Monday, July 30, 2007

Heroes Die, by Matthew Woodring Stover [5]

*****/***** (5/5)

A lot of readers nowadays will eat up Harry Potter but won't touch the fantasy genre otherwise, harboring a healthy aversion to "elves, dwarves, dragons." It's an unfortunate stigma because there's a lot of books in science fiction and fantasy (SFF) written for adults and contains content and themes suitable for adults. That is, SFF books adults can enjoy and don't have to be ashamed of reading. Matthew Woodring Stover authors SFF a lot of us can enjoy. Deliciously arrogant about his views and books, author Matt Stover espouses mature content and themes. Not to mention damn fun reading.

Thankfully, Matt's Caine books are standalone novels, and you don't have to read a host of books just for the sake of continuing the overall story arc. Chronologically, HEROES DIE comes first, BLADE OF TYSHALLE second, but they're independent stories and only familiar characters connects the two. The Star Wars franchise took notice of Matt's writing and contracted him for several Star Wars novels after BLADE OF TYSHALLE (REVENGE OF THE SITH novelization, for example). He's finally returning to his Caine novels and I'm eagerly awaiting his next Caine novel slated for a mid-2008 release now.

Here's a brief review of HEROES DIE:

There's something really powerful and poignant about an old-fashioned struggle for love. At this book's core, we find the quintessential and ageless strife for love. Needless to say, HEROES DIE was a vastly immersing, engaging and enjoyable reading experience for me.

The science fiction/fantasy worlds of HEROES DIE manage to completely blur our idea of right and wrong & good and evil. At times, I find myself pitted against our protagonists, just beginning to understand the death and destruction they cause. At other times, I find myself behind his or her actions. No matter the reader's position or the storyline backdrop, you will always find yourself feeling something. As one of the mad characters mentions in the story, "Anything that is done out love takes place beyond good and evil..."

And trust me, there is never a dull moment. Stover packs every page with action and fervor. With a finale that had me shaking and unable to stop reading until I finished the book, I found myself riveted throughout.

Anti-hero Caine is an assassin in the gritty fantasy world of Overworld; Caine is notorious for killing many key figures in Overworld, kings and innocent commoners alike. Back on a futuristic Earth plagued by rigid social hierarchies dependent on affluence, Caine is Hari Michaelson. Actors such as Hari portal into the fantasy world of Overworld and incite death, destruction and chaos, all for the entertainment of the masses back on futuristic Earth. Overworld is real though, and not some virtual concoction so the people killed back on Overworld represent brutal finality. When the story begins, we're introduced to a bitter Hari estranged from his wife and wanting nothing more than to have her back. His wife Shanna plays the powerful sorceress Pallas Ril in Overworld.

I think the best way to describe Stover's writing: a fantasy romp. Gritty, realistic, and thoroughly entertaining. HEROES DIE contains graphic language and violence so use some discretion.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Beyond Innocence, by Emma Holly [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Not a bad novel, but also fairly dull overall. I like Emma Holly's writing, and it demonstrates a skillful knack for imagery. Her settings are also good, and much better than most romance novelists. The characters aren't bad either, Holly's hero Edward is moderately believable, and her heroine isn't childish and even funny at times. I found the supporting cast of characters surprisingly fun. Neither hero nor heroine really stood apart from romance archetypes however, because once again, you have the sexually-experienced, chiseled hero igniting an innocent virgin's passion, where every touch melts and every dark look inflames. I found Holly's references to Edward's size egregious. Then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised by a virgin's curiosity over such intimacies in the male anatomy. Although known for sensuality, I thought Holly's "love" scenes were flat. In fact, in terms of unadulterated carnal sensuality, the one Sylvia Day book I read sizzles much, much more.

Similar to Tarr's VANQUISHED, Holly's BEYOND INNOCENCE takes place in Victorian England. The similarity ends there however. Whereas VANQUISHED predicates a dark intensity closely tied to the historical suffrage movement, BEYOND INNOCENCE settles on a more lighter tone solely portraying an innocent virgin's journey to discover passion. It took me a while to finish the 295-page BEYOND INNOCENCE, primarily because of my apathy and disinterest.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

The Earl of Greystowe Edward Burbrooke wishes to protect his younger brother Freddie from scandal. Evidently, someone walked in on Freddie and a footman. The taciturn, cold Edward nourished little Freddie since they were little boys and after their father and mother passes away, Edward happily assumes a parent's responsibilities towards Freddie. Convinced Freddie will find love with the right, pretty woman, Edwards hunts for this woman. Edward's solicitor Mr. Bowry brings to Edward's attention Miss Florence Fairleigh, a pretty, poor country girl wishing to marry a nice gentleman. Realizing she lacks an aristocratic background and estates, Florence is practical and only wishes a gentleman who's kind to her, a possible younger son or a tradesman. She has no requirements for love.

Edward immediately lusts for Florence after laying his sights on her for the first time. Hoping Florence will incite his brother's desires, Edward arranges Florence to have a formal season and coming-out. Edward orders his brother to woo Florence into marriage thereby saving his brother's reputation.

The book then fractures and splinters as the forbidden nature of Edward & Florence's liaison seem to fuel their attractions. When another rumor of Freddie departing a gay club surfaces, Edward takes everyone back to his country seat at Greystowe. At Greystowe, Freddie injures his leg and Edward and Florence share more time together.

I don't quite understand the reasoning which finally prompts Edward to marry Florence. Florence makes a comment about marrying Edward's brother Freddie while having Edward's children, and Edward thinks she must truly love to remotely consider something like that. And then he comes to grips with his own love for Florence and decides to marry her. That was weird and icky. So basically, Edward finally deciding to marry Florence depended on Florence considering having Edward's babies while married to Edward's brother Freddie?

While Edward lusts for Florence and admits to himself that he loves her, he persists his quest to "save" his brother by marrying Florence and Freddie. The entire notion was dumb. This kind of forbidden "love" didn't make it romantic, and it certainly wasn't anymore sensual. Then, when Freddie leaves with the steward, it's like Edward forgets his obstinate resolve to marry Freddie and Florence. Edward pursues Florence instead.

I thought BEYOND INNOCENCE was banal, though Emma Holly's writing was good and the characters did not annoy me.

Ong-Bak, directed by Prachya Pinkaew [4]

****/***** (4/5)

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON has nothing over ONG-BAK (2003), and for a martial arts marvel, check out ONG-BAK. I caught a copy with English subtitles, and boy, was it nothing short of breathtaking! Based on a recommendation by Matt Stover's fan-based community, I'm glad I finally watched this, as rare as my movie-watching days are. Fasten your seat belt, prepare to be awed by some of the moves and exhilarated by the stunts. ONG BAK qualifies as a wondrous martial arts spectacle molded for the modern age.

Tony Jaa plays Ting, a muay thai fighter from a small village in Thailand, sent on a quest to Bangkok to retrieve a revered statue of Buddha, Ong Bak. Villagers worship the statue and believe it ensures the safety and prosperity of their village both in terms of violence and a fruitful harvest. Don, a former villager turned criminal, removes the head from the statue and takes it to Bangkok, to curry favour from the crime lord Khom Tuan. Ting follows Don to Bangkok and fights to return Ong Bak back to its rightful place.

Nothing special in the story here or the characters themselves. The action and fight scenes however -- wow! Nothing short of impressive, masterfully-choreographed, intense, exhilarating, thrilling, eye-popping and aesthetic in its own style. In the end, thoroughly entertaining and I'm sorry I don't see more movies like this.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Unlike much formulaic epic fantasy overflowing in bookstores nowadays, many readers of SFF acknowledge George R.R. Martin's (GRRM) A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series as hip, trendy, and really for adults. Not since JRR Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS has an author captured so many readers. It brings back the medieval setting in fantasy in a big way, it's politically intriguing, historically rich, it's epic (big index), it's dark, it's unique (each chapter is written from a single character's point-of-view all over GRRM's world), and consists of a large cast of characters.

Unfortunately, it's also incomplete, and although the first 3 installments were completely engrossing, I found the latest installment (A FEAST FOR CROWS, 2005) pretty bad. Read the first 3, but skip this one, and wait until GRRM deigns to finish the upcoming A DANCE WITH DRAGONS in the next decade or so.

So far, in the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series:

1. A Game of Thrones, (AGOT), 4/5
2. A Clash of Kings, (ACOK), 3/5
3. A Storm of Swords (ASOS), 5/5
4. A Feast for Crows, (AFFC), 1/5

"Above [the archers of Riverrun] streamed the banners of House Tully, the silver trout defiant on its striped field of red and blue. But the highest tower flew a different flag: a long white standard emblazoned with the direwolf of Stark."

(I always get goosebumps when I read this quote about the Stark flag)

I found A FEAST FOR CROWS such poor quality reading material, I can hardly believe George R.R. Martin's (GRRM) name on the book. Is the prose rich? It sure is, GRRM doesn't disappoint in that department, it's the subject of his prose which fails to move in the least.

It would appear George R.R. Martin can no longer discern the forest from the trees. He tells us the story has grown on its own accord and the pages and chapters we find in this book are somehow "necessary". A story growing on its accord is a sure indication of pumping the reader with pointless, worthless content. The subject material contained within 680 odd pages of this book could be summed up by a few sentences.

This book clearly forces stories where there are none.

The book invites the reader to read 680 or so pages of inane, mindless drivel for something to happen. Nothing ever does. A classic case of epic fantasy syndrome.

You know something is wrong with a book when each word of each sentence of each paragraph of each page of each chapter is read just to move on. And after you've finished the current chapter, you have another scintillating Cersei or Brienne chapter just around the corner; yes, I know, you're about to burst with excitement, contain yourself!

In the end, this book represents filler material, nothing more, nothing less.

This book contains so much additional history and so many additional characters and geneology of this person and that person and so many stories within stories, I find it hard to imagine any reader captured by any of it. I was mesmerized by the telling of the tourney at Harrenhal from 3 different perspectives in ASOS (the crannogmen, Jaime, Ser Barristen Selmy). The histories and stories within stories and the exponentially growing cast of characters contained in this book are so numerous and seemingly extraneous, I found myself reading just to arrive at an end, ANY end.

The pages and chapters comprising the 2 new perspectives - Cersei & Brienne - are by far the most numerous. Unfortunately, they are also a cure for insomniacs, boring, uneventful and dull, at least until the very end. Cersei's chapters doesn't inspire (anything) in the least, driving both Cersei and the reader to insanity from the mindless drivel contained therein.


Cersei's chapters: she discovers Tywin has been murdered, goes to her father's funeral (so for 2 Cersei chapters we're still tying loose ends from the previous book), oh joy we get another meeting of the King's Council, more proceedings at court (as if all those meetings in AGOT and ACOK weren't enough, we had to have one from Cersei's perspective, so much better, right?), Cersei convincing a catspaw to kill Bronn, Cersei re-arming the Septons in exchange for a debt forgiven and a blessing, etc., etc.

Brienne's chapters: oh the beautiful contryside, the grass, the trees, the hedges, the burnt fields, traveling to Maidenpool, heading out from Maidenpool, oh back to Maidenpool, oh nevermind, heading out from Maidenpool again, etc., etc. And yes we know the common, small folk are in bad shape. Arya's chapters in ACOK & ASOS already shed light on that common element. We don't need Brienne's chapters showing us the same thing... yet again. GRRM sprinkles in a little sword fighting to spice things up as Brienne kills some Bloody Mummers she meets on the way to her hanging.

I’m still at a loss to explain Brienne’s presence in this novel, other than of course take up space and inflate a poor novel with more drivel. In Brienne’s last chapter we meet for the second time the thing that used to be Catelyn Stark (we met her first in aSOS) who "lives" (if you can call it that) for one purpose and one purpose alone: vengeance. After mindless traveling and some killing for good measure, Brienne ends her travels in aFFC in the hands of outlaws, and hangs at the Thing’s command along with an innocent Podrick Payne. Even though it was Brienne who actually saved the children at the inn? How come her sacrifice at the inn to save the children didn’t come up at her "judgement?" How come none of the children spoke for her? Yes, I’m still at a loss.

The goal of Brienne's traveling - Sansa Stark - dwells at the Eyrie as Alayne Stone, Petyr Baelish's natural daughter. At the end of ASOS, the reader received a preview of the training and tutelage Sansa will receive from the master of A Game of Thrones, Littlefinger. After a couple Alayne chapters, our suspicions are confirmed as Sansa sheds a little more of her innocent ignorance and learns more and more from Littlefinger. Sansa understands for herself that Littlefinger actually payed off Corbray to oppose him. As we could have guessed from ASOS, Littlefinger has the lords of the Vale dangling as puppets on his strings. In the final Alayne chapter, we receive a rather lengthy Arryn genealogy history as Littlefinger pulls some strings to set up Alayne Stone with sickly Lord Robert’s heir, "Harry the Heir." I wonder as to her reaction: a giddy schoolgirl when she was matched with Joffrey and Willas later on?

The chapters in the Iron Islands do not fare much better in the something-happening department. We knew from ASOS that Balon Greyjoy had died and that Euron Greyjoy sits the Seastone Chair. After 3 perspectives and 3 chapters from that area, nothing has changed. Wait though, you meet one thousand new characters from the region! Joy! Oh and we have yet another horn that commands dragons.

The first 3 Samwell Tarly chapters can be summed up by: Jon Snow sends Samwell Tarly, Gilly, Daeron (the singer), Aemon, and Gilly's babe (we learn different later on) by ship for Oldtown. Samwell is to become a Maester. They make a stop at Braavos, and -shock- Sam runs into Jon's sister Arya, unbeknowest to Sam. Oh but wait, nothing really comes of any of it.

After 400 pages, Arya has 2 chapters and again, nothing much happens. She's traveling to Braavos, and working as a servant in the temple of the many-faced God, training to become a Faceless Man it would seem.

I was struck by the second Arya chapter however. In the second Arya chapter, the "kindly man" at the temple forces Arya to abandon her possessions if she wishes to continue her training because she must truly give and give up everything she is to the Many-Faced God. An inner struggle ensues and she finds it very hard to abandon all her possessions. In the end, she throws away everything she's brought with her save one: Needle. She cannot bring herself to abandon Needle, since to her, it represents something more than just a blade. For Arya, Needle is Winterfell, Needle is the Old Gods, her father's Gods, Needle is her family, even Sansa, and Needle is Jon Snow. And despite having to give up everything you are to train as a Faceless Man, Arya can never truly abandon Arya Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell. "Who are you?" asks the kindly man. "No one," lies Arya. That was a wonderful piece of writing that I couldn't help reading again and again. The final Arya chapter leaves us in a cliffhanger very much akin to the style of the first 3 books. We’ll have to wait until next book to find out what happens to Arya.

We started with the Starks in Winterfell, and we’ve since seen a metaphoric winter claim them. We’ve seen an 8 year-old boy (Bran) crippled, we’ve read of Ned Stark’s beheading, Sansa beaten and whipped, Arya running, constantly running, Winterfell torched and decimated, Robb & Catelyn murdered and Robb’s host destroyed within a blink of an eye. Death and destruction seems to be a common theme with the Starks, with the Starks implanted on the receiving end.

Jaime starts out in King's Landing but then he's sent away by Cersei to bring the King's peace to the Riverlands, and particularly Riverrun which the Blackfish still holds, ever-defiant. Catelyn Stark released Jaime from Riverrun on the condition he will release her daughters and not raise a sword to a Stark or Tully. And now he returns to Riverrun for that very purpose. Jaime does make a stop at Harrenhal to release Wylis Manderly.

I found Jaime’s chapters very hard to read because of all the people and places we see, constant reminders of the Red Wedding: Riverrun, remarkably still flying the Stark banner, the Freys, Edmure Tully and the Blackfish, defiant to the last.

There sure is a lot training in this novel, isn't there? Everyone is either practicing or training, for something later it would seem. We hear of Jon Snow relentlessly practicing at swords, Jaime sparring with Ilyn Payne, Arya practicing with Needle and training to become a Faceless Man, Sansa training to become a player in the Game of Thrones, etc. A sure sign of a filler book through and through.

Finally, we also receive a more refreshing and eventful storyline, and one in which I didn’t mind the exponentially growing cast of characters: that from Dorne. Out of all of the storylines contained in this book, I found the Dorne storyline the most interesting and enjoyable. Something is actually happening in every chapter: the first, we find the Prince to be a very cautious man, completely the polar opposite of the Viper. The reader meets 3 of his Viper's daughters, one after another, all of whom desire revenge for their father's death. At the end of the first chapter, in an unprecedented and shocking move, the Prince orders Hotah (his Master of Arms, guard) to imprison all of the Viper's daughters including the toddlers. The fear of Tywin Lannister stretches all the way to Dorne it would seem, as the Prince hopes Tywin hears of Dorne's support for King's Landing by imprisoning the Sand Snakes.

In the second Dorne chapter, we read about a plot by the Princess Arianne to abduct Myrcella, crown Myrcella and raise her banners to free the Sand Snakes from her father and rebel against King's Landing. The Princess has completely seduced Myrcella's protector Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to do her bidding.

In the third Dorne chapter, someone close leaks Arianne's plans and Oakheart of the Kingsguard is slain and Arianne taken captive by her own father. The Prince is nothing if not resolute to keep Dorne out of a conflict which causes more bloodshed.

The fourth and final Dorne chapter hints of Prince Doran's plans, cautious yet not entirely idle. When his daughter inquires as to the nature of his plans, he places an onyx dragon game piece in his daugher's palm and replies, "Vengeance... justice... blood and fire."

Despite some interesting and enjoyable happenings in Dorne, I didn't care for any of the characters there in a character-driven series such as A Song of Ice and Fire.

A Feast for Crows firmly establishes Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons’ looming shadow upon Seven Kingdoms. Her dragons are coming, GRRM tells us in so many words, whether you’re ready or not. In the prologue and one of Cersei’s early chapters, we learn that sailors from Slaver’s Bay are bringing back stories of dragons. In the final Ironmen chapter, Victarion Greyjoy consents to travel to Slaver’s Bay and seemingly pluck Dany out for his wife. Aemon Targaryen dies drunk on Dany and her dragons, convinced down to his last breath that Dany and her dragons are their last hope against the Others and the terror that awaits the Seven Kingdoms beyond the Wall. "Dany is the one," he says. Prophecies of a younger, more beautiful queen robbing Cersei of everything she holds dear haunts Cersei’s dreams. Cersei believes Margaery Tyrell this "younger, more beautiful queen," and schemes to eliminate the young queen with whatever means necessary while completely ignoring sailors’ reports of a younger queen with dragons beyond the narrow sea. Victarion Greyjoy isn’t the only one on his way to meet Dany; Prince Doran apparently sent his oldest son Quentyn with some other lords to Dany.

Elements are on the move to Dany and this book sets the stage for A Dance with Dragons. Again, filler material.

Compared to Dany, Jon Snow’s humble place in the story as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch remains small, dull and seemingly insignificant. We’re spared of any of his chapters with a promise to change that.

So you have elements on the move and elements practicing and training.

All in all, filler material and the first sign of an anecdotal epic fantasy disease in a series bereft of it thus far: inflated books that continue to no end but to fill the space in the pages. A Song of Ice and Fire hasn’t grown on its accord; it’s grown because GRRM sees the profit in stretching it out mercilessly.

A concluding thought about the finale, with ending chapters from Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, Alayne and Samwell. I haven’t read a more unsatisfying ending in the series. It isn’t that bad stuff happens, it’s that in general nothing happens which inspires in the least. aGOT ended with the North lords declaring Robb as the "King of the North!" and Dany hatching 3 dragons, aCOK ended with the Battle at Blackwater and Jon Snow sparring with the Halfhand, aSOS ended with... well, let’s just say a lot. What appeared the punch line of aFFC - the events at Riverrun from Jaime’s perspective - fizzled out very quickly. One moment the reader is anxious about what Edmure, Jaime and the Blackfish will do and the next moment Edmure is bringing down the Stark flag and Riverrun has yielded. The reader is left guessing what occurred between Edmure and the Blackfish and how the Blackfish ending up fleeing. GRRM does that a lot: he’ll end a character’s chapter in a cliffhanger and the very next time we see that character’s chapter, the ensuing events of the cliffhanger have already happened off-screen. Are we supposed to cheer when Jaime orders Cersei’s plea for help thrown in the fire? Are we supposed to care one way or the other?

Let’s not forget Cersei’s final chapter. Her attempts to oust roses from King’s Landing and secure the throne for herself and her son backfire when the High Septon imprisons her as well as Margaery. Are we supposed to cheer for this poor excuse of an ending to this horrible novel? I could care less one way or the other and endless Cersei chapters didn’t really make me hate her any more than I already had.

Zero build-up with zero payoffs, and nothing really happening. Another sure sign of a filler book.

GRRM tells us that despite his novels fitting into a larger series, he likes to have each novel with an independent beginning, middle and end such that they stand on their own. This book can’t stand anywhere, much less on its own.

We waited 5 years for... this? Here's to hoping the next book is nothing like this one. I say it will take over 2 years to release (2-to-1 odds on it). I’ll give you 100-to-1 odds if you pick under 2 years!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Vanquished, by Hope Tarr [2]

**/***** (2/5)

In the historical backdrop of Victorian London, VANQUISHED (2006) follows the women's suffrage movement in the late 19th century. I had high hopes and it began with some intriguing promise, but it quickly took a nosedive for the worse. VANQUISHED includes some graphic sexual brutality and some very audacious carnal scenes. None of this is the problem though. The writing and content was aggressive and brutal, and I didn't mind that either. My problem: for the majority of the book, VANQUISHED highlights a woman's insecurities with her appearance and it's overwhelmingly written for a female's sensibilities and a female's vision of the perfect hero. After the intriguing opening featuring Hadrian St. Claire's devil's bargain to ruin the heroine Callie, the book then focuses on Callie's insecurities at every turn. It got tiring. Old. And exhausting.

I found the Victorian backdrop solid, and the writing very strong. The historical details seemed to deftly supplement the story. I liked that Hadrian wasn't a duke, earl, viscount or baron. He hails from a poverty-stricken childhood, a prostitute's son, and tries pay off debts as a humble photographer. Regrettably, there's too many things to dislike about Hadrian's character too. Some romance novelists manage to realize believable heroes in love. These heroes' loves for their heroines is heartfelt, yet subtle. A bit gruff, yet empowering and very giving. By contrast, in the frequent times Hadrian thinks about his heroine Callie, his love for Callie can only be described by a very suffocating nature. I applaud Callie's sensuality, but c'mon, you have an insecure near-virgin armoring herself with make-believe spectacles, ugly hats and bundles of clothing transition to wanting anal sex? I didn't quite see it. I suppose all of Callie's insecurities and lewd desires somehow predicated her public expose in the book's finale, I'm not exactly sure. Some sort of disturbing redemption and fortification of her confidence. Even made it seem like Callie's character journey required the public expose.

The ending falls back on some sort of psychological redemption actually warranting Callie's public expose as a device to fortify her self-respect and confidence. So having her assets on full display to the world actually helps her emotionally? I know she ignores the ribald jeers during her speech at the very end, but c'mon that kind of thing doesn't go away. After she marries Hadrian, both would bear the brunt of a lot of obscene remarks. Especially considering how public Callie's life as a suffragist leader has been.

The ending seemed to imply Hadrian St. Claire's compromising pictures ultimately caused the defeat of the bill which would grant women the vote (because despite Dandridge blackmailing Hadrian, Hadrian is in the center of it). After meetings with Lord Stonevale and the PM and Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury, it seemed Callie was on the verge of pushing the women's vote bill through Parliament. Yet true to the book's purpose, Hadrian vanquishes the bill and her efforts. It's Hadrian who develops the compromising photograph in the first place, it's Hadrian who leaves the developed photograph unattended for the villain to steal, it's Hadrian who fails to retrieve it, it's Hadrian who gets stupidly beat up.

Not only is Hadrian useless, but the thing with the photograph proves he's dumb. After taking the compromising photograph of Callie, he goes insofar as to develop the photograph and leave his shop unattended when he knows Dandridge hired someone to tail him! When he knows that Dandridge desperately desires a photograph ruining Callie! Hadrian-- nice show, sport, just brilliant.

So he takes the compromising photograph (when he fully understands the danger if it falls into the wrong hands), develops it before he leaves so the baddies can steal it, then goes after Dandridge to steal it back only to find himself beaten and bruised. Then all he can think of is throwing himself at Callie's feet and asking for forgiveness (which he had already after his confession). My gawd, that's a drowning love. Totally, completely, choking the life out of him. He pines endlessly. I really didn't want to hear it anymore.

VANQUISHED belabors on characters' appearances a bit too much for my tastes. With Hadrian and Callie, it's more about shallow appearances, and Callie's insecurities obfuscates any potential for chemistry or passion or love. You have a near-virgin, very insecure over her tall, unseemly appearance and very sensitive about how she walks, dances, etc. She commonly drapes herself behind bundles of ugly clothing. And of course you have your obligatory tall, dark and handsome hero. Then again, it's written with a female's sensitivities in mind so I can hardly judge too harshly here.

The insecurities and descriptions of appearances aren't nearly as repetitive as other novels but the book never manages to rise above them either. Never manages to rise above the common appearance hangover romance novels have with a heroine's insecurities and hero's Adonis good looks. It gets to be a bit too much at the charity ball and then later, in Hadrian's flat. Callie relentlessly drones on and on about her insecurities, too big in the bosom and bottom, too tall, can't dance, etc., etc., etc. Despite Hadrian (constantly) assuring her and lavishing her with compliments about her lovely face, soft skin, curvy figure, etc., Callie persists on latching on to her insecurities. Hope Tarr even uses Callie's insecurity to manipulate Hadrian into taking the compromising photograph, something he's reluctant to do at first. When Hadrian comments on her breast after their first time, she again retreats into her shell of insecurities. Enough already, you have the tall, dark, and handsome perfect-guy with a huge, turgid phallus lusting after you and pleasuring you!

I thought Hadrian doesn't do enough for a male character, and doesn't act. I don't mind him being a prostitute's son and hailing from the low, poor classes (in fact, I applaud Hope Tarr for that), but he doesn't do anything. He fails to act when he suspects that Josiah Dandridge has something more personal against Callie. He doesn't do anything when he suspects he's being trailed. Instead he mopes around feeling something strong for Callie and anguishes over the devil's bargain he's struck to ruin Callie and again feels sorry for himself. Anyone who obviously cares for the Callie like he does would at least try to figure out the connection between Callie and Dandridge actively. They would try to discover who's trailing him and subvert him. They would do something, anything, instead of moping around for Callie and waiting for her to come around so you can take her photographs. Hadrian has a barrister friend and if he's too prideful to ask for a loan from the barrister, he could at least enlist his barrister friend's aid in other capacities. Maybe Hadrian could get his friend Rourke to help with the person trailing him. Something anything, stop moping around and pining! We get it, you feel something strong for Callie unlike any of the other women you've bedded. Now get on with it!

The lovesick notions in this novel are too drowning instead of empowering or heartfelt (at least from a male point-of-view). The ending inundates its readers with endless words of love which didn't seem to ring true as a result. I sure wasn't convinced.

On the plus side--

"On the one hand you say women should choose for themselves who and how they should love and yet when that freedom leads them astray, you assume they must have been seduced against their wills." -Hadrian St. Claire from Hope Tarr's VANQUISHED

I enjoyed some of the stimulating conversation between Callie & Hadrian on the suffrage movement. They were actually witty and fun. Although Callie's cause is very worthy and noble, I liked how Hope Tarr allowed the hero to single out some failings in Callie's opinions and ideals. Thankfully the verbal sparring wasn't a one-way street as Hadrian questions Callie's ideals for women amongst the lower classes (they seem to only apply to "well-bred women") and her contradicting views on marriage (women should be free to choose the who and how on love, yet if they chose badly, it's society's fault since they were raised that way and didn't know any better). Shoulder some responsibility for your choices!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Whitney, My Love, by Judith McNaught [1]

*/***** (1/5)

I find that Judith McNaught's WHITNEY, MY LOVE caters to adolescent, immature sensibilities for the most part. The 577-page hardcover special edition attempts a grand, epic scale but I thought the book sorely needed an editor and it was vastly overinflated. Notorious libertine 34 year-old Duke of Claymore, Clayton Westmoreland, and spirited 19 year-old virgin Whitney Stone both act like spoiled children and I couldn't stomach the huge age difference. Clayton is 5 years away from being twice Whitney's age for heaven's sake! Like most regency novels, there isn't a veritable historical backdrop, the prose and writing is below average, the pacing lolls, the story was dumb and puerile, and lord almighty the lead characters are both childish. The first half of the story comprises mostly of juvenile kissing, balls, picnics and girlish plots. I lost track of who is using whom to make who jealous or who is coming out on top. The second half consisted mostly of Clayton and Whitney hurting each other over misunderstandings and confusions. Clayton's retaliation is usually more destructive, both to himself and Whitney. A huge thumbs down on Clayton Westmoreland by the way, he's neither a likable nor an interesting hero.

The first half of the novel introduces our typically spirited, headstrong heroine Miss Whitney Stone at 15 years of age. She has a crush on neighbor Paul Sevarin and after being ridiculed for chasing after Paul and not excelling in ladylike activities like knitting, singing, and playing the pianoforte, she vows to get Paul to marry her at some point. Nothing new in the characterization here. Whitney's father believes her daughter too unruly and has her Aunt and Uncle take her to Paris for her debut and coming-out. Over the next 4 years, Whitney transforms into a beauty and shines in Paris with a whole host of nameless, faceless suitors. She rejects all of them, still vying for Paul's affections when she returns home.

The Duke of Claymore Clayton Westmoreland takes notice and falls for Whitney's charms and beauty. He pursues a thorough investigation into her background and discovers her father deeply in debt. He pays off her father's debt in return for Whitney's betrothal, completely unbeknownst to Whitney. There's some chance encounters between Whitney and Clayton at this point in Paris, but nothing Whitney recalls vividly. Clayton has his own mistress anyway. After the arrangement with Whitney's father, Clayton has her father send for Whitney to return home. Clayton secretly bankrolls all of Whitney's finances including her expensive clothing and jewels. Whitney thinks her father is doing extremely well. There's some parties and picnics after Whitney returns home and while Whitney continues her quest to win over Paul, Clayton introduces himself as Clayton Westland and plays his own game to win over Whitney. The plotting continues for 250-300 pages without anything happening except for insipid, gossipy conversations and childish pursuits in a game of marriage.

Just when Whitney gets Paul to marry her, she learns the truth behind Clayton, that he's the duke and that she's already betrothed for 2-3 months. She still resists Clayton of course. Finally, Paul doesn't turn out to be the guy Whitney wants (he doesn't have a spine), and the second half of the book painfully slugs along in a series of misunderstandings and confusions which incite both Clayton and Whitney to hurt each other. Clayton is at his patrician, autocratic worst here, brutally punishing Whitney for perceived betrayals.

A lot of romance novelists tend to have their hero ruthlessly incarcerate the heroine in some way. Freedom simply isn't an option for the heroine, and the hero tyrannically won't let go. When you have a powerful, arrogant duke used to getting his own way, the results of the childish games can be severe. All the while, the hero bears the brunt of his heroine's seething bravado. Supposedly, this shows a stubborn spirit linking the two, the experienced libertine answering the spirited virgin's profane cursing by igniting her passion. You know the rest.

I found it hilarious when Whitney's Aunt Anne thinks to reveal the Duke's identity and his notoriously lascivious reputation to Whitney if Whitney shows signs of falling for the Duke's charms. Ha, that's the whole point, that's the entire attraction from the girl's point-of-view! How flattering for a girl to find herself the center of a handsome womanizer's attentions. In fact, in spite of Whitney's professed hatred for Clayton, she refers to him as "elegantly dissolute," at one point watching him shuffling cards.

Both are childish. In some rare moments of friendly conversation, Clayton recounts for Whitney every moment he's seen her back in France and everything she says or does. Yes, that's a bit of an obsession and yet after learning of the deceptive betrothal, she asks why he offers for her. Isn't it blatantly obvious? He wants you, he's obsessed by your innocent, virgin charms and enjoys a good expletive drubbing at every meeting. I mean Clayton laughs and chuckles at every single one of Whitney's insipid remarks and stories. Isn't it clear why he offered for you, Whitney, or are you that dumb?!

Even though both are childish and immature like no tomorrow, I couldn't abide Whitney's apology after "the-note" incident. Whitney didn't need to apologize for anything! Although Whitney instigated the entire fiasco of a misunderstanding, it's who Clayton blows it out of proportion and treats Whitney very cruelly. There was no reason for Whitney to be apologizing to him. First, Clayton momentarily leaves at a party with a former mistress in front of Whitney, and when he returns to the party, Whitney isn't there. Although Clayton didn't do anything with his former mistress other than talk, obviously Whitney was pained watching him leave with his former mistress. Instead of returning immediately to explain things to Whitney, he stays elsewhere. Then when he finally does attempt to confront Whitney, she's not there. When Clayton finally finds Whitney at his mother's, he doesn't apologize, and Whitney doesn't require an explanation over what happened with his former mistress. I know Whitney loves Clayton, but my gawd, at least demand an explanation over what happened with his former mistress before laying with him again! Then afterwards, as they trace through the confusing threads of the note which started the misunderstanding, it's Whitney apologizing. Clayton did not warrant an apology from her, c'mon it's his treatment which was despicable. And some of the things he thinks about her before (slut, whore) was deplorable.

Anyway, the book is dumb, the characters behave like infantile children, the plotting and pacing is painful, and the writing: just ok.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What a Gentleman Wants, by Caroline Linden [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Probably the best of my 1-star romances, I liked the unconventional characters in WHAT A GENTLEMAN WANTS. Unfortunately, this book goes to show you that atypical, interesting characters don't necessarily make for a good story. I found the plot/romance tedious and the writing very lackluster. The ending tried to infuse a bit of action in the otherwise stale plotting and pacing but it misses the mark. This ending actually made it worse, and it was too illogical, too dumb. Too many "well, DUH!" moments. I thought the ending should have tried to stick with a grand ball or something introducing the heroine Hannah to society as the new duchess.

I liked that instead of the common rake we often find in romance stories, you have a true gentleman with a lot of responsibilities and obligations. In order to shelter his brother, his sister and stepmother, the duke of Exeter shoulders all the blame and responsibilities. Here's a guy that's unfairly judged as cold, calculating and heartless but in fact everything he does is to protect those he loves.

Our heroine Hannah is a 25 year-old widow, a vicar's wife and a mother of a 4 year-old girl. Although she's very wholesome and kind, I was intrigued by her strength in other ways. Hannah manages as a poor widow, single mother and she's determined to be mistress of her own household no matter the circumstances. Uncommon to many widowed heroines, Hannah loved her first husband very dearly, and experienced a very fulfilling, gentle lovemaking with her late husband.

It is these uncommon characterizations which initially attracted me to the novel, but the writing and story lets the characters down.

The Story.

Wholesome widow Mrs. Hannah Preston really doesn't want to return to her father's home where she's unwanted and unloved. She wants to be mistress of her own household in a loving environment where she can comfortably raise her 4 year-old daughter. After she nurses back to health dissolute libertine Lord David Reece following an accident, Lord David Reece proposes a marriage of convenience which would afford her some options. In a tight situation to begin with and desperate to provide loving environment to raise her daughter, Hannah accepts the marriage proposal.

David's twin brother is the duke of Exeter, His Grace Marcus Reece, a cold, reticent and responsible man. Despite incessantly badgering his younger twin brother David by 10 minutes to reform himself, Marcus always rescues David from his problematic fixes. Honorably, Marcus protects his family name, shelters the trouble-prone David, and shoulders the blame for many of David's messes. Marcus is also investigating a counterfeiting charge which points to his brother. If Marcus can discover the identity of the true culprits behind the counterfeit money, he's cut a deal to absolve his brother David's involvement.

Right before the marriage with Hannah, David gets cold feet and fears losing his debauched bachelorhood lifestyle. Instead of signing his name on the church register, David signs Marcus's name instead thinking both Marcus and Hannah perfect for each other (both are dutiful). After bringing Hannah and her daughter to London, David escapes Marcus's wrath and flees the country. Before ditching town, David entraps Marcus and Hannah by broadcasting Marcus & Hannah's marriage in the Times and sending letters to their sister and stepmother.

The pacing of the story sags considerably after Marcus and Hannah discover the truth. Despite Hannah's misgivings, Marcus has Hannah act as his duchess in various public ton events. Marcus wishes to avoid the bad gossip tarnishing the family name, and he also wants to protect David from the blame by hiding the truth from his sister and stepsister, both of whom are overjoyed by Marcus's marriage. There's a bunch of boring shopping then as Hannah delights in lavish furnishings, elegant gowns and glittering jewels. Hannah and Marcus slowly begin to come closer together, both in terms of a friendship and passion.

The abduction of Hannah's daughter triggers a very nonsensical ending grasping for some action in a novel that really has no place for it. All in all, a feeble read, completely devoid of engaging writing or plotting. Likable characters though.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Stealing Heaven, by Madeline Hunter [5]

*****/***** (5/5)

"Besides, I always said, if a thief is going to hang, it might as well be for a horse and not an apple."
"When did you always say that?"
He smiled slyly. "When I was a thief."
"So now I am a horse?"
He shook his head. "You are the stairway to the stars. It is heaven that I am stealing here [with you]."

I'm completely spellbound. Bewitched. Enthralled. Mesmerized.

A singularly memorable Madeline-Hunter novel, STEALING HEAVEN rises high above romance stereotypes and its tendency to dwell on characters' appearances. STEALING HEAVEN chronicles a fervid romance, a heart/gut-wrenching romance, an impossible romance, a romance that you simply cannot forget. There's a few books you read once in a blue moon that just never leave you. STEALING HEAVEN is just such a romance. Once I started reading, I literally could not stop. I smiled, I laughed, I cheered, and the novel even brought me to tears. Madeline Hunter throws the gamut of emotions at her unsuspecting readers like me in STEALING HEAVEN.

With BY POSSESSION (****), BY DESIGN (***) and finally STEALING HEAVEN (*****), Madeline Hunter appears to raise the stakes on impossible loves each time. Whereas status and birth seemed to separate our star-crossed lovers in BY POSSESSION and BY DESIGN, there's a lot more at stake in STEALING HEAVEN dividing our hero and heroine. A lot more. As STEALING HEAVEN's heroine Nesta reminds her hero Marcus more than once, "What I want is a small thing in this. In any of it. In all of it."

STEALING HEAVEN's prose and settings could be better given BY POSSESSION, THE SEDUCER (**) and THE RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****). But lord, did the poignancy of the characters, love and story make up for it in STEALING HEAVEN. And I mean make up for it big time. I thought this novel was more passionate and sensual than other Madeline Hunter novels; or maybe I felt that way because of the characters, it's tough to tell now. The chemistry and passion between Marcus & Nesta crackles with a profound intensity.

Marcus of Anglesmore. I don't think I have the words to describe this hero. Marcus lays it all on the line, he risks everything to win his heroine. He's handsome of course, but he also exudes power and cunning. He's experienced it all: being groomed for a lordship as a young child, then having brutally lost it all, watching his sister forced so he could live, living in poverty and thieving to earn a cold, hard piece of bread and then having his lordship returned to him again. Marcus isn't a warrior in Addis's league at the peak of Addis's ability, but still no push-over in that department either. When Marcus arranges to dupe Nesta into a betrothal, it really hits you what he's risking in order to win Nesta considering all of Nesta's dangerous connections. If anyone were to discover what Marcus intentionally fails to report about Nesta's treasonous activities, Marcus would lose everything, he would lose it all again and his life in a blink of an eye. As he tells Nesta from the start, "I would fight to claim you..." And fight he does, even using Nesta as an instrument to claim her. Marcus doesn't care about Nesta's past, he doesn't blink twice about Nesta's promiscuous reputation, and even after their first time he doesn't ask her about it.

What Marcus risks for Nesta considering how little he knows for sure about her shady history and considering what he suspects regarding her treasonous plans for the future makes his plight to win Nesta that much more moving, that much more soulful. Not to take anything away from Nesta, but STEALING HEAVEN belongs to Marcus.

Towards the end, Nesta realistically points out, "The King's man should not be so easily swayed by passion, Marcus." Marcus confidently replies, "The King's man did his duty. If he found a way to do it and avoid a war, he is content. If he found a way to do it and keep the woman he loves (Nesta), he is satisfied. If that woman takes his hand willingly, he will consider it the greatest victory of his life." Later, Marcus admits he's no poet, yet his heartfelt words strike a cord: "I am not good with pretty words, Nesta. Telling you that I love you is easy, but it will never express what is in my heart...I am honored that you gave all of yourself to me...Loving you is the best part of my life. Holding on to you became the most important thing to me after [our first meeting]."

Yes, Marcus sure has grown up from BY DESIGN. Wow, his character is realistic, sensual, cunning and honorable. And yes, romantic beyond any words of expression.

I don't think I've ever read a heroine quite so mature, quite so confident, quite so bold, quite so shrewd, quite so unafraid of the world of men as Welsh-born Nesta verch Llygad. She doesn't blush and melt at Marcus's every touch, she doesn't back down to Marcus's "maleness" and deploys her own female weapons in return, and boy does she give him a run for his money in the battle of wits and deception. Usually even if the heroine is a widow, her first marriage was loveless. In this case, Nesta has actually experienced pleasure before Marcus. It takes courage to write such a heroine as Nesta verch Llygad in a genre chock full of virgins or near-virgins, and I doubt most romance readers warm up to a heroine like Nesta, confident, beautiful, cunning, promiscuous, unbelievably smart and not above using her "weapons" (beautiful figure) to get what she wants. And you have to be beautiful if you caught the King's eye. Nesta has tons of dark connections and a ton of dark history. STEALING HEAVEN's Nesta reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay's Dianora from TIGANA, the only difference being Nesta's happy ending. Just like Nesta, Dianora too anguishes over her divided heart and divided loyalties. Duty and love wrench Nesta's heart, and her journey as a worldly-wise and cynical woman to actually realize her little girl's dream of true love with a dashing, handsome knight was simply breathtaking. She's totally worthy of Marcus in every way. Marcus is totally worthy of her.

Even though THE PROTECTOR's Anna is the strongest of Hunter's heroines from an athletic and leadership point of view, Nesta verch Llygad is the boldest and most cunning of any Madeline-Hunter heroines I've read to date. As far as the combined realms of brains, beauty and experience goes, Nesta wins hands down, no contest.

Although the title of the book literally refers to Marcus stealing heaven, I thought it could have gone the both ways. In the subtle ways Nesta thwarts Marcus's attempts to marry Nesta's sister in the beginning, she steals heaven for herself too. Only a strong-willed, extremely cunning woman like Nesta could steal heaven in Marcus's arms, every bit his equal in their battle of wits.

The Story.

King Edward has arranged Lord Marcus of Anglesmore's marriage to a Welsh girl with royal blood. After delaying the meeting with his intended for weeks, Marcus finally steals into the garden on a moonlit night for a glimpse of his future bride. Following an electric meeting, Marcus promptly steals some heaven right then and there with some kisses. Marcus anxiously returns the next morning for a formal meeting with his intended bride only to find that he stole kisses with his intended bride's sister Nesta last night. Marcus is livid. The witch didn't tell him who she was when he was kissing her last night!

Readers from BY DESIGN will remember Marcus "Mark" as Joan's younger brother, the heir to Anglesmore. Marcus and his sister Joan had to escape Anglesmore and live an impoverished life in London after Mortimer's man Sir Guy Leighton terrorizes Anglesmore. BY DESIGN ends with Anglesmore returned to Marcus and Addis de Valence (BY POSSESSION) serving as Marcus's tutor and warden. Marcus has already led a scrappy life going from riches to rags back to riches. He's been a thief, fighting in a gang, learning to be a lord, and training to be a knight. The roots of his vast street-smart experience shows clearly in STEALING HEAVEN, and god, has he ever grown up! Under Addis's guidance so too does he demonstrate his honor and cunning as a capable lord.

While Marcus fumes over Nesta's true identity and his strong reactions to her, Nesta schemes to escape London with her younger sister Genith while the King is out of the country. Welsh-born Nesta has surreptitious plans for herself and her sister, and they don't include marriage to the English lord Marcus. She dismisses her own reactions to Marcus as a magical foray from another world, and completely impossible. Marcus has other ideas. Marcus gives chase and finally captures Nesta and Genith after much hardship in spite of Nesta's clever plots to throw off any pursuit. With Nesta and his future bride Genith in tow, he heads to his seat in Anglemore. He also decides to quickly marry the sister Genith as the King arranged and be done with it.

Again, Nesta thwarts him.

After Nesta plots an escape again, Marcus is left with just one sister, Nesta. Marcus's emotions and reactions to Nesta boil over and he resolves to walk a very sharp double-sided edge as the King's loyal baron by tricking Nesta into a betrothal. A betrothal the King could very well disapprove of given the King's connection to Nesta. A betrothal that could could cost him everything. A betrothal to a rebel that could end with his life. Nesta's furious reaction to the betrothal is too fun.

The story rages on in intensity and poignancy as Marcus and Nesta spar in a battle of wits and deception, a battle surrounding a rebellious plot with Welsh freedom at stake. A Welsh autonomy and freedom Nesta will do just about anything for. A worthy cause, to be sure. Both Nesta and Marcus understand each other, both anticipate each other, both accept in each other a conflicting and betraying call to duty, and yet, both still manage to find heaven in each other's arms. Impossible love, you say? It doesn't get more impossible than Marcus and Nesta. At times, this battle of wits is very fun, at other times, very heart-wrenching. At the end of the day, it's all worth the price of admission.

I'm going to be re-reading this one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lord of a Thousand Nights, by Madeline Hunter [3]

***/***** (3/5)

1. BY ARRANGEMENT (haven't read yet, having trouble tracking this one down!)

LORD OF A THOUSAND NIGHTS somewhat exceeded my low expectations for it, and I enjoyed many parts of it. Still, I'd rank it a slight cut below other 3-star Madeline Hunter novels such as BY DESIGN (***) and THE PROTECTOR (***). I never did like Ian of Guilford from THE PROTECTOR, and seeing him as a formidable warrior here in LORD OF A THOUSANDS NIGHTS didn't seem to follow from his role as a courtier/consort in the English court from THE PROTECTOR. Now, the Lord of a Thousand Nights title, seducer of a thousand women, that definitely followed. I thought the love between Ian and Reyna was more about Ian's capable talents and past experience with many other women than really about Ian & Reyna. Unlike so many other romance novels, Reyna hurling many expletives Ian's way was handled in a fun way here, actually adding to the romantic tension instead of squeezing the life out of the love and romance.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Fortunately, I also thought Madeline Hunter weaved some interesting mystery plots with this romance, and I found myself pleasantly engaged. The mystery involves plenty of backstory on both Ian & Reyna, and once again, each characterization is fleshed out superbly. The only thing I found a bit ridiculous was the way Ian found Robert's treasure at the end. The way he found it was way too easy, treasure map? Okie doke!

The backdrop of LORD OF A THOUSAND NIGHTS continues Morvan Fitzwaryn's strife to recapture his father's seat at Harclow. You'll recall from THE PROTECTOR that Morvan delayed this dream for Harclow to spend time with his love and wife, Anna de Leon. Also from THE PROTECTOR, you'll recall a younger Ian forced himself on Anna only to have Anna punch him. Now, 8 years later, while Morvan and the bulk of his army lays siege to Harclow, Ian of Guilford leads a company of Morvan's men to capture Black Lyne Keep, a keep overseeing strategic land on the border with Scotland. Lord of Clivedale, Maccus Armstrong, is a Scot who captured Harclow from Morvan's father so long ago.

The story begins with the recently-widowed Reyna Graham, Lady of Black Lyne Keep, conspiring to kill the besieging company's leader, Ian. Reyna was married to the honorable Robert of Kelso (more than thrice her age) in order to divert a family feud between the Grahams and Armstrongs, neighbors on the English-Scottish border. Since Morvan is laying siege to the Armstrongs at Harclow, he's secured a promise from Duncan Graham not to attack in exchange for Reyna's safety when Black Lyne Keep falls. Upon seeing the incredibly handsome Lord of a Thousand Nights, Ian, Reyna falters in her assassination attempt and ends up prisoner instead.

Using Reyna, Ian swiftly captures Black Lyne Keep and things between our our capable seducer and beguiling enchantress progress from there as Ian secures Black Lyne Keep for Morvan. There's some interesting plots having to do with the mystery behind Reyna's late husband's (Robert's) history and the circumstances surrounding Robert's sudden death (Templar, poisoning). Towards the very end after Harclow finally falls, we also learn more about Reyna's parentage and Ian's past sins. Meanwhile, we see BY ARRANGEMENT's David & Christiana and THE PROTECTOR's Morvan & Anna in some very fun and enjoyable subplots in the middle. I thought the negotiations for marriage here between Ian and Reyna weren't nearly as fun as those between Morvan and Anna from THE PROTECTOR or Hayden and Alexia from THE RULES OF SEDUCTION.

Oh and I have to say:

Anna de Leon (from THE PROTECTOR) totally steals the show! I swear I cheered and laughed with her every appearance and reference. I was dying for more Anna in this book! Like "...and that big one (Anna), well, show me the man who wants to try telling her what to do...and the big one, well, when they left she practically threatened me, just stared at me dangerous-like and felt her dagger hilt and told me to obey their orders and all would be well." Or Ian saying, "Are you suggesting that Reyna forced Anna into leaving? Hell's teeth, Morvan, your wife could pick [Reyna] up with one arm." Or Anna talking: "[Ian] has a weakness below the right ribs if you need to hit him." Or Anna & Morvan's reunion after 5 months in front of everyone at Black Lyne Keep. Or even: "[Ian] tried his most charming smile [on Anna]. It had no effect whatsoever." Now I want to read THE PROTECTOR all over again!

Lady Reyna is cruel. Twice, Ian of Guilford works at pleasuring her and building her arousal with touches and kisses, and the second before the critical moment of joining when he's fully aroused too, she refuses him, muttering, "I can not." Ouch. That's heartless. We learn later that she's still a virgin from her first marriage and she wishes to protect her late husband from ridicule, but still! Ian says he wants her, but I found that hard to believe if he's able to so easily cut it off like that -- not once, but twice! Ian is a good sport about it, he obediently obliges Reyna's capricious behavior, and then proceeds to bring her climax using his fingers. Unlike other Madeline Hunter novels in similar circumstances, there isn't a mutual agreement abstaining from sexual intercourse here (see BY POSSESSION, BY DESIGN), so these refusals right before the critical moment in this novel are... wow, just... just... cold... brutal... malevolent of Reyna even!

The Lord of a Thousand Nights' chartered and deliberate first joining with Reyna after their marriage reads more like a detached science than a mutual passion. A touch here, a kiss there, a graze, the right position, the right kiss, Ian's calculated restraint. Since it was Reyna's first time, she was in obvious pain for some of it, and for someone like the Lord of a Thousand Nights, he's clearly had more pleasure than the incredible patience, restraint and servicing he showers Reyna with during their first real joining. All of the seduction including the first joining was more about Ian and other women than Ian & Reyna. Even in the very last chapter, Reyna is complimenting Ian's talents with other women: "You have a talent for making philosophy the last thing on a woman's mind." A woman, general. The very last paragraph of the book, when Reyna looks up to Ian, she sees the Lord who's seduced a thousand other women, not her Ian. Maybe women like that, I don't know, but the resulting love didn't resonate quite like the loves from THE RULES OF SEDUCTION, BY POSSESSION, and BY DESIGN.

I thought the THE RULES OF SEDUCTION's story, characters and passion rises above the stereotypes prevalent in historical romances: handsome, experienced guy pleasuring, seducing and igniting the passion of the average-looking, stubborn and resilient virgin. However, these stereotypes mire LORD OF THE THOUSAND NIGHTS' love and romance. In fact the central love is the stereotype here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Archangel, by Sharon Shinn [1]

*/***** (1/5)

My first and inevitably my last novel by Sharon Shinn, ARCHANGEL explores a girl's faith in a story with strong Christian overtones. A fantasy novel preaching about having faith, there's a lot of bickering (between hero & heroine) in ARCHANGEL. ARCHANGEL's world is a sort of a religious utopia, and its grand city of Luminaux represents the height of the Utopian principles in all aspects: economy, social position, politics, etc. Every man in Luminaux goes to the job he loves, there's no such thing as a menial job in Luminaux. Through the nomadic, yet persecuted, gypsy-like Edori, the Edori customs and ways represent the height of a free, giving race; the Edori are perfect, all of their people good and wholesome beyond belief.

ARCHANGEL views all rich merchants in a very evil light, summarily condemning all of them and religiously denouncing all of their capitalistic practices to gain wealth. Simplistically, beautiful people are either power-hunger mongrels (Raphael) or ditzy dolts (Judith), except for our handsome hero Gabriel of course. "Metaphorical and ethical speculation was wasted on the literal-minded (and beautiful) Judith," Gabriel notes at one point.

There's 3 provinces in ARCHANGEL's world, with 3 angels to lead each province and an archangel which oversees everyone (included as 1 of the 3 "leading" angels). The archangel term lasts 20 years and oracles deduce from God the next chosen Archangel and his Angelica (or Angelico). Like most fantasy novels written by authors interested in romance, you have some sort of a soul-mate storyline and also similar to other other novels, you have the hero accepting it and quickly embracing his soul-mate (angelica) while the heroine very reluctant for the majority of the novel. In ARCHANGEL in fact, the heroine Rachel is resistant until the very last page of this 390-page superior paperback. There really isn't any warring factions or violence in ARCHANGEL's world as everyone lives in awe and fear of the Almighty God. The angels' power? Basically they pray in hymns and song to entreat god to help effect weather changes. Rain for farmers during a drought, for instance. The hero Gabriel is the most competent of the singing angels. There's plenty of concerts in the novel if you haven't guessed already by the way.

Finally, god tracks its "children" through the "Kiss of God," acorn-sized balls grafted into everyone's arms when they're a baby (similarly to a baptism). The balls illuminate when they're near people god wants to them love for bloodlines and procreation, and it's also supposed to help people find their true love. Even the final monumental climax is left in the hands of god.

Even though ARCHANGEL tells us early via its oracle Jesiah that the Archangel-elect Gabriel's Angelica will humble him, I thought it was his angelica Rachel that needed the humbling. The story begins with Rachel working as a slave in an affluent merchant household. Oh and just to preserve our heroine, this particular merchant household doesn't allow anyone to molest women slaves. The annual event Gloria, which celebrates, worships, sings and prays to god, is only 6 months away, and this year it marks the transition of power from the previous archangel Raphael to the archangel-elect Gabriel. Gabriel needs to track down his angelica quickly and God (via the oracle) is there to point him in the right direction. Handy!

The book clumps along as Gabriel finds Rachel early on and they fight with each other and other elements interfering in their confirmation as Archangel and Angelica on Gloria 6 months away.

I couldn't stand the story's religious preaching, I couldn't stand Rachel's character, and I couldn't stand anything about the other plots.

I had high hopes though. I liked how the heroine Rachel wasn't a virgin, I liked how she didn't swoon and melt at the hero's touch (only at his singing in this case), and I liked how Gabriel was very virtuous, and not the notorious libertine we find from romantic historicals. In case you're interested, there's no passionate scenes here, only goes as far as kissing.

Possible SPOILERS ahead, and various musings.

Rachel acts pretty superior and childish throughout, it's as though she alone understands the trials and tribulations of the poor and underprivileged. Anyone with a modicum of wealth or ambitions for fortune in Sharon Shinn's world are shunned as evil and power hungry. Certainly, this generalization holds true everywhere. Rachel flaunts her Edori heritage as superior to everyone and everything else. She's very juvenile and frosty with her husband too. By my count, Gabriel apologized to her at least 4 times for things he didn't know or understand about her, and he always shows her kindness and affection. Rachel reacts in her obligatory I-art-holier-than-thou attitude. When Rachel walks in on Gabriel and Judith, she secures Gabriel's promise later on that he has never slept with and never will sleep with Judith. They had begun fighting for a while, but this promise seems to have placated her. Inexplicably, they transition into a more amiable conversation. The amiable transition didn't follow after a heated discussion where both accused the other of infidelities. The author felt the need for Gabriel to comfort Rachel and dispel her misgivings, but not the other way around.

And it's Rachel who flirts with Obadiah, and the Edori Isaac and Adam. It's Rachel who kisses Isaac and Adam. I actually wanted to see Rachel get busy with Isaac & Adam and reject Gabriel. At least then Gabriel would be free of her. Lord.

I especially don't understand Rachel's cold desire to destroy an entire city, the city of Semorrah. For a Good Samaritan devoted to the betterment of the needy (she sets up a children's shelter and school), she wants to indiscriminately kill everyone in a city, she wants an entire city to pay for its slavery practices? Her friend the Lady Mary who lives in Semorahh would die too wouldn't she? Huh? What? How does this compute? At least think about vengeance discriminately, against the Jensai slavers maybe? Not an entire city!

It's so horrific to be an Archangel-elect's angelica in Rachel's mind. She doesn't want to be an angelica (predictably), and more than twice she thinks she will not forgive Gabriel for bringing her. She will not forgive Gabriel for freeing her from slavery and bestowing upon her every kindness and lavish comfort at her fingertips. Now she finds herself in a position of power to do something about the unfair poverty and build shelters and schools for orphaned children, yet of course she will not forgive Gabriel for plucking her out of slavery. Obviously, all of Rachel's childish reactions and juvenile fits of defiance serve simply as a ploy to add some romantic tension. Poor delivery in the novel here, because I didn't see so much a romantic tension than I did a childish juvenile rebelling against everyone and everything for the sake of being contrary. I thought Rachel was 25 and not a teenager?

Like heroes and heroines from other romance novels, ARCHANGEL has Gabriel justify Rachel's disdainful and combative disposition towards him by having Gabriel think he would prefer willful wife than a submissive one. Well, it is possible to be willful and not quite so bitchy. Gabriel shows her caring and kindness at almost every turn, attempting to talk to her but predictably she lashes out at the only person who will take it, her husband Gabriel. Shinn has Gabriel think and care for Rachel relatively early despite her belligerent, bratty attitude. In fact, Gabriel is constantly remorseful (for having to be away from Rachel), caring and affectionate towards Rachel. Consistently, Rachel fails to reciprocate Gabriel's caring and instead presents Gabriel with a childish, spiteful disdain. Stop whining and get over yourself for once.

Gabriel bestows every courtesy and kindness to Rachel. Gabriel makes an elevator lift available for Rachel to subvert her fear of heights, Gabriel agrees to provide funding for Rachel's shelter and school for orphaned children, Gabriel gives her gold bracelets as her wedding present, Gabriel asks after her well-being at every chance, it's always Gabriel who feels remorse for parting with Rachel badly (even though Rachel is equally to blame), for all of Rachel's juvenile fits of defiance and anger, it's always Gabriel apologizing and seeking forgiveness, it's Gabriel giving her gold-embroidered gloves as a gift.

In response, Rachel openly flaunts her friendship with the angel Obadiah, a close friendship which chafes her husband Gabriel.

The immature adolescence Rachel so exuberantly sponsors ranges to levels far beyond my comprehension. Get this. At this end, she's beyond petty and vindictive. Gabriel is aware Rachel's most fervent "justice" is to see the entire city of Semerroh destroyed. When it's clear that just such a feat will come to fruition if she will not sing, she uses that knowledge to test Gabriel's love and devotion to her instead, spiting him for not believing in her. When she threatens the city and its people if Gabriel doesn't promise to leave her alone, Gabriel quickly acquiesces to her ludicrous demands. After, she cries thinking how she wanted Gabriel to risk destroying hundreds of people so he would say he would rather have her instead. Despite telling her before that the only angelica he would ever accept by his side would be Rachel, and that he wouldn't choose another angelica had she died. Despite telling her that he would always come back to her if he ever leaves. Despite comforting her and protecting her, despite sheltering her under his sensitive wings no one is supposed to touch.

Man, I've never seen a character so selfish, so childish, so juvenile, so immaturely spiteful as ARCHANGEL's Rachel. And she hates Gabriel for choosing to save hundreds of lives instead of be with her, an ultimatum she herself lays down. Are you serious? Is that even a choice? That's no choice at all, any likable hero would sacrifice himself and his beloved in a heartbeat if not doing so meant the death to thousands of other innocents. There is nothing romantic about this retarded "choice" Rachel tests Gabriel with.

After all this, Rachel stays away for months traveling with the Edori and then when she finally decides she wants Gabriel back, she tests him yet again. She makes Gabriel with his broad wings walk through iron stakes on the top of a mountain he can't land on. Yep. Childish. Juvenile. Petty. Vindictive. Adolescent.

This book is garbage. I need to take my own advise, and I'll stop whining now. Needed to vent! Oh by the way, the prose and settings aren't half bad (though nothing great).

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan [4]

****/***** (4/5)

In the relatively new genre dubbed as cyberpunk, British author Richard K. Morgan's first Takeshi Kovacs novel ALTERED CARBON (2002) leaves an indelible impression. A captivating blend of suspense/mystery, hardcore first-person detective story, and action/adventure in the midst of a science fiction backdrop, ALTERED CARBON is sure to hit you hard with its unique style and flavor. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs is exactly the sort of kick-ass, intelligent hero I love to read about. Although I'm not a huge fan of first-person storytelling, our narrator Kovacs manages to admirably build the science fiction universe of ALTERED CARBON with its futuristic vocab and prose. ALTERED CARBON's settings, including the bureaucracy, economic social hierarchy, the vernacular, and futuristic sights are thorough, if not confounding at times. For a debut novel, Morgan ably sets the scene and builds his universe which support his story. There's plenty of related history too. Again, the prose can be ambiguous at times, but it depends on how you receive it; don't let the futuristic vernacular bog you down, just take it in stride. Richard Morgan doesn't shy away from explicit language, brutal violence and sex to grab your attention either. His science fiction world is very morbid, and these things are a part of its "culture."

In the futuristic ALTERED CARBON, human civilization conquers death itself. "Poor Death, no match for the mighty altered-carbon technologies of data storage and retrieval arrayed against him. Once we lived in terror of [Death's] arrival. Now we flirt outrageously with his somber dignity, and beings like these won't even let him in the tradesman's entrance." Ouch. But these things are a reality for the universe of ALTERED CARBON: cloning, mind data storage/retrieval, resleeving (brand new body or same body but younger). In a macabre observation, the book notes how virtual prostitution is actually more expensive than sex with a real prostitute, since bodies don't have much significance anymore. Many "Meths" (rich, influential people, socially and economically high on the food chain) have stacks on storage, and they transmit their current memory over regular intervals of time to a data center containing hundreds of their cloned bodies. "Meths" are often thousands of centuries old. Other, common people also have "stacks" for storage and retrieval in their spinal core, though they often don't have the monetary means to afford more than one clone, let alone hundreds. As the story begins, Morgan weaves in religion as we learn of religious Catholics demonstrating with placards against any form of data storage and retrieval on Earth, arguing such altered-carbon technology destroys the soul. In fact, many Catholics still live a traditional lifespan and forgo any form of cloning and resleeving in a new body.

Ex-U.N. Envoy (military conditioning and training) and criminal Takeshi Kovacs has just been hired by a Meth, Mr. Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft's apparent suicide. The story begins as police commandos gun down Kovacs and his friend Sarah to death on Harlan's World. Next thing we know, authorities "needlecast" (transmit) Kovacs' "stack" (stored mind) over to Earth to be resleeved in a new body sanctioned and paid for by Bancroft. Bancraft is convinced it was a murder not a suicide, and he maintains he wouldn't try to kill himself when they'd download him to a new cloned body later anyway. Unfortunately, his last "update" to his personal data center was well before the events preceding his apparent suicide and now, he has no memory of his suicide or the time before it. Bancraft hires Kovacs on the strength of a recommendation by Reileen Kawahara, who Kovacs did some work for a few years back. The police and the ranking officer Lt. Kristin Ortega have already closed the case, declaring an open-and-shut suicide.

As Kovacs pursues the investigation, we learn more and more about the various pieces of the puzzle. If you're astute unlike me, you may be able to figure out some links well before the end. Kovacs investigates Bancroft's proclivity for blue-collar prostitution establishments like Jerry's Closed Quarters, he learns more about Bancroft's wife, the drop-dead gorgeous Miriam Bancroft, and even Kovacs' current "sleeve" (body) and its rightful consciousness currently stacked away seems to bear some disturbing connections to the leading police officer who closed Bancroft's case, the austere Lt. Ortega. Everyone except Bancroft himself wants Kovacs to leave well enough alone, and drop the investigation. The wild joy ride seems to intrigue Kovacs and he doggedly continues his investigation.

Morgan intersperses a lot of history and world-building into Kovacs' characterization. Although not as old as a Meth, Kovacs is an ex-Envoy and a few hundreds of years old himself with a rich and dark history. He often recalls gruesome wars, gritty experiences and brutal people he's met.

Here's just a taste of Kovacs' hardcore characterization. The following passages comes relatively early on in the book when there's a cold fury raging through his veins. It's actually a lot of fun. In a book Kovacs often quotes throughout, he notes: "And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous, marks the difference -- the only difference in their eyes -- between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it's just business, it's politics, it's the way of the world, it's a tough life, and that it's nothing personal. Well fuck them. Make it personal."

There's traces of love in the story, but don't hold your breath there, the book's focus rests on the hardcore first-person characterization of Takeshi Kovacs and the mystery he's hired to solve. What I like about the book: the nihilistic Kovacs' motivations behind his actions are very personal, drawn from a caring for the people he values. Nonetheless, Morgan explores some interesting themes here in the midst of his scifi world. In love, is it the body we love or the consciousness behind the body? Can you love a new consciousness in the body of your lover (Ortega/Kovacs/Ryker)? Can you love a new body with the consciousness of your love (Victor & Irene Elliot)? Is any of this cheating? It seems that a true long-term relationship hinges equally on both: the person behind the body and the body itself. And in Morgan's science fiction universe where bodies are interchanged as quickly as shirts, love is tricky.

My main criticism with this novel has to do with the prose. Because of the rich fabric of history and science fiction vernacular Morgan sprinkles into the first-person narrative, the prose takes some patience to follow, and if you don't really care for this brand of hardcore cyberpunk detective story, you're not going to like it. I dropped this novel in favor of others for months before I actually came back to finish this one. Having finished it, I will definitely continue reading other Takeshi Kovacs novels.

It's an interesting ride to say the least.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Saving Grace, by Julie Garwood [2]

**/***** (2/5)

SAVING GRACE demonstrates Julie Garwood's panache for extremely light, sweet stories. Her heroines are very sweet, and her heroes are generally rough-around-the-edges but gentle intimately and ultimately very caring. The love between the hero and heroine is always mutually giving, which I very much appreciate in Julie Garwood's stories. Unfortunately, her stories harbor little substance, and her weak prose and settings mire the overall effect. Similar to the THE SECRET, soap-opera-ish conversations and plots saturates SAVING GRACE's content, completely overshadowing the sweetness and humor her stories exude. The pacing of the novel plods along at a snail's pace.

SAVING GRACE hones in on a woman's place from the eyes of the Church and God. One evil bishop's interpretations places women behind dull-witted oxen and other animals in God's eyes. Our heroine Johanna takes this to heart and allows her husband the Baron Raulf to shatter her confidence and self-respect first, and then later, Raulf abuses her physically. When news arrives of Raulf's demise, Johanna is overjoyed. Her brother Baron Nicholas promptly arranges Johanna's marriage to a Scottish highlander, the Laird Gabriel MacBain, a mighty warrior. Since the MacBain lands technically belong to Johanna, Gabriel agrees to the marriage, primarily to acquire the land. At first sight, both are stricken by the other's imposing, handsome appearance in Gabriel's case, and beauty in Johanna's case.

Since Gabriel is a warrior and very rough-around-the-edges, I did enjoy how SAVING GRACE's Johanna manipulates him with tenderness and caring to calm him down first, and then make him forget his anger over her willfulness. For example, when Gabriel is very angry at Johanna for venturing out on her own in search of some barrels of ale to barter with, she touches Gabriel gently on the cheek and neck to completely subdue him. It was funny, and the parallel to petting an angry dog was not missed.

I can't help but draw comparisons between Julie Garwood's heroines and other heroines I often read about in this genre. SAVING GRACE's Johanna was verbally and physically abused, and although she's sweet and gentle, she still shows plenty of strength in her own way. Instead of constantly provoking, antagonizing and bickering with her hero Gabriel, she forges her own unique way with love, tenderness, and apparent submission. She confronts her enemies on her own towards the end, and she does what she feels needs to be done to secure the safety of her clan and Gabriel. She's meek when it suits her, she's stubborn and willful otherwise. I think she's much stronger, more mature than so many of the childish, acrimonious heroines we read about so often.

I'll continue to read Julie Garwood's books despite their sluggish pace and gossiping, soap-opera plots. They're sweet in their own right.

Friday, July 13, 2007

What's important in a novel?

  • Characters. They don't have to be all good characters or even necessarily likable ones, but they should be interesting, engaging in some manner. I can't abide too much whining, pining or melancholy from characterizations. Childish characters grate my soul.
  • Plotting and pacing. The entire story doesn't have to be happy, but it should be able to hold interest. Violence and sex mixed into the content deters many readers; not me. I'm an adult, I prefer adult content and I'm not going to apologize for it.
  • Prose. The writing should invite the reader, and I prefer adult-level vocabulary. Explicit language doesn't bother me.
  • Settings. The environment: the sights, smells, sounds, and touches should come alive and complement the story without dragging it down. I prefer settings to supplement and support the story and characters, not swallow the characters and story (i.e., China Mieville). In historicals, the historical backdrop I would consider part of the setting; in SFF, the worldbuilding would qualify as part of the setting. Forgive my amateur qualifications.
  • Enjoyment value, the trump card. Admittedly, I place an unreasonable emphasis on the ending, and it affects my overall enjoyment factor. It's the final impression a novel leaves afterall. I don't care how dark, how sad, how challenging the story is to read in the beginning and middle, I unconditionally prefer satisfying endings. Not a 100% happy ending, but a satisfying one nonetheless. Along with the ending, humor also affects my overall enjoyment (favorably). If the first 4 factors are subpar yet I enjoy the novel overall, I'll give it a positive rating nonetheless. The converse is also true (first 4 factors are excellent yet I don't enjoy the novel overall, I'll give it a negative rating).
0 -- Unreadable
1 -- Very poor
2 -- Has some merits, but still lacking
3 -- Enjoyed the novel though certain factors bring it down
4 -- Entertaining, worth a re-read
5 -- The Cream of the Crop in terms of entertainment value, prose, settings, plot and characterizations.

Updated TO-BUY List

Ah it's nice to read about a bad-ass male character after so many romance novels. Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels are going to be a keeper, I can tell.

By Possession, by Madeline Hunter
The Rules of Seduction, by Madeline Hunter

The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt
The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale

The Warrior, by Nicole Jordan

As I check Amazon for Madeline Hunter's updated release date for LESSONS OF DESIRE, it sure does seem like the covers for her latest Regency series are becoming more provocative, huh?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay [1]

*/***** (1/5)

A Review, SPOILERS galore. Considered by many as revolutionary in epic fantasy storytelling, here's my take on Kay's TIGANA (1990) which I read some time back.


9/10, if you teach a literature class, and you want your students to write an essay for purely instructional purposes.

If you were ever to create Top-10 list of fantasy novels replete with emotional angst, misery and malaise, you must include Kay's TIGANA in this list. I found TIGANA so unsatisfying, so uninspiring, so emotionally draining, I would be reluctant to pick up another Kay novel ever again. There's a story here, but it isn't meant to entertain. Its central intent? To teach, to share wisdom. Like many others, I have to finish a book I start, and with TIGANA, I felt as if I was being forced to read this book so I can write an essay for a class way back in high school or college. I was begging for some Terry-Goodkind preaching after this novel.

Even not having read Kay's afterword, the reader can sense there's some themes, some lessons, that Kay wants to ascribe to the reader. The didactic prose of the book drips into the farthest recesses of your mind while you're reading this.

Clearly, Kay wanted to teach some lessons in TIGANA, as he explains in the afterword of his Tenth-Anniversary edition of TIGANA. Kay wanted to impart -- emotionally and spiritually and relentless in his prose, in his diction -- what it means to refuse letting the past be in the past. Through the binding between the Alessan and the wizard Erlein, Kay also wanted to teach what it means to use unwilling instruments (people) as tools in your quarrels, in order to raise questions to the legitimacy of the plight. This theme also takes root in Alessan's mother cursing his son on her deathbed for not doing anything about the past, at least not in her eyes. The one person - Dianora - who begins to conquer her past with a promise of love commits suicide by plunging into the water, because in the end, she could not escape her past, her history.

The other central theme Kay wants to drum out mercilessly: the duplicity, the ambiguity, and the divided loyalties of human nature. This is also best represented in Dianora's character, although there's traces of it in Alessan. Obviously, Kay wants to show the good in evil, and the evil in good in a genre, as he says, "tends not to work that way." Well thank you, Guy Gavriel Kay, for shedding some of my naivety, I happened to be waiting for you to do it.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed Kay's witty humor and political intrigue. In the bar scenes, whether in the beginning in The Paelion, or towards the end, in the inn Solinghi. When Kay isn't edifying us and torturing us with emotional angst, he's certainly readable.

The prose isn't bad, though the messages very repetitive at times. The opening 100 pages or so were, for the most part, fun, witty and full of political intrigue. Then, Kay does a 180 and brings to home what he really wants to talk about when Dianora's perspective starts appearing in waves and waves. Kay often times repeats things over and over again just to fill the pages, about Devin's cursed memory (again and again), about Devin thinking about Alessan's burdens (again and again), about Dianora's life line leading to this moment, to this path (again and again and again in different words). Furthermore, although I enjoy worldbuilding, Kay takes worldbuilding to insufferable heights. For a stand-alone ~650-page epic fantasy novel, Kay is explaining about the history of this province or the history of that ritual or the gods more than 500 pages into it! And it length! Unacceptable, if you ask me.

Also, George R.R. Martin (GRRM) does this too, but I find it acutely unreadable the way Kay leaves the import of the action off-screen. For example, when Dianora returns to Brandin after seeing a riselka for her path made clear, a humanoid creature with green hair and blue veins, Brandin divulges his plans. The reader never hears about the plans, and Kay leaves words to the effect that Dianora listened and cried and listened. Brandin's plans are divulged much later when Alessan, Erlein and Devin visit Alessan's dying mother at Eanna's Sanctuary (one of the goddesses in the Triad of TIGANA).

The Story.

Some 20 years ago, a very powerful sorcerer - Brandin - conquers the western provinces one by one in a peninsula called the Palm. One of the last provinces to fall - proud Tigana - fought back mightily as Prince Valentin of Tigana slays Brandin's beloved son, his youngest son. Brandin brings the absolute and titanic wrath of his awesome power down upon Tigana, decimating everything and killing most everyone in the province. With his sorcery, Brandin also strips the name Tigana from everyone in the Palm not born in Tigana before its fall, calling the province Lower Corte thenceforth. This expropriation of the name Tigana from the Palm serves as the catalyst and underlying impetus of the entire story. I was very unmoved by this underlying energy which drives the characters we read about.

In the beginning we read about the Duke Sandre staging his own death so as to bring together enemies of another sorcerer Tyrant, this time from the eastern Palm, a sorcerer called Alberico, weaker than Brandin. The Duke's plot goes awry when he's betrayed by one of his grandsons, resulting in the death of everyone from his family and other noble families in the Duke's province Astibar. Here we also meet one of the two main perspectives comprising the bulk of the story, our talented, young 19 year-old singer, Devin. Devin serves one purpose and one alone in Kay's story: Devin is our eyes and ears into Alessan, Prince Valentin's youngest son who manages to escape Brandin's carnage of Tigana. Alessan is older now, in his mid-30s and has made it his life-long mission to excavate both Tyrants from the Palm, Brandin from the western palm and Alberico from the eastern palm. In this singular goal, Alessan and Baerd (Dianora's brother) are building contacts throughout the eastern Palm sympathetic to Alessan's cause and against both Alberico and Brandin and everything the tyrants represent.

Returning to Devin, he is a gifted singer touring in the eastern palm, and he discovers he was born in Tigana right before it was destroyed. While most cannot say or hear the name Tigana because of Brandin's magic, those born in Tigana before the destruction can say and hear the name Tigana. My first thought: so Brandin has so much power, but can't vanquish the name Tigana from everyone, including those born in Tigana before the destruction? I guess we wouldn't have a story otherwise. In any case, Alessan does remember the name, as does others born there before Tigana's fall, people like Devin and Baerd and Catriana.

I have many problems with focusing the story on Alessan's side from Devin's perspective. First, I hate it when authors use insignificant characters of no import or impact simply to magnify the mysticism, the intrigue and power of another character. Devin is bewitched by Alessan and Alessan's cause and to return Tigana's name to the hearts and minds of everyone in the Palm, expunging the two tyrant sorcerers in the process. Kay relentlessly makes Devin oooh and aaaah at everything Alessan says and does, as Devin incessantly notes the burdens Alessan has to deal with. Devin is not only bewitched by Alessan, but Devin is constantly thinking what Alessan may be thinking at a certain time! Since Alessan is the last surviving heir of Tigana and obviously very significant, why not just focus on Alessan's perspective?!? Why force the story from Devin's perspective? Devin does little to add to the story (and Alessan's cause) on his own merit, except possibly for Kay to show us that Devin his plagued with an impeccable memory. Devin's memory is his curse, Kay tells us (many times in the beginning). Again, getting back to Kay's lesson of letting the past be in the past.

I believe one of the biggest reasons to read speculative, escapist fiction is to read about characters that go above and beyond the normal, the average. That can do more, that are more. Devin is nothing if not ordinary through every fiber of his being, there is nothing interesting about him, all the intrigue lies with the puppetmaster forcing everyone to dance to his pipes, Alessan. For all of Kay's beliefs in find the good in the evil and the evil in the bad, what happened to letting us inside the head of powerful characters, or a puppetmaster like Alessan? Especially in this genre. Devin is a character that's less than useless, other than to highlight Kay's history lesson.

For all of Devin's impeccable memory and intuition, Devin never really does catch on that Dianora is Baerd's sister. All of the hints are there for him in plain sight too. Before Devin passes out in a barn after severely injuring his leg, he hears of Baerd's childhood friend Nadoo ask about Dianora, and how 14-15 years ago, she disappeared. Then shortly thereafter, Devin and the reader consantly hears about this girl from Certando province brought to Brandin on one his Tribute ships for his harem. And how she almost started a war because Certando is one of Alberico's provinces, not Brandin's. Even when Devin sees her in person and hears more about her in Chiara when they visit the province Brandin holds court, he doesn't connect the dots. Please, for someone as cursed with memory as he's supposed to be, he sure does miss out on a lot of information. At one point, Alessan dismisses the Certando woman having the same name as Baerd's sister as coincidence. Even though the timing of when she was taken on the Tribute ship fits perfectly. For all the connections Alessan and Baerd gather in the 15-16 years throughout the Palm following Tigana's destruction, you're telling me they couldn't trace her? Or find this woman's name which bears the same name as Baerd's sister oddly interesting? The woman who almost started another war with the other Tyrant sorcerer when she was taken to Brandin's harem? Not even Devin's flawless memory can put together all the pieces here? I thought that was Devin's purpose? To absorb information and slowing connect the dots. Okay, I was mistaken Devin is _much_ less than useless, not just less than useless.

Which brings us to the other major perspective comprising the bulk of the story, Dianora. Dianora's heart-wrenching chapters and emotional angst represent the crux of the story and a key lesson Kay wants to teach us. I wouldn't exactly call Dianora's perspective fun, not by any stretch of the imagination. Dianora's character lies at the heart of Kay's story though, and easily eclipses other characters and other happenings. Easily. I would go insofar as to rename the title of this book to DIANORA instead of TIGANA. Because Dianora's inner turmoil even eclipses Alessan's cause to restore Tigana's name and drive the tyrant sorcerers out of the Palm.

Dianora is from Tigana, you see, 13 or 14 at the time Tigana falls to Brandin the Tyrant, and subsequently decimated. Dianora hears of her father's death, watches the glorius city of Tigana destroyed, people killed, her mother go insane, and her brother and friend Nadoo beaten. After her brother Baerd comes upon a riselka and leaves home to find Alessan, the last surviving heir to Tigana, Dianora watches the flames of a fire die but twinning snakes emerge in her heart - twins of memory for what she's seen and witnessed, and hatred for the man who did it, hatred for Brandin the sorcerer. After her brother Baerd leaves, Dianora makes it her life mission to kill Brandin in her own way. She grows into a very beautiful woman and at 19, she's captured on one of Brandin's Tribute Ships which wisks away women for Brandin's harem, his saisan, from his conquered provinces. Dianora is successful in getting taken away on one of these Tribute Ships given her astounding beauty.

As fate would have it however, Dianora falls in love with Brandin. The overwhelming love for this powerful man (Brandin) eventually subdues the twinning snakes of memory and hate in her heart. The same powerful man who conquered her home, destroyed her kingdom, and killed her father. She eventually hopes against all hope that she can live with this man, continue to love this man, and that at the same time, she can somehow restore Tigana's name. Oh and by the way, despite abducting women from his conquered provinces, cruelly torturing people in sickening ways, putting people to death on wheels, and laying Tigana to waste, Brandin isn't really a bad guy. In fact, Brandin is very affectionate, very compassionate. Over time, just as Dianora comes to love Brandin, so too does Brandin come to favor Dianora's wit and humor, so too does the reader receive a glimpse into Brandin's compassion, his good through Dianora's eyes.

Obviously, Kay wants to demonstrate some good in evil and the ambiguity of human nature, not the straight forward good vs. evil we often find in this genre. Further, Kay invites us to see how love in a character can help conquer their past.

Well that would be all well and good if Dianora wasn't so torturous to read. And the upshot of all of her pages? Love isn't enough. That's right, love isn't enough. Thank you and good night. I think a soap opera would be less torturous to watch than read about Dianora's emotional angst over her divided heart. For my part, I don't even see a contest. Kay doesn't really spend time on how Dianora came to love Brandin, only that it happened gradually over 15 years. We're spared of any love making scenes between Brandin and Dianora and there really aren't any scenes between the 2 which would constitute as "romantic." So given the text we have to go on, I'm just not compelled by this overwhelming love Dianora feels for Brandin. For my part, I would have killed Brandin long ago, but Kay points that may shift the balance of power in the Palm to Alberico, and we're led to believe that she's doing us a favor by loving Brandin and saving him from assassination attempts. At one point, Dianora is thinking in her mind to Brandin: LET GO, to something Brandin is saying. Obviously a plea to let go of the past and his hatred of Tigana for killing his beloved son, set Tigana's name free, so she can love him with her whole heart, not just half.

I have to address the Night Walker storyline which comes out of no where, and again reinforces Kay's lesson about letting the past be in the past. Apparently the Night Walkers are cultish group of people with magic, persecuted before the sorcerors conquered the Palm, and executed by the provinces of the Palm for following a religious orientation outside of the accepted the Triad. Baerd travels to another dimension with the Night Walkers to help defeat a nameless enemy - the Others - for a battle over the land, over soil and food. The whole chapter seemed like something from another dimension, which didn't really belong. Ironically enough, it is these same persecuted people of magic which help Alessan's assembled wizards against Brandin's powerful and overwhelming sorcery. That's right, there's a lesson in there. Let the past be in the past!

Kay classifies TIGANA as a romantic adventure, but I would call it anything but. Possibly a romantic tragedy read in a class to analyze, scrutinize and learn. But not simply to read. The most notable "romance" is that between Dianora and Brandin, but it is hardly adventurous. When Devin leaves Alienor after a vicious, but meaningless night of love making, he says something to that effect; that is, maybe we don't feel anything because we think this is all we deserve. The way Kay presents it, there's another lesson in there about sleeping around without any substance. As if our singer boy has stumbled upon some startling revelation for us all to take away. In a couple pages each, we're treated to sparks of romance between some other characters: Devin and Alais, Baerd and Elena, the Night Walker, and finally, between Alessan and Catriana. The final pairing I found very unsatisfying and incongruous, especially since we never receive a perspective from Alessan which would lead us to to the professed love Alessan claims for Catriana. Kay pairs them up but there's hardly any romance really or substance here to these supposed romances. If there wasn't any substance between Devin and Alienor in their feral sex, there certainly isn't any substance in the one page we see Devin kiss Alais towards the end. Substantive romance isn't what Kay is interested in anyway, at least not in TIGANA.

Unimaginate, average and otherwise torturous characters, lessons in every plot and story and an overabundance of worldbuilding. That just about sums up my experience of Kay's TIGANA.

Some concluding thoughts about the finale of TIGANA, with a plethora of magic all at once in a book that uses magic very subtly for the most part. Finally in the end, Brandin does let go of the past and his hatred of the province of Tigana which killed his beloved son. But by then, as Alessan notes from Devin's perspective, it is way too late. In the end, Brandin unleashes everything all the magical power he possesses to kill the rival tyrant sorcerer, Alberico, in a battle that Alessan deftly maneuvers to craft. After Brandin is fully spent, the magic which prevents anyone from hearing or saying Tigana is also released. Brandin also liberates control of his court fool, Rhun, who turns out to be Prince Valentin enslaved and tortured all these years by Brandin's hatred for killing his beloved son. Valentin promptly remembers who he is and kills and Brandin after Brandin is completely spent. Valentin is slain by Brandin's loyal guard, D'Eymon. D'Eymon, seeing how Brandin is killed, plunges the sword in his own body while Dianora promptly plunges into the water to drown after her love Brandin is killed.

There's supposed to be wedding between the new Prince of Tigana, Alessan, and Catriana. The End. I've read some unsatisfying endings, but this is right up there. I'm not sure I got anything out of this than torturous lesson I really didn't need.