Review: The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

Famous Heroine:Plumed BonnetMary Balogh, The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

This volume collects two of Balogh’s earlier novels, which each focus on couples who marry first and fall in love later. In The Famous Heroine, Cora Downes, the daughter of a rich merchant, is launched into high society in hopes that she’ll find an aristocratic husband. But Cora is clumsy, outspoken, and ignorant of the rules of this new world. Lord Francis Kneller takes her under his wing, and they become good friends — until he inadvertently “compromises” her and feels honor-bound to marry her. In The Plumed Bonnet, Alistair Munro, the duke of Bridgwater, gives a ride to a hitchhiking young woman out of boredom. Because of her gaudy clothes, he assumes she’s a prostitute and listens with amusement to her unlikely story of misfortune. But when he learns that Stephanie Gray’s story is true, he realizes that he’s ruined her reputation and must marry her to make amends.

I’ve been slowly discovering Mary Balogh’s books and haven’t hit a bad one yet! I didn’t find either of the romances entirely compelling — something prevented me from becoming fully emotionally invested — but these two novels are on the short side, so perhaps there was just less space for character development. And there’s still plenty to enjoy with both of these books. I liked Cora’s frank nature and was amused by Francis’s attitude toward her: bewilderment slowly transforming into delight. They’re a more fun, lighthearted couple than Alistair and Stephanie, but I found Stephanie’s conflict (she’s trying so hard to become duchess material that she begins to lose herself) more interesting. I should note that these two books are actually the third and fourth installments of a series that starts with Dark Angel and Lord Carew’s Bride; the heroes and heroines of those books appear in both of these as well. You don’t HAVE to read the first two books to understand what’s going on, but it would give you some extra context. Overall, I liked these books a lot and will continue my wanderings through Balogh’s backlist.

Review: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

Enchanted Forest ChroniclesPatricia C. Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

These four stories take place in a fractured-fairytale setting and center around Cimorene, a princess who refuses to be proper. In Dealing with Dragons, Cimorene wants to escape marriage to a handsome but dull prince, so she runs away and offers to become the princess of the dragon Kazul. She has many adventures in her new life, most importantly thwarting some meddlesome wizards who hope to steal the dragons’ magic. In Searching for Dragons, Mendanbar, the king of the Enchanted Forest, needs to find out who is stealing magic from the forest, so he teams up with Cimorene to discover that those pesky wizards are at it again. Calling on Dragons follows the witch Morwen, who discovers yet another wizard plot and must alert Cimorene and Mendanbar, with the help of her nine cats and a magician named Telemain. Finally, in Talking to Dragons, Cimorene’s son Daystar has his own adventure and learns about his past as a result.

What a delight these books are! They’re marketed for children, but they contain so much sly humor that they can definitely be enjoyed by adults as well. It’s fun to catch all the references to, and subversions of, fairytale tropes: for example, in the first book, Cimorene is perpetually annoyed by knights and princes who keep trying to “rescue” her.   I also really loved all the main characters in these books, especially the women. Cimorene is a delightful heroine, strong-minded and pragmatic, who can solve any problem that comes her way, including melting a troublesome wizard. And the witch Morwen reminds me a great deal of Professor McGonagall — stern, but with a heart of gold underneath. I unapologetically shipped her and Telemain! Some things didn’t quite work for me, such as the rabbit-turned-donkey in the third book; he’s meant to be comic relief, but I found him a little much. And Shiara, a main character in the fourth book, seems a little bit too much like Cimorene. But all in all, I really enjoyed these books and am frankly annoyed that I don’t know any eight- or nine-year-old children to share them with!

Review: The World of Jeeves

World of Jeeves, TheP.G. Wodehouse, The World of Jeeves

This book is an omnibus of short stories describing the adventures of Bertie Wooster, an amiable but dim aristocrat in early 20th-century England, and Jeeves, the consummate gentleman’s gentleman. Bertie is a friendly soul who just wants to be left alone to enjoy himself. Unfortunately, he has plenty of friends and relatives who are continually making demands on him, both financially and emotionally. His terrifying Aunt Agatha holds him in contempt, yet she is constantly trying to “improve” him and set him up with equally terrifying young females. His friend Bingo Little is always falling desperately in love with some girl or other, and for some reason he always approaches Bertie for help. Though Bertie is not overburdened with brains, he has a generous heart and usually wants to help. Good thing he has Jeeves, whose gravity and intelligence always manage to get Bertie and his friends out of whatever scrapes they’re in.

What can I say about Jeeves and Wooster that the entire world hasn’t said already? Wodehouse has a very specific style and brand of humor, and literally nobody does it better than he does. Bertie’s narrative voice is an utter joy to read, showcasing his own lack of intelligence but also satirizing the pretentious language of some popular fiction at the time. Strangely enough, his friends and family all think of him as the village idiot, but he’s probably smarter than most of his friends — definitely wiser than poor Bingo, for example! And the interplay between Bertie and Jeeves is wonderful; Jeeves always appears completely respectful and subservient, yet he dominates Bertie mercilessly (for his own good, of course!). I definitely recommend the story “Bertie Changes His Mind,” which is narrated by Jeeves and demonstrates how skillfully he is able to manipulate his employer. My one caveat is that you should pace yourself while reading this book, because the stories are all very similar and could become tedious after a while. But I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys British humor and wants a good belly laugh!

Review: Young Miles

Young MilesLois McMaster Bujold, Young Miles

This omnibus of two novels and a novella tells the story of Miles Vorkosigan’s first adventures. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles has just flunked out of the Imperial Academy, where he’d hoped to distinguish himself like his father, the Prime Minister of Barrayar. Instead, he consoles himself by going on a mission to help his bodyguard’s daughter (and secret love), Elena. Of course, things quickly go wrong, and he finds himself at the head of a troop of space mercenaries. In The Mountains of Mourning, Miles is sent to a remote Barrayaran village to investigate the murder of a deformed child, a case that has special meaning for him. And in The Vor Game, Miles rejoins his army of mercenaries after a simple intelligence-gathering mission goes awry — with Gregor, the Emperor of Barrayar, in tow. Miles just can’t seem to stay out of trouble; but his brilliant strategic mind always keeps him one step ahead of his enemies.

I read the two books about Miles’ parents, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, several years ago and really liked them. So I’m glad I finally picked up these next books about the beginning of Miles’ career. I liked all three stories a lot, mostly because Miles is such a wonderfully entertaining character. In these books he’s often immature, and he still has a lot of growing up to do; but he does start to change for the better when he encounters some of the harsh realities of being a commander. Miles has a tendency to bluff his way from one situaton to the next, and he eventually learns that this approach often has dangerous consequences for his subordinates. I think the weak link in this omnibus is the first half of The Vor Game; not much happens that’s relevant to the later plot, and there is also a loose end with a corpse in a drainpipe that I wish had been more developed. But overall, I really enjoyed these books and would recommend them to anyone who likes space opera. I look forward to reading more about Miles and his adventures!