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REVIEW:  The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

REVIEW: The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

Dear Ms. Ridgway,

In his book The Art of Fiction, the late author John Gardner wrote:
The-River-of-No-Return

…whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked, and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion. – John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, p. 31 (ellipses mine)

I thought of this passage as I was reading your book, The River of No Return, because the reading experience was unusual and almost surreal. The book, a time travel fantasy with romantic elements published just last year, carries its reader on a journey in which flights of fancy take off in multiple directions, so that disbelief must be suspended not only once or twice, but over and over.

There were times, while reading it, when I felt perilously close to shaking myself free of the book’s grip. I wondered if its author was asking me to believe too much, and yet, just as I skated close to too much doubt, the novel’s continuousness and vividness somehow reasserted themselves.

I picked up The River of No Return partly thanks to an intriguing review at Badass Romance. The novel begins in 1815, with Julia Percy. Julia’s grandfather, the Earl of Darchester, has the ability to manipulate time, to halt it or hasten it, and thus far he has used it to protect Julia from his detestable heir Eamon. The ill Lord Percy’s last instructions to Julia are to pretend to know nothing about his ability. With his last strength, he speeds his own death so that when Eamon comes to question him, he arrives at Castle Dar too late.

The action then moves to 2013, where we are introduced to Nick Davenant, an independently wealthy owner of artisanal cheese farms in Vermont. When Nick wakes from a nightmare, his mind reaches for the memory of a girl with dark eyes, a girl he knew two hundred years earlier, in another life.

In 1812, about to be killed in battle, Nick, then Marquess of Blackdown, jumped forward in time. He woke in a hospital bed and was greeted by a member of a mysterious organization known as the Guild, who explained that going back in time was impossible and return to the geographic location that had once been his home forbidden.

A lost Nick accepted this and flew to Chile where his Guild training began. On a beautiful campus, Nick was immersed in the study of 21st century culture and taught to keep the Guild’s secrets. Nick and other time jumpers received two million dollars in annual income, but two of the fellow students Nick befriended, Meg and Leo, had suspicions about the Guild.

One day Nick witnessed Leo’s interrogation by a creepy, disturbing man. “Mr. Mibbs” flooded Leo with despair and then turned this power on Nick. Later, Meg overheard the Guild’s leader, Alice Gacoki, mention a disappearance, a man named Ignatz, and a fractured Brazilian resistance whose regrouping the Guild needed to prepare for. To Leo and Meg these incidents were proof of the Guild’s deceit, but Nick preferred to believe that Meg must had imagined Alice’s words. The next day Meg and Leo were gone.

In the decade since, Nick has wondered if his friends chose to leave the campus, or if Alice Gacoki had them killed. But now Nick has received a letter from Alice, a summons to the one place he was told he could never return—London.

Meanwhile, in 1815, Julia is trapped in Castle Dar. She won’t come into her small inheritance for three more years so for now she’s dependent on the obsessive Eamon, who believes her grandfather had a special ability.

In accordance with her grandfather’s dying wishes, Julia refuses to acknowledge it, but eventually Eamon tricks her into revealing the truth. Eamon believes Lord Percy’s strange skills were owed to a talisman, and that Julia knows what that talisman is. He determines to obtain this information, even if it means locking her up, denying her visitors, and allowing her reputation to be shredded.

In London of 2013, Alice reveals to Nick that going back in time is in fact possible. For reasons yet undisclosed, the Guild now needs Nick to temporarily return to 1815 in her husband Arkady’s company. Nick, comfortable now in his 21st century skin, is afraid of resuming his old life, but he’s also wary of the Guild. Under Arkady’s guidance, he begins to train for travel to 1815.

One morning Nick he is trailed by a familiar and unwelcome face– the frightening “Mr. Mibbs.” Luckily Nick escapes him unharmed. Alice and Arkady deny knowing this man, and they’re skeptical that Mibbs can make others feel despair. They explain that although Guild members use mass emotions to travel through time, despair is the one feeling they cannot latch onto.

Arkady and Alice also reveal that the Guild has an enemy organization called the Ofan. They say it’s possible the Ofan sent Mibbs, though his ability is unlike any that Ofan members have shown. Nick believes them, and, still in the dark about why he is needed in the past, he accompanies Arkady home to 1815.

He doesn’t realize that on the estate that neighbors his own, Julia Percy, the girl with the dark eyes, the memory with which he comforts himself during nightmares, badly needs his aid, and has made an astonishing discovery…

The River of No Return cleverly takes its title from a metaphor used by the characters to describe time itself. As noted before, this book required a lot of disbelief suspension. There are several twists and turns to this novel, and some of them require expanding the explanations of the rules within which time travel operates and what knowledge and abilities the time travelers possess.

At times, I felt these explanations pleasantly stretched my mind, because there were interesting concepts behind them. But at other times they were almost too much, especially when they were slapped on quickly and thickly, or coincided with abrupt or improbable turnarounds by the characters.

For example, when Alice and Arkady were educating Nick in some of the rules governing the manipulation of time, I wondered if they could be trusted, and I also didn’t understand why, with all his initial suspicions of their involvement in Meg and Leo’s disappearance and his anger about the Guild’s past lies about the nature of time travel, Nick suddenly became willing to trust in the information they gave him.

I therefore also didn’t know if I should believe the information Arkady and Alice gave Nick about time travel, or about Mr. Mibbs, and that made me wonder if the whole book was going to be one big mindf—k for Nick, or maybe even for the reader. Having finished reading the book, I no longer think that is the case, but it’s an example of the moments of doubt which jarred me.

The romantic element in this book is pronounced but I didn’t always feel it was on solid ground. Once in 1815, Nick realizes he is in love with Julia pretty quickly. At first this took me aback because although they had a childhood acquaintance, Julia and Nick don’t meet for over a third of the book and then once they do his epiphany seemed to come fast and almost out of nowhere. My reluctance to buy in was exacerbated by my unease with the difference in their ages (over a decade) and the fact that Julia had no idea of Nick’s true age at first, or of his life in the 21st century.

Eventually I became persuaded of the genuineness of Nick’s feelings for Julia, but not before also experiencing some confusion due to Nick’s thoughts of compromising Julia without much care for her reputation. Then I realized part of the point was that Nick was torn between nineteenth century beliefs and twenty-first century values.  Just as he swung from wanting to protect Julia’s reputation to wanting to discard all thought of it and back, Nick also swung from being a man who believed his sisters were his responsibility to one who saw women as equals of men, and aristocrats as holding no superiority to anyone else.

Initially the flip-flopping annoyed me—I like to have a sense of who a character is and what he stands for—but then I began to see that my conflicted feelings about Nick’s shifting values mirrored Nick’s own conflict about who he was and what he wanted to stand for.  Nick was sucked back into a time he had grown up in, and like an adult returning to his childhood home, he had to fight against the behavior patterns that had been established when he was still young. I thought this was believable and fascinating.

I also really liked that Nick’s values conflict tied in to the values conflict between the Guild and the Ofan. Perhaps it was inevitable that organizations made up of time travelers would have members who need to hash out what they each believed and stood for, and interpret these belief systems differently from one another, as well as shift belief systems during their lifetimes.

This aspect of the characters and their world engaged me intellectually as well as emotionally. The book was at times disturbing because these fluctuations in values endangered the characters both from within and from without, and sometimes they even endangered my involvement in the reading experience. There were times when the book seemed too fluid, too amorphous, like this river of time with its changing current and its ability to diverge into streams, empty into a greater ocean, or turn in on itself. But again, this was part of the point.

There were some things I would have preferred be explained sooner or better—such as why Nick adapted to the twenty-first century to such an extent that he’d become so much more egalitarian and progressive in his views while living in the 2000s. Some details felt glossed over—like Julia’s father, the earl of Darchester’s son.

At least five major questions were left unanswered at the end of the book, and though I understand there will be a sequel (with a different couple at its center), and realize, upon reflection, that to answer all of these questions would have been to stuff too much into the ending of this book, I still wish at least one or two of these had been resolved.

Spoiler: Show

I’m referring to questions about Mr. Mibbs’ mission, Jem Jemison’s fate, the Guild/Ofan conflict, Clare and Bella’s futures, and the Pale.

With that said, I really liked the last scene, with its subtle note of optimism.

I also like Julia a great deal, though there was considerably less of her POV than there was of Nick’s. Julia was sensible despite an unconventional upbringing, and although she could have easily come across as a Mary Sue, she didn’t. I also never doubted her as I occasionally did Nick, though I did feel she kept her secrets close to her vest for a little too long, considering how alone and isolated she was.

The side characters and villains were all interesting, and some were revealed to be quite complex. I look forward to seeing more of them in the next book.

I liked the writing style too; here is a sample to show what I mean. This is from soon after Nick arrives in the 21st century and meets a Guild member who explains his new circumstances as well as how the battle he left behind ended.

“It was a glorious triumph. And in 1815, your armies won not only the battle, but the war.”

The whole war. Over. Folded away into history books like bridal linens into an attic trunk. Salamanca a glorious triumph…but what did they say of the siege of Badajoz and its aftermath? Everything? Nothing? Nick shook his head. “This is madness,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Nick scrubbed his face with the palms of his hands, then ran his fingers up into his hair. Rage boiled up in him. “What am I meant to say to that? ‘No matter, my dear Sir Butcher’? ‘That’s quite all right’? Good God, man, you have told me how my mother came to learn of my own death. Except that I am not dead and my mother is. Two centuries dead.”

I’ve enumerated quite a few issues I had with The River of No Return and I fear this review will not capture how much I enjoyed reading this novel. Even with the problems I had, I was thoroughly entertained and I especially appreciate that the novel kept me reading (and reading fast at that) at a time when other books did not engage me.

For a reader who prefers that most of his or her questions be answered and that the characters always remain consistent, their motives clear, this book might be too shaky a ride. But for a reader who can live with a higher degree of uncertainty and opaqueness in the service of a novel that feels fresh and interesting, this River might be worth plunging into. C+

Sincerely,

Janine

PS As a native speaker of Hebrew, I can say that “Ofan” is no more “a contraction of a Hebrew word” than “angel” is a contraction of an English word. “Ofan” is the singular form of the Hebrew word, while “Ophanim” is the plural.

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REVIEW:  Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase

REVIEW: Knaves’ Wager by Loretta Chase

Dear Ms. Chase,

I’m sure you are familiar with Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses. It has been adapted to stage and screen, and the cinematic versions include Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, and Cruel Intentions, among others.

Knaves' Wager by Loretta ChaseIn Les Liaisons dangereuses, the corrupt Vicomte de Valmont wants to seduce the married Madame de Tourvel, widely known for her incorruptible virtue. Valmont is interested in Madame de Tourvel not only because she presents a challenge, but also because he has a wager riding on it. The beautiful Marquise de Merteuil has promised to spend a night with him if he succeeds.

For some reason, I’ve long enjoyed romances whose plots bear a similarity to Les Liaisons dangereuses, as your book Knaves’ Wager does. First published in 1990 as a traditional regency in the Avon line, Knaves’ Wager has been recommended to me by several people, including DA’s Sunita. I’ve been eager to read it for a while, but all the more so recently, thanks to a Twitter conversation. Imagine my surprise and delight when, a few days after that discussion, Knaves’ Wager was released as an ebook.

Knaves’ Wager begins with Lilith Davenant, a 28 year old widow, traveling to London with her niece, Cecily Glenwood. Lilith is described this way:

Lilith Davenant was tall, slim, and strong. Her classical features—a decided jaw, a straight, imperious nose, and high, prominent cheekbones—had been carved firmly and clearly upon cool alabaster. Her eyes were an uncompromising slate blue, their gaze direct, assured, and often, chilly.

Lilith seems as cold as a slab of marble, but she has one soft spot: her nieces. Like her elder and younger sisters, Cecily has thoughtless, unreliable parents, and thus depends on Lilith’s personal and financial assistance to enter the marriage mart.

Unfortunately, Lilith’s once-considerable fortune has dwindled. What her late and feckless husband didn’t gamble away her former man of business invested badly. To add insult to injury, Lilith has recently discovered an old debt of her late husband’s owed to the Marquess of Brandon, a man who gambled and caroused with Lilith’s husband, driving him to his death in the process.

The idea of being indebted to Brandon is loathsome to Lilith, but if she pays back the money her husband owed him, she will not have enough funds left to bring out her four young nieces unless she does the unthinkable and marries again.

Lilith loved her late husband, but he was faithless and debauched throughout their marriage, and ignored her except for brief and unpleasant nighttime visits. Now Lilith dreads physical intimacy and has no desire to ever marry. But marry she must, if she is to pay off her debt to the Marquess of Brandon and finance her nieces’ come-outs.

This conflict comes to a head when Lilith and Cecily encounter a curricle by the side of the road. The curricle’s owner lies beneath it, injured. Lilith has him transported to the nearest inn where she sends for a doctor. The injured man, Mr. Wyndhurst, is arrogant, insolent, and possibly depraved. He is described in Lilith’s POV as “the very model of a bored, dissolute scoundrel.”

Lilith and Wyndhurst exchange some words as she feeds him broth, enough for him to attempt seduction and meet with a cold rebuff. The next morning, Lilith learns that Wyndhurst’s relations came and got him, and he has paid his bill, leaving a cheeky message for her with the innkeeper, one that causes Lilith to smart – but not as much as does the innkeeper’s new information: Mr. Wyndhurst is Julian, Marquess of Brandon, the same man whom Lilith blames for the death of her husband.

Unable to bear the thought of remaining in Julian’s debt, Lilith orders her man of business to pay back the money she owes and accepts an offer of marriage which she had been weighing. Her new fiancé is Sir Thomas Bexley, a widowed, short and balding baronet with diplomatic ambitions.

Sir Thomas no more loves Lilith than she loves him, but he admires her unimpeachable character and believes that marrying her can only serve his political aspirations well. For her part, Lilith plans to be a good fiancée and wife to Sir Thomas. She is grateful that his considerable wealth will allow her to continue bringing out her nieces.

Meanwhile, Julian, Marquess of Brandon, is exhorted by his relatives to travel to London and liberate his cousin Lord Robert from an unfortunate betrothal to a French courtesan, Elise. Julian could care less what happens to Robert, but Derbyshire is boring, and London offers the presence of one Lilith Davenant. Julian wants to amuse himself by seducing Lilith because of an attraction he sensed when he met her, and because he knows she will resist him with all her strength.

In London Julian discovers that Elise is almost as wily as himself. His cousin Robert has written love letters to the French courtesan and she will not easily release them. She plans to use them to sue for breach of promise should Robert back out of his proposal.

Julian threatens to have Elise’s house broken into if she does not hand them over, but Elise, who senses Julian’s desire for Lilith, offers him an alternative: seduce Lilith within eight weeks, and Elise will hand over the letters freely. Fail, and the compromising letters are Elise’s to do with as she sees fit.

A challenge is irresistible to Julian, and a challenge accompanied by a wager is even more piquant. While his cousin Robert slowly falls for Cecily, Julian employs will, charm, and underhanded scheming in a campaign to seduce Lilith. But Lilith has considerable will, charm, and brains of her own. Will Julian’s win his knaves’ wager? Or will it cost him his heart?

I won’t call Knaves’ Wager a redemption story because that’s not exactly what it is. It’s more of a story of two people opening up to one another despite very different aims, discovering the truth of their hearts and minds, and growing in the process.

The electronic version, which I read, has a handful of OCR errors, so on occasion a word can puzzle or amuse. For example a minor character named Hobhouse has his name spelled “Hothouse” at least once.

Readers should also be aware that this book is written in a very different style from your current novels. It’s less humorous, more serious, and wordier as well. Dialogue can be longer and the pacing of the novel is slow and deliberate compared to the pacing of today’s books. Although on occasion I did wish more would happen a touch faster, for the most part I was deeply absorbed.

Julian begins the book with the goal to seduce Lilith, nothing less and nothing more. His initial reasons, at least those he acknowledges to himself, are somewhere between mischievous and villainous. He’s charming enough that it’s hard to dislike him, but it’s also hard to trust him for quite a while. He wants to prove he can bed Lilith, but beneath that, he’s also drawn to her strength, and because he has to work to breach her defenses, she breaches his own in the process.

There’s a lovely journey of self-discovery for Julian as that happens. He is so unused to being in love that he mistakes his emotions until it’s almost too late.

Lilith was an absolutely wonderful character. I have a love for protagonists with a “still waters run deep” quality, and Lilith is such a one. Beneath the cool exterior she presents to the world lies a vulnerable woman who both needs and deserves love, and just as Julian has to mature enough to realize he is capable of loving, Lilith must eventually arrive at the realization that marrying Sir Thomas would be a mistake.

In the interim, her attraction to Julian tortures her; not only does she have no illusions about his intentions toward her, she also feels guilty for betraying Sir Thomas, if only in her heart.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there are no sex scenes, but although I wanted one, just to see how it would have gone, I never felt the book lacked sexual tension. That was something it had in spades, due to the terrific chemistry between the main characters.

Lilith also read older than her 28 years to me, but again, this didn’t lessen my enjoyment much. There was a level of maturity to the story that is rare and that I greatly welcome.

Knave’s Wager satisfied me to a degree few books do these days. It is easy to see why so many readers love it and why some consider it a genre classic. I am giving it an A- grade.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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