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Anne Stuart – “Ice Storm”

22 Jun

BEHIND HER MASK IS A DEADLY SECRET…

The powerful head of the covert mercenary organization The Committee, Isobel Lambert is a sleek, sophisticated professional who comes into contact with some of the most dangerous people in the world. But beneath Isobel’s cool exterior a ghost exists, haunting her with memories of another life…a life that ended long ago.

But Isobel’s past and present are about to collide when Serafin, mercenary, assassin and the most dangerous man in the world, makes a deal with The Committee. Seventeen years ago Isobel shot him and left him for dead. Now it looks as if he’s tracked her down for revenge. But Isobel knows all too well that looks can be deceiving…and that’s what she’s counting on to keep her cover in this international masquerade of murder.

Isobel’s been the head of the Committee, a “covert mercenary organization,” for some time now and the added responsibility is slowly but surely getting to her. Hints of it have been in the novels before this one, but now it’s clear how close to breaking down she really is. And now the Committee is given the order to save the life of Josef Serafin, also known as “The Butcher.” Serafin’s worked “[j]ust about everywhere in the world where bad things happen” (14) and he’s willing to trade the information he gained by working for the major players on the baddie side for safety and a new life now.

Isobel would much rather kill Serafin than save his life but there is nothing she can do than follow the order. As she is a bit short-handed on available agents (see the novels in this series before this one), she has to go on the mission to safe Serafin herself. Of course, there are complications. The first, but not the only one, is that Serafin is actually someone Isobel knew in her past, turning the mission into a confrontation with her past when she isn’t so sure about her present, let alone her future.

The beginning chapters alternate between the present time and the past. Seventeen years ago Isobel, called Mary then, met someone named Killian while backpacking through Europe and fell in love with him. They spend some time traveling through France together, first as friends and then as lovers, until the day Isobel finds out she’s just been used by Killian as a convenient cover for his assassination job. That was the day she shot him and the day her life changed from plans to visit a school in Paris to something else entirely.

The thing I liked best about this novel is Isobel’s and Killian’s story. I love second-chance-at-love stories and with all Isobel and Killian’s been through in the time they spent apart, I was happy to see them finally together. Sadly, other things didn’t convince me equally. Leaving aside the Committee itself, I didn’t buy Killian’s background. He’s supposed to be the most dangerous man in the world, hired and sought after by all the bad guys in the world, while at the same time it seems he screws up most of his assignments. Huh?

Isobel is head of the Committee and to be in that place I expect her to be a strong woman. A woman who actually uses a gun and doesn’t throw it at the attacker, for example. Isobel is that woman. The problem is, she’s thrown into a plot with a premise that takes all initiative away from her. At best she’s able to react, but never act. At worst, she’s just able to follow the lead of Killian/Serafin. I thought that disappointing.

But it is made worse by having her behave like someone who’s new to all this agent stuff. She’s not crying or breaking into hysterics, no, but, for example, she can’t think of a reason why someone would want to drug her or incapacitate her, an agent of the Committee who’s out to get the bad guys. Huh? doesn’t cover this for me, I’m afraid. On top of that, sometimes she’s behaving like she’s a teenage girl with Killian, not a grown woman trained to keep her head in all situations. I couldn’t buy this as a sign of her emotional upheaval and breaking apart, no matter how I tried. In her position and with her experience, I would have expected her to have a better grip on herself, no matter what. As it is, it just enforced the question how she got to be head of the Committee in the first place.

Oh, and this: “…at least three hundred of Busanovich’s worst enemies escaped…” just cracked me up. “Three hundred worst enemies,” B. must be quite a badass.

To conclude, I liked the romance, but I was disappointed that the only woman in the Committee was saddled with a plot that practically forced her to the sideline. But then again, even with a different plot, I’m not sure Isobel would have lived up to what I expected, given how she behaved in general. Reminding herself to suppress the shaking of her hand to not show weakness is not a good sign to convince a reader that Isobel is up to being an agent and a strong person. In fact, it is common sense and nearly everyone knows and does this daily, I think.

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Kathryne Kennedy – “Enchanting The Lady”

18 Jan


GENRE: Romance / Historical (alternate reality)
PUBLISHED: Love Spell, 2008

SERIES: “Relics of Merlin” series, #1

WHY THIS NOVEL: I liked Enchanting the Beast, book #3 in this series.

In a world where magic ruled everything, Felicity Seymour couldn’t perform even the simplest spell. If she didn’t pass her testing, she’d lose her duchy–and any hope of marriage. But one man didn’t seem to mind her lack of dowry: a darkly delicious baronet who had managed to scare away the rest of London’s Society misses.

Sir Terence Blackwell knew the enchanting woman before him wasn’t entirely without magic. Not only could she completely disarm him with her gorgeous lavender eyes and frank candor, but his were-lion senses could smell a dark power on her the same kind of relic-magic that had killed his brother. Was she using it herself, or was it being used against her?

One needed a husband, and the other needed answers. But only together could they find the strongest magic of all: true love.

Felicity grew up with her aunt and uncle and their son. Besides her lack of magical abilities, she’s also often overlooked by other people and even forgotten. It goes so far that people who want to sit down on a chair sit on her because they didn’t see her there. It’s been that way for as long as Felicity can remember so she’s accepted it as the way it is and doesn’t think to question it or finds it strange. She’s rather naive and clueless in that regard. Then she meets Terence and he notices her. Without any trouble at all.

Terence doesn’t understand why people don’t notice Felicity. She’s beautiful and makes him forget his mission – to find the relics. What’s more, she does it even though he senses the dark power of a relic on her and he knows his brother died because he fell head over heals for a woman – a woman who was connected to a relic, too.

Enchanting the Lady isn’t a character-driven story. The romance and the mystery are to keep the reader reading. While the romance is nice enough I also found it more on the bland side of things because there were no real surprises and (as I said) not a strong focus on character development. The problem is, I also thought the execution of the mystery and the way Terence and Felicity dealt with it weak. The romance wasn’t compelling enough to make up for that in my eyes.

It was rather obvious to me what the problem and reason behind with Felicity missing magic was. But because it’s often that way in such a story, I actually didn’t mind. I had more trouble believing that Terence noticed the way Felicity was overlooked by everybody and that there must be a spell on her and then not once asked himself why Felicity would put such a spell on herself. It makes herself feel insignificant. And if Felicity really had access to the magic of the relic, wouldn’t she use it to keep her inheritance and pass the testing? I thought this omission a too obvious way to keep the conflict between the character going without much trouble.

Later Felicity has her suspicions about her aunt and uncle but nevertheless she goes to confront them without the help of her dragonette (a pet she was given by Terence to protect her) or someone else. She gives the dragonette to her maid instead because the maid shouldn’t be alone. Also, she fears the dragonette might set a curtain in flame inadvertently. Okaaay.

Then, when Felicity’s aunt and uncle confirm her suspicions and tell her that Terence lied to her about his reason to marry her, she just believes them even though they lied to her for years and years. She does this even though a friend of Terence, a “seer,” told her to believe in Terence’s love, no matter what it might look like at some time. She just forgets about that and readily believes her aunt and uncle. The only mediating factor is that she’s slightly drugged at that time.

These three things hurt the mystery, IMO. I had the impression that the story had to go a certain way and for that, the characters had to act a bit stupid at times. It influenced my impression of the novel considerably even though it might seem only nitpicking.

I want to finish by saying that there are also quite a few things I like about Enchanting the Lady. The world created for this series and the setting and premise, for example. And Kennedy’s writing style and her voice. So actually, I’m looking forward to reading Double Enchantment, the next in the series.

Verdict: 3/5

TBR Challenge: “The Interpretation Of Murder” By Jed Rubenfeld

21 Oct

tbr-challenge-2009

Info: TBR Challenge 2009

Theme for the month: horror
In my TBR pile since: January 2007

Rubenfeld, Jed - Interpretation of Murder

Genre: thriller
Published: Headline Review, 2007 (2006)

Availability: still available

Monthly theme?: No, except if you want to count how bad a lot of the characters in this novel are…

Why I bought this novel: I thought the blurb and the play with history it promised interesting.

Manhattan, 1909.

On the morning after Sigmund Freud arrives in New York on his first – and only – visit to the United States, a stunning debutante is found bound and strangled in her penthouse apartment, high above Broadway. The following night, another beautiful heiress, Nora Acton, is discovered tied to a chandelier in her parents’ home, viciously wounded and unable to speak or to recall her ordeal. Soon Freud and his American disciple, Stratham Younger, are enlisted to help Miss Acton recover her memory, and to piece together the killer’s identity. It is a riddle that will test their skills to the limit, and lead them on a thrilling journey – into the darkest places of the city, and of the human mind.

I’m not much into mysteries/crime novels/thrillers. I think it’s because I’m more drawn to internal conflict than external conflict and – rightly or wrongly – I see mysteries as being mostly about external conflict. But now and then I read a blurb and think “this might work for me.” That’s how I ended up with The Interpretation of Murder. I also liked the fact that it plays with history, that some of the story’s characters are based on people who really lived.

The Interpretation of Murder is narrated by two narrators. First, there is the first person narrator Stratham Younger. He’s a physician and a Freudian although he has his problems with the Oedipus complex. He teaches at Clark university and meets Freud as a representative of Clark university. Younger is rather young, in awe of Freud, had (still has) problems with his recently deceased father, and is looking for the solution to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in particular Hamlet’s soliloquy that begins “To be or not to be…”. The second narrator is an omniscient narrator. This narrator lets the reader be part of the murder investigation, led by coroner Hugel and Detective Littlemore, and all kinds of other sub-plots.

In the beginning, I thought the many characters offered a kaleidoscopic view on the events. It was like a big puzzle and with each character you would get a new piece of it. There were twist and turns and they certainly made the novel seem fast-paced.

But soon, this started to get too much. There were more and more characters, the plots multiplied, and the twists and turns turned more fanciful. There was the main plot, trying to solve the murder. This was linked to Younger who tried to recover Nora’s memory. Then there was the plot to discredit Freud and his theory, Jung, who accompanied Freud, acted strange and stranger, and red herrings appeared left and right. All this was served with Younger’s thoughts on Freud’s Oedipus complex and Hamlet’s “To be” soliloquy and passages about New York’s buildings and society. What started as a story that tried to find a murderer with different means, police investigation and psychoanalysis, very soon turned into a story that relied mostly on action (I actually could picture some of its scene in a movie).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theories were more a gimmick than a real means to solve the murder. Psychoanalysis helped explain what motivated the murderer but that was nearly all the role it played. What’s more, Freud was a mere gimmick. His involvement in the case was practically nil, he as good as disappeared for long passages in the later part of the novel (when the action starts) and if this story wanted to give an answer to why Freud so strongly disliked America, I’m not really sure what it is.

In general, the characters were rather one-dimensional and the constant shift of focus, and focusing on some characters only late in the story, didn’t help to make me care or draw me in. Sadly, the mystery couldn’t make up for my lack of investment. The longer the story progressed, the more convoluted it all became, leading up to a resolution that, after all was said and done and characters were arrested, took two characters talking about it at length to convey what really had happened.

I liked the passages about New York. The research done there clearly shows. And although they sometimes sounded a bit textbook-like, I actually liked the psychoanalytical passages, Younger’s take on the Oedipus complex, and Younger’s thoughts about Hamlet. The novel is somewhat a page turner with all that is happening but overall, I think this story tried to do too much at the same time.

The things I liked should be the extra bonus in a story. In The Interpretation of Murder, they actually were the only things I thought (at least somewhat) interesting. The foundation, the story’s elements, were not developed enough to come together. Too many sub-plots, too many characters, too many shifts of focus, they all made the mystery even more convoluted than it already was on its own. Nobody and nothing is what he/she/it seems at first in this story (if you’re wondering, here’s the connection to Younger’s thoughts about Hamlet) just as Freud is not really part of this story, despite what the blurb leads one to believe.

Verdict: The longer I think about this novel, the worse my opinion gets. 3/5 for now, going for 2,5/5.

Peter V. Brett – “The Painted Man”

9 Sep

Brett, Peter V - The Painted Man[US title: The Warded Man]

GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: Harper Voyager, 2009

SERIES: Demon Trilogy, #1

WHY THIS NOVEL: liked the cover, the blurb sounded good, and then I read positive comments

Sometimes, there is very good reason to be afraid of the dark…

Arlen lives with his parents on their small farmstead, half a day’s ride from the isolated hamlet of Tibbet’s Brook. As dusk falls each evening, a mist rises from the ground promising death to any foolish enough to brave the coming darkness. For hungry demons materialize from the vapors to feed, and as the shadows lenghthen, humanity is forced to take shelter behind magical wards and pray that their protection holds until the dawn.

But when Arlen’s world is shattered by the demon plague, he realizes that it is fear, rather than the monsters, which truly cripples humanity. Only by conquering their own terror can they ever hope to defeat the demons. Now Arlen must risk leaving the safety of his wards to discover a different path, and offer humanity a last, fleeting chance of survival.

The world in The Painted Man is ruled by fear, by fear of demons that rise in the night and feed on any living being they find. The only protection the people in this world have are wards. Wards get painted and scratched on everything – and they should surround the place someone stays the night. So one ward on the door won’t help but if done right, the wards form a magical barrier that keeps the demons from breaking through even when they try all night to do just that. Which they do, in fact. They smash themselves again and again against the wards to find a weakness or to maybe weaken the wards. The dwindling population of this world is testament to their success and the bad place humans are in in this story.

In this world, three children grow up who struggle against expectations and their lot in life. They don’t start out that way. It’s a slow development, and along the way, they are tested several times before they arrive at their conviction to fight the demons instead of cower in fear.

There’s Arlen, a farm boy with a knack for warding; Leesha, a village girl who can’t wait to marry her betrothed to escape her mother and accidentally discovers her knack for healing; and there’s Rojer, who lost two fingers in a demon attack and still works wonders with his fiddle. Out of the three, Rojer is the youngest (he’s three at the outset). He also doesn’t exactly fit the mold of growing up in a rural, backwater kind of place like Arlen and Leesha do, because he’s orphaned at three, taken in by a Jongleur and then goes to live in a city.

But all the same, the world these children grow up in is a narrow, petty, and greedy world inhabited more often than not by nasty, narrow-minded and sometimes hypocritical people. From the time you’re born, your place in the world is set and people who don’t fit in or want something different are viewed with suspicion. Nearly everyone looks out only for himself. Knowledge is fractured (someone dies because the local herb gatherer didn’t know the cure, a plant regarded as weed in that part of the world) and huge parts of knowledge are lost altogether.

The isolation of the villages and hamlets doesn’t help and furthers ignorance and unethical behavior. Most people stay where they are born. Traveling for several days is very dangerous because with the villages far-flung, it usually means spending the night outside with just a small warding circle as protection against the demons. Nearly the sole exception are Messengers who travel from village to village, bringing goods and news.

In such a fractured world and society, taking up the fight against the demons isn’t easy. In fact, it’s not something even thought about (much). Too great is the fear of the demons. The Painted Man looks at what fear does to society. At the end of of the novel, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer are planning to no longer cower in fear. The Painted Man tells the story of how against all odds they arrive at that place.

Arlen’s story is the main focus of the novel. It’s the part that concerns itself mostly with the question of fear:

Ever since the night he had seen Jeph watch his wife be cored from the safety of his porch wards, Arlen had known that the corelings’ greatest weapon was fear. What he hadn’t understood was that fear took many forms. For all his attempts to prove otherwise, Arlen was terrified of being alone. He wanted someone, anyone, to believe in what he was doing. Someone to fight with, and for.
But there was no one. He saw that now. If he wanted companionship, he would have to slink back to the cities and accept it on their terms. If he wanted to fight, he had to do it alone. (400)

Overall, The Painted Man treads well-known paths for fantasy novels with its cast of main characters (fighter, healer, bard) and the way the story unfolds (country bumpkin, lost knowledge, evil to fight). The evil in the form of demons probably adds a slightly different element to the mix. It also made me interested in the answer to the following questions:

  • Why do demons exist?
  • Will the characters face other demons, demons unknown for now but depicted on paintings in old ruins?
  • Is there a uniting force/will behind the demons?
  • Will character(s) be able to go to the core, the place demons stay during the day?
  • Will there be an explanation of how and why wards work?

But sadly, the execution of it all didn’t quite work for me. I was never really pulled in.

I like to read fantasy novels but I still read only a few each year. I would guess no more than ten. So that might explain why I’m a bit puzzled about comments that praise the way this novel is written. The writing serves its purpose – tell the story – but it’s only sometimes that the writing really flowed and felt rich IMO. Most of the time, it gives just the basics without any extra textures and connections which makes the writing often more plodding and clipped than I like in reading.

Equally distancing, there are several POV characters and even in their POV scenes, there are still other characters who get their POV paragraphs. There is character development – Arlen, Leesha, Rojer sure end the story in a different place than they began – but because of several jumps of time (the story covers nearly 15 years) I sometimes thought I missed relevant developments. Instead, other things are repeated and some of the things told are not all that interesting. In addition, there are sudden changes in characters’ behavior, women are either a whore or a virgin, and basically, a character is either good or bad. And despite the frequent demon attacks, this novel seemed slow-paced in that I thought: when does the real story begin?

This might be in part because The Painted Man is the first novel in a trilogy. But even then, and with the questions above and a hunch that political problems are coming, I’m actually not sure about getting the next novel. It’s not the so far fairly formulaic story per se. I can enjoy those but I then prefer “more” in terms of writing and characterization.

Verdict: An okay read. (3/5)