Mini Reviews January 2021

For all those books I’ve read but don’t have enough to say to write a whole review

Nghi Vo – Empress of Salt and Fortune

I can see why people love this book. It has a magnificent plot, told concisely in a novella that never seems rushed but exactly the right length. It felt very much like reading an old legend with characters that single-mindedly pursue their epic goal but stay somewhat distant. And that was exactly my problem. I want to feel with the characters. I want to see them develop relationships with others beyond being told “And then they fell in love”. But that’s very much what classic legends and fairy tales do and that’s exactly what this book does. And so the final spark that would have made me go “Wow! This is beyond amazing” just wasn’t there.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Guns of the Dawn

The main reason I didn’t write a longer review of this was that it’s very hard to talk much about the book without spoiling a major twist. Our heroine, Emily lives in Lascanne, a kind of fantasy regency England, that has been at war with its neighbour Denland for so long that they have now started drafting women as soldiers (despite the gender-roles being otherwise very Regency England) and so Emily goes to war. And the author manages to describe war as something as being horrible without getting all grimdark detailed descriptions of gruesome injuries. And for quite a while that’s all: Emily is at the front, forms friendships with fellow soldiers, fights…and has not much of a clue how the war as a whole is going because nobody bothers telling simple soldiers about that.
Eventually something happens that puts previous events in a very different light…but it does take a long time to get there. And while I usually roll my eyes at people who recommend books to me by going “This 800 page doorstopper gets really good after 400 pages” I still enjoyed this book a lot. Also because I wouldn’t call the beginning bad or boring…just different from what you would expect from a book with that title and that cover.

Adella J. Harris – The Marquess of Gorsewall Manor (dnf)

In a romance it is vital that you feel with the characters and this book just didn’t deliver on that front. One of the protagonists went through what should have been very traumatic events – he was caught in a police raid on a molly house and imprisoned – but it barely seemed to affect him. All he did was occasional mentions of the food being bad…I also would have expected him to be more careful about showing his inclinations after already being imprisoned for it but he jumps the Marquess at almost the first chance he gets…nothing about this story was convincing.

Gil North – Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm

So far I have finished every Crime Library Classic book I started but this book almost broke that streak. I think I only got through it because the audiobook is only about 4 hours long and so I was already almost halfway through after one Sunday walk and decided that now I might as well make it through the end. I really shouldn’t have bothered because the author really makes his opinions clear in the first few chapters and then just repeats them over and over…or perhaps I should rather say one opinions: It’s always the woman’s fault. Because all women are horrible whores who just want to doom men. Only their breasts are interesting. Which is why Cluff/the narrator will describe them every time a woman appears…even if she’s dead or barely of age.

KJ Charles – The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting

Title: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting
Author: KJ Charles

Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.

Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.

Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.

But Robin’s cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after? 

As much as I love reading about people who fall in love while solving a murder, occasionally I do enjoy something less bloody. Especially in times like these. And especially if it is obvious that while the MCs might not solve big world-changing problems, the stakes are still high. Because – let me get sappy for a moment – somebody’s happiness is quite a high stake. And the book does a very good job at convincing me that many people in this book (not just the designated couple) would be absolutely miserable if things went wrong. And that kept me glued to the pages and once again awake somewhat longer than I should have because every time I thought “Well, I’ll finish that chapter and then go to sleep.” the chapter ended on some bombshell-twist that made me go “b…b…buuut how can that still end happily now? NOW I NEED TO CONTINUE”.

Of course, that only works if you care about the characters. And I did. A lot. And not only about the main couple but also the side characters: Robin’s sister and Sir John’s sister and his niece. None of is are just defined by their relationship to the men; all have their own thoughts, feelings and goals and are amazing characters in their own right. But they also have a great relationship with their brother/uncle and you can tell that they all truly care about each other (which is nice because sometimes it seems fiction is much more interested in destructive and unhealthy family-dynamics).

Something else? Oh right, of course, there are also Robin and John. I know, this is getting repetitive but I loved them. And to get repetitive again let me say something else I keep saying about KJ Charles romances: I loved the amount of thought that went into the balancing of the power dynamics between the two leads. John is rich and very privileged (and not fully aware just how privileged) but also shy and very inexperienced where romantic relationships (and to an extend sex) is concerned. He is resigned to not finding – and not deserving – happiness. Robin meanwhile has no privilege and nothing material to offer. But he has experience in other fields and does everything to convince John that he does deserve the kind of nice things that money can’t buy. And that’s beautiful.

Sam Hawke – Hollow Empire (Poison War #2)

Title: Hollow Empire
Author: Sam Hawke
Series: Poison War #2

Two years after a devastating siege tore the country apart, Silasta has recovered. But to the frustration of poison-taster siblings Jovan and Kalina, sworn to protect the Chancellor, the city has grown complacent in its new-found peace and prosperity.

And now, amid the celebrations of the largest carnival the continent has ever seen, it seems a mysterious enemy has returned.

The death of a former adversary sets Jovan on the trail of a cunning killer, while Kalina negotiates the treacherous politics of visiting dignitaries, knowing that this vengeful mastermind may lurk among the princes and dukes, noble ladies and priests. But their investigations uncover another conspiracy which now threatens not just Silasta and the Chancellor but also their own family.

Assassins, witches and a dangerous criminal network are all closing in. And brother and sister must once more fight to save their city – and everyone they hold dear – from a patient, powerful enemy determined to tear it all down . . .

In City of Lies I really enjoyed the basic premise of the plot: a mystery that had to be solved not by two amateurs who just stumbled into everything but by two people who had been trained to deal with problems…they just had never expected to deal with such a huge problem (or to deal with it that early in their lives). I also loved that, despite it being a historically inspired fantasy setting, there was no “historically accurate sexism”. Women and men are equal. Same-sex relationships exist. Full stop. But I also found that the characters lacked distinct voices. The book switches between two narrators and I frequently forgot who was the narrator in the chapter I was reading. And, more generally, I also had issues telling the other characters in the story apart because they all remained a bit colourless. I picked up the sequel because I hoped that these things would get better.

Now, in Hollow Empire… I still had trouble telling the narrators apart but the supporting characters seemed more developed and I no longer thought “This scene would probably feel more dramatic if I remembered who this person was”. Unfortunately, the plot no longer was what could be considered a very grand scale murder mystery but leaned heavier towards a conspiracy thriller. Not a genre I am very fond of. Besides, one of the main characters got framed for a crime he didn’t commit which is very much my least favourite trope and then the characters have to do quite a lot of dealings with a foreign country that has historically accurate sexism of the worst “women are just there to marry them off to form alliances” kind.

So, while technically some things got better, overall it got much worse for me because there was more and more stuff I simply didn’t like.