Tag Archives: historical romance

The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, by Madeline Hunter

Title: The Conquest of Lady Cassandra (Fairbourne Quartet#2)ConquestLadyCassandra
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.75 stars

Someday I’m going to read one of Madeline Hunter’s series in the right order. I somehow managed to pick up #2 without having read #1, which I intend to rectify.

Cassandra Vernham is notorious but not quite ruined, thanks to a complicated bit of personal history. Six years ago, she was technically though not properly compromised by a man, and then refused to marry him. That man later got himself stupidly killed in a duel which everyone assumed was over her, further scandalizing her reputation. Estranged from her family thanks to all of this, she spends a few years in Europe with her aunt, then returns home to London and tries to get on with life as best she can. She’s not totally ostracized and still has some friends, but she’s not thoroughly accepted, either, and she tends to end up in vaguely-written items in the gossip columns. Years later, one of her rejected beau’s friends, Viscount Ambury (whose proper name is, tragically, Yates) has taken up private investigation as a bit of a hobby, and is looking into the possibility that some jewels Cassandra sold at auction were stolen — from his own family. Entanglements ensue. Cassandra needs the money because her brother is trying

This one rates just below average for me for a lot of reasons — and it isn’t even that it’s a bad book. It’s just that it left me unfulfilled. I initially gave it a solid 3 stars, but I keep thinking of more things I disliked about it, so I had to knock a bit more off.

The biggest problem is that I just don’t believe in this as a love story. It’s an interesting story, but not a believable romance. I believe that Yates and Cassandra feel attraction and friendship for each other. Once they get over a variety of trust issues, they seem to know how to communicate with each other. But I don’t believe that they feel abiding passion or deep love. The story just plain never gets us there. The heat is sexual but not emotional. Theirs will be a really good marriage of convenience — but it still feels like just that. Hunter never manages to elevate them beyond that point. The title is also misleading. There’s no conquest. Neither Cassandra’s physical nor emotional self is at any point overthrown. She makes a logical decision to preserve her aunt’s future, and she chooses Ambury as the lesser of two evils. It’s all very cerebral, very detached.

I also had issues with some unanswered questions, and while I freely admit some of that might be due to missing the first book in the series, I really doubt all of it is. Ambury’s motives throughout are somewhat vague and mutable. We never really get a good idea of what he does in his moonlighting as an investigator — how long he’s been doing it, how it makes him money, what other cases he’s taken — it’s just sort of a slapped-on detail, not a fully realized character point. The information about Cassandra’s past is sort of annoyingly withheld until very late in the book, and the last-minute turn just seems odd and out of place.

None of that is to say the book is without its advantages. I actually enjoyed the process of reading it, and got through it quickly. The story is compelling — it just isn’t what’s on the tin, you know? Watching Yates and Cassandra negotiate around each other, around their friends, around her brother, is all interesting. I like the slightly different setting (though the publishers need to know not to refer to something set in 1798 as Regency) and the sociopolitical spin that puts on things. And I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the series, because I generally like Hunter’s writing, and I especially like how she interrogates what romance does to friendship. Not a lot of romance authors do that, even if they’re using the conceit to string together a series. Hunter’s romances, on the whole, seem more grounded in reality than others in the genre — which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t. After all, this genre is generally a fantasy as much as anything involving dragons or magic.

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Twelfth Night Secrets, by Jane Feather

Title: Twelfth Night SecretsTwelfthNightSecrets
Author: Jane Feather
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 257 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.25 stars

After Harriet’s brother, an English spy, dies while on assignment in France, the government taps Harriet to find out if his former partner, Julius Forsythe, Earl of Marbury, was the double-agent who killed him. Harriet’s job is made easier since her grandfather invited Marbury to spend Christmas at their country home, along with a flock of relatives. It’s made harder when she starts falling for Julius, who is charming, clever, and good with children.

This book is largely inoffensive, but unfortunately, it’s also not particularly memorable. I also feel like it’s the wrong length. This either needed another hundred pages to be standard romance novel length, so that background information and character developments could have more explanation, or else it needed to be a hundred pages shorter and an entry in a collection rather than a stand-alone, because as-is, it feels like Feather spends a lot of time re-treading material. There’s a lot of reiteration in the middle that doesn’t actually further either the plot or the emotional story.

The book is also mis-sold by its jacket material. This isn’t “spy vs spy”. It’s “spy vs totally inept and inexperienced not-spy”. The back cover tries to sell Harriet as a suave, sophisticated agent of the crown, but she’s… really, really not. She passed on mail from her brother. That was the extent of her involvement. So it beggars belief that the British government would look to her to try and uncover a double agent, and then she pretty well bungles her supposed investigation.

The story is cute enough but the characters lack depth — something else that might’ve been fixed with a longer book and a better use of pages. There is a nice reversal at the end, but mostly, after dragging for a two hundred pages, when things finally do start happening, it all feels rushed. Overall — meh.

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A Gentleman Never Tells, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Gentleman Never TellsGentlemanNeverTells
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 310 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 3.25 stars

I didn’t like this one as much as the first in the series, which is a little strange, since I really did like both the hero and the heroine. The story is still strong, but I ended up feeling that there was just so much more that could’ve been done with it.

A Gentleman Never Tells works in concert with Gray’s debut novel, A Lady Never Lies, telling the same story of three gentlemen and three ladies inadvertently renting the same Italian villa for the summer. In this book, Gray brings us the story of Countess Somerton, formerly Elizabeth Harewood, “wife of one of England’s most brutal and depraved aristocrats.” Or so we’re told. She’s fled England with her five-year-old son, hoping to raise her boy far away from her husband’s influence, but she doesn’t want to divorce, because she knows her husband could claim custody of their son. She’s sort of too tense to be enjoying herself in any fashion, and that doesn’t get better when one of the three men turns out to be a long lost love.

Roland Penhallow, younger brother of the Duke of Wallingford, leads a double life as a secret agent for the crown. While he pretends to be a shallow playboy for London society, he really spends much of his time out of the country doing… secretive things. I wish I could be more specific, but the book isn’t. This is just one of several under-used elements in the story. Roland’s agreed to join the trip to Italy with his brother and Finn because his position has been jeopardized. Someone’s accusing him of double-dealing, and though his superior believes him, until they can prove who’s setting him up, Roland needs to make himself inconspicuous.

The romance between Elizabeth and Roland is compelling enough, but I could’ve done with more on their background. We get a brief version of the story, but not a lot of insight. They met, fell in love, but then Roland had to leave the country on state business, and in his absence Elizabeth lets herself get talked into marrying Somerton for his wealth and position. Despite her protestations of virtue and her desire not to do anything scandalous, it’s a matter of hours after she sees Roland again before they’re going at it in a stable. It’s a good scene, but it does make Elizabeth seem a little haphazardly written. Gray sets up an interesting scenario — a really interesting scenario, considering she’s making her heroine an actual adulteress, which isn’t something I think I’ve seen before. But I don’t feel like she really did enough with it, besides a little exploration of just what you had to do to get a divorce in the 1890s. The stakes never feel but so high.

The villain of the piece, Earl Somerton, also failed to feel all that villainous. The reader hears over and over again that he’s a dissolute wretch, utterly depraved, and yet we never see any real evidence of this. He has a series of mistresses, apparently, which while not exactly admirable, in 1890 did not automatically make a man an utter debaucher. We only ever hear about two of them in any detail, and they both seem to have been participating with enthusiasm. He also seems to enjoy a particular relationship with his male secretary, but, however the Victorians may have felt about it, that certainly shouldn’t paint a character as depraved in a modern novel. Even at the height of the novel’s supposed tension, he shies away from doing anything truly dastardly.

Ultimately, A Gentleman Never Tells didn’t feel as innovative as A Lady Never Lies, and the innovation was a lot of what I liked about that book. Without that spirit, the book is a perfectly serviceable but not particularly exciting historical romance. It could as easily be a standard Regency as a late-Victorian, but for a few quirks of window-dressing. Gray doesn’t seem to use the situation she’s built as effectively in this book as in the first. So, this book gets a just-slightly-higher-than-average rating. I’m still interested to read the third book in the series, but this one didn’t grip me as much as the first.

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The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Bridgertons: Happily Ever AfterBridgertonsEverAfter (Bridgertons #9)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

The Bridgertons are one of the best-loved families in historical romance, and for good reason. JQ did something extraordinary, creating a family that was close-knit and loving, but not cloying — always believable, full of rivalries and frustrations, rife with inside jokes, and ultimately, always there for each other. Even more incredible, she managed to sustain the charm across eight books — easily twice as long as most romance novel series. I always thought that the first half of the series was stronger than the second half (as you can see from my reviews), but they’re all solid and enjoyable.

Because this family is so cherished by her fans, JQ decided to do something special — a collection of Second Epilogues, showing just what happens in Happy Ever After. Some of these had been released before, but as I don’t have an e-reader, I hadn’t read any of them, so they were all new to me. And they’re pretty delightful. In so many ways, diving into this book was like revisiting old friends and discovering them, not unchanged, but just as dear and warm and lovely as ever they were.

I’m not going to review each one individually, because it’s really the collection as a whole that made the biggest impression on me. I just love the idea of it — of showing that the story doesn’t end at the altar. The stories in this collection span a wide range of time, some of them coming just weeks after the corresponding book ends, others stretching decades into the characters’ future. The ones I ended up liking the best were in that second category — showing our beloved heroes and heroines years and years on and still madly in love with each other. I appreciate the… I don’t know, the reassurance? So much conventional “wisdom” states that passion inevitably fades over time, that fires bank down to embers, and you’re lucky if you have warmth and comfort enough to sustain a relationship past that. But I have always wanted to believe that that doesn’t have to be true — not for everyone, anyway. And the Bridgertons show me that in fictional form — couples who still desire each other even after many children, even after their own children have children. Who still tease and laugh and flirt, decades into their relationships. Who continue to face challenges and continue to grow stronger from them. I love it.

The two Second Epilogues that stick out in my mind the most are Kate & Anthony’s and Francesca and Michael’s — unsurprising, since those are among my favourite books in the series, anyway. With Kate and Anthony, we get a glorious return to Pall Mall and the Mallet of Death. This Second Epilogue is as cheeky and tempestuous as I could’ve wished, really recapturing the spirit of the original. Francesca’s Second Epilogue, much like her own story, is told in a much different tone, slower and more introspective, but absolutely brimming with passionate emotion. Colin and Penelope’s was, sadly, one of the less sterling sections — sad because they vie for the top spot of my favourite Bridgerton novel. It’s a midquel, actually, for To Sir Philip, With Love, where we find out how Eloise learned Penelope’s great secret; unfortunately, the events aren’t that gripping, and the story sort of meanders.

I do sort of wish that at least one couple out of the eight had remained childless but content with that, even if it wouldn’t really be historically accurate, just because it’d be nice to see childfree families represented in the genre at all — but, I know that’s sort of an unreasonable request, given the market. I also wish that Violet’s novella had been longer — hell, I wish she’d get a whole book of her own, but JQ has always said that will never be the case. But I would’ve liked to have seen more of her and Edmund’s courtship — and of their marriage. The vignettes didn’t fully satisfy, as JQ moves on to the tragedy and its aftermath rather quickly. I see where she wanted to go with it, to show Violet’s entire arc, but I would’ve appreciated a little more

I very much can’t recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t previously read all of the Bridgerton novels — but, of course, I recommend those to all readers of romance, so this can just be the cherry on the sundae. And I do feel it fair to warn that there isn’t a lot of heat in any of these vignettes — JQ drops a few sizzling moments the readers’ way (in Anthony’s and Francesca’s stories, notably, which may also contribute to my favorable impression of those), but on the whole, these stories just aren’t long enough to sustain real sex scenes. By their very nature, they also don’t stand alone very well. Nostalgia definitely plays a large role in my enjoyment of them, but if you’ve missed the Bridgertons as I have, then I thoroughly recommend returning to their world with Happily Ever After.

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A Lady Never Lies, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Lady Never LiesLadyNeverLies
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 311
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a historical romance with a unique premise, all the more surprising since it is, in fact, loosely borrowed from Shakespeare. Gray transposes the improbable plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost to 1890, and somehow, it works — largely because she doesn’t feel compelled to hold to it too strictly, allowing the “Little Academe” of Navarre to inspire her work without hemming it in. Phineas Burke, a successful scientist whose inventions have made him quite wealthy, convinces his friend the Duke of Wallingford and the Duke’s younger brother, Roland, to spend a year with him at a remote Italian villa, away from the torments of matchmaking mamas and the evils of over-indulgence. Finn wants to spend the year perfecting the engine for his electric automobile so that he can enter it in a race in Rome.

Enter the ladies. Thanks to a mix-up (or to deliberate interference on the part of the real estate broker?), the three gentlemen have rented the same estate as Lady Alexandra Morley, her sister Abigail, and her friend Lady Lilibet Somerton. Alexandra has fled England ahead of the creditors left to her by her late husband and a nephew with catastrophically poor investment strategies. Lilibet has fled an abusive husband,  with her five-year-old son in tow, and while her circumstances are not detailed yet, I’m sure they will be in her book. Stuck together for the foreseeable future, the two groups make a bet on which will crack and head back to England first. Or which will break their vows of chastity and isolation first? It’s a little blurry just what, exactly, constitutes losing the bet.

There are hijinks worthy of Shakespeare throughout the book, as Finn and Alexandra experience a powerful attraction to each other but have to hide it from the others in the house. Finn expects to hate socialite Alexandra, but finds himself charmed by her forthright nature and startling intelligence. They are both imperfect characters with shady pasts, but their ragged edges fit together nicely. There’s also a charming air of rustic mystery surrounding the story, as the housekeeper and groundskeeper interfere freely with everyone’s business, occasionally dropping hints about an old curse upon the villa that needs to be broken — I can only assume we’ll be hearing more about that later on.

There are a few things that don’t come together, and I honestly don’t know if they’ll get better treatment in the remaining two books or not. The whole concept of the bet is sort of flimsy, as is Alexandra’s decision to sort-of-kind-of-not-really engage in industrial espionage. Turns out some of her nephew’s investments were in an automobile company, and she half-heartedly tries to spy on Finn to get some ideas that might save the company… but you never get the feeling that she actually has strong intent there, and the story swerves away from it pretty quickly. The chemistry between Finn and Alexandra carries us along far better than that abortive attempt at intrigue.

Fortunately, Gray doesn’t pull Shakespeare’s ending stunt on us, so don’t worry that you’ll finish this book feeling as awkwardly interrupted as I always do at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. My biggest complaint is that I feel it could’ve been longer — the standard 370-380 pages rather than this slightly scant 311 would’ve given a little more room for character exploration. I totally believed in Alexandra’s and Finn’s attraction to and affection for each other, but the initial draw felt a little lacking. It also might have smoothed over some of the leaps in the timeline — the book hops along rapidly, but I could’ve done with a bit more idling, particularly at the beginning, to see them all settle into the house rather than jumping so soon to a month into their tenancy. But — I’m someone who likes world-building a lot, whether fantasy or historical, so I will always permit an author that indulgence. I know not everyone’s patience runs so long, and so many readers might appreciate the rapid pace of the novel.

I found the premise of this story refreshing, both in terms of the time period and the details behind the plotline. Gray does herself some great favours by breaking the mold in those ways, putting us in Italy rather than England (even with English characters) and moving to the opposite end of the century. It gives her more room to play, I think, and she clearly has had a lot of fun with it. She sprinkles the story with as much historical veracity as invention and artistic license, and sharp-eyed history buffs will enjoy the cameos.

I also appreciated that Gray didn’t give away everything with regards to the other couples. We sort of see them dash in and out as teasers, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of overlap in what scenes Gray chooses to show us in this book. I believe that will help this series escape some of the problems I had with Julia Quinn’s Dukes of Wyndham duologyA Lady Never Lies was a fun read, unusual for a historical romance but not in ways that were distracting or disturbing, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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What Happens in London, by Julia Quinn

Title: What Happens in LondonWhatHappensinLondon
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 372 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars. Ish.

I feel like I liked this book better when I first read it, although sometimes just the sheer excitement of having a new JQ novel can do that to me. On revisiting — well, I don’t hate it. I actually like half of the premise quite a bit. But the other half is odd and silly and never pans out properly, the whole thing takes quite a while to get going, and then when it does get going, the last act sort of comes out of nowhere.

I do like the characters, and they’re probably the reason this book gets even a middling rating. Sir Harry Valentine is a son from a troubled home who escaped his embarrassing drunk of a father and his emotionally deadened mother by going into the army. Thanks to a ferocious Russian grandmother, he’s quite proficient in languages besides his own, which made him valuable to King and Country. Even with the wars over, he continues to work for the War Office, mostly translating documents — and somehow these circumstances lead to rumours swirling around him possibly having murdered his fiance? It’s very odd, because nothing ever explains how those rumours came about, nor why Olivia becomes so fixated on them that she feels compelled to spy on him after he moves in next-door. The eventual confrontation over that is the part of it that comes to nothing — it just sort of feels like an odd plot device that belonged somewhere else. The better part of the story involves Harry feeling the need to protect Olivia from the attentions of a visiting Russian prince, Alexei, whom the War Office has asked him to keep an eye on. Except even there there’s a bit of a muddle, because the potentially dark and serious plotline gets totally derailed by ludicrous literature. Harry bizarrely ends up reading Mrs. Butterworth and the Mad Baron to the Prince, and then his cousin Sebastian and younger brother Edward start up a staged reading, and it all goes distinctly odd from there.

All of these details and plotlines and detours sort of get in the way of Harry and Olivia’s love story, though. Which is a shame, because they’re both pretty interesting characters. Olivia is forthright but charming; Harry is observant and snarky. Each is a lot of fun, individually. But they sort of go from outright disliking each other to serious involvement in rather a hurry, and while I’m perfectly willing to believe in love stories that move at lightning pace, I need to at least feel it happening — and I couldn’t, here, and I think it’s because of all the other clutter in the book. The story elements never quite fit together in the right way. It’s as though they’re all jostling for attention, and as a result, anything deeper gets totally lost.

In the last forty pages of the book, Olivia gets kidnapped by the Russian ambassador — a villain who I don’t think ever even gets a name, which should give you a good impression of his general importance to the plotline. This could have been better done. We needed some hints beforehand, beyond the vagueness of Harry’s instructions to watch the Prince. He’s not much of a convincing red herring, especially since there’s nothing really to red herring for. The ambassador just wants his cousin to fork over some cash. That’s it. That’s all. Despite having a hero in the War Office and introducing all sorts of exciting foreign elements, JQ doesn’t really do anything with them. There’s no espionage, no scheming, no sinister plots. Olivia just gets kidnapped out of the blue, and I found it quite odd and jarring.

So, on the whole, this was a pleasant enough read, but it never really came together in a way that I found satisfying. Not one of JQ’s worst, but not one of her best, either.

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Taming an Impossible Rogue, by Suzanne Enoch

Title: Taming an Impossible Rogue (Scandalous Brides #2)TaminganImpossibleRogue
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

I still enjoyed dipping into the world of the Tantalus Club, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I found the heroine lackluster and the hero hard to like, and that impeded my enjoyment.

The basic outline of the story isn’t bad: Camille Pryce ran away from her wedding a year ago on the sudden realisation that she did not want to spend her life with the groom. Not hard to believe, considering that the marriage was arranged when she was three days old, and yet the groom, the Marquis of Fenton, never saw fit to so much as introduce himself to her at any point in the past twenty-one years. Turned away by both friends and relatives, Camille eventually ended up at the Tantalus Club, a scandalous gentlemen’s club owned by a woman and exclusively staffed by women (see Scandalous Brides #1, A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes). It takes Fenton a year to decide he would still like to marry Camille after all — and his reasoning here is less-than-flawless. He’s tired of his peers poking fun at him for the runaway bride, but I can’t imagine that any Marquis with a stick up his rear as large as the one Fenton seems to have ramroding his spine would take a supposedly fallen woman back rather than dissolving the betrothal and finding someone else to marry. So the rationale is a little odd, but whatever his justification, he wants her back — but he can’t get into the Tantalus Club to see her, as Camille has had him barred. Fenton decides to send his cousin, Keating Blackwood, instead, for reasons that are equally unclear. You’d think Fenton could convince somebody to help him out who didn’t have such a thorough reputation for seduction, and probably for less than the ten thousand pounds he promises Keating. But Keating is charming and therefore that will lure Camille out or… something? Like I said, Fenton’s powers of decision-making are really far from flawless.

It doesn’t help matters that Keating, apart from being a notorious rake, is also a sot and a murderer. Yes, you read that right. Six years ago, he had an affair with a married woman, her husband found out, pursued him back to his house, and Keating shot him in self-defence — but definitely killed him, and has been skulking outside of polite society ever since, apparently at the bottom of a vodka bottle. It’s hugely unattractive. For the first few chapters, most of what we know about Keating is that he has an unpleasant attitude, is constantly either drunk or hungover, and doesn’t bathe or change his clothes often enough to mask the odor of alcohol. And this is our supposed hero. Now, don’t let anyone think I’m saying that alcoholics can’t change or aren’t deserving of love — but none of that is ever addressed, except that he just magically stops drinking once he starts falling in love with Camille. The entire problem — and at the beginning of the book, it’s a huge problem — is glossed over. It’s like Enoch wanted to give herself a huge challenge and set out to make as thoroughly unredeemable a hero as possible, but then instead of actually going through the effort to work through his manifold flaws, just sort of hand-waves them all with The Power of Love. It’s unconvincing and wildly unfulfilling.

Anyway. Keating needs the ten thousand pounds to pay off the woman whose husband he kills, not for herself but for the son she claims is Keating’s. He takes Fenton up on his offer and starts trying to reconcile the couple — but, of course, starts falling for Camille himself. Honestly, this book might’ve been better if Fenton was a little less of an overt jackass. If he hadn’t been totally unsuitable, Camille’s dilemma might’ve made more sense. As it was, I could really see no impetus whatsoever for her to go back to him. Clearly she had already gotten used to living outside the bounds of proper society, and clearly she did not really want to go back to a life where she would be continually punished for her supposed “error in judgment”. This book might’ve been more interesting if she’d had more of a spine and done something wonderfully shocking and unexpected, like proposing to Keating rather than waiting for him to come to his senses about her. She almost looked like she might’ve been headed on that road, when she decided to sleep with him because, hey, if everyone figures she’s ruined anyway, why not? But no. Instead, she endures all manner of insults, first from Fenton, then from her family and other ex-friends, about her “shameful” actions. It’s perfectly clear that no one in her life will ever let her live this down, even if the public scandal subsides, but she — for no good reason whatsoever — agrees to go back to Fenton and be downtodden forever.

The “twist” ending for Keating is something I saw coming two hundred pages away, and the climax is a hastily thrown together jumble. Overall, Taming an Impossible Rogue was a huge disappointment. The side characters were more interesting and more likeable than the main characters — Keating enlists his friend the Duke of Greaves as a support, and Camille clings to Sophia, a friend from the club. A lot of what propelled me through this book was the promise of getting on to the next in the series, where those secondaries become the main characters. On its own, Taming is skippable.

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