Posts Categorized: Review

Historical fiction review: ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sarah Dunant

October 27, 2014 Review 3

I loved this book. Right up until the very last chapter, I loved it. And then… if I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle, I’d have hurled the thing across the room. Ack. I can’t talk about the reasons for this without giving away spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, don’t read the second half of this review.

Here’s the premise: fourteen-year-old Alessandra is the oddball of her fifteenth century Florence family. She’s not beautiful, as her sister and two brothers are, she’s not content to follow the prescribed duty for a well-to-do woman and either marry and push out babies, or take herself to a nunnery, she’s been educated and she has artistic talent. Her drawing is a secret, abetted by her slave maid, Erila. She yearns for freedom, but is constrained by the need to remain virginal. But when her father employs a painter from the north to paint the family chapel, Alessandra is drawn to him, despite the prohibitions on both of them.

You would think, given all this, that the story would play out as a romance. Girl meets painter, girl is attracted to painter, painter is attracted to girl, insuperable obstacles… yada yada. And to some extent, it does. But the author has ambitions far beyond the simple romance; she wants to write Literature. So what we get instead is historical fiction with the romance pushed firmly down to the bottom of the priorities list.

And it almost works. The backdrop of Florence – the city itself, the art, the social culture – is beautifully and lovingly drawn, with an almost painterly richness of colour and texture. The political setting, with the fall of the powerful Medici family and the rise of a charismatic religious leader, is covered pretty well, although Alessandra’s situation means that she misses most of it, and has to depend on other characters to tell her what happened. This leads to long, slightly info-dumpy dialogues. And sometimes the plot contrivances to get her into place for some historic event were creaky, to put it mildly. However, the complications and swirls of political fortunes were well described, and I was never at a loss to understand what was going on.

The characters were, in some instances, interesting, but all too often their motivations were unclear or downright unbelievable. Alessandra’s brother, Tomaso, for instance, is a major influence on her life, and not for good. Much of what happens to her is because of his machinations, and it’s hard to see why he chooses to be so evil towards her. Sibling rivalry just isn’t a good reason for some of the things he does. Why does he hate her so much?

Both the mother, with her own chequered past, and the slave maid Erila, are actually much more interesting than Alessandra herself, who always seems to be the victim of other people’s needs and manipulations. Her husband, too, is a fascinating character. All of these are people who, unlike Alessandra, made their own decisions, their own lives and remained true to themselves (yes, even the slave, who seems to have had more freedom than her mistress). The painter would have been interesting if we had ever seen enough of him to judge, but he remains a shadowy figure for most of the book. I did, however, like the conceit of not naming him, so that readers can imagine their own favourite northern painter in the role.

And then we come to the ending, and here is where everything fell apart for me. However, the rest of the book was very enjoyable, so it merits four stars but with a hazard warning: this is NOT the book to read if you want a satisfying ending.

Spoilers ahead… Read more »

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Mystery Review: ‘Hushabye’ by Celina Grace

October 18, 2014 Review 0

This is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right – interesting characters, a nice (but not gory) murder mystery/kidnapping, some intriguing reveals along the way – all in a pleasant, undemanding style. I enjoyed the read but it never quite caught fire for me, somehow.

The central character is Kate Redman, a detective with a history, starting a new job with a case involving a disappearing baby and a murdered nanny. The parents are a workaholic self-made businessman and his Z-list celebrity wife. Kate has to unravel the mystery while staying on the right side of her new colleagues and keeping her past firmly out of sight.

None of this is particularly radical, but the methodical police work rustles up enough clues to keep the pages turning. The writing style is sometimes pedestrian: whenever our trusty detectives meet with potential suspects, greetings are exchanged, cups of tea are offered, chitchat is documented in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail.

However, it never gets too slow, and the characters are drawn with a light hand, with just enough detail to bring them to life. The settings are described in a more minimalist way. For instance, the police station is said to be “a charmless, redbrick sixties building”, which Brits can visualise instantly, but non-Brits might have more trouble with. There’s some low-key British humour, as well, which is easy to miss.

The conclusion was fine, with a nice build-up to the reveal of the culprit and a not too over-the-top dramatic climax, nicely resolved. After which the cops all sat round in the pub explaining everything to each other. Guys, we got it, OK? There were only one or two missing pieces that needed an explanation at that point.

And then – one of my pet hates – the story ended at the 86% mark, and the rest was filled in with a chapter of a different book altogether. Sigh. This always makes me feel short-changed. I might well buy the next book in the series, but it will be because I enjoyed this one, not because the author has sneaked a chapter into this book.

An enjoyable, easy read. Three stars.

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘The Lost Book of Anggird’ by Kyra Halland

October 10, 2014 Review 0

This is exactly the sort of book I love: a well-conceived fantasy world with an intriguing magic system; some great characters who behave in a believable way; a plot that’s driven more by the background and characters than the need for relentless action; and a strong, satisfying romance. Why can’t all fantasy be like this?

Let’s start with the characters. Perarre (no, I don’t know how it’s pronounced) is a woman determined to make a success of her career in a male-dominated world. After a wild phase, she’s settled down to an academic life as a translator of old books, aided by her ability to magically ‘read’ the intent of the author (and haven’t we all read books where we could have used a talent like that?). Roric is the buttoned-up and demanding professor she ends up working for, a man hiding a surprising past. He’s given the task of finding out why the ‘magica’, the tricky to manage magic system, is no longer easy to balance. Something has gone wrong, but finding out what has happened and whether it can be fixed means taking big risks.

As the two investigate, they naturally start to see each other as more than working colleagues. This part of the book is exceptionally well-written, as they circle round each other and gradually set aside their prejudices and inch towards an understanding. The romance builds slowly, right up until the point where they hurtle headlong into a passionate affair. The change felt a little bit abrupt, but given their personalities (Perarre’s wild-child past and Roric’s obsessively constrained behaviour), it was believable and I can go along with it.

From this point onwards, the pace accelerates to become a breathless ride from one end of the country to the other, and back again, multiple times. I was quite relieved that later journeys were condensed to ‘After a month of travel…’. Nevertheless, the various locations where the pair end up, whether the sophisticated and political big city, the village or small farming community, the isolated woodsman’s hut or the very different society of the nomadic steppe clans, are beautifully described. I never had any trouble visualising the settings and understanding the prevailing customs.

Both Perarre and Roric have to leave their old ways behind and open their minds to other cultures (quite literally, in fact). I found it fascinating to watch Roric in particular shed the thick shell he’d built to protect himself from hurt, and face up to both his own heritage and a future very different from anything he’d ever envisaged. This is where the rock-solid love between the two is absolutely critical. And yet he never changes his inner self, and never loses his scientific spirit of seeking the truth, regardless of the cost.

There were moments in the second half of the book where I began to feel that the pace was sagging a little, and wondered whether I was being fed a certain amount of filler. But then things would veer sharply off in a completely unexpected direction. I do love it when a book surprises me, and this one has several such moments, much to my delight. The ending is less unexpected, and (to my mind) falls slightly flat, and I wasn’t totally convinced by the oh-so-convenient way the population of the capital city falls into line, but it isn’t a major stumbling block. A very enjoyable read. Highly recommended. Four stars.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Silvana The Greening’ by Belinda Mellor

September 30, 2014 Review 4

What a lovely book. Literate, elegant and charming, with a touch of whimsy, this is a story in the high fantasy style of Tolkien, although on a more domestic scale. It’s set in a world where tree spirits, Silvanii, reside in trees in the wildwood, living in harmony with men. Occasionally, a Silvana will choose to take a human husband, leaving her tree to take human form and live a different life.

The story focuses on Fabiom, son of the lord of Deepvale, following his life from age four through to maturity. Fabiom has always been drawn to the wildwood, and on the eve of his seventeenth birthday he determines to try to win a Silvana wife for himself. What happens that night and afterwards affects him and his family deeply, and changes his whole life, bringing conflict between his duties as lord and holder, and the needs of the Silvanii.

The backdrop to the story is a fascinating world, drawn with a deft but light hand. Fabiom’s society is Romanesque in many ways, with the house constructed around the central courtyard, and reclining on couches to eat formally. I liked the idea of the heart room, too, where everyone entering the house washes before entering the house proper. There are other cultures in existence, well-differentiated but very believable. I loved Fabiom’s shock at the idea of sitting on chairs to eat, grumbling that he found them very uncomfortable. Because of the influence of the woodland and the Silvanii, there is a great deal of detail about herbs and plantlife generally. The author has clearly done a great deal of research, but occasionally I could have done with less detailed herbology.

The characters are not the conflicted souls so common in fantasy these days. They mostly fall clearly into one or other camp, either good or bad, with the good characters paragons of honour and integrity, and the bad thoroughly devious, greedy and unscrupulous. Fabiom himself was a bit over-endowed with all the virtues, unselfishly doing his best for all parties, liked by everyone and never putting a foot wrong. It made him a bit dull at times. The other characters are more interesting in being somewhat more human (Silvanii and their woodmaids excepted, naturally). The woodmaids were a delight, and added a sprinkle of humour to the otherwise serious tone of the book.

The book was divided into a multitude of parts, with sometimes a big time jump between them. This enabled the story to cover a lot of ground, but it did sometimes feel very episodic, like a series of novellas glued together. There were some parts, particularly the campaign in Gerik, which seemed to serve no purpose other than to pass the time. Then, after a rousing crescendo, the last paragraphs of the book are pure setup for the next book in the series, which felt somewhat off to me.

I had a few credibility issues. The Silvanii objected violently to the stealing of the secret of silkmaking, imposing a horrible punishment on Fabiom and Casandrina. Yet they knew perfectly well that the mulberry trees won’t grow without their help, so there was no long-term risk at all. I didn’t find it convincing that they couldn’t distinguish between the betrayal of one individual and a betrayal by all of mankind. They themselves take on human form and live as humans, so they really should have a better understanding of human ways.

I also had a problem with the secrecy surrounding Casandrina. I could understand the reasoning behind not wanting to broadcast the news, but enough people knew who she was. It would have been impossible to keep it a secret for long. Yet it was a major plot point late in the book that her nature was unsuspected. Another point was that more than once a boy’s seventeenth birthday passes unnoticed. Other important dates seem to be remembered well enough, and given the significance of this particular date, the only time when a young man may try to win a Silvana wife, you would think it would have a big red ring around the date in the calendar.

I also had one or two clarity issues. The author is very good about not beating the reader over the head with world-building minutiae, and that’s generally a good thing, but the question of the daughter was dealt with too subtly, in my view. I would have liked a much clearer explanation of the seventeen year rule right from the start. As it was, a lot of important information was handed out in casual conversational asides, without further explanation, or mentioned as an already understood thing, leaving me sometimes trawling through the book looking for obscure hints that I’d missed first time round. As a personal preference, I also would have liked a little more explanation about the Silvanii reproductive system. Now I understand why the author chose not to dwell on it, but it seemed to be rare for a Silvana to take a human husband, and each marriage only produced one daughter and one son. Is this the only way Silvanii have offspring? Or is there an asexual method as well, producing cloned daughters? Why are Silvanii all female anyway? And the whole daughter business boggled my mind. Well, OK, that one can stay mysterious. But lots of questions raised.

These are relatively minor grumbles. This is a beautifully written, lyrical book, with a wonderful love story and an enchanting setting. Not for the grimdark or sword-and-sorcery fan, but for those who enjoy a more traditional tale in the literary style of Tolkien’s era, this is a delightful read. A good four stars.

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Fiction DNF Review: ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ by Leslie Thomas

September 26, 2014 Review 0

It’s the curse of the book group, isn’t it? Someone suggests a book, and you think: yes, that will be a light, fluffy read, something to make us laugh, a bit light-hearted and not too heavy or intellectual. Well, it wasn’t intellectual, sure, but light? Fluffy? A book about incompetent National Service conscripts sent off to fight in the jungles of Malaya?

There were a few laugh out loud moments, it’s true. And the book had some potential to be the comic novel it was billed as. Perhaps when it was first published in 1966 it resonated more harmoniously with the experiences of others who had served their time in the immediate post-war years. There was a risque element, too: the inexperienced ‘virgin’ soldiers (in the literal and metaphorical sense) whiling away dull moments in their two years by dreaming endlessly of finally losing their virginity, and finding willing helpers amongst the local prostitutes. In the newly unlaced sixties, that must have shifted a few copies.

But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, the writing style is flat and emotionless, the characters are eccentric but not really interesting and the story is episodic and jumpy, hopping from near-farce to heavy war-zone experiences without the slightest change in tone. For me, it didn’t work at all, and I gave up at the 27% mark, looking up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia. One star for a DNF. Oh, and the rest of the book group didn’t much enjoy it, either, with the exception of one lady who went on to read the sequels with gusto.

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Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Vicious Grace’ by M L N Hanover

September 24, 2014 Review 0

This is the third of the ‘Black Sun’s Daughter’ series of urban fantasies, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham. The first, ‘Unclean Spirits’, was a bit spotty, overfull of angst, shopping sprees and housecleaning, not to mention a certain amount of breathless sex. The second, ‘Darker Angels’, was a lot better in all respects, and this one picks up even more. The plot revolves around Jayné and sidekicks Ex, Chogyi Jake and Aubrey (yes, yes, the names are terrible, and what makes it worse is that the minor characters have perfectly normal names). Jayné has inherited a vast array of property from her nice uncle Eric, acquired during his career messing around with supernatural nasties, in particular ‘riders’, demons which inhabit human bodies. Jayné and pals have to continue his efforts, while not really knowing what he was up to.

The author expertly reprises the key events of the previous books, so even though it’s a while since I read book 2, and I usually have trouble remembering even something I read last week, I was never floundering in the slightest. That’s a skill that few authors can boast. This book involves a summons from Aubrey’s ex-wife Kim, and since he’s now Jayné’s boyfriend, a certain amount of romantic angsting ensues. There are some revelations about uncle Eric, too, who turns out to have been less than nice. Not at all nice, in fact.

For anyone who is put off by characters agonising over relationships and the distressing consequences of using magic to achieve your nefarious ends, this may not be the book for you. Personally, I found this aspect of the story compelling and emotionally charged, bringing some much-needed depth to the characters and their histories. Jayné has to face up to her situation and make some difficult decisions, and she grows up visibly during the course of the story. She’s come a long way from the shopaholic girl of book 1.

The action part of the story is a corker, too. Without giving too much away, it revolves around a vast hospital complex that conceals a dark secret in its basement, which causes some very disturbing things to happen. There’s a part where the hospital begins to change its very nature to counteract the evil within it which is trying to escape. The result is pure horror, very surreal and unearthly.

And then the ending is very dark. Anyone looking for a light, fluffy read should steer well away from this series. For anyone prepared to ponder the nature of friendship and love and sacrifice, willing or otherwise, this book is deeply rewarding. At the end, Jayné makes a decision which raises a whole otherworld of moral issues. It’s complex, very complex, and I salute the author for not shying away from the questions and not making things easy for Jayné.

This is the best yet in this series, with a compelling surface plot, some unexpected backstory, and hints about the meaning of the series title at last. The final line wasn’t too hard to predict, but it’s still an effective hook into the next book in the series. A very good four stars.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Rebellion’ by Rachel Cotterill

September 18, 2014 Review 0

This book was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, because it’s something that I picked up cheaply more than two years ago, when I was less careful about my purchases than I am now, and after a few disasters I’m a bit wary of anything that’s been lurking in a dusty corner of my Kindle for any length of time. And pleasure, because this was just a hugely enjoyable read. It started slowly and built very gradually, but it never sagged or got boring. Instead it wormed its way under my skin to become one of the best reads I’ve found this year.

In many ways, it’s a conventional fantasy, a coming of age with a quest, an unusual sort of school, an Empire and exotic countries beyond it, and swords and daggers and horse-drawn carts and market squares. And pirates! Bonus points for the pirates. And the young girl fighting to make her way in a male world isn’t particularly unusual. Even her chosen path of official assassin isn’t uncommon in fantasy.

But in other ways this is very different. There’s no magic, for one thing, and no fantastical animals or races. And main character Eleanor is both smart and independent, thinking her way out of trouble rather than resorting to fights. But she isn’t sickly sweet, either. She is, in many ways, quite an unlikeable character, ambitious and totally focused on her career, to the detriment, perhaps, of other elements of her life. She’s quite prepared to do what it takes to get to the top, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of other people. Her ruthlessness is what makes her so outstanding as a trainee assassin. So much fantasy tries to square the circle: to make the heroine the best at whatever she does, without ever losing her femininity and innocence. Here the author has addressed this issue head on, and doesn’t shy from the obvious truth: to be the best, you have to do a little trampling of rivals along the way.

One aspect I particularly liked was the world the story was set in. The Empire has some unusual policies. In particular, children are removed from their parents at birth and placed into single-sex schools. At seventeen, they are assigned a role in the Empire’s administration, their suitability determined by some obscure means. They will occupy that role for their whole lives, and there is no right of appeal. The idea of a society without families is an interesting one, and the author touches on the implications only lightly, but it’s refreshing to see a work of fantasy which doesn’t subscribe to the conventional social structures. Unfortunately, very little was done with the idea. Perhaps it becomes more significant in later books.

The book falls naturally into two halves, and the first part is, to my mind, a more cohesive story. Eleanor is offered a derisory position on graduation, which she chooses to reject, instead seeking out the almost legendary Academy where assassins are trained. Her journey becomes a classical quest, seeking clues both to the location of the Academy itself and also the secret of entering it. It’s not a place where applicants simply open a door and walk in. Along the way, Eleanor is forced to take work on a ship, is attacked by pirates, pursued by a vengeful victim of an early theft, and eventually is captured by foreign agents and tortured. This is rather a gruesome section of the book, which made me wonder about the age of intended readers. In many ways this is a classic YA coming of age story, but I wouldn’t recommend it for early teens. However, the puzzles she has to solve to gain admittance to the Academy are rather good, and I enjoyed these greatly.

The second part of the book is spottier. Some elements are drawn out to great length – Eleanor’s choosing of designs for her weapons, for instance, which seems to have no significance and could have been summarised in a sentence or two – while some of the challenges she undertakes were skipped over quite quickly, and I would have preferred a bit more detail. This section also focuses less on Eleanor’s individual problem-solving, and more on her interactions with others and this was (for me) the weakest aspect of the book. The budding romance from the first part is never addressed in any depth, and I found some implausibility in this. Eleanor is the only girl in the establishment, yet there’s no mention at all of sex, which would surely have been an issue, and the putative boyfriend is remarkably low-key throughout. Their given ages were late teens/early twenties, yet they both acted like early teenagers, happy with a platonic relationship. I don’t even recall a proper kiss. This may be the result of separating the sexes at birth and the lack of a family upbringing, but I would have thought that sex was enough of a biological imperative to overcome that handicap.

Another problem I had was with the rather vague sense of ethics. At one point, a contest is won in a way that I, at least, regarded as outright cheating, and although this is discussed, nothing ever comes of it. And then in the climactic challenge, there’s the opposite: an accusation of cheating that I couldn’t understand at all. It would have helped if the rules were made clearer: either contestants are allowed to do whatever it takes to win, or there need to be clearly defined limitations.

The ending, after all the build-up, felt oddly rushed, despite the great length of the book, and then it was straight into the setup for the second book. I would have liked a more resonant finale and some emotional resolution, especially with the boyfriend and the rivals in the contests. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable book which kept me turning the pages, with only a few jarring moments along the way and Eleanor is an unusual and intriguing character. A good four stars.

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Urban Fantasy DNF: ‘Fated’ by Benedict Jacka

September 14, 2014 Review 2

So there’s this guy who lives in London and has a magic shop, and he’s not really a mage but he has a really cool magely power: he can see into the future. Not the future, but all possible futures, which gives him a bit of a clue sometimes, not just that stuff is going to happen, but what makes it happen and therefore how to facilitate it or evade it. So whenever he gets into a tight spot (which seems to happen quite often), all he has to do to get out of trouble is to peek into some of those many possible futures and see which ones have him escaping, and work out how that comes about. And for a while I just thought: that’s a neat idea.

But when he’s able to use that ability over and over, it becomes both repetitive and, frankly, too easy. I like magic that has costs and rules and isn’t just a get-out-of-jail-free card for any slightly sticky occasion. And given that he also has a sort-of invisibility cloak and a helpful air elemental who whisks him about at great speed as needed – sorry, but that’s just not an interesting use of magic, to me. The worst moment, I felt, was where he had to evade a a warded door, and the author says cheerily: well, when you know what will trigger it, you also know how to avoid it, adding smugly: think about it. And it never is explained, because the next thing, our hero is on the other side of the untriggered alarm. To my mind, that’s just lazy writing. [Caveat: maybe it gets explained later in the book, who knows.]

So I gave up quite quickly. It’s a shame, because to be honest there’s nothing wrong with the book at all in other ways: it’s well written, with some good action scenes (mage battles!), interesting characters with potential and some nice humour. And it’s probably my fault for being way too serious about this and it’s all intended as jolly, light-hearted fun, which maybe those less critical or grumpy than me will appreciate. Plus, it’s said to be similar to the Dresden Files. Now, I may be the only person left on the planet who hasn’t read the Dresden Files, so odd references in this book to wizards in Chicago just whizzed right over my head. But if you like The Dresden Files, this book might be just your cup of tea (or possibly the similarities might irritate the hell out of you). But this wasn’t for me. I got to the 19% point before giving up. One star for a DNF.

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘Bound’ by Kate Sparkes

September 13, 2014 Review 1

This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side, through to outright romance with a little arm-wavy magic or the occasional dragon thrown in for light relief. This book leans more to the relationship side of the equation, but there’s some solid world-building underpinning it.

Many elements of the story are quite conventional. Rowan is the teenage girl expected to do her duty and marry well, producing the babies in unexpectedly short supply in her country, Darmid. But she’s fascinated by magic, even though it’s illegal, and why does she have strange headaches? Aren is the royal from the neighbouring country, Tyrea, a powerful sorcerer whose even more powerful older brother now rules. When Aren is sent to capture a sorcerer from magic-less Darmid for experimentation, he meets Rowan and… Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?

Despite the well-worn plotlines, the opening chapters draw the world and characters with deft brushwork, and if Rowan is a little too quick to help the injured Aren, and Aren is a little too easily drawn to Rowan, I can let that go for the depth of world-building below the surface. There are some nice details here: like the idea that eliminating magic in Darmid acts to weaken the magic in next door Tyrea, too. And women in Darmid are only fertile once a year. No wonder they have so much trouble producing babies. The author cleverly follows this through in logical ways: sex before marriage is positively encouraged, because it just might result in a successful pregnancy.

The middle part of the book sags somewhat, becoming a slightly dull travelogue, with various threats leaping out of the scenery to liven things up. In between dealing with these events, the two main characters angst about what they’re doing, and each other, and the future. The story is told from both Rowan’s and Aren’s point of view, in first person. Occasionally I found this confusing, but it did help to get under the skin of both characters. Both of them are smart and behaved sensibly, but Aren I found particularly fascinating. His background and history, his suppressed anger, his status as a loner and outsider despite his family connections – all made him far more interesting to me than Rowan, whose life was far more settled.

Aren’s history also made the romance difficulties work well. It’s a convention in a romance story that although the main characters are irresistibly drawn to each other, something prevents them from being together. And when one of them is a professional assassin and ruthless fixer-upper? Yes, I can see why Rowan might have second thoughts about a man like that.

The plot rolls along quite nicely, until… Look, I’m going to rant for a minute here, so you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. So we have our plucky hero and heroine racing to escape a fate worse than death, chased by evil villains here, there and everywhere, things getting fraught, building nicely to a climax, and then what happens? There’s a ball, that’s what. Well, a party, anyway, with fancy frocks, and dancing, and general merriment. Guys, there are people out there wanting to kill you, probably painfully and very, very slowly – get a sense of urgency, for goodness sake. No, I get it, I really do, the two main characters have to have their Big Romantic Moment, but I do struggle with credibility here. As it happens, it was a particularly good BRM, so that’s fine, but please, authors, skip the frocks and dancing, OK?

The climax is a suitably dramatic confrontation with a fairly long-drawn-out post-dust-up scenario, which managed to bring some emotional resonance to bear without sacrificing common sense or betraying the characters of the principals involved. And needless to say, there are enough loose threads to continue the story into the next book. This is a particularly well written and well plotted fantasy romance, which finds a good balance between the two elements and has unusually strong characterisation. A good four stars.

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Romance Review: ‘The Duke And I’ by Julia Quinn

September 11, 2014 Review 0

I love a good Regency romance, but all too often the ones I find are disappointing: too silly, too inaccurate historically, too inept with the language of the era. So finding an example which ticks all the right boxes, and also manages to portray realistic and well-rounded characters is almost too good to be true. But so it is here.

Daphne is the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, a lady of remarkable common sense, intelligence and humour. She wants to get married, but not merely because it’s the thing to do, or to be something grand in society, but because, having grown up in a big, happy family herself, she can’t conceive of any more fulfilling ambition than being a mother of many children. I liked Daphne very much; she’s a down-to-earth person that I’d be very happy to have as a friend.

The male main character, Simon, has had a very different family life, having been rejected by his father at a very early age because he was slow to talk, and when he did, he had a very bad stutter. His father believed him to be stupid and an unworthy inheritor of the family title, but Simon has carved out his own path to a high-flying career at Eton and later at Oxford. When his father makes overtures towards him, however, he takes off for the continent, only returning home when his father is dead. This is the point at which the story proper opens, but Simon’s history is told in what is effectively a long prologue. I’m not usually a fan of prologues, but in this case it was very necessary, so that the reader fully understands Simon’s state of mind.

And so the two main characters bump into each other at a ball, both bent on escaping the matchmaking of various ambitious mothers, and she pursued by her one sole suitor, a spectacularly unpromising specimen. Over a long-drawn-out discussion (implausibly lacking any interruptions despite the number of people attending the ball) about what to do with said suitor, the two principals are, in the well-worn tradition of such romances, instantly drawn to each other, while neither knows who the other is. We know this because the author jumps merrily from one point of view to the other, another romance tradition which I don’t much like even though I do see the necessity for it.

Thereafter, the plot continues through the typical array of misunderstandings and entanglements, with the usual resolution at the end. What lifts this above the usual level of such romances is the quality of the dialogue, which was always funny even in moments of high stress, and the depth of characterisation. Simon, in particular, is a hugely tragic yet sympathetic character. It’s impossible not to feel for him, and his decisions are therefore totally understandable. But Daphne too is very much her own person, not constrained by the conventions of society but trying to do the best for everyone involved.

For those who are averse to such things, there are some fairly graphic (and long drawn out) sex scenes, but in this case it’s not in the least gratuitous – the sex between the couple is a very significant part of the plot. There is one scene late on in the story which a number of readers objected to, on the grounds that Daphne behaves very badly. To be honest, it didn’t bother me at all, since by that point both the main characters have behaved quite badly already, and have got themselves into a huge emotional mess. In addition, I felt that Daphne was acting very much in character. She was presented with an opportunity to (possibly) take what she wanted, and it wasn’t a great surprise that she went for it. In fiction, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect characters to make the right decision on every occasion. Misjudgements make them human. But understandably some readers feel that there is a line which a sympathetic heroine must not cross.

The scene that really bothered me was much earlier in the story. Now, I get that modern Regency romance heroines are not timid little misses, fluttering their eyelashes behind their fans. They tend to be far more forthright about – well, everything really. When introduced to sex, they’re liable to get the idea pretty quickly. But at this point in the tale, Daphne is an innocent, in sexual terms (which becomes a significant plot point subsequently), and the idea that she would happily drag her reluctant suitor into the bushes at a ball and seduce him to the point where clothing is removed and breasts are bared, is, for me, just not credible. That he might do it, I could possibly buy into, or that they might take advantage of a private situation, but not that both would be so carried away by passion in such a public place. Yet the whole second half of the book hinged on that moment.

That aside, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It’s not the most complicated plot in the world, but the characters have real depth, there’s humour and not much silliness, and there’s also a fine ending with oodles of emotional resonance (translation: I cried). Recommended for fans of Regency romance who don’t mind the main characters having a bedtime romp or three. Four stars.

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