Posts Tagged fantasy/romance

#RomanceSaturday at SBR Returns with Sherry Thomas’s “The Immortal Heights”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR!

Sorry about the long delay between reviews, folks…life has intervened. (To make a long story shorter: I’m struggling with my third novel, CHANGING FACES, which is due out in a few months via Twilight Times Books. And Jason recently finished a new novel, KRAKEN MARE, with co-writer Chris Smith…can’t wait to see that one come out.)  But I do have an interesting book to review today…let’s get to it.

theimmortalheights250Sherry Thomas‘s third book in her Elemental Trilogy is THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS. (Book one, THE BURNING SKY, was reviewed here; book two, THE PERILOUS SEA, was reviewed here.) All three books feature young elemental mages Iolanthe Seabourne (also known as Archer Fairfax) and Titus, Prince of Elberon — otherwise known as the Domain. (The Domain is a magical realm that both interacts with the known world of late 19th Century England and is separate from it.) They’re running from a horrible despot known as the Bane, Master of Atlantis (yes, Atlantis is real in Ms. Thomas’s conception, but is another magical, separate place that’s known to us only via legend). Book two ended with Prince Titus and Iolanthe allied with a number of would-be sorcerers, many of them Indian (including a possible analogue for Mohandas Gandhi called Kashkari, seen here as a young man who firmly believes in sorcery and is deeply in love with his brother’s wife), committed to fighting the Bane in full. They’ve even come up with a rallying cry: “Fortune favors the brave. And the brave make their own fortune!”

So, Iolanthe and Prince Titus might be young, and still somewhat inexperienced, but they are powerful. (Iolanthe in particular is the most powerful magician anyone’s ever seen, as she has command over all four elements — Air, Fire, Earth, and Water.) But the Bane is a coercive sorcerer who’s been stealing other people’s bodies for years, in order to keep himself alive and keep his reign of terror going. How are these two naïfs going to beat the Bane?

Ah, but I promised you a romance, didn’t I?

Trust me, there’s plenty of that. Prince Titus must lean on Iolanthe quite heavily, and they are in danger throughout as the Bane is wily, skilled, and has learned much during his unnaturally long life. Yet there’s plenty of time for quieter moments, too…it’s obvious these two are deeply in love, and that love is based on friendship and shared experiences.

I loved that.

But that’s only one part of THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS. There were many other questions to be answered here, including, “Who were Iolanthe’s parents, really? What happened to Prince Titus’s father? What will happen to Kashkari, his brother, and his sister-in-law during the epic battle?” Ms. Thomas answered these questions carefully, with great skill, and yet with an odd sort of reserve that I tend to view as particularly British…so it’s historically as accurate as a writer of our times can get, while still being a rip-roaring action-adventure novel.

As for Kashkari, I enjoyed the additional glimpses into his life and career. (In the previous two novels, Kashkari was a fellow teenage student at Eton with Prince Titus and “Archer Fairfax,” Iolanthe’s masculine alter-ego.) He was a useful presence, and while he, himself, did not have magic, he respected those who did. He could and did make plans, and aided Prince Titus and Iolanthe/Archer quite a bit, which I appreciated. Still, I wanted a lot more from him, as I sensed quite a story there, and I didn’t get it.

(Mind, maybe Ms. Thomas plans another novel in this series centered around Kashkari. If so, good, because I’d love to see him as a romantic hero in his own right. But I digress.)

Bottom line: I enjoyed THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS quite a bit. It’s a fun book with excellent historicity, a great age-appropriate romance, and it wrapped up all the loose ends nicely (with the exception of Kashkari). But I was left wanting more from the minor characters, and didn’t get it.

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns With Sherry Thomas’s “The Perilous Sea”

Happy New Year, everyone!

OK, I didn’t quite get to the three books I’d hoped to get to at the end of 2014. But the good news about that is that I can now review one of them as my first post of 2015 instead. (See how that works?) And since it’s Romance Saturday, it seems fitting that one of those three books just so happens to be a YA fantasy/romance.

The Perilous SeaTHE PERILOUS SEA, a YA fantasy/romance by Sherry Thomas, stars Iolanthe Seabourne, an elemental mage who has command over all four elements — Air, Fire, Earth and Water, and Prince Titus of Elberon. Their adventures started in book one, THE BURNING SKY (reviewed here), so take it as read that they’re still mostly hiding out in 19th Century England and pretending to be normal teenagers at non-magical Eton. Of course, this may be seen as a bit of a problem by some as Iolanthe is decidedly female and Eton historically admitted boys. But because Iolanthe needs to be hidden as well as possible, she’s hiding under the male name of Archer Fairfax.

Of course, Iolanthe is a smart young woman, and she out-does the boys in nearly every conceivable way, including Greek, Latin, and other pursuits. And as long as no one looks for her, she’ll be well-hidden indeed…but she has to stay on point, use her magic sparingly (and only to help her pass for male), lest she and the Prince be discovered by agents of the nasty Atlantis — an all-devouring country of magicians which has thus far shown no compunction at getting its own way.

For some reason, they want Prince Titus’s realm of Elberon to remain under their subjugation, and have done a great deal toward keeping things that way. There’s an immortal sorcerer by the name of “the Bane” that has a great deal to do with this — think of him more as a coercive enforcer than a traditional sorcerer and you’re not far wrong — and in book one, both Prince Titus and Iolanthe were trying to figure out just why the Bane cared so much to maintain the status quo.

Anyway, THE PERILOUS SEA starts out with a young woman, name unknown, lost somewhere in the desert. (Of course this is Iolanthe, but she doesn’t know it at the time.) Somehow, she’s lost her memory, but remembers that she does have magic and that the dread mages of Atlantis are after her.

Of course she runs into a young man, who also doesn’t know his name, while out in the middle of that desert. (This, of course, is Prince Titus. I don’t think I’m giving much away by admitting this, either, as this is a fantasy romance and the first two people you meet are often the lovers of the story by convention.) And because he doesn’t remember anything, either, except that the terrifying mages of Atlantis are after him, he doesn’t exactly warm to Iolanthe right away.

Intermixed with chapters with our unnamed hero and heroine are chapters back at Eton. One of the Prince’s friends, Wintervale, isn’t acting like himself after nearly being lost at sea. No one’s sure why, and any magic used around him seems to be reacting in a quite unpredictable manner. Worse yet, the Prince discovers that some of the prophecies that helped him find and save Iolanthe earlier may not be correct — which makes him wonder if Iolanthe, much though he loves her, is truly the prophesied heroine.

Again, take it as read that our hero and heroine will find a way to be together because of the conventions of the genre. I think you’ll enjoy all of that, but I don’t want to spoil your reading pleasure so I’ll stop there with the plot summary. (Normally I’d try to finesse my way around this, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) So the bigger questions remain these:

  1. What is going on with Wintervale?
  2. Why have the prophecies gone so wonky?
  3. Why does Atlantis care so much about Elberon in the first place?
  4. Who really fathered the Prince?
  5. Who really fathered — much less mothered — Iolanthe, perhaps the most puissant mage of her generation?
  6. And finally, how are Iolanthe and Prince Titus going to throw Atlantis back out of Elberon so they can return to England sometime in the future without fear of discovery? (As they have many, many friends there, it would seem that’s a decent question to ask.)

Some of these questions are answered, only to raise bigger questions that will presumably be answered in Book 3 (as yet unnamed as far as I can discern). Some are still unanswered, but in a way that makes you think Iolanthe and Prince Titus are on the verge of truly finding out just why Atlantis is so interested in Elberon, much less themselves…and that as soon as they figure it out, they will successfully throw Atlantis out of Elberon once and for all.

Bottom line? If you enjoy YA fantasies, YA romance, or any combination of the two, do not miss THE PERILOUS SEA. It’s a fun, fast, fully developed epic fantasy that has a fully believable romance right along with it that’s intrinsic to the plot — and all of it works extremely well. (Brava!)

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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Vera Nazarian’s “Cobweb Bride” is Slow to Start, Hard to Put Down

Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE is the story of what happens once Death comes calling, asks for his “Cobweb Bride,” and then leaves again after saying he will not do his job until/unless his Cobweb Bride is found.  The world is thrown into chaos as animals cannot be killed for food, anything left on the vine does not ripen, and most importantly of all, people do not and cannot die.  Because of the urgency of the situation — Death had best get his Cobweb Bride quickly, or people could starve but be left in an undead state, and those who truly need to die cannot — a number of women, mostly young, from the Kingdom of Lethe and its environs go in search of Death to find out if any of them could be his bride.

Persephone (Percy) Ayren, a sixteen-year-old young woman from the Kingdom of Lethe, is one of the many young women from all over Lethe who goes to find Death in order to find out if she’s Death’s bride or not . . . but as she’s the principal player in a large ensemble cast, it’s easiest to start with her.  Percy is the overlooked middle sister from a rural family, and she hasn’t been treated well by her mother, Niobea (though Percy’s father loves her dearly and so do her sisters).  Percy sees herself as ordinary and mostly has hidden her talents, including a rather odd one of being able to see the shadow of death as it approaches.  So when Death’s call resounds throughout Lethe, she’s among the first to answer as she figures she won’t be missed.

But Lethe is not a stand-alone kingdom; no, indeed.  It’s part of an altered Renaissance landscape, so the countries we know as France, Germany, etc., are still there but not necessarily in their current positions.  Lethe is part and parcel of an Empire called the “Silver Court,” where the Infanta Claere Liguon has just been killed by Marquis Vlau Fiomarre of Styx (another kingdom allied with the Silver Court) due to an apparent blood feud.  But because Claere cannot die — and because Claere has retained more of her essential humanity than most of the undead — she spares Vlau’s life, asking him to accompany her on her journey to find Death and see if she might be the Cobweb Bride Death’s looking for.

And because Claere is both noble in spirit and already dead, she figures she won’t be sacrificing very much to be one with Death.

Vlau, of course, goes along with Claere, and eventually they meet up with Percy and the gaggle of young women who’ve joined up with her.  The reason Percy is leading this pack of young women is because of one notorious newly-dead noble, Duke Ian (“Hoarfrost”) Chidair, who tries to keep any potential Cobweb Brides away from Death for the Duke’s own spiteful reasons.  Percy, the other girls with her, Vlau and Claere all go in search of Death, eluding Duke Ian and his men and searching for Death everywhere they go . . . but it will not be easy to find him.

Providing they do find him, will any of them be Death’s Cobweb Bride?  And if not, what will happen to the world at large?  (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least as far as the plot summary.)

I enjoyed COBWEB BRIDE very much, mostly because Ms. Nazarian’s prose, once past the first third of the novel in particular, is something to savor.  (Like a fine wine, except without the calories.)  Between the excellent storytelling, the haunting and elegiac descriptions, and the flawless characterization, I found COBWEB BRIDE to be one of the toughest books to put down I’ve read during 2013.

Note that COBWEB BRIDE is definitely dark fantasy, as Ms. Nazarian doesn’t shrink from the nastier problems caused by Death refusing to take anyone into his embrace.  Pigs get butchered, then keep screaming in pain because they cannot die.  People freeze to death, then get up and walk home, scaring everyone in sight and sometimes doing horrific things as they know they’re dead and nothing seems to matter.  And the balance of power starts to slowly shift away from those who are trying hard to rule honorably in the way they’ve always done toward those who wish to find a way to use Death’s refusal to allow anyone to die until he gets his bride as a shorthand path toward nation or empire building — because there are now many things worse than death, and humanity is finding out about all of them.

But ultimately, COBWEB BRIDE is also life-affirming, too.  And it’s because of those two things — and the balance between those two things (literally, life and death) — that COBWEB BRIDE is not only one of the most original fantasies I’ve ever read, but also one of the most memorable.

In other words, if you think you know the ending to Percy’s story, you’d best think again.

That being said, there’s one minor drawback to COBWEB BRIDE, which I alluded to in this review’s title: it’s quite slow to start.  We see a whole lot of why Percy decides to go in search of Death, which is important and essential information . . . but it’s not conveyed at the same rate of speed as much of the rest of the novel.**

Providing you stick with this slow start, though, the rewards of COBWEB BRIDE are many.

Bottom line?  Don’t miss COBWEB BRIDE.  (And bring on the sequels!)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb


** Note that this one minor drawback is the sole reason COBWEB BRIDE did not receive an A-plus.  (It’ll just have to settle for an A.  Oh, the horror.)

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