Monday, September 3, 2012

Lord of Fire and Ice - Review

Author: Connie Mason and Mia Marlowe
Pub Date: July 2012 (currently available)
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Imprint: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Reviewing: Advanced Uncorrected Proof provided by publisher

Vikings, Mmmmm
Ever since my adolescence when I snarfed up everything Johanna Lindsey  ever wrote, I confess that I've had a little thang for a good Viking romp.  In the category of "things I've been meaning to do," some kind of Viking-related feature on Alpha Heroes has been on the list for awhile, which is one reason I requested this ARC, provided by Sourcebooks. (It's also the reason for the lateness of the review, because my spark of an idea for a "feature" never seemed to actually catch fire. Oh well...)

The blurb:
His Duty is to Fulfill Her Every Desire...

Brandr the Far–Traveled has seen the world and a good many of the beautiful women in it. His bed skills are the stuff of steamy legend, his sword sings death, and he can call up fire from thin air. No one in a hundred years ever thought he could be enslaved through trickery and forced to wear the iron collar of a thrall—least of all him.

Until All She Desires is Him...

Katla the Black isn't just called so for her dark, silky hair. His new mistress has a temper as fierce as a warrior's and a heart as icy as the frozen North. But inch by delicious inch, Brandr means to make her melt...
A Little Bit Paranormal
I've noticed a trend in some of the books I've read lately to include just a trace of magic or paranormal element, and I think my reaction in general to this is "meh." I'd really rather have a full-out fantasy novel where the magical elements are critical to the plot and character, than have it just added decoratively on top of an otherwise "straight" contemporary or historical romance. This is strictly a matter of taste; I'm sure there are lots of readers who see a dash of paranormal as just extra fun. For me, I find it a little distracting and in some cases, I think it just provides kind of an "easy out" of plotting pickle or a shortcut to character building.

There are a couple of paranormal elements in Lord of Fire and Ice.  Brandr is a "fire mage," able to call up fire with his fingertips and flare or light fires in his immediate vicinity.  I am kind of puzzled about the reason for this, because as far as I can tell, it played no significant part in the book - maybe two scenes that could easily have been written a different way.  Second, Katla and other characters mention the inn matki munr, which translates as "mighty passion." In LFI, this implies a telepathic bond between the characters, especially in times of duress. I'm a little bit of a mythology nerd so I went poking around to try to find out if this is an invention of the Mason-Marlowe team, or had any other roots.  I did find a page (see verse 94) with sagas and their translations that included the phrase and the "mighty passion" translation, but no mention of any magical connotations. Lastly, the bad guys call up some extra power via the worship of some of the "old gods."

There's nothing wrong with the inclusion of any of those elements, but to me they did not really seem critical to the plot or character, and were not developed enough to make it seem like I was in a truly magical world.

Paranormal elements aside, I did think that the behavior of the characters was consistent with what I know about the period. One of the values that sets northern European medieval characters apart from their British or Roman counterparts, is that outsmarting your opponent through cunning or trickery is not considered cowardly or dishonorable. Mind you, the Norsemen love a good thumping as much as anyone, but they also have heroes that are sneaky and tricky, and being the victim of such a plan is pretty much on par with a defeat in a battle of arms.

So I thought it was interesting that as the book opens, we see the hero Brandr as having been tricked into slavery, more or less, and even though he could have easily escaped, he felt honor-bound to earn his way out of it, rather than overpowering his new owners or running away.

The language of the book is very simplistic to my ear, short sentences and paragraphs, and vocabulary that seems to register a little below a typical regency romance by comparison.  I assume this is deliberate, to put the reader in mind of a less sophisticated society and perhaps avoid more obvious anachronisms.  There were a couple of times where the characters use the phrase "a finger-width" where a modern story would say "inch" that seemed kind of awkward or labored to me, as if there was a search-and-replace done where other words like "bit" or "scrap" might have done as well.

I doubt this book was ever conceived to be strictly historically accurate, so it all boils down to how well the authors enable your suspension of disbelief.  Overall I think the story works on that level, and if you're expecting a quick, fun, fluffy read, LFI delivers just fine. 

The Plotline
In a nod to traditional fairy tales, the external bits of the plot involve Katla's brothers convincing her that she needs to find a husband.  For their part, they will present three acceptable candidates (all of whom have something to offer the brothers as well).  I quite enjoyed this little homage, and the scenes with the competing suitors were more complex than one might expect.

One of the suitors has an ulterior motive, and is linked to a larger story arc involving a nasty villain and some vengeful gods.  While this storyline worked OK for me, it was just OK. I think a more character-driven plot with the competitive suitors, Katla's brothers, and Brandr's hometown could have carried it just fine and might have engaged me more.

The Love Story
This is the important part, right?  Right. One thing to understand about this book, I think, is that it rides the border between romance and erotica, just going by the smexy scene count.  I have no complaints with these scenes (she said, demurely).  The tension between these two is very nice, and I rather liked that it was Katla holding out for true love.  Here's a little window into Katla's character:
Brandr's hands had driven her to such madness, she was helpless before him.  He'd seen her as no one in her whole life had.

Needy. Weak. Vulnerable.

Osvald [her deceased husband] hadn't wakened that deep hunger in her, never made her lose her calm reserve.

She dared not allow it to happen again.
Contradictorily, she still longs for the mythical inn matki munr, the great passion, so intimate that the bonded pair can speak to each other telepathically.  The story of the romance here is really the story of Katla allowing herself to become vulnerable and to accept Brandr, love, and help into her life.  She's spent a lifetime compensating for inadequate men in her life - taking care of her steading and its dependents, while her erstwhile husband and brothers serve more to drag her down than to help her.

So really, she has these two contradictory dreams - to be fully independent and invulnerable, and to find the inn makti munr.  It doesn't seem apparent to her that they are incompatible states, at least not in the beginning.

I enjoyed Brandr tremendously.  If he has a flaw, it might be that he's something of a male Mary Sue - he makes few mistakes, behaves honorably and cleverly, and somehow manages to serve as thrall without giving up an aura of personal power.  This scene, very early in the book, sets the stage nicely for how he deals with his new mistress:
She had to show this man his place and quickly.  "I saved you from the gelding knife this night.  You will show your appreciation by kissing my foot."

She lifted her nightshift to ankle height and presented one to him, toes pointed.

*That should wipe the smug expression from his face.*

He shrugged, bent over, and grabbed her ankle. Then he yanked her upside down. Her bottom took a glancing blow on the floor before she found herself hanging precariously, her foot level with is mouth when he stood back upright.

...[SNIP]... He glared down at her and bared his teeth in a wolf's smile. "Want me to kiss anything else, princess?"
Obedient, but clever and not subservient in the least (although I can't help but think he might have bashed her head in with this move - this is a problem I have when I start getting analytical....) Anyway, Brandr is a pretty simple guy - he thinks he and Katla will knock along fine in life, and sets about to thoroughly seduce and keep her in a fairly linear-- and successful-- way.  I wouldn't say there is tremendous character growth for him, but since he's such a fun character to begin with, I'll forgive it.

That scene pretty much hooked me, and if it hooks you too, I can recommend the story for a fun, hot romp, Viking-style.

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