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What Janine is Reading and Watching in Midsummer 2014

Gosh, it’s been forever since I’ve done one of these lists. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

gilded lilyGilded Lily by Delphine Dryden

I like steampunk and I’ve heard good things about Dryden’s Steam and Seduction series, so I decided to give Gilded Lily a try. The premise of the story is that the aristocratic heroine, Frederique aka Freddie, has a secret identity as a mechanic of sorts, and her butler masquerades alongside her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm.

Barnabas, our hero, hails from North America which in this world is an extension of Britain. Barnabas’ brother was a spy for Freddie’s father, a spymaster, and he disappeared. Rumor has it that was due to addiction issues, but Barnabas does not believe this rumor, so he volunteers to do espionage work for Freddie’s father as well.Unfortunately, the spymaster wants Barnabas to first prove himself—by following Freddie and reporting on what she gets up to.

Barnabas tries, but Freddie realizes immediately what he’s doing. They strike a deal—she’ll allow him to tag along if he doesn’t interfere with whatever she wants to do. Meanwhile, there are mysterious goings on involving other disappearances, a submersible, and a dangerous gangster, who may or may not be involved with Barnabas’ brother.

The characters are likable and the world fairly well-developed. I was also glad there was no instalust, but rather, that Freddie and Barnabas only gradually discovered their attraction. But I’ve been stuck at the 24% mark and I don’t feel compelled to read on. The reason is an absence of romantic conflict.

What I mean by this is that there’s no hint of anything that will keep these characters apart down the line, or even cause bumps in their road to romance. There’s external plot conflict aplenty, but at this point it affects Barnabas’ relationship with his brother, and Freddie’s relationship with her father, far more than their own relationship. Without a romantic conflict, the relationship feels perfectly nice, but not that interesting to read about. I may continue, or it may stay a DNF.

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Prisoner Lia SilverPrisoner by Lia Silver

Jane recently reviewed this paranormal romance, in which marine and werewolf DJ Torres (a hero who happens to be Filipino) is captured by a secret government group and held in their hidden facility in the middle of the desert. The agency wants to study DJ and threaten him into acting as their assassin. DJ’s wounded friend Roy is held elsewhere and he will be killed if DJ doesn’t cooperate.

The agency already has one assassin, Echo, whom they use in a similar way. Echo was genetically engineered by the organization as was her sister Charlie. But Charlie is being kept alive by medical treatments the secret organization provides and if Echo ceases to cooperate the agency will withhold Charlie’s treatments.

For this reason, Echo foils DJ’s escape attempt. But although she has tried to harden her heart and numb her feelings to survive her situation, she can’t help liking DJ. The organization is a common enemy to them both, but one that has the power to set them at cross purposes, so Echo fears trusting DJ and becoming involved with him.

As a werewolf, DJ needs to be touched and to feel connected, and he is attracted to Echo. Neither of them realizes the other’s feelings for a long time, and I liked the slow build up. I also really appreciated the absence of fated mates from the worldbuilding. And while DJ’s need for physical contact is nothing new in werewolf romance, I liked that the emphasis here wasn’t on sexual need, but on trust and affection.

Echo’s character was a little less well-developed. Her childhood sounded sterile, and there was little information given on which adults raised her and Charlie. Considering the people who ran the program were creepy and cold, it was amazing (and a little less than fully believable) that she and Charlie turned out as well as they did. Still, I enjoyed this romance, and the nice meta-humor that was sprinkled through the book via Charlie’s hobby of romance reading.

Prisoner is only part one of a three-part storyline, but I give it a B-.

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Night’s Slow Poison by Ann Leckie

Night’s Slow Poison, a short story available free of charge on Tor.com, provides another angle into Leckie’s world of the Imperial Radch. The science fiction story is written in third person and narrated by Inarakhat Kels, a security guard aboard a ship from the planet of Ghaon which is crossing a part of space known as the Crawl, which only the Ghaonians know how to navigate. The navigation techniques are a closely guarded secret which protects the planet from colonization.

Boarding the ship at the story’s beginning is Awt Emnys from the Gerentate, the grandson of an important Ghaonish matriarch who seeks to meet his illustrious grandmother. The Ghanoians aboard the ship, Kels included, know that the matriarch isn’t likely to give her non-Ghaonish grandson the time of day. Kels himself has been rejected by the upper classes of his world, to which he once belonged. Complicating the situation are Kels’ feelings for Awt Emnys, feelings driven by Awt Emnys’ resemblance to a girl Kels once loved.

For such a short story (around 6000 words), Night’s Slow Poison packs in a lot of elements. The worldbuilding includes ethnographic, sociological and mythic elements, and even a hint of romanticism and sentiment. It’s not a feel-good story though, and I’m not sure if readers who haven’t read Ancillary Justice will understand all the implications of the ending. Still, Leckie’s command of the short form is good, even if not at the stellar heights of the novel writing virtuosity she showed with Ancillary Justice. As short stories go, I’d give this one a B.

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And now, moving on to what has been on my TV screen:

game of thronesthPRCXYI02Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 1 – “Winter is Coming”

So, after multiple recommendations from a good friend, I finally decided to start watching Game of Thrones. Hold my hand, readers, I’m scared! In the first episode alone we have murder by way of dismemberment, execution by way of decapitation, conspiracy by way of incest, acquiring an army by way of forcing your young sister to marry against her wishes and be raped on her wedding night, and getting rid of an eyewitness by way of shoving a small child from a tall tower.

I’m not yet terribly taken with any merits this show might have, but I’ve heard from a couple people that it will get much better (yet worse) if I keep watching.



americansThe Americans, Season 1, Episode 1 – “Comrades”

Now this show is more like it, at least the first episode. In this early 1980s-set series, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play a seemingly all-American suburban DC married couple named Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. In reality they are deep cover Soviet operatives, but even their two kids don’t realize this, nor do Philip and Elizabeth know each other’s real names and backstories, even after a decade and a half in America.

Philip is in love with his wife, likes the US, and dreams of defecting, but Elizabeth is deeply loyal to the USSR and doesn’t return Philip’s feelings. This conflict comes to a head when they capture a Kremlin operative who defected and whom a disguised Elizabeth seduced as part of the capture assignment, but fail to deliver him to the ship that was to take him to Russia on time. Now the government is on alert, so Elizabeth and Philip hide this man in the trunk of their car.

The captured man offers them millions if they free him, defect, and reveal all they know about secret Soviet operations in the US. Philip is tempted, but Elizabeth would rather kill the man. Philip doesn’t know it, but long ago, when she was a cadet in Russia, the man raped her.

I will not reveal what happens, but despite the fact that we know there would be no show if they were exposed or if they defected in this first episode, “Comrades” manages to be taut and suspenseful, as well as romantic. The acting is strong and so is the plotting. The 1980s soundtrack is also a nice touch. I’m interested in seeing where  this show goes.


outlanderPOutlander, Season 1, Episode 1—”Sassenach”

I must be one of the few in Romancelandia who was not a fan of the book (I quit around page 750) , but I decided to give the first episode a chance because I did like some of writer-producer Ron Moore’s earlier work, most notably on Battlestar Galactica.

What I liked:

(1) Catriona Balfe as Claire. I felt that the actress captured Claire’s better qualities, like her interest in medicine and her desire to make her marriage to Frank work, while minimizing the knowing smugness of the book’s Claire. The English accent and period clothing also helped make Claire a more persuasive character—I never bought her as a 1940s Englishwoman in the book, and I still don’t entirely, but she convinced me a bit better here.

(2) The cinematography. The show had a great look partly due to the landscape of Scotland, where it was filmed.  The only scene that looked cheesy to me was the one where the druids danced at the standing stones.

The jury is still out on:

(1) Whether the show can make me care about its eighteenth century Scottish world—because honestly Claire’s relationship with Frank was interesting enough that I’d rather it stayed in the 1940s.

(2) Sam Heughan as Jamie. To be fair to Heughan, he doesn’t have that much screen time in“Sassenach.” He looks the part (gorgeous), but so far the character doesn’t have much in the way of complexity. Eye candy is nice but not enough by itself to sustain my interest. I’m hoping for some added depth from the writing and Heughan’s performance as the series continues.

My conclusion after watching the first episode is that while I still don’t love the storyline, I’ll probably tune in to the second episode.


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

18 Comments

  1. Darlynne
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 12:53:47

    Do you live next door to me, at least in my head? I have the Lia Silver book and Ann Leckie’s short story in the TBR pile, GoT first episode in the Netflix queue (I’m not alone, I’m not alone!), ditto The Americans. OTOH, I did enjoy Outlander the Book and watched the first episode on starzplay, but I don’t have cable so there’s no point in be coming obsessed.

    I’ll be interested to hear if Gilded Lily works out or if you give up. I love steampunk, but am becoming less tolerant of spending time on books that don’t speak to me, at least a little. Come to think of it, I haven’t read the third in Kate Locke’s series, which I really enjoyed. Must find out what happens to the queen. Thanks!

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  2. Statch
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 13:05:13

    Really like the addition of what you’re watching to this list. In theory, if people like the same books, they might like the same TV shows, right? I loved The Americans and am enjoying Outlander. We watched the 2d episode today, and I’m just starting the book (which I’ve had in my TBR list forever).

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  3. Ann
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 13:34:06

    I’m loving Outlander. It’s very good from the acting, photography and writing.

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  4. Emma Barry
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 14:11:26

    The Americans is one of my favorite shows! I can’t believe it doesn’t seem to have more buzz. The first season is very good and the second season is even better. I think it’s one of the most interesting portraits of a marriage since Friday Night Lights.

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  5. Janine
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 16:10:29

    @Darlynne: We must be good neighbors! (Also, Ann Leckie just won the Hugo Award for Ancillary Justice a few moments ago). If I go back to Gilded Lily I’ll probably post something about it, but if I don’t say anything more you can assume it stayed a DNF.

    @Statch: Thank you, yes, and that’s a good point!

    @Ann: I agree, the production values have been very good.

    @Emma Barry: I loved the first episode of The Americans. Good to hear the later episodes are great too.

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  6. Mandy
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 17:07:24

    Thanks for the heads-up about Night’s Slow Poison. Ancillary Justice was my favourite book last year and I’m looking forward to rereading it prior to the sequel coming out.

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  7. Janine
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 17:34:14

    @Mandy: You’re welcome! Ancillary Justice was my favorite book of 2013 too.

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  8. Miss Bates
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 19:05:00

    @Emma Barry: I’m so glad to hear this because I have The Americans S1 to watch after S1 of Orange Is the New Black. If you and Janine like it, I’ll like it.

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  9. harthad
    Aug 17, 2014 @ 21:35:15

    At last, someone else who doesn’t like Game of Thrones! If only we could find three more people, we could start a basketball team.

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  10. Lege
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 02:42:06

    @Janine- Wow, I am so happy for Leckie! Nebula, Locus, BSFA and now Hogo. She rocked scifi world. ;)
    And she deserved all the praise, Ancillary Justice is amazing.

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  11. Evangeline Holland
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 05:00:09

    I’ve been holding onto the pilot of The Americans for about a year; your enthusiasm has convinced me to leap in!

    I’m watching Outlander, but oddly enough, unlike True Blood/Southern Vampire Mysteries, I feel kind of meh about seeing the plot come to life. Maybe if this had reached TV a few years ago when I was still a huge fan? But I’m glad Outlander has finally reached screens after so many false starts. Its success bodes well for more female-led book-to-cable-TV adaptations.

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  12. Jayne
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 06:51:28

    @Statch: Yeah, I’ve been adding these to my reading lists for a while now.

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  13. Susan
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 12:05:03

    Another huzzah for Ancillary Justice. So glad it won the Hugo. I didn’t realize she had a short story out, too–will have to check out the Tor website.

    Sadly, Prisoner was a DNF for me. Maybe I’ll try it again at a later date.

    Not a big tv/movie watcher, but Outlander and The Americans will go on my watch list.

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  14. Janine
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 12:16:58

    @Miss Bates & @Evangeline Holland: Last night I watched the second episode of The Americans and I liked it less than the first. I still plan to watch more but keep in mind my enthusiasm was based on the pilot alone.

    @harthad: I didn’t like the first episode of GoT but I’m sticking with it for now.

    @Lege: Yes, I was happy for her too. Leckie has swept the SF awards this year; I think she got the Arthur C. Clarke too, and maybe one other?

    @Evangeline Holland: Re. The Americans, see what I said at the top of this comment. I’m glad I never read the later Outlander books so at least eventually the show will get to a storyline that’s new to me.

    @Jayne: I got the idea from your reading list posts. And also because I wanted to write about Outlander.

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  15. Janine
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 12:23:02

    @Susan: The bio on Leckie’s website states that she has short stories published in a few SF publications. I think they predate Ancillary Justice. Night’s Slow Poison is the only one of her short stories I’ve read.

    Sorry to hear that about Prisoner. Keep in mind I haven’t watched that much of any of the shows yet, but I hope you enjoy them!

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  16. CD
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 13:15:03

    I love GAME OF THRONES but then I’m a huge fan of the books. To be honest, if you’re already put off by what happened in the first episode, I’m not entirely sure if the series is for you – the violence and “bad things happening to good/innocent people” does not exactly dial down in future episodes. However, keep on it and see if the great characters and vividness of the world doesn’t hook you regardless.

    As for OUTLANDER – I’m with you. I got through the first book but it never really gelled with me. I always felt a bit sorry for Frank in the book, and to give the TV series its due, I also could have watched an entire series with Claire and Frank trying to find their way back to each other and build their lives post-war. In the book itself, I never really understood Jamie’s appeal: maybe this changes in future books but I never got him as a real character in OUTLANDER – he seemed more like a fantasy figure. However, maybe the TV series will flesh him out so I’m hoping I’ll finally get Jamie’s appeal.

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  17. Janine
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 14:38:55

    @CD:

    I love GAME OF THRONES but then I’m a huge fan of the books. To be honest, if you’re already put off by what happened in the first episode, I’m not entirely sure if the series is for you – the violence and “bad things happening to good/innocent people” does not exactly dial down in future episodes. However, keep on it and see if the great characters and vividness of the world doesn’t hook you regardless.

    Yes, I had that sense too — that the violence will only get worse–but I’m hoping other aspects of the world / characters / plotting will make it worthwhile, and I plan to close my eyes when I get to the worst of it.

    Agreed re. Jamie reading like a fantasy figure in Outlander.

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  18. Evangeline
    Aug 18, 2014 @ 17:48:27

    @Janine: @CD: LOL, there’s a lot of “everyone is in love/obsessed with Jamie or wants to be Jamie” in the series.

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