Thursday, June 14, 2012

THOUGHTS-IN-PROGRESS on "Heart of Brass" by Kate Cross

The premise of the steampunk romance "Heart of Brass" is that Arden Grey, The Countess of Huntley, has been working as an undercover for the Wardens of the Realm. Her husband, Luke, who has been missing for seven years, shows up in London. Only, he's been brainwashed by the Warden's rival agency - the Company. Now known only as 'Five,' Lucas has been sent to assassinate Arden.

I like the premise, but the story and characters were falling flat for me. I stopped reading approximately 45% of the way through. Not because it made me angry, or that I found anything distasteful[1], it's just that nothing was working for me. (I might point out, though, that I was in a bit of a reading funk when I started reading this - I found myself reading the beginning of a lot of books, and then putting them down, feeling disinterested.) For some reason, the pacing in this book seemed all off -  both in terms of the plot, and in terms of character development.[2]

First, the characters. The concept of Arden was very cool - the chain (one link for every year her husband was missing) connecting her nose-piercing to her ear-piercing, along with the fact that she is a secret agent who invents things and works with Scotland Yard to solve murder cases - all of this painted a very cool picture of someone who could be a really cool character. Unfortunately, while this concept was so original, her actual appearances on page didn't feel at all out-of-the-ordinary. Her reactions, words and thoughts seemed so mundane for someone whose concept is so out of the ordinary. The characterization didn't work at all for me - although other characters (like Luke and Alistair) 'reacted' as if she were an original (one way to do indirect characterization, I suppose), I never really bought their reactions, since they didn't seem to me, to be prompted by her actions or words. As for Luke, the hero, there was some characterization (like some of his responses to Alistair, his former best friend), but these bits felt disjointed to me. When reading, I did stop and think 'oh here's a bit of characterization,' but none of those bits really cohered into an idea of what Luke was like, or helped me understand what his motivations were. I actually started thinking that he was a bit dim, spending all of those years following orders for the Company, staying loyal to them because they told him he was, especially when his own inclinations and traits (eg. to give orders instead of following them, his posh accent) were so contrary to what they somehow convinced him to believe.[3]

Second, I can never believe the emotional arc of a romance when I don't get the characters. I have this imagery in my head of the hero and the heroine being puzzle pieces, where their characterization is what forms the keyhole and key edges of the puzzle pieces. These edges are what get the two characters inextricably interlocked - i.e., in love. But the characters of the hero and heroine seemed to me as smooth as paper, so I couldn't see how their characters emotionally interlocked. I suppose that a reader could also consider the growth of the physical aspects of their relationship, and find that to be enough. But my personal reading style is that in the absence of an emotional connection, I could care less about a physical connection. (At least in something that's novel-length. If I feel like reading smut, a short story or novella is good enough. In fact, even when I have totally bought that the hero and heroine have fallen in love, I don't need to read pages of random sex. If the sex isn't 'behind the scenes', I want it to mark some change in their characters, or relationship, or the plot.)

As for the plotline, it didn't keep me reading. Things happened, but they seemed a bit random. When a plot grabs me, it's usually because the author somehow makes me believe that if I just knew a bit more, I would be able to figure things out and things would make sense. So I keep reading to try and figure it out. But when I was reading this, I couldn't see the hint of a coherent framework that would have made me keep on reading. Maybe if I had read previous things by the author, I would have had enough faith to keep reading, but this was not the case.

The world-building in "Heart of Brass" was ok. It's a bit difficult to gauge because I like the idea of a steampunk in general. These are my thoughts on my first pass. Since I suspect that I was in a reading funk though, I might try it again later, as it got a lot of really good reviews.

-------------------FOOT NOTES-------------------------

[1] Unlike Sherrilyn Kenyon's  'Dark Hunter' series - I was starting to really enjoy those books until what seemed like a possibly homophobic thread in Tabitha/Valerius's book [READ: Tabitha's comment that imagining Valerius and Acheron together was 'sick'. In order to continue reading the book, I chose to interpret 'sick' as 'super-awesome,' but felt uneasy], became quite overt homophobia in Alexion's book (where no amount of reader-interpretation could let me deny the fact that Alexion felt that gay men were of lesser value than straight men). Now, (i) I have no reason to believe that Sherrilyn Kenyon is homophobic, and (ii) I understand that there are people that think same-sex partnerships are unnatural in the world, and that this fact shouldn't be ignored in fiction, but I cannot enjoy a book where the hero or heroine (who, in a romance, we should be falling in love with) is a bigot. Can. Not. Not unless there's some serious redemption going on so that by the end of the book, the character has their views shaken up.

[2]The one that broke the streak was Elizabeth Hunter's 'A Hidden Fire,' where there was that 'click' that pulled me into the book. Unfortunately, while that book started really strong, I felt it petered out in the end.

[3] Although I should probably acknowledge that some people think that listening to higher authorities is the way to go, and that an individual doesn't have the right to decide what's right or wrong, or where their loyalties ought to lie. This always seemed problematic to me, but if it doesn't seem problematic to you, then maybe you'll think Luke did exactly what he ought to have.

THOUGHTS on "Master of Crows" by Grace Draven

Master of CrowsMaster of Crows by Grace Draven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Silhara, the "Master of Crows" is a reviled mage who finds himself in the unenviable position of being courted by an evil god. This evil god is rather determined to get Silhara as his enslaved avatar, so Silhara sends to the hated Conclave for an apprentice to help him find a way out. Martise, a slave owned by the High Bishop of the Conclave, is sent to his home in this capacity, having been told that if she finds evidence of Silhara's heresy, she will be freed from slavery.

I loved this book. I totally fell in love with Silhara, his bad-temperedness, his rumpled/scowling morning manner, and his directness with Martise. When he decided he wanted her, and that no substitute would do, he accepted it with no prolonged, tormented anguish about how she was a spy. He made the realization, made his decision, and then made his move. It was a nice change from over-angsting woe-is-me heroes, who anguish and act like jackasses towards the heroine because of their inability to make a resolution between facts of the world and their emotional needs. (end rant)

I also liked Martise. Her life has trained her to hold her tongue and be submissive, and her position as a servant/spy in Silhara's household reinforces this. Yet of course she finds herself being goaded into rebelliousness by Silhara's manner. And I liked how she could see through Silhara's claims of being immoral, and find humour.

Speaking of humour, I also really enjoyed how their relationship played out with rather humorous interactions that were intertwined with the plot. For example, Martise is trying to communicate with the High Bishop of the Conclave, who has told her that she must sing to his trained crow in order to send messages. Only, Martise has a very poor singing voice and Silhara's horrified reaction to it had me laughing. I also loved Silhara's attempt to assuage Martise's worry about her nudity when he is applying a salve to her sore muscles: he tells her that he had grown up in a brothel, and that unless she had something really unique, like three breasts, he wouldn't be curious enough to ogle her. I particularly loved how this came to be a joke between them when their interactions turned romantic. Like the previously mentioned interaction, this scene is fluidly interwoven with the plot - Silhara only notices Martise's soreness when he tries to avoid giving her magic lessons, and this avoidance was a consequence of his struggle with the god that is trying to make him his avatar.

As for the storyline, I loved how Martise's hidden magical "gift" (while it did come to save the day in the end), is, in the scale of things, a terrible thing that is of no use to her. It's so often the case that the hero/heroine in PNR realizes their hidden talents, and these talents are deus ex machina, For Martise, her hidden gift is primarily a way to bind and enslave her, and not a way for her to get power. So often these hidden gifts are escape hatches, and instead, Martise's gift is a terrible weakness. As a reader, I had expected it to be something wonderful, and when it turned out not to be, I sympathized with her as she grieved, and felt that her grief make her a stronger character mentally. This twist in the plot also introduced an (additional) complication into Martise and Silhara's relationship, as Silhara's magical disposition is such that he could take advantage of her weakness. Seeing them acknowledge this and deal with this (especially Silhara's piss-poor attempts at comfort) made their relationship feel much more real. I also love how Silhara, at this point, doesn't pull a standard alpha-male reaction and tell Martise that he'll protect her. Rather, he asks her to let him give her the means to protect herself.

The writing style was smooth and gorgeous. I'm really looking forward to anything else Grace Draven comes out with.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

THOUGHTS on "The Seduction of Phaeton Black" by Jillian Stone

The Seduction of Phaeton Black (Paranormal Investigator, #1)The Seduction of Phaeton Black by Jillian Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this one; there were a lot of points at the beginning of the book where I was tempted to stop reading. For example, I didn't realize that this was an erotic paranormal romance novel (as opposed to just being a paranormal romance novel). Thus a lot of the (what seemed to me like extraneous) sexual references bothered me - until I realized that it was just a different genre. I also found the heroine's behaviour in the beginning of the book to be extremely questionable - a lot of the decisions America makes, while not ending badly for her, would be considered by most people to be extremely poor judgement calls. Third, I found the hero, Phaeton Black, to be pushing the boundaries of what I would accept in a hero - he seemed vaguely disrespectful to women to me at first.

Despite this, I gave this book a high rating because once I got past (or ignored) those things, I found myself being drawn in by the plot, and I really enjoyed the second half of the book! While at first I found the heroine to be ridiculously naive, I found that once I was halfway through, having been pulled along by the plot, I actually liked her. And while at first I found the hero to be crude and disrespectful to women, the author did a good job of justifying his behaviour by showing the reader why he is the way he is, and not in a heavy-handed way. Phaeton also, I think, grows/changes throughout the course of the book, because of his relationship with the heroine. So by the end, I really liked him! And I thought the ending was ridiculously cute. I also liked the writing style and the balance between humour and drama. I still do think that the heroine's poor judgement calls (while maybe necessary for developing their romantic relationship), given the fact that her poor judgement was never seriously addressed, are problematic. But the fact that the author managed to "come from behind" despite this, and deliver an otherwise satisfying and entertaining book impressed me, and is likely what underlies my high rating.

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THOUGHTS on "A Hidden Fire" by Elizabeth Hunter

A Hidden Fire (Elemental Mysteries Book #1)A Hidden Fire by Elizabeth Hunter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the first half of this book (it pulled me out of a reading slump), but the second half didn't live up to my expectations. I kept expecting the stakes to rise, or for the plot to kick it into high gear, but the climax of the book seemed rather simple and low-key to me. It mostly went off without a hitch. The post-climax (in Chile) was also a bit disappointing in that it didn't seem well-integrated into the overall structure of the book. I think it was supposed to (it also succeeded in) developing the relationship between the two main characters, but I felt like it was contrived solely for that purpose. I would have enjoyed it more if their developing relationship was more interwoven with the circumstances of the plot.

I also had a few issues with the characterization. In particular, other characters kept informing me that the heroine, B, was clever/smart, but I had trouble believing it since the evidence for their assertions seemed, to me, rather slim. There were instances where she was very composed under circumstance where we might expect a freak-out, but I don't equate composure with cleverness. We know she works in a library and are told she loves books, but again, being rather bookish myself, I'm fairly sure bookishness doesn't entail being smart. We are also shown circumstances where she shows a high degree of skill, but this wasn't presented in a way that made me think "oh wow, she IS smart." Bea seemed to present a normal degree of intelligence to me, which normally wouldn't bother me...except for the fact that other characters in the book kept telling me she was smart!

Another little thing that bothered me in the characterization is that Bea and Giovanni were very often smirking in circumstances where I didn't think smirks were warranted - smiles yes, but smirks no. Although maybe this is just a lexical quirk of mine, where 'smirk' indicates a derisive smile, and pretty much acts as an indication of someone finding humour in someone's (usually someone else's) unenviable circumstances. Since this is what 'smirk' evokes for me, it made the characters seem oddly derisive of each other, until started pretending that 'smirk' just meant 'smile.'

Overall, a good book, but I don't know if I'll read the next one. I actually had a hard time forcing myself through the "teaser" for the next book, I cared so little what was happening.

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THOUGHTS on "A Night Like This" by Julia Quinn (or why her newer books don't seem to work for me(\)

A Night Like This (Smythe-Smith Quartet #2)A Night Like This by Julia Quinn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One thing I enjoyed about Quinn's previous books are that they are highly character-driven; there is often little plot, and little world-building (these being wallpaper historicals), but the books are still engaging purely because of the character development, and the development of the relationship between hero and heroine. My reading preferences are such that I take this development of the characters and their relationship to be THE key element in a romance.

The reason why I think Quinn's newer work, like "A Night Like This" (and "Just Like Heaven" to an even higher degree) doesn't work as well for me as her earlier work (eg, "The Viscount who Loved Me" and "The Duke and I"), is that the obstacles that the characters face in these books are external, as opposed to internal. So, whereas Anthony and Kate's obstacles in "The Viscount who Loved Me" were personal demons (fear of storms, of dying young), the obstacles facing Anne and Daniel in "A Night Like This" are external (the possibility of Sir George Chervil's threat to Anne, Lord Ramsgate's fury at Daniel, society frowning upon a match between an Earl and a governess). While there is nothing inherently wrong with having external obstacles as opposed to internal ones, they are problematic in a wallpaper historical, where the circumstances of external world are not as mitigating as they would be in a more traditional historical. More specifically, I feel like the external obstacles in "A Night like This" were too easily resolved, and led to little or no growth on the part of the characters. For books that are mostly character-driven, this is a huge loss.

Take the frowned-upon match between an Earl and a governess as an example. Many of Anne's decisions were affected by the reasonable assumption that Daniel could never marry her, due to the strictures of the society they live in. This view of the world was reiterated by side-characters (eg. Lady Pleinsworth), and seemed to pose a serious problem. But the resolution of this problem was hardly a resolution at all - the hero just ignores the strictures of society, decides to marry her, and the consequences of this decision are not addressed at all. This obstacle fails to develop Daniel and Anne's characters in any interesting way, and also makes the world they live in feel inconsistent. It's as if Anne is living in a traditional historical, but Daniel is living in a wallpaper historical (sometimes).

Another thing that I often enjoyed about Quinn's previous novels is the quirkiness of the side characters, which often shows up in the cute dialogue sequences. At some points in this book (and the previous in the Smythe-Smith quartet), however, some of the dialogue seemed too random and irrelevant, to the point where it was slightly irritating.

Having said that, however, I did enjoy reading the book, even though it didn't engage me as much as I would have preferred. Daniel and Anne are likeable characters, and the side-characters are too.

If you liked this book, I'd read: Her earlier work! I particularly enjoyed "The Viscount who Loved Me" and "The Duke and I."

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