Sunday, April 18, 2021

A Wolf in Duke’s Clothing by Susanna Allen: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

A Wolf in Duke's Clothing by Susanna Allen

A Wolf in Duke’s Clothing by Susanna Allen starts Shapeshifters of the Beau Monde series. It’s a Regency romance with paranormal elements, not a paranormal romance set in a Regency world. It might seem like a small difference, but it can mean a lot for readers who like one but not the other genre. Luckily, I like both.

All the tropes are from Regency romances. We have an orphan heiress at the mercy of a dastardly guardian, a duke who sweeps in to rescue her, Ton parties, ball gowns, and a lot of floral language that borders on incomprehensible as a synonym after another is thrown at the reader.

As a Regency romance, the book works fairly well, but it drags on far too long after the plot has already ended. Nothing significant happens after the consummation of the marriage and some storylines are completely forgotten, like the missing horse. And I don’t think the author understands what an epilogue means. The ending was positively bizarre.

The weakness of the book is in its paranormal elements. There’s a lot of mythology, but none of the excitement. The dynamics of the pack are really off. Everyone shows constant deference to the alpha—Alfred, the romantic hero—and the moment they aggravate him, he subdues them with his alpha power. They seem to believe he’s a great man, but I couldn’t help thinking that they were hostages to his power and said whatever he wished them to. I certainly wasn’t shown otherwise.

His behaviour is at worst in his dealings with Florence, the heroine. First he abducts her. Then he tries his alpha powers on her. It’s bad enough in an ordinary situation, but then he tries to subdue her with the power when she refuses sex. The moment she says no, his first instinct is to take her will away. Not once but several times.

That she’s able to resist him isn’t relevant (it could’ve been demonstrated in a different situation completely), nor is it relevant that he was, for the most part, a nice man. The point is that he’s the kind of man who naturally considers taking a woman’s will away to have his way with her the moment she resists him. He stops this after a while, but only because he knows it doesn’t work. That he shouldn’t do it isn’t even addressed.

Not all alphas need to be the same. That would make a boring read. But all romantic heroes, regardless of the genre, should be strong enough that their weaknesses don’t manifest as bullying. I was so disgusted with Alfred that I ended up skipping all the sex scenes. Luckily they were at the end of the book, which was overlong as it was.

This could’ve been a good book, a fresh take on two genres. Now it sort of failed both because the hero was such a disappointment. Fans of Regency romances might find this a refreshing change of pace, if they can ignore the hero. Fans of paranormal romances might want to give it a pass. However, I think I’ll read the next book too, if only to find out if it has a better hero.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes

The Last Watch is the debut novel of J. S. Dewes. It’s an intense sci-fi military adventure that begins The Divide series. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

At the edge of the universe is the Divide where the expansion of the universe has stopped. Sentinels are posted to guard the Divide to make sure that an ancient alien enemy won’t attack humans from there. But everyone knows that nothing survives the void on the other side of the Divide, and the post is in fact a punishment for criminals and demoted soldiers.

Their commander is Adequin Rake, a decorated hero of the latest war with the aliens that ended ten years previously. For the outsiders, it looks like she’s been promoted to her post, but she knows the placement is a punishment for something she did at the end of the war. But since she’s punishing herself for it too, she’s determined to be the best commander the outpost on Argus, a decommissioned starship that houses the Sentinels, has ever seen. She’s respected and capable, but then the universe throws a problem at her that she has no idea how to handle. Namely, the universe.

For some reason the universe has begun to shrink fast and the closest thing on its path is Argus, with a few hundred soldiers and nothing to evacuate them with. All communications to the command centre are cut. But since the only other option is to be devoured by the void, Rake sets out to do her best to save them.

The book is pretty much action from start to finish. A problem after a problem is thrown at Rake from evacuating Argus to finding fuel to establishing communications to fighting aliens to saving the universe. Rake is indefatigable; I don’t think she eats or sleeps for days. Her physiology is assisted with Imprints, alien technology inserted under her skin that makes her stronger and helps her heal faster, but it’s still impressive. She’s fuelled by her duty and her personal relationship with a fellow officer who has gone missing with the crew of his repair ship.

The other point of view character is Cavalon Mercer, grandson of the ruler of the universe and the sole heir. He has a toxic relationship with his grandfather, which has led to him being banished to the edge of the universe, hopefully to die there. Privileged and unaccustomed to military life though he is, he nonetheless manages to make himself an indispensable part of Rake’s team—mostly because he has several useful degrees from genetics to astromechanics. He’s a great character, a coward who rises to the occasion time after time.

This was a wonderfully solid book, with language that grounded the reader to the world and action with ease. There was nothing unnecessary; the backstories and the world were given only as much space as they needed, and it didn’t try to be anything other than it claimed, a sci-fi adventure. Politics and romance were background noise.

With only two POV characters, I expected the relationship between Rake and Cavalon to be the driving force of the narrative—whether antagonist or romantic—but while a friendship of sorts forms between them, they have their own storylines that only occasionally meet. Even though the action was almost non-stop, there was time for their personal stories, growth and grief too. All in all, a great book that instantly made me want to read the next one too.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

Victories Greater Than Death is a young adult sci-fi novel by Charlie Jane Anders. I read it as a stand-alone, but it turned out to be the first book in Universal Expansion trilogy. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The sole point of view character is Tina. She’s an American teenager who knows she’s a clone of an alien spaceship captain, genetically modified to look like a human and with all her memories. She’s accepted that one day she’ll leave the earth and become a new person. But it happens more abruptly than she would’ve wished when Marrat, the enemy who killed the original captain, finds her first.

During the daring escape, she takes her best friend Rachel with her on the rescuing spaceship. When it turns out that the spaceship is short on qualified staff, they pick up four other teenagers from all over the earth too, all geniuses in their own field. Together they set out on a quest across the universe to find a stone Marrat wants before him. Clues to what it is and where to find it are in the memories of the original captain.

But the medical procedure that’s supposed to make Tina the original captain again doesn’t quite work. She’s left with encyclopaedic knowledge of space and great new skills, but with her own memories and personality, and with no traces of the original captain. It triggers an identity crisis in her, which is the driving theme of the book.

The book starts with a lot of action and then slows down for a very long middle part. There are episodic scenes of Tina and the earthlings, as they call themselves, learning new skills and studying the new world they find themselves in. There’s also a great deal of teenage angst about who they are or want to be, and who they want to be with.

Teenage drama is what YA books are about, and it’s done fairly well here; the characters behave like teenagers and not like adults in teenagers’ bodies. But since it doesn’t really interest me, it made the already slow middle of the book drag far too long.

Action returns in the last third with the final confrontation with Marrat. An ancient alien race has gone through the universe millions of years ago to help humanoids to thrive over creatures that aren’t based on two legs, arms and eyes. Marrat wants to bring this back, and the earthlings and their spaceship crew rise to oppose his humanoid supremacy.

Marrat is an evil creature who isn’t easily won, but in a true YA fashion, the teenagers succeed where the adults fail. The final battle felt a little off, however. In a first person narrative, I would’ve expected Tina to be the one who pulls off the impossible, but while it was a team effort, she was basically left to observe the outcome from the side-lines.

It’s nice, in principle, to give each character equal time to shine. But from a narrative point of view, it doesn’t work. Especially since it was done ‘the wrong way round’. It would’ve made a greater dramatic impact, if Tina had been allowed to act on her original plan, and the last minute solution had come only after it was almost too late to save her. Now, there was no drama, and the final battle fell flat.

The ending wasn’t conclusive, which also lessened its impact, as I believed I was reading a stand-alone. Even knowing there are more books to come, it doesn’t feel satisfying enough. The last sentence of the book positively threw me.

But the book isn’t so much about action as it is about representation. There are gay, bi and transgender characters, black and Asian ones, and the alien races add their own uniqueness to the mix. Everyone introduces themselves with their name and preferred pronouns. It was a bit jarring at first; education for education’s sake. However, most characters are odd and alien to each other, even on a spaceship, so it was merely practical to tell these things upfront.

Everyone accepts everyone else just the way they are. Gender and sexuality issues that would’ve been the main themes in most YA books are given normalcy and not addressed. The identity issues that Tina and her friends grapple with aren’t based on who they fall in love with or what they look like underneath their clothes. It’s about finding their place in the universe as they are, based on their skills and what they like to do. Tina especially has to figure out a lot, since she wasn’t miraculously altered to someone else after all. On the flip-side, the characters—the minor ones especially—became the sum of their skills, not living, breathing persons.

The book tries to include everyone, respect everyone’s choices and personal space (consent was asked for every hug), understand everyone and not to be mean to or dismissive of anyone. It was nice, but it didn’t offer much character conflict or chance for personal growth for any of the characters, which are the building blocks of any narrative. The reader wasn’t given a reason to read beyond the action plot.

I also found it odd that on a spaceship full of aliens the earthlings only hung around amongst themselves. Without proper interaction with the aliens on an equal level (mostly they were teachers and commanding officers who weren’t given backstories), they didn’t really have to question their humanity. They could’ve been anywhere on earth, and the book would’ve been pretty much the same.

In the end, I didn’t like the book quite as much as I hoped I would—or as much as I enjoyed the first few chapters. The odd, dispirited ending doesn’t really make me want to read the next book either. But I’ll probably continue with the series anyway, if only to see whether the earthlings end up where they want to go.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green

The Best Thing You Can Steal is the first book in Gideon Sable UF series by Simon R. Green, a British fantasy author of several series and dozens of books. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book takes place in modern London that is full of supernatural and paranormal in ways that isn’t really explained. They simply are. The sole point of view character is Gideon Sable, a thief and con-artist wearing someone else’s face, who’s about to pull the heist of his life to take down an evil collector of rare magical items. He’s accompanied by his ex-girlfriend Annie Anybody, a woman who can charm technology; the Damned, a man who’s killed angels; Johnny Wild Card who knows what reality truly is, and the Ghost who’s been haunting the streets of London for decades. They’ve all been wronged by the collector and have their reason to want revenge.

For a heist book, this was incredibly dull. There was no excitement, no unexpected twists. Deus ex machinas don’t count, even literal ones. For any kind of book, it was really oddly composed, and not what I’d expect from a seasoned author. Nothing happens. There’s no plot, only a series of events that go from A to Z in preordained order, with odd sideways jumps that don’t affect the story or the behaviour of the characters in any way.

Over half of the book is taken by character introductions. Gideon goes to them one by one, asks them to participate in the heist, they say yes, and then tell him their life stories. Then we learn what the heist is about, meet one more character who has no role to play in the story, do a detour to an event that doesn’t affect the plot in any way, go through the heist plans one more time, and then follow the plans step by step with no surprises.

There were no antagonist forces putting obstacles in the characters’ path (armed guards don’t count), and the characters didn’t get in their own way either. A brief surprise was had when the goal of the heist wasn’t quite what they’d thought, there was some moralising about it, and then we learned what the best thing you can steal really is. Which was just. So. Lame. It’s really not worth reading the book for that.

The characters were a combination of quirky and tragic, though not quite as quirky or tragic as the author probably intended. They also changed pretty fast when interacting with the others. Unlike the rest, Annie Anybody wasn’t given a backstory. She could be anyone she wanted, but I expected at least some sort of insight into her. Was she born that way? Where did her skill with the machines come from?

But the oddest character was Gideon Sable himself. We don’t learn anything about him, even though he’s the first person narrator. We know he’s not who he used to be, but just because he has assumed another person’s face and identity shouldn’t mean the reader isn’t given any insight into who he was before or why the change, or how it was possible. We don’t know his age, or if it changed when he assumed Gideon Sable’s life, and we don’t learn why he’s after the collector. Some mystery is expected to keep the reader’s interest, but since we view the events through his eyes, not having a clue of what he thinks or feels, or what motivates him is really bizarre.

The best thing you can say about the book is that it’s short. The language is descriptive and there’s a lot of it; by the time you finish a sentence you’ve forgotten what it’s about. A lot of effort has been put into creating the weirdest possible items, people, and events, and most of the book is taken by describing these. Therefore, it’s slightly odd that I constantly had a feeling that everything took place in a bubble. Nothing connected to anything, smelled or felt like anything. For all that every chapter began with a description of London, I never felt like I was there.

The book has a conclusive ending. If this is a part of a series, it doesn’t really set the stage for follow-ups. Maybe it doesn’t have to go farther than this. There’s certainly nothing compelling this reader to continue.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris

In this third instalment of Gunnie Rose series, The Russian Cage, action moves from the lawless western setting to sophisticated and wealthy San Diego, the capital of the Holy Russian Empire. Lizbeth is completely out of her comfort zone among the aristocratic Russians and wizards, and to make matters worse, she can’t carry her guns.

Eli has been imprisoned without charges and no one seems to care or do anything about it, least of all Emperor Alexei, whom Eli has helped a lot. So Lizbeth’s sister Felicia summons Lizbeth to free him. The plot that’s led to Eli’s imprisonment involves both the imperial household and Eli’s own family, but Lizbeth doesn’t hesitate to set things right. And this time she’s not only shooting for self-defence; she’s contemplating an outright assassination.

The alt-history setting of the series truly came to life in this book. The Russian Empire has settled on the west coast of California, ruling over Americans who’d been left in power vacuum. There’s surprisingly little conflict from the Americans. All the plotters are Russians, and solely so that they could rule.

True to her character, Lizbeth isn’t wooed by the wealth or power. She’s as straightforward as ever, stubbornly concentrating on freeing Eli. There’s more Felix in this book, helping her in Eli’s absence, and his character gets some depth, though superficially, with only hints and allusions. He never gets to voice his own emotions. Eli was absent for most of the book, and even though I’m not a fan of his as a romantic lead, I kind of missed him. The ending for him and Lizbeth was good and put them in a new place in their life, setting the stage for more adventures. I’d be interested in reading them.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.