Title: Transformation Author: Carol Berg Series: Rai-Kirah #1
Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him: his dignity, the people and homeland he loves, and the Warden’s power he used to defend an unsuspecting world from the ravages of demons. Seyonne has made peace with his fate. With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone. But from the moment he is sold to the arrogant, careless Prince Aleksander, the heir to the Derzhi Empire, Seyonne’s uneasy peace begins to crumble. And when he discovers a demon lurking in the Derzhi court, he must find hope and strength in a most unlikely place…
No, my lord. It is your heart. Difficult as it may be to comprehend, there is a possibility you may have one.
Look at that blurb. And then at that cover. I know how this looks but this isn’t a highly problematic gay romance. It is a beautiful story but also one that’s probably not for everybody.
Slavery in fantasy-stories isn’t unusual but most books shy away from really touching the topic. It mostly happens far away to Other People. If it happens to our protagonists he either remained strong and resistant and honourable through the worst abuse or has the great luck to meet the one Nice Guy master who does not abuse the human being he owns for fun (even though everybody else in the story does).
Transformation doesn’t go that way. The first few chapters are not easy to read because some horrible things are done to Seyonne. (It’s not needlessly graphic but also doesn’t leave any doubts about how bad it is). And Aleksander does some of these horrible things. He’s a spoiled brat with a frightening amount of power who has never thought about the consequences of his actions.
He gets better.
And I’m buying his redemption arc. There is no long and meaningful conversation between him and Seyonne where he explains how sorry he is and how he realizes how horrible he’s been. There are only two or three short scenes where he says things that make it clear that his views have changed drastically. He also does a lot of things to make up for his behavior. (Yes, I know that threatening to kill people if Seyonne gets hurt is not a sensible or healthy thing to do but it is very delightful. And it’s not the only thing he does).
So yes, for me his ark worked but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who see him at the beginning and don’t want to see anything more of him.
And since that book is about Aleksander, Seyonne and how they and their relationship changes over the course of it, you will only enjoy it if you buy the redemption. Sure, it’s a fantasy novel where the protagonists fight demons but that part is so closely linked to the characters that you will not enjoy it if you don’t like them.
So what I have just said in many words is that this is a very character-driven story and that I like the characters a lot. Is the book perfect? No, there are some pacing-issues towards the end. A lot happens on the last 100 pages. Actual action and revelations and you get barely time to comprehend all of it because there are already three more things happening simultaneously. At the very end, there is even something that I expected to be the sequel-hook but it gets resolved in 5 pages.
But…I don’t care. I still loved it because it shamelessly panders to preferences. A fantasy novel with a small cast of characters and focus on their relationship, mages, a world that isn’t just fantasy medieval Western Europe and even though it’s dark it never feels dark and gritty(TM) just for the sake of being dark and gritty.
Title: The Daemon Prism
Author: Carol Berg Series: Collegia Magica #3
Dante the necromancer is the most reviled man in Sabria, indicted by the king, the Temple, and the Camarilla Magica for crimes against the living and the dead. Blinded by his enemy’s cruel vengeance, Dante salves pain and bitterness by preparing his student, Anne de Vernase, to heal the tear in the Veil between life and death. When Anne abandons him to return to her family, Dante seeks refuge in a magical puzzle, a desperate soldier’s dream of an imprisoned enchantress and a faceted glass that can fulfill one’s uttermost desires. But the dream is a seductive trap that threatens to unleash the very cataclysm Dante fears. Haunted, desperate, the blind mage embarks on a journey into madness, ancient magic, and sacred mystery, only to confront the terrifying truth of his own destiny…
She raises grapes. I raise the dead.
If that quote doesn’t make you want to read the series I can’t help you…
The Spirit Lens and The Soul Mirror read like mysteries. Of course, there was magic and the mystery wasn’t simply ‘who killed him?’. It was ‘who is behind the conspiracy that aims to set off the magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb?’ but there were clues, red herrings, everything a good mystery has. The Demon Prism is more conventional epic fantasy. There is a problem, a bigger one than the magical nuclear bomb and our heroes have to stop it.
That doesn’t mean that it’s quite your typical ‘group on a journey to stop the big bad’ either. The characters are all at different places at the beginning of the book. Different things make them think something is wrong and set out on their journey. They meet others, loose them again and find somebody else. They don’t always know what has happened to those that aren’t with them which makes for some gut-wrenching reading. Character- and relationship-development had been a strength of the previous books and so there is no doubt about how much these people mean to one another. And them thinking the worst and grieving you just wanted to reach through the pages to give them a hug. (And a blanket. And cookies).
Though people who come to the epic fantasy for the big battles will be disappointed. Even though there are three powerful mages, a master swordsman and a really really powerful big bad there isn’t much battle action. You get to see much more of the fight with the big bad’s henchmen than of the actual boss battle. I didn’t mind because I knew the henchmen much better and wanted to see them getting their comeuppance. (On a side note: Berg is brilliant and writing characters you despise and then give them extremely satisfying ‘reality ensues’ endings).
Now for all my flailing (and crying), this book isn’t without fault. It drags a bit halfway through. Dante is imprisoned and the reader is stuck with him. Things become somewhat repetitive. But those bits also contained some of the most chilling scenes when we saw the effect it had on Dante. It still could have been condensed a bit more but I’m again complaining on a very high level.
So go and read all the Collegia Magica books. And then have feelings together with me.
It’s funny because the grumpy necromancer learns that friendship is indeed magic.
Title: Spectred Isle Author: KJ Charles Series: Green Men #1
Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.
Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfill his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.
Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
“You’ve had a hell of a time, haven’t you?”
“Other’s worse,” Saul managed.
“That is the most specious form of consolation possible. One can always find someone who has it worse. If I’m having my fingernails torn out with pincers, it is unhelpful to observe that my neighbour has been hanged, drawn and quartered.”
One thing that annoys me in romances is when the relationship seems to be a one-way-street. One partner is experienced in Everything: sex, relationships, life in general and genre-dependant monster hunting, cooking or archery. Of course they are just too happy to teach their partner who Knows Nothing.
That’s not what happens in this book. To say that Saul’s last relationship ended catastrophically is an understatement and now he’s unsure about himself, his sexuality and doubts he even deserves good things. A lack of confidence has never been a problem for Randolph and he’s in a privileged enough position that his sexuality had never been an issue. He is, however, an aristocrat and thus grew up in a family where nobody had emotions of any kind (or at least never talked about them). He also thought in his profession relationships were out of the question anyway.
Apart from that, both of them are in a bad place after the war but have a hard time admitting to themselves just how bad it is. So when they meet they learn from each other. About acceptance, admitting things to yourself and dealing with your emotions.
“Look, not to insult you by suggesting that you have human feelings, but-”
“I should bloody well hope not.”
That doesnt’t mean that there’s no humour. Rather the opposite. Neither of them is ever in want of a witty comeback and it’s a joy to read them. On occasions, I felt it would have been better if they had kept their conversation serious for a bit longer instead of turning to sarcasm again. But then dealing with difficult situations with humour is very human (and it got never so bad that I felt I was just reading witty remarks loosely connected by a plot).
Now for the non-romance part:
*excited shouting* STEPHEN AND MATHILDA!
Ehem. Sorry. I will simply forever be bitter about the lack of (good) fiction about the Anarchy. WHY IS EVERYTHING ABOUT THE WAR OF THE ROSES? Now it’s not a big deal, in the sense that you need extensive knowledge of the era to understand what is going on. The little information you need is explained in the book. But I’m very happy when authors dive into some of the less well-known chapters of English history.
The plot should also satisfy readers that don’t get nerdgasms when certain periods of English history are mentioned. It’s fast-paced, has a very interesting magical system and a great set up for a trilogy. It answers enough questions to give closure to the storyline, while leaving enough open to make me look forward to the next book.
Title: Superfluous Women Author: Carola Dunn Series: (Daisy Dalrymple #22)
In England in the late 1920s, The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, on a convalescent trip to the countryside, goes to visit three old school friends in the area. The three, all unmarried, have recently bought a house together. They are a part of the generation of “superfluous women”—brought up expecting marriage and a family, but left without any prospects after more than 700,000 British men were killed in the Great War.
Daisy and her husband Alec—Detective Inspector Alec Fletcher, of Scotland Yard —go for a Sunday lunch with Daisy’s friends, where one of the women mentions a wine cellar below their house, which remains curiously locked, no key to be found. Alec offers to pick the lock, but when he opens the door, what greets them is not a cache of wine, but the stench of a long-dead body.
And with that, what was a pleasant Sunday lunch has taken an unexpected turn. Now Daisy’s three friends are the most obvious suspects in a murder and her husband Alec is a witness, so he can’t officially take over the investigation. So before the local detective, Superintendent Crane, can officially bring charges against her friends, Daisy is determined to use all her resources (Alec) and skills to solve the mystery behind this perplexing locked-room crime.
“Sorry but one simply can’t turn off one’s brain!” Underwood heaved a deep sigh. “No, I suppose it’s too much to expect of the modern woman.”
This is book number 22 in this series. I’ve read the previous 21 books and intend to read number 23 once it comes out.
I could simply stop here. After all, I can’t say that about many series. And even fewer if you ask which of those I genuinely enjoy and don’t only continue reading because I’ve grown so fond of the characters, that I’ll follow them through the shittiest plots. Carola Dunn has managed to keep the quality of this series steady for a long time and that deserves applause.
It also means I have run out of things to say. Daisy and Alec’s relationship is still refreshingly drama-free. The new characters are still charming. (I really wouldn’t mind if Willie and the others turned into recurring characters as some earlier guest-characters have done). Now some of the ‘evil’ characters had less depth than those in previous books but they still didn’t turn into caricatures.
That leaves me with the mystery plot. Which was great. Now I’ve read a lot of mystery novels. I often figure out the killer long before the characters do and not necessarily because the book is badly written. I just know what I have to look for and what hints disguise themselves as unimportant. Only, this time, I figured the killer out only a few pages before Daisy did it. I was distracted by some very well done red herrings and something stopped me from suspecting that character earlier. The exact same thing that stopped Daisy and the others from suspecting them. Saying more would be a spoiler but It was very well done.
In Dust and Shadow Sherlock Holmes hunts down Jack the Ripper with impeccably accurate historical detail, rooting the Whitechapel investigation in the fledgling days of tabloid journalism and clinical psychology. This astonishing debut explores the terrifying prospect of hunting down one of the world’s first serial killers without the advantage of modern forensics or profiling. Sherlock’s desire to stop the killer who is terrifying the East End of London is unwavering from the start, and in an effort to do so he hires an “unfortuate” known as Mary Ann Monk, the friend of a fellow streetwalker who was one of the Ripper’s earliest victims. However, when Holmes himself is wounded in Whitechapel attempting to catch the villain, and a series of articles in the popular press question his role in the crimes, he must use all his resources in a desperate race to find the man known as “The Knife” before it is too late. Penned as a pastiche by the loyal and courageous Dr. Watson, Dust and Shadow recalls the ideals evinced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved and world-renowned characters, while testing the limits of their strength in a fight to protect the women of London, Scotland Yard, and the peace of the city itself.
I have a complicated relationship with Jack the Ripper fiction. I really want to like it but I rarely do. In fact, the only one I really enjoyed was Melanie Clegg’s From Whitechapel and you could argue that it is more a novel that uses the case as background than an actual Ripper-novel.
My track-record with Holmes meets the Ripper fiction is even worse. In the best case, I found them totally forgettable but mostly they were so horrid that I wanted to rip them into little pieces. Dust and Shadow is different. I love it. It’s a great Holmes-pastiche. Faye catches the voice of Watson perfectly. I also didn’t feel that her Watson was too stupid or her Holmes too cold, both are things that often ruin Holmes pastiches for me.
It’s also a great fictional account of the Ripper killings. With the focus on fictional. I don’t mean that Faye didn’t do her research (she definitely did), but in reality, there was no Sherlock Holmes involved in the investigation. The fact that here he was does change some minor things because the Ripper reacts to Holmes’ involvement. I think only absolute purists can object to the way this was handled. I found it very well done (and I have often grumbled over stuff like this).
The whole subject is also treated with the respect it deserves. Of course, this is the true story of the brutal killings of several women and you can certainly argue that it is always ghoulish to read/watch/listen/play anything inspired by something like that. I know that there are people who wouldn’t do that under any circumstances and I am aware that my enjoyment of these stories might be a bit questionable…
But there are different ways to treat this case (I actually read a story once in which the author thanked Jack the Ripper in the foreword because he inspired so many authors…really). This book never forgets that the victims were people and the characters act accordingly.
Then there is, of course, the question of the ending. It won’t be a spoiler when I tell you that this book doesn’t stray so far from the historical facts that the Ripper is caught and everybody is happy. I’ve seen various ways the question ‘Why didn’t they say anything when they knew who it was’ (if in fact, they found out…) was handled and I have to say that I liked this one best so far. It made sense and was not out of character for Holmes.