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REVIEW:  Prophecy by Ellen Oh

REVIEW: Prophecy by Ellen Oh

Dear Ellen Oh:

I’m on an endless quest to find traditional fantasies featuring worldbuilding not based on Western culture. This desire is not without its pitfalls, of course. Sometimes it’s led me horribly awry. But I keep trying because I’m hopeful (and stubborn). My first exposure to your writing was through the Diverse Energies anthology. While your short story about a World War II that never ended didn’t impress me, I had hopes that your full-length debut drawing upon Korean culture and mythology would fare better.

ellen-oh-prophecyGolden-eyed Kira is the only woman in the King’s army. Able to see the demons that can possess humans, she is also charged with the task of dispatching them. This duty is made more difficult because the King insists upon keeping the looming demon threat a secret from the general populace. (Side note: Why do rulers always insist on keeping crucial life-threatening things secret?) The imposed ignorance only serves to ostracize Kira and make everyone think she’s cursed.

In addition to being the King’s demon slayer, Kira is also the bodyguard of the crown prince, her cousin Taejo. When their kingdom is attacked, she is forced to take the prince and escape. As one neighboring kingdom after another falls to the onslaught, it becomes increasingly apparent that demonic influences are at work. According to an ancient prophecy, Taejo may be the world’s only savior — and Kira is the only one who can protect him.

I had high hopes for Prophecy. I love women warriors and I especially love female bodyguards. Kira seemed like she’d be a protagonist right up my alley. But right from the beginning, we hit a speedbump. You see, Kira is what I call the Exceptional Girl. She’s the only female warrior. She dislikes girlish things. She doesn’t want to get married. This is all meant to be empowering, I’m sure.

It’s not. It’s a trap many supposedly girl-positive narratives fall prey to. Make the protagonist a girl who’s not like all those other girls. She wears pants, not dresses. She wields swords, not fans. She kills demons, nd doesn’t serve tea. But by setting the heroine apart in this way, by inadvertently pitting her against the other female characters in the narrative, the story reinforces the notion that you can only have one “type” of Strong Female Character and dismisses anything else.

In Prophecy, this is further supported when Kira is the only major female character among a cast of guys. We briefly meet her mother and aunt at the beginning of the story, and then later in brief glimpses throughout the book, but this is not the same as having an active role in affecting the plot. There’s no true reason for this oversight. Even if Kira were the only female warrior in what was constructed as a misogynistic world where that is frowned upon, that doesn’t mean there can’t be other women with roles to play in the story. From what I remember, the roles delegated to women were warrior, captive, and dead. That’s hardly empowering, considering the warrior role was assigned to only one female character.

That said, I did enjoy the worldbuilding and cultural details. It was very clear, and I caught nods to various aspects of Korean history: the references to Korea’s very conflicted past where it faced constant attack from outside forces and, of course, Nongae. My knowledge of the Korean language is minimal but I liked the inclusion of Korean honorifics. Given how often Japanese honorifics are used (and abused) in fiction, it was nice to see this convention followed on the Korean side of things.

The world presented, however, did not make up for the characterization. The execution was clunky and inconsistent at best. I think the fault rests with the writing, which was heavy on the telling and not enough with the showing. Normally, I dislike YA novels that focus almost too lovingly on the internal thought processes of their characters but I actually think Prophecy needed more of that to make me believe the characters’ decisions and actions. And since, for me, characters are what make a story worthwhile, I was left feeling distinctly unsatisfied when I finished the book.

Don’t get me wrong. Prophecy is fast read. The plot is serviceable and action-packed. But with the flawed characterization, it read somewhat unbalanced. Part of me wonders if this novel would have been better suited as a middle-grade novel rather than young adult. Despite some of the themes and violence, its structure and execution felt young in many ways.

I always think there’s more room for fantasy that doesn’t draw upon Western-based milieus. Especially if those novels do their research respectfully and don’t appropriate the sources they draw upon. And while I think Prophecy succeeds on that front, the other bits and pieces that make up a story — characterization, execution — fail to do it justice. C-

My regards,

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REVIEW:  Darkest Caress by Kaylea Cross

REVIEW: Darkest Caress by Kaylea Cross

Dear Ms. Cross:

The first book I read of yours was a contemporary romance which I enjoyed and hoped to see more of your work in that area. When your book, Darkest Caress, was released on NetGalley I was intrigued because it was not contemporary romance but instead, a paranormal. I am constantly on the lookout for a new paranormal author. While the work was competent, I think my tastes are too jaded at this point to find a competent story compelling.

Darkest Caress by Kaylea CrossDarkest Caress relies on the mate bond, an old prophecy, a small band of good guys (actual brothers in this case) who will defeat a bad man and his army form the basis of its world building.  The “others” are individuals who apparently feed off the energy of others.  There is some play with the concept that every person controls their aura which is fed by their internal energies which the host can decide to be good or evil.  This was unsubtly demonstrated through one non essential secondary character. (First he was bad… and then … after some reflection and intervention he was suddenly good.  It was like an injection of super clozapine).

Liv Farrell, realtor and part time piano teacher, meets Daegan Blackwell, a mysterious and wealthy potential purchaser of a million dollar home situated on the coast in Vancouver. Daegan is an Empowered and he and his three brothers form a triumvirate that will someday battle Xavier who seeks to become the Obsidian Lord. What exactly they will be fighting over is not fully explained. I suppose the soul of humankind or something. I’ve never really understood why any immortal being would want control human kind. Wouldn’t they want to just wipe us out? I guess in this circumstance, humans serve as food. The energy of a human is a power source for the “others”.

Liv is also Empowered, which she would have to be in order to be Daegan’s mate.  Darkest Caress does allow the characters to struggle with the mate bond but they can’t be too far apart because of the Heat Cycle.  The Heat Cycle causes the parties pain when they are apart and nothing short of bonding will abate it.  Forced love!

Daegen is immediately in lust and, I guess, love, but allows that Liv needs time to adjust to the knowledge that she has a supernatural power as do others and that they are destined to be together.  The problem is that Liv’s struggle with the mate bond places everyone in danger making her refusal to accept the inevitable pairing.  The authorial choice in this regards felt unfortunate to me. It was easy to place the blame on Liv for a negative outcome but it also made Daegan’s self sacrifice look foolish as well.  In fact, at some times I wrote in my margin that he was portraying the too stupid to live role. At one point, after Daegan has marked her which endangers her life, he purposely leaves her and his brother has to fill in the details.  Even after she knows about being empowered, the mate bond, the Heat Cycle, and the power struggle, Daegen still refuses to give her the full picture.  I couldn’t believe he was trying out half truths at this point in the name of protection and allowing her free choice. It was ridiculous.

I also wondered strongly about the need for DNA evidence that Liv purportedly needed to prove she was an Empowered.  It might have made sense if Liv was a scientist but she wasn’t and thus this idea that DNA would convince her where her own senses could not seemed odd.

Every movement seemed telegraphed with a heavy hand and the attempts at intrigue came off hokey instead of suspenseful. For instance, one character thinks to himself “fucking riddles … always more riddles” in regard to this line: The Obsidian Lord shall confront the Empowered who embodies the reflection of what he once was.”  The character goes on to lament that “[h]e didn’t pretend to fully under the dark prophecy.”  The riddle isn’t that confusing particularly when it is known that the Obsidian Lord is an Empowered male who lost his mate.

If a reader is a fan of the JR Ward and Lara Adrian series, and is jonesing for something similar, this may fit the bill. I appreciated that this was not a vampire story but I felt like the worldbuilding relied on worn tropes and failed to be presented in a fresh way. C

Best regards,