Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Outrageous by Minerva Spencer: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Outrageous by Minerva Spencer

Minerva Spencer’s Outrageous is the second book in her Rebels of the Ton historical romance series. I hadn’t read the first book, but I decided to give it a try when I received a free copy from NetGalley.

The story takes place in 1816, but instead of the usual balls and operas of London, it’s mostly set in carriages and seedy inns of the English countryside. Godric Fleming, a decorated war hero and a man bent on avenging his dead family on Gabriel Marlington, has decided to abduct Gabriel’s wife. Only to be abducted himself by Gabriel’s sister Eva de Courtney who has learned of his plan. Her intention is to keep him away from London long enough for Godric to give up his revenge, but weather and other unforeseen factors keep them on the road for days. And, as Godric points out, she’s now compromised in the eyes of the society and they have to marry. She’s not instantly agreeable to the plan, and he isn’t thrilled either.

This was a competent and interesting story. It relied heavily on some tropes of historical romances like forced intimacy and a clandestine marriage, but they were handled so that they felt fresh. I liked Eva and Godric both, and their inevitable falling in love happened organically and felt believable. The intimate setting meant that most of the time there was just the two of them, but they could carry the story well enough. There were enough twists and turns, some of them beggaring belief, to keep the reader entertained. The cover is somewhat misleading, making the reader expect a romance without sex scenes, but there were plenty of those.

I have a couple of complaints though. The book was too long. Especially the ending that took place after the climax was unnecessary, as it was basically a long filler scene that took several chapters. There’s only so much a reader is willing to learn about the mechanics of horse breeding. And then the reconciliation was handled hastily and was basically a sex scene and not much else despite the issues the couple had. There was nothing romantic or emotional about it. It was followed by a change in the point of view, which gave the conclusion to secondary characters. I found it highly unsatisfying, and it marred my enjoyment of the book.

I would also have liked the author to do a better work with introducing the characters from the first book. Eva had complicated family relations that I presume were handled in the previous book (and some in an earlier series even). They had some bearing in this one, yet the reader was left completely in the dark about who they were and why they mattered for this story. Not everyone read all the books in a series, so a few words here and there would’ve gone a long way to help the reader to understand some plot twists that relied on those relationships.

Nevertheless, I liked the book. It stands out in the mass of historical romances, which isn’t easy to pull off. I’ll be reading the next one too.


Friday, June 25, 2021

Heartbreak Incorporated by Alex de Campi: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Heartbreak Incorporated by Alex de Campi

I picked Hearbreak Incorporated by Alex de Campi on NetGalley based on the cover, partly expecting urban fantasy, partly soft horror maybe. The contents didn’t match my expectations at all, not even with reading the description.

This was an odd book, in good and bad. It was genre fiction, but the genre kept changing. It started as chick-lit that morphed into a mystery, then paranormal, erotica, and eventually into horror of sorts. But at no point it was typical of any of it.

That’s because of its chosen style. The book is written in third person present tense, which created a vast distance between the main character Evie and the reader. The narrative seemed to slog on instead of drawing the reader in. It’s not a long book, but I found the style so exhausting I had to pause several times and it took me days to finish.

It was a well-written third person present though, with good eye for detail that made the main character’s life believable. But it didn’t manage to convey the sense of urgency that especially the ending required, or let the reader in on the jokes of the first half. It made the reader feel as dreary as Evie’s life was.

The story follows Evie who’s working on a series of temp jobs while fooling herself she’s going to break into journalism in a world where paid journalism is dying. New York is expensive and she’s down her last dollar when she snags a job with a private investigator. They investigate by going undercover on behalf of the client, usually to prove first-hand that a spouse is having an affair. The owner is a charming man who sweeps Evie off her feet without trying. Pity she’s set things in motion that’ll make him hate her. She’s decided to use him as her a ticket to journalism. That’s the chick-lit part.

Misha isn’t a typical alpha mail of UF and paranormal romances. He’s bisexual for one, and dresses to emphasise his attractiveness to both genders. And his behaviour is intriguing enough to make Evie to suspect that he kills some of his clients. She needs to prove it though. That’s the mystery section. But when she learns the truth, she no longer wants to write the story about him. That’s when the book evolves into paranormal territory. The rest of it flows in similar vein.

That’s also when the book started to lose my interest, mostly because Misha opening up to a person he’s known for a few days isn’t believable. But Evie plunges into his world, only to end up betraying him.

The ending definitely isn’t what I expected. It might set a series, though it concludes the book well. But if the reader is expecting a happily ever after, or even for now, they’re up for a disappointment.

All in all, this was a good book that I didn’t like as much as I hoped I would. But if you’re bored with first person narratives, and want to read something atypical while similar, this is for you. The cover should be changed though. But to what, I have no idea. I can't imagine what would describe all aspects of the book in a satisfying manner.

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Katherine Addison returns to the world of her wonderful The Goblin Emperor in a stand-alone sequel, The Witness for the Dead. The protagonist is Thara Celehar who featured in the first book as the investigator solving the previous emperor’s assassination. It made him unpopular in the court, and the Emperor relocated him to a remote industrial city of Amalo to serve as the witness for the dead there.

Celehar is a priest who can communicate with the recently departed, to stand witness for them in this life. As naturally reticent, he prefers the company of the dead too. But being a witness often means investigating the lives of the dead, to find justice for them after death. It makes him a de facto criminal investigator, the only one in Amalo.

Celehar has a lot on his plate. A young woman’s family wants to find out how she died, which leads him on the trail of a serial killer. Another family wants to learn the patriarch’s true last will, which plunges him back into the political machinations he left the court to escape. And an opera singer has been murdered, and there is no dearth of potential suspects. Add to that a ghoul, an industrial accident, and a personable opera director who serves to remind him that one cannot be true to who one loves in the empire of elves and goblins, and it’s not a wonder he doesn’t sleep well at nights.

This was an utterly wonderful book. The world is rich to a fault, yet the story is small in scope; a cosy mystery in its truest form. Celehar, like Maia in the first book, is a deeply humane character who strives to do his duty, but who isn’t without small faults that make him all the more likeable when he overcomes them. The focus is on solving the mysteries, and although Celehar finds a way to forgive himself for the events of the past (told already in the first book), the book ends with him pretty much in the same place than in the beginning. Only a few experiences richer and with a new friend.

With a world this wonderful and characters as great as Celehar and Maia, I hope the author will write many more books set there.

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


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse

There’s a recent trend in urban fantasy to make the protagonist a middle-aged woman. She’s usually in her early forties and facing a sudden change, be it a divorce or something else, when she’s believed her life perfectly set. The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse, which starts the Accidental Midlife trilogy, is part of that trend.

Everly Popa, 45, returns to her childhood home after ratting her (soon-to-be-ex) husband to FBI for his criminal activities, which has caused his partners to threaten her life. She’s had to leave her adult daughter behind, after she sided with her father.

It's not an easy homecoming for her. She hails from a town that sits on a nexus of heaven and hell, populated by humans bred to guard the place and all sorts of supernatural and otherworldly creatures. She’s fled the town in a huff in her teens after being denied a post as a Hunter for her gender, and hasn’t been back since. The semi-sentient town isn’t willing to let her in, which is only the start of her troubles.

Everly has barely been let in when she’s attacked by a hellhound, which indicates that she’s been chosen as the Gatekeeper of the town, because the person who was supposed to inherit the post has gone missing. And she’s not the only one. Things go from bad to worse to apocalyptic in no time, and it’s up to Everly, who isn’t exactly in her teenage shape anymore, to save the day.

This book started well, with an interesting premise and good pacing. But once the action began, that’s all there was. I’m not a fan of a narrative where mayhem follows mayhem, with no pause for reflection. And I absolutely dislike the trope where the protagonist is kept deliberately in the dark. Everly is swept along by the events around her and at no point does she influence them. Add in a few deus ex machina saves (literally), and she’s a pretty useless protagonist. That she ends up saving the day in the end was thanks to the power invested in her, and not to any particular action of hers.

The book never answers any of the questions set by the premise. The criminal husband and the threat to Everly’s life are forgotten, and the issues with her daughter aren’t solved. And many questions are given unsatisfactory answers, including the antagonist’s motivation or how they were able to do what they did. The treatment of the elders of town especially left me flabbergast.

But what made me dislike this book was Everly herself. At forty-five, she’s already going through the menopause (apparently thats the only valid experience for a woman that age to have, never mind that its a tad early) and is inconvenienced by it (apparently medical treatment for it isn’t available where she lives), and suffers from aches caused by age (because forty-five is old and not the new black).

Yet she doesn’t seem to have a proper past. References to her daughter’s childhood could be made by a woman fifteen years younger, and her husband doesn’t exist even that much. Her interaction with the people in the town are only about their high school years. She has insecurities from her youth she hasn’t managed to work through during her adulthood and is only facing now. And she has no common sense at all.

Despite the flaws, this was a passable UF starter, if much too long for the content. There’s some attempt to kindle an old romance, but the guy left me cold. In the end the most important relationship turned to be with one of the angels guarding the town. The ending sets the next book, but I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.

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


Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Ten Low by Stark Holborn: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Ten Low by Stark Holborn

Ten Low is a stand-alone sci-fi novel by Stark Holborn. It takes place in not-so-distant future from earth at the edge of the universe, on a badly terraformed moon that’s basically a desert. People fleeing from the dominant political force, the Accord, and ex-convicts try to make the most of the meagre reserves they have. It’s a desolate, violent place where bandits and protectors alike prey on the weak. And the most feared of all are the Seekers who harvest the organs of the dying.

But the humans know they’re not alone on the moon. There are beings no one can see and only a few can sense; beings of potential and chaos, who feast on human will. They were there first. And they are very interested in some humans, like Ten Low.

Ten is an escaped convict, a former army medic with a past she’s trying to atone by striving to save as many lives as she can, and never kill again. One night, the beings give her a vision of potential futures. Compelled to follow the path they show her, she ends up saving an enemy general, a genetically enhanced child soldier, Gabi.

The story follows the pair as they try to make it to safety through a hostile terrain where safety is only an illusion. Ten is on an inner journey as well, as she begins to trust the beings that guide her steps, for reasons that she doesn’t understand. Little by little we learn what she has done to earn her sentence and why she’s atoning. And little by little it dawns on her that the atonement is not what she thought it would be.

This was a great book. It’s a blend of sci-fi, western dystopia, and paranormal. It’s told solely from Ten’s point of view, and she’s strong enough to carry the narrative, though it leaves the side characters, even Gabi, slightly vague. The world is gritty and dry, and the action is plenty. As the story progresses, the paranormal side takes over more and more, creating improbabilities that nonetheless become realities. And somehow it works. Really well.

If you want your Firefly (sans spaceships) with a hefty dose of mystical, this is for you.

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

Monday, June 07, 2021

The Coward by Stephen Aryan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Coward by Stephen Aryan

I picked up The Coward by Stephen Aryan thinking it was a comedic account of a man who has faked his way into herodom and now has to face the consequences of his cowardice, when the threat he hadn’t actually dealt with returns. I don’t know why the description gave me that notion. The book turned out to be a run-of-the mill epic fantasy that starts a Quest for Heroes trilogy. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Kell is a farmer with a heroic past. He’s the sole survivor of a quest of heroes to kill a creature that has caused the weather to turn cold. His quiet life is interrupted when the weather worsens again, and the king sends him back to the creature’s lair to see if it’s come back. He gathers a group of people, heads to north and does exactly as commanded, heroically saving the day again. The end. There are no cowards, just a few moments of weakness that only make the characters more human.

Despite the baffling name, this is a competent fantasy starter. Narrative flows well, the characters are interesting, and there’s plenty of action. There are several point of view characters in addition to Kell, like Gerret, a young boy joining the quest. He hopes to become a hero too, only to learn that it’s a perilous job. Other members of their small group get an occasional chance to narrate the story too.

The most important side character is the Head Priestess of the Shepherd, the zealot leader of the dominant religion. She’s an old woman fighting to spread the faith at any cost and to prevent age from getting the better of her. She was a creepy character, but her chapters suffered from a lack of a coherent arc. They mostly set the plot for future books, but in the context of this one, they remained a bit pointless. A holy war isn’t original enough an idea to keep my interest either.

While this was a good book, it was much too long. It’s as if authors think that fantasy needs to be epic in length, whereas it should be epic in content. This wasn’t. A large portion of the book was spent on a journey, with the group fighting a monstrous creature after another. Obstacles make a good story, but the scenes were repeating themselves after a while, turning the heroes into mindless butchers. The characters were prone to introspection too, and while it gave them depth, none of it led anywhere, which added to the sense of needless length.

The book ended with a series of out of the blue revelations that hadn’t even been hinted at. I couldn’t help thinking that instead of wasting pages in pointless butchering, the author should’ve used the space in foreshadowing them better. The ending promises interesting times for Kell in subsequent books, but I think the book works as a stand-alone just fine.