KJ Charles: The Henchman of Zenda

Cover: The Henchman of ZendaAuthor: KJ Charles
Title: The Henchman of Zenda

Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently, that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

RatingB+

I am quite sure my reader is, if possible, even less interested in my paternal grandmother than I am.

I recently read Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair and one of my main complaints about it was that the author tried to fix the not too happy ending of The Prisoner of Zenda in a way that didn’t work for me. The Henchman of Zenda also gives some people a happy ending that didn’t have one originally but goes about it very differently.

In The Hentzau Affair, we learn that everything happened exactly as written in the original and this results in people acting really out of character and a very unbelievable happy end. Meanwhile, Henchman starts off by explaining that Rudolf was full of shit and lied through his teeth to make himself look better and therefore the original can’t be trusted. But that doesn’t mean that it ignores the original canon completely. The major events still happen, only some of Rudolf’s actions are different from what he claimed. That has the great side-effect that even if you have read The Prisoner of Zenda you won’t know exactly what will happen. After all, Rudolf might have been lying. So even the retelling stays suspenseful.

That means it doesn’t really matter if you know the original or not: you get all the fun and excitement of a swashbuckling adventure novel with lots of intrigue and changing loyalties and heroes who can have awesome swordfights and snark at their opponents at the same time. But unlike many of these old-timey swashbucklers (like The Prisoner of Zenda), the female characters aren’t just part of the decoration/only there so the hero can save them heroically because he is the hero. The women in this book also play the game of thrones. (And are better at it than the guys).

Gif of Cersei sighing
And unlike Cersei, they all manage that without sleeping with close relatives or being overall horrible.

Now I should mention that The Henchman of Zenda is a story about scheming, conspiracy, and murder. It just happens that while doing all that scheming Jasper and Rupert discover that they find each other hot and decide to spend their time together with something more fun than non-metaphorical sword-fights. And after a while, they start caring about each other. But they don’t show this with emotional declarations of love, rushing to the other’s side after hearing that he was injured or anything one might expect from a romance. And while I really enjoyed the adventure part and am perfectly happy with ‘genre + romantic elements’ I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a bit more time spent on their feelings. Their chemistry was so much fun I’d love to have seen more of it.

ARC received from the author.

Elizabeth Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank

41t1ENkbSLL._SL300_Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Series: Amelia Peabody #1

Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her first Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella.
On her way, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been “ruined” and abandoned on the streets of Rome by her rascally lover. With a typical disregard for convention, Amelia promptly hires her fellow countrywoman as a companion and takes her to Cairo.

Eluding Alberto, Evelyn’s former lover, who wants her back, and Evelyn’s cousin, Lord Ellesmere, who wishes to marry her, the two women sail up the Nile. They disembark at an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers – the irascible, but dashing, Radcliffe, and the amiable Walter. Soon their little party is increased by one – one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn.

Rating: D

Lucas, for pity’s sake, seize it! Don’t stand there deriding its linguistic inadequacies!

Do you care for a mystery where the heroine explains at every step that men suck and are useless (in the appropriate Victorian terminology) but nevertheless the men in the story do most of the mystery-solving? And who then ends up married and pregnant at the end?

I’m being a bit unfair here but not too much. Amelia isn’t that type of heroine who constantly talks about how strong she is but still faints at every occasion. She has a strong will but often it feels she is only right because the author says so. She wants to travel along the Nile but insists on the ship traveling the way she wants it. Objections by the captain that a different route would be better due to the wind get ignored. She is right because she is a woman and the captain just a stupid man! OK, they end up hitting a sandbank twice but Amelia isn’t bothered by that. She got her own way and that is important! She never stops to consider that under certain circumstances she should trust the experienced people. Like a captain where sea-travel is concerned.

Which makes it somewhat ironic that when it comes to the mystery-solving she’s just there to fill in the blanks at the end after a man has already done most of the work. And yes, if she’d had all the information she would have figured it out earlier. And the reason for her not having all the information even makes sense. It still is somewhat unfortunate if your feminist heroine’s first case is one where she doesn’t solve much on her own.

And then there was the romance. And yes, it is a cozy-mystery. And the heroes and heroines of those usually end up with someone sooner or later. And I don’t object to a strong and independent female character ending up with a man. But for most of the book, Amelia doesn’t just say that a woman of her age is unlikely to find a husband and that she isn’t too desperate about that. She goes on and on about absolutely not needing one because men are inferior creatures and so on. Which is again unfortunate. Especially because I didn’t feel much chemistry between the two. There were some sparks but I couldn’t buy it going that fast. The romance would have really profited if it had been stretched out over a few books.

Now for the last unfortunate thing: this is a book about white people in Egypt at a time where most of them were very racist. It’s also about archeologists at a time where a lot of people saw archeology as ‘digging stuff up, put the pretty things on my shelf and throw the rest away’. And Amelia does start off with some not very complimentary attitudes towards the Egyptians. She also doesn’t say a word when a museum-director gifts her a necklace he dug up. Then Emmerson turns up and yells that racism is bad and that not cataloging artifacts is also bad and that’s the topic done with. Amelia more or less shrugs and goes ‘yeah, guess you have a point’ and then it’s never brought up again.

Of course, I’m not expecting a cozy to devote several chapters on the chapters discussing the evils of colonialism but I couldn’t help thinking of Think of England. Another book that was more on the fluffy and humorous side with a main character who held some racists views. These views get challenged over the course of the book and then he actually admits that he was wrong before. Meanwhile, Amelia is never wrong. Ever. And that is very tiring.

 


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day: Read anything where the main character has servants (paid servants count, NOT unpaid) or is working as a servant him-/ herself.

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1)

30517107Title: An Unseen Attraction
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Sins of the Cities #1

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship…

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding… it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

RatingC+

Greater Love hath no man than he share the last ginger biscuit.

After The Magpie Lord and The Spectred Isle this is my first non-fantasy novel by KJ Charles and it’s…well different. Beyond the obvious lack of malicious spirits trying to kill the main characters. (Although…it depends on your definition of malicious spirit I guess). Both books felt like fantasy novels with strong romance elements to me. I’m not trying to slag off romance novels (and I gushed over the relationship in The Spectred Isle a lot). I’m just saying that the main plot was about the characters trying to defeat an evil supernatural being. They happened to fall in love along the way but the main threat wasn’t their relationship not working out but getting killed by aforementioned supernatural evil.

An Unseen Atraction is more a romance with a murder mystery in the background…and it occasionally tries to be a murder mystery with a strong romance plot and the end result left me somewhat unsatisfied. There was more focus on the building relationship and the troubles they face along the way than in the average ‘sleuth falls in love with a witness during the investigation’-mystery. Clem and Rowley argue. They have things they don’t want to share with each other. There are misunderstandings and their different backgrounds sometimes cause tension. All of these conflicts are well-written, realistic and not just arguments for the sake of filling pages. But the resolution sometimes falls short when suddenly the mystery pushes the romance in the back seat again.

And then the mystery plot goes beyond ‘romance where the heroes conveniently fall over some clues’ but also is never a ‘proper’ mystery because the actual sleuthing that they do is rather limited. So despite loving historical romances and historical mysteries, the book couldn’t quite win me over. I still enjoyed it and am curious enough to give the second book a try (even if there hadn’t been the sequel hook at the end) because even this romance that I wish had been more time to develop is more convincing than many of the ‘they meet, they find each other hot, they fuck, there is a ridiculous misunderstanding, it is resolved, happy end’-variety. *glances at some past reading choices*. (But yes, there’s also the sequel hook. Damn you *hmpf*)


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This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season challenge:

Winter Solstice/Yaldā Night: Read a book where the cover is a night-time scene.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Holmes #2)

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Title: A Conspiracy in Belgravia
Author: Sherry Thomas
Series:  Lady Sherlock Holmes #2

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deducti.on to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

RatingF

First: if you plan to read this series start with the first book A Study in Scarlet Woman. This is not a series that can be read out of order. I was puzzled during the first chapters because I took all the mysterious hints for allusions to the events that were to come in that book but at least some of them were allusions to things that happened in the previous books.
Second: The even more sensible choice would be to not read this series at all and instead re-read A Scandal in Bohemia. Or The Adventure of Solitary Cyclist. Or one of Lyndsay Faye’s pastiches. Anything that is actually good instead of this mess. The book tries to be a crime novel that is also a Holmes-pastiche/meta and an examination of Victorian morals/hypocrisy/the role of women/the treatment of anybody who doesn’t fit in but fails spectacularly on every count.

Charlotte was involved in a scandal and is therefore not welcome in polite society (or her family) anymore. That’s not a problem for her though. She has benefactors who make sure that she has a place to live and enough money to buy French pastries. She even still gets a marriage proposal. Not for love, more as a marriage of convenience that would also make it possible to help her sisters (who are still stuck with their hypocritical parents). That gives Charlotte ample reason to explain that love-marriages are a stupid idea anyway because love is a fickle thing…and postpone her answer to the proposal over and over again…
The possibility that her parents could abduct her and lock her up somewhere to lessen the ‘shame’ she has brought over her family is brought up but thanks to her oh so superior intellect that means she can foresee anything she is never in any danger of that.

The people who are suffering because of Charlotte’s actions are her sisters who are still stuck with her parents. Livia, who is also clever but less confident and who misses Charlotte but can only exchange occasional letters with her. And Bernadette who has an unspecified mental disability and who after having lost Charlotte as attachment figure has gotten worse. (The danger that their Dickens-caricature-horrible parents would lock her up in an asylum is conveniently non-existent). But we see Charlotte barely bothered by any of this. Emotions are for other people.

As Holmes pastiche, it also doesn’t work. I need a proper ‘Watson’ as narrator for that but A Conspiracy in Belgravia jumps from one 3rd person narrator to another. Including an inspector that ends up doing nothing to solve the case. But even if you’re less pedantic about that: the few deductions Charlotte makes are ridiculously far-fetched. (And yes, I’m aware that this is also an issue in the original stories, but they still look tame compared to what Charlotte figures out). The case gets solved through a series of the most convenient coincidences.

Which brings me to my final complaint: the mystery is also shit. You can play any of the following drinking games and always end up completely wasted before the book is over:

  • convenient coincidence that helps bring the investigation along
  • a chapter ends with an ominous cliffhanger that later gets resolved in two lines
  • weird time-jumps for no reason
  • current POV narrator keeping information about things happening in front of them from the reader

I would not advice combining two or more of these unless you want to end up with alcohol poisoning. But then I would not advise reading this book at all.

 

ARC recieved from NetGalley

Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily #4)

8124190Title: Tears of Pearl
Author: Tasha Alexander
Series: Lady Emily #4

Even before Emily steps off the Orient Express in beautiful and decadent Constantinople, she’s embroiled in intrigue and treachery. The brutal death of a concubine in the sultan’s palace allows her first foray into investigating a crime as an official agent of the British Empire–because only a woman can be given access to the forbidden world of the harem. There, she quickly discovers that its mysterious, sheltered walls offer no protection from a ruthless murderer.

RatingD-

“I don’t think I could survive if anything happened to her. She’s been beside me my whole life.”
“You would. I’d make you.”
“I’m not sure I’d thank you for it.”
“You forget how persuasive I can be.”

In which Emily is worried about her best friend dying and Colin is slightly creepy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure he means well…but couldn’t he have said how he’d help her through it instead of ‘I will make you survive’? Also, two lines later they are talking about their sex-life again in that cutesy Victorian wink-wink-nudge-nudge way that did have me grin the first two or three times they did it but once every private conversation they had led to the same I wanted to yell ‘Can you screw each other without constantly talking about it?’.
The mystery was just ridiculous. It involved so many coincidences that I just couldn’t stretch my suspension of disbelief that far. And yes, cozy mysteries are books in which the main characters just keep stumbling over dead bodies or met people who just have but even for that genre the coincidences were over-the-top.

I did like that death in childbirth was a topic since I can’t remember many novels that are set in an era where that is an issue that talk about it. (No matter if they were written in that era or in the present day). But the way it was discussed left me mostly unmoved. Emily’s fear of it was told rather than shown. The only results were some long internal monologues and her not telling Colin about the fact that she thinks she might be pregnant. (And even that can just as easily be attributed to the fact that she fears Colin would stop her from doing more dangerous things once he knows).
Ivy’s storyline again did nothing for me. This book makes it painfully obvious that Ivy is just the foil to Emily. Ivy is the ‘good Victorian woman’ in the eyes of her contemporaries, while Emily is the one with too many strange ideas for her pretty little head. Ivy will always do what she is told and she’d never dream of demanding answers. Even if the answers concern her and even if she’s scared.
Ivy is there to tell the reader how Victorian women were expected to behave and how much the good old days sucked. Ivy is there so that Emily can worry about her. Ivy is not in any way a character in her own right with interests, hopes or anything. She’s a symbol, somebody Emily can angst over and occasionally a plot device.

Talking about characters that aren’t really characters: Every single woman from the harem. They were there so that Emily could have discussions with them about whether women in the West are better or worse of than their counterparts in the ottoman empire.
And while I think that that it’s not intentional, it has some unfortunate implications that the only woman who is unhappy in the harem is the one who is secretly Christian. Because only if your religion tells you it’s wrong, you’d be unhappy in such a place. Now that brings me to my biggest gripe with the book.
Spoiler alert. It’s not directly about the mystery part but it is intertwined with it and it concerns events at the very end of the book so read at your own risk.

Continue reading “Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily #4)”

Dust and Shadow

4543979Title: Dust and Shadow
Author: Lyndsay Faye

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.

RatingA

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.

Downtime

13600507Author: Tamara Allen

Title: Downtime

On assignment in London, FBI Agent Morgan Nash finds himself moments away from a bullet through the heart when the case he’s working goes awry. But fate has other plans, he discovers when he wakes in a world far removed from his own.

At work cataloguing ancient manuscripts in the British Museum, Ezra Glacenbie inadvertently creates the magic that pulls Morgan out of the twenty-first century and into the nineteenth. It’s an impromptu vacation which may become permanent when the spellbook goes missing. Further upsetting Morgan’s search for a way home is the irresistible temptation to investigate the most notorious crime of the nineteenth century. But it’s the unexpected romance blossoming between Morgan and Ezra that becomes the most dangerous complication of all.

RatingF

It’s my job to pull monsters like Jack of the street. Granted, I haven’t accomplished anything in this case…

You know why you haven’t accomplished anything, Morgan? Because you think that screwing your new boyfriend is much more important than catching Jack. And if you do try to catch him you don’t really get far because you IQ is just below room temperature. On a very cold day. In a cellar room. With a broken radiator. And you get constantly in the way of the police and are offended if they don’t drop everything and listen to the strange American with zero official power who yells incomprehensible things like ‘I know you don’t have DNA-testing but be careful anyway!’

So if you’re like me and this book caught your interest because of the Ripper connection: don’t. The research of the author can’t have gone far beyond reading the opening paragraph on Wikipedia. It isn’t really important for the plot that the murders Morgan is not investigating were committed by the Ripper. Any other real or made up case would have been the same.

Now that doesn’t mean that you should read this book for the characters. Or the romance. Or the time-travel element. Because they all suck as well.

Morgan is just an absolute jerk. And an idiot. He gets transported back in time and meets a guy there who says he is a psychic. Morgan’s reaction: people can’t talk to ghosts. He clearly must be a fraud and so I’ll just constantly give him hell for cheating grieving relatives out of their money. Because it’s not like anything happened recently that would make him question his views about what is or isn’t possible. Not to mention that the psychic is one of the people who brought him to this time and Morgan needs him to get back again. It’s a bad idea to annoy and insult the people you need. I had seriously expected that we’d get a ‘once a psychic drowned my goldfish’ sob-story to explain this extreme reaction but no. Morgan is just a self-righteous jerk AND a massive idiot. (Another proof of his massive idiocy is also that he can’t seem to remember that he shouldn’t throw around modern terminology and references to future events in public).

As a result of that, the romance doesn’t work either. I just never saw any chemistry between Morgan and Ezra. (And I know I have complained about the lack of chemistry in romances previously, but this one really doesn’t have any). Physical attraction: yes. Chemistry: no. Which makes Morgan’s change from ‘idiotic asshole who refuses to listen to anybody’ to ‘sap who can only mope when his Ezra isn’t around’. That was just too much. I’m all for ‘love shows the lone wolf that he doesn’t have to be so lonely’ stories but they only work for me if the lone wolf is still a decent person. I never got that from Morgan. As you might have noticed from the words I used to describe him so far…

And finally: the time-travel didn’t really make sense. And yes. It’s time-travel. It rarely does. But here we were supposed to believe that it wasn’t just a spell that transported Morgan back but…some higher being? That felt he had to do something? (What? Who knows!) And then…whatever. Something something who cares anyway?