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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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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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The Serpent’s Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Serpent’s Shadow (Elemental Masters #2)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 400 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

One of the best things about Lackey, I think, is her ability to take a fairy-tale inspiration and then tell a story that goes so immensely far beyond that origin. The Serpent’s Shadow is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And boy, do I mean loosely.

To start with, the heroine has anything but “skin as white as snow”. Maya Witherspoon is a half-Indian aspiring doctor, the daughter of a British army doctor and his mystically-inclined Indian wife. She’s had to flee from India to London for reasons she doesn’t even fully understand at first, but which she will later learn have to do with her mother’s dark twin, Shivani, a priestess of Kali Durga. Shivani has been hellbent for years on punishing her sister for marrying an Englishman. She managed to murder Maya’s parents and thought she got Maya as well. Instead of seven dwarves, Maya has seven “pets” for companionship, inherited from her mother: an owl, a falcon, a peacock, a parrot, a gray langur, and a pair of mongooses.

Much of the story follows Maya’s twin ambitions of gaining acceptance as a doctor and of learning to wield English magic — the Elemental Magic introduced in The Fire Rose. She faces challenges on both fronts because of her sex and her ancestry. The former plot ties in with some nice details about the suffragette movement in Edwardian England, as Maya’s friend Amelia, a medical student, is deeply involved with the cause. The latter introduces us to the socio-political structure of magic users in this version of England — the White Lodge, a group of men, mostly wealthy and aristocratic, based in London, who keep tabs on all magic-users in the country. They’re at first puzzled by Maya, who uses a form of magic they don’t quite understand — she’s applying western magic, inherited from her father, with eastern methods, learned in her homeland. It confuses them tremendously, so they send a member to investigate — Water Master Peter Scott, who only barely makes the grade of “gentleman” by virtue of having been a ship’s captain, and who’s been begging the Lodge to bring some women and more Earth Masters (usually country yeomen, not city aristocrats) into the fold. Finding out that Maya has phenomenal talent to become an Earth Master, he sets about teaching her to use her talents.

As with most of Lackey’s books, the endgame plays out a bit quickly, but (as usual) I’m willing to forgive that. What’s great about this book is that, more fully than The Fire Rose, it integrates magic with normal life. In The Fire Rose, the main characters exist in such isolation that you don’t get to fully see how magic users live and work and deal with the rest of humanity. In The Serpent’s Shadow, it’s a central concern — how to perform magic without freaking anyone out, how to use it to help without being obvious about it, and how to stop someone who’s using it to harm the unwary. Maya is particularly clever, blending her Earth Magic together with her skills as a doctor (and later in the book, we see Water and Fire work together towards the same purpose, in an intriguing example of how the different disciplines can compliment each other). She uses magic sometimes to help with her diagnoses, as illness can show itself to her. We also get to see her using magic as protection, and the concept gets a more thorough explanation here than it did in the vagueness of The Fire Rose. I appreciate the “nuts and bolts” look at how the magic actually works.

So, overall, I enjoy this installment in the Elemental Masters series, not only for its plot and characters, but for the further exploration of how magic in this world operates. It’s nothing outstanding, but it’s worth the read if you like the idea of magical realism, particularly in a historical setting. It’s a great twist on a fairy tale, a thoroughly inventive re-imagining.

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The Fire Rose, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Fire Rose (Elemental Masters #1)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 433 pages
Genre: fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

Once you get past the absurd cover, this is actually a decent retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Within that framework, Lackey introduces the ideas of Elemental Magic that she continues to use throughout the ongoing series (though, as later books show, she does retcon a bit as she goes along — the rules of magic aren’t quite the same in The Fire Rose as they are in the later ones).

Jason, a Firemaster, has overstretched himself. An attempt to turn himself into a loup-garou, a werewolf variant which can change at will, not from a curse, goes terribly wrong, leaving him stuck halfway between wolf and man (the description of what he looks like is, incidentally, nothing like what appears on the cover). The changes impede his ability to research a cure, and so he needs help. He settles on Rosalind, a recently orphaned young woman who, thanks to her father’s debts, can no longer afford to stay on as one of the few female scholars at her university in Chicago. Jason offers her a job as a his research assistant. Initially she merely helps with reading medieval manuscripts, but eventually she discovers Jason’s magical secret. As it just so happens, Rose has magical potential within herself as well, so as she helps Jason, she also begins her own Apprenticeship in Air Magic. (I refuse, I just flat-out refuse to spell it with a “k” at the end as Lackey insists on doing here).

There is, of course, an adversary. Jason’s previous assistant is a moustache-twirling character, an Apprentice in Fire Magic who will never reach Mastery due to his total lack of discipline. He’s also a total sleaze and a lowlife, an embezzler and a cheat, best known in San Francisco as a “breaker” of women who’ve found themselves sold into whoredom. Lackey does everything she can to make him as repulsive as possible, to the point where it would strain credulity if you didn’t know there are, in fact, sickos like that out in the world. He’s definitely a darker character with more realistic seediness than you typically find in this sort of novel. Always looking for the shortcuts, Paul ends up taking up with Jason’s only rival Firemaster on the West Coast, a man who promises him a quicker route to greatness, liberally spiced with all manner of tawdry pleasures and sadistic delights.

The most compelling aspect of the story is, oddly enough, the setting. Lackey evokes 1906 San Francisco in extraordinarily vivid detail — both high and low society. She clearly did her research — the book is full of nuance, anecdotes, and tidbits, making it ultimately richer than a lot of vaguely-set fantasy historicals. Even though it isn’t an era I’ve spent a lot of time with, I’m too much of a history geek not to appreciate what Lackey does with it.

I find the book’s resolution, well, more than a little odd. The happy-ever-after is definitely a strange one, and implies a degree of isolation for the couple that doesn’t strike me as entirely healthy. It also doesn’t get tremendously well-explored, as is typical in Lackey books. As I’ve mentioned before, Lackey has a bad habit of cramming her climax into the last few pages of the book and then rushing through the denouement as quickly as she can. The Fire Rose is one of the more egregious examples of that fault.

Overall, this book is good but not great, and I appreciate it more for its introduction of Elemental Magic than as a stand-alone. There are definitely better books later on in the series.

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The Sleeping Beauty, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Sleeping Beauty (Five Hundred Kingdoms #5)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 404 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 3.5 stars

So, I was saying how I love retellings of fairy tales?

Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series is that, precisely. She’s created an Earth-analog world where a powerful force, called the Tradition by those in the know, manipulates human lives quite literally, shoehorning them into stories wherever possible. Her books chronicle the lives of some of those in the Five Hundred Kingdoms who fight the Tradition, who warp it, who bend it to their own needs — knowing that The Tradition doesn’t just like happy endings. It likes tragedy just as much. All it cares about is the dramatic quality of the story being lived out; the ultimate end is a null set, as far as the Tradition is concerned.

The Sleeping Beauty is the fifth in the series, and a return to more traditional Western-European-centric stories (books Three and Four, Fortune’s Fool and The Snow Queen, explored Russian, Scandinavian, Japanese, and Arabic tropes, among others). As the title suggests, the character in question, Rosamund, seems destined to be a Beauty Asleep — except that the godmother of her nation steps in way ahead of time. Godmother Lily, in charge of the tiny but effusively wealthy kingdom of Eltaria, has had centuries of practice manipulating the Tradition, and she heads off the trouble at the christening early on. Unfortunately, nothing she could do could stop Rosamund’s mother dying when Rosamund is sixteen, setting off a chain of potentially disastrous events. Her father, the King, goes off to try and prevent all five of Eltaria’s neighbors from invading simultaneously, and in his absence, Rosamund is nearly kidnapped and flees into the woods — only to be snatched up by the “Snowskin” (or Snow White) tale rather than Beauty Asleep. The seven dwarves she ends up with, though, are not at all as nice and cheerful as the Tradition would generally require them to be. Godmother Lily has to extricate her in a way that the Tradition will find suitable, but without accidentally marrying her to a rescuing prince who she might not actually be compatible with. And from the back of the book, you’d rather think this was the whole plot, but I was presently surprised — it zips through this in the first few chapters, bringing us to the real meat of the story: Godmother Lily, after the King gets himself killed, decides to hold a contest for Rosamund’s hand, inviting princes from all over (including from the invading neighbors) — thus providing herself with an awful lot of well-born hostages. This keeps anyone from invading, lest they bring the countries belonging to the other princes down on their heads, and buys the ladies some time to figure out how to end Rosamund’s story both happily and in a way that will satisfy the Tradition.

We do also get a healthy dose of Norse mythology as well, brought to us by Siegfried, who is desperately trying to escape his fate as a Doomed Hero — doomed, in this case, to fall in love with his Shieldmaiden aunt, then betray her, leading to a round of homicides and suicides and possibly the twilight of the gods. Siegfried happens upon Rosamund (while Lily’s freeing her from the Snowskin entrapments) at the same time as another princeling, Leopold. Siegfried is the stoic warrior type, a lot of brawn but a fair bit of brain as well. Leopold is a dark and handsome charmer, a preternaturally talented gambler, kicked out of his own kingdom by his father for being too popular. They decide to join the competition for Rosamund’s hand. They also decide to team up to help each other through the first few rounds of challenges, agreeing to part amiably when it comes time for the final test, and it creates a wonderful Odd Couple dynamic. Their interactions are some of the best moments in the book — quick, funny, and clever.

One of the flaws of these books, especially as they’ve gone along, is that there can be a lot of telling and not a lot of discovery. When your characters already know how the Tradition works, when they’re so adept at avoiding its entanglements, what you get is a lot of explanation. I can understand how Lackey wouldn’t want to re-introduce the Tradition each time, because reading as characters discover it over and over again could be just as tedious in a different way, but, it is a narrative flaw, in my opinion. I wanted her to show more, tell less.

I also find myself wishing that the romance were a bit more pronounced — which isn’t particular to this book, it’s how I feel about the series as a whole. It’s marketed as a fantasy romance, it’s published under the fantasy wing of freaking Harlequin, for heaven’s sake… but the romance is always very lightly handled. Certainly not any heavier (or steamier) than in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series (which is not similarly categorised). So I always feel it’s a bit misleading to promote these as having a romance angle. This one was, for very PG-rated romance, actually better than others in the series, as we do get to see Rosamund considering her suitors — but there’s definitely no sizzle whatsoever, and Rosamund spends less time with her suitors (Siegfried, Leopold, and another talented-but-unsettling stranger named Desmond) than she does with Lily, figuring out how to thwart Tradition. There’s also an odd and only ever half-explained romance between Godmother Lily and the spirit in her magic mirror.

Lackey does avoid another of her usual flaws, though; her books have a terrible habit of cramming the climax and the denouement all into about the last five pages. She draws things out more nicely here — still a little rapid at the end, still crashing into the climax rather abruptly, but at least she gives the wrapping-up bits enough space to breathe in. (Apparently she also continued the story of two of the side characters in a short story, which I now sort of want to locate).

Overall, this is a fun, light read. It’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s not entirely forgettable either. If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll enjoy this (and the rest of the series) — finding all of the references is a fun game to play while reading, and if your head works anything like mine, you’ll like thinking about the twists and turns of the Tradition and following along with how a clever, knowledgeably person might outwit it. Probably on sheer technical merit, this book only deserves 3 stars, but I laughed out loud a few times and it left me feeling happy, and I’m proud of Lackey for avoiding some of the problems that have irritated me in the past, so I bumped it up another half star on credit.

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