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REVIEW:  The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig

REVIEW: The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig

Dear Ms. Willig,

At this point in my reading of the “Pink Carnation” books, I don’t bother to put much effort into checking out the blurb because I already know I’m going to read the book. So beyond noticing the exotic sounding flower of this book’s title, I waded into it relatively blind. Recently we’ve been discussing older heroines who “still have it” so I was delighted that Miss Gwen – she of the fearsome parasol – is the heroine this time out.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren WilligForty-five year old Gwendolyn Meadows has been the official chaperon of Miss Jane Wooliston during their two year stay in Paris as well as being a member of the League of the Pink Carnation. It’s been a perfect cover because, after all, why would anyone suspect innocent looking Jane or foreboding looking Miss Gwen of being spies for England? During one of her chick-in-pants nighttime excursions following spy master Tallyrand, Gwen overhears his instructions to one of his agents to find the legendary missing Jewels of Berar in order to lure the Ottoman sultan into an alliance with the French.

Upon returning to their home, she learns from Jane that Jane’s younger sister has gone missing from her boarding school. Hoping it’s just a girlish prank, Gwen reluctantly agrees with Jane that they can’t rule out the possibility that Agnes might have been kidnapped by someone who knows who and what Jane is. Hey ho for England.

There they learn that Agnes is still unaccounted for and together with her friend and roommate Lizzy Reid, has been gone for almost two weeks. They also meet William Reid, late of the East India Army, who is the father of a brood of legitimate and illegitimate offspring. Stunned by the fact that his youngest daughter is missing and his eldest daughter is not living the life he had thought she was, William joins in the hunt for the two girls, the missing jewels and the guarded heart of Miss Gwen Meadows.

Meanwhile, in present day England, Eloise and Colin continue their own search for the legendary jewels which are said to have been at Selwick Hall as well as working out how far their relationship has progressed in the face of Eloise’s upcoming return to the US.

I love that the first glimpse we get of Gwen is of her being dashing, daring and having a blast in her role of a spy. She delights in what she’s up to and she does it well. By day the young French fops are wary of her expertly wielded parasol in defense of her charge but by night she prowls the streets of Paris, climbing up onto balconies and eluding anyone who tries to stop her. The one thing Gwen fears is being buried alive again at her priggish brother’s country house, living the life of maiden aunt sufferance.

William is a former military man who now fondly imagines that his days of fighting are behind him and a future of retirement with his daughters lies ahead. His dismay and horror at learning the truth are both comic and heartbreaking. He realizes that his daughters are stronger, far stronger, than he ever imagined and that one of the reasons they are so resourceful is because of how he’s been content to relegate their care to others and enjoy the bonhomie of his military mess in India.

To his credit, once he discovers what his benign neglect has caused, he’s all over fixing it – and doesn’t excuse himself – but Gwen has some pointed questions with which she skewers him. She also demonstrates her remarkable abilities with a sword parasol. Another thing I like is that Gwen and William each admire the other physically yet any serious love making is delayed until an appropriate time. Gwen doesn’t tackle a half-dressed William while he’s recuperating and William doesn’t jump Gwen while they’re escaping from the orgy. Ahem.

But are these two right for each other beyond the fact that they’re both “of an age?” It’s William who sees beneath Gwen’s assumed hard exterior to the woman who fends off emotion. He’s also stunned – and more than a bit pissed – that none of the young Pink Carnation set seem to realize Miss Gwen is anything other than someone who is amusing and to be tolerated. “His Gwen,” and that thought leaves him all warm and tingly, is so much more than that. For this I’ll almost forgive his lamentable lack of “Father of the Year” actions. In William, Gwen finds a man of honor who isn’t hampered by what society thinks, who finds the woman he wants and who goes for her.

In modern England, Eloise’s final months of working on her dissertation before having to return to the US for a contracted teaching position are winding down but not without some fireworks. Colin’s aunt has determined that the bad blood between Eloise’s English boyfriend and his cousin/step-father needs to be dealt with and has sent them all back to Selwick Hall with a flea in their ears. They are to work together to try and find the Berar jewels or else!

It’s a bit of a relief to not have Colin and Jeremy continually at each other’s throats this go round and hopefully the ultimate outcome of the search signals improved relations among the relations. I’ll be eager to see what will come of Colin and Eloise and whether Eloise will be stuck with whinging undergrads or not.

The 1805 story ends with some upheavals to the League which promise an interesting next book. Will Jane do what I think she might? And with whom will she do it? I’ll be staying tuned. B+



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REVIEW:  Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

REVIEW: Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

Dear Ms. Elliott,

I loved the first novel in your Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Magic. It introduced us to an alternate earth in which the ice shelf never receded, the Empire of Mali fled out of Africa and formed an alliance with the Celtic tribes, and colonialsm never happened the way it did in our own history. Cold Magic told the story of Catherine Barahal, who grew up in a family of spies and who, in place of her beloved cousin Beatrice, married into a powerful clan of cold mages.

Cold Steel by Kate ElliottThe second novel, Cold Fire, however, left me enthused and unsure. I’d gone in wanting more adventures of Cat and Bee. What I read instead was a story in which Cat and Bee were jerked around and betrayed by various men. And while I understood the underlying critique of the patriarchy, it just wasn’t what I’d been expecting. Those mixed feelings made me less confident about the final novel, Cold Steel. Would it be like the first novel, which I loved, or the second, which left me ambivalent?

Nevertheless, I wanted to see how Cat and Bee’s adventures would end, so I picked it up. Thank goodness I did because not only was the story what I’d wanted, it was a great conclusion to the trilogy.

Cold Steel opens with Cat desperately wanting to go after her husband, Andevai, who has been abducted by her father, the Master of the Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, she can’t because she’s also wanted for the murder of a queen. (The details of both these situations are covered at the end of Cold Fire.) She has to face the accusation but while the empire who lost its queen wants her blood, the colony where she makes her home wants to use her as a figure to rally behind. This is all well and good, but she has things to do, places to go, and husbands to rescue.

But even after Cat reunites with Andevai, further conflict awaits them. Revolution has come to Europa. The voices against the oppressive rule of the cold mages grow louder, and the armies of Camjiata have taken advantage of the situation. Throw in the machinations of the spirit world and a disagreeable man from Cat’s past, and she has her hands full.

I was excited to see Cat and Bee go globe-trotting in this one. Even though they don’t spend the entire book together (due to Cat having to go into the spirit world on multiple occasions and Bee’s inherent nature not being compatible with the landscape), the cousins spent enough time going on adventures and getting into trouble that my desire for interactions between female characters was satisfied. As far as I’m concerned, the fantasy genre needs more stories like this — female friends going on quests together and driving the adventures rather than following a male hero around or being a sidekick.

I also liked that the conflict between Cat and Andevai took on a different form. It wasn’t due to personalities clashing. This is not the beginning of their romance. Nor was it due to drawn out romantic insecurities or the introduction of a love triangle. Some series do this to their main couple in later books and it turns off many readers.

Instead the conflict was caused by their respective families. Cat’s father is the Master of the Wild Hunt. That is a definite issue on multiple levels. But the more immediate conflict was brought forth by Andevai’s family. In Cold Steel, the mansa of Four Moons House gives Andevai everything he’s ever wanted and because of Andevai’s nature, this traps him in the most effective cage possible. This puts strain on Cat and Vai’s relationship because for all their talk of revolution and changing the ways of the mage houses, there is a true risk of Andevai giving into temptation and becoming everything he hates. The question is whether Cat will stand by and see if he becomes the man she hates or remains the one she eventually fell in love with.

I loved that while the story is told from Cat’s POV and revolves around her adventures, we catch glimpses of Bee’s. Her story intersects and aligns with Cat’s but she has her own life. She becomes an activist speaker for the revolution! How great is that? She’s perfect for it with her looks and her gift with words. She also sleeps with multiple men and not once is she slut-shamed for it.

What I’m less thrilled about: Drake. Drake is the man who took advantage of Cat in Cold Fire and coerced her into having sex with him in order to be cured. He makes a return in Cold Steel as Camjiata’s top mage. His obsession with besting Andevai and vindictiveness towards Cat are one-note and unsubtle, and there was a lot of it. He’s the bad guy. We get it. (How do we know he’s the bad guy? He slept with the heroine when she was incapable of giving proper consent!) I suppose when it comes to antagonists, I prefer multifaceted characters with complicated motivations like Camjiata or the Master of the Wild Hunt.

Other than that, there are many other background things to like: the gender fluidity of the dragons, the question of what form revolutions should take — outright rebellion or change from the inside, the various ways women show their strength and influence. There’s a lot to like here.

I know many readers shared my opinions — adored the first book and felt let down by the second book. But if you count yourself among that number, don’t let the second book stop you from picking up this one. I think it lives up to the promise of Cold Magic. And if you’re new to these books, know that it’s a completed trilogy, which is something not often said about the fantasy genre these days. B+

My regards,

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