Review: The Champion

From what I could tell from reading the book, Carla Capshaw’s The Champion seems to be the third book in a series, with characters from previous books featuring heavily in this one.  It would have been nice if the netGalley blurb – or the author’s website – indicated such, so that I would have been warned of that beforehand.The Champion cover

Tiberia the Younger is in desperate need of help; with her hoydenish reputation and string of broken proposals, her father Tiberius has decided that no decent man will have her, and that the best way for Tibi to give some honour back to the family is to join the priesthood, despite her lack of religious leaning.  Having no desire to become a temple priestess Tibi runs away from home, seeking her cousin Pelonia, who should be newly arrived in Rome with her former-gladiator husband.

Unfortunately, Tibi arrives at the home of famed gladiator Alexius of Iolcos, Pelonia’s host, to find that her cousins are not expected to arrive for several more days.  While Alexius offers to protect Tibi from her father, at least until Pelonia arrives, the undeniable attraction between them almost seems more dangerous than Tiberius’ inevitable wrath…

Like many books that are part of a series, the author relies on you having read the earlier books; the relationships between Tibi and Alexius and the various other characters were passed over only briefly, and I didn’t get a real understanding of who everyone was until right near the end.

There were a few things, like the prospect of Tibi being sent to a temple, that felt insufficiently explained: both Tibi and Alexius reacted with horror at the revelation of which temple she would be sent to, but the reason for this horror was never revealed to the reader.  Ancient Rome is not really my area of historical preference, but I’m familiar with all of the major Roman deities and many of the minor ones, and the name didn’t have any significance at all.  It’s possible I’m missing a blatantly obvious reference, but if so, I don’t care enough to assign myself homework.

The official blurb didn’t fit too accurately with the actual content of the story.  The vast majority of the time is spent with Tibi and Alexius being very firmly Just Friends, with many long glances and wistful sighs but no hanky-panky or even stolen kisses.  Like so many heroines, Tibi is supposedly oblivious to her allegedly breathtaking beauty, and has no idea that a man might find her attractive.  Maybe this trope was cute the first hundred times.  And the one with the hero deciding he stands no chance with the girl because he’s “not good enough”, etc.

The end was rather anticlimactic, after the spectre of Tibi’s father’s wrath hanging over their heads, it reached a small crescendo and then… didn’t really go anywhere.  The last-minute drama right at the end seemed utterly ridiculous and unnecessary, and then any repercussions from that, social, familial or otherwise, were completely skipped over.  Tibi’s relationship with her sister was never really settled one way or another on-screen, and Tibi’s father received none of the comeuppance he richly deserved.

I liked the background of Ancient Rome, and the rather unique (in my experience, anyway) setting in and around a gladiator school.  I’m not sure how historically accurate all of the information was, let alone Tibi’s archery skills, but it was fairly convincing and I enjoyed seeing Tibi gain some self-confidence and grow through the story.

Unique setting aside, the underlying story was generic rake-meets-girl, misunderstandings-ensue romance with a strong Christian flavour, particularly towards the end of the book.  Again, something I wasn’t really expecting when reading a romance set in Ancient Rome.  But I suppose it’s different strokes for different folks, and Christianity is not really one of mine.  Perhaps if it had been less blatantly evangelical ‘oh look God does miracles’ at the end here.

Review: By Grace Possessed

The second in Jennifer Blake‘s new trilogy about the Three Graces of Graydon, By Grace Possessed is the sequel to By His Majesty’s Grace, which I reviewed earlier this month.  The third book, youngest sister Marguerite’s tale, is due to be published some time this month.By Grace Possessed cover

Lady Catherine Milton is the second of the Three Graces of Graydon, a trio of beautiful sisters believed to be plagued by a curse that kills any man who tries to marry them without love.  Between them, the sisters have lost fifteen suitors to death’s cold embrace, and felt quite secure that few men at court desired them enough to risk his life before the wedding night.  That was, rather, until King Henry VII gave oldest sister Isabel’s hand in marriage to one of his knights; Rand Braesford survived the curse, though whether it was because the marriage was arranged by the King, and not by Rand himself, that is the cause, or whether there are tender feeling involved, is best left to Baron Braesford and his blissfully happy bride.

Now that one Graydon husband has survived the curse, Cate and her younger sister Marguerite are back on the marriage market, whether they will it or not.  Henry is certainly planning to use this to his advantage, as he proves when a hunting accident strands Cate in the forest overnight with Ross Dunbar, the son of a Scottish laird held as a political hostage in London by the king.  With Cate’s reputation in ruins, a temporary betrothal to soothe the court’s gossip and please Henry seems the best solution… until a Yorkist uprising heralds the threat of invasion, and the king decides that Cate’s marriage to Ross will help secure England’s northern border…

Like the previous book, this story takes place in the early Tudor years, shortly after the end of the Wars of the Roses, and the political aftermath of that turmoil definitely lingers.  Once again Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York feature in the tale, and poor Prince Arthur finally makes his appearance.  The addition of Dunbar’s Scottish roots and the politics surrounding Scotland’s James IV and the Yorkist pretender to the throne add to the detailed setting and the intrigue factor.

Most of the drive in this story came from the characters, their reluctance to wed and eventual arranged marriage, rather than external forces.  Neither Ross nor Cate desires to be wed, and certainly not to each other – but the attraction is definitely there, even if neither will admit to anything beyond it.  But that’s not to say the romance was completely free from influence outside of the couple themselves; Henry and the power he wields over them is very present through the story, as is the influence of Cate’s unwanted suitor and the attempts on Ross’ life.

It did seem to me that Ross’ belief that Cate was behind the attacks on his life – or possibly conspiring with the aforementioned unwanted suitor, who Ross knew very well had already attempted to assault Cate – was stretched past the point of credulity.  While there weren’t any over-the-top ridiculous misunderstandings, they definitely suffered from a lack of communication; both of them refused to discuss or explain things that they probably should have, which would have saved them a lot of grief in the long run.  The ‘mystery’ of the attacks on Ross was not so much a mystery as it was his lengthy failure to realise and acknowledge the obvious.  The whole thing got rather tiresome after a while.

I did love the tie-in with the Battle of Stoke, and all of the excellent historical flavour, including the political power that Lady Margaret Beaufort, King Henry’s mother, wielded over her son and his court.  It was nice to see how Isabel and Rand were settling into married life after the events of By His Majesty’s Grace, though it did feel like they were present a little too much.  Cate and Marguerite featured very little in Isabel’s story, so it seemed unfair that Isabel (and Marguerite) got so much screen-time in Cate’s story.

Overall, delightful.  And no talk of murdered babies.  Definitely recommended.

Review: By His Majesty’s Grace

By His Majesty’s Grace by Jennifer Blake is a historical romance set in early Tudor England.  It is the first in a new trilogy, the second of which is currently in my TBR list and will have a review up shortly.

Lady Isabel Milton is the eldest of the Three Graces of Graydon, a trio of lovely sisters plagued by a curse that dooms any man who seeks to bind them to him in a loveless marriage.  A ward of the king following her stepfather’s death and Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne of England as Henry VII, Isabel’s hand has been given as a favour to Sir Rand of Braesford for services rendered to the crown during Henry’s years of exile and the end of the Wars of the Roses.By His Majesty's Grace cover

Isabel is less than delighted by the prospect of matrimony, and fearful that the king’s flouting of the Graydon Curse will mean her sisters face a similar loveless future.  But she holds some hope that the supposed curse, invented by Isabel herself long ago, will once again works its magic and this betrothed husband will follow his predecessors into the grave before vows are exchanged.

And, indeed, it seems likely to do just that, when unexpected visitors on the eve of the ceremony bring shocking tidings – Braesford has been accused of murdering the king’s newborn illegitimate daughter, last seen with her mother leaving Braesford’s lands, and he and Isabel are summoned to London forthwith.  Whether the king really believes Rand to have killed the child, or whether he seeks to use his former squire as bait, only Henry seems to know.  And in the meanwhile, Sir Rand has every intention of availing himself of his lovely new bride’s charms, whether she thinks him a murderer or not…

I am, I will confess, a bit of a history geek at heart, and the Plantagenets and Tudors (technically the same family, I know, but let’s not get too technical here) are some of my favourite historical figures.  It seems like the Wars of the Roses is currently out of fashion for historical romance, and it was lovely to come across something besides generic pseudo-medieval and the later Georgian/Regency/Victorian periods.  I adored the inclusion of Elizabeth of York, Henry’s queen, and the references to both their chronicled was-it-romance relationship and young (but sadly doomed) Prince Arthur, though the latter is not yet born during this particular time-frame.

The murder-mystery was interesting, though there was no real plot twists or surprises apart from Rand ending up in the tower, which was spoiled in the official blurb, and the identity of the villain(s) was ultimately predictable.  But the setting was gorgeous, the characters endearing, the sex scenes very hot, and I greatly look forward to Catherine and Marguerite’s stories.  Definitely recommended.

Review: To Marry a Prince

You might have noticed by now that I’m not a huge fan of contemporary romance – I read far more historical romance, paranormal romance, and straight-up fantasy – but after reading an interview with author Sophie Page at Word Wenches, the notion of her alternative British history certainly piqued my interest.  Cover of To Marry a PrinceAnd with an Amazon gift card balance still to spend, it didn’t take too much deliberation before this was added to my basket.

This was definitely a cute story, and the ridiculously dramatic beginning captured my attention immediately.  I actually started reading it on my commute to work, and couldn’t wait to pick it up again on my lunch break.  And on the trip home…  I finished it later that evening, but it’s taken me a few days (and the reading of a few more books to review) to ultimately decide what kind of review I would give.

The narrative style of this book reminds me strongly of Kiss Chase by Fiona Walker, which I read and adored so long ago that I’d forgotten both the title and author and had to consult The Google.  The whole thing has a fantastically English tone that was wonderfully familiar and delightful to read after the many North American-written or -styled books that populate the romance genre – I have no idea if Ms. Page is actually British or not, but if not she certainly convinced this Brit otherwise.

There were a few moments that managed to throw me out of the story, such as how on Earth terminally-clumsy Bella managed even a single night as a waitress, let alone in silver service, which requires a lot of precision and dexterity.  Neither of which our heroine seemed to possess.  Prince Richard often seemed to be too good to be true, and his one instance of less-than-princely behaviour struck me as rather ridiculous and out of character.

The sub-plot with ‘loyalsubjek101′ was a half-hearted attempt at the traditional ‘this romance story needs some kind of villain’ trope, and I would have been happier if it had been left out entirely and the relationship had faced other challenges, of which there were pretty much none.

And I’m immensely disappointed that I didn’t get to see Granny Georgia meet Queen Jane.

Overall, this was a delightfully sweet feel-good story with a dashing prince, a whirlwind romance, and a lovely happily-ever-after.  Recommended, but beware of possible sugar overdose.

Review: Once A Princess

Once a Princess by Sherwood Smith is the first of two novels in the rather laboriously named Sasharia en Garde! duology.  I thought at first that this was from Net Galley, but now I’m beginning to think it might have been a kindle freebie on Amazon.  I’m not familiar with the author – this is, as far as I know, the first of Smith’s books I’ve read, (though I’ve heard the name more than once recently…) but according to the author’s website, Shasharia en Garde! is actually one story split into two parts, set in Sartorias-deles, a world featured in many of the author’s other works.  This background information makes a lot of sense of some points that bothered me about Once a Princess.Once a Princess cover

But we’ll get to that part in a bit.

Sasharia Zhavalieshin is your regular twenty-something woman waitressing her way through grad school.  Except for the small fact that she’s actually a princess.  From another world.  And did I mention the magic?

In the fifteen years since Princess Sun ‘Atanial’ Zhavalieshin of Khanerenth and her young daughter fell through the World Gate from the magical land of Sartorias-deles into Sun’s native Earth, mother and daughter have managed to build a relatively normal, if somewhat paranoid, life for themselves.  Normal, that is, until an unwelcome blast from the past arrives on both Sash and Sun’s doorsteps in the form of mages from Khanerenth, bringing unwelcome news.

Sun’s paranoia is quickly proven correct – you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you – when one of those mages tricks his way into Sash’s flat and drags her unwilling self back through the World Gate into Sartorias-deles.  Where a host of enemy guards are waiting for them; apparently King Canardan Merindar, current ruler of Khanerenth and Sash’s evil uncle, is well aware of the rebellion’s plot to use the Zhavalieshin princesses as figureheads for civil war, and has plans of his own for the pair of them.

While Sash and some unlikely allies do their best to stay one foot ahead of Canardan’s soldiers, Sun’s attempted rescue falls completely flat and she’s soon at the apparently-genuine mercy of the evil King.  Are Sash’s new friends as trustworthy as they seem?  What is Canardan up to?

Will I ever figure out how to pronounce the characters’ last names?

Overall, this was an enjoyable high-fantasy romp, with interesting characters and a detailed setting.  Swordfighting, magic, dashing pirates, lost royalty, conspiracies galore… what more could a girl ask for?   The heroes are flawed and read like real people, and even the bad guys have their good points.  Not to mention bucketloads of charm.

But it does have a few problems.  The beginning of the book is the typical ‘trying so hard to be mysterious and exciting and catch your attention’ that makes me sigh and roll my eyes, and trying to follow all of the cryptic action was less than a barrel of laughs.  The author has apparently written a lot of other stories based in the same world, and it shows – it felt like there was little explanation of the world and culture, let alone the myriad characters mentioned, and it took me a while to keep everything straight.  I still had trouble with the legion of minor characters.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read a lot of fantasy – or perhaps I’m Just That Damn Good – I predicted the Shocking!Plot!Twist!Sekkrit the first time it was even slightly mentioned, and it was almost disappointing to be proved right.  And I usually love being right.   But it felt far too obvious, with too many ‘subtle hints’ that felt like they added nothing to the story except to broadcast clues and make it All Make Sense Later.

As I mentioned in the intro, apparently Once a Princess and its ‘sequel’, Twice a Prince, are actually one book split into two halves.  What purpose besides profit that was for, I can’t imagine, as Once a Princess doesn’t stand terribly well on its own.  While time passes during the book, and Things Happen, it didn’t really feel like the plot was getting anywhere – by the end of Once a Princess, Sash is still on the run, Sun is still in the clutches of Canardan, and Sash’s father is still Missing, Presumed Dead.  Which is where things were in about chapter four, except we’ve met a whole lot of minor characters and most of them have been shunted off-stage again.

Another thing that really bothered me was the myriad viewpoints.  Sash was the story’s main viewpoint, told in first person, but we also had POV chapters from Sun, the evil War Commander Whose Name I Can’t Remember, Some Random Teenager Who’s Friends With The War Commander’s Nephew, the dashing pirate Zathdar… and probably some other people I’m forgetting.  The contrast between Sash’s first-person and everyone else’s third-person was jarring, and quite frankly I’m not sure why we needed so many points of view.  Or maybe that’s just me not caring about what’s happening with The Evil War Commander and associates.

And, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, the cover isn’t very pretty.  At least my copy was on my kindle, so I didn’t really see it.

So, (somewhat more numerous than I thought) issues above aside, I quite enjoyed this story.  At least until I got to the very abrupt ending, considered paying $5 (ebook price on Amazon; paperback is $12) to read the second half of the book, and balked.  It’s a fairly traditional fantasy/YA romance (no sexy times or naughty parts), and if you actually have both parts of the story from the start it might be a smoother read.  I don’t know that it’s worth $10 ($25 in paperback) to read the whole story.  $5 for the whole thing would be more reasonable than $5 for each half, especially when you’re getting half a story at best.

Because of the number of issues and caveats I’ve had to give, and the price-point, I can’t quite bring myself to tag this as a ‘recommended read’, but if pirates and alternate world YA fantasy is your thing, go for it.  Particularly if you can find it cheap or free somewhere.

without a single word

Image with pink background and white text, in the style of the British WW1 "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster.  Text reads "Keep Calm and Look Busy".

It’s been a while.  And not in the ‘song from that creepy Butterfly Effect movie’ kind of way.  I had a bunch of job interviews and then started a new job in February; I’d forgotten just how much working an eight-hour day takes out of my limited energy resources, and starting at an accounting firm right before tax season wasn’t the best of timing.

I’ve still been reading, but mostly visiting old favourites, or random books from my to-read pile that I didn’t feel strongly enough either way to want to write a review of.  And some that I do want to review, but that I’m struggling to pin down just what I did or did not like about them.  Hopefully I’ll get around to those eventually.

Now that tax season is coming to a close, I should actually get some time at home in the evening and most of my weekend back, so there should be more time for reading and reviewing.  And chores around the house, sigh.

Review: The Sevenfold Spell

Cover for The Sevenfold SpellGrand adventure and romance always works out so well in fairy tales, but not every girl is a princess…

In an utterly unique and charming turn on the traditional fairy tale, Tia Nevitt takes us “behind the scenes” in the story of Sleeping Beauty, where plain spinster Talia loses her livelihood – and prospective bridegroom – when the kingdom’s spinning wheels are destroyed by royal edict.

The harsh realities of life, disastrous attempts at learning to weave, and an ever-dwindling supply of money soon result in Talia and her mother making the risky decision to try to build their own spinning wheel despite the ban – and with no money to spare, Talia has to find some way to pay in kind for the skills and materials they need…

An extremely enjoyable light read, The Sevenfold Spell appealed to both my love of fairy tales, and my far-too-infrequently-indulged liking for non-traditional romance.  Talia is far from a pure, sheltered maiden, and her knight in shining armour is neither lordly, gallant – or even present for most of the book!

For those who enjoy an alternate take on a traditional tale, or who are just looking for some enjoyable spring reading, The Sevenfold Spell is highly recommended.

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