Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Review: Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010 | Author: jmward14 | Blog | 1 Comment

ISBN-13: 978-0373296149
Book Source: Net Galley

Disguised as a young man and fleeing from an arranged marriage to her brother’s murderer, Chinese noblewoman Ai Li takes pity on a starving barbarian (i.e., European) mercenary at a roadside tavern and offers him her rice bowl. Under no illusions as to her gender, Ryam is overwhelmed by her beauty and her kindness to a bai gui, (“white devil”). When he discovers the rice is drugged, he rushes to warn her. He finds her beset by bandits. Ai Li is a skilled practitioner of the double sword technique known as “butterfly swords”, but alone she’s no match for a dozen armed men. Despite the effects of the drugged rice, Ryam’s brute strength is enough to tip the scales in her favor, and they escape together.

Impressed, Ai Li enlists his aid. She’s determined to tell her family about her betrothed’s treachery, and she needs an ally she can trust if she’s going to make it alive to their home in Chang-An, the capital of Tang Empire. But there’s more to the matter than Ai Li admits—deep secrets, hidden agendas, and a growing attraction that could get them both killed.

I really wanted to love this book. I long to read romances set someplace other than North America and the British Isles. A romance set in Tang China—a time of unparalleled artistic achievement and innovation, peopled with outrageous characters like Wu Zetian, the only Chinese empress to reign in her own right—how could it fail? Butterfly Swords gives you a taste of the culture and opulence of the period. But every time the setting threatens to sweep you away, the romance yanks you up short.

Yes, I know Butterfly Swords is a romance. Even if it hadn’t said so on the cover, I could tell from the way the hero is far more interested in the heroine’s feminine charms than her rice bowl after he hadn’t eaten in days. If that failed to clue me in, I’d know from the way Ai Li revels in his “masculine scent” (translation: several weeks’ worth of unwashed sweat), from the big sex scene which occurs exactly two-thirds of the way through the book, and the subsequent eighty pages of dithering up to the “dark moment”. Then there’s the heroine’s miraculous ability to perform her sword forms less than a week after breaking her ankle and walking on it for miles, and the hero’s equally miraculous ability to fight drugged and perform drunk. For all its luscious Silk Road window dressing, Butterfly Swords reads exactly like every “Reluctant Bride” medieval romance of the past twenty years.

I also realize romance, like all genre fiction, must follow certain rules above and beyond the HEA—a basic structure and sense of pacing that defines it, comparable to the armature of a statue or the wooden frame on which a painter stretched his or her canvas. But just because I know the structure is there, doesn’t mean I want to see it, anymore than I want to taste the flour and baking soda in a chocolate cake. It’s a mark of a novice.

In Ms. Lin’s defense, she is a novice. Butterfly Swords, a 2009 Golden Heart Award-winning manuscript, is her first published book. This argues the clichés I find so irritating may be the very qualities its editor and other reviewers found attractive—a counterbalance to its “risky” setting. With that in mind, I hope Butterfly Swords succeeds in spite of my misgivings. It may be the only way to convince major publishers to take a chance on unusual settings and multi-cultural characters…and to give Ms. Lin the chance to grow as a storyteller. Critical grousing aside, anyone with guts enough to defy romance conventions and let all the men see through her heroine’s disguise has my vote. The writing, too, shows a lot of promise, and after all, even Nora Roberts wasn’t built in a day.

Verdict: One thumb up, with hope for future books.

Posted 8 years, 5 months ago at 1:09 pm.

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Review: Breathless by Anne Stuart

Sunday, September 26th, 2010 | Author: jmward14 | Blog | Comments Off

ISBN-13: 978-0778328506
Book Source: Net Galley

Lady Miranda Rohan committed Society’s ultimate crime. After allowing herself to be abducted and deflowered by a fortune hunter, she neither married him nor pined away in decent obscurity. Instead, she adapted to her new life and thrived…except for an occasional spot of boredom. Unfortunately, boredom is a Rohan’s Achilles heel. It’s only a matter of time before her risk-taking nature reasserts itself, playing into the schemes of Lucien de Malheur, the notorious Earl of Rochdale.

Lucien isn’t called the Scorpion simply because he used to keep one as a pet. He’s almost a caricature of Ms. Stuart’s trademark Scorpio heroes: literally scarred and twisted, the light inherent in his name all but extinguished by his experiences. Seeking a cruel poetic justice for his dead half-sister, he will stop at nothing to achieve his vengeance against the Rohans, including relative innocents like Miranda.

As we discover in his first scene, Lucien was the true, if hidden, architect of her ruin. I could accept that. What I found difficult to swallow was the scenario he devised, one which couldn’t help but lead to the 19th century equivalent of date rape. At some level, a man as intelligent as Lucien must’ve known and accepted this outcome. Turning a man capable of that into hero material presents an almost insuperable challenge. Ms. Stuart just about pulls it off.

With the story of Lucien and Miranda, she returns to her favorite theme: the redemption of the not-quite-damned. Lucien excels at mind sex, seducing by the force of his personality and playing on the sunny Miranda’s inevitable curiosity about his shadow life. He claims she wants him to play her Caliban, but he takes his cues from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Not to mention Hades. Ruthless, the first book in the House of Rohan series, teased the reader with allusions to the abduction of Persephone. Here we see the myth played out, minus the crazy mother-in-law as Deus ex Machina. Miranda-as-Persephone is more than a match for her Dark Lord, especially given her Shakespearean skill set. I loved, loved, loved the strategy she used to wear him down—and the insight Ms. Stuart gives into its cost. The banter and smashing climax (Of the plot! Geez, some people—you know Ms. Stuart always delivers more than one of those) provide everything a fan could ask.

But a part of me still hesitates. It’s one thing to say fiction need only answer to itself and the truth of its characters. It’s quite another to accept it when a hero’s truth contradicts a deep-seated conviction. Heroes don’t hurt heroines, even by proxy. My daddy taught me that, and my mamma reinforced it by teaching me Frying Pan Kung Fu a very early age. It’s to Ms. Stuart’s credit that I enjoyed this book so much in spite of it.

Verdict: Two thumbs up for the writing, but with reservations.

Posted 8 years, 5 months ago at 7:24 pm.

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Review: Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn

Sunday, September 26th, 2010 | Author: jmward14 | Blog | 4 Comments

ISBN: 978-0778328209

Source: Net Galley

One thing must be said about large families: they don’t let you get bored. Lady Julia and her favorite husband, enquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane, were closing in on eight months of honeymoon when her siblings Portia and Plum cornered them in Shepheard’s Hotel in old Cairo.

Portia’s former lover Jane unexpectedly found herself widowed on the brink of becoming a mother. The disposition of her late husband’s estate (a tea plantation outside of Darjeeling, India) depends on the gender of Jane’s unborn child, and based on hints in Jane’s letters, Portia suspects Jane’s husband was murdered. Jane or, worse yet, her child could be next. Portia convinces Lady Julia and her somewhat reluctant husband to accompany her and Plum (Portia’s chaperone—the Lady Julia Grey mysteries revel in their late 19th century setting, after all) to the estate.

The trip is arduous, complicated by family peccadilloes and newlywed strife. The marriage of two personalities as decisive as Nicholas and Lady Julia is guaranteed to be volatile, which is exactly how Ms. Raybourn’s fans want it. Romantic mystery series don’t survive on their sleuth’s deductive prowess. They thrive on tension and conflict, ideally sizzling between the principals at all times in all places—the more exotic the better.

And what could be more exotic than the zenith of the British Raj? There is a full measure of deceit, skullduggery and death awaiting our intrepid aristocrats at the tea plantation known as The Peacocks. But that’s only part of the novel’s allure. Like Elizabeth Peters’ classic Amelia Peabody mysteries, Ms. Rayburn’s lush prose invites readers to become tourists of the mind, exploring some of the most evocative locales in history through the fictional experiences of her likeable, passionate and privileged protagonists. The fact that those experiences resonate in the reality beyond the covers of Ms. Peters’ and Ms. Raybourn’s books is a credit to their skill and in no way diminishes their value as entertainment and escape.

Although the fourth in the series, Dark Road to Darjeeling works well as a standalone mystery. In fact, the relatively small number of family members in the cast may make it easier for new readers than earlier volumes in the Lady Julia Grey series. Ms. Raybourn’s sly, sexy wit shimmers through the pages, and the story is punctuated with the historical equivalent of Easter eggs. Chances are you won’t catch all of them. I know I didn’t. Fortunately, they’re too subtle to qualify as in-jokes, and missing them in no way detracts from the reading experience. But the pop of recognition when you catch one makes it doubly gratifying, like Ms. Raybourn’s tip of the hat to one of the most famous rooms in America. I’ve always loved that room, and I can’t think of a better setting for characters I adore.

Verdict: Two thumbs up.

Posted 8 years, 5 months ago at 2:26 pm.


Review: Reckless by Anne Stuart

Friday, September 17th, 2010 | Author: jmward14 | Blog | Comments Off

ISBN-13: 978-0778328490
Source: Net Galley

Miss Charlotte Spencer wants to become a woman of the world without experiencing the messy situations the condition normally entails. But nothing works quite the way she planned. She can’t even curse properly—except when she stumbles blindly into her secret crush, Adrian Rohan, cub of the devilish Marquess of Haverstoke (hero of Ruthless, the first volume in Anne Stuart’s House of Rohan series).

Fortunately for Charlotte, contrariness is bred to the Rohans’ bones. Being too tall, too strong-minded and too original for Society’s taste merely adds to Charlotte allure. Far from viewing her as an “antidote” in the sense of 19th century slant—an unattractive spinster firmly on the shelf—Adrian sees her as the true antidote to his growing boredom with the rakish life style. He fights the impulse to claim her, ably assisted by his suave older cousin, the Comte de Giverney. But when Charlotte’s quest for second-hand sensation takes her into one of the unsafe areas of a Heavenly Host orgy, Adrian rushes to her rescue. Sort of. Let’s just say Charlotte’s in for an education of the most sensual kind.

Like all of Ms. Stuart’s heroes, Adrian qualifies as mad, bad and dangerous to know—though not necessarily for the reason you might suspect. He does debauchery with the best (or worst) of them. He’s beautiful, demanding, sarcastic and high-handed. But he isn’t an all-out rotter. He can’t be. Ms. Stuart doesn’t cheat on her previous books’ endings. His father, the marquess, earned his happily ever after, and Ms. Stuart follows the HEA to its inevitable conclusion: a happy, stable home life for his children. This smoothes Adrian’s hard edges and changes the central romantic question from “Will he give in?” to “Will she?” Most of the obstacles arise from Charlotte’s actions and choices, which helps distinguish this entry from books one and three of the House of Rohan entries.

As does the theme. Most of Ms. Stuart’s books revolve around the themes of predation and redemption. Here the story hinges on the characters’ sense of duty, most often expressed in protectiveness. The admirable characters rush to each other’s rescue, heedless of image or their own self-interest, and invariably wind up butting heads as a result. It’s a wickedly devious plot device, complicating their lives far more effectively than any villain ever could.

Which isn’t to say Reckless fails to deliver ample servings of the tension, wit, lush writing and, yes, sex Ms. Stuart’s fans expect and crave. There’s danger, a high-tension secondary romance and a charmingly roguish matchmaker. Recurring characters, suitably adjusted for their respective experiences, play out the roles sketched for them in Ruthless, but as with Devil’s Cub (Georgette Heyer’s romance about the son of a notorious rake and a cit’s daughter) you don’t need to have read the first book in the series to enjoy the second.

Or, in the case of this trilogy, eagerly anticipate the third.

Verdict: Two thumbs up.

Posted 8 years, 6 months ago at 7:16 pm.

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