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review 2017-05-18 03:40
The Course of Honour by Avoliot
The Course of Honour - Avoliot

[The Course of Honour is original m/m sci-fi romance posted on Archive of Our Own. Warning: one of the main characters was in an abusive relationship prior to the beginning of the book - mostly emotionally abusive, but a little physical.]

The Course of Honour stars Prince Kiem of the planet Iskat and Count Jainan of the planet Thea. Five years ago, the Theans sent Jainan to marry Iskat’s Prince Taam in order to secure an alliance. A month before the start of the book, Taam was killed in a flybug (personal aircraft) accident. Kiem learns to his horror that, according to the terms of the treaty, Jainan must remarry and he’s been chosen to be Jainan’s next partner. Jainan’s certainly attractive, but Kiem has never even spoken to him before. Plus, Kiem figures he’s probably still grieving. Not that he and Jainan have any say in the matter - the marriage is scheduled to happen tomorrow.

Right from the start, their marriage is complicated by assumptions and secrets. Jainan and Taam’s marriage wasn’t nearly as solid as they’d led everyone to believe, and Jainan is sure he’s in for more of the same from Kiem. Kiem, meanwhile, just wants to make things as easy as possible for Jainan.

I found out about this via a recommendation that said something to the effect of “it’s m/m sci-fi romance, good, and free.” Considering how many unread e-books I have, I probably shouldn’t have clicked through, but I’m glad I did. I sped through the whole thing in a couple days and would have downloaded more of the author’s works if any had been available.

Part of me feels like I shouldn’t have enjoyed this as much as I did. As I was reading, it felt like there was some kind of background checklist going. If Character A says this, then of course Character B will eventually respond like so. If Characters A and B are in X situation, then of course Y will happen. For example, the instant Kiem and Jainan were stranded in the snowy wilderness, I knew that one of them would end up having to keep the other warm with his body heat and that it would probably lead to sex. (I was right, but I was pleasantly surprised that the sex wasn’t explicit and didn't lead to a sudden sharp increase in sex scenes.)

The world-building was extremely light, even in terms of Iskat vs. Thean culture. And some details and events were a little difficult to believe and probably would have irked me more if I’d stopped and thought more about them. For instance, it took Kiem far longer than I thought it should have to figure out that Taam had been abusing Jainan. I would have thought that a prince, even one as good-natured as Kiem, would have learned at some point not to take everything everyone said and did at face value.

Jainan, too, took longer than I expected to realize that Kiem was nothing like Taam, although I gave him more leeway. His big argument with Kiem felt a bit forced, though, like it only blew up that badly because the story needed him and Kiem to be separated for a bit. And the entire “let’s save Jainan” part felt like it’d fall apart if I examined it too closely. Even a prince with a mother who was a general should have had to do more than smile and show off a video clip of someone’s kid to get that far into a building like that without trouble.

Considering all of that, why did I love this book? The best answer I’ve got is the characters. Kiem was almost aggressively cheerful and charismatic. He remembered everyone, liked almost everyone, and could be shoved into a roomful of strangers and end up making at least half a dozen friends by the time he'd made his way out again. I was worried, at first, that he’d be a useless drunken rogue, but he turned out to not be like that at all. He spent a lot of his time networking and drumming up support for various charities, but he tended to have so much fun that it didn’t always look like he was working.

Jainan was the opposite, completely locked down and tightly controlled. While his and Kiem’s tendency to misread each other was frustrating, it was also a lot of fun - I was really looking forward to seeing them finally get onto something like the same wavelength. In the meantime, it was nice seeing Jainan gradually come out of his shell a bit and rediscover the things he’d enjoyed doing before Taam had boxed him in.

Oh, and I should probably bring up Bel, Kiem’s aide. First, I was happy that this wasn’t one of those m/m romances devoid of female characters with speaking roles. Second, Bel was just a lot of fun. Kiem and Bel made me think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves, a little, although Kiem wasn’t nearly as silly as Bertie Wooster. I’d love to read a story about Bel’s early days as Kiem’s aide. I only had a couple issues with Bel in this book, which mainly had to do with how easily she kept getting pushed to the sidelines so that Kiem and Jainan could get bogged down by their problems without her. I imagine that her general competence and sharp eyes were a problem for the author.

All in all, I enjoyed this immensely. It had its problems, but the characters and sweet romance made up for them.

Additional Comments:

There were a handful of typos, as well as a couple distracting author’s notes that probably should have been removed before the work was marked “completed.” The one that bugged me the most was at the beginning of Chapter 25. It said something about Chapter 26 being late. For a few horrifying moments I thought I’d downloaded a work that hadn’t been finished yet, and I was going to have to wait to get more of the story.

 

Rating Note:

 

Part of me feels like I should score this lower because of the various issues I mentioned, but...nah. I can't guarantee I'd rate it the same if I reread it a year from now, and I doubt I'd have rated it this high if I had paid for it, but this is the rating I think fits it best right now.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2015-03-08 18:35
Radiance by Grace Draven
Radiance - Grace Draven

I bought this for several reasons. One, I read a review of it on Dear Author and was intrigued by the idea of a fantasy romance in which the protagonists were repulsed by each other's appearances. Two, I really liked the excerpt. And three, the cover. The colors are lovely, and the pose screams “romance.”

On to the story. Brishen is the third son of the Kai king, and Ildiko is a niece of the Gauri king. They know that their impending marriage will forge an important alliance between their kingdoms, but they're both sick with horror and nervousness. The Gauri are terrified of Kai fangs, claws, and glowing eyes (I pictured them as being a bit like anthropomorphized anglerfish), and to the Kai, Gauri eyes look sickeningly like parasites.

Brishen and Ildiko accidentally meet before their marriage. Horrifying appearances aside, they get along remarkably well, and they begin to hope that maybe their marriage won't be so bad after all. They privately arrange to postpone sex indefinitely (they aren't expected to produce an heir and, besides, it sounds like Kai and Gauri can't interbreed) and help each other through difficult moments as best as possible. Unfortunately, the countries of Gaur and Belawat have been at odds for some time, and the alliance between the Gauri and the formerly neutral Kai has put a target on both Brishen and Ildiko's backs.

I'll start off by saying that this book worked really, really well for me. Something about it hit all the right buttons. I flew through it, and now I want to read everything Draven has ever published. Which is not to say Radiance didn't have flaws. It's just that I noticed the flaws and they had little-to-no effect on my love for the book.

Radiance is definitely a fantasy romance, rather than a fantasy with strong romantic aspects, and I think it would work best for readers who gravitate more towards the romance aspects. I highly recommend trying the excerpt. If you find yourself charmed by Brishen and Ildiko's first meeting, go for it. If you're put off by how quickly and easily the two of them get along, this book may not be for you.

When Ildiko and Brishen first met each other, neither one had any idea who the other was. This anonymity was supposed to explain why they were so candid with each other right from the start. However, they could both still see that they were Kai and Gauri and, considering how tense things were between their peoples, not knowing each other's identities should have made them more careful about what they said, not less. Even so, I loved how direct and honest they were with each other. This honesty continued through the entire book and was a vital part of what made their relationship work, since they had trouble reading each other's expressions.

Radiance featured a lot of fantasy politics, but the part of me that loves vicious, underhanded, ruthless fantasy politics was disappointed at how direct everyone was. Belawat made no effort to hide that they were trying to kill or kidnap Brishen and Ildiko. Serovek, a Beladine nobleman and friend of Brishen's, recognized that openly aiding Brishen could cause problems for himself, and yet he didn't do much to hide his support. Secmis, Brishen's mother, was supposed to be a deadly viper of a woman, but she was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. I'd have at least expected her to slip a spy into Brishen's household, but neither she nor anyone else did anything of the sort. I'm still shaking my head over that last one.

I was baffled that Kai cuisine mostly appealed to Ildiko, while Gauri cuisine was uniformly disgusting to the Kai. At first, I thought maybe it was just potatoes that the Kai hated, but, looking back at Brishen's first Gauri dinner, it's clear that he and his fellow Kai hated every bit of it. It was weird and seemed inconsistent to me.

Despite all these issues, I still adored this book. I think it's because Ildiko and Brishen's relationship was so prominent that, for me at least, it overshadowed everything else. Everything they did further cemented their affection for each other, and I loved how that affection slowly transformed into attraction. I'm very much looking forward to the next book in the series (and crossing my fingers that Draven doesn't make them magically fertile with each other). I hope that, at some point, we get to find out more about Ildiko's life prior to marrying Brishen.

 

Rating Note:

 

My personal rating for this is a B+, which converts to 4.5 stars. Which feels strange considering the issues I had with the book, but there you go. I'm not sure why I'm more comfortable with C+/B- = 3.5 stars than I am with B+/A- = 4.5 stars, but I'm working on getting over that.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes and watch-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2014-05-07 06:23
Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
Hawksong - Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

This one was a reread. I think I read it when it first came out. For some reason, I never read any more of the series or any of the author's other books.

The avian shapeshifters and the serpiente have been at war for so long that no one can remember how the fighting started. Danica, soon to be named leader of the avian shapeshifters, is tired of all the killing. Zane, the leader of the serpiente, feels the same way. A political marriage between the two of them may be the solution they're looking for, if they can overcome generations of hatred and their own feelings of distrust.

This book had several things going for it. It was incredibly readable – I gobbled it up in a day. It featured a tense political marriage that eventually blossomed into affection and love – yay! And it had unusual shapeshifters (birds, serpents, and, briefly, tigers).

As smoothly as this story went down, it was not without its problems. The world-building was pretty weak. Some might be shocked by this statement. “But look at the family trees at the beginning of the book! Did you see all the avian and serpiente cultural details in the story? And, ooh, the acknowledgments were written both in English and the avian shapeshifter language! Or maybe the serpiente language.”

It's quite possible that the world is fleshed out more in later books, but, in this one, all readers learn is that there are at least three groups of shapeshifters – birds, serpents, and tigers. Humans existed in this world but were barely mentioned. I can't even tell you during which human time period this book was set - probably not modern day, because there was no mention of cars or planes. It was humans that prompted the tiger shifters to relocate to their current home, which seemed to indicate that they posed a threat to shapeshifters, but apparently not so great a threat that anyone needed to think about them much.

I assume all the various types of shapeshifters can interbreed, because, when the possibility of a political marriage between Danica and Zane was first brought up, no one said a thing about their future children and heirs. I was a little confused about how the marriage was supposed to work. What would their schedules be like? Would Danica and Zane spend a few weeks with the serpiente and then switch off and spend a few weeks with the avian shapeshifters? Would they appoint people who could make decisions in their place in case they were at one location or the other when an emergency arose? Nothing was said about any of this.

I got the impression that the author had created detailed notes on the bits of the world that interested her and chose to neglect the less interesting parts. Thus, we got a couple family trees, a language of some sort (which was used more in the acknowledgments than anywhere else in the book), and a few defining characteristics of the avian shapeshifters and the serpiente, while all kinds of practical details about the alliance were ignored.

The avian shapeshifters and the serpiente were set up as complete opposites. Avian shapeshifters believed in keeping their emotions tightly controlled, while the serpiente put their emotions on display for all to see, the good as well as the bad. Avian reserve unnerved the serpiente, while the serpiente habit of casual touching scandalized the avians.

I enjoyed reading about Danica trying to adjust to serpiente behavior and culture, and there were a few moments that were kind of sweet, like when she began learning serpiente dancing or when she made a conscious effort to be more physically affectionate. I did irk me a little that, although Danica learned about and even began to enjoy serpiente culture, there were no examples of Zane doing the same with avian culture.

It's weird. Although I sped through this book in a day and kind of want to read more, my feelings about a lot of it are lukewarm. Danica and Zane were both saintly leaders, willing to do whatever it took to achieve peace. Danica spent a lot of time fretting over her people, trying to convince her mother and her guards that the serpiente could be trusted, and fretting that she had trapped Zane in a loveless marriage that would bring him nothing but pain because she couldn't be open and affectionate like a serpiente woman. The assassination subplot was there, but Zane and Danica just let their own people handle it (because investigating it themselves would have ended things much sooner), so it was kind of easy to forget about.

I think this would make a great recommendation for a reluctant teenage reader looking for easy-to-digest fantasy mixed with romance and a bit of intrigue. As for myself, I'm not sure whether I'll continue on with this series, but it was incredibly refreshing to be able to plow through a book so quickly. I do kind of want to see how Zane and Danica's relationship develops now that they've finally said "I love you."

Extras:

At the beginning of the book, there are two family trees, one for the serpiente and one for the avian shapeshifters. The avian shapeshifter family tree is confusing. If you look closely, the bit dealing with Erica Silvermead and her family is included twice, once for a closer view of her father's side of the family and once for a closer view of her mother's side of the family. Erica, by the way, is a very minor character in this book, so a closer look at any side of her family was unnecessary. The very general way the dashed lines are defined makes it look like Erica could be a cousin of Danica's, but I don't think that was actually the case.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2014-03-09 00:17
A Hint of Frost by Hailey Edwards
A Hint of Frost - Hailey Edwards

I won A Kiss of Venom in a BookLikes giveaway and decided to push it to the top of my TBR. However, it's Book 3.5 in Edwards' Araneae Nation series, and I wasn't sure how confused I'd be if I read the series out of order. Since I already owned A Hint of Frost, Book 1 in the series, I figured it couldn't hurt to read that first.

After her mother, the Araneidae clan's leader, is poisoned to death, Lourdes becomes the clan's newest maven. There's no time yet to mourn – the clan has been betrayed by its Theridiidae allies and is still in danger. Lourdes does the only thing she can think of: she contacts Isolde, the Mimetidae maven and her mother's friend, and asks for protection and help finding her mother and father's killer. In exchange, Lourdes agrees to supply the Mimetidae clan with Araneidae armor and to carry out a binding ceremony with whomever Isolde chooses. Isolde's choice turns out to be Rhys, one of her sons.

This book was a little overwhelming at first. There were lots of clan names to remember, and each clan had its own characteristics. The Araneidae could spin silk that was stronger than metal – hence the Mimetidae clan's desire for armor made by them. Members of the Theridiidae clan could produce deadly venom (although I think other clans were sometimes venomous as well, just not as deadly?). The Mimetidae clan's members ate the raw flesh of their enemies after battle in order to gain their strength.

The various clans could interbreed, but I'm still not entirely sure what effect this had on their clan-specific abilities. Lourdes and her siblings were all half Theridiidae, but, ability-wise, they seemed to be wholly Araneidae, so I thought maybe clan abilities were passed on via mothers. However, that didn't seem to hold true for all characters with multi-clan heritage.

World-building confusion wasn't the only problem I had with this book, or even the worst. The worst was probably Lourdes. Lourdes was a combination of stupid, naive, and forgetful. During his investigation of Lourdes' parents' deaths, Rhys found evidence that led Lourdes to suspect that Pascale, her sister, had likely been the murderer's lover. Here were Lourdes' thoughts on how to handle that suspicion:

“I had many questions, but only Pascale knew the answers. Given her toxic reaction to Rhys, I thought it best I keep these suspicions to myself and let him find his own conclusions. We could compare notes and, if necessary, I would approach Pascale and interrogate her alone for answers.” (35)

This was the first bit of evidence they'd found that could help them identify the killer, and Lourdes didn't think it was necessary to immediately talk to her sister, either on her own or with someone else as a witness? Seriously?

Of course, Pascale ran off at the first opportunity. Despite the evidence that she had willingly run off with a Theridiidae lover, Lourdes wanted so badly to believe that Pascale hadn't played a part in their parents' murder that she changed her deal with Rhys and the Mimetidae clan, asking that he help find and bring back Pascale. My estimation of her went down another few notches.

I had problems with the romance as well, in part due to my issues with Lourdes. I was supposed to believe that Lourdes was a little scared of and repulsed by Rhys, because he was part of the Mimetidae clan (violent, raw flesh-eating, etc.). However, from the moment she first laid eyes on him, she was attracted to him. It was blindingly obvious that, at some point, Lourdes would learn that Rhys was Not Like the Other Mimetidae, so that her attraction to him would suddenly be okay. I guessed some of the truth about Rhys fairly early on. Lourdes, of course, did not, because she needed to be jealous of Rhys's possible relationship with a woman from another clan.

I really wanted to like this book. Sadly, I didn't. The world-building was confusing, the writing didn't really work for me, and Lourdes, who should have been awesome considering that she was one of the few people in her clan who'd been trained to fight, was a disappointment.

I'm now worried about reading A Kiss of Venom. On the one hand, it's a little reassuring that the main characters will be different: it stars Armand, one of Lourdes' brothers, and a new female character. On the other hand, I'll still have the confusing world-building to deal with, Armand was not my favorite of Lourdes' brothers (I preferred Henri, the herbalist), and I'm afraid I'll be lost as far as series-level plot developments go. A Hint of Frost ended with the yellow death storyline still unresolved, and the description of A Kiss of Venom mentions that Armand had previously lost “the woman he loved.” Since this woman wasn't mentioned at all in A Hint of Frost, I assume she was introduced, and died, in a later work.

 

(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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