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revenge-plot

REVIEW:  The Ballad of Emma O’Toole by Elizabeth Lane

REVIEW: The Ballad of Emma O’Toole by Elizabeth Lane

Ballad-Emma

Dear Ms. Lane,

I hadn’t read a western in a while so the blurb for this one caught my eye.

High stakes marriage

After shooting a man, the stakes for gambler Logan Devereaux have never been higher. On trial for his life, he’s offered a shocking alternate form of restitution…marriage to his victim’s pregnant sweetheart!

Beautiful Emma O’Toole has sworn vengeance against him—and when a newspaper man puts her tragic story to song, the whole nation waits to see what she’ll do. Their marriage is the riskiest gamble Logan’s ever taken. But he’ll put everything he’s got on the line for a chance at winning Emma’s heart.

This set up, plus my luck with several of your other books, got me to put this one in my TBR queue and to move it to the top fairly quickly. I enjoyed reading a western again but somehow this story just never quite took flight.

Forced marriage of convenience, sworn vengeance, enemies-to-lovers, blackmail, muckraking crusade for social justice – the book had several plotlines that could have been twisted together for a bang up story. But despite the potential, each one sort of drifted along, never quite reached a crescendo of emotion and then got resolved. Sort of like being taken down a swift river with some blind curves but no real plunging, waterfall payoff that got my heart racing.

Emma is faced with social ruination from an unwed pregnancy after her fiancé is killed but the quick marriage and her husband’s money smooths that over and soon the townsfolk seem to forget. Logan is jailed and tried for Billy John’s murder but a smart lawyer and a Mormon judge set on saving those he considers sinners get a lesser conviction and force the quick marriage after which no one seems to remember the crime Logan was found guilty of. Even Emma drifts along with the marriage for months before remembering she swore to avenge her dead lover.

Mining conditions take up a great deal of the next portion of the book. I learned a lot about the dangers of mining then as well as the difficulties of making mines profitable. It was all interesting but not what I’d call riveting and not what I wanted instead of romance. Emma thinks she has a way of getting Logan to pay for what he did but that doesn’t work out as she thought it would though it does bring them to a point in their marriage where they begin being more honest with each other. I’ll give the book points for that though soon it sinks into a bit of melodrama before quickly moving on past that as well.

The villain of the story remains the villain until the end with only a cursory explanation for his motives. Emma and Logan band together to see to his end and finally confess all to each other thus clearing the way for their future but the epilogue is required to neatly, almost too neatly, tie up all the loose ends and send the two lovers off into a rosy sunset. Perhaps there just isn’t enough word count space these days but I feel that this book could have, and in the past would have, been so much more. Now though it just felt superficial and too rushed as the points were more skimmed over than delved into. C

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott

REVIEW: Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott

Dear Ms. Marriott,

I’m always on the lookout for books featuring nonwhite characters so when I stumbled across your new novel on NetGalley, I had to request it. I know my previous encounter with your work was so-so but the experience certainly wasn’t enough to turn me off to the possibility of giving you another try. I’m so very glad I did.

shadows-on-the-moonShadows on the Moon tells the story of Suzume, the daughter of a noble family. When the book opens, she’s looking forward to celebrating her birthday without the oppressive presence of her mother, who’s currently away visiting a bereaved relative. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a happy day turns to tragedy. Soldiers attack her family and everyone is killed.

Everyone except for Suzume, that is. (After all, if Suzume died, there’d be no story.) Suzume manages to survive and reunites with her mother, who arrives by the side of powerful lord Terayama who was also the best friend of Suzume’s father. Terayama takes in both Suzume and her mother and as perceptive readers can guess, soon her mother and Terayama marry.

Suzume throws all she has into forgetting what happened and becoming a perfect daughter and lady. That plan falls apart when she learns the truth: Terayama was responsible for the death of her beloved father and cousin. It’s something Suzume cannot forgive. And so she casts off her entire identity in order to seek revenge.

This was one of the more original retellings of Cinderella I’ve seen. I’m not even referring to the setting, which is a fantasy world loosely based on what I believe to be Heian era Japan. The interweaving of Suzume’s quest for revenge with her psychological trauma and burgeoning magical ability against the original Cinderella story was well done. I also found it interesting that the wicked stepmother and fairy godmother roles were genderflipped and assumed by male characters here.

I also thought it was refreshing that Suzume’s prince was not actually the Prince Charming character. In fact, the Prince Charming analogue is rather bland — something Suzume acknowledges, but she sees him as a means to an end rather than her one true love. Instead Suzume’s love interest was another prince entirely. It was great that he was not only nonwhite but also the African analogue of this setting. It’s still relatively rare to find interracial romances between nonwhite characters (versus the more common white/nonwhite couple), and I liked seeing that representation here.

Speaking of great, it was also nice to see a trans woman as a major supporting character, especially when she wasn’t portrayed as a freak. It’s still 50/50 these days when it comes to portrayals of transgendered characters. (And maybe I’m being generous with those odds.) While Akira is infamous, it has more to do with her past role as the lover of the previous Prince than her gender in and of itself. It was nice that Shadows on the Moon didn’t just focus on diversity in race but also queer diversity. That’s more inclusive.

I found Suzume’s trauma over the family massacre, as well as her guilt over surviving it, to be handled pretty well. As a reader, I felt how damaged she was and saw how it ultimately led to her cutting. And a warning to readers sensitive to depictions of cutting, there’s a lot of it, especially in the first parts of the novel where Suzume is the most freshly traumatized by her experience. I wouldn’t say it was portrayed in explicit detail but it’s definitely present and Suzume relies on it quite a bit.

I appreciated the effort to leave certain Japanese terms untranslated. Because it’s true; some things are lost in translation due to there being no English-language equivalent. For example, Japanese honorifics like -san or -chan. Translating these terms can be clunky and awkward so I favor leaving them as is. On the other hand, there can be such a thing as including too much. If there’s a direct English translation of a Japanese word, I see no reason to leave it in the original Japanese. For example, baka means idiot or stupid. There’s no reason why that can’t be translated. I realize it’s a fine line to walk. Some prefer more original Japanese language while others like none to be included at all.

Revenge stories are one of my favorite narratives so I stayed glued to the pages until the end. However, the more we approached the end, the messier the plot became — and I don’t mean in a good way. It seemed rushed and anticlimatic. It’s not that I thought Suzume’s ultimate revenge against Terayama to be inappropriate; I found it fitting, in fact. But the narrative tension lost some steam when a certain reveal took place right before the climax.

Retellings are fairly common, and Cinderella is often a popular choice. Despite this, I thought Shadows on the Moon brought something new to the table. The choice of setting, the diverse cast of characters, and the heroine’s personal trauma and determination to seek revenge no matter the cost made this a worthwhile read for me. B

My regards,
Jia

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