Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

873920Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Review:

I know this is a well-loved book but man, I couldn’t get into it and ended up hate reading near the end. My only consolation was that my buddy reader Cara agreed with me!

The setup and the underlying question are interesting – is Fevvers actually a woman with wings, or simply a sideshow fraud? My interest was quickly worn away as journalist Walser joins the circus in order to find out. The plot jumps the rails (literally), and by Part Three I ceased caring about the mystery – I just wanted it to be over.

Now and again there are beautiful images and nice turns of phrase, but most of the time it feels like Carter is trying to be clever, waving and pointing at her sentences as she does so. “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” Sometimes it is, but most of the of the time I’m nonplussed.

One and a half stars rounded up to two – not for me at. all.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

Thanks to Carina Press and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

Kingdom of Exiles by Maxym M. Martineau (The Beast Charmer #1)

42366222Exiled beast charmer Leena Edenfrell is in deep trouble. Empty pockets forced her to sell her beloved magical beasts on the black market—an offense punishable by death—and now there’s a price on her head. With the realm’s most talented murderer-for-hire nipping at her heels, Leena makes him an offer he can’t refuse: powerful mythical creatures in exchange for her life.

If only it were that simple. Unbeknownst to Leena, the undying ones are bound by magic to complete their contracts, and Noc cannot risk his brotherhood of assassins…not even to save the woman he can no longer live without.

Review:

Content warning for physical and emotional torture.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a fantasy and this one delivers.

The good:

  • The characters make this novel. They’re complex and shaped by their pasts in real and meaningful ways. Hangups are spun out slowly, both to other characters and to the reader, and motivation and character arcs ring true.
  • In that vein, people keep their secrets for as long as makes sense and no longer. This is big for me, as I’m not a fan of secrets in general, but it works here.
  • There are heaps and heaps of plot once the story gets going, which is the escapism I wanted while stuck inside during a windy typhoon.
  • Themes include found family, finding home, redemption and forgiveness, and how to take care of those we love. Love itself is explored on many dimensions – romantic of course, but also platonic, material, familial, and love for those you are responsible for.
  • Side characters have pasts that are hinted at, and make me excited for more. It appears to be a Happily Ever After For Now for the main couple, with other couples coming together in future books.
  • Noc has the best cover for being an emotionally stunted man that I’ve seen in a long time. It makes for a slow burn and thoroughly confuses Leena.
  • Queerness is natural and a given – stated as fact and not commented on beyond that. When Leena turns on her charm both men and women get starry eyed. While some characters seem to prefer a particular gender for romantic partners, several others are attracted to more than one.
  • And speaking of sex, Leena is given the same latitude a male hero would get. She enjoys casual sex and isn’t above considering it as a means to an end. She’s experienced, enjoys her sexuality, and doesn’t apologize or feel guilty for her desires. Most excellent.
  • Similarly, Leena proves her self as equal to, if not better than, the guys early on. There are a couple of moments where she takes action without giving them warning because she knows better, something men do all.the.time in fantasy. It’s challenged and connects to a couple of character arcs, but it isn’t framed as something wrong, mean, or awful. She has to get shit done, yo.
  • The more that I think about it, gender differences are minimized overall. The immediate bad guy is indeed a guy, but the Big Bad is a woman. When the group stops at an inn she isn’t given a separate room “because she’s a girl” – everyone shares one room or gets their own as circumstances dictate.
  • The ending strikes a nice balance between wrapping things up (the romance and main conflict) and unresolved storylines (the Big Bad, several characters’ mysterious pasts).

The less-than-good:

  • There are some first novel wobbles where details don’t come together or quite make sense.
  • The worldbuilding is good but not perfect. It took a while for me to get my head around the world.
  • The healing nature of some beasts leads to convenient deus ex machina moments. Big stuff comes with a hefty price, which helps.
  • There’s an index of all the beasts mentioned but beware using it as a reference while reading – many spoilers are contained within.

I ended up giving Kingdom of Exiles 3.5 stars, and I can’t wait to see how the story develops from here!

Set Me Up by Kat Alexis

20104544Indigo Larsen can finally live her dreams of exploring the world. Her first stop is Ireland, where on a dare she accepts the Tongue of Truth liquor. The sex that follows is passionate and more exotic than anything she’s ever imagined. Waking up the next morning `on Aedan Ciaran’s naked lap with his hard cock inside her is more than disconcerting. Convinced the liquor is the cause of her predicament, Indigo tries to leave.What’s a leprechaun to do? Why, bring out all the luck he can find in hopes of loving his way into Indigo’s heart.

Review:

Sometimes in the mood for something completely off the wall and I hunt down the most out-there erotic romance I can find. An American who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a leprechaun? Sure!

Thank goodness it’s short, though. A woman heads to Ireland to stretch her wings and accepts a drink from a bartender at a pub. The next thing she knows she’s having sex with that bartender and it’s amazing.

Yea great se but where was her choice in this, and what’s with the sudden fated mate stuff? Taking away the heroine’s agency, strike one. Meh sex scenes where orgasm quantity beats all else, strike two. The idea of a sexy, handsome (and tall, thank you) leprechaun is interesting, but the execution is not there. 1.5 stars because it didn’t outright piss me off and the writing was only half awful. And who doesn’t want to have sex on a rainbow?

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (Phèdre’s Trilogy #1)

22238208“When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity on me.”
In a kingdom born of angels, Phedre is an anguisette, cursed or blessed to find pleasure in pain. Sold to the Court of Night Blooming Flowers, her fate as a beautiful but anonymous courtesan was sealed. Her bond was purchased by the nobleman Anafiel Delauney, who recognized the scarlet mote in Phedre’s eye as the rare mark of one touched by a powerful deity. Under Delauney’s patronage she is trained in history, politics, language, and the use of body and mind as the ultimate weapon of subterfuge in a dangerous game of courtly intrigue. Guided into the bed chambers of Terre D’Ange’s most influential nobles, Phedre uncovers a conspiracy against the throne so vast that even her teacher cannot see the whole of it. Betrayed and blindsided by her own longings, only Phedre and her trusted bodyguard Joscelin are left to cross borders and warring armies in a race to stop the final blow from falling.

Review:

I’ve been meaning to read Kushiel’s Dart for a long time, but had trouble building up the nerve. It’s a big book – over 900 pages in some editions, and 656 in the oversized trade I read from.  There’s a map (what epic fantasy doesn’t have a map?) and a list of characters pages long.

I read the first chunk as part of a readathon, and that ended up being a good move. The beginning has a lot of names connected to shifting alliances to keep straight, and we’re introduced to the amazing world Carey has come up with. I can’t say I understood everything, but I felt comfortable enough to continue. The intrigue picks up in the middle, and before long we’re whisked to far off lands for adventure and so much more.

The worldbuilding is nothing short of amazing. There’s religion, politics, history, and current events that are both slightly familiar and quite alien. The characters are well drawn, flawed and believable.  The plot is truly epic, with travel and battles, allies and enemies, bonds strengthened and betrayed.

It must be said – S&M is not a small part of the plot. Phedre is cursed to feel pleasure from pain, and the sex she has may put off some people. Carey’s writing style is a bit flowery and while I enjoyed it, again, some people may not get along with it.

If you have any tiny like of fantasy, though, you must give Kushiel’s Dart a try – I’m not doing it justice here. A great way to end my reading year.

Surface Tension by Valentine Wheeler

42674588Sarai ran away from home to find a new life on the high seas. But when a storm destroys her ship and her life aboard it, she’s stuck on land with only a days-long hole in her memory and the tattered clothes on her back. What could have happened beneath the sea? And can the strange new world she finds when she investigates help her save the world she left behind?

Review:

I picked up Surface Tension because it’s an f/f romance with bi rep that has mermaids, and I need more of that in my life. It’s inspired by The Little Mermaid but goes off and does its own thing.

The good:

  • The author is autistic and bi, making for own voices bi rep, yea!
  • Serai’s yearns to be out at sea and make her own life to get away from a less than ideal father, and she does it. The beginning, where she meets an awful storm with her crew mates on the high seas, drew me right in.
  • The Ariel-esque character has the same grotto and love of human objects that you would expect, but with a more scientific bent, which is neat.
  • All of the icky parts of The Little Mermaid story are taken out so no one loses their voice to get legs, etc.
  • The under sea sections have the germ of a good idea, but…

The not-so-good:

  • The setting isn’t fleshed out much. It’s your typical European fantasy setting – vaguely medieval with a town, castle, forest, and ocean. I wanted more, especially from the under sea sections.
  • The one side character with any teeth, Nicholas, could have served the plot better.
  • I’m not sure I understood the point of the mermaids having four tentacles.
  • The end smacks of colonialism, which I did not like or expect.

After such a wonderful beginning I was left disappointed.

Thanks to Nine Star Press and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)

32718027I normally have two or three books going at a time but once I got into The City of Brass I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else.  “Why would you want to start another book?  What is this one lacking?”  Nothing.  So I kept reading.

Nahri lives in 18th century Cairo and ekes out a meager living as a con artist, diagnosing mysterious aliments and driving out spirits.  She doesn’t believe in spirits but her marks do, so no harm, right?  That is, until one day she inadvertently calls a djinn warrior to her side and they are forced to go to the titular city of brass, Daevabad, while being chased by nasties of every description.

Huzzah for own voices Muslim fantasy!  I know next to nothing about this time and period which is just pitiful.  So many other series riff off the the same European medieval-eque fantasy that the setting nearly paints itself, but here my only cultural frame of reference is the Disney movie Aladdin.  I am so, so glad to expand on that.

The story is epic and has everything – fights, political intrigue, a varied cast of characters, and a touch of romance.  There are discussions of religion, colonialism, poverty, and governance.  What sway does your past hold over you, even when you can’t remember it?  Can the cost of standing up for your beliefs run too high?

It’s nuanced and absorbing.  There are no heroes or villains – nearly every character has made choices both admirable and abominable.  There’s so much that I may have to reread The City of Brass before moving on to the next book, scheduled to be published later in 2018, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

Undiscovered by Sara Humphreys (Amoveo Rising #1)

30612657Review:

I downloaded this on a whim after a stressful day at work – dragon romance where the hero and heroine meet in their dreams? Yes, please.

It’s a good thing I gulped Undiscovered down in 24 hours because the more you think about it the less sense it makes.  Zander and Zed are identical twins and dragon shifters who were cursed 500 years ago.  Zander, cursed to be immortal and human, is running up against a hard deadline to free Zed, cursed to remain a dragon hibernating deep in the earth.  Zander and heroine Rena meet in the dreamrealm and he realizes she is Zed’s fated mate.  Zander takes it upon himself to take her to the cave he’s sleeping in to break the curse, but ends up falling in love along the way.

In general it makes sense but the details don’t add up.  In chapter one we’re told that the curse can only be broken by “an act of pure, unselfish love” but there isn’t one.  Some things that happen in the dreamrealm carry over to the real world directly but others, like Rena dreaming she’s in a fiery inferno each night, don’t.  And the big problem that we’re told will happen when Zed awakens… doesn’t.  He literally can’t remember what happened right before the curse was placed so no harm, no foul yay.

~eye roll~

Characterization is thin on the ground, as well.  For example, I wondered why a bunch of shapeshifters at the ranch are assumed to be a completely benevolent bunch.  We don’t know these guys from Adam and Zander doesn’t trust them, so why does Rena fall in so easily?  After I finished I found out that these are HEA couples from Humphreys’ Amoveo Legend series, so I guess she didn’t feel the need to explain who they are.  It’s annoying if, like me, you’re coming at the series fresh.

So while Undiscovered was a quick, diverting read it irks the more I think about it.  It’s the only book in the series for now but I can’t imagine continuing.

 

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Lang (Tensorate #1)

33099588Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. What’s more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother’s Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother’s twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?

Review:

I’ve been wanting to read more nonbinary authors and this book looked fascinating, taking place in a fantasy world where children are born without gender.  By puberty most pick the gender that suits them and switch from they/them to he/him or she/her pronouns.  I love the idea and how it’s executed.

The world building is good and sucked me in from the beginning.  Set in Asia with elements from several cultures there’s a magic system and fantastic creatures that are explained without being overwrought.  Yang strikes this balance by throwing in just enough of the familiar (elemental forces, phoenixes, etc.) and it works with the lower page count.

The plot, however, left me less satisfied as time went on.  In order to cover 35 years there are large jumps in time and while some work, especially while the twins are younger, the later skips left me wanting.  It seems like a lot should have happened to Akeha in six or twelve years, but not all that much changes, considering.  I especially would have liked to see how his relationship with Yongcheow evolved instead of just the beginning and end points.

While there’s a Big Happening at the end it’s not a resolution while also not being a cliff hanger.  Gah.  In sum I like the world, I like what Yang is doing and how they’re doing it, but the story doesn’t quite work for me at novella length.

Peter Darling by Austin Chant

33358438Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.

But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

Review:

This is the second book by Chant I’ve read and I think I love it even more than the first.

The good:

  • This is a trans story written by a trans writer – huzzah own voices!
  • I love how Neverland lets Peter be most himself and how it relates to the romance in the story.
  • I know next to nothing about Peter Pan but it didn’t matter.  I’m guessing that if you’ve read the original there are parallels and references but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.
  • One of fiction’s most powerful side effects, I think, is experiencing life as someone utterly unlike yourself.  I’ve read about body dysphoria in a non-fiction sense but feeling what Peter goes through makes it more clear than any informative article could.
  • The writing is just what it needs to be – exciting during the adventure parts, romantic during the “oh wait maybe this is love” parts, and held together with a solid plot.  It’s utterly different from Coffee Boy but Chant switches gears seamlessly.

The not-so-good:

  • While the book fits its pages I wanted so much more than a novella.  I don’t know if Chant writes as this length because it’s comfortable but I think he could blow us away with double the space to run around in.

A fun read that took me away from the crazy of real life just when I needed it.  A must for anyone who’s into LGBTQIA+ reads or retellings.