Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tribute to Nalini Singh's "Archangel's Storm"

Mahiya and Jason from Nalini Singh's "Archangel's Storm"

Apparently, the key to me not taking forever to paint is to listen to audiobooks while I paint. Since I couldn't very well listen to "Archangel's Storm" again, the majority of this was painted while listening to "Lirael" by Garth Nix (narrated by Tim Curry!). 

I had fun painting Mahiya's wings, but I'm really unhappy with the rest of her - she, or her pose, looks super frozen/stiff, like an Egyptian painting or something. And her neck/head-agle, argh. #learningexperience

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tribute to Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter Series: Elena and Raphael

Started drawing/painting this last week, finished just now - they're supposed to be Elena and Raphael from Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter series. I listened to both Archangel's Blade and Archangel's Storm (from that series) while painting this.

Owly Images
Elena and Raphael from Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter Series
I'm not happy with the hands, or the clothes, but think it's better than the Ivy Blacksmith one that took me much longer.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tribute to "Here there be monsters"

One excellent thing about audiobooks is that unlike reading the actual book, your eyes are free to do things. Like paint. The first audiobook I got from Audible was Meljean Brook's "Here there be monsters," a novella set in her "Iron Seas" universe. I started painting this picture of the heroine, Ivy Blacksmith, while listening to it. Got no clue how I should have done the water...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

THOUGHTS on "Lord's Fall" by Thea Harrison

Lord's Fall (Elder Races, #5)Lord's Fall by Thea Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lord's Fall by Thea Harrison

Thea Harrison's "Elder Races" series is set in an alternative earth, where the Elves, Fae, Witches, Wyr (which are like shapeshifters), Vampires, and Demons (including things like Djinn) make up what are referred to as the "Elder Races." The Elder Races are divided into demesnes, categorized roughly as above, whose central governing powers are based in (alternative versions) of urban centres such as New York (for the Wyr), Charleston (for the Elves), Houston (for the Demons) and San Francisco (for Vampires). The series kicks off with "Dragon Bound," in which Pia, our heroine, who just wants to keep her her head down and out of trouble, is blackmailed by her ex into stealing something from the Great Beast, Dragos Cuelebre, leader of all Wyr Kind. By the end of the book, Pia is thrust into an extremely high-profile position, being mated to the high-profile Dragos, with the worry that too many people will figure out her dangerous secrets. The ensuing books in the series focus on other high-level players in the world of the Elder Races.

"Lord's Fall" is the fifth book in Thea Harrison's "Elder Races" series, and it is a return to Pia and Dragos. I loved this book. It's tightly-written, the stakes are high, there are scenes of glory and tragedy, and there's lots of humour sprinkled throughout the book[1]. The external conflict is believably driven by the world-building and events from previous books, and the progress of internal conflict in the book is believable as well. The character's actions are understandable given their personalities and circumstances.

I'll talk about the external conflict first. The premise for the plot of "Lord's Fall" is two-fold: (i) Pia is headed to Charleston as a diplomatic envoy to the Elves, and (ii) Dragos is forced to stay in New York for the 'Sentinel Games', an event he is holding in order to find replacements for members of his sentinels. The wonderful thing about these premises is that they aren't random or stipulatory plot devices introduced solely to separate Pia and Dragos; they are the natural consequences of events introduced in previous books. In the first book, "Dragon Bound," Dragos breaks a treaty with the Elves when he crosses over Demesne borders in order to track down Pia; this is why Pia is on an diplomatic envoy. Book 2 "Storm's Heart" and Book 3 "Serpent's Kiss" each have as their hero, one of Dragos' sentinals. Both books result in the hero becoming mated to an individual with political affiliations that exclude the possibility of the hero remaining a sentinal, hence the necessity of the Sentinal Games. And finally, these plot premises compel the action towards a climax that ties in neatly with events from "Oracle's Moon" (Book 4).

As for the internal conflict and character development, I really loved how this was done. In PNR it's very often the case that the obstacles standing between the hero and heroine are due to stupid misunderstandings and murkily motivated actions on the character's parts. This is not at all the case in "Lord's Fall." The complexities in Pia and Dragos' relationships are completely understandable. Pia is 25 year-old half-Wyr who has just come into her power, Dragos is millenia of years old, has wielded influence over whatever he's wanted to for centuries, and has only had to pretend to be civilized when he wanted to. There's a huge power differential between them, and their mating has forced them into a position where they should be partners on an equal footing. Figuring out how they are going to interact as mates is not a trivial issue. One of the things I loved about this book is how Dragos and Pia are reasonable adults in how they approach these complexities. Although neither of them are pushovers regarding what they need from their relationship, they are honest with each other (and themselves) about why they take the actions they do.

This book made me like Dragos more than I did in book 1. In Book 1, Dragos was sometimes described as being clever, but I wasn't quite sure I believed it - he seemed like a rather standard PNR alpha male, whose brain reverts to a caveman mentality when it comes to interacting with their mate. But the way he was portrayed in "Lord's Fall" made me believe that he was clever. Now that he's mated to Pia and can't avoid the complexities associated with their emotional relationship, he shows that he's perceptive and clear-thinking when it comes to assessing their problems; he reflects on his actions when Pia disagrees with him, and independently comes to the conclusion that indulgence and tolerance are forms of autocracy, and that if he really wants their relationship to work, he needs to find a way to truly compromise. This book also made me like Pia more than I did in book 1. I like how she's tough, unwilling to back down when Dragos is domineering, and I also like how she's not stupidly stubborn about pushing at his domineering ways on principle; she can assess when pushing her case would worsen the situation and acts accordingly. I've also come around to appreciating how Pia is unashamed of (i) being somewhat girly (painting her toenails, and putting on makeup) and (i) being a non-predatory wyr surrounded by extremely powerful predatory wyr.

Final verdict? As you can probably tell, I loved it. My criteria for what I satisfies me in a book is that it should be funny, sad, gritty and grand (taking a quote form Vivian Vande Velde). This book definitely hits three of these criteria - it's funny, gritty and grand. There were also parts where the events that occur are objectively sad, but I didn't even mind that these didn't tug on my heartstrings. This is because I'm fairly certain they weren't supposed to, seeing as they were told from Dragos' rather callous/calculating point of view. "Lord's Fall" book wasn't completely perfect for my reading tastes though - for instance, didn't find Eva, introduced as a major secondary character, to be a very interesting character. Yet. And although the writing style is tight (in that there were no parts where I wondered "What is the point of this passage?"), I could only make this judgement after I re-accustomed myself to the liberal pop culture references[2].

-----Foot Notes------

[1] Although nothing as good as the "Snakes on a Plane" reference in "Serpent's Kiss." That was amazing.

[2] The reference to pop-culture bothered me when I first started reading the series. I still don't quite see the point of mentioning that their smartphones are iphones, or letting me know exactly which Tupac song is playing in the car. (Unless this is a hilarious reference to a terrible Samuel L. Jackson movie.) But everything else in the book is so good that I can ignore the pop-culture references after a while. Unlike the pop-culture references in J. R. Ward's BDB series, which annoy me to distraction.

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THOUGHTS on "Archangel's Storm" by Nalini Singh

Archangel's Storm (Guild Hunter, #5)Archangel's Storm by Nalini Singh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I enjoyed "Archangel's Storm" very much, I didn't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Gorgeous prose, solid world-development, and a tightly woven plot, but I was left wanting more, in terms of the relationship between Jason and Mahiya, and in terms of the development of the series' overarching plot. Although I know that the relationship between Jason and Mahiya wasn't supposed to be the tumultuous love-across-centuries angst-fest that was Dimitri and Honor in the previous book in the series, and I can appreciate slow and quiet romances, I wanted the emotion to be a bit deeper than it was, and for the overall stakes to have gotten higher than they got. There were hints of change afoot, in terms of a change in the structure of the Cadre of Ten, but at the end, the questions I wanted answered were left unanswered.

In terms of the romance, the relationship between the hero and heroine depends largely, for me, on getting to know the characters, and through this, understanding why they are falling in love with each other. I think that because both Jason and Mahiya are such quiet, understated characters, it was little hard for me to see how they were falling in love.

For instance, although I liked Mahiya as a character, I didn't see any aspect to her character that was outstanding in a way that would make her different from other women, i.e., that would make her the woman that could break through Jason's emotional barricades. Mahiya is not emotionally weak - she has survived for decades in terrible circumstances, trapped by people much more powerful than her. But she didn't seem extraordinarily strong to me either. For instance, we can compare her with Ashaya Alleine, the heroine from Singh's fifth installment in her Psy-Changeling Series . Ashaya was similarly trapped in a bad position by people with much more power than she had. But I clearly remember getting to the part of HtP where Ashaya gives her first broadcast, exposing the Council's evil plans, and coolly lying about the Omega project so that the Council's plans will sink. I remember thinking that this heroine, who has no changeling claws, weak Psy physiology, and a completely unaggressive Psy specialty, nonetheless had holy-shit-balls-of-steel. I didn't find that moment like that with Mahiya. Although a moment like that isn't really necessary - after all, it's not as if women who don't have holy-shit-balls-of-steel don't deserve love - I just felt myself wanted more from her, some sort of uniqueness/extraordinariness, to understand why she was the one that Jason fell in love with.

As for Jason, although we learn a lot about his past, and can infer that he has vulnerabilities, Jason is so strong and quiet that we only ever see his tiny glimpses of his vulnerabilities. Even at the end of the book, his behaviour continued to mask outward expression of these vulnerabilities. This is why I also have a problem when I try to understand why Jason is the one that Mahiya falls in love with. When Mahiya notes that she has had experience with other men, but that Jason was the only one that had ever engendered such feelings in her - but I couldn't quite understand how she could fall in love with such a closed book. Objectively, I can understand that this portrayal of Jason is likely intentional - part of his core character is his strength and quiet, so that even close observers will only ever see a peek of vulnerability. But subjectively, I wanted to get to know Jason better, to better understand how his words and actions were a product of his extraordinary history and circumstances.

The third aspect of a romance, besides the hero and heroine, is, of course, the relationship between them, and how it grows. Although I liked what developed, and how it developed, but I wanted just a little bit more. Jason and Mahiya's relationship at the end of the book is a little unsure, not set in stone; there are a lot of issues about how their relationship will work that are left unresolved.

The same is true for the plot development. I wanted just a little bit more. The unexpected parallels in power between Neha and Nivitri are a fascinating plot twist, and the war between the two factions is high-stakes, but I missed the sense of a gradual build-up towards the plot climax. The result is that the plot climax seems somewhat backgrounded, and less urgent than other (more satisfying) plot climaxes. The consequences of Neha and Nivitri's power parallels is also left unanswered, which left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. One thing to note, however, is that this is not a stand-alone book. It's book 5 of a Nalini Singh series, and a Nalini Singh series is not a set of loosely connected books, but a set of books that are tightly interwoven in an overarching storyline. This means that I'm storing this vague sense of disatisfaction in a temporary holding space in my mind, because I have faith that Ms. Singh will address all of these things in later books - not just the unresolved consequences with respect to the plot, but also the further development of Jason and Mahiya's relationship.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

THOUGHTS on "The Masque of the Black Tulip" by Lauren Willig

The Masque of the Black Tulip (Pink Carnation, #2)The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don't mind historical wallpapers, where the historical circumstances don't have much impact on the character's choices and actions. But if the social circumstances of the historical period are just wallpaper for a romance novel, then I expect either the plot, or complex aspects of the hero/heroine's character (or some combination of those) to drive/constrain the hero and heroine in a similar way. I didn't feel like "The Masque of the Black Tulip" succeeded at this.

Plot-wise, I felt like it takes too long for the stakes to raise. For the majority of the book, the external "conflict" is a vague threat of the french spy, the Black Tulip, being in London. It isn't until the last ten percent of the book that the threat becomes better-defined. There is also a lack of internal conflict driving their choices/actions. Henrietta's background is pretty nondramatic. Miles' background is slightly more interesting in that he was for the most part, abandoned by his family. But even given this, there aren't situations where it seems like Miles' background is clearly driving his decisions.

So, because the external conflict is so vaguely-defined for so long, and there isn't really any motivating internal conflict, I often had trouble understanding why Miles and Henrietta behave in the ways that they do. Consequently, many of Miles and Henrietta's interactions seemed contrived and random to me, and I didn't really feel compelled to keep reading (until I hit that last 10%). I do always like the "friends-fall-in-love" trope, though, and I do think that Willig does do a good job showing how close Miles and Henrietta are. I just would have liked the book better if there was something compelling the progression of the book's build-up to its climax.

If you liked this book, I'd read: I prefer Joanna Bourne's "Spymaster" Series - more complexity, more gravity, and more heartstring-tugging. Or, if you liked how light this was, and you liked Miles and Henrietta's random conversations, I'd try Julia Quinn's "Just Like Heaven." (...although there are no spies)

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