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Hearts and Thrones series

REVIEW:  Archer’s Sin by Amy Raby

REVIEW: Archer’s Sin by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

Earlier this year I read and reviewed the first two works in your Hearts and Thrones fantasy romance series, Assassin’s Gambit and Spy’s Honor. I also read this novella in that same series, Archer’s Sin, but what with one review commitment or another, I didn’t get around to reviewing it until now.

ArchersSin1At the time I finished reading Archer’s Sin, I felt that it wasn’t quite as good as Assassin’s Gambit but was better than Spy’s Honor. With the passage of time, though, I find I remember this novella with growing fondness. I now think it is at least as good as Assassin’s Gambit, albeit in a different way.

Archer’s Sin begins with the arrival of its heroine, Nalica, in the Kjallan empire’s capital city of Riat for the annual Triferian festival. Nalica hails from the mountainous east, where the culture is somewhat different than in the capital and women aren’t restricted to “feminine” pursuits.

Nalica is an excellent archer and she has come to Riat in order to enter the Triferian archery tournament. The winner’s prize in the archery contest is employment as a prefect in the Riat City Guard. Eminently qualified for this position, Nalica is also in need of such an opportunity. Steady employment is difficult for someone of her background to come by.

But at the festival grounds, Nalica cannot find the place of registration for the competition. When she spots a tall man carrying a longbow, she decides to follow him. The man soon joins a group of archers, and Nalica approaches them to ask for directions, only to be mocked by two of the men for her eastern dialect and her shoulder muscles.

But the first man Nalica followed—Justien— rebukes one of his rude friends, and he doesn’t share their disapproval when Nalica reveals that she can not only string the large bow she carries, but also plans to use it to win the contest.

Justien shows Nalica to the registration tent, but warns her not to waste her money on registration, because he needs the city guard position badly and plans to win the tournament to attain it. He even states that he can outshoot anyone on the festival grounds. But unlike Justin, Nalica recognizes his statement for an idle boast, because she knows she will be the tournament winner.

It’s unfortunate that the competition will pit them against one another, because each finds the other attractive. Unlike his friends, Justien is not at all put off by Nalica’s size and strength. Still, he decides to keep his distance, because one of them is bound to be upset when the other wins the job both covet.

Nalica encounters sexism at the registration tent, and is allowed to enter the competition only because the officer in charge there believes that her participation “won’t make any difference.”

The next day, Nalica runs into Justien and, after they chat about an upcoming horse race, she impulsively allows him to buy her food that she cannot afford to purchase herself. They compare notes on their backgrounds and discover that they come from the same part of Kjall and that they are from clans that once feuded, but also share many commonalities.

Nalica explains that she acquired her war magic riftstone, similar to Justien’s own, even though women don’t usually possess them, because her father had no sons. Justien, meanwhile, explains to Nalica that he sends money to his widowed mother and orphaned younger siblings and she realizes that is why he needs the job at stake in the archery competition.

But she cannot allow herself the luxury of empathy, because she too needs that job, and she is more qualified. She insists on paying for the food after all, and tells Justien they shouldn’t talk to each other anymore.

Who will best whom in each of the archery tournament’s three contests, and how will the other react? When they suspect foul play in the horse race, will they have the courage to come forward despite the potential backlash and the discrimination both face? Will they allow their romantic feelings to develop, and how will their economic difficulties be resolved?

I appreciated that Archer’ Sin took on the rarely seen conflicts of sexism, unemployment and its related financial difficulties, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and culture, and competition between men and women.

Not only that, but all this was executed in an entertaining way, and with a nice appearance by one of the characters from Assassin’s Gambit.

Along the way one of the protagonists had a moment of pettiness, but that character learned from the experience and behaved better when another opportunity presented itself.

I wished the worldbuilding in Archer’s Sin had been better developed, but I think readers of the series will have a fuller sense of the world than those who only pick up this one novella.

Another issue I had is that the characters agree to marry at the end of the book despite having only known each other for a matter of days. The proposal and acceptance felt rushed; I would have preferred a happy for now ending with a hint at intentions to marry in the future.

I don’t want to give away the resolution to the main conflict, but if it had a deus-ex-machina element, it also did not take away from either of the protagonists’ competence, strength and heroism. While I wanted a bit more romance in the novella, I thought Archer’s Sin was memorable and worthwhile. B.

Sincerely,

Janine

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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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