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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:  Killing time by Jane Davitt and Alexa Snow

REVIEW: Killing time by Jane Davitt and Alexa Snow

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Max and Kaelan, best friends and business partners for five years, are powerful casters with a tendency to get themselves into and out of all kinds of trouble. Pretty much the only thing they’ve been able to avoid is getting romantically involved – until now. Their sexual attraction hits them like a runaway fireball and they can’t keep their hands off each other.

While their sexual attraction burns out of control, they’ve attracted the attention of a dark caster named Jannes who’s planning a spell so potent that it could end the world. To keep them off balance, he’s targeting Max and Kaelan through those they love, and there’s no one they love more than each other.

With friends and family to protect and their only allies a group of casters who find it easier to fight than cooperate, the odds are stacked against them. So can Max and Kaelan keep it together and stop Jannes before he ends the world, or is the best they can do just killing time?

Dear Jane Davitt and Alexa Snow,

I enjoy your writing a lot. I think your books are well written, but I will not deny that part of the attraction for me is that every single story that I have read by both of you has the antagonistic chemistry between the leads. I am not saying that you keep writing the same story over and over, quite the contrary, I thought that in every book you manage to keep the antagonism and change “from enemies (or kind of sort of enemies) to lovers” believable and different.

Having said that, even such a goner for this trope as I am, I was eager to see if you could do a different type of chemistry and this book certainly is different. As the blurb tells us, what we have here are friends and partners who may be attracted to each other, but who fight this attraction till they cannot fight it anymore. Unfortunately, the way it was done kind of irritated me almost from the beginning.

Max and Kaelan meet in the prologue of the book – when Kaelan saves Max from a tough spot during a dark magic casting which he accidentally (or so he thinks) gets to witness. So far so good – I was looking forward to see where the urban fantasy setting would take me, because I love when a story deals with magic, any kind of magic.

In the first chapter, however, we learn that five years had passed and during that time Max and Kaelan have become best friends and partners in their magical business. They are trying to help people in many different magical ways, such as saving them from their own stupidity if they can (like a young idiot who summons a demon to bring her fiancé back to her). Sometimes they are successful, sometimes they are not, but they certainly try hard. Max is very good with shields and Kaelan is good with creating portals. They try to learn from each other, they know each other strengths and weaknesses; sometimes one walks in on the other having sex with the occasional guy here and there. In other words they are really close. They are so close that if Kaelan has nightmares, he has no problems with sleeping in the same bed as Max and having Max comfort him, and Max is fine with this too.

If one asks me what is wrong with this picture, with two friends being so close, I would say normally nothing. The only problem I had is that these guys are really really attracted to each other in a romantic way. I was not quite sure when they realized that they were attracted to each other as more than friends, but it certainly happened some time during the five years, somewhere between the prologue and Chapter One. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when it happened. Instead the source for tension is that both of them are trying to squash the attraction and not to act on it. Why? Apparently it will make them more vulnerable/uncomfortable/ and it will stop them from being friends.

And I keep thinking no. It feels like an artificial construct created by the authors in order to make the guys put their romantic attraction on hold till the story really takes off. I want to be very clear – I am not saying that I would love to see them being attracted and act on it the first time they met (or second, or third, really). I understand that the writers tried to do something better than Insta!Love, but in this specific set-up it did not work for me. I felt that they acted like romance novel heroes instead of real people, because apparently as the events of our story unfold, while they still think a little about weird obstacles which they create in their minds in order not to act on their attraction, they surely do act on their attraction and time- wise in the story it happens pretty fast. The story doesn’t contain gratuitous sex scenes, I thought whatever was there moved the story and their relationship forward, but I was rolling my eyes and thinking, why are you so convinced that you cannot be friends and partners if you also want to have sex with each other and maybe have a relationship too?

But I digress – I’m spending a lot of time explaining what irritated me and why I lowered the grade as much as I did, but in spite of these criticisms I really enjoyed Kaelan and Max as a couple and the urban fantasy plot of the story. I thought that when they allowed themselves to be together, they had great chemistry. I thought that because they became such good friends, their romantic attachment actually had more chance to stand the test of time, not less. I even thought that there was some character development taking place for both of them.

I thought the Big Bad Evil whom Kaelan and Max found themselves against was scary, and his motivations made sense to me. He was evil through and through, but he did not feel like a caricature, maybe because of his origins. I thought that the reason for his actions had a nice twist (not too big, but I did not see it) and I enjoyed how it was done. The magic system and how it worked in the world the writers created was very well explained, even if sometimes it was a bit overwritten (but it was not a huge problem for me – I enjoy different set ups for magic to work in different worlds). The only things which for me were too much explanation- wise were the excerpts from different imaginary magical literature which were put in front of every chapter. Sometimes they illuminated something important in the chapter in a nice way, but sometimes I was annoyed because the excerpt was trying to explain a magical definition, or spell, which was happening in the chapter already. I felt that it was too much “tell” sometimes, especially if the chapter went on to show me how the thing worked. I do sympathize with the need to explain the complicated magical stuff, but as I said sometimes it was a bit much even for me.
I also thought that at times the book was really funny.

“The creature must have thought they were dentists, because it opened wide, and the resulting blast of fetid breath came close to making Kaelan puke his guts out right there.
“I never knew halitosis was a lethal weapon,” Max said. “God, that is rank. And if you like the gel that much, buy some of your own.”
“Where is the fun in that?”
“We’re discussing this later,” Max said.
“If we have a later.”
The sea monster – Kaelan was referring to it as Nessie in his head since Max had labeled it female – decided now was a good time to try to eat them again. The shield had it back but compressed under the attack, bringing Max down to his knees next to Kaelan.”

Grade: B-

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