Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

Singapore SapphireSlightly ScandalousRed NecklaceSilver Blade

A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

Masks, Knight, Souls

Masks and ShadowsHonor's KnightOur Souls at Night

Stephanie Burgis, Masks and Shadows

This novel, set at the Palace of Esterháza in 1779, centers around a group of musicians and a fateful opera performance. Carlo Morelli, a castrato famous throughout Europe, is one of the prince’s guests. Another is Charlotte von Steinbeck, an accomplished pianist whose sister Sophie is the prince’s mistress. As Charlotte and Carlo slowly grow closer, the prince’s opera troupe is rehearsing a new opera by Franz Joseph Haydn, and an assassination plot is brewing that includes the use of dark magic. The various plot lines converge at the opera’s opening performance. I really enjoyed this book — it’s the perfect combination of historical fantasy, political intrigue, and romance. Some of the magical elements were a bit too dark for me, but overall I found the novel very compelling. I’m glad the RandomCAT inspired me to finally read it!

Rachel Bach, Honor’s Knight

This book picks up where Fortune’s Pawn left off: after the climactic battle in that book, Devi’s memory has been wiped, so she can’t remember anything about either the battle or her love affair with Rupert. All that’s left is a strong feeling of revulsion toward him and a sense of confusion about the other crew members. Between that, her visions of small glowing blobs that are apparently invisible to everyone else, and some sort of disease or parasite that periodically turns her limbs black, Devi has more than enough to worry about. This book is a good sequel to Fortune’s Pawn; it explains a lot of the mysterious loose ends from that book and nicely sets up the final book in the trilogy. I also appreciated the character development for Devi, who finds herself having to make complex moral choices for the first time in her life. I’m looking forward to reading the third book sometime later this year.

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Addie and Louis, both in their 70s, have lived on the same street in Holt, Colorado, for many years. They’ve known each other casually but have never been close friends. Now, however, Addie has a proposition for Louis: she wants him to sleep with her. Not to have sex, but merely to sleep in the same bed, keep each other company, and have someone to talk to at night. Louis is surprised but agrees to the scheme, and the rest of the book deals with the fallout. This isn’t my usual type of book at all — indeed, when I realized that there were no quotation marks, I almost gave up right then — but I’m glad I persevered. This is a lovely but melancholy book about all the ordinary, mundane things that make up a life. There’s no plot to speak of; the book just follows Addie and Louis as they pursue their unconventional relationship, with both positive and negative results. I really liked this one and would highly recommend it!

Mini-Reviews: Q, Manners, Shades

QMurder Is Bad MannersWell of Shades

Beth Brower, The Q

Quincy St. Claire has put her heart and soul into The Q, a popular publication owned by her Great-Uncle Ezekiel. When Ezekiel dies, she expects to inherit The Q, but she soon discovers that there are conditions attached to the inheritance. She must complete 12 undisclosed tasks within a year, or she’ll lose The Q; and she’ll be supervised in these tasks by James Arch, Ezekiel’s solicitor, whom Quincy thoroughly dislikes. This is a self-published novel, and it shows a bit; the plot tends to meander, and there are several intriguing characters on the sidelines whose stories should have been more developed. But I really enjoyed this book nonetheless; it’s part romance, part coming-of-age tale as Quincy learns what’s really important in life. The setting is great, and I’d love to read more books set in this world! I am definitely interested in reading more by Brower.

Robin Stevens, Murder Is Bad Manners

In a British boarding school in the 1930s, Hazel Wong stands out for being the only student from Hong Kong. Luckily, she’s best friends with Daisy Wells, a quintessentially English girl whose good looks and pleasant demeanor distract everyone — well, everyone but Hazel — from the fact that she’s also highly intelligent. Daisy and Hazel have formed a secret detective society, but so far their cases have been mundane and easy to solve. That is, until Hazel discovers the body of their science teacher on the floor of the gymnasium! I really enjoyed this book; not only is the mystery surprisingly satisfying for a middle-grade novel, but I also loved Hazel and was fascinated by her relationship with Daisy. They may be best friends, but Hazel is often relegated to the role of sidekick. Fortunately, she starts to realize this and to come into her own more as the book goes on. Overall, I liked this a lot and will definitely plan to continue with the series.

Juliet Marillier, The Well of Shades

I read the first two books in the Bridei trilogy years ago, and I finally decided to pick up this final installment. It focuses mainly on Faolan, Bridei’s trusted spy and assassin, who is on the road once again on a mission for Bridei. Things quickly go wrong when Faolan meets Eile, a 16-year-old girl who is clearly trapped in an abusive household. Faolan helps Eile and her daughter to escape, then decides they must travel with him so that he can keep them safe. Meanwhile, intrigue surrounds Bridei’s court once again: one of his biggest allies seems to have betrayed him; his trusted adviser, Broichan the druid, has disappeared; and a group of Christian monks is asking to live in Bridei’s lands, threatening their traditional way of life. I’m glad I finally finished this series, especially because Faolan was one of my favorite characters and I wanted to see a happy resolution for him. I really liked the Faolan/Eile chapters, but I found some of the other sections less interesting, especially everything involving Broichan. Still, I enjoyed the book overall, and it’s reminded me how much I like Juliet Marillier in general!

Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Review: Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant

Chronicles of Chrestomanci vol 1Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant

In Charmed Life, Cat Chant is alone in the world except for his sister Gwendolen: their parents died in a steamboat accident when they were very young, and they have no family except each other. Gwendolen is a gifted witch, and her talents soon outstrip the capabilities of the local magic teacher. So when Cat and Gwendolen are invited to live with the Chrestomanci, the most powerful enchanter in the world and governor of all magic, Gwendolen is ecstatic — until it becomes clear that Chrestomanci won’t teach her any magic. As Gwendolen plots her revenge, Cat gradually realizes that he may have unsuspected talents of his own. The Lives of Christopher Chant takes place 25 years earlier and gives the backstory of how the Chrestomanci came to be. Christopher is able to travel between worlds while he’s dreaming. When other magicians discover this talent and seek to use it for their own ends, Christopher is caught in a battle between good and evil — but which side is he really on?

I dimly recall reading Charmed Life as a child, but I’d forgotten almost all the details. It was a pleasure to revisit the book, which perfectly depicts Cat’s alienation and confusion as he is thrust into a new environment. And I adored Christopher in both books — he’s such a fun enigma as the Chrestomanci, but his origin story makes him an even more interesting and fleshed-out character. In both cases, I felt that the books ended just as they were getting interesting: Cat learns something important about himself, but we don’t get to see what he does with that knowledge. Similarly, Christopher survives his first test as Chrestomanci, but I wanted to see more of his story as he grows into his power. There are a few more books set in this world, so perhaps they’ll fill in some of the blanks, but I was a bit frustrated that these books both ended where they did! Still, I enjoyed both of these books a lot and will continue with the Chronicles of Chrestomanci.

Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review: The Element of Fire

Element of FireMartha Wells, The Element of Fire

In a quasi-Renaissance fantasy world, the kingdom of Ile-Rien is in a precarious position. King Roland is young and weak, completely under the thumb of his conniving cousin, who has his own plans for the throne. Roland’s mother Ravenna still wields much of the throne’s power, but her health is deteriorating, and many of those at court (including the evil cousin) are now her enemies. In addition to these domestic intrigues, Ile-Rien is now under threat from a foreign sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, who is rumored to be a powerful and dangerous dark magician. Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s former lover, is charged with finding Grandier and thwarting whatever plans he may have against Ile-Rien. Thomas also finds himself dealing with Roland’s half-fay half-sister Kade, who returns to court after a years-long absence with unknown motives. Amid the complex allegiances of the court — in which it soon becomes apparent that at least one traitor is at work — whom, if anyone, can Thomas trust? And when Grandier finally makes his move, will Thomas be able to stop him before it’s too late?

I first read this book in (I think) 2009, and I enjoyed it so much that I bought four other books set in the world of Ile-Rien. But for some reason, I never read any of those sequels, and since it’s been more than a decade, I wanted to refresh my memory of the first book. I’m happy to say that I still really enjoyed it! It strikes me as a quintessential classic fantasy novel, with tons of political intrigue, sorcery, and fay magic thrown in for good measure. I really like that, instead of the quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy novels, this book evokes more of a Renaissance feel, with pistols and gunpowder beginning to supplement (though not yet replace) swords as the dominant weapons. I also liked the main characters a lot, particularly Thomas and Kade. They share a cynical, bantering sense of humor that makes their interactions particularly enjoyable; but when the chips are down, they also share a deep courage and sense of loyalty. The plot is action-packed and exciting, and the world-building is vivid. In short, I’m really glad I reread this one, and I look forward to reading a few more of the Ile-Rien books this year!

Review: Snowspelled

SnowspelledStephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

In a fantasy world analogous to 19th-century England, upper-class men are expected to be magicians, while upper-class women are destined to be politicians. But Cassandra Harwood has always had a thirst for magic, and her passionate determination got her all the way to the Great Library, the premier training ground for young magicians. She even found love there with the equally passionate and hardworking Wrexham. But a spell gone horribly wrong has deprived Cassandra of her ability to cast magic, not to mention her social standing and her fiancé. Now, four months after this tragic incident, Cassandra is snowed in at a house party with the high-society people she’s been trying to avoid, including her ex-fiancé. To make matters worse, the snowstorm seems to be magical in origin, and Cassandra is tricked into making a bargain with an arrogant elf-lord to discover who is causing it. If she fails, the consequences will be dire for both herself and her nation, as the age-old treaty between humans and elves will be broken. Can Cassandra discover the culprit and sort out her personal life before it’s too late?

I’ve read and enjoyed books by Stephanie Burgis before, and I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” so this novella seemed right up my alley. And I did enjoy it overall, but now I find myself remembering more of its flaws. I think the main problem, for me, was the heroine. Cassandra is one of those protagonists who is incredibly stubborn, convinced of her own rightness, and unwilling to compromise. All of her problems in the story are of her own making, particularly the mess of her relationship with Wrexham. I did like Wrexham, and I enjoyed the banter between them, but it frustrated me that they’re both such poor communicators, especially since they were once engaged to each other. Cassandra does grow and change in the course of the story, but it was too little, too late for me. Also, as with many novellas, the short length doesn’t leave much room for nuance in the plot or characters. The world of the story is interesting, and I actually wouldn’t mind reading a full-length novel in this setting, but I feel like I didn’t get to see enough of the world. All in all, I’m not giving up on this author, but I think I’ll stick to her full-length novels instead.