I tend to get all breathless and twitterpated when I discover a new historical romance writer I enjoy, sending out profligate hold requests at the library. That was the case with Julie Anne Long, whose Lady Derring Takes a Lover was so beautifully choleric on the ingrained sexism of the time, and features a found family plot and exquisitely rendered female relationships. I maybe don't need to say this, but I will anyway: as much I enjoy a historical, the baked in acceptance of social norms which are, to put mildly, antique, and to put more specifically, fucked beyond the telling of it, makes me often quite itchy while I read.
This is figleafed in ur average historical romance: industrialists are all, to a man, fair minded and generous, having acquired their fortunes without being the rapacious monsters they all, to a man, were. The aristocrats -- the dukes and earls and the like -- may have daddy issues, struggling under the injurious regard of their Old Testament fathers, but these paternal and paternalistic dinosaurs are emblematic of a outdated mode of lording over great swaths of land and hundreds, maybe thousands of people. These new sons are embodiments of a New Aristocracy, one that views its marriages as meritocracies, the perfect embodiment of noblesse oblige.
I was just reading one recently where the industrialist romantic lead mentioned offhand his ownership of cotton mills, and my mind leapt right to tour of Lowell, MA I took some years ago. Lowell is a locus of both early American industrialization, and the inevitable labor movements that follow once people grow weary of being ground down by engines, spitted by the spearpoint of progress. Young women, girls really, worked 12 hour days six days a week until they coughed themselves into an early grave due to the cotton fibers they inhaled, the factory air muzzy with a fog of particulates. (It is also the hometown of Jack Kerouac.) That's the problem with historicals: they are inescapably based on history, which features a boot on a throat in one permutation or another for as far back as one can manage.
So, the endgame of this little diatribe was some dissatisfaction with It Started With a Scandal. On every objective metric, this is a fine novel, with excellent characterization, smooth pacing, and well drawn sexual tension. Long is a smart, interesting writer, and I will continue to read the shit out of her back catalog. However, I was never quite able to get over the fact that our romantic lead was a prince of Burgundy or Bourbon or somesuch, a French aristocrat who fled France during the Revolution. He's very put out by the fact that his ancestral lands are not in his family's possession anymore, and spends much time glowering and throwing vases in fits of pique. The leading lady, his housekeeper, vouchsafes to feel bad for him quite prodigiously. She is herself just weeks from penury -- she and her child -- so she knows what it is to lose things.
To which I say: bah. The French aristocracy deserved to have their heads separated from their necks. They were indolent, greedy, dissolute shits whose venality resulted in the abject poverty and misery of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. So boo fucking hoo about getting run out of the country where our hero was born into incredible wealth and privilege. (I may have my back up after seeing some billionaire -- there are only 600 or so in America, a listable group of people -- literally crying on television because someone might tax him commensurate with his wealth. Meanwhile millions of Americans go bankrupt or just fucking die due to a medical insurance system designed to maximize profits at a brutal human cost. Fuck, and I can't stress this enough, every single billionaire.)
I am aware of, and engage in quite happily, the sort of historical blindness required to enjoy a historical romance. I am not going to nitpick inconsistencies unless they are egregious and/or not in service of the final resolution. But sometimes I'm in my own place in history, where I cannot unsee the parallels to current, ongoing, often fatal injustices in the world. I am not going to waste time feeling bad for people who have had everything and then some given to them by accident or birth who, just occasionally, feel thwarted in their every impulse. Our heroine's soft-heartedness looks soft-headed.
I've said this before, but I'm going to repeat it: every romance has the echoes of a less satisfactory conclusion embedded within it. Without the invisible authorial hand, our housekeeper's life would end in brutal poverty, discarded by a "polite" society predicated on systematic exploitation. Mostly I'm satisfied with these romantic revisions -- that is the point of a historical romance novel, n'est-ce pas? I can and do acknowledge this freakout is largely on me -- I do not want to enbussen Long, who seems a very fine writer, because of a personal convergence of things. But sometimes I just can't. The romantic conclusion ends up seeming such a petty, priapic thing, the tumescence of love blotting out all impediments to our lovers, even the important, necessary, and structural ones.
Probably I should just back way from historical romance for the time being, library holds notwithstanding, until some improbable time when our brutal history is less brutal. I'll be busy holding my breath.
Lady Derring Takes a Lover has such an unbelievably jaundiced view of the relationship between men and women -- and between the classes -- and I am 100% here for it. The titular Lady Derring meets with her solicitor after her husband's death, only to discover he left her destitute. While she's learning of her abject penury, her husband's mistress sweeps in, and learns that she, too, will not inherit a dime. They've been ruined by the same man, because it is a rare situation where women's fortunes are their own. Lady Derring and the mistress, one Angelique Breedlove (not her birth name), pool their limited resources and set up a boarding house in a building that once was a brothel known as the Palace of Rogues.
The romantic lead doesn't appear except in snatches for a long, establishing opening -- this is the first in a series, so some groundwork must commence. Instead, in that interregnum, we are given a beautiful nuanced relationship between a widow and a mistress, one with so much heat I could see some furious slash written about these characters. Romantic lead dude is fine -- his major superpower is that he godamn listens -- but those women, gah, so hot. Which I guess tells you plenty about my predilections, you're welcome.
This was an odd little experiment, which I undertook because I'm so on the hook for Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling novels, but then I haven't been down for much else she's written. I'm not sure what the official name for this series is -- Lords of [Something] would be my guess -- but it's four different paranormal romance novels with an overarching plot written by four different writers. I find this sort of thing fascinating -- when novel writers collaborate like television or comic writers.
The last series like this I read was the Crimson City novels. Most of them are by someone called Liz Maverick (which is surely not a pen name at all), but the second is by Marjorie M Liu. who, before she racked up all the awards for Monstress, wrote this fucking brilliantly weird PNR series called Dirk & Steele. I mean, she really moved the markers for what you can pull off in the sometimes boring vampire/werewolf snorefest you can find in the genre. Liu took the kind of premise that made me exclaim, wait, what?? like a hundred times when I was reading the first novel, Crimson City, and in her story, grounds it so completely in believable interpersonal concerns that my brain stopped screaming every 15 minutes about how nothing about the world made any sense. That's some godamn writing right there.
Singh's outing in the Lords of [Something] maybe wasn't at this level, but I actually made it all the way through to the end of the novel, which is something I cannot say about the other three books in the series. Some of this is just the silliness of the premise, because all of the books are riffs on various fairy tales. There's one based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, where our fair haired maiden finds a rock hard cock which was just right, and I just couldn't stop my brain from squealing immaturely, and then breaking into laughter.
Lord of the Abyss is very loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, and it works in the places that Singh tends to excel, and otherwise is kind of a mess. She does an excellent job writing characters out of trauma and abuse. She doesn't go for the magic vagina, the ladybits that can cure all, but constructs believable psychologies warped by neglect, and then slowly, carefully, draws them out. But the world, and the magic, is slapdash, so the parts of the plot that intersect with that are shaky at best.
So, fun to see a writer I tend to enjoy, at least in one limited context, pull off something in a shared world. Didn't captivate me like Psy-Changeling, but it was a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.
ETA: Ok, I actually looked, and the series is called Royal House of Shadows, which seems kind of stuffy and conceited, but what do I know.
And it happened again! The author is A.J. Hackwith, not Amanda Hackwith. This is her first novel. How do I keep the author name from morphing into a similar sounding name when the database gets confused? Or is this just one of those bugs?
I have no idea who Dean Wesley Smith is, though he's listed as the author of this book for some obscure reason. The real author -- and this is in big letters on the cover -- is Wesley Chu, who wrote The Lives of Tao, among other things. Could someone fix this please?
Uff da, that was one of the best debuts I've read in a while. It all feels very familiar in the beginning: The nightjars (a kind of bird more commonly known as nighthawks in the US) act as soul-bodies; this feels like Phillip Pullman's daemons (or Lauren Beukes' familiars, but I don't think as many people have read Zoo City.) Much of the action takes place in an alternate London known as the Rookery; there are so many alternate Londons that this listicle of ten has a half dozen comments pointing out several not on the list. The overt plot opens much like Neverwhere, with an office drone getting sucked out of her routine and submerged into a magic world (though The Nightjar's protagonist doesn't suck like Richard Meyhew.) I totally thought I knew where this all was going, but whoo baby does Hewitt deliver a series of brutal shocks in the end.
This is the interesting part: sometimes when writers deliver a twist, it's unearned in the narrative. Either they've been withholding information, or they're just being perverse, or they weren't good enough setting it up. (See, for example: Dany's burning of King's Landing, which was at least the latter two, if not all three.) Not so, Hewitt. She gives you all the information, but in such a way that the reader jumps to several erroneous conclusions. So when she puts you right in the end, it's no one's fault but your own for making an ass out of u and me. It's very, very well done.
So, I haven't read this yet, but Rockhead is by a friend of mine, Sean Toren. He moved in next door to me over a dozen years ago; his son and my child were born weeks apart and grew up together. When he learned I was a big book nerd, we talked at length about this nascent novel, which he'd been tinkering with for quite a while. It's very satisfying to learn it's going to be out in the world. Apparently it's had a favorable review in a rock climbing magazine and everything.
Anyway, when Sean first told me about his rock climbing novel, I was put in a funny spot. At the time, Mr Ceridwen was a huge baby about rock climbing and thought all climbers were douches. This went back to a traumatic experience with a college girlfriend and the climbing geeks she knew and kinda messed around with. Mr Ceridwen has since well gotten over it -- he even climbs with kid #2! -- but the incongruousness of how awesome Sean is compared to how much Mr Ceridwen hated climbing slash climbers made for some backyard comedy.
Anyway, so this is my non-review. If you like climbing maybe check it out. I don't think anyone has to cut off their arm, but you never know...
As happens when I try to add a book by a debut author, the stupid database picks another author name that's, like, kinda similar. Can someone fix this so the author's name is Temi Oh? Not Temi Matterhorn or whatever?
I've been very happily reading through Lisa Kleypas' catalog. The Wallflowers books are pretty great (other than the one with the St Sebastian dickhead) and I think the Ravenels don't have a bad volume, even if the first one is a little weak. But this is inevitable when reading backwards through someone's novels: you're going to hit a dud written 20 years ago when said novelist was just beginning to hone their craft. This is that dud.
I do not mind ridiculous set-ups in romance novels. In fact, I think building as ridiculous a set-up as possible and then getting the reader to buy it is one of those skills romance novelists share with mystery writers. It's a convention of the genre. But the ridiculous set-up in Somewhere I'll Find You repeatedly annoyed me: the children of two jerks are married to each other when he's seven and she's four. One needs money; the other wants his grandchildren to have a title. You know, typical Duke of Marlborough marries Vanderbilt stuff. It's the forced marriage trope, cool cool. But then several times the characters mention that clearly the marriage can't be legal, so why the front door is anyone worrying about it? When girlfriend comes of age, she changes her name and joins a traveling troupe of actors, because you're not going to tell me what to do, Dad!!! I'll just go hide from a marriage that isn't legally binding! She's all scared her husband will come find her because what if he's a dick like her dad, but I keep flow-charting back to the fact that everyone is behaving as though this sham marriage matters.
So ten years after she's told her dad to pound salt and taken off, main girl is like the most successful actress in London, acting opposite the theater owner and all around growling misanthrope in hot pants who should have been the lead. Everyone thinks they are making the beast with two backs, up to and including her husband, who comes looking for his wife in London so they can divorce and have their own lives, and instead finds this zesty and refreshing young actress. But then dun dun dun they are one in the same! What are the odds! And he loves her and think they should stay married! But she wants to continue her career! So they have some contrived conflict about it until events conspire to work out!
Bah, this is all too wonderful for me. I think I'm supposed to think there's fate at work here or something, but it all just seems dumb and awful. The romantic lead dude consistently blackmails, maneuvers, or otherwise ignores our heroine's wishes. He also does that thing that so many romantic leads do, which is just get overtaken with black jealousy maybe the second time he and lady friend hang out and she spends any attention on another man. I'm supposed to take this as a sign of his deep affection I guess, but it reads like controlling asshole to me every time. And when they do finally bone so he's sure he owns her now? That jealousy translates to a highhandedness that's both patronizing and paternalistic, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off.
Additionally, there is a subplot involving a slinky bitch-goddess mistress of the main guy who gets curbed when he finds his actress/wife. She then pulls a fake-pregnancy plot to try to entrap him into marriage while crawling all over the dude trying to lure him back with her luscious sexuality. The sexy mistress who flies into jealous rages after bro finds his virginal soulmate is a trope I could do without, and I do not appreciate the slut-shaming and compare/contrast between different sexual modes for women. Virginal mouse or luscious sexpot are not actually in conflict with one another. They could both exist quite happily in the world together if they weren't constantly set up as this ridiculous dialectic.
Anyway, I should emphasize that I generally like Kleypas, so this is an anomaly, something pulled from the back catalog when it probably should have just stayed in the dustbin of the 90s. I am also totally going to read the next in series too, because it's about the growly hot pants theater owner. He gives such charmingly jaundiced advice to our heroine in this novel, and ye gads do I love a cynic.
I think I expected this to be an extension of Uprooted, like maybe something 10 years down the road, or about some peripheral characters, or something, but that is not what this is at all. It's it's own thing, whole and true, something like a modern fairy tale, but one that fucks with the idea of both fairies and tales. Just a damn fine novel.
This one was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously -- like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying -- but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring.
Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it -- both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren't terrible people no one would care and there wouldn't be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.
So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic.
But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but won't use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. She wants to succeed in academia on her "own merits," which, isn't magical ability one of her own merits? Anyway, I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Own your power, woman.
Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You're in love with each other over that pile of boring? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.
Anyway, I don't want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup types enact genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, though I'm not sure I've ever seen one be successful. I'll have to think about it.
CW: rape & slut-shaming
Though the Night Huntress series is pretty basic urban fantasy -- a half vampire lady stalks the streets at night to stake the undead threat -- there's enough little twists to keep it interesting. Our night huntress is the product of rape, and everything she knows about vampires come from her vampire-hating mother, which isn't much, or just plain trial and error. She meets up with a Master Vamp (named Bones ugh) after trying to stake him in a bar. After he disarms her with laughable ease, Bones proposes they team up to hunt vamps of his choosing, and he'll train her not to get killed. She thinks she's being real clever when she agrees to this while plotting to kill him at the end of the training period. Inevitably, they hook up. &c.
I sort of let this slide in the first book, but boy does Cat shit on other girls. But I thought, she's maybe 18, and has been raised by an embittered mother who tells her she looks just like her father, who is a rapist. Mom sends her out to get killed on the regular, using her as a revenge proxy. Her mother seems to punish her daughter for her father's sin, so it made psychological sense to me that a girl raised without much affection and as the product of rape would be all "slut" this and "whore" that. By the second book, though, there's a big time jump, Cat is adulting pretty well, and seems to understand her mother's deep failings as a parent while maintaining a relationship with clear boundaries.
And yet, the girl-hate only deepens, at times seeming to warp the behavior of many of the female characters. A variety of lady vamps from Cat's paramour's past show up through the novel, and they are all bombshells who spend their time crawling all over Bones or reminiscing about all the threesomes (or fivesomes!) they had with Bones back in the day. They are ridiculous misogynist caricatures, and not even relying on the more fun sexist tropes like Ice Queen or Hitchcock Blonde; they're just Slut Trash. Bones is not criticized for catting about in his youth, natch.
Cat's inner and outer monologue is basically WHORE BITCH DIE, and this is passed off as "vampire possessiveness." Which, no. From all evidence, vampires screw around a lot, and without a lot of regard for gender norms. If they were sexually possessive, they would not be leaping into big fuckpiles all the time. (Indeed, the vampire penchant for fuckpiling is used at least twice as a plot point.) The concept of "vampire possessiveness" is inserted into the text so Cat (and by extension, the reader) can feel ok with how much she hates other women. It does not come up, either in word or deed, at any other point in the plot.
Admittedly, Cat now has a woman friend on whom she does not shit, so not all of the female characters are treated this way. (And there's her mom, but that's obviously a whole other thing.) But it was a common enough element of the books that I began to sour on Cat. She regularly is required to dress up in "slut gear" (I think she calls it "slut gear") to lure male vamps to their deaths, so there's this weird acting out of the very thing she castigates other women for. Cat may look like all those other slutty sluts, but of course she is Not Like Other Girls™.
Cat is a fun character: a hard-drinking hard case who is way more naive that she pretends. What I've read of Frost's later books don't have this girl-hating element in them, so maybe it's just Cat, like girl-hating is just part of her personality or whatever. Maybe Frost isn't in control enough of her first person (yet, these are her first novels) to delineate the thoughts of the character from the parameters of the world. (That's the standard objection when a reader criticizes the actions of a character, anyway: that I can't tell the difference between what the character thinks and what the author does.)
However, given the stated behavior of the slutty sluts, which are objective acts and not subjective opinion, that is not the case: the world works like Cat says it does. Which is to say, most women are oversexed and duplicitous by nature, except for Mom and Designated BFF. Put another way, women are slutty sluts whether Cat calls them that or not; this characterization of women is baked into the world, not one character's worldview.
I just ... can we not? Can we not enact girl-hating and slut-shaming in girl pulp for girls? Don't we get enough of that hot garbage in real life? When I read escapism, I want to motherfucking escape. That gets hard when I keep running right into the same misogynist trash fire that is so vigorously burning in the world today. This is legitimately a fun series, but I just don't feel like pushing past the girl-hating at this point in time. Happy New Year!
Hey, so, I had to add this book, and for whatever stupid reason, the author autocorrected to somebody called Samantha Bells. That is not who wrote this. The author is H. G. Bells, who is a debut author and therefore not in the system already. I tried to fix it, but no dice.
The Library at Mount Char defies easy labels, something like dark fantasy slash horror with an incredibly black sense of humor, but both more fun and less fun than that sounds. The opening positively crawls along, and it's not until maybe halfway through that I began to make sense of the incredibly complex world. But once the teeth catch, man, that shit really rolls. Mount Char makes an abattoir of various philosophical and religious questions, often literally. Violence is commonplace and bloody, which alternately hit my macabre sense of humor, or fucking grossed me out. Hawkins also manages to pull one of those long cons with the plotting, where he's doing this thing out in the open, but you're not even paying attention until it comes together with a bang.Very enjoyable.
I started reading Alyssa Cole sometime last year. I think I saw her name on a list of women of color writing contemporary romance, and given how tragically white much romance is, I thought I should give her a shot. I read her Off the Grid series, which, in addition to being both science fictional and post-apocalyptic (these things are not necessarily the same things, a distinction I'm happy to fight about), also include a gay romance and one with and Asian dude as the hottie. Oh, and Cole is clearly a nerd and a geek, and she is not afraid of some pop cultural jokes. Really good stuff.
I didn't read more, at the time, because I'm, like, not as interested in modern day princess stories. I once went regularly to this open mic at an Irish bar run by a Welshman, and there was this woman who showed up regularly in full on tartan explosion. (Yes, I recognize that's all very Celticly confused, but this is America; deal). She tended to sit in the booth behind mine, and we were nodding acquaintances. She drove me absolutely fucking bananas with her bullshit.
See, she claimed to be some sort of Scottish royalty, like maybe not a duchess, exactly, but more like a countess? Honestly, I find it hard to give a fig about titles so none of that stuff is going to track for me. Anyway, she had this younger dude who liked to do sweeping bows and a bunch of hand-kissing, probably because he spent too much time at the Ren Fest. Once, he tried to drag me into it, and I was like, sorry, I live in a representational democracy and have zero interest in kowtowing to someone because of who their grandparents are.
There was a record scratch noise and some people got pissed at me, but fuck royalty. Some of my people were hapless drunks, others were fleeing various wars, some just hated their hometowns. I feel neither pride nor shame about my ancestors; they were just people: good, bad, and indifferent.
Point being, I have something of a chip when it comes to the concept of hereditary monarchy. Sure, fine, if they're figureheads like in Denmark (though I'm still not bowing and scraping), but actual ruling dynasties like the al Saud family are monsters, as one recently brutally murdered journalist could attest if he hadn't been dismembered and murdered, not exactly in that order.
Which is to say, I'm a fucking crank about a little subgenre of romance novels with lighthearted wish fulfillment about being a princess. I recognize I have issues.
So, it came as something of a surprise when I actually earnestly enjoyed Duke by Default. Cole dives right into the class issues of the peerage, and doesn't cut those assholes any slack. Her Duke character is actually the child of a Scottish Duke and a refugee, raised by a step-father and with half siblings who are straight up black. He's not some ponce, and more's the better. Oh, and his love interest is coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis, which was sensitively written. All told, well done.
Princess in Theory, less so. (Note: I read these books out of order.) The main character, who has aged out of the foster care system and is struggling to make it in the STEM field as a black woman of no means, was a fucking great character. Prince what's his face from an imaginary African country, him I did not like much at all. Sure, some of this is intentional: he's to have a redemption arc from being a rich dickhead to monarch with a heart of gold. But I just couldn't get on board, though of course some of this is my aforementioned issues. And Princess in Theory is still a well written novel with an admirable heroine, so do not credit my bitching too much.
Anyway! So, one which didn't work so great for me (due mostly to me), and one which knocked it out the park. I would totally read number three. Alyssa Cole is pretty great.