Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Review: Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather FawcettEmily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries (Emily Wilde, #1) by Heather Fawcett
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance, historical fantasy
Series: Emily Wilde #1
Pages: 336
Published by Del Rey Books on January 10, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love, in this heartwarming and enchanting fantasy.Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world's first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party--or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.
So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily's research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.
But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones--the most elusive of all faeries--lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she'll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all--her own heart.

My Review:

Emily Wilde is writing/compiling an encyclopedia of all the faerie species in the world. That’s not exactly a spoiler as the title does rather give it away. But what is a surprise and a delight is the story that she tells about herself and her world in the process of researching what will be a weighty reference tome.

Emily’s story isn’t weighty or tome-like at all – even if it does very nearly lead her to her own tomb as she finds herself in the midst of one of the stories of the fae that she intended to merely tell and most definitely not participate in.

Although, considering the vast amount of research she has done in her speciality, she certainly should have known better.

Emily Wilde, PhD, MPhil, BSc, DDe is an Adjunct Professor of Dryadology at Cambridge in this slightly alternate, early 20th century story of fantasy and academe. The alteration to the world is that the study of faeries and the fae has become a real academic discipline, similar in many ways to anthropology and/or sociology, because the fae are real in this world. Hidden, elusive, all-too-frequently dangerous, but entirely real.

Studying them has been Emily Wilde’s lifework for half her life, since she arrived in Cambridge at 15 and is now 30. But the academic tropes feel all too real, as Emily’s trip to remote, frozen Ljosland to add one last chapter to the Encyclopedia on the subject of the equally remote and equally frozen native fae, the Hidden Ones.

The encyclopedia is not just a labor of love, or even just labor. The whole point is for Emily to publish what will be the foundational reference work of her speciality and gain tenure in the process so that she can, in future, remain comfortably in her rooms at Cambridge and study to her heart’s content.

She’s tired of field work, she’s tired of being the lowest person on the academic ladder (adjuncts still get no respect) and she’s tired of dealing with people outside of academic circles. So she goes off to Hrafnsvik, the remotest village in remote Ljosland to finish the work. Alone.

Really alone because she offends the villagers almost as soon as she arrives. Not intentionally, but she’s just not good with people. Or small talk. Or letting anyone help her.

Which is when her best friend, chief nemesis and fellow dryadology scholar, Wendell Bambleby, appears unannounced on her rather Spartan doorstep in very chilly Hrafnsvik and proceeds to turn both her world and her research upside down.

He’s there to protect her from his kin. His dangerous and deadly fae kin. As well as, more than a bit, from herself. And does she ever need it!

Escape Rating A-: Whether readers will fall in love with Emily Wilde’s story depends a lot on whether they fall in love with the meticulous, misanthropic genius that is Emily Wilde herself. This is her diary, so we view nearly all of the events from Emily’s sometimes-blinkered point of view. So if you like her voice, you’ll like her book.

Emily seems a LOT like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series. Both in her obsessive desire to learn ALL THE THINGS, her preference for getting lost in her books and her research, and especially for her inability to even see the real-life consequences of her actions – which I fully admit may come a bit more from fanfiction than from the actual books. But still, Emily is very much a Hermione grown up and slightly oblivious about other people.

Emily is also a bit of Regan Merritt from yesterday’s book, in that she’s not traditionally feminine and for the most part is totally okay with that. She’s used to taking care of herself and finding solutions for herself and most importantly, rescuing herself. She doesn’t fit into any of her society’s boxes that are labeled “female” and she’s at peace with that – if not always with her inability to deal with the unwritten social rules that provide a whole lot of lubrication in dealing with other humans.

It’s obvious from the beginning that Wendell is following Emily because he loves her – even if it’s not obvious to her. At all. On that other hand, it’s been obvious to Emily for quite some time that Wendell is probably fae and in hiding. What makes their interactions so much fun to watch is that he charms everyone – and she resents just how easily people fall for his charm – but he never attempts to charm her. Their relationship, in all its push-pull banter, mutual annoyances and attraction to the opposite, is grounded in who they each really are and not a charmed or better version of themselves.

I particularly loved that this is an academic fantasy that isn’t about dark academe the way that The Atlas Six and Babel are – even though Emily would probably make an excellent ‘Babbler’. At the same time, the story is rooted in some of the darker things about academia in the real world, that place where the politics are so vicious because the stakes can be so damn small. That her world’s academia feels rooted in the real even though the world is not grounds the whole story and lets the reader fully get aboard its flight of dark fantasy.

Because there is darkness here. Not in academia, but in the way that the fae intrude upon and exploit Emily’s real world and the real people within it. What makes Emily’s journey into dark places drag us along with her is that the mistakes she makes that get her into so much trouble are so very human and so much a part of her personality.

So many characters in fiction literally seem ‘Too Stupid to Live’. That’s never Emily. What makes her so easy to empathize with, at least for this reader, is that she believes she’s too smart to be taken in. And she’s almost, but not quite, right.

I adored this as I was reading it. I was charmed from the very beginning and that charm didn’t leave me when I turned the final page. Howsomever, now that I’ve had some time to think about it I’m wondering a bit about exactly how Emily’s and Wendell’s relationship is going to work in the future. He’s essentially immortal and she’s absolutely not. Whether he’s remotely capable of being faithful is a seriously open question. There’s a significant power imbalance just on the academic side even without him being fae. So I’m left with a whole encyclopedia full of questions.

Which means that I’m very pleased that this is billed as the first book in an Emily Wilde series. Hopefully I’ll get to find out the answers to those questions in the not too distant future.

Review: Sweep of the Heart by Ilona Andrews

Review: Sweep of the Heart by Ilona AndrewsSweep of the Heart (Innkeeper Chronicles, #6) by Ilona Andrews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance, paranormal romance, science fiction, science fiction romance, urban fantasy
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #6
Pages: 454
Published by NYLA on December 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the New York Times #1 bestselling author, Ilona Andrews, comes a fun and action-packed new adventure in the Innkeeper Chronicles! We invite you to relax, enjoy yourself, and above all, remember the one rule all visitors must obey: the humans must never know.

Life is busier than ever for Innkeeper, Dina DeMille and Sean Evans. But it’s about to get even more chaotic when Sean's werewolf mentor is kidnapped. To find him, they must host an intergalactic spouse-search for one of the most powerful rulers in the Galaxy. Dina is never one to back down from a challenge. That is, if she can manage her temperamental Red Cleaver chef; the consequences of her favorite Galactic ex-tyrant's dark history; the tangled politics of an interstellar nation, and oh, yes, keep the wedding candidates from a dozen alien species from killing each other. Not to mention the Costco lady.

They say love is a battlefield; but Dina and Sean are determined to limit the casualties!

My Review: 

Dina Demille is not exactly a typical innkeeper, and Gertrude Hunt is far from an ordinary inn of any stripe whatsoever. And that’s not just because Dina’s lover, partner and fellow innkeeper, Sean Evans, is an alpha strain werewolf.

The inn that Dina and Sean keep is both a portal and a crossroads, a place where worlds literally collide – and sometimes come for tea. Or sanctuary. No matter what species they are or what world they might have come from.

Inns like Gertrude Hunt are special in that their existence and their services keep Earth safe from all the many, many powers in the big, bad galaxy that would otherwise roll right over us – possibly even with the equivalent of hyperspace bypass à la The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The network of inns, and the Innkeeper Assembly exist to provide neutral ground for contentious groups that need a place to negotiate. And by their existence they cement Earth’s position in that wider galaxy as a protected planet not to be messed with, or conquered, or eradicated for interstellar highway construction.

But there is a great big galaxy out there which people on Earth are kept from being aware of. A galaxy that Dina, Sean and Gertrude Hunt are very much a part of. A galaxy that hosts at least one entity that is gobbling up inns and innkeepers, and seems to have a special hate on for Dina, her family, and her inn.

A vendetta that seems to have extended to anyone who has helped them, meaning that one of Sean’s friends and mentors out in that wider galaxy has been kidnapped and dragged to an utterly inhospitable planet as bait to lure them into a trap.

A trap that they know they’ll need to walk into with eyes wide open, once they manage to jump through all the hoops that will give them what they need to get there.

Not that those hoops don’t constitute an entirely different kind of trap. In order to go after their friend, first Dina, Sean and Gertrude Hunt will need to host an intergalactic edition of The Bachelor, so that Kosandrion, the Sovereign of the Seven Star Dominion, can find a spouse to become the other parent of the Heir (yes, you can hear the caps) to the Dominion. The game is rigged, the contestants all hate each other and everyone knows that Kosandrion is the quarry of multiple assassins.

All Dina and Sean have to do is keep the Sovereign and all of the various factions, contestants, security contingents and observers alive until the end of the ‘show’ even though each and every group has deadly plans to eliminate one or more of their rivals, the Sovereign and/or every single being on hand to watch the proceedings.

This is a job that absolutely nobody wanted, but Dina and her crew are the ones who have to complete it. Flawlessly. ALL their lives hang in the balance – or on the point of more than one very sharp knife.

Escape Rating A: The Innkeeper Chronicles, the series that began with Clean Sweep and is now six books and hopefully counting, sits on that border between science fiction and fantasy. On the one hand, the inns are magical and give their keepers a whole array of magical powers. And on the other, part of their magic is to host beings from other worlds who may very well arrive at the inn via spaceship – whether they are supposed to or not.

Spaceships, after all, can be hard to hide, and the first rule of the inns is that the humans must not know about the wider galaxy.

In addition to sitting on that science vs. magic divide, this particular entry in the series is caught between two plotlines that only relate to each other at the messy points. As in, Dina and Sean have to get through this mess to get what they really need out of the whole thing. But this isn’t part of their own whole thing – which is even messier in it’s own way.

So the framing story is their need to save their friend, which is part of the overarching plot of the series that Dina’s parents, also innkeepers, disappeared without a trace and that in the process of searching for them someone has started hunting her, Sean, anyone who helps them in general and other inns and innkeepers in particular. And all of that is fascinating but none of it is exactly lighthearted. It’s the complete opposite of fun and lighthearted.

Howsomever, the other – and the larger part of this entry in the series IS frequently lighthearted, even though it is not all fun and games. At all.

Instead, this intergalactic episode of The Bachelor embodies the whole “SF is the romance of political agency” concept in a way that is even more entertaining than the TV series could ever possibly be – as well as potentially more deadly.

Because the contest to become the spouse of the Sovereign isn’t only what it appears to be and that’s what gives the whole thing it’s sometimes gallows humor as well as the kind of wheels within wheels political machinations that I always love.

That it also manages to include an actual romance as part of its many plots and counterplots is just icing on a bittersweet cake that gives fans of the series the answers to questions they’ve been asking since the series began.

I had an absolute blast with Sweep of the Heart. For those who have been following the series, it’s a delight. The Bachelor plot has pretty much all the plots, counterplots and wry humor that any reader could ask for, while still pushing the overall story forward AND giving out a few more hints on what all that awfulness is truly about.

I think that a lot of readers will enjoy the intergalactic Bachelor game even if they are new to the series, but that overarching plot forms the beginning AND the end and may keep those readers from getting to what they would consider the juicy middle. On the other hand, series readers are going to eat the whole thing up with a spoon. Or at least this reader did.

Also be advised that, as much as I loved this book, it is not the novella that some of the blurbs make it out to be. It’s more like FOUR times that length. Not that its nearly 500 pages don’t go absorbingly fast, but it’s not a quick lunchtime read – more like an all afternoon binge. Although an absolutely glorious one.

It’s clear from the way that Sweep of the Heart ends that Dina and Sean’s adventures, trials and tribulations are far from over. It’s probably going to be a year or more likely two before we get to find out what happens next. And that’s going to be a damn long wait.

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

Review: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan BannenThe Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Pages: 448
Published by Orbit on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.  
Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. 
After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.  
If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most—Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares—each other?
Set in a world full of magic and demigods, donuts and small-town drama, this enchantingly quirky, utterly unique fantasy is perfect for readers of The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Invisible Library.

My Review:

Hart Ralston and Mercy Birdsall each think they have a fairly big problem when the story opens. Each other. And they are both so, so wrong, which is what makes this fantasy romance so cozily familiar even in the midst of all the dangerous creatures that are getting more numerous – and ever more dangerous – in nearby Tanria.

What makes their mutual enmity an even bigger problem is that they have to work together – sorta/kinda – in dealing with all of those dangerous creatures. Or at least in handling the remains of all of their victims.

Marshal Hart Ralston’s job is to go into Tanria and hunt down both the dangerous, deadly and also quite dead drudges – as well as get any illegal poachers out of the area before they become victims of those dead and deadly drudges and are turned into drudges themselves.

It’s a thankless job, but somebody has to do it. And lone wolf Ralston prefers to do it alone, so he doesn’t have to try to protect anyone else – and fail at it.

Mercy Birdsall is the only actual working member of Birdsall and Son, one of the undertaking companies in Eternity, just over the border from Tanria. It’s her company’s job to provide funeral rites for the dead victims – and occasionally for the dead monsters – that marshal’s like Ralston bring back from Tanria.

Hart and Mercy got on each other’s bad side the very first time they met over Birdsall and Son’s shop counter. And it’s been all downhill ever since.

Or has it?

Escape Rating B: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, besides being a very punny title, is one of those stories that invokes that question about whether two great tastes go great together. This is a fantasy romance, but romance readers may think it leans too much on the fantasy side and fantasy readers may have the same reaction to the romantic angle that Hart and Mercy initially had to each other.

Or, as in my case, this may seem like a strange setting for a reimagining of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom classic movie You’ve Got Mail. Although it does work – particularly because of the marvelously sarcastic nimkilim that deliver the mail – there are a few scenes where it seems like the graft didn’t quite take. Or that the stitching of the graft is just a bit too obvious. Or both.

Not that the idea doesn’t work well in this setting because it does – with the help of the nimkilim. Hart is lonely and withdrawn. He desperately needs to reach out to someone but doesn’t know how and is afraid to try. Hence his anonymous correspondence with his nameless “friend”.

Mercy, on the other hand, is lonely in a crowd. She has family and some friends, but she’s carrying a boatload (literally in this case) of secrets and responsibilities that consume her energy while isolating her from anyone who might be able to help her in dealing with them. Which results in her responses to those letters addressed by heart, from Hart, to his nameless friend. Who turns out to be Mercy, the woman he believes is his worst enemy.

This is kind of a fence-straddling book, complete with the inevitable splinters up its ass. It was presented to me as a romance, and there certainly is a romance in it. But the fantasy setting is more than just setting. It’s an important enough element of the story that the book as a whole doesn’t sit comfortably in romance because it has more than a foot over that line into fantasy.

Even if that foot belongs to a dead body that has become a drudge.

At the same time, as much as I loved the banter between Hart and Mercy, there was something about Mercy’s situation that just didn’t sit right. I never fully got why she couldn’t take over the family business – at least until the villain of the piece took his villainy to heights (or depths) that the business couldn’t survive no matter who was in charge of it. I understood that her father wanted to pass it to her brother – who was not suited to the work AT ALL and did not want it under any circumstances whatsoever. Work that Mercy wasn’t merely suited for but actually loved.

A fact which Mercy’s family totally ignored. She does the work, she loves the work. She wants to keep doing the work. But her entire family decided that the business was a burden on her and that it would be best for her if it was sold. Without asking her what she wanted. (BTW Mercy is THIRTY YEARS OLD and very well able to decide what is best for her for her own damn self.) A lot of story water goes under that bridge before the Birdsall family stops assuming they know what’s best for each other and have an honest conversation about what each of them as an individual actually wants.

The story picked up its pace – or at least stopped frustrating the crap out of me – after that conversation finally happened.

For this reader, the thing is that this was presented to me as a romance, but it reads like a fantasy that includes a romance, which is a bit of a different beast. Both elements have to be present and fully-fleshed out for a fantasy romance to succeed. If only one is working, it falls over.

In the end, this doesn’t fall over. It works – although it does take a while to get all of its (auto)ducks in a row. In fact, it works a whole lot like Can’t Spell Treason without Tea and Legends & Lattes. Between the life of the town of Eternity and the Birdsall family dynamic – along with Mercy’s lovable big dog Leonardo – the fantasy is very cozy, with just the right amount of danger. The romance is angsty in a way that really works well, and the issues between Hart and Mercy feel real in spite of the fantasy setting, but also rising at least in part from elements that are integral to that fantasy setting.

Readers coming to The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy just for the romance may find this to be more fantasy than they bargained on. But if you loved Legends & Lattes or Can’t Spell Treason without Tea, or if you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series you’ll fall for The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy every bit as hard as Hart and Mercy eventually realize that they have for each other..

Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet

Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda BouchetFire of the Frost: A midwinter holiday fantasy romance anthology by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy romance, holiday romance, short stories
Pages: 368
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on December 22nd 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A midwinter holiday fantasy romance anthology…

From Darynda Jones, A Wynter Fyre a standalone novella set in a world where vampyres are hunted for sport. The only thing standing between them and total annihilation is Winter, a warrior bred to save them from extinction. Forbidden to fall in love, Winter cares only about her oaths… until she meets the devilish prince of the underworld.

Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet
The Kingmaker Chronicles meets modern-day New York City! Piers, an exiled warrior from Thalyria, finds himself in the Big Apple just before the holidays. The world and everything in it might be utterly foreign to him, but that won't stop Piers from helping to complete a vital mission for Athena and protect Sophie, a French teacher from Connecticut who's suddenly knee-deep in inexplicable phenomena, danger, and henchmen after an Olympian treasure that should never have ended up in her hands—or remained on Earth after the Greek gods abandoned it.

The King of Hel by Grace Draven
A novella-length expansion of a stand-alone short story in which a cursed mage-king from a frozen kingdom is obligated to marry a woman of high-ranking nobility but meets his soulmate in a lowly scribe.

Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy
It’s holiday time at Convocation Academy, but best friends Han and Iliana are finding it hard to celebrate. As a familiar, Iliana is facing her assignment to a life of servitude to a wizard, very soon. And Han… despite being tested by the oracle daily, he is still uncategorized. As Iliana and Han face being separated forever, they at last find the courage—or desperation—to break the rules and acknowledge their deeper feelings for each other. But it will take more than true love to save them from the laws of the Convocation…

My Review:

This holiday treat dropped into my lap this week and I couldn’t resist starting it immediately! Isn’t that what holiday treats are for? Immediate consumption for the yes! Especially as I’ve received earlier versions of this confection of a collection (Under a Winter Sky, Seasons of Sorcery and Amid the Winter Snow) and they’ve all been wonderful reading treats.

For the most part, this year’s collection of winter fantasy romances was a very sweet treat indeed – with just enough naughty in the mix to give Santa a blush or four.

My absolute favorite story this year was Grace Draven’s The King of Hel, and not just because it’s a standalone story that isn’t set in one of her other worlds. It’s the kind of fantasy romance that didn’t really have to be a fantasy romance. In fact, its real world inspiration was not. Inspired by the real life romance between Madame de Maintenon and Louis XIV of France, this is the story of Doranis, the magic-touched king of Helenrisia and his queen’s best friend, the modestly born Castil il Veras. What made this story so beautiful is the way that Castil’s deep, life-long friendship with Doranis’ queen is not broken by the romance. Rather, Castil is heartbroken when her best friend dies in childbirth yet still honors that friendship. But life goes on, and the queen’s death gives Doranis the freedom to marry the woman who is suited to him in all ways but birth, and lets Castil acknowledge her love for a man who was otherwise twice beyond her touch.

This was just a beautiful winter romance between two strong and surprisingly equal partners and I loved every page of it.

On the other hand, my least favorite story in this collection was Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy. It’s not that it’s not a good story, because it is, and it’s not that it’s not well done, because it is that as well. It’s that the protagonists of the story are fundamentally, by law and custom, absolutely powerless and their powerlessness gets rubbed like salt into their wounds and the reader’s psyche at every turn. This is just one of those cases where I know it’s good and I know there’s an audience for it and I’m just not it.

Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet was just plain fun, kind of in the way that the first Thor movie was fun. At points, literally in the way that the first Thor movie was fun, a fact that the heroine references more than once during the course of her whirlwind romance while running from bad guys story plays out. Although Piers of Thalyria, an exile from the world of the author’s Kingmaker Chronicles, has no godlike powers, it turns out that his heroine does and he’s been jerked across time and space in order to protect her while she figures out how to either use them or give them back. The story here is kind of a lighthearted romp – in spite of being chased down by evil entrepreneurs and their henchmen at every turn.

Last but not least, my second favorite story in the collection, Darynda Jones’ A Wynter Fyre. The beginning had a bit of an “aliens made them do it” start – not that any of the characters in this story are actually alien to this world. But there’s a common fanfiction trope for series like Stargate and its spinoffs where the characters are compelled by unbridled libidos to have sex because of “alien sex pollen”. The way this story begins, with vampyres biting Wynter in order to infect her with the equivalent of “vampyre sex pollen” had a very similar feel. Particular when the hero fends off the bad vamps in order to woo her for himself, once he’s helped her take the edge off, so to speak.

After that hot, heavy, creepy and slightly rapey beginning the story itself takes a surprising turn. Wynter has been awakened from 70+ years as a statue because her mother the demon (yes, the being she believes is her mother is an actual demon) needs her to rescue a kidnapped vampyre princess.

But it’s all a setup. Not that the princess hasn’t been kidnapped, but it’s all part of the plot to give Wynter the chance to do her job of protecting the vampyres properly – by killing the greatest threat to their existence – her demon mother. That the setup also manages to change the romance from a sex into love story into a second chance at love story is all part of its charm – something this one had absolutely oodles of.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is always a lovely holiday treat. But like any collection, some stories hit the mark with this reader – or any other – while others aren’t quite as close to the bullseye.

If I were giving individual ratings, A Wynter Fyre would get an A; Of Fate and Fire would receive a B; The King of Hel hits the high spot at A+ while Familiar Winter Magic just didn’t work for me at all. Your reading mileage – even through the snowy landscape of these winter tales – will definitely vary.

No matter which stories in the collection tickle your holiday reading fancy, the collection is definitely worth curling up with some hot chocolate and a cozy blanket for a delicious holiday read!

Review: A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Review: A Marvellous Light by Freya MarskeA Marvellous Light (The Last Binding, #1) by Freya Marske
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, historical fantasy, M/M romance, gaslamp
Series: Last Binding #1
Pages: 384
Published by Tordotcom on November 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He's struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents' excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what's been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he's always known.
Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it--not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.
Robin's predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they've been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles--and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

My Review:

In many stories, magic serves as a brilliant light upon the world, a light that is often hidden from those who are unable to share in its wonders. In many of the worlds portrayed by those stories, that light is lit within some, or sometimes many, of the people who populate the world of the story.

But with the presence of light comes its absence – darkness. Humans, whether magical or not, already have more than enough of that within themselves. Magic, whether for good or for ill, is power. And as the cliché explains all too well, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Thus, A Marvellous Light is a story about magic, and about the revealing of magic to someone who has none. But just as the light of magic is “unbusheled” for Robin Blyth, so too is the darkness that surrounds it – and him – cast into the darkest of shadows. Shadows that threaten to swallow him before he ever learns what is hidden within them.

But Robin has more experience with the darkness created by brilliant lights than anyone might ever suspect. And in the person of his reluctant guide, Edwin Courcey, he has a partner who has been battered by those shadows for far too long. Someone who might be willing to help Robin find his own light – and share it.

If they’re smart enough – well that’s Courcey’s department. If they’re brave enough – that’s Robin all over. And if they can find their way to the heart of the puzzle before it’s too late. For themselves. For their loved ones. For their country.

And for each other.

Escape Rating A-: A Marvellous Light is a story about power and privilege. Yes, it’s about the power of magic, but it’s also about the power of money, the power of knowledge, the power of social position and about all the privileges that power can buy, especially for those who are so steeped in its exercise that they can’t even see those with less power as people. Even when they are members of their own families.

It’s also a flamboyantly beautiful story, set in a world as complex and intricate as the Morris prints that Robin Blyth loves.

But it’s the “casual, unthinking malice” of nearly every person with magic that makes this book a frequently uncomfortable read, particularly in the early stages where it seems like all the jokes are on poor Robin and everyone else, including Edwin Courcey, is part of the circle laughing around him.

At least until the reader, along with Robin, figures out that Edwin’s cold, brusque manner is a defensive mechanism to cover up, well, pretty much everything that he feels about everything in his life, including, most especially, his casually, maliciously cruel family.

Because Edwin has been the butt of those exactly same painful “jokes” for his entire life, while Robin has only been suffering from them for a few days. And Robin has much, much better armor against them because the scars don’t run nearly so deep.

Someone has learned that objects of power in the magical world have resurfaced after centuries of quiescence. Forces are arrayed to procure those objects – no matter who or what stands in their way. Or how much collateral damage they do in the search. Starting with Edwin Courcey’s colleague and continuing through Robin, the civil servant assigned through malice – again malice – to take that man’s place.

Drawn to each other by happenstance, by circumstance, by affinity and by shared pain as well as shared inclinations, Edwin and Robin embark on a quest to thwart their opposition, never realizing that it will lead them to the highest circles of power – and back into the rotten heart of Edwin’s family.

But they’ll have each other – if they can just get past their own fears and their individual heartbreaks, and accept a bit of help from some surprising people along the way. It can be enough – if they just let it.

One final thing, something that took me until the next morning to figure out, and now I feel like I just got unbusheled. Or hit with a clue-by-four. Throughout the story, they’re all aware that something huge and terrible is coming, and much of what happens is due to too many people taking desperate and wrong-headed methods to stop that thing or overpower it. The “thing” that is coming, the doom that is hanging over all their heads, is World War I.

Which may not happen for quite a while during the course of this series, The Last Binding, of which A Marvellous Light is merely the first marvellous part. I searched high and low for a title and publication for the next book in this series, but it has not been “unbusheled”. At least not yet. But I live in hope that it will be soon.

Reviewer’s Note: I listened to the first third of this one, until it got past the really uncomfortable, tooth-gritting bits. Not that Edwin’s family got any better – actually they got worse – but once it heads towards Edwin and Robin against the world the pace picked up, the magic got even more fascinating and at least some of the awfulness became part of the much larger point. And I was hooked.

Review: The Golden Gryphon and the Bear Prince by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Golden Gryphon and the Bear Prince by Jeffe KennedyThe Golden Gryphon and the Bear Prince by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Heirs of Magic #1
Pages: 384
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on January 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Legacy of Honor

Crown Prince Astar has only ever wanted to do the right thing: be a credit to his late-father’s legacy, live up to his duties as heir to the High Throne of the Thirteen Kingdoms, and cleave to the principles of honor and integrity that give his life structure—and that contain the ferocious grizzly bear inside. Nowhere in those guiding principles is there room for the fierce-hearted, wildly free-spirited, and dizzyingly beautiful shapeshifter, Zephyr. Still, even though they’ve been friends most of their lives, Astar is able to keep Zephyr safely at arm’s length. He’s already received a list of potential princess brides who will make a suitable queen, and Zephyr is not on it.

A Longtime Obsession

Zeph has wanted the gorgeous, charming, and too-good-for-his-own-good Astar for as long as she can remember. Not that her longing for him—and his perfectly sculpted and muscular body—has stopped her from enjoying any number of lovers. Astar might be honorably (and foolishly) intent on remaining chaste until marriage, but Zeph is Tala and they have no such rules. Still, she loves Astar—as a friend—and she wants him to at least taste life before he chains himself to a wife he didn’t choose. There’s no harm in him having a bit of fun with her. But the man remains stubbornly elusive, staving off all of her advances with infuriatingly noble refusals.

A Quest to Save the World

But things change when a new terror threatens the Thirteen Kingdoms. Following prophecy, Astar and Zeph—along with a mismatched group of shapeshifter, warrior, and sorceress friends—go on a quest to stop a magic rift before it grows beyond anyone’s ability to stop. Thrust together with Zephyr, Astar finds himself increasingly unable to resist her seductive invitations. And, in the face of life and death battles with lethal monsters, he begins to lose sight of why having her, just once, is such a terrible idea…

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a marvelous epic fantasy romance series that is both epic fantasy and contains a romance in each story, titled The Twelve Kingdoms. It begins with The Mark of the Tala, and if you love fantasy romance, or if you love epic fantasy and don’t mind if romance happens within it, start there and be prepared for an utterly marvelous reading binge.

That series, with its sequelae and spin offs that spun back in, tells a story of the fall and rise of kingdoms, the creation of an empire, a war between magic and sorcery, and the triumph of good over evil.

But what happens after their richly deserved happily ever after? That’s the story that began with the novella The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon, in the Under a Winter Sky collection.

And the book we have here, The Golden Gryphon and the Bear Prince, picks up right where the cliffhanger at the end of Long Night left us. Welcome to The Twelve Kingdoms: The Next Generation.

I am so here for this!

This is a story about the heirs to the kingdoms that were established in the earlier series. And it’s so different but every bit as fascinating.

Part of what makes it so different is that it is the next generation. (Sorry to keep punning on that, but it’s just so true!) In the original series, all of the protagonists, but especially the three princesses of the Twelve Kingdoms, had all been raised in constant strife. Not with each other, but with their father the king.

Because the late King Uorsin was insane, driven mad by grief and sorcery. Growing up in his household was like growing up in an armed camp, always at war or at least on the verge of it. It made his daughters grow up hard and early, and their maturity for their ages was reflected in their stories and how they saw their world.

The time preceding this new story, however, was a time of peace and prosperity. Not that High Queen Ursula and her allies haven’t always been keeping a weather eye on the world around them, but there hasn’t been a war since their last enemy was defeated.

Also Queen Ursula is quite sane. That helps a lot – especially in comparison.

But as the story picks up, her heir and all of his generation have known nothing but peace during their lifetimes. Even though all of them seem to be 20 or thereabouts and considered adults, they’ve been allowed to BE children, to be foolish and more than a bit irresponsible, for most of their lives.

A situation that has just changed. Dramatically, drastically and unpredictably.

The children are sent out as ambassadors, envoys and spies in order to discover what has gone wrong in the northern reaches of the empire and see if they can fix it or at least figure it out before it overwhelms the land they will one day inherit.

They have an important and potentially terrible job to do. But the first thing they ALL need to do will be the most difficult task of all.

They have to grow up. A task that will turn out to be every bit as hard and fast as it was for their parents. If they survive it.

Escape Rating A-: First of all, let me just say that this entire series, from its beginning with The Mark of the Tala, through all of its various subseries, right on through the conclusion of the entire original series in The Lost Princess Returns, is absolutely, completely, utterly, awesomesauce, wonderful and epic.

It’s also a lot for new readers to get into. But if you love fantasy romance or epic fantasy with romance it is so worth it. While you wouldn’t need to read every single story to get up to speed for Golden Gryphon, you would need to read the main arcs of The Twelve Kingdoms and The Uncharted Realms for this story to have the resonance it should.

That being said, the story we have in this one combines, on the one hand, two themes into a single whole, while setting up the rest of the series. On the other hand, this is also the first of the four romances that are going to provide the individual happy for now stories that power each individual book.

Let me explain.

This is, first of all, a coming of age story, for all of the protagonists. They are all technically adults, but one thing that peacetime allows that the warfare their parents grew up under does not is the ability for children to not just have an actual childhood but for some of the irresponsibility of that childhood to extend into early adulthood.

Up until this crisis, two of Prince Astar’s companions and friends, Zephyr and Rhyllian, could both be seen as “failures to launch” into adulthood. By culture, by nurture, by inclination, both of them live very much in the “now” and let tomorrow worry about itself, if at all. Their irresponsibility and naivete reminded me a lot of Princess Ami in her original series entry The Tears of the Rose. I have to say that the new kids are, for the most part maturing quicker than Ami seemed to do, and that’s an excellent thing.

Both Zephyr and Rhy are in love, not with each other – because that would be hilarious and awful at the same time – but with people who are their opposites. People who are responsible, have responsibilities, take those responsibilities seriously, and worry about the present and the future ALL THE TIME.

So Zephyr (the Golden Gryphon)  is in hot pursuit of Prince Astar (the Bear Prince), a pursuit that he has resisted at every turn. At least so far. His approach to responsibility and authority is the direct opposite to hers. Also he knows himself better than she knows herself at the beginning of the story.

He knows if they have an affair that he’ll never want to let her go. And he knows that she is not suitable High Queen material because of her unwillingness to act responsibly or take much of anything seriously.

And of course in the face of the impending crisis all of their plans go completely pear-shaped.

A part of me wants to say that there’s a disturbance in the Force, because it does have that air to it. What is happening is a disturbance to magic that is causing parallel worlds to invade each other with disastrous results. As the story kicks off, the list of things that might go wrong is long and growing and potentially catastrophic.

And general panic-inducing if it becomes common knowledge.

So this group of heirs and friends are sent out to look like a bunch of spoiled noble youngsters in order to see if they can figure out what’s going on, or going wrong, and how to stop it – without alerting the people they’re visiting and observing that there is a serious purpose behind the visits.

No pressure.

This is a journey that is just beginning. A beginning that uncovers big problems, makes big changes, but is only the start. A fantastic one.

I’m already on tenterhooks for the next book in the series, The Sorceress Queen and the Pirate Rogue, coming in mid-April.

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher

Review: Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherPaladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Clocktaur War
Pages: 398
Published by Red Wombat Studio on February 11, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…
Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…
From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far side of despair.

My Review:

The title is a pun. It’s also a clue to the way this story works itself out. Which is bloody damn marvelous every slightly meandering step of the way.

There’s a question about whether Paladin’s Grace is an epic fantasy that includes a romance, or a fantasy romance that happens to also be epic. After mulling it over for a while, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes!” Or perhaps “hells to the yes!” is a bit more accurate.

The setting of this story is plenty epic. It’s also set in the same world as her Clocktaur War duology and Swordheart but certainly doesn’t rely on any of them to get the reader stuck right into it. I haven’t read either and had no trouble becoming immediately involved, understanding what was going on, or being so damn absorbed I couldn’t put it down.

Not that I didn’t buy all three books as soon as I finished and realized that there were three other books set in this world. Because DAMN! this was good.

The setting dragged me in right away because it leads off with a fascinating concept that powers so much of the story in various ways. This is a world where the gods are real. By that I mean the gods act in and on the world and their worshippers in ways that can be witnessed, not just by believers but by everyone.

In that sense, it’s a world that resembles the world of Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, starting with Three Parts Dead. That’s a world where the lawyers are necromancers, and part of their job is to write contracts for gods both living and dead. But even more than the Craft Sequence, the world of Paladin’s Grace reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, particularly as it is seen through the eyes of the Learned Divine Penric of the White God and his demon Desdemona in Penric’s Demon and the books that follow. Penric has met his god, usually just before or just after said god sends him on yet another errand, and other people in that world have met their gods as well.

The way that the Saint of Penric’s order interacts with their god and the way that the Paladins of the Saint of Steel interact with theirs has some similarities – right up until the paladins’ god dies, leaving all of its paladins reeling as though someone has scooped out their hearts, souls and all the rest of their innards both physical and metaphorical.

The thing about the Saint of Steel is that this god blessed their paladins with divine berserker fits. So when the god dies they all go literally berserk, into a killing rage that results in murders, suicides, explosions and generally a whole lot of the death they were famous for in the first place.

Three years later there are only seven paladins of the Saint of Steel left, barely keeping each other alive and functional, assisted by those who serve the Rat God, an order which has no paladins of its own. But it does have lawyers, leading back to that resemblance to the Craft Sequence I mentioned earlier.

Serving the Rat and protecting its Bishop, the absolutely awesome Bishop Beartongue, gives the remaining paladins enough purpose to keep them going. It’s all any of them expect out of life at this point. (And if the author ever writes an entire book featuring the Bishop, I am SO there!)

Then Paladin Stephen becomes entangled with Grace the perfumer, and he discovers a whole new reason for living. If he can let himself. If he can get over himself. If he can trust himself.

If the Bishop and his brother paladins can manage to extract them both from the political clusterfuck that they’ve bumbled into – in spite of the odds against them all along the way.

Escape Rating A+: Paladin’s Grace was definitely, sincerely, absolutely a case of the right book at the right time.

There is just so much happening in this story, both on the epic fantasy and the fantasy romance sides of the equation. Plus – big huge gigantic plus – the author’s very dry and frequently hung from the gallows humor made me laugh out loud so many times, even as it both developed the characters and pushed the story forward. This is my favorite type of humor, the kind that arises out of character and situation and is never built on cruelty, tearing up or punching down.

I wanted to go out for drinks with pretty much everyone on Stephen and Grace’s side of the story, including them. Even when their world was going to hell in a handcart, the way the author wrote them created plenty of opportunities to laugh with them and not at them.

On the romance side, Stephen in particular is the poster child for the romantic hero who is so fucked up and has so much baggage that he’s certain he couldn’t possibly be good enough for the heroine. Not that Grace doesn’t have plenty of her own baggage, but in comparison, hers is almost normal. Stephen has lost his god and is rightfully afraid of going berserker at any moment. Nothing compares.

The political situation that they stumble into is, on the one hand, fairly standard for epic fantasy, and on the other, wildly different because it is so totally inept and still almost works. There is just a ton about this story to love.

As I said early on, this was the right book at the absolute right time. I was ready to start a new book just as the polls closed in Georgia this week. It was a night that promised to be chock-full of doomscrolling, so I went looking for a book that would suck me in so deeply that I’d be able to forget about the mess for a few hours. (I voted by mail weeks ago, so there wasn’t much I could do at that point except incessantly doomscroll hoping it would eventually turn to schadenscrolling and even gleescrolling at some point.) But constant scrolling is not productive, only anxiety inducing. Nobody needed any more of THAT this week – not that we didn’t all get plenty ANYWAY.).

That’s the point where I remembered I had Paladin’s Grace, and that I absolutely LOVED this author’s Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which made me chuckle, laugh and outright chortle the entire time I was reading it.

Considering the news on Wednesday, I really, really needed the distraction.

Paladin’s Grace turned out to be EXACTLY the book I was looking for. It didn’t reduce me to completely incoherence, as the paladin Stephen and the perfumer Grace frequently do to each other in the course of this story. But it did take me far, far away from the madness of the real for a while. For which I am so, so grateful.

Review: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

Review: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. MaasHouse of Earth and Blood (Crescent City, #1) by Sarah J. Maas
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance, paranormal, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Crescent City #1
Pages: 803
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Bound by blood.Tempted by desire.Unleashed by destiny.
Bryce Quinlan had the perfect life—working hard all day and partying all night—until a demon murdered her closest friends, leaving her bereft, wounded, and alone. When the accused is behind bars but the crimes start up again, Bryce finds herself at the heart of the investigation. She’ll do whatever it takes to avenge their deaths.
Hunt Athalar is a notorious Fallen angel, now enslaved to the Archangels he once attempted to overthrow. His brutal skills and incredible strength have been set to one purpose—to assassinate his boss’s enemies, no questions asked. But with a demon wreaking havoc in the city, he’s offered an irresistible deal: help Bryce find the murderer, and his freedom will be within reach.
As Bryce and Hunt dig deep into Crescent City’s underbelly, they discover a dark power that threatens everything and everyone they hold dear, and they find, in each other, a blazing passion—one that could set them both free, if they’d only let it.
With unforgettable characters, sizzling romance, and page-turning suspense, this richly inventive new fantasy series by #1 New York Times bestselling author Sarah J. Maas delves into the heartache of loss, the price of freedom—and the power of love.

My Review:

In the beginning there is Bryce Quinlan and Danika Fendyr. And in the end, there is Bryce Quinlan and Danika Fendyr, linked together by their hearts and the translation of a tattoo on both of their backs, “Through love, all is possible.”

That’s the way it begins, and that’s the way it ends. In between, there’s a long walk through very dark places that Bryce is forced to take alone. Or so she thinks. Or so it seems.

Ultimately, House of Earth and Blood is a story about love. Not just romantic love, although there is a slow-burn romance at the heart of this story. But the romance at the true soul of this saga is not Eros, as the Ancient Greeks called sexual passion, but rather the deep friendship of the soul that they named Philia.

What seems like a star-crossed romance between the half-human, half-fae and barely magical Bryce Quinlan and the fallen angel Hunt Athalar is the stuff of which Romeo and Juliet tragedies are made. The deepening angst of their enemies into lovers story gives this saga both its biting wit and its too-frequent descents into over-the-top melodrama.

But it’s Bryce and Danika’s sisters-of-choice, bone-deep connection that gives this story its lowest depths of despair – and its wings.

Once upon a time, when my parents were still among the living and we used to play cards together, at the end of hand someone would frequently say, “Read ‘em and weep.” In a nutshell, that’s House of Earth and Blood.

Read it and weep.

Escape Rating B-: There were points during my reading/listening of this book that I just couldn’t stand not knowing what came next so I dove from the audio right into the ebook the minute I got home.

And there were times when I was ready to throw the thing against the wall and end the torture because there were so many things that just drove me crazy. That I was considering this course of behavior in the car, listening to my iPhone while I was driving shows just how tempted I was.

So I’m not remotely neutral about any of this. Not at all.

The short version of this review is that the first 100 pages were terrific and ended in a gut wrenching drop. The last 100 pages were so damn compelling that I couldn’t wait to finish in audio THEN couldn’t flip pages fast enough.

Much of that final 100 page compulsion was provided by a clichéd villain exposition to make the heroine see just how brilliant his villainy had been, but the reader – and every other character in the story – needed to hear it. But villain clichés are still villain clichés.

In the middle there were 600 pages that would have been better as 400 or 450 pages. A metric fuckton of stuff happened, a lot of it was stuff the reader really, really needed to know. But there was also an equally metric fuckton of over-the-top angst that may have needed to happen but didn’t need to happen with that many repeats or nearly that much overblown language and description.

My feelings about this book are absolutely in the category of splinters up the ass fence sitting. The parts I loved, I really, really loved. The parts that I hated, I hated just about as much. There’s no middle ground here that isn’t a quagmire of blood, sweat, tears and angst.

Initially, what dragged me into this story was the sheer complexity of the worldbuilding. This is not a place I’d EVER want to live, because it is seriously fucked up – especially for the original recipe humans – but the mixture of 21st century technology with high-powered magic and authoritarian rule by powerful immortals blends into a world that is both easy to envision and fascinating to explore.

The vibe of Crescent City and its world feels very much like the heady aura of the organized menace of power and magic that permeates Fonda Lee’s marvelous Jade City, the first book in her Green Bone Saga.

As much as the way this world works reminded me of Jade City, in the end it read like a whole bunch of recent SF/Fantasy worlds thrown into a gigantic blender set on high. The resulting mélange is generally pretty tasty, and I found the depth of the worldbuilding to be the strongest part of the book.

Especially considering that, as much as this reads like an urban fantasy in a high fantasy setting for much of the story – rather like the Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara (start with Cast in Shadow), technically this is science fiction of the “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but isn’t a duck,” variety. Like A Chorus of Dragons by Jenn Lyons, where it turns out that the gods aren’t really gods, but rather immortals who came from another planet. Although Lyons sends the world of her series careening off its tracks in an entirely different way. Still, if you like The House of Earth and Blood and can’t wait for the next book, check out The Ruin of Kings.

As much as I loved the beginning of this book, and found the ending to be utterly riveting, the middle sagged and bagged.

Some of that was language. It felt like all of the physical descriptions of people were repeated whenever they appeared, over and over and over. And it was very obvious that all of the people in this story were all extremely conventionally attractive. But all of the descriptions were overblown, something that was particularly obvious in audio.

There was also a lot of wordy, emo, angsty, over-the-top emotionalism, particularly on Bryce’s part that I found teeth-gnashing. It made it very clear that she still had a tremendous amount of growing up to do, to the point of really making me wonder about the developing relationship between Bryce and Athalar with its 200 year age gap.

But the entire middle section felt like it had three purposes. Build that romantic relationship – only to cockblock it at every turn, watch Bryce get beaten down and run around at every single turn, and follow Bryce and Athalar as they conduct an investigation that is doomed to fail because there’s a villain they don’t know about hiding behind the metaphorical curtain. Leading right back to that clichéd villain exposition.

All of those things needed to happen, but the runaround was long and repetitive. It also drove home that this is a “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” story, as it seems that every single system and authority is determined to remind Bryce that she is the lowest of the low – and so is nearly everyone else.

There was a hateful sameness to all of the powerful people in this story. While power does corrupt, it doesn’t necessarily corrupt every villain with exactly the same blend of total inability to see anyone else – even their own families – as having any value whatsoever AND utter sadism. Some powerful people would be savvy enough to at least hide their ugly a bit better and at least a few would manage to be slightly enlightened even if that enlightenment is because it’s ultimately in their own self interest to at least seem benevolent.

And we don’t know why they are ALL this way. Villains never think they are the villain, after all. So what’s their story? The sheer number of times that one of the many, many villains reveled in their ability to mentally and/or physically torture others was initially sickening and then it just got old.

Before this review – or rant – goes on as long as the book it covers, one final thought. I loved, and hated, and loved this book by turns. But I never stopped thinking about it – even when I wanted to. It’s compelling when it’s good and it’s compelling when it’s crazy.

But it ended on an incredible high note, to the point where, as much as it drove me round the twist, I know that I’ll be compelled to pick up the second book in the series when it comes out (hopefully) next year. I’m pretty sure this is going to be a story where things get darkest just before they turn completely black – BUT I HAVE TO KNOW!

Review: Under a Winter Sky by Kelley Armstrong, Jeffe Kennedy, Melissa Marr, L. Penelope

Review: Under a Winter Sky by Kelley Armstrong, Jeffe Kennedy, Melissa Marr, L. PenelopeUnder a Winter Sky by Kelley Armstrong, Jeffe Kennedy, Melissa Marr, L. Penelope
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Pages: 373
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on November 19, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Four powerhouse authors of fantasy and urban fantasy bring you a feast of romantic midwinter holiday adventures. These heartwarming and pulse-pounding tales celebrate Hanukah, Christmas, the solstice, Yule – and holidays from worlds beyond our own. With fancy-dress balls, faery bargains, time travel, blood sacrifice, and festive cocktails, these stories will delight lovers of fantasy and romance, with a dash of seasonal joy.
Ballgowns & Butterflies by Kelley Armstrong
The North Yorkshire moors are always a magical place, but they’re particularly enchanting at the holidays…especially if one gets to travel back in time to a Victorian Christmas. For Bronwyn Dale, it is the stuff of dreams. Fancy-dress balls, quirky small-town traditions, even that classic one-horse open sleigh, complete with jingle bells. There’s just the tiny problem of the Butterfly Effect. How does a time-traveler make a difference without disrupting the future forever?
The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon, a prequel novella to Heirs of Magic, by Jeffe Kennedy
Shapeshifter Prince Rhyian doesn’t especially want to spend the Feast of Moranu at Castle Ordnung. First of all, it’s literally freezing there, an uncomfortable change from the tropical paradise of his home. Secondly, it’s a mossback castle which means thick walls and too many rules. Thirdly, his childhood playmate and current nemesis, Lena, will be there. Not exactly a cause for celebration.
Princess Salena Nakoa KauPo nearly wriggled out of traveling to Ordnung with her parents, but her mother put her foot down declaring that, since everyone who ever mattered to her was going to be there to celebrate the 25th year of High Queen Ursula’s reign, Lena can suffer through a feast and a ball for one night. Of course, “everyone” includes the sons and daughters of her parents’ friends, and it also means that Rhyian, insufferable Prince of the Tala, will attend.
But on this special anniversary year, Moranu’s sacred feast falls on the long night of the crystalline moon—and Rhy and Lena discover there’s more than a bit of magic in the air.
Blood Martinis and Mistletoe by Melissa Marr
Half-dead witch Geneviève Crowe makes her living beheading the dead--and spends her free time trying not to get too attached to her business partner, Eli Stonecroft, a faery in self-imposed exile in New Orleans. With a killer at her throat and a blood martini in her hand, Gen accepts what seems like a straight-forward faery bargain, but soon realizes that if she can't figure out a way out of this faery bargain, she'll be planning a wedding after the holidays.
Echoes of Ash & Tears, an Earthsinger Chronicles Novella, by L. Penelope
Brought to live among the Cavefolk as an infant, Mooriah has long sought to secure her place in the clan and lose her outsider status. She’s a powerful blood mage, and when the chieftain’s son asks for help securing the safety of the clan, she agrees. But though she’s long been drawn to the warrior, any relationship between the two is forbidden. The arrival of a mysterious stranger with a tempting offer tests her loyalties, and when betrayal looms, will Mooriah’s secrets and hidden power put the future she’s dreamed of—and her adopted home—in jeopardy.

My Review:

If it’s beginning to look a lot like the holidays where you are, this collection is a terrific way to get into the holiday spirit. Or spirits, as the case might be, for multiple definitions thereof. It certainly made me shiver with the remembered chill and sparkle of the kiss of snow, even if we don’t get much of that around here.

There are five stories in this little collection, all featuring winter and some type of solstice or longest night type story, and all with just a little bit of something extra.

It could be those holiday spirits, although not necessarily Christmas or Yule, as not all of these stories take place on our Earth. These are all some variety of fantasy romance, so the world is not necessarily the world we know – at least not quite.

Ballgowns & Butterflies by Kelley Armstrong is a bit of a time-travel story, and it is set in our world and does feature Christmas. But it isn’t quite the one we recognize – although it sorta/kinda is in a delicious way.

Because the Christmas that Lady Bronwyn Thorne is celebrating is an honest-to-goodness Victorian holiday, in the Victorian era where she spends part of her life. The Victorian Christmas celebration is the one on which many of our contemporary traditions, at least in Britain and North America, are based. As a historian, it’s the era that is nearest and dearest to Bronwyn’s heart – as is her husband who she met in that time period, but has married in both.

This was a lovely little story, and I enjoyed its evocation of the holiday spirit as well as feeling for Bronwyn’s time-travel dilemma. At the same time, this story feels like a coda to another, longer story, only because it is. This is the followup to A Stitch in Time, which is wrapped around the romance between Bronwyn and her Victorian-era husband William, and I very much wish I’d read that first.

Likewise, the only other story set at least partially in our world, Blood Martinis & Mistletoe by Melissa Marr, read like just the kind of urban fantasy that I love to sink my teeth into. But this was also part of the author’s Faery Bargains series, and I felt like I’d missed all of the setup which is in the first book in the series, The Wicked and the Dead. Which I now very much want to read because this seems awesome.

(Actually I bought the first books in both of these series because I was so intrigued.)

And now I have to confess two things before I get to my favorite story in the collection.

I didn’t read L. Penelope’s Earthsinger story because I haven’t read the series, and I just didn’t want to get teased yet again by a story that is even more bang in the middle of a series than the previous two.

And, as much as I was looking forward to reading the Grace Draven story, because I have read at least some of her Wraith Kings series, that story wasn’t included in my eARC. C’est la vie.

But, but, but, the story I got this collection for was definitely there. And I’m so happy about that.

I love Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Kingdoms/Chronicles of Dasnaria mega-series, so I’m always up for more. And The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon, a prequel for Heirs of Magic, her upcoming series set in the same world, certainly delivered.

Did it ever!

The story is “the Next Generation” of that long-running saga, taking place 25 years after the (final?) defeat of the evil Deyrr at the end of the (now we know it’s not) final book, The Fate of the Tala. Which I adored even though I was sorry to see the whole thing wrap up.

I always hoped the saga would continue, so this was a treat from beginning to end.

What’s lovely about this one is that we get to see everyone we met in the previous series, know that they are all doing well and that they have all managed to have their happy ever afters. HEAs that they all definitely earned.

But this story focuses not on the previous heroes, but rather on their children, all of whom are now adults – albeit some more mature than others. Then again, that’s kind of the nature of being in one’s 20s, figuring out who one really is and what kind of a future one is looking for.

Or, in the case of these seven princes, princesses and princelings, the kind of future that is barreling towards them at breakneck speed – even if they don’t know it yet.

So, on the surface, we have the story of the longest night of the year, coupled with a romance that could either be a second-chance-at-love or a story of two lovers who missed their chance and need to close that door before their future truly begins.

The question of which it is going to be is not quite answered by the end of this story about unfinished business and lost chances because a much more dangerous future rears its ugly head just as we think there might be a resolution.

All those delicious and perilous chances are left hanging off the edge of a sheer cliff when the interlude closes, leaving readers – especially this one – absolutely salivating for what is to come.

I can’t wait. Hopefully I won’t have to wait long, as the projected publication date in Goodreads says next month!

Howsomever, just like the other stories in this collection, The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon is not the place to start your journey with this fantastic series. Start with The Mark of the Tala and settle in for a wonderful reading binge.

Possibly a long enough – and certainly captivating enough – binge to carry you through until spring!

Escape Rating A-: I got this collection for the Jeffe Kennedy story, and I loved that story, so that makes the whole thing a win. I liked both the Armstrong and the Marr stories enough that I bought the previous books in their respective series’ so also a win. I felt the chill of winter snow even in the warm Atlanta fall weather so even more of a win for bringing me just the right taste of a season that I don’t have to experience too much of, definitely a win all the way around! If you are into any or all of the series featured in this collection, you’re in for a treat!

Review: The Orchid Throne by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Orchid Throne by Jeffe KennedyThe Orchid Throne (Forgotten Empires, #1) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Forgotten Empires #1
Pages: 362
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

"The Orchid Throne is a captivating and sensual fantasy romance you won’t want to miss! High stakes. Remarkable worldbuilding. Unique and compelling characters. A slow-burn romance that’ll make you combust.” — Amanda Bouchet, USA Today bestselling author of The Kingmaker Chronicles

"The Orchid Throne captures from the first page and doesn't let go as Jeffe Kennedy weaves a timeless tale of love and survival amidst a lush backdrop teeming greed and deceit. You will fall for Lia and Con and root for them with every breath you take. This is a book that will linger in your thoughts for a very long time."- Darynda Jones, New York Times bestselling author

Welcome to the world of Forgotten Empires from award winning author Jeffe Kennedy that begins with The Orchid Throne.

A PRISONER OF FATE

As Queen of the island kingdom of Calanthe, Euthalia will do anything to keep her people free—and her secrets safe—from the mad tyrant who rules the mainland. Guided by a magic ring of her father’s, Lia plays the political game with the cronies the emperor sends to her island. In her heart, she knows that it’s up to her to save herself from her fate as the emperor’s bride. But in her dreams, she sees a man, one with the power to build a better world—a man whose spirit is as strong, and whose passion is as fierce as her own…

A PRINCE AMONG MEN

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, has built an army to overthrow the emperor. But he needs the fabled Abiding Ring to succeed. The ring that Euthalia holds so dear to her heart. When the two banished rulers meet face to face, neither can deny the flames of rebellion that flicker in their eyes—nor the fires of desire that draw them together. But in this broken world of shattered kingdoms, can they ever really trust each other? Can their fiery alliance defeat the shadows of evil that threaten to engulf their hearts and souls?

My Review:

A couple of weeks ago I finished The Fate of the Tala, this author’s marvelous wrap-up of her long-running epic fantasy romance series, The Twelve Kingdoms and it’s followup, The Uncharted Realms. I loved every minute of it, and was seriously sorry to see the whole thing end.

Then I remembered that the author had just started another epic fantasy romance series, that I had the first book and hadn’t read it, yet. And wondered what I’d been thinking that I hadn’t gotten around to it.

That oversight had to be rectified, and here we are, at the very beginning of the Forgotten Empires series, with The Orchid Throne. And what a beginning it is!

As the story opens, our hero and heroine are far apart – in position, in outlook and in distance. But not in purpose. Both Euthalia, Queen of Calanthe and Conri, King of Slaves have one driving motivation in common. They will, separately if not together, do whatever they believe is necessary to throw down the usurper Anure.

Anure sent Conri to the deadly vurgsten mines as a slave, and trapped Euthalia in a betrothal that will bring legitimacy to his usurpation of all the kingdoms while most likely sending Euthalia to her death – if not a fate worse than that.

The action and the perspective in The Orchid Throne moves back and forth from Euthalia, trapped in a gilded cage as the Virgin Queen in a court otherwise dedicated to hedonistic pleasures of all types – to Conri, leading his army of slaves and rebels on a collision course to the capital – with Euthalia’s kingdom the last stop on his way.

Each of them has fought the long defeat against the seemingly unstoppable emperor, Conri with battle after battle, Euthalia with spies, honeyed words and the magic that the emperor claims is a fraud.

She’s supposed to capture Conri and present him to the emperor as proof of her loyalty – and as one more delaying tactic in her underground strategy. Conri’s wizard, on the other hand, believes that Con and Euthalia are prophesied to marry and defeat the emperor – but only if they work together for that defeat.

He is the irresistible force, and she is the immovable object. Together they can topple an empire.

Apart, they will smother the last hope of victory. Or they will smother each other and destroy pretty much everything.

Escape Rating A-: There are two ways of looking at this book, depending on whether you picked this up as epic fantasy that included a romance or thought you were getting a fantasy romance in an epic fantasy setting.

The story so far reminds me of a lot of recent fantasy, particularly the Crown of Shards series by Jennifer Estep, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and of course the author’s own Sorcerous Moons series. All of those are fantasies that are epic in scope and just so happen to include a romance as part of the story. And that’s what I was looking for, a fantasy, chock full of battles and politics, with a romance as part of the story but not necessarily the central story. So I loved The Orchid Throne. It had all the scope and worldbuilding of an absorbing epic fantasy.

That it looks like the hero and heroine are going to find something like an HEA by the end is icing on the cake for me. But if you’re looking for that eventual HEA to be at the center of this story you might want to wait until the rest of the series (projected to be a trilogy) comes out. Because the romance so far is a very slow build. I think this will eventually be enemies-to-lovers, but as this installment comes to a close we’re at reluctant-allies-with-benefits. So we’re not there yet and certainly neither are they.

But the world that is built so far is big and desperate and dangerous and awesome. Anure the usurper emperor conquered all the kingdoms with engineering instead of magic – and then wiped out all the wizards so that no one could try and take their kingdoms back. The world we enter is the world his conquest has made – tyranny and fear with only two bright spots – the rebellious King of Slaves and the pleasure kingdom of Calanthe. And Anure already has his hooks deep into Calanthe. The situation looks extremely bleak – only because it is.

A lot of the politics of this story is displayed through Euthalia’s rule of Calanthe, and her ever more desperate attempts to keep Anure at bay. If you like stories of court politics, this part of the story is intricate, fascinating and chilling by turns. There are secrets within secrets and wheels within wheels, to the point where even when this story ends we know little of what Euthalia is really hiding – only that there is a LOT of it.

Conri’s campaign is much more straightforward. His is a brute force conquest because he feels that’s all that’s left to him after the mines. He’s not hiding either his goals or his methods. Instead, he’s hiding his heart.

And we have a meddler in the wizard Ambrose. He’s trying to create the future he wants by manipulating the players of the game – in this case Conri and Euthalia. Players who are stubborn and have minds and motives of their own.

The one point where The Orchid Throne left me grasping at storytelling straws, just a bit, was in the character of its villain, Anure. That Anure is evil is unequivocally true. But why? And, for that matter, how? At the moment he’s like Supreme Leader Snoke in The Force Awakens. We don’t know where he came from or what motivates him into being the evil bastard he so obviously is. I hope his character picks up a little more nuance before he gets his much deserved comeuppance at the end of the series.

But I’m all in for the Forgotten Empires. I already have an eARC for the second book in the series, The Fiery Crown, and I can’t wait to read it!