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JOINT REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

JOINT REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

moth and sparkJanine: When we got the review request for Moth and Spark, Anne Leonard’s debut romantic fantasy, Kaetrin and I were both intrigued by the blurb, so we decided to review it together.

Moth and Spark takes place on a continent where political tensions are on the rise. The hero of the novel is Prince Corin of Caithen, a small country with more powerful neighbors.

As the book begins Corin, the king’s heir, rides with a small group of military men through the Caithenian countryside. Corin is in a common soldier’s clothing and shouldn’t be recognized, but a dragon and its Mycenean rider stop him, and through the use of dragon power, force him to drink something.

The rider tells Corin that the dragons have chosen him to free them from their bondage to Hadon, the Emperor of Mycene. Dragon power will be on loan Corin until that goal is met, but Corin will not remember the encounter until his transformation is complete. The rider’s last words are a warning to Corin not to shirk this task; the dragons will be watching him.

We are also briefly introduced to Tam, the heroine, in the prologue, through a foreboding dream she has of the dragons’ old home ground, the Dragon Valleys in northern Caithen. The Dragon Valleys are now abandoned.

Long ago, the dragons lived free in Caithen, but the Myceneans found a way to enslave them and brought them north to Mycene. With the dragons’ powers at its disposal, Mycene turned into the empire it is today.

For years now Caithen has been a vassal kingdom to Mycene, and Corin and his father King Aram have sworn fealty to Hadon, so even if Corin remembered the dragons’ mission for him, it would be no simple thing for him to break his oath and free the dragons against Hadon’s wishes.

But Corin doesn’t remember it, and he has other concerns. On their journey through Caithen, he and his men observe the country people making signs to ward off evil, and then they are attacked by a band of warriors.

The attackers bear guns – “fire sticks” – which could only have come from technologically advanced Sarium to the east. Tyrekh, Sarium’s ruler, is hungry for land and power, and has long wanted to conquer Caithen.

Upon arrival at the palace in the capital city of Caithenor, Corin tries to report to his father about all that he saw. He is able to impart some things, but other words die on his tongue. For no reason he can explain, he is unable to speak them. His memories of the trip soon begin to dull.

Meanwhile, Tam Warin has been brought to the court of Caithenor by her sister-in-law, Cina, in order to catch a husband. Tam is of the middle classes but she has a chance at marrying a minor nobleman due to her father’s success as an exceptional healer and her brother’s fortunate marriage to Cina, whose father is a nobleman.

Cina wants Tam to make a good marriage, so she warns her to be very careful of the court’s machinations, and not to set a foot wrong. Tam’s exceptional beauty means men will try to seduce her, but if Tam is to marry well, she must not succumb.

But making an advantageous marriage isn’t nearly as important to Tam herself. She is fascinated by her new surroundings and one night while in her rooms, she observes a clandestine meeting between two unidentified men and sees a young woman, Alina, throw something across the courtyard to one of them.  Tam is careful to make sure they don’t notice her.

When lackluster weather keeps her from accompanying Cina on a shopping expedition, Tam explores the palace. Her tour of it comes to an untimely halt when a courtier named Cade dies in front of her. Before his death, Tam sees moths pouring out of his mouth, but the guard present does not see them.

Cade, delirious and mistaking Tam for another woman, accuses her of giving something to another man. Tam doesn’t know who, but she wonders if Cade’s accusation could have something to do with the secret meeting she witnessed.

Tam keeps the vision of the moths to herself, and tells only one person—the palace physician—of her suspicion that Cade died of a poison called blood-dust.

When the doctor conveys this news to the king, Aram and Corin realize it is likely, given the poison’s origins, that Tyrekh of Sarium is behind Cade’s murder, and that it may be a warning to them. It is Hadon’s role to protect Caithen from a Sarian attack, but can the Mycenean Emperor be trusted to do so?

Soon after this, Corin encounters Tam at the palace library. Tam doesn’t think to censor herself, and she chides Corin for dropping secret documents in her presence. A charmed Corin asks her to meet him for dinner the following day. Tam agrees.

A powerful attraction develops between the two, and Tam asks Corin to keep their new relationship secret.  Corin obliges because once it is known he is courting her, the others at the palace will either try to use Tam to their own benefit, or target her with jealousy and rancor.

Corin cannot marry a commoner, even one as well-connected as Tam. His marriage needs to be a strategic one, to consolidate power rather than please his heart. If Tam becomes Corin’s mistress, her reputation may be damaged.

But Corin and Tam are fast falling for each other, and as the dragons’ pull over Corin grows, it becomes clear that Tam understands it better than another woman could. Then too, all signs point to an approaching war.

How will the political landscape, the dragons, and the potential for violence and loss of life affect Tam and Corin’s relationship, and what impact will their romance have on the outcome for Caithen?

Moth and Spark isn’t a perfect book—I have multiple issues to pick with it—but for me, it was a greatly absorbing one.

The worldbuilding was a bit confusing to me because of the use of names like Mycene (with its similarity to Mycenae) and Illyria, another ancient Greek place name. When I tried to orient myself in relationship to those words I couldn’t because the map of Caithen was hard to place in relationship to Europe, as were some of the other place names used in the book. Also, the society was constructed more like eighteenth or nineteenth century Europe, with carriages and Sarian firearms in use.

Kaetrin: I agree Janine. I’m not super familiar with classical studies but even I’ve heard of Mycenae and Illyria before.  It was a bit jarring – because the world in Moth and Spark is not our world at all.

Janine: Yes– the novel is set in a Europe-inspired continent but the countries don’t, as far as I can tell, correspond to specific places in Europe.

Still, I enjoyed all the politics, both between nations and between individuals in the Caithenian court. I liked the dragons which owed much to Anne McCaffrey’s dragons and riders, but had enough qualities of their own that this felt more like an homage than a ripoff.

Kaetrin: I’ve not read McCaffrey, so this wasn’t something that struck me.  I did like the dragons and their riders though – although there was an inconsistency late in the book I’m having trouble reconciling and in general I would have liked a lot more of the dragons.

Janine: I think the prologue lead us to expect more of the dragons. I wanted more of them sooner.

While the worldbuilding isn’t as detailed as in some fantasy novels, I think it is strong enough to satisfy a lot of readers if they approach this as a romance in a fantasy setting. I was drawn into the politics but they weren’t so complex as to overwhelm the romance at any point.

Kaetrin: I found the politics and court intrigue fascinating. I felt like this was most of the book (apart from the romance) because the dragons didn’t play a huge part in the story until the end.  (They have key roles in various parts of the book but the story isn’t about dragons really).

Nevertheless, I was completely drawn in by the politics and machinations. I found it twisty enough to keep my interest and get me thinking but not so much that it was impossible to understand.

To add to that, the romance was interwoven very well into the court intrigue and it is clear that Tam is quickly valued by Corin for being able to think quickly and be clear-headed and sensible.  It was a refreshing change for me as a reader too.  I am really tired of heroines jumping to silly conclusions.

Was he already obligated to some other woman? The pang of apprehension she felt was strong enough to warn her that she was in more danger than she had supposed possible so soon. Firmly, she told herself not to make guesses about such things. He had other things on his mind, she had seen that and he had told her.

Janine: Yes, that was nice.

The worldview expressed in the novel jarred me on occasion. This was a society that prized marriages for women so I understood why sleeping with Corin could present a conflict for Tam (though contradictory information is given about this; we are told in Corin’s POV that if she’s thought to have seduced him, it could “jeopardize her standing” and that her reputation is “at stake” in this, but also in Tam’s POV that “since he was who he was, she would likely be exempt from the usual scorn heaped upon a man’s mistress, at least in public. A future husband would not consider her used goods […]“). There were times when I felt the novel was bending over backwards to assure me that Tam wasn’t a loose woman, and it felt unnecessary.

There was also a point in the novel in which Corin visits a poor, crime ridden neighborhood and thinks that “Humanity invariably sorted itself, and some people were the dregs.”  This read like a throwaway line and since at other times he had kinder thoughts for poor people, I got over it, but the way it was worded took me aback.

Kaetrin: I didn’t particularly notice this in the story.  I thought he was pretty enlightened for a prince. He seemed to have the people’s well being at heart and wasn’t afraid of hard work and his sense of duty was very strong.  His distaste for idle indulgence was one of the things he and Tam had in common.

Janine: The hard work was a quality I really liked about Corin. When we are in his POV, the narration was terse and while that choice doesn’t always work for me, I thought that here that choice worked beautifully for his character. It conveyed the tension and pressure that he was under; the weight of his responsibilities and expectations of himself. All of that added to his appeal.

Kaetrin: There was a scene when he is casting off a former mistress where I thought he was pretty harsh – but then Corin wasn’t perfect and I liked that he wasn’t.  He certainly had his reasons for being callous on that occasion and he explained them well enough to her. His flaws (this being only one of them), conversely, helped me like him more – they made him more accessible for me.

Janine: I had forgotten that scene with the mistress. I can’t say it helped me like him but some of his other imperfections did – more on that later.

There is something to be said for a book that is extraordinarily readable. Moth and Spark was hard to put down, and kept me turning the pages very late into the night. Whereas many books suffer from sagging middles, here the middle section was perhaps the strongest part, because that was where the romance between Corin and Tam was situated.  Like you, I loved the court politics and the way they affected and were affected by Corin and Tam’s budding relationship.

Kaetrin: Their relationship was very fast-growing and usually, this would be a problem for me as I’m not a fan of instalove.  However, here, the world was different to ours so I felt that the rules didn’t apply in the same way they would for a contemporary novel.  Also, there was a delightful amount of conversation and interplay between the two. I feel like I got to see them fall in love. Their dinner in the Terrace Room in particular was a big plus for me.

They were attracted to each other from the beginning but they also thought about their relationship with care for the other person.  They didn’t jump in wildly and they weren’t irresponsible.

Also, it is clear that they each have particular gifts – and they are needed for Corin to complete his task of freeing the dragons.  So I imputed a kind of magical attraction to their pairing – in fantasy this works well for me.

Janine: I didn’t do that. The quick attraction worked better for me with Tam’s character because she responded to it with some caution. With Corin’s character I felt he realized he loved Tam too quickly and I felt a little cheated as a result, though I do agree that Terrace Room scene (their first date) was lovely.

Kaetrin: The middle of the book was definitely the strongest for me too.  It took me a while to get into.  It starts off with the dragon prophecy (for want of a better word) and then there’s hardly anything about dragons. Then Tam is dreaming and that initially mystified me.

Janine: That dream was confusing but I don’t mind some confusion in the beginning of a novel, especially in fantasy or SF where there is a new world to get to know. I agree the pace picked up once they met, about one fifth into the book.

Kaetrin: It took a while before things started to gel in my head.  But, as you told me Janine, once the protagonists were spending time together, things became much more interesting and compelling.   Corin and Tam were so clever together. I loved their mutual respect for one another. It doesn’t sound sexy but it really was.

She had made her choices, set herself on her course, and that was the very thing he most loved about her. She would not be swayed from what she thought in her core was right and necessary. Not even if he did command her. She was stronger than that.

And here, where Corin asks Tam to undertake a dangerous task:

“I think it will be very, very dangerous,” he said. He was sterner than she had ever seen him. “You could be lost, or you might set something free. I don’t want you to do it at all. I think we were lucky last time.”

“But you’re asking me.”

“You might say it’s my duty to ask,” he said, with a small, bitter laugh.  He let go of her hand. “I can’t let love protect you. But it is absolutely not a command. You can say no. I hope you do.”

How hard that must have been for him to say, all of it. “You know I won’t,” she said gently.

“I do know that,” he said. “I’m letting you choose your risk, because that is the only thing I have to give you. But please, Tam, don’t do it just because you think it would be cowardly not to. Use your reason. Make a decision that would make your father proud.”

Janine: That was a great scene. One thing I love about wartime romances is that sense of larger events engulfing the characters and at the same time magnifying the romanticism of their relationship. Having to put the duty to save others ahead of self and want can do that and I felt it did here.

I liked Corin’s admiration for Tam a lot, but sometimes it got to be too much. I think it could be argued that Tam is a Mary Sue. She is beautiful, intelligent, has unusual and unexpected powers, almost everyone adores her, and those who don’t are either unsympathetic characters or jealous of her. And yet despite all this I couldn’t help liking her.

Kaetrin: Oh yes, me too.  Tam was practically perfect in every way but she was so clever and sensible and quick – I couldn’t help liking her either.  She did have a bit of a mischievous streak in her – it gets her into trouble sometimes but it was another of her charms.

Janine: I liked Tam’s level-headedness and practicality even when overwhelmed. She didn’t let power go to her head, but nor did she hide her strengths.  When war came she showed herself to be a competent survivor – no easy task, and even at her most exhausted, she didn’t shy from or avoid the realities of the situation. For all these reasons, I found her heroic.

Corin wasn’t quite as heroic, but I liked that he felt fear and self-doubt. In romance we encounter many books that equate strength with an absence of fear. Corin doubted his own strength, and part of his journey was finding it. There were times I wanted a little less self-doubt from him, but it grounded his character in reality, so I wouldn’t have wanted him to have none.

His best quality was his understanding that he had a political role to play. No matter how much he loved Tam, he didn’t forget his duty to his country or the dragons, but no matter how embroiled he was in his duties, he also didn’t forget that he loved Tam.

Kaetrin: I thought the ending was less strong and kind of anti-climactic.

Janine: Do you think this was partly because a couple of the key developments in the conflicts with Hadon and Tyrekh took place off page? I thought that was both believable and odd. It would have been overkill for Corin and Tam to be at the heart of all of these, but at the same time, I’m not used to seeing big things shake out without the main characters’ involvement.

Also, I thought the epilogue was three times longer than it needed to be.

Kaetrin: Yes, much too long.  It felt a bit like a Status Quo song there for a little while.

As for why the ending felt a little disappointing, I think it was because it had been built up (at least in my mind) to be somewhat more epic than it actually was.  I didn’t make the intuitive leaps that some of the characters did – and it was those leaps that led to the resolution. I was still back at plan A.

Additionally, I did have a couple of questions at the end that I don’t feel were answered or, answered sufficiently, in the text.  Given that the dragons were not free, how was it that they were able to help Corin as much as they did?  And the other question is too spoilery for the review I think.

Janine: I think the dragons were better able to help because of other events later in the book (I don’t want to spoil these).

Kaetrin: One other niggle: there was a section in the book where Corin is secreted away learning about dragon-riding and practicing his swordplay.  While I understood that to go into detail here would derail the momentum of the story, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that this section was only a couple of paragraphs.

He was learning rider skills fast—everything from understanding dragonspeech to staying strapped in while the dragon turned sideways to checking for scalemites…

I wanted more dragons!

Janine: That was a shortcut, no doubt.  One of things I liked best is that Moth and Spark is pretty darn romantic for a novel outside the romance genre. Despite its flaws, I think it is a book that could have a wide appeal to readers of romance.

Kaetrin: Yes, I think fantasy readers might be less forgiving of some aspects of the book.  The romance was very satisfying.  I think those who liked books like Warprize (Elizabeth Vaughan) or the Tairen Souls series (CL Wilson) would like this one.  In the end, I’d say it’s more successful as a romance (the epilogue, though too long, was quite romantic) and, good as a fantasy story but not as strong in that department as something like Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold).

I wanted to ask you Janine what parallels you saw between Moth and Spark and Pride and Prejudice. The author’s website says that she was heavily influenced by P&P (and it is mentioned in the acknowledgements at the end of the book as well).  I didn’t see a lot of it, but I wouldn’t consider myself an Austen scholar (I haven’t actually read the book the whole way through but I have seen the BBC version many times!)  I did see some parallels in the language. Here for instance.

She had no expectations of anything lasting; in her experience, men were fickle creatures, falling in love with every fresh set of handsome eyes while expecting the women to be stalwarts of loyalty.

But not really in the story. What about you?

Janine: I’m a long, long way from an Austen scholar myself. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice just once. The only parallel to P&P I saw in the story was in Tam’s levelheadedness and willingness to tell Corin what she honestly thought of him despite his higher status, and in the fact that Corin was attracted to her because of that.

What grade would you give Moth and Spark? While I enjoyed reading it, it has its share of flaws.

Kaetrin: I’d give it a B – because I’m mainly a romance reader and the romance here worked for me.  I think those who read it mainly for the fantasy might experience the book differently – if I were grading as a fantasy, I’d probably say a B-/C+.

Janine: I’d rate it a C+ as a fantasy, but as a romance it’s a B- for me.

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REVIEW:  Cold War by Keira Andrews

REVIEW: Cold War by Keira Andrews

Dear Keira Andrews:

Both Sirius and I are fans of sport romances, so when Sirius told me that she was reading an m/m sport romance (on figure skating in the Olympics, which couldn’t be more timely), I was intrigued. Then she told me that one of the characters was South Asian and I couldn’t resist checking it out. I’d read an earlier Andrews sports romance that featured tennis players that I remember enjoying, so we decided to do a joint review.

Cold War Keira Andrews

Sirius: I love figure skating, I have been watching it for years and when I saw that a Russian figure skater was one of the main characters in this novella, the deal was sealed. I had to request this book. I also have to state that being from that part of the world, I will always have a soft spot for Russian skaters, but I also admire and cheer for Americans and Canadian skaters and many others when I feel they are deserving of my cheers. And I like when a sport romance actually shows at least a little bit of the sport, rather than just stating that the characters play the sport and then concentrating on their relationship and nothing else. In this book we definitely see the skaters actually performing – we see a couple of practices and some of the competition and I thought it was beautifully described and well researched.

I am not an expert in figure skating – as I said before I have just been watching it for years — but what I know about the sport I thought was described correctly. I have my doubts about certain things but that is more connected to my expectations than definitely incorrect research. For example, when we meet Dev and his partner Bailey for the first time, they are upset about the Russian pair taking gold away from them. They are upset because Mikhail’s partner Kisa fell during their program and while Dev and Bailey might have made a minor mistake during landing, neither of them fell.

There have been plenty of complaints about the judging in the figure skating over the years. I am sure some of the complaints have been justifiable and changes are needed, but I have never and I mean never seen an international competition where the pair (or a person in singles competition) won when the winner fell and their competitors did not. I am not saying that this could not happen, but I would argue that this would be something extremely out of the ordinary. (P.S. Well, what do you know: theJapanese skater took a gold in men singles competition even though he fell twice in Sochi. Never say never. I would still argue that his situation– after a flawless short program with an amazing score–was different from what the author was trying to introduce in this book, but I do have to eat my words since he fell twice and still won).Of course I have seen situations where several couples made minor mistakes and  the judges decided that one mistake was not as minor and of course the losers were always unhappy about it. We all see competitions when several people fall during their programs and then of course judges have to decide who won amongst those athletes, but the example which is described in the beginning IMO took the argument to a ridiculous extreme.

And we hear Dev complaining about how soulless the Russian pair’s program was and how the judges had been overscoring them for years, but I just wrote it off to sour grapes and proceeded with the story. Hey, at least he admits that their technique was impeccable. I was thinking that as an observer I knew that in the pairs competition technical elements are extremely important and often more important than artistic component (contrary to the dancing competition), and considering what happens soon after the initial setup I could hardly take Dev’s opinions about Mikhail as a competitor as reliable.

Sunita: Both the opening conflict and the description of the Russian dancers felt a bit stereotypical and over the top to me (for the reasons you give), but I figured that it was a way to get the story going so I groaned a little and went with it. I would really like to put to rest this “soulless but technically perfect” stereotype about Russians and other good competitors. It smacks of cultural relativism and it’s just not true. But it’s a common shortcut and I kept going. And as you say, we are into the lust action pretty quickly.

Sirius: Apparently Dev and Mikhail hate each other so much that in chapter one when they are in some competition before the Olympics in Kyoto, Japan, the Grand Prix I think, they have an argument in the locker room which turns into insta-lust and a reciprocal handjob and it’s all very graphic. Apparently they could not forget about that handjob for years, specifically till the next Olympics. Or actually I am not sure whether another Olympics had passed in between, I actually think that the writer squeezed Sochi Olympics in between the interval and then makes them meet again in the fictional Olympics in Annecy. As I said I could be wrong – I was not clear on whether four or eight years passed between their kiss and the main Olympics event described in the book.

Sunita: That was confusing to me too. Not the lust, although that happened really fast. But then these are young men who don’t get a lot of opportunities to date and who have to stay mostly in the closet for sports reasons when they’re being monitored during training and competitions, so the idea of pent-up lust exploding like that was kind of believable. But I wasn’t sure about the timeline either. I think maybe the Olympics here were supposed to be happening at the same time as Sochi, but Annecy was moved to Sochi. I’m really not sure. There are references to sports (like slopestyle) which are new this year, and the competitors are older but still in their 20s (Dev is 29).

Given the book is novella-length, I suppose a fight-turned-mutual-orgasm scene is as good a way to get the setup rolling as anything. If you like explicit sex scenes, this one provides a fairly good, graphic, description.

Sirius: Their romance resumes (or shall I say begins) in Annecy, because really one quick encounter and thinking about how much they hate each other or how much they are attracted to each other for year or two does not really count as a romance in my book, especially since they barely spoke to each other in Kyoto.

I thought the excitement and atmosphere and their eagerness to win was really well done. I thought the situation which Russian athletes are facing if they do not win the Olympics was also well done – Soviet times, now Putin times – did they come full circle? Sure looks like that to me.

Sunita: I liked the inclusion of ethnic and national diversity in the story a lot. Dev’s last name, Avira, didn’t really sound right to me but I don’t know as many Kerala surnames as I do other for other parts of India. The mother is stereotypical but her dialogue is pretty well done (I could hear her sing-song nagging in my head as I read). But authors, you do not have to have all your Indians eating idli/dosa and biryani at their feast dinners. Really. We have other dishes. And we don’t usually eat biryani and dosa at the same meal.

The Russian stuff actually bothered me a little. I defer to you on the authenticity feel because I wouldn’t catch those kinds of errors. But there is a section of dialogue after Dev and Misha have gotten together again in Annecy that made my eyes roll. Apart from the fact that they are talking politics after sex (is that really likely as pillow talk between 20-something Olympic athletes?), Misha describes Putin’s Russia in very basic, stereotypical terms, although the description of gay oppression rings true to the present. But his father’s views on Communism felt off:

“My father says it’s like like Communism without … He seemed to be searching for the right word. “Without ideals. Not for the greater good this time.”

I can’t imagine an average Russian from the Brezhnev-to-Gorbachev era (when he could have been drafted into the quagmire of the Soviet war in Afghanistan) unironically describing Soviet Communism as “for the greater good.” It just felt like another stereotypical shortcut and it threw me out of the story. I imagine most people won’t care, but I just thought it was unnecessary.

Sirius: Most importantly, the romance just felt too fast for me – I mean I understand that the writer tried to deal with it by having them compete side by side for years and I guess thinking about each other for years, but since they did not really realize that hate means the underlying attraction that did not quite count to me as long term tension. Opinions may differ on that.

Sunita: I agree totally. We went from insta-lust to more lust, which was OK. But then they start to fall in love, in about a week, without talking to each other or spending time together. I didn’t buy it at all. Not because it wasn’t possible, but because there was nothing on the page to show me it was happening. They fight, they have sex, they think about each other, they have sex, they fight, and then they’re in love heading for their HEA. Right.

Sirius: I have to give props to the writer for using Russian words and sentences perfectly . She thanks someone with Russian name in the beginning of the book and it definitely showed – just lovely. Any time Misha uses Russian word, or sentence (not that often, do not worry, but it is used several times) it was used perfectly. I think any time the writer needs to use the language foreign to them they should use native speaker’s help. I think I loved Misha naming his dog “Zoloto” heh. My grade is a C+.

Sunita: The Indian parts were pretty good; at least he was Indian and from a state fewer people know about at that, so I agree Andrews seems to have done her homework and I was glad for the diversity. Overall though the story felt rushed and the transitions between the different parts of the storyline romance were pretty clunky. But for this time of year, it’s a timely and quick read. My grade: C-.

 

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