her father. Initially, she stops herself from tapping into her dark side because she knows Curran, Julie or Derek (her chosen family) would disapprove, but she knows that she cannot define her choices on what others would think. She needs to find her own limits and moral centre, and resist being what either of her fathers, Voron or Roland, wanted her to be.

The Kate of the first book was alone, bitter and had very little to actually live for. Now Kate has friends, allies and a family who will stand with her, even through the upcoming inevitable battle. Paradoxically, she needs to become more powerful to defeat Roland once and for all, but the power could so easily corrupt her in the process. She needs to gain control of her raising powers before it changes her into someone unacceptable.

There are a number of little "side quests" for Kate to go on, to gather the resources she needs to implement her highly dangerous and rather unhinged plan. Curran is remarkably trusting throughout, even though Kate refuses to actually tell him much of what is going on or what she's working to prevent. He agrees to take some Guild mercenaries to Roland's castle to get Saiman back, while Kate creates a diversion elsewhere, trying to think outside the box in terms of recruiting support against her megalomaniac dad.

As a result, Kate and Curran are working apart for much of the book, but a number of minor supporting characters from former books show up to lend her a hand. In between Kate's frantic attempts to alter the unacceptable future(s), there is Roman, being excellent comic relief, arranging the wedding invitations, ambushing Kate with wedding dress fittings and cake samplings, to her immense (and very amusing) frustration. Without this lightness occasionally, the book would be pretty grim, with Kate's identity crisis taking the story to some dark places.

Just as Kate refuses to be Roland's idea of a compliant child, Julie, Kate's adoptive daughter, keeps on making decisions that deeply concern her parents. Due to the spell linking them, Kate cannot outright forbid Julie from spending time with Roland, even though she's terrified that he is manipulating the girl and in the initial stages of turning the young woman into his next warlord. Julie's first mother was no fool, though and Julie's past experiences means she has excellent instincts. She knows Kate and Curran need intel on Roland and that he can help her hone her magic skills to unprecedented new levels. She intends to use all of this to help her adoptive parents prevail in the end.

A new Kate Daniels book is among the highlights of my year and I made sure to clear my schedule (even though I have so much to do at work now) so that I could read the whole book in a day. The structure of Kate going on a number of mini quests before facing off against the "big bad" at the end made the story feel a bit like a video game, and while I liked it a lot, it still doesn't live up to the breathtaking awesomeness of book 7, Magic Breaks. This is the penultimate book in the series, there is indeed a battle, but the final confrontation will be in the next book. As such, the ending felt a bit incomplete, but the epilogue more than made up for it.

So much of this series has been about Kate finding a support network and she now has a true family, both made and found. There were several moments throughout the book that made me tear up, because of the moving events that took place. I read the epilogue with both tears in my eyes and a big grin in place. While Curran's gotten the last line for the last few books, this time the honour goes to Kate. Her announcement is by no means unexpected, and promises big things to come in the final book.

Judging a book by its cover: There have been some truly awful covers in this series (and for Ilona Andrews' books in general). I think they're on their sixth cover model for Kate at this point. In the grand scheme of things, I think this might be my favourite of the bunch. I love that Ilona actually insisted on Kate having some sort of flower embroidery on Kate's peasant blouse to reflect the Slavic traditions being woven through Kate's wedding ceremony. The model portraying Kate looks suitably fierce and ready to fight. I think (based on descriptions in the book) that her hair is a tad too long, but if book 10 has a cover half this good, I'll be very happy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read 

#CBR8 Book 105: "Dumplin'" by Julie Murphy

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 2 min
Rating: 3.5 stars

Willowdean "Will" Dickson is a teenager in a small town in Texas, with nothing much to recommend it, except being home of the oldest beauty pageant in the state (possibly the country, I don't remember). The Miss Teen Bluebonnet is a big deal and Will's mother's biggest claim to fame is that she won it when she was young, and still fits into the evening dress she wore. She now wears it every year, as she presents the pageant. Will is not skinny like her mother, she's fat and this is something she's not actually bothered about much of the time. Despite her mother's many attempts at putting her on diets, and fears for her health, Will is fairly confident in herself and doesn't care what others think of her.

Will's beloved aunt, Lucy, was very obese and died about a year ago from a heart attack. Will and Lucy shared a love for Dolly Parton, and it was because of this that Will met her best friend, Ellen. They both love Dolly immensely, and both miss Lucy a lot. Having shared everything growing up, however, the two girls are starting to grow apart. Ellen has been dating Tim for ages, and is ready to take things to the next level. Will is supportive, but inwardly panicking. If El has sex, while Will has yet to even kiss a boy, what will they really have to talk about any more?

There is a boy in question that Will wouldn't mind kissing at all. Bo, a handsome private school kid who works with her at the local fast food place surprisingly starts taking an interest in Will over the summer, and soon they seem to be making out in an abandoned parking lot after every shift. Yet excited as Will is about this, she doesn't tell El, and while normally completely comfortable in her own skin, she gets deeply self-conscious about her body every time Bo touches her. She's also worried about what other people will say if they see them together - because why would a gorgeous guy like Bo want to be with a girl like her?

As summer is coming to an end, Will discovers that Bo will be transferring to her high school, but didn't tell her. Nor does he seem to want to acknowledge her as anything but a colleague when they meet at the Mall when he's there with his family. Angry because her deepest fears have been confirmed (Bo is ashamed to be seen with her and wants to keep their relationship secret), Will breaks up with him. She still hasn't told El, who is nonetheless noticing her friend behaving strangely every time she sees the cute new guy.

Mitch, one of the school's star football players, asks Will out and seems to like him a lot. She's flattered by the attention and agrees, even though she's in no way over Bo, and doesn't feel anything but platonic affection for Mitch.

Needing a shake-up in her life, Wil enters the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant and inadvertently becomes an inspiration for Millie, Amanda and Hannah, other outcast girls at the school. Sadly, fuelled by her jealousy at El having made friends with several of the "cool" girls in school over the summer, and her increasing insecurities, she has a massive argument with El (because she too joins the pageant) and has to navigate the next few months completely estranged from her BFF.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Dumplin' online, and was happy to pick it up in an 2 for 1 sale at Audible a while back. It's nice to have a teen heroine who describes herself as fat, and while I've seen criticism that the book isn't as body positive as purported because Will occasionally has misgivings about her own weight and makes mean digs at thinner girls more than once, I don't think that's fair. Willowdean is a teenager, and there is not a single teenager alive who isn't self-conscious on occasion, no matter what they look like or how much they weigh. Of course she feels jealousy and is bitchy when she feels insecure. That's not even exclusive to teenagers, but when constantly hormone-fuelled, it's difficult to be zen-like and forgiving all the time. Frankly, it makes Will a more complex and believable character that she's jealous, judgemental, petty and stupid on occasion.

I thought the main conflict of this book was going to be that Willowdean, a teenage girl who didn't exactly fit the beauty pageant contestant looks, joining the pageant her mother once won. Her entering the contest doesn't happen until almost halfway through the book, though, and most of the book is just about Will living her life and trying to come to terms with her aunt's death and her and her mother's different approaches to grieving. The structure of the story is one of the things I didn't really like so much, it's a bit all over the place, and the book could have benefited from more structure.

I didn't really understand what was so great about Bo, although I liked him better towards the end of the book when he seemed to have figured out that he'd been an ass earlier and realised he was going to have to shape up and really court Will properly. I thought Mitch was a total sweetie, and was not at all happy with the way Will treated him. She kept stringing him along because she liked the attention, but should have been honest with him after their first date was disappointing. She also treated El appallingly during the pageant sign-up and should have made more of an effort to try to see her friend's side of things. I was wholly and completely on El's side in that conflict, but teenagers are complete idiots most of the time, so I can also forgive Will (who grovels very satisfyingly later).

Besides, if Will had had El at her side the whole time, she wouldn't have made new friends in the oddballs who insist on joining the Miss Bluebonnet pageant as well. Millie, Amanda and Hannah are all even stranger and less popular than Will, and early in the book, she shows that she can be just as prejudiced in her opinions of them as the more popular kids. Spending more time with them and really getting to know them is very good for Will, though, and I would have liked the book more if there was less of a focus on the love triangle and more on the various female friendships.

I've read a lot of YA this summer and most of it, I enjoyed more than this one. It's well worth a look, though, if nothing else because of the different setting and the nice explorations of friendship.

Judging a book by its cover: The simple black cover with Willowdean portrayed in her red pageant evening gown, head back and arms outstretched, is a nice one. Nothing too elaborate and without revealing any facial features, so the reader can create their own mental image of the protagonist.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 20 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 104: "Crimson Bound" by Rosamund Hodge - double Cannonball!

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads, because I'm lazy and it's mostly a pretty good summary (I will point out the ways in which is it not afterwards):

When Rachelle was fifteen, she was good - apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless - straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.

Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand - the man she hates most - Rachelle forces Armand to help her find the legendary sword that might save their world. As the two become unexpected allies, they uncover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?

Inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Crimson Bound is an exhilarating tale of darkness, love and redemption.

Rachelle lives in a world where there are evil things lurking in the Forest and they believe that three thousand years ago, an evil entity known as the Devourer, god of the forestborn, swallowed the sun and the moon. A brave pair of siblings, known as Zisa and Tyr managed to recover the sun and the moon, and bind the Devourer in sleep for millennia. But soon, Rachelle's aunt, the village wood-wife (wise women trained to protect people against the evil of the forestborn) announces, the Devourer will awaken, to swallow the sun and moon once more.

With the foolish impulsiveness of youth, Rachelle decides to try to figure out a way to subdue the Devourer once more, should he really return. She starts walking in the woods, attracting one of the dangerous servants of the dark forces. She keeps courting danger, until one day, he persuades her to remove her protective charms, and (naturally) attacks her. Once marked by a forestborn, an individual has only two choices. Kill someone before three days are up, or die. Rachelle fights the compulsion, but ends up killing her aunt. She does discover, from the sinister and seductive forestborn who marked her, that the only way to defeat the Devourer, is with Zisa's legendary bone swords, believed lost forever.

Three years later, Rachelle is living in the capital, and is one of the king's order of penitent bloodbound. She was marked by the Forest and killed to stay alive, but has not fully submitted to the call of the Forest and become fully forestborn yet. Instead, she spends every waking hour hunting down the wicked creatures that threaten innocent civilians. She has a semi-flirtatious relationship with Eric D'Anjou, the Captain of the King's bloodbound, but refuses to give into his attempts at seduction, refusing to become another notch on his belt.

After foiling an assassination attempt at the King's bastard son, Armand, she is ordered to be his bodyguard. As Rachelle has only just gotten word from the shadowy forestborn who changed her that the Devourer will be rising as soon as the next Solstice, she has only a few weeks to try to locate Joyeuse, one of the bone-swords the legendary Zisa used to free the sun and the moon. Stories say it is hidden "below the moon, above the sun". She certainly does not have time to baby-sit one of the King's many illegitimate sons, especially one who has been proclaimed a saint by the populace after he was allegedly marked by a forestborn, refused to kill, but still survived after three days. He did lose both his hands, and now has silver ones he wears instead. The blurb claims he is the man she hates the most, this is wildly exaggerated. She despises him, believes he is a liar and a fraud - as there is just no proven instance of anyone surviving three days after encountering a forestborn, unless they kill someone, like she did.

As the assassination attempt on Armand that Rachelle foiled is not the first, she is told to accompany him to one of the King's sumptuous country estates. Rachelle is persuaded to bring her fully human friend Amelie, who wants to basically be Rachelle's stylist, now that she has to appear at court functions. Armand tells Rachelle a legend from his region of the country, that makes her believe that the sword she is looking for, may in fact be hidden somewhere in the palace they will be staying. As it is impossible for her to be on guard duty and keep on searching, she reluctantly enlists Armand's help. She is still convinced he is lying about how he lost his hands, but the more she observes him, the more unlikely it seems that he wants any kind of glory or fame, and he is clearly deeply uncomfortable being venerated by the general populace.

The return of the Devourer draws ever closer. Rachelle and Armand are running out of time and the closer to the solstice they get, the more the sinister Forest seems to be encroaching on the royal residence, even though protective spells are supposed to be all over the grounds. Will Rachelle find the legendary sword and stop the Devourer, before it's too late?

What I liked:
- I absolutely adored the dark fairy tale told at the beginning of many of the chapters, relating the story of Zisa and Tyr. There were clearly elements of Hansel and Gretel, but with much darker undertones throughout, and there are clearly other folkloric tales mixed in there too. The horror that the siblings go through and what Zisa is willing to sacrifice to rescue her brother is lovely. Creepy and fantastic as all the best fairy tales are.
- The various folklore elements woven throughout the story. 
- The sinister creeping dread of the Forest, and the almost vampire-like forestborn. The bargain the marked have to make to continue living and the ever-present threat that they submit fully to the call of the Forest, and become fully inhumane.
- I liked Rachelle's complexity, even though I didn't always like her. She made an incredibly stupid mistake in her youth (some TSTL behaviour right there), but strove so hard to atone for it. Working to fight the threats from the Forest and saving innocents, even as she believed herself wholly damned.
- The sweet and genuine friendship between Rachelle and Amelie.
- I liked Armand as a character. His cut-off hands and his silver replacements (that burn him when the metal gets too hot) was suitably gruesome. I was also impressed when it was finally revealed what actually happened to him - the full extent was both cool and horrible.
- The concept of the wood-wives, local wise-women who could weave various charms to protect the populace against the creeping evil of the Forest. Zisa was apparently the first of the wood-wives and they pass down the knowledge through the generations.
- I mostly liked the decadent Renaissance French court setting.
- I liked the monsters Rachelle had to defeat, both in her everyday fight against the encroaching Forest and when looking for Joyeuse. 
- The plot wasn't entirely predictable (for all that some things were pretty obvious to me from early on). There were a lot of cool reveals along the way.

Did not like:
- Erec D'Anjou. He gave me the creeps from the moment he showed up. He was an arrogant creep and the way he treated Rachelle was condescending and appalling. The fact that he was presented as charming, handsome and a supposed third in the love triangle of the story was baffling to me. He was pond scum.
- Rachelle's initial aversion to Armand really did seem very extreme and was really never well explained.
- Nor was her sudden change of heart, where she pretty much out of the blue loves him. Not at all sure at what point her feelings changed from distrust, disdain and slight loathing to true love.
- Absolutely and utterly hated the whole love triangle.
- The structure of the story was a bit messy and the book could have been tighter plotted. The ending seemed a bit confused and rushed.
- The Little Red Riding Hood inspiration was tenuous, at best. 

This is Rosamund Hodge's second book, and from what I can see from various reviews, a lot of people don't think it's as good as her first book, Cruel Beauty. As there was a lot that I really liked about this book, I'm now even more excited that I have the supposedly better book still to read. As some reviews also say that the plots are a bit reminiscent of each other, I think I'm going to wait a bit, so the books don't suffer too much in comparison.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen some people complaining that the cover of this book is too close to Rosamund Hodge's debut novel, Cruel Beauty, but I honestly don't see why this is problematic. The books are published by the same company, they probably wanted to make it more obvious the books were by the same author. The spiralling stair motif is a cool one (even though it has very little to do with anything in the actual book), whilst the black and white, with the bright green of the trees and the splash of red of Rachelle's cloak are lovely contrasts. The way the trees seem to be moving ever closer to the stairs is a nice call-back to the encroaching Forest in the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 18 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 103: "As You Wish: Inconcievable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride" by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden

Page count: 259 pages
Audio book length: 7hrs 1 min
Rating: 4 stars

The Princess Bride is my favourite film. Probably of all time. Ask me to name my favourite book, and I really wouldn't be able to choose, as that would very much depend on genre, my mood, the weather, what I'd eaten recently and I would frankly have trouble even narrowing down a top 10. But my favourite film is The Princess Bride. I have loved it since I first discovered it back in the late 80s (or possibly very early 90s, I can't say exactly), when we had a number of movie channels on cable and I first saw the film. Because it was one of those channels that would repeat the movies a few times over the course of a month, I made sure to record it on vhs, so I could watch it whenever I wanted. I was the only one of my friends who had seen this film. I had no one to share my adoration with.

When I went to the US, on a language exchange trip before I was about to start high school, in 1995, I discovered that not only did most American teenagers my age know about the film, they loved it and could quote it pretty much verbatim (as evidenced when we watched the movie in our dorm during my stay there) It was an eye-opening and absolutely wonderful experience and I was also told about the book it was based on, and bought my first paperback copy (I now have the book in both paperback and hardback, as well as the 25th Anniversary edition, which includes the first chapter of the unlikely to ever be finished sequel, Buttercup's Baby). I have owned the film on VHS, multiple versions of DVD (because of new extras), and while I have yet to get round to buying it on Blu-Ray, it's only a matter of time. While initially, none of my Norwegian friends had seen it, I made it my life's mission to show it to as many as possible, and I still cannot wholly trust a person who doesn't see what a magical film it is. I don't require them to love it as much as I do (cause that's not likely to happen), but they need to at least like it. This was an important test early in my relationship with my now husband, just as we would have had serious difficulties if I hadn't really liked Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

All of this is to explain why once Cary Elwes' book came out, it was a very natural present for my husband to buy me. Now, because I have literally hundreds of actual physical books (even after my big and very necessary purge when moving house a year ago, I think I have more than 700) and closer to twice as many if you count all my e-books, I gratefully accepted my pretty hardback copy, flicked through it and looked at some of the pictures included, put it on a bookshelf and sadly forgot about it. Then in August, this was an Audible Daily Deal and I picked up the audio book (because having the book read to me by Cary Elwes seemed a pretty good thing) but it wasn't until fellow Cannonballer Beth Ellen actually reviewed the audio version that I decided that enough was enough.

Cary Elwes was a young and relatively unknown actor when he was cast in The Princess Bride. Because his American step-father worked in publishing, he had read and loved the book and couldn't believe his luck when he was cast as Westley. He talks about the casting process, the months of intense fencing training he and Mandy Patinkin had to go through to manage the stunning fencing scenes. He recalls the camaraderie among the cast, how much fun everyone had making the film, everyone's absolute love for the project and their disappointment at how badly marketed the film was upon its initial release, causing it to bomb at the box office. He also talks about how despite his long and varied career, and that of many of his cast members, most will always be remembered for their part in the movie, because it is now such a well-known and deeply loved phenomenon. As well as Elwes' own recollections, there are stories from most of the other cast members, as well as input from Rob Reiner, the director and William Goldman, the author and script writer.

If you're looking for juicy celebrity gossip, this is not the book to go for. Elwes is glowing in his praise of the whole experience, and it seems that not a single person involved with the filming had anything negative to say either (if anyone did, they certainly haven't been included in the book). I loved hearing about the kindness of Andre the Giant, how Elwes broke his toe while in the middle of shooting, or was literally knocked out during filming (both incidents you can see in the film if you look closely). How Billy Crystal came up with the mannerisms and look of Miracle Max. How after months of gruelling training, Elwes and Patinkin were so skilled at fencing that the originally planned fencing scene was over far too quickly and they had to go back and rehearse an extended, much more impressive fight. I don't want to reveal too much, but if you like the movie and/or novel, this is absolutely a behind the scenes book that's worth checking out.

Judging a book by its cover: It's Cary Elwes at his hottest, dressed as the Dread Pirate Roberts, holding a sword. What more do you want from a cover? 'Nuff said.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

#CBR8 Book 102: "The Dark Days Club" by Alison Goodman

Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Helen Wrexhall is 18 and nervous about her imminent presentation to the Queen. As her parents died when Helen was young, and there is scandal attached to her mother (she is believed to have been a traitor), Helen and her brother have been raised by their aunt and uncle. She desperately hopes that no one is going to mention the scandal connected to her mother, but can't resist the urge to take her mother's miniature with her to the presentation either, wanting something to remind her of her parents on her big day. Before she has a chance to see the Queen, the infamous Earl of Carlston (rumoured to have murdered his wife), a distant relative of her family, deftly steals the miniature from her, but promises to return it the next day. Helen is also shocked when the Queen not only mentions her mother, but seems to imply that the rumours about her may not all have been true.

When Lord Carlston comes to call the next day, accompanied by Beau Brummel (making Helen's aunt slightly less mortified by the whole thing), he actually flings her mother's miniature at her when no one is watching. Reacting with lighting reflexes she didn't suspect she had, Helen snatches it out of the air before it hits her face and is deeply puzzled by the whole encounter. In the last year, she's noticed herself going through changes. Her hearing is more acute, her eyesight is sharper. Lord Carlston clearly knows something about her mother, and suspects things about Helen too, since he is willing to test her in such odd ways. What connection does a man with such a black reputation have with the deceased Lady Catherine, and what could he possibly want from Helen?

Helen's aunt and uncle wants her to have nothing to do with Lord Carlston, and her uncle would prefer it if she denounce her mother entirely and claim publically that Helen is glad that she died when she did. Both of them want Helen to behave demurely and make a good match. That her brother's best friend, the Duke of Selburn, seems taken with her is certainly a good sign. Yet Lord Carlston reveals to Helen that she has rare and unusual gifts, and that she needs to be trained in the use of her powers to help save the country from horrible soul-sucking beings. He shows her a side of London that she never suspected existed and clearly has support in the highest places. Helen begins to sneak out to be trained by the scandalous earl, but just as she is beginning to trust him, a letter from her dead mother is delivered into her hands, making her unsure of whom to trust. Her mother offers her a choice from beyond the grave, Helen could give up her dangerous monster-hunting destiny, but the cost could be higher than she's willing to pay.

In an unusual twist on a chosen one story, Helen discovers that she is what is known as a Reclaimer, only one of eight in all of Britain, and the only woman of the bunch. Because her mother was also one, she is a direct descendant, something very unusual, and there are those that believe her existence is a portent for darker things to come. The Reclaimers fight the Deceivers, horrible soul-sucking monsters, that can move from host to host, and look just like ordinary humans when they're not sucking the life force out of their unsuspecting victims. The Reclaimers can see them using special lenses, and Helen is able to see them when holding her mother's miniature portrait against her bare skin.

The Reclaimers are part of what is known as The Dark Days Club, a secret branch of the Home Office, and the reason Helen's mother was considered a traitor is because she wanted to stop her work with them and leave the country. Lord Carlston, who was still young when Lady Catherine and her husband, the Earl of Hayden, died, wants to mentor Lady Helen and teach her how to use her special gifts. When Helen discovers from her mother's letter that the Reclaimers get slowly more and more corrupted by the evil they fight and that they frequently succumb to madness and lose any ability for love or affection, she worries about her future and considers using her mother's amulet to remove her powers once and for all. She is torn between her wish for a normal Regency life, with balls, dress fittings, flirting and a possible future with the Duke of Selburn and a life fighting dark forces, saving lives, making a real difference and spending more time with the enigmatic Earl of Carlston (who she doesn't believe actually murdered his wife, although he's not telling what really happened).

There is a lot of things I liked about this book, but it is longer and the story is WAY slower than it needs to be. It is both a positive and a negative that Alison Goodman is clearly a huge Regency nerd and has done meticulous detail into all aspects of the society. Sadly, in what I like to call Diana Gabaldon syndrome, she cannot help but reveal all of said research in often painful and tedious detail. I really did like that there is a lot more attention to the time period than is common, and certainly a lot more than I was expecting from a young adult novel. Yet when it bogs down the plot because I keep having to read about all the mundanities of Helen's existence, I get frustrated. The pacing of the story is especially slow in the first half of the book, and if Narfna hadn't so highly recommended the book, I might have considered giving up on it.

Goodman does a good job with Helen as our heroine, she's intelligent and strong-willed, and despite her uncle's disapproval, opposes him in quiet and small ways. Despite being the daughter, and sister, of an earl, Helen treats her personal maid Darby with kindness and Darby, in return, is fiercely loyal and protective of her mistress. One of the subplots of the book involve the two of them investigating the disappearance of one of the maids of the household. While Helen's uncle is pretty much completely horrible (someone in a review I saw, probably on Goodreads, compared him to Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter, and that's pretty much spot on as descriptions go), her aunt is kind and well-meaning, if worried about public opinion and the family's reputation. Helen's brother Andrew, the current Earl of Hayden is really quite dull and also very worried about Helen and the family's reputation. He cannot understand why she keeps behaving in such a hoydenish fashion and why she seems to end up in Lord Carlston's company, especially when his BFF, the Duke of Selburn seems interested in making her his wife.

I find the main conflict in this book intriguing, and wish that it had gotten to the action-packed and supernatural evil fighting parts sooner. I really do appreciate the attention to historical detail, but not when it makes the book at least a third longer than it needs to be. I hope to God that Goodman doesn't continue with the vague love triangle that she has introduced in this book (because I find them tedious in the extreme) and look forward to reading about the continuing adventures of Lady Helen, Darby and the hopefully unfairly maligned Lord Carlston (I refuse to believe that there isn't a good explanation for his wife's disappearance) in future books, in which Lady Helen herself hopefully fights more evil instead of just learning about it.

To anyone interested in the trope of young noblewoman in Regency England fighting evil monsters and trying to juggle suitors, balls and dress fittings, I also highly recommend Colleen Gleason's five books about Victoria Gardella, in the Gardella Vampire Hunters series. I read them all back in 2008-2009 and they are now all available in e-book format.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the understated elegance of this cover. The squiggly font implies history and possibly adventure, and the dark colours add to the atmosphere. The girl in the distance, beautifully attired with her lace parasol, the light through the trees, the lace edging suggesting you are viewing the scene from behind a curtain, it all works for me. The other cover for this book (I think it's the UK edition) is a lot more garish and I really don't like the cover model they have portraying either of the main characters of the book. I much prefer this one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 101: "A Scot in the Dark" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Miss Lillian "Lily" Hargrove, is the orphaned daughter of a land steward and unwilling ward to the Duke of Warnick. Due to an odd and unbelievable series of events, her guardian, and then the next seventeen heirs to the title die in the course of about a fortnight, leaving a very distant claimant to the title, Alec Stuart, a belligerent Scotsman as the new Duke. He doesn't like England, and stays in Scotland for the next five years, not even aware that Lillian exists.

As such, Lily lives a comfortable, if extremely isolated and lonely life in one of the ducal residences in London. She's not of the aristocracy, nor is she a servant. She has no friends or family to support her, and so, when unscrupulous actor and artist Derek Hawkins encounters her walking in the park, woos her and flatters her and makes her feel special, it doesn't take all that much persuasion for him to get her to pose for a nude portrait. Of course, Lily believed no one would see the portrait but them. She also foolishly believed Hawkins would propose marriage to her. Instead, he announces at the opening of the Royal Exhibition that his masterpiece will be displayed to the public on the closing day of the exhibition. Lily, distraught and shocked, makes a very public scene, and what little respectable reputation she may have had, is ruined.

Alec Stuart, reluctant twenty-first Duke of Warnick, known in the gossip pages as "the diluted duke" arrives in London two weeks after his solicitor informs him that 1) he has a young lady as a ward and 2) said lady is the object of a huge scandal. Alec has a number of reasons for disliking England and the English and he also has a massive distrust for all beautiful women. Lily announces that the painting will be unveiled to all the world in ten days' time. She wants the money promised to her by her initial guardian, so she can go far away and reinvent herself, somewhere no one knows who Lillian Hargrove is.

Alec refuses to let her run and hide, and believes the solution is to get her married off to someone respectable, as soon as humanly possible. He bestows a massive dowry on her, and sets about trying to match her up with a suitable gentleman. Of course, he is fiercely jealous of any other man so much as looking in Lillian's general direction. Yet when everyone around him, Lily included, suggests that he may be the best candidate for the job, all his fears and insecurities rise to the surface. Lily may have given herself to an unscrupulous artist and is about to have her naked body displayed for all of London to see, but Alec still believes that he is unworthy of her hand and needs to find her someone better.

In her newest series, Scandal and Scoundrel, Sarah Maclean basically takes contemporary celebrity gossip scandals and interprets them through a historical lens. The first book in the series, The Rogue Not Taken, was seemingly her take on a Kardashian-like family of sisters hugely popular in the scandal press, whilst this book is her response to various leaked nude photos in recent years. Sadly, this isn't as interesting as Ms Maclean seems to think it is. I liked the previous book a lot more than a lot of my romance reading friends on the internet, even though the hero was a complete tool for most of the book. Alec Stuart, the Scotsman hero of this one, appeared briefly towards the end of said book, and both Sophie and her new husband, the Marquess of Eversley, appear in this book, along with Sophie's many Scandalous Talbot-sisters. There are also appearances by Duncan West from Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, as well as his wife, who becomes one of Lily's new friends. I found most of the Talbot sisters annoying in the first book and didn't really like them all that much here (nor can I tell them apart), although it is nice that Lily finally makes some friends and gets to go out in society.

While the previous book in the series had some issues, this is even more of a hot mess. There are absolutely things I liked, Maclean excels at writing witty banter and the book made me laugh more than once. I genuinely like the title, which is certainly not always the case with Maclean's books. It discusses important feminist themes such as the nature of consent, victim blaming, slut shaming and how men in society are judged by a completely different standard to women. The eventual reveal of why Alec is so damned convinced that he's an uncivilised and uncouth brute, his dislike of the English, his distrust of beautiful women and his sense of unworthiness was an interesting twist on a common trope.

It still didn't make up for the fact that it got boring really quickly that Alec was bullheadedly determined to get Lily married off, yet insanely jealous of any other man so much as breathing in her vicinity. Starting with his mother, he's been told by women his entire life that he is too large, coarse, brutish and uncivilised. His mother eventually ran away from Scotland, and it seems more than one woman has treated Alec mostly like a glorified sex toy, good for nothing but a quick affair, but never anything more lasting. His internal monologue about how precious and exquisite she was, while he was brutish and unworthy still got on my nerves. I'm not really surprised that society at large sees him as a brute, when he literally tears doors of hinges and rampages around like a jealous madman for much of the book.

Lily keeps being described as devastatingly beautiful, but it has clearly not brought her any happiness and living holed up, isolated from polite society, without any chance to experience the world or make friends makes her a far too easy victim for Derek Hawkins. While waiting for the Diluted Duke to acknowledge her existence, she has dreamed of a season, of balls, dancing, marriage and children, and she has no wish to be forced into marriage in less than two weeks just to quell the gossip. Some of the behaviour she exhibits to drive suitors off is just bizarre, though, and the various madcap schemes that she and/or Alec devise to try to stop the painting from being displayed seem strange and out of place.

There is also an aspect of insta-love here, a trope I'm less than fond of. From figuratively hissing and spitting at each other during their first encounter, fewer than ten days pass before Lily and Alec are madly besotted with one another, ready to elope for Scotland to spend the rest of their days together. Would it really have hurt to have the story take place over a slightly longer span of time, say a month? It would have made the romance more believable, certainly.

I think there is only one more book left in this series, which seems to be going for celebrity divorce proceedings, with the eldest Talbot-sister, Seraphina, petitioning the House of Lords for divorce from her husband, the Duke of Haven (I severely doubt they'll end the book divorced). I desperately hope that it is better than the first two in the series, which keep going down in my estimation the more I think about them. Sarah Maclean has been removed from my auto-buy list and is quickly moving into the "only on sale" category, which is a shame, because I really love some of her earlier books.

Judging a book by its cover: Here we have another example of that baffling new romance cover trend, with the dresses with fabric that go on for miles and mile, but still inexplicably show most of the heroine's naked legs. Just in case you didn't figure out from the title of the book that it's about a Scotsman, the cover designer has helpfully added some tartan to the floor. I like the colour of the dress, it's pretty, but it is otherwise in no way period appropriate (for any period, really, this is made up historical clothing). I highly recommend you go to Goodreads to see the splashback cover though, where this exact romance cover is shown (presumably) as the scandalous painting (Worst. Nude. Portrait. Ever) in question, while the hero and heroine sort of smooch. It's hilarious.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 17 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 100: "First Star I See Tonight" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Piper Dove wants to become the best private detective in Chicago. First, though, she desperately needs to make enough to keep her agency afloat. Her over-protective dad, who didn't think it was appropriate for Piper to follow in his footsteps, left the agency to her greedy step-mum and Piper has spent every penny she had to buy it back, so she can run it herself. She's giving everything on her first job, trailing former quarterback for the Chicago Stars football team, now nightclub owner, Cooper Graham, but no matter what disguises she dons, he seems to be able to spot her instantly. She refuses to blow her cover, and claims to be his stalker, "not full-out barmy, just mildly...unhinged".

Cooper "Coop" Graham retired while at the top of his game, rather than risk injury from the sport he loved. Now he runs the successful Spiral, a hot new nightclub he's hoping he might be able to turn into a chain of clubs. He doesn't understand why this unusual young woman might be following him all the time, and once he discovers that she's a P.I, he naturally wants to know who hired her. Piper staunchly refuses, but tells him to keep a closer eye on his bar staff. Once he realises that she's completely correct and that at least one of his employees is stealing from him, he hires her on to discover if there are other discrepancies among the staff. As she works there, it becomes obvious that someone is out to get Coop, both by sabotaging his nightclub and possibly threatening his life, as well. Piper pretty much takes on the role as his bodyguard, determined to keep him safe, whether he wants it or not.

As Piper moves into one of the apartments over the nightclub (she needs to sublet her own place to make ends meet), and spends pretty much every night working in Spiral to monitor the staff, Coop grows to really like the determined detective. He sets out to seduce her, but quickly realises that he may be falling for her, faster than expected. Piper, raised by her father to be tough as nails, has always been taught that feelings are a weakness. She was raised to be a tomboy, and has never really had anything but casual relationships, as she pulls away before things get too emotional. How can he convince her that they have something worthwhile and keep her from running away, just as it's getting really good?

I read all of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Chicago Stars books over the summer in 2014 (Cannonball 6, for those paying attention). Some, I enjoyed a lot, like Match Me If You Can and Natural Born Charmer, whilst others I hated vehemently, like This Heart of Mine. This book is supposed to be book 8 in the series, but you really don't need to have read any of the earlier ones, and the connection to the Chicago Stars team is pretty tenuous. For those who have read the other books, there are cameos from former characters, like Phoebe Somerville Calebow from It Had to Be You. Heath and Annabelle from Match Me If You Can make more than one appearance and play a part in getting our couple towards their HEA.

This was a fun book, with some unusual minor storylines. Piper's elderly neighbour, Mrs Berkovitz, insists on hiring Piper for a stake out of the park where she is sure she saw her dead (and buried) husband. Piper is deeply uncomfortable taking the job, but after she spots a guy from a distance that looks a lot like the deceased Mr Berkovitz, she keeps on investigating the case to help her friend. She also befriends Jada, a teenager who lives in the other apartment over Spiral, who is involved in some sort of epic nerfgun battle with people at her new school. Then there's the Pakistani girl she insists that she and Coop rescue from indentured slavery to a Middle Eastern principality, which leads to a road trip to Canada, and later a very uncomfortable yacht trip and a snafu involving Coop's Superbowl ring.

After her mother died in a car accident while Piper was little, she was raised by her father, who paradoxically raised her to be both the son he never had, and tried to toughen her up as much as possible, by scorning any show of emotion as weak and pathetic, but also became deeply overprotective of her. She always wanted to join him in his P.I business, but was only really allowed to work behind a desk. Having finally bought the firm for herself, sadly after it was nearly run into the ground by mismanagement, Piper is nearly destitute, but determined to make the business successful again, so she can achive her lifelong dream. As her father raised her more or less as a boy, Piper is frequently more comfortable around guys, and has never really had any serious long-term relationships, preferring casual hook-ups with no strings attached. She only really gets antsy and nervous once it's quite clear to her that her feelings for Coop are much stronger and deeper than she's used to, and she's convinced they have no future together, as he's far too good for her.

Coop is originally from Kentucky, and came to Chicago to play football in the elites via Florida. He grew up on a farm, and loves to grow things, even though he lives in a penthouse apartment in Chicago. He has a lovely rooftop garden and grows fruits and vegetables that he happily donates to his friends. Like Piper, Coop lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his father, a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. Unlike Piper, though, Coop never had any trouble connecting to his emotions and has never really been in a serious relationship because he never met the right woman, not because he fears commitment. They are both highly competitive, and can't stand to lose. This creates challenges when they disagree on things, but also means Coop is all the more determined to win Piper over once he acknowledges his love for her.

The final act of the book went a little bit off the rails, and the various threats to Coop and his nightclub were resolved in a way I felt was a bit out of left field. I am also not entirely sure that Coop's solution to Piper's relationship angst would work in real life, but am willing to suspend my disbelief since this is escapist literature, and romance is frequently larger than life. It was a fun, quick read. Not one of Phillips' very best of the ones I've read, but very far from the worst, either.

Judging a book by its cover: Initially, I thought this was a pretty bad cover and I certainly didn't like the chandelier or the little glimpse of curtain and thought they looked a bit tacky. Once I read the book, however, it's clear that the cover is referencing a very particular scene, making clear that it's not just a generic romance cover design, but a conscious choice from the cover designer. It's still not a cover I exactly love, but it's a lot less random than I initially thought.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.  

Friday 16 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 99: "A Promise of Fire" by Amanda Bouchet

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Catalia "Cat" lives with a travelling circus, disguising herself as a soothsayer. She's been on the run for years, hiding for a number of reasons, primarily that she can tell instantly when someone is lying (she gets a shot of visceral pain throughout her body) and she can frequently divulge the truth an individual is hiding when they lie, as well. Additionally, she has the ability to siphon magic from someone else, and in turn, use that magic against the individual or others. Thirdly, she's immune to harm by any magical means. Cat is what is known as a "Kingmaker", an individual who comes along rarely. There is also a prophecy involving her, and this is the reason that Andromeda, Queen or Alpha, of Fisa, will turn heaven and earth on its head to find Cat again.

Griffin, Beta of Sinta, a Southern kingdom, a powerful warlord whose rebellion removed the magical ruling elite in the country, only to place his sister Egeria on the throne as Alpha, has been following the circus, and watching Cat closely. He suspects she is the Kingmaker, an invaluable weapon to help his non-magical family keep the power they seized, and after testing her powers, confirms his theories. Cat isn't interested in going to Sinta, and so Griffin emotionally blackmails her by threatening her friends at the circus and abducts her instead. Literally bound to Griffin by a magical, unbreakable rope, Cat has no choice but to go along with the warlord and his little band of loyal men, but she's certainly not going to submit graciously.

Cat's childhood and adolescence was characterised by both mental and physical torture, numerous near-death experiences and psychological mind-games that could crack anyone. She has learned the hard and bloody way to never let anyone get to close and to not form lasting attachments. Even so, she cares for the members of the circus (leading to Griffin being able to emotionally blackmail her), and as she spends more time with Griffin and his men, she starts liking them too, despite herself. Normally plagued by horrific nightmares every night (with good reason), she sleeps peacefully and soundly when next to Griffin. She knows chances are that now that she's no longer safely hidden with the circus, Alpha Fisa is going to track her down eventually, and so she offers to train Carver, Kato and Flynn in knife-throwing and other combat skills to increase the chances that they will survive whatever ruthless fighting force Andromeda sends after her.

Just as Cat fears, while the group journey towards Sinta, Cat's blood is spilled during a careless moment. This allows Andromeda to start tracking her again, and she sends increasingly more powerful threats to reclaim what she considers her property. Cat has grown substantially more powerful since she escaped the Fisan court, however, and with some aid from her divine godparents (more on that later), she and the little warrior band are able to defeat the various forces sent to find her.

Once they arrive, and Cat sees how completely unlike any of the neighbouring royalty Griffin's family are, she despairs at their chances of ever surviving very long to defend their claim to the throne. Having made Griffin swear that he'll tell no one of her Kingmaker powers, she's basically presented as a member of the powerful Fisan magical elite, who is there to advise them all. It's quite obvious to all of Griffin's family (and his men) that Cat is also someone Griffin is absolutely gaga for.

Cat, while she can't deny being attracted to Griffin in return, is deeply uncomfortable with any thoughts of intimacy and human closeness, mainly because she knows that anyone that she is close to, will be used against her or just plain murdered by Andromeda to punish her for escaping. Initially, she is constantly furious with Griffin for abducting her, but he keeps treating her with courtesy and kindness. He just also makes it perfectly clear that he can't let her go, because his sister's claim to the Sintan throne needs all the magical help it can get. As they travel together, fight hostile forces and later some fairly gnarly monsters, he falls more and more deeply for her, and wants to make her his wife. But Cat is keeping secrets about her past and her origins and she's not sure that Griffin's love will survive after he discovers the truth.

At the start of August, all the romance review blogs I read were raving about two books. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, which I already know is going to be on my top 10 favourites list of the year, and this, which is also a strong contender. Really good fantasy romance is rare and difficult to come by, and therefore it is such a delight to find a book that really works. The world-building in Bouchet's book is excellent, even though I cringed at both her name for magic users, magoi, but especially the non-magical, the hoi polloi. 

This is a medieval style world, where the main three kingdoms in question are Tarva, Fisa and Sinta. In all three countries, they worship different Greek gods. Cat is literally a goddaughter of Poseidon, and receives magical assistance from both Hades and Zeus over the course of her journey. While she is spitting mad at Griffin for kidnapping her away from her safe haven in the circus, she becomes a less reluctant prisoner once he reveals that he was told to search for her in a prophetic dream, sent by Poseidon himself.

There are varying levels of magic users in the different countries, the further south they are, the more removed they are from the ice plains, where apparently magic is the most concentrated. Until Griffin and his brothers staged a rebellion in Sinta, all three countries had magic-wielding royalty. It turns out that the reason Griffin was able to succeed in his coup (apart from the fact that he's a hugely skilled warrior) is that he is impervious to magical attacks. He doesn't have a trace of magic himself, none in his family do, but he can't be harmed by magic either.

What has been common in these countries for as long as anyone can remember is that the magical ruling elite have tons of children, and then pit them against each other in ruthless power games until only the strong survive. Rulers are normally replaced when they are killed by the strongest and cruellest of their children. The ruler of a country is the Alpha, the second in line for the throne is the Beta, then the Gamma, Delta etc. Cat is amazed and incredulous that despite the fact that Griffin won the throne, he has placed Egeria on it as Alpha, taking the Beta position for himself. This goes against centuries of tradition and the new ruling family will clearly need to drum up some supporting magical family if they hope to stay in power.

As mentioned earlier in the review, Cat (not her real name) grew up in the Fisan court, used as a valuable tool by the absolutely merciless Alpha, Andromeda. Tortured in every way possible, despite her useful truth-telling abilities, she was at death's door more than once. Andromeda once gave her a puppy, then murdered it after about six months, when the young Cat had grown truly attached to it. She isolated Cat from anyone in court who could possibly be expected to help her, and while it's not clear exactly how Cat managed to actually escape her clutches, it's very obvious why she would rather die than go back to Fisa. She doesn't really want anyone else to be tortured or killed for her sake along the way, though.

Good world-building can only do so much, unless the cast of characters is also a good one. No worries on that score here. Cat is fascinating. She's abrasive, fierce and independent and tries so desperately not to form any human attachments because of her horrible upbringing. I found many parallels between her and Laurent in the Captive Prince trilogy, although Laurent's adolescence was all rainbows, puppies and kittens compared to Cat's. She is nonetheless capable of great affection and inspires both loyalty, friendship and protectiveness in others.

Carver, Griffin's younger brother and right-hand man, Kato and Flynn, the members of Beta team, Griffin's crew, grow to adore her platonically as much as Griffin does romantically. They are all cool, fun guys, although it took me a while to discern the differences between them. Griffin's mother and sisters are all great too, and while Cat clearly has not had many female friends in her life, they do their best to include her and make her feel welcome, not just because Griffin clearly loves her, but because they come to care for Cat for herself.

Then there's our hero, Griffin. There are some that may take offense at him abducting Cat at the beginning and keeping her captive, but he really is doing it for the best of intentions. It's not like they plan to throw Cat in a dungeon and force her to divine the lies that people at court tell. They want to give her a trusted and honoured position as one of the chief advisors at court, but the new Sintan ruling family really desperately need her help. He always treats her courteously and as they travel together, he begins to see that she isn't just a valuable tool for his sister, but that he loves who she is and wants to spend his life with her. She is deeply skittish to his advances, so he takes it ever so slowly, but makes it perfectly clear what his intentions are. He is a man used to working hard for what he wants, and he will lay siege to Cat for as long as it takes to win her over. He's a highly skilled warrior, and wise enough to know that the country of Sinta will thrive better if his sister is the ruler, with him as the head of the army. He doesn't in any way feel threatened by Cat's fighting prowess or obvious magical strength. He just finds it another attractive and impressive side of her.

I really really liked this book. I would have liked there to have been the hints of some sort of softer side to Andromeda, who seems like pretty much the epitome of evil, but perhaps a more complex characterisation will be revealed in the second or third book of the trilogy. Here she is mainly the chief horror of Cat's past and an off-screen threat. Cat is also terrified of how Griffin will react once he finds out the full truth about her, and I kept waiting for her to finally tell him, but nope, that scene never came. I suspect her secrets, while they are never spelled out on the page, will by the end of the book be fairly obvious to most readers, but that doesn't mean that Bouchet should have kept teasing a scene that never came. It felt anti-climactic to me, and is the main reason that I'm withholding half a star from the rating. The second book in this trilogy is out in early January, and I'm super excited to see what happens next. Any fan of fantasy and/or good romance should try this book, it's well worth a read. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like this cover, in various shades of red, with Cat centre-stage, wielding both a sword and fire (both things she's highly skilled at). While her hair appears to have some assist from a wind machine, I'm going to assume that using powerful magic makes your hair flow impressively at the same time. The title, A Promise of Fire is most certainly delivered upon over the course of the book. I also like that only our heroine is on the cover and that Griffin isn't portrayed and taking attention away from the most important protagonist. Good job, Sourcebooks Casablanca.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

Thursday 15 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 98: "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 12hrs 14mins
Rating: 4 stars

Because it's been nearly a month since I finished this book (yay, backlogs!) and because the blurb does a good job of summing up the story, I'm going to resort to Goodreads:

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came a desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his will.

Nobody fights the Epics...nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.  

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart - the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David has been studying, and planning - and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge. 

The book starts shortly after the appearance of Calamity, when Epics are still are a new thing. David and his father are at a bank, trying to get a loan, when a minor epic attacks, starting to kill patrons and guards, mainly because he can. David's father still believes some of the Epics will take on the roles of superheroes, so when Steelheart arrives and stops the murdering, bank-robbing Epic, he is initially relieved. Until it turns out Steelheart is just there to enforce his new claim on Chicago and wipe out any rival claims. David's father is killed in the ensuing confrontation, and Steelheart makes sure to wipe out anyone who may have witnessed the fact that he was grazed by a bullet and actually injured. David manages to escape though, and realises what a big deal the seemingly minor injury is, when Steelheart doesn't just sink the bank into the ground, but kills any survivors or even rescue workers responding to the crisis.

About a decade later, Chicago is Newcago, a city turned entirely to steel by Steelheart. It ruled by a merciless and seemingly invulnerable Steelheart and his closest advisers, Nightwielder, who keeps the city in constant darkness (no sunlight ever); Conflux, who runs the security forces and provides power to the city, as well as the mysterious Firefight. There are minor Epics who help his reign of terror. Most people live in the steel catacombs under the city and keep their noses to the ground. Any attempts at civil disobedience is crushed by Conflux's efficient enforcers.

David is nearly eighteen, and has devoted spare moment of his life since his father died to researching various Epics, trying to ascertain their unique weaknesses (despite their sometimes astounding powers, all Epics also have one or two fatal weaknesses). He has also been tracking rogue resistance group the Reckoners, who are currently in Newcago. David wants to join their ranks and he wants them to stop just targeting minor Epics, which doesn't actually have that much effect. He wants revenge on Steelheart, and there is no way he's going achieve it on his own.

The gang of Reckoners that David meets, a small cell consisting of the Professor, research whizz Tia, muscle Cody and Abraham and point woman Megan, are initially reluctant to let him join their ranks, even when he proves his bravery while helping them on a mission. Once Tia sees his many notebooks with years worth of research on the various Epics, she warms to him and despite Megan's distrust, David is recruited into the gang. David has a massive crush on Megan, and can't entirely understand why she's so hostile towards him. Eventually, he figures out that she's worried about the consequences to the people of Newcago if the Reckoners and David actually successfully take out Steelheart. The power vacuum that would be created could lead to complete chaos. Maybe the evil they know is better than the chaos they don't?

Brandon Sanderson is ridiculously prolific. Unlike most writers of epic fantasy, he seems able to juggle multiple series at the same time, and seems to publish at least one, if not several books a year. As well as several highly regarded epic fantasy novels (some of which are stand-alone, a rarity among the genre), he's written several things for young adults, such as The Reckoners trilogy, which takes on epic supervillains and the people who oppose them in a creative twist on near-future dystopias.

Steelheart is a quick and entertaining read. It took me a while to get through, but only because I was listening to it in audio. Once the story really got going, I found myself going for longer walks and occasionally even just listening to it at home so I could get more enjoyment faster. Macleod Andrews reads the book very well.

David is an engaging, if dorky protagonist. He really is defined by his all-consuming obsession with revenge on Steelheart, an event he doesn't necessarily believe he'll survive. Several of the other characters mention that he needs to find other things to live for and care about, just on the off chance that they survive the dangerous mission. He also makes absolutely atrocious metaphors, and is deeply sensitive to being called on his nerdy tendencies.

The members of the Reckoners aren't exactly massively fleshed out, and more given one or two defining character traits. Tia is smart and bookish, and has a Cola-addiction (I can relate). The Professor is a genius inventor, but withdrawn, gruff and cranky. Abraham is large, French-Canadian and quite philosophical. Cody is really annoying and keeps making up preposterous stories alluding to his seemingly ever-changing ancestry. He's from the South, but of Scottish ancestry, but also keeps dragging in Irish and Australian. He was probably my least favourite character.

Megan is the youngest Reckoner, before David joins. She's a crack shot, witty, pretty and at least initially teases David good-humouredly. She doesn't like that he manages to convince the other, normally risk-averse Reckoners to go along with his plan, though, and it helps David understand her further when she finally explains her misgivings. Not entirely sure if she was worth being the recipient of David's mega-crush, but she also seems to be the first girl he's really allowed himself to notice. Being obsessed with Epic research and revenge plans will probably cut your potential flirting and dating time considerably.

It may be because this book is aimed at a YA audience, but I found that Sanderson's normally intricate plotting wasn't as tight as it tends to be. I'd figured out several of the big "twists" before they were revealed, which is not something that normally happens in his books. It's a fun, action-packed little adventure story, though, and I've already secured the second book in audio as well, to listen to a bit later in the year.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm thinking the cover is supposed to show David, standing in the steel-covered ruins of Newcago. The various shades of grey on the cover are a nice touch, as are the torn edges of the steel in the foreground. It's not a super exciting cover, but it's not awful either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

Wednesday 14 September 2016

#CBR8 Books 95-97: "The Captive Prince trilogy" by C.S. Pacat

Total page count: 1088 pages
Rating of series as a whole: 4 stars

I'm going to review this whole trilogy in one review. As such, there is bound to be some spoilers, and if you want to go in completely cold, you may want to skip this review and just trust me that while the first book is a bit slow, and not the most engaging of reads on its own, the trilogy as a whole is mighty compelling reading, and well worth your time. At least if you like well-written fantasy, tons of political intrigue and plots that twist and turn repeatedly.

Volume one: Captive Prince - 3 stars

Prince Damianos of Aikelos, better known as "Damen" to most close to him, is a war hero and utterly beloved by his people. When his long-ailing father dies, Damen's older half-brother Kastor seizes power, and Damen finds himself overpowered, cast in chains and sent as a pleasure slave to the court of the rival neighbour nation of Vere. Everyone in Aikelos is told that Damianos was killed by his rebelling slaves after the king's death, and to add to the betrayal, Damen's mistress Jokaste makes it clear to him before he is subdued and sent from the country that she is aiding Kastor in his coup.

In Vere, a decadent and indolent court, Damen is given to Prince Laurent, the young heir to the throne, whose older brother Auguste Damen killed in single combat during a war six years ago. Even if he could reveal his true identity and be believed, he's in the one place where he is truly hated, under the control of a man who has sworn revenge on Prince Damianos for the actions nearly a decade ago. Laurent doesn't really seem interested in a pleasure slave, in fact, there are rumours that he is frigid. The crown prince, nearly of age, is locked in some sort of complex power struggle with his uncle, the current Regent, and seems like he may in fact, be both immature and unstable. The Regent seems to think that Damen may be used to influence his nephew in a positive manner, but the seemingly spoiled Laurent trusts no one, certainly not a lowly slave from the country he hates the most.

Both Aikelos and Vere are nations that support slavery, although in Vere, it seems that slaves have the opportunity to buy their freedom if able to collect enough gifts and favours. In Aikelos, like in ancient Greece or Rome, slaves seem to be captured during wartime, but also bred to serve. They have no way of gaining their freedom and are completely dependent on the benevolence of their masters. In both Aikelos and Vere, slaves seem to be used for sex, although in Vere, there are strong taboos about heterosexual couplings outside of marriage, as illegitimacy is frowned upon and sex between men and women should be for procreation, first and foremost. At least among the elite, marriages seem to be mainly political alliances, with no one batting an eyelid if both parties have pleasure slaves on the side for enjoyment. Hence in Vere, men have and support male pleasure slaves, while women have female slaves.

The author doesn't really spend a whole lot of time giving details about the setting. As most of the books take place in Vere, we only really get information about Aikelos through Damen's recollections and the way he's constantly comparing Vere and his own country. Then there is the fact that most of the book takes place at court, so it's difficult to get a full picture of what the country as a whole is like. I pretty much pictured Vere like late Medieaval France, while Aikelos was more like the Roman Republic.

It's difficult to get a feel for any of the characters other than Damen in this book, and he's really a rather unreliable narrator throughout, as it's revealed in book two and three that he is unaware of so much of the plots and alliances bubbling under the surface in Vere and his initial judgement of the Regent and Laurent are formed without having enough information to understand the situation. Damen's only goal is to escape, get back to his own country and claim back his throne. He needs to be careful that his identity is not revealed to Laurent, as the young man wouldn't hesitate to kill him. Of course, despite his humiliation at being kept as a slave, and his disgust at the decadent ways of the Vere court, Damen finds himself both attracted and repelled by Laurent. Their relationship is certainly a strange one.

Volume two: Prince's Gambit 4.5 stars

At the end of the first book, Laurent is manipulated by his uncle into taking a troupe of men to patrol along the border of Vere and Aikelos. By this point, he has revealed to Damen that his uncle was behind the assassination attempt Damen helped foil, and Laurent takes his slave with him, as he has realised that the man is a highly skilled soldier and he needs his expertise to get his ragtag bunch of soldiers into shape, and survive his scouting mission. It's obvious that the Regent doesn't want his nephew to succeed, that they are likely riding towards a trap, and the men they have at their disposal are in no way fit to fight anyone.

Because Laurent is dangerously clever (he'd have to be to survive to adulthood), he uses the resources at his disposal. Together with Jord, the captain of his guard and Damen, he's actually able to turn the men assigned to him into a passable fighting force, but only after some very public demonstrations of his authority and some creative detours to give them more time to drill before they get to the border. Damen is in the incredibly unenviable position of having to help the man who currently OWNS him, and would probably straight up murder him if he were to discover his true identity, help secure his throne, despite the high likelihood of Laurent then turning right around and declaring war on Aikelos, Damen's home country.

On top of that, there is the growing trust between them, a much closer understanding and absolutely, mutual attraction developing between the two sworn enemies. Damen has to reevaluate everything he observed or experienced in the first book as he comes to learn more about the incredibly messed up power games between Laurent and his uncle. Damen is naturally constantly worried about what might happen if Laurent actually discovers his true identity, and more intimate their relationship becomes, the more uncomfortable he is about it. He killed Laurent's beloved older brother, and to a certain extent feels responsible for the lonely and f-ed up adolescence that Laurent has had, in the clutches of his seemingly benevolent, but in true fact super evil, uncle.

Damen keeps being torn between his wish to escape and go back to Aikelos to reclaim his own throne, and his growing affection for Laurent, that keeps him at his side, keeping him safe and aiding him in securing his own throne. Their growing romance seems impossible, and there is a fair amount of anguish on the part of the reader (at least there was for me), because how could the two of them ever really make it work. They are potential rulers of rival nations that have been at war countless times, and let's not forget - Damen killed Laurent's brother! It's difficult to forgive and forget that sort of thing.

At the end of the book, Aikelos seems on the verge of full out war with Vere, and Damen, instead of escaping, promises to hold an important border fort while Laurent rides into what is clearly an ambush orchestrated by his uncle. Then there are some revelations that made my mind literally boggle and forced me to start volume three as soon as I was able.

Volume three: Kings Rising 4 stars

Damen's secret is out, and everyone knows he is in fact Prince Damianos of Aikelos. Vere and Aikelos are on the brink of war, with Prince Laurent's uncle, the Regent, amassing his forces, and Kastor, Damen's usurping and treacherous half-brother also on the war-path. The only way Damen is going to be able to reclaim his throne is with the aid of Laurent, the man who swore to kill him. Can Damen convince Laurent to set aside his enmity to face the bigger threat, his uncle?

Can the hesitant trust and growing love between the men be rekindled, even with Laurent being fully aware of Damen's true identity? Will they survive to enact revenge on their usurpers and can they have any future together, with full knowledge of the terrible actions of their pasts?

Here's where it gets hella spoilery, people. Seriously, do not read this if you haven't already finished books one and two. So yeah, Laurent knew about Damen, from the beginning. Having grown up in the viper pit that is the court of Vere, fighting the influence of his wicked uncle (who it's clear sexually abused him shortly after Crown Prince Auguste and his father died), Laurent is presented with his worst enemy as a slave, and told he's not allowed to harm him, or risk diplomatic relations with Aikelos. Of course he twists the situation so he can flog the living daylights out of Damen. Of course he mentally tortures him. This is the man that killed his brother! It makes the trust that builds between them, the friendship that turns to romance so much more remarkable, because while Damen didn't know that he knew, Laurent went to bed with Damen, despite his many (understandable) sexual hang-ups, even knowing exactly who he was.

He trusted him with an army and gave him control over one of his border forts, even knowing that he was the Prince Killer from Aikelos. The uneasy truce they form in the beginning of this book is an uncomfortable one, because you just want them to kiss (and more) and make up and turn the combined might of their brawn and intellects towards pummelling their enemies.

While the first book is slow and a bit confusing, because we don't have all the cards yet, and the second book is full of espionage, double-crosses, intrigue and romance, this book starts out well, but sort of collapses a bit towards the end. The stakes are oh so very high, but then the ending is sorted out oh so neatly, almost depressingly so. Everything falls into place just that little bit too conveniently and it all happens a bit too quickly to be entirely satisfying.

Not that the book before that isn't extremely enjoyable. Damen is back in the northern reaches of Aikelos, needing to muster support from the powerful lords of the country, all the while convincing them to support him against his treacherous half-brother, despite the fact that he's in open alliance with the true ruler of their enemy neighbour state. Damen and Laurent make an uneasy truce and have to prove themselves worthy of support, and outsmart the men who have taken what is rightfully theirs. This bit was a lot of fun, even if the angry tension between Damen and Laurent got on my nerves. I totally understand it, it would be massively unrealistic if they just jumped into each other's arms and let bygones be bygones, but still. I wanted my HEA.

And yet I complain when in the end, I did get a HEA for my dudes, but it just seemed to come a bit too easily. Still, in its entirety this trilogy is excellent, and I had such a fun time reading it.

Judging a book by its cover: These books have had a variety of covers, depending on the release. The newer, wide-release editions of these books are not exactly all that exciting, but play in rather well to the fantasy and political intrigue aspects of the trilogy, rather than the "two dudes are gay for each other and have some sex, but that is really a very small part of the whole". Various pastelly colours, with a brick wall, battlements or a tower in the background. A fancy font. A rearing lion. I think the marketing department has done a good job making really very neutral covers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.