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REVIEW:  The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

REVIEW: The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

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Dear Ms. Pearson,

Amazon listed your YA fantasy novel, The Kiss of Deception, as one of the best young adult books of the summer and I remembered enjoying your earlier book, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, so I requested The Kiss of Deception at my local library.

What can I say about this book? Its beginning was a letdown but by the end I was riveted. And it had almost nothing in common with The Adoration of Jenna Fox except for the theme of deceptions and secrets. It is also a darker book than its predecessor.

The Kiss of Deception begins awkwardly. The opening paragraphs, in seventeen year old Lia’s POV, is portentous:

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.

Honestly, when I first read this it struck me as heavily melodramatic and by the end of the first chapter I was tempted to stop reading altogether. But now that I’ve finished the book, I see double meanings in these words and they make a lot more sense to me than they did at first.

In this first chapter, we learn that seventeen year old Lia (short for a string of four names that ends in Jezelia), Princess of Morrighan, is about to be married to a prince whom she has never seen, from Morrighan’s neighboring kingdom of Dalbreck.

Even worse, like all first daughters, Lia is supposed to have a gift for knowing the future to bring to her marriage. But Lia has never seen evidence of such a gift and she is being forced by her parents to marry under false pretenses.

The reason for the marriage is that the “barbarians” from faraway Venda are beginning to encroach on Dalbreck and Morrighan. Neither nation can defeat the Vendans alone, but united by this marriage, they would be able to accomplish it.

A wedding kava, a temporary drawing, is applied to Lia’s back. At the last moment her mother touches Lia’s shoulder, where the lion of the kingdom of Dalbreck is drawn, intertwined with the vines that represent Morrighan.

Lia has other ideas though, and she escapes with her lady-in-waiting Pauline. The two girls ride into a nearby forest and plant misleading clues along the way. They sell jewels and trade their two horses for three donkeys before they arrive in Terravin, a village where Pauline knows an innkeeper who once took her in.

From the first sight of Terravin, Lia feels at home. She decides to take on a new life as a commoner and insists to Berdi, the innkeeper, that she’s not too aristocratic to work as a maid in the inn’s tavern.

Lia does not realize she’s been followed by two men. One is the Prince of Dalbreck. Before their wedding day, Lia, who mistakenly thought him much older than she, wrote him a missive, “I should like to inspect you before our wedding day.” The nineteen year prince did not comply, but now he realizes he should have. Injured pride and curiosity cause him to follow Lia alone and incognito.

The other man who follows Lia is a young assassin who hails from Venda. The assassin’s past is shrouded in mystery but the little we readers know about him is that he’s had a bad experience with royals elsewhere and was taken in by the Komizar, the leader of the Vendans, who trained him to be a killer.

Now the Komizar wants all hope of an alliance between Morrighan and Dalbreck scuttled and has sent the assassin to kill Lia to ensure that. The assassin has a month before he has to meet with four other killers he’s traveling with—a group that includes a ten year old boy.

(The assassin and the prince’s names are given, but due to occasional chapters in their viewpoints initially titled “The Prince” or “The Assassin,” many readers may not guess which of the two is the assassin and which is the prince for quite a while into the book– a technique that generates considerable suspense when Lia later begins to fall for one of them. One is named Kaden and the other Rafe, but I won’t say which is which.)

The two guys quickly ascertain Lia works as a tavern maid and enter the inn at the same time, sitting at the same table. They witness Lia dressing down a soldier who harassed Pauline, and realize Lia must be the princess. In typical YA fashion, Lia is attracted to both boys, but she doesn’t realize who they are.

Shortly afterward, the assassin has the opportunity to kill Lia but her kindness to him stays his hand. But he still has a month left until his rendezvous with the other assassins, and he’s sure another opportunity will present itself.

For a while, life in Terravin appears idyllic. There are some problems, like the fact that the part of the kava Lia’s mother touched won’t wash off her shoulder, a wrong conclusion Rafe and Kaden jump to when Lia has a visitor, Pauline’s unexpected pregnancy by a man whom Lia senses may be dead, and the arrival of another assassin sent by Morrighan’s Scholar, an advisor to Lia’s father from whom Lia stole two rare books.

But all these concerns seem trivial in the face of something that happens around middle of the book. This involves big spoilers (including revealing which of the two guys Lia falls for), but I can’t discuss the book without mentioning it, because it creates a huge tonal shift in the book and also involves a couple of elements which may be triggering for some readers:

Spoiler: Show

Shortly after Lia has fallen in love with the prince, her brother’s young and pregnant wife is killed by the assassins working in tandem with the assassin. Lia’s brother is devastated and vows revenge on the Vendans who killed her. Lia feels that her evasion of her duty to marry made this killing possible, and she resolves to return home and marry the Prince of Dalbreck, little realizing he is her suitor.

The prince does not reveal his identity, but asks Lia to await his escort on the road, and rides away to meet with a few of his fellow soldiers. But the assassin also learns what Lia is planning, and before Lia and Pauline can reach the prince, he and his fellow assassins kidnap Lia and take her on a journey to Venda. Pauline tells the prince what happened, and he decides to follow Lia into danger with a small group of his own men.

I would never have guessed what to expect from this book, and the sequels to follow, based on the way it began. The first half is flashback-heavy, and some of the backstory conveyed seems trivial, such as the way Lia got her name (And also, why Lia? I couldn’t help but think of Star Wars’ Princess Leia). In fact, details such as this later come to matter.

It was also hard for me to care about Lia at first. She escapes her arranged marriage with no concern for how it will affect the political situation facing her country, partly from a refusal to enter into a marriage by deceiving her husband, but more because she wants freedom and to be loved for herself rather than for her title.

While these are understandable reasons for most people, I didn’t understand at first where she got these ideas from. It takes a long time for the mention that her brothers married for love to arrive, and without it (to some degree even with it), it seems odd that a princess would have such notions.

Then there is the matter of the gift Lia is convinced she doesn’t have. Why do only first daughters have it? This seemed silly to me. It’s also clear that Lia does have intuition about some things, such as the fate of Pauline’s lover. Hints come to her over and over, and she ignored them. Why? Both these things annoyed me, but when the answers to these questions finally came, my annoyance disappeared and I was satisfied.

The love triangle too, initially seemed like it was going to tread predictable YA ground, with two boys vying for Lia’s attention and affection at the same time. Although occasionally there was a chapter in one or the other’s POV, at first I had to remind myself which was the one I thought was the assassin and which was the one I theorized was the prince, since they didn’t seem to differ that much. But then came the twist at the midpoint and this expectation, along with many others, was utterly subverted. I don’t think I will  see Rafe and Kaden as similar from here on out.

The first quarter of the book reads like a standard issue YA, and if I hadn’t read and liked The Adoration of Jenna Fox, I might have quit right there. The second quarter is a sweet village-based story, with a romance that develops perhaps too fast. But then come the latter two quarters and wow, is that a totally different story. One where the heroine’s strength becomes truly impressive and very bad things happen to people she loves.

If it was hard for me to care about Lia at first, I was entirely on her side by the end of the book. We witness her maturation from a girl who is guided by personal concerns into a young woman with a spine of steel.

If it was hard for me to care which boy Lia would choose at first, I’m firmly in one camp now, but can’t say more without spoilers.

This may not be the book for readers who don’t want to put up with a slow-to-catch-fire beginning and with the novel’s seeming flaws. But to readers who are willing to make the initial investment for the riveting second half and for the rest of the series, I recommend this book. B-.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

REVIEW: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Dear Mr. Abercrombie,

Ronnie from Paranormal Haven recommended Half a King to me, and it since I have another friend who enjoys your adult fantasy novels, it seemed like a good idea to give this, your first YA fantasy novel, a try.

Half-a-KingHalf a King (book one in the Shattered Sea trilogy) takes place in a society inspired by that of the Vikings and begins with Yarvi, the second son of the King of Gettland, about to take a test that will strip him of his standing and make him a minister. Yarvi has a disability, a crooked hand, that limits his fighting ability, but he’s intelligent enough to make a good candidate for the ministry, an organization that advises the kings of the kingdoms around the Shattered Sea.

Before he can become a minister, though, Yarvi is informed by his uncle Odem that his father and brother are dead – killed at the hands of another king, Grom-gil-Gorm, who sent Yarvi’s father a message offering peace, but then killed him and his heir when they arrived to negotiate.

Yarvi is now the rightful king, but because of his disability, many in his ableist society see him as only half a man, half a king. Yarvi himself has internalized this view of himself (to a degree I found problematic—more on this later), and is intimidated by the thought of ascending to the throne and attempting to avenge his father and brother’s deaths as he must now do.

With his uncle Odem and his mother advising him, Yarvi soon becomes betrothed to his cousin Isriun. He also swears an oath to avenge the deaths of his father and brother, and then he and his uncle, as well as Hurik, his mother’s guard, sail to fight Grom-gil-Gorm’s people.

In the raid on their enemy’s kingdom, Hurik and Odem turn on Yarvi, revealing that they mean to kill him. Yarvi falls into the sea and is assumed drowned, but he comes ashore at Grom-gil-Gorm’s feet. Yarvi realizes that his uncle made up the peace offer from Grom-gil-Gorm in order to lure Yarvi’s father and brother to their deaths. To save his skin and survive to carry out his oath of vengeance on its true target, Yarvi pretends to be a cook’s boy and is sold into slavery.

Yarvi is purchased by a ship’s captain as an oar slave. On the ship, Yarvi presents himself as Yorv to his two oar mates and fellow slaves Jaud and Rulf. Together the three (as well as most of the crew) suffer hunger, cold, exhaustion and other privations. Yarvi bides his time, praying for an opportunity to escape and execute his revenge on his uncle. Eventually, though fraught with danger, such an opportunity does arrive….

Half a King has strengths that impressed me and weaknesses that frustrated me a great deal. I’ll start with what I liked.

My favorite part of the book was the middle section, in which Yarvi escapes slavery and finds a group of allies with whom he bonds. I don’t know why but while I don’t find hardship at all appealing to live through, I really enjoy books in which characters have to survive in difficult conditions and discover strength and endurance that they never knew they had. This part of the book had all that and I enjoyed it a great deal.

The characterizations didn’t always strike me as completely believable, but I don’t think they were entirely meant to. The book is written in a language that seems suitable to legends, and the characters are mostly suitable to legends too. I didn’t like all the characters equally, but they were almost all memorable and colorful.

The voice of the story is distinctive too—here’s a paragraph of description to show what I mean by that:

Yarvi’s stomach was in his sick-sour mouth as they crested one surging mountain of water, was sucked into his arse as they plunged into the foam-white valley beyond, pitching and yawing, deeper and deeper until they were surrounded by the towering sea on every side and he was sure they would be snatched into unknowable depths, drowned to a man.

Whatever one thinks of that style, whether one likes it or doesn’t like it (it took me a lot of getting used to), one can’t deny that it’s vivid and descriptive. It feels deliberate in its musicality, which isn’t the case with every book.

The plot goes in unexpected directions and toward the end of the book, there are a couple of big twists I didn’t see coming. Since I’m usually able to anticipate surprises this was something I enjoyed. When I say the twists are big, I mean that they are the kind of twists that cast the entire book in a new light. I could envision reading it again with a new understanding I didn’t have the first time, and enjoying it in a different way, if it weren’t for the frustrations I encountered.

Of these frustrations, the biggest was the way Yarvi’s disability was portrayed. Since Yarvi was born with his weak and crooked hand, he has had his entire lifetime to accept this fact. But unbelievably, he hasn’t. Throughout a good portion of the book, he wishes, over and over, for “Two good hands.” It is almost a refrain of his, and it didn’t take me long to get fed up with it.

I wanted Yarvi to get over his ableist self-pity and move on, find something active and interesting to do in the story besides whining and being victimized. He does, eventually, but it took a good chunk of the book to get there, and I gave serious consideration to quitting because of it.

Yarvi also spends most of the first third of the book with very little agency, either as the puppet of his uncle and his mother or as a slave. What all this added up to is that I didn’t like him that much until the middle section that I mentioned earlier. Then, just as that section was coming to a close and I was rooting for him, Yarvi made some questionable choices that made me view him with less liking than I’d felt in the middle, and that remained the case for much of the final third.

Without giving away the plot turns at the end of the book, the first of these twists confused me initially, and the second left me with some uncertainty about the direction of Yarvi’s character arc. Still, I think if hadn’t been for his attitude toward his disability, I would have liked Yarvi and the book more. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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