What Janine is Reading in Late Winter 2018
Song of the Current by Sarah Tolscer
This YA fantasy debut had been on my radar since Cecilia Grant, who knows the author, mentioned it online, prior to its publication. When the price was discounted recently, I purchased it and have no regrets.
Caro is the daughter of a wherryman. Her “Pa” and all his ancestors share a special connection with the river god, who speaks to them in the language of small things. But the river god has bitterly disappointed Caro by refusing to speak to her.
Caro and her father stumble on a burning town while sailing the river. All the other wherries nearby have been sunk, and officials attempt to strong-arm Caro’s father into delivering a mysterious crate. When her father refuses and is arrested, Caro signs the contract to deliver the crate in exchange for his freedom.
Assisted by Fee, a frogwoman, Caro escapes the pirates who sunk the other wherries to prevent the crate from being delivered. But when she is almost killed, Caro breaks her contract by opening the crate, which turns out to be enchanted and contains an arrogant boy.
Who is he and how did he come to be in the crate? Should Caro listen to his insistence on changing the course of their journey? Will the river god speak to her in the language of small things and help her understand what she should do? Or does Caro’s destiny lie elsewhere?
Some parts of this novel’s plot turns were heavily foreshadowed and thus easy to predict, but there was at least one twist I did not anticipate. The strong-minded characters grew on me as the book proved itself to be an entertaining swashbuckler, the romance was nice, and there was even a (fade-to-black partway) sex scene, something not that common in YA novels.
With an upbeat ending and a sense of fun, Song of the Current was enjoyable enough that I will probably read its sequel, Whisper of the Tide, when it comes out in June. B.
Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
I put a hold on this book at the library before its release because I enjoyed the previous novel in the series, Devil in Spring, and was looking forward to Dr. Garrett Gibson’s story. Unfortunately, I had multiple issues with Hello Stranger and ended up putting it down unfinished at page 97.
Dr. Garrett Gibson, England’s only female doctor, is accosted by a ruffians on a deserted street in the evening early in the novel. Ethan Ransom, sometime detective and spy, comes to her rescue and disarms them, then offers Garrett lessons in self-defense.
Meanwhile, West Ravenel intercepts Ethan while the latter is meeting with West’s relative by marriage, Rhys Winterborne. West tries to speak to Ethan about a bequest that was left to him by the previous Lord Ravenel; Ethan refuses to hear of it.
Garrett and Ethan spend an evening together during a street fair, and she invites him to her house, where the self-defense lessons get hot and heavy. Each is drawn to the other, but Ethan feels he must resist Garrett, since he is about to leave England on a secret mission. Still, he can’t seem to keep from telling her about a lady of the night who taught him the many positions of the Kama Sutra while he was in India. This was more or less the point where I stopped reading.
Why is it that the Kama Sutra makes so many appearances in historical romances set in Europe and featuring white characters? Why stereotype India and Indians as experts in the Kama Sutra when that is far from the reality? Why make the sex worker, the only POC character in the portion I read of the novel, a nameless cipher?
This review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books covers this issue more thoroughly than I have, and Lisa Kleypas responded by apologizing and promising to change future editions of the novel. That response is to be commended, and it posted before I reached the scene in question. Had this one scene been my only issue with the book, I might have continued reading, but I had other niggles too.
Garrett was portrayed in Marrying Winterborne as an accomplished fencer; well-able to defend herself and another young woman in the bargain, so I was disappointed to see her outmatched by the thugs and rescued by Ethan. I didn’t see why it was necessary to strip her of her power and agency in this way.
I also didn’t buy Ethan’s character. He seemed to be one of those prodigies who is good at every form of spy craft and crime solving he embarks on, and to add to that, his activities were kept secret. Without specifics it was hard to believe he was as exceptional as he was said to be, especially since he seemed to be more focused on time off with Garrett than on his job.
In addition, not only did the Kama Sutra discussion bother me for the aforementioned reasons, I also took it as an indication that this, like many a Kleypas romance, would focus on having the hero initiate the virginal heroine into the wonders of sex. Initiation to physical pleasure can make for a powerful fantasy, but I felt that a heroine like Garrett, a doctor and a pioneering one at that, needed something different than to be dazed with wonder at sexual feelings. Like the scene in which Ethan saves her from the ruffians, this scene, too, took away some of her agency and competence.
The one thing I liked in Hello Stranger was the scene between West and Ethan. I would have liked to read more about Ethan’s connection to the Ravenels, but I didn’t feel like powering through the rest of the book to find those sections. DNF.
The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
The Queen of Blood is a fantasy novel, first in the Queens of Renthia trilogy, which I picked up when it was on sale, following rave reviews from Smart Bitches and Rosario’s Reading Journal, as well as recommendation from a Goodreads friend.
The book is set in a world in which violent spirits of the natural world are prevented from attacking humans only by a powerful queen, and champions recruit young women to train as potential heirs to the throne.
When Daleina is a child, her village is attacked by spirits and she is able to save her immediate family, if not the others. Ven, a respected champion, assists her family but then thinks nothing more of her, since the girl doesn’t have enough power to be queen.
But Daleina manages to gain entry to an academy that trains girls with power, and although she is among the least powerful students, she is ethical and studies hard. Eventually, her path intersects with that of the now-discredited Ven, and he agrees to further her training.
Though The Queen of Blood is an adult fantasy novel, it riffs on a trope of YA fantasy, the competition among candidates, and has a youthful protagonist, too, so it may appeal to some teens as well as to adults.
I’m not sure what to make of this book, though. It had strong worldbuilding (I especially loved the way the villages and cities were located in giant trees) and a likeable, interesting heroine, as well as a lot of co-operation between the girls at the academy and a couple of touching love stories. Hanna, headmistress of the academy, was a great character, too.
But while I admired Daleina’s indomitable spirit and her persistence in the face of multiple setbacks and hardships, I wasn’t certain she could really serve her country best as queen. In some ways she was the most qualified candidate, but in other ways, the least.
There were quite a few copyediting errors in the book, though since the book was such a compulsive page-turner, I didn’t stop to make note of them.
A bigger issue for me was the trajectory of the novel. The ending was quite dark, and I wasn’t sure what all the suffering endured by so many was for, in the end. While the book was compulsively readable, I was left feeling that the author wanted to tell a tale and build a world, but didn’t care how her readers felt upon closing the book.
Because of that, I’m on the fence about reading the second novel in the trilogy, The Reluctant Queen, though it is in my TBR pile, and seeing that book three is titled The Queen of Sorrows hasn’t tipped the scales in its favor. C+ for The Queen of Blood.