Sunday, July 23, 2017

Crimson Bound - Rosamund Hodge

Crimson BoundRed like roses fills my dreams and brings me to the place you rest...

If there's one thing that sums up the tone of this book, it's the original "Red" trailer for Rooster Teeth's webseries RWBY.  There is, in fact, very little in common between the plot of RWBY and that of Crimson Bound; the similarities can basically be boiled down to "young woman in red coat kills monsters," though Ruby uses a scythe/shotgun and Rachelle uses a sword.  But there's such atmosphere in that trailer, and it is that which is evoked in the pages of Crimson Bound.

 I read Rosamund Hodge's other fairy tale book, Cruel Beauty, earlier this year and while it felt magical, I didn't really like the ending, feeling it was messy.  Crimson Bound does not have that issue, and was beautiful all throughout.  The story is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, a rarely-used retelling unless someone's going with the "Red and the werewolf fall in love" angle, which has its perks, but this didn't go that way and it was refreshing.  The main character in this France-inspired fantasy realm is Rachelle, who was supposed to serve as a woodwife following in her aunt's footsteps, guarding her village against misfortune and the evils of the Great Forest, a mystical wood on a separate plane that overlies Rachelle's world and encroaches upon it.  However, Rachelle is claimed by a forestborn, marked with a black star that means she must kill within three days or die herself.  She kills her aunt and flees her village, ending up as a bloodbound in the service the king, hunting down the creatures that appear from the Great Forest to hunt humans.  All the while, she dreads the return of the Devourer, a being that kept the world in darkness until a human woman stole the sun and moon from his belly and bound him with a mysterious sword that has since been lost.  Wanting to save the world as a sort of redemption, Rachelle dreams of finding one of the two swords that could defeat the Devourer again.

I think fans of Uprooted or Hunted would really like this; they all have a similar feel to them, especially with the whole "magical and menacing forest" dynamic.  The love interest here was unusual, and not who I thought it would end up being; I originally thought Hodge would try to pair Rachelle off with Erec, the captain of the king's bloodbound who Rachelle calls her best friend.  Ultimately, this did not happen, and that's a good thing.  Rachelle is a fascinating character.  She has both an urge to die and a will to live; she plans on going to Hell even as she dreams of saving the world; she wants to be beautiful and in love despite being afraid of what lurks inside her and the monster she might become.  There's a definite religious aspect here, but it wasn't preachy; it was more in the search of redemption and balance, though there was definitely an aspect of denial of reality here as well.  It played wonderfully with the rest of the book.  The supporting characters were wonderful, the playing out of the plot in parallel with the Red Riding Hood story and the myth of the Devourer was spot-on, and the slow building of dark menace overlaying the decadent setting of a Versailles-inspired court was beautiful.

Ultimately, the climax was here was wonderful, with all of the right elements being pulled together and unspooling in just the right way.  Rachelle chooses the path of needles, not the path of pins, and it shows--she struggles, and she fails, and she backslides, and she does petty things, but she perseveres and ultimately comes out better for it in the end, as does the world.  It's a striking story, in characters, world, and plot, and I am so glad to have read it.

5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Master of Crows - Grace Draven

Master of Crows (Master of Crows, #1)The theme read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers for July was a fantasy romance, so I put forward Master of Crows primarily because it was recommended for people who liked Uprooted.  I loved that book, so this was an easy nomination for me.  I didn't actually realize it was by Grace Draven, one of whose books (Radiance) we read before, until someone pointed it out.  But it still got a pretty good number of votes, and so off we went.

The story follows Martise, an apprentice magician who can't actually use magic and who is enslaved to one of the highest magicians in the land.  She's placed with Silhara, a dark magician known as the titular Master of Crows, when he requests help finding a way to kill a god.  Martise is valuable because of her ability to read ancient languages, but she's also supposed to spy on Silhara, who's an enemy of the Conclave, and find proof of heresy so that the Conclave can, uhm, dispose of him.  Silhara, in the meantime, has requested assistance even though he knows said assistant will be a spy because he's plagued by the god Corruption, who wants to possess him and enslave the world.

So.  I wanted to read this book because of how it was recommended for those who liked Uprooted.  How did it stand up?  Hm... Well, I didn't like it quite as much as Uprooted.  That book has an enchanting, fairy tale-like quality to it, despite some of its contents being quite terrible.  Master of Crows didn't have that same vibe, though.  It was darker and not as whimsical-feeling, maybe because the "enemy" was more concrete than the Wood was.  It's also much slower than Uprooted is.  Still, I quite liked the central romance here.  Silhara can be a real jerk at times but I think he did redeem himself, and the Dragon of Uprooted was a real bastard in his own ways, too.  The romance itself is a slow burn, with a bit of instant attraction but a real relationship blooming over the course of time and both parties reluctant to relate their feelings because of their respective positions.  The romance is definitely more prominent here than it was in Uprooted, as well, which is something I liked and really what had me picking this up--you say it's like Uprooted but with more romance?  Yes, please, I say!  I also liked the world that Draven built up; the religious aspect of magic, the idea of killing gods, and the different cultures that she incorporated all struck good notes with  me.

What I didn't like was how this set up some promises that weren't really followed through.  For example, Silhara was supposed to a mysterious, dark magician, one of the most dangerous ever--and while yes, he's very powerful, he's really not dark and spends most of his time tending his orange orchard.  If you're going to have a dark hero, I feel like you need to fully commit to him, rather than just brushing all of it off as just rumors.  Also, I'd hoped to see a bit more emotional turmoil on Martise's part.  She decides in pretty quick order that she can't betray Silhara, because she loves him, and there's really no waffling on this issue.  Considering that the nature of her enslavement is that a member of the Conclave owns a piece of her soul, I think this would have been a bit harder of a decision to make, love or no love.

Still, I did quite like this book.  I didn't like it as much as Uprooted, which was one of the most magical books I've read recently, but I liked it significantly more than Radiance, the other Draven book I'd read.  I was excited to see this had sequels, and disappointed when I figured out they weren't true sequels but instead short stories, which just don't appeal to me in the same way.  Sigh.  Maybe some day.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Princesses Behaving Badly - Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History—without the Fairy-Tale EndingsI am twenty-five years old and I still adore princesses.  Most particularly, I adore the spunky, kick-butt princesses who Go Out and Do Things.  Who do I like?  I like Addie of Bamarre and Cinder/Selene, Celaena Sardothien and Queen Bitterblue, Elisa with her Godstone and Raisa with her Grey Wolf Throne, Moana sailing into the unknown and Rapunzel shaking off her lifelong abuser.  I can't get enough of them.  But these are fictional women, and there have been plenty of bad-ass women in history who haven't gotten a lot of attention, so I was super excited to read Princesses Behaving Badly and get an insight into some of them.

The book is divided into seven sections and each focuses on a different "type" of princess: Warriors, Usurpers, Schemers, Survivors, Partiers, Floozies, and Madwomen.  Obviously there is some crossover between these categories, and several of them are pretty derogatory terms, which made me raise an eyebrow when I encountered them.  Yes, the women in this book were flaunting convention for their places and times--otherwise they wouldn't have been behaving badly.  But to term them "floozies" and "madwomen" seemed a bit harsh.  Each part of the book then features several mini-biographies of princesses who the author has deemed to fit that category, each of which took about five to ten minutes to read, and also a few shorter sections that could skim over a topic, like so-called American "dollar princesses" who married European nobility on the basis of their money, with a paragraph or so devoted to each woman in that short section.  Real, born princesses are covered but also women who pretended to be princesses, possessed positions similar to that of princesses in societies that didn't have princess roles, and women who married up to become princesses.

What struck me most about this book, however, were two things.  First, it's so surface level.  I think I would have preferred fewer but more in-depth sections about a selection of the women here; I didn't expect the book to be comprehensive, there's just too much to cover, but it seems like even so it really did a disservice to some of these women by skimming over their lives at such a high level, doing very little to cover their motivations, circumstances, desires, etc.  And second, the book kind of had a derogatory tone in general to it.  While I've already pointed out some of the questionable words selected, many of the stories about women who didn't really do anything wrong had this overarching tone of, "Well, she got what was coming to her."  Which...what?  Yes, maybe Elizabeth of Bathory deserved to be bricked up in a tower--she might have killed up to 650 people, after all--but Lakshmibai, covered in the "Warriors" chapter?  She got forced into a terrible situation, dealt with it the best she could, and then got killed in battle.  And yet there's no sympathy at all in this tale, just a, "Well, that's what happens when you do that stuff" sort of feeling.  Yes, this was a book that explicitly said "without the happy endings" in the subtitle, but the tone in which these were covered rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, a very surface-level book that I think serves mainly to direct one to the Wikipedia articles about some of these women; Wiki probably covers many of them in much more depth than the book does.  Wiki probably has better sources cited than this one, too.  It brings to light some remarkable women throughout history but is baffling irreverent towards their struggles and accomplishments instead opting for snark and disparaging terms and a tone of "well she must have deserved it" for the not-so-happy endings.

3 stars out of 5, and mainly just for bringing some light to these princesses.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Good Debutante's Guide to Ruin - Sophie Jordan (Debutante Files #1)

A Good Debutante's Guide to Ruin (The Debutante Files, #1)Much to my surprise while looking at what other series Sophie Jordan had on offer, I have read one of her books before--Firelight, a young adult fantasy about shapeshifter dragons and dragon hunters that's pretty much like Twilight but possibly even worse.  I'm actually very glad I saw that after I read this book, because it probably really would have colored my impressions of this one otherwise.  Also worthy of note is that this isn't actually the book I wanted to read.  I wanted to read While the Duke Was Sleeping, which is the first book in her Rogue Files series, but there was a hefty library waitlist for that, so I settled for this one instead.

Let me put this out there to begin with: while I think Declan and Rosalie ultimately made a good couple, the setup here is kind of...uhm...weird to me.  Because they're step-siblings.  And they did live together, though apparently not for the past ten years.  But still.  Step-siblings.  And not only that but they start hooking up while Rosalie is in disguise at a house of sin, where people go to have orgies, watch other people have orgies, etc...  And their whole relationship basically is based on a lie...

So, yeah.  Let me back up a bit.  The story follows Rosalie, who has spent the past ten years of her life at a finishing school, including two years after she actually graduated because her mother never bothered to collect her.  The headmistress decides she can't keep Rosalie forever, even though she likes her, and so delivers her to Declan, the Duke of Danbury and Rosalie's stepbrother, as he's her only other family.  Declan hates Rosalie on sight because of her connection to her mother, and vows to get rid of her as quickly as possible--his aunt and cousin convince him the best way to do this is to give Rosalie a huge dowry and marry her off.  And so the husband hunt begins.  But Rosalie is in love with Declan, and always has been, and while she accepts she'll have to marry someone else, she's not about to let Declan decide on exactly who that will be for her.

What I think ultimately rubs me the wrong way about this book is that it was specifically written to titillate.  There's absolutely no reason that Rosalie had to be set up as Declan's step-sister and didn't enter his sphere in some other way, maybe by ending up in Peregrine and Aurelia's care.  There was absolutely no need for the whole Sodom (the house of sin) plot line.  There are plenty of other tropes that could have been used to fulfill these same plot lines, and yet Jordan chose these, apparently just to shock and titillate the reader.  But she uses them without fully committing to them.  There are some pretty serious kinks that come up in this book in various ways, but Jordan clearly can't decide if she wants to commit to them and have a full-fledged historical erotica, or if she wants to have a more sedate, "traditional" historical romance.  So she bounces back and forth between the two and doesn't really land in either, and it's an attempted balancing act that doesn't ever really work out.  Consequently, I don't think this will really please readers of either camp.  There's also some really twisted stuff involving rape going on in the background here that's never truly addressed, particularly the impact it must have on the character in question and how it shaped everything leading up to the book.

So, am I still interested in Jordan's other historical romances?  Yes.  Aurelia in this one seemed like a girl who definitely would not have actually existed or at least acted the way she did in reality, but has promise as a romance heroine.  And I still want to read the Rogue Files books when I can get the first one from the library.  But as for this one... Eh.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Beauty and the Mustache - Penny Reid (Knitting In the City #4)

Beauty and the Mustache (Knitting in the City, #4)Reading Truth or Beard not too long ago reminded me of just how much I like Penny Reid's books, so I immediately stocked up on a few more--the next two in the Winston Brothers series but also the fourth book in the Knitting in the City series, which happens to be Beauty and the Mustache...and is also a tie-in to the Winston Brothers.  How convenient.

The heroine here is Ashley Winston, who has six older brothers and who has returned home to Green Valley, Tennessee from her life in Chicago because her mother is in the hospital and refuses to see any of Ashley's brothers.  Upon her arrival, she finds an interloper in her family: Drew Runous, a game warden for the Great Smoky Mountains that surround Ashley's home.  He's heard about her from her mother, but is surprised to see that "Ash" is, in fact, a woman, and not another of the Winston brothers.  And he seems to hate her.  Or adore her.  One or the other, and it seems to swing between them.

As always, Reid's romances are charming.  I really liked Ashley as a main character.  She left Tennessee because pretty much everyone except her mother treated her awfully, and never looked back.  Now, when she's forced to, she has to acknowledge how everyone else she knew has grown and changed, just as she has.  And while she's had an independent life in Chicago, she also has to re-learn (or maybe learn in the first place) how to rely on others in the course of caring for her mother.  Drew is charming but reserved, more so than Reid's other heroes that I can recall, and that was frustrating to both me and Ashley; I wasn't really sure what to make of him, and while I ultimately liked him alright, his propensities for doing what he sees as doing "the right thing" without consulting anyone else involved int he matter were a little crazy-making; I definitely empathized with Ashley on that front!  And of course, there's a pretty extensive supporting cast made up of Ashley's brothers (man, I really should have read this one before Truth or Beard) and also her knitter friends from Chicago, who brought some levity to what could have otherwise been a very heavy story, romance or no romance.

Is this really "A Philosophical Romance," as its tagline brands it?  Well...not really.  There's some quoting of Nietzche and poetry and some dropping of random wisdom bombs by Ashley's mother, but I wouldn't use those to label it as "philosophical."  It's not like anyone here does any deep pondering on the meaning of life, and Ashley herself prefers reading romances to pondering anything in the real world.  But still, this was light, despite my initial concerns that the plot with Ashley's mother would not make for a good romantic background.  I did enjoy it, as I enjoy all of Reid's books, and look forward to reading the other ones in both the Knitting and Winston Brothers series.

But what the heck was up with the ketamine, anyway?

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Slightly Married - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #1)

Slightly Married (Bedwyn Saga, #1)Ah, historical romance!  This was the monthly read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers for July 2017--historical romance is a perpetual favorite in that group since it seems to strike more positive notes for more people, at least if our discussions are any indication.  I was a bit disappointed because this wasn't my nomination and I actually didn't have high hopes for it, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The story is about Eve Morris, whose brother dies in the war against Napoleon.  The brother's commanding officer, Aidan Bedwyn, promised Percy before he died that he would care for Eve and protect her no matter what, though he didn't fully grasp what he was promising when he made said promise.  Eve doesn't want Aidan's protection, though she desperately wants to find a way out of her predicament.  The predicament in question?  Due to a quirk in her father's will, because Eve is unmarried and her brother died less than a year after their father, her estate is set to go to her nasty cousin, leaving Eve and her contingent of "lame ducks," such as former criminals, a fallen woman, and an amputee, completely homeless.  Aidan convinces Eve to marry him as a matter of convenience so she can keep the estate, and away we go.

I didn't feel like Aidan and Eve had a ton of chemistry here, but this was a good story of learning to love the one you're with.  They slowly grow closer to each other over the two months of Aidan's leave, first on a brief trip to London to marry, and then when Eve is dragged back to London by Aidan's overbearing brother.  Like many first books in historical romance series, however, this seems to serve mainly as a launch pad for introducing the other characters in the Bedwyn family, who are obviously the protagonists of their own string of books.  I liked that Balogh didn't start with the most prominent member of the family, which would be the oldest brother, Wulf, who is a duke, and that she instead started with the second brother, Aidan.  And I liked Eve as a character, as well.  The two of the didn't communicate, a constant problem in romances, but I could somewhat understand it given their backgrounds and the nature of how their relationship began.  Neither of them wanted to become emotionally entangled in a relationship that was never meant to last, and which they both believed the other didn't want to last.  Counterproductive?  Yes.  Effective for romantic drama?  Also yes.

Was this the best historical romance I've ever read?  No.  It didn't snap and pop like some others, didn't have me devouring page after page.  The chemistry wasn't super apparent to me, either, and while I don't demand love at first sight (which can be downright sickening) I do like to see some good chemistry.  But I think this was a solid base for a series and am looking forward to reading the others.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Disobedient Girl - Ru Freeman

A Disobedient GirlA Disobedient Girl has been on my reading list for a while--I think it came up as a recommendation while I was reading other books taking place in Sri Lanka.  However, the university library didn't have it and it also wasn't available through the public library's Overdrive system.  But I needed a few other books from the brick-and-mortar public library, so I put in a request for this one as well.

The story here follows two main characters, Latha and Biso.  Latha's story starts when she's a young girl and the servant of a well-to-do family, mainly the family's daughter Thara, who is the same age as Latha.  But Latha has never felt like she should be a servant, and as she and Thara grow, so does that feeling, leading to acts of rebellion and disobedience.  Biso is a grown woman with three children fleeing an abusive marriage at the beginning of her story, and her entire narrative takes place over the course of that flight from her husband to the mountains where her family lives.  At first, I couldn't really see the connection between those two narratives, until I hit upon that they're not taking place at the same time.  Once I realized that, it all made a lot more sense.

Latha is not an imminently likable character.  She's bratty and passive-aggressive and sometimes downright nasty.  However, she is an extremely sympathetic character.  Balancing those two halves can be very tricky and not many authors can do it well; Freeman does it wonderfully.  Biso was less "connective" to me, especially at the end of the book.  Her religion and philosophy didn't mesh well with my own thoughts and beliefs, and I found myself disliking her more with every chapter towards the end.  I found Biso's half of the book (the chapters between the main characters alternate) to be more atmospheric than Latha's half, and definitely not as forward-driven as Latha's half, either.  But the sense of atmosphere was wonderful, and Biso's story, simple as it is, is what really starts all of it.  With this in mind, the structure of the book is largely circular.  Latha is stuck in the same circle that Biso enters on her journey...until the end, where she seems to find an "exit" from the loop that promises a brighter future.

Overall, this was a lovely book.  It was slow in some spots and every now and then the characters grated on my nerves, but I still really enjoyed it.  I think it definitely helped that I'd read some other books taking place in Sri Lanka in similar time periods, because it meant that I had some background that wasn't present in the book and lent me an understanding of things that I wouldn't have otherwise had.  However, I think you could have done without that; you might have wondered a bit about some of the political things discussed, but those didn't have an imminent bearing on much of the plot and it was a strong book either way.

4 stars out of 5.