Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book review: Unlocked by Courtney Milan

Historicals aren’t my go-to romance genre of choice, but I sure am drawn to the silk Courtney Milan is spinning. Unlocked is a novella in the Turner series (aka the BEST series) and it’s only tangentially related because some character is casually acquainted with one of the Turners, but no matter. It’s a great little I-hate-you-but-I-love-you story that transcends its somewhat cliched underpinnings due to the strength of Milan’s writing.

Plot-wise, it’s very simple: Lady Elaine was the subject of some pretty harsh Regency-era bullying (“Your mother is too academic and it’s embarrassing us!” among other nasty missives) before one of the Mean Girl ringleaders, Evan Carlton, Duke of Westfeld, takes off on some kind of Eat Pray Love find-himself journey. The bullying by Evan and his sister essentially made Lady Elaine a pariah, doomed to never marry. Upon his return to England, though, Evan has noticeably changed, particularly in his manners toward Lady Elaine. Will she ever forgive him? WHO KNOWS?

I can’t pretend to be a remotely credible source when it comes to critiquing writing skill, but in my estimation, Courtney Milan is a gem. Across several novels/novellas, I’ve been impressed by her research and accurate detail, by her on-point social commentary, and by the genuine romance and steaminess of her writing rather than cheesy purple prose. She also excels at character psychology, which seems like a weird thing to pick out of romance novels; however, when you consider that in a lot of these novels, one of the characters is often *damaged* and needs to be *repaired by love*, it actually is really important to make that recovery believable.

That element really came into play here. It’s not the first time she’s had one character harbor some kind of hatred, resentment, or disdain for the other (Unveiled and A Kiss for Midwinter come to mind as other examples) but I don’t think she’d dealt with active bullying before. It really shouldn’t have worked, having a woman fall in love with her tormentor, but Milan really did a bang-up job of redeeming Evan AND portraying Elaine’s slow rebuilding of trust based on actually trustworthy things — not just, like, “Trust me!” “Okay!” It might not still ever happen in the real world, but in the Fantasy World of Romance, Milan earns a few merit cookies for getting as close to reality as possible.

Also, the first scene that teased at a love scene was really suspenseful and sexy and well-done and I loved it. The first real love scene was pretty hot, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book review: Vampire Academy 2-6 by Richelle Mead

The Vampire Academy series is as follows:

1. Vampire Academy
2. Frostbite
3. Shadow Kiss
4. Blood Promise
5. Spirit Bound
6. Last Sacrifice

These are pretty mediocre books. I read the whole series because I’m a completist (sadist?) and at this point I’d be hard-pressed to describe exactly where in the overall plot each book began and ended. The whole story goes something like this — and I’ll be as vague as I can to avoid specific spoilers — Rose is a half-vampire who has a Vampire Best Friend (VBF) and is training to be her best friend’s Guardian, as half-vampires are expected to do. Because she’s our protagonist, she’s exceptionally skilled at Guardian-type stuff, and she’s also extremely attractive/alluring to the men around her, be they human, vampire, or other halfies. She falls for another Guardian type, but theirs is a forbidden love. When they finally succumb to their desires and are prepared to go public, Something Bad happens. The next two books are spent trying to repair the Something Bad; meanwhile, VBF is dealing with the side effects of a particular gift she has called “spirit,” which is a rare and unusual specialty among vampires. It gives her the ability to perform a lot of mind-f*ck tricks on others but at the expense of her own sanity if not carefully monitored and managed. Also in the midst of the Something Bad, Rose develops a doomed-to-fail relationship with a Vampire Guy (VG) who loves her way more than she loves him because she’s still hung up on Something Bad Guy (SBG). Eventually the Something Bad is resolved, but the SBG has a lot of residual Feelings about it and continues to push Rose away, so Rose keeps leading on VG. Also, at some point, Rose is accused of high treason, so VBF and VG have to clear her name of that. Everyone lives happily ever after, except for VG, because duh.

If that sounds interesting to you and you don’t care about a pesky thing called “quality,” go for it. If you want to know more about the details of this “quality” thing, here are some:

Some of the most action-packed scenes throughout these books are, somehow, written kind of stiffly and blandly.

  • It is VERY easy to skim these books and not miss much.
  • If you look up a picture of “snarky” in the dictionary you’ll find Rose, which makes her fun to like at first. But over the course of the series, it becomes very tiresome to watch this naive, impetuous, and increasingly self-centered person continually get her way without much push-back from anyone.
  • I personally never cared that much for SBG, who didn’t strike me ever as having much of a personality beyond “silent but deadly Guardian.” The way that Mead describes Rose’s feelings toward him come off much more as kind of icky idol worship than love of another human (well, okay, half-human) being. Then again, sexy is in the eye of the beholder, so YMMV.
  • Another deus ex machina? 
    Not impressed.
  • VBF, aka Lissa, has the potential to be the most interesting character in the series. She’s given a pretty good amount of page time, but through this weird device (it has to do with spirit, her gift) that allows Rose to jump into her mind and experience what Lissa is experiencing. So though we follow Lissa, it’s always through Rose’s lens.
  • There are open endings, and then there are dangling threads on the unfinished hem of an unwieldy plot with too many characters. Guess which one this is. (Hint: Tim Gunn would not be impressed.)

Here’s the thing. I may sound like a twat calling out a YA vampire series for having too many deus ex machinas (for example,) but it’s one of a few elements in the series that contribute to an overall lack of suspense or tension as time goes on. Yes, the Something Bad happens, and it’s shocking when it does, but when it’s dragged out as long as it is, you know it’s because Mead is buying time until it’s resolved. Similarly, despite Guardianship being, allegedly, extremely dangerous — the body count is really high — Rose herself never really seems to be in that much danger. For instance, in the first book, she has an encounter with one of the bad vampires, who are super strong and fast and kill without thinking twice. After that moment, though, she bests seemingly every one she meets with what reads like very little effort. In a few months’ time, she goes from nearly being killed to being basically so much better than almost every other Guardian, most of whom have leagues more training and experience than her. It just reads as lazy.

Anyway, that’s all probably enough said about a series so fluffy that it will be forgotten by next week.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Book review: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

Ah, A Song of Ice and Fire... as I mentioned in my review of A Game of Thrones for CBR5, I'm doing that wholly non-Patrician thing where I read the books after enjoying the visual media. HBO's show is my favorite show currently in progress, and after a destructive internal war over whether or not I wanted to spoil myself, I decided I did. There is, in my mind, a huge difference between a spoiler that comes from some thoughtless dickhead on the internet, and a "spoiler" that I still discover for myself following an author or showrunner's careful storytelling and planning. Considering that I've voraciously consumed the Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies after knowing those stories like the back of my hand, why should the ASOIAF series be any different?

Anyway, all of that pondering doesn't have anything per se to do with this, my review of the second book in the ASOIAF series. I mention it because it's personally impossible for me to uncouple them. Part of that is natural and part of it is that I'm so excessively fond of the show and think it's a fantastic adaptation of what, two books in, is revealing itself to be incredibly dense, and occasionally convoluted, source material. I'll be honest: I didn't really enjoy reading A Clash of Kings very much. I appreciated its necessity in the series: if A Game of Thrones introduces the characters, scenarios, and backgrounds that will play out over the course of the series, A Clash of Kings primarily establishes the stakes. "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die," the famous line goes, and A Clash of Kings lays out the large-scale consequences of that maxim: war, war, trickery, deceit, bloodshed, and more war. This sounds really epic and exciting, and it is, but in actually reading it a lot of the action takes place off-page (notable exception: the battle at Blackwater, which is as stunningly written as the scene was portrayed in the series) and the text can come across rather like your most pedantic friend's careful synopsis of that VERY serious game of Risk.

Because of GRRM's stylistic choice to not jump into many of the battle scenes in the first person, you get characters either talking about the action, or the first person POVs of characters with tangentially related perspectives working in the periphery. Some of these characters and their stories are more interesting than others, and this is -- I understand -- completely a matter of taste, but with so. many. characters. to check in on, it became occasionally infuriating to leave someone who you liked for someone who you don't.

I'm still looking forward to A Storm of Swords, because I'm excited to read about what I've watched. I have a little trepidation about the increasing length of the books as the series progresses since A Clash of Kings already dragged a little for me, but overall I'm still pleased with my decision to go ahead and tackle the source of my favorite show.