Review: Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen

Review: Bronze Drum by Phong NguyenBronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War by Phong Nguyen
Narrator: Quyen Ngo
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 384
Length: 11 hours and 22 minutes
Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 9, 2022
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A stunning novel of ancient Vietnam based on the true story of two warrior sisters who raised an army of women to overthrow the Han Chinese and rule as kings over a united people, for readers of Circe and The Night Tiger.
Gather around, children of Chu Dien, and be brave.For even to listen to the story of the Trung Sisters is,in these troubled times, a dangerous act.
In 40 CE, in the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam, two daughters of a Vietnamese Lord fill their days training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty, Trung Nhi is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.
But these sister's lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. They are forced to adopt Confucian teachings, secure marriages, and pay ever‑increasing taxes. As the peoples' frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war.

My Review:

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.” Or so said the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BCE. As many lessons in both military history, leadership and philosophy that we see the Trưng sisters attend in the first half of this story, it’s a lesson that they failed to learn if they heard it or the equivalent in the philosophers that they did study in 1st century CE Vietnam.

The Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, were the daughters of one of the Vietnamese lords who ruled their provinces under the oppressive thumb of the Han Chinese during the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. A domination that was ended, however briefly, by the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.

Drum From Sông Đà Vietnam. Đông Sơn II Culture. Mid 1st Millenium BCE. Bronze

So the bones of this story really happened. Including the smelting of the bronze drums that that rebellion had used so very successfully in the overthrow of their oppressors.

But 2,000 years is a long time ago, especially in the history of a people that has been conquered and subjugated, divided and reunited, over and over again. And that’s where this historical fiction account of the only queen regnant in Vietnamese history comes in.

And what a story it is!

Escape Rating B: I had two separate and distinct reactions to Bronze Drum. I was being told a story (literally as I listened to the audiobook) in a historical tradition with which I was completely unfamiliar. And that history, the history of the Trưng sisters rebellion, its causes and its ultimate failure, was fascinating. Not just because it was new to me, but because it’s a story of a women-led uprising at a point in history where we don’t expect such things to have happened at all.

But I had a separate reaction to the story as it was being told, to the narrative progress of the fictionalized version I was listening to. And I was a bit less fascinated with how the story worked as opposed to the history that inspired it.

The story begins with the Trưng sisters as very young women, and the story of their early years takes up the first half of the book. While the reader – or certainly this reader – needs an introduction to their society at that point in time, this part of the story dragged in the telling of it. They are sisters, they fight a lot, the younger resents the elder, is rebellious and misbehaves, and not much happens in the grand scheme of things.

The Trưng sisters ride elephants into battle in this Đông Hồ style painting

It’s only in the second half that the pace picks up. As the immediate reasons for the rebellion start piling up – literally as in bodies stacked like cordwood – we start reaching the events that really matter. The women of Vietnam rise up and overthrow the oppressive Han regime, through training and teamwork and an indomitable will. It’s exciting and it grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.

And I think this would have been a better story if it had focused there instead of the long, drawn out recounting of their earlier years. Your reading mileage, of course, may vary.

About the audiobook…Bronze Drum is a book that I listened to in its entirety. I did try switching to the text but the way that the names are pronounced and the way that they are transliterated from the Vietnamese into the English alphabet are markedly different. Enough to make switching between the two difficult for someone who isn’t familiar with the language. (While I recognize that this is a “me” problem, if it’s also potentially a “you” problem it’s something to keep in mind.)

A lot of the books I listen to as opposed to reading are from first-person perspectives. I find those particularly well suited to audiobooks as I really get the experience of being inside the narrator’s head. Bronze Drum is in the third person, and there is a lot more narration of that third person overview than there is either dialog or internal thoughts. Narration is, of necessity, at a bit of a remove, and as a consequence the narration of this book is dispassionate to the point of being a bit flat, making the audio experience a bit of a mixed bag as well as the story. The listening experience was much closer to that of an unvoiced (un-acted) narration and that’s not what I listen to audiobooks for.

One final note. In the way that the story is told, Bronze Drum reminds me a LOT of Kaikeyi. And not just because both stories are in traditions that I was not familiar with. Both stories spend a lot of time on that portrait of the protagonist as a young girl, when they are not able to fully participate in the important events around them or yet to come. And both are stories of women taking prominent places in men’s stories and in a man’s world at a time and place where that was not expected. The major difference, at least to this reader, is that Kaikeyi puts a female perspective and a feminist interpretation on a myth, while Bronze Drum is a feminist history that really happened.

Review: Duke of Desire by Elizabeth Hoyt + Giveaway

Review: Duke of Desire by Elizabeth Hoyt + GiveawayDuke of Desire (Maiden Lane, #12) by Elizabeth Hoyt
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Maiden Lane #12
Pages: 364
Published by Grand Central Publishing on October 17th 2017
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A LADY OF LIGHT

Refined, kind, and intelligent, Lady Iris Jordan finds herself the unlikely target of a diabolical kidnapping. Her captors are the notoriously evil Lords of Chaos. When one of the masked-and nude!-Lords spirits her away to his carriage, she shoots him . . . only to find she may have been a trifle hasty.

A DUKE IN DEEPEST DARKNESS

Cynical, scarred, and brooding, Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has made it his personal mission to infiltrate the Lords of Chaos and destroy them. Rescuing Lady Jordan was never in his plans. But now with the Lords out to kill them both, he has but one choice: marry the lady in order to keep her safe.

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF DANGER . . . AND DESIRE

Much to Raphael's irritation, Iris insists on being the sort of duchess who involves herself in his life-and bed. Soon he's drawn both to her quick wit and her fiery passion. But when Iris discovers that Raphael's past may be even more dangerous than the present, she falters. Is their love strong enough to withstand not only the Lords of Chaos but also Raphael's own demons?

My Review:

On the surface, Duke of Desire seems like a much more traditional historical romance than yesterday’s Someone to Wed. In this latest entry in Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series the hero and heroine fall into the standard pattern. He rescues her from grave physical danger. And she, in turn, saves him from the Stygian darkness he believes is inside his own soul.

But the terror that hides in the shadows of those Stygian depths is one that was not spoken of in traditional historical romances. The scarred Duke of Dyemore was the victim of child sexual abuse, at the hands, and other body parts, of his own father. It’s the kind of horror that never truly goes away, even after the death of its perpetrator.

Raphael’s father was the leader of one of the Hellfire Clubs that sometimes appear in historical romance and historical fiction. The Lords of Chaos are demons in human form, and Raphael is determined to bring them down.

But when the Lords kidnap Lady Iris Jordan in the mistaken belief that she is the new wife of their enemy the Duke of Kyle. (His story is told in last year’s Duke of Pleasure), Raphael risks his mission to save her. Iris is not the new Duchess, however she is a friend of Kyle’s. But she’s not the Lords intended victim, and Raphael makes use of the confusion to claim her for himself, right out from the Lords’ disgusting clutches.

Then Raphael’s spur-of-the-moment rescue goes completely awry when Iris shoots him, believing, and understandably so under the circumstances, that he is whisking her away to rape her in private before murdering her.

It is not an auspicious beginning for any relationship. They manage to straight out the mess before he succumbs to his wound. He recovers just enough to bully the local priest into marrying them. She will need the protection of his name to survive the storm that is coming, even if he doesn’t manage to live through her amateur attempt at surgery and the infection that follows.

What he’s not admitting is that he has been thinking of Iris for months, after they danced together once at a ball, and that as much as he believes that she is not for him, he can’t resist the opportunity to keep her for himself now that it has been tossed into his lap.

Iris, the widow of a cold man many years her senior, was hoping for a real marriage on her second time around, one with the possibility of children and even, at least, respect between herself and her husband.

What she has is Raphael, a devastating sexy man, in spite of the horrific scar that mars his face, who is determined to get himself killed in his vendetta against the Lords of Chaos. And who is equally determined not to sire any children before he meets the end he feels he deserves.

It’s up to Iris to probe the darkness that surrounds him, and give him a reason to survive his very necessary fight. Her battle often seems much more difficult than his.

But the rewards should be worth the pain. As long as they both survive.

Escape Rating B+: This was another book that I simply swallowed whole and very quickly. I really enjoyed its riff on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale, including the lovely alternate version of the fairy tale that is included in the chapter headers.

One of the themes underlying the story is about making one’s own choices about the course of one’s life, even if the beginning is in hell. Both the hero and the villain are sons of the previous generation of the Lords of Chaos. As a boy, Raphael chose escape by any means necessary, no matter how terrible. As an adult, he’s chosen to fight back. Instead, his enemy broke, and ended up wallowing in the evil that had broken him. Raphael certainly feels a bit of “there but for the (very questionable in this case), grace of G-d go I.”

It may be a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, but Iris does fall in love with Raphael a tad conveniently. They are effectively trapped together by the Lords’ enmity, and their marriage does make a certain amount of sense, but Iris is all in from very early on – more than just making the best of the situation. And she puts up with some unconscionable behavior on Raphael’s part.

Because he believes he isn’t worthy of love, and that he should never have children for fear that he might become like his father, the early parts of their relationship often feature Raphael at war with himself. He plays a vast game of “come here go away” because he needs Iris and wants her and doesn’t believe he should let himself care for her. So he regularly exhibits the care he believes he shouldn’t feel, and then pushes her away.

She fights back at every turn, as she needs to. But it would be exhausting in real life.

The danger to Iris is very real. The Lords of Chaos are all around them, planning to kill both Iris and Raphael (after raping Iris first, of course) so that they can maintain their secret den of vice, debauchery and murder with no one the wiser of their real identities. Raphael is a threat to their existence, and he must be stamped out.

As the jackals circle closer, Raphael must finally put some of his trust in someone else, and must admit that whether he is worthy of love or not, it has found him anyway, and it is worth preserving at all costs.

It is a difficult but ultimately satisfying lesson, for Raphael, for Iris, and for the reader.

Reviewer’s note: While we all enjoy seeing handsome heroes on the covers of romance novels, the inaccuracy of this particular cover is a bit jarring. Raphael has a terrible scar from above his eyebrow to the side of his mouth. That scar and the reasons for it are part of his story, his pain, his courage, and his redemption. A judicious use of Photoshop would have gone a long way on this cover.

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

Review: Take Out by Margaret Maron + Giveaway

Review: Take Out by Margaret Maron + GiveawayTake Out by Margaret Maron
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Series: Sigrid Harald #9
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on June 27th 2017
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Sigrid is still reeling from the untimely death of her lover, acclaimed painter Oscar Nauman, when she is called to investigate the deaths of two homeless men in the West Village. The police at first assume an overdose, until they realize that one of the men shows no signs of drug use. Then when containers of poisoned takeout food are found nearby, Sigrid's case is suddenly much more complicated. As Sigrid investigates, she uncovers an intriguing neighborhood history: a haughty mafia widow and her disgraced godson, a retired opera star with dark secrets, an unsolved hit-and-run, and the possible discovery of a long-missing painting that will rock the art world. Soon the case is fraught with myriad suspects and motives. Who killed the two homeless men, and why? And which one was the intended victim? Or was the poisoned food meant for someone else entirely?
Throwing herself into the murder investigation to distract herself from her personal grief, Sigrid still can't stop wondering what led Nauman across the country to the winding mountain road that took his life. Until she meets a man who may hold the answers she seeks.
In her newest gripping mystery, Margaret Maron's beautifully drawn characters and unpredictable plot twists prove once again why she's one of today's most beloved writers.

My Review:

I think that NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald would recognize Eve Dallas’ 21st century New York as still being her city, and vice versa. And that if the two women ever met, they would see each other as kin. There’s a similarity to the two no-nonsense New York homicide detectives that transcends time.

Also a distinct difference. I read all of the Sigrid Harald series, starting with One Coffee With, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. But I never read the last one. Although there is a murder mystery in Fugitive Colors, that story also deals with the unexpected death of Sigrid’s lover, the artist Oscar Nauman. It was just too sad to contemplate, so I never picked it up. I have a copy, I just couldn’t bear to read it.

Take Out takes place in the aftermath of Nauman’s death. It’s been over a year since the tragedy, and Sigrid has learned to deal with her grief, even though it still sometimes strikes her down without warning. She has also resigned herself to being Oscar’s heir, and dealing with all the myriad details involved with protecting the legacy (and the fortune) of a famous artist.

But the mystery in Take Out turns out to be wrapped in the other loose ends of Sigrid’s life, as well as tying up the leftover bits of the mystery from Fugitive Colors. It all starts with a New York tradition – take out.

Two men are dead on a bench in an upscale NYC neighborhood. The remains of their last meal all around them – take out food from a neighborhood restaurant. Neither man is a resident. One is clearly a homeless drug addict, while the other is exceedingly down-at-the-heel. One death might have been accidental, but two is one too many for the long arm of coincidence, even in New York. When rat poison is found in both of the take out boxes they were noshing on, it’s clear that at least one of them was murdered, even if the other is merely collateral damage.

But which? And most importantly, why?

This is a case where the past threatens to overwhelm the present, from the recent death of an old mobster’s daughter to the long-ago murder of Sigrid’s own father – by a minion of that same mobster. And if the long-simmering rivalry between the two old women at opposite ends of the block has finally erupted into open warfare, why now?

Which of the many secrets has suddenly become too toxic to remain buried? And can Sigrid figure it out before the past dies with it?

Escape Rating B+: Take Out is closure. Not just for all the old secrets buried on that street, but for Sigrid as well. I loved this book, and I was very, very glad to see this old favorite get wrapped up.

At the same time, it’s been a LONG time since Fugitive Colors was published in 1995, the same year that Naked in Death (the first Eve Dallas book) was published. And as fascinating as the mystery in Take Out is, it also felt as if there was a definite strain in the story as the author needed to catch up new readers (and remind old ones) of just who all these characters were and why they mattered to Sigrid. Those explanations were both utterly necessary and took away from the rising tension of the mystery.

It’s that mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the end. There are two old women at the heart of this mystery. One is a mobster’s widow, and the other a famous opera singer. Both are in their 80s. It doesn’t seem possible that either is the murderer, and yet, they both had ties to the dead men. And potentially they both had reasons to want one of the men dead, but not both. And not the means to do the deed. And yet it was done.

This is a story that is all about the past. Not just the past of those two old women, but also Sigrid’s past, and Oscar Nauman’s past. And even the past wrapped up in an old museum, which desperately needs a new lease on life. It all ties neatly together at the end, and the case, and the series, close with satisfaction.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

After my review of Lockdown by Laurie R. King, I received an offer from the publisher to host a giveaway for 2 copies of Lockdown to lucky U.S. winners. As Laurie King is the author of one of my favorite mystery series, and Margaret Maron the author of two others, this seemed like a fitting post to which to attach the giveaway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
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A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: Duke of Pleasure by Elizabeth Hoyt

Review: Duke of Pleasure by Elizabeth HoytDuke of Pleasure (Maiden Lane, #11) by Elizabeth Hoyt
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Maiden Lane #11
Pages: 364
Published by Grand Central Publishing on November 29th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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IN THE ARMS OF DANGER
Bold. Brave. Brutally handsome. Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, is the king's secret weapon. Sent to defeat the notorious Lords of Chaos, he is ambushed in a London alley—and rescued by an unlikely ally: a masked stranger with the unmistakable curves of a woman.
IN THE HEAT OF DESIRE
Cocky. Clever. Courageously independent. Alf has survived on the perilous streets of St. Giles by disguising her sex. By day she is a boy, dealing in information and secrets. By night she's the notorious Ghost of St. Giles, a masked vigilante. But as she saves Hugh from assassins, she finds herself succumbing to temptation.
ONE KISS WILL CHANGE THEIR LIVES FOREVER
When Hugh hires Alf to investigate the Lords of Chaos, her worlds collide. Once Hugh realizes that the boy and the Ghost are the same, will Alf find the courage to become the woman she needs to be—before the Lords of Chaos destroy them both?

My Review:

The fairy tale romance of the tale of The Black Prince and the Golden Falcon that heads each chapter of Duke of Pleasure makes for a perfect framing story – because Duke of Pleasure is also, in its own way, a fairy tale romance.

I’ve read some of the early entries in the Maiden Lane series, but somewhere along the way it fell victim to the “so many books, so little time” problem, and I stopped. But if you have never read the series, or dipped into it once or twice and lost track, don’t let Duke of Pleasure being book 11 in the series stop you from starting, or picking up, here. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of carry-over from one book to the next.

“Ghost of St. Giles” is a title, and not an individual. Think of it as the “Dread Pirate Roberts”. Alf may be the “Ghost’ at the moment, but others have held the title and worn the motley before her, and others will after she retires. It is necessary to keep the stews and rookeries of St. Giles just a bit safer for the poverty-stricken residents that there BE a Ghost, but the actual identity of the current Ghost is always closely held secret.

So when the notorious Ghost of St. Giles rescues the infamous Duke of Kyle from what seems to be the entire Scarlet Throat gang, he has no idea that the Ghost is a woman, or even that they have met before. Once upon a time, Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, tried to hire Alf, the well-known information peddler in St. Giles, to investigate one of his enemies. Alf didn’t take the job because he was currently working for said enemy. But mostly, Alf works for himself.

Actually herself. Life in St. Giles as a boy is difficult and dangerous enough. Attempting to live as a woman would just make her a target. And skirts are extremely difficult to fight in. So Alf hides herself behind her persona as a very young man. Until the Duke first discovers that the Ghost is a woman, and subsequently that Alf is the Ghost. And therefore, a woman.

And he needs Alf to be a woman, to help him infiltrate and investigate the nefarious Lords of Chaos. He has the devil’s own time admitting to himself that he just needs, and wants, Alf. Exactly as she is. Swords, knives, and all. And to hell with what society wants, or thinks, about it.

He just has to convince Alf that risking her heart with him won’t mean losing everything she is.

Escape Rating B+: I actually looked for the fairy tale of The Black Prince and the Golden Falcon. Told in the chapter headers, it’s an absolutely lovely (if slightly trope-y) fairy tale romance. And it’s the perfect parallel to Hugh and Alf’s own story.

Not that there is any sorcerous magic in Hugh and Alf’s story, just that it feels equally unlikely. It’s still absolutely lovely, but there’s just a touch of fairy tale magic in the romance of the bastard duke and the surprisingly innocent yet still extremely cynical girl from the very mean streets.

Alf and Hugh are fascinating characters, and make an interesting, if very unconventional for their times, couple. Hugh is a secret agent for the crown, a crown that happens to be worn by his father. Hugh is an acknowledged bastard of King George II of England. But that little accident of birth isn’t half as interesting as the way that Hugh acts. Not the secret agent bit, fascinating as that is, but the way he lives. His men are all his former soldiers, and he treats them not merely well, but as close to equal as their relative positions let them manage. And Hugh is a single father to two young sons, one of whom is not his by blood. And he doesn’t care. He is desperate to re-forge a relationship with them and take care of them personally, not merely packing them off to the nursery wing.

Alf is equally surprising, and slightly more anachronistic. But her independence makes sense within the world as portrayed. Disguising herself as a boy would have been much safer under the circumstances. And while it is a disguise that she is cognizant of, and not a gender identity, it is a disguise that she has been wearing since she was 5 years old. When she has to play at being a lady, that is the act for Alf. The problem for her is that after allowing herself to be a woman, she is caught between worlds. She doesn’t want to go back to being just Alf, but she also doesn’t have the skills or even the desire to be a typical woman of that time. She wants to be “Alf who is a woman” and doesn’t know how to find a place where she fits.

One of the marvelous things about the story is that Hugh doesn’t want Alf to be anyone other than Alf. Yes, he wants her to be a female Alf, because this romance, but he doesn’t want her to pretend to be a lady, or to take on typical ladylike behaviors. A big part of what he loves about her is that she is as addicted to danger and adrenaline as he is. They are a match, once he gets his head out of his gorgeous ass to admit it.

Reviewer’s note: In the book blurb, Hugh is referred to as “brutally handsome”. If the phrase is familiar, that’s because it is a line from The Eagles’ song Life in the Fast Lane. The complete line is “He was a hard-headed man, he was brutally handsome, and she was terminally pretty.” which is also a surprisingly accurate portrait of Hugh’s first marriage.

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