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REVIEW:  The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

REVIEW: The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

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Dear Ms. Pearson,

Amazon listed your YA fantasy novel, The Kiss of Deception, as one of the best young adult books of the summer and I remembered enjoying your earlier book, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, so I requested The Kiss of Deception at my local library.

What can I say about this book? Its beginning was a letdown but by the end I was riveted. And it had almost nothing in common with The Adoration of Jenna Fox except for the theme of deceptions and secrets. It is also a darker book than its predecessor.

The Kiss of Deception begins awkwardly. The opening paragraphs, in seventeen year old Lia’s POV, is portentous:

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.

Honestly, when I first read this it struck me as heavily melodramatic and by the end of the first chapter I was tempted to stop reading altogether. But now that I’ve finished the book, I see double meanings in these words and they make a lot more sense to me than they did at first.

In this first chapter, we learn that seventeen year old Lia (short for a string of four names that ends in Jezelia), Princess of Morrighan, is about to be married to a prince whom she has never seen, from Morrighan’s neighboring kingdom of Dalbreck.

Even worse, like all first daughters, Lia is supposed to have a gift for knowing the future to bring to her marriage. But Lia has never seen evidence of such a gift and she is being forced by her parents to marry under false pretenses.

The reason for the marriage is that the “barbarians” from faraway Venda are beginning to encroach on Dalbreck and Morrighan. Neither nation can defeat the Vendans alone, but united by this marriage, they would be able to accomplish it.

A wedding kava, a temporary drawing, is applied to Lia’s back. At the last moment her mother touches Lia’s shoulder, where the lion of the kingdom of Dalbreck is drawn, intertwined with the vines that represent Morrighan.

Lia has other ideas though, and she escapes with her lady-in-waiting Pauline. The two girls ride into a nearby forest and plant misleading clues along the way. They sell jewels and trade their two horses for three donkeys before they arrive in Terravin, a village where Pauline knows an innkeeper who once took her in.

From the first sight of Terravin, Lia feels at home. She decides to take on a new life as a commoner and insists to Berdi, the innkeeper, that she’s not too aristocratic to work as a maid in the inn’s tavern.

Lia does not realize she’s been followed by two men. One is the Prince of Dalbreck. Before their wedding day, Lia, who mistakenly thought him much older than she, wrote him a missive, “I should like to inspect you before our wedding day.” The nineteen year prince did not comply, but now he realizes he should have. Injured pride and curiosity cause him to follow Lia alone and incognito.

The other man who follows Lia is a young assassin who hails from Venda. The assassin’s past is shrouded in mystery but the little we readers know about him is that he’s had a bad experience with royals elsewhere and was taken in by the Komizar, the leader of the Vendans, who trained him to be a killer.

Now the Komizar wants all hope of an alliance between Morrighan and Dalbreck scuttled and has sent the assassin to kill Lia to ensure that. The assassin has a month before he has to meet with four other killers he’s traveling with—a group that includes a ten year old boy.

(The assassin and the prince’s names are given, but due to occasional chapters in their viewpoints initially titled “The Prince” or “The Assassin,” many readers may not guess which of the two is the assassin and which is the prince for quite a while into the book– a technique that generates considerable suspense when Lia later begins to fall for one of them. One is named Kaden and the other Rafe, but I won’t say which is which.)

The two guys quickly ascertain Lia works as a tavern maid and enter the inn at the same time, sitting at the same table. They witness Lia dressing down a soldier who harassed Pauline, and realize Lia must be the princess. In typical YA fashion, Lia is attracted to both boys, but she doesn’t realize who they are.

Shortly afterward, the assassin has the opportunity to kill Lia but her kindness to him stays his hand. But he still has a month left until his rendezvous with the other assassins, and he’s sure another opportunity will present itself.

For a while, life in Terravin appears idyllic. There are some problems, like the fact that the part of the kava Lia’s mother touched won’t wash off her shoulder, a wrong conclusion Rafe and Kaden jump to when Lia has a visitor, Pauline’s unexpected pregnancy by a man whom Lia senses may be dead, and the arrival of another assassin sent by Morrighan’s Scholar, an advisor to Lia’s father from whom Lia stole two rare books.

But all these concerns seem trivial in the face of something that happens around middle of the book. This involves big spoilers (including revealing which of the two guys Lia falls for), but I can’t discuss the book without mentioning it, because it creates a huge tonal shift in the book and also involves a couple of elements which may be triggering for some readers:

Spoiler: Show

Shortly after Lia has fallen in love with the prince, her brother’s young and pregnant wife is killed by the assassins working in tandem with the assassin. Lia’s brother is devastated and vows revenge on the Vendans who killed her. Lia feels that her evasion of her duty to marry made this killing possible, and she resolves to return home and marry the Prince of Dalbreck, little realizing he is her suitor.

The prince does not reveal his identity, but asks Lia to await his escort on the road, and rides away to meet with a few of his fellow soldiers. But the assassin also learns what Lia is planning, and before Lia and Pauline can reach the prince, he and his fellow assassins kidnap Lia and take her on a journey to Venda. Pauline tells the prince what happened, and he decides to follow Lia into danger with a small group of his own men.

I would never have guessed what to expect from this book, and the sequels to follow, based on the way it began. The first half is flashback-heavy, and some of the backstory conveyed seems trivial, such as the way Lia got her name (And also, why Lia? I couldn’t help but think of Star Wars’ Princess Leia). In fact, details such as this later come to matter.

It was also hard for me to care about Lia at first. She escapes her arranged marriage with no concern for how it will affect the political situation facing her country, partly from a refusal to enter into a marriage by deceiving her husband, but more because she wants freedom and to be loved for herself rather than for her title.

While these are understandable reasons for most people, I didn’t understand at first where she got these ideas from. It takes a long time for the mention that her brothers married for love to arrive, and without it (to some degree even with it), it seems odd that a princess would have such notions.

Then there is the matter of the gift Lia is convinced she doesn’t have. Why do only first daughters have it? This seemed silly to me. It’s also clear that Lia does have intuition about some things, such as the fate of Pauline’s lover. Hints come to her over and over, and she ignored them. Why? Both these things annoyed me, but when the answers to these questions finally came, my annoyance disappeared and I was satisfied.

The love triangle too, initially seemed like it was going to tread predictable YA ground, with two boys vying for Lia’s attention and affection at the same time. Although occasionally there was a chapter in one or the other’s POV, at first I had to remind myself which was the one I thought was the assassin and which was the one I theorized was the prince, since they didn’t seem to differ that much. But then came the twist at the midpoint and this expectation, along with many others, was utterly subverted. I don’t think I will  see Rafe and Kaden as similar from here on out.

The first quarter of the book reads like a standard issue YA, and if I hadn’t read and liked The Adoration of Jenna Fox, I might have quit right there. The second quarter is a sweet village-based story, with a romance that develops perhaps too fast. But then come the latter two quarters and wow, is that a totally different story. One where the heroine’s strength becomes truly impressive and very bad things happen to people she loves.

If it was hard for me to care about Lia at first, I was entirely on her side by the end of the book. We witness her maturation from a girl who is guided by personal concerns into a young woman with a spine of steel.

If it was hard for me to care which boy Lia would choose at first, I’m firmly in one camp now, but can’t say more without spoilers.

This may not be the book for readers who don’t want to put up with a slow-to-catch-fire beginning and with the novel’s seeming flaws. But to readers who are willing to make the initial investment for the riveting second half and for the rest of the series, I recommend this book. B-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Betrayed, Betrothed and Bedded by Juliet Landon

REVIEW: Betrayed, Betrothed and Bedded by Juliet Landon

betrayed-betrothed-and-bedded

THE GAME OF LOVE IS A DANGEROUS ONE IN THE COURT OF HENRY VIII…

Betrayed by an ambitious father, forcibly betrothed to the handsome yet enigmatic Sir Jon Raemon and soon to be bedded by the covetous King Henry, Virginia D’Arvall is the female pawn in a masculine game of desire, power and lust.

Ginny is determined to keep her honor, but in these dangerous courtly games, she will need to have her wits about her like never before. Will she realize that in Sir Jon she may just have all the love and protection she needs to survive?

Dear Ms. Landon,

Recently I’d been thinking of how long it had been since I read a Tudor era book which lead me to try and recall what I might have in my TBR piles and files to satisfy my era itch. Then Lo and Behold a scan of the current Harlequin Historical offerings yielded this cover and (the slightly cringe worthy title) “Betrayed, Betrothed and Bedded.” Perfect timing. It’s also been a while since I read an arranged marriage plot. This trope usually only works for me in a historical and I like it best without any Fated Mates stuff so the book was a double treat.

First off, I thought it had good period feel. There’s cold, sweat, lots of laces to deal with on the clothing, slow travel, loyal retainers, bulky headdresses, not much mention of bathing unless one was hot and sweaty and travel stained, arranged marriages and a lusty king. It’s also a sad view of childhood and the way most parents would view small children as better off barely seen and not worth much interest. Of course the way parents manipulated and ordered even adult children around is hard to imagine these days. Marriages are power and dynastic unions in which love has little part.

Intrigues are front and center and the flavor of every day with the Howard family angling for power again while the nasty Thomas Culpeper tries to shove Ginny under the King’s nose in place of the woman he loves? lusts after? However half of Ginny’s family won’t win any awards for the way they tried to slide into favors based on the King’s plan to turn her into his mistress once she was safely married. The way the other half attempts to shield her from the King’s bed lead to some chilling scenes of frightfully close calls and fears for their ultimate safety.

The descriptions of life at court have a “you are there” vibe which allows us to see how the vapid sycophants who surrounded the king were at his beck and call while they schemed and plotted. It seems that court life was an endless round of courtiers attempting to fill their days and amuse the King. I also enjoyed the sympathetic view of Anna of Cleves and have always wondered if she ever realized how lucky she was not to have caught Henry’s interest. To me, this stuff was the true strength of the novel.

The romance and relationship of Jon and Ginny felt weaker. When they first meet, Ginny feels she’s fallen in love at first sight. Later thoughts of Jon lead me to believe he felt the same way. A socially advantageous marriage Jon enters instead then causes Ginny much heartache before his wife dies in childbirth. Then she becomes snubs him at court before their marriage is arranged. Ginny then weathervanes about how she feels for Jon. It’s almost “in this chapter I’m supposed to hate him” followed by “oh, now I love him.” But she is a young woman with little experience in men or falling in love so I suppose it makes sense even if it does get annoying trying to keep track of which way she feels today.

I also got tired of the “Big, Dark Secret that Jon can’t possibly tell her until he feels she trusts him” hanging over the story. When it’s revealed, it does make sense why he would wait to tell her something that could be used against him – after all she is young and not as adept at hiding her feelings from other courtiers. And the dark politics swirling around court wouldn’t lead to easily trusting when tomorrow you could lose your head. Still the fact that we come so close to the truth yet no one fills Ginny in on Jon’s first wife felt a bit of a tease after a while.

My final grade is a bit of this crossed with a little of that. The romance is frustrating as it seems to circle back around over old ground a few times before finally getting home. But the behind the scenes view of a spoiled King to whom one did not say no and how events and lives could turn on a penny and said King’s whim was truly frightening. B-

~Jayne

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