Sunday, September 9, 2012

Riveted, by Meljean Brook - Review

Information: 
Author: Meljean Brook
Publisher: Penguin
Imprint: Berkley Trade
Series Name: The Iron Seas
Reviewing: Advanced Uncorrected e-Proof provided by publisher (please note that the quotes I have pulled may differ from those in the final edition)

Reason(s) for Reading:
Because I love Meljean Brook.  I requested the eARC from Berkley and was pleased that they provided one for me. (In fact, my reaction may have included high-pitched squealing sounds unbecoming of a dignified person such as myself.  Possibly.)

Series Handicap Factor
While this is the third book of the series, I would say there is  no dependency at all on previous books for anything about the characters.  I think the world-building stands on its own but it's a bit harder to say since I do have the background information from other books already in my head.  Aside from a very brief mention of The Blacksmith and Archimedes Fox, this could easily be the first book of the series or a stand-alone.  Riveted seemed like a faster, somewhat less dense read than The Iron Duke. As a refresher, the series premise is that the Mongol Horde overran Europe and Britain about four centuries ago, and introduced nanoagents in their conquered territories.  The nanoagents provide supplemental strength and the ability to attach mechanized prosthetics to those who are "infected," but when the infected are in range of a radio control tower, the agents can control their behavior to an extent - normally the towers suppress emotions, but can incite Frenzies, where the infected copulate madly in order to ensure new generations of labor for The Horde.  In the areas where the Iron Seas stories have taken place so far, the towers have mostly not been in operation, but the fear of external control remains.

The Premise
Iceland! Ship-swallowing mechanized whale! Volcanoes! A centuries-old secret women-only town! Runes! Victorian sociopath villain with lobotomized genius father!  If you're not intrigued, then you have no sense of adventure and should probably go read a tax manual or something.

"I've never understood it.  That is always the first thing someone asks: Where are you from. Not 'What do you like?' or 'What do you believe?' or even 'What is your mother like?' which all have more bearing on the person I am.  And if I don't tell them where I'm from, they try to guess. Even though there are other people with my color spread all over the New World, they assume that I'm Liberé-- until they hear me speak. They know by my accent that I'm not black Irish, and not from Manhattan city-- though that is partially correct-- and not from Lusitania or Castile or the disputed territories. It drives them mad, as if to know me they need to know where I am from."
This rant from Annika - and it's just the beginning of the rant, mind you - is terribly ironic because the secret Icelandic community that Annika grew up in informs her whole character: what she knows, what she doesn't know, what she thinks she knows.  She is on a quest to find her sister Källa, who was wrongly exiled from their town of Hannasvik.  The crime? Carelessly lighting a beach fire which resulted in the town narrowly missing being discovered by outsiders.

Keeping their origins a secret is the "prime directive" for any citizen (or former citizen) traveling in the outside world.  This puts Annika in direct conflict with David, who has made a deathbed promise to his mother to return to her homeland.  Only problem is, he has no idea what or where that might be, until he overhears Annika and connects her accent with his dead mother's.

In the meantime, David's coincidental occupation as a vulcanologist aligns his path with Annika's: on an airship bound for Iceland.

The Plot
Partway into the story, the airship makes a terrible discovery: an entire town of dead, humans and animals, with no evident signs of violence or illness.  As Annika, David, and the airship crew become tangled up in the happenings on the ground, Annika and David are thrown together more and more despite their uncertainty about each other and their own feelings. I've focused this review on the romance, but the monomaniacal scheme they unravel is more than a little bit epic in scale and larger-than-life characters.

Oh, The Romance!
I like urban fantasy just fine.  And I don't mind if a book can't seem to make up its mind whether or not to be a romance in the genre-defined sense.  I recall that some readers felt that the romance took a backseat to the steampunky gearworks of The Iron Duke.  Now, I didn't have a problem with that.  But readers who want romance in the front seat will find their wish granted in a big way with Riveted. Right from the beginning, this entire book is absolutely permeated with the longing and uncertainty and thrills and insecurity of that first big romance.

Annika's world view is so unique.  Growing up in a town of only women, where children are brought into the fold either by adoption or temporary heterosexual affairs, she is very unknowledgeable about men, anatomically and emotionally.  This is a common historical romance trope ("it was so big! it would never fit!") but turned on its head in classic Meljean style. When women leave her hometown and do not return, it's usually because they prefer men and/or have male children that they don't want to leave behind.  For Annika, this is not something she views with scorn or judgement, but even more natural-seeming to her are the lifelong two-women couples she has grown up with.

David is also unusual.  He's not what you'd call an alpha male. He has several mechanical prosthetics - both legs, one hand, and one eye. While the fellow on the cover up there is pretty cool-looking, he is not how I picture David: the lenses are attached to his skull, not bound on with a leather band. His hand is a steel hand, not a wimpy plate laying over flesh. (Also, hello, it's ICELAND. All that bare skin on the cover made me giggle a little).  None of these attachments have made him particularly successful with the ladies, as they - and the nanoagents required to make them work - are not common where he lives and travels.  His forays into sexual experimentation have been unsuccessful and left him with a few misconceptions.

While we're on the topic of appearances, I have to say this is one place where the narration failed me a bit.  There were several references to both Annika's and David's brown skin, black hair, (Annika's curly, David's straight) and the ethnicity of the name "Kentewess." I felt like I was supposed to be able to peg both of them into an ethnic "look," but I was a little confused on what it would be. Hispanic? Arabic? Not African, because of the straight hair and "aquiline" nose.  "Kente" sounded African to me, or British, but "-wess" ? Maybe a derivation of the German "weiss" ? "-wass" could be Swiss or German or Welsh or Cornish, but I had to google to find that out, and the brown skin didn't fit.  And for Annika, the description came a bit later in the story-- between her name and speaking Norse in the first couple of pages, I imagined her blonde and Nordic at first.  A small distraction.

The really touching thing about David and Annika's romance is how much innocence and naivete they both bring to it.  Annika believes that it will take years to truly fall in love, and that only then will she really desire a full consummation (to put it circumspectly).  Their love story has the nostalgic feel of a First True Love, with tentative gestures and misunderstood reactions. 
Extending a friendship was all well and good, but Annika knew that her attraction to him could easily deepen, she *knew* that a part of her longed for more... and he didn't. Continuing their acquaintance would only serve as fodder for her silly daydreams. For her own sake, she should end this now.

She couldn't find the words to do it. Each one seemed to catch in the ache beneath her breast and refuse to surface. Perhaps they didn't have to. David seemed to take her silence as a response and looked away from her with a weary nod.

Her throat tightened. This wasn't what she wanted, either.
Fortunately, the forced proximity of their journey and adventure prevents them from giving up too easily.

Bottom Line:
Annika and David's romance is full of the tender innocence of first love, and the adventurous backdrop will remind readers of an old-school Jules Verne tale. There's also a message for current social politics here too, giving the story all the more relevance. I loved the first two books in this series, but I think this is the best one yet.

Around the Blogosphere:
Dear Author
Smexy Books
Fiction Vixen
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves (a new favorite!)
Happily Ever After

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blog Tour Stop: The Ugly Duchess, by Eloisa James - Review

Information: 
Author: Eloisa James
Publisher: Harper Collins
Imprint: Avon Books
Reviewing: Advanced Uncorrected e-Proof provided by publisher (please note that the quotes I have pulled may differ from those in the final edition)

Reason(s) for Reading:
In this case, there were several.  1) I received the e-ARC from the Avon Addicts program; 2) Trish from TLC Book Tours asked me if I would like to be part of their tour (yes); 3) Eloisa James is on my list of reliable reads; and 4) I have a weakness for fairy tale romances.  So with all that going for it, it jumped up to the top of my Read-and-Review list.

Blurb (from Goodreads):
How can she dare to imagine he loves her…when all London calls her The Ugly Duchess ?

Theodora Saxby is the last woman anyone expects the gorgeous James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, to marry. But after a romantic proposal before the prince himself, even practical Theo finds herself convinced of her soon-to-be duke's passion.

Still, the tabloids give the marriage six months.

Theo would have given it a lifetime…until she discovers that James desired not her heart, and certainly not her countenance, but her dowry. Society was shocked by their wedding; it's scandalized by their separation.

Now James faces the battle of his lifetime, convincing Theo that he loved the duckling who blossomed into the swan.

And Theo will quickly find that for a man with the soul of a pirate, All's Fair in Love—or War.
Multiple Personalities
James keeps calling Theo "Daisy." This is discussed in the book, the whys and wherefores; and there is even a comment along the lines of how he doesn't really like calling his wife by a masculine name. I've read other books with similar multiple names and nicknames but for some reason I kept getting jarred and confused by the Theo/Daisy switches.  I don't know why.  Maybe I'm just getting old.  Maybe if the nickname had been something derived from Theodora to make the association easier... anyway. It was something of a problem for me.

Excruciating Moment
One of my favorite analyses of the elements of a romance is from Joanna Chambers and Jessica "Tripler" from 2009: Excruciating Moments in Romance. I have referred to it before, and here I am doing it again.  I personally differentiate it from the romance convention of the "Black Moment," which is more specifically defined as closer to the end of a romance, when it seems that there is no way the hero and heroine can make their way back to each other.  The Excruciating Moment will typically happen early in the book to set up the conflict between the two characters-- and while there are very few romances without some sort of Black Moment, the Excruciating Moment is most typical of character-driven romances featuring internal conflict, and not every romance uses it.

I'm taking a little time to set this up because the Excruciating Moment in The Ugly Duchess is just so, so, very.... excruciating. On the surface, it's not particularly unique to romance - hero finds himself needing to marry heroine for pragmatic reasons - there's a dowry involved, as well as family scandal to avoid - and deceives the heroine into believing it is strictly a love match.  We all know that the truth hangs like the Sword of Damocles over their romance, and when it falls? Yeah, that's the moment.  As I said, this is a pattern that isn't hard to find in romance, but it's James' particular talent with characterization that makes it Excruciating.  With a capital "E."  Honestly, I had to put the book down a couple of times as the scene approached, I was dreading it that much.

And then it was worse.  I can't even excerpt it for you, because it goes on and on, the way the most humiliating thing that ever happened to you went on and on and you thought it would never end.  Like that.  And finally:
In the weeks and years to come, when she looked back she identified that as the precise moment when her heart broke in two.  The moment that separated Daisy from Theo, the time Before, from the time After.

In the time Before, she had faith. She had love.

In the time After... she had the truth.
Oh.  Ouch.

A large part of the book takes place while the two are separated. Theo rescues the estate from near-ruin and to the ton, she flips the bird [see what I did there??] by becoming a trend-setter in the way that only someone who is powerful, wealthy, and more than a little contemptuous of society can do.  I really enjoyed the details of both of Theo's endeavors.

Eloisa James thoroughly exercises the duckling/swan theme throughout the book, with direct and indirect references.  Here, at Theo's culminating social coup:
The woman poised at the top of the stairs, looking down at all of them with a little smile that indicated absolute self-confidence, looked like a goddess who happened to come down to earth by way of Paris.  She radiated that sort of ineffable glamour that simply cannot be learned...

...[SNIP]... there was something magnificent about the countess tonight, almost hypnotic. The pièce de résistance of her costume was a formal cape that gleamed under the light, soft and lustrous, almost as if it were made of fur.

...[SNIP]... It sprang out from Lady Islay's shoulders and then swirled to the ground, managing to look surprisingly light. The inside was lined with a gorgeous rosy silk, and the outside...

"What on earth is that made of?" Claribel couldn't help asking as she reached out to touch it.

"I can guess," Cecil put in, the thread of amusement in his voice even stronger.

"Oh can you?" Theo remarked. "Then tell me this: am I being altogether too obvious?"

Claribel hadn't the faintest idea what she meant. But Cecil, clever Cecil, obviously did, because he bellowed with laughter.

"Swansdown," he said. "Gorgeous swansdown, and every man and woman in this room has taken note of your swanlike triumph."
At the same time, the hero takes a journey of his own.  In the opening days of the book, he is a mere 19 years old, and known as one of the prettiest young men of his day.  He is, in fact, mostly decorative, as his attempts to understand the estate business illustrate.  The author here hints at a Regency version of ADHD:
By the time the meeting was drawing to a close, James felt like jumping out the library window and running into the street, screaming.  He was an idiot who would never be able to manage his own estate because he couldn't bear thinking or talking about numbers.  As Reede prosed on, his entire body tensed with the fervent wish to get the hell out of the library.

...[SNIP] It wasn't that he couldn't do mathematics or accounting; he'd learned both in school.  But his concentration constantly slipped in the face of such calculations, and he found himself thinking about not selling horses for profit but about the ways he planned to repair the stables. 

...[SNIP]... The truth of it was that he was a fool who was really only good for scything, because if he didn't get into the fresh air and exercise hard every day, he couldn't control his bloody, bloody temper.
When James returns to Theo, he is no longer an elegant, lean, handsome dandy.  Seven years at sea have left him scarred, tattooed, and far bulkier than when he left.  This might sound appealing to a modern reader (um, yeah...) but the facial tattoo in particular puts him beyond the pale of Regency society, even as Theo conquers it.  Eloisa James executes these two arcs with perfect symmetry, giving us the fairy tale's moral about "judging by appearances" forward and backward.

Social commentary aside, it's just good fun watching these two reconnect.  As tragic and serious as their separation was, their reunion is painful and yet the author threads the scenes liberally with humor and human-ness.  While James' whole new life is dangerous and reckless, it isn't until he encounters an especially close brush with death that he decides to give up privateering and return to his wife and estate.

Both of them have grown up and overcome certain insecurities, but to some extent, the way they accomplished that was to construct a public facade.  Especially for Theo, allowing the other behind that facade, allowing that vulnerability, was a very difficult process indeed, and makes for a wonderful reading experience.  This is a couple who work long and hard for their happily ever after, both alone and together.  By the end, you'll feel that no fairy-tale couple ever deserved it more.

It's been a pleasure to be a part of TLC's book tour for The Ugly Duchess.  Please check out other stops along the way at TLC's homepage for The Ugly Duchess Blog Tour.




Monday, September 3, 2012

Lord of Fire and Ice - Review

Information
Author: Connie Mason and Mia Marlowe
Pub Date: July 2012 (currently available)
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Imprint: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Reviewing: Advanced Uncorrected Proof provided by publisher

Vikings, Mmmmm
Ever since my adolescence when I snarfed up everything Johanna Lindsey  ever wrote, I confess that I've had a little thang for a good Viking romp.  In the category of "things I've been meaning to do," some kind of Viking-related feature on Alpha Heroes has been on the list for awhile, which is one reason I requested this ARC, provided by Sourcebooks. (It's also the reason for the lateness of the review, because my spark of an idea for a "feature" never seemed to actually catch fire. Oh well...)

The blurb:
His Duty is to Fulfill Her Every Desire...

Brandr the Far–Traveled has seen the world and a good many of the beautiful women in it. His bed skills are the stuff of steamy legend, his sword sings death, and he can call up fire from thin air. No one in a hundred years ever thought he could be enslaved through trickery and forced to wear the iron collar of a thrall—least of all him.

Until All She Desires is Him...

Katla the Black isn't just called so for her dark, silky hair. His new mistress has a temper as fierce as a warrior's and a heart as icy as the frozen North. But inch by delicious inch, Brandr means to make her melt...
A Little Bit Paranormal
I've noticed a trend in some of the books I've read lately to include just a trace of magic or paranormal element, and I think my reaction in general to this is "meh." I'd really rather have a full-out fantasy novel where the magical elements are critical to the plot and character, than have it just added decoratively on top of an otherwise "straight" contemporary or historical romance. This is strictly a matter of taste; I'm sure there are lots of readers who see a dash of paranormal as just extra fun. For me, I find it a little distracting and in some cases, I think it just provides kind of an "easy out" of plotting pickle or a shortcut to character building.

There are a couple of paranormal elements in Lord of Fire and Ice.  Brandr is a "fire mage," able to call up fire with his fingertips and flare or light fires in his immediate vicinity.  I am kind of puzzled about the reason for this, because as far as I can tell, it played no significant part in the book - maybe two scenes that could easily have been written a different way.  Second, Katla and other characters mention the inn matki munr, which translates as "mighty passion." In LFI, this implies a telepathic bond between the characters, especially in times of duress. I'm a little bit of a mythology nerd so I went poking around to try to find out if this is an invention of the Mason-Marlowe team, or had any other roots.  I did find a page (see verse 94) with sagas and their translations that included the phrase and the "mighty passion" translation, but no mention of any magical connotations. Lastly, the bad guys call up some extra power via the worship of some of the "old gods."

There's nothing wrong with the inclusion of any of those elements, but to me they did not really seem critical to the plot or character, and were not developed enough to make it seem like I was in a truly magical world.

Authenticity
Paranormal elements aside, I did think that the behavior of the characters was consistent with what I know about the period. One of the values that sets northern European medieval characters apart from their British or Roman counterparts, is that outsmarting your opponent through cunning or trickery is not considered cowardly or dishonorable. Mind you, the Norsemen love a good thumping as much as anyone, but they also have heroes that are sneaky and tricky, and being the victim of such a plan is pretty much on par with a defeat in a battle of arms.

So I thought it was interesting that as the book opens, we see the hero Brandr as having been tricked into slavery, more or less, and even though he could have easily escaped, he felt honor-bound to earn his way out of it, rather than overpowering his new owners or running away.

The language of the book is very simplistic to my ear, short sentences and paragraphs, and vocabulary that seems to register a little below a typical regency romance by comparison.  I assume this is deliberate, to put the reader in mind of a less sophisticated society and perhaps avoid more obvious anachronisms.  There were a couple of times where the characters use the phrase "a finger-width" where a modern story would say "inch" that seemed kind of awkward or labored to me, as if there was a search-and-replace done where other words like "bit" or "scrap" might have done as well.

I doubt this book was ever conceived to be strictly historically accurate, so it all boils down to how well the authors enable your suspension of disbelief.  Overall I think the story works on that level, and if you're expecting a quick, fun, fluffy read, LFI delivers just fine. 

The Plotline
In a nod to traditional fairy tales, the external bits of the plot involve Katla's brothers convincing her that she needs to find a husband.  For their part, they will present three acceptable candidates (all of whom have something to offer the brothers as well).  I quite enjoyed this little homage, and the scenes with the competing suitors were more complex than one might expect.

One of the suitors has an ulterior motive, and is linked to a larger story arc involving a nasty villain and some vengeful gods.  While this storyline worked OK for me, it was just OK. I think a more character-driven plot with the competitive suitors, Katla's brothers, and Brandr's hometown could have carried it just fine and might have engaged me more.

The Love Story
This is the important part, right?  Right. One thing to understand about this book, I think, is that it rides the border between romance and erotica, just going by the smexy scene count.  I have no complaints with these scenes (she said, demurely).  The tension between these two is very nice, and I rather liked that it was Katla holding out for true love.  Here's a little window into Katla's character:
Brandr's hands had driven her to such madness, she was helpless before him.  He'd seen her as no one in her whole life had.

Needy. Weak. Vulnerable.

Osvald [her deceased husband] hadn't wakened that deep hunger in her, never made her lose her calm reserve.

She dared not allow it to happen again.
Contradictorily, she still longs for the mythical inn matki munr, the great passion, so intimate that the bonded pair can speak to each other telepathically.  The story of the romance here is really the story of Katla allowing herself to become vulnerable and to accept Brandr, love, and help into her life.  She's spent a lifetime compensating for inadequate men in her life - taking care of her steading and its dependents, while her erstwhile husband and brothers serve more to drag her down than to help her.

So really, she has these two contradictory dreams - to be fully independent and invulnerable, and to find the inn makti munr.  It doesn't seem apparent to her that they are incompatible states, at least not in the beginning.

I enjoyed Brandr tremendously.  If he has a flaw, it might be that he's something of a male Mary Sue - he makes few mistakes, behaves honorably and cleverly, and somehow manages to serve as thrall without giving up an aura of personal power.  This scene, very early in the book, sets the stage nicely for how he deals with his new mistress:
She had to show this man his place and quickly.  "I saved you from the gelding knife this night.  You will show your appreciation by kissing my foot."

She lifted her nightshift to ankle height and presented one to him, toes pointed.

*That should wipe the smug expression from his face.*

He shrugged, bent over, and grabbed her ankle. Then he yanked her upside down. Her bottom took a glancing blow on the floor before she found herself hanging precariously, her foot level with is mouth when he stood back upright.

...[SNIP]... He glared down at her and bared his teeth in a wolf's smile. "Want me to kiss anything else, princess?"
Obedient, but clever and not subservient in the least (although I can't help but think he might have bashed her head in with this move - this is a problem I have when I start getting analytical....) Anyway, Brandr is a pretty simple guy - he thinks he and Katla will knock along fine in life, and sets about to thoroughly seduce and keep her in a fairly linear-- and successful-- way.  I wouldn't say there is tremendous character growth for him, but since he's such a fun character to begin with, I'll forgive it.

That scene pretty much hooked me, and if it hooks you too, I can recommend the story for a fun, hot romp, Viking-style.

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