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

About Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

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REVIEW:  Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

REVIEW: Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

In our archives is this review by our own Amy of Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby. The BookPushers also have a review and Has has been recommending the book to me for ages. It’s been almost a year since its publication, but I finally picked up Assassin’s Gambit, a fantasy romance set in a late 18th/early 19th century technology level version of the Roman empire. Assassins-Gambit

The assassin of the title is the heroine, Vitala Salonius. Vitala comes from Riorca, a small country subjugated by the Kjallan empire. The Riorcans are under Kjallan rule and many are enslaved in Kjall, so as the book begins, Vitala is on a mission to assassinate Lucien Florian Nigellus, the emperor of Kjall.

The Riorcan resistance organization known as the Obsidian Circle has assigned her this task since Vitala was a young girl, and prepared her for killing Lucien before it was known he would be the one of the emperor’s sons to take the throne.

The Circle believes that killing Lucien will trigger a battle for power between contenders with little claim to the succession, and this will throw Kjall into disarray, enabling Riorca to overthrow Kjallan rule.

To this end, twenty year old Vitala, Kjallan-looking and the product of a Kjallan military man’s rape of her Riorcan mother, has been trained not only in seducing men, breaking the magical wards that protect them while they are distracted by orgasm, and executing them, but also in catarunga, a strategy game Lucien loves.

Twenty-two years old and missing a leg due to an earlier assassination attempt, Lucien is a brilliant leader on the battlefield. He’s also an enthusiastic catarunga player, and every year he invites the winner of the Kjallan catarunga championship to his palace and challenges that person to a game.

Vitala is the current champion, and the first of Lucien’s invitees to best him. They play a few games and she issues a subtle invitation to her bed, where she intends to carry out the assassination despite an attraction to Lucien, almost a liking for him, and an appreciation for his clever mind.

Just then Lucien must travel with troops to confront bandits plaguing a Kjallan city, but he invites Vitala along. While they are having sex in his tent, two things happen. First, Vitala experiences a post-traumatic stress flashback to her first experience of seducing a man to execute him, and second, Lucien is attacked by a group of men in a coup meant to overturn the leadership of Kjall.

The men drag Lucien out and decide to take turns raping Vitala. While alone with the first of them in the tent, Vitala kills that man during his rape of her. She then realizes that the Obsidian Circle’s information is incomplete. Perhaps another Kjallan has a strong claim to the Kjallan throne and killing Lucien will only make the succession easier for that man, not harder.

On impulse, Vitala kills Lucien’s captors, fakes Lucien’s death, and helps an injured Lucien to escape the military encampment, only to force Lucien to head north with her, in the direction of Riorca. Lucien agrees because despite Vitala’s lies, he deduces that she is from the Obsidian Circle and to retake his throne, he needs to ally with them and obtain access their spy network.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s hard to discuss it all,  but I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the dynamic between the characters.

What I loved about it was that though strong-minded and clever, Lucien was neither brawny nor domineering. His disability was real and impacted him physically when he wasn’t atop a horse. His prosthetic leg pained him and didn’t solve all his problems via magic. He also didn’t strike me as being quite as proficient at killing as Vitala, and I think it could be argued that her magical powers were stronger than his as well.

Some of Lucien’s countrymen viewed him as weak because of his disability, or had no respect for him. But none of this prevented him from thinking strategically and commanding well in the field. None of this stopped him from showing a ruthless side to his enemies when he had to, or a softer side with Vitala.

Vitala meanwhile was no fake assassin. Her past was very dark, and she could probably out-kill every character in this novel. This may not be a skill to be proud of, but it runs contrary to the way women are usually portrayed in romance fiction and when combined with Lucien’s characterization, it made for a truly fresh dynamic between the two characters. They really were equal; this wasn’t a case of one constantly besting the other.

In fact, Lucien was more vulnerable to physical harm for a good part of the book, and Vitala served as his bodyguard, protector and rescuer during this portion. Later in the novel, Vitala’s is surrounded by people who distrust her and her psychological trauma comes to the fore. At this point Lucien is able to repay her with care for her feelings.

In her review, Amy says that there wasn’t enough detail given to visualize the world and I agree with that sentiment. I wanted more visuals and also, a deeper sense of the cultural differences. The magical system was fascinating but I would have loved to learn more about how the objects used by the characters were imbued with magic and see this process in action too. There was a lot of swearing “godsdammit” but no real sense of the gods or their mythology.

Amy also talks about the way Vitala waves away her rape. I came to the same conclusion about this—that it fit Vitala’s character. Not only is she trained in putting aside her personal wants to sleep with her marks in order to kill them, but she is also a type of soldier and therefore cannot afford to focus on trauma while in the field.

Her PTSD with regard to her training is something she cannot suppress, and here I really appreciated that her mental illness was not cured. She figured out ways to cope with it, but it didn’t magically disappear.

Vitala insisted throughout the book that her training was her choice, and made no apologies for what she was. But she was only a teenager when she was trained in killing, so there were questions in my mind about how much of this truly was her choice, and how much of her statement that it was her choice indicated that she couldn’t fully perceive how limited her choices had been, as a young person born of rape and of two enemy nations/races.

The difficulties Vitala faced since childhood aren’t ignored. Full-blooded Riorcans are blond while Kjallans have dark hair, so Vitala’s hair color marked her as an enemy to her countrymen and countrywomen. Using hair color instead of skin color to indicate race difference means that skin color doesn’t come up in the novel, though.

This book is not for the faint of heart; a lot of bad things happen. Characters are discriminated against. Characters are raped, killed or do horrible things. The flashbacks to Vitala’s childhood reminded me of some of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling books where we see the Psy characters’ childhood training in the hands of people who sought to use them.

Yet despite this, the tone of the book feels almost breezy at times. A fully realistic, gritty, in depth treatment of all the issues that come up here would have made the book at least twice as long and much tougher to read.

There are multiple problematic aspects —the slavery issue isn’t solved nor is it explored that much. The ramifications of rape and of recruiting children to kill are explored more but not fully either. But nor are they treated thoughtlessly, and for the characters to fully reform and entirely change their thinking by the end of the novel would have been too hard to believe.

For a debut this book is strong. It kept me turning the pages and was hard to put down. I thought Vitala began to like Lucien too early in the novel and that he trusted her with sensitive information sooner than was warranted, but a big part of what made this book work for me was the balance of power between the characters, which shifted so many times and in such interesting ways. Between that and the fact that the main character were not the archetypical dominant alpha hero or the archetypical “virtuous” heroine, I’m giving this one a B-.

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REVIEW:  Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

REVIEW: Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

Dear Ms. Lerner,

Your third historical romance, book one in your Lively St. Lemeston series, begins in October of 1812, with a knock on Phoebe Sparks’ door. Phoebe, an author of Improving Tales for Young People, is contemplating what fate to inflict on the protagonist of her current story, who gives birth to an out of wedlock child in a ditch, when the knock interrupts her.
Sweet-Disorder1
At her door is Mr. Gilchrist, a Tory election agent. Mr. Gilchrist has come to call on Phoebe at her home in Lively St. Lemeston because the Tories and Whigs are battling for every vote in the Lively St. Lemeston district. As a woman, Phoebe cannot vote. But she can have some impact on the outcome of the close election because as the eldest daughter of a deceased freeman—a man whose “freedom of the city” entitled him to vote—she can, according to the Lively St. Lemeston charter, bestow her father’s freeman status on her husband.

Phoebe is a widow. Her husband, a newspaper editor and printer, was a Whig. But Will died two years earlier and Mr. Gilchrist is sure he can persuade Phoebe to marry again. When he insists he knows her taste in men, Phoebe all but shoves him out the door. After a bad marriage and a heartbreaking miscarriage, she has no interest in remarrying, especially not for the sake of an election, and even if she were, her sentiments are on the side of the Whigs and not the Tories.

Meanwhile in London Nick Dymond, the middle son of an earl, is in bed when his mother, Lady Tassell, descends on him and demands that he too involve himself in the matter of Phoebe’s marital status. Nick’s younger brother Tony, a Whig, is running for the same seat Gilchrist wants for the Tories, and since Lady Tassell is campaigning on behalf his older brother’s Stephen’s behalf – yes, this is a political family – she expects Nick to help Tony win the Lively St. Lemeston district seat for the Whigs.

As it happens, Nick is the only member of his family who doesn’t give two flying figs for politics. He hates that the good of the party has been put ahead of the good of family members, and that his mother is always sure she knows what’s best for him.

But even more than that, Nick hates that his mother winces when she looks at him. Nick served as an officer in Wellington’s army and took a bullet in the leg at the battle of Badajoz. His leg was broken and healed weak and now Nick walks with a limp. And he can’t stand the way people – family members especially—have looked at him ever since.

So Nick makes a bet with his mother. He will get Phoebe to marry the Whig baker whom Lady Tassell has picked out for her, and if he is successful, Lady Tassell will never wince when she looks at him again. After an all-too-brief moment of empathy with her son, Lady Tassell agrees.

Of course, Phoebe still has no interest in marrying, but when Nick offers to help her with the laundry, she takes him up on his offer. An attraction develops as Nick continues his campaign for the vote to which Phoebe holds the key, but it’s not as though it would be appropriate for Nick and Phoebe to marry, or even indulge in an affair, when their stations in life are different and he is trying to get her to marry someone else.

To Phoebe her decision to meet Nick again is nothing more than a reason to leave the house after years of staying cooped up inside. And then—disaster. Phoebe’s sixteen year old sister Helen is cast out of her home by their mother. Helen is pregnant, but the father of her child refuses to marry her.

To save Helen’s good name and spare her suffering, Phoebe would do anything. Even marry a man she doesn’t love and has little hope of loving. Even struggle to suppress her growing attraction to Nick.

Since her miscarriage and the death of her husband, Phoebe has felt dead inside, but as she opens up to Nick about the conundrum she faces, something inside her begins to stir.

Nick too begins to come out of his depression and sense of loss at being unable to fight alongside his men. He sees that Phoebe and Mr. Moon, the baker, are all wrong for each other, even though to save his bakery, Mr. Moon desperately needs the money Nick’s mother has promised him in exchange for his marriage to Phoebe and his vote.

Both Phoebe and Nick are used to putting others’ needs ahead of their own desires. With family members and the outcome of the election depending on them doing just that, will Phoebe and Nick learn to shut out the clamor and listen to – as well as follow—their hearts?

I thought of some of my favorite historical romance authors as I read this book – authors like Courtney Milan, Judith Ivory, and Cecilia Grant – because of the good writing, the realness of the characters, and their psychological depth as well.

Nick and Phoebe are richly drawn, wonderfully complex characters with messy emotions that include hopes, fears, dreams and understandable resentments. Nick for example, can’t stand that he since his injury, he has had no control over the way others see him. Phoebe couldn’t wait to escape her critical, perennially dissatisfied mother by marrying Will, but feels guilty for having left her sister alone under their mother’s thumb.

Their attraction is almost a magical thing in that it gives them a new sense of power, not just the power of being attractive to someone you desire, but the power to recognize and express your own desires.

The ideas the novel communicates are at ones simple and complex. Here for example, is an excerpt from a scene in Nick’s viewpoint in which Phoebe confides in him about her sister’s pregnancy and her consequent need to sacrifice her freedom to salvage her sister’s reputation.

She drew in a deep breath and steadied like a raw recruit given a few encouraging words and a clap on the back. “I believe in my sister.”

He was going to win his bet with his mother. He looked away. “Talk to your sister. She’s apologizing because when she looks at you, she sees her guilt that she’s forcing you into marriage. And when you look at her, you see your father’s disappointment. I don’t care whether he would have been disappointed. He would have been wrong.” He couldn’t turn his gaze back to Mrs. Sparks’s face. When he looked at her, he was supposed to see his chance to show his mother the truth of himself. He wasn’t supposed to see her.

The writing in Sweet Disorder is thoughtful and fresh, with a subtle sense of humor woven throughout. The novel takes its title from the poem “Delight in Disorder” by the 17th century poet Robert Herrick. The poem closes with these two couplets: “A careless shoe-string, in whose tie / I see a wild civility; / Do more bewitch me than when art / Is too precise in every part.”

Nick quotes these two couplets during one of the sex scenes, but they serve as more than a charming, seductive line. They also function as a metaphor for Phoebe and Nick’s relationship, and for the book itself: a bewitching, disorderly whole.

As I try to think of what the flaws in this novel might be, I can’t think of many. I don’t enjoy mental lusting in books, although here it’s written with some freshness and there’s a later payoff for it during the earthy, original and character-specific sex scenes in the novel’s last third.

Perhaps too many of the novel’s characters have critical, disapproving or manipulative parents, but this is contrasted by Phoebe’s lovely (if deceased) father, and also ties into the theme of being true to oneself and one’s own needs, rather than to the expectations and needs of others.

A final flaw I can think of is that the epilogue mentions the possibility of reconciliation with a family member I think Nick and Phoebe might be better off keeping at arm’s length.

Other than that I love this book. I love that Phoebe is an ordinary, middle class woman. I love that she is heavy. I love that Nick is not an heir, nor does he ever become the heir. I loved that his limp pains him and that he finds some workarounds for dealing with it, but it is never miraculously cured.

I loved that Nick and Phoebe bring disorder into the other’s life. They agitate, distract, and fluster each other in the best of ways. The chaos their relationship creates extends from within them to without, and to others. If Phoebe allows herself to fall for Nick, she may endanger her sister’s happiness, and that of Mr. Moon, the anxious baker whose desserts are works of art and whose shop is part of the heart of Phoebe’s town. If Nick allows himself to express his desire for Phoebe, what will happen to the election and to his relationships with his family members?

The novel immerses its readers in the life of the Lively St. Lemeston community, and I loved the minor and secondary characters too. There are more of them than I can mention here, but each person is real, and each is both ordinary and extraordinary. Even the villains, such as they are, are human and unhappy. And all the characters are tied to others, entangled in their community, knit together – if one thread is pulled, everything can unravel.

Is there room for honest desires, then? The book answers with a resounding yes. Phoebe and Nick’s muddle is resolved not through order and obedience, but through the disorder made up of their messy emotions and rebellious epiphanies.

It wasn’t his leg that kept him from feeling like a whole man, he realized. It was something far deeper, a lack within himself. He had never wanted anything with such a bone-deep conviction. Sometimes, it seemed, he could go all day without wanting anything at all.

Like the poet Robert Herrick, I am bewitched. A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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