Thursday, 21 April 2016

#CBR8 Book 45: "A Lily Among Thorns" by Rose Lerner

Page count: 308 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Serena Ravenshaw fell for one of her father's footmen and was told in no uncertain terms that they had no future together. Rather than be forced to marry some crony of her father's, she ran away and chose to to become a prostitute. One evening, a drunken young gentleman felt pity for her and gave her his entire quarterly allowance, making it possible for her to buy her freedom and set herself up as one of the most famed courtesans in London. With the money she made from her affairs, she bought herself an inn and worked hard to become successful and prosperous, where she usually employs those in need of a new chance. Now even the Prince Regent occasionally comes to dine there.

Lady Serena, nicknamed the Siren by some, is also known as Thorn among her underworld connections, who have learned that she is a very dangerous woman to cross. Her vast network of informants is the reason her erstwhile saviour, Mr. Solomon Hathaway, comes to her inn. A valuable family heirloom, a set of ruby earrings believed to have belonged to Charles I, have been stolen, and his sister refuses to get married without them. Serena recognises him immediately and insists that he stay at the inn rent-free while she helps him track down the stolen goods, wanting to start repaying her vast debt to him.

Solomon, on the other hand, doesn't recognise the disillusioned young woman he gave money to all those years ago until some time has passed. He's still grieving the loss of his twin brother on the battlefield in Spain a year and a half ago. Having attained a degree in chemistry at Cambridge, he's now more than happy to create one of a kind dyes for his uncle's tailor-and-dye shop, even though all his family seem to believe him meant for greater things. Once he does recognise Serena, he's impressed with how successful she's become and can't help but be smitten with her. He's impressed by her hard work and is very grateful that she claims she'll be able to recover his family's stolen jewelry.

Little do Serena and Solomon realise they are about to be involved in all manner of drama; Serena's father suddenly threatening to have her committed to an asylum; her former business partner returning from France to try to blackmail her into selling the inn to him; accusations of espionage; undercover government agents and more. Their attraction towards one another grows day by day, but Serena can't let herself believe that someone with as soiled a past as she could ever be good enough for a thoroughly respectable and decent man like Solomon.

I've seen Rose Lerner's books raved about in a number of places. They seem to be popular on a number of romance blogs, and Courtney Milan has actually provided the cover blurb for the re-release of this book, which was first published in 2011. I got this in an e-book sale a while back and was curious to see what the fuss was about.

More often than not, the hero of historical romance is titled and wealthy, while it's the heroine who is of lower rank. Here that trope is turned on its head, with the heroine, albeit with a very murky past, of noble birth, while the hero works in trade. Solomon's mother was also highly born, however, but he and his siblings would never have existed had she not fallen in love with and run off with her Latin tutor, their father, who is now a country parson. Solomon being a preacher's son is one of the things that gives Serena pause about initiating any sort of relationship with him, assuming that his family would be appalled by her sordid past.

There is a lot to like in this novel, but there is also a whole lot of stuff going on, and the structure of the narrative is a bit odd. First there's Serena and Solomon's first meeting, at a brothel, while he's still at Cambridge. Then there's the search for the stolen jewels, when suddenly Serena's dastardly father returns from having no contact with her whatsover, threatening to have her locked away, followed shortly after by the return of her former business partner, who is ready to betray her utterly if she won't sell the inn to him. Said business partner is a French spy, who needs to be stopped and his network taken out with him. The search for the jewels seems to be forgotten about while the spy stuff happens, then suddenly that story line ends and I honestly thought the book was about to end, when there's a bit at the end where Solomon insists on Serena coming to meet his family.

I really liked both Serena and Solomon, although Solomon may be anachronistically tolerant, both in his complete disregard for Serena's chequered past, even though they seem to run into her ex-lovers at every opportunity, then in accepting and even supporting the homosexuality of someone close to him, after just a little bit of soul-searching. I found it sweet how very content he was working for his uncle, mixing dyes and designing clothes, with absolutely no loftier ambitions, no matter what his family might want for him. It was refreshing how close he is to his family, both his uncle and cousins and his more immediate one, his deep, heartfelt grief for his brother, who he was also always slightly jealous of and felt inferior to. Serena, on the other hand, is estranged from her family, working so very hard to appear hard, untouchable and ruthless at all times. She's had to manage by herself for so long and is terrified at her self-imposed armour being cracked even the slightest bit.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the unexpected sub-plot featuring a couple of gay characters, if, as mentioned about, a bit disbelieving at how quickly Solomon accepted it after discovering it. There is in fact a nicely diverse cast of characters in the novel, with Serena's second in command being a black woman she took in from the same brother she worked at, an Indian boy being taken in to help him out of a difficult situation, plus the aforementioned gay guys. Anyone wanting a lot of *insert funky bass line here* may be disappointed - there aren't that many love scenes between Serena and Solomon, and the gay characters are strictly fade to black, with their smexy times happening behind closed doors.

I have another couple of Lerner's books from other book sales, and will be interested in seeing how her writing has improved in later novels (this is her second one, I believe).

Judging a book by its cover: The lady on the cover has long dark hair, just like Serena. The guy has blond hair, like Solomon. The dress the lady wears is a vivid orange (very eye-catching), which directly references a dress Solomon designs and personally dyes for Serena in the book. This is all good. Less good is the fact that this book is set in the early Regency, while Napoleon is in the process of being defeated by Wellington. There is NO WAY any dress of Serena's would look like that - the dress on the cover is clearly Victorian in style, not empire-cut, as it should be. The male cover model may have blond hair, but he has very dark stubble and the hair colour looks pretty badly photo-shopped. His suit also looks ill-fitting and not right for the time period. The background is just generic and boring.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 18 April 2016

#CBR8 Book 44: "The Magpie Lord" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 210 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lucien Vaudry, Lord Crane, has returned to England after a twenty year exile in China because he's inherited an earldom he never wanted. He's not at all sorry his father and brother are dead, his brother Hector was a particularly nasty character, and their father covered up all his grievous misdeeds. There appears to be a curse on the Crane family, however, and having claimed the lives of his father and brother, it's Lucien's turn next. He needs magical assistance, and fast, before he commits suicide like his male relatives.

Magician Stephen Day owes powerful people some favours, but still intends to walk up to the new Lord Crane and tell him where to stuff it. Hector Crane and his father did their very best to absolutely destroy Day's family and blacken his father's reputation and now he wants to tell Lucien to go to the devil. As a magical justiciar, he also has a responsibility to deal with supernatural threats, however, and the killing curse that's working its compulsion on Lucien is a particularly nasty one. Besides, the new Lord Crane is not really behaving in a very aristocratic manner, and makes it very clear that he loathed his father and brother probably as much as Day does. Stephen is persuaded to help him, and when it becomes clear that there is not just one nasty spell aimed at Lucien, but that his family home also seems affected by sinister forces, he agrees to help, even against his better judgement.

Having been exiled to China at seventeen with only his trusty manservant Merrick at his side, Lucien survived starvation as a dock rat in Shanghai and eventually established himself as a trader. In China, not only is magic quite common practise, but Lucien's homosexual proclivities are seen as nothing out of the ordinary. He finds England stuffy and restrictive and pretty much just wants to settle his finances, sell his estate and return to China once and for all. Instead he finds himself the target of a vindictive curse, his evil brother's headless corpse is haunting the estate grounds and terrifying the servants and the angry little man he's hired to help him clear the matters up is growing more intriguing and attractive with each passing day. Of course, if Stephen doesn't figure out who's targeting the Cranes, the two are never going to survive long enough to act on their attraction to one another.

I know very little about K.J. Charles, except that she's written a number of m/m (male/male) romances, either straight historicals, or historical fantasy, and that her books are really very popular. Every so often, one will pop up in the Smart Bitches/Dear Author March Madness competition and I will remind myself that I really need to read some of them. Then this book was selected as the April pick for Vaginal Fantasy, and I finally got around to actually reading one. I'm glad I did. It's certainly not a perfect book, there are a few too many occasions where intriguing information about the characters backgrounds are skipped over, or conversations they have to get to know one another better are told about, rather than shown to the reader, much of what dialogue there is, especially from Lucien, is very funny.

The book is quite short, and I would have loved for the author to spend some time letting the reader get to know the character and see their relationship develop more gradually, but I guess we can't have everything. As it is, the story is really quite action-packed, with each new dangerous event following on from the previous at a rather exhausting speed. While the book is classified as a romance, this is clearly the first book in a series, and the story barely reaches a HFN (Happy for Now) before it fades to black. I'm assuming there's a lot more to come in the sequel books and novellas, and based on this first taste, I will probably be seeking them out at some future point.

Judging a book by its cover: The snooty-looking blond guy on the cover is clearly meant to be Lucien Vaudry. When I'd seen this cover in passing on Goodreads or various e-book sites previously, I'd always assumed that this was some sort of butler or head footman or something, having never really taken the time to examine it too carefully. Looking closer at it, I can see that he's wearing what looks like a rather fancy suit (which is entirely in keeping with the character) and the background is also suitably period appropriate. I doubt the hatclad gentleman with his back turned in the background is meant to be Stephen Day, as he seems unlikely to own anything as fancy as the coat said man is wearing. I like the sepia tint to the cover as well, giving it a more historical feel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

#CBR8 Book 43: "The Sport of Baronets" by Theresa Romain

Page count: 120 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sir Bartlett Crosby is training the last of his promising horses, Golden Barb, in the hopes that it will win him a sizable prize purse in the upcoming race. Due to his mother's compulsive gambling, he's had to sell off most of the horses in the stable, a lot of land and furniture, and reduce staff considerably. So when Miss Hannah Chandler turns up with a bill of sale that suggests his mother has sold Golden Barb, HIS horse, to the Chandlers, he is less than pleased. To add to matters, while he is arguing the impossibility of this transaction with Miss Chandler, the horse is stolen away by his head groom, leaving several other of the grooms knocked unconscious.

The Crosby and Chandler families have had a vicious rivalry for decades. Hannah and Bart join forces to investigate both why the bed-ridden Lady Crosby would authorise the sale of their family's last hope to greatness to her worst enemy, Hannah's wheelchair-bound father and where the horse in question has been taken. Over the course of their joint investigation, they quickly discover that while their parents may hate each other, they in fact feel quite strongly attracted to one another. Will they locate the stolen horse? Will they resolve who owns the horse in such a way that they can still face each other afterwards? Can they attempt to overcome the family feud by joining forces, permanently?

I've read a number of Theresa Romain's novels now, and while she has impressed me with her writing, she's never really emotionally engaged me on a level that my favourite romance writers do. I am a deeply emotional reader, and a clever way of crafting your narrative isn't going to get you too far if I don't care about the characters and the setting I'm reading about. In this novella, however, possibly because the story is so short and contained, I was really impressed and enjoyed reading about Bart and Hannah a lot more than has been the case in my previous attempts at Ms. Romain's writing.

It may seem as if the two get over their families' supposed animosity for each other very quickly, but at the same time, it's clearly established that the feud and rivalry is really the product of their parents, not them. Bart has always heard all manner of bad things about the Crosbys, but hasn't really seen Hannah since she was a little girl. He has nothing personally against her, except her family name. Hannah, on her part, has always heard that Sir Bartlett is an irresponsible rake and a dandy, not to be trusted, but it's quite clear to her that he works very hard to train his horses and that he's doing his very best to try to patch up his family's ruined finances. She also discovers that he's frequently prone to saying exactly the wrong thing to a woman, and therefore strongly doubt her father's word that he's a libertine and a rake.

Bart puts all his hopes on Golden Barb to win him enough capital to start rebuilding his stables, thus allowing him to breed more champions and slowly recouping all the money his mother gambled away. Until his mother had a stroke, he foolishly let her run the family estates, not realising just how extensive her gambling addiction had taken them into debt. Now she uses her feebleness and recovery from the stroke to ignore any and all unpleasant conversations, preventing her son from properly taking over as head of the family.

Hannah wanted to buy Golden Barb to have something that was hers and hers alone. The youngest child in her family, she has never really gone anywhere and instead stayed by her father's side, aiding him in business since she was old enough. She saved up her own pin money for the purchase price of the horse, and as such has lost a considerable amount when the horse is stolen. She was also hoping for the price money from the race, to finally give her enough money to go to London, where she could experience the society, dancing and balls she's heard so much about, but never really experienced in her reclusive state in the country. While she's grown up in a wealthy family, she's never really had anything that was solely hers, like the horse was going to be. She needs for Bart to accept the bill of sale as legal, so she can have a chance at a more promising future.

The two investigate and discover interesting things about their parents' joint past that could explain why Lady Crosby may have agreed to sell a horse to Sir Chandler. They also manage to trace the horse thief and locate Golden Barb, but still need to resolve who actually owns him and who's going to get to race him for the prize money. None of them doubt that he will be the winning horse.

Again, in a novella, there isn't all that much time for misunderstandings and complications. The issues at hand are resolved without too much anguish on either side and based on this story (which is setting up Ms. Romain's new series), I am looking forward to the first full-length book, which I've also heard good things about.

Judging a book by its cover: Ah, the current trend of romance covers, where the cover model wears a dress with skirts so voluminous they could hid a multitude of sins, or even people. There are just miles and miles of skirt on that cover, and still, they appear to be cut so that the lady's legs are bare to the lower thigh. I will give them props for having the dress be empire-cut, that at least is period appropriate. I don't really think her slippers are, but they look fairly generic and are not offensive in and of themselves. I find this frothy confection of a pink dress especially amusing on the cover, as Hannah, the heroine, wears nothing but a series of riding habits in the novella, with one notable exception, when her morning dress looks nothing like this candy-coloured ballgown. As there is a scene where the hero and heroine sit and converse on a black and white-tiled floor in the entrance hall, the background is actually quite appropriate and they have given the cover model a riding crop to hold, so I guess I should be grateful that they've at least given nods to the story within. Seriously though, that skirt. It could carpet a small room. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 42: "Chase Me" by Laura Florand

Page count: 246 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Violette Lenoir is twenty-eight and a two-star Michelin chef in her own restaurant. Don't worry if you don't remember that, you will be reminded at least five times over the course of the narrative. Of course, she has every right to be proud, having worked her ass off in kitchens since she was fifteen, fighting sexism and discrimination every step of the way to prove herself. When a stranger breaks into her restaurant late at night, as she's about to leave, she's not intimidated in the slightest, and doesn't hesitate to show him that she can take care of herself.

Chase Smith (very much not his real name) is on a black-ops counter-terrorism mission in Paris. They suspect that someone may be planning a ricin attack, using Violette's restaurant and he needs to investigate how easy it would be for a stranger to get access to the kitchens, as well as distract the stunning blonde who's throwing knives at him. It's pretty much love at first sight for Chase, and he feels extremely bad about the fact that to save her life and that of countless others, he and his team will most likely ruin her life, at least short term. Because when Violette shows up to work after taking the fast-talking and very handsome American "security consultant" home for what she planned to be a one night stand, she discovers that someone has shut it down, claiming a salmonella outbreak originated there.

Violette's reputation, already shaky as a young female chef in a severely male-dominated and cut-throat profession, is possibly destroyed forever, and she KNOWS that the mysterious Chase had something to do with it. So when she meets him again, she punches him, promptly fracturing her hand in the process. Chase feels extremely guilty about his operation shutting down her restaurant (not that it wasn't absolutely necessary to save lives), and what is worse, he can't breathe a word about it, having to continue the fiction about being a private security consultant, even though they both know it's untrue. After a hell of a meet-cute, their fledgling relationship has a hell of a complication to work through on the road to their HEA.

Violette and Chase are both extremely skilled at what they do. Both are completely devoted to their chosen careers, to the point where any romantic relationships they've attempted in the past have never made it past the initial first dates. Violette is used to men being put off by her self-confidence, long work hours, her need to be in control and frankly, intimidated by (and possibly jealous of) her success. Chase is a black-ops soldier, used to shipping off for months on end, working on missions he can't tell even those closest to him about, in areas where people are most likely trying to kill him and his friends. He puts his life on the line to keep people safe and even when he's on leave, he's used to living a double life. He's a very dangerous man, which doesn't mean that he doesn't want a partner to share his life with at some point, maybe even children.

Chase actually proposes marriage to Violette the first evening they meet, after she's thrown not one, but two knives towards him. Violette is a passionate woman, who will frequently fling things at Chase when she's provoked, knowing full well that he can handle it, while he finds it adorable and tries to rile her up as often as possible. Understanding very quickly that Violette enjoys being in a temper, he keeps saying and doing outrageous things just to see how she'll react. He's physically so much bigger and stronger than her, but never uses it to dominate or threaten her. Being a soldier, he's used to compartmentalising his emotions, having to shut certain parts off when he's on a mission, possibly needing to kill people. Nonetheless, with each new encounter with Violette, he feels the softer sides of his emotions leaking out.

Florand writes excellent banter, and at her best, she writes such entertaining romances. It's always fun reading about people who are extremely good at what they do. Confidence and skill is attractive and I like that both Violette and Chase are very secure in their own skins and supremely certain that they are bad-asses in their own fields, without becoming overbearing or insufferably arrogant about it. This book was initially meant to be a lot more frothy, but took on a darker note after the various terrorist attacks in Paris and other parts of Europe in the last six months. The counter-terrorism plot was supposed to be more in the background than it is now, but I don't think the added levels of real-world relevance in any way damages the story.

More often than not, I really enjoy Florand's books and there is more than enough sequel-bait set up over the course of this story. Florand has promised that Violette's friend Lena, as well as several of Chase's army buddies will have stories of their own in future books. So that's something to look forward to.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover here isn't particularly remarkable. The Eiffel Tower features in the background, because how else would you possibly know the book was set in Paris? To be fair, there is in fact a scene in the book that involves Vi and Chase looking at the Tower, so it's not entirely out of place. The woman on the cover is attractive and blond, so fits the description of Violette. Both her boots and jacket are leather, which again fits with the contents of the book. As romance covers go, it's not particularly exciting, but it's certainly not as egregiously bad as they sometimes are either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 41: "Jane Steele" by Lyndsay Faye

Page count: 432 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! There will be some mild plot spoilers for the early sections of Jane Steele in this review. I'm going to try to keep things vague, but it's difficult to write about without revealing some details.

Even if those in today's world who never read Jane Eyre (they exist, I've met several of them), still tend to know the gist of the story (it is after all, 200 years old by now). Poor, down-trodden and plain Jane has an awful childhood, goes to the worst boarding school ever, then becomes a governess in a big, creepy mansion with a strangely attractive, extremely broody gentleman with an interesting way of wooing women and many deep dark secrets lurking in his past. Hijinks ensue. Just in case there are people who DON'T know what the secrets pertain to (my colleague Ingrid is apparently one of these marvellously unspoiled individuals and I can't wait to hear her reaction to reading the book for the first time later this year), I'm not going to spoil it for you here.

You don't need to have read or enjoyed Jane Eyre to enjoy Jane Steele, in fact, I think this is one of those wonderful books that will work on both fans of the original and people who dislike it, because it's heavily influenced by its source material, but does its very own thing with it. On the surface, there are a lot of similarities - a protagonist named Jane, crummy childhoods involving disapproving aunts and inappropriately behaved cousins, a hellish boarding school, the chosen profession of governess, an engaging little girl to teach, and a gentleman with deep dark secrets in his past and areas of the house that are off limits.

There are also a lot of differences. While Jane Eyre strives so desperately to be good and virtuous(and succeeds beyond what is reasonable to expect from a mere human), Jane Steele learns early on that sometimes it's easier to just be bad. As a young girl, she accidentally causes the death of her odious cousin when he tries to sexually assault her. Having already taken a hefty leap onto the road to perdition, she's pretty secure in the knowledge that she's going to hell, and may as well enjoy herself on the way there. She chooses to go to boarding school to avoid awkward questions and learns early on that there are people who can do terrible things to others in the name of trying to teach them to be good. Psychological torture and emotional abuse is just as bad, if not worse, than physical beatings.

Like Ms. Eyre, our Jane makes some true friends while at school and this helps her in London when trying to make ends meet, before she becomes a governess. Having helped rid the world of a number of dastardly souls, she gets word that her aunt has died and there is a new master in her childhood home. She learns that he is seeking a governess for his ward, and applies, reasoning that having killed before, she might have to kill again, this time to secure her birthright. Mr. Charles Thornfield is not what she expected at all, however. A military physician, having spent most of his life in India, his entire house staff are Sikhs and his ward, the horse-obsessed Sahjara, is clearly half Indian as well. The billiards room is now full of magnificent bladed weapons of all kinds and the basements of the house are off limits, with workmen coming and going at all hours.

Jane does her best to learn his secrets (even throwing herself down a flight of stairs when she's about to be discovered eaves-dropping), but the more she discovers about him, and his affection for Sahjara and the warm closeness between him and the Sikhs of his household, who are treated a lot more like family than servants, the more she wavers in her own plans to dispose of him. Of course, even as she grows more infatuated, she cannot tell him of her own murderous and decidedly chequered past, but as outside agents seem to threaten the inhabitants of Highgate House and the safety of the little girl Jane has come to love, she determines that she may once again have to use her talent for murder to remove Mr. Thornfield's enemies once and for all.

I've seen Jane Steele described as a serial killer in several of the publicity stories about this book, and I think those articles are misleading. Yes, she kills more than once, but to describe her as a serial killer suggests that this is something she's doing with forethought and pre-meditation, which is just not the case. The very first time she kills someone, it's in self defence and it's an accident, because she pushes her bad-touching cousin hard to get him away from her, and he falls down a ravine. Not exactly cold-blooded murder. Of course, she lies through her teeth to the police and her aunt afterwards and it's this first death that makes her a lot more likely to turn to extreme violence as a defence mechanism, but she really doesn't stalk the streets like some vigilante ridding the world of abusive evil-doers.

Our in-book heroine is a great admirer of the book Jane Eyre and each chapter starts with a quotation from that book. Jane sees a lot of similarities between herself and her namesake, but she's a lot more timid and proactive than Ms. Eyre. She's fiercely loyal to those she loves and will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to protect them. She's a skilled and unrepentant liar and rarely regrets her actions, even though some are less than morally upright. It's also clear that in her years in London before she becomes a governess, Jane has had more than one lover and enjoys the physical affections between men and women. It's one of the reasons she suffers so because of her infatuation with Mr. Thornfield, who constantly wears gloves and has sworn off contact with other people as a penance for something in his past.

This book was just so much fun and while the first half especially strongly mirrors the narrative of its source material, it went off in a very different direction once Jane has returned to Highgate House as a governess. I really liked the colourful household and especially the skill with weapons displayed by all its inhabitants. I don't know as much as I probably should about the Anglo-Sikh wars in India, but am going to assume that they were well researched by Lyndsay Faye and that the actions described in Mr. Thornfield and Sardar Singh's pasts were realistic and based in historical fact. Sahjara was a delightful little girl rather than an annoying plot moppet and the slow-burning romance felt deeply satisfying and suitably impossible at times.

I'm not the first to review this book so enthusiastically, and I hopefully won't be the last. This is going to be one of those books I gift to my friends to force them to read it, and I have no doubt it's going to be in my top ten at the end of the year. The Audible version, narrated by Susie Riddell, is excellent. She does such a good job with all of the different accents, including the Indian characters, without ever veering into uncomfortable caricature. With an audio book of this length, it normally takes me longer to get through it, but I actually just sat around at home listening to this one, to get to the end as soon as possible. Really, whether you like Jane Eyre or not, do yourself a favour and check out this book. It really is so much fun, and for the squeamish among you, the murders are not the main focus here.

Judging a book by its cover: As with pretty much everything else about this book, I sort of love the cover. A textured black background that evokes both dark wood and crushed velvet, decorated with a stylised pattern that brings to mind lace or flowers. The various shapes that make up the patterns are bladed weapons, like knives and swords. There are actual anatomical heart shapes, maple leaves, bottles and goblets, as well as some tiny skulls. The pink, purple and red used for the lettering all works nicely too. I would absolutely pick this up in a book store, even if I hadn't heard very complimentary things about it online. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 40: "The Burning Sky" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Summary from Goodreads:

It all began with a ruined elixir and a bolt of lightning. 

Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation - or so she has been told. The one prophesied for years to be the saviour of the Realm. It's her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the most powerful tyrant and mage the world has ever known. This would be a suicide task for anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl with no training.

Guided by his mother's visions and committed to avenging his family, Prince Titus has sworn to protect Iolanthe even as he prepares her for their battle with the Bane. But he makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should only have been a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the tyrant closing in, Titus must choose between his mission - and her life. 

The Burning Sky - the first book in the Elemental trilogy - is an unforgettable novel of intrigue and adventure.

 Iolanthe has lived most of her life in a remote village, with a tutor/guardian who seems to be quite content to drink himself into oblivion. She thinks he's delusional and paranoid, but when she gets desperate to perfect an elixir and performs a new spell, she suddenly brings a lot of scrutiny down on herself, including Prince Titus and she realises that her tutor's ramblings may have had some substance. Her guardian pushes her into what appears to be a trunk, but turns out to be a magical portal and she ends up in an attic with a madwoman intent to suffocate her. Luckily the prince shows up before she's killed. He explains that he's been plotting to kill the Bane for years, and his mother predicted that Iolanthe would help him. Of course, he didn't know she'd be a girl, which will seriously complicate his plan to hide her among his school fellows at Eton.

Titus, having access to his mother's predictions, has known about the prophesied elemental mage for years, and has set up magical safeguards so that everyone he goes to school with at Eton believes him to have a best friend, Archer Fairfax. Iolanthe assures him that she can impersonate a boy convincingly and because the Bane's agents are hot on their heels, they have no choice but to cut her hair, dress her in a school uniform and hope for the best. Titus can't imagine how anyone could mistake the pretty girl for a boy, but once they arrive at school, all the boys are cheerfully greeting their old buddy Fairfax, back after a three month convalescence at home, having broken his leg.

The disguise is working, but Iolanthe doesn't have full control of her powers. For her to be able to fully assist Titus, she needs to be able to control all four elements, but her entire life she's been told that she has no powers over air. Titus can tell that there is some sort of magical block in place, but breaking through it proves difficult. All the while, the Bane's agents are watching him closely, looking for signs of the new elemental practitioner they now know exist. It's imperative that they not realise that Fairfax and Iolanthe are one and the same.

Then there's the added complication of the growing affection between Titus and Iolanthe. Initially, Iolanthe doesn't want to risk her life in some momentous scheme to stop the Bane, and Titus sneakily manipulates her into swearing a blood oath to help him. Once she realises she's been tricked, she feels deeply betrayed (with good reason), but as her training progresses, and she learns more about how the Bane and his agents have controlled Titus' entire life and how his mother died in a failed rebellion against them, she begins to see the worthiness of his quest. Titus knows, from his mother's prophecies, that he's likely to die before they succeed in their goal. His mission is to train Iolanthe, so she can triumph, but he's pretty sure he's not going to be there with her at the end. So them falling in love is certainly not the most convenient, even though it assures Titus of her devotion and loyalty.

This is Sherry Thomas' first attempt at Young Adult fiction, before this, she's only written romance. I was unsure of how to rate this book, because it's slow to start, and Titus really is a bit of an alphahole to begin with, while Iolanthe's dangerously close to practically perfect in every way. Having played a boy in some village plays is apparently enough to fool a whole school full of school boys, not to mention the staff. She picks up cricket from watching the other boys play it for a few minutes, and isn't just decent at it, but spectacular. The only thing she spends some time fighting with, is breaking the magical block on her air powers.

Nonetheless, I really like the premise of the story (even though the Bane is a really lame name for a big bad) and the world building, with some of it set in non-magical Victorian England, with the rest in Titus' magical kingdom. Iolanthe clearly has a mysterious background, of which we will most likely discover more in later books. There are all sorts of prophecies, and intriguing worlds within worlds to be explored. As a romance writer, what Thomas does best is the gradual escalation in Iolanthe/Fairfax and Titus' feelings for one another. The second half of the book is a lot more action-packed and exciting than the first, and due to this, I think my rating will stay at 4 stars.

Judging a book by its cover: This is a fairly generic fantasy cover, with a castle, snow-capped mountains in the background, some ominous skies, lightning flashing from above, an insistent sun fighting through the clouds and big ol' winged flame shape dominating the main part of the cover. The castle is probably meant to evoke Prince Titus' palace. Iolanthe is an elemental whose main control is over fire and can call lightning from clear skies, I understand why these elements are there. Not sure about the winged shape (a phoenix? dragon?), but there are certainly a selection of flying fantasy beasties in the book, so I'll let it go. You can't really see in the thumbnail picture, but there is also a cheese tagline over the bottom part of the cover, "She can deny her power. But she cannot deny destiny." Iolanthe never denies her powers, and she's not particularly against Titus' quest to liberate his kingdom. She just doesn't want to be manipulated into helping him. Silly publishers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 16 April 2016

#CBR8 Book 39: "Her Every Wish" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 133 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Daisy Whitlaw has an almost impossible dream. She wants to open her own shop, selling affordable everyday luxuries for everyday women, but to do so, she needs money, which she doesn't have. Daisy's father is dead and her mother is ailing, and Daisy can barely make enough money working as an assistant in a flower shop to make ends meet for them. Her best friend Judith recently married a marquess, but there is no way that Daisy would ask her for a loan, she wants to make her own way in the world. When the local parish announces that they will be making a charity bequest to one lucky young person, Daisy seizes on this chance with everything she's got. There is nothing in the wording of the competition that says the grants will only be offered to men and she's determined to prove that she has what it takes to win.

Crash refuses to let his checkered family background, his questionable parentage, the colour of his skin or the many ways in which people try to bring him down affect him. While he knows his family and those who raised him were never what some might call respectable, he grew up among people that loved him and he's filled with an unshakable confidence that he's going places in the world. One of his only regrets is that Daisy no longer speaks to him. When he discovers that she's planning to apply for the charity bequest, he knows she won't be able to persuade the charity board without his help. She may despise the way he made his money and they may have parted with a lot of bitter words exchanged from either party, she may have a fiancee off at sea (this bit may in fact, unbeknownst to Crash, be completely untrue), but she needs his assistance and he's not going to let her refuse it.

Daisy needs to be supremely confident to have a chance at winning and Crash certainly has confidence enough to spare. Using his recently self-imported velocipede, he starts teaching Daisy that sometimes you have to ignore what others say and just throw yourself into things. Go fast, don't hesitate, or you'll fall and hurt yourself. Of course all this swagger training requires them to spend a lot of time together. The attraction they once shared is still there, but can they get over the horrible things they once said?

Courtney Milan is an amazing writer, and she keeps being progressive and inventive in her writing. Her most recent full-length novel, the first in The Worth Saga, featured Daisy's bestie, Judith Worth, who eventually ended up marrying the marquess she initially believed ruined her entire life. The main problem with Once Upon a Marquess was that Milan, at the start of a series that promises to be long and complicated, tried to fit so many different things into the book that the main romance seemed not just secondary, but almost tertiary. Luckily, in a novella, there is no room for anything superfluous, just the main story and Crash and Daisy's story is a lovely one.

Some of my favourite Courtney Milan stories are novellas. The Governess Affair is excellent, A Kiss for Midwinter remains one of my favourite romances of all time, no matter how many times I re-read it. Her Every Wish will be going on the list of novellas I treasure and that effected me greatly while reading them. There are no titled protagonists, fantastic dresses or elaborate balls in this story. Just two people, trying their damnedest to make something of themselves in the world, despite being told at every turn that they are reaching above themselves and shouldn't, because of the colour of their skin, or their gender or their less than privileged backgrounds. Daring to dream, being brave and strong enough to fight for a better future, even in the face of near-impossible odds is something that Daisy and Crash have in common. They are two of a kind, and once they get over the hurts dealt by the other due to a miscommunication in the past, they are very aware that they're perfect for each other.

Milan is so very passionate about rooting for the underdog, and while this book has some remarkable banter and some steamy scenes, Crash teaching Daisy to strive for more, to believe in herself, to dare to demand respect and to stop apologising for existing nearly every second of her life that really got me. I'm sure I might find flaws and nitpicks when I re-read, but I'm not sure I'll care. After the disappointment of the last book, it was very encouraging to see Milan back on form, and I'm very excited about the prospect of the next story, which seem to indicate there will be shot-gun weddings, hidden identities and all manner of complications.

Judging a book by its cover: You may be a great writer of romance and empowering books, Ms. Milan, but you're really not all that great about photo-shopping covers together. I seem to recall reading on her blog, that Ms Milan finds stock footage of women in wedding dresses and then pretty much superimposes them over a background, while changing the colour of the dress. This cover has little to nothing to do with the contents of the story, with the exception of the cover model being blond, which is suitable for Daisy. Only in her wildest fantasies does Daisy possess such a meringue of a poofy dress, which is horribly anachronistic for a Victorian era working class woman. To add insult to injury, the stock background is of some trees and a field, when Daisy lives and works in London and is unlikely to have seen such a pastoral scene for some time. Neither the awkward pose of the cover model, nor the insipid look on her face suit the resilient and determined heroine of this story either. Hopefully the cover won't actively scare new readers away.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.