Melissa McShane, Servant of the Crown
Alison Quinn, Countess of Waxwold, has no use for the trappings of high society; she’s perfectly content to work as an editor at her father’s printing press. So she’s both shocked and resentful when she receives a summons from the palace, commanding her to become a lady-in-waiting to the queen’s mother for the next six months. Refusal is impossible, so Alison is forced to move to the palace and participate in court life. There she catches the eye of Anthony North, the queen’s brother and a notorious womanizer, but she wants nothing to do with him. As she and Anthony are thrown together more and more, however, Alison finds herself letting her guard down. But can she really trust the prince? Meanwhile, something mysterious is going on with the Royal Library, so even when a disastrous incident causes Alison to flee the palace, she must eventually return to set things right — and perhaps find love as well.
I really wanted to love this book, since I thoroughly enjoyed Burning Bright by the same author. But I was disappointed, primarily because I found Alison SO obnoxious at first. For the first half of the novel, she seems to be completely self-obsessed and judgmental. Any time a male character talks to her, she assumes he is only interested in sleeping with her, because she is Just So Gorgeous. I suppose that could be a legitimate problem for some people, but let’s just say I didn’t find it relatable! I also wish the fantasy element had been more fleshed out; this is clearly a fantasy world, but aside from a few mentions of magical Devices, there’s no world-building to speak of. And finally, the book suffers from an identity crisis: the first half is almost entirely a romance, while the second half suddenly becomes all about political intrigue. Happily, I did enjoy the second half a lot more! Alison experiences some much-needed character growth, and the plot is much more interesting. All in all, the book got off to an abysmal start but partially redeemed itself in the end. I already own the next two books in the series, so hopefully the upward trajectory will continue!
Mary Balogh, Someone to Love
The earl of Riverdale has just died, and his family is putting his affairs in order. Obviously his son will inherit the title, the estate, and the bulk of the money. But the late earl also had an illegitimate daughter, Anna Snow, who grew up in an orphanage and is now a teacher there. The earl’s widow wants to give Anna some money, both as a kind gesture and as a way to forestall any future claims on the estate. But the lawyer she employs for this purpose makes a shocking discovery: Anna is actually the earl’s legitimate daughter, and her existence effectively disinherits his widow and his other children. Anna would like to be close to her newfound family, since she was previously alone in the world, but they all resent her for depriving them of their wealth and status. Her only ally is Avery Archer, a friend of the family, who decides to help her acclimate to her new life. But he never expected to be so drawn to her; and Anna never thought she would be so tempted to lose her heart to a (seemingly) shallow leader of society.
I was craving a good romance novel when I saw a review of this one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book! First of all, I think the setup is pretty genius; it may not be the most plausible premise, but it certainly sets up some great conflicts, both for this book and (presumably) for future books in the series. I very much liked Anna as a heroine — she’s confident in herself but also has a deep longing for intimacy and connection that she’s not sure how to express. In this respect, Avery is a great match for her, since he also conceals deep loneliness under a bored and detached facade. I really enjoyed his urbane quips and his witty conversations with Anna, and I loved that he’s not a typical alpha-male hero. My only quibble with the book is Avery’s practice of martial arts, because every time Avery engages in violence in the novel, it’s portrayed as being sexually appealing. Additionally, a somewhat stereotypical “Chinese gentleman” is the source of Avery’s knowledge (see the SBTB review and comments for a great discussion of this). Aside from that, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out more by Mary Balogh when I want a well-written Regency romance.
Marissa Doyle, Between Silk and Sand
As the younger daughter of the king of Thekla, Saraid has always known that it is her duty to marry the ruler of a neighboring country, thus cementing an alliance that will benefit her people. With the help of The Book, a treatise written by a wise courtier to a previous Theklan monarch, Saraid knows she can become the perfect royal wife. When she is betrothed to the Lord Protector of Mauburni, she sets off with a small retinue through the harsh desert land called the Adaiha. En route she is kidnapped by a warlord named Cadel who is determined not to let her reach her destination. At first, Saraid is furious and desperate to escape. But the more time she spends in Cadel’s camp, the more she finds herself drawn to him — and the more conflicted she becomes about where she truly wishes to be.
I want to start off by saying that I didn’t dislike this book; it was a pleasant enough read, and I liked Saraid as a character. But several things about this book really frustrated me! First of all, the premise reminds me of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword — which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that The Blue Sword is so much better! Second, the prologue reveals way too much of the plot of the book, which completely killed the dramatic tension for me. And third, I found the romance somewhat problematic because it seems like Saraid is always wrong and Cadel is always right. Not to mention the fact that she is his prisoner; and while Cadel does have legitimate reasons to prevent her from reaching Mauburni, he never shares those reasons with her. So overall, I found myself focusing a lot more on this book’s flaws than its good points. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Marissa Doyle, but I’d advise people to pass on this one.
Morgan Matson, Save the Date
Charlotte “Charlie” Grant is the youngest of five siblings, and she loves her big, boisterous family more than anything. Now her older sister is getting married — a bittersweet occasion for Charlie, since the wedding will be the last big event in her family home, which is about to be sold. Still, Charlie is thrilled that her siblings will all be coming home for the wedding, and she’s looking forward to a perfect weekend of family togetherness. But, of course, nothing goes according to plan: The wedding planner quits at the last minute, forcing the Grants to scramble for a substitute. The weather refuses to cooperate. The house is overcrowded with unexpected guests. Charlie’s favorite brother brings home an awful girlfriend without telling anyone. And, of course, there are Charlie’s own problems, including a possibly requited crush on the neighbor boy and a tough decision about which college to attend in the fall. As Charlie attempts to cope with these issues, she also begins to realize that her seemingly idyllic family might not be quite so perfect after all.
Morgan Matson is one of my favorite YA contemporary authors, so it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. I love anything wedding-related, so the setting was automatic catnip for me; and I also love books about big families, which seem to be somewhat underrepresented in fiction. I completely bought the family dynamic in this book, especially the loving but complicated bonds between Charlie and her siblings. An interesting aspect of Charlie’s character is that she tends to perceive her siblings in somewhat static categories: Danny, the oldest brother, is her hero; J.J. is the class clown; Mike is the “problem” child. And a lot of her growth comes from recognizing that they can’t be classified so neatly, that they are real human beings who grow and change just as she does. So I really liked that aspect of the book! I will say that the romance, while adorable, doesn’t get much development compared to all the family stuff, so readers who are looking for that might be disappointed. Also, Charlie can be almost irritatingly naive at times. But overall, I liked this one a lot and am eagerly awaiting Matson’s next book!
Lucy Parker, Making Up
Trix Lane is a confident, talented circus performer whose daring aerial acrobatics have won her a major role in a popular and long-running London show. But some of her spark has dimmed lately, in the wake of an emotionally abusive relationship that shook her confidence. Now she has the opportunity to get an even bigger role in the show, but she’s not quite sure she can do it. And her anxiety isn’t helped when she learns that Leo Magasiva has just been hired to do makeup for the show. Leo and Trix have a fraught past, and whenever they meet, they can’t seem to help antagonizing each other. But beneath their sarcastic banter is an undeniable attraction, and when they begin to explore their true feelings for one another, Trix is surprised to discover how compatible they really are. But will their fledgling relationship be able to survive new misunderstandings and competing career goals?
I adore Lucy Parker’s contemporary romances, and this one is no exception. I love the enemies-to-lovers trope when it’s done well, which it definitely is here; I especially loved the nods to Much Ado about Nothing (my favorite Shakespeare play, not surprisingly!). I have to admit, though, I didn’t adore this book quite as much as I did Act Like It and Pretty Face. I think it’s because the overall tone is a little more somber, and there isn’t quite as much witty banter. (That’s understandable, of course, given that Trix is recovering from her ex’s abusive treatment.) I also find that I can’t remember very many incidents in the book. Both Leo and Trix do change throughout the novel, but their development is largely internal, not necessarily tied to specific plot events. Don’t get me wrong — I still really liked this book! It’s just a bit quieter than Parker’s previous novels. But I still love her and can’t wait until her next book, The Austen Playbook, comes out!
Deanna Raybourn, City of Jasmine
Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke is in the midst of a big publicity stunt, flying her plane over the seven seas of antiquity. This trip is motivated by her need for money, her thirst for adventure, and her subconscious desire to move past the death of her husband, Gabriel, which occurred five years before. But when Evie receives a mysterious — and apparently current — photo of Gabriel, she is determined to discover whether he is still alive, and if so, what really happened to him five years ago. Her search takes her to the ancient city of Damascus, where various European countries are carving up the region into strategically advantageous states, and into the heart of the desert itself. What she finds is a priceless relic, ethnic tensions, life-threatening dangers, and possibly a second chance at love.
Something has happened to me in the way I react to Deanna Raybourn’s books. When I first read Silent in the Grave, I remember really loving it and being eager to read the rest of the series. I loved the combination of 19th century historical detail, mystery, and romance, which, as I recall, was fairly unique in my experience at the time. I think the issue is that, as time has passed, I’ve read a lot more books; I’ve become a more sophisticated consumer and have read more widely in the various genres I like. As a result, Raybourn’s brand of historical fiction no longer seems particularly unique or special to me. She has good plots and some funny lines, but her characters are pretty typical for the genre, and I’m not fond of the rugged alpha males she tends to use as heroes. This particular novel is quite entertaining, and I really can’t point to anything wrong with it; it just didn’t really excite me, and I’ve already removed it from my shelves.
Kathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project
Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.
I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.
Leslie Cohen, This Love Story Will Self-Destruct
Eve is a music writer who thrives on emotion, creativity, and chaos. She dates edgy, brooding musicians, and she’s not attracted to anyone who isn’t a little bit broken. In short, she’s the last person who would want to be in a stable, long-term relationship—especially with someone like Ben. Ben is a civil engineer who values order, logic, and direct communication. A girl like Eve would drive him crazy. Of course, this novel is their love story, and it traces their relationship from college acquaintances to a one-night stand and beyond. But of course, there are many obstacles in their path: Eve is emotionally guarded due to her father’s abandonment and a family tragedy, while Ben is keeping a secret relevant to that same tragedy. And then there’s the matter of Eve’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, one of the aforementioned brooding musicians, who comes back into her life at the worst possible time. Will these obstacles force Eve and Ben apart, or is their connection strong enough to bring them back to each other?
I have deeply mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling enough that I read most of it in one sitting and stayed up way too late as a result. On the other hand, I found myself (metaphorically) rolling my eyes a lot. I recently saw this quote in a commentary on the Morning News Tournament of Books: “The only books I refuse to read are those about twenty-somethings living in New York.” And while I don’t have that same rule myself, I completely understood what that commentator meant as I was reading this book. This is a novel that positions itself as a romantic comedy—the cover compares the author to Nora Ephron—but it has none of the lightness, humor, or joy I’d expect from a rom-com. Rather, the whole thing is just kind of dreary. I did find Eve’s journey somewhat interesting; she’s a character who has been telling herself a certain narrative about who she is, and she eventually discovers that her narrative is flawed and that it can change. At the same time, she annoyed me more often than she intrigued me. Ben is a more likable character, but that’s only because he doesn’t have much of a personality. Overall, I’m not quite sure who this book is for: whether you want a rom-com or a literary depiction of New York, I think there’s better stuff out there.
Ashley Poston, Heart of Iron
Ana was raised an outlaw on the spaceship Dossier, under the rough but loving care of the infamous Captain Siege and her crew. She remembers nothing of her life before the Dossier found her; the only connection to her past is her Metal (robot), D09, who also happens to be her best friend. When D09 starts to malfunction, Ana is so desperate to save him that she’ll even steal the coordinates for the long-lost spaceship Tsarina, which is rumored to have the information she’ll need to repair D09. But her plan goes wrong when Robb, an Ironblood (upper class) boy who has his own reasons for seeking the Tsarina, gets the coordinates first. Now Ana and Robb find themselves on the same side as they search for answers. Meanwhile, the Iron Kingdom needs a new leader, since a rebellion several years ago killed the entire royal family. Robb’s corrupt brother Erik is next in line, but legend has it that one of the murdered emperor’s children may have survived after all. . . .
This book was originally pitched as “Anastasia meets Firefly,” and since I love both of those things, I figured I’d be the ideal reader for this novel! Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but I want to emphasize that my problems with the book are very specific and may not be problems for another reader! It’s certainly a fun read overall, with a nice blend of outer space action and political intrigue. But for me, the book is missing the elements I was hoping for based on the premise. My favorite aspects of Anastasia are the con angle and the enemies-to-lovers romance, neither of which are present in this book. Instead, one of the main plot lines is a romance between a human and a robot, and I just couldn’t get past it. I think the discussion about artificial intelligence and consciousness is absolutely fascinating, but there’s not much debate about it in the novel; rather, all the “good” characters simply accept D09’s humanity, which just left me with a lot of questions and frustration. Also, I found the Firefly elements to be a little superficial: yes, there’s a ragtag crew of space pirates/adventurers, but only a few of them get any significant characterization. In short, all I can say is that this book didn’t deliver what I was hoping for based on the premise. But again, that has a lot to do with my own subjective expectations, and I expect that many other readers will love it!
Seanan McGuire, Discount Armageddon
Verity Price is a cocktail waitress and aspiring professional ballroom dancer living in New York City. But she’s also a cryptozoologist who studies the paranormal inhabitants of Manhattan — everything from ghouls to bogeymen, shapeshifters to the Tooth Fairy. To Verity, cryptids are part of the natural order and should be left alone unless they start harming humans. But not everyone sees it that way, particularly the Covenant of St. George, an ancient order sworn to exterminate all cryptids. Now a member of the Covenant, Dominic de Luca, has arrived in New York; and between his rigid views and his attractive physique, he’s trouble for Verity in more ways than one. Not to mention that there are rumors of a dragon — a species long assumed to be extinct — sleeping underneath the city, and someone seems to be trying to wake it up.
I’m a longtime fan of Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, but I haven’t been as enthusiastic about the last few books. So I guess it’s not surprising that I wasn’t a huge fan of this novel either. If you love Toby, you’ll also love Verity; she’s the same type of tough woman who will toss off quip after quip while she’s kicking the bad guy’s ass. But for me, the two characters feel almost too similar, and I’m over the schtick. I do think the world-building is very creative, and it was fun to read about the different types of cryptids and their various abilities. I also enjoyed the romance between Verity and Dominic, although every beat of it is predictable. I wish there had been more ballroom dancing, honestly; it would have been a fun distraction from the main plot, which involves a snake cult (!) and several trips into Manhattan’s sewer system. Maybe I’m being unfair to this book because I’m getting a bit burned out on the author, but I’m not particularly interested in continuing with the series.