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REVIEW: Sunburst’s Citadel by Therese Nichols

Dear Ms. Nichols,

Since I only read 148 of the 443 pages that comprise your first novel, Sunburst's Citadel, there are a number of things I'm not qualified to say about it. I can't say, for example, how much the characters grow or change over the course of the book, or whether the plot takes exciting or unexpected twists and turns in the latter two-thirds of the book. For all I know, if I'd stuck it out, I might have been rewarded with something really wonderful, and if so, that's my loss.

What I can talk about, though, are the things I liked and didn't like in the first 148 pages, and the reasons why I did not make it to page 149. What attracted me to Sunburst's Citadel was the unusual setting, medieval India, and the fact that the hero, Karim, was a Moghul and a Christian, and the heroine, Shamsi (a name that means “sunburst”), was a Rajput and a Hindu. Cultural or religious romantic conflicts often add dimension to characters, and this book, I thought, promised to be something different from the same-old, same-old.

After an intriguing opening in which Shamsi, a child and a princess, was orphaned when a Moghul prince attacked the fortress in which she was born and raised and destroyed the harem which had comprised her entire world, my hopes for the book were quickly dashed when I encountered Shamsi again, this time as an eighteen-year-old singer about to perform without her veil for the first time. Shamsi's “grandfather” Gupta, the man who adopted her as a child, had lost a bet to an innkeeper, and the innkeeper insisted that Shamsi bare her face to the world as she sang. In the audience was Karim, the hero.

In my teens I read a lot of romances set in exotic places, and while I miss those settings, that doesn't mean I want to read something that feels as familiar and predictable to me as this book did. I easily guessed what happened next. Karim was captivated by Shamsi's face and voice. The innkeeper insisted that Shamsi pay off Gupta's debt with her body. Karim came to Shamsi's rescue only to want her for himself.

Perhaps I've read too many of these kinds of books. But it seems to me that the characters in this book are somewhat clichà©d and not all that realistic. Shamsi is beautiful and spirited, and a virgin despite the fact that she has lived for years as an itinerant singer of the lower classes, that she is of an age when (as Gupta thinks at one point) most women are already married with children, and that almost every man who lays eyes on her finds her desirable.

Karim is handsome and successful as a leader of Moghul soldiers who works for the prince who attacked Shamsi's family's stronghold. He desires Shamsi, but alternately likes her and mistrusts her, because she is female, and yes, his mother betrayed him so he thinks women are not to be trusted. At one point, Shamsi almost ends up sleeping with him on the pretext of a courtesan so that he won't think she is a horse thief. Another time, he gets angry and forces a kiss on her. But, this book having been published in the twenty-first century and not the eighties, he's instantly contrite.

Something that troubled me was that despite the Indian setting, Karim and Shamsi were both light-skinned. Karim's father was from “west of Constantinople” while Shamsi had inherited her mother's unusual blue eyes. In contrast, the innkeeper who wanted to rape Shamsi is described as “a fleshy man with a swarthy complexion” and as having “the pungent smell of body odor.” Right there I almost stopped reading.

I kept on, though, mostly because I wanted to feel that I'd given Sunburst's Citadel a fair shake. The section I read could have been subtitled “The Perils of Shamsi” as she is nearly raped, killed and kidnapped but Karim saves her more than once. I can guess that the prince who laid siege to her family's fortress is an evil villain who likely plays a role in Shamsi's life in the later sections of the book, too.

Although the rescue fantasy is not my favorite, it has worked for me on occasion, in books that used it to explore the psyches of their characters. And that is what was missing for me here, more subtle or astute exploration of character. Shamsi and Karim's differing religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds could have been great vehicles for revealing the depths of who these people were, but in the first 148 pages at least, these went almost completely unexplored.

Sunburst's Citadel did have some strengths. There were moments in which a little humor sprang between Karim and Shamsi and I began to care a bit about their relationship. And though I would have liked more complexity to the prose, I appreciated the fact that your writing was always clear. Here and there were some strong descriptions, such as this one:

It had been a long day's travel, bumping over the rutted road in the aging ox-cart. The rocky country, sparsely dotted with trees, stretched out interminably before her. Distant watercourses were outlined with thin ribbons of green.

There is also a haunting flashback in which Gupta remembers how he found the child Shamsi singing funeral songs to the charred remains of her dead mother. It's a powerful scene, the kind of thing I would have liked to read more of.

Had the characterization in Sunburst's Citadel gone deeper, and were it not for the ethnic stereotyping and the clichà©s, I might have read further. As it was, my impatience rose to the fore, and I give it a DNF.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. 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.

9 Comments

  1. Keishon
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 08:28:11

    Fingers were all over this one – everytime I went to the bookstore, girl. I nearly bought this one but something told me to…wait.

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  2. Janine
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 12:27:41

    The setting had so much potential that I really wish I had liked the book more. I appreciate the fact that Medallion is trying to publish books that are different from most of what’s out there, and that they took a chance on a book set in medieval India. I just wish that Ms. Nichols had done a better job of making her characters more unusual and real.

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  3. Keishon
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 13:39:18

    I snap up stories that feature something different and am disappointed when an author takes a setting or a set of characters and the reader finds out it that it’s only window dressing, it’s not the real deal. It’s all wallpaper. Lately, I’d been finding stories, like this, with great premises but poor execution. I appreciate the review and taking one for the team ;-)

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  4. Marg
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 13:59:49

    Interesting. I bought this book on the strength of a good review from a friend of mine. Haven’t started it yet though.

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  5. Janine
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 14:20:11

    [quote comment="23481"]I snap up stories that feature something different and am disappointed when an author takes a setting or a set of characters and the reader finds out it that it’s only window dressing, it’s not the real deal. It’s all wallpaper. Lately, I’d been finding stories, like this, with great premises but poor execution. I appreciate the review and taking one for the team ;-)[/quote]

    Yes, it’s always a disappointment when that happens. It’s interesting, authors often say that readers aren’t buying books with unusual settings but I know that in my case, when I don’t buy them it’s because the author is an unknown quantity to me, and I’ve had too many experiences similar to what you describe.

    I want the unusual setting, but I also want characters with depth, a unique plot, and sparkling prose. An unusual setting by itself isn’t enough to make me love a book, but from time to time (as with this book) I take a chance on a book because I am drawn to a setting I don’t see very often. Jayne is better than me about that. She loves books with atypical settings.

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  6. Janine
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 14:24:10

    [quote comment="23483"]Interesting. I bought this book on the strength of a good review from a friend of mine. Haven’t started it yet though.[/quote]

    Marg, is your friend’s review posted publicly? I would like to read it if it is; I always enjoy hearing other opinions about a book, even when they don’t match mine. I’ll be interested in your thoughts about the book as well, when you read it. It’s possible that since I didn’t finish the book I missed out on something good.

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  7. therese nichols
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 17:20:31

    Dear Janine,

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy my novel. Sunburst’s Citadel, but hey, you can’t win them all! In my writer’s group we read a book every month and only twice in a decade did we all like the same book.

    It’s interesting that you wanted more cultural and religious conflict because when I had my first draft edited (by a well-known author) (no-one at Medallion), she said readers wanted a love story, not a treatise on comparative religion, so I cut it out. You can’t please everyone.

    I was impressed how thoroughly you read the first 148 pages and feel you had many legitimate comments, but I would like to respond to some.

    Firstly, you were troubled that both Karim and Shamsi were light skinned. Well, that’s easy to explain. people from the north of India are much fairer than the Dravidians from the south. Karim was born of a European father and a Persian mother. Persians are Aryan, not Arab. (Hence Persia’s present name – Iran – from Aryan.) That’s why he’s light skinned.
    I’m sorry my innkeeper was swarthy. I just thought of the most unpleasant man I know and described him. And he has body odour!

    Secondly, the fact that the heroine is a virgin at the ripe old age of 18 seems to be a sticking point these days. I can only conclude that romance readers are such a lusty bunch it would never happen to them, but I know of several women who managed this feat – without the benefit of a veil and a grandfather who guarded them 24/7. I made Shamsi a virgin because it’s integral to the plot. (Read on to find out why!)

    Lastly, you went into my novel with a lot of expectations and I can understand you were disappointed they weren’t fulfilled. I didn’t set out to write a book of ‘subtle of astute’ character explorations. I wrote the kind of book I like to read – a fast-paced romance in a fabulous historical setting.

    You might be interested to know, yours is my first negative review. (It’s okay! I can handle it!) A lot of happyreaders told me it was ‘an exhilarating read’ (even with its cliches and rescue fantasies.) The setting, although ‘wall-paper’ to some, is a ‘visual feast for the senses’ to others. Susannah Blue wrote: “Therese Nichols’ descriptions … bring everything so vividly to life. In an explosion of the senses – you’re there! Even … the battle scenes with terrifying war elephants, or the hushed perfumed enclosures of the harem …” (Those scenes come after page 148.)

    I didn’t write what you anticipated (although, the evil villain prince does reappear in Shamsi’s life!) I wrote a story of romantic excitement. Have another go at Sunburst’s Citadel, Janine. Let go of your expectations. Go with the flow and enjoy the ride. (Excuse the cliches!!) The best is yet to come. Who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised.

    Best wishes,
    Therese

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  8. therese nichols
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 17:21:25

    P.S. What’s a DNF?

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  9. Janine
    Mar 06, 2007 @ 17:56:01

    Hi Therese,

    I’m glad that other readers are enjoying Suburst’s Citadel. And may I say that I think “you can’t win them all!” is a healthy attitude. Thank you for being such a good sport.

    What a shame that this author edited out the religious issues. She may be right about what the majority of readers want, but speaking only for myself, I usually love romances that deal with them.

    What troubled me about the skin tones was that I’ve seen enough of dark-skinned villains and light-skinned protagonists in books to feel that, even if there’s no intentional racist subtext there, it can come across that way. It’s something authors might want to consider.

    I think the reason virginity is a sticking point with readers these days is that we’ve read a lot of books with heroines whose backgrounds make their virgin state difficult to believe. Virgin widows, virgin mothers (through adoption), virgin harem girls, etc. It’s reached the point where I tend to question a heroine’s virginity unless I feel it is backed up really well by the heroine’s background.

    I understand your point about my expectations but I think they are part and parcel of my taste in books. I can enjoy adventures but ultimately I need to connect with the characters in order to be able to do so, and in this case, I did not. So I probably won’t read further.

    A DNF is a “Did Not Finish” grade or classification. I have mixed feelings about giving them out, but we had a discussion in the past here about it, and most readers felt that they would prefer that I write DNF reviews of books I don’t finish, because it gives them a better idea of my likes and dislikes as a reader, and whether or not my tastes match theirs. You find the discussion here at this link if you’re interested in reading it.

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