The Merchant of Dreams ~ Anne Lyle

  • Title: The Merchant of Dreams
  • Author: Anne Lyle
  • Series: Night’s Masque #2
  • Genre: Historical Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  Book Two of the Night’s Masque series, sequel to The Alchemist of Souls

Exiled from the court of Queen Elizabeth for accusing a powerful nobleman of treason, swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn has been living in France with his young valet Coby Hendricks for the past year.

But Mal harbours a darker secret: he and his twin brother share a soul that once belonged to a skrayling, one of the mystical creatures from the New World.

When Mal’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck in the Mediterranean proves reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.

Review: I’ve been mulling over this review for a while now, and I’m still a bit stumped and unsure how to keep it from being really short.

Let’s get the basics out of the way: I liked it, though not quite as much as I liked the first book in this trilogy. It was well-written, it read smoothly and there was not a moment where I felt bored and thought ‘yeah yeah, just get on with it already’.

The plot is a bit convoluted. We learned in the first book (spoilers!) that the mysterious beings called skraylings have souls that move to a nearby unborn infant when they die. Since they come from the New World and they often die far away from any other skraylings in England, this means that many of them have ‘reincarnated’ into human bodies, even though the very act of doing so is anathema to the skraylings. Our hero Maliverny Catlyn and his twin brother Sandy share one such soul between them, though Sandy got the larger part. Through this soul they are both able to perform certain skrayling magics, and because of this Mal learns of a party of skraylings who were on their way to establish a treaty with the republic of Venice.

The book covers a number of other characters apart from Mal, such as Mal’s girl-disguised-as-boy manservant Coby, Mal’s friend Ned and Ned’s lover Gabriel. Initially they’re more or less all over the place, but the plot eventually converges in Venice with a suitably exciting grand finale.

Where the book loses a few half stars is in both the characterisation and the sometimes all too convenient coincidences that hold the plot together. (Mal’s elder brother Charles is a known drunk and gambler, yet he waited 25+ years to sell a necklace in Venice just so our heroes can then retrieve it? I don’t quite buy that.) Ned seemed a bit nastier than in the last book, Mal a bit more petulant here and there, a little too fixed on his own wants rather than on what would be the smart thing to do. Certain events that happen are barely explained afterwards, or explained too late, even though the characters ought to be wondering how on earth that just happened.

Still, overall it was an enjoyable read, and a book which kept me effortlessly entertained from start to finish, and which made me go straight into the third book of this trilogy.


Too Much Temptation ~ Lori Foster

  • Title: Too Much Temptation
  • Author: Lori Foster
  • Series: Brava Brothers #1
  • Genre: Romance
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  Grace Jenkins has had little experience with men – feeling too awkward and insecure to free the passionate woman inside her. But that hasn’t stopped her from dreaming about Noah Harper. Gorgeous, strong and darkly sexy, his rough edge beneath the polish promises no mercy in the bedroom. When Grace learns Noah’s engagement has ended in scandal, she shyly offers him her support and her friendship.

But Noah’s looking for something extra…Noah wants Grace – badly. He wants to possess those curves that go on forever, to savor her sweet innocence, to take her to the limits of white-hot desire…again and again. What he doesn’t want is anything more complicated than that, and he knows Grace is a woman who deserves better. Grace, however, knows exactly what she wants – the kind of ecstasy only Noah can give her. Brazenly, she accepts, and Noah promises to make all her secret fantasies come true…

Review: I was clearing out a cupboard at work and found a stack of random romances. Since no one claimed ownership I took them under my wing, and this one was the first of those I read.

It’s light and fluffy, so in that respect it’s exactly what I want in a romance. Not too much thinking, not too complicated, and (very important), some pretty steamy sex. In fact, when I started reading this book I figured it would end up being a good four stars at least.

Where it all went wrong was in characterisation. The plot is all much of a muchness. There’s the hero, Noah Harper, who ends his engagement with Kara when he finds her in bed with another man, then discovers that rather than being angry he’s relieved. There’s Grace Jenkins, secretary to Noah’s grandmother Agatha, who is an insecure virgin secretly in love with Noah. Her insecurity stems from her weight, since she’s on the plump side, but despite the entire cast of the whole damn book continuously reassuring her that she’s sexy and desirable and beautiful, she keeps going on about how fat she is. Believe me, that wore me down pretty quickly. Kudos to the author for writing a plump heroine, but don’t make her all self-assured when Noah tells her she’s sexy, then make her go back to saying ‘omg I’m fat and ugly’ the moment he turns his back.

Noah himself was better: dark and sexy and with a rampant libido. Within two chapters he’s got Grace promising to be his sex slave, but the whole thing just derailed when he kept thinking how amazing and wonderful and beautiful Grace was, but never then thought ‘duh, maybe I love her!’. I get annoyed when men are supposedly that stupid.

The most annoying character, however, was grandmother Agatha. Domineering, overbearing and with that I-know-better-than-you streak that sets my teeth on edge. I get that a 78-year-old used to getting her own way will have a hard time changing that character trait, but her thought-processes generally made me want to strangle the old crone. Still, I suppose that made me invested at least.

Read this if you want steamy sex and a plot that doesn’t require much thought; just something to while away an afternoon.


The Risen Empire ~ Scott Westerfeld

  • Title: The Risen Empire
  • Author: Scott Westerfeld
  • Series: Succession #1
  • Genre: Science-fiction
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  From the acclaimed author of Fine Prey, Polymorph, and Evolution’s Darling (Philip K. Dick Award special citation and a New York Times Notable Book) comes a sweeping epic, The Risen Empire, Scott Westerfeld’s dazzling hardcover debut.

The undead Emperor has ruled his mighty interstellar empire of eighty human worlds for sixteen hundred years. Because he can grant a form of eternal life, creating an elite known as the Risen, his power has been absolute. He and his sister, the Child Empress, who is eternally a little girl, are worshiped as living gods. No one can touch them.

Not until the Rix, machine-augmented humans who worship very different gods: AI compound minds of planetary extent. The Rix are cool, relentless fanatics, and their only goal is to propagate such AIs throughout the galaxy. They seek to end, by any means necessary, the Emperor’s prolonged tyranny of one and supplant it with an eternal cybernetic dynasty of their own. They begin by taking the Child Empress hostage. Captain Laurent Zai of the Imperial Frigate Lynx is tasked with her rescue.

Separated by light-years, bound by an unlikely love, Zai and pacifist senator Nara Oxham must each in their own way, face the challenge of the Rix, and they each will hold the fate of the empire in their hands. The Risen Empire is the first great space opera of the twenty-first century.

Review: Some books take a while to really get going, and some books throw you into the action from page one. This book was one of the latter. It opens with a thrilling space battle with a completely unexpected twist, and had me completely hooked from the get-go.

This is hard science-fiction (as opposed to the science fantasy from authors such as Jack Vance), with space travel at percentage-of-lightspeed, advanced technologies that sound scientific and plausible, and a suitably advanced culture that is completely believable. One of the coolest technologies is the synesthetic implant that everyone receives as standard, and which allows data to be viewed through the other senses a human possesses. Throughout the novel people see the real world in primary sight and have overlays in secondary and sometimes even tertiary sight, and it sounds pretty awesome. I also loved how there are four types of gravity: hard, easy, wicked and lovely. You’ll have to read the book for explanations of how they all work.

At the centre of the novel is the Empire of eighty worlds, ruled by the Risen Emperor and his sister, the Child Empress. The Emperor has done the impossible: he has found a way to conquer death and grant eternal life by means of a symbiotic implant, though this implant only works on dead people. This gift of immortality is controlled by the Emperor, and he has had absolute power over the eighty worlds for sixteen hundred years.

In contrast to this are the Rix, ‘enhanced’ humans who worship their planetary compound minds and wish to seed these AIs on every inhabited planet in the universe. Caught in the middle is Captain Laurent Zai, who is tasked with rescuing the Empress when she is taken hostage by the Rix.

This book has so much going for it that it’s hard to pin it all down. There is a thrilling space battle that takes up a big chunk of the book and at times takes place in microseconds, yet never gets boring. There is a good dose of politics, contrasting the unbending traditionalism of the Risen and their grey worlds with the pinks: those who believe that to be immortal is to be stagnant, and who would take the power away from the Risen. There is romance, in the form of the relationship between Zai and his lover Nara Oxham, a Senator from one of the pink planets. It introduces the concept of the Time Thief, the effect that the military experiences due to traveling throughout the universe at relativistic speeds. In essence this means that if they spend two years traveling at, say, ten percent of the speed of light, ten years may have passed in absolute time. Ten years relative to them could be fifty years absolute, so any family left at home will age and die long before they do.

I usually prefer to read fantasy over sci-fi, but when I do grab a sci-fi novel, this is the kind of novel that does it for me. Gripping from start to finish, and I can’t wait to read the conclusion.


 

Lillian Holmes and the Leaping Man ~ Ciar Cullen

  • Title: Lillian Holmes and the Leaping Man
  • Author: Ciar Cullen
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy/Romance
  • Format: e-book
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  At the cusp of the twentieth century, an heiress turned detective enters a world of deception and danger and must learn to trust her nemesis with both her life and her love.

Tormented by a tragic past, Miss Lillian Holmes nonetheless found the strength to go on, to become the greatest female detective of her time. To make her uncle proud. Except…he was not truly her uncle. Sherlock was a fictional character, and Lil was less a true detective than a sheltered twenty-six year old heiress with taste for mystery…and morphine. But then she saw him. Leaping from her neighbor’s second-story window, a beautiful stranger. With the recent murders plaguing Baltimore, here was a chance to
reveal the truth.

Except, the Leaping Man was far more than he seemed. A wanton creature of darkness, an entry point to a realm of deception and evil, and to a Truth she had waited countless years to uncover, he would threaten far more than Lillian’s life. He would take both her heart and soul. And she would rejoice in it.

Review: I have a confession to make: I don’t like vampire novels. I believe that the Twilight craze has unleashed a barrage of vampire-driven tripe by authors jumping on the vampire bandwagon. As such I am rather puzzled at myself for getting and reading this book, since it is a vampire novel, and anything else I say in this review should be seen in the light of me severely disliking vampire novels. I also owe the author an apology for reading this when I knew in advance that I might not like it.

Have I made it absolutely clear that I do not like vampire novels? Good, then on to the review.

Lillian Holmes is a wealthy, twenty-six-year-old heiress who is being looked after by her governess, Addie, and Addie’s brother. Lillian’s parents died when she was sixteen, and since then she has been a little unstable. She is addicted to morphine and slightly delusional, believing herself to be the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, despite knowing that he is a fictional character. This is one of the things I liked about this book – you don’t often get a drug-addicted protagonist, and it makes for a refreshing change.

One night when Lillian can’t sleep she looks out the window and notices a man leaping down from the second floor balcony of one of her neighbours. The next morning it is discovered that one of the inhabitants of that house has committed suicide, but Lillian realises that it was murder, and that the Leaping Man must be the perpetrator. It is her chance to prove that she is as great a detective as her ‘uncle’, and she is determined to solve this case.

We soon discover that the Leaping Man is George Orleans, a jaded vampire who is tired of vampire politics and who is trying not to interfere in the life of his brother Philip. Philip is also a vampire, but he is a bit of a romantic who only kills and drains rogues and criminals to appease his fiancée Kitty, who is not a vampire.

What I liked about George is that he is a ‘proper’ vampire. He doesn’t sparkle, he weakens in daylight (okay, it’s not quite dying, but it’s getting there) and he feels little to no remorse for feeding on random people. None of it is watered down – there is no real attempt to justify what he does, and that too is refreshing.

The plot of the book kept me hooked enough that I read it without effort. It has a dash of different styles, ranging from romance through mystery to urban fantasy with a smidgen of steampunk thrown in. The dialogue didn’t entirely convince me at times, but on the whole there was enough to keep me entertained, though not bowled over. In summary, this is a solid read, and anyone who does like vampires should probably add at least one star to this rating.


The Alchemist of Souls ~ Anne Lyle

  • Title: The Alchemist of Souls
  • Author: Anne Lyle
  • Series: Night’s Masque #1
  • Genre: Historical Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods–and a skrayling ambassador–to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally–and Mal his soul.

Review: This was my first foray into historical fantasy, and if all of it is this good I’m going to have to read a lot more of it. The story takes place in an alternate version of Elizabethan England, where the Virgin Queen of yore has actually married and has two adult sons. If the book stated an actual date when the action takes place I have forgotten it, but since this is an alternate reality it’s not really relevant.

The other significant difference is that when the explorers discovered America, they also discovered a race of people called skraylings. They are disconcertingly alien to humans, with their slit-pupiled eyes, pagan customs and strange magic, even if otherwise they don’t look too different. However, they are also important trade partners, and as such there is a slightly uneasy relationship between humans and skraylings. Added to that there is the tension between England and Spain and the old division of catholics and protestants, which all makes for a volatile climate.

Thrown into the midst of all this is our hero, Maliverny Catlyn. Mal is a trained swordsman but down on his luck and desperate for money when he is offered the position of bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador, who is coming to London to strengthen the ties between the English and the skraylings. This includes being the judge in a competition between theatrical companies for who puts on the best play. Mal is hesitant due to a dark, skrayling-related event in his past, but cannot really afford to decline the offer.

The plot pretty much centres on that – Mal’s history with the skraylings and the playwright competition, but even though that sounds slight, the book is never boring. I have often mentioned the ‘debut novel syndrome’, but even though this is Lyle’s debut novel (insofar as I could see), there was nothing of that to be found here. The writing is assured, evocative and engaging, and all the characters are fully fleshed-out. Since I’m Dutch I’m not as well-versed on my English history, so apart from the bit about Elizabeth the First having married I don’t really know what is authentic and what has been changed, but I really liked the fact that one of the secondary characters is a Dutch girl disguised as a boy, having fled the war with Spain in the low countries. I also liked the fact that Mal’s best friend is gay and in a relationship with one of the actors. I don’t know how historically accurate it is that people more or less turn a blind eye to it, but this was of course a time when male actors played all roles, even the female ones, because having a female on stage would be sacrilege, so I can very well imagine that the profession would have attracted gay people.

The final part of the book where various matters are resolved felt a bit overly easy to me, but on the whole I very much enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in this trilogy. I would also like to say that I absolutely adore the cover of this book. I commend the artist on a perfect rendition of Mal.


Unveiled ~ Courtney Milan

  • Title: Unveiled
  • Author: Courtney Milan
  • Series: Turner #1
  • Genre: Historical Romance
  • Format: e-book
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Ash Turner has waited a lifetime to seek revenge on the man who ruined his family–and now the time for justice has arrived. At Parford Manor, he intends to take his place as the rightful heir to the dukedom and settle an old score with the current duke once and for all. But instead he finds himself drawn to a tempting beauty who has the power to undo all his dreams of vengeance….

Lady Margaret knows she should despise the man who’s stolen her fortune and her father’s legacy–the man she’s been ordered to spy on in the guise of a nurse. Yet the more she learns about the new duke, the less she can resist his smoldering appeal. Soon Margaret and Ash find themselves torn between old loyalties–and the tantalizing promise of passion….

Review: I really cannot fault Courtney Milan. In all her novels I have read so far she has consistently delivered an engaging read with believable characters, and stories with just that little extra twist to them that turns them into a breath of fresh air in the romance genre.

This novel had Mills & Boon plastered all over it (Harlequin for the US people). To me that normally means that you get an entertaining few hours which won’t blow you away, and which will give you a few moments of mild annoyance because the characters don’t talk to each other when they would clearly resolve all their differences by doing so. Once you finish reading it you stick it in the pile of books to give to your friends to read, or to a charity shop, because they’re not books to read more than once. When you consider that standard, this book stood head and shoulders above that.

The book has some of the standard romance tropes. Our hero, Ash Turner, takes one look at our heroine, Margaret Dalrymple, and decides that she will be his. Except then you find out that this is how Ash works. He has an instinct for things, a way of knowing that this is what he needs to do right now, because it will bring him profit. It has taken him from his impoverished origins to his current status as successful businessman. He is also a distant relative of the Duke of Parford, a man who once refused the help Ash required to save his sick sister, and ever since then Ash has sworn revenge on the callous man who condemned his sister to die.

This revenge is made easy by the fact that the Duke has married twice, and never bothered to have the first marriage annulled. Ash exposes this fact, thereby instantly demoting Parford’s three children to bastards. As the only remaining relative the Dukedom will revert to him, provided that Parliament does not decide to pass a bill to legitimise Parford’s children. One of those children, Parford’s daughter Margaret, has remained behind on the estate in the disguise of a servant so she can spy on Ash and discover incriminating evidence that will harm his case before the Lords.

It is an intriguing premise, and sets an intricate backdrop for the developing attraction between Ash and Margaret. Ash is a complicated man, driven by his instincts and a burning desire to give his two brothers the best possible life, even if his brothers don’t appear to be too bothered about it. He also loathes Parford and his sons, and never stops to think what bastardy will mean to young men who are used to the luxuries of nobility.

Margaret, in turn, is determined to hate the usurper, but finds herself unable to resist his relentless ability to be liked. She is also torn between loyalty to her brothers and her growing realisation that Ash would probably be a better Duke than her eldest brother will be. Not just that; Ash treats her like she matters, when from her father she gets nothing but contempt, and from her brothers little more than absentminded affection.

The motivations of these characters are utterly believable, and the resolution is nothing short of perfect. An absolute gem of a romance which will not disappoint.