Tuesday, 18 April 2017

#CBR9 Book 34: "Trust Me" by Laura Florand

Page count: 274 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the third book in a trilogy, and while you can read each of these books completely independently of each other, this book references an pretty significant event in the previous book, Chase Me, and readers who want more details may want to check that book out first (it's also the better romance of the two). Be aware that I spoil part of the plot of that one in the very first paragraph of this review, though.

Lina Farah has had to fight her entire life, to prove her worth and make it in a deeply competitive business. At the age of 26, she is the top pastry chef at a two star Michelin restaurant and she can hold her own against anyone who wants to go up against her. When a Muslim extremist cousin of hers attacks the restaurant where she and her best friends work and try to kill them all, Lina didn't hesitate to defend her loved ones. Throwing the liquid nitrogen she was working with at the terrorists, she helped make sure that no one was lethally hurt and the guilty parties were brought to justice quickly. Now she's been questioned by not only the police, but a number of French and American security operatives. As a Muslim woman, with a family connection to the main terrorist, Lina is worried that they may suspect her as well. Why else would one of the burly special ops guys take it upon himself to follow her around, observing her every move?

Seeing her very best friend (and said friend's new lover) injured and hospitalised, while she herself escaped unscathed, is not easy for Lina, and with their restaurant closed, she's going a bit stir crazy. She's working on ice sculpting with a chain saw to work off stress, but most of the time ends up decapitating the ice dragons she's trying to create. She has always been proud of her resilience and self-sufficiency, now she is scared of every shadow and sudden noise. Having a silent, six-foot, be-freckled ginger escort, who may or may not be trying to prove she has terrorist leanings, is not making her rest easier.

Special forces operative Jake Adams has been a soldier for a long time, and seen some pretty scary situations. He first laid eyes on Lina Farah when the woman acted with grace under (literal gun-) fire and threw liquid nitrogen at her cousin. As all the restaurant staff now get security escorts for the next six months, in case they draw the ire of other extremists, he takes it upon himself to guard Lina. Having never really stayed in one place for very long, and having seen first-hand more than once what a secret agent life like his can do to long-term relationships, he's never really had more than causal hook-ups and for a long time, he enjoyed himself a lot. Now, after all these years, Jake is getting ready for something more serious and permanent, and so when Lina approaches him and proposes a short-term hook-up to help her deal with her PTSD, he is actually rather hurt, having wanted to be more than used for his body with this formidable woman that he's so come to admire.

There is very little outside conflict in this book, just Lina having to deal with the aftermath of the brutal attack that left her physically unharmed, but deeply emotionally scarred. She hates being afraid and unable to sleep through the night. She hates seeing her best friend in a hospital bed and tries to deal with her fears by beating them into submission, and by creating new and wonderful dessert creations for Violette, Chase and the assorted special ops guys in Chase and Jake's crew, who all seem to congregate at the hospital every day.

Jake, while he's a big and capable soldier, who as an army sniper has dealt death to countless people all over the world, in missions he can't ever tell anyone about, is clearly a protector, and more of a beta hero than an alpha. While Chase was all loud, brash self-confidence and macho bravado in the previous book, Jake is a much more quiet and laid-back guy. He's also a lot more insecure on how to actually approach a woman he cares about, in large part because he's used to women throwing themselves at him and his team mates every time they go out - he's never had to work to impress someone. Now that he's mightily sick of one-night stands and being used for his hot body, he wants to connect with Lina, and he's at a bit of a loss as to how to do it. That Lina herself is adamant that she prefers "shy, nerdy guys" doesn't help, nor does the fact that most of Jake's team mates do their best to charm Lina as well, at least until he makes it very clear that he's not just flirting, but deadly serious about her.

While there is a lot to like in this book, it's also a bit slow and much of the early part of the book, before Lina and Jake really start to communicate properly with each other is rather frustrating. I liked the second part of the book a lot better, and I am very glad that Florand chose to have a Muslim heroine, making her strong, capable, intelligent and driven, as diversity and representation is so very important and I can't recall coming across all that many Muslim heroines (or heroes, for that matter) in my books.

I continue to enjoy Florand's contemporaries and while this isn't one of her best books, she's still more than entertaining enough that I don't regret my pre-order of this. There's still a whole bunch of Chase and Jake's team mates who can find love in future books and I look forward to their stories (especially if they involve food in some way - Florand writes about food and cooking in a marvellous way). I always want to re-visit Paris and eat myself sick when I've finished one of these novels. TL, DR - not one of her top efforts, but very enjoyable nonetheless and extra points for a Muslim heroine.

Judging a book by its cover: I know that Laura Florand self-publishes these, but still think she could have found a better stock photo to use for the cover. While at one point in the story, Lina does wear a hat to go out, this whole silly, dragging it into her eyes fits badly with the contents of the book, giving a much more light-hearted and frivolous impression than the story warrants. I also don't think the cover model appears much like the descriptions of Lina in the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 33: "The Knife of Never Letting Go" by Patrick Ness

Page count: 479 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Todd Hewitt lives in a community peopled only by men, and has one month left until he too becomes one. All the men are afflicted with something called "the Noise", meaning they can hear each other's thoughts, all the time, all over town. There were women in the community once, but they didn't survive the infection that brought the noise. Todd's mother was one of the last women to die, while Todd was still a baby.

While Todd and his dog, Manchee, are out walking in the area around Prentisstown one day, he comes across a place with no noise whatsoever. This is very unusual, and when he returns home to the two men who raised him, they are worried enough by his discovery that they bundle him up and tell him to leave. There are other men in town who suspect they know what Todd has discovered, and want to stop him at any cost.

Todd is confused and upset, not to mention surprised his foster fathers have been able to keep secrets from him at all, what with all the Noise all the time. He's given a backpack of supplies, a journal with a map in the front and a knife to defend himself with and sent on his way with Manchee as his only company. He has to go through the swamp surrounding the town and leave the only home he's ever known. As Todd runs for his life, through the swamp, chased by hostile townsmen, many of whom he grew up with, he discovers the source of the mysterious silent space. As he gets further away from Prentisstown, he also discovers that there is a lot more to the world than he ever suspected, and many of the truths he has grown up believing, may in fact be nothing but clever lies.

I knew very little about this book, except that it's the first book in a very acclaimed YA trilogy. The one thing I did know probably qualifies as quite a spoiler, but I'm very glad that I HAD been spoiled, as I knew what to expect and was less gutted than I probably would have been if I had gone into this book without any fore-knowledge. Suffice to say, I cried a LOT when the bad thing that happens happened and generally also want to warn people that this book really is a very grim read.

In many ways, this book is like the book version of The Walking Dead (the TV show, not the graphic novels, although I suspect the same applies there). There are characters that you get attached to and care for, constantly running from danger, only narrowly escaping. Every time you think they may be safe, more horrible things happen, and they have to go on the run again. The things chasing them, as well as the individuals they meet along the way, are often equally horrible.

This is a really depressing and gruelling book, but it does contain an interesting sci-fi with a concept I hadn't come across before. I think the toxic masculinity that permeates so much of the book kind of wore me out though, and since I'm already in a bit of a reading slump, and have trouble motivating myself to read anything at all, this book wasn't exactly the best of choices (but it fit into so many of my reading challenges!).

The noise affecting all the men is obviously a horrible thing, but it's supposed to be. I doubt this series is called Chaos Walking for nothing, as that is what the men wandering around in large groups are described as. This incessant drone of thoughts, impossible to ignore, unless there is some other noise around to drown it all out. There's some sort of virus that has affected all animals and livestock, enabling it so that they can talk. This of course means that Manchee the dog has even more of a personality than a cute sidekick dog might otherwise have had. Because he's a dog, he's not exactly capable of great mental leaps, and his conversation can be rather simple and single-minded, but it did make him extra adorable.

The reader follows Todd through the story, and only really knows as much as him. Hence you also discover more of the world around him as he gets further away from Prentisstown and learns new things. Now, any sophisticated reader who has consumed a fair amount of stories will probably construct theories as new little snippets of knowledge are revealed, and I'm very sad to say that I had figured out the truth behind Prentisstown before Todd himself figures it out. That's another thing that makes the book so depressing. At any point where there could be more than one possible outcome, the most tragic and sad option will always come to pass. There appears to be very little goodness in this world, and if there is, it will likely be snuffed out in short order.

This is, as I said, the first volume in a trilogy set in this dystopian sci-fi world, and the book ends on a cliff-hanger. I have the other two books in the series, in paperback even, gifts from friends. I will absolutely read them at some point (desperately hoping that there will be some kind of reform at some point and future books may be happier), but I am not in a good place to be reading anything but fluffy escapist literature right now. It's clearly a good book, but very not what my brain needs in times of fatigue and high stress.

Judging a book by its cover: My paperback copies of the Chaos Walking trilogy all have pretty simple and understated covers. There's the plain white background, and on this there is a silhouette in red of the knife, I'm going to assume the same knife that plays such an important part in the story - the same knife the book is named for. The bold black title looks scrawled by hand, and is the same that is used inside the book to show the "noise" inside the heads of all the men. It's a fairly plain cover, but effective nonetheless.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

#CBR9 Book 32: "A Natural History of Dragons" by Marie Brennan

Page count: 335 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Purported to be the first of Lady Isabella Trent's journals, chronicling her life-long exploration of the world and its dragons, this book is a historical novel set in an alternate universe, where dragons obviously exist. I'm unsure of whether the time period in these books would be the Regency or more like Victorian times in our history, but the fictional country that our protagonist, Lady Isabella is from, is clearly modelled on historical England. We follow our heroine from childhood, where we learn how she first became fascinated with dragons.

Later, we see her during her first season, where she meets a fellow dragon enthusiast, and her unorthodox interest actually lands her a husband. She becomes Lady Camhurst and after a personal loss early in their marriage, Isabella and her husband go along on an exploratory mission to Vystrana (a country clearly modelled on somewhere in Eastern Europe) to find out more about rock-wyrms.

Vystrana is fairly miserable place, from Lady Isabella's descriptions, a land of superstitious peasants, who mostly fear the large predators in the area (and rightly so). Apparently, the rock-wyrms have been behaving a lot more erratically and aggressively of late, attacking and injuring, and even killing some of the local populace. The locals are generally quite taciturn and unhelpful, until they come to hope that the foreign expedition may figure out the reason for the dragons' increased hostility and might be able to stop it.

I've heard so many complimentary things about this series, and really, it's historical novels involving dragons! How could they not be awesome? Answer: they focus far too much on the mundane details of Lady Isabella's everyday life, and the sort of social anthropological descriptions of her journey to Vystrana, the local customs, the super cranky locals, the miserable weather, the inadequacy of the lodgings, the poor quality of the food and so forth and so on. Most of the book has little to no dragon action and I thought some parts were incredibly slow and hard to get through.

Lady Isabella herself, Lady Trent as she will become, seems like pretty cool character. Because she apparently narrates these books in her old age, she has very few f*cks to give about other people's opinions and keeps including things that society may find inappropriate or scandalous (sadly, I could happily have done with more of those sections and fewer of her whinging about how miserable she was in Vystrana).

It's rather hard to get a full grasp of most of the other characters in the book, because Lady Isabella really doesn't tell us much about them, although she seems to have made a good match with her husband, who seems a very tolerant and progressive sort of a man, allowing his wife a lot of liberties that society will clearly frown on, because of her passionate interest in dragons.

There are four more books in this series, the final of which is out in only a few weeks. I have several friends who seem very taken with these books and therefore, I suspect I will read more of them, in the hopes of more action and a lot more DRAGONS in future instalments. While beautiful sketches and illustrations of the beasts are all fine and dandy, I want to read more about dragons, and less about sullen villagers.

Judging a book by its cover: As this is suppose to be a publication of the scientific journals of eminent dragonologist, Lady Trent, the cover features an anatomical drawing of a dragon, more specifically one of the rock-wyrms talked about in this volume. The front part of the dragon is drawn with the skin, while the back part and the wings show the muscles and inner workings of the dragon. Various parts are labelled. It's an excellent cover, I just find anatomical drawings of muscles rather creepy, myself.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

#CBR9 Book 31: "For a Few Demons More" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 532 pages
Audio book length: 17hrs 06 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is book five in a series, and most definitely not the best place to start. Begin with Dead Witch Walking, and possibly skip this review if you don't want spoilers for earlier books in the series.

There are dead werewolf women turning up in the morgue, apparently having committed suicide. Someone else appears to be murdering werewolves after keeping them tied up, and after some investigation, independent runner and calamity-prone witch Rachel Morgan is pretty sure she knows what the connection between all the deaths is. During her last adventure, she retrieved an ancient and very powerful werewolf artifact, and she suspects someone may be killing people to figure out its whereabouts.

The artifact, valuable enough to spark a war among the supernaturals of Cincinnati, is currently hidden with her friend, lone wolf David Hue, but she's worried that he may be in danger if the wrong people connect the artifact back to her. In addition to this, Rachel's sometime nemesis, councilman and secret bio-druglord Trent Kalamack offers to pay her a truly staggering sum of money to work security at his wedding. Since the best man is going to be Lee Saladan, who both Rachel and Trent know is a demon's familiar, chances are high that something bad is going to go down during the ceremony and Trent still blames Rachel for Saladan becoming caught by the demon in the first place. Neither of them have any idea just how complicated Saladan's presence at the wedding would actually become.

Rachel knows Trent is marrying to form an alliance, as there really aren't all that many suitable elves around. She also knows he's working on a genetic cure to make it easier for elves to actually have children, and is starting to feel guilty about the fact that she's been keeping the existence of Ceri, an elf from the dark ages, and the demon Algaliarept's former familiar, hidden from Trent. A genetic sample from her could massively improve Trent's chances of helping the elven race survive.

In her personal life, Rachel is still figuring out whether she can ever let her roommate Ivy, a living vampire, bite her again, seeing as she nearly ended up dead the last time. At the same time, she is wondering about her future with Kisten, another living vamp. Because Ivy has feelings for Rachel, she won't accept anyone else taking her blood, and while Rachel is rather terrified of any vamp feeding on her, her feelings for Kisten are growing, and she wants a new level of intimacy with him. On top of everything else, Rachel is coming to see that both Ivy and Jenks are probably right about her being an adrenaline junkie, never quite happy unless she's near to risking her life, just to feel properly alive. She's about to see just how dangerous those impulses can get.

While the last book felt mostly like a chore to read, this book is back to being pretty much non-stop action. As in a lot of the books, there's a mystery sub-plot, in this case, who the unidentified dead were women in the morgue are, and the identity of the person abduction and killing fairly prominent werewolves to find the Focus that Rachel is hiding. It's been long enough since I  read this book that while I remembered the first part, and why the werewolf women ended up in the morgue in the first place, I'd completely forgotten who was responsible for the second part, and it's always good to have surprises, even on re-reads.

I did remember some of the twists and turns taken in this book, and most importantly, I knew what would happen in the last third, and did not look forward to re-living it. Without wanting to spoil too much, one particular plot development completely gutted me the first time I read this book and it wasn't until a year later, when the next book in the series came out (by the time I read this, I was caught up with a long wait between each one) that I began to even vaguely forgive Kim Harrison. I didn't cry this time, but I was still dreading having to read it.

Suffice to say, the very upsetting (at least to me) thing that happens late in the book is one of the many plot upheavals that continues to change the direction that Rachel's life is taking. Some really big things happen in this book, including a demon present at Trent's rehearsal dinner, Rachel being a very inappropriate bridesmaid, Trent and Ceri finally meeting, a very tense negotiation scene in a police conference room involving most of the major power players in Cincinnati and Rachel going to extreme lengths to keep those she loves safe, even going so far as to nearly sacrificing her life.

Knowing where the series has yet to go, I can read it without being too sad. It's a really good instalment of the series, and certain parts in the last third were a lot more enjoyable to me now that I wasn't quite so numb and heart-broken. Marguerite Gavin continues to be a really excellent narrator, and while her characters are normally very consistent, she seems to change Trent's voice from book to book. I also much prefer it when she has Al speaking with his crisp English accent, because that makes him seem so much more smugly evil, somehow.

Judging a book by its cover: My hardcover copy of this has the cover model in a shiny mini dress (probably meant to be leather again) walking across cobbles towards what appears to be the doors of a church, while holding a knife in one hand. The thigh-high leather boots are very Rachel, but I really don't know what scene this is supposed to be a callback to. The mass market paperback has the cover model in a black evening dress with a very high split up one leg and a very low back, also with the knife, which is if possible, even less like anything in the book. Rachel does wear a black bridesmaid's dress (even though Ellasbeth had picked a pea-green one), but she doesn't wield a knife while doing so. As always, paranormal/urban fantasy cover designs make me roll my eyes.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

#CBR9 Book 30: "A Fistful of Charms" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 528 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 06 mins
Rating: 3 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the fourth book in an ongoing series, and not the place to start reading. Dead Witch Walking is where you want to begin. Also, there will be plot spoilers in this review, so if you want to avoid that sort of thing, don't read beyond the next four paragraphs.

Rachel Morgan, witch for hire, discovers that her ex-boyfriend Nick Sparagmos wasn't just a part-time librarian with a knack for demon summoning, but in fact a thief, specialising in supernatural objects. Now Nick is in trouble, and her business partner, Jenks the pixy, is ready to risk his life to travel to Michigan to find him, because Nick took Jenks' eldest son, Jax, with him as a backup. With the weather being much colder in Mackinac than in Cincinnati, Jenks would very likely freeze to death.

While she is now dating Kisten, a living vampire (and her roommate Ivy's ex) and considers herself thoroughly over Nick (especially after discovering that he was lying to her about his actual profession while they were together), he did save her life once and she certainly can't risk Jenks killing himself to retrieve his son. She discovers a ritual in one of her spell books that could turn Jenks big, allowing him to safely travel, and another one to allow her to turn into a werewolf (a necessity since a hostile werewolf pack currently has Nick as their captive). These spells are demon curses, forcing her to pay for the imbalance of what she's doing by tainting her aura, and forcing her to once again reevaluate whether using demon magic, when not actually harming anyone or anything, makes you a worse person.

Rachel and Jenks borrow Kisten's large van and travel to Mackinac, where they locate Jax and figure out how to get onto the werewolf-inhabited island to rescue Nick. He's being tortured because he stole an ancient, incredibly valuable artifact that could shift the power balance among the supernatural species, and he's refusing to reveal where he hid it. Rachel uses her spell/curse to successfully were into a red wolf and fights the alpha female of the leading pack, defeating her partially through luck and sneakiness. While the various packs try to deal with the upset, Jenks rescues Nick and they escape. Because it's quite clear that the aggressive werewolf packs aren't going to stop until they get hold of the artifact, and quite possibly Nick as well, they decide that they have to stage an accident, where both Nick and the artifact go off the Mackinac bridge, never to be seen again.

I haven't actually re-read a lot of the books in the later half of The Hollows series, but even without doing so, I'm pretty convinced this will remain my least favourite book in the series. There are some good things in the book, like Jenks being big (apparently he is unbelievably hot, something both Rachel and Ivy comment on with slightly alarming frequency). They go to a new location, so there's a change of scene from the usual Cincinnati. Yeah, that's pretty much all the good stuff I can think of.

This is the book where it very much becomes clear what a snivelling little weasel Nick actually is and he's a character I never had much time for, in the first place. Rachel keeps trying to defend his actions and treatment of her for much longer than is sensible, and it's only when she discovers that throughout their entire relationship, he wasn't just a thief, but he kept selling details about her and her life to demons for favours and increased magical ability. Ivy and Jenks were clearly never particularly fooled by Nick, even before they knew the full truth, but it's nice to see all of them being extremely wary of him (while also sympathetic about the wounds he got when tortured) and deeply sceptical of his motives, even when he claims to be going along with their plan.

The situation between Rachel and Ivy also comes to a head, where Rachel suddenly, after three books of resisting her and being incredibly leery about the whole idea of blood, without any warning pretty much forces Ivy to bite her, and pushes her triggers until she loses control and nearly kills Rachel in the process. Ivy only ever takes blood from someone she loves, but Rachel is adamant that she has no pants feelings for her roommate, leaving only mindless bloodlust and a near-death experience for Rachel. She later claims that she wants to do it again and find a blood-balance with Ivy, but the living vampire is obviously terrified and guilt-stricken after the incident.

This book just has a lot of things I don't like, Nick, Rachel being an idiot when trying to negotiate her relationship with Ivy, a really convoluted faking an accidental death scenario, and hardly any of the things I do like, Trent, Kisten, Al the demon. Considering what I know is coming in the next book, I can't blame Harrison for wanting to take a break from these things, but on this, my third re-read, I'm pretty confident that it's a book I'll never much like and I'm glad I'm done with it.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover model on this book appears to be wearing a long-sleeved mini-dress made entirely out of leather, which seems unbearably hot (not in a sexy way) to me, and just the thought of the clammy skin you'd get from it makes me slightly twitchy. I can see the benefits of leather trousers or a cool jacket, possibly even some sort of halter-top, but a long-sleeved dress? Nope. It also doesn't really match anything Rachel is described as wearing at any point in the book, although I'm assuming the landscape wreathed in mist in the background is supposed to be the werewolf island part of the story takes place at.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

#CBR9 Book 29: "A Thousand Pieces of You" by Claudia Gray

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Marguerite Caine's parents are both genius physicist and have invented a device that allows the user to jump between alternate dimensions, by basically inhabiting the body of the alternate version of themselves. Before the device could be properly tested, however, Marguerite's father is killed in a car accident and her parents' research assistant, Paul Markov, has disappeared into another dimension with the only finished Firebird device.

Her parents' other assistant, Theo Beck, has luckily kept two of the early prototypes of the device and fixed them up enough that he and Marguerite are able to follow Paul through the dimensions. Marguerite wants revenge for what Paul did, and initially, at least, she wants to kill Markov for his betrayal of her family. As she and Theo follow Paul through successive dimensions, some very similar to their own, some vastly different, she comes to realise that there may be a reason that Paul is on the run, and it's not because he's her father's murderer.

I read a lot of positive reviews of this book when it came out in 2014, so when I found the book in an e-book sale in October of last year, it was a pretty natural thing for me to buy. This is the first book in a trilogy, which is now completed, so there won't be that pesky wait for the sequels that is so very common for me when I get impatient.

There is a lot of promise in this book, but as is the case in so much YA, there is a fairly annoying love triangle, with the two differently handsome and morally ambiguous dudes vying for the attention of our heroine. Marguerite herself, thanks to a convenient plot contrivance early on, of course turns out to be much more than just a normal young woman and while the dimension hopping normally comes with a number of negative side effects, she seems immune to all of them.

What I did like is that while Marguerite has grown up surrounded by scientific geniuses, she is an artist, and views the world rather differently from them. She's by no means stupid, but in the way of many teenagers, rather rash in her judgements and possibly a bit too impetuous for her own good. If I were a teenage girl myself, I may have found her two love interests, Paul and Theo, more appealing, but I found that while the sci-fi elements and the dimension hopping was pretty well developed and the overall world-building was good, the characterisation was rather lacking. The story is told from Marguerite's point of view, but there is not enough time given to let the readers get a proper idea of who Paul and Theo really are, and therefore I really couldn't root for either of them.

I do want to emphasise how fun the various alternate dimensions are though. In one world, most of the world is submerged, and most people live in colonies under water. In another, the characters all find themselves interacting in an alternate version of imperial Russia. Those parts of the book were probably my favourites.

The plot is also quite predictable, which in itself isn't a bad thing as this book is clearly mainly set-up and I am about twenty years older and a lot more widely-read than the target audience of this series.  I liked the story and characters enough that I'll be checking out the sequels, but I'm hoping for some more twists and turns in the stories to come.

Rating a book by its cover: The covers for these books are so great. The contrasted cityscapes, with the Russian domes and towers on the bottom and the futuristic skyscrapers on the top, both evoking locations in the story. The very simple font - I love it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 28: "Captives of the Night" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 352 pages
Audio book length: 13hrs 8mins
Rating: 5 stars

Leila Beaumont is a beautiful and very talented portrait artist, as celebrated throughout Europe as her husband, Francis, is becoming reviled. While Leila is aware of Francis adultery, his tendency to drink and take drugs to excess, she is unaware that he also ran a brothel in Paris and tended to make money through the blackmail of prominent members of society. While she hasn't allowed him in her bed for years, Leila is nonetheless grateful to Francis for rescuing her when she was orphaned in Venice ten years ago, after her traitor father ran afoul of some people he betrayed. While Francis later seduced her, he also married her and made sure she got training with the best artists, allowing her to have the career she now thrives in. Their marriage is not a peaceful one, however, which is why Leila is the prime suspect when Francis turns up dead.

Even Alexandre Delavenne, the Comte D'Esmond, initially believes that Leila murdered her husband. He first met and was enchanted with the beautiful artist in Paris, but while Francis normally cared little for all the men fawning over his wife, knowing that his constant digs at her and his own behaviour had pretty much put Leila off men entirely, he was extremely jealous about D'Esmond's attentions towards her. That this was because he himself also fancied the man, and was firmly rebuffed is not something Leila was aware of. She just knows that the very beautiful man made her uneasy in Paris and now again in London, when the world seems ready to call her a murderess. D'Esmond works for the Home Office, however, and orchestrates a beautiful show of an inquest, where there is left no doubt to anyone that Francis Beaumont died of an accidental overdose.

Once the public's mind has been set at ease about Beaumont's death, D'Esmond's superiors at the Home Office nonetheless want to figure out who actually killed him, and set D'Esmond to investigate the crime. This means he and Leila have to spend a lot of time together, reluctantly fighting their growing attraction towards one another. D'Esmond may have been working for the Home Office as an agent for the last ten years, but there are dark deeds in his past, and he realises that some of them affected Leila indirectly. Even as he wants to seduce her and win her love, he is terrified that the intelligent and dangerously perceptive woman will figure out the secrets of his past, and how he may have been the person to set her on the path to her disastrous marriage to Francis in the first place.

This book, while one of my all-time favourites, is probably not for everyone. There is too much of a mystery element to the story and the romance is probably the most angst-filled of all of Chase's books. The Comte D'Esmond is actually the villain in Chase's earlier novel, The Lion's Daughter, where as a ruthless Albanian prince, he not only tries to usurp his cousin, the Pasha, but becomes obsessed with the daughter of an English nobleman and chases her and the man she loves across Europe, intent on stealing her back. Ismal Delvina, as he was then, is stopped and nearly dies and takes up a career with the Home Office to atone for his sins, but he was not a nice individual and in his wild chase across Europe, he also stopped in Venice to demand money from Leila's father, who shortly afterwards ended up drowned in a canal. While he never saw Leila in person, he knew her father, Bridgeburton, had a child, and commanded his henchmen to drug her while they were doing business. Leila woke up groggy and disorientated in the carriage of Francis Beaumont, who claimed he had rescued her from burglars, breaking the news of her father's death to her.

While Leila is completely unaware of this, once it's revealed to Ismal/D'Esmond that she is Bridgeburton's daughter, he is painfully conscious of the fact that his former actions led to her being in the clutches of Francis Beaumont, an innocent and sheltered girl, who was easily seduced by him and later shackled in marriage to him for the next decade. For all that she's not had a great marriage and is aware of many of her husband's flaws, Leila refuses to see herself as a victim and is grateful to her husband for making her the artist she now is. It takes her a long time to realise just how insidious and toxic his influence over her has been, and how many insecurities and hang-ups she harbours, all placed there carefully by her husband, to ensure that while she may not be allowing him into her bed, she certainly wasn't going to sleep with and experience pleasure with anyone else either. Leila is so strong and smart, yet so wounded and vulnerable and the process she has to go through in this book is rather painful to read about in parts.

Ismal/D'Esmond has long since gotten over the woman he chased across Europe, who has been happily married for the last decade. Leila is probably the first woman to fascinate him as much, yet he is painfully aware at all times that the secrets he harbours will hurt her when they come to light. That she is frighteningly perceptive and sees things in him that others don't appear to doesn't help. He is in love with her long before he's able to finally break through the layers of conditioning that make her think sex is something rather repellent and allowed access into her bed. He knows that when she finds out the truth (and he has no illusions that she won't eventually figure things out), she will be deeply hurt and possibly ask him to leave her forever.

Seriously, this is a really angsty book with very complex and wounded people. Once Ismal/D'Esmond finally manages to seduce Leila, we're about 70% into the book (although they seem to make up for lost time once they get started), so for much of the book there is just a fairly complicated and somewhat tiresome murder investigation (even the protagonists admit that this mystery is tedious), with the couple learing more about one another as they question and investigate others. Francis Beaumont is an absolutely odious individual, so there are MANY people with a will and motive to murder him. He was a master manipulator, and it takes Leila a long time to realise and deal with the ways he messed her up.

Anyone looking for a light-hearted and amusing romp, would be much better off checking out Mr. Impossible or The Last Hellion, or reading something in Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove or Castles Ever After series. This is not an easy or comfortable book, but the romance feels so much more earned at the end because of it. It should also be pointed out, for those readers who are sick of "pregnancy epilogues" - Leila is barren and can't have children, and there is a frank and very touching discussion about adoption in the later half of the book.

A final note - I listened to this in audio book this time around, and as with the other Loretta Chase historicals, it's narrated by the excellent Kate Reading. She is especially good at accents and the way she changes the voice and accent of D'Esmond/Ismal once he reveals his background and true identity to Leila is really well done.

Judging a book by its cover: My paperback cover of this has a blond dude with stubble looking out from behind a curtain. I refuse to believe it's supposed to be Ismal/D'Esmond, but refuse to acknowledge this, as he's described several times in the book as the most beautiful man anyone has ever seen, and the slightly scruffy surfer dude on the cover clearly doesn't fit that. The audio book cover is this underwear-clad red-head, where I always get more distracted by the beautiful blue brocade wallpaper than the woman. Not sure if that was entirely the effect the cover designers were looking for.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read