It’s funny, sometimes, how you fall into a book. Recently, I was reading Appropriately Aggressive: Essays About Books, Corgis, and Feminism by Krista D. Ball (although not the subject of this review, I recommend this book as Krista’s brand of sarcastic wit provides a highly entertaining delivery mechanism for serious essays about women in literature and the craft of writing). In an essay about how to support women in literature, the following passage caught my attention: “Pick up an author’s debut novel. I can recommend Kate Elliott’s as a great standaone alt-Victorian portal fantasy.” What?! Alt-Victorian portal fantasy?? Uh, yes, please! I feverishly texted Krista. “What is the name of this book?” She quickly replied, “The Labyrinth Gate!” and I couldn’t be happier to have stumbled in to such a satisfying read. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 12/01/1988
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
With marriage comes change, and for Sanjay and Chryse, that change is literally world altering. After their wedding reception, they accidentally drop a gift—a pack of special tarot cards—onto an elevator floor. The cards scatter, the lights go out, and all at once, they find themselves transported to Anglia. It’s a strange parallel world not unlike Victorian England, but matriarchal in nature and shaped by powerful sorcery. While fleeing a riot in the streets, the pair is rescued by aristocrats Julian and Kate, the first of many new friends and adventures. To get home, they must find a treasure in the labyrinth city of Pariam—a quest that becomes ever more daunting as it attracts the attention of the evil Princess Blessa.
There are many enjoyable elements of The Labyrinth Gate, but the element that really shines for me is its fast-paced, plot-driven story. To understand why this book’s plot is so compelling, let’s first take a look at the world in which it’s set. As Krista points out, this book is an alt-Victorian portal fantasy, but what exactly does that mean? Our FMC and MMC, Chryse and Sanjay (I actually consider this an ensemble cast, but more on that later), are magically transported from modern-day US to an alternate Victorian-era England, where places and names are somewhat familiar, and yet different, but the patriarchy of the peerage and Christianity are both turned upside down, and a matriarchy governs all aspects of society. Layered on top of this alternate foundation is magic. The world is filled with Tarot-card driven sorcery, goblins, ogres, and elves, and a lost pagan history that speaks of a secret source of even greater magical power. Chyrse and Sanjay are thrust into a quest to find this treasure, motivated as it is said to be the key to finding their way back home, while powerful sorcerers vie for the find, their own agendas far more sinister.
Several aspects of our own Victorian-era England are preserved. Here, the significant class divide between the aristocracy and the commoners is ever present and shapes societal expectations and moraes. In fact, Chryse and Sanjay enter the world amid a riot in a lower-class, poverty-stricken part of town. There are violent uprisings, and the commoners are pushing for a new, more equal way of life. Herein lies one of the main themes of this book – the old ways versus new and the rocky transition that exists between the two. Elliott presents this theme to the reader again by weaving sacred holidays into the ritual that becomes central to uncovering the secrets of the gates. The pseudo-Christian holidays are celebrated as the year moves along, but these holidays are simply replacements for the old pagan celebrations – much like was done in our own world – and these holidays held far more power in the magic that surrounds their original intent. Old versus new and the cycle of time are concepts at the forefront of this book.
The search for the treasure of the labyrinth via a massive archaeological expedition forms the backbone of the plot. Chryse, Sanjay, and their new group of friends (and frienemies!) travel North to the site of the mythical Pariam in the hopes of uncovering the secret buried therein. Throughout the preparation for and during their quest, unexpected events, both magical and mundane, start happening to members of their party, those they left behind, and in the area surrounding the dig that leave the reader speculating about how these clues all fits together. The story is most definitely a mystery, and Elliott plants so many of these questions in preparation for the ending that you cannot help but frantically turn pages to find out how it all comes together. I honestly do not want to provide any more detail about the plot than that, because further discussion will invariably lead to spoilers, and I would be truly remiss as a reviewer if I ruined any of the surprises this book has in store for you!
Another element of this book that I unexpectedly appreciated was the vagaries surrounding the prophecy and ritual central to the plot. Generally, I’m the type of reader that wants everything explained. I am an engineer after all – there must be a succinct explanation for everything! But the softness and purposeful haze surrounding magic, the fact that the prophecy and ritual are veiled in mystery and ambiguity, actual serves the tone of this book perfectly and surprised me in how satisfying it was. In fact, it struck such a chord with me that I was reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay’s 2021 J.R.R Tolkien Lection on Fantasy Literature (if you haven’t seen it, please do yourself a favor and listen to his insightful talk) in which he makes a case for leaving some questions unanswered in your story, especially in regards to magic. In other words, leave some magic in magic. To me, what Elliott accomplishes in this book is a perfect example of what Kay was referring to in his lecture. The prophecy and the ritual felt inherently magical to me – other-worldly – and that made for a far more rewarding experience than I would have expected.
I said that this book is plot-driven, and I believe that to be a true statement, but that doesn’t mean this book lacks in characterization. The characters are developed and presented (just like the world-building) in what is just enough detail to support and enhance the plot such that the plot remains the focal point. The ensemble cast forms right from the beginning; as soon as Chryse and Sanjay are transported to Anglia, they are rescued from a riot by Julian and Kate. From that moment forward, the cast grows to include characters that range from Julian’s opinionated, but wise, old Aunt Laetitia to the mysteriously evil Earl of Elen who finances their trip North and for unknown reasons wishes to marry the archaeology professor’s daughter. This unlikely crew have such varied personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, and yet they are all pointed toward the same purpose: to uncover the treasure at Pariam.
One of the things that really stood out to me about this book was the casual and natural way interpersonal relationships are depicted and how simple, but meaningful interactions are sprinkled thorughout the story alongside the plot. There is a familiarity that develops among the characters, and the author interleaves talk of friendship, sex, love, and marriage nonchalantly which lends an authenticity to the various relationships that I found delightful, especially within a high-stakes fantasy setting. The relationship-building, which took unexpected and starkly different paths depending on the couple, was remarkable in and of itself, but even more impressive when considering how each couples’ path added a richness to the story that would not have otherwise been there. The ultimate outcomes of these pairings varied significantly, and I found that to be a unique and adeptly contrived aspect of this book.
I’m legitimately baffled as to why this book isn’t more widely known and read. It is a fantastic example of standalone, high fantasy that had me reading well into the night. If you are a fan of plot-heavy mystery, alternate historical world-building with a healthy serving of magic, and casual relationship-building between delightful and varied characters from an ensemble cast, The Labyrinth Gate might just be the book for you!
I don’t typically read novellas – not because of some active choice on my part, but merely by happenstance. But over the past couple months, a few novellas have managed to find their way into my reading queue, and so I thought I’d do a special Monday Minis looking at these three completely different little books. All opinions are my own.
My Dirty Duke: A Victorian Novella by Joanna Shupe completely knocked my socks off! I heard about this book, because I follow author Sarah McLean on Twitter and she recommended it, and thank goodness she did. This novella checks all the boxes in terms of pure, unadulterated enjoyment for me. The writing is superb. The characters come to life on the page, and their arcs are real and meaningful despite its short length. The romance is delectably steamy right from the beginning (including naked, amateur photography) and is amplified by the age-gap trope – he is her father’s best friend – truly magnificent! If you want a wickedly decadent historical that you can read in a couple hours before bed, this is the novella for you! (Aside: OK, after writing this, I’ve decided I need to go read this yet again…)
The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a fantasy novella about a sorceress who loses her position of power after being betrayed by her lover. I was looking to fill the r/fantasy Latinx Book Bingo square, and was drawn to this novella by the description in Goodreads advertising it as Sword and Sorcery. Although I would not classify the book as such – I believe this to be a personal story about coming to terms with one’s hubris – it was still a pleasurable read delivering a solid message about the evils of desiring power in a interesting, fantastical setting. For me, the highlight of this book was the meso-american folklore influence on the world-building, especially in the form of what I would consider the main character’s cheeky familiar, the Nahual. Overall, a short, satisfying story.
I saw a preorder announcement from the author for this book on my Twitter timeline (via the Romance Books hashtag), read the description, and immediately went to Amazon and bought it. Flesh and Stone: A Monster Romance Novella by Emily Hemenway is a steamy, contemporary romance novella that takes place between an almost 200 year old gargoyle and a contemporary, young New York woman. Yes, you read that correctly – the MMC is a gargoyle, and he and the FMC have gargoyle sex. You can thank me later. Thomas was part of a secret organization that investigated the supernatural when he was transformed into a gargoyle by an evil witch. He awakes in the present day when Hannah, an FBI analyst, recently moved to New York City, touches the statue on a tour of the old cathedral. You can imagine her surprise, but maybe not her reaction to this stony gentleman! This book was so cute and simply a fun read, perfect for October with all its witchy, monster vibes.
Time for some November hype! We have quite a variety of books for you to get excited about in November, ranging new installments in massive Epic Fantasy series to an adorable graphic novel. There’s a little something for everyone in this list!
Kat: My bookish friends know that I am a complete Tad Williams fan-girl, and so its no wonder that Brothers of the Wind is first on my hype list for November (out on the fourth). Williams revists his world of Osten Ard in a second prequel to the The Last King of Osten Ard series. This novella (mind you, a Tad-Williams-length novella) takes place a thousand years before the events of The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and will finally give fans of Osten Ard some of the backstory of the Sithi, Ineluki, and the events the led to the epic battle between the Norns and humanity. I cannot wait to dive back in to Williams’ prose, explore new history and world-building surrounding Osten Ard, and meet new characters. Oh, and can we talk about that cover?! Gorgeous! Pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).
Kat: Bec McMaster’s Dark Court Rising series comes to completion this November with the final book in the trilogy, Curse of Darkness, out on the 2nd. I read the first installment in this adult, Epic Fantasy Romance last year and was intrigued by both the world-building and the plot. The story is set in a dark, magical world inhabited by both dark and light Fae. The romance is enemies-to-lovers, but McMaster puts an twist on that trope that makes for an interesting read, and also sets up a cliff-hanger ending that makes you itch to grab book two. Knowing that book three was coming out this fall, I decided to wait before reading the second book, so that I could read all three straight through. So, I’ll be restarting the trilogy this month in prepartion for the final book, and I’m excited to see how the fantasy and the romance pans out! Get a copy via the various e-book retailer links on the author’s website here.
Fab: One of my favorite graphic novels of all time is Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker. So it’s no wonder I’m highly excited for Tidesong by Wendy Xu, her solo graphic novel out on the 16th of November. The story features a young witch and a water dragon and it sounds so damn cute that I think it’s INCREDIBLY mean that no one has ensured that I get a copy on or before release day yet. (I know, I could just pre-order it myself, which is probably what I’ll end up doing). With comps to stories like Howl’s Moving Castle and The Tea Dragon Society you know that this one will be a perfect feel-good book to curl up with on a day you have the sads, which is the kind of graphic novel that I love most of all. Pre-order a copy via Amazon here.
Fab: This month is full of comfort releases for me. I have listened to all of the books in the Outlander series so many times in audio because the narrator is so amazing that Claire, Jamie, Brianna and co feel like family by now. So to say that I’m excited for Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone by Diana Gabaldon is a bit of an understatement. Out on the 23rd, this continues the long-running saga of the time-travellers in the eighteenth century, and we’re due a big reunion. I’ll be listening to the audiobook the day it comes out, but I’m sure the print version will be just as good. These books really aren’t my usual genre, but they’re just such comfort books. Pre-order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link) or the audio via Audible here.
Like many patrons of this blog, I possess an unabashed gluttony for books. I’m a voracious reader, but a voracious reader that is keenly aware of her preferences. I would characterize myself primarily as a genre reader. Yes, I appreciate and regularly read the Classics. And yes, I read the occasional piece of literary fiction or non-fiction recommended by a friend or family member. But the vast majority of the content I read falls squarely into one of two genres: Fantasy or Romance.
And also, like many patrons of this blog, I am continually in pursuit of those perfect books, books that speak to my soul, books that seem to have been written just for me, because they deliver on all the elements of literature that matter to me specifically. These perfect books cater to my literary preferences, they resonate with my life experiences, and they scratch the itch of how I like to be entertained.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what the search for those perfect books looks like for me as a reader and why, especially with respect to an author that I have found consistently delivers content that is thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for me personally: Grace Draven. This essay attempts to unpack my thoughts on Fantasy-Romance and explain my appreciation for Grace Draven’s works as first-class examples of both genres.
The title of this post makes a bold claim – “The Best Epic Fantasy Author You’re Not Reading” – and I admit to being provocative in the title. While Grace Draven is often included in Romance recommendation threads, you don’t often, if ever, see her name in recommendations outside of that context, or more specifically in requests for Epic Fantasy. My hope is that by reading this, Romance-wary, Epic Fantasy fans might decide to pick up one of her books and discover what an amazing fantasy author she is, and that her name will start to materialize in Epic Fantasy discussions and not “just” Romance. And for Romance readers out there that are unfamiliar with her work, here’s hoping you decide to dive in to one of her fantastical worlds.
My search for the next perfect book often begins perusing selections from the branch of speculative fiction that I prefer above all others – Epic, or Heroic, Fantasy. When I think about what appeals to me within the Epic Fantasy subgenre, the immediate answer, for me, is the scale of the world-building. I enjoy being completely immersed in another world, and I want to explore that world in detail with the characters through the plot. I want that world to contain lands, climates, races, and magic that is truly outside the realm in which I exist. I want to be transported to another time and place so different from my own, that when I enter that world through reading, my own ceases to exist.
Layered on top of this world is a plot that is equally epic in scale, where the actions of the protagonists and the battles they face have world-changing consequences. There is good and evil, and our heroes must overcome both external and internal conflicts to ultimately defeat that evil. My favorite fantasy authors are my favorite fantasy authors because they deliver on these two aspects of Epic Fantasy; Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and J.R.R. Tolkien are writers whose world-building and plots are expansive yet detailed, imaginative yet grounded, and high-stakes yet personal.
My search for perfect books also seeks out the aspects of the Romance genre that I find especially enjoyable. While the primary relationship-building is essential, (and, personally, I like some steam), the biggest draw for me is the superb characterization delivered by the genre. I often see Fantasy readers requesting “character-driven” books or “strong character-building,” and honestly, when I read that, I immediately want to direct them to a Fantasy Romance. The depth of characterization in a Romance novel is often unparalleled. Because the Romance genre focuses on the relationship of the couple as the primary plot, Romance authors must necessarily delve deeply into the backstory, motivations, and struggles of the characters in order to establish the basis for and evolution of their relationship. The characters must change or evolve in some significant way as part of the romantic plot in order for the resolution of the relationship to occur. The depth of characterization required to do this well leads to three-dimensional, well-balanced characters, fleshed out to a degree that you may not otherwise experience, and an investment in their success as individuals and as a couple that results in a thoroughly satisfying ending. You won’t find much better characterization than in a good Romance book!
Understanding what appeals to me from each genre helps focus my search on the next perfect book. I want a book that checks all of these boxes, a book that delivers the best of what both Fantasy and Romance has to offer. I want a full, A-plot, adult Romance that is richly developed with nuanced characters right alongside the heroic quest set in a deeply imaginative world. Over the course of the past several years, I have found several of these diamonds-in-the-rough: Milla Vane’s A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series, and C.L. Wilson’s The Winter King, to name a few. But I have also found an author who’s entire canon consistently and adeptly delivers on the promises and expectations of both the Epic Fantasy and Romance genres: Grace Draven.
I am convinced that fantasy fans that have not taken the plunge and read a Grace Draven book are missing out on one of the best, contemporary Epic Fantasy writers out there. My goal is that this explanation of how her work delivers on the genre expectations of both Fantasy and Romance entices you to take a chance on something you may not otherwise have picked up and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
So, how do Grace Draven’s books appeal to readers of Epic Fantasy? First and foremost, Draven’s world-building is both expansive and thorough including original magic systems, diverse races, languages, kingdoms, and cultures, and even the mundane minutiae of day-to-day life like food and attire, all of which coalesce to make for a truly immersive experience. Her attention to detail in establishing the form and function of her worlds is remarkable and serves to strengthen the authenticity of the plot and create a deeper basis and context for that plot and the characters.
Draven’s two ongoing series, The Wraith Kings and The Fallen Empire, are both set on an epic scale that is reflected in the world-building of these two worlds. Take The Wraith Kings, for example. There are multiple races, two of which are phsyically very different, and the romance plot actually brings these two races – the humans and the Kai – together. But even among the humans there are a number of courtly kingdoms politicking and vying for power as well as nomadic mountain clans that follow an entirely different social structure. Eventually, these disparate peoples must come together to fight a demon horde that threatens all of the peoples in their world regardless of race, kingdom, or alliances. There is magic in this world that is the purview of the Kai, but also a mysterious Elder race who existed long ago and holds keys to that magic. Magic, and in particular necromancy, must be used in order to summon enough power to defeat the evil and banish the horde to their alternate realm. Draven needed an expansive world to provide ample setting and context for a multi-book series based in the classic trope of good versus evil, and she delivers such a world in spades!
But the appeal doesn’t stop with world-building. Draven’s ability to weave intricate stories that consistently contain both an “A” Epic Fantasy plotline as well as an “A” Romance plotline cannot be overstated. Neither plotline feels like it is less important than the other; they stand on equal footing and are written in such a way as to contribute to and complement one another. In Master of Crows, Silhara is plagued by the demi-god Corruption and is the only sorcerer powerful enough to defeat this evil, but he knows that even his power may not be enough. Over the course of the book, the relationship between Silhara and Martise begins to develop, and we learn that Martise has latent magic that allows her to feed power to Silhara’s sorcery. Suddenly, the “A” Epic Fantasy plotline and “A” Romance plotline are thrust together in a most unexpected and yet meaningful way. Martise is completely devoted to Silhara and his quest to defeat Corruption, and Silhara knows he can use her power to feed the spells necessary for its ultimate demise. But he also knows that it will probably kill her, and using her as a vessel of power makes him no better than the slave-owners that have captured her soul and therefore her life. The Epic Fantasy and Romance plotlines present the reader with difficult moral questions and tension because of they way they are artfully woven together. Here, the sum of the parts has a far greater impact, and Draven expertly employs this structural device throughout her books.
Another aspect of her writing that will appeal to Epic Fantasy readers is that Draven does not limit explicitness to sex. Her writing is often raw and brutal, depicting violence, pain, and loss in the same detail as her sex scenes. Her books deal with dark themes like torture, slavery, inequality, and prejudice, and she doesn’t shy away from tackling these themes head on through explicit scenes. There’s a brutality in her brand of evil that is more often seen in Epic Fantasy than in Romance, but serves to enhance the authenticity of both aspects of her books; when every facet of life is depicted to the same level of detail, when it is not only sex or violence that is explicit, a balance is achieved, and the reader is left with an impression of a more realistic world in which both pleasure and pain exist on equal footing. In Phoenix Unbound, we are introduced to a throughly depraved villainess and exposed to explicit scenes of her atrocities including mass sacrifice by fire and the brutal torture of our MMC, Azarion. These scenes are more reminiscent of content you might read in grimdark, but they are not gratuitous; these scenes are purposeful in establishing the depths of the character’s evil and also as a device used to provide compelling contrast to the explicit tenderness depicted when Azarion and Gilene finally unite.
And speaking of romantic couples uniting, let’s not forget that Grace Draven also writes Romance! These relationships are adult; they are not YA, neither in age nor in content. These are adults embarking on adult relationships and is one of the things I appreciate most about her books. There is no “pining and whining.” The struggles and the concerns of the characters are not those of individuals embarking on their first relationships. These are adult men and women, experienced in life and relationships and wrestling with internal and external struggles commensurate with their age and maturity. And oh is it refreshing! Her romances are high-tension and the resulting pay-off is quite satisfying. When couples do come together in her books, the sex is steamy and explicit. It is well-written in that the scenes are never sappy or cringey, they are long enough to be engaging without becoming a focal point, and, most importantly, they contribute to the romantic plotline as opposed to being merely gratuitous.
Finally, and independent of the Fantasy and Romance genre expectations, I find Draven’s prose, for lack of a better word, delicious. It’s meaty. It has pulp. Something you can sink your teeth into. It is eloquent and elevated without being purple or dense; there are no extraneous words – every word is perfectly placed. I would go so far as to call her prose “literary.” Her word choice is often surprising, yet refreshing, pulling from vocabulary I’d like to see more of in writing today. Her phrasing and imagery compliment the tone of her books as well as her world-building and plotting in a way that amplifies setting and action; in other words, her writing serves to enhance the overall reader experience.
Some of you may be thinking, “Alright, Kat, I’m sold. Grace Draven sounds like an amazing Epic Fantasy author and I’d like to give her a shot, but where should I start?” Great question! To help guide new readers of Draven’s work pick something that might resonate with their particular tastes, here is a list of her seven full-length novels (in order of publication) that includes a break-down of both Fantasy and Romance tropes contained therein.
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher Summary: This is the question that sets bondwoman, Martise of Asher, on a dangerous path. In exchange for her freedom, she bargains with her masters, the mage-priests of Conclave, to spy on the renegade sorcerer, Silhara of Neith. The priests want Martise to expose the sorcerer’s treachery and turn him over to Conclave justice. A risky endeavor, but one she accepts without hesitation–until she falls in love with her intended target.
Silhara of Neith, Master of Crows, is a desperate man. The god called Corruption invades his mind, seducing him with promises of limitless power if he will help it gain dominion over the world. Silhara struggles against Corruption’s influence and searches for ways to destroy the god. When Conclave sends Martise as an apprentice to help him, he knows she’s a spy. Now he fights a war on two fronts -against the god who would possess him and the apprentice who would betray him.
Mage and spy search together for a ritual that will annihilate Corruption, but in doing so, they discover secrets about each other that may damn them both. Silhara must decide if his fate, and the fate of nations, is worth the soul of the woman he has come to love, and Martise must choose continued enslavement or freedom at the cost of a man’s life. And love.
Tropes: Good versus Evil; A Destroyer is Coming; Politicking of a Magical Conclave; Sorcery; Master-Slave Love Interest; Subservient FMC meets Reluctant MMC; Slow-Burn
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher Summary: Afflicted by a centuries-old curse, a warlord slowly surrenders his humanity and descends toward madness. Ballard of Ketach Tor holds no hope of escaping his fate until his son returns home one day, accompanied by awoman of incomparable beauty. His family believes her arrival may herald Ballard’s salvation.
…until they confront her elder sister.
Determined to rescue her sibling from ruin, Louvaen Duenda pursues her to a decrepit castle and discovers a household imprisoned in time. Dark magic, threatening sorcerers, and a malevolent climbing rose with a thirst for blood won’t deter her, but a proud man disfigured by an undying hatred might. Louvaen must decide if loving him will ultimately save him or destroy him.
Tropes: Beauty and the Beast Fairytale Retelling; Magical Curse; Strong, Assertive FMC; Tortured MMC
The Wraith Kings Series
Publication Date: 2014, 2016, 2020
Publisher Summary (Book One): Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.
Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.
Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.
Tropes: Power-Hungry Queen; Court Politics; Old Magic; Demons; Necromancy; Large-Scale Battles; Arranged Marriage (Radiance and Eidolon); Friends-to-Lovers (The Ippos King)
The Fallen Empire Series
Publication Date: 2018
Publisher Summary: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.
Tropes: Roman-Empire-Inspired World; Gods and Goddesses; Elemental Magic; Evil Empire; Rebellion; Enemies-to-Lovers
The Fallen Empire Series
Publication Date: 2020
Publisher Summary: Magic is outlawed in the Krael Empire and punishable by death. Born with the gift of earth magic, the free trader Halani keeps her dangerous secret closely guarded. When her uncle buys a mysterious artifact, a piece of bone belonging to a long-dead draga, Halani knows it’s far more than what it seems.
Dragas haven’t been seen for more than a century, and most believe them extinct. They’re wrong. Dragas still walk among the denizens of the Empire, disguised as humans. Malachus is a draga living on borrowed time. The magic that has protected him will soon turn on him–unless he finds a key part of his heritage. He has tracked it to a group of free traders, among them a grave-robbing earth witch who fascinates him as much as she frustrates him with her many secrets.
Unbeknownst to both, the Empire’s twisted empress searches for a draga of her own, to capture and kill as a trophy. As Malachus the hunter becomes the hunted, Halani must risk herself and all she loves to save him from the Empire’s machinations and his own lethal birthright.
Tropes: Roman-Empire-Inspired World; Healer Magic; Dragon Lore; Dragon Shifter; Evil Empire; Rebellion; Slow-Burn
I hope this essay has piqued the curiosity of Epic Fantasy afficianados and will create an entirely new group of Grace Draven fans. I know that her books have hit a sweet spot for me, masterfully blending Epic Fantasy and Romance in a way that is both entertaining and utterly satisfying as a reader searching for those special books that deliver on the promises of both genres. Hopefully, we’ll all start seeing more Grace Draven recommendations for Epic Fantasy! Happy Reading!
Best known for their Beyond series, the writing team of Bree Bridges and Donna Herren known as Kit Rocha, do what they do best in their new series Mercenary Librarians: create an engaging cast of three-dimensional characters that form a tight-knit, found family within a richly developed and diverse world. Their plots are fast-paced, action-packed, and rife with steamy Romance that is artfully balanced with non-romantic plots. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 28/07/2020
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Nina is an information broker with a mission–she and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to save the hopeless in a crumbling America. Knox is the bitter, battle-weary captain of the Silver Devils. His squad of supersoldiers went AWOL to avoid slaughtering innocents, and now he’s fighting to survive. They’re on a deadly collision course, and the passion that flares between them only makes it more dangerous. They could burn down the world, destroying each other in the process… Or they could do the impossible: team up.
RELEASE DATE: 31/08/2021
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Maya has had a price on her head from the day she escaped the TechCorps. Genetically engineered for genius and trained for revolution, there’s only one thing she can’t do—forget. Gray has finally broken free of the Protectorate, but he can’t escape the time bomb in his head. His body is rejecting his modifications, and his months are numbered. When Maya’s team uncovers an operation trading in genetically enhanced children, she’ll do anything to stop them. Even risk falling back into the hands of the TechCorps. And Gray has found a purpose for his final days: keeping Maya safe.
In Deal with the Devil, we are transported to a new part of the post-apocalyptic, dystopian North America introduced in the Beyond series. Instead of the outskirts of Eden, Mercenary Librarians takes place in Atlanta in 2086, which has experienced a completely different evolution since the Flares. Here, humanity is controlled by TechCorps. The massive corporation has a monopoly on everything from food to basic tech. Genetic engineering and cloning is rampant and used to enforce their control through super-human soldiers, tech geniuses, and walking memory banks. The first book is foundational, establishing the world and the core cast of characters that make up the found family, and planting the seeds for multi-book plot arcs.
What I especially appreciated about this inaugural book is its premise and how that premise ties into such a uniquely balanced main character. Yes, our FMC Nina is a genetically constructed super-human soldier. But her real power comes from the community she has helped build and care for in her little corner of Atlanta. She retrieves books and media that have been abandoned or hidden, since much of the content has actually been destroyed, copying and distributing it to the masses. She doesn’t stop with books, though. Food, clothing, help fixing basic tech – Nina, Dani, and Maya are serving their community in defiance of TechCorps. Nina is inarguably “strong,” but she’s also one of the most loving and tender FMC’s I’ve read, bringing a depth and authenticity to the plot that’s quite powerful.
The series really amps up the pacing and energy with the second installment, The Devil You Know. Our two found families, now united as a single unit, are expanding their goodwill in service to their community when conflict strikes again on multiple fronts. Gray’s implant is failing, and there is nothing anyone can do about it; without the help of a TechCorps medic, Gray will die. A the same time, the team finds out that rogue genetic facilities are cloning and trafficking children, and a ghost from their past suddenly arrives clearly on a mission to end them all. Maya’s character arc is powerfully transformative. Over the course of the book, she evolves from someone fearful of her gifts to someone who understands and embraces her true self, and this transformation is truly inspiring. There are a lot of plot strands to contend with, making this book an incredible page-turner.
It’s obvious that The Devil You Know is really the launching point for this series. Nina and Knox have established their family and leadership, and there’s a fantastic quote that sums it up: “Just a proud mom and dad overseeing their misfit band of rogue supersoldiers, fugitive criminals, evil clones, and one random superkid.” The end of the second book presents the climax against the big bad that’s been developing since the beginning of the first, and a coming-together of various factions to support them in the hopes of taking on TechCorps and protecting the people of Atlanta. How these threads all converge makes for an extremely satisfying ending, and you can see how carefully the authors wove the plot strands together to create the launching point for the series.
Fans of the Beyond series will recognize Kit Rocha’s special brand of characterization. Their ensemble casts are diverse and unique drawing from myriad backgrounds, races, gender identities, sexual preferences, professions, and styles in a way that is never contrived or artificial, but flawlessly natural. No flat, one-dimensional characters here! Each member of this found family has a deeply constructed history and personality that has been masterfully developed to create unique individuals. One of the things I appreciate most about their writing is their use of POV in support of the ensemble cast; the majority of each book consists of the two POVs of the romantic couple, but then is augmented by special chapters sprinkled throughout each book that are the POV of one of the ensemble cast members. This technique broadens the experience of each book and creates a solid foundation for future installments in the series.
Fans of Kit Rocha will not be disappointed – Mercenary Librarians brings their unique brand of pulse-pounding, steamy SciFi-Romance to an entirely new set of readers via traditional publication. You do not want to miss out on the opportunity to get get in on this gripping series right from the beginning!
In this special edition of Monday Minis, I’ll be sharing thoughts on a few upcoming Historical Romance releases that I thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend to any lover of the genre! I received eARCs of all three of these books from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Duke Gone Rogue is the first book I’ve read by Christy Carlyle, and with this one book, she has immediately ascended to the top of my favorite Historical Romance authors list. To escape his reputation as a heartless curmudgeon in late Victorian-era London, the Duke of Ashmore takes a much needed vacation in Cornwall where he is forced to come face-to-face with his father’s debauched past manifest in the pleasure estate he must now occupy. Maddie Ravenwood is a pillar of the Haven’s Cove community and must convince the unrelenting Duke of Ashmore to repair the eyesore of a property that he just wants to forget. Intentions quickly shift as the two start to develop an easy rapport that blossoms into something more. I happily give this book my highest of recommendations. I think it’s an excellent example of a mature, well-developed Romance that doesn’t rely on sex to build intensity or chemistry. There was no “pining and whining,” and from the beginning, Maddie doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind or articulate what she wants, not only in her life, but also from her love interest. How satisfying to read a FMC that flat out says: “I want you” and “Please touch me.” More of this in Romance please! The prose is solid, the characterization near perfection, and there is no contrived side-plot used to drive the story. This book is about Will and Maddie and how their lives are enriched through knowing each other and falling in love. I will definitely be reading on in this series and look forward to more from this author!
The second book in The Fifth Avenue Rebels series, The Lady Gets Lucky follows the relationship of wallflower Alice Lusk and rakish scoundrel Christopher “Kit” Ward as they navigate high society during the Gilded Age in Newport, New York, and Boston. At a house party in Newport, Alice decides to take her life into her own hands by asking Kit, a man purported to turn even the shiest of women into a vixen, to give her lessons on men so that she can find a husband and escape her overbearing mother. But as the lessons progress and they get to know one another, an unexpected relationship begins to develop, and they are forced to examine themselves, the emotional scars of their pasts, and each other to chart a path forward in their lives. This book is only the second I have read by Joanna Shupe. I was so enamored of My Dirty Duke, I wanted to get a sense of her writing in a full-length novel, and I was not disappointed. The relationship is slow-burn, taking the entirety of the book to develop, which makes the HEA that much more satisfying and authentic. But the highlight of this book is Shupe’s characterization. All the characters are lovable, not just Alice and Kit! The supporting cast (the unlucky Duke Lockwood and the naughty, but strong Nellie Young) piqued my interest, and I’m eager to read on, hopeful to see their stories develop in the broader context of the series.
Eva Leigh’s The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes is the first book of her new Last Chance Scoundrels series set in Regency-era London. Kieran and Finn’s parents are furious after the two rakish brothers help their best friend Dom leave their sister at the altar. Oops! They won’t see a penny of their parent’s money unless all three are married to respectable women. Kieran takes the challenge head-on and asks Dom’s sister Celeste to introduce him to proper society. But Celeste is sick of proper society. She’ll help Kieran, but only on the condition that he return the favor and show her the scandalous side of London. Throughout both their tame daytime excursions and their clandestine nighttime outings, the two find they are far more similar than outward appearances and reputations would have led either to believe. Their partnership turns into a steamy love affair that will have you frantically turning the page for more! For me, this book was entirely a pleasure read. I enjoyed the characters and found them engaging. The chemistry between Kieran and Celeste was intense and their encounters wonderfully steamy. Kieran’s dabbling in poetry was a delightfully unexpected, and well-executed, addition. The premise was a bit contrived and unlikely for my taste, but the book was so fun that it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment. I will definitely read on in the series – I cannot wait to find out what happens with Finn and Dom!
Stephanie Burgis does it again, authoring another whimsical and comforting historical romantic fantasy. Scales and Sensibility delivers on everything you’d expect from a Fantasy-of-Manners romp through Regency-era England – gentlemen and ladies, country estates and balls, delightfully quirky characters, and a touch of magic. What a soothing and wholesome read! I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 04/10/2020
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Sensible, practical Elinor Tregarth really did plan to be the model poor relation when she moved into Hathergill Hall. She certainly never meant to kidnap her awful cousin Penelope’s pet dragon. She never expected to fall in love with the shameless – but surprisingly sweet – fortune hunter who came to court Penelope And she never dreamed that she would have to enter into an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters’ futures.
However, even the most brilliant scholars of 1817 England still haven’t ferreted out all the lurking secrets of rediscovered dragonkind…and even the most sensible of heroines can still make a reckless wish or two when she’s pushed. Now Elinor will have to find out just how rash and resourceful she can be when she sets aside all common sense. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll even be impractical enough to win her own true love and a happily ever after…with the unpredictable and dangerous “help” of the magical creature who has adopted her.
With a single breath of fire from Elinor’s magical pet dragon, Sir Jessamyn, Elinor is veiled in an illusion and the stage is set for this delightful Regency-era romantic comedy complete with society scheming, blackmail, stunning character and plot reveals, and a wholesome HEA.
The plot is driven by Elinor’s attempts to hide her illusion while servants and house guests begin to guess her secret and use it against her. Blackmail abounds, striking Elinor from all angles; she is forced into a balancing act of lies and scheming to ensure her secret stays in tact to protect those she loves. Conflict also arises from the strong feelings Elinor develops for Benedict Hawkins. She begrudgingly supports his attempts to woo her awful cousin Penelope for the dowry that will save his family and estate, even as she falls more and more in love with him. While all of this transpires, Elinor is also dealing with the revelation that dragons are magical creatures! Will she ever be able to reverse the effects of Sir Jessamyn’s magic?
These elements all weave together to form a truly compelling and satisfying Fantasy-of-Manners plot that will have you quickly paging through the last third of the book! The relationship between Elinor and Benedict is heart-warming and sweet, and although not the focus of the story, is adeptly formed to contribute just the right amount of romance to the plot.
My favorite part of the book was the cast of delightfully plucky characters. Burgis’ characterization is magnificent; she creates an ensemble cast where each character is uniquely distinct. From Sir Jessamyn’s gross little burps and diarrhea, to Mr. Aubrey’s eccentric, scholarly obsession with dragons, to Lady Hathergill’s brutally hilarious honesty after Elinor makes her second wish, the cast of characters are the shining star of this book. The antagonists are equally well-written, and you will love to hate Penelope, Lord Hathergill, and the suspicious Mr. and Miss Armitage.
Legacy of Flame is a fantasy of politics and intrigue that relies heavily on dialogue and exposition to guide the reader through the world and history of Queen Elia and Prince Syllian of the Ice Realm. The book is not action-packed, and yet it did manage to hold my attention. I’ll attempt to unpack why herein. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 13/05/2020
STAR RATING: 3/5 ✶
A winter queen and prince of flame, bound together by fate.
Following a deadly attack on a druid grove, twenty-five-year-old Elia Kolenikova, queen of the Ice Realm, is the first and only monarch to take a stand against the fire priest order, a reclusive band of sorcerers with unlimited power. Determined to find a way to protect druids from further violence, Elia turns to the annals of history, tracing her knowledge of fire priests back to a time when a previous Ice Queen was intimately tied to the rise of the order. There’s just one problem: what Elia reads in those accounts may not be true.
To unravel the mystery, Elia needs more than an ally—she needs a fire priest. An immortal Ice Realm prince who’s been missing from the history books for centuries.
Syllian, like his father before him, sacrificed his mortal body to be born again in flames. Two thousand years later, he’s hunted at every turn by fire priests seeking revenge for his betrayal of the order. The threat means little until a rumor reaches him: Queen Elia Kolenikova is asking questions. About fire priests, about druids, and most dangerously of all, about the truth.
Emerging from the shadows could cost Syllian his life. But if he doesn’t, the lies and propaganda of the fire priest order will cost Elia hers first.
The main highlight of this book is its world-building, which is rich with developed races, kingdoms, politics, and magic. I especially appreciated the presentation of the various factions that draw their magic from different sources, the Druids relying heavily upon tying themselves to nature in a harmonious manner to draw out their abilities.
I found the literary structure of Part 1 of this book intriguing. The author switches between Queen Elia’s present-day POV and excerpts from a novel she is reading about the Queen and King of the Ice Realm and the emergence of the Fire Priests 2000 years ago. Although I found it a bit confusing at first, this structure was an effective way to set up the plot, because it helped lay the foundation of the main theme – honesty in history and politics. The approach was novel and a compelling device to use given that the theme centered around the truth of the novel Queen Elia is reading.
With Part 2, the book transitions out of the previous structure into the present day, focusing heavily on dialogue and exposition. Prince Syllian takes the stage, and the history of the Ice Realm, the battle between mages and Fire Priests, and the truth behind the two books written about his parents are exposed through long conversations between himself, Elia, and a third character whose reveal is quite surprising. While I found the intricacies and truth of the history interesting – it did hold my attention – it is a bit of an “info-dump.” If this type of plot device, i.e. exposition through dialogue, doesn’t work for you, you may not find the plot compelling enough to hold your attention.
In terms of character development, Syllian has the most dramatic character arc. Through his explanations of the true history of the Ice Realm and the Fire Priests to Elia, he comes to realize his own contributions to the current state of affairs with the Druids. In some respects, he has repeated the “sins of the father,” emulating Casimir’s manipulation of history and reserving certain truth to serve his purposes. Granted, Syllian’s rationale for doing so was noble, but therein lies the major theme of this book – regardless of altruistic motivations, changing or massaging history lays a minefield of potential evils, ultimately resulting in situations as bad as those they were meant to avoid. Through their dialogue, Syllian is brought to this new understanding and works to rectify his sins by explaining the truth to the Druids. Unfortunately, the characters’ reactions to these realizations were difficult to believe. The realizations and their acceptance came far too easily without tension or conflict, resolving themselves simply through additional dialogue, which detracted from the authenticity of the characterization and plot.
It should be noted that, in some circles, this book was presented as a Fantasy-Romance, but it is not a Romance. This book does contain a romantic subplot that starts about two-thirds in, but it is not central to the plot, nor is it developed to a point where it significantly contributes to either character’s development.
Finally, I had a minor issue with the prose. At times the language felt “elevated,” the dialogue being “court-like.” But then it would abruptly switch to using modern colloquialisms such as “hey” or calling someone a “prick” or an “asshole,” which took me out of the world. Aside from that, I found the prose to be readable and pleasant.
What a compelling and well-written book. Truly. Bravo! I haven’t read a tragic, Gothic novel in quite some time, and I must say that this was quite the satisfying read, scratching an itch I didn’t realize I had. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 03/10/2020
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
In the blackened heart of a cursed forest, a banshee haunts her crumbling castle with lethal screams.
Lady Vago is trapped in this place. She cannot fulfill her purpose as a banshee: to warn her loved ones of their deaths and watch over them while they pass. To solve the mystery of her imprisonment, she must sift through the rubble and ruin that surrounds her. By communing with old paintings, broken furniture, and even the stones themselves, she rediscovers who she was in life.
Before she was Lady Vago, she was Rovena Stoddard, a sharp-witted horse merchant’s daughter that caught the eye of a charming baron. Lord Kalsten Vago’s life as a wandering knight was over, but it inspired visions of a better life for his most vulnerable subjects. Rovena was far less afraid of bold change than his staunch and loyal steward, who saw her presence as a threat to Lord Kalsten’s success. Love and shared dreams alone wouldn’t overcome the controversy of the couple’s hasty and unequal union, as well as the trials of governing a fledgling barony—Rovena knew that. What she failed to recognize was the deeper darkness taking root in Vago lands and hearts…
Every memory of what Rovena loved is a reminder of what she lost, but she cannot let grief halt her search. Devoted spectres of ash are begging their lady for an end to their torment, and she will not let their agony–or her own–go unanswered anymore.
The novel starts out with a frame narrative; the reader is introduced to a banshee, haunting the insides of a castle’s ruins, burned and destroyed centuries ago. The banshee searches the rooms, halls, and revenants for clues to her past, trying to understand her pain and why she is tied to the castle. Through her explorations, the reader is transported back in time to the events that lead to the banshee’s existence. She is Rovena, the Lady Vago, and the book tells the love story between her and Lord Kalsten and the eventual downfall of their lives and their barony at the hands of jealous and prejudiced attendants and a wicked villain. The use of the frame narrative here is quite clever, because the overall tone for the book is set from the beginning; there is a frame of tragic sadness if you will, such that when we learn the details of our heroes’ demise, the sadness is that much more profound.
There were so many things I thoroughly enjoyed about this book; a few of the highlights include subtle aspects of the world-building that made for a less traditional setting (e.g. a complete lack of gender norms, prejudices focused on class as opposed to gender or race, etc.), character building (especially Rovena), and the frame narrative. I was also struck by the prose. To me, the prose in this book is beautiful. It hits the sweet spot for me (a reader that prefers literary prose) of being “elevated” without coming off as pretentious. I truly enjoyed this writing.
Tragic character archetypes are superbly developed and employed. Kalsten is set up as the archetypical tragic victim; he is honest, open, fair, and madly and unconditionally in love with Rovena for who she was as a person and not simply her beauty, his only character flaw a complete (albeit naïve) trust in everyone around him. The construction of his character was so adeptly done to serve the story and tragedy as the true, undeserving victim of the entire affair.
Rovena is presented as the archetypical tragic hero whose fatal flaw contributes to the traditional (Shakespearean) piling of bodies on the stage at the end of the final act. She reacts too quickly. She is rash. She has a bit of a chip on her shoulder that amplifies her belief that she knows better than others and that she sees the entire picture, even when she doesn’t. That little bit of hubris combined with her rush to judgement and action, drove her to making these two decisions, which ultimately contributed to her demise. But that’s what’s so great about a tragedy, right? You love the hero, and the hero is most definitely wronged. But the hero is also fundamentally flawed, a contributor to their own downfall, and that factor makes that downfall all the more tragic. Chef’s Kiss
Finally, there is Dugan, Lord Vago’s steward. His jealously and prejudice were significant contributors to not only the deaths of Lord and Lady Vago, but also the fall of the barony. Although he was not the ultimate villain, he was the hapless antihero that paved the way for the true villain to seize his power through wretched means. For whatever reason, these characters always trigger my disdain more than the villains themselves!
It should be noted that the tone and foreshadowing of the frame narrative still do not prepare you for just how jarring the tragic events actually are. This book definitely needs content warnings (especially with respect to infant mortality), because of the graphic nature of some of the final scenes. There were a couple of times I thought – how could this get any worse for Rovena? And then it does. But, the scenes were purposeful and effective; I did not find them gratuitous.
I will read on in this series. In fact, I am champing at the bit for book two! I absolutely have to know what happens next and whether the noble, female knight will be able to wrest justice from the architects of Lord and Lady Vago’s demise. Well done! Looking forward to more!