Sunday, April 28, 2013

River of Stars, by Guy Gavriel Kay - Review

Title: River of Stars
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher:  The Penguin Group
Imprint: ROC
Reviewing: Commercial hardback edition
Release Date: April 2, 2013 

Reason for reading: Received an unsolicited review copy.  Bonus: I completely LOVE this author.

The Short Answer 
Long, dense, epic fantasy read.  If these are things that appeal to you, then you will love this book.

What It's About
River of Stars chronicles the arc of a failing dynasty, reflected in the lives of four main protagonists.  If you're not familiar with alternate history as a genre, you may want to start with someone other than Kay, because he'll just ruin you for anyone else.  This is not Kay's first foray into a reflection of Chinese culture (Under Heaven), but I personally am more familiar with his European-centric works.

Kay has a chameleon's ability to write in the voice and style and cultural essence of his characters.  From Arthurian reflections, to desert nomads, to the Italian and Venetian Renaissance eras, he writes convincingly and richly. He has no need to describe setting or people in the narrative, because it is so infused in the characters' point of view that the world just seems to effortlessly spring into existence for the reader.

For example, when the reader first meets the Emperor, the section begins with two full pages of description of his Genyue garden, a work of fantastical scope, cost and lives -- this culture's equivalent of pre-revolutionary France's Versailles.  Details including the near-literal moving of a mountain for the emperor's aesthetic pleasure give a sense of the degree to which the emperor is isolated from the concerns of his people:
"There was also a new magnificence, a central, defining object now in the Genyue.  a rock so wide and high (the height of fifteen tall soldiers!), so magnificently pitted and scarred (it had been brought up from a lake, the emperor understood, he had no idea how) that it could truly be said to constitute and image of one of the Five Holy Mountains."

This lush, extensive, and masterfully telling description sets the stage for a change of fortune for the emperor's advisers.
The Emperor Wenzong was famously compassionate: word of those labourers' deaths -- right here in his garden -- had grieved him. He wasn't supposed to have learned about them, he knew. His advisers were zealous in protecting him from sorrows that might burden the too-generous imperial heart. The Genyue was meant to be a place of calm for him, a refuge from the cares of the world brought to those burdened with responsibility.

In his famed calligraphy style, Slender Gold, the emperor had recently devised a clever way of shaping the thirteenth brush strokes of the word *garden* to suggest something beyond what was ordinarily meant, when referring to his own garden.

It was a measure of imperial subtlety, one of his closest advisers had said, that the august emperor had done this, instead of devising or demanding an entirely new word for what was being built here under his wise and benevolent eye.
I just really love the way Kay exposes his character's thought processes, their values and personal context by showing us the world through their eyes -- what they see, and what they don't see.

In Which I Flail
Although the cover blurb focuses on two characters, Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan, they share the storytelling with a number of other point of view characters, including a famous poet and the emperor's prime minister.

I'm finding it a little bit hard to talk about the individual characters-- there's no good place to start, as they are so interwoven with each other, with a large cast of secondary characters, with the plot, and with the theme, or feel of the book.

In particular, it's difficult to talk about Ren Daiyan, who is really the central character, without verging on spoilers about the ending. The ending surprised me and honestly made me rather sad.  Which is not to say it was a bad ending.  It left me with some emotional echoes and at a little bit of a loss as to how I can discuss it.

One of the recurring themes in RoS is the idea of unintended consquences.  The butterfly effect, perhaps.  An opportunity missed, a different road chosen, and how such choices lead to surprising intersections and consequences.  The story spans a number of years, and the set-up at times feels a little slow, but the accumulation of the lives, events, and actions in the early chapters accelerate through the second half.

There is a continuing emphasis on how the disconnect between the elite ruling class and the lives of the working class leads to disaster.  I can't help but think that there is a warning here for modern times.

Around the Blogosphere
(one of the fun things about stepping out of romance occasionally is a whole new slew of interesting book blogs....) 

Fantastic interview at Ars Technica
The Idle Woman (what an intriguing blog name...)
The Fantasy Book Critic
Birdbrained Book Blog - had a much different takeaway than I did.  I love that.
Compulsive Overreader - had much the same thoughts as I did.  I love that too, lol.
Far Beyond Reality - a really thoughtful discussion with some insight about the connection to Under Heaven

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Angel's Ink, by Jocelynn Drake - Review

Image copied from
Title: Angel's Ink
Author: Jocelynn Drake
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Series Name: Asylum Tales (Book 1)
Reviewing: Commercial Kindle Edition  
Reason for reading: I was offered a review copy for the second book in the series, and since I had time, I wanted to start at the beginning. 

The Short Answer
If you love "kitchen sink" urban fantasy, with a wide variety of paranormal races, tight world-building, and an intriguing fresh premise, you should definitely check this one out.

All of Drake's "Dark Days" ebooks are currently on sale at most retail outlets for 99 cents.  This has been going on for a couple weeks now, so it may not last much longer.  (Sadly, Angel's Ink is NOT 99 cents). 

The Premise
In the tradition of Kim Harrison's Hollows, and Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, we have a world where the paranormals are "out" and live alongside the mortals.  It's a bit unclear how long the world has been this way; perhaps forever.

There is a distinct hierarchy among the paranormal races, and the Wizards and Witches are at the tippy top.  Unfortunately they apparently never had the wise guidance of Spiderman's Uncle Ben*, and their great powers are used in a world-wide tyrannical rule.  Everyone is afraid of them, and within their own ranks, no one seems to like anyone else very much either. Confession: I just finished reading the entire Harry Potter series quite recently, and I have to say, this might be how the world would look had Harry not defeated Voldemort.  Seriously.

Our hero, Gage, has taken the unprecedented step of leaving the society of the Wizards. His life is sort of like a dangerous criminal who's been paroled -- the conditions of his release include a not-so-benevolent parole officer/watchdog who regularly appears to beat the crap out of Gage whenever he lets slip with a little magic.

The new twist in this series, to me anyway, is that one of the "legal" ways Gage can use magic is by way of his tattoos.  Adding potion ingredients (Snape, anyone?) to his basic tattoo inks, he can predispose his clients to good luck, to protection, and other various charms. 

I really love this -- it combines a number of classic paranormal tropes -- potions, exotic ingredients, and visual designs -- all to invoke the magical.  Then add in the modern obsession with tattoos, and voila! Very appealing.

Series Handicap
Since this is the first book, there's no "handicap" to apply.  I would say that like any series, you will get more out of them if you read in order, but in general the series arc is not overpowering in this book.  The second book (due out May 7) does more to set up future arcs.  Angel's Ink has a distinct, complete story arc with a satisfying resolution, so if you don't necessarily want to commit to a series, I think you will still be happy with this one.  There's an implication of a future price to pay, which opens up some questions for later books, but I didn't find it to be one of those agonizing cliff hangers.

I had a little trouble in the first third or so of the story with Gage's voice.  Maybe it's just because so many urban fantasy series are headed by red-haired, kitana-wielding, kick-ass outsider twenty-something women, that I wasn't ready for a wand-wielding kick-ass outsider twenty (thirty?) - something man.  It's not something that's easy to pin down, but some of his observation and internal narration just didn't sound like a guy to me.  Which I freely admit, could just be my own prejudice.  He comes off as a bit more vulnerable than the typical alpha hero.  He processes a lot.

Whether I just got used to it, or if was more of an early pacing issue, eventually the story picked up for me and I was fine with it by the middle of the book.

There are some fun secondary characters here that may or may not become more important.  They add a lot of color to the world but for the most part remain firmly in the secondary role, and do not threaten the focus of the story.  It is also useful to bear in mind with this series that not everyone is as they appear. 

The romantic element of the story didn't work quite as well for me, but it will develop over several books as is the way of UF, and I'm willing to see where it goes.

Bottom Line
Promising series debut from a seasoned author.  Check it out!

Around the Blogosphere
Nite Lite Book Reviews
Urban Fantasy Land
Romancing the Dark Side
Step into Fiction
Smexy Books

*The quote "With great power comes great responsibility" is most famous in current pop culture from the Spiderman comic and movies, but it is originally attributable in different forms to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Voltaire, and the Bible.  Don't you feel smarter now?

Note: this post has been reproduced with my permission at

Sunday, April 21, 2013

New Reader Program: Retro Reads

Are you a fan of "old-skool" romance? Crushing kisses, kidnapped heroines and all?  Open Road Media is launching a new program and looking for reader/reviewers for their new line of old treasures.


Retro Reads is a reader program specializing in digitally reissued romance novels. We are looking for a group of readers interested in exploring the full range of romance—readers who love the genre, who love talking about the genre, and who want to keep up with the latest digital releases.

You don't have to have your own blog to participate; you can post your reviews on GoodReads or a retail site.  If you're interested, check out the details for participation at the Open Road Media post.  You'll need a NetGalley account.  Good luck!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Demoness of Waking Dreams, by Stephanie Chong - Review

Image downloaded from

Title: The Demoness of Waking Dreams
Author: Stephanie Chong
Publisher: Harlequin
Imprint: Mira
Series Name: Company of Angels
Reviewing: Mass Market Paperback, provided by publicist in return for a fair review

Why I Read It 
I received the book from a publicist that I have an ongoing working relationship with, and was intrigued by the premise.

The Short Answer
Wow, I LOVE this author.  The narrative is flawless; it just flows beautifully and pulls you along, smooth as a Venetian gondolier.  I love the exotic setting of Venice; the elegant, old world facade and the competing undercurrent of decay and vice. 

Series Handicap: 
I give it a two of five.  This is book 2 of the series and there are some references to a backstory between Luciana and the hero of the first book. I haven't read the first one and I thought there was enough information to fully follow the story at hand, but the backstory of some of the other characters is definitely a factor for Luciana. I will be going back and reading book 1 for sure; it sounds delicious. 

The Premise
This is an Angels and Demons mythology, infused with old-world Catholicism.  It reminded me a little bit of Meljean Brook's Demon Angel, since it also featured a female demon and a male angel. While Brook's mythology had some complex series arcs going on, this story seemed very focused on the two protagonists, set into seemingly irreconcilable conflict.

Whenever I read paranormal fiction about immortal characters, I'm always interested to see how the author handles the concepts of danger and harm - it's kind of hard to build suspense if there is no potential for significant physical harm, not to mention that if you eliminate pain, you logically eliminate pleasure too, which can make executing a romance kind of tricky.  Chong's approach, for the angels at least, is that the general rank and file, which our hero belongs to, remain essentially corporeal, needing food, sleep, and at least recuperation time from physical damage.  They also experience pain and pleasure.

Similarly, I love when an author can bring something new to the treatment of the sexual elements in a romance -- and no, I'm not talking about exotic positions or toys or fetishes.  (Though I'm not saying those are bad things...)  Sex is always a part of romantic love, but it may or may not be all that important to a particular story, or character, or plot.

In Demoness, corporeal love plays an important role.  It underpins the entire dialog between good and evil, sin and divinity.  Luciana's fall from grace involved sex and seduction; her ongoing tribute to the Prince of Darkness is accomplished through the seduction of the innocent (or close enough...)

In that moment, he knew the absolute and utter rightness of sexual connection, of the pure and unadulterated pleasure of it, a celebration of the divine. Demoness or not, she was still essentially a part of the divine, irrespective of who or what she thought she was.
"A celebration of the divine."  Yeah.  I love that.  Our culture is too filled with messages about the "sins of the flesh," and sex-positive literature is very often scrupulously separated from any kind of commentary about faith.  This book is the exception, and I find that very refreshing.

I give this new (to me) author a strong recommend.


As you may have noticed, the blog has been pretty quiet.  I actually received this book quite some time ago, before the release date.  (Sometimes I find it hard to write up a review for a book I really REALLY like, because I have to figure out how to do it justice.  I need to get a little more up close and personal with the Nike motto).

So anyway, to help motivate me to get this post finished, I got my hands on the first book of the series, Where Angels Fear to Tread.  This book introduces Luciana, and to be totally honest, she is much creepier and more horrible in the first book.  I might not have been as willing to see her redeemed in the second book if I had read them in order.  The horror is not terribly graphic, but it's pretty... well... horrible.

I liked the second book better for a couple of reasons: 1) I think a bad-girl/good-boy story is much fresher than the inverse, which has been done SO many times; 2) I found Luciana's voice to be way more interesting than Serena's; and 3) I just like Venice as a setting so much more than Las Vegas.  It may also be a case of a new author hitting her stride with a second book. I didn't have any particular problems with the writing, per se, in WAFTT.  The story overall was just a bit less compelling to me.

Around the Blogosphere
Rabid Reads (oo, new-to-me blog!)
Book Chick City (she makes a good point about the way the book ends which I have not addressed here)
Dear Author
Heroes and Heartbreakers


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