fantasy romance

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Review: Cara’s Twelve by Chantel Seabrook

Published July 11, 2016 by Shannon

Cara's Twelve

This was the first NetGalley book I was able to download and read on my own, despite being a member for years. So, yay for some accessibility improvements, I guess, although the process isn’t nearly as painless as it would be, say, if I were sighted.

Anyway, Cara’s Twelve by Chantel Seabrook isn’t a bad book. It’s not super amazing, and I wanted it to be more than it was, but for my virgin Net Galley attempt, I could have done worse.

The blurb:

“Highly recommended.” -Jack Magnus, Readers’ Favorite-

Raised in the backwater province of Crowthorne, Cara finds her fate bound to a system she despises and a goddess she no longer believes in. When it becomes
clear that the heir to the Elbian throne has found disfavor in the eyes of the goddess, Cara is ordained by blood to take her cousin’s place as heir apparent.

One man from each twelve provinces are chosen by the royal council to pledge their lives and swords as champions and consorts of the future queen. From
these men, Cara must choose the future king of Elbia. Before she is able to take her place on the throne, Cara and her Twelve must visit each province
and perform a sacred ceremony, one that will make Cara question everything she thought was real.

Cara soon realizes that not all of the men who swore to protect her are what they seem, and that there are those who would use her as a tool to gain power.

Cara’s Twelve is a refreshingly different, romantic fantasy story of fair maidens and fearless warriors in a medieval land.

I was drawn to this book because I liked the notion of one woman having to choose from among twelve potential consorts, Bachelorette style. I might have also been hoping for a reverse harem situation, like In this recent read. Alas for me, that was not what happened. Instead, Cara’s choices are laid out fairly clearly in the beginning. Most of her Twelve, in fact, get very little character development, and by about the halfway point, it was clear I wasn’t getting a love dodecahedron. It was going to be a standard love triangle between the broody one with the tragic past and the sweet but overprotective one with whom Cara develops insta-lust. For me, this marred the pacing of the book. When it became clear that most of the Twelve were unnecessary, I stopped caring about them.

That’s not to say the book is all horrible. I liked the world that Ms. Seabrook has created, and I liked watching Cara grow into a formidable ruler, even if at times she was a bit shrill. I also appreciated that Ms. Seabrook didn’t sugar coat the violence. There were some dark scenes in this book, and I liked that Cara found them distressing and didn’t just shrug them off like, “Oh well.”

Unfortunately, since the romance got sapped of anything interesting fairly quickly, my enjoyment of the book suffered. I thought the ending in particular was a shade too bittersweet for romance readers. (It’s an HEA, but not a terribly satisfactory one for me.)

I feel like I’m ragging on this book more than I mean to. It’s competently written. I appreciated that there was a strong female friendship throughout that sustained Cara, because I was not expecting that would be the case at all. And though the men we did get to see weren’t well-developed, I didn’t hate any of them.

My first NetGalley book gets graded a C. I’d probably seek out more by this author, but not right away.

Review: A Hint of Frost by Hailey Edwards

Published April 24, 2014 by Shannon

A Hint of Frost (Araneae Nation, #1)

Fantasy romance is really, really hard to do well. Skimp on the world-building and it’s hard to buy the fantasy. Skimp on the love story and you piss off the romance readers, who, if they wanted to read some straight up fantasy, would have bought the Wheel of Time series. I think this is true for other sub genres of romance as well, but fantasy romance is one of my favorites, so it’s near and dear to my heart, and I am more critical.

When I began reading A Hint of Frost by Hailey Edwards, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that Bree was a friend of hers, and Bree likes her some fantasy romance, too. I’m even sure she was the one who recced the book to me in the first place. I started reading with no knowledge of what I was getting, and found myself utterly delighted.
From Amazon:

When her mother is murdered in her nest, Lourdes has one choice: she must marry before her own nest is seized. All she needs is a warrior fierce enough to protect her city and safeguard her clansmen. Such a male is Rhys the Cold.

Rhys’s clan is starving, but their taste for the Araneaean flesh makes them unwelcome dinner guests. Yet Lourdes threatens to melt the cold encasing his heart. When her sister is captured, they pursue their enemies, where she will discover if she’s worth her silk or if she’s spun the thread by which her clan will hang.

If I’d gone into this book knowing the protagonists were spider people, I would not have taken it seriously. Because, yeah. The characters are human, but they have spider-like abilities. Each of the clans has various traits of different spiders. In a lesser author’s hands, the result would have been laughable. However, Ms. Edwards is matter-of-fact about it. When I realized I was literally reading about a character who could spin silk so strong it could withstand metal and could do so naturally, I was enchanted.

Lourdes is an awesome heroine. She’s strong-minded, not afraid to get her hands dirty, and trying to do the best she could under difficult circumstances. I liked her a lot, and I loved the pairing with Rhys. I got the sense that even from the beginning, Lourdes found him swoon-worthy, and, well, I did, too.

Rhys is one of my favorite hero archetypes. I don’t like protective alphas when they are more alpha than protective, and Rhys landed on the protective side of that line. (In fact, sometimes I wondered if Lourdes was going to forget how to walk what with all the times Rhys scoops her up.) He generally let Lourdes have her own agency, though, and respected her own strengths and abilities. When he didn’t, he learned that was a bad idea. He was also a real sweetheart, earnest and totally devoted to Lourdes.

The plot starts out simply. We have a marriage of convenience between the peaceful but wealthy clan of Lourdes and Rhys’s impoverished clan who are also cannibals. (No, literally. It was disgusting, but since Rhys never eats anybody, I thought the notion was awesome.) Immediately after the marriage, though, the book becomes a road romance, which allows Ms. Edwards to introduce her world building in a way that felt organic to the plot. The result is that by the end of the book, Rhys and Lourdes’s romance is resolved, but Ms. Edwards has laid the foundation for other stories and a continuing arc.

I have to mention one other thing about the romance. There really isn’t a lot of sex. The sexual tension is off the charts, but there were no moments of taking a break so the characters could make out. I loved this, because the one love scene we are given is made all the sweeter for my having to wait.

There were a few things that didn’t quite work for me. I was never quite sure about the passage of time. There were smaller moments I would have liked to have had expanded. (At one point Lourdes tells us she made clothes for Rhys, and I was thrown out of the story wondering when she would have had time to do all that, and then I was disappointed I didn’t get to witness Rhys’s delight at the gifts firsthand.)

All that aside, I did buy the second novel in this series, A Feast of Souls, and am looking forward to returning to this world.

Final Grade: B

Review: Shifting Plains by Jean Johnson

Published December 23, 2013 by Shannon

I almost don’t want to write this review. There are some books that are hard to review because they’re so good I can’t find the words to describe their awesomeness, and some that are so mediocre that, “Eh, it was fine” is about all I can say. Then there are the books that start off with a bang, only to hit a rut from which they never recover.

Jean Johnson’s Shifting Plains was that sort of book. Johnson has been a reliably good author for me in the past. Given the dirth of good secondary-world fantasy romance out there, her Sons of Destiny series was a much-needed addition to that niche. I read all eight books, and there are few series I’ve managed to do that with. I’ve bought most everything she’s put out since, and am really intrigued by her latest novel, but I wanted to catch up on everything I’d missed, so I began Shifting Plains, which is set centuries before the events in the Sons of Destiny books with high expectations.

Everything starts out well. Tava has tracked down the bandits who killed her father, and even though she’s shocked and grief-stricken, she’s determined to get her revenge. Before she can, the bandits are attacked by a group of Shifterai–as the name suggests, people who can shapeshift. Tava, who can do this as well, is spotted by the warleader of the party, Kodan, who is curious about this strange female shapeshifter. They meet up again in Five Springs, the small backwater Tava is from, where the village leaders are determined to make a servant out of the willful Tava. Kodan strikes a bargain with the villagers. In exchange for killing the bandits, he’ll take Tava and all her worldly goods off the hands of the villagers. Tava’s not happy about the arrangement, but Kodan is quick to point out that, hey, she’s a shapeshifter, she should get to know her own people. At least she should give them a chance. Tava is dubious, because her mother was captured by a group of rogue Shifterai who raped and abused her, and Tava assumes all of them are like that. Kodan wants to prove that’s not true.

The first part of the book is a wonderful fish out of water story, with Tava wary but curious about the Shifterai lifestyle. Her growing attraction to Kodan is slow to build, and the two have a relationship based entirely on mutual respect. I did have a few qualms–like that every other woman in the text was either someone’s mom or a shrew or a slut–but they weren’t enough to throw me out of the story.

Then it happened, the scene that took me right out of my reading trance and straight into the land of Do Not Want. It occurs halfway through the book, so needless to say, skip ahead if you don’t want to be spoiled.

I don’t think I mentioned the fact that Tava is the daughter of the village scribe. In text she is explicitly stated to be a bookworm and to have gotten a good general education. Nonetheless, at one point Kodan decides to teach Tava about how consensual sex (as opposed to the rape her mom went through) is supposed to work. He uses visual aids and everything. (That’s not nearly as awesomely dirty as it could be, sadly.) Of course, Tava never had icky girlie feelings in her no-no place before Kodan showed up, and when she does some experimentation, she can’t even do that without him being on hand to tell her how her own body works.

Ugh. I get that a fantasy for a lot of romance readers is the pure, innocent maiden being defiled by a more worldly hero, but really? With all her boundless curiosity, not once does Tava ever think, “Hmmm, I wonder what these nerves do?” or even, “Why does it feel good when I rub this against something?” I just don’t buy it that for this character as written, it never once occurred to her to even experiment. I mean, being sexual is something you can do all by yourself, and she wasn’t the one with the traumatic past. That was her mother. Plus, as a means of escalating sexual tension, mansplaining about how when a married Shifterai man and woman really love each other, they sometimes touch each other’s no-no parts is pretty much the opposite of erotic.

From there, the momentum was gone. I couldn’t recapture my initial investment in the characters, and when a slutty rival for the heroine, who is, naturally, teh evulz, arrives on the scene, my eyes were rolling consttantly and I started to notice just how much unnecessary detail about geography and the building of tents and Shifterai society was crammed into the story in a way that served no purpose.

I know it’s not fair to grade a book based on the fact that I wish the author had written something different. Nonetheless, the first half of the book was amazing and I wish it had continued to be this awesome. As it was, I was glad to be done with the book, and I’m not sure I’m going to get to the second book in this duology anytime soon.

The first half was in A- to B+ territory. That execorable mansplainy bit brought things down to a D, and though it got better, I’d say the final result is a C+.