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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:  The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings

REVIEW: The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings

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Dear Ms. Cummings,

I think we’ve reached that stage where post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels are being labelled something else to circumvent disenchantment. I obviously have thoughts about this because given the flood of such books over the past few years, readers can spot them no matter what you call them. The Murder Complex is being touted as a futuristic thriller but don’t believe it. This is a dystopian, albeit more action-packed than we’ve grown to expect from the subgenre.

Now I like action. I think many dystopian novels could have been vastly improved had there been more of a balance between external action and internal monologuing. But balance is exactly what The Murder Complex is missing. Except in this case we swing wildly in the other direction to all action and little meaningful character development.

First, we have our two viewpoint characters: Meadow and Zephyr. (I don’t even know where to begin with these names.) Meadow lives on a houseboat somewhere in futuristic Florida with her father, older brother, and little sister. Zephyr is an orphan who, from what I’ve been able to gather, is charged with picking up garbage around the city. But wait, here’s the twist! Meadow was trained by her fisherman father to be sociopathic killer. As for Zephyr? Well, he’s a sleeper assassin whose mission is to kill randomly picked citizens as some convoluted form of population control. If you’re beginning to raise your brows, just wait. I haven’t even gotten to the worldbuilding yet.

In fact, I don’t even know how to explain the worldbuilding. While I’m not a fan of the Infodump School of Worldbuilding, giving bits and pieces of the setting via the narrative only works if they make sense and form a cohesive whole. From what I was able to put together, there was a plague at some point. Then a teenaged genius (Meadow’s mother, naturally!) finds a cure involving nanotech and the world is saved! Except the nanotech means that disease and injury are no longer things that happen and the population gets out of control. Resources have to be carefully controlled and rationed by the government, here called the Initiative. This led to the formation of the Murder Complex (translation: the sleeper assassins) to control population growth. On top of that, I’m fairly sure there was some sort of war that razed the earth because everyone lives in the city and doesn’t venture out. Also, there are pirates and crazed, garbage-covered mobs that roam around attacking people. (Why? Just because!)

There are other elements I’m omitting here because they venture into spoiler territory but while I’ve done my best to make sense of the worldbuilding, trust me when I say the execution is random and disjointed at best.

There are elements that sound like they should make for an interesting story. Meadow’s genius mother, Lark, is missing and presumed dead but she casts a long shadow over our heroine’s life. Responsible for the cure that saved humanity, and later doomed it, Lark was a key member of the Initiative and the mastermind of the Murder Complex. What happened to her? Did she betray the Initiative? Was she killed because the government found her? There’s great potential for the mystery of Lark but what actually happens in the book is both underwhelming and ridiculous.

Similarly, Zephyr falls instalove with Meadow. Why? Because he’s been dreaming of her for a long time. Meadow is his silver-haired dream girl, you see. (I’m choosing to believe “silver” is just a frou-frou way of saying “sun-bleached” or “platinum blonde” so please let me retain that delusion if I’m wrong.) That’s… okay, I guess, but this gets a weird connotation because Lark is the one who raised Zephyr and trained and programmed him into being a sleeper assassin in the first place. Seriously, Lark’s voice is the one he hears in his head when he gets his orders to kill. And Meadow got her “silver” hair from Lark. It’s weird, right? Does Zephyr dream of Meadow because there’s some unexplained connection to her via the programming done by Lark? Or does he dream of a younger version of Lark? I feel uncomfortable about this either way.

Ultimately, The Murder Complex fails for me because of a simple reason: the characters. Lots of things happen. So many things happen over the course of the book, in fact. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it because I didn’t care at all about any of the characters. Not Meadow. Not Zephyr. When I don’t care about the protagonists, it doesn’t matter if they’re wanted by the government or being chased down by pirates. And it certainly won’t hit me hard when I learn the (not all that surprising) truth about Meadow’s mother.

The Murder Complex gets compared to La Femme Nikita and Hanna, and I can see why. It’s full of cinematic-style action and violence. But I love Hanna because I loved the characters as well as the action and violence. And there is no getting around the fact that a book is not a movie. You can do things with the written word that you cannot do with a movie and vice versa. Namely, especially in the YA genre, the ability to get into the characters’ heads and get a strong sense of their personality and feelings. I think The Murder Complex might have forgotten that along the way. D

My regards,
Jia

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