26 Apr

Reading Challenge: April 2019

A better month than last with fun murder, pleasant romance, almost-there horror, a ghost story I finished despite my dissatisfaction, a rollicking adventure worthy of my apocalypse library, and a fourth-in-series that might have fared better if I remembered more about its predecessors before finally getting to a space adventure I couldn’t finish and a fantasy romance I wish had done a thousand things differently.

Links are affiliate-coded and go to Amazon.

MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Korede is a tall, plain, practical nurse with a case of unrequited love for one of the doctors at work. Her younger sister, Ayoola, is so beautiful and vivacious that everyone she encounters is instantly enthralled—including the doctor Korede loves. This familiar tale of sibling rivalry is complicated by Ayoola having killed enough of her boyfriends to officially qualify as a serial killer. Korede has always protected her sister (starting in childhood with their abusive father and extending to body disposal and crime scene cleanup in the present), but this time she’s motivated to warn the victim, who promptly says she’s jealous and he’s disappointed in her for not being more supportive of her sister.

Hey, she tried.

The story is set in Lagos, Nigeria, and there’s a great sense of place conveyed through home, hospital, and interactions with police. Korede’s exasperation with her role as The Responsible One™ is near and dear to me. This murder book isn’t funny-haha, but it’s funny (to me) in the way you make “Can you fucking believe this?” eye contact with someone and you both start laughing, not because of the situation but because of the absurdity of the situation. I was thoroughly entertained and read it in one sitting.

Note this is a short book. My Kindle, which is far from set to ittybitty type, ate up 1% with every page turn, so big LOL at the 228 pages suggested on the product page. The story didn’t suffer for the length, but just be aware that you’re getting ~100 realistic pages for the regular price of $12. Sales are my friends for such occasions.

THE MATRIMONIAL ADVERTISEMENT by Mimi Matthews: Scarred, lonely, and burdened with a remote, crumbling abbey he calls home, Justin Thornhill drunkenly commands his steward to place an ad for a wife—someone mature and steady who won’t mind living in isolation and warming his bed on occasion. The only viable prospect, Helena Reynolds, is younger, prettier, and more refined than anticipated. He can’t imagine she’d be happy with the remote living conditions or his burned body, but she insists she understands the terms of the arrangement, scars and seclusion and all, and is ready to proceed with the marriage immediately.

Helena doesn’t tell him she’s Lady Helena, sister of an earl. Her brother, however, is missing and presumed dead. At the reading of the will, during which his title and entailed lands passed to an uncle but the money was left to Helena, the greedy uncle turned to the grieving sister and said my dear, you’re hysterical, just like your mad mother (who had what sounds like debilitating postpartum depression). Thus began his campaign to have Helena institutionalized and her quest to escape by whatever means necessary, including responding to the titular matrimonial advertisement and hastily marrying a stranger to gain the protection of a husband. The lawyer setting it up is a friend of Justin’s (and the hero of the forthcoming sequel) and assures her Justin is a former soldier and a good man who will keep her safe. She’s well aware she may be going from one abuser to another, but she has no other options.

Justin grew up in a parish orphanage. He’s doing well enough for himself to spitefully grab the abbey out from under the asshole baronet who formerly owned it, but making it livable is a project he can’t afford all at once. He can be crude, but no more so than the thousands of gentry I’ve read who decided to be edgy and stop pretending to be polite. He’s a good guy with a chip on his shoulder about his humble origins and his wartime failings. He’s convinced from his initial meeting with Helena that he doesn’t deserve her (even without knowing her whole backstory), but he wants her and is dead serious about doing whatever it takes to make her happy enough to stay. When her uncle’s thug shows up with the magistrate shortly after the wedding to claim she’s too crazy to consent to marriage and it therefore isn’t valid, Justin sends him packing and then works out a plan with his lawyer friend to prove Helena is perfectly sane and her uncle is a corrupt asshole.

I don’t often leave bookmarks in ebooks, but this warranted several trips through that clunky menu, such as when they bond over pointless suffering in books.

“…If you’re not careful, you’re read yourself straight into a black melancholy.”

“Good gracious. I hope you’re not one of those gentlemen who believe that a woman must restrict herself to improving books.”

“Not in the least.”

“What do you recommend, then?” she asked. “Farming manuals? Architectural journals?” [which he has warned her are most of the contents of the abbey’s library]

“Either would be better than maudlin tales of innocent creatures dying for no reason, but no. What you need is a steady diet of adventure stories and revenge plots. Suffering always has meaning in those types of books.”

Yes! Read that pulp!

Justin hates venturing to the nearby town, and this exchange immediately follows revealing to her that he grew up in an orphanage.

“In Abbott’s Holcombe?” she asked.

He nodded, still waiting.

She gave him a long, searching look. “Is that why we loathe the place?”


Justin’s chest expanded on an almost painful surge of emotion. He couldn’t tell if it was relief or—worse—if it was gratitude. All she’d said was we. It was hardly a declaration of undying affection, but to him, at that moment, it was everything. “Yes. That’s the reason.”

I said last month that I need to see a couple in a romance working together, and these two do it from the start, even while they’re still keeping secrets from one another. They both hate the plan to publicly expose Helena’s uncle, but by the time we reached that point in the story, I knew they’d both follow through because they’re a team, dammit.

There’s kissing but no sex (not like fade to black—they straight up do not have any). The lack of sex in and of itself isn’t a problem, but it causes what I suppose falls under the heading of a pacing issue. There’s nowhere for those early kisses to escalate, so their physical intimacy abruptly stops at about the midpoint. They become very busy with the Defeat the Evil Uncle plan at that time, but it felt strange that nobody even paused to yearn about consummating the marriage. The amount of warmth in the first half set the wrong expectation for the congenial chill in the second half. If there had been less smooching to begin with or it had been spaced out to last longer, there might have been a less jarring divide, and the obligatory dark moment might have been a bit darker if it hadn’t seemed like all they were losing was companionship, which isn’t that devastating a loss because they had plenty of other companions. None of which downgraded this to “bad book” territory, but it did kill my premature enthusiasm for ordering the followup.

THE ATROCITIES by Jeremy C. Shipp: Another ~100 pager, this time in horror. Danna Valdez takes a job as governess for a child with an unspecified “condition.” Only after she’s upended her life to take the job and spent her first night in a mansion filled with the dad’s macabre art do they tell her the “condition” is being a ghost.

Is there a ghost? Is her mom having an untreated mental health crisis? Is there something else entirely going on? Danna’s pursuit of these answers was satisfyingly twisty and the description of the creepy setting suitably foreboding (and weird—a capybara in a tutu is a new benchmark in pure weirdness), but the ending was a bit disappointing in comparison, with everything conveniently fortuitous and wrapped up with a tidy bow. Horror works best for me without a happily ever after ending, whether it’s unavertable tragedy or safe for now but the future isn’t looking great. I want unease from beginning to end in this genre, and this story fell short right at the finish line.

THE GHOST BRIDE by Yangsze Choo: Li Lan’s father asks her how she feels about marriage to the Lim family’s son, Lim Tian Ching, who died nine months previously. She’s not interested, and her dad’s sorry he even brought it up. Then she’s invited to mahjong by the dead guy’s mother. While there, she meets a cute boy, Tian Bai, who turns out to be the dead guy’s cousin and the family’s new heir. Shortly thereafter, Lim Tian Ching starts appearing in her dreams to “court” her. When asked why he’s so intent on marrying her, he says he laid eyes on her about a year ago and was smitten but died before he could do anything about it. He adds that he was murdered by his cute cousin. His dad also happens to hold all her father’s debts. Li Lan accidentally poisons herself in an attempt to stave off the disturbing dreams, and her soul detaches from her physical form. The mysterious Er Lang takes advantage of her condition to recruit her as a spy to investigate what’s going on in the ghost realm.

First, the good, since there had to be a reason I finished reading something so frustrating. The establishment of Li Lan’s household is really good. Her dad is a recluse who overdoes his opium, scarred by the smallpox outbreak that killed her mother, and their family fortunes are dwindling because he’s dropped out of life. Amah, her nurse, is just rad, hustling off to her favorite occultist and hocking the family jewels upon request like she does this shit every day. (I would read a whole book about what the amah union gets up to when they’re not on the job.) There’s a skittish, superstitious housemaid and a cook that sees dead people. I was interested in the economics and politics of the ghost world and the variety of spirits populating it. I wanted to find out what evil scheme Lim Tian Ching and his equally awful dead relatives were involved in and how that extended to the land of the living.

The bad includes history that often felt shoehorned in, interrupting the story with random textbook passages. There were places where the cultural information was deployed well (i.e., one character’s clothing being distinctive because it was traditionally Chinese rather than the more culturally mingled attire common in Malaya), but that only emphasized the awkwardness and non-necessity of the educational infodumps.

The rest of the bad is going to spoil *counts on fingers* everything, so I’m hiding it behind a tag.

Whole book spoiled to hell

The big corruption-in-the-afterlife plot goes nowhere. The extent of Li Lan’s involvement is stealing a letter that implicates a judge, and everything that occurs after has nothing to do with her. Apparently, some dead people get arrested in the end, but no details are provided. Apparently, the only motivation for the corruption is not wanting to face judgment, a feeling shared by pretty much every ghost with a speaking part, so it seems like a petty crime that would occur every time someone had sufficient means to pay off a judge. There’s no big reveal. That’s it. The mystery I was reading to solve didn’t even exist. The fate of everyone involved is hand-waved away like it’s of no significance—because it’s of no significance. It changes nothing. It’s pointless. Rude words came out of my mouth.

Er Lang says he needs Li Lan to spy for him in the ghost realm because he can’t go there because he’s not dead—and yet he shows up there to repeatedly rescue her. Part of his limited characterization is that he doesn’t lie, so either not-lying is a lie or it was a poor decision to ever mention “I can’t go there” as an excuse to send her on a spy mission. She was going anyway to confront Lim Tian Ching. She could have come across that letter on her own (not that she needed to because nothing significant came of it). The only reason Er Lang is in this story is to be a hot, mysterious savior, which doesn’t do any favors for the plot or Li Lan’s character growth.

I didn’t believe Lim Tian Ching’s story about laying eyes on Li Lan, falling in love with her, and dying before he could do anything about it. I should have. There’s no Machiavellian plot there. He’s just a spoiled manbaby who asked for her like a toy to reward him for being a gopher for his ghost relatives. His dad buying up her dad’s debt wasn’t used to force her to be a ghost bride. It was just a setup for the end to offer her the “opportunity” to go far, far away so she wouldn’t tell any embarrassing secrets about the living Lims. The only pressure on her to be a ghost bride was bad dreams, which might have been eliminated through spiritual options if she hadn’t poisoned herself and put herself in the spirit realm, where the spirits could actually harm her. In other words, the whole “problem” was easily avoidable, so forcing it into being felt contrived.

Li Lan’s emotional decisions make no sense to me. While she’s in the Plains of the Dead, she meets a woman she thinks is her mother because she’s in the right place and beautiful. She’s also awful and a terrible disappointment, but Li Lan nonetheless consistently refers to her as “mother.” Then she meets her actual mother and refuses to refer to her as such.

Even Auntie Three (for I couldn’t help thinking of my mother by this name)…

The first woman she mistakenly assumed was her mother also had a name (an actual name and not a servant number!), and yet! Sucks for Real Mom that she was looking a little haggard after her harrowing experiences as a ghost, I guess.

Yan Hong is Lim Tian Ching’s sister. She’s the one who poisoned him. She says killing him was an accident, but she did intend for him to get sick because… he was a whiner, which any non-sociopath will agree warrants a good poisoning, right? No? Hmm.

I couldn’t help wishing that matters had turned out differently. For despite everything she had done, I still liked her.

But whyyyyyyyyy? They barely know each other. They spoke once before the longest and most personal conversation they had, which was the one about “accidentally” killing Lim Tian Ching! I’m pretty bloodthirsty and vengeful, but the punishment has to fit the crime. I wouldn’t want to be friends with this woman for fear she’d poison me for failing to compliment her new hairstyle enthusiastically enough.

Li Lan decides she’s in love with Tian Bai after speaking to him once. If I remember correctly, they speak a total of twice before she poisons herself and leaves on her ghost adventure. She learns while spying in his dreams that he was in love with someone else while he was away at university, and she is obsessed with this. One of her reasons for ultimately rejecting him is that she won’t be “first in his heart.” If that’s what she wanted, there was a dead guy completely devoted to her! Too bad he wasn’t cute. Oh, and she was pissed Tian Bai didn’t realize after speaking to her twice that she’d been body snatched by a greedy spirit. The whole “love at first sight/I won’t have you because you looked at another woman before we ever met/you like the impostor better than me, don’t you?” thing just felt juvenile.

Also hypocritical, since she was making goo-goo eyes at Er Lang while she was half dead! She also seriously suspected Tian Bai of being a murderer for most of the book, but that didn’t affect her “love” as much as not being the only woman he’s ever looked at did.

Further emphasizing the childish impression were Li Lan’s preference for schoolgirl braids and tomboy clothes and lack of interest in makeup and distaste for women who use their feminine wiles—which is fine, BUT! There are plentiful references to concubines, rape threats, a suggestion she fuck information out of somebody, and a scene where she’s in the room while her “mother” and some dude are going at it. Very-adult stories with very-childlike protagonists are very-uncomfortable.

Mostly because she doesn’t want to end up with the rotten Lim family in the afterworld when she dies if she marries Tian Bai, in the end, she chooses to marry Er Lang, a shape-shifting dragon about whom she knows even less: he’s rude, he’s super hot, and he rescues her a lot. Oh, and he assures her his family is even worse than the Lims. He tells her they’ll move around a lot, she’ll outlive everybody she’s ever loved, and her mother will be long gone from the Plains of the Dead by the time she dies, so she’ll never see her again, either. It sounds objectively worse than marrying Tian Bai (or, you know, not marrying either of them), but… hey, super hot. I guess it’s nice to be rescued, eventually, even if the rescuer says you’d be more useful if he left you in danger—lol it was a joke haha lighten up. Totally endearing, right? I often like jerks in fiction, but their jerkiness has to be compensated for with redeeming qualities, which aren’t sufficiently present here to convince me he deserves smooching, much less an extended lifelong commitment.

This would be a great ending line in a different book.

When Er Lang comes for his answer, I will tell him that I’ve always thought he was a monster. And that I want to be his bride.

Here, it’s just… but whyyyyyyyyy? Outside of her own home, there is no justification for her apparently strong feelings of fondness toward any of these people, who kinda suck as described.

I finished but wish I hadn’t, which is worse on my rating scale than a DNF that wasted less of my time.

BLOODY ROSE by Nicholas Eames: Tam Hashford is the new bard tasked with immortalizing the mercenary band Fable—shapeshifting shaman Brune, goth summoner Cura, bunny-eared druin Freecloud, and their leader, dual-scimitar-wielding Bloody Rose—on their final monster-slaying tour. Her job is to stay at a safe distance and observe, but despite her former mercenary father’s best efforts to temper her adventurous inclinations, diving into the thick of things is in her blood. While every other mercenary in the land is headed to the front lines to face off against a monster horde, Fable is heading in the opposite direction to fulfill a contract that will either set them up for retirement before they all get killed or get them all killed.

The contract is to kill a dragon called the Dragoneater—which is such a massive, legendary dragon, even other mercenaries think they’re joking about going after it. When that fight occurs at the midpoint of the story, it’s clear that fight isn’t the solution to any of their problems. In good stories, anything that doesn’t solve the problem makes the problem worse. This is a good story. As in going from “we’re all gonna die” to “oh shit, we just carried out the one crucial step in the villain’s plan for world annihilation.” Like all good surprises in fiction, the clues were there, but like the best surprises in fiction, the clues are disguised from early in the story as part of an entirely different problem that somebody else is going to have to deal with. I didn’t get suspicious until a certain sort of rat showed up in proximity to the Dragoneater problem, and even then, I didn’t guess how the two were related until an obvious “oh shit” moment just before the major “oh shit” reveal. I knew how things would get even worse from there, but it was the good kind of knowing, the “I see what you’re doing and I like it” kind.

Since point of view and characterization keep cropping up this month (whether coincidentally or because the subject is on my writer mind because reasons), I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that all of that is excellent here. Tam tells this entire story. Hers are the only unspoken thoughts you’re privy to. Naturally, you get to know her pretty well. But every other character is fully realized without ever getting into their heads. And I don’t mean just band members who are a constant presence. People in bars you’re never going to see again are loaded with personality. If you want to study thorough, efficient characterization, start your syllabus here.

Yes, it’s action-packed and full of lols (there’s a turtle that absolutely incapacitated me with laughter), but there’s a more serious theme. The metaphor of these mercenary monster killers as the rock stars of this story world is UNSUBTLE!!!!!!! They’re living the most glamorous dream the common folk who pay to see them perform in arena battles can imagine. But aside from all the mercenaries who die horribly on their quest for fame and glory, the arenas are stocked with monsters who were captured, sold, bred, drugged, beaten, starved, and forced to fight and usually die for the amusement of spectators. Tam is traveling with three great guys most humans consider monsters. They encounter a lot of “monsters” on their journey without whose help they would be unable to continue the journey. It’s confronted again and again that humans who’ve made a way of life out of  slaughtering “monsters” who aren’t bothering anybody aren’t heroic—which is a bitter pill to swallow as a monster-slaying mercenary.

Tam is openly lesbian. Cura is openly bisexual. Not even the bad guys engage in queer bashing. I’m straight and therefore can’t speak to the authenticity of the LGBTQIA+ rep, but it seemed entirely positive and I didn’t notice anything that warrants a warning. If I’m wrong, please let me know so I can be more aware in the future.

The resolution of everything going on in this book is thorough, so if there’s never another book in the series (BUT THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN THE FANTASY GENRE, OBVIOUSLY HA HA HA), you won’t be haunted by incompleteness. That being said, there was a brief appearance by half of the “petrify me until the woman I love returns” couple from the first book, so the world really needs to be plunged into turmoil again so that secret-baby romance can fulfill its destiny.

This might work okay as a standalone, since it takes place several years after the events of KINGS OF THE WYLD and Tam had nothing to do with that story, so it’s not a direct continuation. I’d say it’s not mandatory to read them in order, but they’re equally good, so why wouldn’t you? This one convinced me I need both in print for my apocalypse library (books I want to be able to read after the grid goes down).

FIRE SEASON by Stephen Blackmoore: This is the fourth book about Eric Carter, Necromancer. He’s basically a supernatural noir detective—a prickly loner, unlucky in love, people around him tend to get killed, and his only “friends” are people who just don’t want to be surprised when he gets them killed.  My paper copies of the first three books are stuffed in a moving box somewhere, so I couldn’t easily refresh my memory about prior events and worried about going in cold. Fortunately, after a scene establishing the current situation, Chapter 1 provides a quick summary. The pertinent-to-the-overarching-plot backstory is that Eric was conned into marrying Santa Muerte, patron saint of death, in Book 1. As of Book 3, he had traveled to the land of the dead to fight her and her pissy first husband in an attempt to get a divorce and escape the associated curse that was turning him to jade. He accepted some “help” from another pissy god, Quetzalcoatl, in the form of a magical lighter that would torch the whole kingdom of the dead, but he ended up not doing that because it would amount to spirit genocide. In the ensuing conflict, he lost the lighter.

Which brings us to the present, when members of 17 mage families have been murdered via unnaturally potent fire and a dissatisfied Quetzalcoatl has made sure everybody thinks Eric killed them. A mage running for mayor of Los Angeles has evidence that someone else is committing the murders. Rather than release that information to get vindictive mages off Eric’s back, the politician wants to use him as bait to draw out the assassin, since stopping a murderer/arsonist will be good for both his political career and his standing in the mage community. Eric is understandably not thrilled with that plan as presented, but he nonetheless has to go after the assassin and Quetzalcoatl because they’re making his life difficult.

Possibly because my memories of the previous books are dim, a lot of events seemed to happen out of nowhere. They weren’t set up in this book, but I honestly can’t say if they were foreshadowed previously. (There’s stuff in this book that blatantly sets up Eric’s future, so it may be a pattern I just don’t remember.) Whatever the case, for me, on this read, it felt more like a random event generator than “W, X, and Y caused Z.” Accordingly, absolutely start at the beginning of the series and don’t space them out too much because they’re too continuous to fare well alone.

ASCENSION by Jacqueline Koyanagi: Content warning for anorexia.

Alana Quick is a mechanic specializing in keeping junky old spaceships alive on the grungy fringes of a shining city run by Transliminal Solutions, the corporate manifestation of the “othersiders” who punched a hole between universes and are gradually colonizing and gentrifying everything with their superior technology. Alana aspires to be an engineer on a ship’s crew, which she thinks will pay well enough to afford a Transliminal fix for her chronic degenerative illness. People come to her shop looking for her sister Nova, and Alana is tricked into stowing away on their ship so she can be used as a hostage to secure the help of her sister. Birke, the CEO of Transliminal, wants Nova (for reasons I didn’t read far enough to learn). The crew that soft-kidnapped Alana needs help from Transliminal to fix one of their team who is suffering from patchy invisibility, so they’re going to trade Nova to Birke for that cure. They threaten to kill Alana, Nova agrees to join them, and immediately after she does, a device attached to the hull of the ship nukes the planet as they’re leaving, and suddenly they’re all wanted for terrorism and genocide.

There’s a lot going on! This should have been super exciting! Alas.

Alana has a bad case of lesbian horny pants for Tev, the ship’s captain. I am all for romantic and/or sexual relationships appearing in any kind of story because those relationships offer unique opportunities for characterization and conflict and stakes escalation. However, I haaaaaaaate it when there’s a serious/dangerous/life-or-death situation and rather than giving that the attention it deserves, the character is daydreaming about a love interest. For example, when an engineer examines a device that just blew up a planet to make it look like the engineer’s crew is responsible and that device is pinging its location to who-knows-where, it’s hard to take the threat seriously when that engineer is musing about how good somebody’s hair smells rather than focusing on the task at hand with a sense of urgency and internal/external pressure to perform.

The explody device is powered by Transliminal technology. So is basically everything else, as Transliminal extends its reach into every industry. Anybody could have put this device together. Yet Alana blames it entirely on Transliminal. Then she vows that after everybody gets their diseases cured by Transliminal, she’s taking them down. So… they’re the worst, but she still thinks they (a) would agree to cure her and (b) can be trusted with her medical care? I kept comparing Transliminal to Amazon, and if Amazon opened a hospital (Anesthesia FREE for Prime Members!), I’d be wearing a medical alert bracelet that said do not under any circumstances take me to Amazon because I don’t trust the fuckers. Believing the ultimate evil is going to cheerfully solve all your problems just doesn’t make any sense to me.

(This is why it’s important to have an individual embody the villain when the Big Bad is a corporation or government or some other mass entity. When there’s no single target to aim concentrated rage at, you can only diffuse rage in a weak mist, and that doesn’t accomplish much. Villainous Individual can be attacked with extreme prejudice while Mild-Mannered Stooge in the same organization remains useful. You can’t get that kind of nuance if you’re fighting a monolith, and then you end up with this “I’ll destroy you! But before I do that  please save me and my friends” contradiction.)

Alana and Tev eventually run into law enforcement. Following more inappropriately timed horny pants, Alana “prays” for her sister’s help. Nova shows up and does some sort of glamour on them to disguise them. When she reverses it, Tev, who has just been spared a trip to prison, has a rant about “consent” and “assault.” I do understand not being pleased with the procedure, but keep in mind this is coming from someone who essentially kidnapped Alana, stabbed her in the neck with a syringe, and said she’d been injected with poison in order blackmail Nova into joining them—that’s who’s suddenly all principled about asking for consent and assaulting people. Either she’s a hypocrite or that’s entirely inconsistent characterization, and either way, it’s not good.

And that’s about where I quit at 60% because I just don’t buy any of these characters or care what happens to them or believe that they care about each other. (For an example of the latter, Alana and Nova’s parents, who never made an appearance, died in the explosion. We’re told Alana is sad and she knows Nova is sad, but we’re never shown any evidence of sadness. No quiet memorial. No reminiscences about growing up with them. The sisters don’t even talk about them after the explosion. If they’re not worth mourning, why kill them? I suspect it’s supposed to make it “personal” that a planet got blown up, but it doesn’t feel personal. Blowing up the aunt and the ex-girlfriend we actually met at the beginning would have been a lot more effective than parents who are nothing but a vague concept.)

THE TWELVE KINGDOMS: THE MARK OF THE TALA by Jeffe Kennedy: Princess Andromeda is the middle “invisible” sister, sandwiched between powerful Ursula and beautiful Amelia. While out riding (unaccompanied, though the kingdom is supposedly prone to invasion by the neighboring kingdom of “demons” and her father supposedly has always expected her mother’s “demon” blood to make her treasonous…), Andi encounters Rayfe, who force kisses/bites her, and birds form out of their mingled blood and fly away. He makes a lot of mouth noise about her destiny being with him while failing to give her any useful information (which is his defining characteristic). She stabs him and runs back to the castle, where she gets in big trouble for consorting with an enemy she didn’t know existed, so she lies about what really happened to everyone who might be able to tell her what any of it means. The Tala (the shapeshifting “demons”) attack the castle, and the king decides to send Andi to her brother-in-law’s smaller, less well-defended castle because “they shall never have you, whatever power they think you have belongs to me, mwahaha.” Rayfe’s army parks itself outside that castle to wait for her to come to him. They defend themselves when attacked but don’t swarm the walls. Andi thinks the bloodshed on both sides is pointless and comes up with a (super treasonous politically and familially) plan to turn herself over and end the standoff. There’s a public wedding (for propriety) and then an excessive amount of wedding night sex (and washing—so. much. washing) before he takes her to the hidden magical kingdom to save it from… its limited gene pool.

This is another romance I would have liked better without the “romance.” It doesn’t quite qualify as fated mates (a trope I loathe for its inherent lack of free will), but it comes close—those with Tala blood are drawn to others with Tala blood (even when they don’t know what Tala are) and have a subconscious yearning for the hidden magical kingdom, so of course Andi imprints on the first Tala she meets who promises to take her “home.” They don’t spend a huge amount of time together, and his contribution when they do meet is mostly “I need you for an important mission, about which I will tell you absolutely nothing, just trust me.” Other than questionable physical attraction (which is largely genetic predisposition rather than a personal choice) and a weak apology for force-kissing her when they met (“I thought your mother would have told you you’re supposed to marry me before she died when you were five, my bad”), there’s not a whole lot to recommend Rayfe as a hero. The story is told 100% in Andi’s POV, and I wasn’t convinced she loved him, much less vice versa. Other than “I will kiss you to rouse your animalistic lust to make it easier for you to shapeshift the first time,” he doesn’t help her come into her power. He’s mostly a vehicle to push her from one place to another, and there could have been much more interesting ways to do that.

Andi’s story without the unconvincing romance could have been good! Young woman who feels invisible, unwanted, and unappreciated discovers her dead mother was the queen of shapeshifters and that kingdom needs a new queen. Aided by a rebellious librarian who doesn’t burn records when instructed to do so, she comes into conflict with her warrior sister, whose loyalties are divided. She passes through a set of trials to reach her mother’s kingdom, becoming stronger in the process. Once there, she completes more trials to prove herself to the people and comes into her own power. Maybe she gets laid, maybe she doesn’t, but either way, she lives happily ever after because she’s awesome. Unfortunately, although all the raw material was there, that’s not this story.

The thing about the limited gene pool… Tala men often leave the magic kingdom to *gestures futilely*, since we’re told they are incapable of fathering Tala children with non-Tala women. Tala women (like Andi’s mother) do bear fully Tala children (like Andi) by non-Tala men, but THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE MAGIC KINGDOM because broodmares are too precious a resource. So they just stay in isolation, inbreeding the limited number of families until they’re reliably producing genetic disorders that will lead to extinction. *rubs temples* Hear me out: a sect of Tala women who care intensely about non-extinction that volunteers to venture from the magic kingdom (through male Tala opposition if need be) and find non-Tala men to impregnate them so they can return to the magic kingdom with fresh genetic material and save their people (heavy emphasis on the voluntary aspect). But one of these sperm thieves actually falls in love with her target and is torn between love and duty, and they have to work together and mutually compromise to prevent both broken hearts and species eradication.

I was way more interested in what this book could have done than what it did. I finished it, but I’m not even a little bit motivated to read another.

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