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REVIEW:  Rinaldi’s Revenge by Paula Marshall

REVIEW: Rinaldi’s Revenge by Paula Marshall

Dear Ms. Marshall,

I read “Rinaldi’s Revenge” due to part of a documentary I recently began watching – the BBC series “The Private Life of a Masterpiece.” Covered on one disc that featured some Italian Renaissance paintings was a three panel work I hadn’t paid much attention to during my study of famous artworks. But learning the history behind the subject jarred my memory of seeing this book offered by Harlequin. The painting is Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano which tells of the victory won by the famous 15th century condottiero Niccolo da Tolentino. Ah, serendipity!

“Duchess Elena de Carisenda fears her small but wealthy duchy will be taken from her by force. Her only chance for survival is to hire an army to protect her and her people–and mercenary Marco Rinaldi is the best soldier money can buy.

Marco pledges to fight off all invaders, but one look at the beautiful duchess and he insists he’ll pose even more of a threat if he and Elena wed. Strong and commanding, he awakes the sensual woman deep inside her, but soon it is apparent he harbors a dark secret. Is their marriage part of a plan for revenge?”

Rinaldis-RevengeThis is a reissue of a book first published in 2002. I had forgotten how much a little more word count allowed authors in past years to add to the depth of the story and characterization. But it also reminded me that sometimes a bit more editing can be a good thing. “Rinaldi’s Revenge” starts slowly and with lots of clunky information snippets – only some of which seem to actually be needed. I do love to learn new things, especially historical information, but only if it adds to the story. If it feels like a “hey, here’s something cool I learned while researching that I felt I just had to wedge into the narrative somehow” then I’d rather it be left out. But on the other hand, there’s no doubt that the story is firmly set in its time frame.

I enjoyed the character of Elena. True she’s a typical “sheltered woman unexpectedly thrilling to a virile hero” but she recovers fairly well from her initial “zoing!” and doesn’t stand in a puddle of drool, gaping like an idiot. She’s probably not a typical 14th century woman in that she’s been raised by her Duke father to be his heir and thus is better educated, more used to speaking her mind and ruling. Yet this also makes her more interesting and understandable to modern readers. Still, she avoids being the dreaded overly feisty, kick-ass female.

Marco manages to be an alpha without being an asshole. He’s caught on early to how smart Elena is and seems impressed. Also he’s a Lord of some small township so the ultimate marriage isn’t so far out of line. And no one’s really, truly holding out for love. Even Elena is fairly down-to-earth in her beliefs about being able to marry for love and when the subject is broached, she looks at the marriage from a tactical standpoint as well. It’s obvious that Marco isn’t all that he at first appears to be and hints are dropped from early on as to his true past. I like that these hints don’t club me over the head but rather slowly fall into place and build up to the ultimate reveal.

The romance is evenly balanced as far as Elena and Marco falling early for the other, even if they’d deny it at this point. The power balance issues that I often have with historicals are countered with several things. She’s the ruler in charge and has been raised for that role. He’s got some kind of secret background that raises him above a standard jumped up peasant and is a take-charge soldier doing his job. The resolution of their differences actually worked well for me. Elena isn’t used to being left out of decisions that affect her Duchy but Marco isn’t used to consulting a woman. However, it isn’t simple misogyny on his part. He honestly never thought that she’d be interested in it and was going on the premise of “she hired me to do a job and I’m doing it.” When Elena gives him a reasoned and logical argument rather than hysterics and miffed feelings, he pauses, thinks about it and realizes she’s right – war is another form of statecraft and that is what she is used to being in charge of. Marco still occasionally has to stop and remind himself that from now on he and Elena are a pair and make decisions jointly but this transition for him seems well established by the end of the story.

As much as I like how well their relationship progresses, I do question whether they have a realistic wedding night. One brief bit of pain for virgin, untutored Elena and then it’s ecstasy, baby, all the way! And then comes the next day argument followed by the “I’m furious at you! Let’s f*ck!” scene.” The day after her wedding night and up against a wall? Elena is a quick start at this, eh? Then it’s every time ending in ecstasy. I mean every, single, damn time. Climbing the cliffs of ecstasy, touching the sky of ecstasy, going over the waterfall of ecstasy, shooting off the rockets of ecstasy… okay, I’m over-doing the silly here but every, single encounter – including her first time – is out of this world? This could be turned into a drinking game.

In regard to the external conflicts, the book features a fairly standard host of potential flies in the ointment from city advisers on the take to neighboring city rulers who would just love to add the wealthy duchy to their own holdings plus the early hints of hidden motives Rinaldi has. All of them seemed believable and reasonable as sources of issues for 15th century Italians to deal with. I also liked how the conflict was maintained throughout the course of the story – both internally and externally.

So, why a C+ final grade? There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent on descriptions of things and people. A little is good but it got sorta plodding in places. And there is lots of talk vs do, telling vs showing. Maybe it’s just me reacquainting myself with a slightly older style of writing but there were enough times when I felt a bit of pruning was needed here and some time was needed actually seeing something happen vs being told about it that brought down my happiness in the subject matter used and locale of the book. C+

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

REVIEW: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dear Ms. Hartman,

Your debut YA fantasy, Seraphina, set in a world based Renaissance Europe, is both a coming of age story and a tale of a clash between two species. Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh, the heroine of the novel, is the child of a human father and a dragon mother. The secret of her maternity is one she must hide at all costs.

SeraphinaIn this world, dragons are a logical, emotionless species, but they can take human shape and while doing so, experience human emotions – something they guard against vigilantly. A truce exists between the two species but there is also a lot of tension and bigotry. Most dragons in Goredd, Seraphina’s country, are required to wear a bell on their shoulder, although scholarly dragons are exempt.

From Seraphina’s narration, we learn that her father Claude had no idea his wife Linn was a dragon until Linn died giving birth to Seraphina. At first glance Seraphina appeared to be a normal human baby, and it was not until she was eleven that she discovered that she is not what she appears to be.

On that same occasion, Seraphina realized that her father’s odd friend Orma is really a dragon, her mother’s younger brother. Seeing Orma in his dragon shape broke open a cache of memories that Seraphina’s mother bequeathed to her. Seraphina passed out and had a vision in which she became her mother as she experienced one of these memories.

A distraught Seraphina returned to consciousness sick and feverish, and dragon scales appeared on her midriff and on her left forearm. Because of the bigotry and oppression dragons face in Goredd, Seraphina always hides her scales under layers of clothes. She is emotional and musically talented, two things dragons are not, so everyone takes her for human. It also helps that most humans and dragons don’t believe a half-human, half-dragon being such as Seraphina can exist.

Now, at age sixteen, Seraphina has become the music mistress in Castle Orison, assistant to the famed composer Viridius. Her father is unhappy about it; Seraphina is a brilliant musician and he is terrified that she will call attention to herself and the truth will come to light.

Seraphina feels isolated and alone with her secret. She does not dare get close to anyone lest that person discover the truth. The closest thing she has to a friend is Orma, and he does not express emotions. More than anything, Seraphina wants a friend, but for her own safety she rebuffs her fellow musicians and anyone else who attempts to befriend her.

Then, just as the treaty between Goredd and the dragons is about to be renewed and the nation awaits the arrival of Ardmagar Comonot, leader of the dragons, for that occasion, Prince Rufus, the queen’s son, is murdered.

Many suspect a dragon is behind the crime, and attacks against dragons increase. Prince Lucian Kiggs, a grandson of the queen and captain of her guard, is charged with investigating the murder. Lucian is illegitimate and was orphaned as a young child. Prince Rufus took him under his wing, so for Lucian, getting to the bottom of the truth is paramount.

An incident in which a dragon is attacked brings Seraphina to Lucian’s notice. He realizes how perceptive she is and begins to rely on her to notice clues. But Seraphina herself is a mystery, and mysteries are irresistible to Lucian. What will happen when he begins to dig into her life in search of answers?

Meanwhile, Seraphina herself has her share of mysteries to contend with. Not just who killed Prince Rufus, but also her mental garden of grotesques, a place peopled with beings whom she visits in her imagination, and who begin to show signs of independent life and thought.

Then there are the memories her mother left her, which Seraphina fears to allow herself to experience. And Orma and her father – are they what they appear to be?

But perhaps the biggest mystery of all is Seraphina herself. Forced to continually lie in order to hide her nature, she has no room to figure out who she is and how to be true to herself. Instead, she feels alienated from her scaly, “monstrous” body, from a mind which contains unwanted memories, from two societies that despise one another and from those who offer her friendship but whom she believes would hate her if they only knew.

Yet as Seraphina begins to accumulate clues to Rufus’ murder, to the garden of grotesques, to Orma, to her father, to her dead mother and to which friendships may be real enough to survive the truth, her alienation from her own body and spirit slowly lessens, and she begins to close the gap between the Seraphina she presents to the world and the Seraphina she is.

Thus, perhaps the biggest pleasure of the book is seeing Seraphina overcome obstacles which include her own dislike of herself, despite the bigotry she must face each and every day.

Seraphina is truly an impressive debut because the novel is strong on so many fronts. The worldbuilding is detailed and fresh, with well thought out cultures both in Goredd and the dragon realm.

There is an intricately plotted mystery which, in an interesting twist, is less about the whodunit question and more focused on the “Where is the killer?” question instead.

The novel’s pace is deliberate and thoughtful, but I wasn’t bored at any point. I’ve seen reviews by readers who felt that it was too slow, but I’m not one of them.

The characters are sometimes surprising and often intriguing, with Seraphina being the most layered of them all. Due to her standoffish aspect I only warmed to her gradually, but I also understood that her distance and deceitfulness were not parts of her nature, but rather, ways in which the prejudices she faced on a daily basis warped her behavior. Her brightness appealed to me and her isolation engendered my sympathy.

At times this book made for uncomfortable reading. Fantasy novels in which the characters must hide their true identity in order to escape persecution can be tough for me, and this book certainly fit that description. Seraphina’s feelings of being alien also reminded me of some experiences I had when I immigrated with my family to the country where I now live as a girl.

Ultimately, though, this was a well-written and rewarding novel. I can’t think of much negative to say about it other than that I guessed one or two plot twists ahead of time. I was reminded a bit of two favorite novels, Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief, with its poetic language, historic backdrop and dragons who can take human shape, and to a greater degree Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, with its intricate plot and mysteries, its themes of oppression, secrets and the search for truth. Both books have an unusual richness, and while this book is as different from them as it is similar, it has that quality too. B+.

~Janine

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