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REVIEW:  Spy’s Honor by Amy Raby

REVIEW: Spy’s Honor by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

I picked up your fantasy romance, Spy’s Honor, because although the previous book in the series, Assassin’s Gambit (reviewed here and here), wasn’t perfect, it was entertaining and interesting. It turns out that Spy’s Honor isn’t a sequel to Assassin’s Gambit, but a prequel.

Spyss-HonorSpy’s Honor begins with the arrival of Jan-Torres, Crown Prince of Mosar, in Riat, the capital city of Kjall. Jan-Torres is not on Kjall for a diplomatic mission, but as a spy. Kjall, which has an empire and an impressive military, is currently prosecuting a brutal, expansionist war in Mosar.

As Mosar’s prince, Jan-Torres should be in Mosar, but as it happens he is also a shroud mage, capable of hiding his presence and anything else with an invisibility “shroud.” Jan-Torres accomplishes this through a telepathic link with his familiar, a ferret named Sashi with whom he shares a telepathic link.

Jan-Torres hopes to be able to meet with Ral-Vaddis, a missing spy who has not reported in a while, or if that is not possible, to find the crucial information Ral-Vaddis was close to uncovering when he last sent word to Mosar.

Also in Riat is the Kjallan emperor’s niece, Rhianne. When we first see her, Rhianne is sneaking out of the palace using its hypocaust system to go into the city and visit a disabled veteran she and her younger cousin Lucien are supporting via a “pension.”

Rhianne’s room is constantly under guard since her uncle Florian, Emperor of Kjall, believes that Rhianne is wild (this is belief is due not to any action of Rhianne’s, but to her mother’s decisions prior to Rhianne’s birth), and is strict with her as a result.

In fact, Florian insists that Rhianne accept the suit of his general Augustan and rule Mosar at Augustan’s side once the Kjallans have conquered it.

It is on the palace grounds that Rhianne first meets Jan-Torres, who through the aid of two Mosari slaves is masquerading as a slave named Janto. “Janto” is working in the garden when Rhianne attempts to learn the Mosari language from a book. He corrects Rhianne’s pronunciations and a tentative friendship between them begins.

Rhianne is attracted to the educated slave, and when Jan-Torres discovers that the Mosari slave women are being raped by the overseer, he approaches Rhianne about it and they work together, in conjunction with the women, to put a stop to these assaults.

Jan-Torres reveals his shrouding ability to Rhianne in the process and she begins to suspect he is not a slave at all, but a spy. Since she doesn’t want to bring about his death but also refuses to betray her country, she tells him he must leave Kjall in a matter of days or else she will turn him in to her uncle.

But a visit from Augustan, the man Rhianne must eventually marry, changes things. Augustan is cruel and Rhianne’s friendship with Jan-Torres has opened her eyes to his brutal practices in Mosar. When her cousin Lucien advises Rhianne to indulge in a fling before her unwanted marriage, Rhianne chooses Jan-Torres to be her first lover.

A turn for the worse in the war forces Jan-Torres to grow bolder and, shrouded with invisibility, he infiltrates the imperial palace without Rhianne’s knowledge in search of the information his spy never delivered. Will Jan-Torres be discovered by the Kjallans? And what will happen to Rhianne if he is?

Spy’s Honor has some things going for it but unfortunately it never captured my imagination in the same way that Assassin’s Gambit did. The main characters were nice people, Rhianne sheltered and sensitive but stubborn in hewing to her convictions, and despite his matching stubbornesss, Jan-Torres never turned into an alphahole.

As with Assassin’s Gambit, there is an almost breezy tone to the writing and while it doesn’t always fit with what is happening in a given scene, it still manages to appeal to me—a sure sign of a strong voice.

The worldbuilding was a bit more thorough in this book than was the case with Assassin’s Gambit. In addition to a description of a forest with unusual trees, there was a brief explanation of the three gods, the Soldier, the Vagabond and the Sage, and the battle tactics in the second half of the novel were as well-developed and impressive as mentioned during a previous discussion.

Other aspects of the world, though, felt underdeveloped to me. There wasn’t much in the way of descriptions of the imperial palace and I would have liked to gain a better understanding of how Rhianne’s magical ability to confuse people worked. I also prefer magical systems in which there are costs to using one’s magic, as I find it makes magic more believable, but such wasn’t the case here for either Rhianne or Jan-Torres.

The other problems I had with the book range from minor to major. First, Sashi, Jan-Torres’ ferret familiar, for all that he contained part of Jan-Torres’ soul and played an important role in the storyline, was a paper-thin character, with an obsession with killing but few other ferret-like or human characteristics.

Second, the sex scenes didn’t work that well for me. The greater part of this was due to the dynamics between the couple—Rhianne being an inexperienced virgin and Jan-Torres providing her introduction to lovemaking made for familiar ground.

A smaller degree of this was due to the language. Rhianne referred to her physical desire for “Janto” as a feeling like an “unscratched itch” multiple times. The first time I thought it interesting, but when it was repeated it became unromantic and jarring.

Third, the hypocaust was used too many times in the story.

Spoiler: Show

At one point the emperor discovered that one of the main characters had used it to their advantage against his aims, but even after that it was successfully used again.

Fourth, I thought Jan-Torres had too easy a time of it masquerading as a garden slave. I expected the overseer to recognize a slave he never acquired and expose Jan-Torres as a spy, but this never happened.

Fifth, I was discomfited by Rhianne’s physical attraction to Jan-Torres when she still believed he was a slave. She discovered the truth quickly, but before that, the difference in power between them made her lustful thoughts unsettling reading, as did the fact that neither Rhianne and Jan-Torres acknowledged that the circumstances made the attraction sketchy.

Sixth, even outside the sex scenes, the relationship dynamics were far less interesting in this book than the dynamics in Assassin’s Gambit. In the latter book, there was an interesting reversal of gender roles, with Vitala the assassin and later bodyguard to Lucien. Here, Rhianne was sheltered and innocent, a much more standard role for a romance heroine, and Jan-Torres had more life experience. That dynamic just wasn’t as interesting to me.

Finally, perhaps the biggest problem in the book was the absence of conflict from the first half in the book. Yes, Jan-Torres and Rhianne are on opposite sides of the war, but we don’t really see that affect their psyches that much. Jan-Torres says meeting Rhianne is what taught him that Kjallans could also be good people, but it’s not a transformation that is ever shown on page.

Jan-Torres has a backstory that nags him a bit but it doesn’t appear to be a significant trauma. The slave overseer who rapes the women is stopped easily. And I could go on. Every time a potentially interesting conflict–either external or internal–appears on the horizon, it’s batted away as easily as a fly.

As a result, by the second quarter of the book, I was bored. My reading stalled and I almost didn’t pick up the book again. And those other problems I mentioned? I probably wouldn’t have noticed all of them if I had been more absorbed.

Fortunately, in the second half, a significant external conflict emerges at last, and in the final third, there’s even (hallelujah!) a conflict between Jan-Torres and Rhianne. I enjoyed those sections of the book more, but I can’t say I was ever swept away.

I’ve read worse books than Spy’s Honor, but after the promise of Assassin’s Gambit, I can’t help but be disappointed in it. Because I like the authorial voice, I still plan to read book three, Prince’s Fire, but I think I’ll wait a bit. C-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

REVIEW: The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

Dear Ms. Davis:

Kaetrin of Dear Author alerted me to The Duke’s Tattoo after I had bemoaned the lack of tattooed dicks in the romance genre. Boy was I glad she did, because reading this book was crack in its purest form. Read this blurb and you’ll see what I mean.

After being grievously wounded at Waterloo, Jeremy Maubrey returns from war to find his new life as the tenth Duke of Ainsworth painful, dull and full of obligations. That is, until he wakes to find himself indelibly decorated in a mortifying place and mocking manner.

Though he cannot recall much of the hellish night when he was abducted and tattooed, he cannot forget the waif-like villainess responsible or her haunting eyes. Ducal duties must wait till he finds the culprit and takes his revenge.

Miss Prudence Haversham, Bath’s only female apothecary, knows she has a problem. A big, broad shouldered problem. At least she will have, if the tenth Duke of Ainsworth ever discovers she is to blame for tattooing him. Unfortunately, she meant to have tattooed the previous Duke of Ainsworth, who tried to debauch her and disgraced her with his lies. Worse yet, she learns this duke is one of four infamously implacable cavalry officers known as ‘The Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’

No sooner has the vengeful duke traced his abductress to Bath, than Prudence Haversham overturns the duke’s every expectation and intention. In turn, the duke proves himself an honorable and surprisingly forgiving man who earns the wary apothecary’s love.

YOU GUYS. This might’ve been the first blurb that caused me to click “buy” without reading the excerpt. The heroine is so pissed that she wants to dole out vengeance by tattooing her enemy’s dick. Points for originality. Except, you know, she ends up tattooing the WRONG DICK. How, you might be wondering, is that possible? The answer is just the beginning of the complete ridiculousness that the book spurts. Heh.

Our witless heroine, Prudence Haversham, is ruined in society’s eyes when the Evil Bro of the hero gropes her and then blames her for their skanky tryst. Asshole. Prudence’s douchey brother then forces her to live a quiet life in Bath, where she decides to set up an apothecary with two loyal employees. She then seethes and plots against Evil Bro (aka ninth Duke of Ainsworth) for the next nine years. Yep. You heard me. NINE FRICKING YEARS. So much for the kick-ass heroine I expected from the blurb.  In the same amount of time that How I Met Your Mother aired, all Prudence and her coherts do is talk about the gruesome tattoos ideas they want to imprint on Evil Bro’s dick. And just like HIMYM, Prudence’s plan of revenge ends in a complete disaster.

See, Prudence was really just talking-the-talk when she wishfully imagined mutilating Evil Bro’s dick. However, her employees actually take her seriously and kidnap a drunk Duke of Ainsworth. The problem? They kidnapped the WRONG Duke of Ainsworth, who happens to be the younger brother of the recently deceased Evil Bro AND one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (this group of ex-army buddies). Nice going, guys. Why doesn’t Prudence interfere? Well, this might answer that question.

“Mrs. Mason and Murphy barred Prudence from the room while they stripped the man and Mr. Hsieh shaved his lower belly bare and plied it with needles and ink.”

What. The. FUCK!!?? She isn’t even in the same ROOM while the revenge is taking place? What, is she suddenly too lady-like and gentile to witness the horrific act? Please pause while I snort mockingly in derision. Of course, when she finally realizes her awful mistake, Prudence is stricken with guilt and fear. But mostly fear. Apparently any guilt she may have about injuring some random dude is forgotten in the panic that she might be punished for her awful misdeeds. UM, HELLO! You deserved to be punished, lady! If you were dumb enough to tattoo a dick without checking the owner’s face to make sure it checks out, boo fricking hoo. But instead of falling to their feet and begging for forgiveness, Prudence and company dump Ainsworth in his garden and scamper back to the apothecary. Oh, and she also leaves a bottle of salve with him from her trusty apothecary.

Jeremy Maubrey, tenth Duke of Ainsworth and owner of many dogs, wakes up with a hangover and a throbbing, tattooed dick. All he remembers from the night before is a beautiful woman and her eyes. Lord, does he remember her haunting eyes. It only comes up every other page when he’s banging some chick and he thinks of this woman’s eyes mid-coitus. I was mostly impressed by the fact that he was capable of humping so many girls with his tender cock. Does anyone reading this know how long it takes a tattoo to stop hurting? I’m in pain just thinking about it.

Pretty soon he figures out that Mysterious Chick must be responsible for threatening his manhood and vows eternal hatred. He’s determined to find this wench and “make her rue the day she raised a hand against him.” Nice. It’s kind of like the opposite of The Little Mermaid. There, Ariel saves Eric’s life, Eric can only remember her gorgeous voice, and he is left with the desire to marry Pretty Voice Girl. Here, Prudence marks Ainsworth’s dick (and not in a good way), Ainsworth can only remember her haunting eyes, and he is left with the desire to metaphorically strangle Mysterious Chick. Goal of connecting this crackalious novel to a Disney film? Check.

I actually had a lot of sympathy for Ainsworth. Note the usage of past tense. That sympathy dwindled when I realized he wasn’t doing shit to find Mysterious Chick. Seriously. The most eventful thing that happened was that he got the reputation of the “Mayfair Stallion” for his supernatural loving powers. Clearly the tattoo didn’t affect his virility (even though he never let any of the women actually see his decorated length of passion). He only figured out Mysterious Chick’s identity when someone told him about Prudence’s amazing salves. Ainsworth’s genius brain connected the dots: ‘Oh, here’s a woman who owns an apothecary with salves. Hey, wasn’t there a salve with me the day after I saw Mysterious Chick?’ A real Einstein, our Ainsworth. It’s also hard to have sympathy for Ainsworth when he thinks of stuff like this:

“He wondered if Miss Haversham feared large dogs. If so, he should bring Attila. On second thought, all the ladies in his acquaintance found Attila terrifying. So, he concluded with an evil chortle, Attila must come.”

Screw you, Ainsworth.

Anyway, Ainsworth decides to enact his revenge. His grand plan is to buy the building where Prudence’s apothecary operates so that she will have to move out. He goes to Bath (where Prudence lives) and the rest is history. Boy meets girl, boy hates girl for tattooing his dick, girl hates boy for ruining her business, boy and girl both think the other is really attractive, sparks fly, conflict, some separation, eventual HEA, yada yada yada. I don’t want to spoil any of the shenanigans that takes place later in the novel. Trust me, it is as crackalicious as the first 20% of the novel.

Before I proceed, I do have a disclaimer to make. If you are the type of reader that would’ve thrown their kindle in frustration by the shenanigans I’ve just described, don’t buy this book. You can’t think too deeply about anyone’s actions or how stupid everyone is. Like that Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston movie, you have to Just Go With It. If you follow that advice, you will enjoy this book. It is a pretty entertaining read if you ignore all the annoying voices of reason in your head. Plus, I will fully admit my bias since I picked up this book with the sole intention of crack (tattooed dick, guys. I’m so easy). I love books that are bad for me. I’m masochistic that way. Also, this book is full of prose that makes a gal go WTF.

Presenting Exhibit A:

“Actually, he hadn’t felt much like himself since his metamorphosis into the ‘colorful’ Duke of Ainsworth, et cetera. Almost daily he had cause to regret leaving behind his carefree, caterpillar’s life as second son and devil-take-the-hindmost cavalry officer.”

I’m going to give you guys a minute to process this. See you in a bit.

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Are you ready yet? I don’t think so.

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Okay, boys and girls (but mostly girls), time to shut your gaping mouths. There are so many things to say that I’m not sure where to start. Wait, I do know. WHAT THE FUCK!?! Since when do the words caterpillar, carefree, and cavalry officer go together? Is this a way to incorporate alliteration? Remember those quizzes you took in second grade? The ones where there were a list of words and you had to pick out the one that didn’t fit? Here’s a tip to not failing: if there is a list containing the words caterpillar, cavalry officer, horse, and war, CATERPILLAR IS THE RIGHT ANSWER. In no universe would there ever be an option where ‘caterpillar’ and ‘cavalry officer’ belong in the same list. I dare you guys to come up with such a list.

This is a caterpillar.

This is a caterpillar.

 

This is a cavalry officer (Prussian, but who cares)

This is a cavalry officer (Prussian, but who cares)

 

Now what the fuck do they have in common?

Okay, calm down, Divya. Maybe this is just the continuation of the metaphor from the earlier sentence (“the metamorphosis”). Which doesn’t even make sense. Ainsworth doesn’t like being the duke. The dukedom is the butterfly. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to be a butterfly. No one wants to be a caterpillar. Not even a caterpillar wants to be a caterpillar. Trust me, the only memories I have of caterpillars are the brief ones before my male cousin stomped on them when we were kids. The point that I am trying to make is that the caterpillar’s only dream is to transform into a butterfly.

Well, okay, maybe this is a subtle reference to the fact that the tattoo is a butterfly (it isn’t. We don’t find out until the end what the tattoo actually is. It’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t DNF this hilarious book. Smart move by the author). And butterfly tattoos can be tramp stamps. Oh God. I’m really reaching, aren’t I? To the person who can come up with a reasonable explanation, I would love you for life.

You might be thinking, “Gosh, Divya. It’s only one sentence out of thousands. Don’t be such a snarky bitch. Why waste paragraphs in writing?” Well, this “one sentence” jerked me out of my reading and made me stare at it for twenty minutes. It was that spectacular. And the best part is that the entire book was full of stuff like this! I shit you not. The prose was confusing, slow, baffling, wonderful, and completely inane at times. Like there was this huge space devoted to how Ainsworth procured all his dogs. I think I shed a tear. I’d also like to point out that the tattoo’s description was hardly mentioned in the entire book (and when it was, it was really short). Forget the dogs. There should’ve been an entire CHAPTER about the tattoo’s colored glory. BTW, I refuse to spoiler the tattoo. If you wanna know that bad, buy the book. Or bribe me. Either option will work.

…In fact, I’ll make it a contest. Everyone, toss out your best guess in the comments. Since I’m broke, your reward will have to be the satisfaction of being the smartest kid on the block. Anyone who has read this book is excluded (sorry, guys).

Despite the occasional baffling chapter sentence word, the author did a great job of instilling imagery in my head.

Presenting Exhibit B:

“Excepting Smeeth, who fussed over his hair and person like a mother baboon nitpicking her young, the rest of the duke’s staff understood implicitly they should not dwell upon his infirmity.”

GUYS. Is there anything more poetic or moving than picturing a valet as a mother baboon? I’m telling you, my imagination was stretched for the better here. I could go on – oh, yes, I could – but unfortunately I must stop before writing something that would rival War and Peace and Gone With the Wind combined.

Despite my “Just Go With It” mentality, there were still two niggles out of MANY (I can’t list them all) that managed to probe my drug-addled brain.

1)    So when Ainsworth finds out that Evil Bro groped Prudence, he’s just like, “Yo. Evil Bro probs made a mistake. I bet you anything that he only touched your boob ‘cause he thought you were some slutty French maid. He didn’t know you were this precious gentile flower.” Like what the fuck? Did lower-class chicks in the 1800s come with a sign that said, “Grope me, salacious rapist! It’s socially accepted and encouraged!” Boy am I lucky that I didn’t live in those groping times. Then, like the fucking icing on the cake, they name their first born after Evil Bro. Argh.

2)    Prudence is tiny and dainty while Ainsworth is gigantic, broad-shouldered, and manly. I get it. The adjectives every other page weren’t necessary and not even my state of crack could get past it.

So what should my final grade be? Well, I will admit that the set up was damn amazing. Tattooed dick. I still can’t believe it. Execution was a C-. Entertainment value was a straight A for my masochistic soul. So I think I am going to compromise on C+/B-. Thanks again to Kaetrin, whom/who (I suck at grammar) I blame my lack of sleep on.

Best Regards,

Divya

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