Medieval Mania: Lord of the Shadows by Kathryn Le Veque

Lord of the Shadows by Kathryn Leveque

  • Title: Lord of the Shadows
  • Author: Kathryn Le Veque
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, September 2012 (originally published  February 2011)
  • Source: Amazon, free promo ($2.99 ebook)
  • Length: 273 pages
  • Trope(s): Perfectly Perfect Heroine, Deadly-Yet-Sensitive Assassin Hero, Evil King, Instalove, TSTL Sibling, In Disguise, Intrigue & Espionage
  • Quick blurb: Feared royal enforcer falls for daughter of king’s most hated enemy
  • Quick review: Not bad, exactly, but…you know, it’s not quite… Oh, just read the damn review. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?
  • Grade: C-

Like the allure of a good beheading, it was pure entertainment.

OK, I will admit I was wrong. I WAS WRONG. During the first read, this seemed pretty dreadful, and I even tweeted some snotty things about it.

But after finishing this, I read By Royal Command, aka Death By Thesaurus. And then I read a certain gay BDSM mistorical (Full Snark Bitchfest coming soon!) that will forever be the definition of “dreadful.”

So I upgraded Lord of the Shadows from a D+ to a C-. I can’t really recommend it, but it’s a helluva lot better than some of the other dreck I’ve been reading.

The plot….

In 1215 England, our hero, Sir Sean de Lara, is a long-time enforcer for the disgusting King John. But when he meets Lady Sheridan St. James, the daughter of the monarch’s most hated enemy, he’s tempted to sacrifice his decade of soul-crushing espionage for the chance to live a normal life.

Don't look too close - this really isn't medieval. Or British.

We’ll just ignore the dorky and unrealistic names so we can move along to the important stuff. Like kissing. And sex.

And history. MY GOD, the history. THE FATE OF ENGLAND IS AT STAKE, PEOPLE, YOU HAVE NO IDEA. You’ll see what I mean when we get around to more of Sir Sean. And there’s a LOT of Sir Sean.

The meet-cute, part 1….

Insta-Love from the get-go. Our Dark Lord gets his first glimpse of His Beloved as she tries to prevent her TSTL younger sister from flinging herself out a window:

I Bid Thee Farewell Unkind World

Phallic symbol?
What phallic symbol?

His attention then moved to the woman attempting to prevent the suicide; he couldn’t make out the features at this distance, but he could certainly distinguish the blond hair that shimmered against the afternoon sky as gold would shimmer against the sun.  He found himself more intrigued by the beauty of the hair than by the chaos unfolding around it.

Unfortunately, our heroine isn’t much of a crisis negotiator, because — oops…. But never fear! Sir Sean is here!

She was still screaming when he caught her.

After accepting their gushes of gratitude, our Hero of Darkness mysteriously disappears (he does this a lot) and waits patiently to see His Beloved again. Which, of course, happens in the very next chapter.

Continue reading

Medieval Mania: A Royal Marriage by Rachelle McCalla

Oh, look — another book written JUST FOR ME. I love it when that happens.
 A Royal Marriage by Rachelle McCalla

  • Title: A Royal Marriage
  • Author: Rachelle McCalla
  • Series/Category: Love Inspired Historical
  • Genre(s): Historical, Inspirational
  • Publisher: Harlequin, November 2012
  • Source: NetGalley ($4.19 ebook, $5.75 mmpb)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • Trope(s): Insta-Love, Kidnapping, War, Betrothed to the Enemy
  • Quick blurb: Ruler of small Mediterranean kingdom rescues Charlemagne’s daughter from kidnapping, but must deliver her to her unwanted betrothed – who happens to be his lifelong enemy.
  • Quick review: Fabulous setting/premise and strong heroine, but romance was disappointing
  • Grade: B

“Why? Must you ask why? Must I speak the words I should be ashamed to speak aloud? You, the emperor’s daughter, pledged to marry another? You, who have rescued my heart from the pit where I cast it to die?”

His lips moved down her nose with tiny, featherlight kisses, as though he warred with himself and lost each time he planted one. “You, who have captured my heart.”

I hope this is the first of a series, because I LOVE the ninth-century setting. The historical world-building was spot-on, with just enough detail and only a few minor anachronistic word choices.

I was also really impressed with the presentation of Charlemagne’s daughter Gisela as a strong, smart leader in a historically believable way (see below). She’s one of the best Harlequin heroines, and inspirational heroines, I’ve read so far.

But the insta-love romance was blah — no emotional conflicts, just external political intrigues. Neither the hero nor the heroine had any flaws to overcome; they were both perfectly perfect from start to finish. It would have been MUCH more compelling to have them at odds in the beginning, then slowly learn to respect and trust each other.

Scale back on the military maneuvers and focus on the relationship-building, and this would have been an A grade.

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The history geek unleashed

I now have three Charlemagne biographies on my wishlist, and I spent hours discovering fascinating facts, such as:

In Charlemagne’s seventy-odd years of life, he had four wives, six concubines and at least seventeen children.

Charlemagne and His Scholars by Karl von Blaas (1815-1894)

Charlemagne and His Scholars
by Karl von Blaas (1815-1894)

Source: History in an Hour

He was so careful of the training of his sons and daughters that he never took his meals without them when he was at home, and never made ajourney without them; his sons would ride at his side, and his daughters follow him, while a number of his body-guard, detailed for their protection, brought up the rear. Strange to say, although they were very handsome women, and he loved them very dearly, he was never willing to marry any of them to a man of their own nation or to a foreigner, but kept them all at home until his death, saying that he could not dispense with their society. Hence, though other-wise happy, he experienced the malignity of fortune as far as they were concerned; yet he concealed his knowledge of the rumours current in regard to them, and of the suspicions entertained of their honour.

Source: Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne

His ideas of sexual morality were primitive. Many concubines are spoken of, he had several illegitimate children, and the morals of his daughters were very loose.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911

Loving Lady Marcia by Kieran Kramer

Let’s be honest: It’s obvious this book was written and published JUST SO I COULD MAKE FUN OF IT.

  • Loving Lady Marcia by Kieran KramerTitle: Loving Lady Marcia
  • Author: Kieran Kramer
  • Series: House of Brady, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Historical (Regency – in theory, anyway)
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, August 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($7.99 ebook)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • Trope(s): Instalove, Ruined by a Rake, Reunited, Mistorical
  • Quick blurb: “Overnight, I went from debutante to bluestocking.”
  • Quick review: It’s pretty much what you’d expect from the title and blurb.
  • Grade: DNF

Being in love, she decided, was not for the fainthearted.

I made it to about 30 percent. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be (e.g., Lady Alexandra Bad), but it wasn’t good.

All the cover quotes for Kieran Kramer’s recent debut series featured a LOT of synonyms for fluff: Delectable. Frothy. Confection. Better than dessert. All those same words can easily be applied to this first installment in the House of Brady series.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – I KNOW it’s supposed to be goofy and irreverent.  But even a “confection” has to have some substance – the whipped cream is supposed to be a topping, not the main ingredient. The Tudor era offers an even better analogy — Henry VIII and his minions were extremely fond of intricate marzipan sculptures called “subtleties.”

Think of it this way:

Jersey Shore marshmallow peeps vs. Downton Abbey marshmallow peeps

Too many parodies and spoofs and homages and “inspired bys” rely on “SEE WHAT I DID THERE? HAHAHA!” neon signs and abandon the need for good storytelling. With Loving Lady Marcia, whatever attempt the author made at plotting and characterization is completely stifled by the painfully placed and phrased pop culture references.

And sometimes they’re even info-dumped with gratuitous Regency name-dropping for extra impressiveness!

A servant brought in a lovely tea tray, and her mother began the old, comforting ritual of pouring tea – Daddy’s favorite Irish blend – chatting all the while about Marcia’s siblings. Gregory enjoyed being a man-about-town but also worked with Daddy several days a week on house designs. Peter fancied himself a Corinthian and loitered around Tattersall’s and Gentleman Jackson’s with his friends. Janice had made her debut and presentation at Court several weeks before, and the whole household was at sixes and sevens attempting to keep up with all her gentleman callers; Robert was at home because he was between halves at Eton, and Cynthia was mad for Greek mythology and had asked Mama to call her Andromeda.

Yes, Lady Marcia calls her father “Daddy.” But it’s OK, because “she pronounced it the Gaelic way, Doddy.” But it’s NOT OK, because it’s distracting and extremely annoying. Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Daddy told them how lovely his three girls were – almost as lovely as their mother….

ALSO: The family name of the House of Brady is Sherwood.

So you’ve obviously been waiting ever so patiently to learn if there’s a “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” in there somewhere, right? Almost, but not quite:

Marcia’s cheeks burned. “No one was in awe of me.”

“Really? Everyone was ‘Marcia, this. Marcia, that.’ And you didn’t discourage them.”

The exchange wasn’t even with Jan/Janice – it was dialogue between our heroine and her jealous former schoolmate.

Ready for a final bite of saccharine sweetness before the closing credits? No? Too bad, so sad. Suck it up, because here it comes:

But they shared a love for their family and a zest for life that bonded them through thick and thin.

Oh, BARF. And for crying out loud, don’t TELL me. SHOW me. Ugh.

One-Quote Review: Mercenary’s Perfect Mission by Carla Cassidy

  • Mercenary's Perfect Mission by Carla CassidyTitle: Mercenary’s Perfect Mission
  • Author: Carla Cassidy
  • Series/Category: Romantic Suspense
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Suspense
  • Publisher:  Harlequin, May 2012
  • Source: Digital ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($2.99 ebook)
  • Length: 217 pages
  • Trope(s): Insta-Love, Plot Moppet, Evil Twin
  • Quick blurb: Mercenary falls for damsel in distress while saving idyllic town from the clutches of his Evil Twin.
  • Quick review: Once again, I manage to join a series already in progress.
  • Grade: B-

He was shocked to realize he somehow wanted to be the hero she’d never had in her life, the man she could depend on to get her son back, to make her world right.

Great premise and good writing, but I would have enjoyed it much more as a longer stand-alone novel instead of part of a series.

Tripleheader: More Harlequin Categories – Blaze, Classic and Super

I’m definitely a Blaze type – the Classic Romance and Super Romance just didn’t do it for me at all.

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Blazing Midsummer Nights by Leslie Kelly

  • Blazing Midsummer Nights by Leslie KellyTitle:  Blazing Midsummer Nights
  • Author: Leslie Kelly
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher:  Harlequin, May 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($3.82 ebook)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • Trope(s): Shakespeare, Insta-Lust, Insta-Love
  • Quick blurb: Shakespearean fluff in modern-day Atlanta.
  • Quick review: Fun and sexy, with a surprisingly complex career/family conflict – but I could have done without the dream sequences.
  • Grade: B+

He attempted to tamp down the reaction by shifting his thoughts to less appealing things – like grits, God in heaven, who had ever decided to eat what looked like little pieces of dandruff?

The happy couple….

Mimi (don’t call her Hermione) is a high-society marketing exec with a boring boyfriend hand-picked by her father (who’s also her boss). Xander (don’t call him Lysander) is a firefighter who moves to Atlanta to shake himself out of his grief after his parents died.

The setting….

Southern Gothic – complete with a plantation house with secret doors and magnolia trees in the backyard.

The storytelling….

A really creative and witty retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The hilarious meet-cute sets the tone, and all the flaky secondary characters are there, including the donkey. In between the silliness and the sex, there’s one of the most realistic depictions of office politics I’ve ever seen in a romance.

The romance….

Yes, it’s Insta-Lust and Insta-Love, but it works. However, I could have done without the cheesy dream sequences.

The recommendation….

A great summer read – definitely worth the price!

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Unraveling the Past by Beth Andrews

  • Unraveling the Past by Beth AndrewsTitle:  Unraveling the Past
  • Author: Beth Andrews
  • Series: The Truth About the Sullivans, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Harlequin, June 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($3.82 ebook)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • Trope(s): Lust in the Workplace, Dysfunctional Families, Instant Parenthood
  • Quick blurb: Cranky police chief and smart-ass cop clash over murder investigation.
  • Quick review: Could have been good, but turned out to be mostly sequel bait.
  • Grade: C-

“A debriefing?” Sullivan asked as if Ross had told her to bring a bikini, a case of whipped cream and her handcuffs and meet him at a motel.

The happy couple….

Layne is a small-town cop with a dysfunctional family. Ross a former big-city cop turned small-town police chief with a dysfunctional family.

The setting….

The predictable small town full of dysfunctional families and mysterious secrets.

The storytelling….

Good writing with some great snarky dialogue, but the sequel-bait family stuff pushed the hero and heroine to the sidelines and prevented this story from being a compelling read. The non-ending with an unsolved murder and rushed HEA didn’t help.

The romance….

Intermittent mental lusting and two rounds of comfort-me-with-sex, then declarations of love two pages before the end. I liked Layne and Ross, but I needed a lot more of THEM and a lot less of all the obnoxious people around them.

The recommendation….

Might be worth a read – but only if you plan on waiting for the sequels.

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The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter by Susan Meier

  • The Tycoon's Secret Daughter by Susan MeierTitle:  The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter
  • Author: Susan Meier
  • Series: First Time Dads! Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher:  Harlequin, June 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($3.82 ebook)
  • Length: 185 pages
  • Trope(s): Reunited, Secret Baby, Addiction, Plot Moppet, Evil Mother-in-Law
  • Quick blurb: Recovering alcoholic learns he has a six-year-old daughter.
  • Quick review: Blech. Don’t bother.
  • Grade: C-

His attraction to her sprang up like a lion that had been lying in wait in the African bush, confusing him.

The happy couple….

Kate is a construction project manager who left her alcoholic and increasingly violent husband without telling him she was pregnant. Max is a newly-sober real estate mogul who is stunned – STUNNED, I TELL YOU – to find out he’s the father of a predictably adorable six-year-old daughter.

The setting….

The predictable small-town-with-all-the-amenities-of-a-metropolis.

The storytelling….

Bland and predictable.

The romance….

Boring and predictable.

The recommendation….

Another cookie-cutter rich-guy-with-secret-baby. Don’t bother.

Series Review: Brook Street Trilogy by Ava March

  • Brook Street trilogy by Ava MarchTitle(s): Thief; Fortune Hunter; Rogues
  • Author: Ava March
  • Series: Brook Street, Books 1-3
  • Genre(s): Historical, M/M
  • Publisher: Carina Press, March-May 2012
  • Source: Thief: Free from publisher via NetGalley; Fortune Hunter: Amazon, $3.03; Rogues: Amazon, $3.03
  • Trope(s): In the Closet. Regency England
  • Quick blurb: Mayfair men and the men they love.
  • Quick review: Despite a sanitized setting, the focus on passionate relationships makes this series work.
  • Grade: B (Thief: B, Fortune Hunter: A-, Rogues: C+)

Regency London – where polite manners and spotless reputations reign supreme. Yet behind the closed doors of three elegant town houses along Brook Street, passion and lust reign as gentlemen dare to risk scandal by falling in love…

During my first reading of Ava March’s Brook Street novellas, I found her Regency Mayfair world to be sanitized and idealistic – especially compared to the claustrophobic atmosphere of secrecy and urgency and impending doom that characterizes many other M/M historicals.

All six main characters in this trilogy accept being gay without hesitation.* In Thief, the first novella in the series, youngest son Benjamin simply makes up his mind and never falters with his decision:

Before the not-so-subtle nudges from his brothers and sisters started anew to find a wife among the bevies of young ladies, he would know the truth about himself. And either way, he would accept it.

None of the Brook Street heroes are asked to deal with the pressure for an heir, nor do they confront threats of being disinherited or shunned. All are estranged, or nearly so, from their families for reasons other than their homosexuality, which feels like an easy cop-out avoid external conflicts. For these heroes, there’s no emotional trauma – or even angst – about the risks of loving another man in 19th-century England:

“Discretion is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.”

However, as I was reading more closely a second time for reviewing, I realized that by focusing on relationships rather than societal pressures, March gives her historical gay characters not only the happy endings they deserve, but the dignity they deserve as well. In the Brook Street world, we’re allowed a more intimate view of the heroes’ day-to-day lives, especially the importance of friendship in establishing and sustaining the “confirmed bachelor” façade.

Grading the stories individually….. Continue reading

The Cowboy’s Princess Wife by Mysty McPartland

  • The Cowboy's Princess Wife by Mysty McPartlandTitle: The Cowboy’s Princess Wife
  • Author: Mysty McPartland
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Historical
  • Publisher: Secret Cravings Publishing, January 2012
  • Source: Amazon, $4.99
  • Trope(s): Virgins, Alpha Males, Cowboys, Mystery Marriage, I Hate You Except When We Kiss
  • Quick blurb: Scottish Princess shows up on doorstep of Cowboy Earl claiming proxy marriage.
  • Quick review: I can’t decide which was worse – the bad history or the bad editing.
  • Grade: F

In the interests of fairness, and to prove that I’m an Equal Opportunity Crank, I decided to try out another title from the publishing house that signed Sable “Hell Yeah!” Hunter.

I chose The Cowboy’s Princess Wife because of the bodice-ripping title, the author’s stripper-rific first name and the blurb:

Even though she made a promise to her dying grandfather, Carlin only intends to deliver the letter to the Earl and leave. When he refuses to let her go she takes time to contemplate the situation and being attracted to him decides to give their marriage a chance.  Her husband was so annoying at times she re-thinks her situation and once again makes plans to leave.

Surprised at finding two beautiful women in his parlor Haydon cannot deny the overwhelming attraction he feels towards one of them. He is shocked senseless when he finds out his father has married him to the woman he desires. Bound by duty and honor he can never let her go. However, it doesn’t take him long to become irritated with her and all the crap she fill his house with. What makes him furious though was all the deception.

Can Haydon keep his princess wife safe? Can their love for one another over come all the obstacles?

Verb tense disagreement, missing commas and a house full of crap in the blurb? Wheee, let’s get started!

But before we get carried away….

Let’s take a look at the dedication page:

Author Dedication page - The Cowboy's Princess Wife

Reason #1 Why Secret Cravings Publishing Is Collectively Smoking Crack

The opening scene….

With her heart beating wildly in her chest, her stomach twisted in a knot of nervous tension, Carlin thought she just might be sick.

Oooh, barfing in the first sentence! But if this is a historical, shouldn’t she be casting up her accounts?

Her eyes wide open, she kept sweeping the area with fearful apprehension. Dear Lord, what had her sweet grandfather forced her into she silently asked?

All righty. So that’s the way it’s going to be. Thanks for the early warning.

Lord, she didn’t want to do this, did not want to be here, well she couldn’t do anything about it now since she already arrived, she despondently told herself.

I’m silently telling myself despondently that I don’t really want to read this but I paid $5 for it because I’m trying to prove a point so I’m damn well going to finish it.

“Och, Carlin, it dinna look too bad.” Layla tried to reassure her cousin….

Fake Scottish brogue and historically improbable character names. The WTF list is growing and we’re only on the fourth paragraph.

She definitely could feel herself becoming annoyed.

Well, we wouldn’t want her to waffle about it, so it’s a good thing she’s definitely definite.

Continue reading