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REVIEW:  Spy’s Honor by Amy Raby

REVIEW: Spy’s Honor by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

I picked up your fantasy romance, Spy’s Honor, because although the previous book in the series, Assassin’s Gambit (reviewed here and here), wasn’t perfect, it was entertaining and interesting. It turns out that Spy’s Honor isn’t a sequel to Assassin’s Gambit, but a prequel.

Spyss-HonorSpy’s Honor begins with the arrival of Jan-Torres, Crown Prince of Mosar, in Riat, the capital city of Kjall. Jan-Torres is not on Kjall for a diplomatic mission, but as a spy. Kjall, which has an empire and an impressive military, is currently prosecuting a brutal, expansionist war in Mosar.

As Mosar’s prince, Jan-Torres should be in Mosar, but as it happens he is also a shroud mage, capable of hiding his presence and anything else with an invisibility “shroud.” Jan-Torres accomplishes this through a telepathic link with his familiar, a ferret named Sashi with whom he shares a telepathic link.

Jan-Torres hopes to be able to meet with Ral-Vaddis, a missing spy who has not reported in a while, or if that is not possible, to find the crucial information Ral-Vaddis was close to uncovering when he last sent word to Mosar.

Also in Riat is the Kjallan emperor’s niece, Rhianne. When we first see her, Rhianne is sneaking out of the palace using its hypocaust system to go into the city and visit a disabled veteran she and her younger cousin Lucien are supporting via a “pension.”

Rhianne’s room is constantly under guard since her uncle Florian, Emperor of Kjall, believes that Rhianne is wild (this is belief is due not to any action of Rhianne’s, but to her mother’s decisions prior to Rhianne’s birth), and is strict with her as a result.

In fact, Florian insists that Rhianne accept the suit of his general Augustan and rule Mosar at Augustan’s side once the Kjallans have conquered it.

It is on the palace grounds that Rhianne first meets Jan-Torres, who through the aid of two Mosari slaves is masquerading as a slave named Janto. “Janto” is working in the garden when Rhianne attempts to learn the Mosari language from a book. He corrects Rhianne’s pronunciations and a tentative friendship between them begins.

Rhianne is attracted to the educated slave, and when Jan-Torres discovers that the Mosari slave women are being raped by the overseer, he approaches Rhianne about it and they work together, in conjunction with the women, to put a stop to these assaults.

Jan-Torres reveals his shrouding ability to Rhianne in the process and she begins to suspect he is not a slave at all, but a spy. Since she doesn’t want to bring about his death but also refuses to betray her country, she tells him he must leave Kjall in a matter of days or else she will turn him in to her uncle.

But a visit from Augustan, the man Rhianne must eventually marry, changes things. Augustan is cruel and Rhianne’s friendship with Jan-Torres has opened her eyes to his brutal practices in Mosar. When her cousin Lucien advises Rhianne to indulge in a fling before her unwanted marriage, Rhianne chooses Jan-Torres to be her first lover.

A turn for the worse in the war forces Jan-Torres to grow bolder and, shrouded with invisibility, he infiltrates the imperial palace without Rhianne’s knowledge in search of the information his spy never delivered. Will Jan-Torres be discovered by the Kjallans? And what will happen to Rhianne if he is?

Spy’s Honor has some things going for it but unfortunately it never captured my imagination in the same way that Assassin’s Gambit did. The main characters were nice people, Rhianne sheltered and sensitive but stubborn in hewing to her convictions, and despite his matching stubbornesss, Jan-Torres never turned into an alphahole.

As with Assassin’s Gambit, there is an almost breezy tone to the writing and while it doesn’t always fit with what is happening in a given scene, it still manages to appeal to me—a sure sign of a strong voice.

The worldbuilding was a bit more thorough in this book than was the case with Assassin’s Gambit. In addition to a description of a forest with unusual trees, there was a brief explanation of the three gods, the Soldier, the Vagabond and the Sage, and the battle tactics in the second half of the novel were as well-developed and impressive as mentioned during a previous discussion.

Other aspects of the world, though, felt underdeveloped to me. There wasn’t much in the way of descriptions of the imperial palace and I would have liked to gain a better understanding of how Rhianne’s magical ability to confuse people worked. I also prefer magical systems in which there are costs to using one’s magic, as I find it makes magic more believable, but such wasn’t the case here for either Rhianne or Jan-Torres.

The other problems I had with the book range from minor to major. First, Sashi, Jan-Torres’ ferret familiar, for all that he contained part of Jan-Torres’ soul and played an important role in the storyline, was a paper-thin character, with an obsession with killing but few other ferret-like or human characteristics.

Second, the sex scenes didn’t work that well for me. The greater part of this was due to the dynamics between the couple—Rhianne being an inexperienced virgin and Jan-Torres providing her introduction to lovemaking made for familiar ground.

A smaller degree of this was due to the language. Rhianne referred to her physical desire for “Janto” as a feeling like an “unscratched itch” multiple times. The first time I thought it interesting, but when it was repeated it became unromantic and jarring.

Third, the hypocaust was used too many times in the story.

Spoiler: Show

At one point the emperor discovered that one of the main characters had used it to their advantage against his aims, but even after that it was successfully used again.

Fourth, I thought Jan-Torres had too easy a time of it masquerading as a garden slave. I expected the overseer to recognize a slave he never acquired and expose Jan-Torres as a spy, but this never happened.

Fifth, I was discomfited by Rhianne’s physical attraction to Jan-Torres when she still believed he was a slave. She discovered the truth quickly, but before that, the difference in power between them made her lustful thoughts unsettling reading, as did the fact that neither Rhianne and Jan-Torres acknowledged that the circumstances made the attraction sketchy.

Sixth, even outside the sex scenes, the relationship dynamics were far less interesting in this book than the dynamics in Assassin’s Gambit. In the latter book, there was an interesting reversal of gender roles, with Vitala the assassin and later bodyguard to Lucien. Here, Rhianne was sheltered and innocent, a much more standard role for a romance heroine, and Jan-Torres had more life experience. That dynamic just wasn’t as interesting to me.

Finally, perhaps the biggest problem in the book was the absence of conflict from the first half in the book. Yes, Jan-Torres and Rhianne are on opposite sides of the war, but we don’t really see that affect their psyches that much. Jan-Torres says meeting Rhianne is what taught him that Kjallans could also be good people, but it’s not a transformation that is ever shown on page.

Jan-Torres has a backstory that nags him a bit but it doesn’t appear to be a significant trauma. The slave overseer who rapes the women is stopped easily. And I could go on. Every time a potentially interesting conflict–either external or internal–appears on the horizon, it’s batted away as easily as a fly.

As a result, by the second quarter of the book, I was bored. My reading stalled and I almost didn’t pick up the book again. And those other problems I mentioned? I probably wouldn’t have noticed all of them if I had been more absorbed.

Fortunately, in the second half, a significant external conflict emerges at last, and in the final third, there’s even (hallelujah!) a conflict between Jan-Torres and Rhianne. I enjoyed those sections of the book more, but I can’t say I was ever swept away.

I’ve read worse books than Spy’s Honor, but after the promise of Assassin’s Gambit, I can’t help but be disappointed in it. Because I like the authorial voice, I still plan to read book three, Prince’s Fire, but I think I’ll wait a bit. C-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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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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