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Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Jinx High, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Jinx High (Diana Tregarde #3)JinxHigh
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy (more suburban fantasy, really)
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

The third and final Diana Tregarde novel, Jinx High sees Tregarde visiting suburban sprawl in the Midwest at the behest of an old friend who senses something going terribly wrong in his town, but can’t place his finger on what it is. Strange accidents keep happening, claiming the lives of teenagers — and they all seem to center around blond, beautiful, perfect Fay Harper, queen bee of her high school. She’s hellbent on eliminating rivals, like newcomer Monica Carlin, and she’s sinking her claws into a series of boys, including Deke Kestral — whose parents happen to be ex-members of the Spook Squad Diana Tregarde ran in college. She comes in under the pretense of assistant-teaching a creative writing class at Deke’s high school, where she also becomes a mentor to Monica, an aspiring writer.

What’s interesting here is that we get a lot more of Diana from an outside viewpoint than in the other novels, with both Deke and Monica providing an external perspective. Even in the other two books, when we do see Diana from someone else’s eyes, it’s somebody who already knew her, like Mark in Burning Water. Here, we see how she’s interpreted by two teenagers who don’t know her and who have no reason to trust her, which makes for some interesting tension. Monica, under magical attack from an unknown source (which the reader knows to be Fay), eventually decides she has no choice but to trust Diana — but she’s still wary, worried that Diana could be the source of her troubles, luring her into a false sense of security. Deke, on the other hand, has no idea his parents have magical talents, and so when his dad asks Diana to come stay to sort things out in town while Deke’s mom happens to be out of town, Deke assumes the worst. He’s psychic, too, but has been powerfully shielded by his parents to protect him, but that also means he’s been kept ignorant and thus has never learned to manage his potential power himself.

Thanks to its setting, Jinx High is way more of a teen novel than the other two books in the series — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Lackey writes incredibly convincing teeangers. Monica and Deke are among the “good guys”, but they’re not perfect, and they have some very teenage flaws — they’re pushing boundaries, willing to be a little petty, a little snippy, a little ungrateful. And Fay uses the social tensions swirling about to build her own power in an interesting way. When she realizes that someone’s pushing back against her, she initially thinks it’s Monica and redoubles her efforts. Diana’s ready for her, though, even though it takes her a long time to figure out where the magic is coming from, thanks to some sophisticated misdirection on Faye’s part. There’s also an under-developed side plot involving an ancient Native American spirit sleeping beneath the city who must not be awoken at any cost. It serves to raise the stakes a bit, but isn’t used for much else. This novel almost escapes Lackey’s perpetual issue with abrupt climaxes. There’s a really great magical battle between Diana and Fay, with great energy, high stakes, and prolonged tension. Unfortunately… that’s the penultimate confrontation. The final bit goes by as fast as ever, and with half of the pertinent characters in another location. And the wrap-up, as is typical, happens in about a page and a half. I will confess, however, that Lackey got me with Fay. I totally guessed wrong what she was all about and where her power came from, so I was pleased to encounter a thoroughly unexpected plot twist.

I would say I liked this book better than Children of the Night but not as well as Burning Water. Definitely worth a read for fans of urban fantasy. It’s sad that Lackey stopped writing these due to poor sales back in the early ’90s, because I think the market would eat them up now. Despite her flaws, Tregarde’s a far better heroine than Kim Harrison’s Rachel. It could also be great to re-invent the idea of her Spook Squad, hinted at throughout this trilogy but, since it apparently existed in the late-60s and early-70s, never actually seen, for the modern age.

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Children of the Night, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Children of the Night (Diana Tregarde #2)ChildrenoftheNight
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 320 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

My first problem with this book is figuring out when it’s set relative to Burning Water. Though the second book in the series, published later, it seems to take place earlier. Much earlier, perhaps. 10-15 years earlier, possibly, given that Burning Water is explicitly set in the late ’80s, but Children of the Night has all these weird references to Watergate. But that’s never made exactly clear, and that sort of thing will bother me for an entire book.

Sometime in the 1970s-ish, Diana Tregarde is living in New York, helping out a friend by keeping an eye on her occult store while the friend is out of town. A lot of her days there involve protecting wanna-bes from themselves, protecting dabblers from . As a Guardian, she has to help anyone who asks for it, so when a young Romany boy shows up looking for sanctuary, she helps to cover his tracks — but she can’t move fast enough to save him from the predatory “Master” Jeffries, an elusive creeper who sets off Diana’s alarms the first time she sees him. Unfortunately, Diana’s also dealing with psychic blowback from a mysterious earlier encounter with a damaging paranormal creature, which Lackey dangles over the reader’s head for most of the book and then only sort of explains to any satisfaction.

By twist of fate, Jeffries is also the new de facto manager of Wanderlust, a rock band for which Dave, one of Diana’s ex-boyfriends, currently plays. Jeffries exerts some strange control over Dave and his bandmates, transforming them into the super-successful Children of the Night — but at a high price. Dave finds himself constantly tired except when he’s playing music, hardly able to function during daylight hours, and ravenously hungry all the time. And then his bandmates start turning seriously sadistic. Dave has to decide whether to get with their game or to find some way to retain his sanity and morality despite Jeffries’s influence. Eventually, Diana traces some weird deaths to Jeffries, and the plots collide.

Children of the Night is a weaker book in many ways than Burning Water, and that combined with the earlier setting makes me wonder if this wasn’t written first but published later. Diana Tregarde is a less compelling character, more waffly, less capable. The secondary “protagonist” (a term I’m using pretty loosely here) isn’t terribly sympathetic. And the writing itself just isn’t as strong. There’s a heavy over-reliance on italics, both for emphasis and for internal monologues. Lackey has her usual problem with the rapidity of the climax and denouement (and I really look forward to the day when I can review one of her books without noting that), but through the rest of the book, the tension builds at a good pace.

I do enjoy this book’s approach to vampires (never a favorite theme of mine in general). The antagonists are two different types of non-traditional vampires: psychic vampires, who feed off of energy rather than blood, and the gaki, a hungry spirit which can take the form of smoke or mist. Tregarde draws from Japanese tradition for the gaki, though the creature actually seems to originate in Indian folklore. And then there’s the actual vampire, the traditional blood-sucking kind, who undermines the stereotypes in satisfying ways. If more modern paranormal followed the same lines as Lackey’s early entries into the urban-fantasy genre, I might be more interested in them on the whole. From back in 1990, she puts Meyer and Harrison utterly to shame.

So, overall, I think this is the weakest Diana Tregarde novel, but it’s still a fine investment of a few hours. The plot is captivating enough, the psychic vampires are a nice modern twist on an ancient concept, and Lackey’s exploration of magical concepts is always entertaining.

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Burning Water, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Burning Water (Diana Tregarde #1)BurningWater
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Something strange is going on in Dallas: a series of animal mutilations, grouped in threes and spaced about three weeks apart, growing in intensity and in general gruesomeness with each new cycle. When the crimes turn from animal slaughter to murder of Dallas residents, detective Mark Valdez calls in the cavalry in the form of his old friend Diana Tregarde, a Guardian with considerable magical powers. Mark’s psychically sensitive, himself, and has gotten the whiff of something supernatural around these murders. He brings Di on as a “cult specialist”, so far as the DFW PD is concerned, to cover for the occult matters they begin investigating.

The culprits, Mark and Diana learn (and the reader knows from the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away here) are reincarnations of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca and his handmaidens, in the bodies of a fashion photographer and his four native-blooded muses. Driven by the deities inhabiting them, they set out on a crusade to rid their America of the invaders who stole it from the Aztec people a few centuries ago. (Exactly why they move up out of Mexico and into Dallas to do this is never 100% explained, but never mind). Their ritual sacrifices are ratcheting up to something big, and it’s up to Mark and Diana to figure out what and to stop them.

This is not just urban fantasy, but also a great thriller. Mark and Diana have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and while the reader does get to see behind the villains’ scenes as well, that doesn’t answer all of the questions from the start, so there’s still a lot to discover along with the protagonists. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the gore: the descriptions of what happens to Tezcatlipoca’s victims are unsparing, and it really helps to drive the sense of urgency to the novel. As with most of her books, Lackey demonstrates a firm grasp of how the magic in her world works, which I always appreciate. Magic has to have rules, and fantasy novels that ignore that tend to piss me off. Lackey knows what she’s doing in that regard: Diana operates in certain ways based on her own internal power, whereas the Aztecans are stealing power from those that they sacrifice, and then the power manifests in ways that make sense. I don’t know enough about Aztec mythology or culture to know how accurately she portrays any of it, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of line, and it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual Old World representations of magic.

What I find really cool is that — this book feels more modern than it is. Ignoring a few fashion references, the limitations of computers, and the lack of cell phones, it has the energy and edginess I associate with more recent entries in the urban fantasy genre. It was also one of the first books to treat with modern paganism as something, well, normal. I mean, overlooking the resurrected Aztec gods and things. But for a book written in 1989 and set in 1986, it does a lot to normalize paganism as a religion, and I enjoyed seeing the view of it from that far back.

This book does have the somewhat typical Lackey problem of rushed climax, but it does at least allow a little room for denouement. I actually find the penultimate incident, just before Mark and Diana go to the final confrontation, super-interesting and inventive. Lackey also does get somewhat heavy-handed with the metaphysical explanations at a few points. I don’t really mind it, since I enjoy reading about those things and contemplating them, but to someone with less investment in them, I can see where it could start to grate. I also wonder how much of that has to be attributed to its publication date, when less of the reading public was likely to be familiar with the concepts she’s describing.

However, despite those drawbacks, I can cheerfully recommend Burning Water to urban fantasy fans of all stripes, especially if you’re interested in getting a somewhat earlier look at the genre. I think particularly anyone who enjoys Kim Harrison’s work or the Sookie Stackhouse novels would find a lot to appreciate in Diana Tregarde. I personally like it much, much better than I liked the few Hollows novels I managed to get through, not least because it has a more sensible heroine and a world with better internal consistency. I’d also recommend it to someone who enjoys the Pendergast novels but also enjoys fantasy, because these have a similar tone to Preston & Child’s work, particularly to some of the earlier books in the series — just that where P&C use speculative science as their prime motivator, Lackey uses magic. Similar feel, but different forces at work.

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Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

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Fables #2: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #2: Animal FarmFables2
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha
Year of Publication: 2002-2003
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel: magical realism, fairy-tale/folklore
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

I know most people prefer this volume to the first, but I diverge from popular opinion here. The concept here is quite good, but I find the execution rushed and a little lacking.

As punishment for faking her own death — and ostensibly so the sisters can spend some quality time reconnecting — Rose Red has to go with Snow White for her annual visit up to the Farm, a protected area in upstate New York where all those Fables live who cannot pass for human. This includes the menagerie of talking animals as well as sentient bits of clothing and crockery, Lilliputians, mythical creatures, and other assorted beings. Some few “passing” humans live there, as well — the Old Woman has chosen that location rather than give up living in her Shoe, for example — but by and large, the population is bestial. And their forced segregation is causing problems. Snow White arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a highly suspect meeting, where the animals are purportedly discussing the prospect of returning to their Homelands — and she discovers that Weyland Smith, who had been in charge of the Farm, has mysteriously decided to “retire” without telling anyone.

Things take a swift and sudden turn for the worse when Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, turns up murdered. Unlike in the first volume, Willingham doesn’t play coy with the mystery here — the reader learns quickly that Goldilocks and the Three Bears are behind it. Goldi has turned into quite the reactionary, guiding the revolt of the Farm community not out of any real idealism but simply because she seems to have gotten a taste for violence. (There’s also a pretty disturbing revelation regarding the nature of her relationship with Baby Bear). She musters the troops with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm that would do any third-world dissident proud, and Snow finds herself on the run, pursued by half the predators in legend.

My favourite character in this volume is definitely Reynard the fox, suave trickster but loyal friend to Snow, who plays a vital role in tamping down the insurgency. I also enjoy that this volume introduces a concept that becomes quite important later on — that the more popular a Fable’s story is, the more resilient the character is to destruction. Some, as you can imagine, are nigh-indestructible — while others, whose stories have faded from mundie culture, have more to worry about.

Not much happens back in the city while all of this is going on, but Willingham drops a lot of tantalising hints, both about other characters and about the way the Fables community functions — again, all things that will be important later. I appreciate this for the sense of wholeness that it gives. I love world-building, and I love when all the details and side stories are well-thought-out, even if we don’t get to see them in their entirety yet.

The art is nice in this volume — full of details, especially in the crowd scenes. The violence and gore are appropriately disturbing. These are not Bowdlerized fairy tales — but a lot closer to the spirit of the original tales, to be sure. Everything has a price, and sometimes that price is blood. Fables doesn’t pull its punches in that regard.

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Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Beauty and the Werewolf (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms #6)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 408 pages
Genre: fantasy romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active, because there’s no way to discuss what I liked and disliked about this book without “giving away” the ending.

This book suffers from its predictability. And that’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here, and I did enjoy this book — but very much in a fluffy, easy-to-digest sort of way. This book is the latest in Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I generally enjoy but which are far from the best fairy tale adaptations out there. She’s starting turning them into mash-ups more than just retellings, and this one smushes Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood (as though the cover didn’t give those things away). So we meet Bella (and as a sidebar: is anyone else really sick of that name for heroines? Which is a shame, because it’s a lovely name, really, but Twilight has just caused it to be so overplayed. Especially as short for Isabella. Couldn’t we get more creative? Arabella? Annabella? Orabella? Something?), the eldest daughter of a merchant, who has for years run her household, keeping her stepmother and stepsisters in line. She also periodically makes trips out into the woods to chat with “Granny”, a wisewoman who lives out there — and while coming back from one of these jaunts, she gets nipped by a werewolf. When the King’s forces find out what happened to her, they essentially kidnap her and take her to the home of Duke Sebastian — the werewolf — for a quarantine to see if she’s infected. Sebastian’s werewolf curse is a great secret, kept from the world at large, and though not only a Duke but a magician in his own right, he is looked after by his illegitimate half-brother, Eric, a woodsman and gamekeeper who patrols the forests to try and keep everyone safe from him. Ostensibly. We first meet Eric when he’s sexually assaulting women at a party in town, and then when he encounters Bella in the woods and mistakes her for a peasant girl rather than the daughter of someone of consequence, he tries to coerce her into having sex with him — and as good as says that he takes that “in trade” when he catches female poachers, in exchange for letting them off. So he’s pretty clearly a sleaze and set up from the very beginning to be the villain.

I was so hoping he wouldn’t be. If Lackey hadn’t given him those casual rapist qualities, he would’ve been a really interesting character — because he knows his trade well, and . So I kept vaguely hoping that he would turn out to be other than he seemed and that someone else would be the real villain, because it would’ve allowed him to be a much stronger character. The trouble is that… we never meet anyone else. If Eric was a red herring, there was never any indication of who he might be a red herring for, so it’s pretty clear that there are not, in fact, any other villains in the story. And the other problem is that — again, casual rapist qualities aside — he’s a much more interesting character than our theoretical male hero, Sebastian, who is pretty much just a complete milksop. As is often the case in the Five Hundred Kingdoms stories — and this has been a criticism I’ve had of the whole series — the love story seems completely slapped on. There’s really no reason for Bella to fall for him except proximity, and we don’t get any emotional depth out of either of them. They just sort of… decide to get married because of … reasons. It’s odd. These books would, on the whole, be better without the romance angle at all.

All of that said — there are things to like about this book. I didn’t find Bella as annoying as it seems some Goodreads reviewers did. I thought she actually avoided a lot of pitfalls, and if there were points that were a little too “look how unconventional a female she is!”, well, that’s often true of many of the historical romances I read as well. The very best parts of the book, in my estimation, were the ones where Bella was interacting with the invisible servants, learning to communicate with them, and learning from them. That was very clever on Lackey’s part. They’re sort of wraiths (in a ghostly way, not a Dementor way), largely stripped of memory and personality, but a few of them hold a sense of themselves as individuals, and the way they interact with Bella is a lot of fun to watch develop. I always enjoy when she thinks about magic and explains its workings in new ways. Some of Sebastian’s practices are definitely reminiscent of her Elemental Masters series as well, and it gives a little more shape to magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms. We also see Godmother Elena back again for a cameo, which is a nice sense of continuity.

Overall, this is perfectly serviceable fluff. Not exquisite, and I’m pretty sure that The Fire Rose is a far superior version of this story from Lackey, but it was a quick and enjoyable enough read.

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