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REVIEW: Heart of Flame by Janine Ashbless

REVIEW: Heart of Flame by Janine Ashbless

And on the One-Thousand-and-Second night, Scheherazade told this story…

By day, Taqla uses her forbidden sorcery to move freely about the city of Damascus in the guise of an old sage. Her true identity known only by her faithful servant woman, Taqla is content with the comfortable, if restrictive, life that keeps her safe from the control of any man. Until she lays eyes on a handsome merchant-traveler. Suddenly her magical disguise doesn’t rest so easily on her shoulders.

When long-time widower, Rafiq, hears that the Amir’s beautiful daughter has been kidnapped by a scheming djinni—and that she will be given in marriage to her rescuer—he seeks the help of “Umar the Wise” to ensure he will be that man. Yet as he and the disguised Taqla set off, he senses that his prickly male companion is hiding something.

In a moment of dire peril, all of Taqla’s secrets are stripped bare—her fears, her sorcery and, worst of all, her love for Rafiq. Yet the princess’s life hangs in the balance, and there is no running away or turning back. Even though passion may yet betray them all…

Dear Ms Ashbless,

As the opening sentence says, this could be a story straight out of the Arabian Nights. I can imagine reclining on a divan, eating sugared dates, drinking sherbet and listening with rapt attention as a storyteller spins out the tale of Taqla and Rafiq in their quest to rescue the beautiful Ahleme, daughter of the Amir of Dimashq, from the clutches of the evil djinni Yazid. And what a tale it is with twists and turns and adventures galore. There were times when I honestly had no idea of what would come next and instances when I gnashed my teeth at whatever it was that interrupted me from reading the next page. Had I gotten off my duff and read it last year when I got the book, it would definitely have landed on my top ten list for the year.

Heart of Flame by Janine AshblessI used to read vampire books and shifter books and angel/demon books (but not zombies, seriously I don’t understand that one) but once the craze kicked in and that’s all people were writing, I got bored and irritated with yet another shifter book or emo/super alpha vampire hero. Frankly, I had basically given up reading any paranormal or fantasy book except for the Temerarie AU series. But here is a book with the lesser used djinni and djinniyah as well as being chock full of different creatures I’d never even heard of – though multiple Google searches bore out their inclusion in folk lore of the areas in which the book is set.

Horse Most Swift, Lion Most Strong, the Bag that Holds the World, the moving picture scroll offered to the Amir which lures his daughter into capture, the initial room Ahleme is kept a prisoner in which turns out to be hung in midair by a web of glass strands – there is something new in almost every chapter to at which to marvel. Taqla is a sorceress but there are definite limits to her powers and abilities – she often relies on instinct to guide her and she can be thwarted by someone who knows how to. Yazid and his sister Zubaida can conjure and whoosh something into or out of existence in the blink of an eye. The scene and image of djinn at play in a lake of molten fire is stunning and terrifying in turns. The single minded mission of an angel setting right what has been done wrong is chilling.

There are great individual scenes such as when Rafiq and Taqla in disguise flee across rooftops and through the back of stores from his enemies in Dimashq. I kept picturing the early bazaar scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc. Or the narrow escape of these two from the ghoulish Pale People or the giant fish that guards the special apple tree. In fact all through the story I kept thinking “this would make a hell of a movie.” The pacing is good with no draggy middle or drawn out end. It’s colorful, imaginative yet based on the places, beings and mythology of the place and time: the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the nasty little seer Safan inTaysafun, the underwater desert sea, the the fruit from a particular tree. I love how this quest is gently dropped into the story without a lot of fanfare – the tree grew from an apple core that was thrown into the Tigris a very long time ago. My favorite is Senmurw, the Bird of Compassion, who is fantastic. I was actually tearing up a little at what she says to Taqla about love. She makes up for Yaghuth who is particularly awful and I approve of Taqla’s desire to bury that temple with the sands of time. The Pale People were utterly repulsive. The tale of Ardishir and his consort Adhur-Anahid made me shudder. As is her ultimate end – though she seems to have well deserved it.

We actually get two love stories for the price of one here – Taqla and Rafiq and then Yazid and Ahleme. Taqla is older and used to living on her own through her ability to disguise herself as Umar and Zahir which allows her to live without a man in her life. After she tells Rafiq the story of her childhood, he realizes why she’s chosen to avoid marriage as she’s seen firsthand that a man can destroy a woman’s life and that women have less power in this world just because of their physiology. I thought the vision Taqla had of growing old as Safan had also helped contribute to her willingness to change. For his part, Rafiq has also learned a bitter lesson about marriage. He often left his first bride to continue his merchant travels and never bothered to try to either get to know her or learn to love her. He returned to find her dead of a plague and, chastised, only then realized how little he knew her. Each of them has to learn to trust the other and be willing to share a life with another person. It takes their journeying and cooperation in achieving each of the goals to bring this about as they would never have gone beyond surface attraction otherwise. As much as they did, I came to enjoy their bickering – which becomes more playful as the story progresses – and have a vision of them taking verbal shots at each other as they grow old together. And I like that I can see the changes in them slowly taking place over the course of the story instead of BAM! all at once. Though of course neither quite realizes what’s happening at the time.

As for Yazid and Ahleme – here the contrast is between human and djinn, youthful daydreams of love and notions of protecting family honor via virginity vs age old bitterness at the subjugation of a race and determination to eliminate the possibility of future imprisonment of a djinni’s will.
Yazid begins his efforts at conquest with strength and bluster. He’s the big, bad, blue djinni who can create things out of thin air at will, who can become three times the size of a man and shout the house down. He wants what he wants and doesn’t truly care how this will affect an innocent woman. Up to now, Ahleme has been living in a silken prison of the harem in Dimashq so this new prison isn’t far from what she’s used to. She doesn’t have attendants and it takes a while for Yazid to provide her with amusements to pass her time – after he learns the hard way that humans require regular food and water to live – but she has a strong will and won’t bow down or give up her family honor without a fight. It’s not until Yazid does something for her that takes personal effort vs just snapping his fingers that she begins to soften. He listened to her and she realizes she can’t think of a time before when a man has done that. Yazid also doesn’t overpower her when he easily could have. He then tries to turn her innocence against her as he physically woos her. Still she hangs on until she sees the sacrifice he’s willing to make to keep her safe before giving in.

I finished reading with a couple of questions and inconsistencies that popped out at me. The Amir of Dimashq alternately has only one child – Ahleme – or more than one (in the scene where she’s kidnapped at the audience she’s mentioned as the Amir’s eldest daughter and the Amir is said to like to spend time with his children). The Bag that Holds the World seems to be able to hold anything and mention is made of Taqla pulling food out of it during their journey but when they’re forced to spend the night on one of the marsh islands, they have to go hungry because as desert land dwellers they don’t know how to fish. One of the very minor characters mentions the Holy Qur’an yet several times characters drink or are offered wine. But these aren’t things which are deal breakers and none of them impaired my enjoyment of the book.

Is there going to be a sequel? What happens to Ahleme and Yazid? Does Taqla figure out how to control Zubaida or will she get free of the imprisoning spell? Will Taqla and Rafiq travel together and have more adventures? I love it when I finish a book and want more. A-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Love is a Battlefield by Tamara Morgan

REVIEW: Love is a Battlefield by Tamara Morgan

Dear Ms. Morgan,

Though I’ve made the decision not to read any more Jane Austen fanfic – um, I mean homages to JA extending the lives of the characters she created, I couldn’t pass up this book which not really about any of the books JA wrote but rather about a reenactment society dedicated to those books and the world of JA. Nah, not really, in fact it’s about one of the members of that group who goes toe to toe with a hero dedicated to all things manly and Scottish. Kudos to you for managing to combine two of the most beloved tropes in RomanceLand.

Love is a Battlefield by Tamara MorganKate Simmons might be a modern day bookstore manager but within her beats the heart of a woman in love with the romance and gentility of the books of Jane Austen. She’s also a dedicated member of the Jane Austen Regency Reenactment Society (JARRS) and has been put in charge of this year’s annual Fauxhall Gardens gala which they plan to hold on August 16th to celebrate the birthday of Georgette Heyer. Everything is spiffy except for finding a location near Spokane to host the event. So far, all the spots are either littered with discarded addict needles or far beyond the modest means of the JARRS. That is until Kate learns about a piece of public land that could be perfect. The only problem is it’s already been staked out by another group.

Julian Wallace might sound like he’s got a Scottish name but actually he’s part Asian/part Caucasian. He does brood nicely and looks damn fine in a kilt which he proudly dons while participating in the lifestyle introduced to him by his stepfather – the Scottish Highland Games. Julian competes in the hammer throw and this year is the year he plans on two things happening. The first is to take back the record once held by his stepfather which was wrested away by a rich knave named Duke Kilroy. The second is to secure a sponsorship from a whiskey distillery which would allow Julian to pay his expenses in this sport and also help support his mother and sisters. And no prissy group of women – regardless of how cute he thinks Kate is – who want to hold a glorified tea party on the same spot on the same weekend are going to get in his way.

So, there are two groups who both need the same land at the same time and two organizers who both have reasons very important to them to secure said land. Let the games begin.

The introduction of the main characters of Kate and Julian show, in a nutshell, exactly who they are and what is important to them at this time. Kate loves the JARRS, though she realizes that not everyone does. She dragged her best friend Jada to a ball and regrets it. Though Kate does laugh at the way Jada spices up the evening even if it causes some of the older ladies to swoon – and not in a good way. Julian is almost fanatically devoted throwing the hammer and being manly as he imagines the great Scottish warriors of olde were. But both are immediately attracted to the other and adult enough to try to work out a compromise over some drinks at a local martini bar only to discover that by “compromise” Julian and Kate each fondly imagine the other will give in.

Only this time, for almost the first time in her life, Kate discovers in herself an overwhelming desire to win. She’s been the good little girl, the easy girlfriend, the one who’s always given up or given in to the demands of others but damn it, not this time. So Julian wants to play rough does he? She’ll show him and everyone else that she’s got what it takes. For his part, Julian hopes that a bit of intimidation will send Kate and the JARRS running. After all, the Scots are better than the English any day. To his surprise, and a little bit to his delight, Kate doesn’t dissolve into tears at the roadblocks he puts in her path. No, Kate gets mad. And then she gets even.

I found that I enjoyed Kate’s various plots to get her revenge and wish that the results of one of them had figured more prominently in the scenes of the actual Games. Highland warriors in kilts plus Drag Queens would have been hysterically funny. Julian’s efforts to beat Kate made me just the slightest bit twitchy. You keep saying that his mother taught him to treat women better than that and Julian himself is uneasy but it seems that his efforts to beat Kate are a touch more mean spirited. Good for Kate that she never buckles. I also like how her friends are willing to pitch in and help her just as Julian’s are there for him. And if the two groups have fun in a hot tub while each trying to stake out the park, well no harm – no foul. The solution that Kate discovers and devises is ingenious and the scenes of how it plays out are some of my favorite in the book. The inclusion of dampening the women’s dresses is brilliant.

What do I think of the flow and resolution of the romance? I like it. You show Kate and Julian beginning to soften towards each other as a progression of them learning more about the other rather than a sudden thunderbolt of lurve. Though they start their relationship as seeming opposites, both discover how suited they are for the other and when they finally do compromise, it feels more even handed and something done for love rather than one or the other giving in.

One thing that I did get tired of is the repetition of Julian’s “Me Great Scottish Warrior. Have pair the size of grapefruits.” chest beating and testosterone oozing. Kate jokes that she almost believes Julian would whip it out and start peeing on the park grounds to stake his claim and I don’t think she’s too far off. I think Julian’s watched “Braveheart” a few too many times.

Still I finished the book with the feeling that Kate has a kilt in her future – and will be happy about that – and that Julian is going to end up cheerfully wearing his pantaloons and cravat to future JARRS events. And that’s why I read romance novels.

~Jayne

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