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REVIEW:  Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

REVIEW: Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

In our archives is this review by our own Amy of Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby. The BookPushers also have a review and Has has been recommending the book to me for ages. It’s been almost a year since its publication, but I finally picked up Assassin’s Gambit, a fantasy romance set in a late 18th/early 19th century technology level version of the Roman empire. Assassins-Gambit

The assassin of the title is the heroine, Vitala Salonius. Vitala comes from Riorca, a small country subjugated by the Kjallan empire. The Riorcans are under Kjallan rule and many are enslaved in Kjall, so as the book begins, Vitala is on a mission to assassinate Lucien Florian Nigellus, the emperor of Kjall.

The Riorcan resistance organization known as the Obsidian Circle has assigned her this task since Vitala was a young girl, and prepared her for killing Lucien before it was known he would be the one of the emperor’s sons to take the throne.

The Circle believes that killing Lucien will trigger a battle for power between contenders with little claim to the succession, and this will throw Kjall into disarray, enabling Riorca to overthrow Kjallan rule.

To this end, twenty year old Vitala, Kjallan-looking and the product of a Kjallan military man’s rape of her Riorcan mother, has been trained not only in seducing men, breaking the magical wards that protect them while they are distracted by orgasm, and executing them, but also in catarunga, a strategy game Lucien loves.

Twenty-two years old and missing a leg due to an earlier assassination attempt, Lucien is a brilliant leader on the battlefield. He’s also an enthusiastic catarunga player, and every year he invites the winner of the Kjallan catarunga championship to his palace and challenges that person to a game.

Vitala is the current champion, and the first of Lucien’s invitees to best him. They play a few games and she issues a subtle invitation to her bed, where she intends to carry out the assassination despite an attraction to Lucien, almost a liking for him, and an appreciation for his clever mind.

Just then Lucien must travel with troops to confront bandits plaguing a Kjallan city, but he invites Vitala along. While they are having sex in his tent, two things happen. First, Vitala experiences a post-traumatic stress flashback to her first experience of seducing a man to execute him, and second, Lucien is attacked by a group of men in a coup meant to overturn the leadership of Kjall.

The men drag Lucien out and decide to take turns raping Vitala. While alone with the first of them in the tent, Vitala kills that man during his rape of her. She then realizes that the Obsidian Circle’s information is incomplete. Perhaps another Kjallan has a strong claim to the Kjallan throne and killing Lucien will only make the succession easier for that man, not harder.

On impulse, Vitala kills Lucien’s captors, fakes Lucien’s death, and helps an injured Lucien to escape the military encampment, only to force Lucien to head north with her, in the direction of Riorca. Lucien agrees because despite Vitala’s lies, he deduces that she is from the Obsidian Circle and to retake his throne, he needs to ally with them and obtain access their spy network.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s hard to discuss it all,  but I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the dynamic between the characters.

What I loved about it was that though strong-minded and clever, Lucien was neither brawny nor domineering. His disability was real and impacted him physically when he wasn’t atop a horse. His prosthetic leg pained him and didn’t solve all his problems via magic. He also didn’t strike me as being quite as proficient at killing as Vitala, and I think it could be argued that her magical powers were stronger than his as well.

Some of Lucien’s countrymen viewed him as weak because of his disability, or had no respect for him. But none of this prevented him from thinking strategically and commanding well in the field. None of this stopped him from showing a ruthless side to his enemies when he had to, or a softer side with Vitala.

Vitala meanwhile was no fake assassin. Her past was very dark, and she could probably out-kill every character in this novel. This may not be a skill to be proud of, but it runs contrary to the way women are usually portrayed in romance fiction and when combined with Lucien’s characterization, it made for a truly fresh dynamic between the two characters. They really were equal; this wasn’t a case of one constantly besting the other.

In fact, Lucien was more vulnerable to physical harm for a good part of the book, and Vitala served as his bodyguard, protector and rescuer during this portion. Later in the novel, Vitala’s is surrounded by people who distrust her and her psychological trauma comes to the fore. At this point Lucien is able to repay her with care for her feelings.

In her review, Amy says that there wasn’t enough detail given to visualize the world and I agree with that sentiment. I wanted more visuals and also, a deeper sense of the cultural differences. The magical system was fascinating but I would have loved to learn more about how the objects used by the characters were imbued with magic and see this process in action too. There was a lot of swearing “godsdammit” but no real sense of the gods or their mythology.

Amy also talks about the way Vitala waves away her rape. I came to the same conclusion about this—that it fit Vitala’s character. Not only is she trained in putting aside her personal wants to sleep with her marks in order to kill them, but she is also a type of soldier and therefore cannot afford to focus on trauma while in the field.

Her PTSD with regard to her training is something she cannot suppress, and here I really appreciated that her mental illness was not cured. She figured out ways to cope with it, but it didn’t magically disappear.

Vitala insisted throughout the book that her training was her choice, and made no apologies for what she was. But she was only a teenager when she was trained in killing, so there were questions in my mind about how much of this truly was her choice, and how much of her statement that it was her choice indicated that she couldn’t fully perceive how limited her choices had been, as a young person born of rape and of two enemy nations/races.

The difficulties Vitala faced since childhood aren’t ignored. Full-blooded Riorcans are blond while Kjallans have dark hair, so Vitala’s hair color marked her as an enemy to her countrymen and countrywomen. Using hair color instead of skin color to indicate race difference means that skin color doesn’t come up in the novel, though.

This book is not for the faint of heart; a lot of bad things happen. Characters are discriminated against. Characters are raped, killed or do horrible things. The flashbacks to Vitala’s childhood reminded me of some of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling books where we see the Psy characters’ childhood training in the hands of people who sought to use them.

Yet despite this, the tone of the book feels almost breezy at times. A fully realistic, gritty, in depth treatment of all the issues that come up here would have made the book at least twice as long and much tougher to read.

There are multiple problematic aspects —the slavery issue isn’t solved nor is it explored that much. The ramifications of rape and of recruiting children to kill are explored more but not fully either. But nor are they treated thoughtlessly, and for the characters to fully reform and entirely change their thinking by the end of the novel would have been too hard to believe.

For a debut this book is strong. It kept me turning the pages and was hard to put down. I thought Vitala began to like Lucien too early in the novel and that he trusted her with sensitive information sooner than was warranted, but a big part of what made this book work for me was the balance of power between the characters, which shifted so many times and in such interesting ways. Between that and the fact that the main character were not the archetypical dominant alpha hero or the archetypical “virtuous” heroine, I’m giving this one a B-.

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REVIEW:  Baby, It’s Cold Outside by HelenKay Dimon

REVIEW: Baby, It’s Cold Outside by HelenKay Dimon

Dear Ms. Dimon,

I’ve enjoyed your Harlequin Intrigue Romantic Suspense books for years, I thought your recent Cosmo Red-Hot Read was great fun, and one of your contemporaries for Carina landed on my Best of 2013 list.  So when I saw your first release in a new series for Samhain I requested it sight unseen. This is always a somewhat dangerous proposition, and here the characteristics I’ve come to depend on were mixed with character traits and story twists that I found quite off-putting. My reading experience was divided between my usual feeling that I was in very good hands and “oh no, they did not just go there.” I’ll pick up the next one, because a HelenKay Dimon contemporary is basically an autobuy for me, but I might be peeking through my fingers as I read, at least in the beginning.

cover4Baby, It’s Cold Outside is the first in the Men At Work series, and the series title is a good indicator of the book’s relatively equal presentation of the hero and the heroine. This is probably a good thing, because the hero does something almost unforgivable to set up the main story and conflict, and if I hadn’t seen things from his POV I would have had a very hard time thinking he deserved the heroine. As it was, it was still touch and go.

No one writing romance today can open a book like Dimon. No one. The story begins when construction company owner Lincoln Campbell and his personal assistant, Thea Marshall throw caution and HR rules to the wind and act on long-suppressed desires when they start a passionate encounter in Linc’s office and end it the next morning in his condo. Both think this might be the beginning of something more, but on returning to the office Linc is confronted with detailed and apparently irrefutable evidence that Thea has been selling company secrets to a competitor who is using the information to undercut them in a bidding competition for a major commercial project. He immediately has her fired for cause and escorted from the building, all without directly telling her the reason. After all, she did it and she’ll probably deny it, so she must know, right?

Thea is devastated in every possible way. She loves her job, she has been attracted to Linc for months, and she’s just building up her life after the loss of her parents in a plane crash. She has support from two work colleagues who have become her friends, Becky the office manager and Tim the computer guy, and that helps, but mostly she’s torn between desolation and anger, the latter quite justifiably aimed at Linc.

For his part, Linc can’t stop thinking about her, even though he has the evidence convicting her sitting on his desk. After trying and failing to move on, he hires a second investigator to look into Thea’s situation more closely (the first investigation was to discover the source of the leak and led to Thea but didn’t start with her). After a few weeks, he decides he has to see Thea again (whether she’s guilty or not) and pursues her to where she’s taken refuge to sort out her future, her family cabin in upstate New York.

Linc’s character has to tread a fine line between acting like a jackass and being an irredeemable jackass, and he more or less stays on the right side, thanks to Dimon’s ability to write believable, sympathetic men. But he was on serious probation for me the entire story and even his honorable behavior in the second half didn’t quite make up for it. The fact that they did have strong feelings for each other, feelings that weren’t just about lust, helped a lot as did the fact that they didn’t move from insta-lust to insta-love. Thea knows how Linc thinks and she uses that to keep from being snowed by his charm:

“Nu-uh.” No way was she falling for the quick drop of a pseudo-apology.

Linc leaned forward. “Excuse me?”

She’d been Linc’s assistant for long enough to figure out he’d assessed her mood and decided a quick admission would work best to pacify her. He was rock stupid when it came to women, but off-the-charts smart when it came to business and strategies. Thanks to the lessons he’d taught her, this time she would be smarter.

“Me, this, is a challenge of some sort for you. Well, you forget how many meetings I sat in on. How many calls I listened to.” He played a good game. He could schmooze and convince expert businessman they believed one thing when they came in believing another. Now he’d turned those tactics on her. She wasn’t buying it.

Unfortunately, while Thea makes Linc take responsibility for what he did to her, the way this unfolds makes Linc the harmed one because of his childhood and family history. It made him more sympathetic, but it also shifted the emphasis to his pain rather than hers. This isn’t an uncommon strategy, but I hate the way it turns the wronged person (usually the woman) into the one doing the comforting.

The second big problem I had with the story was the revelation of the real company mole. It made sense within context, but I hated that it turned out to be who it was. I can’t say more without completely spoiling the book, but it relies on a motivation that I want to go away forever. It made me angry, and sad.

Finally, there is a standard romance-novel twist that many readers don’t like, especially in contemporaries. I thought it worked fine here and it reminded me of one of my favorite older contemporaries, Banish Misfortune by Anne Stuart (both the twist and the confrontation/reunion in small-town New York). No one does anything stupid to get into the situation or to deal with it and no information is withheld. It’s about as realistic as you can make this setup in a contemporary and it gives a richer dimension to Thea and Linc’s conversations when they meet up again. But if you hate this sort of thing on principle the book might not work for you as a result.

Overall, this is a hard book for me to grade. The characters are written well and the various relatinships are well developed, especially given the novella length, which compresses important events and character arcs. I love the way Dimon’s characters talk to each other and most act like adults, even when they start out badly. No one behaves in unbelievable ways and most story elements are well motivated. But I was left with a nagging feeling that Linc needed to grovel a lot more, or preferably undergo serious therapy, before he was deserving of a relationship with Thea, and I really wish the company-sabotage plot had ended differently. Grade: B-

~ Sunita

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