Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Love-Triangle

REVIEW:  The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

REVIEW: The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

Thekissofdecption1

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

AmazonBNKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

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

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle