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GUEST REVIEW: Dragons Actually Are All Around – Dragon Actually

Dearest wonderful people,

Look, I have something I need to tell you.  I know I said I liked dragons.  And I do like dragons. I like them a lot. But I don’t like them, y’know, sexually.  In fact, it’s a bit outside my comfort zone.

Love ‘n’ hugs,

NB: This review from AJH is the fourth in his series of “I’m getting to know the romance genre.” His introduction is here. You can buy the book with these links.( A | BN | K | S )

Dragon Actually confused me straight off the bat by being two novellas rather than one novel. This meant I got about 60% of the way through the whole volume under the impression I’d only read 60% of a single book.  And since love had already been declared, orgasms accumulated and baddies vanquished, I had no idea what was supposed to happen next – short of the protagonists sailing to America and arguing about nothing, like in The Flame & The Flower. But then, while I was too busy being emotionally disorientated to notice, Dragon Actually wrapped up and I was plunged into Chains & Flames, which is a sort of prequel to Dragon Actually.

Dragon ActuallySo, I’ll start with Dragon Actually: Annwyl The Bloody (so named because of her prowess, rather than her finesse, on the battlefield) is at war with her evil brother. The book opens with her getting seriously injured and rescued by Fearghus the Destroyer, a dragon who sweeps her off to his lair and looks after her while she recovers.  He becomes almost instantly obsessed with her and decides to help her defeat her brother by training her in combat.  In this setting, dragons can conveniently turn human (otherwise I would not like to think of the mechanics of this relationship) and, for reasons that never entirely make sense, Fearghus neglects to tell Annwyl that the arrogant knight he sends to do sexy sparring with her is, well, him.  Eventually the truth comes out, Annwyl goes back to her army and, with the help of Fearghus and his family, lays the smack down on her brother. There is then some pointless faffing around but the love of woman and dragon prevails and happy endings are duly dispensed.

I would characterise Dragon Actually as mostly harmless.  It’s unabashedly light-hearted and entertaining, and occasionally quite funny, but – for me, as a fantasy reader – it was just a bit shallow.  I feel quite bad about this because it basically means I’m The Dude Who is Against Fun but, for fun to be effective, it needs to be taken seriously by someone, and I felt this was neither a satisfying fantasy novel nor a satisfying romance.  I think part of the problem might be that historicals can get away with not providing much detail because it’s easy enough to fill in the blanks for yourself.  We’ve all seen BBC costume dramas so we all know what the past is supposed to look like.  It has carriages and Colin Firth in it.  But if you move the action into an imagined realm, unless a modicum of thought goes into how things work, you’re going to very quickly end up in Nowherelandia

And Dragon Actually is very much set in Nowherelandia.  There is generic fantasy stuff going on – wars, evil kings, places with funny names, vague references to the past, mysterious magic, wibble wibble – but it’s all basically scenery, and not very interesting scenery at that.  I didn’t get any sense of this world as a real place, with a history that mattered.  The conflict between Annwyl and her brother seems primarily an excuse for Annwyl to meet, and then get it on with, a dragon.  And, please don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those fantasy readers who believe depth is conveyed by breadth and that it’s not ‘proper’ fantasy unless it’s 900 pages long and nothing happens for the first 700 of them.  But I’d just finished Angel’s Blood which has action, romance, character development eroticism and cracktastic amazing world building, and all in a book so slim I could probably have eaten it without needing a glass of water.

Maybe I’d have stopped fussing about the world itself if the relationship between Annwyl and Fearghus had been any less shallow than the setting, but it wasn’t. I mean it’s … nice?  But, to be brutally honest, I didn’t really care if they got together or not, which probably wasn’t helped by the fact most of their deeper drives and motivations were incoherent bordering on incomprehensible.  For example, Annwyl is unable to defeat her brother without extra training from Fearghus, because … because … actually I have no idea.  Reasons?  I think it’s a combination of Annwyl being frightened of him and controlled by her rage but, apart from getting quite extensively laid by Fearghus, I didn’t see what had changed for her over the course of the book.  I mean, if all that was needed for peace in the war-torn kingdom of Nowherelandia was for one woman to get some counselling, it makes all the bloody warfare seem a bit futile.

Similarly, an absolutely ludicrous situation develops between Annwyl and Fearguus, simply because Ferghus won’t tell her he’s the knight AND the dragon, again, because … uh … Reasons.  He babbles some nonsense about the dragon ability to turn human being a closely guarded secret (which he later blows wide open when he turns into a human in full view of Annwyl’s entire goddamn army, and nobody apart from Annwyl seems remotely surprised about it) and his sister claims it’s because he’s afraid Annywyl will reject him if she knows the truth.  But this makes absolutely no sense because Annwyl has already made it very clear that she fancies the Knight, but think he’s a dick, and likes the dragon but obviously can’t get it on with him because ick.  Fearghus continues to insist she has to accept both parts of him but when he’s being the Knight he is actively a complete tosser which is NOT his personality the rest of the time.  So I have literally no idea what he’s trying to accomplish with this Shakespeare Comedy Moment.  The only possible motivation I can construct for him is that he knows he’s in a romance novel and wants to hold off shagging the heroine until most dramatically appropriate moment while simultaneously shoring up material for A Big Apology later.

‘Why the hell are you doing that’ aside, I did quite like Fearghus.  He’s the least dickish hero I’ve met so far, except when he’s randomly pretending to be more of a dick… which I guess is dickish by definition but moving on.  He’s honestly pretty sweet in a slightly generic way.  Annwyl, however, was a bit meh.  I really liked the concept – she’s this six-foot, scar-covered warrior (at least inasmuch as she can be without deviating from being conventionally attractive).  But I was also a bit disappointed that we basically had Lucy Lawless here, in all her fabulousness, and yet it’s specifically established that Fearghus sees her as tiny and fragile in her girly non-dragon mortality.  Because women are only ever attractive to men if we perceive them as being weaker than us.

On the page, she’s funny, strong, warm and straight-talking, and a lot of her initial conversations with Fearghus made me laugh:

“You take the heads of men and bathe in their blood.”

“I do not […] you take a man’s head, there’s blood.  Spurting blood.  But I do not bathe in anything but water.” (p. 11)

But there’s a lot of her personality that’s just narrated or explicated approvingly by other characters.  And the truly interesting things we’re told that Annwyl does – fight wars, lead man into battle, win the loyalty of entire kingdoms – happens almost entirely in the background.  Again, maybe my fantasy roots are showing, but I wanted to see her do this stuff so I could admire her for myself, rather than being simply told I should.

I think it was Oscar Wilde (it wasn’t) who said that we may judge someone’s worth by the worth of their enemies.  And Annwyl’s enemies are, well, they’re crap.  Her brother is the least engaging villain I think I have ever encountered in fiction.  He has one personality trait and that is: He Hates All Women.  He’s supposed to be a tyrant and we see him doing Lol!Evil things like killing his own henchmen (dude, that’s just poor resource management) and, apparently, he branded all the witches (not, you understand, because immense magical power is dangerous and should be regulated but because He Hates All Women). But there’s no sense of style, scope or scale there.  I guess maybe the point was supposed to be that he’s a pissant little weasel – and Annwyl was truly the only person holding herself back – but it doesn’t feel remotely threatening and the confrontation, when it finally comes, doesn’t make for much of a climax.  So to speak.

Also Ms Aiken villain-teased me with the guy on at least two occasions.  I kept thinking he was going to get character development but he never did.   Not long after Annwyl introduces him, the narrative jumps to his POV and I got all excited because it struck me as unusual to get a glimpse into the villain’s head and I thought there was going to be more going on in there than I Hate All Women.  There wasn’t.  Later, we learn that Evil Brother has allied with a wizard who turns out to be some kind of corrupt, sorcerous dragon who had been using him all along.  Again, my little heart sped up, hoping for some kind of interesting twist.  There wasn’t.

And I know this was supposed to be Annywl’s story. I’m not trying to say it should have been less about her and more about this random man.  But sending her up against the villainous equivalent of a smooshed grape was just insulting to her.  She doesn’t even get to take out the corrupt dragon.  This is particularly odd because the book goes out of its way to establish a means by which Annwyl can kill dragons.  Earlier in the book, Fearghus’s Dad shows up and try to kill her for no particular reason, a confrontation that goes badly for Annwyl until she realises that a dragon’s only weak spot is, um, his cock.  Fearghus stops her before she can stab his Dad in the nads but I could see no reason for this scene to happen unless it was setting for a heroic dick chopping in the final battle.  Chekov’s Dragon Wang, if you will.

But that never happens. Dicks were comprehensively left unchopped.  Ms Aiken basically made me stare at dragon’s penis for no reason at all.  Why, why did you make me do that?  More importantly, the book missed its one opportunity to have Annwyl’s experiences with Fearghus really mean something. As it is, the evil dragon is whisked into the air and set on fire by Fearghus, presumably so he has something to do in the final battle.  But all it does is highlight how hollow the whole business is.  I think the evil brother and the evil dragon are meant be parallel antagonists for Annwyl and Fearghus, but since all the power is clearly concentrated in the dragons and Annwyl’s brother is the puppet of a dragon, it makes Annwyl’s actions largely meaningless, except as some kind of hardcore personal therapy.

Dragon Actually
wasn’t, by any means, a bad read. I can see all the ways it could be an easy-going romp.  It just didn’t particularly do anything for me.  I was far too interested in things the text didn’t care about, and I wasn’t sufficiently engaged where the text was focused.  I liked Fearghus and Annwyl well enough (ish), but they do an awful lot of bonking, and I kept bogging down.  I know this makes me sound an almighty prude but I was at a bit of a loss to see what it contributed.  I found it, um, kind of boring and neither Fearghus or Annwyl were sufficiently defined in terms of character for the sex to really say anything about them or to me, apart from that they were having sex and liking it.

There’s also a bit of an odd scene where Fearghus is trying to convince Annwyl to forgive him for not confessing he was the Knight of Dickhead and he ends up tying her to the bed and diddling her senseless until she does.  There’s nothing abusive here – they are both clearly up for it and into it.  But I don’t understand why you have to construct a ridiculous context in order to consenting tie your partner up.  When you could … just … y’know … tie your consenting partner up.  Maybe I’m missing some subtlety here?  But it’s way less complicated that way round and it seems an awful lot of trouble to go to introduce some minor kink into your relationship.

I’m going to stop hammering this book in a minute.  I promise.  But I also had a bit of trouble with the writing.  There a few lines, thoughts and ideas that are just a bit peculiar.  For example, early on Fearghus muses:

He remembered how quickly and strongly his human body reacted to the sight of her. Naked, pale and covered in her own blood. (p. 18)

Um, seriously dude?  This is a badly injured woman we’re lusting about here.  Personally, when I see that someone has been hurt, I think to myself “gosh, I’d better help that person” not “wahoo, I would really like to put my dick in there!”

And, similarly, I felt the book didn’t have much faith in my ability to pay attention, interpret a situation for myself or remember things I’d already been told, which made me a bit sad.   For example, Fearghus is ‘fascinated’ by Annwyl in about six seconds and tells us so about four times in the next ten pages.  And, at one point, he’s watching Annwyl frolic about naked and the narration tells us:

But he couldn’t stop staring at her breasts.  They were amazing. (p. 66)

I can’t decide whether this was spot-on and kind of endearing or the equivalent to all those dreadful moments in 50 Shades of Grey when Ana stares the trousers hanging off Christian Grey’s hips and tells us: “He was so freaking hot!” I mean, I will confess that when I stare at breasts I tend to think ‘wow, those are good’ rather than ‘wow, those look like cherry-topped gazelles galloping over white hills’.  But ‘they were amazing’ somehow feels a bit, uh, flat.  It’s one step away from awesome, dude.

By the same token, there’s this:

“Sometimes queens have to do things they’re not always proud of,” she teased. “Including the torturing of handsome dragons, such as yourself …” She smiled as she spoke – and called him ‘handsome’ – but he wouldn’t put anything past her. (p. 28)

Well, uh, yes.  I know she called you handsome. I was right there.  I read it two seconds ago.  Again, I don’t know if this just me being an arse but the text is speckled with moments like these. And, although they’re not a big deal, they added up to yet another factor stopping me having much fun with Dragon Actually.

On the other hand, I actively disliked Chains & Flames.  It has all the problems of Dragon Actually but more so.  Also the protagonists are Fearghus’s mum and dad, which frankly I found a bit weird.  I’d just spent a decent sized book with these guys squarely in the parent zone and I had trouble getting them out again.  I’m not trying to say that people who have kids can’t have sex lives but, up until now, I’d only seen these people as parents of the viewpoint character.  And nobody should have to think about Dad tying Mum to the bed.

Here’s the plot, such as it is.  Rhiannon is a spoiled Pwincess Dwagon (sorry) with magical powers.  Her mother hates her (because Reasons) and hands her over to this guy called Bercelak … so he can break her or something, and force her into marriage? And that benefits Rhiannon’s mother how?  Again, it’s another one of those ‘seriously, that’s your plan?’ undertakings.  Bercelak is some sort of lower class of dragon because his father was a big dragonwhore.  Most of the action takes place with everybody in human form but, at this point, I was already driving myself up the wall trying to work out on how on earth this dragon-based society was supposed to  function. I mean, dragons are big, really big.  You may think it’s a long way down to the shops to chemist but that’s just peanuts to dragons.  What do their living arrangements look like?  How do they feed so many of them?  Why do they have stairs when they can fly?  How do a bunch of dragons hold a party?  Gah!

Nobody in this book has anything like a personality.  Rhiannon is spoiled and annoying and then just annoying.  Bercelak has always been in love with Rhiannon because, ahem, Reasons.  Rhiannon’s mother is pointlessly and motivelessly malignant.  I think one of Bercelak’s sisters might be a lesbian dragon but I am basing this solely on the fact she has short hair, which will tell you just how desperately I was flailing around looking for character traits.

Also the dynamics of sex and gender left me feeling faintly uncomfortable throughout. I don’t know whether it’s deliberate or accidental but dragon society seems to be incredibly sex-negative.  Bercelak’s father, who is actually called Ailean the Wicked, is more generally known as Ailean the Slag.  I was so confused by this I went and looked the word up in the OED in case there was some alternative American meaning.  Ailean the Smelter?  But, no, slag is trans-Atlantic, as a term for a worthless, sexually promiscuous person (although over here it’s more generally, and even exclusively, directed at women).  I suppose, at least, we can console ourselves with the consideration that dragons practice gender non-specific slut-shaming but it all seems a bit unpleasant to me?  I mean, liking sex is not a crime, nor is having sex with multiple partners or having a lot sex. Is this some sort of subtle deconstruction of the hypocrisy inherent in the sexual double standard?  Is it just a joke I’ve failed to get?  But even if it is, it seems a bit mean to play for the lulz something that is genuinely a destructive and harmful part of our society.  I am lost.  Help!

Bercelak essentially seduces Rhiannon by faux-forcing (fauxing?) her.  He tells her to say ‘no’ and he’ll stop, and she never does, while continuing to protest.  Again, as kinky games go, there’s nothing wrong with this – whatever floats your boat is my motto – but, at one point, Rhiannon thinks:

Oh she enjoyed these rules of his.  She didn’t have to act like the slag she currently was.  Instead she could pretend this was all beyond her control when, in fact, he’d given her complete control. (p. 269)

And I’m still lost.  To me, this whole sequence muddles kink and sexual politics in a deeply unhelpful way.  I understand that there can be freedom in restraint and submission.  And I also know guilt-free sex is a fantasy (which is, in itself, kind of sad because nobody should have to feel guilty for liking or wanting sex). The discussion of F&F lightly touched on these subjects.  For that matter, I’ve read The Sheik which is the fluffiest rape fantasy imaginable, and I can see how it came to be written, and why.  It’s even kind of adorable, in a rapey, racist way.

But for Rhiannon, this seems to be about cultural perception as much as sexual preference.  Despite the fact we already know she’s not a virgin, she’s explicitly condemning herself as ‘a slag’ for enjoying sex with Bercelak and rejoicing primarily in the fact he has given her a moral get-out clause for doing so.  I feel bad, really bad, for Rhiannon.  Even though I know she’s not real and even though I don’t like her.  It must suck to high heaven to be forced to find excuses for your own entirely legitimate desires.  But what I really don’t understand is why female characters still need permission to enjoy sex in entirely imagined settings?  In a genre explicitly targeted at women.  In the 21st century.  When I encounter a sexually expressive woman, I think “hell to the yeah” not “oh what a slut.”  And I don’t think I’m in a minority on that score. On the other hand, I do live in a liberal, student-heavy bit of Southeast England and that tends to inform my perception of what is reasonable and average behaviour.

And, obviously, it’s not my place to judge how women choose to express their sexualities or what they personally get off on, but I found Chains & Flames personally troubling.  It seemed to unquestioningly reflect quite of lot ideas I think are harmful.

But, as I say, that’s just me.  Your mileage may vary. And there are dragons.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading Dragon Actually: If a woman won’t accept your apology tie her up and spank her. If you see someone has been badly injured, think first of your penis. If in doubt whether a woman really likes you, pretend to be two people.  Your parents are probably having kinkier sex than you.

Next up: To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney

AJH is a romance novel neophyte and an experienced hat wearer. For reasons that now escape him, but seemed like a good idea at the time, he has decided to blog about his adventures in the genre. As a result, he has been introduced to many fine authors and read many fine books, some of which – to his confusion – contain no wizards, dragons or swordfights. If his rambling pleases you, there is more of it ceaselessly available @quicunquevult.

Guest Reviewer


  1. Michelle k
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:15:25

    Omg, another awesome review. I am so enjoying his perspectives!! This is the 2nd review I have sent to my husband to read because it is so true and so snarkily funny. More, please!

  2. Anne Tierney
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:21:33

    You had me at: “pointless faffing around.” Dude. I just LOVE your reviews!!!
    Please read Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews [husband and wife team] next, so I can enjoy your review of a book I actually LIKE/LOVE for a change. [ Since I agreed with your dislike of this book and had similar reaction to everything else I read by this author, so maybe save yourself some time there.]
    Whereas, Magic Burns is book two of the Kate Daniels series,– I know, book 2? you say, why not book one?–But even the authors hated book 1, so start here and continue on with the rest of the series. It’s one of the very best around that I’ve be lucky enough to come across

  3. Estara Swanberg
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:22:05

    This!: “but – for me, as a fantasy reader – it was just a bit shallow.”
    “I was far too interested in things the text didn’t care about, and I wasn’t sufficiently engaged where the text was focused.”
    “The only possible motivation I can construct for him is that he knows he’s in a romance novel and wants to hold off shagging the heroine until most dramatically appropriate moment while simultaneously shoring up material for A Big Apology later.”

    I bought this when it was on sale a while back and probably read the first 30 pages and I wasn’t into the humor and especially not into a woman hyped as a warrior getting wounded right away.

    I’ve heard that fans especially like the were-people books she writes as Shelly Laurenston.

    … having read up to that slag part stuff, I think this is an author I won’t have to feel guilty about not trying again.

  4. yotaArmai
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:32:58

    I keep reading Fearghus as fear us.

  5. DB Cooper
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:37:23

    AJH, with all this reading you’ve still managed to watch Hollywood movies and TV, right?

    Then you know how it goes, if the good guy has a martial arts knowing woman, and the bad guy has a martial arts knowing woman, these two will eventually fight, and only the good woman can vanquish the bad woman.

    The same applies to manipulative shape shifting dragons, only they’re lower on the totem than action women are. Because, you know, reasons.

  6. j3nny
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 12:54:30

    I never read anything by G.A. Aiken and after reading your review I think I’ll wait a while before I try her books out. But I look forward to your review of a Patricia Gaffney book because I never read anything by her either although I do have Outlaw in Paradise somewhere. I’m excited to see what you think about a romance book not in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

  7. lawless
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 13:03:53

    I love your reviews! Your outsider perspective is refreshing.

    I’ve heard of most of the books you’ve read so far, but I haven’t read any of them, and I love your snarky deconstruction of them. I’m female, but I suspect that if I were to read them (the only one I might is Lord of the Scoundrels — sorry, paranormal doesn’t much appeal to me, and if I were to read Singh, her other series sounds more interesting), our opinions would be pretty similar.

    As for the attitudes toward sex: Your point is well-taken, but it seems clear to me that it’s written that way for the reader’s benefit, not the character’s. Irrespective of the prevailing opinions among the people you run into, I doubt that most men automatically think “awesome” instead of “slut” (or “pushy and uppity”) when they encounter a sexually expressive and confident woman. It also sounds like the book has a ton of craft problems, like telling instead of showing.

    Just in case you (or anyone else) wondered: I read romance blogs because of romance’s importance and female-centrism and to try to figure out why I strongly dislike or am indifferent to most genre het romance when I have no objection to the concept of romance itself. Jane Austen is one of my favorite writers, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane as depicted in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon is my favorite fictional m/f relationship ever, and the slash fanfiction I write is, essentially, romance. But I find I can’t stomach much else other than m/m romance; a few het erotic romances (menage especially); romantic suspense by authors like Mary Stewart and Phyllis McGinley who, as I understand it, predate today’s genre romance and J.D. Robb’s In Death series; and the work of a few writers of historical het romance, Courtney Milan especially.

    (Sorry, fellow Sayers fans, I find the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane relationship in Strong Poison and Have His Carcase tiresome.)

  8. Karenmc
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 13:17:20

    @yotaArmai: I keep reading Annwyl as Narwhal. This has been a stressful week, so being so idiotish with the names helps brighten my mood. As does reading another great AHJ review.

    The Gaffney book should provide a lot of whoah! and angst-drenching. Looking forward to the review.

  9. Fran S.
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 13:20:50

    I love these books but I enjoyed your review regardless. I mean, I love books with deep characters with Issues and Specific Reasons, but the these characters aren’t those people (at least to me). Rhiannon’s mom is horrible because she’s a horrible person. Bercelak likes mean women because he has a specific turn-on. Annwyl has an irrational fear of her brother even though she can clearly beat him (taking her inner dialogue as unreliable because she has that fear). Fearghus has an irrational fear of Annwyl not accepting him, though she clearly likes him. That seems more realistic to me than a dramatic back-story. I guess I love these sort of average-ish people in a fantasy world with battles and magic and dragons…and though it’s not an excuse for this one the world building gets better in subsequent books. I actually read book 3 first, and there’s a scene where Annwyl gets fierce at the end (and book 5 happens during a war if I remember correctly). But you brought up a lot of great points!! Maybe the series was misrepresented to you. But as a huge Guild Hunter series fan, I can see how it might pale in comparison. Elena and Raphael are pretty amazing.

  10. Moriah Jovan
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 13:48:57

    I’m not a fantasy reader and I was underwhelmed. I’d heard so much about it and then… Well, okay, it had its cute moments. But it was like a middle-grade book got lost in the erotic romance section of the bookstore. It’s not something I would recommend, particularly to a newbie romance reader.

  11. Joy
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 13:49:25

    Thank you for another laugh-out-loud review – I chortled especially uncontrollably at the bit about what men are thinking when they look at breasts (with the possible exception of King Solomon, I suppose.)

    To Have and To Hold is certainly a change in tone. I read it recently because it was listed on this site as the #1 best romance novel ever. and I’m interested to see what you think of the characters’ happy ending, and what probably happens to them for the rest of their lives.

  12. Liz Mc2
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 14:04:07

    I DNF’d this book because it wasn’t my thing, so I can’t speak to the specific ways it raised the questions about sexuality you ask. I have some general thoughts about this one, though:

    “But what I really don’t understand is why female characters still need permission to enjoy sex in entirely imagined settings?  In a genre explicitly targeted at women.  In the 21st century.”

    1. As a fantasy reader, you must know very well that imagined worlds are not all utopias. They are often a way to explore the problems (and wonders) of our own world in a different form. You might as well ask, “Why create an imagined setting with war (or any number of other ills) in it?” The fantasy space of romance is sometimes a place where we can gain power over or laugh at or take apart or cry over issues of sexual power that are very present in our real lives. Robin/Janet’s recent posts are part of an ongoing exploration of these concerns.

    2. We also, whether consciously or not, bring the ideological baggage of our real world to the imagined worlds we create. There’s no escaping that, whether we recreate it or react against it. There is a wide range of attitudes to sex and gender among romance readers and writers, and you find that same range in the books.

  13. AJH
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 14:14:54

    @Michelle k:

    Hee, you should make him read the books and you can snark and share together :) I’m really glad you’re enjoying the reviews, they’re great fun to write and I should have got into romance YEARS ago. This shit is awesome :)

    @Anne Tierney:

    I usually get lost at pointless faffing around ;) Ilona Andrews is definitely on my list, and near the top actually so I’ll definitely get there in the next … uh … year or so. Well, the next couple of months at least. I’m a bit of an anal completionist so I’m not sure I could bring myself to start a series anywhere than at the beginning. I think people were suggesting I start with On the Edge? But I’m definitely looking forward to it, I’ve heard very positive things and I really enjoyed Singh so I’m certainly up for a bit of paranormal action. Though, again, I try to alternate genres to keep things fresh.

    @Estara Swanberg:

    I did feel bad for not particularly getting into the book – it wasn’t even that it was awful, I just found it harmlessly mediocre and, yeah, a bit shallow. I, too, was a bit dubious about Annwyl’s first action in the book being getting stabbed. And her second being rescued by a dude. I initially thought it was an in media res thing and we were going to flip back to the battle or some of the interesting stuff in Annwyl’s past but: nope. I guess the hyping wouldn’t have been quite as disappointing if she’d got to do more in the final battle but, as it was, I felt Lucy Lawless was squandered :)

    I was just a bit thrown by the slag stuff – it seemed to come completely out of nowhere and I genuinely couldn’t tell what it was meant to achieve or what it was trying to say. I do wonder if I misread or failed to account for humour or *something*.


    Hehe, Fearghus is a completely upper middle class name to me. I imagine floppy hair and cricket whites.

    @DB Cooper:

    Actually, I have basically sat in a pit and read romances, so I’ve kind of lost track of how things are supposed to work in the outside world. But, you’re right, I’d entirely forgotten the Hollywood Rules. Also I’ve read Harry Potter, and Bellatrix and Molly Weasley basically have a Woman Off in that don’t they?

    I guess, on a slightly more serious note, I was just a bit sad – it seemed like a waste of a character to set her up as some kind of awesome warrior chick, have her discover the Secret Dragon Wang Vulnerability … and then fob her off the most boring, ineffective dude in the history of fiction.


    I feel bad now – as I said in the article, I suspect it’s a mileage may vary thing. I could genuinely see how you could enjoy them as a straight forward, light-hearted romp but I guess I’m a miserable bugger and wanted something that felt a bit more substantial. Fun? Off with its head :)

    I’m afraid the review of To Have & To Hold is massively unfun – it’s a wonderful but very difficult book.

    Also, Lord of Scoundrels wasn’t sci-fi/fantasy and I loved that to pieces :)


    I’m really glad you’re enjoying the reviews – and I’m trying to mix my genres up as much as possible, so I cover a broad spectrum. I think coming up there’s historical, steampunk (does that get tarred with the paranormal brush for you?), contemporary, historical. So I might some day be talking about something you’re interested in reading, or have read, you never know ;)

    Re sex negative dragons: Apologies if I sounded like I was trying to make a universal point from anecdotal evidence (although men whinging about women liking sex sounds like a case of Shooting Yourself In the Foot on a catastrophic scale to me). I’m not so naive as to think we don’t live in an incredibly messed up world sometimes … but I’m still slightly at a loss as to how it benefits the reader to reflect harmful attitudes? Isn’t it kind of the equivalent of a m/m book that portrayed its characters as drug-addled, promiscuous disease-carriers? Also, I guess if you wanted to address that sort of thing you could just have Bercelak be all “wow, it’s really hot and/or normal that you like sex” (except, y’know, in a writery way) rather than construct this absurd situation in which he supports Rhiannon in being able to pretend she doesn’t like sex while she’s having sex. I mean, dude, cut out the middle man ;)

    But, yeah, I found the writing a bit flat and explicative in general – but I try not to critique style because I’m not an editor, what do I know? Also the one time I found a word I didn’t like, I turned out to be terribly terribly wrong :)

    Also I love Wimsey / Vane – Harriet Vane is one of my favourite fiction people, and Wimsey’s not bad either :) Gaudy Nights, especially, I absolutely love to pieces. I have all the books but I also have a particular fondness for the audio books read by Ian Carmichael. He’s PERFECT. And I agree with you on Strong Poison – I think Harriet is not at her best when accused of murder :) Also Wimsey’s devotion to her is slightly creepy when she’s sort of dependent on him, something she herself articulates in Gaudy Night, I think.

    Where do you stand on Heyer, re difficulties with romance?


    Omg, Karenmc, so much angst. It is not a happy article.

    @Fran S.:

    I can totally see where you’re coming from – I honestly really *wanted* to like them, but maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, or maybe they just weren’t the right sort of romp for me. Also everyone tells me Book 3 is the best of them, so maybe I should have started there instead.

    On the other hand, I love the silly titles. And I’ve just realised the tag line for Dragon Actually (which I keep wanting to call DA but that would be confusing!) is ‘tall, dark and scaly’ which is delightful.

    I’m definitely up for average people, not afflicted by buckets of angst, just getting on and having fun in their fantasy world but, for me, those motivations felt a bit unsatisfying. I do, however, see that if you were happy just to go with it, the story would have bounced along in a perfectly entertaining manner.

  14. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 14:16:32

    You’ve read Jo Walton’s TOOTH AND CLAW, right? Well thought out Dragon world with a Jane Austen-like romantic sensibility. When I think Dragon Romance, that’s my go to (well, that and THE DRAGON AND THE GEORGE, and DRAGONFLIGHT, and well, DRAGONSBANE).

  15. Darlynne
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 14:25:28

    I enjoyed the book and still agree completely with your review, which doesn’t feel at all contrary. Your observations of the sexual and political dynamics were thought-provoking, too. Well done.

    FWIW, lately I skip the sex scenes or just skim through them in case something interesting happens.

    As a recommendation for outstanding fantasy, I would suggest Lynn Kurland’s Nine Kingdom series. The first is Star of the Morning and I thought the entire series was smart, fun, loaded with keen world-building and nuanced characters.

  16. AJH
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 14:46:44

    @Moriah Jovan:

    Yeah … this was pretty much my reaction, to be honest, but I didn’t have the balls to put it so bluntly. I found it, as you say, sweet in places but it didn’t particularly engage me. I didn’t hate it though, and I’m not sorry I read it.


    Yay, I’m glad to have inspired chortlage. And I guess Solomon gets a pass because he was secretly thinking about God…

    I had some issues with THATH – which I got into drearily and extensively for many many words :P I feel really ambivalent about it, actually, because it’s amazingly written and clearly a deeply beautiful book. But at the same time I was: ARGH!

    @Liz Mc2:

    Since I’m still working out my thing, I don’t quite feel confident enough not to finish anything :)

    Reading back that snippet, I’m aware it sounds very generalised, but I should probably clarify that I meant it in the specific context of this book, and the way sex is portrayed in it. I’m not trying to make wholesale critiques of the genre. That’s totally not my place or purview, and I’m really sorry if came across that way.

    However, to address your points in the context of this book:

    1. I understand that other-world spaces offer this exploratory freedom but, to me (and, again, this is just my interpretation of the text – I could be very wrong about this) it doesn’t seem like the book is exploring these sort of problems so much as importing them wholesale. Or – to my mind – reflecting them in an unhelpful way.

    2. Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. We’re all carriers of our ideological baggage. It’s just when you read a book and very much disagree with the ideological baggage of the author you can be a bit thrown by it.

  17. leslie
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 14:55:27

    @Anne Tierney: NO.NO.NO. Read Magic Bites. Gee Anne Tierney, I’m disappointed you would even suggest it!

  18. AJH
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 15:17:12

    @Isobel Carr:

    I love Tooth and Claw – dragons and Victoriana, you can’t go wrong :) I confess, I don’t normally associate dragons with romance at all, but that will change. I have several dragon books ahead of me on the list.


    I really can see someone might enjoy the book – I just, sort of, didn’t :( And I’m glad you still enjoyed the review, it can sometimes be a bit unpleasant to watch somebody reacting badly to something you feel affectionately towards. I should probably have thought about my sex-negative dragon concerns a bit more – it’s not really my place to make these sort of judgements but I was honestly just a bit thrown. Especially in the context of the other books I’ve read (F&F excluded).

    I’m not sure but it seems to me like the sexual encounters weren’t, uh, saying much? I mean the first one was fine because it was sort of the moment when Fearghus decided to stop being a complete idiot … but then they kept on bonking and bonking and I was sorting of looking forward to some war or dragon slaying :P I’m shallow like that.

    Thank you for the rec – it looks great and I’ll stick it on my terrifying Goodreads list :)

  19. leslie
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 15:34:34

    @AJH: I really disliked Dragon Actually and the rest of what I read in the the series.
    I downloaded a “bundle” a few months ago and had the hardest time figuring out the order of the books, which was totally out of whack. I spent a lot of time in confusion and that annoyed me to no end. And even though I didn’t care for the characters, plot or her style of writing, it became a sort of masochistic endeavour on my part to finish and I can’t even say why. Aiken, if I remember correctly, doesn’t list them in chronological order on her web site and recommends reading as written. SHEESH!
    The humor, I felt was too obscure and not very funny. Fearghus was a big dumb thug and Annwyl the Bloody seemed cartoonish. And like you, the whole dragon thing….well your first paragraph…. said it ALL in my opinion.
    Your review was astute and very well written .

  20. Joy
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 15:35:22

    Here’s another one for your terrifying Goodreads list – The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne. It’s a spy-romance (set in the Napoleonic Wars) with interesting characters, terrific show-don’t-tell writing, and of course the obligatory happy ending.

  21. cate
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:03:06

    @Joy: Absolutely seconding The Spymasters Lady – It’s a very classy read – and minimal faffage from both hero and heroine.

  22. Lynne Connolly
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:08:04

    Hasn’t anyone suggested Laura Kinsale’s “Flowers From the Storm” to you yet?
    I did read “Dragon, Actually” when it was published by a small press. It amused me for an afternoon, then I forgot about it, but it did make a fun change from all the angsty dragons that were around.
    Not that I don’t write the odd angsty dragon myself.

  23. Lynne Connolly
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:08:52

    Hasn’t anyone suggested Laura Kinsale’s “Flowers From the Storm” to you yet? Or maybe Robin Schone’s “The Lady’s Tutor”?
    I did read “Dragon, Actually” when it was published by a small press. It amused me for an afternoon, then I forgot about it, but it did make a fun change from all the angsty dragons that were around.
    Not that I don’t write the odd angsty dragon myself.

  24. carmen webster buxton
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:12:12

    Thank you again for another entertaining review! You have a really interesting gift for expressing a concept in easy to understand but wildly unusual terms, as when you say, “… a book so slim I could probably have eaten it without needing a glass of water.” How many people would think of that way to say a book was short? It’s great!

    I love all the Sayers mysteries (except maybe THE NINE TAILORS), but I do find it amusing that Sayers basically created Lord Peter, fell in love with him herself, and wrote a version of herself into the books for him to marry. It’s a great example of why it’s wonderful to be a writer! Such power!

  25. MD
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:24:48

    I think your review is right on target. Novella 1 – harmless fun, but too many WTF moments. The “reconciliation” scene in particular – really, I don’t think that overpowering someone until they admit that they want to have sex with you is the right way to apologize for your mistakes.

    And yes, the second novella is actively disturbing, in all sorts of ways. When I read it, even though consent was there, I felt it was much too close to rape to be enjoyable.

    I think Jacqueline Carey has a much better take on the whole BDSM space in her Kushiel books, which are technically a fantasy, but have romance and pretty hot sex scenes. Plus great world-building. It worked much better for me and is firmly on the favorites shelf (though I think the DA grade of Kushiel’s Dart was relatively low)

  26. Heather Massey
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:25:41

    >unabashedly light-hearted and entertaining, and occasionally quite funny, but – for me, as a fantasy reader – it was just a bit shallow.

    Now you’ve got me wondering…which fantasy romances would be considered “unabashedly light-hearted and entertaining, and occasionally quite funny,” but with more depth and worldbuilding? Does anyone know of any titles?

  27. CD
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 16:55:18

    @Liz Mc2:

    I tried this book ages ago hoping for some campy Xena-type fun but just found it simply really badly written – and not in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. I don’t think I got far enough to really comment on the sexual politics of this book but my feeling is that Aiken was bringing her own, probably subconscience, slightly muddled baggage along with her. My opinion is that the writing and characters were simply not good enough for anything more substantial.

    That said, there is a significant amount of “forced seduction” in romance novels, although not so much recently – sometimes it’s done realistically (ie essentially rape) and sometimes it’s clearly done as a fantasy. And then sometimes it’s just done badly: neither realistic nor sexy fun. Janet wrote a really interesting post touching on this a few days ago, and whether romance novels could in the end be progressive or subversive ( My feeling is that it depends on how the novel or scene is framed – if it’s clearly a fantasy, then bring it on: the whole “being forcibly pleasured against your will” is clearly a turn on for women, and men for that matter thinking about it. Unfortunately, it’s often not just framed as a sexual fantasy but something more fundamental about sex and gender politics.

    “Aileen the Slag?! God, that cracked me up. It’s a word I associate with teenage girls – predominately from a working class/Northern background – taunting each other on the playground after finding their best friend snogging their boyfriend behind the bicycle sheds. I thought it was a British insult so interesting to know that you Americans use it as well.

  28. cleo
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 17:04:18

    @Heather Massey: That’s a great question. I’m struggling to come up with a list, and I read a lot of this sort of thing. I think part of my problem coming up with a list is that both elements – lighthearted / entertaining and good world-building – are so subjective, and I also think that a lot of the lighter sf/f romances I read tend to be lighter in every sense, including the world-building.

    Here are a couple:
    Souless (Parasol Protectorate series) by Gail Carriger

    Claimings, Tails and Other Alien Artifacts by Lyn Gala. It’s m/m SFR (not fantasy) that I thought was lighthearted with surprising depth and good world building. Perhaps I just had low expectations of a book with a purple alien hero (with a tail), but I was pleasantly surprised.

  29. AJH
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 17:06:19


    *laughs* I know what you mean, whenever you invest in something, it’s really difficult not to get bloody-mindedly determined to finish it, no matter what the cost. I was like that with Battlestar Galactica. I loved the first series and got increasingly less in love with it as time went on but I insisted on watching the whole bloody thing all the way to the end, basically because I got the whole box set for £20 and it was my box set and I’d bought it and I was damn well getting my money’s worth. When I’d probably have liked Battlestar Galactica a whole lot more if I’d just stopped when I stopped liking it.

    Sorry you had such a bad experience with the books – I wouldn’t say I hated Dragon Actually, it just did nothing for me. I didn’t mind Fearghus compared to some of the other heroes I’d read and Annwyl was a great idea … but, yeah :/


    Oh, yes, that’s lurking about on the bottom of my list – someone also suggested Black Hawk, which is by the same author I think? I think I am well up for spies :)

    @Lynne Connolly:

    I had no idea angsty dragons were a thing! What on earth do dragons have to be angsty about? They’re dragons. Too many knights trying to stab them? Not enough Princess totty to abduct? Treasure hoard inflation?

    As it so happens, I’m reading For My Lady’s Heart right now. I think it might very possibly be the best thing in the world. I basically picked it at random from a short list that also included Flowers from the Storm and Prince of Midnight.

    Don’t think I’ve heard of The Lady’s Tutor before – I shall investigate!

    @carmen webster buxton:

    Awww, that makes me sound faintly like a maniac, but thank you :)

    Also, yes, I do think that’s hilarious about Dorothy L Sayers – though to be honest, if I’d created EITHER Lord Peter or Harriet Vane I’d be creating some kind of thinly disguised me for them to fall in love with. They are both so fabulous.


    I wasn’t sure if I was just reading the sex stuff in a particularly negative way, but I did find it a little odd, for sure. Of course, it’s not my place to judge other people’s fantasies – but I did find the way fantasy and politics and power and gender intersected to be … yeah … difficult. For me, anyway. I suppose I felt a bit like someone should have come running in shouting “don’t cross the streams!” Spanking OR apology, dude, not both. I didn’t read Chains & Flames as particularly rapey, since she’s so very clearly into it and fully consenting, but I can see why you might and I just found the whole context troubling. But, again, my attempt to talk about this is a bit clueless so I should probably get out of the kitchen before I set something on fire.

    I confess I don’t massively get on with Carey. I think the worldbuilding is definitely intricate but there’s SO MUCH of it. I know I sound like I’m impossible to please, one minute complaining that something is too shallow and the next complaining that something else is too deep, but I don’t necessarily need (or want) my fantasy novels to double as a walrus bludgeoning device. I think I realised I wasn’t going to get on very well with Phedre when she took the entire first page of Kushiel’s Dart to tell me her eyes were brown ;)

    @Heather Massey:

    And here’s me playing Mr Impossible again – you’re right, that’s a ridiculously tall order. But here’s my attempt at a contribution, though obviously they’ll be mainly fantasy.

    The Lies of Locke Lamora is basically a fantasy heist novel, and the sequel is a fantasy heist WITH PIRATES. It’ll probably get all dark and angsty in the next few but I found the first couple entertaining and amusing, and the world building is detailed without being overpowering.

    To Say Nothing of the Dog – Willis can be VERY dark but this is a piece of beautiful fluff. One of my favourite books. It’s a time-travelling farce, basically.

    Kage Baker’s Company Novels – again, these vary by darkitude, and they’re sci-fi not fantasy, also time-travel, but the first is a love story, and it’s set – somewhat – in Elizabethan England. I like the heroine very much. They’re not precisely light but they have a deft and witty touch.

    In the world of YA/children’s, there’s Tamora Pierce (girls becoming knights and that kind of thing, not exactly funny but light) and anything by Diana Wynne Jones (again, variably funny but solid fantasy without an epic page count, and I’m a huge fan of the Chrestomanci books)

  30. CD
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 17:25:47

    @Heather Massey:

    “Now you’ve got me wondering…which fantasy romances would be considered “unabashedly light-hearted and entertaining, and occasionally quite funny,” but with more depth and worldbuilding? Does anyone know of any titles?”

    Terry Pratchett is the king – anything by him, anything at all. Or the late great Douglas Adams whom AJH sneakily ripped off in his review [don’t think we didn’t notice…]. You could also try the tons of great fantasy written for children or teenagers such as anything by Tamora Pierce or the Valdemer books by Mercedes Lackey. Or Harry Potter for that matter. And then, there’s obviously the Granddaddy: William Goldman’s THE PRINCESS BRIDE…

  31. AJH
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 17:27:33

    Or the late great Douglas Adams whom AJH sneakily ripped off in his review [don’t think we didn’t notice…]

    It was homage! ;)

    (also I think the internet just ate a comment).

  32. Joy
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 17:51:24

    The most hilarious romance novel I think I’ve ever read is Between the Duke and the Deep Blue Sea by Sophia Nash. But’s a historical, not a fantasy.

    As the novel opens, the heroine’s husband has just tried to kill her for her inheritance, so she hides out in the duke’s castle with his elderly aunt and “haunts” the husband for revenge. Meanwhile, the duke is being forced by some sort of royal person to marry soon, and since the heroine kind of likes him, she determines that she will weed out the terrible prospects for him.

    And all the dialog is almost as funny as AJH :)

  33. Anne Tierney
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 18:03:32

    That’s funny!
    Sorry, I’m just not one to ever feel I HAVE to read a series in order. I even started the Harry Dresden series at book 4 and then read the rest. When I went back, after book #10 and read the first 3, I was SO glad I started where I did, because I would NEVER have read on if I had started at the beginning.
    I DID read Magic Bites, after book #3, to see if I missed anything important and to know about certain incidents that had been mentioned– and I’m glad I did, but I would NOT have continued with the series if I had STARTED there.

  34. Wahoo Suze
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 18:31:54

    In this setting, dragons can conveniently turn human (otherwise I would not like to think of the mechanics of this relationship)

    Speaking of Lucy Lawless, there was a returning character(s) on the Xena/Hercules series, a human woman married to a centaur, and they had a child. Every time that family showed up, I could NOT stop trying to work out the mechanics. I couldn’t tell you what those episodes were about, because I was completely distracted from watching them (and my brain is swiss cheese).

  35. Susan
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 19:08:09

    I don’t have the words to describe how much I love these reviews! And the comments/discussion are a bonus. Thanks, AJH, for sharing your adventures in Romancelandia with us.

    It’s been so long since I read this book that, even with this recap, the details are fuzzy. I liked it enough to read the next couple of books in the series before I gave up on it. I’m very OCD about finishing series, so it was a wrench for me to throw in the towel, but they were just too much of a slog. I much prefer her books written as Shelley Laurenston, but even some of those can be hit or miss for me.

    Can’t wait for the upcoming reviews.

  36. leslie
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 19:08:56

    @Anne Tierney:
    Here Kitty Kitty……need I say more?
    I agree that Magic bites has it’s small problems, but so much of the book is so very funny and outrageous…..well I’m very fond of Magic Bites.
    Have a great weekend!

  37. CD
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 19:38:05

    @Wahoo Suze:

    OK, now you got me imagining the logistics of centaur/human love… I remember watching SHREK 2 wondering about Donkey and the Dragon. And wasn’t there some erotica reviewed here featuring mermaids, and something about a “flap” for access?


    “To Say Nothing of the Dog – Willis can be VERY dark but this is a piece of beautiful fluff. One of my favourite books. It’s a time-travelling farce, basically.”

    Yes yes yes YES!!!!!!! I love this book and it is HILARIOUS. Not to mention ridiculously clever and brimful of ideas and fun stuff. Nice romance as well and one of those books that you could tell the author was having far too much fun writing… I read this just after DOMESDAY BOOK and I caught whiplash at the change in mood.

    Also second Scott Lynch although I haven’t read RED SKIES. Pirates, you say? Right on, matey says I. I think I remember Baker’s COMPANY books being rather dark but it’s been a long time – I do remember the romance there but I don’t remember a HEA as such.

    Steven Brust, like Willis, writes hugely different types of books but his KHAAVREN ROMANCES starting with THE PHOENIX GUARDS are hilarious. They’re a parody/homage of/to Alexandre Dumas’s D’ARTAGNAN ROMANCES right down to the characters and the flowery writing style. I really like Brust’s VLAD TALTOS books which I also think are funny in a snarky way, but they change in tone halfway through and become quite dark and angsty.

    Finally, I’ll throw in Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE books, and second Carriger’s SOULESS as fun fantasy/alternative history worlds.

    “As it so happens, I’m reading For My Lady’s Heart right now. I think it might very possibly be the best thing in the world.”

    Ha ha!!! Gotcha! Hope you’re reading the version with middle English. Have you met the dragon yet? And Ruck – oh my God…

  38. Mary
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 19:55:31

    I really like this series, although admittedly book 1 is probably the weakest. I love books 2-4, with 4 being my favsies and then found 5-6 to be kinda meh. BUT I really do like her shifter books published as Shelly Laurenston. They are really hilarious (the banter you talk about is definitely present), and I think characters are given more depth and background then they are in the dragon kin series.
    However, I do think that what you are classifying as being shallow is sort of just realistic. People have irrational fears that don’t make sense-and given that Annwyl was never told how awesome she is as a child, it stands to reason she’d be afraid of her brother. She’s always been told he’s better than her.
    However, it is totally true that the rules about dragons shifting in front of humans go completely out the window in the series; its a nonissue for the rest of the books.

  39. acole
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 20:06:10

    You’ve explained so wonderfully all the reasons why I could never really get into these books, but had never really been able to figure out well on my own.
    I understand that the stories are supposed to be light and funny, but I was always disappointed but they could have been so much more. Romancelandia is rather short on heroines who are warriors, it’s not the standard, but there are plenty of alpha, soldier, policemen, firemen, throw her over the shoulder, come with me if you want to live heroes (and yes I realize that’s from a movie :) It’s exciting to think you’re going to see a woman who can kick some….. butt and take names later. That’s not really the case, it’s all tell and no show with the stories I’ve tried in this series and I’ve put the book down feeling unfulfilled, and disappointed.

    edited to add for readers of the comments: If there are other books in this series that flesh the heroine out more I would be willing to give it another try. Maybe I’m just really picky….. I read books to see how the characters grow and change, but that means I need to have some pretty fleshed out characters. Limits my reading, because I also have a really hard time with first person narration, or third person that just sticks with one of the characters. It kills me if I can’t get all up into every character psyche. :-/

  40. leica
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 20:59:31

    I am loving these reviews! In fact, I shared your Lord of Scoundrels review with my sisters who are absolute elitist non-romance-believers to prove the genre’s merits. Still no go, but I haven’t lost hope :)

    Good thing Gaffney is next on your list. I am looking forward to that review. I also strongly suggest you move up Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady (and that one before doing Black Hawk too). The heroine there is wicked kewl :)

  41. pamelia
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 21:20:53

    @ CD “OK, now you got me imagining the logistics of centaur/human love…”
    Well, I must recommend two disparate takes on this one: #1: The Gaian Trilogy by John Varley (“Titan”, “Wizard” and “Demon”) which is a fantastic sci-fi series about a sentient planet who has gone a little bonkers. The centaurs in this series are Titanides and they have a complex approach to procreation.
    #2: The Taryn McTavish books by R. Lee Smith which start off with “The Care and Feeding of Griffins” — a really awesome self-pubbed fantasy series about a modern day woman transported to another world which is populated by centaurs, minotaurs, dragons, griffins, etc.

    @ AJH — another great review. I somewhat enjoyed “Dragon Actually” — enough to read a few of the sequels (I think the 3rd book was my favorite), but I would hardly recommend them without caveats about the kind of slapdash and slapstick qualities which run rampant throughout. I think they’re fun books and not exactly demanding to read — they kind of forcefully carry a reader along on the ride and sometimes I like books like that for a change of pace!

  42. cleo
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 21:35:50


    And wasn’t there some erotica reviewed here featuring mermaids, and something about a “flap” for access?

    I think that’s the Joey Hill mermaid book –

  43. lawless
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 21:54:37

    @AJH – I’m even less interested in steampunk than paranormal. I look forward to when you reach Coutney Milan or Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened, assuming that’s the one you wind up reading. I liked her A Gentleman Undone less.

    Even if Aiken is not reflecting her own problematic attitudes about female sexuality, she’s reflecting those of at least some of her readers. This failure to challenge convention can be comforting, and for some that framing of romance in terms they’re used to may be part of the attraction. The way het genre romances so often reinforce heteronormative and non-feminist ways of looking at the world is a large part of the reason I dislike them, and I agree with Cecilia Grant’s skepticism that a genre that privileges the romantic relationship above other aspects of a person’s life … can ever really be seen as a feminist document.

    The closest to drug-addled, promiscuous disease-carriers in books I’ve read have been characters in male-written gay fiction, not m/m romance. As far as I recall, the contemporary m/m romances I’ve read address the issue of condom usage. The exceptions have been gay fiction written by men, although at least the one book I remember off the top of my head includes a disclaimer about unsafe sex practices. I still found reading a contemporary romance in which the main characters repeatedly engage in anal intercourse without a discussion, let alone use of, condoms head-spinning.

    No need to be so humble; one doesn’t have to be an editor to tell whether writing is effective or not. And I agree, part of what makes the Wimsey/Vane relationship tedious in the earlier two books is the power imbalance, which Peter recognizes and addresses by the time Gaudy Night rolls around. I thought Harriet had brought it up to him prior to that, but it’s been such a long time since I read Strong Poison or Have His Carcase that I’m not sure.

    Funny you should ask about Heyer; I only learned of her recently, started reading The Grand Sophy, and have decided not to finish because I don’t care enough about the characters. Sophy is a charmer, but I don’t like the way she runs roughshod over everyone, I don’t care if she winds up with the person she winds up with (yes, I read the ending of most books before I finish the middle), and I consider her more historically implausible than the denizens of more recently written historical novels I’ve seen bashed for being untrue to their times. I plan on trying one of her mystery-tinged novels like The Talisman Ring instead.

  44. Heather Massey
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 22:32:23


    Thanks, Cleo! Claimings is now on my Kindle and I look forward to checking it out.

    As for your suggestion of Soulless, it made me realize I hadn’t been specific enough in my question. Sorry about that! I was thinking of fantasy in terms of elves, wizards, etc. Soulless to me seemed like straight up paranormal (but the fantasy category wouldn’t be entirely false, either).

    Anyway, if you’re racking your brains that hard, maybe the particular mix I asked about hasn’t been explored that much. I’ve been spending the past few hours trying to wrap my brain about how such a hybrid might work.

  45. Heather Massey
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 22:37:42


    Thanks for the recs! I’ll check around for them at the library. I read the first Company novel and for me that definitely fell on the darker side. Good stuff, though.

  46. Heather Massey
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 22:43:20


    *smacks head* Yes–THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Thank you. Recent books in that vein. I should’ve incorporated TPB into my question!

    Does Terry Pratchett’s books have romances? I’ve read the *occasional* lighthearted fantasy, but not ones with romances IIRC (and it’s been a while so forgive my bad memory).

  47. B. Sullivan
    Apr 19, 2013 @ 23:22:05

    I do love the concept of “villain-teased” – and yes, that does happen here. (And elsewhere. Why aren’t there more fun scenery-chewing villains? They’re such a delight when done well. Only I can’t think of book examples so much as Vincent Price-film-roles.) I read a chunk of Aiken’s dragon books when I was trying to figure out the whole “why is everyone into Shifter stuff” genre. (Don’t ask, I still don’t know. And I did try.) And having read at least one “serious” dragon shifter story (not written by Aiken), Aiken is kind of a nice change because there’s some humor, a character or two into reading, and not much of the “at first sight I saw that she was my soulmate and I marked her before anyone else could get to her, but maybe I should have asked her out first” business that I eyeroll at.

    But yes to pretty much everything you said, especially the fully fleshed out characterization bit. I think of these as filed under amusing, but only something I’d buy on sale. My problem with so much of fantasy is that so much takes itself so seriously, such that some stories don’t ever acknowledge the ridiculousness of certain situations. And honestly I haven’t read a shifter book where I didn’t find some really ridiculous situations that authors decided they were going to try to play completely straight, no asides to giggle over. But then trying to put in humor and actually sketch out complete characters at make it all work – I’ll admit, that’s tricky.

    I am however going to go reread a bit of Dorothy Sayers though, because the Peter/Harriet romance is always fun.

  48. AJH
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 05:13:55


    That sounds hilarious actually … also great title@Wahoo Suze: :)

    I am ALWAYS happy to talk about Lucy Lawless ;) Ahem. And being a ridiculous Xena nerd (Xenaphile? Ouch) I totally remember the episode – or rather episodes – you’re talking about. I think it’s an Amazon called Ephiny, and she falls for a centaur (despite the fact the Amazons and the Centaurs are constantly at war because, cough, Reasons) … and yeah, he’s conveniently killed while protecting her because, cough, Budget, I suspect. And then there’s a later episode where she gives birth to … I’d say a human/centaur baby but centaurs are ALREADY half human. I confess I didn’t really think much about the, uh, logistics of the relationship (for my SANITY) but what struck me as even odder was the fact that the Amazons are all women (obvs) and the centaurs are all dudes … so how earth do they procreate when they’re not having angsty cross-cultural relationships?@


    Thank you so much, I’m really glad you’re enjoying the reviews. I love writing them and the comments are amazing, and I love them too :)

    I’m bad at not finishing books, kind of like a reverse Winnie-the-Pooh (maybe there’s honey at the bottom of the jar). But thankfully I have no qualms about a series, if the first book doesn’t grip me. I should probably have started with Book 3, to be honest, as everyone says that’s the strongest of them.


    Connie Willis is amazing, and Dog is sublime. I like Doomsday Book a lot, too, but it’s much much darker. And, to be honest, I found Blackout just plain grim and I still can’t work out whether I think it’s actually any good.

    Red Skies is, honestly, not quite as good Lies. But PIRATES, right?

    The Company books are quite dark, now I think about it, but I seem to recall them being kind of witty and clever as well, which took the edge off.

    Brust-wise, I’ve only read the Vlad Taltos stuff, and they’re massively variable (and I agree about the tonal shifts) but I don’t think think I can resist a Dumas parody. When I was young, my career aspiration was very much to be a Musketeer when I grew up. Alas, thwarted.

    Oh gosh, how could I have forgotten Novik. I love Temeraire to pieces. Again, I find the books a bit variable in quality but I have a deep affection for the series.

    Hope you’re reading the version with middle English. Have you met the dragon yet? And Ruck – oh my God…

    I am, old fashioned paper book, complete with middle English. No dragon yet but Allegreto appears to have just snuffed it which confuses me because someone told me was sequel bait.


    I definitely saw potential in the banter but, for me, it wasn’t fully realised in this book. And I do see your point. I suspect ‘shallow’ is one of those mileage may vary things – perhaps disengaging might have been a less emotive term. And I know that people have irrational drives and motivations in real life but I feel if the action of your book is driven *solely* by them, it can – to some readers and in this case to me – come across as a bit unsatisfying. It’s not really about realism, for me, so much as … I suppose … impact? I don’t think I need characters to be full of angst and woe to be plausible but I think I need a bit of common sense in there as well? :) But, again, what you need to be able to comfortably suspend disbelief is massively personal, so it follows that what works for you might not work for me and vice versa.


    Thank you :) I did have trouble writing this review, to be honest. It was the first book I didn’t have a particularly strong reaction to, other than being a bit lost during Chains & Flames. And I know that some people have really enjoyed the series so I was sitting there basically thinking “omg, what am I missing?!”

    I’ve heard Annwyl kicks some serious arse in book 5, and apparently books 3/4 are stronger, but I don’t think I’m necessarily going to, errr, bother. Not when there is so much other stuff I could be reading.

    Also, I know they weren’t addressed to me but I’m going to answer them anyway because I can’t shut up … or rather … because I was interested, but your comments on first person/ third person narration reminded me of a discussion that whizzed past me on Twitter t’ other day. See, I like a bit of unreliability. And not entirely knowing for sure what’s going on with other characters is one of those perception/reality gap things that intrigues me. But the prevailing preference seems to be intense 3rd person with everybody up there on the emotional dissecting table :) Sorry, I don’t have a point or anything, I was just interested!


    I’m really glad you’re enjoying the reviews – I’m not sure I make a good bannerman for the revolution though :) Maybe you should throw them at Janet’s posts, as they’re much more nuanced, insightful and academic and have the added benefit that she knows whereof she speaks :)

    I found Gaffney pretty difficult. I mean so good but also so difficult. And now I’m having to really only nice things to recover :)


    I can genuinely see how the books could be a lot of fun if you were in the right sort of mood (there’s a deep pleasure in candyfloss reading, if that doesn’t like a horrendously dismissive thing to say) – but they just didn’t quite manage to draw me in enough that I was able to get past all the minor irritations. It was stupid of me, but sort of one of those things, and the more I tried to like what I was reading, the less I did. So I gave up trying :P


    Oh dear me, getting colder not warmer :) I’m not actually a big fan of steampunk in the normal course of things but I really enjoyed The Iron Duke. On the other hand, if you really don’t like steampunk, that’s probably a deal breaker ;)

    Apologies, lawless, I’ve re-read that whole paragraph in the article and I realise it’s more than slightly cringe, and I should have seriously thought about what I was saying. I was honestly just so completely thrown by the whole thing, I had no idea how to read it. And obviously it’s not my place to judge this sort of stuff but every other book I’ve read (and admittedly that’s only a handful) has been kind of so cheerful about its own sexual content that I was boggled. I mean even The Flame & The Flower, once you get past the, uh, rape thing, to twu wuv and marriage has the heroine enthusiastically getting groped by her husband at a ball. But, as I said above, if I read a book which confirmed without exploring or critiquing negative stereotypes or harmful social perceptions about me … then I’d be pretty miserable. But if other people find that comfortable or valuable then it’s entirely their call, and I’m shutting now :)

    Re privileging, however, I’ve just read Bet Me and I thought one of things that was interesting about that is how much the romance is just a part of the heroine’s life. I guess it all comes down to context though? This is, uh, above my paygrade and I’m no position to make sweeping observations about the genre, certainly not in response to someone who, um, actually writes for it :)

    As for the writing thing, I wasn’t trying to be humble, just acknowledge that I’m not the style police. I know there are fairly basic rules for what is supposedly good writing but reactions to writing can be very personal, and applying semi-arbitrary standards of ‘correctness’ or ‘goodness’ often does more harm than good. Telling not showing isn’t automatically bad – it just depends HOW you do it. It’s like, hmm, if you kind of sit down and look really closely at the Harry Potter books, you couldn’t claim they were ‘well’ written. The writing is very repetitive and often very pedestrian but, at the same time, when you’re reading them (at least the early ones, I don’t like the later ones) you just get sort of carried long and the story unfolds and you don’t really notice the writing at all. It’s like an invisible camera floating over the text. People are always deconstructing Rowling for ‘bad’ writing but actually it’s pretty harmless and I don’t see what calling it ‘bad’ achieves.

    Also Harriet worries a lot about the power imbalance but there’s nothing either of them can *do* about it in Strong Poison. But it’s only really in Gaudy Nights that it equalises – if memory serves, anyway :)

    I think The Grand Sophy is one of Heyer’s more difficult works. Sophy herself is very very brash and also I have a vague memory it has an anti-semitic undertone or am I arbitrarily making that up for no reason?

    Again, it’s probably a personal taste thing but I am wildly fond of Cotillion. It is absolute fluff though – both the hero and heroine are very silly people, but utterly adorable, and Freddie is the nicest person in the universe. His super powers are being very polite and dressing well. Kitty’s are being genre savvy and adorable. I also very much like Venetia – that has a clever, beautiful strong-minded heroine and the hero is a rake with a heart (again Venetia takes absolutely no bullshit from him). Frederica contains a hot air balloon. And I have no idea why, because it’s not accounted one of Heyer’s best, but I very much love Sylvester. I think the heroine is adorable , and the hero has an amazing mother.

    Sorry for the epic comment!

    @B. Sullivan:

    I entirely agree! I’m a big fan of scenery chewing but it has to be done with STYLE, y’know? This was basically scenery nibbling.

    I felt I was probably a bit harsh on Dragon Actually – but I genuinely just couldn’t get into it, even as lightly amusing. I might have been better disposed towards I’d read it in a different context. I could see it being a good antidote to too much srs fantasy :)

    Did you ever crack the shifter mystery? I confess, I find it a bit hard to take as well, but I feel like I’m missing something. I think I’ve got some other shifter books coming up so perhaps I’ll get converted along the way :)

    Also Twitter as telling me about the marked mate trope thing – I haven’t run into it yet but doesn’t it sort of defeat the point of … well … romance? If you’re just MEANT to be together and don’t have to work at it, or wash your socks, or, as you say, actually ask the woman out ;)

  49. Lynne Connolly
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 05:46:32

    Mine too. You wouldn’t want mermen to float around coral reefs with all their bits hanging out, would you? Joey and I do lunch from time to time (she is the nicest person!). We try to go somewhere where eavesdroppers can get an earful.

  50. CG
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 06:55:26

    I adore Aiken’s Dragon books. Adore, I tell you! And yet, I pretty much agree with almost everything in your review. For some reason her humor really works for me. There are times when I’ve had a stressful week and I really want light and funny carnage and sexy times without too much to think about and Aiken hits that spot for me. Oddly enough, her shifter books do nothing for me, tho.

    And can I just say that your review posts on Friday and Robin/Janet’s opinion pieces on Monday have moved to the top of my Things-I-Eagerly-Anticipate-On-The-Internet list.

  51. Maria
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 07:08:12

    Funnily enough, I read this book the other day. I have to say that I disagree with practically all of this review.

    I loved Dragon Actually. It was a book that kept me up til the wee hours, and had me laughing the whole time. I thought the humour was fantastic. The reason that Annwyl benefits from the teachings is she learns to control her rage, she becomes faster and in battle that can save your life. She also begins to get over her fear, the physical actions of learning to be better in battle help to control her emotions and in the book, it says that the only person she’d met that was better at fighting than her was her brother.

    I loved the chemistry between the main characters. Especially while she sat with the dragon and all the descriptions of the scales, the way the dragon lived, how he moved, his personality and to have the man and the dragon be the same being, well that was just the icing on the cake.

    What sold me on this story was the fact that Annwyl was no weak heroine. She knew what she wanted and she fought to be better in battle, and yet, she knew when someone was helping her and decided to stay with the dragon for awhile. I love a heroine who is strong inside and out. I love being in the dragon’s pov as he watched Annwyl.

    I thought their connection was deep until they parted for the year. That seemed like a plot device to me, but other than that, it was perfect. I got to see them in quiet moments, in fierce battle, in love, having sex. He helps her to be more, she offers him something he thought he could never have with a human.

    It just goes to show how people’s views differ with books. Truly, I respect your review, you weren’t wowed like me. But I smiled for the rest of the week because I read this book.

    I still have the beginning image of her leaning on her sword, ready to die and finding it funny as she watched the men run away as the dragon breathed fire. She was prepared to die, but her and the dragon watched the men bolt and it was funny, deep and intriguing.

  52. Jane Lovering
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 08:12:35

    H2G2 quote! I think I love you…

  53. Estara Swanberg
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 10:14:15

    @Heather Massey: My problem is the criteria “lightheartedness” , combined with the great world-building – there’s Sherwood Smith’s Sasharia en Garde (Once a Princess, Twice a Prince – released via Samhain), which does have a romance, but it’s not centre stage. It has humorous interactions and dialogue but it’s much more a hero’s journey for Sasharia than anything else…

    I can’t come up with any book I’ve read that fulfills all your criteria, really.

  54. AJH
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 10:30:28


    That’s shockingly flattering considering Janet’s column is the top of my eagerly awaited list, so thank you. Perhaps they balance out – from the sublime to the ridiculous ;)

    I like of things, despite being able to see faults there, so I think the key is probably that personal reaction. The humour worked for me, in parts, but it wasn’t quite enough to support everything else that irritated me. I do feel kind of bad about it because I can genuinely see how Dragon Actually could be that a cheerful, easy-going romp to be enjoyed with a cup of tea and a hobnob.


    Yeah, lots of people really like these books – they just didn’t work for me. As you say, it’s just a personal taste thing and, to be honest, my tastes are still very much unformed at the moment. Obviously we came at the text from very different backgrounds and angles, and were looking for very different things.

    I think something I forgot when I was reading it was that I obviously came at the text from a position of privilege – the things that make Annywl a strong and appealing heroine to some people are things I take very much granted, and which are completely standard in the (normally male) protagonists of fantasy novels. I can remember having a conversation about Eowyn a couple of years ago. I’ve always seen her a very two dimensional character but I found myself talking to a woman for whom the character of Eowyn had been profoundly important. It didn’t really change the way I felt about the character, but it made me realise it’s not really my place what is or isn’t a character other people can identify with. And I know I whinged here about finding Annwyl a bit disappointing but I can absolutely see why you would might really like her :)

    And I genuinely don’t believe disagreement constitutes a lack of respect – I’m just sorry I kind of trashed a book you really love, that can’t be entertaining to read :/

    @Jane Lovering:

    I love dragons. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by ;)

    (I should stop violating Douglas Adams, now, right?)

  55. B. Sullivan
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 14:25:45


    Never did fully “get” the Shifter thing, no. Might just not have read the right ones, but I’m coming at the genre from watching the old films and reading folklore and such (had some really fun college courses in it back in the day), and no author of the romances has ever really convinced me that what began as either a Curse or a Horror (the transformed is not supposed to be able to stop from killing those he/she loves) has become tame and controllable – and that that’s a more interesting take on the story. It kind of removes the drama to ignore that aspect entirely. But then I suppose it’s rare to have people fall in love with ax-murderers in fiction too – that’s not really romance type stuff. (Understandably.)

    And yes for me I can’t see the whole “you are my soulmate whether you know/agree or not” thing as romantic. It’s come off too “rawr I am more powerful and I know best” for me in some of the stuff I read (not to mention if love interest can’t say no/isn’t consulted, I think that’s a bit too close to a rape metaphor). Granted I’ve not read everything, maybe some authors did this genre better. But mostly I couldn’t get over the whole bit about taking a heart-breaking or terrorizing story and making it all fluffy love, so I wasn’t going to be talked into an instant-love-via-magical-animal-knowledge. I dislike the same insta-love in vampires too (and normal romances, come to think of it).

    But I kept coming back to having problems with creatures who should be horrifying – and should see all humans as a snack – suddenly being tame love interests. There’s no serious threat there. There never seemed to be any arguments where the vamp would threaten to snack on/kill off the irritating love interest, which would seem a usual/reasonable threat from a predator. And so many vamps are always doing this “I can drink just a bit of your blood and stop” rather than accidentally drinking it all and killing the love interest. You’d think that’d happen more often, especially if they’re hungry. (I did read one or two “oops, almost killed her, now have to turn her vamp oh darn” stories, but that’s always the vamp’s get out of jail free card.)

    I think my problem with this is that I came at this from the horror genre and haven’t seen anyone write from that angle – buckets of blood, gore and angst yes, true threat to beloved, no. I think everyone is too busy turning the monsters into thinking/feeling humans and rushing to the whee-sexytimes – the horror part and the uncontrollable-bloodlust part only gets glossed over. And vampire=demon=shifter in the sense that none of them are going to hurt/kill the love interest, even by accident – unless the plot calls for it and then, no worries, they can zap the beloved back to life. These are not really monsters. Love interests get over their horror of them way too quickly, if they have any fear of them at all. (It’s usually beloved=special snowflake and thus never = dinner.) I won’t even go into how the vampire has now been able to go into all these non-human blood/non-blood diets because argh, why use vampires at all if you remove the struggle-to-not-be-the-monster bit? (Pale near-immortal, non-blood drinkers are already a thing; they’re elves/the fairyfolk/etc. Actually you should read some of those, because I’m pretty sure you’ll have fun reviewing them as well.)

    I should also note that I still follow Aiken, just to see what she’s tossed into the mix. (“A werebear is thing now?”) While I have some of the same questions/critiques you have, I think she’s got a decent take on humor in a subgenre I really can’t see as something anyone should take 100% seriously. (Unless you read for unintentional humor, which can be delightful.) I mean, if you’re going to mess with this genre and not go emotional horror, you should at least laugh at the tropes. Or give the reader hints that you, the author, are also amused.

  56. wikkidsexycool
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 14:40:33

    Hi AJH,

    I enjoyed your review. As a fellow fantasy reader (my current modern faves are Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks, but I’m so disappointed with Peter Brett’s take on females in his novels) I flip from male oriented books which either gloss over a romance ( I understand that too much romance can turn off some readers) to books like Aiken and Patricia Briggs which have just the right amount of fantasy and romance for my reading tastes. As far as Aiken’s Dragon shifters, I started with book 2 after reading a thread on another site bemoaning the lack of minority characters in paranormal and fantasy. After recommendations from other commenters, I picked up About A Dragon and this series has been an autobuy for me ever since.

    To my pleasant surprise, a character of color who was also a witch got hitched to one of the dragons and has been part of this continuing saga. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to buy books which are based in fantasy that read as if there’s only one racial type for the leads and even the other characters in the worldbuilding. I think authors tend to forget that readers come in diverse ethnicities and races, and could be part of their fanbase.

    I also like the camaraderie between the female characters in Aiken’s books, since they become good friends as the series continues. Humor is also a big part of her books, which works for me as well as her take on the mythology of her deities. I also like that her females kick butt and don’t need to be saved, which I find tends to happen a lot in straight up fantasy. The trope of the female needing to be weak so that the male can look more Alpha is a problem for me, but I’ll still read a book if the other aspects work.

    I appreciate the humor in your posts, and I can’t wait to read your take on more books, especially JR Ward’s seriously Alpha Males in the BDB and the names she’s given the guys.

  57. cleo
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 15:14:23

    @Heather Massey: I hope you enjoy Claimings. I think I decided to read it because of a comment on your post here about alien heroes, so that’s cool.

    I think you’re right – this is an unexplored area. I can think of examples that have two out of the three criteria easily (light-hearted fantasy w/o romance or very understated romance or light-hearted romances with not so well thought out fantasy elements / world building) but none with all three equally strong. The closest I get is Sorcery and Cecelia, but the romance is understated. And someone mentioned Diana Wynn Jones – I think A Sudden Wild Magic and Howl’s Moving Castle sort of fit the criteria, except that they’re not really romances.

  58. cleo
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 15:33:35

    @Lynne Connolly: LOL – your comment just made my day.

    @B. Sullivan: @AJH: Here’s my take on the shifter phenomenon – I also started reading them to try to “get” them. I think there are a couple metaphors at work.

    1 – werewolves as metaphor for adolescence. I got this from watching Buffy – when Willow started dating that emo musician werewolf guy. Going through adolescence is kind of like turning into a werewolf – your body stops feeling like your body, it grows hair in odd places, your emotions go out of whack, you feel angry and out of control, etc.

    2 – the animal part of shifters as a metaphor for dealing with strong emotions or shadow / repressed emotions. Shape shifters are both human and animal and a lot of the language about how they deal with the animal part works as a metaphor for dealing with strong or repressed emotions or desires – shifters talk about their “wolf” wanting to do something that “they” don’t want to or having to learn to control their “animal” or make friends with their “animal.” Nalini Singh does a really good job of this in the psy/changeling series, but it’s in a lot of shifter books. It’s a metaphor that resonates for me, especially in the psy/changeling series. Sarah at SBTB has talked about this metaphor too.

  59. Hestia
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 16:26:14

    I love this discussion, it’s making me think. Regarding first/third person: I’m mostly a sf/fantasy reader, and I like both first person and third person limited/single character. And I don’t mind third person that hops from character to character because they are in different scenes/places (much epic fantasy.)

    But the first few romance novels that hopped from her to him and back (and in the same scene!) drove me batty. I have gotten more used to it, but I still tend to gravitate toward the first person urban fantasies over the paranormal romances. But I’ve seen comments from many, many romance readers whose preferences are exactly the opposite of mine.

    Which makes me wonder: how much have those preferences been shaped by what we read first? I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction as a tween/teen, and virtually no romance (and no romance with a hopping viewpoint.)

  60. AJH
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 17:01:40

    @B. Sullivan:

    I confess to being weirdly into werewolves but not, err, in a romantic way. One of the on-going points of contention between H and I is the classic vampires versus werewolves debate but more in a coolness way than a “which would you rather bang” way. I think I like the wildness of werewolves and I can *theoretically* translate that into passion (I think there’s something a bit hot about the idea of primal instinct sweeping you into sex) but whenever I try to actually mentally go there I end up stuck the whole … um … “that’s a dog” thing. And I know it’s not – it’s a human with the ability to turn into an animal – but I still come back to hairy and smelly.

    With reference to the folklore-stuff , I take it you’ve read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber? Given the tangling of eroticism and horror and pretty pretty words that goes in those stories, I think it’s one of the most successful depictions of sexy/dangerous/mystical wolves I’ve seen. In The Company of Wolves and The Tiger’s Bride both sort of go there. But it works. But, yeah, it’s not what you’d call romantic. And I don’t know if you’ve run across The Last Werewolf (again, horror / aspirational lit fic not romance, really really not romance). Unfortunately it’s … really problematic. I think the author might be a complete wanker (everything I’ve ever seen him write on the internet has made me sort of make a face) and the book is saturated with, err, wank BUT the early part, which is just the last werewolf narrating his daily life, which is a stew of violence, sex and ennui is quite arresting. Then it all gets a bit grim.

    On the other hand, I’m speculating from ignorance (as usual – tsk tsk) and the right shifter book might completely convert me to woofledom. Dragon Actually is the closest thing I’ve read so far to insta-love, and it’s not really a soul-bonded thing, so much as Fearghus taking one looks at Annwyl’s breasts and becoming fascinated. But, again, I’d be interested to see how it works and played out – and how you get an arc, or any tension at all, if two people are just mystically supposed to be together.
    (Heh, weirdly, I’ve read the Fallen series by Lauren Kate – which is YA, and that’s got an endless romance, played out over lifetimes in it, but a lot of the focus is on just how fucked up and annoying that is, and how it intersects with personal choice).

    Also I suppose if the love interest is too terrified by the supernatural dude she might just end up looking wet. And if he makes too big a deal out of wanting to keel her ded then we get the Edward Cullen problem.

    Edward: I really really just want to murder you right now, Bella.
    Bella: I trust you.
    Edward: God, murdering you due to my insatiable bloodlust would be awesome right now.
    Bella: I love you.
    Everyone else: GET OUT NOW GIRL.

    I did appreciate what Aiken was doing – and some of the banter and the light-heartedness made me smile but, I don’t know, I guess I’m a humourless git because a lot of it didn’t work for me. Or rather I need something a bit more solid underpinning my humour, I think.

    PS – speaking of werebears I got the BEST Amazon recommendation the other day. It was called The Girl & The Bear. I really hoped it was going to be about a hairy gay guy and a teenage girl who were great friends and solved crimes together. It wasn’t. It was a werebear thing.


    I’m really starting to think I should have gone for a different starting point – I think most people seem to agree that Dragon Actually, despite its excellent tagline, is the weakest of the series. Also I don’t know if the others follow the same double-novella format, but perhaps if Aiken had just a little bit more space to develop stuff, I’d have whinged less about everything feeling shallow to me.

    And, you’re right, although I mainly gave the article space over to grousing, I liked the relationship with Annwyl and Fearghus’s sister, and I liked the relationship between Feargus and his sister as well – so there were some nice dynamics in there, I just was too frustrated by everything else to properly appreciate them.

    Again, as a white dude, it’s not really my place to make judgements about this, but so far the closest thing to a POC I’ve encountered in my readings has been Dain, the half-Italian. Which, err, yeah. No. (Oh, wait, there are slaves in F&F – one of whom I seem to recall is described as a “more than ample Negress” … yeeek).

    I agree that mainstream fantasy is horrendously biased towards male characters getting in fights and having exciting adventures, and female characters getting captured. I guess I should have contextualised myself a bit better before reading Dragon Actually, and paid a bit more attention to what Annwyl was doing, rather than what she wasn’t. I think because I was in fantasy-reader space I was taking quite a lot for granted.

    Even so, there was just a lot of slightly niggling stuff which probably means I won’t likely get on with this writer – the humour doesn’t quite work for me, even though I know I was meant to be laughing, and some of the slightly laboured writing (the repetition of information just delivered) kind of got to me. But I can also see how someone would really enjoy and appreciate the books – it’s just, um, I didn’t :)


    1. Hey that’s Oz, and he was brilliant! I think most of Buffy was, err, a metaphor for adolescence – and I definitely think woofles work in this context too. I always read them as a metaphor, for, y’know, uncontrollable violence and the inherent savagery that lurks beneath the civilised heart of humanity … actually, yeah, adolescence :P

    2. Ohhh, interesting. I hadn’t thought of it quite like this before – I’d got as far as suppressed selves but suppressed emotional selves is something I really hadn’t considered.


    Now I think about it, most of the fantasy I read is third person, but most of the literary fiction I really like is first – again massive generalisations, I haven’t done a headcount :)

    I haven’t really read enough romance yet to be able to have anything like a take, but I’ve been quite fortunate in that nearly everything I’ve read has flagged up change of headspace quite specifically. It’s usually been within scenes or chapters, thankfully not line to line. I’m not sure how I’d cope with that, given that I’ve not finished a couple of fantasy novels that have jumped POV basically line to line.

    I’m just weirdly into unreliable narrators, I think, and I like the obliqueness of love (not quite knowing what the other person is thinking is a pretty common state of affairs for me) but I was surprised by the strength of preference for third person.

  61. Heather Massey
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 21:04:20

    @Estara Swanberg:

    Thanks for your suggestion, Estara! Even as I asked the question I was wondering if that type of story existed. Possibly an area for some authors to explore?

  62. Heather Massey
    Apr 20, 2013 @ 21:25:33


    Is there a perception that lighthearted/humorous and detailed worldbuilding plot/deep characterization are mutually exclusive? Do they need to be that way in order for some stories to work?

    The reason I ask is because I’ve been watching ARCHER (an FX animated comedy series that’s a parody of the spy genre) and at first I balked at the idea of the main character, Archer, having zero character arc or depth. He starts out as an a** and is still an a** by the end of each episode. I was like, who is this guy?!

    But after I’d seen a few episodes I thought, if he changed in any way the show wouldn’t be as funny as it is. So in the case of ARCHER I’m thinking the lack of certain elements isn’t a flaw, but a strength.

    And so maybe I need to check out DRAGON ACTUALLY to see if I have a similar reaction. I’ve actually been curious about it for a while.

  63. Susan
    Apr 21, 2013 @ 01:25:00

    @Heather Massey: Fantasy, decent worldbuilding, swashbuckling, humor, (light) romance? You might check out Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares books.

  64. CD
    Apr 21, 2013 @ 17:46:35

    @Heather Massey:

    If you’re at all into swashbuckling action a la PRINCESS BRIDE, then you HAVE to read the KHAAVREN ROMANCES which Steven Brust himself describes as a blatant rip-off of Alexandre Dumas’ D’ARTAGNAN ROMANCES – the characters, the plot elements and most especially the language and style. As a read, it’s just complete, absolute FUN:

    “‘It is not a word,’ said Pel, tossing his cloak over his shoulder so that the elegant hilt of his blade was visible, ‘that pleases my ears.’
    ‘Well,’ said the lady who had spoken first, ‘I confess that your ears are of only a little concern to me.’
    ‘But,’ said Pel, bowing politely, ‘your tongue is of great concern to me.’
    ‘For my part,’ said Khaavren, ‘I am concerned with her feet.’
    ‘How,’ said Aerich, who stood between Pel and Khaavren. ‘Her feet?’
    ‘Indeed. For if she will use them to move from these cramped quarters, well, I will do her the honor of showing her what my arm can do.'”

    Yes, they talk like that all the way through and it is sublime…

    The conceit is that Steven Brust is merely the translator with the actual “author” being a gentleman historian by the name of Paarfi of Roundwood who develops his own, slightly pompous and gently snarky personality with passages such as this:

    “It must be added, lest we be reproached for leaving out details important to our reader’s understanding of subsequent events, that the lady seemed to have all the attributes of beauty, grace and charm that make a young man’s heart beat faster and cause his eyes to widen… It need hardly be added that Khaavren was just of the type to appreciate all these qualities; that is to say, he was young and a man, and had, moreover, a vivid imagination which allowed his thoughts to penetrate, if not the mind of the lady opposite him, at least the folds and angles of her gown.”

    All for one, and one for all!!

    PS If anyone is confused by the extract, in Brust’s world, there’s complete gender equality. Brust’s version of the free-living, hot-tempered Portos character in the THREE MUSKETEERS is actually a female who reckons that the only good fight is when she is outnumbered three to one…

  65. CD
    Apr 21, 2013 @ 18:37:30

    Right, RED SKIES is back on my huge TBR list. You got me at pirates… If you want a fun pirate romance, then try Marsha Canham’s THE IRON ROSE. The only thing better than pirates is an honest to God female pirate ;-).

    SYLVESTER is my favourite Heyer by far – loved the characters and I personally think it’s her most romantic novel: the trip back from France is something I read again and again whenever I need a hit of the warm fuzzies… I also love COTILLION and FRIDAY’S CHILD for the sheer fun. VENETIA and FREDERICA are great but I found the heroes a bit dull next to the heroines and secondary characters.

    Regarding unreliable narrators, have you read Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN?

    @B. Sullivan:
    I get what you mean – especially coming from the horror genre. I don’t really get the appeal of vampires, to be honest: the whole bloodsucking thing just feels downright unsanitary… I do really like werewolves though although the whole mated trope thing is definitely very very worn.

    If you’re OK with m/m romances with more than a hint of BDSM, and you want something grittier and downright scary, then I would definitely recommend Jamie Craig’s MASTER OF OBSIDIAN. I loved the central relationship (even though the sex scenes were a bit too “out there” for me at times) and how it walked a tightrope between love and fear. Here’s a review:

    I do love Nalini Singh but especially with her recent books, I’ve disliked the strong implication of “animal nature = emotion = good”, especially contrasted to the more intellectual Psy. From the looks of things in Singh’s world, it’s all sexy fun with no downsides.

    I think Patricia Briggs does the whole dualism between man and beast a lot better in her ALPHA AND OMEGA and MERCEDES THOMPSON series. You definitely get the impression that being a werewolf is a real curse, especially with the elaborate precautions necessary to ensure that the wolf’s bloodlust and predatory instincts are controlled, and how werewolves who cannot control their wolf are put down for the good of all.

    JL Merrow’s CAMWOLF (m/m) is also a great book where dominance/subservience instinct inherent with werewolves is seen as abusive, with both heroes embracing their humanity as part of their relationship.

  66. lawless
    Apr 21, 2013 @ 20:06:05

    @AJH – I don’t mind reading genres I’m not usually that interested in like steampunk if the books’s really good, but I’m more interested in Brooks’ Riveted than The Iron Duke and I’d have to pay for an interlibrary loan because our local library doesn’t have any of her books.

    Books that confirm without exploring or critiquing negative stereotypes or harmful social perceptions about women make me miserable, too. I was just pointing out that it doesn’t work that way for everybody.

    I see a distinction between style and effectiveness, and besides, style is a perfectly legitimate area for praise or criticism! Some readers like lyrical prose and some like terse prose. Some people like variety or think it depends on what the book’s about and is trying to accomplish. You’re writing about your reaction, not one that’s universally valid, although I think the most agreement occurs at the extremes of excellence (of a type that can’t be denied even if the reader doesn’t like the subject matter) or dreck. Exposition gets a worse rap than it deserves; I’ve read an m/m romance where the lack of telling made it difficult, if not impossible, to put all the pieces of the imagined world (the book was set in a dystopian future) together coherently.

    I’ve read complaints about Rowling’s writing from Harry Potter fans, but have to confess I don’t exactly follow. She’s better at plot than characterization — most of the characters are more archetypes than fully-fleshed out people, although they’re not flattened caricatures, either (Agatha Christie’s level of characterization comes to mind, actually) — and she isn’t writing literary fiction, but I think her writing is reasonably effective otherwise. She didn’t think through timeline and plausibility in some instances, and there are holes, logical and otherwise, with the setting/world-building. I guess we’ve just proved that with the authors who occupy that middle ground between terrible and wonderful, assessments of writing quality are inherently subjective.

    The power dynamic doesn’t equalize until Gaudy Night because Peter hadn’t figured out a way to do it earlier and Harriet’s investigation gives him the opportunity to redress the power balance by letting Harriet risk her neck (literally). It doesn’t hurt that Harriet’s unbent enough to let him give her an expensive gift once it’s brought home to her that other men might be interested in her for reasons other than to protect her. It also doesn’t hurt that at the same time, she accepts his gift of a dog collar to protect herself from strangulation. BDSM overtones FTW!

    “Brash” is a good way to describe Sophy. There’s a stereotypical Jewish character in there somewhere, but I hadn’t run across him yet before quitting. Thanks for your suggestions; some commenters over at the Romance Novel for Feminists blog had recommended The Grand Sophy and Venetia, and our lousy library doesn’t have Venezia, so Sophy it was.

    Heh, it’s no wonder — my comments aren’t exactly short! On that note, once you’ve read a good number and variety of het romances, I still think it would be instructive for you to read a few m/m romances for contrast. And I second your wish that The Girl and the Bear be about a husky hairy gay man and teenage girl rather than a teenage girl and a werebear.

  67. lawless
    Apr 22, 2013 @ 12:15:04

    @AJH (and every one else): I meant to include this link to a girl and dragon illustration in my prior comment and forgot.

  68. AJH
    Apr 25, 2013 @ 07:11:04


    The only thing better than pirates is an honest to God female pirate ;-).

    (fhaojufdklahd that sounds so hot)

    Ahem. I’ll be over here now.

    I always thought I was weird liking Sylvester – nobody else I’ve ever spoken to, and to be honest I don’t know many people into Heyer, has rated it. I’m secretly quite fond of Damerel actually – he’s a self-hating rake with a touch of self-irony, and I’m a complete sucker for self-irony. I find an underrated quality, but a deeply attractive one. But, yeah, Alverstoke (is that his name?) from Frederica can’t quite live up to her awesome, but he makes a creditable attempt I think :)

    And I am a huuuge Wolfe fan :) The Book of the New Sun is amazing.


    I’d gladly send you my copy of The Iron Duke but you’d have to trust a complete stranger on the internet with personal information and that’s a total no-no. Also, from just the comments you made here, I think you’d hate the hero with a fiery passion. I’d be really interested in Riveted, I think, since I really enjoyed The Iron Duke even with Rhys being a pillock so I’d love to read something with an actually likeable hero. (I was also slightly distracted by Scarsdale who is *lovely*).

    I was just pointing out that it doesn’t work that way for everybody.

    No, of course, I shouldn’t have thought quite a bit harder about what I was saying and the way I was expressing myself. It was completely rubbish of me but I was just a bit lost. It just ran so contrary to anything I would have expected to find (again, that’s my ignorance) that I basically failed to notice that different people, with different reactions, experiences and responses, exist in the universe :P Yes, I’m being slightly glib but I do honestly feel incredibly bad about it. And I will do better next time.

    I think my concerns about reaction versus evaluation pretty much comes down to what you’ve said – extremes aside, it’s incredibly easy for the two to blur. So people (myself included) are less likely to say “this style doesn’t work for me” than “this is bad writing and everybody should feel bad.” Like the enormous amount of bile that gets heaped on Rowling or Meyer, and the enormous amount pleasure so many people seem to derive from pointing out every repetitive construction or misused whatever. It’s like the show/tell Dystopia thing – I imagine that sort of thing happens because show don’t tell is hammered into you with bricks the moment you put a word on a piece of paper.

    It’s been a while since I’ve Wimseyed but I do remember the dog collar. So bizarre. And strangely charming.

    I can see why a feminist-aligned romance blog would recommend Sophy – even though she’s not an immediately likeable heroine for some people she has a lot of agency, I think, and I imagine that could be pretty refreshing.

    I have read some m/m romances as part of my frantic self-education programme (Sarah Frantz directs the steerage of my course) and obviously I’ve read quite a lot of queer literary fiction but that’s a different ball game entirely.

  69. CD
    Apr 25, 2013 @ 11:32:20


    “Ahem. I’ll be over here now.”

    You mean in your bunk ;-)? Not to encourage you, but the book’s indeed chock full of fun – here’s a review from this very site if you don’t believe me: Buy it – hell buy it three times over for the violence and the sex and the PIRATES. I owe you for making me waste the last few days rereading my sizable Steven Brust collection, not to mention now eyeing my Gene Wolfe. Bastard. I’m never going to get my bathroom done at this rate…

    Thinking about it, Damerel isn’t that bad – at least he has a brain and I remember really liking the interactions between him and Venetia, especially in the first half. However, I think I must have overdosed on world-weary rakes by that stage – and just rolled my eyes at yet another one: blah blah drinking blah blah shagging/orgies blah blah self-loathing blah blah blah… Sylvester, on the other hand, is just delicious: I loved how controlled he was, and then [wicked laugh] how he completely lost that control. Now where’s my copy?

  70. CD
    Apr 25, 2013 @ 11:40:31


    “I have read some m/m romances as part of my frantic self-education programme (Sarah Frantz directs the steerage of my course) and obviously I’ve read quite a lot of queer literary fiction but that’s a different ball game entirely.”

    Wow, all respect to you in all seriousness. I assume from your previous comments that you’re straight, and I can’t imagine any of my straight guy friends willingly reading an m/m romance – especially as m/m romances tend to be written explicitly for women…

  71. cleo
    Apr 25, 2013 @ 12:06:32

    @AJH: I think I saw on Meljean Brook’s blog that she’s writing Scarsdale’s (m/m) story, so there’s that to look forward to.

  72. AJH
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 04:33:16


    Weeee! Scarsdale was great. Or possibly he just looked especially shiny in comparison to Rhys, who was kind of a total idiot for most of the book.


    I agree world-weary rake is a probably a bit of a stereotype but it’s a classic for a reason, right? Also I think Damerel is a good spin on it, I mean he’s genuinely clever and funny and kind on the side, so you get a genuine sense of wasted potential about him. Also every time he tries to be a dick, Venetia totally calls him on it so he’s a remarkably un-knobby hero. He’s no Sylvester, I agree, but he’s okay in my book :)

    I bought The Iron Rose last night – I don’t know how soon I’ll get around to reading it (hopefully soon) but a Lannister always pays his debts ;) Had some trouble tracking down Brust though – the Khaavren Romances seem to have not made into e-book yet, at least not over here. *frowns*

    Also, I definitely don’t think I deserve credit for reading things :) I don’t really understand about romance in general to be able to speculate about its markets or its audiences. I suppose the majority audience of anything is going to be straight people because, err, there are literally more of them – but I’m not sure being the majority audience is necessarily the same thing as being THE audience, if that makes sense. Just to talk briefly about something I DO know about and am therefore moderately more comfortable in using as an example, the presumed audience of videogames is males aged 16-25, but actually a high proportion of gamers are women, and actually since devoted gamers tend to be made in adolescence the audience is ageing with the genre. So although a lot of men aged 16 -25 do play video games, the reality is the audience is a lot more diverse than that.

    I don’t really know, though. I suspect – like most things – it’s very complicated. And I know there’s intersectionality out the wazoo here but plenty of men do actually read romance – I just happen to be one who wants to talk about it (basically because it’s fun) – and a proportion of any straight-women majority audience are potentially going to be queer anyway.

  73. CD
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 05:26:31


    Yeah – you’re right about VENETIA: I do need to reread it and give Damerel his due. I read it ten years ago when I first started reading romances and when it seemed EVERY DAMN THING I read had a “world weary rake” as the hero, and the vast majority of them decided that there was no need for further characterisation. Be very very glad that we in the Dear Author community are saving you from those books – they are evil and will hunt you down and have your bones for supper…

    “a Lannister always pays his debts ;)”
    Sounds like a threat… What with your weekly reviews and the equally noxious comments from this community, my bathroom is just not going to done anytime soon, is it?

    “Had some trouble tracking down Brust though – the Khaavren Romances seem to have not made into e-book yet, at least not over here. *frowns*”
    Unfortunately not – 2SD:GAE! geo restrictions which is REALLY frustrating when most romance authors are American. I have a workaround with Kobo books – as long as you put down an American address (mine is the White House), they don’t actually check it against your credit card. Not great for credit card security but the books, the books!!

    “Also, I definitely don’t think I deserve credit for reading things :) ”
    Well, you deserve credit for going outside most straight guys’ comfort zone. It’s not the romance – most guys I know are much more romantic than their partners in real life, and secretly/not so secretly love the slushy stuff in the stuff they read/watch/play etc. However, maybe the guys I know are a bit more cavemen than I like to think, but although they have absolutely no problem with (male) homosexuality in principle, they get decidedly twitchy about delving into the details. And m/m romance are all about the details… Plus, most m/m romance nowadays is written by women for women, which is very different from queer fiction written by gay men.

    Anyway, stop doing the British male thing and accept the bloody compliment.

  74. CD
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 05:37:54


    BTW, I’m guessing from your comment above that you’re a FIREFLY fan. I just found out that Steven Brust wrote a piece of fanfiction which is available free from his website here:

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