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REVIEW:  Bone Rider by J. Fally

REVIEW: Bone Rider by J. Fally

Dear J. Fally:

This book is Example A for why I try never to make unilateral statements about what I will and won’t read. It is written in a highly cinematic style, it has an over the top storyline, it seems to be not just m/m but also m/m/m, one of the apparent romantic leads is a gangster, and it’s from a press that is notorious for releasing books that are in dire need of developmental editing. I saw rave reviews and was sure the book was Not For Me. But when I asked Sirius for her recommendations of the best m/m books of 2013, this was one of her first suggestions. I downloaded the sample and was absolutely hooked by the voice. I kept reading, worried that it would fall apart in the second half. It didn’t. I kept reading, worried about how it would work its way to an HFN. It did. By the time I reached the last page, I knew I’d found one of my best books of the year. Bone Rider by J. Fally

Bone Rider opens with a bang. The reader is immediately inside the head of System Six, a sentient armor being created by an alien civilization. System Six is not happy with the alien-human he’s been required to bond with, and out of fear that he’ll be removed and destroyed, he causes the ship they’re traveling on to crash land in the southwest US, where the survivors are immediately engaged in a firefight with the US military. System Six survives but has to find another host, and his first opportunity turns out to be Riley Cooper, a 30-something bartender on the run from a bad breakup. Riley just found out that the man of his dreams, Misha, is a Russian gangster, and if that isn’t bad enough, Misha isn’t just any gangster, he’s a hit man. And he’s not only an effective one, he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to change careers.

There are three main story arcs in Bone Rider (the title refers to the bonding process between sentient armor and its host). The first is the relationship between System Six, who adopts the name McLane in a very funny sequence, and Riley. This arc progresses from involuntary bonding through suspicious getting-to-know-you to understanding, friendship, and something more. The second arc focuses on Misha’s attempt to track down Riley and try and reconcile with him; this involves sending another Russian mobster to find Riley, with the many complications that ensue once Misha decides to go to Riley instead of trying to get Kolya-the-mobster to drag Riley back to him. And the third is the US Military’s efforts to make sense of the alien landing and track down the one that survived.

It takes a while for these story lines to converge; for the first half of the book we see them separately and from multiple POVs. This means that readers have to be willing to read a lot of POVs without necessarily knowing exactly what is going on. Readers also have to be interested in reading a novel that is not just about a romantic relationship. Morever it’s a novel that spends a lot of time in the POVs of military characters.

The romance is complicated by the fact that while Riley is pretty clearly a romantic lead, we don’t know for certain who his ultimate partner is going to be. Is it Misha? Riley is definitely not going back to a relationship with a mob assassin, but he’s also still very much in love with him. Is it McLane? Riley and McLane’s relationship trajectory has a lot of the characteristics of a romance-genre arc, but it’s hard to believe Riley can move on from Misha that fast. Plus, McLane is not a separate entity. He can’t exist for long without a host, and a romance between a human and the sentient armor that lives inside him seems kind of hard to write a satisfying happy ending about. I had no idea what was going to happen next through most of the book. And I did not care. I was so swept up by the voice and the way the story was unfolding (and did I mention the voice?) that I was more than willing to go wherever the author had decided to take me.

It didn’t sound like a girl and it had definitely looked male in his dream, but Riley figured that didn’t mean much when it came to alien armor systems. The thing was probably asexual or transsexual or whatever. Or it could change its sex. Or it was going to lay eggs into Riley’s belly like some kind of spider so its young could devour him from the inside out and— A ripple of movement under his skin made him break out in goose bumps. Stop it, his passenger demanded, sounding thoroughly disgusted. That’s revolting! I’ll be checking you and me for eggs now, thanks. “Sorry,” Riley muttered, chagrined. So maybe he wasn’t entirely convinced of the alien’s good intentions. Could you blame him? It was an alien.

I am not a fan of books that read like screenplays, and yet I kept turning the pages, eagerly reading to see where this crazy plot was going to go. When a new character appeared (and it happens practically every chapter for a while), I just accepted him or her and figured that I would find out eventually why s/he was talking to me. And I did. Every time. When the story lines finally converge, it’s in a spectacular action sequence that is extremely well done. And these events occur only a little more than halfway through the book. At that point the Misha-Riley and McLane-Riley narratives stay together, while the military storyline eventually separates out again. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but while the second half wasn’t quite as gripping to me as the first, there wasn’t as much of a letdown as there can be in books of this type.

The romance between Riley and Misha (both the broken one and the one that Misha fights to resume once they are together again) is really, really good. I bought it completely despite the fact that I Do Not Like assassin heroes unless they are campy or fantasy characters in a fantasy setting. This is a fantasy setting, but Misha felt real. I think the reason his character worked for me was that the author never tried to make me like him and never minimized who he was. But she completely convinced me how much Misha loved Riley; he accepted the depths of his love even when he didn’t really understand it.

Riley had no reason to put his faith in a man who’d sneaked into his affections using lies and deception, and then had kept on lying until he’d gotten caught. A man who murdered people for a living. For someone with Riley’s background, this wasn’t a gray area. Misha was a liar and a killer. A very bad guy working for a very powerful crime syndicate and Riley had barged into the wrong room at the wrong time and become a witness. No, Misha couldn’t blame him for running. He understood why Riley had taken on overwhelming odds with an empty gun rather than call Misha. And yet, stupidly, it still hurt. Misha sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. He was a mess: tired, gritty, and headachy; hollowed-out with worry and apprehension. The movies always made love look so easy, differences and misunderstandings a minor glitch brushed off after a short, dramatic interlude that set the course for happily ever after. What a crock of shit.

And Riley conveyed the same attitude about his love for Misha. This is one of those can’t-live-without-each-other stories, which is about the only way I can swallow a character like Misha’s. Riley deserves better, but Riley isn’t going to be happy with better. I wasn’t sure how they would reconcile the assassin part, but they managed. It’s not entirely believable, but the fact that I’m saying that about a book that involves alien landings and sentient armor tells you how thoroughly I was invested in these characters. Riley is Everyday Guy as Hero, which is a difficult character to make really interesting, especially when everyone around him is so unusual, but the author manages it. He’s realistically aware of the type of person he is emotionally and he doesn’t lie to himself about his weaknesses. When he’s invaded by System Six, he deals with it, and watching them get to know each other is one of the major pleasures of the book.

System Six/McLane is a hoot. He is the quintessential stranger in a strange land, and he’s trying to adapt to the new circumstances he has found himself in. He slowly comes to grips with the fact that although he is designed as both protection and a killing machine, he can’t just go around killing everyone who endangers Riley, because Riley doesn’t like killing people directly or indirectly. When he adjusts, he’s so pleased with himself:

Forward and up—hello there, nausea!—and Riley didn’t know what was happening, but he hoped like hell McClane wasn’t about to slaughter an innocent bystander. Or throw up on them. They came to an abrupt stop then, perfectly balanced and ready to move. No upchucking was happening, and neither did there seem to be blood. Note how I’m not killing him, McClane declared proudly. Riley might’ve been more appreciative had he had any idea what was going on.

The military characters are a bit stock but we come to appreciate their perspectives. The scientist in charge of examining the alien remains is minority and female, and the author portrays her background without making her all about her race. The (male) general who leads the mission to capture McLane is someone to admire and respect, even when he screws up and jumps to conclusions. They’re quieter characters than our three heroes, but they grew on me, and I was pleased that the entire military wasn’t sacrificed in order for our heroes to get to their HEA. The Russian gangsters and the survivalists (yes, there are survivalists) are also well portrayed even when their roles are fairly brief. The book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, which is no big surprise, but the three female characters are strong, competent, and interesting.

Oh yeah, the sex scenes. I almost forgot. There are several of them, and they run the gamut from not-sexy (on purpose) to hilarious to arousing. I frequently skip sex scenes, but I read all of these. They’re integral to the plot and they illuminate the characters, so if you skip them you miss important material. And they’re well written. I didn’t really buy the HEA, but I don’t see any other way the book could have ended, so I can’t really complain. Similarly, the big shootout scenes are not really believable, but they’re very well done and they are standard alien-movie fare.

If I listed all the components of this novel, they would sound familiar: alien landings, body invasions, Russian mobsters, military on the rampage, road romance, explosions and massive fight scenes. You’ve seen them all before. But you haven’t seen them in this combination, or told in this voice. We often say what we’ll believe depends on the execution, and that cliché has never been more apropos than in Bone Rider. I can’t wait to see what J. Fally does next. Grade: A-

~ Sunita

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REVIEW:  Never Desire a Duke by Lily Dalton

REVIEW: Never Desire a Duke by Lily Dalton

never desireDear Ms. Dalton:

I believe I’ve mentioned that this year has been rough for me, historical-romance-wise. Historicals remain my first romance love, though, so I return to the sub-genre like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano (or possibly like lemmings to a cliff). Anyway, someone somewhere mentioned that Never Desire a Duke had positive buzz prior to its release, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The story opens on a marriage breaking apart: Vane Barwick, the Duke of Claxton (is it just me or is that name a mouthful? historical romance names and titles are starting to read more and more like Madlibs to me) arrives home to find his young wife Sophia miscarrying. As if that weren’t distressing enough, he quickly discovers that she wants nothing to do with him; her miscarriage was apparently brought on by a fall she suffered fleeing the house after uncovering a salacious note from an ex-mistress of his. They are both heartbroken about the loss of the baby, Vane feels guilty and Sophia is angry.

Cut to about a year later – it’s almost Christmas time and Sophia is nestled in the bosom of her loving family. She and Vane have been estranged ever since the miscarriage, and he has in fact been traveling on diplomatic missions for the better part of that time. Sophia has somewhat gotten over her initial shock and hurt about the dirty letter – it was from an EX-mistress, after all. But now she is freshly devastated by the fact that her husband has ignored her for months and essentially run away to the continent rather than deal with their issues (note, though, that there’s no evidence Sophia made any overtures to talk, either). Also, she’s heard rumblings and rumors about the female company he’s keeping these days, and she is not happy about it.

At a party in honor of her beloved grandfather, Sophia first runs into a very presumptuous noblewoman, Lady Meltenbourne, who inquires about the duke’s whereabouts in a most impertinent manner, informing Sophia of something that she is apparently the last to know: Vane is back in London. Just like that, he shows up at the party. The two have an aborted confrontation, and Sophia flees to Camellia House, Vane’s childhood home located in a village near London. She’s had the house prepared expecting that she might go there after Christmas, to contemplate the next steps in her marriage and perhaps write Vane a letter suggesting that they reunite for the purposes of having a child and then separate.

The conceit of the isolated house felt like just that – a conceit. All the more so when a major snowstorm hits and Sophia (and of course, Vane, who has followed her to Camellia House) are stranded there alone. Or more or less alone – Vane’s scapegrace brother shows up with Lady Meltenbourne, and then Lord Meltenbourne shows up, out for Vane’s blood (a circumstance that doesn’t improve Sophia’s opinion of her husband’s fidelity).

The others are packed off to the village and the relative isolation does what it’s supposed to do – bring Vane and Sophia together so they can fight, almost have sex, and then fight some more, and Sophia can learn all about why Vane’s so tortured.

As it turns out, Vane is tortured for the usual reasons; what it pretty much boils down to is, he had a crappy father. I felt for him, I guess, but somehow maybe less than I was supposed to.

Vane and Sophia also go on a quest of sorts, a kind of scavenger hunt of the kind his mother used to devise for Vane and his brother when they were children. Vane participates reluctantly, mostly because Sophia wants to. As it turns out, this quest is a very special one designed by his mother to reveal some truths that Vane needs to hear. How his long-dead mother knew that Vane would grow up to need just these lessons and why she picked such a complicated, unlikely-to-succeed method to teach them were both mysteries to me.

If I haven’t made it clear, I didn’t like Never Desire a Duke all that much. I didn’t really dislike it, either. The plot had potential but the characters and writing were blah for me. I know I’m supposed to care about Vane and his inability to be open about his feelings and about Sophia and the pain she’s suffered, but I just wasn’t that interested. I’ve read it all before and this book didn’t really bring anything new to the table in terms of characterization.

Writing this review has crystallized for me that one of my problems with the book was Sophia: I found her pretty annoying. She’s led this charmed life, marries someone whom she thinks is a great guy, and at the first adversity she pretty much loses it. At times it felt like she just kept finding new things to be mad at Vane about. First it’s “causing” the miscarriage and then it’s the way he ran away. When they’re reunited at the party she flees from him but then blames him for not pursuing her; obviously he doesn’t care enough to do so, and he’s probably off with some other woman, she thinks. This makes Sophia appear to be fairly immature and her suffering shallow.

Also, early on, Sophia nags Vane into writing a list of all the women he’s slept with that she might know or encounter in society. Now, clearly this is a terrible idea, but she insists on it and Vane capitulates. She then spends most of the rest of the book carrying around the list against her heart, seemingly believing that this will protect her from getting hurt again. It’s like she wants to have a reason to be angry at him.

It didn’t help that I felt like Sophia’s “goodness” was oversold at times. We get it: she helps widows and orphans and she just loves everyone and is the nicest nice who ever niced. Even when being told about Vane’s horrible father and how horrible he was, she is just aghast to find that he was sent to sea as a child, even though she acknowledges that it was fairly common at the time.

I didn’t love Vane but at least I felt he was trying; there were times when I thought he could bend a little more but he did have a background that explained his limitations.

The prose was serviceable but there were a few rough patches; I sometimes had POV confusion because it would switch in the middle of the scene with no break or other indication that we were now getting, say, Vane’s POV as opposed to Sophia’s. I noted a few anachronisms, as when Vane replies testily to something Sophia says with a careless “Whatever.” Also, Sophia’s reaction to orgasm surely belongs in the Pantheon of Purple Prose:

Her heart stopped beating – certainly it did – and she glimpsed a paradise created of violet and velvet and stars.

I don’t know if they had neurologists in 19th century England, but if I was her, I’d get that checked out. I think she may have had a minor stroke.

Sophia has a real TSTL moment near the end when she decides that Vane can’t forgive her for something and she runs away. I was out of patience with her at that point. To quote Vane, “Whatever.” My grade for Never Desire a Duke is a C.

Best regards,

Jennie

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