Saturday, 7 May 2016

#CBR8 Book 52: "Silver on the Road" by Laura Anne Gilman - Cannonball!

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Isobel has grown up in the town of Flood, in the saloon inhabited by the Old Man, the devil himself. It is known to all who live in the Territory, the area west of the Mississippi, that the devil always deals a fair hand. If you make a Bargain with him, he will give you exactly what you want, but you need to be careful you are sure exactly what you ask for. When Isobel turns sixteen, she is free to make her own way in the world, or to stay in Flood, continuing to work in the saloon. Yet Isobel yearns for more. She wants respect and power and the devil offers to make her his Left Hand. He already has a Right Hand, serving him well. Now he offers Isobel the chance to travel the Territory and be his eyes and ears. She accepts, despite warnings from others, but realises very quickly that she had no idea what she signed up for.

The day after her Bargain is signed, Isobel is sent off into the wilderness accompanied by Gabriel Katsun, an enigmatic card sharp who offered to mentor her on the road. Isobel is confused and a bit hurt that she's being sent away from the only home she's ever known, but can't deny that she's being given exactly what she was dreaming of before her birthday. Not that she's given any indication of what she's supposed to do or learn while on her journey. This is clearly something the devil expects her to discover on her own. After a few initially rough days, as Isobel gets accustomed to riding and sleeping rough, they settle into a pleasant routine. As they ride further away from Flood though, it's clear that there is something badly wrong going on in the Territory, some mysterious evil of unknown origin, causing sudden sickness or whole towns to be emptied entirely of both people and livestock. While she feels helpless and confused, it's also clear that as the devil's Left Hand, it is young Isobel's job to track down the source of this contamination and try to stop it.

I really didn't know entirely what to expect from this book, but it appeared on more than one best of 2015 list in the latter half on last year, and the premise sounded intriguing. The devil in control of a large area of land in the Old West, with a sixteen year old girl as his agent? The book was on sale after Christmas, and as is so often the case, I bought it and promptly forgot about it, until it was selected as the May 2016 selection of the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club. Having followed the ladies for four years, I am fully aware that there are the occasional great selections and the frequently quite rubbish selections in this club. This book has a solid 4.0 rating on Goodreads however, and I remembered all those positive reviews I'd read. It seemed like a good time to try something different.

Unlike my husband, I'm not really a huge fan of Westerns. I've seen a few, and I watched the husband play through the entirety of Red Dead Redemption, but it's not a genre that I have a lot of experience with or find especially appealing. This book takes its time to establish the setting and the characters, and because we follow along with Isobel, we learn as she learns. That means things are only very slowly revealed and the reader needs to be patient. Don't expect a break-neck pace or a number of thrilling action set-pieces (although there's absolutely a creeping danger lurking and the occasional really shocking display of danger). A lot of the book is Isobel and Gabriel slowly riding through the countryside, with Isobel learning the ways of the riders and the lay of the land.

This is an alternate history of sorts, where while the United States were in their infancy, the large unsettled area west of the Mississippi is controlled by the man the Christians like to name the devil. He is clearly a man of great power, but it doesn't seem unlimited and he certainly doesn't tempt men or women into sin, as they are more than capable of doing that themselves. Within his territory, his word is law and he has ancient agreements with the native peoples and the various creatures and spirits who dwell there. Different rules apply, and its inhabitants are sometimes blessed with unusual powers. Gabriel, for instance, can sense water and Isobel's old friend Alice can coax plants to grow. After making her bargain with the devil, Isobel becomes aware that she too has powers, but are they her own to do with as she pleases, or is she but a tool for the Old Man?

While Isobel and Gabriel spend a lot of time alone on the road together, there is refreshingly not a hint of romantic tension between them, only a growing friendship and the bond between an mentor and his charge. Gabriel has made his own bargain with the devil, putting himself in that man's debt. By taking Isobel around the territory, protecting her and showing her the ways of the riders, Gabriel will, at the end of a successfully completed mission, be given a measure of peace. He is a mysterious character, whose past is not fully revealed, but it is clear that for reasons not yet revealed to Isobel and the reader, he is bound to the Territory somehow, and the years he spent away in the United States came at a cost to him. He is connected to the land in a different way from Isobel, although I suspect the extent to which and the truth of his origin will be revealed in a later book.

This is a coming of age story, with Isobel having lived a sheltered life for her first sixteen years, wishing for more than she could handle and having to come to terms with what her bargain will actually entail. As the true extent of the danger is revealed, her initial instincts implore her to tuck her tail between her legs and flee back to Flood. This is obviously not an option, however, and as the story progresses, Isobel, cast adrift without any real guidance, has to try to figure out she can actually do in her capacity as the Left Hand of the devil and what responsibilities comes with the bargain she struck. While there are other powerful beings in the Territory, she acts for the Old Man and is therefore expected to figure out a solution. She may only be sixteen, and she may not have known what she actually asked for, but she's stuck in the bargain she made, and does a lot of growing up over the course of the story.

Clearly this is the first book in a series, and while some of the danger has defeated and contained at the end of the story, there is much left to do for Isobel and Gabriel. According to the author's website, the second book is out in October of this year. As I really liked the world-building, the quiet pacing, the various characters established and am intrigued to see where the story goes next, I'm absolutely going to keep my eye out for any sequels. This was a surprising and satisfying read.

Judging a book by its cover: It's not exactly the most exciting of covers, and I doubt I would have added this book to my TBR list and later bought it in an e-book sale, if there hadn't been so much positive hype about this book in the second half of last year. The cover isn't very flashy, but captures the content remarkably well. This is a slow-paced and introspective book and the many earth tones of the cover fit the story really well. The dusty ground, the sparse mountains. The dark-haired, plainly dressed girl, clearly meant to be Isobel, glowing with silver light to show her powers and connection with the Territory. Having all the writing be in silver, the colour of protection is also fitting. Now that I've read the book, I'm glad they didn't do something colourful and attention-grabbing with the cover. It's simple and elegant and very fitting.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 51: "Him" by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Page count: 274 pages
Rating: 4.5 pages

Summary from Goodreads:

They don't play for the same team? Or do they?

Jamie Canning has never been able to figure out how he lost his closest friend. Four years ago, his tattooed, wise-cracking, rule-breaking roommate cut him off without an explanation. So what if things got a little weird on the last night of hockey camp the summer they were eighteen? It was just a little drunken foolishness. Nobody died. 

Ryan Wesley's biggest regret is coaxing his very straight friend into a bet that pushed the boundaries of their relationship. Now, with their college teams set to face off at the national championship, he'll finally get a chance to apologize. But all it takes is one look at his longtime crush, and the ache is stronger than ever.

Jamie has waited a long time for answers, but walks away with only more questions - can one night of sex ruin a friendship? If not, how about six more weeks of it? When Wesley turns up to coach alongside Jamie for one more hot summer at camp, Jamie has a few things to discover about his old friend...and a big one to learn about himself. 

Warning: contains sexual situations, skinnydipping, shenanigans in an SUV and proof that coming out to your family on social media is a dicey proposition. 

While Wes is now sort of "don't ask, don't tell" out to his hockey teammates and coaches at college, he was only really coming to terms with his sexuality when he was eighteen and crushing hard on his best friend at hockey camp. Absolutely desperate for an excuse to touch him, he made a drunken bet and subsequently freaked out after he and his best friend fooled around one very memorable time. Feeling horribly guilty, Wes cut off all contact with his friend and they haven't spoken for four years. Now their teams are likely to face off in the national championships, and Wes feels he should probably make some sort of gesture of reconciliation.

Raised in a large and loving family in California, Jamie really isn't too bothered about the drunken experimentation at hockey camp, but he's hurt and upset that Wes pretty much burned all the bridges of their friendship and never spoke to him after that one night. He's surprised to discover that Wes has resurrected their old tradition of sending each other gag gifts, and suddenly seems willing to patch up their broken friendship as well. He's even more surprised when Wes shows up at camp to coach for the summer, even though he should be getting ready for his big break in Toronto.

Having seen and spoken to Jamie again, Wes can't get him out of his mind, and wants to spend as much time with him as possible, even if he can never admit his true feelings. He's shocked to realise that Jamie wasn't horribly traumatised by their one drunken night together and even more surprised to realise that he may even be willing to repeat the experience. After Jamie does some soul-searching and concludes that he very much seems to be attracted to either gender, the two friends can barely keep off each other, hooking up every chance they get.

While Wes has been more or less openly out in college, he doesn't want to attract press attention during the first year of his new and promising hockey career. He's planning on staying strictly celibate and a relationship is the last thing he's looking for. Jamie's due in Detroit at the end of the summer, but doesn't even know if he wants a career in hockey. He only ever started playing to stand out from the other men in the family who were all into football and now that he's done with college, he's not sure his head is really in the game, if it doesn't involve coaching. There doesn't seem to be much of a future for the two of them, even though they keep growing closer as the weeks pass by.

I have yet to read anything else by Elle Kennedy, although I've heard good things about her Off-Campus series. I very much enjoyed all of the books in Sarina Bowen's The Ivy Years, though, including her M/M romance The Understatement of the Year. That book involved a lot more angst, though, with Graham's initial denial and reluctance to accept his feelings and sexual identity being both frustrating and a bit exhausting.

What I loved about this book is that there isn't really a lot of wrestling with insecurities. Jamie has grown up in California, perfectly comfortable with homosexuality and doesn't feel violated or traumatised by the drunken night he and Wes spent together at eighteen. By the time Jamie and Wes meet again, Wes has accepted that he's gay and is out to his parents (who chose to mainly ignore his confession) and most of his friends. He tells the head coach at the hockey camp and Jamie shortly after arriving there and is comfortable in himself, but has never had a steady boyfriend, as he still secretly pines for the one man he can't have, Jamie.

After an evening out, seeing Wes flirting with someone else, Jamie gets uncharacteristically jealous and initiates a passionate kiss. Wes assumes he's just drunk and confused, and tries to brush him off, not wanting him to do something he'll regret. Jamie's really rather persistent though, and quite skillfully seduces his infatuated bestie. Despite Wes' fears, Jamie seems to have no regrets come morning. Some alone time with his computer and various kinds of porn makes him conclude he's most likely bi and he's more than happy to keep hooking up with Wes for as long as they're at camp.

As is par the course for any romance, the course of true love never does run entirely smooth. Where would be the fun in that? As ecstatic as Wes is about spending quality hockey time with his best friend by day and passionately hooking up by night, he's pretty sure that once Jamie goes off to Detroit, he'll find himself some nice girl to settle down with, and there's that whole going temporarily back in the closet for himself, so as to not attract undue attention during his first year as a pro.

While the book starts out a bit slow, the story really picks up once the story moves to the hockey camp where Jamie and Wes first met many years ago and Jamie now coaches every summer. Both protagonists are funny and likable in their separate ways and the supporting cast around them felt nicely developed too. The love scenes are pretty much all scorching, from their very first kiss (in the rain, because of course it is). I haven't read a lot of M/M romance, but I have never had a problem in seeing the appeal. One hot dude is good, two hot dudes, being hot for each other - so much better.

I'm now a bit torn about getting the sequel, Us, that came out earlier this year. On the one hand, I'd get more Jamie and Wes and seeing how their life together is panning out (plus probably a lot more hot sex). On the other hand, I'm worried there's going to be a lot more complications introduced before they get their eventual HEA after all, and I'm not sure I want that. As long as I have only read this one, they're perfectly gooey and happy together. I really do need to get round to reading the Off-Campus books now, though.

Judging a book by its cover: Some very ripped abs sadly obscured by the unnecessarily large title (would it have hurt the cover designers to let me have a bit more eight-pack to ogle?). You're clearly meant to objectify the very fit model too, otherwise there is no excuse for the t-shirt he's wearing being half pulled off like that. He doesn't even have a face. See, it's totally ok to leer at this handsome athlete - he's completely anonymous. Just so you know what manner of sportsball is being played in the book, the cover designers have also kindly included a hockey stick as well. Because readers are really seeking out these books because of the sports contents, that's right.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 50: "Temptations of a Wallflower" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Sarah Frampton may be the daughter of a duke with a sizable dowry, but she's known as the Watching Wallflower and is on her way to be firmly on the shelf. No one knows that behind her impeccable manners, the quiet and ever-observant Lady Sarah is in fact the author of a series of highly successful erotic novels. As The Lady of Dubious Quality, the virginal Lady Sarah uses the knowledge she's acquired from illicit French novels to write out all her sexual fantasies while her mother believes her to be deeply devoted to journal writing and keeping up her correspondence. When her publisher tells her that someone is trying to unmask the identity of the Lady of Dubious Quality, she starts to consider whether marriage might not be prudent to protect her from prying. What better candidate than the handsome and intelligent country vicar she's been growing closer to?

The vicar in question, Jeremy Cleland, is in London because his father, the deeply moralistic Earl of Hutton, has tasked him with tracking down and unmasking, you guessed it, The Lady of Dubious Quality. Jeremy didn't even want to take holy orders and become a vicar, but as the third son, he doesn't really have the finances or independence to go his own way, even though he's quite miserable with his vocation and struggles daily to control his desires. A while back, his cousin, the scandalous Vicount Marwood gave him one of the Lady's recent books, and Jeremy has in fact been reading all of them and appreciating them rather a lot. He doesn't really see what harm the books do, but with the treat of losing his allowance entirely, he sets about trying to figure out who the author of the erotica is. He feels an immediate affinity with the clever Lady Sarah Frampton, but knows that as the only daughter of a duke, she's much too far above him in rank to ever settle for a lowly country vicar, son of an earl or not.

Not realising that the man she's decided to marry for protection is in fact the same man who's been tasked with unmasking her and who could absolutely ruin her in the eyes of society, Lady Sarah proposes to Jeremy. They get married by special licence and while Lady Sarah's parents are none to happy, Jeremy's father is delighted that his son snared a lady with such an impressive family connection and dowry. The couple, after some initial difficulty, discover that they are in fact extremely compatible both in the bedroom and out of it. While a duke's daughter, Sarah isn't at all sorry to give up the luxuries of her father's house or the mindless pleasures of London's high society. Being useful as a vicar's wife, while still able to lock herself away to write in secret works very well for her. While Jeremy's father allows him a few weeks to enjoy his new marriage, he's not going to let his son give up his quest for long, however. What will happen when Jeremy discovers that the woman he's trying to track down is in fact his own wife?

In the previous two books in The Wicked Quills of London, an Earl and a Viscount married women of a much lower social standing to themselves. In this, it's Lady Sarah who is the one of higher social rank, who chooses to marry down, so to speak. While Jeremy may be the third son of an earl, he's also a lowly country vicar with only a small living, mostly wholly dependent on whatever allowance his tyrannous father chooses to give him. Even as they grow closer to one another and their attraction grows, they both know it's a bad match. It's only when Sarah is worried about the scandal that will ensue if she's unmasked that she decides that she doesn't care about her parents' possible disapproval or the risk of her dowry (she's of age and doesn't actually need their permission to marry). She proposes to Jeremy and while he initially refuses her, a conversation with his now happily married cousin changes his mind.

Of course, Sarah doesn't realise that the man she marries is the same man who's been hunting down her secret identity. Writing is the only thing that's ever made her truly happy, and while she discovers that Jeremy has in fact read all of the works by The Lady of Dubious Quality (and uses the tips he's learned from the books to satisfy both himself and his new wife thoroughly sexually), she doubts that he'd be pleased to discover that said Lady was in fact his own wife. So she keeps lying to him by omission, and all hell breaks loose once Jeremy (who really is both clever and determined, even though he hates the job his father has set him to do) finally pieces all the clues together and discovers the truth.

There's so much good stuff in this novel - two intelligent outsiders who fall for each other and ignore social conventions to be together. Sarah is a virgin, but reads a lot of smutty French erotica to be able to accurately describe the sex acts in her best-selling novels. Jeremy has only had sex once, but has read all of Sarah's books and is ready and willing to try put all the things he's only read about in practise after their first sexual encounter is less than thrilling for her. Because they are both enthusiastic beginners who are willing to communicate clearly about what they want, both in the bedroom department and outside it, they quickly settle into marital felicity. If only there wasn't that big ol' secret constantly threatening to ruin their happiness.

Sarah doesn't write her books just because she's bored and has nothing better to do. She genuinely finds the work incredibly fulfilling and is happy that her books seem to have found such an enthusiastic audience. She hates that she has to keep lying to Jeremy, but also honestly doesn't know if she'd be able to stop writing even if scandal struck. She loves what she does in a way that Jeremy frankly doesn't. He does his very best as a vicar, because he is a decent and responsible man, but only went into the church because his father pressured him, and given the financial independence, he'd devote his life to something different. Yet even when he marries Sarah and has her dowry at his disposal, he's reluctant to take advantage of her money, wanting to be his own man.

As the previous two books in the series, this featured two very engaging protagonists and explores a lot of feminist themes while also throwing in some believable relationship hurdles and plenty of smexy times. That the hero is apparently modelled physically on Tom Hiddleston certainly doesn't hurt either. There are cameo appearances by characters from the previous two books and as far as I'm aware, this is the final book in this series. It's not a perfect book, by any means, but Eva Leigh is absolutely becoming an author whose books I will absolutely be looking out for, and her new series seems very interesting indeed. She's not quite auto-buy or the most coveted of spots - pre-order - but a few more enjoyable books and this may happen.

Rating a book by its cover: This sure has a lot of pastel. I'm also not sure if the lady on the cover (whose hair is much darker than Lady Sarah's is described as in the actual novel) is reclining on a bed (which would be appropriate, given the contents of this book) or sinking into some sort of pink and lilac void. Once more we have an example of the lady from the back with her dress coming undone. As the lady in question appears to be wearing a nightgown, her lack of undergarments can probably be forgiven this time. I've yet to see pictures of any Regency-era nightie that opened that low in the back, though, especially without any evidence of buttons or lacing. I don't like this cover at all, which is a shame, because the cover of Scandal Takes the Stage is so gorgeous, with such lush details.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 49: "The Earl Takes All" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Twin brothers, orphaned at seven, Albert and Edward Alcott were sent to be raised by a family friend, the Marquess of Marsden at Havisham Hall. Insane with grief after losing his wife, Marsden wasn't exactly the best person to raise his own son and three orphaned boys (the third being the Duke of Ashebury, hero of the first book in the series). As the boys grew up, roaming free, they became collectively known as the Hellions of Havisham.

Then Albert, the elder by a few minutes and therefore the Earl of Greyling, wanted to give up his wild ways and fell in love with Lady Julia Kenney. Edward resented the way this woman seemed to be stealing his brother away, and one fateful evening, pretending to be his identical twin, he kissed her the garden at a ball. Only after their passionate kiss does Edward reveal his identity, leading to Julia loathing him utterly, even after she marries his brother.

On one last adventure together on safari in Africa, Albert is mortally wounded, and his last words to Edward are: "Be me!" Julia, having miscarried multiple times, is pregnant with what they hope is the heir to the earldom and has managed to stay pregnant for nearly seven months already. Albert is worried the shock of his death will make her lose this baby too, and therefore persuades his twin with his dying breath to pretend to be him, until the baby is safely delivered. Edward is to pretend that it was in fact HE who died in Africa, while taking care of his sister in law until she gives birth. While this is an absolutely moronic plan, he agrees, because he loves his brother, and let's face it, has some pretty strong feelings about Julia too, and not just in the pants region. Initially, he tries to stay away from her as much as possible, using grief as an excuse. But when Julia starts questioning why her husband has become so distant, he needs to become more affectionate so as to not give the game away.

His friends, who always knew the twins better than anyone else, uncover his charade at the funeral but reluctantly agree to keep the secret for the sake of Julia and Albert's child. They strongly warn Edward against getting too close to Julia, though, or in any way taking advantage of her. She'd figure out that something was wrong if her husband never even kissed her, though, right? While thankfully, sex is out of the question, to protect the baby, there is definitely some pretty passionate kissing and fondling and I have to admit I was pretty uncomfortable during this section. Then of course, the baby is born, and it's not a boy, like Albert and Julia were convinced it was going to be. So Edward is in fact the Earl now and needs to tell Julia the truth. Will she hate him forever?

Of course not, this is a romance. Besides, it's not like Edward does the honourable thing and confesses right after his niece is born. Nope, it's just before Christmas, and no one should find out they're a widow at Christmas right? Just a few more weeks of lying to the woman he loves, deceiving her in word and deed, because once she realises what he's done, she's going to never want to speak to him again. Of course, Julia is devastated when she discovers the truth. Not only is her husband dead, but her brother-in-law has been lying to her for months and she betrayed her husband's memory without even realising it, because she felt more comfortable and passionate with Edward than she ever did with Albert.

It's a heck of a plot to try to carry out, but this is the same woman who basically wrote Overboard in the Victorian era a few books back, so I guess if anyone was going to do really uncomfortable plots in romance, it's Lorraine Heath. It's an absolutely preposterous premise, and I still find it unlikely that the twins were so identical that Julia never once suspected the truth until it was revealed to her. Especially as Julia and Albert didn't have a marriage of convenience where they spent most of their time apart, only spending time in bed when trying to conceive an heir. Nope, Julia and Albert were a love match and confided in each other about everything. Even if Edward looked the same, being able to fake being his brother for months should have been impossible.

I still kept reading to find out what was going to happen, though, and the plot got a lot less squicky once the truth all comes out. At that point, Edward also confesses to Julia that the reason he couldn't tell her the truth as soon as the baby was born was because he's in love with her, and has been for years, and crushed and betrayed as she feels, Julia is starting to wonder if she doesn't feel something similar for her brother-in-law. Once she knows, she can see how blithely she brushed away all the things that didn't make sense, because she actually enjoyed spending time with Edward even more than she had with Albert before he left.

As an added complication, there's the laws that a widow was forbidden to marry her husband's brother (or a widower forbidden to marry his wife's sister). If Edward tells the world the truth about his identity, he can never marry Julia. Having spent more than two months with him, seeing how responsible and capable he is at running the estate, how good he is with the servants and tenants and how affectionate and caring he's been with her, Julia has realised that the drunken shambles that Edward made out to be in the eyes of his family and the world is in fact a clever ruse, to make sure that Julia kept him in contempt and neither she nor Albert ever realise the truth about his shameful feelings about his sister-in-law. She hates that the entire world thinks that Edward was a frivolous adventurer and drunkard who never really amounted to anything, and wants the achievements he's working towards as the Earl of Greyling to be in HIS actual name, not that of his dead brother.

While Julia and Edward eventually get their happy ending (there were ways around the inconvenient legal issues, if you had enough money and knew where to travel), I do hope that Edward sorted out his drinking problem. Certainly in the first half of the book, he's throwing down glasses of alcohol every chance he gets. I think Julia should have serious issues about trusting him, considering how skilled he proved himself to be at lying, but if she chooses to spend her life with him, who am I to argue. I much preferred the first book in this series, but then I always find Lorraine Heath to be very variable in quality (not that it stops me from coming back to her books again and again). Hoping the last Hellion's book (he's the one with the mad dad) is less uncomfortable. 

Judging a book by its cover: See, cover designer of Cold-Hearted Rake. THIS is how you portray a woman in mourning. Not in a pink giant-skirted monstrosity when your heroine never takes off her widow's weeds a single time over the course of the book! In The Earl Takes All, Julia actually does wear other colours occasionally, yet she's also a grieving widow for much of the book, consequently frequently clad in unrelieved black, and the dress described on the cover actually matches the description of one she wears in the book. That's good! Not sure about gazing soulfully at the white rose she's holding. Still, I should complain. This is a surprisingly decent romance cover, even though I suspect the low-cut back is less than entirely appropriate for Victorian times.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 6 May 2016

#CBR8 Book 48: "The Raven King" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 438 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning: This is the fourth and concluding volume in The Raven Cycle. Readers starting with this book will get very little out of it, and while I am going to try to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, it probably will reveal some things about the previous three books in the series, which may ruin your enjoyment somewhat. It's a great series, made even better when read as a whole. The Raven Boys is the place to start - go read it if you haven't already.

Told her entire life that she will cause the death of her true love with her kiss, this was not a prophecy that bothered Blue Sargent all that much until she turned seventeen, and broke her promise to herself to stay away from boys in general and Raven Boys, those who attend the posh boarding school in her home town of Henrietta, Virginia, in particular. Now her four best friends are Raven Boys and she's finding it harder than ever to deny that she's fallen in love with Gansey, whose death some time in the next year was foretold when Blue and her aunt saw his spirit walking the ley line, or Corpse Road, on St. Mark's Eve.

The Raven Boys, Richard Gansey III and his best friends Adam Parrish and Ronan Lynch, are still searching for the lost Welsh king Glendower. Gansey and Blue have pretty much stopped denying their feelings for each other, but are still hiding their true feelings from Adam, Ronan and the ever more unpredictable Noah, whose hold on reality seems to be slipping the closer they get to the end of their quest. There have been dangers facing them before, but now there is a demon in Cabeswater, the magical forest that is linked with Adam and powers Ronan's dreams. A dark force is bent on unmaking, causing the woods to twist and disintegrate, occasionally possessing the unwary. The legends say that whoever wakes the sleeping king will get a wish granted. They can ask Glendower to stop the demon - but will they find Glendower before its too late?

I spent the start of April re-reading The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue in anticipation and preparation for this book. As I read the first three books one a year, I both wanted to remind myself of the plot of each one and see how they worked when read in one go. Revisiting the series made it even more obvious how skilled Maggie Stiefvater was at crafting the story and made me fall even more deeply in love with the characters. She really does write such amazing personalities, and not just the ones I adore, like Blue and her boys, or the many interesting women of 300 Fox Way, Blue's home. There's the enigmatic Mr. Grey and in this book, we get to know Henry Cheng a lot better and what a wonderful experience that is.

I mostly find her villains a bit underwhelming, though, but I suspect that is because the antagonists are not really what is important in the overall story. The inter-personal relationships, the friendships and the connections formed, the way the various characters relate to one another - that's what Stiefvater really burns for. While there are some very shippable romantic couples here, the romance is so very secondary, as is the quest for Glendower (sorry, Gansey, I know it has dominated your life for so long). The ever-deepening friendship of Blue and her boys: Gansey, Adam, Noah and Ronan is the true core to this story and it's just as magical, if not more, as the marvels of Cabeswater.

To say that I was worried about the outcome of this book is an understatement. In between finishing my re-read of the first three books and the release of The Raven King, I visited Ms. Stiefvaters Tumblr-blog daily, reading her countdown posts to the release, admiring the fan art she posted, getting more and more tense and nervous about what was going to happen. It was pretty obvious that Gansey was going to die (we are told this from early on in book one), but whether he was going to stay dead was another matter entirely. But what about all my other beloved characters? Blue, Maura, Mr. Grey, Calla, Adam, Ronan and Noah - would they all make it to the end of the series? Some pretty dark things were clearly going to go down, and saving the world from a demon is unlikely to happen without some sacrifice.

I wish I could have called in sick and read the book in one sitting. Sadly, I had to spread my reading over two days, but I really did read every chance I got. It was a very satisfying read, but it's by no means a perfect book. There are some very confusing sections, especially towards the latter half of the book. I'm probably going to have to re-read the book to see if I can make more sense of what is revealed about Blue's father, cause that was just odd. As I mentioned earlier, the human villains of these books are always more frustrating than sinister, and the one in this one annoyed me to no end. While there was kissing, I could have done with a lot more, thank you very much. I also thought the epilogue was a bit too vague. All in all, there is so much more good than bad in this though, and Stiefvater's mastery with words continues to amaze me. A very worthy end to a great series.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover art for The Raven Cycle is, in my opinion, breath-taking. All the covers are done by the talented Adam S Doyle. This one fits well into the style of the other three, and the use of black and blue is nicely ominous considering what readers know must happen over the course of the story. Stags have featured throughout the series, and ravens have also been hugely important, either literal or figurative ones. My favourite cover of the four books is probably still Blue Lily, Lily Blue, but I like this a lot.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 47: "The Winner's Kiss" by Marie Rutkoski

Page count: 484 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning: This is the third and concluding volume in this series. It's going to be absolutely impossible for me to review this book without spoiling plot from the first and second book. Therefore, if you are not caught up, please skip this review and go start at the beginning - with The Winner's Curse.

Arin is mustering the Herrani into full-on war with the Valoran empire. Leading the Dacran forces that are going to aid them, is the sarcastic and hideously scarred Prince Roshar. Arin is trying not to think about the last time he saw Kestrel and her choice to marry the son of the Valoran emperor. He needs to harden his heart and become the perfect soldier, to avenge his family and the many Herrani who have died since the Valorans conquered them in his childhood.

Of course, Kestrel is not in fact enjoying a luxurious honeymoon, but being transported to a prison camp in the northern wastes of the empire. Betrayed by her own father, she is taken to a labour camp and fed various drug cocktails to ensure prisoner compliance both night and day. She fights to remember the reasons she risked everything, and desperately tries to stay alert enough to get a chance to escape, but soon, the drugs turn her into a mindless slave, just like the other prisoners.

By the time Arin discovers the truth about Kestrel, the war is fully under way, and it would be madness for him to go haring off to rescue her. Nonetheless he ignores the warnings of Roshar and others and risks everything to get Kestrel to safety, only to discover that she doesn't know who he is, or why she was in the camp to begin with.

Can the Herrani defeat the might of the Valoran empire and be free once more? Will victory mean that they just get annexed by the powerful Dacran empire instead? Will Kestrel regain her memories, both good and bad - of the love she shared with Arin, but also the way her father revealed her spying to the emperor? Will these plucky YA characters get their happy ending? Will Roshar and Arin the tiger get their own spin-off book? All the questions except the last one will, unsurprisingly, be answered over the course of the story.

I started reading The Winner's Trilogy about a year ago, and I can understand why a lot of people found the story of Kestrel and Arin problematic initially. Kestrel is very naive and has lived a very sheltered life and has a lot of very rude awakenings to get through to really understand the unconscionable ways her people have treated the Herrani. Over the course of these three books, she really does grow a tremendous amount though and does as much as one person can to make amends for the crimes of her people. She tries to facilitate peace between the Valoran empire and the Herrani, making some very difficult choices and when she realises that once again she's been lied to and used as a political pawn, she risks her life to spy and get vital information to the Herrani in an attempt to save them. She keeps making difficult choices and acting like a heartless social climber, and despite his assurances that he knows her and loves her, Arin keeps falling for her act and believing her words, breaking her heart in the process. Then her own father washes his hands of her, choosing the glory of the empire over his only child. She's starved, beaten and tortured and loses all the things that make her who she is.

Anyone rolling their eyes here - this isn't an amnesia storyline just for convenience sake - it furthers Kestrel's continued development into an even stronger character than before. By being forced to piece her memories back together gradually, she also has to examine who she was and really doesn't always like what she discovers. It's quite clear that post-prison camp Kestrel is a different person than before, and Arin struggles a lot to get used to the fact that the woman he loves has changed forever, partly because he, like her father, abandoned her. 

Arin lost most of his family when the Valoran empire conquered and enslaved his people when he was a child. He grew up in slavery and fought a brutal rebellion to liberate his people, then fell in love with the daughter of the man who led the conquest. Constantly questioning her loyalties and feeling like he betrayed his people, he kept fighting to keep his remaining people safe and free. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and at present, the Dacran empire are his allies against their common foe. But what will happen if the Herrani actually succeed? Will they be able to retain their freedom, or are the Dacrans going to turn around and annex them for further territory? While Roshar is Arin's friend, he's only an emissary of his more powerful sister. The most prudent cause of action for Arin would probably be to secure the safety of his people by marrying the Dacran queen, but even before he discovers the truth about Kestrel, that's not an option he's willing to consider.

As a lot of these YA series with the fierce rebels fighting against almost impossible odds, this book contains a lot of battle planning, political manoeuvring and guerrilla tactics. It's not all angsty piecing together of memories and reuniting of star-crossed lovers. There's plenty of darkness, because war is grim, but also a lot of lighter moments. Roshar steals pretty much every scene he's in and I'm not kidding about wanting a spin-off book about him. The growing friendship between Kestrel and Arin's cousin Sarsine is also nice.

Another trilogy completed, with another satisfying finale. I shall have to check out some of Rutkoski's back catalogue while I wait to see what she has in store next.

Judging a book by its cover: A blond girl in a big poofy dress and a sword (or at least a bladed weapon) has been the characteristics of all three covers in the series. There are actually two versions of the cover for The Winner's Kiss. In the UK cover (this one), the dress is green. In the US cover, the dress is red, much more similar to the first book in the series. If I have to have covers that have little to nothing to do with the contents, I at least want the impractical dresses the model wears to vary in colour. Hence I chose the UK cover. A lot of much more eloquent people online have already said a lot of witty things about these covers. I can't compete with them. I will say this, if the cover designers wanted to stay more accurate to the contents of this book, model portraying Kestrel should have a scarred back.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 5 May 2016

#CBR8 Book 46: "A Court of Thorns and Roses" by Sarah J. Maas

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

After Feyre's father lost all his money, her family (widowed, crippled father and two older sisters) live in a tiny cottage desperately trying to make ends meet. They mainly survive because Feyre taught herself to hunt and tries to make sure they have enough to eat. The only way they make money is if her father sells one of his wood carvings or Feyre has animal skins to sell at the market. One day, when Fayre sees a giant wolf in the woods while hunting and kills it with an arrow through the eye. The pelt brings her a fair amount at market, but come the evening, she discovers that she made a huge mistake.

The wolf was in fact a faerie in disguise, from the near-by faerie kingdom of Prythian. A gigantic fearsome beast comes tearing into her family's cottage and demands that she come with him, to spend the rest of her life in Prythian, or pay with her life for killing the wolf. Fayre doesn't really have a choice and fears for the safety of her father and sisters if she doesn't go with the beast. She discovers that the creature is in fact one of the high fae, Tamlin, High Lord of the Spring Court and the wolf she killed was one of his vassals. Due to a curse, all the members of Tamlin's court are stuck forever wearing elaborate masks. There is clearly something badly wrong in Prythian, a danger that may easily spill over the borders to the human lands, but no one seems willing to tell Fayre the truth about anything, while she's otherwise treated as an honoured guest in Tamlin's household.

Initially, Fayre keeps trying to escape to get back to her family, until Tamlin reveals that he's made sure her father and sister are safe and in fact prosperous again, but only as long as she stays put on his lands. Reluctantly, she tries to settle into her new life and slowly, but surely, she grows closer to both Tamlin and his sarcastic, one-eyed envoy, Lucien. It also becomes clear that neither of them want any of the faeries from the other High Courts or the mysterious "she" who cursed them to realise that Fayre is living there.

Fayre's hatred and resentment towards faeries eventually changes, and she grows more and more attracted to Tamlin, who in return seems to love her. When danger threatens, he sends her home to her family to protect her, but she refuses to stay, wanting instead to fight it with him. She returns to find him gone, with his servants finally able to tell her more about what the curse actually entailed. Fayre now has to fight her way into the evil Faerie Queen's realm and risk everything she has to break the curse and rescue Lucien and Tamlin.

While I've seen this book described in a lot of places as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which certainly applies a bit, the fairy tale it reminded me the most of was East of the Sun, West of the Moon, one of my favourite stories as a child. The youngest girl in a family is taken away by a large white bear in return for untold riches given to the family. By day a bear, he turns into a man by night, although the girl never gets to see what he looks like. When she's eventually tempted enough to light a candle to take a look, three drops of wax fall on his shirt and he wakes up. If the girl had stayed patient for a while longer, the prince's curse would have been broken. Instead he has to go marry a troll princess. The girl travels east of the sun and west of the moon to track him down and has to complete three tasks to rescue him.

If I'd been aware that this book was based on one of my favourite fairy tales (I've not seen this confirmed anywhere, but I refuse to believe the similarities in the overall plot are co-incidental), I probably would have read it a lot sooner. As it is, I waited until it fit into my Monthly Key Word Challenge for April and found it quite hard going in the beginning, because Fayre really isn't the most engaging of protagonists. She's angry, cranky and quite hateful and it took me a while to warm up to her. At the same time, I suppose the fact that she refused to meekly accept her captivity and kept trying to save herself is better than meekly submitting, like a lot of classic fairy tale heroines.

The book really got interesting to me by the time I figured out that the story was indeed a lot more East of the Sun, West of the Moon than Beauty and the Beast and Fayre has to face up to what her pride and stubbornness has wrought. The challenges posed to her by the Faerie Queen really are nearly insurmountable and Fayre is forced to make some really uncomfortable bargains to survive long enough to get a chance to rescue Tamlin and Lucien.

While I thought the evil Queen veered too close to insane, evil stereotype, there were a lot of other interesting characters in the supporting cast. The eldest of Fayre's sisters seems pretty horrible at first, but really grew on me as the book progressed. I hope she returns in one of the sequels and gets more to do. I also liked Lucien, and while Rhysand was made out to be a bit of a push-over and a sinister creep to begin with, there is clearly a lot of complicated reasons he acts the way he does, and the way the final half of this book played out, we're clearly going to find out a lot more about him in the sequel. I'm asking you up front, Ms. Maas, can we please avoid the inevitable love triangle? Pretty please, with sugar on top? Can't Rhysand have a different love interest? Thank you in advance.

I tend to like my faeries when they're dark, ruthless and sinister and there was certainly enough of this in A Court of Thorns and Roses. One of the benefits of waiting so long to pick it up is that the next book in the series is out any day. So now I have that to look forward to.

Judging a book by its cover: It's an eye-catching cover, to be sure.There's a striking contrast between the red and black dominating the cover, with the writing all in white. I'm assuming the woman on the cover is Fayre, our heroine, based mainly on her long brown hair and the tattooed arm. Her outfit, however, looks like a leotard seemingly made out of black scales and feathers, and bears no resemblance to anything she is described as wearing at any point in the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read