The world-building shines as the star of B.L. Blanchard’s debut novel, The Peacekeeper, a murder mystery set in an alt-history version of the Great Lakes region of North America. By far the most compelling aspect of the book, the world-building centers around the premise that North America was never colonized and that Native American society has solidified into the Ojibwe nation around the Great Lakes. It asks the question, what does that look like? How would cities like Chicago have evolved? How would the police and judicial system operate? What about economics? Blanchard answers these questions and more throughout the course of unwinding the mystery, which in many ways fades to the back as this intriguing world-building concept takes the front seat. I received an ARC of this book from 47North. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/06/2022
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
Against the backdrop of a never-colonized North America, a broken Ojibwe detective embarks on an emotional and twisting journey toward solving two murders, rediscovering family, and finding himself.
North America was never colonized. The United States and Canada don’t exist. The Great Lakes are surrounded by an independent Ojibwe nation. And in the village of Baawitigong, a Peacekeeper confronts his devastating past.
Twenty years ago to the day, Chibenashi’s mother was murdered and his father confessed. Ever since, caring for his still-traumatized younger sister has been Chibenashi’s privilege and penance. Now, on the same night of the Manoomin harvest, another woman is slain. His mother’s best friend. This leads to a seemingly impossible connection that takes Chibenashi far from the only world he’s ever known.
The major city of Shikaakwa is home to the victim’s cruelly estranged family—and to two people Chibenashi never wanted to see again: his imprisoned father and the lover who broke his heart. As the questions mount, the answers will change his and his sister’s lives forever. Because Chibenashi is about to discover that everything about their lives has been a lie.
The earth is sacred and “the Good Life” – sharing what you have with others, a close equivalent to the concept of karma, the author explains in the glossary – are two of the guiding principles that form the foundation of world-building in The Peacekeeper. Buildings are living, trees and plants literally grow out of the skyscrapers, bringing the earth into their towering structures to meet the people that live and work there. Nature is omnipresent. Justice focuses on making victims whole, guided by “the Good Life” rather than punitive approaches to restitution. In smaller towns, like Baawitigong, money is rarely used, everyone in the village ensures that the needs of the townspeople are met through shared resources and redistribution of possessions. These are just a few of examples of how the author paints a very different picture of what the world might look like had Native Americans held on to the land and the nation grew under their precepts instead of the colonists.
However, human nature cannot be escaped, and to me this was probably the most powerful message of the book. Poverty and inequality still exist as shown by the state of Sakima’s housing and the homelessness in the streets of Shikaakwa. Cheating, murder, and drugs are still present, and their evils have dire consequences. The justice system, although fundamentally different, still fails people. This book tells us that no matter how benevolent the society, how good its intentions, human nature is constant.
The language and the prose structure complimented the world-building nicely by using Native American terms and names as well as providing a Native American voice. Note to readers: there is a glossary in the back of the book that is extremely helpful!
Unfortunately, the characters and mystery fell flat for me, which is why I rated the book merely average. Chibenashi is not a sympathetic character. He is frustrating at best and annoying at worst. The trouble is that we are only given his viewpoint. There are limited forays into other viewpoints, but not enough to let us know that Chibenashi is in fact an unreliable narrator. Had we known that earlier in the book through others’ viewpoints, I think his character would have been more sympathetic, and that tactic would also have added dimension to the murder mystery. We do find out why he is an unreliable narrator at the end of the book as part of the mystery reveal, but knowing that in hindsight doesn’t make his character easier to read for the first 80% of the book.
The book intends there to be an awakening for Chibenashi. He is meant to experience and drive toward re-creation in the endless cycle of life. And although his character arc ends with him starting completely fresh and anew – literally the last two pages of the book – the revelations and transformation that led to those final pages felt rushed, especially considering the amount of time the reader spends with the unlikeable character.
There were problems with continuity in action versus reaction. The consequences and emotional implications of Chibenashi stealing the file, for example, were completely disproportionate when compared to the consequences and impacts of “sins” committed by other characters, e.g. Sakima lying about his whereabouts or Peezhickee withholding key information or, most notably, botching the initial investigation. The lack of continuity pulled me out of the story as I was unable to reconcile this hitch in the world-building and characterization.
The mystery is straight-forward, but again, this book’s world-building is the draw, not the mystery itself. The Scooby Doo ending, where everyone arrives at the same time for the big reveal, coupled with the Bond-villain-esque pages of monologue from the antagonist revealing the entire how and why was over-the-top. This type of reveal didn’t match the methodical pacing of the rest of the story and I think the mystery would have been better served had it been resolved more organically.
Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It came at a time when I was desperately seeking something different, and it most definitely delivered on that front. I’d recommend it to someone who enjoys inventive, alt-history world-building and a light mystery. I doubt I will read on in the series, though. This first book did not grip me enough such that I feel compelled to return for the next installment.
The Dark Court Rising trilogy is Epic High Fantasy rooted in the lore of the Fae Courts. Iskvien is a princess in one of the Seelie Courts, bargained by her ruthless and evil mother to spend three months with her mortal enemy Thiago, the dark prince of Evernight in exchange for peace. But all is not what it seems, and the first book shows Iskvien uncovering truths about herself, Thiago, and her mother’s treachery. The first installment ends with an HFN, Happy For Now, but it is clear that the stakes are much higher than originally thought, and this isn’t the end of the story for Thiago and Iskvien.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
Promise of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 17/09/2019
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Crown of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 15/09/2020
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
Curse of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 22/03/2022
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
Ultimately, this series is about unconditional love. It’s about dealing with the trauma of an abusive parent and learning to truly love yourself in spite of that trauma. Thiago shows Iskvien that she can be loved, but its up to Iskvien to set aside the self-doubt instilled in her by a horribly evil parent and learn to love herself. It is fitting that Iskvien comes into her full power not when she recognizes that Thiago loves her, but when she casts aside her mother’s absuses and accepts herself for who she is. To amplify this theme, Thiago’s own character arc involves self-loathing due to the Darkness inside of him, bestowed by his evil father. Until Thiago accepts that part of himself, he is never truly whole. At the heart of this trilogy are poignant messages about finding your personal power through accepting and loving yourself.
One of the things I appreciated most about these books is that the characterization and themes are mature despite being rooted in the Fae. So often, Fae-based books are YA or NA (not always, but often) and so I was pleased to find this adult, epic fantasy series with the Fae courts as their foundation. In some respects, McMaster hit the nail on the head with Fae lore. You can see the threads of classic Fae stories shaped to serve this particular world and plot. Her spin was different enough that it made me smile as opposed to thinking it “the same old” or this is “not quite right.” (Grimsby the grimalkin is an absolute delight!) This series is rife with magic, bargains, curses, and treachery, and she leans heavily into the concept of the precise wording that often leads to unexpected outcomes. But, at the same time, I did struggle to track the concept of Death, Darkness, and Darkyn (were these distinct or related in some way and how) and how these creatures fit in with the Seelie, Unseelie, the Old Ones, and the Otherkin. Maybe it was just me, but there were times when I had to just set aside my confusion with the world-building and keep going.
The interplay between the courts and side characters is what makes this series truly shine. The politicking, intrigue, treachery, and back stories of the various players make these books come to life in true epic fantasy fashion. The sub-plots were compelling and well-developed despite the majority of that happening from Iskvien’s POV. There are limited forays into alternate POVs and I wish there would have been more!
McMaster ended book three with wrap-ups for each sub-plot, many of which contained major open questions. It is abundantly clear that these fairy-tale-esque threads are being set up to become follow-on books in this world. She has already announced that the next book will be Andraste’s story (Iskvien’s sister), and it will be interesting to see how that pans out given her marriage to the Goblin King, Edain’s love for her, and the (I’ll say it – weirdly unexpected) erotic fight between Edain and Lysander at the end. And that’s just one thread! This trilogy definitely provided the foundation for an expansive, on-going series.
Throughout the first two books, I kept thinking, “Wow, her pacing is perfect!” The balance between character development and introspection and plot was on point! By the end of book two, I found myself furiously turning pages, and the ending was a complete kick in the teeth. It’s a cliffhanger, make no mistake, and I’m glad that I waited until all three books were out before reading through, because I immediately started book three.
That being said, the pacing slows considerably with book three, which in my opinion is the weakest of the trilogy. I liked it. It was a good book. But it could have been about 100 (or more, to be honest) pages shorter. It became repetitive at times, which made the declarations of love, instrospections about not deserving love, and the sex scenes start to fall flat, and I ended up skimming those after a time. Thiago and Iskvien’s HEA was hard-won and satisfying. It is the ending that they deserved, and I was pleased at how their story wrapped up.
Overall, I would recommend these books, especially for someone looking for an adult series rooted in Fae lore. Despite some of my critique, I think McMaster did a great job of blending world-building, romance, and deep theming into a satsifying and noteworthy epic fantasy series. I am intrigued enough that I would like to revisit this world and read Andraste’s story, set to come out in 2023.
Lately, one of the ways I’ve been finding new Fantasy Romance books is by mining the literary awards database for all the past winners of the RITA for Paranormal Romance. I came across the book Rebel, book 3 in The Blades of the Rose series, and was intrigued so I added it to my TBR, not really sure which square I’d use it for. I was about to dig into the series, when unexpectedly a Historical Romance writer (Eva Leigh) who I’ve read in the past and follow on Twitter posted about this exact series and that she had written it under the penname Zoe Archer. I had no idea! It seemed as though the fates aligned to encourage me to read this series, and so I decided to dive in.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/01/2010
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
It didn’t take me long to figure out which square was best for this series – Historical Fantasy. Why? Because this series reads and feels like a Historical Romance. The writing, the structure, the tone – you can tell it is written by a prominent Historical Romance author. I think one of the things I found unique about this series was the fact that it’s an accurate Historial Romance first and Fantasy second – the magic system and world-building were layered atop of the accurate historical setting. In some respects, the Fantasy plot is suppoting!
The series takes during the late Victorian era. The main characters are all British and are fighting a war for the posession of magical Sources. The Blades of the Rose are a secret society of English men and women who are protecting ancient artifacts – Sources – from falling into the wrong hands. The Heirs of Albion are another secret society in opposition to the Blades; the Heirs are Imperialists, their goal is to acquire as many Sources as possible with the intent of using their powerful magic to promote the expansion of the British Empire and establish England as the center of the world. These books have a strong anti-colonialism theme.
This world is our world – it is an accurate historical representation. Magic is simply layered on top. Magical Sources are artifacts pulled from various traditions and myths. In other words, the magic is that these myths are real and are sources of incredible power. For example, in the first book we learn that many historical battles were actually won due to an army in possession of one of the Sources.
What’s great about this series is that although the main characters are all English, they are traveling around the world to find and protect the Sources. The first book takes place in Mongolia and the second in Greece. This really ups the ante in terms of history, because not only is English history being referenced, but the reader also becomes immersed in some of the culture and history of the location where the Blades and the Heirs are hunting for the Source.
I picked the second book in this series to review – Scoundrel – because it blew me away. I’d been in a reading slump, and this book pulled me right out of it. It had so many of the romance tropes I love all tied together nicely in a neat little package. For me, this one was all about the character and relationship arc and how beautifully Archer developed both.
I absolutely loved the dynamic between Bennett and London. This is a true enemies-to-lovers story, because London is the daughter of one of the Heirs and Bennett is a Blade. They are sworn enemies, and the path they take to become allies is so well-constructed and natural, it was a pleasure to read. London’s character arc as Bennett encourages and supports her to grow into her personal power after being sheltered and held back by her father is magnificent.
One of my pet peeves in HR is when the rake really isn’t a rake. When the title of the book and characters referring to him as a rake are the only things that tell me that the MMC is a scoundrel, I take issue. But that is not the case here and I absolutely loved it. Bennett is set up as the quintessential rake, the opening scene showing him being chased through the streets by an angry husband. Heck! He even slept with the other woman in their group of allies! Even after he and London come together, he admits to her he can’t bind himself to one woman or love her the way she wants. The transformation of Bennett’s character given his love for London is perfection. This is one of the best “reformed rake” stories I’ve ever read.
And the steam – whew! The tension between these two characters is palpable and their encounters absolutely delicious. In particular, the scene between them on the ruins was incredibly erotic. I knew Archer could write wonderfully explicit and erotic sex scenes from her HR novels, and she does not disappoint here!
The adventure was just as compelling as the romance. This book has strong Indiana Jones / The Mummy vibes – a true treasure hunt filled with riddles, hidden maps, traps, all to uncover the location of the hidden magical treasure. They were truly a team working together to find the lost artifact and defeat their enemies. Archer also really stepped up the magic in this second installment. Unlike the first, this book also had powerful sorcery, wielding both by a powerful witch Blade named Athena and an evil Heir Chernock as well as magical creatures. The pacing and balance between the fantastical and historical was perfectly achieved.
Leigh/Archer’s prose is delicious without being overwrought. She’s such an amazing writer, and her prose is consistent across the various genres in which she writes.
You don’t have to read the first book in order to enjoy the second. There is some backstory presented in the first, but the majority of it is covered in the second book, so the only thing you’d miss out on is references to the plot of the first. That being said, the first book is still an enjoyable read. I will read on in this series. It’s a total of four books and the last two take us to the wilds of northern Canada and then to Chicago. I hope you enjoy this series as much as I’m enjoying it!
If I were to pick one word to describe The Quarter Storm it would be atmospheric. This mystery steeped in Vodou magic immerses you in the communities, environment, and day-to-day life of a post-Katrina New Orleans so effectively it’s as if you’ve been transported there, feeling the humidity on your skin as you walk down the streets of the Quater and witnessing the events of the book yourself. In some respects, The Quarter Storm reads like a slice-of-life fantasy. As the mystery unfolds, the reader experiences the mundane: preparing gumbo, walking into a neighborhood bar and grill, or bringing a meal to less fortunate friends. Yet these events are interwoven with the plot elements so as to play an important role in unraveling the mystery. If you enjoy atmospheric, slice-of-life fantasy that is steeped in the culture and traditions of a specific urban center, then you’ll like The Quarter Storm. It is quite the nod to New Orleans and a satisfying read. I received an ARC of this book from 47North. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 01/03/2022
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
A practitioner of Vodou must test the boundaries of her powers to solve a ritual murder in New Orleans and protect everything she holds sacred.
Haitian-American Vodou priestess Mambo Reina Dumond runs a healing practice from her New Orleans home. Gifted with water magic since she was a child, Reina is devoted to the benevolent traditions of her ancestors.
After a ritual slaying in the French Quarter, police arrest a fellow vodouisant. Detective Roman Frost, Reina’s ex-boyfriend—a fierce nonbeliever—is eager to tie the crime, and half a dozen others, to the Vodou practitioners of New Orleans. Reina resolves to find the real killer and defend the Vodou practice and customs, but the motives behind the murder are deeper and darker than she imagines.
As Reina delves into the city’s shadows, she untangles more than just the truth behind a devious crime. It’s a conspiracy. As a killer wields dangerous magic to thwart Reina’s investigation, she must tap into the strength of her own power and faith to solve a mystery that threatens to destroy her entire way of life.
There are several aspects of The Quarter Storm that stood out to me, the first of which was the characterzation. I thought Henry did a phenomenal job here. The characters felt real with all their faults, and oh do they have faults. From the high-spirited, eager-to-fight Tyka, to the righteous and Vodou-wary Roman, to the haughty and self-serving Lucien, Henry’s characters have a depth that you can only achieve through vice and virtue. These characters do not always make the right decisions, and in fact sometimes take morally ambiguous action. But that’s what makes them so compelling. That’s real life.
Reina, the MC, is especially human, and I found myself invested in her life. She is three-dimensional, having powerful magical capabilities through her lwa, while at the same time struggling to pay her bills. She makes her livelihood through practicing her religion, but never at the cost of authenticity – no commercial exploitation of her beliefs just for a quick buck here! Despite multiple warnings, she devotes herself to uncovering the truth of the grisly murder pegged on one of their own, protecting her religion against the dangerous stereotypes and assumptions that would make it an easy scapegoat.
But the depth of character doesn’t stop there. Reina is a terrible cook, trying unsuccessfully to make meals for her friends using all the wrong ingredients. She grieves the loss of her mother, unable to let go years later – had her mother abandonded New Orleans, or had she been swept away by the waters of Katrina? Reina is in love with the wrong man, in and out of a relationship with Roman despite the fact that he rejects and despises her religion. Love is like that sometimes, coming unwanted and pulling you toward someone you have no business being with. These aspects of her character combine to make Reina so human and so relatable.
The use of Haitian Creole thoughout the story as well as the in-depth history and lore of Vodou lent further authenticity to the characters and the world. I found myself googling translations and reading Wikipedia to learn more. To me, that’s a sign that an author has done a great job at urban world-building – her sprinkling of language and lore throughout the story hooked me into wanting to learn even more about these people and their culture.
The most profound and surprising aspect of this book was its treatment of Katrina. Katrina’s presence is felt; it loomed in the background almost as if it was its own character, but it was never the centerpiece of the story, and I thought that was masterfully done. The setting is a post-Katrina New Orleans, and the author’s treatment of that fact cannot be overlooked despite the fact she doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it! The real message here is that life goes on. Yes, Katrina was a defining moment in history that changed things irrevocably in New Orleans, and yet life goes on, however changed. And although Katrina did shape many of the events in the story and the mystery, it was woven into the fabric of the atmosphere and plot so subtly and naturally that it didn’t overshadow the other aspets of the story. Henry’s treatment of Katrina deserves applause. Bravo!
I’ll admit that the elements of the mystery did feel somewhat thin. The various encounters Reina had to find clues left me wanting more insight. It often felt like she instigated investigative conversations and then walked away with no more information than when she entered the encounter. I overlooked that though, because she wasn’t a detective, and that really didn’t feel like the focus of the story to me. The focus was Reina’s life as a Vodouisant in New Orleans and the mystery was a means by which Henry explores that.
Henry’s prose was lovely, and her use of colloquial dialogue struck the right balance, especially considering the strong and varied dialects of that particular region. It wasn’t overdone and never pulled me out of the story.
I would recommend The Quarter Storm to anyone interested in a “witchy” vibe, in an urban fantasy where the setting is almost as imporant as the story itself. It would also be perfect for someone craving a trip to New Orleans, who wants to be transported to that city through the fantastical exploration of Vodou magic and murder mystery.
J.R. Ward is a force in Paranormal Romance and Romance in general (as Jessica Bird), having won multiple RITAs and creating a fandom that is staggering in size and devotion. The Black Dagger Brotherhood came out in 2005, one of the foundational PNR series that “started it all” in the wake of 9/11, and like some of the other “blockbuster” series that emerged during that time, it’s still going. With twenty books, the most recent of which came out this April, and two spin-off series, the Black Dagger Brotherhood has established itself as a franchise with staying power. This review will survey BDB in general – at least the books I’ve read thus far – in an attempt to understand why it is so beloved and a cornerstone of the PNR genre.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
STARS: 3/5 ✶
STARS: 3/5 ✶
STARS: 4/5 ✶
STARS: 5/5 ✶
There is a lot to unpack about the Black Dagger Brotherhood; it’s difficult to know where to start. The best place, perhaps, is through comparison. Imagine if you took The Black Company by Glen Cook, and you turned the concept of their hyper-masculine band of brothers-in-arms, moved it to the modern world, made them vampires, and added a heaping dose of romance. Presto! You have the Black Dagger Brotherhood. They are an elite force of military-grade vampires, bred for protecting their race, bonded into brotherhood by hundreds of years of devotion to their King and one another, but each having their own unique story, traits, and abilities.
One of the things I found fascinating about this series is its take on vampires. In terms of tropes, it has the standard vampire-slayer conflict, except that the world-building around that trope is wildly unexpected. In this world, vampires are a species distinct from humans that are born, not sired. Their progenitor is an immortal being known as the Scribe Virgin who is at war with another immortal known as the Omega and is determined to put an end to the vampire race. Furthermore, vampires don’t kill or feed on humans; only the blood of their own race can nourish them. So, this is not a battle of humans against vampires, but of the legions of “lessers” created by the Omega to exterminate the vampires set in the human world. Like I said, fascinating take.
In my opinion, this series falls squarely under the Dark Fantasy subgenre (from a Speculative Fiction perspective) for multiple reasons. Yes, it is incredibly violent, but in some respects that’s simply a “surface” darkness. What I find truly dark, because it is troubling on a deeper level (and, in fact, flat out creepy) are the “lessers.” These beings are created by the Omega by removing their soul both metaphorically and physically in exchange for immortality – their hearts are literally excised from their bodies and stored in jars – to gain their powers. These beings are straight up sociopaths, even before they are turned, and it is described in detail on page. One of the unique things about this series is that it is multi-POV. The reader gets to read the events from the lessers POV, and it is disturbing. They have no conscience. I’ll be honest, those sections are hardest reads for me. It is purposeful though in that the author is presenting a clear contrast between the necessary violence of the brotherhood and the pure acts of evil transgressed by the lessers.
To further establish the dark tone, the world itself is incredibly bleak. The series takes place in a fictional large city in upstate New York where drugs, alcohol, prostitution, sex, addiction, murder, and what is essentially gang warfare are all taking place, explicitly. Characters are tortured. Characters you like are shot and killed point blank. Heroes are borderline alcoholics, and one almost turned to heroin to quell his emotional turmoil. Couples do get their HEAs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things turn out well for the other characters. This series comes with a LOT of content warnings. I’m not going to list them here. But as with any Grimdark or Dark Fantasy series, if readers have particular triggers, you should definitely search out the CWs and make sure you understand them going in (e.g. book 3 contains explicit descriptions of the MMC being raped). It is a brutal world that, combined with the multiple POVs and the plot, deliver a truly Dark Urban Fantasy experience.
The first book is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but I think that’s more endemic of the fact that it’s a first book in a sweeping Urban Fantasy series than it is of this series in particular. A significant amount of time is spent explaining and exploring the world. So much so that Romance fans will probably find the romance in book one a touch thin. It definitely has a fated mates element to it as well, and unfortunately under-developed insta-love, which was one of the reasons I gave the first book only 3 stars. But that quickly turns around in book 2, where the romance and characters are developed in significantly more detail. By books 3 and 4, the character and relationship arcs are far more fleshed out and fully developed as you can see reflected in my ratings (4 and 5, respectively). I’ll be honest, had I not made a commitment to read 3-4 books per series for this Book Bingo project, I probably would not have read on in this series. But I am SO glad that I did, because book 1 is not representative of what you’ll find as you progress through this crazy world, and by the time I got to book 4, it was a 5-star read for me.
This series rides a line between Urban Fantasy Romance and Paranormal Romance given the multiple POVs and structure. Yes, there is a single HEA per book, but the foundations of other relationships, both romantic and otherwise, exist to a far greater extent in each book than I’ve seen in other series, in part due to the multi POVs. Also, the series-spanning plot arcs of the war between the brotherhood and the lessers definitely takes a front seat in equal measure to the romance. In my estimate, that tips the scales for me to categorize this as Urban Fantasy Romance (at least as far as I have read).
This series is not without its faults. So many fans have commented on the names, and I’d be remiss to not bring it up. Yes, the names of the brothers are ridiculous – Phury, Rhage, Tohrment, Rehvenge, Vishous – but honestly, as I continued to read on in the series, it didn’t stand out as much to me because it meshed with the world-building. The vampires speak an Old Language, and so it’s not only their names but also other proper nouns and rituals that have these odd spellings. In fact, there is a glossary of terms at the beginning of each book! I know, I know – ridiculous, right? And it really was at first. But by book 4, I didn’t even notice it. It just fit.
What actually garnered more eye-rolling for me was the early-2000’s references to pop-culture. They’re driving around in Escalades listening to rap music (and referring to actual rappers and songs) and wearing designer suits (which are also called out specifically). That *did* start to grate, but at the same time was somewhat entertaining as it was like taking a time machine back to my graduate school days, a little window back in time. All this to say, just know, going in, these things exist and may pull you out of the story.
Probably the most problematic part of these books is that they are *highly* gendered and the descriptions of LGBTQ+ characters are less than great. If the presence of these two things is a non-starter for you, I would not recommend this series.
The Fated Mates podcast did an episode on BDB, and although I wished they had gone into some of the issues I’ve described above in greater detail, one of the things they did comment on that I thought hit the mark is that they called this series “propulsive.” This description is spot on. Despite the drawbacks I enumerated above, the plotting and its pacing *propel* you to keep reading. Even though the books were graphic and a lot to take at once, I could not stop reading. I read books 2 through 4 in 6 days!
I will most likely read on in the series, specifically to reach the books that focus on the characters whose stories I’d like to see completed, but I am going to take a short break to recover a bit from this dark and brutal world. Who would I recommend this series to? Oof – that’s a tough call. Probably fans of Dark Fantasy or Grimdark that are looking for romance in their stories. This series is not for the faint of heart, and so I would make sure that anyone I recommend this to know what they’re getting into. Good luck – this series is a doozy!
Balanced on the Blade’s Edge is another book that’s been sitting on my TBR for some time, rec’ed to me (somewhere – I admit to not remembering at this point) in a request for adult Fantasy Romance. It’s the first book in Lindsay Buroker’s Dragon Blood series, which she admits on her website is far more of a foray into Romance for her than her other novels. That being said, this is not a Romance series – it is most definitely a Fantasy series in which there is a Romance in the first book, a Romance in the second book, and then – based on Goodreads blurbs, reviews, discussions with friends – falls squarely back into Fantasy, albeit with some romantic elements between the couples stretched out throughout the remainder of the series.
RELEASE DATE: 24/03/2014
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
For me, I think the best word to describe my impression of this book is “thin” – I found the world-building thin, the character development thin, the relationship development thin, and the plot thin. To be fair, this is a short book, but honestly, I think I would have found it a more compelling read had it been twice as long and all these crucial elements fleshed out in greater detail. I wanted to like Sardelle, I really did, but she just fell so flat for me, because I didn’t have enough backstory or insight into her character to really care. Ridge was a little better, the consummate flyboy, but still, there wasn’t enough depth for me to feel connected to him or invested in his success. As always, I did love that the FMC and MMC were older – Ridge is over 40 and Sardelle in her mid-30s – yay for older protags!
Honestly, perhaps the most compelling character and dynamic in the book was Jaxi – Sardelle’s soulblade. She is the soul of a sorceress bound to a sword and bonded with her wielder Sardelle, giving Sardelle even more power. Their banter was entertaining, and it reminded me a little of the banter between the FMC and the computer in Johanna Lindsay’s Warrior’s Woman. Their ongoing joke of giving people rashes to foil them without them realizing it was done by magic was entertaining.
The bones of an interesting world were put in place, but they weren’t explored enough to have me really feel invested. We learn the reason for the series title – Dragon Blood – magic stems from the blood of dragons who are now extinct, but we don’t really understand why or how that works. There is an entire culture that was eliminated and buried under the mountain, but again, there’s a lot of missing information about why and who they were. I can only hope that as the series progresses, more of this world-building is fleshed out. Also, its definitely steampunk – airships and planes – but… that’s about it. I wish she would have leaned into the steampunk aesthetic more.
The plot was also a bit lacking for me. There is a quest to retrieve Jaxi from the mountain, but the plot points surrounding that needed something more. For example, how Ridge ultimately finds out that Sardelle is a sorceress, for me, was anti-climactic. The author had an opportunity here to really develop these two characters and connect them through the reveal of Sardelle as a sorceress, e.g. Sardelle could have confided in him or she could have saved the books from burning in a rash display of magic. Instead, the big secret was simply revealed. I won’t give away the details, because spoilers, but suffice to say it wasn’t satisfying. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only instance of this. The final battle between Sardelle and the opposing sorceror was lackluster. It was brief, lacked detail, and was far too one-sided. I expected more from the “big final battle,” and unfortunately just didn’t get it.
In terms of Romance, this is low heat. There is a single sex scene, and it is not explicit. The second time the couple comes together it’s fade-to-black. I do, however, LOVE a forced proximity scene, and that’s what leads to the first sex scene – definite bonus points for that trope! Ridge is not an Alpha at all, so this book will appeal to fans of a Cinnamon Roll (and also cocky flyboys!)
Despite my words about the various thin elements of the book, the writing is solid. The prose flows nicely and never once pulled me out of the story.
I won’t read on in this series, not because anything in particular put me off, but because nothing in particular hooked me such that I felt invested in the world and compelled to read the next book. It was a quick, easy read, and I’d recommend it to someone looking for a little light fantasy – a palate cleanser – that has a low-steam romance in a steampunk world.
A Curse of Queens is the first book in the continuation of Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series, taking place after the events of the original trilogy. The first trilogy is a complete, self-contained story, but the seeds and possibility for follow-on books were definitely planted both from the perspective of burgeoning relationships and the sweeping world-building that was necessary for a tale of such epic proportions. The structure of A Curse of Queens shifts from the first trilogy, which focuses on Cat’s epic quest and a single-relationship arc across three books to a more traditional dual-POV focus on a single couple; this novel tells the story of Flynn and Jocasta, one of the couples set up to have their own story during the first trilogy. And while I was happy to read Flynn and Jocasta’s story, and I thought that the book was another fun installment in the Kingmaker Chronicles world, I was left wanting more in a couple of areas. I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 04/10/2022
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
The queen has been cursed, and no one knows who’s behind the plot to threaten the realm’s fragile peace. Desperate to help, Jocasta hatches a plan to find Circe’s Garden, a fabled island where she hopes to discover an antidote. But she can’t do it alone. She needs the strong arm and unflinching bravery of the warrior she’s loved since childhood—her brother’s right-hand-man and captain of the guard, Flynn of Sinta.
Together they can do the impossible. Yet with treachery brewing on Mount Olympus, one thing is clear: Thalyria and its new royals are still pawns in an epic game of power—one that might end in a War of Gods.
There are a lot of things to love about this series, the most compelling of which is the world-building. Thalyria is a world steeped in ancient Greek culture and mythology, and in this particular book, we get an experience reminiscent of the journey and trials of Odysseus. As Flynn, Jocasta, and their friends travel to the island of Circe to retrieve a potion to reverse the effects of the elixir that has the new Queen Cat in stasis, they must go through several trials, many of which are taken right from the Odysessy – Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters, Circe herself – but they also face the Gorgons and the Minotaur. It is jam-packed with fun adventures that are truly enjoyable, especially for those who are fans of Greek mythology!
With this book, you can tell that Bouchet is doing a lot of setup in order to continue the series in a more “traditional” Romance fashion – couples are starting to form (Carver and Bellanca, Kato and a mysterious blonde, Prometheus and Kaia) and the seeds are laid for another epic plot arc to provide the backbone for such a series. There is a “big bad” who has been orchestrating the events of the book to wage an Olympianomachy against Zeus and a portal room is discovered in which the other worlds – Attica, Atlantis, and the Underworld – can be reached. This book is very much a launching point to use the existing world-building for a continuing series.
In terms of Romance, A Curse of Queens has two main romance tropes: brothers-best-friend and second-chance-romance. Brothers-best-friend is always a win for me, but second-chance-romance is generally hit or miss. For me, that particular trope has to be done in a way that reestablishes significant conflict and tension such that there is something meaty to resolve. Unfortunately, that fell a little flat for me here. The couple shared a passionate kiss six years ago, and Flynn panicked due to unresolved trauma around the deaths of his family members, which caused both him and Jocasta to awkwardly pull away from one another. But they never truly stopped wanting each other, and from page one the reader knows they love one another. So, the only conflict here was for Flynn to overcome his fear of losing Jocasta and the two of them reestablishing their communication. For me, that was not enough conflict to make the romantic arc compelling.
The other part of the story that I struggled with was that although the relationship focus was on Jocasta and Flynn, the adventure itself focused on Cat. The characters all revered her and talked about her as if she was a goddess herself. And while I understand that she is meant to be the emobodiment of hope – Elpis – it did grate a little after a while. I would have liked to see the adventure focus more on transforming the main characters themselves and less on saving Cat – the quest felt too “outwardly” focused. Intertwining the beats and goals of the quest plot with the relationship plot in a Romance is always more satisfying, and I would have liked to see that here.
I don’t think you can read this book without having read the first trilogy. There is just too much world-building, character history, and plot points integral to this story that will simply leave the reader confused and frustrated. That being said, I do think the first trilogy is worthwhile, find the world-building compelling, and believe there is an audience for these fun, adventure-packed Romances! I’m not sure I will read on in this series. To be honest, I was always disappointed with the third and final book in the original trilogy, and this book left me feeling a lot of the same. I do enjoy Amanda Bouchet as an author though and will keep an eye out for any additional works.
Milla Vane’s Epic Fantasy series A Gathering of Dragons is probably best known for its first full-length novel A Heart of Blood and Ashes. And although that book is a phenomenal entry into the canon of Fantasy Romance, we’d be remiss not to consider the vast world Vane has created that sets the stage for an epic battle between good and evil spanning multiple books, including the second installment, A Touch of Stone and Snow. While this book expands upon the world-building and deepens the series plot arc around the second coming of the Destroyer, it is a solid book in and of itself, introducing new characters, its own plot arc, and presenting a decidedly different romantic tone.
RELEASE DATE: 21/07/2020
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
A Gathering of Dragons gives off strong Sword and Sorcery vibes, highly reminiscent of Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. The world is filled with loin-cloth wearing barbarians from the widely different lands that comprise this vast world. They come together to form various alliances (this is where the series title A Gathering of Dragons comes from, where Dragon refers to a cadre of protectors) to embark on the quest contained within that particular book. There are bloody battles with swords, their fists, and sorcerers’ and the gods’ (who are real!) magic. It is barbaric and ruthless, and fans of this genre will most definitely pick up on that vibe. One of the more unique aspects of this S&S world-building is that the barbaric setting is amplified with beasts – dinosaurs roam this world, and in this particular book we see a pet saber-toothed cat, a dragon, leatherwings (essentially pterodactyls), and woodstalkers (giant, white-haired, long-taloned apes) traipsing through jungles, burning plains, and snowy expanses. The world is so vast that one of the knocks I have on this series is that the books don’t contain a map. This series *needs* a map. Badly. There is one on her website, but, well, not the same.
These books are very much Romances, and so they are perfect for folks that want to see that old Conan S&S vibe combined with full A-plot romance. These books are incredibly sexual, with graphically explicit descriptions of sex acts. I would say that A Touch of Stone and Snow is a tad less-so than A Heart of Blood and Ashes or The Beast of Blackmore, but it is still far more sexually charged and explicit than a lot of Romance.
In terms of the plot, A Touch of Stone and Snow continues the epic thread that started in A Heart of Blood and Ashes. I highly recommend reading the novella, The Beast of Blackmore, in between books 1 and 2, because it provides essential context that is referenced in book 2. However, significant CW for that novella as there are depictions of rape on page and references to sexual abuses in the past. If these are triggers for you, you can skip the novella no problem and glean the necessary information from the context in book 2.
The Destroyer is coming, and Yvenne (the FMC of book 1), the Queen and partner to the Ran of the Parsatheans has started to create an alliance – a Dragon – against his coming. The warriors that have been sent by Yvenne and Maddek meet with the bastard Prince of Koth, Aerax, our MMC, who is on a quest of his own to gain help for his island nation of Koth that has been besieged by bandits. Along the way, he comes back into contact with his betrothed and his love, Lizzan, banished from Koth, her name stricken from the book of names, for being the only warrior to survive a brutal attack against their people. She embarks on a quest of her own, to protect him and fight a battle to regain her name and protect her family. The two plots – the series-wide arc and the book 2 plot – are masterfully woven together contributing to and feeding off of one another. The seeds of book 3 are also planted, introducing the characters that will form that romance. I found this especially well done – it was not contrived at all and fell out naturally from the plot.
This is a second-chance Romance. The FMC and MMC are still in love with one another when our book begins. But they must do some serious character and relationship work in order to achieve their happy ending. I personally am not a huge fan of the second-chance romance trope, but I must say it was really well done in this book. When we meet our heroine, she is a complete mess. Lizzan has become a full-blown alcoholic, depressed and haunted by the wraiths that attacked and decimated her army at the Hero’s Walk to Koth. She was banished from her home, her name never to be spoken or acknowledged by her people, and she believes her betrothed, her love, Aerax did nothing to stop it. Aerax had reasons, which come to light (no spoilers!) and they must navigate her trauma and recovery together. Aerax is completely devoted to and in love with Lizzan; if the “alphahole-ness” of Maddek put you off in book 1, know that this book does not lean into that archetype at all. Aerax is plagued by his own destiny and what he must do to protect his people, a people that treated him no better than a feral beast because he was a bastard. Together, Lizzan and Aerax must overcome their past hurts and embrace one another once again, fighting both of their battles with newfound strength as a couple. It is a romance about recovering lost love, and rebuilding it into something new and greater, and it is no less powerful for that.
These books do have their quirks, which might be annoying to some, but I was able to look past them. Everyone talks like yoda. Everyone. All the time. The intent, I think, is to evoke an even greater “barbaric vibe,” to have the prose reflect the world-building, and I do actually think it achieves that goal, but I also see how that might grate on some readers, so know that going in.
I will definitely be reading on in this series. Book 3, A Dance of Smoke and Steel, is set to come out within the next year sometime, and I will eagerly jump on the opportunity to read it when it does. This unique combination of Conan-esque, barbarian world-building, Epic Fantasy, and Romance is just too good to pass up!
The Elder Races series by Thea Harrison is a Paranormal Romance series that started in 2011 and made quite the impact – book 1, Dragon Bound, won the RITA (the RWA’s highest honor) for Best Paranormal Romance in 2012. With nine primary works (and countless novellas in the universe), Elder Races follows the politics and relationships of the seven Elder Races that share the world with humans: the Wyr, Light and Dark Fae, the Elves, Demonkind, Nightkind, and Human Witches. There is an aspect of portal fantasy here as well in that there are pockets of Other land that can be accessed through passageways throughout the mortal world, and the characters often enter these lands as part of the stories.
I read the first three books , because I find that with these longer-running PNR series, you don’t really get an accurate impression until you are a few books in. In addition, I was intrigued by the fact that the first three MMCs were non-traditional shapeshifts in that they were mythical creatures – first a dragon, then a thunderbird, and finally a gryphon. So, this review tackles both the book I read for the square as well as the series.
RELEASE DATE: 01/05/2011
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
RELEASE DATE: 01/08/2011
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
RELEASE DATE: 04/10/2011
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
The world-building stage is set in the first book, but it really isn’t until the second and third books that we see just how expansive the world is and get a sense of the politics and machinations of the various races. It isn’t often you get to read a book where you have a gryphon, vampyre, medusa, and djinn all in one scene! The world-building is rich enough to provide the backbone for a series with staying power.
In terms of the romance, it has a heat level on par with a series like Psy-Changeling by Nalini Singh – it is steamy and explicit, but not to the point where it detracts from the plot. The MMCs are alphas, straight up, so if you don’t like that trope, these books are not for you. In fact, the MMC’s of the first two books are some of the most brutish, out-of-touch-with-my-feelings alphas I’ve read in a while. However! The character transformations are profound and definitely come across on the page.
In terms of FMCs, one of the things I really appreciated about this series is how genuinely nice the FMCs are. I absoluletly love a “strong” heroine, but sometimes the stereotyping of what a “strong” heroine means can become grating – they are often set up as assertive to the point of aggressive, in constant conflict with the MMC. It was refreshing to read “strong” heroines that instead were simply kind. For example, toward the beginning of the first book, prior to even starting a relationship, Pia literally cuddles Dragos and falls asleep on top of him. When they are captured by the goblins and thrown in a dungeon, she saves a struggling beetle in her cell from falling down a crack. In the second book, Niniane is often found simply listening to her subjects, connecting with them to make them feel heard. She wants to use her resources to set up a school for her people so that they can integrate into the human world. I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to read FMCs like these, but apparently I did – it was a nice change of pace.
The writing was a little rough for me, but I think that’s a personal taste thing. I sometimes struggle with an author that flips between “elevated” language and colloquialisms; it gives me whiplash to read a beautiful sentence followed by a character using the word “freaking.” It did improve as the series progressed, but it is the reason Serpent’s Kiss (which was my favorite of the three books I read) was not a five-star rating for me. I wanted to give it five stars SO badly, but unfortunately, I do have a hang-up about prose. That, combined with repetitive words and phrasing, and sometimes odd construction, kept the book at a four for me.
Interestingly, the dual POV is not split up into sections like most modern Romances – hello head hopping! You bounce between the two POVs throughout the chapters, but it was done in such a way that, although I noticed it, it didn’t pull me out of the story.
The focus of the third book – my favorite of the three, and the book I used for r/fantasy Book Bingo – is Carling. She is an old vampyre who is bored with life, essentially waiting for death, and her ennui is palpable. She undergoes a “rebirth,” if you will, finally attempting to pursue a second chance at life, in part due to the MMC. I highlighted this passage, because as Carling’s character evolves, and she begins to be pulled out of her complacency, it beautifully captures the impact of his love and support: “Or maybe that was just Rune, reawakening her soul.” Make no mistake – this book is about the FMC and her journey, and the MMC simply plays a supporting role.
I enjoyed the maturity of the characters – Rune and Carling are much older than the characters of the first two books – and the somber tone. Serpent’s Kiss is mature and poignant, and its themes resonated with me. Although Rune is an alpha, he is much more of a cinnamon roll than the previous two heroes. He’s a laid back, ripped jeans and Jerry Garcia t-shirt wearing, easy-going guy. But make no mistake, he can flip on a dime when his friends or mate are in trouble. It does lend a different dynamic to this couple and this book, because he is far more sweet – there is a scene where he does Carling’s makeup, for example, because she hasn’t worn any in hundreds of years and doesn’t know what to do. And Carling being as old and powerful as she is does not stand for any high-handedness at all. I thoroughly enjoyed their dynamic.
I’m usually not a huge fan of books that mess with time. I often find them confusing. But I think this book did a good job of addressing paradoxes and laying out the impacts of their forays into the past. I never felt like the time-travel was contrived. The plot was well-constructed around it and the characters abilities naturally shaped in support of it. The explanations were not confusing and all the typical time travel pitfalls were addressed. It was well-done.
Serpent’s Kiss was by far my favorite of the three books. If you’re interested, you can read it standalone although you’d miss some of the context and world-building that preceded it. I don’t think I will read on in this series. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grip me in a way that propels me to keep reading. I think that’s in part due to the prose. This is a solid PNR series however, and I think many fans will find it enjoyable.
Fire of the Frost is a Fantasy Romance anthology consisting of four distinct novellas, which is quite an ambitious undertaking. Writing Romance novellas is hard, and compiling four well-executed Romance novellas even harder. Why? Because Romance novellas often suffer from the problem that there isn’t the page time to develop the characters in enough detail to make the plot or the romance believable. Layer on top of that a genre like Fantasy, and you’re faced with an even trickier prospect – now you also need page time to flesh out the world-builidng to the degree needed in support of the story or the romance.
However! It can be done! In the right hands, an author can construct a novella-length story that delivers on the promises of the premise of both Fantasy and Romance. In my opinion, Fire of the Frost accomplishes that, and I’ll try and unpack why it is so successful here by looking at each of the four novellas separately.
RELEASE DATE: 05/01/2022
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
A Wynter Fyre by Darynda Jones – 5/5
This is the shortest novella in the anthology, and despite the story being standalone, it really worked for me, I think, for three reasons. First, much of the page-time is dedicated to the world-building, and since the world itself is what drove the plot, the author made a good choice here. This is great literary device for managing page time – tie your world into the driving plot points and suddenly you’ve created a page efficiency that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
Second, the steaminess is not tied to the HEA. I know – you’re thinking gratuitous sex? Well, maybe a bit gratuitous, but I don’t think so. If you don’t have time to have your characters fall in love, add steam another way, avoiding insta-love altogether. That’s what the author did here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a content warning – there is dubious consent in the opening scene where the FMC is assaulted by vampires after being bitten and injected with what is essentially aphrodesiac vampire venom. This didn’t bother me and, like I said, I thought it was an ingenious way of getting the FMC and MMC into a steamy situation (he did not perpetrate the assault – their encounter came after), but I know that this is a big trigger for some folks, so reader beware!
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this book had an HFN as opposed to an HEA, making the relationship arc far more believable. Our couple doesn’t go all the way to love and a full HEA, but you get the sense that their HFN will lead to a true HEA and that is enough to make you feel complete while avoiding the feelings of the end being contrived and reeking of insta-love. The plot twist and relationship reveal is key to achieving this story. It was unexpected and made the plot work.
Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet – 4/5
Another way to make a Romance novella work? Write the story of a secondary character from an ongoing series. The world has alrady been established, the backstory of at least one of the characters is already in the mind of the reader, and you’re able to use your page time to develop the plot and Romance. That’s exactly what Bouchet does in Of Fate and Fire, which is a novella set in her Kingmaker Chronicles world. It contains the story of what happens to Piers after he is banished from Thalyria by Athena.
For me, that was always a tough scene – I was SO conflicted about Piers’s fate, and for him to get a bit of character redemption and an HEA was extremely satisfying. The story is set in NYC at Christmastime, and the “big bad” is this billionaire tech mogul, both of which were extremely satisfying plot points (especially the downfall of the billionaire). I also love how much Bouchet leans in to her Greek heritage and mythology. She really leveled up with those elements in this novella, having the FMC being a part of a Greek immigrant family and a descendant of Heracles. I’m really looking forward to book 4 in the Kingmaker Chronicles series, which comes out this fall!
The King of Hel by Grace Draven – 4/5
If you follow my posts and reviews, you know that I’m a huge Grace Draven fan. She consistently delivers, and this story is no different; it has the tone, prose, and world-building I’ve grown to love in her works. This was the first story she ever published, expanded into novella for this anthology. It is standalone, and effortlessly tackles world-building and character development within the confines of a novella’s short length. Draven is truly a master of Fantasy Romance.
The novella is as much a love story between Castil and her best friend as it is between Castil and Doranis. The tone is rather somber, tackling themes of inequity and loss. Each of the three main characters is bound by the expectations of their birth, relegated to class expectations and rights. Yet amid the unfortunate outcomes of being forced to live within those societal strictures, love and friendship perservere. A poignant tale that fans of Grace Draven will thoroughly appreciate.
Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy – 3/5
This novella was my least favorite of the anthology, but that had more to do with my personal taste in tropes than anything else. In general, I am not a big fan of magic schools or YA-leaning characters, and since this story followed the relationship of two students of the Convocation Academy – the magic school in Kennedy’s Bonds of Magic world – it wasn’t my preference. However, I know this isn’t a turn off for others, so if you like that series and Kennedy’s writing (which is fantastic!) and want to delve deeper into the unique world-building that is an allegory for slavery and caste systems, this might be a great novella for you!
Familiar Winter Magic is another example of a novella set in an existing world, but unlike other examples I’ve read that employ this approach, this novella is far more tied into the main storyline of the series than usual. Although the characters and relationship are well-developed, it reads almost like a prelude to book 3, with multiple references to the series plotline and a cliffhanger ending that ostensibly will be resolved in book 3. I recommend this novella primarly to fans of the Bonds of Magic series as its an excellent and compelling entry into that world.