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GUEST REVIEW:  The Baron Next Door: A Prelude to a Kiss Novel by Erin Knightley

GUEST REVIEW: The Baron Next Door: A Prelude to a...

Elaina started reading romances in high school, but only started telling people she read romances within the last few years. Historicals will always remain her favorite, although she finds herself reading other genres depending on her mood. Favorite authors include Elizabeth Hoyt, Lisa Kleypas, Tessa Dare and Meredith Duran. She’s always on the hunt for innovative historical romances—especially non-Regency historicals—so drop her a line if you have a recommendation.

 

The Baron Next Door: A Prelude to a Kiss Novel by Erin Knightley

Dear Ms. Knightley:

You’ve been on my radar for a while now as a new-to-me historical romance author, although it’s only until now that I’ve sat down and read one of your books. I was also intrigued to find out that your romances do not include any sex scenes—not even fade-to-black sex scenes. This is rare in romances, I’ve found, especially secular romances.

The Baron Next Door tells the story of Hugh Danby, retired army officer and newly made Baron Cadgwith, and Charity Effington, daughter of a viscount and Hugh’s next-door neighbor. Both have come to Bath for the summer, although for entirely different reasons. Hugh suffered a severe head injury in the war, which now causes him acute headaches, to the point of being bedridden. He has come to Bath to try the waters in hope of some relief.

Charity comes to Bath after having recently ended an engagement with her fiancé: he fell in love with another woman, and she was kind enough to release him from his promise to her. She travels to Bath with her grandmother to take part in the summer music festival. Charity not only plays the pianoforte but writes her own music. She plans to enter the music festival to show off her skills, although there are a few snags to this plan along the way.

Charity’s music, however, is unbearable for Hugh, as their homes are so close together that the sound of her piano playing triggers his headaches. Thus, when they first meet, it is when Hugh has suffered from an attack and rudely asks Charity to stop playing so he can have some peace and quiet. Charity, unsurprisingly, doesn’t take his command to stop playing well. The two start out on an awkward footing, one assuming he is an unmitigated ass, the other just wanting to be alone and in silence.

The strengths of this novel lie in the depiction of the hero, Hugh: his attacks are described in heartrending detail, making his brusque and rude behavior toward Charity plausible and even sympathetic. He believes himself a broken man and undeserving of a woman like Charity. I enjoyed watching Hugh come alive again with Charity’s help and overcoming his fears to embrace love and companionship.

Charity, however, remains a rather static character throughout the story, and quite honestly, I wanted to shake her more than once. She’s rather sweet and naïve, devoted to her music and not much else. Misunderstandings abound, usually with Charity taking offense without examining why Hugh is acting strangely. When Hugh opens up to her but then later leaves abruptly during a party when Charity is urged to play, she takes offense and assumes the worst. Hugh explains his infirmity, Charity feels guilty, rinse, repeat. Charity continues to assume the worst in Hugh, and this happens again and again as the novel progresses.

The novel also suffers from lack of actual romance in the first third, which features more of Charity and her two friends and fellow musicians, Sophie and May, than it does her relationship with Hugh. May, in particular, and her history is beyond farfetched to me. You see, May was born in the East Indies, grew up there, and is sent to Bath after her mother dies. May, we come to find out, is actually named Mei-li, although she is described as the quintessential English rose; neither of her parents is Chinese. Add to that, she describes her homeland as the East Indies—not England, as she does not consider herself English—and May becomes one of the most improbable characters I’ve encountered in a novel.

You will never convince me a 19th century English couple would name their daughter a Chinese name just out of sheer love for the country they’ve been sent to colonize. It’s a bizarre choice and threw me from the story, not to mention the sugarcoating of English colonization that results from this choice. There is also this weird blending of India and China into one mega-country, which seems odd considering how devoted May is to her “homeland” of China, which makes this entire part of the novel seem sloppy and unbelievable.

And the crème de la crème of this exotification is that May has brought along her Chinese maid Suyin (who we never see, mind you), who just so happens to be an expert in tui na, a type of Chinese massage. Of course, Suyin the Chinese maid is a magical masseuse from the East Indies. And conveniently, Suyin is able to teach Charity her massage techniques to help Hugh with his attacks. Convenient, those foreigners.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Charity and Hugh’s romance, as it was both sweet and heartwarming once they stopped misunderstanding each other. The parts where they talk on their respective balconies are the strongest and most romantic parts of this story, especially when Charity plays for Hugh. The story remained a solid B until the ending that brought in conflict for conflict’s sake mixed in with one of the most obnoxious romance tropes ever, a trope I wish would be banned for all eternity from romances.

So, with all that combined, I have to give The Baron Next Door a C+.

Sincerely,

Elaina

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GUEST REVIEW:  Mist by Susan Krinard

GUEST REVIEW: Mist by Susan Krinard

Marthine thinks you shouldn’t raise children on Oz, Narnia, and Shakespeare unless you are prepared for a love of magic and mystery to root deeply in your offspring. Marthine devoured sci-fi and fantasy as a kid, grew out of it for a while, and has grown back into it. In college, she called it “magical realism,” and now she calls it fun. Find her on Twitter at @MSatris and online at marthinesatris.com. When not writing, she edits for a literary press and teaches English to college freshmen

Mist by Susan Krinard

Dear Ms. Krinard:

I love a good sword and sorcery book. I love San Francisco. And,  as someone named after her Norwegian great-grandmother, I have a particular fondness for Nordic mythology. So Mist, your contemporary fantasy story of a Valkyrie misplaced in time and space, who has landed in San Francisco, was perfect for me. This was my first time reading your books, and I was curious to see how a writer with a background in romance would handle fantasy.

I found myself nodding along with all the precisely depicted elements of Nordic mythology (I am a stickler and didn’t find myself annoyed by mistakes in the myths even once!), and I loved that a fresh mythology underpinned this world – I’ve never read a fantasy book before that was built on the premise of the Nordic myths, and I love that innovation. The combination of a contemporary Californian fantasy with the dark and complex magic of the Norse gods offers so many opportunities for paradox and contradiction, and the book – the first of three, of course, in typical fantasy fashion – hints at how ugly things will get as the cold and brutal forces of a very ancient battle return to earth.

To quickly summarize this tantalizing opening to a new series, Mist is a Valkyrie who has somehow survived Ragnarok (aka, the catastrophic, apocalyptic Last War of the gods that is supposed to have destroyed them, their home Asgard, the Viking heroes’ heaven Valhalla, and an entire system of belief), as have a few other bedraggled and abandoned demigods. As a Valkyrie, Mist is fiercely strong, nearly immortal, and yet was always first a servant of the Aesir, the ruling gods who were destroyed in Last War. After the destruction of their world, she and her much diminished band of sisters were scattered into the mortal realm, Midgard, without friends or purpose. All they have are the few magical weapons Odin entrusted to them during Ragnarok – they don’t know why. They only know that their last shred of purpose is to protect his spear, his cape, and his sword, and they aren’t even supposed to use them.

After a brief (and unnecessary) prologue in which Mist, with her battle sisters, assists the Norwegian Resistance during World War II, she begins the story alone in San Francisco. Mist has avoided getting close to anyone because she’ll just have to watch another mortal wither away, or move on when questions start to arise about why she has only aged a day when her friends have become crippled by age. Now settled in San Francisco, she has let her guard down, and is hooking up with one of the first men she’s really cared about in decades.

While Mist primarily relies on her strength and fearlessness to survive in the post-Asgard world, she also has a small amount of control over rune magic, the mystical script invoked by pre-Christians in Scandinavia. She uses this defensively, but otherwise tries to blend in as best as a blond, perpetually youthful, sword-carrying, battle-seeking Scandinavian woman can.

But some runes and a few millennia of experience with a blade are not enough to protect Mist when she learns that the frost giants who fought with the trickster god Loki against the Aesir have landed in her adopted city by the bay. They were supposed to have died with the Aesir, but it turns out that all the other immortals have just been in hiding, weakened but not destroyed by the war everyone thought was supposed to destroy the world. Now the frost giants are fighting elves disguised as homeless men and are trying to kidnap seers and healers who look like lost street kids. And that sweet, sexy man she was teaching to use a sword as the novel opened was only an illusion – Loki is back, if he was ever really gone, and that brawny boyfriend was one of his many dirty tricks. The Golden Gate Bridge has become a bridge to the shimmering world of the gods Mist had thought was lost, and it’s snowing in San Francisco. Which, it’s important to note, never happens in real life. One of my favorite little throwaway moments is when people at the bus stop are commenting cheerfully in the white Christmas they’re experiencing. A bizarre winter is here, and so is a war that will destroy their world, but the Californians are just excited to go sledding.

Mist is an incredible ride through the streets of San Francisco. I was yanked into the action and conflict right away – we learn that Eric, Mist’s modern day Viking lover, is actually Loki within the first three chapters, and Mist and Loki have their first showdown by chapter five. The entire book takes place within a week, at most, and Ms. Krinard catapults the reader along breathlessly from conflict to conflict. Her plotting is expert and does not feel contrived. I realized that Mist and her sidekicks hadn’t slept more than a couple hours over the course of days, and I was almost out of breath trying to keep up with them. We move from fight to fight to fight and I thought that another Ragnarok would be over and done with by the time I closed the covers. But the absolutely fascinating part about this novel is that along with a really, really fast-paced plot, some kind of very long con run by scheming gods is going on, and Mist is walking straight into it.

The key figure around whom all the conflict and betrayal and hope rotates is Dainn – Dainn Oathbreaker, an elf who once tried to bargain with Loki to forestall Ragnarok, who worked with with Loki, and who caused the Aesir to lose the war, if you believe the stories. This exiled elf shows up, dirty and confused, in Golden Gate Park, and Mist rescues him, taking him home to her rather fabulous warehouse loft in the trendy Dogpatch neighborhood (well, what would you do over several centuries if not invest your money and then buy San Francisco real estate?). Dainn holds more secrets than he ever explains in this first book of the Midgard series, but hints start to seep out: he once loved the trickster god, but he now is aligned with Freya, the powerful fertility goddess of the Aesir. He has a dark, dangerous hurt locked up inside of him, and he knows more about Mist than she can even guess. He starts to teach Mist how to use more sophisticated rune magic, but she begins to realize that she actually has access to an old, powerful, elemental magic that was long thought to be lost. That magic starts to unleash dangerous forces within both Mist and Dainn, as well as draw them closer together.

Early on, Mist learns something about herself that explains this strange power. She’s a half-breed – half frost giant, half something else, and that gives her abilities never seen before. Dainn also reveals to Mist her ability to channel the goddess of life and love – but is that really Freya oozing sex appeal through Mist, or is it Mist unknowingly tapping her own hidden abilities? No-one knows for sure, but the difference change the fate of the world, and Mist’s too. And Dainn’s efforts to hide the reasons for Freya’s sudden interest in a lowly Valkyrie, one she ignored when she was an orphan in Asgard, raised my hackles, even as Mist was trusting the elf more and more.

The novel is told mostly from Mist’s perspective, but we get occasional chapters told from the perspective of supporting characters, which rounds out the world and the action enormously. We learn that Dainn owes some kind of debt to Freya, The Lady. As goddess of love and fertility and the harvest, Freya seems like she must be on the side of good, but the more we learn about this world, the less clear where the line between good and evil can be drawn. Humans, and Midgard itself, may be nothing more than pawns in a very long game. Ms. Krinard drops hints and slowly, slowly starts to unravel the mystery of what the Hel has been happening in the very busy world of the gods while everyone on earth thought they were dead. We’re still left in the dark by the end of the book, but the next one promises to pull back the curtain a bit further.

This book shows us the beginning of a gathering storm, and there’s a wild uncertainty about what will happen next. Mist is clearly the beginning of a series – characters are sketched out, the rules of the world are explained (in depth, during a hilarious car ride through San Francisco), we get some awesome training sequences – but there is a lack of self-containedness that should be a given in a good novel. Supporting characters – the seer, the healer, the lawyer – show up, but don’t do much other than get beat up in this book. I can’t tell if Dainn and Mist will become lovers – probably a  good uncertainty. She is drawn to his weary wisdom, he’s drawn to her raw power. But the possibility that Dainn will weaken under Loki’s beguiling wiles is always present. The young seer, Ryan, also holds a torch for Dainn, and Ms. Krinard’s depiction of same-sex love is incorporated with the same sensuality as the heterosexual lustiness in the book. Overall, I’d say this book promises more than it delivers, since it seems like the solid beginning of what could be a great story, but the world building could use more detail and I would have liked to see more downtime where we could see relationships among characters develop. They are constantly in crisis mode, which, while good for the plot, does make this ragged band a bit thin on the page.

I am excited to see what this series can become, even if I feel rushed into it. I have my wishes about what could have been done better – I wish that we were allowed to see the depth of the relationship between Eric and Mist so that we understood why her betrayal by Loki would drive her to often reckless vengeance. I wish San Francisco was laid out as a more visual, described environment – we get streets and some major landmarks, but otherwise it’s a blur. I wish the supporting characters didn’t seem to shuffle off-stage, then back on, when the plot needs them to appear. I wish I had a clearer grasp on what happened before the curtains drew back on the present – fifteen hundred years of your gods being dead seems like it might lead you to develop you a complex when they show up again. I wish Mist was a little less of a Mary Sue, though she will need every skill in her arsenal to defeat this new invasion. And I wish I understood why she’s the only Valkyrie with an English word for a name, but that’s just a tiny little sliver of frustration about Ms. Krinard’s world-building.

I cant wait to read the next one, and Ms. Krinard’s short story prequel, both of which are out this year. I especially am looking forward to the prequel, since I am curious about what exactly Mist got up to in the centuries before Mist opens in techy, contemporary San Francisco.

B+

Marthine

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