Get ‘The Mages of Bennamore’ for just 99c!

August 29, 2016 Publishing/marketing, The Mages of Bennamore 0

If you haven’t yet read The Mages of Bennamore, or you have friends who might enjoy the read, it’s just 99c for a few days from today, Monday 29 August, and this price applies world-wide. It’s a stand-alone story, so no need to have read any of my other books, and it’s a magic-and-adventure tale, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Click the image to go to your local Amazon to buy. Here’s the blurb:

A fragile peace. A clash of magic. A woman with secrets.

Fen’s used to hiding away in her coastal town, keeping her past and her magic far from prying eyes. But the aftermath of the brief war with Bennamore pits her against a different kind of magic, and throws her quiet life into turmoil, threatening to expose all her secrets.

Mal’s job as guard to the mages of Bennamore has always been, frankly, a bit dull, but that was before they were sent to bring magic to the resentful coastal folk. Before he knows it, he finds himself in the middle of riots, disappearances and thievery. And then there’s the infuriatingly snooty Fen, a woman he’d love to tame.

The two will have to overcome their mutual dislike and join forces to untangle the dragon’s nest of deceit around them, or else their two countries will be plunged back into disastrous war.

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Authors Answer 17: What authors, styles or intellectual movements have most influenced your writing?

August 19, 2016 AuthorsAnswer, Regency romances, Writing musings 0

For the fantasy, I can’t honestly say that anything has really influenced my writing. I haven’t read a vast amount in the genre, and what I have read is mostly of a type I wouldn’t wish to emulate. Game of Thrones is too dark and nihilistic. Robin Hobb is downright depressing — beautifully written work that I hated. The authors whose work I most admire — Mark Lawrence, Daniel Abraham, Glenda Larke, Guy Gavriel Kay — are so brilliant I feel embarrassed to call myself a writer. My own work is such a mishmash of genre tropes that if someone asks me: “What other books are like yours?” I genuinely can’t answer. This isn’t a boast, by the way — it’s a Very Bad Thing not to be able to place your own books in the pantheon of genres. It’s embarrassing, and the result of ignorance of the genres rather than the genius of my creative mind.

For the Regency romances, I can actually answer this question! Phew! Jane Austen is the ultimate and original Regency romance writer, and although I could never aspire to her glorious wit or brilliance with words, the general principle of the story being the courtship, peppered with obstacles and misunderstandings and a slow realisation of love, is the ideal I try to follow. The books end with the accepted proposal, the presumed happy married life is never seen, and that, too, is my policy, although I do allow my couple a passionate kiss or two, so that modern readers will understand how well-suited they are.

The other shining light of traditional Regency romances is Georgette Heyer, a twentieth-century author whose books are convincingly of the era, with plots which are light and frivolous. These are the original Regency romps, with beautifully witty dialogue peppered with slang. I have some issues with Heyer, finding the romances too minimal sometimes, and the plots too silly for words. She also allows her very deep research to overwhelm the story occasionally. But the fluffy style is very much one I try to emulate.

Modern Regency authors? Not so much. I find most of them impossible to read, with heroines who behave in most unladylike ways, a metric ton of sex, and a very liberal interpretation of historical accuracy. I’m not a stickler for historic detail, but five minutes on Wikipedia surely wouldn’t hurt, would it? Then there are all the big frocks on the cover, the random forms of address (Lady Penelope and Lady Smith are NOT interchangeable terms!) and an England seemingly populated entirely by Dukes (hint: there are and always were very, very few of them).

As for intellectual movements… ha ha ha! No. I can safely say that no aspect of my writing has been influenced by anything resembling an intellectual movement.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Authors Answer 16: What are your favorite online resources/websites for writers?

August 15, 2016 AuthorsAnswer 0

I haven’t done any of these for a while, so duck while I lob my backlog out there…

This is an interesting question, because the resources needed vary depending on where you are in your career path. The information you need when you first begin (what exactly makes a compelling protagonist?) is very different from what’s wanted after you publish (where can I advertise my books?). So here are some sites that have been useful to me as I developed my writing and publishing skills.

For writing: Mythic Scribes

When you’re in the early stages of writing – your first book, or perhaps still dabbling with world-building – what you really need is a community of like-minded people. Even when you’ve read all the craft books, it can still be tricky to apply the advice to your own work. Should I introduce my antagonist earlier? Is this a punchy opening paragraph? First person or third? To prologue or not? And fellow authors are the only people who can endlessly mull over those difficult questions of adverbs, passive voice, show-don’t-tell and so on without getting bored. And for fantasy writers in particular, there are not many places where you can ask how long it would take a person to die from a sword wound (although I imagine writers of murder mysteries and gun-based thrillers have pretty awkward research topics, too). Mythic Scribes is a forum for fantasy writers, and it was a huge help to me when I first started writing seriously.

For critique: Scribophile

There comes a point when you have something written that you’re quite pleased with. Finally, after all that struggle, something that might be publishable! But first, it’s vital to put it in front of other writers to see what they think of it. Can’t you do that with a writing forum like Mythic Scribes? Of course, but to my mind it’s better to show your work in a place that’s geared specifically for critique, full of objective strangers who won’t tone it down because they chat with you about Game of Thrones in another part of the forum. Scribophile is my favourite critique site. You earn points (’karma’) by critiquing the work of others, then you spend karma to have your work critiqued in turn. Not all critiques are useful, but collectively they are acutely rigorous and analytical. And there are forums and special interest groups as well.

For testing the waters: Wattpad

The disadvantage of critique groups is that, because it’s focused on single-chapter analysis, it’s hard to get a perspective on how a whole book looks to a reader. You can try to find beta readers for this, but one alternative is Wattpad. This is, strictly speaking, a social media site, which revolves around authors posting whole books one chapter or scene at a time. Readers follow the story as it unfolds and will comment on their reactions as they read each part. For author/reader interaction, it’s unparallelled, but the potential for objective critique is limited. It’s also possible, if authors write as they post, for readers to influence the route a story takes. I used Wattpad to post my first fantasy novel, The Plains of Kallanash, and it was a fun way to find out whether readers will follow the whole story or lose interest part way through, but it’s no substitute for detailed critique or beta readers.

For marketing and post-publication: Kboards Writers’ Cafe

Once you reach the point of publication, the focus changes. You’re no longer quite so worried about passive voice and overuse of gerunds, but about covers, ebook formatting, the vagaries of print on demand and how to get reviews. For self-publishers, there’s a wealth of information out there, but the best of it, and the most up-to-date, is at the Writers’ Cafe, a sub-forum of Kboards. This is populated by people who are, in the main, focused on self-publishing as a career, so the talk is more about writing to market and promotional campaigns than about writing as an art form. This is the place to meet other self-publishers, both those who are just starting out and those who have several years of experience under their belt, those who sell a book or two a month and those who earn six figures a year.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Mystery review: Awash by Dawn Lee McKenna

August 15, 2016 Review 0

Book 6 of the Forgotten Coast series already, and still more to come. Anyone who’s read this far will know what to expect — fascinating characters, lots of drama, plenty of humour and McKenna’s trademark brilliant dialogue, where the subtext beneath the words stretches halfway to the earth’s core. Never have characters said so much with so few words. I don’t always fully understand exactly what it is they’re saying (or not saying) but trying to work that out is part of the fun.

For anyone whose interest is in the crime-of-the-moment, with the personal lives of the characters a minor note, this isn’t the series for you. Here the characters are what it’s all about, and again in this book the crime to be solved is deeply connected to Maggie, the female cop who is the heart of the series. Maggie was raped as a teenager, and when she’s called to investigate a very similar case to her own, she becomes deeply involved.

While the case is absorbing and heart-rending, it’s the slow progression of Maggie’s own emotional life that’s the most riveting part of this series. As Maggie and Wyatt inch towards a proper relationship, and possibly marriage, her fascination with the local crime lord, Bennett Boudreaux, threatens to derail everything. I love both her two men. Boudreaux epitomises southern courtliness, even while he has a history of ruthlessly dispatching anyone who falls foul of him. And Wyatt is just beyond-words awesome, with his dry humour and not-totally-relaxed-about-it tolerance of Maggie’s relationship with Boudreaux. The oh-so-polite macho posturing between the two men at the oyster bar is just superb, capped only by Maggie’s meeting with Boudreaux at the end, with its multiple layers of meaning. Did I mention how much I love McKenna’s dialogue? Brilliant stuff.

Another cracking read in this series. Five stars.

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Fantasy review: Radiance by Grace Draven

August 15, 2016 Review 0

This is one of those curate’s eggs books, for me – good in parts. It was recommended in a discussion on the fantasy subreddit as a book that tackles the difficult question of romance in a fantasy setting well, and in particular a romance between two people of different races, and yes, that’s definitely one of the good parts. The fantasy part? Not quite so successful.

The romantic couple are the heart of the book. Brishen is a prince of Bast-Haradis, the no-longer-needed younger son, traded in marriage to secure an alliance with the neighbours. Ildiko is equally unwanted, the orphaned neice of the Gauri king. She is human, a red-haired child of sunlight. He is Kai, grey-skinned and nocturnal. Both are accounted good-looking to their own race, but are ugly to each other. The book opens with their arranged marriage, each of them dutifully fulfilling their role but nervous about the ‘otherness’ of their marriage partner.

They quickly find that beauty is more than skin deep, and a meeting of minds can be just as rewarding as physical attraction. If I have a quibble with the romantic elements, it’s that they get along with each other rather too quickly, and neither of them ever makes a mistake, says the wrong thing, offends the sensibilities of the other, even inadvertently. It was all a bit too perfect. I would have liked a little more conflict between the two of them before (surprise!) they each decide that the other is all right really, and (eventually) settle into wedded bliss. Be warned that the sex, when they do get round to it, is a long-drawn-out affair.

If the main characters are beautifully drawn, and their relationship totally believable, the others are less well realised. They fall into traditional good/evil roles and Brishen’s parents, in particular, are so ludicrously over-the-top cartoonishly evil that I just rolled my eyes. And the scenery is full of an array of enemies who leap out from behind rocks for a killing spree at every verse end. It got tedious, and I confess to skimming the last third of the book.

I’d have given the romance alone 4* and the fantasy 2*, so I’ve settled on a final score of 3*. If you’re more tolerant of the conventional good guys/bad guys dichotomy, and the cross-race romance intrigues you, I can recommend this. It’s very well-written and this is just the start of the series, so it may be that the fantasy side of things comes to the fore in the later books. And I guarantee that you’ll never look at a pie (or a potato!) in quite the same way again.

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Mystery review: ‘Deadly Web’ by Mike Omer

August 5, 2016 Review 0

“If there was one single reason to be a man, it was the ability to pee in a bottle.” With this opening line, you know at once that this isn’t just another police procedural mystery — this is a Mike Omer mystery, and that means large dollops of humour mixed in with the serial killers and blood. I’m not normally a fan of police procedurals (give me a cozy any day), but I’ll read anything this man puts out. I love his books.

I enjoyed the first in the Glenmore Park series, Spider’s Web, but this one is even better. The characters are becoming even more finely drawn than before, and this time the crimes to be solved seemed more realistic and the police handling a tad more sensible. I also liked that the two cases to be solved didn’t turn out to be somehow related at the end. Or perhaps I should more cautiously say, if there was a connection between them, it whizzed over my head (which is always possible).

The twist to both cases is that they revolve around the internet (a theme of the series – the web of the titles). One murder victim has a secret online identity harrassing women. The other has a secret online identity in a computer game. Trawling through the victims’ social media presence is a critical part of the police investigation, and I absolutely loved the time when the cops had to go into the game to interview a witness. A classic moment!

If you like police procedurals with compelling characters, intriguing mysteries and some laugh-out-loud moments, I highly recommend this series. Five stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Cauldron’s Gift’ by Marina Finlayson

July 22, 2016 Review 0

This is one of those series that’s everything I don’t normally read: it’s YA with a teenage girl as the main character, there’s a shedload of school drama and boyfriend angst, it’s written in first person, and, would you believe it, the protagonist turns out to have unusually strong magical powers. As a rule, I’d be running a mile. But this is by Marina Finlayson, the author who seduced me into enjoying werewolves and other shifters, so it not only works, it works brilliantly.

In The Fairytale Curse, Vi and twin sister CJ found themselves spitting frogs and diamonds respectively, while others around them were turned into the sleeping beauty, an ogre and a polar bear. It turned out the Sidhe were escaping from their magical captivity, but Vi and friends managed to lock them up again, at the price of losing one of the four artifacts that kept them there, the magic cauldron that grants wishes (and wouldn’t we all like one of those!). And Vi’s dad is still a polar bear. So in this book, the race is on to find a cure for dad before he becomes so deeply immersed in beardom that nothing can make him human again. And it seems like the only way is to bring that cauldron back from fairyland. Yikes!

This one took a while to get going, but it was never the slightest bit dull and (a huge bonus for me) the events of the last book were skilfully woven in, so that I never wondered what was going on or why. All the characters are believable and behave rationally, not something that can be said for all fantasy. And they’re sympathetic too — my heart bled for Zak, and for the poor neglected ogre that nobody ever seems to think about. There’s a mystery to be solved, as well — who is the traitor helping the Sidhe to escape? Once the pace picks up around the mid-point, it’s relentless and the book becomes unputdownable. As always with Finlayson, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and just when you think everything’s settled, she swipes you upside the head with another brain-rattling twist of sheer brilliance.

A terrific sequel, full of action, believable characters and the author’s Australian humour. Oh, and a starring role for some of Sydney’s great landmarks. Highly recommended. Five stars. Can’t wait to see where this goes next.

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New release round up: books I’m looking forward to reading

July 6, 2016 Books that caught my eye 0

Confession time – I don’t read as much as I used to. In prehistoric times (2011-2013), I routinely read two books a week, more than a hundred over the course of a year. Sometimes I read an entire series of books one after the other, and not short, light reads, either – my preferred genre was (and is) epic fantasy. Fast forward a few years and there just isn’t the time any more for that kind of consumption. My writing has gradually eaten away at my free time, and I’ve got to the point where I only get sustained reading done when I’m travelling. I’d like to pretend that I’m pressured by fans to write more, and publish faster, but actually I just love writing! So no one to blame but myself.

What this means is that there are lots of books coming out that I plan to read and review when I get the opportunity, but I really want you to know about them right now, so I’m going to be doing these mini-roundups quite regularly. Even though I haven’t read these books yet, I’m happy to recommend them, either because I’ve read the previous books in the series or because I’ve read other books by the author. These are all authors whose work I love!

So, here we go.

Bloodbonded: Amy Rose Davis

I absolutely loved Ravenmarked, the first in the Taurin Chronicles, saying that “…it just wraps itself around you like a warm duvet. There’s a strong warrior with a secret, an innocent long-lost heiress to the throne, a prophecy, a rebellious princess, a usurper with a conscience and lots of magic, and although this sounds terribly clichéd, Davis gives it all a fresh feel and a bit of romantic fairy dust.” This is the long-awaited second installment of this sweeping epic fantasy.

The Cauldron’s Gift: Marina Finlayson

I’ve loved everything Finlayson has written, and her trilogy, The Proving, which opened with Twiceborn, was the book that got me to love werewolves, not to mention a whole raft of other shifters – including dragons! The unique Australian setting and fast pace made the whole series unputdownable. Her next venture was into a fairy tale retelling, The Fairytale Curse, and although it’s more YA (young adult) that The Proving, it was just as action-packed, featuring the author’s trademark Aussie humour. This new book is the second and final part of the Magic’s Return series (ETA: my mistake – it’s a trilogy).

Awash: Dawn Lee McKenna

This is part 6 of the Forgotten Coast Florida Suspense series, which is far more about the characters and their intertwined lives than the actual murders. Great dialog, great humour and a brilliantly evoked and atmospheric setting, which is almost as good as being there. If you want to start at the beginning, look for Low Tide, and if you want more of McKenna’s writing, her stand-alone love story, See You, is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Deadly Web: Mike Omer

I’m not usually a fan of serial killer books, because body parts – ew! But Omer’s eccentric cast of characters and laugh-out-loud humour makes the Glenmore Park series unmissable for me. Watch out for the unforgettable Rabbi Friedman! This is part 2, and the first in series is Spider’s Web.

Enjoy!

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Starting all over again: new book, new genre, new pen-name

July 6, 2016 Publishing/marketing, Regency romances, The Dragon's Egg, The Fire Mages, The Plains of Kallanash 0

When I first became a self-published author, I was right at the very bottom of the pecking order, in author terms. I had no previous published history with a major or independent publisher. I’d never had a short story published in a magazine. I had no fanbase, no mailing list, and my blog had maybe three people following along. I’d hung around the forum at Kboards (the Writers’ Cafe), for a while, so I knew a little bit about starting out. I knew enough to get a professional quality cover, for instance, although not enough to know what sort of cover was needed (luckily, my cover designer did, and came up with a great set of well-branded and striking covers). I knew to have other eyes look at my work before tossing it up on Amazon. I paid a proofreader to tidy up my wayward punctuation.

The-Plains-of-Kallanash-160But there was so much more that I didn’t know — about promotion and launch strategies and hitting the tropes of your genre right on the nose. The result was that my first book, The Plains of Kallanash, pretty much fell flat on its face. A few kind online friends from my critique group and forums bought copies, and after that — crickets. I sold 50+ the first month. The second month? 4 copies. The third month, 4 again. But by the fourth month, I’d discovered promotion, and I sold 68 books. In the fifth month I released The Fire Mages with a ten day promotion campaign and sold 428 books. Borrows were beginning to show up, too, through Amazon’s subscription service, Kindle Unlimited. After that, each new book increased the overall level of sales. My sixth book, The DragonsEgg160Dragon’s Egg, was published at the beginning of May and that month saw combined sales and (estimated) borrows of around 1,000 copies overall. These are far from being order-the-yacht numbers, but the books have earned more than they’ve cost, and continue to earn month after month.

New girl at school

So then, on 28th June, I released a new book. Not just a new title, but new genre, new pen name, new everything. It feels a little like starting at a new school, where everything is different, I don’t know my way around and nobody knows me. I have no fanbase, no mailing list and a brand new website that no one ever visits. No one is out there saying, “Oh look, a new Mary Kingswood book.”

But I do have one huge advantage — the experience gained from publishing the fantasies. I know a lot more about covers and branding and genre expectations, and I had more input on the design this time. I’m more comfortable with my own editing skills, so I’ve skipped the  proofreader (although I’m really nervous about this!). I know that having other eyes look at the book before release is essential, though, so I haven’t skipped this stage. I know that, without a mailing list or fanbase, I need heavy promotion to make the book visible.

Keeping costs down

One aspect that was important to me this time was keeping expenses under control. With the fantasies, I was quite happy to pay whatever it took to ensure that the book was presented to the world as professionally as possible. I hired a top-quality cover designer. For some of the books, I paid for professional beta readers. I bought my own ISBNs and published paperbacks — which turned out to be a huge financial drain, given the number of copies I gave away to friends and family, copies sent to six national libraries (a UK legal requirement) and the shipping costs from the US. The biggest expense was my proofreader, since my fantasies are stupidly long, although she was worth every single penny.

But it took me almost eighteen months to earn enough to cover all those costs and, frankly, I got very twitchy about it. I know a lot more now about writing, editing and publishing, I know what I can and can’t do for myself, so I made the decision to keep the costs for the new series as low as possible. I still needed good covers (I am artistically incompetent, so doing them myself wasn’t an option), but I opted for a less famous cover designer, who did a great job at half the price. I crossed my fingers and did my own proofreading. And there will be no paperbacks for these books, at least until they’ve earned enough to cover the cost.

Release strategy

I don’t need this book to do spectacularly. It’s the first in a series, and I don’t expect to sell many until books 2 and 3 are out. So the launch was deliberately planned to be low-key, full-price, with only a couple of days of modest promotion just after launch to get things off the ground. Then a bigger push for book 2, and all out for book 3. So I put the first three books up on pre-order at $2.99 for release in July, August and September.

At that point, I discovered that romance fans don’t really do pre-order. Oops. The first book dropped to a rank of 650K, and the second was beyond a million! The third book didn’t get a single pre-order, so it had no rank at all. But one of the advantages of self-publishing is flexibility – I brought the release of book 1 forward, to 28th June.

What happened?

It had 11 pre-orders, and after five days had a dozen more sales and 5,000 pages read (equivalent to more than 16 full read-throughs). The rank bobbed around between 15K and 25K, it had just one review, and a good array of also vieweds from the start, but no also boughts. That’s not bad, but it’s not enough to bring in more reviews, mailing list signups or pre-orders for the later books, and the rank was already dropping. The planned promotion was still three weeks away, and the pre-order for book 2 was now six weeks away. I don’t need the book to trouble the bestseller lists, but I do need to keep it from disappearing into oblivion.

So I made the decision to reduce the price to 99c for a few days. Sales increased six-fold and pages read more or less doubled. The increased sales triggered the all-important also-boughts. I’ve already made the decision to keep the 99c price for a few more days.

So what have I learnt?

1) Don’t bother with pre-orders unless you already have a fanbase waiting. Especially, don’t bother with long pre-orders. What I should have done is a short pre-order on book 1, with book 2 set to drop a month later. Book 3 would only go on pre-order when book 2 goes live. I do think the multiple pre-orders help to encourage sales – at least readers know that the rest of the series is on the way.

2) 99c is a powerful incentive. I know a lot of people swear by a 99c launch, and for a big splash that’s a great idea. I wasn’t aiming for that, so I’m happy with the full-price launch, using 99c and free as short-term promotion-only prices.

3) Having no fanbase, and therefore no ARC readers, has really hurt reviews. So far, a week in, I have one review on Amazon.com and one on Amazon.co.uk. I’d got used to a mini-flurry of reviews just after release, so the suspense is killing me!

4) Romance is different. Borrows on the fantasy books run at about 2-to-1 over sales (as best I can tell), but for the romance, borrows are more like 3-to-1. And when the price drops, both sales and borrows go UP (unlike the fantasies, where a lower price increases sales but reduces borrows).

All of this has been a salutary lesson – branching out into a new genre means starting again from the bottom. I shall experiment with 99c and free promotions, and I’ll probably bring forward the release dates of books 2 and 3 to avoid a lengthy spell in the telephone number rankings, but I can’t cancel the pre-orders now without a penalty from Amazon. And next time, maybe I’ll get it right!

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Mystery review: ‘The Mercer’s House’ by Antonia Frost

June 30, 2016 Review 0

I’m a huge fan of the Angela Marchmont series of 1920s murder mysteries, written by Clara Benson, so this new series, written under the pen name Antonia Frost, was a must-read for me. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a tautly-plotted, compelling mystery, beautifully written and absorbing from start to finish.

Here’s the premise: Zanna has been through some troubled times, but as she recovers from depression, she decides to fulfil a promise to her late father and try to track down her Aunt Helen. Her search takes her to the windswept and atmospheric Northumberland coast, and the supposedly haunted Mercer’s House, where she meets her aunt’s new family and finds an even bigger mystery: Helen and her son vanished without trace twenty-five years ago. Zanna sets about uncovering the secrets of the Mercer’s House, but finds herself swept up in a number of frightening experiences.

This is a nicely constructed modern Gothic mystery, with all the difficulties of knowing who to trust, and whether all the odd things that happen are the result of the haunted house, someone covering their tracks or perhaps Zanna losing her mind. Zanna is a very realistic main character, a very believable mixture of assertiveness and timidity from her recent personal dramas. If I have a quibble at all, it’s that I would have liked her to be a little more assertive towards the end, especially when she begins to realise what has been going on. A little bit of feistiness would have lifted the ending, I feel. But that’s a purely personal preference, and I have to admit that Zanna as written is incredibly true to life, and all her actions were perfectly consistent with her experiences and her nature. So possibly the author knows more about human nature than I do.

At the end, all the various threads of the story were neatly tied up. The romance was gentle and again, very realistic, given the circumstances, proceeding in fits and starts, but eventually reaching a satisfactory conclusion. It’s in the nature of a story like this that the heroine’s feelings for the love interest veer about from liking to mistrust to fear and back again, as events unfold, and I confess my own opinions of him switched about with every zig-zag of the plot. So kudos to the author for getting that absolutely right. This is a great start to the series. A very good four stars.

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