Review: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Review: Clock Dance by Anne TylerClock Dance by Anne Tyler
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on July 10, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A bewitching new novel of family and self-discovery from the best-selling, award-winning author of A Spool of Blue Thread.

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother's sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son's ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory--surrounded by eccentric neighbors, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places. A bittersweet, probing novel of hope and grief, fulfillment and renewal, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

My Review:

Willa Drake is living a life of such quiet desperation that she never quite realized just how desperate she’s become. And just how much of an apologetic doormat she is in her own life. Until circumstances, along with a tiny bit of her own once and future spark, finally crack open, not even a doorway, but at least a window out.

We all tend to marry types, and Willa’s first husband was a real jerk. Her second is an ass. Not quite an asshole, but certainly an ass. And her older son takes after his father – her first husband. But both of them condescend to Willa at every turn, and act like the world revolves around them, because Willa does everything she can to enable them to maintain that belief.

Her second son, who we don’t see all that much of, takes after her. She patterned her own behavior on her father, a quiet, saintly man who married a most likely bipolar or manic depressive drama queen.

The idea that a person either marries Gandhi or becomes Gandhi is depressing as hell, and it’s an idea that Willa seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. She’s been the Gandhi in every relationship – the saintly one who enables everything and forgives everyone all of their trespasses.

And, as one of the characters says, it must be frustrating to be married to such a person because the non-Gandhi always feels guilty, bitter or both pretty much all the time. It also means that the Gandhi-type enables all of their partner’s bad behavior, including abuse, and does not deal with the damage that is being done to any innocents in the household.

Like the children. Willa and her sister Elaine were both abused by their mother, but dealt with it in different ways. Elaine is distant and self-absorbed, Elaine makes peace at any and all costs. Neither is a particularly healthy way to deal.

But this story is finally about Willa breaking free. It happens almost by accident. Her son’s ex-girlfriend is hospitalized, leaving her 9-year-old daughter with nobody and no place. Not that little Cheryl isn’t surprisingly independent, but she’s still too young to be living by herself.

In a fluke, a neighbor calls Willa. And Willa, empty-nesting and looking for a purpose other than mollifying her husband, jumps at the chance to fly from Tucson to Baltimore to take care of a child she’s never even met.

Oh, so slowly, and oh so cautiously, Willa steps further and further out from that life of quiet self-effacement and desperation. And sets herself free.

Escape Rating C+: So many people love Anne Tyler, and I have so many friends who read literary fiction. It’s the stuff of the best seller lists after all. But I usually bounce right off of it, because the stories are so grim, the characters are so quiet, and so little happens.

And that’s kind of true in Clock Dance. The first half of the book was rough going for me. Until the point where Willa agrees to go to Baltimore, it’s so easy to see her making one mistake after another. The way that she gets into (and actually out of) her first marriage is depressing in its predictability. It’s sad to see that when we meet her again years later, she’s essentially recreated the same dynamic with her second husband.

It’s only when she goes to Baltimore to take care of Cheryl and her mother Denise that the story begins to move – just as Willa does. In her own life everyone treats her as a doormat. Her husband even calls her “little one” in a way that is as demeaning as it gets.

But with Cheryl and Denise and their working middle class neighborhood, Willa rediscovers the purpose that she lost along the way. It’s not that she becomes selfish, it’s that she’s helping others who also give back in return. She’s part of the community, not a servant to select members of it.

Her rebellion is as quiet as her desperation, and seems to take her forever to finally achieve – because it takes her forever to finally acknowledge her own wants and needs after years of looking after everyone else.

I wasn’t so much moved by this story as I was frustrated by it. A big part of me wanted this to be women’s fiction rather than literary fiction – because there would be more plot, more action, and more of a sense of resolution at the end. And the first depressing half would have ended a lot quicker.

The most forthright person in the story is young Cheryl. For a 9-year-old she’s pretty self-aware and knows who she is and what she wants. She’s certainly more self-aware than Willa. Willa has been such a cipher in her own life that she continues to be a cipher even when she’s the heroine. Most of her self-talk is utterly self-effacing. I’m not saying that she’s not realistic, because I’m all too aware that she is.

People, particularly women, often “settle” instead of striving. We’ve all done it at times in our lives, often for reasons that seem good at the time. But just because her character is ultra-realistic doesn’t make a book with her at the center all that enjoyable. More like a bit depressing until the very, very end.

If you love literary fiction, this is a book you’ll probably enjoy. If, like me, you have your doubts about litfic, this one won’t change your mind.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Review: Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S Dawson

Review: Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S DawsonKill the Farm Boy (The Tales of Pell, #1) by Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy
Series: Tales of Pell #1
Pages: 384
Published by Del Rey Books on July 17, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In an irreverent new series in the tradition of Terry Pratchett novels and The Princess Bride, the New York Times bestselling authors of the Iron Druid Chronicles and Star Wars: Phasma reinvent fantasy, fairy tales, and floridly written feast scenes.

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a hero, the Chosen One, was born . . . and so begins every fairy tale ever told.

This is not that fairy tale.

There is a Chosen One, but he is unlike any One who has ever been Chosened.

And there is a faraway kingdom, but you have never been to a magical world quite like the land of Pell.

There, a plucky farm boy will find more than he's bargained for on his quest to awaken the sleeping princess in her cursed tower. First there's the Dark Lord who wishes for the boy's untimely death . . . and also very fine cheese. Then there's a bard without a song in her heart but with a very adorable and fuzzy tail, an assassin who fears not the night but is terrified of chickens, and a mighty fighter more frightened of her sword than of her chain-mail bikini. This journey will lead to sinister umlauts, a trash-talking goat, the Dread Necromancer Steve, and a strange and wondrous journey to the most peculiar "happily ever after" that ever once-upon-a-timed.

My Review:

If Robert Asprin’s Myth-Adventures series had a love child with Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, and then if that love child had a child with Monty Python – or possibly a love child with each individual member of Monty Python, all midwifed by The Princess Bride, you might get something like Kill the Farm Boy.

Or you’d get a cheese sandwich. Or possibly both.

On the one hand, the description of this book can easily be read as a fairly typical epic fantasy. A group of adventurers, including a ”chosen one” set out from obscurity to undertake a quest.

But this particular fantasy is fractured from beginning to end. Like so many fantasies, the adventuring party consists of a wizard or two, a rogue, a warrior, a bard and a trusty steed. The opening salvo in the quest is to rescue a fairy tale princess from a sleeping castle. In a twisted cross between Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast.

That beast is a rabbit. Or at least sort of a rabbit. And sort of a girl. The rogue is a klutz, and a not very bright klutz at that. Of the two wizards, neither is exactly the leader of the Light. One fancies himself a budding Dark Lord, and the other is as grey as grey can get – except for her hair, because the natural color of that has been hiding behind magic for decades at the very least.

The dangers they face are life threatening and never ending. But there’s no farm boy in sight. Oh, there was a farm boy all right, but he gets chosen for death relatively early in the story. The real “Chosen One” is the trusty steed, but he’s neither trusty nor exactly a steed. And he likes to eat boots.

If the tongue was any further in the cheek, it would poke out the other side.

Escape Rating C+:Some of the reviewers make the comparison between Kill the Farm Boy and the Discworld. If that comparison holds at all, it’s only between Kill the Farm Boy and the first two Discworld titles, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, where Sir Terry was merely skewering the genre and not exactly plotting a story. And where he clearly had no clue yet that he was at the beginning of something that needed a real plot, sympathetic characters and at least a bit of internal consistency to wrap around that skewer.

While I love the work of both of this book’s authors, Delilah Dawson for the Blud series and Kevin Hearne for the Iron Druid Chronicles, this collaboration does not live up to either of their previous work, nor to any of the many antecedents I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

And that’s a real pity, because Kill the Farm Boy had so much promise. And it does have its funny moments. But in the end it doesn’t deliver – even though it’s obvious that the co-authors had tons of fun in the process of writing this.

The snark is too thick and the plot is too thin. It reminds me of the lesson that Mike the computer learns in Robert A. Heinlein’s marvelous The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Mike is trying to teach himself humor, and his human friend introduces him to the difference between “funny once” and “funny always”. Kill the Farm Boy attempts to be “funny always” by keeping up a nonstop torrent of snark and in-jokes.

And those are almost always “funny once”.

But we’ll be back in Pell for No Country for Old Gnomes. It took Sir Terry until at least Mort (Discworld #4) for that series to really get its legs under it. Maybe The Tales of Pell will manage to get there a little sooner. We’ll see.

Review: A Study in Treason by Leonard Goldberg

Review: A Study in Treason by Leonard GoldbergA Study in Treason (The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes Mystery #2) by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Daughter of Sherlock Holmes #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on June 12, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A continuation of USA TODAY bestselling author Leonard Goldberg's The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Treason is a new intriguing locked room mystery for Joanna and the Watsons to solve.

The following case has not previously been disclosed to the public due to the sensitive information on foreign affairs. All those involved were previously bound by the Official Secrets Act. With the passage of time and the onset of the Great War, these impediments have been removed and the story can now be safely told.

When an executed original of a secret treaty between England and France, known as the French Treaty, is stolen from the country estate of Lord Halifax, Scotland Yard asks Joanna, Dr. John Watson, Jr., and Dr. John Watson, Sr. to use their keen detective skills to participate in the hunt for the missing treaty. As the government becomes more restless to find the missing document and traditional investigative means fail to turn up the culprit, Joanna is forced to devise a clever plan to trap the thief and recover the missing treaty.

Told from the point of view of Dr. John Watson, Jr. in a style similar to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Treason is based partly on facts in our world and partly on the facts left to us by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Full of excitement and intrigue, this mystery is sure to be enjoyed by fans of Sherlock Holmes as well as the works of Laurie R. King and Charles Finch.

My Review:

A Study in Treason is the followup to last year’s The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes. I’m a sucker for Holmes’ pastiches, and I absolutely loved that first book. Not only was it the right book at the right time for me, but it seemed to hit all the right notes, with Holmes’ daughter taking her father’s place and solving crimes with Dr. Watson Sr. as well as his son, Dr. Watson Jr. In keeping with the spirit of the original stories, Watson Jr. is the chronicles of these new events.

But after having read A Study in Treason, I’m starting to wonder if this is something that can only be done well once. Part of what makes the first book so much fun is the nostalgia factor; that it echoes the originals while being just a touch new and just slightly different.

Nostalgia can only carry a person, a book, or a story so far. And I think that shows in this second book. While Watson Sr. is an older version of himself in the canon, very much as he should be, the new characters need to go in at least a few new directions.

Instead, Joanna Blalock Watson feels more like a carbon copy of her famous father. It is ironic in a case that proves that nurture is more important than nature, that Joanna seems to have each and every one of Holmes’ talents and habits, in spite of not having been raised by him. While Joanna certainly knows who her father was, I’m not certain that she actually met the man.

Yet somehow, not only his talents but his every habit seems to have passed down to her, as if by osmosis, barely changed from the original. And while the talents could indeed pass through the blood, that the habits would too seems a bit unlikely.

The story in A Study in Treason, recalls The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, while its title calls back to the first published Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. But in spite of the veritable school of red herrings thrown in the reader’s, and Lestrade’s, way, the case itself seems fairly obvious from the early stages. And obvious in a way that has been overused.

Escape Rating C+: I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, especially after the promising start in the first book. Instead, the story feels a bit thin and stretched, as though the author has taken a good idea and pushed it past its limits.

In order for this series to work, the characters need to change and grow. It makes no sense for Joanna to be such an exact replica of her father, particularly having grown up outside his influence. There should be some marked differences, and those differences would make her an interesting character in her own right.

She also seems to face or have faced little of the difficulties that a woman in a man’s profession would have faced in the 1910s. Or she has completely brushed all of them aside. Even if she chooses to ignore those differences, anyone she deals with on a professional basis would not. And that constant fight should have had some influence on her character.

There’s not enough there there, and I’m sorry to have to say that. I had high hopes for this series. But for a more believable female Holmes, I’m going back to Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series.

Review: Fast Burn by Lori Foster

Review: Fast Burn by Lori FosterFast Burn (Body Armor, #4) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense
Series: Body Armor #4
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 20th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For the woman who’s his perfect match, he’s willing to break the rules…

The moment Brand Berry meets beautiful, driven Sahara Silver, the connection between them is electric. It’s also something he can’t pursue. Sahara wants him, sure—to join Body Armor, where his MMA skills, size and cocky attitude make him perfect for her elite crew of bodyguards. For Sahara, the agency always comes first, and Brand needs more. Yet when she’s kidnapped by men searching for her missing brother, he doesn’t hesitate.

Somewhere along the way, flirting with Brand for the sake of business turned very personal. Despite his refusal to join Body Armor, it’s Brand who steps up when Sahara needs him most. Now there’s no more time for games, and no point denying the hunger they both feel. They’ll escape together or not at all. But if they survive, can Sahara finally surrender control to claim this blazing passion?

My Review:

Fast Burn is the fourth and it looks like final book in the Body Armor series. I’ve had a mixed reaction to the books in this series. I loved books two and three, Hard Justice and Close Contact, but had a lukewarm reaction to the first book in the series, Under Pressure.

My feelings about Fast Burn are all too similar to my feelings about Under Pressure. Let me explain…

This series is romantic suspense. That has meant that the bodyguards from the Body Armor Agency, former MMA fighters all, have a tendency to fall in love with the body they are guarding. But Fast Burn is a bit different, because the body that needs protection in this case is the owner of the agency, Sahara Silver.

And the man who wants to guard her is not part of Body Armor. Not that she hasn’t tried to recruit Brand Berry, but that Brand has refused to be recruited, in spite of Sahara’s patented full-court press.

Brand is interested in Sahara and not her Agency. He does not want to work for a woman that he wants to date. And a whole lot more. It makes sense to this reader. They can either have a personal relationship or a working one, but not both – especially not in their case, where both of them have the need to be in control of absolutely everything all the time. Compromise is not going to be easy for either of them.

One of the underlying plot threads in this entire series revolves around Sahara’s missing brother Scott. Scott has been missing and presumed dead for a couple of years now, after his boat was found with his girlfriend’s dead body on it and plenty of his own spilled blood along with hers. But his body was never found, and Sahara believes that Scott is out there, still alive.

When a bunch of thugs kidnap Sahara in order to get back the money that Scott owes them, one way or another, their leader believes that putting Sahara in danger will bring Scott out of the woodwork. He might be right, but before that can happen, it brings out the protective instincts of every one of the guys that Sahara has hired at Body Armor. As well as the one that she hasn’t, Brand Berry.

Sahara is now the person with the target on her back, and Brand is more than willing to step up and protect her – 24/7. But not as a member of her staff. Not at all. He just wants to protect her, and wipe the floor with the guys who are after her. Sahara isn’t sure that she can give up being in charge 24/7 in order to let someone take care of her, even for a second.

But the sharks are circling, and it’s a race to the finish. But whose?

Escape Rating C+: One of the things that made the Body Armor series so good was the character of Sahara Silver. As the owner of the agency, she has been part of every single book, and generally a fairly large part. She’s been the person that many of the women in the stories initially turn to, and she’s been kind, understanding and helpful without either giving up any of her femininity or any of her take charge agency. Either the actual agency, Body Armor, or her own personal agency as a mover and shaker in each story.

She loses all of that in Fast Burn. The whole story is all about all the guys, but particularly Brand, patting her on the head and letting her know that they’ve got this and that she really should let them take over and not worry her pretty little head. Whenever she tries to contradict or correct them, they pretty much ignore whatever she says.

While the possibility of her missing brother not only being alive but protecting her from the sidelines is certainly enough to make anyone just a bit crazy, Sahara seems to go off the rails and fall apart, giving Brand the chance to swoop in and protect her – whether she needs it or not.

As one of the characters says in one of my favorite video games, “swooping is bad”.

The men, but particularly Brand, do their level best to keep Sahara from participating in an operation that is all hers – it’s both all about her brother and all about a gang of idiots that keep trying to kidnap her and even succeed more than once. She also runs off half-cocked and puts herself in danger in ways that are definitely outside her character until this book.

This included an added filip of a trope I dislike, the one where the villain has a hard on for the female in danger and has the strong desire to take her and break her. This particular villain was much less vile than most, but that added element wasn’t necessary to ramp up the amount of danger Sahara kept landing herself in.

At the same time, I really love the character of Sahara, and I wanted to see her get her HEA as well as solve the mystery of what happened to her brother. I’ve liked all of the men that she has recruited for Body Armor, and it was fun to catch up with them a bit and see just how much they all care about her boss. I just wish it hadn’t been necessary to take away so much of Sahara’s agency to protect her.

I hope we see more characters like Sahara has been in the previous books, women who are intelligent, capable and very much in charge while still being happy and proud to be women. And we shouldn’t have to watch them sacrifice who they are to get their HEA.

TLC
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Review: Heat Exchange by Shannon Stacey

Review: Heat Exchange by Shannon StaceyHeat Exchange (Boston Fire, #1) by Shannon Stacey
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Boston Fire #1
Pages: 336
Published by Carina Press on August 25th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Lydia Kincaid's shipping back to Boston, but she's not happy about it. She left to get away from the firefighting community—her father was a firefighter, her brother's a firefighter and, more important, her ex is a firefighter. But family is number one, and her father needs her help running the pub he bought when he retired. Soon, Lydia finds it hard to resist the familiar comfort and routine, and even harder to resist her brother's handsome friend Aidan.

Aidan Hunt is a firefighter because of the Kincaid family. He's had the hots for Lydia for years, but if ever a woman was off-limits to him, it's her. Aside from being his mentor's daughter, she's his best friend's sister. The ex-wife of a fellow firefighter. But his plan to play it cool until she leaves town again fails, and soon he and Lydia have crossed a line they can't uncross.

As Aidan and Lydia's flirtation turns into something more serious, Lydia knows she should be planning her escape. Being a firefighter's wife was the hardest thing she's ever done, and she doesn't know if she has the strength to do it again. Aidan can't imagine walking away from Boston Fire—even for Lydia. The job and the brotherhood are his life; but if he wants Lydia in it, he'll have to decide who's first in his heart.

My Review:

I plucked this out of the towering TBR pile because I’m reviewing the fourth book in this series, Hot Response, for a tour next month. While I don’t have time to read the middle books before my tour date, I did want to take the opportunity to see where it all began.

The series features the firefighters in one particular Boston Fire company, as well as some of the regulars at the bar that most of them use as a second home. That the bar is owned by a retired member of their company probably has a lot to do with that.

Lydia Kincaid has kind of run away from home, and from that home-away-from-home known as Kincaid’s Bar. Between the bar and the firehouse, it’s a very close-knit community, and Lydia was tired of everyone knowing her business – especially since that business includes a divorce from a firefighter. Not to mention that Tommy Kincaid, the owner of the bar, is her father. His expectation that both Lydia and her sister Ashley would work at his bar and nowhere else is just the beginning of his attitudes.

He still seems pissed that Lydia divorced her lying, cheating ex-husband instead of giving him yet one more chance. Dear old dad is a bit locked into 1950s.

But that tendency of the bar regulars to know and be up in the Kincaid’s business is currently more than her sister Ashley can handle. Ashley and her firefighter husband Danny are separated, and she can’t cope with every single bar patron commenting on her life and her choices.

Sister to the rescue! Lydia comes home and takes Ashley’s place behind the bar, as well as her guest bedroom. It’s all supposed to be temporary, until Ashley and Danny either figure out how to fix what’s gone wrong, or figure out that it can’t be fixed. Then Lydia will run away again, as far from Boston as she can stand.

Lydia’s plans are derailed when Aidan Hunt happens to them. She’s known Aidan forever – he’s her younger brother Scotty’s best friend. And he’s Scotty’s partner in the fire company, which means that he should be off limits to her. From the perspective of the story, it’s much more that she should be off limits to him. Both as his best friend’s sister and because any relationship drama will ruin the cohesiveness of a fire team that has to have each other’s backs every moment.

But their chemistry can’t be denied. And instead of fighting it, they give in, both believing that the whole thing is only temporary, and that nothing good will happen if they tell either her brother or her father that they are seeing each other.

Of course, they’re only half right.

Escape Rating C+: I loved many of Shannon Stacey’s earlier books, including her Kowalskis series, and I really wanted to like Heat Response more than I did. Instead, I have a lot of mixed feelings.

The overall feeling I got from this story is that it is a “bros before hos” story, to put it bluntly. Lydia and Aidan are both single and completely unencumbered. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the two of them getting together, whether it’s just a hookup, a friends with benefits relationship, or something more.

But they both know that her brother Scotty and her father will be pissed that Aidan and Lydia are seeing each other, so they keep it secret. And, of course, when the lies are finally exposed it makes the situation exponentially worse. The problem for the story is that it feels as if all the tension created by their relationship and its secrecy is false. It feels unneccessary, especially as there are plenty of real sources of tension between Lydia and Aidan without adding a fake one.

Lydia left Boston because she found the close-knit atmosphere of the firehouse and the bar stifling. Her relationship with her father is contentious at best, and her previous marriage to a firefighter was disastrous. Her ex was a lying, cheating jerk who used his uniform and his job to find more opportunities to cheat and more ways to hide his cheating from Lydia. Her dad seems to have put his job and his brotherhood ahead of his family. Lydia is tired of playing second-fiddle to a fire company, and has no desire to get into any kind of relationship with any more firefighters than she already is between her dad, her brother, and her currently estranged brother-in-law.

Her vow to stay away from relationships with firefighters along with her frequently stated plan to leave Boston as soon as Ashley is back on her feet, provide enough reasons for Aidan to be wary of a relationship with her, because she’s clear from the beginning that she’s not planning to stick around.

That means that there were plenty of problems to provide conflict for their relationship without adding the lying and the eventual fighting between Aidan and Scotty. Or at least that’s my take on it.

I found the secondary romance between Ashley and Danny to be much more interesting, and wish we’d seen a lot more of it. They’re separated, not because either of them did anything wrong, but because Danny suppresses all of his emotional reactions. Ashley feels lonely all the time, because Danny just isn’t emotionally present. It is a big and very, very real problem, and it takes them most of the book to finally start talking with one another. I loved seeing them start working things out, and I wish I’d seen more of their story.

Review: Amid the Winter Snow by Grace Draven, Thea Harrison, Elizabeth Hunter, Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Amid the Winter Snow by Grace Draven, Thea Harrison, Elizabeth Hunter, Jeffe KennedyAmid the Winter Snow by Grace Draven, Thea Harrison, Jeffe Kennedy, Elizabeth Hunter
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Twelve Kingdoms, Elder Races
Pages: 454
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on December 12th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

As the snows fall and hearths burn, four stories of Midwinter beginnings prove that love can fight its way through the chillest night...

THE DARKEST MIDNIGHT, by Grace DravenThe mark Jahna Ulfrida was born with has made her a target of the cruel and idle all her life. During the long, crowded festivities of Deyalda, there’s nowhere to escape. Until a handsome stranger promises to teach her to save herself…

THE CHOSEN, by Thea HarrisonIn her visions, Lily sees two men fighting for her tiny country’s allegiance: the wolf and the tiger, each deadly, each cunning. One will bring Ys chaos and death, one a gentler path—but she’s destined to love whichever she chooses. The midwinter Masque is upon them, and the wolf is at her door…

THE STORM, by Elizabeth HunterWhen her soul mate died in a massacre of the half-angelic Irin people, Renata thought she’d never feel happiness again. She’s retreated to the snowy Dolomites to remember her hurts—until determined, irrepressible Maxim arrives to insist on joy, too. And before she can throw him out, they discover a secret the Irin have to know…

THE SNOWS OF WINDROVEN, by Jeffe KennedyAs a blizzard threatens their mountain keep, the new Queen Amelia of the Twelve Kingdoms and her unofficial consort Ash face their own storm. Ash knows a scarred, jumpy ex-convict isn’t the companion his queen needs. But when a surprise attack confines them together in their isolated sanctuary, the feast of midwinter might tempt even Ash into childlike hope…

My Review:

Be sure to wrap up warmly before you start this one. And have a cozy blanket and a hot cup of tea or cocoa – along with a cat or dog to keep your feet warm. All of these stories do an excellent of job of making the reader really feel Jack Frost nipping at their nose – and everywhere else!

I came to visit the Twelve Kingdoms, and ended up making the whirlwind fantasy romance tour. And I’m glad that I did – even if my toes are still frostbitten.

The Snows of Windroven by Jeffe Kennedy

I read The Snows of Windroven first. While I have enjoyed all of the Twelve Kingdoms books, I’ll admit that Amelia, the heroine of The Tears of the Rose, was my least favorite heroine of the entire series. She begins that story as a spoiled brat. It’s only when everything and everyone who has spoiled her is taken away that finally grows into the woman she was meant to be.

And that woman is the heroine of The Snows of Windroven, not that we don’t occasionally see flashes of the spoiled princess that Ami used to be. But this time, she’s mostly right.

None of the daughters of High King Uorsin have ended up in traditional-seeming relationships. Andi is now the Queen of the Tala, but her husband had to kidnap her in order to get her on her throne. He’s not king, only Prince Consort. Even then, their relationship is more traditional than that of the new High Queen Ursula, who cannot marry her consort due to political tensions in his home country. But she will not marry another.

Ami’s fairy tale husband died in The Tears of the Rose. Her paramour is Ash, a Tala half-breed ex-convict with just a touch of healing magic. While Ash is the person who helped Ami grow into who she was meant to be, using a whole lot of very necessary tough love, he’s also certain that she will outgrow him. That he’s not good enough for her, and that she will eventually bow down to the pressure that surrounds her to marry someone of the nobility, someone who can be king to her queen.

So a lot of The Snows of Windroven is about Ash sticking his head in his ass and refusing to take it out. He loves Ami, she loves him, her children love him, but he is determined to set her free. And she is equally determined to keep him. But Ami has a goddess on her side, and poor Ash doesn’t stand a chance. Not that he really wants one.

Escape Rating B+: I have to admit that I still don’t like Ami all THAT much. She has definitely grown up, but there’s still an element of “I’m queen so I can change the rules to get what I want” in her. I’ll also confess that the “I’m too good for her so I have to give her up” trope is not one of my favorites, because it always comes with a heaping helping of misunderstandammit.

That being said, the strength of this story is that it is written entirely from the perspective of the normally taciturn Ash. Being inside his head, seeing his reactions to Ami from his perspective, was marvelous. I liked his “voice” and would be interested in seeing more of their adventures from his point of view – especially now that he’s managed to mostly extract his head from his fundament.

The Darkest Midnight by Grace Draven

Every time I pick up one of Grace Draven’s novellas (For Crown and Kingdom and Teeth Long and Sharp) I’m reminded again that I really need to grab a round tuit and read Master of Crows. Based on her short work, that one must be awesome.

I will say that I very much enjoyed her entry in this volume, titled The Darkest Midnight. But as I read it, I found the story a bit too familiar, to the point where it was driving me a bit batty. The central theme of The Darkest Midnight is quite similar to the central point in the recent (and terrific) historical romance Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh, to the point where they blend together a bit.

As I loved them both, that’s not really such a terrible problem to have!

Escape Rating B+

The Storm by Elizabeth Hunter

If I’ve read other work by Elizabeth Hunter, I don’t remember doing so. And after reading The Storm, I’m not sure that I’ll seek her out. This was the weakest story in the collection for me. I think it has to do with the whole “fallen angels” thing. I’ve read several different stories that use the whole “Grigori are half-breed fallen angels” premise, and it just doesn’t work for me. I actually liked the romance between Maxim and Renata, but the background just didn’t do it for me.

Escape Rating C+

The Chosen by Thea Harrison

And finally, last but definitely not least, The Chosen by Thea Harrison. I have not read Harrison’s Elder Races series, but now that I’ve dipped my toe into this series, I can’t wait to go back and start from the very beginning. This novella is a kind of historical fantasy romance. By that I mean that the setting feels a bit historical, but that it is definitely fantasy. It’s a kind of story I’ve read before, but in this case it’s done particularly well. The seeress Lily knows that she will be forced to chose between two alliances for her country, represented by two men who visit her in her prophetic (and sexy!) dreams. Her tiny country, no matter how much magic it contains, is no match for either of the two predators who are bearing down on her. She knows that one alliance leads to not merely survival but actually increased prosperity, and the other leads to ruin and death. But she has little to judge between them, until one of the predators arrives at her doorstep.

It is only then that she has enough information with which to make a choice. She can pick the distant kingdom, and the man who goes with it, who sends polite and thoughtful missives but she has never met, or the wolf at her door, a man who brings his army, his gifts, and most of all, his overwhelming self. Lily is caught between terrible choices, and is not certain whether the wishes of her own heart represent the best decision for her people, or the worst.

Escape Rating A-: This one is just too short. I wanted more of the this world, more of the conflict that sets this story in motion, more of Lily’s life as the Chosen of Camael, and more of the developing relationship between Lily and Wulf. I loved that they are both the reluctant leaders of their people, and that Wulf is willing to help LIly understand how hard that kind of position is without ever attempting to take it from her. They have a terrific “court and spark” romance that just sizzles on the page. This is a series that i can’t wait to go back to.

One of the reviewers on Goodreads said that she came for the Elder Races and got sucked into the rest. I came for the Twelve Kingdoms and got sucked into the Elder Races. This a series to be added to the towering TBR pile and binged on as soon as manageable. One of the marvelous features of collections like this one is that readers get introduced to writers and series that they have not heard of, or in my case with the Elder Races, skipped because by the time I heard about it the series was already several books in. I’m happy for this introduction, even if I can hear the towering TBR pile groaning in the background.

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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Review: Slow Burn Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Slow Burn Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawaySlow Burn Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #7) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Copper Ridge #7
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on April 18th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Copper Ridge, Oregon, a cowboy's best friend might turn out to be the woman of his dreams…
If Finn Donnelly makes a plan, he sticks to it. After his brothers left Copper Ridge, Finn stayed behind, determined to keep their ranch going by himself. And when he realized his feelings for Lane Jensen were more than platonic, he shoved that inconvenient desire away. It was easy…until it wasn't. Suddenly his brothers are coming home to claim their share of the property. And Lane is no longer just in his fantasies. She's in his arms, and their friendship is on the line…
He's been her buddy, her handyman, her rock. But until that one breathtaking kiss, Lane somehow overlooked the most important thing about Finn Donnelly—he's all man. They're right together, no matter how much his volatile past has bruised him. Finn wants to hold Lane's body, but he doesn't want to hold her heart. But Lane is falling fast and now she's got a plan of her own…to show Finn there's nothing hotter than friendship turned to slow-burning love.

My Review:

I loved Last Chance Rebel, and my friend Amy loved Hold Me Cowboy, so I expected to love Slow Burn Cowboy. But that’s not what happened.

Instead I have very much of a mixed feelings review on tap. Very mixed.

The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favorites, so again, I was expecting to like the story line in this book. But something, actually multiple somethings, don’t quite work.

The set up is excellent, Lane and Finn have been best friends for ten years, ever since Lane left her parents’ home back East and moved to Copper Ridge to live with her brother Matt. At the time, Lane was sixteen and obviously just a bit fragile. Finn was 23 or 24 and more than a bit too old for her.

But that 8 or 9 year gap closes pretty quickly after a few years. Now Lane is in her late 20s and Finn is in his mid-30s. They’re both adults. But they are both still awfully fragile.

They are best friends. Really, truly. They spend time together and they care for each other and they need each other. But they are filling the gaps in each other’s lives that would normally be filled by a spouse or significant other. Not that their relationship isn’t significant, but they have fallen into a situation where they are friends with a different set of benefits. She cooks and buys his clothes, he kills spiders, changes lightbulbs and fixes the porch steps. It works for them.

Until it doesn’t.

Finn’s grandfather has just died. Instead of leaving his ranch to Finn, who has been working with him for that same last bunch of years, the old man left it to Finn and his three half-brothers equally. The Donnelly Brothers are all at crossroads in their lives, and they all move back to the ranch, into the house and the land that Finn expected would be his.

All of their relationships are strained and distant, and no one seems to be happy about any of it. So Finn, in a crazed need to re-establish control over something, anything, in his suddenly chaotic life, decides that he wants more from Lane than he’s ever asked for. He wants to push past their carefully maintained boundaries and turn their relationship into that of friends with the usual benefits.

He thinks its possible to make love and not feel at least a little love. And he’s an idiot.

Finn’s perfectly happy to tear down all of Lane’s defenses and push for whatever he wants. But when Lane turns the tables on him and starts pushing him for what she wants out of a relationship, he pushes her away as hard and as fast as he can.

The question of whether Finn can get his head out of his ass long enough to figure himself out is an open one. Finn needs to open his eyes, and his heart, before he throws away his best chance at happiness. And he needs to grovel.

Escape Rating C+: There was so much potential in Slow Burn Cowboy, but it never quite gels into the book that I was looking forward to.

Both Lane and Finn are damaged people, and neither of them thinks that they are worthy of happiness or love. They protect themselves in different ways. Lane by walling off what hurts her, and Finn by pushing away anyone who might get close enough to hurt him.

It’s amazing that they have managed to sustain a friendship, but they definitely have.

While Finn is a bit of an arsehole about it, his trauma is understandable. His dad seems to have been a serial philanderer, leaving a string of exes with his sons all across the country. Dad left everyone. But his mom also abandoned him. And he’s just sure everyone else will too.

Lane’s trauma just isn’t one that was easy for this reader to identify with. Her sense of loss at giving a baby up for adoption when she was sixteen is understandable, but she’s been wearing the past like a hair shirt ever since, to the point where the hair felt like it had been woven from a drama llama rather than anything real. Her story felt like angst for angst’s sake.

Also, these are two people who live inside their heads an awful lot, which also doesn’t feel right for Finn’s character. It felt like there was much more internal dialog than actual dialog. And Lane tended to think and talk in circles a lot of the time. That’s a habit that drives this reader crazy in real life, not just fictional life.

There are a lot of moments when the reader wants them to just stop talking inside their heads and let those words out where they might do some good!

But, and this is where the good stuff comes in, Copper Ridge just feels like a wonderful place. I like the people a lot. One of the great things in this story is all about the enduring power of women’s friendships. Lane, along with her best female friends, have a terrific, supportive and caring friendship. One of the ways in which Lane comes out of this story stronger than she went in is the realization that she is so much better off than she was when she arrived in Copper Ridge because those friendships will always see her through. She’s not alone, with or without Finn.

Finn’s supporting cast is his family, his three half-brothers and his niece Violet. They have all moved into the ranch and are now part of his life, where they have all been separate and alone up til now. Finn is really, really bad at letting people in, but having them be part of his life, whether he originally wanted it or not, is terrific. They bite and snap and growl at each other all the time, but they are all great characters and I’m looking forward to their stories in future books in the series.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Maisey and Harlequin are giving away a $25 Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

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Review: The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox

Review: The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg CoxThe Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: media tie-in, urban fantasy
Series: The Librarians #2
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on April 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For millennia, the Librarians have secretly protected the world by keeping watch over dangerous magical relics. Cataloging and safeguarding everything from Excalibur to Pandora’s Box, they stand between humanity and those who would use the relics for evil.
Stories can be powerful. In 1719, Elizabeth Goose of Boston Massachusetts published a collection of rhyming spells as a children's book, creating a spellbook of terrifying power. The Librarian of that age managed to dispose of all copies of the book except one, which remained in the possession of Elizabeth Goose and her family, temporarily averting any potential disaster.
However, strange things are happening, A window washer in San Diego who was blown off his elevated perch by a freak gust of wind, but miraculously survived by landing on a canopy over the building entrance. A woman in rural Pennsylvania who was attacked by mutant rodents without any eyes. And, a college professor in England who somehow found herself trapped inside a prize pumpkin at a local farmer’s market. Baird and her team of Librarians suspect that the magic of Mother Goose is again loose in the world, and with Fynn Carson AWOL once again, it is up to Cassandra, Ezekiel, and Stone to track down the missing spellbook before the true power of the rhymes can be unleashed.

My Review:

I read The Librarians and the Lost Lamp a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it because it felt so much like an episode of the show, including all of the madcap adventure and especially all of the banter. I had a great time, just as I do when I watch The Librarians. It was fun!

But The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase felt like it was more of a strain. The Librarians, of course, are always a bit strained in the midst of yet another hair-raising case, but there was something about this one that made it feel like a strain for the reader, too. Or at least this reader.

Fair warning, I may get a bit meta here. It’s hard to review a media tie-in novel without some references to the media it ties into, and how it “feels” related to how the original feels, And works. I would say or doesn’t work but the fact is that a person for whom the original does not work is unlikely to read novels based on it. My 2 cents.

Part of what makes The Librarians work as a show is their marvelous team dynamic. The Librarians and their Guardian are a close knit team and also kind of a family. What they do is designed to be a bit outside the mundane world, and they of necessity have bonded together. Along with Jenkins, the combination archivist, caretaker and zookeeper of the Library and the Library Annex in Portland they work out of.

On the one hand, parts of this story provide a marvelous and much broader view of just how big, how strange, and how magical the Library’s collections truly are. Nobody wants the job of cleaning the pen that holds the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs, but it’s a dirty job and somebody has to do it. Usually Jenkins.

On that other hand, the Librarians spend a lot of this story on separate parts of the quest. This group is stronger when it’s together. It’s also funnier and occasionally more heartwarming when it’s together. So for this reader story lost some of its steam when it separated the group, Also the way they were split up felt a bit contrived. Their separate quests seem to rely on their weaknesses more than their strength, and the individuals they were paired up with instead felt like contrivances designed to teach them each something rather than get the job done. As usual, my 2 cents and your mileage may vary.

And the action got a bit bogged down as it split into four separate stories, which at times felt a bit repetitious.

The concept that Mother Goose was not only real but a powerful witch who encoded her spells into nursery rhymes fits right into the mythos of the Library. That her magic could get out of hand if left in the hands of the “wrong people” could make an episode or a great story.

But the way that this one wrapped up, which unfortunately I did see coming a mile away, fell flat. Again, at least for this reader.

So, as much as I love The Librarians, I didn’t have nearly as much fun with Mother Goose as I did with the Lost Lamp.

Escape Rating C+: The scenes where Eve and Jenkins are chasing several of the Library’s more colorful (and volatile) exhibits around the Library are hilarious. My personal favorite is when Jenkins throws Arthur’s Crown at the Sword Excalibur and tells it to play “Keep Away” with the King of Beasts and the Unicorn. Eve’s solution to the problem of the Dead Man’s Chest was also lot of fun. But the gang spends too much time not being a gang, and I missed the way they play off of each other much too much.

Review: The Captive Shifter by Veronica Scott

Review: The Captive Shifter by Veronica ScottThe Captive Shifter (Magic of Claddare #1) by Veronica Scott
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Magic of Claddare #1
Pages: 250
Published by Veronica Scott on March 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Concealing her own considerable magical powers, Caitlyn enters the service of the northern Witch Queen masquerading as a simple healer. Under order from her goddess, she’s searching for a magical gem stolen long ago from her own people, believed to be hidden in the massive castle. The task is daunting but Caitlyn is sure she can locate the gem and escape, bringing the prize back to the temple where it belongs. Until she meets the captive shifter and her loyalties become dangerously divided.

In payment for her past services to his people, Kyler the leopard shifter has entered into a life of servitude far from his forest home, allowing the Witch Queen to tap his magic to power her ever darker spells. Factions at Court are threatening to turn the Queen to the Shadow. Her increasing demands for magic will cut short his nearly immortal lifespan. Kyler’s resigned to his fate until the day he crosses paths with the new arrival, whose secrets and magic entice and attract both man and leopard. Has he met his mate at last?

The Queen will never willingly release him from captivity. Caitlyn’s goddess refuses to grant her any delay in accomplishing her own task. Can they locate the magical gem, fight the Shadow and win free of the Witch Queen to earn the right to be together?

My Review:

There is something very, very rotten in the state of Azrimar, but that isn’t what Caitlyn has come to the capital to deal with. Not that all roads and all missions don’t eventually lead that way – but that isn’t how they start.

Instead, Caitlyn has arrived at court just in the nick of time for the annual testing of potential sorceresses, only to discover that her preparation missed the key points of the ritual. It is crucial to her mission that she find a place at court – even if that mission is not what it appears to be.

She succeeds, just barely, but only by earning the enmity of the Crown Princess Bradana, and the intense curiosity of the Witch-Queen’s pet shifter, Kyler. Caitlyn knows she’s going to spend the rest of her time at court dealing with those two very opposite interests, just not in the way that she originally expected.

Because both Bradana and Kyler are much more than they appear. But then, so is Caitlyn.

That Caitlyn is some kind of spy on some type of secret mission is obvious from the beginning, but we don’t learn who, how, or why until we get a bit into the story.

This is a fantasy romance, so Caitlyn’s world is not our own, and not even in our past or future. As this world is set up, Caitlyn is from a kingdom to the south, and is a priestess of the nature goddess on a special mission. Because something is rotten in the central kingdom of Azrimar and apparently has been for quite some time.

Long ago, a relic was stolen from the goddess, and she needs it back. Caitlyn has one year to infiltrate the palace and find the missing article. And that’s more than long enough to figure out just how much has gone wrong, and for Caitlyn to fall in love.

Unfortunately for both of them, Caitlyn falls for Kyler, a leopard shifter who has been oath-bound to the Witch Queen for 10 years. He knows that the Queen has been gravitating towards the dark side of the force, but he also knows that he’s dying. Whatever is going wrong, it isn’t going to be his problem fairly soon.

Until Caitlyn comes along and shakes him out of the depths of his depression. Kyler can help Caitlyn find the relic. Caitlyn can beseech the gods on his behalf. And it will take both of them to even take a stab at all that has gone wrong.

Caitlyn, Kyler, the Witch Queen and her kingdom have all come to a crossroad. The choices they make will have dire consequences, not just for themselves, or even for the kingdom, but for their entire world.

They must choose wisely – or all will be lost in the conflagration to come.

Escape Rating C+: This is a mixed feelings review. There were some things about this story I liked a lot, and some that drove me a bit batty.

I liked both Caitlyn and Kyler quite a bit. Caitlyn is very focused. She has a mission to carry out with a very strict time limit, but she still finds time to make friends and to care for and about people. She’s involved with her world, even for the short time she will be in the kingdom, and her actions always trend towards good. At the same time, Caitlyn is in service to a nature goddess, attempting to conceal herself, her power and her mission in a place that seems to be the antithesis of anything natural. It’s no surprise that she befriends Kyler, as he is the only nature-oriented being in the palace.

Kyler’s situation is tragic from the outset, and only becomes more so as we learn more about it. His captivity began honorably, but as time has gone on the Witch Queen has broken all of her oaths and agreements about it. And he is not free to leave – she has bound him with her magic. He has freedom of thought and some free will, but he literally cannot leave the palace, nor can he refuse the Queen’s use of his magic. Caitlyn’s friendship is his one light in a very dark place, and yet he is afraid to spend too much time with her or show her too much favor. While the Queen needs him alive for his magical power, punishing anyone close to him has become a sport for her and especially for her sister Bradana.

The palace intrigue is nasty and the methods of it feel a bit too predictable. And the characters of evil are a bit too much of evil for evil’s sake, which doesn’t work well as motivation. Or rather, that’s Bradana’s character, the Witch Queen’s motives are entirely too clear. She’s her sister’s pawn, and has let herself be manipulated into the darkness. In spite of her being queen, there just doesn’t turn out to be a lot of there, there. She’s an empty shell. To say that Brandana is evil because she was made that way (and she quite literally was) doesn’t give us much insight into the evil that made her. Hopefully we’ll get more of that in later books in the series.

I don’t expect to like the villains, although occasionally one does, but I need to understand them. And I didn’t here. On my other hand, there’s a tendency in fantasy for the West to represent good and the East to represent evil. The Lord of the Rings isn’t the only story where this happens, and it plays to some very old stereotypes, right along with white hats and black hats. In this series it looks like the West is where evil has its kingdoms, and the center and East are where the good, or at least neutral, kingdoms are. It’s always nice to see stereotypes turned on their heads a bit.

I end where I began, with mixed feelings. I liked the heroine and hero a lot, but found the plot to be on the predictable side and the villains a bit cookie-cutter. And while there were hints at interesting worldbuilding, it felt like too many of the details were left on the cutting-room floor. Hopefully things will be become clearer in later books in the series.