Best of 2015 list.
For my end of the year list I usually try to include the most memorable books for me, so if I cannot remember the book without looking through my reviews it does not make the list.
1. Astrid Amara “Song of the navigator’
I was in love with this book since the moment I bought it and inhaled it. I enjoyed this writer’s work before but as I said in my review her artistic choices do not always work for me and I have not had much luck with betrayal/slavery stories where betrayed guy forgives the one who did the betrayal. More often than not I do not find them convincing. Not so here – Cruz and Tover stayed with me long after I read the book and I still remember them vividly.
2. M. Keedwell “Dark economy”
And to think that but for my friend’s recommendation I could have missed this one. I have not read too many memorable historical romances in the last year and considering that historicals are one of my favorite subgenres, I consider this to be an unfortunate occasion. This is a historical mystery and some reviewers found that romance was secondary storyline, but to me there was so much unresolved tension between protagonists that I was extremely happy with the romance in this book. We have excellent antagonistic chemistry between the men which is based on real conflict. Cadell is a medical student who is robbing graves because he genuinely wants to become a better surgeon and to help people and he does not have enough bodies to practice on and Blaine knows that robbing graves is still illegal and he wants to catch Cadell because he is sure that Cadell is guilty. The main storyline of the book is Cadell investigating a murder because he becomes suspicious about what happened to one of the men whose body he was going to dissect and he decides to go and get justice for the deceased. I enjoyed this one a lot. Review Here
3. Charmed and Dangerous anthology.
I thought this was a very strong offering – I think I enjoyed six or seven stories in this anthology, but the reason it made my list was mostly because of once again Astrid Amara and Ginn Hale. Here is what I said in my review about their stories.
Ginn Hale – Swift and the Black Dog
When Jack Swift killed a tyrant and won the revolution he became a national hero. But someone in the new government prefers dead heroes to living, swearing, cynical wizards. Caught between bullets, revenge and desire, Jack had better be swift indeed.
From my review:
I think for me this story was the darkest and the best in the anthology. It is no secret that I love Ginn Hale’s work, but for me past performance is no guarantee of the future success even with my favorite writers, so I definitely did not approach this story as a guaranteed win. This novella explored the themes of what consequences winning the revolution can often be for its participants and for the society.
Astrid Amara – The Trouble With Hexes
P.I. Tim Keller has a problem. And the only person who can solve it is his ex-boyfriend, Vincent, whose job as a hexbreaker was the reason they broke up. It’s hard admitting he was wrong, especially when coughing up organs. But there’s a missing person to find, a hexmaker to hunt down, and a romance to repair before Tim breathes his last.
This was one of the most romantic stories in the anthology for me. Although it is a standalone novella, this story made me feel as if I had known Tim and Vincent for a long time. In a world where characters in m/m books often forget that they have jobs and professional responsibilities, it was so refreshing to read about two men who, despite being deeply in love with each other, broke up because Tim could not handle the demands Vincent’s job put on him and his health. Of course I could see why Vincent, who is essentially a magical healer, would not stop helping sick and often dying people to get rid of hexes, but I also get how Tim just could not deal with what Vincent’s job demanded from him. There is nothing better to make you believe in the realities of magical healing than to see the consequences of a deadly hex on yourself. When Tim comes to see Vincent again, he is very ill and if they do not act fast he might die pretty soon. I could feel the love and regret between these two. And neither of them wanted to get his heart broken again, but love was still there and of course it ends well. I anticipate rereading this story more than once.
Full review of the anthology could be found here.
4. Joanna Chambers “Unnatural”
I thought this book was lovely. As the blurb states, this story is about Captain Ian Sinclair, who briefly appeared in “Enlightened” as Murdo’s friend.
I loved this book despite the fact that for most of the story not really much happened in the present storyline, but the author made me care about these guys so very much that I just was so eager to figure out what is stopping them from being together and how they could overcome it.
5. Magic Shifts (Kate Daniels #8) – Ilona Andrews.
At the end of the previous book in what I can probably call my favorite urban fantasy series the writers send the main characters Kate and Curran in the new direction. Curran resigned from the position of Beast Lord of Atlanta and they went to live quiet suburban life. If anybody can imagine Kate and Curran’ life ever being quiet that is ?. I think of this book as relative quiet before the push to the last confrontation with the series Big Bad (if he is still the Big Bad, because I am honestly not sure anymore).
6. “Affiliations, Aliens and Other Profitable Pursuits” by Lyn Gala.
I reviewed the first two books here and I loved the conclusion as well, however I hope that this is the last book in the series. I loved it, I just do not feel there is much left to explore in the characters and the plot – in fact plot wise not much really happens in this one already.
Review to come.
When the interstellar wildlife sanctuary Casaverde is quarantined due to an mysterious outbreak of malaria, Andrew Salazar must turn to military surplus synthetic life-forms to help him in his work as warden.
But Andrew soon discovers that the synthetics are far more complex creatures than he first imagined and that something more deadly than an old-world disease is stalking Casaverde.
Dear Ginn Hale,
Recently I attempted to read an m/m romance in which a man falls in love with robot. I disliked it very much, and then I remembered that once upon a time you wrote a novella which was part a “Tangle” anthology done by Blind Eye Books (several years later the novella was published separately as an ebook). Janine reviewed the complete anthology here at DA in 2008, and I also liked most of the stories, but I really only want to talk about your story because it is an example of how a man and robot (way too simple of a description for who Thomas is, but I cannot go into more details without revealing significant spoilers) falling in love can be done really well.
Andrew has been living on Casaverde as one of the two remaining volunteers for several years. Casaverde is a unique planet because it was set up as a wild life sanctuary, where wild life forms which had been extinct on Earth and other planets actually manage to thrive. It is a fragile and beautiful place, but also a very dangerous one. Unfortunately, the good intentions of the people in charge do not last long after they learn how many useful minerals Casaverde has. They introduce malaria bacteria to the planet, which cause most of the volunteers to get sick (not die but as we know malaria is no joke and people need to be treated) and require evacuation. Andrew is sick too, but he refuses to call for help, because in order for Casaverde to become a self-governed colony (as the story begins he has less than two years before it will happen), it has to be continuously inhabited by no less than two people.
The second human “volunteer” is Rannon, who in my opinion needs help even more than Andrew because he suffered a psychotic breakdown years ago (psychotic breakdown are the words from the book) and he is not in good shape. But Andrew refuses to call for help for Rannon because then he would be ordered to evacuate from Casaverde, the Department of Development would start to develop Casaverde as it sees fit, and of course the wildlife habitat wouldn’t survive.
I have to admit that as much as I liked the developing romance between Andrew and Thomas (one of the “synthetics” Andrew buys and whose life story I want to conceal in case you decide to read the book), I found the ethical dilemma that Andrew faces in his dealings with Rannon the most memorable conflict of the story. In fact, this is what I remembered about this book for years after I read it.
Do the ends justify the means? Does your desire to save the wildlife on a planet justifies keeping a mentally ill person a prisoner on that planet, one he came to hate and which stripped almost all humanity away from him? I thought it was a clever set up that Casaverde had no other people left except Andrew and Rannon, so the stakes are wildlife vs. one person, not the lives of many vs. the life of one. I will be honest, I really hated Andrew when I read the story as part of the anthology and then reread it in 2011 when it was published separately as an ebook, because I could not relate to his choices at all. For me, his fanatical insistence on saving animals and plants vs. letting Rannon get into such an awful condition was very unsettling. And I am often very unhappy with how we treat Earth, so it is not like I do not get where Andrew is coming from.
I did like the book overall, though, and it stood up to a reread well. I am thinking that making the reader ponder over ethical dilemmas may have been author’s purpose. I also have to admit that during this reread I liked Andrew a little more – I still cannot fully relate to his choices about Rannon, but seeing how desperate he was and how hard he tried, I decided to cut him some slack.
Andrew’s relationship with Thomas and with two other synthetics was fun to watch. I liked that the author seemed to put a lot of thought as to who synthetics were and how they were created. I liked that the romance with Thomas felt very slow burn, and despite this novella not being too long, it did not feel like an Insta!Love of any kind. I actually thought that they may have had a future together.
Dear Ginn Hale,
The second part was as good as the first, if not better. The end.
And now for a more detailed attempt at a review. Please note that this is the *second part* – you absolutely cannot read it without reading the first one, therefore please be warned that you will find some spoilers for the first part in this review.
We left Elezar and Skellan right after Skellan beat the Demon Lord at the price of almost dying himself and as we know this triggered several things. The sanctum of the Milmuraille Grimma is now fallen, Grimma Oezir is dead and his witchflame is no more. That left four Mirogoth Grimmas (witch queens, as first book left us to believe, because in this one we will find out precisely who these beings are) free to attack Labarra, because the postwar agreement of the past was that as long as witch flame is burning in the Sanctum, they could not attack.
Skellan finds himself thrown into the role of new count Radulf and Elezar is here as well, they are trying to prepare the defenses of Muramaille against the Grimma troops.
I know that I will be mostly singing the praises of this story again, but I cannot help it. However, first I want to issue my only warning (although it’s a pretty significant one), which is that a couple of book buddies told me that while they thought the story was great, the amount of typos in the book was not up to par with the usual careful copy editing from this publisher (meaning not awful in comparison with a lot of other books, but worse than some other books from this publisher). I am not lowering my grade, because *I* have not seen it, but because I am a reviewer with a defect in regard to typos (I miss them often), I felt the need to mention it.
I do not even know what to praise first. Is it the slow and careful we are shown how Skellan, who had lived his life amongst the poorest folk of the city, was being so brave trying to lead the preparations to war, but was having so much trouble adjusting to etiquette at the dinner table and other trivial matters? Is it Elezar slowly but surely learning how privileged he had been all his life despite living a hard life, because that was his own choosing and he could always return to the life of rich and powerful, and ultimately realizing he was not sure whether he could survive all that Skellan had endured?
“And he had found his values shifting, his appreciation of the strange glowing, and his deference to the wealthy and highborn dulling.
But at the same time he recognized in himself the weakness of wishing to evade responsibility for his choices and new values. How simple it would be to place the blame for all his transgressions of holy Cadeleonian law upon Skellan’s magic. How easy to blame a witch as so many other men before him had done.
Easy, but also, Elezar knew, an act of utter cowardice.”
Several times while I was reading this book, I found myself worrying not just where the action would take our heroes, but thinking, oh wait, I know where it will go and thinking please, please do not go that way, because this is cliché and I do not want this story to travel a clichéd route. As far as I am concerned it *never* went the clichéd way.
For example, Skellan does a seemingly stupid thing and rushes to charge one of the grimmas for a reason which I will conceal as very spoilerish even in this review. Elezar is understandably angry because he thinks that Skellan is a very important figure and he needs to learn how to let others defend him, and if it is their choice, even to die for him. I was thinking: please do not break them up right here, right now. And I loved that angry as he was, Elezar found enough empathy in himself to place himself in Skellan’s shoes and realize why he did what he did. It is not that I do not want couples to argue, it is just so often break ups in m/m novels happen because the writer wants them to break up and not because it makes sense for the characters, and I was glad that it did not happen there.
The characters actions made sense to me 99% of the time and even though the book has a rich and fascinating plot, the characters drive the action too – they do not start to act like zombies in order to get the plot from point A to point B and I really appreciated that. During preparations for war, Elezar at some point remarked that he almost did not see Skellan anymore – and why would he? If the human beings are busy preparing for war, it makes sense that they would have a lot less time to engage in romantic relationship. But they cherish every second together they can find.
“He stroked Skellan’s lean back, feeling the hard angle of his shoulder blades and tracing the line of his spine. Skellan relaxed into his arms. The entire night seemed empty but for the two of them”.
Javier and Kirran play a bigger part in this book; they also stayed and became part of Skellan’s court and part of his defense team. We see their love as strong as it always was, but we also get to see how both men grew and matured and I really liked what I saw. And yes, Kirran gets to build some machines in this book too.
I loved how intrigues in Skellan’s court were portrayed – nobody is condemned by the narrative. Most people act because they have the best intentions in mind and they think that they have Skellan’s interests in mind, but their choices could lead to worse or better consequences. I just liked that the narrative seemed to have sympathy for almost everybody and almost everybody had the potential to grow and change and not to be condemned. Having said that, I was a little confused as to why nobody did anything about the minor villain running around – if he regretted what he almost did in book one, that’s one thing, but he never did. I understood why Skellan would not do anything in light of their past history, but Elezar’s behavior was a little confusing, in the sense that it was a bit too dangerous. On the other hand, Elezar had so much on his plate already that maybe he just decided to let it be.
We get to see the extent of Skellan’s magical abilities in this book and it is truly amazing. It is slowly revealed how his magic can be wild and unpredictable and I loved how Javier, who is so methodical where magic is concerned, could not figure out how Skellan constructed his spells, or more precisely what the mishmash of different kind of magic his spells were. Having said that, I thought it was great how during the final battle with the Grimma, Skellan, who was such an awesome witch forgot to count in the obvious possibility of what could happen and how shocked he was. Everybody can make mistakes, nobody is perfect, but those who try can bounce back too.
I thought the origins of Grimmas and the explanation for the near-catastrophe which had come upon the humans now was very well done – in the sense that the war was also of humans’ own making. Aren’t so many wars that way? And yes, as much as I wanted Skellan to win, I felt for the Grimmas too.
This was a great book, go read it now. If nothing else read it to meet Bone Crusher.
Five years after abandoning the Sagrada Acedemy, Elezar Grunito has become infamous in the sanctified circles of noble dueling rings for his brutal temper and lethal blade. Men and women of all ranks gather to cheer and jeer, none of them knowing Elezar’s true purpose. But a violent death outside the ring marks Elezar as a wanted man and sends him into hiding in the far northern wilds of Labara.
There, creatures of myth and witchcraft—long since driven from Cadeleon—lurk in dark woods and prowl the winding streets. Soldiers and priests alike fear the return of witch-queens and even demons. Elezar soon learns that magic takes many forms, some too alluring to resist, others too terrible to endure. But just as he begins to find his place in this strange new country, the past he left behind along with his school days returns to challenge him once again.
Dear Ginn Hale,
So far your books (and couple of other authors, but we are talking about your books now) have been the examples I most often point to when asked what kind of stories I want to read in the m/m genre (and any genre, really). These books are no exception. I say “books” because this is the first installment of a two-part story. The story is in turn a sequel to “Lord of the White Hell”. It is a loose sequel, because even though the main characters from the “Lord of the white hell” show up somewhere in the last quarter of this book (and probably participate in the events of the second book even more) the book is mostly not about them. I am trying to decide whether a reader can approach it as stand-alone, and I think you can, even if you will miss some references to the past events. Having said that, why would you want to do that? If nothing else, I am sure you will understand after reading “Lord of the White Hell” why I craved a happy ending for Elezar pretty much since I finished the last page of that book.
The blurb is excellent because it gives you a set up for the story without revealing much. The blurb being that vague leaves me with the complicated task of trying to talk about the story without spoilers because as I said, almost nothing of importance is revealed in the blurb and I do not want to spoil it for you. But I do have to spell out more details in the setup of the story.
As the blurb tells you, Elezar became an excellent duelist, having challenged many and killing quite a few men during those duels. However, after killing an innocent man in a duel (even though it was to protect a friend because that friend just had to get to sleep with the wife of that man), Elezar and Atreau have to run. Luckily Fedeles, the Duke of Rauma, offers them a reprieve because they are his friends, and because he thinks this is going to be the final repayment for what they did for him in “Lord of the White Hell”. Fedeles wants Atreau to pose as him and to meet his new bride, and he also wants to give a diplomatic mission to Elezar, whose disguise would be to pose as his varlet. We learn that this diplomatic mission would have been his, even if he did not have to run from the revenge of the deceased man’s family.
Elezar and Atreau go to the capital of Rauma County in Labara – Milmuraille (the pronunciation and spelling of this name and several others is the only issue I had with this book. I think the world building here is fantastic, but I would have liked to have an easier time trying to figure out the pronunciation and spelling of some of them). There is a complicated history between several countries in this universe, but to make a long story short, Labara is under Cadeleonian protection after war, while Mirogoth is completely independent and the territory is divided between four tribes with each tribe having a grimma (witch queen). Milmuraille has its own witch queen also as a consequence of war, and I think Mirogoth would not attack Milmuraille until her witch flame is burning brightly in the sanctuary.
To make matters more complicated, Elezar’s mission is to go and talk to one of the four Mirogoth grimmas, Drigfan. She is the Sumar grimma, and Sumar is the most powerful tribe of Mirogoth. Cadeleonian prince Sevanyo wants Elezar to find a way to convince her not to raid Cadeleonian monasteries anymore and stop killing the Cadeleonian monks who go in her forest, to teach her people their religion.
“Of the four Mirogoth tribes, the Sumar people were the most powerful. Their territories bordered Labara directly to the north. Nearly a hundred years ago a coalition of Mirogoth tribes had swept through Labaran peninsula to penetrate deep into Cadeleon. Elezar’s own ancestors had been among those who had driven them back through Labara into their forest holdings. In the process of being twice overrun, Labara has lost her king and broken into several counties, which had all fallen under Cadeleonian protection”.
I do not want to give you the impression that the book is engaged in information dumping. This quote is probably the longest one which describes the history in one sitting, but it is given to the reader at just the right time and right place in my opinion. The book starts with an action sequence (Elezar saving Atreau from the consequence of another one of his love pursuits) and it has plenty of action overall, but it also gives reader opportunities to catch a breath and sometimes relax with the characters. I thought the story was paced very well.
In Milmuraille Elezar finds himself right in the middle of problems which concern the Milmuraille witches, however very soon it may concern Cadeleon as well. Apparently the Milmuraille Grimma is dying after a bizarre encounter with unknown magic and his witch flame is weakened as well. In the meantime that magic threatens every witch in Milmuraille, and Elezar meets Skellan, another witch who is very much involved in these events. Unfortunately I really cannot tell you anything about how they met, because it would spoil some of the fun, nor can I tell you about how Skellan is involved in events with the Milmuraille Grimma Ozir. Let’s just say that he is right in the middle of that.
I loved that despite a fast moving fantasy plot, the romance storyline was given a lot of attention and care. Somehow amongst all the danger and problems and intrigue, two men find themselves growing closer and closer together. I think this is actually a slow burn romance, which is always my favorite type. I cannot stress strongly enough that I think that romance storyline was not sacrificed at all – I thought it was perfectly meshed with fantasy action. I always say that in a decent adventure story I am willing to forgive Insta!Love type of attraction, but this book shows that it does not have to be that way. It is possible to develop both storylines with the same care. The relationship builds up slowly and eventually we are given some very satisfying payoff (and as I am typing this I have not even read the second part yet, although of course I checked the ending ).
I liked how the widespread trope in m/m – protagonists having tragedies in their past — was used here. Specifically I liked that while tragedies of course shaped who Skellan and Elezar were, it did not make them unable to function. I do not think that everybody is born or should be a hero, but I think that both men in this book had heroic potential and had already started to fulfill it. I cannot wait to see how everything will come to a great conclusion.
Honestly, I cannot find what I did not like in this book. The magic takes all kinds of forms, and it is imaginative and fascinating, but I always like reading about how magic works. We have interesting creatures, we have witches who can do all kinds of things and while I am sure more interesting reveals are to come, I loved what I already learned. Here is for example how Skellan at some point gathers magical strength to cure Elezar’s wound.
“You’ve done this before, I hope?” Elezar asked.
“Don’t disturb me. My spirit must abandon my body to search for the means,” Skellan responded. His own words and flesh felt distant already. His senses drifted like an exhalation of breath. Only the finest red thread anchored him to the body crouching at Elezar’s side far, far below him.
Skellan focused intently, reaching out across the twilight streets of the city to those hidden recesses where fragments of derelicts and forgotten spells lingered. Disused wards lay like splintered sapphires within the gray stones of doorsteps and windowsills, tattered pink love knots wriggled in house timbers like hungry beetle grubs. Cracked candor stones glinted like bright pebbles from the mortar of garden walls, and the names of strength and valor faintly sang out from the heap of tinder that had once been a ship hull.
Skellan held the neglected spells in his mind like scattered bells collected from a dozen shattered chimes. Notes clashed, others reverberated as he sounded them out. He felt their purposes burn like embers against his fingers as he turned and twisted them to his own use. Before his glazed eyes geometric forms in luminous colors blazed and flickered, slowly taking on a harmony of light and sound, as he aligned them to reflect and resonate one another.
At last one odd, but complete spell hung before him, restrung from the abandoned endeavors of dozens of other witches. Not a shred of it arose from the forge of Skellan’s own scarlet witchflame, but still the whole form bore the stamp of his creation. “ (28%)
The book does not exactly end with a cliffhanger, but you will want to start book two right after you finished the last page.
January was kind of a bust for me, but I caught up in February. I’ve been trying to read further afield, going past the usual m/m and category and trying more historical romance. They didn’t all work perfectly, but I’ve no regrets in this batch.
Twice Fallen: Ladies in Waiting by Emma Wildes. I discovered Wildes when she was writing for smaller presses and really liked the relationships and the type of sensual/sex scenes she writes. I tried one of her major-publisher releases a while back but it didn’t work for me. This one did, for the most part. Wildes’ historical milieu is somewhat superficial, but she stays out of mistorical terroritory. This book is part of a series but I found it easy to read as a standalone. There are two romantic storylines, one between an unmarried Earl’s daughter and a Duke’s younger son, the other between the heroine’s cousin James and his mistress, who is an artist, an older woman, and illegitimate. There are a lot of standard romance ingredients in this novel, but Wildes does interesting things with them. For example, Lord Damien is a spy and Lord Lillian has a scandal in her past, but both plot points develop somewhat unexpectedly. There’s a mystery, but it doesn’t overwhelm the romance. Full review to come.
Irregulars, by Nicole Kimberling et al. This is a paranormal anthology comprising four novellas that are set in the same universe, with characters that overlap slightly. The Irregulars are members of a NATO investigative division that keeps track of other-worldly beings who are on Earth out of choice or necessity. The stories, by Kimberling, Josh Lanyon, Astrid Amara, and Ginn Hale, feature goblins, elves, demons, humans and combinations thereof. Each story revolves around a mysterious death (or deaths) and a pair of protagonists who solve them, and they all have HEA or HFN endings. The worldbuilding is excellent across the board, and the characterizations are equally strong. The settings range up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver to Mexico City. For fans of these authors and of well-written gay romantic fiction more generally, this is a must-read. Full review to come.
Sydney Harbor Hospital: Lily’s Scandal, by Marion Lennox. As readers of DA know, Marion Lennox is an autobuy for me, but this story didn’t work as well as hers usually do. The book is the first of the new Sydney Harbor continuity series in the Medical Romance line, and it has to introduce a lot of characters, including the recurring characters Finn Kennedy and Evie Lockheart. This installment centers on the romance of Luke Williams, a plastic surgeon, and Lily Ellis, a temporary nurse at the hospital. Lily is fleeing the fallout from her mother’s latest scandal, while Luke is avoiding romantic entanglements altogether after an unhappy marriage that ended in tragedy. They are thrown together in their work and personal lives, and they slowly, reluctantly fall in love. It may be that I’ve read too many Lennox romances in a row, because the characters felt overly familiar to me, and the writing style felt choppier and less compelling than usual. If you haven’t read Lennox as often, you are likely to enjoy it more. Luke and Lily are both engaging, realistically drawn characters, and the supporting cast is well done. I’m definitely reading the next installment in the series. Grade: B-
Dauntsey Park, by Nicola Cornick. I bought this when it was first published as The Last Rake in London and dug it out of my TBR after the Downton Abbey discussion. I really wanted to like it, and the Edwardian setting seems very well done as far as I can tell. Unfortunately, I had a number of problems with the characters and the storyline. The heroine, Sally Bowes (I had a difficult time not picturing Liza Minnelli in Cabaret), runs a gambling house and takes care of her no-good younger sister and her perpetually broke suffragette sister. The hero, Jack Kestrel, confronts Sally when he’s looking for the Miss Howe who is blackmailing his seriously ill uncle. The pair go from insta-lust to fake engagement to insta-love in about three days, and there is way too much telling through internal monologues. Sally is a martyr who defends her sister beyond any reasonable point, Jack is only mildly rakish on the page, and the supporting characters are predictably stock. I liked the setting so much, but I wanted to knock sense into both the leads. Great idea, disappointing execution. Grade: C.
Once a Ferrara Wife, by Sarah Morgan. Another autobuy author, but this time the story lived up to my expectations. From the first scene you know this is going to be an angsty ride, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m not big on full-on angst, but it is well motivated here; this is a marriage in trouble book and the storyline is about their paths back to each other. Laurel Ferrara and her billionaire hotelier husband, Cristiano, have been estranged for two years. When they meet again at his sister’s wedding, they are forced to revisit both their unresolved conflicts and their reignited attraction for each other. Laurel still hasn’t forgiven Cristiano for the crisis that drove them apart, and watching him comes to grips with what a true apology is, not to mention accepting responsibility for his mistakes, is something to behold. But Lauren isn’t blameless; she has to overcome her inability to trust anyone, even those she loves. Cristiano’s billions and Lauren’s business success are almost beside the point as we watch them try and forge a healthier relationship (although the usual Presents accoutrements certainly help the background scenery). The scenes where Cristiano thinks he is making huge strides while we (and Laurel) know they are inadequate are especially effective. My least favorite aspect of the novel was the epilogue, especially considering what had caused the rift in the first place, but I give props to Morgan for making it less predictable than usual. Grade: B
Dark Soul, Vol. 2 by Aleksandr Voinov. I wasn’t sure what to expect after the thrill-ride of Volume 1, but Voinov maintains the intensity and the emotional complexity he established in the earlier episodes. These comprise two short stories that move both the plot and the relationship between Silvio and Stefano forward. The first story is basically an extended phone-sex episode between Silvio and his mentor/lover, Gianbattista, but that bare description can’t do justice to the emotion. The reader suspects this relationship is over, but there is still a strong attachment between the men, and the conversation and the sex are suffused with a bitter melancholy. Reading it is arousing but so very sad. The second story shifts gears and is more plot driven, as the Russians who have been threatening Silvio show up to challenge him. There is plenty of on-page violence and mayhem, expertly depicted, and the fallout from the confrontation has consequences for all the major and minor characters in the story. Silvio and Stefano share an intimate scene toward the end, about which I have mixed feelings. I think this is an It’s Not You It’s Me issue, but it didn’t work for me as well as everything else in the novella. Not that that stopped me from moving directly on to Vol. 3. Grade: B
[Spoiler alert: I think I’ve managed to avoid direct spoilers for these two installments, but it’s almost impossible to talk substantively about the series without referring to events that occur after the first installment, The Shattered Gates. Proceed at your own risk.]
Dear Ms. Hale,
Your Rifter series has been a revelation to me this year. It is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in recent memory, and I find the installment aspect fascinating. I look forward to each month’s release, but I almost never read it when I receive it. I circle the new installment like a dog with a new and obviously delicious bone: I read the summary at the beginning, then I put it aside; then I read the first few pages, then I stop and put it down; and then, finally, I clear a couple of hours and sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting. Slowly. And then I try to find people to converse with about it. The Rifter sucks me in, it makes me think, and it regularly surprises me.
It is also immensely frustrating to review, because between the incompleteness of the monthly installment and the spoiler problem, the gap between what I want to say and what I can say feels almost insurmountable. How do I convey my enthusiasm without spoiling the series for other readers? In our earlier joint review Janine was vigilant at maintaining the balance, but here I have to find a way to do it on my own.
First, a very brief overview of these two installments. They are set in the same time period, and the main characters are closer to the Kyle and John we met in The Shattered Gates. Both men have experienced a great deal, but the time jumps that occur regularly throughout the series have put them together here. John is firmly entrenched in his role as a divinity, while Kahlil is still somethign of an outsider, to Basawar and especially to the Fai’daum. Kahlil and John have arrived at this point in time through different journeys, but they recognize each other, and Kahlil wants to stay with and serve John/Jath’ibaye. This choice settles him into Fai’daum society, where he is viewed with some suspicion at first, but he finds several roles which help to integrate him into the community.
Meanwhile, Jath’ibaye is managing the complexities of being a leader and divine being in Basawar even as he continues to feel mortal thoughts and emotions. These emotions have far greater power in Basawar than they did in his homeland, and controlling and channeling them takes enormous energy. In addition, John/Jath’ibaye has a fuller understanding of events that have occurred in the past than Kahlil does, which means that while on some levels they are able to meet as near-equals, on others Jath’ibaye is burdened with both power and knowledge. For his part, Kahlil has to deal with his imperfect and shifting memories:
“I try not to think about the past too much.” Kahlil shrugged. “You’d be surprised by how little you have to know about yourself to just get through the day.”
“Sounds like hell,” Jath’ibaye replied.
“When I first arrived it was, but lately …” Kahlil sighed. “I don’t know. Either I’m getting used to it or my memories are beginning to settle out.”
“Settle out?” Jath’ibaye asked.
“I can think about the past a little more easily. There are still two histories, but instead of just crashing into each other, it’s more like …” Kahlil tried to think of a way to describe the interplay of the two sets of memories in his mind.
“You know when you look out this window,” Kahlil said at last, “there’s the view outside but there’s also your reflection in the glass. You can watch everything going on outside, but the reflection is always there. And every now and then you notice it, and the entire view outside goes out of focus. But if you shift your focus, the view comes back. That’s kind of how it is for me.”
These two installments fuse the more standard plot developments of a Fantasy novel with the romance between Kyle/Kahlil and John/Jath’ibaye. But they also foreground the parallel individual experiences and challenges each faces as a being who is something more than mortal. We first met them when Jath’ibaye was John Toffler, graduate student, and Kahlil was Kyle, milkman and other-worldly being. Now the roles are reversed, as John is a god and Kyle may no longer be a Kahlil. Yet each retains aspects of those lives and their memories, and each negotiates the contradictions inherent in his transformation.
As a result of fully becoming the Rifter on Basawar, Jath’ibaye has enormous power and responsibility, and he doesn’t fight this role; sometimes he seems resigned at best, while at others he appears to embrace it. Kahlil feels more mortal and even wearied by the constant need to reconcile his imperfect memories of the past with the difficulties of of his present existence, but he still has crucial and rare abilities.
In both cases, the portrayal of the tension between strength and privilege on the one hand and the sorrow for what is lost on the other is one of the more nuanced depictions I can remember reading in a Fantasy series. They aren’t heavy-handed in any way, but they enrich my understanding of the characters, and they add a poignancy and depth to the romance. This is particularly impressive because the romance is an important component of the series but it necessarily shares a lot of page time with the complex plot.
By the end of Enemies and Shadows, the suspense has been ratcheted way up and the reader is left teetering on a very scary cliffhanger. Newly introduced characters have become critical players, long-established characters’ arcs have taken new directions, and the gentle passages between Kahlil and Jath’ibaye have given way to violent and traumatic events that make an optimistic ending seem further and further away. And since there are only three installments left to go, you don’t have many pages in which to bring it about. Somehow, though, I think you’ll pull it off.
Buy the serial at Blind Eye Books.