Once More with Feeling: The Best Ebook Romances of 2013

LJ 2013 Best BooksIn spite of what the opening paragraph of the article at Library Journal says, this is actually the third year that I’ve been asked to choose the Best Ebook Romances of the Year for Library Journal.

Just check the archives, if you’re terribly curious, here are the links to the 2011 and 2012 lists. This is one of the most fun things I get to do all year that can be more or less labeled as work, even though, as what I call reverse full-disclosure, Library Journal does not pay for the writing of this particular article or for the book reviewing I do for them.

Creating this list is always personal for me. These are books or series that I read or am in the middle of. They are the books that I gave either A ratings or 4.5 or 5 star ratings to, depending on where I did the review. Or in a few cases, B+ reviews of books I absolutely couldn’t get out of my head.

The first year, I was told to list 5 books. Last year, 5-ish. This year, my editor said 10 from the start. I think she figured out that I cheat and list series. I did again this year and went over the limit.

skies of gold by zoe archerArcher, Zoë. Skies of Gold. Avon Impulse. (Ether Chronicles, Bk. 5). ebk. ISBN 9780062241443. STEAMPUNK ROMANCE (4.5 star review)

The first four books in the Ether Chronicles (Skies of Fire, Night of Fire, Skies of Steel, Night of Steel) were on my 2012 list for good reason; this series is simply awesome steampunk worldbuilding. Also we have all the story possibilities inherent in a world war, but with airships and “ether” power. While Skies of Gold is a more than worthy successor to the first four books in the series, it is unfortunately the last book in the series. If you love steampunk romance, you’ll be enthralled. And then sad that it’s over.

forged in blood 1 by Lindsay BurokerBuroker, Lindsay. Forged in Blood I. ebk. ISBN 9781301493357. Forged in Blood II. ebk. ISBN 9781301349876. ea. vol: Lindsay Buroker. (Emperor’s Edge). FANTASY ROMANCE
I’ve adored the first five volumes of The Emperor’s Edge series (The Emperor’s Edge, Dark Currents, Deadly Games, Conspiracy, Blood and Betrayal) so much that I haven’t wanted to see it end. So I’ll confess that I put the entire series on the list even though only the last two books were published in 2013, and I’ve been saving reading the ending for a treat for myself. LJ was slightly puristic about things and only put the 2013 titles as the main entry on the list. The Emperor’s Edge is Epic Fantasy with a touch of Steampunk. The primary story isn’t a romance, but, and it’s a truly lovely but, there is a romantic subplot. Or maybe that’s sub-subplot. Our heroine convinces the best assassin not to kill her, and keeps on convincing him to help her, even though everyone tells her he’s just a heartless killing machine. Of course he’s not. Well, not completely.

[Bittersweet Blood by Nina Croft]Croft, Nina. Bittersweet Blood. Entangled. (Order, Bk. 1). ebk. ISBN 9781622669592. PARANORMAL ROMANCE (A- Review)
What a difference just a few days makes! At the time I wrote the article, I was just about to read the second book in Croft’s Order series, Bittersweet Magic (B+ Review). I didn’t want to jinx things by listing it, but I shouldn’t have worried. What’s so much fun about this paranormal romance series is that the standard definitions don’t really apply; the vampires maintain the Order of the Shadow Accords on Earth to prevent the Fae and the Demons from repeating their use of Earth as the battleground in the long-running Fae/Demon war. The contemporary fallout seems to be over the descendants of the Fae Juliet and the Demon Romeo of that war. But Demons are immortal, so Romeo isn’t dead. But his half blood daughter is ground zero for armageddon, and only the vampires can protect her. Make that one vampire with a personal “stake” in the result. The world-building in this just keeps getting better, and the love stories more complex.

black dog blues by rhys fordFord, Rhys. Black Dog Blues. Coffee Squirrel. (Kai Gracen, Bk. 1). ebk. ISBN 9781301668625. M/M PARANORMAL ROMANCE (4.5 Star Review)
This is a dark and gritty post-apocalyptic urban fantasy much more than it is a paranormal romance. There are several characters in this story who care a great deal for the elfin Kai Gracen, but Kai doesn’t even like himself enough to be ready for more than friendship with anyone else. He’ll get there, but he isn’t there yet. The story drops us into Kai’s world as it is; we know what he knows. We don’t know why or how the sidhe suddenly merged with what used to be our normal, just that Kai has to endure whatever crap gets thrown his way. It’s the person who emerges from the endurance that makes the story. That and dodging the dragons mating over the Mojave Desert.

Take What You Want by Jeanette GreyGrey, Jeanette. Take What You Want. Samhain. ebk. ISBN 9781619213746.
Ignore the New Adult label. Take What You Want is an absolutely marvelous contemporary romance that just so happens to be about two people in college. Ellen can’t go away for Spring Break, so she takes a vacation from herself. Just for a few days, she tries to be someone a bit different; instead of being shy and retreating into her books, Ellen buys sexy clothes on sale, goes to a townie bar and picks up the hottest guy in the place. She pretends to be “New Ellen” for just one night. Josh thinks no-strings-attached sex with a girl that he’s had a crush on since freshman year is a fantastic idea, but he knows exactly who she is. Ellen really doesn’t recognize him without his glasses. The next night is where pretense starts butting up against reality, because he wants to turn their one-night-stand into something more and New Ellen and regular Ellen have a difficult time deciding the difference between what they should want and what they do want.

armies of heaven by jane kindredKindred, Jane. The Armies of Heaven. Entangled. (House of Arkhangel’sk). ebk. ISBN 9781620611067. FANTASY ROMANCE (4.5 star review)
The fall of the House of Arkangel’sk is a deliciously complicated blend of the historic fall of the Russian Imperial House of Romanov with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen with more than few tablespoons of the deviance, decadence and twisted political machinations of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. There is love to be found, but the path to reach it leads through dark places, and our preconceived notions of good and evil, right and wrong, do not apply in Kindred’s Courts of Heaven. The best man in the entire series is a demon, although he would never think of himself as good. The biggest fool is a certainly an angel, and he would definitely label himself as such. The series begins with The Fallen Queen (4.5 star review) and continues with The Midnight Court (A Review) before the conclusion in The Armies of Heaven. Prepare to be enthralled.

how to misbehave by ruthie knoxKnox, Ruthie. How To Misbehave. ebk. ISBN 9780345545305. (4 star review)
Knox, Ruthie. Along Came Trouble. ebk. ISBN 9780345541611. (5 star review)
Knox, Ruthie. Flirting with Disaster. ebk. ISBN 9780345541703. (A- Review)
Knox, Ruthie. Making It Last. ebk. ISBN 9780345549297.
ea. vol: Loveswept: Random. (Camelot). 4-vol. set. ebk. ISBN 9780804180436. CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE
This small town romance series set in central Ohio is all about the Clark siblings, Amber, Katie and Caleb. Knox specializes in contemporary romances where real people solve very real problems while going through major life experiences. The tension in her stories comes from the kind of situations that cause stress in ordinary life; trying to reinvent yourself, trying to maintain a marriage, dealing with grief, not dealing with grief, returning home, being part of the sandwich generation, financial stress. The difference is that Knox makes her characters people that we all identify with and lets them have a fantastically steamy romance while they resolve their problems. Her stories pull at your heartstrings and make you smile. Every single time.

case of the displaced detective omnibus edition by stephanie osbornOsborn, Stephanie. The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus. Twilight Times. SF ROMANCE
I adore Sherlock Holmes re-imaginings, with the exception of the whatever-it-is that Guy Ritchie birthed with Robert Downey Jr. (who should stick to Iron Man). But I seriously digress. I read, and reviewed, Stephanie Osborn’s Case of the Displaced Detective somewhat in its originally published parts: The Arrival (A- Review), At Speed (B+ Review) and The Case of the Cosmological Killer (B Review). In the case of Stephanie Osborn’s continuing opus, I very much admire her concept of a Holmes who is not quite our Holmes and has an excuse for being so. She has used theories of quantum physics to create not just a possible universe where Holmes would have been a flesh-and-blood person, but to create causality that would bring that person into our 21st century. He is not quite the “thinking machine” of Conan Doyle’s fiction because he is not supposed to be, and that opens up a world of possibilities. Real human beings, after all, feel real emotions as they solve mysteries. Sometimes they even fall in love.

The Story Guy by Mary Ann RiversRivers, Mary Ann. The Story Guy. Loveswept: Random. ebk. ISBN 9780345548740. CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE (A- Review)
There was only one thing wrong with this story. It was too short, and at the time it was written, it was the only thing available by Mary Ann Rivers. The story is absolutely awesome, I wanted more by this author, and there just wasn’t anything else, yet.
What’s a “story guy”? A story guy is someone who may or may not be long-term relationship material, but who will, sometime in the future after the heartache is over, make a terrific story. Librarian Carrie West answers a personal ad from a very hot guy for one hour of kissing in the park every week. The answers to the questions about why this unattached and gorgeous man is willing to settle for so little for himself, and to make sure that no one is able to get attached to him, make for one marvelous and nearly heartbreaking love story. (And if you fall in love with The Story Guy you’ll probably also love Ruthie Knox’ Big Boy.)

Anything for You book coverScott, Jessica. Anything for You. Loveswept: Random. (Coming Home, Bk. 2.5). ebk. ISBN 9781301165766. (A+ Review)
Scott, Jessica. I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Forever Yours: Grand Central. (Coming Home, Bk. 2.6). ebk. ISBN 9781455554249. (A Review) MILITARY ROMANCE
Jessica Scott’s Coming Home series, which began in 2011’s Because of You (A Review) and continued in 2012 with Until There Was You (A- Review), is a military romance series that gets to the heart of what it means to love someone who serves in the military, because author Scott is herself a career army officer and is married to a career NCO. So instead of writing about the glory of the battlefield, she writes about the toll that deployments take on a family with inside knowledge of what it’s like to wonder if someone is coming home, and how hard it is to wait and worry. She’s able to convey the emotional cost to a soldier with a career-ending injury, not just because his body is messed-up, but because he’s lost his purpose and he’s worried about the people he’s left behind. If you want to read a military romance with real heart, read Jessica Scott.

That’s it for this list. The specific requirements for the Library Journal list were that they all had to be ebooks, either ebook-only or ebook-first, or ebook-mostly. In some cases, there is a print available on demand, but the ebook looks like the primary format, or it did at the time. Also, for this list, there had to be a romance in the story. Yes, a couple of times you have to be looking for the romance, it’s not the primary plot. But there had to at least be a romantic element.

I used to be able to put this list in preference order, but it’s gotten too big. And there’s kind of an apples/bananas problem. How do you compare a steampunk romance to a paranormal romance when they are both at the top of their respective trees?

I will do a “best of the year” list next week (which includes a few contributions from my friend Cass!) These type of lists are loads of fun. It’s great to look back and see what I’ve read and which books stick in the mind by the end of the year.

Review: Conspiracy by Lindsay Buroker

Conspiracy by Lindsay BurokerFormat read: ebook purchased from the author
Formats available: ebook, paperback
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk
Series: The Emperor’s Edge, #4
Length: 359 pages
Publisher: Self-published
Date Released: April 25, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When you’re an outlaw hoping for a pardon, and the emperor personally sends a note requesting that your team kidnap him, you make plans to comply…

Even if it’ll involve infiltrating a train full of soldiers, bodyguards, and spies loyal to a nefarious business coalition that has numerous reasons to hate you.

Even if it means leaving the city right after you’ve uncovered a secret weapons shipment that might be meant to start a war.

Even if it’s a trap…

My Review:

The Emperor’s Edge books are my current “book treats”. I read one when I get ahead in my reviews because Buroker’s combination of fantasy and steampunk is always delicious. There’s something particularly appealing about the team-building aspects of the story, as this rag-tag group shifts and constantly snarls at one another but still somehow manages to make a cohesive (okay, semi-cohesive) unit. That her hero is an unrepentant assassin reminds me of the best anti-heroes of fantasy, the series reads like excellent sword-and-sorcery, only with even more snark.

Conspiracy is Akstyr’s story, at least in the parts where it isn’t Amaranthe and Sicarius’ story. It’s always Amaranthe and Sicarius’ story. Amaranthe is the person who holds the whole mess together, more or less.

In this case, and Akstyr’s case, it’s very nearly less. The kid, and he’s just 18, is their magic practitioner. Problem of the first part, the empire officially does not believe magic exists. Problem of the second part, anyone found practicing magic gets killed. Leading to problem of the third part, Akstyr is self-taught, and really wants to leave the empire for someplace where he can learn how to use his powers.

The poor fool thinks he can fake betraying Sicarius in order to pick up enough of the reward on that head. Sicarius is the best assassin in the world. No one will touch that reward. Instead they betray Akstyr to Sicarius. His own long-lost mother turns up and betrays Akstyr for the reward on his head. The kid is having that kind of life.

Meanwhile, there’s a much bigger conspiracy going on. The emperor, in a very roundabout sort of way, requested that Amaranthe and her gang kidnap him from the mercantile warlords who are holding him prisoner in his own palace. It’s a tough job, but Amaranthe and company can just about manage it, using an airship to steal the emperor away from a moving train.

But while they’re conspiring to kidnap their willing victim, there seem to be at least three sets of dastardly villains on their way to murder or capture them, or the emperor, or both.

How many traps are involved? Who wants whom, and what is the big, black, scary airship looking for?

Escape Rating A: Conspiracy gets off to a fast start, and never lets up. A lot of the action takes place as the group tries to take over a moving train, and the story has the speed of a runaway locomotive. Everything happens at breakneck speed and under the gun (several guns). The pressure is constantly building.

Akstyr figures out who he wants to be in this story. He’s been drifting along with the group, while trying to pretend he’s not really part of it. In Conspiracy, he half-attempts one purposeful betrayal, and accidentally succeeds at another. But he learns what his place is, and shows real growth as a character.

Watching the dance between Sicarius and Amaranthe is always fascinating. It’s one step forward and half a step to the side in a lot of ways. They both want a future, but he doesn’t know how to be anything but an assassin and she knows he’s a loaded weapon. But they can’t help caring for each other, even though he doesn’t quite understand what that means for real people.

Blood and Betrayal by Lindsay BurokerConspiracy ended in an “out of the frying pan into the fire” type cliffhanger. The situation was not resolved and there is no let up in the tension whatsoever. I can’t wait to see where Blood and Betrayal takes our heroes next.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Deadly Games by Lindsay Buroker

Deadly Games by Lindsay BurokerFormat read: ebook purchased from the author
Formats available: ebook, paperback, audiobook
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk
Series: The Emperor’s Edge, #3
Length: 328 pages
Publisher: Self-published
Date Released: November 10, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When you’ve been accused of kidnapping an emperor, and every enforcer in the city wants your head, it’s hard to prove yourself an honorable person and even harder to earn an imperial pardon.

That doesn’t keep Amaranthe Lokdon and her team of outlaws from trying. When athletes start disappearing from the Imperial Games, they may finally have an opportunity to show the emperor that they’re on his side. If she and her comrades can get to the bottom of such a public mystery, they’re sure to get the credit.

But plans go awry when Amaranthe’s own men start plotting against each other, the new ally she’d hoped to acquire tries to turn her in, and her best fighter–and closest friend–disappears.

Maybe getting involved wasn’t such a good idea after all…

My Review:

The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay BurokerDeadly Games gets off to a slightly slower start than the first two books in the Emperor’s Edge series (see my reviews of The Emperor’s Edge and Dark Currents) but it’s the same type of slowly as those last few feet of clanking you hear on a roller coaster just before it gets dragged over the top of the first, highest peak on its track and goes careening down the other side in near-freefall.

Once this story gets going, the stomach-clenching, twisting and turning action never stops. The reader can also feel the places where the story kind of “bends” onto a slightly different path, and the whole fantastic construction of the series shifts from just being a glorious adventure to something more serious and, well, deadly.

In the background, you see the long game being played. Amaranthe and her band may be pawns on someone else’s chessboard. We won’t know until the future books play themselves out.

But in this story, there is an event like the Olympics, and people are being kidnapped. Athletes who otherwise have nothing in common besides the games are turning up missing. Amaranthe gets involved because it’s the right thing to do, not because there’s a job in it.

Speaking of games, someone is impersonating Sicarius, and drawing what you would think would be life-limiting attention from the Enforcers.

Oh, and Maldynado keeps trying to set Amaranthe up on a blind date with one of his warrior-caste friends. Not only is Amaranthe embarrassed by this matchmaking assistance, but her “date” keeps trying to get her arrested. There are a couple of bright spots that come out of this particular charade.

The question, as usual, is whether Amaranthe will live long enough to enjoy them.

Escape Rating A-: This installment in the series takes a bit to really get going, possibly because it starts while the gang is on vacation, so there’s a flavor of “getting the band back together” after downtime.

Also, it felt like more of the action than normal took place with the group split into different factions, and the narrative had to switch back and forth. I think this was intended as Basilard’s story, or it felt that way. His issues with his past are the ones that get resolved in this book, even though the long arc is Amaranthe and Sicarius’ story.

The focus this time is on Amaranthe and Sicarius strangely developing relationship; on Basilard’s acceptance, or lack thereof, of the things he had to do to survive; and on Maldynado’s continuing to be Maldynado. Mal may also be growing up a bit, although that’s a really long journey. It’s probably longer than Amaranthe and Sicarius getting to the point of having a relationship, and that’s saying something!

Books and Akstyr take a backseat in this book, and that’s okay. This story has a lot to juggle without keeping all of them in front all the time.

Conspiracy by Lindsay BurokerThere was no easy solution this time. They solved the “case”, but found as many questions as they did answers. The ending left me chomping at the bit to start the next book, Conspiracy.

I have a nasty feeling that they will have more than one conspiracy to deal with. Their luck just seems to run that way. Bad. Awful for them, but compelling to read.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.