Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Susan Doerr

The first book Jaclyn can recall reading all by herself was Cinderella (a pink Disney edition) and all these years later she remains an avid reader of fairy tales, myths, and historical romances. Jaclyn's TBR also overflows with science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, urban fantasy, contemporary, thrillers, and mystery. During the workday she can be found navigating the digital transformation at a university press.

Posts by Susan Doerr:

REVIEW: Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, Sharon Shinn, and Nalini Singh

REVIEW: Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, Sharon Shinn,...

Dear Mss. Andrews, Brook, Shinn, and Singh,

Are angels the new vampires in romance novels? It seems like the number of books starring angels continues to expand exponentially. When choosing to write about angels (or winged beings, in the case of the Guardians), authors invite introspection from readers about the nature of good and evil and the balance of power.

Angels of Darkness Nalini Singh Vampires are predators and humans their prey. When pairing a vampire and human in a romance the power imbalance that writes must address is one of prey and predator. With angels the power imbalance is fundamentally different. Angels inspire awe but their otherness isn’t necessarily predatory so much as inhuman and powerful. An angel-human relationship isn’t about resolving the prey-predator dynamic but rather about protector and powerless. Angels are a like Knight-protectors (though without the horse and armor) and they are often portrayed as protectors of humanity (think guardian angel, the arch angel protector of women and children, etc.). How does this affect how we approach books starring these mysterious not-human beings?

These were the thoughts swirling in my head as I picked up the ARC of Angels of Darkness. I had read books and short stories by Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, and Nalini Singh; Sharon Shinn was a new-to-me writer.

Angel’s Wolf by Nalini Singh

The anthology opens with Nalini Singh’s story, Angel’s Wolf set the world of Raphael and Elena where all-powerful angels rule the world, create vampires to serve them, and humans live their brief lives much like we do. The angel Nimra serves Raphael and oversees New Orleans and its environs. Noel, a vampire recently healed from vicious attack that left him as little more than pulped flesh, is sent by Raphael to work for her. In Singh’s world angels are cold, uncanny beings of power beyond the comprehension of most humans.

Nimra is the most interesting angel I’ve encountered in Singh’s world. She has a horrific power that can take the violence and badness inside of a person and morph it into that individual’s own suffering and anguish. The meaner you are, the more Nimra can hurt you, which means the most powerful angels—all of whom commit acts of violence, have the most to fear from her. But Nimra herself isn’t mean-spirited or vengeful. Underneath her powerful crust she has a deep compassion which is seen through her love of her pet cats and her affection for her elderly human steward, Fen.

Throughout the story Nimra and Noel are on opposite trajectories. Nimra is slowly revealed to the reader as kinder and more compassionate than her merciless reputation and Noel is revealed as more powerful and capable than his broken victim status. They arrive at an equilibrium where Nimra remains the feared ruler of this territory and Noel rises to become her fear-inducing enforcer.


Alphas: Origins by Ilona Andrews

Ilona Andrews’ story, Alphas: Origins is set in the world of the Alphas. This was my first foray into this world that feels post-apocalyptic though it’s not. This is an alien story. Or more accurately, we are all subspecies created by aliens and left to battle until only one remains. At least I think that’s what going on. Most of the story is set in a parallel dimension that has portals into our dimension. I read this Alphas slowly and closely because the world is very complex and I kept trying sort out if I’d missed something. A lot of the time I did not understand what was going on. I was at least as clue-less as the heroine and this confusion created an empathy with her character. (Since finishing the story I’ve wondered if this was a deliberate construct by Ms. Andrews.)

So here’s what I think I know about the story: there is a battle between two factions of mixed subspecies. The “good” side—the one with our hero and heroine—are fighting to get to another dimension in their world while the other faction is trying to kill them. Some beings have more power than others, and fighting, pain, and death are commonplace.

I wouldn’t really call this story a romance. The “hero”, Lucas, is a shifter who turns into a fur covered monster that needs to drink Karina’s blood. Karina is a human who has some genetic link to the original subspecies making her blood food to fuel the hero

I find Ms. Andrews’ world building intriguing, but this such a complex world to introduce in a short story and I became focused on trying to piece together the world-building which distracted me from the character development. The romance, such as it is between Lucas and Katrina isn’t very romantic. They come together out of mutual need—he for her blood, she for her life—and an emotional bond begins to develop. But it the bond stems from the Katrina’s lack of other options—did I mention the leader of Lucas’ faction is holding Katrina’s daughter hostage? I would like to read more about this Alpha world, but as a stand-alone story this one was a tough read.

I should add that when I first saw this anthology was coming and that it was about angels, I hoped that Ms. Andrews was going to write a story about Thanatos, the angel in the Kate Daniels series. I was a disappointed when I found out this wasn’t a story about him and this may have contributed to my dissatisfaction with this story—I wanted one thing and got another.


Nocturne by Sharon Shinn

Sharon Shinn’s story, Nocturne, is set in the world of the Samaria series. This is a story of redemption, forgiveness and hope. Moriah has been running from events in her past and the angel Corban is mired in depression and refuses to face his future after an accident blinded him.

Moriah is abrasive and canny, hardened by a tough life and hiding from events in her past. It’s her skeptical attitude and lack of awe for angels that are what Corban needs to shake off the mantel of depression and hopelessness that cling to him two years after his accident. In each other they each find their paths to redemption and the hope for a happy future.

This story is told in the first person and it took me a while to begin to appreciate Moriah; during the first half of Nocturne I had to force myself to keep reading. Shinn peaked my curiosity about the monster (Corban) in the forbidden house, but that was the only thing that kept me reading. I wonder if readers of the Samaria series will feel differently. Would knowing this world have made the story more compelling to me from the start? I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t know if I’ll seek out the other Samaria books.


Ascension by Meljean Brook

Meljean Brook’s story, Ascension, is set in her Guardian world. Marc is a Guardian trying to identify and remove a demon who is spreading malice and discontent in his territory. Radha a fellow Guardian and Marc’s former lover, has arrived under the pretense of taking a vacation and offers to help Marc in his search.

As they investigate several murders and follow the trail of clues they rehash their past. More than 100 years ago, while in Guardian training, Marc took a vow of celibacy, but he couldn’t resist his powerful attraction to Radha and he broke that vow. She heard him beg God for forgiveness for sleeping with an unclean woman and took offense (Imagine getting out of bed after a hot and steamy night and finding your partner praying for fornicating with your slutty self. Ugh.).

I think Ms. Brook is a particularly fine short story writer. She deftly delivers subtle character development and emotional arc while weaving the investigative elements that reveal, layer by layer, information about the town and its inhabitants. The evil in this story was sown by a demon, but it was enacted by humans. I found the happy ending to the romance was more poignant after learning the identity of the murderer. The years lost between Marc and Radha as they each battled their inner demons were reflected in the choices of the murder. All of them made choices that led to unhappiness. Marc and Radha got a chance at redemption (and love) all these years later. Who knows, maybe the murder will receive the same, in time.

Each story in this anthology complicated my ideas about angels and reinforced my belief that good and evil are on a continuum with no clear lines demarking where you are on that continuum. As philosophical ideas I found each story offered something compelling; as entertainment I found the stories uneven and on that basis I give the collection a B-.



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REVIEW: Isle of Night by Veronica Wolff

REVIEW: Isle of Night by Veronica Wolff

Dear Ms. Wolff,

 Jaclyn says:

When I opened to page one of Isle of Night I was expecting a historical romance set in Scotland—presumably on the Isle of Night. The ARC I had didn’t have a cover image and because I have enjoyed your books in the past I did not seek information about the story before starting to read. My assumption was half right: most of the story takes place on the Isle of Night.

Isle of Night Veronica WolffIsle of Night begins with seventeen-year-old Annelise leaving her abusive dad’s dingy Florida apartment to register for college. The specter of her father, who uses his fists to communicate, sows the seeds of suffocating menace that permeates the pages of this story. Unable to register for college and left with no money and nowhere to go, Annelise accepts the offer of a mysterious young man to drive her to the coast. But in turns out he didn’t mean the coast of Florida, and what follows is a coming of age story set in a school that trains girls to become agents for vampires—Watchers—who travel the world doing their masters’ work, whether it means gathering information or assassinating enemies. The experience of reading this book is visceral. As I read page after page my body was tense, my heart rate picked up as Annelise faced danger, I was scared for her and simultaneously wanted her to win and to escape, but mostly I wanted her to survive.

John says:

Unlike Jaclyn, I knew from the beginning what this story was about.  I was expecting an unusual setting for YA (Scotland – not the boarding school itself, which is a common trope in YA books) and something with a little more spice than the regular vampire novel.  The blurbs and marketing have been promising this as a combination of The Hunger Games and other big YA titles.  Many of the comparisons could have set this book to fail before it even began, but I was soon sucked into Wolff’s world the same way you were.

What makes me feel like this book works from the beginning is that it’s appealing to a lot of different fronts without feeling like a pretender.  I never once questioned WHY Wolff wrote this book – which I often due with these adult-turned-YA authors that come out with hyped books – and that in and of itself is something that I am impressed by.  She strikes a tone that feels completely natural, and she manages to make everything feel suspenseful and gripping.  Even the romance.  It’s a paranormal novel that really has a lot of grit to it.


Jaclyn says:

I agree with John about the tone and level of grit in this book. The most compelling novels create rich atmospheres that allow me to drop out of the real world and immerse myself in the events of the story. Wolff does this by appealing to all of the reader’s senses. Almost all romances offer detailed visual descriptions and appeal to a reader’s emotions, describing how things look and what the characters feel; with Isle of Night, sound, taste, and scent are deftly woven into the story, and in particular sound plays an important role in Annelise’s life and maintaining the tension throughout the story.

Annelise smuggles two things into the boarding school, a photo of her mother and her iPod, deciding that her need for the solace of music and a tangible connection to her beloved mom is greater than the potential for punishment if she is caught with the forbidden items.

During the early weeks of her training these two items become a source of life support, a moment of escape from the stress of the intense Watcher training and Annelise’s way out of the school without leaving the campus. But because they are forbidden, they also become a point of stress for the reader—will she get caught? What will happen if the items are discovered? And they are eventually discovered.

My only complaint in this whole story is the iPod: whenever Annelise listened to her iPod I found myself wondering how she managed to charge it—which drew me out of the story for a brief moment.


John says:

I think Jaclyn makes a really important comment above, so I’m going to reiterate it:

 “Almost all romances offer detailed visual descriptions…”

The comparison is very adequate on a multitude of levels.  What is so appealing about Wolff’s style is that she has all of the description and atmosphere detailing of a romance novel—which would make sense, considering she’s penned several historical romances—while still keeping the pacing and focus of a YA work.

What Jaclyn describes about Annelise is precisely why I enjoyed her character.  I haven’t read The Hunger Games, so I can’t say how she’ll compare to Katniss fans, but I felt like Wolff knew how to make a strong female character that wasn’t perfect.  The iPod and the picture are both obvious weaknesses that get exploited throughout earlier parts of the book, and I felt Wolff really understood that her character couldn’t be this perfect person.  Annelise’s weakness is such a highlight to the story, and it’s really rewarding to see her grow into someone who can be utterly ruthless.

I think that the characterization extended well into the side characters, too.  Annelise’s love interest admittedly made me swoon.  Even her friends caught my attention.  Wolff has really thought about what her world entails, and I think it’s most obvious when you consider the side characters.  She has an island in Scotland where the elite train to be vampires—which is already a step from the YA norm—and she places all of these really interesting and diverse people on it.  There are characters from around the world in this story, and they don’t feel tacked on at all.  It gives such a good idea of just how sweeping her world is.


Jaclyn says:

John makes a good point—the secondary characters enrich this story. At the same they also play into the menace—Annelise is learning a dangerous lesson about whom she can and cannot trust. Each new person she met at the school left me wondering if they would betray her, though she manages to make some genuine friends.

In the last quarter of the story violence ratchets up as all the first year trainees, including Annelise, take part in a competition for the Directorate’s Award. The girls fight in one-on-one combat. There are a few rules to the fighting, but they are not intended to keep everyone safe and the girls are often fighting for their lives. In the last match Annelise faces off against her archenemy in an epic battle. When it’s over the true threat to Annelise is revealed.

After finishing Isle of Night I sat for a moment and realized I had read it straight through. Then I immediately headed online to find out when the next book in the series will be published. Isle of Night earns a well deserved A.


John says:

Like Jaclyn, this book completely sucked me in.  I didn’t read it in one sitting, but if I had the time I easily would have.  Minor quips like the iPod easily brushed past my reading, and I think Wolff sets herself up for what promises to be a strong YA series.  A-



Jaclyn & John

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